Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Poem


October sunlight falls in unexpected places
Reflection shimmers, surprises, shows
Life, she's lost not all her graces
For Grace, her fount, delight he knows.

"Deserve not I," the protest rings
"Such beauty befalls so unworthy a soul."
Yet over protest, Behold! There sings
A voice so pure, so lovely, so whole.

Like bliss at birth in wake of pain
New creation dawns, and with it, joy
For trespasses past are remebered not, Refrain!
Now employ your all, and again I say, Employ.

Two Thoughts In One

DeYoung, Duncan, Mohler: What's New About the New Calvinism from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

I'm not a Calvinist, and I don't think anyone should be. Paul would be horrified to know that anyone's identity as a Christian is wrapped up in a human being other than Jesus of Nazareth, be it Calvin, Luther, Arminius, Apollos, or even Paul himself.

There will be strong objections to the above paragraph, but I think much of them will rely on a devastatingly false presupposition: That Christian unity is acheived through shared doctrine. If this presupposition were true, then it makes perfect sense for us to label robust bodies of doctrine and identify ourselves with one of them. That would be the most effective way of making people feel united to something. But if this is the kind of unity that we crave, then we of all people are to be most pitied.

I say this not to destroy the importance of shared doctrine. That would make me an idiot. So what am I trying to get it?

If you watched the video clip, did you notice anything missing? 

Consider this small body of doctrine:

...salvation is accomplished by the sovereign grace of God, operating through the death of Jesus Christ in our place and on our behalf, and appropriated through faith alone.

The person who wrote this says that there is not one syllable in this summary that he disagrees with, and I imagine all three of the men featured above would say the same. "But there is something missing", the author goes on to say. Worringly, this something -- or someone -- is actually the source of real Christian unity: the spirit.

Christian unity is a unity of the spirit. And for all of popular Calvinism's talk of "robust" theologies, there is a death-dealing dearth of spirit language that undermines the whole. It is as if a group of people have been given 1959 Gibson Les Paul's, the value of which they know, but with the problem being that they don't actually know how to play the guitar.

Calvinism -- though I question the term itself -- isn't the problem. The problem is with how it is played.
Mohler, Duncan and DeYoung may be right in what they say about the New Calvinism. But I think they are blind to other factors involved in Calvinism's resurgence. Modern Calvinism has embraced a term floated around quite a bit in Irish politics recently - knowledge economy. In this economy, information is power, information is product, information is prestige. He (and I use the masculine deliberately) who can answer the most questions wins.

In short, this is not merely a "religious" movement. There are political, economic, social, theological, philosophical and psychological factors involved that need to be examined. That in itself is okay. Christianity should touch all of these spheres. But it is my hunch that when these factors are examined, Calvinism, like many other expressions of Christianity, will find that the gospel is not being allowed to grow holistically; its light is not being shone on the dark forces at work in our world.

N.T. Wright says that "you can't simply add the spirit on at the end of the equation and hope it will still have the same shape". The spirit not only calls into question what we know, but also calls into question how we know what we know and how we use what we know. Unity goes deeper than shared doctrine. It is a Spiritual thing that finds its expression not only in knowlege but in love.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reimagining "The Fall"

In Israel’s Gospel, John Goldingay writes, “It is the essence of Israel to be a people with a story….The Old Testament tells us who God is and who we are through the ongoing story of God’s relationship with Israel.” While Goldingay’s assertion is well-founded, I find it striking that Israel’s Scriptures do not begin by telling the story of  God’s relationship with Israel. They begin, rather, with a much broader scope – God’s relationship with humanity, as told in the story of Adam and Eve. Is there a deep connection between the two stories? Does the story of Adam shape the story of Israel, and vice-versa? An imaginative reading of the text suggests so.

In our module "The Biblical Story", one of our assignments is to pick an act from the Bible's narrative and write an essay on it. I chose The Fall, with the above being a little taste of where I went with it. There were many conclusions that I was unable to explore due to lack of space, but one of them is that the story of Adam is best read from a post-exilic context. It was told to "catch the conscience" of Israelites in exile, and in doing so it created deep connections between the story of Israel and the story of non-Israel. The chief connection was not merely that both parties are human beings, but that both parties of human beings are partnered to Yahweh. Moreover, the destiny of non-Israel is contingent on the destiny of Israel - but like non-Israel (as represented by Adam), Israel has been "driven out" from Yahweh's special presence due to disobedience.

