Tag Archives: theology

The Geography of Power and Privilege

First pile of books plundered from library

First pile of books plundered from library

This is the year I have finally started my Masters in Missiology (the study of missions or the study of “what the heck are we meant to be doing and how should we do it” as I prefer) through the University of Stellenbosch. I have harboured a deep desire to study further for many years but due to time, finances and circumstances this has never been an option. Until now… so due to a happy confluence of circumstances (Sovereignty if you will) I am able to dedicate a significant portion of my time to academic study of the next two years.

Although these things are notoriously fickle at the hands of supervisors and further reading here is my first attempt at articulating the area I hope to look at in my research.

“The effects of the apartheid system continue to affect the mission and the life of the church in Cape Town. In particular the long-term structures around which our city was re-engineered through the group areas act continues to entrench the division of races and economics in our city. The flow of power and of privilege very much follows the geographical contours of inequality in our city. The church has had a chequered history with these divisions at times supporting it, at times opposing it but mostly a quiet acquiescence through the development of a parallel structure of power and geography that mirrored, upheld or even enhanced the division of race and power. The post 1994 changes have mostly not brought about any significant changes in the geography of privilege and power. The evangelical church, by nature conservative lags behind entrenching often unwittingly the now traditional structures of power that so divide our city. What can the church do? Or perhaps more significantly what will the church do? Will we meekly wait for the city and the world to slowly and grudgingly change (if indeed we can even truly see our city redeemed) or will we act in spite of what we see, will we become a people of hope, willing ourselves to run counter cultural to the well established lines of privilege and prestige in our city. How can the church be a movement of hope in overcoming the geography of power that shapes and moulds our city still today?”

Why your Bible teaching is not enough

This past weekend I went to a conference that in all honesty I would never have gone to a few years back.  And if by some miracle of teleportation I had found myself there, I am sure I would have been incapable of learning from those whose stories are so different to my own.  At times I suspect radically different.  (I say suspect because that really was not the point of the conference and neither I nor they presumably felt the need to get into our differences)  Perhaps even different to the extent of the basic tenets of the gospel different.  But yet I must confess there was something vibrant, something alive about their faith and their spirituality, something deeply attractive.  Something I wanted…

For all my good Bible teaching and wrestling with exegesis I suspect my life, my spirituality, my faith is often as dull, as rational, as safe and as attractive as a three-day old sandwich. You could eat it but given the choice you would probably choose not to. How can it be that having given years of my life to studying the biblical text, fine tuning my doctrine and training other to go and do likewise I can now find myself deeply attracted to the spirituality of those who I have regarded as having a “lesser theology”?

The obvious first point of examination must be the possibility that my theological convictions are wrong? I have tossed that idea around a bit lately and while I can conclude that I have moved on a few issues, it is more the moving of nuance than of relocating to a different theological neighbourhood altogether.  Perhaps, I am being naive but I am not sure it is my theological convictions that need moving.  It is my heart!

Please don’t misunderstand me.  Doctrine matters!  Right doctrine leads to right living – breaking down the walls of exclusion, eating together, loving one another, joy, hope, freedom and life.  Bad doctrine leads to division, strife, confusion, bitterness and hatred, just read Galatians if you are not convinced.

If this is true, and I would stake my life on it being true, then how can it be that those whose of us who have spent most of our lives studying, teaching and contending for what I would regard as good doctrine have lives that are so profoundly mundane and unattractive?

I suspect that what we need is not more information but rather some deep contemplation, sustained meditation and some profound experiences of the Spirit as we seek to live the information that we already know.  We have become drunk with our quest for more knowledge.  Like giddy schoolgirls we flock to hear, download and read yet more and more information on our latest theological crush.  And somehow as we “just teach the Bible” we expect that transformation will just magically happen.

What makes these “lesser theological lights” (by my tribe’s standards anyway) so effective and vibrant and attractive?  Faith.  They actually believe in a God who wants to redeem and restore all of creation.  So much so that they actually act on it.  They base their lives around it. Make intentional choices to be downwardly mobile, committed to prayer, reaching the lost in the toughest neighbourhoods, speaking out against injustice, racism and exploitation. When God says that money enslaves and that he who seeks to save his life will lose it, they listen, they obey and they build lives on the words of Jesus.  Faith.

