Paradoxical Christianity:  A way the Gospel confronts common sense and conventional morality

Paradoxical Christianity: A way the Gospel confronts common sense and conventional morality

A while back, years and years in fact, my brother wrote a piece that revealed the sharpness of his hermeneutical sword.
 *
He used to blog at Swivel Chair Theology; I wish he still did (sad face).  You can DuckDuckGo his blog if you want (I Googled alternative search engines – a little victory I suppose), or click here if you’re not feeling adventurous!
 *
Anyway, here’s a tasty morsel of paradoxical Christianity:
 *
Mark 14:3-10
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them.11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him the money.
*
This story has intrigued me since I first read it years ago.  A couple of things:
*
Firstly, her action with the nard was outrageously extravagant to the point of being offensive.  A tiny amount would have produced a very nice effect at more than half the cost.  
 *
Secondly, Jesus seems to become suddenly blase about the poor.  His words are suggestive of an ideological stance that willy-nilly accepts the socio-political and economic constructs that support mass poverty.
 *
Thirdly, why should this story, above all stories, be one that is remembered in connection with the spread of the gospel?  That is, there is very little to be found in the story of forgiveness, or of helping one’s neighbour, or speaking in tongues, etc.  
 *
Fourthly, the comments of those present (whom John informs us were led by Judas Iscariot) actually make good common sense.  Jesus didn’t need a years wages worth of perfume poured on his head, and the money raised could have helped a lot of people.
 *
I think that the reason why this story is so closely associated by Jesus with the spread of the gospel is that it exposes us very strikingly to the way in which the gospel is offensive to both common sense and conventional morality.
 *
Mary’s act of generosity flies in the face of even the most generous human action through being so excessively wasteful; it’s the gift that gives over and above any conception of need.  As perfume it is wholly a non-essential luxury product, and as a consumer product it is worth a fortune.
 *
Lavishing such a non-essential, expensive good even on Jesus exposes the cramped meanness at the heart of much that passes for generosity in human terms.  I’m not just referring to a few quid in the collection plate, or tithing, or whatever.  Mary’s act must have come from the Holy Spirit himself, poured out in her heart.  It was a supernatural, superabundant act of which she would have been incapable, no matter how much she loved Jesus from her natural self.
 *
That is precisely why it is a GOSPEL act; it does not represent how much she loved him, or how generous she was, etc; but rather it represents Mary being caught up in the love of the Father for the Son through the Holy Spirit.  The gospel is the invitation to become a participant in this extravagant movement of love.  A little sprinkling of oil would never do.  Not least, more evidence that Mary was acting under the Holy Spirit’s guidance is that her action was likewise prophetic of Christ’s impending death and burial.  That her action should be prophetic of the cross, Christocentric, and offensive to good manners/sense to boot means that what she did was done from within the very heartbeat of the gospel.
 *
Incidentally, while the last verse makes Judas specifically look bad, it also casts judgement on the kind of human-inspired generosity that purely human love and understanding veer towards.
*
This is a guest post by Dr David Matcham
over at the rather dusty swivelchairtheology blog
Oi, Ricky, No!

Oi, Ricky, No!

I recently had a brief chat with a chap about “religion” – which even though I am a church pastor, doesn’t happen very often!  Not like this anyway.

In the course of the conversation we talked about a theological book I was carrying, and he commented that the book will have “religious bias”, and that, by implication, could not really be trusted.

Of course my thought-reply was immediate:  “If by “bias” you mean an unthinking and pre-determined approach of coming to, and understanding, truth, then No.  But if you mean by “bias” that I am seeking truth and understanding through the lens of Christian Theology, a discipline that implodes if without internal and external integrity and disciplines, then Yes.”

Of course, the underlying assumption, as I saw it, was that Christian books of theology are naively enslaved to a bronze-age superstitious worldview, but still seek to peddle their wares to unsuspecting passersby, since everyone knows that science (more accurately, scientism, or “scientistic epistemology”) has put to death once and for all the myth of religion, or more specifically, the myth of Christianity.

