Archive for August, 2007

Star Stories

August 30, 2007

I had a Chinese takeaway for tea tonight- Mandarin City at Ballyhackamore, excellent if a bit on the pricey side. Whilst waiting for my order I read a bit of the Belfast Telegraph and was struck by two star stories.

Story 1 was a headline story about Belfast born tv presenter Eamonn Holmes using some obscene language in an interview with Maxim magazine- imagine the shock of finding someone using foul language in a quasi-pornographic magazine. Holmes it said was unrepentant over the language he used. He said, “And what – you’re not supposed to use it?” It shows how much we buy into the images that television presents us with. In this case Eamonn Holmes daytime tv presenter with easy-going charm and slightly bland persona. That his use of foul language should be an issue exposes how much we use the unreality of tv to anaesthetise to reality. To borrow from TS Eliot we cannot stand too much reality. As Christians it has struck me for a long time that we ought to engage our critical faculties much more as we consider not only the content of of tv programmes but the role that it plays in shaping our worldview.

Story 2 was a feature on Owen Wilson the Hollywood star who it is alleged recently tried to commit suicide. Again it plays against Owen’s laid back, fun loving guy persona. Clearly however for all his success Owen is a very unhappy man. The really said thing that the article brought out was that no-one in Hollywood really cared about Owen. The big concern was how this might impact projects that Owen is tied into. Owen for all his money and fame is a product, not a person. Not for the first time fame is shown to have a bitter aftertaste. I am reminded of the words of psychiatrist David Serwan-Schreiber writing in the Times a few years back of celebrities who have lived fast and died tragically. he spoke of how they discovered that, ‘Not talent, or glory, or money or the admiration of others can make life fundamentally easier.’ I hope Wilson recovers not only physically but that he is also restored to psychological and spiritual well-being.
We live in an escapist culture where many will buy into the unreal image of the screen and where many will seek salvation in the pursuit of such unreality. The ultimate reality however is God. We live in his world and the relationship we have with him is ultimately all that matters about us.

When Worship Evangelism Doesn’t Worship- Or Evangelise

August 29, 2007

I came across a link to an article written by Sally Morganthaler on Justin Taylor’s Between Two World’s blog. It is I think a must read for every Evangelical. Morganthaler wrote a book in the 90’s called ‘Worship Evangelism’. The title is self-explanatory and in the article Morganthaler accepts that her book helped to create ‘a worship driven sub-culture.’ The worship driven church she now freely admits was not, as she had hoped, a means to reach the unchurched but ‘unabashed self-absorption, a worship culture that screamed, “It’s all about us” so loudly that I wondered how any visitor could stand to endure the rest of the hour.’ As this church culture flourished so the unchurched stayed away. Yes, mega churches grew, they almost doubled their numbers in a decade. At the same time the numbers of those staying away from church doubled as well. Mega churches were growing as a result it seems not of evangelism but ecclesiastical musical chairs. Morgenthaler’s article is a painful one both for her and any concerned Evangelical reader.

A number of observations-

  • Morgenthaler’s article raises key questions for the mega church movement and the emergent church movement. It demonstrates to us the problems that are created whenever the church is driven by the surrounding culture. The observation of the Bishop who observed that whoever is wedded to the spirit of the age will become a widow in the next.
  • It also raises issues about the understanding of worship in contemporary evangelicalism. It has seemed to me for some time we are being driven by an understanding of worship that equates with praise. The idea that worship is a matter in which we engage in with our whole self as we give ourselves to God as living sacrifices and where the pinnacle of that obedience is our submission to His word has largely been lost. It is sad that in Morgenthaler’s article she is only now acknowledging worship as defined by Paul in Romans 12:2.
  • I also hope that Morgenthaler’s reflections are heard on this side of the pond where churches are in such a rush to ape mega churches believing that they have the golden key. We too run the risk of being obsessed by numbers. We used to be driven by a concern for the lost. Now it seems we are driven too often simply by a desire to be big.
  • The issue of the unchurched is one of concern. It has concerned me for some time the disconnection that there is between the church- which seems increasingly middle class and at ease with itself- and the unchurched, who are often very ordinary people who are increasingly disconnected from the church. I grew up in a very ordinary home where money was often tight and it grieves me that the church has lost its connection with such ordinary people. The self-absorbed church will never impact the lost world.

Morgenthaler’s article ends on a sad personal note. She writes,I am taking time for the preacher to heal herself. As I exit the world of corporate worship.’ It is a comment which reflects the very narcissism that Morgenthaler claims is afflicting the contemporary church.

