Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Open, Andre Agassi

Sadly the holiday is over, and there is one more holiday-reading-book I want to comment on; Open by Andre Agassi.

What a brilliant book! And I mean brilliant! I couldn’t put it down. I am not alone in this sentiment, with many people rating it very highly. I want to thank Jeremy and Gracie for giving it to me for Christmas, good job!

The book starts dramatically with an account of Agassi’s final dramatic match at the US Open. That chapter alone is worth the read. Then the story is told of his upbringing. I won’t go into details and spoil it for you, but it is an amazing account of a driven father, a son who hated tennis (yes, hated, he always did, even to the end), and the development of a tortured child-prodigy. As a father who has been a ‘sporting parent’ with three very talented children, I can sort of relate. I think we did a better 
job, but sometimes I am not so sure. 

The story that unfolds is one of tennis, the quest to find identity, relationships, and the nitty-gritty of real life. While he has a bit of a crack at Michael Chang especially for his “blend of egotism and religion that chafes’ him (p. 151), God is there in his story. He gives his trainer Gil a necklace which is a gold pyramid with three loops representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost (to use his words (p. 153). One of the key characters is JP introduced to him by Philly his brother who takes him to church. JP becomes a mentor, part of the Agassi team, who plays a great part of Andre Agassi’s pilgrimage. JP gives us all a real lesson on how to relate to postmodern people struggling on the journey (esp. read pp. 121–126). He walks with him and they grow together. Agassi is a kind of Johnny Cash Christian figure; tortured, struggling, and yet there is faith burning in his amazing engine.

Tennis runs through the book, but this is a book that is much much deeper than merely a recitation of sporting achievements and disappointments. It is a psychological saga. No disrespect to Richie McCaw (he is a hero of mine); it has everything his book lacked! (See my earlier blog—http://drmarkk.blogspot.co.nz/2014/01/the-open-side-richie-mccaw.html)! And I mean everything. Analysis! Deep! Psychology! Critique! Depth! Passion!

That said, as a sporting enthusiast who has had a moderate sporting career below the higher echelons, I was drawn into the sport of tennis—a game I have only dabbled in. What a game! Agassi likens it to boxing, but lonelier. On the court, it is you, a racket, a ball, and an opponent who is trying to batter you into submission. It is physically ridiculous, like the Tour De France, beyond the ability of anyone to endure. It is a brutal mind-game. Those who succeed are some really amazing athletes and people with real resilience.

After reading the book, I watched the Australian Open and felt far greater understanding of the psychology of what was going on. It made me love it more. I thought of Agassi’s book especially when watching the amazing final with Stanislas Warwinka and Rafael Nadal. What a saga! Wawrinka without a chance, supposedly! Then him dominating the first set and a bit. Rafa looking worried. The crowd stunned. Then Rafa’s back injury. Then Wawrinka’s inability to finish him off. Then his rally. Then his moment of glory. It felt like a chapter of Agassi’s book. I thought of moments in Agassi’s career as I watched the game. Tennis is indeed a microcosm of life, as is all sport.

What I loved most about this book is that it is a story of redemption, it is a ‘gospel’ story in the sense that from those broken beginnings, Agassi gets put back together and is now a great benefactor to people in need. He found his way. It also challenged me that someone can hate something and yet it is their gift, and they can find the path in it and through it. I have to say, Agassi is at the top of the list of people I would love to have a coffee and chat with! I won’t say anymore. I don’t want to ruin it if you haven’t read it. Whether you like sport or not, get it and read it. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Animal Suffering & the Problem of Evil, Nicola Hoggard Creegan

The next book on my January reading journey is my good friend and colleague Nicola Hoggard Creegan’s Animal Suffering & the Problem of Evil.

Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil (Hardcover) ~ Nicola Ho... Cover Art

Unlike the books by Stuart Lange and Peter Lineham discussed above which are historical informative surveys, this one is more difficult for me to comment on as it gets into areas of science I am ill-equipped to really comment on. Still, I can’t help myself, so here goes.

