Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Sin and evil in a liberal world
Words like sin and evil don’t always play well in a liberal world. In a world of tolerance, we like to assume the best of another. In a strength based paradigm, we like to focus on the positives of appreciative inquiry, as in this wonderful video.
I remember a class, in which I was told in no uncertain terms by a minsterial candidate that they didn’t believe in sin. It was an old-fashioned invention of the church, designed to encourage guilt in religion. It is a conversation that has continued to sit with me. What is the place of sin and evil in a contemporary, liberal world?
So interesting today to stumble across a thought piece in the Guardian by social media columnist, Paul Mason, reflecting on recent trends in social media. He is reflecting on some particular nasty occurrences on twitter. And writes:
Evil may be a medieval theological concept, but when it invades your interface with the rest of humanity – and confronts your unwilling mind with imagery designed to provoke disgust, fear and self-loathing – it is all too modern.
It reminded me of the conclusion by Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. He argues for a God of justice.
To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a warzone. Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward nonviolence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you will discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. (Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, p.304).
There is much, much, more to Volf. But it is a reminder that theology needs to take sin and evil seriously. A worthy topic for my Introduction to Theology class tomorrow perhaps.
Saturday, April 28, 2012
Jesus deck lectionary: spirituality of “wise men” as theology of family
I am using the Jesus Deck as my current lectionary. Every day I deal myself a card. Before Easter, it was Mark, as I ran through the drama that is Holy week. After Easter, Christians celebrate resurrection. A season of surprise. So the whole deck gets shuffled and dealt randomly. After Pentecost, I will use colour. I will keep dealing cards until I find some green. Growth. The colour attributed to the Spirit in Rublevs Icon. That will become my lectionary.
Today the Jesus deck dealt me Matthew 2. The text on the top reads “We have seen his star.” The text running along the bottom reads “Astrologers.” It’s a reference to the magi of Matthew 2:1-12.
It is interesting to engage this story outside Christmas. Although of course, given travel time, the story would have started months before.
Perhaps on a day in April.
A day like today.
Looking at this Jesus deck card, I am struck by how God uses hobbies – took the everyday passions of these “magi” and crafted through that a way to seek and search. So often spirituality is removed from the ordinary, and yet here is God inviting our hobbies and vocations, our passions and interests into a pursuit of divine. (Hence my Dictionary of Everyday Spirituality series).
Thinking of ordinary, I began to wonder if these magi had families. If so, what the star would have meant for their spiritual search.
You see, family is the perennial problem faced by all travellers. To take the kids and grandparents. Or to leave them behind.
The horns of a dilemna. To go alone. Or to drag in the innocent with you on an unknown search?
Either way, stay or come, relationships are being torn, domestic life reshaped. It’s a tough gig, seeing a star.
Which took me back to the Biblical text surrounding this particular Jesus deck card. Families in pain surround the magi narrative.
Jesus being wrapt in swaddling cloth and rocked to Egypt. That’s migration – forced to find shelter in a new language; look for work as your potential workmates comment on your accent; missing home; family not seeing the first Jesus smile, the first Jesus step. It’s a tough gig, carrying a star.
And let’s not talk about the screams that rent Israel. The nightmares of mothers screaming for their babies, dead at Herod’s knife. Families in pain surrounds this Jesus.
So what happens when we engage the story of the magi outside Christmas. We are invited to seek a star, to find God amid our ordinary. But as we peer at the spiritual search we ponder. Is it one of glamourous adventure? Or deep pain? Or both?
Time for a hug of those I love.
Friday, April 06, 2012
“Why did Jesus die?” the child asked
“Why did Jesus die?” she whispered beside me. Three years old, pretty in pink, shoes not yet touching the floor, her mother gently sushed her. This, after all, was church. Where visitors want to be seen, not heard.
But it’s the question that needs answering each and every Easter.
“Could we think of the cross?” I thought. “It has a flat piece, a horizontal piece, that points to people. Jesus died because the people around him killed him. He said and did things they didn’t like. He said things about God they didn’t agree with. They couldn’t stop him, so they decided to kill him.
Jesus also died, not only because people did something. But also because some people did nothing. Stood silent. Kept their mouths shout.
But the people around Jesus, that is only one part of why Jesus died. The cross not only has a flat piece, a horizontal piece. It also has an up and down piece, a vertical piece. That points to God.
Jesus died as an expression of love, God’s love. There are many ways to respond to evil people and evil plans. We can fight them, run from them, avoid them.
Jesus took a different approach. He decided to love them. It was like he became a sponge that soaks up all the spilt milk.
In the up and down part of the cross, God sucking up all the evil and pain in the world. Think of all the bad things people have done. And not done.
Not just the people around Jesus. All people. Through history. Even you and I. So much of it.
