Archive for the ‘Learning’ Category

What is revive? A blog about labels…

Posted: May 31, 2016 by reviveleeds in Learning, Opinion, revive
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Welcome phrase in different languages. Word clouds concept.

On Sunday night we continued our conversation about what God is saying to us about the future of revive and I (Simon) was called out for excessive theological jargon. Fair cop! I apologise. My only defense is that in the world of clergy these labels are used constantly.

Let me outline roughly what I said:

There are many LGBTQ people who would like to find a home in a church with an evangelical-charismatic emphasis, whereas at the moment most – if not all – of the churches in Leeds that publicly declare their inclusion of queer people are liberal Anglican.

I was invited to explain some of those words and of course a business meeting is not the ideal place to do that. Also, in revive there is a general resistance to labels, so there were also comments about whether any of these names is helpful.

I think it’s worth looking at these labels, if only because so many people still use them. Then I will try to answer the question, ‘What kind of church is revive?’

Firstly, a bit of history.
You’ve probably heard of ‘The Age of Enlightenment’. This was a period from the mid-seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth centuries in which scientific advances occurred rapidly and regularly and paved the way for the industrial revolution. Isaac Newton is the most important British figure in this time of intellectual revolution, and his most revolutionary idea was that the universe can be described as a gigantic machine. This meant two big things: firstly,  that God was not necessary to explain anything in the universe, and secondly, that it should be possible to explain everything in the universe through maths and science. As this intellectual movement matured it turned into what we now call modernity.

How should Christianity respond to this huge intellectual transformation? Here are three options:

1) One option is that of acceptance and integration. These new discoveries change our understanding of the cosmos and there is no going back. Our sacred texts were written in a different time in which weather and mental illness were thought to be the actions of angels and demons. It would be foolish of us to continue with these superstitions. Religion can only be saved if it accepts the new intellectual landscape.

At the time, this meant that many people claimed that they were deists, believing in a God that created the universe like a giant machine and after starting it up, is completely absent from it. Many of the ‘fathers’ of Leeds were prominent deists and this explains why there is a Unitarian Church in City Square rather than the more traditional Anglican cathedral.

By the beginning of the twentieth century the German theologian Rudolph Bultmann was advocating the ‘demythologisation’ of the Christian tradition, removing everything from faith that was counter to science and common sense. Bultmann is a towering figure in the movement known as theological liberalism.

In short, liberal Christianity is a way of trying to find truth using science, philosophy and logic, giving little or no authority to either the Bible or church tradition. That doesn’t mean the Bible and tradition are unimportant, just that they are studied with intellectual rigour.

2) Another option is what we would now call contextualisation. That is, how can a traditional Christian faith be reborn in this new world of ideas? With a scientific worldview on the rise, could Christianity present itself as a rational system of thought while maintaining its historic claims about God’s activity in the world?

It’s important to realise that describing this process as contextualisation is a retrospective judgement. Christian preachers and debaters of the time like George Whitefield saw themselves as defending the historic faith, it’s only looking back that we can see they were using the logic and methodology of science to create a ‘systematic theology’.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw many public debates in which more conservative Christians tried to work this out. Ultimately, the authority of the Bible became central to their case, so that anything that was stated in the scriptures was beyond questioning. The ongoing debate about evolution and how it relates to the early chapters of Genesis is probably the most famous example of this. William Wilberforce’s son Samuel famously debated evolution with the biologist T H Huxley in the middle of the 19th century. What’s important is that proponents of this new conservative Christianity sought to prove that belief in the events and declarations of the Bible was reasonable.

This movement became known as evangelicalism, from the Greek word for good news, euangelion. The historian David Bebbington has said that evangelicalism (and its extremist cousin fundamentalism) has four key tenets:

* Biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
* Crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
* Conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted
* Activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in some kind of practical action

(You can explore this in more detail here)

While the early Baptists of the seventeenth century were not quite like this, they were caught up in the evangelical movement at the end of the eighteenth century and currently the Baptist Union of Great Britain is a member of the Evangelical Alliance.

3) Another option is creative rebellion. In the wider culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries artists and creatives who wanted to live outside the mechanistic and emotionless world of science started to make work that fought against this. While it was never a self-conscious movement, nowadays we call what they got up to romanticism. This was a movement motivated by experience, beauty and pleasure, phenomena that can not be described by science and which are not subject to laws or formulae. Lord Byron’s self-indulgent life and early death sum up the caricature of the Romantic period, but it was also an intellectual movement, frustrated at the coldness and rigidity of the new science. In the long run however, science brought wealth and empire, and in many ways seemed to have ‘won’.

