Monday, 27 February 2017

Book Review: Ian Paul, Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World

Ian Paul, Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World: The ‘Now’ and ‘Not Yet’ of Eschatology (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2017)

I am grateful to Grove Books for a review copy.

I came to faith in my early teens while attending Sunday School in a Brethren-influenced independent evangelical church. The eschatology espoused here was of the sort found in this Chick tract and the wonderfully and increasingly camp Left Behind series. Almost thirty years on, I cannot help but wish there had existed at that time a book on eschatology as effective as Ian Paul’s Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World. Reading a short book such as this back in the late 1980s and early 1990s not only would have saved me some theological blushes among my peers, but also have given me a wider framework in which to read Scripture as a whole.

Paul first considers the ideas of kingdom and hope as expressed in the Old Testament. The Creator God is king of the world but delegates divine rule to men and women, God’s vice-regents. However, in a fallen world, humanity fails to live up to its high calling, and so God elects Israel to demonstrate how people are to live in the world in continuous relationship with God. The emphasis here is on the prophetic expectation that God will eventually exercise divine rule through a true successor to Israel’s king, David. This, Paul contends, means that the fulfilment of Israel’s future expectations is not simply a matter of God intervening in human history but of God acting sovereignly to establish a new creation.

Old Testament eschatology
Paul goes on to affirm that the various New Testament books point to this very fact: a new creation has been inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus, even though there is still a ‘surplus of hope, the difference between what we see already realized of the kingdom in Jesus, and what we do not yet see realized in the present age’ (p. 12). This is the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of the book’s subtitle.

New Testament eschatology
Thus all the Old Testament’s future expectations find completion in Jesus. This is not to say that there is nothing in the New Testament that some would label ‘end-times prophecy’, but that finally everything is centred on Jesus and not on the execution of some kind of divine blueprint. As Paul writes, ‘At no point does any NT writer suggest that Jesus does anything other than fulfil all God’s promises in the OT. We might not see their complete fulfilment until his return—but it is his life, death and resurrection, and not some other historical events, which meet all our hopes’ (p. 17).

Needless to say, I regard Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World as a very good addition to the Grove Books Biblical series. Admittedly, those familiar with some of Tom Wright’s writings, or those who have somehow escaped the influence of Scofield-style hermeneutics, will be unlikely to find much novelty here. But this is not a criticism. The strength of this slim volume is that it manages to convey a lot of detail about eschatology in relatively few words, successfully demonstrating the extent to which eschatological themes pervade Scripture and how these themes continue to be important for Christians today. Paul writes clearly and fluently, and his discussions of the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24–25 and parallels) and the book of Revelation are standout examples of how a carefully considered understanding of eschatology helps to exegete difficult biblical passages. Some might find Paul’s careful survey a little too tidy: Should we not expect to find at least a few loose ends or unresolved tensions in Scripture simply by virtue of it being a collection of diverse texts? Also, I notice there is no treatment of eschatology as found in the New Testament from Hebrews to Jude. While I appreciate that inclusion of such might not add too much to the overall analysis (as well as making this particular Grove Book longer than others in the series), I do think Hebrews has some uniquely interesting things to say on how the life of the age to come impacts on the life of the present age.

In short, I commend Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World. It contains a lot of good material for individual study and could also be used effectively in a home group setting. The book is available here.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Why we shouldn’t be afraid of God

My church is currently working through the letter to the Hebrews in the Sunday services. I preached today and, seeing as a handful of people seemed to like it, I thought I’d reproduce it here. The Bible texts used are Matthew 17:1-9 (today’s lectionary reading) and Hebrews 7:1-28.

Close your eyes and picture the scene. You have been with Jesus for a while now and seen him do all kinds of extraordinary things. You’ve stood amazed as he healed people of diseases and deformities. You’ve gasped out loud as he cast out demons and changed the weather. You’ve been rendered absolutely speechless as he fed thousands of people with practically nothing and brought a little girl back to life. And you’ve also heard and agreed with Peter, who said: ‘Jesus, you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ There is something about Jesus, something about what he says and what he does, that makes Peter’s words ring true. You are 100% sure: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

But now you’re on a mountainside with Peter, James, and John. And Jesus—Jesus, the man you’ve followed for so long, the ordinary man you have seen do so many extraordinary things—Jesus is standing before you, looking like you’ve never seen him before. He is illuminated by a light so dazzling it’s as though the very presence of God is flashing and sparkling from every pore in his skin and bathing you in its ethereal glory. And then, a voice, a penetrating voice: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’

