Thursday, 31 March 2011

What's the point of church services?

Genuine question here. Why do we have church meetings, the usually on a Sunday meet up to sing songs, listen to a talk and pray together thing? I've had this on my list of things to blog about for a while but I think now is the time, following on from an interesting chat I had recently with a guy on my theology course. We were talking about the tension between meeting together as a church to share our stories with one another and meeting to be spiritually recharged. I think it's like a bring and share picnic, which works much better if everyone brings something to share rather than a few people being expected to being all the food which they will then give out to everyone. Of course, there will be times where a particular person doesn't have much to bring, both with a picnic and with a church meeting. That's completely fine, but I don't believe it shouldn't be the typical way of things.

I've been thinking for a long time about how our rhythms of church can (unintentionally) encourage us to let our spiritual life drift between meetings. We look forward to the Sunday meeting in the hope of getting a spiritual uplift from the songs we sing together and from hearing great teaching from one of the church leaders. The same thing can happen with annual events like conferences; as the conference season approaches we get excited about what God is going to do there, perhaps forgetting that he can do just as much in our local settings.

It can easily add up to a Christian life that actually amounts to a few meetings per month and not much in between. Surely this is not how it should be, though? A question, then: is there anything about the way we do our Sunday meetings, conferences and so on that encourages this way of living? Someone famous (Albert Einstein, was it?) said that our current systems are perfectly suited to bring about the results that we are getting. Or maybe it was Einstein who said the same thing but the other way round: 'We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them' (I looked this up).

Maybe it's worth taking a step back and wondering why we have the Sunday church meetings. What's the point, what is supposed to happen at them? Firstly, I don't agree with the common view that we meet together to 'worship God'. Look at Romans 12:1-2; one of my favourite little passages in the whole Bible:
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Our whole life should be an act of worship. Paul took the Jewish Temple language of worship and sacrifice and applied it to everyday behaviour, meaning that Christians do not go to a church meeting to worship. Our church meeting should be an act of worship but no more and no less than anything else we do in the course of our day-to-day life.

Why, then, do we have church meetings if not to 'worship God'? I want to share a few thoughts from 1 Corinthians 14, a chapter that has plenty to say about church meetings. In verse 12, Paul notes that the Christians in Corinth are 'eager to have the special abilities the Spirit gives' and he urges them to ask God for those abilities (or spiritual gifts; the Greek word is charismata) that will 'strengthen the whole church'. Paul then talks about praying and singing in the Spirit, which many Christians take to mean using a language not of human origin (speaking in tongues), but goes on to say this:
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than any of you. But in a church meeting I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language.

So here is another clue as to what Paul expects to happen at church meetings. People should speak words that will help others. And this theme is carried on in verse 26:
Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you.

Everything that is done must strengthen all of you. Maybe there is our answer to the question, 'What are church meetings for?' They are for strengthening and helping the believers. Forgive me for tearing a verse out of its context, but Ephesians 4:11 is relevant to this issue, I think. Here, Paul mentions five kinds of people as 'gifts Christ gave to the church': the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers (the last two are sometimes linked together due to the way the original Greek was written). And the responsibility of these people is to 'equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church'. So in our church meetings (and in all our interactions with one another; it's not just a Sunday thing!) we should be strengthened – built up – and equipped to do God's work. What does 'God's work' mean, though? Maybe I'll come back to that another time!

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

In praise of Aimee Mann's album 'Whatever'

Aimee Mann is an American singer-songwriter who has been in the music business for well over 20 years but never really made it big, at least not in the UK. I guess she's best known for performing most of the songs from the film Magnolia, which was released in 2000 and starred Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

It's Mann's first album that I want to tell you about, as it's one of my all-time favourites and I was reminded of this when I listened to it for the first time in a while the other day. 'Whatever' was released back in 1993 and you can listen to snippets of all the tracks at the US Amazon site.

