Theology is theology is theology...isn't it?

Most Christians are either afraid or don't like the idea of theology. They think it either destroys people's faith or is a dry, boring, intricate mind game that has little or no relation to life. This, of course, is rather distressing to somebody who loves theology. But sometimes they are correct.

When addressing the communication of the gospel, theology is vital. Add to that complex the communication of the gospel in another language than your own and into another culture theological issues fly around your head like demented mosquitoes!

An American Catholic mission theologian, Stephen Bevans has written a fascinating book called Models of Contextual TheologyHe proposes that all theology is contextual and that there are at least six ways in which theologians have done their theology.

We will look at two of these models over the next three days.

The translation model claims that the message of the gospel, expressed in supra-cultural, essential doctrines, is unchanging. There is a core, central truth that is identical forevery cultural context in the world. We need to identify this core and then express that core in the cultural categories that are relevant for that context.This model is most often employed by those doing pioneering work among those who have never heard the gospel before. In many ways, every mode of contextual theology is a model of translation, that is, of translating the truths of faith into symbols that are recognizable in culture.

However, this model struggles to liberate that message from captivity to Western categories of thought. The tendency is to believe that the Western understanding of the core gospel is the correct one. However, the emphasis on the eternal truths of faith is not a unanimously accepted concept. Bevans, therefore, classifies those reflections with an implicit presupposition of the eternal truths under this model of translation.

This form of contextualization has been the most common and most employed by evangelical missionaries, although Roman Catholic doctrine since the 1970s has also extensively employed this model. Although the work of David Hesselgrave and John Paul II are highlighted by Bevans, evangelicals such as Paul Hiebert, Bruce Nicholls and Bruce Fleming are important.

The anthropological model, starts from the opposite end from the translation model. Whereas the translation model emphasizes the gospel, the anthropological model emphasizes the importance of cultural identity of each Christian. It emphasizes that one is not so much a Christian who is Luo or any other culture but is a Christian Luo expressing his or her cultural values through being a Christian.

Theologians who employ this model, while taking the Bible and the Christian tradition seriously, also seek for God's self revelation within the values, relational patterns, and concerns of particular cultures. Therefore, the belief is that the Gospel is already present in the culture and the job of the Christian missionary/church is to draw out that which already exists. It puts greater emphasis on culture rather than on the eternal truths.

The model's primary concern is the establishment of cultural identity as a person articulates his or her Christian faith. Bevans describes this as to define the "human as the place of divine revelation [...] equal to scripture and tradition". Such articulation may disregard the presupposed eternal truths of the translation model.

This model is especially appropriate in contexts where there has been a colonial break with past culture. Even more so if that cultural break was imposed by a "Christian nation". This regains cultural values through Christian engagement.

Tomorrow the praxis and synthetic models.


Throwing out missional Procrustean beds

Milton Jones, one of my favourite comedians, after the world cup last year said "I didn't like the world cup, Mr. Messy was nothing like in the books!" Of course, to understand the joke you need to know about the Argentinean footballer, Lional Messi.

Following on from yesterday's post I want to reflect upon the whole idea of "messy mission" a bit more. Mark Barnard published his Messy Mission: Reflections on a Missional Spirituality (2011). His main thesis seems to be that we are all on a journey and we do not need to be sorted out as disciples of Jesus before serving him. He has an excellent section on the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30 noting how Jesus' gardening methods seem rather unconventional. "Let's leave the weeds and sort them out at the harvest" defies received wisdom on weed control!

I want to really apply the idea of "messy mission" more to strategy than spirituality. My main thesis is that within God's mission the planning cannot happen from the top down but should happen bottom up. This concept holds within it various presuppositions. Firstly, that we cannot fully know what God's mission is in detail. We know that "bringing all things in heaven and on earth under Christ" (Ephesians 1:10; cf. Colossians 1:20) is what God's ultimate aim is. However, this is not enough for project planning! If we take the Great Commission approach then, as we saw yesterday, we can (however inaccurately) make a stab at planning for the completion of the task.

A second presupposition is that the working out of God's mission is overwhelmingly contextual. So bringing all thing under Christ is done "on the ground". Top down planning cannot take all contexts into account and ends up with a "one size fits all" approach. This sort of Procrustean Bed cannot work. Bottom up planning can make a more accurate and ultimately more faithful attempt at discerning God's mission in its own context.

A final presupposition is, harking back to last week's blog, that the working out of the missio Dei is the work of the local church. There is no doubt that churches should work together, even across continents to fulfil its mission, however, planning cannot be imposed from the top but emerge from the context. This is a message not only for multinational mission agencies but also denominational agencies.


Managerial or Messy Mission

Samuel Escobar, a few years ago commented that much of the missiology emerging from North America was an application of the Harvard Business School method. This was especially true of the Homogeneous Unit Principle missiology and the unreached people group missiology. The task according to Matthew 24:14 was to reach all the unreached people groups and so Christ would come again. So in the 1980s the definition of people group was established and people groups were identified and distributed among the continents and countries. What constituted "reached" was also defined so we would know when we'd done the job.

The idea that we can organise and complete the task keep raising its head in various forms. Eddie Arthur's blog has been blogging about a recent manifestation of how agencies, especially multinational mission agencies are making decisions about local mission that they are ill-placed to do.

