Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Mission of God: Christianity and Post-Modernism

Wednesday 3 February 2010

After meaning to for several months, I’ve finally started my way through Chris Wright’s mammoth book, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. As it’s 500 or so pages long there’s no way I’m going to remember all the good quotes when I get to the end, so I thought I might post a few as I go along, if nothing else to provide myself with a summary of what stood out to me in the book.

The first section is about the Bible and Mission. Wright says that he used to teach a course on the biblical basis of mission, but became increasingly convinced that the western evangelical method of listing out a few proof texts to prove what we’d already decided was true, just didn’t do justice to the missional nature of the whole Bible, including the Old Testament.

But before we can gain a fuller understanding of such a foundational theme we need to become aware of the cultural glasses* through which we view the Bible, and the world in general, and take a step back to see the bigger meta-narrative that runs through scripture. Wright suggests that reading the Bible together with people from all nations can give us a much broader and richer view of God, and shed light on the missional theme running through every page of scripture.

Even when we affirm (as I do) that the historical and salvation-historical context of biblical texts and their authors is of primary and objective importance in discerning their meaning and their significance, the plurality of perspectives from which readers read them is also a vital factor in the hermeneutical richness of the global church. What persons of one culture bring from that culture to their reading of a text may illuminate dimensions or implications of the text itself that persons of another culture may not have seen so clearly. (p39)

And on the previous page:

There is a great irony that the Western Protestant theological academy, which has its roots precisely in a hermeneutical revolution (the reformation), led by people who claimed the right to read scripture independently from the prevailing hegemony of medieval Catholic scholasticism, has been slow to give ear to those of other cultures who choose to read scriptures through their own eyes, though the situation is undoubtedly improving. (p38)

In many ways the acceptance that different cultures will read the same scriptures in different ways reflects the trend of post-modern thinking. But Wright says firstly that Christianity in effect got there a couple of millenia before post-modernism as we know it came into existence, and secondly that the church has something unique to contribute to the post-modern way of thinking:

What we [the church] have to offer, I contend, is a missional hermeneutic of the Bible. The Bible got there before postmodernity was dreamed of – the Bible which glories in diversity and celebrates multiple human cultures, the Bible which builds its most elevated theological claims on utterly particular and sometimes very local events, the Bible which seems everything in relational, not abstract, terms, and the Bible which does the bulk of its work through the medium of stories.

All these features of the Bible – cultural, local, relational, narrative – are welcome to the postmodern mind. Where the missional hermeneutic will part company with radical postmodernity, is in its insistence that through all the variety, locality, particularity and diversity, the Bible is nevertheless actually the story. This is the way it is. (p47)

If I can get my mind around it I’ll try to continue to post some thoughts from the rest of the book as Wright explores how God’s mission to his world is an/the overarching theme of the entire scripture narrative. It might take a few months however…!

*Someone once told me he was going to Kenya for a couple of weeks to give some Bible teaching to Pastors because “they always read the Bible through their own cultural glasses”. While agreeing with his statement, I don’t think he had appreciated the irony that he also had his own cultural glasses through which he read the Bible… it’s just that our glasses are a lot more obvious to those around us than they are to ourselves.

Avatar: A Clash of Cultures

Wednesday 20 January 2010

After commenting on a couple of blog reviews of the new movie Avatar, I thought it was time I wrote some thoughts myself. We saw the movie in 3-D a couple of weeks ago when we were in the US, and I have to say that although the combination of science fiction and crazy computer effects doesn’t normally make me very excited, I was moderately entertained by the 3-D-ness.

The plot was fairly predictable, but what I thought was interesting was the overall message of the film, which dealt with interaction between very different cultures. Without wanting to spoil the plot for people who haven’t seen the movie, it basically looks at how two cultures, which are very different with no previous contact, interact with each other. One culture is very dominant and aggressive, always fighting its surroundings to achieve its goals, and the other is more passive and at one with its environment, content to maintain the status quo.

