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 »

Sep 072010

As someone whose job is ‘words’ it should mean that I am more careful than many about how they are used and, indeed, which ones I use. I can get very picky about words – especially theological ones. I dislike ‘sloppy’ words which get one into a fankle when speaking of God. I dislike inaccurate words which are used incorrectly. Unfortunately, I am not immune from falling into the same pitfalls.

I recently wrote about the BBC programme, ‘A Church in Crisis?’. In that article I picked up on the issue of secularism, even suggesting that a fellow blogger had mistakenly promulgated a misconception. Peter very kindly replied to my article but his comment was caught by an over-zealous spam filter and didn’t appear until he questioned me about it. He questioned my interpretation of secularism and suggested that in its promotion of egalitarianism it serves a very useful function; undermining power structures (especially religious ones) and promoting individual control.

Peter’s usage is, I would suggest, more true to the root understanding of secularism – the separation of church and state. This is a part of the definition of secularism found on the Secular Society‘s website:

Secularism supports the individual against the pressure of the group and the individual conscience against the dogma of the group.

I can’t help but think that these are words which the church could easily get behind and endorse. And yet, here is the problem with words. They accumulate baggage that ends up creating division which isn’t present in the core definition. Or perhaps, one might say that words are twisted to mean whatever we need them to mean in our own context.

Secularism is one such. From a Christian perspective, it is often used almost pejoratively – the implicit threat it contains to the religious establishment turns it into something tainted. Yet, one cannot deny that it is a word which has been seized by many as a banner or slogan around which to rally in opposition to religion.

What’s the answer then? At worst, one falls into the post-modern malaise of having define one’s terms every time. It is, undoubtedly, necessary to separate the ‘word’ from the inherited baggage at times. Yet it is often the ‘baggage’ which gives a word its richness of meaning. The problem with words is that they’re all we have to explain things by. Yet, on the other hand, they’re not all we have to show Christianity by. We may be followers of the Word, but we are known as such by our actions.

Sep 032010

Sometimes I think I must be excruciatingly dim and I have to wonder why I ever felt I ought to respond to a call to ministry. I was reading a post on one of my favourite blogs earlier and came across these words:

The entire trajectory of Scripture points to a kaleidoscopic people of God, ever more diverse, with always surprising revelations of unlikely people using their gifts in unexpected and even subversive ways to encourage the family and bless the world.

A simple enough statement but about something that has just whooshed past me without me noticing. It’s such an obvious statement about the witness of scripture that I can’t help but feel somewhat dim for only just noticing it.

Of course, as for the implications…

Jun 012010

In the spirit of not making any public statements, but encouraging discussion and understanding of the subject which cannot be named (why do I feel like we’re in a Harry Potter story?) I would like to point to some good and thought-provoking articles which were themselves pointed to in JohnFH‘s blog which I sometimes dip into (except for his Hebrew stuff which goes whizzing over my head).

The first is an article by Richard B Hays which is an adaptation of a lengthier book section. It is a pretty comprehensive statement of the conservative position on homosexuality. I recall reading the full book section in 2nd year New Testament studies and found it to be useful then. That was not long before General Assembly discussed the issue of human sexuality. The Mission and Discipleship report (.doc file, via OneKirk) and the congregation discussion resource document (1.5M pdf file, via OneKirk) they produced drew heavily on this work for the conservative perspective. It was also at the heart of a ‘refutation‘ at the time by Paul Middleton, but that work never fully engaged with Hays and so I was left feeling that it was a somewhat selective and not entirely convincing counter-argument.

The second referenced article is by Kim Fabricius (on Ben Myers blog) is a useful ‘in a nutshell’ view from the other side of the debate. The comments are extensive and worth a skim through. It is not a point-by-point argument and assumes a degree of ‘honest’ scholarship which recognises the ambiguity in many of the scriptural references to homosexual activity. If that’s not your ‘place’ then I would recommend doing some wider reading before decrying what Kim says. An ‘honest’ approach will/should leave Romans 1 as one of the few ‘unambiguous’ texts which need to be dealt with. Thereafter you may engage with his propositions and reach your own conclusion.

Finally, the third article referenced is not a theology one, but rather a media comment on a recent sex scandal in Australia. It makes some very valid moral/ethical observations which, I think, are quite pertinent to the whole discussion.

*Updated 18/7/11 to fix dead links

Mar 092010

I’ve been working my way through Emerging Churches, a very useful book giving a survey of what Emerging Church is all about. I came across a reflection from Doug Pagitt who sees three ‘types’ of EC and one of them really struck a chord with me. He doesn’t see the church as “necessarily the center (sic) of God’s attentions” and that God is already at work in the world; the church “has the option to join God or not”.

