Category Archives: Authors

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak has the following books I have read:

Can you hear me?

Kissing the leper

Her Gates will never be shut

A more Christlike God

 

I am going to discuss each of these books since they are all worth reading. There is some autobiographical information, particularly in Can you hear me? where we learn about Brad’s strong evangelical background, his application of self to excellence, his discovery that he lacked intimacy with God and then his discovery of intimacy with God. More recently he has moved away from the simply evangelical background and joined the Orthodox Church. While I don’t expect to follow such a route myself, a perusal of this site will demonstrate my sympathy with this. Here is his account of it, taken from his website www.bradjersak.com

By now, most of my social networks and some of my readership have heard of my move into the Eastern Orthodox Church. I was ‘chrismated’ at the end of June this year (2013) and ordained as a ‘reader’ for the All Saints Monastery in Dewdney in October. You might wonder why I—an evangelical / charismatic / Anabaptist—would don a cassock and take up incense and chanting. If you’re curious, here’s the short version.  

Why did I become an Orthodox Christian? 

theology

First, because in my theology, I already was Orthodox for over ten years. When I say ‘theology,’ don’t think of stuffy, religious hair-splitting. I’m referring to the basic questions of who God is, what God is like, why Jesus came and died, what salvation is and how that happens. On these questions, I feel most at home in the Orthodox tradition, and I finally decided to make it official.

I experienced this as a move from my foxhole to a harbor. Allow me to summarize:

The ancient Orthodox vision as I know it proclaims the saving power of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, and the ever-enduring mercies of the Father—the same Gospel I have always believed, but came to understand more clearly and preach more overtly a decade ago. To me, it’s the same Good News, but now even more so. I have experienced Orthodox theology as more evangelical—i.e. better news—than what I had known and taught in the context of popular Evangelical-ism.

Of course, there are growing enclaves and popular movements among Evangelicals where theologians of hope are hunkering down and discovering what other Christians have taught all along. But they also endure a barrage of hostilities from members of their own tribe, those who marginalize them with hateful labels and even believe God has called them to the attack. So on the one hand, Evangelicalism continues to morph and mature, while on the other, some of her popular streams still cling to a retributive image of God — and its most zealous gatekeepers are quick to brand those who don’t as false teachers and heretics. Lord, have mercy.

Sadly, it’s all too tempting to respond in kind, as illustrated by the shameless Twitter wars between ‘emergents’ or ‘progressives’ and ‘the Gospel Coalition,’ to name just one example. The mean-spiritedness that manifests in these battles really refutes the chief evidence of our discipleship: love for one another. It’s a sickening offence to those who witness it and turn away in disgust. I am reminded of Christ’s warning: “You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” Lord, have mercy.

On the other hand, many faithful Evangelical friends persist on this spiritual journey deeper into the Father’s heart. We don’t always agree, but we trust each other’s hearts and persevere in prayer for one another, asking for a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ and his kingdom of love. We know how to disagree while also holding fast to our love for each other, sojourning together into the kingdom of God.

So theologically, I’ve moved from my own previous, retributive vision of God’s justice to something more restorative—from a Gospel that condemns and punishes sinners (unless…) to the one that forgives and heals sinners (even while…). I finally asked myself why I continue to scramble for cover from ‘friendly fire’ in trench networks and sub-sects of Protestantism when the Orthodox Church offers an ancient and enormous open harbor, and requires neither hiddenness nor apology for my central beliefs. They encourage and even expect me to teach the Beautiful Gospel (cf. ‘the Gospel in Chairs’) of the Fathers.

In 2013, the ‘Beautiful Gospel’ and the ‘hopeful inclusion’ I described in the Hellbound? documentary were ridiculed and rejected by various ‘haters’ (usually by neo-Reformed bloggers) just as Can You Hear Me?, Children, Can You Hear Me?, Stricken by God? and Her Gates Will Never Be Shut had been since 2003. The tone was vitriolic and the intent malicious. “We’re coming after you,” I was told. God had ‘called them’ to oppose and eradicate my ministry. I found myself blacklisted or excluded in circles where I once had a voice. I’ve known times of sadness and anger over this. But also gratitude.

These are beloved enemies, very hard at work (indeed, obsessively so) for my salvation through the crucifixion of my flesh and ego in ways that my friends could not approach. Our enemies serve as unwitting sculptors of our character, fashioning us one chip at a time into the image and likeness of Christ. I see God’s providence at work in their diligent opposition—in fact, they were a crucial factor in driving me to the embrace of Mother Church. How can I but thank them and pray, “Lord, have the same mercy on them that I want for myself.”

worship

Second, while I have been Orthodox theologically for years, it was not until this year that I discovered the healing balm and therapeutic beauty of Orthodox worship—their liturgy of beautiful psalms, confessions and prayers.

Beyond the wonder and beauty of it all, at this stage of my journey, my nervous system also seems to handle liturgical worship much better than the anxieties of Revival-ism. Extended years of attending and leading protracted revival meetings, trying to ‘press in’ for the ‘breakthrough’ that would lead to a great altar call, ministry time or full-blown revival have left me weary and yes, a little cynical. I want to be completely open and responsive to God—I want everything God has for me—but there’s an anxiety attached to revivalism’s question of whether or not or how God will (or won’t!) ‘show up.’ At its worst (and I’ve been there, done that), habits tantamount to a kind of neo-Baalism manifest and faith-filled expectancy is often displaced with repeatedly disappointed expectations. There’s a sense of striving to ‘enter into worship’ in such a way that we somehow feel the need to beg or even manipulate God into coming and visiting us.

Happily, many casualties of unhealthy renewal practice have gladly shifted to healthier postures of ‘soaking’ rather than cajoling, ‘habitation’ versus visitation, and welcoming God’s presence vis-à-vis lamenting his absence. Charismatic and contemplative worship are fusing in beautiful ways. I am so glad for this, but for me right now, the old renewal cry for ‘MORE!’—the songs of hunger and thirst—is being satisfied in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church.

What I’ve found in the Divine Liturgy—composed by church fathers like St. Basil and St. Chrysostom and preserved in the Orthodox Church—is that I don’t worry about ‘entering into worship.’ I can open my heart and simply let worship enter me. I don’t need to wonder what (or if) a meeting is building towards—it always, always climaxes in the powerful gift of receiving the Spirit-anointed Mystery of the body and blood of Jesus. In the Eucharist, I eat of the tree of life and ‘taste of the fountain of immortality.’ While others are still energized by a great renewal meeting—and I can still attend and minister in them when invited—my aging and somewhat damaged nervous system needs to be infused with the holy medicine of the prayers of the people and the grace they invoke. I experience it like an I.V. drip that works its way into my deepest needs and deepest wounds. In the Divine Liturgy I pray for mercy and receive it from the ‘man-befriending God’ who comes to us as the Great Physician … and I am revived! While some in the renewal have anxiously waited for an authenticating ‘third-heaven’ experience, the Orthodox are fully aware that participating in the Divine Liturgy is a charismatic experience of worship in the ‘heavenlies,’ in communion with all the saints and angels gather to approach the throne of grace along with us.

a wider embrace

I still embrace and will continue fellowship with the entire breadth of Christian believers as best I can, in joyful obedience to Jesus’ beautiful vision of John 17 love and unity. I now serve as faculty (New Testament and Patristics) in an evangelical-charismatic (largely Anglican) theological school. I also sit as an editor for several magazines and blogs that are eclectic and quite progressive. I enjoy the friendship and support of the Fresh Wind family and Soulstream community (a dispersed contemplative network). And I continue to bring continually tweaked Listening Prayer seminars wherever local congregations and Christian colleges invite me. My heart is to participate in the love of Christ for all however I can.

At the same time, through chrismation, I intentionally broadened my embrace to reach out to my brothers and sisters from the Eastern Church. I’m ‘uncapping the wells’ of my spiritual heritage, reaching further back (centuries beyond my Baptist, Moravian and Hussite reformer-evangelist fore-parents), to rediscover my Celtic and Orthodox missionary forerunners in British and Czech lands. And while I continue to teach what I’ve already taught for the past decade of public ministry, I now try to do so from the P.O.V. of an Orthodox herald of Good News, a catechist for the Gospel, launching from a great harbor rather than peeking out from my own little foxhole.

