Monday, December 31, 2007

KATE GRENVILLE'S THE SECRET RIVER

It's holiday-time, when each of us can most usefully relax with the book-gifts our family have bestowed on us at Christmas. Thanks Karen for another beauty!

Here's a good summary, from The Observer

Sunday January 22, 2006
The Observer

The Secret River
by Kate Grenville

Following The Idea of Perfection was always going to be a tough call. Five years on from her Orange Prize-winning bestseller about middle-aged love in the Outback, Kate Grenville has turned to something quite different: historical fiction and a story about convict settlement.

This is a narrative whose outlines we know already: convicts transported to Sydney, eventually pardoned, encouraged to settle what seemed to be an empty continent. They didn't understand, and wouldn't have cared, that the land they were occupying was sacred to the mysterious, dark-skinned people who appeared and disappeared from the forests and seemed to them no more than naked savages.

The William Thornhill born in the opening pages is clearly marked out for poverty, suffering, degradation and criminality. We've been reading this story at least since Dickens...

It does, though, turn out to be worth it. There isn't much underlying moral ambiguity in this book: the costs of settlement are appalling, which makes Thornhill its villain, even while he carries its sympathetic weight. Grenville is particularly good on inarticulate love, and Thornhill's relationship with his wife, Sal, civilises him, makes him a good man and ensures that the reader is on his side. As husband, father and hard-working, decent man, he is also the book's hero.

Once freed, Thornhill falls in love with a point of land up the Hawkesbury River with the visceral desire for ownership of someone who has never been allowed to own anything. He dreams of his own hundred acres, of dignity and entitlement. It never crosses his mind, since the land is not settled, that it could already be owned. Grenville writes exactingly and with passion about the Australian landscape: the bright light, the skinny, grey-green trees that refuse to shed their leaves, the cliffs that tumble into the river through snaking mangroves. Thornhill recognises that this is a landscape that can remake a man.

She is also wonderful on the ex-cons who settle the river, left to get on with things by the authorities. Some, miraculously, find ways to accommodate themselves with the Aborigines, despite their isolation, fear and brutal pasts. Gradually, Thornhill starts faintly to appreciate that the Aborigines most remind him of the gentry back home. They don't appear to work for their food: they spend their days creating art, telling stories, making their babies laugh. And then he has to make a decision. This is where the sense that the book is heading somewhere familiar really works for Grenville; she plays throughout on a threat of impending disaster. It's difficult to read this novel without a heavy heart, because it's obvious that not everything can possibly work out.

Violence is erupting along the river, but a way opens up for Will to keep his wife and children safe and hold on to everything he has worked for. All it would take would be to stomach the necessary bloody, terrible, knowing violence. The Secret River is a sad book, beautifully written and, at times, almost unbearable with the weight of loss, competing distresses and the impossibility of making amends.

*****

This book is a commentary on the universal problem of 'ethnophobia' - fear of the other. There are settlers who are cruel, others kind; the same with aborigines. And when violence spirals into more violence, we have a horrific outcome. Those with the most lethal toys (guns) win. An important book.

Rowland Croucher

December 2007

THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN


I've just finished reading The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom (Little, Brown & Time Warner Paperbacks 25 September 2003) - a Christmas present (thanks Karen).

Here's part of the current (December 2007) Wikipedia article on it:

The Five People You Meet in Heaven is a novel by Mitch Albom, published in 2003. A television movie of the same name was broadcast by ABC in 2004, starring Jon Voight as the main character, Eddie.

Introduction and Death

Eddie is walking around Ruby Pier, where he works as a maintenance man, and meets a little girl. He makes her a bunny out of pipe cleaners, as he does for other kids at the Pier. Later, Freddy's Free Fall (a ride) breaks down, and the little girl is under it. Eddie dives under the ride to try and save her, but he dies.

First Person in Heaven

The first man Eddie meets in Heaven is the "Blue Man." Eddie was the cause of this man's death. At a young age, a baseball was thrown, and passed in front of the Blue Man's car. When Eddie, as a child, went to get the ball, he was almost hit by the Blue Man driving the car. The Blue Man was incredibly nervous for minutes afterwards and finally hits a truck, the damage of which causes a fatal heart attack.

Second Person in Heaven

The second lesson takes place within the Philippine jungle. The second person Eddie meets is his old captain from the war. The captain teaches Eddie the lesson of sacrifice, where when we sacrifice something we gain something too. The Captain sacrificed Eddie's leg, he shot it. That is why he has the limp. He was trying to save Eddie from walking in a fire. When they tried to get Eddie to a medical unit, the Captain went to go check out to see if the path was safe, and blew up from a mine. In the case of Eddie, he was shot in the leg which caused irreparable damage and crippled him for the rest of his life. However, consequentially, he was given the chance to continue with his life.

"You didn't get it. Sacrifice is a part of life. It's supposed to be. It's not something to regret. It's something to aspire to. Little sacrifices. Big sacrifices..."

Third Person in Heaven

After The Captain is gone, everything around him changes again, and now he is in a snow mountain. He starts to walk until he arrives at a restaurant where he sees his father. The writer describes the relationship Eddie had with his father since his childhood until Eddie’s father's death. Eddie meets a lady named Ruby. She is the wife of the owner of the Ruby Pier.That is where the "ruby" in Ruby Pier comes from. She is the third person he meets in heaven and she tells him the truth about his father. He died fighting a disease. Eddie's Mother blamed herself for not calling the doctor in time, but Eddie knew it was his drunken father's fault. With this, she speaks about loyalty the human beings must have with people who have been considerable with them. She teaches him the third lesson: Forgiveness. Eddie must forgive his father and does not feel more rage and resentment towards him.

"Learn this from me. Holding anger is a poison. It eats you from inside. We think that hatred is the weapon that attacks the person who harmed us. But hatred is a curved blade. And the harm we do, we do to ourselves.

Fourth Person in Heaven

The fourth person Eddie meets in heaven is his wife: Marguerite. She has chosen a wedding place to stay in heaven. Eddie meets her being young as she was when they got married. She teaches him the fourth lesson: Love does not have an end. When people die, love takes a different form, that’s all. To be left out in the dark.

"Lost love is still love, Eddie. It takes a different form, that's all. You can't see their smile or bring them food or tousle their hair or move them around a dance floor. But when those senses weaken, another heightens. Memory, memory becomes your partner. You nurture it. You hold it. You dance with it. Life has to end," she said. "Love doesn't."

Fifth Person in Heaven

The fifth person Eddie meets in heaven is a small Philippine girl whose name is Tala (means 'star' in Tagalog). Tala is described as being approximately five or six years old with a cinnamon complexion and hair the color of dark plum. Eddie meets Tala in an idyllic stream location where other young children are playing in a stream. It is thought that this nook of heaven is for the children whose memories are so small that an idea of bliss hasn't had the chance to form in their imaginations yet. Tala teaches Eddie that everyone has a purpose to life that not only affects their own lives but unknowingly touches the lives of others. Tala was the person that brought Eddie to heaven, but also died in the shed that Eddie lit afire, proving that Eddie really did see something in the shed. She also tells him that he saved the girl from the falling amusement park ride.

"I was sad because I didn't do anything with my life. I was nothing. I accomplished nothing. I felt like I wasn't supposed to be there." Tala plucked the pipe cleaner dog from the water. "Supposed to be there," She said. "Where? At Ruby pier?" She nodded. "Fixing rides? That was my existence?" He blew a deep breath. "Why?" She tilted her head as if it were obvious. "Children," She said. "You keep them safe. You make good for me."

*****

The only comment I'd make, as a Christian, is that this book portrays a creative approach to heaven's being a 'catch-up' with all the people with whom we've interacted during this life. It will be an interesting... I was nearly going to say... time!

Rowland Croucher

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS


Graham Tomlin 'The Seven Deadly Sins: and How to Overcome Them' (Lion 2007) and Andrew Cameron & Brian Rosner ed., 'Still Deadly: Ancient Cures for the 7 Sins' (Aquila Press, 2007).

Medieval people were far more horrified by their sins than we are. Sin meant breaking the rules: God's rules, with God being both Lawgiver and Judge. Today's God is more benign, so the seven deadly sins are basically 'seven habits of highly destructive people'. Augustine's idea of 'original sin' - an inbuilt bias towards sin - doesn't sit well with modern notions of freedom. The 'seven deadly sins' emerged in the middle of the first millennium after Christ as a useful check-list to measure goodness or virtue.

Here's a summary of Tomlin's ideas. His book is excellent, modern (even sometimes 'with-it'!), devotionally useful, and scholarly. Tomlin is Principal of St Paul's Theological Centre at Holy Trinity Brompton, London (the church which produced the Alpha courses). Tomlin was previously a member of Oxford University's faculty of theology...

*****

PRIDE is the worst sin, according to most traditional Christian thinkers (from Augustine and Aquinas to G.K. Chesterton and C.S.Lewis). It's the 'primal' sin, our wanting to be independent of God's rules: expressed brilliantly by Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost: 'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.' Pride looks after 'number one': it is competitive, not wanting to give first place to anyone else. The opposite of pride is humility: the virtue that helps us become more like our humble, self-giving God. How? Through confession, whereby God and another hears our sins and faults and offers grace; and through service to others: 'thinking less about yourself, rather than thinking less of yourself.'

ENVY is the one sin which is not fun at all. It is 'sadness at the happiness of another' (Aquinas). Although no one wants to be renowned for their envy, in our meritocratic culture it is the bait in every advertisement. 'We are caught in a culture that hates envy, yet incites it mercilessly.' Mark Twain was wise: 'We will do many things to get ourselves loved; we will do anything to get ourselves envied.' Ancient wisdom teaches us that happiness consists not in getting what we want, but in wanting what we get. The first murder in the Bible (of Abel by Cain) was driven by envy. How shall we deal with it? First, change the price-tags: things may not what be what they seem. Second, learn to admire what others have without wanting it (Salieri both adored and detested Mozart's genius). Life and your talents are gifts: to be given back to the community. If you have God, you have everything.

