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

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.

A Dangerous Gospel?

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It’s hard to express in meaningful words what I’m feeling right now. I’ve spent good portions of the past two years working hard on my writing from an academic perspective, and anticipate doing so for several more years to come, God willing. I’m having to challenge myself to relearn how to think, analyse, evaluate, discuss, argue, explore, research, write, cite, justify, edit, and present both my own ideas and the ideas of others in a deliberately reflective, self-conscious, and critical way.

Theology is unnerving. Engaging critically with deeply held, cherished, personal beliefs is a potential minefield wherein both student and recipient (of said student’s evolving beliefs) are rendered vulnerable to, amongst other things, ‘cognitive dissonance’. Leon Festinger, working within the field of psychology, coined this term to describe his theory of how an internal conflict arises within a person when they are faced with inconsistencies between their own beliefs and actions. David C. Vaidis helpfully summarises the theory this way:

It suggests that inconsistencies among cognitions (i.e., knowledge, opinion, or belief about the environment, oneself, or one’s behavior) generate an uncomfortable motivating feeling (i.e., the cognitive dissonance state). [1]

Festinger himself states that:

The dissonance might exist because of what the person has learned or come to expect, because of what is considered appropriate or usual, or for any other number of other reasons. [2]

So far, so vague, and you might rightly ask: So what?

Creativity requires risk. For a Jazz musician, the process of improvisation may be undergirded by countless unseen hours of training, preparation, and planning, so as to appear effortlessly spontaneous and innovative. Yet beneath it all, surely, there must be a spark of wild, raw, edgy, boundless, irrepressible passion driving the practitioner relentlessly forward into their sudden outbursts of unrestricted beauty and freedom? A lioness does not learn to hunt by playing it safe. Neither did Jesus demonstrate the Kingdom of God by presenting an eloquent, well proof-read philosophical treatise on how to start a global religion.

On the contrary, Jesus Christ demonstrated what an authentic human life surrendered to God truly looks like: himself. The Gospel of his life, death, and subsequent resurrection represents the very turning point of history, of which he now declares himself Lord and Saviour. What is more, having already sent his original disciples out in groups to follow in the footsteps of his earthly lifestyle by proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven (His Kingdom no less), healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, driving out demons (and all of this for free), he then commands these same disciples to teach all subsequent disciples to go and do likewise (Matt 10:5-15, 28:18-20). In so doing, Jesus’ Gospel of foregiveness from sin, hope, reconciliation, deliverance from evil, renewed purpose, and much more besides, promises a destiny defined by a glorious relationship with God via his Spirit. Transformation and renewal is thus made possible for individuals, families, communities, institutions, cities, nations, and potentially the entire globe. This is good news, and global transformation is really just the beginning of a much wider cosmic realignment. The expansion of Jesus’ Kingdom and peace will have no limits (Isa 9:7).

The mission of the Church, and by extension the Christian, is thus aptly summed up as follows: ‘Freely you have received, now freely give’ (Matt 10:8); Take the Gospel across the globe, and tell everyone about Jesus. Share the good news of his Kingdom in both word and deed. Simple enough, right?

Hang on, cognitive dissonance?

Good question. I’m glad you asked. I get cognitive dissonance frequently. I’ve had it for years, even as a Christian. I routinely feel as though the radical lifestyle Jesus both describes and demonstrates throughout the Gospels must be attainable, yet often seems curiously absent from my own experience. I am persuaded that his example of the truly human life is not mere mythology, or religiosity, but rather the very pulsating heartbeat of the divine nature waiting to explode forth within us, as we worship the one true King with our entire lives. God is no trickster, setting up his children to fail miserably as they attempt to pursue unreachable goals. No, I can neither believe nor justify such a depiction of God based upon the way Jesus portrays him in Scripture (e.g. Matt 7:10-11, c.f. Luke 11:13).

Perhaps tellingly, the record we have doesn’t show Jesus explaining how to undertake the task of spreading the gospel (miraculous deeds included) in much, if any detail. Presumably, some degree of uncertainty, adventure, and risk is inevitable. Yet if scaling Mount Kilimanjaro six years ago taught me anything, it’s this: God is real, and reaching the summit of a seemingly impossible endeavour is accomplished one step at a time. You have to start by moving your feet.

