Charisma Magazine article – a riposte

I recently had the misfortune to read an article from Charisma Magazine, a mistake I shall not repeat any time soon. It was written by a young woman who had taken on the task of dealing with what she perceives as the evil lure of ‘progressive’ Christianity.

I’m not going to link to the article here, nor name the author, as I don’t really want either to get a google hit here. I called the article ‘horse sh*t’ on facebook, and was asked why – here is my (rushed) paragraph by paragraph response to it. The original paragraphs are in quotes, I promise I haven’t doctored them.

I havent bothered to include the picture from the head of the article, which shows two tatooed and pierced youngsters, the fact that this is a stock photo and has no bearing on the article at all, only goes to increase my annoyance frankly – its part of the agenda to make ‘progressive’ evangelicals out to be fashion crazed hipsters. In truth most of the truly progressive people I know wear cardigans and corduroy.

Anyway – what follows is the article and my responses.

“Peek behind the curtain of some “progressive” or “hip” evangelical churches, past the savvy technology and secular music, and you will find more than just a contemporary worship service. You’ll find faith leaders encouraging young evangelicals to trade in their Christian convictions for a gospel filled with compromise. They’re slowly attempting to give evangelicalism an “update”—and the change is not for the good.”

I object to this for a start – on a number of points. In the first place ‘savvy technology’ & ‘secular music’? Really? Most conservative evangelical churches are pretty hot on ‘savvy technology’ these days – much more so than many progressive places I know of. And as for ‘secular’ music – well what even is that? Any music made by a non Christian? Any music other than sanctioned ‘praise and worship’? Music made by Vicky Beeching? What is it? Essentially this opener is an attempt to set up ‘progressive’ Christians as different, more worldly some how. My experience is that this is just not true, all Christians from a variety of traditions use different media in their gatherings, there is nothing intrinsically right or wrong about any of it.

“It’s painful for me to admit, but we can no longer rest carefree in our evangelical identity—because it is changing. No doubt you have seen the headlines declaring that evangelicalism is doomed because evangelical kids are leaving the faith. It is no secret that there is an expanding gulf between traditional Christian teachings and contemporary moral values. But the sad truth is that the ideological gulf between America’s evangelical grown-ups and their kids, aka the “millennials,” seems to be widening too.”

‘Rest carefree in our evangelical identity?’ Again, this is meaningless, or perhaps subtly meaningful, its making out that evangelicalism is somehow an ancient and established way that Christians have sat in since time immemorial – when it’s a new/modern movement that has evolved and keeps evolving. I also object to the idea of ‘traditional Christian teachings’ not because I don’t think there are any, but because they arent defined here – if we trace the history of the church from 0 to now, there are some teachings which have remained more or less constant, but not all that many, and most don’t relate to morality as we would define it. The last sentence too, it makes out that the ‘evangelical grown ups’ they who have presided over a variety of evils in their lifetimes are in the right, and their kids are the wrong uns. Way too simplistic.

“Somehow the blame for this chasm is being heaped on traditional churches. They are accused of having too many rules as well as being homophobic and bigoted. Yes, we’ve heard those false claims from popular culture in its desperate attempt to keep Christianity imprisoned within the sanctuary walls. But now popular culture is being aided by Christ-professing bedfellows whose message to “coexist,” “tolerate” and “keep out of it” is more marketable to the rising generation of evangelicals.”

Ok lets get one or two things straight here – many Christians are indeed homophobic and bigoted. Sorry but it’s a fact. If the popular culture calls us out on it, then that’s for us to respond to, not a cue for us to raise the drawbridge. The last sentence about the Christ-professing bedfellows, just doesn’t make any sense to me. Keep out of what? If the writer is saying that some people are advocating for the inclusion of gay people for instance then she should say so, instead she makes sweeping generalisations that can be misconstrued.

“The seasoned Christian soldiers are noticing these distortions of the gospel. But for young evangelicals, the spiritual haze is harder to wade through. Desperate for acceptance in a fallen world, many young evangelicals (and some older ones) choose not to take Christ out of the chapel, and so they are unwittingly killing the church’s public witness. In this uphill cultural battle, mired by scare tactics and fear, three types of evangelical Christians are emerging:

• Couch-potato Christians: These Christians adapt to the culture by staying silent on the tough culture-and-faith discussions. Typically this group will downplay God’s absolute truths by promoting the illusion that neutrality was Jesus’ preferred method of evangelism.

• Cafeteria-style Christians: This group picks and chooses which Scripture passages to live by, opting for the ones that best seem to jive with culture. Typically they focus solely on the “nice” parts of the gospel while simultaneously and intentionally minimizing sin, hell, repentance and transformation.

• Convictional Christians: In the face of the culture’s harsh admonitions, these evangelicals refuse to be silent. Mimicking Jesus, they compassionately talk about love and grace while also sharing with their neighbors the need to recognize and turn from sin.

Point one on this – what is the gospel according to this writer? She clearly has an idea in mind, but doesn’t spell it out. I’ll tell you what I think the gospel is, the gospel is Jesus, plain and simple. So ‘seasoned’ Christians are noticing the ‘distortions’ (again what they are exactly is unclear) but the message is obvious, old people know stuff, young people don’t. ‘Desperate for acceptance in a fallen world’? Really? That doesn’t sound true to me at all. None of the progressive Christians I know are ‘desperate for acceptance in a fallen world’ – far from it. It’s a gross mischaracterization of the facts. On the couch potato Christians, there is some truth in this, but its an unhelpful idea – the writer seems to be working outside of an understanding of the way in which people develop spiritually, probably coming to terms with that would help. On the cafeteria-style Christians: ‘pick and choose’? ‘Pick and choose’? I know of very very few Christians who don’t do this, the ones that don’t are often considered weirdos because they live in a way that most of us consider extreme, they don’t consider possessions to be their own, they renounce violence, etc etc. I hear this kind of crap from conservative evangelicals all the time, and I am highly tempted to challenge them on how many coats they have, and why they don’t share all they have with those who have nothing. And as for focusing ‘solely on the nice parts of the gospel’ – well again what exactly are these nice bits? The stuff about love and acceptance? I suspect the writer hasn’t come to terms with what it means to repent or transform – obviously I don’t know her, so I cant say for sure but that’s how it reads to me. Hell is another conversation entirely, and yes I am one of those Christians who don’t believe in Hell as such, but that’s not because I don’t like the idea, its because it doesn’t make sense. Hell is not a Jewish idea, its an idea that we have developed ourselves, and as a concept it doesn’t work. On the convictional Christians – again this is a false dichotomy, I know many convicted people from a wide variety of traditions, protestant, catholic, conservative, progressive, liberal… it’s nothing to do with the creed, its all to do with the person.

