Tag Archives: evangelism

Thoughts on the EU referendum

With the date for the referendum announced and campaigning underway, I wanted to try to enunciate my thoughts on the subject. I’ve written before on my desire to have a referendum. 3 years ago I said that I “would likely vote to remain in Europe”.

Likely, but not certainly. I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument from either side. So I wanted here to think aloud, as it were, and hopefully either prompt you in some questions you may not have thought of, though I’d rather like to start a reasonable discussion.

By ‘reasonable’ I have in mind cutting out a lot of unnecessary bickering, demonisation of the other and acknowledgement that there may be good reasons on both sides. I’m fine for someone to have made up their mind, but not for them to become belligerent in putting forward their case at the denigration of the opposite view.

The idea of “project fear” has been touted quite a lot. There’s a problem with it, though. It is right for the Remain campaign to point out the risks that are associated with leaving the EU and to ask questions about how those risks would be mitigated. Some of that has been worded a bit too strongly, possibly with the intention of trying to scare people into sticking with the status quo, but it is wrong for every legitimate concern raised and question to be dismissed as part of this “project fear”. Thus far, the Leave campaign has used this as a means of not answering questions which I, and others like me, want to hear the answers to.

An interesting thought I had regarding the referendum centred on the Scottish National Party (and, by inference, other nationalists around the UK). On the Andrew Marr Show, Nicola Sturgeon said that she would be on the side of the Remain campaign but that were the UK to vote Leave, then that would likely trigger a 2nd Scottish independence referendum (you remember, the “once in a lifetime” referendum that we had about 18 months ago).

So it would make a kind of sense if the SNP were to not be too persuasive in their case for remaining in the EU. i.e. be seen to be supporting the Remain case, but don’t actually try to win (rather like Manchester City’s team selection in the FA Cup). That way they get a second bite at the independence cherry, even though it would then be their intention to apply for membership to the EU.

I say “a kind of sense” because I must admit I don’t understand the view of some nationalists who want to be independent of the UK but not independent of the EU. If anyone can explain that one to me, I’d be most grateful.

Finally, I wanted to look at the theological perspective. Which of Leave or Remain better fits the maxim: Love your neighbour as yourself.

My issue with the Leave and Remain campaigns is that both have, thus far, put a large amount of stock in the idea of which makes Britain “better off”. But no one’s saying at what cost. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the UK is better off leaving. Does that mean also that our neighbours in France, Greece, Hungary  or Ireland will be better off? Or is it a case of making ourselves better off and choosing to not care about others?

When you try to dig into the matter, what does “better off” mean anyway? Is it purely a cold measure of macroeconomics, or are we factoring in the cultural and the spiritual? If it is purely economic, then one must be careful that the “better off” argument isn’t merely a form of prosperity gospel.

Possibly the strongest argument the Leave campaign has (in terms of appeal to the general public) would be that it would signal the end of UKIP. They would have achieved their aim and then all could see whether or not their myth of withdrawal from the EU being the panacea to all our ills would bear out in reality.

The strongest argument for the Remain campaign has actually come from one of the cheerleaders of the Leave side: Michael Gove. He claimed that the Conservatives have been stymied in pushing through some of their punitive measures because of the European legislation. In my book, anything that helps to tie the hands of Tories from hurting citizens is a good thing.

For now, I lean slightly inwards, but that lean is ever so slight. Those who promise than a UK outside of the EU will be a land flowing with milk and honey are not people to be taken seriously. Neither are those who speak as though withdrawal from the EU will be the end of civilisation. It’s a choice between two different shades of beige.

Persuade me, entice me, allure me to your point of view. Just don’t beat me about the head and call me an idiot. Such tactics rarely work in evangelism, whether religious or political.

100 word ‘Thought for the month’

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to write “about 100 words” for the church newsletter. Below is what was sent and today published as a ‘Thought for the month’. For context, the name of our church is Ichthus.

The term Ichthus is a shortened form of a bold declaration: Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), the Son of God, Saviour. Three terms that denote the same person but which carry different connotations. Yet Jesus did not go about introducing himself with these titles. Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah came part way into Jesus’ ministry and wasn’t obvious, for it had to be revealed by the Holy Spirit. So when we introduce Jesus to others, should we immediately tell them of the conclusions of christian thought or invite them to become disciples and walk a path alongside us? 

Book Review: Holiness and Mission by Morna Hooker and Frances Young

After finishing Paul and the Faithfulness of God, I wondered how I might follow that up in terms of my ‘religious’ reading. I had thought that I would go with something completely different and had in mind Julian of Norwich’s ‘Revelations of Divine Love‘. However, that work shall remain on my shelf for a little longer. For having bought Holiness and Mission in a sale last year, its title seemed to jump out of the concluding chapter of Wright’s work. I got the impression that instead of going for something different, I ought to take the next step in that same mode of thought.

