The Goodness of Jesus – a Sermon

I don’t normally post sermons up on my blog, but having read Tony Jones’ ‘A Better Atonement‘ ebook and seen his request for anyone who’s writing or preaching about atonement on his blog, I thought I’d put something up. This isn’t a transcript (though you can hear the audio on the church website), it’s a draft version of what I planned to say. Preaching is not a written art, it’s all about the spoken word and so planning on the screen only goes so far. Right at the bottom I’ve embedded the slideshow I used alongside my talk.

I’d also like to say an enormous thank you to the family and friends who were at the service on Sunday to support us in the blessing of our little boy, Nathaniel. It meant a great deal to us, so thanks!

If we want to understand why the Goodness of Jesus matters, we have to start at the beginning. Twice.

First of all, the creation story in Genesis 1. Let me start by saying that I believe that believing that God is the creator is essential for Christian faith. Whether you believe that it happened in precisely six twenty-four hour periods or not is not such a big issue to me, though I’ll happily talk to you about why I believe what I believe, but it matters that God did in fact create everything that is around us in this fantastic universe.

[This paragraph goes with a sequence of images on the screen] Light, dark, sky, ocean, land, flowers , trees and even apples. Sun, moon, stars and planets, fish, whales and coral, cute birds and kind-of scary ones. Insects, tigers, creepy-crawlies and Sunday lunches. And when God had made each one, we’re told that he looked and saw that it was GOOD.

Last of all, we’re told, came human beings, men and women. In the idyllic situation of the creation story, before any kind of sin, death, sadness or pain is mentioned, God sees the whole of creation, with the addition of humanity and says that it is ‘very good’.

Now many of you will have heard what comes in chapter three of Genesis. The man and woman are told not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, yet they do. It seems that they want to be in control of their own destiny, to be better than the ‘very good’ that God saw. Through this sin, we’re told, Death comes into the story.

Second of all – there’s another beginning to the scriptures. The beginning of Exodus is the beginning of the nation of Israel, the Jewish people. It’s a story of freedom from slavery – while they are doing forced labour in Egypt, Moses turns up with a message from God – who says that he’s going to take them away from slavery to a good land – one with lots of produce and security. Yet time and time again, despite this promise, they disobey God, wanting their own way, not wanting God’s way and the ‘good land’ seemed to be just as full of problems as any other country.

Throughout the history of Israel, their rulers turned out to be bad more often than good (maybe not just in Israel, either) There were times that seemed to be hopeless, and times that seemed to be OK, but where did the promise of a good land, of rest and peace disappear to?

There seemed to be two options – give it up as a utopian dream that could never really exist, or start to talk about God as the only real good in the world. The Psalms were the hymn-book and prayerbook of the Jews and over and over they say “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is GOOD, his love endures forever.”

But this isn’t a sermon about creation or the old testament – it’s about Jesus and his goodness. For Christians, all the hope for goodness both in the Old Testament, the world around us and in our own lives is focussed on the person of Jesus.

In a letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes about Jesus as the ‘second Adam’ or the ‘last Adam’ – a fulfilment of all humanity could have been and a new start for a new humanity. To me this makes a lot of sense of the life and death of Jesus, making it all tie together around this theme of goodness.

You see in Jesus, all the promise and potential that’s in God’s “very good” are fulfilled. As he walked around Palestine two thousand years ago, everything he did brought back the “good” that was always supposed to be. He taught and explained how the way people were excluding others from God was wrong, how everyone was welcomed unconditionally. He brought physical healing as well, demonstrating how even the most damaged could be made good.

There are many complimentary ways of understanding Jesus, both his life and death and resurrection. We think of Jesus solidarity with us in our suffering, sharing our pain. We think of Jesus taking our place, dying instead of us. We think of Jesus the example of commitment, as Peter writes about in the passage we read earlier. We can think of Jesus triumphing over the powers of evil.

