Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Search for an authentic church

March 4, 2010

Jim and Casper go to Church is the title of a fascinating little book that came our way recently.  Written by two friends, Jim Henderson and Matt Casper, the book documents their visits to churches of all shapes and sizes in their US homeland.  Nothing surprising in that, you may think, except that Jim is a fervent Christian and Casper is an atheist.  They agreed to suspend their preconceptions and to engage in honest dialogue about their experiences.  Their trip included megachurches such as Saddleback and Willow Creek, as well as more ordinary traditional congregations and some emerging ones (Mars Hill, among others).  Amazingly, they managed to keep their bargain, and the book is one of the most honest dialogues you could imagine.  They both learn something along the way, but the most interesting thing is Casper’s take on what he experiences.  At Saddleback he tries to roll the stone back from the door of the replica of Jesus’ tomb, only to discover it’s locked – and wrly expresses the hope that they will unlock it in time for Easter (yes, they really do have a life-size replica of Calvary perched on top of an artificial tomb).  At Mars Hill, he finds himself somewhat repelled by Mark Driscoll’s aggressive style and is puzzled as to why ‘he likes to talk about sex a lot … at least once every minute’ (p102) when he could be talking about Jesus.  And at those two and all the others they visit, he wonders why there is so much emphasis on self-improvement when his reading of the Gospels suggests that disciples are supposed to care for other people, not themselves – summed up in his big unanswered questions addressed to Jim, ‘Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?’  Jim, for his part, is challenged because all the things that churches do to make themselves more attractive to outsiders actually turn Casper off – not just the kitschy environment at Saddleback, but the drumkits, noisy music and worship leaders that seem to be everywhere.

By way of a contrast, this online volume came through our computers this week.  The brainchild of Australian Jay Jeffries, it is billed as a Bible for spiritual searchers, and is gradually being released on the website in installments.  We both contributed to it, so we have a stake in seeing how it goes – but we can’t help wondering what Casper would make of it.  Because there are a lot more like him than there are Jims in this world.

Jim and Casper go to Church is written by Jim Henderson & Matt Casper, and published by BarnaBooks: ISBN 978-1-4143-1331-2

Angry Christians

February 10, 2010

We’ve just come across this new blog, dedicated to telling us what’s wrong with emerging church and Fresh Expressions, complete with extensive sections naming and shaming the ringleaders.  If you’re one of them you’ll probably want to check it out to see if what they’re saying about you is true.  Lucky for the church mice, we don’t get a mention, which either means that we’re too insignificant to bother with or so totally heretical that they wouldn’t know where to start.  The only question we have is what makes these people so angry?  Which bits of the gospel do they not get?  Who do they imagine might be attracted to a faith that seems to consist of putting other people right?  Or maybe there is an alternative version of the fruits of the Spirit or the Sermon on the Mount which includes acrimony and aggression as hallmarks of discipleship?

Hating Haiti

January 14, 2010

While the rest of the world is waking up to the horrors of the earthquake in Haiti and sending resources to help those unfortunate people, televangelist Pat Robertson is expressing the view that it’s really all their own fault because their ancestors made a ‘pact with the devil’.  It really is amazing what contortions some people will go to so as to absolve themselves from any feeling of sympathy or responsibility to the suffering millions in today’s world.  New agers have often been castigated for explaining such things as a consequence of people ‘choosing their own karma’, and including tragedy in that as a way of working through bad influences from previous lives.  Now a so-called ‘Christian’ evangelist appears to be saying more or less the same thing – though he’s also on record as saying that the New Age is also a demonic conspiracy!  Apart from that, though, it makes you wonder how Christians like Robertson who, in another time and place, would lay so much emphasis on everybody being personally responsible for their own wrongdoings, can at the same time hold the view that today’s people are also to blame for something that allegedly happened 300 years ago.  And his interpretation of that history is by no means widely accepted anyway.  It’s all a far cry from Jesus, who when he encountered suffering people showed compassion for them and resolutely refused to even countenance silly questions about whether they or their ancestors might be responsible for their own suffering.  But then, Robertson is also a premillennial dispensationalist, so for him the teaching of Jesus will presumably be an irrelevance only suited to some hypothetical future millennial kingdom.

What happened to October?

October 27, 2009

A good question, that in our case is easily answered: we had too much to do and not enough time to do it in.  Well, not absolutely no time – but none for additional activities like blogging.  And that’s not quite true either, because we continued to read other people’s feeds, which presumably is a less demanding thing than creating new material ourselves.  A good month, though, with meeting lots of new people at conferences and seminars – and travelling an enormous number of miles (almost 2000, which doesn’t seem much if you’re in the US or Australia, but in the UK that’s a serious number of miles).