At the same time that the Romantic movement flourished, so did Methodism, a form of Anglicanism that was evangelical in nature but also highly personal and emotional. John Wesley, its founding preacher, reports in his diary that there was plenty of fainting and crying during his sermons, and George Whitefield was considered to be the greatest ‘performer’ of his time, stirring up emotions in his audience that made famous actors of his day jealous.

What Methodism, Pentecostalism (which came out of Wesleyanism in California) and the charismatic movement (which was a middle class appropriation of the more working class Pentecostalism) have in common is a belief that The Enlightenment is a misstep, that belief in God is not meant to be reasonable, it is essentially supernatural. John Wimber, who founded the Vineyard movement and who was a huge influence on this writer, used to say that in order to experience God we need to get our minds back to before The Enlightenment in order to believe that God can work in our lives (For the record, I don’t think this is possible or helpful).

These different movements all have a focus on personal experience of God as another route that God can speak to us, which has historically caused some tension between them and evangelicals, who hold that the Bible is the ultimate authority. (For the record, Baptists – correctly, imho – hold that Jesus is the ultimate authority, and we study the scriptures and listen to the Spirit in order to know him).

So those are the three words that I used on Sunday night: liberal, evangelical and charismatic. Now I want to add another one: post.

Over the last fifty years, philosophers (particularly French ones) have started to dismantle the certainties of modernity. Their movement (if it can be called such, since it is primarily about deconstruction rather than creation) is now called postmodernism. The easiest way to sum up postmodernism as a philosophy is a definition by one of its proponents, Jean-Francois Lyotard: ‘Incredulity towards metanarratives’. Before you give up, let me explain that quickly! It simply means that we should be sceptical about any system of thought that suggests it has the answers to every question (metanarrative means something like ‘overarching story’). And you might think Lyotard is having a go at religion, but that’s not the case. He is primarily focusing his displeasure towards the scientific worldview we call modernism. Hence the name post-modernism, where post means after.

So now we are living in a world in which the all-encompassing certainties of the modern era are starting to undo. When a scientist says she believes one day she will be able to explain love or art with an equation, lots of us laugh at her arrogance. When a Christian sect claims to be the ‘one true church’, we find it all rather loopy since we wouldn’t think of saying that about our own church or denomination. That’s a very post-modern attitude: this is my truth, tell me yours.

Christianity is responding to these changes. So now we have postliberal and postevangelical theologies. The charismatic movement is  probably the most influential Christian movement in the UK in our time, reaching a growing proportion of younger people and therefore cementing its influence on the future of the church in the UK. In many ways it is romantic/postmodern, with a very strong emphasis on personal experience, although parts of it are still tied to evangelical ideas of truth and certainty.

So what does this make revive? Whatever we are, we are definitely post. By that I mean we don’t want to be defined and constrained by any of these definitions. This ability to refuse boundaries means that we can cross boundaries and borrow from Christian traditions that might have once been the ‘enemies’ of our spiritual parents or grandparents. That’s why I like the subtitle of Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy: ‘Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed- yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.’

Maybe that’s what we are – not nothing, but everything. I prefer this to just being ‘post’ something. In reality, I personally consider myself an evangelical and a charismatic more than a liberal, because I give both the scriptures and my experience of God more influence in my life than is reasonable.  And because that is the Christian family that raised me.

Why is this important (and well done for getting this far!)? My main answer would be that while most of us have a time of enjoying the certainty of either evangelicalism or liberalism (and believe me, liberals can be just as bigoted and judgmental as evangelicals), many then find that the obsession with truth turns out not to be true to the messiness of human existence. Our lives doesn’t work out the way they’re supposed to, or the system of belief we subscribed to turns out to be held together not by reason but by peer pressure and denial.

It’s my conviction that there are a bunch of people in Leeds who would be blessed by encountering God through what we would call charismatic faith, but perhaps need to be intellectually honest and exploratory at the same time. Getting these two things together is really hard to do, but it’s something we try really hard to do in revive.

This is not just about LGBTQ people by any stretch of the imagination, but since they are one of the few groups of people in which the church colludes in their marginalisation, perhaps we have a particular call to swim against the tide on their behalf. Like lots of other people, some LGBTQ folk find life in charismatic-evangelical churches, it’s just that they have to hide who they are to participate in them. That is why it matters that a church like revive, which is part of that family, comes out and says, ‘All welcome.’ That’s why I’m happy to use words like evangelical and charismatic to describe revive, even if I’m mentally adding all kinds of footnotes and quotation marks when I say them.

Let me know what you think.


