Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Addicted – to new ideas

Going deeper with God; it's a phrase I've used quite a lot to try and explain my search for life-changing community. But what if I'm actually looking for the next theological challenge that will feed in to my intellectual arrogance? I read this the other day (from here):
I think what people refer to in their desire to “go deep” is the hit they get from hearing something they’ve never heard before; a new idea, a new paradigm, a new angle. We often get this tingly sense when that happens. We want more tingles... We operate with the assumption that giving people new ideas changes people. It doesn’t. Believing ideas is, in fact, a way of not having to change in any significant way, especially if you can argue about them. Ideas become defenses.

Believing ideas is, in fact, a way of not having to change in any significant way... Bam! I so do this. And the plain fact is that I need help to change. I'm addicted to the buzz of new ideas about faith. Not that new ideas are bad (I think it's vital that some people within the body of Christ have new ideas about faith!) but it's bad to be addicted to them.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Become a Christian and lose your life

No, I'm not writing about martyrdom again! I'm back to thinking about what exactly Jesus meant by calling his message 'good news'. I've just read a blog post from my friend, Dave Smiffy. He's been thinking about Jesus' words in Luke 9:
If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?

Dave Smiffy says he's deeply troubled by Jesus' words here, and I think that might just be the right reaction! But then how should we tell people about Jesus? 'Hey friend, become a Christian and lose your life, turn from your selfish ways!' Not an appealing message? I'm with Dave:
Is this the message I want to be giving to people, that to follow Jesus means denying oneself and taking up a cross? It leaves me questioning whether I want to follow Jesus, let alone preach this message.

Maybe though, this message is more real than the kind that implies God will sort everything out in our life if we become Christians. Jesus' invitation to take up your cross and lose your life is not such an instantly attractive offer, of course. But perhaps it's a message that can weather the tragedies and disappointments all of us will face at some point. And perhaps we just have to be faithful in presenting this message, unvarnished and unsweetened, while trusting God to do his work (as we also live the message faithfully too, of course).

Saturday, 14 January 2012

You turn if you want to...

...The lady's not for turning. So said Margaret Thatcher at the Conservative Party's conference in October 1980, when faced with pressure to reverse some unpopular economic decisions taken by her government. Her determined stance certainly went down well with her own party, with the 'You turn if you want to' speech garnering a lengthy standing ovation.

Some people, on the other hand, might prefer the approach the economist John Maynard Keynes, who is reputed to have said this:
When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, would agree with Keynes on this one, I suspect. At least, it fits with his remarkable interview in the Guardian today. After almost two years of berating the Government's economic approach, Balls now says this:
My starting point is, I am afraid, we are going to have keep all these cuts. There is a big squeeze happening on budgets across the piece. The squeeze on defence spending, for instance, is £15bn by 2015 . We are going to have to start from that being the baseline. At this stage, we can make no commitments to reverse any of that, on spending or on tax.

I wonder when things changed from the Government's cuts being 'too far, too fast' to the cuts all being kept in place by Labour if they win the next election; it's a pretty screeching handbrake turn, seems to me. So has Balls come round to the Cameron / Osborne approach? Not exactly... From the Guardian interview:
I said to the parliamentary party a year ago last January that we would not know until October or November whether we were right, and whether Osborne's economic plans would not work. That would be the point, the first time, [when] we could judge how decisions made in 2010 would impact on growth and jobs in 2011. And it was this autumn that we saw the economy really stagnating. Now turning round the politics of this will take considerably longer. It will take us well into 2012, maybe longer.

He's blaming the Government's spending cuts for the situation that we are now in, with the economy growing very slowly and unemployment rising. And yet what of Balls' past as a key part of the previous Labour government? Where is his contrition for the massive and unsustainable increase in public spending carried out by Labour? (I blogged about his last year – government spending was £343 billion in 1999-2000 and £669 billion in 2009-10, whereas if spending had just increased in line with inflation over those years the 2009-10 figure would have been £438 billion. That's a 53% increase, after removing the effect of inflation.)

