What sort of Christian are you?

I don’t like labels very much. Sure, they can be useful. Humans seem to have this insatiable desire to understand the world, and that often means categorising things. Saying what an object is also gives us information about what it isn’t.

The problem is that labels always simplify the thing we’re trying to describe. That’s why they’re so useful—they give us a way of ordering the apparently chaotic. But if the label is too general, we can either lose information about the thing we’re describing, or we can inadvertently add information that doesn’t belong.

For example, if we’re talking about politics I might be described as ‘left-wing.’ That designation implies a lot about me. You can guess what I think about a range of issues—economic, social, moral and so on. Yet if you were to dig a little deeper you’d find that on some issues my attitudes are more in keeping with a traditional ‘right-wing’ stance.

Labels aren’t always that helpful.

A few days ago I came upon an internet quiz that asks the question, What’s your theological worldview? I took the test, partly out of boredom and partly out of curiosity. Here’s my result:

You scored as Emergent/Postmodern

You are Emergent/Postmodern in your theology. You feel alienated from older forms of church, you don’t think they connect to modern culture very well. No one knows the whole truth about God, and we have much to learn from each other, and so learning takes place in dialogue. Evangelism should take place in relationships rather than through crusades and altar-calls. People are interested in spirituality and want to ask questions, so the church should help them to do this.

Emergent/Postmodern
86%
Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan
79%
Neo orthodox
75%
Modern Liberal
57%
Classical Liberal
57%
Charismatic/Pentecostal
43%
Roman Catholic
29%
Reformed Evangelical
21%
Fundamentalist
7%

I’m pretty impressed with this quiz. I like the way it rates you according to a number of different labels, and gives you a mark of 1-100% on each. I’m most impressed with the scores I got: if I were to put those rubrics into an order of most applicable to least applicable, that’s the order I would probably have put them in. So in this wide ranging sample of one subject, the test seems to be quite accurate.

Why not have a crack at it? Leave a comment and let me know how you did.

I’ll be away for a few days

I haven’t been posting as much as I’d like lately—that should change soon.

I will be away for a few days now though, and I doubt I’ll have much internet access. When I get back I should have a fair bit to write about, including the continuation on my long review and critique of A Generous Orthodoxy.

Until then, have fun!

The Bible and inerrancy

There’s a bit of a discussion brewing over at the Rubicon about the term ‘inerrant’ and how it applies to the Bible. It stemmed from an off-topic conversation that got started on a post a few weeks ago (you’ll have to go throught the comments to find the discussion.) It turns out we Salvationists have a few different ideas about what we mean when we say the Bible is ‘true’ and ‘given by inspiration of God.’

Somebody suggested the subject would be good fodder for a whole article. The editorial staff obviously agreed and must expect a bit of excitement: they even sent an email out today alerting people to the upcoming discussion.

Is it a sacred text inspired by the mind of God, reflective of his relationship with us…

Is it a detailed, word-perfect presentation of his thoughts and will…

Or is it something else altogether?

Check out tomorrow’s posting on theRubicon for one considered opinion on the matter.

I’ve already made my contribution to the conversation, although the comment is being held over for moderation. If you have anything to add, why not head over and join in?

Worship

I’ve been wondering lately what it is we mean by ‘worship.’ I’ve heard a lot of people talk about this over the years and noticed an interesting paradox. Well, it’s not really a paradox, but there does seem to be a contradiction at work.

Point One: ‘worship teachers’ all insist that ‘worship’ involves more than just singing. They point to verses like Romans 12:1 to make their point:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

This is very true. In fact, I like to marry this verse with Mark 8:34-35:

[Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Our worship is more than just singing. It encapsulates every part of who we are and what we do. It is the act of sacrificing our very lives for the sake of Jesus.

Point Two: ‘worship teachers’ are invariably well known song writers, musicians or ‘worship leaders.’ By ‘worship leader’ I mean ‘person who has a reputation for being good at leading congregational singing.’

Here’s the paradox: worship is not just about congregational singing, but its teachers are. Hmm.

This isn’t a complaint or even a criticism—it’s an observation. What it means I don’t know. If you think you do, please do me a favour and leave a comment.

Soup, soap and salvation

In those golden days before we all had mission statements the Salvation Army summed up its Raison d’être as ‘soup, soap and salvation.’ The Army’s always preferred pragmatism to deep theology, and I think this is as good a summary of what it is we do as I’ve heard anywhere.

