Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Height of Morality

I remember an episode of Friends which got me thinking, of all things. Joey defied Phoebe to commit a completely selfless act, all the while saying that none exist. Every deed done has some hint of selfishness attached to it. This troubled me. Am I and everyone else really incapable of what may be considered a truly moral gesture?

The underlying philosophical assumption in Joey's challenge was that for an act to be moral there must be nothing "in it" for the doer. The doer can gain nothing from it; only give. I've held this to be true for most of my adult life, but upon reading the surprisingly fascinating book Desiring God I am in the process of coming to vastly different conclusions. An example will help illustrate the point.

Take two husbands. No, they're not two men married to each other; they're in separate marriages. One husband buys his wife flowers for her birthday because he knows it's his duty. Nothing in him wants to do it, but he goes through with the purchase and hands his wife the flowers. He feels no gain from the deed. The other husband cannot wait to hand a bunch of flowers to his wife. He loves her passionately, and so he delights in these moments. It makes him feel terrific to be able to buy this beautiful woman a bunch of flowers for her birthday. He is consumed by love for her, and so it is his pleasure to shower her with gifts.

Whose wife will be the happier?

In times gone by I would have said "But hang on a minute. The second husband is gaining from all of this. There's nothing selfless about what he is doing. It makes him feel good, and so of course he's going to do it". But such an interjection would be missing the nature of love completely, and also the nature of morality. The greatest deeds are not done begrudgingly. They are not done with a cold heart. They overflow from a heart which delights in doing good.

Only one of the above hypothetical wives will feel loved, because only one of them is truly loved. Her gain is her husbands gain, and her loss will be her husbands loss, which is the way it is supposed to be. The first husband is a dutiful husband, but he is not a loving husband, for his affections and desires lie elsewhere.

I used to think that the height of morality was doing things we don't want to do. Of course sometimes that is required, but true morality is when we take pleasure in doing what is good and right; when our hearts desire is to see others blessed, and as Christians, to ultimately see God glorified.

John Piper calls this Christian Hedonism. It's a complicated beast with many pitfalls to be avoided, but I can't help with agree with him and be excited about the consequences.

"Delight yourself in the LORD..." - Psalm 37:4

Monday, June 29, 2009

Missio Dei - #5: It's Interested

On our quest for a missional hermeneutic we have so far avoided the "proof-texting" pitfall and the "cultural snobbery" pitfall. The Bible is more than a book which merely validates and authenticates our own activities or which only makes sense in a Western (aka the "right") context.

Despite the search for a context-less reading of Scripture, we must admit that who we are, where we are, and how we have been raised affects how we read the Bible. We cannot approach the Bible completely objectively. Nor should we want to. Our uniqueness as readers allows God to speak truth to different people in different ways. One of Jesus' most famous parables illustrates this point well. We can read the story of The Lost Son and identify with the run-away rebel, or we can read it and identify with the indignant older brother. Whom we identify with is a reflection of our own contexts. We bring ourselves to the table, and we allow Scripture to shape us as the Spirit sees fit. The Spirit may tell us to return to our Father, or to get back in the house and enjoy the party!

As a result of our contextual readings, we must also admit that we are "interested" readers. The question is, what are we interested in? There are many different interests which act as frameworks for reading Scripture -- feminist, racial, health and wealth -- some of which lead to good, some of which lead to disaster. To read the Bible with the mission of God as a framework is also an "interested" hermeneutic. But it is a hermeneutic interested in the interests of God -- a God who is committed to reclaiming a people for Himself and making His name known throughout the earth.

To read and understand the message of Scripture with this in mind doesn't destroy all of our own interests. William Wilberforce comes to mind. One wouldn't say to him, "Forget about liberating African's from oppression, William. The Bible isn't about that. You're supposed to read it with a missional hermeneutic, not a liberationist hermeneutic." Rather, as Wright puts it, a missional reading of the Bible "subsumes liberationist readings into itself". Wright asks,

Where does the passion for justice and liberation that breathes in these various theologies come from if not from the biblical revelation of the God who battles with injustice, oppression and bondage throughout history right to the eschaton? Where else but from the God who triumphed climactically over all such wickedness and evil (human, historic, and cosmic) in the cross and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ? Where else, in other words, but from the mission of God?

