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)

 


Who are you?

11 February 2018

Some words grabbed me in a song we sang in church this morning: ‘You’re a good, good Father; that’s who you are… And I’m loved by you; that’s who I am…’

woodworm floorboards 2

‘That’s who I am.’ I felt a deep satisfaction in that: the essential thing about me—my identity—is that I’m someone loved by Father God.

I’d been prompted to think about identity by a couple of Facebook posts I’d read the night before. One was from a woman who wrote, ‘First and foremost, I’m a feminist.’ How sad. Nothing wrong with feminism, of course; in a male-dominated society it can bring a needed balance. But it’s hardly worth making the centre of your personal identity.

Then I read a post by a man who had been in a local ‘gay pride’ march. He didn’t say so explicitly, but he gave the impression that, for him, his identity lay in his sexual orientation. Again, one can sympathise with gays who have suffered discrimination and feel the need to push for greater acceptance in society. But for your whole personal identity to be tied to this aspect of your personhood is, surely, a sad state of affairs.

In the West, we tend to find our identity in our job. Who are you? I’m a nurse. I’m an engineer. Our profession is probably one we have chosen, rather than one foisted on us by circumstances beyond our control. It suits our natural gifts. And we probably devote at least eight hours a day to it for a sizeable chunk of our lives. So, yes, it’s important. But can your profession truly be ‘who you are’? I don’t think so.

Others find their identity in some physical trait. I’m black, and proud of it. I’m Native American and proud of it. Nothing wrong with that either, especially if you have suffered discrimination and want to redress the balance. But it’s hardly important enough to make you say, ‘It’s who I am’, as if everything else about you is minor beside it.

The physical trait may be an illness or disability. I’m a diabetic. I’m a cancer-sufferer. I’m paraplegic. No doubt this is a major element in your life, so you might as well come to terms with it and, as far as you can, make the most of it. But to build your whole identity on such a feature—that’s can’t be right, can it?

No. All these sources of identity are unsatisfactory. Each one is like rotten floorboards in a house: they will hold you up most of the time but, sooner or later, they won’t be able to take your weight and you’ll end up, injured, in the cellar. Sure, being a nurse, a homosexual, a feminist, a black-skinned person, a diabetic or whatever is a major facet of your life, but if you make it the source of your very identity you’ll never reach your full potential as a human being.

You need a more solid floor to walk your life on. I’m convinced that, if you’re to reach your full potential, be at peace with yourself, and be of maximum benefit to those around you, there’s only one truth worth pinning your ‘This is me’ badge to. It’s what we sang to God in church this morning: ‘You’re a good, good Father; that’s who you are… And I’m loved by you; that’s who I am…’

This is true for everyone, by the way, not just for committed Christians like me. Of course, if you don’t believe it, it’s not going to do you any good. Like the poor student who received a solicitor’s letter to say he’d been left a million-pound legacy by a distant relative he didn’t even know existed. He thought it was a con and continued to live like a poor student. It was months before he ventured to look into it properly, only to discover, to his astonishment and joy, that it was true. Then, and only then, did he begin to experience the benefits.

God is a good, good Father. And you really are loved by him! It’s worth investigating, starting, perhaps with a few tentative prayers. As a result, you could discover your real identity, find solid ground at last beneath you feet—and weep for joy.


Wart Treatment: the blight of ‘isms’

5 February 2018

The body of Christ has warts. They’re called isms.

I’ve seen lots of them. I was born into Methodism and grew up in Brethrenism, where they taught me Dispensationalism from the Scofield Bible. At university, I encountered the writings of the Puritans and embraced Calvinism, with its inseparable partner, Amillennialism. This taught me, of course, to despise both Dispensationalism and that alleged arch-enemy of thinking Christians, Arminianism.

wartLater, I flirted with Postmillennialism and got involved with what some called Restorationism. Finally, resisting the advances of (among others) Reconstructionism, Haginism, Wimberism and Classic Premillennialism, I settled on a brilliantly novel idea: I would just try to interpret the Bible sensibly and serve Christ. What a stroke of genius! Maybe I should patent it and market it as Christian Minimalism.

You’re thinking: ‘You pompous ass. It’s impossible to avoid isms altogether! It’s human nature to take even mainstream items of Christian faith, lump them together and stick some ismic label on them. Even good people do that. You can’t beat ’em, so join ’em. Wear your “I’m a Baptist” badge with pride.’

