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February, 2013

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10 myths about the Bible

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The Bible is, together with prayer, the way to learn about God and connect with Him. But its role is sometimes misunderstood. Here’s a short list of things I’ve heard about the Bible which quite frankly upset me – some because I think they don’t do justice to the Bible; others because I think they stop people from accessing it.

bible

1. The Bible is just a reference book. One that we might look at if we want to decide whether getting a tattoo is wrong, or to find out about the life of Christ. If that’s the only way in which the Bible were to be read – simply as an authority – then a rulebook might have served better. Talking of which: isn’t that the Old Covenant approach? The Bible is the living word of God. It inspires us, it teaches us, it moves us and, essentially, transforms us.

2. There’s only one way to read the Bible. Of course not! There’s many ways to read the Bible. I’m not talking here about literal vs figurative interpretation; nor about how to take the cultural context into account. These debates are important, yes – but better left to others; and taking sides in this debate, to me, feels like turning the Bible into just a reference book. What I’m talking about is ways to let the Bible transform you. And for that, there’s plenty of ways. Tease out the general meaning of a passage – its direction, its structure, its rhythm; when it’s a story, identify with different persons in turn (yes, including Jesus) and feel what they’re feeling; etc. etc.

3. The Bible is boring. If you really think that, you haven’t read the whole Bible. Seriously, there’s bits of 2 Chronicles which are far more gripping, even from a storytelling perspective alone, than Game of Thrones’s most gripping. And these bits aren’t an exception – most of the Bible is just as gripping.

4. The Bible is exciting throughout; this myth can be followed with: “and if you don’t agree, you’re missing the point of whatever you don’t find exciting.” I personally don’t find the whole Bible exciting. Sometimes, it’s a drag because it’s boring. Sometimes it’s a drag because it’s depressing. Seriously, though, if you manage to get the first ten chapters of 1 Chronicles to look as exciting as John 15, then (a) you really have a heart for genealogies and (b) please share that excitement with us in the comments. Yes, most, if not all the Bible, points to Christ and is exciting for that reason. But just like any other book, there are bits that are a drag to read.

5. Bible verses can be used as ammunition to shut down an argument. This myth is also known as “Cos the Bible says so”, a phrase which has become one of my pet hates. If the Bible is the living word, then let’s treat it as such. Imagine you have an argument about the theory of relativity, and somehow you have Einstein or Eddington at your disposal. Do you simply get them to come and stand behind you, or do you let them speak? The Bible, as the living word, opens up conversations – it does NOT shut them down.

6. Reading the Bible is an easy habit to take on. This is not true. Like I said before, it can be a drag. And if on top of that, you live in an environment that only considers the reference book aspects of the Bible, you lack the motivation to do so – after all, not many people just take up a textbook regularly. Being reminded that it is a book that transforms us is far, far better a motivation to read it! But there are ways to help: I personally find reading plans extremely helpful; but I also find that once I have the dynamic going, it’s a pleasure. And yes, sometimes I lose that dynamic and it’s a drag again to get back into it. I’ll admit – I’m currently about a week behind on my plan and it’s not the easiest to get back into the daily reading habit.

7. If you don’t have a reading plan, you’ll burn in hell. Also known as “read your Bible every day or perish”. Folks, don’t read the Bible out of a sense of ought-ness, that’ll get you nowhere. Get started out of a sense of ought-ness, maybe – because otherwise you might never start. But don’t let that be your sole motivation:

8. Only the KJV is valid for reproof, teaching etc. Yes, some people do believe that. I remember reading on a forum a while back someone claiming that Hallelujah was an English word that had been stolen by the Hebraic language. So, to clarify: the KJV is not the original text. It’s not even the earliest English-language version! Yes, I’m being flippant here; but have you ever looked down on others for the translation they use? Why would “KJV+NIV+ESV+NRSV” be the only valid set of translations?

9. Protestants know the Bible off by heart. We don’t. We know some verses, but definitely not all of them.

10. Catholics don’t read their Bible. Seriously, I’ve heard that a few times, and it annoys me to no end; so let’s make it clear: Catholics read their Bible just as much as Protestants do. And kudos to them for that – after all, they do have more to read ;-)

Are Christian Unions detrimental to the furthering of the Kingdom?

