Tag Archives: God Stuff

Religulous

Religulous, I believe, should be mandatory viewing for every Christian aged 13 and above (despite it’s 15 certificate). Within this comedy-documentary Bill Maher explores religion, as a doubter who is seeking to understand whilst remaining appropriately cynical.

This gives us the first lesson to be learnt from the film. A sizeable number of those we come into contact with who want explanations about our faith will be cynical doubters rather than enthusiastic seekers. We don’t just need to be “seeker” friendly, we need to be “doubter” friendly. To do this we will need to be more honest about our own doubts. We need to have the faith to let go of pretending to have certainty about things we are not certain.

One point Maher makes in the film is nobody actually knows what will happen to them after death. So rather than saying, “I know I will go to heaven” if I were being more honest my response would be to say, “I actually have no idea of what will happen, but I hope I am right that there is some kind of afterlife where I will meet God.”

The second lesson to be learnt from the film is that we need to be honest about the bible. It showed how non-Christians may actually know it as well or better than us. In the film there are a couple of places where Christians are ridiculed or given credibility on the basis of their responses to questions / issues raised in relation to scripture. We need to give intelligent responses based on what we know, not just what we have been taught to believe.

There is a scene with a Catholic priest who admits that the gospel does not support the oppulence of the Vatican, who is particularly well presented.

In relation to gospel teaching on the subjects of poverty and nationalism the comedian shows a depth of understanding about Jesus teachings which most of the religious people he talks to don’t. In part this is because, as with all these types of documentaries, it wants to promote a particular view of the subject. Therefore, there are a lack of moderates and progressives being interviewed. With relation to Islam it is why there is also an irritating lack of recognition of the different schools of thought.

Mehers conclusion is that those who do not believe or subscribe to any religion should speak up. He also argues that moderates should disaffiliate from religion because this is the only way to save the earth from disaster. His logic here is two-fold. Firstly, he claims that the philosophies of religions are based upon end times ideas and facilitate an attitude where destruction of the earth becomes acceptable and indeed necessary. Secondly, he claims that it is the support of moderates for religion that allows fundermentalists to operate. He points out few of us would stay within political parties if they allowed factions within them to promote homophobia, sexism and violence. He says we would resign our memberships in disgust and this is why he argues that those of us who do not support these things should walk away from religion and religious involvement. This was the point in the film where I found myself fundamentally disagreeing with him, (strangely).

He was right I believe that some of the bible is myth and should be treated as such. Yet I do not believe that Jesus Christ was a mythical figure. I believe that he was the son of God who voluntarily chose to die a violent death as a subversive act of atonement. The power of this act of peace was such that he overcame death. I don’t know for definite this is the case, but I choose to believe it. Thus, for me the key to my faith is that subversive acts of peace are what overcome the violence and oppression in the world.

For me communion acts as a symbolic act but also has a supernatural element I don’t understand. Communion is or should be a subversive act of peace. It is where I come together with others very different to myself, with differing views, and say I have the power within me for power and oppression but I choose to follow Jesus, however hard it might be. Yet it is also the place where I constantly have to return to acknowledge my need for forgiveness and renewal recognising that I do mess up and cause violence and oppression, all be it unintentionally through unchecked words or convienient economic decisions.

To walk away from my religion and particularly to walk away from that table would be let the oppression and violence win. It would be to stop celebrating the most subversive act of peace the world has everseen, when the most powerful person ever chose to give up that power for humanity.

Meher was 100% right when recognised that Jesus taught against nationalism and against the misuse of wealth. This is the God I follow, not the one of power and oppression. The way I see it is that the only hope the world has and the only way the powerful oppressors will be overcome is through subversive acts of peace and hope. That is what I believe true religion (and not just in Christianity) promotes.

I don’t know if I’m right, I’m probably wrong about lots of it and for definite there is loads about my faith I don’t understand. I am happy to admit that. Knowledge is power and so if the misuse of power is to be overcome perhaps the key is to be more ready not to have knowledge and be less hungry for power.

As said, then, at the beginning I believe this is a film every Christian teenager and adult should watch if possible. Yes some of it will be offensive, (it was directed by the same person as Borat and Bruno) and no I don’t think we should agree with it all. However, it raises a string of important questions as Christians we need to consider. If we are to be effective in evangelism, (i.e. helping others connect with God rather than trying to fight them into agreeing with us), in an increasingly secular age we need to know how to respond to the issues raised in the film. So, with a readiness to explore the bible and discuss the issues with other Christians, I believe this would make an ideal resource if people are looking for something to base a series of housegroups around. A discussion around the issues in the film might also make an interesting alternative to Alpha.