P.S. The absolute best way to get a feel for the premodern, modern and romantic/postmodern worldviews is to read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The three central characters represent the strengths and weaknesses of each perspective brilliantly…


The at-one-ment

Posted: May 16, 2014 by reviveleeds in Learning, Opinion, revive, Uncategorized
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Today’s post reminds me of the French Knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When Arthur tells them he is on a quest to find the Holy Grail they tell him they already have one. Last Sunday as I was introducing the five traditional views of the atonement (Ransom, Sacrifice, Christus Victor, Penal Substitution and Moral Influence) Dan King casually told me he two theories of his own! So Dan has kindly agreed to share his thoughts on the meaning of Easter:

Theories of Atonement

Last Sunday at Revive, we talked about 4 different theories of the atonement – i.e. ways of looking at Jesus’ death and resurrection that help us to understand what this accomplished and how it works to achieve our salvation.

On 22nd June Stephen Ibbotson is coming to speak to us about another theory that has recently started to become prominent.

The atonement isn’t something that’s very easy (or perhaps even possible) to completely get our heads around, but there are many metaphors used in scripture to describe it which help us to get hold of it in terms that we can at least partly understand. I’m not sure it’s possible to overestimate the significance of what Jesus’ did on the cross, and I’m sure there are levels to it that we haven’t even begun to appreciate.

In this post I’d like to make so bold as to introduce three of my own “theories of the atonement” that have occurred to me as I’ve pondered this over the years. They’re not in any way meant to provide a complete explanation of what Jesus’ did (and maybe they’re completely wrong!), but I don’t think any of the other theories do that either. These are just my attempts – accompanied perhaps (hopefully!) by a small level of insight – to understand certain aspects of it.

I’ve even thought of posh names for them and everything! 🙂

  • Assumed responsibility

The version of atonement theory that I grew up with usually seemed to go something like this:“We’ve all done bad things. Bad things have to be punished. When Jesus died on the cross for us, he took on our “sin” – i.e. our evil thoughts, words and actions – and thus became the guilty one instead of me. So God punished Jesus instead of me and by accepting what He’s done for me, I am able to go free.”That’s a beautiful model of self-sacrifice on Jesus’ part, and indeed on God’s own part if you consider:

a) That Jesus was His Son who he loved, so it must have hurt Him like crazy to do that!

b) Jesus was in fact also God, so God himself actually bore our punishment!

There are a couple of things about this model that bugged me for some time though:

a) What does it mean for Jesus to “take on my sin”? How is that actually possible? How can Jesus really be guilty of something that’s been done by somebody else?

b) Why does God need to punish anyone anyway? If someone “sins” against me, then I can just forgive them. If they’ve done something really terrible, then that might be difficult and will involve recognising and acknowledging the enormity of their offence and then choosing not to hold it against them, but it is still possible for me to do this. Why can’t God do that as well?I think that both points, but particularly the first one, can be answered by the fact that we are – as is frequently stated in the New Testament – “in Christ”, but what does that mean? I think it means that we have submitted our lives to Jesus and He has become our Lord and Master. He has taken us on, we have become His charges and He has assumed responsibility for us. So imagine this scenario on the day of judgement:We’re all standing before the judgement seat, and God declares me innocent – without charge! Then someone at the back stands up – angrily – and says, how can you so that God? You’re supposed to be just! You have to punish him for what he did to me! Then Jesus stands up and says, “No! I’m responsible for this one. He belongs to me”. Robbed of justice against me, my accuser’s anger might – perhaps rightly – turn to my protector, but it’s no use. He’s already accepted responsibility for that and justice has already been served. Whether Jesus is rightly responsible for me in spite of my accuser’s protestations, or whether He has denied them justice and is thus deserving of their ire – either way, He has suffered for that choice, made in love – the price has been paid!In this particular model it is my accusers – rather than God Himself – who are demanding that justice be served, and in His role of judge of the Universe, God is obliged – by His own standards – to ensure that this is so. God’s righteousness is perfect and complete in every detail, such that ultimately no-one will ever have a legitimate reason to complain. Jesus’ death and resurrection makes it possible for Him to “bend His own rules” on behalf of those who put themselves in His care, since He has already paid the full penalty for doing so.

