A fuller gospel

Scot McKnight has just started a series of posts on ‘the Kingdom Gospel.’ In the first of the series we read

Many readers of the Bible read the whole Bible through the lens of the gospel they believe and this is what that gospel looks like:

  • God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
  • But you have a sin problem that separates you from God.
  • The good news is that Jesus came to die for your sins.
  • If you accept Jesus’ death, you can be reconnected to God.
  • Those who are reconnected to God will live in heaven with God.

Every line of that statement is more or less true. It is the sequencing of those lines, the “story” of that gospel if you will, that concerns me and that turns Jesus’ message of the kingdom into a blue parakeet. And it is not only the sequencing, it is the omitting of major themes in the Bible that concerns me. What most shocks the one who reads the Bible as Story, where the focus is overwhelmingly on God forming a covenant community, is that this outline of the gospel above does two things: it eliminates community and it turns the entire gospel into a “me and God” or “God and me” gospel. Who needs a church if this is the gospel? (Answer: no one.) What becomes of the church for this gospel? (Answer: an organization for those who want to do that sort of thing.) While every line in this gospel is more or less true, what concerns many of us today is that this gospel makes the church unimportant.

(Note: Scot’s use of the term ‘blue parakeet’ is explained in his book ‘the Blue Parakeet’ which I blogged about last year. It refers to a person or idea that doesn’t fit into the generally accepted way of thinking, and is therefore assimilated or rejected rather than accepted.)

Once upon a time that would have been my view of the gospel, too. Scot’s series will be looking at a few of the deeper things in the gospel that we tend to either ignore or explain away because they don’t simply fit the narrow view we hold. This is much bigger picture than many of us might be used to: hang on and enjoy the ride!

SA101–a quick review

One of the jobs I have as a Salvation Army officer is training people to be Salvation Army soldiers. It’s an important task, and one that I want to get right. Whilst such training continues for the whole time I am involved with the (prospective) soldier, there is a formal element. People who wish to become Salvation Army soldiers are expected to undertake a course of study explaining the basics of Salvation Army doctrine as well as Army history and practice. I suppose it’s analogous to confirmation classes or the like in other denominations.

battleorderslrdsThere are a few resources around to help with this task. For the last twenty years or so most Corps Officers I know have used a small book called ‘Battle Orders.’ This is a series of ten or so lessons which more or less cover the basics. Whilst the content is solid, I’ve never really enjoyed using it. I really don’t know why. Perhaps it’s just a bit dated, or the didactic style doesn’t suit me. Whatever the reason, I really would like something else.

sa_101A few weeks ago I received a copy of a new book which has been written for this purpose. It is written by a husband and wife team, Danielle Strickland and Stephen Court. It is entitled SA101: Training Warriors to Win the World for Jesus. On first inspection it seemed to be exactly what I was after. The emphasis is on training soldiers, not just completing lessons. Moreover, there are lots of different suggestions for further reading, videos that can be used and so on.

However, the book has a few flaws, some of which have heavily dampened my initial enthusiasm. Some aren’t that big a deal. For example, the book frequently refers to ‘General Catherine Booth.’ I may be quite wrong here, and I would appreciate a note of correction in the comments, but Catherine Booth was never General, and she was never referred to as such. Her husband was General, and she may have been called ‘Mrs General’ from time to time, but I don’t think she ever bore that title herself. Whilst it is a nice sentiment, I think it does her a disservice to give her a title because her husband bore it.

Another silliness is the insistence on referring to Satan as ‘satan,’ with a lower case ‘s.’ I’ve seen this sort of thing before, but I’ve never understood the logic. Sure, he might be the prince of darkness, but does that mean we have to throw out the basic rules of written English whenever his name comes up. And don’t get me started on K.D. Lang… 😉

Some of the flaws are far more serious and, to my thinking, render it useless (at best) to dangerous (at worst, but quite likely.) Allow me to share an example.

There is a section that treats the importance of the Bible in the Salvation Army. There are a couple of paragraphs that discuss 2 Timothy 3:16 and the high number of ancient manuscripts available. Then we get this, on page 16:

The Bible is even reliable scientifically. No, the Bible is not a science textbook. But it includes in its pages many allusions that can be tested scientifically. And in those cases, it is accurate, often supernaturally so. For example, it consistently spoke truth before the conventional science of even relatively recent history discovered it:

  • Every star is different (1 Corinthians 15:41). ‘Science’ used to believe that all stars were the same;
  • Light is in motion (Job 38:19,20). ‘Science’ used to believe that light is fixed in place.
  • Air has weight (Job 28:25). ‘Science’ used to believe that air was weightless.
  • Wind blows in cyclones. (Ecclesiastes 1:6). ‘Science’ used to believe wind blows straight.
  • Blood is the source of life and healing (Leviticus 17:11). ‘Science’ used to believe that sick people must be bled….

