The Gay Marriage Debate: Leave your belief at the door


1It is often said that Christians should not push/impose/force their beliefs on the rest of society.

I find this not a little bit interesting.

What is meant by such a statement?  It is quite simple: You have beliefs that impact your life, which I don’t care for.  So please refrain from doing whatever you’re doing in the event that your beliefs end up impacting my life in a way that I don’t care for.

The premise is simple – this is my life not yours.

An issue has again raised its very ugly head due to events that are taking place over in the US.  For more on this check out the front page of the NY Times here.

I’ve been reading blogs, Fb posts, and articles around the traps that are hellbent on wiping the other side out.  These kinds of ethical issues draw out the worst of both sides, which is a real shame.

It is immature.

Whether it is the legalisation of prostitution, the privatisation of the state-owned railway or the implementation of industrial reform there is a political process that is to be followed in order to create legal norms in our societies.  One aspect of this is public debate in which exists numerous parties (not two!) that fight it out for their own piece of the ideological pie.

Shhhhh!But no matter how many parties are fighting for the pie, how dare anyone or any party try to remove opposing voices from the debate.

The call for Christians to leave their beliefs at the door is not only naive (how can they?), but also contrary to the very pillars that our modern societies are based on.

Furthermore it is simplistic.  There are many people who are not religious that hold ‘traditional’ views on this matter.  So what request is to be made of them so that their view/s might not impact in a similar way to the christians’?

What we see in these debates (on both sides) is a kind of insecurity, the kind of insecurity that one can see in autocratic states where any given ideology cannot fly by political persuasion alone.

Voices are silenced.

Perspectives are outlawed.

Make no mistake, debate is to be had, due process is to be followed, and outcomes are to be respected, but on no terms are Christians (or any other party) to be quiet because their beliefs impact their voice, whether we agree with them or not.

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Don’t fool yourself


lutherThe dissertation that I’ve just started writing is on stuff about Martin Luther.

So I’ve begun reading through Luther’s works.  Where did I start?  Where else but where it all began, his Ninety-Five Theses.

Now, just in case you are not au fait with this piece of writing, it is legend!

Firstly, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses was not written in ’95 in whatever century you might like to choose.  It has come to been known as such because it contains 95 points or theses (plural of thesis) 🙂

lutherThe second thing to know is that Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses is not a great protestant declaration, but rather an anti-16th-century-Catholic-abuse declaration. The full title of the writing is called, The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.  In short, Luther was railing against the Catholic practice of selling indulgences so that God would do away with one’s temporal punishment for sins already forgiven.

Let’s say this era wasn’t the high point of the Catholic Church.

The point of this post however is thesis number 92:

92.  Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘Peace, peace,’ and there is no peace!

I am reminded of Colossians 1 where we read about Paul speaking about how the gospel was bearing fruit in the lives of the Colossian believers since the day they first heard it from the great man Epaphras (1:6-7).  The Colossians were not promised fruit but deprived of the seed that produced it, not at all!  The gospel was given and fruit was produced.

appleTo demonstrate that they have not been deprived of the fruit producing agent Paul continues to tell them the gospel.  Having just stated the gospel, Paul states emphatically in 1:23, ‘This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant’.

Luther is calling the Catholic money machine out on this one and saying that they promised the world, but delivered an atlas.  They promise so much through the indulgences and the like, but in fact did nothing more than empty their pockets.

They promised peace, but they received nothing.

Would we dare do the same?  Offer something that the cross does not give?  Or perhaps worse, offer what the cross gives, but neglect to communicate the cross?

How dare Christians offer peace through the cross (95th thesis) and instead provide shackles, hostility and burden.  How dare we offer salvation but teach law and condemnation in the name of eliciting personal change.

carrotHow dare teachers of the good news dangle the carrot of gospel blessing in people’s faces and never hand over the very substance of that good news.

Luther says, ‘Away with them!’