To most Christians the fact that the mission of God subsumes this kind of liberation is obvious. But where do we begin to exclude certain interested theologies? Can the Bible mean all things to all people, leading ultimately to it meaning nothing to anyone? Postmodernism affirms such relativism, rejecting as it does any kind of grand narrative that explains everything. In such a climate missio Dei is whatever we want it to be, depending on our particular needs (or what we think our needs are). While the inclusion of all of our unique contexts must be accepted, this relativism which is rampant in (if not the cornerstone of) postmodernity needs to be rejected in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here is where objective truth is found; objective truth which is relevant to all people in all contexts. It is objective because it points to a new, ultimate reality which began with the resurrected Jesus. It is relevant because it is the reality of a new creation available to everyone right now.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Every Last Point

Have the people who schedule Wimbledon matches really gone down the "sex sells" route? Based on my Thursday afternoon viewing, I would have to say yes.

I had just watched a great performance from Leyton "Come onnnnnnn!" Hewitt as he beat the 5th seed Del Potro in straight sets. The Aussie got me primed for some more exciting Wimbledon action, so I was eager to see who was up next on centre-court. Perhaps there would be a top women's match featuring the number 1 seed Safina, or maybe A-Rod would be crushing forehands in front of me for the next couple of hours.

Oh no. Up next was Wozniacki versus Kirilenko. The number 9 seed against an unseeded player in the women's singles. Suffice to say, I had never heard of either of these players, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why the organisers would put such a game on centre-court. I was both surprised and annoyed, with no option but to switch over to Deal Or No Deal. Look what I was reduced to!

The (it goes without saying) infuriating woman on Deal Or No Deal didn't have a particularly powerful board, so I decided to flick around the channels until I came back to Wimbledon. "Pff...Wozniacki against Kirilenko". I stalled on BBC just to figure out which player was which, but before long "Wozniakci and Kirilinko?" became "Wozniacki and Kirilenko!", the greatest tennis match of all time, trumping even last year's epic final between Nadal and Federer. Why?

Caroline Wozniacki -- Maria Kirilenko

Okay so I'm slightly exaggerating about it being the pinnacle of tennis. Still, all of a sudden it became very clear to me why these two women were battling it out on centre-court while the likes of Serena Williams was slumming it on court No. 2, and it had very little to do with mesmerising backhands or a Midas touch around the net. In layman's terms, they're hot, and full-blooded men like watching hot women play tennis. I don't think I'm telling anybody anything new when I say that.

I was of course outraged by this superficiality on the part of Wimbledon schedulers, and only chose to continue watching the match in case the broadcasters left a number on the screen which I could dial in order to lodge a complaint. They didn't, and so I was forced to sit through this sham of a beauty pageant in its entirety. Every last point. Even the breaks between change-overs.

In all seriousness though, isn't it a bit of a cheap tactic to all but say that you get to play on centre-court if you're the more attractive player? Ignoring the fact that this ploy was a complete success on me, I think it's quite sad that Wimbledon has stooped to this. Now I have got nothing against either Wozniacki or Kirilenko. Nothing at all. In fact they were both pretty good players, and the former could go quite far in this tournament (she is the 9th seed after all). But lets keep a low profile game like this off of centre-court. If you want to watch the eye-candy then click the red button, but lets not turn the women's game into a parade. We have to be better people than that.

Anyway, Wozniacki and Kirilenko are about to start a charity doubles match over on BBC Stream 17. Let me know how the big game on centre-court goes.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Missio Dei - #4: It Includes Multiple Contexts

So where were we on this rip-roaring adventure through The Mission of God by Chris Wright that has everybody talking? Well, last time out we were searching for a "missional hermeneutic", and decided that lumping a whole load of texts that speak of "missions" together was not the best approach to interpreting the Bible with mission in mind. This is a dangerous approach to Scripture reading in general, and should be avoided at all costs. We must let the Author of the Bible speak to us holistically, rather than simply listening to the bits we like and screaming "la la la" over the bits we don't like and that don't fit into our purposes.

There is another pitfall to be avoided, which may be called contextual or cultural snobbery. Wright informs us that the landscape of mission has changed dramatically - "The whole centre of gravity of world Christianity has moved south". As such, much of Christian mission is carried out by people from India, Latin America and so forth. The upshot of this shift is that these people from outside of the Western world have a different context in which they read the Bible. They are bringing different traditions, different lifestyles to the table, and so they don't read the Bible with the same eyes as those of us who have been reared in the West. Wright says that,

...a missional hermeneutic must include at least this recognition - the multiplicity of perspectives and contexts from which and within which people read the biblical texts.

