Month: October 2010

the real threat posed by contemporary atheism

I’ve been thinking more and more about Christian mission — and about how to equip and inspire Christians here in Australia for mission in everyday contexts. (I even went so far as to describe myself as an evangelist during one recent conversation; something that kind of snuck up and took me by surprise.)

And I’ve begun to grapple more seriously with the so-called New Atheism, which looms larger and larger in the consciousness of contemporary churches as the threat to Christian mission.

So I sat up and took notice when Nathan Kerr sounded this significant warning in a recent interview posted on The Other Journal:

It is interesting to me how much ink has been spilled by theologians over the last few years concerning the threat of atheism and unbelief. I think this is a symptom of the kind of fear-driven theology that is concerned to maintain a distinctively Christian culture, of the kind of theology that is obsessed with turning Christianity into a religion that needs to be defended against its cultured despisers, of the kind of theology that is always fearful of Christianity being one generation away from extinction, of the kind of theology that considers one primary task of the church to be that of finding a “way to sustain its existence generation after generation.” … [But] the real problem, the really concrete problem that moves us to the kind of action to which we are called as disciples, is the perennial problem of idolatry and unfaith.

That’s the real threat posed by contemporary atheism. For it really would be a disaster if our rush to batten down the apologetic hatches so that we can weather the storm that Dawkins and Hitchens (among others) are whipping up, produced this kind of defensiveness in us.

In my view, one of the greatest freedoms that comes from being united with the Crucified and Risen Lord is freedom from the sort of insecurity that has us always policing our own borders. How much more exciting — and winsome — would our faith be if it looked confidently to the horizon of life-giving engagement with those who don’t trust Jesus!

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three ways to lead?

You’ve probably encountered the idea that there are different ‘leadership styles’ (mirroring, e.g., the differences between introverts and extraverts, etc). In some Christian circles, this observation has been transformed into a typology of leadership — suggesting there are three ways to lead: as a king, a priest or prophet. You may recognise this (from Mark Driscoll’s On Church Leadership):

Prophets tend to be strong at vision, study, preaching, teaching, doctrinal truth, refuting error, and calling people to repent of sin. … Priests have a deep understanding of human suffering and are compassionate and merciful in tending to the needs of hurting people so that they are loved to spiritual maturity. … Kings excel at systems, policies, procedures, planning, team building, mission executing, and simply maximizing resources to accomplish measurable results.

Now, this can claim a venerable lineage — stretching back to Israel’s historical experience of God’s careful governance through its kings, priests and prophets. Better still, since at least the sixteenth century theologians have tied each of these ‘offices’ to Jesus. So perhaps it makes sense to see these rays refracted even when viewed through the prism of the cross.

However, I do feel the need to sound a cautionary note: the way these so-called ‘biblical leadership styles’ apply to Jesus tends to undermine rather than reinforce their differences.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean…

When John Calvin pioneered the application of the ‘threefold office’ to Jesus, he argued that Jesus fulfilled the prophetic and priestly offices as Israel’s long-awaited king. In this he can cite good biblical precedent — the author of Hebrews appears to treat Jesus’ kingship as the necessary (if not the sufficient) condition of his high priesthood.

On the flip side, I’d be inclined to paint Jesus’ kingship in priestly (and prophetic) colours. For Jesus is radically different even from the best of the Old Testament kings. He’s the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, a king who perfectly reveals God (as final prophet) and offers himself once for all through the eternal Spirit to deal with sin.

And Christian leaders are called to be the same (e.g., in 1 Peter 5.1-5).

To me, this suggests that for all the evident differences between Christian leaders, the direct application of the king, priest, prophet typology is ill-advised. For it feels like it threatens to undo the way the roles are drawn together and recast in Jesus, and presented in that form as a model for us.

leadership and the victory of God

Following on from my previous post, I want to table the suggestion that there’s a distinctively Christian way to measure leadership — to determine if it’s truly effective, successful, and achieves its purposes.

