Jesus died as our substitute, argues Fleming Rutledge in her remarkable The Crucifixion. The Bible says so; the fathers said so; the Reformers said so; I say so. This is standard fare in evangelicalism, of course, but given her Episcopalian background, academic context and substitutionophobic audience, it is both interesting and very encouraging that Rutledge is there too (albeit with some differences of emphasis). Yet, as she points out—and as I experienced first-hand on Twitter only minutes before writing this post!—the idea that substitution was invented by Anselm, or even the Reformers, continues to reappear in contemporary discussions like a bad smell. So, in her very kind and Episcopalian way, she goes in for a spot of debunking. It's all over the fathers, she explains:
Athanasius: “Taking a body like our own, because we were all liable to the corruption of death, he surrendered his body to death instead of all and offered it to the Father ... Whence, as I said before, the Word, since it was not possible for him to die, took to himself a body such as could die, that he might offer it as his own in the stead of all.”
Ambrose: “Jesus took flesh so as to abolish the curse of sinful flesh, and was made a curse in our stead to that the curse might be swallowed up in blessing ... He took death, too, upon Himself that the sentence might be carried out, so that He might satisfy the judgment that sinful flesh should be cursed even unto death.”
Cyril of Alexandria: Christ “was stricken because of our transgressions ... this chastisement, which was due to fall on sinners ... descended upon him.”
Melito of Sardis: “The Lord ... suffered for the sake of him who suffered, and was bound for the sake of him who was imprisoned, and was judged for the sake of the condemned, and was buried for the sake of the buried.”
Gregory of Nazianzus: Christ saves us “because He releases us from the power of sin and offers Himself as a ransom in our place to cleanse the whole world.”
John Chrysostom: “Christ has saved us ... by substituting Himself in our place. Though He was righteousness itself, God allowed Him to be condemned as a sinner and to die as one under a curse, transferring to Him not only the death which we owed but our guilt as well.”
Jerome: Christ “endured in our stead the penalty we ought to have suffered for our crimes.”
Rutledge continues through the tradition, by way of Anselm, Thomas, Luther, Calvin and all the way up to Karl Barth (“the Judge judged in our place”), and makes a couple of insightfully acerbic comments in the process:
“It is not an exaggeration to say that in some circles there has been something resembling a campaign of intimidation, so that those who cherish the idea that Jesus offered himself in our place have been made to feel that they are neo-Crusaders, prone to violence, oppressors of women, and enablers of child abuse.”
“A good deal of the opposition to the substitution motif is rooted in an aversion to its fundamental recognition of the rule of Sin and God’s judgment upon it.”
I think she’s probably right.
Sorry for the double-posting today, but I've just written a review of Fleming Rutledge's magnificent The Crucifixion over at The Gospel Coalition which you might be interested in. Here's how it begins:
Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ is an extraordinary book. It’s theologically deep and beautifully written, pastoral and scholarly, ecumenical and evangelical. Like its author, it’s Episcopal but not as you know it. It’s endorsed by people you rarely find endorsing the same book: Stephen Westerholm and David Bentley Hart, Kate Sonderegger and Stanley Hauerwas, Larry Hurtado and Robert Jenson. In some ways, it’s the successor to John Stott’s The Cross of Christ; in other ways, it’s nothing like it. Readers looking for something on the cross that incorporates both richness and retrieval should forget N. T. Wright’s latest offer and get this.
In no particular order, here are 10 reasons why.
Read the rest here.
Here's a helpful paragraph from Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) on why theology is so difficult (or, in his words, the incomprehensibility of the divine nature). In his Five Theological Orations (2.12), he suggests three reasons:
... we say that perhaps one reason is to prevent us from too casually throwing away the knowledge of it because it was so easily come by. For peopel cling tightly to that which they acquire with labour; but that which they acquire easily they quickly throw away, because it can be easily recovered. And so it is turned into a blessing - at least to all whoa re sensible - that this blessing is not too easy.
In other words: easy come, easy go. Perhaps theology is difficult to teach us appreciation. Or, alternatively:
Or perhaps it is in order that we may not share the fate of fallen Lucifer, lest, as a result of receiving the full light, our necks become stiff against the Lord Almighty and we fall from the height that we had attained - a downfall most pitiable of all.
If theology were too easy, we would become proud. So perhaps it is difficult to teach us humility. And there is one more possibility:
Or perhaps it may be to give a greater reward hereafter to those who by their labour and glorious life have here been purified and have persevered in seeking what they desired.
That is, the difficulty of theology teaches us hope, and encourages us to persevere in faith until, one day, we see face to face, and know as we are fully known.
Why is theology so difficult? Perhaps - and Gregory would stress that these are possibilities, not certainties - it is to provoke a mixture of appreciation, humility, and hope. And even if it isn’t, those are good things to cultivate anyway.
