Saturday, January 28, 2012

Re-thinking generosity (Deborah Storie)

Deborah Storie wrote a thought-provoking article just before Christmas about "giving well". This article is relevant to giving in general, not just at Christmas time. Take a good look and be challenged. Here is an excerpt.

"The growing popularity of sending gift boxes overseas, orphanages in far-away places, and some short-term 'mission' trips, are all symptoms of a broader shift in Australian thought over the last few years. They reflect a hierarchical worldview in which some give generously and others gratefully receive. According to this worldview, rich Christians are responsible to give generously to the poor and not much more. This worldview is based on a narrow understanding of poverty which equates it with material deprivation and fails to acknowledge the complex networks of forces that give more to those who already have too much, and take from those who already have  too little . In this worldview, deeper structural causes of poverty and inequality don’t exist."

"I long for us to give respectfully and intelligently in ways which address underlying problems and empower the poor. Sadly, our love of mercy often blinds us to the need to do justice and walk humbly with our God."

Click here for the full article.

Natural theology? (Daniel Kirk/Barth)

Daniel Kirk is reading Barth, and here is what he (Kirk) has to say about natural theology. (Click here for the entire post by Kirk).
And that’s at the heart of Barth’s point: God of Israel.
In order for God to be known, God must be known as God has bound himself to a particular people and a particular act of salvation. There is no idea of “God in general,” no abstracted knowledge of what a god is like that is simply true of our God because it’s true of some hypothetical being. God is known as God truly is, and that is tied to a particular revelation.
The God whom the Psalmists know is the God of Israel, the Lord of the Exodus and of the wandering in the wilderness, the Giver of the Law, the Hope of David, His wisdom , His power, His goodness, His righteousness, originally and conclusively this God alone. (Dogmatics §26.1, p. 109)
To me, the most interesting moments in this section were Barth’s wrestling matches with the apparent biblical counter-evidence.
Why does Acts 17 not establish the viability and significance of the “point of contact” for reaching new people? Because it is when he brings in the identity of the unknown God as the one who has raised Jesus and will judge the world–i.e., what is revealed of God in Christ–that Paul is mocked and rejected. Is this really an invitation to hold onto “in roads” for the gospel where people are ignorant in their so-called “knowledge”?
There are unanswered exegetical questions, but in this section we see the genius and consistency of Barth as he demands that the revelation of God always be a true disclosing of the true God–something unavailable to fallen human beings unless it come to us by grace.
Natural theology? No. Only theology of the revelation of God in Christ.
Do you agree with Daniel Kirk?

Practise Love and Follow Christ (Transformation journal)

My latest article has just been published in the Transformation journal (at Oxford Centre for Mission Studies), which can be accessed in SAGE Journals. It is a peer-reviewed article, and has an academic feel. The title of the article is:

"Practise Love and Follow Christ: The Profound Relevance of Romans to Holistic Mission"

Here is the Abstract:

"Recent research in biblical studies has provided us with a good understanding on the socioeconomic condition of Christians in ancient Rome. The comparable economic and social situations between the earliest church in Rome and the poor in the Global South today suggest that Paul’s letter to the Romans can be very relevant to holistic mission. Based on some key findings of the recent research, this paper looks at two passages in Romans, and proposes that practising love and following Christ are the outworking of the holistic gospel. The implication is that Romans can be a useful resource for holistic mission."

(Click here for the full article. You do need to subscribe to the Journal though, and it is not cheap, unfortunately.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A story of sin's curse - Michael Pahl

I am reading Michael W. Pahl's The Beginning and the End (2011). This little book consists of some brief but brilliant studies on Genesis and Revelation, and it explores how we should live our lives in light of our origins and destiny.

The third chapter is entitled "A story of sin's curse". Here is an excerpt.