 

 

Now for the books. Can you hear Me? is an excellent work on hearing God’s voice. Listening to God by Joyce Hugget was the first book I read in this area; it is an older book, very good; as I remember it, somewhat less ‘charismatic’, in the sense of perhaps not inculcating such a strong expectation of God speaking personally; and that really is the very strong push of this book. If we are to try to summarize Can you hear Me? I would say that he says God is talking to us absolutely all the time in myriad ways and that the moment we ask him to Jesus will show up and speak – which of course is exactly what the Bible says he will do. We just have to believe it.

Naturally, there are issues. How do we recognize the voice of Jesus? Well, the answers are standard answers – Test the source; test the content; test the fruit. An important issue is this – am I just imagining it? The answer here is very good: who would this “I” be that is “just” imagining – do we have this independent “I”? – well no, the Bible teaching is rather that there are possible sources for the images playing on the screen of our mind (whether in words, pictures, impressions), perhaps the flesh, perhaps the Spirit . . . the issue for is discernment, but our starting point is that “My sheep do hear my voice.” There are numerous very encouraging stories as well as practical things to do to further our trust in hearing from God. Do we make mistakes? Yes, and Brad gives the normal safeguards, for example, reference to fellow believers, so – we don’t give up because of mistakes.

The process of listening is also shown leading us deeper into the spiritual life, particularly in intercessory prayer, but also dealing with blockages in our own lives as well as others. Perhaps the main point of the book, again, is that things are actually real in ways we may not expect; what goes on in our “imagination” tips over so naturally into the spiritual. Again, there are telling stories of Brad and his family as well as ‘ministry’ stories. This is one of the simplest books I know, which is as high praise as I know how to give; this is one of those few books perhaps everyone should read.

 

Kissing the leper contains numerous wonderful stories of God at work in those we clever clogs might feel are ‘the least of these’, and ‘things that are not.’ Personally, I love to read stories about the wonderful things that happen among children, things that blow out of the water our (my) stuffy intellectualism. (Not of course that the use of the intellect is wrong, but it can get rather stuffy.) However, many of the stories in this book are a step further than that, involving people with severe mental disabilities who are a huge blessing to their church. Of course, that isn’t all there is in the book, there is lots of lovely discussion of the simple ways of Jesus from a variety of sources and a number of stories. I want to quote from one, the story of Kathy, physically, not mentally, handicapped.

 

. . . she is bound to wheelchair, blind in one eye, and endures constant pain in what’s left of her hips. But within her broken body you will find a lively girl with an enormous capacity for God’s presence . . . As worship continued, the children skipped away, and I had a chance to sidle up to her. I felt her hand in mine and thought I’d invite God to love me through her. I started to feel a little woozy, and a quiet inner voice spoke to my heart past the din of the band, “You’d better lay down, boy.”

           “Are you about to download something of Kathy’s spiritual strength to me?” I asked.

           “To which the voice repeated, “You’d better lay down.”

Occasionally I’m smart enough to obey. So right there and then, I lay down on the floor beside Kathy’s wheelchair, still holding her hand. Suddenly, what felt like a powerful jolt of electricity drove through my body. It felt like the time I grabbed the bare section of a 220 volt drill press wire. I caught my breath just in time for a second jolt. Then a third. It seemed to me this was a power-of-God thing, but it was so intense that I prayed, “God, I want everything you have for me. Help me not to beg you to stop.” Four. Five. I was counting the jolts . . . Twelve. Kathy let go, dropping my limp arm to the floor. She just sort of smirked, then carried on in worship. [Well, Brad wonders what this is all about, because it does not seem to have an impact on him – but then a few days later, in the course of his ministry, there is a very dramatic healing, beyond his previous experience, so he asks God about it . . .]

He replied, “That came from me and from Kathy. You were just the “capacitor” ( a temporary storage unit for power) storing my power until M. needed it.” What could I say? I signed off not with a hearty “Amen” but with a humble “Oh.” St Paul said, “God has chosen the weak and foolish things to confound the [so-called] wise and strong” (1 Cor 1:27). That looks good on paper, but what if he really meant it? How might that look in this world that exalts competence and expertise? How might that look in the Church, which has been co-opted by the world system of hierarchical power?

Kathy West is my constant reminder that God’s kingdom is much different than our kingdoms. It is the realm where those who exalt themselves are humbled, and the humble are exalted; where true greatness is achieved through servanthood; and where downward mobility is the name of the game.

 

Her gates will never be shut would seem to have cost Brad a lot of support. He examines the doctrine of hell, and his conclusions are not the orthodoxies of most current (conservative) evangelical thought, so that it has led to an accusation against him of ‘universalism’, the doctrine that all will be saved. This is not what is said, and in fact is explicitly denied; instead a ‘hopeful inclusivism’ is espoused. We cannot make a definitive judgment  since judgment does not belong to us – which I would add is precisely the position taken by Daniel Bourguet.

The big issue of the book is how literally we are to take the biblical doctrine of hell, “infernalism”. Like myself, Brad comes from a classical evangelical background, with its clear distinction between the believer who goes to heaven on death and the non-believer who goes straight to hell; an important element of evangelism is the question, “if you were to die tonight, where would you go?” Like me, Brad doesn’t seem to have found this whole position very helpful. It may well be true as doctrine, though it is not clear that that is really what the Bible teaches, but as a  basic approach to evangelism, I am not very convinced – though it may at times have relevance. But to simply dismiss the approach is not possible: one foundational testimony for me, for example, is Kenneth Hagin’s moving personal story I went to hell. It is of course wrong to discount the idea, to quote Hagin, that ‘there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun.’ But what does the Bible itself actually teach about hell? Brad examines the range of scriptures with their historical backgrounds, together with the range of historical church teaching on the subject, because of course there is a whole other side to the issue, and there are certainly scriptures that point away from eternal hell for non-believers, as well as those that suggest it as a reality. As I understand it, Brad concludes that the Bible deliberately leaves these things open. Some people (perhaps many) might feel that their cherished evangelical views are being subverted here, but that is not the purpose of the book. The following passage states the book’s contents well:

 

No matter our view of hell, if we stand back and look at Jesus’ character, preaching, and ministry as a whole, we can probably all agree that the defining characteristic of the God whom he revealed is love (John 3:16; 1 John 3 to 4). He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Pet 3:90. Further, he sent his Son into the world as Savior to forgive us and reconcile us to himself (2 Cor 5:19). He welcomes all, the righteous and the wicked, to the heavenly banquet (Matt 22:10). Jesus says his Father has rendered all judgment into his hands (John 5:22-27), and yet Jesus said he did not come to judge or condemn (John 8:15; 12:47) but to extend unilateral mercy, which trumps all judgment (Jas 2:13).

With this revelation of God as our foundation, a punitive judgment of eternal torture in burning flames that can never satiate God’s wrath is not merely a paradox – it is a flat out contradiction. Can we not therefore dismiss the texts that bear such threats? How could we, especially when some of the Bible’s direst warnings about hell come from the mouth of Jesus, himself? Instead, if we are truly people of the book and followers of Jesus of Nazareth, we must heed such warnings with the utmost respect.

 

It is interesting to note that an exploration of early church belief leads, as seems to be usual, to Augustine (see Roger Forster) having initiated huge change in doctrine, and this seems to be a major source of over stated infernalism.

Her gates has an extensive bibliography. Brad does not claim to be a scholar; he does claim to be endeavouring to bring the best scholarship to the general reader. To me, this is a thoroughly helpful book.

The contents of Her gates will never be shut clearly link to A more Christlike God.

In one sense this book can be described as  a look at the issues of theodicy – how do we reconcile the God of love with all the suffering and pain in the world? So far as I have understood these matters in my not particularly extensive reading of theology, I am not sure these questions would exist in the virulent form they do were it not for Augustine, who introduced an understanding of God’s sovereignty which actually causes there to be a problem. If God is conceived of as willing evil, which he must do if he is an absolute sovereign as conceived by Augustine, then it is very hard to reconcile this with his being good, and it just won’t do to say that this is a paradox we don’t understand because, in the end, it seems to make God repulsive; I mean – it repels people!

