Saturday, February 14, 2015

50 Shades of Grey and Independence Day, Ash Carter's Post Shower Ramble

[This is a guest post by Ash Carter, is he right is our scientific progress masking our cultural and moral decay, or are these social changes also progress andpart of the way things must go? Let me know what you think in the comments]

yeah, ok

What have Independence Day and 50 Shades of Grey have in common? Both illustrate that more technologically advanced civilisations are not necessarily ethical in their use of technology.

As I was showering this morning, I thought about how the British find ourselves in a bizarre cultural moment. On the one hand, every time we read of some extreme punishment meted out by a less liberal judiciary for something we don't consider a crime (think Uganda's anti-gay law, or the large number of things you can get hung for in Iran), we are up in arms.

On the other hand, when we pause from judging other cultures long enough to actually look hard at our own we are all aware that something is badly broken here. By almost any measure of cultural development we are sliding down the international league tables. Why don't we do well at school? What can we do about binge drinking? Etc.



In Independence Day there is an alien species who, far more technologically advanced, decides that human culture should be ended. This same spirit of imperialist our-culture-is-bettter-than-yours thinking once left the whole world under the thumb of European powers. Militarily we have stopped that (we are liberals who liberate those nations, after all) but how much have we changed? We still sit in judgement over less 'advanced' (by which we mean less liberal) cultures.

Are we not able to pause long enough to look at what has eaten our culture from the inside in the past hundred years? Jensen and Payne cover this in their book True Sex, which charts the move in British culture from Victorian prudishness, through moralism to sexual liberty. The birth of the pill and legalised abortions have 'liberated' us sexually. The outbox is generations born into dysfunctional families with all the attendant identity issues and social implications.



But it hasn't stopped there. Choice has been applied not only to your number of sexual partners, but to their gender. But actually the liberation of homosexuality is old hat. In the seven months since I left college the conversation has frequently been about your own choice of gender. Transgender issues will be the next big thing to wrestle with, and it is already in our schools as people are encouraged (at 14, 15, 16!) to work out who they would really like to be.

Another product of the sexual revolution is the mainstreaming of pornography. Every comedian on the TV jokes about it. And, the truth is, it is a cancer that is eating through my generation. We grew up with the internet. Most men and many women have put images and ideas into their heads they shouldn't have. We are only now beginning to understand the impact that this corruption is having on our minds, relationships and lives.

Many people like me have children, little boys who will grow up in a more technologically advanced age. And I must do everything I can to protect them from the libertarian attitudes and behaviours that will hurt them more than they realise. That is, whether you are a Christian or a secular person who reads the academic literature, we are beginning to self-censor. We understand that something must be done. That we have drunk the poison and we want to prevent others from doing the same.

In other words, what does Independence Day teach us about sexual ethics? It teaches us that a cultural imperialism can hide a complete lack of morals within the imperialist. Let's stop and look at where we are. Let's make a choice not to poison ourselves anymore.

Let's make a start by NOT going to see 50 shades of grey. Apparently, it is crap anyway.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Irreducible Complexity and the Incompetent Demiurge

I'm reading "the one book all atheists should read", AKA The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart (Yale 2013). Not because I'm an atheist but because I need all the help I can get in being a theist. Hart has been raved about by a number of people I respect for his previous books and so with all the glowing reviews I was expecting perhaps too much. Make no mistake, Hart is extremely clever and erudite and well read, and did I mention clever? The problem is, for a book intended to convince people there is a God (with a capital G) his pomposity errs on the side of bombastic and frankly as someone who agrees with at least 95% of what he is advocating I find him verbose and borderline supercilious. I was hoping this would be a book I could lend to some thoughtful people I know but too be honest I would want a clearer gentler book to be able to lend it out like that. That said I have no doubt there will be much to take from it. Already he has got the old grey matter moving round. In the first chapter he makes a brief detour to present Intelligent Design Theory (ID) as being not only outside the bounds of Christian Theology but actually the very antithesis of all the major religions' understanding of the creator. Instead he explain how the demiurge, a god (with a small g), who is the creator of the material world but in many respects existing in the same way we do as a discrete being rather than the source of of being itself, is actually what is revealed by such theories. According to this website a demiurge looks like this:
Demiurge large
But that is by the by. More to the point, Hart writes:
The recent Intelligent Design movement represents the demiurge's boldest adventure in some considerable time . . . in the light of traditional theology the argument from irreducible complexity looks irredeemably defective, because it depends on the existence of causal discontinuities in the order of nature, "gaps" where natural causality proves inadequate. But all the classical theological arguments regarding the order of the world assume just the opposite: that God's creative power can be seen in the rational coherence of nature as a perfect whole; that the universe was not simply the factitious product of a supreme intelligence but the unfolding of an omnipresent divine wisdom or logos. . . If, however one could really show that there were interruptions in that order, places where the adventitious intrusions of an organising hand were needed to correct this or that part of the process, that might well suggest some deficiency in the fabric of creation. It might suggest that the universe was the work of a very powerful, but also somewhat limited, designer. (p37-39)

