Reading and being read

Understanding Scripture is a life-long challenge. What was once obscure can become clear, and vice versa! Johnson’s lecture sits in the context of a shift from ‘if you are orthodox you will tick the infallibility / inerrancy box’ to ‘so you accept the authority of Scripture so explain to me how you read it’.

There are die hard 7 day creationists, not because of compelling scientific evidence, but because of a prior commitment to a biblical view. There are also convinced evolutionists who are evangelical believers, e.g. Francis Collins who led the Human Genome Project that was at the forefront of mapping DNA. His book ‘The Language of God’ ties together his work as a scientist and his firm belief in God as the author of life.

There are (really there are) those who believe in the priority of male over female as part of creation and redeemed order, and there are those who refute that. That was a disputed area some 30+ years ago and although the discussions rumble on there certainly is not the same strength that suggests anyone who explains ‘man as the head of woman’ in a non-hierarchical way is denying the authority of Scripture. The same arguments abounded a few generations earlier with the debate on slavery where one well-known evangelicals of the day said that slavery was one of the clearest tenet of Scripture! Now issues of sexuality are centre stage, with evangelicals on both sides of the many divides.

I have become more agnostic on certain issues, realising how we can use Scripture to defend us, reading there what we want to read. Dare I suggest God is more interested in my ability to reflect Jesus than he is in my doctrinal set of beliefs. Orthodoxy (right doctrine, though one could argue that the word should mean giving right glory) and orthopraxy should go hand in hand. The Pharisees knew the Scriptures but…

The challenge that the shift Johnson outlines is how do we read Scripture if we are not simply finding a set of textual evidences that back our view (and sometimes either ignoring ones that don’t or doing them a disservice by squeezing them into our already formed box). There is a challenge beyond how we read the Bible – it is allowing it to read us! That’s when the ouch can hit our rightness. More tomorrow.

How long is the cord?

I wrote yesterday about how Johnson’s article presented two questions; one concerning authority and the other concerning reconciliation to God. The former relates to Scripture, the second to the atoning death (and resurrection) of Jesus.

In the old days, particularly when the authority of Scripture was being challenged, doctrines such as infallibility and inerrancy developed. Those terms took a belief beyond inspiration. Of course even with those terms there were added terms such as ‘as originally given’. The original manuscripts of course we no longer have, so in all very hard to prove. What also were we to make of statements such as ‘the mustard seed being the smallest of all seeds’ – not scientifically accurate.

I understand the desire to make the Scriptures incredibly strong and therefore totally trustworthy, but to strengthen them in that way I am not sure is warranted.

I like to talk of the authority of Scripture and how we are to live (faith and behaviour) as followers of Jesus in faithfulness to the narrative of Scripture. So terms such as authority, truth etc. fit comfortably for me. However I also have to accept that even the term ‘Scriptures’ are somewhat problematic. Which canon? And please do not exclude the book of Revelation (or even call it a ‘disputed book’ as Luther did), the surest exposure of the politics of empire that exists!

There are elements of faith with any approach to Scripture – I am very happy to accept what I read (66 books) as the canon. That means I have to exercise some measure of faith in the process the church was involved in that eventually formalised a canon (or different canons). The work was not unlike that of the formation of the Jewish canon. They used the law, the prophets and the writings, and eventually made sure some books were excluded, seemingly to make sure that ‘Christian’ writings were not used. The canon were, more or less, the books in use (found useful, cf. 2 Tim. 3:16) that were formalised. In the same way the Christian canon developed, hence the different canons.

By what authority – for me the 66 books of our old and new testaments are that authority. I cannot prove they are the right ones nor necessarily the only ones, but by faith in the work of God within the historic Christian community that I identify with those are the ones.

Inspired – for sure. Inerrant – not ready to tick that box. Contradictions within the books – maybe I would rather use the word ‘conflicts of views’. I don’t think we are to iron them all out so as they disappear, but rather with a Jesus-lens we let them argue it out, and we seriously have to raise the volume of the texts that carry a Jesus-revelation. Ultimately Jesus is the revelation of God that Scripture bears witness to. We cannot place Scripture above Jesus, nor can we create a Jesus of our own making that Scripture does not bear witness to.

In the next post I will amplify a little on the adjustment of the volume of the text so as some are louder than others. We have to ask ourselves ‘how do read that text?’, ‘what does it say to me / us?’, and also ask ‘how are we being read by that text’. We might not always get it right, but the Scriptures point to Jesus, not simply with a historic meaning, but primarily in the sense of calling us to identify with and follow the only embodiment of the Godhead in human flesh.

