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?

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The Fifth Gospel?

Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. We all know that these are the names of the four Gospels, the ‘biographies’ of Jesus in the New Testament (of course to simply call them biographies is misleading, they do talk about Jesus life, but ponder about what they miss out, what they include and what they’re trying to achieve). But is there a Fifth Gospel?

I have heard of many suggestions. Some point to other apocryphal books such as the Gospel of Thomas or Peter, but there are good reasons for why the four Gospels were chosen and others rejected. Some call the Holy Land the Fifth Gospel, and there’s certainly a good argument for that. Having been fortunate enough myself to go to Israel, I found it helped bring the stories to life in a surprising way as I could see the way places fit together and get a feel for the sounds, smells and colours of the place.

I came across another suggestion. You.

Martin Wroe wrote a book called ‘The Gospel According to Everyone’. The blurb for the book reads:

‘How come in Church we only ever hear the gospels of four men in Palestine 2,000 years ago? What if we heard a reading from a Fifth Gospel, from the stories of the people sitting next to us? The woman who gave up her child for adoption. The gardener who notices God in the roses. The gay man shunned by his children. The atheist who found he’d become a believer. What if we heard from The Gospel According To Everyone? Twelve short stories of faith and doubt, of love and longing by people you may recognise from a church you’ve never been to.’

If we take the idea that Jesus changes lives today through his Holy Spirit and faith, then this should be seen in us. Not necessarily by dramatic stories of Damascus Road conversions, but in the way we deal with the stuff that life throws at us, by the way we treat others, by our character and drive.

I’ve said it before, one day I’d like to try and find a way to compile our Gospel in the way that Martin Wroe did that of his community. I think we’d be surprised by what we discovered, by the ways God has been at work amongst us in the ordinary and extraordinary. Maybe for now though, the best thing we can do is listen to each other more carefully when we share our stories over coffee at the end of the service, keeping alert for the fingerprints of the Spirit in what we hear and see.

Church Newsletter Article for 16.09.12

Review: John for Everyone, Part 1

John for Everyone, Part 1
John for Everyone, Part 1 by N.T. Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

N.T. Wright has the wonderful gift of being able to write in a very gentle accessible way whilst getting across a lot of ideas and inspiration. This commentary is a great example of that. Littered with many illustrations from modern life he traces the key question of Jesus’ identity through the Gospel, drawing on John’s symbolism and his use of and illusion to Old Testament scripture. It is this aspect which I found most helpful having never spotted such parallels before such as between the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking across the water with the Exodus story with the provision of the manna and the crossing of the red sea. N.T. Wright’s formidable knowledge of the Old Testament as well as the context of the Holy Land in the First Century that makes this guide so helpful. Recommended!

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Review: Virtue Reborn

Virtue RebornVirtue Reborn by N.T. Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a great fan of N.T.Wright’s work. He is a rare combination of both readability and intellectual depth – so often theological works are either one or the other, but not both. I think I can fairly say that his works on Romans and Paul in general have profoundly affected my understanding of the meta-narrative of Scripture and Paul’s place within it; ‘Surprised by Hope‘, ‘Justification‘ and ‘Romans for Everyone Part One & Two‘ in particular.

With this in mine I approached this work with great anticipation. Whilst the previous works were very much God focussed, this promised to be the application of his theology for our lives; the practice of virtue in response to the promise of God’s reconciling redemption of the world, the fulfillment of his covenant through Jesus.

In the end I was a little disappointed. Somehow the book never seized me in the way his previous works did. It felt to me as if it repeated itself, going over the same ground again and again and only adding a little more each time. The basic premise I agree with wholeheartedly, if God is going to renew creation and we are to be part of that renewed existence, then we should play our part in striving to live that future life today, practicing the character traits and responses that will mark it so that they gradually become instinctive – this gets over the question of what does it matter how we behave if we live under grace and not law. Having said that I must confess that my reading was broken up with large gaps of time between sessions, and my experience may have been different if I had more of a single run at it. I shall have to read it again sometime! I must also add that the last chapters which I read yesterday and today were useful. I greatly appreciated his description of worship and mission being co-joined twins with a single heart, and his outline of the tools which are available for developing virtue in the last chapter helpful.

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