ANGER can be an appropriate response to cruelty or injustice, but, as Seneca said, is is 'an acid which can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.' God gets angry at evil, and therefore, as William Willimon says, paradoxically, because he does, we don't have to. Solving problems via anger almost always does more harm than good - often creating an escalating cycle of bitterness. Righteous anger - our anger against evil - can quickly turn into a desire for vengeance. Like most sins anger takes something good - a proper hatred of evil and injustice - and twists it into something destructive. The heart of the Christian approach: it's God's prerogative to exercise wrath. Although our anger might do some good, God alone can sustain righteous anger that will truly sort things out. Part of 'anger management' is to practise silence, so that we do not say things we might later regret.

GLUTTONY headed the list of 7 deadly sins in the 4th century. Gluttony is an inordinate obsession with food, drink, or plain consumption. It's to food what lust is to sex: getting something good out of proportion. Being fat is Very Bad in a celebrity-obsessed culture, so obsessive dieting can be as gluttonous as over-eating. (Half the world lives on less than a dollar a day: each year 1.7 million children die from hunger-related diseases). How are we healed from eating disorders? The crucial first step, as AA teaches, is to hand over control. Traditionally Christians have emphasized not dieting, but the age-old rhythm of fasting and feasting: Easter and Christmas are preceded by the fasts of Lent and Advent - ensuring that we retain control of our appetites rather than being controlled by them.

LUST is not simply sexual desire: it's disordered desire - when sex is the dominating force in a relationship. Sex isn't simply physical: what we do with our bodies affects our souls/hearts/minds. 'It's not so much picking an apple off a tree as disturbing the roots'. Lust is 'the craving for salt of someone dying of thirst' (Buechner). The difference between looking and looking lustfully is about five seconds! We might pretend that we are serious about wanting someone else when we only really want part of them. Extra-marital sex is 'Lying in bed'! How is lust overcome? Not, as the Catholic Church has sometimes taught, by eliminating sexual desire altogether, but, with God's help, relating to others as whole persons.

GREED. The consumer culture is driven by a 'greed-is-good' mentality. Donald Trump put it candidly: 'The point is that you can't be too greedy.' It's not quite the same as self-interest, which, wrote Adam Smith, is the responsibility to look after ourselves and those who depend on us. And healthy ambition spurs us on to greater achievements. The problem is when self-interest impinges on the interests of others. An economy driven by consumption, with governments promised greater growth and prosperity, will inevitably lead to a depletion of the world's resources. 'Over the past 550 million years there have been five major extinctions of species. Who is to say that we might not be next?' We have probably passed the point of no return on global warming. God has provided good things for our enjoyment, but greed is destructive - both of ourselves and of society. A sabbath is a good antidote to greed: it is a regular reminder that the ultimate purpose of life is not to accumulate 'stuff'. But the best counterpart to greed is not poverty (the poor can be avaricious), but generosity. Ultimately we do not own anything: everything is a gift. So let us live simply, so that others can simply live.

SLOTH is the hardest of the 7 sins to define. It's not simply laziness. The old Latin idea of accidia is sometimes translated 'spiritual weariness' or 'despair': essentially 'giving up on life'. Aquinas described sloth as 'spiritual boredom'. Augustine says of the human race, 'They choose to look for happiness not in you, but in what you have created'. So sloth is losing our appetite for God, failing to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. It is substituting something else for God - even religious things like liturgies, church music or theological ideas. Simply enjoying/loving God is an acquired taste. The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

*****

Don't bother buying the 'Still Deadly' book. It's too 'Sydney Anglican' - somewhat desiccated, and heady, replete with many Bible texts and evangelical concepts. It has 'in-group' language (ex-Sydney Anglicans will know what I mean), but is quite scholarly, centring the essays by well-known Anglicans like Peter Jensen, Graham Cole, Gordon Preece etc. around the writings of Luther, Augustine, Basil of Caesarea, Aquinas, Reinhold Niebuhr and Calvin. It's actually a small feschrift for Michael Hill, formerly lecturer in ethics and vice-principal of Sydney's Moore Theological College. Its preface says 'Although you've picked up this book because it seemed interesting, we hope you'll become really, really bored by it... We hope you'll become bored witless by the pathetic pointlessness of [these 7 sins].' (Sounds like undergrad evangelicese preachy language, eh?). I was quite bored: but there are a few gems of ideas here, which I'll put on to the John Mark Ministries website some time (use the indexes)...

Rowland Croucher

December 2007

Copies available from Ridley Melbourne Bookshop - http://bookshop.ridley.unimelb.edu.au/bookweb/

Sunday, December 23, 2007

TRANSFIGURATION (JOHN DEAR)

Review: Transfiguration: A Meditation on Transforming Ourselves and Our World, by John Dear (Doubleday 2007)

Jesuit priest, retreat leader, writer and peace activist John Dear is running with the baton handed on by the Berrigan Brothers. (He spent at least one session in jail with one of them). Which means that he's prepared to do off-the-wall protests to get the attention of the Powers, engaging in nonviolent protests against war, the arms race, and human rights violations. Like Jesus, he says, we are to be non-violent, but this does not mean we are passive.

John Dear has served as the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace organization, and was a Red Cross coordinator of chaplains at the Family Assistance Center in New York City after the September 11, 2001, attacks. He has traveled to the world’s war zones on missions of peace and has been imprisoned repeatedly for civil disobedience in anti-war protests.

In this, the latest of his 15 or 16 books, he offers this basic message: we are to follow Jesus in terms of cultivating peace within, and peace in our world. Actually the journey has three parts - an inner journey, a public journey, and a journey for all humanity. The meditation is broken into five parts - walking in the footsteps of Jesus, going up the mountain with Jesus, recognizing the transfigured Christ in our midst, going down the mountain to the cross, and fulfilling our mission of transfiguration nonviolence in a culture of violence and war. The key? Loving ourselves as we are, diffusing the hatred we might feel towards others, and consciously embracing a choice to live in peace.

In this book John Dear explores of the many meanings in the Gospel story of Jesus' transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1-8). As we travel with Jesus, we too combine a mystical journey within with a life of healing the wounds of the world:

'To be listeners, we have to prepare ourselves to receive the Word, to let it settle in and take root in our hearts. As we become people of contemplative listening, we eventually notice every word that Jesus says, and we try to build our lives on his message, word by word, until we live and breathe his teachings.'

Contemplation is not the prayer of the Pharisees - words, words, words. It is resting in the presence of God and listening to what God is telling us. Action without contemplation is futile.

Not everyone will be convinced by John Dear's approach (unless they already agree with him :-). For example, this, from the Publisher's Weekly: 'Dear also includes helpful suggestions on spiritual practices that lead to embracing nonviolence, as well as questions for individual contemplation or group discussion. Like many who are passionate about their subject, Dear's sense that he absolutely knows God's will is daunting at times. He also stretches some of the biblical texts, arguing, for instance, that Moses and Elijah appear at the Transfiguration specifically to affirm Jesus' call to nonviolence. Dear is much to be admired for his persistence in the call for peace and nonviolence, a mission for which he has been willing to go to prison, and those who already share the author's views will find this book inspiring. Those who do not will probably go away unconvinced that the account of the Transfiguration makes his case.'

Whatever else he is, John Dear is authentic: he lives what he writes. He reminds you of St. Francis, who also sided with the poor, the outcasts, the 'little people'. John Dear writes: "To follow Jesus on the path of transfiguring nonviolence, we have to leave our lofty heights, comfortable safety, and private spiritualities and go with him down the mountain into the world of war, where we must confront the structures of violence head-on. The real discipleship journey begins now, after the Transfiguration, as we follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem."

John Dear's Jesus 'was incapable of remaining silent in the face of social injustice, infidelity, violence and idolatry, and so he caused trouble wherever he went.'

"Here in this book is a clarion call for us to be engaged in the project for world peace and we ignore it at our peril." —Desmond Tutu, from the Foreword.

At the back of the book are some useful questions for reflection. Highly recommended.

Another modern prophet you might want to check out: Shane Claiborne

Review copy supplied by Ridley Melbourne Bookshop.

Rowland Croucher

Thursday, November 29, 2007

WHEN A HOMOSEXUAL CHRISTIAN LEADER ‘COMES OUT’


Review: Anthony Venn-Brown's 'A Life of Unlearning: a Journey to Find the Truth', 2nd edition, New Holland Publishers, 2007.

The Church has wrestled with a dozen major paradigm-shifts in its history. The first had to do with accepting Gentiles. The Protestant Reformation was built on the radical proposition that we are saved by faith purely on the basis of God’s grace, and that we can trust ordinary folks to read the Bible. Then there was slavery, charismatic renewal, women in leadership... Conservative groups have recently wrestled with issues like dancing, divorce, Sabbath/Sunday-behaviour, dress-codes, and rock music.

And now the Big One: Homosexuality.

After 25 years counselling ex-pastors, what generalizations can I make about Christian homosexual ministers who declare their orientation/ practice?

If they were credentialled by a fundamentalist denomination they will be treated, with very few exceptions, as lepers/pariahs, and even with hate. [1] If from an evangelical background, the neglect will be more benign: they may receive one or two contacts from their colleagues (or they may not). Mainline Christians are less homophobic, but also often uncaring.