Subtitled ‘Learning from the early church about mission in the city’ another part of my motivation for reading was to learn something about how to apply New Testament theology to my own location, having changed to city life last year.

As my header implies, this is a co-written book between two authors. How this manifests itself is that the preface and introduction are credited to both, followed by two chapters by Hooker and then two chapters by Young. The fifth chapter than alternates between the two. There is then an appendix which is taken from a Q&A session at the symposium which the two attended, from which this book sprang. That meeting was a celebration of 250 years of Methodism in the West End of London.

So let’s first look at the two chapters by Morna Hooker. She begins her study by a look at the issue of what holiness is and our call to it. This is little more than a sketch but would make a very welcome basis for a sermon. It touches on the nature of God and a summary of the gospel. That said, I wouldn’t wholly agree with the picture of the gospel that Hooker presents. While the shape is sound, I might quibble over some of the hues and shading.

So far, though, this is exegetical work. One could describe it as ‘theoretical theology’ which may enrich the intellect, informing us but not enabling us. To take it into the more practical realm Hooker then turns to the nature of cities. One might well question how closely one can take the life of cities in the first century and translate them to cities in the 21st. So while this is enlightening, there are few practical ideas that seem workable.

Picking up where Hooker left off, Frances Young takes us along a little later in church history. The emphasis here is on the Roman Empire; first how the early church operated within the empire and then looking at the legacy of Constantine. For those unfamiliar with this period of church history, then this serves as a good primer.

The real interest is in Young’s second chapter, though, entitled ‘The Challenge of Establishment’. Here, her history moves onto the figure of Constantine. Young asks many questions and prods at the answers, but remains somewhat coy about giving firm answers. Such questions include: “Was Constantine even a christian?” As one might guess from that, this is a provocative chapter. Yet it is open-ended enough that one may read it different ways depending on your background. Young notes that with Constantine, christianity took a quite different direction than it had previous to it being any kind of state religion. It was during this period that such things as iconography, liturgy and a growing interest in relics developed (not least the ‘true cross’ which was said to have been discovered by Constantine’s mother). From my nonconformist perspective, I view all of these as unhelpful elements of paganism that were unhelpful. If you doubt the damage done by an unhealthy obsession in relics, then I would recommend to you Geoffrey Hindley’s book on the Crusades. However you approach, or leave, this chapter, I would hope that you find it as stimulating as I did.

So far, the book has had very little directly to say about modern mission in 21st century cities. That said, I couldn’t help but think through some implications as I was reading and I would think that most readers would already have joined a few dots before Hooker and Young make their own connections towards the book’s conclusion.

There is much that could be analysed in great detail here, though I did think it could have been expanded and firmed up. As it stands, this seems to be the outline of a good framework of ideas, but with little flesh and muscle on it to make it move. What I noted from it in particular was the section on models of evangelism, noting that strategies that have worked in the past (with particular reference to the Methodist revival) may well not be the most suited to today’s cities. This, I think, is particularly worth heeding.

One other point caught my attention. Young made an almost throwaway line regarding her son, Arthur, about whom she has written more recently in ‘Arthur’s Call‘. She states that “he was baptized as an infant, therefore [he] belongs to Christ” (emphasis added). What surprised me was that such a functionalist view of baptism would be expressed by a Methodist, who I have always understood took a more symbolic approach. Hence it is the use of the word ‘therefore’ which I, as one who subscribes to the symbolic view, would disagree with. Though I am interested in following up on this with Young’s more recent book at some point in the future.

This section concludes with both Hooker and Young looking briefly at the topic of pluralism. They both express a welcoming attitude to pluralistic views, though Young seems a little more overly-liberal than Hooker. I couldn’t escape the idea, though, that both somewhat ignored Jesus’ maxim: “No comes to the Father except through me.”

The comments from ‘Voices in the city’ that occur at the end are intended to showcase snapshots of the views of others who live and work in cities, most notably London. Whether this then has appeal to those in other UK cities or even those further afield may be questionable. I would hope that others do pick up helpful thoughts, though I couldn’t guarantee that. In fact, the last chapter seems to detract somewhat from the rest of the book, as it is little more than a collection of paragraphs, with no overall narrative or direction.

With those few detractions noted, this little book provides the reader with some seeds for thought and a little food to help that soil grow. It is not a guide as to how mission should be done, though it does explain well the link between holiness and mission. It is not the final word in these subjects, but it is up to us to pick it up, read it, learn from it and then to work out the next steps.

Oasis, unity and bad news for evangelicals?

This has been milling around my head for some time before I started to draft it a couple of weeks ago. After the events of last Friday, when the Evangelical Alliance decided to eject Oasis from membership, this has come into sharp relief. The discussion that then follows has been reshaped following this, though I have kept some aspects of the more general blog post I had begun. I hope it still reads OK, though please forgive me if it subsequently reads slightly jumbled and for any repetition.

