Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

One Line Review 8: Stardust

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

If Ricky Gervais ever gets a new character, I think there is a good chance we won’t get tired of him as quickly.

Your Correspondent, Refuses to believe in “love”

Do Christians Let Christ Influence Them?- Variations On A Theme

Thursday, February 9th, 2006

A few days ago I wrote an entry called “Do Christians Let Christ Influence Them?” in which I tried to answer why I would call myself a Christian when through history so many shite things have been done by Christians, even to co-religionists.

I was thinking about this topic again today and a thought struck me. This thought will forever be attached to a particular book I read this year but it has been a common theme throughout my Christian life, especially in the last three years. The book is NT Wright’s Challenge of Jesus. It is a spectacular work and if you are a Christian past the spoon feeding stages I would strongly recommend it. If you are an agnostic with an interest in actually understanding this belief system that has given us the underpinnings for everything we prize, then you should also track it down. I’ll help you through the hard bits if you want.

How big is Jesus?
Anyway, one of the things I took away from the book is the idea that Jesus is a whole lot more than even we, Christians, give him credit for. I did a straw poll with a group of Christian university students from a number of countries this summer. I asked them to define who Jesus was for them and about 80% said something along the lines of:

Jesus is my personal saviour.

He certainly is that! Amen! As the old slave song goes, “What can wash my sin away? Nothing but the blood of Jesus”. But one of the many points that Wright makes is that Jesus is depicted in the Bible as being much much more than that. A lot of the New Testament was written by a fellow called Paul. This is the guy who suffered the Damascus Road conversion experience that you may have heard reference to in popular culture. He was a Jewish teacher of the Law, a rising star at the synogogue, who was impressing with the passion with which he was hunting down these heretic followers of Jesus. On the way to catch them in the act in Damascus he was struck from his donkey by a blinding light and Jesus came to him in a vision. He revealed the whole deal to him and commissioned him to be his message-bearer to the non-Jewish world.

Anyone who claims that God doesn’t have a sense of humour will have a tough time explaining why he chose a rabidly xenophobic Jewish fundamentalist who was willing to kill Christians to protect his dream of a pure Jewish homeland, as his ambassador, with the message of doors thrown wide open to the rest of the world. I write all this to try to communicate how mad it is to read what this zealous monotheist writes in a letter to one of his churches in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth. As an orthodox Jew in the 2nd Temple period he would have been familiar with a prayer from an old old Old Testament book. The prayer was called Shema and it was recited twice a day. Here is how it begins:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.

Now look at what Paul, super Jew amongst even the priests of Judaism writes after his Christ-encounter to the Corinth church:

Hear, 0 Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One

we have

But for us:

One God

the father, from whom are all things and we to him

and one Lord

Jesus the Messiah,

through whom are all things and through whom are we.

There is no way I can do a better job of explaining this than NT Wright himself but put your thinking caps on because he packs a punch:

Paul, in other words, has glossed “God” with “the Father,” and “Lord” with “Jesus Christ,” adding in each case an explanatory phrase: “God” is the Father, “from whom are all things and we to him,” and the “Lord” is Jesus the Messiah, “through whom are all things and we through him.” There can be no mistake: Paul has placed Jesus within an explicit statement, drawn from the Old Testament’s best known monotheistic text, of the doctrine that Israel’s God is the one and only God, the creator of the world.

The Shema was already, at this stage of Judaism, in widespread use as the Jewish daily prayer. Paul has redefined it Christologically, producing what we can only call a sort of Christological monotheism.

In other words, Paul says to us (and firstly to the church at Corinth) that Jesus is not just your personal Lord and Saviour. He is that and more. He is the Lord of the Universe. He is the King of the Cosmos. He lays claim to everything. There is nothing that he doesn’t look upon and say “I made this” (like at the end of the Simpsons).

What does a big Jesus mean for Christian behaviour?
If you are living in the stereotypical Little-Jesus world of Christianity where you become a Christian by being born in a western country or by saying a prayer one night on your knees after confessing your sins, then behaviour doesn’t mean a lot. A Jesus who forgives all your sins when you bow your knees is not a Jesus who seems to expect any change from that. The great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would have called this cheap grace. In this model, we are clients of the sin washing service offered by Jesus that makes us clean. It is a good service because he gives us “personal” attention.