“I know about these three types of Christians because at one time or another I have fallen into each of these three categories. My parents will tell you that even though I was raised in church, I morphed into a full-fledged feminist, told my parents they were ignorant for not endorsing homosexuality and bought into the distorted social justice rhetoric that confuses caring for the poor with advancing socialist or big government systems and demonizing the United States for its free market system.”

A few red flags here – the writer thinks that feminism is intrinsically wrong, which is sad – she has bought in to the patriarchy of her conservative upbringing. She is someone who has reverted to an earlier stage of faith development, my suspicion is that this will change as she develops further. At least that’s my hope. She may then see that patriarchy is not intrinsic to Jesus Christianity, it’s part of a flawed Church culture. Sadly she has also bought into the right wing politics typical of conservative America, and confuses that with being Christian. Not her fault, she has just swallowed the propaganda.

“I’m not ashamed to share my story because my experiences and those of my fellow bold evangelicals are a testimony of God’s awesome, transforming power. Being countercultural for Christ isn’t easy. What does the Great Commission say? Jesus commanded us to go, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).”

There’s some irony here, having just endorsed the entirely cultural idea of the free market, she claims to be counter cultural – if she doesn’t like Obamacare, she should just say so. That is true for many many Americans, for my money free or subsidized health care for the poorest elements of society doesn’t seem so bad – but I am obviously a commie for thinking so. ‘Gitcha gun maw!’

“I see so many parents scratching their heads trying to figure out where they went wrong with young evangelicals. Following the instructions of Proverbs 22:6—”Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”—many evangelical parents took their children to church and prayed with them every night before bed. Yet the values those children now hold dear do not reflect the traditional teachings of Jesus.”

Well duh. So your kids haven’t become just like you despite going to Church every week and having prayers every night? No way! Unbelievable.

“To be perfectly clear, I want to let you know upfront that this isn’t a parenting how-to guide that, if followed, will lead your loved ones to salvation. Instead, what I can offer you is a glimpse into the world of a twenty-something who sees thousands of young evangelicals being spiritually and emotionally targeted on Christian university campuses, in college ministries and at churches nationwide by a growing liberal movement cloaked in Christianity.”

And there again is that dreaded idea: ‘a growing liberal movement cloaked in Christianity’ this stuff is all about politics for this writer.

“Research tells us that evangelicals are drifting further away from the orthodox truths their parents and grandparents held dear.”

‘Orthodox’ eh? Guess what, these evangelical ‘orthodoxies’ were developed in exactly the same way. No understanding of history shown here – none. In any case, there is no ‘one orthodoxy’ – there are many.

“Our churches have rarely—if ever—faced the exodus we are seeing today. This will have a direct effect on the spiritual and moral values that will shape the nation in the coming years. That is why it is urgent that concerned Christians start acting now before the situation gets worse.”

Crap. The end of the church has been prophesied for decades – I suppose that maybe this is something new in America, but guess what, the church thrives in poor parts of the world – how d’you like them apples?

“Faith and culture will continue to collide in America. The culture wars, the growth of family, the success of missions, the prosperity of our great nation—the future rests on millennial evangelicals’ worldview. And that is cause for concern, because something has gone wrong with young evangelicals’ theology.”

Aaargh – ‘the prosperity of our great nation’ – Lord help us. This is some horrible thinking.

“The millennial generation’s susceptibility to “feel-good” doctrine is playing a big part in America’s moral decline. Millennials’ religious practices depend largely on how the actions make us and others feel, whether the activities are biblical or not. For example, we only attend churches that leave us feeling good about our lifestyle choices, even if those choices conflict with God’s clear commandments. We dismiss old hymns that focus on God’s transforming salvation, love and mercy and opt for “Jesus is your boyfriend” songs. Or we contribute to nonprofits that exploit and misuse terms such as justice, oppressed and inequality because tweaking the language makes us feel more neutral, less confrontational.”

I for one have witnessed Americas moral decline at the hands of these evil progressive Christians – I mean, for goodness sakes, you cant even have slaves any more. Gitcha gun maw.’ We only attend churches that leave us feeling good about our lifestyle choices’ – what like free market capitalism or American military might you mean? Or is that just the natural order of things? I do dislike the Jesus is my boyfriend songs, but then there are some pretty dire hymns out there too. Hows about we just don’t sing at all? I’m fine with that by the way. As for contributing to non profits that ‘exploit’ terms like ‘justice oppressed and inequality’… She needs to be a bit clearer about what she means. I mean… what does she even mean there?

“Popular liberal evangelical writers and preachers tell young evangelicals that if they accept abortion and same-sex marriage, then the media, academia and Hollywood will finally accept Christians.

Oh right – do they? I cant say I’ve noticed.

“Out of fear of being falsely dubbed “intolerant” or “uncompassionate,” many young Christians are buying into theological falsehoods. Instead of standing up as a voice for the innocent unborn or marriage as God intended, millennials are forgoing the authority of Scripture and embracing a couch potato, cafeteria-style Christianity all in the name of tolerance.”

Another gross misrepresentation – mainly in a defence of evangelicalism – its understandable from her perspective, but if she cant come to terms with the idea that we’re not all evangelical, then she has a problem.

“This contemporary mindset is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian whose Christian convictions put him at odds with the Nazis and cost him his life, called “cheap grace.” In his book The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer wrote: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” “

One problem she has is with Bonhoeffer, who of course was not an evangelical – and who advocated a ‘religionless Christianity’ and of course a new monasticism. Again she is mixed up (IMO) about repentance.