Labels – useful or not

The early followers of Jesus were given the name that has stuck to us ever since. They were called ‘Christians’. Not a term we tend to use in Spain as with all labels they communicate what is understood by the hearer. Of course coming up with alternatives is not always easy.

Most of the readers of this blog I guess have grown up with the label ‘evangelical’. A number of years ago I read a very informative article, a lecture given to the American Theological Society in 1995 by Robert Johnson entitled ‘Orthodoxy and Heresy: a Problem for Modern Evangelicalism’. (My words) in the old days defining heresy was easy. Affirm the inerrancy (or at least plenary inspiration) of the 66 books and that only those who have prayed the sinner’s prayer are / will be saved. He describes that approach as a ‘bounded-set’ approach. If one has a set of beliefs within the boundaries one is orthodox; step outside and one is a heretic. He then shows how there had been a shift – and the lecture is almost a quarter of a century ago so the shift has continued – from a ‘bounded-set’ approach to a ‘centred-set’ approach.

With the centred-set approach there are two key questions. One related to the Scriptures and one related to ‘salvation’. The questions are:

  • By what authority do you believe what you believe and teach what you teach?
  • How is someone reconciled to God?

The answer to the first is on the basis of the authority of Scripture and the second through the atoning death of Jesus. Many, many different versions of the Christian faith can answer those two questions in the affirmative. A ‘hard-line’ fundamentalist can certainly answer it, as can a person affirming same-sex committed relationships as being approved of by God.

Hence the difficulty. Difficulty in defining who is in and who is out! Maybe though the challenge is bigger than the difficulty. The challenge is to be defined more by who we are than what we believe. The early followers of Jesus were just that – followers of Jesus. The label was terminology to focused more on their behaviour than their beliefs.

Following Jesus is very personal. I have to interpret what that means for me – in the light of being faithful to the narrative of Scripture. I am certainly not on the fundamentalist end of the faith… I am centred in with the two affirmative answers I outlined above. Having put a stake in at that point, how long is the cord attached to the stake? A lot longer than would have restricted me to stay within the old-bounded set approach of yester-year. I’ll try and explore how long my cord is over the next few posts.

Owning everything and…

Paul states that he as an apostle was:

poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything (2 Cor 6:10).

Quite an apostolic worldview. He is not Mr. Successful but certainly he cannot be accused of a poverty mind-set. There is an incredible re-valuation taking place. How can one be poor yet make many rich? How can one have nothing yet possess everything? There is not a book on finance that can give that answer, and however it outworked practically it must have begun as a way of seeing.

I have a good friend who is an extraordinary example. He does not have a poverty mindset and so many assume he is wealthy. He has a remarkable gift to see money transferred from one place to another without profiting personally and many times the money never comes via his bank account. The money shifts and there is often an assumption he has great resources (he does but not simply ‘natural’ resources, he knows how to connect with heaven’s resources). He is not rich but makes many rich.

I have been wrestling with these Scriptures over the past 10 years and am probably not much further on today than 10 years ago in understanding them. I am also interested in turning them on their head. I can be critical of the top 1%, but am almost certainly in the top 5% globally in terms of wealth. The top 1% are filthy rich and oppressors, the top 5% are OK!! If Paul owned nothing but possessed everything, what about those like me who owns ‘everything’ (OK not quite…)? I think the challenge for some of us who are ‘rich’ and own ‘everything’ is to do so in a way that we possesses nothing. That of course was the result of the outpouring of the Spirit.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had (Acts 4:32).

How feeble sometimes our attempts to live in a different economy. But I am encouraged that small feeble attempts are where everything begins. We have taken some steps with our friends (neighbours) where they have opportunity to ‘possess’ what we ‘own’. Now whenever the husband sees something of ours he (in good humour) says – ‘this then is for me too?’ And the answer has to be ‘yes’.

A short post as I am pretty ignorant on the outworking of the Scriptures and the turned on their head versions.

Christian Persecution Review

Geoff Daplyn sent me this email about the report on Christian persecution chaired by the Bishop of Truro.

Some will remember that the UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP set up a review of Christian persecution with the Bishop of Truro as chair. Release International was one of the NGOs involved in submitting evidence.

