As I said in my last blog post, I got a new job recently. That, my friends, is why I have been uncharacteristically absent from the blogosphere; they’ve put me on full-time hours, me who has my final masters piece to hand in in less than two months. It’s not quite as awesome as I led y’all to believe – let’s just say I’ve worked some bullshit jobs before, but at least they all paid minimum wage…

In the precious little time I’ve had to actually work on my editing, this is a little snippet of what I’ve been up to:

Lookie here!

So I’ve just got back from Northern Ireland where I was interviewing the wonderful Peter Rollins for my MA documentary and filming the Belfast leg of his Insurrection pub tour. I made a wonderful discovery, namely MacBook decals. Pete had this one on his own MBP, and when I asked him about it he said they were very easy to get online and that there were plenty of other designs available. He wasn’t kidding. After some investigation I settled on this one:

If you don’t know what it’s from, I’m not going to tell you.

The seller is Ivy Bee, and there’s plenty more where that came from…

Why I am (sorta-not-really-but-then-again-maybe) emergent – part 2

At the end of my last post on the subject, I posited (not without substantiation) that Christendom is currently undergoing a detox of sorts to purge some of the gunk that has built up over the last five centuries or more. So what’s the gunk?

In short, the “gunk” is modernism, the train of thought in Western philosophy that arose out of the Enlightenment/modernity (meaning the historical timeline after the Middle Ages). Enlightenment thinking advocated reason as the primary source of truth and authority. Now, I firmly believe the development of linear thinking was a precious gift, but when it becomes the over-arching, all-encompassing theory of existential thought, there are major problems. On a profane level, it has led (particularly with late modernity) to secularism and Dawkins-esque thinking. On a spiritual level, it has led to the type of faith Rob Bell illustrates very well in this anecdote:

Somebody recently gave me a videotape of a lecture given by a man who travels around speaking about the creation of the world. At one point in his lecture, he said that if you deny that God created the world in six literal twenty-four-hour days, then you are denying that Jesus ever died on the cross. It’s a bizarre leap of logic to make, I would say.

But he was serious.

It hit me while I was watching him that for him faith isn’t a trampoline; it’s a wall of bricks. Each of the core doctrines for him is like an individual brick that stacks on top of the others. If you pull one out, the whole wall starts to crumble…

[Last week] somebody showed me a letter from the president of a large seminary who is raising money to help him train leaders who will defend Christianity. The letter went on about the desperate need for defense of the true faith. What disturbed me was the defensive posture of the letter, which reflects one of the things that happens in brickworld: you spend a lot of time talking about how right you are. Which of course leads to how wrong everyone else is. Which then leads to defending the wall. It struck me reading the letter that you rarely defend a trampoline. You invite people to jump on it with you.

Rob Bell, “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith”, pg 26-27

[I should probably give you a heads-up at this point that I’m largely going to be making my points through hefty quotations, as I deem others to have expressed this material much better than I could.]

Peter Rollins sums up the modernistic impulse behind the man in Bell’s story:

At a very basic level the creationist judges the truth of faith as a factual claim that can be externalized from the one considering it, objectified, and dispassionately reflected upon. For the creationist the truth affirmed by Christianity can then, in principle, be proven via the same empirical processes as those embraced in classical scientific theory, because it is fundamentally of the same substance as the objects studied in science. Of course, the creationist can be seen to engage in bad science, and this is no doubt what the evolutionary biologists are reacting against. My point here, however, is not related to the debate itself but rather to how the creationist’s approach to religious truth presupposes that the truth of faith is on the same level as scientific statements…Yet, such an approach seems foreign to the unconditional commitment that is demanded of authentic believers, a commitment described by Paul as one that involves becoming a living sacrifice. Distancing oneself from one’s faith asks that believers engage with the deepest, most intimate, most personal, and most pressing issue in their lives in the guise of a detached, disinterested observer…

To be a believer would thus require some hefty subscriptions to the latest academic journals in order to see if the truth claims of Christianity could still be regarded as plausible, or even possible. Philosophy journals would become a stable diet for the preacher who would, in fear and trembling, be working out whether belief in Christianity is still rational.

