Review: God is like Jesus!

9 March 2018

A big question today is ‘What is God like?’ A consensus has been crystallising in the reply, ‘God is like Jesus’. This book takes that, not as its conclusion, but as its starting-point. It is:

A More Christlike God: A more beautiful gospel by Bradley Jersak (Plain Truth Ministries, 2015. ISBN: 978-1508528371).   

amcglargeIt treats its topic comprehensively. Starting with how we tend to create a view of God in our own image and then find scriptures to support it, the book goes on to look at history’s competing images of God (‘will’ versus ‘love’) before looking at the scriptures, both OT and NT, that present a vengeful God—a view of him which the author sees as trumped by Christ’s perfect revelation of the Father’s heart.

Jersak develops at length the idea that God is a cruciform God. He rules through self-emptying love (kenosis), and ‘Christ crucified’ is the climax of his self-revelation. Kenosis is not a surrender of the divine attributes but the very nature of them! God rules, not by force, but by consent, which is evident in the deference of the Persons of the Trinity to one another, and in God’s allowing us to choose to respond to his love.

This notion of ‘consent’ leads to an interesting take on theodicy, what the author calls ‘an anti-theodicy of the cross’. God has given consent both to natural law and to human will, and does not normally interfere in their operation. But he comes with love and compassion when their effects are negative, having been there himself in Jesus.

The concept of God’s ‘wrath’, too, comes under examination, and the author sees a progression of understanding of its nature as the Bible unfolds, ending in its definition as God’s ‘giving over’ of sinners to the natural results of their behaviour. This is how theoutstandingbook ‘bipolar image’ of God (as both angry and loving) is resolved. Inevitably, this ventures into the realm of ‘atonement theories’, on which Jersak has some well-balanced comments, and takes a detailed look at Jesus’ own metaphors for his saving work, and those used by Paul.

This is meaty, challenging material but also heart-warming. I’ve never been a fan of ‘devotional’ books, always preferring something intellectually challenging. But this book somehow manages to combine both aspects—and that, in my view, is a huge plus.

Here are some quotations. The numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers.

God is love and every other aspect of God must align with his love. (271)

When we say “God is love” or “God is good” or “God is light,” we aren’t merely describing his characteristics. We are saying God is love, goodness and light in his energies, just as we say God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in his persons. (283)

I’ve also been pleasantly surprised how this proposition—the message that Jesus shows us what God is like—is often well received by those who don’t profess Christian faith. (308)

What are we to think when the ‘God of the Bible’ seems so un-Christlike? Sometimes even Jesus seems to describe this kind of God. It’s not as simple as tossing the Old Testament; God the vengeful king makes a cameo appearance in several of Jesus’ parables. Awkward! (359)

Jesus showed us in the Gospels what fatherhood meant to him: extravagant love, affirmation, affection and belonging. It meant scandalous forgiveness and inclusion. Jesus showed us this supernaturally safe, welcoming Father-love, extended to very messy people before they repented and before they had faith. Or better, he was actually redefining repentance and faith as simply coming to him, baggage and all, to taste his goodness and mercy. He didn’t seem to appreciate our self-loathing. The repentance he wanted was that we would welcome his kindness into our deepest needs and wounds. (451)

The great peril is that we worship ourselves via an image of God we create out of our own temperament. Then, easily enough, we find scriptures to establish our image as ‘biblical’! (528)

…just one beautiful image of God, evident in the Christ of the Gospels: he’s the Restorer of lives. (754)

…the two principal competing images of God throughout the history of religion: the God of pure will (or freedom) and the God of pure love (or goodness). This divide affects virtually every faith tradition and cuts through the heart of most of them. These two images clash within the ‘biblical religions’ of Judaism and Christianity and even collide on the pages of our Bible! (778)

If God is pure will—even a divine tyrant—then we’d better submit, like it or not. The fact is, historically, such a God recurs in various forms throughout Christian history and even within the pages of the Bible. (966)

According to Calvin, God is not only beyond good and evil, but everyone who does evil is merely acting as his instrument and at his command. When an evil person or even the devil commits evil, it is because the Lord not only permitted it—he commanded them and forced them to do it. Every act of terror, every rape and murder, every genocide or infanticide, every cancer and heart attack, every famine and plague are all in the service of God’s ultimate purpose: that you would fear him and glorify his name. (1006)

…the obvious intended trajectory of revelation from Old Covenant to New. God didn’t evolve; our conception of him did, in greatest part because Jesus came to show and tell us exactly who God is in ways no prophet had the capacity to anticipate—not Moses, David or even Isaiah. (1138)

It’s not only the vengeance or violence from which I’m recoiling: the real problem is the portrait of a God whose un-Christlike naked will eclipses love and trumps grace—a coercive force incongruent with Christ’s cruciform revelation of his Father’s love. (1147)

Throughout his letter [Romans], Paul quotes his opponents and their favorite exclusion texts, then turns those same texts against them (a method called ‘diatribe’). In Romans 9, Paul takes passages his adversaries have used to paint God as a willful hater, but he applies them to magnify God’s freedom-in-love to graciously extend salvation to the Gentiles. (1178)

Because God is fully revealed in Jesus—exactly like him—then God is a self-giving lover, and not a conquering emperor, like Constantine for example. We will need to address both the problem of a seemingly two-faced God (love versus force) and an apparently two-faced Christ (Lamb versus Lion; the suffering Servant versus the bloody Warrior on the white horse). (1216)