As I read it I was reminded of an observation from Barth which I think I’ve previously mentioned – that the church has always been a minority. The implication is that it always will be, and that that’s no bad thing. In the light of Pagitt’s comments it even makes sense (to me anyway). It opens up the whole question of the purpose of the church. In a sense it only ever needs to be a minority if it sees its purpose as finding where God is at work and joining in. ‘Church’ then becomes the place where church members are spiritually renewed and sustained and sent out to mission again. Their mission purpose is to make disciples of all nations. But does that need to mean growing a church congregation? OK, so it raises issues of ‘Christian imperialism’ when we count those who are working for ‘the good’ to be disciples, but then the issue is about the kingdom, and not the church. It also ‘meets the requirement’ for the church to be ‘in the world, but not of it’. And it has a somewhat liberal, vaguely universalist, soteriology. But that’s just theology and a few proof texts will soon take care of that. 😉

But it also throws into question the whole issue of the EC movement. Is it actually necessary to establish churches to do mission work? The answer must be, “no,” but what then is EC for? It seems to me that EC is, in a sense, a by-product of missional work. Or, at least, it can be. It can also be a project in and of itself. Context is the key, I suppose.

It also raises some interesting questions for the Church of Scotland, particularly at this cash-strapped time and as it considers its ability to meet its Third Article and be a presence in every part of Scotland. Maybe by trying to be ‘church’ everywhere it will never succeed; but as the missional bringer of the kingdom, that may be a different story. A lot of joined-up thinking required I think.

Oct 292009

I have, for some time, been using Guidelines daily reading notes from BRF. It is a mixture of thematic and systematic readings from a variety of contributors and, although generally fine, can sometimes be a bit hit or miss. I was intrigued by one of the topics in this latest edition – Deaf theology. It didn’t seem to start off very promisingly but quickly became quite a challenging set of readings and I wanted to set out a couple of thoughts from it. Continue reading »

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 »

Mar 192009

I’m often prompted to blog when I seem to have the same discussions coming from several sources. Tomorrow’s class reading is about territorial ministry and whether the Church of Scotland can, realistically, continue to call itself the national church. Wrapped up in this is the issue of responsibilities to the parish/community and David has written about the burden of parish funerals. Related to this, I have just finished an essay looking at the church’s response to postmodernism and whether Emerging Church offers an answer. And close on the heels of this was a related discussion on ‘entertainment-driven church’ over at Internetmonk. And Stewart is asking related questions about keeping congregation going.

Continue reading »

Dec 172008

I’ve heard many conversations this advent about the ‘real’ Christmas story. I don’t know if it’s simply a fashionable trend or whether there are more people genuinely seeking answers, but it’s been surprising how many conversations there have been that including such statements as “There was no donkey!” or “It wasn’t actually a stable!” or “There might have been three gifts, but three men is only an assumption.”

In one respect such discussions are interesting because it gives you an opportunity explore the ‘real’ story a bit more. But I wonder if puncturing the ‘mythology’ that has grown up around the Christmas story is altogether valuable. When we assume three wise men or conflate the timing of wise men and shepherds or have Mary travelling on a non-existent donkey, does it really undermine any fundamental doctrines or Christian ‘truths’? By allowing ‘stories’ to grow around these events do we not, rather, encourage a greater sense of involvement and ownership in those who hear and retell these stories? So long, of course, as the underlying gospel is faithfully represented.

On the other hand, by exploring and exposing some of the accepted wisdom in the traditional interpretations, there is opportunity to reveal further colour in the stories. On Sunday past, at my placement church, there was the third in a short series of advent reflections – myrrh, the other two being gold and frankincense (the 4th Sunday being given over to the junior church nativity service). The ‘traditional’ teaching on the gift of myrrh is that it is looking ahead to Jesus’ death as it is often used as an embalming ointment. However, Stuart began his sermon with an ‘all you never knew about myrrh’ presentation. I must confess to wondering where it was going and he duly went – myrrh has just has many uses, in fact more, for the living as for the dead and so myrrh could just as easily be a reminder of some of the many facets of Jesus. Myrrh has healing properties, it soothes, it takes away the stench of decay. When we explore the ‘story’ and even allow other stories to come into play, we unwrap a few more layers and thereby show the depth of meaning behind the simple ‘facts’.

There’s another thing that stories do. Facts explain things. Facts tell us where limits are. They provide ‘data’. Stories bring colour and depth and vibrancy. They bring out meaning and yet can also shroud in mystery. How can mere facts reveal the mystery of a virgin birth, God incarnate as a baby or the sense of wonder experienced by those who came to worship?

I think I’d rather see the mystery than the trivia, interesting though it may be.

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.