Commending ‘The Ghost of Perfection – The Search for Humanity’

ghost2My friend Joe Haward published his first book last year called ‘The Ghost of Perfection – Searching for Humanity’.  His chapters tackle many issues that are prominent in our Western societies, though certainly not limited to them.  The topics covered are, Mission, Triumphalism, Relationships, Violence, Consumerism, Beauty, Prayer, Trauma and Sex, with a Conclusion entitled Waking Up!  It’s certainly not likely you will fall asleep reading this book!

I particularly enjoyed how he drew on the Catholic tradition in his chapter Beauty, not only referencing the Roman Catholic Pope a couple of times, but having the present day Eastern Orthodox hero and genius David Bentley Hart critique ye olde Catholic hero and genius that is Thomas Aquinas (1224-74) – I suppose that’s a theo-nerdy thing to get excited about, but that’s the kinda thing that puts rum in my ovaltine.

So below is my Amazon review. But don’t get it from them lot, get it from your local Christian bookshop, even though they’ll probably have to order it in.  For some reason, most theology books worth buying don’t seem to be on the shelf!  It won’t cost you too much of your pocket money, thus it is still worth quoting the Reformer Erasmus, a value both Joe and myself hold to, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”

Buy The Ghost of Perfection.

“In these times of uncertainty, polarisation and violence, the need to discover what it means to be human has never been more pressing. In The Ghost of Perfection, Joseph Haward tackles those issues that affect us all, from the fragility of relationships in an increasingly digital world and the pervasiveness of consumerism to the violence that has become the normative language of our society. He reveals how these are linked and how self-preservation has become synonymous with security on so many levels.

The chapter on mission makes for often uncomfortable reading – the obsession with numbers and how, all too easily, church programmes become goal-oriented and objectify people by turning them into ‘targets’. The following chapter is just as challenging in revealing the prevalence of triumphalistic ideology and how, by denying the reality of suffering, it can destroy faith and dehumanise us.

I like the way Joseph Haward draws on a diverse range of sources, including the early Church Fathers, Bonhoeffer, Brueggemann and Wink, as well as drawing examples from popular culture, from Black Swan to Hannibal. His writing style is engaging and accessible, and his explanation of Girard’s scapegoat theory, not the easiest concept to grasp, is nothing short of masterful.

He doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions, and neither does he give us easy answers. What he does do is invite us to hear afresh the call of the God of history who, unthinkably and outrageously, became one of us – not to be a self-help guru or a ticket to a better place, but to show us how to become truly human, for only in so doing can we ever hope to transform our broken and divided communities.”

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How secularism ‘avoids discussing what is good’

From the second chapter entitled ‘On the Negative Spirit’ of G. K. Chesterton’s book Heretics, he majestically dismantles the secualrized notion of “progress”, an idea that on the surface of things sounds mature but as Chesterton shows, is actually devoid of a telos, a true goal that most of human history (until the modern age) has been concerned with.  In other words, modern secularism is self-referential to the point of madness and absurdity, “It has no perfection to point to” hence,

“All I venture to point out, with an increased firmness, is that this omission (the absence of an enduring and positive ideal [or] absence of a permanent key to virtue), good or bad, does leave us face to face with the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good.  To us light must be henceforward the dark thing – the thing of which we cannot speak…

…  The human race, according to religion, fell once, and in falling gained the knowledge of good and evil.  Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil remains to us.  A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization…”

20618693._UY475_SS475_And now we are set for the full force of Chesterton’s genius.  I have rearranged the shape of the following paragraph so that it can be seen more clearly, but the order of words and ideas is exact):

“… Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk what is good.

We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid talking about what is good.

We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.”  This is logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.”

He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.”  This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle for what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.”

He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.”  This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

Heresy, p.13

Chesterton later calls this “unconscious shirking” (p.14), before stating:  “What is the good of begetting a man until we have settled what is the good of being a man?  You are merely handing on to him a problem you dare not settle yourself.”

 

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.

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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 same frantic steeplechase toward nothing”

I found these Thomas Merton excerpts on a tatty piece of paper the other day, and thought they belonged here:

“The problem is to learn how to renounce resentment without selling out to the organization people who want everyone to accept absurdity and moral anarchy in a spirit of uplift and willing complicity.”

“We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios.”

“If we are fools enough to remain at the mercy of the people who want to sell us happiness, it will be impossible for us ever to be content with anything. How would they profit if we became content? We would no longer need their new product.”