This variety is to be embraced, because these different readers can open our Western eyes to things that have gone previously unseen. The Bible was not written for one specific group of people. We in the West do not possess the best context in which to read and interpret Scripture, meaning everyone else has to fall in line with us. Of course we can't change our context, but we can certainly be open to the insights of readers from different cultures. This again is part of what it means to read the Bible holistically.

Of course we do not go to the extreme where one postmodern thinker has gone, claiming that there is no such thing as texts, only readers. Ultimately, it should not be the reader who shapes the text of Scripture, but the text which shapes the reader. The Bible was written by various people in different ages and situations, it is read by a myriad of people all over the world, but there is coherency in the midst of this diversity. James Brownson says that the gospel is the framework where all of this diversity takes place. From Genesis to Revelation, God is unveiling the gospel message. This again goes back to the words Jesus in Luke 24, where He taught us all how to read and interpret the Word of God - in the light of who Jesus is, what He has done, and what He wants to do through us.

The Bible is about God, and God is One. He is a big One, however. You or I don't have all the answers. We only know in part. But we can sharpen one another's knowledge as we allow those from all the nations of the earth to share with us their understanding of the One True God in light of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. The Church should be a place of diversity, where Jew, Greek, Irish, Indian are accepted and heard. Therefore when we read the Bible with missio Dei as a framework, we must remember that this is a cosmic mission. It is a mission that includes cultures far removed from our own. Therein lies the challenge, but there also lies the excitement - to be part of something much bigger than yourself.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

This is Our God

Hillsong have done it again! Wishy-washy verses leading into a great chorus. After numerous readings I'm still struggling to understand the content of either of the verses in the song This Is Our God, but they contain solid Christian words such as the ever popular "grace" and "Jesus" and the not quite as popular but still important "word" and "Spirit", so I'm willing to overlook the lack of coherency.

And, needless to say -- but I'll say it anyway -- the first person singular pronoun takes its regular place throughout a Hillsong song. Why not just put in "we" and so forth? Given that the chorus takes on a plural scope ("Freely you gave it all for us", emphasis mine) it actually makes more sense to keep the song corporate throughout. Perhaps the songwriter switched to "us" only because it (sort of) rhymes with the word "cross" which is used on the subsequent line:

"Freely you gave it all for us
Surrendered your life upon that cross"

If the writer was really intent on being all personal, there was an available alternative:

"Freely you gave it all for me
Surrendered your life upon that tree"

Hey, I didn't say it was a good alternative...

Anyway, enough about what I'm not too keen on. Like I said, the verses aren't great (but still singable). The chorus is excellent though. Especially because it ties in with something I've been reading/writing about over the past few weeks, namely, we know God through the cross. Who is our God? He is the One who chose to make Himself human and die a humiliating death in our place. He is the God of power in weakness, the God who can bring life out of death. All of these wonderful truths are incorporated into a climactic chorus that celebrates the resurrected crucified Lord Jesus. Listen to it at 3:00+ on the clip below (by the way, isn't there a hint of "Fix You" by Coldplay throughout the song?)

Anyway, here are the lyrics to the chorus:

Freely you gave it all for us
Surrendered your life upon that cross
Great is the love
Poured out for all
This is our God

Lifted on high from death to life
Forever our God is glorified
Servant and King
Rescued the world
This is our God

Dare I ask, any thoughts?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Driscoll's Diagnosis

I haven't encountered much of Mark Driscoll's work, but almost everything I have heard from him has to do with male/female relations and roles. Some may say his views are quite primitive - men are the hunters who beat their chests and beat each other, while women stay in the cave and look after the children - but who is to say that that which is primitive is bad or wrong? I'm not saying I agree with Mark Driscoll's perspective on the genders, but occasionally he does make some valid points amidst the self-concious humour and stylish PowerPoint presentations.