It might not be the 16th century and we might not be Catholic, but we can abuse, subjugate, and withhold blessing from the church just as well by withholding the gospel and thus its fruit from the church if it is not explicitly communicated.

Let’s not pretend or assume to teach the gospel, let’s teach it.  If you not teaching the content of the gospel then you are not teaching the gospel:

I Corinthians 15:1-8

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

This is the gospel that bears fruit.

Trumbo, wallpaper and a bad musician


trumboLast night I watched a documentary about Dalton Trumbo (1905 – 1976).

Trumbo was a movie director that won a number of Academy Awards, however, he was not able to accept them because he had been blacklisted for being associated with the commies in an era when red was definitely not in vogue.

His name was sullied for the next 10 years when in 1947 he refused to testify in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) about how communism was impacting Hollywood.  Trumbo’s refusal to testify earned him 11 months in prison for contempt – a charge he never denied, even after his release.

Is this modus operandi a relic?

If one does not live a life that is the result of conscious decision-making that is based upon core values, what steers the course of one’s life?

Trumbo’s actions and other similarly principled lives have become a bit like wallpaper to us, in two ways.

paperFirstly, like wallpaper, they are a bit eccentric.  Like the passionate violinist who bothers us at the restaurant table for some coinage on a Friday night – quirky, but a bit odd, cute, but a little on the pongy side – they stand out from the crowd.  We go on eating our penne polo and drinking our Belgian pilsner hoping the next mouthful will be minus the accompaniment.  But this vain attempt to rid them from our dinner existence is futile. They do exist and they will impact our meal and our evening whether we succumb and dish out the spare change or not.

Never mind, it will soon be over.  The eccentric violinist who was wrecking our meal vanishes to table 34.

Out of sight and out of conscience.

People like Trumbo confront our conscience.  They stand up and stand out because they stand on principles.  We are forced to deal with them whether we like it or not.  I find ignoring them or placating them is easiest.

Secondly, people like Trumbo are like wallpaper because in the end they do disappear into the banality of our own principled-less lives.  At first they shock (good or bad) and then they becomes like the off-white paint.  You don’t see them.  They blend in and become a part of life’s clutter.  You walk in and you don’t notice the lively colour and difference anymore.

But wallpaper is wallpaper.

Blindfolded1Trumboesques make the principled-less life not only seem banal but prove that it is banal. Through a sleight of mind trick one might move the inconvenience out of sight and out of conscience, but this bares little on the real contrast between their lives and our own.

No, Trumbo’s actions against the un-American, House of Un-American Activities Committee were not something that someone just does.  People rarely stand for the sake of standing.  Most often they have worked through the issues and have decided on which hill they will die.

And so we arrive at one pertinent monologue that stood out to me in the documentary.  I forget now his exact words, but Trumbo pinpointed what he thought was the modern curse, or perhaps more accurately put, the Western modern curse.

Choice.

One can decide to go with the pastels and off-whites, or one can decide to go with the bright colour.  The problem, which Trumbo highlighted, is that the sheer quantity of choice is blinding.

Rather ironic.

Missions Musings 16: The controlling legacy


bulsagaWe’ve inherited a legacy.

My mum always said, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.’   I try to operate by that principle with my blog posting.  Ok, I revise it a little.  It goes more like this: ‘If you don’t have something to be appropriately critical, insightful or encouraging to say, then don’t say it at all.’

Hence my lack of Missions Musings in the past 6 months.  Yes, life has been that ordinary.  But here I am for number 16 to break a few missiology rules, be a little politically incorrect and probably succumb to some form of colonial indiscretion.

Here it goes:

If I was to summarise my time in Bulgaria with one word I would choose the word ‘control’.

When I reflect on my time growing up in Australia I was blessed with the freedom to do what I want, when I want and how I want.  I’m sure that I annoyed my parents, teachers, Bible college professors and the like no end.  I could choose what I would study at university.  I could choose if I wanted to get a job or not.  I had complete control – or so I felt.

