Thursday, October 29, 2009

Does Your Theology Liberate?

I am quite happy to say that I have something of a soft spot for Latin American Liberation Theology, in particular their focus on taking the foundational texts of Christianity and putting social justice at the very heart of their believes and action. I came across some notes in my stack of old college papers about the defining marks of Liberation Hermeneutics as practiced by the likes of Leonardo and Clodovis Boff. These notes were made as part of a lecture that my two best friends at college, Cristi and Phil gave in our 3rd year Hermeneutics class.

Marks of Liberation Hermeneutics

1. Favours application to explanation

Liberation hermeneutics seeks to find a more pragmatic approach to understanding Scripture. The primary concern for the liberation exegete is not "what does the text mean?" but rather "how does the text address my situation?". Whilst allowing a text to have a meaning in and of itself, the liberation exegete seeks to find a pragmatic application to that meaning.

"the important thing is not so much interpreting the text of the Scripture as interpreting life according to the scripture" - Leonardo and Clodovis Boff.

2. Seeks the Transforming Power of Texts

The liberation exegete is concerned with interpreting the text so that change is made inevitable. This interpretation will lead to change on an individual level through conversion and on a national level through revolution.

3. Stresses Social Context of the Message

The liberation exegete seeks to place his message within the framework of oppression in the Bible. For example Israel in Egypt, Babylon or Jesus living within the oppressive Roman Empire. This approach emphasises that God is the liberator of his people from oppressive regimes as much as from sin.

The notes then continue with a section on the use of the Hermeneutical Circle in the work of Juan Luis Segundo, which I will probably re-write so as not to be so overly academic.

Reflecting though on those notes, I am convinced that any exegesis which doesn't address the social situation in which we find ourselves is an exegesis of resignation and leads to a theology of complacency - or in other words the maintenance of the status quo.

If you believe that Jesus came to set humanity free, why limit him to the purely spiritual realm of liberation from sin? If God addresses every facet of human life, then the church is surely called on to continue this ministry of liberation in the societies that we find ourselves in?

Monday, October 19, 2009

More Sermon Snippets

From the same sermon I preached in Inverness ten years ago:

"The mind of Christ is not a feeling, not an easy fix for the happy clappy. It is not about taking the easy path of prosperity, popularity and respectability. Having the mind of Christ means thinking like Jesus, reacting like Jesus and following the example of Jesus. Having this mind will make you unpopular with religious and civil leaders. However, note that being unpopular does not prove you have the mind of Christ, you might just be a jerk. When you have the mind of Christ, you will offend your friends and family, there will often be times of loneliness and you will go places that you never wanted to. In short, the mind of Christ leads to a total lifestyle revolution."

The more I think about what it means to have the mind of Christ, the more I am convinced that it is impossible to be a militarist and a Christian; to demand the death penalty and claim to follow Jesus; to be a disciple of Jesus and be a nationalist as well.

As I said on my Facebook status last week sometime: "Christian Socialism isn't an oxymoron, it is saying the same thing twice".

Friday, October 16, 2009

An Untitled Poem - circa 1998

I wrote this tirade of a poem whilst at church one Sunday:

Work. Football. The Car.
How I feel. The Kids.
Music. Books. Ideas.
Plans. Hopes. Ambitions.
You. Me. Others.
Biscuits. Coffee. Squash.
Pain. Happiness. Sorrow.
My Week. Your Gossip.
Did You Hear About Such and Such?
The Neighbours. The Dog.
People We Like. People We Don't.
The Weather. The World.
What else do we talk about,
before and after as saints we gather?
Have we forgotten something?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sermon Snippets

Back in 1998 after I graduated from college, I went to live near Inverness for a while - in a little town called Fortrose, I lived with my younger brother and his wife, and we lived above a fish and chip shop. While there I attended the Inverness Christian Fellowship, and one Sunday was asked to preach.

