Friday, 27 April 2007

Culture Vulture

Here's the Co-mission podcast on culture, in which I was a participant along with James Cary, Gavin McGrath and Richard Perkins. We discuss Christian engagement with culture, 24, Amazing Grace and Atheism. The sound quality isn't radio standard but I think it's fine....

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Criticizing criticism

A confession: I am a very critical person and generally have high standards for stuff (particularly in church ministry). Now, bad as that is, I am aware of it and so have compiled a little list of truths to apply to my heart. I have found these very helpful - at the very least it exposes the depths of my sin to me!

1. Criticism is rooted in pride. It must defacto assume a superior position from which to criticize.

2. Criticism is self-righteous: I use the sins and faults of individuals and groups to feel better about myself and to bolster my own sense of 'worthiness'.

3. The gospel levels the ultimate criticism against me (I am under the wrath of God) and affirms that I can only live by grace, so how can I so joyfully criticize others as if anyone can be saved without grace?!

4. Criticism uses ‘law’ and ‘demand’ on others, but how can I do this without this law and demand rebounding to condemn me?

5. Criticism destroys joy and gratitude in me; it also infects others and destroys their joy and gratitude.

6. Criticism caricatures people/groups and paints them in regard to their worst characteristic. It fails to see people as multi-dimensional. When I mess up "it's complicated... there is a context... things haven't been great recently...", when others mess up "it's because that's just who they are". I fail to see them as multi-dimensional.

7. How can I ever be in a position to properly judge someone or a group? There is much I don’t know (and can never know) about their heart, background, experiences.

8. How does Christ treat me? Not harshly... though he could devastatingly reveal my character, inability and lack of many things. But he is patient, gentle, generous, supportive. He isn't content to criticize me from heaven but came for me.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

What's a proper experience of the Spirit?

I've just had to write a (very short) chapter for a book on the Holy Spirit. My bit was on the Holy Spirit and experience. So, I thought I'd reproduce a bit of what I wrote. Basically, I made a list of what I believe characteristizes genuine Spirit-filled experiences.

1. The experience itself is pretty unimportant, while God is seen as very important. When people or movements are known for the experience they are having, and not the God they are worshipping, something is really wrong. Experiences easily become self-referential and disconnected from the One who’s supposed to be the author of it. Any experience that is real gives me a thirst for Him, and not for more experience.

2. The experience puts Jesus and the gospel in the centre. This is obviously closely connected to the last point, but reminds us that the main work of the Holy Spirit is to take what is Jesus’s and make it ours. The Spirit always shows us our need of a Saviour and our sin. He sends us to Jesus and the salvation and blessings we have in Him. He wants to give us a heightened sense of the glory of Jesus and all his benefits. The point is: the experience is not about me, but about Him and all He’s done.

3. The experience is connected to the truth of the Scriptures. The Spirit’s work is to plunge me deeper into the truth of the word of God. He works through giving me a deeper appreciation of the truth of the Scriptures. He opens my eyes to see and feel these things as true. So, I might know that John 3:16 is technically true, but it may still feel very unreal to me and not really impact my life. The Spirit’s work is to enable me also to feel its reality so that it impacts my view of God, life, myself.

4. The experience affects my character, and not just my emotions. The Spirit is working to change the deep-seated orientation of our lives so that we change what we cherish and love most deeply. The work of the Spirit is to change the loves of our heart so that we turn from idols to the Lord. He produces Christ-like character in us. It is not by gifting, nor by emotion, that we know someone is filled with the Spirit, but by their character and holiness.

5. The experience gives me a deeper concern for mission and service. The striking thing when you read Acts is that the coming of the Spirit moves the church is into preaching and serving. The blessing of the Spirit is not for some kind of private, esoteric experience but pushes us out into the word to love people and tell them about Jesus. God only blesses me to make me a blessing to others.

6. The experience makes me love the brotherhood of believers. The work of the Spirit is not individualistic (me, my guitar and Jesus) but community-focused (read Galatians 5:13-26). He is generating a community of loving people - so being truly spiritual is about loving people. Experiences given by the Spirit are there to make me more committed to my brothers and sisters, to forgive them more, to be more gracious.

7. The experience may not always make me feel good. There can be an assumption, sometimes, that every experience given to us by God will be a positive one. Now, while there’s endless joy and glory ahead of us, and many experiences of that now, God’s goal in this life is not to make us feel good. Rather it is to make us fit for heaven – to make us holy. The Bible notes a number of negative experiences which God may give us for our good. The most obvious one is conviction of sin. Another one may be a fear of judgement (given to unbeliever). The psalms detail many experiences where God may well seem absent or far away. All these experiences are given to us by God for our good and our training.

