Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The need to read

reading As long as I can remember I have had a library (I define a library as owning two or more books!). And, for as long as I can remember, I have read widely. By widely, I mean that I have always read outside of my own world view — books that present me with different perspectives than what I currently believe or have heard before.

As I have travelled my life journey, many of these books have led to changes in my thinking — some minor; some radical. Without my reading I would not be where I am today. But changes in thinking worry some people. On a number of occasions, I have had people tell me that reading widely — particularly things that are "in error" — will lead me to destruction. I have been warned that I can be lost by what I read. Dire predictions have been made that I would follow the same path as others who have ended up giving up on things that my "counsellor" believes are essential to salvation. And if I have changed my mind on something, I was told that it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't read so much.

I can remember an evangelist who came to my home city to give a talk to the youth (I was one at the time!) about the creeping new theology threatening the church. During his talk, he referred to a book which was an examination of my denomination's belief system. When I went up to the evangelist after the talk to get details of the book so I could read it for myself, he refused to tell me and said  you had to be a strong in the beliefs of the denomination and the Bible before you could read the book safely. I was very angry that someone should presume to filter out what they thought I should or should not read because they feared that I would be too 'weak' to read it. The evangelist didn't even know me!

This advice not to read anything because it might lead me astray has led me to think deeply about the whole issue of reading widely — particularly reading material that challenges what I think. Is it ok to deliberately read what may challenge what we think and believe? Not only do I think it is ok; I believe it is essential to deliberately and carefully read widely and engage with "dangerous" ideas. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, it is an essential part of thinking critically to expose oneself to alternative perspectives. Whenever I restrict myself to reading only what agrees with my current position on something, I am less likely to counter the products of my own potentially erroneous thinking. I enrich my own understandings with the results of other people's thinking.

I knew a Christian who once said to me that he didn't read anything except the Bible — no commentaries, no books. Reading commentaries and books about the Bible can never replace actual Bible reading. But reading other people's ideas about the Bible leads us into a conversation with other Christians (and non-Christians) that challenges our prejudices, biases, and bigotry. Isolating ourselves from others' thinking can lead to extremism and, ironically, erroneous conclusions. Reading allows us to participate in the great stream of Christian conversation that has been going on for centuries and draw on that wisdom, helping us to correct or confirm our course.

Secondly, reading widely helps guard against those who filter information to promote conformity. One of the marks of cultism occurs when information is controlled by those in power who wish to guarantee the conformity of their followers. Knowledge can be dangerous. It often leads to the questioning of the status quo and, therefore, can become a threat to those who operate from a privileged position of power. Reading widely and seeking alternative views provides a broader source of information that helps us to put things into perspective — a perspective that sometimes uncovers spiritual abuse or bondage through ignorance. Down through history, dictatorships have sought to control their subjects through the manipulation of information. We see it even today in countries like China which tries to suppress information through restricting free access to the Internet. It also occurs in more subtle forms when, out of fear of "contamination", we limit our own reading to that which reinforces the party line. The antidote is to deliberately read widely looking at perspectives that disagree with our own.

Some may argue that reading "error" opens us up to the adoption of that error. However, the advice not to read "error" for fear of being led to believe error suffers from two problems.

First, it assumes that what is to be read is error before it has been investigated. This is a fundamental flaw in thinking — prejudging the quality of something before giving it a genuine hearing. The term we have for this type of thinking is prejudice. If we genuinely believe we need to pursue truth then we need to do so with integrity and fairmindedness.

One of the greatest ironies I have observed within Christian communities is that of wanting to convince others of the truth of Christianity but not being open to new truth themselves. It is impossible for someone to choose Christ without them doubting their current belief system and opening themselves to the possibility of another way of viewing things. How can we expect others to be open to new perspectives if we are not ourselves? When we shut down any possibility of discovering truth by avoiding reading anything that doesn't agree with our positions, we have no right to expect anyone else to listen to what we have to say. How can we be led by God's Spirit if we close ourselves off to listening? Reading widely is one way we listen to the vast wisdom of others — not to accept everything we read, but to think critically about the basis of those other ideas.

