Category Archives: Wrestling with Church

The Rise of Western Christendom​

If you are interested in Western Christianity between the dates of 200-1000, you’ve just found the perfect book. If you are not interested in this mostly unknown part of history, then what’s the matter with you?! 

  • The Tenacity of Paganism — According to Brown, there was never a clean break from Paganism to monotheism. Instead, Paganism came to be thought of as a second rate story for backwards and illiterate people. “Pagan” means countryfolk (75). Christianity was not primarily a religion of the poor and disenfranchised. On the contrary, wealthy and influential people embraced the new faith more readily in cities, which led to the Christianizing of cities at a far quicker rate than rural areas. There is very little on record as far as pagan martyrs after Christianity ascended to power. Paganism wasn’t the last remnants of a former infestation that needed to be stamped out. Christianity became the ribeye steak among the general population, and Paganism was Chicken Mcnuggets! One could continue munching on the Mcnuggets if they wanted to but why? There was steak to be had! Pockets of Mcnugget chomping pagans continued to exist for centuries. 
  • Mixed bag micro-Christianity — Christianity didn’t grow from the top down, it grew from house to house, and village to village without any overarching system. The result was thousands of “roll your own at home” variations of Christianity. Like the countless Micro brewery’s that cover the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, each with their own label, taste and texture, so too developed Micro-Christianity all over Western Europe. Brown describes the variety as “individual beads on a necklace.” One of Christianity’s most effective means of spreading was through slavery. Christians captured and pressed into slavery continued to spread their message of hope. The Christian ability to overcome the burden of his bonds through belief led many captors to salvation. This happened in Iceland, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries. Slaves didn’t always have their theology straight which contributed to the diversity of Christianity. Also, many of these people groups were willing to accept Christianity, but only with significant exceptions. Ireland embraced the Jesus way but embraced the Old Testament practices of polygamy and tribal violence much to the consternation of missionaries stationed there. Iceland decided to convert on masse one night as a strategy to unify their country. They, however, doggedly clung to their practice of female infanticide and the eating of horseflesh, both practices which the Christian church condemned. 
  • Golden Age of Peasantry — With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, many have thought that Europe plunged into a dark era of misery and ignorance. Perhaps it was a little tougher for the elites of society, but for the peasants, it was a near utopian era! “No longer policed and bullied every year to pay taxes, the peasantry slipped quietly out of the control of their landlords. Rents fell as taxes vanished… Less of their agrarian surplus was taken from them than at any other time in the history of Europe…It was only until the 8th and 9th centuries that the normal life of grinding extortion resumed for the peasant classes” (31)
  • The game changers that led to Christianity’s dominance 
    • Equality — “High and low men and women met as equal subjects, now, to the overruling law of one God….If a poor man or a destitute stranger should come in, do thou, O bishop, with all thy heart provide a place for them even if thou hadst to sit upon the ground.” (64-65) The gatherings had order, to be sure, but the development of equality and even the giving of preferential treatment to the lower classes was something entirely new.
    • Sin and it’s divine and communal solution – Except for Judaism, the universal human condition of sin, had no real identity, it wasn’t a mainstream idea. People didn’t think in those terms. But when the Christians brought it forward, it just made sense, “oh so that’s what that is.” So also did the hope for deliverance in Christ. The battle against sin was not a solo endeavour. Sin was the one thing the Christian community was committed to eradicating. This new way filled people with understanding, home, and a community committed to helping each other get better. 
    • Mobilization of wealth. From the very beginning giving was a significant tenant of the Christian faith. Wealth could be amassed quickly to help the poor and make a real difference in the world. This generosity shocked the Pagans but also won them over. It wasn’t until the 9th or 10th century that giving to the church became mandatory. Forced charity turned out to be a bad idea. But isn’t that what taxes are? 
    • God has come near — The old story of Paganism, was worn out, it wasn’t helpful. The ancient tale that emphasized the unbridgeable chasm between the human world and the divine world had lived its little time. The steep upward glimpse of distant, ruthless and unreachable deities was replaced with a much better story, A story that stood Paganism on its head. As Pope Leo said, “It is far less amazing that human beings should progress upwards towards God than that God should have come down to the human level.” (117) In the Christian story, God, out of love, came to rescue the human. A concept utterly foreign to Pagan thought, but it came like refreshing rain on parched earth. 
  • When the Christian story shifts from “what” to “how” the fights begin. It was the wonder of what God had done in Christ Jesus that filled the Roman world with hope and joy and led to such an incredible conversion rate. Eventually, over time, converts began to wonder precisely how God’s son had invaded the earth. When the focus shifted from what to how, and different answers were arrived at, the gloves came off, and the fights began. They haven’t stopped either, fortunately, over the centuries they’ve become less bloody. 
  • Monophysite mayhem. — Did Jesus have one nature or two? The “official” church decided at Chalcedon that the answer was two. Jesus was both 100% human in nature and 100% divine in nature. If he had only one nature, he could neither be truly divine or human, and that made for a lousy saviour — But the “mono” (one) “physite” (nature) people weren’t buying it. To them, it made no sense to say someone had two natures. It wasn’t possible. Eventually, the Monophysite’s were severely persecuted, to such a degree, that they welcomed Islamic invasion when it came to their territories in the 600’s! I wish it could have been possible to remain amazed at the “what” and less concerned about the “how.” But that wish is impossible. It’s human nature to understand, sadly, violence was the result of the quest to understand the how of the incarnation The message of life, brought death. 
  • Christianity’s tumultuous relationship with Icons In the East, Christians killed each other over the issue. Icons were supposed to be helpful tools aiding in the worship of Jesus, but for many, they became more than that. Pictures of the saints, relics from ancients days, and whatever tangible bits of the past gradually became elevated to the point where Christian’s were coming dangerously close to worshiping the images. For many, the thought of living life without an Icon present became unthinkable. “If only I shall see his likeness, I shall be saved.” Once some key battles were lost, and the Roman empire of the East began to shrink. Byzantines began to wonder if it might be God’s judgment for Idolatry. The “Iconoclast” (Icon Breakers) faction was born. Before long, they found a sympathetic Emperor or two, and the smashing began. Iconophiles (Icon lovers) responded by hiding their icons, and trying to smash Iconoclasts! Iconophiles also attempted to sully the reputation of Iconoclasts by linking them with Islam, which tolerates no images whatsoever. 
  • Emperors being emperors, only one kind of Christianity will do. Christian or not, violence is what emperors do. Whether Justinian in the 5th, Clovis in the 7th or Charlemagne in the 9th. Blood flowed freely and ones religious affiliation seems to have made little difference. Was Charlemagne’s beheading of 4500 Saxon captives in his conquest a bit much? Not really, all in a days work for an emperor! What about his Christian conscience? He doesn’t seem to have struggled with it. By the 9th century, the golden age of peasantry was over, and powerful kingdoms were emerging in the West, of which Charlemagne’s was the strongest. His Frankish Empire decided to go on a mission to correct the false teachings of the countless “micro-Christiandoms” that had sprung up all over continental Europe. The Pagan Saxons had been intermingling with Christian Franks for centuries, creating a “bad brew” of Christianity. For the sake of control, it was time to clarify the ingredients and make sure to get the Christian recipe just right. The monks who had long worked in these brackish waters between Christianity and Paganism protested the violence strongly, “We must preach and persuade” they said. To which Charlemagne responded, “I’ll preach with an iron tongue,” and so he did. In Ireland and England, the need for precision to the “right” type of Christianity also became a bit extreme. Wilfrid, for example, freaked out that the monks didn’t have the proper hairstyles and that the calendar of Holydays wasn’t as it should be. He had been to Rome and learned the way more perfectly. To any Irishman who objected to his changes, he reminded them of their place in the hierarchy of Christianity. They were but a “pimple on the chin of the earth!”  
  • Repentance gone wild. Augustine believed that penance was a frame of mind. It was a lifelong process, because sin, also, was a lifelong companion of the Christian. Pope Gregory and the leaders that followed him made sin and its abolishment from one’s life the absolute focal point for the Christian. In some ways, with this over-focus on sin, God became distant again. Attaining God’s presence in heaven was the goal, and every Christian became responsible to abolish his sins to accomplish this goal. Books of long lists were written, describing in blushing detail every imaginable sin, with the corresponding prescription of penance that needed to be carried out, to be purged from the stain. Priest’s came to function as extremely powerful “doctors” who held the cure for sin. Terror of hell and fear of death without giving doing penance replaced the joy and hope. Mass, confession, and penance became the key to heaven, and the priest’s held those keys. 
  • How Islam swallowed up Christianity in the East In the 6th century, modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, parts of Iraq, parts of Iran, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain were populated predominantly by Christians who were part of a mostly Christian empire. Within 100 years all these lands had been conquered with the sword of Islam, and the Christians who remained within the borders of this expanding Islamic empire were slowly but surely converting to Islam. How did this happen? 
  • Timing is everything: The Byzantines and the Persians had beat each other up so badly that when the Arabs came round, there wasn’t much fight left in either of them. 
  • Commitment is everything: “There was nothing strange in the idea that warfare was blessed by God, but within Arabia itself, the sheer aggression of the followers of Muhammad changed the rules of the game.” (293) Islam was convinced, as was Christianity, that they alone represented the culmination of God’s purposes on earth, it’s just that the Muslims had no limitations whatsoever, coming from their theology, that would prevent them from inheriting the earth through whatever means necessary.
  • At least it’s not Paganism: Many Christians of that era viewed Islam as an “in-between” religion. It was a religion of Abraham. It even affirmed a lot of Christian teachings. Many Christians managed to convince themselves that Islam was simply a more perfected version of Christianity and so they converted. 
  • More freedom under Islam: Islamic rule was not so bad for Christians at first, especially for un-orthodox Christians. In the Byzantine empire, they were hounded, in the Islamic one as long as they paid their extra taxes for being non-muslim they were free to believe what they wanted. “Islam rested as lightly as a mist along the contours of what had remained a largely Christians landscape.” Of course, all that would change, but it was suitable for a while. In the end, it was the steady increase of taxes, the unifying nature of the Arabic language and increasingly better opportunities reserved only Muslims that led to the Islamification of the east. 
  • Gregory vs. Theodore in Bible Study — Western Christians studied their Bibles like Gregory for the first several hundred years. For Gregory, the Bible was a great encoded message sent by God to cast fire into the heart. It echoed with the mighty whisper of God. It was for this “whisper” that the devout Christian should listen, reading the Bible, as it were, “between the lines” – paying less attention to the text itself than to a message from God which lay behind the text. Theodore was not impressed with the Western scholars he found when he finally escaped encroaching Islam and moved from Antioch all the way West to Britain. For Theodore, the Bible was first and foremost a challenging text. Its different books had been written at specific times, by specific authors. One had first to discover exactly what these authors meant before one could go on to draw upon the Bible to nourish higher flights of contemplation. Modern Biblical scholarship went the way of Theodore, but the Gregorys meditative approach dominated the first 1000 years of Western Christianity. Theodore became immensely popular. Being from the Middle East, he could answer all the contextual questions Western Scholars from Britain could never even have hoped to answer. 
  • Moving into a neighbourhood — Monks moved into pagan places and built monasteries — Christianization often took place, on the ground, through a wide penumbra of half participants who had gathered around a monastery. (375) Monasteries were not closed off areas reserved only for quiet contemplation. They became centres of learning and commerce, and as a result, Christianization.
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Understanding Jacques Ellul

