Wednesday, 10 September 2014

How not to be a ‘great’ man of God: Reflections on a conversation with Dave Andrews

Dave Andrews has all the hallmarks of a great man of God. Throughout his life he has courageously and selflessly followed Jesus. This has led him to serve the poorest and most marginalised in Afghanistan, India and Australia. And as with all great women and men of God, he’s encountered much criticism. He has been criticised for his inclusive approach and for his stand against the oppressive hierarchical power structures of the Christian organisations he’s worked with. But still he has carried on serving.

But what’s even more impressive is Dave’s rejection of the ‘great man of God’ status. With a story like his, and the books he’s written to resource the wider church, can come a certain status in the Christian world. The conference circuit beckons! But Dave says he has to regularly ‘exorcise’ himself from these temptations, so he can stay fully committed to humbly serving Jesus in small, often unnoticed ways in his local community. He doesn’t cut himself off from the wider world (he spoke with us, for example), but he strictly limits this to no more than 10% of his time.

And even in his own community, he makes sure he isn’t seen as the expert. Decisions are taken by consensus, and everyone gets a turn to lead. So his voice carries no more authority than anyone else’s.

In a world (and let's face it, in a Church) consumed by power and influence, it’s truly inspiring to come across someone who is intentionally giving these things away, someone who is truly dying to self. 

Tune into the podcast to hear Dave's story.

Monday, 25 August 2014

How to live well in a digital world: Reflections on a conversation with Dr. Bex Lewis

I think Bex hit the nail on the head when she said that social media amplifies human nature. If you’re an insensitive, unloving fundamentalist offline, then you’re going to be a really insensitive, unloving fundamentalist online (as Vicky Beeching has recently discovered). But why?

As in many areas of life, a things greatest strength is often also its greatest weakness. Social media’s greatest strength is that it enables us to instantly connect with people over huge geographical distances. Its weakness however is that this distance can have a dehumanising effect. It’s easy to forget the impact our words have on a person when we’re just staring at a screen rather than sitting face-to-face with them.

Consequently, at its worst social media simply becomes media, a platform which we use to broadcast our opinions, rather than an opportunity to genuinely socialise.

So living well in a digital world must involve collapsing this psychological barrier and loving our online neighbour as we would our offline neighbour.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Escaping Hell: Reflections on a conversation with an evangelical universalist

I’d always dismissed universalism as the position of liberals who were more influenced by their emotions than by the Bible (you’ll have to forgive me, it’s was just the way I was brought up…).

I was vaguely aware of universalist texts (e.g. ‘For God was pleased … through [Jesus] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross), but as with all texts that don’t fit into your theological system, you just kinda brush over them.

Like everyone (I hope), I had problems with the idea of eternal torment for those who weren’t following Jesus, so I settled on an annihilationist position (i.e. that if you distance yourself from the source of life, then you will simply cease to exist). But just recently I’ve realized that this position doesn’t solve all my problems. So, for example, if the majority of people who have ever lived are annihilated then who came out on top, God or the Devil, life or death, the Kingdom or the world?

I’d never studied the universalist position in any depth, and while I didn’t need convincing that God wants to save everyone (how could a loving creator not?), what I couldn’t see was how God could save everyone without violating their freewill.

Robin Parry has gone some way to deal with this issue by doing away with death as the cut off point for God’s grace. I’d always taken that as a given, that God’s mercy reached it’s limit at the point of death, if you hadn’t chosen wisely at that point it was too late.

But there are hints in the Bible that this might not be the case. Jesus, for example, preached to the soul’s in prison during the three days between his death and resurrection (1 Pt. 3:19), and the gates of the New Jerusalem are never closed (Rev. 21:25).

Robin is suggesting then, that even from ‘hell’, it is possible to call on the name of Jesus and to be allowed to enter the New Jerusalem. And it’s true that both the descriptions of hell in Revelation are followed by saying that all the nations would enter God’s city (Rev. 14-15; 20-21).

So rather than Hell being a place of retributive punishment, it becomes a place of redemptive punishment. And this is how we see all God’s judgements in the Bible, God allows us to face the consequences of our sin in order to bring us back to our senses, and to bring us back to him. 

It’s something I need to give a lot more thought to, but there’s no denying, that the idea of escaping hell is a much more satisfying ending to the story of the God of love who is seeking to reconcile all things to himself.


Wednesday, 9 July 2014

How to change the world without saying a word: Reflections on a conversation with Krista Tippett about the lost art of listening

It’s not easy interviewing someone who is clearly considerably better at interviewing people than you are! But we managed to bumble our way through it, and glean much wisdom from a woman who has built a very successful career out of doing what most Christian seem to find very hard, listening to people. 

My guess is that if you asked the average woman or man on the street what the Church’s strengths are they probably wouldn’t say ‘listening’. Instead I suspect that when most people think of the Church images would come to mind of preachers, protestors, awkward encounters with evangelists, and an institution out of touch with contemporary life (to name but four of my early encounters and perceptions of Christians). Yet listening is surely something that followers of Jesus should excel at.

If anyone was qualified to lead with their opinion it was Jesus. And yet more often than not rather than talking he encouraged the people he encountered to talk. How many of us, for example, when asked by the rich ruler how to gain eternal life, would have dived in with a summary of the gospel, an invitation to an Alpha course, or encouraged him to pray the sinner’s prayer? Jesus didn’t do any of these; instead he asked a question. Jesus wanted to listen, he wanted to get to the heart of who this man was.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we catch a glimpse of an early church service, and we see Paul encouraging mutual listening. He says that everyone should have the opportunity to share something with the community, and for everyone else to careful listen and weigh what was shared (1 Cor. 14:26-40).

