Bonhoeffer on the Beginning

Image result for bonhoefferOriginally published in 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s study of Genesis 1-3 Creation and Fall was first published in English by SCM Press in 1959. 

In this edited extract, Bonhoeffer considers the first two verses of the Bible. 


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. 

The Bible begins in a place where our thinking is at its most passionate. Like huge breakers it surges up, is thrown back upon itself and spends its strength. Hardly has the first word of the Bible been visible to us for a moment, when it is as though the waves are racing forward again and submerging it with foaming water. That the Bible should speak of the beginning provokes the world and irritates us. For we cannot speak of the beginning; where the beginning begins our thinking stops, it comes to an end And yet the fact that we are asking about the beginning is the innermost impulse of our thinking; for in the last resort it is this which gives validity to every question we ask. We know that we must not cease to ask about the beginning though we know that we can never ask about it.

Why not? Because we can conceive of the beginning only as something finite, therefore precisely as that which has no beginning. Because the beginning is freedom and we can conceive of freedom only in terms of necessity—as one thing among others but never, simply as the one thing before all others. If we ask why we always think from the viewpoint of the beginning and towards it, and why we can yet never conceive it nor even once get to it by asking, then this question is only the expression of a series of questions which could be pushed back into the infinite and which still did not reach the beginning. Thinking cannot answer its own last ‘why’, because an answer would again produce a ‘why’. The ‘why’ is much more the expression for the beginning-less thinking, par excellence.Our thinking , that is, the thinking of those who must go to Christ to know of God, the thinking of fallen man, has no beginning because it is a circle. We think in a circle. We might then say that in that case there is beginning everywhere. We could equally well say that there is no beginning at all: the decisive point is that thinking takes this circle for the infinite and original reality and entangles itself in a vicious circle.


There can therefore be nothing more disturbing or agitating for man than to hear someone speak of the beginning as though it were not the totally ineffable, unutterably dark beyond of our blind existence. We will fall upon him, we will call him an arch-liar or even a saviour and we will kill him when we hear what he says. Who can say it? Either the one who was a liar from the beginning […] or the other One who, from the bginning was the way, the truth and the life, who was in the beginning: God himself, Christ, the Holy Spirit. No one can speak of the beginning but the one who was in the beginning.

Thus the Bible begins with God’s  free affirmation, free acknowledgment, free revelation of himself: In the beginning God Created…But the rock in the sea is hardly visible before it is covered again by the sea brought to turmoil by the vision of him who is unshakable. What does it mean that in the beginning is God? Which God? Your God, whom you yourself created out of your need because you need an idol, because you do not wish to live without the beginning or without the end, because you are afraid of being in the middle? In the beginning God—that is just your lie, which is not better, but more cowardly even than the lie of the evil one. How do you know the beginning, stranger, you who write this sentence? Have you seen it, were you there at the beginning? Does not your God himself say to you ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? answer if you have understanding’ (Job 38.4). What are the first words of Scripture? A delusion of the cowardly imagination of a man who is not able to live in the middle with pride or resignation? Is it the imagination of a man like ourselves when, out of the cowardice of our beginningless and endless lives we cry out to a God who is but our own ego? How shall we be able to answer this reproach? It is true that anyone who speaks of the beginning speaks of his fear within the circle of life, even he who wrote the Bible, he does not speak but God himself speaks, the true primal reality, who was before our life, before our thinking and its fear, who says only of himself that he is in the beginning. He bears witness to himself by nothing but this Word, the word of a book which as the word of a holy man is of itself a word ‘from the middle’ and not ‘from the beginning’. In the beginning God created … That, said and heard as human word is the form of the servant in which God encounters us from the beginning and in which alone he is to be found. It is neither profound nor frivolous. It is God’s truth, in so far as he says it.

In the beginning—God. That is true if he is present to us in the middle with this word as the one who creates and not as one who is remote, reposing, eternally being. We can only know of the beginning in the true sense as we hear of it in the middle between beginning and end. Otherwise it would not be the beginning which is our beginningOf God as the beginning we know here in the middle, between the lost beginning and lost end only—as of the Creator.


In the beginning, out of freedom, out of nothing, God created the heavens and the earth. That is the comfort with which the Bible addresses us who are in the middle, who are anxious before the false void, the beginning without a beginning and the end without an end. It is the gospel, it is the resurrected Christ of whom one is speaking here. God is in the beginning and he will be in the end. He is free regarding the world. The fact that he lets us know this is mercy, grace, forgiveness and comfort.



How does 2 Samuel Encounter Disability?

Image result for MephiboshethIf you have read this morning’s lectionary reading from 2 Samuel, you may have been left with the feeling that the verses actively discriminate against disabled people. In an extract from The Bible and Disability: A Commentary, Jeremy Schipper considers the issues.

