Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Culture, creativity and curiosity

A few things people have made that I've enjoyed in 2015.
  • Best Film: Mad Max Fury Road
  • Best novel: Wise Blood (Flannery O'Connor)
  • Best TV series: Wayward Pines
  • Best podcast: Radiolab
  • Best album: Get to heaven (Everything Everything)
  • Best 'Christian' album: There is a light (Liz Vice)
  • Best non-fiction book: So, you've been publicly shamed (Jon Ronson)
  • Best 'Christian' book: A Wilderness of Mirrors (Mark Meynell)
  • Best training resource: For the life of the world (Evan Koons & friends)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Must we be beautiful people?

"You were never called to be average"
Tweeted the church leader, then retweeted by others, nearly seven hundred times.

To start with, this is like loopy politicians expecting every school to get above average grades... clearly most people will be average... and half might be below average, though granted some will be above average.

And then, there's that this is not remotely Christian. Now, sure, human beings are remarkable, divine image bearers, and I'm not saying we should ignore that. We're wonderfully, uniquely made.

But, the Christian faith isn't about being a star, being beautiful, being a winner. Karma is the worldview for winners. Christ is for losers. Winners can humiliate themselves to follow Christ but it's hard for them to do that.

Christian faith is the story of the Triune God, of the Son who was sent in the fullness of the loving Spirit to utter humiliation, in becoming human, and down and down, to being executed for us.

What are the marks of the Christian life?

 Ordinary. Mundane. 
 Mediocre. Normal. 
 Unspectacular. Plain. 
 Unimpressive. Humdrum. 
 Repetitive. Unseen. 
 Boring. Average.

I used to love to sing 'I'm gonna be a history maker' but really...  in a thousand unseen acts of service, yes...  in the daily dying for my wife, my kids, my friends, my enemies, yes....

The poison of celebrity culture has got in deep. Who are the most influential Christians in the world? Really, all the ones I've never heard of and never will. But we I buy into the game like everyone else. I follow the 'big names', buy their stuff. And I'm not necessarily criticising them. If you have a voice use it for good, but who needs to be a voice... can't I just be happy to be ordinary?

Jesus Christ was un-eye-catching, and the servant-of-all. The least. The disregarded. The excluded. The rejected. Not the darling of a well-lit stage. Not the charismatic leader of a religion, cause or business. Jesus Christ and him crucified, foolishness and weakness, divine wisdom and power.

Nothing necessarily wrong with presenting yourself well. Good design and good communication are important. But Christian faith isn't a product to be sold by hyping up people's value... but by hearing about the one who emptied himself of everything to stand in our place.

Something is dischordant about attempts to create impressive beautiful Christianity. Though, of course, there is something strangely beautiful about the cross of Christ that makes a deep impression on all who will have him.

Image - Creative Commons - Eric Hines

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


In the NY Times Bruce McCall instructs in the art of The Perfect Non-Apology Apology.
"Caught red handed... It wasn't me" pleaded the philosopher Shaggy...

1 Samuel 13:8-14. It's early in the reign of Israel's first king, Saul. Around 1000BC. They've rejected God by wanting a king like the nations around them. And they get Saul, an impressive figure. He's just getting started but here it all goes wrong.

He was the King the people wanted, but not the King they needed.
The Sin (v8-9)
The Enquiry (v10-11a)
The Excuses (v11b-12)
The Judgement (v13a)
The Sentence (v13b-14)
Saul's fall begins with him waiting. His people are nervous and deserting him. The enemy is near. The prophet hasn't shown up yet. Impatient Saul takes matters into his own hands and seizes the prophet/priest office for himself, making an offering to God. And then - in perfect tragic/comic timing - Sauel turns up. "What have you done?" What indeed. What were you thinking Saul?

Saul had been given a set of responsibilities but this wasn't one of them. He stepped out of what was asked of him... and then didn't take responsibility for what he should've done. Ever done that? 

(a) Folly
What's the word for this? Samuel calls him a fool, and a breaker of God's command. He;s failed to trust The Father, and his spiritual father Samuel. 