It turns out that non-Israel is actually Israel, or perhaps that Israel is actually non-Israel. Their stories parallel up to a devastating exile. What next? *broad strokes conclusion alert*

During Israel’s exile a new story was told amongst the people: The story of a Servant. Would Adam’s story of “falling short of the glory of God” – a story embedded not only in the conscience of the nations, but in Israel herself -- be put to rights through a righteous Servant?

It is into the yoked stories of Adam and Israel that Jesus of Nazareth fits. Indeed, he forms the climax of these stories and in turn weaves one new story for all of humanity to participate in: the story of cross-resurrection; the story of “new creation”. Israel’s Messiah becomes the “second Adam”. The exile is over. Access to the “tree of life” is once more available (Rev. 22:2). The Father is calling for his sons and daughters to return home.
Has Israel’s faithlessness nullified the faithfulness of God? Me genoito! Through the faithful Israelite Jesus, “God’s single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” is brought to fulfilment. Blessing triumphs over curse.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Under An Illusion

Leadership is the aspect of life that Christianity has gotten the most wrong. Where we should look so different ("but not so among you") we have simply reproduced the power structures of the world and applied some Christian finishings to ensure we are under an illusion. I have much to learn about what leadership looks like, but here is my starting point:

Relate to people, or your ministry will die; or worse, it will flourish.


It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

In the words of theologians Will Munny and Snoop Pearson, Deserve got nothing to do with it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Culturally Conditioned Gospel

The following passage from Lesslie Newbigin's book Foolishness to the Greeks is taken from a post at the Harvard Ichthus.

In speaking of ‘the gospel,’ I am, of course, referring to the announcement that in the series of events that have their center in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ something has happened that alters the total human situation and must therefore call into question every human culture. Now clearly this announcement is itself culturally conditioned. It does not come down from heaven or by the mouth of an angel…Neither at the beginning, nor at any subsequent time, is there or can there be a gospel that is not embodied in a culturally conditioned form of words. The idea that one can or could at any time separate out by some process of distillation a pure gospel unadulterated by any cultural accretions is an illusion. It is, in fact, an abandonment of the gospel, for the gospel is about the word made flesh. Every statement of the gospel in words is conditioned by the culture of which those words are a part, and every style of life that claims to embody the truth of the gospel is a culturally conditioned style of life. There can never be a culture-free gospel. Yet the gospel, which is from the beginning to the end embodied in culturally conditioned forms, calls into question all cultures, including the one in which it was originally embodied.

- Lesslie Newbigin

This passage is eating me a good way. Note to self: read more Lesslie Newbigin.

Friday, October 22, 2010

One For the Football Lovers

It has been a week of breathtaking cynicism and opportunism seldom exceeded when it comes to exposing so much that is wrong and morally bankrupt about modern-day footballers and a grubby industry where the rich are so obsessed with getting richer it can feel like money is how we must now keep the score.

To read the rest of Daniel Taylor's wonderful article click here

When it has sufficiently depressed your spirits, watch the following video to renew some hope. This is the theology of Michael Laudrup in 11 minutes. The thought "Andres Iniesta...but better" comes to mind, which is big for me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Permitted To Play

Inasmuch as all Scripture is the product of a single divine mind, interpretation must stay within the bounds of the analogy of Scripture and eschew hypotheses that would correct one Biblical passage by another, whether in the name of progressive revelation or of the imperfect enlightenment of the inspired writer's mind.

From Scripture:

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you."

There's something wrong with our doctrine of Scripture when Jesus (along with Paul and most other New Testament writers) would be castigated if they applied their hermeneutical methods today.

Note also an instance of "regressive revelation" found in the Scriptures:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate." They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?" He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so."

I'm tired of a lot of things in Christendom today, but one my of chief grievances is its need to protect and defends docrtines in such a way that actually silences the text of Scripture. This deep-seated desire for the Bible to be what we say it is is yet another instance of our wanting a god who thinks like us. He doesn't. In speaking briefly about the gospel in his essay "Reading the Scriptures Faithfully in a Postmodern Age," William Stacey Johnson makes this clear in arguably the best sentence I've read all week:

The gospel is not a "foundation" to render our tradtional notions of rationality secure but a remaking of everything, including rationality itself.

I'm convinced that the majority of people under the Christian umbrella have a concept of God that has been largely formed without relation to Jesus or to the Scriptures, and this concept has then been read into said Jesus and Scriptures...with disastrous effect. I include myself in this majority.

