Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Decline and Fall...

In his book, "The Great Divorce" C.S. Lewis tells the story of a group of 'ghosts' from a grey, paltry, dreary depiction of Hell on an excursion trip to the bright and overpowering reality of Heaven. They are met there by 'Spirits,' bright and real, former friends, relatives, and associates whose task it is to convince the ghosts to stay, although it will hurt at first (even the grass will not bend for the incorporeality of the ghosts' feet) and grow into the same blessed state that the spirits experience.

One of the conversations that occurs is that of two artists, one spirit and one ghost, that touches on there past lives as the avante garde of their time. Toward the end of their time together, the spirit shares with the ghost some information that obviously had not reached Hell yet, namely that the school of art their group had been up against (whatever it was) had won out in the popular arena and their own paintings were now not even selling in second hand stores. Shocked and angered, the ghost chooses to return to Hell to continue to build up the society of fellow art ideologues.

This story is well worth thinking about when it comes to present 'trends' in theological thinking. But first I need to take issue with the word 'trend' itself in this context. When a group describes their ideas as being part of a trend, what they're really doing is claiming something that is really beyond their grasp, namely that in future, their successors will build on their ideas and that their influence will continue past their deaths. It's something they really can't know. I realize that in taking issue with the use of this word I am being a bit obscure. I haven't actually heard anybody use it. But in formulating this blog post I realized that up till now, I have felt that I was part of a larger trend, but based on what follows, I am not so sure.

So what's this about anyway? Well it's this. We're going to lose. Those of us who desire to read the Bible intelligently, to be open to new ideas, (yes, even I want to be open to new ideas, though I my project is always to integrate them with what is already known), and to do the work of reasoning through what is now taken for granted so that the church and our faith will be based on consistent truth will all die out. We are not a movement that will continue into the future. We are a generation that will pass and be forgotten.

How can I say such a thing? First of all, the effort of theological thinking may feel like a calling but in reality it's a hobby shared by comparatively few. There are other interests, you know. Some people watch hockey games. So the truth is that there are roads in our minds that we have gone down completely alone and we have very few others who can understand or relate to what we can tell of those trips. So there's just not the critical mass out there for the church to forever change as a result of our ideas.

Secondly, based on the lack of intellectual interest (I'm not calling anyone dumb, you understand; just not interested in the same stuff) in the subject matter, nuanced thinking, nuanced reading of scripture, nuanced teaching about God, is very hard 1) to transmit and 2) (for the recipient) to remember. Take inerrancy for example. It's much easier to remember, store away, digest that the Bible never makes mistakes, than to have to come to each passage and process what it says on the basis of many varied inputs. But if you are not committed to that process, your choices are accept or reject the Bible on the whole. Like I said, it's much easier just to sign up under inerrancy. So if you have a teaching based on a nuanced reading of scripture, it's sure to die out with its nuances.

Thirdly, there's a population factor. Some years ago, as I understand, the Democrats in the U.S. were surprised and sort of outwitted by the fact that although they had all 'drank the Kool-Aid' of birth control, Republican supporters had not and suddenly (a generation later!) there were numerically more Republicans than Democrats -- simply based on biology. Similarly we have to face this. Christians with an intellectual bent do not reproduce (or evangelize, if you like) at the rate that non-Intellectuals do. Our focus is narrower and our apparent enthusiasm is less. We lose here too.

Fourthly, worst of all, I don't think God is on our side-- if there are sides. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the children and the childlike. Being acceptable to God comes from faith, not correct or well thought out doctrine. The champions in the church are not the theologians, but actually, or so I believe, the old ladies in prayer meetings, the Jesus people sorts who will sacrifice their lives to go to the ends of the earth, and the brand new Christians who, like John Wimber in his spiritual infancy, would lay their hands on their fridges to heal them when they broke down. These are just not the milieu that will naturally absorb or pass on our version of things, but they are the people God loves. If there was the revival some of us still pray for, there would be lots of them but hardly any more of 'us.' I used to help sometimes at a church service for the developmentally challenged and there was a girl that would pray every time in what seemed to me the strangest manner. It grated on me, to be honest. But then I had to accept that maybe, even likely, her prayers were more precious to God than mine. A conscious exercise in humility, maybe, but possibly even true.

Am I being pessimistic? Maybe. After homegroup this Thursday, when we decided to have a go at studying a favorite NT Wright book, (I think I have mentioned Surprised by Hope before) the thought struck me, "I wonder how old he is," and after that, "I wonder if we will still be talking about him after he dies." From there it was a short step to "I wonder whether anything I have said will last past the grave..."

Friday, January 24, 2014

In Defense of God's Violence

I'm reading a lot these days that judges God's apparent actions in the Old Testament as 'violent' and 'genocidal.' One of my earlier posts was in response to an article that did surgery on the whole of the OT by suggesting that, event by confusing event, if you didn't think it could be God, it was actually Satan in disguise and the writers were mistaken.

I'm finding the whole thing a bit strange. There used to be stuff we would intuit about God that meant that he could be what he was and not be judged by us. And we just accepted what we read. I thought I would rehash them here and see how they look.

