Thursday Review: Michael Emlet on cross talk

A review of Michael R. Emlet, CrossTalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet, New Growth Press, 2009.

Available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Rick tell you his wife is divorcing him after 22 years of marriage. How do you bring the words of Scripture to Rick? How do you counsel him with the word? CrossTalk is an attempt to answer this question. It’s a book on the use of Scripture in pastoral counselling.

It opens with a chapter outlining a number of scenarios to highlight both the challenges in applying Scripture to life and some of our preconceptions about how this should be done. The Bible is not, says Emlet, primarily a book of do’s and don’ts, nor a book of timeless principles for the problems of life, nor a casebook of characters to imitate or avoid, nor a system of doctrines. Instead the Bible is a story: the story of redemption with Christ as the centre. This means we need to look back to where we have come from and forward to where we are going, all the time remembering that this is God’s story, not ours.

To apply the Bible life, however, requires not only reading the Bible as a story, but being able to read people. Strikingly here Emlet’s approach parallels that of his approach to the Bible. He’s moving us away from proof-texting to seeing the Bible as an integrated narrative. In the same way he moves us away from trying to understand people through disconnected words or actions. Instead he proposes that we look for the “narrative skeleton” running through the person’s life. ‘In this sense, everyone has a story. Not simply a story to tell but a story (or stories) to live, a plotline that is going somewhere.’ (66) Emlet suggests using basic worldview questions (Where are we? Who are we? What’s wrong? What’s the remedy?, 69) to plot a person’s story in a way that parallels the Bible plotline of creation, fall and redemption. This allows us to ‘answer the fundamental questions of life with the biblical story’ (71).

Emlet suggests that we should view people in the categories of saints, sufferers and sinners (all of which will simultaneously be a reality for most people). He suggests that it is important to highlight these particular aspects of our identity as believers because “they describe our experience before Jesus returns to consummate his kingdom. How we live in our ‘roles’ as saints, sufferers, and sinners reveals how aligned we really are with God’s Word.” (74) (I’ve included below the main questions Emlet suggests for analysing people in this way.) “In ministry we are reading two ‘texts’ simultaneously, the story of Scripture and the story of the person we serve. In ministry we must always have one eye on the biblical text and one eye on the individual. Or better, our gaze constantly shifts between the two.” (90) Chapters 8-10 explore these principles through an extended case study.

In the final chapter Emlet emphasizes that the use of Scripture is a process, not a one-time event. Personal ministry is a dialogue, and that conversation occurs over time. He concludes by reminding us of the need to immerse ourselves in the word and rely on the Spirit rather than trusting a methodology. ‘The more we immerse ourselves in Scripture and the more self-conscious we are in our approach to people, the more natural and spontaneous these connections will be’. (173) ‘Real-life ministry requires wise creativity and Spirit-dependent flexibility, not slavish adherence to a set of rules’. (174)

If these ideas do not strike you as new then you may not gain much from reading CrossTalk. But if they are then CrossTalk would be a great place to start, to start learning how to use Scripture rightly in pastoring one another.

One final comment: There are a couple of pages on the role of the community in pastoral care (60-61, 175), but they are very brief and it would have been good to see this developed more.

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The Limits of Incarnational Models Part 3: The Need for a Whole Gospel Approach

Here is final guest post from Dr Jonny Woodrow suggesting the need for a robust trinitarian theology to supplement an incarnational model of cultural engagement. This argument draws on reflections on Colin Gunton’s The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. The first two posts in this series are here and here. Jonny  is a tutor with the Northern Training Institute and a church planter with The Crowded House.

I have benefited from the incarnational approach. I love the emphasis on contextualisation and cross-cultural mission. We practice this in our context with teams devoted to being part of the communities they seek to reach. It helps to bring culture to the fore in our strategising. But the more we seek to mobilise people for this kind of mission or try to pastor people through the inevitable personal and social battles this incarnational lifestyle forces to the surface, the more I find the concept of incarnation as a principle powerless to help. This is because it fails to address the real problem with humanity.