No chance. Seriously, I’ve concluded that every ism must, by definition, be something less than fully-fledged, developing Christian faith. Have you noticed that while each ism is quick to line up supporting Bible proof-texts, it conveniently ignores texts that seem to say something different? Or it explains them away in what seems to me like elastic exegesis.

Take Calvinism, for instance. It maintains its ‘five points’ based on the acronym TULIP,[1] claiming that the five stand or fall together and forbidding us to pick and choose. But Limited Atonement sticks in my craw. It does the same even when they euphemise it as Particular Redemption. An estate agent can insist on describing a house as having ‘great potential’ but in reality it’s still a run-down property.

When I point out to Calvinists that ‘The Lord is…not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’,[2] they tell me that ‘everyone’ means ‘everyone without distinction’, not ‘everyone without exception’. My reminder that Christ is ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’[3] prompts the retort that it depends what we mean by ‘for’. Certainly I have no business, they insist, to tell people indiscriminately that Christ died for them. Hmmm.

It’s the same with the Perseverance bit. Sure, it is God who saves, and no-one can snatch us out of his, or Christ’s, hands.[4]  But if ‘once saved, always saved’ is true, why did the Holy Spirit, in overseeing the compilation of the New Testament, include so many warnings about the dangers of falling away?

The sobering words of Hebrews six and ten apply, Calvinists say, not to the genuine believer but to the person who merely professes to believe. But that’s hard to swallow when he’s described as having ‘shared in the Holy Spirit'[5]. And if he’s liable to the ‘raging fire’ of God’s judgment[6] because he has ‘treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him'[7], in what sense did Christ’s blood sanctify him in the first place?

Yes, yes, I know the standard answers you’re going to throw back at me. I’ve read them all and studied them ad nauseam, and I’m still not convinced.

No, the whole TULIP thing is too simplistic, too neat and tidy for me. It forces on Scripture a scheme that’s less than Scripture and that tends to become a Scripture substitute. It’s an ism and a wart. Bishop Ryle was right when he observed: ‘I have long come to the conclusion that men may be more systematic in their statements than the Bible, and may be led into grave error by the idolatrous veneration of a system.'[8]  For me it’s out with TULIP and in with CHRYSANTHEMUM—or any other long-named flower that gives scope for all those facets of God’s truth that can’t be made to fit a five-letter acronym.

‘Ah, so you’re an Arminian!’ you say. Not so. ‘Saved today and lost tomorrow’, for instance, doesn’t square with the New Testament’s promises of eternal security for the believer.

‘Oh, come on! You can’t have it both ways!’ Yes, I can, because that’s the way Scripture seems to have it. Like the twin lines of a railway track, divine sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation run a parallel course, meeting only in eternity and the mind of God. For now, I’m content to run my theological train along both rather than opt for the wobbly ride of any ismic monorail.

I’ll be a Calviminian. If I meet a troubled Christian who lacks assurance, I’ll remind him that Jesus turns away none who come to him. If I meet one who indulges in sinful behaviour without raising a hair, I’ll warn him that his salvation is in jeopardy and quote him Matthew 7:21-23. For myself, I’ll relax in the security of God’s sovereign love and grace that keeps me safe now and for ever, and I’ll hold fast to him as if it all depended on me.

This isn’t a new idea. John Newton, caught up in the Calvinism versus Arminianism debate three centuries ago, wrote that when preaching he tried ‘to keep all shibboleths and terms and forms of distinction out of sight, as we keep knives and razors out of the way of children, and if my hearers had not other means of information I think they would not know from me that there are such creatures as Arminians and Calvinists in the world. But we talk a good deal about Christ.'[9]  Wise man.

And here’s another thing: our understanding of the Bible—where we tend to root our isms—is constantly growing and developing. Every ism takes a selection of biblical truths, as understood at the time, and sets them in concrete, leaving no flexibility, no scope for our grasp of God’s amazing truth to be adjusted. That’s never going to sit comfortably with people like me, who feel that, like the potter’s jar in the book of Jeremiah, our traditional ‘jar’ of received doctrine has been smashed beyond repair, and is being reshaped on God’s wheel into a new and more beautiful one.

Isms have another off-putting feature: they lock people into a sub-culture that’s a parody of fully-rounded Christian faith. Methodism, for example, locks its followers into John Wesley, Wesleyan doctrine, Wesleyan hymns, stewards, circuits and moderators, and I don’t want to get stuck in an eighteenth-century rut any more than I want to get stuck into a seventeenth-century Puritan one.

