Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On the finishing of a great undertaking

Ah rejoice, rejoice, rejoice for the great undertaking is complete!

I have just put the final full stop to the manuscript of The World of The Early Church.

Coming in at 50,679 words, it's a tad too long (about 2,000 words) but the excess will come out in the wash.

And I think I'm really quite pleased with it. I think it reads well and tells a good story. But the proof of that will be when I read it again next week or the week after.

Even more so, will be the verdict of my publisher. it is in her inbox now. Watch this space...

Lent with Stanley

I am reading Stanley Hauerwas' A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching for lent. I started this morning (slightly late...)

Hauerwas is one of the premier theologians of our age who says here about his craft and its practitioners, 'modern theology tends to be an extended exercise in throat clearing,' adding that 'even after the theologians have cleared their throats it often turns out they have nothing to say.'

I think he's an exception to this rule. He laments that modern theology has become less and less scriptural, suggesting that theologians have tried to see themselves as philosophers. 'Theologians are not "thinkers",' he says. 'We are servants of a tradition in which the creative challenge is how to be faithful to what we have received.'

And he thinks that the best form through which this is expressed is the sermon. 'I am convinced that the recovery of the sermon as the context for theological reflection is crucial if Christians are to negotiate the world in which we find ourselves,' he says

This is a challenge to those of us who find the sermon an inefficient tool for disciple formation in our churches. But perhaps the problem is less with the model than our execution of it(!), though I do feel that preaching is only part of the issue; listening and hearing is the other part and even the best speaking needs good listeners. As C S Lewis once said in a different context, there are no bad books, only bad readers.

As Hauerwas says: 'I hope the reader will discover that the problem is not that they do not understand what I say. Rather the primary challenge is how what I say challenges the way our lives are put together.'

All this magic and I'm only on p14!

Christians and politcs (again)

Jude pointed to this fascinating Financial Times article on Christians and the Conservative party in a comment to a recent post (thanks). Here's the link. It's really worth reading.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Changing our maps

We went to a party in Essex on Saturday evening. It was a blast. Great to celebrate Juliet's 40th and catch up with people.

We needed the sat nav to get us there and fairly near the end of the journey we hit a dead end. The sat nav wanted us to go straight on and right but a no entry sign and barrier prevented it. It's maps were wrong. The landscape had changed and the map hadn't caught up with it.

Alan Roxburgh tells as similar story in his new book called Missional Map-making: skills for leading in times of transition. The first chapter is available on the publisher's website (here). The book will be available next month.

I think Roxbugh is the most interesting of the missional thinkers currently writing. I find his use of maps as metaphor really helpful. A key point he's making is that most us are still using maps that relate to a landscape that no longer exists, so it's not surprising that as churches we can't find our way in the world.

Equally, it's not surprising that none of our neighbours has much of a clue what we're talking about when we share our faith.

The environment in which we are seeking to be church has changed faster and more radically over the past 25-30 than at any time since the Reformation/Renaissance. The best guide to this is a wonderful book called The 500 Year Delta by Jim Taylor and Watts Wacker.

It simply means that our models for action and community are no longer up to the job.

Yesterday evening we began asking the question what is our mission and what do we need to be in order to do it. Next week we'll ruminate further on it. I wonder if most of us have grasped the scale of the challenge...

It's enough to make you weep

Well, you've got to hope that the election campaign rises above this morning's smearathon!

I don't mind people trying to sell books - I've got books to sell, so I understand the impulse. But having read the extracts from Andrew Rawnsley's new book, the best I can say of it is that he has a book to sell...

I don't know if anyone else caught a whiff of irony in the hectoring John Humphries interrupting his way through a process of trying to get answers out of two interviewees on the non-story of whether an anti-bullying hotline had or hadn't received complaints about Gordon Brown bullying staff at number 10.

The whole thing just makes you want to weep. It's little wonder that fewer and fewer are contemplating voting.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Food for thought

My last post referred you to the Theos website where you can find Tom Wright's excellent paper on God and Government.

Theos is a think tank really worth getting to know. Over the past couple of years they have produced some excellent material on Christian engagement with political issues. The organisation's reports are available for free download and are worth getting, reading and talking about in your churches, book clubs, huddles at a cafe, etc.

