The Collapse of Meaning

How our Western culture short changes us as human beings.

It’s a difficult ask to condense the huge volume of material written on this topic, and do justice to its breadth and depth. Certainly impossible in a thousand words or less. In these circumstances all that is possible is a conversation starter, which is what this post is intended to be. Whether that conversation is with me, or in the reader’s own mind, is not important.

I’ve drawn on a book by Mark Sayers: “Disappearing Church” (Kindle). It’s an interesting and thought provoking read, but I’ve just picked up a few ideas and expanded on them. The book itself covers far more ideas than are discussed here. I recommend it to you.

Quotes are from the book are indicated in the usual way. Page numbers are not given due to the digital format of the book.

(Gold Coast Australia. My photo. An icon of secular consumerism)

Sayers’ book observes and critiques the culture that enfolds and forms us in the west. That culture considers itself sophisticated and highly evolved; superior in most ways from cultures that preceded it, and those that continue to flourish in non western societies. It is a culture full of contradictions: Fiercely secular, yet soaked in early religious traditions of gnosticism, animism and paganism; Indifferent or hostile to traditional Christianity, yet celebrating diversity of other traditional world religions; Devoted to the power of the individual, yet gathering itself into tribes where conformity of opinion is demanded; and desperately searching for transcendence and enlightenment, yet generating alienation and despair at the purposelessness of life lived according to its values.

Sayers delves deeply into the controlling beliefs driving our western secular culture, and pinpoints where the innate contradictions of our lives reveal themselves. These beliefs, principles, doctrines are regarded within the culture as self evident and beyond challenge. Those bold enough to challenge them can expected to be silenced and ostracised by the weight of social pressure, and/or legal sanctions.

The controlling beliefs of our western zeitgeist are seductive, powerful and ultimately deceptive. They promise happiness but bring us emptiness; preach self actualization but dehumanise us; offer freedom, but enslave us.

“So distracted by the phony war between left and right, conservatives and liberals, we have failed to notice that a new power had seized control of both our imaginations and the halls of power.

This new power swirls around a small yet widely held set of beliefs**:

1. The highest good is individual freedom, happiness, and self-expression.

2. Traditions, religions, received wisdom, regulations, and social ties that restrict individual freedom and self expression must be reshaped, deconstructed, or destroyed.

3. The world will inevitably improve as the scope of individual freedom grows. Technology—in particular the Internet—will motor this progression toward utopia.

4. The primary social ethic is tolerance of everyone’s self-defined quest for individual freedom and self-expression. Any deviation from this ethic of tolerance is dangerous and must not be tolerated.

5. Humans are inherently good.

6. Large-scale structures and institutions are suspicious at best and evil at worst.

7. Forms of external authority are rejected and personal authenticity is lauded.

So, recognize any of them? Maybe you can add more. Maybe also, you don’t fully endorse each and every one of them and would like to qualify here and there. Fair enough. I’m not here to defend the list, but to claim that, like it or not, be aware of it or not, our culture does shape us. It corrals us into certain ways of thinking, it limits our dreams, and in some ways diminishes our human potential. I don’t have the space (or perhaps the ability) to present a knock down argument for what I just wrote.

I think that its possible to live in the midst of a culture like ours, and be unaware of the beliefs that drive it.

How often have you heard or seen written, “Be true to yourself” or “It’s all about You”, or “You’re worth it”? The words change, but the principle behind it is a powerful one in our culture, shaping millions of lives every day. Of course, it’s not necessarily all bad to believe and follow that principle, but as an overarching principle for life it seems more than a little deceptive and shaky to me. What does it tell us is important about our relations with, and responsibilities toward, others?

The worship of tolerance is another phenomenon in our culture, except that we’re not really tolerant at all, are we? Well, as long as people share our beliefs, which, if they happen to be the socially responsible, earth friendly, diversity celebrating beliefs embraced by the elite, then all is rosy. Except I have never been able to understand how elevating tolerance above all else can not lead to anything but a clear example of intolerance.

If individual freedom and self expression are the highest good, and the self is the reference point for what is good, then what does that say about who we are as human beings? Are we then our own gods? The problem arises, and it always does, when the god in me and the god in you disagree on what “good” means.

We are encouraged in a host of ways, subtle and overt, to see ourselves as sophisticated and enlightened when we reject the notion of a transcendent creator God. If we continue to believe in such ‘fairy tales’, as the message goes, we ought to have the decency to keep that belief to ourselves. Our secular cousins can have free range for their beliefs, but ours are to remain hidden and private. Seems fair, or does it?

If there were any evidence at all that the rise in the number of people who reject faith in God is accompanied by a rise in general happiness, mental health and peaceful coexistence in society I would stop and take a good look at it. Alas the opposite is true. As we throw our faith away in the west and install ourselves as gods, we enjoy all the meaninglessness and ultimate hopelessness that attends that. Our lives are pointless, apart from the goals we set ourselves: wealth, power, self actualization and so on and so on. None of these things brings a sense of meaning, of connection, of being fully human.