I was in Paris a few days ago, and as luck would have it, I was staying right by the Pompidou Centre on its 40th birthday, so admission was free. I browsed the massive modern art collection for a while—Duchamp, Dali, Picasso, Braques, Miro, Kandinsky, Pollock and so on—but modern art has never really been my thing, so I mainly ended up looking at the rooftop views across the city. I had seen enough, however, to be prompted again to consider something that has often made me curious: the relative decline of abstract, absurdist, surrealist and nihilist visual arts in the last half-century. Eric Hobsbawm wrote years ago about the death of the avant-garde, and the Pompidou Centre highlights it accidentally, simply by juxtaposing these great names from the first half of the 20th century with a group of more recent artists, clearly overshadowed by their illustrious predecessors, that no non-specialists have even heard of. (I am no expert on any of this, but it seems to me that the same thing is true of music since Stravinsky, drama since Beckett, novels since Joyce, and so on.) So the thing I am given to wonder is simply this: what happened to the absurd?
The next day, by coincidence, I was reading Terry Eagleton’s (quite superb) The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, and to my astonishment he started talking about exactly this question. Here’s what he said:
Life seems absurd in contrast to a meaning which it used to have, or which you believe it used to have. One reason why modernists like Chekhov are so preoccupied with the possibility of meaninglessness is that modernism is old enough to remember a time when there was still meaning in plenty, or at least so the rumour has it. Meaning was around recently enough for Checkhov, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, and their colleagues to feel stunned and dispirited by its draining away. The typical modernist work of art is still haunted by the memory of an orderly universe, and so is nostalgic enough to feel the eclipse of meaning as an anguish, a scandal, an intolerable deprivation. This is why such works so often turn around a central absence, some cryptic gap or silence which marks the spot through which sense-making has leaked away. One thinks of Chekhov’s Moscow in Three Sisters, Conrad’s African heart of darkness, Virginia Woolf’s blankly enigmatic lighthouse, E. M Forster’s empty Marabar caves, T. S. Eliot’s still point of the turning world, the non-encounter at the heart of Joyce’s Ulysses, Beckett’s Godot, or the nameless crime of Kafka’s Joseph K. In this tension between the persisting need for meaning and the gnawing sense of its elusiveness, modernism can be genuinely tragic.
Postmodernism, by contrast, is not really old enough to recall a time when there was truth, meaning and reality, and treats such fond delusions with the brusque impatience of youth. There is no point pining for depths that never existed.
What happened to the absurd? Artists stopped remembering the meaning they had lost. If that’s not an opportunity to preach the gospel from Ecclesiastes, I don’t know what is.
Here's the conclusion of Fleming Rutledge's wonderful treatment of the Akedah, Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac:
We note two verses especially: “The Lord himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” and “You have not withheld your son, your only son, whom you love.” Abraham is for us the unparalleled example of steadfast trust in unimaginable circumstances. God enver asked this of anyone else; it was a onetime event, never to be repeated. Never, that is, until the day of the ultimate “counter-attack” (Calvin), God seeming to be against God, when God’s own Son cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
For Isaac, a substitute was provided - Abraham saw a ram caught in the underbrush. “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” When Jesus came to the cross to bear the sin of the world in fathomless darkness, there was no substitute for him. He himself was the Lamb. God did not withhold his son, his only son. The Son himself became the substitute - for us. But the crucial difference between the Akedah and the cross, finally, is that the Father is not sacrificing the Son. God the Father and God the Son together, with a single will, enacted the eternal purpose of God that the second person of the blessed Trinity would become “once for all” the perfect burnt offering, for us human beings and for our salvation.
Sometimes we work long hours because we are lazy. It's counterintuitive but, I suspect, true. I'm speaking as a WEIRD man with young children and a desk job, so this may well have nothing to say to people in other demographics, but there are at least three factors that can contribute to laziness at work expressing itself in longer, rather than shorter, working hours. I can see elements of all of them in my own life.
One: laziness can manifest itself as distraction, which makes us inefficient, which means we have to work for longer. Instead of remaining focused on the task at hand, we flit, we procrastinate, we have unnecessarily lengthy discussions about things that could be resolved quickly, we toggle across to email or news or social media screens more than we should, we chat, we do personal administration—and all of these things mean the actual work we are paid to do takes longer. But there is a badge of honour to working long hours. We can tell people about it, and ostentatiously send emails after we know everyone has left, and huff and puff about how tired we are. So given the choice between working efficiently for eight hours, and working inefficiently for eleven, many of us will choose the latter out of laziness.
Two: laziness can manifest itself as busyness, which makes us do more than we should, which means we have to work for longer. This is Eugene Peterson’s point in his excellent The Contemplative Pastor: I am busy because I am lazy, he says. Instead of making active decisions about what I will and will not do, I become passive, reactive. I let others set my agenda for me rather than doing it myself, either because I am disorganised, or because I am fearful of confrontation. Laziness in priority-setting manifests itself as busyness, as I get pulled from pillar to post by the expectations of others, and have to work extra hours to get it all done.