The first thing I have to say is that like the others mentioned above, Nicola is a great writer. It is well constructed and remarkably lucid and easy to understand considering the depth of the material. I mean it doesn’t get much deeper than the origins of life and evil! I was engaged from the get go. It has left me thinking greatly about the issues involved, and I am being way nicer to my cat! So, thanks Nicola.

The book assumes the position of theistic evolution, i.e. God created through evolutionary processes accepted by the majority of biological scientists today. For someone like me still working through the ins and outs of this view as compared to old earth ideas this is a big assumption. I remain unconvinced that macro-evolution is sufficiently proven for me to jump in boots and all. But, the book from there helps the likes of me see how the origins of the universe may have occurred more clearly. In my opinion the book achieves this, showing that a coherent theological construct can be formed which sees beginnings in this way.

One of the key arguments is that humans are animals and this has been downplayed in Christian tradition in favour of stressing human distinctness. This is a fair critique. While I accept I am an animal, my behaviour gives me away among other things, I wonder, however, if the book under-stresses the separation of humans from other animals. When I consider the marvels of human achievement (however flawed), while we are animals, something has transformed us into a very distinct species with unbelievable capacities. I would still want to stress our uniqueness. The book itself is evidence of it—a literary discussion of our origins indicating a tremendous level of sophisticated thought and self-reflection. Animals are in a different category as I see it.

I found the discussions of the various views on the problem of suffering very helpful and I now have a new range of books to read and consider. This is most helpful.

The Fall (or lack thereof) plays a big part in the thesis of the book. Throughout the notion of an idyllic perfect world which was corrupted by Adam and Eve’s Fall is rejected; rather, the creation has been blighted by an earlier fall. The Fall narrative then is not a fall from paradise, but human participation in the cosmic problem of evil.

There is nothing controversial about positing an earlier fall, many theodicies consider the presence of the serpent and evil in the garden as evidence of some earlier fall. So Isa 14 and Ezek 28 were understood in Judaism and some Christian circles as pointing to Satan’s fall, causing evil to enter the cosmos. However, to argue that this corrupted the “very good” creation (so it wasn’t perfect, but very good with lots of “not so good” in it) is challenging to traditional readings of Gen 1. I find the idea that there was no “fall” but a kind of enlightenment and participation in evil as intriguing. I think these form part of the story. However, I am not sure that Paul understood it thus. Romans 5:12 and 8:19-23 seem to me to be chiastically related (parallel) and suggest Paul saw death entering the cosmos at Adam’s sin and so the whole creation is subjected to futility and subjection to decay. However, Nicola pushes this futility and subjection further back to the original Fall. This means there is somewhat of a tension with Paul’s thinking. Of course, Paul was a man of his times (e.g. 1 Cor 11:1-16) and one can argue that on this he was functioning from his cultural and theological perspective. Still, the tension remains.

The whole idea of an earlier Fall which has corrupted the universe is a fascinating idea. Like Nicola, I agree that our experience of evil speaks of something “personal,” what the Biblical story calls Satan, the Devil, etc. The construct presented still begs the questions, how, why, who, etc. In recent times I have pondered “what the heck I am in” as I consider the world’s story. What fell? How? Why? Is Satan a fallen angel? If so, how does this relate to God’s omniscience? As a Pauline scholar who cannot deny his strong theology of predestination (while agreeing that he has an equally strong theology of human volition along with it), I consider God of the Bible to be omniscient and am not convinced by counter arguments. I am left wondering what sort of cosmic conflict led to the world’s corruption, in other words, “what the heck are we humans caught up in?”

As a biblical scholar I was somewhat uncomfortable with the use of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares to speak of all creation being both penetrated by good and evil through its every part from creation. The intent of the parable from the mouth of Jesus and as used by the Gospel writers seems to me to relate to the Kingdom of God and the coming of Jesus Messiah, and so the church and/or the world from that point on. Still, thinking more broadly, theologically this is a clever and arguably appropriate lens to present the view espoused. As long as we are not saying that the parable originally meant this. Still, the idea of a creation which reflects both good and evil is certainly our present experience.