“This is a culture in which we (are encouraged to*) believe that ultimately, life is meaningless, but we are insulated from the full horror of such a belief by the distracting and anesthetizing qualities of our public culture. Our existential angst is drowned out by cooking shows, discount airfares, smartphones, and celebrity gossip.” (Sayers quote)

“Without God, humans attempt to create a beautiful world, filled with fine foods, craftsmanship, fulfilling work, elegant forms, and creativity. Yet this beautiful world becomes a prison as humans are possessed by the things that they create. We are unable to understand or even see the world correctly as a gift from God, to be enjoyed, but not owned.” (Sayers quote)

Our western culture is leading us (or are we leading ourselves) into a place we do not want to be. I believe we were not made to be gods. We were not meant to live stunted alienated, meaningless lives. We were made to be fully human. That is one thing that many of us in the west today can not be sure we are any more.

* My insertion.

** I have edited some of the principles from the book, mostly to simplify them.

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Transformative People

(Fresco on the wall of an Armenian Church taken by me in 2015. Bullet holes courtesy of occupying Soviet soldiers)

I don’t know how many people, like me, want to make a difference, to work for good, but find themselves thwarted again and again by stuff. More than a few I suspect.

In my case, the obstacles along the way seem to multiply the harder I try to overcome them. Sometimes its a bit like walking through quicksand. The temptation to give up and climb onto the easier path is a strong one. Fighting injustice, caring for the poor, loving my neighbour and all that sort of thing is all very well and good. It’s just that it’s hard to keep going when the odds seem stacked against you.

Yes, I am feeling a little discouraged, but these things ebb and flow. It’s not all those people out there who don’t share my beliefs who get to me. What discourages me and presses my buttons most are the attitudes of some of my fellow ‘Christians’. I have met some of the most inspiring people in Christian circles, but unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

Some congregations are more like social clubs than anything else. The most animated part of the church experience for them is the coffee and chat afterwards; enthusiasm and engagement rarely rising above the comatose while they sit through the worship. The big interest items in these congregations are social functions, usually fund raisers, and the congregational meetings, at which weighty matters like budgets are discussed. Sitting through experiences like these I amuse myself by imagining one of the early Christian apostles wandering in and being confused by what they see. Seat warmers, hymn singers, response mutterers, but no evidence of people being nourished and equipped to go out into the world and make a difference.

Congregations like this, and there are many of them, are dying, and they deserve to. They have forgotten, if they ever knew, what their purpose is. Making strategic plans that are never followed? Getting the balance of music right? Or being Christ’s followers sent into the world to bring hope, love and acceptance where there is little of any of these?

Anglican theologian, N. T. Wright, is more sanguine than I am when he writes: “No matter what your worldview, your beliefs, or your culture, you will find Jesus haunting, disturbing, and attractive”. Well, you wouldn’t come across such a Jesus at some of the congregations I know.

The great majority of people don’t find Jesus ‘haunting, disturbing and attractive’ because that is nothing like the Jesus they have been introduced to. By and large, if they think of Jesus at all, they envision a caricature easily dismissed for the nonsense it is. It is a great pity that many people have rejected a Jesus who never existed, and has no relationship to the Jesus of the Bible, when the real deal is indeed haunting, disturbing and attractive.

So what of the great mass of people today who wouldn’t walk into a church ever, if they could avoid it? I sometimes find it easy to agree with them.

Wright continues:

“THE WORD God is a heavy, clunky little syllable. It drops like a lead weight into otherwise cheerful conversations.

the popular image of God as a bully in the sky who makes odd demands and becomes dangerously petulant if people ignore him.”

Wright congratulates people who have rejected such a God:

“They are right. That God—the dull, distant, and dangerous one—does not exist.

Is that old bearded figure, waiting on a cloud to receive the recently dead, even remotely like the God of the Bible?” The answer of course, is no.”

Not surprisingly, very many people reject such a misconstrued God. He is filed away, with other childhood tales. Many peoples’ understanding of God is based on childish misconceptions which have never been replaced by grown-up ones. They have never been replaced by grown-up ones because church goers have become comfortable sitting in their Christian ghettos, while the world goes its own way. They have forgotten who they are. No risk taking, imprisonment or crucifixions for them. Ignoring their local community, they hold endless discussions about ‘mission’, always done by someone else, somewhere else.

There ends the rant. If you are still with me, it’s not all bad. There is hope.

Two more Wright quotes follow that contain a vision for what can and should be. I will read them again. Afterwards I will remember who I am, and what I need to be working towards. No time then for discouragement or disillusionment.

“We know what the power of the world looks like. When push comes to shove, as it often does, it is the power of violence, using the threat of pain and death. It is, yes, the power of tanks and bombs, and also of guns and knives and whips and prisons and barbed wire and bulldozers. Weapons to destroy people’s lives; machines to destroy their homes. Cruelty in the home or at work. Malice and manipulation where there should be gentleness, kindness, and wisdom. Jesus’s power is of a totally different sort, as he explained to the Roman governor a few minutes before the governor sent him to his death—thereby proving the point. The kingdoms of the world run on violence. The kingdom of God, Jesus declared, runs on love. That is the good news.”

