secret conversations

A funny thing happened this week. I was in a discussion with some Christian friends about predestination, hell etc. (you know that conversation, we’ve all had it). One of those friends works for a church. Afterwards, he took me aside: ‘I can tell you’ve been thinking about this and you’re not really satisfied with the traditional view.’ He was right. He was about to recommend a book to me, when we were interrupted. So, just as I was leaving, I asked him about the book. ‘I’ll let you know in an email,’ he replied.

The email came the next day and he explained that he wasn’t willing to recommend the book in front of others, but that I should read it.

On googling the book, I discovered that not even the book’s author would associate his name with it. It was written under a pseudonym.

(you all want to know what the book is now!)

Burning books

So my question is, what is going on? Why the secrecy?

I do it myself. I’d much sooner ask a tricky question of the internet than of my pastor. I’d much sooner post my ideas here than in a Bible study.

We can’t burn books anymore, but do churches have a culture of silence which attempts to achieve the same effect? If we did, can it succeed? Are people actually sheltered from dodgy ideas? Or do they just sit quietly in the pews with their own thoughts and questions, sharing them only with google?

Is it naive to think we should talk openly about our questions and our about ideas about Jesus’ teaching? After all, there is certainly a role for experts; ignorant discussion can take you to some very strange places. So is it better for some things to stay ‘hush hush’ until you’re absolutely positively sure you’re correct? But how can you be sure you’re correct unless you open your ideas up for discussion?

Should we challenge this culture of silence? What would healthy discussion look like?

(and the book is The Evangelical Universalist by ‘Gregory MacDonald’)

Advertisements

tgif

Well, I’ll have to apologise for my absence from the blogosphere recently. My excuse is I’ve been facing conference papers, a writing funk and winter apathy. So this is a massive post because I’ve been saving articles for weeks. Here’s to springtime being just around the corner!

On refugees

I’ve never been so ashamed to be Australian. In 2006 I fell for Rudd’s ‘Faith in Politics’ essay (worth reading) – the PNG ‘solution’ makes me suspicious it was all just a ploy to get my vote. I hope it’s not too late to call on our PM to remember at least what he said he believed.

David Marr Captain Rudd steers Australia into new depths of shame

Tracee Hutchinson An unconventional take on the refugee convention

Tim Costello Election is a time for welcome

While I’m whinging about the political state of affairs, here’s a great website from the Bible Society comparing political parties on various issues. Election Guide 2013

On feminine theology

Matthew & Joy Steem Finding a feminine theology in C.S.Lewis’ Narnia

On monarchism

No royal babies here. David B. Hart Anarcho-Monarchism

On depression

This made me laugh. You must read the whole post. Hyperbole and a half: Depression, part 2

depression

On gender and publishing

Tara Moss The age of invisibility?

Below I present two fairly random examples of The Age newspaper online, snapped as screenshots. The first was taken by me on July 17 and the second today, July 25. At a glance, I count over 43 men, 1 baby boy, 2 illustrated boys  and 1 woman, partially visible behind a male. Oh, and a cockatoo of unknown gender…

Eigenfactor Gender composition of scholarly publications by date and discipline.

On disability

Heather King Are birth defects really part of God’s plan?

On Ramadan

The Atlantic Photos of Ramadan 2013. I love this photo of protesters in Turkey breaking their fast in a massive street banquet.

Turkey Ramadan 2013

On nice words and bad words

Maria Popova How we got ‘please’ and ‘thank you’

Charles Halton Sterilising the Bible

I remember the first time I heard the C-word used to translate the Bible. I almost fell out of my chair…

On religion

William Cavanaugh The root of evil; Does religion promote violence?

Westerners are fascinated by the nexus of “religion and violence.” War on behalf of nationalism and freedom and oil and other such mundane secular matters hardly counts as violence at all. At the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Qatar in 2007, nearly four years into the U.S. occupation of Iraq, David Satterfield, senior adviser and coordinator for Iraq in the office of the U.S. Secretary of State, gave a speech condemning those in Iraq “who try to achieve their goals through the use of violence.” As the journalist Rami Khouri sardonically commented, “As if the U.S. had not used weapons when invading Iraq!”

Nothing, of course, justifies the Boston bombings. My point is simply that we prefer to locate “religious” causes of violence and become quite incurious when “secular” causes like nationalism are in play. Why? Because we are accustomed to dividing life into separate religious and secular spheres. We have been habituated to think that devotion to one’s religion is fine within limits, while public patriotic devotion to one’s nation is generally a good thing. We are appalled at violence on behalf of religion, but we generally accept the necessity and even the virtue of killing for one’s country.