Edit... As far as I can tell, there are three possible explanations for Ed Balls' interview today:

1 - The option I outlined above; something has made Balls rethink matters so that, while he used to think the Government was cutting 'too far, too fast', he now thinks the cuts are necessary. But what is that something?

2 - Balls actually thinks the Government approach has been correct all along. If this is the case, an apology of sorts would be nice (but unexpected, to say the least - he's a politician!).

3 - The reason for Balls' apparent change of mind is political, not economic. He's trying to change the public view that Labour are more to blame for the spending cuts than the present Government is.

My vote is on option 3, unless someone can suggest a recent event that has made reversing the cuts no longer a realistic option for a future Labour government...

Saturday, 7 January 2012

A different end of the world

Here we go, then, with an alternative take on what will happen at the end of this era or system of things. I'm quite looking forward to writing this post as I enjoy exploring the boundaries of orthodox Christian belief. Some people see these boundaries as fences to keep us safely under the umbrella of God's protection, but I don't see why we need to be so cautious. So many of the renewal movements and Christian social action initiatives that have shaped the history of the faith have been pushed along by people who weren't afraid to swim against the tide of their times. Imagine if the Reformation had never happened, or if Wilberforce and others had not fought against slavery, just to quote two examples.

As I said in my post a few days ago, the typical evangelical Christian view of the end of the world is this: Jesus will return to the earth, and people will be judged according to whether they believe in Jesus, with those who do believe going on to spend eternity in God's glorious presence and those who do not either spending eternity in torment or being wiped out of existence. Brian McLaren's book, A New Kind of Christianity (or ANKOC for short) proposes a different view which starts off by focusing on an important little Greek word, parousia.

This Greek word is commonly translated as 'coming' or 'arrival'. It's used in the New Testament to describe the arrival of people in a certain place (e.g. in 1 Corinthians 16:17 and 2 Corinthians 7:6). Most often, though, it refers to Jesus in passages that are usually taken to be about Jesus' Second Coming. In particular, see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 2 Thessalonians 2. These passages refer to 'Lord himself... com[ing] down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God' and 'the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and how we will be gathered to meet him'. The exact sequence of events around the Second Coming are disputed, as I noted in my previous post. Here's a diagram from Wikipedia:

It's important to note, though, that the New Testament writers seemed to believe that this 'parousia' of Jesus would happen fairly soon. Look at Mark 13 and the parallel passages in the other Gospels; Jesus says, 'I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene before all these things take place.' Some Bible versions fudge this by translating the Greek word genea as 'age' or 'nation' but I gather that in almost, if not completely, all the other times it appears in the New Testament and other documents from that time (do your own research, but here is an interesting point to start at) the word means 'generation'. Which means that Jesus, Paul and the others got it wrong if it does refer to a future, epoch-ending event...

So what if, instead, it referred to the full replacement of the Jewish religious system with the new covenant between God and humanity? From ANCOK p266-7:
[I]f the New Testament writers were in fact correct in their expectations of a close-at-hand parousia[I]... the term could mean the arrival... of a new age or era – a new season of growth. It could mean not the full arrival of 'the end of the end', but the full arrival of 'the beginning of a new beginning'. Parousia[I], in this way, would signal the full arrival, presence and manifestation of a new age in human history... This would be the age of the Spirit and grace rather than law and law-keeping. It would be the age of God's presence in a holy people being formed in all cultures rather than God's presence localised in a holy temple centralised in one city.

(Sorry for all the '…' by the way; McLaren makes several references to ideas and phrases from earlier in ANKOC, which won't make sense unless you've read the book. I hope I've managed to preserve McLaren's meaning, though.)

