Friday, November 28, 2008

Book Review: For the Sake of the Gospel

Des Ford is passionate about the gospel. So much so, that he has been prepared to sacrifice much for the sake of it. He has been vilified, defrocked, and now worships outside of Adventism — the denomination he loves and has tried to move forward in its thinking about a cherished doctrine that he believes obscures the gospel. Hundreds of others within the Adventist denomination, particularly pastoral staff, have also sacrificed jobs and friends for the sake of the gospel. Now, Des Ford, collaborating with his wife, Gillian, in their book For the Sake of the Gospel: Throw Out the Bathwater, but Keep the Baby tells the story of the theological controversy that decimated the Adventist denomination through the 70s and 80s and whose effects are still felt even to this day.

For Ford, the bathwater is the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment — the belief that the Bible describes a time in 1844 when Jesus moved from the Holy Place in the heavenly sanctuary to the Most Holy Place to begin a work of judgment to identify whose lives confirmed their right to be ultimately saved. The baby is the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. In a series of somewhat disjointed chapters, Ford pleads for the Adventist officials to come clean and confess the wrongs perpetrated on the members. As far as Ford is concerned, almost no scholar in the denomination believes in the Investigative Judgment anymore and it is time to jettison it completely.

In the first chapter, Des provides the transcript of a talk he gave in 1997 at the Sydney Chapter of the Association of Adventist Forums entitled My Vision for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. His vision is

that the true church will arise and proclaim the true gospel to the whole world. It's an objective historical gospel, revealing the love of God in such a way as to break the hearts of rebels so that they might hate sin, learn the purity of Paradise, that sin is insanity, and that life commends what Christ commands. It's a church teaching these things that will lighten the world with the glory of the gospel, not one fixated by dates that don't compute. Seventh-day Adventism has an opportunity and a privilege to preach the Pauline gospel. (p. 7 - emphasis in original)

Moving on from this vision, Ford reviews 22 illicit assumptions that support the Investigative Judgment, the outdated year-day principle, the question of when forgiven sins are blotted out, the New Testament's view of the Day of Atonement, the real meaning of Revelation 14:6-7 (a key passage shaping Adventist identity and mission), the way the Investigative Judgment has been "reworked" since its establishment, a critique of the view that the United States appears in prophecy, and the real meaning of Daniel 8:14 (the controversial verse on which the whole Investigative Judgment doctrine is built.

Ford then surveys the politics around the denomination's understanding of the gospel including the way (mostly) men who disagree with the church's official positions abandon conscience and follow orders to not saying anything about their views and who have to suffer cognitive dissonance.

Gillian Ford provides an interesting history on How a Seventh-day Adventist Scholar in Biblical Eschatology Found His Denomination's Prophetic Traditions Wanting and his rediscovery of the apotelesmatic principle.

There are articles on the Glacier View trial of Des Ford (rather than the examination of Ford's views — what Glacier View was supposed to be about). Appendices include "positive" presentations on the Sabbath and the Covenants for which the Fords hold traditional Adventist positions.

The above is a partial list of themes covered — hopefully giving a sense of what the book contains. By their own admission, the

'... book has been negative for obvious reasons. One cannot vote for dangerous errors which threaten the joy and well-being of the children of God. Neutrality in a religious crisis is the worst form of cowardice. (p. 195)

As I have indicated above, For the Sake of the Gospel is somewhat disjointed. Des Ford's aphoristic style is not always easy to read. But the flaws in the writing are more than made up for the following:

  1. Des Ford has, obviously, been at the centre of the controversy surrounding the Investigative Judgment doctrine (although he is not the first). To hear from someone with firsthand knowledge and experience, including friendships with many of the key players in the history, provides an essential perspective.
  2. Ford's passion for the gospel consistently shines through. In the end, Ford is not primarily concerned with controversy. He wants to see the gospel as the primary focus of our attention. In his view, dealing with the Investigative Judgment is essential because it obscures the gospel and robs Adventists of their true freedom in Christ and their assurance of salvation.
  3. If it is by their fruits that we know the character of someone, then Ford is a genuine Christian man. The way he has consistently and graciously dealt with his adversaries and his refusal to engage in legal battles with his beloved denomination demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit in such a way that his credibility is enhanced.

