Recent reading

I don’t get a lot of time for reading from about the middle of September until the end of April, as churchland gets really busy during that time. However, if I’m lucky enough to get a summer relatively free from pastoral emergencies I can usually count on getting some good reading done during the warm months. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:
Stuart Murray: The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. This book is based on the question ‘What would Anabaptism look like with its Mennonite/Amish/Hutterite clothing stripped away?’ The lion’s part of the book is based around the seven core convictions of the Anabaptist Network in the UK, with a historical chapter toward the end for those who are new to the Anabaptist story. Since (despite Doug Chaplin’s objections) I’m happy to identify myself as an ‘Anabaptist Anglican’, this book was a great read for me.
Christopher Hitchens: God is Not Great. This summer I’m especially interested in reading about atheism (pro and con), and so the amalgam known as ‘Ditchkins’ (Hitchens and Dawkins)is of course particularly important right now. I found this book to be far too ‘over the top’ for me. The subtitle tells it all: ‘How religion poisons everything’. Really? Everything? I also have serious questions about the accuracy of the book. I’m not an expert in many of the areas Hitchens writes about, but I do know a fair bit about New Testament scholarship. In his chapter on the New Testament I identified at least fifteen glaring errors. This does not bode well for the accuracy of the rest of the book. Hitchens is a journalist dabbling in science, philosophy, theology, biblical scholarship etc., but he needs to do his homework better if he wants to make a convincing case.
Peter Hitchens: The Rage Against God. The subtitle of this book is ‘How atheism led me to faith’, and it is the autobiographical sections of this book that are the most enjoyable reading. But Peter is of course Christopher’s brother, and the tension between them on the subject of Christianity is never far from the surface. In the middle of the book Peter details three areas where he thinks atheism’s arguments (read, ‘Christopher’s arguments’) fail: (1) ‘Are conflicts fought in the name of religion really about religion?’ (2) ‘Is it possible to determine right and wrong without God?’ and (3) ‘Are atheist states actually not atheist?’
Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion. This is a far more formidable book than Hitchens’ ‘God is Not Great’. Dawkins is a scientist at the top of his game, and when he argues on the basis of things he really knows about (biology, evolution, natural selection etc.) he is extremely persuasive. However, for large parts of the book he strays into philosophy (eg. in discussing ‘Why is there anything at all?’ and the question of right and wrong and where it comes from), and there his arguments are far weaker. Still, I found this a very enjoyable read and I learned a great deal about science.
Francis S. Collins: The Language of God. Collins was until recently director of the human genome project and is a world class geneticist; the title of the book is taken from a remark Bill Clinton made with regard to those who had mapped the human genome learning ‘the language of God’. The book is partly biographical, partly philosophical, and partly scientific. Collins is concerned, firstly, to defend belief in God from the arguments of atheism, and secondly, to defend the theory of evolution from the arguments of fundamentalism. In the process he teaches us a great deal about DNA and human genetics. I found this a very enjoyable book.
I’ve now started to read Terry Eagelton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution. Other books in my pile for the summer include Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Anthony Flew’s There is a God, Lucy Moore’s Messy Church, James Alison’s On Being Liked, and Andrew Marin’s Love is an Orientation. We’ll see how far I get!

Emergents, Anglicans, Transcendence, and the Tickle Trunk

This past week, as I noted before, I was at the clergy conference of the Diocese of Edmonton. This sounds grander than it actually is; it’s a group of about fifty clergy, most of us well-known to each other, which happens once a year at a local retreat centre. This year our keynote speaker was Phyllis Tickle, well known author of books like The Divine Hours and ‘The Great Emergence‘. Phyllis is almost an octogenarian, but she’s full of beans and a delight to listen to.
Phyllis’ book ‘The Great Emergence’ outlines her view that (in words she attributes to retired Episcopal bishop Mark Dyer) ‘Every five hundred years the Church has a rummage sale, gets rid of a lot of stuff it doesn’t need any more, and takes on a bunch of new stuff’. Each of those five hundred year changes, in her view, has involved a fresh grappling with the issue ‘What is our authority?’ (the Bible, the Pope, reason. etc. etc.). The current change, which she calls ‘the great emergence’, has been brewing for a hundred years or so, fuelled by the enormous scientific advances and social changes of the last century. I’m not going to go into detail on her theory; it’s outlined well by Duncan McLeod here.
I have to say that I have a great suspicion of systematisers; I’m sure there’s a grain of truth in their systems, but I’m also sure that from then on they notice the things that agree with their schematics and overlook the rest. So I’m probably predisposed to be skeptical about Phyllis’ theory (although I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed her explanations and connections of the various historical events that have made the last hundred years so interesting and challenging for the Church). Her particular interest is the various strands of what she calls ‘Emergence Christianity’ (apparently there are now variants on this – including emerging Christians, emergent Christians, emergence Christians etc. etc. – it all seems very confusing).
One idea that did give me pause, however, was her bold statement that, despite all its strengths, emergence Christianity ‘can’t do transcendence’. ‘Transcendence’, as I understand it, means the sense of connection with the Other, with the majesty and mystery of God. For that, she says, you need holy places – dedicated sanctuaries in which people have been praying for years, full of holy objects and the smell of incense. She claims that many emergence Christians recognise this shortcoming – which is not being met by beer and theology sessions in pubs – and are looking for help from inherited forms of church. She suggested that we mainline Christians gather the little emergence pods around us like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings and let them use our buildings from time to time.
Now, I question this argument on two points. First, I’m not sure that the emergent church is beating a path to our door, crying out to use our buildings to recover the long-lost experience of transcendence. Most of the emergent Christians I’m in contact with know exactly why they left the traditional Church, and our expensive buildings, and the way (in their view) that we disconnect Sunday worship from real practical Christian living, both loom large in that decision. They aren’t looking for us to fill a gap in their Christian experience; they think we’re the ones with the gap (and, in some ways, they’re probably right).
But second, and even more fundamental, I deny the idea that you can’t ‘do’ transcendence unless you have a large ancient dedicated holy space to do it in. I would say that you can’t ‘do’ transcendence at all – if it’s real, then it’s God’s doing, and he can do it anywhere he likes. The early Christians certainly experienced it, and they didn’t have any ancient buildings to ‘do’ it in. God, however, was definitely among them, working his miracles and changing people’s lives, even when they met for worship in living rooms (after all, if the New Testament is true, everything essential to church life should be doable in a living room!).
What do you think? When have you had the experience of transcendence, and how did it come about?