You are scared witless. Peter had put into words something that you’d suspected ever since you met Jesus: ‘Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ But now the living God himself has confirmed this: ‘Yes, Peter—this is my Son! And he is greater than Moses; he is greater than Elijah! So listen . . . listen to him!’ As the reality of an encounter with the living God and the Son of the living God drives itself into your heart and mind, you realise you are trembling with fear, your knees are weakening, and you are collapsing to the ground, face down. You know God is the living God; you know Jesus is God’s Son; but you never expected all this to be so real. This is the kind of encounter that you hear happens to others, not to you.

Let’s step back a bit. It seems pretty obvious why Peter, James, and John were overcome with fear. Theirs was an experience of God few had faced. And I dare say that we would react in a similar way if we had such an encounter with God. Imagine if the immense and even tangible light of God’s presence suddenly burst through the window here at Holy Trinity—what would we do? I suppose many of us would be quite pleased and excited to see God so clearly and so obviously among us . . . but I think I would be like Peter, James, and John—scared and overwhelmed by fear. When God’s light shines brightly in our lives, it cannot help but cast shadows . . . and I think my life could cast a very large shadow indeed. If God’s light burst through the window here, I’d be scared and overwhelmed with fear.

But remember what God says: ‘Jesus is my Son—listen to him!’ And what is the first thing Jesus says? Jesus says, ‘Get up—and don’t be afraid!’ We have no need to fear God, despite our messy lives and sinful attitudes. And it’s all because of what Jesus, the Son of the living God, has done—and is doing.

Our series on Hebrews helps us understand and appreciate why we need not be wary or afraid of God. As we’ve been going through Hebrews, we have already heard how God has spoken to us through God’s Son, Jesus. We have already heard that Jesus has called us his brothers and sisters. We have already heard that Jesus became like us in every respect and is able to sympathise with us as we struggle through life. None of these things suggests that we have any need to be wary or afraid of God—but if God really has spoken through Jesus; if Jesus really is the eternal Son of God made flesh; if Jesus really is able to sympathise with our weaknesses; then I think we really need to listen to what God in Christ has to say to us now. We need to begin eating solid food so that we have sufficient energy to follow Jesus into the presence of God. And our reading today from Hebrews is nothing but solid food.

So what’s going on here? Why does Hebrews keep referring to this mysterious person, Melchizedek? In the Old Testament, Melchizedek appears only in two places. In the first place, Genesis 14, Melchizedek is described as the king of Salem and the priest of God Most High. And Melchizedek also features in Psalm 110, though really it’s the priesthood of Melchizedek that’s mentioned. The actual person Melchizedek is not really the focus here—and this is what Hebrews picks up on, as she reads Genesis 14 through the lens of Psalm 110. Hebrews picks up on the idea that Melchizedek seems to appear out of nowhere: he was ‘without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life’.

To our ears, this sounds a strange conclusion to draw; but it serves the point Hebrews wants to make about Jesus. Melchizedek is a priest forever because there is no account of his birth, no report of how he became a priest or a king, and no record of his death—which is when his priesthood and reign would naturally have come to an end. Thus for Hebrews there is no reason why Melchizedek shouldn’t be regarded as a priest forever—unlike Aaron and his descendants, whose priesthood most definitely had a beginning and now, because of Jesus, most definitely has come to an end.

But Hebrews isn’t concerned with Melchizedek the person as much as she’s concerned with the eternal priesthood Melchizedek represents. This is the gist of Hebrews 7: that because Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, Jesus’s priestly ministry is greater than anything that could ever have come through Moses and Aaron, good though it was while it was in place. But why is Jesus’s ministry greater or better? Because Jesus has been raised from the dead and is sitting at the right hand of God. Jesus is sitting at God’s right hand as our great high priest and king of the world.

Hebrews also says that Jesus is permanently a priest because he always lives and will never again die. And Jesus is able to save completely we who approach God through him because—and this is an important ‘because’—because Jesus lives to pray for us. God in Christ loves us so much that he prays . . . for us.