“Right now cheap grace theology is proliferating around evangelical Bible colleges, seminaries and Christian ministries.”

Sorry to hear that – I cant comment on it.

“It is not that millennial evangelicals were not taken to church by their parents. It is that their training has been hijacked by ineffective and sometimes intentionally distorted doctrine.”

It’s the devil – he done it. It wasn’t any problem with the church they grew up in.

“As constant and pervasive as the attacks on Christianity are at public universities, it is important to remember that millennials’ worldviews do not start taking shape after they move out of their parents’ houses. Their understanding of Jesus’ teachings and cultural convictions begin to form while they are still at home and under the influence of their local church.”

No sh*t.

“What I hope and pray evangelical parents and leaders come to realize is that the church has been too trusting. In our jampacked lifestyles, parents have treated Sunday school as they do softball or ballet class—drop off the kids for an hour then pick them up and hope they learned something.”

Okaaaay….

“Early on in my Sunday school teaching days, my co-teacher and I followed the curriculum pretty narrowly, the exception being that my co-teacher had an outstanding knowledge of biblical history that he imparted to the kids.”

But apparently no knowledge of church history that he imparted to the writer.

“We taught all about Jesus’ birth, resurrection and saving grace. Thinking the fluffy kids ministry curriculum covered all of the necessary bases, I felt confident these kids had a firm grasp on their Christian worldview. Boy, was I wrong!”

Oh maaaaan!

“One day my co-teacher and I decided to play “True or False.” We casually went down a list of worldview questions with our class, sure that our little evangelicals would nail every question correctly.

No. 1: Jesus is God. “True.” Great job.

No. 2: Jesus sinned. “False.” Bingo!

No. 3: Jesus is one of many ways to heaven. “True.”

What?! Shocked is the only way to describe how I felt. Hadn’t they been listening to us? When I asked who taught them that, one girl said, “Coexist.” Yes, these young evangelicals had been listening to their Sunday school teachers and their parents, but they had also been listening to their public school teachers, TV celebrities and rock stars.”

Gitcha gun maw! Other people’s bin influencin’ the lil’uns! Naive.

“Youth ministers, volunteer leaders and pastors also have to start preparing these kids to deal with the very real hostility that faces young evangelicals. “If we never talk about abortion in church, how can we expect the rising evangelical girl to calmly explain the option of adoption to her frightened best friend who just admitted she is pregnant?”

Oh for goodness sake. The frightened girl needs a hug, not a lecture on adoption.

“What will surprise you is how much young evangelicals actually crave honest discussions about abortion, sexuality, sexual exploitation, feminism and radical Islam. “

Why would that surprise me? It is literally one of the least surprising things I have ever heard.

“My friend and Evangelical Action adviser Richmond Trotter has two non-negotiable topics when addressing youth: creation and life. Having volunteered in church youth ministry since 1996, Richmond is not afraid to have serious discussions about what Scripture says about abortion, evolution and homosexuality.”

Oh my, I had forgotten about evolution – that pesky devilment. Ahem, false separation of faith and science. Ahem.

“Make no mistake: The trend away from biblical truth is not concentrated in the hipster city limits. It is unfolding in the crevices of America’s plains, hills, mountains and swamplands. All across this nation, “old-fashioned” conservative evangelicalism is being traded in for a bright and shiny, mediocre Christianity.”

Actually a laugh out loud moment. The great Christian nation which exploits, bullies and bombs the rest of the world.

“If America’s evangelicals disengage from the public square and fail to engage the rising generation of Christian leaders, then we risk losing our public voice, then our religious liberty, then liberty altogether.”

Scare ‘em up lady. That’s the way to fill your pews.

“What Happened to the Religious Right?”

It turned out that they were the Religious wrong.

“The last several decades witnessed tremendous evangelical influence in the United States. Leaders such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Paige and Dorothy Patterson, James Dobson, and James and Betty Robison made a bold impact on America’s families, churches and government. Now that those few leaders are aging or retiring, or have died, there are very few traditional evangelical leaders left holding the torch and even fewer candidates to whom they can pass it.”

Oh I can name a few that are cut from the same cloth, its just that most of us stopped listening to them, it might have been because Pat Robertson does seem to be a bigot, or because of those left behind books, or perhaps because Falwell said 9/11 was ‘God’s judgement’… I dunno, you pays your money and you picks your blessing.

“But religious convictions in America are not on the verge of disappearance just yet. There is still hope. In the book God Is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America, Gallup Inc. Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport ensures: “Christianity will prevail in the U.S. America will remain very much a Christian nation in the decades ahead, albeit less so than in the past because of an increase in Americans who don’t have a religious identity.” “

Phew… I think. (Thinking is probably not allowed either anymore).

“Evangelicals and culture warriors in the U.S. do not have to look far to discover what happens when Christian denominations give up on their traditional convictions and teachings. All we have to do is look at the dwindling memberships of mainline Protestant denominations.”

Solution: become more conservative? Cos that works…

“In order to safeguard the trajectory of young evangelicals, we must uphold the authoritative Word of God. It is imperative that those in a position to influence millennials have transparent and honest discussions about the culture wars evangelical youth are already engaging. Otherwise they will be silent and accepting in the face of persecution and false doctrine.”

If only I could assume the ‘Word of God’ here was Jesus, but no, it’s going to be the bible, the fourth member of the trinity.

“The importance of arming the next generation of evangelicals cannot be overstated. If we continue to follow the example of mainline Protestants, evangelicalism will have a gloomy future. We must offer sorely needed leadership, but before we can do that, we need to know exactly whom and what we are up against.”

Brief overall review: The same old horse sh*t. More to the point I think its highly politicised, uber conservative naivety. No cogent analysis, no inward reflection, no apparent self awareness. There is a major problem in America with people conflating conservative politics with Christianity, but this is a kind of Christendom mindset which doesn’t come from the radical politics of Jesus.

