Pathetic Illustrations

“The great appeal of Christianity, from which all else flows, is to the conscience, and, in the actual situation, to the sinful conscience.  It is easy to make any assembly we may address cry with a few pathetic illustrations. . . . But, to follow evil to its inmost cell, to track the holy to the heart of things, to touch the devious and elusive conscience of a world, to rouse, to renew it – that is hard.”

So wrote P. T. Forsyth in ‘Congregationalism and Reunion’ (p. 16).

blueforsyth-5He is addressing the preacher and preaching’s importance.  “With its preaching Christianity stands or falls’ he stated boldly in his Yale lectures (from whence ‘Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind’ was birthed).

What I love about the “great appeal of Christianity”, is the way Forsyth knowingly and quite deliberately mocks the sentimentalism that must have characterised much preaching in his day (as in our day!) – the “pathetic illustrations” designed to provoke tears in the hearer, and heart warming puppy-love towards the speaker/preacher!  When I first read that line, I laughed out loud.  How we see this in our day, and no doubt I may even stand accused myself of such Gospel-mockery – the Lord forgive me!

relating-faithAs Forsyth was, we need these prophetically-empowered, theologically astute voices in our day too – because the problem persists.  One such voice is Anthony Thiselton, Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at Nottingham University.  In the outstanding book ‘Relating Faith’ (mentioned on this blog before), Dr Rob Knowles, a theologian shaped by the life’s work of Thiselton, we see how “pathetic illustrations” and their ilk, are the mockery of the pulpit and the church:  When Christianity becomes a “mere vehicle of self-affirmation, peer group self-promotion, or triumphalism that espouses a notion of “God” that amounts to a projection of human desires and interests”….we discover “neo-pragmatic pastors who ape chat-show hosts and design their sermons in such a way as to create a pragmatic rhetorical effect and win ‘local’ audience applause.  With every effusion. . . . . greeted with a storm of ready-made applause”, however, “[t]he result is vanity and self-sufficiency” (p. 103).

Pathetic illustrations are designed to accomplish exactly that.

But the challenge from Forsyth is laid plain:  Preaching is to track evil to its heartless and beastly core.  It is to similarly trace to the heart God’s holy things, to expose, to touch, to point out in loving but salvific tones, the devious and elusive conscience of the world.  It is nothing but the hard graft of Gospel proclamation.  And it is hard!

If ever it were easy, I doubt it is being done at all.

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Infantilism Evangelism

Immaturity-260x296The following is an excerpt from Dr Robert Knowles’ newly released book ‘Relating Faith – Modelling Biblical Christianity in Church and World’.

Much of what the Church does for evangelism isn’t.  It thinks it is because it is locked in to a way of doing that ignores content and context.  In other words, relational wisdom is sidelined for a program.  Here’s what Rob Knowles says on the matter, and it is just one point within a much larger framework:

“The church confuses evangelism with infantilisation.  It is assumed that ministers and elders are mature and can take profound biblical content, that seasoned churchgoers are almost as mature and can take moderate biblical content, but that most Christians can only take ‘the basics’, and that non-Christians – well – Thomas the Tank Engine is too advanced for them.  What a load of old patronizing and offensive drivel.

It is shameful that I and many others even have to point out that many non-believers have degrees, read text-books, do professional jobs that involve technical language, are familiar with current affairs, and are – quite frankly – very, very often much further on in their thinking that the Christian sloganeers are (by ‘sloganeers, Dr Knowles means the oppressive pseudo-evangelistic sloganeering activism that is devoid of interesting/rich/knowledgable content).

But the sad fact is, these days, many of us do have to point this out to the church.  Worse – when I and many others do point it out, what we say is often rejected as being irrelevant thinking ‘by intellectuals’ who ‘only have academic knowledge’.

[Earlier on in the chapter], we linked infantilisation to the standard strategies of those in power who wish to keep people immature so that their power bases and systems of privilege are not challenged.  Such abusers need to mislabel people who think as ‘mere academics’ so that they can falsely cast aside the genuine criticisms that thinkers bring to the table.  Moreover, such patronisation even assumes that academics or thinkers actually have ‘less real-life experience’ from which to contribute, which is also false and an abuse of power.