Some Christians have expressed concern at the way paganistic rituals are glorified in the movie, but I think this criticism actually proves the point the movie is making. It’s very easy to sit and point out faults in a very alien culture to us, when we haven’t made the effort to understand people in it, and when we’re blissfully unaware of the problems of our own culture. How many of the people who were shocked at the pagan aspects of the minority culture also complained at the greed and consumerism in the majority culture?

I think the movie is an allegory, so I wouldn’t take the details of the pagan rituals of the minority group too seriously, just as I wouldn’t take the “science” part of the movie too seriously. Both the questionable science and the questionable paganism are parts of the story, and set the stage for the overall message of the movie. While I wouldn’t subscribe to the idea that holding on to a huge tree with your tail will solve all your problems, I thought the movie did very well in portraying the unseen relationships, values and wealth in so many minority societies around the world.

There are plenty of things to find fault with in the movie, but my concern is that those who criticise it are doing so for the wrong reasons. The movie doesn’t fit into a worldview of accumulating wealth, seizing opportunity and fighting against whatever or whoever stands in your way, but I don’t think that makes it a bad movie.

If you’re looking for something that reinforces this way of thinking, go and watch any other Hollywood movie. But if you’re open to thinking from a different perspective you might enjoy more than just the 3-D effects of Avatar.

Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps is a fascinating look at communication media and the role these media play in shaping an entire culture. While Western culture emphasises the message and generally disregards the medium, Shane Hipps argues that media affect the way we think, and that until we recognise this fact we will be under their control.

Does that sound too deep? Let me give some examples…

Shane talks about how in oral cultures, where there is no written form of a language, people store information in their minds. When something is learned, it is passed on through the community, generally through telling and retelling stories. The culture therefore tends to be very community-oriented, and people derive their identity from the community.

When literacy is introduced to a culture, people have the luxury of thinking apart from the tribe, without worrying that their thoughts will disappear. The community is no longer needed to perpetuate ideas, and people will tend to become more individualistic.

“In pre-literate societies, a person’s identity is bound to the tribe; the notion of individual has little importance. However, the technology of writing, regardless of content, weakens and even destroys tribal bonds and profoundly amplifies the value of the individual.”

Another fascinating example that Shane gives is that of writing systems. He compares the Chinese pictographic alphabet, with the western phonetic alphabet. The western way of writing is a simple, linear, sequential list of symbols. The symbols in themselves have no meaning, but when put together they are very efficient at bringing meaning. As a result, western culture values abstract concepts, efficiency, and linear sequential thinking.

The Chinese writing system on the other hand involves symbols that actually represent a particular thing. In many ways this is a very inefficient way of writing – requiring a separate symbol for every single word – but the writing system is as Shane says “a visual art form”. Eastern culture similarly has developed to be nonlinear and holistic, valuing these things above efficiency and simplicity.

These media shape our culture, and even our understanding of Christianity. The Roman alphabet’s tendency towards efficiency and simplification has meant that western churches tend to emphasise the simplicity, rather than the mysticism of the Christian message. Our approach to the gospel is to present it as A + B + C = Go to Heaven, when other non-western cultures might take a more holistic and less simplified approach.

Shane goes on to look at other media since the printing press – particularly photographs (allowing for non-textual literate communication) and the telegraph (bringing instant communication over a distance). The telegraph, in many ways the forerunner of the internet, for example changed the culture by providing a mass of information. This mass had to be sorted through, and was assigned subjective value based on how the reader responded to it, paving the way for a move away from modernism, where the printed book with its sequential argument was king, to post-modernism, where a mass of information is weighed up by each person receiving it.