For example:

(An aside: After the sermon, Mars Hill Church facilitate a questions and answers slot where members of the congregation text in a question which then appears on the LCD screen, and which is then answered by Dricco himself. A far cry from my home church, where we tell people to turn off their mobile phones, and where the only inner-church texting is done by discrete teenagers who "had a gr8 nite" and "will txt u l8r wi d goss ;-) xxx wb")

In this clip, Driscoll makes an uncharacteristically wild and provoking generalisation: Christian men are cowards. The question asked by a church member is should a woman take the lead and ask a man out on a date if he's stalling. Driscoll's diagnosis (which would be a great name for a television chat show) is that men are stalling because they are cowards. Not all men, however. Just the sweater-vest wearing, I-love-Jesus singing, appletini drinking Christian variety.

I am most likely a coward, according to Driscoll. Sadly enough, this is one of the things he says which I agree with. Off course not all Christian men are cowards. I'd be lying if I said I know a lot of Christian men, but out of the ones I do know there is perhaps a decent mix between courage and cowardice. It would take a whole series of blog posts to uncover reasons why Driscoll's statement might be wrong or right, but one of the upshots of this perceived cowardice is the following: Christian women become interested in un-Christian men. Why? Because un-Christian men are unafriad to pursue. They just go in with all guns a-blazin', and this is clearly something most women appreciate.

I've often (well, sometimes) wondered about why this happens, and in my various wonderings the assumption has always -- always -- been the following: there must be something wrong with Christian women. Well, I think the penny has finally dropped. There must be something wrong with me and other Christian men like me. Driscoll's diagnosis does it again.

Over the years I've had a disconcerting number of conversations with Christian women that have included something like this:

Christian woman: There are just no Christian guys in this city.

Dec (in his head): Um, hello? Do I not count? What is wrong with you people!?

I have felt like the invisible Christian man whom Christian women literally pass through in order to go somewhere else. In my mind the problem was of course anything but me: "They're obviously misguided; they're obviously not looking for the right things". Little did I realise the problem is actually that they are looking for the right things. If I'm invisible it's because I've made myself invisible.

Now of course my goal is not to have women swooning over me, nor do I expect conversations centred on how elligible a Christian man I am (though that would be nice every once in a while.) Becoming courageous in relationships and life in general is not about ego or reputation. We are not shaped into the "right thing" for our own sakes, but always for the sake of others. The first step in this shaping -- a step I've had to take over and over again -- is to recognise and repent of our falling short. Mark Driscoll is right - I am a coward. I am also arrogant, self-centred, and petty. Would you like to go on a date some time?

One of the things I've been honing in on over the last while is the human instinct to justify oneself. We have to find a way for us to be right in and of ourselves. This is where Christianity goes against the grain of the human condition - we cannot justify ourselves; ultimately, we are justified because of the actions of Another.

I didn't intend for this post to get all introspective and self-revelatory. I promise, it won't happen again. I guess Mark Driscoll's blunt words touched on a subject I've been grappling with for the past while - me and what a prideful, cowardly jerk I am!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Way With Words

I believe in Christianity as I believe in the sun: not only because I see, but because by it I see everything else.

Agree with him or not, understand him or not, one can't help but appreciate Lewis' way with words.

Missio Dei - #3: It's Holistic

So far in the series, a missional hermeneutic -- a way of interpreting the Bible with the mission of God as a framework -- has been argued for, but without a solid argument in place. Thus the first step in Wright's book is to search for a missional hermeneutic. Such a hermeneutic goes beyond simply finding biblical justification for "missions". It is of course important to know that what we are doing falls in line with Biblical teaching, but the purpose in question here is much grander and knitting together all of the passages perceived as relevant to missionary work.

Wright even points to a danger in such an approach to Scripture. Instead of letting it speak as it wants to speak, we come to it with something we want to prove, and we collect the texts that confirm our preconceptions. Thus, "the Bible is turned into a mine from which we extract our gems - "missionary texts". We only have to look at an extreme case study such as Westboro Baptist Church to see that this way of reading and interpreting the Bible is fraught with danger. As a Church we are not charged with taking one or multiple texts and running with them, forgetting the rest of the biblical revelation of who God is and what He is about. As Dave Bosch writes,

What is decisive for the Church today is not some formal agreement between what she is doing and what some isolated biblical texts seem to be saying but rather her relationship with the essence of the message of Scripture.

The hypothesis of Chris Wright is that missio Dei is the essence of the message of Scripture. Now of course the mission of God is not just one thing. It is a multi-faceted framework, which encorporates God's past, present, and future action. "Essence" may suggest something narrow, but the truth is that the mission of God as the essence of Scripture is a framework as broad as God Himself. If the Bible is about God -- and I strongly contend that it is -- then our reading of it needs to take into account as much of the revelation of God as we can know. We must understand the Bible in the light of a God who is a whole being, lest we end up with a pseudo-god who simply "hates fags", or a god who knows nothing of holiness.