This, I suggest, should help us understand and appreciate why we have no reason to be wary or afraid of God. Jesus calls us his sisters, and he calls us his brothers, and he leads us to his Father. Because Jesus has our flesh and blood, and because he sympathises with our weaknesses, he has already taken us into the very presence of God and is praying that we will all complete our difficult journeys to see God face to face. There is no need to be wary or afraid of God, because God in Christ and by the Holy Spirit has done and is doing all that is necessary to draw us closer and closer towards God.

So how should we digest this solid food? Or, to put it differently, how should we respond to this? First of all, let’s remind ourselves that because of Jesus, our great high priest, we are priests as well, serving under him. Priests represent and connect different parties to one another. In Israel, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter the holy of holies, the place of the presence of God, on behalf of the people, representing them to God. And after making atonement, the high priest would leave the holy of holies and announce God’s forgiveness of the people to them. The high priest represented God and the people of Israel to one another and connected them. Jesus, our great high priest, does the same—he represents the people to God and God to the people, and he does so forever.

But because Jesus is our great high priest, and because we are his brothers and sisters, we are the priestly family serving under him. And our priestly responsibility, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is to represent and connect Jesus to the world around us, and to bring the needs and concerns of the world, including our own, to Jesus in prayer. This is why we pray in the name of Jesus—because as our great high priest, Jesus offers our sacrifices of prayer to his Father on our behalf. It might not seem like it, but this world is cared for by a loving Father who, by his Son and his Spirit, draws us to himself to pray for peace and work for justice.

So bearing all this in mind, let’s approach God with confidence! There is no need for us to be wary or afraid of God! God will hear us when we pray; God will give us strength to act. And even when we mess up or fail to pray or act; even when our indifference and apathy paralyse us; even when we sin ‘through weakness, through negligence, through our own deliberate fault’; even then, we can be sure that God in Christ sympathises with our weaknesses and still calls us to him for an honest relationship that shows the world around us that there is nothing that God cannot forgive and restore. This is our priestly calling—not to have arrived at our destination now, but to be mindful of the road that Jesus has already cleared for us, and to call others by message and example to walk alongside us as we follow him.

We have no need to be wary or afraid of God. God is awesome, perhaps terrifyingly so. God is so unlike anything we can conceive and we cannot domesticate or manipulate God. But in Jesus we see a God who loves us so much that God is willing to take on our flesh and blood, with all of its weaknesses, to draw us closer day by day to God. This is a God we can represent to the world as we present our prayers and requests to God in the name of Jesus. And this morning, as we bow in our hearts and minds before Jesus to receive his body and blood, let’s remember his words spoken to Peter, James, and John on the mountainside: ‘Get up—and don’t be afraid!’

Friday, 3 February 2017

A short open letter to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York regarding the Second Coming of Jesus Christ

Dear Archbishops Justin and John

I am sure you will agree that the world is now more than ever in serious need of the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In Holy Communion, the bread and the wine become the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Has anyone ever given serious consideration to what would happen if every church in the world, whether Anglican or one of the more inferior denominations, celebrated Holy Communion at exactly the same time? Well, I have given it some serious consideration, and I believe that at this point, when each piece of bread, each wafer, each chalice of wine, and each individual cup of non-alcoholic wine or grape juice has been transformed by the Holy Spirit into the body and blood of Jesus, Jesus will have returned.

I suggest that each and every church must celebrate Holy Communion at 10.30 GMT on Sunday, 11 February 2017—just over a week away. Please would you communicate my proposal to each and every church leader in the world, including the snake-handling ones in Appalachia? I should hate for them not to participate, even if it means they will see the Returning One crushing the heads of their pet serpents under his heel.

Yours sincerely

Terry J. Wright (Dr (though not the useful sort, as a friend of mine once said))

Monday, 16 January 2017

On Echo Chambers and Trust

My Facebook wall is awash (and has been for months) with anti-Trump and anti-Brexit posts. This is unsurprising: I didn’t vote for Brexit, and I wouldn’t have voted for Trump. But I don’t want my Facebook wall to be an echo chamber, and so I allow pro-Trump and pro-Brexit posts on my wall. I must admit that I seldom click on these posts to read the journalism beyond, but I should also add that I seldom do that with the posts towards which I am favourably disposed. I’m more likely to engage with friends’ personal posts on political or socioreligious matters than I am to click any links they might share about these things. And I’m far more likely to share funny photos of cats, anyway. Who doesn’t love a picture of disgruntled kittens in a bath?

