Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Do Justice To The Event: A Battle

- Where are you goin’?

- I’m goin’ to pick a fight.

One of the words not often associated with the death of Jesus is “battle”. N.T. Wright makes a good case for the importance of this association.

Wright is careful to highlight the consistency between Jesus’s death and his ministry up to that point. Jesus’s prophetic announcement throughout his career was “The kingdom of God is at hand”. In other words, “At long last YHWH is becoming king”. And if YHWH was becoming king, the present rulers of Israel (and the world) needed to be relinquished of their power; they needed to be defeated and dethroned.

Here is where a double twist occurs.

Jews saw Rome as the enemy, the pagan nation that needed to be defeated. If YHWH is to become king, they thought, then the Roman empire must be put to the sword. This was to be the task of the Messiah, after all.

Jesus thought differently, however, and as we saw earlier, that is part of the reason he was killed. For Jesus, Israel’s enemy in need of defeat was the satan; the evil one who went about stealing, killing, and destroying. The mission of Jesus, therefore, was to confront and defeat this enemy. It was the satan who had gripped the hearts of Israel and turned them against YHWH; it was the satan who caused sin and death to reign; it was the satan who made it always winter but never Christmas. But with the kingdom of God at hand, the satan’s time was coming to an end, his spell was being broken. Through Jesus, YHWH was bearing his teeth and winter was meeting its death. Through Jesus, YHWH was shaking his mane and spring was returning once again. The kingdom not of this world was replacing the present kingdom, but it would take a decisive battle to seal the victory.

This leads to the second twist, which is that the battle scene was in fact the hill of Calvary where Jesus died. Jesus went to pick a fight with the following vision: death was to be defeated through a death; victory was to be achieved by a righteous victim; the suffering servant was to be the surprising messiah who would conquer the reign of sin and death once and for all.

Rome was not the enemy, and triumph would not come by the sword. Jesus died because he envisioned a different sort of battle with an enemy even fiercer than ruthless Rome; and more than that, he died because he knew that only his own undeserved death at the hands of evil could complete his life’s work. N.T. Wright phrases it like this:

…Jesus took his own story seriously - so seriously that, having recommended his followers to a particular way of being Israel-for-the-sake-of-the-world, he made that way thematic for his own sense of vocation. His own belief about how the kingdom would come through his own work. He would turn the other cheek; he would take up the cross. He would be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. He would be Israel for the sake of the world. He would be the means of the kingdom’s coming, both in that he would embody in himself the renewed Israel and in that he would defeat evil once and for all. But the way in which he would defeat evil would be the way consistent with the deeply subversive nature of his own kingdom-announcement. He would defeat evil by letting it do its worst to him.

What Jesus talked about throughout his ministry, he demonstrated thoroughly on the cross. But although Jesus called his disciples to take up their crosses follow him, only he could do what he did at Calvary. The hopes of Israel and the hopes of the world rested on his shoulders alone. Neither Israel nor the world recognised this of course. Their human wisdom could not solve the mystery of the cross, so all that was left for them to do was either taunt “The king of the Jews” as he was crucified or mourn bitterly over the death of the one many had hoped would redeem Israel.

To both groups -- the mockers and the mourners -- the battle was lost. Rome had won again, and things would go on as normal. Though Jesus died for different reasons -- the selfish rule of Pilate, the upholding of justice by would-be Law observers, the sense of vocation he himself possessed -- the simple fact was that he died.

On Saturday, the question “Why did Jesus die?” was merely academic. Sunday, however, would change that. Sunday would bring the question to life, and offer answers to be given from that moment on; answers that would demonstrate Jesus to be who he said he was and to have accomplished what he said he would accomplish. One of those answers was given by Paul, who could write roughly two decades later that Jesus "loved me and gave himself for me".

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Way We Know Things

We can show God's existence to be reasonable and rational through persuasive argument. Christian apologists have several at their disposal: the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the moral argument to name four. We can demonstrate that it makes historical sense that Jesus rose from the dead. We can have some of the most learned scholars championing the faith, and have some of the most intelligent and witty preachers delivering sermons each Sunday. We can have all of these sound reasons for accepting the truth of the Christian message, and yet...

the word of the cross is foolishness.

It is moria, which can be faithfully translated as "moronic".

