God with us

(Note: this is a slightly edited version of a post first published in December 2013.)

DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was a child, long before I came to faith, I used to imagine God in one of two ways. Sometimes, I would think of Him as a disembodied, all-pervading force that was mainly benevolent, always mysterious and sometimes capricious. Other times, I saw Him as an old man up there in heaven, kindly enough if you caught Him in the right mood, but equally prone to crankiness if you didn’t.

You may have noticed that these two childish but still very prevalent views of God share a common thread: in both of them, God is distant and remote. We are down here and He is up there, and that’s just the way it is.

Now, if you’re a long-time believer, you might well scoff at these uninformed, immature pictures of God. But the truth is that images formed in childhood have tremendous power, and often continue to influence how we relate to God and each other throughout our lives.

Seeing God in these kinds of ways – detached and aloof – tends to force us into a certain posture towards Him. Prayer becomes either an attempt to shout loud enough to catch His ear or an effort to strike the right tone and say the right things to impress Him into giving us what we want. Salvation becomes a momentary event in which He reaches down and slides us across from the “lost” camp into the “saved” camp before returning to whatever He was occupied with before. And the Christian life becomes an ongoing process of trying to second-guess His moods, decipher His will and stay on His good side.

This may sound like a caricature, but I would submit that it is, in fact, a reasonably accurate portrait of how many of us go about our Christian lives much of the time. Continue reading

What kind of God?

NativityFrom the barbaric, sacrificial gods of the earliest civilisations through to the pantheon of Greek and Roman deities, the question has long hung over humanity: what is God like?

Most of us modern, western Christians believe we know what God is like. Ask us to describe him and we will usually come up with an assortment of adjectives such as omnipotent, majestic, sovereign and just. We might, of course, also throw into the mix a few softer descriptors like loving, merciful and compassionate.

Our image of God, I would contend, is typically dominated by strength, power and might, with love, mercy and compassion very much subordinate in the list of God’s attributes. (We could have a separate discussion about why that is; in my view, it’s because we humans tend to hanker after and idealise strength, power and might, so we project those idealised qualities onto God as his primary attributes.)

Now, suppose God were to one day tire of seeing humans guessing at what he was like; suppose he were to decide to settle the matter once and for all by turning up on earth in the flesh. In what manner would this all-powerful, awe-inspiring God come to earth in order to convince humanity of his dominant attributes of strength, power and might? Continue reading

Book review: The Jesus Driven Life by Michael Hardin

Hardin JDLThis is the second book of Michael Hardin’s that I’ve reviewed on this blog. Earlier this year I reviewed his What the Facebook? Posts from the Edge of Christendom.

A bit of background on the author first. Michael Hardin is an American theologian based in Pennsylvania, USA. His background includes time as a seminarian, a pastor and an academic (he is currently working towards a PhD). He has authored and/or edited a number of books, and is executive director of Preaching Peace, a registered charity that exists to spread the good news of the non-violent gospel of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the best way to explain what The Jesus Driven Life is about is to quote the first paragraph from its preface:

This book has been written with two diverse types of readers in mind: readers of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life or William Young’s The Shack. I share certain affinities with both writers and their audiences. These points of juxtaposition might seem to cancel one another out but such is not the case, there is value in both conservative and progressive Christian theology in America today. I do not seek to find a via media between the two but to offer a third way, a new paradigm that incorporates the best (from my perspective) insights of both traditions. Warren’s audience might think I am no longer orthodox; Young’s audience might find me too orthodox.  I have simply tried in this book to reframe orthodoxy in its most generous fashion (to paraphrase Brian McLaren). It seems to me that conversations in both Mainline and Emergent communities require this. Christianity is changing and there is nothing we can do to stop it. It is changing because it is finally being recognized that some theological paradigms handed down to us for centuries or millennia don’t really work and are being given up.

In case the book’s purpose is still not clear to you, let me sum it up this way: whether you’re from a classic evangelical or a more progressive background, if the theological framework you’ve inherited is creaking at the seams and you’re desperate for a more comprehensive, cohesive and coherent way to make sense of the Bible (how’s that for three C’s?!), The Jesus Driven Life might be just what you need.

If I wanted to label it succinctly, I might describe The Jesus Driven Life as a systematic biblical theology for the twenty-first century. Let me break that down for you. Continue reading

Who are you waiting for?

King candleIt seems that the Christmas season begins earlier and earlier. Seasonal goods appear on the supermarket shelves in September, cities switch on their Christmas lights in mid-November, and carols begin to play on the radio before December has arrived… Welcome to Advent, twenty-first century style.

Note: we consumerists don’t like to have to wait for anything. Even if we can’t have the gifts and the baby Jesus today, we’re going to act like we can, waiting be damned.

