Reflecting well in a time of crisis

Last week, I was made aware that a number of evangelicals, including one very prominent leader, had already written books on how Christians should respond to the coronavirus crisis, to be released shortly. I was struck by what was, at best, a distinct lack of wisdom in the proposal that definitive answers could already be offered to a crisis we are only just beginning to live through; at worst, a disturbing attempt to capitalise on a crisis that is ruining the lives of huge numbers of people. To write a short article or contribute some thoughts to a podcast is one thing; these are by nature tentative, a means of thinking out loud, and can be amended as time goes on. A book, however, speaks with a deeper sense of finality.

From a different perspective a couple of days ago came a collection of very short essays packaged in an online book reflecting on the Church’s forced move into the online world. The first group of essays contained reflections from pastors and church leaders about their experiences of moving church online in the past few months. The second group of essays, from researchers working in the fields of digital theology and media studies, focused on questions the Church should be grappling with as it considers what can be learned from this time and helpfully carried forward in its future online engagement.

I was disappointed by this for similar reasons – far too little time has elapsed for anyone to be able to clearly reflect on what we are going through and what we are doing in response. But I was disappointed further by the tone of many of these short essays. Most were overwhelmingly positive about the move online, many going so far as to state with confidence that this is going to be the new ‘normal’ for the Church, or that this is the thing that will save the Church and attract young people back. While a few important questions were raised in the essays (primarily by the researchers, interestingly) about issues like community and liturgical participation, by and large the reflections were weak and lacking in substance. Indeed, many of the contributors seemed more eager to push their preconceived ideas of what the Church should like, rather than to address more directly what is actually going on in this moment. I found it intriguing that no parishioners were invited to offer comments – I was speaking with a few people in recent days who long to get back to church as they know it, and who are sick and tired of sitting in front of a screen multiple times a week.

As I suggested above, what troubles me initially about these kinds of books coming out so soon is the inability to reflect deeply on this profoundly new situation. As I write, we are a mere thirty-six days into lockdown in the United Kingdom, and we have only known about the presence of this virus for five months. Scientists and medical practitioners are telling us that we have eighteen to twenty-four more months of dealing with this until vaccinations are administered widely, and even then, the future is not certain. As it pertains to the Church, easing of lockdown restrictions will be slow, and this means that any prospect of meeting together as we did prior to March could still be some way off. How can we really say something meaningful about how the current restrictions have impacted the Church when we are still in the stage of this all being very novel?

However, it is not just lack of time and experience that leads to shallow reflections. All of this underlines a pervasive problem in many circles to fail to grapple with the deep theological issues this current crisis throws up. This is evident in both of the books I have highlighted above. Evangelical writers, in rushing to provide answers to the crisis, have to fall back on pre-formulated answers to questions on matters like suffering and theodicy that cannot yet address this specific moment in time. Pressured into saying something by the cult of celebrity, they can only offer general comments that fail to speak directly to the specific contexts of people’s lives. Similarly, church leaders and researchers, in the rush to emphasise the good of moving church online, have to ignore or gloss over deep questions about the nature of the Church, liturgy, and sacramentology. Pressured both into adapting in an instant, and advancing the narrative that ‘everything is awesome’, many can only give these bigger questions a tacit nod while they set up the next Zoom meeting.

It was notable in the online book that only one or two contributions from church leaders raised questions about whether churches are rushing into online worship with a sense of urgency, and going online simply because they feel pressured to do so. Similarly, only one researcher, from a sociological background, suggested a posture of tentativeness in commenting on what this will mean for the future, observing that most churches have gone online out of necessity, not conviction. Caution must be used when suggesting what will remain, while also looking for what good things can be continued after this crisis is over. It is in these temperate responses that more wisdom is found.

To be sure, the move online was inevitable, and churches have, by and large, adapted remarkably to the changes required overnight. My concern is not with this move itself, but only that to attempt to justify it as the ‘new normal’, or to herald a ‘new reformation’ of the Church, generally betrays a weak ecclesiology and a profound inability to think theologically. Certainly, all of us who are church leaders and theologians will be called upon to reflect on the current situation, but the wisest responses will be from those who are willing to begin by saying, ‘I don’t know’. To that end, I was impressed by this conversation on The Living Church’s new podcast, which discussed both opportunities and challenges, and did so within a deeply theological framework.

