Saturday, 22 October 2016

Ethics in Brief Volume 21, Nos. 3 & 4 (2016)

Two issues from Volume 21 of Ethics in Brief, published by The Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, are now available online:

This article examines the current indifference of British evangelicals towards the ethical issues raised by hunting for sport. It calls for a retrieval of an older, Reformation tradition in which such hunting was seen as not only unethical but also spiritually dangerous. 

This paper reflects theologically on gender, biology and identity in light of ambiguous sexual biology (‘intersex’) and psychology (‘gender dysphoria’). It affirms the goodness and diversity of bodily, sexed and gendered existence, while acknowledging the brokenness of the world and human experience of it. It closes with some suggested responses to these realities.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Ruth Valerio on Just Living

Ruth Valerio, Just Living: Faith and Community in an Age of Consumerism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2016).

I wrote the following mini review for EG, the quarterly magazine produced by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Ruth Valerio is as much at ease discussing sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and theologian Thomas Aquinas as she is about her exploits in keeping chickens and setting up a pig cooperative! It gives this book a wonderfully distinctive flavour, as Ruth joins the dots between our cultural context, our faith, and our lifestyle.

It matters that life is lived well, and the book ends with a series of recommended practices related to social concern, ecological concern, money, material goods, food, and more. But we do so in full awareness of the globalised world and consumerist society in which we live, and we do so in the light of the rich resources offered to us in Scripture and Christian tradition. Here especially, the book helps us navigate between therapeutic narcissism and world-denying asceticism to a way of life which appreciates what it means to use pleasurable things rightly and for good ends, bound up with justice and the welfare of others.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Theology and Ministry 4 (2016)

The latest issue of Theology and Ministry: An Online Journal, from St. John’s College Durham, is available here. It contains the below essays.

Jocelyn Bryan

John W.B. Tomlinson
Ministry and History: A Survey of Over 300 Religious Practitioners
Recognising that the nature and the activity of the Church are in part defined by its history, this study investigates the degree and type of engagement in history by those who lead ministry in the local church. How is their interest in history, if they have any, expressed? Do they feel adequately trained to use history in their work? Does history have a particular relevance to different areas of their ministry? Is the historical religious building a valuable resource or a burden? From the responses certain patterns emerge, influenced by – among other factors – age, experience and gender. Denomination also plays a significant part both in what areas of church history seem relevant and in how such history can be used in ministry. This study raises again the question of how the church brings together its theology and its history.

Peter T.H. Hatton
Wisdom’s Feast: Proverbs as a Resource for Theological Education
This article argues that the biblical book of Proverbs offers a humane, generous pedagogy that has the power to helpfully address those currently engaged in Theological Education. This is a pedagogy grounded in a relationship that seeks to draw both teachers and learners into an engagement modelled on the familial and commensal – ‘host:guest’, rather than ‘instructor:passive recipient’ – while prompting a participatory, questioning learning style. It reaffirms the importance of the acquisition of wisdom and the formation of character at the heart of enterprise. It cautions against pedagogical methods that reduce residential and commensal elements in theological education.

Michael Hirst
Poverty, Place and Presence: Positioning Methodism in England, 2001 to 2011
The Methodist Church in Britain has a long-standing commitment to mission alongside the poor. That priority, informed by an understanding of how churches commit to social action through encounter and engagement, might be expected to align its presence with disadvantaged areas: to enter into solidarity with the poorest in society. This paper investigates how far the Methodist priority for the poor intersects with the everyday geographies of its local presence. Cross-sectional and longitudinal data on the distribution of Methodist personnel and agencies are evaluated against neighbourhood variations in social and economic deprivation. There was no evidence of a Methodist presence skewed towards the most deprived communities in England. Findings raise questions about how church structures and roles can be arranged to fulfil beliefs, values and expectations, and have implications for the deployment of ministers and the location of activities in response to unmet needs in the population due to lack of resources and opportunities.

Trudie Morris
Let the little children come to me; do not stop them’ – Inhabiting the Sacred Space: Exploring the Curatorial with Children
In this paper the practice of co-curating the Eucharist with children is explored. The context is an ongoing research enquiry seeking to address the theological question of what it means for children to be at the centre of Eucharistic worship as an expression of the Kingdom of God. The focus on curating liturgical worship draws upon developments in the field of museum curation. Key concepts are presented: that as an insider researcher I am the subject of my research and that my primary values are questions of justice, discovery and experience. Dialogue partners from the fields of education research and children’s spirituality support the key concepts. The argument presented is that the practice of co-curating the Eucharist with children is important in developing worshipping communities with a pilgrim model for discipleship.

