Scripture and the Authority of God

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N.T. Wright is trying to answer three questions, let’s see how he does.

  1. In what sense is the Bible Authoritative?
  2. How does one understand and interpret the Bible?
  3. Assuming accurate interpretation is possible, how does one manage to bring the authority of Scripture to bear upon the church let alone the world?

In what sense is the Bible authoritative? 

It means God’s the boss. Biblical Authority is shorthand for the God’s authority somehow exercised through Scripture.  Wright does not want us to think that God’s word is a synonym for the written Scriptures (27) It’s not, It’s much bigger than that. The written word is the expression and embodying of the living word. John didn’t proclaim that the word was written down, he proclaimed the the Word took on flesh and dwelt among us.  When the Apostles refused to wait on tables because they wanted to give themselves to the Word of God and prayer, its wasn’t extra time in the Torah scrolls that they were angling for. It was the story of Jesus, particularly his death and resurrection, as the climax of God’s grand story that they needed to focus in on and preach about. Jesus as the fulfillment of all that had gone before could now be teased out of the Torah scrolls with greater clarity if they had opportunity to read them, but make no mistake the Word they were after was the knowledge of Jesus wrapped up in God’s grand story. Wright uses the word “story” 83 times to help us understand that the authority for the Christian is God’s grand story, climaxing in Jesus — this story is the “word of God” which by divine providence came to be expressed in written form through the work of the early writers and compilers.  The Bible is the charter which forms the basis for the fulfilled telling of the story of God at work among his people.

How does one understand and interpret the Bible?

Totally contextual, multilayered, critical realist approach. Everyone got that? We good to move on? I suppose an explanation is in order. First however, Wright takes us on a world wind tour of the history of Biblical interpretation. It’s always good to know where one is coming from!

Marcion made the Scripture into two totally different stories with two altogether different God’s, he tried to “de-jew” the Christian story, and debunk the Jewish one. Allegorical interpretation was a dramatic counterbalance to Marcion’s throw out the bad stuff mentality.  Basically everything in Scripture became a mystical representation of Jesus with absolutely no care for the context. This was a wayward albeit sincere attempt to stick with Scripture, even when Scripture was problematic. (particularly O.T. Scripture) because of it’s lack of control. Once you can make scripture stand on its hind legs and dance a jig, it becomes a tame pet rather than a roaring lion. (51)

The reformers, bucked against the nauseating allegorical interpretations of their predecessors, but their emphasis on grace over law inadvertently set the story improperly against itself at times. The following generations of reformers played around with various interpretive strategies in which they would make distinctions to help with interpretation, for example, Jewish moral law was seen as distinct from Jewish ceremonial law, making the moral applicable and the ceremonial not applicable. Wright gives this the thumbs down, citing that ancient Jews would have made no such distinction. He dismisses dispensationalism as a fanciful notion, and leaves it at that.

Totally contextual means that the cultural context of a Scripture must be considered at all times. Multilayered means that Scripture is like a five act play with each act stacked up on top of the other, with the whole communicating one grand story. The implication is that some Scriptures will mean something in there original context but will also mean something more in the broader context of the story as a whole. It also means that some portions of Scripture will be less important. To quote Wright:

The key point of the whole model, which forms the heart of the multi-layered view of how ‘the authority of scripture’ actually works, runs as follows. Those who live in this fifth act have an ambiguous relationship with the four previous acts, not because they are being disloyal to them but precisely because they are being loyal to them as part of the story. (89)

He fails to define critical realist, even though he twice calls himself one. He uses the term in reaction to postmodern thought which says one persons interpretation is as good as another’s. The term, I think, means that there is an actual true meaning in the text that can be determined with careful study. One interpretation is not as good as another.