Zen Christianity – Zazen & Centering prayer

For the first in this series of posts which will begin to explain what I mean by ‘Zen Christianity’ – I want to start by looking at the practice of Zazen which sits at the heart of Zen. It is this practice which gives Zen its very identity, and sets it apart from other sects or schools of Buddhism.

It is this practice which means that Zen is not actually a religion, nor even a way confined to a particular religious group.Zazen literally means ‘seated meditation’ and refers to the core of the Zen way, the primacy of stillness meditation. Of course different Zen schools vary in their ways of teaching Zazen, but at its most basic, most fundamental, the practice is of sitting still and disengaging with conscious thought.

Meditation is a discipline common to a variety of religious traditions, and you will find practitioners of various kinds of meditation in all of the Abrahamic traditions, as well as the various streams running out of Hinduism and many others besides.

Fr Thomas Keating

In relatively recent years the Zazen practice has been well incorporated in to Christianity by means of the Centering Prayer movement, developed by the Trappist monk Thomas Keating and others.

But while the popularity of Zazen may have spurred on the Centering Prayer movement, the practice itself is developed out of Medieval Christian practice as outlined in the spiritual classic ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. Indeed it is apparently true that Centering prayer was originally called ‘Contemplative Prayer according to the Cloud of Unknowing’ – not quite as catchy.

Put simply and in practical terms, Centering Prayer is a form of meditation which uses a ‘sacred word’ to still the mind. The word is repeated partly in order to simply help the mind keep from engaging in thought. If it is not needed, the word is put aside, but when thoughts begin to encroach again, the word is repeated again until it is no longer needed. I am not aware of many people who have no need of a word.

The difference then, between this and other forms of meditation is simple, a mantra or other form of concentrating meditation seeks to fill the mind, to exclude thoughts by focusing on one particular idea. A similar practice is used for those beginning or learning Zazen.

Centering Prayer is Zen like in its aim of stilling the mind, of disengaging with thoughts altogether, the focus is simply upon gently repeating the word.

When thoughts come, as they continue to do, you simply do not engage. No matter how worthy the thought, your meditation time is not the time for that thought, it is time for meditation.

There are a number of ways that we engage with thoughts, and they basically fall into three categories. You can retain thoughts. Alternatively you can resist thoughts. And very often you can resent thoughts. All of these happen very naturally – but with Centering Prayer the idea is to do none of them.

Retain no thought – so don’t enter in to it. Resist no thought, do not try and rid your mind of anything which enters it, and resent no thought, don’t bother wasting your time getting cross about a thought which has entered your head unbidden.

By simply repeating a sacred word, you have the opportunity to do none of these things.

So much for the fundamental practice, but what is the point of this kind of meditation?

With Zazen one is essentially aiming to achieve a realisation of a greater reality, which exists beyond thought. With Centering Prayer the same is basically true – the difference is primarily how as individual practitioners we understand that reality.

For my own practice, I take as a starting point the idea that there is an ultimate ‘divine reality’ underlying all things, which is most essentially Love. I appreciate this is not a given, but it is an element of faith on my part. I believe it wholeheartedly (and sometimes doubt it almost as sincerely) and it is that which  serves as a foundation for my understanding of the universe and the human condition. I further believe or understand that this divine reality, this ultimate love, which we may know as God, is there to be engaged with. It is there to be loved, and to love. But I acknowledge that as soon as I begin to use words, images or concepts,then my expression of love, and my understanding of God is immediately limited. That is not to say a limited engagement is not to be wished for, but I would rather see it as a way marker than a destination.

Chapter three of The Cloud of Unknowing begins like this: “This is what you are to do. Lift your heart up to the Lord with a gentle stirring of love, desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts.” It goes on to explain the method of using one word, or one syllable to express this love. This explains the basis of Centering prayer: to express love for, and live in the love of, God without limiting that by imposing words upon it.

Meister Eckhart taught that ‘God is a word, a word unspoken’. By this he meant that while God is ultimately or eventually knowable – God cannot be known fully by any word or concept which we can yet humanly articulate.

By engaging in a Centering Prayer type meditation, we draw closer to the point where we can engage with the unspoken nature of the word that is God. We set aside for a time our human understanding with all of its inadequacy, and go towards the light of love.

Zen Christianity

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For some time I’ve been exploring an approach to Christianity which I have come to think of as Zen Christianity.

There are no particular teachers of ‘Zen Christianity’, at least none that I know to be using that term. But the ancient exponents of Kenotic or ‘self emptying’ Christianity are very influential, as are a number of contemporary writers and teachers.

So what do I mean by ‘Zen Christianity’?

Realistically I suppose I’m using the idea of Zen in its most basic sense, in terms of placing a particularly high value on meditation, and of stillness, in this case in the presence of the divine (immanent/ here and transcendent/ out there).

I’m using the term ‘Christianity’ here to mean two things, firstly an approach to the divine which is centered upon understanding Jesus as the incarnation of God, and secondly a commitment to following the Jesus way/teachings.

I appreciate that in either case this is not a good enough definition for many people. Zen is a more subtle system of thought than this would make it appear, and Christianity has as many permutations as any other system of religious belief, and that is a vast number after all. But in the first place I want to keep it simple, after all, life is complicated enough.

So what does it practically mean to be a Zen Christian? That, among other things is what I will be blogging about through 2015.

Why Christians should celebrate the summer solstice

stones07-solsticeThis week the summer solstice rolls around – on June 21st we will have the longest day and shortest night of the year. On June 22nd we begin the countdown to winter once again.

As part of Oasis Church Grimsby we’ll be celebrating the summer solstice with a forest church gathering. Very informal, as all of our gatherings are, and marked no doubt by the familiar sound of children tearing around and having fun, we’ll get together in a small piece of woodland and share some life and friendship together. If the weather is kind to us, we will bake some bread on a barbeque or open fire.

Fire has been part of solstice celebrations for many many years, since before the development of Christianity in fact, the primal force of the flame reflecting something of the power of the sun – offerings made into the fire whisked upwards towards the heavens on a thermal draft. Back in those times, clever people built stone structures which were perfectly aligned to the light of the sun on these special occasions, and the day itself was believed to have a propitious magic.

