Month: December 2010

what Joel and Ethan Coen can teach us about reading the Old Testament

I’ve been wondering what the relentless realism of the Coen brothers’ films can teach us about reading the Old Testament.

Earlier this week Stanley Fish posted a provocative appreciation of the Coen brothers’ latest film, True Grit (a remake of a John Wayne movie). I say provocative because Fish concludes by contending:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

I’m keen to see the film. Not least because Fish’s review reminded me of this imagined conversation between Karl Barth and Joel and Ethan Coen about No Country For Old Men.

I can’t say that I’ve found many of the Coen brothers’ films enjoyable to watch. Especially not No Country.

But neither can I say that I enjoy reading a whole lot of the Old Testament. The historical narratives in particular often leave me feeling bewildered — and a little bit nauseated.

To me, biblical Israel’s history resembles nothing so much as a horrendous car wreck in slow motion. Perfect source material for Joel and Ethan Coen!

Of course, there are flashes of grace. There are hints anticipating God’s ultimate triumph. Indications that he does have purposes — good purposes — that he’s patiently working out in and through the messy, tragic humanness of it all.

But these flashes don’t point to some fulfilment of an intrinsic trajectory within human history. As if there were some promising germ of perfection within it — buried deep but straining continually towards realisation (lurking somewhere in the special identity of Israel perhaps).

Instead, they point to God’s apocalyptic, unlooked-for, in-person invasion of human history. Not to cancel it out. Or offer an escape from it. But to finally perfect his original intentions for it — in liberation, redemption and glorious transformation.

That is, they point us to Christmas. And beyond it to Christ’s return.

I don’t think this resolves all the problems we might have reading the Old Testament.

But I am convinced that learning to face reality squarely (from the likes of the Coen brothers, for example) may help us embrace God’s governance of history without smoothing over its tragic angularities — either in the Old Testament or in our own experience…

how not to market the gospel (Christian marketing 101)

Earlier this year, Natalie and I went to an academic conference where the topic of Christianity and marketing reared its head in a discussion following one of the plenaries.

It was fascinating to watch a room full of academics cover each of the common themes of what is by now a pretty well-worn debate. It was almost as if they were working through a checklist:

  • First, express gut level discomfort at pairing something as ‘worldly’ as marketing with faith — reflecting a distaste for the underhanded tactics marketers seem to have perfected.
  • Then, consider the (predictable) counterclaim that marketing cannot be definitively and formally distinguished from communication — just as manipulation cannot be definitively and formally distinguished from persuasion.
  • Finally, arrive at an uneasy settlement in which the inevitability of marketing is acknowledged but placed side-by-side with a thoroughgoing revulsion at the dynamics of our modern consumer society, which not only sustain but reward current marketing practices.

Inconclusive arguments along precisely these lines have cropped up from time to time in most Christian circles I’ve been involved with.

And, fascinatingly, they appear to be ‘indigenous’ to marketing itself — as this post on How to Stop Marketing (And What to Do Instead) over at CopyBlogger attests.

The advice given there about how not to market yourself or your product (or service) is textbook marketing strategy:

If marketing makes you throw up in your mouth a little, quit doing it.

Instead, just let your potential customers know who you are.

Let them know how your thing will make their lives better.

And tell them, very clearly and specifically, what to do next.

What I guess we struggle with as Christians is how to take the second step without betraying the message we proclaim.

It all comes back to that vital distinction between the gospel and its implications — or its benefits. The gospel is chiefly about Jesus (and what God’s done in and through him). And its implications and benefits are the things that then flow on to us.

Our temptation is to overemphasise its implications and benefit for us.

Understandably, we want to talk about how God’s grace in Jesus meets our needs and enriches our lives.

But this easily becomes the de facto centre of gravity around which all our speech about Jesus orbits. And we risk not letting the gospel itself show us what our deepest need is and what will enrich our lives.

At the other extreme, though, we need to remember that Jesus doesn’t only shows us we’re more needy than we imagined. He actually meets our deepest need.

And he doesn’t obliterate our desires and dreams. Instead, he fulfils them — albeit with some necessary remodelling along the way…

a Christmas meditation on beauty

On Sunday, Natalie and I had the privilege of listening to Andrew Katay preach what was quite possibly the best Christmas sermon we’ve ever heard. We’ll post a link to it as soon as it becomes available.

