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Sean Tucker does junk religion : the “Unlearning” review

And the Darwin Award for Ecclesial extinction goes to…

Any church leader in Sean Tuckers new book “Unlearning”. Well, not all of them, but Sean’s debut is a litany of insensitivity, crassness and downright toxic religion, which I am now reminded, has been alive and well over this last decade. Continue reading “Sean Tucker does junk religion : the “Unlearning” review”

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Lausanne 2010 – the questions to your answer.

This week saw the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization (yes folks, that’s spelled with a zee) take place in Cape Town.

I held an open posture (a “reverse pretzel”) towards the goings on, and met face to face with a few delegates. But by and large I remained fringer than the self-proclaimed “fringe”. Part of this advanced yogic manipulation involved my posting a question per day on conversation.lausanne.org.

For evangelicals, regardless of the plethora of diverse issues – globalism, truth, social action, climate- the answer is always “Jesus”. Even then, we shall have to ask again, “Which Jesus?”

So here, to summarise, are what I see as key questions to address going forward. Conversation around these on conversation.lausanne was not prolific, so let me simply repost them here:

  • Can Evangelical – Postevangelical interfaith dialog bear fruit?
  • How have liberal, postmodern and emergent values infiltrated evangelicalism?
  • Is evangelicalism inherently dualistic?
  • Is “worship” a separate idea from “evangelization”?
  • What comes first – belief, behaviour, or belonging?
  • Does the Gospel of Grace require the threat of Hell?
  • How does our salary affect our theology?

Sculpting the Narrative: McLaren’s “Greco-Roman” meets Fox’s “Fall-Redemption”

I am just about as excited as I could be. I’ve just put down Brian McLarens “Part 1: The Narrative Question” in his new tour de force “A New Kind of Christianity”. And on the table, too, is my well worn copy of Matthew Fox’s 1982 Classic “Original Blessing.”

If there are two defining works for the Christianity of the 21st Century, these two books are it. You may have seen Avatar in 3D, reading NKoC and OB together will give superb depth to any vision of the future of Christian spirituality. The very fact that McLaren is predominantly Evangelical Protestant and Fox Dominican Catholic, and that both these great contemporary thinkers consider themselves post the modern era, gives us a tremendous ecumenical advantage over narrower, more sectarian points of view.

The problem in a nutshell

Matthew Fox’s thesis is that Modern Christianity has been hijacked by a set of anti-biblical assumptions, which he calls the “Fall/Redemption” tradition. Properly understood, the Biblical narrative emerges from what he has named the much more ancient “Creation Spirituality” tradition.

The key curators of this are the “Yahwist” author of Genesis, the Wisdom writers, The Old Testament Prophets, Jesus, Paul, Francis, Mechtild, Eckhart, Teilhard and host of others, while the main proponents of Fall/Redemption include Augustine, a Kempis and Tanquerry. Fox shows how modernity built on Newton and Descartes, and siding with this latter paradigm, resulted in the crisis of spirituality we experience today, especially in the West. Continue reading “Sculpting the Narrative: McLaren’s “Greco-Roman” meets Fox’s “Fall-Redemption””

The New Age – a postevangelical view

Tierazon1 fractal (Jack Haas)

Despite my naturally pedantic approach to language, I find that there are a few words or phrases that remain stuck on my tongue and in my head. My lifelong struggle against cliché and bad habits is tainted by this clutch of problematic symbols that like Pauls thorn, seem to resist my every effort in the battle to say what I mean and mean to be as fresh, new and creative as is humanly possible. One such phrase is “New Age”.

I first became aware of it while at the start of a journey which took me to the heart of charismatic evangelicalism, almost 30 years ago. What I remember this pejorative usage implying was false, relativistic, disembodied and uncommitted spirituality.

These are a few things from popular culture which in my experience are deemed “New Age”: Continue reading “The New Age – a postevangelical view”

A South African Emergent Conversation

A group of friends met on the 4th and 5th December 2009 in Cape Town, around growing these friendships and working towards a common vision for emergence Christianity in South Africa. These included Jackson Khosa, Muzi Cindi, Marius Brand, Cobus van Wyngaard, Theresa and Andrew Hendrikse, Ann and Nic Paton, and Amahoro Africa’s Claude Nikondeha. In addition to socialising and relaxing, we shared meals, drummed, and talked.