Much as we might wish otherwise, our preaching of the gospel of Christ crucified is an act of lunacy (or "loon-a-she"). It does not and will not fit with the dominant wisdom of our day. Paul makes this clear in the latter half of 1 Corinthians 1, which (learned scholar) Richard Hays says is the apostle's attempt to show that "prideful confidence in human wisdom is antithetical to the deepest logic of the gospel".

Conventional human thinking will not lead one to the cross. This was true of the first Christians, who found the mere idea of Christ crucified unfathomable. Though Jesus predicted his own death, his disciples were having none of it. Their minds could not conceive of such nonsense. This was still truer of the apostle Paul, who initially found the proclamation of a crucified Messiah so repulsive that those who spread such foolishness were seen by him to be deserving of imprisonment or even death.

Yet this same apostle experienced a conversion of his imagination which led him to write that "the the power of God". As Hays comments,

God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerless death of the crucified Messiah. If that shocking event is the revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned upside down. Everything has to be reevaluated in light of the cross.

The cross impinges on our epistemology, on the way we know things. Believing in the death of Jesus is not to believe one thing among many; it is to believe something that shapes how we see everything else. To quote Hays one last time,

Paul has taken the central event at the heart of the Christian story -- the death of Jesus -- and used it as the lens through which all human experience must be projected and thereby seen afresh. The cross becomes the starting point for an epistemological revolution.

This is why it's vital for the church to both proclaim the message of the cross and to incarnate the story it tells. We are God's way of making known his surprising wisdom. We are an epistole (a letter) from Christ, the means through which this "epistemological revolution" bears fruit and the place where it is manifested.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Blood And Forgiveness

"Nothing But the Blood". To un-Christianized ears, given its title this 19th century song might well be thought to have been penned by Count Dracula as opposed to a preacher and hymn writer. Nevertheless, it was Robert Lowry, a Baptist minister, who wrote about blood with such candor and reverence. Not just blood in general, of course, but the blood of Jesus; blood -- as Jesus himself said before his imminent death -- which would be poured out for the forgiveness of sins.

The relationship between blood and forgiveness is difficult to understand for Christian and non-Christian alike. But whatever else can be said, the Christian knows that the death of Jesus was necessary if we were to receive life. All authority on earth belongs to a crucified Messiah. Moreover, all authority belongs to him precisely because he was crucified. It was the shed blood of Jesus that made him who he is today, as the hymn in Philippians 2 implicitly professes.

"Nothing But The Blood" focuses on some of the effects of the cross: cleansing from sin and peace with God. It may be overly romantic in its portrayal of Christ's blood, but it gets the message of Hebrews 9:22 across loud and clear: without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

I mention all of this because I recorded a "contemporary" version of the song in question (and in a week when I criticized contemporary Christian worship music!). I won't lie: my version is extremely Hillsong-ish, but for two notable differences: my vocals are unpolished, and I do not possess model good looks. Rest assured that this song is being sung by a man of the people; not someone who could have been either a worship leader or the face of Abercrombie. But for better or worse, many of the other Hillsong staples are on show in this piece: quiet/loud/quiet, synth, and a reverb-heavy guitar solo to mention three.

The inspiration to record this song came after a joint Sunday service with a church in Galway. We ended the meeting by breaking bread with one another as "Nothing But the Blood" was played. As I watched two grown men hug (where else can you see such things but at church...or a football match), it struck me that the blood of Jesus is a unifying thing; nobody needs it more than you, nobody needs it less than you. We are united in our need to die with Christ, and so we should be united in our being raised with him.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Do Justice To The Event: Double Drama

Why did Jesus die?

We played the blame game in the first couple of posts by casting stones at the Romans and then the Jews. Jesus was executed under a Pontius Pilate looking out for number one, but he was brought to the attention of the Roman procurator by influential Jews who saw this pseudo-Messiah breaking The Law and who decided that the law-breaker needed to get got.

But events were not so simple. This law-breaker claimed to be the law-fulfiller, with his death being the finishing touch to his life’s work. So what can be said of Jesus’s mindset in the lead up to his crucifixion? Can we say that “Jesus embraced a worldview…within which his own death would make sense, and would indeed make more sense than anything else”? As good a place as any to find the answer is the final meal Jesus shared with his friends: the Last Supper.

N.T. Wright calls the Supper a “deliberate double drama”. Being a Passover meal, it retold the old Jewish story of the exodus from Egypt and looked forward to the future return from exile. But, in a shocking twist, Jesus now included himself in this story as its central character. Israel’s story was being incorporated into his own, with long-awaited benefits not only to Israel, but to the world. “Jesus saw the meal as the appropriate way of drawing the symbolism of Passover, and all that it meant in terms of hope as well as history, on to himself and his approaching fate”, says Wright.