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I’m aware this blog has a readership in the US and in France as well as in the UK. I’m not sure how widespread Christian Unions (CUs) are in American universities, and I know they are nearly non-existent in France. So, to those outside the UK, you may find this post less relevant, and I’m sorry about that; but please bear with me as the issues raised may be relevant to your ministry. First, let me give a bit of background about CUs.

CU

In theory, CUs have a very laudable purpose: to share with people on university campuses and in colleges the Gospel. In theory, then, Christian Unions are merely evangelistic organisations. They are, in my experience, quick to warn members that they are not church, and that they do not, and should not, replace church. All very well in theory; but the place the CUs have in student Christian life is different. To understand their actual function, official and normative documents cannot suffice; rather, the origin of the CU movement should let us know where it fits and how it is used (1).

The UCCF is the national organisation to which CUs are affiliated. It started off, under a different name, as a reaction to perceived liberalism from SCM, and started in a logic of opposition to an organisation which was committed to ecumenism and which tried to cater for a wider spectrum of Christianity (in particular with respect to the place of atonement and Biblical infallibility). Evangelism soon became central to the work of the UCCF, something which could no longer be said of SCM.

Cue forward to 2013. UCCF-affiliated CUs are present in most universities; and often are the main Christian presence on campus. But the logic of dualism and opposition, and in many ways pride, which started off the movement, is still strongly rooted in them. It shows, in particular, through the emphasis on its Doctrinal Basis (DB, around which many tensions are crystallised), which serves mostly as an engine of distinctiveness: our way of imagining Christianity is the only way; these are the essential truths to which we hold, as a Christian Union. Want to know whether we hold your denomination as Christian? Check your beliefs against the DB. How far are we from the historical commitment to ecumenism of pre-split SCM; or even from the commitment to unity stated by the UCCF?

Mike Reeves, from UCCF, tries to justify this central position of the DB through reference to the long-lasting tradition in the churches of having creeds; but an ontological analogy cannot serve to win a functional argument: the DB has no doxological value, that is, it is not conceived as a statement of praise. If it is to be compared to anything functionally, the 39 articles of faith of the Anglican church are a better match; but these do not hold as central a place as the DB holds; and while the former were redacted with the aim to bring continuity to the experience of parishioners after a mostly politically-motivated change (2), the latter stems from a stand-offish attitude that tries to build barriers around a very specific view of Christianity. The contents of the DB themselves could be the topic of another series of posts, but those would easily degenerate into petty theological arguments, and prove divisive rather than uplifting. Suffice it to say, to appease the spirits of my CU friends, that I agree with what they point towards, even though I find the wording sometimes unhelpful.

Since the 1919 split, then, this commitment to a specific view of Christianity as opposed to others has remained part of CUs’ identity. But as offshoots of SCM affiliates, CUs share some of its traits, functionally. A CU is, functionally, a group of Christians on campus, and provides for them ways to explore their faith and to enjoy fellowship with one another. It leads to strong friendships, and to great growth. I am grateful for the role the local CU has played in my life, in giving me the chance to grow and test my gifts in various areas. I am grateful, also, for its official purpose of evangelism, and for the many people who could be blessed through our local action. But all the things that the CU does are meant to be geared towards evangelistic action.

  • Living holy lives turns into being good witnesses.
  • Baptisms are seen primarily as opportunities for evangelism.
  • Giving a warm welcome becomes a gateway for evangelism and that alone – even if covertly.
  • The ultimate aim of Christian life becomes the Great Commission, not the commandment to love God and to love one another – although these might be taken as read.
  • Churches are partners and equippers for evangelism. In particular, church can (although by no means always) becomes restricted to Sundays, with the CU taking over for the rest of the week for all Christian activity.

Why do I think this is detrimental to the furthering of the Kingdom? Because it has a double effect of boxing in Christianity into evangelism, thereby denying its members the full experience and joy of Christianity; and of boxing evangelism into an activity which we were commanded to do, rather than as something that flows from an outpouring of love for Christ and a desire to imitate him. Let me explain this a bit further: several people get involved in evangelistic activities because they are put on by the CU and by its small groups, and because there’s little better to do on a Friday night.While it is good that this happens, and that many are reached through such activities, it leaves me wondering whether it might not be a hypocritical way of engaging with others; and how sustainable it is: that is, how people would behave once they leave uni and no longer have these activities.