The books of Samuel tell the story of Israel’s transition from a system of leadership organized around various judges to the leadership of the Davidic monarchy. This transition involves constant shifts among various characters or households from “insiders” to “outsiders” and vice versa. My discussion of  2 Samuel focuses on how these book uses imagery of disability and idealized bodies to mark such shifts in status.

David continues to consolidate his power in 2 Samuel. In order to do so, David distances himself politically from a variety of parties that represent diverse groups. These parties do not represent a monolithic group. Instead, they include Joab and his household, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and various members of Saul’s household. Nonetheless, the opening chapters of 2 Samuel lump these diverse parties into a unified “other” by characterizing them all with disability or impurity imagery.

One reason that David must distance himself from certain parties is that some people suspected David was behind several of the murders of his political rivals. David had publicly condemned those who murdered Saul and his sons (2 Sam 1:1-16, 4:4-12).  Yet, several chapters later, as David flees Jerusalem during Absalom’s coup, a member of Saul’s family named Shimei curses him, shouting “Out! Out! Murderer! Scoundrel! The Lord has avenged on all of you the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned” (16:7b-8a).

In 2 Sam 4 the text uses disability imagery to characterize members of Saul’s family. When Saul’s son Ishbaal hears of Abner’s death, the text describes his reaction with the idiom “his hands became feeble” (4:1). Although this is an idiom for a loss of courage, the imagery involves physical weakness (Num 13:18). Three verses later, the text introduces Mephibosheth, Saul’s grandson, and immediately notes his disability: “Saul’s son Jonathan had a son who was crippled in his feet. He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel. His nurse picked him up and fled; and, in her haste to flee, it happened that he fell and became lame. His name was Mephibosheth” (2 Sam 4:4). The opening verses of 2 Sam 4 characterize Saul’s heirs as having enfeebled hands and impaired feet. After Ishbaal is murdered in 4:7, the narrative continues to connect hand and foot imagery when David has Ishbaal’s assassins killed and their hands and feet cut off (4:12).

After Ishbaal dies David becomes king over all Israel (5:1-5) and immediately conquers Jerusalem. When he attacks the city, the text uses disability imagery to characterize his opposition. The words “blind” and “lame” occur three times each in 5:6-8.

In v. 8 the terms “lame” and “blind” describe the parties whom David “hates.” In 6:16 the text uses the verb “hated” to describe Michal’s reaction to David when he danced as he brought the ark into Jerusalem. A few verses later, the narrator states, “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death” (6:23).

This verse could imply Michal’s infertility (Schipper 2007, 105–7). Infertility was associated with various disabilities, including visual and mobility impairments, in other biblical and ancient Near Eastern texts. The first verse in 2 Sam 7 states that “the Lord had given [David] rest from all his enemies around him.” At this point, the only viable remaining heir to the throne from Saul’s household is Mephibosheth, whose disability is mentioned repeatedly in the subsequent chapters (9:3, 13; 19:26).

The use of disability imagery to characterize David’s opposition contrasts sharply with the physical idealization of David himself, who is described as having “beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance” (1 Sam 16:12). Even members of David’s family who do not become king are often physically idealized. For example, like Saul, David’s brother Eliab is tall (16:7). David’s sons Absalom and Adonijah are handsome (2 Sam 14:25 and 1 Kgs 1:6, respectively), and his daughter and granddaughter, both named Tamar, are beautiful (2 Sam 13:1 and 14:27, respectively). David’s wives Abigail and Bathsheba, who have children with him and thus continue the royal bloodline, are also described as beautiful (1 Sam 25:3 and 2 Sam 11:2, respectively). By contrast, Saul’s daughter Michal, whom David marries but never impregnates, is never described as beautiful. Disability imagery helps to characterize parties who present obstacles to David’s political power and helps to contrast them with David’s idealized royal family.

At the same time, disability imagery helps to mark shifts in status. For example, 5:6-8 indicates that Jerusalem’s residents included “the blind and the lame” before David establishes the city as his capital. In 5:6 the residents of Jerusalem say, “David cannot come in here.” Yet when David conquers the city, he declares his hatred for the blind and the lame (5:8). The same verse explains, “Therefore it is said, ‘The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.’ ” This passage uses persons with disabilities, who had been in Jerusalem while David was outside the city, to represent those on the outside once David takes over. Regarding access to Jerusalem, the contrast between David and persons with disabilities helps to signal changes among insiders and outsiders.

This contrast continues over the next several chapters. In 9:4-5 David summons Mephibosheth, who enters Jerusalem despite the earlier prohibition against “the lame” coming into the city. After David and Mephibosheth talk, the story ends with the statement “Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he always ate at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both his feet” (9:13). This verse states explicitly that Mephibosheth now dwells in Jerusalem and that he was lame (cf. 4:4, 9:3). A few chapters later, David  must flee Jerusalem and his rebellious son Absalom enters the city (15:14-37).