For the Sake of the Gospel is an important book because it deals with important themes, written by an important "player", during an important part of Adventist history that we are still living. For the Sake of the Gospel, those within Adventism need to read this book. For others, it provides a fascinating insight into a denomination's struggle in confronting truth and error.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Movie Review: Hunger

hunger It has been estimated that 20 million people die from hunger each year. Some of these are the result of poverty. Some are the result of natural disasters such as famine. Some are the result of inhuman treatment. But some people die from hunger by choice. Bobbie Sands was one of those people.

The  debut movie Hunger from Steve McQueen is an absolutely shocking, confronting depiction of the last 6 weeks of Bobbie Sands' (Michael Fassbender) hunger strike in the early 1980s. Bobbie was a Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) member who was incarcerated in the infamous Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. IRA prisoners would refuse to wear the prison uniform so would live naked except for a blanket. During Bobbie's imprisonment, the prisoners were also engaged in a no-wash protest and would smear their faeces over the walls with some painting with it.

Bobbie Sands was committed to the task of fighting for political prisoner status for IRA members and decided to express this commitment by going on a hunger strike. Eventually, he died for his cause.

Hunger opens with a prison guard, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), getting ready to leave home to go to work. After finishing his breakfast, he walks outside, checks his car for any dangers, looks up and down the street carefully, before getting in and driving to work. He arrives at work and he seems to distance himself from his colleagues and somehow appears different. But it is not long before Raymond descends into the same behaviour as his colleagues — brutalising, torturing, and humiliating the prisoners.

The story then shifts focus to Bobbie Sands as he is admitted to the prison, stripped of his clothes, and inhumanely treated day after day. Convinced of the righteousness of his cause, Bobbie decides to go on a hunger strike and we witness his deterioration until he dies.

Hunger is a highly disturbing look at the conditions and treatment experienced by Bobbie and his fellow inmates. But the film is superbly rendered. There is almost no dialogue — we just watch what happens with the natural sounds which, along with the confronting visuals, provokes deep responses in the viewer.

The brutality and humiliation of Hunger is almost too much to bear. Then, in the middle of the story, McQueen has a 20 minute single take (a claimed world record) where the camera just sits still while we witness a dialogue between Sands and his visiting priest. The priest tries to convince Bobbie not to go ahead with the strike but we listen to Bobbie's absolutely certain rationalisation of what he plans to do. This dialogue is a welcome relief after what we have had to witness and we begin to understand where Bobbie is coming from in his decision to give up life for his beliefs. But at the end of the dialogue, we are thrust back into the horror of Sands' journey to death.

Hunger does not really explore the political background that has led to the incarceration of these prisoners. Instead, McQueen has chosen to force us to just watch as humans abuse other humans. It tells the story of these prisoners from a perspective that is rare. A lot of movies have been made about the troubles in Ireland. But nothing like this one. Michael Fassbender is incredible as Bobbie Sands. According to one of the prisoners who is depicted in the film, Fassbender is 'frighteningly real'. Apparently, he went on a medically supervised diet for this role — he must have been on the very brink of serious illness and those around him were concerned for his welfare according to comments on the Internet Movie Databsase.

When Hunger  was shown at Cannes, there were walkouts as well as standing ovations. This movie will not be for everyone. It is explicit in its brutality and watching it is like being punched in the guts over and over. It's a very dark story but significant. It is the story of a real human person who wasn't treated as one and, to see it from this perspective, made me appreciate the lengths to which someone will go in support of a cause they believe in — even to death. What makes it even more disturbing is the occasional overlay of the insensitive words that Margaret Thatcher spoke publicly in response to the prisoner's protest.

This is a brilliant film — but be warned: it is not easy to watch and it takes a level of courage to keep your eyes on the screen. It is an important moment in history that makes us appreciate the personal dimension of political conflict.

My Rating: **** (out of 5)

AUS: MA15+

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Book Review: Faith Undone

One of the most significant developments within Christianity in recent years is that of the Emergent Church. It is a controversial movement (some say it is not really a movement) that has spawned literature on both sides of the swelling debate. Roger Oakland has added to this literature with his anti-emergent book Faith Undone: the emerging church...a new reformation or an end-time deception.