As mentioned earlier Wright acknowledges that some parts of the Scriptures are no longer relevant for the ongoing life of the church —not, because those parts are bad, or not God-given, or less inspired, but because they belong with earlier parts of the story which have reached there climax. (39) He captures the idea well with the following illustration:

When travellers sail across a vast ocean and finally arrive on the distant shore, they leave the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good, or because their voyage had been misguided, but precisely because both ship and voyage had accomplished their purpose. During the new, dry-land stage of their journey, the travellers remain—and in this illustration must never forget that they remain—the people who made that voyage in that ship. (41)

Assuming accurate interpretation is possible, how does one manage to bring the authority of Scripture to bear upon the church let alone the world?

Read the Bible out loud together. To quote him directly:

“The whole of my argument so far leads to the following major conclusion: that the shorthand phrase ‘the authority of scripture’, when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community.” (83)

It feels perhaps a bit simple, but if we want to bring the authority of Scripture to bear on the church and the world we must read it together out loud. Wright laments how churches have cut out Scripture reading in worship gatherings in order to speed things up, or make things more palatable for seekers. Wright will have none of that. Read, read read he says. Read it in the liturgy, read it in large chunks together, have good preachers preach it regularly. He doesn’t dismiss the notion of personal private study, but that is not what he is driving at, for Wright the proclamation of the word is the heart of Church life and the only way it will ever be brought to bear upon the church and the world.

On the need for ongoing interpretive work

To affirm ‘the authority of scripture’ is precisely not to say, ‘We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’ It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions. (67)

On the relationship between Scripture, reason and tradition:

Scripture is the shelf full of books; tradition is the memory of what people in the house have read and understood (or perhaps misunderstood) from that shelf; reason is the set of spectacles that people wear in order to make sense of what they read—though, worryingly, the spectacles have varied over time, and there are signs that some readers, using the ‘reason’ available to them, have severely distorted the texts they were reading. (74)

Become a Muslim Like Jeff?

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Jeffrey Lang grew up in an abusive home, his nominal Catholic faith provided him no solace for the suffering he endured. By his mid teen age years he had become a convinced atheist. In his 20’s a friend handed him a Quran, he started reading, over time he left atheism and embraced the way of Islam. Why?

According to Lang, Islam is better because unlike Christianity, human suffering is not a result of God’s angry judgement. In the beginning according to Lang’s interpretation of the Quran, there is no great sin that brought condemnation to the human race. There was only a little “slip up”. God didn’t get angry or feel threatened by this inconsequential eating of unauthorized fruit.

The big idea of the ancient Adam and Eve narrative is not one of divine judgment and human brokeness, rather divine mercy and human preparation. God does not punish Adam and Eve, rather he blesses them and tells them not to be afraid or sad. The “slip up” was part of their training. Now they must use their reason to choose God in the midst of suffering.

The choice between right and wrong is always a struggle (Jihad), but by using the facility of reason & intellect the right choices can be made and the relationship with God strengthened. Salvation comes through the work of the mind. Lang confesses that the greatest problem with unbelievers (non-muslims) is their inability to think properly  “Unbelief in Islam, is an infirmity of the mind” Lang says.

The point of Islam is to have a close relationship with God. Since God is transcendent how is that even possible? The Quran describes God as compassionate, merciful, forgiving, just, protective, wise, generous, truthful, and peaceful. All of these attributes are the seeds of God that reside in every human. When we love God by living out these attributes in the everyday God loves us back. These seeds of divinity grow into full flower as we yield to the will of God and this is how we find ourselves in close relationship with him.

Suffering is good because with out it, we could never learn to use our reason and make the right choices to live out the attributes of God. When we fail to water the seeds of divinity in us, we destroy ourselves, thus sin is simply self destruction. Hell then is not so much a punishment from God, as it is the ultimate self destruction

I’m happy for Lang, in that he certainly seems to have found the solace he was looking for. I think he misunderstands the Christian story and I am not entirely sure he’s got the Muslim story right either. But lets assume for the sake of this article he has the Islamic story correct. What are the big differences?