If God sent his Son to reveal himself, if Jesus showed us how true sovereignty works, what real power does, and what victory looks like—on earth as it is in heaven—then let me propose that the King of Heaven rules and reigns, not like Constantine, but like Jesus of Nazareth. (1320)

Some believe that kenosis means that God gives up his divine attributes or hides or hinders his own nature in order to become incarnate. He either puts on something (like wearing a disguise) or takes off something (like disrobing). Certainly the fullness of the divine nature is concealed in some ways in the Incarnation. But it is uniquely revealed in Christ as well. “We beheld his glory,” says John (John 1:14). (1413)

What if Jesus’ humility, meekness and servant heart were never a departure from God’s glory and power, but actually define it and demonstrate it? (1437)

Unlike the synoptic Gospels and Pauline epistles, which usually associate glory with the resurrection, in John’s Gospel, the ‘hour’ of Christ’s execution is the hour of his exaltation. Jesus is the serpent ‘exalted/lifted up’ on the wooden stick (John 3:14). When he is ‘exalted / lifted up’ from the earth, he will draw all people(s) to himself (John 12:32). Thus, the language of glory and the exaltation / lifting-up of Christ are synonymous in John. For John, the Cross is the diadem of God’s unprecedented self-revelation. (1618)

“Please accept my proposal, my beloved …or I’ll throw you in a lake of fire.” Where’s the freedom in that kind of ultimatum? Where’s the consent? (1672)

Cruciformity and kenosis are not temporary conditions of God’s history, restricted to a first century Jewish long-weekend or even to the whole of the Incarnation of Christ. They describe God’s divine identity—not just what he is like, but who he is. (1676)

As first cause, God is Good and all he does is goodness. But there are also secondary causes. Secondary causes include natural law and human freedom. We refer to them as secondary causes because while God caused them, they also cause things that God does not directly cause. That is, God consents to the free (and often catastrophic) play of these secondary causes—he allows natural law and human freedom to do their thing. God is ultimately responsible for all that is—for natural law and for human freedom—but we would say he doesn’t directly cause or control humans or nature in whatever they do. (1798)

God is in charge, but he is not in control, because he doesn’t do control. (1852)

Kenotic power may seem feeble because it is patient and humble, but in the end, God-as-love—the truly Christlike God—is the overcoming force more powerful because he does what no tyrant can ever do: he wins hearts, restores lives and transforms societies. (1889)

I once heard the renowned South African human rights activist, Bishop Desmond Tutu, say, “For whatever reason, since humankind showed up on the scene, God does nothing without a human partner.” (2076)

Christlike prayer is kenotic, cruciform and willing—not coercive, demanding or manipulative. Partnering prayer listens first to seek God’s will, rather than attempting to impose our will in the world in his name. (2157)

At the Cross, we see the perfect love of God and the crazy-making affliction of all humanity in one place, one moment, one Man—Jesus Christ, the cruciform God. Rather than dazzling us with a clever answer, the Cross arrests us. It offers an anti-theodicy. The love and the anguish—both present in the extreme—are astonishing. (2246)

If evil exists and yet we hold that God is good, then what of his power? Ultimately, the cruciform King—the Cross itself—challenges this premise and overthrows our ideas of what it means for God to be all-powerful in this world. (2325)

A theology of the Cross responds to “why does God allow X?” with “God (obviously and observably) allows everything!” If God is all-powerful, his power is not akin to control. (2339)

We might know theologically that God is everywhere and always present, but we don’t always feel it. In affliction, God’s real presence often makes no practical difference; people still suffer and die in all manner of cruel ways. So in the crucifixion, Jesus shared fully in our experience of absence, assuming it and thereby utterly redeeming it. (2400)

The Bible…itself takes us on a progressive, cruciform pilgrimage from primitive literal understandings of wrath, where God appears to burn with anger and react violently, to a metaphorical reading of wrath, in which God consents—gives us over—to the self-destructive consequences of our own willful defiance. (2491)

By reading the Bible’s judgment narratives through the lens of cruciform consent—through the Cross—we will begin to understand the wrath metaphor. And we will be equipped to retrieve rather than dismiss the so-called ‘toxic texts’ of the Bible. (2599)

Boyd teaches that the judgment of sin is not an externally applied penalty by a divine judge. God doesn’t actively investigate, arrest, convict, sentence and punish sinners. There’s no need and, in fact, that’s not God’s heart at all. Here’s the bottom line: sin carries its own penalty (or ‘wages’ in Rom. 6:23) because consequences are built into the fabric of the universe… It’s not that my sin literally causes God to be angry and provokes God’s judgments. Rather, that sin itself is harmful to us and to others. (2621)

When mercy is hidden and the wrath of self-destruction begins to play out, rather than assuming God’s patience has run out as if he’s decided, “Okay, enough mercy; now I’m choosing to withdraw mercy to release the wrath,” what if it is really we who make that choice, consciously or unconsciously? What if the valve that shuts off mercy is intrinsic in the same way wrath is? In fact, what if it’s the very same thing? (2641)

God consents, but remember, there is so much more. God also participates. This is super-important. Yes, our heavenly Father allows, but he is also truly good and he cares. (2641)