Messy Church

I must be the last person in the world to discover that Lucy Moore is brilliant and so is her creation, Messy Church! She was the Tail-End Charlie at our clergy conference, coming in for twenty-four hours Thursday night and Friday morning, at a point in time when I was really tired and quite ready to go home. Nonetheless, she succeeded in firing me up and getting me interested in something I was definitely not interested in beforehand. We’re looking at starting something new for young children and their parents in the Fall at St. Margaret’s, and we’re definitely going to take a look at the ‘Messy Church’ approach.

Origins of the mitre

In case anybody’s curious about this rather strange episcopal headgear, here are a couple of links:

The Wikipedia article is quite informative, and for my money this is the important line:

The camelaucum (Greek: καμιλαύκιον, kamilaukion), the headdress both the mitre and thePapal tiara stem from, was originally a cap used by officials of the Imperial Byzantine court.

The whole thing, in other words, is a Christendom innovation to do with power, pomp, and circumstance. Apparently it’s not all that old (as church history goes), either; the Catholic encyclopedia dates it to the tenth or eleventh centuries.

This article is I suspect a spoof, but even so, it’s a hilarious one. I will now never be able to shake the idea of a bishop wearing a fish’s head…

Even today, mitres are by no means universal in the Anglican Church, and a hundred years ago only Anglo-Catholics wore them. The bishop who ordained me a deacon, Jack Sperry, never wore one, and I don’t think he was any less a bishop for it. In my view, it’s long past time for us to rethink the wearing of ceremonial robes based on the dress of civil officials in the Roman empire (in other words, adopted as a sign of Christianity’s growing temporal power). Even Dom Gregory Dix admitted that in the early church a bishop probably presided at the Eucharist in ordinary clothes (The Shape of the Liturgy, A & C. Black, 1945, reprinted by Seabury Press, 1983, p.142).

Sermon for June 20th: 1 Kings 19:1-15a

God’s Care for Burnt-Out Disciples

Let me tell you the story of Jack. Jack committed his life to Christ when he was a teenager. He wasn’t brought up in a Christian family and he didn’t get any encouragement from them when he started attending a church and going to midweek youth group meetings. But he loved Jesus passionately and was very enthusiastic about his new faith, so he barely noticed the opposition. He got involved in a small church that had to struggle to survive, and it was only natural that as he got older he became one of the leaders of the youth work.

Jack went to university and then went out into the business world. He found very few Christians in the company he worked for, and the values assumed by the people in his office were very different from his own. Money was the bottom line. Everyone was aiming for a comfortable lifestyle and lots of them were willing to cut quite a few ethical corners to get it. Jack wasn’t backward about his faith, and gradually he got used to being an object of jokes around the office. He continued to attend church and was now the leader of the youth work. He really wanted to make a difference for Christ and lead others to know and love him, but he was getting more and more discouraged. Not much seemed to be happening; so little was changing.

At a certain point in Jack’s mid-twenties, the pressure just got to be too much for him. So many family gatherings began on Sunday mornings, and he got tired of always being the one who had to be late. He got tired of being the one who was always different at the office, the one everyone else made jokes about. He got tired of all the responsibility of the youth work at church; everyone wanted to see it happen, but no one else was willing to lend a hand. He just lost his enthusiasm for it. He didn’t complain about it; he just gradually discovered that it was a lot easier to sleep in on Sunday mornings, and to blend in at the office. It’s ten years now since Jack went to church, and although he misses it and feels guilty about it, in some ways life is a lot easier for him now.

It must have been about twenty-five years ago that I first heard the phrase ‘burnout’ used to describe the experience we go through when the gap between our ideals on the one hand and reality on the other just becomes too great for us, and our inner flame dies out. As soon as I heard the phrase explained, I recognised that I’d already been close to it several times. I’d been working as a minister in small rural churches with few members, always struggling with financial problems and wondering if the church would survive, and because I was the minister it was always my fault when things went badly. In this context it was easy to lose one’s enthusiasm for Christ, for following him and for leading others to him.

Our Old Testament reading today is obviously a burnout story. It’s the story of a burnt-out prophet, the prophet Elijah. Let’s think about his story together.

Read the rest here.