Believer or follower?

Follow JesusI’m painfully aware that I haven’t blogged much lately. Sometimes you go through a patch where inspiration is harder to find; something I’m learning is that it’s best at such times to simply take the pressure off yourself and wait for your mojo to return. So think of this as a seasonal slump, and fear not: I’m sure I’ll soon be back in full swing.

In the meantime, today I’d like to share a simple thought that I’ve been pondering recently.

It seems to me that in many cases, the Christian faith has been reduced to a set of propositional truths. Faced with the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”, I suspect many people would give an answer along the lines that being a Christian means believing in various doctrines. Further, the required doctrines are often nicely summed up in a church statement of beliefs or, failing that, we can easily fall back on one of the historic creeds.

The point is that for many people, being a Christian is purely about what you believe.

In light of how Jesus lived and what he taught, I find this curious. Continue reading

Book review: Questions Are The Answer by David Hayward

Hayward questionsToday I’m delighted to be reviewing the brand new offering by David Hayward, Questions Are The Answer: Nakedpastor and the Search for Understanding.

[Apologies for the lack of recent posts: I’ve been on holiday. (North Americans, that means vacation.)]

Anyone who’s been around the “Christian internet” for any length of time will know David Hayward as the (in)famous Naked Pastor, who styles himself a “graffiti artist on the walls of religion” and has been posting irreverent but piercingly insightful cartoons on a near-daily basis since 2006. While Questions Are The Answer is not his first book, it is surely his most personal and widely accessible writing to date.

In short, the book recounts Hayward’s story from childhood dreams of pastoral ministry through to his current status as unofficial agent provocateur and commentator on all things related to western religion and its shortcomings.

At the core of this book, as its title indicates, is the idea of paradox: Hayward sets out to show that, while much of the Western evangelical church is unrelentingly engaged in hot pursuit of dogmatic certainty, the real satisfaction is, in fact, to be found in the very questions that stimulate uncertainty and prevent crystallised certainty. The genius of the book is that Hayward accomplishes his task not by setting out an apologetic or series of arguments, but by simply and honestly telling his own story. As we read about his childhood and teenage passions, his on-off love affair with more than one church community, his theological studies, and his processing of all this with wife and close friends, we feel not threatened but rather privileged to have a disarmingly real and vulnerable insight into one person’s spiritual development. Continue reading

The judgement of the cross

INRI

“Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (John 12:31)

Christians are generally accustomed to speaking of the cross as the place and time where God enacted judgement on the world. But what does this actually mean, and what are its implications?

Usually, the cross as the place of judgement is understood to mean the physical location where God poured out his wrath upon Jesus. Here, wrath is understood as the punishment for our sin which God, in his justice, is obliged to mete out: namely death. And Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, gamely hangs on the cross in our place and bears the brunt of God’s implacable justice so that we, in spite of our sin, can escape punishment.

And the cross as the time of judgement is understood as the point in history when God sovereignly intervened in human affairs to solve humanity’s sin problem as described above.

So there we have it: time and place come together at the cross as Jesus bears God’s punishment for our sin. This, then, is the judgement of the cross: a resounding verdict of “Guilty!” pronounced upon the human race by God, accompanied by an unappealable death sentence. The twist is that Christ comes in as an innocent victim to serve the sentence in our place.

This is what I believed without a second thought for most of my Christian life. Until I began, through a process of reading and thinking, to see some gaping holes in it: Continue reading

On social media and the purchasing of worth

Social mediaI have clearly been somewhat quiet lately on the blogging front, for which I apologise. All I can say is, sometimes inspiration can’t be forced; you just have to wait for it and be ready when it comes.

Anyway… I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Facebook and other social media.

Or rather, to back up a little, I’ve been thinking about our addictive tendencies as human beings, and how social media taps right into them and exploits them.

I’d like to quote from a couple of authors before bringing this brief reflection back to the specific topic of social media.

First, in his book Addiction and Grace, Gerald G. May writes that “all people are addicts… to be alive is to be addicted.” I happen to strongly agree with that view. My contention is that those who don’t agree with it are simply not yet aware of their own particular addictions.