The Bible is not a safe place for our wall of presuppositions. It dismantles them, brick by brick. But it does not leave us defenseless. When it is read as it ought to be read, we are introduced to a living person  who is so unlike us yet who is with us and for us. He is at once unknowable yet known, though only in part. He is unsafe, and yet the source of our greatest security and comfort (which, by the way, should utterly redefine what we mean by such words). He does not dwell in temples of stone or in books of systematic theology. He is free, and in Him we also are free. This is the "strange, new world" that the Bible transports us into. We ought to read it as inhabitants of this world. Raymond Brown captures this hermeneutic well:

After all, in the Scriptures we are in the Father's house where the children are permitted to play

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Embodiment, Not Argument"

The real issue with Christianity isn't whether it's intellectually believable; the issue is whether it's morally believeable. In that debate, "beauty, excellence embodied will speak in a way that we can't reduce to paraphrase."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

According To Bill

The Christian story, according to Bill Hicks:

Eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God's infinite love.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Another Aspect of the Gospel?

God’s knowledge of us comes about through having a relationship with us. Perhaps this is because his knowing everything without our ever revealing anything would severely qualify the mutual relationship between human beings and God….Instead, God lets people reveal who they are. God’s not knowing everything is thus another aspect of the gospel.

John Goldingay, Israel's Gospel

I read this a few days ago and it has been haunting my thoughts and prayers ever since. One of the key questions to ask of a scientific theory is "Is it beautiful?" Goldingay's assertion is by no means scientific, but the above question is nonetheless valid - is it beautiful?

Monday, October 11, 2010

On Writing

9. Writing and life. The widespread notion that life is more important than writing – as though writing were something I do when I’m not really living – owes much to this modern abrogation of the threat of death. To distinguish between writing and living betrays a deep misunderstanding not only of what it means to write but also of what it means to live. My happiest childhood memories are of sitting alone writing stories: was I writing, or living?

If you enjoy writing, read these Thirteen Theses by Ben Myers. If you don't particularly enjoy writing but are required to do it, read these Thirteen Theses by Ben Myers. If you think writing is a waste of time, read these Thirteen Theses by Ben Myers.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Right Place

…the faith claim of the church is that the Bible as the church’s Scripture is without parallel, for it is God-given – given to be sure through the quixotic work of human beings – as originary testimony to the truth of God’s presence in and governance of all creation. Because it is God-given, given as God characteristically gives through the hidden workings of ordinary life, the book endlessly summons, requires, demands and surprises with fresh reading. The only way to turn the book into a fixed idol is to imagine that the final interpretation has been given, an act of imagination that is a deep act of disobedience to the lively God who indwells the text. The only way to avoid such idolatry is to know that the lively God of the text has not given any final interpretation of the book that remains resistant to our explanatory inclinations.

- Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament

Herein lies one of the best aspects of Belfast Bible College: We are offered no final interpretations.  This place is not grooming ministry robots whose sole output is trite answers to difficult questions. Real human beings are being formed to live a real life of complexity and tension, but with these three abiding: faith, hope, and love. If anyone is worried about me, rest arrured that I am in the right place. God told me so on Tuesday at chapel service:

And who knows whether you have not come to the (united) kingdom for such a time as this?

Sure, these words may have been originally spoken to a Jewish woman over two thousand years ago, but remember - no final interpretations!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What About Jesus!?

As I was going to and fro on the blogosphere, I found a video interview with Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. They were exploring the question “What is the mission of the Church?”

For those unfamiliar with the above names, they are leaders in the “young, restless, and reformed” movement that’s making its way to a heated Bible Study on Romans near you.

Without going into the nitty gritty of everything said – which would be both boring and unfair – there is a statement by Gilbert that brought to mind N.T. Wright’s critique from yesterday’s post. Gilbert says,

You can take a good thing, which is certainly commanded of us in Scripture, which is to do good deeds of all kinds – love your neighbour, care for the poor – good things, and you can take those and get them wrapped up and twisted up around the wrong theological themes – gospel, kingdom, shalom.

Correct me if I’m reading this wrongly, but Greg Gilbert appears to be saying that to connect good deeds with the gospel or the kingdom is to connect them with the wrong theological theme.

But…but…what about Jesus!? If what Gilbert says is true then of course we’re going to be confused by the question ‘why did Jesus live?’ This, after all, is the Jesus who said “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

You cannot take the Gospels seriously and conclude that good deeds and the kingdom/gospel are in separate theological categories. The kingdom of God is where God’s will is done. And what is God’s will? What does he desire? “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before your God.” In short, do good. The gospel that Jesus proclaimed was the reality that God’s will was being done, and thus the kingdom was at hand. Was "the gospel" the proclamation or was "the gospel" the deeds? Yes!

