Moltmann on the Church

moltI stumbled across Jurgen Moltmann’s The Open Church in a charity shop recently. I knew he was a theological big hitter in the academy but didn’t know much about him, and haven’t read much of his work, so, for a couple of quid, I thought we’d get acquainted.

Moltmann was called up to fight in WWII in 1944 aged just 17. He didn’t see much action as a few months later he was sent to a POW camp in Scotland where he underwent forced labor for three years. This early experience is formative for his theology. For him hope, unity, and progress come through suffering. Given his early experience the cross, for Moltmann, is about God identifying with us in our suffering and showing us how to have life to the full through suffering. Unfortunately, it’s at these points where his theology becomes, well, how can I put this charitably, dodgy. God suffers at the cross (denial of impassibility) and the cross is primarily about identification with suffering humanity (at least marginalization, if not denial, of penal substitution).

Nevertheless, there are some things in The Open Church which I loved, and some others which really made me think. I can see why his work has been so influential. He has some great comments on the extremes of pietism and politicization in the church. He also has some great stuff on the power of community life and ritual. He also has some provocative thoughts on reaching the poor – drawing alongside instead of ministering to. Finally he has some interesting thoughts on the ‘congregation from below.’ All stimulating stuff. I guess I’d say, if you’re a pastor, and you stumble across a cheap copy, it’s worth picking up and perusing. However I’d also say don’t spend much time or money on it, and don’t distribute it round the congregation – there’s enough in there to cause a good deal of confusion.

Finally here’s a snippet on ritual to give you a flavour:

“the ritual act becomes the symbol which points beyond itself, expresses something greater, and invites us to memory, to hope, to a new aspect of life, or to community. Through the celebrative representation, the thing represented becomes emphatically present.”

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Is Liturgy Biblical?

worshipOne of my former teachers said ‘every church has a liturgy; it’s just a question of whether they’ve thought it through.’ This statement is absolutely true. Even African congregations have an expected form and order though it looks chaotic to the outsider. The real question is whether you’ve thought through your liturgy in terms of its telos – what do you want it to do?

As part of my studies I’ve been doing some work on the shape of Israel’s cultic life and the impact it has on the community, and then in turn and as a consequence, the outsider. Here’s a couple of quotes for you to chew on:

“Shared rituals symbolize the moral values that a group holds in common, and express the members’ commitment to one another . . . Religious rituals, in particular, serve to confirm the connection between a group’s religious and moral vision, and their understanding of the world around them.” (Andrew Mein, Ezekiel and the Ethics of Exile)

 

“That is the purpose of praise – to respond to the experience of God’s grace and power, to exalt the one who is seen and known to be gracious and powerful, and to bear witness to all who hear that god is God. In that sense the praise of God in the Old Testament is always devotion that tells about God, that is, theology, and proclamation that seeks to draw others into the circle of those who worship this God, that is, testimony for conversion.” (Patrick Miller, “Enthroned on the Praises of Israel.”)

 

In other words, there is a twofold aim in worship (and the guys I’m looking at are mainly focusing on OT cultic observance, mostly feasts and festivals). On the one hand corporate liturgy should visibly and physically reinforce corporate identity and call as the people of God. Secondly, others might see and be captivated by the genuineness of our praise. So the question for us is: a) does our liturgy and ritual (in particular acts of remembrance) serve to reaffirm and re-establish the identity and calling of the people of God? and: b) will outsiders be captivated by the heartfelt praise of God’s people? This is something to ponder, especially for us low church independent types is it not?

Brueggemann’s OT Theology

brueggemannWalter Brueggemann is one of the preeminent OT scholars of his generation. His magnus opus, Theology of the Old Testament, has been well received in the academy and described as a ‘milestone’ by one reviewer. The good news, for those who want to get acquainted with Brueggemann, is that there is a thinner book (just 400 pages!) available as an entry point. It is entitled Old Testament Theology and is in some ways an updated and abridged version of the fat book. Now I should be clear at the outset that Brueggemann would not identify himself as a conservative evangelical, or even just plain old evangelical for that matter. He’s more of a post-modern liberal using a canonical approach (if you know or care what that means). That is not to say that he therefore has nothing useful to say or teach – there is much. His analysis of texts is careful and often thought-provoking. His style and language is joyfully poetic meaning that reading him is enjoyable. And he is always keen to apply the Scriptures to contemporary life.

