Wednesday, November 22, 2017

When it is awful

When everything is awful and life is too much to bear, we need the beginning, the middle, and the end of the Bible story.

We need the beginning because we need to know that it wasn't meant to be this way.  We need to know that God did not intend for us a world of suffering and tears and chaos.  In fact, Genesis 1 and 2 can be read as stories of the systematic binding of chaos and the perfect provision of spreading goodness respectively.  We need to know that God isn't cruel, that he didn't set us up for a fall.  The beginning of the story is all goodness, and we need that if we are going to remember in the darkness that God is good.

We need the middle of the story because we need to know that we are not left alone.  We see in the incarnation of the Son of God that the Creator has not abandoned his creation.  Far from it, as far from it as can be: he has entered his creation, become a creature, the Author inside the story.  And paradoxically we see how deeply committed to the non-abandonment of creation God is at the point where the Son of God casts his eyes towards heaven on the cross and finds himself... abandoned.  God is with us, and he is with us right at that point of God-forsaken agony.  The middle of the story is God-with-us on the cross, and we need that if we're to remember that his care is not removed from us in our own suffering.

We need the end of the story because we need to know that it will not always be like this.  It is small comfort to have a God who would have loved to help, and would even travel into the depths to be with us, but could not ultimately change anything.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ points forward to a future in which God himself will make every wrong right, will wipe away every tear from the eyes of his suffering people, and will make of our sad ruin a glorious future.  That is the ultimate hope, and it bleeds through into the little hopes for today, yes, even the very little ones.  The end of the story is a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells, and we need that if we are going to persevere in the darkness.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Going all Benedict?

I've recently caught up with the rest of the Christian world by reading Rod Dreher's book The Benedict Option.  For those who have not managed it yet, it's an attempt (in an American context, and that's important) to re-think how Christians engage in society, culture, and politics.  The thesis is built on a negative, but I would say accurate, premise: that we lost.  In the US context, Dreher particularly means that Christians lost the culture war; you can expand it to the UK context by noting that we lost without fighting.  However it happened, Christians have lost most of their influence over culture and politics, and now find themselves a minority in a society in which they might formerly have felt at home.

Dreher is not painting the past as some golden age.  He knows there were challenges 'back then' as well.  But we don't have to live then, we have to live now.  What should we do?  His answer is: take the Benedict Option.  Which means what, exactly?

Well, this depends on a perhaps more controversial development of the negative premise.  For Dreher, the culture of the West is so tied up with the Christian religion that the loss of the latter necessarily means the loss of the former; hence we are entering a new Dark Age, a period of history in many ways parallel to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.  (I hear echoes of Bonhoeffer here, particularly in his Ethics.)  I say this is controversial, because I think certainly in my context there is a lot of wariness about tying Christianity and (Western) culture together in this way. But I find it persuasive, at least from a historical point of view.  Western culture means that particular form of the interaction between the Classical past and the Christian message which took root in the West - and that is what is being lost.

The parallel between the new Dark Age and the old one invites the more positive parallel which Dreher wants to develop: orthodox Christians need to follow the example of Benedict, in developing means of resisting the disintegration of faith and culture.  But what does that look like?  For Benedict it meant the monastery, but Dreher knows that isn't realistic for most of us.  So what then?

Essentially, it seems to me, what Dreher is advocating is just being the church - and he acknowledges that in one sense this is really not rocket science - but being the church more seriously and more intensively than we have become used to.  Creating real, close communities that foster the handing on of the Christian tradition.  Being prepared to opt out of society where it is impossible for us to participate without compromise.  Taking more care in the education of our children (which for him means withdrawing them from public, and most private, schools).  Being much more prepared to be weird.

This is not, by the way, isolationism.  What Dreher calls 'Benedict Option communities' - and he envisages them taking many different forms - will remain fundamentally open and engaged.  But they will do it on terms set by the gospel, and they will do it from a place grounded in a distinctively Christian culture.  Fundamentally, BO communities are seeking to maintain Western culture so that when the experiments in atheistic culture, with its cheery or depressive nihilism, come crashing down, there is something for people to come back to.