Three: laziness can manifest itself as avoidance of genuinely hard work in favour of work which looks difficult but is actually easier. The classic example here is parenting. I doubt I am the only man in the world who battles the temptation to stay late at work, at least partly because it is an environment in which I am in charge and control my work flow. I have a desk, a phone, some space, a PC, and a level of autonomy over what I do next. As soon as I get home, however, those privileges disappear, to be replaced by privileges which are a great deal noisier, messier, less obedient and more demanding than my computer. When I feel tired, my flesh wants to work more and parent less, which turns into longer hours in the office. I need to fight that desire, and I do, but it’s there all the same.
None of which means that all people who work long hours are lazy, or even that when I do, I am. Nor is it to say that people should only ever work X hours, or anything like that. I trust nobody reading this is going to draw prescriptive conclusions from a descriptive piece like this. It is simply to say that laziness doesn’t always manifest itself in the classic Proverbs way: “a little slumber, a little sleep, a little folding of the hands to rest.” A person can work short days and still be diligent. A person can work long days and still be lazy. As always, brothers and sisters, we need to guard our hearts, pursue genuine diligence—and work as to the Lord.
There is an ancient practice of identifying Old Testament theophanies as manifestations of the second person of the Trinity in particular, that is, as the preincarnate Son ... In some cases, while the authors were orthodox, they took their positions based on a kind of naive (by which I mean not quite ontological yet in the years before the Arian crisis) subordinationism, according to which the Father was too exalted to appear to creatures, but the Son was not ...
Augustine countered the Arian interpretation by emphasising that the Son is no less invisible than the Father, and therefore either of them could well have been appearing to the patriarchs. On the other hand, there is no reason it could not also have been “the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit,” or “sometimes the Father, sometimes the Son, sometimes the Holy Spirit,” or “simply the one and only God, that is the Trinity without any distinction of persons” ...
Augustine’s judgment is that we do not have clear enough warrant to say what is actually happening in these most mysterious events of the Old Testament. But his more substantive reason for rejecting the idea that these are appearances of the Son (not the Father or the Spirit) has to do with the uniqueness of the visible mission of the Son in the incarnation. If the Father sent the Son repeatedly during the old covenant, it derogates in some way from the uniqueness of the incarnation as sending. The question is not so much where the Old Testament Jesus got the body he appeared to the patriarchs in (though that surely calls for some speculation). It is more a matter of the unrepeatable uniqueness of the incarnation of the Son.
—Fred Sanders, The Triune God, 224-5
I don't think I've ever posted here before with a picture as the main item, but this one is so good that I'm breaking the habit of a lifetime. Behold: the Jewish calendar in one picture.
HT Patrick Schreiner
At a popular level, the nineteenth century is usually seen as a century in which religion begins to decline. Quite the opposite, argues C. A. Bayly in The Birth of the Modern World; it was in fact a century in which religion triumphed. If you look at the global reach of the world religions, the spread of their sacred texts, their levels of identity, centralisation and control, the proliferation of sacred buildings, the religious commitment to proselytising—frequently learning from and sparking off one another—and so on, the world religions held far more sway at the end of the nineteenth century than they had at the start. "Among the rich, the middle class and the poor, the claims of the great standardising, world religions were much more widely known and acted on in 1914 than they had been in 1789." This conclusion, formed on the basis of a truly global social history, has interesting parallels with that of Alister McGrath in The Twilight of Atheism that the French Revolution was, to all intents and purposes, the zenith of modern atheism, and that it has been on the wane ever since.
So why, we might wonder, do we assume the opposite? Bayly suggests five reasons, the last two of which are quite challenging.
The first is that, as children of the French Revolution, we have unwittingly swallowed the rhetoric of the philosophes: organised religion, and Christianity in particular, were part of the ancien regime, and should by now have been consigned to the dustbin of history by a mixture of popular uprisings, intellectual maturity and political progress. The fact that this did not in fact happen—and that, as Bayly notes, the influence of organised religion grew at precisely the time that Kant, Diderot, Voltaire and co predicted it would disappear—is inconvenient, but like many other simple modern myths (“the glories of Rome,” “the Dark Ages,” “Renaissance,” “Enlightenment,” and so on), it has sticking power.
Secondly, and closely related to the first, is the influence of anticlericalism in the Western intellectual tradition, even where (as in Mill, for example) religion itself was praised for its benefit to the poor. It is not just that the Church in France possessed immense wealth and power; the Church in Europe, and the Roman Catholic Church more specifically, was increasingly identified as the bogeyman from which the bien-pensants were trying to escape—an anticlericalism that was reinforced, not always fairly, by clashes over scientific questions like Copernicanism and Darwinism. The anticlerical sentiment has coloured the Western story ever since.
