The Challenge of Discipling the Fragmented Self

The Christian faith at different times during its history has had to confront differing concepts of individuality, each of which deeply shapes how we do ministry and which presents the Church with unique challenges. The Church of the early medieval period ministered in a culture with a very different understanding of self. Our modern day sense of radical individuality would have seemed strange to medieval individuals. The early medieval individual saw themselves as part of a great chain of being.

Europe was Christianized not soul by soul, but rather by decree as rulers declared their kingdom’s Christian. This sounds unusual to us, but not so to a culture with a weak idea of personal freedom and individuality. The entire shape, structure and apparatus of the medieval Church was built around this collective idea of culture and faith.

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THE BRIDE OF CHRIST BECOMES A STEPFORD WIFE

Richard Sennett notes in his book the Fall of Public Man that as our culture secularised, instead of looking for meaning in the transcendent realm, we looked to the immanent and the immediate. Relationships became one the main arenas to which we looked for a sense of purpose. In contemporary culture the world of relationships, of sex, friendship, family, and marriage must now provide the solace and transcendence that God and religion did in the past. Sennett writes

‘When the relations cannot bear these burdens, we conclude there is something wrong with the relationship, rather than with the unspoken expectations.’

This is one of the factors behind the contemporary high divorce rate. A spouse must be intimate best friend, provide the emotional support of a therapist, be a supplier of constant sexual fulfilment, posses the economic security of a banker, and the moral guidance of a priest, whilst allowing enough relational distance so as not to impinge on their lovers personal autonomy.

As I read Sennett I began to wonder if we had done the same thing to the Church. Do we now attend Church with unrealistic expectations? Today there is a set of expectations that float around in which Church is meant to be mind blowing, to offer us incredible worship, life changing preaching, transforming community, intimate relationships, and awe inspiring opportunities for service. Ministers and Pastors feel this pressure, and increasingly their time is taken shaping Churches which promise us the world if we only will attend. This dynamic does not fulfil the great commission to make disciples, instead it only creates fickle consumers of religious goods and services and insecure, anxious and exhausted Pastors.

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Yes you are a Bad Person

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.

Love Wins. A Cultural Reading. Part Three. The Hipness of Heresy

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,

Heresy

plus

Self

So telling…

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.

Words and Flesh

Christmas offers us a reminder that as believers we are called to incarnate into our world. This has a powerful meaning in a culture obsessed with words and not so keen to enflesh them.

(p.s. This video angle looks like I am speaking down to a rodent, please take no offence)

I am too Uncool or too Old to be a Young Adult’s pastor?

Two questions I often get asked are “Can I work with young adults If am middle aged or older?” and “Can I have a ministry with Young Adults if I am not cool?”

Well let me answer those questions by introducing you to one David Rodigan. Rodigan is English, bald, white and middle aged. He looks like cross between George Costanza and your high school geography teacher. He is bascially one of the dorkiest looking men you could encounter. Of course there is nothing wrong with that…but there could be when you take into account what Rodigan loves to do.

Soundclashes are competitions that began in the ghettos of Jamaica between rival DJ’s, and their respective sound-systems. The DJ’s play their best tunes, and the crowd declares a winner. It is not a competition for the faint hearted. In the brutally competive world of Jamaican Dancehall reggae soundclashes David Rodigan is a legend, due to the fact that he is almost unbeatable. Rodigan regularily defeats DJ’s and selecta’s half his age.

Here Mr Rodigan anihilates rival DJ Poison Dart on his own turf. Skip to the 5:30min mark for the real madness to begin.

Here is Rodigan in action in Jamaica

To the uninitiated Rodigan’s antics look like the dancing drunk uncle that you wish had never shown up to your wedding. Yet in the whole Jamaican soundclash scene despite being an outsider he garners massive respect. So how on earth does someone who is so obviously not cool gain such respect in a world where coolness is essential?

