Toward A Theology of Encounter

 

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*Warning – This post contains my first attempt at serious academic theology -* 

As I have frequently reminded my readers on here and elsewhere, much of my attention over the past two years has been focused on Master’s level study. Since I have just finished the taught part of the MA, and expect to spend my study time over the next twelve months attempting to write a dissertation, I thought that I would share a few of my better MA papers here. So, without further ado, for the very interested, here is my first MA assignment (long since submitted and graded) which deals with theological method (a major focus of my MA program). Enjoy!

Comments are, as ever, most welcome. Please credit me as per current UK/US Academic citation standards/expectations if you decide to share and/or cite any of my work (not that I’m expecting that mind you, but you never know!). I hope this brief paper gives you an insight into my efforts to develop my thinking as a trainee theologian, stimulates conversation(s), and blesses all who take the time to engage with it!

M

Planting a Vineyard

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*Links are highlighted*

This is more of a personal news update aimed at friends and acquaintances than an overtly theological post. If you were expecting the latter, you shall simply have to wait as I am about to undertake two second year MA assignments in the next few months. Almost all of my ‘theological’ focus shall thus be aimed at those, at least for the time being.

To cut a very long winded saga short, as many of you will doubtless already be aware, our family has decided to take a leap of faith and join a brand new Vineyard church plant here in Cambridge. Our new pastor (pastorette?) is an inspiring, faith-filled follower of Jesus called Lauren Fearn. She has responded to God’s call and has a fresh vision and heart to see Jesus’ Kingdom being established here on earth; for people who don’t already know Jesus to encounter him and have their lives transformed by his loving grace. For some vague context and an insight into how I’ve personally been feeling about my own spiritual walk over the past year, check out my previous post around the theme of Cognitive Dissonance. Needless to say, we’re very excited to be a part of this emerging story and already we’re seeing fruit despite Cam Vineyard only being *officially* active as a new church plant for all of a month.

For us as a family, it almost feels like we’ve been on a very long, winding road which has finally led somewhere that feels like ‘home’. As much as anything, for me personally it also makes so much sense given my increasing affinity with the Vineyard approach to spirituality, theology, values, ecclesiology, and church planting (to which I also feel called one day). To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we haven’t felt welcomed or well shepherded at our previous churches; we’ve experienced a lot of God’s grace, and been privileged to enjoy fellowship with some wonderful people, and direction from Godly leadership throughout our spiritual journey so far. Perhaps most importantly, we also are deliberately not in pursuit of the perennial illusion of that mythological perfect church, wherein the living is easy, the coffee is properly brewed, and the grass is always greener. Yet, in my reckoning, there’s a world of difference between calling and comfort (although one could, at times, be comfortable within one’s calling). So, although the road less travelled seems to be the one that currently lies before us (church planting is a risky business), I’m very happy to unashamedly say that we’re extremely glad and grateful to have been shunted onto the right track (for us that is) by Jesus.

For over nine years now, I have seen my life gradually shift and transform through my own experience of, and relationship with Jesus Christ. I say that in the most genuine, honest, and unqualified way that I can; I can’t necessarily prove to anyone that Jesus is alive and rescues people from seemingly hopeless circumstances, but that is quite literally how I would describe my own encounter(s) and experience(s) of/with God since late 2006. As I write, I’m reminded of that simple faith that awakened within me when I first heard the essence of Jesus’ Gospel message, and how brilliantly it was summed up by a line from the first Matrix movie:

Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. (Morpheus)

Jesus is recorded as saying something very similar in John’s Gospel:

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”  When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”  They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”  “Come,” he replied, “and you will see…”
(John 1:35-39 NIV Emphasis mine)

Therein lies the beautiful mystery of the invitation to get to know who Jesus is, and how his Gospel changes everything. Come, and you will see.

If you’re curious, why not come along to see for yourselves? Check out our church website for more information, or you could drop me a line in the comments below.

Love to all!

M

Trajectories: Branded Religion vs Incarnational Diversity

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*Links are highlighted.

Global brands, popular music, and evangelical Christianity are products of cultural flows (Appadurai, 1990) that facilitate interaction between the “global” and the “local,” in What Roland Robertson (1995) has referred to as glocalization. [1]

For various reasons, I have had cause to consider this uncomfortable topic in recent weeks. It is perhaps entirely fitting for me as a musician, evangelical Christian, and budding theologian to reflect critically upon my own experience of how Western Evangelicalism appears to have been influenced by business principles, and marketing in particular. The above quote from Thomas Wagner’s article takes a sober look at how strategies from the sphere of commerce have proven to be highly ‘successful’ at growing a local Church into a global brand. In this case, Wagner focuses on none other than Hillsong, whose substantial organisational growth has been well documented in recent years, and has in some cases been met with suspicion and criticism.