Wrath is a metaphor for the intrinsic consequences of our refusal to live in the mercies of God… When mercy gives way to wrath, it must be that we ourselves hit the off-switch and rebuffed mercy through our sinful acts. (2672)

As God is increasingly unveiled as life-giver rather than death-dealer, the biblical authors reflect this perspective more and more, becoming ever more careful to assert that God is not to blame. A simple example of this shift appears when David counts his armies. (2707)

In the Gospels, Christ did not operate in the power of miraculous interventions (the magical suspension of laws), but in the authority of supernatural love (the application of God’s highest law). (2845)

The cruciform King is not literally an angry monarch seething from his heavenly throne, but we do experience wrath as God’s passive and indirect consent to the destructive forces of necessity. (2886)

How did the life, death and resurrection of Christ save us and reconcile us to God? Was the wrath of God somehow satisfied through the punishment of Christ? Or was the Cross God’s grand rejection of wrath as a solution to sin? (2998)

Confusing atonement theories with the gospel itself, or with the biblical metaphors they strive to interpret, leads to a terrible mistake. The mistake occurs when we want to speak about the meaning of the Cross, but skip the Gospel narratives and New Testament metaphors, and charge straightaway into debatable and polarizing theories. (3026)

God’s saving work through Jesus is so multi-faceted that Christ and the apostles found it necessary and helpful to use a constellation of metaphors to describe its benefits. Each metaphor serves to clarify, but can also obscure. Every metaphor can extend our understanding, but can also be over-extended such that we corner ourselves into error. So our theories about the metaphors need to be held very lightly—no theory holds a monopoly on the gospel, nor should it lay claim to actually being the gospel. (3033)

One of the tragedies of the atonement wars is how wound-up many pastors and theologians get about theories composed many centuries after the New Testament, and the great efforts involved in imposing those later theories back onto Scripture. If this weren’t already worrisome, the comparative dearth of concern for the breadth and depth of Jesus’ own metaphors is pretty appalling. (3060)

When we see sin as a fatal disease that produces ugly symptoms and a sure death-warrant, we see how useless punishment is as a cure. (3097)

There is no law or principle of justice higher than God to which he is beholden. ‘Justice’ is not a god to whom Yahweh must bow or appease with blood. Nor is God’s ‘Law’ some retributive principle that binds him. The whole point of the prophetic Book of Hosea is exactly this: that God is utterly free to forgive sinners—to show mercy to the guilty. He is able to respond to legal demands for punishment with a counter-verdict: complete pardon based in God’s own grace. (3260)

Christ’s self-offering must define the true meaning of sacrifice, as opposed to letting the symbols of sacrifice define the reality of what Jesus did. Reversing these is the quickest path to paganizing the sacrifice of Christ. Christ doesn’t get his meaning from the symbols; the symbols derive their meaning from him, even when they predate his own sacrifice.

The meaning Christ attributes to sacrifice is simply this: laying one’s life down for someone else (1 John 3:16). Anyone who gives their life to rescue another—whether it’s a fireman dying while pulling someone from a flaming building; a policeman who’s fatally wounded while rescuing a hostage; or a martyr stoned to death for preaching the good news—is ‘paying the ultimate price.’ Here, the metaphors are off the table. Here, sacrifice (laying down your life) is raw actuality—the events as they really happened.

Notice that this type of sacrifice has nothing to do with punishment, payment, retribution or appeasement. In every case, a life is given for the sake of the other, not to satisfy someone’s wrath or placate their anger, but as a life-giving, life-saving sacrifice. (3390)

We want—even demand—to know how the death of Christ removes sin, whereas Paul resists the mechanics of transaction: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Wages, payment, sin, death—that’s ledger language, wrath language. But Christ doesn’t balance the ledger; he nails it to the Cross (Col. 2:4)! He utterly removes it. God’s ways are not bound to the ledger, but free to the boundless way of pure grace and free gift. (3412)

We can retain a biblical form of ‘substitution’ if we ask simply, “Did Jesus do for us what we could not do for ourselves?” Of course he did. Did he ‘step into the ring’ as our substitute? Did he go through the battle royal with Satan, sin and death for us? Sure he did. Did Jesus ‘take a bullet for us’? Yes! The key is to remember, God is not the one holding the smoking gun. We are. And as he bleeds to death, he forgives us and says, “I’ll be back—see you in three days.” (3462)

The great problem the gospel addresses is not primarily your guilt or God’s need to punish it. Rather, it is about saving us from death and the fear of death through which the devil held us in bondage all our lives (Heb. 2:15). (3721)

This drama is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament. God makes a promise, someone turns from him, they experience the tragic results, but God comes to find them. (3769)

Some will resist and reject God’s love and forgiveness to the bitter end. And when humanity experiences the penalty of its own sin, when it falls away into death to be forever separated from God, what does God do? God says, “My love is stronger than the grave!” (Song of Sol. 8:6). “Even if you make your bed in sheol, I am there” (Psalm 139:8). God in Christ pursues us in his wild love all the way into death. (3856)

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The nature of music

5 March 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 4.

Music, by common consent, has three elements: melody, harmony and rhythm.

  1. Melody is what we normally call the ‘tune’—what you can whistle.
  2. Harmony is the pleasing combination of sounds, where the melody is enhanced by harmonising notes sung or played at the same time as it. This is the essence of part-singing.
  3. Rhythm is the beat.

music natureGood music, of whatever genre, combines these three elements in balanced proportion. Sometimes one element will be in the limelight, sometimes another. No one element should consistently dominate the other two.