At this point David is on the outside. While exiled from Jerusalem, a man named Ziba tells David that Mephibosheth still “lives in Jerusalem for [Mephibosheth] said, ‘Today the house of Israel will give me back my grandfather’s kingdom’ ” (16:3). One should note that the narrative indicates David’s reversal of fortune through not only the loss of his capital city but also a reminder that persons with disabilities once again dwell in Jerusalem (cf. 5:6). After Absalom’s defeat, Mephibosheth contests Ziba’s report (19:24-30).

While scholars debate whether this conversation happens in or outside Jerusalem (Schipper 2006, 52 n. 56), it is possible that Mephibosheth speaks to David when the king returns to Jerusalem, whereas previously David had spoken to Mephibosheth when the king first summoned him to Jerusalem in 2 Sam 9.

During David’s exile from Jerusalem, he is described with imagery that had characterized members of Saul’s family during David’s rise to power. For example, the narrator described Ishbaal’s hands as feeble shortly before David replaced him as king (4:1). During David’s exile, Ahithophel tells Absalom that David “is weary and his hands are feeble” (17:2). In 17:29 David and his troops are described as “hungry, weary and thirsty in the wilderness.” A man named Machir is listed among those who provide them with food while they are outside Jerusalem (17:27-28).

Previously, Machir provided for Mephibosheth while he lived outside Jerusalem before David brings him into the city (9:4-5). Although David is described as physically depleted rather than disabled (cf. 16:14, 21:15), the physical imagery once again reinforces a change in his status during his exile. Imagery toward the end of 2 Samuel continues to develop themes of reversals in status that were introduced during Hannah’s song in 1 Sam 2.

Jeremy Schipper is Professor of Religion (Hebrew Bible) at Temple University
in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Bible and Disability: A Commentary is edited by Sarah Melcher, Mikeal C. Parsons and Amos Yong. The UK edition is published by SCM Press and includes a foreword by John Swinton. Click here to find out more.

Loneliness in the Parish

Reflecting on what loneliness looks like in parish ministry Bob Mayo considers the reality that ‘The possibility of loneliness is never far away for a church leader’.

When I stand up to preach, it is always with the same sensation. I am Isaiah in the Temple or Peter falling at Jesus’ knees saying ‘get away from me Lord for I am a sinful man’ (Is 6 & Lk 5:8). The reality of God is an uncomfortable truth. As I start my sermon it is midnight and the bridegroom is in sight, yet the ‘wise’ virgins will still not share their oil in case they are left without enough for themselves (Mt 25:1-13). On that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left (Lk 17:34).

I am one of the virgins at midnight. I can tell people of the coming Christ but I can’t myself pass on to them oil of grace. Each person has to receive it himself or herself as a gift straight from the Lord. This truth contains within it the paradox of Christian leadership. I can teach, encourage and witness to the love of Christ, but my effectiveness in so doing comes in drawing attention away from myself. As with John the Baptist:

He must become greater; I must become less (Jn 3:30).

There is a stamp of separation that lies at the heart of a life of faith in God. In the Old Testament God calls his people to a nomadic life of faith full of inconvenience and risk. Moses spent 40 years leading the Israelites through the wilderness on a journey that might otherwise have taken only 11 days (Dt 1:2).

The Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel and He made them wander in the wilderness for forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was dead (Num 32:13).

Moses brought the Israelites to the threshold of the Promised Land but was not allowed by God to enter with them (Num 20:9-11). David describes himself as lonely and afflicted (Ps 25:16). Jeremiah (20:14) and Job (3:1) are driven to despair by what God is asking of them. They both curse the day on which they were born.

The disciples leave their families and shake the dust off their feet when people do not listen to them (Mt 10:14 & 19:29). Jesus then begins to distance himself from them as they walk towards Jerusalem. He walks ahead of them. They are astonished and afraid (Mk 10:32). Jesus has had a lifetime of being misunderstood (Mt 13:55-56). He needs to face his coming trial alone and he is starting the process of separating himself from his disciples. In Gethsemane Jesus is in anguish: sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44).

The need for separation and solitude is an integral part of being a church leader. Prayer, reading and reflection all require times of being alone. These are core roles for any church leader. The challenge for the church leader is to practice the art of solitude while avoiding the trap of loneliness. Solitude is something we choose. It is constructive and restorative. Loneliness is imposed. Tillich (2010) writes that loneliness expresses the pain and solitude the glory of being alone. In a society that puts a premium on romantic love and relationships solitude is not properly appreciated. Solitude can be as therapeutic and insightful as can emotional support and friendship from others.


Loneliness in the Parish

Rowan Williams (1995:121) wrote that Christians seem to treat the subject of loneliness with a consistent lack of seriousness and with a painful lack of imagination and sympathy. What the Bible depicts as prayer reflects the often-lonely experience of the parish priest. Prayer is, in effect, an offering to God of our obedience. The fundamental truth is that Christ’s way is the way of self-emptying (Phil. 2:5-11). It is a way that the world sees as weakness and failure. The day to day living of the parish priest, poured out in conversations, prayer and stick-at-it-ness, makes it a necessary truth to learn that Christ took no account of achievement and success, only of serving and giving and loving.