Another area I found very stimulating was the discussion of developments in evolutionary thinking toward acknowledging that the process involved not only mutations and violent contention, but symbiosis and cooperation. That is fascinating and greatly helpful for those who find it troubling that God might use such a process. I still struggle with the idea that God used violence and death to bring forth life; but this moderates the picture somewhat and by pushing back the Fall to an earlier point, opens up vistas for the likes of me to consider.

When it comes to the question of vegetarianism I find it hard to accept that this is an ideal ethical position when I consider that the Son of God who walked among us participated in Jewish sacrifices including eating Passover meals at which lamb is centre stage. Indeed, the Last Supper was likely a Passover meal (although some dispute this on the basis of John’s Gospel, but Paul does not, cf. 1 Cor 5). Jesus also ate fish on both sides of the crucifixion. I see no indication that Jesus had any inclination toward vegetarianism and did not expect that of his people. Neither does the OT where from Gen 9 on there seems no issue with eating meat. Paul was also very comfortable with Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8, 10) and eating any food—“the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (With the caveat that we do not bring our brother and sister down by doing so). As such, I think Nicola may be drawing the line between animals and humans a little too close and creating a theology that is in tension with that of Jesus in going so far as to see it as an ethical ideal. As such, I will quite happily go on eating meat, but I do agree that food should be ethically sourced and killed. Paul too leaves room for different views on this issue (Rom 14–15) and so should we I believe. We can agree to disagree on this Nicola.

Overall I think the book is a very fine example of Christian thinking and presents a coherent Christian position. It has caused me to think deeply about the Fall in particular and the idea that the problem of the corruption of the cosmos preceded the Adam and Eve story. I remain suspicious of evolutionary constructs but overall an agnostic where it comes to the various creation views argued by various Christians. That said, no matter what our view, I would recommend it heartily to everyone who has an open mind and wants to explore the theological possibilities around human origins. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Open Side, Richie McCaw

After reading Peter Lineham and Stuart lange's books, reading McCaw's book was somewhat like eating a McDonald's burger after a two course five-star restaurant feed. The book is light, blokey, and spiritually and intellectually unsatisfying. Not that Richie McCaw and Greg McGee's work is poor, indeed it is fascinating, but it lacks real depth and critical analysis.

I deeply admire Richie McCaw as a rugby player. He is undoubtedly the greatest in this generation, ahead of other greats like Jones, Brooke, Fitzpatrick, and DC, as McCaw calls him.

What strikes me is that he is a real individualist. He is deeply motivated to the greatness he has achieved. While the book lacks critical assessment of almost anyone, coaches, players, and the game itself, he is deeply introspective with the desire to be better and better. He humbly recognises his weaknesses as a leader in 2007. The following four years show his ability to grow into a great leader. His love of gliding shows a deeper interest in life, and a very intelligent man.

He also understands there is more to life than rugby. He is loyal to a world wider than the sport, especially to his family. His rejection if the knighthood shows his depth. Yes this sits below the veneer of the quintessential Kiwi bloke. He embodies the ideals of the kiwi bloke indeed. That said, I would love to sit with Richie and hear what he really thinks!

As a theologian I read the book for signs of his spirituality. Indeed, I even remember hearing from someone once that he is a Christian. Well there is no sign of that. He recognises that Brad Thorn is religious. Yet he shows no spiritual interest at all saying on pg. 196, 'If I was religious, I would be praying...' These are not the words of a openly spiritual man. Yet his reflections on gliding show a deep respect for creation.