So the first step to finding a missional hermeneutic is treating the Bible -- and ultimately, God -- as one. After all, this view of God is the primary creed of our ancestors of the faith, expressed in the Shema:

Hear O Isreal, the LORD our God, the LORD is One.

Proof-texting -- using individual texts to support a doctrinal position or behavioural pattern -- is not enough. Mission goes much deeper than that, and it is far broader than something we do in repsonse to what the Bible says. Far broader.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

You're Already Dead

A paraphrase of the first indicative in Colossians 3:3: you're already dead.

I wonder how these words of Paul relate to the words of Lt. Spiers as he "comforts" Private Blithe on the outskirts of Carentan:

"...The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you're already dead. And the sooner you accept that, the sooner you'll be able to function is a soldier is supposed to function..."

The comparison ends with the call to no compassion or remorse, but I do think there is some profound theological truth in Speirs' seemingly bleak outlook on life as a soldier. If not, it's still a terrific scene from a great mini-series, and Spiers is still one of the most brilliant minor characters in television history. Proof:

Friday, June 19, 2009

Missio Dei - #2: It's About Jesus

Wright says that "mission is what the Bible is all about". Like I said previously, I can agree with this for the most part. The Bible is about God, His character and His deeds, with the two being intimately connected (as all our characters and deeds are). We may denote God's deeds -- past, present, and future -- as His mission, so yes, mission is what the Bible is all about. However, where does Jesus of Nazareth fit into this? As Christians we were taught by Jesus Himself to read Scripture christocentrically, so how do a missional reading of the Bible and a christological reading of the Bible relate to one another?

Luke 24 has the answers.

Then He (Jesus) said to them, "These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. - Lk. 24:44-48

The call to a messianic or christocentric reading of Scripture is obvious here - "...everything written about Me..." However, there is a second and equally important lens through which to read the Bible, and that is the work of Christ as it fits definitively into the mission of God. Jesus is saying that if you read Scripture in light of Me, you will find that it is about Me and what I have done, and you will also see that it is about taking the message about Me to all the nations.

In other words, a christocentric reading of Scripture and a missional reading of Scripture are basically two sides of the same coin. There is also a sort of paradox, whereby the death and resurrection of Jesus is the fulfillment of the mission of God, but also the catalyst. Most Christians get the fulfilment part, but fail to grasp the catalyst part, which is actually the part we are useful for - the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. Wright says that,

The full meaning of recognising Jesus as Messiah...lies in recognising also His role in relation to God's mission for Israel for the blessing of the nations.

And so the Bible is not just full of proof-texts about Jesus, but full of God's intentions to bless all the nations and thus bring glory to His name. Thus when we read the Bible we ask:

What is it saying about 1) the person of God and 2) the purposes of God?

Our answers should be found in Jesus, who is the image of the invisible God, and God's chosen Servant through whom He would bring blessing to all the nations of the earth. This, in a nutshell, is missio Dei.

Does it make good sense to read the Bible from this missional perspective? Does this hermeneutic do justice to Scripture? These are the questions answered in the next couple of chapters.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


What makes somebody a Christian? What does it mean to be a Christian? It is quite clear that not everybody who professes to be a Christian is a Christian. Should Christians care about this, in the sense of doing something about it? At what point does one Christian have the responsibility to tell another professing Christian that they are not in fact a Christian at all? Or does nobody but God have the right and responsibility to declare our status, since he alone knows our hearts?

Is the Christian life a journey, or is it a one-time deal where once you're in you're in? Or is it somehow both?

Again, what makes somebody a Christian? A decision? A feeling? A thought? A lifestyle? A declaration? An act? Knowledge? Some kind of combination of two or more of these things?

What makes me a Christian? Because I pray semi-regularly? Because I got scared into salvation 14 years ago? Because I go to church on Sunday? Because I know that it's only by faith in Jesus that I am justified before God? Because I keep a pseudo-theological blog? Because I obey more of the rules than others? Because I claim to have accepted God's forgiveness and grace? Because I am constantly reading Christian literature?