I sound like a spoiled brat!

Whatever I may have been I rarely felt as though I was fighting the system to be able to live my life.

Since arriving in Bulgaria we have felt as though we have been doing nothing but fighting the system.  We have felt like a piece of property, or a possession.  We were a resource to be used as the owner felt.  We were not our own.  Whether is was government, church denominations, individual churches, other organizational bodies, and sometimes even friends, we were at their mercy and under their control… well, so they thought.

Why was this, and was this necessarily a bad thing?

I’ve thought a fair bit about this issue because of the pervading reach of it.  My conclusions are not conclusions per se, but thoughts about how this cultural phenomena might be comprehended by a foreigner trying to make it long-term in this country.

brotherFirstly, communism is the elephant in the room.  Control was how the communist rulers perpetuated ideology, and perhaps more importantly its own rule.  If you wanted to head to Sofia for the weekend you would have to report to the police when you left your village and report to the police when you arrived in Sofia.  You could not pack up and move villages or cities easily for work, etc.   If you were a teacher you would holiday with the other teachers.  The engineers with the engineers, and so on, and so on.  The family was dismembered and subjected to the control of the state.

It is clear that this method of operation is still a major part of the DNA of the government structures and voices within it, the non-govenment structures, and also the church.

I’ve observed that the release of control to others in nearly non-existent.  It is closely guarded.  Micro-managing is the natural tendency.  Dissenting voices are not welcome and quickly shut down.  There is next to no leadership development and handover.

As you could therefore imagine, our feeling of being controlled is a fairly normal thing.  A day in the life of 7.2 million Bulgarians.  Our experience is not an exception.  We are just another stat in the fat part of the bell curb experiencing the same thing as everybody else.  It is culture clash.  We are resources to be controlled.  We are a resource that is available for the leaders to use when they see fit.  If you don’t fit then you get thrown out.  It’s really that simple.

Secondly, the culture of control, especially within churches, was in part set up and perpetuated by the workers that have gone ahead of us.  That is, we’ve inherited a legacy of missions that was characterised by control.

Let me explain.  I believe that all cultures should be viewed through the lens of the Bible and critiqued appropriately.  After the changes (late 80’s), it was imperative that the church was lensgiven the skills to evaluate how they have been impacted by communism.  They needed to be able to evaluate themselves in light of the gospel.  They needed to become something from the start that was characterised by biblical principles rather than something that was characterised by assumed communist ones.  Once the changes had happen and the tsunami of ‘missionaries’ flooded in, it was their duty to set up proper working relationships with whatever existing churches there were and the ones that subsequently sprung up.  It appears that these missionaries set up autocratic church structures and relationships, and served within them as such.

Our experience has been that there is a general tendency for churches to treat ‘missionaries’ (forgive the use of the horrible term!) as a commodity.  When I look at the recent past this is not an uncommon story for most workers.  They’ve been subjected to church/denomination control in no uncertain terms.  If they haven’t performed as they ‘should have’ then they were given the royal boot.  This treatment seems to me to be the mere out working of a certain mission legacy that was implemented by the post-fall workers, perpetuated by certain missiological practices since, that is now turning around and biting us newbies on the behind!

Question: Why have we been subject to such a culture of control?

Answer: Bulgaria’s communist past and mission legacy.

I’m not so sure that I’ve nailed this, but I think that I am getting close.  I’d really appreciate my Bulgarian friends to give some input into this.  Being on the inside you would have a much different perspective than me, which I am really interested to hear.

 

Robert Antelme: Humanity’s face


At long last my copy of The Human Race by Robert Antelme arrived in my Bulgarian postal box.

I thought that I’d do a few reflective posts on the contents of the book because it’s a heavy hitter.  To give you a quick run down, the book recounts the horrors of one Frenchman’s experience of being in the hands of the Nazis during 1944/45. Antelme survived the ordeal and this book is the result.

