A very brief Introduction to Christian Fundamentalism

“There are few things more dangerous than inbred religious certainty.” – Bart D. Ehrman

This is a REPOST of a blog I wrote a couple of years ago … most fitting at this time of Australian religious and political discussions!

There is a danger in assuming that every Christian belief and practice that we adhere to today has always been part of the Christian faith throughout the centuries. “Well, Christians have believed this for two thousand years,” is a common phrase we fling around. We can line ourselves up with the ‘saints’ who have gone before, convinced that our Christian enlightenment happens to be the ‘orthodox’ portion, whilst everyone else has, unfortunately, landed with a distorted version. If this is our subconscious paradigm, then the way we engage with the wider world outside our theological framework tends to be from a benevolent, Messiah-like stance, patiently patting a delinquent society on the head. But over time we find this irksome. People who are not as pious and pure as we would like them to be can lead us to ‘righteous’ anger. We find lawmakers and politicians with similar views and hinge our wagon of outrage to their public persona, their dogma, and their power … Welcome to Christian Fundamentalism.

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This blog post will provide a very brief glimpse into the Fundamentalist movement within the North American and British context. Why is this of interest? It is most relevant to the Australian setting as fundamentalism still undergirds the ethos of so many faith communities, often without them being truly aware of the origin. Understanding this history provides a frame of reference of the motivation behind some of their beliefs and behaviour.

Some of the earliest scholars to write on fundamentalism were Stewart G. Cole, History of Fundamentalism (1931), and Norman F. Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931 (1954). Both academics were rather negative as they saw the rise of fundamentalism not driven by religious convictions, but rather by the desire for political denomination power. Fundamentalism was primarily a reaction. It was a reaction to liberal theology, secularism, science, and especially the theory of evolution. According to Timothy Gloege, North American Christian fundamentalism was invented in an advertising campaign. The all-UnknownAmerican brand of ‘old-time religion’ was developed by an early adopter of consumer capitalism, who wanted to sell pure Christianity like he sold breakfast cereal. Enter Henry Parsons Crowell, whose Quaker Oats was one of the pioneers of the branding revolution.

So how do you create a brand of conservative orthodoxy that goes beyond the traditional Presbyterian Orthodoxy, Methodist orthodoxy, etc? You work with the fear of those who felt that the ‘true’ Christian message was being watered down through some of the factors mentioned (liberalism, secularism, etc). Crowell’s idea of orthodoxy was a prescription that came with a set of ‘fundamentals’ that anyone who was conservative within any denomination could ascribe to and set themselves apart from the liberals.

Crowell used a publication called The Fundamentals to further his ideas. This is a twelve volume set of theological treatises written by various scholars writing on the fundamentals of faith, or as the subheading says, a testimony to the truth. Those who actually bother reading the volumes quickly discover that they carry no precise creed and that articles contradict each other, but they did create an impression of orthodoxy.  The volumes brought together conservatives from all different denominations who felt embattled by liberalism. They united under some very specific ideas, particularly biblical literalism and creationism. (A timeline of the rise of fundamentalism and the Scopes Trscopessignial).

This was not the only stream of fundamentalism. There were several in the 19th century of British and American theology. One of these was Dispensationalism. A new interpretation of the Bible developed in the 1830’s in England. In this theory, time was divided into seven stages called ‘dispensations’. Each dispensation was a stage of revelation from God. Today, many who hold to this idea believe that the world is on the verge of the last stage, where a final battle will take place at Armageddon. Then Christ will return and a 1000 year reign will begin. An important sign was the rebirth of national Israel, which is central to this ideology.

Princeton Theology of the mid 19th century provided another stream of fundamentalism. It upheld the doctrine of inerrancy, in response to higher criticism of the Bible. Charles Hodge was influential in insisting that the Bible was inerrant because it had been dictated by God, and that faithfulness to the Bible provided the best defence against liberalism. This is important as in his understanding, liberalism and modernism, just like non-Christian religions, would lead people to hell.

Fundamentalism found oxygen in many “Bible Colleges,” especially those modelled after the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Dwight Moody was influential in preaching the imminence of the Kingdom of God thaUnknown-1t was so important to dispensationalism. As Moody’s crusading career came to an end we discover a new strand of fundamentalism through William B. Riley.  In revival meetings around the Midwest and Northwest from 1897 to the 1910s, Riley told crowds to follow the Bible. “God is the one and only author,” he declared, adding that human writers “played the part of becoming mediums of divine communication.”  Riley’s distinctive brand of fundamentalism combined social activism, puritanical moralism, and a literalist premillennialist theology.  In his 1906 book urging Christians to serve the urban poor, Riley defined the mission of the Church as he saw it: “When the Church is regarded as the body of God-fearing, righteous-living men, then, it ought to be in politics, and as a powerful influence.”