The solstice was also seen as a new year, and celebrated as such. As a time of transition, offerings were made to thank or appease relevant spirits who might be able to affect harvests, water supplies and the welfare of animals. In our more ‘rational’ age such spirits have largely been forgotten, with solstice celebrations being left to those perceived as oddballs and refuseniks.

But I think that more of us should celebrate the solstice. In particular I think that Christians should celebrate the summer, and winter solstices.

One reason for that is that I think its a very good thing to reconnect ourselves with the ancient patterns of the world, it’s healthy for us to find ways of making a connection with the earth.

Everything we do and interact with these days is alienated from the earth, we buy bread that comes neatly wrapped in a plastic bag, we buy clean vegetables and packaged meat from supermarkets. We clean our teeth with a mysterious paste that comes out of a tube, our clothes although often made from plant fibres, bear no resemblance to the raw materials they contain.

Our alienation is almost complete, were it not for walks in the country, gardening, and so on, the only way we would experience the natural world would be through our televisions. I generalise of course, lots of us are much more connected to nature than this, but you get my drift.

The word ‘solstice’ is a compound of two Latin words, ‘sol’ meaning ‘sun’ and ‘sistere’ meaning to ‘stand’ or ‘halt’. It’s a time when the sun seems to stand still, to hang in the heavens for an unusual amount of time. And its a time when we humans can be still too – when we take time out of our alienated lives to be thankful for the  world we live in. To be thankful for the fruitfulness of the earth, and the life that comes from the sun. Some say all life comes from the sun, and that’s more or less true – plants have life because of photosynthesis, creatures have life because they consume plants, or consume creatures that consume plants. More or less all life is viable only because of the sun.

So yes, I believe it’s a good thing to celebrate the solstice. Christians in particular should celebrate the summer solstice and give thanks to the great spirit who they understand as the maker of all things, including the massive ball of incandescent gas which we know as ‘the sun’.

But lets not make it exclusive, non Christians should celebrate the summer solstice too, indeed we should all do it. The mid point of summer has arrived, it’s a special time. Give thanks to God, the universe or whatever you believe in, or if you prefer, just think happy thoughts. The sun gives us life, and this is it’s high point, we should celebrate it.

God and the dualist imagination part 4: God beyond dualism

file0002028828893Having previously outlined how evangelical thinking has dualism at it’s heart, how this has caused a problem, and how it impacts the way evangelicals typically understand ‘God’, I want to turn now to my own reflections on this issue.

Over some period of time, I have moved from a classically dualistic transcendent view of the Divine towards a way of thinking called panentheism. I perceive this way of thinking as being a much more helpful way of seeing God.

According to panentheist thinking, God is both transcendent in the dualist sense, but also immanent. God is simultaneously both here and there. He or she is, to use a traditional term, omnipresent.

This adoption of panentheism removes the issue of seeing through an entirely dualistic lens: we can recognise God as ever present, allowing us to see God in those who we might otherwise have seen as ‘others’. But it doesn’t necessarily entirely rid us of concepts such as ‘right and wrong’ or ‘good and evil’ for instance. What it does is put them into perspective.

Panentheism as a stance is well expressed by Marcus Borg who said: “God is not a supernatural being separate from the universe; rather, God (the sacred, the Spirit) is a nonmaterial layer or level or dimension of reality all around us. God is more than the universe, yet the universe is in God. Thus, in a spatial sense, God is not “somewhere else” but “right here.”…” (Borg, The God We Never Knew, 1998, 11 – 12)

A panentheist approach is, I believe, much more inclusive than dualism which I think is problematic and exclusive. A panentheist can more readily overcome the barriers between us and others, by recognising that those barriers are irrelevant, and illusory. That being the case, a panentheist approach drives us towards re-engagement, as we recognise that whilst we are apart, whilst we are separate, we are not whole.

This view of God and people changes the way we must look at everything. It calls for a radical re-engagement with the other as we begin to recognise that ‘God dwells and is present substantially in every soul…’ (Julian of Norwich)

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: ‘God’s dream is that all of us will realize we are family – we are made for togetherness. In God’s family, there are no outsiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Buddhist – all belong’… ‘God’s love is too great to be confined to any one side of a conflict or to any one religion.’ (Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s Recipe For Peace, 2004)

From my perspective, Tutu’s point about conflict is very helpful. My own reflections on this has helped me understand that I have certain underlying assumptions about (for instance) politics, and crime. But Tutu points out that God is simultaneously with both offender, and offended against. God sits across differing sides of disputes, he/she is not on ‘my side’ no matter how much I might demonise the other in my mind.

Although I don’t feel the need to dispense entirely with dualistic notions of justice and injustice, good and evil etc, I need to locate them in the idea of Shalom  the holistic love and peace of God. Christ as ‘saviour’ in this sense is the one who restores us, who brings us back to that wholeness. The verb ‘sozo’ which we translate as ‘save’ also means to heal or make whole.

God then is simultaneously with us, in us and around us. Others too are the same as us, our separation although real in one sense is also illusion. We are all family – discrete yet the same.

The problem we face then, obviously enough is that we are so manifestly physical, and God is so manifestly not, making it extremely difficult to understand that wholeness. But Jesus, who we can at last understand as the incarnation of God, or God in human form (not part of God, or a separate person, but fully God and fully human) comes to restore us to wholeness, to demonstrate to us the Shalom of God, the holistic peace and love which is freely available to us, and which is surely our destiny.

As the manifestation of this holy wholeness, the personification of eternal love, as fully God and fully human he is clear – ‘I am the way, the truth, the life…. no man comes to the father but through me.’ This is not a statement of dualistic separation, an ‘I am better then the others’ boast, it’s a statement of reality – Jesus lives and calls us to live the reality of Shalom in the here and now – love God, and love your neighbour as yourself. That’s the beginning and the end of it.

Read the previous posts to this one: 1, 2, 3.