One focus was the book by Muzi Cindi, whose unorthodox journey has sparked both indignation and amazement especially in his own African community, dividing established patterns of church authority with a host of radical questions about God and Atheism. Continue reading “A South African Emergent Conversation”

Muzi Cindi – A postmodern nigger in the woodpile

Talking About God Thinking About GodAs epiphanies go, Muzi Cindi’s stands way out. As a preacher and churchman of some 25 years standing, God appeared to him in 2007 during a Radox moment in the shower. So far, only slightly unusual. Then, God actually spoke to him. That deserves, I suppose, a hearing, even in this day of revelation overload. But the clincher is the message, and it was this: “God does not exist”.

But instead of creating a debilitating crisis of faith for Cindi, this subversive “a-theist” anticreed has become his catharsis, motivation, and passion. The evangelical zeal which was his all along merely adjusted to a new message and is as far as one can tell, as strong as it ever has been, and certainly no less radical. The outcome of his visitation is now available as a book, “Thinking about God, Talking about God”.

Well, maybe I should say that it’s not so much a conventional book, as a documented process, largely unedited, full of spelling errors and dubious assertions, brimming with contradiction, but ultimately held together in a burning vision. Lordy Lordy Hallelujah! this is surely a testimony for the postmodern age.

As a text, and because this is a review, let it be noted that the index of howlers is unusually high, the problems ranging from simple spelling, incorrect word usage, to un-researched shortcuts, and the appropriation of whole chapters from other sources. This I am sure is due to the fact that this is an entirely self funded enterprise, and therefore wholly sidesteps normal publishing channels; but this is part of the “Thinking about God” charm. To stop at such nitpicking would be to miss the point.  

Cindi’s essential point is this: the Christianity he was brought up in, is not only unsustainable and discredited, but already defunct. “The Christian world is disintegrating, because the story on which it is based is losing its power.” He supplies abundant (though somewhat chaotic) data to support his claims. But his offering is essentially a visionary one, involving wide theological, philosophical, and scientific thought. He seeks to address the seeming incompatibility of a deep love for his evangelical tradition – and his faith in Jesus – with his philosophical embrace of the new atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris.

And this embrace extends to just about everything that contributed to the end of the modern era, from Copernicus and Galileo’s pioneering cosmologies, Darwin’s evolutional insights, Einstein’s discovery of relativity, Paul Tillich’s theological atheism and Karen Armstrong’s religious demythologising.

DoNotBelieve“Don’t believe what I believe” is one of Muzi’s rallying cries, and I look forward to the T-Shirt. In case this gets interpreted as mere reactionary anarchy, he explains to us the apophatic (negative theology) traditions from where he draws his succour: Meister Eckhart, the 13th century mystic, Paul Tillich, and Don Cuppit. And he gives credit too to all reformers – Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, the evangelical fathers Wesley, Edwards, Moody, and the South Africans such as John G Lake and Nicholas Bhengu. And references are not just to Christianity: universal, ecumenical appeals to the wisdom of all the worlds’ faith traditions pepper the book.

One of the most curious questions I have about Cindi’s explosive energy its relatively sparse dealings with the question of African roots, and bringing in more post colonial thought to buttressing his extensive postmodernism. Where, for example, are the fathers of the African revolutions, where is his own South African literary tradition amongst the plethora of first world sources? I do not want to prescribe who he should be, but it is a little vexing that the vast majority of his thesis of a post-God God is found in European and American thinking. I’d be delighted to see him take on African traditions with the same zeal he has taken on his own Evangelical roots, and even further to see him unpack an authentic Ubuntu as part of the rebuilding of Christianity.

I find myself identifying with Cindi’s vision, including his passion for knowledge, his hermeneutic of suspicion, his honest confusion, and his pariah status. At the same time I share his love for the evangelical tradition, and the ancient way of Jesus. He affirms, “A redefined Jesus still stands at the centre of my God experience”. Furthermore, I broadly concur with his inclusivity and embrace of all wisdom traditions as a way forward in a post Christian age. “Thinking about God” is flawed and fabulous, a headily chaotic brew, diverse, divisive, and delicious.