Brad, in this book, works through many, many of the issues that arise – in fact, to be honest, he points out issues I had not thought of. An issue that did occur to me recently was to ask how reports of  God’s instructions to Israel to wipe out the Canaanites differ from Mohammed telling his men that God said to destroy a large group of Jews who were resisting him. This is not an easy question to answer. Well, Brad takes a tour through this sort of thing. His conclusions will not be pleasing to those with very literalist understandings of the Bible rather than of the Bible as a progressive record of human understandings of the God with whom we have to do; whether you approve his views or not (obviously, I do) he does cover a lot of ground and a lot of scriptures. An issue he covers particularly closely is the ‘metaphor’ of God’s wrath.

It is perhaps with this topic of God’s wrath that we turn to the book’s central intent, which I take to be debunking the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’, the Calvinistic teaching. ‘Substitution’ is simply biblical, but the penal substitution Brad has in view is not. I have a theologian friend who holds the penal substitution view; he writes extensively and almost invariably quotes Jesus’ ‘cry of dereliction’ from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Intrinsic to his view is that Jesus really was forsaken, that God turned his back on Jesus, who was bearing a punishment that should have been inflicted on us. (Note – this clearly connects with the doctrine of ‘infernalism’ discussed in Her Gates.) This friend consistently points to Jesus in his doctrine, and very helpfully too, but on this matter . . .  not so sure that I don’t find it a negative dead end! And to me this is the point; like Brad I grew up being basically taught, or absorbing, the penal view, and like him it left me with a big headache, a big negative headache! It’s not, I believe, what was taught in the early church, and I think that Brad shows this, shows how mistaken the view is, and states the orthodox view clearly. In fact, he goes so far as to say that the penal substitution view is ‘heresy’!  This, I think, is correct. (“My God, my God ….”: Jesus is quoting the whole Psalm, the whole hopeful psalm. For a full treatment of Jesus’ experience on the cross, see The Silence of God during the Passion by Daniel Bourguet.)

(An interesting little personal observation – it’s not that Jesus was bearing the punishment we ‘should have borne’ ie eternal separation, but that he was bearing what we DO bear!)

As above, this is not a scholarly book per se , but does refer to scholarly works. Personally, I now have two books which accurately state what I believe theologically, the Roger Forster book referred to elsewhere, and this one.

Iris Global

Iris Global Ministries

Elsewhere in this site you will find something of an introduction to books by HA Baker. His grandson is Rolland Baker, married to Heidi Baker, and together they initiated what is now Iris Global Ministries, centred in Mozambique but with connected ministries around the world.

Here I will mention books by the Bakers, Compelled by Love, Learning to Love, The Hungry always get fed, Birthing the Miraculous; and then a book by a close associate Michelle Perry, Love has a Face.

Before  a very brief look at these books, which are very consistent in content and message, a preliminary point. TL Osborn  was the pre-eminent “world evangelist” of last century. He said something like the following: “I have seen the Pentecostal revival, then I saw the Healing Revival, then the Charismatic Revival, the Teaching Revival, the Faith Revival, but there is one thing I haven’t seen, but I believe it will come before Jesus returns, and that is the Love Revival. O, how we need the Love Revival.” Well these books and this type of ministry are that Love Revival in action!

I will add that I am currently spending time watching Youtube recordings of Heidi centred around the idea ‘Soaking in God’s Glory’. She is very passionate and the music, particularly featuring violin, calls deeply into the heart. Alongside this is that in this setting she speaks repeatedly on John 15, the True Vine, and to me this is really ‘it’ for the heart of Christian faith. My comment is that this movement (for lack of a better word) is very focused on Jesus.

Although the Bakers and people like them or with them are happy speaking to crowds, that is not the modus operandi  described in these books. The Bakers’ ministry has mostly been to marginalized, the poorest of the poor, firstly in Asia and then latterly in Mozambique; “loving the person in front of you” summarizes their activities, in Mozambique starting with children on the rubbish dump, taking in orphans. Although the Bakers both have PhD’s, their ministry is simply about weak people putting themselves in the hands of Jesus and loving people, and Jesus proves himself very able!

Part of the story is a very strong encounter with God at the Toronto revival centre, and prophecy from Randy Clark, and this was a prelude to tremendous miracles in Mozambique. Healing miracles abound and so do miracles of food multiplication . . . normal parts of the Jesus life . . . wonderful, but the theme throughout the books is simply loving Jesus and loving the person in front of you. Wonderfully simple, and much of it to do with children. The love of God then spills out across the country, with thousands upon thousands of churches . . . Some of the books are in the style of diaries, chronicling various events in the ongoing outreach; Birthing the Miraculous is keyed to Scripture.

Michelle Perry, a woman with one leg, went to war-torn South Sudan and started a home for orphaned children. The way God meets others as she makes herself available makes her book a must read. A particularly memorable story concerns a very little girl who came to their home (not orphanage because they are not orphans any more!); she was so hurt and wounded that at every opportunity she would creep away to the muddiest, dirtiest, nastiest corner of the compound and lie down in the mud and cry. How was she to be reached? Eventually, Michelle decided that she had only one option – to lie down in the mud with her – all day. For several days. On the second day, the girl would allow Michelle to hold her little hand . . . and she slowly began to realize she was safe . . .

None of the writers presents themselves as a great person of faith; indeed there are times of severe sickness and near despair. This weakness serves only to magnify God’s delivering love, Jesus.

Why Jesus did not become king

The following is an excerpt from 100 Prison Meditations, on our lack of fitness to govern society:

 Why did Jesus not allow himself to be made a king?

When Jesus perceived that the Jews would make him a king, he departed (Jn 6.15). Surely he would been a better king than Herod and He must have known it. Why, then, did he not accept?

We can only postulate his motives.

One reason would be that the choice would not be His. Nations are fickle: today they elect a king; tomorrow they overthrow him. Christ does not accept the roles we choose for Him. The choices must be His. His decision was to be a Saviour for eternal life rather than a king in this life.

On the other hand, the fact that He was a good Saviour does not prove that he would have been a good king over Judaea, just as a good Sunday school teacher might not necessarily be a good prime-minister.

As man, He sometimes showed utter indifference toward human suffering, just as he could also show compassion. None of these attitudes dominated Him.

He chose among them. He was told about innocent Galileans killed by Pilate. A kingly person in the earthly sense would have shown indignation and would have organized the tyrant’s overthrow. Jesus said simply: ‘Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish’ (Lk 13.2-3).

He is told about a catastrophe, a tower which has collapsed killing eighteen people: Jesus does not give instructions about building more safely in the future, nor does he organize relief for families of the victims. He repeats the above words and makes this another occasion for teaching repentance. He acknowledges only one real motive for grief: that of not being a saint.

This is the correct attitude for a Saviour, but not for an earthly king.

When Jesus heals a man inhabited by demons, He causes a large herd of swine to drown (Lk 8.33). Jesus shows callousness towards this destruction of property. But it was acceptable for a Saviour to destroy a herd and leave someone impoverished in order to heal his fellow man, and therefore Jesus does not justify himself, nor do the evangelists defend his action.

He achieves the objective to be expected from a Saviour. For an earthly king such behaviour would not be right.

Jesus predicts a national tragedy: the destruction of the Jewish state. He does not call upon men to risk their lives in defence of their fatherland as a secular king would have to do. He tells his disciples, ‘At such a time, flee’ (Lk 21.210. The abandonment of their countrymen at such a time forced the final break between Christianity and Judaism.

The Saviour had entrusted the disciples with a deposit of eternal truth which had to be kept intact. This was more important than the defence of the land.

So thinks a Saviour. An earthly king has another calling. These two purposes do not mix.

Jesus could not be an earthly king, and those who try to make Him the Solver of earthly problems are mistaken.

 

Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard

A first and second reading of The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard a few years ago was quite a discovery at the time, and it is a book that can be recommended as both an answer to the weakness of church life in western society and as an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chs. 5-7. Willard was a professional philosopher and indeed a professor of philosophy; he was based in Los Angeles, and was concerned with the phenomena of American church life. His writings on philosophy are certainly within the professional sphere but this book is accessible to the general reader; I should say that the other books of his that I looked at were not profitable to me.

Briefly comprehended, in The Divine Conspiracy he says that it is the teachings of Jesus alone which provide moral compass and instruction in character development; that this is neglected in churches and lost to society at large; Jesus’ teaching needs to be restored to the centre of our lives and society; it is encapsulated in the Sermon on the Mount, which is investigated in some depth.