But when we’re thinking of the goodness of Jesus, connecting his death with all he did through his life, we see that it must be part of how Jesus was bringing the Kingdom of God, bringing the goodness that was always meant to be. Tom Wright puts it like this: “Jesus’ crucifixion was not a messy accident at the end of a glittering career, but was in fact the proper, though shocking, climax to it.” Jesus died because it was part of the plan to bring back the good that seemed to have been missing for so long. In dying with us, dying like the first Adam, but without ever disobeying God, Jesus shows that death is destroyed by rising from the dead. Even what looks like a complete victory for evil is in fact the triumph of good.

But it’s not something that happened in the past and gives us some vague hope for the future. Let’s go back to the passage we read earlier from 1 Peter.

As an aside, let me acknowledge that it’s tough to read a passage written to slaves and ignore that context – one that’s very foreign to us today – barbaric, even. Peter’s suggestion that they should imitate Jesus is very subversive – and I’d be glad to talk to you about it afterwards if it’s something that you find difficult.

Peter writes first of all about Jesus doing nothing sinful, nothing wrong at all. But his goodness goes beyond that – Peter says that he ‘entrusted himself’ to God. This isn’t just some vague belief in a higher power that’s out there somewhere, it’s a deep immersion in every aspect of life, depending fully on his father, committed to doing anything that will bring his Kingdom. That plays out in the teaching he did, in the miracles he did but supremely in his death and resurrection.

In his life and death, Jesus shows God’s solidarity with us in the pain and dirt of this, but his resurrection shows that there is new life, something beyond what we currently experience. Peter starts to refer to a famous passage in the old testament about the suffering servant. It goes further than we have already, saying that in the wounds and suffering of Jesus there is healing. better than that even, Peter says to the Christians he’s writing to that they’ve already been healed.

He also uses the image from Isaiah of God – of Jesus – as our shepherd. It’s one of the most beloved images from both the old testament (the Lord’s my shepherd) and the new (Jesus said “I am the good shepherd). In this context, Peter is saying that the brokenness and pain we experience comes from wandering away from God and his goodness. He’s saying that Jesus doesn’t just heal us and leave us, but leads us as we join with him in bringing the Kingdom of God to earth, in bringing back the good that was always meant to be.

We all feel the brokenness of the world and ourselves – for me it’s on a daily basis. As we go into holy week, remembering Jesus’ last days before his death and as we look forward to celebrating resurrection (and chocolate) next week, let’s hear the invitation of Jesus.

Perhaps you need the ‘very good’ of Jesus to break into your life – the healing that comes from his wounds.
Perhaps you need to realise that you can’t fix all the brokenness in the world on your own or with anyone else but Jesus.
Perhaps you need to join in and follow him as he shepherds you and guides you, encourages you to join in his healing mission.

Whatever it is you need, may you experience the goodness of Jesus this Holy Week. May you feel the healing that his wounds have brought us, may you return to the shepherd and overseer of our souls.

Backing Up – You Really Shouldn’t Ignore This!

Hard Disk by

This is a geeky one – in case you forgot that I’m like that! It’s World Backup Day – an annual reminder that computers are not infallible and that if you don’t back up your precious documents, photos and other files, you will one day lose them. I know it sounds doom and gloom, but it’s true – hard drives crash, burglaries happen, laptops and phones get snatched and apparently there are viruses that attack some computers (not that I would need to worry much about that…)

If you’re anything like me, your computer contains documents from the past decade at least – work from University, perhaps, applications and CVs, ideas you’ve worked on in years past. Far more precious than that are the thousands of photos and videos – holidays, dates, birthdays, family celebrations. Countless memories of the first year of our little boy’s life are saved on the hard disk of my desktop and I’m not going to run the risk of losing a single one of them. My phone is scarcely less precious – since it’s the camera I always have with me, I use it a lot to capture little moments that the DSLR just isn’t there for – out shopping, in the park, having coffee, just playing on the living room floor. I want to keep every photo and video I’ve ever taken, safely and without a chance of any getting lost if my phone is taken or broken.

So this is how I do it.


