Friday, December 31, 2004


It's not too good to quote yourself, but Ekklesia has just put this out (Tsunami: justice as well as relief needed, say Christians) on the appalling tragedy in South Asia and East Africa --emphasising that the long-term solutions are down to politics not charity.

Having said that, the emergency need is enormous. I'm sure you've already donated, but here's another route: Christian Aid on 08080 004 004.

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Friday, December 24, 2004


This from David Wood at Grace Anglican Church, Joondalup, Australia - an excerpt from his wonderful Christmas Homily:

"[T]he flesh-taking of God in Jesus tonight shows us the eternal truth about God, truth to counter all [ ] lies.

"God turns out not to be some celestial monster, the task-master demanding satisfaction or the judge dispensing rough justice, the God of too much human imagination. To the acute disappointment of wowserish religious leaders, God does not, after all, specialize in pouring buckets of cold water on people having fun. God is not that prissy creature who disapproves of human love unless it conforms to a set of very tight rules.

"It is us, not God, who condemns young lovers, scowls at single mothers, worries over the supposed attack on the institution of marriage, and refuses to bless same-sex unions. God is not that maniac who sometimes appears at funerals, who “calls” us from this life before we are ready, who swallows up real human tragedy by somehow “taking” small children to heaven.

"To believe and trust in the only true God for half a minute, is to do away with all this accumulated junk."

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Monday, December 06, 2004


It is a painful and inescapable fact that distorted and unhealthy ideas about God, of which there are very many, often dovetail with human attempts to legitimate violence and oppression. One does not have to subscribe to some over-simple notion that religion (peculiar among life-stances) is the root of all evil in order to see that this is so.

The difficulty is perhaps particularly acute among the 'revealed religions' - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - where attempts to point this out often fall against the rock of an unyielding interpretation of some Scriptural text or inherited doctrine.

What lies behind this is usually a naive, solepcistic, partial or ideological reading of the text, commonly justified on the basis that it it the 'only', 'true' or 'traditional' one. On further examination such claims usually turn out to be untrue, but the weight of a view that buttresses our sanctity and dams our enemies proves massively appealing and 'convincing'.

Such is the case in the current intra-evangelical argument about 'atonement theory', the question about how the death of Christ is linked to God's offer of freedom and forgiveness in the teaching and imagination of the church - and the life (and death) of the world.

The recent stir has been occasioned by a book called The Lost Message of Jesus, published by Zondervan, 2004, written by Steve Chalke, a gifted Baptist preacher and social activist.

By most standards its contents are theologically unremarkable, reflecting a broad swathe of development in what we might call 'liberatory Christianity', consistent with the work of people like Sharon Ringe, Walter Brueggemann and Walter Wink - and at the more conservative end of the spectrum, N. T. Wright, the New Testament scholar who is now Anglican Bishop of Durham.

Chalke's message, essentially, is that Jesus was a social subversive, and that his call for radical transformation in the light of the coming realm of God embraces the political as well as the personal. Not much cause for complaint there, you might think - except that it challenges the complaisant and raises social justice as an inherent dimension of ekklesia and basilea.

The rub, however, is that Chalke has dared to criticise, inter-alia, the classical evangelical doctrine of penal substitution, the idea that God soehow required an innocent Jesus to 'pay the price' for human sin by violent death.

He was impolite enough to (accurately) describe the crude version of this doctrine as tantamount to 'cosmic child abuse', and to mention its links to the history of violence and domination sanctioned, tragically, in the name of Jesus Christ.

This is when the brown stuff hit the fan. On 7 October the Evangelical Alliance in the UK organised a 'debate' on Chalke's views: one which many felt was more like a heresy trial.

Subsequently the EA has publicly criticised Chalke and asked him to retract his comments, which sit clearly within the mainstream of Christian faith. A blow-by-blow account is available on Ekklesia, for the long-suffering.

None of the church's historic creeds have ever required a single view of atonement, and the biblical texts so often used in its favour can just as readily (and much more redeemingly) be understood in a strongly anti-sacrificial way, as Rene Girard and others have shown.

Still, the argument rumbles on. Its form, to those of us not part of the evangelical tribe, seems arcane and not a little unforgiving. But the issues are important.

At the moment I'm working with Jonathan Bartley on a collection of essays about atonement called Consuming Passion, which will be published in 2005 by Darton, Longman and Todd.

In the meantime, Stuart Murray-Williams gave a fine, succinct summary of the background to the debate in his contribution to the EA event, which can be found at the Anabaptist Network site. Important reading in its own right.

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Sunday, December 05, 2004


You may have noted that that this weblog has been rather sparodic recently. That's because such spare time as I have at the moment has mostly been given to the Ekklesia site, for which I have been a research associate since May this year.

Besides my sort-of-regular column, I've also been contributing news stories curated here.

Ekklesia was really the brainchild of Jonathan Bartley, whose interests in faith and politics moved in an increasingly radical direction in the 1990s. His own leanings are set out in 'The Subversive Manifesto' (BRF, 2003) - a popular booked aimed at local churches of a more conservative persuasion.

The site's values are linked to those of a mumber of partner organisations in the Anabaptist Network UK, a body which has also attracted dissenting, left-wing Anglicans like myself and Chris Rowland, who teaches New Testament at Oxford.

Ekklesia aims to be a radical Christian think-tank, but of late the news service has had a massive response. There are plans to split the site in two soon, one focussing on research and campaigns, the other on news.

One of the important roles Ekklesia can play, I think, is to mess up the 'liberal' and 'conservative' stereotypes that often bedevil attempts to talk about faith and politics in the media.

As it happens, Jonathan is from good evangelical stock - but has been courageous in supporting causes upopular in that constituency, such as Inclusive Church.

On the other hand I have a certain ecumenical pedigree, but have become increasingly convinced that an open, radical Christianity needs the nourishment of its biblical and 'traditional' roots.

That's something Ekklesia can help to get across. To the 'conservatives' we can say, "actually the Gospel is very radical", and to the 'liberals' we can say, "true liberality needs foundations."

As Bishop Peter Selby once put it, when the going gets tough "liberalism is not enough to support liberalism."

On the other hand, a conservatism which mistakes inflexibility for tradition or reaction for orthodoxy has misunderstood the true catholicity of the movement out of which it arises.

Jesus's agenda was not to shore up the fortress of exclusive religion, but to bring it crumbling down in favour of a new heaven and a new earth.

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