A New Story

Cory-and-the-Seventh-Story-Cover-LargeBrian McLaren has written a new book. There’s nothing new about that. He’s been churning out around one a year for a few decades now. I personally have been blessed, challenged and changed by reading his writings. By far, the book that has had the greatest impact on my life of faith has been A New Kind of Christian which, for me at the time, echoed so many I-dare-not-speak thoughts and questions about what had become to me a stale, dead, rote-memory, agenda-driven Christianity.

And that story is told in a new, embraceable way in this brightly-illustrated children’s book by Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins, Cory & the Seventh Story.

If you are familiar with Brian’s work, the seventh story will definitely ring a bell. In this child-friendly version, Cory the raccoon and his friend Owl (who, unfortunately, remains nameless) live through the evolution of human civilisation as symbols of ourselves in their animal village. As the story unfolds, the creatures play out the stories, centring around the possession of a ‘shiny object,’ that we all, at some point, have lived:

Domination: Us ruling over Them
Revolution: Us overthrowing Them
Isolation: Us apart from Them
Purification: Us marginalising or excluding Them
Victimisation: Us defeated by Them
Accumulation: Us with more than Them
Reconciliation: Us for Them

Cleverly weaving in very relatable interactions between Cory and the main players in these stories, McLaren and Higgins reveal the great flaws in history’s six stories which are only overcome in the telling of a seventh story by a poet-horse named Swift.

In this new story, a bigger table is built and all the animals are welcomed to a great feast. They are to come as they are and leave their ‘shiny objects’ at home and simply enjoy what has been prepared for them. Those who up until now had been considered ‘the least’ are given places of honour at the table and there is plenty of food for everyone–nobody is left out.

As they enjoy the celebration, Swifthorse tells the new story:

“There is no big or small, no short or tall,
No best or worst, no blessed or cursed,
No dirty or clean, no cause to be mean,
No rich or poor, no reason for war,
We have more than enough in the story of love.
Each is for all of us, and all are for each of us.
This is the wisdom this new story teaches us.”

Of course, there are a few who snarl and spit at this idea–these are the dominating creatures of the previous stories: Badger, Fox, Weasel and Skunk–who drive out Swift and, possibly (this part is left unanswered) kill her.

Drive the poet away, but this story will stay.
Long after I’m gone, the story lives on.

In the concluding pages, the creatures, who themselves are treated as outcasts by the antagonists, gather around a fire and retell Swift’s story and promise to live in love and service for the betterment of their world.

For those of us who have grown up in Christianity, the parallels are quite obvious. However, seeing ourselves as tellers of the six stories at various times in our journey is something that, even as an adult, is confronting. In our own interaction with ‘shiny objects’ and the desire for power over others, we have failed in many ways to hear the story of love as it is told–and demonstrated to us–by and in the life of Jesus.

This short, readable parable may not only grow our children’s awareness of the stories by which we live our lives, but may also help us to see how much we need to grow as their parents and role models to not only tell but also show them the reconciling love and acceptance of Jesus.

Cory & the Seventh Story was released on 12 December and, at the time of writing, is only available directly from the website https://www.theseventhstory.com/kids/

 

Power Corrupts

MarcosI have just finished reading a brilliant volume on the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, The Marcos Dynasty: The Corruption of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. I have always had an interest in Philippine history and was pleased to see that the author, expert in Southeast Asian modern history, Sterling Seagrave, took great pains to present at the very start the context and place in time of the nation: its struggles under colonial rule of Spain then the United States, its national heroes, politics and civil and foreign battles, and its strategic importance in Asia and the Pacific.

What presented an intriguing aside throughout the book was the ongoing interactions between the Filipino Leadership and American Presidents, Generals, Diplomats and Secret Service agents, especially surrounding the Japanese invasion and the aftermath of World War II. Truly, as one critic praises it, this book reads like “a fast-paced thriller” and displays “an underlay of thorough investigative work.”

Very few come out looking good.

In fact, Seagrave challenges the popular history that was largely written by the powerful figures at play in this drama and paints a picture of the corruption of the power structures of both the Philippines and the United States, and the stealth by which the CIA and its agents were involved in a multitude of critical political and business decisions in the region during the course of the 20th century. Men who were thought to be heroes, great military leaders and global freedom advocates turn out to be weak, indecisive, and abusers themselves.

The adage is true: Power corrupts, and Absolute Power corrupts absolutely.

