Month: September 2010

when your brother seems your enemy

A guest post by Shadrach…

“In protest of what it calls a religion ‘of the devil,’ a nondenominational church in Gainesville, Florida, plans to host an ‘International Burn a Quran Day’ on the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks.” So began CNN’s first article on the planned actions of one Pastor Terry Jones and his 50-strong congregation.

I experienced a wave of emotions when I first heard the news. I have dozens of Muslim friends and it broke my heart that someone might so offend them. I thought of the Christian lives that could be lost in retaliatory action in Muslim countries. I wept for the reputation of Christ and that Muslims the world over may be turned away from exploring the gospel. I felt so ashamed that someone would do such a thing in the name of Christ, and I hoped I wouldn’t bump into my Muslim friends and have to talk about it.

Political and religious leaders from around the world responded with near-desperate pleas for Jones to reconsider. Unsurprisingly, and thankfully, the action was roundly condemned by evangelical leaders from around America. Of course, the vast majority of Christians said, Christ’s teaching don’t support Jones’ actions.

Everyone was jumping up and down and calling upon Jones and his congregation to take heed of Jesus’ command to love our enemies, not burn their books. But I was wondering who my enemy really was? I rarely struggle to love Muslims; my challenge was to apply Jesus’ command to Jones and the Dove World Outreach Center.

How do we love our brothers and sisters when their wisdom-lacking zeal appears to be working against the gospel and the glory of God? I don’t know that I have any answer other than Jesus’ simple principles of forgiving them, praying for them, blessing them. So, while I prayed Jones would come to his senses and the event wouldn’t go ahead, I also prayed for him and his congregation and asked God to bless them.

And I praised God, with a deep relief I’ve rarely felt, when Jones announced he would cancel the event. Thank God.

(For a great intellectual response to Burn a Quran Day, check out Mark Durie’s blog.)

why I think Cezanne would have been a blogger

Rodin's Eve

Chris and I went to see the European Masters exhibition at the NGV on Sunday. It’s a fabulous, and diverse, collection of work from European painters of the late 19th and early 20th Century well worth going to see if you get the chance.

The exhibition charts the transition from works you might describe as Neo-Classical, through the Romantic movement, Impressionism and towards Modernism.

I was fascinated by the way the curators described the ethic of Impressionism.

Rodin’s Eve was described as being a pivotal moment for the sculptor — his model became pregnant before he’d finished, so he just stopped and exhibited it in (what would have been considered) its incomplete state. Similarly, early Impressionist painters were exhibiting work that resembled plein air studies — the types of thing artists might previously have taken back to the studio to assist with a more detailed and time-intesive work. They were quick, emotional responses to landscape. And it was a revolution dependent on technology; it was only in the late 19th century that they put paint into tubes freeing artists to work outside the studio.

So, compared to more classical art forms, Impressionism is quick, it’s emotional, it’s ‘unfinished’ by the standards of the time, and it’s driven by new innovations in technology. Sounds a lot like blogging to me!

why cataclysm and doom may not be so bad after all

Over the weekend, I finished reading J G Ballard’s novel, The Drought (which Natalie blogged about back HERE). I loved it. He’s like a late twentieth century Joseph Conrad — if that means anything to you.

The edition I was reading had a short essay by Ballard on the topic of ‘Cataclysms and Dooms’ appended to it. Get a load of the way he asks himself this probing question:

As an author who has produced a substantial number of cataclysmic stories, I take for granted that the planet the writer destroys with such tireless ingenuity is in fact an image of the writer himself. But are these deluges and droughts, whirlwinds and glaciations no more than over-extended metaphors of some kind of suicidal self-hate?

This suspicion is writ even larger for Christians. Not only are the books of Daniel and Revelation bursting with images of cataclysm and doom. But a solid case can be made for seeing the whole of Jesus’ ministry as well as Paul’s writings in apocalyptic terms. Nietzsche saw this more clearly than we sometimes do — and accused Christianity of expressing a savage hatred of life as a result. (In a paper recently delivered at the Moore College School of Theology, Michael Jensen sketched a response to this critique in view of Paul’s ethics in 1 Corinthians. I had the privilege of reading the paper in draft. You can read George’s summary HERE.)

But Ballard’s answer to his own question is worth pondering: ‘I believe that the catastrophe story, whoever may tell it, represents a constructive and positive act by the imagination rather than a negative one, an attempt to confront a patently meaningless universe by challenging it at its own game.’