Now, I’m not saying that every experience is meant to be characterised by all these things! Obviously, God works with us in different ways at different times. But these, I hope, are useful criteria for us to assess whether our experiences, overall, are really the work of the Spirit or simply the result of self-centred emotion and self-deception.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Homogeneous churches?

I thought I would venture a post on this most controversial of topics. It is, obviously, highly relevant given the fact that so many people are thinking about church planting these days. As an initial point, I guess we have to be clear about the difference between "natural" and "prescriptive" homogeneity in a congregation. "Natural" homogeneity (NH) means, here, the fact that any community tends to attract certain kinds of people and develops a certain kind of ethos depending upon the leader, music, preaching, location etc. This arises naturally and probably gradually but is not an overt philosophy of ministry. It is not intentional. "Prescriptive" homogeneity (PH) means, though, a designed and intended strategy leading to a mono-cultural congregation. The justification for this is the need to better evangelize and disciple certain groups of people. It follows on from an approach that assumes 'target groups' - in a way not dissimilar to marketing strategies.

Now, I fully agree that the gospel needs contextualization and culture needs to be taken very seriously in mission, but these are my problems with PH:
1. It's in great danger of generating spiritual apartheid. It will simply reproduce existing social distinctions in churches. Isn't it actually a point that the gospel generates counter-cultural communitites that overcome these distinctions? PH has a strong tendency, therefore, to cultural conservatism and thus worldliness.
2. PH sees the witness of cultural relevance to be more important than the witness of a diverse community united by the gospel. It has a very weak ecclesiology and fails to see that a unified, loving community is our greatest evangelistic tool.
3. PH is in danger of distorting the gospel in that the meaning and implications of the gospel can only be fleshed out in community. If that community is monocultural there is a greater danger that it confuses its own values/approach with that of the gospel. Christians from backgrounds different from me teach me something more about Christ.
4. PH, though it seems evangelistically-motivated, will ironically quash a missionary spirit. Certain groups will be reached but others won't. Churches trapped in one culture will often only 'see' their own group. Further, they will be poor at training up people to relate to the Other!

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Holiness and identity

I've just been reminded by my reading through Exodus that the fundamental issue of holiness is not behaviour but identity. Holiness is much more than my actions - it is where my heart is directed. It is about the rooting of my identity in the LORD. It is about being devoted to Someone in all my affections, thoughts and intentions.

Now, taking this to be the case, one can see that holiness is the gospel answer to our postmodern fragmented identities (who am I? how am I to live? where am I to live? what role am I to fulfil?). Devotion to the One God is the unifying factor for my identity - my roles and values and aspirations. My self becomes rooted in Someone greater than me - which is what I really need. Unholiness is, on the other hand, a disunifying force in me and ultimately becomes self-destructive. As we grow in holiness so we become more unified, clearer people. The various parts of us come together and we learn who we are because we know who the Lord is. It would therefore seem that holiness is the solution to many of our modern ills. Wholeness and holiness hang together.

Saturday, 14 April 2007


Take a look at this for a little light relief....

One reason why praising God is important

Here's a really insightful comment from CS Lewis on praising God and why it's so important...

”I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consumation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected gradeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with.” (CS Lewis p.81 Reflections on Psalms)

Praise is necessary for us to complete our enjoyment of God. How often we can find that, though lethargic and spiritually dry, in the actual discipline of praise we find our joy in God re-awakened. So, praising God has this paradoxical impact on us - it makes us see just how great He really is.

Postmodern culture Pt 2

More thoughts on contemporary postmodern culture....

12. Spirituality is important, though remains undefined. Spirituality must not require commitment. Want experiences. usefulness of eastern religions, though superficial engagement with them.

13. Globalization – freedom to travel, immigrants, aspirations to see world, feel small

14, Media and information culture. Increased access to information via internet, but also information overload from massive number of sources. Lots of advertising, lots of ideas. "What can I do about it?" Massively literate culture.Visual, stories/values connected to that. Massive influence on people’s thinking. Speed. Image more important. Truth unclear. Emphasis on surface, appearance.

15. Experience – emphasis upon experiential confirmation. Feelings are key. We want to be moved. Aesthetics are very important i.e. beauty is truth. Importance of art, poetry, story. Reaction to the scientific – seen as cold, remote and not solving humanity's problems.