  1. Christianity emphasizes human brokeness, Lang’s Islam does not. At first, this dismissal of sin and all of it’s attendant guilt and shame might seem to be a great idea. But for me, it does not ring true. We all swim in oceans of guilt and to shrug off our bad choices as insignificant “slip ups” doesn’t actually help us understand justice or even address what is wrong in our lives. Through the cross we understand clearly both the justice and mercy of God.
  2. I appreciate Lang’s emphasis on the need for human reason and choice, however, as a Christian I know that even the deep thoughts of my heart are often corrupted. Even my virtue in the blink of an eye can become vice. I need a Saviour to redeem me. In the Christian story it’s not the long hard climb upwards towards God through rational thought that’s beautiful, It’s God’s condescension to me. In my blindness he gives me sight, In my sickness he makes me whole, in my weakness and inability he empowers me. I love the idea of God coming to the rescue, and that’s what happens in the story of Jesus.

A curious observation: I agree with Lang about the need for the human to choose. Islam is the better story to him and he has chosen it, it makes the most sense to his mathematical mind. I respect that choice, even though I don’t agree with it.  I wish all Muslim’s would be so generous when it comes to the matter of religious choice. Let’s turn the story around a little bit. Is there any doubt as to what would have happened to Jeffrey Lang, if he had been born Mohammed Al Ghamdi in Saudi Arabia? Let’s imagine, for a moment, that someone gave him a Bible in his mid twenties and through secret study he decided that Christianity was the better story. In his enthusiasm for his new religion he begins to speak out in his home town of Medina that Jesus is his Saviour. I am certain we wouldn’t be listening to his speeches for long, we would be visiting his grave site instead. In our pluralistic world of today, something is wrong when a religion forces it’s adherence to believe on pain of death. I hope Lang’s message of free choice goes a long way in the house of Islam.

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“Big Time” 

Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’ (Luke 7:22-23)

 It is not the glamorous & popular things that you do in the name of Jesus that impress God. Miracles? Demon hunts? Prophecy? God yawns. There are plenty of religious showmen in this world, God is impressed with none of them. God, on the other hand, sits up and takes notice when he sees a person on the long, slow, faithful walk of obedience in the every day. There is talk in heaven when you quietly put others in front of yourself, and serve in the shadows. God is standing now, applauding wildly. “Yes!” says God as he high fives the other members of the Trinity. The roar of the angel crowd in heaven can be heard when you are in a quiet corner praying fervently for others and resisting temptation during rigors of daily life on planet earth. Can you hear them cheering? Despite doubts, you’ve continued to love and worship the unseen God. That’s what they call “Big time” in heaven.  

A Story about the Trinity

Holy_TrinityFrom the very beginning the early church understood the trinity as a mystery that was honoured and respected.  Jesus claimed deity, and yet he was distinct from God, the promised Spirit who came at pentecost was also distinct from God and Jesus and yet was clearly divine. Before Constantine, it wasn’t a hot debate, amazement was preferred over explanation. Love for Jesus and survival were the priorities of those first Christ followers. That all changed however when Christianity became legalized under Constantine. His plan to unify his massive and fragmented empire under the banner of this burgeoning new religion known as Christianity had worked incredibly well, perhaps to well. Christian people began to fight amongst themselves now that they had the time and freedom to attempt an understanding of this great mystery of God’s three in one ness. It wasn’t long before the newly unified empire was at risk of fragmentation, this time along theological lines.

Constantine wanted it sorted, it was time for the church to meet and settle it. One idea that had been floating around since the 2nd century was Monarchialism. This idea portrayed God as one great ruling monarch, but rejected the need to make the distinction between the Father, Son, and Spirit. Monarchialism attempted to explain the trinity in two different ways:

  1. Modalism — God is one, but he has three modes or three roles that He carries out in consecutive periods of time. Like a single actor that plays three different roles in a theatrical production.
  • Rejected – This view was rejected by the church because it doesn’t accurately account for the interaction of the Trinity in New Testament, like at Jesus’ baptism for example. Also, if these representations of one God are only masks like in an ancient play then it becomes impossible to actually know the real God. The church gave modalism the thumbs down!
  1. Subordinationism — There is only one superior God (Father) who is assisted by lesser god’s of lower rank (Jesus & the Holy Spirit)
  • Rejected – Strongly rejected at the counsel of Nicaea in 325 as shown below.

