Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Citizens of Heaven?

For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Philippians 3:18-21

What does it mean to be a citizen of heaven? Does it mean we get a nice passport with the pearly gates on the front? Does it mean our national citizenship is revoked? It can be a confusing phrase but it’s an important one to understand what it means. 

First a quick history lesson on Philippi. Philippi was a town built on the site of the Thracian city of Krinides in 356BC by Philip ll of Macedon.[1] In 168-167 BC the Romans defeated the Macedonians and took control of Philippi. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, his heirs Mark Antony and Octavian defeated his assassins Brutus and Longinus at the Battle of Philippi in 42BC. In the aftermath of the battle the victors colonised the city with military veterans and renamed it Colonia Victrix Philippensium. In 30BC Octavian defeated Antony in a civil war, became emperor, bolstered the colony of Philippi with more settlers, and bestowed the honour of ius italicum upon the colony. The ius italicum, the highest honour a Roman colony could receive, meant that Philippi was subject to Roman law, was exempt from certain taxes, and its citizens gained Roman citizenship. Roman citizens were granted many additional rights such as property ownership, voting powers, the right to a trial, and immunity to torture, whipping, and the death penalty.[2]  

By all accounts the citizens of Philippi were immensely proud of their Roman citizenship and the Roman laws and customs they had inherited. Paul plays off of this pride in Philippians 3:20 (and in some versions 1:27) by telling his readers that they are citizens of heaven. But Paul is not saying this world is not my home, I’m just passing through as the hymn states. Nor is it meant to be a comfort for the afterlife. No it is a challenge to the church in Philippi, and in order to understand this we need to understand how citizenship worked in ancient Rome.

What we don’t often pick up in our English Bibles is that although citizen is a noun in English, the word Paul uses in the 1:27 occurrence is a verb πολιτεύεσθε (politeuomai). This word literally means “to live as a citizen” or in the context of the passage “to conduct oneself”. We have to remember that Philippi was a Roman colony and the purpose of Roman colonies was to Romanize the Greek areas they were in. These citizens may never set foot in Rome but they understood that they were to bring Rome and its culture to their setting. And in the same way Paul is telling the church in Philippi that they are colonists for the Kingdom of God and are called to spread the culture of this kingdom in the area by living a life worthy of the Gospel they have received (1:27). This is why Paul compares them to those who have their minds set on earthly things. In a culture they celebrated sexual depravity, gluttony, and emperor worship, the believers were called to be a witness for the Gospel and live by different values. Paul is by no means commanding them to renounce their Roman citizenship but to be prepared to be different and to suffer from it.

In the same way Christians are called to spread the Gospel in their own cultures to transform the world. We are called to be radically different in the way we conduct ourselves. We are called to live in an upside-down kingdom where the king sacrificed Himself for his subjects and people strive to put others ahead of them. This is what it means to be a citizen of heaven, not an escapist fantasy, but a challenge to live differently.     

[1] Some scholars put the date at 358BC, but this is inconsequential.
[2] Some may recall that Paul exercises his Roman citizenship to avoid being whipped in Acts 22:25.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Forgetting the Gospel

I remember quite vividly when I was a teenager I was sitting on my friend’s bed when I looked across at his desk and saw: a stark black tract with the words in white point 16 Arial Bold font “If you died tonight would you go to Heaven?”

Many of us who have been in the evangelical church have probably grown up with this phrase. For many it was the defining question of the Gospel; where am I going to go when I die?

I really don’t like this approach to the Gospel. Not because it can lead to “turn or burn” pitches where the goal is to scare people into Christianity, but because I feel it only emphasises one half of the Gospel. 

Within the Church we have two major religious holidays – Christmas and Easter. The former is important because it represents the incarnation - God becoming human; the latter is important because it represents the atonement – God suffering to free us from our sins. The second is arguably more emphasised in the Church, and rightly so because so much New Testament theology is built around the atonement. But sometimes I wonder if we emphasise the beginning and the end of the Gospel at the expense of what’s in between. Sometimes I wonder if in the process of focusing on the 
 atonement we’ve forgotten the Kingdom of God.[1]

The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”  

These are literally the first words that come out of the mouth of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the four gospels. In Luke 4 Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and reads the following prophecy from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And he ends by telling them that on that day the scripture is fulfilled in their hearing it. When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God he is not talking about some pie-in-the-sky idea. Nor are the miracles and healings he performs just a chance to show off or to be a nice guy. No, these are signs that something radical is happening in first century Palestine. The kingdom of God has come near. This is the most explosive event in recorded history: the first seeds of the Kingdom of God are here. A kingdom where justice, love, and mercy reign. A kingdom where the poor are rich. A kingdom that is so radically counter-cultural and unlike anything anyone has seen before. A kingdom where God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.

When we talk about the Christian hope we are not talking about some ethereal pie-in-the-sky harp playing for all eternity; we are talking about the moment when the Kingdom of God is fully here and permeates all Creation.

The beauty of the word gospel is that it comes from the Greek word euangelion (lit. “good news”). But this word was a special word. It wasn’t used to refer to winning the lottery, or getting a promotion. It was a special term that was used to refer to the good news of the birth of a royal heir, the expected arrival of a king, or a great victory. In the Gospel we see all three of these things. First we see the good news of birth of the saviour Christ, heir to the Kingdom of God. Second we see the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Thirdly we see this in the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus as he wins obtains victory over the power of sin and death.

