Currently I am co-writting an article on Lady Gaga with Doug Groothius. So I am not going to write too much here, but the above picture seems to be one of those photos which struck me as emblematic. It is like the baton being passed from one era of Western Culture to another. The Queen who represents the proceeding centuries of convention and tradition in which it was determined that a handful of people deserved privilege.
I recently read Nick Spencer’s book Darwin and God, which is not so much about evolutionary theory, but uses Darwin as an example of the way so many prominent Brits lost their faiths during the Nineteenth century. Despite Darwin living so long ago, and in such a different culture, there are some strong parallels between Darwin’s eventual loss of faith and the phenomenon of young adults leaving faith today.
Most of us are aware that our cultures ethics are in flux. Sure we know this about the red flag issues of the day around sexuality, genetics and technology. But we are probably less aware of the way that contemporary culture is reshaping our everyday ethics, the tiny little beliefs that we pick up, that end up having a tremendous effect upon our behaviour; catchphrases and mantras that seem benign but which speak of a radical shift in our worldviews.
A classic example is the statement, ‘I am not a bad person I just do bad/stupid things’. I hear this all the time, both as a pastor, and in the media. As a culture we are building a division between our actions and what they say about us as people. Throughout most of history our action have been an indicator of our character, but today we wish to maintain a pristine character, whilst doing what the heck we want. Such a belief, is deeply linked to the idea of self esteem, the belief that we are all inherently good no matter what we do, that what is important is not moral integrity, but the health of our self esteem.
Such a viewpoint is radically at odds with scripture, which states that Human are inherently broken, that we make wrong, and sometime evil decisions, which in turn lead to terrible actions. We cannot disconnect our actions from who we are, they speak volumes of our character. The attitudes of the heart spill out into real time, with real consequences.
The book of Proverbs does not so much distinguish between those who are evil or who do wrong, and those who do good, but rather those who do wrong and those who are wise. To be wise, to ensure that both our actions and character align, we must start in a place of humility accepting our brokenness, our habit to chose wrong over right. Then we are in a position to move into relationship with him who is truly good, whose actions speak of his goodness, his justice and his love. Thus the bad news for contemporary culture is that we are our actions, but the good news is that Christ whose actions spoke of his goodness, offers us his grace and his transforming love.
Last Sunday I continued our series exploring the great ‘Acts’ of the story of scripture, focussing on the Fall. Here is the summary of my sermon.
For the last few centuries the story of the fall has always stuck in the throat of Western culture. It is an affront to our narcissism, and a stumbling block to our desire for complete individual autonomy and mastery of our world. Adam and Eve’s choice to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil rather than the Tree of Life, sets in motion a devastating break in creation. A fracture between humans and God, between human and human, and between human and creation. This break spirals throughout history and into our day. Thus the story of Adam and Eve speaks deeply into our current situation and contemporary day failings.
Gen 2:15 tells us that God has given humans a commission, that is to be guardians or stewards of his creation. When I hear Steward I think of a guy in a flourescent vest keeping people off sports fields. The Hebrew word is Shomer, a term which carries with it a deeper meaning. In Rabbinical law, a Shomer is someone given charge with guarding something for another, it is a vow, a promise to safeguard an item in your care. Someone who keeps the Sabbath is a Shomer Shabbos. Human’s role in the earth is to cultivate and guard God’s creation, the home he has created for us to live in with him. But by the end of this story, the role of Shomer will be swapped for the quest to be like gods.
Into this story enters a strange creature, a serpent, but nothing like the serpents that we are familiar with. This serpent stands upright like humans, like God he speaks. Why is he there? We do not know? Did he feel aggrieved being passed over as a companion for Adam (Gen 2:20)? Again we do not know. The cherubim that Guard the garden of Eden, also guard us from the answers to these questions. But if you think about it a snake is indicative. Snakes are cold, their eyes glassy, their demeanor speaks of detachment. A snake standing the way a cobra does, looks something like a question mark.