Thirdly, there is the dominant paradigm of Marxism in leftish intellectual circles right through to the 1970s and 1980s. The Marxist narrative sees no ongoing place for religion once class consciousness has reached a tipping point, so the clear expectation is that religion will gradually fade with the advent of a self-aware proletariat. Again, this did not in fact happen, but because Marxist analysis suggested it should have, many people hardly noticed.
Fourthly, and most challengingly for those of us who are evangelical Christians, Bayly argues that revivalism has played a big part. Revivalism, he explains, requires a narrative of religious decline in much the same way as Marxism and Enlightenment philosophy do, albeit for opposite reasons: when the Church is in decline, and everything is going to pot, it is time for the true Church to rise up, take religion seriously, and keep the flag flying. (And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that the Church was still there ...) As such, revivalists have the tendency to exaggerate the bleakness of everyday religion for polemical purposes; it heightens the call for radical obedience, and increases the contrast when revival actually occurs. This then reinforces the narrative of decline, even when the Church is in fact growing worldwide.
Finally, we all suffer from good old-fashioned ethnocentrism, such that the Europeans among us treat the health of the global Church and the health of the European Church as one and the same. If religion is facing stern tests and challenges in Europe, we assume, then it must be on the wane worldwide; if Christendom is thriving, then all is well. This, it barely needs saying, is not the whole picture when it comes to Christianity (let alone to religion in general, which is more the focus of Bayly’s analysis here). Even if the Church in Europe was in retreat from 1789-1914—and, as we have seen already, this was nothing like as true as we think—this would tell us very little about the state of the Church across the world, of which quite the opposite was true.
Theory says that the nineteenth century should have been a century of religious decline. Practice suggests it was a century of expansion, growth, and even triumph. Fancy that.
We've been in a short series called Devoted at King's London, based on Acts 2:42, and I just preached on what it means for us to be "devoted to the breaking of bread." It might be that somewhere in this half hour, as I talk about the various names there are for the meal (Eucharist, Communion, the Lord's Supper, etc) and what Paul thinks it actually means and does, there is something useful for our theology of the sacraments. I'll let you be the judge of that.
John Hosier is a fairly remarkable chap. In my book, anyone who can pastor a church and raise Matt Hosier at the same time has got to be fairly impressive; John has been doing these things for four decades, and just recently he stepped down after serving as an elder for an astonishing forty-seven years. Here is a guest post of his, reflecting on ten convictions which have not changed over a half-century of ministry. It's well worth your time.
It’s over 47 years since Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon and said: “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” As that happened, I was beginning my ministry in a small Baptist Church in Southampton. At the time that was one small step for me, though hardly a giant leap for mankind! And now, having just stepped down from eldership, this is a brief summary of a message I preached about my convictions 47 years on, based on Paul’s statement that he is “convinced of this” (Phil 1:25; admittedly I have played somewhat fast and loose with the context!) Here are ten things that, for all that I have learned and changed, I remain convinced of.
1. I’m convinced of this: Jesus is Lord. US Presidents come and go; British Prime Ministers are sometimes here for a time and then, like David Cameron, suddenly gone. Even the Queen, having reigned for so many years, will one day be succeeded. But Jesus said: “Before Abraham was, I am.” Before time began he was there, and when time as we know it is over, he will be there. Our own lives are like a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. But Jesus always is. As the song says: “Forever he will be.” Jesus is Lord.
2. I’m convinced of this: God loves me. I’ve always been proud of my good health. In forty years of “full time ministry” (forgive the phrase) I only ever had two Sundays off because of illness. Moving to Bournemouth six years ago, and joining the Leadership team of Citygate Church as a volunteer elder, I found myself a few months later facing a Hospital Consultant who told me I had serious cancer. Surgery followed and over five years later I have been fully discharged. But following that diagnosis I walked and prayed a lot while facing the possibility that I might be dying. As I did so I found it was the personal note of salvation that came home strongly to me. In Paul’s words, “the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Certainly God so loved the world, and that truth launches our worldwide mission, but the world is full of individuals—and so however much God loves the world, God loves me.
3. I’m convinced of this: The Bible is true. Common, but frankly ignorant opinion often claims that the Bible we have today must be vastly altered from the original texts. But over five thousand ancient manuscripts give us the opportunity to make such detailed comparisons that we can be entirely confident of the accuracy of our Bibles today. This is further supported by archaeological research, and only a bodily resurrection fits all the evidence for what happened to Jesus three days after his death. Having said that, we also need revelation as well as historical proof. That revelation means the Bible speaks to me and tells me it’s true by the way it speaks. In 1 Thessalonians 3:10, Paul says, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.” That expresses a passion in my own ministry, and it is the reason I didn’t “retire” when I moved to Bournemouth. For me, to explain the word of God to others is to help supply what may be lacking in their faith. I do it because the Bible is true.