  • 2) The God of Suffering

In Cafe Theologique a little while back, we discussed evil and suffering and whether God could be said to be responsible for those things, or whether in fact, if there is such a thing as free will, then evil can be said instead to come from individual agents like us whose choices God doesn’t control and may not even be able to fully predict.In the Old Testament there seems to be quite a strong tradition of “blaming” God for things. In 1 Chronicles 21, we are told that Satan incited David to take a census of Israel and that God was angry about this, but when the same story is told in 2 Samuel 24 – with the same outcome – we are told that it was God who incited David to do this! Job constantly blames God for his suffering, even though we are told it was Satan who did this to him (although interestingly, it was God who permitted him to do so…). Naomi declares in Ruth 1 that, “the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty … The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me”.At some level – regardless of free will – as the creator and sustainer of everything, God has to accept some kind of responsibility. He set the ball rolling, knowing (or at the very least having a very good idea) how much evil and suffering would result, and he chooses constantly – however noble his reasons – not to prevent a great deal of it from taking place.So where am I going with this? I’m certainly not suggesting that God himself is a sinner who needs to be punished – just in case you were wondering! What I am saying is that there is another aspect to the cross – not really a complete theory this time – which is that in spite of all the sin and suffering in the world, God really is a good God, who takes seriously His responsibility for what He has created! Yes, He did unleash incredible suffering – by giving autonomy to His creatures – but He didn’t, and doesn’t take this lightly. He bears, and expects to bear, the full weight of this on Himself – He doesn’t just leave it to us to get on with – because He knows that ultimately it will be worth it for all of us!

  • 3) The Suffering God

Many years ago – when I was struggling with the feeling that God seemed rather aloof from His suffering creation – I bought a book by Japanese theologian Kazoh Kitamori, called, “Theology of the Pain of God”. Kitamori takes as his starting point a somewhat obscure verse in Jeremiah about the pain in God’s heart (some translations soften this to “yearning”) over his rebellious “son” Ephraim, and then goes on to unpack the intimate and inseparable relationship in the heart of God between love and pain.However intense and terrible the sufferings of Christ on the cross were, they are actually just one aspect of the suffering that God continually goes through, as He watches the people who He loves continually abusing themselves, one another and the amazing and beautiful world that He created.This model of the atonement then, is not about punishment. Instead it focuses on Jesus’ suffering from a different angle, which is that when Jesus suffered and died on the cross at the hands of those He loved, He incarnated the anguish and suffering of the Father, by not just emotionally but physically exposing himself to the pain of the world and to the pride, selfishness and rebellion of those who cause it. For our part, we demonstrated that we are God-killers. It was a particular group of people in a particular time and place that did this to Him, but actually, that potential is in all of us. All of us have something deep within our souls that says, “Me first, I’m number one!”, and ultimately, if carried through to its conclusion, this has to come into conflict with God. I can’t be number one if God exists and He is Lord, so ultimately, the only way past this is to kill God! Our only safe way out of this impasse is to submit to Him and be reconciled to Him in love. God offers us forgiveness and reconciliation, but it isn’t an easy way out. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can now see very clearly what we’ve done to Him – but by confronting this along with God’s grace and forgiveness, we can now also be truly reconciled.

Cafe Theologique

Posted: July 15, 2013 by reviveleeds in Events, Learning, Leeds, revive, Uncategorized
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This Thursday is Café Theologique, a great opportunity to explore those ideas that have been rattling around in your head for a while but it’s been too time-consuming, difficult or downright scary to give them the attention they deserve.

This time – sin!

Hey everyone!

It’s nearly time for our weekend away. Ian B will be in touch soon with details if you need them. Basically simple food when you arrive on Friday night, finishing after lunch on Sunday.

Here’s a link to the proposed walk on Sunday morning:

If it’s dry on Saturday and forecast to be wet on Sunday we may well change things around. The idea is to trial a way of praying called ‘Forest Church’, which uses nature-based prayers while out in nature. The worship peeps met last Sunday and have pencilled in 30th June as a Forest Church trip to Bolton Abbey.

So… a couple of questions. Can you think of a reason why we shouldn’t have a trip out on 30th June? And… do you think it should be just for regulars, open to people we invite, or publicly advertised, a la Cafe Theologique?

Let Simon or Luisa know what you think, or comment here.


Science and the Origins of the Universe

Posted: March 1, 2013 by reviveleeds in Learning, Video
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We’ve been looking at the story of the Bible, and how we see ourselves in it. At the moment, we’re thinking about the nature of God’s call to Abraham and the people called Israel.

But today I watched this video which explores some of the themes we touched on when we look at creation. It’s good and it’s got Tom Wright in it! What more could you want?

Great videos!

Posted: February 18, 2013 by reviveleeds in Learning, revive, Video
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Here are links to all the videos used last night (17/02/13):

Parker Palmer: Let Your Life Speak

Johnny Cash: Hurt

Andy Flannagan: The Reason

Alan Hirsch: Communitas not Community

Leadership lessons from dancing guy:

Vocation Meditations

Posted: February 18, 2013 by reviveleeds in Learning, revive
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Hey everyone,

Last (Sunday) night we did some thinking about vocation/calling. Here are the questions we used. They take some time to really think about, but they’re worth it.

Just click on the link below:

Vocation Meditations