16. Socially mobile – old differences not so marked, though new differences emerging in relation to urban poor and socially disenfranchised.

17. Consumer culture – choice is key. Self-realization through buying. Lifestyle, identity connected to things. Leads to a culture of debt – debt is big issue. View myself as customer who can make demands. If not like sth else can go somewhere else.

18. Emphasis on the now, present – present is an ever shorter period of time. Fashions, vogues pass very quickly. Ideas need to be manufactured.

19. Strong pragmatic bent – relevance is key to everything! Listen and do things not cos of tradition or cos think should, but cos seems relevant. Truth is demonstrated pragmatically.

20. Scepticism about language – language has no real meaning in and of itself and can easily be a mask to hide the truth. Words are superficial, they must be demonstrated in action.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Postmodern culture Pt 1

I thought I'd jot down some thoughts on characteristics of postmodern culture. I'm trying not to be too evaluative.

1. Emphasis upon identity, self-worth. Life is project. I need to realize and fulfil myself in constant new ways as there is no one way to realize myself. Live for free time – hobbies, experiences.

2. Image – appearance, clothes, body = expression of who I am.

3. Change – fragmented identity and discontinuity in who I am. I live out a number of constantly changing roles/contexts. Highly mobile i.e. moving from one job to another, from one geographical location to another. Left unsure about how to live. No real sense of a link or common thread in who I am.
Relationships short-term, ever-changing.

4. Friendships. They are more important and self-defining than family.

5. Personal sense of freedom is the greatest good - even if I have to sacrifice other freedoms to get it. Choice and the power to make own decisions is crucial. I decide how I want to live. Develop my own identity through my choices (one of major objections to God is that He denies my freedom, crushes me. He's despotic. Or the church will control me, judge me).

6. Scepticism to absolutes. Open-mindedness is key. Rebelliousness and distrust of established authorities. Suspicion with regard to power relationships, dislike of ecclesiastical control(at times verging on paranoia). Dislike of 'them.' Pessimism about grand narratives – politics not do anything. Cynicism. Concern with the local, immediate. People open to new stories. Leads to fragmentation – lack of coherence in my own stories or understanding of what I believe.

7. Nihilism with a smile e.g. The Simpsons. Irony is everything, we mustn't take ourselves too seriously. Playful. Dislike of cliches.

8. Unsure about goodness, morality. There is though an unself-conscious new morality based on freedom to choose. Values that are particularly valued: self-irony, humility about own assertions, empathy, love, respect for others, tolerance, openness.

9. Sexual liberation is obvious. No real boundaries for sex apart from non-consent from other and abuse.

10. A desire for relationships. Want romance, love that lasts... though paradoxically no-one wants to commit. Deep contradictory attitude to relationships. Tendency towards narcissism. High level of individualism though also wanting community.

11. Pressures of modern life – demanding jobs, children, less time, expectation of being good employee, parent etc. Demands to care for world – environment. 'Compassion fatigue'.

Some more are coming soon....!

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

10 commandments

Reading through the 10 commandments yesterday I was struck by the social nature of the commandments (the social nature of our faith seems to be a theme for me of late!). I'm so used to applying them individually that I was quite bowled over by the fact that they are addressed to a people. This is a people who have been set free and redeemed (as the prologue makes clear) to live freely under the Lord's commands. It just struck me how we are to practice the commandments together and not alone. They are about moulding a whole counter-cultural society that has the Lord at the centre - issuing forth in worship and right relationships. So, for example, the Sabbath isn't just about me not working, but about a whole culture defining itself by the Lord and not by work. The commandments are meant to be practiced collectively and reciprocally - not individually. It seems to me that the idea of community often only really comes into play for us negatively, in terms of accountability (have you been keeping the commandments?). But, surely, the issue is one of collective obedience, not just lots of individual obediences (is that possible without the collective one?). Perhaps we need to think about this more: to what extent are our Christian communities shaped by the Lord's commands?

Friday, 6 April 2007

Atheists, Easter and resurrection

See here a great article in the Telegraph from Alistair McGrath in response to AC Grayling and the recent attacks from atheists on religion. I think he models very well how to engage in a public forum.

Here is an excellent article in the Guardian by NT Wright on the resurrection.