The struggle to clarify the churches position on the trinity came as a direct result of a guy named Arias. Arias taught that the word who became flesh was a lesser god of a different nature. Jesus was not eternal or omnipotent, Jesus was only God in an approximate sort of way. Jesus was the first and greatest created being, but he was not the eternal God. Arianism in this form continues on in the teachings of Jehovah Witnesses.

Arian thought appealed to pagan converts. They were more easily attracted to the idea of lesser gods, because their pagan heritage which was full of them. Christianity in this form was more palatable to the masses. In the Arian story, Jesus Christ was a divine hero, a loose approximation would be like our modern day super man. Who doesn’t love superman?! He was greater than an ordinary human being, but not the eternal God.

Arias was a powerful speaker and a gifted networker. He also was able to put catchy jingles together that promoted his understanding of Jesus, little kids and dock workers would sing his songs. He was wildly popular, so when he was excommunicated, early in the 4th century, things got ugly. With rioting in the streets going on, Emperor Constantine was prompted to call a church council in the city of Nicaea in 325 a.d. He reminded the 300 churchmen who attended the counsel that church division was worse than war. He gave them one charge. Figure it out! He didn’t much care about the conclusion just so long as everyone agreed with it!

Since Jesus had been worshipped as God in the vast majority of churches across the empire for upwards to 300 years in some places, Arias bold revision of Jesus and his place in the Godhead was met with massive disapproval. He and his supporters were regularly shouted down in the counsel. It was inconceivable that Jesus could be anything less than equal to the eternal God. The creed that came from this council nearly 2000 years ago is still accepted to this day by the vast majority of Christians world wide. Notice the emphasis on Jesus and the three in oneness of God.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made…We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets…

All the Bishops but three signed the creed in 325. Arias and two of his supporters were kicked out of the church. The controversy raged on for 50 more years before Arian thought was officially expunged from orthodox teaching.

The Semi-Arians tried to land a compromise. It didn’t work. They were ready to concede that Jesus was similar in nature to the father just so long as they did not have to say that he was of the same nature. This didn’t fly either — From the earliest of times, Christians believed that If Jesus wasn’t God in the flesh he couldn’t be the Saviour. Semi-Arianism prolonged the debate but a compromise that viewed Jesus as anything less than co-equal with God was not possible.

To the early believers in Jesus, salvation was not about going to heaven to get stuff, as Islam would later teach. It was about being united in the communion of the divine. From the orthodox point of view, the goal was not to attain equality with God or be made into a god as mormonism would much later teach, rather the believer would be welcomed into the fellowship of the triune God. He would belong in the company of God.

The first Christians loved this grand story, A relational God, coming to earth, welcoming the human into fellowship with him through the grace of Jesus by the power of the Spirit.  The earliest benedictions evidenced this incredible three in oneness, II Cor 13:14 — May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.  It was the Christian story, not to be changed. Beyond full comprehension to be sure, and a great mystery without doubt, but an absolutely beautiful and glorious story.

Thank you Bruce Shelley your  book Church History in Plain Language, was very helpful.

This Actually Happened To Me – Health Care, Canadian Style

Finally got on the wait list for hip surgery, only have about a year to wait now!

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My hip was hurting again. I’ve put this off long enough, I thought to myself. It was time for me to face the facts. My hip was toast, and I needed to start the process of getting a new one. 9 years of limping needed to end.

Finally after waiting in the lobby of the Walk-in clinic for to long, I got the chance to tell my story to the doctor. I have letters and MRI reports, and X-rays from years past so I was ready.

“What seems to be the trouble?” he asks.

I launch in to my story, showing him what other doctors have said over the course of nearly a decade of hip pain. He notices that the reports which affirm joint deterioration and recommend surgery are from the States.

“F***ing Americans!” He blurts out.

