Arriving at the start: resisting the lure of the ring

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

T S Eliot

I came across the above quote this week, and I think it makes a nice start to this blog post. At the end of the last post I wrote this:

We need to become aware of our own history and story, of our own influences, of the way we are part of a wider culture and see the difference this makes to us.  When we are aware of these things we can bring them to the text to also be critiqued. We can begin to see what we can hold loosely to, what can be discarded and where we can admit to simply not knowing right now.  

So before coming to the more general part of my series I want to unpick some of my own theological background, and the way in which my life circumstances and situation have steered me in more particular directions.  I want to do this because as I speak in a more general way in the next post I will refer to things from my history – and this might help to make some sense of that history.

I want to also say before I do this that I’ve been deliberately a bit vague about particular organisations – this is partly because I am no doubt unfair to them because I am simply reporting on how my own peculiar personality has intersected with their teaching and style – the results come from the mixing together of me, and of those groupings, so whose ‘fault’ those results are is fairly problematic to establish.  The other reason for being vague about the organisations is that they are not unique. Every single organisation will have similar issues – whatever their theology or social background.

One key stage of life for forming my own theological convictions was university, and the years just beyond (roughly speaking age 18-26).   It is important to say where I came from in terms of understanding before these years.

I had gone up to university from a particular type of evangelical background – with an implicit understanding that Christian mission involved both proclamation and social action, and that as Christians we needed to be engaged with modern society at a political and thought level. From my church in the years just prior to university I had seen the Spirit work powerfully in refreshing and renewing the church, and didn’t see why an emphasis on the preaching of the word should preclude an expectation of the Spirit working spontaneously and unexpectedly in the gathered congregation.

The theological understanding I was taught at university and through certain other organisations and conferences and to a large part took on myself was something of a reaction against this type of understanding.   It could be summed up something like this: God only spoke in the Bible, the mission we were to take part in was only telling people the gospel (doing good works, and social action were good things, but not part of mission).  The work of the Spirit was done only through the Bible, and expecting anything in addition to this was dangerous.  

For example, at university I cannot recall any Christian meeting which attempted to address the question of how we could relate our studies to our faith, the focus was almost entirely on personal evangelism.  In terms of our future work beyond university the line ended up sounding like: ordinary work had value only as it provided money to give to gospel work – so essentially any sort of job was fine, as long as you used it to give money to those doing gospel work (this was actually specifically taught in a book that I still have buried somewhere called “The Last Word on Guidance”).   I don’t recall any attempt at understanding what a Christian perspective on banking might be, and what that might say to those looking to work for a bank (for example).

I was not totally sucked into a wholehearted adoption of this approach – but I found myself very much pulled in this direction. For me the pull was twofold – intellectual and social.

The  intellectual pull was strong – through my association with those in the CU, and particular sets of books and conferences I had a clear grasp of a bible overview, a gospel outline, and received a regular, helpful, no-frills ‘magazine’ that contained some great articles that were genuinely helpful. I felt like I understood much more of how the Bible fitted together, and what the central message of the Bible was.  

However at the same time as being positively helpful these things also produced very much a sense of being ‘in’ on some important discussions, and ‘in’ on what the Bible really said, and what others got wrong.  This was grounded in a CU context in a group of people – mostly from the same educational and social background, and from the same context of Christian nurture who had a very clear idea of the direction the CU should be going on, the beliefs it should hold central, and the activities it should engage in, or not.  

The intellectual pull of all I was learning gave me a way to be ‘in’ and respected by those running things.  My own strong background of bible knowledge, growing understanding of church history and ability to think strategically meant I could be respected even as I struggled socially with all other aspects of university life.  

I couldn’t muster up enough wisdom and courage to actually book an appointment to talk about this with anyone at college, or to find someone at church who I could really explain myself to (and churches in the town were fairly woefully under-resourced in the early 90s), and so I had really struggled to work out how to fit in.  