Small Groups

Housegroups, cell groups, self-help groups, Christian Union groups, book groups, film societies, and so on…all of them are part of what Robert Wuthnow describes as part of the small group movment in his study “Sharing the Journey”. Whilst the 2000 interviews were conducted nearly two decades ago and the book itself was published 15 years ago it makes interesting reading and gives a facinating insight into the way social science becomes incorporated into popular applied theology books and practice. The undeniable echo of selected parts of this study is clear in many Christian books discussing the benefits of small groups and how they should operate. This is not suprising considering that few books have looked at the subject in the same depth as the 366 pages of analysis this book has, prior to moving on to the methodology. Whilst, as indicated, the book is looking at the small group movement as a whole it has an undeniable focus on those small groups which link in some way to the spiritual.

His central argument is that small groups are changing our understandings of community and redifining spirituality. The findings of the book are that the majority of small groups have existed for more than five years, although many members may be more recent and that these groups can be positive, particularly in the emotional benefits they generate. For the 40% of Americans who were members of these groups in the early 90’s these groups provided an environment where people met regularly and care and support were provided. Thus, he says they become “surrogate sources of intimacy and primary identity”. They are based, he argues, on storytelling, but it is not a communal story telling rather it is the telling and retelling of individual stories, which others listen to and offer affirmation or advice on. Some of us, particularly within churches, become socialised into these groups. They become central in both our quest for community and spirituality within a late modern society, he says. Yet he also argues they have problems and disadvantages: disagreements; they are uncomfortable places for the shy; they require a time commitment many find difficult, they can lead to people feeling they don’t fit in and give unrealistic expectations. They also, perhaps more distubingly, have the power he claims to “domesticate the sacred”, leading us into a superficial spirituality which is based more upon constructing our own version of the sacred within groups rather than actually moving toward a deeper spirituality. In short he can be seen as saying one danger of small groups is that they can give us spirituality lite.

The solution to these problems he concludes is to encourage people to be part of small groups but only within a wider framework of theological education.

This is the sort of sociology which makes my hair stand on end when I read it. On one hand I need to think about it academically but on the other it is the sort of sociology which demands engagement beyond the academy. This is the sort of study which makes me wish that more people in church outside of leadership positions, aswell as within them, would pick up sociology of religion or practical theology books occassionally and engage in a spot of reflexive practice. It’s one of those studies which makes you think about your own thinking and practice and ask the questions what do I do and why do I actually do it?

Reading Wuthnow I realise I was socialised into the small group culture from a young age. As a teenager I attended a youth group which met as a small group on both Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings and mid-week I would attend the church prayer meeting. Moving onto into my twenties I joined a couple of societies including the Christian Union, and was also part of a housegroup. Into my thirties and I have not only done the housegroup thing periodically, but there has been the book group, an accountability group and Methsoc amongst others….and yes, certainly I have used some of them to try and find or extend community. That’s without even touching upon the online communities I am part of which may or maynot be defined as small groups.

Have they proved a help or hinderence? Have they built up my faith or fostered a dependency? Have they deepened my spirituality or provided me with spirituality lite? And finally have they provided me with the sense of community I have been looking for? Well the answer is, unsurprisingly, a bit of yes, a spot of no, and quite alot of grey stuff inbetween.

Some have helped me. The main ways have been through helping me develop and extend my friendship groups. Practically, some of them have provided me with support when I’ve needed it. Yes I think that some have helped build up my faith but some also did make me foster a certain dependency. They have challenged me sometimes but honestly I think they have not helped deepen my spirituality that much…theological education and one to one encounters with people have done that far more. As for the community thing I think sometimes they have met that need but often they have fostered unrealistic and unhealthy expectations.

One of the biggest mistakes I made this year, if not the biggest, was looking backwards at small group experiences and friendships I had back in Kent and longing to recreate them in Durham, with new people. In Kent it happened that I had a circle of 30 and 40 somethings from church and to a lesser extent work that I shared deeply with. I spent way too long this year searching for this, when it was quite simply not available. I kept thinking that if I found the right small group I would magically be able to (re)-create the relationships I had found so useful in Kent, but with new people. I thought community was to be found here. I ended up feeling dispirited and lonely when my search continually failed.

But then something changed. I accepted that I had to focus on the situation as it is now not as it was then. I had to look at the relationships I had formed in a different way, not searching for this elusive “community”. It turned out, I realised, that I had gotten to know a fair number of people this year. If I started to invite them out to dinner or to the pub occassionally I realised we wouldn’t have what small groups provide but we would have fun and start to develop the friendships more. Other people will not become friends in the conventional sense, there are just way too many professional networks in this city with their own inbuilt boundaries. Thus I won’t get that level of knowledge of some people I have gotten in some of the types of small groups I am used to, but I will get that level of interaction which comes through networking.