Fundamentalists/Pharisees quote Paul: ‘[Do not] associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral... Drive out the wicked person from among you’ (1 Corinthians 5:11,12, NRSV). [2]

Progressive Evangelicals align their stance with that of Jesus, who was castigated by religious leaders for hanging out with 'publicans and sinners’. They might agree with Tony Campolo: 'In the likelihood that most (homosexuals) will still have their basic sexual orientations regardless of their efforts to change, we must do more than simply bid them be celibate. We must find ways for them to have fulfilling, loving experiences so that they might have their humanity affirmed and their incorporation into the Body of Christ assured.' [3]

Anthony Venn-Brown is probably Australia’s first openly-gay Pentecostal leader. His story is both typical (he attempted suicide) and atypical (he attends a Pentecostal Church and has set up a ministry - Freedom 2 B[e] - a network for GLBTIQ - Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer - people from Pentecostal and Charismatic backgrounds).

Wikipedia says he prefers to be known as a gay ambassador rather than a gay activist. [4] That’s also atypical: most homosexual ex-pastors (and serving pastors for that matter) still lie very low.

When I tell clergy conferences that every Christian denomination has pastors and ex-pastors who are gay, that used to be greeted with disbelief. Now, of course, they’ve all moved beyond the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ stance.

And when I write/preach that the Bible has nothing whatever to say about homosexuality as a (non-chosen) orientation, most conservative Christians just don’t understand. Non-chosen? Yes: I’ve not met a homosexual or lesbian client who chose to be that way: most of them would prefer to be a much-less-complicated – and socially more acceptable - heterosexual.

But not Anthony: if reincarnation was true, he writes, he wouldn’t mind coming back as a homosexual. Again, atypical.

Sample paragraph: ‘I was overcome by a feeling of utter failure. I thought about what I’d done to Helen and the girls, the people who might lose faith because of my transgression, the humiliation of everyone knowing my sin, the way I’d discredited the ministry and how unworthy I was of anyone’s love, even God’s... I was a failure as a husband, father and servant of God’ (p. 285).

Anthony’s book is well-written, a ‘must-read’ for all (adult – though some may disagree with that) Christians, especially Christian leaders. It’s confronting, occasionally (appropriately) explicit, irenic, sad, honest, and well-researched. There’s a commendable integrity about his approach. (My main suggestion would be that in the next edition he adds an appendix with a more in-depth summary of the biblical/theological material.)

Two of the most difficult questions for conservative Christians relate to a 'cure' for homosexuality and the issue of same-sex marriages.

Anthony's experience demonstrates that the advice often given to people with same sex orientation - that a heterosexual marriage will solve the problem and be the final evidence that they have received a 'miracle' - frequently ends in a traumatic and devastating experience for the partner and children: one that can take years to heal. Also most will be shocked to learn, from the emails Anthony has received, that some Christian parents and church leaders suggest hiring an opposite sex prostitute to help with the 'cure'. Obviously there is still a great deal of ignorance out there about sexual orientation and church leaders need to be more informed.

On the issue of same-sex relationships, I have said often that there's a great deal of hypocrisy in our churches. In an ABC TV program I suggested that churches have been selective in their indignation re the three so-called 'deadly sexual sins' - adultery, fornication, and homosexual practice. We condemn the first and third, but most (yes, most) of our Christian young people practise the second one: but are not excluded from the memberships of most churches on that account. (Why? They're the children of church leaders!). [5]

Here's a heart-felt comment from Anthony on this question: 'Those who are privileged to have a close relationship/friendship with gay or lesbian couples know that the essentials that build and maintain their relationships are the same as heterosexual marriages: love, trust, respect and a desire to create a life long partnership. These are all honourable traits and should not be condemned as evil but supported by those who believe God's love is for all. To welcome them into our churches is an acknowledgment of the right choices they have made.'

And I would add that no one should be definitive on this broad issue until/unless they have listened carefully to the stories of homosexual people.

We may not agree with all Anthony says, but if our homophobic judgmentalism can't cope with this sort of 'in your face' truthfulness, or if we don’t cry with Anthony sometimes - he cries a lot – my gentle suggestion would be to get help!

Rowland Croucher

November 26, 2007

*****

You can purchase his book here: http://www.anthonyvennbrown.com/

Anthony’s blog - http://alifeofunlearning.blogspot.com/

Freedom 2 b[e] - http://www.freedom2b.org/phpBB2/

*****

[1] http://www.godhatesfags.com/

[2] Put Anthony’s name into ‘Find on this page’ at http://www.christian-witness.org/active/mail/y_letter35.html

[3] Homosexuality: an Interview with Jesus - http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/12135.htm

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Venn-Brown

[5] You can read the transcript and view it here: http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/13440.htm


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

WHY THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT IS WRONG

Subtitled: 'A Minister's Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future', by Robin Meyers, Wiley, 2006.

The cover blurb sums it up well: 'I join the ranks of those who are angry, because I have watched as the faith I love has been taken over by fundamentalists who claim to speak for Jesus but whose actions are anything but Christian.'

Robin Meyers is a United Church of Christ minister, a contributor to The Christian Century, and 'professor of rhetoric' at Oklahoma City University.

In 2004 he gave a speech at a University of Oklahoma peace rally from which he achieved widespread Internet fame. (You can find the speech by putting the relevant words into Google - or the John Mark Ministries website indexes). It ended with these stirring words: 'Time to march again my friends. Time to commit acts of civil disobedience. Time to sing, and to pray, and refuse to participate in the madness. My generation finally stopped a tragic war. You can too!'

In this speech he introduced himself as 'minister of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, an Open and Affirming, Peace and Justice church in northwest Oklahoma City, and professor of Rhetoric at Oklahoma City University. But you would most likely have encountered me on the pages of the Oklahoma Gazette, where I have been a columnist for six years, and hold the record for the most number of angry letters to the editor.'

Well, he's still angry, particularly about the moral bankruptcy of the Christian Right, and the Bush Administration.

Fundamentalists, he says, have used the catastrophic events of 9/11 to wage war on irenicism and tolerance. The dreaded military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against 'has now lost the hyphen and become one word'. There are three main points to his thesis: 'The emperor is naked. The flag is flying upside down. And Jesus has been silenced by his own church.'

The Christian Right, he says, 'seems to have accepted war as inevitable if regrettable and sex as regrettable if inevitable.' They inhabit an either-or world of 'the saved and the "left behind"'. Their familiar bumper- sticker is AMERICA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT. President Bush 'acts as if we own the franchise on "freedom" and "liberty" and that we alone know what is best for other nations, even if they don't know what is best for themselves.'

In terms of the Christian Right's hermeneutic, they are more concerned with selective legal aspects of the Old Testament than the heart and soul of the New Testament.

Equally illogical of course is the 'war on terror': 'It is better to go on killing more of them, even if they go on killing more of us, so that we can remind everyone how vital it is to kill more of them first'. The book is replete with such sardonic barbs...

We are encouraged here to be thoughtful in our questioning of authority - especially when that authority is claiming to act on God's behalf. America - whose government has been driven by big money and big business - is in deep trouble: the way out is to combine rationality with essential Christian virtues, form nonviolent resistance groups, and vote out warmongering politicians.

A hard-hitting chapter is titled "Christian Fascism and the War on Reason" and includes 14 characteristics of fascism: (1) Powerful nationalism (knee-jerk patriotism), (2) disdain for recognition of human rights (eg. torture, long imprisonments), (3) identifying enemies and scapegoats as a unifying cause (eg. liberals, terrorists), (4) supremacy of the military (see our budget), (5) rampant sexism, (6) control of the mass media, (7) obsession with national security, (8)religion and government intertwined (using religion to manipulate public opinion), (10) suppression of labor power, (11) disdain for intellectuals and the arts, (12) obsession with crime and punishment, (13) rampant cronyism and corruption, and (14) fraudulent elections (eg. smear campaigns, manipulation of boundaries).

Read it with another book which has a similar flavour - Marvin McMickle's 'Where Have all the Prophets Gone?' (see http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/19588.htm ). Well, Marvin, here's one: you two should get to know each other!

Rowland Croucher
October 2007

Monday, October 22, 2007

THE NEW LION HANDBOOK - CHRISTIAN BELIEF

(General Editor: Alister McGrath, First hardback edition 2006; flexiback 2007)

Here's an excellent 350 page introduction to classic Christian thinking/doctrine.

It begins with a seven-page overview of Christian Church History (try doing that sometime!). Then we explore faith, including an introduction to the creeds, faith and philosophy, religious language, can God's existence be proved?, the place of tradition, interpreting the Bible, introduction to theology, modernity, postmodernity, and Islam.

Next we have chapters on God, Jesus, Salvation, the Church, and the Christian Hope.

At the end is a Concise Anthology of Christian Thought (actually 'church history' via some great Christian apologists and theologians, from Justin Martyr to Tillich, Moltmann and Pannenberg). Then we have a useful 22-page glossary and an index.

Now, a cautious caveat. Lion Hudson, as this publisher is now called, has generally a 'conservative evangelical' flavour. The editor of this volume - Alister McGrath - may be the UK's most prolific evangelical writer. And J. I. Packer, the associate editor, is probably - with John Stott - one of the two or three modern 'godfathers' of English-speaking evangelicalism. (So, of course, the index has 13 references to John Calvin!).

I wanted to test the integrity of this book in terms of its ecclesiological breadth. My quest began with two articles on women. Here are two representative quotes:

'It is sometimes difficult to appreciate how novel [Jesus'] attitudes were at the time. Jesus' ministry represents an attempt to reform the patriarchalism of his day, and permit women to hold a new kind of authority in religious matters' (p. 139).

'An increasing number of churches have decided that there is no biblical or theological reason against ordaining women... Yet many churches hold that the tradition of the church in this regard must not be changed, and they limit the ministerial roles of women accordingly.' (p. 249).

You get the idea: conservative generally, but also cautiously 'broad church'. But not too broad: Bishop N. T. Wright gets a mention, but not, I think, the Jesus Seminar: though there is a one-page summary of the Quest for the Historical Jesus; the NRSV is used, but also the NIV; and there's two pages (!!) for an article entitled 'Where was the Garden of Eden?'