4. I’m convinced of this: The Church is the hope for the world. Surely, some object, Jesus is the hope for the world. But it is the Church that conveys the message of Jesus and establishes community that in some way should look like Jesus to the world as the Body of Christ. I’ve suffered plenty of disappointments. People leave and that’s painful. Leaders have fallen and that’s an agony. I’ve never belonged to a church that fulfilled all its hopes and desires, though that’s probably helpful in keeping us stretched and reaching for more. I’ve not seen revival and wish I had. I’m disappointed in myself for not being a better pastor, preacher and evangelist. But I can set all that aside and say there is no community like the church. She has the destiny of being the Bride, she is what Jesus is building, using and coming back for. She is a community of love and care, a place of refuge and safety with vision and purpose to advance God’s kingdom and reach out to the ends of the earth. It’s a scary world we live in today, but it’s the church that is the hope for that world.
5. I’m convinced of this: We must keep the main thing the main thing. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of different fashions and trends sweep across the church. At the risk of being misunderstood, I believe that certain good things can mean that we neglect the central thing. So, as one who fought for spiritual gifts and believes that they are good gifts that come from God today, I see also that people can become introspective and obsessive about what their gift might be, or what their destiny is in God, or how their dreams are going to come to pass. These may be good things, but they can mean we are diverted from the central thing. Jesus said: “Now this is eternal life; that they know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Paul puts it like this in Philippians 3:10: “I want to know Christ.” Yes. A passion for Christ. Let’s keep the main thing the main thing.
6. I’m convinced of this: We should be up to date. In 1 Chronicles 12:32 we read that men from Issachar were joining David and these were men who understood the times, and knew what Israel should do. So we, too, need to understand the times we are in and what we should do. This affects our use of language, our illustrations, our songs, our music, our use of social media, our evangelism and so much else. We are not depending on guitars, or PowerPoint or good coffee or shorter meetings to save the lost and build the church and we know that. But we do need to look and sound as though we belong to the 21st century and know what we should do. Let’s not put people off before we even begin! There’s a huge amount of application possible here, but we should be up to date.
7. But I’m also convinced of this: We don’t compromise to our culture. During the last forty-seven years, two of the bigger legal and moral challenges we’ve had to face have been those of abortion and gay marriage. There are other challenges on their way, like end of life choices. Maybe we haven’t always helped ourselves by being more forthright about what we are against rather than what we are for. We are for life, for children, for adoption. We are for marriage and for faithfulness within marriage. But inevitably some things don’t stand up to what we are for. Our churches submit to biblical authority, and if we are convinced of this then we can’t simply surrender to the prevailing culture. The argument that most people believe this now does not mean we are persuaded to change our convictions. In his day, Daniel and friends stood against their culture and ended up in lion’s dens and fiery furnaces. They never compromised—and nor should we.
8. I’m convinced of this: The Christian life is a battle. My most quoted Terry Virgo statement is that the Christian life is not like a battle; it is a battle. This eventually led Terry to quote it as originating with me! But the Bible tells us there is a battle. There are evil days; we have to take our stand against the devil’s schemes. We need to resist the devil, and Revelation tells us that the devil has come down to us and is filled with fury. Even our need to pray at one level points to the fact that we are engaged in a fight. We have to fight all sorts of things. Some fight depression, for others it’s a tragic loss, or illness or difficult circumstances, or persecution or misunderstanding or even false accusation and so on. So we need the Bible to encourage us, to understand who we are in Christ to reassure us, to belong to a church so others can care for us. We need the prayers of others to help us and to pray for breakthroughs ourselves. We need to strengthen ourselves in God or, as Jude says, “Keep yourself in the love of God.” In battles there are victories as well as losses, and Jesus reminds us that it is our faith that will overcome the world and all its challenges. The Christian life is a battle but faith will win the day.
9. I’m convinced of this: We have victory over death. Death is the final enemy and the last battle. Having in the last couple of months lost a younger sister and two younger friends to cancer, it throws you back on Philippians 1:21: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Note well that to die is gain; but it doesn’t seem like that if you have a dull view of heaven, something I’ve often tried to address in my preaching. If death is gain then it follows that Paul says that it is better by far to be with Christ. This doesn’t remove our grief and tears, but when a loss occurs, we know that for the believer who has gone it is better by far. Our loss may be severe but it’s not without hope. We have victory over death.
10. I’m convinced of this: There’s an end to this story. The Bible opens with the book of Genesis and the declaration, “In the beginning, God …” But the Bible ends with the book of Revelation and the promise that God will one day declare: “It is done.” I’ve never fought shy of teaching on the End Times, but I’ve never believed that I or any other bible teacher has got every detail correct, and the programme of events perfectly worked out. However, it is clear that one day Jesus will return in majesty and glory, and that he will bring about the regeneration of all creation, which will be heaven for the saints who will reign with him in resurrected bodies. And from the throne will come the voice of the one who is there at the beginning and the end: “I am making everything new.” There will be a glorious end to this story that will precede everlasting glory.