The whole album is full of beautiful, heartfelt, clever songs but I thought I'd pick out a couple of personal highlights. '4th of July' is a painfully poignant tale of personal regret set against celebrations on Independence Day. I love the slightly unusual chords and Mann's voice is something from another world, so emotive and expressive. Here is a solo performance from a Jools Holland show a few years back. Just magical:

A couple of lyric lines from the song:
Today's the 4th of July, another June has gone by
And when they light up our town I just think, what a waste of gunpowder and sky

Another chapter in a book where the chapters are endless
And they're always the same
A verse, then a verse and refrain

And the song 'Say Anything' has some sharp, witty lyrics, along with another great instrumental arrangement. I can't find a video link (you can listen to 30 seconds at Amazon though) but here are some lyrics:
You see me as a judge though I deny it
And hold me like a grudge then justify it

So why do I refuse the truth
When I clearly cannot use
The comfort of one more lame excuse

Thinking back, 'Whatever' might have been the first time I took a punt on an album that I hardly knew anything about. I'd seen one song off the album just once on MTV and loved it so much that I went out and bought the CD. According to the review on Amazon UK the song, I Should've Known, had become a minor hit after being used on a TV programme. Anyhow, I'm so glad I spent my hard-earned pennies (or was it pocket money back then?!) on this album as it's still a favourite of mine after some 18 years. I hope you like it too.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Looking at the leadership of Moses and other Old Testament figures

In a recent session on my theology course we looked at lessons we could draw from the life and leadership practices of Moses. The session leader picked out three key questions that are vital for leaders to keep in mind, lest they get mired in the details of their role and lose sight of why they are leading. Here are the questions:

Lessons from the life of Moses
Who am I? This is about our identity, which will feed in to what we do and how we do it. We see Moses wrestling with his identity in Exodus 2:11-15 when he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave. Moses kills the Egyptian and runs away from Egypt when Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, hears of what Moses has done and tries to kill him.

Whose am I? Who do I belong to? Who do I have family or community responsibilities to? Exodus 3:1-6 (the account of God speaking to Moses from within a burning bush) tells of Moses responding to God's call: 'I am the God of your father – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'. Moses now knows that he belongs to God.

What am I to do? The rest of Exodus 3 and then chapter 4 recount God's mission for Moses and how Moses rather struggles to accept it. Interestingly, God seems to change his plans based on how Moses reacts to what God requires him to do. I might blog about this at a later date...

I found all these questions interesting and I can certainly see how they apply to any modern-day task of leadership. It's so important to keep the big picture in mind, avoiding the trap of drowning in the details. But I keep wondering how useful it is to look in detail at Old Testament figures, considering that the New Testament offers such a redefined picture of Godly leadership.

How useful are the Old Testament examples?

Here's what I mean. In the Old Testament, God's purposes were almost entirely worked out through a nation, with politics, structures, taxes (or tithes, as they were known then) and many other things that we would recognise in modern-day nations. So most of the leaders in the Old Testament were either involved in government (Moses, David and so on) or they tried to bring God's word to government from the outside (the prophetic tradition – the likes of Isaiah and Amos).

Moving to the New Testament, the situation is vastly different. Jesus had relatively little to say about government; he seemed much more concerned with how his followers should relate to one another and to the outsiders, the marginalised. He socialised with the failures and outcasts of his time, not those who had power or authority. And look at these passages on the topics of leadership and decision-making:
So Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Then the apostles and elders together with the whole church in Jerusalem chose delegates, and they sent them to Antioch of Syria with Paul and Barnabas to report on this decision. The men chosen were two of the church leaders – Judas (also called Barsabbas) and Silas. This is the letter they took with them:

"This letter is from the apostles and elders, your brothers in Jerusalem. It is written to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Greetings! We understand that some men from here have troubled you and upset you with their teaching, but we did not send them! So we decided, having come to complete agreement, to send you official representatives, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ..." (Italics added)
So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Italics added)

Christian leadership (as opposed to Old Testament leadership) is all about mutual submission. And I'm worried that focusing on pre-Christian figures like Moses and David leads us to lose sight of the distinctive flavour of Christian leadership as illustrated in the New Testament. Leading a nation (even the nation chosen by God) is, I suggest, fundamentally different from leading God's people in the Christian era.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Conservative 'massacre' of public services

I was catching up on the day's news before going to bed and got distracted by this article in the Independent. George Osborne will be giving his Budget speech on Wednesday and the news media are full of speculation about what he'll be saying. The article I've linked to isn't really about that, though; it looks at what Labour might have been doing had they won the election last May. You can read it yourself to get all the details but I just wanted to mention a few surprising statistics. From the article:
Government spending totalled £343bn in 1999-2000, which, if it had just kept pace with inflation, would have reached £438bn by 2009-2010. In reality, spending in that year reached £669bn, an increase, in real terms, of 53 per cent, over a 10- year period in which GDP had grown by less than 17 per cent. When you factor in how much of that GDP increase was the result of unprecedented levels of private debt then the truly unsustainable nature of the public spending becomes vividly apparent.