The original question I had in mind was:

Are evangelicals bad news for the Church?

It’s a question that’s been bugging me some time. Whenever I read the term ‘evangelical’ (or the more condescending ‘evo’) it is almost always used in a negative sense.

I have written before about my frustrations when evangelicals are misleadingly portrayed. My objection is not a denial that there are issues within the very broad church that is evangelicalism, but rather that the negative aspects are those that people go looking for in order to highlight and then apply more generally so that they are portrayed as being in some way symptomatic of evangelicalism as a whole.

Part of the difficulty comes in trying to pin down precisely what one might mean by the term ‘evangelical’. There is little consensus (though not a violent disagreement, either, it might be added) amongst those who identify as evangelical as to precisely what they mean by it. I’ve broached the topic before, as has Danny Webster (who works for the Evangelical Alliance). My own church has its view here and the Evangelical Alliance has its own take. And these are just British viewpoints!

For an American viewpoint, one may look at the Evangelical manifesto. I must confess I was not aware of it’s existence until a few months ago, though upon reading it, I was struck by how much I agreed with it and was pleased by its moderate tone, in distinction from the tone one often hears coming across the Atlantic where the boundary between evangelical and fundamentalist views seems somewhat fuzzy.

As has been pointed out by others, the very breadth of evangelicalism sometimes waters down the effectiveness of the term. One danger is that ‘evangelical’ simply becomes a catch-all term used by those who don’t identify as such to label anyone with whom they disagree. In much of modern parlance, adjectives can be used as insults, and the most common word read in association with the term evangelical is ‘conservative’. In a world of black and white, it is not uncommon for ‘conservative’ to applied to someone, not on the grounds of a fair description, but rather to push them away and effectively say “[they’re conservative (i.e. bad) but we’re liberal (i.e. good)]” – The difficulty with this is that things aren’t really black and white and especially within christianity there are elements of being conservative and elements of being liberal in just about all strands of christian belief and expression. [late edit: as has been pointed out in the comments, some use the ‘liberal’/’conservative’ insult the other way around. My experience is that this is less common, but I acknowledge my limited experience may not be representative] To take just a few:

Social attitudes

This encompasses some of the hottest topics in the Church today, not least those surrounding women in leadership roles and whether or not we fully affirm christians who identify as LGBTI. For the record, this evangelical does recognise women in leadership and has no issue worshipping alongside LGBTI christians, a term I would deny is oxymoronic. In so doing, I acknowledge that there are some who would differ from me in good faith; while I might, from time to time, try to persuade such a person, I would not seek to enforce my view on them or to break fellowship with them over such a matter. What sometimes frustrates me is when I see christians who like to portray themselves as liberal attacking or criticising other christians who hold different opinions on such matters, especially when they go looking for areas on which to disagree. It demonstrates a level of intolerance that I think is quite unloving and certainly a betrayal of the term ‘liberal’. [late edit: I saw this comment was under discussion on the Changing Attitudes FB page. An example which I would cite was a post I saw from a friend who consistently affirms as ‘liberal’ but who said they would not consider in a million years going to a church they perceived as being conservative, going so far as to question why such churches exist at all. In my view, this goes too far.]

Economic attitudes

Roughly speaking, is one a capitalist or a socialist. Confusion comes here when capitalists try to claim to be liberal by means of “neoliberalism” or “economic libertarianism” which are both shorthand terms for, in my view, “freedom to economically oppress others”. This is a massive topic which I have written a bit about before, so I won’t further expand on it today.

How one views the bible

Much of the discussion around (and around and around) this centres on how one views the principle of sola scriptura. In so doing, one needs to bear in mind the historical background of the reformation in which the principle was formed. It is an instance of ‘definition by opposition‘. One may get a glimpse of how non-evangelicals think evangelicals view the bible from a comment on this piece, but which represents a slight caricature. I cannot do justice to the matter here, so in summary all I will say is that I view the bible as a collection of books which is the most reliable source we have for understanding the origins, themes, aims and beliefs of the christian faith. To get as true and fair an understanding of christianity, out of which flows a faithful adherence, the Church and its members must make the best effort to understand it in its his historical context and from there to apply it to the society, geography and time that we find ourselves in today. That understanding may be aided by any available tools we have, whether that be linguistics, historiography, tradition, etc. (all of which may be brought together under the umbrella term, ‘theology’).

How we express our christianity

In very broad terms, which are sometimes helpful and sometimes not, we might use the analogy of “high church” or “low church”. Similar terms one might hear are “creeping up the candle”. Though this terminology originated with the English part of the reformation, it has come to indicate how ceremonial a church is. So a church that has a very conservative expression of worship, where the leaders have to dress in special clothes and where there’s bits of processing around and chanting could reasonably be called “high church”. In contrast, one might have a “low church” which is far more informal and where the worshippers are allowed a greater degree of freedom of expression. These latter churches, in their style of worship, is far more liberal.

