Category: Reformed Christianity including Sydney Anglicans

Climate change scepticism and worldview dissonance

A conversation I had the other day has been on my mind ever since.

It was with an old friend who I don’t see that often, but whose intelligence I’ve always respected, and who I’ve always regarded as being moderate – especially for a reformed evangelical – and considered. He’s always been interested in hearing my outlandish opinions. The surprise was the revelation that he was a climate change sceptic, and a passionate one.

It went deeper than that, actually – my new understanding of his worldview is that he regards the ‘climate change industry’ and ‘alarmism’ are part of a leftist strategy – if not conspiracy. I was surprised to hear ‘the left’ used so pejoratively by him as he expounded on the left’s agenda of curtailing economic growth, redistributing income, and enforcing political correctness. This left you talk about as the enemy, I said at one point – I’m sort of a part of that. Not completely, but my  instincts tend to go that way.

I left burdened and exhausted by worldview dissonance. How was I meant to weigh up his objections to the climate change consensus? I’d encountered them before, reading The Australian every weekend, but my friend has more of a background in science than I do. I felt disturbed considering the world through his eyes and seeing so many things I value and strive for as worse than useless, as what was wrong with the world.

I remain convinced that climate change is a real and present danger, that a simpler lifestyle and society are the answer to many of our problems and that unchecked capitalism is a dangerous and cruel thing. Yet I am chastened, and I now fear, just as I thought that the environment had gone mainstream in churches, that there may be a powerful conservative backlash, not even coming from  fundamentalists but from evangelicals.

Worldview dissonance is an everyday occurrence for me, taking as I do the minority view on so many issues. Why not on this one? How do we ever make up our mind on anything? Should we trust our own judgements, when there are usually wiser and more intelligent people with a different opinion? Welcome to pluralism, hazard of a postmodern society where there is no consensus. Humility required. And put a face to every contrary opinion; there’s probably someone you love who holds it.

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“Passive, feminised Christianity”: a chickified dude with limp wrists strikes out at a misogynistic concept

It disturbs me that I keep hearing phrases like ‘a passive, feminised Christianity‘ and ‘men are staying away from the feminized church’. Mark Driscoll has me nailed – trust a ‘chickified dude with limp wrists’ to get worried about this stuff. A middle-aged friend complained to me that her church had become too feminine, and that was why some men had stopped coming – never mind that in this church, women aren’t even allowed to lead the service, let alone preach! The misogynistic assumptions behind this language and this concept should be obvious – feminine=negative, masculine=positive; feminine=passive, masculine=active. How can we talk like this, even after our eyes (should) have been opened to centuries of the oppression of women in churches?

Mark Driscoll didn’t invent this thinking; the New York Times quotes Billy Sunday making the complaint in 1916. But Driscoll is certainly the face of an aggressive evangelical masculinity taken up by Young Calvinists. I’ve heard rumours of sermons about cagefighting.

Yet if this language and critique is directed at the emotions-driven, megachurch style of evangelicalism which has become dominant, it is a beast which needs to be targeted. Passive church is not what the body of Christ is meant to look like. Church should be participatory, multi-voiced, the gifts of the Holy Spirit enabling the members to form different parts of the body. (Megachurch advocates will claim this happens in small groups.)

The problem, then, is not the target but the diagnosis. To call ’emotional’ and ‘passive’ essentially feminine traits is unfair and sexist. To my mind, emotional worship and passive churches have come about from the mainstreaming of Pentecostalism and the rise of megachurches. And actually, passive worship extends right back in time to the transformation from multi-voiced churches to priest-focused churches. Different groups – Anabaptists included – have challenged this, but multi-voiced has never been recovered as the norm.

Six years ago, Sean Michael Lucas wrote a thoughtful post about the historical context of the concept of the ‘feminisation’ of American culture. More recently came a great reflection on the stereotypes involved from a Baptist pastor, Sarah Fegredo.

Puritan and Pietist contending within evangelicalism

cover of Reformed and Always ReformingRoger Olson, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Theology. (Baker Academic, 2007)

In outlining the difference between conservative and postconservative evangelical theology, Olson makes a fascinating proposal. For him, evangelicalism has always faced the challenge and rewards of its dual origins in two different streams of Christianity – Puritan and Pietist. The Puritan stream has emphasised doctrinal correctness and seen theology as the task of systemising the Bible into doctrines and then defending these formulations (basically already completed) against innovations. The Pietist stream has tended to make the experience of conversion and discipleship the primary mode of faith, with doctrine flowing from this. (This is a simplification of his generalisation, so bear that in mind before picking holes in it.) I don’t identify with either of these streams, but I am very sympathetic to the postconservative evangelical theologians.

