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

Looking for God

SunsetI looked for God for a long time. My search took me to all kinds of places.

I looked for God in achievement and success; I found some short-term satisfaction in accolades and public approval… but I eventually found that these things could not make up for the lack inside my soul.

I looked for God in church and ministry: this seemed promising, because everyone talked about God and did all kinds of spiritual-sounding stuff. But ultimately I found there was a lot of hot air, a good deal of warm, fuzzy experiences… and not a whole lot of real substance.

I looked for God in the Bible. I found a lot of truth there, and I definitely saw glimpses of God there… but I also found a lot of religion and dogma, and texts being read and interpreted in ways that forced them into boxes they were never meant to fit.

I looked for God in family and relationships… and while I found a whole lot of love and goodness, I learned that others could not and should not be made to bear the weight of my own dependency and need. Continue reading

Going deep

Coelho woundsA few days ago, I saw a video shared on Facebook about the way in which God pursues relationship with us. On one level, it was just another faintly cheesy God-thinks-you’re-worth-it video that could easily be dismissed as yet more Christian schmaltz. But the voiceover included one phrase that resonated deeply with something embedded deep in my understanding and experience.

In seeking to account for our fallen human state, as demonstrated by our endless capacity for misunderstanding, rivalry and one-upmanship, this video spoke of our sense of lack and incompleteness.

This is something I find to be true not because it says so in the Bible, but because I know it in my own life.

We can all think of extreme manifestations of this lack and our attempts to fill it: the alcoholic who tries to quell the unbearable awfulness of reality through drink; the drug addict who seeks to numb her existential pain by injecting mind-altering toxins into her blood stream; the compulsive porn user who retreats from the complexity and pain of real-world relationships into the comforting virtual arms of a non-existent lover.

These are arguably all cases of our prevailing sense of lack and incompleteness driving us to seek comfort in some easily attainable temporal refuge. Continue reading

Author interview: Anthony Bartlett, Pascale’s Wager

A few days ago, I published an interview with theologian and author Anthony Bartlett about his book Virtually ChristianIf you want to get an idea of where he’s coming from theologically, it would be best to go back and read that interview before you move onto the rest of today’s post. That will also save me repeating my mini-biography of the author. Go on, read it: I’ll wait for you.

Today’s post is a follow-up interview based on another book of Tony’s, titled Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven. This book is a very different animal from Virtually Christian, the most obvious difference being that it’s a novel. Perhaps the easiest way for me to give you an idea what to expect is to quote the synopsis found on the book’s back cover:

Cal and Poll belong to a world of brutal cold, relentless routine, and hi-tech religion. They live in the frozen Homeland, the artificially engineered last-stand of humanity on an earth wrecked by storm and flood. While cal tries to block out her world, Poll continually questions it. He is drawn instinctively to the remote young woman, believing she alone has the abilities to help him get answers. Very soon the two of them are pitted against the old order, demanding to know the truth even if it turns their whole existence upside down. Step by step their journey of discovery brings them to a dramatically different place, beyond anything they could have imagined…

Pascale’s Wager is a bold and unusual book, for at least a couple of reasons. First, while there is no shortage of post-apocalyptic fiction, this book is set in a future world that is both dystopian and utopian. Second, it’s written by a theologian, and so works on two levels: the narrative itself, which is quite self-contained, and the deeper meanings that are illustrated and explicated through that narrative. It is at this second, deeper level that Pascale’s Wager gives the reader much to ponder; I found it to be in some sense a social, theological, anthropological and spiritual commentary on the world and its future trajectory. If you like futuristic science fiction with a difference, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

Anyway, enough from me. Let’s get to the interview.

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PW coverRob G: Thanks for being willing to answer some more questions, this time about Pascale’s Wager. First, I’m interested in how you found the writing process. Having previously written theological non-fiction, what gave you the idea of writing a novel?

Anthony Bartlett: The thing about Pascale’s Wager is that it says more than I can think, or think logically, if you see what I mean. A story works on many levels, and some of them may not make complete sense in a standard sort of universe. But that’s okay because you go with them for the sake of the larger picture they make possible. As Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth”. It is this larger picture I was interested in (and still am), and at this level the picture exceeds what you can express in strict propositions. For me PW has the excitement and thrill of opening a space you hardly know exists and yet in some way you do know otherwise you would not write it. Writing in this way is completely different from writing formal theology. But, at the same time, it is deeply related to theology. Theology is about something you cannot see directly with your eyes, although you see evidence of it in many different ways. A story like PW can suggest to the mind’s eye a theological truth that reason and even rhetoric would struggle to present. So, having done some of that other kind of writing I decided to turn to fiction as a way of communicating. I thought, “If you let your imagination almost out of control, or just this side of the impossible, then something new can become visible”. At the same time the story has to stand up, it has to work. In fact it is only in writing a successful story, one that draws you in and fills your senses, that the opening up of a new space becomes possible. Continue reading

Author interview: Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian

VC BartlettI apologise for my long media silence. I was away on holiday (“vacation”, for you North American readers) for a week or two, after which it’s taken a while for my thoughts to return to anything so mundane as regular blogging.

Anyway… today I’d like to introduce you to an author who is probably new to most readers. However, rather than post a straightforward book review, I asked the author in question if he’d be prepared to answer some interview questions. He was happy to do so, and his answers will hopefully give you more insight into his work than I alone would be able to provide.

This is the first of two book reviews, so make sure you come back in a few days for the follow-up to this post.

Before we get into the interview proper, let me introduce our author. Tony Bartlett emigrated with his family from Britain to the US in 1994. He has a PhD from Syracuse University’s Department of Religion and has taught theology in seminaries and local church programmes. Born in 1946, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in his mid-20s, resigning the clerical ministry in 1984. He currently resides in Syracuse, New York, and leads a small study and prayer fellowship with his wife. In addition to Virtually Christian, he has also written Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement and a futuristic novel, Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven.

So, onto today’s interview-cum-review. Virtually Christian was published in 2011, and claims on the back cover to sketch a picture of “a God deeply implicated in the human story and labouring with us for a transformed earth”. Having read it a few months ago, I can tell you that this book is a radical and searching re-examination of the meaning of the gospel and its significance and impact in the modern world.

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Rob G: If you had to write a two or three sentence summary of Virtually Christian, what would it be?

Anthony Bartlett: Like the tiny coral which over time produces a massive reef, the Christian Gospel has uniquely refashioned the human landscape. The nonviolence and forgiveness of the Crucified One has seeped into the deep structure of human affairs, throwing into relief the victims of human violence, and, at the same time, evoking life-giving responses of compassion, forgiveness and nonviolence. In this sense our world can rightly be called “virtually Christian.” Continue reading