Fundamentalism is still with us today and it is still a powerful force. In his book, Superchurch: The Rhetoric and Politics of American FundamentalismJonathan J. Edwards argues that fundamentalism is not going away and will remain strongest at the level of local politics: “Fundamentalists describe themselves as both marginalized and a majority. They speak of national revival and theocratic dominion, but both are always deferred. They celebrate local victories while announcing imminent national destruction. This paradox is rhetorical — meaning that it’s constructed in and through language.”

Today we see a second-stage fundamentalism emerging in the United States and around the world. While established churches are embracing contemplation, silent prayer and non-directed worship, fundamentalist churches are actively pursuing consumption, mobility, image and influence. We see this pursuit played out in Australian politics.  Unlike the USA with its firm separation of church and state, Australian governments had supported and been supported by religious groups since the foundation of the European settlement. However, it was not until the election of the conservative national government in 1996, that government preference for the religious provision of services was enshrined as a policy priority.  The extraordinary rise of fundamentalist churches and right-wing lobby groups through the 1980s and 1990s has had direct effects on government and policies … but that is the topic for another day.

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The Avoidance Crisis

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.
Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life …”
– Mark Manson –

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Last week I blogged about death and how we live in a society that avoids this subject to the point of delusional insanity. The response was overwhelming. What became clear amongst the many messages I received was that our collective existential angst has created a social and cultural avoidance crisis. It is difficult for us to acknowledge that life can be very painful and challenging and that we have very little control over it.

Avoidance has helped us cope and survive in life. We naturally choose the path of least resistance to escape danger or suffering. Our early childhood lessons were often about learning what, or who, to avoid in order to make it to adulthood. We have an inbred protective reflex when exposed to adverse stimuli and that is beneficial – unless it becomes driven by anxiety.

Anxiety can cause us to protect ourselves from things we perceive as threats, but often these very threats are important life experiences. We may think avoidance is a cure, not realising it can actually heighten our distress. We begin to be consumed with the very thing that we are trying to avoid. There are many examples of this. People suffering from eating disorders trying to avoid certain foods, so food and calories become their obsession. People suffering from social disorders trying to avoid encounters with others and feeling continually panicked. My previous blog on death discussed our society’s avoidance of talking about death, underscoring a primal fear that drives us to all sorts of unrealistic beliefs or behaviours, both in religious and social settings.

Mark Manson’s quote above is so accurate: “The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering.” The more dogmatic and hostile we become in areas of our lives, the more we are struggling to avoid something unpleasant, perhaps a shadow side to ourselves. It’s an internal struggle and a form of suffering. That is why vulnerability is such an important transformational tool. When we learn to be vulnerable we begin to recognise that avoidance is not the answer. In fact, avoidance comes at a very high price as we barricade ourselves from life’s inevitabilities and our own flaws.

Facing our fears takes courage. In a society that is caught in an avoidance crisis as it pursues experience after experience to feel ‘better’ or ‘happy’, it takes guts to stop, reflect and become counter-cultural. We need to learn to build our tolerance to things that are challenging, painful and uncomfortable. It is in the full embrace of life, with all its ups and downs, laughter and tears, that we experience what it means to be truly human and to build relationships that are genuine, healthy and have longevity.

Dear reader, take a moment to think about your life. Are there areas that you are avoiding that desperately need your attention? Are you sidestepping conversations because even though they are important and should not wait any longer, you know they will be difficult and awkward? Are there shadows you need to face that you have denied?

Avoiding avoidance is risky. Will it all go well when you stop running and turn around? I don’t know. “It all going well” is not what life is about. Life is raw, risky and at times filled with peril. We become vulnerable and our Jenga blocks, sometimes built on lofty ideals and a protective guise, can all topple over … and then we have to rebuild … one honest, humble, vulnerable block at a time …

“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.”
– R.D. Laing –

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The Scarcity of Wonder in our Black-and-White, Know-it-All World

“If I had influence with the good angel who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world would be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life as an unfailing antidote against boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

– Rachel Carson (The Sense of Wonder) –

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I spent my early years in a small village in northern Germany. A village surrounded by endless pine forests that my parents and I would regularly walk through. To me, it was an enchanted forest. From the large ant-hills with their complex and intricate architecture on which my Oma would lay her handkerchief on the way into the forest only to retrieve it afterwards smelling sour (meant to be good for the sinuses?!) to the many creatures that called that forest home, it filled me with a sense of wonder.

Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher, defines wonder as something that arises within our emotions when “something quite new and singular is presented … and memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance.” It is a feeling of surprise and admiration when we experience something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. Wonder is intrinsic to human nature, engaging our curiosity and nurturing our creativity. Descartes called wonder our most fundamental emotion.

Wonder unites science, religion and art. It draws on us emotionally, creatively and instils reverence. Robert Fuller, professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Illinois, says that wonder is “one of the principal human experiences that lead to belief in an unseen order.” Environmentalist Rachel Carson argues that we have an inborn sense of wonder, manifested and prevalent in children. She writes, “If a child is to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder, they need the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with them the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in …” In a world that is becoming increasingly dogmatic, operating from a stagnant black and white perspective, I lament that we are experiencing a scarcity of wonder in our speed-driven, technology-addicted, and artificially-stimulated world!

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Our developed world suffers from excess-syndrome. We have the level and benefits of health and wealth that our ancestors could not even imagine. Today’s ill health is often caused by excess itself as we gorge ourselves on the bounty that capitalism has provided on the backs of our poorer global neighbours. Yet with all the excess we have not only become increasingly dissatisfied, but fearful, cynical, anxious, paranoid and selfish. The wonder that a walk in a forest may bring, has now become a distant memory. At times it is felt through a sense of nostalgia evoked by the rare poem we read when time permits.

The religious sphere in many parts of the world has been hijacked by a blistering, blustering and self-righteous form of fundamentalism that prides itself on being ‘right’. This form of imagined and desired moral absolutism has reduced the mystery of God to a spreadsheet of culturally preferred yes-and-no answers that have created a tribal shame culture where wonder has been ridiculed and alienated. Sadly, it is this religious space that is shaping so much of the next generation’s worldview, impacting on their perspective and wonder.

C.K. Chesterton said that we are perishing from lack of wonder, not for the lack of wonders. Mike Yaconelli wrote, “Children live in a world of dreams and imagination, a world of aliveness … There is a voice of wonder and amazement inside of all of us, but we grow to realise we can no longer hear it …” It is time to have a wonder renaissance!

Maybe it is time you reclaim your human birthright of wonder? Maybe you lost it because your sense of wonder was ridiculed? Or analysed? Or prohibited? When was the last time you stared into the fathomless night sky and wondered? When did you last listen to a piece of music that moved you to tears and made you wonder about what it really means to be fully human? In these uncertain times where so many of the messages we receive on a daily basis are filled with gloom and dread, may you again find the courage to wonder. May this wonder bring you joy.

The root of the word “educate” meant “to care” – a caring that flows naturally from a deep feeling for the world. This kind of care seems to embody a type of wisdom that has nothing to do with information or knowledge in its restricted sense. Our connection to the world is not through information about it, but through a sense of wonder. How long since the cry of insects and the sight of the setting sun brought us deeply into ourselves?
– John Wilson (Reflections on Everyday Life)

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Only Children and Fools Tell the Truth!

“Remember, there will be those among the powerful who try to make you say what you know is clearly not true because if everyone agrees to believe the lie, the lie can go on forever … If you want to be a leader, you, too, must refuse to tell the old lies. You must learn to say that those emperors have no clothes. You must see what you are looking at and say what you see.”
— Joan Chittister –
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It is in the mouth of babes that we often find the most profound truth-telling. A child has a way of looking at the world without firmly set prejudice, ideas or concepts. The German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher, Karl Jaspers, one of the founders of existentialism, writes,
 
“Children often possess gifts which they lose as they grow up. With the years we seem to enter into a prison of conventions and opinions, concealments and unquestioned acceptance, and there we lose the candour of childhood. The child still reacts spontaneously to the spontaneity of life; the child feels and sees and inquires into things which soon disappear from his vision. He forgets what for a moment was revealed to him and is surprised when grownups later tell him what he said and what questions he asked.” (Way to Wisdom)

The perception of a child is beautifully illustrated in the work of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes“. Anderson tells the story of a vain emperor who lived in exceeding luxury and spent all his money on new clothes. Two swindlers convinced the emperor that they had spun him magnificent garments. The audacious lie was affirmed by his old minister, town officials, noblemen and finally the whole town, all of them afraid to look foolish or be shunned if they admit that the emperor is starkers!

The crowd unanimously bought into the delusion, except a child. A child who was unaffected by social protocol. A child who was unaware that his or her belonging could be under threat if they spoke up. A child who had not yet learnt to tow the party line or follow the herd mentality. A child stated the obvious: “But he hasn’t got anything on!”

