Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Questions about Preaching

I've written a short piece, "serving your community," where I share some of the questions that I'm busy wrestling with about preaching and community/spiritual formation. Drop by and share your thoughts, comments, and questions.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Elsewhere on a Friday...

Jesus Creed posted some tongue in cheek thoughts on being an Evangelical Reject the other day.

And then today I read this joke from John Finkelde that begins "Are you Protestant or Catholic?"

I thought the two complemented each other nicely and are worth a read.

Andrew Perriman looks at "Hermeneutics, in Pictures."

Rachel Evans on Woman Not Letting Themselves Go and also on Rob Bell, the SBC, and The Age of Accountability.

Mark Kewon on Alistar Thompson's recent (outrageous) comments on Woman in the Work Place.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Living out the Incarnation - Part 2: Incarnation and Obedience

Of course, in all of our efforts to follow Jesus it helps if we remember a few things… perhaps most importantly that Jesus’ actions were based on obedience to the Father… this should always frame our thinking.

Our role is not to simply appear noble, fix the whole world, or seek out extreme situations for dramatic effect. Our role is to go where the Spirit leads us. We are finite creatures, we cannot do everything and shouldn’t try. Incarnation will not always be dramatic, renowned or require orchestral accompaniment. (See below)

(Do you reckon guy at 30 seconds just looks suspiciously happy? Please vote in the comments section)

Incarnation is not about looking good, it’s about looking up… to the Father.

(The above sentence is not my own, it’s from an upcoming worship album of duets penned and sung by Michael and Hannah Frost entitled: ‘2 2gether for Him’)

(Both of the above sentences were a joke… the Frosts are very classy people and wouldn’t stoop to this. But the sentence still stands)

The point isn’t how well our stories would play on a highlights reel but whether we gave of ourselves in obedience. To truly enter the story of a person or a community more often than not a slow, quiet process of building trust, showing love however we can. We can’t stoop to refusing to participate in things our church logo’s won’t fit on (too many double negatives I know, but it’s late and I can’t be stuffed reworking it… guess I’ll never feature in a quote book). In our zeal to ‘make a difference’ it’s all too easy to try to double up on ‘where the needs are’ and ‘where we’ll get noticed’… but we need to be hyper-aware of how easily this can compromise the integrity of our actions.

Stability matters, and if we’re going to make a difference with what we do today it’d pay if we were still there tomorrow. This is true for us as individuals but even more so as church communities. A colleague asked me the other day about what the most helpful thing we did for young people was when looking after a youth ministry. The best I could think of on the spot was love, dignity and stability. One of the most common traits of the young people at high risk was always instability… their lives were incredibly volatile, changing constantly. Us being there for them mattered, them knowing we’d still be there even if they left mattered just as much. Being a community of stability in an unstable world requires commitment, both to each other and to those we are called to.

The best way to create stability is to get a sense of where God is calling us and commit to it, rather than jumping at every opportunity that presents itself. Which is why both as individuals and communities we need to take the time to listen for God’s voice and be faithful to that, not running around like headless chickens but preparing communities that can sustain mission.

(A small caveat: I am incredibly uncomfortable with the idea that Incarnational Living paints us as noble, superior, pretentious pillocks sent out to sprinkle a little of our goodness amongst the great unwashed… I don’t see it this way and regret if it sounds like I do… will deal with this in an upcoming post, for the moment you’ll just have to trust me!)


(For more great use of Orchestral music please see:

(I’m sorry for the excessive use of brackets… it’s a weakness I am working on)))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))

Monday, 20 June 2011

Chapter 6: There are Rocks Everywhere

Rob’s main theme or idea in chapter 6 is that God / Jesus / the Holy Spirit is at work in all the world, in all sorts of ways and through all sorts of means, drawing people to himself. That God always has been and always will be wooing and that people are bound to bump into Jesus in all sorts of ways and places.

Rob makes it clear that Jesus is the only way; that Jesus alone is saving everyone. But that there are all sorts of possibilities in regards to how Jesus is doing things in the world, reaching people, meeting people interrupting the time frames and schedules of humanity. 

In Exodus 17 the Israelites are in need of water and God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff, he does and water comes from the rock. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul refers to this ‘rock’ encounter and paints a picture of the always existing Jesus playing a role in the sustaining of God’s people in the wilderness.  Rob paints a picture of Jesus at work all over the place through ‘rocks that are everywhere.’

I really liked this chapter, it describes God as active and present in all of creation, discoverable to all. It also makes space for God to work in all sorts of unique and wonderful ways and that there is a mystery to that.
Some are critical saying that in this chapter Rob deems all religions as the same with Jesus in and at work in all of them, and thus it doesn’t matter what religion you are. I don’t think he is suggesting this at all. Ben Witherington 3 is concerned that Rob is pushing things too far when he says that some coming to the Father may not even know they are coming exclusively through him and it is well worth reading Ben’s critique.
I’m not so sure.

I’ve grown up all my life imagining people in heaven, because of Jesus, though they may not have known Jesus in the sense that I do, but are judged accurately by Jesus. People in the back blocks of the Amazon who  never meet a Christian, read a bible, hear of Jesus etc, alive today, and obviously throughout history. That’s the answer we’re often given as kids or in Sunday school. It still resonates with me, though I know it’s up for debate.

There is no chapter and verse (that I know of) for the idea of an age of accountability. The idea that children who die will find grace, forgiveness and eternal life. Yet it is commonly accepted across the spectrum of Christianity. I endorse it whole heartedly! The argument goes that children do not have the ability to reason, process, think, and make an informed decision. Obviously children have not matured to be able to do this and hence the idea of an age of accountability.

Is there not a second issue though; access to the accurate data that needs to be reasoned through, process and thought through out of which faith and repentance is entered into? Accountability surely requires the ability to be accountable and an understanding of what you are accountable for? Though it is not lack of data that condemns and makes one guilty before God but rather sin, the Good News of the Gospel is a helpful piece of information in sorting the sin issue out. Hence perhaps again, the degree of mystery in which we can simply trust God and join with the multitude of heaven who cry, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments?"

