Search This Blog

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Why I read more old books than new books

Keeping in touch with the times
It is a good thing for a Christian, and especially a Christian leader to know what's going on around him in today's world. To that end he must read stuff written today, whether in print, blogged or tweeted. Without this constant refreshing, his ministry is unlikely to connect.

But should he be a spiritual  fashion junky? Should he only read the latest books and blogs and twitter feeds? Should he make these his staple diet? Should he forget  Augustine, Luther, Spurgeon and Tozer and concentrate only on Bell, Chan and Driscoll?

Reasons to be sceptical about the new stuff
He'd be a fool to spend all his time 'on the latest' for the following reasons:

(1)  Much of the new stuff may be simply the product of the commercial machine. In other words, a book may be pushed more by the publishing machine behind it than on the merit of the book. The book may be 'in my face' for no other reason other than that the publisher is a e-savvy.

(2) The popularity of the author may be due to their clever use of e-technology. Take Twitter for example. In today's world, the celebs have to twitter on constantly because otherwise they could lose their fan base. It doesn't matter what trivia they tweet, they just have to tweet. In the same way - and here's the point, and as far as I can see for the same reasons - some Christian leaders have taken up tweeting. The content of their tweets is unbelievably humdrum (for none of us has an original thought 5 times an hour) but it's got to be done otherwise the fan base will dwindle. My point? The 'fame' of some of the 'leaders' of today may be e-fame, rather than merited fame.

(3) The popularity of older authors is tested by time. What none of the new authors have - or can have (it's not their fault) - is the sieve of time. Time itself sieves out here-today-gone-tomorrow books. Books which were hyped as the most important book of the year/decade/century just years ago are to be found  at the bottom of the Amazon ranking today. Why? Simply because time allow novelty to mature into reality.

(4) The popularity of authors is tested by the church. Even more important than the sieve of time is the test of the church. In the same way that hymns and songs are accepted or discarded over decades by the church, so the works of authors are evaluated theologically by the church over time. Only the good ones survive this test.

So if you gave me a choice of reading on my Desert Island, between Bell, Chan and Driscoll  or  Spurgeon, Tozer and Lloyd Jones, and I was pressed for time - and let's face it life is short - I'd go for the latter every time.

Perhaps this should be the rule: for every new book you read,  read ten old ones!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Theology flows out of life - an important correction to "Life must flow out of Theology"

Which way around?
Which is true? What we believe is shaped by our lives, or our lives are shaped by what we believe? The letters of the apostle Paul begin with theology and move to practice, and for this reason we tend to think that you begin with theology, doctrine, belief and this then shapes your life.

And certainly, you would want, with say a new believer, to get their doctrine straight praying that new life would flow out of that, in response to truth and in obedience to the commands of Christ.

The missing step - Paul's theology was written in blood
The missing step in this train of reasoning is this: the person who wrote that theology in the first place, lived a life of suffering, trouble, persecution and heartache (always shot through with holy joy, of course). Paul walked in the steps of his Master, the man of sorrows acquainted with grief. Paul did not write theology from an armchair (or any other kind of "chair"), but from gutsy front-line back-breaking, heart-aching ministry. His theology was written in the trenches. And so was every other NT author. In other words the theology we have to pass onto the saints was itself forged in extremis. 

An illustration (not theoretical)
Here's an example. Take a group of Christians who live for pleasure (I know this is an oxymoron, but Paul says somewhere that many live as enemies of the cross). They spend their free time, as the world does, caught up in hobbies, holidays, families, pleasure. These "saints" (on the last Day, they may be called goats rather than saints, if I understand Matthew 25 correctly) get together for a home group and decide to study the Bible together.

Let's watch: how will their (easy) lives affect their theology?

(1) The will avoid all talk of the cross. Oh I don't mean the cross of Christ, they are likely to revel in what JESUS SUFFERED FOR THEM (and they will know that talk of the cross is an essential to orthodoxy). No, I mean, the calling of the Christian to take up their crosses, to suffer for his sake. A veil will cover their eyes as they read such verses.