  1. LONGEVITY: Rodigan has been travelling to Jamaica for years to hone his craft. His respect has been built on years of being on the ground and testing his skills and building up support. I remember someone telling me that ministry is spelt T.I.M.E . Rapport cannot be built with young adults overnight. Instead respect it built over time. Stick around long enough and people will start listening to you.
  2. KNOWLEDGE: Rodigan know his stuff. His encyclopaedic  knowledge of dancehall and reggae is what gets props from the people in the know. Ministry is the same, people will listen to you if you have something to say, something interesting, relevant and important to their lives.
  3. PASSION: At the end of the day Rodigan jumps around like an embarrassing nut, but after watching him for a while his sheer passion, lostness in the music that he loves is what is infectious. If you have passion for God, passion for ministry and a passion for young adults, it will cut through what is cool, hip and ephemeral.
  4. RELATIONSHIP: Rodigan was friends with Bob Marley and just about every reggae luminary you can name. At the end of the day young adults like all people are desperate for genuine relationship. In ministry like in life relationship trumps age.

And besides somehow Rodigan’s total uncoolness ironically makes him so much cooler, authentic and engaging than the sight of pastors trying to fit into skinny jeans.

The Flaying of the Missional Church Upon The Cathedrals of the Self

During the middle ages throughout Europe cathedrals sprang up, towering above villages, casting their shadows over the cities that had begun to emerge from the chaos of the Dark Ages. In contrast to the crumbing Roman structures that spoke of the past glory of the cult of Rome, these buildings were living manifestations of Europe’s fascination with the transcendence of God.

The building of a cathedral was a matter of great civic pride, their constructions by armies of artisans were high drama (as Keith Follet has illustrated all the way to the bank). The cathedrals were three dimensional teaching tools, they were medieval multi media presentations, evangelistic tools that attempted to woo and win over converts with their liturgical and architectural campaign of shock and awe.

To the contemporary missional thinker such an approach reeks of the dreaded concept of ‘attractionalism’. Cathedrals are seen as representing the worst of high medieval thinking in which the church was at the centre of culture and all were expected to come and pay adherence. Thus we are told that we are in a post-Christendom culture, in which the cathedral now operate as a kinds of spiritual museums. They are relics, they may be beautiful, but they are relics none the less. So the alternative to the ecclesiological arrogance of the cathedral/christendom approach we are told is to be missional, to ‘go’ rather than to expect people to ‘come’, to be sending rather than missional.

This approach makes sense, its advocates point to the way in which the non-western mission field has rightly redefined our understanding of the positioning of the Church. Yet the sending/missional posture can find itself seriously compromised if it thinks that the concept of the cathedral is dead in Western culture. In fact in comparison to the middle ages in which there were thousands of cathedrals, there are millions of cathedrals being constructed daily in our culture. They are not Gothic or Romanesque in construction, they are not made of stone and wood, rather they made of flesh. Or perhaps more correctly they are constructed in the psychic space that surrounds contemporary citizens of the 21st century developed world.

The individual now operates as a kind of personal cathedral. Social media arms and aids the growing sense of entitlement in the contemporary therapeutic self. The individual creates a facade that will shock and awe. An exterior that will garner respect and acknowledgement. If the medieval cathedral was an attempt to connect with a palpable sense of the transcendent, the contemporary self attempts also attempts to create a sense of transcendence through the correct assemblage of consumer experiences.

The difference between this and the medieval vision is that the contemporary cathedral of the self is religion free, instead it seeks to eek out transcendence in what David Brooks calls a ‘low-ceilinged world’. Instead of plainchant, stained glass windows and the drama of the liturgy, the modern self attempt to find transcendence in budgets breaks on the beach in Thailand, 3D movies, killer Ipad apps, and in the torque of a SUV.

The cathedrals of the 21st century self like their medieval counterparts demand that you come to them. They demand to be taken seriously. They insist on being the only show in town. Therein lies the danger for the missional church. The missional church which attempts to incarnate, which tries to ‘go to’; can find itself shifting from an attractional mode of church, to becoming enslaved to an attractional view of the self. Incarnation can quickly degenerate into syncretism for the missional operator who is unaware of the cathedral of the self.

Many missional leaders who have critiqued the therapeutic and individualist tendencies of the contemporary church growth movement, can easily and naively find themselves serving an even more pernicious expression of the therapeutic self as Church is completely taken to and rearranged around the habits, locales, tastes and wants of the individual in the name of incarnational mission.