So the sense of being ‘inside’ was really important to me, but was also my first taste of one of the most potentially dangerous realities of any organisation or group: the lure of an ‘inner ring’.  The ‘inner ring’ is a concept I got from CS Lewis who wrote an essay about it, as well as portraying it in gripping narrative form in “That Hideous Strength”.

The idea that Lewis outlines is of the inner ring is that any organisation or group has an ‘inner core’ who really know what is going on – it may be the same as those notionally in charge, but it may not.  The ‘inner core’ will not be obvious at first, but gradually if you are observing keenly you will begin to see how those who really have influence are linked together. At one level this is normal and natural, and it least begins because those most motivated and committed to an organisation or group naturally get together – but where it becomes a problem is when the desire to get ‘inside’ leads an individual, or group, to become something that they are not in order to fit – and perhaps ultimately to do actions that normally would be regarded as wrong.  

It was at university that I  really saw the pull of this idea, and began to understand how powerful it is even within Christian circles.  The intoxication of the ‘inner ring’ is that ‘we’ are the people who really understand the way the world is, and anyone outside the circle is somehow suspect.  The ‘inner ring’ of the ‘CU’ was linked to an ‘inner ring’ in wider church circles, and it felt somehow important to be ‘inside’.

In a CU context – and in a church context –  it mingled and mingles with certain theological concepts to produce a particularly powerful mix.   There is the automatic assumptions that what ‘we’ believe is correct, and that we can assume certain things without even saying them.  A quick look, a set of stock phrases, and so much can be communicated between two people without anything needing to be said, or even consciously thought.  

Indeed it can be almost be uncomfortable to even consider saying something that will disrupt the cosy thought patterns of the conversation – even if there is something important that does need to be said.  To say this is not to condemn one particular group or other – if Lewis is right ‘rings’ are endemic within society, and to a large degree inevitable – the important thing is to be aware of their existence and understand the impact they may be having on one’s behaviour.

Thus the intellectual and social pull of a ‘ring’ can be really strong.  I think that one of the key things that many of us need to ask ourselves in terms of understanding our own experiences and culture frameworks better is ‘what do we want to be on the inside of?’  Who do we want respect from? When we ask ourselves that question we will begin to get a better idea of the values and ideas and behaviours we will tend to prize above others.

In my case the ‘rings’ I could see and the people I looked to for respect or to imitate tended to be intellectual in their approach to faith and the Christian life – with a heavy emphasis on biblical understanding and apologetic arguments.  Concern for right behaviour tended to be limited to a particular set of sins rather than the whole of life including our work activities, and our relationships in terms of seeing other people as people to be cared for and cherished. People’s issues and difficulties tended to be overridden by the aims and structures of the organisation.

Rings can have an overpowering lure, but for me I avoided full immersion into the language and concepts of the university type of inner ring because at the same time as feeling the pull of this ‘inner ring’  I was pulled in a different direction by the youth organisation I helped with and my home church which pushed my formation in different directions, with a much stronger emphasis on experience and on behaviour in all of life.  

I moved back and forth from an environment where God never spoke outside the bible and where everything was tightly controlled to a youth group where we were encouraged to listen to God and to expect prayer to make a difference – and an environment on our summer camps where I knew that God intervened to answer prayer in unexpected ways.  I remember vividly the sense I had one year that I was supposed to share a bible verse in an evening meeting that I ‘knew’ according to all my recent theological learning was out of context and wrong. I also remember how utterly helpful someone found it when I shared that verse, and as an experience it helped me to see the unexpected ways that God can speak.

The effect of this was that I felt a fairly strong tension in terms of being pulled one way at university and another in my ‘home’ environment.   In many ways my life in my late 20s was one of learning to make an uneasy peace between the two sets of experiences. I moved back to Guildford, but to a different church – a reformed (‘grace’) baptist church, rather than the Anglican church of my upbringing (actually very similar theologically to the Anglican churches I had been at for the previous 2 years, but without the wider denominational struggles), but also to a renewed commitment to the youth organisation in Guildford in which I had grown up.  Involvement in this group meant that I worked with Christians from all sorts of different backgrounds, in a context where a diversity of evangelical views on different issues was expected and discussion welcomed, as well as the expectation that God could and did speak in ways ‘outside the box’ of my conservative evangelical grid.