No wonder he died, one person trying to love all the evil out of life. That’s why Jesus died.”
Thursday, December 22, 2011
a week’s work: communion in a world of hunger
Most of this week has been a writing week, preparing to speak at a conference on Post-colonial theology and religion in Melbourne later in January. My paper is titled – This is my body? A post-colonial investigation of the elements used in indigenous Australian communion practices – and over the week I’ve put together 4,800 words, which is a pretty good effort.
For those interested, here’s my introduction: (more…)
Tuesday, August 09, 2011
Sacred texts in a secular world
Sacred Texts in a secular world: How should we teach sacred texts in a pluralistic, multi-faith, modern university?
(Full PDF is here)
With a number of years teaching Bible and Popular Culture and various courses on ethics and spirituality, with a PhD in public theology, particularly the relationship between artificial intelligence and Christian understandings of being human, and given the complex contemporary relationship between sacred texts and religious expression, this promises to be a timely and important occasion.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
a new reformation: the rort that is academic (biblical) publishing
I just got notice from an academic (Biblical) publishing house. A new book. Price $90.
What a rort.
What happened to the Reformation? Remember the people who died for the belief that the Bible belonged not to an exclusive elite, but to the whole people of God, who insisted that translation be in the vernacular, who fought for lay interpretation.
500 years later, we still have an elite, sustained by the academic publishing market, fused with the research academic. Here’s how it works.
Academics do research. They need to publish their research, so they write. What they write is quite elite, so only a few people read it. So not many books sell. So the price is expensive.
Yet other’s in the academic guild have to read what their peers write. So academic libraries still have to buy these books no matter how expensive. Which means a guaranteed market. And ensures little competitive pressure to make a book more accessible.
I know this happens in all academic disciplines. I know that “pure” research (cf applied research) is important. I know that there is an academic speak which is is an important shorthand (see my post – Can I swap your pliers for my Economic Trinity?)
But when books are priced at $90, the world of biblical scholarship has priced itself as an elitist occupation, affordable to a few, inaccessible to the many. Anyone for a new reformation?
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Can there be good without God? an honest atheist response
Last week I was in a team of Christian theists, debating a team of atheists at Flinders University. The question was Can there be good without God? (Here is what I said and here are some reflections on the nature of a debate).
I realised over the weekend that I probably left my conclusion at home. Here it is, part of an Easter sermon from 2009 – from an article, written for the UK Independent newspaper, by a man called Matthew Parris. Titled As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.
The article tells the story, of how Matthew grew up in Africa, became a journalist, declared himself an atheist and became a well known gay rights activist.
In 2008, he was invited back to Africa by a charity. This is what he wrote:
“travelling in Malawi refreshed …[a]… belief … I’ve been trying to banish all my life …. an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God. Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced …. [that] In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”
Parris goes on to say how he used to accept Christian involvement in Africa only because it was practical. Shame about the God stuff, the wierd Christian beliefs in things like resurrection.
Because at least Christians were doing something practical and useful. Let them carry on because they care for sick and teach people to read and write.
But, says Parris, he can no longer avoid the facts. When you travel across Africa, says Parris, you I’m quoting again.
“Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers … but more open … It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. [Yet t]heir work was … influenced by a conception of man’s place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.
Saturday, June 11, 2011
my book of the month: The German Mujahid
The German Mujahid is beautifully written by Algerian author, Boualem Sansal.
Three of our globals more difficult conversations are engaged – the Holocaust, Islamic fundamentalism, and multi-culturalism in the West. The carrier of these conversations are two immigrant brothers, who discover that their father, brutally killed in his Algerian village by Islamic fundamentalists, was himself a SS officer at Auschwitz. The use of narrative, mixed with diary entries are used to explore the unfolding complexities of contemporary life and what it might mean to speak for peace in cultures of intolerance.
The writing is superb, a searing portrayal. The characters are believable, unfolding in their complexity. (If I was being critical, I’d comment on the male-centric nature of the book, in which the voices of woman are very much pushed to the margins.)
While this book leaves you worldly wiser, it also leaves you none the wiser as to how then to live in cultures of intolerance. The worlds of Hitler and Islam fundamentalism are penned so strongly, that any green shoots of resistance and hope simply struggle for life.
Wednesday, June 08, 2011
can there be good without God? here’s what I said
On Tuesday I was part of a team of 3, debating a team of 3 atheists, at Flinders University, between 3 -5 pm. According to one promotional flyer, “Come and watch a fantastic exchange on one of the most important questions ..The Atheist Foundation of Australia will be debating some of the State’s finest Christian thinkers.” (Finest! LOL)
Updated: entire debate, including all questions, is online here.
