Turn or burn? Or yearn to turn?

Away on vacation this week, I’m re-posting some of my earliest posts that still help frame how I explore faith, community and culture in my life and here on my blog. It's interesting to go back and see where I was and where I am now...

This post is several excerpts out of a post from December, 2006: "Repentance: Turn or burn? Or yearn to turn?":

In a society where individual fulfillment is a free-for-all of personal preference, even at the expense of others, the message of repentance is as unpopular as ever. Why would anyone want to turn towards Gods, especially considering the weak alternative that Christianity supposedly offers? The unfortunate part is that the Christian response has all too often countered within the same framework; namely, an individual reform with individual benefits, most often associated with avoiding hell. As the traditional warning goes, “turn or burn!” So the tendency to motivate repentance has been to, “scare them into the kingdom.” However, most of you would agree, this message nowadays falls on deaf ears.

If Jesus’ message of repentance to his mostly Jewish audience was about radical identification with God, it's implied that repentance still means the same. Jesus acknowledged the expectation in the Jews and responded with a call to turn to towards him - a turn not for the purpose of being morally pure, but for the purpose of being identified as the people of God. Repentance, then, is identifying with who we really are.

Repentance is our response to the longing we all have to belong. Hence the second part of the title, “yearn to turn.” Yearning connects with the desire we all of have for true community. An individual understanding of Christianity and repentance as just a moral ethic fails to address this innate part of our being. Perhaps this is the hardest part about repentance, because no longer can we simply respond individually, reforming our actions to some sort of moral ideal. Now we have to identify with Jesus in the context of community. In this way, we repent together.

doing or being???

Away on vacation this week, I’m re-posting some of my earliest posts that still help frame how I explore faith, community and culture in my life and here on my blog. It's interesting to go back and see where I was and where I am now...

This post is from November, 2006 - “doing or being???”

Recent discussions have led to me reflecting on the Christian life. More specifically, I have been wrestling with the constant need for us to package faith into a specific list of things we do. And if we get this list just right, well… then life is good, right? Um, I am not so sure…

Unfortunately the biggest cause of anxiety for many people is the question of “what do I need to do to get to heaven?” Well, I have difficulties with this question. Firstly, is the Christian life really summed up with getting to heaven? Perhaps when Jesus talks about his “kingdom” he was referring to a faith that involved life here on earth beyond just some sort of other-world reality. While I am not at all suggesting that heaven will not be a reality, I believe that the Christian life is concerned with now. Secondly, this question centers around the idea of us doing something in order to attain some level of acceptance before God. While our thoughts and actions do impact our faith, they are only a part. Rather than doing “Christian” things, I wonder if God isn’t more concerned with us being Christian. Could the Christian faith be more about being than doing?
How does this look? Well, with the distinction of being over doing, there is the implication that faith is more than just part of our identity, but actually is our identity. Obviously this kind of faith is more than just an intellectual agreement or a simple trust placed in some sort of greater reality. Faith is life!

Now, making this distinction is just the beginning. How this looks for life or the Christian faith is a question that needs exploring. Hopefully I can discuss this more in the future, and in the meantime if anyone has suggestions, feel free to comment!

**Note** - Much of my blog since this early post has had this discussion in the background. Doing and being is still something I wrestle with as a follower of Jesus. I don't want to be a busy Christian (doing), but I also don't want my faith to be complacent or internalized (being). I'm beginning to prefer language of discipleship and faithfulness together instead of doing and being.

Why Apologetics?

I’ve always wrestled with Christian apologetics. I’m not a fan of the term itself. It’s too easily misunderstood, the most common misconception that apologetics is about saying sorry we’re Christians. But I’m also not a fan of overly rationalized versions of apologetics that try too hard to fit Christians belief into categories of knowledge that are absent in the Bible (e.g. scientific explanation of Genesis 1-11). I’m also wary of a tendency in apologetics to shout. And by shout I mean to respond to criticism of Christianity by simply asserting Christian beliefs more strongly, even angrily. Furthermore, I don’t like the trend of overstating just how bad “they” (i.e. non-Christians) are as a basis for defending the faith. To me, this starting point seems more about bolstering our self-esteem, resulting in unhelpful “us-them” categories that discourage any sort of meaningful dialogue before it even begins. As a result of these hesitations, my caricature (I’ll admit it is one) is that apologetics is a discipline for arrogant, judgemental rationalists who are more concerned with being right than loving others.

