cunning engagement

On the issues where Christians agree with society, engagement is easy. But when there is a difference of opinion, Christians can, it seems, go to two extremes in their engagement.

At one extreme, they can stomp, scream and shout about how bad and wrong the world is, telling non-Christians just how un-Christian they are. The other extreme, perhaps, is to retreat into Christian huddles that have no involvement with – and thus no effect on – the outside world.

Jesus seemed to point the way to a middle path. He taught us to be ‘cunning as serpents and innocent as doves’. Wisdom and restraint, free of complicity or compromise. Jesus didn’t march to Rome and attempt a take-over, but he was uncompromising in his Abrahamic monotheism. He believed in holiness, but taught that this was not to be given unwisely to ‘dogs’ who would only be incited to ‘turn and tear you to pieces’. He valued the pearl of faith, but taught that we should not cast pearls to ‘swine’ who would only trample them. How much of our engagement on issue of sexuality, politics and the like amounts to giving what is holy to dogs?

Two scenes from Acts, both involving Paul, show us this middle way in action. One has been long recognised: Paul at Athens in Acts 17. He is incredibly charitable in his engagement with the pagan thinkers and worshippers, although within himself he was ‘greatly distressed’. Here we see Paul having a public opportunity to speak. He begins with common ground and complimenting the principles he had in common with them, even quoting a pagan Hymn to Zeus.

But he went on to offer a critique of gods that live in man-made buildings and needing humans to serve them. It seems like he was reading the crowd and going as far as he thought wise. The result was mixed and he left it there. He didn’t clamour for more microphone time. He was as kind (cunning as serpents) and as honest (innocent as doves) as possible and trusted God with the result.

The next scene is Paul in Acts 24 before the Roman governor Felix. It’s less well known. One observation is that Jews knew how to talk respectfully to Romans. Observe the comments of Tertullus (serving as a kind of prosecuting attorney):

We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude. But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly.

Acts 24:2-4

Paul echoes this tactful speech in his defense:

“I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense.

Acts 24:10

Paul goes on to defend himself against the accusation of stirring up riots, and manages along the way to share some details of his faith:

However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

Acts 24:14-16

Paul was again saying as much as he thought would be helpful. And no more. Note that he is not criticizing the beliefs of Romans in general or Felix in particular, but sharing his own allegiance, belief, hope and lifestyle. Felix, who had a Jewish wife (Drusilla), knew enough about the Christians to be intrigued, and to meet privately with him. We are told that Paul, in this more intimate setting seems to go further than he did in public. He talked “about faith in Christ Jesus”, even going so far as to discuss “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come.

Felix’s immediate response may make us think that Paul pushed it too far. Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” However, he continued to regularly talk with him.

I want to imitate this way of engaging with those who have a different faith from me. I want to be as non-confrontational and generous as I can be, even celebrating their beliefs when that is authentic to do so. And I want to be able to be as honest as I can without doing harm to them or the relationship.

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

tween fashion

TVNZ’s programme ‘Sunday’ included a segment related to concerns over tween (8-12 yrs) fashion, particularly the issue of girls dressing “too sexy too soon” (which was the title).

In addition to this being evidence that modesty is not just the concern of conservative Christians, I was also interested in the introductory comment about the struggle of parents “to keep them children for as long as possible”.  I’ve often wondered about the tension between biological adulthood and ‘adulthood’ as defined by mod-western culture.

Perhaps rather than trying to ‘keep them children’, we should be helping them to both ‘be’ and ‘behave’ as adults.  Que the ‘archaic’, ‘religious’ – and perhaps more relevant than we dare admit – practice of most ancient cultures, namely rites of passage which welcomed new adults into adult life and responsibilities.

two water related parables

We need the healthy idealism reflected in the parable of the starfish.  One single act has value even in a sea (or in this case, beach) of hopelessness.

But we also need the wisdom reflected in the parable of the river.  We must not fight the problem, but find the source of the problem.  (Reminds me of the Dom Helder Camara quote: “I feed the poor, I’m called a saint.  I ask why the poor have no food, I’m called a communist.”)

reading

Proverbs 22:7 – “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.”

A friend recently (and wisely) observed that this is unfortunately ‘heard’/’taken’ as a command rather than as a lamentation.  Which made me think about how much interpretation we can do even with simple sentences.  The above verse could be (mis)understood in the following senses:

  • That this is the way things are intended to be: ‘God wants the rich to rule over the poor and delights in the borrower being a slave to the lender.’
  • A cold, apathetic, uncaring, indifferent (‘scientific’), and descriptive observation: ‘The rich have more power than (and often power ‘over’) the poor, and the borrower is indebted to the lender.’
  • An implicit command: ‘Don’t be poor!  Don’t be ruled by the rich!  Don’t borrow money! Ever!  It’s is wrong!’
  • A lament with an appeal to listen and live life accordingly: “Money quickly becomes a thing that is used to control and enslave people.  Large gaps between the rich and poor and large debts are all too real.  Please listen to this, and avoid doing that to others or yourself!’

animal

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, humans are more than animals, but not less.

I used to (like too many Christians) be ‘nervous’ about comparing humans to animals, or being told about (for example) chimps that can count, etc (whether they are actually ‘counting’ [comprehending a numbered sequence] or not [responding as trained to images on screen with no concept of a numbered sequence] is an interesting question). I now see this as odd, as if animal superiority in a particular area (speed, strength, size?) makes humans any less able (as Jews/Muslims/Christians hold) to be God’s unique image-bearing creatures. Continue reading “animal”

teleology & ethics

The word ‘teleology’ (from Greek τελος ‘telos’ – meaning ‘goal’, ‘end’, ‘purpose’ or ‘that toward which things tend’) is not a street-level term.  However, the concept of a purpose, goal, function or ‘end’ to things most certainly is.  It’s a common as anything.  Teleology is blindingly relevant.

Continue reading “teleology & ethics”

the power and fragility of the imagination

The effects and pervasiveness advertising is a good example of both the power and fragility of the imagination.

We are (almost always subconciously!) actually affected by some hyper-loud voice telling us something in the ad-breaks of whatever TV show we’re watching or by some image we see on a billboard, in a magazine, etc., etc. ad infinitum…  That is how fragile our imaginations are.

And we act, behave, decide, spend-time/money, choose, etc. ‘out of’ our imagination.  We buy ‘this’ or ‘that’ product based (often) on nothing but our imaginitive affection for it…  That is how powerful our imaginations are.

This is a double edged sword.  Great strides in medicine, architecture, physics, art, education, etc., etc. have been made because someone ‘imagined’ a different way.  Also great pain has been caused in marriages, families, communities and nations because one or more people ‘imagined’ that that woman, experience, possession, ideology or whatever would be desirable, fun, cool or powerful.

Take an affair for example.  They don’t just ‘happen’.  A man/woman must first enjoy the company of someone other than their spouse.  Imaginitive step after imaginitive step are taken.  And boom – there you have it – an affair.

This appreciation of (and respect for) the power and fragility of the imagination is what should drive all concerns about things like pornography, boobs-on-bikes parades and modesty, etc., etc.  Sooooo often, they are often driven by what seems like an assumption that if we could just get the laws sorted out to how we think they should be, people will behave like we think they ought…

…leaving the power and fragility of the imagination (the heart of the issue) untouched, un-dealt-with, un-appreciated… and not solving any problems whatsoever.