Furthermore, it is a genuine breach of etiquette, register and of politeness generally when evangelistic mission deploys speakers who sound like nursery-school teachers.  Frankly, this is insulting to those unfortunate enough to be listening.  Every day, people hear what some sloganeering believers think of as ‘the dreaded long words’ on television.  And yet, I have been rebuked in some church contexts for using vocabulary that would be commonplace on Blue Peter.pedobear-meme-generator-goo-goo-gah-gah-you-say-good-enough-for-me-070774

Only anti-intellectuals and power-hungry infantilisers resist vocabulary, however, for an extension of vocabulary often brings an extension of wisdom and an exposure of sin.  Indeed, it’s funny how anti-intellectuals and power hungry infantilisers are happy to learn a compound word like ‘video-recorder’, which has six syllables; but if one dares to articulate a three-syllable word such as ‘redemption’, then suddenly it’s ‘a long academic word’.  Oh, grow up!

[So what we are saying] for encouraging mission and evangelism, then, is to take the infantilisation out of evangelism and put some cognitive content and some vocabulary back into it.  I’m not saying that we should read out a paper on post-structuralism – I’m just advocating that we say something interesting that doesn’t insult people’s intelligence.

It is often the church that has become infantilised, not the world.”

Relating Faith, p.167-8

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Relating Faith – a book recommendation

Relating FaithGralefrit is so thrilled that this long-awaited book has finally been released and I commend it whole-heartedly.  To quote the blurb on the back cover, Relating Faith – modelling Biblical Christianity in Church and World is a “stimulating book [that] contains a selection of reflections that aim to encourage us to approach issues in the church and in life increasingly through engagement with the biblical texts.  Robert Knowles argues that Western Christians are often starved of biblical content in their local church contexts.  He believes that the Bible is indispensable to building Christian and church identity, thought, and life, and that biblical texts, brought to life by the Holy Spirit, themselves play a central role in Christian formation.

Anthony Thiselton, Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at the University of Nottingham, writes, “I am glad to commend this book.  It combines such technical-sounding topics as speech-act theory and postmodernism to 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.”

This book is a gold-mine of wisdom!  Get it if you can.

A Life of Critical Challenge

Dr Rob Knowles writes on the critical imperative of making ourselves open to challenge and thus prepared to live our lives in the central room, a centre that governs and shapes all thought, motives and views under the authority of God’s Word.

Communion and Criticism: Openness to Challenge by the Real

In a postmodern world, we encounter a conflict of interpretations.  Which of life’s many spheres, worlds, discourses, texts, thought-forms, practices, or paradigms, should be the most “central” for “right human living”?

Well, Christianity and the Bible, if they are true, should compare favourably with other paradigms for human existence and with other claims made by other religious texts and by other traditions of thinking.  If Christianity and the Bible are true, then they will stand the tests of critical debate and of practical viability for living.6

Since the Bible itself espouses the roles of rationality and experience, then [we] should not exalt “reason” or “experience” over the biblical texts. Jesus himself says: ‘If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own’ (John 7:17).  One can only become convinced that biblical and prayerful communion with God constitutes life’s central room by trying it and by allowing critical challenges. Conversely, those making peripheral worlds “central” must also allow criticism according to biblical criteria.

Such openness to challenge aligns with the scientific testing of hypotheses.  Suspicion rightly arises when any truth-claims immunise themselves from external questioning.  It is weak belief systems, authoritarian regimes and personality cults that cannot stand against scrutiny, that refuse to be challenged.

Some, though, including dogmatic scientists, refuse external challenge because they habitually evade self-criticism.  They inhabit carefully-constructed discourse-worlds, and train others—under threat of an “ugly scene”—to avoid conversational “no-go” areas, topics, or even single words that reflect life-issues crying out to be addressed.  Even science can be an avoidance strategy. A refusal to be challenged is a refusal to live in the room of a genuinely true world.

Admittedly, the psychoanalytical tradition says that patterns of self-deceit and delusion shelter us all from uncomfortable realities.  Nobody’s world or discourse is wholly true, but is at best distorted.  Nevertheless, God calls us into an increasingly real world in which our practices, discourse, and thinking are increasingly shaped towards a truthful ‘authentic’ humanity in which reality, actions, and ‘words’ “correspond” in inner consistency and ‘integrity’.7


6 So Thiselton, 2H, 292; cf. 83; cf. Knowles, R., Anthony C. Thiselton and The Grammar of Hermeneutics: The Search for a Unified Theory (Milton Keanes: Paternoster, 2012), 444-564.

7 Thiselton, A.C., New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (London: HarperCollins, 1992), 111-112; cf.: Thiselton, A.C., ‘Truth’, in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 3 (ed. C. Brown; Exeter: Paternoster, 1978), 879; 883-886; 892.

God’s Sovereignty & Japanese Fighting Fish

JapFish

I asked Dr. Robert Knowles to give us a snippet of a smidgin of the theological behemoth that is Divine Sovereignty and Human Free-will.  Now make yourself a cup of tea and read it.  You’re welcome….