In his introduction Willard says of the early church :-

Jesus himself was thought of as someone to admire and respect, someone you thought highly of and considered to be a person of great ability. Worship of him included this – not, as today, ruled it out. This attitude was naturally conveyed in such New Testament names and phrases as ‘the Prince of life’, ‘the Lord of glory’, ‘abundant life’, ‘the inexhaustible riches of Christ’, and so on. Today these phrases are emptied of most intellectual and practical content.

This last sentence in particular shows Willard’s interest, which he develops in the opening chapters by showing the results of neglecting Jesus as teacher in terms of a dichotomy, two separate strands of church life. One is the liberal church, engaging in social action, believing that because of Jesus, love comes out on top, but substantially ignoring Jesus’ teaching on redemption; the other is characterized as right-wing, very conservative and focused wholly on atonement, getting people ‘saved’ – that the gospel is all about eternal destiny, which, Willard says, cuts it off from life. He says this in some detail of course but in the case of my strand (the second!) it still reads as something of a caricature, albeit a challenging one! However, it is surely the case that drawing the two strands together is Jesus’ teaching on ‘the Kingdom of heaven’. Willard demonstrates that heaven in Jesus’ thought is not far away, but very near, surrounding us; not just in our hearts, not just within, but not merely outward, political, either, but penetrating with its ethics and values and power into every area of life. The kingdom ‘programme’ is set out in the Sermon on the Mount. Willard points out how strange and tragic it is that the three chapters of Matthew 5-7, which surely lie at the very heart of Jesus teaching, should be both misunderstood and so neglected.

In this review I want to focus on a few points that are made; it should be emphasized that the book is lengthy at 400 pages, so it covers a lot of ground; at no point does it become tiresome, but is rich both in terms of ideas and love for God – it is inspiring in both directions.

The ‘Beatitudes’ have always troubled me; the ‘beautiful attitudes’ – but that is not what they are. Willard tells of an army man who turns away from Christ and God because as he says, this just was not him – to be effective he had to be strong, not weak; assertive, not meek; active, not mourning…It made no sense to him that he should be required, apparently, to pursue the very opposite qualities to those he needed in his law-keeping occupation; apparently one thing Jesus is not is a man’s man!  I too had been taught that somehow, for example, to be ‘poor in spirit‘ was somehow a sort spiritual attainment with a reward – the kingdom of heaven. But we know very well that is not what the gospel teaches; Jesus receives us as we are. The Beatitudes are not essentially a set of commands to be fulfilled. The meaning of the Beatitudes is that Jesus has just been healing the sick among the crowds of poor people, and now he is saying, ‘You, poor as you are, are blessed because I am here among you; unhappy, lowly, hungry, desperately wanting something good to happen….you are blessed because I am here and no matter who you are the kingdom is open to you.’ Willard reworks each beatitude away from the legalistic interpretation that if you get to be something you are blessed. The ‘pure in heart’, for example, he sees as perfectionists, those for whom nothing is ever good enough; something like this must be true, because if you only get to be blessed if you have the amazing quality of being pure in heart, then there is no hope for anyone; it’s Catch 22 – if you’re not pure you can’t be blessed and if you’re not blessed you can’t get to be pure; if this is what the saying means, we had better give it up as a bad job, which is what many of us do – and abandon the teaching of Jesus on the basis of this misunderstanding! ….Not everyone will like it, but to me it’s very liberating and truthful; we are certainly in a bad way, as Willard remarks, if we don’t understand and agree upon these fundamental principles of the kingdom.

In his sermon, Jesus goes on to show that to endeavour to fulfil laws is a road to psychological ruin; but this is not what tends to be taught as his intent. Mt 5.25 is used to suggest that going to law is wrong, but that is not what Jesus is saying – he is dealing with heart attitude, that we should not be vindictive. In vv 29-30, Jesus seems to suggest cutting off your right hand if it sins – ‘if it offend thee’ – as though it were the hand that was wrong and not you! Surely he doesn’t teach that does he?  – Willard says he is making fun of the Pharisees; in this way Willard continues to subvert everything legalistic – and this surely is what Jesus is doing.

What Jesus is doing then, in this ‘sermon’, is to set out what we would today tend to term the basis for sound psychology – not so much ethics – how we should behave – as how we should think! If the point about not going to law is a ‘psychological’ one, about not being vindictive, it may very well work out that the best thing to do in some particular circumstance, without being vindictive, is to go to law! With this approach, seeing the sermon as good psychology, Willard shows, for example, how Jesus goes first for the core issues, and then later to specific behavioural issues. Thus, he begins by discussing anger; he explores and points out how angry people are. Only when he has dealt with the anger issue, does he go on to the symptoms of anger and estrangement (from God), for example violence and sexual issues.

Of course, the people flocked to hear Jesus; why? – because there was no condemnation; he was accepting the people just as they were, and telling them how to get better! We might note that, of course, there is a great deal of very good, sound psychology being practiced outside of our often narrow Christian circles. It would be good if we could show the world that these principles are God’s principles and that Jesus is their principle exponent. As Willard says of Jesus, discussing Mt.5 25-42, ‘he is right on target for today. Sex and violence are the two things repeatedly cited as the areas of our greatest problems’. We might then add that Jesus is psychology PLUS, since his Gospel addresses the deeper psychological issues of life – guilt, mental illness…through the application of redemption. The spiritual has profound psychological impact. We certainly need the person of Jesus; the soul also needs the ‘mechanisms’ Jesus provides through the spiritual realities of redemption; Jesus, surely, is ‘our life’, but he is also, both in his teaching and person, our therapist, our teacher, a statement which brings us nicely back to the starting point of this article.

 

 

Bob Ekblad

Bob Ekblad

There are two fine books by Bob Ekblad as well as valuable writings on his website. The books are Reading the Bible with the Damned and A Christian Manifesto. Reading these two books and following up a number of the references proved to be a new start for me in a number of ways; he consistently undermines, subverts what he terms ‘the dominant theology’, which failed to work for me. The books profoundly affected and affect me, going rather deeply into what the Gospel means today.

The first chapter of A Christian Manifesto contains something of a testimony. Bob comes from a Christian background; fairly early in his Christian ‘walk’ he took the line of social action, working with campesinos in Honduras, particularly on agricultural projects. While in Central America it seems that a certain amount of disillusion with the US was much increased by the way the administration was acting in that region. In Bob’s mind the establishment way of doing things was also associated with much of church life in the US, Pentecostal and charismatic churches particularly. He also undertook serious theological studies in the south of France. Returning to the US (Washington state), his ministry, which saw him always drawn to the marginalized , took him into prisons; he was becoming steadily more and more concerned about the lack of power in what he did. His formerly black sheep of a brother then persuaded him, much against his prejudices, to attend meetings connected with the Toronto movement and here he encountered the Holy Spirit in an entirely new way, experienced power, and all that he did took on a new dimension, particularly with healing. (A notable feature of ‘Toronto’ is that many of the more prominent leaders who were most affected had come from theologically  well educated backgrounds.) Contact with that particular group has lead to an itinerant ministry to many places, notably a close connection with the Bakers in Mozambique. His time in France brought him into contact with Daniel Bourguet and it is references in his books to Bourguet that led me in that direction and the translation work detailed elsewhere on this site. Bob gives a really good account of all this in a series of 4  recordings, here: www.youtube.com

The two books are similar in content in some ways and mostly recount efforts to bring, relate, the gospel to ‘the damned’, those outside the mainstream.

“My primary objective is to present approaches to Scripture reading and spirituality that I have found helpful in my work with outsiders and alienated insiders. My hope is that these reflections will help sensitize and form Christians for the specific task of communicating good news to people often submerged in the bad news of poverty, social marginalization, addictions to alcohol and drugs, criminal activities, oppression by the state, self-accusation, feelings of inadequacy, and other difficulties. The ‘outsiders’ I envision are first and foremost fellow human beings who perceive themselves as condemned to poverty or permanent exclusion, beyond repair, unable to change, in bondage – in short, “damned”, or, as many I currently work with regularly say, “fucked up”. On the other hand I hope that alienated “insiders” or those unable to find a home in the church or to remain inside Christianity will find this book helpful”. (Reading…p.xiv)

Throughout the books he is dealing with “negative images of God”, endeavouring to communicate rectified versions. In this review I will touch on one or two to give a flavour. (Personally, I would associate very naturally with the picture of an “alienated insider”; as a 17 year old boy on the verge of heading off to Cambridge University, which is educationally as elite as you can get in the UK, I had occasion to sit among the drunks and derelicts of Edinburgh, where we lived, as a natural result of the way I felt, ‘a poor struggler’ as one man said to me. The only place in a way I have ever really felt ‘at home’ was as far away from ‘home’ as you could get, among the poor people of El Salvador. The inversion of standard procedures in these books, Jesus as counter-culture, turning official ideas upside down, has been a tremendous help to me, in the first place, in being reconciled to God.)