(b) Blameshifting
Saul having taken responsiblity for things that weren't his responsibility is passing the buck like a hot potato.
I blame the people for being scared. 
I blame the enemy for being nasty. 
I blame the prophet for not being here.
And given all of those circumstances I was forced into making an offering to God. Forced. O yes, forced. Reluctant, but y'know: I did it for God. I blame him too. This problem you put here, God...
I blame God.
There are always circumstances, but it's never really the circumstances. They just provide the context, the trigger, the situation. Caught red-handed Saul dives into cover-up mode. "Saul is not the second Adam, he's the first Adam revisited." (Tim Chester)

Scapegoating. Irresponsible. Feckless. Saul, instinctively answers being caught with a non-apology apology.
"Every leader sins. But those leaders to fail to take responsibiltity for their sin and turn from it will find that they have nothing left to lead." (Peter Leithart) 
Here, and again later, the problem isn't so much the initial sin - that was bad - but the failure to own it. The story of Israel isn't a story in which salvation is found by covering up your sins - fig leaf style. The story is setup to give the freedom to be honest about everything - and to find one who will cover you. Saul tries to be the king of kings and save himself, instead of bowing to the real king who will be his scapegoat

And, as the King, so the people. And Saul leads his people round and round in circles, down and down into deathliness. But this will not go on forever. Like Adam, Saul throne cannot be allowed to go on forever - it will be given to another, a King of God's heart. "David is not even in the frame of the story...Samuel is speaking of Jesus" (Jacky Lam).

The true and better king is needed, pictured by Saul's heir David, realised in Great David's Greater Son, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. Where Saul was a fool who deflected responsiblity for mistrust of God, King Jesus is wise and trusts his Father, and in that take responsibility for my folly and mistrust.

I shift the blame to keep myself out of trouble... and in the short term that might work but in the long haul this fecklessness will ruin my life. Lies catch up with us. Failing to take responsibility means I don't learn, I don't grow. It's vulnerable to be exposed... and to trust that there is one sufficient for me.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

When I am the hero / When Jesus is the hero

A meditation on Psalms 1-2.

When I am the hero then the Psalm tells me that I'm blessed if I read the Bible day and night and keep away from the bad guys.  When I am the hero they are the bad guys and bad will happen to them, but I am the good guy and all will be well.

When Jesus is the hero I see him typified in Israel's King who is to model trust in the LORD, to have his own copy of the Word. Jesus trusts the LORD and is the fruitful one. When Jesus is the hero we are all the bad guys. Our life like chaff.

When I am the hero they are the bad guys who conspire against the LORD and find him oppressive and restrictive... and I hope they'll get what they deserve, and tell them so. Listen you bad guys and face what's coming to you.

When Jesus is the hero, he is the one against whom sin is committed. The LORD's Anointed. As we rage against his cords of kindness. We are the bad guys who conspire against him. Where we expect heaven to be silent to human protestations, the gospel message sounds.

When Jesus is the hero he's the word of wrath, the king enthroned on a cross, the one crucified for sin. The fruitful tree is crucified on a tree. When Jesus is the hero he's the one in whom we're invited to find refuge. Whoever I am, whatever I do, despite and because of the conspiracy, rebellion and chaff in my heart: He's for me. The Psalms are the songbook of the church because the church is the company of conspirators who respond to his gospel by allying themselves with the one against whom they rage(d).

When I am the hero, blessed am I for my devotion, and cursed are those who sin...

When Jesus is the hero: happy is Jesus and happy are those who though they rage and conspire against him take refuge in him. And there, I can be honest about my experience of sin, have empathy for my fellow human beings because we're so very alike, and rest only in the gospel word of the Son, the fruitful King who was crucified...

This gospel shape turns out to be better motive to read the Bible than having to do it to become blessed - I read to find Christ and entrust myself to him - which is where blessing is really found. And since this gospel is announced for the conspiring kings then however bad things get, however mistaken, however undevoted I've been.... however rebellious, however conspiring, however cold, however passive-agressive, however distracted... I can always and immediately and safely come again and hide in Jesus.