I was intrigued by his comparisons between the Wallabies and the Springboks. The Wallabies are distant and not interested in socialising. The Springboks on the other hand, enjoyed a post match chat. Says a lot about the two teams in the last ten years. All I all it was a great, if somewhat shallow, read. I hope the next chapters lead to a win in 2015, that would top a great rugby career. Or is it one year too far?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Rising Tide by Stuart Lange—Some Thoughts

I have just finished reading A Rising Tide: Evangelical Christianity in New Zealand 1930–65 by my friend, mentor, and colleague, Stuart Lange. 

Like Destiny by Peter Lineham referred to in the previous blog-post, it is a fine book. Both Lineham and Lange are great writers. I enjoyed Stuart’s book greatly. Dr Lange writes as an observer-participant. As one who has worked with Stuart in Affirm, the evangelical wing of the Presbyterian Church for the last 20 years or so, I read it with the same bias; although in a more indirect sense only joining the story in the mid-80s. Certainly my bias led me to find a lot to love about the book, as I found context for the movement I have participated in since my conversion in 1985. Indeed, this occurred at one of the evangelical churches that represents the evangelical stream Lange explores—St Columbas Presbyterian then under the leadership of Rev Graeme Murray, an important evangelical leader. It was intriguing seeing familiar names like Roxburgh, Meadowcroft, Don Elley, Derek Eaton, and so on.

The book certainly describes the period of the rising tide of Presbyterian and Anglican evangelicalism. It was reaffirmed to me that I am an heir not to some of the more belligerent American forms of evangelicalism,  but the more irenic British evangelicalism represented by the likes of Stott and Packer. I feel I now understand more fully the tradition I stand in in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa NZ and Presbyterian Affirm. I am indebted to the wonderful work done for the evangelicals who went before. The word “evangelical” is much maligned, but the story woven by Lange gives me a more positive and optimistic sense of ownership of “my” heritage. I found myself more motivated than before to live a life faithful to the gospel.

For me, like J.I. Packer, evangelicalism is defined by “faithfulness to Scripture.” This leads to a range of other core elements of Christian life like image bearing; gospel; Christ and Christ alone; a life filled with the Spirit; God in history and creation; the problem of sin and evil; mission with evangelism at its centre but embracing the transformation of a world; faith, hope, and love; conversionism; crucicentricism; the second coming; eternal judgment; and eternal life, among others. Knowing how to read and apply the Scriptures remains my deepest desire.

I was struck throughout his descriptions of core leaders by the recurring reference to the importance of biblical preaching and exposition, prayer, and passion. In this regard, the description of evangelicalism in many ways reflects Stuart Lange. I know him well and found in the story of his forebears reasons he is what he is. He knows the story in which he is embedded and has sought to live the best of it. In my biased view, he is an embodiment of the positives of the story. He has carried on the work of Miller, Orange, and others, and the evangelical heritage has been in great hands.

A few things bugged me. I wish there were chapters on the evangelicalism in the Baptist, Open Brethren, an d Methodist movements. They were not without mention, but I think a full picture of evangelicalism would include these two important evangelical traditions more fully. I feel the book is slightly misnamed and should include specifically evangelicalism as represented in universities, Anglicanism, and Presbyterianism. The book to me calls for further volumes that explore  other evangelical traditions and their relationship to those described in this fine book.

I thought there may be more critique of the evangelical movement. Disputes and limitations were mentioned. However, the tone is very positive, unsurprising for an author who identifies so strongly with it. I wondered if more thought could be given to why, despite the rise of evangelicalism, the two denominations and university ministries mentioned have declined (including the evangelical wing). Why has it declined? In the PCANZ evangelicalism has become more dominant, despite some very vibrant parishes like Stuart Lange’s own church in Massey, overall it is declining like all the Church. What has gone wrong? Was it avoidable? What did the Westminster Fellowship and other organisations fail to do that may have contributed? Why did so many abdicate even evangelical mainline churches for Pentecostalism? What blind spots led to this? I don’t have the answers myself, or better, I have some ideas, but I would like to have heard his view. To me the book demands a series of sequels looking at the charismatic renewal more closely, and the subsequent history including the decline of the WF and the rise of Affirm. Perhaps Stuart is not the one to write such stories, as he is so embroiled in the subsequent period that it may need the hand of someone a little further removed. The good news is that Stuart Lange is well-positioned to look for able Church History PhD students to carry on the story and extend it.