Currently, there's an opportunity for you to comment on religious programming on the BBC, something I know is exercising some members of my congregation.

In this election year it is more vital than ever that Christians are well-informed about what's going on and how the Bible and Christian tradition might help us to make sensible choices as we head to the polling station.

So go and check Theos out here.

As well as politics, there's a string of good materials by Nick Spencer and others on Darwin which shouldn't be forgotten just because the 150th anniversary year has passed.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tom Wright lecture on government

The Tom Wright lecture mentioned last week can now be downloaded here (scroll down to find the link). It's well worth reading carefully and even using as the basis for a group discussion in church in the run up to the election.

Wright's lecture is a robust analysis of the issues facing British democracy seen through the lens of the Biblical narrative and the post-enlightenment history of the West. There's nothing in the lecture about the biblical story and especially that of Jesus as the bringer of the Kingdom that is emphatically for this world, for the here and now, that we haven't read in Wright before. But here it's delivered as a brief and accessible overview that's then applied to how Christians might think about the contemporary political process.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hearing the Bible as it really is

Well I have just completed the fifth of eight chapters of the book. So i am on track to finish by the end of February.

It's been a challenge but I think what I've written so far is good. Hopefully the publisher will agree!

I have to say that immersing myself in the culture of the Roman empire - albeit pretty superficially - has made me more aware of the need to see how the gospel earths itself in our culture.

we had a fascinating gathering at church last night. it was the first of three sessions on money matters. Last night was looking at the New Testament world and I shared the fruit of that day's writing.

What intrigued me about the questions was how they all came out of a Christendom heritage and not the New Testament as rooted in its culture. That's not a surprise I guess since it's how people have been trained!

It'll be fascinating to see what happens next time as we tackle issues that people are concerned about in the light of our understanding of the gospel. I guess my hope is that knowing a little of the context will help us to hear the New Testament as it was heard by its first hearers.

Of course, we'll never be able to do that perfectly but I'm hoping that its message will gain a fresh clarity and a fresh purchase in people's lives as a result of what we're thinking about.

We'll see...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A healthy dose of scepticism

It's an interesting week for the news.

I'm listening to Simon Jenkins on Radio 4 telling us how the media were all swept along by climate change hype that is now being exposed as less credible than we all thought. Does that mean we should all be climate change skeptics now?

At the Church of England Synod, a Ugandan bishop has confirmed his support for legislation in his country outlawing homosexual behaviour with the death penalty being proposed for repeat offenders. Are we all going to sign up for the government's proposed equality laws in revulsion at such a view?

I guess what this tells me is that what the media increasingly leads us by the nose into how we should feel about things. Jenkins, not a man I always agree with, has just said that the media should always be sceptical. And I agree wholeheartedly with that.

Scepticism is essential for evaluating the truth of anything. It's how science works and in many ways it's how faith works too. The trouble is that we seem to want to be told what to think, so if the media changes its mind, so do we!

I'm currently writing about the economic location of the early Christians for my book. One of the distractions historians need to be aware of is the tendency of Roman writers to speak of a binary economy in the Roman empire - a few very rich people at the top and everyone bumping along the bottom, one missed crust away from penury.

Such a view is reproduced by some historians and NT scholars. But the evidence of it is slim indeed. They appear to have fallen of the hype of the empire's reporters. Reality is always much more nuanced and interesting.

When I was being trained as a historian, I was always taught to run a sceptical eye over the evidence looking for those nuances, the bumps on an otherwise flat sheet that lets the light fall on the era under study so that we see it as well as we possibly can.

Then when I was being trained as a reporter, I was told to ask the how, what, where, when and why questions always backed by the prove it riposte. Would that our media did that more often.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

More salvoes in the election campaign

There's an interesting page in today's Times that says something about the forthcoming election and how Christians will be challenged by it.

At the top of the page the ever-sensible Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, expresses concern that God is being squeezed out of politics by the way the current government does business - though he does reckon this process started under Mrs Thatcher.

At the foot of the page is a report of a David Cameron interview in the gay magazine Arena where he says that churches have got to accept gay people into their ranks as equals.

For some Christians this could well leave no party worthy of consideration when it comes to casting their vote!

Clearly that's not a sensible position, so there's going to be a need for some really careful thinking to take place between now and 3 May. Deeply held opinions need to be challenged and fresh reflection on what scripture and Christian tradition says about crucial issues will have to take place.