The interim report was released on Saturday May 4th, in the middle of a UK bank holiday, so had virtually no media take-up whatsoever. The following is an extract from the overview with many examples of what Christians face around the world……and not just Christians!

Despite the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is foundational to the UN Charter which is binding on member states, and that ‘the denial of religious liberty is almost everywhere viewed as morally and legally invalid’, in today’s world religious freedom is far from being an existential reality.

Research consistently indicates that Christians are “the most widely targeted religious community.” The evidence suggests that acts of violence and other intimidation against Christians are becoming more widespread, revealing an increase in the severity of anti-Christian persecution. In parts of the Middle East and Africa, the “vast scale” of the violence and its perpetrators’ declared intent to eradicate the Christian community has led to several Parliamentary declarations in recent years that the faith group has suffered genocides according to the definition adopted by the UN.

Against this backdrop, academics, journalists and religious leaders (both Christian and non-Christian) have stated that, as Cambridge University Press puts it, the global persecution of Christians is “an urgent human rights issue that remains under reported”. An op-ed piece in the Washington Post stated: “Persecution of Christians continues… but it rarely gets much attention in the Western media. Even many churchmen in the West turn a blind eye.” Journalist John L Allen wrote in The Spectator: “[The] global war on Christians remains the greatest story never told of the early 21st century.” While government leaders, such as UK Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have publicly acknowledged the scale of persecution, concerns have centred on whether their public pronouncements and policies have given insufficient weight to the topic. Baroness Warsi told BBC Radio 4 that politicians should set “legal parameters as to what will and will not be tolerated. There is much more we can do.” Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey said western governments have been “strangely and inexplicably reluctant to confront” persecution of Christians in the Middle East. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was “not convinced” that Britain’s response to Christian persecution was adequate.

Forces for good

I was recommended this book and am enjoying it. Paul Hargreaves is an entrepreneur and is unashamed about such issues as profitability, but what I like is that is not his only, nor primary, bottom line. His concept of ‘purpose driven business’ outlines four bottom lines:

  • people
  • planet
  • profit
  • personal change

It makes a great read… I think there are also a few other considerations to be added – like how to strategically lose money as that is one of the first tasks Jesus set himself. He broke the power of mammon at the start.

Another area I found very interesting was where he listed 7 feminine traits (mostly found in women) that make for great leadership:

  • empathy
  • vulnerability
  • humility
  • inclusiveness
  • generosity
  • balance
  • patience

Masculine traits, Paul suggests, include:

  • competitiveness
  • goal-orientation
  • independence
  • assertiveness
  • protectiveness

Probably true. But are they masculine traits – or simply sinful? Jesus died as male!

So the last few parts are my musings. The book is great.

Opposing the inevitable?

Whenever I think there are people who are not consistent I quickly make sure I do not check myself in the mirror. I, of course, would never be inconsistent.

Anyone reading between the lines of the posts I write will probably pick up that I voted ‘remain’ as far as the UK and the EU is concerned. Not because the EU is perfect, nor that it is a chosen vehicle to bring in the kingdom of heaven. There are many reasons, I am sure, to vote ‘leave’. To add into the remain / leave vote our Christian convictions about the future unfolding of prophecy just complicates it all.

An observation I have carried for a number of years is how difficult it must be if one holds to certain view of the future. Some of the Christian negative response to such issues as the European Union is to do with a view on prophecy relating to the end times. A revived Roman empire (of sorts) with space for the rise of a prospective world leader (antiChrist) is a view.

Now comes the complication! If I assume for a moment that was a valid view the question then becomes very challenging indeed. Do I oppose that happening… and set myself against what has been prophesied? Does not seem a good way to go… but if I go along with it all as that would align with prophecy… then I could find myself supporting an antiChrist shape? Of course with the EU vote I could take the view that the UK was not to be part of that revived shape (or at least north of Hadrian’s wall… oops, another politically divisive possibility) and so then I would have a win / win situation. The win / win would be that the UK (or at least Scotland) does not submit to the rising shape of antChrist, and I leave the rest of Europe to be the fulfilment of prophecy. Sorry – a win / lose scenario.

Just glad I have a simple approach.

  • I do not see the future laid out in Scripture… other than Jesus is coming and we live in the light of that and seek to align ourselves, and everything we can influence, to heaven’s values. So I have no need to wrestle with such thoughts as an antiChrist and a revived Roman Empire. Phew!
  • Powers are present, they are fallen, but can be influenced. The inevitable does not have to manifest provided we are involved.
  • Self fulfilling prophecies are easy to spot. ‘Don’t be involved it is evil.’ I respond obediently and do not get involved, then watch as it gets worse. Seems a connection – we remove the salt and there is no limitation placed on what was there.
  • Prayer content seems simple. Let your kingdom come.