On technology

Martin Olmos God, the hacker: Technology and the cross

On history & the Bible

Peter Enns Archaeology and the exodus narrative as a mnemo-narrative

Maeir reasons that archaeology and the biblical narrative do not match up not so much because nothing happened, but because of the nature of the biblical narrative as a mnemo-narrative. The exodus story that we have is the result of a process of “remembering” the past through ongoing reception and appropriation over time. Those memories were–as are all memories–transformed and shaped by those very communities that embrace and transmit them.

On the ‘establishment’

Shelby Steele The decline of the civil-rights establishment

Finally, back to refugees…

(thanks First Dog)

on not fitting in at church

I don’t feel like I fit in at church. As I’ve said, I’m not a fan of women’s coffee and dessert nights. We don’t really sing my type of music. As far as I’m concerned, the best church songs are at least 150 years old (with the original melody – and SATB harmony – please!). Often I think I’d probably fit better at the traditional service. Pity about the 60 year age-gap and the 8am start (not even the mighty Book of Common Prayer can get me out of the house before 8am on a Sunday). I’m married, but don’t have kids. I’m a student, but I’m not 19. I don’t make half the income of others my age. I’m a feminist and a Christian and I think they’re perfectly compatible. I’ll probably vote Green at the next election. I mill around at supper after the service… more small talk… I try to look like I’m looking for someone in particular as I circle the room… I’ve got nothing in common with these people… I don’t think I quite fit.

I’ve got friends who no longer come to church because they don’t like ‘Christians’ and they don’t ‘fit in.’ I can’t blame them; ‘Christians’ can be irritating at times, to put it lightly. ‘Christian’ sometimes seems like a distinct personality type (see Jon Acuff’s blog for a full description of the Christian species – they all dress, vote and think alike). Probably an ESFJ. Optimistic. Bubbly. And if you can’t fit that, you won’t ‘fit in.’

It’s funny, but sometimes I get the impression that most people don’t feel like they fit in at church. How can that be?

I don’t think the solution is just about avoiding clichés, chucking out the veggie tales merchandise, conference T-shirts and the WWJD bands – trying to demolish the stereotypes so that everyone feels like they can ‘fit in’ without having to buy into all that. Nor do I even recommend trying to cater to all the personalities or interests at church – a men’s breakfast group, a women’s reading group, a bike-riding group, a knitting group, a gluten-free baking group… This is all well and good, but don’t think you’ll ever cater for everyone. Instead I think we need to re-examine the assumption that people should be ‘fitting in’ at all.

Generally I’ve assumed that ‘fitting in’ is good and necessary, especially for something as important as church. If you don’t fit in, that’s a problem we need to fix. But is it? Is that the purpose of church, to be a place where you ‘fit in?’

Puzzle

I’ve been reading John Milbank’s essay Stale Expressions: The management-shaped Church. He slams the idea of ‘churches’ for people who naturally fit together.

The church cannot be found amongst merely the like-minded, who associate in order to share a particular taste, hobby or perversion. It can only be found where many different peoples possessing many different gifts collaborate in order to produce a divine-human community in a specific location. St Paul wrote to Galatia and Corinth, not to regiments or to weaving-clubs for widow. He insisted on a unity that emerges from the harmonious blending of differences. Hence the idea that the church should ‘plant’ itself in various sordid and airless interstices of our contemporary world, instead of calling people to ‘come to church’, is wrongheaded, because the refusal to come out of oneself and go to  church is simply the refusal of church per se….

For him, a church by definition is an assembly of followers of Jesus in a particular place. That is, people who have nothing in common apart from being Jesus’ followers in that place. They share the one Spirit, and that’s it. In fact there can be no ‘fitting in’ because this would compromise the witness of the church to the gospel. More than not fitting, we’re a group of people naturally hostile to each other (Eph 2). We don’t fit, that is, apart from the miracle of the Gospel of Jesus bringing us together. God is making the new humanity out of people who otherwise have nothing in common.

More than not naturally ‘fitting’ together, we actually need the people who don’t seem like us. If we were all ears, how could the body smell? Since when did a nose ever look like it belonged on a face? Why is rhinoplasty so popular? Noses are funny-looking, but we need them to function.

Of course, this hardly helps pastorally for those who of us who don’t feel like they fit. Wanting to belong is a good and natural thing. The answer to someone’s sense of being out of place is not ‘so what?’,  But also, trying to manufacture a sense of belonging based on shared interests, demographics, hobbies or opinions is a false hope. Not everyone is going to fit. We’re too diverse for that.

Not only will it not work, but such an approach can risk masking a great truth of the gospel – WE DON’T NATURALLY FIT TOGETHER. There’s no explanation for how this random group of people can hang together apart from Jesus.

So if you don’t feel like you fit in at church, I know, it sucks, but I’d say have hope – this is actually evidence that there’s something miraculous going on. You do belong, but it’s through the Spirit, not your taste in music. More than that, if you don’t feel like you fit, we need you even more. You might just be the sense of smell or ears or eyes. You’re part of this body and we need you.

tgif

Happy Friday, dear readers!