I am not suggesting we cannot say anything meaningful yet at this point. We can draw lessons from both this crisis and previous crises, and we will continue to do so. But for now, this is a time to focus on the local – to do what we can to continue to lead worship in our churches, to attend to the needs of our parishioners, and above all, to pray. The future remains unknown, and it is only in hindsight that we will truly see how this moment has changed the Church.

Why you don’t need to preach without notes

One of the things I hear every now and then from newer preachers is that they have an ambition and desire to be able to preach with simple notes, or even without notes. Back when I was training for ordained ministry, we had a visiting preacher at our Tuesday Communion service at St John’s College who preached without notes, and many people said afterwards how amazed they were by this. And rightly so – she didn’t stumble at all, the words ‘uh’ and ‘um’ were pretty much absent from her vocabulary, and the sermon was clear and structured.

Does this mean that all preachers should aim to preach without notes? When people suggest to me that they should, there are a few things I usually say in response. That is not because I presume to be an expert on preaching, but having done it regularly over the past ten years, I have a few thoughts borne out of experience.

In the first place, every preacher has different abilities. The preacher at that Communion service several years ago clearly had the sort of memory that could just absorb things as she prepared, which could then be distilled verbally without any written prompts. Some people are gifted with that kind of memory and articulacy, but I am not. I have to work within my limits. It’s not that the stuff I take in while I prepare to preach doesn’t stay there, only that my memory works differently. Were I to go into the pulpit without notes, I would have a lot of difficulty calling it all back to mind. Give me a pen and paper and I could probably write it all out again, but to share it all verbally without prompts would be difficult for me. As a result, I use a script when I preach, and I’m unapologetic about that fact. I’ve worked hard during the week to expound the text and to put the sermon together, and when I get into the pulpit I want to make sure that everything that needs to be said gets said clearly.

Secondly, in response to this, some new preachers are concerned that if they use a script it will sound like they are reading an essay. That will only be true if you write it like an essay. One of the things you learn when you preach is to find your own voice. For me, that means that when I write a few sentences or a paragraph for a sermon, I read them back to myself to make sure it sounds like something I would say. It means I don’t always use proper grammar, that I don’t worry too much about colloquialisms, and that I sometimes write in a sort of ‘stream of consciousness’ style. And because I try and write in the way I speak, when I get into the pulpit, I only need to glance at a line I’ve written to remember what’s there. That frees me up from having to focus too much on the words on the page to make sure I read it correctly.

Sometimes after I’ve made these points, those who advocate preaching without notes might make one final comment, and that is to suggest that to preach a scripted sermon is to stifle the work of the Holy Spirit. Frankly, I think that is nonsense. When I preach, I can think of at least four distinct ways I depend on the work of the Spirit: first, to sanctify me; second, to write the truths of the passage I’m preaching from on my own heart first; third, to guide me in my study and preparation; and fourth, to take my words and to use them to open up the truth of God’s Word so that his people will be built up in faith. If that’s not depending on the Spirit, I don’t know what is. And yes, that means that sometimes when I’m preaching I will feel prompted to say things other than what I’ve written. But more often than not, it means I stick to what’s on the page in front of me.

If you can preach with bullet points or without notes, that’s great. But I don’t think that is a goal that every preacher needs to aspire to. God uses you as you are, with your unique abilities and gifts. And if your desire is simply to proclaim his Word faithfully so that his people are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ, and so that others come to know the risen Lord Jesus, then he will do that work by his Spirit whether or not you need to have notes in front of you.

(NB: I wrote this several years ago, but updated some of the details and reposted it today following a discussion on Twitter about preaching and notes.)

A parish church is a church open to all

I stumbled across a tiny chapel in the middle of a field the other week. A display board nearby indicated that this medieval structure had originally served as a chapel for a long since disappeared manor home, the ruts and furrows of the field the only remaining evidence that something else used to stand here. The chapel apparently fell into a state of disrepair until a group of walkers took responsibility for it in the 1930s, and while it remains rustic and simple inside, it is now looked after and cared for. The occasional service is held in the chapel, but it functions primarily as a place of peace and pilgrimage for those passing by.