What a fascinating thought, worth wading through the verbiage for and I'm sure just a taster of what is to come. I'm just sad it couldn't have been written in a style more likely to engage the unbelieving rather than scare them off, frankly if an atheist got past page 13 without flinging the book away feeling patronised and belittled.

But anyway, his argument against ID is a fascinating one, he is surely right that the god of ID is a God of the gaps and is vulnerable to atrophy through further scientific discoveries, but I wonder if denying God the right to intervene in creation without it being an admission of imperfection is fair? Aren't the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus a fairly major intervention in creation and a significant "evolutionary" leap in human potential? And why shouldn't God leave some playful fingerprints on the fossil record for humanity to discover on our journey at the point when we find it easiest not to believe in him?

Let me know what you think :-)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The story of Lot

While Genesis 19 with it's gruesome story of Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction is often used as a proof text for God's feelings about gay sex and equally often dismissed from the other side of the same discussion as simply being about bad hospitality I wonder if that has obscured some of the more important clues as to authorial intent (if we believe there might be such a thing). Here are some thoughts I have for your consideration,

1. When Lot and Abraham separate in Gen 13:5-7 Lot is a wealthy and powerful man like Abraham owning flocks, tents and at least employing (if not owning) enough doughty herdsmen to put up a quarrel with Abraham's. So how does he end up living in a town house without any apparent respect or power? Are his herds and herdsmen out in the field, or has he sold up (or been swindled or gambled it away) and exchanged the pastoral life for the urban? The implication seems to be that Sodom has rubbed off on him and weakened him materially, financially and morally (cf. 13:13).

2. Although the story does not give God's opinion of the attempted forced buggery of the visitors, it is clear that Lot feels the gang rape of his two virgin daughters is preferable. (personally this is where I lose all sympathy with Lot if he was that concerned about his visitors he should have offered his own virgin backside) Presumably in Lot's arithmetic of honour and shame the dishonouring of his home's reputation for hospitality (Gen 19:8) is greater than the shame of having your daughters raped by the entire town. Why doesn't Lot feel the "protection of his roof" should also extend to his daughters? It seems fairly obvious that their sexual purity was of a lesser value to Lot.

3. When the visitors/men/angels rescue Lot from his shameful negotiations Lot is described as both hesitating (19:16) and then refusing to go too far (19:18-20). What has happened to the decisive nephew of Abraham who boldly chose the best pasture and set out on his own (13:10-12)? Lot appears not as a man of faith but of hesitation and half measures and the reason given for Lot's rescue from the conflagration is not Lot's faith or righteousness but God's consideration of Abraham (19:29). Thus Lot's dubious moral judgements (see above) should certainly not be taken as exemplary.

4. The punchline of the whole sequence is that Lot, after finally making it to the mountains, is then drugged and raped by his own daughters and out of all the booze, incest and shame pop (ta-da!) the nations of the Moabites and Ammonites (19:30-38). The Hebrew fascination for genealogy especially in relation to the awkward origins of the surrounding tribes is revealed in all it's glory and presents itself as the main reason this story is told which doesn't help our arguments about homosexuality very much.

Let me know what you think, :-)

Friday, January 2, 2015

“Samuel Marsden” Speaks 200 Years On


Disclaimer: This talk was prepared for a Christmas Day service for the combined churches of Blockhouse Bay commemorating 220 years since Samuel Marsden preached for the first time on NZ soil. It is a devotional rather than an academic talk. While this speech did involve a lot of research it also involved a lot of imagination. This is very much my biased interpretation of Samuel Marsden and not intended to be taken as a historically rigorous account. I would encourage others to do their own research and find out more about such a fascinating character and time in NZ history.



Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

Tena koto, tena koto, tena koto katoa

My name is Samuel Marsden and 200 years ago I had the singular privilege of being the first person to preach the gospel on NZ soil. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a copy of that sermon, although I do know that I preached on Luke 2:10, the words of the angels to the shepherds at the birth of Christ.