Brand Identity & Sensory Experience

Wagner uses the example of Hillsong to argue for the drawing together of ‘the experience of brand, music, and religious discourse as a gestalt “Sound”.’ [2] As he notes, the Hillsong brand is ‘inextricable’ from the music they produce, which he claims is the driving force behind their growth as a globally recognised brand. Wagner cites (and provides strong evidence for) the manner in which Hillsong ‘focuses on the consistency of its product’, via standardisation and homogenisation, as a key factor which has enabled them to have an ‘outsized influence on both the Australian and global Christian sonic (and theological) landscapes (Evans, 2006: 87-109)’. [3] In other words, thanks to a savvy marketing strategy and meticulous brand management, the Hillsong “Sound” has proven critical in ensuring that they punch above their weight as a megachurch.

Another important aspect of how Hillsong have achieved this resides in the way they have fused the experience and ‘social imagination’ of congregants in diverse local contexts to ensure that they ‘realise the meaning of the brand as they engage with…its music’. [4] One fascinating feature of this phenomenon was the testimony of a member at Hillsong London, who claimed that their Church’s rendition of the Hillsong “Sound” was typically faster and louder than their Australian counterparts. In reality this was not the case, as songs were played to a metronome at standardised tempos in both contexts. Nonetheless, despite being familiar with both Australian and European versions of the Hillsong brand, the interviewee in question described a different, subjective experience of each context. Participants in this global brand identity thereby contextualise, and relativise their own individual (and presumably corporate) interpretation(s) of the “Sound”. [5]

If nothing else, such a startling example demonstrates the fickle nature of human perception, proving the axiom that reality is fiendishly complex. To what extent can we, as interested observers (in this case of a megachurch context), trust our senses when the perspective we experience is prone to subconscious bias? To ask the most troubling question from a believer’s point of view, are we (Christians) experiencing an authentic encounter with divine reality (i. e. The presence of God, manifested via the Spirit)? Or are we plummeting into the shallow depths of brand driven, consumer-oriented euphoria, which bears an uncanny resemblance to mass hysteria (or perhaps a U2 concert)? Questions of ambition and integrity rise to the surface of such stagnant pools, wherein a conflict of interest between promoting a brand, and the pursuit of authentic biblical Christianity is a genuine danger.

It’s All About (Jesus’?) Mission

My intention here is not to critique Hillsong per se, but rather the model of ecclesial homogeneity that the process of such branding inflicts upon any church. As Wagner points out, efforts to develop a distinctive European sound by Hillsong London were abandoned in favour of standardisation. Instead of nurturing a unique, contextual “Sound” with London based musicians and songwriters, Hillsong Sydney decided to retain control over the aesthetic and artistic direction of the music. Innovation was quashed by centralisation. [6] For the Hillsong brand, uniformity trumped unity amidst diversity. Game changers need not apply.

This leads me to wonder if Jesus’ mission is being best served by ever expanding, glocalized megachurches. Does it follow that Jesus’ mission entails building a global brand like Hillsong, which ‘listed earnings of $64 million in 2010, with total assets of $28.7 million and income from conferences of $6.7 million (McMillan, 2011)’, whilst operating under the auspices of a charitable (read: Income tax exempt) organisation? [7] A very pertinent article with more up to date, albeit unverified financials was printed this month, here.

One could perhaps legitimately posit divine favour as the source of Hillsong’s explosive growth and healthy financials. However faithful or sceptical one may be, this remains a distinct possibility. One could also offer the suggestion that cohesive branding sells, and business can be a rather blunt instrument. Whatever the case, if homogeneity is an effective ingredient within a successful branding campaign, is the underlying motivation for pursuing said campaign, a desire for participation in Jesus’ mission to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth? If so, is the overall strategy effective at achieving it’s intended purpose? The better angels of my nature would like to believe that the answer to these questions is yes; in which case, homogeneity for the sake of building a brand is arguably justified. On the flip side, naivety is endemic within polite, white, middle class, Western Christianity. Cultural blindspots are always the hardest to see; subcultural ones even more so. What if building a brand detracts from Jesus’ mission, or worse yet, misses it entirely? A word of caution to any ‘thriving’ Christian ministry is hauntingly summed up by Jesus’ words to the Laodicean church in Revelation:

‘You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.’
(Rev 3:17-18 NIV)

Riches are by no means a sign of Gospel faithfulness, integrity, or clarity of vision clothed in the garments of purity before a holy and perfect God. Jesus makes it very clear that his people must not assume that abundance and numerical growth in various areas is synonymous with his direct provision and blessing. That is prosperity theology, and as he boldly states, this is fool’s gold.