Of course, it may not be the job of the CU to do anything other than evangelise; but as long as they remain the main Christian presence on campus, the very people they reach out to will experience a very limited aspect of Christianity, especially if the church they get directed to is a Sunday thing. That’s how some of my friends who became Christians through the CU affirm, with great conviction, that the only purpose of us as followers of Christ is to make more disciples.

It can seem ironic, or hypocritical, that I would promote Christian unity and holistic Christian life by giving such a damning profile of Christian Unions. But as I see it, there are two ways Christian Unions can take – two strands of their DNA they can choose to follow, but keeping both of them together will lead to the problems I outlined:

  • either embrace the part of their heritage which comes from SCM, and become a community of Christians on campus – a union of Christians on campus. But if it chooses to do so, it needs to embrace other parts of Christian life or risk leading its members as well as those it reaches out to, to a cheapened version of Christianity: a commodity rather than a pervasive identity. For that, it needs to face the daunting task of ecumenism and shake off the parts of its make-up that come from wanting to be distinctive from SCM.
  • or embrace the focus on a purely evangelistic activity. But if it chooses to do so, it needs to stop being “the” Christian presence on campus: it needs to stop being the go-to place for young Christians joining university and even for the people it reaches out to, and leave that to others. And that might have to go through a reduction of its activities, where and when they take up the bulk of the week.

In any case, it needs to bridge the gap between its ontological and its functional identities. If it doesn’t, it will bring up a generation of people who pay lip service to Christianity but restrict it to evangelistic action. That would be (pardon the pedantry) bringing the Kingdom farther but not further, making it wider, but doing so at the expense of meaning and of joy, and leaving for many a shallow experience of Christianity.

Bringing the Good News to strangers and to friends is, in both cases, still very relevant and part of the DNA of the CUs. But it cannot be exclusive, or it cannot functionally claim exclusivity over Christianity on campus.

(1) Most of this history I get from Wikipedia. I’m old, I know – but not quite old yet to know this history first-hand. If you know better than Wikipedia, do let me know! UCCF have also put together their own video to relate their history, although no mention of SCM is made. Equally, SCM relate their own history without mentioning the UCCF.

(2) This analysis is from ATP Williams – although, admittedly, article 22 is worded in a fairly stand-offish way.

Christianity: about community?

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Last week, I wrote a post in which I highlighted the shift, in terms of focus, from nations to individuals between Old and New Testaments; in order to stress the importance of individual relationships rather than merely corporate ones. This week, I’m looking at the community aspect of Christianity.

community

Background: adapted from GreatPaperWolf, reused under CC license.

No better way to start than quoting a comment from last week:

The reformation, while rightly seeking to distance itself from the then overtly controlling religiosity of the Catholic church may have taken a step too far in their emphasis of individual salvation and personal faith.

As it is eloquently put, matters of individual/corporate nature of faith are matters of emphasis. Individual salvation and personal faith are Biblical. In fact, the picture painted in Luke 17 goes a long way to show that simply being with those who are saved is no guarantee of salvation. But this is “only” an eschatological matter.

Practice of faith is an altogether different matter. Have you ever noticed the following verse:

For when two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.

Matthew 18:20 (NIV)

It is usually read as “there is no need for massive congregations to worship”, but it is two or three – not one: there is no talk of individual worship. Of course, there are other moments where, say, individual prayer is commended; but it is clear that community is important.

After all, all-consuming, all-pervasive relationships are at the heart of the Trinity. On top of that, Peter was anointed to build a church – and though the meaning of church may have evolved over the centuries; originally, it seems to me that this all-consuming, all-pervasiveness was present: ἐκκλησία, generally translated as church or assembly, but which etymology could mean “called out of”, is used in the singular. Out of the many who are called, the church of Christ is, in its very substance one. That alone should be enough to ignite our passion for ecumenism (although ecumenism in itself is another subject).

The early church modelled this community way of life by pooling all their resources, and by remaining inextricably linked even when they were not geographically co-present. There is an incredibly powerful sense of acting congregationally whenever Paul exhorts us to pray for all the saints (something that might be missed out because of the power of what comes before it!).