I have a desktop that my wife also uses for work. I also have a laptop and a net book that has been re-purposed as a file server. Each of them runs Crashplan – by far the best backup software I’ve used, and it’s completely cross platform. It uses Java, so it’s even possible to get it running on some NAS servers. There are several ways to use the software – both free and paid-for. My desktop has a paid-for subscription to back up to Crashplan’s servers in the cloud – currently using over 250GB. The netbook has Crashplan installed only to receive backups – a smaller set from the desktop and also the laptop as well. So for most of my files, photos and music included, I have ‘on-site’ and ‘off-site’ backup. It updates daily if the computers are on and tells me weekly by email what has been backed up, so I never need to wonder if it’s running properly. There’s also an android app if I ever need to access a backed up file from the desktop while I’m out and there’s no other way of getting it.

However, one point of failure is too few to bet on, so there’s more. All my important documents need to be shared with both the desktop and the laptop and I use a combination of Dropbox and Ubuntu One to synchronise them. This has the obvious advantage of putting all those files in the cloud again, available on android apps and from the Dropbox website. As it stands now, Dropbox is the superior service – I have more available storage and as it syncs over the LAN it’s much faster.


My Android phone (Samsung Galaxy S 2) is rarely out of sight, I use it a lot, especially for photos and videos of our little one. I’ve detailed before how I sync photos daily, automatically and with no hassle. They’re also uploaded automatically by the Dropbox app on my phone (partly because it’s been snagging me more storage space!) Again, I have no need to worry about losing anything as they’re in multiple locations which are themselves backed up.


Backing up is not expensive or time consuming, but it’s often something people don’t think about until it’s too late. For half an hour of downloading and setting up a couple of programs you could get years of peace of mind and even make your files easier to access when you need them and you’re out.

If you’re not backing up, go and do it now!

If you back up with some other software, why not tell me how in the comments!

Worship in a Minor Key

I have a new post on titled ‘Worship in a Minor Key‘, a reflection on lamenting in the church. I’ve put an excerpt here, click on to read more – and leave your comments, please!

Last weekend I attended a Christian event which began with sung worship. This was nothing unusual – a young guy with a guitar, songs I had heard before and sung along with  joyful songs, praising God’s power and our salvation, songs full of encouragement and truth. Yet something felt wrong – the songs were in the wrong key for me.

Lent is traditionally a time when we remember two things: the forty days of temptation that Jesus faced in the desert at the start of his ministry and also the run up to holy week, the crucifixion on Good Friday. In preparation for the Good Friday service that I’m planning, I’ve really been living in the feeling of that day, exploring the imagery of the stations of the cross and music that reflects the minor key, the lament of Lent.

That’s why the music in that church at the weekend was a jarring shock – I’d been living in a different world, singing a different tune, one that seems to be rare in our churches right now. Our worship music is, as I experienced at the weekend, overwhelmingly up-beat, positive, happy. But that’s not how I feel every Sunday morning, let alone Monday morning or even Friday afternoon! Sometimes I feel I hardly have the heart to sing along or stand up with everyone else, sometimes there’s just too much weighing me down.

Read more…

Gethsemane, Presence and Prayer

This evening we were reflecting on Gethsemane in our housegroup, thinking about the visceral reality of the moment as it is depicted by Matthew. A short paragraph from the notes helped me to summarise what I thought about it (though in a kind of opposite way!)

There are at least 2 potential resources Jesus was drawing on when facing this time courageously. The first being the presence of his friends; the second being that of prayer to his Father.

You see I’m not sure about that. I think the point Matthew is making is that both seem to be failing Jesus in this moment.

His friends are physically inhabiting the space nearby to him, but are they present in any way? No, they’re not even conscious! Let’s not be too hard on them, it’s been a long week, lots to see and do, lots of teaching. It’s been a long day, a long evening, a difficult one. They’ve had a big meal that weighs heavy in their stomachs, they’ve had a couple of drinks. But most of all, they haven’t really understood what is about to happen. They’ve been told, of course, but they’ve not taken it in at all. They don’t believe that anything is about to happen, so they don’t realise that this isn’t Jesus’ normal meditation in the garden on the way out of the city. They don’t see what’s happening because they’re not present.

