Greenbelt 11 reflections…

Home we are, shower fresh and full of stories. I had such a great time that I am reluctant to let it go and so refused to shave this morning for work. I am going beardy for a while as a wee celebration of all things festival.

Our worship thing went well- and as we were first up, we suddenly had time to relax- a rare luxury! This meant actually going to talks and sitting down listening to music. Fancy that.

Highlights-

Perhaps most of all, time with family and friends- I laughed so much at times that I ached. Several of the kids of my long time friends were there too- Sam, Caleb, Sarah, Nathan, Gail and Andrew- it was such a privilege to spend time with such great young people (not to mention my own kids!)  It was great also to meet up again with a growing network of creative folk from around the UK, many of whom are involved with ‘Tautoko’.

The meet up in Gloucester Cathedral was great- we managed to get down in time this year.

As for music- The Unthanks and Martin Joseph on mainstage were both really great. Billy Bragg was at his polemical best.

Gungor redefined worship music with intelligence and musicality.

In terms of speakers, I began slightly skeptical of the celebrity headliners- but Brian McLaren inspired me, and made me cry. He also sat down and spent half an hour speaking to one of our young people, Sarah. If you were to download just one talk from GB this year- go for this one. I also enjoyed hearing a couple of my longer term heros speak- Christian social worker/activist Bob Holman and Psychologist Oliver James.

This year I even saw some comedy- not usually something I bother with- Jo Enright was hilarious, and Mark Thomas (swearing like a Gatling gun) managed a two hour romp about his walk around the Palestinian wall.

Michaela has always rather tolerated Greenbelt through gritted teeth- it has always been much more my thing. She goes because it is important to me, and has other practical benefits. However, this year seems to have been a real change for her- she too had a great time. Michaela is happy when she has made connections, and this year she had some quality time with lots of friends too- including Yvonne Lyon (copies of whose new album sold out almost immediately on the strength of another lovely tender performance, despite a bad cold.)

Finally, one other performer deserves a mention- Sam Hill. Sam used to go to the same church as us near Preston, and despite all the music I have seen performed, I reckon that one of his gigs was the best I ever saw live. He is a hugely talented songwriter and performer. Our mate Andy played backing guitar for him at his last GB performance 9 years ago, since when he has hardly performed. Now he is back!

There was probably so much more that I have not immediately remembered, but that is festivals for you…

I took very few photos this year- I was relying on Andy ‘5 cameras’ Prosser. Here are a few however, mostly from Michaela’s camera.

Ways of reading the Bible…

Some time ago, I posted some questions about how we understand and encounter the Bible. Someone asked me to post some answers to my questions, so I had a go at this here.

It has been quite a journey for me over the last few years- trying to come to terms with a faith that I no longer had faith in, and then discovering along the way that I was not alone, and that there were different ways to approach an understanding of God, and in particular, different ways to approach our primary source material on the life of faith- the Bible.

This process has been painful, and at times I have wondered whether my faith will survive. But the outcome has been one of renewal. The Spirit of God was once again stirring the waters…

The process of change has involved a period deconstruction- a doubting and shaking loose things that had previously seemed unassailable and absolute. This is the painful bit- when everything seems to go into freefall.

The ‘emerging church conversation’- carried out largely through blogs and websites- seemed to me to be comfortable with unanswered questions. In fact after every truth and every tenet, we added a question mark.

But then there comes a time when something new starts to emerge and it is time to construct again. It feels to me that this is where we currently stand. We do not need bombastic pronunciations or new religious structures- rather it feels that our heads have come out of the clouds, and we can see further.

Along the way, I have found Brian McLaren’s writing to be a life giving. I know others have a different experience- for some his style can drag, for others his aim is too low brow, as the are more used to the theological arguments than I am- but he has taken me places that I had not dared to go alone.

(Photo taken in a semi-ruined abandoned croft house on the island of Bernera, off Lewis, Western isles. A family bible left open above an empty fire place…)

In reading his new book (slowly and in small chunks) I came across a study guide he had written, which focussed on different ways of reading scripture, and found it so helpful that I wanted to give it a plug.

You can download it here.

But here are a few highlights-

We have been shaken loose from our previous ways of reading the Bible- the ‘modern’ way- which seemed to be all about using the text as a blueprint so that we can categorise and systematise faith. McLaren compares this to the ways that the Americans use their constitution- where each word is given equal legal weight, and is enforceable in a way divorced from emotion or wider ethical considerations.