The Fall brought about relational brokenness between mankind, God and creation through man’s attempt to put a non-Trinitarian being (i.e. self) at the centre of the universe and crush difference. Post-Fall Adam wanted the death penalty to fall on Eve, removing the different one from the Garden, blaming God for creating her. The construction of the tower of Babel around the exaltation of man threatened to exchange God’s plan to fill the world with fruitful people for a monocultural existence. The key problem the gospel must over-come is not transcendence but every attempt mankind makes to define himself and the world by something other than relationship with the Trinitarian God. An incarnational approach does not address this problem. It simply wants to bring God down to earth. Having read Gunton, a truly relational approach to creation and redemption means we need the whole gospel to mobilise us and remake us as truly human and not just incarnational.

The incarnational approach has helped us to critique the mission of the church where we stay in our own cosy subculture. But it simply operates at the level of example. The Son of God became one of us so we become one of ‘them’. At this point we strategise our way into culture. Examples, devoid of life changing truth and grace in the end become sticks to beat people with. The incarnational approach alone fails to help people to missionally live out their identity in Christ.

Someone committed to incarnational theology might reply at this point that the incarnation enabled us to become truly human since God became man. Or they might say that the church is the body of Christ, therefore incarnation is a principle that directs our mission. But I want to suggest that this is category confusion. It is not the incarnation that makes us the body of Christ or that makes us truly human. Incarnation is the miracle of God taking on human flesh. What makes us truly human is putting on Christ and being remade in his image through baptism into his death and resurrection. Putting on Christ, being found in him at the right hand of the Father, and being remade in his image are not summarised by incarnation. Incarnation is not the correct term for this. Regeneration is the correct term.

Genesis 1 and 2 show that being in the image of God means being a community in fruitful, cultural engagement with creation. This, as we have seen, leads to a relational and Trinitarian view of being which the gospel affirms and enables. Therefore the basis for mobilising a culturally engaged church that takes particularity, diversity and creativity seriously is the call to become image bearers. This means we need to be reconciled to God through the whole Jesus story as he takes up humanity, kills us, resurrects us and brings us into the presence of the Father to receive the gift of the Spirit.  We don’t become image bearers through our own incarnational efforts. This is category confusion.  We become image bearers by being remade through death and resurrection into the image of God (e.g. Colossians 3:9).

Pastorally, I find it much more empowering to encourage Christians to live missionally by calling them to the death and resurrection of Jesus for them and to live in light of their new identity in Christ. It is helpful for a student entering the home of an alcoholic where many drug addicted and dangerous people hang out, to know that Jesus entered these kinds of places as well. But what really enables him to do it is the knowledge that he has died with Christ and now his life is hidden with the ascended Christ. Now his life is not found in the comfort and safety of socially acceptable company, he has died to these idols and he has been given new life in Christ.

It seems to me that relationship with the incarnate, resurrected and ascended Christ for our renewal in his image is the correct and most fruitful basis for missional contextualised theology. This relational approach reflects the mobilising categories of Scripture: in him, reconciled to God, adopted etc. It requires all moments of the gospel story to shape practice.

Without the incarnation there would be no true human to take humanity into the presence of God. Without the death of the true human, creation and humanity could not be brought through death to be renewed. Without the resurrection a new humanity would not be possible. Without the ascension renewed humanity would not be represented in the presence of God. We were made to live in the world in the presence of the Father. That was the Genesis 1 and 2 foundation for cultural engagement and now, through the Son, the new humanity again lives in the presence of the Father through Jesus’ ascension. If the ascension had not happened, the Spirit would not have been sent to begin the work of recalibrating the creation around the throne of Jesus. In other words, creation and culture are affirmed and renewed by every moment of the gospel story which brings us back into relationship with the Father, each other and creation.

We need the whole gospel to mobilise us for mission and to inform our missional practice. I want to suggest that to truly engage with culture, the missional church needs to become increasingly relational rather than incarnational. This will mean that the missional church needs to recover a robust Trinitarian and Biblical theology. For some, much of what they have packed into the incarnational category can be kept but it needs to be recategorized if we are to be able to let the biblical categories inform practice. We need to live in the whole Jesus story and not just one aspect of it if we truly want to engage culture for Christ and avoid worldly engagement with a Christian veneer.
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The Limits of Incarnational Models Part 2: Embodiment and Incarnation

Here is the second of three guest blogs from Dr Jonny Woodrow highlighting the limits of an incarnational model of mission by reflecting on Colin Gunton’s, The One, the Three and the Many purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. Jonny  is a tutor with the Northern Training Institute and a church planter with The Crowded House. The first post explored the question of the triumph of the many (embodied local realities) over the one (transcendental reality) in modern culture.