The possibility of loneliness is never far away for a church leader. There is a hard edge to living in a vicarage and being permanently accessible to others. I can only lose when someone knocks at the door asking for money. If I give the person money then it is no more than what is expected of me. If I do not do so then I am open to criticism for being ungenerous. I have nights with people ringing the vicarage door at 2am and then again at 5am. At the church school fete it is seen as obligatory for the vicar to buy a raffle ticket but it is equally as important that he is never seen to win the prize.

My loneliness has the stamp of the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are a text of beauty and terror. We are blessed for being poor in spirit, mourning, being insulted or persecuted (Mt 5:3-12). We are left clean with an inner raw longing for God. There is nowhere to hide when leading public worship. I preach as someone longing for God. I pray as someone reaching out for God. I sing as someone praising God and lead others in the process.

Loneliness can be a channel of grace and the grace of God makes us who we are (1 Cor 15:10). Nouwen (1997) writes that loneliness can be not only tolerable but also fruitful. Some of the most diligent, conscientious and devoted ministers that I have known have been celibate with a hint of loneliness. Freed from the exclusive attachments of family they are able to be available to God and to meet with people as one vulnerable person to another. ‘I wish that all of you were as I am’, says Paul of his unmarried state, ‘but each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that (1 Cor 7:7). The gospel takes shape through people’s weakness and vulnerability. Paul talks thus about the pressures he faced through his own public ministry:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Cor 4:8-10).

Sometimes the greatest cause of isolation is not what others do but what we do to ourselves. Warren (2002) and Savage (2006) both say that clergy are stressed because they are carrying around unreasonable expectations of themselves and disappointed because the reality of the parish life has not lived up to the ideal they had imagined. A difficult individual, an unresolved issue or a lack of gratitude for what we do are not issues peculiar to a parish but would be evident in any number of work contexts.

Parish work can feel like a treadmill where clergy are left struggling to keep up with [what they feel are] endless demands made on their time. A sense of isolation can be exacerbated by the fact that there is an assumed competence to the role of church leader whose task is to care for others. It is possible to be with people and still feel isolated.

Friendship forming is a critical role for the Church to play. Set against a social backdrop of rural isolation, urban fragmentation and suburban commuting, parish churches offer people a chance to gather together and to form relationships with each other. Our strength as the church lies in our collective relationships in the name of Jesus Christ. Our uniqueness lies in the one true historical faith. Our mission is to embody this in how we live our lives, shaping ourselves round the needs of the most vulnerable because therein lies the face of Christ.

In the Old Testament David and Jonathan’s friendship had started when each recognized the courage in the other. Before he fought Goliath David had fought a lion and a bear (1 Sam 17:34). Jonathan himself was a man of great courage. He had initiated a one-man war against the Philistines (1 Sam 14). Jonathan accepted God’s decision that David, rather than he, should be king. At Jonathan’s funeral David wept and described Jonathan’s love as more wonderful than that of women (2 Sam 1:26).


Loneliness in Scripture

The paradox of Christianity is that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. The trauma of crucifixion contains within it the offer of salvation. The brokenness of one is the salvation of all. The importance of Jesus’ cry of despair from the Cross is shown in the fact that the only one of Jesus’ seven sayings from the cross recorded in both Mark and Matthew.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me (Mk 15:34 & Mt 27:46)

It comes after Jesus has been on the cross for six hours. It contains within it the insight needed for difficult weeks as a church leader. Jesus’ words come from Psalm 22. The Psalm is in two parts: verses 1-21 (suffering & grief) and verses 22-31 (praise & hope). Hope and grief are not binary opposites but are each a part of the other. Grieving does not happen automatically. Anyone can decide to cover up his pain and ignore unresolved grief. When we accept grief, we are choosing hope. Grieving embraced is a hopeful and deliberate choice, made because we want to be whole once more.

Psalm 22 bridges Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, crossing from grief to hope. Jesus was alone but not lonely. To think of Jesus as lonely stresses His human qualities: compassion, love, justice, and social conscience and so on, at the expense of his divine nature. Jesus was temporarily lower than the angels (Heb 2:9). This however was subservience in role but not subservience in essence. Jesus was not just someone chosen by God to do a special mission. Jesus was God Himself.


Loneliness in society

We live in a lonely society. According to a report Church in Action (2015) published by the Church Urban Fund (CUF) clergy listed loneliness and social isolation as the most widespread social problems affecting English communities, regardless of income or social class. The report showed that nearly half, or 46%, of churches are running organized activities to tackle social isolation through programs such as youth groups, parent-toddler groups or lunch clubs. Churches are also providing informal support, through social networks and friendship groups.