Image- Creative Commons - Stefano Corso

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Our most compelling storytellers

"Our most compelling storytellers will be those who have suffered firsthand the tragic flaws of the postmodern story and thus possess the empathy and insight necessary..." (Curtis Chang)
When Curtis Chang wrote, in 2000, about postmodernism his focus was, prophetically, on the stories of a Post-Christian Society and Religious Pluralism.

I'm not sure postmodernism is quite the terminology today, but the two areas he focusses on are very relevant. He also uses the language of metanarrative which might be disputed. Chris Oldfield shares from Westphal (1982) noting that "Christianity is not a metanarrative." 

Chang's Engaging Unbelief (IVP, 2000), invited the church to engage others by "entering the challenger's story... retelling the story... capturing that retold tale within the gospel metanarrative..." This "requires operating within the challengers worldview" as "fellow indwellers in the shared story" carefully reworking it to expose the "tragic flaw", a weakness that causes the downfall of the other's story.

I picked Engaging Unbelief up from my shelf again recently, and am reminded both how influential it has been upon me, but also how much I still have to learn. Chang observed, engaging postmodernism 15 years ago, that we need "storytellers who have lived the postmodern story from the inside... our most compelling storytellers will be those who have suffered firsthand the tragic flaws of the postmodern story and thus possess the empathy and insight necessary..." (p172) The same would for engaging any different worldview.

The empathy and insight he calls for are easily absent - surrounded by voices of agreement it's sadly true that "For nonbelievers especially, the sort of sermon commonly preached in church tends to assume what it actually needs to establish... " (p156) How easy to preach to the choir. I'm thankful for much of my ministry education so far being in frontline student ministry where common ground could rarely be assumed. Can it ever? Whether among students, graduates, middle class or working class... little can be assumed in a post-Christian or religiously pluralistic culture...

Academic analysis, like Chang's, is interesting but his call isn't just for smarts, but also to empathy. Compassion. Shared life. When I speak I speak as one human being to my fellow human beings, let me never forget that. For 18 years I didn't see the world through the lense of Christ - and much of that worked for me, but there were flaws and problems there too. We breathe the same air. We walk the same roads, celebrate together, weep together...

The gospel is Christ, but this exceedingly good news can and must be told in many ways.  "The gospel metanarrative is too rich and too alive to be boiled down to a timeless formula that can be repeated verbatim from one generation to the next..." (p163) But this is not a call to accomodate to people, rather "we seek to let the biblical Story ultimately define what is relevant." (p165) Enter into others stories, sympathetically drawing out the consequences of their stories, some of them painful, and persuade of a new story from within.

Evangelism is an offensive idea but we're always being proselytised, stories are always competing with one another, in conversation, in advertising, in culture, in church... "establishing a story's superior explanatory power is crucial in determining whether it can capture all other challengers. A metanarrative must not only explain an external reality better than other stories; it must also explain the other stories themselves... a metanarrative must provide a metaexplanation: why it explains correctly while the other story fails." (p84)

Chang's book takes works by Augustine and Aquinas as it's worked examples of entering into the worlds of Rome and Greece - one toward a post-Christian society, one toward religious pluralism. From there, to retell the gospel in a way that restates the Christian story, more engagingly and more persuasively. Rather than, "Christian rhetoric towards nonbelievers [which] sounds polemical and incomprehensible, something along the lines of 'Believe me when I claim the Bible is true because the Bible and I say so.'" (P114)

There's little substitute for spending time with people to get where they're coming from. But, led by Chang, I'm keen to read more and learn more too. I've read plenty about Aquinas being compromised by dependence on Aristotle, but Chang argues he's entering into and reinterpreting Aristotle to win Aristotelians, especially Muslims, to Christ, which, if successful is rather different...

Experiencing others stories from the inside inevitably brings accusations of compromise in pursuit of faithfulness. Missteps are entirely possible (see my previous post on Arius)... but perhaps unavoidable, and failing to enter into others stories is far from faithfulness too. Is Luther right to say that Aquinas compromised the gospel by dependence upon Aristotle, or is Chang right to say Aquinas engaged Aristotle to retell the gospel to Aristotelians? One, the other, or a bit of both...? I'm not sure yet!