All that the Supper symbolised -- forgiveness of sins, the enthronement of YHWH, etc. -- was happening through Jesus. The words spoken during the meal (which display complete disregard for the “No talk of religion or politics at the dinner table” rule) reinforced this kingdom-at-hand story. Jesus spoke of a “covenant” initiated through his death; a death which would bring about “the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28c). These words are clear echoes of biblical prophecies made during Israel’s exile in Babylon; prophecies which speak of “a new covenant” in which YHWH “will remember your sins no more” (Jer. 31:31-34).

What, then, was the intention of Jesus that night in Jerusalem? Wright has a convincing answer: “Jesus intended to say, with all the power of symbolic drama and narrative, that he was shortly to die, and that his death was to be seen within the context of the larger story of YHWH’s redemption of Israel”.

When contemplating his ministry, Jesus didn’t merely expect to talk; he expected to die.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Proposal

Instead of the time of nonsense worship being before the preaching of the word, how about it coming after? The word initiates, reveals, tells, and the worship responds and includes the worshiper in the story of God's new creation, all the while maintaining the tension of already but not yet.

Is this something you'd like to see happen in your church (if it isn't already)? Why or why not?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Contemporary Christian Worship

What do you think of contemporary Christian worship in the mould of Hillsong and its kind? Does the sight of yet another beautiful person standing atop a concert stage leading worship -- with roughly 2,347 almost-but-not-quite-as-beautiful musicians and singers in the background -- make you want to hurt somebody (Darlene Zschech, for example), or does it make you glad that so many (young) people have a forum in which to worship God through song...even if that song is sentimental enough to make James Blunt cringe?

I am as yet undecided on such matters.

The following is an example of the kind of worship I'm referring to. Before viewing the clip, there are two things you should know. First, I like this song. Yes it contains the line "Clothed in rainbows of living colour", but think of all the great songs through the ages that speak of rainbows: Somewhere Over the Rainbow, My Favourite Things, and Moon River to name three.

Second, I'm quite fond of Kari Jobe. She doesn't know who I am, nor do I really know who she is, but I'm not going to let such trifling matters get in the way of true love. Make no mistake about it: She will be mine; oh yes, she will be mine.

Finally, a list of things to look out for:

The Native American guy beside Jobe who looks completely out of place. (To preempt accusations of racism, I'm not just saying that because he isn't in a casino or a Steven Segal movie.)

Chris Daughtry on drums.

The numer of guitarists on stage. (Beat that Lynyrd Skynyrd!)

The guy who does a vocal harmony at 2:29.

The spanish guitar run at 3:52. I'm beginning to think every worship song should find space for at least one spanish guitar run.

The last minute and a half. Mayhem.

So, you whose opinion I immediately disregard trust. How do you feel about this modern phenomena? Is it to be embraced or lamented, or something in between?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hats Are Back

I'm reading the fourth edition of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Apparently blue is the new black and hats are back in vogue. Prepare to meet a Declan with a bold sense of fashion in the coming weeks.

Far from being a fashion manual, this ambiguously titled book is actually a simple set of rules to help one write precisely and stylishly. Strunk and White are passionate about the craft and unafraid to take its abusers to task. They have a particular distaste for the phrase "the fact that", which, according to Strunk, "should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs". I wonder how he would feel about the fact that I use the phrase so often you'd think I was claiming royalties on it. But from here on in, it will be seen no more.

You win this round, Strunk, but you're not going to take "insightful" away from me!

There is also a list of "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused". Here are a couple:

Flammable. An oddity, chiefly useful in saving lives. The common word meaning "combustible" is inflammable, but some people are thrown off by the in- and think inflammable means "not combustible". For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE. Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable.

Nauseous. Nauseated. The first means "sickening to contemplate"; the second means "sick at the stomach". Do not, therefore, say, "I feel nauseous", unless you are sure you have that effect on others.

This short book is extremely pedantic, but I'm sure its meticulous advice will make me a more concise, precise writer who gets his point across with the fewest amount of words possible, and who avoids all of the cliched phrases, which, at the end of the day, only serve to anger each and every one of my readers to the point where they are literally steaming with rage.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Losses

You never hear about the losses.