After forty-seven years, I can still say: I am “convinced of this.”
One of the challenges faced by any student of "modernisation," or whatever we call it, is how to sail between the Scylla of Eurocentrism and the Charybdis of fashionably inclusive political correctness (as in, "everyone modernised in their own way, and Europe had no more impact than anyone else.") On the one hand, we want to avoid the idea that the world only advanced through contact with Europe, because Europeans are culturally, intellectually or morally superior. On the other hand, if we ignore the unique place of Europe in the story of modernisation, industrialisation, the rise of science and the shape of the modern world, we will fail to understand it.
Well: I’m hugely enjoying C. A. Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 at the moment, and he grasps this nettle superbly. He demonstrates both the global interconnectedness of the growth towards modernity in the long nineteenth century, with the majority world shaping Europe and vice versa, and the central and irreplaceable role played by Europe in the story, as evidenced around the world to this day in patterns of dress, language, naming, medicine, leisure, mapping, freedom of women, communication, bureaucracy, literature and timekeeping. Modernisation has happened globally, in thousands of different ways, but each instantiation has remained indelibly marked by European features, and will continue to for the foreseeable future.
Here’s a helpful summary paragraph of why that happened, applied in this case to scientific inquiry (p. 318):
Complex human societies everywhere had developed rational systems of thought and ways of applying technologies to production. The early expansion of industrialization and the creation of professions in Europe and North America, however, had given specialists there a substantial lead in the creation of general systems of scientific thought which legitimated themselves internally, rather than through recourse to theological or cultural arguments. Euro-American economic expansion also allowed physical, chemical and biological discoveries to be applied to routine mass production more rapidly. When non-European societies began to experience rapid urbanization, state formation and industrialization, they, too, rapidly found ways of borrowing from the Western centres, as well as adapting aspects of their own, older systems of knowledge and rational investigation to create indigenous scientific thought.
It’s an important idea, although admittedly difficult to explain on the back of a napkin. But this is where Manchester United comes in.
Football teams rise and fall. You win some, you lose some. But if the ones you win happen to coincide with a period of dramatic growth, global expansion and economic power—such as the formation of the Premier League in 1992, and the massive financial investment made by Sky as part of Rupert Murdoch’s bid for world domination—then you are likely to be able to build on your victories, plough your profits back into the system, and set yourself up as a key footballing power for a very long time. As a lifelong Liverpool fan, I obviously hate Man Utd, and would have the strongest possible objection to the idea that they were better than all other football clubs. But by being the best team in the country at the right time (1993-97), thanks to a top manager, a strong youth team, a global support base stretching back to the Munich air crash, and the two best bargains in the history of the modern game (Schmeichel plus Cantona for £1.5m?!), they were able to capitalise on the huge money that had started flowing into the Premiership, turn a team into a squad into a dynasty, finally win in Europe, and consolidate their position as the UK’s leading club without the need for an oligarch owner. Despite two calamitous subsequent managerial appointments, in which I have personally delighted, they are still in a position to buy Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in one year, and will remain a force to be reckoned with, in all likelihood, for generations.
That, if I am reading Bayly right, is basically what happened to Europe. The sudden breakthroughs of international communication, industrialisation, scientific acceleration and global commerce happened to occur in a period when Europe was in the best position to profit from them. If globalisation had begun when the Chinese, or the Ottomans, or the Safavids or Mughals or Spanish were the key world power, then we would now be living in a world shaped by their discoveries, their languages, and their culture. They would have been the ones in the best position to consolidate their power. But for whatever reason—and this is not the place to go into that, although my reading leads me to believe it has something to do with Christianity, something to do with Roman law, and something to do with slavery—it was Europe who was in the right place at the right time, and therefore able to profit from the sudden influx of money and innovation that took place in the long nineteenth century. Europe is not superior, any more than Man Utd is superior. It just happened to be the power with the most advantages at the moment when everything changed.
And, of course, the situation will be entirely different a hundred years from now. There will be a new global powerhouse, and Europe, and Man Utd, may be playing in the Vanarama National League for all we know. That should prompt a bit of perspective, as well as humility. “My name is OzyManUtdias, king of kings …”
Recently I was at a gathering of Christian leaders at which we were encouraged to pray for ‘art that releases the beauty and power of heaven’. Now I know that as the head of a Christian arts network, I should have been delighted by such a prayer but instead my mind started whirring. The initial question that popped into my head was ‘is that really what art is for?’ and this was quickly followed by the conclusion that I didn’t think it was, which then hastily led to a sense of concern that this may be more than an issue of pedantry, but that such headlines may actually box in and limit the very people we’re praying to be released.