Here’s where the guitar can be a dangerous instrument. When played in strumming-style—as it tends to be in church band settings (as distinct from, say, classical Spanish-guitar music)—the rhythm element tends to dominate all the time.

Some Christians have lined up the three elements with the three aspects of our personhood: body, soul and spirit. Rhythm is the ‘body’ bit; it gets you clapping your hands and tapping your foot. Harmony is the ‘soul’ bit, stirring the emotions by its beauty in a way nothing else can. And melody is the ‘spirit’ bit, reflecting our response to the Holy Spirit of God, who witnesses with our own spirit as we worship.

While it would not be wise to push this correlation too far, it does provide a helpful insight into the way we might better play our music in a worship context.

Is rhythm the dominating feature? If so, how can we moderate it? Is there sufficient melody (tune) for people to be able to grasp it fairly readily and so enter into the song with enthusiasm? Is the song structured in such a way that people with a natural gift for harmonising can add depth and beauty to the singing by doing so in a congregational setting?

Speaking from my experience in churches over many years, I would like to see the domination of rhythm-based instruments reduced. It is lovely, for instance, when someone plays a violin or flute. And it’s great to have a competent, play-by-ear keyboard-player, too, who will do more than simply ape the guitar chords. This is particularly helpful when we sing more traditional hymns and carols, for which guitars are eminently unsuitable.

All this is relevant to singing in tongues or, as it is sometimes called, ‘singing in the Spirit’. In my judgment, and on past experience, guitars should never accompany singing in tongues. By its very nature it is a ‘spirit’ activity—the very last setting where dominant rhythm is appropriate. A sensitive background from a keyboard can be helpful, but more often than not it is far better if all the instruments fall silent and just let the best instruments of all, the voices of God’s people, range free.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Repetition and repertoire

26 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 3.

In the days of hymns, people sang a hymn through once, and that was it. Fair enough, as many hymns had five or six verses, often with a chorus between. Modern Christian songs tend to be shorter, and thus lend themselves to having sections repeated several times. That’s fine, as repetition can drive a point home like nothing else.

worship bandBut repetition, if overdone, has the very opposite effect. It becomes mind-numbing, so that, far from entering more fully into the sentiment being expressed, the congregation is pushed towards either a semi-hypnotic state where meaning goes out of the window, or into crashing boredom. With me it’s always the latter.

Few aspects of music, therefore, need more careful handling than this if we are to get it right. How can we get it right? One obvious step is for the worship-leaders to look and see if the people are actually singing. There has been quite a bit on the web recently about Christian meetings where the congregation have virtually given up singing altogether. Why would that happen?

  1. Because the music has entered ‘performance mode’. This is especially true of mega-church congregations, where the scenario is ‘rock concert’ rather than ‘people at worship’. May we never allow that to happen!
  2. Because even if they sang as loud as they possibly could, they still wouldn’t be able to hear themselves above the high-volume sound pumped out from the sound-system. So they stop competing. The sound system should serve the congregation, not browbeat them into silence.
  3. Because the guitarist-singer is singing in the style of a performer, playing about with timing, cutting bits short, bending notes etc. They are singing, in other words, as if they were on stage, or singing in private. A congregation is made to feel insecure by this and tends to opt out rather than risk singing out ‘wrongly’.
  4. Because some of the songs are virtually unsingable.

This last point leads on to the issue of the repertoire. Speaking for myself, I am increasingly uncomfortable with many of the songs presented for us to sing. The words of some are at best lightweight, and in a few cases dubious in both their theological content and their standard of English. But here I will address a couple of the musical aspects.

  1. A competent songwriter knows the range within which a typical congregation is comfortable. In broad terms that will be within an octave from the D just above Middle C to the D or E above it. It’s possible to include the odd note outside that range, but this should be the exception rather than the rule. Some songs, alas, go so low that many people stop singing. Let’s ditch them.
  2. Many recent songs were originally composed for solo or group singing by Christian musicians and bands that tour around performing. They are fine for that context, and for listening to on mobile devices etc., but most don’t transfer at all well into a public setting. They often include non-intuitive modulations that throw a congregation completely and put them off trying to master the tune, as they quickly come to believe that there isn’t really a tune there to master.

In all this are we, perhaps, neglecting our rich heritage of older hymns and songs? I believe we are. Why, I wonder, is that?

One young Christian who was preparing to speak at a Bible study at his church was asked, ‘What commentaries are you using?’ He replied, ‘Oh, I don’t touch commentaries. I think it’s important to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to me today about the passage.’ To which another Christian, who had overheard the conversation, commented, ‘Strange, isn’t it, how those who make much of what the Holy Spirit is saying to them have little time for what the same Holy Spirit said about the passage to others?’

The same applies to songs in worship. We have a rich heritage of 2000 years-worth of Christian music and song, and we rob the congregation if we fail to include some of that heritage regularly in our times of singing and worship.

In particular, from the 18th century on there have been some superb examples of Christian songs. True, many of them will have the ‘thees and thous’ typical of that generation, but Christians today are surely robust enough not to let that put them off?