One of the most intriguing features of the chapel was its guestbook, which, aside from the usual boxes given to indicate your name and where you are from, asks why you have come to visit. Alongside the standard responses, a few people took the opportunity to confess despair and bitterness at life, and to publicly wrestle with its seeming meaninglessness. To those few comments it was lovely to see others writing follow-up comments asking if these people needed help or someone to talk to. This served as yet another reminder of the benefits of open churches, and the gifts they are to our communities. They remain one of the very few places people can find calm in a frenzied world, and feel enabled to confront the pain in their lives in an open and honest way.

With this in mind, just a few days later, my copy of Simon Jenkins’ England’s Thousand Best Churches arrived, a book I have been meaning to add to my collection for some time as I make a more regular habit of exploring the architectural riches of our ecclesial heritage. I was intrigued to see Jenkins address the issue of access to churches in his introduction:

Accessibility is the single most vexing topic among church enthusiasts. Nothing is more infuriating after a long drive or even longer walk than to feel the cold, unyielding iron of the handle of a locked door…

The customary excuse for locking a church is the threat of vandalism and the cost of insurance. Vandalism can be most distressing for those victimised. Fortification may be justified in a few inner city churches, though even they capitulate to vandalism far too easily. Most insurers do not insist on churches being locked, only on their being periodically supervised. In my experience, the chief difference between an accessible and a shut church is not its location or the value of its contents but the attitude of the vicar and churchwardens. Some are true enthusiasts who rightly regard the opening of their church as a pastoral and community obligation… To a minority of vicars, sadly a substantial one, I and therefore the general public was a nuisance to be kept at bay.

To close a church is not to forestall trouble – closed churches are almost as vulnerable as open ones – but to let the vandal win… No security is as effective as a regular flow of welcomed visitors. A parish church is a church open to all. A church shut except for services is the private meeting house of a sect (xxxii-xxxiv).

While Jenkins writes mostly from the perspective of an architectural enthusiast and historian, his points are important. He rightly dismisses the often over-stressed practical concerns of security. More significantly, he is exactly right about the role of a parish church: we are there for everyone.

In the nearly two years I have spent at my current church, which is open every day, I have seen countless instances of the fact that open doors are significant opportunities for ministry, as people come in to seek peace, prayer, or find a listening ear. And while I do not subscribe to a particularly nuanced theology of sacred spaces (mostly because I have not given it enough thought), people in our communities, even if they don’t articulate it as such, hope to encounter the presence of God in a unique way within the walls of a church. Though we know God’s presence is not confined to such places, we do these people – and, indeed, the gospel – a massive disservice if we close off the places where they willingly and expectantly come to seek him.

Jenkins is right: ‘A parish church is a church open to all.’ There simply is no justification for locking our doors. We rob our communities of far more spiritually when our doors are closed than we could ever lose materially when they are open.

Considering God in a world where you don’t

I would like to revisit my post from last week, where I began to interact with Neil Griffiths’ novel, As a God Might Be. Through the wonders of the modern internet, my post found its way to the screen of the author himself, and I’m grateful to Griffiths for taking the time to read my thoughts and offer some comments. I want to reconsider my earlier take on the novel, because after my brief conversation with him and hearing him discuss the novel on Theos Think Tank’s The Sacred podcast, I have changed my perspective on some of the issues I raised last time.

Most significantly, it has become clear to me that I largely missed what Griffiths was trying to do with the book, and in that respect, the podcast was very illuminating (and if you have read or intend to read As a God Might Be, please do listen; it is an excellent interview). My frustration with the character of Mac stemmed in part from my role as a priest – I regularly encounter people who have lots of ideas about and even experiences of God, and an interest in some sort of spirituality, but otherwise are unwilling to explore God as he has made himself known. But I was too quick to throw Mac into that mould. One of the things I had not taken into account was the difference between Mac’s context and my own. I live and work in a Northern, working class town, where the Church still plays a central role in the community, and people largely retain a vaguely Christian consciousness. Mac’s metropolitan London context is very different – a ‘buffered’ space, to use Charles Taylor’s language, where openness to the transcendent is all but gone, and thus the ability to speak of such experiences is nearly impossible. For Mac to be willing to wrestle with such a thing in that context is, far from my initial impressions, a bold and courageous step into the unknown.