It’s not that I think there are a bunch of leadership KPIs buried in Daniel or 2 Samuel (or wherever). But rather that, looking at Jesus and the apostles, we see what Christian leadership should look like. And we can measure our efforts at leadership against it.

When we do this, one feature stands out: Christian leadership is downwardly mobile.

For Jesus, it was about humility, obedience, even slavery — slavery unto death, as Philippians 2 puts it. This climaxed in the cross, which (far from overturning) God vindicated as the true path of sonship by raising Jesus from the dead. But it was also the pattern of his whole earthly ‘career’.

This is where the overworked distinction between the church’s proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Jesus’ own proclamation of the kingdom comes into its own. The germ of truth in it has to do with Jesus’ whole approach to effectiveness. It was all about trusting and obeying his Father, testifying to the Father’s work, teaching his disciples to pray for the Father’s kingdom to come and will to be done. Even working miracles (e.g., feeding 5000 people), Jesus was overtly dependent upon his Father — looking up to heaven and giving thanks as he broke the bread.

This was the path that lead inexorably to the suffering and rejection of the cross. And while it may have looked like failure and foolishness, this was how God achieved his long-awaited, world-upending victory.

And it was much the same trajectory that Paul and the other apostles followed. I love the way Paul summarises it in 1 Corinthians 2.1-5:

When I came among you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation was not with plausible words of human wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

That is the shape of wildly successful Christian leadership. It won’t look like much compared with the showy, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’-style approach of the teachers who wooed the Corinthians with rhetorical pyrotechnics. Although, it has its own power — the power of God!

leadership FAIL?

Perhaps the most spectacular leadership FAIL in recent times came to light in the days preceding Kevin Rudd being ousted as PM.

With his 2020 Summit and Power-Sharing Is Tops vibe, Rudd talked a great game when it came to ‘servant leadership’ — which is the distinctive shape Jesus both commends and models for Christian leaders (see Mark 10.35-45).

Rudd was all about what they call ‘power-with’ as opposed to ‘power-over’: listening, empathy, developing shared goals and working together to achieve them. All the good stuff. And (apparently) naturally enough, he took a widely consultative, ‘suggestion box’ type approach to this. Or at least that’s where the rhetoric was.

Better Health Better Hospitals

But in the days leading up to Gillard’s ascension, it was revealed that the reality may have been quite different. According to the headlines, Rudd was widely resented — and that at least some of that resentment was due to the gap many of his cabinet members felt between the rhetoric and their sense that the so-called Gang of Four called all the shots.

In my experience, that’s one of the big dangers with the ‘suggestion box’ approach. Decisions need to be made. Stuff needs to happen. And so we’re rarely allowed enough time to move from the consultative stance to genuinely collaborative action.

Does that mean that those of us who long to be servant leaders are we forever doomed to either ineffectiveness or hypocrisy?

This is the point at which I’m supposed to produce a rabbit out of my hat. But I wonder if maybe need to just dwell on the problem for a while. If Jesus is anything to go by then the approach he commends — and lays the foundation for — isn’t all that effective: he marches up to Jerusalem … to be executed as a criminal.

Maybe we just need to embrace this. To renounce the relentless pursuit of effectiveness — and ‘getting things done’. I think we need a new — and distinctively Christian — vision of leadership. One in which worldly failure may actually be the path to success.

This isn’t all I have to say, though. Because I do have a hunch that there may be better ways that the ‘suggestion box’ approach to promote genuine consultation and collaboration. But that’s for the next post…

should I be worried that I’m not worried?

I don’t know. You tell me…

On The Stone the other day, I read an article by Frans De Waal, called ‘Morals Without God?’, in which — among other things — he makes an evolutionary biological case against the so-called moral argument for God’s existence. (I’m sure you’d at least be familiar with one popular form of that argument. It goes like this: ‘if there’s no God then everything is permissible’.)

I think this quote nicely captures the heart of De Waal’s position:

If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts … No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives.

Some of the evidence he marshals for this is absolutely fascinating! Like the fact that many animals display responses that look a whole lot like a rudimentary form of our own preoccupation with justice and fairness. You really should go and read the article in full.