What about Paul? What gospel did he hold fast to? Basically the same one: Through the man Jesus, God’s will was done. In him, especially in his death and resurrection, the purposes of God are fulfilled.

The irony lost on some in the Reformed camp is that because of the cross, gospel and good deeds are beautifully interwoven, for what is the gospel if it is not the announcement of the greatest of deeds?

How, then, does all of this relate to the Church’s good deeds? Contrary to what Gilbert suggests, our good deeds find their greatest motivation and significance when they are wrapped around themes (or realities) like gospel and kingdom. The event of the cross becomes a lens through which all of life is seen. And the life that we now live is joined, by faith, to the life of the resurrected, crucified Jesus. We are united with the one we proclaim.

To use one of Gilbert's examples, the command in Scripture to “love your neighbour” is thus wrapped up with the gospel, for we are called to love as Jesus loved. The “good news”, the “story” of Jesus, shapes our present stories.

DeYoung later mentions “The Great Commission” as being what the church is all about – i.e. the proclamation of the gospel is the mission of the church. But to perform an act of rhetorical jujitsu, the Great Commission is precisely concerned with connecting gospel and good deeds. Jesus commissions his disciples to teach the nations everything he commanded. To “make disciples” isn’t to make good students of abstract atonement theology: it is to make doers of the word - embodiers of the message. Paul had a shorthand way of making disciples – “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

Finally, regarding DeYoung’s remark about there being no New Testament interest in “transforming the whole world”, what else can taking the commands of Jesus to the nations do but call for a complete transformation? What else does the book of Acts show but a small band of passionate Jews turning the "world upside down"?

The distinction is perhaps unwarranted, but the gospel is not the thing. The formation of a new community in Christ is the thing. The gospel is the power that effects the (trans)formation.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


N.T. Wright is a thorn in the flesh of many a Reformed Theology adherent. He sometimes caricatures the tradition to make a point, but there are occasions when you do need to provoke someone into hearing you. The following is one of those occasions:

The reformers had very thorough answers to the question 'why did Jesus die?'; they did not have nearly such good answers to the question 'why did Jesus live?'

...orthodoxy, as represented by much popular preaching and writing, has had no clear idea of the purpose of Jesus' ministry. For many conservative theologians it would have been sufficient if Jesus had been born a virgin (at any time in human history, and perhaps from any race), lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, and risen again three days later. (In some instances the main significance of this would be the conclusion: the Bible is all true.)

These quotes tap into the reason behind much of Wright's work: When we de-Judaize Jesus, his life makes no sense, and so everything is up for grabs for whoever wants it. Perhaps this is an unfair question, but when was the last time you heard a sermon in which it was mentioned that Jesus was in fact a Jew? Is this important?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Too Much Pop Music

Has God ever met a church sevice he didn't like?

In one of Bono's rare public appearances, I remembering hearing him say something close to the following: Pop music tells you that everything is okay. Rock music is here to tell you that it isn't.

I sometimes wonder if the Church has been listening to too much pop music. The northern kingdom of ancient Israel was certainly a fan of the Justin Bieber's of its day. The people gathered these ear-ticklers close to their assemblies, where soft, middle-of-the-road music was played and where they were told that everything was okay. Meanwhile, renegade shepherds like Amos were playing hard rock.

Of course the cry of the nation was "Turn it down". They didn't want to hear what an honest prophet had to say. They had their comfortable religion, complete with orderly ceremonies, sacrifice, worship, thanksgiving, prayer. All good things that YHWH was surely pleased with, no? Allow me to paraphrase his response:

I'm repulsed by what you consider worship. Your religious services make me sick to my stomach. You appear to do everything I have asked, yet I reject all of it. I can't stand the sight of your worshipping and praying. Your religious songs make my ears bleed. I just can't listen to them anymore. (Amos 5:21-23)

What kind of God would say such things?

One who cares, and cares deeply. But would he say such things to us, the Church? Surely not to the church! We are founded on the new covenant in Christ, after all, therefore whatever happened to Israel is not instructive for our own life as the people of God.

It would be comforting if it were true, but Paul will not entertain such an easy split:

Now these things happened to them (the Israelites) as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Cor. 10:11-12)

If that's not enough, consider Jesus's own words to a young church in Laodecia:

"I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth."

It is a hard truth for us religious to swallow, but God isn't overly concerned with our Sunday services. Even if we tick all the right boxes as the Israelites did, we cannot presume on God's pleasure. He is not so superficial as to be impressed by our shows of piety and praise. He does not want a good-sounding worship team followed by a well structured sermon that says all the right things.