He then addresses social media (and what some might call our post-literate culture), which in many ways are a strange juxtaposition of previous media and their cultures. As a result they bring paradoxical ways of interacting with each other:

  • We are a tribe of individuals. Where pre-literate cultures value community, and literate cultures promote the individual, we long for the community of a tribe, but we define it on a strictly individualistic basis.
  • We feel empathy at a distance. Pre-literate cultures feel great empathy for others in the community, and literate cultures allow people to distance themselves from what is going on around them. As post-literates we paradoxically feel empathy at a distance – we empathise with celebrities and African Aids orphans, but we also feel detached from them and unable to relate to them.
  • We are anonymously intimate. Where pre-literate cultures are in many ways very intimate, and literacy brings the possibility of privacy and anonymity, as post-literates we are anonymously intimate. We share very personal and intimate parts of our lives with a large number of people, giving the illusion of intimacy as we present our façade to the world.

What does all this have to do with faith? Firstly Shane would say that it’s important for us to understand the culture that we live in, so that we are not trapped by it. Our culture likes to think that information is important, and the media of communication are simply serving us in our desire to pass on that information. But we need to be aware of how the media we use are actually influencing our entire view of the world, and of God himself.

But secondly Shane finishes the book by looking at the media God uses to communicate his message, and the fact that his ultimate means of communication with his people was through Jesus – a messenger who was himself the message. As Christians God has also chosen us to be his messengers, but like any medium of communication, we are part of the message itself.

“Why would God choose such a frail, failing, and inconsistent medium to embody his abiding message? Is it possible that God chose a collection of bent and bruised hearts to bear the message of redemption and reconciliation because that is a message in itself? Maybe God chose a medium of weakness to reveal his stunning power to reach through human failure, sin and sadness to grow new life.”

Flickering Pixels

I don’t feel I’ve done the book justice in this post – you’ll just have to read it for yourself. You may also be interested in listening to a sermon I gave in the US a couple of weeks ago about Peter telling Cornelius about Jesus in Acts 10, which was actually influenced by some of the ideas of how God communicates that originated from the final section of this book.

Tribes

Sunday 31 May 2009

I’ve just finished reading the short book “Tribes” by Seth Godin. I found it inspiring, probably because it put into words things that I know to be true but have never really thought about or verbalised before.

The idea of the book is that tribes are groups of people following leaders, and that anyone can be a leader. Through inspiring stories and examples, Godin illustrates what leadership is, and what it isn’t.

People don’t believe what you tell them.

They rarely believe what you show them.

They often believe what their friends show them.

They always believe what they tell themselves.

What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and about change.

He would say that leadership is about investing in people, building relationships with them and inspiring them. As individuals are inspired and given the opportunity to connect with each other, the vision is passed on enthusiastically and exponentially. Management on the other hand is about controlling people and information, doing what is expected, and chasing numbers.

Leadership is essentially about bringing out the best in others, enabling them to come up with ideas that are better than what you could have told them. It’s about seeing an idea and a passion succeed because each person is free to reach their own potential.

Reflecting further, it made me realise that this has always been the essence of leadership. The problem is that the mass one-way communication of the 20th Century did its best to hide this. “Success” became about numbers, profits, fame and recognition. It was achieved by telling people what to do and how to do it. As the medium for communication (newspapers, published books, radio, TV) was fairly constant, achieving success became a matter of simply following the rules and controlling others to make sure that they were following the rules too.

But now in the 21st Century the world has changed. Communication is much easier, and is from anyone to anyone. Any idea, vision or passion, from any source, can change the world if it inspires enough people. Success of a concept is measured, not by numbers or profits, but by how many followers catch the vision, going on to inspire others to do the same.

The essence of leadership is clear again. It’s not about telling people what to do, controlling them and making them into productive machines – that’s management. Leadership is about connecting with people personally – helping them to realise things that they always knew deep down, and giving them the courage to reach the potential they always had.

The best thing about the book is that it doesn’t tell you how to be a good leader, it helps you to realise for yourself that you actually knew all along.

Same Kind of Different as Me

Tuesday 27 January 2009

Same Kind of Different as Me is actually the best book I’ve read in a long time. OK that’s not saying much because I don’t read many books, but it was good.

It’s the story of two men in America – one a rich white art dealer who calls himself a Christian, and the other a black man who starts off life in virtual slavery and has a very tough existence on the streets.