Huh? What? Wasn’t expecting the F-bomb in the doctors office, I’m…

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Does forgiveness spit in the eye of justice?

  
The follower of Jesus is regularly able to forgive those people who have wronged him .

He is able to let things go — not carry grudges, not get bitter, or feel compelled to get even. He keeps no list of wrongs that people must pay him back for.Rather, he is able to continue to love people even the tough ones, continue to exercise kindness and generosity towards those that may not deserve it.

Is this not a terrible way to live? Does it not seem that this way cares nothing for Justice?

Only if this perspective is disconnected from the story out of which it comes.

The story says we are the guilty ones. We are the ones deserving punishment and yet the king of the universe has forgiven us. Only because we have been forgiven much are we able to forgive others.

Justice also is not absent from the story because the king took the necessary judgment and suffering upon himself to satisfy the need for justice on our behalf.

How is it justice when the innocent party pays for the guilty? Must not the guilty pay for it to be truly justice?

It is only justice if the innocent party is willing to pay. The story becomes Magnificently beautiful when we discover that the innocent party is willing to pay because of love for us. When Love enters the picture it satisfies justice, destroys hate and breaks the cycle of violence and revenge that so many humans are trapped in. The never ending quest for “justice” is a desert place to live. I love Malala’s honest critique of her beloved Peshtoon people in her book “I am Malala.”

They have no word in their language for forgiveness. Only justice. She laments, that the tribal warfare that has existed for millennia amoung her people, can only forever continue in this closed “justice only” system. You hurt me, justice demands that I hurt you back and so it goes forever. We in the West, don’t raid villages, chop off hands and do public executions as in Malala’s world, but we have our ways of getting even, it’s our version of a “justice only” system and it’s just as bleak. There is a better way.

Speaking of Jesus (the art of not-evangelism)

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Using numerous personal life stories Carl Medearis is able to share with his readers how he was able to disarm, relate to, and welcome into friendship Muslims, gay activists, and anyone else that would normally have a pretty big axe to grind against Christianity. How is Carl able to make friends out of sworn enemies so effectively? His answer is very simple: Jesus. Carl isn’t interested in turning people into Christians, he is interested in sharing Jesus.

What I liked:

Its all about Jesus: Carl has learned through personal experience, that Jesus is the only word connected to Christianity that still has a good reputation. All other words are completely sullied. In addition to all of his life experience, he further backs up this claim by sharing the results of his many anecdotal surveys. “What do you think about Christianity?” he asks 50 people on the street one day. He gets only negative responses. Then he asks 50 more people. “What do you think of Jesus?” He gets nothing but positive. Terms like Christian, missionary, evangelism, bible, religion and church are all words that are more trouble than they are worth when introducing people to Jesus. Following Jesus is not about understanding everything in the Bible, affirming complex theological truth, or pledging allegiance to a certain denominational system, it’s about learning to love Jesus. Carl is very helpful in reminding us of this.

No more “Us and Them” Thinking: “Us, Them” terminology is not helpful. Carl acknowledges that he Bible speaks regularly of the sheep and the goats, and of those who are saved and those who are not, but Carl doesn’t think we should. The “in and out” thing is God’s department, not ours. A better way is to think less about the line that determines who is in and out, and more about orientation. The goal of the follower of Jesus is to help other people orient themselves in a direction towards Jesus.

What I am not sure about:

Scripture, the words in red, matter most. He prioritizes the words of Jesus above everything else. What Jesus said, is way more important than what is said in the book of Numbers for example. Fair enough, but then he goes and shoves the words of Paul to the back of the bus with Numbers! the message is clear. Don’t listen to Paul near as much as you listen to Jesus. I understand the need to prioritize Scripture based on things like context and genre. But isn’t what God spoke through Paul or James equally important to what God spoke through John, Matthew, Mark or Luke? Carl says “No” The Jesus words that you find in your red letter edition are the ones that matter most. I’m not so sure. Is it ok to relegate certain parts of the N.T. to the back of the bus based on how many actual quotes of Jesus they contain? I hesitate to sign on. Carl is not saying that Paul’s words are unimportant, but he is saying that they are not as important. To me they are, because all of it is God’s word, and all of it points to Jesus.