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Foudroyant! How can this little monster utter such truth? Scandalous! Then the ripple started from someone in the back row who just found his voice and a little bit of courage – “He actually is wearing no clothes!” It took a child to tell them what they already knew. The emperor, on the other hand, although aware of the gimmick, continued to parade naked because … well, the show must go on.

Nowhere is this story more applicable than in politics and religion. Currently, we are seeing another historical high of ridiculous political lies, or, *ahem*, “alternative truths”. It is like we have landed in the sewerage pit of global, political stupidity and perhaps it is time to listen to the little, dumbfounded inner child, standing trembling on the sidelines. It is time to wake up. The emperor is starkers and the religious elite is only a few steps behind.

When religion upholds a corrupt, fear-monger, prejudice-inducing political ideal that marginalises and scapegoats those deemed ‘other’,  it is like the old minister pissing into the emperor’s invisible coat pocket. From the time of Constantine, sectors of the Christian religion have played with fire as they have sought to muscle in for power, fame and wealth. This hypocritical, gospel-disfiguring stance must be maintained even when in a moment of gut-level honesty, they recognise what horrific pain they have caused through scapegoating those on the margins.

Richard Rohr would contend that without honest self-knowledge religion ends up being more part of the problem than the solution, resulting in a Christian populous that affirms racism, sexism, and greed with no questions asked. Religious leaders often play host to fear of losing ‘face’ or being ridiculed by those on the inner sanctum of religious power or influence. Rejection by the approval-posse is a heavy burden and it is easier to continue marvelling at the emperor’s magnificent, colourful, non-existent clothes.

I am writing this blog for those who are waking up in the matrix. I urge you to channel the inner child or inner fool, take a deep breath, and yell it loud and clear: “THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!” Refuse to be part of a system that excludes others and lives in denial.

“No Emperor has the power to dictate the heart”
— Friedrich Schiller –
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Questions in the Desert – Part Three

Faith is a dynamic and ever-changing process, not some fixed body of truth that exists outside our world and our understanding. God’s truth may be fixed and unchanging, but our comprehension of that truth will always be partial and flawed at best. – Bishop Gene Robinson –

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Dear reader, please be aware that this blog post is the third and final instalment of Questions in the Desert, a continuation of Part One and Part Two …

3. “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

Was it mere coincidence that the Eunuch was reading from Isaiah 53?

Isaiah is a book written by a Jewish prophet and part of the Tanakh, the Jewish Scriptures. This, in and of itself, is mildly fascinating, in that the Eunuch continued to search the Scriptures, looking for meaning, despite having been rejected at the Temple.

There is something more interesting, however. The passage he is reflecting on is the last of the four “Songs of the Suffering Servant” and it tells the story of a “Man of Sorrows”. People throughout the history of the church have understood this passage as prophesying the coming of Jesus: the One who was to be the “Suffering Servant”.

Importantly, this passage, immediately before the part read by the Eunuch, describes this coming Servant – who we now understand as Jesus – as physically marred and then rejected by the Jewish people.

Much like the Eunuch.

So as the Eunuch speaks to Philip, you can imagine the urgency in his voice: “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” … Who is this man who, like me, is physically marred and rejected? Is it the writer? Is it someone else? Is this about me?

Here the yearning heart of an outcast is being reflected in the prophet Isaiah – who shows him that the Saviour of the world, was an outcast like him. Rejected by his own people, rejected by the fine religious institution of his day, he too was wounded and mutilated.

I wonder what Philip said to him. Maybe it was something like this: “What you are reading is about a man named Jesus, who, like you, pursued God. In his pursuit, he, too, went to the Temple, and he, too, was rejected. But this was no ordinary man. This was God made flesh. This God of the universe knows your story, the story of being outcast, of being refused from the place of worship, and God came into the world to show that the God of the universe is not defeated by rejection, even rejection unto death.”

Philip helped the Eunuch understand that the Scripture he was reading demonstrated how God was already at work in his life. Like a “Join the Dots” game, Philip simply brought God, who had always been with the Eunuch, just like God is with each and every person, to the forefront of the Eunuch’s conscious recognition.

Many of us remember that moment in life when we “awaken”,  our “dots are joined”, and we realise that God has always been at work in us. We have simply been unaware!

4. “Here is water. Why can’t I be baptised?”

I wish we were privy to the whole conversation between Philip and the Eunuch. Suffice to say, that the conversation and interchange of questions and answers brought them both to an “aha!” moment. That moment when the lights went on.

