political Christianity

Let me open with an if/then statement.  If Christianity is anything more than B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth), and I heartily believe it is, then it necessarily has to do with how the wholeness of life is played out in the here and now.  This means Christianity necessarily has a political component to it.  And here’s a yes/but statement.  Yes, there is vastly more to Christianity than politics, but it is not apolitical.

The sweeping Story of Scripture presents a Gospel that cannot be contained by any single political party, even a ‘Christian’ political party.  Indeed, the values and imperatives of Scripture cover pretty much the entire political spectrum.

The ‘right’ end of the spectrum will find its emphasis on personal responsibility affirmed and strengthened by Scripture.  Consider Proverbs 6:6-11 as motivation to as right-wing folk will say, “get off your rear and work as much as you can, and stop relying on the government.”

The left end of the political spectrum, with its convictions about basic rights and freedoms, will find just as much support from Scripture; from the golden rule of treating your neighbour as yourself, through to the more sharp and radical command to love your enemies.  Everything from social welfare, ecological preservation and non-violent pacifism have direct links to Scripture.

Even a controversial issue such as same-gender relationships finds the whole spectrum covered by Scripture.  Conservatives will find their convictions about sex, marriage and gender affirmed by passages which echo through in both the Old and New Testaments.  Progressives will find abundant biblical support for their passionate concern for the protection of the person-hood and identity of all regardless of any of their personal characteristics.

In addition to offering support all along the political spectrum, Scripture also offers subversion and opposition at all points as well.  To the arrogant ‘conservatives’ wanting to stone the woman caught in adultery, Jesus the ‘liberal’ steps in to defend her basic freedoms with non-condemning, patient love, whilst at the same time pointing a stinging finger at the hypocrisy of those who are more interested in shaming someone else for their sin than they are at humbly acknowledging their own.  To any and all at the progressive ‘left’ who slide into complacent and compromised affirmation of things that go against Scripture, Jesus represents someone who held to the authority of Scripture, even as he sought to direct people past erring traditional interpretations of it.  Jesus was not interested in building a theocracy to manipulate people into obedience, nor was there any ‘moving on’ from fundamental Jewish convictions to make the faith palatable.

In other words, the Gospel of Scripture is always big enough to offer both comfort and challenge to everyone.

‘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’.

gospel response

I’ve always had a soft spot for soteriological Inclusivism, the theory of Christian ultimate salvation (sometimes expressed in different ways) that holds that some can or may be saved apart from an explicit congnitive act of conscious belief in Jesus.

Exclusivism insists on a personal response to the Gospel, but most forms of exclusivism make exception for those too young or perhaps lacking the (apparent) cognitive ability to make an (apparent) response to the Gospel.  These exceptions prompt Inclusivism’s concern for the fate particularly of “those who have never heard” the Gospel. But I wonder if the very notion of ‘those who have never heard the Gospel’ might be challenged by Scripture? Perhaps a Scriptural understanding of revelation, gospel, preaching, hearing and responding is different to at least some of our modern instincts? Perhaps some biblical language suggests that “the (G)gospel” has been preached to everyone; perhaps in a mode that escapes or transcends the modern mind?

It would be one thing to entertain such notions due to some discomfort or fear regarding communicating the gospel or having people not respond to it.  But it’s quite another thing if Scripture itself actually supports the notion. And whilst we don’t want to alter the Gospel to make it more palatable, we also don’t want to go beyond Scripture and ‘add’ requirements or barriers to God being able to work in ways we don’t understand.  Two relevant passages among others are: Romans 2:12-16 and 10:9-21; and another I recently encountered again is Hebrews 4:1-11.

In interpreting the texts, we have to keep the literary purposes of the authors in mind.  Both Romans and Hebrews are engaging with the early controversy around the attitudes of Jewish and Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians toward (among other things) the Jewish Law, common faith, and table fellowship. In Romans 2, the Jewish Christian readers have just had a surprising hard word given to them about their own failure to keep the Law, which has the result of putting them on even par with Gentiles.  Interestingly, the Gentles, even without having the Jewish Law, are nonetheless able to follow the ‘Law written on their hearts‘, which apparently not only accuses them when they live contrary to it (1:18-32), but also excuses them when they live according to it (2:14). This battlefield of hearing and obeying (or not!) seems to at times be public and visible, and other times private and ‘secret’ as Paul’s language suggests in 2:16 (‘God will judge men’s secrets…’).