Once thing I have noticed—though I hasten to add that this is mostly through reading the post titles and whatever picture is shared with it—is that any amount of ‘evidence’ can be given to support any given position, and any amount of ‘counter-evidence’ can be given to support the opposite position. The dynamic is:

x is good because y says so.’
‘No! x can’t be good because z proves that y is wrong about x.’
‘But you’re forgetting that z is actually owned/supported by t, and t has links to w, which means that z’s opinion about y is seriously open to correction.’
‘You’re all wrong! Neither z nor y is right . . . but x is good because it promotes a and not b.’
‘Chill—here’s a photo of a cat pretending to fly a toy plane.’

And so on.

I dare say that the majority of the people who read the journalism behind these posts, including me when occasion suits, haven’t actually done the hard investigative work themselves. They are dependent for their opinions on the people who have done the research, trusting that the research has been qualitative. But the matter of trust is crucial, because without this very subjective element, all we can do is choose arbitrarily between options: ‘Do I prefer a’s opinion piece/report, or do I prefer that of b?’ Trust is the subjective element that turns arbitrariness into commitment, even if someone else might judge that commitment to be misplaced on the basis of who s/he trusts.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Football and the Church

Have you ever watched a bunch of five- or six-year-olds playing football? Did you see something approximating to a murmuration of starlings, each child moving in elegant synchronicity with the others, chasing the sphere of everyone’s desire and, along with it, his or her dream of scoring the all-important winning goal? I’d be surprised if you did, to be honest. The comparison to a multitude of birds in flight might make sense, but there’s seldom any sophistication to the flailings and fallings of young children playing team games. Everyone scrambles in pursuit of the ball, each child wants to have it for the longest time possible, and none wants to be left out of the hunt or the glory. There may be a certain kind of beauty in seeing children commit themselves passionately to something so ephemeral as a kickabout in the street, but their dedication and energy do not amount to that which is really needed for victory: teamwork. When five- or six-year-olds play football, teamwork is an accident or perhaps serendipitous. The children know their side has to score goals to win, but they rarely calculate (unless instructed) that goals are usually easier to score if each member cooperates with his or her teammates, recognising and using the strengths of each one to reach the common, um, goal. As the Apostle Paul might have put it: ‘Are all centre-forwards? Do all play on the left wing?’ (And let me be the first to quip: Paul says, ‘I press on towards the goal’ (Phil. 3:14)).

The point here is that the Church is a body comprised of many members and, like the frenetic kids mentioned above, the Church is less effective when not deploying each of its members in areas that utilise the strengths present, when its members are played out of position. Any instantiation of the body of Christ in a given area—that is, any local church—desires to participate in God’s mission in a manner appropriate to the wider community. But God’s mission is not monolithic and members should not be expected to participate in God’s mission as though it were. The danger of everyone doing the same thing in a local church is that each member is jostling with the others for glory, eager to be the one to score first (or to score the winner), and ignorant of what genuine, Spirit-enabled teamwork can achieve.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Early Church Services according to the Letter to the Hebrews

Hopefully this post will prove more interesting than its title suggests! I’ve appreciated reading Colin Buchanan’s Grove Book, Worship in the Letter to the Hebrews (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2016), and found chapter three especially interesting. In this chapter, Buchanan notes that we can reconstruct what features an early church service might have included. These features are:

  • meeting together and seeking access to the presence of God—recollecting the person and work of Jesus, our Great High Priest, fixing our eyes on him, coming to him with thankful hearts, and so on;
  • finding Jesus ‘there’, being held fast by him, and so speaking with ‘boldness’ or ‘complete freedom’, receiving his mercy and grace (after confessing our sins?);
  • hearing the Word—Buchanan notes that Hebrews is saturated with references to the Old Testament (Genesis, Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Haggai) and assumes knowledge of the story of Jesus (which we now have as the four Gospels);
  • offering a sacrifice of praise, ‘the fruit from our lips that confess his name’ (Heb. 13:15 CEB)—most likely expressed in song, though presumably (and this is my gloss, not Buchanan’s) also spoken;
  • interceding for others;
  • joining with the faithful others, including believers who have died—‘So we worship “with saints” or “with the whole company of heaven”,’ Buchanan writes, ‘and have from this passage some strong notion of a “communion of saints”’ (which does not mean, he adds, praying to or praying for the departed; see page 17); and
  • sacrificing for others by doing good for those outside the assembly (Buchanan includes such things as church-run food banks and financial giving as such ‘sacrifices’ (13:16)).