It is after all not Bible teaching that matters but Bible living.  It matters not how well you exegete the text but how deeply the text exegetes you!  Will you follow where the text leads you? Will you meditate deeply on the implications of the text for your life, your aspirations, your lifestyle, the lost and the broken or will it merely become another interesting sermon to be tucked away until next we meet?  Will you follow the text to where it leads to the end of you and your resources?  Will you follow the text where it leads to a deep dependence upon the Spirit to lead you, guide you and sustain you for mission and in fact for life?

Strangely, I remain committed to my tribe theologically. Some days I wish I was not so convinced. But yet I long for my tribe to do so much more than contend for, teach, exegete and understand the truth.  I long for the days when evangelicals will be known for their spiritual vitality, their love for the poor, their stand for justice, their care for the planet, their love for homosexuals, their lives of simplicity and sustainability, their radical generosity, their fight against consumerism and wastefulness.

Not at the expense of the gospel proclaimed. But precisely because we have believed the gospel proclaimed we are no longer conformed to the standards (comforts, securities, importances) of this world but rather our minds are being renewed by that gospel.  Precisely because we have believed the gospel we will give our lives away in service of the last, the least and the lost just as Jesus gave his life away for us.  We intentionally join our small story with God’s Great Big Beautiful story of redemption, resurrection, restoration, hope and beauty.

Why don’t we write in South Africa?

After a few coffees pastor’s tongues start to loosen up, call it a bit of Geneva courage, and they begin to speak their mind a little less cautiously. After plying a few unsuspecting but prospective lads with a few drinks the talk has begun to turn to a surprisingly similar topic. There is a growing frustration with imports. Not the cheap Chinese variety but more like the polished Western variety. Theological imports are awash on our shores. Go into any good or not so good Christian bookshop and what you will find are hundreds of books written by European or American authors. If you look hard enough you might find a South American or Indian author gathering dust in some forgotten corner. Finding a prolific African author might well be more difficult than finding a white person who supported apartheid. And dare I say, evangelicals might well be the worst?

We have this love-hate relationship with our Western poster boys (or girls for you egalitarians out there!). We cram our bookshelves with their books, fill our ears with their pod casts and stampede to their conferences if they bless us with their presence. We can quote them, discuss them and gently critique their exegesis, where necessary, but yet, we knowingly nod; they don’t really understand our context. We give that conspiratorial smile as we condemn their ignorance. “What we really need,” some particularly loquacious soul will declare “is to write our own stuff.” But yet despite the chorus of muttered agreement and nodding heads nothing will happen… until the next round of coffee that is!

So what is it about South Africa that has engendered so little serious theological reflection, so little writing and so little publishing? Why is it still more natural to go offshore when you need some expert help in a given area? No doubt we have the capacity, we have the intellectual capital, we have the thinkers, we have the experience (it is our context after all?). What is it then?

There may be contributing factors- time, money, experience, less of a writing culture and the realities of living in a third world as opposed to a first world country. But I suspect the underlying factor has more to do with us and less to do with circumstances. Fear! It sings it’s poisonous song within my heart every time I boldly clatter a few keys on my keyboard. Fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear of being wrong…

It is always easier never to try than to try and fail. It is always easier to read other’s more accomplished works and to repeat their thinking than to actually engage in the rigorous discipline of your own writing and risking being wrong or not good enough.

The answer to these fears cannot be a call to pluck up some courage or find some greater sense of self-belief (we see you Oprah!). Underlying these fears are a more fundamental story, a more fundamental theological error that goes to the heart rather than the symptoms of failure.

We have allowed our identity to be shaped in this issue not by the gospel but rather by an alternate story. It is a story in which our identity is shaped by success or approval or being right. Our story might go something like this:

CREATION: I am meant to be successful in life
FALL: I am not sure I can be successful. I fear failure.
REDEMPTION: I will minimize my risk of failure by limiting my activities to things I have a reasonable confidence in my ability to achieve at least partial success. I feel good about myself and appear to be successful. (Therefore it is easier to talk about other’s writing than to risk failure through my own writing)
CONSUMMATION: If I avoid being a failure perhaps I will have been a success.

CREATION: I am meant to be loved and accepted.
FALL: I do not always feel accepted
REDEMPTION: I seek people’s approval and stay away from activities that could bring disapproval (if I write people may not like it or worse, disagree with it, then I would not be accepted)
CONSUMMATION: I hope that I will be approved by what I do.