My church background is Pentecostal, and we Pentecostals are not known for waiting patiently in the in-between times. We tend to hit the highs and ignore pretty much everything else. For example, we ignore Lent, that time of self-deprivation in anticipation of the self-giving of Jesus, and then we more or less skip right over good Friday and rush triumphalistically to Easter Sunday. Similarly, we ignore Advent – the term would not even be recognised by most Pentecostals, except in reference to a calendar with chocolates in it – and jump straight into Christmas on 25 December, when the Saviour’s birth is announced with great pomp, choirs of angels assisting. There is no time for prior reflection on the mystery of Advent, which is about those who dwelled in darkness and did not know the great light was coming (see Isaiah 9:2).

They waited, and they hoped, but they did not know.

Those dark days and years that preceded the coming of Jesus are known to us as the intertestamental period – the period between the Old and New Testaments.

Why were they dark? Continue reading

Book review: Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood

Disarming ScriptureToday I have the privilege of reviewing the new book Disarming Scripture by American theologian, author and blogger Derek Flood. Or rather, to give it its full title, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did. The book is due to release on 1 December, and Derek was kind enough to let me have an advance review copy.

If you’ve been reading along on my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the question of how we approach the Bible, what we do about its many apparent contradictions, and in particular how we are to understand the violent portrayals of God that litter the Old Testament, and which seem to contrast so starkly with the non-violent, enemy-loving picture of God painted by Jesus. In an age where young people are leaving the Church in record numbers and biblical fundamentalism is still very prevalent, I think these are some of the most important questions any follower of Jesus can wrestle with. In my experience, all arguments about God end up being arguments about hermeneutics (how we interpret scripture) – which means that if we don’t address the issue of how to rightly approach the Bible, all other theological questions are moot.

I’m delighted to observe that there is an increasing chorus of very serious and credible voices speaking into this debate and trying to move believers beyond the tired old paradigms of biblical inerrancy and a sometimes-merciful, sometimes-violent God. It is squarely into this space that Derek’s new book speaks, and it does so boldly and clearly.

I’ll say right up front that there are three things about this book that I really appreciate. First, it attempts to address the central issue head on. Whether or not you agree with the author’s proposed approach to resolving the seeming contradictions in the Bible, you will not be able to accuse him of pussyfooting around the issue. Second, this book accomplishes the difficult balancing act of being at once a serious and well thought-out work drawing on scripture, tradition and scholarly sources and a non-academic work that will be completely accessible to the average believer. And third, the author puts forward some new and helpful ideas – at least, they were new to me, and I found them helpful. Continue reading

Our God is…?

WorshippersSomething a little different today.

I’ve written before about how sometimes the words we sing in corporate worship are not necessarily all that well aligned with the truth that Jesus revealed about God. (For example, see this post.) While I don’t want to become a cynic who coldly analyses every song we sing, occasionally I can’t help but be struck by the seeming incongruity of a lyric or the striking emphasis of a song.

For the sake of clarity, the reason I think about such things is not that I want to be a killjoy or that I enjoy splitting hairs and making mountains out of molehills. It’s that I think what we sing as we worship really matters; in fact, I’d say very often it shapes our theology more than the teaching we hear or the books we read.

So, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’ve been thinking about a particular song. At a recent church gathering we sang Chris Tomlin’s worship song Our God. It’s a fine song in many ways – in fact, it’s one that I’ve used many times in my past as a worship leader. In case you’re not familiar with it, here’s a version from YouTube – play it through and have a listen to the lyrics:

Actually, my intention here is not to lay into this song and tear it apart theologically. All I want to say is that as I sang it, I was struck by its emphasis on power and victory. Continue reading

Letting go of fear

No fearThe fear of God, or the fear of the Lord, is a concept with which Christians are intimately familiar. It is found throughout the pages of scripture, mostly (though not exclusively) in the Old Testament. I would say the majority of Christians have been taught to believe that it is a good and necessary thing to fear God. Of the many texts that can be marshalled in support of this view, perhaps the most frequently cited is Psalm 111:10:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.

Most discussions about the fear of God tend to revolve around semantics: does the word fear mean terror, or does it mean respect and reverent admiration? Well, I’m no Bible scholar, but even the most cursory research reveals that the Hebrew word that is here translated fear, yir’ā(h), does indeed carry the notion, among others, of terror or dread.

On the face of it, then, scripture seems to suggest that God is to be feared, that we are to be afraid of him, and that this is a Good Thing.

And yet…

Consider the following scripture:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
(1 John 4:7-8)

So, when the author of 1 John wants to sum up as concisely as possible what God is like, here is what he says: God is love. So far, so uncontroversial. Continue reading