I wonder if there’s a hint here about how Christians might best grab hold of our apocalyptic texts. Rather than proposing some transhistorical, spiritual meaning for history (as, for example, most utopian narratives of progress do), might we need to see biblical apocalyptic as challenging our meaningless universe at its own game? That is, might we need to see it not as pointing away from history but as pointing towards a particular moment within it as its decisive invasion by God’s future?

how our increasingly odd-looking faith might become increasingly compelling

The bonfire at the 2010 La Trobe Uni CU/FOCUS "Mancamp" (photo by Chris Wong)

In a recent interview over at The Other Journal, James Davison Hunter (who has the dubious honour of giving the world the term ‘culture wars’ — although apparently when he coined the phrase he was trying to point out a way of thinking about culture and values that was to be avoided) paints this picture of a Christianity that’s ‘faithfully present’ in Western culture:

[T]here is no question in my mind that Christians would be considered even more odd than they are today by virtue of what they believe and the morality by which they live, and yet because they are fully engaged in each sphere of life as individuals and communities of character, they would serve as a credible and creditable conscience of the overlapping communities they inhabit. Odd, to be sure, but no one would deny that they do extraordinary good in the world. Neither would anyone doubt that they serve the cities and communities in which they live very well.

I don’t know about you, but I find this inspiring (and challenging)!

It’s a tremendously stimulating interview — and I’m very keen to get my hands on a copy of Hunter’s new book, To Change The World. It’s got me pondering (again) about how Christians can rightly and winsomely exert an irresistible influence on our culture

time is a cultural construct

Well, time itself may not be. But the way it impacts on our actions, the way we think about it, interpret it, and respond emotionally to it are.

Check out this fabulous little gem delivered by Professor Philip Zimbardo at the RSA and animated by Cognitive Media:

I’m tempted to reflect on which one of these perspectives is the ‘most Christian’ — Zimbardo certainly suggests that a future-orientation goes with a religious disposition. But the thing is, I read Ecclesiastes and it sounds pretty ‘present hedonistic’ according to Zimbardo’s categorisation. I reckon the bigger challenge is figuring out how to be a Christian within the time perspective in which you’ve been enculturated.

somebody drag me into the 21st century!

I have a confession to make: I’m not an Early Uptaker.

Shocking, I know. I own a Macbook but have never stood in line overnight awaiting the release of the latest product Steve Jobs has dreamed up. I don’t own an iPhone. In fact, I didn’t get a mobile phone until 2003 — and when I did it was a friend’s old handset with the cheapest possible pre-paid SIM! And … I don’t watch stuff on YouTube.

So I need your help.

A bit of context first: People keep telling me that the new generation doesn’t read books (although I know a few Luddites like me who still do). But I want to be able to help people reflect on life and God in light of the story of Jesus.

What I’d like is for you all to help drag me into the 21st century and tell me your Top 3 (or 5 or 10) video clips for helping people do this — reflect on life in light of the Christian good news. I don’t care whether it’s music videos, talking heads, interviews, testimonies, snippets of talks. You name it, I need to get across it.

So, please: the comments are yours. Have at it!

what counts as ‘Christian theology’?

To speak Christian is an exacting discipline. It has taken the church centuries to develop habits of speech that help us say no more than needs to be said. But I fear too often those of us charged with responsibility to teach those habits fail to do so in a manner that those in the ministry can make their own.

(Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Reflections on Learning How to Speak Christian’)

There’s been a bit of chatter lately about what makes theology distinctively Christian. It’s not really explicit. It’s more that people keep assuming that there’s a line between Christian theology and some other kind of theology.

So Ben Myers draws attention to a new book responding to atheism — which apparently argues that the main difference between atheism and theism boils down to patience. It’s chief recommendation for Ben is that ‘in contrast to the usual apologetics … it’s actually a Christian response to atheism’.

And Mike W provocatively wonders if we can really call Wayne Grudem a theologian in light of his discussion of Christians and self-defence, in which apparently ‘There is absolutley no discussion of Jesus, his mission or his kingdom’. Ouch!

I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all. But I’d be keen to hear your thoughts: What do you think counts as Christian theology? Or, to flip it around, what would disqualify a piece of theology from being Christian?

(I’m aware this is probably a ‘family resemblance’ thing. I’m not looking for a shopping list of non-negotiables to be mechanically ticked off.)

re: claiming the Old Testament — wrap up

In an important sense, after the previous three posts in this serious (which I kicked off back HERE), there’s really not much more to be said to wrap up. It shouldn’t be that hard to john the dots between what we’ve seen so far about passages like 1 Samuel 15 and the New Testament proclamation of what God has achieved in the resurrection of the crucified Messiah Jesus.

