Thursday, May 21, 2015

Challenging

A thing I've noticed recently: if you say to an evangelical Christian "we should really be ministering the word to one another", they will probably reply "yeah, we should challenge one another".  If you say to them "I loved the preaching of the word this morning", they will most likely answer "yeah, it was really challenging".  Which is interesting, because I take it that the word of God is the good news about Jesus, and I'm not sure being 'challenged' is usually good news.  It is not that the gospel never confronts and judges my behaviour and beliefs - far from it!  It is just that this doesn't seem to be the emphasis...

I don't particularly want to discourage Christians from 'challenging' one another, in sermons and in passing conversation.  We are to rebuke and exhort one another, for sure, and there isn't enough of it going on.  But at the end of the day, the challenge is just diagnosis, and a diagnosis is certainly not good news.  If you're going to diagnose me, at least offer me medicine as well.

To me this seems to go along with a version of sanctification which I think is a bit like picking at scabs.  (Yes, I am using a horrible image to disparage a position I disagree with.  But I've been up front about it, so that's okay.  Isn't it?)  What I mean is that there is a school of thought which locates pastoral care - whether the formal care of elders or the informal care of members for one another - in digging at sins, poking at them, going over them again and again...  Constantly bringing to light new idols, always challenging...  And sometimes I just want to say "if you keep picking at it, it'll never get better"...

Here is a question: how can we help one another to have joy?  By challenging one another?  Well, yes, sometimes - the wounds of a friend are faithful, and sometimes reservoirs of joy are just the other side of this wilderness into which a friend is leading us with their rebuke...  But maybe sometimes we should stop weeping over our sins - because the joy of the Lord is our strength..?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What Church is

The church is the provisional representation of redeemed humanity.

Provisional because there are many currently on the outside who will be on the inside (and some on the inside who will be on the outside!)  It is not good to speculate on the final make up of redeemed humanity.  Provisional also because those on the inside are still sinners; they await the redemption of their bodies and their final revelation as God's children.

But still a representation.  The church stands for the whole, acknowledging the work of Christ on its behalf - and on behalf of others.  In the church it is known that Jesus Christ takes away sin - and not only the sin of the church but the whole world.  The church knows that the day is coming when every knee will bow to Christ, and in its worship it anticipates and prefigures that day.

All of which has practical implications.

Because it is a representation of redeemed humanity, the church will be a disciplined community, seeking to live in holiness; because it is a provisional representation, the church will fall short and will need to show mercy to its members.

Because it is a representation of redeemed humanity, the church will have defined 'borders', acknowledging the unity of the one people of God; because it is a provisional representation, those borders will always be porous and open to all.

Because it is a representation of redeemed humanity, the church will clearly proclaim Christ, and the truth as it is in him; because it is a provisional representation, it will be always learning and forever repenting of its past misrepresentations of its Lord.

The church is a sign in the midst of the world that, in Christ, God has completely changed the situation of all human beings.  The local church, by its very existence, is a sign that this is true of these particular human beings in this particular place.  The task of the church is to seek more and more to conform its community life to the purpose of being this sign.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Disappointing Church

"Every time I move to a new community, I find a church close by and join it - committing myself to work and worship with that company of God's people.  I've never been anything other than disappointed: every one turns out to be biblical, through and through: murmurers, complainers, the faithless, the inconstant, those plagued with doubt and riddled with sin, boring moralizers, glamorous secularizers."

Thus Eugene Peterson, in Leap Over a Wall, p 101.  He adds in an endnote:

"I was pastor to one of these companies for thirty years, and thought I could organize something more along the lines of Eden, or better yet New Jerusalem.  But sinners kept breaking and entering and insisting on baptism, defeating all my utopian fantasies."

Well, I'm off to keep company with the other losers for a couple of hours.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Christianity is a Humanism

When Christ ascended into heaven, taking his seat at the right hand of the Father on high, he put into effect the eternal decree of God.  Jesus Christ was always the person by whom and for whom all things existed.  Now that is revealed in his exaltation.

Seeing Christ on his throne, every philosophical and programmatic humanism appears as nothing more than a lame parody.  Every attempt to make humanity the measure of all things, to begin with human experience, to place humanity at the centre of the epistemic or ontological universe looks foolish.  In truth, humanism as conceived by humanity is doomed to failure, because there is no vacancy for humanity to fill.  The centre and pinnacle of the universe is already occupied - by humanity!  Not humanity in the abstract, to be sure, but this particular human being, Jesus of Nazareth.  Nevertheless, humanity.

The implications are far-reaching and profound.  One that I would stress, because it seems to me it is often missed, is that humanity matters, and all things truly human matter.  A question which I have is this: in the midst of a culture given over to materialism and scientism, might it not be the task of Christians to pick up the genuine concerns of humanism?  In the light of the exaltation of humanity in Christ, can we ever take humanity too seriously?

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Dear Mr Cameron

Let me start by offering my congratulations.  I was rooting for you, I voted for your candidate (even in Oxford East, that little bastion of red in the midst of deep blue rural England), and I'm pleasantly surprised by the result.  I think that given the available options, and the current circumstances, you and your party were the least bad option.  And if that sounds a bit like damning with faint praise, Mr Cameron, well, so be it.