“God’s omniscience and sovereignty are so exalted that God can easily turn our rebellions into the service of his good purposes. God is like a master chess-player who easily capitalises on the hostile moves made by much more junior players.

But, to my mind, (a), God is even greater than this. And, (b), I believe that human freewill is much more constrained and limited than many seems to suggest. To my mind, God is so great, that the Fall of humanity was infinitely predicted by him, but is also infinitely contained by him too.

To provide an illustration, then Japanese fighting fish are pretty vicious creatures, and have to be kept apart to be prevented from killing each other (a bit like us at times). But, as fish they are still constrained to fish-tanks that the fish-owner can move around at will. More than that, the owner can at any moment reach into the tanks and overrule the will of any or all of the fish in the tanks.

Furthermore, the fish-owner can buy and sell the fish at will, decide to feed or not to feed the fish at will, and pretty much do anything he likes to the fish. At no point is the fish-owner’s “scope of sovereignty” affected by the freedoms enjoyed by the fish. And yet the fish do still enjoy limited freedoms as they swim around within their tanks.

Another example is a parent’s relationship to their toddler in a play-pen. At any moment, the parent can stop the toddler performing a particular manoeuvre with the play-bricks in the pen. At any other moment, the parent can refrain from stopping the toddler from performing that same manoeuvre. At any time, the parent can lift the toddler out of the pen, whether for the purposes of bath-time, bed-time, a trip out to the play-ground, or to the nursery, and so on.

And yet, within certain parameters – parameters that keep changing – the toddler has what in mathematics is called degrees of freedom. At no point is the sovereignty of the parent under any threat whatsoever, and is in no way constrained. The toddler’s freewill, however, is constrained, contained, and predicted and yet – very often if not always – seemingly completely liberated, from the perspective of the toddler.

So then, parental freedom is not “one kind of thing”, not like a “solid shape”, in practice, but varies according to the relational particularities of love. Similarly, the toddler’s freedom is not a “fixed solid shape”, but changes in shape and extent according to the particularities of relating that are going on at any particular time.

In the same way, the notion of “divine freedom versus human freedom” can be misleading if seen to be like a thermometer in which “two lengths” (the “mercury versus the empty part of the thermometer tube”) “battle it out” as though one can only advance at the expense of the other – as though if our freedom “increases”, God’s freedom must somehow “decrease”.

In reality, these two freedoms are not two simple “substances” pushing against one another, but two relational dynamics that are in fact both maximised together in heavenly relating – though divine freedom is never actually maximised since it is never threatened or reduced. Even if God restrains himself, this is his free choice, so his relational self-constraint is not a constraint of freedom. Self-constraint only limits the “freedom” of sin; self-constraint never limits the freedom of love, but is part of the freedom of love.

That is, biblically, freedom is either freedom as love, or “freedom” as self-negation that leads to slavery. Love is a “freeing” mode of being. In right-relating to others, we become ourselves, coming into our own identities as beings that are actualised when we are God-centred and others-centered.

That freedom, when used to choose to sin, not only leads to enslavement, but also leads to a place in which God’s sovereignty – which is never even remotely threatened – has an even easier task of pre-empting and predicting our actions.

Divine sovereignty even more easily contains our actions when we are in the prisons of repetitive sin than when we are relating rightly in freedom. It was less often sin and faithlessness that surprised Jesus, and more often righteousness and faith that surprised him. Even we can predict and pre-empt the actions of people who are trapped in sin – how much more can God predict and pre-empt their actions?”

Thank you Dr Knowles.

Stop Forcing Me To Do Evangelism!

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Christians should be encouraged in their gifts and then their “evangelism” as it happens naturally in the lives, their circles of influence, etc, would become a joy and not a burden.  It would be natural, not forced.  I’m afraid the office of “evangelist” has got bad press down the years, and from what I’ve often seen, rightly so.  It is often left to the wildly inarticulate but enthusiastic extroverts who love to chat to strangers and lob cliché and scripture bombs into peoples laps and run away shouting the loudest!

What I guess I’m afraid of, is “doing” things in ministry that have an appearance of “that’s what evangelism/mission/proclaiming…[fill in the blank] looks like” but in reality, both true to the individual person, their gifting, calling, strength’s, etc, no one group of people should ever do  a preconceived standardised model of anything.  It’s like putting round pegs in square holes, or lighting a candle in a room with the oxygen slowly being sucked out.

So I think, theologically and biblically, that the church, historically, and especially since the so-called Great Awakening, has made a catastrophic error of judgement: it has standardised church, ignored individuals; particular gifts and strengths, and simply enforced a model of operating that is life to the very few.  