Peter Rollins, “The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief”, pg 88-94

Cornel West understands modernist discourse to be influenced by three main processes: the rise of the scientific worldview, the Cartesian remodelling of philosophy (Descartes was the philosopher who deemed that the mind was sufficient to prove or disprove God) and our re-enchantment with Hellenism. The Greek mindset, as opposed to that of Hebraism, is concerned with analysing life according to precise categories and linear logic. The Hebrew mindset, out of which the Bible was written, had no trouble embracing mystery and complexity. Greeks were concerned with knowing; Hebrews with doing. Our adoption of the mindset of Athens is evidenced in the way in which many Christian circles seem overly focussed on issues of systematic theology and the differentiation between orthodoxy and heresy, regardless of whether or not these doctrines have any practical outworking in believers’ lives. In contrast, West suggests a more appropriate conception of Christian truth:

The paradox of the Christian tradition is that it precludes its own descriptions from grasping the truth; that is, the Christian notion of the fallenness of human creatures does not permit even Christian descriptions to be true. This is so, because, for Christians, Jesus Christ is the Truth and the reality of Jesus Christ always already rests outside any particular Christian description.

For Christians, truth is not a property, characteristic, or attribute of a theory, portrayal, and description, not even a Christian description. Rather, Jesus Christ is the Truth, a reality which can only be existentially appropriated (not intellectually grasped) by fallen human beings caught in ever-changing finite descriptions…

If there is any test for the “truth” of particular Christian descriptions, it is their capacity to facilitate the existential appropriation of Jesus Christ. This means that any “true” Christian description makes the reality of Jesus Christ available.

Cornel West, “Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity”, pg 98

To be continued..

Production WIN

I don’t think I’ve written much about this before, but as part of my MA Film Production course I’m making a short documentary on the emerging church, for which I’ll be interviewing (hopefully) a bunch of interesting folk such as local philosopher Peter Rollins. I’ll be travelling over with my cinematographer in March to do Pete’s interview, and have been making the most of my holiday time back in Belfast to do some location scouting, which proved incredibly fruitful, as I have now secured the perfect location to conduct the interview:

Made in Belfast

It’s a ridiculously trendy “restolounge” near City Hall, with exactly the kind of décor I dig:

Slightly on the pretentious side, but it reminds me a lot of my favourite (slightly dingier, not to mention cheaper) Montréal hangout, Le Cagibi:

Continue reading

Deconstructing too much?

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post on a pretty popular emergent church blog. The essay was quite well-received despite being rather clunkily written IMHO (told you I was new to writing about faith) and resulted in some meaty and very constructive (to me anyway) discussion which helped me refine a few of my thoughts. I have intended to write a follow-up post for some time now, but it looks like that might have to wait until another day. For now, I just wanted to pick up on some thoughts triggered by a comment one of the main commenters made:

In my journey i have found prayer to be a difficult thing. i was always taught it is a conversation with G-D. Yet, i have increasingly found it difficult to have a conversation with something i cannot tangibly see/feel/converse with. i do agree G-D through the Holy Spirit does do the changing, but i kinda see our lives as an act of prayer…

This seems to be a frequent insight made by people in the emerging church (I heard a similar sentiment expressed by Peter Rollins in a Greenbelt talk recently, can’t remember which one though). I think it’s very perceptive, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot this summer (I’ve been reading a lot about environmental and economic justice for example). Here’s an example I gave:

I could walk around the supermarket listening to worship music on my iPod and feel all loved-up and close to God, but meanwhile I could be loading my basket with products like Coca-Cola, Nescafe, battery eggs and cheap factory-farmed meat. In my head, I could think I’m worshipping, but in my shopping basket I am doing the opposite, I’m living as though my life revolves around my own interests.

I also appreciate the necessity of self-critique (both individually and institutionally – I have been doing a lot of the former recently, in very constructive ways…more on that later). However, there are a few things I find kinda problematic.