Here's the thing.  Most of the people I know and respect - not all, but most - think that voting Conservative makes you some sort of amoral monster.  I'm not exaggerating, or at least not much.  And can I be honest, you haven't helped us.  You ran a campaign based on fear; you won an election at least partly by making us afraid of one another.  I know the other guys were doing just the same thing, and I know it's easier to sell your opponents' nightmare than your own dream; but I'm sure some of the bitterness I'm seeing springs from that campaign.

Listen, Mr Cameron (I know you prefer 'Dave', but I can't quite bring myself to first-name a sitting Prime Minister): I really believe that a smaller state and a bigger civil society can be the best way forward for society; I think you believe it too, but you didn't exactly sell it, that's all.

But actually that's not the main thing.  It's not nice to be considered an amoral monster, but I can hold my own and I'm prepared to make a positive case even if you're not.  The main thing is that I need you to prove them wrong, and that's going to need a change in approach from you.  I believe you when you say that you want to protect the most vulnerable, but people I know are not seeing that desire translate into action.  They don't believe you, because your record and rhetoric don't line up.  Mr Cameron, in your second term, will you ensure that necessary cuts don't punish those who are already suffering?  Will you take a personal interest across government in protecting those who cannot protect themselves?

Like you, I think it is important that we don't take the approach of many on the left, which seems to be to classify large numbers of people as 'poor' and assume they will always be dependent on the state; but on the other hand, there are people who will always be dependent, because they are chronically ill, or disabled.  For them, especially, you need to do better than you have so far.  Compassionate conservatism - that's what I want to see.

Mr Cameron, there's a lot more I could say, but frankly if you take this one thing on board I will be happy.  As a Christian, I am commanded to respect you and to pray for you as a leader.  I'll be doing those things going forward, and God bless you as you make difficult decisions.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

RE-POST: The Least Bad

Here is what I wrote on the eve of the last General Election.  I find that my thinking is much the same this time around...

Tomorrow, I will be voting for what I consider to be the least bad of the options put in front of me. None of the options is hugely inspiring, and none is particularly friendly to the Christian gospel. But then, I don't expect them to be. After all, the decisive encounter between Christianity and the state can be summed up in the phrase 'crucified under Pontius Pilate'. That phrase colours my whole idea of what the state is, and it doesn't lead me to expect much.

Can I suggest there are two main things we should be looking at?

Firstly, and most importantly, I can look for the people I think will most promote the common good. By the common good I mean not the interests of any particular section of society, but the good of all. Of course, we will have different conceptions of what the common good actually is; all I can really say to that is: be suspicious of your own ideas. It is very easy to con ourselves into thinking that 'what would be best for me' is the same as the common good. Moreover, the common good can be considered from lots of different angles - financial welfare, liberty, community coherence. Resist reductionism - the common good cannot be only a matter of economics, or only a matter of freedom. Who offers the least bad option, in terms of balancing the desirables?

Secondly, and particularly as a Christian, all I ask from the state is that they leave me free to live, preach, and worship (1 Tim 2:1-4). Who offers the least bad option on this front?

At the end of the day, I am waiting for perfect government, and I belong to a city where that government is vested in the hands of the Perfect King. That doesn't make tomorrow unimportant; but it does put it in perspective.

"But while they live in Greek and barbarian cities, as each one's lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. (Christians) live in their own countries, but only as non-residents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners." - Diognetus, 2nd century AD

Saturday, April 25, 2015

3D Jesus

"...transposition is a criterion of truth.  A truth which cannot be transposed isn't a truth; in the same way that what doesn't change in appearance according to the point of view isn't a real object, but a deceptive representation of such."

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, p 68

In context, this is part of Weil's discussion of how culture can be transmitted, especially across boundaries of class and education.  She is against popularising, which loses the essentials of culture in trying to create something that can be successfully transmitted.  Transposition, by contrast, involves the hard work of so understanding the essential heart of a thing that it can be put across in a different way to different people without losing its essence.  The end result may outwardly look very different from the idea with which one started, but inwardly it will be the same.

Which is all interesting, but isn't what I wanted to say off the back of the striking quote above.

Ever wonder why there are four gospel accounts, each with their own details and ways of telling the story, and containing between themselves a number of irreconcilable differences?  I think it is just because the gospels are not flat, painted scenes; they are viewpoints on a three-dimensional object, which looks different from different angles.  Which is to say, behind each of the gospel accounts lies a real life - the life of Jesus.  Jesus is real, and so one can (so to speak) move around him and view him from different angles and in different ways.


It is an essential criterion of gospel truth that it work like this.  The reason the gospel message can be transposed into different cultures and situations is that it was never dependent on one particular form of words or way of telling the story; rather it is dependent on the reality of the Person who stands behind those words and stories.

This obviously doesn't mean infinite flexibility; some ways of telling the story would clearly be views of a different object, an invented person.  There are criteria for thinking this through, but in the end a lot will come down to whether the person behind this account seems to be the same as the person behind the canonical accounts.  In Weil's terms, some attempts might look to much like popularising; that is to say, editing the story to look like what we think people will accept.

In practice, we need to be careful about tying ourselves too closely to one way of viewing Jesus.  There are a number of indicators that this is happening - for example, if we're not satisfied that the gospel has been explained unless certain particular words or formulations are used...  But perhaps the biggest indicator would be that we wouldn't know how to introduce Jesus to people who did not share our culture, background, or education.  There's a challenge.