“The cost of this disregard for the divine will [Adam's disobedience] is spelled out in ways that would have made sense to ancient Israelites in an agriculture-based society built around close-knit family groups, with all the values such societies and groups hold dear. Shame in relationships – both among humans and between humans and God – is expressed in the images of nakedness (3:7, 10). Guilt in trespassing a divine command is portrayed in eating the fruit of a tree (3:11). Hostility within creation is described in terms of the relationship of a woman and a snake (3:15). Physical pain and suffering is presented in the image of a woman’s labor in childbirth and a man’s toil in the fields (3:16-17). Systemic human oppression is painted in the colors of a husband’s domination of his wife (3:16). A sense of futility in life and work – even creation itself cursed – is conveyed in the image of thorns and thistles in the land (3:17-19). And exclusion from life as God intended it – a summary of all that has been described – is represented in terms of banishment from the ideal garden God has made (3:22-24). All these effects of sin are portrayed in the story in ways that had maximum impact for the ancient Israelites, yet all of these things – shame, guilt, futility, hostility, exclusion, oppression, pain, suffering, and death – are the common experience of humanity in deviating from the divine design, disregarding the divine will.” (pages 38-39)

Pahl’s description of “death” is also useful: 

“This solemn warning of ‘death’ [in Gen 2:17] is fulfilled in the narrative in all the ways we have just highlighted: shame and guilt in relationships, futility in life and work, hostility in relationships, leading to oppression and exclusion, physical and psychological suffering and pain, and the cessation of bodily life. This ‘death,’ the cost of human sin, is thus not simply physical death but rather a comprehensive reality – a ‘deep death’ – affecting individual human beings, collective human societies, and even the rest of creation (see also proverbs 10:16; John 5:24; Romans 3:23; 5:12-21; 6:23; James 1:15; 1 John 3:14).” (page 39)

The effect of Adam's disobedience is multifaceted.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reflection: Suffering, culture and individualism

For years I have been thinking about "suffering" in the Bible. I would like to share a few thoughts over time. These thoughts are not final, for I am still working on them. But I hope they are useful.

Two thoughts in this post.

(1) Our church culture today (in the West) tends to avoid suffering, rather than embracing it. We want the gospel to be one that delivers us from suffering. We even avoid the word "suffering" and replace it with the word "challenge". Suffering is a negative thing, and we want to replace it with a more positive attitude. We want to triumph over suffering, because otherwise we are seen as indulging in it. But the biblical writers are not ashamed of suffering. They happily talk about it. In their suffering they seek God's mercy. They lament, and they even protest (read the Psalms!). And in the New Testament we find Jesus embracing suffering and death, and because of his faithfulness God raised him from the dead and exalted him to the highest place (Philippians 2). In 2 Corinthians we find Paul following the way of Christ. He boasts of his weakness, for he knows that it is in his weakness and hardships that God's power is manifest.

(2) In an individualistic culture, we tend to treat those who suffer as individuals. They have to first deal with their own problems as individuals; and we, as independent individuals, will show them mercy and compassion as we see fit. But people with a Christ-centred communal worldview do things differently. The followers of Jesus form a Christ-community. In this community we see each other as siblings in Christ. When someone suffers, the whole community shares the pain. We rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. We share our resources and we learn from each other in our suffering. And it is all based on the fact that Christ suffered and died for our sins.

Our call and our mission (something from Tim Gombis)

I found the following from Tim Gombis' recent blog post. I couldn't agree more with him. (I will highlight a few things in blue.)

"We are called to find places in God’s good world where there is brokenness and pain, and we are called to pray for God to heal.  We are called to provide help to those in need, a glass of water for those who are thirsty.  We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to grieve with those who grieve. 

We are called to sit and give ourselves to the stranger who needs a listening ear, and see her turn into a friend.  We are called to give ourselves to be loved, and to love others, because God has made us one, joining us together as family.

Our mission is to be a community that loves, a community that welcomes, a community that serves, not a community that dazzles and amazes.  Thankfully, a broken, tired, worn-out, and weary bunch of people is exactly what God is looking for to be the hands and feet of his mission to love the world for the glory of the name of Jesus."

