Tuesday 26 April 2011

Baptist Contributions at Easter: A Powerful Word & a Brilliant Dance

It's a long time till Easter next year but here are two things that can't wait.

1. The Sermon

Do yourself a favour and listen to Rev Tim Blencowe's wonderful Good Friday sermon. Tim is Pastor of Macquarie Baptist Church in Sydney and a part-time lecturer at Morling Theological College. I doubt you will have heard a clearer and more challenging exposition of John 19:16-18
HT: Thanks for recommending the sermon Nicole 168 hours

Listen HERE

2. The Dance

And who said Baptists can't dance. Here is a wonderful dance by 2,000 Baptists in the heart of Houston Texas celebrating the Resurrection. Have a look, it will make you smile!

Monday 25 April 2011

A Beautiful Jesus?

Justine Toh has written an excellent opinion piece in the National Times that the editors titled 'God must be beautiful - it runs in the family'

I love the way she concludes the piece as she builds on the ideas of Prof Stephen Moore who argues in his book 'God's Beauty Parlour and Other Queer Spaces in and around the Bible' that there is a tendency to remake Christ to "ensure minimal disturbance to the status quo". Dr Toh writes:

"Beauty often makes us tremble at its sight. But in the context of our makeover culture, a physically attractive Christ who fulfils rather than challenges the beauty ideals of Western culture seems rather suspect. If, as Moore suggests, a good-looking Christ focuses our attention on outward rather than inward transformation, and personal rather than collective change, then perhaps our tendency to airbrush Him into perfection is an effective way to keep the real man (the real God?) at bay."
Dr Justine Toh lectures in cultural studies at Macquarie University.

The full article can be read HERE

Friday 22 April 2011

The Paradox of Easter

Easter is a special time for me. I will never forget the first Easter I celebrated in 1983, just 6 months after I had become a Christian aged 31 years. I'd grown up as a child enjoying the Easter holidays and the chocolate and as a young father I had introduced my daughters to the same limited pleasures of the secular celebration of Easter. But as Easter approached in 1983 I grasped something that made sense of the strange traditions that I'd been taught in Scripture at school. I understood the significance of more than the narrative about a man who died and then miraculously came back to life.

In my limited understanding of Easter, we were meant to be sad on Friday and able to celebrate on Sunday (with chocolate!). But as I prepared for Easter that year, I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude that God had forgiven my sins, for in God's sight I was now righteous.
"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9).
For the first time I saw in the hideous death of the perfect Son of God that my sins were responsible for his death! The paradox of Easter is that we see God's majesty and power revealed in the resurrection of the Son, but at the same time we bow our heads at the thought that in the brokenness of Jesus on the cross, the love of God is revealed so profoundly for each of us.
"You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom 5:6-8)
May God bless you abundantly as we contemplate and give thanks for his mercy, love and kindness demonstrated in Christ.

Sunday 17 April 2011

What is the True Scandal of the Evangelical Mind?

Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, Mark A. Noll suggested almost 20 years ago that the Evangelical Christian church had headed down a path towards anti-intellectualism. He opens his challenging book ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind’ with the confronting words:

“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind…They have nourished millions of believers in the simple verities of the gospel but have largely abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of ‘high’ culture’.”

While many Christians found his book helpful and challenging, its central thesis has been contested by many and for varied reasons. While some would agree with his most obvious point - that many Christians have failed to engage culturally and have spent even less time thinking theologically about their life in the world - some might question the justification for his thesis. Certainly, Creation Scientists and American dispensationalists would question his arguments, for they bear the brunt of much of his criticism.

Carl Trueman in his eBook 'The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind'  has sought to turn Noll's claims on their head by making another obvious point; there is no clear definition of what we mean by an Evangelical. For Trueman, the real scandal is that for too many Christians, there has been a disconnect between their intellectual and moral lives and their biblical and theological foundations. Trueman argues well that Christians who claim to be Evangelicals have failed to spend time grasping even the most basic elements of the faith and avoiding engaging their minds about issues that matter. Many have failed to consider God's nature and character, our personhood as his created beings, moral issues as basic as gender and sexuality, biblical authority and so on. Instead, we have avoided awkward discussions and distilled what are seen as the essentials of being an evangelical to anyone who "sees the Bible as a jolly good book and that Jesus was a decent bloke". 

