Friday, April 29, 2011

Christian Symbolism in Doctor Who

Did anyone else spot the parallels between the Doctor’s death in The Impossible Astronaut and Jesus death on the cross? Of course there is nothing new with using Christian symbolism in science fiction. The idea of the hero dying or at least appearing to die and then coming back from the dead is a well known plot line. And given that ever since the revival of the series Doctor Who has started on or around Easter Saturday it shouldn’t be surprising. I just think there were so many references in this opening that it was worth commenting on.

In the first few minutes of the story the Doctor dies. Interestingly the date of the action in episode is clearly shown on scene to be Good Friday – the day before the story was transmitted. Before he dies the Doctor gathers his friends together for a meal, well actually a picnic, but I think the symbolism is getting a bit clearer here. This is the Doctor’s Last Supper with his companions. They even share some red wine. The fact they are by a lake even shows echoes of Sea of Galilee where Jesus ministered.

The Doctor appears to know that something important is about to happen. He tells them not to interfere as he his assailant appears – a mysterious space-suited figure. It reminded me how Jesus was anticipating his death and expected Judas to turn up in the garden and betray him.

A blast from an energy weapon and the doctor is fatally wounded. But of course in Doctor Who the Doctor doesn’t die he regenerates and takes on a new appearance. So, as he does in the new series, the Doctor stretches out his arms and begins to regenerate - light flashing from his face and hands. Isn’t it obvious now that this pose is supposed to remind us of Jesus death on the cross? The Doctor is then hit again by the energy weapon. He falls down and his companions look on his body. The regeneration is halted. He really is dead.

The gun shots at the space-suited figure as it walks back into the lake reminds me of Peter taking up his sword to defend Jesus. And then his companions burn the body on a boat on the lake in a Viking style funeral reminded me how Jesus' friends prepared his body for burial.

His companions in shock and mourning, despairing yet trying to understand what has happened just as Jesus disciples are portrayed between the death and resurrection. They go into a nearby diner and suddenly the Doctor appears out of the bathroom. The twist on this resurrection scene is that this is an earlier version of the Doctor. It is time travel science fiction after all. And off they go on an adventure. But perhaps it is leading up to some way in which the Doctor will be resurrected after his death later in the series.

Some interesting parallels?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Understanding Atonement

This article can now be found here on my new blog CharisMissional. However when you have read that you may still like to read the comments below.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Celebration of Discipline

A year or two ago I heard that two or three people in our church were reading through a book called Celebration of Discipline. I did a bit of research and found many comments that spurred me on buy this book and study it myself. It is interesting that a book written in the 70s by someone from a Quaker background should resonate so well will so many different groups of Christians today. Some might be critical of what is sometimes referred to as his ‘mystical’ approach. However, I would say that Richard Foster appears to have a grasp of hearing God and being in tune with the Holy Spirit that Christians whatever their background can find beneficial. Recently I have been reading through this classic discussion of spiritual disciplines again and each time I do so I feel uplifted.

Richard Foster takes twelve different practices and outlines how putting effort into them can help us grow spiritually. He classifies them as the inward disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting and study, the outward disciples of simplicity, solitude, submission and service, the corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance and celebration.

I find this book stimulating, inspiring and encouraging. At first the title made me fear that it would make me feel undisciplined and lacking in these areas. But as I began to read I didn’t find that at all. Richard Foster has such a gracious way of expressing even the most challenging ideas. If anything it was encouraging to see that so many things that I do already such as study and solitude can be seen as spiritual disciplines. It also articulates some of the things that I feel strongly about very clearly. I’ve never been someone to spend frivolously so I found that I resonated a lot with what Foster calls simplicity. In no way does this book make me feel that I should to be excelling at all of the disciplines. Instead I feel that what Richard Foster does is outline ideas for each one these that sometimes affirm my experiences and other times make me want to try to develop some of these further.

I love the way each discipline is elaborated giving interesting insights into its other possible aspects. For instance in meditation he talks about meditating on current affairs seeking God for insight, as well as giving practical exercises. I love his ideas for study that include the study of nature and the study of people. There is a good range of ideas on each discipline some much easier to do than others, for instance, he talks about partial fasts from different things as well as prolonged total fasts.