One piece that we did read is this report from George Barna in the US.   It has some interesting statistics about different generations and how they read (or don’t read) the Bible, but we were surprised by his surprise that the younger you are the less likely your are to read the Bible.  One thought that occurred to us was that it’s quite likely that if you’d asked the generations about reading (whether the Bible or any other book), you might have come to the same conclusion – that the younger you are, the less likely you are to read any sort of book that isn’t required for school or study.  Then we also wondered what is meant by ‘Bible reading’.  Does listening to it being read count, for instance?  Since most people in the first century only encountered the Bible when they heard it read out in synagogue or church gathering, you could argue that reading it in private is a less authentic way of encountering it.  It certainly owes a good deal to the Enlightenment  emphasis on individualism.  But what if you have a Bible app on your iphone?  Or subscribe to one of the many messaging services that send ‘thoughts for the day’ direct to your phone or computer?  Or watch a movie with Bible themes, or ….   Well, you get the idea.  And it’s not just an American issue, because in the UK publishers who produce daily reading guides have seen a huge fall in their subscriber numbers over recent years – so much so that some now make them available for free on their websites, because there’s a diminishing market for printed versions.  And yes, the younger you are, the less likely you are to read those as well.  A bit of lateral thinking might suggest that the perceived problem is not so much with the young who don’t read the Bible, but with the form in which the message is put out there.  Remember that in the first century the letter form was innovative, that the early Christians more or less invented (and certainly were the first to use widely) the codex (sheets stitched up the side like a book), and that the Reformers made such rapid headway because they harnessed the power of the recently-invented printing press.   If the medium really is the message, then maybe we should be asking different questions about people’s reading habits.

The wisdom of the elders

July 20, 2009

An interesting article in the Guardian caught our attention, partly because it was written by former US president Jimmy Carter, and partly because in it he draws attention to what he labels the abuse of women by religious bodies of many sorts, including the church he was once a member of (Southern Baptists), but left over this very issue.  The article itself is well worth a look: go here.   What is equally noteworthy is that it is also highlighting a group that Jimmy Carter is a member of – the Elders, a group of people like himself drawn from many different political and religious persuasions and brought together by Nelson Mandela to cast a critical eye on world affairs and offer the benefit of their considerable wisdom.  A rough estimate shows that between them all, they represent well in excess of a thousand years of experience!  For more on their reflections, see their website.  And don’t for a moment imagine that just because they’re old they are all reactionary traditionalists.  Quite the opposite: they could teach some far younger folk a lot about life, including faith and spirituality.

Holiday Reading

July 13, 2009

We don’t usually highlight books on here, but we’ve just finished a new book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan that deserves a mention.  Entitled The First Paul, its sub-title describes what it sets out to do: Reclaiming the radical visionary behind the Church’s conservative icon.  Of course, Borg and Crossan have something of a reputation for being radical themselves, but this is not one of those books that just holds a mirror up to its authors.  They make some surprisingly conservative assertions, among which they strongly affirm that, far from corrupting the simple message of Jesus (as many have thought), Paul is a faithful interpreter and follower of the historical Jesus – and both of them were seriously radical, challenging the ways of being of the Roman empire and insisting instead on a different worldview focused on “God’s passionate desire to heal a broken world”.  These guys know their stuff in relation to Roman history and culture, and they also offer some seriously detailed insights into the text of Paul’s writings.

We’ll not say more as that would spoil it for you.  But prepare to be both challenged and inspired.  We were – and we loved it.

Sound bites

May 26, 2009

Back in October last year, John preached a sermon in the chapel at the University of St Andrews, entitled ‘Sound bites can damage your spiritual health’.  A sound bite that we heard at a meeting last night has pushed that question a bit further for us: can sound bites also damage your theology?