And of course, the Bible indicates that the earth is a sphere (Isaiah 40:22), while it took ‘Science’ quite a while to get away from the flat earth belief.

Most of these ‘scientific teachings’ of the Bible are strained attempts to read our modern understanding of the world into holy writ. The authors of those texts were often writing poetically, and they were certainly writing according to the generally accepted understanding of the time. Most of our pre-modern scientific beliefs were derived from Aristotle and other ancient Greeks, not from the ancient Near-East.

On the last point offered—regarding the shape of the earth—my reading of the passage suggests that the Bible teaches that the earth is disc-shaped, not spherical.

My concern is that this is far too glib an introduction to a topic that is highly controversial but very important in the church today. Moreover, I would suggest that the position taken is, quite simply, wrong. If the last four hundred years of science and theology have taught us anything, it’s that theologians are constantly having to reinterpret the Bible in the light of scientific discovery. Trying to do science by looking at the Bible for guidance is a recipe for disaster.

I would be very concerned if one of my soldiers tried using these examples to engage someone apologetically.

I have other concerns, but I’ve written more than enough for now. I feel like I have been quite negative about this book. That isn’t my intention, but unfortunately, the more I look at it the more I find to be negative about. It has good points. Perhaps I’ll try to balance this post with a more generous one in the near future.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who has other suggestions about good resources for soldiership and/or discipleship training. If I can’t find anything I am comfortable using, I guess I could take the old fashioned approach and write a resource myself. Thoughts? Ideas?

Lest I Forget

Today is ANZAC Day. For those outside of Australia and New Zealand ANZAC Day is the commemoration of the landing by Allied troops at Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915. In straight military terms the day (which lasted for about eight months) was an unmitigated disaster. Yet the ordeal faced by the troops at Gallipoli, and the bravery and tenacity displayed by the soldiers in the face of extreme hardship is one of the important founding myths of our nations. Indeed, ANZAC Day is probably the most sacred day on the Australian calendar, with the possible exceptions of Christmas and Easter.

The Last PostMost towns in Australia celebrate ANZAC Day one way or another. Like many other places, Colac has a pre-dawn memorial service and a march and memorial service later in the morning. I had the privilege of playing the ‘Last Post’ at both ceremonies today.

I’ve always been of two minds about how I should celebrate ANZAC Day. At the heart of it all I’m a pacifist. I can’t think of too many situations where I think the use of military force is really justified. Loving your neighbour and shooting him don’t seem to be easily reconciled. Yet I would say that my understanding of war is informed as much by the veterans I have met as my reading of the gospel.

When I was at primary school in New Zealand we would have an ANZAC Day celebration at school every year. A member of the RSA (New Zealand’s veteran association) would come and speak to us about his experiences. I remember one gentleman getting up and telling us that war was nothing like the movies—it was terrible and nobody should ever want to go there. I don’t know why I remember that. But it stuck with me.

The other influence was my grandfather, David Mangelsdorf. I never really knew much about Grandpa’s involvement in the war. I knew he got injured fairly badly—he had toes missing and he carried shrapnel in his body until the day he died. He’d also tell us some of the funny stories—like the time he gave a beggar outside his tent a handul of laxatives to eat, or the time he went missing from a military hospital so he could go to the pub.

He never talked about the nasty stuff (although the beggar outside his tent might disagree!) Many of his wounds were psychological, and I suspect Grandma wouldn’t let him talk about it. Yet whenever war was mentioned on TV, a shadow would come over his face, and he’d say, ‘Why are they sending all those young blokes overseas? They should give old buggers like me a tin hat and a gun and send us away instead. Get rid of us first. No sense in wasting young lives.’

When Grandma died the stories became much darker and more graphic than I was used to. Finally, after Grandpa died, I learned about the event that took him out of the war and left him emotionally scarred for the next sixty years. It turned out his platoon found itself in the middle of a minefield. His best mate, who was just in front of Grandpa, stood on a mine and was blown to bits. Grandpa sustained permanent physical injuries in the blast, but it was the memory of his friend being killed that pained him till the day he died.

The thing I have seen written in the eyes of just about every veteran I’ve ever spoken to about war are the words ‘Never Again.’ I know many who wish they’d never returned. They were prepared to die for their country. They didn’t count on coming home scarred.

By and large, that seems to be a recurring theme of every ANZAC Day service I’ve been to. The Diggers march for the memory of their friends, hoping like crazy their children will never have to endure the horror they endured. There is no glorification of war or victorious chest thumping. In fact, our former enemy is often eulogised as much as our own.

So I will continue to observe ANZAC Day. Although I don’t agree with war I can respect those who have fought. ANZAC Day is about remembering the legacy they have left to my generation. The Diggers took arms and headed overseas, and I will honour their memory by doing everything in my power to make sure we don’t have to.

