fruitful engagement with ‘other’ beliefs

I’ve had various interactions with various ‘non-orthodox’ (a.k.a. heretical) religious movements, and I grew up within one.  In my earlier, younger and sadly more arrogant stages, these interactions could easily become more heated, longer, and less productive than they should have been.  I just had another much more positive interaction with three young, polite Mormons.  There are two ways at least that I’m learning to make those interactions fruitful.

  1. Patient Intent.  My aim is to strike a middle ground between sending them away or trying to ‘convert’ them in one fell swoop.  I want, instead, to have a respectful conversation that gives them, and me, something to think about afterward.
  2. Respectful Engagement.  Instead of using whatever understandings I (think) I have as weapons to win a debate, I use those understandings as points of discussion.  This looks more like asking questions than making declarations.  For example, instead of saying (effectively) “You guys are wrong because you don’t believe in the Trinity”, I ask the question, “Could you tell me what you believe about God… you know… Father, Son and Spirit?”  This way they get to say what they believe in their own words, instead of having their beliefs described in worst form and then disregarded.

Having said that, here are a couple of those ‘discussion points’ for Mormons.

  1. The nature of God.  Mormons believe that ‘God’ was once a human, and that we humans can become ‘God’.  This relates to their belief that God the Father has a physical body.  They will use the language of “image of God” to support this, implying that to be made in God’s image includes being made in his physical form.  Here, it may be useful to point out the Christian distinction between the attributes of God that are God’s own unique attributes (Creator, divine), and those that we are meant to share as image-bearers (beauty, wisdom, justice, mercy, grace, etc.).
  2. Revelation.  Mormons believe that God is still revealing truth to humanity.  Significantly, this underlies their understanding of the Book of Mormon as an equal-level text to the Old and New Testaments.  Here, it is useful to point out the Christian conviction that whilst God is indeed still active in revealing truth to humans through Scripture and the Holy Spirit, Revelation has met its ‘finished’ point in the person of Jesus Christ.  No more is needed to reveal God to humanity.  And for Christians, the New Testament documents form together a sufficient and complete witness to that full revelation of God.  Other texts (at best) compliment that witness, or (at worst) confuse and conflict with it.

‘media’ and liturgical formation

James K. A. Smith has written and spoken much about liturgical formation; that is, how humans are formed, shaped and influenced by ‘liturgical’ actions, rites or practices.  For Smith, all of life can be seen with a ‘liturgical’ lens, as the human species (‘homo-liturgicus’) engages in various patterns of repeated activity.

One colourful example is that of a shopping mall, where seemingly mundane and ‘normal’ actions such as parking, entering, wandering, browsing, purchasing, exiting (and whatever else one does as part of a standard ‘trip to the mall’) are seen as liturgical rituals, that form us.  In the case of the mall, the repeated practices just mentioned form us into the mold of a consumer.  Through repeated participation in shopping at the mall, we learn and practice consumerism.

I had a related thought the other day, and I wanted to tease it out here. Essentially, it’s taking the liturgical and formational insights of Smith and reading them through the lens of the language of ‘media’…

It’s been a couple years since I’ve worked as a minister, and I’ve been increasingly exposed to ‘tradies’.  Many of these are people who don’t go to church (and aren’t likely to want to soon…).  These interesting people use different language, have different political views, listen to different radio stations, watch different TV/movies/videos, and have different approaches to social media than I’m used to.  Many of them (not all) haven’t shared my high standards for coffee shops.

Ironically, I’ve also been attending a different church, with a different form of worship in a different theological tradition.  I’ve also been listening more to Christian radio (including songs, advertisements, and teaching programmes). In short, I breathe the air of different ‘media’ than I used to.  Life feels different…  I feel more in touch with the tension between the Gospel and the world, and more pulled this way and that way by different ‘media’ that I am exposed to…

I find it interesting how (with exceptions, of course) people with ‘x’ political views might tend to gravitate towards this or that kind of radio, TV programmes, eating venues, Facebook groups, hobbies, brands of beer and chips, etc.  Whilst I don’t think it would be possible (or interesting) to make too direct a link between, for example, your particular political orientation and the particular band you listen to, I have been thinking about the extent to which the various (and many) kinds of ‘media’ we imbibe has a formative effect on us.