JE

Ellul may often be wrong, but he is never dull…when one engages the thought of Ellul, there is no such thing as a casual reading followed by mild acceptance or bland rejection.

And so it is with this eccentric French philosopher turned Christian. This book is an excellent, introduction to this man of many thoughts. In the review below I have laid out for you some of his bigger ideas.

The Danger of Technology/Technique and Efficiency

Technique tolerates no judgement from without and accepts no limitations… Since it has put itself beyond good and evil, it need fear no limitations whatever. In a technological society, efficiency, rather than goodness, truth, beauty or justice becomes the norm for social relations.

If we can build it, invent it, make it or do it, we should, especially if it makes us more efficient. Efficiency becomes the anchor point for our morality. For Ellul, this is the most “anti-human” way to go about life. For many Ellul is dismissed as a Luddite crank, a grumpy old man who refuses to get with the times. A future hater and a technophobe. I wonder if Ellul would have “tisk-tisked” the invention of the wheel or printing press had he been alive in those days. He may well have!
I also question Ellul’s contention that efficiency supplants goodness, truth and beauty as we develop and grow. Much modern architecture would suggest otherwise, besides what can be said of the worldwide movement to take care of our planet? Undoubtedly, the rise of our environmental consciousness has altered the way we go about living? If technology and technique are poured into making our planet flourish as it was meant to flourish, how is that bad?
At the same time that I raise a skeptical eyebrow in his direction, I also begin to feel like he is on to something. The human race today is rocketing forward with one paradigm breaking invention after another. If the “pace of progress” is swallowing up the souls of men than technology and the worship of efficiency are implicated.

Propaganda and the Church

Propaganda is the use of words, methods and psychological technique’s to sway individuals and groups of people into participation with an organization. Christianity is to have none of this. Instead, our faith is to spread slowly, relationally, from person to person focusing only on the person of Jesus. “We do not bring non-Christians into Church we carry the church to them” Unfortunately, Churches prefer to engage in the full constellation of propaganda techniques instead. When propaganda is used truth is exchanged for power. This trade utterly de-Christianizes the church. Is he right? What exactly does Ellul mean when he talks about propaganda? Social media? Catchy Christian sounds bites? Shiny new buildings? Christian radio? Mass advertising campaigns? State of the art sound and lighting? Mr. Ellul what exactly are you against here??? He doesn’t say! But you get the sinking suspicion that he is probably thinking of all of I’ve just mentioned and more. The church is not a burger joint out to manipulate people into buying burgers, so anything the burger joint might do to get people eating their burgers, the Christian church probably shouldn’t. Again he is on to something here, but what would a propaganda free church look like? Does such a church even exist?

The Supremacy of Words & Hearing

When I read this chapter for the first time, I dismissed it as garbage. Now I’m picking through the trash bag one more time to see if I missed anything. Ellul says that since speech is the one thing the distinguishes humans from non-humans, it’s the most important thing. Words are supreme; God has made it so. He puts his conviction succinctly “In the sphere of truth everything is related to the word, nothing to sight” He quotes Jesus for support. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” Our image-saturated society has created nonthinking emotional spectators who must only believe whatever flashes in front of their eyes. In our day words live in total submission to images. They only exist as slogans for visually charged propaganda. Images bring about less and less thought and reason. Again, as I think about what Ellul is saying, I begin to wonder if he is on to something. But immediately I revolt, the Psalmist says the heavens declare the glory of God. Those heavens have to be seen! God did create all the senses, and they are all good, not just the ears! Police wear body camera’s now because video tells more of the truth than words do. Would Ellul dispute this? What is visual is not some dirty bit of business designed by the devil.

Even still, his writing stirs something in me. It does seem correct that we are not able to properly think about things when they come to us visually. Images always create immediate visceral reactions it’s what they do. Ellul laments that “Images are considered trustworthy while words are suspect” In today’s era of “Fake News” I think everything has become suspect both audio and visual. So maybe Ellul has become dated? We have entered into an era of skepticism and narcissism are images to blame? Ellul says yes.

Reality and Truth

Reality is what is seen, counted and quantified. Realities world is the material world, and it can be known through the accumulation of data. Truth is different; truth pertains to questions of purpose or meaning. Images are helpful in determining reality; they are not helpful in determining the truth. Because the world has become image based we have become “utterly indifferent to the question of truth” says Ellul. In the modern mind, reality has become truth, and nothing exists beyond reality. When Christians use images to help them discover the truth, reality and truth get confused, and we are worse off for it. He doesn’t quite take us back to the Iconoclastic debate which helped to weaken the Byzantine empire. See my review of that crazy time in Church history, but he warns us through Augustine “Images can be used, but they should never be loved.” Is there actually a difference between truth and reality, or is this just Ellul doing his thing? I don’t know. This distinction is a more sensible way to attack images and put them in their proper place I suppose. I’m just not ready to say that there is no “truth” from anything that we happen to take in through our eyes. That’s nonsense to me.