Let me briefly sketch out how I would see the dots joining:

First, in Jesus God has decisively done what we saw he was on about even in this dark corner of the Old Testament — that is, he has vindicated himself and his Messiah, redeeming and perfecting his good creation in the process and proving himself just in his judgement.

Second, he’s done this by definitively dealing with evil. God has gone to its root in person — both through Israel and in Israel’s place as her truly obedient and representative king. And he’s graciously turned evil’s own momentum against it, breaking its deadly circuit of violence on the cross.

And third, as a consequence of this, he’s opened up to us participation in his sin-uprooting and creation-renewing work. Yet he’s done this in a fundamentally theologically distinct manner to the manner in which he called Israel to participate in his work in 1 Samuel 15.

As such, the slaughter of the Amalekites is not some awkward — and preferably forgotten — part of our past that we’d best keep hidden in the deep recesses of the cupboard. It’s a necessary component in our history — and the history of God’s surprising ways with his creation — that God has himself brought to completion. And he’s brought it to completion in a way that (a) goes far beyond even what we see in passages like 1 Samuel 15 and (b) nevertheless does so graciously, working in the midst of, with and through human agency in doing his work. Or as Paul summarises God’s long-term project in and through (and in spite of) Israel: God has finally condemned sin in the flesh by the power of his Spirit in the crucifixion of the Messiah…

re: claiming the Old Testament — part four

OK. I’ve stalled long enough. In wrestling with 1 Samuel 15 so far, I’ve made two suggestions:

  1. Passages like this speak of God’s judgement not ethic cleansing; and
  2. Here, God both employs his people as an instrument of divine justice and reveals that they too need to be judged.

The time has come to put these two suggestions together and make one final claim (before wrapping up this series): The God revealed in these passages is no inanimate totem that Israel — and their anointed king — can manipulate to lend legitimacy to their savage and imperialistic pretensions. Rather, he is living and active, justly setting about dealing with sin — going to the root of the problem, deep in the human heart — and yet dealing with it graciously.

What I mean is this: Although he’d be perfectly entitled to do so, the God who meets us in 1 Samuel 15 doesn’t simply sweep aside sin and evil — and, along with it, those of us who’ve become entangled with sin and evil (as at once perpetrators and victims). Instead, he graciously works with the grain of human lives and history.

We see, on the one side, God’s undiscriminating justice as he condemns Saul (and Israel) for disobedience:

Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.

1 Samuel goes to great pains to stress that the holy God isn’t automatically and unconditionally on Israel’s side (e.g., in the Ark narrative running through chapters 4-7). There’s obvious bilateralism in God’s demand that Israel and her king must obey him. (In this we’re given clear evidence that Deuteronomic theology — with its blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience — has left its stamp on the history being recounted here.)

On the other side, though, we see God’s graciousness — rooted no doubt in the loving unilateralism of his covenant with Abraham, the unconditional frame within which the conditional stuff sits (even in Deuteronomy). Surprisingly, he continues to work out his purposes in and through his rebellious people. So even when God himself (through Samuel) has to ‘finish the job’ commissioned at the start of this chapter, it’s the completion of a human work rather than its repudiation.

It’s not easy to see how these two threads of God’s character are woven together in 1 Samuel (or in the Old Testament as a whole). Indeed, there are moments — Hosea 11.1-9, for example — when the holiness and the love of God appear irreconcilable, generating a momentum towards the future that leads us to Jesus…

harnessing the habits of the Facebook generation

As I booted up my day yesterday, I had to actively resist the temptation to login to Facebook straight away. I don’t know, maybe I’ve begun to take to heart the way people of a certain vintage rail at Facebook usage, complaining that it’s a bad habit. Or maybe I’ve just finally realised how easily it distracts me and absorbs my time…

Anyway, I was thinking about this when I remembered how Natalie and I used to maintain a list of pretty much everyone we knew who we’d pray for in small bunches each day. For whatever reason we haven’t kept it up.

If nothing else, it was a great discipline. I’m confident God used our prayers to do his thing in the lives of our friends and family. What’s more, God certainly used the exercise to write the names of the people we were praying for on our hearts — even when we’d been out of touch for a while and didn’t really know what was going on for them.

Then it struck me. Maybe Facebook is that list — or at least the start of it! Better still, it’s more or less regularly updated by the very people we’re connected with.

Rather than treating the temptation to login first thing as a bad habit, maybe we can harness it for good. Is it cheesy? Heck yes! But it just might work. And help us back on the horse…