The funny thing is that even after a couple of days digesting it, I’m still not worried about it. I guess it’s just not that shocking to me to be told (a) that morality is all about relationships and sociality, and (b) that this is something the human and non-human creation have in common.

I already believe that the God I meet in Jesus Christ is three persons in eternally loving relationship. The doctrine of the Trinity tells me that relationships are at the heart of reality. Now evolutionary biology is saying the same thing. Wow! Good for evolutionary biology.

a providential coincidence?

We’ve just finished a series on Ruth at church. And one of the things that struck me is how significant coincidences are in moving the story forward — people ‘just happening’ to be in the right place at the right time, like at the start of chapter 4.

My impression is that this is a pretty common feature of biblical narrative (I’d like to wrestle with its significance in the Gospels one day).

Gustave Dore, 'The Gleaners'

And yet for all that the story may work to highlight the contingent and fortuitous nature of each occasion like this, it also constantly invites us to see God’s providential hand — even in the most surprising turn of events. In this case at least, Calvin’s insistence that it is unwarranted to speak of ‘fortune’ or ‘chance’ is on the money (Institutes I.xvi.2, 8-9).

Nevertheless, recognising this ought not obscure the fact that things didn’t have to turn out as they do. And, in fact, the way things do turn out is nothing short of an expectation-shattering reversal of pretty much every foreseeable possibility at the end of chapter 1.

What I think we glimpse in Ruth is the good and faithfully loving God of Israel invading this tragic human situation so that he can put things right (rather than completing or bringing to fruition its latent tendencies). That is, I think the Book of Ruth operates with what contemporary theologians have begun to speak of as an apocalyptic view of God’s action in history. And in so doing, it proves marvellously able to testify to the sovereign God’s gracious — and surprising — work without thereby ironing out all the agony and messiness of human history and agency.

In fact, I suspect it’s only such a view of history that will enable us to hold God’s sovereignty together with the reality of human history and agency, so that we can echo Peter’s words about that most providential of coincidences — the death of Jesus: ‘this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law’ (Acts 2.23)…

mastering the rhythms of missional living

A while ago I stumbled across the ‘rhythms of missional living’ laid out by a group in the UK called the Edge Network:

Each week we respond to the identity that God gives to us in his grace by trying to B. L. E. S. S. others through what we do.

  • Bless — Each week we aspire to bless others in our Christian community and local neighbourhood in word, action or gift at least three times.
  • Listen — Each week we aspire to listen to God, looking for him to guide us through his word and Spirit. And we listen to people around us to understand their stories and the story of our culture.
  • Eat — Each week we aspire to eat or have a drink with people outside our immediate family at least three times, offering friendship and community.
  • Speak — Each week we aspire to tell people the story of Jesus and our story of Jesus, making Jesus a normal part of our conversations. And we speak to God through prayer, recognising our dependence on him in all things.
  • Sabbath — Each week we aspire to spend time in rest, praise, play, partying and creativity.

I’m sure we could endlessly debate how each of these aspirations is expressed or whether we’d like to see others added to it. But what I’m interested in is how you reckon they’d could be adapted for a university campus context.

Any thoughts?

back to the leadership drawing board

Tis the season for nominating and electing next year’s student committees at the La Trobe Christian Union. So that means we’ve been starting to get our heads into dreaming and planning for next year. And I’m definitely feeling the need to head back to the leadership drawing board.

conscience of mind, passion of body

It’s not so much that I’m ready to trash the thinking I’ve already done about leadership (some of which you can find sketched out HERE and HERE).

But now the rubber’s really about to hit the road. And so I’m keen to sort a few things out — especially in terms of how the approach to leadership that I’m most strongly drawn to, what some people might call the ‘partnership model’, works in the concrete situation of a university campus ministry.

Because I’m hoping that you can help me with this, I want to think out loud about leadership over the next few weeks (in amongst the usual eclectic mix of stuff).

To get the ball rolling though, perhaps we can compile a ‘best of’ of Christian leadership resources in the Comments section…