And what is prayer if it isn’t essentially listening? How can we join God in bringing about his will on earth as in heaven unless we’re careful listening to what his will is in the situations we find ourselves in?

So one wonders how the perception of the Church would be changed, and how much more effective its ministry and mission would be if we rediscovered the lost art of listening.

Check out our interview with Krista Tippett here

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Bringing down the Empire with a Song: Reflections on a conversation with David Benjamin Blower

I’ve never had an easy relationship with Christian music. Forgive me for the generalisation, but when I think of Christian music I think of a highly polished slick, soft rock music, with clich├ęd, idealistic lyrics (at least that’s what I grew up with). I’m aware that this sort of music can touch some people profoundly (like my wife for instance), but it’s always left me cold. It’s just never felt ‘real’ enough for me. I like art to ground me more deeply in reality, to challenge and unsettle me. I don’t want to be lifted out of the reality of this world into an idealised one, which is what it seems to me a lot of Christian music is trying to do. I want to be challenged to anger and love for the messed up world I live in.

This all changed for me some years ago when I stumbled across the now defunct Zang Productions and the work of [David] Benjamin Blower.

I was immediately impressed by the gritty, authentic production (recorded entirely in his own home with local musicians, and often not bothering to edit out coughs, splutters and the occasional bum note). But as I began to listen more deeply I got drawn into a world of overblown prophetic visions lifting the lid on our complicity with the Empire of the world. This was a musician in the tradition of the Old Testament prophet. This was a musician not concerned with lifting us out of this world into some future idealised one, but challenging us to enter more deeply in the gritty reality of this messed up world, and challenging us to get our hands dirty. And this was a musician for whom art is a form of confessional action taken to the street where he points his finger at himself as he points it at the Empire around him.

So thanks David Benjamin Blower for restoring my faith in Christian music and its power to transform me and the world I live in.

Check out our interview with David Blower. You might also want to have a look at his book Kingdom vs. Empire, and you can access his music through the Minor Artists website and iTunes.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Make Love, Not Porn: A conversation with leading anti-porn activist, Gail Dines

Check out these stats about the prevalence and effect of porn, they’ll make you shudder:

The sex industry is the largest and most profitable industry in the world. Internet porn in the UK receives more traffic than social networks, shopping, news and media, email, finance, gaming and travel. Just one porn site, Pornhub, receives over 1.68 million visits per hour.

And what exactly is it people are looking for? Well, disturbingly, ‘teen’ is the most searched term and total searches for teen-related porn reached an estimated 500,000 daily in March 2013.

What are they finding on these sites? Violent sex. 88.2% of top rated porn scenes contain aggressive acts.  Only 9.9% of the top selling scenes analyzed contained behaviors such as kissing, laughing, caressing, or verbal compliments.

Who’s accessing this stuff? Apparently it’s not just adults. Surveys reveal that children as young as 11 years old are regularly accessing this hardcore pornography.

What effect is this having on us? Studies show that after viewing pornography men are more likely to:
            Report decreased empathy for rape victims
            Have increasingly aggressive behavioral tendencies
Report believing that women who dress provocatively deserves to be raped
Report anger at women who flirt but then refuse to have sex
Report decreased sexual interest in their girlfriends or wives
Report increased interest in coercing partners into unwanted sex acts

It’s no surprise that the leading anti-porn activist Gail Dines said in our interview with her, that porn has nothing to do with making love; it’s actually about making hate. And that’s the essence of sin, it’s about a lack of love, it’s about broken relationships, our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God. Porn seems to tick those boxes. As Jesus said, lust can undermine your marriage and your relationship with God (Matt. 5:27-30). When we engage in lust we dehumanizes others, and in so doing we dehumanize ourselves.

Porn, then, is no small issue. As Gail Dines said, porn is one of the major public health issues of our time. And so we all need to be aware of the issues and take a stand.

For more information about how porn is shaping our culture and what we can do about it, read Gail’ss book, ‘Pornland: How Porn isHijacking our Sexuality’, and visit the Stop Porn Culture website.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Inequality, the root of all evil?

You’d be a brave person to suggest that society is anything but a hugely unequal place. Even though we’re all relatively better of than at any point in history, the rich are getting richer, while the rest of us stay the same, or over the last few years slowly become poorer. Why? Because the return on investment and capital will always do better than the return on labour.

What we’re just starting to realise though, is the effect this is having on us all, poor and rich alike. The leading voice in this field is the social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson. His thesis is in essence a simple one, lying behind society’s ills is this one major issue, inequality. Think of a mental or physical health problem that’s blighting society and Dr Wilkinson will show you how the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor is the cause.

If you want to know why this is, have a listen to our recent interview with Dr Wilkinson. His research shows, in nutshell, that the issue is a pyscho-social one, i.e. it hurts to live in a world that says our value is found in material success but then denies us that success. The 2011 riots were a good example of this. As Dr Wilkinson pointed out in the interview, the kids from the poor estates weren’t looting for bread and water; they were stealing status good, i.e. large screen TVs and trainers.

So what do we do about it? My disappointment with Dr Wilkinson solution was the way he underplayed individual responsibility. His answer was largely a political one (which of course is important). But I think though the NT writers might argue that the solution is a spiritual and relational one. Surveys have clearly shown that people of faith are happier and more content, and I suspect this is because we don’t place so much value on material success. We know that our core sense of identity and worth is found in God’s love. And this is not to say, of course, that we just accept the unequal nature of our society. No, when we see a need we sell our ‘lands and houses’ and give. And we don’t do this in a detached ‘charitable’ kind of way, we actually invite those in need into our community.

Richard Wilkinson is only really reminding us what Paul taught 2000 years ago, that ‘the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil’. Our job therefore as a Christian community is to demonstrate to the world what is of true value and worth, and to show the world the holistic wellbeing that comes from living out this conviction.