And so the snake begins the crack in creation with a question. God speaks, the serpent who the new testament writers will link to Satan, questions. His questions are not honest inquiries for knowledge but rather undermining traps. Leon Kass observes that by intimating that Adam and Eve will be like God, that it is the serpent who first raises the possibility of polytheism and paganism, by suggesting that anyone apart from God may be gods.
At Church we have been working through the ‘acts’ of Scripture. Last sunday I preached on the story of Creation, we explored Genesis 1 and Psalm 104. We started by listening to Sam Sparro’s Black and Gold, exploring the world view and theology of the song.
We then looked at Edouard Manet’s 1863 painting, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. Asking what was the worldview and theology of the painting. Noting the way that the work copies the composition of Michelangelo image of God creating in his Sistine Chapel Fresco. Manet replaced God, in his painting with a young bohemian, thus effectively removing God from the act of creation. The desire for Eden stays but God is gone and hedonism reigns.
Amy Stephenson did a great job of writing up my sermon. Below is her write up.
Create and Sustain
Can you picture it? The people of Israel sit alongside the rivers of Babylon. Looming over them is the magnificent city of their captors. At the pinnacle of the city is the Babylonian temple, the Ziggurat, laden with it’s stories of capricious gods and violent clashes creating the cosmos, stories which cast humanity as slaves to the divine. As the fire crackles one of the elders clears his throat, silence falls and everyone leans in, the elder starts his story with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…”
Think of the effect this story would have had on the captive people of Israel. It re-cast them in their own story, no longer were they merely slaves, they were priests created to work alongside the High Priest in stewarding His temple.
God builds His temple
The language of the creation story is mirrored in the building and commissioning of God’s temple in Israel. The Israelites would have understood what can be lost on us reading the same story today – that God built the earth to be His temple, His dwelling Place, He is not separate from it but intimately connected.
The Hebrew word we translate as ‘create’ is ‘bara’, which means more than just create, it means to sustain, commission, to give purpose and function. John H. Walton explains God’s relationship with His creation, saying that “as a result of taking up his residence in the cosmic temple, he sustains the functions moment by moment, as the very existence of the cosmos depends on him entirely. Both initiating and sustaining are the acts of the Creator God.”
We see this language of God sustaining the world in Psalm 104:
You send rain on the mountains from your heavenly home,
and you fill the earth with the fruit of your labor.
You cause grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for people to use.
You allow them to produce food from the earth-
wine to make them glad,
olive oil to soothe their skin,
and bread to give them strength.
The notion of God being intimately connected – even sustaining – every function of the earth can be hard for us to grasp. We can hold a theology which no one has necessarily taught us, but which says that God exists somewhere outside of the universe, that He is separate from the world. And we can pray for Him to occasionally intervene in our day to day, but He is generally not a part of the small things of our lives, they are not important to God.
Like Manet’s picture we desire to return to the Garden of delight, but without God, in fact re-casting us in His place.
Perhaps as we hear the story of creation today it is not us that need to be re-cast in our minds – it is God. The language of being stewards of God’s earth is familiar to us, but do we consider that we are inhabitants of God’s dwelling place? And that God is dynamically involved with every function of the earth?
This way of seeing God’s relationship with the day-to-day changes everything. There is no separation of what matters to God and what doesn’t. We live our lives as priests in His temple, commissioned to work for and alongside Him.
God didn’t create the world and then leave. He created it as a place for Him to dwell and He invests in and sustains it’s every function. And our day-to-day involves Him, He hasn’t left us, He didn’t disappear.
