Oh for truthful beauty, and beautiful truth…

2 08 2011

Trevin Wax has posted a brilliant comment on Chan and Sprinkle’s Erasing Hell, in which he’s picked up on a concern I’ve had for sometime with the battle between the Emergent and Reformed camps. I’ve been meaning to post something to this effect, but he beat me to it, and did a brilliant job.

Read the whole thing, please, but here are some of the key sections I would like to comment on:

‘Chan and Sprinkle approach this topic from an analytical, exegetical point of view. And […] at the exegetical level, the book succeeds. But that’s not where the battle is being waged. No one is discarding hell because of the convincing nature of Bell’s eisegesis. No… people are following Bell because of the compelling way he has made his case.

Chan and Sprinkle are analysts. Bell fashions himself as an artist. (It’s no coincidence Bell’s first book is Velvet Elvis.)

Chan and Sprinkle are theologian-pastors. Bell fashions himself as a risky explorer.

The power of Love Wins is not in Bell’s exegesis or in his thoughtfulness. The power of Bell’s book is in its aesthetic qualities. Bell is appealing to the sentiments and emotions in a way that proves effective for many disaffected evangelicals today.

Bell’s book is troublesome, not because it is a thoughtful representation of the optimistic inclusivist position. (See Clark Pinnock’s work if you’re looking for that!) It’s troublesome because it is seeking to make inclusivism beautiful. Bell succeeds at “dressing up” falsehood. Meanwhile, his evangelical critics aren’t even bothering with the wardrobe. We are Nixon, and he is Kennedy. From a purely rhetorical, debating standpoint, we win. But Bell understands the medium.

What is needed is a response that takes into consideration the beauty of Truth. We’ve got the truth portion down when it comes to propositions. What is needed is a beautiful and compelling portrait of Truth – the Person. God is inherently beautiful, but many times, we don’t do well at drawing out the inherent beauty of Truth with a capital T.

I’m not calling out Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle alone on this. God bless them – they care about precious truths and they are working to preserve them. No, I’m indicting myself in this too. We struggle in the area of aesthetics, and I’m not sure why. After all, the Reformed wing of the church is influenced by Jonathan Edwards, who wrote more about beauty than virtually any theologian in Christian history. The study of true beauty is the study of God. So why doesn’t the result of our study reflect that?

[…]

The problem with the responses to Love Wins is that, while we are experts at critiquing Bell’s vision of God, we aren’t stepping up with a more compelling portrait of God’s magnificence. We are scribbling down our thoughts under Bell’s chalk drawing instead of taking up the paint brush and creating something that reflects the beauty of biblical truth.

We can write 50-page criticisms of The Shack. Meanwhile, men and women like William Young continue to craft great stories. We grasp the issues, but others grasp the medium.

Beyond that, we often appear pedantic in the grasping of these important issues. In the study of the communication arts, there is a part of the brain known as Brocha’s Area which acts like the gateway to whether people actually listen. Surprising or intriguing Brocha is one way to get that door to open – something that art in its many variations is capable of doing.

Erasing Hell is functional, but not beautiful. From a functional point of view, I recommend it. But I think we need to be pushed on the beautiful side of this equation as well. The gospel shouldn’t shut down our imagination, but rather fuel it and direct it toward the beauty that is inherent to the truth. We need more than analysis; we need artistry.’

He is absolutely right.

The thing I found most frustrating in the whole Love Wins fiasco was the lack of creativity, compelling writing and aesthetically-evocative engagement I saw coming from those who defended an orthodox position. As Wax said, we can write the 50 page responses with proof-texts galore, but they’re the ones writing the good stories.

I could list half a dozen responses to Love Wins which I think are genuinely, biblically excellent. DeYoung’s tome is outstanding. Carson’s Gospel Coalition session is very helpful. But neither of them has that ‘I must turn the page’ factor. None of them has me holding my breath, or causes a tear to form in my eye like Bell does when he pleads with me “but don’t you wish this were true?”

So we saw papers, articles, blogs and debates with people who dotted every I, crossed every T and painted a picture of a God with no heart, soul, or emotions. (Perhaps ‘painted a picture’ is too artistic a term: I fear ‘chalked up an equation’ may be more apt). In fact, sometimes I wonder if the god they defended wasn’t some wizened old coward with his hands tied, mumbling feebly “I really wish I could help… genuinely I do… but logic prohibits me!”