Friday, January 13, 2012

The eloquent speech and the so-called "gospel" preached by the super-apostles (Frank Matera)

In his commentary on 2 Corinthians, Frank Matera says some really great things about the passage in 11:1-4. Here are two quotes. (I will highlight a few things in blue.)

"What Paul means by ‘another Jesus’ is problematic, since he never explicitly explains how the teaching of the intruders differs from the gospel he preaches. Consequently, one must be careful not to read too much into this statement by suggesting, for example, that the intruders espoused a ‘heretical’ Christology. It is more likely that the real conflict between Paul and the intruders concerned issues of ministerial style and jurisdiction, which in Paul’s perspective cannot be separated from the gospel, since they reflect one’s view of Christ. As Paul will show in his foolish boasting, there is an intimate connection between the way in which one exercises apostolic ministry and the gospel message that one preaches. For example, because suffering, hardship, and weakness are such integral parts of his ministry, the gospel that he preaches necessarily focuses on the paradox of the cross and the crucified Christ who manifests God’s power through weakness. Conversely, because Paul’s gospel focuses on the cross and the crucified Christ, he understands suffering, hardship, and weakness as integral parts of his apostolic ministry. If, in contrast, the intruding apostles focused attention on their powerful deeds, eloquent speech, and ecstatic experiences, it is unlikely that the cross of the crucified Christ played as central a role in their preaching. Conversely, if their preaching was concerned first an foremost with the power of the pneumatic Lord, they would have been more inclined to boast of the outward manifestations of that power in their own ministry. Understood in this way, Paul is quite correct when he accuses the intruders of preaching ‘another Jesus.’" (pages 243-4)

"Although an outsider might view these approaches to ministry merely as different ways of preaching the same gospel, it is clear that Paul did not, since there can be no other gospel (Gal 1:7). Just as there is an inseparable relation between the minster of the gospel and the gospel that is preached, so there is an intimate relation between the 'Jesus' that is preached and the 'Spirit' and the 'gospel' that is received. In accepting the preaching of the intruders, the Corinthians have experienced a different Spirit, but in Paul's view it is not the authentic Spirit of Jesus. Likewise they have received another gospel, but since there is only one gospel, it is not the gospel that he preached." (page 244)

The suffering of the innocent - Comparing Job and Paul

Andrzej Gieniusz has done a major study on Romans 8, entitled Romans:18-30 Suffering Does Not Thwart the Future Glory (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999). Towards the end he makes a good comparison between Job and Paul in terms of their view of the suffering of the innocent.

“For Job it was the course of a theology set forth in the example of two animals, Behemoth and Leviathan, seemingly a hippopotamus and a crocodile, the ‘most majestic’ and ‘most meaningless’ of creatures, supremely wild and terrible but without any purpose in the human economy, so that the reason of their existence is unintelligible for us. The course made Job grasp that even if in God’s manner of creating and governing the world there is much that is incomprehensible to humans, even threatening their existence, all of it is the work of a wise God who has made the world the way it is for his own inscrutable purposes. Innocent suffering is a hippopotamus or a crocodile. Even if it seems absurd to our eyes it makes sense for god who must be allowed to know what he is doing and, therefore, who can and should be trusted.” (page 283)

“The point of departure which has led Paul to trust in the face of the mystery of suffering is not a God who is incomprehensible yet wise and powerful in the order of His creation but a God who exceeds human expectations and the possibilities of comprehending in the way of His salvation. The ultimate ground for trust is actually offered in the unfathomable gesture of God’s love which cannot be expressed adequately except by the means of a paradoxical formulation ‘giving up His own Son for all of us’ (Rom 8:32). And because it is the gesture of salvific love and not only of creative power, Paul does not remain – As Job did – in an awful and humble silence (‘See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer’ Job 40:3-5). He begins, instead, to sing the hymn of trust in the love of God manifested through Jesus Christ, the love which, in spite of the sufferings and in the midst of them, makes the victory for those who love God already tangible.” (page 284)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Human trafficking through the eyes of those affected

A friend of mine introduced me to a website where a bunch of young people living in communities affected by human trafficking speak out about the root causes of the problems using photos. Note the participatory approach to the program.  Sounds like something really worth taking a look, especially if you like pictures.