It is true, so very true, to say that Jesus has come to clean our sins and make our way to God clear. But he has come to do more. He has cleaned us so that our way to our fellow human is clear. He can do that because he is responsible for putting us and everything else here. Although he personally plucks you from a hell-bound path and brings you home, he has not come to pluck you up. Jesus comes and cleanses your sin, guiding you on the path to heaven. He also seeks, on top of that, to make you new; to regenerate you so that you are who you were meant to be when he took delight in planning you before the beginning of time. But these personal aspects of Jesus’ ministry do not suffice as a description of his mission. His mission is to glorify himself by making all things new.

That would only ever seem big-headed or self-centred if Jesus wasn’t who he claims to be. He is the God of everything. The most generous thing an all loving, all powerful God can do is make it so that we can share his company. He forgives our sin, he heals our pain, he makes friends with us so we can make friends with others. But he does all this because he is the God of the world that has been occupied by an alien force. On Easter Sunday he defeated Satan and now we await his coronation. Jesus is more than we can possibly conceive. His mission is not about you but you are a vital part of it.

Maybe Christians have done such a very bad job at living as followers of their King because they have understood the journey to be a moment in time when you “commit” to him. This conversion point is not the beginning and the end but the beginning of a journey that will never end. How many times have I been asked “When did you become a Christian?” Everytime I have responded like the smartass that I am by saying, “I am being made a Christian now.” If Christianity is defined as a relationship with the Creator who loves and treasures you then there is a lot of space for this living God to challenge your behaviour patterns that dismay him. If Jesus is defined big, as the Alpha and the Omega, the source of all truth and love, then there is nothing he cannot speak to. He takes even the sin closest to your heart and with the expert scalpel of the Great Physician he removes it.

When we define him small, as our personal saviour, then his job is to set us right with God above. He can’t speak to us in our workplace. We have to warp our definition to let him teach us about the environment. The sin management Jesus doesn’t get to talk often about culture. A Jesus thus defined does not lay claim to everything in your life and it follows that we can keep some things from him. Be that sectarian bitterness, materialistic discontent or a fondness for 1980s fashion.

So maybe the problem highlighted in the Hierophant’s Survey about internecine conflict amongst Christians of different traditions is often one about who we let Jesus be. Is he the Managing Director of our moral life or is he King?

Your Correspondent, With A New Logo Will Change Everything

Do Christians Let Christ Influence Them?

Friday, February 3rd, 2006

In the Hierophant’s Proselytizer questionnaire, three problems are posed for Christianity that all get at the same point:

3. If a Catholic, justify the Inquisition and other persecutions of “heretics” throughout the centuries, concentrating on why the Pelagianists, the Priscillianists, and the Manichaeans were persecuted; if a Protestant, justify the witch trials and the way that Protestants constantly hunted down native Americans until there were so few that the government could simply take their land; if a member of an Eastern Orthodox church, justify the persecutions of the Old Believers after the reforms of the seventeenth century.

4. Explain why your sect (whether Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox) pursued, tortured, and killed people who were not Christian.

5. Explain why your sect (whether Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox) pursued, tortured, and killed people who were not members of your particular sect.

I am a member of a Presbyterian church but I wouldn’t want to call myself Presbyterian. The Presbyterian Church is a religion. I am not a very religious person and everytime I give the Gospels a read, it kills the impulse to ritual a little more. I am a Christian, I am orthodox, I am catholic. But while I am a member of a sect and proud to serve its goals, I would never adopt it as an identity. This doesn’t get me out of answering these pertinent questions though. As I understand it, I have to take on the crimes of all the Christians down through the ages because I am so definitive on the fact that we are unified.

I do a lot of thinking about apologetics and the problems people have with faith. This thinking comes easy to me because I was a committed atheist when I met neuro and her merry band of God-botherers. 65 hours of noise torture and subliminal messages later and I came out an unthinking, hand waving, bible bashing, chastity belt wearing, Dubya loving cannibalist. On most issues that people raise, I can remember the Eureka! moment when I saw it slip into place. Good God let bad things happen? Sure he does! No sex before marriage? Harsh, but fair. Evolution a load of crap? It doesn’t say that anywhere!

