Friday, April 16, 2010

Election Debate, Round One

So, yesterday the three chaps who want to be Prime Minister went head to head on TV. I confess, I have had some misgivings about this debate. I wondered in advance whether it would be a good format for discussion of policy and argument over important issues; I feared that it would instead just reinforce that central weakness of democratic politics, namely that people just vote for whoever seems the nicest man. After the debate, I feel those fears were justified. I would struggle to pick winners and losers. Unlike the debate between the potential chancellors, which I thought showed all three men in a good light, last night's little show didn't improve my opinion of anyone's policies. It made me think I'd rather go to the pub with Nick Clegg, but I'm not sure that means I want him running the country.

The big frustration for me was that there was not enough argument. The debate proceeded by claim and counter-claim. Cameron says money can be saved by cutting waste; Brown says it can't; Clegg waffles on about nothing in particular. I really wanted someone to stand up and say 'we have a vision for Britain, and this is why it is better than the vision our opponents are advancing'. I thought Cameron might do that. The Conservative manifesto finally got me excited that we might have a real contest about what society ought to be like. But it didn't materialise on the night. Instead we got bickering over detail.

An example: Trident. Clegg says scrap it, saying money which could be better spent; Brown and Cameron say keep it in case we need to nuke North Korea. Neither is a good argument. Behind the two approaches, one feels there must be more fundamental differences, relating to how the party leaders see the role of Britain in the world. What sort of country do we want to be? Do we want to keep playing with the big boys in terms of geopolitics, or do we want to retire to a lower league? I don't want to imply a value judgement in using that terminology. It may well be that the time has come to step back. (Actually, I personally don't think so). But nobody made a case, one way or the other. Nobody at this debate was giving me a metanarrative: a story of Britain's 21st century that I can believe in and get on board with.

Similarly on economic questions. I wanted Cameron to make the case for small government, but instead he just tried to reassure people that the Tories wouldn't make too many cuts. Clegg talked a lot about cuts, but for him it was clearly just an unfortunate necessity. Brown, of course, just wants to go on spending money. I was particularly disappointed in the way Cameron and Brown talked about spending issues. They were discussing fundamentally different views of how society works, and what government should and shouldn't do. But that never came across.

Still, if I had to pick winners:
1. Cameron. Mainly just for having the best closing speech. Of course, it helped that I mostly agreed with what he said. But disappointed that he didn't really argue for his course of action. Weaknesses on inheritance tax showed up the fact that the Tories still don't quite get the public mood on this.
2. Clegg. Had nothing to say, but said it pleasantly enough. I think I detect him positioning the Lib Dems for a Tory coalition.
3. Brown. I thought he behaved poorly throughout, defensive in tone and posture, frequently talking over the others and the (fairly ineffectual) moderator. Had no answer to any problem except to throw more money at it.

I really hope the next two debates have more substance to them. And I rather hope that next time round there won't be debates, but I expect that's too much to ask.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Leading worship

So I've been leading more church services recently, and it's got me thinking about what church services are for. In most free churches, the person who preaches doesn't lead the service, so the first 30 minutes or so are in the hands of the service leader. It becomes quite easy to think of this time as the 'warm up' - the job being to get everyone in the mood for hearing a sermon. To a certain extent I think there is truth in that: the hearing of the Word is central to what we come together to do. But I've also been pondering what we should be aiming to do with that first half an hour, and I've come up with three big picture aims:

1. To show the church their location in time, between the two comings of Christ. I find it useful to structure the service around this, moving from remembering to expecting. It doesn't have to be done explicitly or in a big way. I will always choose at least one hymn that is explicitly about the cross and resurrection. Often, to introduce a note of expectation, I will just end the time of intercession by praying for Christ's return. The key thing is that we all be focussed on the Lord Jesus, and I think in a curious way on his absence - he was here, and we look back to it, and he will be here again, and we look forward to it. (Of course, he is here too. But in a different way).

2. To show the church their identity as the overlap of the ages. One of the things that any worship service needs to be helping people to do is process the week they've just had, and one of the things which will certainly have characterised that week for everyone will be sin. We've all sinned. How do we understand that, and how do we deal with it in the context of worship? I think the answer is again to locate the church: to show them that they do not belong to the old creation, despite their sin. But this needs to be balanced by an understanding that we are not yet in the new creation - we still await the redemption of our bodies. To process the week, and yet avoid despair, we need to see that we are both new in Christ and old in ourselves. We are the overlap of the ages. The most obvious way to do this is through a corporate prayer expressing sin, but I think we need to be careful how we frame it. Very often - and I think this is true of the Anglican form - a prayer of confession leaves us feeling that we belong to the old age but would really like to belong to the new. There is not enough emphasis on our changed status in Christ. If we can get that right, the prayer of confession can be an enormously helpful part of our liturgy.