Richard Foster is also careful to point out pitfalls and cautions with the disciplines such as falling into legalism and is very practical about how to do them. He has some good physical advice on how to fast for instance and is clear that corporate disciplines such submission are very open to abuse but he still feels that they are important to explore. He gives very practical stories that show how the disciplines have been used and developed.

I found the structure of the book really helpful. The questions at the end of each chapter helped me in reading in the book. Although some of them are simply factual he also enabled me to think about his points by asking for reaction and even disagreement with his points. The way he clearly enumerates his points also adds to clarity and quick reading of the book. He is perhaps a little more formal and stilted than we are used to in Christian writing today but I could easily cope with that.

There are many copies of this book around that can be picked up very cheaply. So even if you’re not sure about it I would really recommend anyone having a look at this book.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sod the Difference

I’ve just been listening to Sod The Difference - a talk from Greenbelt 2008 where Jenny Baker comes to the conclusion that there isn’t really that much difference between men and women at all.

Are Men From Mars And Women From Venus?
Jenny takes to task books like John Gray’s Mars and Venus books even though she admits that plenty of people would say that they have found them helpful and learnt to communicate better. Her contention is that Gray’s books and those like them perpetuate gender stereotypes. Looking at the psychological research she finds the evidence that they are based on very questionable. An idea that has also been touched on by Jon Birch in this recent ASBO Jesus cartoon.
Are Men Wild At Heart?
Jenny is also critical of Christian books such as John Eldridge’s Wild At Heart that looks at masculinity and John & Stasi Eldridge’s Captivating that looks at femininity. Jenny pointed out “there is as much of difference between some of the women as between the women and the men”. She is clear that she believes that “there are lots of different ways of being masculine and lots of ways being feminine. People are far more complex than narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity allow. There’s space for men whose hobby is knitting as well as men whose hobby is boxing and both can be masculine”

But she says in many Christian books like Wild At Heart and Captivating “instead of diversity we are dealt absolutes”. In these books we hear narrow definitions of what it means to be masculine and feminine. For instance Wild At Heart says “Like it or not there’s something fierce in the heart of every man” and if we don’t fit these narrow definitions of what it means to be we are damaged and in denial.

John Eldridge argues that these differences he sees not as cultural but as basic to the way God has created us. Jenny points out that, “discussions of difference can be helpful if we hold them lightly and we see where they fit. But they become a punishing straightjacket if we invest them with more authority than they merit. Any talk of differences can be used in quite a dangerous way.

The Myth of Mars And Venus
“I think we need to resist the use of differences as an instruction manual for how to behave” she says. “And instead take the time to listen and learn and to interact with the uniqueness of the real people with whom we live and work. I think focusing on difference can be an excuse for laziness and a way of justifying immature behaviour instead of doing the work of growing up. Instead of focusing exclusively on differences between men and women – let’s celebrate our sameness – the things we have in common.”

Looking at the psychological studies Jenny comes to the overwhelming conclusion that men and women are not very different at all. Even though some small differences in the brains have been found looking at men as a whole and women as a whole there are no significant differences in many psychological characteristics.

A book that she recommends that looks at such psychological research is The Myth of Mars of Venus by Deborah Cameron. In this book the idea that gender differences are a myth is unpacked. It not just a false belief but it is also a story that has been told for a long time. This is how stereotypes have developed. When we see someone who fits our concept of how we think men or women behave this confirms our stereotype. When we see someone who doesn’t fit we say that they are an exception to the rule.

In conclusion, Jenny points us back to the creation story. The response of Adam to Eve was not that she was an alien from a different planet but that she was ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”. In other words his initial thought was “Here is someone who is just like me”.