“the power behind the cosmos is not blind chance, nor yet brute force, but love. It is a delighted love that celebrates the goodness and specialness of every part of creation and of the extraordinary, brilliant, pulsating entirety of it. A love that cares for and cares about the smallest creature and the farthest star. A love that made one creature in particular, humans, to share uniquely in the capacity to receive and to give love, and so to share uniquely in the vocation to work with the grain of the Creator’s intention, to bring his work to its wonderful intended fulfillment. There are many things in the world as it now is that conspire to make us forget this great truth. The good news of Jesus is there not only to remind us of it but to transform us with it so that we in turn may become transformative people.”

Things my Music Teacher told me

Things my music teacher told me . . .

again and again.

(Things I’ve taken an awfully long time to learn and still haven’t internalised fully. The joys of learning to play music when you retire! You can see how much, or little, I’ve learned in two years, and how much I have still to learn in the video clip below.)

Some things I have learned about playing classical guitar since I walked in to my first lesson just over two years ago:

Playing a piece of music beautifully at a fraction of full speed is infinitely better than playing it awfully at full speed.

Perserving and playing a grade 2 piece well is preferable to trying to play a grade 6 piece and doing it badly.

When performing, a common nervous reaction is to begin playing 15 to 20% more quickly than you did when practising. This more or less guarantees your performance will be disastrous. Slow down more than you think you should and enjoy the piece.

If you can play a piece of music flawlessly and slowly, you can play it properly at full speed. Conversely if you haven’t eliminated mistakes at slow speed, they multiply and magnify the more quickly you try to play.

Ego doesn’t matter. Technique does. If the piece sounds awful, it sounds awful. It doesn’t mean you’re slow or stupid. You just haven’t mastered stuff you need to master.

You don’t know a piece of music until you can perform it flawlessly, repeatedly. How well you think you play in practice is irrelevant.

Playing whole pieces of music from start to finish many times in sequence is not a way to practice effectively. You are just practising your mistakes and making them permanent.

The rhythmn of a piece matters. A crochet is not a quaver, rests should not be ignored and doted notes mean something. Learn the correct rythmn before trying to play the notes.

The left and right hands have different, complementary jobs to do. Don’t expect to play good music until your hands and fingers have had a chance to develop dexterity and strength. This will take years (and tears).

Videoing yourself is a good way to simulate the stress and tension of performancance, and so helps you prepare yourself. It is also a good way to pinpoint shortcomings in practice.

Videoing yourself also tells you more about how you move your eyes and hold your mouth than you might want to know.

A short video clip where I tried to play more slowly and accurately than I usually do. Something tells me I should be a bit self conscious about this, plodding along with the guitar for all to see, but life is too short.

A Cheeky Manifesto

(Looking up towards the Old Man of Stour, Isle of Skye, Scotland. One of my favourite places)

[Manifesto A public declaration of intentions or opinions. A list of principles.]

I’ve challenged myself to distil some principles for living authentically and faithfully in a secular culture. I am me, and I am comfortable in my skin. I am not an exceptionally holy or good Christian, as I’ve tried to make clear in what follows. I wrote this as an exercise in reflection, not to dismiss people who think differently. It’s more a checklist that helps me clarify what I can and should bend with, and what warrants my active resistance to the status quo.

It’s not complete of course; more a living document than a definitive one. I hope you find it interesting or food for thought.

So, to begin, in no particular order.

Some things matter. Some don’t. Things like wealth and possessions seem like they matter, but they don’t. On the other hand, people always matter. It’s wise to hesitate before putting principles and things ahead of people.

Winning arguments doesn’t matter, but giving in and compromising values in the face of bullying is cowardice, and does matter greatly.

It’s tempting to look for simple solutions and pat answers. It can also be foolish.

There are all sorts of simple remedies for complex problems. Some would be effective if people were willing to listen to them. Be kind. Work hard. Give generously. Have respect. Spend wisely. Avoid blaming. Drive carefully. But then I guess we don’t like listening to advice, do we?

Life is complex and messy. People are too, and sometimes they need some slack cut for them. Certain behaviours and choices don’t warrant my approval, but neither do I need to spend my life running around condemning them.

I will resist the temptation to apologise for who I am. Admitting to having Christian faith carries a social cost. It is regarded variously with degrees of embarassment, amusement or contempt. The surest way to silence a social gathering is to mention the God or Jesus words. I will be polite and sensitive, but I will say what I think and believe regardless of any social cost.

Religion and faith are two quite different things. One does not presuppose the other. Religion is about outward conformity with ceremonies, rules, dogma, and power structures. Churches generally do religion quite well. Faith on the other hand is an intensely personal thing, not governed easily by those rules, dogmas or power structures. In my experience, churches do not do faith as well as they do religion. As I grow older I am becoming less religious and more faithful.

Life is a gift. It is not to be taken lightly or thrown away. Killing someone is wrong, whether it is done in retribution, in a fit of temper, or for social convenience. Abortion and euthanasia come to mind here, as although both practices have powerful emotive justifications, killing is what they involve, and killing is what they are. I should and will speak out against the unjust taking of life.

Having said that, I can think of a few scenarios when I would be sorely tempted to take someone else’s life.

I’ll take miracles when they come, every time. Some would rather tell me at length and tediously why miracles are impossible and that only stupid people would believe they occur. I leave them to their opinions. May they bring them comfort.