Typically, Bob recounts a composite of visits to Skagit County jail where he talks to inmates, many of whom are ‘illegal’ Mexicans, and most have a history with drugs. A particularly memorable account is titled “Getting back into the Garden” and looks at the story of Cain. The standard take says Cain was a murderer and no good; God is against him. The inmates readily identify with this official version and, logically, have no hope that God will help them unless they can somehow reform, which, however they don’t really believe is something they can manage. Questions are asked – there is little ‘preaching’; it is an exploration. Little by little the inmates open up and as they look at the text, slowly the ‘official’ view is subverted; they come to see that God is very interested in Cain, interested in helping him; in fact there is little interest shown in Abel. They see that God is unaffected by Cain’s efforts to win his approval, and eventually they see that God’s concern is more with healing him than with judgment and some supposed subsequent restoration  through enforced ‘repentance’. Not so stated on this occasion, but often these talks are concluded by previously suspicious men being open to prayer and expressing great interest in the gospel.

“The more I read the Bible with people on the margins, the more I see the poverty of the church’s proclamation, which is often irrelevant to people on the streets…..With our message of forgiveness of sins or even salvation by grace, too often we treat hurting people like physicians who only know how to prescribe one drug for every illness….God the judge is ushered in to pronounce pardon – a spiritual acquittal with no immediate bodily  repercussions…The notion of sin as sickness and God as spiritual healer in profoundly biblical…” (p 56)

A powerful account concerns the Tierra Nueva project in Honduras which Bob and family continue to visit. (There are a number of at times harrowing tales of what the people endure as well heart-warming accounts of healing.) The campesinos face a basic problem, that of scratching a meagre existence from a  hostile environment – the weather, the land, disease, corruption, adverse absentee landowners….Their traditional culture suggests that God is essentially immanent, within nature, and that they are therefore fighting a God who is fundamentally harsh; unfortunately the doctrine they have been taught about the Bible more or less reinforces this view; further, well meaning ecologists are then likely to condemn them for their agricultural tactics….Whatever happens, they lose! Not so long before this visit Bob had been studying Psalm 8 as part of a master’s thesis and he comes thoroughly prepared ‘theologically’. Those he is involved with sit down with him and they examine the psalm together, slowly uncovering the liberating truth that far from being immanent, God emphasizes of himself that he is transcendent, separate from nature,that he has given the earth to men, that he will work with people,  and that his work, his praise, is performed ‘out of the mouths of babes and sucklings’, not high up authorities. Taking this in is really a tremendous discovery and one that hugely changes a destructive mindset. Further, the help from outside is practical as well as theological; agricultural techniques, a market for coffee, healing for the sick…..This is a wonderful model of the gospel at work.

There are so many good things said. The reflection that we are all God’s children can be a very nice one; we know that there is a possible objection to this, but the working assumption that ‘we are his offspring’ is very helpful for people who are ready, with a little help, to identify with the crucified God. The men talk about drugs, how they can spend two weeks awake on methamphetamine; Bob comments that he ‘affirm[s] the longing in the men for a full energized life as a sign of a desire to be fully empowered by God’s Spirit.’ Another account is of the man with a prominent tattoo “Fuck the world”! Bob picks up on this – clearly it is the expression of a very important sentiment – and he essentially affirms God’s solidarity with it! (This a good point to mention a book by Bob’s friend Chris Hoke, Wanted; he talks about the same man.) There isn’t much  in the books that doesn’t tend to subvert legalism and affirm God’s love as unconditional. Passages discussed in a vital way include John 3, the Exodus, Mark 2 – the man with the withered hand, Isaiah 42, Hagar, Jacob.

All this is very good as I have said; it involves bringing Jesus into people’s lives; what matters to me though is that the thinking behind the practice cuts rather deeper. Personally, I have grown up so to speak (starting in 1958!) trying for much of that time desperately to lead the life I read about in the Bible. Church life has generally been highly unsatisfactory. The church has become progressively more and more irrelevant to society at large; it only seems to touch individuals. I have seen so many things that claim to faithfully represent Jesus, but also fall so far short. All my Christian life I have heard people going on about ‘revival’ as being the answer, but this is consistently a statement of no practical use at all and seems to me quite simply an admission that we haven’t a clue what we are doing. In brief, the western church to which I am used has seemed to be heavily compromised, and this issue forms an important point of discussion in Christian Manifesto; I am going to add a lengthy quotation which I think speaks to the heart of things.

As a preliminary, here is a very interesting point made in Christian Manifesto about demonization; Ekblad talks about demonization through a national spirit in the USA subsequent to ‘9/11’ (11/9 really; the 11th of September) where people pledged allegiance to something quite different to the Christian manifesto, ie the American flag and a number of associated attitudes…..

“Effective advocacy for people on the margins is possible only as we step over the line from overidentifying with the system, joining in the ministry of Jesus. This move is possible only as we renounce the false security offered to us by the ruler of this world and step into a life marked by increasing allegiance to Jesus and the kingdom of God.” (Manifesto p.92)

I don’t think that there is too much difficulty dealing with that. A little further is something that I think hits very hard into what is happening in our churches.

“When followers of Jesus see themselves too much “according to the flesh” (as a citizen of their particular nation, member of a religious denomination, ethnic group,  sexual orientation, or political party), they can easily fall into either justifying  their ethnicity, nation or orientation, or agreeing with accusations against themselves and seeking to right the wrongs. The Accuser, rather than the Defender, ends up setting the agenda for people’s actions, unless we are continually remembering our identity as beloved son or daughter by adoption and living according to the Spirit. Whenever people live in agreement with their natural identity, they give the Accuser permission to harass them with their shortcomings according to their identity in the flesh. When our focus becomes righting the wrongs of our country or ethnic group, we step under the gaze of a judge whose demands for restitution are infinite. Voices of accusation will make sure we know that we are never doing enough. Finally, any headway we do make toward justice will end up serving the powers, magnifying the names of creatures rather than the Creator

It seems to me that ‘righting the wrongs of our country’ is in fact exactly what we western Christians seem to have in mind when we talk about ‘revival’; we see society in decay, in a parlous state, and we want to see that put right, and the answer we propose is ‘revival’. And so, “we are never doing enough”; the result – the institutional despair, the loss of hope of changing society, that permeates church life despite the wonderful things we see happening in the lives of individuals within the church. We reach a few individuals, but in society as a whole, we are simply off target. Quite where this leaves me I am not altogether sure at present, except, consistent with the Ekblad books, desiring to draw closer to Jesus and his way of ‘ministry’.

 

Creation, Power and Truth

This book, I believe, has a baby and plenty of bath water. The bath water is probably because Wright strays well outside his area of expertise, and the baby is a re-statement of views found elsewhere, but in different terms.

As seems normal with Wright, his concern is that the message of the Church be relevant to society; part of this he sees as making sure that the Church is there to ‘critique’ political and institutional bodies; part of it is that he sees churches he characterizes consistently in his books as right-wing fundamentalist as having a narrow and non-biblical concern with ‘going to heaven’ rather than God’s project of his kingdom on earth. The first concern, I suspect, is tied in some degree to Wright’s involvement with the Church of England, who see themselves as having precisely that role within English society – but the broader scope is what matters, that the Church’s job is to proclaim that Jesus is Lord and that no other ruler is finally legitimate without reference to Him, and on this Wright is very strong, and what he says is tied strongly to the Bible. With regard to the second, there is clearly some truth to the idea that the Church has retreated into a private ‘spirituality’; however, his discussion of both modern society and the church is characterized, in my view, by caricatures of a somewhat superficial nature based on questionable history. Wright, in short, is good when he talks about the Bible;potentially interesting, but off target when he doesn’t.