Lest We Forget

(Thanks to Kat Featherstone for the photos!)

Without Fear And Trembling

James McGrath of Exploring our Matrix has a few ideas that aren’t generally appreciated by some of the more conservative members of the evangelical church. One of the commenters on his blog recently dobbed him in to his pastor. McGrath doesn’t make much of the condescension implied (“If you don’t stop writing such silly things, lad, I might just have to contact your parents!”) but he wasn’t worried. His pastor knows and understands McGrath’s thinking already.

McGrath suggests that the slogan for his adult Sunday School class should be “Come work out your salvation without fear and trembling.” He continues:

I do think that there is a genuine and appropriate fear and trembling involved in exploring life’s most important questions. But that is fear before God and personal acknowledgement of the seriousness of the matter. But too often, one’s fear and trembling when “working out their salvation” is fear of recrimination, fear of ostracization, fear of other people and their opinion.

Such concerns often lead doubts to be denied publicly, perhaps even denied to ourselves. In such circumstances, being a Christian often becomes a matter of appearance, of pretending to be more certain than one really is, or simply refusing to ask certain kinds of questions. I often think that, if I had had to work out my salvation while pretending in this way lest I find myself in conflict with those around me, it might well have led to hypocrisy and, in the end, to a loss of faith. For I am persuaded that intellectual and spiritual dishonesty is much more toxic to faith than honest questioning, historical criticism, academic investigation, or anything else that fundamentalists find threatening and at odds with a genuine Christian faith.

It’s a sad fact of church life that we have to be quiet about the things we think. We’ve all been in the situation where we’ve had to think twice about saying something because the argument that would ensue is just not worth the effort.

Yet if we can’t work through the bigger issues of life in church, where can we go? If we’re too scared to ask genuine questions how can we ever really learn?

A whacky thought

I’ve been following Don Heatley’s blog Creatio ex Nihilo lately. Don’s an American pastor who has captured my imagination lately with some very thought provoking sermons.

Here’s a thought from his most recent offering:

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. The story sets the scene of a Final Judgement in which Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd separating sheep from goats. The sheep enter his timeless kingdom, while the goats are sent to eternal doom. Surprisingly, the criteria which is used to separate these flocks is not what we might expect. What differentiates a sheep from a goat is not their faith. It is not their beliefs about the Bible, Jesus, the cross, heaven or hell or even about gay marriage, abortion or taxes. The differentiating factor, says Jesus, is whether they fed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked or visited the sick or imprisoned.

This parable isn’t a throwback to the idea of salvation by works. The point of this story isn’t to motivate us to rack up brownie points with Jesus by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Whether it’s performing good works or believing a particular atonement model, doing either merely to gain a reward or avoid punishment would make us the shallowest of creatures. Christianity is at its worst when it preys on those sinful human motivations.

Instead, Jesus is pointing us to a much bigger reality. Here’s a whacky thought: I think Jesus told this story, not to give us the magic formula for getting into heaven or avoiding hell, but so that the hungry actually would be fed, the thirsty actually would get a drink, the naked actually would be clothed and the sick and imprisoned actually would be visited. Jesus portrays his presence not just as some wrathful judge who returns at the end of time, but as a constant reality in our lives right now. He tells both flocks, when you did this for least of these, or when you did this for the ignored and forgotten, you did it for me. In other words you weren’t doing all this to accumulate rewards on your Jesus Mastercard. When you did it, you were serving your Master and the Master is just beneath the surface of this world.

Don’s quite right, of course. Service is all about putting the needs of others before our own. Now that I think about it a bit, the idea of serving others in order to gain eternal rewards seems quite offensive. The ‘less fortunate’ become nothing more than stepping stones to heaven. It might seem heretical to say it, but sometimes we’ve got to look at the here and now and forget about the eternal perspective.

I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.

Babel Probe

The Drabblecast

I’m pretty well at a loss to figure out how to say this, but last week’s episode of the Drabblecast was absolutely awesome. In summary, a robot goes back in time to witness the building of the Tower of Babel, and, well, you’ll have to listen to the story for the rest.

If you’re at all interested (and even if you’re not) I strongly suggest you head over and have a listen. You can download an mp3 from here (42 MB) or go and subscribe to podcast.

I’m telling you, it’s the best half hour you’ll have all week!

Reprise: Should Christians send their kids to non-Christian schools?

A few months ago I asked the question: Should Christians send their kids to non-Christian schools? I also asked the same question around Facebook and continued the conversation on the mailing list I mentioned. The discussion was quite eye-opening.

Generally speaking, there were three types of responses.

First, there were the Christians who are strongly opposed to secular education. In fact, a lot of these people believe that home schooling is the only real option for Christians. I had a real time dealing with these guys—they didn’t want to engage with me. When I pointed out that home schooling would be very difficult in my situation, I was told that it wouldn’t be. How could this guy know what is possible for me and what isn’t?