That's right, after cancelling out the effect of inflation, Government spending increased by 53% from 1999-2000 (roughly when Labour stopped following the previous Conservative government's spending plans) to 2009-2010. And that increase was not based on the UK's gross domestic product going up by a similar amount in the same time period as GDP only went up by 17% from 1999 to 2009 (ignoring the effects of inflation – this wasn't stated in the article but I checked the figures on the Office for National Statistics website, geek that I am).

The other little snippet from the Independent article is that, according to the level of cuts set out by the Government, the welfare budget in 2014-15 will (again, accounting for the effect of inflation) be 34% higher than it was back in 1999-2000. So what gets portrayed as virtually the destruction of the welfare system will still leave a system rather more generous than how things were 12 years ago. Finishing with another quotation from the article:
When government departments have become accustomed to year-on year real-terms budget increases of about 4 per cent, prudence can be mistaken for butchery, and the sort of efficiencies which the private sector has long regarded as normal are seen as justification for strike action.

Something to bear in mind next time Ed Balls or Ed Milliband start moaning about the Government's ideological slashing of the welfare system, perhaps?

Saturday, 19 March 2011

'Do whatever you want with everything he possesses'

In this post, I want to look some more at Brian McLaren's view that we can take the Bible as an inspired cultural library, rather than as a legal handbook or constitution (see here and then here for my earlier posts). McLaren uses the book of Job as a case study for this idea.

The title of this post, from chapter one of the book of Job, forms part of a dialogue between God and the devil. Here is the full exchange, from Job 1:6-12:
One day the members of the heavenly court came to present themselves before the Lord, and the Accuser, Satan, came with them. “Where have you come from?” the Lord asked Satan.

Satan answered the Lord, “I have been patrolling the earth, watching everything that’s going on.” Then the Lord asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil.”

Satan replied to the Lord, “Yes, but Job has good reason to fear God. You have always put a wall of protection around him and his home and his property. You have made him prosper in everything he does. Look how rich he is! But reach out and take away everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face!”

“All right, you may test him,” the Lord said to Satan. “Do whatever you want with everything he possesses, but don’t harm him physically.” So Satan left the Lord’s presence.

So what do you make of this? Did God really permit the devil to cause Job all sorts of grief, taking away all his livestock, killing all his children and most of his servants, and giving him 'terrible boils from head to foot'? If we accept the Bible as a legal handbook then I suppose we do have to think that this conversation and agreement between God and the devil really did happen. But is this the only way of understanding the story, while retaining respect for the Bible as inspired by God? Brian McLaren thinks not...

Through the book, three of Job's friends try to comfort Job and explain why such tragedy has befallen him. McLaren notes that the book of Job concludes with a long speech from God himself, in which God asks Job a lengthy series of questions, rather than giving an explanation (for readers or for Job himself) of the bargain that God made with the devil. God also says of Job's friends, 'I am angry with you... for you have not spoken accurately about me, as my servant Job has.' Here's McLaren's idea:
Perhaps, for the author, or authors of Job, that whole explanation [i.e. God's deal with the devil] for Job's suffering is thus dismissed right along with the pious platitudes of Job's so-called friends. Perhaps?

God has just told us that a large proportion of what is uttered in the book of Job [all the stuff that Job's friends say] is false and foolish. Yet we are taught that the book of Job, being part of the Bible, is the Word of God and is inspired by God. Does that mean that God inspired the introduction and conclusion, but not the middle section where the pious windbags speak? Or does it mean that God inspired the pious windbags' false statements? Or that God was pretending to inspire that part, but was crossing the divine fingers behind the divine back, so as to come out later on to say, 'I was only kidding in that part'?