Tom Stuckey
Repairing Altars of Sacrifice Tom Stuckey
Is Elijah a suitable role model for an ordained minister in today’s declining Church? This paper suggests that the ordained should adopt the kenotic ministerial pattern of Paul as found in his letter to the Philippians rather than the power model of Elijah. In a secular context such as ours, it is also important that the ordained minister listens to the faith stories of the elderly in the local congregations. Their memories, when redeemed, can stimulate and open up imaginative options for the future.

Book Reviews

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Centre for Public Christianity (October 2016)

Just this morning, I started reading Nick Spencer’s The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values (London: SPCK, 2016), so was interested to see that the Centre for Public Christianity has posted an audio interview with him on the topic of the book, available to listen to or download from here.

Here’s a flavour:

‘[Christianity] hasn’t always been used on the side of the political or the cultural or the economic angels, but... to think you can understand our idea of right, democracy, human dignity, the scientific revolution, even the welfare state without understanding Christianity – you’re making a big mistake.’

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Guy Brandon on Social Media

The latest Cambridge Paper from the Jubilee Centre is available online, this one by Guy Brandon:

Here is the summary:

‘The internet, smartphones, social media, instant messaging and other related technologies have had a dramatic impact on the way we communicate over the last 20 years, and therefore fundamentally how we relate to one another. Since we are relational beings, made in the image of a relational God, these far-reaching changes have innate spiritual significance. The pervasive nature of communications technologies means it is often hard to gauge their true effects on us, but exploring and understanding the implications for our lives and relationships is vital if their use is to be meaningfully aligned with our faith.’

Saturday, 8 October 2016

9Marks Journal (Summer 2016) on Authority

The latest issue of the 9Marks Journal, available here as a pdf and here in other formats, is devoted to the topic of ‘Authority: God’s Good and Dangerous Gift’.

In the Editor’s Note, Jonathan Leeman writes:

‘The topic of authority befuddles Westerners today. We don’t like the idea of authority, but it’s difficult to get away from since our lives are suffused by it: hospital procedures, building codes, traffic laws, parental responsibilities, marriage covenants, student requirements, office rules, the laws of state, the grammar of language, the meaning of words – on and on we could go. Authority is the glue and gravity that enables people to live together. Apart from authority, all of life would be determined by the preferences of the moment. There would be no traditions, no predictability of behavior, no stability of meaning, no shared morality.

‘The goal of this 9Marks Journal is to consider the topic of authority as God’s good and dangerous gift. What is the church’s authority? The pastor’s authority? And what will keep churches and pastors from misusing their authority?’

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Living with Purpose

This article was first published in the June 2016 edition of EG, the quarterly magazine of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

The tide has turned. Or so many now think. Christians are feeling the pinch on the exercise of freedom, the redefinition of marriage, the challenge of bioethics, the nature of family, the growth of Islam. It’s too much of a stretch to say we’re facing outright persecution, especially of a kind suffered by many around the world. But today’s culture seems more alien to Christianity than it used to be, and many of us sense the need to prepare for a period of increasing marginalisation in society.

What does following Jesus look like in such a context? How should we relate to the culture in which we find ourselves?

Possible options are fortification (hunker down and wait for Jesus to come back), domination (take the world for Jesus), or accommodation (give in and blend in). An alternative which has commended itself to many is what sociologist James Davison Hunter has called ‘faithful presence’. A biblical model for this is found in Jeremiah 29, the prophet’s letter to the Judean exiles in Babylon, in which he exhorts them not to dig in or to fight back or to give up, but to live in and work for the well-being of Babylonian society.’

Living in Exile?

It’s easy to overdo ‘exile’ language, particularly when it becomes a way of talking about the decline of society away from Christian mores. It can make us sound more beleaguered than we really are and cause us to forget the relative freedoms we still enjoy.

Still, although the time and situation are very different, the apostle Peter applies this 6th century BC exilic language to his 1st century AD Christian readers spread across northern Turkey. They are both ‘God’s elect’ and ‘exiles scattered’ (1 Peter 1:1), called to live ‘as foreigners here in reverent fear’ (1:17). This is in keeping with descriptions of disciples elsewhere as ‘not of the world’, though ‘sent... into the world’ (John 17:14-18), as those whose ‘citizenship is in heaven’ (Philippians 3:20), who, like Abraham, are ‘foreigners and strangers on earth... longing for a better country – a heavenly one’ (Hebrews 11:13-16).

As such, despite the differences between us and our biblical counterparts, the metaphor describes something of our ongoing status in relation to the world. We are, among other ways of understanding our identity, ‘resident aliens’ in whatever culture we inhabit. And so we can look back not only to Peter but also to Jeremiah for wisdom for today.

