Month: February 2008

Reading J.I. Packer’s Knowing God

I noticed this deep, deep respect for Scripture in J.I. Packer. It isn’t even a defensive respect; he doesn’t waste time arguing about it here, although I know he does elsewhere.  I would like to cultivate a similar reverence, for Scripture but even more importantly for God.

 It’s an interesting challenge reading such a Reformed writer when my own perspective is crucially different. It’s like he’s speaking a different language and I can’t just take on bits and pieces from what he’s writing, because there’s a fundamental difference in viewpoints that needs to be overcome first.

I think J.I. Packer really does know God and that’s what make this a compelling book of devotions, even for an emerging church Anabaptist.

Pastor as CEO?

I’m allergic to the idea of the pastor as a CEO, and so it was with interest that I read a post by Mike on the Ra’ah blog defending the idea. (Especially since Mike has had a big influence on my life and is a friend of mine.) Andrew Hamilton had a very strong reaction.

I commented on the post that we have to ask what sort of church would need to think about having a CEO. If you have a church which resembles the NT churches, then you won’t need a CEO. Instead, you would see the church as a gathering of believers who come together to decide things. (This is explored in John Yoder’s chapers on ‘Binding and loosing’ and the ‘Rule of Paul’ in Body Politics; see my simplification on this site.)

In trying to think why those from an emerging church background find the pastor as CEO repugnant, I think it’s because the CEO is a model borrowed from the corporate business world, and we would regard the corporate business world with deep suspicion.

Indeed, for many of us, the corporate business world is a source of evil in this world. It’s corporations which put shareholder returns ahead of everything else. It’s corporations who see huge profits as a good thing.

And it’s CEOs with those evilly inflated pay packets.

Bring that stuff into the church, and you’re bringing a very polluted model.

I find it worrying that large church culture seems to accept quite uncritically business models on the grounds that they ‘work’. One of the key points at which Scripture needs to have authority for us is in our ecclesiology. The church has gone and got it’s ecclesiology from the business world instead, and it’s wrong.

That all said, I think Mike’s point in his post was more nuanced, about the role of a CEO being to implement the church board’s vision. From that perspective, I can see what he’s saying. He also sees the CEO model as coming from the non-profit sector, as a model of service. And he later says he doesn’t think we should necessarily use the term.

Book review: David Watson – Fear No Evil

I have an unhealthy fear of death. Particularly, I have an unhealthy fear of dying young. That’s why I was so affected by Heath Ledger’s death. I think it’s related to what Alain De Botton calls status anxiety – for me, fear of dying without achieving. It’s an unchristian attitude and it needs changing. I need to trust God enough that I’m not scared to die, and to have my treasures firmly stored up in the kingdom, not the world.

So Fear No Evil is an important book for me to have read, being a memoir of a Christian minister’s last year of life. I was reading the introduction to John Wimber’s Power Healing yesterday where John relates praying for David’s healing, and I thought how I would like to read David’s book. When I saw at the church bookstall today, it seemed that it was there for me to read. I was gripped by it, and read the whole thing this Sunday afternoon.

It’s an unusual book, a poignant description of his life after being diagnosed with cancer at age forty-nine, mixed with passages of theological reflection on suffering, sin, health, death and finally a simple evangelistic plea to readers. The theology struck me as safely evangelical, but coming from the pen of a dying man it had more resonance than it would otherwise have had. Two things spoke to me:

1. He points out how much Jesus emphasises the judgement that will occur after we die. And he’s right, as much as I find it hard to take.

2. In seeking a theology of suffering, he examines, naturally enough, the book of Job, and concludes that the Bible doesn’t tell us why we suffer – we should just ask what God is saying to us. ‘If we have any conception of the greatness of God we should refrain from pressing the question Why however understandable that might be. On many thousands of issues we simply do not and cannot know… The questions are endless if we ask why? Instead we should ask the question What? “What are you saying to me, God? What are you doing in my life? What response do you want me to make?” With that question we can expect an answer.’ (p. 129)

I would like God to tell us why. I think there’s some explanations of the why. But in an important sense he’s right. I’ve just got to have the grace to accept this hard idea.

I was surprised by David’s vulnerability in talking about the fact that he didn’t seem to experience God in his life much more than I do. A couple of times he mentions that although he knows God is with him all the time, he only feels his presence sometimes. In chapter 11, “What Is Reality”, he speaks of fluctuating between faith and doubt about God. Again, not the answer I wanted to hear; I would actually like to think that there’s a level of experience of God that at the moment I’m missing out on, but that I’ll come to one day in my life.

Another interesting part of the book is the gracious foreword by Jim Packer. I’m unfairly biased against Packer, coming as he does from a Reformed perspective, but his foreword reminds me to be more gracious like he is. He was friends with Watson despite Watson being Charismatic and in the foreword he gently mentions their different understandings of the situation – Watson that God wanted to heal him; Packer that God wanted to call Watson home. He also talks about dying well, and how it used to be an important part of each Christian’s life to die graciously, with acceptance and peace, but that now death has become an unmentionable.