A lot of people I know have dismissed Jesus Christ on the basis of caricatures met as a child, or as a result of abuses committed by churches in his name. They would do well to reconsider with adult eyes. His message of radical love transforms lives and undermines the power structures of secular society (and churches). Today the establishment ignores him, ridicules his followers and thinks it has won. They have never understood who they are dealing with.

Prayer is not just a wish list, like something I might once have left in a Christmas stocking. Closer to me than my breath or my heartbeat, it transcends time and space, and opens dimensions of experience those bound in the everyday could not imagine. When I pray I can be completely myself, open to my creator God. That’s on a good day. Sometimes I admit I stare at my hands and wait for inspiration that doesn’t come.

Truth is not determined by popular or majority opinion. Wrong does not become right, or right become wrong simply because 51% of citizens vote that way. My conscience and values are not manipulated by popular opinion. That doesn’t mean I don’t listen to and learn from others, or never change my attitudes. It means just what it says.

Evil is real. It is personal and it walks among us. Those who ignore or deny the existence of evil aren’t paying attention.

It’s not all about me. Our culture has been obsessed with self gratification for so long now, it seems natural and a self evident good.

It is not. We have allowed ourselves to be conned.

How often have I heard “I/we should be able to do whatever I/we like as long as we are not hurting anyone else” trotted out to justify a self indulgent choice? It is a nonsense; a deceptive argument. How can I know I’m not hurting anyone else? I am not a reliable judge of whether others are unaffected by my selfishness. The ‘not hurting anyone’ defence of self indulgent, decadent life choices deserves nothing but contempt. Having said that, I’m rather fond of wine and can become a tad defensive when my wife suggests I might be too fond of it.

It is not wise to worship myself. If I value my choices, my desires, my interests, above those of my fellow travellers (and don’t we all, here and there and now and then), I am effectively worshipping myself. Placing myself at the centre of things is delusional and ultimately destructive.

In the same way, trying to control other people, in whatever way I try to do it, is self defeating, as the very intention and act diminishes both myself and those I seek to dominate. Humility doesn’t come naturally, but anything less is inevitably an abuse of power. Removing myself from the throne of self regard is a step on the road to genuinely appreciating others and becoming fully human.

Turning the other cheek’ is a misunderstood and misused Christian principle. It does not mean Christians should make wimpy doormats of themselves. Turning the other cheek can be an act of defiance when my adversary seeks to make me cower. It is a metaphor for non violent resistance. Meekness is a world away from subservience. However, in confronting evil, I should be careful not to become that which I resist by fighting evil with evil. I should be careful, for example, that my blog posts do not reflect the ugliness that characterises much commentary on social media. Abuse, name calling and demonising those who see things differently is always counter productive. It never leads to a just solution, or brings people together. However, driving in traffic, sitting in meetings, or waiting in supermarket checkout lines, I can tend to forget this.

I should remember that confronting evil can exact a high personal price. Talk is cheap. Standing up in the face of evil can not only cost me my peace of mind, my friends and my reputation. It could cost me my freedom and my life. I am not a particularly brave person however, and am not prone to poking my head above the parapet, except in blog posts.

I could go on, but will content myself with an executive summary:

Western culture seeks to have me adapt my faith to fit with its norms. Ultimately, when push comes to shove, I reserve the right to refuse. I hope the necessary courage is there when I need it.

Thanks for reading.

Tough Love 2

(Grabbing some rest in Jaipur, India)

This post begins with a poem I’ve published previously but I’ve reworked it and here it is in a revised form. It sets the scene for the rest of the post.

Tough Love 2

Madness swells and seeps under doors.

The darkness in each of us seeks out its own.

We are blind mice

feeling for the exit

in a warehouse stalked by cats.

 

The anger of a thousand stolen childhoods,

shames inaction and smashes every excuse

for child sexual abuse.

Aromas of respectability become the stink

of yesterday’s household garbage.

Exposed and stripped of defence,

failed shepherds

spread their hands

and evade responsibility.

 

Transitioned into care,

yesterday’s people outlive their usefulness.

Independence reigned in to a choke hold.

Dignity denied them by others’ decisions;

all legal, sensible, faux compassion.

The children who consign them there,

confirm their own decline

in turn and in time.

 

A termination

on the strength of a prenatal scan.

Imperfect parents will try another time

for a perfect child.

This one flawed;

airbrushed out of a family’s history.

Binned as biological waste;

the child spared, at least,

the obscenity of parents like these.

 

Fragments of a hundred butchered innocents

lie on a hot black road;

litter left by soldiers of Allah.

An unfinished jigsaw of heads and limbs

sorted and ripped by beaks and talons.

Forget love and kindness.

Cruelty and violence are the price

of entry to paradise.

Who’d have thought?

 

Somewhere,

love is not set aside for the greater good,

explained away by self interest,

dishonoured through selfishness,

or perverted by pustulant ideology.

 

Somewhere,

people can be

who they were created to be.

……………………………………

 

“Somewhere love is not set aside . . .