(2) They will resist all teaching that challenges them to serve the world in sacrificial love. Called to love our neighbours? They'll find clever reasons why that command no longer applies (if they didn't they might have to give up a hobby, or a weekend with the family, horror of horrors!)

(3) They will resist the idea that the mission of the church is to reach the lost. Jesus was only speaking to his disciples in Matthew 28 (No, seriously, I have met such people!). I mean, if Jesus meant us - them - to reach the lost, we'd have to give up an evening's pleasure: Joking aren't you?

(4) They will judge the churches. Most seriously of all, they will judge their brothers and sisters in other churches whose hands and feet bear wounds, who work hard, who serve Jesus.

Our theology, you see, does follow life.

Don't pay attention to armchair theologians. And now you know why the names of Luther, Calvin and Spurgeon will live on (they wrote their doctrine in the sweat of ministry) while so many of the Big Names and Big Authors of today will be forgotten ere before they die.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Jesus didn't come back......

How to engineer fame - and a great fall - in one failed swoop
How can a man engineer a great following? The answer is very simple - predict a date for Jesus' return. In the months leading up to the date you will become as famous as William and Kate (well, almost).

But then, when Jesus doesn't come (and he is very unlikely to show up on your date) your fall will be equally dramatic. You will (rightly) be called a false prophet and deceiver. As one man put it, if the Father hasn't even told the Son when the day is, why should he tell you? No man knows the hour (Matthew 24:36).

Harold Camping - the prediction
Misled (a kind description) people all around the world were waiting on Saturday 21st May for the return of Jesus, predicted by Harold Camping. Cynical companies were set up to take pets off the gullible for a fee (non-returnable, of course). But the day came and the day went, and Jesus Christ did not return.

Harold Camping - the fallout
Two muddy streams flow out of this failed prediction. First, outside the church, the world laughs and mocks. Atheists in America were preparing to celebrate the non-return of Jesus, and according to one report, an 18 year old boy died in Michigan when partying with his four friends. Harold Camping is surely partly responsible for this death.....and completely responsible for the derision poured on Christ because of this latest, failed prediction.

But then unbelievers will latch onto any reason to hold onto unbelief......?

Perhaps we should be more concerned about the 1000s of Christians around the world deceived by Camping and having to face the aftermath of this failed prophecy. My guess is that some will walk out on Christ, others will become mistrusting of Bible preachers, others will (and this is good) have lost their faith in Camping, while the wider Christian church may end up neglecting prophecy more than it already does because they think it is tainted by wackos.

As I write the blog, Camping has not yet repented, and is still hiding at home, apparently 'flabbergasted' (what, that Jesus didn't fall in line with his predictions?). Someone tweeted "Don't be discouraged Mr Camping, it's not the end of the world!"

So far Camping is unwilling to face the music (and it won't be archangels).

Friday, 20 May 2011

Why plant churches?

The options before a growing church
The options open to a growing church are (a) grow bigger, (b) divide in two. Option (a) is nine out of ten times the route taken. There are some advantages of scale, no doubt, but the disadvantages, as I see it far far outweigh the advantages. I am speaking from a English context:

The disadvantages of a big church
An over-dependence on the preacher. Normally larger churches have good preachers (one reason they grow). But before long, the church becomes dependent on one man - not a good idea, and a terrible one when it comes to succession.

Spiritual pride. We're the biggest on our block (read - denomination/ affiliation / fraternal / what not). Pride - especially among the orthodox is a recipe for divine judgement (read any OT prophet).

Passengers not particpants. As the church grows, the working or serving core remains static. New people think like this "No-one needs my gifts" or worse "Great I can hide".

The advantages of splitting
No dependence on big wigs (my own view of big wigs is that they should probably be functioning more like apostles across churches rather than as pastors within a single church).