I like the simple approach. I don’t need to wrestle with the conflict of seeking to oppose what I believe God has ordained.

Judaeo-Christian ‘values’

I subscribe to Jeff Fountain’s ‘weekly word’, director of the Schuman Centre for European Studies, affiliated with the University of the Nations. Originally from New Zealand, he lives in the Netherlands and writes passionately about Europe. The views expressed are of course his, but they flag up the challenge of these days. Here are a few excerpts from the letter:

However, nationalist anti-Europeanists have now changed their tactics to ‘Europeanise’ their anti-Europe strategies. When the much-heralded Brexit-domino effect did not materialise, in which other nations would have followed the British to the exit, the anti-Europeanists went quiet on leaving the EU and the Euro and are now calling for a “Europe of the Nations”.

This ‘Europeanised’ anti-European strategy was apparent last weekend when Matteo Salvini, the Italian Interior Minister, leader of the far-right Lega, declared in Milan that the ‘European elite’ had betrayed the founding fathers. On stage with Holland’s Geert Wilders and France’s Marina le Pen, he then called for a ‘Europe of the Nations’, meaning a Europe of sovereign nations, as if he and his allies were restoring the founding fathers’ vision!! This was anything but what the founding fathers – Schuman, Adenauer, de Gasperi and Monnet – had in mind. Such a vision is a recipe in the long-run for ongoing conflicts as it means a return to the prewar status quo of competing nation-states.

The effect could be paralysing. Just when Europe needs to step up to more global leadership, its capacity to defend EU citizens from external threats would be put at risk. Europeans already have enough external worries with Donald Trump deconstructing the international order, Vladimir Putin trying to undermine European political systems through a large-scale misinformation campaign and the Chinese muscling in on the telecommunications market with potential spy-network capacities.

There is certainly a case to be made that the founding fathers’ vision of ‘a community of peoples deeply rooted in Christian values’ has not been faithfully followed, as I wrote in Deeply Rooted. That was a project which prioritised seeking the common good of the whole, not each nation seeking its own self-interest. It was to be a process that was gradual, transparent and democratic.

What is beguiling for many Christians is that politicians like Salvini, Orban and Wilders talk of restoring judeo-christian foundations, but they mean old political and cultural identities. They do not mean the values of inclusion, forgiveness and reconciliation, of caring for the stranger, the poor and the vulnerable, of dignity and rights for each person.


The ‘2020’ see-saw

In 2010 I had two dreams in quick succession that have helped give me a perspective on the decade we are in that is fast coming to a close. I am not sure if this decade is from Jan 1, 2011 – Dec 31, 2020 or Jan 1, 2010 – Dec 31, 2019 so don’t want to apply the dreams strictly from this date to that date, but with only just over 6 more months until we hit the beginning of 2020 a rehearsal might be timely.

I have written about the dream where there was the raising of the institutional façades, the exposure of the inner workings, and the failure of the body of Christ to effectively engage with the shifts that could and should take place at that time. That dream indicated that the season we are in is to respond to the call to be engaged, not to revert to the familiar and by so doing simply strengthen the status quo of power and inequality.

The dream that partnered with that one was very simple but put the understanding of the former dream in a time setting. It involved me going out of a back door of a house that had a garden in it. It was a spacious garden and in it there was a see-saw central to that garden. I looked up to the sunny blue sky that had only a few small clouds in it. The number 20 and the number 10 appeared, and began to fall slowly down. The 20 dropped on the left side of the see-saw, the 10 on the right. 20 being ‘heavier’ than 10 meant that the left side of the see-saw was down to the ground. I looked up and the number 20 and the number 11 appeared. The process repeated, with 20 and 12, 20 and 13 etc. Each time a number came down the see-saw would move, there would be a jolt, but would always settle with the left side down. I watched the process unfold until the final scene was when 20 and 20 appeared. When they landed the see-saw moved from the left side down to being level. The ‘weights’ were even.

When I had the dream back in 2010 I thought the decade would unfold to the place where everything was going to be reversed, but as the years have unfolded I have realised the obvious. The dream did not end with a reversal but a level ‘playing field’.