Time and time again, the opportunity presents itself to govern wisely and compassionately, and personal gain is chosen over national interest.

  • Billions of dollars was divested from Government accounts into Swiss accounts in the name of Ferdinand, Imelda or any of the Marcos children or companies.
  • Bribes were paid by companies seeking to do business in the Philippines and this money went not to the nation but into the hands of its leaders.
  • Lucrative and over-priced government contracts were awarded to the President’s family, friends, or those who could afford to pay the necessary ‘taxes’ into the Marcos’s personal accounts. Corporations with family ties were given exclusive rights to mining, oil drilling, sugar cane and pineapple plantations and logging.
  • Family members were given plush positions of authority from ambassadorships to provincial governorships, with all the salaries and perks appropriate to such offices.
  • Extravagance was king. From Imelda’s bulletproof bras and huge shoe collection to private jumbo jets with gold fittings and personally-owned hotels, highways, casinos and clubs, no expense was spared.

But this all started as an honest attempt at being a compassionate and patriotic Filipino and having a desire to not only see the nation gain its independence from its colonial rulers but to also grow to be a world leader and influencer in the region.

*  *  *  *  *

I am reminded how this follows the same pattern that many have chosen—or fallen into, not often intentionally but over time, in many small steps, and often with the best motivations.

In Government, a politician will perhaps start off as a local council member. She will delight in helping her community grow, her constituents succeed, and the residents prosper. All her time will be spent working for the people who elected her. Until she starts moving up the ladder of success to state level. Suddenly, so it seems, she is in Federal Parliament/Congress and has a large staff, huge budget and allowances, and spends little, if any, time in her constituency. Rather, lobbyists wine and dine her. Corporations start courting her vote by depositing large amounts into her election campaign. She takes extravagant first-class trips overseas (or ‘study tours’ as they are called). She starts using the nations funds to pay for private parties, flights and holidays for her family. Corporate bodies court her vote on legislation. She ends up betraying the trust of those she represents and selling out so enlarge her own profits and prospects of employment post-politics—if she makes it that far without a corruption scandal.

A young man decides to attend seminary because he is so passionate about Christian community and wants to invest his life in helping folks just like him to grow spirituality and as a community of faith, making a positive impact in their city. He graduates and secures a Youth Pastor position in a small church (often considered the first step in any ministerial career). He loves his job and the kids more than anything and sinks hours of time and immense portions of his life into nurturing and supporting them through all the ups and downs of teenage life. He marries and has a few children. By now he has accepted a call to a larger church as an Associate Pastor and, what seems like such a short time, becomes Senior Pastor. The Church starts growing in numbers and assets. He hires his friends because ‘why not?’ if they are good for the job. He slowly gets rid of the naysayers in the organisation and, before long, the board is populated with those who agree with his ‘vision’ for the church and who will rubber-stamp anything he puts forward. He starts writing books that become bestsellers. His church expands which results in a new multi-million-dollar high tech campus—or two or three. By now he is much in demand as a speaker at conferences around the world. He is at his own church perhaps half of the Sundays in a year. He buys a bigger house, better cars, spends much of his time on expensive holidays none of his parishioners could afford and, eventually justifies a private jet and commands large ‘love offerings’ wherever he speaks. He looks forward to the time he can retire—if he can keep that indiscretion quiet or that affair on the hush-hush long enough.

* *  *  *  *

In the end, the Marcos Dynasty ended in shame when, after the blatant murder of Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino (Marcos’s foremost critic) by Marcos’s henchmen, and the final corrupted election (1986) where Ninoy’s wife, Corazon, was overwhelmingly swept into power. Ferdinand, Imelda and their children were forced to flee Malacañang Palace and the Philippines under allegations of immense corruption and scandal. They took with them an estimated $5-$10 billion that rightfully belonged to the Philippine people. Corruption that occurred during the Marcos’s era of dictatorship is still evident in the nation and will continue to have a ripple effect in the region for years to come.

Whether a position of power is ‘earned’ or ‘granted,’ we must be very cautious in using it. It can just as easily turn into abuse and manipulation, a distrust of everyone as a possible usurper of our rightful authority, and a beast that will end up destroying our soul. And the question we must always remember is this: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and  lose his own soul?”

Book Review: The Billionaire’s Gift

BGI sat down the other night with my Kindle and downloaded a novella, the first offering from author Edward Iwata, The Billionaire’s Gift: A Spiritual Business Parable.