The church moves into the cafe, the pub, the home, and the sporting club in the name of mission and as a protest against attractional concepts of Church. Yet the individual sense of entitlement is never truly challenged, there will be much focus on the immanent Jesus who is our friend, yet little emphasis on the transcendent ‘otherness’ of God who reminds us of our falleness and cosmic smallness. The huge danger is that whilst the incarnational, missional approach rejects the idea of the medieval cathedral, the cathedral of the self is never truly dismantled.

Boundaries vs Meat Bikinis

Last week Lady Gaga incensed animal rights activists by appearing in an Italian magazine wearing a Bikini made of raw meat. This was the latest effort a long line of media attention grabbing stunts in which various cultural, religious and sexual boundaries were crossed by her Gaganess. However the obsession with pushing boundaries and crossing lines in not restricted just to Lady Gaga, paradoxically it is tradition within modernity. In fact, Peter Gay subtitled his history of Modernist Art – The Lure of Heresy. Our contemporary culture mocks those who wish to maintain age old distinctions and boundaries.

However boundaries are essential to human life. Distinctions and separations are key not only to human life, but to the whole of creation. The piercing truth of this reality was brought home to me recently as I accidentally opened the unlocked door of a plane bathroom to be greeted by the shocked face of a woman – how shall I say? – not expecting to be disturbed. This moment of embarrassment reminded me that boundaries offer us dignity, they make us human.

In his brilliant study of the book of Genesis Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the account of creation begins with a set of separations and distinctions. Sea and sky, light and day, animals and humans, chaos and creation. The most profound distinctions are to be found between God and humans and between heaven and earth, and between the unique personalities of humans. Rabbi Sacks observes that this distinction in unique amongst religious world views, the pagan beliefs which surrounded Israel did not delineate between gods and humans, creation and chaos, heaven and earth.

Therefore the primary sins of humanity are attempts to cross these boundaries and merge these distinctions. Adam and Eve attempt to merge humans and God by eating of the fruit ‘so that they may be like gods’. Cain breaks the distinction between individuals and kills his brother Abel. The builders of Babel attempt to breech the boundary between heaven and earth with their structural monstrosity.

Rabbi Sacks points out that in many ways the story of Babel echoes many of the horrors of the 20th century perpetrated by totalitarian regimes. Friedrich Nietzsche declared God dead and challenged humans to take his place, and thus laid the groundwork for the horrors of the Third Reich who dehumised entire races.

In attempting to transcend their humanity and become the god like uber-mensch ironically the Nazis became less human. We see our culture constantly falling into the same traps, trying to construct our own worlds in godlike fashion, however we cannot but help falling into the trap of dehumanizing ourselves or others in the process. Rabbi Sacks writes

Only when God is God can man be man. That means keeping heaven and earth distinct, organizing the latter only under the conscious sovereignty of the former. Without this there is little to prevent human beings from sacrificing the many for the sake of the few, or the few for the sake of the many. Only a respect for the integrity of creation stops human beings destroy themselves…A world of tov, good, is a world of havdalah, boundaries and limits. Those who cross those boundaries and transgress these limits make a name for themselves, but the name they make is Babel, meaning chaos, confusion and the loss of that order which is a precondition of both nature – the world God creates – and culture the world we create.

Our culture with its craving for the crossing of boundaries and the ignoring of limits reveals itself as truly neo-pagan, not in the sense of a bunch of people with dreadlocks dancing to bad german techo out in the forest, but  deeper more dangerous and insidious paganism. A paganism which threatens to dehumanize the whole of humanity, and to uncreate the whole of creation. And so we are back at Genesis one, we need again the spirit of God to hover over the formless, dark chaos of the world. We need God again to breath his life giving breath into us. And we need believers who understand and artfully respect the God given distinctions and limits in the world.

More teens becoming ‘fake’ Christians

From must read article on CNN.

Your child is following a “mutant” form of Christianity, and you may be responsible.

Dean says more American teenagers are embracing what she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.

Dean is a minister, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the author of “Almost Christian,” a new book that argues that many parents and pastors are unwittingly passing on this self-serving strain of Christianity.

She says this “imposter” faith is one reason teenagers abandon churches.

“If this is the God they’re seeing in church, they are right to leave us in the dust,” Dean says. “Churches don’t give them enough to be passionate about.”

Read the whole piece here. (H/T Dave)

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