To me it’s very sad that, at some churches, they have two separate services, one ‘traditional’ (with the organ and hymn-books) and the other ‘contemporary’ (with a worship-band and projected words). This is unnecessarily divisive, in my view. Let’s have a good, rich mix.

There’s more to say on all this…in a future post.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Miserable Sinners? Our status as God’s people

21 February 2018

Regarding my nature and behaviour before I became a committed Christian I have no doubts. A phrase from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer describes it nicely: I was a ‘miserable sinner’.

That doesn’t mean I was gloomy all the time—in spite of my melancholic streak. No, ‘miserable’ here bears its older sense of ‘wretched’, ‘needy’ or ‘poverty-stricken’, and that was me, all right. And what a relief it was to feel Jesus lifting me up to better prospects as I called to him in faith! That was over sixty years ago.

depressed_bigHe sorted out the ‘miserable’ bit straight away. Far from feeling spiritually ‘wretched’ or ‘poverty-stricken’, I now felt dusted-down, clean and upright, saved by grace and ‘reigning in life’.[1] The sorting-out of the ‘sinner’ bit, though, proved less straightforward. For some years I limped along, often beaten by temptation and feeling awful. But all that changed when, aged seventeen, I had a dramatic experience of being baptised in the Holy Spirit. Love for God and his Word took over, along with a strong victory-consciousness. Sin wasn’t impossible, but it was certainly unthinkable, and I now powered my way through life’s temptations with holy gusto.

I went to my first Anglican service at the age of nineteen and it gave me a shock. Coming from a free-church background, I found it hard enough to cope with the set prayers, but my brow furrowed when we came to the Litany:

  • O God the Father, of heaven: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
  • O God the Son, Redeemer of the world: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
  • O God the Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
  • O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three Persons and one God: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.

I had problems with that. Here was the church at prayer, and in my book ‘church’ was by definition the redeemed community. So the folk gathered in that gothic building were presumably Christians, saved by grace like myself and there to worship God. But if they were, what was all this ‘miserable sinners’ stuff? Yes, we’re ‘sinners saved by grace’, but the emphasis surely lies on ‘saved’ and ‘grace’, not on ‘sinners’, which can no longer be an apt label for children of God—can it?

Some Christians, I discovered, warned that we are all apt to take sin too lightly. Others said it was an unhealthy preoccupation, and that we should focus instead on liberty and victorious living. I leaned towards the latter position—and still do.

But the issue wouldn’t go away. Over the years it kept coming to the surface and demanding re-examination. Not that I held to ‘sinless perfection’. I knew it was to Christians that John wrote, ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.'[2]  In keeping with this, I tried to live each day for God and had no awareness of sinning with any regularity. If he drew any sin to my attention I was quick to confess it to him, receive his forgiveness and march forward again in a manner becoming a child of the King.

My convictions on the issue became more settled. Grace had enabled me to ‘participate in the divine nature’,[3] and, in line with that nature, the bias of my being was now towards doing God’s will, not towards sin. Didn’t Paul affirm, after all, that ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come’?[4]  Yes, the new nature was now in undisputed charge as the driving force of my being!

But friends of The Book of Common Prayer, and some of the Reformed persuasion, kept casting doubts on my conviction. They reminded me that even the saintly Apostle Paul admitted to defeat: ‘I am unspiritual,’ he confessed, ‘sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do….I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.'[5]

So there!

Finding it hard to square this with Paul’s high doctrine of victory in the power of the Spirit, I concluded, with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, that Paul wasn’t talking about his current experience here. He was using a literary device—the ‘dramatic present’—to describe the powerlessness he had felt years earlier when, as a legalistic Pharisee, he’d begun finding his way towards Christ.

Then I came up with a clincher. ‘Notice,’ I told my breast-beating friends, ‘Paul’s words to the Corinthians. They were guilty of pride, party-spirit, greed and drunkenness, and were slow to discipline the sexually immoral. Yet Paul insisted that their fundamental nature, as believers in Jesus, was godly and good. They were to get rid of ‘the yeast of malice and wickedness’ from the ‘batch of dough’ that they were, he urged, so ‘that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are.’

That settled it. As Christians we don’t want to sin and, through the Spirit’s power, we don’t have to. But the habits of our pre-Christian days, and daily shoulder-rubbing with an often-corrupt society, combine to trip us up from time to time. When that happens, we avail ourselves of God’s gracious provision, get back to our feet and resume our journey forgiven. But tripping up is surely a rarity, not a way of life? Our bent is towards godliness, not sin, for God himself ‘works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose.'[6]

That’s it, then. Cranmer and Co., who compiled the Prayer Book at the Reformation, got it wrong. As committed Christians, we’re not ‘miserable sinners’ after all. That notion was baggage brought over from Rome, and good riddance to it!

Then a friend told me the story of the flashlight. ‘When a light shines on you from a distance, many parts of you remain in shadow,’ he said. ‘But as you move towards the light, it penetrates ever more deeply into those shadows. And as we draw ever closer to God, who is light, the more aware we become of hitherto unrevealed sin in the farthest recesses of our souls. It’s the paradox of sanctification,’ he concluded. ‘The closer you get to the Lord, the more conscious you become of remaining sinful tendencies.’

Oh shucks! In that case the measure of godliness is not increasing victory by the Spirit but an increasing attitude of ‘Woe is me!’—back full circle to ‘miserable sinners’.