Humility - we're only small fry.

All members have to use their gifts - I mean they just have to! You simply can't sit on the sidelines, because you are needed, like desperately!

Connected to the last, new gifts emerge. Gifts which would have remained in the shadows of a large congregation. 

Apart from in Acts, we know next to nothing about the sizes of churches in the NT. No church is commended for being large, none condemned for being small. All we hear is exhortations to godly living and eager waiting for the final day.

Monday, 16 May 2011

All True Christ-ian Theology must be written in Blood

A Sneaking, but Vague Suspicion
You know something is wrong with you, but you don't know what. You feel pain inside, but don't know quite where. You read an author and find yourself uneasy, but you don't know why. Then one day, something gives the game away....

The trouble with western scholars
So it has been with my reading of so many western biblical scholars such as NT Wright. At one moment you are convinced that they are true evangelicals because they may believe in a literal historical resurrection (a basic requirement of biblical orthodoxy) but on another occasion your spirit is disturbed within you. You wonder what is wrong.

One problem is their marriage to the academy instead of the church. Across this intimate relationship pass ideas and priorities largely undetected. For one, academy scholars must provide novel research to justify their existence in the academic world (novelty is what matters, by definition, in academia). Nothing wrong with new frontiers, but faithfulness to the doctrine once delivered is a little more important than novelty to the church.

Secondly, those who enjoy this cosy relationship with the academy often fail to critique the spirit of the age which permeates the academy. It's the medium they have swum in from undergraduate days and like a fish who can't describe water - because he can't see it - so academics can't even see the zeitgeist they inhabit. This latter point is not insignificant, for scholars often end up judging the Scriptures by the passing criteria of their age ("oh this is not very accurate by the canons of modern historiography") but never consider allowing the zeitgeist of Scripture critique the world's passing standards ("who cares two hoots about the sequence of events - that is a concern of passing so-called scientific story telling, not of meaningful narrative").

A new problem
Recently, I stumbled upon an additional problem of western scholars. Back to NT Wright. I have learnt alot from him, respected his scholarship and enjoyed his easy style of writing, but almost ever time I read him, I came away uneasy. There was always something missing that should have been there and something present that shouldn't have been. This unease went on for ages, and was accentuated by the Steve Chalke Problem (Wright stands behind "That Book") until I read his preface to Surprised by Hope. Then I realised what was Wrong with Wright - and not only with Wright....

The context of theology matters
These are the words which set off the alarm bells: "My life has been remarkably free from tragedy" and  "seldom have I stood at a deathbed" (p.xii). Now, we can't help it if tragedy hasn't stopped at our door or if for some reason we haven't experienced death first hand. But could it be, and now I speak beyond one single author to all who write theology in the West  -  that a life relatively free of suffering is a poor context for doing theology?

And especially if that theology has been done in the easy environment of the Academy? 

Can you really do Christian theology from a life-context of ease? You can do theology, but can you do Christ-ian theology?

This is what I mean.

The theology of the New Testament was hammered out in the fires of hard coal-face mission and persecution. Paul didn't sit in a plush office turning over nice theological statements; he wrote from a prison cell. That made all the difference to what he wrote. We could say he wrote out of a life of suffering suffused with glory. And all true Christ-ian theology must be written in blood, for only then can it be said of the theologian....
  1. You share the world of your Master, walking in his footsteps, the man of sorrows, experiencing his life, learning to see things from his point of view.
  2. You share the same world as his followers who are called to a life of suffering and cross-carrying. 
  3. You are not writing for the approval of your university peers (who cares what men think?), you are writing for the benefit of hungry aching sheep. What a difference that makes! Novelty gives way to fidelity, clever writing to edification.
  4. A life of tough ministry sorts out priorities - some stuff just ain't worth writing about.
  5. From prison, the true future world glows bright! Your hope, rather than mis-shaped by this-worldly priorities, is now shaped by an eternal perspective: your blessed hope is the return of Jesus Christ!
Suspect of all 'armchair' theologians
We must be suspect of the theology of all armchair theologians. We should  listen to an Athanasius, Luther, Calvin and Ridley, because they walked in the pathway of their Master. But it's alot harder to follow the kind who have suffered little.