But Jesus’ prayer caught my eye too. This is not the prayer of a man who has received an answer of any sort. Jesus prays three times, each time pleading for an answer either way – ‘God, I’ll take your way whether it’s easy or difficult, jut tell me something, just be here with me!’ If God had been answering Jesus, saying ‘just be strong and do it’ then the second and third prayers would have been different – ‘maybe you could reconsider?’

Eventually he returns to the disciples and tells them that time has run out, Judas is on his way. No support from his friends in his hour of need, no reply from God in his desperation. In faith he goes towards the lights, knowing what will happen.

It seems to me that in Gethsemane, Jesus began to experience the radical aloneness that would come to a head on the cross – not just his friends but even his God, his Father. This existential abandonment is the paradox that sits at the heart of the key story of the Christian gospel as well as in the centre of our own experience of suffering. Our experience of aloneness causes the greatest pain, yet our faith in the God who seems to have deserted us drives us deeper into it, because without it we cannot experience new life.

Reflecting on #TEDxWarwick

I attended TEDxWarwick yesterday along with about 1200 others – a massive event with some big name speakers. I thought it would be worthwhile to put together some thoughts on what I heard and how the event was run. I hope what I say will be helpful to those who are running next year’s event.

First of all the speakers: they were excellent. Each person will have had their own stand-out moments, but none of the speakers did a bad job, each one showed enthusiasm for their subject. I was most impressed by the talks from Doug Belshaw, Andy Stanford-Clarke, Kevin Warwick, David MacKay, John Kay and Simon Moss. A diverse set of talks from digital literacies to environmental issues to charities and development. Perhaps I’ll muse some more them when the talks have been uploaded.

A few talks achieved less than seemed to be promised – Giselle Weybrecht, for example, seemed to spend the whole time telling us that it’s important for Business faculties to teach and understand sustainability without once telling us How to Make Anything Sustainable (as the title suggested). It’s disappointing when the talks are really just adverts for the training sessions that the speaker does.

Organisation plays a massive part in events as big as TEDxWarwick. The staff at the Warwick Arts Centre and the student volunteers did a great job in directing us delegates around. The technical side was pretty well managed too, with video mostly working well and good sound too. In fact the only let down as far as I was concerned was the host. We found out at the end of the day that he had stepped in at the last minute after the person booked to host dropped out, but I don’t feel he really added  to the day. Hosting is a performing role, one that needs a confident and naturally funny character, and David seemed a little forced at times and underwhelming overall. Reading from cue cards quite so obviously, tapping the microphone as he came on stage and waving it around randomly whilst talking did not give an air of confidence. It’s a shame that someone who’s a better fit for the role was not able to fill it.

On the organisation front, I’d like to make some suggestions. I appreciate that in a room full of over a thousand people it is difficult to do Q&A, but some of the talks could have benefited from a few minutes drawing out some thoughts further. An able host might have been able to ask some relevant questions, while a couple of roving mics might have been able to take questions from the front part of the hall.

However, I think real discussion sessions would be much better than Q&As after each talk. Having three less talks over the day would allow a whole session dedicated to discussion the talks. I realise it would be require a lot more rooms to be available, so more organisation for the TEDxWarwick crew. With nine speakers and over 1000 delegates it would still be far from an intimate audience with each, but it would give a far better opportunity for the day to lead to real dialogue.

I hope the TEDxWarwick team will see this and think about implementing them for next year’s event. Please leave me a comment here or tweet me @jonrogersuk if you do.

Other delegates from TEDxWarwick 2012, I want your comments too: what were your favourite talks, what changes would you like to see for next year?

Undying Love?

It’s funny the things that stick in my head and prompt me to write a blog post. Take yesterday for example: just a couple of words from a prayer in an open time of worship at church. The lady thanked Jesus for his “undying love” for us and promised her undying love in return.