Today, conservative evangelicals (inheritors of the Puritan stream) tend to look at the Bible primarily as a means of information. Postconservative evangelicals (inheritors of the Pietist stream) look at the Bible just as much as a means of transformation and encounter; just as important as propositions are stories, parables, poetry in the Bible which call for our response and participation. Postconservatives also believe that no post-canonical formulation of doctrine can be seen as final and beyond questioning; they tend to encourage theological imagination and creativity.

Olson believes conservatives are susceptible to an ironic kind of traditionalism. Despite the fact they tend to downplay tradition as a source for theology, conservatives will often defend Reformation (or later) formulations of doctrine as fixed and final, because they take them to be the only faithful way to understand the biblical witness.

‘God’s Genocide’: some not-so-sensitive campus evangelism

godsgenocide

I am very disturbed by this poster that was seen around my university a few weeks ago. I’m a part time student, and I only saw the poster after the event, otherwise I would have gone to listen, mainly in the hope that they weren’t saying what I suspect they were saying.

My suspicion was that this talk from the Bible on ‘God’s Genocide’ might be an exegesis of Joshua or Judges. When a poster the next week advertised a talk from the Book of Joshua, my suspicions seemed to be true.

The poster seems to suggest, without any hesitation or moral concern, that God was responsible for genocide. The photo looks like it might be taken from Pol Pot’s regime, which is about the most unfortunate, evil thing you could impute to God.

I imagine that the impulse here is a proud refusal to be ‘ashamed of the gospel’. But the book of Joshua isn’t the gospel. It is Scripture, it is part of our canon, part of our story, but it isn’t the gospel.

I actually think God would like us to be morally outraged and confused by stories like the one in Joshua in which Joshua commands the Israelites in the name of the Lord to destroy every living thing. Maybe this is what the talk said and the poster was just being provocative. I think it was completely insensitively and appallingly provocative.

I don’t know what to do with the terrible stories of genocide in the early part of the history of Israel. Here are some approaches I’ve noticed people taking:

1. The conservative evanglical: God said it, I believe it, end of story. Believing the Bible is the inspired Word of God means taking the stories on surface value. The Caananites were obviously very wicked and deserved to be slaughtered. (The fundamentalist might find some contemporary peoples who need slaughtering; the evangelical will emphasise the extremity of Canaanite wickedness.)

2. The mainstream evangelical: It’s true, but let’s not dwell on it.

3. Historical-critical: some of the readings I was assigned at uni indicated that the archaeological evidence does not exist for the stories in Joshua. Instead of a slaughter and conquer, the archaeological evidence suggests a gradual settlement by ex-slaves from Egypt. This would mean that the biblical record is worse than the reality. Interesting consequences for our understanding of the OT.

4. Texts of Terror : having stories like these in the canon is actually meant to incite us as followers of Jesus to respond with outrage and repentance at our own history and our blindspots. Their canonical function is as a kind of warning.

5. God will fight for us: In Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder briefly outlines an approach which reads stories like these from the perspective of the Israelites. They are being moved from where they are (a culture of bloodthirstiness and military prowess) toward the pacifism of Jesus. The significant thing they hear is not that God is sanctioning violence, but that their victory is not linked to military prowess. Their victory comes from God, not from their own fighting. They are still a long way from Jesus, but the culture is already being transformed.

6. Choose your strand: the Old Testament has a diversity of outlooks, some of them in line with the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus, and some of them not. Where the Old Testament fails to live up to the revelation of Jesus’ nonviolence, it is corrected and superseded by Jesus.

My big brown Strong’s Exhaustative Concordance, or how I think the Bible is being read badly

(I’m going to sound grumpy, but I’m not, I’ve just been thinking a lot about the use of the Bible.)

It concerns me how badly the Bible is used by most evangelicals.  Much of it stems from a failure to understand what sort of book(s) the Bible is.

When I was nine, an elder in my Baptist church gave me the tool I needed to become a preacher: a big brown leather copy of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. For those who don’t know it, it lists every occurrence of every word used in the King James Version.