3. To show the church their relationships with Christ their Head, and with the world. We need to be reminded constantly that we are in Christ. We need to be reminded that because we are in Christ we are loved by God. We also need to remember that we stand in the world. This is part of preparing the church for the week they are about to have. We will come into contact with a lot of people, many of whom do not know Christ. How should we live? How should we relate? We remind ourselves, then, that we are intimately tied to the Lord Jesus, and are therefore to be those who do his work through the week. The worship service needs to orient us in two ways - towards Christ, from whom we expect to receive throughout the week, and towards the world, toward which we must be prepared to give throughout the week. Leading intercessory prayer is clearly a big part of this, because it means explicitly invoking Christ's aid for the week ahead. There are songs which can also help to make this point.

All a bit theoretical, and not very coherently expressed, but I'm trying to make sure I'm not just filling time, or warming up for the preacher, or doing what I know people will enjoy...

Any thoughts?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Reading along the book of Job

A preliminary note - Job really challenges our standard Evangelical reading practices. We typically read with a magnifying glass, taking a short passage and probing into all the details. That won't work with Job (I would question whether it's the best way to approach any book of the Bible!) because most of the dialogue expresses ideas which are explicitly condemned by God at the end of the book. So we need to read the whole. And when we read the whole, we will get a feel for whose viewpoint we ought to credit. I would suggest that we ought to not to credit entirely any of the human characters in the book. Only the Lord's speech is entirely true. However, Job's speech is to be given more credence than any of his friends on the basis of 42:7ff. With that in mind, we can attempt a Christological reading on the basis of the four methods previously explained...

1. Explicit prediction of Christ is found in Job 19:25-27. It is, of course, possible to explain this prediction away. But looking back from the far side of the life, death and resurrection of Christ it seems extremely arbitrary not to refer Job's confidence to his coming. "I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth". We don't have to suppose here that Job understood and expected the incarnation; merely that Job has put his trust in the God who will come. That faith, in a God who intervenes and will intervene, is obviously crucial to Job in his situation. God's general providence is not a sufficient ground of his hope, since it is precisely that general providence against which Job is railing (apparently with justification). Job's faith is in a resolution - we know that resolution came (and will come) in Christ. Consider also Job 9:33, which although not a prophecy per se is pretty clearly crying out for Christ.

2. Job himself, I would suggest, is a type of Christ. (Note the limits on typology previously mentioned here!) Job is repeatedly described as a righteous man, and yet we see him suffering terribly. Of course, Christ also suffered, but the deeper resonance is in the fact that both Job and the Lord Jesus are explicitly forsaken by God. They are exposed to this suffering by the God they have served faithfully, in whom they have trusted for protection. By the end of the book, Job is restored - on which more momentarily. Suffice to say here that Job thus displays both sides of the OT picture of a righteous man: at the beginning and end of the book he prospers because of his righteousness, in the middle he suffers for it. That sets up point 3...

A slightly tangential point, though, before moving on. At the end of Job, the Lord informs us that Job has spoken rightly. In other words, he has maintained his innocence (not just protested it!) throughout. This is in contrast with his friends, who are forced to ask Job to intercede for them and to make sin offerings. Now, for anyone who has read the book carefully, I think this will come as a surprise. Frankly, Job is the only character who has not stood up for the honour of God throughout the long chapters of dialogue. True, we are told that he declined to curse God, but that hardly seems heroic. For most of the book, he complains bitterly about the way God has dealt with him. Is part of the point here that righteousness is not just about what is visible? We only know Job is righteous because he is vindicated in the end. In that sense, also, he is a type of Christ.

3. Job displays the pattern of suffering and resurrection very well. I don't know about you, but I always found the last seven verses of Job hugely unsatisfactory. Job receives back his health, his wealth and his standing in the community, and gets a shiny new family to replace the old one upon which a house unfortunately fell. It's almost as bad as if it had said 'then Job woke up and it was all a dream'. There is no logical link between what goes before and this ending. The only link there seems to be is Job's faith. Can I suggest that the same is true of the resurrection? It is a eucatastrophe. Everything is turned around, for the good. There is a difference though. In the story of Jesus, the resurrection makes sense. Although it doesn't follow logically, it does follow in terms of character and theme - in that sense it is a real eucatastrophe, and not just a case of deus ex machina (see the link for euchatastrophe for explanation). With the resurrection in mind, and only with the resurrection in mind, we can make sense of what happens to Job. Of course the righteous must suffer and be raised again. That is almost the definition of righteousness in the Bible.

4. The big problem in Job is that righteous people suffer. Note that it is righteous people, not just good people. It is not the fact that moral or innocent people suffer that raises the issue here, it is that people who know, love and serve God suffer. That problem is unanswerable in OT terms (which is why the end of Job seems such a cop out). It is only answerable when we see the suffering of the righteous concentrated in the only really righteous person as Christ dies. In fact, it only really makes sense when we understand that Christ is vindicated in the resurrection, and everyone who trusts him is vindicated there too.

How does this help us to read Job verse by verse? It explains why the friends are wrong when they accuse Job of sin; it explains why Job can trust the God who apparently abandons him; it explains why we cannot read God's character from the events that occur in our lives. It makes the problem of Job point us to Christ. Therefore, our own problems - the apparent God-forsakeness of our own lives - can point us to Christ also, as we look along the book of Job to the suffering and vindicated Messiah.