For McLaren, this makes it clear that we cannot say that God's revelation to us occurs 'independently in every verse of the book of Job'. Instead of occurring in the words and statements of individuals, McLaren believes that God's revelation comes to us in Job through the conversation among individuals and God:
Revelation doesn't simply reside in this or that particular verse of Job like cereal in a box, waiting to be opened and poured out into a bowl. Instead it emerges through the whole story of Job, through the conversation that unfolds among these many voices, like meaning in a novel or perhaps even the punchline in a joke: it creeps up on you, sneaks its way into your thought process and then, when least expected, it surprises you.

So, taking the Reformation cry of sola scriptura ('by scripture alone', or 'scripture is enough'), we should ask what the scripture is enough for. Thinking of the Bible as a legal handbook, we might wish to say that the Bible has given (by itself) enough clarity to resolve all questions relating to following and pleasing God. McLaren again:
From all sides it becomes clear that the Bible, if it is truly inspired by God, wasn't meant to end conversation and give the final word on controversies. If this were its purpose, it has failed miserably. (This fact must be faced.) But if instead it was inspired and intended to stimulate conversation, to keep people thinking and talking and arguing and seeking, across continents and centuries, it has succeeded and is succeeding in a truly remarkable way.

Let's go back to how the book of Job ends, with what McLaren calls a dazzling blizzard of questions. What are these questions for? Certainly not to reveal answers or an explanation or a solution, McLaren says. Rather, the revelation of God comes in these questions as 'a sense of wonder, humility, rebuke and smallness in the face of the unknown'. What if, McLaren asks, that is the truest and best kind of revelation there can ever be for creatures such as us?

Finally, in explaining his view that perhaps the whole story of Job is 'a kind of archetypal theological opera' and not an account of actual events, McLaren says the following:
Through stories like this, gathered in a library like this – not articles or amendments gathered in a constitution – God can self-reveal, so that the Word of God, the speaking and self-revealing of God, can burn like fire in the branches, twigs and leaves of the text.

I know this is a radical departure from the traditional evangelical treatment of the Bible. But it's a departure that, to me, still seems to view the Bible as inspired by God, just with a very different understanding of what that means. I'm sorry if this post is unclear or meandering or just too long, but I'm grappling with and trying to work through McLaren's ideas. They've unsettled me but I also find them compelling and, I don't know, somehow very attractive, so I feel I can't just shrug them off as unorthodox or even heretical.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Liverpool vs. Braga tonight

It's the second leg of Liverpool's Europa League (formerly known as the UEFA Cup) tie against Braga tonight. The Portuguese team won the first leg 1-0 so, due to the wonders of the away goal rule, if they score at Anfield tonight then Liverpool will need to score three goals to win the tie overall. I rate Braga scoring one as very likely and Liverpool getting three much less so, which would mean 'Boa noite, Liverpool'.

The main reason I'm so pessimistic is that in the first leg, Liverpool created hardly anything. And here, in my view, are the two reasons for this:

Firstly, the team that Dalglish selected last week contained just one player whose favourite position is on the wing. And even he, Glen Johnson, was put on his unfavoured wing. You could just about say that Joe Cole is happy playing as a wide midfielder, so call it one and a half wing players.

Obviously, this meant that a lot of Liverpool's play went down the middle of the pitch and Braga bottled it up pretty well. I don't remember the Braga goalie having to make even one good save throughout the match. And seeing poor old Jamie Carragher 'galloping' down the right wing from the full-back position is either tragic or hilarious, depending on how charitable you're feeling.

The second point, again relating to team selection, is that most of the defensive players picked are, let's be honest, hoofers. Look at that back line – Johnson is fairly comfortable on the ball, granted, but then you had Skrtel, Kyrgiakos and Carragher. In Football Manager terms, I'd give each of them a passing rating of 7 at most. And then playing the defensive central midfield role was Christian Poulsen, also rubbish at passing. Braga took full advantage of this, I thought, pressurising the Liverpool defenders when they had the ball and forcing them to play a quick, long pass upfield. Liverpool playing route one? I thought we'd seen the last of that with Hodgson's departure, but I honestly don't think the players selected were capable of anything else. Those particular defenders just don't have the skill or composure to play a short, accurate forward pass under pressure.