The thing we have to remember is that it is not, on the whole, those with neo-reformed predilections who are being swayed by Bell. It’s the emergent, arty people; those who’ve often been hurt by churches, or who tend to (rightly or wrongly) be wary of black and white statements and hardline positions. It’s the disaffected and suspicious; those who need to be wooed rather than lambasted. Therefore we can’t simply expect to speak to them in Reformedese, and imagine that they will respond positively. We need to engage with them on their terms, in their language, in a style they’ll understand and warm to.

So nobody with a predisposition to engage with the emergent style is going to take kindly to being handed a missive by Carson, or an angry rant by Driscoll (for different reasons: one has a lot of academic clout, but sometimes feels a little dry, and the other has a loud voice that gets people’s backs up immediately, irrespective of the content). That would be somewhat like complaining to your local street cleaner that he missed a spot, but doing so in finely honed, point-perfect, totally abstruse and impenetrable Latin. You’re simply speaking a different language!

(Ok, maybe it’s not quite like that. No offence to emergent guys or street cleaners… But there is an issue of language at stake here: tone, style, timbre and vernacular. And we can’t assume that because we technically speak the same language: ‘English’ we speak the same form of English.)

You can’t just approach someone who loves grey areas and say:

‘Look, it’s just black and white! There’s no middle ground and you have to choose!’

But you can say gently and with a winsome tone:

‘Sure, that looks a bit grey. But there are even different shades of grey. And surely you can see that this shade of grey is darker than that one… and hey, this shade of grey is only one step away from being black.’

And thus we woo…

Ultimately, whilst I may favour the Reformed perspective, I am drawn to beauty. And I wish beyond wish that there were more people from the orthodox perspective writing with the same level of creative engagement as some of the emergent guys. Because frankly, some of the Reformed guys make me want to switch sides… Call it petulance, but I have artistic tendencies that are often unfulfilled by many of the guys I read or listen to. I have the odd postmodern gene bobbing along in my bloodstream, and if my head-shape were a little more regular, I daresay I might be tempted shave my hair and wear emergent, thick-rimmed glasses… If you catch my drift.

I want truth and I want beauty. Surely that’s not asking for too much?

We need to find ways of turning phrases, and painting vistas that are compelling and evocative, not simply perfectly lined up, puritanical and soulless. I don’t want to write (or read!) books that make people go “Well, I guess I have to believe that, even if I don’t like it, because at the end of the day he showed me more proof texts than the other guy.” I want to write and read books that make me see the beauty of unpopular doctrines.

As I write, I am on the train on the way home from speaking at a seminar at the Newday youth festival. At the end of the seminar a girl came and asked me if in the new creation she would remember her non-Christian friends. And if so, how could she remember them without feeling a sense of sorrow at their absence. We spoke for a while and settled on the fact that there will be a good number of things that we will come to with a fresh perspective “when we’ve been there ten thousand years.” Perhaps one of the reasons we won’t feel sorrow is that we will be captivated by a new understanding of judgment; one that emphasises justice over emotive-offence; one that sees things from God’s perspective at last. And the things that once seemed abhorrent may then shine like precious jewels.

If only people could begin to write in such a way as to help us see like that now… Oh for truthful beauty, and beautiful truth!

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Slaves and Masters

16 07 2011

‘Slaves submit to your masters…’ (Ephesians 6:5)

This verse is a challenging one to preach on. The temptation is to just focus on the subject of work and the relationship between a worker and his boss (which really is what it’s about!) But in so doing, we can end up ignoring the elephant in the room, the big question: “So… does the Bible endorse slavery?”

In the West Wing episode In God We Trust, President Bartlett and Senator Vinick discuss issues of faith, and this very question comes up:

Bartlett tries to dodge the question through some questionable theology (and bad hygiene… using the same spoon on multiple tubs of ice cream!?) but it has some force. Does the Bible condone slavery?