The book has three chapters. In the first, ‘creation’, the act of God the Father, is contrasted to ‘gnosticism’, both ancient and modern; in the second, concerning ‘power’, the Lordship of Jesus is contrasted to ‘empire’, both ancient and modern; in the third, the ‘truth’ of the Holy Spirit is contrasted to the deconstructive relativism of ‘post-modernity’. What follows here is a brief outline of what I understand Wright to be saying in each chapter, with some comments.

The target of the first chapter is Gnosticism or neo-Gnosticism. Briefly, instead of an external fixed body of truth, Gnosticism reduces spirituality to the private sphere, a personal search for truth; in its ancient form it was dualistic, seeing the spirit as good and the body as bad, and therefore not concerned with this present world, it being evil. Creation is the answer to this – God created everything good.  In Wright’s view, however, there has been a strong tendency since the Enlightenment period of the 18th century to reduce Christian faith to ‘going to heaven’ when you die, to an escape from this world; he sees this tendency exemplified in the eschatology that leads to books like the Left Behind series. The tendency is to ignore the idea that God is bringing about a new earth, a restoration of this earth, and so, in his area of expertise, he points out that Lutheran and evangelical exegesis have tended to ‘ignore’ Rom 8 18-27. One can see that these tendencies exist, but to see neo-gnosticism in them does not seem very sensible to me; perhaps there is an influence, but it is extreme to label movements within the Church as neo-gnostic, not when they explicitly state that ‘Jesus Christ is come in the flesh’. when this is explicitly denied by gnosticism. Strangely, Wright sees and characterizes as conservative and Gnostic the idea ‘the world is not my home; I’m just a-passing through’; I would say it was a legitimate extrapolation from Heb 11 13-16. Oddly again, to my mind, on the political front, he says that the very people who reject Darwinistic evolution, actually support “large scale social Darwinism in which the doctrine of the ‘survival of the fittest’ is applied relentlessly to the global rights of the superpower”. This seems very tendentious to me; you would have to produce a large book of historical research to support this idea; the objective seems to be to slam the USA, a point to which I will return. Finally, a quotation which seems to encapsulate the best and the worst of what Wright says:-

Notoriously, right-wing Gnosticism, caring about the salvation of souls and envisaging judgment as the punishment of the unsaved along with the wicked world itself, has an easy solution to the problems of crime at the local level and problems such as terrorism at the global level: anticipate God’s judgment here and now, in punitive retribution.

Here Wright feels that he can characterize the right-wing church as Gnostic. It might not have thought things through (politically in articular) very much, but to call it Gnostic is just rhetoric. As I understand it, much of the American church comes from a historically very stable political background and have not had to think properly about these things, hence the focus on ‘salvation of souls’; the American church with its strengths and weaknesses carried the weight of evangelism on a worldwide basis for quite a long time and it is poor not to remember this.  Wright’s warning about the way judgment is envisaged is, I think, very just. If this tendency exists, and it does, the statement that follows is apt and it may seem to characterize the way, for example, President GW Bush tended to operate – more prisons, bigger military; but surely there is an awful lot more to it than Wright is allowing to be said ; it is a substantial over-characterization. However, Wright’s favourite point remains – that God’s judgment is not essentially punitive, but has as its goal ‘putting the world to rights’. That’s the point, but even here there is over-characterization, because there is a punitive element.

The second chapter, contrasting ‘empire’ with the Lordship of Christ, similarly makes strong points on the theological side but has a mixture of sensible points about empire along with caricatures of fact. Wright is always keen to bring out the way Paul is distinctly concerned to oppose to Caesar the rulership of Jesus, particularly in the first chapter of Romans which deliberately applies the imperial language of Rome to Christ; in the same way the Psalms speak of God as king, the ruler over all nations. It might be thought that the following is something of an overstatement :-

“… ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.’ That famous verse….is not, as it has so often been treated, a detached statement of atonement theology, but is rather the clinching point in this devastatingly counter-imperial statement about power”.

Wright does indeed specify that this is about atonement, but his point is that real power is about serving, contrary to the tendency of empire. It is not that Wright is against government, and indeed makes a statement to the effect that he ‘cannot be a full-blown pacifist’ because some governmental use of force is necessary, but that government can become empire in a totalitarian way. It is at this undoubtedly true point, in the details of it, that I find my understanding of history clashing with Wright. In the modern world, Wright seems to conflate empire with the USA; with regard to earlier times, he simply gives all empire a pasting. Was the Roman Empire simply bad? I think not – the western world still uses the Roman legal system; the Romans were in many ways a good influence. Strangely, Wright seems to deny any positive role to the British; I would suggest reading Mangalwadi ,The Grand Experiment 1 as a counter to this, showing both the worst of colonialism in India and the best, which was wonderfully good. I would point to the influence of the Chinese in Tibet: it is a commonplace to condemn the Chinese for repression and cruelty, but missionary type friends of mine, with experience in Tibet, point to the very vile nature of Tibetan culture; it has aspects as nasty as anything you could think of, and the Chinese, no doubt with plenty of repression, are nevertheless opening up what looks like a thoroughly demonized society to the outside world. Wright says this: ‘..the Western powers…charge off round the world planting colonies, ruling the natives and coming home with bulging pockets….’ This is gross caricature; surely there is more to it than this! Wright goes on to suggest that this forms the west in their own thinking into an elite.

“If we are the elite, and if the real God is the super-spiritual one who is interested only in heaven, not in earth – and if, as in the Cold War, this God has raised up the democratic West, particularly the USA, to keep the wicked Soviet atheists (and/or the dangerous Middle Eastern Islamists) at bay, making us the world’s police force – then we have not only the right but the duty to act as masters, not stewards, of creation, making it conform to our plans and serve our divine calling.”

Leaving aside the interesting issue of whether the western world claims divine sanction, I find the suggestion thoroughly exceptionable that the Soviet atheists, who killed millions and persecuted people of faith, were not ‘wicked’, and that ‘Islamists’ are not dangerous.  While acknowledging the intent here, I think things are more complex than this, and specifically find it strange that the existence of Satan should not be brought somewhere into this type of discussion, Satan, who deceives nations.

In the third chapter we move onto the question of post-modernity and truth; the chapter is centred around Pilate’s cynical question, “What is truth?” His answer of course is that there is no such thing, and this is the central point of popular culture today; in a more formal way, post-modernity means questioning everything and saying every human activity is vitiated by self. For myself I saw the onset of post-modernity when studying literature in the ‘70s; the new idea accorded no special place to ‘great’ literature; any written text was to be ‘deconstructed’ in terms of its relation to power structures, everything reduced to selfish motive, no superior value to be ascribed to anything at all. This method has some virtue and Wright sees in post-modernity the ‘preaching’ to the modern world of the Fall, everything spoilt by sin. However his next point is that because of its  relentlessly critical nature whereby it finally denies any value to any ideapost-modernity has no power to speak truth, and this of course is where the Spirit of Truth must be heard to speak. Wright’s point here, centred on a discussion of Jn 16 8-15, is, with regard to sin, righteousness and judgment that,

“..the [S]pirit will not merely show that the world has has held incorrect opinions on these subjects ; rather, the [S]pirit will demonstrate, as in a law court, that the world is in the wrong, culpable…”

This, I think, is a most valuable point, with which, as we consider the role of the Church in the world, one could hardly concur more. It is not a statement that I have seen in this form elsewhere and is of great value, quoting Wright’s ‘Conclusion’, to ‘those who want to take the Christian gospel seriously and navigate their way through the cultural and social minefield [he has] been describing’.

  1.  Manglawadi seeks to demonstrate how, firstly, the entrance of the British into India was simply rapacious, but that fairly soon the presence of active Christians (notably William Carey) in the East India Company and the British Government led to an endeavour to responsibly raise the Indian people up to a place of full liberty and independence. The endeavour, in Mangalwadi’s view, was initially very successful and led to the considerable betterment of the nation, before later being derailed.

Nature

God has two books – scripture and nature. ‘The heavens’, say the scriptures, ‘display your handiwork’. Psalm 104.24 – ‘O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches’. Exploration of the natural world is a wonderful thing, all the way from listening to the birds sing to the scientific study of ecology; this doesn’t need to be conducted by professing Christians, indeed a really good atheistic botanist will no doubt uncover more of God’s handiwork than a Christian dilettante.