Imagine this moment for the Eunuch, a man who has only known rejection. He wore a stigma and knew ridicule from every social sphere: in his culture, in the religion he was trying to pursue, in his role, in his political positioning – everything about him reminded him every day that he did not belong.

And then Philip shares the Gospel. The Gospel that declared him as accepted, loved and included. This man would have no comprehension of what that would be like: to be equal amongst people of faith. This was not the rhetoric of some narcissistic platform personality begging for money, or an angry street “preacher” with a megaphone. This was what the Gospel should always be – wonderful and exceedingly exhilarating Good News. No wonder he saw a puddle in the desert and said, “Water! Why can’t I be baptised?”

And then there’s Philip! Perhaps at some point, he took a big gulp, laid aside his exclusive religious ideals and took a leap of faith! Faith that the Gospel is greater than his paradigms, ignorance and cultural stigmas. We forget that for Philip this is a whole new journey that has taken him totally out of his comfort zone. He realises as he goes to the water with the Eunuch that this will not be a popular move amongst his Jewish friends, and even amongst the Messianic Jews who are still getting their head around the fact that God is bigger than the boundaries of their religion.

The Samaritans were a huge step for Philip. This will take him to a place of no return – he either believes the Gospel is as glorious and scandalous as he has preached, or he returns to the confines of a law-based tradition and acceptance.

And again Philip astounds us with his courage – he takes the step and goes to the place of no return. He baptises the Eunuch. In Philip, God has found a faithful messenger.

And here end the questions in the desert – and for once in the Bible, it has a similar end to fairy tales.

When they came up out of the water, Philip disappears, and that was the last the Eunuch saw of him. But he didn’t mind. He had what he’d come for and went on down the road as “happy as he could be” (Message Bible).

I love that – as happy as he could be. A man who never really understood love was now amongst the beloved. A man who had only known exclusion was now included. A man forever on the outer was now in the inner circle. He was equal, he was accepted – no matter what his future held, he was in Christ, and for him, that was all that mattered.

I wonder how people leave our conversations? Do we leave others as “happy as they could be”?  When we walk away are they a little closer to recognising God at work in their lives? A God who loves them immeasurably.

“Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.” – Brennan Manning –

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Questions in the Desert – Part Two

“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” 
– Jean Vanier-
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Dear reader, please be aware that this blog post is a continuation from Part One.

… The story of Philip and the Eunuch encourages us to pay attention to God’s Spirit in our lives. It also serves as an important reminder that every human being is loved by God and made in God’s image.

Philip demonstrates great courage as he begins to run next to a presumably heavily armed chariot (remember, the Eunuch was a treasurer) to listen to his questions and engage in his life’s story.

Question 1 (Philip): “Do you understand what you are reading?”

Philip, who has now become an ‘alongsider’ to the Eunuch, is listening to him read from the book of the prophet Isaiah. Prophetic narrative is a most difficult genre for even a seasoned scholar. The Eunuch is reading aloud, a normal practice for people of antiquity. Philip shows concern that perhaps the eunuch does not fully comprehend exactly what Isaiah is saying. He is right.

Question 2 (Eunuch): “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?”

The Eunuch invites Philip to sit with him in his chariot. He invites him to be a spiritual mentor. Like the Eunuch, our faith, cannot be completely understood unless we live it out within community.

It is interesting to take a moment at this point and consider a couple of things:

One, that the whole encounter in the desert was not ‘orchestrated’ or ‘planned’ by human effort. It was one of those Divine providential moments of life.

Two, Philip responded to the moment with courage and humility. Unlike so much of what we see outworking itself in the rhetoric of modern day Christianity, yelling at people from the many social media platforms with a politicised, arrogant, Messiah-complex tone, Philip comes alongside with love and attentiveness.

What sort of transformation must have occurred in Philip’s life! From a young age he would have been raised as an observant Jew and people like the Eunuch were outside his paradigm. They were the outcasts. This encounter was not just a ‘conversion experience’ for the Eunuch, but for Philip as well. Conversion is not something that happens just once in our lives!

And so Philip begins to explain the Scripture from which the Eunuch is reading:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” Isaiah 53

I doubt very much that his reading of Isaiah 53 was mere ‘coincidence’ …

Part Three and the final questions will all be in the next blog post.

“The gospel is not just the illustration (even the best illustration) of an idea. It is the story of actions by which the human situation is irreversibly changed.” Lesslie Newbigin,The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
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Questions in the Desert – Part One

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Nature’s seasons are a constant reminder that nothing we do or experience in life is permanent. I was part of a mega-church community in Melbourne, Australia, for over thirty years. I never thought that season would come to an end. But it did.