Just as life can be viewed through the lens of ‘liturgical’ rites and practices that we engage in, so also it can be viewed through the lens of ‘media’ that we consume.

As one who has done some study into gathered worship, I find the language of ‘media’ to be very fruitful.

I am suggesting here that all worship is shaped by the media that the worshippers (including worship planners and worship leaders) consume.

Think of various kinds of worship gatherings.  Not just what happens in the service, but what the space looks like, how it feels, what it communicates.  And yes, of course, what happens in the service.  How it begins, what the climactic moment is (if it has one),  what seems to be important, etc.

Arguably, ‘good worship’ should be rooted in the ‘media’ of the gospel, and relevant to the ‘media’ of culture.  The result being that worshippers are formed more into the image of Christ.  What do I mean here?

One the one hand, worship should be dripping with gospel ‘media’, including (but not limited to):

  • Symbols of the Story
    • (most churches at least have a cross, right?)
  • Language of the Scripture
    • (the Bible is read – or at least referred to!? – at least a few times, right?)

On the other hand, worship should be expressed in the ‘media’ of culture, examples include:

  • sounds
    • (language and wording that ‘these people’ can understand)
  • sights
    • (imagery and art that is intelligible and moving for ‘these people’)

In terms of a service of worship being ‘rooted in gospel media’, it is a matter first of whether or not it is, and then to what extent it is.  It is possible to conduct a ‘worship service’ in which very little of the Gospel is presented.  Perhaps the service consists of images and language that is entirely cultural and devoid of any symbols or words of Scripture.  Indeed, the very notion raises the question of just what ‘gospel’ is believed by this community?  If they do and say ‘this’ when they gather in ‘this’ kind of space, they must believe the gospel to be ‘this’.

In terms of a service of worship being ‘expressed in cultural media’, it is not a matter of ‘if’ it is or not, but rather how deep this expression is, and whether this cultural expression is with or against the ‘grain’ of the Gospel.  A few examples may be helpful, and I’m trying not to obviously signal this or that style of worship.

On the one hand, sometimes the ‘media of culture’ expressed in a service can go against the grain of the Gospel.  This happens when a cultural medium is used that is rooted in a cultural pattern that the Gospel subverts or judges.

  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of consumerism may unintentionally (or deliberately!?) use language or symbols that can present the Gospel as offering a product to be enjoyed.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of moralism may commit the opposite error of using language or symbols that present the Gospel as being concerned primarily with good behaviour.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of modernism may use language or symbols that witness to the underlying modernist worldview that newer is always an improvement on the old.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of traditionalism may commit the opposite error of using language and symbols that are always suspicious of new expressions.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of individualism may use language or symbols that focus entirely on the faith, experience and interests of the individual.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of rationalism may use language or symbols that frames the gospel as mainly a matter of having correct doctrine.

The goal at work here, particularly for planners and leaders of worship is three fold:

  1. Be very familiar with the ‘gospel media’: the Scriptural story, biblical imagery…
  2. Be in touch with cultural media: the sights and sounds of a particular place and time…
  3. Having done that, be patient in discerning which cultural ‘media’ will point to the Gospel, and which will distract from it.

A controlling image here may be stained glass.  The light of the gospel can (and must!) shine through many different coloured panes of culture.  On the one hand, if there is no gospel media in the service, there is no light! On the other, if the panes of cultural media are contrary to the gospel, the light won’t shine through!

Coming back, finally, to the theme of Christian formation, the idea here is that worship is most effective at forming disciples into the image of Christ when the service is both rooted in the trans-cultural, trans-temporal and Christ-shaped Scriptural media, and reflected in the language and symbols belonging to ‘these people’.

foolishness

This year, Resurrection Day falls on April “Fools Day”.  How fitting… Only a fool would believe in something like Resurrection, right?

Well… yes.  One of the more unpopular and counter-cultural aspects of Christian faith is its ‘foolishness’.  The Lord of all existence, meaning and being chooses not to select the best, the smartest, the most moral, the most successful, the strongest, the most desirable, to work through.  No.  In God’s economy, what society tells us are our assets are so often (if we hold them with pride) our liabilities.

Sure, in one sense, it is ‘foolish’ to deny the possibility of a thing like Resurrection.  How ‘unscientific’ is the emotion of disgust that poisons the well of honest and patient consideration of just what might be possible in this mysterious existence.