Friday, 17 June 2011

Devotional Exegesis

For the first part of this, see: Devotional Scholarship.

Stephen Fowl in his theological commentary on Philippians notes several elements of a consciously theologically reflective exegesis. I have numbered the points which I will then discuss.

[1] Commenting on Scripture is a theological discipline in that one expects that by attention to the words of Scripture one will hear the voice of God. Of course, listening to God’s voice is the primary activity of prayer, too. [2] Thus, commenting on Scripture can be a form of prayer. At their best, the disciplines of attention which lead to deep and faithful praying also apply to commentary writing as well. Studying… has certainly enhanced my praying. [3] The challenge to me as a writer is to seek to open those benefits up to others. [4] More generally, then, one of the aims of theological commentary must be to allow others to hear God’s voice… [5] At the end of the day, all theological interpretation of Scripture is always directed toward more faithful worship and practice so that we Christians might move toward ever deeper friendship or communion with God and each other.

Stephen Fowl, Philippians, 5-6.

1. Theological interpretation has as its goal hearing the voice of God. It is thus part and parcel of the relationship between the reader and the GOD who has brought about the existence of this text. We may pay careful attention to the peculiarities of the human author, but through this human agent, GOD has spoken, and the reader is to attend to His voice.

2. What the commentator produces comes from the act of hearing, and thus forms a response of writing which comes from a place of prayer. Prayer is the origin of writing. As the reader listens carefully and attentively to the voice of God, he may begin to unpack and declare what he hears in response to GOD. If one is distracted by technical details and neglects or forgets God as the communicator, then the art of reading scripture theologically has failed. At any one time a reader may be engaged in technical details, but this is not where we must remain. Rather, a reader must return to a posture of reverence in the presence of the GOD who speaks.

3. From this communication between reader and GOD, others should benefit. This speaks directly to the reader being affected and directed by hearing the voice of God, but also to the production of the commentary. How will what the commentator has written benefit the people of GOD? If the church is not helped, compelled and challenged by the readers reflections and meditations from his hearing of the voice of GOD, then we must question if the reader has really heard the voice of GOD, or whether he has articulated this helpfully for God’s people. Reading and listening to God’s voice is therefore not an isolated and individual event. God speaks so that others may hear and benefit from his wisdom and love.

4. The community of God’s people must specifically benefit from the readers apprehension and attention to the voice of GOD in such a way so as to clarify and explicate what GOD has said. Thus, the commentator must not hinder others from hearing God’s voice by offering distracting and unnecessary comments or discussions. Commentating on Scripture should be an act of communal prayer, as through the commentators offerings people should still hear “the voice of GOD.”

5. If theological commentary on the event of hearing God’s voice does not affect our worship of God, does not help our practice of fellowship or does not aid our work in God’s mission, then we have failed to adequately comment on hearing God’s voice. Although Fowl does not make explicit the mission of God, I see this as an imperative upon which we must focus. The Scriptures are about worship, fellowship and mission. Failure to appropriately address at least one of these topics, is often a misunderstanding.

What I am advocating here is consciously informed devotional scholarship. This is not something about which we should be ashamed or hide, but rather we should openly and boldly declare that we are those who love GOD and claim to have heard his voice. And thus our comments should reflect such allegiance and reverence to the One who’s voice we have heard. For the benefit of not only ourselves, but also for others, this is the way I trust we should proceed.

Scripture and theological reflection must be a guide to discipleship, a testimony to the actions of the Triune God and his people, and it should be a catalyst to Christian practice. Therefore, practices of biblical interpretation and theological reflection must have as their goal greater knowledge and love of God in devotion to his community and cause. What we need more than ever is God-focused exegesis and reflection that works out implications for how the church is called to live and to read its Bible as we engage in the mission of God, proclaiming the gospel of God, awaiting the final redemption of God, to the glory of God. This is the goal of theological interpretation.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Blessed are the un-cool

Blessed are the un-cool is an article by Rachel Evans which offers some thought-provoking ideas and challenges to the way we usually do church. A key quote for me is when she writes:

Well, for one thing, when the gospel story is accompanied by a fog machine and light show, I always get this creeped-out feeling like someone’s trying to sell me something. It’s as though we’re all compensating for the fact that Christianity’s not good enough to stand on its own so we’re adding snacks.
Have a read and let me know what you think...

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Chapter 5: Dying to Live

Chapter 5 is to do with the cross with Rob highlighting the reality that the work of the cross is described and explained with all sorts of different metaphors. Some people hold certain metaphors to be more important than other metaphors. Rob perspective however...

The point, then, isn’t to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. To elevate one over others, to insist that there’s a ‘correct’ or ‘right’ one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors. They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listens could grasp.
The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine in flesh
and blood. He is where the life is.

Jesus is the way to God.

Rob then discusses the resurrection as the beginning of the new, the old has gone and the new has come and also highlights the need for us to understand the Gospel as far wider and more cosmic in scope than simply a message about how to avoid hell or not sin.

I really enjoyed this chapter, probably the best in the book so far. The exact way, formula, transaction, in which the cross made a way forward for humanity was never set in any of the church creeds. Rather the church is left to explore all the different metaphors as a celebration that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is transforming and life change news with cosmic implications. I think this helps us to keep a broad perspective on the cross and what it means. This will rankle some people, especially those that pretty much only talk about the cross in terms of penal substitution atonement theory, but I find it refreshing. Overall a reasonably solid chapter.

Favourite paragraph...
When people say that Jesus came to die on the cross so that we can have a relationship with God, yes, that is true. But that explanation as the first explanation puts us at the centre. For the first Christians, the story was, first and foremost, bigger, grander. More massive. When Jesus is presented only as the answer that saves individuals from their sin and death, we run the risk of shrinking the Gospel down to something just for humans, when God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus’ resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything ‘ on earth or in heaven’ (Col 1), just as God originally intended it. The powers of death and destruction have been defeated on the most epic scale imaginable. Individuals are then invited to see their story in the context of a far larger story, one that includes all of creation.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Getting to know Braden Matson

Some of you may have thought that Braden Matson hasn't filled out his blurb down the side yet... Wrong!