On giving

Aaron Moore Reflections of a man who sold everything and gave it to the poor

‘One thing you lack’ was my first solo art exhibition and opened to a few hundred people in Kudos Gallery, Paddington, just before Christmas. That was a matter of months ago when at the age of 34 I sold everything I owned in the space of one week. I emptied the contents of my bank accounts and, along with the proceeds from the sale, gave it to charity, moving me to financial and material ground zero in the hope of moving others out of poverty.

On discrimination

Rebecca Onion Take the impossible “literacy” test Louisiana gave black voters in the 1960s. I couldn’t have passed this test.

On love

Morgan Guyton Love is not love unless it becomes flesh

On theology

Brian Le Port Rethinking how we teach ecclesiastical history and systematic theology. He draws on Ralph C. Watkins’ essay “A Black Church Perspective on Minorities in Evangelicalism”:

Black theology, liberation theology, Latino theology, and feminist theology are considered “contextualized,” but Eurocentric theology is not considered contextualized. The theology of the others is not considered worthy of required learning for students in evangelical seminaries. Students are required to take systematic theology, and in these courses they may take note of “minority” theology, but the minority voice is nowhere equal to the dominant Eurocentric voice. The marginalization of voices in text selection, theological discussion, and the very design of the curriculum is a product of institutional racism.

On sex

Rachel Pietka Christians are not called to have amazing sex

This discourse also smacks of an inferiority complex that wants to compete with mainstream culture’s view of sex rather than modeling a rightly ordered sexual ethic to the world. For example, teachings on the Song of Solomon can range from using the book as a modern-day sex manual to a tool of manipulation to get women to acquiesce to inflated views of sex, such as a well-known pastor controversially enjoining women to perform oral sex because “Jesus Christ commands you to do so.” These sort of teachings on sex indicate the spurious claim many Christians accept: that the call to be a married Christian includes within it an obligation to become a sex god or goddess.

On gender politics

Stephen Marche Home economics: the link between work-life balance and gender equality

For the Boomers and members of older generations, a married couple’s decisions about work were ultimately questions of power. For younger generations, marital decisions boil down mostly to money. And yet the debates about gender, particularly the debate that has emerged in a thousand blog posts surrounding “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and Lean In, retain the earlier framework. These discussions tend to recognize the residual patriarchy, but they do not see its hollowness, or the processes hollowing it out.

Laurie Penny I was a manic pixie dream girl.

For those of you who haven’t heard of manic pixie dream girls before see Anita Sarkeesian’s video.

tgif

I’ve spent too much of this week darting from TV to twitter to facebook, so it’s flown by. The novelty of politics getting more attention than League (even if it was for all the wrong reasons) still hasn’t worn off. It’s a good time to be a Queenslander, I suppose. How was your week?

On bodies

John Swinton What the body remembers: theological reflections on dementia

A good deal of theology, and indeed much of our worship, pivots on the assumption that the theologian is addressing an individuated, experiencing, cognitively able self, perceived as a reasoning, thinking, independent, decision-making being. This cognitively able self is assumed to have the potential to know and understand certain things about God – a God who is available at an intellectual level through such things as Scripture, revelation, prayer, or by means of some or other form of communicable spiritual experience…

 

At a basic level, the assertion that “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:10), requires a certain level of subjectivity, awareness and cognitive competence. But what happens if you cannot confess the Lord with your mouth? How do we understand the spiritual lives of those who have no idea and can have no cognitive idea about who “the Lord” is? How can you call upon the name of the Lord and be saved if you have forgotten who the Lord is? What does it mean to be a disciple when you don’t know who Jesus is or you have forgotten who he is?

 

That is the question I want to explore here: What does it mean to be a disciple when you have forgotten who Jesus is?

On gay marriage

Roger Olson Church, Marriage, Culture and the Law

On mission

Here’s Arthur Davis explaining why we need to get over our social justice vs evangelism dichotomy. An introduction to mission as transformation.

On personality types

Slackpropagation on “geek” vs “nerd”. This guy is probably the uber-nerd. He’s defined geek and nerd and then analysed twitter data to graph the relative nerdiness or geekiness of topics. I love it.

Image

He also recommends a website which finds out which Myers Briggs your blog or website is. www.typealyzer.com. This site came up as INTP (I’m normally ENTJ, but I’m trying to tone down the J).

On Labor politics

Scott Stephens The resurrection of Kevin Rudd

If you haven’t had enough yet, you could play Labor Partyopoly (thanks first dog on the moon).