It's well-illustrated, brilliantly laid-out, and very readable. I'm teaching an Introduction to Theology course at the moment, and I recommended this book as a basic text. It's now (after the Bible) the first resource I would give to a thoughtful young person or adult beginning the Christian journey.

Copies available from Ridley College Bookshop, Melbourne.

Rowland Croucher

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

IRRESISTIBLE REVOLUTION (Shane Claiborne)


(Zondervan, 2006).

Shane Claiborne looks, speaks, and dresses like an Old Testament prophet (or John the Baptist). And he makes the same sort of crazy sense. (But he's had a better formal education than most of them).

He's a young (my guess: 30s) idealistic American, who spent time with Mother Teresa's helpers in India, and went to Iraq with other peacemakers (there he was lucky to survive a car accident and other possible horrors). He's one of the founding members of The Simple Way community in very-downtown Philadelphia, and a prominent activist.

A couple of months ago I heard him speak at the Urban Neighbours of Hope conference in Melbourne, and was impressed. (My wife Jan's job at the conference was to provide hospitality - bedding and breakfast, for Shane - and his mother: he's never married - and other speakers, but that's by-the-way). He's a terrific raconteur. Who could forget his lines: 'Patriots you may bring your flags; we're washing feet and will need some rags'? Or his story about throwing $10,000 worth of small change around Wall Street. Or of his grandfather's setting fire to fields because he overloaded a new trailer with hay, which ignited from friction?

This book is a terrific read: those of us over 50-or-so mightn't get some of the modern lingo, but we'll certainly enjoy his humor (particularly 8 or 10 'Just kiddings!').

I have no other comments to make about the book, and would rather use the space here to cite a few representative 'quotable quotes' to whet your appetite:

* (When Roman Catholic authorities began the legal process of evicting homeless people from a deserted cathedral): 'We ran through campus hanging up flyers that read, "Jesus is getting kicked out of church in North Philly. Come hear about it. Kea Lounge. 10 pm. tonight".

* 'You guys are all into that born again thing, which is great. We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemas. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too'.

* 'If you don't know what a eunuch is, see the diagram in the appendix. Just kidding. Check the phone book and call up a pastor and ask her or him: it should make for an interesting conversation'.

* 'Many spiritual seekers have not been able to hear the words of Christians because the lives of Christians have been making so much horrible noise. It can be hard to hear the gentle whisper of the Spirit amid the noise of Christendom'.

* 'When people move beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, they get into trouble... Managing poverty is big business. Ending poverty is revolutionary'.

* 'There is one thing I will never forget - (Mother Teresa's) feet. Each morning in Mass, I would stare at them. I wondered if she had contracted leprosy. But I wasn't going to ask, of course... One day a sister said to us, "Have you noticed her feet?" We nodded, curious. She said, "Her feet are deformed because we get just enough donated shoes for everyone, and Mother does not want anyone to get stuck with the worst pair, so she digs through and finds them. And years of doing that have deformed her feet." Years of loving her neighbor as herself deformed her feet'.

* 'The stuff Jesus warned us to beware of, the yeast of the Pharisees, is so infectious today in the camps of both liberals and conservatives. Conservatives stand up and thank God that they're not like the homosexuals, the Muslims, the liberals. Liberals stand up and thank God that they are not like the war makers, the yuppies, the conservatives. It is a similar self-righteousness just with different definitions of evildoing. It can paralyze us in judgment and guilt and rob us of life'.

* 'Bono, the great theologian (and decent rock star) said in his introduction to a book of selections from the Psalms: "The fact that the Scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers, and mercenaries used to shock me. Now it is a source of great comfort".'

* 'The Catholic Workers used to say "The true atheist is the one who refuses to see God's image in the face of their neighbor".'

You get the idea... Every Westerner whose life is fairly comfortable should read a book like this at least once a year.

Rowland Croucher

Thursday, October 11, 2007

TRACING THE FOOTSTEPS OF GOD

C. S. Song, Tracing the Footsteps of God: Discovering What You Really Believe, Fortress Press, 2007.

Here's a readable introduction to 'modern mainline liberal Christian theology' by a professor of theology (Pacific School of Religion) who is also sufficiently esteemed in his denomination (Reformed Churches) to have been voted president of their world body.

Professor Song (he doesn't say, but from his knowledge of Asian religions his family origins are probably Chinese) doesn't like the way our (European) creeds constrict belief. Using the parables of Jesus as his starting-point, he leads us through nine essential questions of faith.

I said he was 'mainline liberal', yes, as distinct from 'mainline evangelical' (for example, he prefers 'God's self' type phrases rather than masculine pronouns for God); or 'liberal radical' (there's not much here referencing the Jesus Seminar presuppositions, though he does quote John Dominic Crossan once or twice). A glance at his citations tells a story: Karen Armstrong, Walter Brueggemann, Feuerbach and Tillich are there, for example, but not Karl Barth...

He begins by suggesting that an exploration into what we mean by God doesn't begin with ideas about God at all, but with what is known through our experience of the world. And when we do come up with some 'answers' they may not be neat or elegant - or even 'correct'. So an appropriate starting-point might be Tillich's question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?'; or the preacher in Ecclesiastes talking about 'a time to be born and a time to die', and the universal experiences of wonder and dread.

From there we look at the 'reality' of Jesus' resurrection (an 'enigma best left to the mystery of God') which was 'real' in terms of the 'inner, visionary, or contemplative experience' of those who 'saw' the risen Christ (but we don't have to believe that the resurrected body was a resuscitated corpse).

Jesus' teaching and healing ministries focussed on the rule of God, addressed to both Jews and non-Jews, and more concerned about this life than another/eternal life. Which leads to the big question about 'Who is saved?' Song leaves us here with the assertion (hard to disprove) that there is truth in all religions, but none of them has the whole truth. (Wasn't it C S Lewis who said - au contraire - that in any mathematical problem there is only one right answer, but some answers are more nearly right than others?). The essence of Christianity, derived from the life of its Founder, writes Song, is more a function of the practice of compassion than assenting to the propositions of a creed. Which is why he has a whole chapter on the Beatitudes: suggesting that they are central/foundational to the teaching of Jesus.

Our mission is to live, as Jesus did, as free people in a pluralistic world, remembering that all humans are made in God's image and therefore, (like the rest of creation actually) 'inspirited' with the creative breath of God. Truly 'spiritual' people may not be aware of their spirituality, but live in freedom from bondages to rites, rituals and creeds...

So Song says an authentic Christianity is more 'Jesus oriented' than 'Christ-centric'. And in the last chapter he actually poses the question 'Who do you say God is?' Answer: the clue is in the life of Jesus, rather than the Pauline and post-Pauline images of God.

And ultimately, when we ask the question 'Who are you God?' the most immediate answer will be silence. 'God as Spirit is the key. Not God as a theological construction, not God affirmed in the belief systems and creeds of the varying churches and religions, not God handed down by religious traditions and authorities...' (p. 153). (I think we've got the message!)

There are excellent questions in each chapter for group discussion, which makes it a very good resource for people 'searching for truth with an open mind'.

Rowland Croucher


October 2007.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

EVAN ALMIGHTY


Jan and I attended a preview of this crazy movie last night, and enjoyed it.

Briefly: this sequel to Bruce Almighty is a comedy of biblical proportions, reportedly costing $175 million (perhaps the most expensive comedy ever?). Steve Carell ('Evan Baxter') is a newly-elected senator on Capitol Hill. What he doesn't know is that he's also been elected by the Lord (an amiable Morgan Freeman) to build an ark in suburban Washington (with the help of a book 'Ark-building for Dummies'). In the process animals and birds appear two by two (177 species altogether), as does a patriarchal beard and sackcloth outfit all of which astonishes his political colleagues.

There are 3 or 4 important didactic themes: a busy politician too preoccupied with the glamour and prestige of the job to pay enough attention to his long-suffering wife (Lauren Graham) and three sons; the rape of the earth by political/industrial complexes for profit and, of course, 'jobs'; the importance of 'acts of random kindness' (ARK - get it?); and the need for humans to learn happy-dancing.

It's all very earnest (several reviewers write that to be truly comic it should have had more jokes).

The rating is PG - I'd recommend a lower-age of 11 or 12 as there are a few bawdy and scary scenes - and is quite short (89 minutes). Of course you've got to suspend credibility: it's all a comic send-up of what-wealthy-westerners-think-is-important.

It's the next movie Hollywood has aimed at (the dollars of) church-folks, after The Passion of the Christ. After your church-group sees it you'll discuss such important-to-trivial questions as: * Is it possible to be both a good steward of God's earth and a politician? * Can you be a Christian in politics and avoid legislative malfeasance? * Why do upwardly mobile professionals tend to neglect their families? * Is it OK to laugh about religious matters? * Did people who are supposed to know their Bibles figure out why the alarm went off at 6:14? * How important is it to shave your nose-hair to look good?

Enjoy!

And if you're a film-buff there's a good article in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evan_Almighty

Rowland Croucher
September 18, 2007.

Monday, September 17, 2007

LOST AND FOUND



(Here are some notes from which I preached at a Uniting Church last Sunday. Rowland Croucher September 18, 2007).

Luke 15:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Losing something can be trivial – mildly frustrating – or deadly serious, even life-threatening. It all depends on the value of what you’ve lost.

Lost people are in the news headlines all the time. This week? Adventurer Steve Fossett, lost somewhere in the Nevada Desert, Madelaine McCann, a little girl lost – probably abducted – in Portugal (and now her parents – parents! – are suspects). A while back, three men in a boat somewhere off the Queensland coast, who have never been found.

We write songs, tell stories and make movies of people lost: David Livingstone, apparently lost in the middle of ‘darkest Africa’; an ‘ancient mariner’ lost at sea; aviator Amelia Erhart; explorers Burke and Wills; Little Boy Lost; the Chamberlain’s baby lost in the Northern Territory desert, ‘Lost in Space’…

We joke about being lost: men aren’t lost, they’re trusting their navigational instincts (women ask for directions). As a young taxi-driver in Sydney while at University, I was lost at least once every shift.