“The basic inner moral contradiction of our age is that, though we talk and dream about freedom…though we fight wars over it, our civilization is strictly servile. I do not use this term contemptuously, but in its original sense of ‘pragmatic,’ oriented exclusively to the useful, making use of means for material ends. The progress of technological culture has in fact been a progress in servility, that is in techniques of using material resources, mechanical inventions, etc., in order to get things done. This has, however, two grave disadvantages. First, the notion of the gratuitous and the liberal (the end in itself) has been lost. Hence we have made ourselves incapable of that happiness which transcends servility and simply rejoices in being for its own sake. Such ’liberality’ is in fact completely foreign to the technological mentality as we have it now (though not necessarily foreign to it in essence). Second, and inseparable from this, we have in practice developed a completely servile concept of man. Our professed ideals may still pay lip service to the dignity of the person, but without a sense of being and a respect for being, there can be no real appreciation of the person. We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being.”

“The monastic life is in a certain sense scandalous. The monk is precisely a man who has no specific task. He is liberated from the routines and servitudes of organized human activity in order to be free. Free for what? Free to see, free to praise, free to understand, free to love. This ideal is easy to describe, much more difficult to realize…The monk is not defined by his task, his usefulness. In a certain sense he is supposed to be ‘useless’ because his mission is not to do this or that job but to be a man of God. He does not live in order to exercise a specific function: his business is life itself. This means that monasticism aims at the cultivation of a certain quality of life, a level of awareness, a depth of consciousness, an area of transcendence and of adoration which are not usually possible in an active secular existence…The monk seeks to be free from what William Faulkner called ‘the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing’ which is the essence of ‘worldliness’ everywhere.”

The Pocket Thomas Merton, ed. Robert Inchausti (Boston & London: New Seeds, 2015).

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The Smell of Christmas

The Smell of Christmas

 

Luke 2:7-8  ‘The Smell of Christmas’

What is the smell of Christmas to you?

For the smell of Christmas, we can only go to certain places in the Bible.

We would think the obvious place is the Gospels.

Well, Bingo! in Matthew and Luke;

But not a wiff in Mark and John.

 

Maybe Paul will write something about Jesus coming as a baby…..er, no. Nothing!

Even Revelation starts with the Cosmic Christ walking among the stars;

but nothing of the earthling Jesus lying among the animals.

 

Oh wait….I hear Christmas carol…..

Maybe ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ can help us…

And, through all His wondrous childhood,
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

 

Oh this one irks me!  It really ruffles my feathers!

The writer Cecil Alexander must have been having a brain freeze.

There is something quite wiffy about this part of his song….

And, through all His wondrous childhood,
He would honor and obey,

Where on this tiny rice crisp of a planet did he get that from?

There is only one recorded instance of Jesus as a child, after the flight to and from Egypt.  In fact he was 12, and in the first century, on the cusp of manhood.

Luke 2:41-50 tells us Joseph and Mary journeyed home for a whole day before they realized the 12 year old Jesus was not with them.

When they find him back in Jerusalem (that’s two  days on the road not knowing where he is), in the Temple discussing theology with the professors and doctors, they chide him for “treating them [badly v.48]”.  I mean, where did he sleep; what did he eat; who was he with?  Who provided these things?

Jesus tells them v.49:  “Why were you looking for me?  Didn’t you know I would be about my Father’s business?”  But they did not understand

Thus the line in the Carol that goes:

Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

Really gets my goat!

What manipulative Victorian manure….

Which brings me back to the question:  What is the smell of Christmas?

Maybe ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ will help us!

Silent night, holy night…… 50% right!

How can screaming birthing mothers, animals in a barn, noisy neighbours and choirs of angels singing to shepherds possibly be silent!

Everything about this would freak us out if it happened to us.

But it’s been softened, smoothed, glossed, abstracted and sentimentalized.

Birthing mothers are not silent.

I’ve attended 4 births……..my own three……and of course, my own!

My first words were:  “What’s wrong mum?  Why are you screaming and why has dad fainted?”  Not bad for a 10 second old baby!

Animals don’t respect human social conventions.

They can’t read; They weren’t there when the angel told Mary she would have a son.

They might have thought it was ‘a bit odd’ that big humans were releasing little humans into the barn, but other than that, their toilet habits (for example), would have remained the same.