The City is the Devils Playground

Ellul’s work on the city is easily his most unpopular. Its English title was The Meaning of the City, but Ellul’s critics all insist that it should be renamed The Demeaning of the City. Ellul believes that the first city was built by Cain as an act of rebellion against God. Therefore all cities have in their DNA a rebellious rejection of God. From Babel onward cities have a bad rap in the Bible When humans come together God gets pushed out; it is as simple as that. Ellul doesn’t hate cities totally, he believes Jesus will one day redeem them, but he holds out no hope for Christians having success in cities before the return of Christ. Thus he is critical of city planning and technological advancements to make cities better. To Ellul, this is just putting a band-aid on a systemic problem. Beautiful walkways and rapid transit, won’t free the city from evil. If a Christian finds himself in the unenviable position of living in an urban environment, he should focus in on practicing faithfulness to God through varying degrees of martyrdom, for that is all the city brings to the Christian who call it home. I have to admit this is pretty depressing and I would like to reject Ellul thoughts on the city, all through my last eight years in our city match up nicely with what he has said. So there is that.

Politics, Economics, and Work

I read somewhere that Ellul was a Christian anarchist. I can see why now. People worship their systems whether it be communism, fascism, or capitalism. Ellul loves to profane all three. Capitalism’s god is money. How can a Christian revolt against the idolatry of this system? By giving his money away. The God of fascism and communism is the ruler and loyalty to “The Fatherland” or the “collective system” a Christian can resist this idolatry by affirming the liberty of the individual person. When it comes to politics a Christian’s job is to desacralize it all. This doesn’t mean non-involvement, but it does mean having the conviction that every system is fundamentally flawed. We work within our various systems, but we don’t get hopeful about them.
Working for joy and working for beauty is part of God’s gift. However, work out of necessity to gather a surplus, to make a living or to produce is all part of the curse. That whole Protestant work ethic thing, Ellul wouldn’t subscribe to I don’t think. For him, It’s just a convenient excuse to justify ruthless capitalism.

The Authority of Scripture

“Scripture is God speaking to humanity through the text…It is clear that every living word of God cannot be different from that which is attested precisely in the Bible…It turns out that the God who spoke to men in the Bible is also our God, and directly ours, thanks to their witness.”

He acknowledges that faith is ultimately the only way anyone can arrive at the above conviction.

Regarding interpretation, Ellul thought it best to stay away from overly literal and historical investigation. The Scripture’s were not intended to be picked apart into little pieces with all details analyzed. What mattered was to keep the big ideas of Scripture in the forefront. So for example, a detailed look at Genesis as the historical, objective account of how we came to be would be a mistake. The big idea of the first part of Genesis is learning how God relates to man.
Finally for Elull love is the centrepiece of the image of God in each human. Love only exists if there is freedom. So God’s gift of freedom to humanity means that “God submits himself to human initiatives…God withdraws in order to leave the field free for humanity…God does not step by step, minute by minute, dictate what is to happen in the world, thereby establishing the reality of that world, as it were.” With this view, sovereignty and even divine providence get shoved aside. Anything that smacks of “fate” has to bow the knee to freedom. The age-old paradox that has the free will of man in tension with the sovereignty of God is solved for Ellul — but not for me.

Christian Ethics

We don’t know it allChristian Ethics should be a temporary guide that is continually revised, reexamined, and reshaped by the combined effort of the church as a whole

We shouldn’t be pushyOne of the essential rules of the Christian like is never to ask a non-Christian to conduct himself like a Christian.

Christians are not about rulesGods revelation has nothing whatever to do with morality. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He goes on to say that Christianity is fundamentally about a relationship with Jesus Christ, to which no Christian would disagree. However, such a statement is a bit misleading; one need only read the Bible to see that morals are kind of a big deal to God.

Absolute Freedom — Love pre-supposes freedom, the Christian is free to do what he wants; there are no lists. How then does the Christian not disintegrate into subjectivism and relativism? Ellul hints at three answers. The Holy Spirit will guide us, freedom is not a revolt against order, and love is a good guide. Living out Christian freedom is exhausting work! It’s much easier to follow a list. But Ellul is certain the easier path is not, the better path when it comes to ethics.

Subversive Orthodoxy

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The religious renegades and spiritual misfits contained in this book have been steadily subverting modernism and reorienting people back to a more inclusive and liberating Christian vision of reality. An unfortunate truth for me is that I knew virtually nothing about most of these people. Another sad testimony to the narrow silos we Christians tend to disappear into.  

William Blake (1757-1827 Poet/Painter): A prophet of doom in an age of fashionable rationalism. Science dismisses the inner life, closes off the imagination. In this world, all that matters is objective truth and instrumental reason. Feeling and belief are shut out. Even Christians with their “rational theologies” were falling in step with this new world order to the disgust of Blake. “Human reason and modern science make us both more powerful and less alive at the same time….A person who is not an artist cannot be a Christian.” 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832 Writer, statesman):  The promise of the Enlightenment was a morally unencumbered life with happiness guaranteed through technological progress. Traditional virtues and a robust internal life mattered little in this new way. Goethe masterfully exposes these false promises in all his novels. The inner life is real, attending to it is vital for human flourishing. “Our dreams can never be fulfilled because they are a symptom of a deeper longing not of this world.” 

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855 Philosopher) Looking to the crowd is no place to find answers, true spiritual solitude is needed to find ones way. Deep internal reflection reveals fundamental brokenness in all of us, we must accept this as real, rather than defiantly persist in ignorant despair. Repentance and submission to true existence in God is the right path. “This perpetual rechoosing of Christ is the great paradox and challenge of the Christian faith…(without it) one falls back into formulas, inauthenticity, and a dependence on the crowd.”

GK Chesterton (1874 – June 1936 Writer, poet, philosopher) The shining lights of Chesterton’s time lived primarily according to Christian principles while at the same pushing decidedly non-Christian ideas such as moral relativity. Chesterton shined a significant spotlight on these contradictions. As for the young bullies who picked on ancient ways he had this to say: “We often read nowadays of the valour or audacity with which some rebels attack a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be.” Chesterton believed that spiritual corruption was at the heart of all the problems rolling into the 20th century and technique, money, and power would never resolve the source of man-kinds issues. 

Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948 Philosopher)  The cultural ideals of the knight, the monk, the philosopher and the poet have all been superseded but the cultural ideal of the businessman. Personal success, security, and happiness are the ultimate goals now, and making money is the way to achieve those goals. The god’s of progress and commerce turn people into things, life is reduced to techniques, the free soul of man must be found again in God through the acknowledgement of our sinful nature and the welcoming in of God’s grace. 

A word about the novel — Novelists may be our truest theologians of the modern — the first and finest flowering of the Christian orthodox avant-garde.” How so? “It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” A story is a story and not bound by rules. We are allowed to think of higher things when we steal away with a novel. Without them, our world is just materialistic forces, techniques and meaninglessness. Only through poetry and story can we penetrate our data-drenched materialistic society. Only through story can existential reality come alive. Sadly theologians have tried to become scientists with the Bible, “proving” it, learning techniques from it, and making it a tool. Its purpose has always been for spiritual reflection. The Bible was not intended to be a machine that spits out facts. Who are the great novelists, whose stories move us into the realm of transcendent reality?

  • Dostoyevsky — “His works are an expression of his own struggle to realize the true meaning of his faith, a working through — not philosophically or logically but imaginatively of what it means to practice active love, what it means to turn suffering into happiness and what it means to die so that you may be reborn.” 
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn & Boris Pasternak — They brought into the Communist world new expressions of moral presence and transcendent hope. 
  • Jack Kerouac — The true work is our belief: true belief in immortal good; the continual human struggle against linguistic abstraction: recognition of the soul beneath everything, and humour.”
  • Walker Percy — For thousands of years, myth enabled us to find ourselves in a world, to know who we were, and what our lives meant. The twentieth century, with its metaphysical skepticism and reductionist science, severed that connection, so now mankind according to Pearcy is “lost in the cosmos.”  Man is more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creative individual, as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim..a seeker of meanings, a metaphysical bridge builder, a self. 

Dorothy Day (1897-1980 Journalist, social activist)— Large-scale industrial economies work against human happiness by making everyone economically dependent on people and forces they don’t know and forces they can’t control. Day wanted workers to own their own businesses and land. She wanted to abolish the assembly line and restore work as a craft. She envisioned monastery-like communities of like-minded families and friends: living together, off the land, producing goods and services that help to build the city of God within the city of man. She was over the course of her life outspoken against the dark side of communism, industrial capitalism, violence, & poverty. 