In his book, The One, The Three and the Many, Colin Gunton argues that the culture of modernity has failed to manage the tension between the one and the many. This tension operates on a number of levels. It can be seen wherever the concept of diversity threatens unity or vice versa. For instance; the state versus local government; the rights of the individual verses society; the objective truth verses the variety of many subjective opinions. Gunton shows how modernity has ostensibly wanted to champion the many over forms of the transcendent one. It has tried to do this by overcoming the transcendent God in order to find meaning in the particular and embodied.

While embodiment is central to Gunton’s theology he shows that it is the wrong solution to the tension between the one and the many. This is because transcendence is not the enemy of the local and the particular. Gunton argues that the problem is a non-Trinitarian and non-relational conception of the ‘oneness’ of the transcendent God. This non-relational view of God and his will presents God as anti-diversity.

Following on from the first blog, I want to unpack the idea that the Christian doctrine of the transcendent becoming embodied – the incarnation – can not help us critique and engage with modern and post-modern culture on its own. Too often, the incarnation becomes our key principle without setting it within a framework of the Trinitarian story of redemption. When this happens we are in danger of simply attempting modernist embodiment with a Christian veneer to overcome a misdiagnosed problem with culture.

Foundations for Particularity: Unitary or Relational Will

Gunton’s argument is complex and nuanced. It is presented here in outline only. Gunton contrasts two models or paradigms of the relationship between creation and the will of God. These contrasting models shape a different view of God’s will and the nature of will in general. These differing views of God’s will, in turn, lead to differing understandings of the place of the particular. Continue reading

The Limits of Incarnational Models Part 1: The Triumph of the Many over the One?

Here is the first of three guest blogs from Dr Jonny Woodrow. Jonny  is a tutor with the Northern Training Institute and a church planter with The Crowded House. His blog posts reflect on the lessons for missional and incarnational church from Colin Gunton’s The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. They question whether incarnational mission provides an adequate model for an engagement with cultural pluralism.

To recalibrate its activities around mission, the church has had to come to terms with cultural pluralism; the idea that here are many varied local cultures for the gospel to engage with. In the missional church literature there has been helpful analysis and enthusiasm for understanding the local and the particular in mission. Writers like Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost have helped us to find ways to enter cultures, listen for local stories, affirm local cultural difference, and avoid imposing models of church. They have challenged us to look for organic models of church that give the gospel expression through local culture.  The incarnation has been the mediating principle for much of this helpful insight. In the incarnation we see God affirming locality and difference by entering a culture. The gospel emerges in the world through a local culture and spreads as God’s people enter other cultures.

In his book, The One, The Three and the Many, Colin Gunton brings a robust Trinitarian theology to bear on the culture of modernity. Modernity has tried to take the local and particular seriously. It has opted for radical embodiment as its organising principle. This is the idea that meaning in the universe comes from the stuff of everyday life; bodies, language and culture, rather than transcendent universal principles. To some degree, modernity has its own ‘incarnational’ approach to local culture.

Gunton argues, however,  that modernity is built on paradox. Far from celebrating cultural diversity or providing a foundation for difference and particularity, modernity has in fact created new forms of homogeneous culture, often more oppressive than the ideologies it tried to throw off.

In this series of three blogs I want to suggest that Gunton’s critique of modernity’s approach to local culture might reveal some correctives for our incarnational approach.

Gunton argues that the worldview of antiquity was seen by modernists and postmodernists as privileging the ‘one’ above the ‘many.’ From Plato’s universal forms to Augustine’s God as a divine rational will, antiquity squashed cultural diversity under the weight of single unifying principles. Particularity, difference and materiality were not seen as fundamental to the nature of creation. Instead they were seen as departures from the purity of the unity of the divine one or universal forms. In such a worldview difference is bad. Modernity attempted to distinguish itself from antiquity by attempting to privilege the ‘many’, the local and diverse, above a transcendent ‘one’.