Each side had 10 minutes per speaker. Each side was then invited to ask one question per speaker. General questions were then invited for 45 minutes, followed by closing arguments of 10 minutes maximum. Here’s what I said in my 10 minutes. Tomorrow I’ll post a few post-debate reflections.
Can there be good without God? My interest is ethical. How should we live if God is good; How would we live if good and God are separated? (more…)
Wednesday, May 04, 2011
Revelation’s White Horse Warrior on Obama/Osama bin Laden?
Following on from what Augustine and Bono might say to Osama bin Laden, I think for the sake of honesty, Christians must also ask what Revelation’s White Horse Warrior might say to Osama/Obama?
The Bible book of Revelation ends with the Rider on the White horse, who comes to pour out God’s wrath (Revelation 19:15). In response, the saints gleefully cheer (Rev 18:20). It is easy to claim an Old Testament God of vengeance and a New Testament God of love. Revelation refuses to allow us this luxury.
What to do with these Bible texts in Revelation? What to do with those who suffer violence in the name of Divine? Miroslav Volf, theologian at Yale and native born Croatian, puts the question this way: “Why must God say the unrelenting “no” to a world of injustive, deception and violence in such a violent way?” (Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and ReconciliationChristianity Books) 296)
Volf argues that much talk of non-violence has “the sweet aroma of a suburban ideology” (296).
“A “nice” God is a figment of liberal imagination, a projection onto the sky of the inability to give up cherished illusions about goodness, freedom, and the rationality of social actors. (298)”
Ouch! Volf argues that in reality, patient appeals to reason do not always work. Thus the texts of Revelation are, in my words, reality texts. That some people and situations will not change. They refuse to “shy away from the unpleasant and deeply tragic possibility that there might be human beings, created in the image of God, who, through the practices of evil, have immunised themselves from all attempts at their redemption.” (297)
Obama and religious fundamentalism (of any persuasion) become contemporary examples of this.
In such reality, the White Rider in Revelation functions to keep open a God who is indignant at injustice, deception and violence. This does not mean that God is schizophrenic, a wierd mix of suffering Messiah and justice-seeker. Rather it is the preserver of true and radical human freedom, that people have the choice to say no to redemption and reconcilation – whether a fundamentalist or a Christian refusing to face their sin.
These are tough things to consider. But it does provide a way to understand what Volf calls “the symbolic portrayal of the final exclusion of everything that refuses to be redeemed by God’s suffering love … not because God is too eager to pull the trigger, but because every day of patience in a world of violence means more violence and every postponement of vindication means letting insult accompany injury.” (299)
To be honest, part of this makes my blood chill.
But another part warms toward a God who cares enough about justice to engage the world in reality, in truth, in freedom whether in good or bad.
Volf has not finished. He then asks “who” – who can enact such justice? Can Obama and a group of US Seals? Volf notes that in the New Testament, the “who” is the suffering God and the White horse rider, “partners in promoting nonviolence.” (302) Humans are freed to renounce violence because of future hope in God’s passionate justice.
“the only way in which nonviolence and forgiveness will be possible in a world of violence is through displacement or transference of violence, not through its complete relinquishment.” (302)
see Christian Jihad or what sort of God killed the Canaanites?
Monday, February 21, 2011
Bono on justice, mercy, faith and narcissism
U2 are currently touring South Africa. It brings their work on behalf of Africa into particular focus, especially when they face the media in Africa. A few days ago, Bono was interviewed by Redi Tlabi on Talk Radio 702 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The interview ran for about 35 mins. It is a wide-ranging interview that covers music, marriage, justice, mercy, faith and narcissism.
There are some great quotes (transcribed by me, but I’d suggest if you want to use the quotes, then do check the sound recording for yourself):
On justice vs charity:
When it comes to One and Data, people see us as bleeding hearts. We do have hearts, but we’re very tough minded people. Justice matters, not charity. These are monies owed by the poorest to the richest. The grand children are held to ransom.
On the fight for justice:
The World Bank just put out figures that African leaders who qualified for debt cancellation. Between 2005 and 2011, there are an extra 44 million children going to school as a result of debt cancellation. These are World Bank figures.
On his relationship with Africa:
Africa seemed a long way away for a boy growing up in Dublin. Our music has always been influenced by social justice. It was while working in Africa that you start to think about the structural issues of poverty. We raised 200 million (in Bandaid) and then we realised Africa spends that much on debt repayment a month.
I am definitely capable of narcissism. I’m a rock star.
On whether aid to Africa positions them as victims:
We all needed aid. Ireland did. Germany did. Get over it. We are thinking what are the obstacles in the way of justice, equality and freedom.
On whether Bono is religious:
I’m a believer. I have a deep faith but I am deeply suspicious of people who talk about their faith all the time. It is utterly a part of my life. I try to read the Scriptures.