A poker player will always be more than happy to pipe up about their latest demolition of a cash came, or a big scoop they took in a tournament. What they tend not to divulge is the wads of cash they pumped into a game without so much as a penny to show for it at the end.

Losses aren't easy to talk about, especially when one wants to avoid self-pity and whinging.

For those of you that don't know, I applied to do a Bachelor of Divinity this coming September. My joke was that in three years time I would become the fourth member of the trinity, a sort of demi-god if you will. Well, apparently my divine credentials are not what they should be. I received a reply of "unsuccessful" for my daring venture.

Unsuccessful. That was a tough word to read. I've never been the most ambitious person in Ireland, but I am nothing if not competitive and determined when I put my mind and heart to something. Just ask anyone who has played a board game with me. I'm that annoying guy who takes things way to seriously and will bring friendships to the breaking point in order to win.

Unfortunately this level of passion and zeal hasn't quite transferred from the board game world into, you know, the actual world. But long story short, I wanted to do this course, and I thought I could do it well. My previous stint at undergraduate education did not go swimmingly for various reasons, and so this was to be my academic redemption; my chance to set right the wrongs of previous years.

For now, that chance will have to wait. Perhaps this was never where I was meant to go. Perhaps there is something better just around the river bend (and yes, that is a direct allusion to Pocahontas). Perhaps I'm just not ready for such an endeavour, and maybe I never will be. That's not to sound defeatist. I simply want to be open to wherever I best "fit". My life remains shrouded in mystery and uncertainty, but amidst the fumbling in the dark I know two things: I am loved and I am called. For now that's enough.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said that failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be. Whether I was successful or unsuccessful with this application, my need for change would remain constant. It remains constant. But hope also remains.

With that, have a listen to the following song on your headphones and see if ***Christian jargon alert*** you get a similar sense of hope that I do. The band is called This Will Destroy You; however, this song will do anything but. It's simple almost to the point of insulting, but damn if that crescendo doesn't make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The 13th Disciple

Reading N.T. Wright's Christian Origins and the Question of God series is like hopping through the eternally cool doors of the Delorian and being whisked off to 1st Century Palestine in order to become the mystery 13th disciple who will form the cornerstone of Dan Brown's next novel. Or, it's like taking part in this. Anyway, I've just finished part deux, and continually found my heart strangely warmed as Jesus of Nazareth was portrayed before me as historical.

The next book in Wright's series is his treatment of the resurrection. This is supposed to be the text on the subject. You're basically not allowed to discuss the resurrection unless you've read this book.

But instead of starting straight into it, I'm going to turn to Wright's more popular series, which started off with Simply Christian and continues with Surprised By Hope and the recently released After You Believe.

Are you sufficiently bored yet? No?

So, the light broke on our refrigerator the other day. It was okay during the day because it wasn't dark, but when I came down to the kitchen in the middle of the night to fix up a glass of orange juice I couldn't find the carton, so I had to turn on the light in the kitchen.

Okay, I'll be getting my coat now...

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A God in Relation: At the Bottom of Reality

Here's a wonderful passage from the preface to Walter Brueggemann's An Unsettling God that's worth the price of the book alone. It's something to keep in mind as that fuzzy phrase "relationship with God" is mulled over.

Our society is now tempted to solve societal (and therefore personal) problems by old, predictable remedies. These remedies often seek to reduce solutions to power or technology or to more commodity goods. Thus political threat is countered by more military power. Thus problems of illness or aging are managed by more technology. Thus loneliness is overcome by more commodity goods, whether cars, new information technology, or beer. What we know, however, is that the most elemental human issues -- social and personal -- do not admit to such resolution. The reason is that human persons in human community are designed for serious, validating relationships that call for mutual care and responsibility; no amount of power, technology, or commodity can be substituted for relatedness. Thus Israel's great confession of faith is that at the bottom of reality is the fidelity of a holy God who seeks relatedness...

Unfortunately, Christianity in its current guise has probably joined the parade to some extent. The "good news" or "gospel" becomes a message of cold, hard problem solving, not unlike something you'd hear at a business conference. Its essence is information almost as an end in itself - God is perfect, you are not perfect, but here's how you can get into heaven; here is the information you need.

The problem with this solution, as Brueggemann highlights, is that it fails to speak to the deep-seated human need for "serious, validating relationships". It fails to address our predicament, our root issue, which is not sin in the abstract but separation from our Creator and consequent separation from our fellow humans. When sin becomes the issue, we can try to clean it up with right living, or sign up for a free pass into heaven. But when separation is the issue, only relatedness can bring redemption. I think of Paul's gospel proclamation found in 2 Corinthians 5:

Be reconciled to God.