The solution to these alternate gospels is as with most things to replace it with the better and truer Story. An identity that is rooted in the Gospel Story liberates us to write, sing, dance, plant churches or climb mountains. A gospel believing writer’s story might go something like this:

CREATION: I am meant to create, reflect on and shape God’s world for His glory
FALL: I use this God-given task to redefine my value and measure my worth to others in the light of my success or lack of it.
REDEMPTION: I am loved and accepted because of what Christ has done on my behalf already. My performance cannot change that. Christ has completed the work on my behalf; it has been declared an overwhelming success. In Him and because of his work, I am already a success.
CONSUMMATION: I find lasting approval in Jesus the one who loved me when I was still a sinner. I can rest in Jesus finished work on my behalf. I am free to create without the pressure of approval or failure.

When our identity is rooted in Christ we are set free to be wrong, to write badly or to not be liked. When we know that we are a beloved child of the most High God we are set free to create, to write, to inspire, to challenge and to risk. When we are justified in Christ we no longer have to prove ourselves through our theological correctness or our inspiring prose. We no longer have to be novel, interesting or readable in order to be successful.

Our writing probably will not be as good as our first-world counterparts but why should we expect it to be? They have been doing it for far longer than we have. They have a culture of writing, mediating, critiquing, improving and encouraging. Not to mention the obvious benefits of time and resources that financial stability and dedicated academic institutions bring. But we do not have to be like them or as good as them. We may get there, we may even surpass them one day but unless we learn to rest in our gospel identity we will forever be relegated to those whose greatest contribution will be to consume and criticise.

Not only does the gospel free us to not be as good as them but it also frees us to not be like them. The church does not need us to support a ravenous publishing industry by producing more of the same, simply with more exotic author names. No, we need to write as the church in South Africa. Our theological reflections must be coloured by our context. Our questions, our issues, our struggles as well as our strengths, our insights and our victories are all different to those of our brothers and sisters in the west. What the church worldwide needs is not window dressed publishing but it needs us to be the church and to reflect and write as the church in the context in which God has put us.

We have to write with our weaknesses, our insights, our blind spots and our questions. We may be rejected, derided or misunderstood but we can write boldly, prophetically and faithfully knowing that we rest in our gospel identity. The church does not need another western publishing industry the church needs us. We write not to be contentious or to make a name for ourselves, we write to serve the church, to love our brothers and ultimately for the glory and fame of Jesus.

The Weakness of Theological Colleges

Let us never make the mistake that a degree alone makes a man fit for leadership in the church…

“The best training for a soldier of Christ is not merely a theological college. They always seem to turn out sausages of varying lengths, tied at each end, without the glorious freedom a Christian ought to abound and rejoice in. You see, when in hand-to-hand conflict with the world and the devil, neat little biblical confectionery is like shooting lions with a pea-shooter: one needs a man who will let himself go and deliver blows right and left as hard as he can hit, trusting in the Holy Ghost. It’s experience, not preaching that hurts the devil and confounds the world. The training is not that of the schools but of the market: it’s the hot, free heart and not the balanced head that knocks the devil out. Nothing but forked-lightning Christians will count. A lost reputation is the best degree for Christ’s service. It is not so much the degree of arts that is needed, but that of hearts, loyal and true, that love not their lives to the death: large and loving hearts which seek to save the lost multitudes, rather than guard the ninety-nine well-fed sheep in the British pen.”

C.T. Studd

More Important Than Knowing

J. I. Packer:

“What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—the fact that he knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands [Isa. 49:16]. I am never out of his mind. All my knowledge of him depends on his sustained initiative in knowing me. I know him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters.

This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort—the sort of comfort that energizes, be it said, not enervates—in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me.”

Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 41-42, emphasis added.

(From Justin Taylor)

Book Review: The Irresistible Revolution

I realise this review (in hindsight I am not sure this even qualifies as a review) is about five years after everyone else has probably read the book.  But it is one of the occupational hazards of being a incurable non-conformist… if everyone is reading it then I almost always don’t want to.

The book made such an indelible impression on me in a couple of ways that I thought I would scribble down my thoughts anyway.

This is generally an easy read, a bit repetitive at times, a bit circular in theme and logic at times.  It reads more like a story but a story with a definite agenda.  The theology is at times a bit wonky and at other times down right dodgy.  With a few good bits mixed in.  Although both Claiborne and I would calls ourselves evangelical I am not sure we would both agree on what that meant.  I suspect Claiborne has jigged the term a bit to his own end.  Tim Challies has a mostly decent review that looks at some of the theological problems a bit more.