I spend time with people who live lonely lives. I go a short distance from the vicarage to the supermarket to buy a lunchtime sandwich. It takes me three attempts to return home because on each occasion a homeless person asks for the sandwich that I have just bought for myself. They want companionship more than food and so I take time in turn to speak to each of them. It is Psalm 22 in the parish, but a lot easier for me with simple conversations than it had been for Jesus with his crucifixion.

Bob Mayo is Vicar at St Stephen’s W12, and Chaplain to Queen’s Park Rangers Football Club

This is an extract from The Parish Handbook by Bob Mayo, Cameron Collington, David Gillett, which is included in our summer sale. 

The Bishop of Kensington, the Rt Revd Graham Tomlin described the book as “hugely valuable… It is more than a handbook – it is a guide, a collection of jewel-like insights, a distillation of years of experience that gives a genuine taste of the gritty reality and the sheer privilege of parish life and ministry.” 

Polyphony – A Metaphor for Christian Community

An extract from Melodies of a New Monasticismlarisa-birta-102093-unsplashby Craig Gardner

One musical practice, in particular that of polyphony (literally sounding many notes at the same time), provides theology with a rich metaphor for exploring the nature of Christian community. For most of the first eight hundred years of Christian worship the music employed was monophonic, whether it took:

the form of a cantillated prayer of extreme simplicity or of an ornate Gradual for a solemn occasion. . . . A single line of melody, untainted by any accompaniment, was the most perfect and satisfying symbol for the unity of Christian believers. (Wilson-Dickson, Brief History of Christian Music)

However, the advent of notation led to the development of polyphony: the simultaneous sounding of many interweaving melodies. In polyphonic music, more than one “melody” happens at any given time, overlapping and interweaving with one another over long eriods of time.

The Thomas Tallis motet “Spem in Alium” has forty different voices arranged in eight five-part choirs, all interweaving in counterpoint, exchanges of block harmony and massed outbursts. As Begbie notes,

Despite the sonic profusion, it never sounds “jammed” or crowded. There is a multiplicity without dissipation, togetherness without mutual overwhelming, each voice being enabled to become more fully itself. “As though being ourselves we’re more capacious.” (Begbie, “Through Music: Sound Mix,” in Beholding the Glory, 152)

Indeed not only might there be a variety of interweaving vocal melodies but in orchestral music different instrumentation might be assigned to particular melodies, calling forth different timbres that are attached to respective melodies. In the latter case, each is distinct, not only in their melody, but also in their particular sound. But these remain undivided in their character and purpose with neither denying the other their right of differential existence. So, a melody introduced by a solo horn does not prevent a countermelody of strings beneath it (the strings may themselves be polyphonic in nature, comprising violins, violas, cellos, and double basses), nor is anything “lost” when the solo theme is developed by three  further horns playing in harmony. The difference-in-unity extends when, perhaps, the strings share their multifaceted countermelody with a further polyphony of woodwind (oboes, clarinets, flutes, bassoons, etc.). It is entirely
usual for such a symphonic piece to be additionally punctuated by percussion (triangle, cymbal, xylophone, side drum, and timpani) and be joined by the remaining brass (trumpets, trombones, and tubas). Indeed it can work with each of three instruments working in different keys. This is polyphony.

It can theoretically be either “harmonious” (i.e., attaining certain culturally conditioned aesthetic standards) or “dissonant” (displaying an apparent lack of agreement or tension between the notes). As Cunningham notes, the chief attribute of polyphony is, “Simultaneous, non-excluding difference: that is, more than one note is played at a time, and none of these notes is so dominant that it renders another mute.” (Cunningham, These Three Are One). Hence, polyphonic music permits and encourages individual difference, yet unites them in what might be deemed a community of melodies. Drawing on this metaphor provides a valuable insight for a theology of community and enables an examination of diverse melodies of belonging.

In early polyphonic music there was often a cantus firmus (literally the firm song), which was usually a preexisting melody such as a chorale tune around which the other countermelodies were then arranged. Kemp notes how, musically,

the contrapuntal voice in a cantus firmus composition owes its existence to the Tenor upon which it is erected. . . . It is distinct from the Tenor. . . . If heard without the Tenor it would seem self-sufficient in motion, ambit and material; but its source of generation and control would remain the cantus firmus; it cannot operate beyond the ultimate “barrier” of the Tenor’s dictates. (Kemp, “Polyphonous Christian Community”)

The cantus firmus then lent its form to derivative melodies that fragmented, mirrored, echoed, and retextured the original melody in other voices. These countermelodies and harmonies could weave their way together with or even against one another, but as long as each remained in relation to the cantus firmus, the music could continue.

Melodies of a New Monasticism employs these metaphors of cantus firmus and polyphony to investigate the nature of Christian community: if Christ is conceived as the cantus firmus of all Christian living, then his “solid song” will be fragmented, mirrored, echoed, and retextured within a variety of people whose own diverse and individual melodies only find their unity, indeed their community, in Christ.