And that brings me to the second problem with the idea that we should avoid reading "error" for fear of being led into error. The problem is not so much with what we read. The problem is how we read. Most Christians I have come across who have a fear-based approach to what they read have not been educated in how to read critically. You can often identify this problem by examining the basis of a person's certainty for their beliefs. They are often based on prooftexting Scripture; accepting something solely on authority; or on seriously inadequate information. In my view, uncritically reading what one considers truth is just as bad as uncritically reading what one considers error. We desperately need to teach Christians how to think critically — how to examine evidence, evaluate arguments, interpret Scripture using well-tested principles and methods. Mindless acceptance of "truth" and mindless acceptance of "error" are two sides of the one counterfeit coin.

So reading widely with a critical eye is one of the healthiest, exciting, challenging things we can do to support our growth in understanding. To be a safe reader is to be a wide reader.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Book Review: Pagan Christianity?

What do the following have in common?

  • the idea of the church as a sacred space
  • tax-exempt status for churches and Christian clergy
  • coming to church with a reverent attitude
  • wearing your best clothes to church
  • the collection plate
  • the "Sinner's Prayer"
  • the weekly sermon

Answer: according to Frank Viola and George Barna they all have their origins in paganism or secular social practices. Viola and Barna have written a fascinating history of many practices that are often taken for granted in our churches - Protestant and Catholic. Richly documented and engagingly told, the authors confront the reader with the unexpected reality that much of what we consider biblical — or at least biblically permitted — has solid roots that are embedded in and nurtured by understandings that often contradict the purpose of the church as described in the New Testament — at least as Viola and Barna understand it.

The authors begin the book by asking whether '... we have really been doing it [church] by the book [the New Testament]'. According to Viola and Barna the answer is clearly 'No!' They understand the New Testament to provide an ideal model for the church that, over the centuries, has been corrupted until much of what we do as Christians in our churches often undermines the very purpose and function of the Church as originally intended.

Although Pagan Christianity? is a fascinating historical journey, the book is not written primarily to inform the reader about history. It's ultimate purpose is to

... demonstrate... beyond dispute that those who have left the fold of institutional Christianity to become part of an organic church have a historical right to exist—since history demonstrates that many practices of the institutional church are not rooted in Scripture. (p. xxi)

In addition to this, the authors wish to make what they call a

bold proposal that: the church in its contemporary form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does.

To put it bluntly, the organic church has the right to function as it does, but not the contemporary church. This is a strong claim. Are the authors' conclusions correct?

It is clear that, indeed, many contemporary practices in the church are not biblically-based. It is also clear that many of those practices undermine things like the priesthood of all believers (replaced by hierarchical structures and elevation of individuals to pastoral office rather than one of many roles); or giving which is freely motivated by conviction (replaced, in many churches, by the assertion that God requires tithe-paying); or orderly all-member participation in worship (rather than passive watching of worship performed on a stage). One of the great values of Pagan Christianity? is that it unveils a history of Christian practice of which many of us are ignorant. In that sense it is an invaluable book and definitely worth reading.

But one must read with caution. There a times when the authors make claims that are not accurate or provide evidence that is not quite as they suggest. For example, on page 188-189 the authors write:

[In the New Testament], the confession of baptism is vitally linked to the exercise of saving faith. So much so that the New Testament writers often use baptism in place of the word faith and link it to being "saved."

There is a footnote at the end of this statement that lists a number of passages that, according to the authors, provide examples of this. They are Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; and 1 Peter 3:21.

Mark 16:16 reads:

The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.

The Greek word translated believes here is pisteuo from the word pistis meaning 'to believe' or 'have faith in'. But this verse does not use 'believes' and 'baptized' interchangeably. It is the one who believes and is baptized who is described as saved. The authors are incorrect when they suggest that baptism is often used in place of faith. They are two different things often occurring together but not replacing each other. Acts 2:38 is similar:

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Once again, this does not provide evidence of the authors' claim. Repentance and baptism is mentioned here but there is no suggestion that one can be used in the place of the other. What all this means is that the reader needs to be aware that not all of the evidence provided necessarily supports the authors' claims in the way they suggest.