Thomas Merton (1915-1968 Writer, mystic) — Capitalism, mass media, Movies & T.V. disorient and distract us. Society is in a constant rush towards technological determinism (if its possible it must be done) Our societies desperate attempt to keep up with the latest news to “not fall behind” was repugnant to him. To fall behind was to “get out of the big cloud of dust that everybody is kicking up, to breathe and to see a little more clearly” He advocated prayer, silence, solitude, and recollection as medicines against modernity. 

Martin Luther King —  (1929-1968 Baptist minister & activist) Personal faith, must lead to public, non-violent action on behalf of marginalized and disenfranchised people. For all people especially the downtrodden we must see ourselves as receptacles of God’s love. This truth if believed will fill up every human with dignity and self-respect which will change the world for the better.

E.F. Schumacher (1911–1977 Statistician and economist)— First there was primitive religiosity, which was cast aside by scientific realism, however, the third stage in human development is the awareness that there is something beyond fact and science. The trouble is those staunchly grounded in the 2nd stage see very little difference between stage one and stage three. Anti-metaphysical claims that save us from our superstitions don’t actually provide us with creative solutions to all our problems. Turns out the lab coat as God doesn’t actually help and might, in fact, make things worse!  

Wendell Berry (1934- Poet, farmer) — The exploitation of colonialism has just shifted to the exploitation of global corporations. What’s the solution? Everyone needs to go back to farming! In Wendell’s estimation Industrialization is no friend to humanity. Globalism is a myth of progress which will just end in war – back to the farm’s everyone!!!. 

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980 Professor, philosopher) — Instantaneous mass media through video and audio has created a less literate world that is controlled more by the right brain of experience than the left brain of logic and reason. With this total brain shift, he predicted the growth of violent political and religious extremism. He nailed that one! The change will pit an ageing literate, educated, reasonable class against a new orally oriented techno-peasantry of mass media who are emotional, confused, reactionary, violent, aural, and mystical. This age will be punctuated by momentary passions, improvised collectives and spur of the moment convictions followed by spur of the moment retractions. Attention spans will become short, and the power of retention will be weakened. What does this all mean for the church? Old ways will not work, people will be drawn into more experiential forms of Christianity. A prayer retreat will be more popular than a sermon. Doctrinal debates and denominationalism will cease to be important factors, supernatural possibilities will be more readily accepted. For McLuhan, this media apocalypse wasn’t the end though you might think it after reading him! He reminds us “The church is not an intellectual institution anyway.The medium (the Christian life lived out) is the message. 

Northrop Frye (1912-1991 Literary critic) — Myth: a structure of ideas, beliefs, assumptions, anxieties and hopes which express the view of man’s situation and destiny. Mythology is a product of human concern, and it’s built upon literature; folk tales, metaphor, narrative, and poetry. Over time they become for a people group the informing principles of historical and philosophical thought. Mythological thinkers are never overcome by science, history, philosophy or theology. A Myth is neither historical or anti-historical it is counter-historical. Is there a historical Jesus or not is the wrong question to ask according to Frye. What matters is we have his story in myth and metaphor. It is to capture our imagination and shape the direction of our lives. Myth is the more profound truth. When the Christian faith is understood as having it’s informing principles sourced in myth the efforts on both sides to expose or defend scientific and historical strengths and weaknesses can stop, and Christians can also relax some of the ossified dogmas and doctrines. 

Jaques Ellul — (1912-1994 Philosopher) — We worship method and technique as the answer to all the World’s problems. A paradox happens when we bow to this god. We become less free at the very moment we become more powerful. Our minds are cluttered with untruths. We live in an environment where non-thought is continuously received, we’ve created vehicles to spread stupidity at an alarming pace (This was well before Facebook, what Ellul would have said if he could have seen today!) For Ellul hope was the actual reality to hang on to. Hope not grounded in technology, but rather in God. 

Ivan Illich (1926-2002 Philosopher) — Words are no longer a medium for fresh and original communication instead they are just tools to be manipulated for selfish ends. We have never been more confused and certain at the same time! We have seen the demise of contemplative culture. There can never be any “dead air” no matter what. This is a colossal mistake because silence is necessary for the emergence of persons. 

Rene Girard (1923-2015 Historian, Literary Critic) — Humans are never satisfied, we always feel a sense of lack which feeds our desire for what others have. Humans created “the Scapegoat” as a way to manage these feelings. An individual or group is blamed and punished, and thus social cohesion is achieved through the destruction of the projected evil. It’s how we justify violence. Jesus comes along and blows up the whole system because God turns out to be on the side of the victim and not the self-righteous community. Atonement theories that embrace Jesus as the “scapegoat” are actually against the play of the story. Jesus died to save the world from the lie it believes that it’s ok to crush someone for self-advancement. It’s not ok, it’s never ok. God is always on the side of the scapegoat. Girard defends Christianity through anthropology and also reverses more violent understandings of God. 

Quote-Worthy:

  • We are not quite what we imagine ourselves to be, nor are we quite as in control of our beliefs as we think, nor quite so essential as we imagine. (Inchausti)
  • Everybody is an unbeliever more or less! Only when this fact is fully experienced, accepted, and lived with, does one become fit to hear the simple message of the Gospel. (Merton) 
  • Modern civilization is producing things faster than we can think or give thanks. (Chesterton) 
  • To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair. (Percy) 
  • Christians aren’t better than other people, but their worldview encourages them to recognizes that fact. (Inchausti) 
  • Christianity teaches that the purpose of life and thought is love, not power. (Inchausti) 

The New Parish

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This is not a book on real-estate and yet it shares the same conclusion about what matters. “Location, location, location!” For the follower of Jesus settling into a location and planting long term roots there is the most important thing to be done. The authors present this priority in a way that would make most of us feel a little bit uncomfortable.

Most ministry leaders probably don’t get together and say “What can we do to create a gathering of disconnected individuals who choose to pay for our specialized programs and services?” Or “We want our people to think of church as a building, a place where our target audience goes to receive professionalized services.” That would be ridiculous. Even worse would be a scenario where the leaders intentionally planned to devalue peoples gifts. “We want our people to get in the habit of thinking that the only important members are the ones who can sing, or preach, or give lots of money. Everyone else should just sit in the pews, look their best and give their ten percent.” That would be insane….but that’s how many people end up feeling… This ends up happening because the Western world has lost one of the most important aspects of being the church: participating together as a family or body in the real-life context of the parish. Yet this is central to what it means to be the church.  (76-77)

The authors quote Eugene Peterson in lament to the challenge of helping Christians begin to think in terms of sharing life together in a specific place as what it means to be the church.

I find that cultivating a sense of place as the exclusive and irreplaceable setting for following Jesus is even more difficult than persuading men and women of the truth of the message of Jesus.

The main thrust of the book is summarized well page 17:

It is our conviction that humans are meant to share life together, to learn to fit together as a living body in relationship with God. With one another and with/for the place to which they are called…The gospel becomes so much more tangible and compelling when the local church is actually a part of the community connected to the struggles of the people and even the land itself.

This book was one of providential timing for me. I’m already committed to the central idea of rooting down deep into a place. I already am “a known character actively seeking the flourishing of my neighbourhood.” But sometimes life is difficult in a neighbourhood, sometimes people don’t like you, sometimes there is adversity, and sometimes you make really dumb mistakes. All of this piles on, until you begin to think longingly about the beauty of becoming anonymous, detached, and unknown. To be able to preach your sermon, go home and shut the door until next Sunday starts to feel like a tantalizingly good option! It’s not, I know this, and God sent this book along at just the right time to remind me.

Spirit over strategy

The authors cautioned strongly against putting too much stock in techniques, methodologies, programs or stratagems. The shift from Spirit to strategy is a notorious weakness for religious people. We find something that works and then we pile up all our hopes and confidence on that one particular strategy. The authors remind us:

When your method takes the forefront you become distracted from what the Spirit is doing in and through your particular place…There simply is no way to place your ultimate trust in the leading of the Spirit and in your expert solutions at the same time.