I don’t even want to get stuck in a twenty-first century ‘new church’ sub-culture. Once quite broad, this is rapidly narrowing to ismic proportions. Suggest singing one of Wesley’s hymns in some ‘new churches’ and they’ll laugh at you. Question the ear-splitting volume of the music group’s sound system or propose a period of quiet prayer and they’ll tell you—as someone once told me—that you’re going to be uncomfortable in heaven, because the silence there lasts only half an hour.[10]  Suggest that what is commonly called ‘anointing’ is often just hype and they’ll accuse you of not being ‘in the flow of the Spirit’.

I want to break out of denominational sub-cultures and just be a follower of Jesus. That doesn’t mean adopting the pious ‘I belong to Christ’ stance of the Corinthians[11] or becoming the sole member of a church of one. It means acknowledging that the Holy Spirit who speaks through the Bible to me has also spoken through it to others—some of whom are long dead.

That’s why we need at least a nodding acquaintance with church history. Each new movement of the Christian era has picked up neglected Bible truths and handed them like a baton to subsequent generations. Tragically, we tend to throw away the baton of accumulated understanding and manufacture our own flimsy ism, running with it as if it’s the repository of all truth. Inevitably we end up in isolationism and triumphalism—though we never admit to either.

But there’s an end coming to all this. One day, praise God, the warts will all be gone, leaving the body of Christ a fit match for its glorious Head.[12]  Meanwhile, we can move things along in that direction. How? By refusing names and labels that mark us out as something less than disciples of Jesus. Let’s put Christ first and, by refusing any lesser loyalty, help turn Christianity’s isms into wasms.

Footnotes

  1. The Total Depravity of fallen humanity. God’s Unconditional Election of some to be saved. Limited Atonement—Christ died only for the elect. Irresistible Grace that draws the elect to Christ. And the Perseverance of the Saints, who will endure to the end because salvation is God’s work, not man’s.
  2. 2 Peter 3:9
  3. 1 John 2:2
  4. John 10:27-30
  5. Hebrews 6:4
  6. Hebrews 10:27
  7. Hebrews 10:29
  8. Quoted in N. Douty, The Death of Christ, p60
  9. Quoted in J. Pollock, Amazing Grace: The Life of John Newton, Lion, 1981/1996, p170-1
  10. Revelation 8:1
  11. 1 Corinthians 1:12
  12. Ephesians 4:15-16

A Grotesque Mismatch

5 February 2018

mismatchI once saw this in real life in a special hospital—a handsome young man in his thirties with the undeveloped body of an infant. I had to struggle hard to keep a grip on my reaction, because the grotesque mismatch made me feel suddenly sick.

It’s a good image of Christ and his church. Jesus himself is the Head and the church his body. He is fully-developed, mature and glorious; the church is ill-matched to the Head, stunted and deformed. It is deformed by superficiality, self-seeking, tradition, division and doctrinal imbalance.

God intends the church to mature and grow so that it matches the glory of the Head. The match will be complete at Christ’s return, of course, but God intends things to improve before then—and we Christians, who comprise the church, are responsible for working with the Holy Spirit to make it happen. Look carefully at these scriptures:

  • Ephesians 5:23  ‘Christ is the head of the church, his body.’

  • 1 Corinthians 12:27  ‘You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’

  • Ephesians 4:11-16  ‘It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants… Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.’

Are you doing your part?


Review: Small, intimate churches

2 February 2018

In the ‘new churches’ today, the trend is towards big buildings, concert-style auditoriums and slick programmes of activities. But some don’t care for that, holding that small and more intimate is beautiful. Here’s a book that argues that case. It is:

Grassroots Christianity: The church as it was created to be by Duncan Kellard (Authentic Books, 2009).

gclargeKellard argues for home-based, small-group churches with few or no paid leaders, where the emphasis is on wide member-participation, the leading of the Holy Spirit and the sharing of everyday life together. His argument for it is twofold—one aspect of which I agree with wholeheartedly, while the other I view with some scepticism.

The first is that ‘it works’. He is frank and open about the problems this model can throw up, but he reckons that they are worth it for the benefits it brings. And these are, among others, that it is best for developing individual character and Christlikeness, for allowing scope for the Holy Spirit to use every single member’s gifts and contributions, for producing relatively stress-free leaders, for reaching the unchurched, and for coping with opposition. I believe he’s right. He cites the millions in the ‘underground’ churches in China as a living example.

His second argument is that this model is ‘the biblical pattern’ (his own phrase). I’m not sure about that. His approach assumes that, in the New Testament, we have some kind of blueprint as to how church should be, and that the modern type of church with a smart building, a worship band, stage-led meetings and seats facing the front, run by frazzled, paid pastors, is failing chiefly because it departs from the ‘biblical model’.