So here's hoping that Daniel Agger is fit enough to start the match tonight (he's in the match squad). Agger is the one Liverpool defender who can bring the ball out of defence himself and pass it forward with some genuine hope of finding a team-mate. If Agger isn't playing, then I'll call a 1-2 final score. Braga will score first due to a Kyrgiakos defensive howler, Liverpool will hit back at some point in the second half (Andy Carroll scoring) but Braga will score a break-away goal as Liverpool commit more men forward in the final few minutes. If Agger does play then I'll go for 2-1 to Liverpool, still sending Braga through on away goals. I can't see Liverpool keeping a clean sheet if Braga press high up the pitch like they did in their home leg, and I doubt Liverpool will score three without Gerrard (injured) and Suarez (ineligible).

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

More on how we read the Bible

I wrote just over a week ago about how a lot of Christians read and understand the Bible as if it's a legal handbook or constitution. Brian McLaren suggests in his book 'A New Kind of Christianity' that this approach has led people down all sorts of unhelpful avenues, including the example I wrote about of using the Bible to defend slavery.

McLaren instead prefers to think of the Bible as a library, a 'carefully selected group of ancient documents of paramount importance for people who want to understand and belong to the community of people who seek for God, and in particular, the God of Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets and Jesus.'

I said that I'd leave you to read 'A New Kind of Christianity' for yourself in order to delve into the analogy of the Bible as inspired library, but I've changed my mind... Thinking of the Bible as a library not a legal document has led McLaren down an interesting and disturbing path which I wanted to write about, mainly to help me process his idea and work out just what I think of it.

Firstly, though, let me try to explain why this question of library or law book actually matters. So what if we think of the Bible as a library? Well, you would expect a legal handbook to be consistent within itself, whereas a good library would surely reflect the arguments and debates within a particular culture. McLaren offers the idea of a culture being 'a group of people who argue about the same things over many generations', meaning that if we think of the Bible as a cultural library then 'we would expect to find vigorous internal debate around key questions that were precious to the theological culture in which it was produced'. The very consistency that should be evident in a legal handbook would raise alarm bells in a library, suggesting that the library is only offering an incomplete picture.

Next question, then: what does it mean for the Bible to be a divinely inspired and authoritative library? McLaren says that 'an authoritative library preserves key arguments; an authoritative constitution preserves enforceable agreements'. So, repeating the quotation that I used in my previous post:
To say that God inspired the Bible is to say that, for the community of people who seek to be part of the tradition of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Moses, Ruth, David, Amos, John, Mary and Jesus, the Bible has a unique and unparalleled role.

Now this is quite a shift, isn't it? McLaren is inviting his readers into a fundamentally different way of reading and understanding the Bible. He freely acknowledges that, for many, the shift will simply be too great. I'll post again in a few days' time with a concrete example of where this alternative way of reading the Bible might take us but, for now, here is how McLaren sums up the challenge of making this transition:

Even for those of us on this quest, breaking out of centuries-old habits won't be easy; first, because it is hard for a mind well trained in one way of seeing to learn a new way, and, second, because the religious thought police stand ready to raid places in which theological conversation strays from the familiar constitutional way of reading the Bible.
After all, this approach to the Bible is institutionalised in many of our theological colleges; constitutional reading is the main skill many teach. In addition, the constitutional approach is implicit in many, if not most, of our historic denominational and congregational doctrinal statements, and it's modelled 24/7 in religious broadcasting to boot.

And just in case you're wondering about that 'religious thought police' comment, here are a few criticisms of McLaren and his views that I found in a quick internet search:

a significant attack on orthodox Christianity

outright Bible twisting... postmodern liberal heretical cult

no qualms about using fabrication, exaggeration, disinformation, misrepresentation, vilification, prevarication and even falsification to achieve a complete brainwash in their followers

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Choose to lose

Lent starts today and I've just read what Mike Breen had to say about it on his blog. Read it for yourself to get the full picture, but he wrote about how Jesus, when he was being tempted in the desert, basically faced attacks by way of the appetite, of affirmation and of ambition (yes, a three-word alliteration!). Here's what he says about the last of those attack methods; ambition.