God and the dualist imagination part 3: Us & God

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving already stated that evangelical thinking uses a dualistic lens to create a divide between ‘us’ and ‘others’; I now want to consider the other way that dualism has infected the way evangelicals think, namely the ‘othering’ of God.

Not only are people ‘other’ to ‘us’, but so is ‘God’.

Language of transcendence is often used to speak of the Divine, I use it quite frequently myself. But while it can be helpful in talking about aspects of the nature of God, when God becomes solely transcendent as in the ‘Theist’ or ‘Supernatural Theist’ way of thinking, we have a problem.

When God is entirely transcendent, there seem to be places where he or she is not present, essentially places where God does not exist. These places may be in people, in the hearts and minds of those who we feel are evil or wrong; physical locations; or objects.

For some this is manifest in power relationships – God cannot be present in ‘their’ building, instead it is a haunt for ‘demons’ – their building may of course variously be: Mosque, temple, house of ill repute, anyone else’s church…

Often what lies at the heart of that is straightforwardly a power struggle, but underlying it, I want to suggest, is this kind of thinking about God.

Indeed I believe this lies at the heart of the problems with the way we conceive of all types of others. It can allow us to see ‘others’ as more distant from God than we are; just as it also allows us to conceive of certain places as ‘god forsaken’ or ‘god less’.

On a global/geo political scale of course, it allows us to consign our planet to environmental catastrophe by believing that God is transcendent from his/her creation. By living in this thinking we can justify not only environmental damage on an extraordinary scale, but also be ambivalent about the death and destruction of massive amounts of people.

On a local scale, and one that is very obvious in any kind of missional role, it allows us to abandon sections of society to sink or swim as church bails out and heads for a nicer place to live.

Tomorrow I will explain how this thinking has made me move into a new way of understanding God altogether. New for me that is.

Previous posts are here: 1, 2.

God and the dualist imagination part 2: Jesus & dualism

In post 1 of this series, I said that I believe dualism is inherent in the way that evangelical Christians have come to conceive of ‘others’ – those of different belief systems or lifestyles to the standards deemed ‘acceptable’ by the prevailing evangelical thinking.

I want to go to say that I believe this to be a deeply flawed approach, and one which seems contrary to the way of approaching otherness modelled by Jesus.

Jesus approach to those of other faiths, other lifestyles and other social classes is profoundly open and egalitarian. The gospels include stories of an encounter with non-Jewish astrologers and times spent with tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars and centurions.

He was a friend of sinners, and was condemned as a glutton and a drunkard for the way that he ate and supped with others as though he were part of their community. Jesus does not model a dualistic way of living, nor does he model a dualistic model of ministry – his encounters with those other to his own way of life are gentle, peaceful and respectful.

Various people have critiqued dualistic thinking, Julian of Norwich noted that ‘The fullness of Joy is to behold God in everything’; and Bede Griffiths advocated an approach which drew on the teachings of both Thomas Aquinas and Sankara – in believing that in God there is “no division, or ‘composition’ of any kind. He is ‘without duality’.” (Griffiths, Return to the Centre, 1978, 24)

When considering the otherness of different faith traditions, the former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sachs expresses similar views in ‘The Dignity of difference’ where he talks of religion as being “the translation of God into a particular language and thus into the life of a group, a nation, a community of faith.” (Sachs, The Dignity of Difference, 2002, 55)

Read more tomorrow in Part 3.

God and the dualist imagination part 1: Us & Others

I presented a paper at a conference recently, where I outed myself as a ‘recovering dualist’.

By this I meant that I find it very hard not to think about God with a classic dualist point of view – you know that idea of God as a person out there somewhere, with a Santa type ‘naughty and nice’ pair of lists? Yeah that. I find it a bit hard not to think like that.

I am by background an evangelical, and although I haven’t used that term to describe myself for some time, it has played an important part in forming the way I think about things.

So in a short series of blog posts, I want to look at the issue of dualism as a way of thinking about God.

My first point then, is that I believe underlying the evangelical understanding of God and ‘others’ is a deep seated dualism.

I suggested that this dualism leads to a colonial attitude towards the way the evangelical church approaches ‘others’. While I recognise that there are significant exceptions to this generalisation, it’s useful as a starting point.

My belief is that the majority of evangelicals operate in a kind of Platonic conception of the world as Ideal and Real. There is a separation for instance between concepts such as ‘science and faith’, ‘Christian and secular’, ‘heaven and earth’ and of course, ‘saved and unsaved’. According to this well ingrained way of thinking, all earthly things are intrinsically inferior to the unseen spiritual.

So there is, for instance, a very dualistic way of distinguishing between the evangelical/Christian ‘us’, (saved, sanctified, believers); and ‘them’ – (the unsaved, those of other faiths, the sinners). This dichotomy of salvation has traditionally been part of a sovereignty paradigm. The threat of exclusion from the company of the sanctified, puts ‘us’ in to a position of power, of declaring the orthodoxy.

This runs, however, contrary to the gospel idea of giving up power, as modeled by Jesus in the Kenotic cross ‘event’, and to what Roger Mitchell has described as ‘Kenarchy’ – the emptying out of power on the behalf of others. (Mitchell, The Fall of the Church, 2013)

A dualistic mind-set is conveniently easy: with a clear us and them divide, ‘we’ know who ‘we’ are, and where ‘we’ are. It’s also very much a warfare mentality which not only appropriates violent imagery for the way it approaches discussion of the issues, but also posits the idea of opposing sides in a battle, ranged against one another. ‘Powers of darkness’ almost equal to, and diametrically opposed to ‘powers of good’ – God and Satan juxtaposed against one another as opposing commanders, and this played out on earth between people of faith and the heathen.

It may be easy, it may even be ‘encouraging’ at times of difficulty, but I believe it is deeply problematic.

Read more tomorrow in Part 2.

