Saving Paradise

I’ve been gradually ploughing my way through a thought provoking tome entitled ‘Saving Paradise’ by Brock and Parker. Having done a survey of Christian art through history, they argue that the Cross wasn’t always the key Christian symbol as it is now, Paradise was. They’re not denying the vital significance and importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection but are claiming that Christians originally understood this as being not about suffering, sin and death as tends to be the case now but with restoring Paradise to this earth. They argue that when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire a shift took place and the symbol the Cross was brought to the fore and emphasised in order to justify war and the exercise of power through brute force; God brought peace through violence against his Son, and so we can bring peace through violence against our enemies. This theology was explicitly used later to justify the Crusades.

A disturbing chapter is devoted to the relationship between the Puritan settlers who sailed to America to colonize it and build there a new kingdom for God, and the Native Americans. I’m sure the story is more complex than one chapter allows it to be told, but reading it leaves the impression that the colonizers were met with offers of peace and co-existence from the ‘Indians’, but greeted them with either suspicion, or acceptance but only on their terms rather than equal footing. Such was their missionary desire to build a kingdom for God and usher in Christ’s return that they sought to convert the ‘Indians’ to their way of life as well as faith, or to remove them so that a proper fresh start could be had there. And this is exactly what they achieved. Many were wiped out by diseases they brought over with them, but more were killed, and those that were left were shipped out into reserves. A sickening story of dreadful deeds done in the name of Christ.

The irony of this sad story is that they were so fixated in looking for a future Paradise, that they overlooked elements of Paradise present right there in front of them; the chance for peaceful relationships with those that were different from them, the openness of the ‘Indians’ to seeing the divine or spiritual in life all around them, and the wonder of the American forests and countryside which the Indians lived in harmony with but they ravaged as they cleared the land. I wonder, how would Jesus have responded to the welcome they might have given him?

As so often, reading this left me questioning if there are ways in which I am blinded by my theology to seeing what God is doing around me in our world today? Are there expressions of Paradise outside the church in contemporary culture which we can and should value and applaud? Where are God’s fingerprints on evidence today?


You’re Not Invited!

There’s nothing worse than being excluded.

There’s nothing worse than everyone else in your class going to a party and discovering that you’re not invited. I remember clearly lining up for games and not being picked. How is it that at a disco everyone else knows the latest moves to the current favourite tracks but you don’t?

Okay, these examples are fairly frivolous, although painful at the time. There are of course more serious examples. Children being excluded from school. Prisoners being excluded from society. Women being excluded from the vote until not so long ago. Blacks being excluded from white’s only areas under apartheid. Immigrants excluded from entering because of the country they come from. This list could go on and on. The human race excels at stating who is in and who is out, who is welcome and who is not. Perhaps there are times when living in a fallen world that this is required in order for society to function, but often our exclusions derive from our fear and selfishness.

Exclusion is another of those themes that runs through the Bible. After the Fall Adam and Eve are excluded from the Garden. With the collapse of the Tower of Babel, and the establishment of different languages and cultures, inevitably different groupings would be excluded from each other through the inability to communicate with each other, which would in turn lead to suspicion and rivalry. Foreigners are excluded from marrying into the People of God. Although the Israelites were to welcome aliens in their midst and offer them hospitality, Gentiles were excluded from the Temple, as were children, eunuchs and the disabled. As for the lepers…

But then comes Jesus and everything changes.

He welcomes children and calls them the greatest.

He talks to women and treats them with dignity and equality.

He heals the lepers, sending them to the Priest so that they can be re-integrated into society.

He offers forgiveness to any who seek it and eats with tax collectors and prostitutes.

After the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday, he rides to the Temple, overturning the tables. We are told that the blind and lame came to him and he healed them and the children came and were shouting in the courts (Mt.21:12-16). Up until this point they were barred from entry!

This growing circle of inclusion spreads even further in Acts. The Ethiopian Eunuch is baptized in Acts 8 and then the disciples discover that the Spirit is given to the Gentiles too – and how can they reject those who God has accepted!

This is the glorious message of Easter, Jesus has smashed the barriers and all are allowed in. To borrow the words of the wedding service, what God has joined together let no man put asunder!

Review: Once and for All: A Confession of the Cross

Once and for All: A Confession of the Cross by Tom Smail
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me a while ago by a friend when I mentioned that I was struggling to reshape my understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection after a period of becoming dissatisfied with the theology of the atonement that was prevalent in the circles I had grown up in as a Christian. Somehow the popular expression of penal substitution didn’t fit the radical love and vision of Christ that I encountered in the Gospels. Small’s ‘Once and for All’ manages to hold together the seriousness of sin and Christ’s sacrificial love and creation embracing vision in a way which much better fits my understanding of Jesus as well as cohering with Scripture. This is a well written and easy to work through, whilst being profound in its reach. Recommended to all who want to think carefully about this topic.

View all my reviews

Love Wins

There’s an irony in the fact that a new book by the American preacher and church leader Rob Bell called ‘Love Wins’ should have stirred up such a bitter debate amongst evangelicals over the last month or so in America. In many ways, this has been their equivalent of the debate sparked off in the UK a couple of years ago by Steve Chalke’s book ‘The Lost Message of Jesus’.

Why the debate? Steve Chalke’s book looks at the nature of the church’s mission and challenges us to rediscover our central focus of being a loving body. Rob Bell’s book explores the nature of God, his salvation and the nature of heaven and hell with the conclusion that in the end ‘Love Wins’. I suspect most, if not all, of us with agree with those sentiments. However, in making their case, both have challenged traditional ways of understanding the nature of the Cross and salvation. This is not the place to assess their two books– for starters I have only just received my copy of Rob Bell’s book and haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I think, however, that these debates have highlighted something very important.

I have often heard the gospel described along these lines: ‘we are all sinners and Jesus died on the Cross to take God’s punishment that we deserve so that we can be forgiven and receive eternal life’. The trouble is that if we’re not careful this makes God sound like he’s angry and unloving, and fosters a selfish gospel based on the question ‘what can I do so that I can be saved’; just what the rich young ruler in Mark 10 asked Jesus. Then a conversation about the 10 commandments ensued, with the young man claiming that he’d kept the Law. In response Jesus made a searching request – go sell up everything, give it to the poor and then come follow me. The young ruler went away dejected. I wonder, was Jesus challenging this man’s view of salvation, moving him from a ME focus to an OTHERS focus?

Increasingly I’m seeing the Bible as portraying God as being the one who is striving to renew and restore the world. This doesn’t cut across the importance of personal forgiveness but changes the purpose of it. What is the Gospel message that we share?  That God is angry with our sinfulness and only his Son’s death could deflect us from that and that believing in this is what you must do to be saved, or that God so loves us and his creation that he longs to redeem us and it through Christ’s Cross and calls his restored people to play their part in this through their relationships with those around them? Whatever we may think about their books, Rob Bell and Steve Chalk are right, what we believe about the Cross matters; what we believe directly affects our picture of God and our dealings with the world around us.

Church newsletter article for Sunday 03.04.11