Breen describes ambition as 'an addiction to winning or having to be successful', seeing ourselves as a Failure (capital 'F', because it's who we are!) if we lose, or don't get that promotion, or that raise, or that job, or if that person doesn't want to date me, or if that person beats me at that game.

So how do we break this ungodly way of thinking and behaving? Breen says we should 'choose to lose':

If an argument is going a certain way with your spouse, choose not to have the last word. Lose the argument for the sake of the relationship.

If you’re playing a board game or basketball or any kind of game, make the point of playing to bless your opponent and don’t care whether you win or lose. I’m not saying don’t play hard, I’m saying know when your obsession to win takes over. Change the motivation from winning to blessing.

Go above and beyond at work but don’t let anyone know. Choose to lose the opportunity of that something extra being in the back of your boss’ mind when your annual review has come.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

'Being with' people

A bit of psychology / counselling jargon for y'all today. 'Being with' people refers to how we relate to someone who is going through a difficulty of some kind. The idea is that a person who is feeling down usually has the internal strength to pick themselves up again, but they might need help to do this. And the way we can help is by 'being with' them, sharing and 'validating' their emotional distress; 'It's okay that you feel like this, and I'm here with you'.

What we don't do is urge someone to pull themselves together or point out to them that so many other people are in much worse situations. People often respond negatively when they are forced or urged to cheer up. For me, it sounds like I'm being told the emotions I'm feeling are silly or selfish, that I am somehow in the wrong to feel as I do.

I had a vague appreciation of this idea already but I recently saw a great film clip that brought it home brilliantly. The clip showed two different ways of relating to a baby in distress. In the first section, the adult tried to distract the baby from its crying by waving a toy around and being very upbeat. It was filmed as if from the baby's perspective and the viewers were invited to say how it made them feel. Annoyed and patronised was my answer!

In the second clip, the adult matched their behaviour and tone of voice to the baby's emotional state, trying to acknowledge how the baby was feeling. So when the baby looked sad, the adult talked slowly and put on a somewhat sad face. Then when the baby seemed more cheerful, the adult followed. It felt so calm, peaceful and 'right', if you know what I mean. I should just say that it was all about the child, though; the adult wasn't saying, 'Oh, I'm sad too' or, 'Hey look, I'm happy now as well'. That's another unhelpful way of relating to people who need our support!

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Reading the Bible – what lens do you use?

The first thought I'd like to share from 'A New Kind of Christianity' (it's still shouting 'read me!' from its place by my bed) is about how we approach the Bible. Before I dive in, though, I want to quote from the book about McLaren's own view of the Bible, in an effort to reassure those who are wondering whether McLaren is a liberal who happily drops the bits of the Bible that he finds distasteful or awkward:

'I love the Bible... In my twenties, I planned to be a college English professor because I loved literature. When I ended up switching careers and becoming a pastor instead, in a sense I got the chance to focus on the collection of literature I loved most of all, and I've never tired of the Bible through all these years. The more I've asked of it, the more it has yielded to me. So, yes, I love the Bible. I'm in awe of it. At this very moment.'

McLaren goes on to say that 'we've got ourselves into a mess with the Bible', using the examples of science, ethics and peace. On the latter, he makes the rather shocking point that the moral justification for slavery (in the USA, but I expect it applies equally to Europe) rested on how the Bible was interpreted at the time. Obviously, this no longer applies and McLaren asks: 'Wouldn't it make sense for us to try to understand how so many Bible-reading, Bible-believing, Bible-quoting and Bible-preaching people could be so horribly wrong for so terribly long?'

The overall point that McLaren wants to make is that we 'read and use the Bible as a legal constitution'. So, in the way that lawyers do, 'we look for precedents in past cases of interpretation, sometimes favouring older interpretations as precedents, sometimes asserting that newer ones have rendered the old ones obsolete'. Here's a little example that I like, regarding how we should treat our enemies:

Matthew 5:44 – 'Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!'

Psalm 137:8-9 – 'O Babylon, you will be destroyed... Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!'

Romans 12:14 – 'Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them.'