Faithfully communicating about what you believe with those who see the world differently isn't easy, it calls for thoughtfulness and heartfulness and humility. Being true to Christ means meeting people where they are, as they are, and looking at the world the way they do...

Chang notes, for our age, a welcome "into the family of Father, Son and Holy Spirit [completing] the... unresolved story. This family is where doubters are reassured and the marginalised are welcomed. It is the experience of God's love... the first generation to experience widespread breakdown of the family long for this experience. Their personal stories often are filled with the doubt and pain caused by divorce, abuse and other family dysfunction... yearning for true family must be addressed by our rendition of the gospel." (p168) "An unimaginable final feast with the Father awaits us, but we must travel by faith on this journey home." (p133)

Friday, December 04, 2015

In search of common ground

The Christian faith isn't new. It was to me in 1997, and I bought the idea from the 'charismatic movement' I found myself in that real Christianity was only really found in 1970... I probably misheard because I'd spent my childhood believing the story of progress that is quick to dismiss the primitive people who went before us in pursuit of the latest upgrade.

I need the light of those who have gone before me. "The breeze of the centuries." The Egyptian pastor Athanasius, of the 4th Century, is very helpful. He was called on to respond to his fellow Egyptian, Arius. They were part of a generation who emerged from an age of violent persecution into a time where free dialogue about faith was possible. Sixteen-hundred years later, we emerge from Christendom into a time where again few know much of the Christian faith.

Arius was keen to enter the conversation but Athanasius shows that Arius compromised his faith in pursuit of common ground. Athanasius writes:

Arius is trying to engage with people but he's lost the plot and dishonoured God in the process - whether accidentally or deliberately. He calls God The-One-Without-A-Beginning. He looks at creation and says "this had a beginning so let's agree that God is whoever made all this". That sounds reasonable but it dishonours Jesus, and deliberately so. He's claiming Jesus as a superman - the best of us and our example. 

This sounds impressive and reasonable. As with many who try to work God out, this misses the mark completely.

Instead of saying God became Human so Humanity can enter the life of God, they say Jesus isn't God. It sounds reasonable to say Jesus is a good teacher and a good man. It's reasonable to be impressed. But this is bad in two ways. Firstly, they puff up the humblest servant who ever lived, portraying him as a superman - an intimidating example. Secondly, they do the opposite of what they're attempting: they push the God who came near out of reach.

There is better news. If Jesus is God come into the world then he is the one who came to die, not as an example of great love but in love to mend what is broken (through his death that puts death to death) and  to make his Father known. Let Jesus be the signpost. He says he is the Son of God. God, then, is his Father. The Son who uniquely makes the Father known to us. Know yourself as one in need and so receive his help. Rather than busying yourself for him, sit at his feet and listen, knowing him and his Father.

How much better is that? If we call God the unmade maker all we're doing is saying that the creation was created. It sounds like we all believe in God. There's nothing wrong with looking for common ground but reducing God to a word without any meaning doesn't get us anywhere. Some might want a God they can approach as slaves to a master, saying "O, Uncreated One" but that's a shadow of what Jesus says. He said pray "Our Father". We're not slaves but sons, as we come in Jesus' name.

The good news of Jesus tells of the Father who will adopt any of us, through the open arms of his Son, through the Son who came to seek and save those who were lost. Clever people might like a Power-God they can get their head round, but their philosophising is just fantasy... The God and Father of Jesus is a God who doesn't require smartness of us, but rather loves out of sheer love.

Arius gets agreement about there being a God of some kind, but the real issue is "what of Jesus?" Jesus gets the ultimate common ground - God who become one of us. Jesus won't impress those who want to be impressed, but is the God who meets us right where we are, as one of us, in our shared experience of life in this broken world, in our mortality. And there he meets all kinds of people, any of us, on common ground, to bring us into the common life of the Trinity.

(Paraphrased from Athanasius' books, Against the Arians and On the Incarnation, with help from their interpreters, especially Peter Leithart, Glen Scrivener and Mike Reeves)