Image

 

church politics, social media and the archbishop

I’m a politics tragic. Watching the Labor party implode (actually watching Federal politics generally) has been like watching  a car crash – it’s awful, but I just can’t look away. Then there’s NSW politics. NSW has always seemed to me to have a particularly toxic political culture, perhaps something in the water. On moving to Sydney (after almost a decade’s absence) and becoming a member of a Sydney Anglican church this year I’ve discovered there’s a whole new political sphere to watch with fascination. It’s an election year in Sydney. We’re voting for archbishop.

When I say ‘we’, I don’t actually mean me. The voters at synod are made up of clergy and synod reps (I don’t even know who my church’s synod reps are!). So you could say the election doesn’t really concern disenfranchised church members like me.

But this time, the campaigns have been more public than ever.

RickThe supporters of the two candidates – Glen Davies and Rick Smith – have embarked on social media publicity campaigns, commending their men like never before. There’s whyrick.info and glendavies.info, both with their weekly email updates and a facebook page. The candidates are very similar, neither seem likely to bring significant changes. But still, there’s a definite Rick brand and Glen brand being marketed. Glen’s is the seasoned, wise, experienced and mature candiate. Rick’s brand is about being young, energised, active. The wise old owl or the fresh-blood whippersnapper.

Previously all this campaigning was relatively hidden from the public eye and people in pews like me. But thanks to social media it’s open campaigning now. What was previsouly whispered in secret is being proclaimed from rooftops, and it hasn’t all been pretty. The first instalment of ‘why rick?’ videos had me chuckling as a series of Anglican celebrities (they weren’t named, you’re meant to know who they are) offered only a couple of words of support  before the camera cut to the next endorser, even mid-sentence (‘I think that Rick’ CUT ‘would be a’ CUT  etc.). The effect was overwhelming – all these important people think Rick is great – though I couldn’t actually be sure why.

Church politics?

But firstly, to the issue of politics itself. Should we even have campaigns for archbishop? Should we eradicate church politics as much as possible? Secular politics hardly fills Australians with hope – and now we’re being political at church too?

In my view, politics is inevitable with a group of people like the church. We’re going to have different views on what needs to be done and we need some sort of framework for making group decisions and persuading others. But church politics ought to be done so differently to politics in the secular world that it’s almost unrecognisable.

That’s because Christians can’t use power to trample or dominate over others. A Christian will not (or ought not) run roughshod over those with whom she disagrees. Instead, we take the position of weakness, we make ourselves vulnerable for the sake of others. We speak the truth, seeking to persuade others. Even the Apostle Paul didn’t use his position to pull rank. He became like a ‘little child’.

With the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you. (1 Thessalonians 2)

So if the Christian way is not to use power to dominate others, how do Christians actually get stuff done? We believe that the way to change things is through submission, gentleness, humility even weakness. This is how Jesus achieved his victory through the cross and it’s how his followers ought to act too.

fistThis means that in church politics there’s no place for factionalism, back-room deals, faceless men, political alliances, nepotism, jobs for the boys, branch stacking – these are weapons of power-politics, not of Christian humility.

And in church campaigning there’s no place for spin, cheap slogans, shallow celebrity endorsements (which distract from the substance of debate), sound-bites, innuendo or insinuation – these bury or confuse the truth rather than revealing it.

Our politics must be in service of others. We still have our views and preferences, we still seek to persuade others of them, but we can’t do it in a way which manipulates or crushes others – that would be self-defeating. Is such a politics possible? I think yes, but we might not recognise it as ‘politics’.

Social media opportunities

The Rick and Glen campaigns seem a little unprepared for the reality of social media. If you set up a facebook site you need to be prepared to receive negative feedback and be wary not to feed the trolls. Things have been defensive at times.  Poor John Dickson’s even been accused of ‘cyberbullying’ for asking too many tricky questions. This seems like growing pains to me.

The cat’s out of the bag with social media. There’s no point arguing over whether we should or shouldn’t use facebook for this sort of thing – this is the new reality. Instead, we should be thinking about what are the opportunities (and risks) that new media could bring.

1. It’s an opportunity to include more people in discussions about the diocese. Yes, most of us aren’t going to vote, but at least we’ve got more of a chance to know what’s going on! We can even ask questions! If done well, social media campaigning can generate discussions, promote inclusion and encourage a greater  feeling of ownership in diocesan decision-making.

2. Following from that, it’s an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the role of the archbishop, the diocese and the local church. How do we need to grow? What have we neglected? What really matters? Even the Glen and Rick brands reflect slightly different views about the role of the church and of archbishop. Which is wiser?

3. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how church politics has been done and how we may need to change. Now that more of the machinations can be seen in the light of day, how well have we done our politics? Hopefully, the broader scrutiny will generate renewed concern for doing our politics completely differently (in humility and honesty) to secular politics.