Reading The Billionaire’s Gift, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the modern parables of Peter Rollins (The Orthodox Heretic, Insurrection). Iwata uses vivid imagery to tell the story of an unnamed Billionaire who cares about nothing in life but how to make more money. That he is extremely wealthy goes without saying. Yet his lifestyle is one of frugality such as one would expect from a rather sour and miserly Dickens character. On the other extreme of the spectrum,

The Secretary (also unnamed) is a church-going, down-to-earth daughter of immigrants who cherishes her family, friends and church. The Secretary’s father, in the course of the story, takes ill and the response (actually, the lack of such response) from The Billionaire is nothing short of unempathetic callousness and disregard. I am thinking as I read through this story of the numerous spiritual parallels, of the parables Jesus told: The rich man and Lazarus, The Gracious Vineyard owner, the Prodigal Son, all of which have some elements I see woven into this modern-day parable. The author has a way of telling a story that capitalises on the anonymity of its setting and characters. No names are given. No city is named. No branding or corporate stamp is evident. Yet the scenes unfold with so much personality and creativity that I, without even knowing it, had been drawn into the characters’ stories as if they were my own friends, family and work colleagues. The city is where I live. The Billionaire’s business is familiar to me. Edward Iwata writes in such a relatable way and engaging style. The Billionaire’s Gift isn’t exactly a long read (I got through it in one evening) but it is packed with truth, timeless and placeless lessons which are translatable into any area of life, any culture or any geographical locale. I recommend not only reading this timeless tale, but taking it to heart as one would a parable from the Master of parables. Its truth has the power to change your perspective and your life.Reading The Billionaire’s Gift, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the modern parables of Peter Rollins (The Orthodox Heretic, Insurrection). Edward Iwata uses vivid imagery to tell the story of an unnamed Billionaire who cares about nothing in life but how to make more money. That he is extremely wealthy goes without saying. Yet his lifestyle is one of frugality such as one would expect from a rather sour and miserly Dickens character. On the other extreme of the spectrum, The Secretary (also unnamed) is a church-going, down-to-earth daughter of immigrants who cherishes her family, friends and church. The Secretary’s father, in the course of the story, takes ill and the response (actually, the lack of such response) from The Billionaire is nothing short of unempathetic callousness and disregard. I am thinking as I read through this story of the numerous spiritual parallels, of the parables Jesus told: The rich man and Lazarus, The Gracious Vineyard owner, the Prodigal Son, all of which have some elements I see woven into this modern-day parable. The author has a way of telling a story that capitalises on the anonymity of its setting and characters. No names are given. No city is named. No branding or corporate stamp is evident. Yet the scenes unfold with so much personality and creativity that I, without even knowing it, had been drawn into the characters’ stories as if they were my own friends, family and work colleagues. The city is where I live. The Billionaire’s business is familiar to me. Edward Iwata writes in such a relatable way and engaging style. The Billionaire’s Gift isn’t exactly a long read (I got through it in one evening) but it is packed with truth, timeless and placeless lessons which are translatable into any area of life, any culture or any geographical locale. I recommend not only reading this timeless tale, but taking it to heart as one would a parable from the Master of parables. Its truth has the power to change your perspective and your life.Reading The Billionaire’s Gift, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the modern parables of Peter Rollins (The Orthodox Heretic, Insurrection). Edward Iwata uses vivid imagery to tell the story of an unnamed Billionaire who cares about nothing in life but how to make more money. That he is extremely wealthy goes without saying. Yet his lifestyle is one of frugality such as one would expect from a rather sour and miserly Dickens character. On the other extreme of the spectrum, The Secretary (also unnamed) is a church-going, down-to-earth daughter of immigrants who cherishes her family, friends and church. The Secretary’s father, in the course of the story, takes ill and the response (actually, the lack of such response) from The Billionaire is nothing short of unempathetic callousness and disregard. I am thinking as I read through this story of the numerous spiritual parallels, of the parables Jesus told: The rich man and Lazarus, The Gracious Vineyard owner, the Prodigal Son, all of which have some elements I see woven into this modern-day parable. The author has a way of telling a story that capitalises on the anonymity of its setting and characters. No names are given. No city is named. No branding or corporate stamp is evident. Yet the scenes unfold with so much personality and creativity that I, without even knowing it, had been drawn into the characters’ stories as if they were my own friends, family and work colleagues. The city is where I live. The Billionaire’s business is familiar to me. Edward Iwata writes in such a relatable way and engaging style. The Billionaire’s Gift isn’t exactly a long read (I got through it in one evening) but it is packed with truth, timeless and placeless lessons which are translatable into any area of life, any culture or any geographical locale. I recommend not only reading this timeless tale, but taking it to heart as one would a parable from the Master of parables. Its truth has the power to change your perspective and your life.