The New York magazine film critic David Edelstein, after watching Saw, Hostel, Wolf Creek and The Devils’ Rejects, coined the term torture porn. A genre of films which go far beyond the old Nightmare on Elm Street horror fare, which revel, in an almost erotic fashion, the torture and degradation of characters in the most brutal ways. Just like its sexual cousin, torture pornography’s error is the sin of distance. The audience delights in the violence whilst maintaining a distance from what is happening on the screen. The actual consequences and horror of violence are mediated through a film, thus there is no consequence for the audience. This is violence and debasement as a consumer experience. And just as women are objectified in so much sexual pornography, in torture porn, it is the victims which are objectified, reduced to mere conduits of our sadistic hunger.
Torture porn is not the only realm in which our appetite for sadism has grown, just look across the spectrum of popular culture. Witness the rise of television shows such as dexter in which a serial killer becomes the hero, or here in Australia the Underbelly series in which actual brutal underworld killings become sunday night mini series entertainment. Look at the rise of MMA as spectator sport. Or the millions of hours clocked up by millions of users on single shooter and other violent video games. It seems that our appetite for violence, degradation and torture seems endless at the beginning of the twenty first century. Even reality television, which may not show actual violence, still is built upon a sold foundation of humiliation, shame and exposure.
Even sexual pornography now reflects our culture’s fixation on violence and degradation. Hugh Hefner made pornography mainstream in the fifties when he launched Playboy magazine. Hefner’s business model was based on the idea that men wanted to see attractive women naked. A concept which now seems quaint and passe. Just take a listen to Rihanna’s recent single S and M, or Wynter Gordon’s chart topper Dirty Talk, songs primarily bought by tween girls.
Journalist Christ Hedges in his book Empire of Illusion explores the way in which spectacle and entertainment have overtaken contemporary culture. Hedges notes the massive growth of pornography in contemporary life, something most of us are aware of. But what is particularly disturbing in Hedges’ findings, is the way in which pornography is no longer really about sex, but rather degradation and violence. Hedges observes that
‘The most successful porn films keep pushing the physical and emotional boundaries of the women onscreen and incorporate an expanding array of physically and verbally abusive acts.”
As Hedges was writing his stomach churning expose of the contemporary adult entertainment industry, the Abu Gharib images were released, showing the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners of war by guards at the prison facility. The images to Hedges looked almost indistinguishable from the content of hardcore pornography. In some of the photos the guards had deliberately recreated scenes from pornographic films, shockingly many of the images featured female guards, forcing male prisoners to simulate the most humiliating sexual acts. The cultural effect of porn had moved beyond just the objectification of women, to the objectification of all. Hedges writes,
The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy…It is the language of absolute control, total domination..and humiliating submission. It is a world without pity. It is about reducing other human beings to commodities, to objects.
In such a culture pedophillia runs rampant, domestic violence is a plague. The poor are reduced to mere statistics, the victims of war become collateral damage, the mentally ill public nuisances. In such a culture, devoid of empathy, gossip and scandal replace public discourse, screens becomes distancing objects, giving us the illusion that they remove our culpability. We become filled with lust, not just a lust for the flesh, but to see others dominated, crushed, and humiliated. Others become tools of our will.
Fourteen hundred years ago, a culture existed which matched our appetite for violence, and our lack of empathy. The Roman circus was the pinnacle of this appetite for violence. One day as the crowd bayed for blood, a lone clear voice screamed ‘stop!’. A Christian monk from the east, named Telemachus implored the crowd to turn away from it’s blood worship and towards the one true God. Telemachus was inspired by a different vision of humanity’s worth, an dangerous belief, that we were created in the image of a loving God, and that therefore every human life was sacred, reflecting back to us the handiwork of God. Telemachus was promptly killed by the enraged crowd, but his death so moved the watching Emperor, that he ordered the end of the Gladiatorial battles.
How we need another Telemachus today. A strong clear voice, to scream ‘stop’.
There has been a lot of discussion about the fake Martin Luther King quote floating around the net. Sadly these quotes from the leaders of The Crossing Church in Elk River are not fake, I wish they were.
When asked about giving away free cars to those who attend their church Pastor Kelly Dykstra says,
‘I will happily draw someone into Church using a false God.’