Braden Matson is simply deeper than the rest of us and has chosen not to be bound by flimsy descriptors... Braden Matson simply 'IS'.

(But seriously Braden, give us some details) =)

Living out the Incarnation

John 1 tells us of the Logos, the Word, through whom all things were made, life Himself… then it takes a twist - the Word became flesh and dwelt among us! The incarnation of Jesus is one of the most beautiful and mysterious beliefs of the Christian Church. It messes with our view of how an all powerful Being should act (a god that lowered itself, took on limitation, suffered at the hands of its own creation!?!?!)

The incarnation is an incredibly disturbing concept, disturbing in the most positive sense of the word. As opposed to the picture below which not only falls a little short of a helpful interpretation of Logos but is disturbing enough in the most negative sense of the word. (I have been a little unnerved in the presence of books lately fearing they're going to make a move on me.)

But letter covered predators aside, what can the Incarnation mean for our practice as Christians? The repercussions of how followers of the Incarnate God should live are equally unsettling… and inspiring. What is our response to the radical action of God? How as communities do we live in light of His becoming one of us?

First, we should acknowledge that Christian praxis (how we practice or live) is always messy, contextual and falls well short of the clean and clear cut world of ideas. But this doesn’t mean that throwing around ideas is pointless, just limited. I have always found that a helpful framework is the concept of trajectory... the most helpful question could be ‘In which direction does the incarnation point us?’ Where does it lead us? To whom and at what cost?

Without getting too specific or attempting to make concrete definitions of somewhat controversial words such as ‘need’, ‘poor’ ‘broken’, (just trying to keep this a blog post, not a thesis) the broad trajectory of the incarnation is downwards! Obviously, and very importantly ‘downwards’ is not a reference to value but to advantage. Jesus calls us not to create communities wallowing in the blessed glory of our own loveliness post-Christ but communities that act out His story, enter dark places to shed His light and refuse to grasp status (Phil 2) but instead continue to offer ourselves to ‘flesh out’ the gospel.

The concept of the trajectory of incarnation allows some space for some of the variables (context, calling, season, available resource, present needs of others, community) without denying that there should be a recognisable shape to our Christian practice – that we use any advantage we have been given to bring wholeness to the brokenness of others.

Communities of Incarnation enter the stories of others that they have no cultural obligation to and are willing to suffer with, on behalf of and sometimes at the hands of others in need. To me one of the most difficult but important implications of ‘living incarnationally’ is that it implies going beyond simply giving from a distance, instead calling us to enter the worlds of a people and share in their story. Giving money or segments of time are one thing… living out the nitty gritty alongside others is another thing altogether.

Anyways, this post is long enough already… I’ll throw around some risks and opportunities in a future post


Chapter 4: Does God Get What God Wants?

In this chapter Rob looks at the big question of whether God gets what God wants. God wants everyone to find salvation, wholeness, restoration, eternal life; does God get what he wants? He points out the claims of many church websites that ‘unsaved’ won’t be with God, that they will be punished somewhere and that the punishment will be forever. He also points out that on the same website they declare that God is mighty, powerful, loving and unchanging. And thus again the question; does God get what God wants? Bell then points out the many scriptures that talk about everything belonging to God, every knee bowing to God’s Lordship, the renewal of all things and, the Lord’s arm not being too short to save etc.

Rob touches (briefly) on three answers...
1.       That God doesn’t always get what God wants because of humankind’s freedom of choice. Some will say no to God’s saving love and will be lost forever. We have this lifetime only in which to embrace God’s grace.

2.       That God doesn’t always get what God wants. That humanity’s freedom and ability to make decisions that cultivate and nurture the reality of the divine image we are created in, or to stifle and damage it, are such that in time those that say no to God will eventually lose their humanity. That will move into a new state of ‘formerly human’ or ‘post human.’

3.       That God will get what he wants and that in the end everyone will be ‘saved’ as it may be possible for people to turn to or say yes to God after death. And that this may not be only a one off offer immediately after death but an ongoing offer, as long as it takes to say yes to God in other words. The heart of this perspective being that, given enough time, everyone would turn to God and find joy and peace in his presence.
Rob then suggest that many have held to this third sort of position over the years. He also suggests that it would at least be fitting and proper for a Christian to hope for answer three. He asks hopefully if it is possible that God could banish those who have rejected God from the New Creation while at the same time keeping the door open to them, that should they turn and embrace God they might be reconciled to God?
In regards to all these questions Rob offers the following statement...
Those are questions, or more accurately, those are
tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need
to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so
we simply respect the, creating space for the freedom
that love requires.
Rob concludes by reversing the question of whether God gets what God wants to; do we get what we want? He concludes that yes we do. If we want life, and peace, and justice and all that is good we chose Jesus and find eternal live. If that is not what we want then we reject Jesus and find hell.
We can have what we want,
because love wins.
So, where to start?
In reality this chapter of Love Wins should really be about 500 pages long. There are so many issues at play which each have ongoing and massive discussions attached to them. Instead the chapter is 25 pages and the whole of Love Wins 198 pages. And this is really the major difficulty with a book like Love Wins. It touches on so many issues and subjects that are worthy of discussion but also worthy of being discussed in full.
For example the idea of people losing their ‘image of God’ status to the point of becoming non-human is likely bizarre and foreign to some. Where did Rob Bell get that? In reality it has been suggested by some of the most reputable bible scholars in the world, as well as rejected by some of the most reputable. In others words, there is something to the idea and yet it is complex and full of mystery. But not totally off the wall. It’s and idea worth exploring and engaging in beyond the engagement offered in Love Wins.
I liked Bell’s encouragement that there are tensions in regards to how far God’s love can reach, how far his grace can extend etc that we should feel free to leave intact.
I liked Bell’s over all encouragement to lean into God as more overflowing with love and grace and mercy than we sometimes make God out to have.
On the other hand...
I don’t think as many people have held to position three as what Bell makes out, a kind of eventual salvation of all.   
Rob appeals to some of the church fathers in support of what I would describe as a hopeful universalism but to steal from Witherington... he is citing theological speculation of this or that church father,  not the settled convictions of the church as revealed in their creeds, councils,  confessions.  There is a difference. Which I don't think invalidates everything Bell writes by any stretch of the imagination. The discussion just has to be entered more fully.