I’m glad my caricature is wrong. Thanks Alister McGrath!

Alister McGrath is a bright man. A former atheist himself - one heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis’ journey and understanding of faith - McGrath could easily succeed in the type of apologetics I describe above (maybe not the angry part - I don’t know him personally). McGrath has quite capably interacted and challenged New Atheism. It’s safe to say McGrath is a proven and successful Christian apologist.

But it’s not McGrath’s credentials that make his approach to apologetics so appealing - it’s his overall approach. In his recent book, Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers & Skeptics Find Faith, McGrath presents an approach to apologetics that gives me hope. While offering a solid overview and introduction to the discipline itself, McGrath presents a way of apologetics that is relevant for our time. He addresses shifts in culture - the current state of modern and postmodern ways of thinking that so heavily influence Christianity. In such a time, McGrath’s apologetics is all about pointing out “the reasonableness of the Christian faith” in whatever context people find themselves in. As such, apologetics is about addressing the whole package of Christianity, not just the intellect - “For Christians, faith is not merely cognitive (‘I believe this is true’), but also relational and existential (‘I trust this person’). It is not just believing that God exists, but discovering that this God is wise, loving, and good—and choosing to commit ourselves to this God as a result.” In this manner, apologetics serves evangelism, portraying the credibility of the good news (i.e. gospel) we share with others.

It is from this framework that McGrath makes apologetics very accessible and appealing. His manner of presentation is humble, yet assertive. He is open about the challenges Christianity presents for people and invites dialogue not argument. The book is easy to read without lacking depth. There are many practical examples and discussion/stories for how apologetics relates to everyday life. And for those so inclined, the resource list at the end of each chapter helpfully points the reader to places to dig deeper.

Overall, I’d recommend Mere Apologetics to anyone interested in apologetics but wondering where to start. Or if you’re like me, Mere Apologetics can hopefully restore your view of apologetics, inspiring your own understanding of the reasonableness of the Christian faith in all times and places.

"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group"

Ash Wednesday?

What’s with Ash Wednesday?

Well, it marks the beginning of Lent - the 40 days of preparation leading up to Easter.

I didn’t grow up celebrating Ash Wednesday. Or Lent for that matter. Like most free-church traditions, my evangelical-Mennonite church background stayed away from liturgical practices. We didn’t get caught up in that “ritual stuff” (which is usually code for "we just think our rituals are cooler than your rituals").

But that’s changing, for me personally, but also in the broader evangelical culture. Many Christians - and not just “liturgical” ones - are realizing the value in assigning seasons to the biblical narrative in our Christian lives. I’ve already written a bit about that in regard to the Christian Seasons Calendar.

Ash Wednesday, then, is an important day in the Christian calendar. It’s a day when Christians gather to mark their foreheads with ashes in the symbol of the cross, to begin the observance of Lent. The ash marks one’s identification with Christ’s journey to the cross - “Take up your cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34). In a sense, it’s a symbolizing mark of our ongoing repentance - our turning towards Jesus. And repentance, we must remember, is all about allegiance - making Jesus Lord and following in the steps of our King. Ash Wednesday starts our journey - Lent - identifying with Jesus' journey.

The 40 days of Lent, then, extend the imagery of the ashes (repentance) into a time of devotion to what it means to align oneself (individual) and ourselves (communal) with the way of Jesus. Repentance - the symbol of Ash Wednesday - is not a one time thing. Repentance is the dynamic decision to live a life in participation with Jesus wherever that journey leads.

I share again a prayer for Lent from Henri Nouwen I first shared five years ago:
How often have I lived through these weeks without paying much attention to penance, fasting, and prayer? How often have I missed the spiritual fruits of the season without even being aware of it? But how can I ever really celebrate Easter without observing Lent? How can I rejoice fully in your Resurrection when I have avoided participating in your death?

Yes, Lord, I have to die—with you, through you, and in you—and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your Resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess.... I see clearly now how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it.

O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen."

(A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee)

Purpose Driven Anabaptists?

My last post queried, "Anabaptist Empire?"