Second, for the past ten years or so, one of my favourite writers on things spiritual – and one of those who have most influenced me – has been the late Brennan Manning. (If you don’t know of him, do yourself a favour and get acquainted. You could pick any of his books as a starting point and not risk disappointment.) His book Abba’s Child has a chapter titled “The Impostor”, in which he sets out to describe in detail the notion of the “false self”. This is the artificial self that we are subconsciously compelled to present to others in an effort to gain approval and acceptance. In doing so, we tend to bury the real us – the true self – and thus we end up working increasingly hard to manage and hide the growing gulf between who we are deep down and who we sincerely and desperately want everyone else to believe we are.

Here is a sentence from the aforementioned chapter of Abba’s Child:

Living out of the false self creates a compulsive desire to present a perfect image to the public so that everybody will admire us and nobody will know us.

Continue reading

Repost: on love and non-violence

This is a very slightly edited version of a post that originally appeared in May 2014.

3010722547_234ed82d0e_oIn his first epistle, the Apostle John tells us that God is love. To me, this means that if you boil it all down, if you strip away all the metaphysical and philosophical baggage and offload all the man-made religion, you are left with the essence of what God is: love.

But what is love?

In modern culture, of course, love has often been either trivialised into soppy romanticism or confused with lust, with sex as its purest and most exalted expression. Needless to say, neither of these comes close to describing the kind of love that God is.

Here’s what Jesus had to say about love: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

I would say it’s pretty clear, then: the pinnacle of love is not romance, sentimentality or even some kind of general fondness or affection; the pinnacle of love is self-sacrifice. This is why the purest expression of the very nature of God – which is love – is Christ upon the cross.

Now, think for a moment about violence. What is violence? Here’s my proposed working definition: violence is the use of force – whether psychological, verbal, physical or armed – either to impose one’s will upon another individual or group or to protect’s one’s family, friends or property. Continue reading

Some thoughts on church growth

HillsongSaddleback Church in California, pastored by Rick Warren of Purpose Driven Life fame, recently announced a three-year, $71 million fundraising campaign to finance what leaders are calling its “largest and most ambitious plan ever to expand the mega-church’s ministry”. Yes, that’s right, your eyes didn’t deceive you: I said $71 million.

This is a staggeringly large amount of money, and I guess it’s a fair bet that a good chunk of it will go into bricks and mortar and technology. But I don’t really want to get into a critique of Saddleback Church itself. This news has, however, had me pondering about church growth and how it is understood and pursued, particularly among western evangelical churches.

You see, to me this is a striking example of how much of the western church relentlessly pursues numerical growth as the one and only valid mark of “success”. Indeed, at this point I’d say that a good many churches and church leaders have numerical growth firmly at the top of their list of signs of a “successful” church.

The reason I’m putting “success” and “successful” in quotes is that when it comes to church purpose and vision, I don’t think the word “success” should even be part of the conversation.

All I really want to do today is offer some brief thoughts on why it is that so many western evangelical churches have bought into the “success as numerical growth” paradigm. (Note that I didn’t say “all evangelical churches”, or even “most evangelical churches”… so please don’t shoot me down in flames as a church-hater, because I’m not. I’ve been a paid-up member of evangelical churches for thirty years, and still am as of today.)

So, here are three of the top reasons why I think a great many western evangelical churches are sold out on numerical growth: Continue reading

On fearing God

FearToday I’d like to talk a little bit about God and fear. Specifically, about how the two are often deeply intertwined in our thinking.

It seems to me that fear is closely associated with our default understanding of God. Indeed, we might even say that for many people, fear is the instinctive emotional response to thoughts of God. Long-established expressions like “to put the fear of God into someone” illustrate just how intimately the emotion of fear is connected with the idea of God.

And, of course, those wishing to draw on the Bible to support the notion that fear is an appropriate response to God can do so with ease. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, we are told in Proverbs 9:10. And there’s no shortage of accounts throughout the text of scripture where God or his angels appear to strike fear into people’s hearts.

So, fear is typically quite ingrained in our psyche as a response to God, and many assume that the Bible validates its appropriateness. Continue reading