The net result of all this is that I actually have to take more responsibility for my own life and emotions. I have people around me to look out for me and offer me a kick up the backside if I need it but there is a healthy distance involved. There are no longer people around who feel they have the right to step in and allow me, to some extent, to abdicate responsibility for my own life when it all gets a little crazy. I have also been encouraged to take resposibility more for my own spiritual journeying, but in a way which has acted to resource me more. Within the groups I have found myself in this year I have been given tools to try out and use to build my relationship with God up rather than a flatback to assemble with others, whether it is actually what I need or not.

So my own conclusion is that Wuthnow is right, small groups do have their place but only if used in conjunction with other sources of theological education, recognising the potential weaknesses aswell as strengths they have. Also perhaps we need to stop focusing on our need for “community” and start focusing on our need for “God” in group and individual settings.

Looking towards maturity

The Premier e-mail update I got in my inbox this morning contained a link the post, Good-enough God? by Rob Waller on the Mind and Soul blog which is exploring Christianity and Mental Health.

The theme of the post is the parenthood of God. It’s an interesting theme which I looked at a little in the session I did on the retreat when I was focusing on what it meant to be a child of God. Both Waller’s article and what I was saying in my session bought in the fact God is a perfect parent and as such he needs to let us mature by letting us grow. I wasn’t going to share my talk, but as it connects strongly with this article I’m going to. One thing I need to point out though is when it uses the language of changing behaviours I am v. much talking as a parent. I didn’t realise until later that this was an unhelpful language to use in relation to LGBT people and so please take it in the way it was intended. I am using it purely in relation to “parenting” language. It was based around 1 John 2:28 – 3:3. Also when I refer to GCN that is just because it was the group I was on retreat with…those of you not part of GCN can remove the reference but you might want to replace it with some other network you’re part of.

We are going to be looking at what it means to be God’s children. In the reading we begin in chapter 2 vs 28 seeing the image of children being used as a metaphor. The Johannine writer is addressing his audience as little children. This indicates that they still have lots to learn. I don’t know about you but when I entered nursery I knew how to play, eat and scream but very little else. I had lots to learn. I needed to learn who I was, my identity and how I was supposed to behave in a range of situations. Thinking back to when my daughter was small she would sometimes come out with a mild swear word she had heard but didn’t know the meaning of and to be honest it was funny, but had she been allowed to think it was ok in the same situations when she was older it would just have been very embarrassing. I needed to help her become confident in behaving appropriately in different situations.

I believe this is the first thing that the writer is conveying in this passage. He wants us to abide in God so we can learn from him and become confident in how to behave appropriately. Learning how to behave in a holy and righteous manner is something that gives confidence rather than making us ashamed or embarrassed. However, just like little kids learning to do things, it doesn’t come over night. It is a process of maturing.

As we move into chapter 3 we see that the writer moves from using the imagery of us as children from metaphor to fact. In doing this he takes us away from the learning aspect and onto the relational element of being a child. Now, I know this relational aspect is something that some people struggle with. Human relationships are marred by sin and some parent / child relationships are painful or even non-existent. However, God is not like that…God is the perfect parent who will never leave or disown us. We are children of God, truly loved by him. We don’t know where our relationship with him will lead but we do know that because of that relationship we share some of the same attributes as him. That doesn’t mean that we can become God, but it does mean we can share some characteristics with him…we are made in his image.

I don’t know if anybody has seen the film Wildchild. It’s a chickflick where a teenager is out of control and gets packed off to boarding school by her father. It turns out that the school was the same one as her late mother attended, but the girl doesn’t know. It is only as she begins to mature and settle into the school that she finds out her mum went there. As this happens she begins to display the characteristics that make her father comment on her likeness to her mum when he comes to visit.

So the second thing which the writer wants us to see is that because we are in relationship with God and made in his image we will begin to mirror some of his characteristics.

As we move onto verse three we can see that one aspect of the father we seek to mirror is purity. This brings the first two elements together. Purity is an aspect of the father which we mirror, but it is also something which has to be developed. To be pure we need to purify ourselves. It is not referring to a one off act of purification, rather in this verse it is talking in the present continuous tense. We need to be constantly purifying ourselves in order to develop this aspect of our father’s character. Another way of putting it is we need to be constantly working towards holiness. We are in relationship with God through his grace and that can’t be taken away because we are his children. However, in working towards purification and holiness we are seeking to develop a character more like his.