The practicalities of a 40 day fast

look north cropOn Shrove Tuesday 2014 I had my final meal before giving up food entirely for 40 days. I am fasting to help raise awareness of the issue of food poverty in our country, as part of the End Hunger Fast campaign. I am doing so along side Keith Hebden and Scott Albrecht, who are doing the same fast, and thousands of others who fasted for a day, on April 4th. Many others have chosen to fast for single days each week in Lent. They have my sincere respect, gratitude, and admiration. I’m also grateful to the journalists and media channels who have helped to publicise this.

I have previously written a couple of posts about my reasons for doing this, but this post is about the practicalities, arising from the innumerable questions I’ve been asked by all sorts of people about the process.

There’s perhaps a chance of being presumptuous in writing this on day 32 of my 40 day fast. But I can at least share the story so far.

I did quite a bit of research before undertaking this fast, which included lots of reading and also speaking with people who have accomplished 40 day fasts in the past. In some cases, they have done it a few times.

So what I got was basically what I was expecting.

The most important thing to know is that, so long as you are a person who is in good health, this is a primarily a mental challenge. The body is actually equipped to go for relatively long periods without food if necessary, and has internal mechanisms to deal with it.

The key thing you must do, is ensure you are properly hydrated. And that means in particular that you need to drink lots of water. In my case I have not restricted myself to water, I have drunk fruit juice daily, I have also drunk green tea daily. With these three and the occasional addition of things like carrot juice, carrot and orange juice, V5 vegetable juice (bleugh) and similar I have kept myself feeling pretty well nourished. I have also accepted the occasional black tea when given one, or when there was no other option.

I have also maintained a regular supplemental vitamin intake, I take a multivitamin & mineral tablet every morning, and an effervescent vitamin C tablet most lunch times.

In this way, I have kept up what I think is a reasonable supply of essential nutrients into my system.

I was also advised to consider supplementing the fast with a ‘very thin soup’ such as a vegetable stock, or water from boiled vegetables. I thought about this a lot, and decided I would keep this as a reserve option for a late stage of the fast. So far I have not bothered with doing so, and I suspect I will not resort to it. I dont feel particularly tempted by the idea, and am not sure it would add much at this point.

“Are you hungry all the time?”

The answer is basically no, I’m not. After the first few days in which the body detoxes and deals with its food addictions, you go into ketosis, and the the body begins to break down fats to provide the sugars it needs. Because I have maintained some sugar intake with fruit juices I have managed to sustain ketosis until now. I am hopeful that it will continue until day 40. If it does not, then my body will begin to consume muscle, which will be unpleasant.

“Are you tempted by food all the time?”

Again the answer is no, I have cooked for the children from time to time, and sometimes sit at the table for meals. That doesn’t always work for me, so I’m not religious about it. But so far as I have been able, I’ve attempted to carry on as normal. I must admit that at times when I’ve been in the house on my own, and I’ve known all the nice food we have in our cupboards and fridge, I’ve thought: ‘nobody need ever know…’ but happily I have managed not to go down that route, I’ve eaten nothing.

“How much weight have you lost?”

I went into the fast expecting to lose a stone and a half over the forty days, an amount I felt I could afford to lose reasonably well. I had actually let myself eat a bit more in advance of the fast, so that I had a bit more in reserve. Unfortunately this was an underestimation, and I had lost a stone and a half with two weeks to spare. I think that this week I may have lost another half stone, which means I have gone from just over 13 stone to just over 11. I think it’s roughly 15% of my total body weight, maybe about an arm’s worth. It’s now quite evident that I have shed weight, and my face in particular looks quite different.

“Are you still ‘well’?”

In general I remain in good health. I’ve continued to work all the way through the fast, at times I’ve worn myself out, which was unwise. In general the main problem has been lack of energy, I have certainly suffered from a loss of energy, and at times I just feel weak. I have deliberately cut down the amount of exercise I do, and have tried to be sensible about that. I needed this fast to be sustainable in the midst of what can be a pretty busy life. Internally my body continues to function well, although bowel movements have certainly slowed, and possibly now stopped – you cant blame the bowels for not moving if there’s nothing in them I guess.

The other issues I’ve had are sleep and temperature – I’ve slept less, at least an hour less per night which is a bit of a drag, and my sleep is more broken which is also annoying. It adds to my overall feeling of tiredness. And body temperature has been an issue at times, mostly I’ve been fine but sometimes I’ve just felt very shivery, and I have to wear more in bed in order to be warm enough. I’ve thanked God for the lovely warm jacket which I got just before the fast began, it’s been a real boon.

The one health issue I do have is that I have a slight problem if I get too hot, my blood pressure drops a lot and I am prone to passing out – I have noticed an increase in light headedness at times during the fast, and I think my blood pressure has gone down a bit, so I have to be extra careful about that generally, and about not getting too hot in particular, so no hot baths anymore.

Has it made you grumpy?”

In general no, I don’t think so, but from time to time it probably has. I think in some ways it’s made me a bit more manic, and I suspect there’s some survival instinct going on meaning that I will take decisions faster, think more clearly and be less tolerant of shilly shallying. I have a feeling that this has not made me the easiest person to live with at times, and I owe my family an awful lot for supporting me in this.

“Has it been a ‘spiritual experience’?”

Unlike other fasts which I have done (much shorter) for specifically ‘spiritual’ reasons, this was never intended as an exercise in prayerful asceticism.  This was always a practical thing, but to divorce those two concepts entirely would be wrong. So I would say that this hasn’t been the kind of transcendent experience one might expect if doing it as a time of concentrated prayer and meditation, but the spirituality of the mundane is not to be undervalued, and in that sense it has been a deeply spiritual experience. The focus of this fast has been (essentially) justice and peace – and the spirit of God is justice and peace – there is a clear link.

“What are you going to eat first when you stop?”

It will have to be a gentle soup diet to begin with, I don’t eat meat anyway, so that’s not an issue, but I’ll have to have vegetable soup for the first few days at least until my internal organs can handle being filled again, then it will be simple things like a bit of scrambled egg, and stuff with plenty of fibre in. My first real meal will probably be a Mung bean soup, which is a traditional way to break a fast in certain Indian cultures, as it has particular restorative qualities.

“What has kept you motivated?”