So basically overall I think this chapter doesn’t do justice to the issues at stake, which is probably true of Love Wins as well.

Some I know have read it and just accept everything written, because it’s Rob Bell, as fact. This isn't wise. It’s not as simple as that, mainly because Love Wins deals with some big issues, that simply – aren’t simple.
Others I know have read Love Wins and written it all off as heresy, because well, Rob Bell wrote it. That’s a wrong and unwise response as well.
I think a better response would be to recognise that indeed Rob Bell wrote it and therefore it is likely worth engaging with, discussing, researching and exploring.
So in the end chapter 4, like the rest of Love Wins raises some good questions and discussion points, but doesn’t discuss them as well as what they need to be discussed.

N. T. Wright on the Second Coming of Christ

In case you didn't realise, Jesus didn't return on the 21st May, 2011, so... you still have time to watch this brief clip of one of my favourite biblical scholars talking about 'the second coming.' Well worth a watch at less than 4 mins.

Is Reading the Bible Overrated?

I think Christians have largely missed the boat on the necessity of reading Scripture. I recently chatted to someone who felt almost as if they had sinned for not reading the Bible enough. Strange, as for the first 1400 years of the Church (perhaps longer), only the leaders and the elite few who could read had access to “bibles”. The rest of the Church had no Bible to read, and most could not read. Rather, Christians either waited until Sunday to hear the Scriptures read publicly (1 Tim. 4:13), or they memorised portions of Scripture. If a failure to read the Bible is tantamount to sinning, the early Christians up until the 15th century were doomed by necessity. So what’s up with our modern day drive to read the Bible?

Go back in time for a moment, to when Christianity had no collection of Scripture. Imagine we are one of the Christians who live in Philippi and all we have is Paul’s letter to the Philippians to tell us what being a Christian is all about. What kind of Christianity would that shape? (1:27-30) What vision and values would shape the community we inhabit? (2:1-4) What emphases would there be? (2:5-11) Now fast-forward to the present day and perhaps contemporary Christians are distracted by so many letters and books within the bible, that this has complicated matters. Imagine if we focussed, as must have been the case with the first Christians, on one or two letters, and shaped our Christian lives on the vision and ethos presented within those letters. What character and profile of Christianity would emerge from a concerted effort to live out the message of Philippians?

You see, for the first Christians reading the bible was not essential. Knowing the resurrected Lord Jesus, encountering the Spirit of God, obeying and implementing the teachings of Jesus and the first apostles, now that’s what was important. Christians confuse priorities when we spend more time trying to read the bible than obeying what we already know. The Scriptures are a means to an end, and that end is devotion to the triune God and faithfulness to His cause. Now of course, reading the Scriptures is an important part of equipping ourselves to engage in the Mission of God. But gaining information will not help us, we must actually understand what we’re reading and then begin to wrestle with the task of appropriating what we have learnt into our lives, communities and world.

For example: What was Paul trying to do in his letter to the Philippians? What’s it all about? How does he deal with the problems in Philippi? An inability to answer these basic questions suggests that our aim has usually been reading, instead of understanding. Reading the bible is useless if we don’t understand what we’ve read. And I’m not talking about a superficial understanding either, I’m talking about grappling with the theological and ethical vision that Paul is casting, not just knowing what happens chronologically through the letter of Philippians. Reading with understanding takes patience and perseverance. It takes attentiveness to the contours of Paul’s thoughts and arguments. It takes time, effort and help (Acts 8:30-31).

So should we stop reading our Bible’s? If the aim is to gain information, then yes. However, if the aim is to wrestle with God’s word until we hear God’s voice and understand what the true author is trying to say, then by all means, read, understand and most importantly, obey! As Origen, one of the early Church leaders has said:

If anyone ponders over [the scriptures] with all the attention and reverence they deserve, it is certain that in the very act of reading and diligently studying them their mind and feelings will be touched by a divine breath and they will recognise that the words they are reading are not utterances of people but the language of God.[1]

I have used Paul’s letter to the Philippians as an example, but this would equally apply to almost any letter, gospel or writing in the New Testament. These communities did not have access to all the writings of the New Testament, or even all the writings of the Old Testament. What they did have, they studied repeatedly until they could understand and obey. And when they didn’t understand and obey, they sought help by asking key people questions. And this is what led to the writings of the New Testament.

We are so privileged to have the entire canon. But we must not let that overwhelm us or make us lazy in wrestling with each contribution to the Scriptures. If more time was spent seeking to understand and appropriate one letter within the New Testament, rather than just reading the whole Bible, our devotion to the GOD of the Scriptures would be transformed. Faithfulness must take precedence over reading. Reading the Bible is merely a means to an end, to Know God and make Him Known.

Te totum applica ad textum. Rem totam applica ad te.
Apply yourself wholly to the text. Then apply it wholly to yourself
Johann Albrecht Bengel

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Leading people up the garden path

A discussion came up in a class I teach the other day, about the nature of discipleship and how we determine the growth in someone's Christian life of faith. What arose in the discussion is how, within certain paradigms of church expression, we can be tempted to define personal spiritual growth primarily in terms of narrow definitions of 'leadership' and 'capacity'.

In 'contemporary' Pentecostalism, leadership is certainly the flavour of the decade in terms of priority. This recent emphasis is an entirely understandable response for a church movement historically focused on experience and Spirit-led revival. It is perceived that the problem of the past was a lack of leadership and therefore a resultant lack of focus and implementation of long-term significance etc.