Old Testament Theology has four main parts:

  1. YHWH’s primal disclosures – looking at Ex 3, 19-24, 32-34
  2. YHWH’s character – as sovereign, in metaphor, as the true God, as the God of miracle and order
  3. The Community of praise and obedience – and the dialogic of holiness and justice
  4. The Hope of Israel and the hope of the world – some great eschatology here

I’ve been reading some of his stuff for my PhD and I particularly like his stuff on monotheism and the community’s life and role as a community of praise and obedience. Of course you won’t agree with everything but if you want to stretch you legs a bit and be helped and stimulated, it’s well worth having a copy on your shelves.

Covenant Responsibilities

I was doing some work in Ezek 33 last week. The city had finally fallen and a few survivors were living in the ruins of Jerusalem. Perversely they seemed to think that, since they were Abraham’s descendants, and they were the only ones remaining in the land, then the land must belong to them. They were laying claim to the covenant blessings promised to Abraham. The problem was they were worshiping idols, eating food with the blood still in it, and defiling one another’s wives. In essence they wanted the covenant blessings without covenant responsibilities.

Now, I guess many of us aren’t bowing down to little statues or going to wife-swapping parties, but is it still possible that we want covenant blessings without covenant responsibilities. Here’s a little grid I used on Sunday with our folk to help think about what our covenant responsibilities might look like. It’s clearly not all there is to say but it may be helpful, so here it is:

Image

So bottom left is your own personal devotional life. Bottom right is your Christian life in the places God has called you – work, home, community etc. Top left is the internal life of the covenant community. Top right is the corporate witness to those who aren’t yet Christ-followers. Now we’ll all struggle with most of those to differing degrees. But if you said to me I’m not really interested in reading my Bible, no-one at works knows I’m a Christian, I don’t want to join your church, and I won’t be involved with outreach, I’d gently suggest that you, like those in Ezek 33, want all the covenant blessings with none of the covenant responsibilities.

We rightly react strongly against legalism, but if you swing that pendulum to far you end up at antinomianism. Some of the ‘grace in your face’ literature misses the obligation involved in a real healthy living covenant relationship. Of course grace should motivate our response, but seeing as our motives will always be, to some degree, mixed we can’t always wait for people’s hearts to be in just the right place before they do something that God says is good for them. Do I love my wife sacrificially just when I’m feeling all loved up, or all the time? And do I actually find that when I love my wife and serve her my affections are warmed as a consequence. Seems to me that contemporary evangelicalism could do with nudging the pendulum back toward the centre. Is it just me?

Some thoughts on education

schoolThere was an article this week in the local rag about parents who take kids out of school in term time to go on holiday. Our local council imposes fines for such deviancy and, when asked, the council representative said ‘If they’re not in school, they’re not learning, and we take that very seriously.’

Now, firstly, I do softly hold the opinion that if you put your kids in the system you probably ought to play by their rules. You pays your money (or taxes), you takes your choice – you can’t really ask them to move the goal posts after you signed up.

That said, I take issue with the idea that ‘if they’re not in school, they’re not learning.’ Such a statement betrays an incredibly narrow view of education – a view which has infected the contemporary parental mindset – a view which says school is everything, and it’s the state’s job to educate my kids. Nope, it’s my responsibility to educate my kids, and school is really only one, arguably small, part of what it means to grow in knowledge and understanding.

Training happens all the time. Parent to child, peer to peer, media, sport, music, books are all ways in which children learn stuff about the world, themselves, others, and how to live.

This is an area where I think we parents need to more thoughtful, proactive, and intentional. Our children pick up everything and interpret it accordingly. If we spend all our money on flash cars and holidays our children understand something about what is important and valuable. Similarly if a family never eats together because Dad works a 70 hour week something is being communicated to children about the relative importance of work and family life. Kids start learning to drive from the age of 0 – they see what you do and how you do it and interpret things accordingly – scary eh! Now, don’t panic – our kids are more robust than we think, and, by God’s grace, our mistakes don’t irreparably mess up our kids. But the point is this – education is happening all the time. School is but a part – and we invest enormous amounts of energy and worry in that sphere – but we often don’t think about the rest of life, and the ways in which we’re passing stuff on to our kids.

For the believing community church is a ‘school’ in this sense. Listen to this quote from M.Daniel Carroll R:

“The community trains its people in how to think, feel, and live. Character for religious communities is oriented by an established set of traditions and sacred texts, which explain what life is like and what is its end.”

 

Get that? The believing community has a set of texts (the Bible) and practices (local church life) that train people in what life is all about and what really matters. So if you attend your local church only once a month you communicate far more than you imagine to your kids. If you encourage your kids to miss small group/church/youth group to do that piece of coursework you just ‘educated’ you children in what life is about and what really matters. I’m not talking about the one off occasion – I’m talking about consistent patterns – they are what shape young hearts and minds. So, parents, take half a chill pill concerning what your kids pick up in the 30 hours they’re in class, and think about what they’re learning in the other 50.