The sound bite in question came at the end of an impassioned address about mission and (appropriately enough since we will be marking it at the weekend) mentioned Pentecost as a model of how we all need to hear the good news ‘in our own languages’, otherwise  we don’t hear it at all.  That sentiment must have been repeated thousands of times, as a way of asking ‘what are the languages people today speak?’ – cultural languages, often, rather than the spoken word.  The talk in question ended with a great sound bite, in which the speaker spoke of a ‘silent Pentecost’ that he believed is already happening in some churches.  Which gave the two of us plenty to talk about.  A ‘silent Pentecost’ sounds slick and neat, but what does it mean?  Indeed, does it mean anything at all?  Is the adjective ‘silent’ not a contradiction in terms when placed alongside almost anything to do with mission, not least in connection to that explosive event which most commentators regard as the birth of the church?  Those who know us even casually will be well aware that we are more than happy to promote non-verbal explorations of spirituality and faith.  And still reflection (silent, even) can be part of that.  But people whose lives are touched will always want to speak about what they have discovered.  And at the heart of any sort of practical theology is reflection on the practice, as (at a minimal level) we exchanges notes with other people.  Sound bites have their place (and we’ve coined quite a few ourselves).  But they can also be used to undermine good theology in a subtle way that makes nonsense look like wisdom.  Surely that has to be the case with this one.  It certainly isn’t one that we’ll be adopting for ourselves.

What makes a church?

May 22, 2009

We started talking about this in response to a question asked by Cid Latty, founder of CafeChurch network.   If you’re not familiar with this, then go here to see Cid’s vision and passion for a cafe church on every high street in the UK.  

But it’s a question that comes up more and more as Fresh Expressions of church multiply.   So what is the minimum number of things that need to happen for a gathering to become a church?   It’s astonishing how quickly new expressions of church resort to default mode rather than thinking through some of these bigger questions.   Moving into new territory can be unsettling for pioneers, just as the thought of change can have the same paralysing effect on long established groups.  As we look around, it seems that a fair number of things that are claimed to be essential to being church are more to do with  mechanisms of control than with spiritual purpose.   But the heart of the question is surely something to do with following Jesus, which maybe implies that we should start with practice rather than with structures.  Of course, we may find we raise more questions than answers, but Jesus himself was always asking questions because that is how we grow into maturity.

A key question would be, ‘How can we encourage one another to follow Jesus today?’   If what we hear is to be believed, then what goes on at present in some churches is not helping people to follow Jesus better, which rather implies that just adopting the practices of these same churches is not going to be a good way forward.  So what might some core values be?  Prayer is obviously central — and not just for people who might think they are Christians.  Almost certainly, those who are reached through things like a cafe church will be quite keen to find out how prayer can resource them.   Then there’s sacrament.  Sharing bread and wine is obviously significant – but a key question here is how to create a space where people can encounter God in that meal.  Most traditions are more concerned about control again, focusing on questions about who can have the bread and wine, not to mention more trivial matters such as the shape of the bread (or the cup), or how the wine was produced.   made of?   It was John Wesley who regarded eucharist as a ‘converting ordinance’, which suggests we sit more lightly to our concerns and see how God embraces those who choose to partake.  

There’s the Bible as well of course – but we said more than enough about that in a previous blog.  Just to add here that once we find creative ways to use it for today the chances are that we’ll end up using it a whole lot more than some churches do now.

And in case you’re tempted to dismiss all this as church mice ramblings, a lot of it was sparked of by Steven Croft’s new book: Jesus’ People: What the church should do next – a newly published work that is both eminently sensible and eminently readable.  Which, among other things, obviously means that we agree with it!

Scary stuff

May 21, 2009

Recently declassified documents from the US provide evidence of a clear link between interpretations of the Bible and the ill-fated adventure into Iraq.  For a full account look here.

It has to be said that politicians aren’t the only ones who can use and abuse the Bible for their own ends.  Christian people can do the same.  And today’s Christians are more likely to be confused about this than previous generations would have been, just because they hardly bother to read the Bible at all, but often pick and choose bits that can be understood as supporting the opinions they already hold for other reasons that are nothing to do with faith.  This seems to be a particular problem for the sort of non-liturgical churches that typically describe themselves as charismatic or evangelical, where traditional spiritual disciplines like Bible reading and prayer are often marginalised altogether to make room for the singing of praise-and-worship songs – and when the Bible is read, the passages chosen are entirely the choice of whoever happens to be leading a service.  Churches that are more rooted in the historic tradition certainly have a lot of challenges to deal with in today’s world, but at least if you follow a lectionary huge chunks of the Bible are being heard, even if sometimes we are not quite sure what to do with them.  Paradoxically, that also means that those churches which regularly claim to be ‘Bible-believing’ (= code language for those same charismatic/evangelical types) take it far less seriously than others who just regard themselves as ‘ordinary Christians’.  When you see the way in which sacred texts are being manipulated in today’s world, by religious and non-religious alike, asking some fundamental questions about their meaning will have more than just a detached academic relevance.  If that news report is anything to go by, for many people it is a matter of life and death.


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