Another issue that others have pointed out in criticism of the book is the lack of recognition that Christianity began as a sect within Judaism. Jesus was a Jew and all his disciples were Jews. There is no discussion in Pagan Christianity? of the Jewish roots of the early Christian Church. Jesus attended the synagogue as his disciples would have. And, in the synagogue, the reading of Scripture and a sermon were the common practice. Why, then, do Viola and Barna argue so strongly against the sermon, suggesting that it has pagan/secular roots, rather than seeing its origins within the Jewish synagogue? If the authors of this book want to go back to the original forms of New Testament practice, then why not go back to the practices of Jesus and emulate his attendance at the synagogue? The avoidance of the Jewish roots of the New Testament church implies that there is a selective use of history in support of a particular model of the church that these authors favour.

A reading of scholarly literature on the forms and functions of the early church leads, in my view, to the conclusion that there wasn't one specifically prescribed form of the church. The authors fail to acknowledge that descriptions of things in the Bible are not necessarily prescriptions that we must follow. This is a common fallacy that many fall into when interpreting the Bible. It is frequently assumed that, because a biblical character did something that it is generalisable to all Christians. This is clearly invalid as soon as we stop to think about other examples such as circumcision — a practice few Christians would argue is required. This type of argument is most probably used when what we read in the Bible fits with our own cultural or religious practices.

Another fallacy that is committed, in a general sense, in this book is the genetic fallacy — the belief that the origin of something determines the acceptability of the object under consideration. Sometimes, the origins of something are most certainly relevant in judging the acceptability of something — but not always. This type of thinking needs to be used with caution. For example, the origin of English names for the days of the week are mostly pagan. That doesn't mean we should stop using the names of the week. It is the same with some of the arguments of Viola and Barna. Just because the sermon has, according to the authors, origins outside of Christianity doesn't mean we should abandon sermons. Surely the sermon should be judged on its worthiness in its own right.

Yet another fallacy of thinking is arguing from silence. Viola and Barna seem to believe that what is written in the New Testament is the sum total of what the New Testament church practiced. In other words, if something is not mentioned in the New Testament, they didn't do it. There is also hasty generalisation — if something is mentioned then it must have been a general practice.

Finally, the tone of Pagan Christianity? could have been more positive. The impression left with the reader is that there is little salvageable in modern institutional Christianity. Those of us who worship in institutional churches undoubtedly would agree that there is much that is unhealthy and needs to be changed. But is abandoning the church the answer? And is it all as bad as Viola and Barna say it is? The answer is 'probably not' to both questions.

Pagan Christianity? is a fascinating and, at times, informative read. But the problems outlined above make it a book that one needs to read with a certain amount of caution and unease. By all means sit down and read the book for an enjoyable afternoon. But, ultimately, it might be better to read other more careful books to gain an understanding of the history of the development of the Christian church and the range of practices that have enriched the Church through the ages.

Further reading

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Book Review: Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist

Milton Hook has written the first full biography of Desmond Ford - and it is a great read! It provides some timely insight into the man, his message, and the denomination he served for so many years.

Hook writes passionately about his subject and disclaims any idea that history can be written absolutely objectively. Despite that, Desmond Ford is superbly documented with detailed endnotes. And for those of us who know some of the history it resonates as truth. As Hook points out in his introduction to the reader, many of the people he refers to as he tells Ford's story intersected with Hook's own life giving him a direct perspective on the events. But the primary source for the story comes from Des Ford himself.

I can remember, as a young boy, sitting in my country church listening to a much younger Des Ford answering question after question on the Bible. I was impressed with the breadth and depth of his knowledge and the passion with which he spoke. Since then I have met Des Ford quite a few times and heard him speak. One thing that always shines through is his consistent focus on the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. And this focus remains to this day.