The method of preaching I learned from listening to a lot of sermons as a kid was to get Strong’s out, look up the key word in question and find every occurrence of it – ‘hope’, for example. Once you’ve read all these verses – each verse being a unit of truth, a proposition about the topic – you would have gained a ‘biblical’ picture of the topic at hand.

If you wanted to be particularly clever, you threw in the ‘real meaning’ of the Greek or Hebrew word in question.

Billy Graham lends his approval to this form of Bible study in his book Billy Graham Talks To Teenagers; he urges them all to get a Naves Topical Bible; it’s much more convenient – it arranges the Bible by topic, instead of that pesky book by book arrangement that God saw fit to saddle us with.  ‘The object of this book is to bring together in cyclopedic form and under familiar headings all that the Bible teaches on particular subjects.’ (p. 23)

The way I hear the Bible used often by evangelicals today isn’t too different from this in its assumptions. The basic failure is a failure to even attempt to understand context. (The main difference from when I was kid is that amongst non-fundamentalists and non-Sydney Anglicans, you don’t have to worry about being particuarly ‘biblical’; a few verses thrown in are often enough.)

First of all there’s the belief that each verse is a unit of truth. Each verse is read as if it can be plucked out of its context in a particular book, in a particular story or in a particular letter, addressed to a particular place and time, and read as if it is a timeless truth for today.

Alas not many verses work like this, so evangelicals keep going back to their favourite verses – Romans 8:28; John 3:16 – the ones that can be understood to work in this way.

Secondly, preachers too often move between the Old Testament and the New Testament, plucking out verses without putting those passages into the overall framework of God’s narrative of salvation. (The Bible is treated as a flat book, equally ‘inspired’; a verse from the Old Testament is just as valuable as a verse from the New Testament and is speaking in the same way to us.)

Thirdly, there is rarely any attempt to understand the social and historical context of passages.  Looking at the work on Paul being done by the New Perspective scholars, including Reta Finger, I am more and more believing that without a good understanding of these contexts, readers will get the Bible terribly wrong despite the best of intentions.

Which brings me to one of my concerns with the house church movement, a movement I am associated with. In the push toward small, simple church, there is often an even greater disparaging of scholarship and of theology. In reacting against the travesty of the passive laity, the mistake is being made that anyone can do this, that we don’t need people who have studied theology to inform our learning. The result is shared ignorance, a failure to get past the misreadings of the Bible people already have, or the risk – present in every church – of going down a leader’s crazy path.

I don’t have an answer to some of the dilemmas posed here. If I’m sounding elitist, I guess I  am. I long for the fruits of careful and sometimes brilliant scholarship to affect our church. But the timelag is long and sometimes the interface just isn’t there.

I’d really like it if an emphasis on reading the Bible contextually wasn’t confined to the Sydney Anglicans.

Is God to blame?

When something bad happens, is it God’s will? And even if it wasn’t, why didn’t he intervene? Gregory Boyd’s book Is God to blame? moving beyond pat answers to the problem of suffering discusses these questions and offers some helpful responses.

Boyd starts by critiquing what he calls ‘the blueprint’ view of the world. According to this Augustinian/ Calvinist view (and I’m sure proponents feel both he and I are simplifying it) everything that happens in the world, God has willed for his higher purpose. There is a specific divine reason for everything that takes place. This comes out of a conviction that if God is all powerful, then nothing can thwart his will. It leads to people asking when their baby is stillborn or their brother dies in a car accident: What is God trying to teach me? What greater good did this serve?

In Boyd’s pastoral experience thinking of God like this has led people to lose their faith or at least develop a picture of God as someone who hurts them. (I think that God can teach us things through any tragedy. But I don’t think that he wills tragedies in order to teach us things.) It also presents a big apologetic problem to non-believers who are told this is the sort of God we worship. Of course, these reasons in themselves don’t make the blueprint approach wrong.

People who believe in the blueprint view of the world might say that God is mysterious; we can’t understand his deeper purposes. Boyd offers an alternative. His argument can be summed up like this:

Because of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, we can be confident of our knowledge about God’s character and general purposes for our life. What we can hardly begin to fathom, however, is the vast complexity of creation, a creation that includes an untold number of human and spiritual free agents whose decisions affect much that comes to pass. (p. 79)

I like this a lot. We know what God’s like; it’s the created order that we don’t understand. We can assume that ‘whatever appears inconsistent with the character and purposes of God revealed in Jesus Christ ultimately comes from agents who oppose God’ (p. 80).

