Years ago, a friend and I were discussing classic theology at the Tattered Cover in downtown Denver when I happened to mention that I really appreciate Yancy. He replied, “Oh, I don’t read any of the newer stuff – it’s all crap”. It is as easy now as it was then to dismiss this dismissal as irrational snobbery, but I have to admit that, deep down, I have a tendency to approach anything modern and popular with some weariness because there is always the risk that it is a product of something commercially tainted.

This is not entirely irrational either, since any amount of time spent perusing the best-seller lists of cd stores or bookshops with your brain fully functional will teach you that what’s great and what sells are seldom the same thing. On the subject of the insidious dangers of trusting commercial Christian products, check out this link – it’s worth the read! In terms of what we read and listen to, the Church’s devotional and/or theological diet often consists of a four-course meal at Burger King – more and more of the same thing, and not much of it any good for you.

And yet…

This knee-jerk reaction must be kept in check if we are not to miss some fantastic truth. Recently, the ‘Nooma’ teaching series from Rob Bell has been the victim of my own snobbery. A few days ago I found myself staring at the shiny CUM-books display shelf dedicated to the series, and arranged in eye-catching colour-coded rows, with a mixture of guilt and disgust. I felt guilty for judging the man. But I felt disgusted that theology could be packaged and displayed like sugary breakfast cereals. I abandoned the shelf before hypocritically succumbing to a disconcertingly glossy-looking book by Mr Bell and Mr Golden (great commercial names!), with the worryingly sexy title: “Jesus wants to save Christians – a manifesto for the Church in exile”. With an air of skepticism I settled down to begin working through the 200-odd pages yesterday morning. I finished it this morning.

It was absolutely brilliant.

Basically, it’s really accessible New Exodus Theology ala Tom Holland (to whom the authors give a shout-out in the introduction). It spells out the message of the Gospel more clearly than anything I have read in recent memory. So… let down your anti-commercial guard for a couple of hours and read this fantastic book if you get the chance.

It’s Good Friday, and I have been thinking about heroes.

We pick strange heroes.

How many films about the 2nd World War have you seen? I’ve seen a bunch. I loved Saving Private Ryan with Tom Hanks and that other sniper-guy who quotes from the imprecatory psalms while he’s lining up a target. Almost universally, the ‘heroes’ are British or American privates, and yet all the stats show that it was the Soviets who contributed the dead. More than half of all the Allied dead and more than twice all the Axis deaths. But they are not our heroes… because they were Soviets.

Ulysses S. Grant, celebrated general of the industrial north in their war against the pro-slavery south and later American president, once said that “within two hundred years, when America [sic] has gotten out of protectionism all that it can offer, we too will adopt free trade”. That should be the year 2075. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not the US will follow this schedule, but either way, it must be acknowledged that my hero, Mr Grant was not so much anti-slavery as he was pro-outsourcing.

I live in a little town called Piet Retief, in the Gert Sibande District of Mpumalanga. Up until yesterday I had no idea who Gert Sibande was. I think that very few white people my age do. He was known as the ‘Lion of the East’ and was instrumental in mobilizing awareness and action against the exploitation of farm workers (working essentially as slaves) living around Bethal in the 1950s. He was tried for treason in 1956 and testified passionately on behalf of the workers. Eventually he had to flee to Swaziland. I live in a district named in his honour and I didn’t even know who he was.

But I knew about President Grant – the outsourcing emancipator. We pick strange heroes.

There is a natural human drive to define things and describe everything in complete working systems. All systematic theologies are the result of this drive. We can’t help ourselves… we want things to make sense.

The way most of the Church reads scripture is a case-in-point. The traditional evangelical rendition of the doctrine of the inspiration has as its key convenient ‘truth’ the idea of innerancy. For example, consider this statement by J. Adams (War Psalms of the Prince of Peace 1991:2)

“Some people have found it so difficult to understand these prayers [the imprecatory (curse my enemy) Psalms] that they have concluded that these segments were mistakenly included in the Word of God. But our doctrine of inspiration must lead us to expand our knowledge of God and his ways as we seek solutions to these deep questions”.

He then goes on to do just that by insisting that the imprecations are actually the prayers of Christ against his enemies and the psalmists were speaking (albeit unwittingly) prophetically.

The author wishes us to adjust the natural reading of the imprecatory psalms to fit with his inerrant view of scripture… which he supposedly derives from scripture. Hmm…. ? You see the problem with this sort of circular reasoning, and I bet if we could question him face to face, Mr. Adams would have to admit that he sees it too. The fear of letting go of the convenience of inerrancy is, however, too much for most of us to bear. It provides eas(ier) answers to many contemporary doozies: homosexuality, war ethics, the death penalty, the nature of salvation, the purpose of the Church… nice, easy systematic answers.