Deuteronomy 7:2 – 'When the Lord your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy. '

I hope you get the point! The Bible gives us the same problem with many other issues, where one passage seems to completely contradict another. Indeed, viewing the Bible a a legal handbook or constitution, it is hard to reconcile some parts of the Bible with others. Brian McLaren proposes instead that we take the Bible to be 'the library of a culture and community... of people who trace their history back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob'. He goes on to explain how he thinks this analogy is helpful but I shall leave you to read the book yourself. I'll just finish on this by mentioning what McLaren thinks of the Bible being 'inspired'. After noting that many historical figures have said 'interesting, brilliant and inspiring things', McLaren says this:

'But to say that God inspired the Bible is to say that, for the community of people who seek to be part of the tradition of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Moses, Ruth, David, Amos, John, Mary and Jesus, the Bible has a unique and unparalleled role that none of these other voices can claim.'

Going back to how we've got ourselves into a mess with the Bible and science, I'd like to share a quotation. Have a guess as to who might have said it and when:

'Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions... and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but... [that] the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?'

Those words are quoted in a modern book ('The Language of God' but it was actually Augustine of Hippo who first wrote them, in his book 'The Literal Meaning of Genesis'. Augustine lived from 354 to 430 AD. Is it comforting or depressing to know that Christians have been interpreting the Bible overly literally and making the faith look foolish since the middle of the fourth century?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Read me now!

Have you ever read a book review or been flicking through a book and had it shout, 'Read me right now!' in your mind? Well that's what just happened to me... I've already bought the book in question but I was going to put it on my pile of books to read, not expecting to look at it properly for a few weeks. And then I read the back page:

What is the overarching storyline of the Bible?

Is God violent?

What is the Gospel?

Can we find a way to address sexuality without fighting about it?

At the opening of the twenty-first century, Christianity in the West is more fractured and beleaguered than ever. Groundbreaking author ???? suggests that if we are to get beyond doctrinal stalemates towards the life to the full that Jesus promised us, we need new paradigms for thinking and believing and he invites us on a radical quest for a new kind of faith.

Using ten key questions, ???? boldly proposes what a future Christianity could look like. Radical yet orthodox, outspoken yet generous. This is a wise, compassionate book for all who are looking for an authentic, loving faith.

This is totally where I am right now, wondering whether the western churches have really 'got' what the good news of Jesus is all about. Sure, they've got some of it, but so much of what gets Christians and churches in the news is about how intolerant we are, or how loveless, how unthinking, how hypocritical we are. But... As Rolf Harris would say, can you tell what it is yet?

The book is 'A New Kind of Christianity' by Brian McLaren. I read and enjoyed one of his books a couple of years ago and I've read a fair bit by and about him since then. Suffice to say that I'm massively looking forward to getting into this book of his.

And he'll be speaking at the Green Belt festival at the end of August, along with Rob Bell (who's got another very interesting-looking book coming out soon). And and and – one of my favourite bands, Idlewild, are doing a gig at the festival! It's on 26-29 August at Cheltenham racecourse – who's coming with me?

Leadership and mutual submission

I’ve nearly finished my essay about Christian leadership that I mentioned on here in January. It’s been so interesting and thought-provoking, and it’s really developed my thinking about what Christian leadership can look like. A question that has come up a couple of times in discussions with my course-mates has been about leaders and submission. How should leaders react to Paul’s statement that Christians should ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’? Does this mean leaders should defer to what their followers want to do? But surely nothing would get done! Maybe it doesn’t apply to leaders at all, then.

Perhaps a clue is in this wonderful little quotation I found about Paul’s leadership style. It’s from a book called ‘Paul’s Idea of Community’:

‘The apostle [Paul] – for all his divine call, diverse gifts, and founding labours – does not set himself in a hierarchical position above his communities or act in an authoritarian manner towards them. He refuses to do this since Christ, not he, is their master [2 Corinthians 4:5].’

I’ve also been reminded recently of a great illustration our senior pastor used in a talk, about how he saw his role (and the leadership team’s role as a whole). He said it’s not up to church leaders to make everything happen, but they should make it possible for everyone in the church to use their gifts and skills for God’s glory. So if people have identified a need of some sort then it’s not for the leaders to directly meet the need themselves; they should encourage and enable people in church community to meet the need. Leaders might be involved in the work, or they might not be. What matters is that the need is met, not who meets it.