But we really must avoid this blandness that doesn’t reflect human reality, and therefore, biblical reality.

We need to defy the fantasy makers.

Not just out there in a culture that would see you spend so much in December it wouldn’t even care if your home got re-possessed in January.9780802841285

That’s why credit cards really should be called debt cards.  It’s words; words; words.

And defying the fantasy makers is why one theologian (Don Cupitt) has famously  called Christmas:  “The Disneyfication of Christianity.” (NB. At least he got that right amidst a whole career of re-imagining Christianity in the extreme.  Anthony Thiselton has a masterful couple of chapters in response to Cupitt’s theological vision in Interpreting God and the Postmodern self….but I digress…).

 

Maybe Cupitt’s phrase inspired the song ‘One God’ by the pop group The Beautiful South in the late 1990’s (or maybe vice-versa), with their prophetically provocative lyrics:

d658e184c2e606511c1a788a89427ade-800x800x1The world is turning Disney and there’s nothing you can do
You’re trying to walk like giants
But you’re wearing Pluto’s shoes

[Chorus]
And the answers fall easier from the barrel of a gun
Than it does from the lips of the beautiful and the dumb
The world won’t end in darkness, it’ll end in family fun
With Coca Cola clouds behind a Big Mac sun

  Continue reading

Twelve glorious pounds gets you this:

relating-faithHaving a commendation on the back cover, it is no surprise that I am a fan of Rob Knowles’s work.  I am also a friend!  Friend first, then fan, or “Frand” as my son tells me!

Anyway, below is the write up on the Authentic Media website for his alarmingly critical-but-profoundly-biblical look at church and culture and church-culture!

If £12 is too much, you could get it here for £7-ish.    If that is too much, get in touch with me and I’ll send you a copy myself!  You can see why I think this so important by reading my redacted version under “commendations” below.

In this book, Robert Knowles seeks to encourage Christians to embrace and model authentic biblical Christianity – or “Relating Faith” – in their discipleship, church, and mission. Our faith is relational in that “love for God and neighbour sums up the Law and the Prophets” and in that, in response to the Great Commission, we are to relate our faith in Jesus Christ to the world where it is actually at today. Such “relating faith” is biblical not least in that Christians are to be matured and refereed in their love, or biblical lawfulness, primarily through the Holy Spirit’s formative and relational activation of biblical speech-acts.

Knowles argues, however, that the Western church has so allowed itself to be shaped by ancient, modern and postmodern Western culture and thinking, that it has in effect lost its authentic biblical shape as “relating faith”. Knowles identifies five broad kinds of inauthentic or unbiblical sub-culture within the contemporary Western (and especially British) church that, whilst they are by no means the whole truth about the church, have still critically compromised its biblical shape and mission so as to render the church “non-relational” and even oppressive. Knowles then argues that these five counterfeit non-relational church sub-cultures are responsible for Christians hopping between churches or else leaving the church in droves, and for non-Christians increasingly seeing the church as irrelevant.

In order to address this problem, Knowles gives detailed expositions of the shape of authentic biblical discipleship, church and mission on the one hand, and of the shape of Western modernity and postmodernity on the other hand. In the light of these expositions Knowles argues that the apparently more “modern” and/or “postmodern” shape of the five inauthentic or unbiblical contemporary church sub-cultures that he has identified has resulted, in part, from a long-standing anti-intellectual, anti-theological, and anti-biblical attitude of cherished ideological and cultural ignorance within the church. Notably, Knowles argues that this pietistic attitude has allowed the church to see false prophecy as “true”, and to see the truly prophetic, the theological and even sometimes biblical doctrine as, at best, of only marginal or “merely academic” importance. This conclusion forms the platform from which Knowles calls Christians back to authentic biblical discipleship, church and mission – to “relating faith”.

