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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.

“O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us-
he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.”
– Psalm 137:8,9

The author of this poetic verse didn’t hold anything back. There are many imprecations in Scripture. The ancient Israelites held a sense of entitlement when they prayed. The Abrahamic covenant’s, “I will curse those who curse you” was always in view in “us-them” relationships. Combine this “God is my big brother” mentality with the lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”) as the backbone for Hebrew law and you get a background which makes this desire for baby-bashing of the people who had sacked Jerusalem completely authentic emotion. The fact that it was included in the Hebrew canon supports this picture. Most scholars agree that the book of Psalms was used in the second temple cult (worship). Which I suppose means that the people we encouraged to sing these words… as worship. I wonder if this authentic expression of emotion was authentic worship from God’s viewpoint?

But that’s old testament. Read the last few chapters of Judges and you will find yourself shaking your head in wonder that “In those days Israel had no king”:

” 1 Now a man named Micah from the hill country of Ephraim
2 said to his mother, “The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from you and about which I heard you utter a curse—I have that silver with me; I took it.”
Then his mother said, “The LORD bless you, my son!”
3 When he returned the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, she said, “I solemnly consecrate my silver to the LORD for my son to make a carved image and a cast idol. I will give it back to you.”
4 So he returned the silver to his mother, and she took two hundred shekels of silver and gave them to a silversmith, who made them into the image and the idol. And they were put in Micah’s house.
5 Now this man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and some idols and installed one of his sons as his priest.
6 In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”
– Judges 17:1-6

People of the Old Covenant often made a complete mess in trying to discern God’s will. I wonder if we aren’t arrogant in assuming in our post-modern mentality that we are immune to misrepresenting God’s will ourselves.

We want to be authentic in our worship, but how will we protect ourselves from just doing (and singing) as we see fit? There is a strong drive in emerging worship trends towards ‘recovering authentic emotion’ (this is a desire that I hold dear myself). Earlier this year, I heard Brian Doerkson speak on this subject. He said that worship leaders “need to make room for people’s pain in worship”. Many people equate authentic emotion with authentic worship, but authentic worship is more than honest. Authentic worship fears God. Authentic worship doesn’t laugh when it’s asked “Isn’t this ‘strange fire’?” (Leviticus 10:1).

No matter how real and honest it feels.

The Kingdom of God…
What is it?
Where is it?
When is it?

In evangelical seminary they taught us to think of the Kingdom as “here now” and “still coming” at the same time. This paradox is said to be evident in the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, and has been the source of much confusion and frustration for generations of Christians. In fact the idea of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth is not a uniquely Christian concept, but a religious concept. It is a well documented fact that wherever faith in God is strong, our human disposition for using violence to enforce what we believe will increase. This is as true today in the Church as it was for the Medieval crusaders or the zealous reformers. The forms of violence are not always as obvious, but the result is the same: a strong sense of self-righteousness in ‘believers’ and a strong sense of distrust in those outside the bounds of the Church.

All of this stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of the Kingdom of God.

“The Kingdom of God is advancing violently and the violent take it by force”. To Richard the Lionhearted this meant that the Islamic hold on Jerusalem was an assult on the Kingdom Jesus came to establish. To many charismatic worship leaders this means that aggressive ‘spiritual warfare’ through prophetic song and marching around our cities seven times is the key to ‘taking back our neighborhoods for God’. To many evangelicals who flirt with emergent ideas (a little knowledge is a dangerous thing), it means that aggressive political lobbying for social justice is the key to ‘bringing in’ the rule of God in our nations. But is this really faithful to the teachings of Jesus?

There can be no denying that in most of the Church over the last one hundred years there has been an overemphasis on the “Still to Come” aspect of the Kingdom. Bruxy Cavey writes,

“The religious fixation on salvation as an otherworldly destination allows for frustrating disconnects between this life and the next. For instance, Hindus can ignore the basic needs of the hurting lower castes while they look forward to eventually entering a state in which everyone’s needs and desires are met. Muslims teach marital fidelity and abstinence from alcohol in this life while they anticipate the heavenly rewards of multiple virginal sex partners and rivers flowing with wine in the next life. Christians fight wars in order to spread peace and may ignore the environmental issues of our planet because heaven is all that matters. But Jesus invites us to live one coherent life, starting now… Jesus raises the question: Are you living now the way you want to live forever?”

The Kingdom of God is not like earthly Kingdoms, where at least the threat of force (police) is necessary to maintain the Kingdom. The Kingdom is established in the hearts of those who follow Christ. The Kingdom has no boundaries. And violence and religious “effort” destroys the Kingdom rather than building it up. There is thus no possiblility for the seperation of means and ends in the Kingdom. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Peace is not merely a distant goal we seek [or await], but a means by which we arrive at that goal”.