All in all, I loved this book. I am excited to read such wonderful works from Kiwis like Peter L and Stuart L. I recommend these two books heartily to all who want to understand who we are in NZ.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Destiny the Book: Some Thoughts

One of the blessings of holidays is that you can read. I have just read Destiny: the Life and Times of a Self-Made Apostle, by Peter Lineham. I have to say it was a great and interesting read. Well done Peter Lineham.

The book leaves me a little uncertain of how to respond to the Destiny phenomenon. On the one hand, it is great that a Maori has risen from a difficult past to develop a genuinely powerful church. Many Maori and others have turned from destructive pasts to meaningful lives as a result, and for that I praise God. Our nation desperately needs the likes of Brian Tamaki to give leadership not only to Maori, but those who are lost in lives of brokenness and pain. What BT has achieved is also amazing. He is a shrewd and capable entrepreneurial leader who can clearly draw people to him. I certainly do not have the skills to do what he has done. I also admire the way that Destiny has stood up for moral issues; although Lineham’s critique that they have been overly aggressive and selective in what they confront is valid. On one level I have a lot of admiration for him.

On the other hand, having spent thirty years of so immersed in Scripture, the type of Christianity propagated by the Destiny movement and others such as City Impact worries me deeply. It is very money-centric with its prosperity gospel a severe corruption of the call to simplicity, contentment, and radical generosity of the NT. When we consider that mammon is one of the most fundamental “gods” of this age, I feel deeply disturbed by the seeming theological blindness of these churches. Have they not read 1 Timothy 6 or Luke’s Gospel?

The autocratic style of leadership is also counter-gospel with Jesus’ call to servant corporate leadership distorted. It is deeply disturbing when power lies with one couple. I also struggle with Christian churches that are blatantly happy to plunder other churches in their quest for growth. I myself ran into this when ministering in Rotorua in the mid-90s when BT targeted some of our better musicians seeking to woo them to his church. Thankfully they were not interested. There are also many other areas that worry me such as the covenant, the ethics of the Maori Women’s League affair, and their flawed eschatology and kingdom theology. Passing a church on to one’s son is also worrying, is dynastic Christianity the way to go? While I agree with Peter that this is not a cult, it is certainly sectarian and concerning.

It is not for me to resolve this sense of ambivalence; God is the judge of our ministry and work—I will leave it to him. That said, Peter Lineham’s excellent work is a must-read for all of us who are struggling to come to terms with what it means to be Christian in these difficult times. BT is a one who is “having a go” and dong good work, and for that I commend him. Beyond that I am not sure. Thanks Peter Lineham for deepening my understanding.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

“Walk like a Samaritan”—Living well in 2014

How should we live in 2014? Who should we emulate? Of course, the Christian answer is always Jesus, and he is the example par excellence at all times and in all ways. Yet there are many others we can emulate in the NT. The ones that I have been thinking about are an extremely surprising group to emulate, the Samaritans of the Gospels.

They are surprising because at the time of Christ Jews despised them with a vengeance. They were apostate. They denounced the temple and the religious system of Israel, having set up their own temple on Mt Gerizim and developing their own cult. They did not oppose Antiochus Epiphanes the Seleucid leader who violated Israel’s worship (c. 167 BC). They rejected the Prophets and Writings, relying only on the Torah (Pentateuch). They did however expect a Messiah (Taheb), a new Moses rather than one from the line of David, as they denied the Davidic monarchy.