Buchanan also mentions that Hebrews warns against over-ceremonialism or legalism, as our gaze is to be focussed on Jesus rather than on particular rules and regulations—but this does not mean that there is no order, or no place for rules and regulations, and Buchanan is well aware that Hebrews assumes that some members hold some kind of authority over the others. As Buchanan is a retired Bishop of the Church of England, I suspect he knows at least a little about balancing these sorts of things!

It seems to me that as Buchanan presents it, there is little here that wouldn’t coincide with a typical Church of England service or, indeed, any kind of Christian service. Buchanan doesn’t find the Eucharist or baptism in the letter, but notes this doesn’t preclude practising either—it’s just that the letter doesn’t mention them. But what does stand out to me are Buchanan’s comments about hearing God’s Word. The author of Hebrews (who may have been a woman—Buchanan doesn’t really say anything about who wrote the letter, but other commentators have suggested it may have been Priscilla/Prisca (Acts 18:2; Rom. 16:3), and still others that the letter might have had two authors) draws from what we would now call the Old Testament and the Gospels to compose the letter and warns against the ‘many strange teachings out there’ (Heb. 13:9 CEB). Buchanan adds:

It is not simply that the teachers and leaders have a responsibility for presenting Jesus to the people (13.7-8): it is also that the people have to take responsibility for their own lives of discipleship and not be ‘carried about’ (perhaps ‘taken for a ride’) by error. There is to be an adult and discerning holding of the faith running through the whole life of the assembly. (pp. 15–16)

I happen to agree with this quite strongly. What’s the point of ministers and preachers faithfully teaching God’s Word if members of the congregation are just going to get caught up in the latest fad? One of the points of knowing the Bible and receiving good and sound teaching is precisely to help others avoid faddism.

Also, I think a case can be made from what Buchanan has written for using the Lectionary or for consciously using at least an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, and a Gospel reading in each service where there’s a sermon or similar. This would suggest that the preacher should be skilled enough to discern and communicate what God is saying through three given biblical texts—but why shouldn’t s/he be, anyway? Genuine preaching is far more than just standing in front of a congregation saying nice or helpful things or expressing opinions about a given passage. Not every sermon needs to be a work of art, but it does need to be faithful to Scripture.

And finally, Buchanan doesn’t make a huge deal of it, but he does note that many of the words in the letter are plurals: Let us . . . The emphasis is very much on the assembly or congregation or local church together, not on the individual. So when, for example, the author writes ‘share what you have’ (13:16), it’s the congregation as one body (to use one of Paul’s images) which is encouraged to share—not certain members of the congregation or even the sum total of the members as such. It is the body of Christ that shares—and so Christ himself. And when the author warns against strange teachings, s/he intends for the one body—not just certain members such as the leadership team or those who might have an interest in theology—not to get carried away. Each member is supposed to take responsibility for preserving sound teaching, even if only a few are specifically trained to communicate sound teaching, and so as one body—as Christ himself—the congregation remains faithful to God.

Of course, all the above is based on Buchanan’s analysis of this single New Testament letter, and other books in the New Testament will paint different pictures of early church services, authority, and order. But Buchanan’s points remain insightful and helpful for anyone reflecting on what happens in a church service.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Simplifying Liturgical Language

What better way to prepare for New Year celebrations than to cogitate on liturgical language? The latest edition of the Church Times includes a page-long article entitled ‘Speaking in the language of the people’ (Church Times, 23/30 December 2016, p. 16), which summarises research conducted by Canon Geoff Bayliss on the readability of liturgy within the Church of England. Bayliss has used various ‘readability formulas’ to test how easily read are current liturgies and has concluded that many of them could be improved: ‘43 per cent of adults living in England will find 50 per cent of the Church of England liturgies difficult to read.’ Here is the printed example, the collect for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity:

Common Worship (2000): Let your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of your humble servants; and that they may obtain their petitions make them to ask such things as shall please you; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. [This collect has a reading age of 21, says Bayliss.]