But having shaken loose- what other ways of reading the Bible are left?

McLaren lists 14 possible ways of encountering Scripture-

  1. Narrative reading- where we get into the story, the context and history from which the words emerge from.

  2. Converstional reading- where we engage with the different conversations across the generations embraced in the Bible- for example Jesus with the religious powers of his day, the Priests and the Prophets, the Jews and the Gentiles.

  3. Missional reading- in which we ask we ask, in each passage of Scripture, how is God extending God’s overarching mission of blessing all nations through a called and commissioned community of people.

  4. Political/Economic reading- the skew of God’s attention towards those who suffer injustice at the hands of earthly empire involving money, sexuality, power, violence, and law.

  5. Rhetorical reading- in which we look for what the text it trying to do, rather than just what it is saying.

  6. Literal reading- “…when readers of the Bible develop sensitivity to the ways poets, protesters, storytellers, activists, priests and mystics use language, the Bible is liberated from its constitutional captivity to be the wild, inspired, and impassioned collection of literary artifacts that it is.” McLaren suggests that people who say they are taking the words literally often are doing the very opposite- approaching the test through a very narrow hermeneutic.

  7. Close reading- better readings of scripture will fit in with the small details of the narrative- the bits that we easily miss that the writer chose to include in the text, which is rich in culture and traditions that we easily miss.

  8. Communal reading- the Bible is complex and hard, and the only way we can really engage with it is through the broader community- firstly in terms of “the community of the dead” where we listen respectfully to how previous generations have understood scripture, whilst understanding their skew towards a western, wealthy, white, male perspective. Secondly we look for the voices of minorities- those who have been forced to the margins. It is not ONE perspective, but rather both/and.

  9. Recursive reading- understanding of the Bible, and emphases within it change, ebb and flow across generations, and within lifetimes. This might be one of the ways that the Holy Spirit brings renewal.

  10. Ethical reading- text applied without ethics have allowed our faith to justify slavery, genocide, anti-Semitism, oppression of women and gay people- therefore we have to accept that interpretation is a MORAL ACT, so we should test an interpretation by reason and scholarship,using our rational intelligence, and a sense of justice and ethics. How might I treat people if I follow this interpretation? Whom might I harm? What unintended socialconsequences can we predict if this interpretation is widely embraced? Could people be vilified, harmed, or even killed because of this interpretation? McLaren points to those in Scripture who have wrestled with God in the face of his seeming injustice… Job, Moses, Abraham.

  11. Personal reading- “the reader is himself or herself in the predicament the text addresses. So faithful readings are habitually humble, expectant, open, and hungry and thirsty to encounter the Living God. Even the “professional” reader and teacher of the Bible must remain forever an “amateur” too …”

  12. Mystical reading- we must “…develop the habit of mystical openness, receptivity not only to understanding from the text but to enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, not only to interpretation but to revelation, not only to intelligent engagement with the text but also to personal abduction by its message.”

.

Finally McLaren points to one further reading, and makes clear that he believes this one to be the most controversial of his readings.

It is the one that might make people worry about the undermining of Biblical authority

Christo-focal reading

McLaren proposes that we no longer approach the Bible as a collection of words of equal weight- but rather that we approach all other words through those of Jesus.

He suggests we need to leave behind three old ways of reading the Bible that have perhaps dominated-

  1. Flat reading- where we see all Jesus’ life and words pressed down and flattened to the same level as those of Abraham, Moses,David, Isaiah, Paul, and Jude. This results in the raising of the Bible above Christ- which is a kind of idolatry. For example, it might be biblical to commit genocide by quoting Deuteronomy 7, but one could never claim it is Christ-like.
  2. Descending reading- where we start with an ideal state in Genesis, and then it all goes wrong, leading to a time when God is going to destroy everything, and Jesus is but a lifeboat for a few. Or the other decent comes from the fall too- “the problem is sin and the solution is law-keeping, with sacrifice-making as a back-up plan. The rest of the story descends from this high point, so that the life and ministry of Jesus have value to the degree that they solve the problem.”
  3. Ascending reading- “Moses’ teaching was good, David’s perspectives were better, Isaiah rosehigher still, John the Baptist ascended even higher, and Jesus was really wonderful andunique, but the crowning revelation comes with Paul and his writings.”

