May 102011

I’m wondering what has happened to the month that has passed since I last posted anything. Once again, it’s not a case of nothing happening; more just a case of lots of little things which eat away at the time and are, in and of themselves, not really worth a blog post. But I suppose that’s a reminder of just how quickly time slips away when there’s constant activity. And that’s a reminder in itself that things come around all too soon and before you know it it’s a bit of a panic to get everything sorted that needs done.

I was speaking with someone recently who was asking what I was up to in the next wee while. By the time I’d rhymed off what was definitely in the diary I realised that a chunk of May had been accounted for, June was a complete goner and July signalled the time for my final report in anticipation of the review in mid-August.

Time, it seems, is not willing to stand still to allow me take stock for a bit. And when I do snatch a moment, I keep thinking in terms of, “But I’ve still to do…” or “I’ve never done…” And, of course, there are all the things that I’m blissfully unaware of that will hit me from out of the blue. But when I snatch a moment and look back at all that I have done, I realise that there has been a lot packed in to what seems a ridiculously short time. And it will soon be time to start dredging it all up and putting it together for a report.

It also came as a shock that I had passed that halfway point and the second half of probation looked an awful lot shorter than the first half. I’m really not convinced that time is constant at all. I think there is some bizarre warp effect that comes into effect the moment you take your eye off the clock to do something. Or maybe time is just downright sneaky.

Anyway – a couple of tangents.

I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s,  The Contemplative Pastor and have decided that it should be required reading for all ministers. More to the point, it should be mandatory reading for all vacancy committees.

I’ve also been getting agitated reading recent postings and comments on many of the US-based theology blogs I subscribe to. The issue, of course, is bin Laden. I can’t decide whether to be irritated or saddened by much of the rhetoric that passes for ‘Christian justice’. The, generally, triumphalist attitude is really quite sickening and when respected UK voices are pilloried for daring to question the tone and the actions then I do begin to realise just how vastly different US and European culture actually is. I don’t particularly want to unsubscribe from some of the blogs, because it’s mainly commenters I take issue with, but I see very little response from the bloggers to gainsay them. I’m generally quite happy to read stuff I disagree with, but this recent activity has just left a particularly sour taste.

Jan 102011

I’ve just finished Scot McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet and have thoroughly enjoyed it, both as a challenge and an affirmation. His basic premise is that we all read the Bible with our own bias and preconceptions – and we should all be honest about that. Nothing new there really – except perhaps the call for honesty from all readers and interpreters.

Continue reading »

Jan 072011

Santa was very nice this year (as he is every year, I must add) and brought me a Kindle 3 (hence the new sidebar item). I was always somewhat sceptical of electronic book readers, always claiming that you couldn’t beat ‘the real thing’ – and never mind the trees; plenty more where they came from. That said, the geek in me cannot resist a techie gadget and when the Kindle 3 finally hit what I think is approaching a sensible price point, I was persuaded to give it a go, especially in light of the many positive reviews it has been receiving.

Continue reading »

May 202010

I’ve been catching up on some reading recently (I’ve not long finished The Mystery of Christ by Robert Farrar Capon and Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell) and currently working my way through The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. When I’m not banging on about Emerging Church, one of my soapboxes is the need for Christians (especially Christian leaders) to be the ‘prophetic voice’ within society – pointing out its failings and pointing to a better way. This is at the heart of Brueggemann’s book and I came across a passage worth quoting:

The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. Thus I suggest that prophetic ministry has to do not primarily with addressing specific public crises but with addressing, in season and out of season, the dominant crisis that is enduring and resilient, of having our alternative vocation co-opted and domesticated.

The italics are Brueggemann’s and state the hypothesis for  the book. The extract, I believe, succinctly states the mission and problem for the church. The church needs to be counter-cultural. And that doesn’t mean that it decries culture, rather it should always be asking if this is the ‘best’ we can achieve. And by ‘best’, I would suggest that that means being more ‘Christ-like’; being fully human and fully spiritual creatures, living life in its fullest measure without fear of discrimination, oppression and injustice.

But the extract also highlights the biggest danger the church faces – becoming ‘co-opted and domesticated’. (The phrase, “Aslan is not a tame lion” has just sprung to mind). My biggest fear of Emerging Church is that the Christian distinctives get subsumed by a desire to be ‘relevant’ – faith and worship are co-opted to suit a context, rather than that happening the other way round. Domestication comes when the church is no longer proactive but reactive and is ‘used’ to provide social services or a place where religious-types can go on a Sunday morning. Or perhaps domestication has come through the church becoming a useful branch of Historic Scotland responsible for the upkeep of a bunch of old buildings. I’m sure there are many ways in which we have become ‘co-opted and domesticated’.

How easy is it though to rediscover our revolutionary voice?