Then my friendly interlocutor mentioned something Ricky Gervais had said in a US TV interview a few years ago.  I’ve listened to it and seen it on YouTube a couple of times, and each time I am staggered at how pleasant and wise popular atheist sloganeering sounds, every phrase met with the wide-eyed support and cheering and clapping of gladiatorial spectators witnessing the death of a prize-winning fighter.  Only this time, it is the wise Ricky putting to death the mythical monster that is Christianity.  It reminded me of the marvellous Mark Twain, who wrote in Volume 1 of his Autobiography, “These poor fellows furnish a “comic” performance which is so humble, and poor and pitiful, and childish, and asinine, and inadequate that it makes a person ashamed of the human race. Ah, their timorous dances – and their timorous antics – and their shamefaced attempts at funny grimacing – and their cockney songs and jokes – they touch you, they pain you, they fill you with pity, they make you cry…. London loves them; London has a warm big heart, and there is room and a welcome in it for all the misappreciated refuse of creation.”

Sadly, it is nothing but the poor and pitiful, the childish and asinine quality of the popular new-atheist movement in our day that is wildly unwild, one could say tame.      G. K. Chesterton did:  “It is not the wild ideals which wreck the practical world; it is the tame ideals.”  Is this shallow debate wrecking the world?  Yep.

So what did Ricky say?

Continue reading

It’s Christmas!

Below is the script I wrote for BBC Radio Devon Sunday Service for Christmas 2016 (and I stand by every word, and many other words besides!):

 

I am going to be honest with you this morning.

And my honesty may cause concern, relief or perplexity in equal measure….or it may cause hope.

I don’t know when, exactly, I stopped liking what passes for a British Christmas.

I am at the stage now in my mid-40’s where I am simply tired of the whole merry-go-round.

Am I being unnecessarily melancholy; a party-pooper of Scrooge like proportions?  Probably.

5b375fa616a1f0afb19587eb6e50a59c

Not.

But also, possibly not.

I know I am not alone.

I know many people who will shop entirely online this Xmas to avoid the menacingly repetitive Christmas pop songs that blare out, over and over and over again.

To Noddy Holder, Johnny Matthis, Cliff Richard, Mud and all the others, thanks but….give it a rest!

I feel like Henry Thoreau’s line from his 19th c. book Walden hangs in the air:  “The mass of [people] lead lives of quiet desperation.”   The extended quote is more well known, “The mass of [people] lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.” 

I do wish Noddy, Johnny and Cliff had kept their songs inside them!

As a Baptist Minister in Torquay, my view has been received with a degree of astonishment!  Be that as it may!

“A minister who doesn’t like Christmas!”  said either in actual words or, most often, facial expressions!

“Is that even allowed?”

“Don’t church ministers have training in liking Christmas, and ensuring everyone else likes it too?”

Well, although there is enormous pressure to conform unthinkingly to a system of celebration that many people dread, ministers do not undergo a module at theological college called “How to like Christmas and why you must!” 

There is something in the air of Christmas, its impending approach, its imminence, its arrival, and of course the uncompromising aftermath of being full yet feeling empty.

It is a whiff of something we all smell, but keep to ourselves.

We daren’t mention it, lest we be thrown out of the party.

It is not the smell of mince pies and mulled wine, as delicious as that is.

It is the smell of a due sense of dread.

Continue reading

The strangeness of it all

As I continue my reading journey into the rich and beguilingly complex tradition of Christian theology, I see more and more the inane ‘meh-nes’ of the challenge.  It’s not that I have a silly mentality that says “I have it right and you have it wrong”, irrespective of the facts or the evidence; it’s just that why would I espouse something I didn’t in fact think was right?

Gilbert K. Chesterton was no fool, and even a hundred years ago he recognised the pre-Richard Dawkins/George Bernard Shaw challenge to Christianity.  We forget all too easily that these challenges, if indeed they can be called that, are in fact very old, if not tired and weary challenges, to what is, arguably, a highly sophisticated if not nuanced discussion.  Chesterton made mention of “this halo of hatred around the Church of God.”  Of course there is.  This is a factual, true statement of the fact that where the True Church is, there will be opposition, hatred, persecution or whatever.  The Gospel draws and repels in near-as-damn-it equal measure!