Other people in Mac’s situation might have hidden and internalised their experience of God, but Mac does the opposite. Griffiths notes in the podcast that Mac is willing to be open and vulnerable about it, to seek to draw others into his experience, and to invite them to try and help him make sense of what has gone on, even where the language and grammar necessary to do so is lacking. Mac refuses easy answers to difficult questions, and puts his struggles with his belief in God on display. In doing so, he is attempting to create a space where it is permissible to talk about God, to begin to articulate something deeper and complex and that pushes the boundaries of the reality the people in his social circle comfortably inhabit. It both unsettles and intrigues the surrounding characters as they watch Mac try on a sort of new self – one that experiments with deeper categories of love and forgiveness, and one that begins to acknowledge new possibilities that don’t fit with anything they know.

I would like to attribute my initial misunderstanding to the fact that I am no great reader of fiction, but the truth is that I simply did not allow myself to take a step back and try and make sense of what Griffiths was trying to do with the novel, and got too absorbed in what I perceived to be the failings of the main character. Hearing Griffiths himself articulate something of what lay behind his work and then stopping to take a long second look allowed me to see something much richer in the novel than I did at first.

So what of my previous take? I no longer believe that Mac was proud, or that he was attempting to construct or be his own god, nor do I think that his actions were merely attempts at self-justification and rationalisation in the face of the doubt and consternation of those around him. That said, I still maintain that Mac should have done more to explore this encounter with God; in particular, to seek out and embed himself in a community where the possibility of God already exists, where people already live according to the new boundaries of reality Mac is seeking to explore, and to be willing to allow something outside of himself to help articulate and make sense of his experience. I’m reminded of something I read last year from Walter Moberly on faith and plausibility structures. Moberly more or less argues that the authority of Scripture and of Jesus’ words is often something best explored by simply trying it on for size alongside those who already live as these are true, to ‘be led on to dare to believe that which…others believe, that in and through the biblical portrayal of the person, teaching, and works of Jesus (in his life, death and resurrection), the reality of the living God is encountered’ (The Bible in a Disenchanted Age, 139). As I said above, Mac’s attempt to wrestle with an experience that pushes hard on the boundaries of his tacit reality is bold and courageous. But as a priest, I long for him to step into another reality altogether.

Responding to my first piece, Griffiths suggested my frustration with Mac’s character was un-Christian, and demonstrated a lack of love. After taking some time to think about it, I believe he is partly right. I made a knee-jerk reaction that did not take enough time to consider the broader questions and perspectives that shaped that character, and my failure to attempt to understand Mac and to see things as he did led me to make an unfair judgement. However, I’m less inclined to concede that my reaction displayed a lack of love – certainly I could have been much more charitable, but my initial frustration, I think, was no different to the frustration I feel when my own children make poor choices. Love is fundamentally about seeking the flourishing of the other, and as my desire was for Mac to come to know the fullness of life God offers, I think it was to some degree a response of love. Where I could have been more charitable was in recognising that Mac sought to understand and make sense of his experience as best as he knew how at that moment.

That leaves me then considering how I would respond should someone like Mac find his way to my own parish. And my earnest hope, after this week of thinking over the novel again, is that I would be willing to come alongside such a person, to journey with them in order to help them to make sense of their experience, and to invite them to discover the fullness of the God they have begun to encounter. I did, after all, at my ordination, vow ‘to search for [God’s] children…and to guide them through [this world’s] confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.’

To experience God is not to know God

Although I make it a habit of reading fiction every evening before I go to sleep, I do not consider myself heavily invested in it; my reading is casual, and I can usually put the book down at will. Every once in a while, however, I find myself reading a book that engrosses me. Such was the case this last month as I worked through Neil Griffiths’ 2017 novel, As a God Might Be.

It was not a plot with numerous twists and turns or non-stop action that kept me engaged, however, as interesting as the story was. Instead, it was his cast of characters in all their layered complexity. In particular, I found myself drawn in with fascination and something very near revulsion for the lead character, Proctor McCullough. The story begins with McCollough, known as ‘Mac’ to the other characters in the book, building a house and a church on a plot of common land that had been set aside, or ‘covenanted’, in the 1650s for a church. Believing he has had some sort of experience and vision of God compelling him to do this, he devotes most of a summer to the construction, enlisting the help of a number of young people from the local village. The building project is in many ways a background feature of the story – most of it centres on the various relationships Mac has with the characters. The story engages because his embrace of his experience of God leads to a life that spirals out of control, and it becomes difficult to look away. His seeming unwillingness to make any attempt to regain control deepens the engagement.