Bayliss also supplies two simpler versions for comparison, the second of which I presume has been developed by Bayliss himself:

Alternative Modern Language Version (2004): Lord of heaven and earth, as Jesus taught his disciples to be persistent in prayer, give us patience and courage never to lose hope, but always to bring our prayers before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. [Reading age: 18.]

A version with more encouraging readability statistics: Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus taught his followers to keep praying. Teach us never to lose hope, but always to bring our prayers before you. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. [Reading age: 8.]

The final version of the collect listed is an improvement on the previous two—certainly if part of the purpose of liturgy is to enable worshipper participation in the drama of a church service. Bayliss, drawing from other studies, argues that the use of unfamiliar and/or polysyllabic words (words with more than three syllables, he clarifies) and long sentences prevents worshippers from truly engaging with the liturgy. ‘Liturgies that avoid both complex words and longer sentences (of more than 20 words) can be developed successfully,’ Bayliss concludes. I have no reason to doubt him.

It’s important here to recognise that Bayliss isn’t suggesting that liturgy be dumbed down; the absence of polysyllabic words or overly long sentences in liturgy doesn’t entail an unsophisticated theology. There will always be a need for theological explanation for those who aren’t content merely to say the words. Consider Bayliss’s version, which contains the phrase: ‘We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ This is a simply expressed statement pregnant with theological meaning: What does it mean to ask God something through Jesus Christ? Why do we ask God through Jesus Christ? What does it mean to say that Jesus Christ is our Lord and our Lord? Good theological insight can still work its way through simpler liturgy. There’s no need to employ multiclaused sentences, as though these are somehow more ‘spiritual’ than simple sentences. Is it really more spiritual to say, ‘We give you thanks, O Lord’ than to say, ‘Thank you, Lord’?

Bayliss’s recommendations might be helpful for ministers, too. Sometimes I think some worshippers lose interest in what’s going on, especially during the Eucharistic Prayers, because the liturgy isn’t performed appropriately. While a Eucharistic Prayer isn’t the same thing as a Shakespearean soliloquy, imagine how flat the latter would likely sound if it were delivered by someone with limited theatrical training or with little sense of metre. Simpler liturgy might help ministers pray a Eucharistic Prayer in a way that conveys the importance of the sacrament without it coming across as gibberish, a formula, or an incantation.

Preachers and other speakers might benefit from Bayliss’s advice as well. When I practise a draft sermon, I suppose that if I have difficulty in saying something—and I do mean saying something—then I need to simplify that sentence, either by leaving out words, changing words, or breaking a sentence into shorter ones. My underlying assumption here is that if I have problems speaking what I’ve written, then the congregation will likely have problems listening to me or understanding what I’ve written. Thus I believe Bayliss’s recommendations for liturgists are also relevant for speakers more generally.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

On Celebrities and their Deaths

A celebrity is simply a ‘famous person, especially in entertainment or sport’. Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, they are fully human and so subject to the limitations of creaturely existence, including death. The ostensibly high number of celebrity deaths this year should not be especially surprising.

And yet we mourn—largely by posting comments on social media. After news of Carrie Fisher’s passing hit the headlines, I made a point of checking my Facebook feed to see how many of my friends had (a) heard the news and (b) seen fit to comment. Quite a few had done both. Most of these comments were along the lines of ‘RIP Carrie’, though some of these also included comments about the so-called ‘curse of 2016’. But I don’t believe there’s a curse; I just believe that celebrities are mortal.

Let’s be clear: It is sad when a celebrity of any sort dies, especially when a particular celebrity has had an impact on one’s life in some way, or when that celebrity’s cessation is a reminder of one’s own mortality. I was saddened especially by Carrie Fisher’s demise (it’s a Star Wars thing); I was shocked and surprised by the deaths of George Michael and Prince (both a little over a decade older than me, and musicians who dominated the charts when I was a lad); and I was mindful of the historical significance of Fidel Castro and so his expiration. But let’s be clear again: The death of a celebrity is no more sad than the death of any human.