Bob Dylan and Christianity, with a passing dismissal of power evangelism

Having just seen the Bob Dylan film I’m Not There and reading John Wimber’s Power Evangelism, Bob Dylan and John Wimber have been on my mind a lot this week. So it was interesting to find a very interesting comment on Wimber in an article about Bob Dylan.

I was looking up Bob Dylan’s faith journey and I came across this interesting article by Darren Hirst. It discusses Bob Dylan’s Christianity in the context of his music. But it starts with this passing comment:

The argument went something like this – if people see marvellous works of God then they would be persuaded of the validity of the Gospel and accept Christ. Leaving aside troubling comments of Christ that suggested it was an adulterous generation that looked for a sign and that people would not be persuaded even if someone was raised from the dead, whatever the weaknesses of the theology and the theory of the Church, the Vineyard movement would make a lasting impression on the Church for the next two decades, until the passing of Wimber, its most persuasive advocate.

Hirst is astute; I think this is one of the strongest objections to the idea of power evangelism. He’s referring to Mark 8:11-12 and parallels (Matthew seems to repeat it with variations 12:38-42 and 16:1-5):

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.”

Maybe Hirst is correct. But I want to find out whether generation is the best translation of the Greek, genea. Was Jesus addressing all the people alive at that time, or could he have been just addressing the Pharisees? These Pharisees had hardened hearts and weren’t approaching him with the faith and receptivity that he required. Their demand for a sign is very different to the genuine seeker who sees a demonstration of power and puts his trust in Jesus.

Whether or not it’s good to seek after signs, God provided them often in the ministry of Jesus and the apostles. I suspect that Jesus wasn’t denying the importance of healing and other miracles, and that Wimber’s main argument stands – just with a big warning attached to it that we don’t demand signs in the way the Pharisees were demanding signs.

Experience in evangelical theology

John Wimber writes:

I have talked with many evangelical theologians who have undergone significant changed in their theology because of an experience. We are always being influenced by our experiences and need the humility to admit it. The question is: what are our criteria for judging these experiences? As we continuing to experience Christian living and God, our thinking ought to become more and more scriptural. All too often, though, secularised worldviews filter experience, separating out anything that contradicts modern materialism.

– Power Evangelism : 94.

I think he’s right. Conservative evangelical theologians (and many progressive ones) will claim to be interpreting the text and nothing but the text, getting to its ‘real’ meaning when they decide that the Bible teaches that miracles have stopped.
But systematic theology has even more of an influence in interpreting the Bible. Inevitably, we interpret the Bible in terms of our existing theologies. Sydney Anglicans find substitutionary atonement and grace everywhere. Anabaptists find peace and a minority church everywhere. Charismatics find the Spirit everywhere. I don’t mind if your theology influences your interpretation and application; like I said, it’s inevitable. What I mind is the claim to ‘objective’ interpretation that ignores the interpreter’s position.

Reading John Wimber’s Power Evangelism

 I’m reading this book twenty years after it was the big thing. I remember my dad had it on his shelf; as a child I was confused by the flowers on the front, which are, of course, fireworks. I don’t know that my dad took much of it on board, but it was on our bookshelf for many years before one of my mum’s book culls.

The book doesn’t answer either of the issues that I thought were the burning faith questions for me (atrocities in the Old Testament and the delayed return of Christ). So I don’t know why I started reading it. But as I’ve been reading I’ve felt a sense that this is the right book for me to be reading right now. It’s a joyful excitement, a buzz that Wimber is onto something here.

(This has happened before: once I went to see Ian Packer while I was in the grip of doubt over the Old Testament. For some prophetic reason, he started talking about an unrelated topic – eschatology, the new heavens, new earth stuff – and it was exactly the word I needed to hear. I came away renewed even though the questions I had weren’t answered.)

From the first few chapters, my understanding so far is that Wimber is saying that the most effective evangelism is preceded by signs and wonders – healings, prophetic words, encounters with the Holy Spirit – which overcome people’s obstacles to believing in a way that years of rational argument might not.

His argument makes sense of something that has troubled me for years – the amount of space given over in the gospels to Jesus healing people. He says that of 3779 verses in the four gospels, 727 relate to healing – 19%. It was a huge part of Jesus’ ministry and the apostles’ ministry, but not how much of contemporary Christian mission happens.

Having said this, I’m suspicious of healing services and much pentecostalism. I can see all the dangers that Sydney Anglicans and conservative Baptists would warn us of. (You don’t really need me to go into that. You know, I know, let’s just leave it at that.) Even if what Wimber is saying is true, I think that true ‘power evangelism’ is rare. I want to see it happen, but I want it to be genuine and a lasting way of life.