This is the three-layered Gospel we need to preach, not one that simply speaks of life after death, but one that also speaks of life before death and what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God.     

[1] In all fairness there are others who have gone to the other extreme and have made the Gospel all about the Kingdom of God and have removed the atonement all together and I would argue that this is much worse.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Thoughts on Darren Aronofsky's Noah.

Minor spoilers ahead. 

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed since watching Noah is the amount of conversations I’ve had with Christians who are either confused by the extra-biblical elements of the film (e.g. the rock monsters) or think it diverts from the Biblical account too much. As someone who both enjoyed the film and is interested in how the creation accounts have been interpreted throughout the ages, I thought I’d weigh in on this to in order to help some of those who are confused.

First it should be noted that Noah isn’t necessarily a Christian account of the Noahic flood. I’m not saying this because Aronofsky, although Jewish by heritage, is somewhat of an atheist. I’m saying this because the account of the Noahic flood given in this film is a very Jewish version. While watching it I couldn’t help but notice that Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel had drawn quite heavily on extra-biblical Jewish religious texts. The Watchers (the rock monsters) who teach mankind and end up helping Noah build the ark are not an invention of Aronofsky’s but are lifted straight from the Jewish non-canonical text The Book of Enoch. Aronofsky and Handel have also drawn heavily from the Jewish rabbinic Midrash. The Midrash is where the teller (most usually a rabbi) takes a Biblical story and adds details to it to fill in the gaps or puts a new spin on it in order to teach a lesson. One Midrash tells of a stowaway on the ark. Another speaks of people attacking the ark but the animals gather to protect it. While neither the Book of Enoch nor the Midrash are considered to have the authority of scripture in Judaism, they are still an important piece of heritage for Jewish scholars. And this is why I think it’s more helpful to view this movie as more of a Jewish cultural interpretation than as a purely scriptural account. But as one person replied to me “it should be about what the Bible says, not what a culture says.”

But this brings up the interesting question of how our cultural presuppositions shape our view of Biblical stories. I, like many other evangelicals, was raised with the Sunday school flannelgraph version of the story in which the ark is portrayed as a nice little house boat with cute animals sticking their heads out of the various windows and Noah smiling on proudly (and a conspicuous lack of floating corpses surrounding the boat). Noah on the other hand has Noah having nightmares about drowning in a sea of corpses. The inhabitants of the ark have to listen to the screams of those who are struggling against the waves and are being dashed against the rocks. Noah is portrayed as a man deeply conflicted and who struggles to make sense of what’s happening to him. In some parts he starts to mistake his own will for God’s. It really is quite different from the Sunday school depiction.

Or take the Sunday school depictions of the birth of Christ which often involve Mary riding a donkey to a nice wooden stable where Jesus lies in a cosy wooden manger while three kings come to present gifts to them. The problem is that none of these images are particularly biblical for various reasons but a lot of people believe they are. In short, they’re cultural artefacts imposed on the biblical text by popular Western imaginings. Even period films beloved by evangelicals such as Passion of the Christ insert stuff into the story that was never in the biblical text. Does this mean we should do away with all cultural depictions of biblical stories that aren’t 100% faithful to the text (e.g. nativity scenes, films)? No, but we should recognise them for what they are: cultural depictions and not scripture. In the end, if you want a biblical account of the Noah story that’s what the biblical text is there for. Don’t take your theology from action movies. But there’s nothing wrong with allowing a film to prompt you to ask deeper questions (which I think this film should do).

And funnily enough, if there is one area that the Noah movie is quite faithful it’s in its theological themes. There is a repeated affirmation of God as the creator and sustainer of all creation. There is a repeated affirmation that creation is good. There is a repeated affirmation of the importance of the importance of responsible care for creation. There is a repeated affirmation that humans rebelled against God and are fallen creatures. There is a repeated affirmation that humans are made in the image of God. In the flood we see God’s judgement of the wicked. And in the film’s climax we see that God is merciful and hasn’t given up on humanity.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have problems with some of the ways the film depicts the Biblical text. For one, I wish they had been a bit more explicit with explaining the significance of the rainbow at the end of the film. But in the end I take my theology from the Bible, not movies.

Why blog?

This is a question everybody who blogs has to ask themselves when they start blogging. Why put time and effort into producing a blog? In my case it’s because I love teaching people. I’m fortunate to be in a job which includes teaching youth, but even though I get to set my own curriculum there are things I’d love to teach on that I simply don’t get to (I'm still waiting to be asked to preach on the theology of Batman). 

So what will this blog be about? Foremost it will be about faith. Within theological circles we have a saying: fides quaerens intellectum – faith seeking understanding. We seek to understand the world through the framework of faith. But this does not limit us to only theology; the Christian Church has long prized a cosmopolitan education. This blog will combine my interests in theology, history (especially Medieval), science, pop culture, and current issues facing young Christians. So whether you’re interested in the Christian life, the history of science and religion, or just want to know how a young Christian male views faith, hang on; it could be a bumpy ride.