COMMENDATIONS
“Rob’s gift to the Church is to communicate rich theological truth in profoundly relational ways with the Scriptures at the centre. Those who want more and know there’s more but just don’t know where to look, would find in Rob’s work a goldmine of wisdom, and Christ is the fount of it all.”
– Rev’d Richard Matcham, Minister of Barton Baptist Church, Torquay

“I am glad to commend this book. It combines such technical-sounding topics as speech-act theory and postmodernism with very practical issues in bible study and the Christian life. Dr Knowles has shown that these are down-to-earth tools and issues which can be of practical use in everyday Christian discipleship. Issues such as that of church leadership are also raised in a practical way.”
– Anthony C. Thiselton, Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology, University of Nottingham

“Rob Knowles is one of those people who has had a massive influence on my life and ministry; his work is always thoughtful, challenging, and very helpful. Rob always seeks to be thoroughly biblical, and he’s never one to duck the tough questions or offer easy platitudes. I thoroughly recommend this volume as one which will help you significantly in your life and ministry.”
– Rev’d Ted Fell, Vicar of All Saints Anglican Church, Kings Cross, London

Finally, a review from the above link.  I’ll use Tim’s review, I’m sure he won’t mind, since we were the central defense duo for the famous Woodies FC in the late 90’s.  I’ve saved his bacon a few times and now by quoting him he can return the favour!

By ‘Tim’

A very enlightening read for anyone who attends church; a helpful read for people who are struggling with church; and an indispensible read for people who lead Christian churches or facilitate church activities, church structures or church communities.

Dr Rob Knowles has written a book about how the church can be more like God intended it to be. Knowles is a philosophical theologian who has written a previous, more theoretical book, an exposition of Professor Anthony Thiselton’s theology (Anthony C. Thiselton and the Grammar of Hermeneutics – Paternoster, 2012), whose influential thinking he also scrupulously acknowledges here in Relating Faith.

Relating Faith had me ‘laughing out loud’, ‘nodding in agreement’ and ‘making sharp intakes of breath’ in equal measure. Before I explain why, a quick, simplified précis of the contents.

Part one of Relating Faith (on Discipleship) outlines some ways in which people can experience, and be formed as disciples by God, through reading the bible. This section has practical examples and a novel model for devotional times. This section of the book proceeds in detail to expound Christian discipleship in terms of love, or biblical lawfulness.
Part two, (on Church) draws on this account of Christian discipleship as ‘love for God and for others’, and explains the ways in which the church has often departed from this emphasis. No one tradition is given prominence, and whatever your church tradition there is something challenging for you to reflect on.
Part three (on Mission) summarizes contemporary ideas in the Western world, and how these influence church culture and Christians’ attitude to and practice of relating to those around them – particularly with respect to mission.

Back to the reactions I mentioned earlier, and also a chance to comment on the style of the book.
• ‘Sharp intakes of breath.’
The book is hard hitting in style. It contains detailed accounts of the ways in which our behavior tends to be narcissistic. It also describes many ways in which church has become distorted. Behind this, one senses the author’s conviction and excitement that a more ‘truthful’ view of things can ‘set us free’ from such distortions. Grace is also strongly highlighted (chapter 3). If you have similar assumptions to me, then I expect Dr Knowles will convince you that the Western church has a longer way to go before it appears like the ‘bride of Jesus Christ’ than you previously assumed.

• ‘Nodding in Agreement.’
The book puts forward a detailed explanation as to why we sometimes find church less than perfect. The author uses ‘types’ such as ‘Applause-seekers’ or ‘Local Heroes’ to describe the ways in which the church has (sometimes unwittingly) copied ways of doing things from the culture surrounding it, such as celebrity TV shows or business models of leadership. From my limited experience of different churches, these examples often ring true. More fundamentally, this analysis offers a different starting place for reforming churches than ’10 things to make your meetings more welcoming’.

• ‘Laughing out loud.’
The author has a way with words. A classic example is the 101 word sentence in chapter 9, in which Knowles seeks to essentially capture the downsides to the ‘consumerist-driven’ ‘bad aspects’ of postmodernity influencing western culture. The book is aimed at the general reader. The author himself acknowledges on p.168 that there are a plenty of ‘long words’. Some people may find reading takes a fair bit of effort. But it’s a good way of expanding anyone’s vocabulary, plus it’s a gripping way of getting a handle on some of the key ‘buzzwords’ and ‘ideas’ which really shape contemporary society.

Personally, I found the book contained dense nuggets of description which chimed with – or even explained for the first time – my experiences in many different spheres of life. To give just a few examples: it provoked new excitement about devotional times; raised awareness about the influence of the culture around me, including why I have sometimes in the past found various jobs rather oppressive; convicted me that I had failed to love others, perhaps because I related to them in ways which were more about trying to win approval in my internal church structures; and gave hope and a particular vision for the church – as a God centered community of people – as potentially loving, wise, growing and relationally mature.

If you’re serious about your faith, PLEASE get this book!
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