Of course, all these opportunities are also risks if handled poorly. Please let’s not take our cues from secular politics (look how that’s turning out!). There’s a risk that our politics will turn people off, that it’ll leave those who don’t have a vote feeling disenchanted and disconnected, that all our dirty laundry will be put on display and the name of Jesus dishonoured. It’s a big responsibility. Yet as I see it, keeping discussions hidden is never going to encourage the Sydney political culture to become more godly. Instead, we need to change.

As well as doing politics well, I would even suggest there’s even a need for Christians to do some journalism well. Now that these campaigns are going to be public, we could really benefit from a non-aligned godly media asking the questions. I mean journalism without the ‘gotchas’ and soundbites. This could assist campaigners in remaining honest, in avoiding spin and in getting to the point. Perhaps a retired minister or someone from outside the diocese – someone with wisdom, insight and respect as well as knowledge of chuch politics – could be a great blessing in this regard.

My two cents

I’ll just add my thoughts. An archbishop should be loving, wise, humble, faithful to the Gospel and able to communicate (that includes listening). I’d also like to see someone who:

  • Will look to cooperate with, support and even learn from other diocese beyond Sydney. For a perspective outside Sydney see  Jeremy Halcrow’s Sydney’s next archbishop and a crisis in leadership.
  • Will revive a concern for social justice and social inclusion so that we’re not just hearers and preachers of the word, but doers of it.
  • Will encourage more opportunities for women and older people to use their gifts in service so that the Body can be built up.
  • Will fight against tendencies towards tribalism.

What do you think? Am I being naive? Can we do our politics in a Christian way?

tgif

Welcome back readers. Sorry it’s been so long. I’ve got a few half-baked blog posts on the go but I figure it’s better to write too little than too much (especially when it’s only half-baked), but there will be more blogging to come.

On asylum seekers

Michael Jensen The Dead at Sea

Mark Brett Asylum seekers and universal human rights; Does the Bible Matter?

Sophie Timothy Church taskforce calls for humanity in asylum seeker debate

On historical criticism

I’m so excited about this book. I’m hoping to give you a rundown when my copy arrives. Here’s Brian Le Port’s review Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism.

On fellowship

Morgan Guyton Agenda-less fellowship

On comfort

Chaplain Mike Job and Jacob

On pastoring

Rachel Held Evans 11 things I wish more pastors would say (number 1 being ‘I don’t know’). She’s done a follow up post on what pastors want to hear from their congregations.

On sexism

What a week, just when you think it’s over there’s another story.

Image

What’s the matter with capitalism?

No, I’m not proposing a communist or even socialist utopia (I live in the real world), I’m talking about Danel Bell’s book The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World. He talks instead about God’s ‘Divine Economy’ and how it triumphs over the capitalist economy of our world today.

But first, this interview with Michael Sandel sets the scene from a secular perspective: What Money Can’t Buy: the moral limits of the market.

Does capitalism work?

You’re asking wrong question, says Bell. When Christians argue over that question one side will hurl their stats at the other, the debate is ‘as endless as it is fruitless.’ According to Bell its obvious productive capacity has proved that it does work. But it’s the wrong question. What we should ask is ‘what does capitalism do?’

What does capitalism do?

Many accept that capitalism often exploits the poor and perpetuates injustice. But that’s not the whole story of what it does. In fact, Bell argues that capitalism would still be wrong if it made everybody rich. He turns to the Christian belief in human purpose. What did God make us for?

People are for desiring and delighting in God and reflecting God’s glory. We are created for friendship, for communion with God. The Trinity is a communion of love into which we are invited. Of course, this friendship is not merely a matter of me and God, of me and Jesus. After all, Scripture reminds us we cannot be friends of God if we hate our neighbours and that redemption involves breaking down the walls of hostility that divide peoples; hence, the commandments as succinctly summed up in the exhortation that we “love God and neighbour.

But what does capitalism say people are for?

The question, What are people for? has everything to do with capitalism because capitalism embodies a very different answer to the question than the Classic Christian tradition. Put a bit more pointedly, the capitalist economy of desire is a manifestation of sin because it both corrupts desire and obstructs communion. Capitalism is wrong because it discipline distorts human desire. it corrupts desire so that it no longer flows according to its proper, created end; it twists desire and in so doing obstructs our friendship with God, one another and creation. In other words, the problem with capitalism is not simply that it may not work but that even if it does increase aggregate wealth, even if made everyone on the planet a millionaire tomorrow, it still is wrong and is to be opposed because of what it does to human desire and human sociality. The problem with capitalism is… that it does not facilitate, and instead actively works against, the divine will for the renewal of communion with God and humanity.

Capitalism is premised on scarcity (the idea that there’s not enough for everyone), on competition (making our relationships means to getting ahead) and it promotes insatiable desire. It turns neigbours into competitors. It encourages us to desire the wrong things. The ‘invisible hand’ takes the place of God, but this god is a harsh and fickle master; there’s no guarantee that if you work hard and invest well the market will reward you.