The Muslim Jesus

August 27, 2007

I finally got around to watching Melvin Bragg’s documentary ‘The Muslim Jesus.’ It was good, informative and well balanced. It of course inevitably raised the question of whether or not ‘Jesus’ was a bridge between Christians and Muslims or a barrier. In much the same vein last week a Dutch minister suggested that Christians should call God ‘Allah’ in an attempt to bridge the gap between Christians and Muslims. Whilst we have of course a shared vocabulary and share a common figure in Jesus the problems begin to arise when we come to definitions and understandings. As one Islamic scholar put it in this programme Christians had in fact a wrong view of Jesus as they had allowed tradition to colour their understanding. A Christian scholar laid much the same charges at the door of Islam.

Two particular issues were raised in my mind. The first was the issue of critical evaluation. There was it appeared to me little critical evaluation of the Christian tradition from the point of view of Islamic scholars. They naturally assumed that the Islamic view was correct but there seemed to me to be little critical evaluation of how the Christian view of Jesus emerged. Why from the 1st century onwards did Christians proclaim Jesus crucified and risen from the dead if these things did not happen? As those who emerge from a later tradition it seems to me the weight of proof is upon the Islamic scholars to show that the earlier view is incorrect.

The second issue that occurred to me was the theological one. If the Islamic view of Jesus is correct Christians are hopelessly misled. I am reminded of Paul’s words about the historical reality of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, ‘if Christ has not been raised, you are still in your sins and your faith is futile.’ As has rightly been said Christianity is Christ. So the issue of the identity of Jesus is one not simply of historic interest but huge theological significance.

One thing that perplexes me considering the debate it this- and I am no Islamic scholar by any stretch of the imagination. It seems to me strange that Islam can respect Christians as ‘people of the book’ if our book is fundamentally flawed. In Christian theology the whole New Testament is centred upon Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified and raised from the dead. This also determines our understanding of the Old Testament. So I’m not quite sure why Christians are honoured as ‘people if the book’ if both their book and their interpretation of it is so fundamentally flawed.

So is Jesus a bridge or a barrier? I suppose he is both. He is a barrier in that there is a radically different understanding of Jesus between the two faiths. But He may also be a bridge if Christians and Muslims can engage in a constructive discussion over the key historical and theological issues.

Musn’t Grumble

August 27, 2007

I can never recall if it was Francis Xavier or Francis Assisi who said that they had heard men confess to all kinds of sins, even sin they could not imagine but they had never heard anyone confess to covetousness. Covetousness joins that list of invisible sins such as gluttony that scarcely register on the sin radar. I have thought much recently about another invisible sin, grumbling. It is something which truly blights the church but which few take seriously as a sin even though they experience its bitter aftertaste. Yet the God takes the sinfulness of grumbling seriously. If you doubt that then read Exodus 16, Numbers 14 and Paul’s commentary on this episode in 1 Corinthians.

Why is grumbling such a serious sin?

1. In the first instance it is serious because it arises from an absence of grace in or lives or an acknowledgement of that grace. Grumbling in effect says I deserve better.

2. It arises from a resistance to God’s providence in our lives. Like the Israelites we fail to rest in God and trust in Him.

3. Grumbling in churches is very often, as it was in the desert, directed at leaders. There is that failure to be thankful for those whom God has given to the church as His gifts to build up the body of pride.

4. Grumbling is often closely allied with a sense of self-pity.

5. It also arises from pride. Pride which refuses to acknowledge that we are imperfect like the people around us.

6. Where there is grumbling there is an absence of Christian love.

The effect of grumbling in our own souls is to produce cynicism. Its effect on others is to dishearten them. Its effect upon God is to bring the judgement of God.

Grumbling should be taken seriously and we should repent of it.

‘Sure of what we hope for…’

August 16, 2007

I was searching Amazon for a book when I came across a list by ‘Christian reader on a journey’ of ‘fave emerging church books’ to which he added the qualification ‘haven’t read them all.’ It led me to wonder how you can a have a favourite book you haven’t read. Can you have a favourite movie you haven’t seen? Or a favourite person you haven’t met?

It also led me to look at one or two emerging church titles- ‘Velvet Elvis’ immediately caught my attention. As I read the reviews the thing that struck me about the book was that the appeal of the emergent church is that it opens up the way for people to ask questions. In some ways it appears to me as being more about doubt than faith. I certainly had that sense as I read Blue Like Jazz. We of course all live with doubt if we have real faith. But the Christian journey is not about letting our doubt flap about like a wind sock. Rather it is about being built up in the faith through the teaching of God’s word, within the body of Christ, as we strive for maturity. That maturity brings with it a deepening sense of certainty.(Ephesians 4:7-16).

Whilst we all have questions the heart of the Christian faith is not honest doubt. I sense that the emergent church movement has not only come out of the post modern mindset but that it has also been swallowed by it with its ‘how can anyone claim to know the truth?’ mantra.