One of the last sermons I gave at this church was on Philip’s encounter with a eunuch in a dusty Palestinian desert, as narrated in Acts 8. Hindsight is a most wonderful thing – looking back now I see the significance of that message in my own life. It is helping me as I learn to dream again, as I reflect on the religion of Christianity and what it has become in modern times, and specifically on the possibilities of a movement that focuses on the love and words of Christ.

Below are some of the notes from this sermon – I will post them over a couple of blogposts so as not to overwhelm the reader 🙂

… The book of Acts, in the New Testament of the Bible, contains vital information linking the life of Jesus and the various epistles (or letters) written after his death. Taking centre stage in this book are two men: Peter and Paul. If it wasn’t for Acts we would know very little about them, especially Paul and his motivation that took him to distant lands. Without Acts we would also not know about Philip, a Eunuch, and questions in the desert …

In Acts 8, we find a disciple of Christ called Philip. The suggested author of Acts, Luke, has taken time to develop Philip’s persona: he was someone who had spread the Gospel in Samaria, and was working throughout the territory of Judea and up the coast to Caesarea. Philip is portrayed as prophetic: he proclaims the Gospel with signs and wonders, he speaks with angels, he is whisked up by the Spirit, and he runs alongside the chariots of mighty men. Luke is painting the prophetic missional character of Philip as a forerunner of the prophetic mission and mandate of the Gospel.

Philip encounters a man from the ‘ends of the earth’. This eunuch is from Ethiopia, which is known in the Bible as the land of Cush. It does not correspond to modern Ethiopia but rather the Nubian kingdom whose capital was Meroe, south of Egypt, which is part of modern-day Sudan.

The eunuch was a wealthy man –  he had a carriage, he could read, he had a driver, and he was in charge of the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians (a dynasty, not a personal name). He represented people that to the Jewish Christians were at the ‘ends of the earth’. He also represents a people group who have been ostracized and kept away from Yahweh because of his very identity as a eunuch – a mutilated one.

In antiquity, eunuchs belonged to the most abhorred and ridiculed group of men, often being slaves who had been castrated to inflict punishment or enact servitude. If they did rise to a position of prominence they could not escape the stigma of their sexless condition. Eunuchs did at times rise above their social status and find employment at the imperial court, but they would always be victims of negative stereotyping and ridicule during the Persian period. They were always on the outside – Exclusion was a part of life for them.

Absence of sexual organs meant that eunuchs were stigmatized due to their inability to reproduce and represent that culture’s idea of the traditional family. Their ‘otherness’ was amplified not only by their sexual difference and childless state, but also their exclusion from worshipping in the temple with the rest of God’s family. In Deuteronomy 23:1, it says that “no one who is emasculated or has his male organ cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”  This man carried the stigma of imperfection and immorality.

This eunuch, although he would be excluded from the religious festival in Jerusalem, went to worship anyway. And now God came looking for him, the outcast, the stigmatized – and in a marvelous scandalous way he becomes wholly accepted.

“This eunuch, symbolizing the community of ostracised sexual minorities, is among the first of the outcasts from ancient Israel to be welcomed into Jesus’ discipleship of equals.”
–  Jerome Neyrey, paper on the social world of Luke-Acts.

This is indeed a strange and scandalous story. I don’t think those early Jerusalem Christians ever imagined this is what the ‘Gospel to the ends of the earth’ message looked like. Perhaps, like us today, they had a much neater, less risqué, ideal of what it would mean for the good news of an incarnate Christ to travel outside their boundaries and tightly held dogma.

So when we talk about the ‘Gospel’, does it ever occur to us that this God of messy humanity will deliberately mess with our heads and take us as far out of our comfort zone as our obedience allows?

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… Part Two and the first question in next blog …

 

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This Ancient Mountain

I acknowledge the original custodians of this land and pay my respects to the Elders both past, present and future for they hold the memories, the spiritual connections, the traditions, the culture and hopes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of  Australia.

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Every morning when I step on to my front verandah I greet a Dreamtime legend. A warrior that caused havoc amongst young love and was turned to stone and became Mount Ninderry.

The original Aboriginal people of the Yandina area and its distinct land formation belonged to the Gubbi Gubbi language group. The tribes included Nalbo, Kabi, Dallambara and Undabi. These tribes lived in Yandina and the surrounding area for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. Middens, scarred trees, bora rings and burial grounds remain a silent witness to their presence and rich heritage. Stories like that of Mount Ninderry speak of their dreaming.