The book is written by the two men, in roughly alternating short chapters, and is a fascinating spiritual journey for both of them. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but it is amazing to see God working in and through both of them, through suffering, joy and heartbreak.

I think one of the reasons the book really resonated with me was because of the parallels with what I have experienced in cross-cultural mission. The rich man starts off by thinking he is doing God and the homeless people a favour by giving a few hours a week to help out at a shelter. He has many struggles about the material difference between himself and the homeless people, while they have a hard time trusting someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to live on the streets.

But gradually a friendship is formed, and as it continues the rich man realises that in fact those he is ministering to, and his friend in particular, have spiritual insights that leave him feeling like he’s really the one who is poor.

I have to say the story did make me cry (happy and sad crying in roughly equal amounts), which doesn’t happen very often! And it made me realise once again that God involves us in mission to people who are very different from ourselves not just to bless them, but even more than that to teach us more about who he is.

Mission After Christendom

Sunday 7 December 2008

I’ve just finished reading an excellent book – Mission After Christendom by David Smith.

The book discusses how the modern missionary movement of the last 200 years has been very much tied to christendom – Europe and North America – and the modernist worldview, largely influenced by evolutionist philiosophy and the idea that science and reason would drive mankind towards an ever increasing utopia.

Missions were from the western church to the heathen nations, who were seen as backward and in need of the religion and civilisation of the west. As such, they often went hand in hand with colonial power and ideology, sometimes with the justification that “the heathens get saved, and in return we get their natural resources”.

The twentieth century, and all the war and destruction that went with it, saw the end of modernism as people realised that science and reason alone wouldn’t guarantee that civilisation would continually evolve towards higher and higher levels of development.

The main message of the book is that when mission is strongly tied to christendom and modernism (or to any one particular culture), the message it spreads is a poor version of Christianity, severely limited by the cultural lens through which it is portrayed. In reality, by God’s grace, over the past 100 years we have seen the growth of indigenous churches, expressing the gospel in their own cultural contexts across South America, Africa and Asia. This growth is not only a blessing to the church in these places, but in fact should be a blessing to the church of the traditional Christian heartlands as it sees the gospel worked out in completely different cultures.

For the Qom [of Argentina], as for the Saxons in ninth-century Europe, a mass movement toward Christianity resulted not in the abandonment of traditional culture, but in its revitalisation. A dispirited people, threatened with the destruction of their known world by the encroachment of a highly sophisticated technological culture, found in Jesus Christ the true redeemer who gave them as Qom, renewed hope, strength and life. Thus, the indigenous church which emerged from a movement of spiritual awakening in the middle of the twentieth century, the Iglesia Evangelica Unida, reflects a dynamic inculturation of the gospel among a people whose world-view is strikingly different from that of other churches in the Chaco, which simply adopted imported Western patterns of spirituality and worship. The Qom were able to distinguish Christ from the culture of the missionaries with the result that they now believe they have something important to offer to Western Christians from within their own cultural heritage. Thus, Hugo Diaz, an indigenous Christian leader, invites Western believers to assist the church in the Chaco in language which clearly reflects the post-Christendom context for mission with which this book is concerned: “We no longer want you to come and teach us the Bible. We want you to come and read the Bible together with us”.

Smith makes a very interesting comparison with the encounter of Peter with Cornelius in the book of Acts. Up until that point, Peter, along with the other apostles, had assumed that Jesus’ message of salvation was for the Jews, with other nations being granted salvation through becoming culturally Jewish. But after his meeting with Cornelius, and seeing the Holy Spirit given to non-Jews, Peter and the apostles rejoice at the realisation that “God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.” (Acts 11:18)

In this light the whole of the rest of the New Testament continues the theme that God has united all peoples of all cultures in himself. Mission is no longer about going abroad and persuading other peoples to be like us, but it’s about witnessing to Christ and encouraging others to worship him in their own cultural context.