I find the vision of this book inspiring, even where the detail doesn't really transfer well into my context.  Christian communities developing ways of maintaining 'thick' Christian culture amidst a disintegrating world.  But are we ready for it?  Dreher recounts how his own Orthodox Church used to insist that anyone who wanted to take the Eucharist on the Sunday must attend Vespers on Saturday night - it's an example of shaping life around church, not just squeezing church in at the margins.  Would we be up for that?  Are we ready to live as if the gospel of Christ really were the most important thing?

Friday, November 03, 2017

The land and the amen

As various people remember the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which pledged the British Government to work towards the establishment of what would become the modern state of Israel, perhaps it's time to reflect again on what God's promises to ancient Israel mean today.  For some, like His Grace, Balfour represented God keeping his promise, that Israel would possess the land in perpetuity - and therefore the modern state of Israel and the whole Zionist enterprise is the fulfilment of God's word.  I can't agree.  I think this is a theological disaster (and note, this is a theological and not directly a political post; obviously one can't wholly unpick them, but this particular post is really about whether Zionism can be given a Christian theological justification), and I think I see how it happens.

Let's clear the decks a bit.  Did the God of all the earth particularly elect Israel, and particularly promise them the possession of a strip of land in the eastern Mediterranean in perpetuity?  Yes, yes he did.  You can read it right there in the Old Testament.  You can read the original promise to Abraham, you can read the reiterated promise to Moses, you can read the promise of a remnant and a restoration which the prophets bring even after Israel's exile from the land.  Now, if you pride yourself on reading the Bible literally, you will take those promises to mean just what they say at face value.  From there, you will have to assume that they remain unfulfilled, and you may conclude that they are in process of being fulfilled at the present time.  It makes sense.

But that sort of literal reading is not a Christian way to read the Bible.

The apostle Paul tells us that every promise of God receives its 'yes' in Christ.  This is the consistent perspective of the New Testament: that the story of Israel is recapitulated in Christ, and that the promises made to Israel are fulfilled in Christ.  Consider, for example, the promise that a descendant of David will reign forever over the Kingdom of Israel.  For the apostles, that promise finds it divine 'yes', its 'amen, amen', in the exaltation of the Lord Jesus to the throne of the universe.  To say that they are still looking forward to an earthly Kingdom is to deny that the Kingdom already belongs to Christ, and that is unthinkable to the NT authors.

A Christian reading of the Old Testament does not view it as a series of relatively disconnected promises, related to one another only in so far as they fit into some mysterious and as yet unfulfilled plan of God's will.  Rather, a Christian reading of the Old Testament sees the whole as moving towards one point, namely Christ.  In him, the promises find their fulfilment.  He is the Amen of God to all the promises of the OT, the meaning hidden in every part of the OT story.  So when the apostles look forward, they don't look forward to more redemptive history.  They look forward to the uncovering and revealing of the fulfilment that has already taken place in Jesus - in other words, they look for him to come again in glory.

The promise of the land is not in any sense independent of Christ - none of the promises of God are.  In fact, the promise of the land is fulfilled.  The Lord Jesus has, through his resurrection and exaltation, taken possession of all the earth.  He is in his person the recapitulation of the history of Israel in Canaan, just as he is the recapitulation of the history of Adam in Eden.  That this is not yet seen does not make it any less true.

There are not multiple storylines in Scripture.  There are not multiple words of God.  There is one Word, Jesus Christ.  He is the Amen to all God's promises, and the eternal possessor of the land.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Reformation 500

It is 500 years to the day since the Augustinian Friar Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, in an attempt to start a debate about the sale of indulgences which led to the revolution in the Church which we call the Protestant Reformation.


I have been remembering the Reformation by pondering the logic of the first few verses of Galatians 3:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
The background to this passage is that the Galatian churches planted by Paul have been visited by other teachers, who have sought to persuade these Gentile believers that they must keep the Law of the Old Testament.  Of course we don't have their side of the argument, only Paul's, but my guess is that the Law was being offered as the path to growth in godliness - faith in Jesus is a great start, and gets you in to God's family; but to stay in, to grow, to make it to completeness, to enjoy perfect righteousness, pursue the Law.  We can see what Paul's response is by working backwards through these verses.