Apr 232010

I recently read Between Noon and Three by Robert Farrar Capon. It was so gripping I read it in just a few days. It’s a book about the offensiveness of God’s grace and it is excellent. If you’re a Calvinist you’ll maybe want to add to to your list for the next time you’re planning a bonfire. But anyway, I recently came across this from another of Capon’s books and just loved it:

There is no sin you can commit that God in Jesus hasn’t forgiven already. The only way you can get yourself in permanent Dutch is to refuse forgiveness. That’s hell. The old baloney about heaven being for good guys and hell for bad guys is dead wrong. Heaven is populated entirely by forgiven sinners, not spiritual and moral aces. And hell is populated entirely by forgiven sinners. The only difference between the two groups is that those in heaven accept the forgiveness and those in hell reject it. Which is why heaven is a party–the endless wedding reception of the Lamb and his bride–and hell is nothing but the dreariest bar in town.?

Robert Farrar Capon
(The Mystery of Christ: And Why We Don’t Get it, 1993)

Sep 112009

Blue Like Jazz book coverI’ve just finished reading Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. It’s one of these books you often find referenced in all sorts of blogs and websites. It also seems to be a ‘love it or hate it’ book depending on which side of the liberal/evangelical divide you sit on (a bit like The Shack, I suppose). But it’s been on my wish list for a while and so I spent some birthday vouchers on a copy.

It’s not a ‘big read’. It only took me a couple of days to get through it. It’s written in a light, very conversational tone so it skips along at an easy pace and engages you in the unfolding story. That story is Miller’s faith journey as he questions many of the religious baggage he carries as well as much of his behaviour and attitude towards himself and others. For that reason it’s very much about ‘experience’ and it has been heavily criticised for just that. In a sense it is very self-absorbed with faith growth being about growing as an individual and reconciling many of the big questions about relationships and life through a very personal lens. In essence, it starts with ‘self’ and aims God-ward. Continue reading »

Oct 092008

theshackbookI’ve just finished reading The Shack. It’s a book that has caused a huge stir among certain Christian groups in the US, not least because of its depiction of God. So it has been hugely hyped at both ends of the conservative-liberal spectrum (and many in-between) and that’s been the main reason I’ve avoided reading it. But I had to spend a few pounds to make up the value of a book order to get free shipping and thought I’d add it in.

I’m very glad I did. I found it to be quite a compelling read. Just to be clear – it’s a novel and it’s ‘fiction’. By that I mean that the story is made up. Like many novels it’s a composite of the author’s experience, circle of friends, family and so on. In that respect, the outline story isn’t even all that great. It’s contrived and compressed and wouldn’t generally merit a second glance in a discount book shop. It’s also a bit ‘American’. But, if you ignore that aspect of it and treat it simply as a vehicle for the ‘main story’ then you’ll find a very thought-provoking piece of writing.

On one level it’s an apologetic, on another it’s very evangelistic but I enjoyed it for its theology. It can be read ‘lightly’ and without any real engagement but then it would be a pretty poor novel. But it deserves to be read ‘engagingly’. It does a great job, in my opinion, of trying to find words to describe the Trinity and the consequences of its presentation of the Trinity (I don’t want to give away too much – it is genuinely worth reading). It stirs up issues of ecclesiology and what it means to be ‘church’. It challenges Christian behaviour and our response to others. It tackles the big questions of evil and why do bad things happen. It touches on eschatology and heaven and rebirth. Above all it’s a story about redemption and what it really means.

In many respects it resonates with my own developing theology. It comes up against the usual language barriers when a word or phrase is used that you twitch a little at. But the the book’s trying to speak of God and language is never sufficient to do that. So in that respect, the book isn’t ‘perfect’. But then I’ve yet to come across a theology book that is. It would be a great book to run a discussion group on. I suspect it would challenge many of the popular conceptions of God and the Christian life.

I do see why it created such a stir when it appeared. Conservative evangelicals especially were up in arms (here’s a little spoiler – God the Father is mostly portrayed as a comfortably built Afro-American woman – but there’s a very good reason for that). It definitely challenges much ‘cosy’ Christianity. It certainly challenges Sunday Christians. It gives Bibliolatry a real savaging. What it does emphasise though, over and over again, is that being a Christian is about being in a relationship with God. Where the book may well challenge you is what the nature of that relationship is.

Oct 022008

I was skimming through an old Terry Pratchett book (Equal Rites if you must know) and came across a piece of dialogue which I loved. It’s between two wizards at the Unseen University who have just been lectured on some esoteric knowledge.

‘I look at it like this,’ he said. ‘Before I heard him talk, I was like everyone else. You know what I mean? I was confused and uncertain about all the little details of life. But now,’ he brightened up, ‘while I’m still confused and uncertain it’s on a much higher plane, d’you see, and at least I know I’m bewildered about the really fundamental and important facts of the universe.’

Treatle nodded. ‘I hadn’t looked at it like that,’ he said, ‘but you’re absolutely right. He’s really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance. There’s so much about the universe we don’t know.’

I couldn’t help but think how true this was. It seems to me that the more I study and read at university, the less I realise I know and so the level of ignorance becomes more profound. Kind of humbling really.

And as for its application for faith – it’s even more serious. I wonder if those who spout forth with certainty about what’s God wants/expects and the rights/wrongs that are so Biblically clear are simply living in a tiny bubble of reality?