Unhelpful adjectives

Of course, these 4 I’ve listed are neither exhaustive nor are they mutually exclusive. For example, how one views the bible may well inform how one approaches the other 3. Yet it is sometimes the case that those which are more liberal in their expression of christianity are more conservative (capitalist) in their economic views. I think here particularly of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) which is known for both having an exuberant Pentecostal worship style and for advocacy in some parts of the church for the prosperity gospel. So it is that almost any church may be described as conservative by one group and as liberal by another.

Yet with almost any term one may choose to use to describe oneself or to describe other churches and christians, we risk trying to hold on to so tightly to the  adjective as to what type of christian we wish to describe that we lose focus on being a christian. As such, I would advocate using adjectives with the utmost gentleness and little to no sense of posession, as one try to hold a bunch of bubbles in the hand. To press the matter too hard will simply burst the bubbles which may sparkle for a time, but are ultimately empty and pass quickly.

So with that said, what of the matters of the last week?

Oasis and the Evangelical Alliance

I would assume by now that anyone reading this is familiar with the events of last Friday. If you are not, I would refer you in the first instance to the two press releases made by the Evangelical Alliance and by Oasis regarding the expulsion of the latter from membership of the former.

The debate that has been stirred up has been phrased by some (unhelpfully in my view) as a battle for who gets to decide how the term ‘evangelical’ is defined, and consequently who can and cannot be described as such. This seems to me like too much stock is being placed in the adjective and that in so doing, emphasis from the noun is lost. i.e. in my view, it is more important to identify as a christian than it is to identify as an evangelical. So the actions of the Evangelical Alliance is not so much a threat to the use of the term ‘evangelical’, it is a threat to the use of the term ‘alliance’.

One of the great ironies over the Oasis/EA separation has been that in choosing to eject Oasis, the Evangelical Alliance has stepped outside of the reformation ‘tradition’ (for want of a better word) of questioning the status quo. They have sought to impose their own form of orthodoxy on others and have chosen to excommunicate a valued part of the alliance for not adhering to one particular interpretation. In so doing, they have acted, not as the reformers did (the latter of whom had great courage to step out of the shadow of medieval Catholicism), but have played the role of the authoritarian who dictates how scripture can and should be interpreted. [late edit: This is not intended as a Marcus Borg style ‘because is it orthodox, it must be wrong’ type argument. See the comments below]

While Chalke wanted to be open and welcoming, the Evangelical Alliance chose to make it a divisive issue. In my view, the most appropriate response is to try to restore unity, rather than exacerbate disunity. This is why I would disagree with @losthaystacks who indicated that she thought the most appropriate reaction was to end her personal membership of the Evangelical Alliance. There is a point to it – that to maintain membership may be interpreted as giving consent to the action taken – though I would disagree, preferring to maintain church unity and to speak plainly that one disagrees with a particular stance. In this way, I would agree with the Evangelical Alliance’s policy, which in this instance they seem to have chosen to not apply in this instance:

“We respect the diversity of culture, experience and doctrinal understanding that God grants to His people, and acknowledge that some differences over issues not essential to salvation may well remain until the end of time.”

“We call on each other, when speaking or writing of those issues of faith or practice that divide us, to acknowledge our own failings and the possibility that we ourselves may be mistaken, avoiding personal hostility and abuse, and speaking the truth in love and gentleness.”

So in that very spirit, I recognise that my view may be wrong (as always) but the evidence of the Evangelical Alliance’s treatment of Oasis appears to be an attempt at unity by bullying. In other words, “agree with us or we will have no fellowship with you”. The statement regarding the matter makes clear that there had been prior communication and that Oasis had been asked to distance themselves from the view held by Chalke. Yet the idea of resigning membership over the matter seems to be to be equally ungracious and no less an example of an attempt at unity by bullying.

The usefulness of an analogy

One of the key objections that Evangelical Alliance later cited was that Chalke was endorsing a change in the definition of marriage. During the discussion on the legislation as it was going through Parliament. As an example, you can read a well-articulated objection on these grounds over on @PeterOuld’s blog. Underlying the objection is the assumption that marriage should not be redefined. It is this assumption I would challenge on 2 accounts.

Firstly, the idea of marriage as being “between one man and one woman” is not a permanent an unchanging definition that has stood since time immemorial. It just hasn’t (until now) changed an awful lot in western democracies in the last few centuries. I well recall a useful set of seminars I attended a few years ago given by Rabbi Lionel Blue about how the changing definition of marriage can be seen just within the Torah; the example that sticks in mind was from Deuteronomy 24, where the granting of a certificate of divorce was a radical change recognising that the wife being divorced had a “greater level of humanness than a pot or a pan” (Rabbi Blue’s words, not mine).