Modernity achieved this by emphasising the particular through displacing the divine ‘one’. Embodiment is essential to this displacement. This happened through William of Ockham and modernity’s obsession with materiality. William of Ockham, the champion of the particular, rejected the idea of a unifying will of God or transcendent universal principles as the foundation for meaning and coherence. Instead he made the rational will of humans the starting point of coherence and meaning-making. This paved the way for modernity’s move to embodiment because it made human experience the organising principle of the universe. Modernity’s emphasis on materiality supplied a number of theories for the mechanisms of human experience. Marxism, socio-biology and early psychology made economics, evolution, biology and neurology the basis of human experience. The concepts of mind and will, which were once considered transcendent and non-bodily entities, were now cemented to economics, biology and neurology.

So the transcendent one or divine will was replaced by many embodied wills as the organising principle of creation. This move to locate the organising principles of the universe in human embodied experience could be described as a modernist, secular incarnational move. It promised to make cultural diversity and the particular the starting place for accounts of being. Along with this shift, the idea that the cosmos held meaning was replaced by a view that time, space and materiality are meaningless. Truth and meaning are locally generated by the activities and sense-making of people as embodied wills. In order to enter truth one has to enter a local culture or worldview.

On a surface reading, modernity looks like the triumph of the many over the one in which the local and particular are celebrated. Gunton stresses that of all cultures modernity has achieved the most for the cause of cultural diversity. But modernity has also created the herding culture of consumerism, communism and fascism along with the attendant bloodshed, addiction and misery. Paradoxically, in each case, the many have been forced into forms of identity that are shaped by a new, all powerful one. Consumerism transforms us into the image of the market. Identity is worked out through the consumption of mass-produced products and logos, creating as much homogeneity as individuality. Communism erected the state as the transcendent one in the name of giving ownership of life and work back to the masses. Fascism similarly attempts to serve the many, but does so by making the many conform to the will and image of the head of state. Gunton’s point is that modernity has not escaped antiquity. It has repeated the same mistake; erecting a new one over the many. The only difference is that modernity has replaced transcendent oneness with more immanent and earthly forms: market, self, state, race.

These ‘false transcendentals’ are demonic, says Gunton. They are idols or God replacements. Like all idols they undermine our humanity and identity by drafting us into the service of their image, crushing God’s design for community and individuality. Modernity thought that the enemy of diversity was a transcendent one. But, by bringing the transcendent down to earth and making it immanent and human, modernity has not served the many. It has created new forms of homogeneity that undermine identity and that compete with each other (e.g. consumerism verses socialism). The move to embodiment and the down-playing of transcendence has failed to create both diversity and unity. Embodiment is not a mediating category that can successfully manage the relationship between the one and the many. If this is true, then maybe also ‘embodiment’ in a Christian guise as ‘incarnation’ cannot on its own be the basis for a theology of cultural diversity and engagement. In the next two blog reflections on Gunton I want to unpack this argument.
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The Thursday Review: Robert Hubbard on Joshua (NIVAC)

Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Joshua, NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, 2009. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

I was excited to get this book for two reasons. First, the NIV Application Commentary series is fast becoming one of my favourites. I was sceptical of its three sections for each passage: ‘original meaning’, ‘bridging contexts’ and ‘contemporary significance’. But I’ve been completely won over. Some contributors pull it off better than others, but generally it produces commentaries that take seriously the original text in its biblical theological context while also offering lots of help in applying the text today. Second, for all the sometimes excessive output of commentaries that we have these days, we are ill-served with commentaries on Joshua for preachers.

I was not disappointed. Robert Hubbard’s commentary on Joshua is excellent and my best buy recommendation for Joshua.

The ‘original meaning’ sections are great. Too often commentaries are full of dry technical material on philology, geography and history that add little to the text. But, despite the thorough the nature of this section, Hubbard seems to manage to make it all count. I found it full of suggestive comments that would inform any sermon.