Thus, Jesus doesn’t require us to lobby for, or wage war for, or sing-in the Kingdom. On the contrary, it is simply by our BEING the expression of God’s rule through the way we live that we express the “now” aspect of the Kingdom, and it is simply in the way we trust God to establish His Kingdom in us ‘with ever-increasing glory’ that we express the “still coming” aspect of the Kingdom.

Let’s consider a contemporary application of this thesis: homosexual marriage rights.

A “Kingdom coming” mindset has people frantically trying to barricade their congregations and homes and televisions against this question. They are waiting for an escape, as they watch the world slowly but surely transform into Sodom and Gomorrah part 2.

As already mentioned, this isolation and escape theology is in stark contrast to the teachings of Jesus.

A “Kingdom now” ala charismatic Church sees people singing songs about God’s eternal law and prophesying God’s judgement of the Church and the nation’s sin in this regard and praying in tongues for the deliverance of those who wish to renounce their homosexuality.

A “Kingdom now” ala confused social gospel sees the Church lobbying for equal rights for homosexual couples and shaking their fists at conservative theology that values laws more than love.

None of these approaches is adequate because they see the Kingdom of God as something that we can establish in our cultures and nations and constitutions instead of something that God is establishing in the hearts of His people continuously. When we see the Kingdom this way, we focus, not on external issues of policy towards gay marriage, but on internal issues of the way that Jesus requires us to treat all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or sin inclination.

Another illustration:

Years ago, my father was conscripted into the army during the Rhodesian border wars. As was the case with many Christian men in South Africa at the time, Dad had to deal with the moral questions surrounding war. Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies, not shoot them? While there are no easy answers about “What Would Jesus Do” in the situation, and many better men than me who lived through wars disagree with my pacifist views (including C.S. Lewis), I can’t help but admire my father’s choice: he sat on the border doing guard duty… with no gun. He did not escape the war. He simply fought it according to the rules of a Higher Kingdom, in which Jesus challenges us to be the salt of the earth and a city on a hill.

This is the kind of Kingdom that Christ came to establish on earth. One in which we enter a whole new way of living where we submit to and partner with God’s loving ways at work in this fallen world, no matter what earthly Kingdom we might also belong to.

The wonder of the blogosphere strike again! Like a massive electronic “staff suggestion box”, guaranteeing virtual anonymity and a rapt, impersonal audience just begging us to vent. It’s theraputic for the writer and helpful for exposing “the secret thoughts of men”. Consider this beauty of an Evangelical Creed by “w. dennis griffith” (check the udderblogger link):

“I believe in God who once was Almighty, but sovereignly chose not to be sovereign; and in Jesus, my personLordandSavior, Who loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life, Who came into my heart when I asked him to, and is now seated at the right ventricle of my belief in him, Who walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way, and tells me I am his own, Who shall come again with secrecy to rapture us outta’ here, Whose kingdom shall last exactly one thousand years; And in the Holy Ghost, who did some weird stuff at Pentecost, but doesn’t do much more anymore except speak to the hearts of individual believers.

And I believe in this local, independent, and powerless church, insofar as it is in line with my personal interpretation of the Bible and does stuff I like; in one Believer’s bpatism for the public proof of my decision for Christ; and in giving my personal testimony for soul winning.

And I look for the identity of the Antichrist, and know that the Last Days are upon us.

– Ay-men”

Obviously Mr. Griffith is not an evangelical [this hasty assumption was later proved incorrect – please see the comments section]. I am. Pity me… so misunderstood!

What does it mean to be an evangelical?

Wikipedia (“Evangelicalism”) points out that “While most conservative Evangelicals believe the label has broadened too much beyond its more limiting traditional distinctives, this trend is nonetheless strong enough to create significant ambiguity in the term.[4] As a result, the dichotomy between “evangelical” vs. “mainline” denominations is increasingly complex (particularly with such innovations as the “Emergent Church” movement).”

In response to the ambiguity and the unfortunate association with American Fundamentalism, many young evangelicals are becoming “Post-evangelical”. We are “Emerging” in our thousands, even before most of us know what “Emergent Church” even means. Is it right that we should surrender the “Evangelical” tag so passively to the fundamentalists? I’m not sure that I’m ready to surrender just yet.

Let’s get back to basics: what are the central elements that define evangelicalism?
According to the Institute for the Study of American Evanglicals, four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion are: 1: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed;
2: activism, the expression of the gospel in effort;
3: biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and
4: crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

What’s so bad about that?

The salvation experience, the great commission, the revelation of God in Jesus as recorded in scripture, and the Christ event as the defining moment of history. Yes… I can live with that.

So I’m happy to stay Evangelical for now. Perhaps we need to redefine ourselves. If you are an evangelical, please submit your own attempt at an Evangelical Creed. My own will follow shortly.

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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