Today, I expect you have some questions for me, I’ll do my best to answer them.

Monday, November 17, 2014

LTJ on the Character of Jesus


The literary character "Jesus" is distinct in each narrative: Mark's Suffering Son of Man, Matthew's Teacher of the Church, Luke's Prophet of God's Visitation, and John's Man from Heaven are impossible to harmonise fully. . . The narrative gospels bear witness to Jesus by the way in which they interpret him so diversely. Precisely the diversity of the witness, however, makes all the more startling the fact that these narratives converge on the heart of Jesus' character . . .

I speak here of the fundamental and defining dispositions of Jesus, in contrast to the diverse roles - wonderworker, teacher, prophet, revealer - emphasised by the respective narratives. These fundamental dispositions are utterly simple. In all the Gospels, Jesus is a human being totally defined by his relationship with God, a relationship expressed by faithful obedience to God's will. Jesus is not defined by human expectations or perceptions, his own or others, but by a radical stance of hearing and responsiveness to his Father. This "vertical" relationship of faithful obedience is expressed by an equally fundamental "horizontal" disposition toward other humans, a disposition of loving service. The narratives of the canonical Gospels - in this respect fully in agreement with the other canonical witnesses - see Jesus as "the man for others" precisely because he is also a completely "God-defined man."

Luke Timothy Johnson, "The Jesus of the Gospels and Philosphy" 
in Jesus and Philsophy: New Essays, ed Paul K. Moser (CUP 2009), 72-73

Let me know what you think :-)

Monday, September 15, 2014

How Baptist Are You?

The other day I had to do a short talk about being Baptist at a youth service. Of course I laboured the point that we need to be Christian first and always express our differences with other Christians with humility, respect and love. But I structured the talk around the following metrics as a way for folks to see how important Baptist distinctive were for them. It was a fun way to have the discussion and get them to think about their own beliefs. Afterwards I wondered about turning it into one of those annoying facebook quizzes or putting on the church website.



How Baptist are you?

(0=don’t agree, 1=don’t care, 2=I like the idea, 3=I agree with this, 4=this is important, 5=this is essential)

Credo/Believer’s Baptism Only (vs paedo/infant)            0 1 2 3 4 5

Baptism by Immersion Only  (vs sprinkling, etc)               0 1 2 3 4 5

Soul Competency/Liberty (vs church, govt, family)           0 1 2 3 4 5

Salvation by Faith Alone (vs religion, good works, etc)   0 1 2 3 4 5

Scripture Alone Authority (vs tradition, hierarchy, etc)     0 1 2 3 4 5

Congregational Autonomy (vs hierarchy, etc)                     0 1 2 3 4 5

Priority of Evangelism and Mission                                   0 1 2 3 4 5

Totals
0-7 =  Definitely not a Baptist
8-14 = Vaguely Baptist Compatible
15-21 = Luke Warm Baptist
22-28 = Strong Baptist
29-35 = More Baptist Than John


What was your score? 
How could I make the test better? 
What have I missed out?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Newbiggin on the church in via

The church, therefore, as it is in via, does not face the world as the exclusive possessor of salvation, nor as the fullness of what others have in part, the answer to the questions they ask, or the open revelation to what they are anonymously. The church faces the world, rather, as an arrabon of that salvation - as sign, firstfruit, token, witness of that salvation which God purposes for the whole . . . It must therefore live always in dialogue with the world, bearing its witness to Christ but always in such a way that it is open to receive the riches of God that belong properly to Christ but have to be brought to him . . . It will continue to change as it meets new cultures and lives in faithful dialogue with them. 
Newbiggin, Open Secret, 1995, p180
Let me know what you think :-)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Newbigin, Mission and the SSM Debate

One of the authors who never fails to stimulate my thinking is Lesslie Newbiggin, I'm currently reading The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Towards the conclusion of a long and nuanced discussion of the relation of (cross-cultural) ethical issues to Christian conversion Newbiggin states,
As a learning community that can only press forward from partial to fuller understanding of the Father's reign, the church will know that it cannot impose it's own ethical insights at any one time and place upon those whom the Spirit calls into its company. It must always press on toward fuller obedience but at the same time proclaim Christ as Lord and beyond its own faulty obedience, and expect and welcome the correction of those whom the Spirit calls into commitment to Christ. (p140, rev. ed. 1995)
His argument is in relation to cross-cultural mission and how missionaries (presumed western) impose ethical requirements upon new converts (presumed non-western). It is a convincing argument and I found no fault in his logic, but the only example he gives is polygamy. The story (possibly apocryphal) comes to mind of the African convert who is told by a missionary that as a Christian he cannot have more than one wife, so the faithful new Christian goes home and kills the four other wives that he is not allowed. A horrible result and if true reveals as much about the missionary's obsession with sex than the Bible's teaching against polygamy (try and find some).