This is an article of faith for me and my reason for writing this post. Somewhere there is a place where love is not set aside in favour of chasing other goals. A place where people can be safe and free to be who they were meant to be. I understand that place to be the kingdom of heaven; not a place in the sky with clouds and harps, but the kingdom of heaven right here, as Jesus described it.

I seek that place, and I’m committed to doing what I can to help the world be such a place. It’s not there yet. Not even close. The world continues to be a place where evil roams free, even as patches of light and hope shine through, giving hints of what might be possible.

(Friday afternoon drinks. A small patch of light and hope in the world.)

What sort of world do we live in?

The worlds of our parents and grandparents are gone, and to be honest, they were no more idyllic than ours is, just quite different. We would have to look hard now to find any of the things they would have seen as givens. Automatic respect for authority figures; heterosexual marriage and mother-father families being the norm; Sunday observance; social sanctions attached to divorce, and promiscuity, to list just a few.

In our world authority figures do not receive automatic respect. Their decisions and pronouncements are challenged routinely and defied openly. Marriage is no longer exclusively heterosexual, and marriage itself shares the stage with a variety of arrangements of varying formality. The term ‘partner’ is used in preference to ‘spouse’.

Social sanctions are now applied for totally different reasons than they used to be. Divorce remains an unpleasant, damaging experience, but no longer carries the social and legal sanctions it once had. Promiscuity is now celebrated and assumed to be the norm, although some interesting ethical acrobatics are needed to avoid being caught up on the wrong side of ideology (#metoo).

Not that such changes are all regretable. Easy divorce has had an upside for some people trapped in intolerable circumstances, but the proliferation of divorce has shaken families and weakened our culture. We like our Sundays the way they are. Not so much days of rest anymore, but still we enjoy them.

Promiscuity? We are saturated with messages, overt and subtle, that a promiscuous lifestyle is normal and desirable. Does experience tell us that promiscuity leads anywhere beneficial, or that widespread promiscuity is something any society can be proud of? Seriously

While some of us view these changes with some sadness, many more celebrate what we see as the overthrow of oppressive structures and traditions. Some of us are in both camps. We see the dishonesty, the hypocrisy and the injustice threaded through the institutions of earlier generations. We also see and give credit for the stability and the meaning they gave to people’s lives.

Turning our faces away from traditional values, we might have believed that by doing so we would be free to live more honest, moral lives.

Is that what’s happened?

Convincing ourselves more enlightened than our forebears, embracing our whims and preferences as the guiding moral compass for our lives, we have put ourselves at the centre of everything.

How’s that going for us? Sweetness and light is it?

Lest you think you smell sanctimony, I have more than enough to regret and be ashamed of. I listened to the whispered silky justifications, I was seduced by the promise that it was all about me. As long as I wasn’t hurting anyone, I should have been free to do what I liked. I had no right to judge anyone anyway. After all, aren’t right and wrong so passé? Surely such old fashioned ideas belonged in an earlier time? I remember one self assured woman correcting me for using the word ‘adultery’. “Do they still call it that?” she asked mockingly.

It occurs to me that’s what the western world has come to believe. By changing the language, the social mores and traditions, we consider we have moved to a higher moral plane. We have rewritten the moral code to suit our own preferences and we are free to do that which we are inclined to do. But does it change human nature, or does it make us the fools, blind to predictable consequences?

So, yes. There was much to condemn in the values and mores of the world of our parents.

There is much to be thankful for in new ways of looking at the world and in the lifting of oppressive, hypocritical laws and practices, but have we have got it right yet

Living life as an extended pursuit of indulgence, freedom to make our own choices, our own happiness and fulfillment, as if we were not dependent on others and they on us, has become the reason for being for many of us. Our pursuit of personal fulfillment can see us dismiss the trail of hurt and damage we leave behind, if we think of it at all, as collateral damage, regretable maybe, but an acceptable sacrifice for the greater good (our wants).

Be true to yourself.

Don’t judge.

Follow your heart.

If it feels good, do it.

No one has the right to tell you what to do.

Each of these memes contains some truth, but that does not mean they are the whole truth, or that they are the best way to organize our lives

For all the ways we are encouraged to think of ourselves as free and uninhibited, are we as free as we think? In our culture diversity is seen to be a self evident good; except of course, diversity of thought. Try expressing reservations about some of the memes above and note the reaction

So how do I go about countering a worldview that’s seduced the western world so thoroughly that many people now see it as self evident, beyond questioning? A big ask, I know.

It’s just when you stop, step outside, and look around, you realise that it’s a seductive facade. It’s a lie. An attractive and seductive one, but a lie nonetheless. One leading us away from the kingdom of heaven I mentioned earlier; the place where love is not set aside; the place where we can be fully human.

We are more than our cleverness, the nastiness we cultivate, the selfishness we flaunt, and the misery we ignore. These things do not define who we are.

There is an answer of course. There is a path to follow. So many of us have rejected what we imagined was the Christian message. We rejected a caricature. The established church has much to answer for in that.

The Christian gospel is far more shocking and subversive than any adolescent arrogance could have imagined.

Maybe it’s time to look again with adult eyes at Jesus and to weigh his message in the light of your experience. Like me, you may be blown away.