But the label ‘fool’ will inevitably be found on the backs of those believing in the impossible; that the days of Death are numbered, that another level of Life has emerged, undying, from the Tomb.  So be it.  I’m a fool.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

1 Corinthians 1:18-29

development in divine dealings with sin

Progressive revelation is the theological understanding  for hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) which acknowledges the way in which themes that emerge early in Scripture go through development and change.  The big framework for this is the Old and New Covenants/Testaments, where it is often said that Christ is “in the Old concealed and in the New revealed”.

I was listening to an excellent sermon at church a couple of weeks ago, and the following progression or development occurred to me, so hence I had to blog about it.  It reflects how I understand Scripture’s progressive revelation of how God deals with humans when they sin.  I’ll list them first, and then offer comments on each one:

Seek Them Out
Wipe Them Out
Spread Them Out
Straighten Them Out
Lift Them Out

First, the response is seek them out.  This is key.  In the garden, God responds to direct disobedience by looking for them.  God seems to want to maintain relationship with them, and wants them to grow.

Before long, the next response is wipe them out.  This is severe.  Leading up to the flood, humanity is described as being continually bent on evil.  It’s as though humans have become like an animal so riddled with disease that the only thing left to do is put it out of its misery.  Or one thinks of how a farmer will set fire to a field so it can grow fresh new grass.

Soon after, the response becomes spread them out.  This is unexpected.  The story of the Babel tower portrays humanity as arrogantly trying to ascend to the heavens.  Taking God’s place.  Human languages multiply and the people divide, being scattered all over the earth.  It’s as though human arrogance is like a heap of manure that smells horrible when concentrated into one heap, and so must be spread out.  This response finds an early hint in the expulsion from the garden.

Summarising a huge amount of remaining content in the Old Testament, the response progresses on to straighten them out.  Through everything from Law codes and prophetic instruction to exodus and exile, the message is to live according to the ‘straight and narrow’; to live in ways that ‘choose life’.  I cannot help but think of how I like to re-use nails that have been pre-used and bent.  I take them over to a hard surface and bash them (sometimes gently) with a hammer until they are useful.

Finally, the response matures and comes into focus as lift them out.  The image here is of God stepping into the pit (Psalm 40) that we’ve got ourselves into, laying his hands on our exhausted bodies and lifting us out.  This is embodied (deliberate pun) in the incarnation of Christ, who we may imagine as stooping to the lowest and most sinful levels of human nature, and raising it to new life.

One final thing to say about progressive revelation is that the final and full revelation seems to be hinted at early on.  The lifting of Grace is seen as early as the clothes that God makes for the pair in the garden.  God’s dealings move from justice (harsh!) to mercy and then to Grace.

active faith

Trust and obey, says the grand old hymn.  A lovely pairing, and a very biblical one.  This pair captures the nice middle ground between two extreme ways of understanding Christian life and discipleship.

At one extreme (hint: extremes are bad… almost always), we have faith that is ‘aggressive’ in the sense that it is all about doing and obeying.  Trusting hardly gets any air time, if it features at all.  People who advocate this kind of faith usually are pushing back against believers who do nothing…

At the other extreme, we have faith that is ‘passive’ in the sense that it is all about knowing and trusting.  Obedience, if the topic comes up at all, is usually something that you are not to ‘do’ but happens automatically.  People who advocate this kind of faith are often pushing back against a ‘religious’ or ‘strict’ approach to faith, full of ‘dos’ and ‘donts’…

In the middle, we have a faith that is active or assertive.  Faith and belief are married to deeds and actions.  The two mutually reinforce one another.

Jesus loves to describe the kingdom life with vivid metaphors.  Sometimes we get too used to them, and other times we just read them wrong, in the light of our pre-existing frameworks.

One of these metaphors is the image of the fruit tree.  Good trees bear good fruit.  One extreme (‘aggressive’ faith) sees the fruit as being all our work, which legitimates our faith.  The other extreme (‘passive’ faith) sees the fruit as all God’s work, and not ours.  We don’t ‘produce’ the fruit, we just ‘bear’ it…

The ‘aggressive faith’ folk have to remember that Jesus’ metaphor assumes sunlight and water and that ‘God gives the increase’ wherever there is growth.  The ‘passive faith’ folk have to face the reality that the word behind ‘bear’ is the same word used throughout the New Testament for a lot of doing, working, etc.