Andrew warned us against sleeping through Christmas because it’s too familiar. And he woke us up to out how God’s incarnation as a human changes everything.

At one point, we paused to dwell on what ‘getting’ the incarnation does to our view of justice and peace in the here and now — and to the significance we attach to ordinary, bodily, material life.

Rather than emptying the present world of significance, Andrew pointed out, the incarnation affirms the reality and goodness of the world Jesus came to redeem — fleeting, messy and broken as it inevitably is.

Ours is a God who takes on flesh! This is what makes pursuing justice and peace worthwhile and not ultimately futile.

I think the same point could perhaps be made about beauty.

So, in the interests of affirming the beautiful this Christmas, I’d like to share this poem (h/t The Cedar Room):

Human Beauty
by Albert Goldbarth

If you write a poem about love …
the love is a bird,

the poem is an origami bird.
If you write a poem about death …

the death is a terrible fire,
the poem is an offering of paper cutout flames

you feed to the fire.
We can see, in these, the space between

our gestures and the power they address
—an insufficiency. And yet a kind of beauty,

a distinctly human beauty. When a winter storm
from out of nowhere hit New York one night

in 1892, the crew at a theater was caught
unloading props: a box

of paper snow for the Christmas scene got dropped
and broken open, and that flash of white

confetti was lost
inside what it was a praise of.

how to share the gospel (in a gospel-shaped way)

Caravaggio's depiction of the famous encounter between Jesus and Paul

Scott McKnight recently published an article in Christianity Today . It’s called ‘Jesus vs. Paul’. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

McKnight highlights two equal and opposite mistakes that frequently get made:

  1. Reducing the gospel to Paul’s message of ‘justification’, or
  2. Reducing it to Jesus’ ‘kingdom’ proclamation.

But, McKnight argues, we need to make a distinction between what the gospel is and its implications (the importance of which I first learned from Graeme Goldsworthy).

The gospel is the momentous news about how Jesus fulfils the story of Israel. Personal justification and world-transforming kingdom living are both implications of this news.

This distinction safeguards the glorious objectivity to the gospel, which we’re in danger of obscuring when we identify the gospel either with its personal saving implications — justification, sanctification, etc — or its world-upending kingdom impact.

You can watch McKnight talk about this here. But it’s all there in his conclusion:

If we begin with kingdom, we have to twist Paul into shape to fit a kingdom vision. If we begin with justification, we have to twist Jesus into shape to fit justification. But if we begin with gospel, and if we understand gospel as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, then we will find what unifies Jesus and Paul — that both witness to Jesus as the center of God’s story. The gospel is the core of the Bible, and the gospel is the story of Jesus … Every time we talk about Jesus, we are gospeling. Telling others about Jesus leads to both the kingdom and justification — but only if we begin with Jesus.

That is how to share the gospel — in a gospel-shaped way!

leadership that’s full of loving attention

I reckon it’s probably about time I resume — and then round off — my recent musings about leadership.

I’ve been getting into the Duke Divinity School Faith and Leadership initiative lately. And I was particularly inspired by the picture Andy Crouch paints of Christian leadership here:

Crouch is the author of Culture Making, which is one of those books near the top of my ‘must read’ list.

In terms of the clip, I do wonder whether ‘contemplation’ is the best way to pitch the alternative to exploitation.

Maybe it’s just personal preference. But I think I’d want to speak about ‘loving attention’ instead of ‘contemplation’ — as a way to more explicitly embrace the affective dimension of this take on leadership.

I also find that after I’ve cheered and pumped my fist at how deeply right his thoughts about resisting exploitation feel, I’m left wanting more concrete detail about how to make it a practical reality…

do you have an Ikea Catalogue prayer life?

Last Sunday I preached at St John’s Ashfield on what it means for us to trust in and follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

One of the things I mentioned but that only really came into focus for me as I continued to reflect on it during the day (between the 10am and 6pm services), concerned what we could learn from the Psalms about pursuing peace.

What I had in mind, was what the so-called ‘imprecatory Psalms’ can teach us — those Psalms in which the poets cry out to God against their enemies, typically in ferocious and downright atavistic language.

