The Ad Man’s Gospel

Alastair Roberts on Rob Bell:

The ad man doesn’t persuade his customer by making a carefully reasoned and developed argument, but by subtly deflecting objections, evoking feelings and impressions, and directing those feelings and harnessing those impressions in a way that serves his interests. Where the lawyer argues, the ad man massages.

Rob Bell’s theology seldom approaches you head on. It typically comes at you couched in a question, insinuated in an anecdote, embedded in a quotation from one of his friends, or smuggled in a metaphor. Its non-confrontational and conversational tone invites ready agreement. Even if you don’t agree, Bell hasn’t pinned himself down. He’s only asked a question, quoted an acquaintance, or related an anecdote, and could easily distance himself from any of them.

This seems like a fair assessment to me. Much of the criticism of Bell I’ve seen – leaving the theology aside – fails to take account of the highly creative and persuasive elements of his style, that are so often missed or grate with linear thinkers.

Judge not

“Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Romans 14:4).

“By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

“It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge and my job to love.”
― Billy Graham

“We shall, as we ripen in grace, have greater sweetness towards our fellow Christians. Bitter-spirited Christians may know a great deal, but they are immature. Those who are quick to censure may be very acute in judgment, but they are as yet very immature in heart. He who grows in grace remembers that he is but dust, and he therefore does not expect his fellow Christians to be anything more; he overlooks ten thousand of their faults, because he knows his God overlooks twenty thousand in his own case. He does not expect perfection in the creature, and, therefore, he is not disappointed when he does not find it. … I know we who are young beginners in grace think ourselves qualified to reform the whole Christian church. We drag her before us, and condemn her straightway; but when our virtues become more mature, I trust we shall not be more tolerant of evil, but we shall be more tolerant of infirmity, more hopeful for the people of God, and certainly less arrogant in our criticisms.”
― Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sermons Vol. 1-10

As I reflected in a previous post, the problem we face is that the desire to see evil judged is made more complicated by they fact that we are often the ones in the wrong…. I need to humbly reconise that the bad things we see in the world and wish God would prevent or punish in others is right there inside of me.1

I want both God’s justice (exposing the truth about our wrong) and mercy (forgoing the negative consequences we deserve). Sometimes God saves by judging2 – but I’m with Billy Graham and the Bible. Our job is to do the loving.

  1. A bit of an adaptation of: “The evil we so much wish God would prevent or punish in others is right there inside ourselves” (Christopher Wright, God I don’t understand p. 34). ↩
  2. By judging our evil, by naming it for what it is, by penetrating our denial and self-delusion, God begins saving us. (McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p 95) ↩

The Builder’s High

Michael Lopp on using our time and attention to build things of meaning and value:

Look around. If you’re in a group of people, count how many are lost in their digital devices as they sit there with a friend. If you’re in your office, count how many well-intentioned distractions are within arm’s reach and asking for your attention. I wonder how many of you will read this piece in one sitting – it’s only 844 words long…

This is not a reminder to over-analyze each moment and make them count. This is a reminder not to let a digital world full of others’ moments deceive you into devaluing your own. Their moments are infinite – yours are finite, too,  and precious – and this New Year I’m wondering how much we want to create versus consume.

Changed lives change cities

A great post by Alan Scott that looks at the temptation to break discipleship down into something that is manageable rather than missional. He urges the reader to move away from thinking of discipleship being primarily about personal piety and personal spiritual discipline to something that is expressed and learned through living an outward life of faith that changes the city in which you live. Individual discipleship through 1:1 discussions in coffee shops is “too low a goal”, with real discipleship taking place through the sharing of life and mission.

This is a really helpful distinction that highlights the continual need to orientate church communities around the task of reproducing the life of Jesus. Our vision for seeing our communities changed by the love of Jesus should be expansive and not reductionist. Time and time again we see the Apostle Paul involving people in mission.

[He] didn’t disciple people by staying with them, but rather by taking them with him. Together they engaged with the improbable possibility that whole communities and cities might respond openly and wholeheartedly to the message of the kingdom.

Alan issues a challenge here for leaders to

measure the level of discipleship in the church by the level of transformation in the city.

If discipleship is the process of becoming who Jesus would be if he were you, I’m pretty sure that he would be changing cities. As we see our own lives becoming more and more like Jesus, we will also see our cities changed.

Where did all the Bible study go?