But there is one objection I have never overcome. Ghandi reportedly said “I like your Christ. But I don’t like your Christians”. We may part ways on the eating of beef but at least old Indian baldy and me had something in common. If there really was a promised Messiah and Jesus was him, then why do Christians, consistently from fairly early on to this day, behave so appallingly?

There is the obvious response which is very few of these people can claim to be Christians- not because they did some very bad things but because they don’t seem to ever have done any good things. Ephesians 2 teaches clearly that we are saved by faith, for works. Once we become Christians, through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, we should see ourselves becoming more and more like who we were meant to be and less and less like the greedy, self righteous, out of tune people we end up being by just getting by. The less and less never diminishes to nothing. A Christian is just as capable of committing a crime against humanity than anyone else. He or she differs only in that they have no possible excuse for it. So while some (most) of these crimes were obviously the actions of human beings intent on pursuing their ideological goals by exploiting the tool of religion, it can’t explain it fully. We know there are real Christians who are assholes. Well I know it, because two Christian assholes live in my house.

What I think happens is that people start out well. They have the whole relationship with God bit down. Maybe they are excited by Jesus and their life feels the first taste of transformation. Their blindness now sees. Their lameness now walks. All that living a life lit by a light from beyond the sun stuff was real for them. But then they got involved in a dispute in their town between their church and someone else. Maybe it was another church, maybe it was a council, maybe it was a different religious group. But soon the security of the community they enjoy feels threatened or the power base of their group is reduced and they lose sight of the Cross and take up arms. Those weapons might be guns or words or social stigma but they exert their force into situations that become vacuums of bitterness, with all love and compassion forced out in the pressure. Elsewhere in their lives, they live dedicated to sacrificial love and authentic worship of the one Living God. But no one in their community reminds them that Christ wants everything, including that political or social or cultural or ecclissiological issue that they are sinning in. I think this is what has happened often in Northern Irish communities. The violent reaction is likely to come in just the area of life they treasure the most because it is there that threats are most dangerous. And then one is inclined to develop a blind spot to protect your sense that in this most crucial area, you are behaving well. The blind spot then encourages a cycle to develop.

The best I can do here is fight for a tie. Faith needs to be expressed in communities and communities of communities make institutions. Institutions like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland create traditions that form the basis of religions. And religions can do a great deal for anyone with a political ambition. There is no justification when Christian churches obscure the truth, focus on irrelevancies and oppress people. But they are people and Christianity is clear that people, especially religious people, can’t help but let themselves and others down. In a way, of all belief systems, the Christian should not be surprised when they end up making fatal mistakes and committing brutal crimes against themselves and others. People are broken. Christians are broken. They just have had it pointed out to them.

Christ stands as the resolution to this issue. He never said “Do I say, not as I do”. Christ set the example of a life perfectly lived and then challenged Christians to live it. To be a Christian is to follow Christ. The actions of others following him is a problem that deserves attention but there is no logical reason for them to be the cause of someone not getting to know Him. His friends might be assholes, but he is an amazing guy. He even makes dealing with them worthwhile.

Your Correspondent, Afraid This Won’t Cut The Mustard

Legendary monkeytician Charles Darwin would disagree.

Wednesday, October 12th, 2005

In the Hierophant’s Questionnaire, a list of over 100 questions are issued by a confrontationalist for stupid Christians to respond to. In an act of stupidity on a par with that time I promised the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that I would count and catalog every mullet in East Germany in advance of reunification, I have decided to try and answer each one of them. (Well, the ones that could be of any interest to sane people).

Today the probing question I have to investigate is:

2. Did everyone who died before Jesus died go to Hell? Justify your answer.

Simple answer. Hell no!

To justify it, we go to the letter that Paul wrote to the Roman church. He was trying to explain how we become Christians and share in the things Jesus secured for us at Easter (eternal life and so much more) and his example was from the Hebrew scriptures. Abraham is the Father of the Jewish faith (and by extension, Christian faith too). Paul says that before Christmas and the coming of Jesus, Abraham benefited from God’s promise to reconcile His relationship with people that they had destroyed. Paul takes a large amount of time describing how the very same requirements for relationship with God that apply to us now post-Jesus applied also to Abraham, 4,000 years before Christ. Here is a good summation from Romans 4:3:

What we read in Scripture is, “Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.”