The impact of the book for me is that here is a guy who tangibly puts his life at the service of his theology.  Here is a guy that has read his Bible and come to an understanding about what it means to follow Jesus and now he is doing it.  Again I do not agree with all of his thinking or actions but you cannot deny that here is a Christian who has put it all on the line to follow Jesus.

My biggest frustration after reading this book is less with Shane Claiborne (although there is quite a bit of that too!) but with those of us who have a better theology, a more robust theology than Claiborne.

Critique his theology all we like (and critique we must!) but let us ask ourselves what is the fruit of our better theology?  If Claiborne with his wonky theology can serve the poor, seek justice for the oppressed, move into the forgotten areas of our city and live and love there, practice community at a deep level, welcome the outsider, feed the hungry, question the rampant commercialism of our societies and then follow Jesus in counter-cultural ways that actually display the love, mercy and justice of the Kingdom of God. And there are some great stories of this in the book…

Then surely we who have better theology should be doing the kinds of things Claiborne is doing but just better, deeper and richer.  As our theology outstrips his so should our practice…

If we believe what we say we believe… then we ought to know better than him dammit…

Why should I have to read a book filled with wonky theology to be inspired to follow Jesus more radically and counter-culturally.

I am surrounded by those with better theology and yet our track record is terrible in most of the ways Claiborne and his community is brilliant – justice, mercy, community, serving the poor and  moving into the forgotten or undesirable areas of our city.

An alternative Easter experience

I guess when you get mumps for Easter two things happen:

1) You know you are over-due for a serious performance review meeting with the Easter Bunny.

2) It gives you some time to reflect on the significance of Easter and how we as a church express this in the things we do.

The celebration of Easter it is worth saying is nowhere commanded in the Bible.  (This is obviously to be kept rather hush-hush due to our love of public holidays, Easter eggs and hot cross buns (even the Halaal ones).)

Easter is bigger than Easter?

We celebrate Easter not so much as a “holy weekend” that commemorates the events that happened on that day two thousand-ish years ago.  But rather as a theological event that ushered in the new age of God’s Kingdom now broken in, through the death and resurrection of His King.  It is not the facts about that day that we celebrate per se (and they are significant and important) but the significance of those facts for our lives and our world.

That got me wondering if we as the church fall into the trap of celebrating Easter only as a historical event or a theological concept rather than as an historical-theological event that has actual implications for life today not just as information from the past or as hope for the after-death future (it is both of these certainly!).

How much of our celebration is either about giving people information about the events commemorated at Easter or (better) explaining to them something of the significance of those events.  This is not a bad thing.  We have to tell the story and we have to teach people the significance of the story.  But is that the end of it?

Easter is not yearly event because the Christian life is a daily celebration of the Easter event – it’s truth, significance and implications.  Easter is not so much an event to be commemorated but a life to be initiated into and to walk in.  We are people who are given new life by the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  The cross and resurrection of Jesus is our pardon, our acceptance, our confidence and our model for the Christian life.

What is Easter all about?

So is this one of those weird blog posts telling us all to scrap Easter, burn the Easter bunny and swear off hot-cross buns for life.

Well no, while it is a call to redeem “Easter” for the rest of the year, I have no problem in setting aside an appropriate few days to remember the events of that first Easter.

This reflection, though, is more around the substance of what we actually do when we celebrate Easter.  Our celebration of Easter is a unique event to give a snapshot not so much into the historicity of Easter (although no doubt some newspaper article claiming to have disproved Christianity AGAIN will be published as a kind act of religious tolerance at this special time of year) but a snapshot into the significance of Easter = historical event + interpretation + implications.

Easter is about the death of death and the in-breaking new life of God’s Kingdom.  It is about the death of the sinless Saviour for an undeserving, sinful people.  It is about the perfect One being broken by the brokenness of his world.  It is about the breaking the bondage of sin and slavery and a creation being set free for new life, healing and wholeness.  It is about the chains of sin being broken… about man and God reconciled… about sin paid for… restored humanity… redemption from sin… new life… hope and forgiveness…  It is about God’s new life breaking out from the tomb into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth…

Typical Easter weekend

Typically our Easter weekend celebration goes something like this… a couple of church services, hot cross buns, visitors to our church, some kind of special Easter programme, a sunrise service, Easter eggs, family time, perhaps a special Easter convention with a special time of teaching, watch some sport, spend some extra time with the family (nuclear or extended or both or no difference if you black).  All of these are good things but are they the best reflection not just on the facts of Easter or the theological significance of them but equally of that new life now broken in?