Little effort is required to dislike Mac. He is ridiculously self-absorbed, neglecting his family for the sake of his project, often abandoning them for weeks at a time, and eating up massive chunks of their financial resources to fund the building work. Even the sort of mentoring relationship he attempts to cultivate with the young people who come to help him is shot through with a neurotic drive for self-justification.

But the most frustrating thing in the book, by a wide margin, is how Mac deals with his experience of God. In short, save for a lot of introspection, he really does nothing about it. He claims to have read the Bible and had some interaction with the Church, but he wastes little time in writing both of these off as irrelevant and misleading, and proceeds with constructing his own idea of God. Mac wants to present as selfless and humble, a sort of prophet who has been chosen to help lead people into a deeper life of love, inspiring them with his willingness to give up everything for the sake of his call. But the reality is that he is deeply prideful, wilfully rejecting God’s revelation to fit his own narrative and give a sort of rationalisation to his vision, hurting himself and those around him in the process. Unsurprisingly, Mac’s ‘God’ ends up being a generally tame and inoffensive God of love, who baptises ideals and beliefs Mac already holds, not unlike the God most people in modern society would like to believe in. It is telling that Jesus barely gets a passing mention; when he does, it is usually in the context of Mac denying orthodox Christology.

I certainly would not suggest that what people like Mac claim to be experiences of God are inauthentic. But it is what happens following those experiences that is more important. Mac claims to know God, but the reality is that he continues to treat God as unknowable. I found it interesting to finish reading this around the same time I preached a short homily on Mark 3.22-30, reflecting on how the scribes and religious leaders wilfully misunderstood Jesus, despite the ways he made himself known in their presence. Jesus reveals God in the most intimate and profound ways, and the scribes merely turn up their noses at him. Mac is no different. To experience God in the way he did, as a significant and life-changing event, should have driven him in humility and submission to where God is most clearly revealed: in Scripture and in Jesus. Instead, it drove him to pride, uncertainty, and despair, leaving a trail of destruction behind him as he attempted to construct, and indeed be, his own god.

This is not to say the novel would have better remained on my shelf; indeed, often the stories that engage us most are the ones in which we see something of ourselves. And that was perhaps the most disturbing element of As a God Might Be: I saw myself reflected in Mac, and recognised how often I too make God into my own image, a God who is a bit more comfortable and easy to get on with, a God who is always willing to endorse my actions and behaviours. I suppose, then, that insofar as a book leads you to repentance and a deeper embrace of the God of Scripture, it is worth every minute of your time.

Radner on how historical and sociological factors shape ecclesiology

In his recent book, Church, the historical theologian, Ephraim Radner, argues that ecclesiology – a relatively recent aspect of theology – ‘is a study of the Church as the Church itself is shaped by historical encounters and challenges’ (20). Radner notes that sustained theological reflection on the Church only begins in the 12th and 13th centuries, during a time of significant upheaval and re-envisioning of the Church, owing to conflict between Western European Christians, lending support to his idea that ecclesiology is significantly shaped by external factors.

Radner’s concern is, in part, to look closely at the way traditions develop as a result of their historical contexts, and the choices of individuals and individual groups, and to see how these traditions are ‘increasingly permeable’ in our time. ‘This is not to say,’ he continues, ‘that any ecclesiology is merely a “justifying” ideology, and that we usually argue for a church that suits our self-interest. But ecclesiology is an expression of human choices, motives, agents and means’ (21). Among other things, understanding how these different factors have shaped our perspectives on ecclesiology will keep us from arrogance and stereotypes:

If we do not see this point, our reflection on the Church will move immediately to the question of “who is right?” or “which church or church theologian has the better theology of the Holy Spirit?” and so on… We need to protect ourselves from jumping in too quickly to the root theological concepts at work in Christian reflection on the Church, because, frankly, experience has told us that this moves us to too-easy and distorted generalizations about actual Christian life (21).

Radner’s argument addresses me on a personal level to some degree, growing up as I did in a context where many argued that there was a divinely-mandated ordering to the Church. It was particularly interesting, then, to see him suggest that this perspective itself emerges from the way history has shaped ecclesiology:

We cannot escape the Church’s history. Ecclesiologies today – as in any day – “bear the marks” of the Church’s or churches’ various historical experiences of self-distinguishing against enemies: antagonisms, assertions, exclusions, flights, rebellions, specific renewals. Christians have recognised the difficulty in which this puts them with respect to “finding the truth” about the Church, especially when dispute about that truth is rampant. The “primitivist” instinct that has led many over the years…to “go back to the Apostles” to find the true shape of the Church has been nurtured by this recognition of marred ecclesiologies. [However,] we cannot get to a Church before her subjection to history (50)!