Consider these statistics:

  • There are currently around 27,000,000 slaves in the world today
  • Many of them have been kidnapped, sold by family members, or tricked into slavery against their will
  • They are threatened with violence, and often forced into drug dependence
  • A huge number of those slaves are sold to brothels and used for sex
  • The average price of a slave is around £55
  • The BBC reported just a couple of weeks ago that children are being trafficked and sold on the streets of London for £16,000.

I can fully understand why Ephesians 6:5 might cause such a problem for Arnold Vinick, and for many modern readers of the Bible. Surely God cannot endorse that!

The Bible speaks a good deal about slavery. The New Testament uses the Greek word doulos 124 times. It means slave or servant, and in most English translations is rendered ‘servant’ with a footnote saying ‘or bond servant, or slave’ presumably to avoid the negative connotations ‘slave’ conjurs uo.

Although the Bible never condemns nor condones slavery outright, it has plenty to say on the way in which slaves are to be treated. And if we are to understand Paul’s commands, here as well as in his other letters (most notably 1 Corinthians 7; Colossians 3 and Philemon), we need to appreciate the differences between slavery in the First Century and that of the modern world.

Here are just four of the many points of difference, followed by a number of recommended resources for further reading and reflection:

  1. Race

    Modern slavery is typically racist; strong or economically wealthy nations subject those of others nations to slavery. The American Founding Fathers, for example, believed that the black people they imported were only 60% human, and thus only deserved 60% of normal human rights.This is not a typical feature of first century slavery. Romans owned Jewish slaves, and Greek slaves. Jews owned Greek slaves and Jewish slaves. It was not a case of one powerful nation subjecting a weaker nation (or people of a particular pigmentation) to slavery.We cannot, therefore, read ‘slaves obey your masters’ as an indication of God endorsing racism. Genesis 1 and 2 tell us that God made one man and woman in His image, and out of them came every nation. Every human; black or white, slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile is made in the image of God and all have dignity as a result.

  2. Status

    First century slavery was not based on social status. Slavery was a widespread practice, and it is estimated that around one third of the population of Greece and Italy was enslaved. Slaves were sometimes more educated than free people, and they very often had greater levels of responsibility, including managing people and resources.Additionally, slaves could also take other employment as time would allow. They could also own other slaves. So it is not the case that in the food-chain of society, slaves were the lowest of the low. They could be reputable, of high standing, with a good education and leadership responsibilities.Just imagine the challenges this would have presented for the church where both a slave and his master would worship side by side as believers, since ‘In Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith… There is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free’ (Galatians 3:26; 28). Imagine a slave having a position of leadership within the church, which his master attended! These were all likely problems that the early church faced, and which are unthinkable under modern forms of slavery which are entirely demeaning, reducing slaves to the lowest positions of society, and removing from them all sense of human dignity.

  3. Finance

    In modern slavery, people are often tricked or coerced into slavery in order to pay a debt, and then they are kept in a state of poverty, never able to pay their way out. Additionally, they are never able to make money to sustain life beyond slavery, so there is no hope of a better future, since they would be unable to support themselves.In the first century, whilst some people may have got into slavery in order to pay off debts, others saw it as a good way of making money, a genuine source of income like any other job.The table below compares the financial situations of slaves and free workers. Whilst a slave would be paid considerably less than a Roman free worker, all of his accommodation, food and clothing would be paid for by his master. So at the end of a year, a slave would end up with 60 denarii in savings, whereas a Roman free worker would only have 33 denarii.

    Roman Free Worker

    Slave

    Income

    313 denarii

    60 denarii

    Expenditure

    280

    0

    Difference

    33

    60

    These savings gave first century slaves the option to buy their way out of slavery early, or to have a means of sustaining life once they were released.

  4. Length

    Modern slavery is often lifelong; people are promised a release that never comes, because they are unable to pay back the spiralling debts (often exacerbated by forced drug addiction) or they die in the jobs as a result of violence, infection, or crushing workloads.By contrast, in the first century you could earn enough in a few years to buy your freedom, or you could earn favour with your master and be set free. Most slaves were released within 10-15 years, and the majority were free by age 30.In fact, it was often in the master’s interest to release slaves, because it was cheaper to hire them back as free workers!