In fact, I’ve heard people expound on it too. Not only does it say what we do, but it gives us the right order in which we do it. First (soup) we look after a person’s immediate physical needs. Then (soap) we help restore their dignity and get them back into society. Then finally, we share the gospel with them and hope they’ll accept it and join us.

I’m glad we’ve always realised we can’t preach to people if they’re starving. Affirming their dignity as human beings is important too. And I’m glad we haven’t forgotten ‘salvation,’ which is, after all, what our movement’s named after.

I do have one problem with this little mission statement. It’s not wrong per se, but I think it has been misinterpreted to mean, ‘Soup and soap in order to procure salvation.’

This is a big problem in the Army. So many of us judge our social programmes not by the number of people living better lives, but the number of backsides on seats at the meeting on Sunday. Feeding people, housing people and helping them kick whatever bad habit they might have are fine, but there is a common perception that they’re not what we’re on about. Those things are secondary to our real job, which is to get souls into heaven.

To a point I agree. Some of the programmes we run could be better run by other organisations. But I don’t think we can judge what we do by the very narrow metric of church membership. And we shouldn’t do ‘welfare’ things simply as a hook to get people saved.

Skye Jethani writes about this in the context of church planting. The orthodox wisdom is that you survey the area you’re moving into to find out what the community needs, then you provide that service. This will give people a willingness to listen to you and they’ll be more likely to come to your church.

This idea seems fairly close to what Jesus did. He’d move into an area, perform a few miracles then teach the folk. The miracles would draw a crowd and prove that he came from God. Thus he could be trusted as a teacher. However, this seems to miss what Jesus was really doing.

In other words, the miracles played a secondary role to his teaching. They supported it, but they weren’t the main game.

Jethani quotes N.T. Wright, who pointed out that the miracles didn’t serve this function: they were important in and of themselves. In fact, they accomplished exactly the same thing: they served to admit the outcast back into full membership of Israelite society. More generally, they allowed people back into full communion with God. Says Jethani:

If theologians like Wright are correct, and Jesus didn’t address felt-needs to win a hearing or confirm his message, then how and why we address felt-needs in our present ministries needs to be reconsidered. For example, if Jesus’ healed blind Bartimaeus and the bleeding woman not to win their approval or validate his teaching, but rather to restore them to full communion with God and his people (something their handicaps prevented), then our good works need to be more than smart PR or marketing. They too must have some intrinsic gospel validity–a worthiness beyond validating our verbal proclamation.

To my mind, the soup and the soap are just as important as the salvation. They all say the same thing: God loves you and he wants you to be whole.

Thank God for a fallible Bible

Huh, wouldn’t you know it. I just posted about how I wish God would have made the message of the Bible a lot more obvious, and wouldn’t you know it, James F. McGrath puts up a post thanking God for a fallible Bible.

It’s the perfect answer to my cry for simplicity:

Perhaps, rather than assuming that the difficulties are in the Bible to test our willingness to switch off the minds God gave us, and take a leap of faith (or of gullibility), it could be assumed instead that the difficulties are there to be taken seriously, to teach us.

The Bible isn’t simple. Some people get around the difficulties by assuming that they’re a test from God. If we’re really faithful, the thinking goes, we’ll believe the Bible regardless of what common sense and wisdom tell us. We’ll believe the Bible over science (the universe only looks like it’s 15 billion years old) and we’ll do all sorts of intellectual gymnastics so we can believe the Bible when it contradicts itself.

I agree with James. I suspect God organised the Bible the way he did to teach us faith—not a fingers in your ears, ‘I’m not listening to you kind of faith,’ but a grown up faith that can cope with ambiguity and tension.

The Bible doesn’t say…

I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where we’re discussing some deep point of theology, and somebody will will try to slap you down with, ‘Well, the Bible says…’

Of course, 99% of the time the perfect answer doesn’t strike until the conversation’s over. There’s not much you can do about it, except go home and blog about it as if you’d really said what you realise you should have said. The other one percent of the time, though, you think of what you need to say at the time you need to say it. If you’re in really good form, the answer will begin with, ‘Yes, but the Bible also says…’

If you’ve ever done this, you’re in good company. The Bible says… Jesus did it all the time (Luke 4:1-12).

We’ve got to be really careful when we do this. If I got the job of writing the Bible, I’d make sure it was pretty obvious what was meant. There would be no room for manoeuvre. I’d tell you what’s what, and I’d also make sure language didn’t change. Nobody would be getting out easily.