In laying bear the raw and unprocessed feelings on their hearts, the Psalmists display anything but a neatly ordered Ikea Catalogue prayer life.

As a result these Psalms are sometimes viewed as offensive to our modern sensibilities, evidence that the Old Testament is sub-Christian and full of an ugly thirst for vengeance.

But I’m increasingly convinced that the way the poets’ put into words the very real hurts they’re experiencing — and lay them before God — is actually a tremendously effective strategy for renouncing revenge and pursuing peace.

Think of the Lord Jesus who renounced retaliation and committed himself to him who judges justly.

Honestly committing one’s cause to the just judge goes hand-in-hand with refusing to be drawn into the violent cycle of tit-for-tat. And provides the paradigm for peaceable Christian living (see Romans 12.14-21).

So if your prayer life resembles a page out of an Ikea Catalogue rather than one of these imprecatory Psalms, perhaps you need to repent and start getting real with God!

the next most important doctrine for us to get our head around is…

‘…a doctrine of the Christian life in which a doctrine of obedience lives within a true doctrine of grace.’

This was Andrew Katay’s final proposal to our combined La Trobe Uni CU and Sydney Uni EU mission team on the weekend.

On the one side, we’ll need to do the kind of job people like Tim Keller call for when they argue that our progress in the Christian life is a matter of ‘going deeper’ with God’s grace in Christ.

We don’t start with grace before moving on to something ‘higher’ (like ascetic techniques for defeating sin).

On the other side, we’ll need to carefully articulate a doctrine of grace that guards against any suggestion that salvation is about God ‘letting us off the hook’ — e.g., that our forgiveness means that we can safely have nothing to do with God!

In short, we need to tease out how the appearing of God’s grace, which brings salvation to all, trains us ‘to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ’ (Titus 2.12-13).

Do you agree?

the most important doctrine for us to get our head around right now is…

‘…the doctrine of the church!’

Again, that’s according to Andrew Katay.

Apparently something like 60-70% of Sydney-siders claim to believe most orthodox Christian doctrines. And a surprisingly large number have attended church occasionally.

Yet this hardly translates to active Christian commitment to the local church — and all that follows from that.

Them’s the facts.

Plenty of people have theories about this — or aspects of it (I’ve been working my way through some helpful stuff Mark Sayers’ ‘über’ team has produced on ‘why young adults are leaving the church’ — the links are down on the right hand side the page).

But Andrew suggested to our NTE mission team that a significant contributing factor is our own evangelical insistence that ‘You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian’.

It’s an understandable insistence, of course. If there’s one thing every good evangelical knows it’s that we’re not Roman Catholic. And Roman Catholics are big on the church — No Church No Salvation kind of big.

So we flip out to the other extreme.

But Andrew reckons that one reason our churches are dwindling is because we keep telling people (as we explain the good news of Jesus) that they don’t need to belong to church to be saved. So it’s no surprise that more people not drawn into Christian community!

That’s why Andrew feels that the doctrine of the church is the most important doctrine to grapple with. We’ve got to address this issue — without tripping over into a kind of Protestant nominalism (ie. ‘Just attending church will do it for you’).

What’s your feeling?

NTE Missions 2010 — resources round-up

canberra sunset

Canberra Sunset (on Flickr)

I’ve been in our nation’s capital for National Training Event (NTE) since late last week. NTE is the annual end of year conference for all the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students university Christian groups around the country.

It’s been a terrific time!

A bunch of us are heading off on mission today, pitching in with local churches and other ministries in different places. So I thought it’d be worth putting up a few links to some great resources:

  • Free sermon audio from Timothy Keller about exclusivity, absolutism, hell, literalism, suffering, injustice and doubt (available under the Resources for Individuals > The Reason For God tab).
  • My friend Andrew has made some excellent short essays and Bible studies available as resources on his blog.
  • The Centre for Public Christianity has a great collection of clips and articles on a bunch of different topics — they put out a series of 7 short clips about some common Christmas themes which are definitely worth a look.
  • And, of course, Christianity.net.au tackles a bunch of common questions about Christianity in crisp, short Q & A format.

(Depending on how your Christmas unfolds, you may also find some useful stuff here for lazy conversations while watching the cricket.)