Summary

Of course, there were always exceptions, and particular people who abused the system. Slavery was certainly not a pleasant thing; there was still a sense of indignity about it, and certain writers were particularly demeaning towards slaves. Aristotle, for example, wrote ‘A slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave’ and he argued that it was wrong to talk of friendship or injustice between a master and his slave, since ‘there is no friendship nor justice towards lifeless things.’

Whilst the Bible never condemns slavery outright, neither does it condone it. In fact, I would say that the Biblical principles of being made in the image of God and granted liberty through the gospel hint that God disapproves of slavery, even in its first century form… perhaps a topic for another day.

On the whole, however, many of the elements we think of when we hear the word ‘slave’ are simply not part of Paul’s original meaning. Modern slavery is highly racist. It is thoroughly demeaning. Most of it is driven by kidnapping, or deception. It is often linked to sex and abuse. It is life-long, with no hope of freedom, and may in fact cost people their lives. It is lucrative, feeding the rich, and abusing the poor. It keeps the poor poor, with no hope of restoration. What is fascinating is that when the Bible does restrict or critique particular practices related to slavery, many of the things it condemns are practices which characterise modern slavery.

Just one example: Exodus 21:26-27 lays out principles for masters treating their slaves well, and just a few verses before it says ‘Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death’ (v16). The Bible has an enormous problem with the practices of the modern slave trade, speaking in strong terms and threatening death for those who would dare to kidnap, buy and sell human life.

Christians have historically been on the forefront of fighting slavery, and still must today. But it would be a mistake to read Ephesians 6:5 and other passages, and think that God somehow condones the barbaric practices of the modern slave trade.

Resources

The resources that have helped me most as I have thought about the subject of slavery (ancient and modern) include the following:

Slaves of Christ – Murray J. Harris.
This is a brilliant book, looking at the theme of slavery in the Bible and the surrounding world. It draws from a wide range of sources, and is incredibly helpful. It looks not only at the Biblical view of literal slavery, but also at the metaphorical use of slavery in scripture, the way the language is used to describe Jesus’ own descent into human existence (Philippians 2), how he has rescued us through the gospel, and what it now means to be a slave of Christ.

William Wilberforce – William Hague
Hague’s biography of Wilberforce is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Brilliantly written and easy to read, focussing on the facts that matter rather than just trying to cram in every stat and figure imaginable. It is an amazing story of an amazing man.

From Every People and Nation – J. Daniel Hays
A slightly broader book, looking at the subject of race in Scripture. I’ve reviewed this in more detail here but it’s well worth a read on this related themes of race and racism.

Free The Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net)
This has been a great source of information, though I have to say, I’ve not looked much into their work beyond the information they provide.

Stop the Traffik (www.stopthetraffik.org)
Stop the Traffik is an international movement who aim to raise the awareness of human trafficking as well as campaigning for an end to trafficking and sexual exploitation.

International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org)
IJM is a human rights agency working to rescue people from sexual oppression and slavery. They work all round the world, but are based in Washington D.C. and do an amazing job!





Brand on Dawkins

14 04 2011

This morning i enjoyed reading an article in the New Statesman by Russell Brand entitled ‘Why Richard Dawkins is the best argument for the existence of God.’

http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2011/04/richard-dawkins-br-god

Leaving aside the transcendental meditation stuff, it’s worth a read. It’s typical Brand: verbose, sesquipedalian, witty, not thoroughly watertight, but amusing nonetheless. Enjoy!

 





Rob Bell comes clean?

11 04 2011

When I opened Facebook yesterday, virtually one in three items on my news feed contained the following video, in which Rob Bell ‘comes out and states what many have been waiting to hear.’ Each time it has been posted, it has been accompanied by one of the following kinds of comments:

  1. Well done Rob! Glad to see you are orthodox after all (that’ll show those nay saying reformed guys)
  2. I haven’t read the book yet, but I thought everyone’s saying he is a universalist. I’m confused.
  3. I have read the book, and I thought it was fairly clear he was a universalist. Now I’m very puzzled

In the clip, Bell introduces himself as a Christian, and then essentially recites a creed, outlining the details of his Christian faith, all of which I say ‘amen’ to. Listen to it. See what you think. He includes in his list the fact that Jesus is the way, and that there is a hell… All of which seems a little confusing.