None of this is to say that we cannot look to Scripture to shape our ecclesiology, but only that as we do so, we also cannot ignore the way the multitude of historical and contextual factors have shaped our view of the Church. And that, in turn, is no reason not to commend or defend our own traditions, but only to say that we ought to do so with both a deep sense of humility about them, and an openness to others.

Leithart on why the disciples could not die with Jesus

I continue to make my way (very) slowly through Peter Leithart’s recent book, Delivered from the Elements of the World, in part because it is a book packed with so many thought-provoking things, that I often find myself reading a section and then stopping to ponder what I have just read for some considerable time.

One of the richest aspects of the book is Leithart’s efforts to draw the Old and New Testaments together, rewarding the reader with a beautiful portrayal of the unity of Scripture, and illuminating Jesus’ fulfilment of so much of the Old Testament in powerful ways. A case in point is what he says about the role of the disciples – or rather the significance of their absence – from Jesus’ death and resurrection:

As head of the body, Jesus went to the cross for the body. Jesus died and rose again for his disciples. “Given for you” certainly means “given for all the people of God throughout the ages,” but in the context of the Gospel it means, specifically and primarily, given for the disciples. When the Jewish leaders bore down on Jesus, the disciples were cowed by the pressure. Judas turned against Jesus, Peter denied him, and the rest of the disciples scattered… When the Romans and Jews struck the Shepherd, Jesus alone took the full fury of their fleshly vengeance. It was common for the Romans to suppress Jesus rebellions by executing not only the leader but also the disciples of the disruptive Jews. When Roman soldiers and Jewish guards came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, he did not flee or cower. He stood between the soldiers and his friends and demanded that the soldiers let the disciples flee. He offered himself in their place. He went to the cross stripped not only of this clothing but also of the protective house of his friends. Quite literally, he laid down his life for his friends. He was put to death alone the disciples were spectators, and distant ones at that.

This may seem a small gesture, but on this rests the salvation of the world (160).

How so? I suspect that often the reason given for the disciples escaping the same fate as Jesus was so that they could be witnesses to his death and resurrection. And certainly that is true. But there were more than twelve disciples, and others could have fulfilled that role – indeed, some of the women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. So why did the disciples have to be spared from death at this point? This is where Leithart’s deep reading of the two Testaments together brings out something profound:

This provides a historically plausible way of understanding the cross. Jesus was the incarnate Creator, come to bring the kingdom of justice by establishing a fulfilled-Torah Israel. That mature Israel, growing up out of stoicheic childhood, would be the instrument for bringing the justice of God’s reign to the Gentiles. If Jesus’ disciples died, that purpose would not be carried through. Yahweh’s war on flesh would grind to a halt. Israel would not be restored, and if Israel were not restored, then Jesus’ aims would fall to the ground and the Abrahamic promise would remain unfulfilled. If the disciples died along with Jesus, the redemption of the world would be stillborn. In laying down his life for these specific friends Jesus preserved the new Israel, saving the twelve foundation stones on whom the new Israel would be built (161).

Biblical theology is not my specialty, and although I knew the disciples were a sort of fulfilment of the twelve tribes of Israel, I would never have been able to put this together as richly and lucidly as Leithart does here. It is that rich portrayal of the fulfilment and rebirth of Israel in Jesus that is one of the real rewards of this book.

Jesus doesn’t eat with people just to be nice

In his book, Delivered from the Elements of the World, Peter Leithart argues that Torah was a partial recovery of Eden. In giving Israel Torah, Yahweh was not excluding and distancing people from himself, but rather creating conditions in which they could again begin to draw near to him. This was primarily centred on the sanctuary: ‘Yahweh drove Adam and Eve out of the garden; he invited Aaron and his sons in. For the first time since Eden, a human being stood before the Creator to serve… The tabernacle was still holy space, but the boundaries of holy space had become porous’ (95). All of this pointed to the possibility of even freer access in the future.