Kellard’s arguments are a bit naïve in places, to my mind, but there’s no denying that he is speaking, with utmost sincerity, from wide experience of both types of church, and the huge number of real-life cases he quotes is one of the book’s strengths.

You may feel that he over-emphasises the either/or of what church should be like, and that there is a good case for both/and. Or that the two models could in some way be combined, as when a church of several hundred active members has a thriving cell-group structure. You must make up your own mind on that. But, wherever you stand, you will find plenty in this book to make you think—and maybe to make you tweak your church methods.

Here are some quotations.

Inspiration releases life; institutionalism eventually quenches it. Because the tendency of any significant movement is to become institutionalised, the best, longest-standing examples of simple, inspirational church life occurs where either persecution or poverty prevent the church from becoming more ‘sophisticated’, and the raw, rustic state is maintained and multiplied. (p18)

The premise of this book is that far from helping us attain the life of the early church, the trappings of organisation and institutionalism often hinder it and, more alarmingly, cloak a loss of vital purpose. People are preached to but wouldn’t choose to be called ‘disciples’, they experience high-quality music, but often struggle to engage in worship, they fund expensive missions but may lack the boldness or desire to share the gospel with friends or colleagues.  (p21)

The grassroots quotient: ‘Our dependence on God is inversely proportional to the value we set on human method and ability.’  (p23)

In traditional churches, there may be ‘home groups’ for the keen ones in the mid-week, but real church is perceived as what happens on Sunday. New churches, ironically, usually burst into life spontaneously in homes. But when they outgrow them, rather than starting new local home meetings, they move into a hall or school and the intimacy, participation and flexibility begin to wane immediately. (p30)

[Re participation in meetings]  There are two dynamics here. First, people speak up in home gatherings in a way they are reticent to in the more formal setting of a hall. Second, quite simply, the more people in a meeting, the fewer will actively take part.  (p37)

In a recent sabbatical I visited a number of churches over a twelve-week period. I was taken aback by two things. One was the ‘sameness’ of what went on in terms of style, length and even choice of songs. The other was the palpable sense of boredom and passivity among many in the congregations. They knew what would happen, and that it was the same last week, and that it would be next, too. The shocking thing is that these were, for the most part, charismatic churches reputedly at the vanguard of radical renewal. (p41)

One of the most moving and satisfying aspects of our journey from structured, front-led church to flexible body-life church is the way children have naturally moved in the Spirit and used their gifts.  (p48)

As leaders, we must abandon status, shun selfish ambition, relinquish comfort and resist being controlling. Instead, we rejoice in others’ elevation, delight in unrecognised service, revel in making sacrifices and excel in releasing others into fruitful ministry.   (p63)

The critical issue for the western church today is that we are rich in the things that don’t matter. Professionalism, real estate, communication technology and sophisticated structure and programmes. Yet, too often, we are paupers in spiritual currency of real worth: a humble dependence on God producing an experience of his presence, expressed in devoted fellowship, passionate worship and unbridled disciple-making ministry.  (p88)

Putting people into small groups doesn’t make them devoted friends immediately, anymore than planting a few saplings makes a border. But given time, what develops, like a carefully laid hedge, is strong and intertwined and becomes a place for others to take refuge in.  (p99)

I would contend strongly that there is an environmental problem with larger gatherings that violates against a sense of belonging and family intimacy by which biblical church is defined.  (p100)

[Re Spirit-led worship]  Freedom exalts God and puts every believer on the same plane, regardless of status or office, and reflects the New Testament pattern perfectly. But this is too risky for the timorous human heart. It might get out of control (Whose control, we might wonder?). Traditionalists respond with liturgies, conservatives with orders of service, and charismatics with worship leaders. Each of these ultimately controls God’s people, domesticating their worship with the frequent, dire result of the Holy Spirit being quenched.  (p117)

Most meeting set-ups resemble a concert rather than a participating body. No wonder gifts of the Spirit are becoming as rare as hen’s teeth in many places, as people receive the subliminal message, ‘You are here to watch’.  (p119)

In adopting the simple forms and radical-disciple lifestyle advocated in these pages, we will be preparing both spiritually and practically for a time that is coming on soon, when Christians and their message will be no longer enjoying acceptance by society.  (p140)

The huge number of once-keen church members who have haemorrhaged from the church in the past two decades is evidence enough that we need a return to grassroots church forms, where every person belongs, is cared for as a friend, and fulfils a vital role.  (p143)