Here are a few comments:

I do believe he is a Christian. I believe his faith is genuine. As I’ve said before, I like him very much and enjoy listening to his preaching… though usually armed with a large pinch of salt. It’s great to hear him affirming many of the central tenets of the Christian faith. (Shame he couldn’t have included the virgin birth in there just to put the Velvet Elvis confusion to bed)

However, just because you throw around some titles and terms doesn’t mean you have affirmed where you stand on a particular doctrine. You could glance through the creeds of many different church streams and find them all affirming similar things using similar language, but meaning things that are worlds apart! Get a high Anglican, a non-conformist, a Baptist and a Mormon together and ask them if they believe in baptism – of course they all do, but what they mean by ‘I believe in baptism’ will be entirely different.

Of course, baptism isn’t the best example, because that’s an area of practice that has divided churches, whereas the items Bell includes are all things that evangelicals would have broad agreement on. But my point is this: Saying ‘I believe in X’ means very little when you are regularly guilty of redefining what X really means.

I’ve read Love Wins and I have no doubt Rob believes in Hell. He makes that very clear. But whether he and I and Jesus agree on how you define ‘hell’ is a different matter. I do think that he has redefined hell beyond the boundaries of where scripture goes, and so a simple affirmation like ‘I believe in hell’ means very little.

The central statement in his creed is this:

‘And I’m not a universalist because I believe God’s love is so great God lets you decide.’

This, I imagine, is what has confused many people, and put a smug smile on the face of others. And again it’s a labeling thing. Rob is defining universalism as the belief that everyone gets out of hell and into heaven. And of course he is rejecting that, because he believes that Jesus is the way, and so God won’t simply override your decision to reject Jesus. ‘He lets you decide.’

The question is ‘when does he let you decide?’

It’s very easy to reject a label, but functionally Bell is very far along the spectrum towards universalism. Because what he doesn’t say in this clip, but does say in his book, is that he anticipates that God’s love is so strong that people will be wooed to respond to him after their death, even if they’ve been languishing in hell for some time. The gates of heaven are never shut and Sodom and Gomorrah get restored, and this, for Bell, is enough to show that there will be postmortem opportunities for people to respond to the gospel.

(Of course, that’s not all of his argument – read the book if you have the time and inclination, or don’t if you don’t – see if you can figure out what the heck his exegesis of the prodigal son is about? It baffled the hell out of me.)

So Bell can and does reject the label of universalism, but what he actually says is barely different: hell is real, people will go there, but even there they will have the opportunity to respond to God’s love, and God’s love is so great that we can be optimistic that even in the darkest place, people will be swayed to respond.

So if we were to ask him ‘will hell at last be empty?’ I imagine his answer (not that he gives answers per se) would be: “theoretically no, since people will still be able to choose to reject God’s love. But hopefully yes, since God’s love is so compelling, who wouldn’t want to respond?”

I’m not going to get into critiquing Bell properly… that’s been done to death (and beyond). But I would make this appeal, particularly to my friends who fell into category (1) ‘Way to go Rob!’ – Don’t cheer too loudly. Rejecting the title is not the same as rejecting the doctrine. And Rob Bell is still preaching unorthodoxy.

And that leads me to the final point of his creed; the pinnacle:

‘And I also believe it’s best to only discuss books you’ve actually read’

(Cue rapturous applause)

Leaving aside the chagrin I felt at this getting more applause and whooping than the death, resurrection and second coming of Jesus, this wound me up a little…

Of course people are going to discuss books they haven’t read, when you release a promo video raising discussion questions before the release date. You invited them to discuss it!

Of course people are going to discuss it when they pastor churches and need to shepherd congregations.

Of course people are going to discuss it when the fate of their friends hangs in the balance, and they want to ensure they hear a faithful representation of the gospel.

And I would add this; it cuts both ways! And I have heard as many, if not more, people defend Bells book without having read it, as I have critiquing it. If we were to cut their voices out of the discussion, it would be a rather different tone of conversation.

To those who have, on the basis of this clip alone, declared Bell to be orthodox after all; you are just as ill-equipped to make that statement as the people you have criticised. Don’t put your eggs in the basket of a pithy creed. Read what he’s saying and take heed of what he’s not saying. Be discerning.