Amos tells us what he does want:

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

He wants justice. He wants a community that embodies that righteousness of God. Against such things there is no order of services. This is life we're talking about. God calls people into the church not to join a religious order with various religious functions. He calls people in so that they may be formed into the image of the person who is truly human - Jesus of Nazareth. And being formed into that image, they reflect the justice of God to those who need to see it - in work, in families, in friendships, in sport, in every aspect of human life.

...what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A New Story? # 9 - Before Creation, Christ

A few posts ago I mentioned that we get to "The Fall" too abruptly in our renditions of the biblical story. It seems absurd, but it may be that we get to "Creation" too quickly also.

It's an absurd thing to claim, because the first verb used in the Bible is "create", and it is a word that pops up repeatedly throughout the Bible's opening chapter. But for Chrisitians, the is another Word that comes before any word in Scripture.

Judaism developed this kind of thought into its worldview, with personified Wisdom seen to be in existence before the worlds were created. For the emerging Christians of first-century Palestine, Christ became that Wisdom.

If there is an answer to the question "why?", it is not found in Genesis but in passages like Colossians 1:15-20. Creation was created for Christ. We are, in Triniarian thought that is completely alien to the original meaning of Genesis 1-2 but nonetheless valid, the Father's gift to the Son.

But there is more. Lest we think of ourselves as simply objects in a divine show of affection, we who are a gift have also received a gift - "For God so loved the world, that he gave his unique Son..." The same love that the Father has for the Son he also has for the world. The Son received the world, the world received the Son.

When Christ is placed at the beginning, what is traditionally the first act of the biblical narrative -- creation -- can be properly understood. Not only are we objects created for the good pleasure of God, but we are subjects to be known by God, as he is a subject to be known by us. Though there are vast distinctions between Creator and creation, there is a mutuality that can't be ignored, especially when our beginnings are founded upon the Word who would become flesh and dwell amongst us.

Christian Hedonism

You can glorify God by peeling a potato, if you peel it to perfection.

Eric Liddell's father said this. In the film Chariot's of Fire, Liddell himself says,

I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.

Those Liddell's were on to something. I think many of us have lost sight of a God who delights, a God who takes pleasure in what is beautiful and good.

I was struck by this a couple of weeks ago as I was practicing with a group of musicians before a chapel service. We didn't know each other and had forgotten each other's names ten seconds after hearing them. The leader/singer who had pulled us all together was out of the room, so I started strumming a simple chord progreession to fill the time and silence. After a few bars the guy on piano eased his away in. I didn't give him a nod, I didn't tell him the chords; heck, I didn't even realise he was playing along with me until I really listened. The drummer then brought in some rythym and there we were, three perfect strangers creating music before worship practice officially began.

I wouldn't have articulated it like this at the time, but looking back I can say that as we played I felt God's pleasure. This was not a worship service, it was not even a worship practice, yet worship was happening in a strange, new form to me. God was in that place, and I did not know it.

I've usually seen my guitar as a tool with a function. It is best used for Christian worship songs and  for "leading people into the presence of God". But what if my guitar isn't meant to be used at all? What if it is simply meant to be played?

In one sense, music serves no purpose. Music doesn't do anything. It doesn't function. But it delights. When it is played well it is enjoyed, for nothing less or more than enjoyment's sake. There's no reason to enjoy it, except maybe our God-given desire for what is beautiful and good and delightful.

It is popular opinion today that the chief questions being answered in the Genesis creation accounts are Who? and Why? This is certainly true of the first, but the second question is never actually answered. "In the beginning God created...", we are told, but the ultimate why? remains a mystery. Christians love to tell the world and each other that we have meaning and purpose, but perhaps what is closer to the truth is that there is no purpose at all. We don't need to be here. Nothing needs to be here. But therein lies the gospel: God does not need the world; He loves it. Terry Eagleton puts it like this:

God the creator is not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body no end, but an artist, and an aesthete to boot, who made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it.

Creation is, at heart, relational. Creator created creation for his own enjoyment, and to share in that enjoyment with the ones he created. It is only in this context that words like "purpose" and "function" can be properly understood.

John Piper might call this "Christian hedonism", with his mantra being "The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever." I would adjust this by adding another dimension - the gifts of God are to be enjoyed too. Not in isolation, of course, but always in relation to the Giver who delights in giving good gifts to his children. And when these gifts are properly enjoyed, when they are not "used" for our own ends but merely played as well as we can play them, then also is God glorified, and in that moment God's pleasure is felt.