Hubbard believes the book was compiled by the Deuteronomistic historian from earlier (and early) sources. He contrasts the portrayal of the conquest of a short, wholly successful campaign (Joshua 6-11) and the portrayal of a protracted struggle for control conducted at a tribal level (Joshua 15-17, Judges 1). Hubbard therefore believes Joshua ‘offers a repetitive, stereotyped account marked by occasional hyperbole’ while affirming ‘its historical value’. ‘The presence of such traditional devices should caution readers against an overly literal interpretation of texts in Joshua.’ (39) He ‘accepts both the valuable contribution of Joshua to historical reconstruction and the limits of the book’s information (e.g. its selective contents, its highly-structured narratives).’ Personally I prefer to see the campaigns in Joshua 6-11 as the decisive battles that broke Canaanite resistance making Israel the dominant power in the land. This left the tribes with a mopping up campaign in which, according to Judges 1, they were only partially successful. On the violence of the book, Hubbard says: ‘I do not see myself ever feeling completely comfortable with what transpires in Joshua.’ I would have liked some acknowledgement that the violence of Joshua is the challenge of hell writ small.

My main complaint with the commentary is that does not really address how the promise of the land plays out for new covenant believers. At one point Hubbard reminds us that Christians have an inheritance in heaven (445), but there is little on tracing the theme of the land through to the renewal of creation in a new heaven and a new earth. There is no recognition of the way Jesus and Paul extend the promise of the land to the promised of a new earth (compare, for example, Psalm 37:4 and Matthew 5:5). The result is that the contemporary signifiance sections often have a somewhat moralistic tone with the opportunity to place the injunctions in the redemptive story lost somewhat.

In conclusion, a great commentary, but read it alongside a good biblical theology.

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Review: Jesus Wants to Save Christians

Jesus Wants to Save ChristiansA review of Rob Bell and Don Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile, Zondervan, 2008. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

What you make of Jesus Wants To Save Christians depends a lot on what you think it is trying to do.

Read it from the beginning and it reads like an attempt at an engaging introduction to biblical theology. It starts by claiming, ‘This is a book about a book.’ Judged along these lines and it seriously falls short. For one thing Abraham is missing. An introduction to biblical theology without the defining promises to Abraham. Bizarre. Second, it presents a very inadequate treatment of the cross. The cross is seen an act which subverts the myth of redemptive violence and offers a model of renouncing power in favour of solidarity and self-giving. This may be true, but clearly it misses so much – probably because the theme of God’s judgment is also underplayed.

But what happens when you read the back cover first? ‘There is a church in our area that recently added an addition to their building which cost more than $20 million. Our local newspaper ran a front-page story not too long ago revealing that one in five people in our city lives in poverty. This is a book about those two numbers.’ Now we have a book about how Christians should respond to poverty and violence, a book which approaches these topics through biblical theology. Read in this way, the book is full of powerful allusions and helpful insights. (And it may well enrich your biblical theology along the way.)

The focus is on the theme of slavery and exodus. Israel’s history is assessed with this is mind, making Solomon the low point because of his recourse to slave labour and armaments. If you assess Israel’s history from the perspective of their calling to be a light to the nations then Solomon becomes the high point as the writer of Kings makes clear in 1 Kings 10. Both perspectives, I suspect, are valid, reflecting the complexity of the biblical narrative. Interestingly Bell and Golden miss the opportunity to draw out the exodus theme further with Jeroboam who appears to be a new Moses, liberating the people from the slavery of Rehoboam, but ends up being the new Aaron as he erects two golden calves.

So don’t read Jesus Wants to Save Christians as an introduction to the Bible story (I would recommend my own From Creation to New Creation purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US or Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US). But read it as book on the Christian response to poverty and injustice. Even here I’m not sure it will convince those who reject the idea that the Bible offers a critique of American (or Western) way of life. The move in the first chapter, for example, from things being all out of joint east of Eden to American imperialism is made without justification and will not persuade the skeptics.

Finally, the style of writing requires some comment. There are a lot of one page sentences. Quite a few one sentence paragraphs. I guess you would describe the style as playful. It forces you to ask questions, sometimes questions you, rather than presenting information in a straight-forward manner. Sometimes this works to good effect; sometimes it’s just irritating.

One of my maxims is to avoid footnotes except for citations. Footnotes are a sign of lazy writing – the writer cannot take the time to work out whether and how to put the material in the main text. Bell and Golden go mad with footnotes – including one which is simply an explanation mark (another feature of lazy writing, by the way). Ah well, rant over.