The second objection is the analogy in the New Testament regarding the analogy of the church as the bride of Christ. As an approximation (hopefully not a caricature) the argument goes that to change the definition of marriage undermines or invalidates this analogy. Yet in my view, the underlying message of the analogy is not so closely tied to referent in the analogy that a change in the latter renders the former redundant. We might need, in later years, to do some more work to understanding it, but it seems odd to think that same-sex marriage is any threat to the idea of the Church as the body and bride of Christ. To cite 2 examples of this, one may understand the Parable of the Good Samaritan on a surface level as an encouragement to see all people as our neighbours, to whom we are to behave in a way honouring (and being part of) the kingdom of heaven, but one understands more how counter-intuitive this was once you realise the animosity between the Samaritans and the Jews. The fact that that precise ethnic tension is not obvious to today’s readers doesn’t render the message of the parable null and void. As a second example, the invention of the seed drill for regular planting of seeds did not invalidate the Parable of the Sower.

What does this say in our witness?

I am coming to an end, but if you have read thus far, I thank you for your patience. Though it has been pointed out how general the term ‘evangelical’ can be, I would hope that there can be agreement that a key feature is a particular emphasis which is placed on evangelism. Evangelism takes many forms. Part of it is pedagogical – teaching the world about the gospel so that one may make an informed decision as to whether or not to accept it. But it is more than that. Our very lives are to be a witness to the calling we have received; how we treat one another says a lot about the values we hold. This may be seen in Romans 12 and in particular in Jesus; exhortation: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

So what does the forcible exclusion of an organisation that is open and welcoming to all say as a witness?

What is says to me is that the message of the Evangelical Alliance only differs from that of Westboro Baptist Church in its tone, but not in content. [late edit: I am aware this is a provocative comparison. I considered removing it, but once drafted, I could think of a good reason to delete it; it remains my honest (though of course, potentially flawed) opinion] This undermines the living out of the principle of “love your neighbour as yourself”. In ejecting Oasis on the basis cited, there is an effective statement which says “evangelicals oppose equality for LGBTI people.” That is not a sentiment I agree with. Yet it would be a mistake to cause further disunity or to use this as a reason to abandon the Evangelical Alliance and all the very good work that they do, through their member organisation and individuals.

Unity isn’t easy. So while I agree with the support and inclusivity that Chalke has expressed, and while I disagree with the actions of the Evangelical Alliance, I will not speak a word of condemnation. That is all too easy to do and is, I believe, the cheap way out.

My remaining hope is that the hurt cause to LGBTI individuals, families and communities as a result of this will not deter them from the gospel. Not all evangelicals are open and welcoming, but many are. And I hope that there is peace and forgiveness, in spite of the cost.

Peering into hell?

As regular readers will know, I use this blog to put words to the voiceless thoughts that mill around my head. By trying to get something down on pen & paper (as many of my posts originate there before being transcribed and edited) I can critique my own thoughts and try to evaluate if what I am thinking makes any sense. 

Of late, I have been thinking a little about the idea of hell. I guess it was properly sparked off by reading Hitchens’ diatribe, God is Not Great, where amidst his irrational ramblings against religion he does make a good point that the idea of hell is used as an evangelical tool to try to “scare” (for want of a better word) people into belief. This is something I recognise, most frequently among street preachers you occasionally see dotted around London. Another part of it may well have been how much I disagreed with Tom Wright’s thoughts on the subject in Surprised by Hope.

The fact of the matter is that the idea of hell makes me uncomfortable. The traditional idea which has seeped into the public consciousness is a deeply disturbing image of fire and eternal punishment. If any group of people are good at capturing the zeitgeist, it is animators. If you watch comic depictions of hell in The Simpsons or South Park you will find a common theme around which they are based (although each usually has their own amusing twist on it).

The idea also makes other christians uncomfortable. When, many months ago, I mooted the idea of doing some investigations into the idea by reading and writing about the subject, I was frequently either warned off from doing it or advised not to look too closely. Of course, not all responses were like that, but a noticeable number were. The only trend I noticed was that those most opposed to this undertaking were those at the more ‘conservative’ end of the theological spectrum.

So what is the correct way to proceed? Should I drop any investigation into the matter, thinking that I know and understand everything there is to know about hell and then keep it at the back of my mind? If I’m asked “do you believe in hell?” how should I respond? Will it be a simple “yes” or “no” or should there be a clarification about what the questioner has in mind when they ask the question?

I study in order to do battle with ignorance. When that battle is over, the peaceful aftermath allows for a faithful out-living of what I have learned. The christian life lived without an understanding of theology is ignorant and misguided; yet the pursuit of theological correctness, if not followed through with practical application is a purely academic study, helping no one. As such, I cannot heed the advice of those who would warn me to stay away. If I am to be a faithful christian, I can’t decide that there are areas which mustn’t come under scrutiny. What if I’m wrong?