Recently, I met someone who has very much begun moving their feet in pursuit of God. Without giving too much away, I left our brief encounter challenged, inspired, contemplative, and with a familiar sense of cognitive dissonance. It’s always good for a Jesus follower to meet another person who has a very similar calling to themselves, is pursuing it wholeheartedly, taking it seriously, is filled with faith, passion, determination, and an aura of liberty in Christ as they share testimony upon testimony of how God is working in their life. Such an encounter lifts the weariness of academic study, and reminds me why I am pursuing it in the first place. I was shown once again by them that ‘as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another’ (Prov 27:17).

You see, when I read the Gospels, and consider the implications of a lifestyle truly modelled on Jesus, I am convinced of three things. Firstly, such an existence is a dangerous business, must encompass failure as well as success, is bereft of comfort zones, and requires outrageous faith. There is no map, and the job description is, well, terrifying. [3] Secondly, it is the only life truly worth living in the remains of a fading world order, and particularly amidst the ‘detritus of Western civilisation’. [4] Thirdly, and finally, however such a lifestyle manifests itself in different contexts, it will in all likelihood not be coherent with many contemporary expressions of Church. I shall therefore close by suggesting what a dangerous gospel is, by taking a brief cue from apophatic theology in defining it by what it is not. [5] Without further ado:

A dangerous gospel is not seeker friendly, consumer Christianity. Neither is it legalistic, rigid fundamentalism. Nor is it ‘charismatic chaos’, or new age spirituality. [6] It most certainly is not a gospel of social action, ethical living, high/low church liturgy/formlessness, dead ritual, or moral majority political activism; It bears no resemblance to the ‘religious right’. A dangerous gospel is not synonymous with conservative Evangelicalism, ‘progressive’ Christianity, Pentecostalism, The Anglican Communion, Eastern orthodoxy, or Roman Catholicism. In fact, it isn’t confined to any tradition, denomination, culture, ethnicity, historical epoch, or geographical location. Neither is it embodied by sustainable development, liberation theology, or gender equality. I could go on, but you get the picture (I hope). Not all of these and other such examples are necessarily wrong, or bad in and of themselves. Some are very much worth pursuing, have much to offer, and may even be a consequence of the Gospel. They may even be the means by which we receive the Gospel. This does not however, make them the Gospel.

A dangerous Gospel can lead to cognitive dissonance. Unless of course, you are a Christ follower who never feels hypocritical, always practises what they preach, and lives a lifestyle that looks very much like Jesus’ own did. If, like me, you persistently fall short of this seemingly impossible divine standard of living, dare I challenge you to join me in believing that there must be more? Can you be brave enough to imagine a future wherein you begin to experience, live in light of, embody, and share Jesus’ Gospel in unexpected, innovative, transformative, and miraculously powerful ways?

Or is it just me that yearns for a life less ordinary?

J

1. Vaidis, David C., Cognitive Dissonance Theory, Oxford Bibliographies, 2015.

2. Festinger, Leon, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press: 1957, 13.

3. For instance, imagine an updated version of Ernest Shackleton’s advert requesting explorers for his legendary, and yet ultimately lethal Antarctic expeditions: ‘Men & Women (added to reflect biblical equality) wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success.’ Additionally, consider the apostle Paul’s job description of what the life of a biblical apostle looks like in 1 Corinthians 4:9-13, and 2 Corinthians 4:24-29.

4. See: Vanhoozer, Kevin J., One rule to rule them all?: Theological Method in an Era of World Christianity, in Ott. Craig, and Netland, Harold A. (Eds), Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic: 2006, 108.

5. Apophatic or ‘negative’ theology is a way of defining God by what God is not, e.g. God is not powerful, as the word ‘powerful’ is woefully inadequate to describe God’s power, which is inexpressible. See for instance, this dictionary definition, or theopedia entry.

6. See: MacArthur Jr., John F., Charismatic Chaos, Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan Publishing House: 1992, 14, etc.