Is there another option?

Well yes. Bell’s book doesn’t just leave us with that depressing state of affairs – he points us to what Jesus has done and his Kingdom as the answer (it always is). God is ‘healing our desire of its capitalist distortions’ so that we can desire what is good. Discipleship is ‘the redemption of desire, this faith and hope that desire can be healed’.

But what exactly is God doing to heal desire of ‘its capitalist distortions?’ Bell turns to Jesus work to ‘overcome the capitalist economy of desire’ in the atonement and its effect on human desire: the ‘Divine Economy’. And I’m going to quote this whole section directly because he articulates it much clearer than I could.

Our consideration of what God is doing now to heal desire of its economic distortions begins with the Christian doctrine of the atonement, of Christ’s work on the cross. In particular, it begins with what is commonly called the satisfaction or substitutionary account of Christ’s work on the cross… developed most notably by the medieval theologian St Anselm…

Typically the satisfaction or substitutionary understanding of the cross holds that Christ’s death on the cross satisfied the debt to God humanity incurred on account of sin, that Christ is the sinner’s substitute on the cross, paying the penalty of that sin. Anselm’s argument can be summarised as follows: in the face of human sin, which is an offence against God’s honour, God, as one who must uphold justice, cannot simply forgive sin but must enforce a strict accounting of what is due. However, because humanity already owes God everything, it has no surplus with which to repay its debt. In this situation, the God-man, Christ, steps forward and fulfills justice, renders what is due, and pays the debt through his substitutionary death on the cross. In this way, redemption is the result of the payment of a debt incurred through sin by means of a compensatory death that satisfies divine justice.

At first glance, this account of Christ’s work on the cross might not seem particularly relevant to either the matter of economics in general or to liberating desire from the distortions of capitalism. On the one hand, it appears to have little to do with economics, with the circulation and use of scarce resources; on the other hand, insofar as it might have some indirect relevance, it does not appear to present a serious challenge of any sort to the capitalist economy of desire. Indeed, to the extent that Christ’s work of redemption on the cross seems to work entirely within a logic of scarcity and debt, communitative exchange, equity and strict accounting of what is due, it would appear to reinforce the material logic that underwrites the capitalist economy of desire. Divine accounting, it seems, is not that different from capitalist accounting. Just as capitalism functions according to a contractual logic of debt, equality/equivalence (via the dollar and dominance of exchange value), retribution (as in an exact accounting and rendering what is due), and finally death (for it is death that gives scarcity its power), so too, apparently does the atonement. Redemption requires a full settling of accounts, communitative justice. Christ’s death is an exchange accounted equivalent to our debt that settles the divine-human balance sheet.

Yet notwithstanding its widespread popularity, this reading of Paul and Anselm is a profound misreading. It reflects not the divine economy of salvation revealed in Scripture, expounded in the tradition, and lived out by the church, but rather reflects the way that our imaginations have been so disciplined by the capitalist economy of desire that was beginning to emerge during Anselm’s time. As a result, we have blurred vision (like the blind man at Bethsaida) and so misinterpret the work the crucified (and resurrected) Christ was doing; we misconstrue the character of God’s economy that heals desire of its sin.

When understood rightly, the atonement is neither irrelevant to economy nor a tacit endorsement of the logic of the capitalist economic order. Rather, rightly understood, the cross reveals the gift of Christ as the incarnation of a divine economy that turns the capitalist order on its head

God needs nothing and no necessity compels God to act as God does in redeeming us from sin. Already the standard interpretation of the cross is in trouble, insofar as it asserts that necessity compels God to exact compensatory suffering as the penalty for sin. Anselm then goes on to say that God does not demand bloodshed, that divine justice is not in conflict with divine mercy, and that God’s power and dignity cannot be diminished by human insurrection. All of which is to say that whatever is happening on the cross, it is not about a strict settling of accounts and a rigid enforcing of commutative justice. Indeed, as Anselm argues, in the work of the atonement, God in Christ both dismisses any debt and gives a gift that far exceeds any settling of accounts, since in Christ we are renewed even more wonderfully than we were created.

What is going on, Anselm says, is not God collecting on accounts receivable but rather making good on God’s intention on creating humanity… Sin is indeed an offence against God’s honour in the particular sense that it is not fitting that God’s will or intention for humanity be thwarted… Sin is an offence against God because it is the thwarting of God’s desire that humanity enjoy, find its rest or communion in God… As such, honour is the origin of God’s free act to provide humanity with a path to renewed communion. God’s honour demands not that one pay for thwarting God’s intentions but that God’s intentions for humanity not be thwarted.

I’ll stop here or else I’ll end up just typing out the whole book for you.