One of my major concerns is that the idea of hell has been hijacked, subject to later reinterpretation and then fed back into the christian psyche so that what is preached as “the christian view” of hell is no longer based firmly in what may be found in the books of the bible. In particular, I am concerned about the influence of Dante’s Inferno episode of the Divine Comedy. To some extent, Milton’s Paradise Lost may also come into play. So in anything I read, I will look out for any authors who approach the subject seeming to come with a pre-formed vision of what hell is, if indeed it is anything.

This exercise is largely to sharpen up my thinking which is, I freely admit, a little woolly on the matter. But I think it is worth stating where I am starting from. My position has been for some time, best described by the term ‘tentative annihilationist’. That is, I subscribe to the idea that hell is the destruction of the soul; you simply cease to exist. This is set apart from two other main schools of thought: the traditional idea of eternal torment stated above and the idea of universalism, that everyone will saved and no one would go to hell.

As lovely as that final idea sounds, it seems to be borne out of little more than wishful thinking. I’ve never yet read a reasoned argument in its favour. As hinted above, I am also sceptical about the eternal punishment theory. The reason is that there is so much in the bible that refers to destruction far more than torment. Even what is said about we might think of as ‘hell’ seems at odds with what little is spoken about in churches.

So what is my plan for going forward? Well, as usual, my primary means is reading books. At the time of publishing this, I expect to be about half way through Erasing Hell by Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle.  In order to get more a more informed opinion on universalism, I intend on picking up Rob Bell’s controversial recent book on the topic, Love Wins. Someone recommended to a book entitled something like A History of Hell though I forget the author’s name. If you have any recommendations, then please feel free to suggest them in the comments.

There will be several features I will look out for in these. I may well follow up on my own if I don’t think they are addressed properly. Specifically, they will be about the translation and interpretation about the various terms used: Sheol and Abaddon (Hebrew), Gehenna, Hades and Tartaroo (Greek).

Behind some of the words of caution I have received, there has been an undercurrent of thinking that by looking at this side of theology one must be ignoring the gospel of grace. I won’t be ignoring it, though I readily acknowledge it is difficult to look at both aspects of christianity simultaneously without going a bit cross-eyed, like looking simultaneously to the extreme right and left fields of vision at once.

I’m sure there will be many other topics that cross my path as I go along, though I hope to gain the right balance between not getting distracted and not ignoring important, intertwined strands of thought. I’m not anticipating that this will be a fun or a pleasant trip. But like going to the dentist, it may be necessary. I just haven’t been to the dentist in almost 15 years and I’m not sure that’s the best state of affairs to be in.

A christian response to trolling, Part 1: Trolls and what Peter said

Around Christmas (I forget if it was just before or just after) I received a text message from a friend asking how to deal with trolls. This friend was fairly new to blogging and had just received a host of comments on their blog which they had either not anticipated at all, or at least not the passive aggression contained within them. I gave a rather pithy reply (due to constraints of time and message space), but here I hope to elaborate on that a bit more. In fact, this has been expanded so much, I’ve had to break it up into several parts.

I’m guessing most of you are more internet-savvy than I, so I don’t need to do too much explaining to you as to what trolling is. I only want to highlight some features of them, but I really want to focus on how a christian might respond to them.

Some background on trolls

Trolls are not always rude or impolite. In fact, most that I have come across are not and some even pride themselves on the fact. Their purpose is to antagonise or otherwise get a rise out of someone. To engage in abusive behaviour is sometimes known as flaming. A good troll will get their kicks without being identified as such.

Identifying a troll isn’t always clear cut. The most boring of them are very obvious. Commenters on the Guardian’s website may recall a particularly nasty troll called MoveAnyMountain (MAM) which posted hateful things about disabled people on a number of threads before eventually being banned. It may sometimes be easy to cast the term “troll” at someone you disagree with, but that doesn’t mean they actually are and to misidentify someone as a troll is generally considered poor form.

This was recently put quite succinctly by a message that was retweeted to my attention from @renireni who stated “Amount of big name twitterers who use the word ‘trolling’ to deflect accountability is astounding.”

In my experience of them, they are often concerned about either a single issue or at least a very narrow spectrum of issues. To use the MAM example above, they never expressed much interest in threads which didn’t include any aspect of disability rights. I have come across several atheist trolls in my time who seem only to have negative things to say about “religion.” I wonder if they have anything positive to say or have any other interests!

Another feature is that they often ask others to justify themselves, without giving much justification of their own views. In other words, they ask others to do a lot of the “work” for them. Goading others into wasting their time is seen by the troll as a victory for them. This is linked to another characteristic: a lack of real engagement. I have seen some who delude themselves into thinking that because they post and reply to others, that they are engaging. This is rarely more than simple hectoring, however, and I’ve seen good commenters being battered online by a barrage of naysayers who show no open-mindedness or willingness to discuss matters on anything other than their own terms.