Spiritual, not Religious

I’ve only just stumbled on the work of English theologian N. T. Wright. Why has it taken me this long, I ask myself? He writes clearly and speaks to me exactly where I am right now.

As a Christian dealing with the contempt of secular materialists, the evaporation of church credibility after disgraceful sexual abuse scandals, and the hostility my faith receives from within my own culture, his books have something to say to me. I recommend them to anyone looking for a way to live life as an authentic Christian in troubled times.

We can not expect to go on as we have done. The days of churches are numbered if they persist in operating as social clubs asking little more from their members than the weekly offering.

I have tried to summarise below the thrust of his ideas from just one book. I sincerely hope I have captured the thrust without misrepresenting him. You can find his books for download by searching the Amazon Kindle site.

What follows is a bare bones summary of ideas from the book “Spiritual and Religious” by Tom Wright.

Western culture has turned away from organised religion, but almost all people are spiritual to some degree. Some carry vague vestiges of Christianity with them, while many have given up all pretence, embracing ideas and values diametrically opposed to a Christian world view.

Christians have a great deal to say that this culture needs to hear. Engaging with the surrounding culture, and not retreating from it, is the way of the Christian disciple. This does not call for ‘in your face’ tub thumping evangelism on the one hand, or being pious judgemental prigs on the other. It calls genuine repentence for the hypocrisy and failings of the church; active involvement in righting wrongs, fighting injustice, and healing hurt; and in the process, sharing the truth of the Christian gospel.

Whether it was ever easy to be a Christian is a moot point, but it has been made immensely more difficult in current times by the loss of credibility by the established church and a lack of leadership from its leaders.

N. T. Wright:

“There is no doubt that something is wrong with our world, and with us as human beings . . .

The modern world is in a crisis of identity . . . (There is) a state of paganism in the modern Western world. . . I suggest that the church itself is called . . . to repent of its own failures, shortcomings, and folly. Indeed, the church can only really summon the world to repent if it is itself putting its own house in order.”

Common Misconceptions of the Christian Gospel

Dualism: e.g. Heaven good, Earth bad

N. T. Wright:

“Many Christians . . . are basically dualists. . . They have been taught that the world . . . is essentially evil; that God sent his Son from beyond the world to rescue us out of it . . . we will all finish up either in a non-physical heaven or a non-physical hell.”

This view is not biblical. It is not what the Bible teaches. The Earth is not bad. It is God’s creation.

Monism: e.g. “all is one”, mother Earth, Gaia, etc. God is in us. New Age beliefs fall into this category. Monism is also not biblical. God is creator and sovereign lord. He stands both in and above creation. The world and God are not one and the same.

N. T. Wright:

“We can only begin with the admission of failure: God have mercy on us, sinners that we are. We need, then, to repent of our half-and sub-and semi-Christian ideas . . . and of the muddles which have enabled us to imagine we were sound or substantial in our faith when in fact we were half-baked and half-hearted. And we need to repent of having made our muddled and half-grasped theologies into weapons of attack against those we did not like or understand.”

Idols and Paganism

Contemporary western culture is not neutral. It is overwhelmingly pagan. People worship a multitude of idols: Money; Power; Youth; Sex; Violence; Self gratification; Status; Nationalism; Material possessions, etc.

N. T. Wright:

“Idolatry begins when human beings treat something which is good as if it were God.

The things to which human beings give mistaken allegiance are not, in and of themselves, bad. The evil consists in human misuse of creation, not in creation itself. . . one of the great truths about being human: you become like what you worship.”

“But what if you worship something else? You will be worshipping something in whose image humans are not made, and it will start to show. Worship money, power, sex, security, prosperity, political advancement, and it will most likely show on your face sooner or later. It will certainly show in the way you treat yourself, and in the way you treat other human beings.”

The Role of the Church in the world

The established church has long related to the world by fitting in with it, taking the easy way, and going along for the ride.

N. T. Wright:

“The trouble with this approach is that it (the church) is so concerned to be like the world that it ends up having nothing to say to the world.”

Christians should stop trying to fit in to the world, and start to behave as if they believed what they say they believe. At the same time, Christians from different traditions and practices should stop fighting each other over matters of tradition and doctrine. The real enemy, paganism (worship of parts of creation rather than God), needs to be countered by a unified church of believers with the common cause of Jesus Christ.

Christians have work to do. They must stop being distracted by stuff that doesn’t matter and which destroys their credibility.

N. T. Wright:

“Christianity . . . must present the true picture which will enable people to see the caricature (of new age thinking) for what it is. If this means planting flags in hostile soil, so be it.”

Planting flags in hostile soil does not mean using violence. It means engaging the wider pagan culture where it is now, not waiting for it to come to us. Christians should affirm the many things that are good in western culture, but call out the things that oppress and damage their fellow human beings; not compromise their faith for the sake of a quiet life.

N. T. Wright:

“The church may well have a fair amount of repenting to do before it can say anything about Jesus that will not at once be invalidated by its own life and behaviour.”

“When the church is . . . welcoming the outcast, healing the sick, challenging the powers that oppress and enslave the poor –then its claim about Jesus will be self-authenticating.”