Wurmbrand's Pastor Friend
Richard Wurmbrand spent 14 years in prison, 3 of them in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement was so much like hell that he had to look at his glass of water to assure him he wasn't in hell, for, he reasoned, there was no water in hell. Here then was a man who suffered, and likewise many of his fellow pastors.

One day he was speaking to a fellow pastor-sufferer (who, in fact had never even seen a complete copy of the New Testament!) And Richard was explaining western theology to him. This pastor said in reply, "Have those who thought out these theological systems...ever carried a cross?" He went on to ask how a man who was carrying a cross could even think systematically!

I think he's got a point: it is frankly impossible to separate theology from life, and unless the life of a theologian mirrors the life of the man of sorrows acquainted with grief, the theology that flows from that pen will suffer. On the last day, it may prove to be nothing more than dross. Clever dross, perhaps, but passing and ultimately ineffectual dross.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Big Numbers and The Gospel

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus...
Last week I heard a well known preacher praise big numbers: "Nineteen Thousand", "Seven Million." It got me thinking, or rather meditating....  

The Pull of Numbers
We are intoxicated by numbers. All of us. Numbers impress us, and if we are not careful, seduce us. The world, of course, runs by numbers. Which company is making the greatest profit, which country has the greatest GDP, which nation the strongest army and which party the largest share of the vote. At street level numbers still matter:  Who has the most money, who gets the most hits.... he who dies with the most toys, wins.

Numbers in the Bible
So how is a believer to think about numbers (not the book)? Are we to be impressed when high numbers are paraded in front of us? Is a church with a thousand, greater in God's eyes than a church of 10? Is a book that sells ten copies less valuable in God's eyes than a New York Times best seller? The answer isn't straight forward - and it certainly is not how the world would think - big numbers means big success.

Numbers do count
On the one hand numbers do matter. There are far too many small and small-minded churches that excuse  their smallness to 'faithfulness', whereas in fact their smallness owes itself to nothing other than self-centred spiritual apathy towards the lost. The Gospel should produce converts, the church should grow like the fourth Kingdom in Nebuchadnezzar's dream which became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth (Daniel 2).

Churches should expect, under normal circumstances to see the Gospel flourish and bring forth a harvest, they should see their numbers increase with time.

Number don't count
But on the other hand, not all growth is Growth, not all Big Numbers are Gospel Numbers. For one thing, it is possible for a church to grow numerically for no other reason that it is the 'flavour of the city/town'. This happens. It could grow simply because it offers entertainment dressed up as worship. It could grow because the pastor has a magnetic personality. It could grow because it has found the lowest common denominator and words such as sin and repentance and hell are banned under holy order.

For another thing, there is a whole strand of Biblical teaching which reminds us that God pleases to bless and choose the poor, the lowly, the outcast, the small, the frail. Indeed he has a great habit of bypassing those who are great in the eyes of the world and latching onto the weak and frail, so that he gets the glory. One will chase a thousand, one Elijah takes on hundreds of Baalites, and so on. Twelve men turn the world upside down.

And here is another truth. Nowhere in the NT are big numbers any sign of success. So sparse are numbers that we must read from the numbers that are there a profound significance: the early church that grew from 120 to 3000 to 5000 grew in that way to demonstrate the supernatural origin of this institution. It does not follow from that growth that every other church will move in the same direction.

The final judgement
So what are we to make of Big Numbers? Like all spiritual matters, discernment is the key.  We are not despise small things, but ask why are they small? We are not to be impressed by large numbers but ask why are they large?

There is no straight line between numbers (small or large) and God's blessing.