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/

 

Which Religion is True?

BuddhaFor many, this is a genuine question. It is not something that requires a pat, one word answer. “Christianity, of course!” say some. “Islam,” say others.

People have died because of either their answer to this question or their refusal to accept another’s answer as truth.

Brian McLaren not only gives insight into this (often contentious) question in his most recent book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? but has just put up a post about it on his blog. Here’s some of what he writes:

I appreciate logic as much as the next person. But I find your statement seems to be missing some pieces:

“either all religions are false or only one is true.”

I can imagine four options:
1. All religions are completely true.
2. All religions are completely false.
3. One religion is completely true and others are true wherever they agree with it.
4. All religions are partially true and partially false.

I find #1 impossible since different religions contain many contradictions. I find #2 unlikely and incredible. That leaves #3 and #4. A big problem with #3 is that you have to ask, “Whose version of which religion?” For example, if you want to claim Christianity is completely true, you have to ask, “Pope Urban II’s version of Catholicism?” or “Benny Hinn’s version of Pentecostalism?” or “C. S. Lewis’ version of Protestantism?” or “Leo Tolstoy’s version of Russian Orthodoxy?” or … you get the point.

I would be happy to say that God knows what is completely true … but I would reject any human’s claim that they or their religion knows God’s mind with perfect accuracy. That’s why, as a committed follower of Christ, I advocate
– humility of heart and mind,
– a childlike desire to learn,
– love for neighbor, stranger, outcast, and enemy,
– and a sincere hunger and thirst for justice,
because, as Paul said, “we know in part.”

Think on these thing.

(You can read the rest of Brian’s post here.)

Politics & Religion

I find at this time in the cycle of American politics, people on either side of the political spectrum seem to truly enjoy slinging mud at each other and speaking ill of each other’s preferred candidate. This is true to some extent in any country. And those who claim to be Christians seem to be the greatest offenders.

I’ve always been perplexed at this seemingly incongruous fact. Bruce Reyes-Chow reflects on this in his blog and offers some insight:

It seems that supporters of both parties are pretty inconsistent when it comes to examining what the campaigns are putting out there about the economy, healthcare, foreign policy, taxes, poverty, etc. Generally speaking, when we like and support a candidate, we believe them and if we don’t support a candidate, we find every way to discount their every claim as an utter lie.

Seeing as many of the people who show up in my various news streams are of the Christian variety, I have noticed the same patterns when we approach Scripture. Now don’t worry, I am not trying to equate our political system and God’s movement in the world. I am only pointing out  how we tend to approach our beliefs in times of disagreement. These are the things that I have noticed:

When we read the Bible, The Word of God…

  • We lean into and take at face value passages that reinforce our already held beliefs.
  • We dig deeper into the history and context of the passages in order to discount any that call our beliefs into question

When we hear words from politicians…

  • We lean into and take at face value the words that our preferred politicians says.
  • We dig deeper into the words from politicians we don’t like in order to discount their version of the truth.

In both of these cases we are basically doing two things: one, finding all the support we can to affirm our already held beliefs and, two, finding anything we can to discount the beliefs that others might hold as true. In the end, we are more concerned with making sure that we are right, rather than being open to the possibility that our beliefs might need to change, shift or … heaven forbid, be scrapped in totality. (Read the full post here.)

I don’t believe anyone could agree 100% with any politician’s policies or values. That is a reality of life. It’s up to responsible citizens to weigh what is being said and what is being done against what is right and good for the nation, and then vote accordingly.

Brian McLaren has put this well in his three recent politically-focused ebooks: The Word of the Lord to . . . Democrats, Republicans and Evangelicals respectively. These are well worth reading and are available via Amazon and other reputable ebook sales sites.

Regardless of how you choose to vote–either in the upcoming U.S. election or in next year’s Australian election–don’t simply tow the party line. Look at the issues and values and vote for the leader who best reflects God’s concern for the world: the poor, the marginalised, the stranger, and the vulnerable.

. . . Oh, and we need to remain open to the reality that many of those beliefs and ‘truths’ we now hold dear may one day turn out to be poorly founded or totally wrong.

Realising this, Reyes-Chow concludes his post:

In the end, there are no easy answers and I find strength in the fact that we will always fall short of perfection. But if we can all acknowledge these realities of shared hypocrisy and extend a little grace towards our enemies in these times of battle, maybe we will all see the other side of this election season a little less bruised and battered from the fight.

