Christianity Builds Me

Guest post by Dr Rob Knowles:

How is belief related to desire?
“We may indeed want to believe in something, and therefore believe in it. Thus, for example, we want to think that we are good, righteous, not that bad, better than average, not as bad as so and so, morally more advanced than Daily Mail readers – and so on. And we tend to believe this, even as Christians, even though Jesus says ‘God alone is good’ and Paul says ‘all are sinful’.

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But when somebody says, “ah, but you would believe that, wouldn’t you, you‘re a Christian”, then you know that they have done almost no study. They are just repeating a speech-utterance that it has become fashionable to utter in tipsy conversations in pubs, restaurants, and at the kitchen-table soirees of middle-class pretenders.

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In the history of the world there have been very few genuine intellectual challenges to Christianity. Claims are forever being made, by a Dawkins or a Fry. And such characters tend to be brilliant orators and conversationalists too – they have mastered the mockery of their opponents; they have mastered how to win in sophistic exchanges; they can make those with double their IQ – but with the hesitancy of intellectual integrity – look like fools. But all that is in spoken exchanges. It is in their texts that they come across as mere popularists, as intellectual lightweights. Dawkins is no Wittgenstein; and Fry is no Heidegger. Wittgenstein and Heidegger both help us to understand Christianity. Dawkins and Fry merely obscure and caricature it.

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Names Telling the Story

book_of_ruthIn many places within the Bible, names are highly significant, and aid interpretation of the text.  I’m about to start a mini preaching series on Ruth as part of a wider preaching series, and Ruth is a book I’ve never preached on before, mainly because it is the chick-flick book of the Bible…..girl-meets-boys sort of thing….or so I thought!

So yes I repent of that, and acknowledge that whilst it is that, it is also so much more!  In my early study investigations I came accross my old Ruth notes from when I studied it on the YWAM School of Biblical Studies.  In these notes I found a scrap of paper which told the story of Ruth using the meaning of the names of the characters involved.

Here’s a list of the character names and the meanings, including, not insignificantly, Bethlehem:

Bethlehem (= house of bread)
Elimelech (= my God is king)
Naomi (= delight, pleasurable)
Mahlon (= sickness, sterility)
Kilion (= consumption)
Orpha (= neck, back of the neck)
Ruth (= friend)
Mara (= bitter)
Boaz (= in him is strength)
Nameless man (the one who refused to redeem Ruth and give her his name for fear of corrupting his family property is himself unnamed in the book)

So taking these names and their meaning, here is the beginning of the story of Ruth rarely heard:

“There was famine in the House of Bread. The man whose king was God went with his wife, Delight, to live in a foreign land.

While there, the couple’s two sons, Sickness and Consumption, married Moabites. The man My God is King and his two sons, Sickness and Consumption, died, leaving Delight with two widowed daughters-in-law, Back of the Neck and Friend, and no posterity.

After hearing that the drought had ended in the House of Bread, Delight determined to return home.

Her daughters-in-law asked to return with her, but after some discussion, Back of the Neck turned back to her ancestral home. Only Friend stayed with Delight. Together the two returned empty and alone to the House of Bread.

Delight was so devastated by her recent circumstances that she requested her old friends to change her name to Bitter….”

The nameless man who refused to redeem Ruth and so perpetuate her name, not only remains nameless in all of history, but his stinginess contributed to his own name not being perpetuated, an ironic twist of fate to the miserly and ungenerous!

You ain’t no fundamentalist bruv!

Model_1_of_Fundamentalism_sculptureNow that the fuss has died down about that insanely pathetic knife attack at Leytonstone tube station by a supposed “fundamentalist”, it is worth a little bit of Zizek to calm our nerves and self-congratulation and sense of defiance.

What is a fundamentalist?

My former Principal once made a dismissive passing comment that fundamentalism these days is all ‘mental’ and no ‘fun’!  I thought it was a clever way to carve up the word, but this comment has stayed with me over the years and actually, has more truth than I thought possible.

As that wonderful, instantaneous phrase suggests, the man carrying out a cowardly, random act of violence, is no Muslim.  But what I think would be more shocking for the perpetrator, is to discover that even if he is a Muslim (which he obviously is, even the liberal West can’t take that away from him), he ain’t even no fundamentalist!