In the evening I sit and watch the mountain light up as the setting sun begins to dance and flicker upon its ancient surface. One moment it is bathed in golden light and shining so brightly that I squint watching it. John Muir wrote, “How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains.” Then the shadows come, pouring out of the rocks and bushes like warriors of old. Ninderry becomes dark and ominous reminding everyone that this idyllic setting also has a dark and bloody past.

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View from Mount Ninderry to Mount Coolum and the coast.

As I sit in silence and contemplate this giant of rock, I find solace and am reminded of a few things …

  1. That we have lost our way in a fast-paced, over-stimulated world. We no longer pay heed to the ancient voices. We no longer allow the healing power of sunshine, flowers, wind, storms and mountains to stop us in our tracks and revive. It is time we take stock and acknowledge how much our neglect of nature has cost us and the world we live in.
“Thousand of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” (Muir)

  1. That we need to remember our place in this earth … and it is not as grand as we like to think. My ancient friend has seen civilisations rise and fall. The people who rose with grand ambition in the hope of making a name for themselves, now lay forgotten several generations later. Even the ones we remember have had their narrative distorted as we airbrush them into mythical characters. Not much remains of our one short life – except, perhaps, those things we did when we rose above our fear and pride and gave ourselves to love without borders. Ninderry reminds me to walk in humility.
        “This mountain, the arched back of the earth risen before us, it made me feel humble, like a beggar, just lucky to be here at all, even briefly.”

  1. That God is faithful. Mountains have always spoken to me of faithfulness. I don’t mean to sound trite or even comforting. Mountains can be treacherous, they can be difficult, they can even claim lives. When I speak of faithfulness I don’t intend it in the diluted manner so often flung about in modern, pop religions. Rather, it is a faithfulness despite of … a faithfulness that my ‘in spite of’ faith can connect with. I believe in faithful Providence and a Creator that remains faithful to all of creation, not just an elite few.
    “Mountains are the cathedrals where I practice my religion” – Anatoli Boukreev

Mount Ninderry has become my immovable friend. A constant reminder of past, present and future. When I am long gone this regal mountain will still stand guard. However, right now Ninderry reminds me that I have one glorious life to live … and live it I shall.

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abbey
 
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A Thrill of Hope

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
– Adolphe Adam – 

It’s that time of year again. While some folks claim there is a ‘war on Christmas’, it takes very little research to discover that this apocalyptic, deluded conspiracy theory holds little truth. Christmas, or at least the capitalist, indulgent, endless carol jingles, deck-the-halls-with-boughs-of-holly version is alive and well. The joy can be felt in shopping centre carparks and on the faces of folks standing in long queues as they spend their last dollars on items that will decorate an Op Shop next year. Christmas is going strong.

Christmas as we know it today has a most interesting history. Early Christianity never celebrated the birth of Jesus – only his death and resurrection at Easter. It was in the fourth century that some bright, ecclesiastical persona decided it would be rather jolly to also celebrate his birth – but when? Pope Julius I chose December 25, the same time as the winter solstice festivals, in the hope that this new ‘Feast of the Nativity’ would be popular … and by the amount of tinsel on my balcony several hundred years later, he was absolutely right.

Some religious folks have a real problem with Christmas. So if there’s a ‘war on Christmas’, a lot of it is coming from a counter conspiracy theory that sees Christmas as pagan worship. Oh, and don’t mention a Christmas tree, or Santa, or elves, or tinsel to these fervent, anti-Christmas believers. So the ‘war on Christmas’ is rather awkward as it seems to be a civil Christian war (maybe that’s where the whole silly idea of ‘just’ war came from??). Someone should let dear Peter Dutton know, who is appalled at the resistance to Christmas … I am for democracy and free speech and I totally agree that Mr. Dutton should be allowed to sing about a refugee family desperately looking for shelter. Sing away, Mr. Dutton, sing away!

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Whether we choose to celebrate Christmas or not, is a personal  decision. For me, the fanfare around this time of year is not that convincing or enticing. For many, Christmas is a difficult season as it can highlight a strained relationship, loneliness, as well as grief or loss, amidst the explosion of ‘happiness’ from the media marketing machine. I also reflect on the reason we celebrate Christmas: to remember a child born in poverty and harsh oppression. The real Christmas had no jingle bells or red nosed reindeers. The real Christmas brought hope in the very fact that it was so messy and controversial.

The thrill of hope which marked that holy night so long ago was not because superman had been born. It did not lie in the religious institutions that would lay claim to the little baby and brand their ideas of ‘orthodoxy’ in his name. It is not the act of belief itself, or a belief in sacred text. The thrill of hope is the child: Emmanuel – God Incarnate, God with us. The messy, scandalous and difficult birth, life and death of Christ reminds everyone that God takes on human form, with all the complexities of what it means to be human.