When quizzed about his Church giving away free TV’s and electronic goods in order to encourage people to follow Christ, Pastor Eric Dykstra replied,
“I have no problem bribing people with crap in order to meet Christ,”
The team at The Crossing Church could learn a lot from Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan was both a believer and prophetic analyst of media, and coined the term ‘the medium is the message’. McLuhan noticed that during the Nixon vs JFK Presidential debate, those who listened on the radio felt that Nixon had clearly won the debate hands down, his arguments and content was the strongest. Yet those who watched the debate on TV, felt that JFK had won.
When asked why, viewers felt that JFK was more youthful, tanned, good looking, and energetic. In contrast Nixon was seen as old, pasty, stressed and tired. What the watching audiences did not know was that JFK had a team of make up artists working on his image. Nixon made the crucial error of passing on the option of make up, believing that people would take him on the strength of his content. No politican makes that mistake anymore.
McLuhan noted that in the age of television, and imagery, that content cannot be separated from the carrier, that the medium is the message. Therefore it is impossible to give away cars, playstation and plasmas and then tell people to give up everything and to die to self in order to follow Christ.
In simple terms I discovered this the other day, when I told my three year old daughter that she could not have an easter egg, while I was munching on one myself. She did not buy it! My actions worked against my message. So it is the same with our outreach. We must constantly ask how our actions and communications can work against the content of the gospel.
This of course raises thousands of questions. Which I do not have time to address in a short post. I do however wholeheartedly encourage you, if you have the time, to check out Marva Dawn’s excellent book Reaching Out without Dumbing Down. Which explores this tension with incredible grace, lashings of challenge, Biblical reflection and great intelligence. The first few chapters alone are worth the price of the book. Ok…now where did my make up team go?
Around the midway point of the 2oth century Albert Camus’ existential novel L’Étranger (The Outsider), told the story of the killing of an Arab man, a story which forced Western culture to confront its own ethical viewpoint. At the beginning of the 21st century the killing of another Arab man, has forced us to do the same.
The Christian Left
As the death of Osama Bin Laden broke,with one eye I was watching the coverage on television, and with the other, the Facebook feed. Reading the status updates, my friends on the Christian left, were dismayed by the spontaneous scenes of people celebrating the killing of Bin Laden in New York and in Washington D.C. My friends who work tirelessly to see God’s peace break out in the world, reminded us that violence begats violence, that killing cannot bring about the kingdom of God. That the victims of 9/11 were not brought back to life by the death of civilians in bombing raids in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. They produced scriptures that commanded us not to celebrate the death of the wicked, and quotes from Martin Luther King, and Ghandi, lauding the attributes of the approach of love and peace.
The Christian Right
Simultaneously my friends on the Christian right, expressed relief that justice had been done. They updated their belief that a man who declared war explicitly on Christianity, who wished to finish what Hitler had started by killing the Jews, who wished to subjugate women, and who deemed Hindu’s, atheists, homosexuals, and Buddhist’s killable on the spot, who had made it his life’s mission to violently create a world wide Caliphate, who wished to kill you and I, was dead. My friends on the right, with heavy hearts, concluded that sometimes, when individuals choose the path of evil, who present a clear and present danger, that they regretably must be killed. My friends also produced scriptures that told us to celebrate the death of the wicked, as well as quotes lauding the quest for justice and the pursuit of freedom.
As the heat online grew, I noticed some of my younger Facebook friends were becoming dismayed or confused. Respected leaders, people they looked up to, seemed to disagree so strongly, both sides providing compelling arguments. On the TV and online the experts, politicians and opinion makers also presented their arguments forcefully. Each using the death of Bin Laden to expound their agenda, or worldview. His death quickly became symbolic, being used to advance various political, social and religious ideologies.