In New Testament times, the old covenant was clearly still in operation. Jesus himself was circumcised as a baby and accepted the title of rabbi, taking students (or disciples) as rabbis did in those times. He spoke in synagogues and, in many ways, behaved as a devout Jew. He was brought before the Sanhedrin and accused of blasphemy against God. But in AD 70, the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, bringing all of that to an end. Here is how McLaren relates these events to the arrival of a new age:
[T]he parousia – the arrival or presence – of the new era or covenant began after an in-between time during which the old era or covenant co-existed with the new. In other words, the age of the new covenant had been conceived[I] in the birth, life, teaching, good words, death and resurrection of Jesus. Then, after Easter, the new era continued gestating[I] in the community of his followers through several decades of struggle and persecution, culminating in a time of great tribulation, when persecution and danger intensified like labour pains[I]. During these years, the new age, like a gestating baby, was already[I] here, but not yet[I] fully born. During this time, the old system of animal sacrifice, priesthood, temple and holy city had not yet[I] ended, yet the new system (or covenant) that would outlast it was already[I] developing in secret.

When the Romans came to Jerusalem and crushed a Zealot-led rebellion in AD 70, the temple was destroyed, the sacrificial system ended, the priesthood was disbanded, and the old era came to its last day. With the cataclysmic last days of the old era ended, the new age, new covenant, new testament or new era was brought to full term, and its parousia[I] had come.
So this gives an alternative to the usual take on the 'Second Coming' but what about judgement? That's another thread running through the New Testament which could perhaps do with a closer look. The usual understanding is that all humanity will be judged (based on what is an interesting question – it could be faith in Christ or how we treat those in need) with those who 'pass' getting to spend eternity with God, and those who 'fail' going on to what Brian McLaren starkly describes as eternal conscious torment. Here are some illustrations...

But what if God's judgement is not about condemnation, but rather evaluation and reconciliation? I'll quote McLaren again, instead of trying to put his words into my own:
The reality of judgment seems to be a central theme across the biblical library [more on the library thing here), because in God's presence all pretence and hypocrisy, like all hidden virtues and goodness, are brought to light and our true colours shine through. This means that the true accounting, evaluation or assessment of our lives, our works, our nations, our world cannot help but happen. This true accounting, evaluation or assessment is what judgement means... As a first step in seeing judgement in our new eschatological context, we must stop defining it as condemnation. God's judgement... is not merely retributive – seeking to punish wrongdoers for their wrongs and in this way to balance some sort of cosmic equation. No, God's judgement is far higher and better than that; it involves 'putting wrong things right'. It means reconciling, not merely punishing; healing, not merely diagnosing; transforming, not merely exposing; revaluing (or redeeming), not merely evaluating...

Whatever the final judgement will be, then, it will not involve God (please pardon the crudeness of this) pulling down one's pants to check for circumcision, or scanning one's brain for certain beliefs like products being scanned at the supermarket checkout. No, God will examine the story of our lives for signs of Christ-likeness – for a cup of cold water or a plate of hot food given to one in need, for an atom of mercy shown to one who has been unkind or unthoughtful, for a visit to a prisoner or an open door and warm bed for a stranger, for a generous impulse indulged and a hurtful one denied, like Jesus. These are the parts of a person's life that will be deemed worthy of being saved, remembered, rewarded and raised for a new beginning. All the unloving, unjust, non-Christ-like parts of our lives – and of our nations, tribes, civilisations, families, churches, and so on – will be burned away, counted as unworthy, condemned (which means acknowledged for what they are) and forgotten for ever.

So when we say, with the writer of Hebrews, that 'people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment', we are not saying, 'and after that, to face condemnation'. We are saying, with John, that to 'see God', to be in God's unspeakable light, will purge us of all darkness.