"It's not about religion; it's about relationship" was how I began the previous post. I said I liked this line, but on reflection I would change one thing in it. I would add an "s" at the end. It's about relationships. Knowing the Father, the Son, the Spirit, and knowing our fellow human beings. It is this community that lies at the bottom of reality.

A Journalism Assignment

So we have to do a film review for our latest assignment. This is the first one I've ever done, so be gentle.

Crazy Heart

3 stars (out of 5)

There are some films that feel simply like the vehicle for a “Best Actor” Oscar. A Beautiful Mind was one (though Russell Crowe managed to punch himself out of contention), The Wrestler was one, and now we can file Crazy Heart under the same category.

The ever-excellent Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a grizzly country singer/songwriter whose best years are behind him. We are introduced to Blake as he gets out of his old pick-up truck with a bottle of urine in his hand and his pants unbuckled (and not for the last time, if I might add). This is the clearly middle of his fall from grace, as he prepares for a show in a bowling alley in some god-forsaken town in the Southwest.

Blake’s life consists of driving from place to place, staying in cheap motels, and playing shows with unfamiliar musicians booked by his distant manager (Paul Herman), all the while drinking his considerable sorrows away. (At one particularly alcohol-induced low point he walks off stage as a song begins to go throw up outside, and then walks back on just in time to strum the last chord.)

Things take a surprising turn, however, when he meets significantly younger journalist Jane (Maggie Gyllenhaal). She initially intends to interview Bad about his life, but the two strike up a romantic relationship not without its complications.

One of those complications, unfortunately, is that Maggie Gyllenhaal appears completely over-awed by a Jeff Bridges who is “in the zone”. She spends most of the film smiling giddily, as if she can’t quite believe she’s in the same scene as Bridges. It also doesn’t help that Gyllenhaal’s character is given little to no depth. We have no idea why she would be interested in Bad Blake, and vice-versa. She feels like nothing more than a fling, a musician’s perk while on the road, but we’re supposed to believe there’s more to it than that. We’re just not given many reasons to believe.

Then there is Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who was once mentored by Bad Blake but has now firmly stepped out of his shadow and into the spotlight. Sweet is portrayed as the bad guy (Blake won’t even talk about his protégé), but from his few appearances in the film he actually comes across as a decent bloke. I’m not sure what to make of this -- is Blake just unreasonably bitter or did Sweet do something genuinely nasty to out-do his mentor? -- but since Colin Farrell wasn’t even listed on the film poster I saw in the cinema it’s probably not worth talking about.

One actor who was listed was Robert Duvall, who produces as well as acts in the film. He plays Bad’s long-time friend Wayne with suitable southern charm and grace. He only appears for a handful of minutes, but does plenty with the little time he is given. If Bridges and Duvall aren’t best friends in real life, they should be. That's one crazy gang I'd very much like to go fishing with.

Overall, the film does more than enough to hold one’s attention for just shy of 2 hours. Bad Blake is someone we can care about, someone we can hope to get out of the rut he finds himself in. The musical sequences also help to keep things entertaining, and though by no means a country music fan I found myself tapping my foot along to the catchy tunes on more than one occasion.

Debut director Scott Cooper (who also wrote the film) does an excellent job of showing us the life of Bad Blake on the dusty trail, with all its partial nudity, vomiting, and sweatiness. But in all honesty it doesn’t feel like too bad a life, despite the alcoholism and so forth. Perhaps that’s another of the film’s faults; the serious issues don’t seem quite so serious in light of Blake’s genial, happy-go-lucky, dare I say The Dude-esque nature.

Still, Crazy Heart delivers in what it chiefly sets out to do: Make you fall in love with Bad Blake/Jeff Bridges. If that’s an experience you want to have, then you won’t be disappointed.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Do Justice To The Event: Led Astray

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.

That’s a mild way of saying that Jesus’s fellow Jews wanted him dead, deceased, demised. They were pining for Israel’s restoration via strict Torah observance and so given Jesus’s rambunctious ways they wanted him passed on, expired and gone to meet his maker; they wanted an ex-Jesus. (Not to be confused with ‘exegesis’).