But convenience and truth are not always the same thing.

God is not simple.
Life is not simple.
Why should the Bible be anything other than a mystery wrapped in a paradox and seasoned with contradictions and misrepresentations (for extra flavour)?

Allender and Longman (The Cry of the Soul 1994:32,34) provide a different solution to the problem of the imprecations:

“All dread is related to the question, ‘Is life predictable?’ All anger is related to the question, ‘Is life fair?’ Change the word ‘life’ to ‘God’, and the questions become personal. ‘Is God predictable?’ ‘Is God just?’ The psalmist’s jealousy surfaced in the horizontal context of human circumstances, but it was rooted in his underlying question, ‘Is God fair?’ The psalms help us understand that every emotion is a theological statement… [When we doubt] we shudder with dread that we will suffer terrible consequences for our inner rebellion. Precisely at this point, the psalms surprise us. They not only help us articulate and understand what we feel, but they dare us to struggle. Even more, they give us words to vocalize our desperate struggles with God”

You decide which approach is more honest about the human condition, more in keeping with what we know about the character of God as expressed in Christ, and more useful to the reader? Forget which makes for a neater system of interpretation.

Because the inconvenient truth is that perhaps it’s time for us to abandon the convenience of inerrant scripture.

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I have watched A Fiddler on the Roof at least 30 times. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favour and buy or borrow a copy. It’s a story about how a simple, poor, and profoundly spiritual Jewish man must struggle to choose between his daughters’ happiness and his religious traditions. It’s sometimes halarious and sometimes heartbreaking. Like life.

Right at the start of the story, the lead character (played by the man known in the credits, rather mysteriously, only as ‘Topol’ in the days before Madonna, Cher, Prince and Puff Daddy/Puffy/PDiddy) somes up the meaning of the story beautifully:

“Because of our traditions, everyone here knows exactly who he is, and what God expects him to do”. And later, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shakey as a fiddler on the roof”.

The rest of the movie involves Tevya (Topol) deconstructing this previously unshakable conviction as he attempts to hold onto his faith in God and his love for his daughters (who each fall in love with and marry increasingly scandelous men).

It’s a film that speaks strongly towards a conversation that is gaining momentum in the Church (and religion in general). People want to move away from traditions/religion and towards relationship (both vertical and horizontal). People scoff at conservatives who speak against gay marriage for having a religion based on propositional truths instead of relational truth (the jury is still out regarding how one can have any kind of religion without propositional doctrines). Most of the people I know fit neatly into one of two camps: those who desperately want to hold onto our traditions because they fear the effects of letting it slide. They talk about ‘the erosion of family values’ and ‘the humanistic trend in evangelical theology’. The other camp want desperately to be more than society’s moral watchdogs. They want to abandon dogma and unhelpful arguments and move into the communities where a difference can be made. They talk about ‘the irrelevance of another meeting’ and ‘the need for dialogue; not evangelism’.

Every one of us lives in tension between these two camps, and like Tevye, we must struggle with God and ourselves as we attempt to scratch out our simple, pleasant tune without falling off the roof and breaking our necks. We are all fiddlers on the roof. Topol argues back and forth with himself between numerous ‘on the other hands’, allowing his religion and tradition to be eroded as far as his conscience will allow him to because of his love for his daughters and his very personal relationship with God. Finally though, when his third daughter announces that she is running away with a Russian peasant, he has to admit ‘there is no other hand’. We all have our limits. To have any kind of authenticity, the Church must have limits too… but where are they?

What are the essentials of your faith? Can you write them down in five simple statements? Better yet, can you write down five things that Church practice or policy portrays as an essential, but that you don’t believe is an essential at all? (Comments anyone 🙂 )

My favourite moment in the movie is when, at his eldest daughter’s wedding, Tevye is accused of allowing scandal to enter his house because a young Communist from Kiev whom he is housing crosses the barrier and dances with a girl. Tevye asks the Rabbi if it is a sin, and the Rabbi has to admit that ‘it’s not exactly a sin, but…’ before he is cut off. Tevye dances with his wife! Soon everyone is dancing. The freedom is beautiful.

About Me

Ecstatically married to Leane. Studying Theology and Teaching. Working as a worship leader, teacher, coach, guitar teacher. Living in the Mighty City of Mkondo in the sunny province of Mpumalanga, in the blessed country of South Africa.

Favourite Thoughts – Outbox

Religion is to be defended - not by putting to death - but by dying. Not by cruelty, but by patient endurance. - Lactantius (c.304-313).
What is essential Christianity? From first to last it is scandal, the divine scandal. Every time someone risks scandal of high order there is joy in heaven. - Soren Keirkegaard.
Where there are two Christians, there are three opinions... [Actually a Jewish saying, but at least as true for Christians]

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