Jesus as a human is to be emphasized the most. Carl bemoans the fact that we as Christians have rushed to deify Jesus. He thinks we should embrace the humanity of Jesus a lot more readily. People connect to the real person of Jesus, and from the place of his humanity they grow in their allegiance to him. To make Jesus God to quickly turns people off. OK. I get that, Jesus is human. Love that truth, but John, for example, starts his gospel off making the case for the deity of Jesus — he doesn’t slowly lead into it either. Boom! “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God.” Is he making a mistake by being so bold? Of course not. I think we have to hold the deity of Jesus and the humanity of Jesus with vigilant equality. More than one heresy has started with a lean to one side or the other

Love the Terrorists: 

Several times he talks about Jesus’ words to love our enemies and applies them directly to our current world of terrorism. It does no good to bomb the sand out of the middle-east, Carl says. What did Jesus do with the terrorists of the day? He welcomed them into this inner circle. What does that mean? What does that look like for us today? How does this observation apply? Carl gives no answer. But I guess that is a bit like what Jesus did also.

The Insanity of God

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Somalia’s civil war, not the place to be if you are white, from the west, and Christian, but that is exactly where Kentucky born, Nik Ripkin found himself in the early 90’s. He wanted to help. The overflow of his love for Jesus made it impossible for him not to try to assist this beleaguered muslim nation.

The light of Jesus must surely overcome the darkness of civil war, violence, radicalism, abuse, starvation, needless death and hopelessness right? His experiences in Somalia left him doubting the answer to that question.

For the love of power and control, feuding tribal warlords and muslim extremist’s continually thwarted anything good for their country. The cost was the death and displacement of millions of their countrymen.

To be a Somalian Christian was not possible. If you were even suspected of following Jesus you were summarily executed. The handful of Christians that Nik got to know while in Somalia were all assassinated while he was there. In part, because they knew Nik. Finally one of Nik’s sons perished from a fully preventable medical emergency had they not been in Africa.

Hearts broken and discouraged, the Ripkins headed back to America. They had so many questions: Can God truly overcome evil? Is love really more powerful than hate? How can a person maintain even a small hope in a dark place? How is it possible for faith to survive in an insane environment like Somaliland’s? Can Christianity work outside of western, dressed-up, well-ordered nations? If so how?

For the next 20 years Nik traveled the globe in search of answers to these questions.

His answer after interviewing over 700 Christian people who come from the worlds most oppressed places is “yes”. In fact, according to Niks research the light of Jesus actually shines brighter in the face of persecution. This book bears out the truth of this claim in one story after another.

Observations:

  1. Freedom is not always so good for faith: Nik laments how the Christian Church in Russia has lost more of its fervour and zeal in it’s first 10 years of freedom than it had in nearly 100 years of persecution. It seems as though one of freedom’s unintended consequences is the depreciation of faith. Why is that?
  2. Persecution is a good thing: No one interviewed asked for an end to persecution, only that their joy in God might be sustained through it. These suffering saints had accepted persecution as almost a gift from God, a welcome cross to bear, in China for example, you were not even considered for a position of spiritual leadership in the house church movement, until you had done at least three years in prison.  Prison was the necessary “seminary” training, without it, one’s faith was just viewed as mostly theoretical.
  3. The incredible power of song: Over and over again, these suffering saints from all over the world, clung to songs of faith that helped sustain them in their difficultly.
  4. God becomes real: The suffering of Christians Nik uncovers is almost unfathomable from our positions of comfort, ease and freedom in the west, but the dramatic ways God reveals himself to those who suffer for him is also equally unfathomable. The miracles, visions, and direct interventions from God recounted made me feel like I was reading right out of the book of Acts.