The central question is this: having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?  Given that the beginning of your Christian life was all from God, all his doing, are you now going to push on to complete godliness by means of human effort?  The Galatian believers would doubtless have wanted to answer in the negative; so would the mediaeval Catholic Church.  No, in keeping the Law the Galatians saw themselves as continuing in dependence on God's grace.  So, to, did the Church of Luther's day.  In fact, what would continued dependence on God look like, if not regular penance, indulgences, the sacramental economy?  No, Paul, we're not seeking to be perfected by the flesh.

But Paul wants to know: how did you receive the Spirit?  Was it by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?  This sharpens the question.  What does it look like to depend on grace?  What did it look like, Galatians, when you first became Christians?  Did it look like the Law?  No, it did not.  It was faith in what you heard that first brought the Spirit to you.  God's grace came to you as you believed.  Now, do you suppose that God works inconsistently with himself?  Did he first bring you in through faith, so that he could keep you in through the works of the Law - or indeed, the works of the Church's penitential system?  Paul's point here is that God is certainly not inconsistent: as your Christian life began through hearing with faith, so it must continue.

So we might ask: well, what is it that we must hear with faith?  Paul is not here extolling the virtue of faith in general, and neither was Luther, despite what some secular observers of the Reformation might think.  It is faith in something particular.  It was before your eyes, says Paul to the Galatians, that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.  It was in Christ crucified that the Galatians had trusted; this was the message which they had heard with faith.  The content of that message matters.  By trusting in Christ crucified, the Galatian Christians identified with him in his death, and confessed that it was their death too: the death of their old selves, the judgement on sin which they deserved now executed in the Messiah.  And as they heard this message with faith, so the Spirit was given, and they lived - the new life of Christ living in them.  (For all which, see Galatians 2:20).

How did you get in?  By hearing the message of Christ crucified and believing it.  How will you stay in?  By hearing the message of Christ crucified and believing it.  How will you grow?  By hearing the message of Christ crucified and believing it.  What will keep you to the end?  Hearing the message of Christ crucified and believing it.

This is what the Reformation was all about.  Not really faith in and of itself, but the Word - the Message, the Good News: that God in Christ was reconciling sinners to himself, that in Christ the old has gone and the new has come, that my sinful self was nailed to his cross so that I can live in new life.  Lots of people have lots to say about the Reformation on this anniversary, good and bad.  Much can indeed be said.  At its heart, this movement was about the message of Christ crucified, and that is worth celebrating.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Authenticity

The equation spontaneity=authenticity goes mostly unquestioned in our culture.  When the politician switches off the teleprompter and speaks to us 'from the heart', we feel like we've seen them as they really are.  It's the same in church.  We have a sense that prepared words, or actual written liturgy, easily imply hypocrisy, or at least are not the best way of expressing authenticity.

The gospel ought to raise at least a question mark here.  If the real me is not the person I experience myself to be day by day, but the person I am in Christ, then what is most true about me is not what springs spontaneously from my own heart but what is said about me in the gospel.  I do not know myself, not even from my own lived experience of myself, unless I know myself by faith.

One implication for the gathered worship of the church is that it should be a time when, through liturgical structure and content, I am able to authentically express myself - which is to say, I should be able to say and sing, in the company of the community, words which could never spring from my own heart, but which express who I really am.

Might the way of authenticity involve turning off my own inner chatter and owning the voice I am given in Christ instead?

Friday, October 20, 2017

The only finished human

I don't know if this is a cross-cultural constant - my hunch would be probably not - but here in the West it seems to be universally assumed that life takes the form of a story of some kind.  I think it's almost impossible for us to avoid narrative as a way of understanding the (often apparently random) events which fill the span our existence.  We tell the story of our lives to ourselves and to others because that is how we integrate our experiences and experience our selves in the world.

That latter would imply that our tendency toward life-narrative is deeply connected to issues of identity.  This surely is the case.  In telling our life story, we also present ourselves.  The story of the things that have happened to me, and how I have reacted to things or brought things about - that is at one level surely about synthesising myself as a character in a story.  One interesting thing about that is the interplay of given and created in my self-understanding.  To a certain extent I can tell the story my way, and thus create my own character; but at some level there are events and reactions over which I have no apparent control, and my character is given to me.  (And of course this is not just retrospective: I can make decisions which affect the future course of the story, and in that way I have input into who I will be; and yet, not all my decisions will work out as planned, and to a certain extent I will always find myself in a future story not of my making).  I am both who I make myself, and a constant surprise to myself.  I make myself and discover myself.