Well, after reading an article on mega-church pastor Rick Warren and Anabaptism, I'm now wondering this: Purpose-Driven Anabaptists?
Renowned evangelical pastor and author Rick Warren recently said Anabaptism has shaped him, his books and his 20,000-member church in Southern California.

“For 32 years, we have been building Saddleback Church on the lessons I’ve learned from the Anabaptists,” he said at a conference on “Anabaptism and Contemporary Baptists” Jan. 30-31 at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

I'm not sure if this development in the popularity of Anabaptism is encouraging or discouraging. Maybe Warren's next book will be Purpose-Driven Anabaptism. Does popularity of a radical movement cheapen or deepen Anabaptist beliefs and values in a culture so at odds with things like community-discipleship and and peace/non-violence?

Anabaptist Empire?

In my last post on Stuart Murray’s Naked Anabaptist I left with an image of “church on the fringes” that is diverse in expression.

Inevitable with diversity is conflict. And as Murray rightly points out (ch. 7), the Anabaptists have many shortcomings and have endured many internal conflicts. The movement is far from perfect!

Yet there are two values that can offer some correction to the conflict and division. Murray describes justice and peace as central to Anabaptist identity and mission. Instead of focusing on growth - building sustainable structures and organizations - Anabaptists have a “spirituality of ‘enough.’” Values of “simplicity and contentment” reflect a connection between spirituality and economics where there is a “working out together how to be disciples of Jesus in the area of economics” seeking justice and equality for all, especially those on the fringes. The thought of growing an Anabaptist Empire to compete with the world or other forms of Christianity is not even on the radar.

Similarly, the centrality of peace in theology and practice drives Anabaptists to seek unity amidst diversity. And despite countless examples where this hasn’t been the case, the value remains central. Peace and nonviolence requires great humility after all. The way of Jesus as a way of peace is not simply “an instance of the church capitulating to a cultural trend but a deeply rooted conviction, tested in the fires of persecution, which has endured for five centuries...Peace is at the heart of the gospel.” This requires giving up control of the church’s growth and influence in the present - the spirituality of ‘enough’ relates here I think - and choosing to “align...with the future to which God is leading history.

When I think of Christian influence in the world, and the great diversity not just in Anabaptism, but all of Christianity, this line always gets me:

Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other.

There will be no Anabaptist Empire. In fact, behind this belief is the biblical notion that there is only one true empire - the peaceable kingdom with Jesus as Lord and King.

Gospel: Salvation or Jesus?

I recently asked this question to a group of young adults: What is one word you’d use to define the Christian Gospel (ie. “good news”)?

Jesus, salvation, hope, happiness, love, fulfillment, expectation...

Good answers I think. And not surprisingly, there was a variety of suggestions. It’s interesting how a small group reflects 2000 years of church history - diversity!

But looking at the words, besides possibly “Jesus,” there was one underlying commonality: personal benefit. The words were used in the context of how does the gospel apply to me. Gospel = salvation, especially personal salvation. In this manner, the four spiritual laws make a lot of sense and have been an effective strategy to clearly communicate the gospel since the mid-20th century. It's convincing...to individuals. Many, if not most, evangelicals could trace their own faith to this definition and experience of the gospel. And don’t get me wrong, personal salvation is a very important part of the good news of Christianity.

But is personal salvation the good news itself? Is salvation the starting point of the gospel?

"No" says Scot McKnight in a recent set of lectures in Vancouver, BC (put on by the wonderful folks at the Regent College Bookstore). The talks were based on his book, King Jesus Gospel.

McKnight argues that the trend in evangelicalism to equate the gospel with personal salvation removes the narrative context of salvation we find in the Bible. With conversion the focus, the biblical emphases of community (ie. God’s people) and discipleship become optional. Following Jesus is secondary to accepting Jesus. But this is not what the Bible teaches!

For an alternative, the Sunday School answer does apply: Gospel = Jesus. But not just the cosmic Jesus who comes to endure God’s wrath and remove my sin in order to secure my heavenly boxseats in Afterlife Arena. No, Jesus is good news because he represents the fullness of God’s work in the world for all people. It's not just about me and my eternal destiny.

Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s story - the account of God calling all people to himself, first through Israel as a blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:8) and now in the form of the church living in the resurrection-reality of Jesus as Lord and King (1 Cor. 15:1-28). Jesus comes as Israel’s true king, which as God originally intended, then extends to all people (Gal. 3:28).