What Peter taught

Moving away from general observations to more specific ones, I wish to talk about responding to trolls from a christian perspective. Foremost in my mind is Peter’s instruction to the dispersed churches when he writes “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” He carries on but I would encourage you to read the whole section in context.

I read this as both an encouragement and as a warning. For me, the ability to communicate an idea effectively shows that you have understood it. Even if someone disagrees with you, if they understand what you are saying, then at least any debate can be conducted with parties talking about the same thing. There are few more depressing debates than when two people use the same words to describe different concepts.

For this reason, I think it’s a fairly good idea to have close to hand an explanation, in your own words, the reasons for your faith. On this blog, one of the first posts I made was about a scientific approach to faith (not a methodology, but an approach that was as evidence-based as possible) and later I wrote a summary of Easter, which I see as being at the heart of my faith.

The warning comes with how we do this. If asked, I will direct people to read these, but I don’t arbitrarily send them to anyone I disagree with. Though I doubt I always succeed in explaining my faith “with gentleness and respect” I do try. Where I fail to do so, it is more often than not a reaction against those who show no gentleness or respect; i.e. “an eye for an eye”. I don’t claim that I, or any other christian, is perfect.

In the next part, I’ll look at what Jesus taught and what Paul did, before concluding in a third part later on.

When is an evangelical not an evangelical?

Picture courtesy of frozenchipmunkPlease forgive me for another post which hinges around semantics, but this is something that has been gnawing at me for some considerable time and which was freshly piqued by a couple of comments I’ve seen over the last couple of weeks.

What do I mean, and what you interpret when we hear or read the words evangelical, evangelism and evangelise?

In my view, there is difference between what I mean and what most people here is growing into an unbridgeable gulf, which then makes me wonder whether it’s worth trying to redress the issue or simply to move on and not use the terms any more.

What I think of when of when I use evangelical and its cognates

When I use the term evangelise what I mean is pedagogical exposition. There are many ways in which this may happen which is why I don’t think it’s appropriate to regard it as a denomination in and of itself. So, even though I went to a wide variety of churches as a teenager, from Baptist, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, etc. they were all evangelical.

The biblical basis for evangelism is often pinned down to the great commission, Matt 28:18-20;

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Yet there was also the time when Jesus sent out the 12, which is told most extensively in Matthew 10, but which has shorter parallels in Mark 6 & Luke 9.

Here, they were simply told to “proclaim the good news” – interestingly they were to travel from town to town and stay in people’s houses. Here, I think some cultural context is called for, as staying in other people’s houses was, I understand, more common in the culture of that time and place than it is in 21st century England. Nonetheless, they were engaging with people on a personal level.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter addressed a crowd that had been drawn there by what was going on around them, and he freely explained to them what was going on. In Acts 4, where we have the most concise summary of what the early church did, we are told that “the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection”

In Acts 8, Philip just went to Samaria and “proclaimed the Messiah to them.” It seems that he was in a crowd when he did for we are informed that a crowd was listening to him. We aren’t told explicitly where this took place, but chapter 13 of Acts gives us a strong hint: the synagogue.

Again, in Acts 17, we have Paul who went to the synagogue to reason with them (here, the word commonly translated as ‘reasoned’ is dielexato which is derived from the verb dialegomai which has connotations of converse, preach, lecture, argue).

So what is the modern equivalent of the synagogue? Is it the church building?

I would posit the following: the synagogue was the main meeting place, the hub of the community. It’s where people met in order to listen and to discuss what they heard. It was a social place where the everyday business of living was largely carried out outside of the home or the workplace. That is not to say it wasn’t a place of religious worship, it very clearly was. But it was more than that.

So what does that look like today? Society is not particularly uniform; it’s pluralistic, multicultural and many places, disconnected in isolated pockets that may be physically next door to one another. So the modern day equivalent of the synagogue takes many different forms as a consequence; it might be the pub, the coffee shop, the youth club, the gym. It might also be the digital spaces such as the blogosphere, the discussion board, Facebook, Twitter. All of these are places where people come together to discuss ideas (amognst other things), and as such I don’t think it too far-fetched to suppose that had the apostles been living in today’s world, these would be the spaces that they choose in which to proclaim their message.

What I do not mean (but which is often the common perception)

To me, evangelism doesn’t mean putting pressure on people or trying to get them to change their whole life in an ‘altar call’ or similar act of coercion.  It should in no way resemble browbeating. I can find no biblical precedent for forcing anyone to listen or, worse, forcing them to accept the message. I accept that not everyone will accept the message that evangelists bring, and they are free to reject it. My wish, though, is that they can at least have a fair understanding of what it is that they are rejecting and hence their reasons for doing so may not be based on a lack of understanding or poor reasoning.