Knowing that this is a much bigger issue than some temporary discomfort of my own, and that in doing this I am helping to raise the general awareness of that issue. The support and encouragement of family, friends, colleagues and strangers has been really great too. A consistent prayerful approach has helped me stay focused for the most part, and also a bit of sheer bloody mindedness hasn’t hindered me, nor has a latent competitive instinct if I’m really honest.

Overall the main thing to understand is that this is entirely achievable with the relevant preparation and motivation. One needs to understand that there are periods when it is hard, and periods when it is really quite easy. The idea in my mind is not to pay too much attention to either of these two things, and just to be present in the moment that I am in. I liken it to climbing a cliff, or walking a ledge – just don’t look down. If you do then it scares the living daylights out of you. I occasionally catch a glimpse of the fact that I have not eaten anything for a month, and that seems extraordinary to me, then I remember just to continue the fast. It’s a lot like meditation actually, just be there in a meditative state, retain no thought, resist no thought, resent no thought. I use meditation as part of my personal spiritual practice and perhaps that discipline has been a help.

“What has been the hardest thing about it?”

The hardest thing about this whole fast has been the impact it has had at home – no more date night meals for Kelly and I, no special meal for our wedding anniversary which fell on day 31, fewer family meals around the table and so on. I have felt that loss keenly, and I know Kelly has too. That has felt at times selfish and unfair, and I don’t feel good about it.

However, there is a much bigger issue at stake, an issue of justice, and I focus on that, knowing we will be able to make up for some lost time afterwards.

So there you have it, I think there was only once when I seriously doubted I would complete this fast, in the main I’ve just managed to plod along. I’m still not ruling out introducing some thin vegetable soup, or Miso soup or something in the last few days if I grow very weak, but I can see the finish line and I’m plodding towards it. See you on the other side!

 

 

Noah – film review

Warning this review contains spoilers of the sort that go beyond a basic knowledge of the bible story.

Russell Crowe as NoahSo let me start with a preface: I think this is the most Biblical film I have seen in a very long time, perhaps ever. It is a two hour long meditation on the nature of God and the nature of humanity.

All good myths require imagination and the power to suspend disbelief, and the Noah story is no different to that. In its original Biblical form its a retelling of some kind of universal near eastern story of a time when a great flood came. You find different versions of the same story in other texts too.

But the Hebrews used this story to not just deal with some half forgotten history, but to add to the conversation around two questions – who is God? And is humanity worth saving from itself?

That is what this new version of the old story does too.

Using plenty of imagination, as befits the telling of a myth director Darren Aronofsky conjures up an antediluvian world of almost surreal proportions. He gives the drama a dreamlike quality, in the same way that a memory highlights certain colours and textures, and fades other detail into obscurity.

He deals cleverly and subtly with the notion of how God speaks to Noah, using a combination of dream and psychotropic experiences to reveal the creator’s plans. This will surely disappoint those who prefer the Sunday school idea of such communication. However, despite its grotesque proportions, it is all the more real for that.

Another piece of re imagining comes in the casting of the Nephilim as rock bound creatures, difficult for those of us who prefer to imagine them as models of muscle bound masculinity. However, the really wonderful thing about his re imagining of these ‘Watchers’ (a term taken directly from the extra/non/orthodox canonical) text of Enoch is the way he uses them to tell their own story of love and redemption.

The great problem for those of us who read the story through an understanding of a God who is love, is the prevalence of the myth of redemptive violence. I thought that this would be a problem in the film too, that we would still have to deal with a vengeful God who wants to visit death and destruction on evil humans.

But actually the story overcomes this, and this is the great ‘arc’ of this myth, it’s Noah’s great realisation that his mission is not to see humans wiped out for their sin, and thereby to recreate the garden in its virginal purity. Instead his mission is fulfilled when he realises that the love he has in his heart is what God wants.

Aronofsky uses some license to get there, the device of the babies is his key interjection into the story, should Noah kill the children to fulfill his mission from God? When he finds he cant do so, he feels that he has failed, he becomes deeply depressed, he fears the the love he has in his heart for his grandchildren makes him weak, and of no use to God.

His epiphany comes as he realises eventually that love is his mission, his broken, loving and weak heart is what God wants. It is then that the new covenant comes into place.

Another clever addition to the story is the incorporation of Tubal Cain into the tale, he is recast not as Naameh’s brother as in the original text, but as the king, or ‘chief of the baddies’.

What he wants is to seize equality with God by force, he wants to take it – this is the fall story still in place. That man can be equal with God by eating the fruit. Tubal Cain is the antithesis to the eventual ideal type Noah.

Tubal Cain wants to recreate paradise too, but another sort of paradise, he wants to see the power of humanity dominant over nature – and this is the other great arc, the environmental theme of stewardship over dominance. Aronofsky seems to play on this heavily, and he’s right to do so, it’s a contemporary addition to the story, but one which has all the more relevance for that.

The way this works out is in Noah’s killing of Tubal Cain, another part of his supposed ‘duty’.

One final addition to the story is that of Methuselah, played as a wise ancient Shaman who has a fascination with finding berries before he dies. For all his powers, he cannot find the berry he wants, until his last moment, when God in a gift of small amounts but epic proportions reveals a berry to him, just before he meets his death.

So yes, this is a meditation on the nature of God, revealing eventually a God who is loving, who doesn’t command death and destruction, but who is misunderstood and disobeyed (obey comes from the Latin and has a close association with the word listen) by all but a few. It’s a God who grants small kindnesses, who sees into the hearts of humanity, and loves them.

And it’s a meditation on the nature of humanity, for from earth (humus) they came. It recognises humans as capable of great wickedness and of great love.

Acting wise I was impressed by everyone, except perhaps Emma Watson, who I found unconvincing. I didn’t desperately like the fight scenes, but I don’t like them usually anyway – they were however a necessary dramatic device.

It was both massively divergent from the original text, and simultaneously totally faithful to the spirit of it, and that is what makes it very very Biblical. Those who want more Biblical literalism will hate it no doubt. I thought it was excellent.

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