So what's the alternative? Theologically we could and maybe should admit that the task of world mission does not belong to us. It is God's mission, the missio Dei. Therefore, if mission belongs to God then perhaps God should be the one who plans the divine mission. And of we believe, as I do that God has entrusted his mission to the local church, perhaps it is the church who should be planning and not international and multinational mission agencies.

This however, seems to be a rather messy way of doing things. But perhaps this is God's way. Perhaps God's way of working is, in our eyes at least, messy. Perhaps as is the case with God's foolishness and human wisdom (I Corinthians 1:25) so it is with God's messiness and human organisation.


Thinking politically about the Gospel or thinking 'Christianly' about politics

Jeremy Corbyn

As many of you already know, I am passionate about the Christian Gospel and its communication (mission) and also I am passionate about politics. You also probably know that I think these two issues are intimately linked. I think that the confession "Jesus is Lord" pushes the Christian into the realm of politics. The question is "of what is Jesus Lord?" Is it only my life, my church? Or is he Lord of my town, my country and the whole world?

Many of you, I know will disagree with me when I say that I believe Jeremy Corbyn to be promoting economic policies that are closer to a Biblical view of economic justice than that of the Cameron Government. The message of Easter is not to do with "hard work and responsiblity" as Cameron famously noted. The message of Easter is that God has saved the undeserving, unreservedly.

The Labour leadership race is an undignified affair with ugly accusations and criticisms which have no place in political debate. This has highlighted a wider problem within politics upon which I think the Gospel sheds clear light. The Theos Think Tank has produced a very good Labour needs to learn to love its enemies by David Barclay. The point is that there is too much hate in political debate and little or no tolerance. This article directs its criticism towards the Labour Party but all parties are guilty.

"Love" is central to the Christian message and should be one of the most important elements in politics. Jesus' radical statements is directed towards Christian attitudes towards those who do not agree with us. Or even are our enemies and those who actually actively work against us.

43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:43-45a)

What would it do to political debate if we started to put into practice these verses?



Living in Cloud Cuckoo Land

A couple of days ago, I saw an article on the BBC that said that the numbers of migrants trying to get through the Channel Tunnel had fallen from a peak of 2000 per night to just 200 per night. The UK government proudly put this down to the construction of more fences and the deployment of more guard dogs.

The construction of fences and the formation of "fortress Britain" seems to me, not only to be an admittance of abject failure to deal with the underlying problem but also utter rejection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2:11-22 says that the Gospel of Christ, not only reconciles us with God but also with one another. Natural enemies [Jews and Gentiles] are made one by Christ.

remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (which is done in the body by human hands) – 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

To divide people in order to protect one group from the other is attempting to oppose what God is doing in Christ.

Additionally, Peter Sutherland of the UN commission on international migration said any country that thought it could stop the "alleged floods" of people with fences was "living in cloud cuckoo land". Apparently the UK should be renamed.


Jesus the migrant

[T]he Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.' (Matthew 2:13-15).

With all the awful references to "migrants" and the PM joining in the baying crowd of media voices, I think it is good to remember that Jesus and his family were also refugees and migrants. Jesus was probably less than 2 years old (given Herod's homicidal order) when his father and mother snatch him up and hurry out of Bethlehem (8km from Herod), possibly at night. Both the parents would have clearly have been terrified and would have communicated that terror to the young child.

The child would probably not have known why he was going on this journey, he would have been confused, frightened and was having his world shaken and turned upside down. We know the story so we don't share the terror; this is just a short end to Matthew's account that rarely gets into the Nativity play--infanticide not being thought suitable for primary school audiences. We know the end is that Jesus does escape and then returns to live in Nazareth. Jesus, however, experienced first hand the terror and confusion of migrants driven from their home by terrible forces that, like Herod, have no compunction in killing children, however young. He knew this fear, he understands it because he felt it.

We don't because we haven't. Jesus lives in "the Jungle".



Church in "the Jungle"

We have just returned from 10 days in the Black Forest. I was speaking on an Oakhall holiday. Before we went away, everybody was concerned that we would never get through, or would be horribly delayed. Operation Stack was in force on the M20; desperate migrants were raiding the Channel Tunnel; French Ferry workers were blockading the port of Calais. It seemed likely that we'd be in for a long wait. As it turned out we took 1 hour 20 minutes to get from Victoria Coach station through to Parliament Square due to a bike race in London! There were no other hold-ups either way.

If the media is to be believed then Calais is a migrant camp ready to invade Britain. David Cameron called the migrants a "swarm"; Katie Hopkins called them "cockroaches"; the Sun and the Daily Mail, with the outrage that only these nefarious little rags can generate, accused the BBC of wasting license payers' money on filming "Songs of Praise" in a church in the so-called "Jungle".

Both politicians and the media are making political capital out of the plight of thousands of desperate people looking to escape oppression and make a better life for themselves and their families. They have escaped from terror, imprisonment, violence and fear only to be labeled as scroungers, thieves and those who are causing a "crisis" by politicians and media in a country that should frankly be welcoming these folk with open arms.

As Christians we must fight these monstrous  forces that seek to dehumanise people by labeling them in collective terms rather than seeing them as an opportunity to show Christ's love.

Consider this from Deuteronomy 10 (please read to the end)

12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? 14 To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations – as it is today. 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. 20 Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. 22 Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Moses carefully links the God of creation and salvation and liberation to the people of Israel's ethics.

19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. 20 Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name.

Obedience to the LORD is demonstrated in how we treat the foreigner. Let's not let the government or the media to steer our attitude to others.