The sermon that I preached was one of the bits of paper I found lying about the other day, I thought I would share a few snippets from that sermon with you, and also my reaction to it in the present. I always preferred an exegetical approach to preaching, rather than themes or character studies, my text for that sermon was Philippians 2:5-8, which reads:

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!"
Some thoughts then from that sermon:
"Christian 'holiness' doesn't consist of a set of exterior rules, or the shade of doctrine one ascribes to. The Calvinist is no better than the Arminian; the Pentecostal preacher no closer to God than the Orthodox priest. True Christian holiness is born in the heart, in having a Christ-like mindset"
This is some that that I still believe to this day, simply we are all equal before God - not one of us is any closer to him than any other. Our theologies are our intellectual constructions in an attempt to understand what the ancients wrote about God. I don't believe it is possible to systemise the Bible, as such we have to accept that our interpretations are simply that, interpretations and not divine truth in and of themselves, thus we have to be humble in our dealings with Christians with other interpretations, and accept that they have things to teach us.
"As Christians we do not have a Bill of Rights, we are under a convenant of grace - everything we have comes to us out of God's grace."
I really have a problem with Christians who bang on about their "rights in Christ", seriously, who are they kidding? Clearly themselves and the gulliable. Grace is the key and the heart of the Christian religion, there is nothing we can do or claim on the basis of our faith which in any way shape or form can influence God. As my old pastor used to say "dead men don't have rights".
"As Christians we should expect no thanks, no reward and even no pay for the work we do in the Kingdom, because the Kingdom itself is our reward."
I am sure this will go down like a lead balloon, but I have a major problem with what I term "professional Christians" - a term I don't apply generally to pastors and missionaries, but most certainly do to the superstar worship leaders (given that worship is a lifestyle not a sing song, perhaps that is a term that really needs to be considered fully elsewhere). I also find it interesting that nowhere in the gospels does Jesus call people to leadership, he calls them to followship (no that isn't a typo) and service.
Just some thoughts, feel free to bring in the Inquisition if necessary!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Old Notes and Papers

I was cleaning out a pile of papers the other day, mostly receipts and boring junk like that, when I came across a load of notes which seem to be from my college days at the Birmingham Bible Institute. Most of the notes are from the hermeneutics classes with had with Dr Colin Warner, and are from our 3rd year of the course when we looked at the various liberation theologies and hermeneutics of suspicion - dealing with people like Paul Ricoeur, Habermas, the Boff brothers, Juan Luis Segundo and Gustavo Gutierrez. This brought back fond memories of working on a lecture given by myself, Phil and Cristi, and someone whose name escapes me.

Another load of papers were the sketches and beginnings of various articles about the nature of the church and its relevance to modern society, and yet more were sermon notes and even a couple of poems I wrote - I still have floating around somewhere in the flat a book of notes and poems I wrote in the very darkest days of my struggle with the brand of Christianity I bought into at the time. It is interesting to note that not once in any of my rantings and ravings did I question faith in God himself, rather in the expression of that faith as I saw in the churches I went to. As you probably know, I eventually found peace from that conflict in the Episcopalian church, until that culture came a calling to Prague's Anglican chaplaincy and again the conflict flared up inside me.

I think over the next few posts I will share some of those sermon notes, poems and articles on Diamonds and Rust, mainly as a kind of spiritual catharsis for me, to try and see where I have come from and maybe get an insight into where I may be going.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Book Review: The Search for God and Guinness

There are few beers on earth as iconic as Guinness, few brands as well defined and even a source of national pride, few families as remarkable. In three phrases you basically have the premise of Stephen Mansfield's new book, The Search for God and Guinness.

Guiness was the first legal beer I ever drank, in the lounge bar of a hotel near my home back in the north of Scotland, and is still a beer I turn to when I am not sure what to drink - being a beer geek has the disadvantage sometimes of leaving one uncertain as to what to drink in a pub. As a result of my early drinking years enjoying Guinness in Oirish pubs in Birmingham, I have become a devotee of stout in general.

Being a beer geek means I had to remember that I am not Mansfield's target audience, so I had to put myself in the shoes of some of my more religious friends convinced of the evils of alcohol. Mansfield does a good job of showing how beer has been part and parcel of human culture for millennia, and even part of church life from the very beginning of the faith, through to the Reformation, the Puritans and how many of the great men of faith that we revere such as Luther, Calvin, St Patrick and Jonathan Edwards held a positive view of beer, thus showing that Christian prohibitionism stands outside the historic and biblical approach to alcohol.