For example, in some modern parlance, there is talk of christians believing in a bearded sky fairy, which represents a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the christian faith. Whether that misunderstanding is deliberate, due to a misunderstanding of what they had been told, or whether they have been poorly informed is not always clear.

I do not consider evangelical to be a denomination in and of itself. It is a characteristic that runs through many widely varying denominations including those (like myself) who do not define themselves by denomination.

The view that it is a denomination comes, I think, primarily from the mega-churches of America, fronted by their celebrity preachers. The sort of ideas that come out from within these churches into the public view is one of a very American, Republican conservatism. John Piper, when describing his father, says, “He was an evangelist – the old southern, independent, fundamentalist sort, without the attitude.”

It is this identification of evangelicals as fundamentalists that disturbs me. To many, I think, the two are synonymous with one another. The term evangelical conjures up images of a biblical literalist, creationist, afraid of good science, homophobic and often with a strong sense of Zionism (none of which are ideas/attitudes I share).

Interestingly, when I once told someone I went to a Pentecostal church, their first reaction was to suppose that my church was “Pro-Israel” when in fact my local church is really quite apolitical, has no official stance and I don’t ever recall contemporary Middle Eastern politics discussed in any church meeting. We’re just busy getting on with the business of being a church.

Am I saying these people aren’t evangelical? No. What I am saying is that they have views that are “stuck on” top. It’s a little like taking a picture and gluing on sequins, glitter, string and bits of felt. The add-ons should not be mistaken for the underlying picture. Admittedly, the more add-ons that we have, the harder it may be to see the picture, so it understandable that some misconceptions exist.

So who isn’t an evangelical

As I visited quite a variety of churches in my teenage years, learning how others viewed the world, the gospel and the role of the church, I never encountered anyone who was openly opposed to the notion of evangelism. That is, no one in churches.

It was only when I went to university that I first encountered a group of conservative, traditionalist Anglicans (who included the college chaplain, who was, and still is, one of the cathedral canons) who thought evangelism had no part to play with christianity. They were very much religionists, whose idea of church was something that happened once a week in an ornate building, where you chant the liturgies, sing some hymns, endure a sermon and go home without thinking about it and without allowing yourself to be challenged.

When I asked about the great commission and the history of the early church, their response was that they thought it was meant only for the apostles and had no application for today. So the obvious follow-up is to ask “How do you expect anyone to know the gospel?” The answer, in summary, was that if anyone wanted to know then they should go to the church and ask, or just pick up a bible and read it.

While these may be ways by which people find themselves in churches, it absolves the churches of any responsibility to be proactive in educating people. Yet, when I went along to their churches the one thing that was noticeable by its absence was the gospel. The sermons consisted of reading the news headlines and saying “as christians, this is what we should think about these things.” It was always assumed that people knew the basic teachings of christianity, and it’s this assumption (or rather, presumption) that I found rather arrogant and out of touch with the modern world.

So what then 

Where does this leave us? One the one hand, we end up with a skewed vision of evangelism that has crept across the Atlantic and in many cases leaves christians open to (deserved) ridicule. On the other, we could become anti-evangelical and stick to religious ritualism, making it very much an ‘insiders’ club.

One compromise that has become more popular over the last 5 years or so is to refer to a church meaning “missional” which essentially keeps the heart of evangelism without the negative right-wing connotations that have accrued around it. However, its use seems just as muddled as evangelical, as it means different things to different people.

To me, the two key considerations that have to be balanced are those of “doing to others as you would have do you” and the issue of efficacy. This latter point is contained within Jesus’ instruction to be “as shrewd as snakes, and as innocent as doves.”

I view this as needing to be considerate to others whilst at the same time trying to get the message across as clearly as possible. Of course, some people won’t want to even listen. There’s fairly clear instruction on that. It’s not easy to get the balance right and it is often done wrong.

So at the one extreme end of evangelism you might have the open air preacher. I don’t care much for this method, as I think it actively detracts from the christian message rather than promotes it. It ensures that people have heard the name Jesus and that he loves you, but little more than that. At the other extreme, you have those who adhere Francis of Assisi’s notion of “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words” where pedagogical exposition is a matter of last resort, only after someone has somehow grasped the notion of sin and redemption through the historic events crucifixion & resurrection, simply through you being nice to them.

As you can tell from my tone, I don’t think either of these are effective means by which to educate people about the gospel. But there isn’t a one-size fits all approach to evangelism. But has the word itself been twisted so far out of its original meaning that it shouldn’t be used any more? I’m not convinced.

I think it could still serve a useful purpose, as I am not convinced a suitable replacement has usurped it. Missional may well do the trick, but for now it is too nebulous. After all, if someone is willing to listen to you explain what you mean by ‘evangelism’ they may be willing to listen to some more.