Since then I’ve done further studies, and had my mind stretched in different ways, and my understanding and approach to life changed by a combination of different factors – but ultimately I find at the moment that I have come back to the basic understanding where I started this post:

I now have once more an understanding that Christian mission involves both proclamation and social action, and that as Christians we needed to be engaged with modern society at a political and thought level. I have seen the Spirit work powerfully in various contexts, and I don’t see why an emphasis on the preaching of the word should preclude an expectation of the Spirit working spontaneously and unexpectedly in the gathered congregation.  

I rejoice in what I knew before university, and what was wonderfully reinforced during those years. It is right that God speaks through the Bible, it is right to say that all of our ministry and work needs to be Bible based, and Bible directed.  It is right that at the heart of the gospel is the reality that on the cross God in Christ takes on himself the punishment our sins deserve, that we might be set free and stand before God as those who are ‘not guilty’.  It is right to say that people need to hear this good news.

But it is also right to say that the Spirit prompts us to obey God in particular ways, to help particular people and that the Spirit shows us God’s love for us in all sorts of ways and through all sorts of events.  It is right to say that every job matters to God, and that as Christians we need to think about how all of our lives should be lived for God’s glory – and understand where in our jobs we need to be careful that we are not just assuming we should do it just like everyone else around us does.  It is right to say that both men and women are gifted for teaching and leadership in God’s people and need to be able to exercise those gifts together. It is right to say that as those who signpost God’s kingdom here and now we should try to show what God’s kingdom will look like by living lives that show what God’s justice and love look like – and that this is part of God’s mission in the world, as too is taking care of God’s good creation.

What I want to do in the next post(s) is unpick a bit more what it means to get back to the starting point – but yet see things differently.  I want to show why I think that a journey away from where we are is often an important part to returning to a starting point with a new perspective.  To do this I will make use of some ideas I have gleaned from one particular philosopher/theologian in my studies.

I think this is really important because it means that ultimately growing up doesn’t mean discarding key convictions – but can mean exploring lots of other things before those key convictions can be refined and revitalised.  I want to clarify what I mean by all this as it has worked out in specific areas of my understanding and my life. I then want to develop those thoughts into a more generic approach that will be helpful to others wanting to be faithful to God and his word, whilst growing and developing and living alongside people in an increasingly messy, fragile and broken world. That’s quite a challenge – we’ll see how far I can get in a blog post or two!

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How do we make sure the Bible really changes all that we are?

Last month two years ago  I officially graduated from my PhD, and I’ve wanted to write a blog post to mark the occasion for at least the last two years.  I keep getting to a certain point and then stopping. But I want to write it so I am going to start with this.  If I get into this post then it will be at least a 3 post series, and it will involve a certain amount of thinking out loud. 

I think it ultimately aims at answering the title question – how does reading God’s Word penetrate us in such a way that we are changed, rather than letting it wash over us, or just confirming our preconceptions.

Because I’m asking this question I’d really welcome any questions or comments that anyone reading has on this.

This potential series of posts has its origin in a question I was asked at an interview almost exactly three years ago.  The questioner wanted to know how I fitted together my time on a course I took 15 years ago now with my more recent academic studies, first at Regent and then doing a PhD.

The course in question was the a year long course set up by one of the conservative evangelical central London churches to equip people to able to teach the bible well, especially with respect to preaching.  Teaching is by means of lectures and biblical expositions covering some biblical and systematic theology, some exegesis (along the lines of Fee and Stuart’s “How to Read the Bible for all its worth”) and study of individual books. There are no written assignments, and no formal assessment – but each Tuesday afternoon there were sessions where you had to prepare outlines of talks based on particular texts and then critique them in small groups, and on the Friday afternoon were preaching classes, where each student preached to a small group of fellow students plus a tutor and then received feedback on the sermon from fellow students and tutor.  