I am sorry this is rather long and dense, but I hope you have found reading it even half as interesting as I have found writing it. I don't know what to make of a lot of what McLaren says in A New Kind of Christianity, if I'm honest. It is all so appealing and hopeful but it's in such stark contrast to what I've always been taught in my time as a Christian. The idea that Jesus is coming back to judge and separate everyone into 'sheep' and 'goats' (as per Matthew 25) is utterly central to evangelical Christianity. Am I just paying too much attention to someone who is 'teaching things contrary to what I have been taught' and using 'smooth talk and glowing words' to deceive people (see Romans 16:18)?

If you want to read some more (more? More!) then there's an article on McLaren's website based on material that got cut from A New Kind of Christianity. It's called 'Making Eschatology Personal' and covers the personal element of the 'end of the world' in more detail. Follow the link...

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The end of the world

This post is about what different Christians think will happen to bring this era of history to an end. I guess the typical phrase used is 'the Second Coming of Jesus' and what this broadly refers to is that Jesus will return to the earth, and people will be judged according to whether they believe in Jesus, with those who do believe going on to spend eternity in God's glorious presence and those who do not either spending eternity in torment or being wiped out of existence. The details are up for dispute, of course, but I think that is a fair summary of the evangelical Christian position.

I write this post with some trepidation as I am about to express some doubts about this view of the end of the world. Be gentle with me, friends... I blogged last year about Brian McLaren's book, A New Kind of Christianity [IMAGE] and a couple of weeks ago I started to read the book again. It's funny how this happens, isn't it, but one chapter which didn't have much impact on me first time round has really got me thinking now; probably due to my being recently lent a book that firmly espouses Jesus' Second Coming and the Rapture of Christians (hello kind book-lender, if you're reading this!).

Chapters 14 and 15 of A New Kind of Christianity tackle the question of what the good news of Christianity is – what is the gospel? The typical evangelical answer might refer to several verses in Romans (as I wrote here) that, when linked together, make up a 'road of salvation' taking us from a realisation that we have all fallen short of God's standards and are helpless to do anything about it, to an offer of restoration if we trust in Jesus and his payment in our place. But how did Jesus himself explain what the good news (his good news!) is? Well, one of his key phrases was, 'The kingdom of God is at hand' (e.g. in Mark 1:15) and in the synagogue at Nazareth, his childhood home, he took this message from the Old Testament as his mission:
When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!”

Here's how Brian McLaren puts it, from page 186 of A New Kind of Christianity:
[Jesus] came to announce a new kingdom, a new way of life, a new way of peace that carried good news to all people... It wasn't simply information about how individual souls could leave earth, avoid hell and ascend to heaven after death. No: it was about God's will being done on earth as in heaven for all people. It was about God's faithful solidarity with all humanity in our suffering, oppression and evil. It was about God's compassion and call to be reconciled with God and with one another – before death, on earth. It was a summons to rethink everything and enter a life of retraining as disciples or learners of a new way of life, citizens of a new kingdom.

So how does this tally with a future in which there will be wars, discord, famine and a catastrophic decline of conditions on earth, all leading up to Christians being whisked away to safety while things go even further downhill? (Wikipedia has plenty of material on this.) Brian McLaren again:
If the world is about to end, why care for the environment? Why worry about global climate change or fuel resources? Who gives a fig for endangered species or sustainable economies or peak oil or global poverty if God is planning to incinerate the whole planet soon anyway? If the Bible requires the rebuilding of the Jewish temple (or requires that rebuilding for its prophecies to work in a dispensationalist framework), why care about Muslim claims on the Temple Mount land? Why care about justice for non-Jews in Israel at all – after all, isn't it their own fault for being on land God predicts will be returned in full to the Jews in the last days?
If God has predetermined that the world will get worse and worse until it ends in a cosmic mega-conflict... why waste energy on peace-making, on diplomacy, on inter-religious dialogue? Aren't those simply endeavours in rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic?

Why indeed care about releasing captives and fighting oppression...

So you see that I'm struck by some difficulties with the standard evangelical view of how this age will end. That's enough for now, I think; I'll write the second half of this post, showing what Brian McLaren proposes as an alternative version, at the weekend.