We lose objects all the time (more so, I can tell you, as you approach ‘threescore years and ten’). Everyone has lost something at one time or another. There is even a website now at www.lostandfound.com that acts as a global ‘lost and found’ box.

I’ve lost a car three times: once when it was towed away because I was slow with hire purchase payments; another time in the Disneyland carpark (is it the largest in the world?) until with two little girls 7 and 9 we found it at 2 am!; and at the airport: I’d found a free spot out there, but one weekend they changed the parking rules and had towed my car away…

Losing things isn’t funny: a surgeon discovering after an operation that an instrument’s gone missing; if I lost my diary I think I’d lose my mind (it’s in there!); losing an important email (PTL for Google Desktop!); a loved one losing their memory; a parishioner I knew whose mother was lost, found with another identity in Adelaide. We’ve ‘lost the plot’ in Iraq…

Jesus’ parents lost him when he was 12. (One of our Sunday School hypotheticals: ‘Did Jesus ever lose anything?’ Silly question, like our other one: ‘Did Jesus the healer ever sneeze?’).

Psychologists tell us there are two kinds of lostness: ‘developmental’ and ‘situational’. We grow through various stages in life, and all of us experience a constant cycle of attachments/detachments, closeness/distance, togetherness/ separateness, loss of innocence when we collide with reality… It happens when a baby is born: they lose the security of intrauterine life; and it happens when we get older and various bodily functions don’t work as well any more.

But there’s also ‘situational’ lostness: which can happen to any of us at any time. I have clients whose grief is frozen: they’ve never gotten over the loss of a loved one. We must learn to ‘bury the dead’ twice: physically, and in terms of the grieving process. (We also must get over the grief of what our parents ‘were not’ for us…).

Jesus told three ‘lost and found’ stories in Luke 15: about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and two lost sons. This morning I want to make a couple of comments about the first story, and particularly about Luke’s setting for it.

Kenneth Bailey tells us that a single shepherd probably would not have owned 100 sheep – maybe 15 or 20. Here we have a clan or extended family and the ‘chief shepherd’ would have had ‘hirelings’ to help him look after this number of sheep. But it’s the shepherd-in-charge who goes looking for the lost sheep: note that!

Bailey says that when a sheep is lost in this part of the world it often lies down and refuses to budge. So the shepherd has to place it on his shoulders: he starts rejoicing even in prospect of a long and exhausting trip home. A wandering sheep was lucky it wasn’t attacked by wild beasts. In the meantime the other sheep have been moved from the ‘wilderness’ to the village, and the clan has a party to celebrate the whole event.

But did you notice the setting? Luke says Jesus was eating and drinking with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ – disreputables! – and the religious folks didn’t approve. These three lost and found stories are book-ended with not-so-subtle ‘digs’ at the Pharisees’ awful theology and attitudes: the elder brother in the third story is your prototypical Pharisee.

Now Jesus wasn’t merely consorting with sinners: he was acting as host, ‘welcoming’ these people. So he asks ‘Which one of you…?’ which was a naughty question for these people: they despised shepherds as well.

I was preaching once to a small very conservative congregation. They had big black Bibles and severe expressions. That night I involved them in a dialogue. I asked them to list all the good qualities of the Pharisees: they knew about Pharisees, but obviously hadn’t thought too much about Pharisees being ‘good’: after all, they were Jesus’ main antagonists.

They offered a brilliant list, which I wrote with chalk on a blackboard: most Pharisees knew their Bibles off by heart (our Old Testament); they were prayerful; they tithed (often up to a third of their income); fasted twice a week; were martyrs for their faith in Yahweh and their allegiance to the Torah; they attended ‘church’ regularly; were moral people: many could not remember breaking any of the commandments; they were ‘evangelical’ – they believed all the right doctrines (like resurrection); and Jesus said they were evangelistic missionaries – even crossing oceans to win converts.

There was a hushed silence in that little church. ‘Anything wrong?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ replied the extrovert in the front row. ‘What is it?’ ‘That’s us!’ he said. ‘Is it?’ I responded. ‘If so, we’re in trouble, because Jesus said these Pharisees were “children of the Devil”.’

So what’s wrong with these Bible-believers? Well, look at the two diatribes against the Pharisees in the Gospels, and note particularly Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42. Their list didn’t include the ‘most important’ thing of all: justice/love. They didn’t understand the heart of God, who loves lost people, sinners, especially the little people on the margins of society…

They also don’t understand the varieties of ‘lostness’. One can be lost through no fault of one’s own: like the lost coin. Many sinners were actually ‘sinned-against’: my wife who visits women in prison each week says the vast majority are victims of sexual/physical/emotional abuse. Or you can be lost because you’re dumb/stupid – like the lost sheep. Or, as with younger prodigal, you can get lost through deliberate willful choice.

But there’s another category of lostness: the Pharisees, like the elder brother, were lost and didn’t know it. They arrogantly categorized everyone else as lost. I meet these people all the time: they assume they’re ‘saved’ because they believe all the right doctrines: the ‘heterodox’ are lost and going to hell…

You see, the ministry-description of Jesus (and it’s ours too) is to help folks ‘name’ their ‘lostness’ and to bring good news that God is searching for them in their wilderness.

And lostness is something we all experience all the time. The spiritual masters tell us that ‘conversion’ is more an ongoing process of repentance and change and spiritual growth, rather than a ‘one-off’ experience. Now those liminal or peak experiences do happen sometimes, but it’s the little ‘lost and found’ episodes which count most.

Let me finish with two examples, one from a story about Jesus, and another from my own experience as a not-yet-fully-converted Pharisee.

When they brought the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8) what did Jesus say to her? After ‘Where are your accusers?’ he said something no Pharisee can say: ‘I do not condemn you’ – Pharisees have a ‘ministry’ of condemning others - followed by the Pharisee’s common mantra: ‘Go and sin no more!’ With Jesus, as John Claypool often said, ‘acceptance preceded repentance; with the Pharisees it was the other way around.’ The acid test of the Pharisee, ancient or modern, is this: when someone comes to mind who has committed, say, a sexual sin, do we always associate the person with their sinning, or view them as a loved child of God?

I don’t know about you, but the Pharisee in me rank-orders people according to their sinfulness or heterodoxy or some other ‘not-like-me’ criterion. I’m passionately committed to social justice, but not to violence: so I tend to despise the scruffy protesters police toss into paddy-wagons. I have several homosexual friends, but I’m uncomfortable when they greet one another in church with a passionate kiss. When I hear about Taliban fighters in Afghanistan getting killed, I tend to categorize them as human vermin who should be destroyed, instead of people loved by God…

Jesus welcomed sinners, he hosted a party for them, they were his friends… How many lost publicans and sinners are numbered amongst our friends?

Rowland Croucher
September 2007.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

POPE BENEDICT'S APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION AND ENCYCLICAL LETTER



Review: Pope Benedict's Apostolic Exhortation (Sacramentum Caritatis: The Sacrament of Love, 143 pp., 2007) and Encyclical Letter (Deus Caritas Est: On Christian Love, 71pp., 2006), St Paul's Publications, Strathfield, NSW.

These two booklets are pocket/purse-sized, and intended for the faithful's slow meditative reading.

My first response has to be to the titles: Christian love/charity is not a bad place to start for a newly-appointed Pope, eh?

And they're excellent reading - for Catholics and others.

Pope Benedict XVI was, of course, the infamous Cardinal Ratzinger (the
Church's 'rottweiler' my pro-Vatican 2 friends used to call him). As
'Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith' (1981-2005)
- formerly known as the Holy Office, the historical Inquisition - his
task was to defend the Roman Catholic Church's traditional faith and
values, which he did with ruthless zeal, and a very sharp intellect.

Now that he's Pope - a pastor pastorum - his writings have a pastoral,
more 'soft conservative' stance.

His first encyclical letter on love has 41 short paragraphs. Unlike the
Apostolic Exhortation the language is uniformly sexist - which means
that he obviously wrote it himself whereas he was helped by a more
contemporary amanuensis with the other publication. (However, just
occasionally he exhibits some knowledge of modern ideas - 'parallel
universe', for example). Some of the material has an 'in house' Roman
Catholic flavour: and we have to be patient with his strong traditional
views about Mary, the Eucharist, and the priesthood. He also dances
around the issue of love expressed in terms of social justice: unlike
the liberation theologians, Benedict does not condone the Church's
meddling in politics too much.

All that aside, there are some beautiful, even lyrical, paragraphs here.

Benedict has a first-rate mind, and is an excellent scholar of the Bible and patristics. And most of this is good raw material for devotion and prayer. One example: '...In God and with God I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person, not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern... But if I... [relate to] others solely from a desire to be "devout" and to perform my "religious duties," then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely "proper", but loveless.' (pp. 30-31).

Sacramentum Caritatus is a more substantial theological offering (with 256 endnotes!) about the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church's and Christian's life. It's an excellent introduction to this subject, and I'd encourage Protestants to read it with an open mind. The most frequently-quoted Church Father is, of course, Saint Augustine, which gives the discourse more of an 'original sin' than an 'original blessing' flavour.

Benedict is certainly traditional. The Church has to relate to polygamists gently but 'firmly' but he doesn't help us with the practical details of how to do that with love. 'Separated brethren' are still somewhat separated, and only barely brethren. (He wouldn't like what a radical Catholic priest I know did: concelebrate the Eucharist with the help of Protestant pastors). A couple of times he advocates the
use of Gregorian chants over more modern hymns and songs, encourages priests to master Latin, and urges the daily celebration of the Mass, even when the faithful are not present. And if there are 'non-practising Catholics' and others attending a wedding, for example, the officiating priest should consider replacing a celebration of the Mass with a 'celebration of the Word of God' (p. 67).