Muzi Cindi is a self confessed heretic, and draws strength from making peace with heterodoxy. The book is prefaced with an unattributed quote, “For every orthodoxy was once a heresy, and every heresy is fated to be orthodoxy. All countries were founded by traitors. All our churches were founded by heretics. The patriotism of today glories in the treasons of yesterday.” But to accuse him of lack of accountability would be short-sighted indeed; in addition to his relational ties to his mentors, the book is remarkable for its sheer range of references.

MusiHis vision is no idiosyncratic delusion, but rather an extension of a variety of well acknowledged intellectual and spiritual traditions. And we need his energy and his attempt to reconcile the old and new views of God and the cosmos. Despite his rambling style, I do not believe that this is a “mish-mash” of thought, so much as an emerging, integral vision.

Overcoming the taboo associated with thinking outside of our boxes, especially our religious ones, is a foundational shift which requires great courage; as Seal sings, “We’re never gonna survive, unless we get a little crazy”. Cindi is not shy of being regarded as a holy fool, and having recovered from the fear of asking questions, the potential for “error” appears to have no limit. And yet, all progress, and all evolutionary shifts, require these chaotic conditions. With startling audacity, Cindi has created them.

His life’s work, I intuit, will be to ensure that this chaos does indeed lead to a sustainable spirituality. Perhaps chief amongst the questions will be the one “Where, now, is our authority?” which emergent thinkers like Phyllis Tickle have been addressing.

If the world is to remember Muzi Cindi the author, he will have to employ a good editor. And if it is to celebrate his personal legacy, he will have to help those still ensnared in modernistic thinking, to emerge. He will need to fully develop his empathy, creating sound bridges for others to cross. And he will have to gain the trust of those who not so long ago, would have gloried in his immolation at the heretic’s stake.

Muzi’s Website.

So Long, Sola?

One of the pillars of the Great Reformation is the doctrine of “Sola scriptura”, meaning “The Bible Alone”). In this (according to the wikipedia definition) the Bible is held to be self-authenticating, clear (perspicuous) to reason, self-interpreting, and the final doctrinal authority. To those who have grown up in Protestantism, especially of an Evangelical flavor, these points might seem so self-evident and beyond reproach that it might seem strange, even heretical, to question them.

But in the light of the types of questions being raised in the Emergent Conversation, and especially in the wake of focusing events like the recent Great Emergence conference, “Sola scriptura” is coming under scrutiny. I want to offer some thoughts on this, some my own and many from others more studied.

As we engage the notion of Sola scriptura, many shades of meaning emerge. To some, it is a welcome justification of their deeply held love of scripture. To others, it helps to define a “high view of scripture” in the face of liberalizing relativism. And to yet others it is a doctrine at the very core of faith, an assurance of life itself.

While I love scripture, and see myself to hold a high view of it, I question the doctrine’s modern application. In essence, I see it as excluding and reducing truth, as reactionary, and ironically, as unscriptural. But before we detail these objections, we need to look at a few background assumptions: what we understand as the “word of God”, the canon, the scriptures as “law” not narrative, and the taints in this view of enlightenment rationalism.

  • While today we see the “Word of God” as synonymous with the “book” called the Bible (it’s more of a library of books between 2 covers), in the vast majority of cases in scripture itself, it refers to a breathed, and spoken word. If scripture is made to mean the written or printed word of God, then it represents only a subset of Gods greater expression.
  • Regarding that library, we have received by tradition what is known as the canon. For Protestants this means 66 books in total. This was “finalized” between 393 and 419 CE at the synod of Hippo, under the aegis of St Augustine. 
  • Despite the canon being considered “closed”, Martin Luther in his reforms rejected the apocryphal books, still part of the canon for much of the church.  While Luther emphasized scriptural authority, he rejected scriptures then current. And while he rejected Church authority, he accepted the rest of the canon which had been ratified by the church and passed on by that authority.
  • In the wake of rationalism and scientism, we tend to view scripture as a book of law, a textbook, or a set of logical propositions, rather than a book of story. Our post enlightenment view has caused us to require scripture to be “perspicuous to reason”, and non-contradictory.