These elements, I feel, are far more powerful than the practical ones. The advantages of communal prayer, or the description of the Church as one body are helpful to convince oneself that it is worth doing; but let us not forget in this description that the Church is not just one body: it is the body of Christ.

From the perspective of the in-up-out triangle (1), then, the sense of community coming before the individual is very strong in the in and the up vertices of the triangle. Very importantly, these all-pervasive links between individuals which form the assembly are involving us: we are part of them. It isn’t like a different organisation we can distance ourselves from: we are intrinsically in the church.

But we haven’t seen that happen in the out vertex. Of course, the vertices of the triangle are not independent; so there will be elements of community shining through in our outreach. And we will do it with the support of our community. But the other whom we are reaching out to is not a community nearly as much as it is individuals; and this should not be forgotten.

(1) Yes, I have used Lifeshapes. I feel dirty now. But for those of you who don’t know it, it is about the direction of growth both for local churches and for individuals: in (fellowship, discipleship, etc.), up (looking towards God, worship, etc.) and out (outreach, evangelism, social justice, etc.)

Christianity: about individuals?

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Much of the Old Testament is about the nation of Israel as a whole. Israel is God’s chosen people: it is as a people that it is led to the promised land, is exiled, chooses a king, etc. When individuals start misbehaving, the whole nation gets the stick jointly. It works the other way around, too, although there is far less of an emphasis on the link between joint, congregational behaviour and return to grace (I can think of one explicit, though academic, instance).

individuals

Background: GreatPaperWolf, reused under CC license

The Old Testament is, then, mostly the story of the Israelites as a people and of a few heroes whose actions are directly linked with that of the people (the judges and kings, in particular). It is particularly revealing of the mindset of the Israelites to notice that the names listed in the early genealogies include those of nations we still know today, or that they are used as bywords for the whole nation (in particular, Jacob/Israel in the Psalms). Job is, admittedly, an exception (1).

The luxury afforded in the Old Covenant, of being able to say “us and them”, is now gone. The parables and the beatitudes are not generally linked with nations; and when nations get mentioned, it is in a culturally challenging fashion: the Samaritan’s behaviour surprises, and Jesus’ behaviour towards the Samaritan does to. What I consider to be one of the most powerful verses of the Epistles spells it out with no escape left to us: the New Covenant is available not simply to all nations, but to each individual. This is not to say that nations stop being relevant; but that they stop being sufficient.

This shift is twofold: “us” is no longer sufficient. We can no longer leave to the Levites the duty of prayer and worship; we can no longer leave to others the duties of care, even if we support them. And whilst we do not have to go it alone, we should not let the need for congregate action become an excuse for not doing stuff individually. To spell it out, if someone comes knocking asking for help, we should not reject them, merely sending them off to whatever organisation, justifying ourselves by the fact we financially or practically support said organisation sometimes – i.e. by the fact that we are “citizens” of that nation/organisation. We have a duty to love our neighbour, and that goes through listening. I’m not saying we should ignore the work done by organisations, or that we should do all the work they’re doing as individuals – just that we cannot use them as excuses.

“Them” is no longer sufficient either. We are no longer allowed to lump all homeless people together into a nation of homeless. We are no longer allowed to lump all drug addicts into their own nation. We are no longer allowed to lump all Catholics together. We are no longer allowed to lump all middle-class people together. Even so for coffee drinkers: they may be in the wrong, but that should not stop us from connecting with them as individuals; rather than as people who merely need to discover tea.

This is a difficult task to which we all fail. I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say I don’t quite live by these values. I sometimes walk past homeless people and fail to care for the individual; and I sometimes justify it in my head thinking either about how busy I am (commitments to my nation) or that there are plenty of ways for these people to find help (dumping responsibility onto my nation). While I don’t tend to assume they will use whatever I would give for alcohol or drugs (which would be lumping them together into one nation), I sometimes still think that they might (I just say, well, if they do, there’s nothing I can do about it) and fail to engage with the individual. Which, again, is treating them as a nation.

But the command is clear: love your neighbour as yourself. Not the nation of your neighbours: your neighbour. And that is a great challenge.

(1) Isn’t it interesting that it also happens to be, as far as I can recall, the only place in the Old Testament where the Devil is seen undeniably as an external entity rather than as a mere tempter?