A final point - if it's possible to profess Christianity and not be a Christian, is it also possible to deny Christianity and be a Christian, or am I just silly even asking that?

Anyway, let's discuss. I'm tired of feeling like I'm writing to myself all the time, even if it's true. If you identify yourself as a Christian, what makes that identity genuine? And if you're not a Christian, what do you think makes somebody else a Christian? If people respond then I'll try and tackle some of the above questions myself at some point, but if nobody responds then I'll assume disinterest amidst my readership and move swiftly on.

Missio Dei - #1: It's About God

Anyone who has followed this blog for the past couple of months will be aware of my interest in the narrative that is found in the Bible, or perhaps the narrative that the Bible finds itself in. Well, as a cultivation of that interest I decided to add The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's grand narrative to my books-to-get list. I planned to order it off Amazon, but as I performed my almost weekly peruse of the Aisling bookshop here in Galway I saw Christopher J.H. Wright's hefty book sitting snug on the top shelf. The price tag was irrelevant: I was buying this book right now, and economical sense was not going to stop me.

Anyway, now that I have this book, I'm going to do something different with it. Yes, I'm still going to read it, but I'm also going to write about it as I read it. Not so much a book review, but more reflections on what I'm reading. It's a big book so this could take a while, but I have a good feeling that this will be both interesting for you the reader of this blog and beneficial for me the reader of this book. I'll keep the posts as short as possible, and only dwell on areas that demand prolonged dwelling.

Now, to set the stage...

What is this book? Is it a biblical theology of mission, or a missional reading of the Bible? Wright says that it is both, but probably more the latter. The fact that is more the latter excites me.

You see once again the question, "What is the Bible?" or "What is the Bible all about?" comes into play. Often we as Christians see it as some kind of independent authority, the world's instruction manual. The Bible tells us how things are supposed to work; how should human beings interact with one another?; what are we supposed to be doing with our lives?; what is the correct code of behaviour? We have our various questions, and the Bible provides authoritative answers to those questions.

Relating this to mission, the Bible is also used as a basis for why mission exists. We derive our theology of mission from words of Scripture such as "Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations..." In short, it is clear that the Bible tells us to do mission work, therefore we should do mission work. End of story.

However, I think such an approach to Scripture misses the crucial point that the Bible is caught up in something bigger than itself. The Bible is an indispensable book for many reasons, but the main reason is that it is a signpost to a greater authority, a greater reality. It is a book that is part of a big story - a story about its Author's character and deeds - and Wright argues that it should be read and interpreted with this story (the mission of God) as a framework.

We all have our different frameworks for interpreting the Bible - we can have a 'how does this benefit me?' framework, a feminist framework, an informational framework where we just want to know as much as possible about the Bible. Wright argues for a missional framework (or hermeneutic).

At first this sounds very people-centred. "Mission is what we do" is the assumption. This assumption is true to a certain degree. Mission is indeed something we do, but it is only something we do as participants in God's grand mission of which the Bible speaks. Wright says that "the whole Bible is itself a "missional" phenomenon" and that it is "the product of a witness to the ultimate mission of God". He goes on to write that

Mission is not just one of a list of things that the Bible happens to talk about, only a bit more urgently than some. Mission is, in that much-abused phrase, "what it's all about."

I wrote in a previous post that the Bible is about God. It's about who God is, and what He has done, is doing, and will do. It's about His person and His purposes, with the two being absolutely inseparable. The mission of God has to do with the purposes of God which flow from His person, and so to say that mission is what it's all about is not a stretch in my view provided we know whose mission we are talking about.

"The Bible presents to us a portrait of God that is unquestionably purposeful." So often we get caught up in our own purposes to the point where we will even hurt others in order to achieve them. Our individual purposes, our own little kingdoms that we rule over, are the highest authority. We answer to our desires, be they good or bad. The Bible portrays a God who is purposeful, and whose purposes are good and right and true. Wright's book aims to seek out those purposes, and to help us read the Bible with missio Dei -- the mission of God -- as the controlling narrative.

I'm excited about what lies ahead.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Go To Texas

The photographer for my brother's wedding is staying over in our house at the moment, and he showed us a couple of shots he took back home in Texas which in my admittedly amateur opinion are incredible. They just make me want to watch Friday Night Lights or listen to Explosions in the Sky, or perhaps just go to Texas. Anyway, here they are, taken(without any permission whatsoever) from his blog. Enjoy.

