A Pentecostal Mind?

August 4, 2007

Interesting article in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph today about Tanya Levin, who has recently written a book critical of Hillsong church. She is now calling herself an atheist rejecting Christian faith as such. Judging by the article (I haven’t read her book) one of key things that put her off was being discouraged from asking questions, either about the church or the Bible.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of her case and Hillsong, this does raise an important issue for Pentecostals in general. Most Pentecostal churches in Australia have grown by a combination of strong leadership and contemporary music. Nothing wrong with that: it has helped them be relatable and unified where some other churches are old-fashioned and divided. But we are still inclined to suggest to people that they check their brains at the door!

In postmodern times, discouraging questions instead of engaging them and giving thoughtful answers is not a good long-term strategy. Christians should question things, including their own leaders and their faith. The truth is strong enough to stand this.

I’m not advocating a kind of endless questioning that never comes to a commitment, that uses questioning to avoid commitment. Jesus challenged people to follow him even when they didn’t understand it all and we never have all our questions answered (not in this life anyway). But authoritarianism and emotionalism are no substitutes for honest engagement with real issues.

A few years ago, Mark Noll wrote about “the scandal of the evangelical mind”.  Someone else remarked that we are still looking for a Pentecostal mind. Don’t be afraid to think.

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Post-Christendom

July 29, 2007

This is the title of a book I have just been reading. The author, Stuart Murray, looks particularly at the scene in the UK and Europe, where the Christian church was dominant for hundreds of years but where now hardly anyone goes to church. Christendom is over and the church has to learn to operate from the margins instead of the centre, says Murray.

Some of the points that flow from this in this book are:

  • we should see the “conversion” of emperor Constantine and his favouring of the church as a tragedy, not a blessing, that led the church away from its real nature and mission through a doomed alliance with empire.
  • we should forget about longing for revival and instead seek for survival as we enter a totally new environment.
  • we should gracefully surrender our level of influence over governement and law.
  • we should learn from marginal and persecuted Christian groups of the past, e.g. the Anabaptists and even Pelagius (who comes out here as the goody against Augustine, whose emphasis on grace led to a lower standard of discipleship).
  • post-Christendom evangelism should be more like Jesus, e.g. “invite rather than pressurise and intrigue rather than overwhelm” (p314).

Clearly this is a book for the west rather than the developing world where Christians have been marginal and where the church is growing apace. I recommend it for a thought-provoking read.

But I have one problem. Every society has a religious base which determines its moral convictions and thus its laws. For western society, that base has been some form of Christianity. Now for Christianity to function in this “religious” role inevitably distorts it. But if society removes this base, what will take its place? Currently in Australia we are seeing a shift to a more secular humanist base, which was supposed to be religiously neutral and tolerant, but the fruit of this is already troublesome and is being challenged by more radical alternatives like Islam. So I’m not fully convinced we should forget about revival.

Faith Boundaries?

July 23, 2007

One of the questions raised by postmodern and emerging church thought is the issue of boundaries in faith. Evangelicals have traditionally placed strong emphasis on what has been called “bounded set” thinking, i.e. strong sense of boundaries between “the saved” v “the lost” or “born again Christians” v “nominal Christians”, etc. This reinforces their (our: I see myself as an evangelical)  sense of group identity as against liberals, Catholics and people of other religions or none.  It is also used to motivate people to evangelism. But it can also lead to attitudes of superiority or self-righteousness and the evangelism can take the form of pressure tactics!

Now recent writers are saying we should adopt more “Centred set”  thinking: instead of placing so much emphasis on boundaries, we should ask ourselves, “How close am I to Jesus?” (in life-style as well as devotionally). Instead of producing a Yes/No answer, such a question places me on a graded line and everyone will have a different answer. This also tends to break down boundaries between “us” and others.

Emerging church thinking thus blurs the boundaries. And this has good gospel support. While Jesus challenged people strongly about their relationship with God and their life-styles, he also held church at parties hosted by sinners or very new disciples (e.g. Matt.9:9-13) and often challenged the boundaries drawn up by the Pharisees.

However, I can’t go all the way with this approach. Because there are places where the Bible clearly engages in dualistic thinking (heaven v hell, saved v lost, light v darkness); e.g. 2 Cor.6:14-18.