Oakland comes down clearly on the end-time deception side. There is no doubt in his mind that the emergent church movement is a delusion and a threat to the Christian church. The reasons for his rejection of the movement are:

  1. It has embraced mystical experience as the way to know God.
  2. It is uncritically adopting Roman Catholic practices such as veneration of Mary, use of the rosary, and the so-called Eucharistic Christ (believing that Christ is physically embodied in the bread and wine).
  3. It favours "truth" that is discovered by experience rather than the propositional truth and authority of the Bible.
  4. It is syncretistic, incorporating religious practices from any religious tradition including pagan, believing that all roads lead to God.
  5. It has returned to a medieval form of Christianity rather than returning to biblical Christianity.
  6. It has opened itself to Eastern forms of mysticism.
  7. It has embraced various New Age practices.
  8. It has adopted the approach to spiritual disciplines as promoted by Richard Foster involving a contemplative spirituality based, once again, on mystical approaches to knowing God.
  9. It has rejected an apocalyptic eschatology (the doctrine that the world will come to an end with the return of Christ) replaced by a kingdom of God theology of the here and now.
  10. It has rejected the substitutionary model of the atonement arguing that it is offensive to modern sensitivities.
  11. It has adopted postmodernism relativism and pluralism.

Oakland provides a large array of quotations from various sources to support his criticism — many of which are legitimate. Emergent Christianity is a very loose-knit movement that is evolving. And it is most certainly a threat to orthodox, traditional, conservative, Christianity.

The unfortunate aspect of Oakland's book is that, on the whole, he avoids identifying any positive aspects of the movement. For example, its emphasis on social justice, the recognition of different individuals' needs to worship in unique styles that suit their personalities, a recognition of the way in which our understanding of God is mediated through language that is metaphorical and imperfect, and an understanding that spirituality is a conversation that takes place rather than a matter of conforming to an authoritative creed. Oakland's treatment of the emergent church would have been more balanced if he had acknowledged, in a more fair-minded way, some of these positive elements. And Oakland neglects the fact that his particular version of Christianity is not necessarily held by all Christians. For example, his own eschatology focused on literal Israel is only one of many theological options about the end times.

Faith Undone is worth reading because it provides an important perspective from an evangelical Christian's point of view. If you want to get a broader view of the emergent church movement, check out some of the Related Links below. Like all new movements, we need to listen with caution and discernment. Oakland raises important issues that help us do that.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Book Review: An Intelligent Life

The word intelligent is so rare in a book title that when I saw this one I couldn't resist taking a look.

Julian Short has practiced psychiatry for more than 30 years and has, undoubtedly, heard and helped a lot of troubled people during that time. Judging from his writing, I wouldn't hesitate to consult with him if I was in need. His book An Intelligent Life: A Practical Guide to Relationships, Intimacy and Self-Esteem is full of down-to-earth wisdom.

In the first section of the book, Short deals with a number of principles and background to living intelligently. He discusses the origin of feelings from an evolutionary point of view (I'll comment on this aspect later); self-esteem as 'a sausage' stuffed with love and individuality needing to be kept in balance; the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and actions; the nature of 'feeling bad'; and unhappiness as a poor esteem.

For Short, the two most important skills for an intelligent life are assertiveness and self-respect. He provides a number of practical steps in achieving these two characteristics. The second section of the book  deals with happiness as a good self-esteem; how to practice a balanced assertiveness; developing self-respect; how to say 'no'; and the direction, anatomy, and structure of argument (a brilliant set of guidelines); surviving criticism; and how to defend one's self.

The third section discusses intelligent love. Short explores various types of relationships: lovers and friends; parents and children; adults with parents; children; and the problems and pitfalls of relationships.

The final section of the book explores the basis of our behaviours —the things we do and the way we are.

Short is a very wise man who writes simply and powerfully. The book is shot through with the fundamental and essential values of love and kindness whilst maintaining a healthy sensitivity to the needs of individuality. Even though most of this author's advice is not new, the way he presents it is fresh and inspiring. He manages to avoid most of the platitudinous nonsense of a lot of contemporary self-help advice.

I need to make one comment regarding the underlying evolutionary theory that informs Short in his explanations for the origins of human thinking, emotions, and behaviour. For some readers who reject evolutionary theory, this aspect might irritate them. But the advice provided by Short is not dependent on this. Ignore it and focus on the practical advice.

An Intelligent Life lives up to its name — this book is filled with truly practical advice that, if applied, could make a genuine difference to your life.