Unfortunately for those of us who like a bit of certainty, God didn’t organise the writing of the Bible in that way. He used a whole lot of fallible humans who had heads full of opinions and imperfect languages in which to record them. He didn’t proofread the final edition, and there are quite a few places that seem to contradict each other in one way or another.

So when we say, The Bible says…’ we have to be careful. As the devil found out, there’s always someone who knows the Bible better than you do.

There are two lessons to learn.

First, keep studying the Bible. Have an open mind to what others are saying about it. Use your God given common sense and wisdom to figure out for yourself what it says.

Second, don’t be presumptuous. Doug Chaplin recently wrote,

… there is never a “Bible says” argument that actually is just the quotation of a verse. The very act of selecting the verse depends on an interpretative framework or tradition. “I take the Bible to say …” “My tradition teaches that the Bible says …” “Our church interprets the Bible to mean…” All these are fundamentally honest statements.

This is so obvious I don’t know why we don’t see it more often. The way we read the Bible is greatly influenced by those who teach the Bible to us. I’m not saying that’s bad. I just think we need to be a little more humble every time we open the pages of sacred writ.

Quick round up

I’ve had a few things put away that I wanted to blog about. I don’t think I’ll ever get to them all, so here are a few you can check out in your own good time.

Ben Myers thinks that churches should get out of the marriage business. Briefly put, he says that marriage (as a legal institution) is a state-sanctioned thing, and the church has no business conducting legal ceremonies on behalf of the state. We can’t hope to critique the modern idea of romantic love and marriage while we are so central to the whole thing. Therefore, he says, we should stop taking part in the whole thing and rethink what marriage is really all about.

The Naked Pastor has ten pieces of advice to take or leave. Indeed, take them or leave them. They’re a great deconstruction of the contemporary church. My favourite?

Don’t go anywhere. No goal. No destiny. No vision. Keep it real and keep it present. You either serve the vision or you serve the people.

Do I agree? I don’t know, either. I will be thinking about it for a while, though.

The ABC is reporting that the biggest factor in determining whether or not critically patients would survive after being released from hospital is poverty. That’s right. It’s a better indicator than age. There’s something seriously wrong here.

James F. McGrath has a good laugh at this video from “Christians for worshipping and praising the God of the Bible, or else.” I know people who think God really is like this. Sheesh.

Well, that’s all for now. If you have any comments, you know what to do!

A Generous Orthodoxy (Part 3)

Finally, we get into the book proper! It’s entitled ‘The Seven Jesuses I Have Known’ and is a bit of a summary of McLaren faith journey over the years. McLaren has been influenced by various expressions of Christianity over the years, and each of them have taught something about Jesus or an aspect of following Jesus that he never really understood before.

So this shouldn’t be taken as meaning that McLaren thinks there are seven Jesuses. He’s simply talking about how his understanding of Jesus has grown over the years.

That’s not so bad. I think all Christians have different experiences of Jesus at different times. Think of it the other way: if our understanding and experience of him didn’t change over the years, it would mean we haven’t grown. My understanding of Jesus is certainly different to what it was twenty years ago. It’s deeper, and I know a lot more about him too, both intellectually and spiritually. That’s a good thing.

It should also be noted that McLaren realises that what he has to say about various expressions of Christianity are caricatures. He’s talking about broad tendencies as he’s perceived them, and he knows counter examples abound.

The first Jesus McLaren talks about is the Conservative Protestant Jesus. The Conservative Protestant Jesus is the Jesus on the cross. The focal point for this style of Christianity is the atonement. Much of its theology revolves around the various theories of how the atonement works, which McLaren summarises. Sin is taken very seriously. This is a good thing; however, this Jesus appears to be mainly interested in individual moral guilt in this life and salvation in the afterlife. He seems to have little to say about many of the problems in the world as it’s experienced by modern people.

I knew a lot of people at university who followed this Jesus. I’m glad of the experience–they taught me a lot of my theology. However, I understand McLaren’s problem. To me, this Jesus was more concerned with correct doctrine than correct practice. He taught me a lot of big words, and he taught me lots about who I’m allowed to have sex with. He didn’t seem to have much to say about loving my neighbour, though.

The second Jesus is the Pentecostal/Charismatic Jesus. This Jesus is much more in touch with Christians. This version of Christianity is supposed to be lived; it’s more than just eternal fire insurance. However, some versions of this expression of Christianity rely too much on demonstrations of spiritual experience. People who don’t manifest certain things (for example, speaking in tongues) are considered to have only a second class spirituality at best. Yet this seemed a little fake–it seemed to be quite possible to have this extra experience and it make no difference to your life or character at all. It also seemed to create tiers within the church that didn’t seem justified.