Now I understand what she meant by “undying” – enduring, lasting, limitless even. Yet given the things I’ve been reading lately – Moltmann’s The Crucified God and Fiddes’ The Creative Suffering of God – it’s the dying love of God that has captured my imagination.

The love of Jesus that we celebrate in our communion meal is precisely the opposite of an undying love – it’s love that could only be expressed by dying.

There’s a story that’s often repeated by people talking about the suffering of God told by Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor. Wiesel was held in the Auschwitz death camp, where one day the whole camp’s population was summoned and made to stand facing three gallows. They had been set up for three Jews who had been found with weapons, suspected of sabotage and resistance. As was the custom after an execution, they were all forced to file past the corpses to get their food, a warning not to cross the camp commandant. Two of the executed were men, they died quickly, but the third was a young boy.

But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…

And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished

Behind me I heard the same man asking:

“For God’s sake, where is God”

And from within me I heard a voice answer:

“Where he is? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”
(Wiesel, Night)

A God who is actually alive is one who will die for us, with us. If God’s only response to suffering is to take us out of it is as good as dead until he turns up. A God who suffers with us is present in the depths of darkness as well as the light of liberation. A dying God is more alive, more real than an undying God, a passionless and distant observer.

Christian theologians speak of a ‘cruciform God’, God who is shaped like a cross. It’s a shape he chooses to make himself known by throughout the scriptures, it’s the definition of his love. It’s a shape that should be stamped all over the church – a shape that we not only wear around our necks or place on the top of steeples but that we take deep into ourselves. It’s a shape that refuses to be co-opted by power or prosperity theologies, a shape that cannot help but give itself away.

Last week, preaching at my home church, I began to hint at this. After Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (which is affirmed with a blessing), Jesus instructs the disciples not to tell anyone that he’s the Messiah. Why would he do that? It’s quite a strange puzzle, until you look at the next few verses where Jesus begins to reveal the suffering he will endure and Peter try to tell him off. It shows just how much the disciples have fundamentally misunderstood what it means for Jesus to be Messiah and Son of God – it’s about suffering, not an easy ride.

It’s here, at the end of Matthew 16, that Jesus says that anyone who will follow him must “deny themselves and take up their cross”. This can mean nothing less than taking the cruciform shape of the love of God into ourselves, of choosing suffering and rejection, of responding with a dying love. Being a disciple means dying so we can really live – not martyring ourselves to get a reward in paradise but a kind of dying life (as opposed to a living death) where we can see the Kingdom really coming.

Mixed up about Creation Theology?

Creation: Not just about how special I am

Christians spend far too much time discussing Creation.

What’s worse is that the theology that comes out of this obsession is very often warped and ‘me centred’. It’s all ‘I believe that God made me to be special, so I can tell you how evil you are and how you should live your life’. I think this is partly because it’s all focussed on just a few verses – Genesis 1-3, and often missing out most of chapter 2 altogether (because it clearly doesn’t fit as neatly into the grand schema).

I’ve come to think that if we’re to have a comprehensive creation theology, we need to take into account the books which have the most to say about the God of creation – the ones no-one really mentions in this context, the so-called Wisdom Books. Job particularly, but also Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and several Psalms, revel in the God who made all things, who holds back the chaos, who knows the most intimate details of the wildest creatures and weather.

Taking into account some of the other things that are written about Creation in the Bible unsurprisingly gives us a broader view of creation. It helps us to avoid the person-centred creationism that seems to dominate the conversation, especially on the other side of the Atlantic.

Andy Alexis-Baker has written a very thoughtful article on Jesus Radicals in response to comments made by Rick Santorum (the Republican Presidential hopeful) that “The Earth is not the objective, man is the objective, and I think that a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside down. . . . We’re not here to serve the earth. That is not the objective, man is the objective.”

This story of creation puts humanity at the very pinnacle of the creation, put there to rule and exploit as much as they like, using up ‘resources’ (an un-Biblical word, as Alexis-Baker points out) as they will. I urge you to read the way Alexis-Baker ges through Job, showing what a bigger creation theology looks like, but I want to supply my own illustration of just how short-sighted this kind of thinking is.

