Thursday, March 15, 2007

Why the British stopped going to church.

‘as the nineteenth century wore to its close…it seemed as if there were no good arguments left for religion’ (AN Wilson)

Thus it is argued by Wilson that the collapse in British church attendance in the twentieth century (C20) was an historic inevitability. Such were the advances in mans’ understanding and control of the world that the Church was doomed to be become an increasingly superfluous element in national life. However, far from being a helpless victim witnessing its own demise it will be argued that the Church itself was the most significant contributor to its marginalisation in the lives of C20 Britons...

Read the rest of this longer theological article at: 'UK Church Decline in the C20'

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Jesus & Romantic Love

A slightly pointless piece on some contemporary Christian praise.

Is it just me or have others noticed a trend in contemporary praise songs to present Jesus as ‘Lover’? That is, love for Jesus and relationship with Him is increasingly expressed in almost romantic terms. Of course, I’m inevitably being selective but consider the following lyrics…

Hold me close, let your love surround me,
Bring me near, draw me to your side…

You are the love song we’ll sing forever…

Like a rose trampled on the ground,
You took the fall and thought of me,
Above all.

Lord you have my heart
And I will search for Yours…

Your love is better than wine,
Your name like sweetest perfume.
Oh, that You would kiss me
With the kisses of your mouth
And draw me, draw me after You.
And like a moth to the flame
I fly into the fire of Your intimate love
As You draw me, draw me after You.

The simplest of all love songs
I want to bring you
So let my words be few
Jesus, I am so in love with you

Here in your arms,
I am lost in your love.
Holding me close,
Never let me fall.

My lover’s breath is sweetest wine,
I am His prize and He is mine;

Now this ‘two lovers together’ imagery is not unbiblical. The Song of Songs is a book full of romantic and passionate expressions of love between two lovers – and a book which has been understood to express (among other things) a picture of the love between Jesus and the Church. So expressions of romantic love (as pictures) are not inappropriate in this context. However, like everything in the Christian life they need to be held in balance with all the other Biblical data. Because there is just the danger that a pre-occupation or over-emphasis with this expression of how we relate to Jesus could have negative effects. Such as …

1. Further feminizing Christianity. Now I say this acknowledging that I probably stand on the ‘pathologically independent - left brained – repressed – West of Scotland Man’ end of the emotional spectrum. But I suspect that the above lyrics will resonate and sit much more comfortably with women than men (in the same way I suppose lyrics about Jesus as Conqueror and Warrior may connect more with men than woman). So again let me stress this is not an argument to ‘ban’ such lyrics but to raise the concern that at a time when men are often struggling in our churches we may risk further alienating them by too much emphasis on presenting relationship with Jesus as something gushy and romantic.

2. Suggesting that such romantic feelings represent true spirituality and love for Jesus. That is, if I, as that ‘football watching – heterosexual - West of Scotland’ male, find that such romantic lyrics about another man leave me slightly cold is that because of a spiritual deficiency on my part ? I might think so – surely if I really truly loved Jesus then these sentiments would naturally pour out of me. But I wonder if I’m not being intimidated by a definition of love which is actually too narrow.

For example, take my father (passed away but supposing he was still alive now) – you might say to me, ‘Do you love your father?’ My response would be, ‘Yes, of course I do’. ‘Ah, but do you really love him in deep rooted way?’, you probe. Again my response would be, ‘Yes, I have a profound love, gratitude and admiration for my father’. BUT that love does not lead me to imagine or desire that he would draw me close or put his arms around me in some romantic sense – or indeed kiss me on the lips. Likewise, my love for Jesus – deep, profound, grateful – is man to Man, brother to Brother, friend to Friend, servant to Master, saved to Saviour. That is, my love for Jesus is not undermined because it is expressed differently from my love for my wife.

I state above that this is ‘a slightly pointless piece’. Because my point is not to rubbish the above songs (I actually like most of them individually), nor is it to deny they draw on Biblical imagery, nor was it because of any problem I have with the praise in my own church (quite the opposite). It is just to emphasis the need for Biblical balance in every part of our Christian life and to reassure (myself!) that love for God is not defined by romantic feelings but by a whole orientation of heart and life.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Disciples or Christians?

Have recently been very challenged reading THE GREAT OMISSION by Dallas Willard - here are some selected quotes....