Brian McLaren on Islamophobic Evangelicals

Brian McLaren has written an excellent piece on CNN.com about the Islamophobia which is becoming more and more widespread in Christian circles–particularly in those who claim to be Evangelicals. Do yourself a favour and read his post. Especially with a view to recent events, it makes more sense than ever that those who are followers of Jesus need to start living as disciples and not like fearmongers. As Brian writes:

Islamophobic evangelical Christians – and the neo-conservative Catholics and even some Jewish folks who are their unlikely political bedfellows of late – must choose.

Will they press on in their current path, letting Islamophobia spread even further amongst them? Or will they stop, rethink and seek to a more charitable approach to our Muslim neighbors? Will they realize that evangelical religious identity is under assault, not by Shariah law, not by the liberal media, not by secular humanism from the outside, but by forces within the evangelical community that infect that religious identity with hostility?

If I could get one message through to my evangelical friends, it would be this: The greatest threat to evangelicalism is evangelicals who tolerate hate and who promote hate camouflaged as piety.

No one can serve two masters. You can’t serve God and greed, nor can you serve God and fear, nor God and hate. (Read the full post here.)

And if you haven’t ordered Brian’s new book, do yourself another favour and get on to it!

Young Adults and the Church, Truth and Christian Identity

Bruce Reyes-Chow has put up another insightful post on his blog, this time focused on why he believes the Church is ‘doomed’ when it comes to reaching the elusive young adult. Do yourself a favour and read the full post. Here’s one paragraph that stood out to me:

I find it interesting that most of the conversations about “reaching young adults” take place among people who are distinctly NOT young adults. I think it is a way that many of us try to prove that 40 really IS the new 20 and extend our youth for as long as we can. Sorry folks, but as we age, our roles and perspectives change. I for one do not regret this, rather I embrace and welcome the roles that I will hold in the future. If we are reach young adults with integrity, then young adults must to be at the table and part of the direction setting in significant ways. Much like we would never plant a Korean American church with a team that was 90 percent non-Korean, we must not try to create relevant young adults ministries by relying on the musings of even the best intentioned 40-, 50- and 60-year-olds. For as hip of a 43-year-old as I fool myself into believing I am, I do not and will not experience the world through the eyes of a 20-year-old — and there is nothing I can do to change that. The best thing I can do is to acknowledge this reality and then find the best ways to empower, guide and support that 20-year-old as she/he discovers a place and role in the future of the church. This posture must be taken in all aspects of the journey: planning process, fiscal management, organizational development, etc. if we are to truly create and sustain ministry with and for young adults.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

While we’re at the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel, Kevin Miller has written about why he would rather seek truth than defend an idea.

. . . [A]s much as we’d like to believe we are primarily rational beings, we simply are not. Emotions play a huge role in the truth-seeking and idea-defending process. Even the term we use to describe a moment of intellectual discovery—an “A-ha! Moment”—is primarily emotional in its connotations. This is nothing to be embarrassed about. We enter the science lab and the theological library as whole persons, not disembodied minds. And we need this kind of emotion to spur the tremendous effort required to coax new insights out of stubborn data and then to gain them a fair hearing. . . .

. . . Problems arise, however, when we become so emotionally attached to an idea that it no longer exists independent of our selves. We have invested so much of our lives into articulating and then defending the idea that it becomes fused with our identity. We don’t just hold an idea; we are the idea.

“I don’t just hold conservative views; I am a conservative.”

“I don’t just believe in universalism, I am a Universalist.”

If we’re not careful, we go from thinking, “My idea might be right” to “My idea can’t be wrong.” And the reason it can’t be wrong has less and less to do with the idea’s relative merits. It’s the fact you’ve ordered your entire existence around that idea, and if it’s wrong, well, you’ve wasted your life. (Read more here.)

The way I see it, when the truth becomes so much a part of your identity that you cannot live with the thought of finding out you may be wrong, then it is held too tightly. At that point, you are so emotionally invested in this way of thinking being right that you can no longer distinguish the idea from reality, the ‘fact’ from the emotional response to that ‘fact.’

