Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Religion (Page 1 of 4)

Book review: Postcards from Babylon by Brian Zahnd

America is an empire, which means the biblical forebear with which it should rightly be most closely associated is not Israel but Babylon. Such is the contention of Missouri-based pastor and author Brian Zahnd in his most recent book Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile, released January 2019.

The parallel between the modern day United States of America and biblical Babylon, that great whore and arch-enemy of Christ, is one that is rarely drawn. Understandably, the average freedom-loving American patriot might initially balk at it. But such is the force and clarity of Brian’s prophetic message and writing that the parallel, once seen, is hard to ignore and even harder to dispute.

All of Brian’s books (see here, here and here) have a prophetic edge, but none so sharp as in Postcards. Now, I realise “prophetic” is one of those words that is sometimes all too easily assigned to a message or book to give it a certain aura of authority and relevance; be assured I do not use it in such glib fashion here. If the hallmarks of prophecy include proclaiming inconvenient truths, urging faithfulness in an age of compromise and holding the church to account, then Postcards is more prophetic a work than most. The great Walter Brueggemann – he of The Prophetic Imagination fame – thinks so too, writing in the foreword:

The more I learn of Zahnd’s work, the more I have deep respect and appreciation for his truth-telling. This book is a reprimand and an invitation to his fellow evangelicals about how the way has been lost and what it will mean to ‘come home,’ because it is a gift to come down where we ought to be! Beyond his immediate circle, however, Zahnd addresses all of us, because all of us in the Christian community in the U.S. are too readily narcotized by the mantras of Caesar, Constantine, and their continuing heirs.

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Religious bathwater, moral baby

I have recently become aware of a growing trend among some Christians in favour of open marriage, sometimes also referred to as polyamory.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines polyamory as “the practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the consent of all the people involved”. The idea is that a married couple may mutually agree that either or both spouses are free to pursue relationships – including sexual intimacy – with other people, while remaining married to each other.

It seems obvious to me that such an arrangement is fraught with potential difficulties. Putting in the effort required to maintain one committed relationship is a huge enough undertaking; I seriously doubt most people’s ability to successfully pull it off with more than one. There is the potential for jealousy, rivalry, anger and all kinds of other troublesome emotions to arise within any given relationship; how much more when one is involved in multiple relationships, especially given the human tendency to make comparisons? And I could go on.

Of course, proponents of polyamory will produce counter-arguments in response to just about any concern you may care to raise. However, the purpose of this post is not to lay out a solid argument against polyamory.

So why am I raising this issue at all?

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Metaphysical Jesus

The farther I proceed on my theological and experiential journey, the more convinced I am that one of the most fundamental mistakes many churches and believers have made is to turn the Jesus of the Gospels into a kind of abstract spiritual persona.

Let me explain.

For many evangelicals in particular, the important thing is to have a “relationship with Jesus”. That might sound very earthy and real, but in practice what it usually amounts to is believing that Jesus somehow lives inside you, having conversations with him, either out loud or in your head, singing to and/or about him with other believers at church and, most importantly of all, believing that he is the Son of God who died to free you from the curse of sin, death and hell. Do all this and you can be assured of your ticket to heaven.

I realise that one might easily conclude from the above paragraph that I am deriding huge and important aspects of Christian practice, namely faith, prayer and worship. However, that’s not my purpose. I’d simply like to ask one question about this approach to Christianity: just who or what is this Jesus with whom one has a relationship?

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Time to evolve

10161720723_34754dee50_kIt is time for the human species to evolve.

According to the theory of evolution, when a species encounters a crisis that threatens its very existence (for example, some kind of significant change in its physical environment), it must either adapt or risk extinction.

I believe the human species is facing a crisis that threatens its very existence. I’m not talking about a crisis arising from a change in the physical environment (though, of course, manmade climate change may well present such a crisis). I’m talking about the crisis that arises from a lethal combination of two factors: first, our ongoing inability or unwillingness to tolerate difference, and second, the increasingly easy availability of deadly technology.

Simply put, if we as a species do not learn to get along, sooner or later some group or nation is going to unleash destruction on an unprecedented scale. It’s a question of when, not if. If that happens, the best case scenario is that we will move (or rather regress) into an era of harsh authoritarianism in which the freedoms we cherish will be removed from us in an effort to enforce some kind of artificial “peace”. The worst case scenario is that it will be game over for the human race. Perhaps small pockets of humanity will survive here and there, but as a civilisation we will be back to the drawing board. Maybe that’s what it’s going to take for us to finally learn to live together.

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The cross: religious self-projection or radical discontinuity?

3832056730_e1775658e2_oMost Christians agree that the central, defining feature of Christianity is the cross. I think it’s fair to say that no other religion has such a universally recognised identifying symbol.

However, when it comes to what we understand the cross to mean, things get more complicated. And what we understand the cross to mean is of huge importance, because it shapes our entire understanding of God and what it means to be a Christian.

If I were to put it to a roomful of Christians that God is most perfectly revealed in the crucified Christ, I’m pretty sure I’d get a lot of hearty amens. But the fact that we could all agree that God is most perfectly revealed in Christ upon the cross emphatically does not mean that we have a shared understanding of the cross or what it tells us about God and our relationship to him.

Let’s try to unpack this a bit by exploring two alternative understandings of the cross.

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Did God change?

14148407957_cdfea81f82_oIn this short post, I’d like us to consider two passages of scripture.

Our first passage comes from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. In this chapter, God is giving the prophet Ezekiel instructions on how to restore his glory to the temple. I just want to pick out three verses:

For seven days you shall provide daily a goat for a sin-offering; also a bull and a ram from the flock, without blemish, shall be provided. For seven days shall they make atonement for the altar and cleanse it, and so consecrate it. When these days are over, then from the eighth day onwards the priests shall offer upon the altar your burnt-offerings and your offerings of well-being; and I will accept you, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 43:25-27, NRSV; italics mine)

Of course, there’s plenty more ritual to be performed before we even arrive at this passage, but these three verses alone are enough to give an idea of the hoops you apparently had to jump through if you wanted to be accepted by God.

Now, consider this well-known passage from the fourth Gospel:

But to all who did accept him and believe in him he gave the right to become children of God. They did not become his children in any human way—by any human parents or human desire. They were born of God. (John 1:12-13, NCV; italics mine)

Do you see the contrast? In the first passage above, we have just one example of the myriad hurdles over which priests and ordinary people had to jump if they were to be accepted by God. But in the second passage, the only hurdle that has to be jumped is that of accepting and believing. So what changed? Why did God suddenly decide he no longer needed sacrifices and purification rituals and burnt offerings?

Did God change his mind or his mood? Did Jesus’ death appease him so he could now accept us without blood? Or is something else going on here?

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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.

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