A Moment of Clarity

To be very clear, I have no desire to repaint every large church with the same brush. Building a megachurch or movement based on homogenous branding isn’t necessarily a sign of divided loyalties, or divine favour. I have no doubt that many large Christian organisations can, and do produce a substantial amount of fruit for Jesus’ Kingdom purposes. I have certainly experienced tremendous blessings, particularly via spiritual and emotional healing through large, well branded church ministries. I celebrate churches that strike a balance between the rock of consumerism and the hard place of confronting contemporary culture with the Gospel call to repentance. No two churches will be exactly the same. In reality, many would be hard to define in terms of where they might fit on a spectrum between pursuing Jesus’ mission, and ending up off course and in the wretched condition that matches the above diagnosis of the church in Laodicea. So to avoid singling out any specific churches which may have inspired this article, let’s consider a purely hypothetical, caricatured, worst case scenario type of example of any congregation which chooses to adopt the Hillsong model, and label it church ‘X’:

The Church ‘X’ Factor

Combine the fruits of aggressive ambition, causality, market forces, branding, and a blinkered theology similar to neo-papal infallibility when it comes to Charismatic Christian leadership, and you have a potent cocktail for flawed ecclesiology and missiology. Numerical growth, both fiscal and human, can quickly be seen as evidence that church ‘X’ is on the right track. Questioning the leadership and strategies of such large, influential congregations is seldom encouraged. In any case, senior leadership in such contexts often operates within a top-down, hierarchical framework which makes them relatively inaccessible. Far from shepherding the flock, and being aware of any stray individuals who are leaving the proverbial 99 behind (Matt 18:12-14, c.f. Luke 15:4), senior pastors of megachurches like church ‘X’ function more like CEOs with a business mindset, wherein the growing masses of people constituting the church’s membership becomes a sea of nameless anonymity. Faces that fit the brand are quickly encouraged to rise through the ranks and occupy key positions as ‘leaders’, whilst the misfits and unlikely candidates are not considered photogenic enough to fit the emerging picture.

Thus, rather than polish the rough diamonds into shining, the ‘awkward’ folk (who might just be the hidden pearls that Jesus has gifted to a given congregation) are left wondering how, where, and if they can squeeze their square pegs through the round, branded hole. Meanwhile on the other side of such an impassible portal, an army of yes men awaits those who might offer informed dissent, ready to quell any unrest. The brand grows, whilst the disillusioned leave. Church ‘X’ is succeeding at building something, which may or may not be consistent with Jesus’ mission, but at what cost?

Incarnational Diversity

The revelation of true divinity within the person and work of Jesus Christ is the most stunningly unfathomable, holistically liberating and existentially challenging event in the history of the created order. One of the many remarkable passages of Scripture which points us to the inherent mystery of Jesus being God ‘incarnate’ (literally: ‘enfleshed’ or ‘in flesh’) is found in Philippians 2:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-8 ESV emphasis mine).

There are so many things that have been (and could be said) about this short segment of the Bible. Reams of scholarly literature already exist providing detailed exegetical, hermeneutical, lexical, philological, and theological insight into the range of potential meanings to be found therein. My purpose here isn’t to delve into this turbulent miasma, since that may have to wait for a future research project. I do think, however, that Jesus’ incarnation has plenty to say to the subject matter in question, as it shows us how much God values the reality of our very messy humanity. More specifically, it shows us how Jesus eschewed opulent glory in favour of the simple and authentic humility of being present amongst us in the raw, uncensored warp and woof of life as a relatively poor 1st century Jew, who was not initially held in high regard by his contemporaries.