Undaunted, I dipped again into John’s first Letter for consolation. And I found some. ‘No-one who is born of God,’ he asserts, ‘will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.'[7]  That’s genetic terminology—’seed’ is the Greek sperma. John is saying that, because my heavenly Father begot me, I just can’t help growing like him. Spiritually, his genes are shaping my character as surely as my earthly father’s genes shaped the colour of my eyes. God isn’t a sinner, so neither am I—miserable or otherwise.

So that’s it, ‘the conclusion of the matter’, as the Preacher said. End of story. I’m a saint, not a sinner; a child of the King, not a breast-beating peasant. I’m moving from glory to glory, not from bad to worse. I have a brand new life, a stake in the divine nature, the divine seed within me and victory before me.

I just wish Paul hadn’t said, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am (not was) the worst.'[8]

Footnotes

  1.  Romans 5:17
  2.  1 John 1:8-10
  3.  2 Peter 1:4
  4.  2 Corinthians 5:17
  5.  Romans 7:14-20
  6.  Philippians 2:13
  7.  1 John 3:9
  8.  1 Timothy 1:15

Accompanying, leading or driving?

14 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 2.

There’s nothing more embarrassing to the congregation than seeing a worship leader strumming away with their eyes tight closed and thus unaware of someone who has come forward to contribute, or of one of the church leaders who wishes to say something, or is signalling them to stop playing.

guitarIt’s not good enough to say, ‘Sorry, I was lost in worship.’ The answer to that is, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be. Your business is not to ‘lost’ but to be sensitive to the Lord and to other people, not to drive things, but to lead sensitively, and for that you need to be aware of what’s going on around you.’

And, please, leave us some pauses. People who typeset books know the vital importance of ‘white space’. A solid, long paragraph of type puts people off reading, whereas well-spaced, shorter paragraphs with a few millimetres of white space between them enhance readability. It’s the same with music. Constant output wearies people and inhibits their involvement. They tend to shut their eyes, or stop singing, or sit down and adopt an attitude of prayer. What they are really saying by their actions is, ‘Please, let’s have a bit of let-up.’

We need frequent quiet pauses — audible ‘white space’ — where the Holy Spirit can speak in the silence.

Then think, please, whether you are accompanying, leading or driving the ‘worship’. Guitars, by their very nature, have a driving effect; the rhythm impels things along. That’s OK in itself, but it does mean that the musician needs to back off, or at least break the rhythm, from time to time, otherwise ‘drivenness’ becomes the main feature of the music.

Ideally, I believe, musicians and front-singers should fit somewhere between ‘leading’ and ‘accompanying’. As for the first, they are there to set the pace of the song and decide when to move from verse to chorus etc., so that the congregation all know where the song is going. As for the second, the congregation’s singing is just as important as what the musicians are producing, and sometimes it will be appropriate for the musicians to let the flow of a song come from there and fall back into more of an ‘accompaniment’ mode for a while.

Or even to fall silent! We love it when, from time to time in an appropriate song, the musicians stop playing altogether so that we have just the sound of everybody’s voices. And don’t be too quick to come charging back in again with a driving rhythm!

The name of the game? Sensitivity. To God and to the congregation.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Music without ceasing?

12 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective—1.

Hearing deteriorates as folk get older—as I know from experience: my hearing aids are very powerful ones. One feature of this deterioration is losing the capacity to ‘filter out’ one sound from other, competing sounds, and focus on it .

This means that, if someone is speaking in church—praying, perhaps, or making some connecting comment—and a guitar or keyboard is playing at the same time, it is virtually impossible for many of us to make out what the speaker is saying, as the frequency of the music almost always overrides that of the speaker’s voice.

Worship-teamThat’s why it is immensely off-putting to older folk when music is played in the background all the time during the open time of worship. This has, sadly, become the norm in some churches, but I regard it as an undesirable practice. Not only does it prevent some of us from hearing any simultaneous oral contributions. It also inhibits such contributions from the congregation. Few people are confident enough to chip in while music is being played, especially when they feel they will have to raise their voice higher than is natural for them if they are to be heard above the music. So they keep quiet—and we are the poorer for it.

Music and song do not equal ‘worship’; they are simply one of many expressions of it. When we gather as a church family, our corporate worship consists in, not just the singing, but the prayers, testimonies, prophecies, tongues and interpretation, relevant Scripture passages etc.

Musicians and stage-singers have an unfair advantage here, in that they are in position at the front, with microphones, and can thus inhibit or face down contributions from the floor. For this reason, they need to be mega-sensitive to the presence of the congregation and ideally should stop playing immediately if someone in the congregation begins to pray out loud or whatever.

Some would discourage ‘from the floor’ contributions anyway, favouring the ‘front-led’ approach to meetings. The congregation then become, not participants, but observers. It’s a negative trend, I believe, possibly reflecting an unhealthy desire for control on the part of the leaders. Certainly, it’s hardly ‘family’ anymore; it’s a performance. And, to be honest, I often find it boring—though I always try to keep a positive attitude. You never get bored when there are contributions from the floor. Some of them may be a bit messy but, to me, that’s part of what ‘family’ is all about. It’s real, and I think the Lord loves it!