On his upbringing:
My upbringing made me suspicious. Faith is a very beautiful thing but religion can be a very ugly thing. My faith has helped me in that struggle.
For the full interview as a sound file, go here.
Thursday, September 09, 2010
tricky theology question from a 10 year old
A delightfully agile 10 year old threw me this question last week.
How do you know that God is the most powerful one? What if there was someone more powerful, but they have been keeping that hidden?
I’d be grateful for any insights, ponderings and musings from you, my intelligent readers.
Sunday, September 05, 2010
being church in an earthquake zone
Given that only a few months ago, I was pastoring in Christchurch, my thoughts in the last 24 hours have revolved around wondered what I’d do if I was pastoring, being church in the midst of such destruction.
My current thoughts (and I’m at distance, so might be way of beam) revolve around creating some sort of communal drop-in point for at least the next 7 days. Open the foyer from 9 am-3 pm. Provide hot soup. Set up some breadmakers and get a lovely warm, home smell into the place. Since schools are being closed, set up an area for kids to play, with a range of games. My hunch is that people will want ways to be together, to share, laugh, cry. So tables with food allow that to happen naturally.
Some people might want a more focused listening ear, so I’d set up some “sharing couches” and have some designated “listeners” who would simply be there to listen. I’d tell them to keep an ear out for those who might need more focused help, 50+ after shocks and counting might led to trauma for some.
I’d set up a range of prayer stations, that would allow people to engage with God. Words are hard to find in the midst of shock, so I’d focus on simple, tactile ways to pray.
“Oh help” station – with candles and sand trays to lit in memory of things that are lost, broken, damaged, missing. Simply helping people name the grief and the shock.
“Whew, that was close” station – post-it notes or clothes line prayers (string and some pegs), in which people could give thanks for what they still have – life, food, neighbours, friends, a professional Civil Defence … and so on. Simply helping people pay attention to moments of grace.
“Seeking beauty” station – a sort of craft table, in which people could make something of beauty. For some this would be facile. For others, it’s a part of being human and it can be a way of helping people focus beyond themselves. I’d make it communal and expect that lots of healing chat would happen.
“Where is God” station – a thinking station. Often at times like this God’s name get’s used in some pretty naive ways. Quietly ignored for years while the good times roll, yet suddenly named in the midst of devastation. In all sorts of ways – judgement for sin or suddenly micro-manager of the world. At this station, I’d probably put up some prayers prayed by those who throughout history have experienced tragedy. Perhaps blow them up big ie A2 size, with pens, and expect people to engage in response. Some examples might be Psalms of lament of which there is a huge range. Without checking them all for suitability:
- some Community Psalms of lament include 12, 44, 58, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 89, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129; while
- some Individual Psalms of lament include 3, 4, 5, 7, 9-10, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 31, 36, 39, 40:12-17, 41, 42-43, 52*, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 64, 70, 71, 77, 86, 89, 120, 139, 141, 142. Yes, heaps, because unexpected tragedy and pain is part of being human.
- here is a sermon I preached, using one particular Psalm (69), after the Mangatepopo River tragedy plus some words and liturgical ideas we used at the time
- a pile of other prayers in disaster are here (textweek.com),
I’m not sure whether I’d have a station in relation to giving aid – whether practical or financial. My hunch is that at least for the first few days, the most important thing is simply space to pray and most of all, ways to naturally be together, eat together, laugh together. But again, I’m miles away, so might be really out of touch.
Saturday, May 08, 2010
Ascension day and emerging worship with Paul Kelly
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord …
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
Tall skinny kiwi engages with Jeremy Begbie concerned that the emerging church doesn’t engage with Ascension Day. Well, Jeremy obviously doesn’t read this emergent/ing blog, like back in 2007 when I noted what Ascension day means for Christian faith. (Get with the internet Jeremy) and when I noted the following points about Ascension Day.
- God in Jesus is present through all time and space.
- A human body now live with God.
- Faith without sight is now the normal way to follow Jesus.
- God’s people are the primary hermeneneutic of the Gospel.
Anyhow, back to my emerging worship, with me making random connections, humming the Paul Kelly song, “Meet me in the middle of the air”, which was played in my recent Sociology for Ministry class. (Here’s a cover, the actual song I was thinking about was Paul at the bushfire concert.
In the midst of all that bushfire pain, Paul sings acapella a song that seems to claim outrageous hope in the world beyond. Was it inappropriate? Pietistic? Or is there more going on in the music and life of Paul Kelly, that lets him slap a form of eschatalogical, Ascension-like hope on the bushfire table?
Is this why Ascension Day is important for the church – in Creed, worship and theology – because it keeps alive a note of outrageous hope? If so, when, how, in the midst of a broken world, to name it? Not sure if such thoughts will be woven into Wednesday worship, but writing them helps me process them.