I also wonder does it portray a cultural arrogance. As Job says, ‘Doubtless you are the people and wisdom will die with you.’ Is there not a need to look seriously at the roots of evangelical faith and see how it ’emerged?’ Is there not a need to look at why the church with its practices has ’emerged’ and be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water ? I once heard John Stott giving a lecture where he remarked that the modern church would save itself a lot of time if it were more familiar with the battles that previous generations of Christians have already fought. We are a moment in history not the whole story.(In that lecture Stott also made a remark the emergent folk might appreciate. He said we need to learn to be more agnostic about some of the things we are dogmatic about and more dogmatic about some of the things we are agnostic about).

The emergent church will help perform a service in our generation (apart from giving us great book titles) if it stirs us from complacency to be what we ought to be as evangelicals. That is as Luther put it ‘a reformed church always reforming.’ I also hope that those who are within the emerging movement engage with the existing church rather than fragment evangelicalism further. I hope too that they find sympathetic churches and pastors who will not fuel their doubts further but feed their faith, transforming their minds and warming their hearts.

And I will read Velvet Elvis and tell you what I think.

‘The wind blows where it wishes…’

August 7, 2007

I read an interesting piece in the Washington Post today about how the World Council of Churches is moving towards a code of practice on religious conversion. The movement towards this statement involves the the WCC and the Vatican. It seems particularly concerned with the issue of conversion in South American. It is of course well known that the Catholic church is concerned about the haemorraging of its numbers in South America.

It is interesting to note that amongst the participants in this process are not only the WCC and Vatican but also Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews. Can you imagine Paul sitting down in such company to draw up a code on conversion? Also the boast is that there is also participation by evangelicals. What kind of evangelical worth his salt is going to draw up a code on conversion?

A report makes a recommendation that ‘all should heal themselves from the obsession of converting others.’ Its some way short of Paul saying ‘Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel’ or ‘I have become all things to all men that I might win some.’ Or even Henry Martyn saying, ‘Give me India or I die.’

The whole exercise smacks of the religious imperialism that it is allegedly seeking to avoid. For it takes religious expression and conviction out of the hands of individuals and puts it in the hands of those religious establishments who want to protect their own turf.

Its all a far cry from Jesus own explanation of conversion not as a human endeavour but as a sovereign action of the Spirit of God, ‘The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound but you do not know where it comes or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’

Luke’s Birth Narrative

August 2, 2007

I’ve enjoyed reading Robin Lane Fox’s Classical World where he takes the reader across five centuries of ancient history in about 600 pages. I take it however Fox is no friend of Christianity since he has another book sub-titled ‘Truth and Fiction in the Bible.’ In his book Classical World as he comes to consider the rise of Christianity he writes, Luke’s account of Jesus birth coinciding with ‘a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed’ means that the ‘first Christmas rests on a historical impossibility.’ He bases this contention upon the fact that there is no other evidence of this decree, that the gospel’s dating is contradictory and that Judea was responsible for its own taxation.

Fox’s statement is interesting for a number of reasons. The first is that he has no real reason for introducing the issue into his narrative- other than to have a swipe at Christians. Secondly, having introduced the problem he makes no attempt to explain it- is he constrained by space. Thirdly, as far as I can recall Luke is the only ancient source he subjects to criticism. Fourthly, and perhaps most extraordinary of all, he dismisses Luke’s account as ‘a historical impossibility.’ This is remarkable since Fox happily quotes the New Testament as a reliable historical source at other points in his book. Why all of a sudden has its historical detail become not only unreliable but impossible? It strikes me that Fox cannot resist having a go at Christianity.

Scholars have of course been aware of the difficulties surrounding this detail in Luke’s gospel for a long time. Indeed they have suggested several possible solutions, which in itself rules out the charge of ‘historical impossibility.’ Ben Witherington III offers what appears to me to be a good solution to the problem. He writes ‘it is more probable that Luke is referring to a census under Quirinius that took place prior to the famous one in A.D. 6–7. If so, we have no clear record outside Luke of such an action by Quirinius, though it is not impossible that it took place. Herod’s power was on the wane at the time of Jesus’ birth, and a census in preparation for the change of power could well have been forced on Herod since he had fallen into some disfavor with Augustus near the end of his life. We know also that Quirinius had been made consul in 12 B.C. and a person of his rank serving in the East frequently had far-reaching authority and duties. It is thus not improbable that, acting as Caesar’s agent, he had Herod take a census. It is also possible he was governor more than once in Syria, though the possibility also remains that Luke may be identifying him by his later and, to his audience, more familiar office. It is less likely that Luke means that Quirinius started a census in 6 B.C. and finished it in 6–7 A.D., for he says that this was the first census the governor took (distinguishing it from some later one). The upshot of all this is that Luke’s reference to the census does not suggest a different date for Jesus’ birth than does the Matthean evidence.’
Green, Joel G.; McKnight, Scot; Marshall, I. Howard; editors, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) 1998, c1992.

Sadly once again the pretence of scholarship, which is more polemical than scholarly, has been used to undermine the reliability of the Bible.