The Embodiment of Evil
Historian Diamaid MacCulloch, has noted it was the Greeks who developed the habit of turning people into symbols of things. Their gods represented ideas and concepts, so it was natural that this philosophy would spill over into the human realm. Follow this line of thinking and Hitler becomes the embodiment of evil, Ghandi of peace and so on. The problem though, is that life is never that clear cut, hence why almost all Biblical characters do not fit neatly into boxes, into camps of good and evil. The Jews with their monotheistic iconoclasm understood much better than the Greeks that it was difficult to turn people into symbols and perfect representations of abstract ideals.
The controversy over Bin Laden’s death reveals a great philosophical and theological question. A question which is concerned with the intersection between justice and love. It asks how can we be both just and loving? It is possible to have love without justice? Is it possible to have justice without love? Is God a God of Love or of Justice?
The gods of the Left and Right
In our society with its divisions of left and right, progressive/liberal and conservative. The left will almost always err on the side of love, it will always take into account circumstance, environment and upbringing. It will view God as primarily a God of Love. The right will always err on the side of justice, and will always look to personal choice, and the decisions one takes, despite their circumstance, environment and upbringing. The right will always view God as a God of Justice.
These are huge weighty issues, issues wrestled with throughout history. Issues held and pondered by our greatest minds, philosophers, jurists, leaders and theologians. We can see this dilemma struggled over during the dark days of World War Two by figures such C.S Lewis, Dorothy Day, Neville Chamberlain, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and George Orwell, great figures who chose to stand on the sides of either justice or love.
Ideology and the Problem of Scripture
Christians when looking to scripture, can easily find proof texts, which taken in isolation can justify one side or the other. But both sides when faced with the totality of scripture, will find troubling passages and teachings, texts which seem to undermine our ability to firmly come down on the side of love minus justice, or justice minus love.
I remember sitting in a Californian prison with convicted murders who had been caught in the cycle of retaliatory gang killings, a constant spiral of death and violence, a misguided quest for justice which only resulted in more blood. As I sat there I was on the side of love.
I remember standing and listening to a holocaust survivor in Caulfield, Melbourne, who felt that European Christian culture’s desire for love and peace minus justice, had facilitated the rise of the Third Reich and almost seen the annihilation of his people, the Jews. A people who he believed only existed today because almost too late, supposedly Christian nations chose the path of justice. As I listened I found myself sitting on the side of justice.
The Voice of the Victims
Interestingly as I watched the TV coverage of Bin Laden’s death, there were several interviews with victims of Bin Laden’s violence, people from as diverse places such as Indonesia, Kenya, the United States and Australia. Almost every one expressed a confusion over their feelings, an initial relief and jubilation at the news of his demise, followed by a sense of loss, a fear that this death would only bring more. I think that it was the victims who spoke the most clearly, who unwittingly got to the heart of the issue.
Justice meets Love
And so I find myself shifting from one side to the other, as I read history, as I process our world today, I only feel more conflicted, more confused. I want love, I want justice.
And then as I write, I look up and out of my office window across the buildings. In the autumnal sun, atop of the faux gothic church, a Cross sits. It is weather beaten and missable, yet it speaks of those expansive Golgothan minutes, where the perfect balance was struck. When on a wooden cross justice and love was held in divine symbiosis.
We as believers will continue to debate and argue over how to live that out that symbol. We will ponder and fight over the tension of holding to both justice and love, struggling to enflesh a seemingly paradoxical truth.
So I do not celebrate Bin Laden’s death, nor do I mourn his passing. I quietly sit and listen to my fellow believers on the right and left.
But most of all I wait. I wait for the return of him, who is both perfect love and justice.
We are exposed to stories all the time. Tonight we will be exposed to yet another, the story of a common girl, who wins the heart of a Prince. Interestingly there seems to be far more interest in the Royal Wedding outside of the UK, in places like Australia and the US, where we have a whole generation raised on the repeated tellings of the disney princess story. The reason that so many will watch the marriage of Kate and William tonight is because it is in the news, there is blanket coverage, and so on. But many will watch because it taps into a deep hidden desire. A desire communicated to us through story since childhood.