This Jesus still had some of the problems of the first Jesus McLaren met. It was still focused on the individual Christian. Jesus was alive and well in the life of the believer–but that was about it. There was little said about justice for non-Christians. The gospel, whilst powerful, was still very small.

The Salvation Army, being part of the holiness tradition, has long taught the importance of a ‘blessing’ subsequent to conversion. This is quite similar to the Pentecostal blessing, but is more concerned with personal holiness. More and more, however, this blessing is being seen as a continuation of a work begun at conversion (I had a look at this in an essay I wrote last year). Part of the reason for this (I would suggest) is a reaction to what McLaren found–it can create a class of ‘super-christians’ that simply doesn’t seem to exist in the Bible.

Well, that’s all I’ve got time for now. More Jesuses tomorrow!

A Generous Orthodoxy (Part 2)

It’s been over a week since I promised to start blogging my way through Brian McLaren’s book, ‘A  Generous Orthodoxy.’ Sorry about the delay in posting. I’ll try to make amends over the next few days.

Today, I want to have a look at the introduction, entitled ‘A Generous Refund.’ The chapter is a warning about what the book will contain. The idea is that if you think you’re going to be offended by the book, it might not be too late to get your money back from the bookshop. This won’t be an issue for me, since I borrowed the book from a library. Still, it’s a generous warning.

McLaren explains that the book advocates a new orthodoxy. I have two responses to the word. First, I tend to think about those expressions of Christianity hailing from the east of Europe and the Middle East. The other meaning is to do with belief and doctrine—it means anything the church considers to be ‘true doctrine.’ For me the word doesn’t necessarily mean ‘absolute truth’. It is more to do with what is generally considered to be true.

McLaren wants to link ‘orthodoxy’ with ‘orthopraxis,’ which is the right practice of the gospel. Orthodoxy’ refers to our belief; ‘orthopraxis’ refers to what we do and how we practice our religion. For McLaren, what we do with our belief is more important than the belief itself. That’s not to say that our doctrine is unimportant. It’s the practical work of the doctrine that says how good that doctrine is. I’m sure Jesus said something along those lines.

Still, this seems a little bizarre. I think Christians (at least, the ones I know) prefer to make sure people have got good doctrinal foundations. If we’re interviewing people for ministry positions, adherence to our doctrinal statements might be seen as more important than character or ability. This is one thing the Salvation Army seems to do well (although I’m sure there are exceptions!). We don’t have a very high bar when it comes to the study of doctrine, but we are well known for our service. Still, most people would prefer to be called lazy and incompetent rather than a heretic.

McLaren gives an example of how the link between orthodoxy and orthopraxis might work:

‘The generous orthodoxy explored in the pages ahead assumes, for example, that the value of understanding the Trinity is to love and honor and serve the Trinity, and that allegedly right Trinitarian opinions that do not lead to divine adoration are worth little. More, this view would assert that so-called orthodox understandings of the Trinity that don’t lead so-called orthodox Christians to love their neighbors in the name of the Trinity (including those neighbors who don’t properly understand the Trinity) are more or less worthless, which trivializes their orthodoxy.’

This makes perfect sense to me. In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25) Jesus doesn’t give anyone a doctrine quiz. He does ask them about their love, though.

McLaren goes on to point out that he’s not decrying doctrine. Far from it. Bad doctrine frequently leads to bad practice.

The problem with doctrine, it seems, is that it’s very easy to get blow very small theological molehills into great big mountains. McLaren explains that he’s not railing against the essential orthodoxy that most Christians agree with. The problem is the ‘distinctives’ that are given a far more important place than they deserve.

Again, I like this about the Army. We have eleven articles of faith and lots of secondary commentary. We have a lot of wiggle room, and thus we can easily accommodate people of fairly varied theological backgrounds. This introduction can be summed up thus: orthodoxy is important, but let’s not get too hung up on the details. Let’s concentrate on living our orthodoxy rather than arguing about it. It’s not a petty orthodoxy. It’s generous.

McLaren finishes the chapter with a frank admission that he realises many people will form opinions about him, some of which may be warranted. He also realises the book misses a lot that could be covered. He reminds readers that refunds are probably still available.

On the other hand, he invites people who haven’t been scared off to read further. In its way it is an invitation to freedom. Doctrine should point the way to liberty, not bind us up.