But I wrote 'Yes' in the margin a couple of times: 'The quality of homilies needs to be improved' (p. 63). 'There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him, and to speak to others of our friendship with him' (p. 107).

In my view, whatever the anachronisms of someone who lives in a 2,000-year past (!), if this man has this sort of devotion to Christ, I for one want to hear more from him.

Rowland Croucher
http://jmm.aaa.net.au

August 2007.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

MEGACHURCHES

Megachurches: Some Personal Reflections

I was told that at some point in the 1970s we at Blackburn Baptist Church (Melbourne) were one of three 'Megachurch Congregations' in Australia. The other two were AOG Pentecostal – at Mt. Gravatt in Queensland (Reg Klimionok, senior pastor) and Paradise in Adelaide (Andrew Evans). Others in the 1980's and 1990s outgrew those three churches (including Crossway, the new name for the Blackburn Baptist Church, with up to 4,000 attending weekly).

Two definitions: 'Megachurch' for our purposes was 1,000+ attending worship services each week. (Many church consultants, following Lyle Schaller, tend put the figure at 700+; I'm told by Phil Baker that there are 259 Australian churches seeing 500+ attending each week). And a 'congregation' happens when more than 50% of Sunday or weekly attenders are part of a small study/prayer/ministry group: we had more than 60 small study/prayer groups and up to 30 ministry groups, with over 70% of Sunday attenders involved. 'Aggregations', as I use the term, describe churches where the majority of Sunday/weekly attenders are not in a small group: Australia has had several Catholic and Protestant 'megachurch aggregations' in the last 150 years.

More here. Australian Megachurchwatch.

Rowland Croucher

May 2007

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

AUSTRALIAN RELIGION


Gary Bouma, Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Professor Gary Bouma, an ordained Anglican priest, is head of the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University. He’s one of Australia’s leading sociologists of religion, and excellently equipped to survey the Australian religious scene.

Australians are more reserved about their expression of religious commitment, writes Bouma, but religion and spiritual life in Australia are not in decline. His firm opinion is that ‘the secularity of the twenty-first century is not anti-religious or irreligious, as it was in the twentieth century.’ ‘While to many educated in the 1960s and 1970s “Australian religion” was a contradiction in terms or at best an embarrassing legacy of a forgettable past, that is not so now’. A 2005 survey found that 35% of Australians in their twenties said ‘religion was important in their lives’ compared with 21% in 1978. And while ‘in the twentieth century religion and spirituality often provided an identity and meaning for people, in the twenty-first century the core is the production and maintenance of hope.’ Another summary-statement: ‘The needs addressed by religion and spirituality are core to humanity: hope, and meaning grounded in a connection with that which is more than passing, partial and broken’ (p. 205).

The references to theoretical and research sources are authoritative, and in my view are worth the value of the book. The suggested reading, references and index at the back of the book are second-to-none. It’s all the work of a careful scholar, who is as familiar as anyone with the main sources of religious knowledge about Australians (the censuses, Christian Research Association, NCLS surveys etc.). And he’s an irenic commentator – even when describing what others might call ‘religious crazies’. (Which means – you guessed it – that he’s on the liberal end of the theological spectrum. He recommends the works of Karen Armstrong, for example).

I’d recommend that all clergy, in particular, read this book right through – even those in mainline churches who are having a hard time attracting new parishioners. (‘The formerly mainstream Protestant groups find themselves on the margins of a world they do not understand’ p. 171). Although a substantial majority of Australians continue to identify with a religious group, religious and spiritual life is becoming more diverse, and less tied to formal organizations. This book is strong on analysis, diagnosis, trends, surveys, aetiology, rather than prescription. The parish clergy I work with want to know ‘How can we in the churches harvest this growing interest in religion/ spirituality, without sacrificing our intelligence to fundamentalism, or our traditions to the latest cultural trends (eg. in music)?’ Bouma’s book doesn’t answer these questions directly, but if read carefully, my dear Watson, there are clues everywhere!

Now, some interesting facts/opinions in the ‘Did you know?’ or ‘Want to argue with this?’ categories:

‘There are now more Australian Buddhists than Baptists, more Muslims than Lutherans, more Hindus than Jews and more than twice as many Sikhs as Quakers’ (pp. 55-6)

‘In the 2001 census [there was] a dramatic rise in the number of Australians who wrote something down that related more to spirituality than to particular organized religious groups’ (p. 61)… ‘Only otiose religion is an opiate; the rest is dynamite’ (p. 197)

Between 1996 and 2001 the following Christian groups were among those suffering from numerical decline (Source: ABS census data): Brethren (down 12.28%), Churches of Christ (- 18.25%), Presbyterian/Reformed (- 5.57%), Salvation Army (- 3.67%), Uniting Church (- 6.46%). Baptists grew by 4.75%, Catholics 4.22%, Pentecostals 11.37%, ‘Other Christian’ 27.95%. [Why have the Baptists roughly kept pace with population growth but their sister denomination the Churches of Christ declined? My opinion: factor in the growth in the greater number of Baptist megachurches and ethnic congregations].

The Christian groups emanating from Britain in the 1800s – Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists etc. – ‘are moving from asking “Will our children have faith?” to “Will our faith have children? …They have effectively lost two generations and are in the process of losing a third’ (p. 67)

‘It is not acceptable to express unhappiness in a Pentecostal assembly. Sadness, grief and guilt are but momentary transitional feelings on the way to ecstasy and praise. Pentecostal forms of Christianity do not demand orthopraxy or orthodoxy so much as orthopassy’ (p. 94)

‘The primary aim of the evangelical movement is to gather people out of society and into the church, not to engage the world or to engage in attempts to shape the world from which they seek to draw people’ (p. 134)

Since the Age of Reason began ‘God was seen as the lawgiver, the source of reason… This era saw the rise of Calvinism and the Jesuits, who quintessentially expressed Christianity via reason. [Hence] the phrase “Think right thoughts and be saved; think wrong thoughts and be damned”. All of this is reflected in creeds, confessions and statements of union, which essentially demand that the believer “Toe the creedal line and you will be all right”’ (p. 166)

Disclosure: I studied with Gary Bouma towards a PhD in the early 1990s – and enjoyed the stimulation of being in academia again - but decided there were too many other competing demands for my time, and ‘demitted’.

Rowland Croucher
June 2007

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

JOHN STOTT: SOME PERSONAL REFLECTIONS


Prompted by reading the two-volume biography of Stott by Timothy Dudley-Smith (IVP 1999, 2001).

John Stott (1921- ) is the English-speaking world's highest-profile and most acclaimed ‘evangelical’. It has been said that if Evangelicals around the world were to elect a Pope, he would be front-runner. Personally he didn’t like the label ‘conservative evangelical’, preferring something like ‘radical conservative evangelical’. We have lunched together, corresponded a bit, mentioned each other 'in despatches' and in 2001 Jan and I were privileged to attend his 80th birthday celebration at London’s Royal Albert Hall (where he spoke for five or six minutes: a brilliant, carefully crafted summary of his Christian philosophy and commitment) - a great man, who has, with C S Lewis, influenced more undergraduates around the world in the last half-century towards an informed acceptance of the Christian faith than anyone else.

I first encountered John Stott the author through reading his Basic Christianity when at Teachers’ College in 1957. It was lucid, and made sense and with C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity gave me a foundation for understanding Christ’s claims about himself – and Christ’s claims on my life.

Later, when I was an InterVarsity Fellowship staffworker (I think about 1970), I was privileged to have an hour’s lunch with him. Our discussion mainly centred around Charismatic Renewal: and was probably one of hundreds of ‘inputs’ into his thinking between his two publications on the subject - The Baptism and Fullness of the Holy Spirit and Baptism and Fullness. The latter publication had a much more inclusive, accepting and irenic approach to the broad subject. I like to think I might have helped a little with that. I knew that John Stott got a lot of letters (his biographer says about 30 a day, six days a week), and I later – probably a year later – wrote to him, beginning as so many correspondents did, ‘You probably won’t remember me…’ and within a month I got a hand-written, one page response: ‘Of course I remember you…’ He certainly did: he had a prodigious memory for people’s names. We must also have exchanged views on homosexuality: in his note he recommended Davidson’s book The Returns of Love. Fifteen years later he commended me to a Baptist congregation in Vancouver, British Columbia, which called us to pastoral leadership. He also must have read my little book Recent Trends Among Evangelicals: he cited it a couple of times in his book Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness (1999).

I’ve sat in his audiences many times – at university missions, in public convention centres, at All Soul’s Langham Place, and, a couple of years ago, at a couple of public meetings in Melbourne (one of them in the auditorium of a church I pastored – Blackburn - now Crossway - Baptist Church). I was one of the 3600 leaders from 190 nations who participated in the July 1989 Lausanne II Congress on World Evangelization in Manila, the Philippines (where John Stott worked so hard as chairman of the drafting committee, trying to incorporate all our theological and missiological ideas into the Manila Manifesto that he was incapacitated with a severe headache).

The influence of someone on your thinking can be measured by what-is-remembered-when about that person. I remember, for example, his brilliant talk on evangelical inclusiveness – ‘Let’s not Polarize’ – at the Pharmacy College auditorium in Melbourne. (The four ‘polarizations’: intellect and emotion, conservative and radical, form and freedom, evangelism and social action – a plea for unity, liberty and charity). I remember where I was (holidaying in Lord Howe Island) when I read the first (513-page) volume of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s biography of Stott. I’ve just Googled our website – it has 172 references to Stott; my ‘Desktop Google’ has 1141.