The enmity between Jews and Samaritans was extreme seen when the Hasmonean John Hyrcanus destroyed their temple (c. 128 BC).  A group of Samaritans once vilely desecrated the Jerusalem Temple by spreading around it human bones around AD 6. The hostility is seen in the Gospels when Jesus’ desire for accommodation is rejected and his disciples want to blow the place up. Jesus however had other plans for Samaria and the world and rejected this (Luke 9:51–56). A group of Galilean pilgrims were massacred in Samaria in AD 52. Jews treated Samaritans like Gentiles including banning their entry into the inner courts of the Temple. The word “Samaritan” was contemptuous and used by Jews of Jesus (John 8:48). Some Jews wouldn’t even say the word, as seen in Luke 10:37 when the Scribe avoids the name preferring “the one…”

With all this in mind, the accounts of the three “star” Samaritans in the Gospels are amazing stories when one considers Jesus was profoundly a Jew. By singling them out, Jesus and the Gospel writers show us how Jesus was not hindered by social boundaries and enmity. He loved his enemies indeed. So should we. Further, each example helps us know how to live in 2014.

First, there is the leprous Samaritan in Luke 17. He is one of ten marginalised lepers who come to Jesus seeking healing. Jesus heals them all instantly, sending them to the priest to be declared clean and included back into Israel’s community (cf. Lev 13 – 14). It is likely the other nine are Jews. Yet it is only the Samaritan alone who returns to Jesus with three ideal responses. First, he glorifies God. Secondly, he falls on his face and pays homage to Jesus. Thirdly, he thanks Jesus. He is commended by Jesus who emphasises that he is a Samaritan and a foreigner. He is our example for 2014. He is an example of how to respond to God’s mercy. We should “walk like a Samaritan” and live out of an attitude of praise, homage, and gratitude to all people and especially God no matter what our circumstances.

Secondly, there is the Good Samaritan of Luke 10:25–27. The story is well known. This fictitious man is given by Jesus as an example of what it means to love one’s neighbour, what attitudes mark the one who would seek to inherit eternal life. He is a “Christ-figure” who, unlike the religious leaders of Israel, who should have responded as he did, sees the injured man on the side of the road and acts out of mercy and compassion. He is unconcerned about the ethnicity of the injured man. He goes to him without hesitation, and at great personal risk from robbers and great personal expense. He cares for him with tenderness and love. His faith is seen in action. He is highly commended by Jesus as the example of faithful discipleship. If the previous Samaritan is a prototype of the way a disciple should receive mercy, the Good Samaritan is paradigmatic for giving mercy to others. We are to love our enemies. We are to love practically and not merely theoretically. Jesus says to the Scribe, “go and do likewise.” So, we should “walk like a Samaritan” and show mercy to those we meet in need in 2014.

Finally, there is the Samaritan woman of John 4. She is a broken woman, having been through five marriages and now living in an adulterous relationship. She is no doubt a despised and rejected woman. She is going quietly about the menial tasks of getting water for her family from the town’s well. She meets Jesus not knowing who he is. Jesus breaks all kinds of social boundaries requesting a drink from one who not only a woman with whom a man would not speak in public, but an adulterous Samaritan “unclean” woman. She responds with socially subversive hospitality and gives him a drink.

In a wonderfully deep and interesting conversation gently Jesus disarms her and reveals to her that he is the “Restorer”, the Taleb the Samaritans dream of. Her response is wonderful. She races back to her town. She tells them the good news. The people of the town respond and come out to meet Jesus. The social enmity of Jew and Samaritan is shattered as Jesus is invited into the town to stay with them. He does, and many become believers. This anticipates the great day when Philip will bring the gospel to the people after Jesus’ death and resurrection (Acts 8). Because of this woman’s testimony, many became followers of Jesus that day. She is the first mass evangelist of John’s story, a glorious example of sharing the gospel. We should “walk like a Samaritan” and be so excited to give witness to Jesus in 2014.

These three Samaritans inspire me to live a life of praise of God, worship of Jesus, gratitude in all situations, showing costly mercy to all, and sharing the faith. What better way to live in 2014.