Oh, sure, but some will say Paul is just getting the foundation of his
argument going in Romans; it’s only chapter 2! But, we have a similar tension in chapter 10, long after Paul has made his points about both the universality of Sin and the superabounding nature of Grace. Here is actually a favourite verse of
Exclusivists, where it is insisted that ‘faith comes by hearing’; when the Gospel of Christ preached and heard, believed and finally confessed (10:9-15). However, Paul does not finish there, but then goes on to contrast the unbelief of previous generations of Israel (long before Christ) with the Gentiles of old, who along with Israel apparently have indeed ‘heard’; the pertinent difference being that (‘all’) Israel did not accept the good news due to their disobedience, while the Gentiles were apparently ‘found’ by God who says ‘I revealed myself’ to them (10:16-21). The context of chapter 10, to state the obvious, is chapters 9 and 11, which all together form a rich tapestry of argumentation exploring the way that God remains faithful to the ‘old’ covenant with Israel, even when the church must have looked mostly Gentile at the time of writing. This is precisely the point the author of Hebrews makes in chapter 4; except only the negative criticism is made of Israel, for having ‘the gospel preached to them’ yet not combining that with ‘faith’.

The first key point in all of this is that the biblical authors here seem to be quite comfortable in describing ‘the gospel’ being known to people long before Christ; much like Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 will, in passing, assert that “the Rock that followed [Israel during the Exodus] was Christ.” The other point is that it seems those outside of God’s central and standard means of revelation (Law teaching in the Old; Gospel preaching in the New) have indeed had ‘the Gospel’ preached to them (Colossians 1:23); and their response, arguably in the New as well as the Old, is not always rejection. Indeed (clearly in the Old, and possibly in the New), when those on the ‘outside’ respond more obediently than those on the ‘inside’, the latter are humbled and (hopefully) brought to their knees again in renewed repentance; or (Paul hopes in Romans 9-11) ‘provoked to jealousy’ (and hopefully faith).

Similar themes appear elsewhere.  The Gentile King Cyrus was called God’s ‘anointed one’, who was moved by the Spirit to let Israel go home. The pagan Preist Melchizidek was the agent (not the recipient!) of blessing for Abram. And Jesus set the tone for his ministry with a rousing critique at Nazareth, making clear that God’s action was not limited to Israelites.

So could it be that God is at all times, all ways and in all places preaching the Gospel, through both public and ‘secret’ channels (one thinks of the many accounts of Muslims having dreams and visions of Jesus)? Could it be, as inclusivism suggests, that some of these people can respond to such preaching with at least some form of faith?

human sin, then human death

I’m reading a recent interview with Jonathan Sarfati, a well-known anti-evolution Christian author.((Australia’s Reformed Evangelical Periodical, Autumn 2012, 3-6.))

I’m not going to critique the scientific statements he makes, I just wanted to pick up on a theological/biblical claim that he makes, which I hear very often.  He claims:

The whole gospel of Jesus Christ depends on a literal happening in the Garden of Eden where Adam sinned against God and brought God’s curse upon us.  Evolution undermines this account of our origins by putting death before sin.

That’s a big claim.  He presents a choice between a) believing the gospel of Jesus Christ and b) affirming the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection in biology.  For Sarfati, there is no both/and.  He refers to Paul as telling us that “Adam brought death into the world”, and refers to Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.  So what do these passages say?  And are they appropriate to bring to bear on conversations about animal death before humans?  What would Paul say about us doing so?

Well, it turns out that neither passage is talking about animals at all.  What they are talking about, however, is humans.  Both passages present us with two distinct representatives for, not animals, but humans.  We can either be ‘in Adam’ or ‘in Christ’.  The point is that human sin brings human death.  Adam, no doubt assumed to be the first human by Paul and the rest of his Jewish contemporaries, becomes the representative of all who sin and die, because he (whose name means ‘human‘ funnily enough) was the first human to do so.  Christ, on the other hand, did not sin.  And although he too died, he pioneered the way into a new, un-dying, eternal, glorified state of life that we call the Resurrection.  The physical death and suffering of animals before humans has literally no bearing on either passage.

Sarfati laments that “theistic evolutionists would have us believe that God used [evolution which involves the ‘last enemy’ of death] to create things which then became ‘very good’ “, but even ‘perfect and young earth’ folk like him have not only to recall that creation is brought from ‘tohu va vohu’ (formless and void) to a state of formed and filled by God’s very good ordering and creativity, but also to explain how a ‘very good’ creation can have a deceitful, crafty and lying serpent in it.  The Sunday-school picture of a ‘perfect’ creation doesn’t hold up, and it isn’t the point.