I am about 17 years his junior, but our journeys have been remarkably similar. We both had fathers who were emotionally distant (his relationship with his surgeon-father was ‘turbulent and elusive’ (Vol.1:333). And mothers who nurtured our faith. When, at the age of 70 John Stott was asked to look back on those who had influenced his life, he chose his mother and father first. I’m 70 this year, and would now respond the same way, and in that same order. Each of us was invited to speak to youth groups/camps at an early age (I at 13; John Stott as a Uni. Freshman). He writes: ‘I blush when I remember some of the na├»ve and even downright erroneous notions I taught.’ So do I. We both love browsing in secondhand bookshops, we’re both ornithologists (I’m much more amateurish), and both wore out a couple of portable typewriters.

I too was ‘formed’ in terms of both evangelicalism and evangelism at Scripture Union/Crusader camps/missions, and as a leader with the InterVarsity Fellowship. He says ‘I sometimes wonder on which scrapheap I would be today if it had not been for God’s providential gift of the (Cambridge) UCCF… The Christian Union brought the friendships, teaching, books and opportunities for service which all helped me to stand firm and grow up. I am profoundly grateful.’ So am I. We were both ‘traveling secretaries – or Staffworkers – with IVF. He had a ‘great burden’ for the ‘intelligentsia’ of the world, a neglected ‘mission-field’ he thought. (So do I).

He wasn’t used to ‘failing’: he only got a 2.1 in German at University! (I actually ‘failed’ in several undergraduate subjects).

I too was a Dispensationalist until I received more wisdom about eschatological hermeneutics (in his case from his friend John Wenham; in mine by reading Henriksen’s commentary on the Book of Revelation, More Than Conquerers). For both John Stott and myself ‘theological college’ wasn’t an inspiring experience. He writes: ‘Little that we were given by lecturers appeared to be original… most was culled from… books, so it saved lots of time to go straight to their sources. [One lecturer said to him]: “Let me see, you attended one of my lectures once”.’ (I managed to avoid one lecturer for three out of my four years). ‘Theological study did not even pretend to be much of a preparation for the ministry. It was more of an academic… exercise for the solving of intellectual problems. To study theology was to enter a spiritual wilderness… The activities at Ridley Hall [mostly] interfered with the real work I felt called to do. The staff were patient with my spiritual arrogance and critical attitudes and I am sure now that I would have grown in my knowledge of God far more had I been a little more humble and positive in my approach… We used to write letters during… lectures because we didn’t get anything out of them.’ Ditto, ditto, ditto… same here (see the chapter on Narwee Baptist Church and theological college in my blog http://rowlandcroucher.blogspot.com/ .

We both pastored churches that saw 300-400 attending grow into multi-staffed ‘megachurches’. (He stayed as rector of All Souls’ from 1950-1975, and was thereafter Rector Emeritus. I was at Blackburn Baptist Church – now Crossway – for 8 years, 1973-1981). And he (too)

was pained by the opposition and/or jealousy of clergy colleagues who saw their churches shrink while All Souls’ kept growing. We both majored on empowering the church to minister to itself. Stott used to say ‘Appointing ten curates would not get all the ministry done!’ Right on! I too served on a council of the Evangelical Alliance. He and I both admire Billy Graham (though neither of us would agree entirely with what I would call Billy’s simplistic gospel theology). John Stott’s verdict on why so many in the UK responded to Billy Graham’s call for a ‘decision’: ‘I believe Billy was the first transparently sincere preacher these people have ever heard’. If you think that’s a put-down of his country-people, it was. Stott used to talk about his coming across sometimes as an emotionless ‘cold fish’ with the natural reserve of a typical Englishman.

I know or have met many of the people mentioned in these two volumes – Dudley Foord, John Reid, Ian Hore-Lacy, John Prince, J I Packer, Stuart Piggin, Chua Wee Huan, David Watson, James Houston…

We both depend on our diaries to make sense of our programs. John Stott’s ‘large Filofax diary [was] never out of his hand.’ (If I lost my diary I’d lose my mind, I think. The deacons in the first church I pastored – Narwee Baptist, in Sydney – used to play tricks on me by snitching my diary!). John Stott took making promises so seriously that he would repeatedly ask his staff when they were to do a task ‘You have made a note of it, haven’t you?’ And he hated wasting time, so found long car-drives tedious. (So do I. I like Australian intellectual/ politician Barry Jones’ remark that he has only one hate, moving physical objects across the face of the earth, including himself!).

Stott somewhere noted this comment about London’s three best-known Methodist preachers (who were at their peak when he also began preaching in a West End London church): ‘Sangster loved the Lord; Weatherhead loved his people, while Soper loved an argument!’ Sangster is one of my heroes; I’ve read quite a bit of Weatherhead; and I’ve heard Soper preach in Hyde Park, London, which he did regularly for many years. Interesting about Leslie Weatherhead: John Stott got this letter from him: ‘Thank you for writing Basic Christianity. It has led me to make a new commitment of my life to Christ. I am old now – nearly 78 – but not too old to make a new beginning’ (1:457). I agree with Stott about the primacy of the authority of Scripture over other spiritual authorities, and have a similar hesitancy about affirming the Bible’s inerrancy (something which the Bible does not assert for itself). Stott’s preferred form of words (from the Lausanne Covenant, for which he was criticized by North American evangelicals in particular): ‘Scripture is without error in all that it affirms: not everything contained in Scripture is affirmed by Scripture’.

But we are a little apart on some other theological matters. He’s an Anglican, I’m Baptist, so we have differing ‘ecclesiologies’. He tends to major on the forensic/ substitutionary aspects of the Atonement; I’m broader on that whole question. Stott doesn’t like the idea of a woman being a rector or a bishop: Jan and I were the Australian Baptists’ first ‘clergy couple’.

On the question of hell, he rejects both universalism and the terrible notion of ‘eternal conscious torment’, and holds to a ‘conditional immortality’ view: ‘the annihilation of the wicked’ (for which he was scolded by J I Packer, but commended by F F Bruce, who wrote to him, ‘annihilation is certainly an acceptable interpretation of the relevant New Testament passages’). I’d lean more towards universalism: how could creatures made like God be wiped out forever? (But I don't call myself a 'universalist', though I would not be surprised if God is!).

He’s skeptical about the contemplative tradition (his idea of a ‘desert retreat’ is to catalogue the birds he spots!): there’s no suggestion, I think, anywhere in these two volumes of ‘a mind at rest’: John Stott’s active mind roams from theology to ornithology and back again (he can sit for 10-12 hours at a stretch studying and writing at his retreat-place, so long as he has his binoculars handy!). He didn’t like the terms ‘spirituality’ or ‘spiritual formation’: ‘the biblical idea is discipleship.’ And he is dismissive of habitual auricular confession: ‘God’s normal and natural way is not to send us to the confessional but to confront us with himself through his Word.’ I wonder what he does with James 5:16? Stott also has a slightly more critical appraisal of the ecumenical movement than I do: ‘the World Council of Churches uses Scripture as a drunk uses a lamp post, namely for support, rather than for illumination’ (2:204). John Stott says that in his early adulthood he had no literary ambitions. I think I did…

He was very human: he too had the classical preacher’s dream of mounting the pulpit and believing he’d not prepared his sermon. And he was humble: he resisted being lionized and thus had a practice of disengaging himself from the high opinions others have of him.

Several times in these two volumes there’s a reference to Stott’s sexuality (eg. 1:329ff.): was he single because of a ‘latent homosexual inclination’ (factor in his difficult relationship with the same-sex parent; his bachelor-mentor; his habit of swimming naked with boys at his retreat-place, his close relationships with his male research assistants etc.)? No, he was heterosexual: twice he met women he could have married; but ‘I’m not in favour of vows of celibacy’. I remember hearing him joke about all this… ‘I study birds… the feathered kind!’. He often says ‘I could not have traveled or written as I have done if I had had the responsibilities of family’ (1:330). True.

Like John Stott I’ve been something of a ‘lone ranger’ in terms of an accountability group: he did not set one up until he was 65, but wished he had done so earlier (1:264).

Criticisms by fellow-evangelicals over this and that ‘got to’ John Stott. He quotes Lord Shaftesbury, the great evangelical social reformer: ‘High Churchmen, Roman Catholics, even infidels, have been friendly to me; my only enemies have been Evangelicals.’ My ‘enemies’ (too strong a word, I think) have been those to the right of my theological stance, not those to the left.

I thank God regularly for the privilege of knowing John Stott, the man and his ideas.

Rowland Croucher

John Stott by Timothy Dudley-Smith (IVP 1999, 2001) is available from Ridley College Bookshop

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Brian McLaren: A GENEROUS ORTHODOXY


Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (2004)

Brian McLaren is probably today’s most widely-read ‘progressive evangelical’. Surprisingly he’s never attended classes for credit in a theological institution, nor has any ordination qualifications from a bona fide denomination… ‘Rather I am a lowly English major who snuck into pastoral ministry accidentally through the back doors of the English department and church planting…’ But he’s very widely-read, writes in a racy, readable manner, and is au fait with modern, post-modern, and post-postmodern thinking. He’s honest, and the key reason he’s ‘progressive’ is that he rates ‘orthopraxy’ (right behavior) over ‘orthodoxy’ (right thinking).

A Generous Orthodoxy
is a book I wish I’d written. Below is my summary of his seminal ideas:

From John Franke’s introduction: The term ‘generous orthodoxy’ was coined by Yale theologian Hans Frei, to help move beyond the liberal/conservative impasse. It connotes a rejection of both liberal and conservative certainty/universal knowledge resulting from a commitment to Enlightenment Foundationalism. (The liberals constructed theology upon the foundation of unassailable religious experience; the conservatives looked to an error-free Bible. So a generous orthodoxy is ‘post-liberal’ and ‘post-conservative’ – to foster the pursuit of truth, the unity of the church, and the gracious character of the gospel). Jesus Christ is the center of the Christian faith. This faith, as Lesslie Newbigin articulates it, is exclusive (the revelation in Jesus Christ is unique, but not in the sense of denying the possibility of salvation to those outside the Christian faith); inclusive (refusing to limit the saving grace of God to Christians, but not in the sense of viewing other religions as salvific); pluralist (acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but not denying the unique and decisive nature of what God has done in Jesus Christ).