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some existentialist angst bubbling to the surface, just a very apposite thought following on from yesterday. Yesterday was the first day of my placement at Camelon and I was involved in a meeting to plan out the preaching and teaching themes for next year. The focus is to be on the Apostles’ Creed and about its individual statements of the Christian faith. Can they be treated as absolutes? I suppose that in a sense they must be. Our faith must have some bedrock or foundation and for the Christian that must be God; Father, Son and Spirit. Can we go beyond that? I think the answer has to be yes. But we do so in the uncertainty of faith.

Jul 222008

Well, it’s been ages since I last wrote anything, so my birthday seems to be an appropriate occasion to post something.

I got vouchers (Amazon and the bank type) and a big stack of dark chocolate including my favourite Green and Black’s Maya Gold. I don’t eat milk chocolate because of the milk – lactose seems to bring on my sinusitis, so I avoid it. There was also a bar of Co-op orange and spices. Very similar to the Maya Gold but a bit more orangey – very yummy. Trying to avoid eating any before bedtime or I’ll not sleep.

Haven’t decided what to spend my vouchers on but I may order a wide-angle tele-converter for my camera. Or I could just buy more chocolate. Decisions! Decisions!

And I’ve got a delicious home-made birthday cake as well.

The girls are back from Malawi and are spending time with grandparents. It seems to have been an amazing trip and there are some photos and tales on the website.

I’m also reading another NT Wright book – Paul, In fresh perspective. Definitely recommended. For a ‘traditionalist’ scholar, he really opens up some fresh ideas and challenges conventional wisdom. Maybe that says more than anything. There is still so much to learn even from ‘traditional’ teaching never mind having tread on emerging pathways. This one is about the major themes of covenant and creation which run through scripture. That in itself is not so radical, but it it the implications which Wright draws, particularly in how we read Paul, that are challenging. I’ll post on it when I’ve digested it some more but it’s an outlook or theology that really appeals to me and makes sense to me.

Oh well, chocolate beckons.

Apr 042008

Tom Wright - Surprised by HopeOr is it?

I’ve been reading Tom Wright’s book ‘Surprised by Hope’ and he is very adamant that it isn’t. His main contention in the book is that the main focus of preaching and teaching in the western church has been about ‘fitting us for heaven’. It’s the place Christians go when we ‘shrug off this mortal coil’. There’s no better achievement than to leave this world behind and for our immortal souls to live eternally with God. It’s the focus of much of Evangelicalism – saving souls. It’s reinforced by our hymns, prayers and liturgy. And it’s also utterly wrong, or at least short-sighted, according to Wright.

To focus on heaven as an end point is to bow to a Platonic understanding of life – essentially, what is physical is undesirable, what is spirit is to be desired. It’s a dualistic world-view where physical is bad and spiritual is good. And yet, when God created the universe (the physical) He declared that ‘it was very good’. Furthermore, the teaching of the New Testament does not give heaven as our final destination. We are not destined for some nebulous, cloud-sitting, harp-playing, spiritual existence. The focus of the Gospel, the good news, is that ‘death has been defeated’. Not in some spiritual sense but it bodily actuality. The resurrection of Christ bears testimony to that. He is the ‘first fruits’. He is the pattern to which we will all, one day, be conformed – a new, physical, life, not bound by death and glorified by God. And what’s more, this is not a promise for people, but is for all creation. After all, where are the physical to live if not in a new world – a new-created and joined heaven and earth? And that resurrection body overcomes the decay of death, not by our own power, but by that of the Spirit.

This is the main thrust of Wright’s book and he explores some of the implications of this. Perhaps the single, biggest implication is for the here-and-now. In re-creating us in resurrection life, God affirms the goodness of creation, of physicality. Life matters! And it matters in the here-and-now as well. What we have, in the gift of the Spirit now, is a foretaste of that resurrection life, albeit a pale shadow, seen in a mirror dimly. Wright suggests that in the new heaven and earth, there will be work to do. We will be called to fulfil our duties as stewards of creation – a duty we’ve largely failed at now. Our Spirit-filled life now should be a reflection of that. The purpose of evangelism is indeed salvation, but not for the sake of ‘saving souls’ (that’s back to the dualist view of physical bad/spiritual good), but for bringing people to Christ so that they may know the Spirit and thereby be empowered to bring about God’s kingdom on earth (Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven) as a foretaste of the full glory yet to come.

And yes, there’s still a place for heaven, hell and judgement but you’ll need to read the book for that (or catch me in a quiet time to blog about it).

This is the first time I’ve read any of Wright’s work, apart from a brief foray into it last semester for academic purposes. But, I have to say, so much of what he writes (in this book anyway) resonates deeply with my own outlook. As my theology has been shaped by my learning at uni, I’ve been aware of many gaps. I’ve also been aware of deeper discontent with the Evangelical focus on a future in heaven (often to the detriment of our duties on earth). This book has filled in some of those gaps (or at least given me much raw material with which to start filling them in) and I look forward to reading more of Wright’s work. I’m told that his commentary on Romans is excellent, so I guess I’ll have a busy reading list over the summer.