Click here for the link.

By the way, for those who are interested in this issue, this book called Not For Sale by David Batstone will be useful.

Revelation, a movie and culture (Nijay Gupta, Richard Bauckham)

Nijay Gupta has written a great blog post concerning worldview and counter-reality. Here I will cite part of his post (which includes a great quote from Bauckham's book cited by Gupta).
Richard Bauckham, discussing the way Revelation approaches this, writes thusly
…one of the functions of Revelation was to purge and to refurbish the Christian imagination. It tackles people’s imaginative response to the world, which is at least as deep and influential as their intellectual convictions. It recognizes the way a dominant culture, with its images and ideals, constructs the world for us, so that we perceive and respond to the world in its terms… In its place, Revelation offers a different way of perceiving the world which leads people to resist and to challenge the effects of the dominant ideology. (p. 159 of The Theology of the Book of Revelation)

Let me give two movies as examples of how to think about worldview. The first example, tired and overused as it may be, is still poignant – The Matrix. The Matrix is its own world, but, more importantly, it proposes its own worldview where people inhabit an environment with rules, reality, values, etc… Alternatively, there is the “real world” outside of the matrix. That alternative place has an alternative set of rules, values, reality, etc… When Neo is awakened to the real world, he must keep everything he learned in mind when he goes back into the other world (the Matrix). Hence, he has to repeat to himself, “there is no spoon,” because the matrix “reality” would naturally force him into the limits of its ostensible rules. Cypher, on the other hand, knows about the “real world” and lives in it, but much prefers the world of the Matrix (“ignorance is bliss”).
Click here for the entire blog post by Nijay Gupta.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The suffering of the innocent and God's justice in wisdom texts (Gerald H Wilson)

I am reading Gerald Wilson's commentary on Job (2007). I really think that we need a deeper understanding of suffering in the Bible if we want to be genuine followers of Jesus. It is because the gospel itself has a lot to do with the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The cross, of course, involves the suffering of the innocent One. And without death, there is no resurrection.

Here is a paragraph in the introduction of Wilson's book that is worth citing. (I will highlight a few things in blue.)

"The hard-eyed observations of 'pessimistic wisdom' compare and contrast the assumption of retribution in more expansive literary forms, including the extended discourses of Ecclesiastes and the dialogue/debate at the heart of Job. These discussions expose the weaknesses of retributive thinking and explore alternative worldviews that acknowledge the prosperity of the wicked, the oppression of the poor, and the suffering of the innocent. They also raise questions regarding the sovereignty and justice of God, who permits such circumstances to exist. In the end, however, these questioning forms of wisdom do not seek to undermine faith in God. Rather, they offer their own testimony to a continuing reliance on God and acknowledge the pain and confusion that inhabit the real world of the observant sage. Both Ecclesiastes and Job, after their devastating critiques of naive retributive thinking, counsel readers that the only way forward is to remain in a deep relationship of absolute dependence on God (what Israel calls 'fear of God'), acknowledging his sovereign freedom and admitting, along with Job, that knowing this God transcends (but does not remove!) the questions and doubts that diligent sages uncover in their searching." (page 4)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Reflections on theological training (Part 1): Why bother?

In recent years a number of people have expressed to me their interest in pursuing theological training. It is great to hear their journey and desire to study the Scripture and theology. Our conversations have prompted me to think about sharing my thoughts on theological training in a series of blog posts.