All that was a long way of saying that what was happening at the cross wasn’t a settling of accounts according to a capitalist economy but a cancellation of debt and a display of immeasurable generosity. The ‘divine economy’ is not like the capitalist economy.

What does the ‘divine economy’ mean practically?

Bell explains that Christ’s work of atonement ‘renews desire in its true modality of gift, donation and unending generosity.’ It’s exciting stuff. Because God has been so generous to us, we’re freed from seeing the capitalist economy as an ultimate reality. We already have everything we need. Having received Christ, our life ‘becomes a surplus with which to serve our neighbours.’

You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor so that you, by his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor 8:9)

In this reality:

  • Everything we have is a gift from God. We are not ‘possessive’ like in capitalist possessive individualism.
  • The material stuff God gives us is not simply for meeting our own needs but the needs of others. Sure, there’s still private property, but private property no longer means having the right to do ‘whatever I want with my stuff’ but becomes a means of serving the common good. Ownership is not a licence but a responsibility.
  • We are freed to give in a way which honours the receiver of the gift. Christians don’t give out of their wealth to demonstrate their benevolence, expecting the ‘needy’ person could give them nothing in return. They acknowledge everything they have is a gift from God anyway. ‘Being vulnerable to receiving is a prerequisite of Christian giving.’
  • We are freed to work for the common good and serve others.
  • We can find rest from the rat race and the market. Rest is found in communion with God.

Now I completely skipped all the French philosophy Bell engages with, much of his analysis of postmodern capitalism and I hardly touched all the implications of God’s generosity to us in Christ. You must read this book. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

tgif

I couldn’t make it to a computer last week so there’s even more Friday reading today. There’ll be a bit of a gap in the blogging for a while – I’m going away for the next two weeks, visiting some remote communities in the NT. I love visiting these communities, they’ve got a lot of things going for them but unfortunately a reliable internet connection isn’t one of them.

On mothers

Diana Butler Bass The radical history of mothers day

Sarah Arthur Are women really saved through childbearing?

Anne Summers There is a better way to help mothers return to paid work

On Phoebe

Psephizo Phoebe, carrier of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians

Where does that leave Phoebe? It appears as though she was not in fact the lector of Romans, and so Wright’s statement that she was ‘it’s first expositor’ is perhaps an overstatement. However, it remains the case that Phoebe was known to Paul, had a role of church leadership, and was entrusted by Paul with a key letter on which the next phase of his ministry depended. The phrasing of Romans 16.1–3 makes it clear she fulfilled the usual role of letter carrier, and as such she would have had an important role in answering questions and ensuring that the letter was understood correctly—so a better phrase might be ‘authoritative interpreter.’

On leadership

Ben Myers Bonhoeffer and the magical powers of leadership

On Adam

John Schneider The fall of “Augustinian Adam”: problems of original frailty and supralapsarian purpose

On the budget

I love interactive infographics.

ABC Budget 2013: where will your taxes go?

On recovering from alcoholism

Rachel Held Evans Ask a recovering alcoholic

On thinkers

Alecia Simmonds Why Australia hates thinkers

As a country we are hostile to those who are well-educated. We prefer home-spun wisdom to years of research. Our language is peppered with vitriol reserved for those who think for a living: “chattering classes”, “latte-sipping libertarians”, “intellectual elites” and now Nick Cater’s most unlovely term “bunyip elite”. If we want to emphasise the importance of something we say that the issue “is not just academic”. Any idea that takes longer than a nano-second to understand is howled down. Or perhaps, more precisely, any idea that threatens conservative orthodoxy is consigned to the divine irrelevancy of the academy…There’s no doubt that Australia is a vast, sunny, intellectual gulag.

And a response from Jeff Sparrow – Why Andrew Bolt is not an imbecile.

On wise women

Sarah Bessey has put together a list of 50 Church and Faith Lady-Bloggers. I’m working my way through her list.

She’s written an excellent piece on how older women often get left out of our churches. We put the young and enthusiastic up the front and forget older women, even though they’re often the wisest among us. Bessey’s piece is called ‘in which they are overlooked in a sea of hipsters’.

A few months ago, I requested stories or anecdotes about how it feels to be a woman in the church… One woman told me about how she had led worship at her church for years. But when a new young pastor was hired, he wanted a cooler band to get more young people, and the first thing to go were the older women. “No one wanted to see old women on stage,” she wrote candidly without bitterness, and so she was replaced with young women in their late teens and early twenties. She misses leading worship. Another woman told me about the sting of being passed over continually. She had very high levels of education, a seminary degree, a long history of teaching with many beloved students, but every teacher at her church’s education program was a young, charismatic man with half her education, let alone experience, despite their position of welcoming women in ministry. In practice, it wasn’t actually happening. She believed now that it was because she did not fit the expected look or personality or gender of their education program. Another woman shared about how she has welcomed and celebrated the shift in the churches of her context towards women in leadership and ministry. Yet, she has noticed that they are all young and beautiful women with identical outgoing and big-smiling personalities. The glass ceiling remains for her because she doesn’t fit the standard or “target audience” so she cheers on these young women, the age of her grand-children, with a selflessness that amazed me…

Then she Bessey went and got a list of Christian women bloggers over 50 so we can share some of their wisdom.