Nevertheless, the first book I will mention, in so far that the writer is a professor at Wheaton College, is presumably by a believer. It is entitled A Neotropical Companion, the author is John Kricher, and it is a charming book about the American tropics, the rainforest, birds, animals thereof and other ecosystems. Very readable and informative and with a terrific bibliography.

Christians are sometimes taught to believe that Darwin was ‘of the devil’; I firmly believe that of Marx and probably Freud, but Darwin was just a very keen observer of nature who put together his theories with a view, I understand, to showing how God created; unfortunately his theories went beyond the evidence. Be that as it may The Voyage of the Beagle is really a lovely book; it chronicles his travels round South America. Of particular resonance with me is his description of a journey on foot through the Chilean Andes.

In similar vein are some of the works of Alfred Wallace. Later in life he became a spiritualist of some sort and had some strange ideas, but the observations in his earlier books are great and of course written in fine Victorian prose. He observes both nature and people very closely and tells a fine tale. I have read  The Malay Archipelago and intend to read his book on the Amazon.

On the subject of the Amazon, there could be no better work than that by Wallace’s contemporary and companion, HW Bates The Naturalist on the River Amazons. This is required reading.

Another great work is by Thomas Belt The Naturalist in Nicaragua. These men were such wonderful observers and investigators as well as reporters.

More recent writings include the lovely books by Gerald Durell, who is probably well-known to English readers. He owned a zoo where he cared for exotic and endangered creatures; his numerous books describe his adventures all over the place collecting animals and he is often very, very funny.

Another book I have enjoyed sufficiently to read through more than once is Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. He has a slightly sort of dreamy shamanistic approach he may have imbibed from the eskimos; but writes beautifully and passionately about the land, the people, the animals, the sea. I also enjoyed his book Of Wolves and Men. There are so many good books to read.

There are three wonderful books by Jean-Pierre Hallet, Animal KitabuCongo Kitabu and Pygmy Kitabu. A big man, full of love for animals and people. Hallet was a Belgian who lived in the Congo both before and after its independence, he has wonderful stories to tell. Animal Kitabu describes many of the animals he encountered; in Pygmy Kitabu he describes his time living among the pygmy people, his teaching them agricultural practices to help them survive the onslaught of modernity, his love for them, and his disgust at the way he was betrayed by church people; it is Congo Kitabu which is the best read, describing a small sort of zoo he opened including a breath taking description of his feats as a lion tamer and trainer (love is the key); the tale of his blowing his arm off in a fishing accident also springs to mind from among the many stories.

Another book to read is Kinship with all life by J Allen Boone. I once saw a television programme with a lady who had tremendous understanding of animals; she would go and commune with a sick horse that was not responding to the vet’s treatment, and would know what was wrong. In childhood she had been lonely, and her only comfort was a pet dog; she had developed this sympathy with animals to a high degree. Have you heard the story about the saint of old who had a lion and a donkey as  friends? The three lived together. Francis of Assisi spoke to the wolves; Seraphim of Sarov to a bear . . . so many stories . . . not forgetting the abbot in A grave for a dolphin  by  Alberto di Pirajno; each year the abbot called together all the wart hogs in the neighbourhood, addressed them earnestly and respectfully asking them not to damage the crops in the fields attached to the monastery, used as they were to feed the poor. The wart hogs gathered in the dead of night to listen, and acceded each year to his request. Kinship with all life is a hands on account of how to develop rapport with animals! The author starts with being entrusted with an amazing dog that worked in cinema (Los Angeles); he discovers mysterious abilities in the dog to communicate, and this leads him on to communication with, among others, skunks, ants and . . . a fly. The great secret is respect and openness (he calls it to the Universe, but he quotes the Bible nicely). Friendship with the house-fly is the best bit of the book to me, partly because I these creatures I have to deal with and therefore adopted Boone’s ideas and found that I too could be friends with a fly and very decidedly communicate; flies it should be said are very interested in people, and quite able to understand our desire that they NOT walk on our flesh, but limit themselves to finger-nails and clothing!

On the communion with animal theme, there is Modoc  by Ralph Helfer, telling the story of a German boy and ‘his’ elephant, from Germany to India and Burma, and on to the US, where the two were separated. A person who could read the account of their reunion without tears is made of sterner stuff than me . . .

Everyone should read Kon-tikiThor Heyerdahl’s account of crossing the Pacific on a balsa raft; I have spent many a happy month drifting steadily westward from Peru to the Marquesas . . .

A complete change of subject is found in The Quantum Brain by Jeffrey Satinover, whose book on homosexuality is recommended elsewhere on this site. Satinover seems to be a rather brilliant man; his background is psychiatry. He set out to answer the question of whether the human mind can be viewed as mechanistic; to do so he looks at the functioning of machines and basic computers, and then passes on to quantum theory, which is the area that provides an escape from a mechanistic view. His description of the famous double slit experiment is marvellously clear and very thought provoking. For the uninformed but scientifically literate person, this book again is a must read!

 

Are you ready to die?

Jesus said, ‘Whoever shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father who is in heaven’ (Matt 10.32).

When the Communists took over Cambodia, they entered a church during the Sunday service. Taking the Bible from the pulpit, an officer put it on the threshold. As his men stood by with rifles ready, he ordered the people to leave the building one by one and spit on the Bible. ‘Whoever does so will be free to go home,’ he said. ‘Whoever does not will be shot on the spot.’

Imagine for a moment that you were a member of the congregation. What would you have done under the circumstances?

As one who has passed through similar situations, I know the thoughts that flash through the mind when put to such a test: “I have a bride. Her heart would break if I were to die. My time has not yet come….I have old parents who are invalids. They depend on me for support. They are doomed if I die. Love obliges me to spit…So what if I spit? Jesus knows that I have done so under duress. He forgave Peter, who denied him without being in such danger as this. He understands human weakness. In any case, I will only spit a little bit.”

These were people who had come to church to worship God and study his word, but they had never decided to die for Christ. One by one, Christians, who ten minutes before had praised Christ in song, left the church and spat on the Bible. Then came a girl of sixteen. When challenged at gunpoint to spit she began to weep and said, “I cannot do it. I love God. The Bible is his letter to us. No child spits on his father’s letter.” She knelt down and wiped away the spittle from the cover of the Bible – and fell dead over the holy book, shot in the head.

What would you have done? Many of us have answered a call to come forward to the altar. The altar in Jerusalem was a place where creatures died. Lambs, rams, doves, whatever came to the altar died. Did you understand your response to the altar call in these terms?

We are not all put in the same situation. Not everyone is forced to lay their life on the line. However, every Christian chose death at his conversion, if it was genuine.

Rabbinical commentaries have said that the key to the Bible lies in the words, ‘This is the law, when a man dies…'(Numbers 19.14). If a person does not die for the law, they have never really considered it to be the law of God. This is how Christians think too. A Christian is someone ‘dead to sin’ and ‘dead with Christ’ (Romans 6.2,8). To respond to an altar call means to die to the world. If you have understood this rightly and lived in this spirit, you will make the right choice in times of crisis.

Few of us may be asked to spit on the Bible literally; but to spit or not to spit is a choice we make daily when we are tempted. It means spitting on the Bible, indeed, on Christ, if we wilfully and consciously prefer a sin to his commandments.

Let us choose rather to wipe away the spittle with which others have soiled his holy word and to be faithful at all times.

(The Total Blessing # 25)

Money

Kenneth Hagin on Money

In talking about the two books of Hagin devoted to this topic there is an inclination to be a little apologetic and point out that what applies in Texas does not apply in the 3rd world, or something similar; but in fact what he says is so entirely unexceptionable and straightforwardly biblical  (in so far as it goes) that this is not necessary; you almost have to be deliberately misreading to find anything untoward. We must however remember the setting in which he is speaking; it is hard to see how what is said would have much immediate applicability in a refugee camp or Iranian prison.

The books are Biblical keys to Financial Prosperity and The Midas Touch. The first sets out basic principles; the second was written somewhat later and attempts to counter unbiblical trends in the American religious world and which have been exported. Both are intensely biblical.

