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 Shock of the Christ

Sunday just past I preached on the Shock of the Christ.

The world has always struggled with Jesus. Sure it likes guru Jesus, revolutionary Jesus, and wise Jesus; but it has little stomach for God entering in to the world and incarnating amongst us.

I showed the above video (what from 5.00 in) in which Oprah Winfrey tried to convince her viewing audience that they cannot understand Jesus as god who came to earth to die for our sins. Instead the worlds most powerful woman insisted that we see Jesus as someone who embodied what it is to be human, who taught us ‘christ consciousness’. As Oprah spoke you could almost feel her trying to turn Jesus in to simply an intellectual concept to aid us in our quest to be happy modern consumers. When Jesus is simply a concept, when we perceive him as ‘christ consciousness’, we stay in control. We can mold the idea to suit our styles and lifestyle.

However when we open the Bible and experience the shock of the incarnated God, we struggle to twist Christ to suit our agenda. Instead we are confronted with a God who reduced himself to come and serve, to suffer how we suffer, to be tempted as we are tempted, to walk in our shoes. We follow a God who is holy and just but who also understands our brokenness, our rejection, and our hurt. He is not a God who is distant, He is a God whose path to glory followed the road of suffering. This is the shock of the Christ.

New Media, Authority and Information

The New Media landscape offers us unparalleled access to information. This can be great for research, at our finger tips are now all kinds of fantastic resources with which aid our faith development. There is however a danger in simply finding information which simply affirms what we want to believe.

What Charles Darwin Can Teach Us about Young Adults Leaving the Church

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. 

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Removing God from Eden

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.


Re-casting God

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.

Killing an Arab

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.

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)

God’s Subversive Cells

What is uncool? Families! Nothing is as Unhip as a Honda Odyssey. Yet strangely despite our misgivings about family, the bible positions the family against the power of Empires and Nations as a subversive cell of change, a small grouping that contains the seeds of God’s redemptive action in the world.

The Multiple Life Crises

We are all familiar with the idea of the mid life crisis which hits around the mid forties. Recent years have also seen a number of books written about the quarter life crisis that hits young adults at age 25, and of course there is the crisis that many twenty somethings hit as they turn 30. New research has found that now increasingly men are having crises at age 35.

Well is this all an attempt to sell books and newspapers. Well partly, but also I think that these crises which are essentially existential, are never really addressed at their cores. Thus our culture offers kinds of off-ramps from the freeway of existential crisis. In the past when you hit an existential crisis, you asked the deep questions of life, you examined your mortality, searched for God, stared at the stars and meditated on your cosmic smallness. Now when one of these moments hits, when the weak story that we are given by 21st century culture is exposed, instead of plumbing deeply for meaning, we exit at the off ramp – we leave our boyfriend/girlfriend, go backpacking across Chile, or join a Zumba class and wonder why these life-tweaks don’t provide us with deep meaning.

Without truly looking at our culture’s meaningless malaise we will continue to have these crises every five years or so. To have a life of meaning, is to live fully in a story. The narrative of scripture provides us not with off ramps but with a redemptive, robust story that we can truly live out of.


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