As the Old Testament prophetic imagery often associated with Jesus puts it:

‘…He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’
(Isa 53:2 NIV)

Quite the opposite in fact:

‘He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.’
(Isa 53:3 NIV)

Indeed, as the gospel narratives show us, Jesus was not recognised for who he truly was. Instead, he was maligned, betrayed, arrested, falsely accused, flogged, beaten, and crucified to death by his own people who were in collusion with the Roman Empire. [8] So, it is fair to say that Jesus’ own branding campaign and marketing strategy had adverse consequences. He isn’t portrayed as being particularly image conscious or keen to impress the religious and civil authorities of his day. Instead, he deliberately undermined the dominant cultures of the ancient near Eastern context into which he chose to manifest himself, showing no deference to either the Messianic expectations of his own people, or the power structures of Empire. No light shows, loud music or metronomes here for his triumphal entry as King; just donkeys, palm leaves, blood, sweat, tears and Truth.

Jesus’ Motley Crew

Jesus stooped to conquer his enemies, choosing instead to intimately associate himself with the unclean, outcast, morally suspect, and marginalised people of his time. He embodied authentic, unfeigned love for the lowly and downtrodden, whilst frequently rebuking and condemning religious insiders for their pretense and compromised loyalties. Worldly success was apparently not part of his game plan, since his Kingdom is not of this world (e.g. John 18:36). Yet despite his subversive intent, Jesus took time to be with people in person. He chose to honour and make time for those whom society had forgotten, despised, considered untouchable, and deemed to be of no material benefit to maintaining or building the status quo. [9]

What is more, at no stage did Jesus or the early church in Acts seem concerned with preserving aesthetic homogeneity for the sake of cultural accommodation within their evangelistic strategy. The first Christians didn’t mimic the world around them by presenting a sanitised version of the gathered church wherein only the prominent, privileged, well educated, photogenic, young and ‘gifted’ (using the term gifted in a narrow, worldly sense) members formed the vanguard of Jesus’ Kingdom driven mission. Rather, the early church was a ragtag bunch of common, uneducated, uncouth miscreants (see Peter & John in Acts 4:14), reformed fundamentalists (Paul in Acts 7 & 8), tax collectors (Levi in Luke 5:27-32), formerly demonised women (Luke 8:1-3), sorcerers (Acts 8:1-9-25), Roman soldiers (Acts 10), and other, generally unlikely candidates.

All told, Holy chaos might be a better way of describing life with Jesus’ original crew of misfits than the kind of well planned, branded stage shows being disseminated by Hillsong/church ‘X’. The early church were more a band of sanctified rascals led by the unpredictable wind of the Spirit, than they were an army of affluent social climbers hell bent on ‘changing the world’ with skinny jeans and self-help sermons. I doubt the apostle Paul felt any need to keep tickling his congregations’ ears with a fat feather of prosperity theology, relentless positivism (read: hear no evil, see no evil..), cinematic visuals, surround sound, and visiting stand up comedians dressed as gospel preachers  who charge a princely honorarium for their rendered services. I should say at this point, that I have no issue with talent, skinny jeans, Gospel contextualisation, big worship meetings, loud music, large congregations, or well produced multimedia content in the pursuit of global transformation per se. I do however have a problem with the glorious incarnational diversity of Jesus’ Kingdom people being overridden by a callous branding strategy, in a way that misses the diverse Gospel nuance of the vision presented in Revelation 7:9-10:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
(Rev 7:9 NIV)

Jesus’ Kingdom revolution promises us that ‘many who are first will be last’, and that those who desire to be great amongst his people must be servants, with childlike faith (e.g. Mark 10:13-14, 31,35-45). Such words ought to make us question how we choose which faces fit with our particular style of church, and what our choices say about our value systems.

I could go on of course, but for the sake of brevity I shall end by asking the obvious question(s): Do our churches model brand driven homogeneity verging on elitism, or Kingdom driven humility where the usual suspects don’t end up taking centre stage? [10] Does the well marketed, expensive, slick, consumer-oriented, comfortable, pop-music driven brand epitomised by the Hillsong model look like Jesus? Would church ‘X’ sum up his strategy?

Following on from this, a final question linking back to the title: What can discerning believers do when confronted with the reality that their own church may be heading down a broad path, wherein their trajectory has far more in common with Hillsong/church ‘X’ brand, than the narrow, Kingdom-oriented life modeled by Jesus? Assume that divine favour must be at work, as the branding builds momentum? Remain indifferent and carry on, business as usual (pun intended)? Stay and fight for change, or run and trust God for the details? Another option? What do you think?

Personally, I would tread very carefully indeed.

M

1. Wagner, Thomas, in Stolz, Jörg, & Usunier, Jean-Claude, Religions as Brands: New Perspectives on the Marketization of Religion and Spirituality, Ashgate Publishing Surrey, England: 2014, 59.