Craig Gardiner is Tutor of Christian Doctrine at the South Wales Baptist College. Melodies of a New Monasticism is published by SCM Press next month. 

Christianity Rediscovered “A clarion call to contextualization”

A guest post from Cathy Ross

The lion is God – of course, how could God be anything else?  Somehow, I knew this deep down in the marrow of my being, but I did not know that I knew it.  As Donovan explains this metaphor that he received from the Masai elder, it all made sense.  As NZCMS mission partners, we did not go to Congo to help the Congolese discover God.  The lion was already there.  Goodness, mercy, love, forgiveness, the divine presence – they were already there.  How could they not be?

In his superb book, Christianity Rediscovered Donovan reminds us of exactly that.  The missionary is the one who rediscovers the gospel for themselves.  The missionary is their own first convert.  This is not necessarily from theology books but rather from first-hand experience.  Donovan writes, “if a theology did emerge from my work, it would have to be a theology growing out of the life and experience of the pagan peoples of the savannahs of East Africa.” (22) That was one of my first lessons in mission. I am the convert.  I am the one in need of saving.  Hopefully, that gives one a little humility.  I am entering someone else’s garden (to pick up Bevans and Schroeder’s metaphor) respectfully, humbly, in bare feet so I tread respectfully and do not trample others’ dreams.

Then I find myself in a strange and wonderful garden, with new and intense aromas, luxuriant and exotic plants, bush and jungle possibly.  I have never been here before – all is new, strange, exciting, a little scary.  And so I am somewhere I have never been before. This too is the call of the gospel.  This is Donovan’s challenge to all of us engaged in mission, put to him by a young person in America, “do not try to call them back to where they were, and do not try to call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place may seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before.” (xix)

This resonates with a recent challenge from Pope Francis:

I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.[1]

This is the clarion call to contextualization.  We have long known that contextualisation is a missiological imperative and in a sense, this ultimately means letting go of the gospel for the sake of the gospel.  This is what Donovan discovered in his encounter with the Masai.  We do not have to look back very far into mission  history to see the damage outsiders have done to the local cultures, customs and context. Outsiders have to practise letting go.  This also means practising attentiveness – really seeing and really listening.  This takes a real self-discipline and means genuinely practising kenosis. We need to let go of our cherished ideas and beliefs, our ways of doing things and of seeing reality, our habits and postures for the sake of the gospel.   In a sense we have to let go of the gospel for the sake of the gospel.  Unless we risk losing the gospel we may never see the gospel become an integral part of the culture nor understood in a way that is meaningful for that culture and context.  For this to happen there needs to be more freedom, less judgement, more risk-taking and therefore not translating it back into something that we can necessarily understand or handle. We need to allow these risks to be taken and not to be fearful as fear stifles creativity, imagination and courage.  We need to encourage an adventure of the imagination that enables the gospel to be fleshed out and understood from within the cultural context.

And this is also the challenge of mission in the UK where we are in a situation where we have never been before.  Church attendance is declining and it seems the gospel is a distant memory, if even that.  How do we go from here to the new place?  What will that look like for the communities we are in?  Where do we start from and will we recognise it when we get there?

We need to let go of power, of status, of control, of our way of doing things.  We need to listen more – just as Donovan listened to the marvellous stories of the elders.  We need to see what is around us – not just look but see, with the eyes of the Spirit.  We need to ask questions and to be genuinely curious.  We need to let our imaginations roam freely so we can experiment with what might be possible.  We need to embark on an adventure of the imagination.

I see glimmers of hope – especially among the pioneers for whom Donovan’s book has been extraordinarily influential.  Pioneers are crossing borders and trying out new things – they are entering into others’ gardens and joining in with the energies flowing in those communities.  There are pioneers who are starting up boxing clubs, creating a group for classic car enthusiasts, setting up bike repair shops and apprenticeships, creating a cleaning company that pays a legal minimum wage, community choirs, community gardens and so much more.  Some things fly and others don’t.  I don’t think that matters because the imagination is there and the realisation that this community has dreams, visions and ideas of its own.  This is why it is important to be there, to be part of the community, to live there and become part of the “we” instead of the “they”.  Then a theology emerges from the local context, as it did for Donovan from the savannahs of East Africa.  A theology begins to emerge from the lived relationships, the shared experiences and the new discoveries of trying together to appropriate Jesus for that particular context.