Theologically I find myself in agreement on many things with Carl Trueman and I share his view that the term evangelical has become so loosely defined as to be unhelpful or useless for communicating with other people. But, I'm not prepared to so easily dismiss Noll's point. Both Trueman and Noll manage to put their fingers on two aspects of the problem of the disappearing influence of Christians in public life. For me, this isn't a matter of academic vanity or lamenting Christians becoming "less important, more marginal, and increasingly despised" (as he 'gently' puts it). I don't think the point can be won that easily. It is important for Christians to have a voice in all aspects of life and be able to offer a biblically informed view of the things they believe and the actions they take.

There is certainly some evidence in Australia to suggest that Evangelical Christians are less visible in the secular academies than they once were, but evangelicals have not abandoned university campuses, they have simply become ‘outsiders’ involved primarily in chaplaincy and student-based ministry. And those Christians left on university staff on campus have often made themselves small targets, keeping their religious views and often even their faith, well hidden. The Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES) with its ministry to university students has experienced phenomenal growth in the last 10 years. But the number of Christian staff on faculties appears to have declined. This could be claimed of other professions and other social institutions.

Noll’s point is not that theologians and theological colleges have shown no intellectual muscle, quite the opposite, but that evangelical Christians while placing a primacy on the serious study of the Bible, have spent much less time considering “sober analysis of nature, human society, and the arts.” Evangelical Christians he suggests have neglected the ‘life of the mind’. By this Noll means the effort to think like a Christian about the world, that is, to think within a Christian framework or worldview. His challenge is for the Christian to consider, critique, understand and think about the physical world, as well as the nature of human structures like government, education, the economy, the past, the aesthetic, and the nature of humanity.

Of course, Trueman might be right in his claim that the reason so many have become impotent as Christians in the academy and other places is simply that they have ignored the fundamentals of their faith and have failed to grasp the deep things of God.

We know that as Paul reminded the Corinthian Church, that we do not impart "...a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory"(1 Cor 2:6-7). No, with Paul we come in weakness, fear and trembling with knowledge of nothing "except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:1-5). But of course these deep things must change us and lead us to live our lives under God's authority. Lives that are informed and shaped by his Word to us, surrendered to his Son and lived sacrificially for his glory.

The purpose of CASE

The formation of ‘CASE’ at my own college within a major secular university was motivated by the desire to encourage Christians to addresses the relationship between theology and other forms of knowledge and learning. In the process, we have sought to engage with people who do not share the Christian faith. We don't see our primary goal as evangelism, but we see intelligent application of biblical insights to all of life as foundational to evangelism.

Organizations like CASE have an important role to play. We are not alone; there have been other groups attempting such work for a long time. One which comes readily to mind is the 'Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology' (ISCAST) which is an Australian organization dedicated to exploring the interface between science and the Christian faith. Its membership consists of scientists, theologians and professionals with standing in their own fields and a commitment to the Christian faith.

The content of this post was part of an address I gave at St Mark's Theological Centre in Canberra at its commencement in March. Interestingly, St Mark's is one of the few Christian centres for the study of theology that is integrated fully into a university. You can read my paper titled 'Regaining Our Voice in the Secular University' HERE.

Other Posts

My recent post on 'The Christian Mind' also has relevance to my arguments in this post (HERE)

Friday 8 April 2011

The Loss of Civility (& its Consequences)

Photo credit: Alan Porritt (AAP)
Does civility matter? I think it does, but sadly, the signs are evident in Australia that it isn't valued as highly as it once was.  By civility I am not talking just about good manners (though they are important), but rather about the behaviour between members of society that leads to a social code and foundational principles for how a civilized society functions. This historically has been a major focus of political philosophers and has included concern with principles of justice, liberty, rights, freedoms, the law and the duties of citizens to government. The recent Carbon Tax protests in Canberra set new low standards for public political debate. It made me wonder whether we should we be concerned when we have public protests of the type we witnessed? And is public civility important?