Living with Purpose

Jeremiah urges the exiles to establish themselves in Babylon. They still take their ultimate identity from Jerusalem – which remains their true home, and to which their descendants will one day return. Yet, through a combination of presence, productivity and prayer, something of that identity and hope is lived out in ‘foreign’ territory.

Purposeful presence

The very ordinariness of Jeremiah’s instructions in 29:5-6 may come as a surprise – ‘build... settle... plant... eat... marry... have sons and daughters... Increase in number’. It’s not too difficult to see echoes here of the original mandate given to humanity, the commission to cultivate his good creation (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). Here, in 6th-century Babylon is a reaffirmation of the significance of embodied, material, family, and social life, extended across generations.

How are ‘exiles’ to live? By carrying on doing what we have been called to do as those made in the image of God – to steward God’s good gifts to us, in relationship with others, in a way that represents his own gracious rule over all things.

We could still do this largely cut off from society around us, except that Jeremiah calls us to look outwards as well.

Purposeful productivity

‘Seek the peace and prosperity of the city’, Jeremiah tells God’s people (29:7), where ‘peace and prosperity’ translate the single Hebrew word shalom – the wholeness and wellbeing that is a mark of God’s blessing.

The active seeking of shalom means that our ‘faithful presence’ is not a passive compliance with the status quo. Indeed, as those who have been the recipients of amazing grace in Christ, we seek the welfare of the places we live through our everyday work – in doing business, manufacturing goods, providing services, teaching children, writing reports, designing software, mopping floors, stacking shelves, emptying bins, changing nappies – in different ways contributing to the broader welfare of society. It also involves being a neighbour to those around us – in our school, our university, our office, our canteen, our estate, our village, our town. It could involve becoming a school governor, joining a neighbourhood watch scheme, volunteering in a charity shop, getting involved in local politics.

It’s the same for Peter’s readers. Neither abdicating from the culture nor attacking the culture nor absorbing into the culture, his direction for them is ‘to live... good lives among the pagans’ (2:12) – which he then applies to society, the workplace, and the home. It’s precisely in these arenas that his readers will be seen to follow a different pattern – the pattern of Christ, no less – where neighbours and colleagues and family members will be prompted to ask why they do so, even in the face of suffering. 

Purposeful prayer

Then Jeremiah says there is something else we can all do for the city: ‘Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (29:7). This is perhaps the most revolutionary action of all. They were used to praying for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6), but this was Babylon – pagan, idolatrous, God-defying Babylon! Again, here in the 6th century BC are echoes of Paul’s call to pray for those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2), and Jesus’ command to ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44).

Living in Hope 

This being Babylon, there will be dangers – as the books of Daniel and Esther make all too clear. Daniel and his friends are known for their witness in the face of possible death; they bear the cost of being faithful to God. Even so, they do not retreat into a holy enclave. They remain faithful even while accepting pagan names, learning the language and literature of the Babylonians, and serving in the administration of the ‘enemy’. They serve the God of Zion, even while seeking the shalom of Babylon.

Yet resident aliens often live with opposition as well as affirmation. Jesus warned his followers to expect persecution and that others would see their good deeds and glorify God (Matthew 5:10, 16). Peter also warns us to anticipate harassment, and yet to live in such a way that people will see our ‘good deeds and glorify God’ (1 Peter 2:12).

Through it all we live in hope. Jeremiah promises that God would end the exile and restore them to Jerusalem (29:10-14). For us too, we actively pursue shalom on our frontlines, and we do indeed often see the fruit of that. And we continue to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’, confident that God will one day bring about the restoration of all things. Now as then, living with purpose in exile is a way of affirming that the world is in safe hands, as we set our ‘hope on the grace to be brought to [us] when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming’ (1 Peter 1:13).

Going Further

For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles 
Acton Institute, 2015 
A brilliantly-conceived, beautifully-filmed series of seven short films on how to live out our salvation ‘for the life of the world’.

The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom 
Lee Beach (IVP, 2015)
An overview of the theme of exile in the Bible and its implications for the holiness and mission of the church.

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It 
Greg Forster (Crossway, 2014)
Looks at how Christians can bring the joy that comes through the gospel to bear on every dimension of life.

The Whole of Life for Christ: Enriching Everyday Discipleship
Antony Billington and Mark Greene (IVP, 2015)
‘Living with Purpose’ is one of several themes explored in this book. Produced in partnership with Keswick Ministries, the seven Bible studies offer individuals and groups the opportunity to explore whole-life discipleship more deeply.