Slavoj Zizek, a philosopher I love and hate to read, captures the heart of this issue  in his magnificent book Living in the End Times, when he writes,

Zizekbook“…, are the so-called fundamentalists, be they Christian or Muslim, really fundamentalists in the true sense of the term?  What they lack is a feature easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the American Amish – the absence of resentment or envy, rooted in a deep indifference towards the non-believers’ way of life.

If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by non-believers (emphasis mine), why should they envy them?  When a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he hardly condemns him.  He simply denotes benevolently that the hedonist’s search for happiness is self-defeating.

In contrast to the true fundamentalists, pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, and fascinated by the sinful lives of non-believers.  It can seem that, in condemning the sinful other, they are struggling with their own temptation.  This is why the so-called Christian or Muslim fundamentalists are a disgrace to true fundamentalism” (emphasis mine).   p.469-70

So despite our current political language, fundamentalists today are not fundamentalists, and actual fundamentalists are nothing like this present perversion of fundamentalism, or diet-fundamentalism.  As one Australian comedian said regarding the war on terror, “I can’t believe it’s not terror!

Prophetic comedian truth aside, it is not merely that Islam has been hijacked; it is far worse – fundamentalism itself has been hijacked!  And that is no joke!

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Odd Prophet

Stanley Hauerwas says Walter Breuggemann “has the ‘unrelenting realism’ that possessed the imagination of the ancient prophets…”

In Breuggemann’s book Reality-Grief-Hopehe proves Hauerwas’s words true.  The book explores the crisis that has gripped American culture since the 9-11 attacks.  Although reality, grief and hope are the biblical categories that take communities through disaster (facing reality), to grief (a mourning for lost ideology), to hope – (the nemesis and destroyer of despair), we see how Breuggemann uses the Old Testament Exile of the Covenant people of God to the strange and shattering world of Babylon in c. 587 BC (2 Kings 25; Jeremiah 34 & Deuteronomy 28-29).  This is the lens he uses to write about the current context of the American collective psyche, as they experience the same trauma (personally, I don’t think it is the same type of trauma, since America as a whole wasn’t exiled, and more potently, they are not the covenant people of God, but the categories and the lens work exceptionally well nevertheless).  There is no magic bullet, or Hollywood film or John Wayne hero to rescue the obese unreality that tenderises the collective mind of the Western man or woman.

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What was God to do?

Some exquisiteness from the magnificent ‘On the Incarnation’ by St. Athanasius (298-373 AD) (Kindle Edition)!  My title ‘What was God to do?’ comes from a repeated question Athanasius asks in this chapter.

athanasiusChapter III: The Divine Dilemma and its solution in the Incarnation – (continued)

(11)  “When God the Almighty was making mankind through His own Word, He perceived that they, owing to the limitation of their nature, could not of themselves have any knowledge of their Artificer, the Incorporeal and Uncreated.  He took pity on them, therefore, and did not leave them destitute of the knowledge of Himself, lest their very existence should prove to be purposeless. For of what use is existence to the creature if it cannot know its Maker?

…They would be no better than the beasts, had they no knowledge save of earthly things; and why should God have made them at all, if He had not intended them to know Him?  But, in fact, the good God has given them a share in His own image, that is, in our Lord Jesus Christ, and has made even themselves after the same Image and Likeness.  Why?

Simply in order that through the gift of Godlikeness in themselves they will be able to perceive the Image Absolute, that is the Word Himself, and through Him to apprehend the Father; which knowledge of their Maker is for men (and women – come on Athanasius!) the only really happy and blessed life.

…So great, indeed, were the goodness and the love of God.  Yet men(!), bowed down by the pleasures of the moment and by the frauds and illusions of the evil spirits, did not lift up their heads towards the truth.  So burdened were they with their wickedness that they seemed rather to be brute beasts than reasonable men, reflecting the very likeness of the Word.

What was God to do in face of this dehumanising of mankind, this universal hiding of the knowledge of Himself by the wiles of evil spirits?  Was He to keep silence before so great a wrong and let men go on being thus deceived and kept in ignorance of Himself?  If so, what was the use of having made them in his own image originally?  It would surely have been better for them always to have been brutes, rather than resort to a condition when once they had shared the nature of the Word.  Again, things being as they are, what was the use of their ever having had the knowledge of God?  Surely it would have been better for God never to have bestowed it, than that men should subsequently be found unworthy to receive it.