And remember; all of us run the risk of having itchy ears. Let’s be careful who we allow to scratch them. (2 Tim 4:3-4)





Resources on Suffering

13 11 2010

This Sunday I have the privilege (and immense challenge) of speaking on the subject of God and Suffering. It’s always daunting entering into a talk in the knowledge that you will barely scratch the surface of what needs to be said. There will, no doubt, be plenty of opportunity for questions, and I will recommend a few resources for people who want to go further. There are dozens of articles, books and talks I’ve devoured on this subject, but here are the five I will recommend this Sunday:

Tim Keller – The Reason for God

I find your lack of faith – disturbing.” The moment you open a book on apologetics and find the initial quote to be from none other than Darth Vader, you know you’re in for something a little different… As many have said, The Reason for God, is one of the most significant books on apologetics to have emerged in decades. Far from providing us with a pocket-guide to apologetics, crammed with pre-packaged, cold and heartless answers, Keller presents a well-thought out, well-articulated case for Christianity that goes far beyond an exercise in persuasive rhetoric. It is an engaging read full of examples and quotes from many areas of popular culture. Never have I read a book that can so seamlessly quote Foucault, C.S. Lewis and Neitzsche alongside Bono, hobbits and Darth Vader. But Keller does it. His wide repertoire of illustrations provides an incredibly fresh and modern way of looking at age-old questions. His chapter on suffering is just one great chapter amongst many.

D.A. Carson – How Long, O Lord?

Carson’s book on suffering is one the best ‘full-book’ treatments I’ve come across. In places it says some things that are so obvious, yet I’d never really considered them – The sections on poverty and the suffering people of God for example. At times it feels a little cold (any book that describes the ‘epistemic dilemma’ using a logic model that goes S = Set of beliefs. R = Rider. S + R = SΘ… etc puts up an immediate barrier for the suffering reader. Who wants to see their emotional pain depicted in cold, hard equations!?) but the further into the book you get, the more profound some of the pastoral insights get. There are, as always with Carson, some moments where I think he has strayed into being a little pedantic, and a couple of sideswipes that I don’t think add much to the book (like his rant at Wimber for example), but those aside, I think this is a robust treatment of the subject.

If you were going to buy one book on suffering, and wanted something quite meaty, I would highly recommend this.

Pete Greig – God on Mute

I just read this book last week. It’s a great book on prayer, and in particular prayer that seems to be unanswered. Peppered with real life examples – modern, ancient, and personal – Pete Greig lays out some helpful guidelines for identifying why prayer may not be answered, or whether it might in fact be answered in unexpected ways. It’s a very pastoral, helpful book. He takes as his model, Jesus’ own experience of Gethsemane and the cross. But lest that sound too lofty – for who really can understand going through the same level of suffering as Jesus did? – he grounds it in his own story of learning to live with a wife who suffered from fits and epilepsy. If you are not after a philosophical book, but are in the midst of suffering yourself, I would recommend this book over Carson.

N.T. Wright – Evil and the Justice of God

I very much like Tom Wright, and his books occupy a large portion of my shelves. This little book is slightly deceptive in appearance. It is small, but note, he still names himself N.T. rather than Tom – a sure sign that it will be on the meatier end of his authorial spectrum!

In this book, Wright addresses the problem of evil, and in particular, the question of what God is doing, and will do about it. He focusses on what it means for God to be ‘just’ and how that will play out as God brings his justice to bear over all creation. He majors on the Christus Victor model of the atonement, showing how Jesus is victorious over evil at the cross. He doesn’t deny the penal elements of the atonement, but some will perhaps find his portrayal of the cross a little jarring if they are not familiar with his other writings. All in all, a great little book, well worth a read. And as he says, “Evil may still be a four letter word. But so, thank God, is Love.”

Liam Thatcher – How Could a God of Love Allow Earthquakes?

Shameless self promotion. This is a talk I gave at Newday this year, focussing in on the area of natural disasters, taking Haiti as a model. This is, to my mind, the most difficult angle on suffering to answer, and one Christians are tempted to duck. Knowing that in the talk this Sunday I won’t have anywhere near enough time to deal with all aspects of suffering, it’s helpful to have this talk online to direct people to.