The Billionaire’s Gift: A Spiritual Business Parable is available from amazon.com in either paperback or Kindle format.

Follow Edward Iwata on Twitter (@EdwardIwata) or visit his website.

Revisiting The Shack

ShackRevisitedThe minute I started reading Paul Young’s novel The Shack, I was entranced. Young took me into a  world where God came down in the form of three unlikely individuals and messed with the life of a broken and cynical man. Through its pages I saw a new portrait of a God I knew, yet, strangely, seem to have never met–a God who lavishes love, grace and forgiveness on humanity with such unrelenting fervor . . . and I found myself stopping and questioning my own sensibility at times: Does such a Being even exist?

After all, there is another darker, more sinister, picture of God to which I had been accustomed: a God who hates, bring destruction and devastation, strikes humankind with his fierce (and righteous?) anger, holding us to ransom over the flames of hell.

I remember telling a friend that I was reading The Shack and found it to be the most incredible story of grace I had ever come across. I loaned her my copy and, before hiding it away in her handbag rather quickly, she told me that she could not let her friends see her with it–especially those in her church fellowship group–because it was so heretical. (Puzzled expression on my face, and I think I said something along the lines of “You’ve got to be kidding!”)

To me, this book was so straightforwardly simple and showed a wonderful picture of a God I wanted to know. To her, it was another threat to a “safe” theology which enabled her to live quite comfortably amongst her like-minded acquaintances.

So when I received a copy of The Shack Revisited by C. Baxter Kruger (2012: Hachette Book Group/Hodder & Stoughton), I jumped into it head first, hoping to make some sense of Evangelicalism’s strange love-hate relationship with this recent bestseller.

Kruger lets us into a little history of the original volume: Young never intended this book to be published, but wrote it for his family to explain his own experience over 11 years of brokenness and the realisation of the overwhelming love and forgiveness of God in his life. What we read is his own story, although viewed in the life of Mack. Mack lost his daughter Missy and became overwhelmed by his own Great Sadness. That Sadness–and the period of Young’s own life it represents–is characterised by the seemingly very real absence of God. As Kruger comments, “That is a lonely place.” (p.23).

Kruger’s companion volume to The Shack was not solicited by Young. It arose out of Kruger’s own interaction with The Shack and out of the profound impact this book had in his life and ministry. The Shack Revisited is a well-rounded explanation of the underpinning theology of the novel, written with the average pew-sitting Christian in mind. It takes into account not only how the Biblical writers saw God’s relationship within God’s self and with Creation, but also teaching from numerous Church writers and theologians, including many from the first centuries of Christianity’s existence. I was quite pleased to read so much commentary within this book that echoed the writings of one of my favourite authors and theologians, C.S. Lewis. In fact, as Kruger rightfully states, the fingerprints of C.S. Lewis are all over this book. Themes such as those by which Lewis is so constantly taken to addressing are found throughout the volume and the author makes this abundantly clear:

Within us all there lies a broken dream, “our inconsolable secret,” as Lewis calls it, that is so precious to us we protect it with a thousand defenses. “The secret which hurts us much,” Lewis says, “That you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence.” We know that we are made for glory, but only know hints of its joy. In the midst of life we long for more. Something is missing: creation is aflame with a glory we cannot touch but we know it’s ours. We are moved by ancient music, but cannot find the great dance. So “we pine,” as Lewis says. But such pining is too much to bear. So we bury our longing and protect our dream’s sleep. (p. 36)

After laying the groundwork in showing the background and purpose of this book, Kruger breaks into the theological themes of Young’s book with the common understanding many Christians have of God. He shows the one view of God as being an angry Deity intent on holding sinners over the flames of hell’s fire (as represented in Jerry Falwell’s favourite sermon of all time, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards) (p.53) The other view, demonstrated so beautifully in The Shack is one portrayed by Athanasius in where God has never abandoned human beings who has always walked alongside brokenness.

The God of all is good and supremely noble by nature. Therefore he is the lover of humanity. [Athanasius quoted by Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought.]