The thrill of hope is not a list of rules. It is not a group of exclusive, privileged people arguing who is more holy or right than the other. The thrill of hope is that the child born to Mary, is the Saviour of the world, who also identifies with our frailty, our sorrow, our disappointments, our questions, our joys and all our longings. His very life served as a signpost to a different tomorrow and a different kingdom. A kingdom not built on power, pride, patriotism, nationalism, racism, exclusivism, religion, sexism or all the other silly human notions we construct to make us feel more safe and stem a little bit of our existential angst. The kingdom that this child ushered in was one of hope, love, joy, serving, kindness, inclusion and equality. It is a counter-cultural, subversive way that the sacred text calls the ‘narrow way’.

We see the whispers of this hope both now and not yet. We see it when love conquers fear, when kindness conquers prejudice, when faith conquers superstition, when hope conquers despair, when generosity conquers the need to consume and protect. So whatever you think of Christmas or the claims of Christ, my wish for you, dear friend, is that the atmosphere and virtues of that subversive kingdom may be yours. To contemplate humanity embracing these ideals truly brings a thrill of hope … it is, after all, still a beautiful world.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
– Adolphe Adam –
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Remember with Purpose

You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.
– Exodus 22:21 –
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Part of the problem in reading an ancient sacred text with modern minds is that there is a disconnect and dissonance in context, culture and thought. When reading the Bible, for example, it is easy to revert to a form of fundamentalist literalism that leaves us with naive absolutism. Some may miss the point that in the Hebrew culture “deed was always more important than creed” (Wilson).  For example, when Habakkuk speaks of the just living by ‘faith’ (emunah), it implies an unwavering hope or trust that is backed through deed and action, not just an intellectual acceptance of a set of doctrines!

The idea of remembering or to remember (zakar) in the Bible and/or Torah, has to do with far more than just a simple retention of information. Rather, remembering is always accompanied by action. For example, Shabbat, returns every week. She reminds devout Jews that Yahweh is their Creator and Redeemer. Shabbat calls to action and repetitive observance enforces remembrance. There is an emphasis made throughout this sacred text that purposeful remembrance is very important in everyday life, in the nurture of tradition, and in the shaping of worldview. Why this emphasis?

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People, or people groups, who forget or deny their past, their story or their language, forget who they really are. Our society’s infatuation with wealth, power and dominion keeps us hyper-active, anxious, and hurriedly forgetful. We, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, obsessed with the ring of power, forget our name and our story, and with the forgetting we loose all connection with our past and our belonging in this world.  We forget that societies that focus on the ‘ring’ seldom find their way back to the ‘Shire’.

The study of history is an exercise in remembering. In the collection of our past narratives, we inform, guide, assist and shape our present and future. To forget history, or deny it, is to cut off our belonging through the corridors of time. All over the world today we find people remembering with purpose: through festivals, marches, holidays and holy days, memorials and solemn ceremonies, traditions and habits … We are made to remember.

Yet to remember is not always an easy task. Looking back we discover that the ancient paths did not just lead through green pastures and beautiful scenery, but there are also times of walking through deserts, storms, and very dark and treacherous moments. It is tempting to remember the good and forget the bad. Many Australian history books have done just that for decades – seeking to sanitise the past and educate another generation in a more palatable rendition of the atrocities committed under Colonial rule. My hope is that we will become far more active in recording an accurate version of what transpires on our fair isle. Our children’s children have a right to remember and lament these current days – where we house refugees in concentration camps and where we have allowed the fear, racism and propaganda spread by those in politics to shape our world.

Revising history in order to remember is one thing. Denying it takes us to a whole new level. It is heartbreaking to actively remember the holocaust. For many this path is shut. The grief is too overwhelming. For others the enormity of a horrible event in history can be so unpleasant that denial is preferable. It is much easier to ignore, rationalise or deny what has happened. There is a comfort in numbers and often people find each other and feed the denial. It is easy to pass harsh judgement on those who deny the holocaust, for example, yet many of us stand guilty of historical denial in some manner or other. Sometimes it is the denial of our own personal story.

So as the end of the year approaches, it is often a good time to spend some moments in reflection … to remember. Zakar, to actively remember, helps us to change our ways. The very action requires a transformation. It brings purpose both into our past, present and future. What are some things that happened this year that you would like to remember? In what active way will you do that? How about starting a journal? Begin to actively write down events, people, or circumstances that have made you who you are and that you want to remember. It takes courage to remember. At times there is much pain before there is any healing. May you be brave, dear friend. May you remember.

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” –Elie Wiesel

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