The word ‘Disciple’ occurs 269 times in the New Testament. ‘Christian is found three times… (p3)

For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress towards discipleship. (p4)

A mind cluttered by excuses may make a mystery of discipleship, or may see it as something to be dreaded. But there is no mystery about desiring and intending to be like someone – that is a very common thing. (p8)

Being unwilling to follow him [Jesus], our claim of trusting him must ring hollow. We could never credibly claim to trust a doctor, teacher or auto mechanic whose directions we would not follow. (p11)

…there is absolutely nothing in what Jesus himself or his early followers taught that suggests you can decide just to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’ expense and have nothing more to do with him. (p13)

Grace is opposed to earning not to effort. (p34)

The missing note in evangelical life today is not in the first instance spirituality but rather obedience. (p44)

And one of the greatest temptations that we face as evangelicals – for the moment I include what is sometimes called the charismatic stream of the church – is the idea that the personality and heart are going to be transformed by some sort of lightning strike of the Spirit. (p56)

Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. (p61)

Most statistical measures and anecdotal portraits of evangelical Christians, not to mention Christians in general, show a remarkable similarity in the life texture of Christians and non-Christians. (p69)

Spiritual formation in Christ is orientated toward explicit obedience to Christ. (p72)

...formation by the Spirit of God in Christ. This comes initially and mainly through immersion in and constant application of (John 8:31; 15:7) the Word of Christ, his gospel, and his commands that are inseparable from his person and his presence: ‘The words that I have spoken to you’, he said, ‘are spirit and life’ (John 6:63). (p75)

We must stop using the fact that we cannot earn grace as an excuse for not energetically seeking to receive grace. (p76)

It is a simple fact that nowadays the task of becoming Christ-like is rarely taken as a serious objective to be thoughtfully planned for… Indeed mortifying or putting to death doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing today’s Christians would be caught doing. (p84)

Spiritual formation… is the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite form or character…
The most despicable as well as the most admirable of persons have had a spiritual formation. Their spirits or hearts have been formed. (p104)

Biblical religion is above all a religion of the heart and of the keeping of the heart. (p108)

In the battle over views of Christ the Saviour, Christ the teacher was lost on all sides. Discipleship as an essential issue disappeared from the churches… (p109)

One could now be Christian forever without actually changing in heart and life. Right profession, positive or negative, was all that was required. This has now produced a whole generation of professing Christians who, as a whole, do not differ in character, but only in ritual, from their non-professing neighbours… (p110)

If, now, one adds that forgiveness is strictly a matter of what one (professes to) believe, we have a recipe for the consumerist Christianity-without-discipleship that we have inherited at the present moment. (p111)

Conversely the gifts of the Spirit can only be rightly used if the one who receives and serves others by means of them is well formed in inner Christ-likeness….
Gifts by themselves do little to form the spirit and the character of those who exercise them. (p116)

The people to whom we minister and speak will not recall 99 percent of what we say to them. But they will never forget the kind of persons we are. (p124)

Someone has insightfully said, ‘The greatest threat to devotion to Christ is service for Christ’.
What a paradox! This is so easily a challenge for many ministers. Allowing service for Christ to steal our devotion to him is a radical failure in personal soul care. (p130)

Power without Christ’s character gives us our modern-day Sampsons and Sauls. (p131)

Many serious and thoughtful Christians are looking for ways into an intelligent and powerful Christ-likeness that can inform their entire existence and not just produce special religious moments. (p138)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Philip Yancey - Book Review

Philip Yancey
‘PRAYER – Does it make any difference?’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 2006)

What did I expect coming to this book?

1. That it would be well written. Yancey isn’t one of the most popular Christian authors writing today for nothing – the two previous books of his I’d read (‘The Bible Jesus Read’ & ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace’) were skilfully written, engaging and easy to read. He has the particular ability to articulate the frustrations and angst felt by many Christians in the West today – he has the knack of expressing the nagging doubts Christians often have but can’t quite put their finger on.

2. A bit ‘touchy feely’. I don’t mean that in particularly negative sense. Yancey is a very sympathetic writer who uses lots of real live stories. His style resonates with our more ‘feelings’ culture which is why he connects with so many people. He tends not to be strongly didactic (i.e. he won’t say ‘this is just the way it is so like it or lump it’) but is very persuasive. One final point is that inevitably his books need a bit of translation from ‘American’ into ‘English’. Otherwise some of his stories can come across as a bit ‘cheesy’. Likewise some of the issues he wrestles with are obviously more relevant to an American cultural setting.