As the title suggests the book portrays humanity.  This work, however, not only captures the (in)humanity of the Nazis, which one might reasonably expect, but also the humanity that was revealed in himself and his fellow travellers.

The book begins with Antelme in a labour camp at Buchenwald.  He’s been chosen along with his mates to be transported somewhere.

The passage I quote below is from page 17.

The men are about to make the short walk to the train that was waiting nearby, but first they were faced with saying goodbye to the other men in the camp.

It was too late – too late to get acquainted.  We ought to have talked sooner; they were clumsy, these strangers seeking in haste to become acquainted.  Too late.  Yet all this showed that we were capable of feeling; we weren’t dead.  On the contrary, the life in us had just been awakened  from the incipient  sleep of the camps.  We were still capable  of sadness upon leaving comrades, still fresh, human.  And that was reassuring.  We already needed reassurance – which is why some of us may have gone a little overboard.

I’m reminded of the overly sentimental goodbyes that we made to each other at the end of year 12.  Tears.  Talk of staying in touch and remaining friends forever.  Songs were written and sung.  Hugs.  Letters.  Heartfelt words.

In the moment is was so real.  We were serious.  We had a bond.  A year 12 leavers bond.  Nothing can break that!

And what did our parents think as they looked on?  Did they know that within a year or two all those friends bar one or two would not even be a memory?  Did they realise that our passion was momentary and fleeting?  They had been there and done that – they knew.  They knew.

Goodbyes do that.

Goodbyes are like the biblical love that covers over a multitude of sins.  Goodbyes bring out something that can rarely be mustered in the daily grind of life.  On the deathbed.  At the funeral.  We pluck up some courage to scrape together that bit of humanity that lies in the outskirts of our heart.  This is the realm of frankness, honest and grit.  The true story.  Not how it appeared, but how it was.  The brat is the kid that everybody loved.  The drunkard was a real mate.  The adulterer loved life.

Is it true?  Do goodbyes help us to see people for who they really are.  People.

Antelme picks up on the flip-side.  In such moments we come to understand ourselves truly.  We are reminded that we are, ‘still fresh, human’.  With the words that we manage to squeak out our humanity is formed – and so assured.

Hmmm… the pull is great, but a little too generous and a tad disingenuous.

I think Antelme is torn.  I don’t think he knows whether the goodbye brings out the best or the worst of the human.  He betrays himself in the last line, ‘…which is why some of us may have gone a little overboard.’

Yes, we do.

Surely it is one or the other.  Is it true that the brat was loved by everyone?  Was the drunk a real mate?  What was the adulterer a lover of?   Could this fresh humanity be confused with pillow fluffing?  That one’s humanity is non-existent throughout life only to surface at the goodbye smacks of, well, a human facade.

Is one’s real humanity revealed in times like this?

My cynical bent tells me no.

A little bit of anathema never hurt anybody


Let him be anathema!

Two weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe talking about Jesus to a young aspiring school leaver who was heading to a Bulgarian Orthodox seminary.  I forget the exact details of the discussion, but the gist stays with me.  He was telling me that God, who is wholly other, is unknowable – classic EO line.  When I probed a little further about who Jesus was and what he revealed of God he said it… Jesus could not reveal God as God.

Needless to say we had a hearty discussion.

Interestingly, today I was reading up on some Karl Rahner (RC theologian and priest) and he observed that most Christians (RCs? Although I think his observation would apply to the protestant side too) struggle to capture an orthodox understanding of Jesus’ humanity and divinity.  He asserts that the majority of Christians would subscribe to a Docetic Jesus where God’s divinity inhabits the fleshly vessel.  God in human clothes made of skin.  Jesus was not fully human, just kind of.