In this first post I want to ask the critical question: Why bother? That is, if theological training does not help us to embody Christ's life, death and resurrection in real life, then why bother?

I don't have the last word on this. But I will share a few thoughts. It may help if I share my own story. I came to faith when I was a teenager. I always wanted to serve God, and was always active in my local church. But it was more than 10 years later that I felt a strong sense of call to go into ministry. After a lot of prayers with my wife, I decided to leave my career to go to a Bible college to study. The good thing about having been a Christian for so long was that I had had the time to (1) read the Bible over 10 times before studying theology; (2) have a good experience in serving in local churches; and (3) have a solid non-church-related work experience.

But before I finished my theological training, I was asked to join the pastoral team of my church. And in a few years I was ordained. Life was really tough at the time. Ministry was hard work, and emotionally draining. We had little money. My wife had to work full-time. I also had to work part-time outside the church for extra income. At the same time, I taught as a tutor in my Bible College. In addition, I continued with my own theological studies, and started an MPhil, in which I engaged in serious research in Biblical Studies. The hectic lifestyle eventually took its toll, and I resigned from ministry to concentrate on my studies.

In the meantime I did more part-time work while I finished my research degree. The subsequent years were more part-time and full-time non-church-related work. I found it a valuable experience to be in the real world again after years of theological training and pastoral ministry. I viewed my work differently, for my studies in the Scripture had helped me to understand better the world that God created.

Years later God gave me a new job to work in an overseas relief and development Christian organisation. Soon I started my PhD on Biblical Studies as a part-time student, while continued to work part-time in that organisation. I am now half way through my PhD. I am not sure whether I am smart enough to finish it. But I will give it my best shot.

So much for my story. But as you can see, in all these years I have had the opportunity to engage in the real world in one way or another. I get to see people from all walks of life, including people from different faiths. I get to talk with them and listen to their cry. And at the same time I engage in theological training. This has been a very enriching experience. I find myself engaging in the Scripture and the real world at the same time. It is not just about theories, or merely about "what works in practice". It is about critiquing the world and its culture with the Scripture, and at the same time allowing real life stories to enrich my own understanding of the Bible.

All that said, I am not suggesting that everyone should do the same thing. There is nothing wrong to take a few years off to engage in full-time theological training. Some may study for one year, simply to consolidate their faith. Others may do two years simply to study the Scripture, but with no intention to become a minister. For some others, it may turn out to be many years of academic studies, if God intends them to teach at seminaries. What I am trying to say is that one should always endeavour to embody the gospel in real life - that is, where people are. We need to hear the stories of the poor and the rich, the unlearned and the educated. We need to get to know people from different cultures, and appreciate what God is doing in their lives, even though we have very different life experiences. We need to identify with the poor and needy, and stand in solidarity with the marginalised and disadvantaged.

My own experience is that I can never be prefect when it comes to these things. But it has been a profoundly enriching experience. The Scripture comes alive when we engage with real people in the real world. If we do theological studies for the sake of study alone, why bother?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Revelation, suffering, God's faithfulness, attending a good play (Michael Pahl)

I am reading Michael Pahl's The Beginning and the End (2011). In the following I will quote a few things he says about Revelation. What I like about what Pahl says is that he talks about the suffering of the followers of Jesus and God's faithfulness to them. We fail to read Revelation probably if we miss these. The other great suggestion Pahl has is that we can read Revelation as if we are attending a play. (I will highlight some sentences in blue in the quotes below.)

"Revelation is not so much concerned with the precise when and how questions of the future as much as the who and what and why sorts of questions of human - and especially Christian - existence in this present age: Why do we suffer in this world, especially as God's people? Is God faithful to his people and his creation? What is our role as God's people in this oppressive world? What is wrong with the world? How will things be made right?"