Here’s a picture of Tom Cruise, sat on top of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. People spent almost unimaginable amounts of money, time and talent to build this incredible building. At the very pinnacle (apart from a very famous guy) is a set of radio antennae, just as there are at the top of so many tall buildings around the world. They have the highest place, the best view, but they are not the purpose or intent of the building! The owners wouldn’t let the lower floors get run down to give more power to the antennae. No one comes to admire the proportions and design of the antennae, not when there’s all that steel and glass and incredible view to look at!

If we accept that humanity occupies a similar place at the pinnacle of creation (or ‘the natural order’ if you don’t believe it was created) it cannot necessarily follow that humanity can do what it likes with the rest of the astonishing tower of the world around us. It especially cannot be a ‘Christian’ argument if we take Jesus’ teaching on what leadership looks like in his community:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Mark 10:41-45, NIV)

If we take the ‘Creation Mandate’ of Genesis 1:28 seriously, we are to be rulers over creation, which must mean, according to Jesus, that we don’t ‘lord it over’ and exploit creation but serve it, be a slave to the entirety of it.

Now there’s an approach that might get you into arguments with scientists about creation!

But I guess that it doesn’t make sexy headlines when you’re campaigning for the primaries in the USA because you’ll end up sounding like one of those ‘liberals’ that need so much bashing.

What do you think about the ‘Creation Mandate’ and Christian responses to environmentalism? Please put something in the comments below!

Oh, and a reminder, go read the excellent article on Creation Theology in the Book of Job!

Subverting “Sinners” as a Category

This morning at church we looked at the call of Matthew in Matthew 9. Jesus tells Matthew, the outcast tax collector, to follow him and accepts an invitation to dinner chez Matt. There he is criticised for being associated with the riff-raff, the people who were most hated by the religious establishment –

“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
(Matt 9:11-13, NIV)

You can almost taste the disgust with which ‘sinners’ is spat out at Jesus – without the faintest glimmer of respect for the host and guests at the meal, these visitors turn up and pour hate on the host, guest of honour and all the other guests at the meal. The designation ‘sinner’ is seen as a pejorative condemnation just as much today as it was then.

Anyone who questions Jesus’ sense of humour needs to look at this carefully – the sarcasm should not be lost. In the context of the chapter, Jesus has been going round healing people, and continues to after this accusation and another linked on in the next four verses. The writer is showing us that Matthew’s call – his call (we must read this story as a ‘signature’, the author being given a walk on cameo) – is just the same, a healing. Jesus is most definitely not saying that Matthew is still sick – he’s been called, he left his booth like a cripple leaving his begging post. No, Jesus is sarcastically saying ‘if you’re so pure and “healthy”, what do you care who I’m healing and doctoring?’ His scriptural quotation shows up their hypocrisy, they don’t even have the ‘mercy’ to temper their insults in another man’s home.

I imagine air-quotes around “righteous” and “sinners” in that last line – neither one is quite as it seems. Those who think they are healthy are sick to the core, while the patients are already getting healed. The ‘righteous’ are merely self-righteous and no better than the rest.

Jesus is not saying he’s come to make the sinners into righteous people. He’s showing that the division of humanity into those two discrete categories is bankrupt. There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. God doesn’t ‘hate’ anyone at all, least of all the ones that religious people hate and pillory.

Jesus didn’t call himself a sinner – though by identifying with them he came pretty close. He didn’t call himself a Pharisee or ‘righteous’, though people called him ‘teacher’, ‘rabbi’, and immediately recognised his integrity. This is his call to abolish the categories of ‘sinner’ and ‘righteous’ and to get on with caring for people’s needs, whatever they may be. Reading into the next verses (which we didn’t this morning, probably because people get so confused reading them), the old categories won’t hold the  new wine, the new kingdom. Jesus’ transcending of barriers will tear categories apart.