A closed canon, a rejection (or fear) of contradiction, a literate culture where the oral and non-written is set against and over what is printed, and the static and deterministic  worldview of modernism has caused us to close down and defend the bible. When Jesus said “You have heard it written… but I say to you…” (Mt 5:39) he might have been addressing us. We still fail to see revelation as evolving, despite the fact that Jesus and his ministry was founded upon a progressive revelation of God.

Sola scriptura is a reaction

One of the key features of the Reformation was the rejection of the papacy and the refocusing on scripture as the final source of authority. As radical as these changes were, many aspects of reform did not deconstruct the prevailing Orthodoxy, but rather switched it wholesale. So the notion of infallibility which had attended the Pope, we transferred onto the Bible. No longer was a man, or a position, the final word on revelation, but a book.

We would honor history to bear in mind the extent to which the Catholic Church moved away from basic biblical values; indulgences, inquisitions and the corruption by total power as brief examples. It is not surprising then that the reformers veered to opposite extremes, the extent to which most now appreciate.  And we need to bear in mind that what Luther meant by “sola scriptura” is almost certainly not what we have come to see it as meaning after our 500 year journey though modernity.

In hindsight then, Sola Scriptura was and is an over-reaction. Nonetheless, the pendulum is swinging, and we must do our informed utmost to be true to the fullest possible revelation as we forge a new age of Gods rule.

Sola scriptura is excluding and too simple

Perhaps the most fundamental problem with Sola scriptura is the first half: “Sola”. In context, there were 5 solas (also Sola fide, Sola gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo gloria) representing the Reformations pillars or fundamental beliefs. Sola scriptura, however, seems to have taken on a life of its own in the minds of those pondering the question of ultimate authority in an age of Biblism.

Anyway, in essence, the problem is that a closed starting point will result in a limited system. By declaring any source of truth with the proviso “alone” we automatically exclude whatever else might reveal it.

John Wesley expanded this view in what has come to be known as his “quadrilateral”, in which truth is found in Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. However, he also maintains that Scripture is primary. At least his system is wider and more generous than the early reformers. (It might be suggested that we add 3 more sources, Creation, intuition and imagination, despite the potential and inevitable problems such an idea might introduce regarding authority).

The problem of Inclusion vs. Exclusion is theologically speaking, the problem of our times. One might adopt either emphasis “based on scripture” with relative ease. Indeed as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for everything under the sun: we all encounter times of exclusion and times of inclusion, personally as well as corporately.

However, in trying to read (dependant on your eschatology) the greater narrative underlying the message of the Kingdom of God, it appears that Inclusion is God’s ultimate aim. This cannot be achieved, however, without excluding (or destroying) certain things, for example sin and evil. But if we are to err, let us err on the side of Inclusion. A view of the bible as expressed in Sola scriptura ends up being at odds with things it ought not to, such as science.

One of the fundamental problems with an exclusion approach is that the level of exclusion or inclusion – where the “line is drawn” – is quite arbitrary. For example, leading up to the synod or Hippo, a book was investigated and declared canonical or uncanonical, but once canonical, no part of that book (i.e. a verse or verses) could then be subject to that same investigation. If you can do it to a library, why can’t you do it to a book, or a part of a book? What is it that makes the unit of acceptance of a text a “book”, especially since many of the books of the bible – Genesis for instance – had multiple authors?

Sola scriptura is unscriptural

There is no place I am aware of in the Bible which uses the words  “alone/only”, with (Gods) “Word” together such that a doctrine of “Scripture alone”, especially written scripture, might be derived.

I would like to reprint Steve Jones’ point-form analysis of the assumptions wrapped up in the concept, which may or may not apply to all who hold to Sola scriptura, but certainly illustrate the logic often apparent in the thought processes of its supporters. (The full article is highly recommended; at time of writing his blog seems to be offline).