While I understand this emphasis and why it has arisen, I do have some concerns about making certain definitions (e.g. John Maxwell-type versions) of leadership the central focus of church and spirituality on an ongoing basis. The challenge for us, is that the more we talk about leadership as central to what we are doing, it can be the less we actually end up talking about Jesus or our own personal faith etc. In fact, we can end up judging somebody's progress of faith, by how well they express their leadership in certain contexts. If somebody is growing in certain areas of their life e.g. they are punctual, enthusiastic, passionate, practical, directive, a great team player, visionary, inspiring etc - we can therefore assume that they are growing in their faith.

I am quite fond of punctuality myself (despite my somewhat laid-back creative personality)... however, I don't find it listed amongst many of the top biblical concepts for how to know if someone is growing in their faith in Christ. In fact, Paul lists a few such attributes in Galatians, and they include things like gentleness and kindness. In contemporary church how often do we find Christians discussing the way in which they (or others) are growing in gentleness and kindness towards one another? In fact, at times these things can be seen as limiting to one's ability to lead and therefore need to be avoided.

I am not against leadership training or input, but I do think we need to be careful. In the 1st century, many associated wealth as a sign of spirituality and God's blessing - and I think today we need to ensure we don't do the same with leadership or capacity. You can not determine your own (or others) spiritual growth by how many teams or meetings you are committed to. You can not determine it by the percentage of growth in your small groups or various teams etc. If we create churches that equate organisational leadership skills with spirituality and spiritual status, we run the risk of modeling a Christianity that may leave people empty. If we tell people that doing certain things are what matter, and they do those things only to discover they are not where the life of the gospel is actually found, we may breed disillusionment instead of the long-term significance we desire.

We need to ensure that we remember to centre our lives around Christ and his teaching. At times the right Christian response will actually need to override what might seem to be the right 'leadership' response (depending on our definition of leadership) - and we need to be encouraged to make the right choices. Ultimately, Jesus showed his definition of leadership by washing his disciples feet and by going to the cross. And its a path that I would rather avoid.... yet He compels me to follow.

Testimonies to faith we could do without

Reading a newspaper yesterday when I came across an article about Jarryd Hayne and his Christian faith. Apparently he was saved at Hillsong church (my church), and he notes the following about the power of his faith after he was left out of the State of origin rugby league squad:

Really? “The biggest test of my faith"! He's obviously leading pretty hard life. I don't know whether to laugh or cry, as this is such a brilliant for example of the stupidity of so much of our middle to upper class Western Christianity–concerned about the inane while the rest of the world faces real hardship.

Of course it is true that faith should change our character so that we respond in a better way to all the situations of life, and this is the point that Hayne is trying to make. But he would be better advised to keep that character development to himself. it provides atheists such as Peter Fitzgibbon with the right to ask the question: "Religious people, can you tell us: Does missing out on Origin selection count as a worthy “test of faith”? For the rest of us, it was commonsense alone that not only tested our faith, it shattered it!"

Devotional Scholarship

The title may sound like an oxy-moron, or even an unsolvable paradox, but that need not be the case. In fact, I am increasingly becoming agitated with Christian scholarship and it’s apparent embracing of a secular style of writing that talks about “God” but does not acknowledge God’s presence in the interpretive process. Listen to the wisdom of an early Christian, labouring in the vocation of teaching and preaching:

If anyone ponders over [the scriptures] with all the attention and reverence they deserve, it is certain that in the very act of reading and diligently studying them their mind and feelings will be touched by a divine breath and they will recognise that the words they are reading are not utterances of people but the language of God.[1]

For Origen, studying Scripture is a devotional act. It attends with all due respect to the voice of GOD. It consciously and purposely seeks to apprehend what God seeks to reveal in his words. It is an act inspired and directed by the revelation of God. It is a holistic experience as it seeks not just an intellectual stimulus, but also the transformation and edification of feelings which would then necessarily affect one’s actions. Note the words of John of Damascus when he writes,

To search the sacred Scripture is very good and most profitable for the soul. For “like a tree which is planted near the running waters,” so does the soul watered by sacred Scripture also grow hearty and bear fruit in due season. This is the orthodox faith. It is adorned with its evergreen leaves, with actions pleasing to God.[2]
This act of reading and studying is an act of reverence towards God’s voice through the medium of Scripture. And we understand that this is primarily the work of the Spirit breathing upon us as we labour among God’s witnesses and prophets. The Spirit whispers through attentive exegesis and theological reflection to the heart that listens, to the ears that hear, that we might know Him and make Him known.

The biblical theologian who writes [and teaches] in the service of the church does so to elucidate the biblical worldview, not merely so that it can be studied but so that it can be adopted.[3]

[1] Origen, First Principles, 4.1.6.
[2] John of Damascus, Orthodox Faith, 4.17.
[3] James Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgement, 45.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Worth pondering perhaps?

Random thought for the day...

Renewal is the Spirit of God breathing love, truth, life, hope, faith, and resonance into Christian spirituality through the deconstruction and reconstruction of one or more of the interdependent elements of Christian spirituality; cultural context, theological understanding, mystical experience or practice, and communal expression.

Just thought I'd put it out there.

Parables - bedtime stories or something more?

I’ve been reading a bit of Peter Rollins' “The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales” lately (99c on Amazon Kindle…great score!), and to be honest it has taken me by surprise. While I may consider myself to be of the more logical, no frills, tell it like it is stream I have consciously discovered over the last while that there’s nothing like a good story to help make sense of things (or in some cases, deconstruct what you thought made sense and start the process of re-understanding and re-thinking things all over again).

Basically Peter Rollins has recast some of the most familiar parables and stories about Jesus and also constructed some unique ones of his own. In biblical literature a parable should not be considered so much as words on paper, but is more comparable to a work of art. Parables are fashioned out of the raw everday material of life (experiences, situations, events, conversations, observations). Jesus didn’t present parables a propositional statement about how one should behave or how God acts but instead chose to paint for us, often in the form of simile and metaphor truth that is prevalent regardless of changing times or environments. A successful parable is an event that decisively alters a situation, it creates a new possibility that did not exist before, and also forces the listener to a decision. Even if the listener chooses to make no decision – in doing that they choose to reject the new possibility of understanding. It is not an illustration but a mode of theological speech used to evoke a response. The listener is challenged by the telling of the parable to respond.