Yet somehow the mudslinging of ‘sinner’ continues to this day. We barely disguise hatred by talking about ‘loving the sinner’. When someone else calls you a sinner, it’s no better than ‘criminal’ or ‘convict’ at welcoming you. Maybe today Jesus would say that ‘Mercy is better than doctrine’ and keep on hanging out with the scum of society, whether they are tax collectors, Sun journalists or just ordinary people who don’t feel good enough when they hurry past our church doorways.

Fearing God

Why is it that my brain switches on whenever I get in the shower in the evening? It never does that in the morning! All sorts of things go through my mind, seemingly completely unconnected with whatever’s gone on in the day – ideas for blog posts, questions about books that I read, even ideas for short stories I might one day write!

A thought that began a year ago and has come back to me recently is about wisdom and fearing God – quite a strange one to write about on Valentine’s day!

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
Proverbs 9:10 (NIV)

This text (and the similar parallels in Job 28, Psalm 111, Proverbs 1 and 15) obviously came up last year, studying Wisdom in the core module of the MA at LST. I think there are two different ways of reading this verse that say a lot about the different approaches of Evangelical Christians today.

The first is to take it at face value: we need to fear God. There is some room for a more nuanced understanding of what is meant by fear, perhaps speaking of a ‘reverent awe’. After all, it’s not just in the ‘wisdom books’ that the idea of fearing YHWH comes. Through the penteteuch and history books it is used to describe a life lived in a godly way – it’s even in the New Testament a few times. This posture of fear is the source, the origin of godly wisdom.

‘Beginning’ could be read differently, though – it could mean that it is the start of a journey. That journey could be a personal one, or in keeping with the process thinking I’ve been grappling with recently, it could be a journey that humanity as a whole is on.

In a talk titled ‘Touching the Stove’, Shane Hipps used the way his daughter is learning about the cooker in the kitchen as a metaphor for how human interaction with God has developed. While fear is a good attitude for a toddler to have toward the hot oven, for a teenager or an adult to have the same response would not be good. Despite the possible utilitarian, objecctifying direction this illustration could take us in, it brings in the idea of development. Whether we understand development individually (each of us taking a journey from fear of God to mature love) or corporately (the dominant metaphor of our communities moving from fear to love), it is the key to this alternate reading.

This choice of readings is about more than the kind of God we follow, though it is that. Is the judgement of God unrelenting punishment – is forgiveness only possible through spilling blood – or is it something closer to discernment? Is God dangerous, an untameable deity who must be placated somehow, or is he genuinely ‘on our side’ (aside: I mean all of humanity by ‘on our side’, not ‘my side’ – that really can be a dangerous teaching!)

It’s more than that – huge as the idea of what God is like – because it speaks to our understanding of how the universe works. Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors while history points a finger saying ‘you should have learned’? Is it genuinely possible to learn from those who have gone before and shown us what God is really like and explored how we can have a relationship with him? If the latter, then progress is possible, we need not continue to just fear God, but grow to a deep and respectful love.

I choose to believe today that progress is possible, that there is some directionality to the human existence – both on a micro, personal level, and on a macro, all-of-humanity level. I choose to believe that God does not want us to remain terrified, or even at an awe-filled respectful distance, he wants us as close as the tightest hug.

What do you think? Is fear a helpful way of considering your attitude to God?

A Year in Essays: Dissertation – Transforming Apologetics

Here it is. The big one – I know at least a few of you have been waiting to have a chance to read this, I hope you find it as interesting to read as it was to write. Despite the unassuming title, the subtitle gives away the potential controversy in the content of the dissertation:

A Critical Apologetic Appraisal of Rob Bell’s Love Wins

Despite the huge furore of early 2011, I’ve chosen not to focus on the argument over heaven and hell that erupted over Love Wins and take a rather more holistic view of the book. I particularly wanted to put it in its context and assess on its own terms whether it met its aim. On reading (and re-reading…) Love Wins, I suggest that the best way to read it is as a work of postmodern apologetics, which is something that the reviewers I read either ignored (most of them) or denied as a possibility (a very tiny minority). This means taking in both its postmodernity in style and context and its apologetic content, realising that the book is aimed at those on the fringe of Christianity, wondering if they could ever be/remain a Christian because of some of the beliefs that are described as Christian. Bell wants to show that there can be different Christianities, that it is a ‘broad  stream’.