Much of the Guinness story though I didn't know. Mansfield's treatment of the leading characters in the development of the beer and the business are sympathetic and give the reader a good insight not in to just what each of them did, but also their motives for doing so. One thing that in particular gripped me was the story of how the company backed Dr Lumsden in his efforts to improve the every day lives of the Guinness workers and their families, by improving access to health care, raising the standards of housing, providing education and even starting the first branch of the St John's Ambulance in Ireland.

A couple of minor gripes aside, a slightly patronising tone when dealing with ancient source material which isn't the Bible, and claiming radar to have been invented prior to World War I (yes, I know of the work of Hulsmeyer and Tesla in the early part of the 20th century, but radar as a method of working out the distance away of objects as well as their presence didn't come until later). But these really are very minor gripes.

Regardless of your religious point of view, Mansfield's book is an interesting read and one which proves the old adage that with great wealth comes great responsibility, or as St James would put it "faith without works is dead".

Friday, October 2, 2009

Church as Entertainment or Entertainment as Church?

Last night, thanks to the generous help of Tom Foley of Christians Educators Outreach (major thanks Tom if you are reading this!), Mrs Velkyal and I went to see U2 in concert here in Charlottesville. I very rarely go to concerts, but the opportunity to see such an iconic band was too good to pass up. One thing I wasn't expecting though was a reminder of one of my reasons for leaving the evangelical world.

Before we get there though, a little back story. When I was studying at the Birmingham Bible Institute, students would lead the worship in chapel every morning, I still pity all the people who had to listen to my abysmal singing whenever it was my turn. Anyway, I always liked to include some older and traditional hymns into the mix, rather than repeating the same 9 line chorus time after time to achieve full hypnotic effect. Among my favourites were "The Old Rugged Cross", "Be Thou My Vision" and pretty much anything by Charles Wesley. Generally speaking, I have never been a big fan of the catchy one-liner for the unthinking generation. One thing I would have loved to do would have been the sacking of the "worship band" and just to sing Psalms like they still do in the Free Church of Scotland back at home (though obviously the Gaelic would have been tricky!). Really then it is no surprise that one the things that drove me into exploring the historic traditions within Christianity was not feeling comfortable with rock-lite worship styles, and the iconisation of "worship leaders".

Anyway, back to U2. Watching them last night reminded me of my biggest gripe with alot of modern worship fads, how easy it is for a charismatic, in original sense, leader to bend crowds of thousands to his will and to manipulate a person's emotions, and I guess that is the rub, how can I know the difference between a spiritual experience and an emotional high parading as a "charismatic moment"? At one point in the show, Bono sang the first verse of Amazing Grace, and you could have heard a pin drop in the stadium - I half expected Billy Graham to magically appear and do an altar call at that moment, except there was a mosh pit where he would have wanted people to gather - we did eventually get Desmond Tutu on the big screen thing though (and my cynical nature wondered how many people knew who this phenomenal man was).

Don't get me wrong here, I had a fantastic time at the concert, but as someone who thoroughly distrusts emotion it was interesting to watch the crowd and how Bono held them in the palm of his hand. Perhaps it was this distrust of emotion and seeing worship leaders having a similar sway over a congregation that led me to doubt the validity of a worship event so closely modelled on the modern rock concert (even the phrase "worship event" is ridiculous as worship is supposed to be lifestyle rather than an event). Perhaps I am just being a curmudgeon and should come out with some platitude about everybody worshipping in different styles, which may in fact be true, but having spent many, many worship services questioning the reality of my faith because I don't connect with the rock-lite approach so common throughout the church today in an attempt to be "relevant" makes such platitudes hard to bear, and even harder to spout.

Anyway, just some thoughts inspired by watching a master at work - and it what magnificent work it was, less a concert and more a spectacle, and one which I enjoyed immensely, especially the retro disco balls at one point of the show.

Again, thanks Tom!