One of the reasons I think Peter Rollins' book is so great, is that we have read the parables of the Bible many many times and read it with the benefit of hindsight – we know the ending and we pre-empt the twist. Granted, there is immense meaning and transformation to be gained by exegeting the passage and understanding it fully, I am absolutely 100% about that! But the experience of reading a parable without knowing the ending I have found to be quite profound. I have experienced shock, surprise, pausing, hmmmm-ing, quiet pondering and uh-huh! moments. And in some small way I find myself identifying with those who listened to the parables of Jesus first hand and encouraged to delve into the parables of the bible again.

I have discovered that I have a love / hate relationship with parables. They are a great tool in helping bring alive the theological concepts of the bible, yet they do demand a response, and that response is not always straight forward, convenient or easy. More often than not, that response goes against my natural inclination towards self and directs me towards the affections, mission and way of Jesus. I find that parables swim in my brain, taunt me and confront me. They bring alive the adventure of following Jesus and working out Christianity in a very real and everyday reality. Perhaps there is more of a place for parables in our communicating, preaching, framing, discussing and interaction both with churched and un-churched alike. It is an area I would like to explore.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Grumpy old man begrudgingly reads Love Wins

(A review to go with Joseph's summaries)

I teach theology, and because I’m likely to be asked on a daily basis over the next few months what I think of the book, I knew I could not avoid reading Rob Bell's Love Wins. Now, I normally like what Bell as to say but I'm often disappointed when preachers put pen to paper. I was not surprised, therefore, to discover a book written largely in point form, single sentence paragraphs, that could be finished in less than an hour (okay, slight exaggeration, let's give it two hours). Don’t misunderstand me. I don't want a book of this type to be written like Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. But you might hope that a manuscript that will make as much money as this would have literary qualities at least equal to that of a daily newspaper. At a bare minimum you would think that the editor of a Christian book would know that the possessive, Jesus', does not have an additional 's' (Jesus's). Okay, I’m being churlish. My jealousy stems from the fact that academic books normally take more than a few weeks to write and make far less money!

My real complaint is with the shallow nature of the argument set out in a book purporting to address some of the more complex questions of Christian faith. It is not that I disagree with much of what Bell has to say. The opposite is true. There are important concepts and ideas throughout that need to be addressed if the church hopes to be anything other then an outdated, irrelevant and fear mongering institution. Bell is arguing for a move away from fundamentalism and for the embracing of a gospel focused more on the love of God than on hellfire and damnation; on a church that cares more about redressing hell on earth in the here and now then preaching about a future heaven and hell. Sadly, however, little of this will be heard as critics justly attack the unsubstantiated biblical analysis that frames his case. The most obvious is his re-translation of the phrase, in Matthew 25, “eternal punishment” as “a time of trimming”, or his related suggestion that “forever is not really a category the biblical writers used”. He provides no reference to a scholarly source that might help substantiate such radical claims, and that is the problem throughout. Readers are left suspicious of his interpretation of the Bible and, since they are not given the opportunity to investigate the basis of his arguments, are given no reason to trust what he has to say. If he can’t be trusted in matters such as these why should he be believed in the broader case he is making?

Bell has the basis of a worthwhile book. He has some cracking one-liners, such as his advocacy of the word “hell”:

We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secret hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.

And for that, the word “hell” works quite well. Let’s keep it.

I agree wholeheartedly with the point. I just don’t think Bell’s argument supporting it was convincing.

Chapter 3: Hell

Having addressed heaven (Chapter 2: Here is the New There) the next chapter in Rob Bell’s Love Wins moves to a discussion of hell. Rob’s main idea is that hell is a reality that can be experienced, here and now on earth, as a result of our own or others poor choices, mistakes, and ultimately sinful and selfish nature. It is a concrete reality and result of choices made here and now which are experienced here and now. Rob does make clear that there is hell now and also hell later, and that Jesus encourages us to take both seriously.

There are individual hells,
and communal, society-wide hells,
and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.

There is hell now,
and there is hell later,
and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.

Rob highlights that fact that some people mainly concerned with hell on earth and dealing with that, while others are more concerned with hell after we die and dealing with that. It’s and/both. This is a great challenge and recognises the expansive nature of the Good News of the Gospel which addresses both. A challenge that deserves considerable and ongoing Christian reflection and which I believe cannot help but result in: a Christian compulsion to genuinely involve one’s life in God’s mission of reconciliation and restoration in the world in a variety of creative and meaningful ways.
Rob also correctly highlights the scarcity of scriptures and references to hell that we find in the bible and the reality that correctly understanding these passages is challenging. I think he rightly points to the reality that our understanding of hell is likely based more on folk theology rather than sound exegesis, a reality also evident in chapter 2 in regards to our understanding of heaven.
The major weakness in this chapter would be that Rob, in pointing out the scarcity of passages about hell in the bible and the challenge of understanding the passages that do exist, doesn’t really do a very good job in walking us through these passages either.
He explains Gehenna to be a town garbage heap, a popular idea held by many scholars for a long time. It seems more accurate however to be a place where children were sacrificed to false God’s. In saying that, this alteration doesn’t really change the way Rob understands the text.
The exegesis of the rich man and Lazarus is creative and more idiosyncratic than anything else. You would be hard pressed to find any commentaries that would explain the text in the way Rob explains it. It is more and artistic rereading which can offer insights but is limited in its ability to unpack the text.  Rob’s conclusions in regards to Sodom and Gomorrah and lessons for us here require some big leaps which I don’t think are tenable.
So overall, considering the main questions people have in regards to hell are to do with hell after death and the concept of eternal conscious torment, Rob doesn’t really do a very good job in answering them.
While I would affirm that Rob Bell does believe in hell after death for some people, he is vague and unclear in regards to what he actually sees this looking like.
Maybe because he is unclear in what he thinks?
Maybe because this chapter isn’t penned as well as he thought it was?
Maybe because he wants to highlight that the issue isn’t as straightforward and clear as some people might think?
Maybe because he wants Love Wins to be a book that starts conversations rather than finishes the conversation?
Maybe because he wants people to wrestle with the questions for themselves?
I don’t know.
Personally I’m not sure the issue of hell is as clear cut as some people. I do however appreciate Stanley Grenz’s Theology for the Community of God and his biblical insight in regard to the issue of hell and absolutely affirm it as a reality beyond the grave. For me there is some mystery though.  
Some things are crystal clear however, the Mystery has been revealed ... reconciliation to God, grace, forgiveness, the gift of eternal life (now and later) is possible through Jesus Christ and his life, death upon the cross, and resurrection. Jesus made a way where there didn’t seem to be a way. Grace is offered to those who would respond in faith and repentance!
For those that would be interested the following conversation at Scot McKnight’s blog Jesus Creed is well worth reading and reflecting on.
1. Rob Bell released a provocative video trailer for his soon to be released book Love Wins.
2. Certain voices in certain spheres of Christendom (voices famous in some spheres and infamous in others) rebuked and denounced everything Rob said in his trailer and was probably going to say in his ‘as yet unreleased book’.
3. Love Wins; a Book about Heaven and Hell and the Fate of Every Person who has Ever Lived was released.
4. Some loved it. Some hated it. It sold lots of copies. People blogged and twittered.
5. Frances Chan releases provocative video trailer for his soon to be released book Erasing Hell; What God Said about Eternity, and the Things we Made Up, a response to Rob Bells book.
And now what is worth looking at... and it is a good and provocative discussion, including the post comments and ongoing discussions in comments sections as well...
Lots of food for thought, prayerful consideration and engaging discussion.    