Des Ford's life has been inextricably entwined with the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Because of this, Hook's book is much more than a biography of Ford. It is also the story of what must be seen as one of the worst periods of Adventist history when it comes to the way that theology has been done and people have been treated.

Hook begins his book by describing the event that occurred on Saturday afternoon, August 23, 1980 when an enormous crowd heard that Des Ford's thesis was rejected at Glacier View and was probably to face disciplinary action. Hook asks:

Why would a Christian church, in the enlightened and progressive Twentieth Century, deliberately deprive itself of one of its best theologians, who at the same time was loyal, industrious, and arguably their most dynamic preacher of Christ's gospel?

Why, indeed? Hook returns to Ford's childhood in Queensland, Australia to begin to find an answer to that question. From that point the story is a compelling one of a man who is passionate for God and the gospel coming into conflict with a church administration that is more concerned about preserving tradition and power than it is about pursuing greater understanding of theological truth.

The subtitle of the book is reformist theologian, gospel revivalist. This subtitle perfectly describes the life of of Des Ford.

Reformist Theologian

Des Ford was one of the best theologians that the SDA denomination has ever had. From a very early point in his thinking he had questions about the Adventist doctrine of the Investigative Judgment. For much of his career he struggled to find biblical ways to support the doctrine until, eventually, he came to acknowledge that it had no biblical basis. Once he began to publicly share his views, the denominational administration responded by using political machinations to ultimately defrock him.Sadly, the church decided to make decisions on the basis of tradition rather than Scripture.

Des Ford has always remained loyal to the church despite the disgraceful way it treated him. His recent decision to withdraw his membership was also more about his respect for the denomination than his own personal interest. It has also allowed him to carry out his calling to be a gospel preacher without the hindrances of a denomination that constantly instructs its members to have nothing to do with him. His first desire to reform the theology of the church from within was not to be — although for many church members their theology has been reformed!

Gospel Revivalist

The traditional SDA doctrine of the Investigative Judgment is a doctrine that leads to uncertainty of salvation, guilt and frustration, and heightened anxiety around behaviour. In essence, it obscures the true gospel. Keenly aware of the way that perfectionist tendencies in the church were constantly obscuring the beauty of the gospel of justification by grace through faith Des Ford made it his life mission to preach that gospel.

Ford was in constant battle with those who wished to impose their perfectionistic theology onto the church, claiming that theirs was the true Adventism. Ford, one of the denominations clearest articulators of the gospel, found himself constantly battling to keep the message of Jesus Christ's imputed righteousness for sinners alive and shining as a beacon calling church members out of the bondage of a legalistic righteousness that could never save. Thousands of people have found liberation from the burden of guilt and frustration as a result of Des Ford's gospel preaching which still goes on today.

Milton Hook has provided an invaluable resource with Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist. Not only do we learn about the man; we also learn about the SDA Church. At times, we tend to lose sight of Ford has Hook provides detailed discussions of theology and SDA church history.

This, in my view, is probably one of the weaknesses of the book as biography. It is completely understandable that the story of Ford is also, to a large extent, the story of a denomination. But these two stories seem to struggle for dominance in the book. Hook's passion for Ford and the way he was treated by the church comes through strongly. But I would like to read more about what was going on in Ford's mind and how he understands it all.

Desmond Ford tends to be more of a chronicle of events, discussion of theology, and criticism of the denomination. One day I would really like to see an autobiography written by Ford or a biography that truly delves into the mind and heart of the man. Having said that, enough of the mind and heart of the man is present in Hooks book to lead us to admire Des Ford's courage, determination, patience, and passion as he sought, and continues to seek, to bring the good news of salvation through grace alone by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Despite the sadness of a story of a church that rejects its own "children", it's a celebration of the power of the gospel to reassure us that we are children of God and that it matters naught what humans think. Des Ford's life is a powerful illustration of that fact.

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