Almost every page of the book had a quote that I wanted to remember, but I think this one sums up well the challenge to 21st Century missions:

…are we able to imitate Peter’s missiological and pastoral response in such a situation [with Cornelius], trusting the Holy Spirit in such a manner that our urge to proselytise such individuals and movements is overcome, so avoiding the implication that following Jesus as Lord means becoming like us? Questions like these are critical on the frontier of pluralisation because devout adherents of other faiths are unlikely ever to get close to the Jesus of the Gospels as long as the lifestyle of evangelists, or the worship of churches shaped by Western individualism and modernisation, makes him appear to be the destroyer of all that is treasured within their traditions. The tragedy of the proselytising approach to mission is that it turns the Gospel into “bad news”, ensures the closing of ranks, and short-circuits the revolutionary impact of the living Christ within these religious traditions. What is more, it ignores the profound insight of John of Patmos that all the peoples on earth may bring their ‘glory and honour’ into the kingdom of God (Rev 21:26).

Which is why I believe that Bible translation into every vernacular language – accomplished as a partnership right across the worldwide church – should be at the forefront of cross-cultural mission in the 21st Century.

WFMW

Wednesday 3 September 2008

WFMW

WFMW

I was inspired to write a Works for Me Wednesday today because I just phoned a friend of mine the other day in the States (Hi Apie! : ) and we had the longest conversation in the world!  We kept talking about what I do around the house that helps it to be organised and creative and productive because she is soon going to be at home fulltime – with her first baby on the way.  So, even though I am not super organised, and I am eternally learning, I thought I’d share something! : )

I think the #1 thing that has been working for me is morning Bible reading.  As soon as I wake up I get out of bed (before I have time to wind up and think about my upcoming day…!) and go to ‘my chair’ in the living room and open the Word of God.  Praise the Lord that that He’s given me an amazing husband who is sooo my compliment and likes routine – not my favourite…!  So, for encouragement, we do it together, and talk about one of the passages we read together.  Its good!

We read through the Word in a year, a month and a day.  So, there’s three chapters to read each day and you always know what you’re going to read next!

I also normally read Oswald Chambers ‘My Utmost for His Highest’ before I dive into the word for that day – and the thing that amazes me most is how the Bible passages and Chambers intertwine each day.  There is never a day where I am like – well, that was good but it wasn’t for me.  If you expect God to speak to you, you will hear Him! Its totally exciting! : )

That’s what works for me, by God’s grace! : )

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Works for Me Wednesdays at http://rocksinmydryer.typepad.com/shannon/worksforme-wednesday-guid.html

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Proverbs 12:18

Thursday 24 July 2008

Some people make cutting remarks,
but the words of the wise bring healing.

I am progressing through a very challenging personal Bible study book called Disciplines of a Godly Woman by Barbara Hughes – and that is not to say what a great Christian woman I am – because the book has been in our house for months now, staring at me in the face daring me to read it. And I finally found the guts and grace to open the book and commit to completing it!

Disciplines of a Godly Woman book

The sections are all very good, but I have to say that one has really stood out so far, about 8 sections in. And that section was about ‘propriety.’ Thankfully, Mrs. Hughes gives a definition of the word, as its gone out of use so much that I couldn’t quite recall what it meant…

“It means ‘characterized by appropriateness or suitability.'” (p 89 in Disciplines)

I thought… Alright – I know I’m polite, because I am a Christian and all… this shouldn’t be as hard as the other disciplines, right? Well, she got to the part about what we say as women, and that stopped me in my tracks. Especially the verses she quoted – like Proverbs 12:18, and others. It struck me that its not always enough to bite my tongue at the right times when I’m tempted to say something unhelpful. (Although I think I will keep doing that…) The second part of the verse says but the words of the wise bring healing. We aren’t meant to just look good and act right – we’re supposed to bring healing to those around us through our words. And I know that starts with my heart – which is what Godly propriety is – an attitude of the heart which spurs theraputic actions. I could go on, but for now…

Heavenly Father, as I dwell on your Word, replace my bad attitudes with holy ones so that I can, through my actions, bring healing to those around me by your Holy Spirit.