It was a course that I loved, and that I would happily recommend to anyone wanting to know how to get to grips with the bible and teach it to others.   I love being with others all having the same aim, I loved being in close proximity to gifted and wise teachers, I loved the library and discovering Eugene Peterson, I loved walking round the second hand bookshops of London, and discovering obscure Christian bookshops.  I loved being part of a smaller church made up of ‘real’ (mostly not university students or wealthy graduates) people in East London. I loved the emphasis on making sure that when you preach a sermon you seek to preach what the text says. Most fundamentally I appreciated the warning that we all have a “framework” of doctrinal understanding that we bring to the text, but that we need to let the text critique that “framework” and preach what the text says, and work out how to let the text amend our “framework”.  

At the time I was asked the question about how Regent and a PhD had developed my thinking I stumbled a bit over the answer – the question was essentially asking me to condense the last 6 years of my life in relation to an earlier phase of my life, and compare and contrast the two.  I’ve returned to the thought often though. What has Regent, and doing a PhD added to these earlier studies – other the obvious technical skills of learning the original languages, and lots of history and wider theological studies?  

The answer to the question is, I think, mostly to be found in how my understanding of the idea of a “framework” has changed.  Before I went to Regent I thought of this framework as essentially doctrinal, and the problems involved in understanding the text of scripture as essentially to do with understanding.  

In that context the warnings against preaching framework were warnings against allowing one’s own theological presuppositions to be imposed on the text.  I already had questions about how this worked in practice – it seemed to me that, despite the rhetoric of allowing the texts to speak for themselves there was a basic uniformity of outcome, and suspicion of preaching or ideas that came from outside carefully circumscribed boundaries.

For example I still struggle to come to terms with the shock that a number of my contemporaries on the course clearly felt when a visiting speaker suggested that the Spirit might prompt the preacher to change their message on the spur of the moment.  It was even possible for the same ideas to be viewed as intriguing and interesting when floated by those “inside”, but dangerous and “unsound” when someone “outside” the circle suggested them.

Studying at Regent began to give me a way of thinking about the idea of framework that made me realise that if the concept was broadened out from a theological one to one with more of a sense of the whole of life then it could begin to be much more helpful.  

It isn’t simply that we come to texts with a theological framework – we come as persons, with a history, to the text.  Everything that we are affects how we read the text, and in turn needs to be critiqued by the text. That, however, is a much more difficult concept to deal with than simply a theological grid that needs fine tuning.  If “framework” is simply a theological concept then it is a reasonably simple matter (in theory at least) to step back and allow it to be altered to fit a new piece of data in a new text. But if “framework” involves all that I am, then a text that challenges that framework is challenging me, and my identity, and involves the possibility of a radical reshaping and re-formation.

If we don’t realise these extra pressures on us we may be in the dangerous position of fooling ourselves.  We may think that we are defending a position on theological grounds, when in fact we are defending the way we see church and ourselves and our very identity is at stake.  The stakes then feel much higher than the issue at stake may seem, and we may come to act in a way that is starkly at odds with the doctrine we claim to be defending.

We need to become aware of our own history and story, of our own influences, of the way we are part of a wider culture and see the difference this makes to us.  When we are aware of these things we can bring them to the text to also be critiqued. We can begin to see what we can hold loosely to, what can be discarded and where we can admit to simply not knowing right now.  

In the next post in this series I want to illustrate this a bit more from my own experience, as well as introduce a key concept from CS Lewis that helps to understand much of evangelical culture,  and then I want to write another post outlining the way I see forward right now. We’ll see.

Unwrapping Carols: Once In Royal David’s City

I’ve just been listening to our carols from King’s College CD for the first time this advent, and the words of some of these carols are striking me afresh.  I thought that might make a good series of posts. 