Basically, by faith we, as people living in Anno Domini, are justified. Paul says clearly that Before Christ Abraham enjoyed the very same grace.

For Christians, death is almost a metaphor for judgement but the sentence of damnation, whatever that may mean, begins paradoxically, at the end of time. Abraham will/does receive his “credit” at the end of time, just as you or I will. Basically, we each die and judgement is passed. On the last day we will all face that judgement and its sentence. Abraham, like everyone else before Christ, is under the same promise as we are after Christ and this is possible because God is not bound by time like we are. Anyone before Jesus who like Abraham, rejected the way we instinctively want to live and instead, looked for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one, a better life” from God gets to share, as we do, in the inheritance of Jesus’ work. They may have died before Jesus but their sentencing date will never come.

Let me try and explain it this way. Imagine there was a kingdom composed of people who were unimaginably reckless. They seemed determined to live their lives without forethought. If they spent any energy on preparation, it was to ensure that they could live their lives most effectively without any kind of planning. In this society, everyone seemed intent on running up vast debts that they couldn’t possibly cover. They would over-extend themselves every which way they could so that they would squander bountiful harvests and rape their forests until they were barren and hunt game into extinction. Everywhere they went, they left a trail of destruction behind them but maybe because everyone was equally in on it or because it had been so long since they had been responsible, they couldn’t remember what it was like to take care of things or people. They didn’t really register they were acting foolishly, more than that, acting fatally.

The day came, as it always does, that they were set to make an account of themselves and their behaviour. Their creditors were furious and wanted a pound of flesh for every debtor. Under this threat from outside, citizens of the Kingdom turned on themselves, seeking instant repayment of debts they were owed by neighbours without regard to their own liability. This was a dark day. There were angry claimants on their borders and there were no friendships left in the whole land as every debt was rashly called in without regard to the possibility of payment.

Judgement was made. Punishment was going to be intolerably hard. The citizens tore themselves and their society apart in an effort to pay back their debts. Most convinced themselves that if they just worked hard enough now they could somehow manage to negotiate a settlement over their debt. Some even thought they could perhaps even manage it without changing the way they lived. But there was no way they could make good on their recklessness and ultimately, they all stood to lose their lives. Some saw the futile efforts of their compatriots to secure a legacy and wished they could live in a world that was different. They threw themselves upon the mercy of their neighbours, their creditors, admitting they had made massive mistakes and ultimately, they cried out to the Creator of the World for help. While this was happening, one by one, every citizen was judged and found guilty for their debts. A sentencing date was set for the whole land.

Everyone then was taken by surprise when a strange man arrived from across the sea with a message of hope. He was wealthy in a way that no one in the Kingdom or in the whole of the world had ever known. He had heard of the cries of the afflicted citizens of the Kingdom and felt sure that God wanted him to intervene. He had come with one purpose, to rescue those who had called out for mercy and restrained themselves in the face of the temptation to act like their fellow citizens and make good on their debt by doing yet more damage.

Now even though the day of judgement had come for them, sentencing had not been declared. And the Rescuer was able to negotiate, at great cost, their release from the punishment. He gathered them together and told them that their faith in the Creator of the World had marked their lives out and he had prepared a place for them across the sea from where he had come where they could go.

And so they went to this better place and its better life. And that remnant of the Kingdom lived until the end of their natural days and long after, enjoying life as it should be lived- with respect for themselves, for others and for all that was around them. Their life was one of harmony with their Rescuer and in sync with their Creator and more truly than ever before it can be said that they lived happily ever after.

As crude as my story is, it hopes to communicate the offer that was made to those who were born before Jesus. Paul talks about believers “falling asleep” instead of dying. Abraham and Enoch and Moses and everyone else who believed in God and left Him to put everything right, instead of living off their own incompetent ability, will be roused from their sleep on the last day and credited with righteousness by the Wealthy Rescuer from across the sea.