In our Western secularized world we are surrounded by stories, stories that carry with them worldviews. The unimportant man made rich and famous by a force of will, the transformation and personal enlightenment that comes through pursuing pleasure without limits, the touch of heaven on earth that we can achieve through changing our exteriors.
We may read scripture, or hear it in Church, but often is fragmented. So many of our cultures good things are the fruit of an attempt to live out of the biblical story, but as time goes by, we as a people become distant from the story of God’s creation of, and involvement with the world.
That is why I believe it is essential that leaders, regularly take your Churches, small groups, ministries, teams through the story of the bible in a macro sense. In order to again understand the plot, the pace, the turns, the twists of the biblical narrative out of which we live. Yes we need more effective and more relevant Churches and ministries, but perhaps more importantly we need the people of God to live their lives out of the Biblical story.
Here are three great tool to use to help yourself or your people reorient themselves back into God’s story for the world.
Roshan Allpress and Andrew Shamy the Insect and the Buffalo is a light, readable, and yet deep introduction to the biblical story. Great to give to someone to give them an overview of the way the story of the Bible interacts with our lives.
Sean Gladding’s The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible is a fantastic retelling of the biblical story, the way you would have heard it you were sitting around a campfire in ancient Israel hearing the story of your people, or in the early Church hearing about the coming of Christ.
Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew’s The Drama of Scripture is a great starting point to understand the overall themes of scripture and the way that those themes interact with our daily lives. Goheen and Bartholomew use six acts–creation, sin, Israel, Christ, church, and new creation to help us navigate and grasp the overarching story.
At Red Church we plan to each year take our congregation through the overarching themes, in order to continual reorient ourselves. This Sunday the whole service will be geared around a dramatic retelling of the biblical story complete with images and spoken word. It is a good idea to do for your community. If you are in Melbourne feel free to drop by to see how it is done.
Location: 310 Elgar Rd, Box Hill, Australia 3129
Sun: 4:30 pm
Is Love Wins Heretical?
So let’s get to the answer you have all been waiting for. Is Love Wins heretical?
Pardon the pun, but hell yeah!
Does Love Wins advocate a heretical doctrine of universal salvation, condemned by the majority of the Church since the fourth century? Well if Bell was clearer I might be able to answer that. He certainly flirts with the notion. Love Wins however, is heretical in a different and perhaps more profound way than just theologically.
Bell claims that Love Wins is centered around our view of God, I think the great irony is that the book is really about our view of ourselves. The book is a telling expose of how we, view ourselves as believers today. What drives the sales, what the marketing of Love Wins connects with is a deep desire to live heretically amongst young adults raised in evangelicalism.
Formation of the Christian Heretical Nation
James K. A. Smith in his intriguing book on cultural and Christian formation, notes that we are formed not just intellectually, but through what he calls liturgies, which,
whether “sacred” or “secular” – shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the worlds is shaped from the body up more than the head down. Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts.
Love Wins plays the cultural heresy card. It is according to Smith’s definition a liturgy, powerfully tapping into our deeper desires. It is not just about the concepts and theologies contained in its words. It connects with a submerged, heart held desire amongst evangelical young and not so young adults, to hold onto faith, whilst maximising social status in a culture which values highly the horizontal self. To define against, rather than for.
By purchasing a copy of Love Wins and rocking up to your Baptist young adults gathering in small town Ohio, you are not just ensuring heated discussion and worrying looks your way to see if you are backsliding, you are building up your personal feeling of worth through what Heath and Potter expose as a rebellious consumer purchase.
So yes Love Wins is heretical.
Heresy is punk rock. Heresy is hip, heresy is sexy, heresy sells. Heresy is the middle finger to the establishment. Heresy is currently Christendom’s hottest underground commodity. Heresy is today’s must have accoutrement for the Christian Horizontal Self. By advocating heresy within a subculture of orthodoxy, you will instantly tap into a rich cultural vein which worships the countercultural, romantic individualist, who walks against the mainstream, whilst piling up social currency.