Monday, June 8, 2009

God is Cruciform

There has been much talk around these parts recently of knowing God primarily through Jesus. However, within that primary means of knowledge lies a further primary revelation of who God is. We do not primarily know who God is through an examination of Jesus' prayer life; we do not primarily know who God is by wrapping our heads around Jesus' ethical teaching; we do not primarily know who God is by marveling at Jesus' many miracles. As important as these things were to His life and ministry, it is the Cross to which we must look if we are to have a revelation of who Jesus is, and therefore who God is.

In his book with the snappy title, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul's Narrative Soteriology, Michael Gorman makes the simple and yet profound point that God is cruciform. That is, God is shaped like a cross. Through this Ancient Roman method of capital punishment we find a definitive revelation of God breaking through.

We don't -- or at least I don't -- often think of the cross in such a way. Usually the cross is seen by Christians as an event -- the event -- through which sins were once for all dealt with. It is of course nothing less wondrous than that, but there is yet more. There is revelation to be seen at the foot of the cross. The character of God -- indeed the heart of God -- is on display every time we survey the cross of Christ. There on Calvary He showed power in weakness, glory in humility, love in pain. Moreover, this is what genuine divinity looks like. Jesus' call for His disciples to follow His example of servanthood in Mark 10 was nothing less than a call to theosis - conformity to the image of God.

"You shall be cruciform, for I am cruciform" is how Gorman paraphrases God's call for His people to be holy, because holiness is now to be understood in the light of the cross. Our response to this revelation is emulation, not merely by our own efforts of course, but by the power of the cruciform God who works within us.

My problem is that I don't always want to be cruciform. And yet in my clearest moments I realise that there is nothing more beautiful, nothing more powerful, than a life lived for the sake of others. This is the life of the Kingdom, and we see it no more manifestly than on the cross where the Son of God loved us and gave Himself for us.

Sentence of the Day:

Runner-up: "Benny Hinn is recognised as a Christian healing evangelist and Bible teacher."

I hope that was said with tongue firmly in cheek.

The winner: "Benny Hinn Ministries is not a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability."

Yep, I'm as surprised as you are to read that...

By the way, is it just me or does Benny Hinn's outfit remind you of Dr No's in the first Bond film? They must have the same tailor.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


"Presence is a delicious word - because it points to one of our truly great gifts. Nothing else can take the place of presence, not gifts, not telephone calls, not pictures, not mementos, nothing. Ask the person who has lost a lifelong mate what they miss the most; the answer is invariably 'presence'. When we are ill, we don't need soothing words nearly as much as we need loved ones to be present. What makes shared life - games, walks, concerts, outings, and a myriad of other things - so pleasurable? Presence." - Gordon Fee

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A New Body

In a sort of belated nod to Pentecost Sunday, here is a Charles Price quote which is quite provocative on first hearing. The context is that according to Price, two things happened on the day of Pentecost. The first and most obvious things is that the disciples received the Holy Spirit, as Jesus promised they would. But, as Charles Price goes on to say,

"...a second thing happened on the Day of Pentecost that is equally important and that we must understand. And it is this: Jesus Christ received a new body. God gave the Spirit to those waiting disciples and He gave to His Son a new body."

The key to understanding this is to understand that these aren't two distinct happenings. The Holy Spirit is elsewhere called the Spirit of Christ. This is why Paul could say in Galatians that "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me". Paul understood this reality very well, for it was the risen Jesus who asked Saul the persecutor of the church, "Why are you persecuting me?" Not, "why are you persecuting my followers?" but "why are you persecuting me?"

The consequences of this are such that we'd rather not believe any of it to be true. We'd rather separate Christians from Christ, because that makes it easier to treat them in whatever way takes our fancy. We may not articulate it, but in our minds Jesus is up in the clouds somewhere waiting for God to let Him out of the traps and come back to earth again, but in the mean time we just have to get by with some abstract notion of the Holy Spirit -- the lesser person of the Trinity.

This is obviously untrue, but do we really know what the truth is? And not just in words, but in experienced reality? Do we even want to know? Do we want the responsibility of truly being a member of Christ's body? Do we want to be the ones to carry out His purposes? Do we want to look at our brothers and sisters in the church with the knowledge that what we are doing and saying to them is what we are doing and saying to the Messiah?