I found Jenny’s talk both scientifically sound and immensely practical in giving an approach to understanding gender differences. Let us approach each person as unique and not be quick to make assumptions on the basis of whether they are male or female.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Time With God 2011

For the past few years once or twice a year our church has had a 24 hour prayer event that we call Time With God. There wasn’t one scheduled in this year but my wife and I began to feel that is was time for one. So last weekend we arrange it and again had people praying in our small church building around the clock. We had a number of different prayer stations and multi-sensory activities. For instance one was a multi-sensory meditation on Psalm 51 using horse radish source to remind us of the bitterness of sin, grape juice for God's cleansing and honey for sweetness of God's word.

Simple Beginnings
I think the ethos in Time With God has always similar to 24-7 prayer. But when we started we just opened up the rooms in our little church building for people to shut themselves away in and seek God. There were CD players in each room, we supplied people with candles and some guidelines and we encouraged people to write on flip chart paper and blu-tack it to the walls.

People in the church booked times over the 24 hour period which amazingly filled up even through the night. We managed to arrange it so we always had at least a couple of people in the building. The time flew by and some people began to happily book two hours or even more. Each time we did it there were many encouraging stories of how God has touched people during these times.

Getting More Creative
One year someone brought some art materials. Then came the ‘pray dough’ – an activity encouraging us to pray by moulding play dough. People were praying and expressing that prayer not just in written ways but also in pictures perhaps even bringing a newspaper with them and cutting out a headline and writing and drawing prayers around it. As there were so many payers written and painted we set up a wishing line in the hallway and encouraged people to peg out their prayers.

One year my wife and I took responsibility for organising it and took along lots of bean-bags and throws to make a cosy corner, laid out a few books to inspire prayer such as books of Celtic prayers. Other times people had set up one or two prayer stations. We ran with that and arranged for at least one in each room - each one encouraging prayer in different ways often using different senses.

The Beginnings of a Team
The last time we did this we had the sense of beginning to get together a team. Before this the responsibility to organise it had been with one couple who had passed it to another. When we took over we wanted to do more but it was a lot of work laying out the rooms and clearing them away again. It was great when we had one or two others on board – and it was encouraging to see them using their creativity. We also began the idea of having a corporate time during Time With God when there could be more group activities as well as individual prayer.

Even now that one of the team has now moved away to study we still felt there is the beginnings of a team as others begin to get on board. Another time we would like to build on this and get together a bit sooner to plan with one or two more if possible. I think we need to more clearly divide up the tasks so that everyone knows what to do – send out emails confirming this. Perhaps we could even meet again to confirm the plans just before the event.

One thing that we like to do is to bring prayers that have been written or drawn into the following Sunday morning meeting. People have commented how encouraging this is. I think this is an opportunity not just for the team to do this but perhaps to ask others in the church who might not otherwise be involved. It’s amazing what can be done when several people get there and muck in and it’s a lot less stressful than doing it ourselves.

related post Time With God

Friday, April 01, 2011

Church In The Present Tense: A review of a review!

Church In The Present Tense has recently been reviewed blogger Jonny Baker who works for CMS. Edited by Kevin Corcoran the contributors are Jason Clark, Pete Rollins, Scot McKnight and Kevin himself. The book aims to give a snapshot of these and a few other leaders within what is sometimes called ‘the emerging church’.

Jonny's review kicks off with what some may think as a bit of an unfair comment that the book has no representation from women. I think this is a valid point as an important aspect of the emerging types is they claim to listen to voices from the margins yet apparently lack female leaders or at least need to promote them more. I remember Jenny Baker, one year at Greenbelt, mentioning the lack of female leaders in general in churches when discussing gender issues in her talk ‘Sod the Difference’.

The review then points out how the book clearly shows the different perspectives on theology, mission and church that are held by the contributors. I think this is an important point as many still think there is a monolithic doctrine of the emerging church – so when someone they link with that label says something they don’t agree with everyone gets ‘tarred with the same brush’, so to speak. He points out that in the midst of all the philosophical debating we do need a humility about truth but one that doesn’t stop us saying things that are real such as Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Oddly Jonny doesn't give a rounded overview of the book but instead comments in detail about the two chapters that stood out for him by Jason Clark an 'emerging church' leader who is part of the Vineyard churches.