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Speaking of truth and identity, Brian Mclaren’s new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, is being released next week and I, for one, am eager to see Brian’s take on interfaith dialogue and Christian identity. From what I have read so far here, it seems like the greatest obstacle we face in relating to those of other faith communities is that of our own fear.

The single greatest obstacle to rethinking Christian identity won’t be imposed from the other side by other people, whether “us” or “them.” The single greatest obstacle will arise inside each of us. Your greatest obstacle will be in you and mine will be in me. In the end, it’s not the threats of others that cause me to shrink back, but rather my own fear.

You can order copies of Brian’s book postage-free here.

What is Church?

There are many definitions of “Church,” and I suspect this may be one of those words the interpretation of which has done much to divide Christendom over the millennia. In Evangelicalism, we are all too familiar with the idea that the church is not a building, but a community of God’s people. While this doesn’t really do much to define anything greater than a social club, it seems to suffice for many of us. And it worked for me until a short time ago when I came to the realisation that is is so much more–greater, deeper, and more transformational–than that.

Having been intensely (and critically, often cynically) looking into this idea of what Church is for the past 3-4 years, I came across this simple definition from Brian McLaren today in MINEmergent:

Church is a space in which the Spirit works to form Christlike people, and it is the space in which human beings, formed in Christlike love, cooperate with the Spirit and one another to express that love in word and deed, art and action.

Truth is, I’ve read that before, but never has it stuck with me as it has just now. A social club cannot meet this criteria. A sporting group can’t transform people in this way. This is the essence of what “Church” is all about. Anything beyond this is window-dressing, politics, tradition, or religiosity.

Book Burnout

I’m experiencing book burnout at the moment. I really enjoy reading, but need to do so in small doses at the moment. My system is a little overloaded.

The unfortunate fact is that there are some really great books out there at the moment and it’s tempting just to get onto the Book Depository or Amazon Kindle Store and get my hands on them. But I’ve got so much information going around in my head that my thought-train is threatening to de-rail.

Recently, I’ve been challenged greatly by Brian McLaren‘s Naked Spirituality and by Rob Bell‘s Love Wins. These two recent publications have joined Hugh Halter’s And: The Gathered and Scattered Church in giving me hope in what is possible for the Faith, Christianity and the Church at what many have called a crossroads in its existence.

Mike Foster’s Gracenomics inspired me to lean more towards mercy in my life and give people a second or third or fourth chance.  

Shane Hipps’ well-researched volume, Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, shows how this marketing guru-turned-pastor sees the way our faith is faring, growing, changing amidst the onslaught of new technology at our disposal (I am still digesting this one).

I really enjoyed the way Pete Rollins underhandedly sparked my thinking in his collection of modern-day parables, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. What a great, creative gift of storytelling this man has been given!

Then there are a couple of books that are more challenging to read since they are written by people who do not share my same belief-branding: The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, and Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became one of America’s Leading Atheists by Dan Barker. I say “challenging to read” because sometimes what these men have written unsettles me, makes me squirm, and necessitates that I put the book down and do some further searching, study and praying. So many of the questions asked need to be asked–answered, re-phrased, discussed–not simply dismissed. The sad truth is both of these books contain truth, and sometimes address in very direct terms the deficiencies that pervade Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christianity today.

I have often heard the comment (from those with the best of intentions): “We shouldn’t be reading anything but the Bible,” or a variant, “We should only be reading books that are solidly based on Scripture” (what actually qualifies in this capacity usually are those books that agree with my own interpretations.)

While I see the value of not constantly surrounding oneself with “error,” it also must be said that we do ourselves no favour by blocking our ears and crying out “la la la” while others are raising genuine questions. We who claim to want to be like those of Berea who “searched the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so (Acts 17),” have much to answer for if we fail to understand the claims of those different to us so as to critically (Scripturally?) give a credible response.

And what McLaren has penned in A New Kind of Christianity and Ken Howard in Paradoxy: Creating Community Beyond Us and Them gives me hope that we can have meaningful dialogue–and find friendship–with those who differ from us.

Meanwhile, too much thinking is “doing my head in.” I’ve removed the half-read stacks of books next to my easy chair and on my bedside table. For now I need to sit back, draw some deep breaths, mull over some well-written words and ideas and pray.  I think I’ll be back in the library or on the ‘net before you know it. But, for the moment, I’m taking a little time out for sanity.