Leithart goes on to detail how the sacrificial system brought people closer to God, and interestingly, notes the connection between one of the common sacrificial terms used in the Old Testament, and the concept of ‘bridal food’ (109). Thus the sacrificial system is ‘an ongoing wedding feast…Yahweh’s advent among his people is an occasion for joy, the beginning of continuous divine hospitality and festivity, as Israel eats, drinks and rejoices before and with her Lord’ (110). Food is central to God’s fellowship with his people.

This makes Jesus’ work of regularly eating with people all the more significant. Under Torah, ‘Yahweh lets Israel come as near as they can in flesh, but they can only get so close without being consumed’ (116). With Jesus, everything changes:

When Yahweh came in the flesh, the need for that stoicheic apparatus began to end. In Jesus, Yahweh himself sat at human tables and ate food with them. This is what Torah aimed at from the outset. It was what Torah encouraged Israel to dream of. Jesus did what Torah always aimed to achieve, to make it possible for the Creator and his rebellious creatures to share space, to live and walk together in a common garden, to share a common table. Yahweh’s entire program in Torah was designed to make human beings his ‘companions’ in the original sense of the word – God and humans as sharers of bread. The ministry of Jesus is what the sacrificial system looks like after Eden’s curse if overcome. Jesus qualified people to draw near to his table. He touched lepers and dead bodies, and instead of contracting their contagious miasma, his cleansing life flowed to them. Lepers were cleansed; a woman’s defiling flow of blood was stopped. The table fellowship of Jesus is the sacrificial system under poststoicheic conditions (138).

Hospitality, and in particularly the sharing of food, is a feature of the life of most churches, and is usually grounded in the fact that Jesus shared food with people. Appeal is often made to the fact that in sharing food with all kinds of ‘unworthy’ people, Jesus is doing something counter-cultural or outside of convention, and therefore displaying an extra measure of love, something we should model in our fellowship. True as this is, it does not account for the deeper purpose of Jesus’ actions: to fulfil Torah and inaugurate that freer access that was intended all along. When Jesus eats with people, he is not simply being nice.

Among other things, it strikes me that if what Leithart says is true, we ought to make an even bigger deal out of regularly eating together, in celebration of the fact that God has come to share food with us. Our fellowship together ought to bear witness to the fellowship we will one day share with God when his Kingdom comes in fullness. Further, it makes the Eucharist that much more central to the life of the Church, since it is here that this table fellowship with Yahweh is both sealed and signified. If this is indeed ‘what Torah always aimed to achieve’, it must be at the heart of who we are and what we do.

Leithart on successful theories of atonement

I have just started reading Peter Leithart’s recent book, Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission, which promises to be a fascinating exploration of one of Christianity’s most disputed areas of theology. I was motivated to read it in part by preaching on Good Friday and thinking about how to make sense of the atonement in my particular context, as well as by seeing other colleagues discuss the matter.

In laying out the structure of the book, Leithart concludes his introductory chapter with a list of ‘several criteria of a successful, comprehensible theory of the atonement’ (19). For him, an atonement theology must be:

  • Historically plausible: Atonement theology is an interpretation of events, not a recital of “bare facts,” which is impossible in any case. But that interpretation must make sense of the historical events, not by transcending phenomena into a nominal realm of meaning, but by tracing and perhaps extrapolating the logic of events. Successful atonement theology must, for instance, make sense of Jesus as a figure in a first-century Judaism dominated by Rome. A successful atonement theory has to show how the death and resurrection of Jesus is the key to human history, which means that atonement theory has to provide an account of all human history. It has to be a theory of everything.
  • Levitical: A successful atonement theory treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfils Levitical ritual in historical events.
  • Evangelical: Successful atonement theology must arise from within the Gospel narratives rather than be an imposition from outside (even a Pauline outside).
  • Pauline: Atonement theology must make sense of the actual words and sentences and arguments in Paul’s letters.
  • Inevitable: A successful atonement theology should leave an impression of inevitability: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?” (Lk 24.26). Jesus should appear to be the obvious divine response to the human condition. Like the denouement of a well-constructed drama, the cross and resurrection should emerge as the most fitting climax to the history of Israel among the nations, as the climax of a history of sacrifice.
  • Fruitful: A successful atonement theology must offer a framework for making sense not only of the history of Jesus but also of the subsequent history of the church and of the world. It must, for instance, not shrink from addressing the apparent failure of the atonement, the palpable fact that the world Jesus is said to have saved is self-evidently not saved (19-20).

If nothing else, Leithart knows how to entice his readers. The thoroughness of what he demands from an atonement theory is particularly striking, and I look forward to seeing how this develops as I continue reading.