The strange mystery is that as we trust and obey God, we are enabled to be and to do.  We hoist the sail, God’s spirit blows, the boat moves.

 

single word prayers

I love categories, frameworks and layouts.  Wonderful freedom in wise frameworks.  Here’s my latest musings on categories for various types of prayers.  It expands on the very simple (perhaps overly simple, but still useful) acronym, A.C.T.S. (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication).

Wow!
Adoration.  The most basic and fitting response to the majesty, power, incomprehensibility of the Creator and Sustainer of all things.  Psalm 8 is a great example.

Sorry.
Confession.  The most basic and fitting response to our selfishness, weakness and indifference which all keep us from doing the good we are able to do in the world.  Psalm 51 is a great example.

Thanks.  
Thanksgiving.  The most basic and fitting response to God’s undeserved gifts to us.  It is the posture of gratitude, and the opposite of entitlement.  Psalm 118 is a great example.

Why?
Lament.  The most basic and fitting response to events and circumstances which seem totally opposite of what we’d expect or hope for.  Psalm 22 is a great example.

Help!
Supplication.  This most basic and fitting response to our awareness of need concerning ourselves, other people, and other situations in the world.  Psalm 86 is a great example.

Now then.  Why is it that Wow, Thanks and Help are common in gathered worship, and Sorry and Why are so rare?

 

don’t hold on

In Genesis 2, the Lord gives instruction that the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ is not to be eaten from.  There is deep mystery and meaning in this command.  There seems to be some kind of boundary being established, and it seems to be a kind of protective boundary.  The serpent, in chapter 3, appears to distort and exaggerate this command, saying that it must not even be touched.  Perhaps it is some kind of common sense to put an additional layer of safety in place… but ultimately this approach backfires, temptation is yielded to, and this leads to a third development.  The Lord then specifies for the ‘tree of Life’ to not be eaten from.  This feels, to us, a strange command, as we assume that ‘to live forever’ is part of God’s plan and desire for humans.  But, again, there is deep mystery here, and whatever we make of these early chapters of Genesis, we can rightly take this boundary to be protective, at least for that season in human development.

Today is Resurrection Sunday, and in John’s narration of the post-resurrection events, there is one curious event that seems to echo, even if faintly, these mysterious boundaries in Genesis.  It is likely that John is deliberately echoing Genesis at points, for he opens with ‘In the beginning’.  Also, the language and imagery of fruit is very Johannine, famously with Jesus’ depiction of himself as the vine in chapter 15.  In chapter 20, Mary Magdalene finally recognizes Jesus as her beloved ‘Rabboni’, and is said to turn toward him.  She is met with the curious command not to ‘hold onto’ Jesus.  Many of us will be similarly puzzled by this, as we were with the banning from the tree of Life.  What could be more a beautiful, natural and fitting way for Mary to ‘abide’ in Jesus, than to embrace him in affectionate reverence in the bright light of resurrection morning?  No, says Jesus, or at least ‘not yet’.  Whether we understand it or not, and whether it makes sense to us or not, there is another boundary here, which must be taken to be protective.  Not that Jesus needs any protection from Mary, or even necessarily Mary from Jesus (!!!), but perhaps Mary from Mary.

Could it be that, even in the glorious glow of Easter morning, we still need boundaries to protect us from ourselves?  Perhaps we need to patiently progress toward the day, also in Johannine description (Revelation 22), where we will freely and fruitfully serve “God and the Lamb”, and respond freely and fully to the invitation to take of the “water of Life”.

giving birth to life

In the most mysterious of all paradoxes, God seems to be the sort of God who – almost always – waits for our permission and cooperation to act in our lives.  The One who said ‘Let there be’ and gave birth to the life-cycle of all creation, will not force the divine life into ours without us agreeing to it with our ‘let it be’.  The One whose ‘Yes’ created all things, bends down to listen and wait for our own ‘yes’.

The holy and mild infant Jesus grew up and shaped his own moral life under the watchful and loving instruction of Mary, who, with her assertive and affirmative response to God, “Let it be unto me according to your will”, stands as the figurehead of human openness to the divine will.  The example of his human mother, mingling with the Spirit of his divine father, enabled him to finally in that fatal garden, utter these eternal words of assertive submission, giving life – in the shadow of the reality of death! – to his and our world: “Not my will, but yours be done.”

even greater

Yesterday morning, our sermon was on Hebrews 7:1-7, about Jesus being like, and even greater than, the strange biblical figure Melchizedek.  Among the more striking contrasts is that this ‘priest of the Most High God’, who was the agent rather than the recipient of blessing, was not Jewish, but was a pagan ‘king of Salem’.