In his first chapter Jason Clark questions Christians who critique the church having stepped outside of it. Jason sees this as a mistake as such people, he says, have lost contact with church life and ultimately with God’s mission. Jason recommends remaining in the traditions of the church where you are rather than leaving in the search of the latest model. The gist of what he is saying is ‘Don’t be focused on the problems with your church.’ and ‘We need more people around us who verbalise their love for the church.’ Jason lambastes the consumerist faddism of seeking the next big thing whether it is emerging, organic or house church but, rather ironically Jonny comments, then proposes this new model positioned within the traditional church which he calls Deep Church. Jonny points out that people are already writing books about Deep Church so isn’t it just another chasing after the next big thing? But I think Jonny’s main concern is that we need to be shaped in Christian identity as Jason suggest but we also need to be empowered to live in our culture as Christians

Jonny appears to resonate more with Jason Clark’s second chapter on worship. This opens by Jason discussing liturgy, the rediscovery of the church calendar and the catechisms. This is comparatively new to Jason being part of the Vineyard churches but very familiar to Anglicans like Jonny – although Jonny has found new life breathed into these through his own experiences in Alternative Worship. I am very aware that these liturgical aspects of worship have been largely shunned by those in my circles. But I would concur with Jonny’s hope that now they will be opened up afresh. Again Jonny emphasises the importance of mission and engaging with our culture. He feels that these are important aspects of worship in addition to the idea of spiritual formation that Jason Clark outlines.

Even though Jonny rambled on a bit and his thoughts really do need editing I found this a fascinating review. I really must investigate this book further.

Newly found Christian relics may be fakes

The new find of supposed ancient Christian writings may well be a fake. You may have seen the recent story on the BBC news about the discovery of writings from the first century in a cave in Jordan. This story and subsequent retellings of it contained lots of speculation about the find: Have we found proof that Jesus resurrection was some sort of trick? Have we found some others stories about Jesus that are not in the Bible? The fact is that this find has not even been authenticated yet and the process of authentication takes a long time.

What do we know for certain? A Bedouin from Jordan claims to have found umpteen lead tablets in a cave a few years ago. However they are now in the possession of an Israeli who says that they have been in their family for a hundred years. The tablets have some writing on them and are bound together with wire in book form. The writings have been examined and photographed. But they have not yet been totally deciphered. The few words and symbols that we do understand indicate that they might be from the first century.

The director of the Jordan Department of Antiquities thinks that they could be early Christian writings and might even be more important than the Dead Sea Scrolls. David Elkington an expert who is investigating these relics and trying to get them to a museum in Jordan is quoted by the BBC as saying that they could be "the major discovery of Christian history".

What the BBC failed to mention is that the Israel Antiques Authority dismiss the idea that this find is of any value. A report in the Jewish Chronicle said that experts “absolutely doubted their authenticity”. Church Mouse - a Christian blogger on current affairs whose judgement I trust - gives us some insight in the way that media works, “…in each re-telling,” he says, “the critical bits are left out and some additional piece of speculation is added in”.

But what if these relics aren't fakes? Is it possible these writings could have a profound impact on the Christian faith? Could they prove the Bible wrong? Could they lend credence to other writings that have been discovered such as the alternative Gospels?

I was interested to see in a recent post Scot McKnight pointing to a book Who Chose The Gospels. This book investigates the idea that the four gospels were not accepted until the council of Nicea. The thought that for hundreds of years other Gospels were competing for acceptance sounds intriguing. But the evidence actually indicates that the four we have now were accepted very early on and the others regarded as the work of false teachers.

I would suspect that any writings that are too different from traditional beliefs similarly could be dismissed as the work of Christian sects that were never accepted. But I still think that archaeological finds can help us understand the historical, linguistic and cultural context of the Bible. Writings such as the alternative gospels may well be worth reading along with other writings from the time.

If and when this find is authenticated and deciphered it is possible we could gain some new insight into the world of first century Christians but I doubt it will shake Christianity in the way some have suggested.

Update: It now looks almost certain that they are fakes. Here is Church Mouse's recent post.