Sarfati continues:

Christians who believe in evolution also have to face the problem of restoration.  If Christ is going to restore or ‘regenerate’ the world, what will He restore it to?  …millions more years of death, suffering and disease? …evolution is opposed to the biblical ideas of creation, fall and redemption.  We undermine the entire message of Scripture if we try to introduce the idea of evolution into it. (emphasis mine)

Again, if a literal Eden is the prototype of the final restoration – the goal for all things – then it must have a lying snake in it, and we must be able to sin again, and it also might be formless and void and in need of forming and filling.  But in Scripture, it is not Eden that is the prototype.  It is Christ.  Our great hope is not to simply be like a pre-fall Adam, but rather that “we shall be like Him”, that is, Christ.  Our hope is not to be brought back to a state of posse peccare, posse non-peccare (possible to sin, possible not to sin), but to be brought forward to a state of non-posse peccare (not possible to sin).

“Restoration” in the sense of ‘going back to Eden’ is not the right concept.  We don’t go back to the beginning (for another replay?), but forward to the goal, our telos – Christ.  “Transformation” or “translation” or “metamorphosis” is the better image, and that given by the picture of Christ (not Adam) as the “firstfruits” of what is to come.  Moreover, to quote 1 Corinthians 15:49, “Just as we have borne the likeness of the man who was made from dust, we will also bear the likeness of the man from heaven.”  We don’t look back to Adam, but forward to Christ, who has come into human history as the ‘archetype’ of humanity.  We don’t look back to Genesis 1&2 and a ‘very good’ creation, we look forward to Romans 8 and Revelation 21-22 to a liberated creation, and a “new heaven and new earth”.  Or as the great maxim says, “more is gained in Christ than is lost in Adam.”

diversity

Romans 16 contains Paul’s greetings to an amazingly diverse group of Roman Christians – the 35 individuals named are Jewish, Roman, Greek, Asian, African, male, female, single, married, of high and low social status.  Part of the purpose of the letter was to unite Jew with Gentile; ‘weak’ with ‘strong’ (14-15); high with low (12:3ff), etc.

It is therefore no small treat to be nearing the end of a course on this letter, having journeyed with a strikingly diverse group of people – males, females, single, married, young, elderly, well-off & not, Samoan, Fijian, American, Nigerian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Scottish, English, Australian, and even a few from New Zealand!

old/new both/and

Two terms in the single verse of Romans 3:21 evidence both the continuity and the discontinuity of the newness of the righteousness-revealing gospel of Jesus with the oldness of the sin-revealing Law.

But now, the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from [χωρὶς|choris; in discontinuity with] the law , although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to [μαρτυρουμένη|marturoumene; in continuity with] it-

ben on bart

“Holy rusted metal, BArT ehrMAN!”  (yes, I just typed that; many cheese-ness awards shall I win…) ;)

Respected (and prolific! given the rate he publishes blogs and books!) New Testament Scholar Ben Witherington III is doing an astoundingly in-depth review of Bart Ehrman’s ‘Jesus Interrupted’ (parts 1234 and 5) and see Ehrman being humorously interrupted – as many have been! – on the Colbert Report here).  I’ve only skimmed a couple of them (they’re quite long!), but I’ve seen enough to see that he’s done a patient and – very, very, VERY – thorough job.

wineskins at laidlaw

Monday nights, 1, 8, 15, 22 September 2008

7:00 – 9:30pm, Laidlaw College – Auckland Campus,

80 Central Park Drive, Henderson, Waitakere

Heaven and Earth: Where are we going? Does it matter?

We are excited by the opportunity we have to introduce you to some of the new faces at College. This group includes Dr Martin Sutherland (Vice Principal Academic) and the Heads of School Dr David Williams (Counselling), Dr Rod Thompson (Theology), and Dr Meredith Wheeler (Mission and Ministry). They will all be taking part in the series alongside Mark Strom.

Hopefully, there will be discussion over the talks over at http://wineskinreview.blogspot.com

wanted: damon to play bonhoeffer

Will somebody please make a modern, well-produced movie about Dietrich Bonhoeffer!???

(existing works here, here and here…)

I think Matt Damon should play the part…  :)