Having said this, for many of us our Easter celebrations are probably are an accurate reflection of our Christian lives.  The high-point of most of our Christian walk is our “removed from normal life” church services.  Our Christian experience is anemically individualistic.  Easter is reduced to a reflection on Jesus who died for my sins and rose again to bring me eternal life – true but far too narrow.  Often our churches are not a taste of the new life of the Resurrection breaking out into history now and living in glorious hope of the future coming of King Jesus.  We celebrate Easter as most of life with people like us.  And we have baptised the western middle-class idol of family and spend most of our non-church time with our family (often alone).

How could Easter look different?

Good Friday is essentially about the brokenness of a world ravaged by sin.  It is about people messed up by their own sin, the sins of others or the devastating effects of living in a fallen world.  And most often it is a noxious cocktail of all three.

Most importantly Good Friday is about the God of love, of justice, of mercy and compassion.  It is about the God of mission, if God is not a God of mission there is no Good Friday.  Good Friday is about the God of justice and mercy – broken and angry with state of his world.  It is about the Father groaning at the injustice and in humanity of his sons and daughters created in his image.

It is about a broken King broken for us.  The Sinless One taking on the sin of the world.  The Almighty being crushed for our iniquities.

Perhaps we need to be crushed by the weight of our sin and brokenness each Easter.  Not simply our own missteps and mistakes.  But intentionally immerse ourselves in the brokenness around us:

I might want the day to look a little more like this…

Gather early in the morning for some prayer, read some Scripture together, pray, perhaps sing a few songs (about an hour).  Spend the day in fasting for your own sin and the brokenness of your community.

Then go out in small groups prayer walking in your neighbourhood.  Look for brokenness – it won’t be hard to find- be moved by it.  Silently pray as you walk.  Stop and pray for people as you are able to – homeless people, beggars- anyone who will let you.  Spend some time listening to their story if they will let you.

Choose some well-known places of sin and brokenness in your area – brothels, drug dens, homeless shelters, certain night clubs, businesses known to be exploitative etc  and go pray for them.  Pray for God to save people, for Him to shut them down or for him to show you how you could be a blessing into this brokenness and to those caught in this brokenness and sin.

Meet together someplace and share some coffee and prayer.  Talk about what you have seen and heard.  Share stories.  Weep together.  Ask for prayer if you need it.  Read some Scripture.

Then perhaps those who are able can go together and simply spend the rest of the time together serving the broken, lonely, forgotten – perhaps at an AIDS hospice, old age home, children’s home, homeless shelter?

What about telling people the gospel?  Yes- always and everywhere.  We can tell it to each other as we walk, when we gather, when we read Scriptures.  And as we talk to people, serve them, pray with them – talk to them wherever you can about Jesus.

What about Easter Sunday?

Easter Sunday is a celebration of the death of death.  The victory of Jesus over  death.  The chains are broken, the captives are set free, Satan is defeated and new life has broken in (or out).  We celebrate the victory of King Jesus over death, sin and slavery to sin.  God’s new world has begun, now in part and, when Jesus returns, later in full.  But now everywhere there are splinters of light, shards of hope and scraps of joy.  The church as scattered communities of light are a foretaste of this new world now broken in.

I like the symbolism of gathering at sunrise – a new day has dawned.  The new age has broken in.  Gather with fellow believers at sunrise – read some Scripture, sing a few songs and break our fast together.  Outside – on the beach- seems strangely appropriate?

Then we ought to scatter throughout our community perhaps visiting some of the broken places we visited on Friday (or other places).  Sunday (if it is anything) is a day that symbolised the defeat of death, the freeing of the slaves, the breaking out of resurrection life, new life, freedom and joy…  What if we resolved for the people of our community to taste something of that new life?

Bring hope and joy and light where there is very little of it?

Have a feast with the homeless

Go be joy, laughter and blessing to those in hospitals, hospices, boys homes, prisons etc

Go clean your local park, streets, etc

Go visit friends, neighbours, colleagues  anyone you know is in need

Hand out gifts randomly on the streets where you live

Commit random acts of kindness for strangers

And then end the day with a feast/party/banquet perhaps in the local park or street that you helped clean up – again read Scripture, share stories, sing some songs, eat, drink, laugh and celebrate the King who brings new life to those who were dead in their sins.

Invite everyone you meet today and everyone you know to join you.  Make it a party! You might even need to be prepared to end the day with  few baptisms?

And what if it is true what I said right at the beginning that everyday is Easter?