Kisses from Katie

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You are 18 years old, you are rich and beautiful. You like school and your boyfriend, you drive a cute sports car and wear designer clothes.  You have loving parents who are supportive and kind and a wonderful network of family, friends, and neighbours. It’s really the prefect life in America. So what do you do with it?

For Katie Davis the answer was remarkable. Instead of partying, pleasure, marriage, career, travel, or the pursuit of a university education, she packs up and moves to Uganda, adopts 14 girls, starts a ministry which feeds and educates 400 children, and develops an outreach ministry which empowers women and brings desperately needed aid to poverty stricken villages, all in the name of Jesus. Wait, what? Yeah, all before her 22nd birthday.

She doesn’t want you to be impressed with her. That would be the worst thing. Katie wants you to love Jesus, and to follow him where ever He leads. She will be the first to tell you, she didn’t plan to move to Uganda, but it’s where God led her. It’s not a glamorous life. She works hard, suffering and death abound and there are real pressures and stresses that create tears and heartache for her – but she is happy. She glistens with sweat and she is covered in the read dust of Ugandan soil, but there is a joy about her that’s compelling. She is connected with the God of the universe through the love of Jesus and she follows his plans not her own. Is she exhausted each night because of an incredibly challenging life? Absolutely. Does she have a peace, a purpose, and a joy that most in the world know nothing of? Absolutely.

We read this book out loud, together as a family. It was a good call, but be warned, this book will be a direct challenge to your engrained western belief system that tells you your life must first be about your own comfort, ease, and safety.

The Life and Times of George Whitefield

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18th century Britain, found Christianity in rough shape. Author Robert Philips quotes Bishop Butlers Analogy from that era.

It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted by many persons, that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry, but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious; and, accordingly, they treat it as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point among all people of discernment; and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world” (p.13) 

Sounds like something coming right out of 21st century North America, but there it is, in 1730’s England. This reality was even more unsettling when one considers that these sentiments were coming not just from people outside the church, but from people inside it!

A long comes George Whitefield and everything changes, not just in England, but Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and America. The wave of doubt and distraction to pleasure which looked to extinguish the flame of the gospel was rebuffed in large part by the voice of this one man.

What was special about George? Certainly due credit was attributed to God for the incredible work wrought through this man, but George was no ordinary man. It must however, be borne in mind that his face was a language, and his intonation music, and his actions passion. So much was this the case, that Garrick said of him, he could make men weep or tremble by his varied utterances of the word “Mesopotamia” (575) He could represent in the most awful manner the terrors of the Lord (156) When Whitefield preached “Neutrality was an impossibility(156)  With what a flow of words—what a ready profusion of language, did he speak to us upon the great concerns of our souls! In what flaming light did he set our eternity before us! How earnestly he pressed Christ upon us! How did he move our passions with the constraining love of such a Redeemer!” How awfully — with what thunder and sound—did he discharge the artillery of heaven upon us! And yet, how could he soften and melt even a soldier of Ulysses, with the mercy of God!  George burst on the scene, with his passion for the living God, and incredible oratory at exactly the time when preaching had been reduced to the reading of set pieces without emotion or even belief, rote tradition was all that dribbled out of the mouths of passionless sleeping ministers.

Whitefield was one of the first of his kind. He was the new thing. In our world, we would say he went viral. Everyone had to come and listen to this totally unique preacher who preached in fields instead of church buildings, who refused to use notes, who cried, and emoted in dramatic fashion. George would stoop to such unthinkable tactics as to use stories and humour while he preached! He also would defy and criticize the religious leaders of the established church. The net result is that for over 30 years years people would come to listen to him by the thousands, many traveling 20 miles or more on foot to come and hear. He preached an estimated 18,000 sermons in his life! Many weeks of his life he would preach 9 times or more. In the end, thousands upon thousands of people repented of their sins and trusted in Jesus. The tide of large scale unbelief was turned back. In the nearly 300 years that have passed from Whitefield, the use of emotion, drama, and storytelling in the pulpit has become commonplace for us. I wonder, were it possible to transport Whitefield into our era, if he would even distinguish himself? We have taken seriously his warning: Awkwardness in the pulpit is a sin — monotony a sin — dulness a sin — and all of them sins against the welfare of immortal souls (560)

As with any new thing there will always be criticism. How George managed to survive and thrive considering all of the invective and persecution he faced is a testament to his faith in God.