Cast your mind back to the first verse of the Book of Acts. Luke tells Theophilus that the Gospel he wrote was an account of what Jesus began to do and teach. The implication is that the second volume -- Acts -- is what Jesus continued to do and teach through His new body empowered on the Day of Pentecost.

There are some pitfalls to be avoided of course. I am not the Messiah; I'm a very naughty boy. It's not like the climax of the film Spartacus, where all Christians stand up and say "I'm Jesus". There is a sort of paradox, where we point away from ourselves and towards the risen crucified Lord, and yet we are intimately united with this Lord and thus members of His body and empowered by His Spirit.

ps - I love paradoxes. I think I'm going to write a book on theological paradoxes some day.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Father and Son

There is so much to be digested from the first twenty verses of Colossians - the grace of God, the spreading of the gospel, the love of the saints, the prayer of Paul, the christological hymn - that one of the threads running right through the passage almost escaped me and my less-than-practiced eye. It's a thread found predominantly in the Gospel of John, but which finds a prominent place here in a Pauline prison epistle - the relationship between the Father and the Son, between Theos and Kyrios, between God and Jesus, between...well, you get the point. It would take a whole book to plumb the depths of this relationship as delineated in Colossians, but here are the pertinent verses which I may come back to over the coming weeks:

"Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother..." - 1:1

In other words, God has charged Paul with the task of proclaiming Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. What does God want to do? Well, He wants to make Jesus known.

"We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you..." - 1:3

Paul understood God as being the Father of Jesus (though in what sense will have to remain unexplored here and now), but he uses a title for Jesus that is quite shocking in the context of monotheistic Judaism. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the word Kyrios is used for the Hebrew name Yahweh (or YHWH), which is God's personal name; the name given to Moses at the burning bush; the name which means "I AM". In most of our Bibles this name is translated as LORD, all capital letters. Well, here Paul uses that same word -- the word Kyrios -- to denote Jesus. This is the name above all other names that we find in Philippians 2. There Paul says that at the sight of Jesus all people will bow down and confess Jesus as Kyrios, as Yahweh, as Lord, and it will be to the glory of God the Father.

Already in the opening verses we see the selfless love of the Godhead in action: The Father charges Paul to make His Son known, and (admittedly with help from Philippians) the Son's goal is to give the glory to the Father.

"And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him*, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God..." - 1:9-10

Again it is God's will that is at the forefront, and what's more, knowing this will is linked to living the kind of life Jesus lives. The other side of this coin is that looking at the kind of life Jesus lived on earth is to look at the will of God incarnated. Why did Jesus do what He did? Because it was the will of His Father. His life was the enfleshment of God's character, and so it is little wonder that such a life is fully pleasing to God. Note also the word "spiritual" in this passage, which as Gordon Fee points out, should be translated as "Spiritual", i.e. "of the Spirit/pertaining to the Spirit". Here we have Father, Son, and Spirit in intimate connection with one another.

"...giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." - 1:12-14

The Father qualifies people and takes them out of the rule of a broken, corrupt world. What is interesting is where He puts these people - He puts them into the Kingdom of His Beloved Son. The term "Kingdom of God" is familiar to us from the Gospels, but the term "Kingdom of Jesus" is not so common. I think I like the latter term better. As I said in a previous post, the word "God" evokes much that is theologically false, but when we think of Jesus we think of compassion, grace, and self-giving love amongst other things. The kingdom God has already brought Christians into is a kingdom where the risen crucified Jesus is King. As the Disney Song says, "The Lamb becomes our Shepherd King; We'll reign with Him".

Of course I'm not pitting God and Jesus against each other. The Kingdom of Jesus is the Kingdom of God. The compassion, grace and self-giving love of Jesus is the compassion, grace and self-giving love of God. This fact is said most clearly in the following verses...

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation." - 1:15

"For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross." - 1:19-20

These are weighty passages of Scripture, especially vv. 19-20. In these words we hear echoes of Paul's earlier statement to the church at Corinth - "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself". The Jesus who went to the cross in obedience to the Father and out of love for sinners was not the "good cop" in the Trinity. The "bad cop" Father didn't leave Jesus alone to do the redemptive work on the cross while He sat on the clouds self-righteously. All God's fullness was in Christ as He took the judgement of the world upon Himself; as had been quoted on this blog before, the Judge took the Judgement on Himself. Father and Son were in on this redemptive work together in a big way.