That thinking will undoubtedly be helped by the lecture that Tom Wright is due to deliver at the synod next week and a book co-authored by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin that's coming out this week.

Resources are one thing, but I also think we need to be serious in prayer for our civic society. There are fault lines that can become fractures; there are deep differences of opinion even within congregations that need to be prayed about and talked out.

So, let the conversations begin - and those that have already started (and there are lots, I know), spill over into the public domain so we can all benefit from them.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Thoughts about sermons

'We no longer seem to expect our ministers to spend hours (literally hours) every week, thinking, reading, praying: so that when the hungry sheep look up they may be fed.... '

So said Davis McCaughey, the first president of Australia's Uniting Church, in 1979.

It's quoted in blog piece lamenting the decline of the denomination over the past thirty years. I don't know enough about church life in Australia to comment on the main argument of the piece (here), but it caught my eye because it seemed to have something important to say about the issue I was thinking about earlier in the week.

Perhaps people in our churches would be better equipped to live and share their faith, if they were better taught by ministers who took greater care and time over preparation for Sunday.

I find myself somewhat conflicted about this. Having been challenged on Sunday evening about how fragile some people feel in the face of attacks on their faith in the wider world, McCaughey's comments suggest a way that ministers can be the key to encouraging muscle growth among members of our congregations.

McCaughey is not a lone voice, of course. Eugene Peterson has always aregued that the primary calling of the minister is to listen and speak, to pray, study scripture and offer spiritual direction through Sunday teaching and one-to-ones.

I'm not sure the sermon can carry such baggage, however, in our media and information saturated world. But I do think churches - and ministers especially - need to think about what they teach and how they teach it (I've said this before), so that individual Christians feel better able to face the challenges of the world they live in.

The question is how will this best happen? Answers on a post card, please.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Building spiritual muscle

We had a really excellent Later Service yesterday evening. There weren't many of us but the conversation was rich and stimulating. I guess the latter was very much the product of the former!

We were continuing our reflections on Nehemiah, looking at chapter 4 and Glenis, having set the scene really well, asked what opposition we feel we face from outside the church.

We got the usual stuff about people being too apathetic to oppose what we're doing providing it doesn't interfere with how they live their lives and the fact that certain elements in our culture, especially the liberal media, are mounting a concerted campaign against belief.

So far, so expected

I don't buy the second argument - though I think the first has a lot of merit - and said so. To which one our people said that it's alright for me because I used to be a journalist, I've studied a lot and I know how to answer people and so I'm not fazed by such attacks. She admitted that she found such attacks quite unsettling.

I was lost for words (momentarily!).

Part of the issue here is the end of Christendom, something we who've read missional church texts know all about. It's about how the Christian faith has been moved from the centre to the margins of our culture - quite rightly in my view; it's where we belong.

But the upshot of this is that all opinions are now equal and therefore are equally fair game. And this is still a relatively new experience for Christians, especially those of a certain age and those who grew up in Christian families. For them it feels personal; their faith is being attacked now in a way that would have been unthinkable 30 to 50 years ago. And that's uncomfortable.

So, it's made me think about how we help people in church to think about their faith.

People were talking last night about such opposition calling for spiritual warfare. And I guess that's true. But it depends on how you understand spiritual warfare. For me the idea is much more about how we live than how we battle unseen spiritual powers. I tried to sum my view up in these lines:

In the early hours
writing these lines
aware of unearthly powers
in unsettling times;
war rages on our TV screens, the front line’s in my soul:
your light and these neon dreams still wrestling for control.
cause I hanker for the good life that work and money brings,
seeking the products as advertised and clinging to these things…

I’m not looking for a way out, Lord,
just some high ground so I can see
this game and its many rich rewards
in the light of all you have for me…

So we overcome evil by doing good, according to Romans 12; and we take thinking captive so that we can demolish arguments, according to 2 Corinthians 10. This means that we know how to think and how that thinking works itself out into the way we live. And the church's 'teaching' programme should be addressing that in a variety of ways.

It's back to that issue I keep returning to in this blog, discipleship. There are two facets to it here: how we can be disciples in today's challenging environment and how does what we do in church help?

Lots to think about there...