The thing is, the story is not yet finished.  It's not even as if we've written the first part in stone, and we're writing on into the future.  As anyone who has tried to write a story (or even read one) knows, sometimes things happen in the later narrative which require the complete re-evaluation of earlier events.  We might need to re-write the early story in light of what is coming.  And that means that we can only have a provisional knowledge of who we are: we can only say that this is who I seem to be to me at the moment.  (And I'm not even touching here on the fact that other people looking in might tell our stories, and portray our characters, very differently - and is it really all that clear that we should privilege our own narrative voice, even if practically it is inevitable that we will do so?)

So here's a thought: Jesus Christ is the only finished human.  The story of his life is complete, from birth to death.  That could be said of countless people, of course.  But the difference is that in raising Jesus - from the dead, and then up to his own right hand - God has pronounced the authoritative verdict on Jesus' life.  God has endorsed a particular telling of Jesus' story - and God's endorsement implies truth.  Jesus now lives forever as the person he was.  His complete story means a complete character: we know who he is.  He will always be that person.

This has two implications for the way I think about my personal future.  At the one level, I can say: I don't know who I will be for eternity, because in the here and now my story and character are not fixed.  One day, I will know who I am, but not yet.  But at another level, if I am thinking in faith - which is just to say, if I am not ignoring Jesus Christ - I know that the me I will discover in that eternal future will be the me eternally determined already by him.

Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Those who wait

My friend Tanya Marlow has written a book about waiting.  Waiting, which we're so bad at.  Waiting, which is just a part of life.  Waiting, which is essential to our faith.  Honestly, it's not the sort of book I normally read (it's all creative and stuff, and I usually take my theology straight up and a little more staid) - but I think you might benefit from reading it.  Yes, you.  Because you're waiting too, aren't you, for something?




The majority of the book is given over to re-tellings of the stories of four Biblical characters - Sarah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Mary.  The stories are narrated in the first person, and each split into five short chapters.  There is some great writing here, and a sense of immediacy which really pulls you into the world of the Bible.  Importantly, on only a few occasions (e.g. the first chapter of the Mary narrative) does the imaginative detail end up carrying the main point of the chapter - always a risk with these sorts of reconstructions!  The story-telling here is genuinely inviting us to look again at the Bible, without on the whole obscuring the Biblical narrative behind its own story-telling.  

And this may not be that exciting to many readers, but I was really pleased to have an appendix in which Tanya explains some of the interpretive choices she has made, and some of the ways in which she has avoided making interpretive choices (e.g. what exactly happened to Sarah in Egypt?)  Having that working on display is both a fascinating insight into the creative process, and a great reminder that Tanya is a responsible exegete and insightful theologian as well as a story-teller.

So, waiting.  How useful it is to be reminded that waiting for God to act has been a central experience of the fathers and mothers of our faith throughout the centuries!  Through the lenses of these stories we see different aspects of what waiting means: disappointment, delay, doubt, disgrace.  No doubt different stories will resonate with different people; perhaps listening to and engaging with the stories that resonate less immediately with us will help us to understand better the struggles of others.  But Tanya is not just reflecting on how hard it is to wait.  We are also reminded through these stories that we are waiting for someone - for God - to act: and we are reminded that he does indeed act, even when we don't see it.  It is worth it.

The book is rounded off by a fifth section, which moves away from story-telling to apply some of the insights we've hopefully picked up along the way into our own personal stories.  This section is brief but astute; I could have had more of it.  Then there is a second appendix with questions for group Bible study, which highlights that this book could be used in lots of different ways.  It would work really well as an advent course for homegroups, for example.

So, no, I wouldn't normally read this sort of book, but I'm glad I read this one.  The theme is important, and Tanya is just the person to tackle it.  And despite my general preference for a weighty theological tome, I wonder on reflection whether this isn't just the way to write about waiting - because after all, the wait isn't just a doctrine, but a lived experience of groaning and hoping.

As Tanya helps us to pray:


Lord Jesus,
Who waited for centuries in the light of heaven
Nine months in the warm darkness of a womb
And three days in a tomb

Be with us in the waiting, we pray.