My question, and I don't find an easy answer, is how this might relate to our western context in NZ where we have been increasingly (and rightly) taught to consider evangelism in western countries as cross-cultural. In a sexually permissive 21st C. western society is same sex marriage parallel to polygamy in 19th C. Africa? Is the gay community an unreached people group that needs to be allowed to establish it's own ethical convictions in relation to the gospel without the colonial imposition of standards from Christendom? Certainly that might provide a way out for the current Baptist Union discussion, to view the small number of churches accepting SSM to be frontier mission churches where the rules need to be looser. But that feels a bit difficult to swallow, after all even if we categorise the gay community as an unreached people group (I don't know if we should or how they might feel about that) it is one thing to permit ethical flexibility among marginal groups coming into faith it is another thing to have established churches preside over and facilitate the ceremonies that confirm people in that behaviour.

What do you think?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Narcistic Pastors

I've just finished reading Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter L Steinke. He has three slim  books published by the Alban Institute on different aspects of how emotional system and group psychology give insight to situations faced in churches, all are essential reading IMHO. This book has, as a postscript, an essay entitled "People of the Charm" on the subject of narcissistic leaders (not always the pastor!) in churches. A very brief and rough summary,
  1. Churches/public ministry naturally attracts those with a narcissistic.
  2. A narcissistic leader requires followers to feed their narcissism, the followers in turn need the leader's certainty, approval and reflected importance creating a self-reinforcing, self-sustaining and self-protecting circle/system which is very hard to challenge.
  3. A natural outcome of the "circle of charm' is a polarisation towards those not in the circle and a loss of objectivity hence why this syndrome is so destructive to churches.
  4. Churches often focus on the short term benefits of narcissistic leaders (strong leadership, growth, etc) rather than the long term less public issues (loss of other leaders, spiritual abuse, eventual scandal) which make them less likely to take effective action in good time.
It is a great essay and should probably be read carefully by every church pastoral search committee. I just want to add some of my own quick reflections at this point.

Steinke notes that narcissism is generally a product of insecurity. The pastoral role is one that naturally generates a great deal of insecurity: The multiplicity of different tasks and skill sets required makes it very unlikely that any one individual can do everything well; The experience of being employed by a lrage group of people rather than (as in most jobs) having just one boss to report to; The unlimited nature of ministry meaning the job is never finished and no matter what you do achieve there will always be a sense of needing to do more; The fact that all these could be remedied by a healthy spiritual life but that being a pastor is often detrimental to our spiritual walk; all this adds up to making narcissism, even for those of us who feel unlikely candidates for it, a very real temptation as an escape from a near constant feeling of inadequacy.

Secondly, the very real and unreflective pressure (at least in most evangelical churches) for results over principle and success and glamour over holiness and integrity means that we are unlikely to see the end of pastoral scandals, burnout and church splits. Deeply discouraging in one way but in another there are concrete ways we can positively influence the systems we are part of, as a pastor the cultivation of personal and structural honesty, accountability and vulnerability is essential (even though people often interpret it as you complaining) and as congregation members loving and objective interaction with pastors about issues of concern and weakness can help keep them off the pedestal. On a larger scale I would love to see a cultural movement within the western evangelical subculture towards holiness and integrity over success and image, if only I had enough success and enough of my own hair to be an influence! ;-)

Let me know what you think, :-)

PS are you impressed how I got through this entire post without mentioning Mark Driscoll?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Polanyi and Tolstoy on Emotion and Truth

A current area of increasing interest and usefulness for me, personally and professionally, is the role emotions play in our perception of and ability to encounter reality and relationships. In my reading this week I came across two quotes from very different authors in very different books that both give expression to the reality distorting potential of emotion. (I think there is also a reality revealing potential to emotion but that is for another time) And then I found another good one as a searched for a source for the Tolstoy quote. Suffice to say I am increasingly convinced that theology, epistemology, pastoral praxis and even exegesis that doesn't take a full (and yes I mean more than cursory) appreciation of emotional factors is only doing half the job. Let me know what you think. :-)