I’ve called it unwrapping because a number of the carols either have words, or come linked to particular memories, that tend to wrap up the Christmas story in layers of invention or sentimentality.  However when you stop to think about the actual words they have a power to penetrate beneath sentimentality and produce genuine heartfelt response in us to the wonder of the Christmas story.

The first one I thought I’d look at is the first one on the CD.

1. Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.

I’ll pass over this verse – if you want more detail on why cattle shed might not be quite right then you could check this blog out: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/once-more-jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable/


2. He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.

On the other hand, this one is spot on.  The one who is God and Lord of all comes down to be born in a manger, and live with the ordinary people, in our midst.  ‘Mean’ here is simply a Victorian way of saying ‘ordinary’, which may well have been slightly condescending, but didn’t mean nasty. 

In one verse all human politics is overthrown.  The greatest one of all comes down to a manger, and lives with the ordinary people.  He doesn’t see them as people to manipulated or used in a crusade for power and self-promotion.  They are not pawns.  They are people to be loved and lived with.

3. And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

Now there is verse 3 – I’m not the only one who smirked my way through this verses as a teenager I’m sure.  “Mild, obedient, good as he” – sets us up for a fall really, for who can live up to Jesus as the perfect teenager.  I think there is a good reason we are not told very much about Jesus’ childhood – too much pressure where he meets our expectations, too many excuses if he did do something ‘wrong’.

From what we are told (see Luke 2) of Jesus in the temple, and then of some of the conflict in his ministry in later life I suspect that it wasn’t always easy to have Jesus as a child – and perhaps not easy to be Jesus, growing up.  I think though in this carol we are on safer ground with verse 4:

4. For he is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

If you remove the archaic words and have feels and shares it sounds a lot better.  We are reminded that God himself knows what it is to be weak.  God knows what it is to be helpless. God knows tears.  God knows joy.  When we are sad he knows it and he feels with us in the pain.  He doesn’t stop being God, but he is a God who knows what it is to weep.

5. And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.

And here we have the great reminder that Jesus is coming back – that the first Christmas holds out the promise of a world reborn.  A world made knew.  A world where the hopes and dreams of those who long for peace, security and safety come true.

6. Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
Where like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.

On the other hand, I think this verse does need a bit of work.  “Shall wait around” really doesn’t make the new creation sound particularly appealing.  I recommend reading Isaiah 25 and Revelation 21-22 and keeping them firmly in mind to make sure you have the right pictures in your head with this verse!

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.


22 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

Revelation 22:1-5

All that, because Jesus came to the manger, grew up, lived and died as one of us, for us, to bring us back to God so that one day we might be with him forever in a world made completely new.

Advent Day 2, 3 & 4

Slivers of light,

Tears,

Holy ground, listening in on the story God is working out in a friend.

Coughs & colds,

Relinquishing my vision of decorating,

That deep dawning that life is about becoming Christ like and the place Gethsemane has in Advent.

Hope that says tomorrow is a new day.


Advent, Day 1

Invitation,

Hope,

Good news,

Shalom.

God could have done things differently, but He did it this way. A young woman due to get married finds she is pregnant. Nine months of nurturing, stomaching only certain foods and smells,  growing, comments, swelling, aching, waddling, sleepless nights, the groans of labour. Not all joy and delight. 

Advent is not simply about crossing the finish line with a large meal and presents. It is more than preparing for a birthday.

It is an invitation to enter into the darkness of this world, to bring hope, to look for hope, to trust that there is hope. It is to speak good news, to listen for the good news in this world of brokenness. It is to live shalom with ourselves, with one another, with those we encounter day by day without knowing their name, with God.  

Advent is not about a day, it is about a journey that will not always be joy and delight. Unless we cocoon ourselves away from the world on our doorstep or from the internet this season we will face pain, aches, comments, sleepless nights, bodies groaning for all sorts of new starts. Advent is an invitation to hold in tension the brokenness of ourselves and those around us and in extending, receive glimpses of hope, hear moments of good news and experience shalom.

What are glimpses of hope, the good news you have heard and the shalom you have known deep in your marrow as we enter into Advent?