3. A bit ‘wet’ theologically. Better clarify this quickly – it’s not that Yancey is a raving liberal but sometimes you feel that he ends up with a kind of stalemate between pastoral problems and the Bible. That is, he can get so immersed in the difficulties of a pastoral situation that the clear cut truths of the Bible never seem to be quite enough. He also has the tendency (which seems to be increasingly common among certain Christian writers) to dip into and quote favourably from a broad range of ‘spirituality’ – from Rabbis to Catholic priests. While the quotes themselves are usually not contentious I worry that this sends out confusing messages to readers and may give credence to some of these source’s less Biblical views.

Were my expectations realized?
1. Well written – yes. This is a well researched and thorough book at over 300 pages. It’s loaded with lots of quotes and provides a fairly comprehensive overview of the main issues surrounding prayer.
2. Touch feely – a bit but not overly so. There are ‘drop in’ boxes interspersed throughout the book with extracts of letters, poems & testimonies – but if these don’t excite you then they are easily skipped over.
3. A bit ‘wet’ – on occasions but generally very good. Yancey faces most of the issues head on and by and large doesn’t avoid the unglamorous answers. It certainly isn’t a light-weight pop-paperback or a 'quick-fix to your prayer problems' type book.

How does he tackle the subject?
In 5 parts.

Part 1: Here he highlights well some of the key questions we have about prayer. E.g. the sense of discrepancy between our personal experience of prayer and the stories we often hear about great ‘prayer warriors’ – the type of people who got up at 4am and prayed for 2 hours before breakfast etc. Whereas often if we muster 10 mins we feel we’ve done well. His main reflection in this section is how Prayer allows us to get a right perspective on our lives.

Part 2: Unravelling the Mysteries
Does God care about the small details of our lives (e.g. when we pray about our lost car keys) and if so how do we reconcile that with Tsunamis taking place? The sense that our prayers so often are concerned with either ‘Trouble or Trivia’. Questions such as: Does it make a difference how many people pray for me – if I only have one praying friend am I less likely to be cured than someone with a 100? He raises the issue of our ‘polite prayers’ in contrast to the raw honesty of the psalmists for example. Big theme in this part is of God giving away power - that prayer is not asking God to absolve us of our responsibilities

Looks in this section at the issue of ‘Does Prayer Change God’. That is, can a changeless God be influenced by prayer. This was the main point where I wondered if a bit of ‘wetness’ might appear and we might find ourselves shaking hands with Open Theism. Yancey ends up with a bit of a fudge here concluding that while the ultimate outcomes of the universe are set by God we have some leeway to improvise the details of how those are arrived at. This of course leaves the problem that such is the interconnectability of all things how could God control one thing but not the others.

Part 3 – Language of Prayer
Here the focus is on hindrances to prayer and styles of prayer. This is accompanied by a plea for honesty and authenticity – getting away from false piety. Prayer is seen as building a relationship rather than following set agendas. He includes tips for overcoming distractions but crucially he sees prayer as involving discipline & practice – this is not as noted above a quick fix guide to Prayer.

Part 4 – Prayer Dilemmas
Deals with the problem of unanswered prayer and looks at possible causes, e.g. sin, neglect of the needy and other responsibilities. Talks about the blessings of unanswered prayer – that if we were always to get what we prayed for it would simply be too much responsibility.He notes however that for all our explanations there is fundamentally a mystery about this.

Part 5 – The Practise of Prayer
Highlights the need to make time for prayer. Covers some of the effects of prayer – e.g. lifts burdens / lightens mood / liberates from anxiety. Also noted is the benefit of perseverance that leads to patience. Crucially that it is prayer that sustains our relationship with God.

I was overall impressed by the thoughtfulness of the book and was grateful for the confirmation that Prayer is about seeking, learning and doing – rather than something to be addressed by easy techniques.

It is a book loaded with memorable quotes so my highlighter pen nearly ran out - which for me is one of the marks of a good book.

Ultimately it challenged me to stop and pray at various points as I read it. It’s a book that will involve a bit of commitment to get through it but will pay dividends for any thoughtful Christian with a desire to further deepen and understand prayer in their life.