Keeping on the theme of making the Bible your native tongue, Dave Miller reflects on the tendency to go to commentators on the Bible before we go to the Bible itself:

Read the text, observe it – before you check other peoples’ opinions and insights. Let the Spirit be your first teacher. After you have studied, after you have labored over the text and figured it out, then you consult the wisdom of the wise (often to see where you went astray).

I know that it is my own experience to ‘rush in’ to what others say about a passage rather than do the hard work of working through what insights I can discern first. I would like to consult the author of scripture before I read what the commentators have got to say.

Often, a commentary may very well correct or clarify my own reflections – but I need to keep bringing myself back to going to scripture first, and then, and only then, to the thoughts of others.

Thought for the Day: Faith & Jonathan Sacks

Yesterday Jonathan Sacks gave his last Thought for the Day he’ll be giving in his present role as Chief Rabbi in Britain. Stepping down from his role, at the end of this month, he shows a keen eye for the role of faith in society. Thank you Lord Sacks for your contribution to the clarion call to love others with the love that God has for each one of us:

This is the last thought for the day I’ll be giving in my role as Chief Rabbi. On Sunday I induct my successor, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and before then I wanted to say thank you for the privilege of serving as a religious leader in a society where there’s genuine respect for other people’s religious beliefs or lack of them; that understands what I call the dignity of difference. And if you were to ask me what I have cherished most these past 22 years, it’s been the chance to see the difference faith makes to people’s lives.

I’ve seen it do its work in Jewish communities throughout the Commonwealth, moving people to visit the sick, give hospitality to the lonely and help to those in need. You don’t need to be religious to be moral, but it makes a huge difference to be part of a community dedicated to being a blessing to others.
I’ve seen faith help holocaust survivors to survive and not be traumatised by their memories. I saw it help my late father survive four difficult operations in his eighties, so that he, who had come to this country as a refugee, could be there to see his son inducted as a chief rabbi. It was the faith I learned from him that kept me going through some of the worst crises of my life.

Faith brought our people into being almost forty centuries ago when Abraham and Sarah heard God’s call to leave home and begin a journey that is not yet complete and won’t be, until we learn to make peace with one another, recognising that not just us but even our enemies are in the image of God.

Faith isn’t science. It’s is not about how the world came into being but about why. I believe that God created the universe and us in love and forgiveness, asking us to love and forgive others. And though that’s often very hard, I believe faith still makes it more likely than if we think that the universe just happened, that humanity is a mere accident of biology, and that nothing is sacred.

And yes it seems as if sometimes we have just enough religion to make us hate one another, and not enough to make us love one another. But the answer to that is more faith not less. Faith in God who asks us to love others as he loves us. That’s faith’s destination and there’s still a way to go.

Make the Bible your native tongue

I distinctly remember there being times at school when I spent more time reading the ‘Cliff Notes’ guide to a book in my English Literature class than I spent reading the book in question itself. Not that I do things last minute or anything, but I remember watching Richard Brannagh’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ the night before an exam, as a quick way of getting a basic understanding of the plot. It never occurred to me to read the play through for myself!

The point is that we can all too easily rely upon the helpful, but secondary, sources for comment and understanding rather than go to that which is the subject of the commentary.

When we have questions of faith and practice, do we go first to google, our favourite celebrity pastor or twitter to find answers when we should be putting in the hard work of going to the Word of God ourselves? Listening in on what God is saying to others through his Word is no replacement for developing our own listening ears for what The Lord is saying and sitting under the authority of his written Word.

Tim Kimmel on reading the Bible as a second language:

With tweets, blog posts, predigested podcasts, and fingertip access each week to downloads of some of the most engaging Bible teachers in the world, it’s tempting to develop an on-going input of the Bible at the hands of others that overshadows, or even eclipses, input from personal time spent pouring over it on our own.

The drive-by options we have to phenomenal biblical insights can easily meet our need for spiritual satisfaction. Forget the possibility that much of it may be the equivalent of spiritual junk food — great insights and observations that feel good being consumed but can’t possibly provide a well-balanced biblical diet. Throw in some white noise from our preferred theological hot buttons, and the evangelical celebrity status of our favorite Bible teachers, and we shouldn’t be surprised that our primary connection to God becomes one or more steps removed from God himself.

There are some fantastic tools for Bible study and interpretation out there today, but they should compliment and not replace a vibrant personal commitment to hearing God speak daily and personally to us through his Word.

The biblical narrative should be our native tongue, not a second language. I want to know and be familiar with the cadence of scripture – to let it shape my life not sit on the shelf referred to but unread.