From this perspective Jesus is Lord and King before he is savior. Human response, then, goes beyond conversion and calls for allegiance and participation as citizens of Jesus’ kingdom (read the gospel of Mark!). Personal salvation is part of this fulfillment, no doubt. Citizens receive benefits under a good king after all. But personal salvation isn’t the starting point. The gospel is the complex story of Jesus creating and recreating community in the world - God’s community past, present, and future. The Bible and subsequent history is the narrative of God’s people. And instead of a list of ideas or beliefs, we know the good news through a story.

And the invitation to respond to this good news? Well, instead of four steps to personal salvation, the invitation to individuals is both profoundly simple and profoundly hard: Make Jesus king. Follow Jesus. Join the Jesus-community. Risk putting yourself in the ongoing saga of the Jesus-story.

The Voice (sorry, not the tv show!)

When it comes to the Bible, you may think the last thing we need is another translation. I mean really, the Bible (or portions of it) has been translated into over 2,000 languages and there have been over 450 attempts to render this centuries-old book into English from the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Why more?

Part of the reason is when our culture changes, so does our language and primary ways of understanding. We don’t say “Thou” and “Thee” so why should our Bibles!?! The reason for new translations, then, is to adapt to change.

But a big challenge, then, is who decides what and how we adapt our translations of the Bible? Typically, it’s the “experts.” Linguistic experts in Hebrew and Greek along with Old and New Testament scholars work diligently to translate the text in a manner faithful to the original text. All of this while also attempting to communicate clearly to the modern reader. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

A recent translation, The Voice - New Testament, takes this process a step further. Instead of only experts in language and Bible, this translation combines biblical expertise with cultural expertise - artists, poets, writers, musicians, and others.

In our dynamic 21st Century culture, The Voice attempts to recognize the cultural interest in narrative and translate the Bible accordingly. It represents “a Scripture project to rediscover the story of the Bible.”

For the most part I think they achieve their goal. Each book reflects a distinctive style, reflecting the diversity of New Testament writers. Italic additions within the text add clarity to difficult nuances we’d otherwise miss. Dialogue is creatively presented in a screen-play format. Take the Greatest Commandment as an example:
Pharisees: Teacher, of all the laws, which commandment is the greatest?

Jesus (quoting Scripture): “Love the Eternal One your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is nearly as important, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The rest of the law, and all the teachings of the prophets, are but variations on these themes.
While some of the updated titles for Jesus and God weren’t my favorite in terms of readability (e.g. “Eternal One” and “Anointed One”), such shifts do force the reader to examine the meanings behind the names and titles we use for God and Jesus.

Overall, The Voice offers a fresh and creative perspective on an age-old text. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a 21st Century-angle on the Bible that takes biblical and language scholarship seriously but through the lens of artistic expression.

"New Testament has been provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Thomas Nelson".

praying for hockey

This ad in Montreal has been making waves this morning:

For those of who don't know French (I don't!), the ad, paid for by the Catholic Church in Montreal, lists all the hockey teams in the NHL's Eastern Conference except the Montreal Canadians. The final playoff spot simply says "Let us pray" (prion).

Clever ad campaign in a hockey-crazy anti-religious culture?

Or sad attempt to retain an ounce of relevance in the face of declining Christian influence?


holy buildings?

Church buildings. There is much diversity in how people view church buildings in the life of a Christian, ranging from holy places of divine presence, to mere bricks and mortar, wood and nails, to a complete hindrance and distraction from God's people being who they are - God's people (not a building!). The issue recently came up in articles and responses in the MB Herald, my denominational magazine.

The following is my own contribution (which can also be read here):

Re “No pagan worship in the sanctuary” (Letters, January). Recent letters address the role of church buildings in a multi-faith society. There is an obvious concern that we don’t accept or blend other religions with our own – and rightly so.

But is closing the doors to our buildings the right answer to this concern? Is the Old Testament understanding of the temple our guide for use of church meeting spaces? While Jesus’ life and teaching renew the OT emphasis on the people of God and their role in the world, he continually pushed against an over-reliance on the religious structures represented by the temple. The temple, with all its pious religiosity, failed to represent the people of God to the world. The curtain was torn in two after all (Mark 15:38). The people of God were left without a building. Thus Paul talks about our bodies as “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

A church building doesn’t create or sustain faithfulness. We need holy living, not holy buildings. And let’s be clear: sharing space is not the same as sharing a god (e.g. joint worship/prayer). We can still maintain our beliefs and practices while sharing a building – look at any church that rents
public space.