Redemptive Novels

Sunday 8 June 2008

Mark and I have found that we’ve been thinking similar things regarding redemption lately. The other night, he told me about what he’d been reading in Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright about how we as Christians should be focusing on the redemptive aspects of our everyday experience – in the present {if you want to know more, take a glance at this post by Mark}.

I got excited too because I had very similar thoughts as I have been reading Christian fiction novels by Lori Wick. Each of her novels brings elements of God’s redemptive plan into her character relationships ~ it really is beautiful. And it got me thinking how important it is for Christians to hang onto this hope of redemption in our fallen relationships in the present. We must have hope that our Sovereign God can turn ruin into glory if we will partner with Him in the present work He’s unfolding. Without this hope we are lifeless Christians.

So, I want to encourage those out there who love novels {but find it hard to justify reading when there’s sooo much else begging for your attention} to read them and allow the the Lord of Redemption to stir up this hope within you. He uses the written word in amazing ways to touch our hearts ~ and we artists {especially} need to allow Him to speak to us in a way we understand in our heart. For me that’s through creative imagery and redemptive stories.

The three authors to whom I am forever indebted for the beautiful redemptive images each has developed in my mind and heart are:

Francine Rivers

Lori Wick

Bodie Thoene

I hope these radiate the love of God to you the way they have to me. If you have others you would have added to this list ~ let me know! : ) Can’t wait to explore more!

Surprised by Hope

Saturday 17 May 2008

I have finally got to the end of “Surprised by Hope” – a book written by Tom Wright. Finally, not because of the book, but because I have always been a slow reader!

In fact reading the book has been one of the best things I’ve done in a long time. Wright’s basic theme is that western society in general and Christians in particular have largely misunderstood the hope of the gospel in the last 200 years.

He argues that the view of the New Testament is that we will all die and be raised to life with redeemed physical bodies, at some point in the future when Jesus returns. At this point God’s kingdom will come in its entirety, meaning that heaven and earth are united and reborn as the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21-22.

He says that this is fundamentally different to most Christians’ hope of “going to heaven when we die”. Not only that, but misunderstanding our hope for the future means that we don’t live as God intends us to today.

If our hope for the future is only a non-physical heaven where our souls go after we die, our focus on earth will be saving as many souls as we can to take to heaven with us. But if our hope for the future is in a physical redemption of the whole of creation, with a new heaven, a new earth and new resurrection bodies, our focus will be on, as Wright says “dragging this future into the present”. Our lives will be spent building God’s kingdom on earth, not for the purpose of saving souls to go to a non-physical heaven, but to give a glimpse of what God will do in the future and is already starting to do in the present.

As a result, people will see God’s kingdom starting to reign on earth (through justice, peace, love, mercy, stewardship of creation etc), and will want to be part of it and worship him.

I’m not sure I agreed with everything that Wright says in the book, but it has certainly given me a whole new perspective on our hope for the future, and I believe has affected the way I see our life in the present as a result. You might not agree with the arguments put forward in this book, but it will certainly make you think.

Here’s a (long but I think worth reading!) quote which for me summed up the book:

If what I have suggested is anywhere near the mark, then to insist on ‘heaven and hell’ as the ultimate question – to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world – may be to make a similar mistake to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century, the mistake which both Jesus and Paul addressed. Israel believed (so Paul tells us, and he should know) that the purposes of the creator God all came down to the question: how is God going to rescue Israel? What the gospel of Jesus revealed, however, was that the purposes of God were reaching out to the question: how is God going to rescue the world through Israel, and thereby rescue Israel itself as part of the process but not as the point of it all? Maybe what we are faced with in our own day is a similar challenge: to focus, not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven, and how he is going to do it, but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings, and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. If we could reread Romans and Revelation – and the rest of the New Testament, of course – in the light of this reframing of the question, I think we would find much food for thought.

Surprised by Hope