So what does purification involve? Well, the Collins dictionary tells us to purify ourselves mean to free something of harmful or inferior matter or to free a person from sin or guilt. So purification means not only looking at our lives and working out if there is anything in it which is harmful and seeking to move on from that. It also means freeing ourselves from guilt. Therefore, we need to look at our behaviours, our motivations and our emotions to see what might need to change if we are to mirror our father more. As I said before though, the bible indicates this is a continuous process not just a one off thing. This means that we shouldn’t get wrapped up in more guilt if purification takes time. Just like little children we will make mistakes but we will also change and mature as we grow. Little children need parents, friends and teachers to support them and help them grow and so we too need others around us to help us become purified. We are in relationship with God, the father and he will help us change, through his spirit. However, we also need to be ready to let other people support us in that process of purification and change aswell. That’s where GCN comes in, it’s where our churches come in and where our friends come in. It might also for some be where counsellors or medical professionals come in aswell. Sometimes growth and purification comes just from spending time hanging out with those we are in relationship with but sometimes it takes a little more effort.

Whatever, this passage promises that because we are children of God we can have confidence and live pure lives, mirroring the characteristics of our father.

Retreating – GCN style

This weekend saw me heading off to Devon for the GCN Europe retreat. The theme of the weekend was “We are Family”. This theme meant that about 30 ecumenically and ethnically mixed LGBT Christians (and straight friends) explored what it meant to be family as Christians, using a variety of different methods and styles.

Having somewhat mistakenly volunteered I led the session on Saturday morning about what being God’s children meant. When I say mistakenly what I mean is I didn’t volunteer by mistake but I had misunderstood what I was volunteering for. Initially they just asked for people willing to run sessions and so I said yup, I’d do one….thinking it was like stuff I’d been to before where the sessions were workshops which would run together. So I volunteered thinking I was going to say when asked what our sessions were going be about…”I do one on using modern technologies in prayer”. I was also thinking this would be about an hour maximum and have about 15 people absolute maximum attending, probably about 5.

It was only when it was too late to back out without causing problems I realised what I had actually volunteered for was quite different. Turned out to be a session of about 2 hours based around 1 John looking at the theme of family. Now this was where I went for what it means to be God’s children on the basis of it sounded easier than some of the other stuff….um, yeagh, right.

Anyway, I prayed…and paniced….and prayed some more and managed to put it together. End result was a session to these 30 people which involved a reflective reading of 1 John 2 vs 28 – 3 vs 4, a bit of a talk on the text, a discussion, giving out some stickers to remind people of the fact God loves them, a bit of storytime and some appropriate songs mixed in. Only major mistake came with a bit of language I used where I forgot about the painful meanings of words when they have been used within psycho-babble.I just used a word in a more general way that I would as a parent but was later reminded for some people it is a painful term…still I was able to explain to people the use I’d intended and apologise for anyone who had found the term hurtful ….so all in all I survived it and even, if I might say so, think it went ok. I also quite enjoyed the experience in the end.

Beyond my bit I both and enjoyed and was challenged by other people’s sessions. My favourite involved making sculptures out of our personal possessions….although in some ways this was also the most personally challenging session to me.

Worship wise it was all a bit old skool, but that was cool. Only truly cringe worthy moment was when after a wonderful meal and some rather good wine we found ourselves singing “If I Were A Butterfly”. Turned out a quarter of a century + after learning it I still knew the actions. Took me until the third verse and a whole new millenium PC panic about the issues surrounding “If I were a fuzzy bear I’d thank you Lord for my fuzzy wuzzy hair” to wake up to the fact I am no longer either an ickle person or a over-enthusiastic evangelical. Just so glad it didn’t make it into any pictures.

During the weekend we got to watch Through My Eyes which is really moving and is a film I’d highly recommend to anybody who wants to know what it is like to be young, gay and Christian. It’s UScentric, also hits on some issues which some LGBT Christian youth find over here aswell. Best explanation of young people and coming out I have seen.

On Sunday morning I found myself in the most beautiful abbey, whose retreat house we were staying in, enjoying mass. Interesting to me that Catholic worship didn’t actually seem much different to any other liturgical tradition & was far less “high” than the Anglo-Catholic service I encountered recently. Only bit about it I didn’t like was not being able to share in the sacrament and having to be blessed instead. Being told one’s baptism is not of equal status is hard….and meant I couldn’t bring myself to say in the creed “we believe in one church”. I do believe it but I was not feeling it at that point. To be honest part of me wanted to just go up and take communion, but I realised this would be disrespectful to my Catholic and Orthodox friends and to the community whose facilities we were using and so didn’t.

On a more positive note it was just brilliant to be hanging out with a bunch of wonderful people. Some of them were friends I was catching up with and others I just got to know this weekend. As often said before I love it when virtual and real world come together like that.

Funniest thing seen all weekend was this You Tube clip [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mws778-yrak[/youtube].