I shall say no more…






Michael Green: Thirty Years that Changed the World

2 08 2010

I’m not sure I’ve written a book review since the early years of secondary school, when I summed up The Hobbit thus: ‘The dragon was cool, and I liked Gollum’s riddles.’

So don’t expect too much from my book reviews. Think more Richard and Judy than New York Times

And so here, my review of the last book I read, Michael Green’s Thirty Years That Changed the World.

The book is essentially a thematic study of the book of Acts, looking at many of the key principles and practices that played such a vital role for the early church, and then applying them to us in the modern day.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book. I like Green’s style, and appreciate that he takes seriously charismatic gifts and the spiritual dimension. Knowing a little about the man, I could imagine him preaching, living, ministering and pastoring people with the same sort of levels of zeal he was describing in the early church. In other words, he lives what he preaches… and I appreciated that.

For me, the standout chapter of the book was right at the beginning: Bridges and Ditches. Green began by looking at the advantages and disadvantages that the early Christians faced in terms of preaching the Gospel both to Jews and to Gentiles. This was a fascinating chapter. It was a succinct picture of what life would have been like in those first thirty years: the particular aspects of Roman and Greek culture that aided the spread of the Gospel, and the major stumbling blocks that Jews and Gentiles would have faced in coming to Christ. There were many comments and quotes I’d heard before, but also a good number of insights I had never previously appreciated.

Chapter 6: What of their Message?, picked up some of these themes again, and looked at how the Gospel message directly challenged people’s mindsets and lifestyles. Chapter 7 was less enlightening, but rounded off this theme well, by looking at the early church’s approach to apologetics. These three chapters together were worth the price of the book.

In my opinion, there were a few weaknesses. Firstly, its repetitiveness. Due to its thematic nature, there is a great amount of overlap between the chapters. Even a cursory glance over the chapter titles (Approach, Lifestyle, Message, Apologetics, Methods, Church Planting, Pastoral Care, Church Life, Leadership, Hardships, Holy Spirit, Priorities) hints that this may be the case. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the chapter on priorities feels like a ‘greatest-hits’ amalgam of approach, lifestyle and methods!

The second weakness was that I’m not 100% certain for whom the book was written. It feels very much like a collection of challenges and mild rebukes from one older evangelical to younger evangelicals. And thinking back to a few churches I’ve attended in the past, some of his comments and encouragements really hit the mark. But, if I can say this without sounding too arrogant, many of his observations just don’t correlate to my present experience.

When he critiques worship for not being dynamic, or churches for not preaching the word, or having the sermon as the shortest element of the service, something to be got over and done with quickly, I smile (gratefully), knowing that on the whole, that is not my experience in the family of churches to which I belong. Newfrontiers, seems to have got hold of the strategy of targeting key cities and places of cultural influence, in the pattern of the early church. Green draws this out as if it’s a fresh revelation, which to many I’m sure it is, but again, I am grateful to belong to a movement that thrives on this understanding.

Regularly Green talks about ministry in the Spirit, including signs and wonders, and laments that it’s something that is seen regularly in the two-thirds world, but rarely in this country. Again, I rejoice that I belong to a church that sees regular demonstrations of God’s power, encourages people to be filled with the Spirit, and seeks to exercise spiritual gifts. I think his slight generalisations are designed to wake up slumbering Churches. They make me grateful to be in a ‘generally awake’ movement.

That said, a number of his challenges did impact me and make me rethink genuinely how much of a priority I make of: caring for the poor, prayer, the down-to-earth pastoral side of church life, and being willing to face opposition. In a long section on ‘visiting’, spanning everything from door to door evangelism, to regularly visiting parishioners, Green provokes us to rethink whether, in trying to build large, slick churches, we have lost this aspect of church life, which was so vital in the early days. Maybe we’ve got better at putting strategies in place for discipleship and pastoring? Or maybe we have replaced genuine support with structures and systems?