As, then, the creatures whom he had created . . . were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was he to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning  . . . It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself. [Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God] (p.55)

Kruger assumes of the reader a Trinitarian theological understanding (chapter 6). So much of the book is caught up in the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit, perhaps because this is the point in which critics have accused Young of going too far. (Whilst the apparent human-likeness of each person of the Trinity was refreshing and enlightening to me when I first read The Shack, to many that has brought God into disrepute, making God too familiar and not so much a distant other-worldly entity as their theology would dictate.) Drawing from the gospel record and from the interpretation of this by the early Church fathers, he shows the involvement of God with humankind from the very beginning, through the Hebrew patriarchs and into the coming of Jesus. The interplay between the three persons is shown as always being a given throughout the story of God (chapters 7 and 8)

This is not polytheism (as was the accusation made by the Jews against early Christians), nor modalism (where God manifested in different ways at different times), but a true relationship. Jesus claimed this, telling his disciples that he and his father were one, that  he would send the Spirit to them who would be as he himself to them. The most common demonstration of this relationship has always been the baptism of Jesus where the Spirit appeared above him as a dove and the voice is heard saying “This is the son whom I love. . . .” (This debate over the nature of God culminated in the councils of Nicaea (325 C.E.) and Constantinople (381 C.E.) affirming the nature of the Trinity.)

Kruger introduces the idea of perichoresis: an understanding of the triune God as a mutual indwelling without a loss of personal identity, as Sarayu tells Mack: “You cannot share with one and not share with us all.”

Then why does not needs us–why does God love us? Is God not enough in God’s self? Does not that relationship within the Trinity satisfy God in itself?

Chapter 10 is worth the price of this book. Here Kruger addresses the love of God for humans within the context of perichoresis. In fact, he shows how the love of God could not exist if it were not for the triune nature of God. As Richard of St Victor said, “There can be no love without relationship.” C.S. Lewis added to this: “Love is something one person has for another person. If God was a single person before the world was made, He was not love.” In this, Karl Barth says, we were “created to be loved, and to live loved, and to love others without agenda.”

The Father  Son and Spirit love us for our benefit, not for increasing their membership rolls, or for making themselves look good, or from anything they can get from us.There is no need in the blessed Trinity. It is an overflowing fountain of other-centered love. The shared life of Father Son and Spirit is about giving, not taking; sharing, not hoarding; blessing others with life for their sake, not manipulating for divine control. The Father, Son and Spirit are focused on giving themselves for our benefit, so that we too can experience real life. They need nothing in return. (p. 120)

The result of this is thus:

We were created that we could be, that we could live and share in the life and joy of the triune God. Jesus’ Father is not holding his breath to see if we jump through the right hoops before he decides our fate. There is no list. We are not here to “glorify God” by our religious performance. We are here to live “in the glory” of the blessed Trinity. (p. 121)

What place, then does the wrath of God have in the context of such a relationship? Kruger puts it this way:

Wrath is the love of the triune God in passionate action, saying “No!” It is love’s fiery opposition to our destruction. Likewise, the judgement of God is not the divine “dark said” finally having its say. To judge is to discern, to see into a matter and understand what is wrong in order to make it right and whole. Thus, as Pope Benedict said, “The judgement of God is hope,both because it is justice and because it is grace” [Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, 47] (p. 128).

From the perspective of an Evangelical Christian, C. Baxter Kruger has done a remarkable job of revealing to the reader of The Shack the theological skeleton on which the story written by Wm. Paul Young forms the visible part of this remarkable body of truth. For the person who has read the book, but who may have questions about the integrity of the facts, this is a must-read. For the one who would so much love to embrace the reality of the loving, caring and relational God but who wonders how it will fit within their existing understanding of God’s nature, you need to read this. If you have any misgivings about the reality of a relationship with God, if your are in a place of brokenness, if you feel that God is not with you or for you, then you owe it to yourself to grab a copy of The Shack and revel in the truth found in its pages: how much God loves you and wants to heal your life and bring you to a place of freedom and grace–and then you must read The Shack Revisited, if nothing more then for Chapter 10!

__________

* I realise that here I may lose those who understand God’s objective as only accepting those who personally repeat a prescribed prayer, perform a required ritual, or live in a particular way. While this may be deducted from several “proof texts” in Scripture, this is not in accordance with the general understanding of the nature and work of God as understood by those who lived during the immediate centuries following the events written in the gospel record.