I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.
Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? opening to ch 14, 
Translation from: What Is Art and Essays on Art 
(OUP, 1930, trans. Aylmer Maude)
This is the characteristic structure of what I shall call a dynamo-objective coupling. Alleged scientific assertions, which are accepted as such because they satisfy moral passions, will excite these passions further, and thus lend increased convincing power to the scientific affirmations in question - and so on, indefinitely. Moreover, such a dynamo-objective coupling is also potent in its own defence. any criticism of its scientific part is rebutted by the moral passions behind it, while any moral objectives are coldly brushed aside by invoking the inexorable verdict of its scientific findings. Each of the two components, the dynamic and the objective, takes it in turn to draw attention away from the other when it is under attack.
Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, pp229-230

The way scientists try to convince people is hopeless because they present evidence, figures, tables, arguments, and so on. But that’s not how to convince people. People aren’t convinced by arguments, they don’t believe conclusions because they believe in the arguments that they read in favour of them. They’re convinced because they read or hear the conclusions from people they trust. You trust someone and you believe what they say. That’s how ideas are communicated. The arguments come later.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Scot McKnight on Inerrancy and Truth



While we're on the subject Scot McKnight has also penned some useful thoughts about how the inerrancy debate tends to frame scripture unhelpfully,

Inerrancy is a disruptive child in the theological classroom. He or she gets all the attention of teacher and students. A biblical view of inerrancy demotes it under the word true, all as part of God’s choice to communicate efficiently and sufficiently. When the word “true” governs the game it’s a brand new, healthy game. Good teachers know how to handle disruptive children.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Tilling on Evangelised Notions of Truth

The old blogging football of inerrancy is being kicked around a bit at the moment and as part of that discussion Chris Tilling whips up a quick primer on truth for those who might be interested. I especially liked this bit:

Hence, a Christian grasp of the Truth of scripture will recognise and express, at the very least, the relational nature of Truth, that discipleship and obedience to the gospel is a factor inherent to Christian Truth, that it remains penultimate, and patient, trusting in God in Christ, waiting for the eschatological presence of the Triune God.

Let me know what you think, or better yet pop on over to Chris' blog and let him know.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Not harmed by venom or poison?

In one of the assorted and contested endings for Mark's gospel there is a famous claim that those who believe in Jesus will pick up snakes and drink any deadly thing without coming to harm (Mk 16:17). Of course this verse is what has given rise to the snake handlers found only in the USA. As that ending of Mark is of dubious authority I had always been happy to consign it to the file marked "nutter fodder."

I noticed (and isn't it always funny how you can read something a hundred times without noticing something that now seems obvious!) today that a very similar thought crops up in Luke 10:19, this time snakes and scorpion will be trodden on (I think I had always read that figuratively as the language of the pericope is one of spiritual warfare) and the promise is that "nothing will hurt you." (Which is cross-referenced in my NRSV to psalm 91:13 a messianic psalm used in Luke 4 to tempt Jesus.) So is there a genuine possibility that Jesus taught his followers they could handle snakes and drink poison?

Apart from the story of Paul and the viper in Acts 28 I can't think of anywhere else in the NT that this theme crops up again. In Acts 28 the story suggests that Paul is under special protection rather than all Christians can expect to walk away unharmed from a viper attack. So I think I am right to subsume Luke 10:19 under the figurative or spiritualised references to snakes found in the rest of the NT and to continue to treat Mark 16:17 as dubious and snakes as hazardous.

When in doubt go with 1 Cor 10:9, to paraphrase: "don't put the Lord to the test in case you get eaten by a snake!" To me snake handling seems to be inviting this verse to be fulfilled. :-s

Let me know what you think :-)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Did Moses invent Secular Government?

As I understand it, correction invited if I'm wrong, it was standard in the ancient world for the highest religious offices to be occupied by those also in the highest political offices. That is there was no way to separate the religious and the secular authorities. I was struck today as I read Numbers 27 by vs20-21, Moses has prayed about his successor in leadership and God replies that Joshua will be that successor,
You shall give him some of your authority, so that all the congregation of the Israelites may obey. But he shall stand before Eleazar the priest who shall inquire for him . . . before the Lord
Up to this point Moses had been both the leader of the Israelites and the one responsible for mediating God's voice to the people. Here Joshua is set up as leader but only some of Moses authority is passed on to him, and the rest presumably passes to Eleazar, a separation of church and state, of religious and secular power. This also presumably sets the scene for the prophetic interaction with the kingly office that occupies much of the subsequent OT - the idea that the leader of the people is not supreme but can guided and if necessary called to account by a separate religious institution.