I know from experience that it’s possible to welcome contributions from the floor with congregations up to about 150 in number, provided the musicians are sensitive and know when to keep quiet. After that, the dynamics change. But I’d argue that, once numbers reach 150, it’s time to split the congregation into two of 75 each anyway, to keep the ‘family’ atmosphere that the New Testament presents as central to the church’s very nature. Small is beautiful!

What do you think?

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Review: Scapegoats, sacrifice and non-violence

12 February 2018

Frenchman René Girard, who died in 2015, is best known for his ‘mimetic theory’. This holds that people copy one another in desiring things, which leads to conflict. To deal with the conflict, a scapegoat is chosen and sacrificed. This pattern, he alleges, is the foundation of sacrificial systems, of all human violence and, indeed, of human culture. But the Bible, he believes, subverts the pattern at various levels, culminating in Jesus, the ultimate scapegoat, who by his death made sacrifice redundant and indicates a new life-pattern of love, non-violence and forgiveness.

Steven Berry conducted a series of interviews with Girard shortly before the latter’s death. These have been edited into readable format by Michael Hardin, making Girard’s views more accessible to the average reader than his own learned writings. The book is:

Reading the Bible with René Girard: Conversations with Steven E. Berry edited by Michael Hardin (JDL Press, 2015).

rtbwrglargeIt makes fascinating reading, revealing some fresh and thought-provoking insights into some well-known passages of Scripture. Girard shows how he discovered and developed the mimetic theory from his early studies of great European literature (he quotes, among others, Cervantes, Flaubert and Shakespeare), and later came to see how the Bible reflected many aspects of it while, at the same time, marking a clear trajectory away from it.

If Girard’s concepts are new to you, it will take a while to get your head round them. But once you manage it, they are strangely compelling. They shed light on so many everyday aspects of social life. This book could be a good starter for you.

Of course, you will be uncomfortable if you can’t accept the principle of absolute non-violence, which Girard maintains that the Bible teaches, culminating in the teaching of Jesus himself. So be prepared to be a bit unsettled by this book. Maybe that could be a good thing, especially if you think you’ve got all your doctrine ironed out already?

[Here are some quotations. The numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers.]

…the Caiaphas solution: “It is more expedient that one man should die, rather than the whole nation should suffer.” (John 11:49-53)  (235 – from Preface by Steven Berry)

The relationship between Don Quixote and all the other novels is that desire is not independent, not rooted in the self, or in the object. There is not a straight line between the desiring subject and the desired object; rather, there is a triangle with a model directing the desire of the hero towards an object which, if he had been all by himself, he would not have desired. The idea of what I call “triangular desire” was born there in the novel.  (417)

Rivalries in human beings don’t end with a dominant-dominated pattern; rather, they end with vengeance.  (543)

Sacrifice is repeating the event that has saved the community from its own violence, which is killing a victim.  (621)

Sacrifice is the lightning rod for the community’s violence, because it mobilizes the whole community against a fake enemy, who is not a member of the community, thus preventing people in the community from killing each other.  (762)

When you say that someone is a scapegoat, he is not your scapegoat. To have a scapegoat is to be unaware that you have a scapegoat, to think he really is guilty. It’s so simple that people don’t understand it. Scapegoating is effective only if it is nonconscious. Then you do not call it scapegoating; you call it justice.  (870)

The Bible shows that scapegoaters who slander the victim and wrongly accuse the victim have no basis on which to do so. The prophetic and Christian texts destroy that slander by demonstrating the innocence of the victim.  (1038)

Everywhere Christianity appears and seriously implants itself, blood sacrifices disappear. Where blood sacrifices disappear, you have no more real cultural protection against your own violence.  (1061)

[Re the Eden story]  …the general temptation of disregarding the will of God and preferring our own will, which always turns out not to be our own but our neighbor’s. In the Genesis text, the neighbor is represented as an animal that we call the serpent.  (1194)

All myths are wrong since they tell us that the scapegoat is guilty. They fulfill the function of mythology, which is to expel an innocent, but they don’t know it. That’s how they can do it. Whereas the Gospels tell us the victim is innocent. Once you have the Passion text inside your world, it contaminates all the scapegoats around and tends to make you discover that all collective victims must be a little bit similar to Christ, that they are condemned for no reason at all. That’s why the great stories of the Bible, which reveal the innocence of Joseph, of Job, and so on, are beginning to shatter the scapegoat system all around, but Christianity does this more completely as it invades the pagan world.  (1358)

Abraham is the symbol of that enormous change, which is from the sacrifice of humans and even children to the sacrifice of animals. It’s a sign of tremendous progress in civilization.  (1417)

[Re Judah’s sparing of his brother Joseph]  Scholars consider this story to be produced quite late in the chronology of the Bible; it can therefore be labeled prophetic, belonging to the spirit of the great prophets, which is explicitly anti-sacrificial. The idea of sacrifice is changing; God wants pity and compassion, not human or animal sacrifice. One can see this in Hosea, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and the greater prophetic tradition of the Jewish Bible.  (1525)

The desire that was prohibited in the Ten Commandments was mimetic desire.  (1741)

Christ is in the place of all victims since the foundation of the world, all sacrificial victims, revealing their innocence.  (1765)

The building block of animal culture is what the specialists today call dominance patterns; these are seen in physical encounters, for example, between wild wolves. The male wild wolves vie for the same female, but there is no death; there is surrender. When wolves fight this type of fight, the defeated wolf lies on his back and offers his throat to the victor, who does not kill him but becomes the dominant animal. So we can assume that the threshold of hominization is when this no longer happens but the killing of the submissive rival occurs.  (1776)