2. Ibid, 60.

3. Ibid, 62.

4. Ibid, 64.

5. Ibid, 65-67.

6. Ibid, 67-70.

7. Ibid, 62.

8. e.g. Matt 13:53-58, 26:1-27:55, c.f. Mark 6:1-6, 14:1-15:40, Luke 4:16-30, 22:1-23:49, John 7:25-31, 11-19:30.

9. e.g. Matt 8:1-13, 28-34, 9:9-13, 18-34 12:9-14, 15:21-28, Mark 1:40-45, 5:1-34, 7:24-37, 10:46-52, John 4:1-44, 5:1-17, 7:53-8:11 etc.

10. I realise that this is a massively oversimplified contrast, which may in fact be a false dichotomy. Nevertheless, I think it’s a question every church should routinely wrestle with.

(Good) Friday is the darkest hour.

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Today, as I reflect on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, I wonder if we are missing something when we skip ahead to Sunday. I’m not sure if it’s something that I’ve picked up from studying theology, or reading blog posts from different Christian faith traditions, but jubilant celebration on ‘Good’ Friday seems at best, a little premature.

See, there’s just one problem with rushing to the resurrection: Jesus didn’t. As recorded in the New Testament, Jesus Christ did indeed rise from the grave, but not immediately. The perplexing question I’ve been asking myself is: why wait?

Answers spring to mind: To fulfill Scripture, being the obvious one. Amongst other examples, Jesus himself equated “the sign of the Prophet Jonah” with his own death, burial and resurrection (Matt 12:38-45, 16:4). Taken at face value, one might presume that Jesus therefore had to spend a predetermined amount of time in the grave. That hundreds of messianic prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus is well attested, however this still doesn’t answer my question. Why would Jesus not simply rise from death immediately? Surely such a powerful, public miracle would have been an earth shattering apologetic?

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that he ‘should’ have done this, or questioning whether or not events played out as they are recorded in Scripture. My fundamental concern is, what (if any) could the significance of the delayed resurrection be for 1st century onlookers? Additionally, what does a 21st century Western audience do with this drama of Scripture? If we could enter fully into the crucifixion narratives, what kind of journey would this take us on?

Picture the scene in all its grotesque grandeur: The man you’ve been following for three years, whom you have seen walk on water, multiply food, heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, and fill you with hope as he effortlessly subverted the religious and political status quo, is dead. Never mind that he has already told you that this would (must) happen, you’re still left with the bewildering, nauseating, soul destroying shock of watching the man you believe to be the Messiah, God incarnate, the hope of the world, butchered before your very eyes.

At this point in time, your world has just fallen apart. Dreams have been eviscerated of all credibility. The apocalyptic optimism you had grown to embody now lies amongst the puddles of blood, sweat, urine and faeces at the foot of the cross (victims of crucifixion generally lose all control of their bodily functions). Any remnant of fight you had left in you has just bled dry, and been asphyxiated like your cherished leader and friend. No miraculous escape is yet in sight, and your prospective future circumstances have just gone from bad to worse.

Today, there is nothing good left in your perception of life. Friday is your darkest hour. At this point in time, evil has (seemingly) triumphed, nailed your hope to a tree, and proceeded to mock, scorn, and spit insolent ignominy upon it. There is no further pretence of revolution, renewal or resolution. All you have is what little vicarious agony you can endure as you watch the dominant culture gloat with smug indifference, having just murdered the most precious person you have ever known. Tomorrow, if you sleep at all, you will awake to the same horrifying reality you are now faced with. Faith has deserted you, and you are bereft of any strength to resist or deny the brutality of your plight. The tension of Jesus’ promise to return jars painfully with the (seeming) finality of Saturday morning.

In retrospect, we can see the glorious hope of the gospel find its vindication through the whole Easter message. Yet if to truly love Jesus is to obey his commandments, be sent as the father sent him, and therefore walk as he did, then the path of true discipleship must lead to Gethsemane and Golgotha before it arrives at the empty tomb (John 14:15-22, 20:21,1 Jn 2:3-6). The richness and depth of the story of Jesus can get lost if we dismiss the solemnity of the cross, trying instead to resolve this most agonising moment with our expectations of joy.

Today, 21st century Christians across the globe ought to stand humbled, sobered, and in generous solidarity with the rest of humanity. We should do this not for the sake of dead ritual or morbid piety, but because in truth we collectively represent the merciless crowds and the insolent thief on the cross next to Jesus. The sickening scene of our crucified Messiah presents us all with the stark juxtaposition of divine grace and human depravity. We murdered God. In return, he offers us life, forgiveness, freedom and hope. Let us not forget the awe inspiring mystery of Jesus’ sacrifice, and the endless significance it has for us in light of the victory shout which is still ahead of us.