"[I]n a real sense, reading Revelation is a lot like attending a good play - which brings us back to the importance of stories in shaping our collective identity and purpose and values. We have narrators (John and his angelic interpreter) guiding us through the story. We have a series of scenes (apocalyptic visions) unfolding before us, which are visually and verbally stimulating, even provocative, critiquing the world in which we live even as they present for us the world as it could be, as it will be. And, just like a good play, if we fully engage the strange world of this dramatic story we call Revelation, we will come out of the theater changed, seeing the real world - and our place in it - in a radically new way."

Monday, January 2, 2012

The paradox of weakness and power (Frank Matera)

Yesterday I discussed briefly something about the paradoxes in the gospel and cited from Frank Matera's  commentary on 2 Corinthians. Today I want to continue to talk about the paradox of weakness and power.

I think it is fair to say that many (though not all) Christians in the West today are in (relatively speaking) position of economic and social power. In Melbourne, Australia, for example, there are (as far as I can tell) more churches in the more affluent eastern suburbs than in the west. The churches in the east are generally much larger than those in the west (with exceptions, of course). As I speak with pastors and theological students about power - especially socioeconomic power - the discussion is often dominated by whether power is in and of itself sinful, and hence whether it is wrong to possess economic power. The answer is of course that power is not in and of itself sinful, nor is it wrong to own property, cars, etc. But as I think of Paul's life and ministry, the issue the apostle is interested in is more about living a cross-shaped life. That is, Paul focuses not so much on whether we should have economic power but whether we embody Christ's way of life.

Here are two further quotes from Matera's commentary.

"Affliction and suffering, then, are essential components of apostolic ministry, since they are the apostle's participation in the dying and death of Jesus, without which there can be no sharing in his resurrection. They are not to be sought in and for themselves, but they will occur in the life of those who authentically preach the gospel. Rather than conceal his apostolic hardships, Paul gladly embraces them as the marks of his apostleship (4:7-12; 6:4-10; 11:21b-33; 12:10)." (page 14)

"In and through this weakness, God manifested his power, so that Paul can also write, 'but he lives by reason of the power of God' (13:4). The fundamental paradox of weakness and power then is rooted in Christ's death, which has been made possible by the incarnation. Embracing this paradox in his life, Paul boasts in his own weaknesses (11:30; 12:9), aware that Christ's 'power is made perfect in weakness' (12:9). This is not to say that power is weakness. Rather, in a manner that can be understood only in light of the paradox of the cross, power comes to its perfection in and through weakness. Because the Corinthians did not grasp this paradox, they could not appreciate Paul's apostolic ministry among them and the new covenant community that he established in their midst." (pages 14-15)

The life that Paul chooses to live is of course counter-cultural, both then (in the Roman Empire) and now.

Gospel paradoxes (Frank J Matera)

In his commentary on 2 Corinthians, Frank J Matera has the following to say about the paradoxes of the gospel.

"The Corinthians did not appreciate Paul's new covenant ministry and their status as a people of the new covenant, in large measure because they did not grasp the paradoxical nature of the gospel Paul preached to them. In their view, Paul's afflictions and sufferings were signs of weakness that were unworthy of an apostle of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, when other preachers arrived at Corinth who appeared more powerful and eloquent many of the Corinthians sided with them and criticized Paul. Although the conflict between Paul and the Corinthians was undoubtedly multifaceted, it was ultimately rooted in the inability or the refusal of the Corinthians to embrace the paradoxical nature of the gospel that Paul had already discussed in 1 Cor 1-4. In 2 Corinthians Paul develops this paradox in relation to his apostolic sufferings and weaknesses." (page 14)

I have been wondering whether Christians today rely on the "powerful and eloquent" preachers/teachers too much. We like to listen to them because they are such effective communicators and their lives and ministries seem to be (so-called) "incredibly amazing". I think this is problematic. The apostle Paul, on the other hand, boasts about his weakness, through which God's power manifests. It is not about his success and power, but God's resurrection power working through the apostle's suffering and death.

Something for us to ponder...