How can a good God allow suffering? Wrong question.

Tim Keller’s book, Making Sense of God: Finding God in a Modern World, is something of a follow-up to his earlier book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism, although as Keller says, it should be seen more as a prequel, since ‘[The Reason for God] does not begin far enough back for many people’ (4). Where the earlier book took a fairly standard Reformed and evangelical (even ‘presuppositional’, if you like that term) approach to answering some of the popular objections to Christianity, this more recent book offers more of a challenge to secularism, examining and critiquing some of its efforts to make meaning of the world.

Depending on your tradition, you might have different appraisals of Keller’s ministry. But there can be no doubt that his writing, particularly on engaging with non-Christians, is immensely helpful in understanding sceptics and how they think about Christianity,  because it is borne a great deal of first-hand experience and reflection on the actual practice of ministry in a profoundly secular community.

One of the more interesting things that emerges in this later book is the way Keller takes some of the standard objections to Christianity apart to demonstrate that often these objections begin by asking the wrong questions. A good example of this is the problem of evil, or the question of how a good God can allow suffering. Drawing on the work of Michael Polanyi and Charles Taylor, Keller argues that we have significant background beliefs that shape our perception of the world and the questions we ask, and that we are barely aware, if at all, of these preunderstandings. In this instance, the modern mind operates with a profound trust in autonomous rationality, and thus assumes that the problem of evil, and God’s relationship to it, is something that can be perfectly comprehended. If not, the only conclusion can be that there is no God.

Keller observes that this deep trust in our rational faculties is as significant of a faith commitment as anything else, and that ‘the problem of evil is a good case study of how background beliefs control our supposedly strictly rational thought’. He continues by highlighting the difference between ancient and distinctly modern approaches to the question:

The book of Job, for example, presents the outrageousness of undeserved suffering as well as any ancient text, yet in no way does it present it as an objection to the existence of God. Ancient people were arguably much more acquainted with brutality, loss, and evil than we are. Their literature…is filled with laments about inexplicable suffering. Yet there is virtually no ancient thinker who reasoned from such evil that, therefore, there couldn’t be a God. Why does this argument against God’s existence seem so rational and convincing today?

Charles Taylor explains why modern people are far more likely to lose their faith over suffering than those in times past. He says it is because, culturally, our belief and confidence in the powers of our own intellect have changed. Ancient people did not assume that the human mind had enough wisdom to sit in judgement on how an infinite God was disposing of things. It is only in modern times that we get “the certainty that we have all the elements we need to carry out a trial of God.” Only when this background belief in the sufficiency of our own reason shifted did the presence of evil in the world seem to be an argument against the existence of God.

There is, then, a significant backdrop of faith behind modern arguments against God on the basis of evil. it is assumed, not proven, that a God beyond our reason could not exist – and therefore we conclude that he doesn’t exist. This is, of course, a form of begging the question. Our background beliefs set up our conscious reasoning to fail to find sufficient evidence for God (36-37).

Though Keller only briefly mentions Taylor here, it is clear that his perspective is shaped in significant ways by Taylor’s disenchantment thesis. That, I think, is important when we consider the future of the apologetic task. Recognising the deepening influence of secularism, Keller has made efforts to take a step back in order to meet people where they are as he engages with them. Drawing deeply on the work of thinkers who have devoted themselves to making sense of our changing context, he is able to understand the shifts that are taking place and pitch his message more appropriately. And in part, as seen above, that means being attentive to the deeper frameworks in play, and how they shape the (wrong) questions and objections people to have to Christianity.

Given that we have resources like the work of Taylor to help us come to grips with the ongoing shifts in Western culture, I wonder if it is time to question more traditional methods of apologetics, and particularly, being willing to answer the questions and objections put to us just as they are. Perhaps it is the case that too often we have rushed to answer these questions (how many talks, leaflets, and books are generated by the Christian publishing machine attempting to definitively answer the question of the problem of evil?), and in doing so, have unwittingly validated the background beliefs of the modern world, when what was really needed was for us to say, ‘Actually, you’re asking the wrong question’.

In this changing context, it seems to me that Keller’s approach is wise: simply to begin by trying to bring people to an awareness of their preunderstandings, and how this shapes the questions they have. Until we do that, answering their objections is likely to prove increasingly fruitless.