Firstly, I worry that all these new insights gained from deconstructing conventional wisdom (which is necessary to a certain extent) might lead to our abandonment of former important insights. As an example, let’s take the shift in thinking the other commenter had been discussing (actually she goes on to express a more nuanced view than I’m doing here, I’m only using her comment as an example because I couldn’t find any others!):

POSITION A – Prayer as conversation/relationship/intimacy with God. Some people I have come across find relating to a being as transcendent and unrelatable as God very difficult and so move to…

POSITION B – Prayer as lifestyle, wherein we remain mindful of our actions, what we buy, how we relate to people and that becomes our prayer/offering to God, rather than just talking.

The latter, I think, is a fantastic way to pray, and one I can see as bearing much fruit. However, I think it is inherently problematic to completely abandon A in favour of B without seeking a healthy ‘both/and’ tension between the two, and for several reasons. While I take seriously the postmodern critique of modernism’s ‘conceptual idolatry’, I think that becoming so aware of God’s transcendence that we lost all intimacy with him is risky business. Jesus’ incarnation itself hints at God’s approachability – not to mention the cross tearing down any remainder of a barrier between us and God. Moreover, Jesus prayed and taught others to address God as ‘Abba’ (equivalent of ‘daddy’), which would have been absolutely scandalous to Hebrew ears. Again – big scary God is actually receptive to intimacy with us.

I think that first and foremost – before actions, deeds, words or any other fruit we might bear, God desires relationship with us. I mean, come on – why else would be allow us to partner with him in his plans?

My pastor illustrated this point in the most spot-on way possible in a sermon he did about a year ago when he related how during the previous summer he had let his young sons help him build them a playhouse as a kind of father-son bonding exercise. Of course, their actual contribution to the carpentry itself was minimal, if not downright hindrous, but he enjoyed spending time with the kids more than the actual building work itself. When recounting this story later, my pastor’s friend had a profound insight: “That’s kind of like the church”. Think about it. God does NOT need our help to unleash the church. The very fact that he chooses to release it in and through us humans is preposterous – we fuck everything up. We limit what God can do, we misrepresent the Jesus movement, we tame it, and – most tragically – when we get it badly wrong we do irreparable damage to others’ faith, turning many Christians away from God and many non-Christians off the concept of God in the first place. We besmirch God’s reputation. Our very involvement is counterproductive. There must be a spectacularly good reason why God even lets us in on the action in the first place. And I think it’s the same reason why my pastor wanted his sons to help him build the playhouse – God just wants us around! Whether we do a good job or not is a secondary concern (though not at all unimportant).

This is the main insight I get from Matthew 7:21-23:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

The whole ‘away from me, I never knew you’ thing suggests to me that we can do loads of things for God, but our primary task is to make ourselves known. Yes, God is very big and very scary and to be overwhelmed is a very apt response. But since God so desires relationship with us, we must endeavour to get past this barrier after a while.

The other main point I wanted to make is that malpractise does not negate biblical truth. In the aformentioned emergent-blog-post, I talked a lot about intercessory prayer and kingdom authority, and a few commented that they had seen this type of prayer used as a kind of power tool by charismatic communities. However, just because in practise some people misinterpret certain concepts does not mean that we should abandon these practises!

To take another example from Peter Rollins, in this podcast (which is well worth a listen) he talks about how the real miracle of Christianity is personal transformation rather than physical healing miracles and manifestations of the Holy Spirit (starts about 1/3 of the way in). I couldn’t agree more! However, my concern is that in embracing this important insight, we would walk away from things like physical healing etc. Healing prayer, intercessory prayer – all these things need to be critiqued at times to ensure we are still thinking critically and to prevent malpractise. However, if their critique or deconstruction leads to walking away from them altogether, then we have a problem. We are losing some of the tools God gave us to bring about the Kingdom of God – tools that Jesus clearly thought mattered and are all over the Bible. Yes, personal transformation and its outworkings are perhaps the most important factors in the Jesus movement. However, let’s not ignore the other resources that we have at our disposal – we need everything God has given us!