The Eucharist is really related to sacrifice, but rather than representing the violence against the victim, of it being the victim that you eat, you eat the total refusal of violence, which is Christ. It’s a reversal, but it’s still the same symbolism.  (1834)

Cannibalism means you eat the sacrificial victim in order to be your victim, because you want to be that victim. The reason you killed him is you want to be him or her. So if you absorb his or her flesh, you become them, just as if you absorb the flesh of Christ, you should become a little bit nonviolent, more than you were before.  (1847)

Satan has to be contrasted with the Holy Spirit because ‘Satan’ comes from a Persian word that means the accuser. The Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John is called the Paraclete, which means counselor for the defense in a court. The Holy Spirit is the defender, the advocate.  (1884)

I feel that the resistance to the mimetic theory on the part of academic circles is understandable, because in a way the mimetic theory interrupts or reverses a trend that has been with us since the eighteenth century, since the Enlightenment. This is the trend of secularism, of expelling religious studies from academic life.  (2053)

Many aspects of the refusal of violence are perhaps more intelligible today, but it’s still not acceptable to most people. Most people, even Christians, don’t take the biblical emphasis on the renunciation of violence found in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels, very seriously.  (2159)

The ultimate test is not the interpretation of texts, of course, but how you behave with your neighbor. That’s a real example that you provide in the flesh, that’s going to convert people, and you’re lucky if your language and your actions coincide. But if your actions don’t coincide with your language, your language will have very little influence.  (2195)

Peter’s denial is, in a way, the most beautiful story. Here, Peter is a figure representative of all humanity, who cannot resist the powerful pull of the crowd. We cannot resist the mimetic contagion. When you’re in a crowd, you become literally possessed by the crowd.  (2207)

Those who accuse Christianity of being responsible for violence are not right, of course, but indirectly they are saying something which is true: the more the Gospel influences the world, the more it destroys the sacrificial apparatus that up to now has protected human culture.  (2325)

If you act like Christ you’re not going to be happier, you’re going to be persecuted. You’ll be happier in a higher sense, but you’re going to be persecuted.  (2445)

“They hated me without a cause,” as a prophetic word, is a fascinating phrase because it’s the definition of a scapegoat.  (2497)

Good mimesis is defined in the Gospels as not only imitation of Christ but also imitation of those who imitate Christ.  (2509)

[Re: “Resist not evil. Do not resist one who is evil, but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”]  If you resist evil, you yourself are in evil. You imitate. Resistance and agreement ultimately amount to the same thing. This is one of the paradoxes of Satan where I’d say, “The more you resist him, the more he plays dead.” The satanic loves that kind of resistance. That resistance is what creates devils, what turns people into twins in the mimetic sense. So the key to this is readily accessible: If you resist evil, you do what evil invites you to do.  (2585)

[Re the Gerasene demoniac]  When the people show up, they notice that this man is just safe and sound. He’s acting normally, dressed normally, talking to Jesus, and they’re terrified. This shows that, in a way, the reason the demoniac was not tied sufficiently so he could always be safely imprisoned, was so he could free himself from time to time, so that the whole thing is a show that the people are playing for themselves. It’s part of their neurotic life. They need some of these people as fools in the medieval sense who perform the craziness of which they themselves are free, and which they want to scapegoat of course, but which they need, in a way, for the balance of the community. It’s a kind of sacrificial system where you don’t really kill people, but you perpetuate their sickness because you allow him to have these escapades from time to time, in which he goes on a rampage and they all watch with a certain pleasurable awe.  (2683)

Why is the first stone the hardest to cast? Because no stone before has been cast and you have no one to imitate. It’s really a mimetic phenomenon.  (2720)

In the story of the adulterous woman, the text tells us that when Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” he turns his eyes toward the ground. He was writing in the sand before and he starts writing again. Some people say silly things about that. They say that he’s writing down the name of those who will be sent to hell. But in fact, he’s trying to avoid eye contact. He knows that if he makes eye contact with his interlocutors, rivalry is going to be born in that mutual glance, and it will be impossible to avoid a violent resolution. The woman will be stoned. It’s not like Jesus to avoid eye contact, but in this case, he does so to save the woman, and it works.  (2731)

I believe Christianity today is the scapegoat for absolutely fundamental reasons, because it says something about humanity that people don’t want to believe, which sounds impossible. It destroys our pride. It says our cultures feed on scapegoats, so no wonder Christianity is the hated religion. For instance, if you look at the media, have you ever seen the media attack religions other than Christianity? No! They never do. As a matter of fact, concerning Islam, the media consistently sides with Islam. But Christianity has everybody against it, just as Jesus had.  (2779)

The God of wrath is always somewhat connected with the scapegoat system in which the god is both good and bad. This is no longer true of the biblical God. When the biblical God is wrathful, he’s wrathful for good reasons; we might even say just reasons. However, still there is a change, it seems, in the nature of God from the oldest part of the First Testament to the prophetic God of the great prophets and then to Christ himself. You see, this “new” God is no longer punitive; it’s people who punish themselves. It’s people who are going to threaten the survival of the world. It’s people who refuse to turn the other cheek and maintain peace who get into all sorts of trouble.  (2816)

 


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