The authors go so far as to say we should set programs aside so that there is time to play, hangout, and serve in our neighbourhoods. I can see how organized and vision driven would choke on some of these notions. Even I do a bit! Does it have to be either/or, can’t it be a both/and kind of thing? There is a sense in which people need to be directed. Will the admonition “go play” lead to flourishing and spiritual fruit in our neighbourhoods? Probably more is needed. But the overstatement is valid to make the point. Another little phrase that stuck with me from this book is “Practice being interruptible.” When we are carrying out our impressive plans, interruptions are not appreciated, but, it seems to me, the Spirit does his best work on a regular schedule of interruptions.

The difficultly of professional religion

Whenever money is involved people will want to know if they are getting a good return on their investment. What that means is donors want results, denominations want results, and conferences and books celebrate those with requisite results. Inevitably, it seems, an unhealthy pressure is placed on professional ministers to “get er done!” and the “er” is whatever might impress the investors. This is hardly healthy soil to grow slow, long term relationships with people in a neighbourhood. Investors want news, and “I hung out with my neighbour today” is hardly news! Re-envisioning what a successful church is away from the standard metrics of headcount’s and hype will certainly help. But even still how does one measure the success of “faithful presence”?

Primary energy

Several times in the book the authors use the term “primary energy” as a way to determine our priorities. They believe that community building endeavours should get primary energy, not the left overs. They recognize that this focus will impact worship gatherings and other more traditional programming, but they are ok with that. “Intentionally narrow the foot print of your life together.” is what they say. “Worship is a way of life, not a weekly event” is how they dismiss the objections that will be raised by faithful church goers. They say directly that they are not advocating the diminishment of worship gatherings, it’s just that they will have to be more simple. Our focus should not be on events that create minimal impact on a maximum number of people, rather we should direct our energies towards having a maximum impact on a minimal number of people.

The gospel at work in a place

Sometimes I worry a little bit when I read a book like this, is this just a gospel-empty call to be the nice guy in your neighbourhood? No. The beautiful vision of gospel transformation below, the authors argue, can only happen in fullness when followers of Jesus are living out faithful presence in neighbourhoods.

The Gospel is about reconciliation and renewal of relationships. It is about God’s plan through Christ to bring people who are caught in the cycle of fragmentation back into faithful relationships again — with God, with one another and with the created world. The wall between us is gone: Male, female, Jew, Gentile — all our differences no longer need to divide us. When you see yourself as a character in this story, one who has been given the ministry of reconciliation to bring hope and healing to broken relationships, it can become a lens for your everyday engagement in the world.

We are not missional! 

These guys are definitely wary of “missional” terminology. They feel like “mission” is not what a churches identity should be reduced to. It’s too narrow, and it has a bad past. “Mission” is what missionary colonizers did in sometimes violent and often damaging ways. It wasn’t just missional churches that took it on the chin, so too did seeker churches, heritage churches, and community churches! This and several parts of the book are simply hasty generalization, but its all towards the point that the church at it’s core should be the people of God who share life together in and for a particular place. Faithful presence should lie at the bottom of whatever one’s church might look like or be philosophically inclined toward.

Put away the iPhone! 

What good is a book if there is not at least one good rant? Here it is: Don’t get in the habit of using your technology as a medium to be somewhere else. Our ability to be fully present becomes seriously impaired when we do. Thanks to technology we can be everywhere and nowhere, here and elsewhere, neither inside or outside. This self inflicted ghost space pushes us away from faithful presence in our neighbourhoods and continually keeps human flourishing out of reach.

Redeeming Sex

3639Debra comes out with the vision of her book right away:

This book is about the posture one takes not the position one holds. 

She isn’t interested in writing a policy manual for the Christian position regarding issues of sex, gender, and the gay lifestyle. Her book is really her own personal story and the stories of the many that she loves. Deb was abused early and often, developed same sex attraction, almost as a defence mechanism against predatory men, ended up being part of a communal lifestyle with both men and women, then found Jesus, after a while she stumbled into an ultra conservative seminary to learn about the Bible. It came as a shock for Deb to find out that people at the Seminary might frown on her more “free” perspective on life and sex. Eventually, Deb would graduate from the seminary marry a guy named Allen and they would become the dynamic and influential writer/speaker duo that they are today. If I had to to tell you about her book using twitter my description would be as follows:

  • Sex points you to God
  • Christians have really screwed things up
  • Covenant love is where it’s at
  • Human Sexuality is complex, stop acting like a know it all
  • What’s the Christian position? — Love, Serve, Pray

Sex points you to God 

Deb is convinced that sex is more than a biological function. Her contention is that sex is a deeply spiritual event. It reveals the deeper human longing for eternal connection, for transcendent belonging. As Christopher West says “The sexual confusion so prevalent in our world and in our own hearts is simply the human desire for heaven gone berserk.” We want to belong so badly, but we don’t know how to get there, or how sex plays a role in that. She quotes psychiatrist M. Scott Peck on this saying “Sex is the closest that most people ever come to a genuine spiritual experience.” She goes further saying that  “orgasm is a fleeting experience of transcendence — a way of loosing ourselves.”

“Whatever it is that one is seeking in sex, one thing seems clear — it’s more than just about momentary pleasure, as intoxicating as that can be. It seems that almost all the existential and religious aspects of human life are somehow mysteriously involved.” 

Every aspect of our sexuality: our capacity for relationships, our longing for love, our identity as male and female, all point to something beyond oneself, to the “Eternal Other” I have come to believe that our sexuality is so interlaced with longing for and experience of spirituality that we cannot access one without somehow tapping into the other.”

I’m inclined to agree, but so what? What can this deeper meaning about sex actually accomplish? She jokes, but with seriousness, that spiritual people ought to be some of the sexiest people on the planet. This observation, serves to tee up her next major point which is:

Christians have really screwed things up

And have been for quite some time. The early church fathers were certainly not rejoicing in the mystical union of sex as a pointer to God. Origen thought his sexuality would interfere with his spirituality so he castrated himself.  Ambrose encouraged married priests “stop having sex with your wives” so they could focus on loving God. Jerome was utterly convinced that Mary the mother of Jesus could not have had a sex life, it would be dirt on her perfect reputation. Augustine, built an entire theology against the use of private parts by suggesting that original sin was passed on by having sex. The more sex, the more sin. Therefore sex should suppressed and avoided as much as possible.

Deb laments how fear has strangled a healthy sexuality out of so many Christians. Fear makes people create artificial boundaries, all the rules to make sure “it” doesn’t happen, actually back fires creating a forbidden fruit syndrome. Fear creates an over focus on sex. She quotes a popular Christian leader who recently wrote a tract entitled “12 questions to ask before watching Game of Thrones” All twelve of the questions had to do with the sexual content on the show, and none of the warnings were directed toward the greed, jealousy, deception, gratuitous violence, arrogance, or pride so prevalent.  Deb makes the incredibly poignant observation

“We worry about what people are doing in bed much more than making sure everybody has a bed to begin with… Boundaries are certainly important for life and sexuality, and the Bible does give us guidelines, but read through the lens of fear they can become the very prison form which we ourselves need liberating.”

No argument from me. Her longings for a fear free version of sexuality really resinated.

“What would our marriages, our friendships, our churches, and our communities look like if men and women were not afraid of connecting with each other in deep ways? What if men and women could really know each other without sex getting in the way? What if we did not have to be afraid of our own and others’ bodies that we cannot trust ourselves with them. I guess we would look a whole lot more like Jesus! In Jesus, the fully integrated human, the embodiment of spirituality and sexuality, we find our model. A man whose life was characterized by right loving, who navigated well both genital and social aspects of his sexuality.” 

Even still I’m afraid, I know my own heart, but I share her longing.

Covenant love is where it’s at

She doesn’t want to push anything on the reader directly, no dogmatic statements coming from this book, but covenant love certainly gets at least a gentle nudge in the readers direction. She describes it as “Abiding commitment to each other’s best interests, to the ongoing search for truth, vulnerability, the risk of getting hurt and the accountability of our community.” and contrasts it to its more intoxicating cousin, romantic love. She really isn’t a fan of our cultures efforts to send us forever hunting for the perfect romance, it’s an illusion, it’s a drug that wear’s off after a while. Our culture is intensionally misleading with it as well, because it assumes that once you’ve had “intense emotional connections” you’ve “fallen in love” and sex is the cultural expectation for those who experience these connections. This is neither right nor healthy. “Romantic love might get you down the aisle, but only the higher, more sacrificial love will carry you on till “death do us part” — Whatever human sexuality should look like, covenant love should be at its centre.