McLaren does not covet the last word – his aim (at times) is to be ‘provocative, mischievous, and unclear’ for the purpose of encouraging readers to think and enter into the conversation themselves.

Hans Frei: ‘Generosity without orthodoxy is nothing, but orthodoxy without generosity is worse than nothing.’

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Shalom!/Salaam!

Rowland Croucher



Friday, April 27, 2007

WHERE HAVE ALL THE PROPHETS GONE?

Here’s the gist of Marvin McMickle’s Where Have All The Prophets Gone? Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching in America, 2006. It’s black writing-as-preaching at its most passionate, biblically enlightened, and intelligent (he has a couple of earned Drs).

When (American) preaching isn’t prophetic you won’t hear anything about the two million persons packed into overcrowded prisons, most of them for drug-related offences that could be treated more effectively and at a fraction of the cost; or the 46 million persons without medical insurance; or the still-prevailing racism and sexism. Instead there’s an emphasis on just two ‘justice’ issues: abortion and same-sex marriage; the emergence of an oxymoron called patriot pastors; a focus on ‘praise and worship’ that doesn’t result in compassionate discipleship; and finally the vile messages of prosperity theology which have dominated the preaching of televangelists and many pulpits.

Where have all the prophets gone?
Gone in search of megachurches, every one.

Where have all the prophets gone?
Gone in search of faith-based funding, every one.

Where have all the prophets gone?
Gone in search of personal comfort, every one.

Where have all the prophets gone?
Gone in search of political correctness, every one.

Where have all the prophets gone?
Gone into a ministry that places praise over speaking truth to the powers, every one.

When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

Walter Brueggemann (The Prophetic Imagination) says the prophet offers us an alternative consciousness to the prevailing ‘royal consciousness’ of the entrenched political, economic, social or religious powers.

An example: Tony Campolo (Speaking My Mind) writes about the hypocrisy of those who staunchly oppose same-sex marriage, but whose heterosexual divorce rate is 50%: ‘Gays often ask why evangelicals seem willing to accept couples who are divorced and remarried, a sexual relationship Jesus specifically condemned as adultery, and then come down so hard on a sexual relationship Jesus never mentioned.’ If we follow the Levitical laws proscribing same-sex behavior, why do we not also forbid the eating of pork, or promote the idea of Jubilee – releasing people from prisons and from debt? Reason: homophobia, ‘the last acceptable prejudice in America’.

But it’s not only conservative evangelicals who have a problem here: whenever the convocations of mainline churches gather, what’s the #1 item on their agendas? Same-sex marriage, and ordaining active homosexual pastors. What about the staggering number of people confined to America’s prisons, or the 46 million without health insurance (there’s that refrain again) or the scourge of HIV/AIDS, or the explosion of divorce and teen pregnancy in America?

And the black churches? ‘Too many black clergy, especially those heading megachurches, are either apolitical or apologists for the status quo. What about [the refrain plus] staggering rates of black unemployment, black-on-black crime, the rapid spread of Islam as the religion of choice among many inner-city young men?’

America is the most professedly ‘Christian’ of the developed nations (over 85% identify as Christians), and the least Christian in its behavior. It leads them all in the murder rate, the use of capital punishment, the number of persons incarcerated, the percentage of marriages ending in divorce, the rate of teen pregnancy, and the number of children living in poverty.

Meanwhile, Christians are locked into the two issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. Where have all the prophets gone?

President Bush has said ‘Owning stuff is good.’ But that’s hard for many when 85% of the nation’s wealth is controlled by 18% of the people. While conservative evangelicals focus on their two-pronged agenda, Enron and WorldCom and other companies have been looted by their chief executive officers, leaving their workers and retirees in financial ruin. But Focus on the Family won’t get too upset about these ‘family values’ concerns. Nor will they mention anything about African Americans comprising 13% of the population yet constituting over 70% of the prison population. In 9 states when offenders are released their right to vote is revoked for life. And it’s well known that if you have a black skin you’re much more likely to serve a longer sentence than whites for the same crime. (And if you’re white and rich like Martha Stewart you’ll get less than six months for securities fraud and lying to a grand jury, and then receive more television deals).

And re Iraq: many Christians do their best impersonation of ‘hear no evil – see no evil – speak no evil’. The world is full of brutal dictators, but the Bush Administration chose to eliminate one who sat on the world’s second largest reserves of oil. The war in Vietnam failed to end communism in that country; and democratization in Iraq looks to be in dire peril of suffering the same fate. The president wages these wars abroad at the expense of the war on poverty in America.

The justice agenda of Jesus (Matthew 25): poverty, sickness, prisons, and other forms of human need.

Abortion and human sexuality are not unimportant: but they are simply not the limit of what should occupy a justice agenda in the 21st century.

PATRIOT PASTORS

‘Patriot pastor’ is an oxymoron: a pastor’s allegiance should be to God and not to a political party. Amos, Micah, Samuel, Nathan, John the Baptist and Jesus regularly stood against the political establishment of their day in the name of the God of heaven and in defense of a more just and compassionate world. Where is patriot pastors’ concern was for the homeless, the hopeless, the hungry and the heartbroken in our society?

The evangelical East Waynesville Baptist Church, North Carolina forced nine members out of their church because they didn’t vote for George W Bush in the 2004 presidential election! The pastor said these people were holding back the work of the Kingdom of God.

But not all evangelicals are narrow: Rick Warren has been advocating help for the poor in Africa and elsewhere: ‘It is a moral issue… Jesus commanded us to help the poor so it is an obedience issue as well.’ Others are pressuring the government to do more about religious persecution, Darfur, enact legislation about prison rape in the USA and push for more funds to fight AIDS in Africa [PS and recently, climate change issues]. ‘God bless America is a patriotic tune and not a theological mandate. ‘In God We Trust’ may be engraved upon our nation’s currency but there is no evidence that those words have been etched upon the hearts of our nation’s leaders.

WHEN PROPHETIC PREACHING GIVES WAY TO PRAISE

On Christian television programs there’s an incessant theme of praise – but it, too, is severed from the prophetic message. Which is exactly what Amos condemned: ‘Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5:23-24). When upstretched hands in praise do not also become outstretched hands to lift up a fallen brother or sister, that is an abomination to God.

Now praise is good: read Psalm 150. The prophets are not calling for an end to acts of praise worship, but the striking of a balance so that deeds of justice are not overlooked or ignored while Christians are busy ‘having a high time in the house of God’. Lifting up holy hands is good: provided they extend to helping hands to those Jesus describes in Matthew 25 as ‘the least of these’.

PROPHETS TO PROFITS

‘Her leaders judge for a bribe; her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money’ (Micah 3:11).

A favourite text for many ‘prosperity gospel/ health and wealth/ name it and claim it’ preachers is John 10:10, where Jesus promised his followers abundant life. But the good life and the abundant life are not synonymous. Indeed prosperity preachers who base their message on John 10:10 are in fact more reflective of the thieves and robbers who come to steal and destroy. ‘What will it profit,’ asked Jesus, ‘if you gain he whole world and forfeit your life? (Matthew 16:26)? The life of abundance offered by these preachers is more defined by television commercials and magazine advertisements than by anything found in Scripture. Jesus told us not to store up treasures on earth, but rather to store up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). Paul says he’s content with whatever he has: ‘I know what it is to have little, and I know what I is to have plenty’ (Philippians 4:11-13).

And Jesus promised his followers that they would suffer trouble. Many preachers, writes Barbara Brown Taylor, are promising a smooth road which goes around the wilderness rather than one that leads people through the wilderness with its rough places, and crooked paths and low moments.

Item - Paula and Randy White have been blessed with an 8,000 square-foot home – and urge people who are broke to borrow money from others to give to their ‘ministry’!

Very little if anything is said by these preachers about the grinding poverty which affects hundreds of millions around the world. ‘Nothing is said about the thousands of US military who have been killed and injured in an ill-conceived and poorly conducted war in Iraq, a nation that did not attack us on September 11, 2001, and a nation that did not have weapons of mass destruction’.

In his book God Has a Dream Desmond Tutu says ‘To oppose injustice and oppression is not something that is merely political. No it is profoundly religious.’

The most prophetic voices among us today may well be the voices of women who continue to push both church and society beyond the single issue of race. If the role of women in society must remain unchanged from the days of the early church, then any opposition to slavery should also have been resisted, since Paul seemed to have accepted the reality of that evil institution in Romans 13:1-7. You would have thought Galatians 3:28 – ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ – would have settled this question long ago.

There are now about as many US fatalities in the Iraq war than there were fatalities on September 11, 2001. What will have been accomplished by this reckless venture?

We should be informed by a line from the hymn ‘God of Grace and God of Glory’ written by Harry Emerson Fosdick that warns ‘Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore’.

SERMON

The book ends with a magnificent sermon on the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag where he takes to task those who oppose the inclusion of the phrase ‘under God’. One nation? What about he great divide between rich and poor? Liberty and justice for all? When over two million people are in prison? Republic? The inference is that no one is more important than anyone else and where everybody’s vote is supposed to count. But ‘what kind of republic allows what happened in Florida in the 2000 election? Indivisible? ‘We are divided by race, by region (ask the people in New Orleans whether we are indivisible).

And McMickle’s own moving story: His father abandoned the family when he was ten years old. Later, his mother tried to enroll in the music department at Moody Bible Institute, but was denied admission because she was a divorcee!’

Buy this powerful and moving book, read it, and suggest your pastor preach from it (if he/she is game!).

Rowland Croucher

April 2007

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Shalom!/Salaam!/Pax!

Rowland Croucher

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Husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, pastor, teacher, writer, used-to-be-academic... See here for more: http://jmm.org.au