I love to think that there are ‘churches’—functioning gatherings of believers—that don’t yet realise what they are. You see, you don’t need a group of forty, a full-timer and a building to start a church. It could be three devoted friends with open homes and hearts to reach out, surely a wineskin God loves to fill with his best vintage!  (p150)


The Bible teaches…

26 January 2018

‘The Bible teaches…’ Time was when I used that phrase a lot. Having spent over sixty years studying the Bible, I felt I had a pretty good grasp of its message. I could tell you with great conviction what ‘the Bible teaches’ on, say, the baptism in the Holy Spirit, or male headship, or divorce, or the kingdom of God, or homosexuality, or church government, or whatever.

bible-thumper.jpgThese days I’m far less dogmatic on these and a host of other issues. And that’s because I’ve come to the conclusion—better late than never—that the Bible as a whole doesn’t in fact ‘teach’ much at all very clearly.

I’d always been aware, of course, that my convictions about what it taught on this or that were not shared by all Christians. Some of them had reached conclusions very different from my own—and from the same Bible at that! But somehow I had failed to grasp the enormity of the problem highlighted by these differences. The problem is this: if, after two thousand years, Christians are still reaching hugely different conclusions about the Bible’s teaching, the only thing I can conclude with any certainty is that the Bible is not clear in its teaching at all.

For decades, I felt convinced that my own conclusions (and those of my spiritual clan) as to what the Bible teaches were the right ones, and that everyone else’s were wrong. Now, I’m deeply ashamed of the appalling pride that this attitude displays.

Proof-texting was dear to me in those bad old days. I was skilled at mustering verses from both Old Testament and New to back up the ‘right’ view that I was presenting. I wrote semi-learned papers on a host of topics, using my middle-of-the-road knowledge of Hebrew and Greek to bolster my case and quoting from my extensive library of Bible commentaries and reference works.

I don’t do that anymore. I’m convinced that, if you have a mind to, you can present a decent case from the Bible, with supporting proof-texts, for just about any theory you want. Indeed, this has been happening regularly for two millennia, and it’s happening still. I don’t want any part in that sort of behaviour now. So I’ve ditched my old views on the Bible’s inerrancy, even its infallibility, and certainly what the Puritans called its ‘perspicuity’. I take a far less tidy view of the whole thing these days.

‘Ah,’ you say, ‘it’s tragic that you’ve gone off the rails at this late stage in your life, Dave. So sad that you’ve kicked the Bible into touch like this.’

Hang on. I didn’t say that! The fact is, I love the Bible now more than I ever did. I read it more. I draw more strength and sustenance from it, and I honour it as God’s Word with a new-found vigour. And that’s because I’ve adopted an altogether different approach to it. ‘And what exactly is that? you have every right to ask.

Now, I see the Bible as ‘God’s Word’ in only a secondary sense. The ultimate ‘Word of God’ is Jesus Christ. The Bible is the story—a God-breathed one, I believe—of a people struggling, through their changing times and cultures, to understand God better, and often getting it only half-right, or sometimes even wrong. But the whole story was leading to its brilliant climax: Emmanuel, God with us in the person of the God-man, Jesus the Messiah. He alone is the end to which the Bible is merely the means.

Jesus, and Jesus only, is ‘the exact representation of God’s being’, the full and final revelation of what God is truly like. Everything else is shadowy, vague, temporary, unclear. But in him the shadows have cleared and the sun has come out. The Bible gave enough light to guide the previous generations along, but it will always be secondary to him. I’m now trying to take my views and convictions, my lifestyle-model, my attitudes, my standards, my everything from him, and from nowhere else.

As for the Bible, I feel wonderfully liberated by my new way of looking at it. I love to read it for the insights it gives into the life of pilgrimage that I’ve embarked upon. I am gripped as I read about the ups and downs, the frustrations and joys, of previous generations of God-seekers, and learn much from them. I tap into the Bible’s psalms of praise and its accounts of the moments of life-changing revelation enjoyed by the pilgrims of old. And I quietly skip (as Jesus did when quoting Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue) the bits now shown, in the light of his revelation, to be wide of the mark.

So that’s where I’m at. If what I’ve written makes you hopping mad, I’m not going to let that faze me. After all, not so long ago, I would have reacted the same way myself, so I can understand where you’re coming from. I sincerely hope, though, that you will pause to think about what I’ve written, and maybe even become open to a few changes yourself. Jesus, I think, would smile at the prospect…

[You can read more about my changed attitude to the Bible in my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, which you can download here.]

 


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