Human Sexuality is complex, stop acting like a know it all

In a way, she is calling her readers to chill out a bit, to stop talking and start listening. To realize that the world of black and white doesn’t mesh well with the complexities of human sexuality.

Regarding gender: She distinguishes the word from sex. Sex meaning the anatomical parts of the body, and gender being the non-physical aspects of being male or female that exist in a cultural context. Gender is also more internal, she says, it’s how we feel about ourselves. Gender “Is how we emotionally navigate the body we were born into.” It’s unhelpful for Christians to hang on to culturally solidified stereotypes of what it means to be a boy or a girl. She urges us to consider gender as more of a dynamic and fluid concept. The truth is expressions of masculinity and femininity change over time, and from culture to culture and that’s ok. She also doesn’t like the concept of “opposite sex” preferring rather that we understand ourselves as “neighbouring sex” since there is so much we share in common. To the Christian’s in her readership she says “The fruit of the Spirit doesn’t come in pink and blue” 

She is the first to say male and female are different, those terms aren’t meaningless, or unnecessary, She even quips “It seems men have a penchant for looking at people’s private parts, women for looking into people’s private lives.” but on the whole she hates generalizations and calls on us to be more broad when considering gender.

Regarding categorizing people:  Is this person gay, is this person not? Is this person trans is this person not? Her message on our never ending desire to categorize and label people is clear “Stop it!”

Deb says, “It’s ok to have intense same sex attraction and not have to view one-self as gay.”  She notes, “the gap between gay and straight is not often as clear for women as it is for men. Perhaps this accounts for the rise in women who identify as bi-sexual.” Feelings and attractions ebb and flow, people are different, people change, we all make choices, life happens.

“Simple binary categories of homosexual and heterosexual are not really good enough. They don’t do the job, everyone has a story and not everyone fits neatly into those categories. Given that everyone’e experience of sexuality is not only multifaceted but unique to their story, it’s almost impossible to place a generic label on a whole group of people and think you’ve defined them… Anthropologist Jenell Williams Paris says ‘try to define gay or straight and the words begin to slip through our fingers’.”

Hirsh says, “No one is simply born gay. No surprises here. Lady Gaga is wrong.” She goes on to confirm the complexity of human sexuality by quoting the American Psychological Association:

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles. 

Her point is clear, whatever you think, there is an excellent chance you don’t know it all, what is true is that all human beings want to belong and to be accepted. Christians must be more than accommodating when it comes to that. Sadly we haven’t been.

Whats the Christian position? — Love, Serve, Pray. This book is a worthy read, it’s provocative and poignant. If you want a book that won’t give you all the answers your looking for, but will at least make you think, this is it. Also Deb is a delight to read, she uses humour well, and her stories are fantastic. I think I will finish this review by sharing some good quotes from her book.

  • The only thing wrong with being an atheist is that there’s nobody to talk to during an orgasm. 🙂
  • Beneath the search for genital sexuality is a longing to be loved. One seeks it where one can.
  • I accepted Jesus into my heart but how do I get him into my penis?
  • None of us are “healed from our sexuality” none of us are flawless. Most heterosexuals are actually polygamous in their orientation. We are all sexually broken
  • Avoid stereotypes, think well of others. Love the sinner, hate your own sin
  • Our business is to love, pray and serve and let God sort out the rest.
  • Be a listener not a teller
  • I have never been one for developing specific church policies on homosexuality. If we have a policy on homosexuality, why wouldn’t we also develop policies about every other ethical issue? For instance, what is our policy about greed? Jesus seems pretty concerned about this, yet I don’t know a single church who has a formal policy on it. The problem with writing policies on a particular issue is that you make that issue more important than the others
  • Acceptance precedes repentance
  • In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things love.

Challenges to Building a Missional Church — Three Observations. 

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Doing Just Fine Without You.

As people who are committed to living missonally a huge priority for us is the building up of loving inclusive community. We embed ourselves in a neighbourhood and practice hospitality and generosity for all. As people are drawn to these manifestations of love they begin to enquire and eventually they come to know the God of love who we serve. Sounds great right? Well, it is. To love people well, wherever they are at in life, to draw people in to this net of appreciation and mutual service is a beautiful thing, but what happens if the people you attempt to draw into community already have a community of their own?

After 5 years of tirelessly practicing generosity and hospitality we’ve come to see that people who have their own communities remain in many ways unreached. People collect naturally into small groups These groups of people form tight bonds, the result is that the vast majority of their socializing is done together, to the exclusion of others. They function as private groups once they achieve a size 4-8 people. The idea of intentionally welcoming others in, is a foreign and unwelcome concept to these friendship groups. They are not unfriendly to others, and they even participate in our larger community building events. But polite conversation and community parties is pretty much the extent of our influence. Understandably, we are not welcomed into the inner circle of their own communities, and they are not interested in merging into the community we’ve created because they have their own that works just fine.

In addition to this, we tend to collect up the broken, the wounded and the lonely because our community building ventures are truly inclusive. When people look for a community of friends they naturally want an environment that is safe and full of people who they are like. Our environment is anything but that. In fact the opposite is true, we pull together people with such profound dissimilarities it’s absolutely remarkable. There is no question that this fact is very distasteful for many of those in our neighbourhood who already belong in their own safe communities. There is no doubt Christians and non-Christians alike have scattered away from us, because we are a bit too inclusive for their taste!

So what do we do? Keep practicing generosity and hospitality, keep welcoming in the broken and lonely, keep extending the hand of friendship into these other existing groups,  grateful for any influence however small it might be.

Community Building is a nice idea but…

Community building is all the rage these days. The Missional church movement is not even leading the charge on this, the broader public is fully engaged as well. The Vancouver Foundation will actually pay anyone real money to build community! Thousands upon thousands of dollars have been given away so that we as a city can build community. The report’s are in, we all know that people are isolated, alone, and disconnected, we all know that welcoming people into community is hugely beneficial to all. “Better Together” is the oft used phrase that flutters around our city like the seagulls. But, when it comes right down to it, building community requires effort and sacrifice, time and energy. We are all down for an occasional picnic, or block party. Being responsible for polite conversation, a casserole and some wine are totally  doable for most, but if community building requires more that that, well, lets not get carried away! Truthfully in the minds of most the cost of community building still out ways the benefit.

We are a self absorbed culture, we do what we want to do when we want to do it. Christians are no different. We are all still consumers at heart,  which means we shop around and spend our time and money accruing pleasurable things and experiences for ourselves. Christian people want something that benefits them, the unasked question of most who look at our little church is “How does this church benefit me?” Non-Christian people appreciate our efforts as well as any Christian, maybe even more so, but at the end of the day they appreciate us based on how we perform. The actuality of being part of a community of people who genuinely function together as a “sent, family of servants” remains largely unrealized. Don’t get me wrong, we have our moments, and there are a lot of good things to be said for our efforts, But ultimately it’s still “What time does church start?” What do you offer?” or “When’s the next party?”

So what do we do? I guess, tell them that we meet at 10:00 on Sunday’s, tell them that we offer them a chance to be part of a community on mission in the everyday, and tell them to show up next Sunday night for our next big community building event. Celebrate the small victories as well, someone might not be totally intentional yet with their life but if they come to a block party and stay an extra hour to talk to someone they wouldn’t normally talk to, that’s a major step in the right direction! Over time, I believe that people will see that the church is more than an event, more than a religious good received. There will be those who cast off their consumeristic glasses and busy themselves with the work of living together in such a way that the love of Jesus shines brightly into every facet of the neighbourhood we inhabit.

No more room at the table 

We have room at our dinning room table for 8, 10 at the most then we are full. I feel like this is a true picture of community life. One family cannot experience true community with 50 people, not even 25 really. What that means is, the Wilkinson family is full. We have no more room at our relational table. So how do we continue to “build community?” I think, what that amounts to is networking. We bring people into Meta’s net, and then we connect them to other people in the net. Hopefully friendships will be built and the relentless scourge of loneliness will be pushed back a bit. Our work of community building means we bring people together and connect them with each other. What it cannot mean is that the Wilkinson’s become best friends with everybody. It’s just not physically possible.