Firstly, we seem to be losing the concept of God's rights as creator. And I'm not capitalizing 'creator' on purpose, because what I refer to are rights that every creator 'enjoys.' If you've ever made anything that didn't quite measure up or that wasn't working the way you wanted or just needed tweaking, you know what I mean. It's yours. You can axe it and start afresh. You can strip it down to essentials, You can make it whatever you want. And whether we like it or not, among all the relationships we have with God, we have to include this one. If he sees the need to wipe out whole continents of people for some big-picture reason of his own, he's in his rights to do so. And "no one can stay his hand or ask 'what are you doing?'"

Secondly, using an "argumentum ad narnium," (I picked this phrase up from some comments on Rachel Held Evan's blog -- someone was disgusted by an appeal to C.S. Lewis as an irrefutable authority -- I loved it.) it used to be completely acceptable that God is "not a tame lion." This doesn't mean that he is capricious or not to be trusted. It just means that whatever we see, he sees way more-- which means that he can do stuff that we don't like. Many's the time I've had to make parental decisions that upset my kids. Many's the time they could not understand or agree with me on something. And as they grew closer to adulthood they naturally started to question these. And still I treasure the future moment when they will be in the exact same situation and actually understand from the inside why things were done they way they were done. But we are in the same situation. We are growing up and starting to question our Father. "Why would you do such and such a thing? Was that really you...?" And still we really don't have the right to judge.

Thirdly, when it comes to some of the more bloody acts by the Israelites, apparently divinely sanctioned, they were always read with the understanding that that was that time, and this is this time. Final, temporal, physical judgement was exercised in the absence of the work of Jesus which has now changed everything. I always thought that there was a future purpose as well. It occurred and was written so that we would understand how serious sin is and from that understanding we would gain a deep appreciation for the forgiveness and mercy that has come to us via the Incarnation.

So when I approach the Old Testament, this is the sort of background I have in mind while I read. I don't think it all normative. And when God's using human instruments to exercise his judgements, they can be very blunt instruments indeed -- they can go too far. And later be chastised for it. There's nothing idyllic there. And we need to be in the habit of asking questions about everything. It's a helpful process. But here's my contribution. I think we do the narrative damage by bringing our this-era values and horrifications to the text, judging the events of the Old Testament by our worldview in a way that the original experiencers never would have done. So don't give up. Read on, it gets way better, later...

Friday, January 3, 2014


I have now completed a year of attendance at the church which my family and I tried after leaving behind a our previous twenty-year church home. The deal I made with myself was that I would do my best to function here and see if I could make an ongoing useful contribution. I want to be useful and feel significant. The second desire is admittedly selfish. But I'm not going to apologize for it. I hope it doesn't disqualify me for participation in the kingdom. There's a definite sense in me of having paid my dues whether or not anyone recognizes it. Anyway, something has appeared for me to do. And I'm enjoying it. So, because of that, along with a host of other factors, we're staying. It will probably be a year or two more before I start calling it my church.

One of the overarching mantras present in this new church home is the word community. This is not unique. The Church in general has adopted the same mantra. The church from which we came also used to use the term frequently. Now, however, it seems to be repeated around us with a greater intensity. Some further investigation is necessary.

Firstly, I have to say that this whole thing has the smell of apple pie. I mean it has the air of that with which, along with motherhood, no one must ever be in disagreement. It sounds distinctively like we are preaching something because it sounds like something we ought to be preaching, not because it's something we really believe or because it's manifestly central to our faith. But worry not if you disagree with me on this point. I'll give you an 'out.' That smell of apple pie, could just as well be the smell of my own distrust. Because I do distrust the concept of community. If we are really in community, then I don't merely have to be connected with you: I have to submit to you. And I'm not willing to do that. But neither are you willing to submit to me. And why should you? It's not what we do...

Which brings me to the main argument presented to bolster the idea of community. The New Testament writers, we are told, had no conception of writing to churches with the individual in mind (it just wasn't what they did), that there is always an implied y'all throughout the New Testament. We are told that we grow in community and not outside of it. We are told that "no man is an island." Again that whiff of pie. It certainly doesn't line up with life as I know it. Victories I have won have been ultimately private triumphs with God. The community may have been referred to on occasion, for minor help and guidance, But the communal ideal had been missed, because ownership of the victory did not belong the community. Again the out. Maybe I have never experienced true community. But if not, why not?

I suggest that if we are to truly experience true community, a whole bunch of stuff will have to be subordinated to that central value. We will need to err to excess until we achieve a balance that is meaningful. As it is we are too timid to try the thing properly. We are doing lots of talking but hardly any walking. Sunday morning and some Thursdays do not community make. Think of the Christmas, the Christ Mass, that we just went through. The Holiest Celebration after Easter in the church year. And what came first? Not the (church) community. Not we, the people of God, celebrating Christ's coming together. Nope. The nuclear and extended families get the prime time slot with the opening of presents as the main event. I should like to see us all meet for a shared Christmas dinner after a worship time on the day. That would build/test our ideal of community.

I have to say that ultimately yes, the ideal of community goes right to the heart of Jesus' teachings. "I will build my called-out-ones, my assembly, my raucous town hall, my ekklesia (Ray's amplified version, with thanks to Thomas Cahill)" certainly has the air of a plural relationship, one we all have together with the Saviour and Lord. And yes I accept that my experience cannot overrule his words. I just don't know how we ought to apply it in this time of isolated living, without being, even to ourselves, rather unconvincing.