My approach to assessing whether Bell has done an effective job of encouraging those postmoderns on the fringe of Christian faith that there is a home for them within is based on a ‘Triangulation’ from Kevin Vanhoozer. In an article entitled ‘On the very idea of a Theological System’, he describes the three points of ‘the Spirit’s speaking in Scripture, the belief-practices of the church, and the world made new in Jesus Christ’, which must be kept in view, triangulated, in Christian life.

If you take nothing at all from my dissertation, if your mind is made up on Rob Bell, or if you just don’t care at all, at least take this bit seriously. We have to keep in view the three points of triangulation to live a balanced and full Christian life – what God is saying through the Bible, the way the church (in its many forms) is acting and thinking and the culture around us, with all its potential for transformation and redemption in Jesus. Under-rating any one of these leads to serious defects in our spiritual life and our witness will suffer.

Taking the three points as section headings, I look at how Bell’s book can be seen in these three contexts, how well it sits in them. I took in a wide range of sources, as you would expect in writing a 20,000 word dissertation, from those who stridently opposed Love Wins to others that leapt to Bell’s defence, from postmodern philosophers to reformed theologians. I look at the way he uses scripture – both which passages he selects (and, tellingly – as is so often the case – ignores) and how he handles exploring them. Then I explore how Bell relates to the church, contemporary and historical – those whose writing he has borrowed from, those who agree with him and those who have opposed him. Finally, I explore how postmodern apologetics seeks to convince contemporary culture of the believability of Christianity, and how Bell fits in with this.

My conclusion was to draw out some strengths of Bell’s writing and suggestions for how other apologists might take his work further in giving reasons for faith to those at the edge of Christianity.

Bell’s understanding and interaction with the world is certainly a strength. He reads the concerns and questions that those on the edge of the church have and paints a picture of God in a style that they recognise that emphasises the aspects of His character that they want to see. Doing this has a high apologetic value as it removes obstacles to faith, showing that Christianity makes sense for postmoderns.

Bell’s handling of scripture and the traditions of the church have some greater weaknesses, however. He is not always honest in his selection of scriptures and his depiction of the sources he has used, which at least raises questions over the conclusions he comes to in some chapters.

Bell has met many of the suggestions made earlier in the paper on what postmodern apologetics should be like. He writes to postmoderns as a postmodern using a postmodern style. However, we can suggest that a stronger apologetic could be written based on the analysis of Love Wins in this paper.

Firstly, Bell’s overemphasis on experience can be balanced with other epistemological bases; revelation, reason and faith. This is not to say that Bell ignores them, but developing them more could strengthen the apologetic. This has particular application when Bell is using scripture; in the terms of our triangulation, it would strengthen his apologetic case if he made sure that scripture was seen to be privileged over experience.

Secondly, apologists must take care in their interaction with the church. While we can learn from Bell’s positioning as inside the church yet sitting beside those at the edges, his treatment of some of his sources, especially those that cannot be considered contemporary leaves something to be desired. Honesty is required in naming some views as traditionally fringe, while others were mainstream and clearly showing where your ideas invert that.

Love Wins can be seen as transforming apologetics, demonstrating a new approach to making Christian faith seem plausible and believable in the postmodern world. Our desire is to see more postmoderns creating apologetic works that take seriously the Spirit speaking in scripture, the belief-practices of the church and the world being transformed by Jesus.

I have published the dissertation as an ebook – on Amazon for Kindle and on Smashwords for other e-readers (also including Kindle, as well as .pdf and other formats for easier consumption). For a limited time (a couple of weeks), you can download it from Smashwords for free if you use the code WT94F (enter the code at the checkout).