This for me is one of the reasons why people squirm in their seats when anyone talks of “doing evangelism” or going on a mission.  Part of it is, admittedly, sinful resistance.  Part of it is embarrassment and shame;  part of it is timing and calling; part of it is seasons of gifts; part of it is the right person, at the right time in the right place – and they go, because it’s right for them.  And part of it is surely because they intuitively resist having one model being imposed on them.

For example: Why should Dave go door-to-door when he’s shared his faith with 8 blokes this week?  It just doesn’t make sense to me, not least for time, family and other reasons.  Dave is in his natural working environment, exercising his gifts of God in the workplace, and not ashamed to proclaim Christ.  I say, let the person who wants to go door-to-door go door-to-door.  They will have my support and blessing, but I will be the first to say this isn’t the only way to do evangelism and I won’t impose that on anyone.  “Let each one be convinced in his own mind.”

So for me, I do not want to fall into the same cultural trap with all the assumptions that come with it.  Let the teacher teach; the minister minister; the prophet prophecy; the generous give; the evangelist proclaim.  Let them all proclaim Christ as they do what God has gifted them to do, but let no person do what God has not called them to do – and this last bit is more a reflection of contemporary church life in the UK and the West than anything else. I.e. people being pushed and coerced into roles and functions because that’s the shape of the church rather than the shape of the church being flexible enough to excel in releasing people into their particular and specific gifts.

What does this mean?  In the words of theologian Dr Rob Knowles (author of ‘Anthony C. Thiselton and the Grammar of Hermeneutics, the search for a unified theory’ and a 2014 published book called ‘Relating Faith’) – just so I can convince you I’m not just inventing clever ways of avoiding a particular way of doing evangelism:

“(i) each church has different individuals with different gifts in it; (ii) therefore, each church-community is a unique combination of unique individuals, and is thuswait for it—unique!

But this means, surely, that leaders have to: first look at who they have got; second ask what is it that those unique individuals are uniquely good at and actually want to do; and third submit to the unique historical factuality of what their church will then have to look like. Imposing a standardised model is oppressive, gift-suppressing, ministry-killing, relationally-alienating, and turns church-community into a total charade.

In fact, imposing standardised models of church on uniquely-shaped groups is one of the causes of “churchianity”. Churchianity is that rather fake discourse-world—that pseudo-fellowship—that arises when people suspend their identities to speak the received language of a pseudo-community built upon suppressed individuality and ministries. This differs from a true community—i.e. a community that accepts, promotes, and benefits from each person’s cherished uniqueness and true ministry—which will not conform to the a priori categories of a standardised model.”

One reason I think that evangelism is a difficult subject to teach others about, is that it is done as standard, that fails to recognise gifts, it simply induces levels of anxiety that the only way to deal with them , are to “fake” it.  Every Christian is a teacher, in that their word and deed teaches others, but not everyone is called therefore to teach from the front.  To make the mistake of making everyone teach from the front, is the same.  While every Christian is to bear witness, not everyone is an evangelist, and more specifically, not every evangelist does door-to-door.

Dr Knowles goes on with another well made point:

“Relax! God has it under control. Think of Jesus asleep in the boat. Remember that it is God who created and who redeems the universe. Stop confusing your modernist system with righteousness. Learn to relate to people. Have a cup of tea, take some time to reflect. (And, if necessary, see an exorcist). Christianity is faith expressing itself in love, or, trust in God that learns to relate to people properly. It’s not about becoming Robo-vicar [or Robo-Christian]; God has already got the whole “justification” and “predestination” thing covered.”

Of course, Robo-vicars will say that I’m falling into the old ultra-Reformed trap of using the doctrine of election as an excuse not to do evangelism.

Actually, though, I’m using the doctrine of election as an excuse not to do their kind of Robo-evangelism, which is not evangelism anyway, but a heart-attack trying to win people to something un-relational, un-Christian, unbiblical, and unlike Jesus.

To wrap up, I am not against door-to-door per se.  I am against the assumption that everyone should do evangelism [and specifically door-to-door] regardless of their gifts.  As an evangelist myself, I’m not very keen on unrelational cold calling door-to-door work anyway.  What I am keen on, is relational teaching and preaching and discipling others so that they are mature and effective where they are [Paul says stay where you were when you were called – be fruitful there!].  

Confident in the Gospel; confident in the Christ of the Gospel; exercising their gifts and being faithful with the field God has planted them in; faithful with the treasure they have received; and bold enough and wise enough to know when to speak and what to say.

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