The problem is we don’t have a way to connect people together in any sort of strategic way. We don’t have loads of Christian people waiting in the wings hoping for a chance at friendship with someone who has a different point of view, we don’t have multiple missional communities scattered around the city just waiting for people to welcome in. We don’t have a weekly Sunday gathering that draws people together, plus the people we connect with would not come to that anyway. There is just us, and we are full.

So what do we do? We continue to connect people with people regardless. We hope that the friendships that emerge will benefit the neighbourhood and that somehow through all of these seemingly random connections people will find their connection to God.

Pray, but also be ready to Punch?

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But we prayed to our God and guarded the city day and night to protect ourselves. (New 4:9)
“Let’s just pray about it.” was not quite enough for Nehemiah. They were going to pray about the danger, but also arm themselves and be ready to protect themselves should the enemy show up. Their prayers to God were backed up with immediate human action. They believed that God would protect them, but they also believed that they themselves would be the means through which God would do the protecting!
“God we need your protection, but I have my sword here straped to my side, so that you can answer my prayer through it’s blade.”
What enemies do Christian people have in the western world today, and what possibly could be the application for a text like this? Regarding enemies I would have to say it would mostly be hostile world views and wicked philosophies of life, as far a actual people as enemies, well, there are many tempter’s out there both computer generated and real and smooth talking charlatans abound.
So whats the application? It’s certainly good to pray about those dangers but it’s also just as important to take drastic action against them. What exactly that looks like I’m not even sure. My faith tradition is against violence of any kind. So punching out a smooth talking charlatan is probably not the right course of action, (though, I must confess sometimes the thought is appealing) but it would seem according to this story that in some cases we will need to push back aggressively against real enemies. Prayer is part of the pushback but so to is action.
Does this contradict Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies and pray for them? Maybe. But in some cases I wonder if the best way you can show love for someone is to resist them, to fight against them and their beliefs. Was it not the best thing for white people when Martin Luther King resisted them? The entrapments of racism and superiority had blinded white people for centuries. It was a soul eating cancer. Kings active resistance against it not only liberated black people but it also freed many whites from their blindness.
Christian people will always need to be praying but sometimes they will also need to stand up, raise their metaphorical sword and say “No more!”

Believe or Die!

So Josiah removed all detestable idols from the entire land of Israel and required everyone to worship the Lord their God (2 Chron 34:33)

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Once again we see that there’s no real choice in the matter, you have to worship the true God or else. Involuntary religion is the name of the game throughout the entire Old Testament. Often we see examples where worshipping the “wrong God” is a capital offence!

We see this all through Christian history as well. For example, In GJ Meyers book on WW1 I learned that Prussia was originally inhabited by Slavic people. German Christians moved in and with the help of the Teutonic Knights, they crushed the Slavic people militarily. They allowed the survivors to stay on the condition that they would convert to Christianity. Many did and it was from this combination of Slavic and German people that the German Empire of the 1800 and 1900s came to be.

Religious freedom is definitely a new development for the human race. Sometimes Christians can look at the inflexibility of Islam and frown. Certainly it’s lack of religious tolerance today, is a major problem, however Christians need to remember that it wasn’t so long ago that they too were we’re forcing people on point of death to accept Christianity.

My question is how does one appreciate the religious intolerance of the Old Testament? Or what can be learned devotionally from reading it? Certainly we don’t want to follow the Old Testament example here and regress into a form of Christianity that forces itself upon others with dire consequences for those that do not comply. So what then?

The New Testament was written when Christianity was a fugitive religion without any power. Is it because of this fact that it’s message for nonbelievers is completely different than the Old Testament? I hope not. In any case the mandate for Christians coming from the New Testament is crystal clear: we are to love our enemies not kill them or force them out. Ok, got it. So we know that the many examples of Christian brutality in human history are definitely outside the margins of what Jesus prescribed. But still the angst for me is in trying to figure out what kind of value there is in the Old Testament here? What’s the lesson? Christians believe that the Old Testament is God’s word too right?

Devotionally speaking it could be an opportunity to thank God that we are in the time of voluntary religion over against involuntary. Perhaps this passage could serve as a warning to us, that even though we enjoy religious freedom, there is only one true God and those who turn away will one day face severe consequences. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Phil 2:10) We don’t force people to bow nowadays, but it doesn’t change the fact that one day they will. These Old Testament passages serve as a sober reminder that true faith is not found in a smorgasbord of belief options. Salvation does not come from a pick and choose,”It’s all good” kind of universalism. We all get to make our choices nowadays with who or what we worship, but still as in the Old Times there is only one right choice. In graphic and often troubling fashion these Old Testament passages remind us of this all important truth.

Disappearing Church

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The church is evaporating: Christianity is not overcome by siege, rather the end comes from within. The church is not destroyed; it is emptied of its essential truths, becomes a mere shadow and eventually disappears. Kind of like the fall of the Roman empire.

 This kind of thing has happened before: In the early 20th century, in the face of pervasive modernism, the church was faced with the choice, do they maintain their core beliefs which embraced the miracle stories or do they nuance them? Modernism and miracles simply could not coexist peaceably. So if the church wanted to remain culturally relevant, if it wanted to remain a respected institution in society. Then what was previously thought to be historical fact, would now need to become myth literature. The archaic beliefs of resurrection, walking on water, and the virgin birth became a smile and wink kind of affair. “We all know the stories are not true, but the enduring principles remain.” This effort at cultural respectability resulted in the emptying of liberal churches, it didn’t take people long to realize that if the stories were false, there was no point in keeping up with all the traditions and commitments. The principles (which amount to “be nice”) you could take with you to the beach on the weekends. Secularism owes a great debt to liberal theology.

The church is the bad guy: Orthodox churches remained strong as Liberal churches haemorrhaged. But now according to Sayers, even orthodox churches are disappearing at alarming rates. Why? Churches today are imbibing a system of belief built upon post Christianity’s four fundamental truths:  individualism, hedonism, consumerism and relativism. The basic pre-suppositions of the post Christian world are as follows:

  1. The highest good is individual freedom, personal happiness, & self definition.
  2. Any system of belief that restricts point one, needs to be reshaped or destroyed.
  3. Affirm all forms of self expression, intolerance is justified for any who don’t.
  4. Deconstruct existing institutions, traditions, morals and beliefs, accepting only those that fit you.

Those who once guarded the moral commands are the new enemy to be demonized and defined against; in their place the maverick, the rebel, and the releaser are the new elite.

Groups who continue to operate from a moral code during a revolution of release are tarred with the brush of being controllers. In these eras, including our contemporary revolution of release, anyone who holds to external religious truths, who submits to moral commands and traditions, will be automatically tarred as controllers, repressive and oppressive.

No church likes to “be the bad guy” but that’s what’s happened. Christianity is the “cultural straightjacket”, the impediment to freedom, pleasure and progress. Churches are desperately trying avoid falling under the disapproving glare of the broader culture. But is it possible to remain “cool” to thrive as a church working within the new system which is defined by individualism, hedonism, consumerism and relativism? — In short, Sayers says no, but the problem is, countless churches are willing to try, not just because of external pressure but, because they have employed  individualism, hedonism, consumerism and relativism into their practices and belief.

The church growth movement as well as the health and wealth gospel are built upon these very frameworks. “Its all about you church” is the mainstream regardless of theology. Church is almost exclusively a consumeristic enterprise now. Sales pitches to get crowds, slick marketing campaigns, and the embrace of “on to the next shiny thing” mentality within our churches betray what we are really believing. In addition legions of churches are quietly tweaking their views on sexuality to be more embracing of today’s mood. They are moving from a particularist view of Jesus to a universalist one with soft quiet steps. Whatever the public doesn’t want to talk about, the church is silent on. The authority of Scripture is a very nuanced conversation now. The church has become just another fragrance of selfishness in a culture of selfishness. The church as yet has not embraced full throated hedonism, but certainly half hearted-hedonism, we gently and regularly caress the sins of the mind, taking comfort in their promise to protect us from the palpable sting of consequence.

These efforts to keep the church relevant, says Sayers, will ultimately result in the church being swallowed up and digested into the broader culture.

The world in which we live: I’ve inserted an extended quote into this review as I think it gives us a very good glimpse of the western world of which we are at part.