Jumping the Shark, Getting Drunk and Punching Fonzie
To use that much loved analogy from Happy Days, Love Wins and its accompanying media storm feels like the moment the emergent church/post-evangelicalism/whatever you wanna call it, jumps the shark. In fact I would say that it is more than Fonzie jumping the shark, it feels more like the final season of Happy Days, when everything went weird and it felt like the 80’s even though it was meant to be the early 60’s, Arnold’s had burned down, and Richie came back to the series and was all angsty with a moustache, said ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ a lot, got drunk and threw a punch at Fonzie.
So much of the movement of which Bell is a part of, and that probably I have been a part of more than a decade, was a reaction to what was seen as an evangelicalism that was too obsessed with dogma, which had no time for mystery, for questions, for doubt. An evangelicalism which at the time seemed as if were permanently wedded to the values of the enlightenment. An evangelicalism which seemed distant and disconnected from what was happening on the ground with the 90’s, Generation X and what was described as postmodern culture.
So a natural questioning began, a re-evaluation. A great sorting out occurred. Everything seemed up for questioning. Mainstream evangelicalism had sold its soul to modernity and we wanted to walk away. Driving these initial questions was a missional impulse, a desire to connect those culturally disconnected from the Church with Christ. But overtime this agenda was at worst hijacked or at best forgotten. The heart desires to lessen the friction with mainstream culture, to find a place with both the camp of hipness and social acceptance, and the camp of faith took over the conversation. And alas, we got drunk, grew a moustache and threw a punch at fonzie.
Unjust Economies of Cool
Yale professor of French history John Merriman, has wisely noted that most revolutions seemingly are sparked by ideas and new concepts, they really are kicked off by what are perceived as unjust economies. We all know that the French revolution symbolic stared in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, but there was also the storming of the tax offices. The American revolution was sparked by the Boston tea party, a reaction to what was seen as an unjust economy. And so it is with the so called current revolution of what it is to be Christian today proclaimed by Rob Bell in Time Magazine, in the New Christianity of Brian McLaren, and the great emergence revolution named by Phillis Tickle,
The Bell’s, McLaren’s and Tickle’s are probably pushing intellectual and theological agenda’s designed to move the centre of faith to a less conservative positioning. But the sales, the response, the movement is fuelled by a reaction to what is seen as an unjust social economy. That is the fact that it is totally uncool and socially isolating to follow Jesus in a 21st century culture driven by an existential hedonism. We sort of know this deep down, we know that despite all of the dressing up, all of the slick make overs, that faith cannot be truly cool in our culture of unbelief. So we engage in a new posture, we choose to be the hip fish in a small, square sea. This explains the rise of what Brett McCraken calls the Christian hipster.
Heresy Feels Cool
This is where Heresy comes in.
Why? Because cultural Christian heresy feels awesome.
It feels good to be sitting up the back of the young adults gathering thinking that you are only person in the room hip enough to be pondering if Jamie XX’s solo work as a remixer is superior to his work with the XX.
It feels good to put up a facebook status update which carries with it a whiff of heresy, knowing that the Mark Driscoll fans in your intro to New Testament class will soon fill your profile with angry comments, making you appear like a modern day cyber martyr minus the pain, torture and imprisonment.
You were probably completely morally and biblical right to confront your denominational leader with the fact that there was no fair trade coffee on offer at the national gathering. But admit it, you loved watching him squirm, you enjoyed the fact that for a second, you felt spiritually superior to him.
In the past when someone within the evangelical world, moved into theological liberalism, the natural progression was to move to a more liberal church, college or denominational. Now we stick around for the street cred.