The first question asked in the first book is simple: is poverty a blessing or a curse? Well, put like that it is abundantly clear that poverty is a curse, and a range of scriptures can be used to illutrate – poverty is stated to be a curse in Deut 28. So, prosperity is a blessing and Gal 3.14 talks about the blessing of Abraham coming on the church; in fact it is clear that God made Abraham rich. In fact God has promised to make us rich!!!  Heresy! Indeed this might well cause problems for some, especially where poverty has served to keep people closely attached to God; the idea can be seen as heresy, but – wait –

Someone said, “you mean God said He is going to make all of us rich?”     Yes, that’s what I mean. ”       Well do you mean He’s going to make all of us millionaires?”        No. Again, that word ‘rich’ according to the dictionary means ‘a full supply’. I believe there is a full supply spiritually, physically and in every way in Christ Jesus. Thank God for abundant provision through Jesus Christ!

The point is made repeatedly, that rich means a full supply. (He says so much; this is picking out the central points.) Is this full supply automatic? No, of course not; there are qualifications. Hagin’s favourite verse on this is Is 1.19; “If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land”. Again, we might wish to state some biblical cautions, but that is not the subject here.

Some people are more interested in making a dollar than they are in serving God. But spiritual things must come first if you are going to be spiritual. You must esteem the things of God – spiritual things – more than earthly things.
One qualification for prospering is to esteem earthly things lightly. You cannot put earthly things above spiritual things and expect to prosper as God desires you to.
No, it’s not wrong to have money. It’s wrong for money to have you. It’s wrong for money to be your ruler or master or for you to consume finances on your own lusts.
God wants you to prosper financially! But your prosperity depends on your putting first things first. There are qualifications involved.

(I would like to note that it is relatively easy to think in terms of esteeming earthly things lightly when you are surrounded by plenty. The weakness of the discussion comes when you are not and when you are surrounded by injustice.)

We need to exercise authority in this area. Everybody (this is me, not Hagin) needs to stand up for their rights when it comes to money – otherwise you are liable to get robbed blind; it is a pleasing reflection to me that the Trade Union movement in England was foundationally Christian; spiritually minded working men standing up for their dues. But there is a spiritual aspect to this too; for some people this would be where Hagin might get controversial, but really standing in faith, ie side by side with our heavenly Father, is no more than normal biblical practice. Believe God! And assert your spiritual rights against the enemy! – but you won’t be able to unless you are walking in love and are a generous giver yourself. Hagin is a thorough-going proponent of tithing and giving, of sowing and reaping. Unfortunately this is a particular area where wrong abusive teaching has come – this is addressed by Hagin in The Midas Touch. An important point Hagin makes is that faithfulness in finances will aid faithfulness in other areas; short-circuiting faith in this area, not obeying God in this area, not listening to and following his voice, will lead to short-circuits in other areas.

The final point of the first book is that “godliness is profitable unto all things” (1 Tim 4.8). This is the point to which Hagin always returns.

The second book, The Midas Touch, covers a lot of the same ground but bringing different thoughts to bear. Isn’t it interesting that one of the first events in Jesus life was the bestowal of valuable gifts – gold, myrrh and frankincense. However, the title of the book conveys a very fitting sense of ambiguity to the topic. Midas of course had this gift by which everything he touched turned to gold. There is a malady that can be very apparent in religious circles – wanting gold, and expecting gold as a result of faith without regard for the consequences to others. But Midas soon found that the ‘gift’ was much less desirable than he first thought – wanting and focusing on gold spoils everything else.

Hagin focuses on the fact that the biblical purpose of prosperity is to enable us to do God’s will. As people get away from this they invent a variety of abuses. (When I think of some of the things I have seen and heard!). Abuses include: overemphasis on money, gimmicks (eg ‘blessed sawdust’ where an angel is supposed to have walked), prosperity as a sign of spirituality, giving to get, naming your seed, the 100 fold return, the ‘debt-breaking anointing’…Hagin goes on to give sound practical advice in a range of areas we would all do well to heed, for example, not dealing with money on your own but being properly accountable to others.

The book concludes with 24 principles from the NT epistles on money, and a closing statement that includes this:-

Throughout this book, I have tried to stress balance and sound teaching, presenting the whole counsel of God

The two books do this in a wonderful way from a man with a most beautiful spirit. It is true that all he writes is in the setting of the prosperous USA and rather more is needed to help the impoverished than good teaching; nevertheless, it should be emphasized that in what he says Hagin says nothing that is not intensely Biblical. I think it is good to balance out what is said with the statement to ‘remember also the poor’; which means ‘do something about poverty’; and ‘remember those who are in chains’.

NT Wright Quotations

‘Synergism’(from Justification pp 191-2)

We must read in Romans 2.16, particularly 2.6-7 and 13-16 [in the light of the rest of the letter].

[God] will render to each according to their works: to those who through patience in good work seek for glory, honour and immortality, he will give the life of the age to come…Glory, honour and peace to all who work what is good, to the Jew first and also the Greek….When Gentiles, who by birth do not possess Torah, do the things of the Torah, they are a “law” to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, with their conscience also bearing witness and their conflicting thoughts accusing or perhaps excusing them on the day when God judges human secrets according to the gospel through the Messiah, Jesus.

There are, of course, some good reasons for thinking that Paul might after all be referring here to the “moral pagan”. He may indeed be quite deliberately teasing at this point, wooing a reader on from the challenge in 2.1 to the possibility of a different way of approaching the whole moral task. But the forward echoes to 2.26-9 and 2 Cor 3 must be regarded as decisive. These people are Christians, on whose hearts the Spirit has written the law, and whose secrets, when revealed (see Rom 2.29 again), will display the previously hidden work of God.

The point of future justification is then explained like this. The verdict of the last day will truly reflect what people have actually done. It is extremely important to notice, in line with that sense of sudden anxiety in Rom 2.15, that Paul never says that Christians earn the final verdict, or that their “works” must be complete and perfect. He says, “Those who by patience in well-doing” (echoes here of Rom 5.3-4) “seek for glory and honour and immortality”. They are seeking it, not earning it. And they are seeking it through that patient, Spirit-driven Christian living in which – here is a paradox at the heart of the Christian life which so many have noticed but few have integrated into Paul’s theology of justification! – from one point of view the Spirit is at work, producing these fruits (Gal 5.22-3), and from another point of view the person concerned is making the free choices, the increasingly free (because increasingly less constrained by the sinful habits of mind and body) decisions to live a genuinely, fully human life which brings pleasure -of course it does! – to the God in whose image we human beings were made. As long as theologians, hearing this kind of proposal, shout “synergism” and rush back to the spurious either-or which grows out of a doctrine that has attempted to construct the entire soteriological jigsaw puzzle on the basis of a medieval view of “justice” and with some crucial bits (the Spirit, eschatology, not to mention Abraham and the covenant) still in the box, or on the floor, or in the fire, we shall never get anywhere. And at this point it is my instinct as a pastor that is aroused. I want my people to hear and understand the whole Word of God, not just the parts of it that fit someone’s system.

This passage tells us a lot about Wright’s way of thinking. He talks about ‘jigsaw puzzle’, ‘my people’ etc.; but although his apparent concern is with the theologians, the ultimate interest is pastoral.

Justification

The following passage, also from the book Justification (p. 80), is another example of Wright taking on established views. I quote it as support about Augustine for the article on Roger Forster. Wright quotes McGrath Iusticia Dei.

…there are many equally biblical ways of talking about how God saves people through Jesus Christ, and justification is but one of them. This (for instance) enables us at once to note that the four Gospels, where the term “justification” is scarce, are not for that reason to be treated as merely ancillary to , or perhaps preparatory for, the message of Paul – as has sometimes happened, at least de facto, in the Western Church. But there is more:
The doctrine of justification has come to develop a meaning quite independent of its biblical origins, and concerns the means by which man’s relationship to God is established. The church has chosen to subsume its discussion of the reconciliation of man to God under the aegis of justification, thereby giving the concept an emphasis quite absent from the New Testament. The “doctrine of justification” has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins.

I cannot overstress the importance of this statement, made by the scholar who, as much as any and more than almost all, has researched the entire history of the doctrine through many twists and turns unimagined by the ordinary devout Protestant. It is this statement, as much as any of my own, which justifies the claim, so threatening to writers like [X], that the church has indeed taken off at an oblique angle from what Paul had said, so that, yes, ever since the time of Augustine, the discussions about what has been called “justification” have borne a tangled, but ultimately only tangential, relation to what Paul was talking about.