What McLaren proposes is something more radical- “When Jesus is the focal point of the story, he is the climax, the hero, the summit, the surprise, the shock, the revelation that gives all that precedes and all that follows profound and ultimate meaning. If we follow this approach, we’ll speak less about the Bible as the supreme Word of God and more about Jesus as the supreme Word of God. We’ll let the person of Jesus –including and integrating his birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, abiding presence, and ongoing mission through the Holy Spirit – become the light in which all interpretations are evaluated, the key in which all interpretations are played, the leader behind which all interpretations arrange themselves as followers, and the meaning in which all interpretations have meaning.”

If we start to apply these ways of reading the Bible, how might our understandings change?

This my friends, is our work-in-progress…

The future of Church in the west?

Following on from my somewhat negative previous post, I have just been reading a couple of reports from this conference.

The discussion focused on the future of Christianity in the USA- and this is clearly potentially very misleading. The global growth of Christianity is a very different discussion. However, the influence of American Evangelical Christianity on the UK religious scene is huge- all the TV channels, the publishing juggernaut and the big name preachers. We watch changes there with interest, knowing that the impact of these changes will be felt this side of the Atlantic.

Brian McLaren believes that over the next period, the Conservative Evangelical denominations (protestant and Catholic) in the USA will “constrict, tighten up, batten the hatches, raise the boundary fences, demand greater doctrinal, political, and behavioral conformity, and monitor boundaries with increased vigilance.”

He believes that this will drive out many, whilst increasing the anxiety and ‘bunker mentality’ of those left inside the denominations. At the same time, he sees a new coalition forming-

That new coalition, I believe, will emerge from four main sources:

  1. Progressive Evangelicals who are squeezed out of constricting evangelical settings.
  2. Progressive Roman Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox) who are squeezed out of their constricting settings.
  3. Missional mainliners who are rediscovering their Christian faith more as a missional spiritual movement, and less as a revered and favored religious institution.
  4. Social justice-oriented Pentecostals and Evangelicals — from the minority churches in the West and from the majority churches of the global South, especially the second- and third-generation leaders who have the benefits of higher education.

Scott McKnight points out that Conservative Evangelical Mega churches in the USA (and I believe,the UK equivalents) are in fact growing. He does not believe that ‘Evangelicalism’ is made up of one stream- believing that some incarnations will be around for a long long time to come.

However, what he sees as now having ended is the old ‘Evangelical coalition’-

The evangelicalism that formed in the 1940s and 1950s, more accurately called “neo-evangelicalism,” was a reaction to strident forms of fundamentalism, a call to serious intellectual engagement so that evangelicalism could gain both theological and academic credibility again, and a formation of a big tent coalition to work together for evangelism and theological development. By and large, this big tent coalition combined the Calvinist and Wesleyan segments of evangelicalism, found places for Christian colleges, parachurch ministries, missionary societies, and a plethora of magazines and radio stations, and gave a privileged place to evangelical leaders like Billy Graham and Carl Henry.

But perhaps the most powerful piece was by Philip Clayton who had this to say-

A major national survey recently published in USA Today shows that 72 percent of “Millennials” — Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 — now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Even among those who self-identify as practicing Christians, all of the traditional forms of Christian practice have sharply declined from previous years: church attendance, Bible study, prayer. Doubts are higher, and affiliation with the institutional church is sharply lower. All of us who are still connected with local congregations already know this pattern, up close and personal. Still, it’s sobering to see the trends writ large; after all, we’re talking about almost three-quarters of younger Americans!

The decline of traditional churches and denominations will presumably continue, so that by 2020 the effects will be as devastating in the U.S. as they already are in Europe. (On a typical Sunday, for example, 0.5 percent of Germans attend church.) Numerically, two-thirds or more of mainline churches will close their doors or struggle on without a full-time pastor. Denominations will merge in order to be able to maintain even minimal national staffs and programs. A larger and larger proportion of those who still go to church will attend large “mega” churches, those with 2,000 or more attendees on an average Sunday.

Clayton issued what he called a ‘call to church’-

We churchpeople were the center of American society since this nation was founded. We enjoyed power and prestige; we were the center of the action; we counted presidents, educators, and industry leaders among our numbers. But those days, it appears, are over. We still have a crucial role to play in the world. But it’s no longer a world that revolves around us.