Of course I am aware that beauty is a pretty important concept when considering art (yes, it was the b-word that caused me most consternation) but in my experience, when trying to explain why artists make art, Christian leaders reach for this word far more quickly than artists do. There is a danger then that if we misunderstand what artists are giving their lives for, we may alienate the very people we think we are valuing.
Or on the other hand, maybe I’ve just got a bee in my bonnet! ‘Only one way to find out’, I mused as I was supposed to be praying, ‘I need to put my contrarian angst to work.’
Therefore, a month or so ago, I began a research project of sorts to test whether my annoyance to this sort of language may be in any way justified. I began to ask some of the Christian artists whom I know and respect about how they would understand the relationship between art and beauty, and then I put their responses on our blog. And then, as a final move, I have summarised their four posts into just one post for Thinktheology, with a neat little application for you, even if art’s not really your thing. (I may be obtuse but at least I’m thorough.)
Here then is the summary of my findings…
Some Starting Definitions
First we need to define this elusive word: beauty. Alastair Gordon noted Umberto Eco’s conclusion that we use this word simply ‘to indicate something we like’. Surely, this is how the word is commonly used, but Alastair pointed us towards a more objective grounding. The classical Greek notion of beauty as a system for formal aesthetics, reliant on symmetry and proportion and the like, is surely helpful to a degree (which I suppose would relate to other disciplines in the conventions of melody, grammar, metre, or even the craftsmanship of a slate floor or coffee table) however, as Alastair again pointed out, probably not as much as the other Greek concept of beautiful things being ‘horaios’ or ‘of the hour’. (To read Alastair’s complete post, click here)
In layman’s terms, contemporary relevance as well as purely aesthetic considerations must be considered when we think of beauty. But we shouldn’t stop there. My insightful friends pointed us to consider whether beauty should be considered even more broadly.
Beauty as a glimpse of the new creation
Alastair again got the ball rolling. Isaiah’s apparent foot fetish (Isaiah 52:7) suggests that biblically we should possibly look at the redemptive power of something, rather than its actual appearance, when considering its beauty. But even more than this, is there an indication in Scripture that beauty can be understood as an anticipation of the new creation in our present experience? David Benjamin Blower then took up the baton on this one and followed this thought through with one of my favourite paragraphs of the series:
Christian hope is anticipatory. We are not forever looking backwards at a merely mechanistic atonement in the past, nor are we looking sideways for momentary escape from the experience of the present. Christian hope looks, ultimately, forward, to the renewal of creation, to the healing of the nations, and to a time when God’s Goodness resides fully among us. Every glimpse of beauty is a glimmer of this end, a present manifestation of a future which will ultimately swallow up and transform a suffering and broken present, and the faithful artist works to cultivate this sort of anticipatory imagination.
(For David’s post in the series, try here)
But here’s where things get really interesting. NT Wright, Andy Crouch and others have made much of the continuity that will exist between this creation and the version 2.0 that Jesus will unveil when he returns, and they’ve been quick to bring art into it. Perhaps, they’ve mused, works of art from our times will make it into the galleries, theatres and spotify playlists of glory. The safe example they always trawl out for this one is Johann Sebastian Bach. Surely, Bach will be in heaven!
Now, I must confess I’ve never found this idea very compelling partly because I’m presently making a conscious effort to resist the inevitable pull towards classical music and middle age, and partly because it all seems a bit Eurocentric, and partly because it still strikes me as just a bit silly! Well, whether Johann gets to warm up for Metallica in New Wembley or not, this way of thinking seems to have led people to conclude that only nice, pleasant and ‘beautiful’ work will make it through the flames, so Christian artists should focus on this type of work now. However, there is a problem with this, as David Blower pointed out with his parting shot. The Bible doesn’t map out the new heavens and new earth in much detail, but we can bank on one thing that will be there - Jesus’ scars! The lamb will look as if he has been slain (Rev 5:6) and Jesus’ new creation body was (and presumably still will be) marked by the wounds of his crucifixion (Jn 20:25,27).
While I’m sure we’d all agree that the meaning of those scars is infinitely beautiful, I’m sure you can also see how, in more commonplace terms, this is significantly messing around with how we think of that particular word!
So, the least I can conclude on the matter is that beauty is not as simple as it may seem (it certainly isn’t about looking or sounding pretty or making us think happy thoughts). Perhaps then it is not unfair to add that we may need some different lenses through which to understand what art is and what artists can justifiably be aiming to achieve through their work.
So What Else Could Art Be About?
Well it could be about:
Yes, language! This last one may seem most ambiguous, but Huw Evans puts forward the case that this is the fundamental purpose of art and helpfully also tells us what he means:
Art is fundamentally about language (hear me, language, which is not the same as speech or words) and about communicating emotion, or rather what R G Collingwood refers to as the ‘emotional charge’. This is not quite ‘how I feel’, as emotions are too primal for sharing directly, but is the ‘power’ of the emotion, which can then be experienced by another person.