This has become a very difficult task in the light of the church being seen to be more interested in protecting its priviledges, wealth and good name in the face of the world wide sexual abuse scandal. In the eyes of very many people, the Christian church has no credibility. Christians, as Church, need to repent of this, give up their status, and move out into the world . .

N. T. Wright:

“(We need to be) finding out where pagan gods and goddesses are being worshipped, and finding ways of worshipping Jesus on the same spot.”

“This will undoubtedly mean that Christians will find themselves, as Jesus found himself, at risk morally and physically. But let there be no mistake. Jesus did not shout platitudes at Israel from a safe distance.”

If Christians are followers of Jesus, then let them learn from the early Christians who lived in a similarly hostile pagan culture.

You can find much more detail and fuller explanations at the Amazon Kindle site, with a search for ebooks by N. T. Wright.

Impossible Prayers

Mess time’s passage.

Heal the damage.

Undo what’s done.

Revisit chances

never won.

Make me pure.

I’ll ponce and pose

on issues du jour,

and not ever notice

the pain in front of my nose.

Find me a parking space.

Buy me that house.

Scratch that itch;

make me rich.

Get me a spouse.

If I have to confess,

then its true more or less;

don’t blame me I’m weak.

Can’t you possibly tweak

that which I don’t deserve?

No need to listen,

just apply a prescription

of unwanted solutions

to another who’s ashen

and bending with shame.

Thank you dearly

for showing me clearly

the ways that others fail.

I’m better of course,

and to show it I’ll drive in the nails.

Subversive thoughts . . . and a radical idea

I’ve been dancing tentatively around my inner space, trying to come up with a response to things that have challenged me and caused me to think about my place in the world.

In the photograph, the child stands on her toes, savouring the wind, liveliness and excitement streaming from her fingertips. I love the image. When I saw her statue last year she captured my imagination. The memory of her standing spellbound and free while people around her shuffled along in their own worlds, leaves me with a smile. She is subversive, you see. Every now and then, someone notices her and understands her message.

I don’t suppose anyone would see me as a subversive figure, but we all have to start somewhere.

You may or may not agree with all I write. I can live with that. My aim is to challenge the status quo; to gently and politely point out the contradictions, dishonesties, and the emptiness that attend some of the sacred cows we are required to bow before.

Who knows? You may begin to suspect that these cows produce manure and methane just like any other! At present we let them run free through our institutions, when we should be herding them back into their pens.

Let’s begin with one that prances down the main streets of our lives, head raised and sure of its pedigree, sprouting stuff like this:

“To argue our own values are better than someone else’s is evidence of intolerance or worse.”

This is a sacred cow, and it is a lie. Yes, it’s obvious peoples’ values vary with culture, fashion and maturity. It’s equally obvious we shouldn’t expect everyone to be in lock step with our values. No contest at all! However when we are asked to accept that all values are of equal worth, we should begin to notice the smell wafting up from this sacred cow.

Are all values worthy? Does selfishness contribute to the common good the same way selflessness does? Are monogamy and promiscuity two sides of the same coin? Can greed bring the same peace contentment does? Does violence produce the same fruit as non violence? Does revenge take us to the same place as forgiveness?

If different values lead to different outcomes, some predictably destructive, why have we swallowed the nonsense that all have intrinsic worth? Because its comfortable and affirming to believe such stuff? When we’re told that we must accept and respect everyone else’s values, what is it we are being expected to do, other than grow increasingly confused about our own?

Accepting difference and understanding that people can and do make poor choices is no bad thing. As a principle to shape our moral base and decision making, it is disastrously misguided.

All of which leads us to a second cow, also believing itself to be beyond criticism:

“We shouldn’t judge other people or discriminate.”

Well yes. Humility and charity, not to mention good sense, would lead me to avoid jumping to judgement every time I encounter someone different from me. Neither should I discriminate for unjust reasons such as racism. That is not how this cow behaves however. It is quite aggressive and behaves as a barrier to any sort of censure of any lifestyle choice at all. It pressures us to accept other people’s choices, no matter what they be, as of equal validity to those we ourselves make. Do I really need to point out examples of how this leads to the muddle of public morality in which we find ourselves?

If a person chooses to live an irresponsible, dangerous lifestyle, do I really need to pretend that I shouldn’t judge what they do? Should I admit someone I don’t trust to my home just to satisfy a lofty commitment to non discrimination? When I choose a life partner, should I avoid discrimating and accept the first person I meet regardless of his or her qualities? Apparently so, because judging other people is bad, or at the very least, so out of fashion.

Suspending judgement of other people is a good starting point, but avoiding judgement altogether as an overarching life guiding value is vacuous. How unfortunate that this cow has permeated our consciousness to the extent that it now informs our laws and dilutes our ability to make good choices.

And a third cow swaggers past, just as sure of itself, but no less deluded than its siblings:

“We should be free to do whatever we like as long as we are not hurting anyone else”.

Well, we are free to do whatever we like, more or less. The freedom to be irresponsible doesn’t come without a cost however, even though we don’t always have to pay it ourselves. Often it’s the people around us, and our community, who pays. This cow is talking deceptive nonsense. We do not live in isolation. Everything we do affects someone else in some way.