It is not a surprise that Shaw begat Dawkins, in precisely the same way that Ludwig Feuerbach begat Karl Marx; Marx begat Freud and Freud begat Jean Paul Satre.  This begetting is as tedious as the begetting in the bible, but it serves a comparably important point:  We are where we are because of where we have come from.  Kierkegaard challenged the mid-19th century aggressors of Christianity, just as Chesterton challenged (in much funnier terms) the late 19th – early 20th century aggressors.  The point is that they are all of a piece:  a seemless woven thread of enlightenment…..wait…. of toxic enlightenment worldview that is simply blinded to a wider reality of knowing.  That’s why Paul Tillich asks – following Aquinas – why modern man, in this age of technology and specialisation, fails to ask questions about being, or about the God who is the Ground of all Being – a “fragmentation” of thought he rightly says is “symbolised only by the demonic.”

Continue reading

Lemonade-Twaddle Christianity

S¯ren Kierkgaard

“The sort of [person] who now live cannot stand anything so strong as the Christianity of the New Testament (they would die of it or lose their minds), just in the same sense that children cannot stand strong drink, for which reason we prepare them a little lemonade – and official Christianity is lemonade-twaddle for the sort of beings that are now called [adults], it is the strongest thing they stand, and this twaddle then is their language they call “Christianity,” just as children call their lemonade “wine.”

Soren Kierkegaard, Attack Upon Christendom (1854), pg. 277

Captured by Love

Captured by Love

This wonderful “Confession of Faith” can be found here at Michael Hardin’s ‘Preaching Peace’ website.

We confess we have been captured by love –
the constant source of the universe,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Jesus has captured us for freedom.
In his truly human life
he was God among us, crucified by us.
God raised him from death
for the forgiveness of our sin
and the re-creation of our life.

His Father is our Father –
The source of his life and ours,
the God of Israel,
in whose gracious purposes
all creation is drawn to fulfillment.

His Spirit gives life to all
transforming our life from the inside out
by worship, scripture and sacrament
into the community of Christ and of the future
for the sake of the world.

In this triune God we bear witness
to the love which has captured us.
Our vocation lies in God’s mission –
to communicate it here in Aotearoa New Zealand,
to embody it socially
and to care for God’s glorious creation.

In this new-given unity
we live in confidence and hope;
anticipating the healing of creation
and the final flourishing of peace
in Christ.

Rev. Dr. Bruce Hamill
Coastal Unity Presbyterian Parish
Dunedin, New Zealand

20160408_100156

Near Redgate Beach, Torquay (c) Gralefrit 2016

A couple of John Wesley gems

Sermon 32 – ( between 1737-1746)

The Nature of Enthusiasm – Acts 26:24

And Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, you are beside yourself.” 

“And so say all the world, the men who know not God, of all that are of Paul’s religion: of every one who is so a follower of him, as he was of Christ.  It is true there is a sort of religion, nay, and it is called Christianity too, which may be practised without any such imputation, which is generally allowed to be consistent with common sense, that is, a religion of form, a round of outward duties, performed in a decent, regular manner.  You may add orthodoxy thereto, a system of right opinions, yea, and some quantity of heathen morality: and yet not many will pronounce, that ‘much religion hath made you mad.’  But if you aim at the religion of the heart, if you talk of ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost,’ then it will not be long before your sentence is passed, ‘You are beside yourself.'”

Sermon 43 – ( between 1737-1746)

The Cure of Evil Speaking – Matthew 18:15-17

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.  But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

“Speak evil of no man, says the great Apostle:  as plain a command as, Do not murder.  But who, even among Christians, regards this command?  Yea, how few are there that so much as understand it!  What is evil speaking?  Is it not, as some suppose, the same with lying or slandering?  All a man says may be as true as the Bible; and yet the saying of it is evil speaking.  For evil speaking is neither more nor less than speaking evil of an absent person; relating something evil, which was really done or said by one that is not present when it is related.  Suppose, having seen a man drunk, or heard him curse or swear, I tell this when he is absent; it is evil speaking.  In our language, this is also, by an extremely proper name, termed ‘backbiting.’  Nor is there any material difference between this and what we usually style ‘tale-bearing.’  If the tale be delivered in a soft and quiet manner (perhaps with expressions of goodwill to the person, and the hope that things may not be quite so bad), then we call it ‘whispering.’  But in whatever manner it be done, the thing is the same; the same in substance, if not in circumstance.  Still it is evil-speaking; still this command, ‘Speak evil of no man,’ is trampled under foot; if we relate to another the fault of a third person, when he is not present to answer for himself.”

Forty Four Sermons by John Wesley, Epworth Press, 1944

IMG_6607

A night-time shot in Cambodia’s capital: Phnom Penh ©