Resurrection Thoughts Pt 3

Something that has struck me in recent months is the social nature of the resurrection. Resurrection is a community thing, and more than that, it is a world thing. I'm not raised just by myself with Jesus, but I'm raised with the church and I'm raised into a new world. Eternal life is about sharing in this risen community and living in this risen world. So the personal/individual and the world is held together. Perhaps there's a danger that we've inculcated the mindet of modernity that sets the individual over and against community and the world. But we are interdependent - we are both social and dependent upon the physical environment. It's interesting that flesh in the Bible can have a sense that is more than just human beings (Gen 9:11, Ps 136:25, Ps 145:21, Dan 4:12). Our hope is the raising of all flesh - as in 'everything'. Just as our fallenness is not just a private, individual thing, so our personal 'healing' and transformation must mean the transformation of the whole world. This is perhaps made most clear in Colossian 1:15ff. The world is reconciled and raised "in Christ". My hope is not just for my own little corner in God's universe, but for a whole universe!

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Resurrection Thoughts Pt 2

Resurrection in the Bible is always physical (though we might say it is more than just that i.e. it is transformational). This has been very well-demonstrated by NT Wright in his book on the resurrection. Of course, evangelicals have always been very keen to emphasize the physicality of Jesus's resurrection over and against spiritualization of the resurrection. The bishop of Durham's infamous words (many years ago now) of resurrection being a "conjuring trick with bones" still echo in many an evangelical polemic. Yet, the irony of this may well be that while we have been keen to defend the physicality of Jesus's resurrection, we largely have spiritualized our own resurrection. For, our sense of new creation and the physicality of our future existence is very weak. We still speak of an etheral heaven and have little sense of a future body and a future new creation. It has to be said: this is a totally unbiblical concept. The resurrection hope is not simply life after death, but the hope of a new body in a new creation. This has a huge impact upon how we think about our bodies now and what we are hoping for in the future. So, for example, our secular culture deals with poor body image by getting a perfected body now. Everything is about trying to hinder the forces of decay and death acting upon us now. But the gospel deals with poor body image by looking to the resurrection. It's not the gym that gives me a great body, but Jesus.

Monday, 2 April 2007

Resurrection Thoughts Pt 1

As Easter approaches I thought I'd jot down some posts on the resurrection. These have been largely inspired by reading some Jurgen Moltmann (modern German theologian).

First, then, the difference between resurrection (Biblical) and the immortality of the soul (Greek). I think 'immortal soul thinking' influences the view of death in churches a lot more than we at first think. Unfortunately, this is totally unbiblical. Moltmann gives a brilliant summary of the differences between them...

Faith in the immortality of the soul has its hope in the self-transcendence of human beings. It trusts in something in us. The self is transcendent over death. It accepts death as release - death is the soul's best friend. So, fundamentally, faith in the immortal soul withdraws from the body and denies it. This leads to an attitude of detachment towards happiness and pain, to a 'deferred life'. My body is a skin that's waiting to be discarded.

Resurrection faith, on the other hand, has its hope in God's transcendence over death. It is hope in the God who raises the dead. It does not accept death but wants to conquer it in Christ. Death is not a friend but an enemy. Resurrection faith gives itself to this life because it is this life which is raised. Salvation is not a withdrawl from bodily, sensory life. Rather, it is the consummation of bodily, sensory life. We lose ourselves in order that God will find us in death and raise us. We find ourselves by losing ourselves -we die in order to be raised in Christ.

Psalm 16

" I have set the LORD always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,

because you will not abandon me to the grave,
nor will you let your Holy One see decay.

You have made known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand."

What can we learn from William Wilberforce?

After hearing a great talk on Wilberforce (Christian MP who stopped slavery in 19th century) last night I was inspired to note down a few things I got thinking about.

1. He wasn't a church minister! We need to empower every person ministry in our churches.

2. His ministry was multi-faceted - he both did great political/social good and he supported the work of the gospel. We must be integrated in our ministry.

3. He did his work as an avowed and obvious evangelical Christian - and so he enhanced the reputation of the gospel through his work.

4. He found his vocation ("the abolition of slavery and the reformation of manners") and followed it. Newton didn't tell him to go to theological college but actively supported the vocation God had given him. How can we 'release' people into their vocation?

5. We need social ethics (see my post on Jonathan Edwards below)! It's impossible to be a Christian apart from a social context. People don't need to just 'get converted' to live rightly in every area but they need to work out their salvation in specific areas. Where do we need to fight today?

6. He didn't just fight negatively, as I'm so afraid we do (i.e. trying to stop legislation when it contravenes specific Christian ethics). He fought for positive issues (i.e. human dignity, justice).

7. He didn't give up because He believed God was providentially reigning over his cause. His believed his cause was the cause of God. Who can stop us if God is for us?

Here is one talk. Here is a biography.