We should break down every barrier people put up that might hinder someone coming to Jesus. But we mustn’t compromise on his call to radical discipleship and holiness. Christians should be different, but engaging and welcoming and accepting. Like Jesus.

Is religion evil?

July 15, 2007

Christopher Hitchens (author of the book “God is not great”) is on a personal crusade against all religion. For instance, in this weekend’s Australian, he blames religion for violence such as the recent terroritst attack in Glasgow. Now he has a point. Religion can motivate people to do bad things. But then so can non-religious ideologies (e.g. communism). So is the problem religion as such? Or is it rather false ideas about religion?

Religion is a highly charged and emotive aspect of human life because it is a central part of who we are.  Religious questions are hard to answer and often very divisive, but they will not go away. So we should encourage healthy debate and dialogue among people who follow different religions or none. We also need to listen to other people’s views and experiences in this field.

But ultimately we need some answers. We need to find Truth.  Jesus said, ” I am the Truth” and claimed to bear witness to the truth. Is he right or wrong? Jesus was also the only credible “religious” leader who claimed that he would die for the world’s sins and be raised from death.  If these claims are right, it changes everything.

You can’t duck the truth issues here. You must take a stand on one side or the other.

One of the big issues being debated by Christians, and being fired at Christians, is “What about other religions?” In these days of resurgent religions all over the world (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism especially) surely we need to be toterant and surely no one believes their religion alone is right or that all the others are going to hell, etc, etc.

I’ll talk about hell another time, but these commonly made statements depend on certain assumptions which need debating themselves:

1. Christianity is a religion (Talk about that some other time too).

2. All religions are basically “the same”, whatever that means.

3. All claims by religions to truth (at least in any “absolute” sense) are unsupportable, if not meaningless.

4. Tolerance is incompatible with claims to truth.

5. There is an identifiable “thing” called religion.

All these points are very debatable.

Let’s just take the last.

What do we mean when we speak of “religion” or “a religion”?

What does, say, Buddhism have in common with Islam that they could both be called a religion?

Is it even meaningful to lump the different forms of Buddhism togther as a religion? If you substitute Hinduism, the question becomes even more acute.

So what are we talking about when we discuss, say, Buddhism? The Dalai Lama? or the monks who stirred up crowds to burn down churches in Sri Lanka? Is it Thai Buddhism (friendly and non-threatening and a bit animistic) or Burmese Buddhism (aggresisve and “in bed with” a particularly nasty military regime)?

What makes Buddhism Buddhism? You don’t have to believe in a guy called Buddha. You don’t have to believe in gods. You don’t have to “worship” anything though most Buddhists do.

Could there be such a thing as a Buddhist Christian or a Christian Buddhist? What would that mean?

More later.

My 21 year old son recently got me to read “A New Kind of Christian” by Brian McLaren. Very timely and relevant book, even though not that new (2001).

The book is structured as a semi-fictional dialogue between a disillusioned evangelical US pastor, who is seriously considering dropping out of pastoral ministry, and a science teacher who attends an Episcopalian (Anglican) church and relates strongly to teenagers like the pastor’s soccer-playing daughter.

This dialogue covers a range of issues for Christians in the “postmodern” era, based on a fairly standard explanation of postmodernity as opposed to modernity in relation to Christian faith.

Issues like: how we read the Bible (or allow the Bible to read us), a truly Christian attitude to “other religions”, Christian spirituality for postmodern times, evangelism versus conversation, being right versus being good, fundamentalism versus evolution, etc.

Very thought-provoking . As a 58 years old minister myself, I found part of the dialogue familiar from my doctoral studies on postmodernism, which it explained well, and the “new” approach to Christianity not hard to relate to. This book would be good for long-term Christians especially as we struggle to relate to a changing culture.

I found myself agreeing with lots of McLaren’s thinking. I have always found personal evangelism challenging with the pressure to make converts and I have come to value conversation where we allow the Spirit to control the agenda and seek to be sensitive to what He says as well as hearing the other person with respect.

On the other hand, postmodern Christians tend to play down the “black and white” aspects of Christianity. McLaren takes sin and hell seriously, which is good, and blurs the boundaries between Christians and the world, which is not necessarily bad: Jesus did something similar. But hell (as described especially in Rev) means there is an ultimate separation between saved and lost. This needs to be emphasized too.