Donovan’s book also reminds us that Christianity is, at its heart, a border crossing faith.  Our faith will wither and die if we do not continually cross borders.  Our faith will atrophy and become domesticated and self-interested if we only remain in our own contexts.  It is as we cross borders and encounter new contexts and cultures, new ideas and thoughts that our faith grows, develops and expands.  So when the Masai take in Jesus and understand Jesus in Masai ways, then Jesus becomes Masai enough to be understood and embraced.  And so we are all enriched by this.  This process opens up different sets of questions, different methodologies, different starting points and differing languages and grammar with which to worship and understand God.  And this is what it means to be a world Christian – to have our horizons expanded, our visions enlarged and our imaginations delighted with new ideas and metaphors.  “We have not searched for God.  He has searched for us.  He has searched us out and found us.  All the time we think we are the lion.  In the end, the lion is God.” (51)

[1], paragraph 27.

Cathy Ross is MA coordinator for Pioneer Leadership Training at CMS. She is a lecturer in Contextual Theology at Ripon College Cuddesdon. She is the author of numerous books including Mission on the Road to EmmausHer new book Missional Conversations, co-edited with Colin Smith, is published in the autumn. 

Is Your Bank Statement Pants?

In today’s guest post Eve Poole, Third Church Estates Commissioner and author of Buying GodTheology and Consumerism (published next month), reminds us that consumerism is a game we simply cannot win.


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Do you remember that famous scene in Bridget Jones where, in the middle of his seduction, Daniel Cleaver discovers she’s wearing enormous pants? Mortifying. I think that’s how we feel about our bank statements. Do you show yours to anyone? I wonder why not. Perhaps it might lay you bare.

Your bank statement is an extremely raw account of your choices, and each choice tells us something about you. A bit like staring into someone’s eyes for too long, perhaps we don’t really want to be found out. What do you spend your money on, where, and in what proportion? What would it take to make you feel comfortable enough to show it to your partner, your friends, your mother, your neighbour, your boss?

I’m trying hard with mine. I’ve started coding each transaction red/amber/green depending on how ethical it is. Definitely green for charitable donations, well-earned income, and buying locally. Amber for those lazy purchases that are more cheap than ethical because I’m in a hurry. And bright red for those emergency one-click present orders when I’m in danger of missing a birthday.

“I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” With these fatal words, Adam ushers in consumerism. Well, Eve does, actually, that much-maligned truth-seeker. But the second they reach for the fig-leaves a truth is indeed exposed. Cinderella wore court dress, Eliza Doolittle wore an Ascot hat, and woe betide the small girl nowadays who does not have something Frozen about her. In dressing ourselves in order not to be naked, we immediately extend our coverings for warmth and protection into opportunities for display and social signalling. What we wear is the visible sign of our inward hopes and fears, our sense of tribe, and our desired status.

This used to be controlled by sumptuary laws. For instance, in the reign of Elizabeth I there was quite a strict code governing the wearing of fur. For example, as at 15 June 1574, fur could only be worn by those worth over 300 marks a year, and they could only wear pine-marten, grey civet or lambskin. If you wanted to upgrade to grey furs, you had to be earning over £100 a year, or be the son of a knight. Then there was a progressive hierarchy – with fines payable for faking it – through leopard (ambassadors and knights) and lynx (dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts and barons) all the way to sable (the Royal Family).

But isn’t this dress rather than consumerism? Yes and no. As Peter Sedgwick has argued in his book The Market Economy and Christian Ethics, consumerism is ultimately the search for self-identity, and we establish that socially through feedback from our peers. Not content simply with what we wear, we now extend our identity through accessories, cars, brands, education, occupation, and language. Our homes and families become part of the display, and we reveal ourselves through the full range of our life choices. Some do so more than others, of course; it depends on how much they rely on the opinion of others for self-worth.

So it is no wonder that consumerism is out of control, because it is a game we cannot win. Colin Campbell, in his book The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, explains why. Consumerism is driven by an un-holy trinity: insatiability, novelty, and subjectivity. But nothing is new for long, and obtaining something merely triggers a longing for the next new thing, ad infinitem. Then our very subjectivity as humans draws us into aspirational day-dreaming, which ratchets up the other two, into a never-ending spiral of disappointment. As soon as we plug one gap, another one emerges, and we are doomed to frustration.

Yet religion can console in a way that consumerism cannot. Our overwhelming and entirely natural desire for self-identity, which these days we tend to channel into consumption, could be met by spiritual goods instead of material ones. The logos and not the logo. But the siren call of commercial advertising drowns out our spiritual truth, that you only ever truly find yourself by losing yourself in God. Because our promises will be met in the life to come and not now, those who have lost faith cling instead to the alluring promises of jam today. So we need to stand up. We need to find our voice. We must show the lost that we are found, and that they can be too. And how can we do that? By being salt and light. By being so alluringly secure in God’s love for us that other people yearn for what we’ve got.

And we can start that right now, with that embarrassing bank statement. Can you turn every red to amber, every amber to green until this report card of your consumer behaviour becomes a beacon of love? Because if we don’t, who will.

Buying God: Consumerism and Theology is published next month, but you can preorder a copy now, via our website. 

Why does theology need undoing?