When the field is not level obtaining a change is not easy, it is like pushing something up hill. The momentum needed to get it going, the difficulty to take a rest, the default of it rolling back down again… You get the picture.

I am not suggesting that Jan 1, 2020 everything changes, but as 2020 unfolds we should be expecting an increasing number of situations where through engagement we can see a shift. The two dreams do seem to be related as they came within a few nights of each other, and so I anticipate an increase in the next months of the exposure of what lies behind the public face of the institutions that have shaped the public space.

Greater exposure by itself will not achieve too much, but eyes to see what is being exposed and an understanding of what is being seen will be necessary. Those two aspects will need to increase to make an engagement, either directly or enabling those gifted to engage, effective. A level playing field, a balanced see-saw will make change so much easier and within reach.

These next months can be months of getting ready, being re-positioned not simply to enter a new decade but to be aligned for a the fresh opportunities and possibilities.

I have been reminding myself of this dream as it seems very timely right now… so I hope it also resonates beyond my personal setting.

Mis-fitting – to be fit for God’s world

On October 13, 2018 (Will we make a difference) I wrote:

The façades are opening. It is not simply that we will be able to see the bizarre nature of the Western economic system that only operates if there is debt (debt will always result somewhere in slavery and at some measure an inevitable eating tomorrow’s bread today) or the paucity of public political debate but we will be able to see some very deep roots… unless we close our eyes to what is being revealed. The familiar can close the façades down, although I wonder if we (believers) will even be able to do that this time round. And beyond the familiar there are factors that hamper our sight. Those will be found in our commitment to a shallow Gospel that does not challenge nationalism, patriotism, patriarchy and the deep inequalities in society. If we do not heed at this time that the Gospel is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, nor male and female we will find our eyes will not even see what is before us and we will simply look for ‘normal’ to be restored.

What is being exposed in the days that lie ahead (and I am sure much more can be added to this) are:

greed and consumerism
misogyny
protectionism that demonises the ‘other’

The inevitable result will not just be trade wars, but war. It will not simply be a major shift to extreme right wing policies (as we see rise in Europe) but the establishing of a neo-nazi totalitarianism that will eventually be seen not be favourable to faith, including that of the Christian faith.

Yesterday I read an article in the Guardian (Spain Turkey far right Vox culture war) that makes for both insightful and frightening reading. In the name of values how an anti-feminist position is central to what is taking place. The goal in Europe the article says is:

Not a new Europe, not even an old Europe, but a Europe modelled on an imaginary, mythical past. A monolithic Europe dedicated to halting and reversing progress.

‘Might is right’ has to give way to humility being the path. I remember many years ago taking a prayer week where the working together of the body of Christ was a challenge. Everyone had their own agenda and each expression was more ‘right’ than the other. As I prayed that morning I sensed strongly that a pathway of humility was the only way forward. One of the leaders who was participating in the week was away on business in London that day. He came back saying that he had been praying about the lack of unity, and as he came over a hill and could see the city in front of him the Lord said to him ‘humility is the path forward’.

As a male it is very hard for me to recognise misogyny. Is it in me? I would be foolish to claim that it was not… that is the problem so often. We assume we are free but fall painfully and blindly short.

I am more convinced than ever that there is a fresh discovery of the Gospel. Yes there will be understandings of the cross that Tom Wright describes as ‘pagan’ that will have to be jettisoned, or at least radically revised. There will be perspectives concerning the work of the Spirit that will expose the gap between being ‘born again’ and yet harbouring and fostering old fallen creation values. At the heart of all this will be an incredible new vision of humanity. This will never take place without feminisation. Whether the church leads in this or not is unimportant. The lead might well come from the world. It might well come from the political world. In Spain the dormant seeds of Paul’s Gospel are in the land (and in Turkey, referencing the Guardian article, the fruit of the seeds have been cut off – the seven churches of Revelation… but the seed remains). Maybe they are beginning to germinate at this time. Maybe this is why there is such a push for this one-cultural Europe. Maybe the enemy is moving because the Spirit of God is hovering. Certainly we need to push for this again. We have our battles in Spain. Our focus is on the political scene, ever grateful for the women who have humbly taken their place.

If there is any value in this post I dedicate it to the memory and testimony of Rachel Held Evans (photo at top… check out her writings). Too young (37 years old) to die. But the seed will continue. (Health Updates). One newspaper described her as a ‘hero to Christian misfits’. Come on you misfits!

Perspectives