This new role actually makes it easier for us to model ourselves and our communities on the Head of the church, who “has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him” (Isaiah 53:2). As Dwight Friesen puts it in Thy Kingdom Connected, the church can no longer be a “bounded set,” defining itself by the people and ideas it’s opposed to. We now have to be a “centered set,” pointing toward — and living like — the One whose life and ministry we model ourselves on. If we can’t communicate our Center with power and conviction, no one’s going to listen. Oh, and by the way: we have to find ways to do this that don’t sound or look anything like the church has looked over the last 50 years or so.

Finally, Clayton talks about an age of experimentation in church-

What does “church” look like when you take it out of the box, replant it, and let it grow organically? It’s going to stretch and challenge you; it’s going to take openness to forms and practices you’ve never seen before:

  • churches that meet in pubs, office buildings, school classrooms, or homes . . . or virtual churches, like those at SecondLife.com;
  • churches that have no leader, or have leaders who don’t look like any pastor you’ve ever known (OMG, what if they have piercings?);
  • pastors who are hosts to discussions, who can listen long and deep to doubts and questions before presenting the answers on which they center their lives;
  • churches that don’t have buildings, denominations, pastors, or sermons; that don’t meet on Sundays; that consist mainly of people who don’t call themselves “Christians”;
  • churches whose participants are drawn from many different religious groups; churches full of “seekers”; churches that consist mostly of silence (like the Quakers) or of heated discussions between participants.

Not only conservatives will wonder and worry where one should draw the line. And that’s the point: we’ve now entered an age where we no longer know how to draw lines, because the old criteria just don’t work anymore — except to exclude the vast majority of the people whom we hope to interest.

All this sounds very familiar from this side of the Atlantic. We are much further down the line that it all.

We have our Evangelical enclaves- who tend to be exclusive, embattled, and increasingly fuelled by an agenda that looks either to African or American Mega churches. Despite their vigour and apparent success, they are largely irrelevant to the larger cultural situation- and their engagement with mission is simply to attempt to create more ‘converts’ to their own kind of belief system. These churches feel to me to be about marketing and mass consumerism.

And then we have the huge majority of spiritually interested consumers, who may have been inoculated against Christianity, but not against Jesus.

And then we have a growing number of experimental pioneers, whose methods are increasingly being adopted by the mainstream traditional churches- through things like Fresh Expressions-

…and all the mixed madness to be experienced at Greenbelt Festival.

We live, my friends, in interesting times, where change is normal, and the future uncertain. But I have no doubt that church will continue, and that the mission of Jesus will be carried forward into new generations. Some will resist any change fiercely, others will embrace it.

But change will happen- it has already happened…

A new kind of Christianity…

I finally got round to ordering a copy of this book today.

I have found McLaren’s remarkable writing transformative to my own understanding of faith for a number of years. I very much appreciate his willingness to be radical and controversial in his theological thinking, whilst remaining humble and graceful in his response to the tirade of abuse he has been subjected to.

However, I have found myself avoiding this book. Perhaps because I wonder if he is really saying anything new- all the reviews seem to suggest that it is a gathering together of ideas he has been developing in his previous writing. As I read the ’10 questions that are transforming the faith’ I suspect I know what his answers will be, more or less.

To be honest, the hype around the release of the book repelled me a little too…

But then again- perhaps this shows just how much the theological landscape has shifted over the past 10 years. Questions that would once have been as welcome as a trump in a spacesuit are now increasingly part of a the popularist mainstream.

Does this mean that we are seeing the development of a new kind of Christianity?

I am not sure. I hope so though.

In the meantime- I am going to read the book…

By the way- you can watch 10 videos and download study material for group discussions around the themes raised in the book from The Ooze.

Here is a taster- on that difficult questions of relationships with other faiths…

more about “A New Kind Of Christian- Brian McLare…“, posted with vodpod

Ortho-affinity…

Brian McLaren has been posting excerpts from his forthcoming book on his blog. Some of them have been really juicy morsels. You never know whether this will be like a preview of a film, with all the good bits already out there before you see the real thing, but in McLaren’s case, I doubt it. I am looking forward to reading this one, as I think it will be an important book.

Today the issue he touches on is community- and he even coins a new phrase to suggest the call of Jesus on how we collectivise our lives and hopes- how we learn together. I kind of like it. We so need to find new ways to understand how we do community…

This inward transformation, of course, requires community, an expanding network of connectivity that perhaps could be captured by a term like “ortho-affinity” – a good and right way of relating to one another in communities of faith and in relation to those outside our faith communities (including those who consider themselves our enemies). (29)

From A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (available February 9, 2010)