I’ve often reflected on how this lovely figure does glorious and needed damage to overly-certain schemes of salvation and overly-narrow frameworks of divine activity.  God speaks, works and saves in ways that are outside our human understanding.  But my reflection yesterday was musing about how there may be a parallel with the bread and wine and the mysterious presence of Christ at the Eucharist.

Both of the human figures, Abraham the ‘great’ Patriarch and the ‘greater’ Priest Melchizedek, are transcended by the divine-and-human person, Christ, who is ‘even greater’.  There may be a similar progression with the elements of Eucharist.  Bread and wine (interestingly brought to Abram by Melchizedek!) had deep significance in Jewish history and liturgy, particularly in celebration of Passover, remembering the Exodus from Egypt.  These ‘great’ elements are taken up and given a ‘greater’ meaning by serving our remembrance of a second greater Exodus, achieved by a second greater Adam.  But both these are transcended by the ‘even greater’ presence of Christ himself who has instituted the meal as a place and event where he will be ‘known’ through, ever since the breaking of bread on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24).  Although the elements always retain the ‘mere presence’ of bread and wine even with their ‘great’ significance, through the divinely instituted celebration of the Supper, they are also ‘blessed’ with an ‘even greater’ additional Presence (both through the elements and flowing out into and among the people gathered); that of the One who is not mere bread and wine, but True Food and True Drink (John 6).

So in diagrammatic form:

Abraham < Melchizedek < Christ himself
and
Passover < Eucharist < Christ himself

rain and bows

When it rains… look for rainbows.

Our son Tom quoted this message from a T-shirt today, as we finished off our lunch and looked out the window at the rain.

The imagery of the rainbow is used by peace activists, the queer community, sunday school teachers, and more.  It draws its formative significance, of course, from the story of the flood in Genesis.  I found myself thinking of how that story is framed, both as a complete story, and within the book of Genesis as a whole.

The whole Bible is framed by what we call progressive revelation, where truth is gradually (or progressively) revealed as the story or narrative goes forward.  In the same way, individual stories (or sets of stories) within the Bible follow the same principle.

Sometimes, a story or stories progress and combine to strengthen a belief about God.  The ‘lost’ stories of Jesus (lost sheep, lost coin and lost son) in Luke, for example, go together as a set of stories revealing the nature of God as a Shepherd/Woman/Father who seeks out what is lost.  A point any reader of the Old Testament would have known, but that Jesus intensifies.

Other times, stories progress and combine to re-shape or develop a belief about God.  The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, among its other purposes, is revealing that God is not the sort of God that demands a child sacrifice.  Yahweh is not like the other ‘normal’ gods of that time and place, for whom it was ‘normal’ to appease by offering your child.  People who imagine God to be a child-sacrifice-demanding God find this not to be the case.  This story carries through into the New Testament beautifully, with God providing not only a ‘ram’ instead of Abraham’s son, but providing himself through his only Son, who was the ‘Lamb’ of God.  Likewise, in Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28, we have a story which challenges the existing Jewish expectations of what the Messiah would be like.  Jews of the day (including Jesus himself it appears!) would have imagined the Messiah to be coming ‘for’ or ‘to’ the Jews, to save them from the Gentiles.  But this beautiful, wise and persistent Gentile (Syro-Phonecian) woman shows them (and Jesus!?) that the community of faith was not limited to Jews only.

It seems the flood story both strengthens and develops existing beliefs about God.  Like the previous stories in Genesis 1-5, the flood story pictures God as not merely a God who is grieved and angry over human failure and sin (as seen in the expulsion from the garden, the curse, and the judgment of the flood), but a God who seeks out his children to restore and bless them (as seen in the provision of clothes, the provision of children to Adam and Eve, and the promise of mercy seen in the rainbow).

This pattern permeates the whole of Scripture.  God is not like we imagined – or feared.  God is holier and stronger than we dared believe, and more merciful and gentle than we dared hope.

And that is why they call it Good News.