Thoughts on Violence…

22 11 2011

My posting here has been somewhat spasmodic of late. The busyness of life, work, finding a new house, starting an MA etc has squashed out some of my more frivolous activities such as filling the ether with my rambling thoughts. But in case you fancy reading articles I’ve posted elsewhere, here are a couple of links:

About a week ago I wrote an article over at whatyouthinkmatters.org entitled ‘Who Would Jesus Punch?’ trying to model how to begin thinking biblically about an issue like violence in sports. It generated a little debate (and even gained a response from the venerable otter St Stuffed Shirt. I’m honoured, I think) and as a result we’ve started a little mini-series on issues surrounding Christians and violence.

Matthew Hosier kicked off the series yesterday with ‘War and Peace pt 1’, providing a brief historical overview of the debate on war and pacifism: a particularly helpful read if you don’t have the time or inclination to dip into the voluminous sources from the early church and theologians of the middle ages. And today the first of my posts has gone up: ‘The Right to Bear the Sword the State has’, looking at Yoder on Romans 12-13 (see what I did there?) It won’t answer (m)any of your questions, but hopefully will raise one big fat one at the end, to which I’d love to hear some responses. (Pop them on that site rather than here, so everyone can join in the discussion)

The series will continue all week… Enjoy

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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!





Rev

1 07 2010

I don’t know why I always do it. I should have learnt by now that virtually everything on British TV is a disappointment.

But still, I had high hopes as I decided to watch the first episode of the new BBC 2 Show Rev on iplayer yesterday. For some inexplicable reason.

The premise intrigued me:

A sitcom about a vicar who finds himself out of his depth as he takes over an inner-city London church, with all the challenges city church leadership has to offer.

It intrigued me not least because I am a member of an inner-city London Church, and the movement I’m a part of, Newfrontiers, is hot on planting city centre churches. We have received a great deal of counsel from guys like Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll about the importance of city based churches, and many in our family of churches are facing the challenges that ought to make up the premise of Rev.

So I was intrigued that the show was making the move from the village to the city. I thought there might be something profound in there. What I found was essentially an urban Vicar of Dibley.

Priest out of his comfort zone. Has an astonishingly dumb sidekick. Placed in a dying Anglican Church. In fact, even the plot of the first episode was remarkably similar/plagiarised: Dibley – a smashed stained glass window costs £11k to repair. Rev – a smashed stained glass window costs £30k to repair. I suppose that just reflects the cost of inner city life. The Rev gets drunk, swears and blasphemes. All in a day’s work…

In fact, it was so obviously Dibley Redux that the only way they could get away with it was a self-deprecating reference as a bunch of builders mock the Rev, labelling him ‘The Vicar of Dibley.’ Well, if nobody had made the link by then, they sure did afterwards…

To be fair, the series may get better. A pilot may not be indicative of the rest of the series. And there were a few good points about it… but not enough to keep me watching. I didn’t find it funny. It was tired. I was only watching for the concept, and that was a let down.

For me the one thing that made it distinctly urban as opposed to rural was that the Rev was terrified riding his bike through the traffic, and nearly got run down by a black cab.

Is this really urban church planting?

I suppose I shouldn’t really have expected the BBC to pull anything profound out of their hat, given that all they keep in there are stock clichés and tired stereotypes. But it did make me wonder:

If they really wanted to do their research and find out what urban church life is like, would they know where to come? Would they know who to ask? Would they find us? And if not, why not?

I hope that as more and more people target cities in their church planting, a new model of Christianity will begin to filter through to the popular media. Wouldn’t Rev be far more exciting if the church were based in a theatre, ran mid-week groups in pubs, led dance academies and homeless shelters, prayed for the sick and saw them instantly healed… but then I suppose there would be less opportunity for cheap gags about choir boys.

Look… If you want a taste of inner-city Church life that is passionate rather than parochial, visit one of the many vibrant London Churches run by godly men, who are making a big difference. Try ChristChurch London for a start. Visit websites like www.ukchurchplanting.org and find out why and how we plant churches in cities. Listen to this excellent talk from Tim Keller when he spoke to Newfrontiers leaders in London recently.

Or alternatively tune in to BBC 2, Monday at 10pm, where I gather this week you may get to see a church fete…