J

Dear Christian, are we both guilty by association?

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So perhaps you read Rob Bell, Brian McClaren, Peter Rollins, Marcus Borg, Rachel Held Evans, Henri Nouwen, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Doug Pagitt, Maggie Dawn, C. S Lewis, N. T. Wright, Steve Chalke, and sundry other ‘liberal’ Christian writers. I might prefer an eclectic mix of D. A. Carson, David Bosch, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, Francis MacNutt, Francis Chan, Bill Johnson, Heidi Baker, Greg Boyd, Bob Ekblad, John Wimber, J.Gresham Machen, Kevin de Young, R. C. Sproul, Derek Prince, Terry Virgo, and similar neo-conservative/charismatic/hard to categorise authors. Are we both therefore guilty by association?

Does your bookshelf/Kindle library automatically designate you as an authentic liberal-progressive, relevant, engaged Christian, and me as a profoundly confused, hypocritical, out of touch, foot-in-both camps kind of Christian?

Maybe you’re more emergent/unfinished/new kind of post-Christian non-conformist Anglo-Catholic who knows how (not) to speak of God, and vaguely agrees that Jesus needs new PR. Therefore, perhaps I’m more of a borderline reformed/evangelical/Pentecostal-Charismatic(with a seat belt)/liberation theologian, who would agree that Jesus is frequently misrepresented by those who bear his name (including me).

On some issues we might agree to differ, on others we draw dividing lines. Yet all too often, our tendency is to embrace divergent expressions of Christian subculture within a broadly Western context, rather than follow the example of Christ. It’s painful to admit, but the reality is that unless we’re walking like Jesus, we’re way off the mark when it comes to claiming biblical fidelity or legitimacy.

It troubles me that Western Christianity could all too easily be defined as a bizarre kind of dysfunctional, evangelical soap opera, characterised by a select few larger than life actors who take it upon themselves to speak for the masses. We are engulfed by a barrage of endless tweets, status updates, blog posts, YouTube clips, and entire websites devoted to various partisan agendas, from both conservative and liberal voices on a daily basis.

Is this the reason that Christ died? So that we could denounce our perceived theological enemies as liberal heretics or conservative fundamentalists? Is that lifestyle really the way of the cross Jesus commanded his followers to bear?

If you’re of a ‘liberal’ persuasion, do you feel accomplished in your attempts to intellectually bludgeon one of your brothers or sisters who is struggling in their faith, with your superior, liberated grasp of theology and/or postmodern philosophy (whatever that is)? Would you belittle their Biblical literalism, earnest desire, and traditional views from a position of arrogance and dare to consider yourself Christ like?

On the flip side, from a ‘conservative’ perspective, have you armed yourself with the latest raft of reformed evangelical doctrines, and then proceeded to digitally assault your brothers and sisters with them when they disagree with you? Have you found yourself feeling smug and sneering at so called ‘liberal’ Christians for being barely a sin short of becoming apostate, backsliding heretics? Whilst we’re on the subject, how is that plank of wood in your eye? I have the same problem, we really really ought to get that seen to..

Is this the kind of freedom Jesus bought for us on the cross? Freedom to argue? Do either of these (admittedly over-simplified) positions represent biblically sound theology? Have we been given a ministry of judgemental accusation rather than reconciliation? Is the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints really a systematic theology designed in the shape of a cage, which is meant to imprison you in a web of guilt and inadequacy? Is dogmatic, doctrinal affirmation a hallmark of Christian maturity? Is the fury of rigid fundamentalism the real deal?

By contrast, do you think that ignoring, denying, demystifying, or deconstructing the ‘difficult’ parts of the Bible, and rejecting Jesus’ commands in the sermon on the mount (and elsewhere) is in some way liberating? What about your understanding of Pauline theology? Are you really qualified to quibble with his ecclesiology, eschatology, soteriology and hard line stance on ethics/biblical sexuality? Is your ‘progressive’ liberalism really more authentic than dogmatic fundamentalism? Are you as enlightened as you think you are? How can you be sure in a world of uncertainty? What about Heisenberg!?

All of which is to say, that perhaps we’ve both got it wrong and are both in dire straights unless Jesus sets us free to pursue a much more uncompromising standard for Christian maturity than Liberal Protestantism or Neo-Calvinist fundamentalism: himself.