  1. The Bible was written through supernatural means. God used men to pen these writings, but they are as much God’s own words as men’s.
  2. The canonical writings make up one divine book, a “manual” of Christian faith.
  3. The Bible is, accordingly, free of error.
  4. All questions of belief are to be brought to its pages. That which can be upheld by chapter and verse must be believed by all Christians. That which is contradicted there must be rejected.
  5. Its precepts are relevant and binding through all ages. The Bible addresses us in this century as much as it did the primitive church.

What Jones goes on to point out is that as reasonable as these axioms might sound, none of them is entirely without problems. Above all things, he makes the claim that none of these statements can actually be demonstrated in the bible itself.

Brian McLaren makes this same point, with an emphasis on the problems of Western Modernity:

“Interestingly, when Scripture talks about itself, it doesn’t use the language we often use in our explanations of its value. For Modern Western Christians, words like authority, inerrancy, infallibility, revelation, objective, absolute and literal are crucial … Hardly anyone notices the irony of resorting to the authority of extrabiblical words and concepts to justify ones belief in the Bible’s ultimate authority.” (A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren, Zondervan, 2004, p 182-3)

This idea of inerrancy, pointed out in Jones’ 3rd axiom, places an enormous and quite unnecessary burden on us. But McLaren artfully finds a way forward that does not undermine the value of scripture in any way:

“I would prefer to use the term inherency to describe my view of scripture: God’s inerrant word is inherent in the Bible, which makes it an irreplaceable, essential treasure for the church, deserving our wholehearted study and respect, so that we can be equipped to do God’s work.” (The Last Word and the Word After That, Brian McLaren, Jossey-Bass 2005, p 111)

Scripture is neither errant, nor inerrant: It is not errant, but rather inherent and inspired. And it is not inerrant, because this is asking the wrong question. It’s a Greek question for a Hebraic library: contradiction can be held in a narrative, but not in a set of logical propositions.

And Peter Rollins cheekily (though seriously) rebuts the idea that the “word of God” can ever be “made clear”:

“… if we were to do the impossible and render the text into the ultimate fantasy of the fundamentalist (a text at one with itself) then the Word of God would not be clearer; rather, the Word of God would be systematically eradicated”. (The Fidelity of Betrayal, Peter Rollins, Paraclete 2008, p 57)

In conclusion then, we should welcome challenges to the doctrine of Sola scriptura. What was a pillar of truth half a millennium ago, has become an untenable deadweight (one is tempted to say an idol) in the life of the church. Whereas it surely liberated and focused us during the tumult of the reformation, it is time to reevaluate – to re-value – where it is our faith actually lies.

We need to rediscover the meanings of the “Word of God”, question without fear, like Luther, what constitutes the canon, authority and truth, and reconnect to the exhilarating story inherent in the words and life of the Redeeming God, the God of All truth.

Standing Up: Comics and Preachers

In my family we don’t differentiate between boys and girls – fuck that shit – we make a distinction between shooters and non-shooters. We have 3 shooters and 5 non-shooters.” [Mario Joyner – ouch]

It was refreshing (if a bit filthy) to see 7 fine comedians doing standup at the Cape Town International Comedy Festival. Hosted by Mario Joyner (US), the best acts were in fact local, and African: Trevor Noah (SA), Daliso Chaponda (Malawi) and Nik Rabinowitz (SA). I think that that’s both a reflection on the power of proximity – authenticity perhaps, as well as the simple fact that these 3 were better entertainment than others from Australia, the UK and Canada. And I speak as one whose culture has always centered around things British.

I laughed, I cried, I winced, I yawned. 4 seasons in one evening. I know I had a good laugh, don’t ask Continue reading “Standing Up: Comics and Preachers”

Inclusion and maturity.

“For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” [Mt 7:13]

“For many are invited, but few are chosen.” [Mt 22:14]

Dedicated to my friend Don Rogers.

This post forms part of a synchroblog on “Maturity” (see the list below). I would like to explore the idea of how growing more like G-d means becoming not more elite, pious, or exclusive, but rather more Inclusive. That to become mature, we are “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”, expansive, hospitable, and generous.

Is Jesus for the few? Generally speaking, people associate Jesus and his message via the church with a view that he is somehow beyond reach; the one thing ties both these texts together is the word “Few”.

Continue reading “Inclusion and maturity.”

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