Christianity could never argue that everyone before Jesus went to Hell. Not least because of the magnificent story of the Transfiguration which features Moses and Elijah and neither of them are on fire. The Transfiguration is also the name of a superb song by new favourite songwriter, Sufjan Stevens. Thank Zoomtard for alerting you to his genius. 3 years after you discovered him first no doubt. He is a great, unique sounding acoustic songsmith who lectures on art in a New York university and knits scarves for Martha Stewart Living and who has song titles like, “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!” and most impressively, he writes songs about Christianity that I am not in the least bit ashamed of.

Your Correspondent, He smiles and its a rainbow

Does God Understand Letters Not Written In English?

Friday, September 16th, 2005

The Hierophant’s Proselytizer Questionnaire is one of those strange old things you find every now and again on the internet. It is a list of over a hundred questions that some arrogant atheist has posted so that any potential monotheists can save time by getting to know him and instead just fill in the form if they want to share the truth. Well I used to be an arrogant atheist but now am an arrogant Christian and pompous to boot so I think I might have a go at answering these questions over the coming decade. The thing is, I want to try and do it through narrative answers. Too often I express my faith as a concept or an intellectual structure that needs to be grasped when really it is a passionate, living relationship thing. So I’m going to try and tell stories as a creative challenge. Zoomtard was first conceived as a kind of theological sketchpad and so my Hierophants Response category entries will really just be bringing that to the fore. Feel free to ignore though.

The first problem posed is:
Explain why your god’s only son had to die so we can go to magic happy land when we croak.

Ernest Gordon was a British WWII veteran who was captured along with some buddies 2000 miles out to sea trying to escape the fallen Singapore. He converted to Christianity while held prisoner in the Japanese POW camp charged with building the famous bridge over the River Kwai. 16,000 soldiers died during that project and Gordon only survived because 2 believers, one Methodist and one Roman Catholic, nursed him back to health in a way that incarnated the love Jesus had for us. This event sparked a spiritual revolution within the camp that saw the prisoners forgive their brutal jailors and their love, compassion and co-operation saw many more live through the ordeal than should have. Interestingly, he ended his life as the Dean of Chapel at the college I’ll most likely go to study at in time, which is cool. He told his remarkable story in his memoir To End All Wars which was recently made into a movie starring Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Carlyle.

At the end of another hard day of work the prisoners were gathered in the centre of the camp while an inventory on equipment was done, just like any other day. The soldiers, tired, weak and thirsty were forced to stand in line while every shovel and pike was counted. On this day, the count was returned one short. A shovel had gone missing.

The Japanese were terrified that any of their POWs would escape, since the building of their bridge was of such strategic importance. Even one missing shovel demanded consequences. The commander walked up and down the rows of prisoners demanding that the guilty party stepped forward. As the tension increased an incentive for confession was provided; they were going to start killing men at random until the perpertrator revealed himself.

In the midst of this, one man cooly and calmly stepped forward. He admitted responsibility. He was beaten brutally and then shot dead. A recount of the inventory was demanded. It was discovered that there had never been a missing shovel. They had miscounted. And that man had stepped forward and sacrificed himself so that others would go free.

That man didn’t just save his brothers physically. In a real sense he must have saved them spiritually too. You can’t see that kind of sacrificial love poured out for us and not be utterly changed.

God’s son died to pay the price for the sins of the world. The Bible says the wages of sin is death and Jesus was able to pay that death debt. We couldn’t. We wouldn’t have survived. But since Jesus was fully God and fully man, he could take that burden upon his shoulders and come back again from where he went. Easter Sunday is the day we celebrate that return and our liberation from the tyranny of death. God is of course, not like the a Japanese POW camp commander. He is not brutal. In Ernest Gordon’s case the shovel wasn’t actually missing so the debt was imagined. In our case, our mistakes, both corporate and personal pile up and God is just. He can’t ignore it or regard it as irrelevant. The kind of God who could look casually over the evil of a Japanese POW camp in the 2nd World War or Darfur today is not a God we could trust nevermind worship. He must uphold what is right. But because of who he is he is driven to love us and have us back in relationship with him. And these two seemingly contradictory demands meet in the Cross, the vertical beam of justice intersects the horizontal beam of mercy and God can welcome us in to magic happy land when we croak (and give us a well that won’t run dry before then). God’s only son died because he was the only one who could make that sacrifice.

Your Correspondent, as serious as cancer when I say that rhythm is a dancer.