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Intellectual and Experiential - And/Both not Either/Or!

Unarguably Gordon Fee would have to be the most famous of all Pentecostal scholars. In 1966 he became the first scholar from a Pentecostal background to earn a doctorate in Biblical Studies. He was one of the first to lead the way forward in regards to Pentecostalism being something that can be both deeply intellectual and also radically experiential. Sadly however, it seems that in many contexts it’s an either/or choice rather than and/both.

In a postmodern and postChristian context I think church communities that can learn to be both deeply intellectual and also radically experiential will flourish.

Thanks Gordon Fee for leading the way! It would be well worth reading the following article on Gordon Fee recently published in Charisma; Gordon Fee - A Professor with Spirit.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Subjugation or Liberation?

Sitting in a postgraduate seminar recently, I heard the following PhD thesis question: Why do the discourses and practices of religious authority in some Christian communities reproduce power relations that tend to subjugation? It’s a question that snuck up on me, and has haunted my thoughts ever since. The thought that lingers in my heart is this, “How do we/I prevent this from happening and protect the community that we/I serve from a power relation that tends toward subjugation?”

When I heard the thesis question, my mind jumped to Ephesians 4, a passage I had been pondering for a class I was teaching on the Prison Epistles. Building from the first three chapters which establish and proclaim the ultimate power and authority as God the Father and the Lord Jesus (Eph 1:19-21), the author gives two vivid descriptions of God’s defeat over the powers. Firstly, the writer describes God’s defeat over the powers of death, the devil and the various patterns of this world that enslave humanity (Eph 2:1-10), then on the flip side of the coin, the writer explains God’s defeat over various divisions among humanity and elements that cause division (2:11-16). The writer celebrates God’s victory by noting that God has built a monument of his victory, the Church (2:17-22). In 3:10, we are told that it is through this renewed humanity and community that God will display his victory over the powers to the whole earth. That is a startling declaration! Through ordinary human beings and their relationships with each other in community, God will declare and proclaim his victory over those things that seek to kill, steal and destroy. Finally, we come to chapter four which begins with a summons to hold onto the unity that the gospel has established with those who have trusted the gospel (4:1-6). We are instructed not to establish the unity but to maintain that which God has already established. Then, in the next section we are reminded of the ascended Lord (the true and ultimate authority) who has given gifts of leadership/authority to the Christian community (4:7-13).

So how does Ephesians address the thesis question noted above? Firstly, Ephesians subverts all power relations in chapter one by reminding the audience that GOD is the GREAT BENEFACTOR of the universe who deserves the praise for who is and what he has done (1:3-14). God has all the power and no-one can defeat Him (1:19-21). Thus, those in authority are to be custodians of his will, and not a power unto themselves. Those in authority are under authority, and should always remember that. Secondly, God’s power liberates and seeks the well-being and benefit of the other, not their enslavement. In our various relationships with people, we should constantly ask if what we are doing and communicating is bringing freedom and liberation, not enslavement to our own wants, needs, desires, vision, and mission. Religious authority/leadership is a gift to the Christian community. People should experience it as a gift, and not a curse. Thirdly, the purpose of religious authority in 4:11-13 is the releasing and building up of those in Christ so that everyone attains maturity, understanding and becomes Christ-like. These authorities do not exist for themselves, but rather for the maturation and benefit of others so that they may attain the goal of becoming Christ-like. Does our leadership reflect this vision? Do we seek to educate our communities and help them to become Christ-like to the point where they may not need us anymore? The aim of the writer here seems to be a mutually beneficial community where religious authority is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Ephesians creates a narrative in which both those in authority and those under authority are reminded of who the ultimate authority is, and to what end God exercises authority. The audience is to find themselves in this story, and see their role in helping others reach God’s goal of a renewed and reconciled humanity (1:10; 3:10). Of course, this reflection is theological and incomplete and furthermore there are a host of logistical and practical issues to consider. But hopefully good biblical theology spawns methodology and praxis, as well as further reflection.

Questions, comments, critiques, are all welcome as long as we remember Ephesians 4:15-16.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Love Wins: Chapter Two

Chapter 2: Here is the New There

Rob’s main point in this chapter is to do with heaven. Basically eternity won’t be spent in a giant city with mansions and golden streets that exists somewhere out there somewhere in a galaxy far far away.  Rather eternity will be spent on a restored earth, the new creation, in the New Jerusalem where heaven and earth are one. This is where we will enjoy eternal life. Rob points out that eternal life is also a type of life, a type of living, and that this sort of life can be experienced and tasted here on earth. He correctly points out that this will only ever be tasted in part until Jesus returns and indeed restores all things. He concludes by saying...