The ‘Gospel in the open air’ section was painful and made my toes curl with embarrassment. ‘We laugh at the man on the street corner shouting verse from the King James Version at the passers by,’ writes Green. ‘It is an embarrassment.’ (p121) I agree. But then: ‘But open air work can be done imaginatively.’ Fair enough… I realise I have an inbuilt prejudice toward artistic evangelistic endeavours that are shoddy, half-baked, public, cringe-worthy and patently un-cool. They wouldn’t reach me, and so I have little faith to engage in them myself. And I’m aware that some of my prejudice needs to be ironed out – so I did find the chapter provocative – but what of Green’s so-called ‘imaginative’ techniques that work well (p123):

  • Holding up an unusual object that catches people’s attention
  • Using posters that you gradually unveil
  • Standing on a chair in a pub and spout rubbish until everyone is listening, then preaching the gospel
  • Jugglers using the ups and downs of the balls to explain the ups and downs of life, and how Christ can catch you in any situation
  • Using sketchboards

And my personal favourite…

  • ‘I have found circle-dancing to Israelis folk tunes a marvellous way of drawing a crowd.’

Suffice to say, his examples didn’t give me any more faith for this sort of open-air ministry. But I have taken his point, and his final challenge was a good one: ‘We have become too respectable, that is the trouble, and respectability and Christianity are bad bedfellows. Until we take to the open air we may not be taken seriously by the man in the street.’ (p126) Whilst I may still want to quibble that respectability gains a hearing from a different kind of audience, the kind of person that would not be seen dead near a living statue, I do acknowledge that there are many who will be attracted by the down-to-earth quirkiness of open-air ministry. And I thank God that some people have the faith and gifting for that, whilst simultaneously breathing a sigh of relief that ‘juggling the gospel’ isn’t a requirement for all believers!

All in all, a helpful book. I enjoyed it. I think the early chapters particularly will become a pool that I can dip into, alongside F.F. Bruce’s The Spreading Flame, for a picture of early church life. Green brings Acts to life. That shouldn’t be too hard; it’s a book brimming with vitality and intrigue. But commentators have become adept at quashing the fresh, radical, Spirit-driven nature of the book of Acts, and in that sense, Green’s portrayal was a breath of fresh air.





Dealing with Doubts (xi)

3 07 2010

These final few posts are looking at 6 encouragements from the example of Jesus’ interaction with Thomas:

6) You are more blessed than Thomas

Verse 19, ‘Jesus said to [Thomas] “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”’

In typical ‘Jesus style’ he speaks a beatitude that turns human wisdom on its head. ‘Seeing is believing’ according to our regular idiom. But no, Jesus says you’re more blessed if you haven’t seen.

This verse is a big comfort to me, because Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas for doubting. It was understandable that Thomas would doubt. If he’d just shrugged his shoulders at the idea that a dead man had returned to life, we ought to think him naive, stupid, or scientifically ill-informed! Of course he would doubt! How much more understandable is it that we, thousands of years on, having not had the opportunity to physically see Jesus will also have doubts and questions?

Thomas was called blessed for seeing and believing. How much more blessed will we be when we, by the grace of God, overcome doubts without seeing. As is so often the case, it’s the kind of blessing we only realise with hindsight. But it’s worth holding out for.

Conclusion

Clearly there is far more that could have been said. Many books, talks, seminars, blogs have been dedicated to the subject in far more detail than this – But I’m bored now. I want to blog about something else!*

But in summary: If you are doubting, seek evidence. Take practical steps to find answers. Surround yourself with people who will help you. Ask questions, read books, listen to talks. Be disciplined about it. Don’t forget that we have a God who knows what you need even before you ask. Trust Him. Ask God to give you His peace and to pour His Spirit upon you. It will calm your troubled heart immeasurably. Use your doubts for mission. See them as God given tools for equipping you to extend the grace of God to others. Hold out for the blessing that is coming to you who overcome doubts.

In Luke 24:41 there is a similar story where Jesus reveals himself to the disciples. At the moment of revelation there is this curious phrase: ‘they still disbelieved for joy and were marvelling.’ Reflect on that – They disbelieved for joy and were marvelling. I pray that your disbelief would give way to joy. That you would be struck afresh by the revelation of God that leaves you marvelling. If we knew everything, we would have no cause to trust and be amazed by this almighty God.

Let your doubts fuel your worship.

_____

*I’m kidding… sort of. But if you want to read more, why not start here – a blog by fellow Newfrontiers blogger Phil Duncalfe