Rorty felt that many philosophers, in particular the Europeans, got too worked up over the fact that there was no meaning in the world. Instead of mourning the loss of meaning and heroically staring down nothingness, Rorty advocated, in the words of Peter Augustine Lawler, an “easygoing, sentimental, ‘nice’ culture.” Instead of religion, instead of philosophy, instead of trying to work it all out, Rorty advocates pragmatism, that we should simply accept our mortality and go about the business of creating a pleasant life for ourselves.

This was what Allan Bloom called “Nihilism without the abyss.” The late Richard John Neuhaus wrote that Rorty’s secularist thought essentially stated, “Make it up as you go along; take ironic delight in the truth that there is no truth; there is no home that answers to our homelessness; definitely (but light-heartedly!) throw the final vocabulary that is your life in the face of nothingness. And if your neighbour or some inner curiosity persists in asking about the meaning of it all, simply change the subject.”

This is a culture in which we believe that ultimately, life is meaningless, but we are insulated from the full horror of such a belief by the distracting and anesthetizing qualities of our public culture. Our existential angst is drowned out by cooking shows, discount airfares, smartphones, and celebrity gossip. But what of those who still cling to desires for something more, a yearning for a transcendent belief, centred on more than just a tolerant society?

Rorty does not advocate that those who believe should be expunged from society altogether, rather such people need to keep their spiritual and metaphysical longings to themselves, or be joshed out of their beliefs. See them as nuts, roll your eyes at them, and if they continue in their belief, walk away. Let government, education, and corporations, led by educated, nice, sophisticated individuals, reeducate them or at least their children into the “easygoing atheism” of the beautiful world. The hope of our culture is that dissenting believers will eventually be reeducated as all minorities and distinctions dissolve into a sea of Western, materialist sophisticates. The beautiful, public sphere of our culture is the architecture of our disbelief. It soothes us, gives us vain hope, and distracts us, all while our private world becomes more fragile.

What’s the church to do? Sayers suggestions were loosely scattered over the book, and I am not sure how helpful they are. “Become a creative minority”, he says, become a “extremophile” or “retreat and return”(?). He calls us to “revisit the ancient paths”, he warns that “crowds are overrated”,  and encourages us to “view church involvement as a spiritual discipline not a commodity”. He laments that “too much choice hasn’t been helpful for Christianity”. All valid point’s but these conclusions lacked depth and direction. However, one of the greatest nuggets in this book is Sayers observation that freedom comes at the expense of community. The more free a person becomes the more disconnected he also becomes. This trade off has led to the collapse of marriage, the fracturing of the family, the fraying of the social bond, the partisanship of politics at a time when national interest demands something larger, the loss of trust in public institutions, the buildup of debt whose burden will fall on future generations, and the epidemic spread of loneliness. In short the western world is beautiful but it is also a mess!

This presents an opportunity for the Christian. People who are shorn of collective responsibility, traditional moral guidance, and binding relationships, are finding freedom a scary minefield of risk. The more freely and intensely people live the more they lament at how difficult life is. Our culture is a beautiful apocalypse. Everything falls apart while looking beautiful. We as a culture know these things, yet we seem collectively powerless to move beyond them. I think, that it is in these moments of longing and vulnerability that a Christian can speak. Freedom is not so free after all, it’s very expensive, and the return on investment is not so great, maybe there is a better way, a completely counter cultural way that involves total disobedience to the overriding principle of our day. The highest good is actually not individual freedom, personal happiness, & self definition it is something else entirely.

The Enlightenments Effect of Religion – Good or Bad?

They agreed that anyone who refused to seek the  Lord, the God of Israel, would be put to death—whether young or old male or female — 2 Chron 15:13

Then when the Sacred months have passed, kill the Mushrikun (Idol worshipers including trinitarian Christians)  wherever you find them, capture them and besiege them and prepare for them each and every ambush. — Surah At-Tauba 9:5

But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! — Matt 5:44

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With the exception of Jesus’ counter cultural words in Matthew 5, the two passages from the Bible and the Quran above are perfect examples of what religion was capable of prior to the Enlightenment.

For some in the religious community the coming of the Enlightenment will be seen as a disaster for faith. I don’t see it that way. Thanks to the enlightenment in the west, Religion was transformed from an involuntary truth to a voluntarily accepted possibility. The movement from involuntary to voluntary transformed how the vast majority of the Western world understands religion today. I believe the shift from involuntary to voluntary is a good one that the entire world should embrace.

As crashing waves slowly erode a shore line, the enlightenments steady pounding of “question everything, believe nothing, human reason above all” began to fracture the steady shorelines of Europe. Nothing could stop this tide. The mantra of “human reason first of all” created healthy (and unhealthy) scepticism which eroded irreversibly so much of what was involuntarily accepted as true in that day, no place was left untouched by this rising tide, most especially religion. The firm shorelines of religion in Europe began to crumble for some very understandable reasons:

There had been a couple hundred years of religious war between Catholics and Protestants which had ended in stailmate with all sides exhausted, and beginning to think “there has to be a better way”. In addition the development of dozens and dozens of denominations since the reformation was enough to cause even the most religious of people that niggling feeling in the back of their mind that the right path to God might be little more than a best guess.  Then it happened, science slipped passed theology in the race for supremacy. God no longer informed us about science. Science informed us about God. Eventually, sufficient amounts of doubt took the fight out of religious zealots. Was there really a need to clobber someone over the head just because they didn’t believe as you did? The answer was becoming increasingly clear: No.

If one wished to journey towards God that trip would have to be a voluntary trip  based on all sorts of information, evidence, tradition and experience. Before the enlightenment, the idea of voluntary religion was unthinkable. Theology was at the heart of knowing. Ones understanding of God was all that mattered everything else in life was just details. People were born into certain systems of belief and these systems were true and unquestioned. To wander from the truth for any reason was dangerous to the community and damning for the soul. Thus responsible leaders both political, military and religious embraced their duty to stamp out heresy and false belief. The eternal destiny of their people mandated aggressive action. The assumption of meta-physical truth being known conclusively is what the enlightenment destroyed.

Many parts of Islam have not yet gone through any sort of enlightenment. Unlike Western religions, Islam is not a voluntary belief system yet, that means it’s adherents  are not free to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their faith. For many Muslim systems, the Quran (and Hadith in some cases) is still the diffinitive truth that must be believed at all costs. Life both now and forever depend on it. Any threat to this belief must be destroyed.

  • Ancient Jews were part of an involuntary system of religion. (Hence the verse above)
  • Middle age & post reformation Christians were part of an involuntary system of religion, (Hence the religious wars in Europe during that era) — Sadly, Jesus’ call to love those in opposition was pushed aside in this era.  The most important thing in order to maintain law and order was to punish someone whose belief system was not in accord with everyone else’s.
  • Many modern day Islamists are still a part of an involuntary system of religion.  (Hence the never ending gruesome news reports coming from many Muslim countries around the world) as long as a belief system remains a compulsory non optional reality, for it’s followers, there will always be bloodshed. Protecting the absolute truth of ones belief system will always be infinitely more important than the life of ones enemy or even ones own life as the seemingly endless line of suicide bombers testify.

Granted, it’s disconcerting for a faith position to be relegated to optional. Jesus for example, claimed that he was “the truth” such definitive statements don’t leave a whole lot of options on the table.  How must a doubt soaked post enlightenment Christian come to grips with this claim? How must he share this claim with others?

Let healthy doubt create humility. What would be wrong with saying “Jesus might be the truth, and this is why I think he is”? Nothing in my estimation. We will never go back to involuntary religion, so the verbal bluster that comes from that era should be dropped. I also think we should take seriously, the words that Jesus gave us about loving those who oppose us. In the post enlightenment scientifically based world it will be impossible to know with clinical certainty existential truth based on ancient historical narrative, therefore we simply can’t have an arrogant swagger when it comes to presenting what we believe to be true. Faith is the confidence we have in what we cannot see, but our senses will more easily grasp what cannot be seen, if everything we do is wrapped in love.  This is good advice for all the religions of the world.

This less dogmatic, more unsure stance will be completely unpalatable for some strong believers who have managed to avoid the doubt that comes with the enlightenment. For me, letting go of some certainty regarding my faith is a tremendous step forward in developing a world of peaceful coexistence, and even peaceful cooperation. Easing up on personal certitude in order to embrace the free will that comes with voluntary religion is infinitely better than the shallow benefits of confidence, conformity, and security that come with involuntary religion.