(And finally for Huw’s whole post, click here)
Well, while we could argue all day about which of these is of paramount importance, surely they could all be worthwhile goals. In fact, some of them are absolutely vital both within and outside the church. Art it seems is not only about beauty. Actually in many ways, it may be that beauty is one of the less helpful ways to define the goal of genuine artistic practice because of its frustratingly slippery nature.
So after all of this spilt ink, what does it matter? I think that there are important lessons to learn here for artists and non-artists alike, but I’ll confine myself here to speak to those who would like to engage more with the arts, but wouldn’t necessarily call yourself an artist (especially if you happen to lead a church)
If we want to serve artists, we need to understand what it is that they are trying to do. The artists in your church may not dream of creating pretty pictures that could happily hang in your church coffee shop. They may not want to make songs that would be safe to let your toddler go to sleep to. They may not want to write stories where everyone lives happily ever after. They may not even want to release the beauty and power of heaven. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, they’re probably just living out their calling. And doing it in an appropriate and godly way.
You may not be able to find a place for their work in your building or even in one of your meetings, but if you can’t appreciate and value what they are doing, they probably won’t find a place in your church.
And if they don’t find a place in our churches, Christians are unlikely to regain any sort of voice into our culture through the arts.
And if we don’t do that… Well, I think you get the idea.
I find cessationism intriguing. I have a great many friends who are theologically and/or functionally cessationist, and many of them are cleverer than me, but I just cannot see how it convinces them (although I continue to try; I have Dick Gaffin on my desk at the moment, for instance). So when I find new cessationist arguments, I like thinking about them, or even sharing them. This one, which is especially creative—and which comes, I should point out, in a context which is not about cessationism at all—is from the quite brilliant James Jordan:
Now, children are also nursing, not eating and drinking, when they are first born. Yet, they are not weaned until they stop nursing, which comes later then when they first start to eat and drink. If we look at covenant history, we can also see that this phase also occurs. For the sake of convenience, we shall call the time before a child begins to eat and drink the time of swaddling, and the time after he starts to eat and drink but before he stops nursing the time of weaning. Thus, there are four phases:
1. Womb, while the child is being prepared for birth.
2. Swaddling, while the child is still getting everything from his mother and needs to be held and coddled.
3. Weaning, while the child still needs to nurse, but is also eating and drinking from sources outside his mother.
4. Full separation from the womb, when the child is fully weaned and receives all his food and drink from outside his mother.
Consider that even after God moves His people fully into a new world after a swaddling time, He continues to nurse them with special “old” provisions. The exodus from Egypt provides the most obvious analogy. After exiting the womb of Egypt we were swaddled and nursed by God’s miraculous care in the wilderness and then sent into the land. But even after we entered the land, God continued to provide some miracles during the Conquest until we were fully ready to stop nursing from Him. Then the miracles ceased.
(HT: Alastair Roberts)
A conference you may be interested in...
On May 24th Matt Hatch (Mosaic Church, Leeds), Toby Skipper (King’s Community Church, Norwich) and myself are hosting a day on Making Multi-Site Work.
In recent years many churches have ‘gone multi’, with more than one service, and meeting in more than one location. Multisite is exciting, but also presents many challenges, and we know we need help! Resources to help make multisite work tend to come from very large churches in the USA which, while useful, can have limited relevance to our context in the UK.
At this day we will be learning together how mid-sized British churches can navigate the leadership, organisational and theological opportunities and challenges multisite presents. The day will consist of a series of short learnings from church leaders already engaged in multisite, followed by guided discussion in small groups. The aim is that all those attending (both pastoral and administrative team members) learn from the successes and mistakes of others, and that together we help develop good models for leading multisite churches in the UK. The day will be relevant to those already doing multisite, as well as those exploring the options.
The day will be focused around 3 questions
SESSION 1: IS MULTISITE BIBLICAL?
Multisite seems to offer many pragmatic advantages for mission and church growth, but it also raises a number of theological issues. In this session we will consider the biblical case for going multi, and how we can ensure our understanding of the local church is theologically robust.
SESSION 2: HOW DO WE KEEP THE SHOW ON THE ROAD (pt1)?
When and how do you launch a new site (and with how many people)? How many sites do you go for? Will the sites become autonomous churches in the future? What’s our plan for preaching? In this session we’ll explore how we develop a sustainable strategy for multisite.
SESSION 3: HOW DO WE KEEP THE SHOW ON THE ROAD (pt2)?
What does administration and operational management look like in the mid-sized multisite church? How can we make good decisions about who controls the money, how we communicate across sites and how we structure our teams? In this session we will get down to the nuts and bolts of making church life work when we go multi.
SESSION 4: HOW DO WE LEAD WITHOUT LOSING OUR HEADS?
Multisite stretches leadership in all kinds of directions and makes demands that leading in one location do not. In this session we will think about the leadership challenges for the individual leader, and for leadership teams, created by multi.
You can book in here.