The consideration of civic virtues is not new, two of the world's oldest republics, Athens and Rome, gave much time and energy in seeking to define civic virtues. Socrates and Plato were central in the debate concerning Athenian polis.  Civic virtue was also a matter of interest in the Renaissance, during the Enlightenment and as part of republican revolutions during the 18th century.  This of course has been played out with different priorities, purposes and social agendas. With the rise of Humanism and institutionalised education in the 18th and 19th centuries, some believed that society could be save from itself by the development of virtuous children through education. Biblical Christianity of course would suggest that man's sin and rebellion against God makes this hope of the goodness of humanity rather tenuous. We live together in our imperfection and fallenness.

When people talk of civility today, they might well mean the cultivation of character traits and virtues that are consistent with their own cultural and social practices. These at times simply reflect one's social class rather than well thought out ideas of civil society.  The distinction between practices that some see as demonstrating civility and others that are uncivilised, can be based on the most tenuous of justifications.

Roman Forum,  Centre of Public Life
Attempting to move beyond subjective debates about manners requires us to return to the root of the word, that is the opposite of civil. The word 'uncivil' comes from the Latin word incivilis, meaning "not of a citizen." To be civil, is to play one's part as a citizen in building a civil society. What any society needs to guard against is behaviour that runs counter to the well being of a society; that is, behaviour that strikes at the very structure and foundation of one's civil society. In the recent decades, many western democracies have seen the topic of civic virtue gaining attention. This has been particularly the case in relation to the good practices of government and the participation of citizens in relation to government.

In countries like Australia, France, Canada, Britain and the USA, political parties seem to be at war with each other rather than setting debating and agreeing on policies that will help to shape nations for the common good.  Political parties spend millions of dollars to tear policies and each other apart. Issues are rarely debated with transparency and civility, lies are told, tricks played and voters deceived. What such behaviour can unwittingly encourage is extreme responses by minority groups in any society that is fuelled by the behaviour of our leaders as they provide simplistic messages designed to raise fear and incite anger, rather than opening up reasoned civil discussion.

In the 'The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It', well-known Christian Os Guinness argues that civility needs to be rebuilt in western societies like the USA if they are to survive:
"Civility must truly be restored. It is not to be confused with niceness and mere etiquette or dismissed as squeamishness about differences. It is a tough, robust, substantive concept… and a manner of conduct that will be decisive for the future of the American republic" (p. 3).
Os Guinness's book proposes that the restoration of civility in America could well have an influence around the world. He points to the threat of minority groups like the Religious Right and the secular Left, arguing that there is a need to avoid privileging one interest group over another, including religious groups. But equally, in the case of religion, we must avoid gagging public debate and making all public professions of faith illegal. He argues that the United States is uniquely placed to demonstrate how this can be done for the benefit of the world. In doing so, any nation should avoid two false responses to the challenges of a secular society where cultural and class wars eat away at civil society.  First, we need to avoid any notion of a “sacred public square", where one religion has a position of privilege that denies religious expression by others. Second, we need to avoid what he calls the “naked public square", where public life leaves no place for religion.

Guinness presents an alternative to both these problematic public squares, what he calls a “civil public square”. This is one where everyone is free to be part of and engage in public life with or without a faith, and in accordance with reason and conscience.  He sees the Constitution as a starting point in the USA, supported by an agreed covenant or civic vision for the common good.

Such a civil society, that is able to demonstrate a "civil public square", may well avoid the type of false tolerance that we have witnessed in Australia in recent times as diverse political parties have attempted to maintain a government where no party has a clear majority. A mature civil society will need to enable minority groups to have a voice, but they must not be allowed to seek to establish their position by yelling the loudest or the longest. Guinness reminds us that in a democracy all have a right to believe anything, but this does not mean, "anything anyone believes is right". We need to expect differences of opinion in a civil society and also to work out ways to discuss them and reach consensus for the common good. Christians have a part to play in such public discourse, participating openly as people of faith with godliness, humility and respect for the rights of others to participate as well.