There is also a pious backlash against the socially mediated grieving of celebrities. The comments are usually framed along the lines of: ‘Nobody says anything about the deaths of people in [insert place name] due to [insert reason].’ But this isn’t true. It’s not as though the passing of people in, say, Aleppo or Italy hasn’t been noticed. It’s simply that these sorts of events do not command our attention in the same way. This doesn’t mean that the deaths of Syrians or Italians are any less important or significant than the departure of Carrie Fisher or David Bowie, but that they don’t register in quite the same way. These situations are more global or geopolitical in scale than personal, and they challenge those of us not directly affected to take action rather than purely to lament (which, I should add, is its own form of legitimate action). And I suspect Christians are more inclined to pray about such global or geopolitical events than to post about them on social media—meaning that the sorrow expressed on these outlets about celebrities is even more to be expected.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

The Church of the Future

The future is a cipher, a code that many attempt to crack until finally it frustrates. Some people can intuit it better than others, but this is always by extrapolating from the past. The future cannot be foreseen, only predicted with varying degrees of accuracy. It is true that God and God alone knows the future—but I would suggest this is only because God is present to all times, in much the same way as God is present to all places. The future is not something that can be known. It must be made present for that to happen. But once the future is made present, it is not the future but the present—and immediately the past.

Nonetheless, predicting the future is a worthwhile enterprise. The genre of science/speculative fiction in its hard and soft forms predicts in order to prophesy, to comment on the failings or the strengths of our contemporary lives. Novels such as Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four (classics, and for good reason), despite their age, continue to stamp on the cosmetically enhanced face of contemporary narcissism-in-conformity. The future will always prove to be an unintelligible puzzle, but pieces can be arranged to present some kind picture of what it might be like, even if ultimately they do not fit together perfectly.

Is the Christian Church a piece of this jigsaw? Of course. But the future of the Church (or the Church of the future), like everything else, can only be scripted on the basis of what is present and what is past. The history of the Church provides clues for what could unfold because the history of the Church is the framework from which it will unfold.

Craig Borlase’s 2159AD: A History of Christianity (DLT, 2009) is an interesting read because it assumes the importance of the past for the future. It is a history of Christianity written from the perspective of a Christian living in the year 2159. It is at once entertaining and curious to see Christianity past from the imagined perspective of Christian future. The Church is alive and very well in China and India; the evangelical wing of the Church morphs into the self-sufficient Hidden Church; and the Independent Republic of the Latter Day Saints (formerly Utah) eventually develops a cure for ageing and the military potency to strike lesser nations who stand against its geopolitical and technological expansion. These predictions are surely little more than present concerns recontextualised or taken to extremes. Even some of the language Borlase uses perhaps betrays his own assumptions: ‘Was there really quite so much fuss made over the ordination of women and gays?’ (p. 11); and there is a House Church movement resulting from the fall of Christendom, one that can ‘evolve’ and has ‘different expressions’ (p. 242), echoing for me the language of ‘fresh expressions’ and championing the desirability of the novel rather than the stability of the traditional. These things—post-Christendom, women in ecclesial leadership, LGBTI+ issues—are present concerns; they might not be so in a century or two due to sociopolitical developments that we simply cannot anticipate due to our historical situatedness.

We cannot breathe out the future until we have first inhaled the past. The future of the Church (or the Church of the future) grows from seeds sown in the past, but only God knows which ones will actually germinate. Only God knows how and in what directions the body of Christ will grow. Any prediction about the Church of the future is a commentary on the Church of the present and thus the Church of the past.

Friday, 11 November 2016

On Remembrance

David Runcorn writes:
To remember is not to recall a memory (though that is part of it of course). To re-member is to re-connect with what has, for whatever reason, been dis-membered.

To re-member is not to look back into the past but to bring into the present all that has brought us to this point, and shaped who we are, for good or ill. We are to live in remembrance. Those who do not re-member are not present either. There can be no healing until we are present to the wounds, to the fractures of our story and history. Bids for new futures, attempts at renewal that do not flow from careful remembrance may look pious and visionary, but they are actually escape bids.

Never has the concept of remembrance been explained so clearly or so evocatively: ‘To re-member is to re-connect with what has . . . been dis-membered’!

No wonder Jesus tells us break bread and drink wine in remembrance of him­—how else can we connect with our risen and exalted Lord except through the elements transformed by his Spirit?

No wonder practices such as the Daily Office are important—how else shall we connect with the Source of our being unless we are purposeful in remembering our Source?

And how true Runcorn’s later words are, too:

There can be no healing until we are present to the wounds, to the fractures of our story and history. Bids for new futures, attempts at renewal that do not flow from careful remembrance may look pious and visionary, but they are actually escape bids.

Remembering our past, however painful or pleasant, is what allows us now to move forwards into the future.