The Babylonian Talmud says that Jesus was killed because “he led Israel astray”. According to Jewish Law -- e.g. Deut. 13 -- such national deception was punishable by death. Therefore given Jesus’s seemingly lax if not antagonistic attitude to what Wright calls “some of the most central and cherished symbols of the Judaism of his day”, and, moreover, “his replacing of them with loyalty to himself”, Jews thought they had no choice but to brand him as YHWH’s mortal enemy.

After all, look at his attitude and actions toward the Temple in his last days. He talked about its destruction, and even symbolically acted it out by turning over the tables within and pronouncing it corrupt. The modern day equivalent might be walking into the New York Stock Exchange and writing “Socialism is here to stay” in big red letters, or perhaps walking into St Peter’s Basilica and shouting “Luther was right!” repeatedly. Of course I’m not suggesting Jesus was a socialist, or Reformed for that matter. His criticism came from within Judaism. It came from one of their own, a fellow Jew, which is why it was so scandalous.

Of course the Jewish authorities presented Jesus to Pilate as a threat to Caesar, a disturber of pax romana, but they were not in the least bit concerned about his being such. In fact, if he was a genuine threat to the Roman Empire they might well have embraced him. Their Messiah was to be their great liberator from pagan oppressors. Jesus, though claiming Messiahship, did not fit the bill and so became a hindrance rather than a help.

I asked previously what Jesus’s crucifixion would have looked like to watching Jews. It would have looked like a false prophet getting his comeuppance. It would have looked like a man enduring the curse, the wrath, of YHWH, and justifiably so.

And yet, Jesus had said that he intended not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it. He had said that doing YHWH’s will was his life’s work. What, then, are we to say about his death’s work? Was it somehow or another part of the Law’s fulfilment? Was it the will of Israel’s God? Why, according to Jesus, did he himself die?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wright Is Usually Right When He Writes

...or speaks, as the case may be. Have a listen and see what you think. Then pop over here to read Peter Enns writing about the same thing in more depth (and perhaps a touch more controversially -- Oh Peter, when will you learn?). If you have even a passing interest in the Bible these will be well worth your time.

By the way, one commenter under a Tom Wright YouTube clip warns that reading the Bishop's work isn't safe. To this I say: Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course it isn't safe. But it's good. How much more should this apply to our reading of Scripture, and yet how often do we settle for a safe reading of the text?

But that's a whole other blog post!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A God in Relation

It’s not about religion; it’s about relationship.

If you’ve ever spoken to a Christian about their faith (or spoken to a non-Christian about your faith) I am quite confident you’ve heard (or said) something not unlike this. We Christians throw out the “relationship with God” line as if it makes perfect sense; as if it’s the verbal coup de grace to any argument against the Christian religion relationship.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the line, or at least the thought behind it. It brings any discussion into the sphere in which it belongs. The God worshipped by Christians is -- as Walter Brueggemann says -- a God in relation. To talk about such a God as if he is a static object to be prodded and poked from a safe distance is to miss his essence. And since this God in relation lies at the heart of Christianity, it makes sense to talk about being a Christian in terms of a relationship.

Of course this reality makes many uncomfortable, Christians and non-Christians alike. Relationships are hard to quantify, they cannot be looked at under a microscope, they cannot be really known by someone outside of the relationship. I’ve known my parents for 24 years, but I do not know what it is like to be married to either one of them. I have some good information, but I have no experience.

It can therefore be easy to dismiss relationship as a load of gibberish when discussion about God arises. The tired, old “imaginary friend” jibe comes to mind. Talk of “relationship with God” can sound so esoteric, so private, that it’s pointless going down that road. It is the Christian’s get-out-of-jail-free card, played when science has (apparently) ridiculed the idea of God.

I often feel like this too. Is it all in my head? What does it even mean to have a relationship with God? What does it mean to say that God loves me? Is that just a nice thought to get me through the banality of life, or is it something real, concrete, tangible, incarnate, present? (Excuse the Alan Hansen-ism)

After reading John’s first letter, I think some answers might be contained within. The beloved disciple who walked and talked with Jesus seems to have an insight into what it means to know this God in relation. It is chapter 17 of his gospel that presents to us the crux of life: to know the Father and to know the Son.

It is indeed about relationship. After all, life itself is the product of an intimate relationship between man and woman. Relationship is the fundamental structure of the universe. This we know, however unquantifiable that knowledge might be. The question is, what does it mean to know God and be in relationship with him?

I won’t pretend to provide answers, but do a couple of muddled posts on 1 John sound good to you? Okay then.