What was Whitefield like?

  • Not a fan of Sin — He was vicious in calling out the vices of his day. The 18th century version of UFC was known as cudgelling. He was not a fan. He blasted dancing schools and concert halls, referring to them as inconsistent with the doctrine of the gospel. These were “devilish diversions” One of Whitefields followers put it this way “every step in a dance is a step towards hell” (174) Whitefield was convinced that Satan used the common entertainments of his day as instruments of distraction that would fill “Beelzebubs Harvest” All of it was bad, so all of it came under his condemnation. Puppet shows, drummers, trumpeters, clowns, exhibitors of wild beasts — basically anything that happened in an 18th century fair was a distraction from the devil. (270) As you could imagine, this message was not always well received, and Whitefield paid for his criticisms in lumps and bumps, several times his life was nearly lost by people angry for his ‘captain kill joy’ stance. In the the end however, so many people converted that much of these entertainments ceased for a time.  It’s hard for a 21st century mind to conceive a clown or a drummer as evil. To Whitefield, anything that turned ones affections away from God was evil. He saw that these entertainments distracted people away from Sabbath keeping, prayer, Bible reading, fellowship, and service. These entertainments were creating self absorbed, idolatrous, consumers instead of people whose greatest joy was God. Does he have a point?
  • Not into Romance — Love was only really for God. However, he felt he needed to get married, But lest any young woman might fancy a marriage to George for loves sake, he was quick to set the record straight “I am free from that foolish passion which the world calls love…The passionate expressions which carnal courtiers use, I think ought to be avoided by those who marry in the Lord. I can only promise by the help of God, ‘to keep my matrimonial vow, and to do what I can towards helping you forward in the great work of your salvation’. (179-180) As you can see he really poured on the charm! Ultimately he was married, but one could hardly consider it a marriage, because he was gone so much of the time.
  • Wanted Peace and Unity – Denominationalism had found it’s stride in the 1700’s. Fragmentation was the way of the future for the church. Whitefield hated all of it, he wished that the partition wall of bigotry and party spirit (would be) broken down, and ministers and teachers of different communions join with one heart and one mind, to carry on the kingdom of Jesus Christ. (127)  I wish all names among the saints of God were swallowed up in the one of Christian. I long for professors to leave off placing religion in saying ‘I am a church man’ ‘I am a dissenter’ My language to such is ‘are you of Christ? If so, I love you with all my heart”  His desire for unity was severely tested. People pressured him to start his own denomination. The church of England was constantly persecuting him, and even the dissenters took shot’s at him as well, they could not understand why he would remain a part of that corrupted institution known as Anglicanism. Then there was the rift with Wesley. Whitefield could never agree with Wesley’s view on perfectionism and Wesley thought Whitefields belief in election was damnable. It got heated and it got public. It was a bigger thing than a modern U.S. presidential debate. All of this, you would think, would create a perfect storm for fragmentation. Whitefield resisted the storm and chose to pursue love, peace and unity. It was Wesley, who preached Georges memorial service, a final testimony to Whitefields commitment to unity.
  • Prayer was the Essential thing. – I frankly confess, that I see and feel more sublimity in a vestry prayer meeting for the spread of the gospel, than in the most splendid meetings in Exeter Hall. I would rather have been one in the first nameless groups, of two or three, who meet together in the name of Christ to pray…than have been the inventor of the platform. I feel much more sure that prayer meetings will prolong themselves, than that speech meetings will keep their place or their power” (532) What an incredible thing for the “prince of preachers” to say. He never lost his way for all his success. The work of God, starts, is sustained, and brought to completion through humble dependance on God in prayer.
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