What was God to do?  What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know Him?  And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Saviour Jesus Christ?

…He is revealed both through the works of His body and through His activity in the world…At one and the same time – this is the wonder – as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father…He sanctified [human flesh] by being in it.”

 

Amen to that!

 

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About that baby in the manger…

difficult gospel“If Jesus’ whole life to us is God’s word to us, then he is God’s word not only when he is intelligible, not only when he makes clear sense – not only when he is graspable and useable by us.  He is also God’s word when he is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.  [Rowan] Williams notes our temptation to make the ‘tightly swaddled baby’ of the Christmas stories into ‘a gift-wrapped object, passive and docile for use in our business, our transactions; a lucky mascot; the sleeping partner in the firm (the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay)’ – ‘little Lord Jesus, like Little Lord Fauntelroy, who generates in us such good and warm feelings that we know we can’t be wrong’.  Williams reminds us just how strange this view is:

‘The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes / But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.’  Every parent in Christendom must have blinked with incredulous envy at this miracle:  never mind the angels and the star, a baby who doesn’t cry when surrounded by a herd of hungry cows is much more of a prodigy!  Babies, in fact, may be wordless and dependent, but they are not, as a rule silent, nor are they passive.  They make their presence felt, they alter lives; their dependence is a matter of fingers clutching at ours when we’d like to be getting on with something; broken nights, hungry mouths at the breast; the need to be taught and watched and entertained, brought into the world of human speech and relation.  If God is with us as a child – a real child – he is not after all so tidily gift-wrapped, so functional.  If God is with us as a child, he is certainly with us as one who calls out our tenderness and compassion; but he does so by an insistent presence without shame or restraint, crying and clutching.  He is the God who, in St. Augustine’s unforgettable words, penetrates my deafness by his violent loud crying . . . . . So far from the divine child being a cipher, the tool of our schemes and systems, he confronts us with the alarming, mysterious, shattering strangeness of God.’

That Jesus is also God’s word to us when he is this child reminds us that God is not simply there to meet our needs, and that our language about and understanding of God – which tries to wrap him up, tie him down, and place him silent in the manger – needs interrupting, needs to be made aware  of its deafness.  We are too prone to relish the success of our language about God, to think that we have understood – that our smooth, neatly interlocking concepts allow us to grasp all that really needs to be said about God.  Williams takes the disturbing, interrupting, uncontrollable nature of a child’s crying as a sign of the wildly prolific, difficult, messy, uncontrollable, inelegant, disturbing nature of the language about God that we find in our Bible and in the testimonies of obstinate believers who refuse to see things in quite the way we do, and therefore as a sign of the ways in which God escapes all our language.

[T]here is a terrible aptness, a rhetorical rightness, in a God who speaks in a child’s cry.  And it is so cruelly hard – for believer and unbeliever alike – to face the possibility that silence, stumbling aparent crudity, tell you more of God than the language of would-be adult sophistication.  As if the best theology were the noise of someone falling over things in the dark.

It is God himself who lobs rocks into the smooth pond of our language about God, shattering our complacency – and only so can he keep us from preferring the idols which our words construct.  ‘[W]e must be surprised, ambushed and carried off by God,’ Williams says, ‘if we are to be kept from idols.’  ‘God himself is the great “negative theologian”, who shatters all our images by addressing us in the cross of Jesus.’

When we think about God, there is always an extent to which we end up fitting him into our world, as one element in it among others.  We simply can’t think God’s absolute difference from the world, and God’s absolute intimacy to it; we can only gesture towards an understanding with inadequate pictures and images.  We need constantly to be reminded that the reality towards which even our best words gesture transcends them and exceeds them – that, however much they are appropriate ingredients in the process by which we are drawn into the life of God, and weaned from self-serving idols, all our words fail radically to grasp God.  The God we can think, the God we fit into our mental schemas, the God we can put on a list of things we understand, is not not God.”

Mike Higton, Difficult Gospel – The Theology of Rowan Williams, p.50-52