On Eurovision

I’m still trying to work out what to make of Romania.

Rebecca Vincent When the music dies: Azerbaijan one year after Eurovision.

On ‘typical’ Australians

Matt Cowgill What is the typical Australian’s income in 2013?

Low income earners tend to overestimate their own position in the income distribution, while high-income earners tend to underestimate theirs. In short, we all think we’re middle class.

On the ACL

Steph Judd What Christian constituency? Which burnt bridges? Rudd, the ACL and same-sex marriage?

On anglo-Catholic heaven

Anglo catholic heaven

evangelicalism as contextualised Gospel

I’ve been reading Andrew Walls’ The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Not a flashy title, but a fascinating book. It was published almost 20 years ago, so I’m a little slow on the uptake – perhaps everyone else has already been here, done that – but his writing about the incarnation as God’s translation of the Word for us, and the on-going re-translation of the gospel is just beautiful. If, like me, you’re also 20 years behind the times on missiology, it’s worth reading.

But something else about this book caught my eye – it articulated something I’d been thinking about but not quite able to put into words – evangelicalism as a ‘contextualised’ gospel. He argues that the success of the evangelical revivals in the 18th and 19th Centuries were that they made the Gospel meaningful for northern European Protestants, they answered the deep questions these people had at that time.

Western Christianity faced a cultural crisis – attrition of its basis in Western culture, with the weakening of the sanctions of the institutional church, the increasing efficiency of the centralised state, and the relegation of religion to the private sphere. The Evangelical Revival was perhaps the most successful of all the reformulations of Christianity in the context of changing Western culture… It retained the medieval concern (deep rooted in the European psyche) for propitiation. It also extended and clarified the Reformation idea (particularly as developed by the English Puritans  of a life of holy obedience in the secular world and in the family. Above all, it combined the traditional framework of the Christian nation and the established church… with serious recognition of individual selfhood and personal decision. That reconciliation bridged a cultural chasm in Christian self-identity. It helped to make evangelical religion a critical force in Western culture, a version of Christianity thoroughly authentic and indigenous there. To use the appalling current missiological jargon the Evangelical Revival contextualised the gospel for the northern Protestant world. 

The contextualisation was so successful that people found it hard to imagine there was any other way of following Jesus.

There is, of course, a lurking peril in all successful indigenisations. the more the gospel is made a place to feel at home, the greater the danger that no one else will be able to live there. And the missionary movement required people whose personal religion had become effectively (though critically) aligned with Western cultures to transmit the Christian message in non-Western settings where the assumptions that shaped their religion did not apply.

Walls is still very optimistic. He looks at the history of African missions and the dissonances between the missionaries’ culture and the Africans’ and concludes that both heard and responded to the gospel.

The fruit of the work of evangelical missionaries has not simply been a replication of Western evangelicalism. The Christian message that they set loose in Africa has its own dynamic, as it comes into creative and critical encounter with African life with its needs and its hurts. Exactly the same thing happened with the Evangelical Revival bridged the culture gap for northern Protestantism with such spectacular effect. Africans have responded to the gospel from where they were, not from where missionaries were; they have responded to the Christian message as they heard it, not to the missionaries’ experience of the message.

When we tend to talk about contextualising the gospel, what we normally mean is re-contextualising evangelicalism, never seeing that evangelicalism itself is a contextualised gospel.

But then, does this really matter? As Walls sees it, Africans in the past were able to seize what they understood from the missionaries’ message and creatively respond. The spread of the Gospel was not contingent on the missionaries’ ability to ‘contextualise’ it. Perhaps what’s more important is to remove barriers as much as possible, cultural stumbling blocks, and give indigenous people the freedom to do the contextualising themselves. What do you think?

I’ve also been thinking about Evangelicalism and print-culture. It’s a reading religion. It’s a very literate Christianity with hymn-books, quiet-times, bible-studies. It’s a Christianity contextualised for a (19th century middle class?) literary culture.

But what’s going to happen as we increasingly move towards an audio-visual culture? We already receive most of our information this way, how much longer do we expect books to hold on? Can evangelicalism adapt for an audio-visual culture? Perhaps – and maybe the answer is along the lines of those slick TGC monochrome clips with the Great Men in earnest discussion. Or perhaps evangelicalism will evolve, re-contextualise, translate itself into something else altogether. What do you think? Is evangelicalism prepared for the future?