There’s heaven now, somewhere else.
There’s heaven here, sometime else.
And then there’s Jesus’ invitation to heaven
in this moment,
in this place.

Essentially I think he’s on the money here though a little clarity could be offered.

There’s heaven now, somewhere else = Non material part of the universe where God’s will reigns.

There’s heaven here, sometime else = When Jesus returns and makes all things new, the new heaven and earth (read renewed heaven and earth). Eternity will be spent here, heaven and earth will be one, and the dwelling place of God will be with humanity.

There is heaven here and now = Better stated this is eternal life (technically not heaven). Eternal life or  ‘eternity type of life and living’ that can be tasted in part now but will one day be experienced in full.

I know for some who have grown up understanding heaven to be a large golden city of mansions, paradise somewhere out there somewhere that exits now, this chapter might cause you to pause. Personally I think if you do a bit of exploring you’ll discover that Rob is pretty much on the money.

Some further reading that has helped me understand these issues...

The Gospel of the KingdomGeorge E Ladd
Surprised by HopeTom Wright
Theology for the Community of GodStanley Grenz

On page 46, Rob makes the comments...

Our eschatology shapes our ethics.
Eschatology is about last things.
Ethics are about how you live.

What you believe about the future shapes, informs, and determines how you live now.
This is a great challenge that needs serious consideration...

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Love Wins: Chapter One

So... Love Wins chapter by chapter.

They are reasonably short chapters which makes things easier. Two things, firstly, rather than re-write each chapter I’m kind of assuming you’ve read the book and can track along either by memory or with a copy of it in hand or on your kindle. Secondly, as legitimate as it might be to break each chapter down and examine with a microscope every sentence and statement I’m more going to deal with each chapter as a unit and the main idea(s) of the chapter rather than every sentence.

Chapter 1: What about the Flat Tire?

Chapter one of Love Wins asks all those supposedly pesky questions that don’t need asking. Questions like; Gandhi is in hell, we can be sure of this? Does God punish people with eternal torment for the things they did in their few finite years of life? What happens if the missionary get’s a flat tyre on his way to preach at the meeting where someone would have got ‘saved’ and thus doesn’t end up preaching and that person getting ‘saved’? Bell also asks; exactly how is it that someone get’s saved? He highlights a number of different encounters people had with Jesus  in which Jesus declares them, to be forgiven, or saved, or to have received salvation, through what seem to be totally different responses to Jesus.

In ‘What about the Flat Tyre?’ Rob gives voice to questions that I think millions of Christ followers have asked over the years and will continue to ask. I can remember asking my Dad nearly all of these questions when I was growing up. Some of them are questions I still ask now. Most Christian kids at some stage will have asked their parents about salvation and how it works for people in Muslim countries or remote tribes in the back blocks of the Amazon who may not even ever hear the gospel. A variety of answers are give. Some of the answers make sense. Others didn’t seem to add up.
Did you ever ask these kinds of questions as a kid? What answers were you given? 20, 30, 40 years on does whatever answer  it was that your parents, Sunday School teacher, youth leader or pastor gave you still resonate as you’ve grown in your understanding of God’s word?
They’re serious questions that genuinely need to be wrestled with. Even if they’re not being asked out loud you can guarantee they’re bubbling away beneath the surface.  They’re questions that aren’t going to go away as there is a great deal of mystery involved. They are important questions to be answered again and again. They force us to think about all sorts of issues and how to articulate truth in each generation.  I guarantee that if the preacher opened with these questions on Sunday and then announced that the next 40 minutes was going to be dedicated to answering each and every single one of them, you’d have one very attentive congregation!
One commentator found there to be a flaw to the questions in this chapter as they point towards people going to hell because of what they haven’t heard the gospel rather than because of sin. Fair point. However I think what Rob is getting at is the reality that, while all of humanity is lost in their sin; circumstances, chance and random selection seem to put some people in a far better position to discover the answer to their sin problem than others.

So essentially what we have in chapter one is a whole stack of questions, regularly asked by Christians all over the place, if not out loud at least in their head. Questions that need to be asked, considered and addressed in every generation.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Love Wins Hoopla

If you haven’t heard all about the hoopla surrounding Rob Bell’s latest contribution, Love Wins, then you’ve obviously just returned from a pilgrimage to the South Pole. Did it go well for you?

Personally I’ve lost count of how many times someone has asked me what I thought of the book, and funnily enough, how many times that question has been asked in a nervous whisper. What the heck!?! Since when could we not openly and honestly discuss a book, be challenged by some serious questions, be forced to look afresh at what we believe and why? I haven’t heard of a book being black listed since Tommy Tenny’s The God Chasers and that was at the turn of last century! Yet in regards to Love Wins; I’ve heard of interns being banned from reading it, that it asks questions that just don’t need to be asked, and even of someone being fired for supporting some of the ideas that Bell floats. Fun times!

Knowing that so many have read the book and knowing that the next book most interns are going to buy will be the one they’ve just been banned from reading, perhaps there is a better response to Love Wins than simply denouncing and banning it. In a Pastoral context perhaps a Love Wins Connect Group could be put together and an appropriate leader found to walk young people through the book chapter by chapter, critiquing and exploring rather than running from it. You could perhaps call it a ‘teaching opportunity.’ Just a thought...

Anyway, I thought we’d go through the book chapter by chapter. I’ve never met Rob Bell, never been to his church. I’ve only read two of his books, and only watched a couple of Nooma DVD’s. However for about the last three years I’ve been listening to the weekly pod casts from his church Mars Hill Bible Church. Through these I have continually been challenged and inspired to put my faith and trust in the resurrected Jesus and his saving work at the cross. I’ve continually been encouraged in my faith, inspired to love Jesus and to love others more. Continually I have been reminded of the need to turn away from my own selfish way of living and to embrace the way of Jesus which has radical implications to ever area of my life.

So with that in mind, what’s the deal with Love Wins?

We’ll tackle chapter one What About The Flat Tire? next time.