Then you would know about the Elephant Room saga, where Mark Driscoll questioned T. D. Jakes on his view of the doctrine of God, in particular his views on the doctrine of Oneness.  The Oneness doctrine rejects the concept of the Trinity and instead subscribes to a modal view of God.  The entire discussion did little to clarify the situation, but what we do know is that Jakes subscribes to a doctrine of God that uses the terminology of ‘manifestations’ as opposed to persons.

How did the church in times gone by deal with these theological bents?  Simple, ‘Let him be anathema!’

The best example of the ‘Let him be anathema!’ cry is found in Cyril of Alexandria’s work called the Twelve Anathemas.  He was not dealing with a Docetist, but the father of Nestorianism, Nestorius himself.  I don’t intend to go into the content of the letter to Nestorius but Cyril’s view was clear.  Nestorius believed that Jesus had two separate and autonomous natures.  According to Cyril (eventually), Nestorius needed to adopt the position that Christ had two natures but that these were without division or separation.  Cyril’s letter outlines in no uncertain terms how Nestorius could go about working towards reforming his position.  Each of the twelve points ended with ‘Let him be anathema!’  A sure sign that Cyril meant business.

The point?  You get stuff wrong you get the anathema line.

But what was Cyril saying?  My way or the highway?  Are the Twelve Anathemas the sharp words of just another arrogant bigoted fundamentalist?  An intolerant absolutist?

In Cyril’s day, despite Ehrman’s current commentary to the contrary, there was one Lord, one faith, one church, one orthodoxy.  In the 5th century this was defined for the most part by the c. 325 Council of Nicaea, as well as the collective works of the fathers in the 200 odd years prior to it.  Orthodoxy was not some ambiguous thing that any one individual could trump up and it was for this reason that the powers that be could compare an individual’s theology with that of the orthodox tradition.  If someone fell outside of the bounds they were met with the severe response: Let him be anathema!

The point is that in those times messing up your doctrine of God was serious business with serious, potentially eternal, repercussions.  The church new this and the proponents of the heterodox views knew this also.

What has changed?  A lot and nothing.

Nothing has changed in that the issues are just as serious.  Fiddling with orthodox views of the divinity and humanity of Christ and the Trinity, for example, is not to be done flippantly as though it were a choice of strawberry or chocolate.  What we see in the first millennium and a half is an urgency coupled with a holy fear to be faithful to how the great theological minds throughout history conceptualised God in Scripture.  Surely our attitude should be the same!  We have the privileged of enjoying the longevity of these views – you know the old line, standing on the shoulders of giants.

Furthermore,  nothing has changed in that Arianism is still as heretical as it was in the 3rd and 4th centuries.  Docetism is still errant.  Nestorianism 1500 years on has not become any more faithful to the text of Scripture then it was in the 5th century.  History for the believer is not simply about dates, times and events.

History plays a role in what we believe, but also importantly in what and why we don’t believe.

We also see that nothing has changed with regard to the very specific use of anathema in the Bible.  Here are two apt usages:

  • Gal. 1:8-9But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed (anathema). 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (anathema).
  • 1 Cor. 16:22,  If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. Maranatha.

But something has changed!

One can openly deny the doctrine of the Trinity and hold to Oneness views of God and still be counted as a part of the church.  One can grow up in a church and hold to Docetic views of Christ unchallenged.  We no longer here the damning cry, ”Let him be anathema!’

I wonder why?

Well, it probably doesn’t surprise you, but I have some suggestions:

  1. Perhaps it’s a mark of our age of tolerance.  You can believe what you want over there and I’ll be over here believing what I want.
  2. Worse, perhaps it reflects our age’s characteristic pervasive interpretive pluralism.
  3. Perhaps it points to our poor theological training systems.  I mean, where do people learn that historically damned views can be considered as viable orthodox theology?
  4. Maybe, as we observe in many of our denominations, the little or no doctrinal accountability  has come back to bite us.  Ok, you can try to win me over on any form of church governance, but it is clear that the NT teachers submitted to the top dogs when it came to theology.  When they were in error they (and we) knew about it.
  5. Or could it be as elementary as not knowing our church history.