To pretend we are answerable only to our own desires is as foolish as stepping in a pile of fresh cow manure. Both errors leave us tainted. I can see the attractiveness of such a slogan to adolescents, but as a guide and norm for adult behaviour? Alas, it is widely used in our culture to justify and to silence opposition to self indulgent attitudes.

Each of these sacred cows and others like them sounds deceptively benign, but they legitimise the worship of self that has elbowed its way into the centre of our culture. This is a huge issue and well beyond the scope of one blog post. So much sorrow and brokenness begins when we make ourselves the centres of our own universes. If we continue to bow before these cows and others like them, we will let our sense of good and evil be arbitrated by our preferences and our convenience. That will take us places we do not want to go.

So much for my subversive thoughts. How’s this for a radical idea? Instead of letting them walk roughshod over our traditions and values, we resist these cows actively. We call out their dishonesty. Resistance may indeed be futile, but before we surrender entirely to the spirit of the age, shouldn’t we at least try some?

But, I notice I am drifting into a consciousness where values are not negotiable, electable or disposable. I ask your indulgence.

Sharing the Gospel or shoring up the status quo?

(Relics of a bygone age. Colourful but stuffed?)

I began to write this to vent frustration at Christian churches that are failing their followers and their societies, and it felt good to get some of it off my chest. After all, churches have brought many of their current woes on themselves. As I wrote though, my focus changed, and I began to turn the arc lamp more towards myself.

The Christian church in the west has long chased power and respectability, and having sidelined the Gospel in the process, now finds itself with little of either. It has allowed its moral authority to be compromised, and in the space of two generations, has presided over the departure of the bulk of its flock. There is no way to sugar coat this ugly truth, although some continue to try. What remains resembles a hollowed out shell, where the rearranging of deck chairs is preferred to the facing of hard questions.

Moral leadership by churches is almost nonexistent, and ineffective where remnants exist. Few people are listening. Church leaders have squandered their moral authority as a result of a long tradition of chasing respectability and power in preference to living the Gospel of Jesus. The child sexual abuse scandal is the latest and most devestating blow; brought about by church leaders who chose to try to preserve the good name of the church over Gospel authenticity and caring for their flock. Why would anyone listen to leaders who failed their mission so obviously? If our anti-religious brethren have jumped on the bandwagon to grasp such a perfect opportunity to bash the church, should we be surprised?

Christians looking for leadership from their church are likely to be disappointed. Church leaders typically are too timid to call out error or to respond to the increasing attacks of secularists, while their followers find it easier to keep their heads down and go along with the zeitgeist than to risk ridicule and ostracism in defending their faith. If we are honest with ourselves, we might conclude our collective spiritual resolve is on a par with partly set jelly.

The church has no reason to exist except as the body of believers who give witness to the Christian Gospel. Somewhere along the line we forgot that. We imagined our aims to be ‘church growth’ (as if we were answering to shareholders), and the shaping of society to reflect our prejudices and reinforce our privileges (as if that were what the Gospel was about). Chasing ‘relevance’, we allowed the Gospel, the best news anyone could ever hear, to be sanitised and neutered so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities, including our own. We were left with a bland facsimile that few saw a reason to value.

Sadly, disciples of Jesus in the western world can not expect much from their churches apart from platitudes and worn out thinking. Continuing to chart our course with comfortable clichés will see us absorbed totally into the surrounding secular culture.

We need a radical rethink of what it means to be Christian.

I suggest that we should begin by facing reality. The churches of Christendom have become comfortable and complacent. They are decaying. People are not listening to the good news we have for them. Is it reasonable then to conclude that there is something awry? Does that something have to do with society (in which case we can sit comfortably and tut tut) or does it have something to do with how we are doing the Christian bit? Is it all the fault of churches?

A Rethink

I’ve been scathing of our churches but should I be looking closer to home? After all, the only person I have any authority to change is myself.

I realise I need to be open to repentance, and there is plenty of material for me to work on. What I don’t know though is what I don’t know. This is where I need God and my fellow believers to guide me, and where necessary, accuse me. Repentance is a cleansing process and opens the door to renewal, but I struggle to do it by myself.

What follows repentance is the desire and conviction to do things differently. For me, this may be looking at myself honestly and examining some of my attitudes. It is likely to demand some changes in the way I do the Christian life.

If, in the process, I can grow to be the person my creator intends me to be, and to be the Gospel for my sisters and brothers, rather than just seeking ways to share it, that will be an outcome as satisfying as it is welcome.

Christians face daunting challenges in a culture increasingly indifferent and even hostile to them, but alloting the blame solely to inept and corrupt churches blinds us to the need to look inside ourselves and to God for the renewal we must have to become Christ’s disciples. Blending in with secular society and becoming indistinguishable from it is not the way forward.

I began this post by pointing out the failures of the established church, but as I wrote, came to realise that the failures of the church were not so different from my own failures. Its compromises were not unlike mine; its timidity exceeded only by my own. Neither the church as an institution, nor I as an individual, can fulfill our purpose when we chase goals other than those God has set for us.

Maybe it is only then that we can move beyond the dismissal of Christians as curiosities to be left on the shelf as society moves on.

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