We need to reframe the so called emergent conversation, and start having some respectful, meaningful dialogue about the true meaning of Christian orthodoxy.

Why don’t we start by putting the stones down, walking away, and seeking urgent spiritual care for the uncomfortably large planks sticking out of our eyes? Then maybe we can come back and talk to each other face to face, with not a speck of dust in sight.

M

The reason for the season

Adoration_of_the_shepherds,_Great_Witley

Today, multitudes prepare to celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Born of a virgin into rural poverty, he was hunted by an evil King who sought to destroy him. Having escaped with his family to Nazareth, he grew in stature with men and God. Jesus then lived a sinless life characterised by the hard manual labour of carpentry,  until In his early thirties he was baptised by full immersion in the river Jordan.

Immediately after this, God declared publicly what Mary, the angels, John the Baptist and the wise men already knew. Jesus was the Son of God, the very word of the creator of all things, made flesh. He was dwelling amongst the frailty of humanity as one of us, and yet without sin. Fully God, and yet fully human. The two names of Jesus literally translate as ‘God saves’ and ‘the anointed one’ or ‘Messiah’.

Drawn by the Holy Spirit of God into the wilderness he was tempted by the devil for 40 days before returning triumphantly, and beginning his public ministry. Amongst other things he healed the sick, gave sight the blind, caused lame men to walk, cleansed lepers, cast out demons, raised the dead, turned water into wine, fed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, walked on water, commanded storms to cease, and pronounced radical freedom and favour for the poor, marginalised and oppressed peoples he frequently encountered on his travels. He preached powerful messages about the coming Kingdom of God, the necessity of repentance from sin, humility towards God and others, social justice, looking after the poor, and renouncing all worldly riches in order to follow him and be his disciple. He warned his listeners about the reality of eternal judgement in hell unless they repented of their evil works and followed him. Jesus obliterated any ideas about all religions leading to the same God when he declared repeatedly that he (Jesus) is the one and only way to the real God.

Needless to say, many people found his messages offensive and his miracles impossible to challenge, so a group of men conspired against him to arrest him and have him killed. One of his own followers betrayed him and led his enemies to him. After a sham of a trial he was eventually indicted for blasphemy by claiming to be who he was: a man equal with God in whom there was no sin. He was ultimately flogged, beaten, and nailed to a cross by the Roman empire, as a means of pacifying his own people who had demanded that he be crucified.

When all hope seemed lost, three days after his burial, he broke all of the rules and rose from his grave alive and well. Jesus was vindicated by  God and shattered the power of sin, death and evil once and for all. He appeared to his followers and many more people before ascending back to heaven, leaving his disciples with one simple task to fulfil: go and tell the world about the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and make disciples of every kind of people group in the world, teaching them to observe all of his commandments, and baptising them in the name of the Father, son, and Holy Spirit.

Jesus made it very clear that a day will come when he would return and bring and end to history as we know it. The final day of judgement will come, when he shall arrive in glory with his angels to judge the living and the dead. Whoever repents and believes in him and confesses with their mouth will be saved, by grace, through faith. Whoever does not shall stand condemned and be consigned to eternal punishment in hell.

His followers understood the meaning of the cross only after his death. He had been the final sacrificial lamb, who would take away the sins of the world. In accordance with the Hebrew scriptures he had been stricken by God, taking the place of helpless sinners like you and me, absorbing the wrath and punishment that should have been ours. His death cancelled the legal debt that had stood between us, and God himself. A lifetime of sins washed clean by his blood. Through him we can be justified before a perfect and holy God, and enter into a relationship with him by the power of his Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promises will come and live inside us, and never leave us.

As the Bible says, God made him (Jesus) who knew no sin, to become sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). His victory over sin and death not only reconciles us to God, it also disarmed the forces of evil in the world, making a mockery of their best efforts to thwart God’s purposes. Yet until the task he left the first Christians with is completed, and he returns in power on the last day, evil remains a potent force in the world; suffering continues, and sin persists. There is, and always has been, a dramatic urgency behind the Gospel message.

So understood rightly, Christmas is a celebration of the glorious truth of Jesus Christ. The Prince of peace wants to make peace with you and I; he offers us everything, effectively in return for nothing. He wants to conscript you into his cosmic battle against the forces of darkness, empower you for a faithful life lived to the full, thus enabling you to play your part in finishing the task of spreading his amazing news across the globe.