In fact, perhaps sharing space is exactly what we need to share God in the proper sense – to share the gospel of Jesus Christ, the “good news” that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). Whether it’s through creative art, welcoming atmosphere, or general hospitality, we have the opportunity – through our buildings – to show God’s love to all people.

masculine christianity?

There has been a buzz around the inter-webs this past week over the phrase “masculine Christianity.” It’s mainly in response to one prominent Christian leader’s assertion that “God has given Christianity a masculine feel” (John Piper).

One response from Christian leader Rachel Held Evans calls on Christian men to weigh in the on the issue. Good idea. So, here are my two quick thoughts:

First, to modify the phrase above, “God has given Christianity a cultural feel.” Quite simply, history’s cultural values will invariably influence how Christianity is practiced and communicated. On the issue of roles for women and men I definitely think this is the case. Does the Bible use a lot of patriarchal language? Yes it does. But it was written a long time ago in a very different culture. To believe the historically particular text of the Bible is authoritative for faith and practice is to wade through 2000-years of cultural shifts, realizing in the process that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8) in every time and culture. Jesus doesn't change, but the times sure do. So should we.

Which brings me to my second, quite unoriginal thought: Jesus is our example. Some may view my first point as simply letting culture determine our Christian faith and practice. Well, no. I’m just saying we need to start with Jesus’ example of engaging culture. For instance, biblical leadership is often a big part of the masculine Christianity discussion. Classic texts are heralded as clarifying male headship in church and family (e.g. 1 Tim. 2, Eph. 5:22-33). But rarely do we hear people quote what Jesus had to say to his band of soon-to-be leaders: “Blessed are the poor in spirit...those who mourn...the meek...those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...the merciful...the pure in heart...the peacemakers, those who are persecuted because of righteousness” (Mt. 5:3-10). Profound teaching on leadership and life.

But what about male and female roles? Isn't that teaching for all followers of Jesus? Yes, Jesus’ teaching is for all followers. The way of Jesus - man, woman, leader or otherwise - is for all.

Let’s stop separating following Jesus from leading for Jesus; or from being a man for Jesus; or from being a woman for Jesus. There is only one Jesus we follow - the Jesus that is for all.

for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

church on the fringes

In my last post on Anabaptism related to Stuart Murray’s book, Naked Anabaptist, I asked this question: Is the language of "witness" just semantics, or does the church's role in the world significantly change once we accept our role as witnesses in our post-Christian reality?

The church as witness - a voice to God’s presence in the world - implies a move to the fringes, a posture of observation, not control. In a post-Christendom society, witness provides an alternative identity for the church to live by. No longer a central institution - authority and influence - the church is now free to focus on the biblical values of community and discipleship (ch. 5) in a fresh way, witness to a alternative reality.

Now, Murray realizes not everyone is ready to accept a shift in role for the church. “Most Christians continue to participate, enthusiastically or reluctantly, in expressions of church that have been inherited from the Christendom era. Indeed, the largest and most vibrant churches are traditional in style, conservative in doctrine, autocratic or managerial in leadership style, patriarchal, and institutional. Many of these churches look with disdain at the fragile communities emerging alongside them, seeing no need to take cognizance of the end of Christendom or to adapt more than pragmatically for a changing culture.”

But it’s unclear if such resistance to change is sustainable. What if this type of sentiment is just a last ditch effort to save the church’s centrality in culture? What if this represents “the last generation for whom Christendom is their natural habitat" as Murray ponders?

If indeed churches continue to decline in formal cultural influence (not necessarily size), a posture as witness will no doubt require cooperation and unity amid the diversity that is global Christianity. Not only will Christians need to give up control of cultural influence, they will need to give control of Christian uniformity, lest our only witness becomes the church in conflict, where internal bickering and theological policing characterize our witness to the world. 1 John 4:11 anybody? Again, Murray offers timely advice: “A time of transition calls for provisionality and generosity, rather than dogmatism and competition...Post-Christendom is likely too diverse for any one expression of church to be adequate.”