Not all the replies in this category were from people like this. Some were surprised—why wouldn’t I send my kids to a Christian school? Isn’t that what Christians do?

Second, there were the Christians who are not opposed to sending their kids to a secular school, but prefer the Christian ones. The main motivation seems to be the quality of education available there—Christian teaching is a secondary consideration.

Third were the Christian parents who are quite happy to send their kids to public schools. Some see this as a mission thing. Others can’t afford private schools. Yet others hadn’t ever thought about it.

There were also non-Christians who responded. Their responses were broadly similar, but without religious motivation.

I’m in the third category. I send my kids to a public school. I don’t find any of the arguments against it compelling. In fact, some of the arguments against tell me I’m doing the right thing. Allow me to explain (WARNING: the following paragraphs are largely based on conjecture, speculation and quite possibly fabrication. Apparently I’m allowed to be opinionated for no good reason in a blog, so here goes!)

To begin with, I’m not convinced that the secular system is anti-God. I have heard this a lot, but in my experience it is simply untrue. My kids’ school has a chaplain, they are taught religious education every week. There’s even a reference to God in the ‘pledge’ they recite at assembly every Monday morning. I’m not sure I like all that. I don’t think kids should be forced to participate in religious observance in school. Still, I find it hard to make the claim that the school system is inherently evil.

Neither am I sure that the education is substandard. Private schools generally score better than public schools in testing. Yet I don’t think it is all that straight forward. Private schools tend to attract brighter students and in many cases will provide scholarships for the very brightest who might otherwise go to public schools. Public schools can be far less picky about the students they take. None of this means the education is better or worse in either system—it simply means that one system has more students who are likely to do well.

Even if that theory is discounted the high test scores mightn’t indicate better education. When I was at university there seemed to be a common belief that students who had been to private secondary schools struggled a lot more than students who had been to public schools. The received wisdom was that private schools taught their students how to do very well in their final year exams at the expense of teaching them how to learn. I suspect there was some truth to this, but my hazy memory suggests that this only really affected those who went to the most expensive schools. Those schools had a strong financial interest in the final results of their students, so if the students weren’t as good as they’re results suggested, the more cynical of us weren’t surprised.

Ultimately, we each have to do what we think is the best thing for our kids! Christians also have to ask, ‘What would God have me do?’

In my case it boils down to this question: What is God trying to do in secular schools?

If he has washed his hands of the system, it would probably be wise to remove my children. There’s no point sending them there. But I don’t think he has given up on the system. Sure, it’s got a lot of problems, especially in some other districts. There is a lot of work that needs doing.

If God is doing something in the secular system then the very last thing I want to do is get away from it. Sure there are lots of bad kids there. Is the answer to remove the good ones? That might be the only safe solution in some cases, but those would be quite rare. And sure, public schools don’t seem to do as well educationally when compared to the private system. Is the answer to take the best students (of course, this includes my kids!) out of the school? Of course not!

Let me also say that those certain groups of Christians are right when they say that I am responsible for my children’s education and up-bringing. That doesn’t mean I can’t send them to school It does mean that I will do everything in my power to make the school a better place. It means that I will closely monitor my children’s progress and speak to teachers if I have concerns. It means that I will be involved in different activities at the school. If there are bad influences there, there’s no reason why I can’t do my darndest to be a good influence.

From what I can see God is doing some amazing things in my kids’ school. It’s not necessarily the sort of stuff that would get many evangelicals excited, but they’re good things nonetheless. I want to be involved and I want my family involved.

Hmm, this post seems to have gone on long enough. I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on the issue. Please bear in mind that it is not my intention to criticise those who have a different take on the issue. I’ve had enough criticism over this, and I don’t want to do the same to anyone else!

Parenting can be tough…

…but it also has its perks!

A week or two ago I bought a Star Wars themed game for the Wii. It follows the story of all six movies fairly closely, and Trudy and I would frequently compare it to the canonical story. Our daughters would often look confused. Then we realised.

Our kids have never seen Star Wars.

Thanks to my sister-in-law Lisa we actually own a DVD boxed set of episodes IV to VI. The girls know who some of the characters are—Charis even has a Darth Vader costume and a Darth Vader doll that says Never underestimate the power of the Dark Side of the Force! Yet they’ve never watched the movies.

The big question for us was whether to show the movies in the order they were released or simply start at The Phantom Menace and work our way through to The Return of the Jedi. We went with the latter, so things would make a little more sense.

So today we sat down and watched the first two movies. We have a public holiday on Monday so we’re going to get another one or two knocked over then. By the end of next week we hope to have knocked over another important milestone in the education of our children!

Parenting can be so hard.

I’d love to hear a few stories about how readers remember their Star Wars experiences, as well as the experiences of their children. Please, comment away!