Boyd describes a rebellious creation at war with God. God is constantly keeping the forces of chaos at bay as best he can within the logical constraints of our free will world. When we wonder why God hasn’t intervened, it might be that he can’t.

He can’t intervene more than he does, not because he lacks power but because the kind of world he created prevents him from doing so. (p. 112)

The kind of world he has created is one where love is made possible because agents have free choice. Without free choice, Boyd argues, love would be impossible.

Boyd is careful not to claim too much for his approach here. It doesn’t answer all our questions. But it throws us back to a position of trust, confident that we know God is good and that he is at work in the world overcoming evil.

Published by IVP in 2003, it’s an accessible book suitable for the general reader.

Yoder on church growth, the Great Commission and mission

I knew that Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder’s “Baptism and the new humanity” chapter of Body Politics had key things to say about my previous post concerning the shape of the church and anabaptist versus emerging church ecclesiology – but I forgot how many related issues this chapter speaks to. I went back and read some of it this morning, actually as research for my new novel (The Fur 2! I was going to put some of these ideas in the mouth of Stephen the preacher), but I ended up not getting any writing done because he gave me so much to think about.
First, this quote:
For still others, the “mission of the church” should be understood much more realistically… as planting viable church communities in every culture, especially where there has been none before. What then if such planting and growth could be facilitated by accepting ethnic isolation and defensiveness because in certain homogenous cultures people will not forsake their own cultural style? That price in terms of ethical compromise would be worth paying for the sake of church growth. (37)
That sums up an anabaptist critique of church growth and emerging church very well. Yoder goes on to ask questions about the Great Commission.

The Book of Acts does not report that the apostles remembered the so-called “Great Commission” and conscientiously set about obeying it. Nor do we see them thinking about the lost status of individuals whom they had not reached. The event of ingathering came first. Only later did the Twelve think about it. Only still later did they “send” someone. The theology to explain the rightness of the ingathering was imposed by the events, which it explained after the fact. The Twelve did not set out to obey the Great Commission; they talked about the risen Lord and they broke bread together in their homes and thus they found themselves together first with Hellenized Jews and then even with Gentiles… The action of mission was prior to theory about it.

This observation might provide some guidance within the current lively debates about “church growth” and cultural homogeneity… If reconciliation between peoples and cultures is not happening, the Gospel’s truth is not being confirmed in that place.

– Body Politics p. 37-38

I’ve been worried about how the Great Commission is used, especially by church growth people. WA Baptists favourite John Kaiser starts with the Great Commission and then asks how we can most efficiently do it. The assumption is that we know what the Great Commission means. Yoder drops a couple of hints that it doesn’t mean what we think it means. He doesn’t seem to think it’s as important as church growth people make it either. I want to know more about his argument here, because as the last words of Jesus in Matthew at least, and as a command, it is of course important. But here’s Yoder’s footnote on it:

For two centuries the term ‘Great Commission’ has been the code label for Matthew 28:20 ‘Make disciples of all nations, as you go, baptizing them, teaching them…’ This was understood as the most specific statement of the missionary imperative the church was called to obey. In the beginning of the modern missionary movement, there were debates about whether this command was still binding, or whether perhaps the apostles had already done it. Often the first words “Go ye” were accentuated, although in the Greek that is said adverbially, as it is rendered above: “As you go…” (p. 85)

I think Yoder would say – and I say – it is still binding. As usual, he gives us a history of an idea as a first step, and expects us to do the work from there. In calling it the Great Commission, we bring a whole set of ideas to the command. Translated as he has done it here, it has a different sense – ‘as you go’.

It seems to be a feature of a lot of evangelicalism to accept a certain sense of the Great Commission, with distinctives coming out of the best way to do it. Here’s some rough stereotypes:

1. Sydney Anglicans – personal evangelism using doctrinally correct resources (2 ways to live)

2. Church Growth – seeker sensitive mega-churches using research about what people groups are looking for. (This has probably moved on a bit)

3. Emerging missional church – incarnational mission to particular people groups – ie small church expressions among subcultures.

To differing extents, all three of these streams would see the command as being filled in individual conversions. In their classical expressions, none of them would see the shape of the church, the breaking down of emnity between races and classes and genders, as a part of the good news. But in all of them, there’s people willing to listen to the idea!