Heroes, Villains & Mark Driscoll

So much of the Christian ‘blogosphere’ seems to be characterised by incessant polemic, that I try to sift through and/or avoid much of the ghastly rhetoric that permeates the fabric of social media these days. Sadly, the endless tirade of venomous, often juvenile nonsense attempting to masquerade itself as intelligent debate, shows no sign of abating any time soon. The extended, cowardly adolescence made possible for so many, by the unfettered anonymity of internet profiles is one of the pitiful ironies of our modern society. We can all hide behind our pseudonyms and screens, and the reality is that many of us do so on a daily basis (much to the detriment of natural, face to face communication). Masks are nothing new, and role playing is a fact of life.

Yet whilst engaging with the technological era we exist within is all but unavoidable, the manner in which we do so is clearly controllable. Many have used the proliferation of global telecommunications, and the onset of a social media obsessed culture as a means of building an online platform for themselves; marketing, brand awareness and celebrity culture cast powerful shadows across the western psyche. The transition from scheduled television programmes and the printing press, to desktop computer and smartphone/tablet screens as a means of acquiring 5 minutes of ‘fame’ or notoriety, has been an astonishingly rapid development. The game is always changing, and the number of players is consistently rising.

Even as I write these words, I am reminded of the opening salvo from Ecclesiastes:

Ecclesiastes 1:2 ESV

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

Sobering words indeed. To my mind, the suggestion here and throughout the first few chapters of the book, is that much human endeavour (including this blog) tends to be driven by our insatiable egos. Certainly, humility doesn’t seem to be the driving factor behind our efforts to accomplish ‘great things’, at least not according to the preacher of Ecclesiastes. I’d encourage you to take the time to read the book in its entirety, it certainly casts a new perspective on life.

This Old Testament literature stands in stark contrast to Paul’s admonition in Philippians:

Philippians 2:3 ESV

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”

And furthermore, to the example of Jesus:

Philippians 2:5-8 ESV

“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.”

All of which is to say that Christian living is meant to mirror the humble, servant hearted nature of Jesus Christ. So called Christian “leadership”, therefore, is meant to be a particularly accurate example of Jesus himself, thus enabling others to follow in his footsteps.

All in all, the Bible consistently paints a picture for us: humanity likes to separate itself into heroes & villains, and in so doing remains fundamentally self centred, and prideful. We are consumed by our own vanity.

Jesus paints a different picture for us: he is the hero, and we’re all villains. We desperately need a saviour and he fits the bill perfectly. He shows us what it means to be truly human, as well making it possible for us to be reborn and gradually remade in his image.

The only catch is, we need to repent of our evil ways, renounce our vanities, surrender our lives and believe that he is who he says he is: Risen Messiah, Lord, God incarnate, Saviour, Atoning sacrifice, King of Kings, Creator of all things, and much, much more.

At least, that’s a good place to start the Christian walk.

Which brings me to the second half of my title: Pastor Mark Driscoll. As much as I have, in the past, admired the tenacity, boldness, clarity and persuasiveness of his inimitable style, recent revelations about the inner workings of Mars Hill have been shockingly disappointing, to say the least. Quite what the reality behind various accusations involving Driscoll is, we may never know.

As much as we have considerable (irreconcilable) Theological differences, and I have concerns about the negative slant of many of her posts, I am grateful that Rachel Held Evans has recently compiled some devastating forum material, which was allegedly written by Driscoll under a pseudonym 14 years ago. The picture it paints of someone who is meant to be a pastor is utterly wretched and disgraceful. Granted, these words were written a long time ago. Yet if there is even a shred of this mentality, attitude or rhetoric in Driscoll’s life as I write this today, it is time to sound the alarm.

Now, take it from me, a lot can change in 14 years. Jesus has transformed my life in half of that timespan. Yet considering the growing litany of charges being brought against Driscoll’s character in recent years, even I would say that there is still legitimate cause for concern. It looks like the time has come for Mark Driscoll to step down as pastor of Mars Hill, repent, and get immediate help. I am grateful that he has shown the necessary courage to do this.

For what it’s worth, I still have hope that God can and will use Mark Driscoll for his glory, and the advance of the Gospel. His ‘ministry career’ may be in tatters right now, but that’s ok: it’s all vanity anyway. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

I hope that Mark takes an indefinite sabbatical, and comes back humbled. Thankfully, Jesus is in the business of making all things new.

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