Jesus is frequently misrepresented by both his own people (including me!) and by those who would seek to Co-opt his story (or selected elements of it) for political and sociological purposes. For example, contrary to the dominant imagery associated with him, in all likelihood he did not have long hair. Also, he was almost certainly a strong, tough man having spent most of his adult life working as a carpenter. The Bible describes him as basically being not much to look at.

He clearly defined marriage as being between one man and one woman, rooting his theology in the creation story of Genesis. He gave clear guidelines surrounding divorce and contrary to popular western assertions he did not have a liberal attitude towards human sexuality. Whilst he radically protected and forgave an adulteress, he also commanded her thereafter to ‘go and sin no more’.

Jesus did eschew materialism and demonstrated the pinnacle of true non-violent protest as a man, however he paints a very different picture for us as to how he will deal with his enemies upon his return. In his human life he was a radical, liberating pacifist and he commands his followers to live the same way. In short, the reality of Jesus is often more complex than the figure we see portrayed and argued over in the media, or even in churches. Don’t take it from me, find out for yourself and read the gospels, the truth as they say, is out there!

You might have lots of questions, however perhaps the most relevant question right now is, are you in or out? Red pill or Blue pill? Wake up the same tomorrow, or not?

Merry Christmas, and when you tuck into your Turkey, try to remember that there really is a reason for the season.

J

Brothers and sisters, let us pray.

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If you consider yourself a Christian, this blog is for you. If you don’t yet know and love Jesus Christ, now is a great time to ask yourself who you believe Jesus to be, and more importantly why you hold those beliefs.

I am a Christian. I unashamedly declare my deep, passionate love for Jesus. Coming to know him has already radically transformed my life over the past seven years. However words would utterly fail me if I tried to describe to you how much God really loves you. Language is woefully inadequate to explain how much his heart aches and burns for this fallen, broken world which has been under siege by the powers of darkness since time immemorial.

Syria is on my heart as I write. At the moment, I am attending university as a part time theology student, doing one of the residential elements to my course. One of the tutors is an Anglican priest, who just happens to be Syrian. He led us all in prayer for his nation and we have also taken time to pray in classes. It was a very powerful, and moving time. (That’s right, we talk to God as part of our formal education during lectures. It’s theology, go figure.)

Over the past 24 hours, there have been  dramatic developments regarding the UK involvement in the Syria crisis. Our parliament has voted against direct military intervention at this time. I strongly believe that this is a result of earnest prayer from a multitude of believers across the globe, coupled with the cries of the afflicted and the oppressed.

God hears us.

As I’ve been pondering this, it struck me that many of the people I have joined in prayer with won’t hold identical theology to me. In fact, we may not see eye to eye on a vast range of doctrinal perspectives. Despite this obvious fact, God listens. He acts.

Jesus didn’t save me because I had good doctrine. In fact, he rescued me from a sinful, destructive, sad and lonely lifestyle that was becoming increasingly desperate and negative. He saved me. Since then, we’ve been working on my doctrine. We still are.

I haven’t always modeled a healthy, loving, respectful and gentle way of disagreeing with many of you over points of doctrine. I’m sure that I have wound up and offended too many people over the past two years despite knowing that the Bible says plainly that God hates it when somebody stirs up discord amongst brothers.

Instead of building bridges I have dug out trenches and fired potshots at what I perceive to be liberal theology on Twitter and Facebook. Quite frankly, this behavior has been pathetic. Where I have offended and/or hurt any of you in this way, I am sorry and I repent. If I have implied that you are guilty by association with particular writers, thinkers, theologians, denominations and/or movements, I am genuinely sorry.

In the meantime, the world burns and we argue. This is not a good response to the incredible love, grace, and mercy of Jesus Christ. Creation needs us to cry out to God. It’s our responsibility to intercede on behalf of the nations. Including our own.

Brothers and Sisters, will you join with me in praying for Syria? I know that with many of you, I may not see eye to eye theologically. We may disagree on many issues. Yet Christ prayed for unity in the church. It may take generations to see that hope realised. We can participate in making that reality transpire. Jesus promised to build his church. He is more than capable.

There is a time and a place for thrashing out theology. Yet our allegiance to particular doctrines, traditions and ideologies must be trumped by our allegiance to the Kingdom of God, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and his mission on the earth. Let’s call a ceasefire and focus our energies on more important issues. Right now, let’s cry out for Syria, and Egypt, and our own nation. All countries need Jesus.

Brothers and Sisters, let us pray.