A guest post from Chris Greenough, author of the latest SCM Research title Undoing Theology

Decades ago, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) produced some pioneering work on the concept of gender which built on the work of postmodern thinkers and sexologists. She exposed how gender is a kind of performance. So, whereas gender had been previously considered as part of our essentialist nature, it was revealed as a construct. This construct was political, as gender was produced through power and social relations. So, Butler exposed how gender had no foundations but our understanding of gender had come about through ideals of male and female being constantly repeated. In one famous example, Butler exposes how a drag queen breaks the concept of gender in terms of performativity. In 2004, Butler authored Undoing Gender, a reconsideration of her earlier thoughts and principles in Gender Trouble, considering transgender, intersex bodies and queer theory. Queer theory serves to rupture the repetitions, and once gender is no longer repeated, it is undone.

Despite the enormous importance and influence of Butler’s work, it is highly theoretical. Viviane Namaste is critical of this, as she writes ‘Undoing Theory’ (2009), pointing to the fact that Butler’s work does not engage with real lives. Bringing Butler and Namaste together, I state that the challenge for Christianity in the 21st century is to become undone. To undo theology is an act of practical theology, which engages head on with issues of life stories, gender and sexuality.

Undoing Theology therefore moves away from what has been traditionally constructed in theology. The building blocks of theology are often referred to as scripture, tradition or reason, yet theology must engage in conversations about God rooted in real living experiences. The book undoes theology by looking at ‘non-normative’ lives. By ‘non-normative’ I refer to people whose self-identifications and/or sexualities rub against traditional Christian understandings of gender and sex. Traditional theological talk about non-normative gender and sexuality has often been damning to queer lives, resulting in negative positional statements from the churches and the use of the Bible to condemn LGBT lives, for example. Whereas some see non-normative sexuality and Christianity as irreconcilable, the process of undoing theology allows them to become bed friends. In the book, I focus on life stories from three non-normative Christians and on how non-normativity helps to articulate the protagonists’ expressions of faith.

The first life story comes from Alyce, an intersex identifying Catholic. Alyce and Jerry share the same physical body. For sixty years, Alyce has been a hidden part of Jerry’s gender presentation. Her narrative describes how the concepts of sin and shame have shaped her self-understanding in terms of her intersex body. She describes how she has felt ‘neither this nor that’ in terms of trying to fit in with the traditional models of gender: male or female. Reflecting on her own experiences and her strong faith, Alyce uses a metaphor of the Trinity to see how she understands herself as truly created in God’s image. The idea of being both, and neither/nor is reconciled in a third person which offers the opportunity for gender satisfaction. The importance of undoing theology for Alyce is that is allows her to reflect theologically on her own non-normative experiences. She sees herself as God’s creation.

An ex-gay minister provides the platform for the second story, from Caddyman. This life-story exposes the internal and emotional struggles from an individual whose life is spent wrestling with being gay and Christian. In spite of his own struggle, Caddyman reveals how he moved into a large US based gay conversion therapy group, and spent almost twenty years praying the gay away by offering the possibility of ‘conversion’ for other men struggling with their faith and sexuality, as a leader of the conversion therapy. His story ends in the present day where he accepts his own homosexuality and is in a relationship with another male. The change in viewpoint and story exposes how the stories we tell about our own lives and beliefs are temporal and can be constructed and reconstructed. In terms of theology, this points to the instability of theology which has been repeated, but which can be rewritten.

The final story offered in the book is from Cath, a Christian woman who engages in kink activities. Cath’s life story describes her youth as saturated in ideas of what a ‘good girl’ should be in Christian terms, an identity which she found difficult to maintain. As a heterosexual identifying female, Cath’s non-normativity lies in the BDSM practices she engages in, which are physically and spiritually transforming for her. The practices offer an emotional release, and for Cath, this is similar to prayer. Not only is theology undone in terms of the beliefs of Cath, but also in terms of her worship practices.

Undoing Theology breaks the repetitions of traditional theology, by offering a bottom-up approach to story-telling from messy lives. This is the plural opposite of traditional theology which offers a top down approach from scripture, tradition or reason. The story-telling approach shows how our understanding of ourselves as Christian or anything else is constructed and reconstructed, edited and amended, made and unmade, done and undone. Yet this extends to God too. Undoing Theology exposes how God has been constructed as a fixed identity by theology, whereas the very nature of God is unfixable, uncapturable and unpredictable. The point of engaging in sexual storytelling is to see the possibilities of imagining God alternatively on an individual and subjective level. Undoing Theology allows a space where the messiness of life and the divinity of God can merge. By undoing God, we free the divine from bondage which has been repeated through a rigid, traditional theological frame. Undoing Theology allows us to peek through the blinds and break the binds of Christian theology in order to offer a wider, more creative understanding of God in the lives of individual Christians.

Chris Greenough is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religion at Edge Hill University. His work explores the intersections of sexuality, gender, biography, living experiences and faith.