Heresy and the Unbounded Self
Historian Peter Gay who more than anyone has communicated the social power of ideas, notes in his expansive study of modernism, that the movement is defined by two attributes, a fascination with heresy and the self. If I was Rob Bell I would make the point like this,
At first heresy or new post-orthodox expressions of Christian faith seem progressive and appealing, they seem to be the perfect antidote to a faith with a P.R. problem. But the lure of heresy has more to do with our desire to be free as individuals rather than the need for a new theological agenda. Alistair McGrath in his exploration of Heresy notes that our culture has bought the belief that any boundaries, limits or orthodoxy has been in set in place by the powerful and must be challenged. Yet Peter Berger reminds us that we are living in a culture in which demands of us heresy. A culture in which every individual is free to pick their own path, their own truth, Berger defines this as the essence of heresy. The Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth Sir Jonathan Sacks goes as far in his commentary on Genesis as to label the the desire to break boundaries, limits and orthodoxies as profoundly pagan, carrying with it the spirit of the builders of Babel.
The contemporary self is drawn to heresy because ultimately it offers us absolute freedom as individuals. I wholeheartedly believe that underlying the discussion on the after life and Hell driven by Bell’s book, is also driven by our desire to live in what Smith and Denton have called a morally insignificant universe, in which the individual is ultimately freed from eternal consequences to their choices. Heresy permits the promethean individual to be completely unbound, free to wreck their destruction upon creation.
The Sin of Forgetting Sin
The great irony is, whilst jumping into every tradition bar those of our own pasts, we ignored the reformational heritage under our feet. The doctrine of original sin, lay a forgotten and unused resource. A reminder that humans need boundaries and limits. Our evangelical forebears, understood that orthodoxy is the canvas upon which creativity can be painted. G.K Chesterton and the
magnificently named Dorothy L Sayers both reminded us of the mystery and magic of orthodoxy. They could both fly as high as kites, explain faith to a disbelieving world in such creative words and forms, because they were tethered to the solid ground of dogma.
I too grimaced as a minority of the New Reformed tribe openly displayed theological schadenfreude on social media as Love Wins was released. But one New Reformed voice I believe nailed it, Tim Challies noted that Love Wins, exposes a new kind of Evangelical hipness, defined not by faith, assuredness and confidence, but rather the new space that Bell was opening up was characterised by doubt, opaqueness and questions. Challies writes,
Doubt has become a virtue while boldness and assuredness have become marks of arrogance. The only thing we should be sure of is that we cannot be sure of much of anything. Doubt has become synonymous with humility. And so it was with the people who used to be known by that term emerging. This was a faith devoid of boldness, a faith that emphasized the unknowability of God at the expense of what we can know with confidence.
Doubt becomes disingenuous, a cover for not wanting to commit, for wanting it both ways. Heresy becomes an excuse for the individual to do what the hell (boom boom) they want.
The Garden of Doubt
On Good Friday just past, I stood with my Church community in the cold at Box Hill Gardens as we read and remembered the story of a young adult, in his early thirties, who had his moment of darkness, of questioning, of doubt. A young adult disconnected, socially isolated from his peers because of his belief.
As we walked up the hill away from the gardens, I felt my stomach tighten as I thought of this young man, despite his doubt, despite his profound loneliness, despite his social disorientation, who made a choice, a step of faith, a move marked by a gutsy determination. In his actions there was no wanting it both ways.
The site chosen for the reading of the crucifixion was behind the mall, in the loading bay filled with dumpsters and garbage, symbolising the way Jesus was thrown out of the city, onto the dumping ground of Golgotha. As the passage was read, as wafts of the stench of garbage moved across us, the thought of a God, the Creator of the Universe, dying in such a mundane, offensive, filthy environment filled my mind. Giving his life so that I do not have to die, so that the poor may be lifted up, that the unjust and the evil brought to justice, that the universe will be made anew. My heart was filled with thanks that two thousand years ago – that young man who was God in Human form, walked out of the garden of doubt and towards the cross of faith.