Time to bring it back – ‘Let him be anathema!’ for God’s sake!

A Christ-Centred Death


I’ve never stared at death in the face.

How would I react if I did?

Would I run?  Would I be afraid?  Would I buy books on healing?  Would I seek out those who claim to be healers and pray that they really are what they claim?  Would I pray for healing?  Would I yell at God?  Would I turn my back on God for his lack of love?  Would I embrace death?  Would I run to it?

Hmmm…

A theology of death – not often talked about, never preached about, but surely discussed and pondered by those facing death itself.  It must be an important doctrine to have worked out in our minds because at some stage it will be the reality that not only consumes our bodies but also out minds and hearts.

As a believer how should I die?

Of course in right relationship with the creator, but I’m alluding to what might be construed as something un-spiritual, although I would argue it is not.  The world of ethics in the final years, months, days, hours of life.  It’s an uneasy location to dwell conceptually, but the value of having such things worked out must surely be worth the uneasiness that it brings.

Our deaths have ethical implications.

In this age I can engage with all manner of technology and medical innovation to prolong life, but at what expense?  There is of course the obvious(?) dollar value that we can place on staying alive.  At what stage do we measure that cost against the cost of prolonging other lives (plural)?  My life for many?  When (if it is right to do so) should one question whether the resources being used to keep one alive is selfish or not?

I can see that I could easily take a stand on the exorbitant use of resources for padding out my life in health, but in the face of death see the need to use exorbitant resources to maintain life.  Should I seek to be consistent in this instance?  This is just the tip of the ethical iceberg.

Hmmm…

Ethics and theology should mix.

I think it is here that one’s questioning has the potential to steer them away from a hitting part of the discussion.  I tend to default to the question, ‘What value do I give to life?,’ but I think this is only part of the questioning process.  The other part to ask is, ‘What value do I give to death?’  As believers how can we divorce the two questions?

Is this divorce shaped more by a love for earthly life and from being captured by an unbiblical concept of death, which the first picture above captures? Death is portrayed as dark, evil and final.  Death is understood in this way as a conqueror of life.  Life is no match for death.

And so we cling to life and resist death at all costs – time, financial, emotional, and relational.

Death will not win!

Snap!  We finally hit the nail on the head.  Death will not win!  Exactly!  This is the location where our ethic and theology collide.

Could it be the case that the time that we spend dwelling on the theological concepts of eternal rest, life in Christ, new creation, etc, prior to death’s calling, are given away at the time of their greatest relevance?  How should eternal rest shape the way that we die?  How should eternal life with the risen Christ impact the way that we spend money in our final days?  How should our expectation to be a part of the new creation shape the way that we live out our relationships in our final days?

I’m not sure how they should, but surely they should.  I’m not sure if I could, but surely I should.  Time will one day tell.

Furthermore, we are not left on our own to sort out this theological and ethical difficulty.  The Apostle Paul stared death in the face numerous times (2 Cor. 11:21-29), but he did not flinch – he stared it down.  For him death had lost its sting.  It was powerless.  It had no command over Paul.  In fact, Paul runs forward to death as though it is a goal.  He would prefer to be at home with the Lord and away from his body (2 Cor. 5:8).  What to do?  Hang around and serve God or depart to be with the Lord?  He’s torn.  What’s better?  To be with Christ is better by far he tells us (Phil. 1:22-23).

For Paul, death is not about darkness, finality and the evil grim-reaper, but something much more positive.  The moment and anticipation of death is for Paul saturated with joy not anguish, hope not sorrow, and life not death.  His life till the end can be uncompromisingly Christ-centered because he knows that death loses in his death because he is alive in Christ.

Our death in the face of life needs to be Christ-centred.

PS.  If you’ve had a close encounter with death I’d really appreciate your thoughts or feedback on this post:)