Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas with Uncle Nick

If I were to describe Christmas as a person, then the nearest fit would be that badly behaved but loveable uncle who turns up once a year to entertain and offend in equal measure.

Not that I have an actual uncle like that, but that’s how I would describe my relationship with Christmas; complicated. For convenience, let’s call him Uncle Nick.

As a believer, I enjoy meeting Uncle Nick; we’ve got the same DNA and we share the same history, going back some 2,000 years. We share a common ancestry. He’s family. He’s also a prize idiot with some very strange opinions, and he’s not afraid to tell us about them. There are times when I wish he would simply shut up and stop being so embarrassing. But, just as he provokes me to the point of simultaneously hugging him and smashing his face in, he disappears for yet another year.

I could easily focus on the bad side of Uncle Nick. It's impossible to ignore. He’s crass. He’s the walking embodiment of kitsch. He's a glutton and a drunkard. He’s shamelessly commercial; using the idea of giving as an excuse to get everybody buying his latest products. He usually nods his acknowledgments towards the holy cradle, though his schizophrenic idea of religion vacillates between humanistic therapeutic moralism and fairy stories. Most irritating of all, he seems to do his utmost to remove the Christ from Christmas.

For example, successive re-writes of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol have progressively expunged references to the accepted Victorian custom of actually worshipping the child in the crib as God incarnate. It’s deemed less offensive nowadays to worship a generic, faceless God who can, and does, fit into whatever religion anyone cares to invent, though Dickens and his Victorian readers might have been severely offended at our post-modern interpretation of his allegory. They would have known, better than us perhaps, that our image of God is not what Luke and the first Christians described in the story of the nativity.

Another thing about Uncle Nick is that he’s infuriatingly promiscuous. He belongs to everyone and everything. Of course, the supermarket chains love him; we get reminded here that “Christmas is Woolworths”. He allows himself to be seduced by every merchant who wants to sell something. One media empire, though, is getting ahead of itself by wanting to rename it “Foxmas”. I get offended by the replacement of Christ with a product in any context, even in a tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign. We’ve been pushing God out of the frame and sitting ourselves in His place ever since the beginning, with consistently disastrous consequences.

Last week, I provoked quite a reaction by suggesting on one on-line forum that a joint Christmas Service with Mormons might not be such a bad idea. Uncle Nick belongs to them too, it seems. The problem here is that he’s pretending that there are no differences between Christianity and Mormonism, when there are, and they are important to both factions. Uncle Nick doesn’t care whom he parties with.

And this is where I confess to a secret admiration of my rogue uncle. He has perfected the art of fitting in. He’s fluid. He simply adopts the shape of whatever situation he finds himself in. That’s what happens when you give yourself to the world (and Christ himself set the precedent on this issue). However, despite his glaring flaws, Uncle Nick still carries the DNA of the story of the Christ-child. Somewhere in there, beneath the Santa outfit and the clutter and mush of sleigh-bells, pixies, yule-logs, tinsel, bad TV and unrelenting advertising, there is still the wonder and mystery of the God who became a baby to live among us.

That’s why Uncle Nick sings. He sings gratuitously, and he sings in everyone’s voice. There are times when he sings with excruciating ineptitude, and others when he’ll make angels weep. Most of his repertoire should be permanently consigned in the garbage-heap of elevator music. Very few of his songs should be allowed in Church, but some deserve to be there, perhaps all year round. When he sings these songs, which he still does, I am willing to overlook his manifold and manifest transgressions, and I thank God he is in my family and I love him for it.

It will be another 364 days before I meet Uncle Nick again. I'm both dreading it, and counting the days. Life would be so much simpler without him but, then, it would be infinitely poorer.

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King

Christ, by highest heaven adored
Christ, the everlasting Lord
Late in time, behold him come
Offspring of a virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus our emmanuel

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace
Hail the sun of righteousness
Light and life to all he brings
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild, he lays his glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Eve

I was unable to post anything last week because my evenings have been taken up in preparing the music for tonight's Christmas Eve service at our church (St Stephen's Coorparoo).

Here's a quote I found this week, that I really like...

No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.

'God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas.' By Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As posted on

Happy Christmas to you all.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Signs and symbols

We had the privilege of seeing U2 on Thursday evening. We had “standing” seats, which meant we were on our feet for hours. The pain was well worth it.

It was one of two concerts in Brisbane as part of U2’s 360 degrees tour of Australia and New Zealand. The stage rig was immense, and filled half a football pitch. Within the rig a large circular screen was hung, rather like a gigantic upside-down lamp shade, for the visuals, which included live footage of the band and a collage of other signs an symbols.

I loved it, but I took special interest in the religious imagery. U2’s iconic song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”, which was originally written against the backdrop of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, was now performed against a backdrop of gun-toting, burka-wearing Jihadis. Bono, U2’s charismatic lead singer, conveyed messages of support for Aung San Suu Kyi, whilst a couple of dozen young men and women placed illuminations bearing the candle and barbed wire logo of Amnesty International around the ring of the stage. Desmond Tutu’s beaming face appeared on screen with a brief message of hope. The message was clear – this was Rock’n’Roll with a conscience, with an overt spirituality, politically aware.

Something struck me during this audio-visual extravaganza; the saturation of visual imagery. I’m not objecting to it per se, but I couldn’t help striking the contrast.

The world of visual imagery is something that I’m kind of tuned into, but kind of not. For me, the imagery makes no sense unless it comes with some sort of narrative. I’m the kind of person who will go through an art gallery and read all the plaques next to each painting to see who painted it, what was their context, and what they saw that compelled them to try and capture it in their creations. In other words, the symbol means nothing to me without the back-story.

Incidentally, this is where many of the New-Agers and Gnostics lose the plot. They argue that the meaning is in the symbols themselves, rather than the back-story. For example, they will get into all kinds of silliness about Christmas and Easter, as if the festivals themselves held more meaning than the Christian back-story that they are now used to convey. No, the “true” meaning of the Christian celebration of Christmas and Easter is not found in the pagan festivals that might have preceded them; it’s actually found in the stories of the Nativity and the Passion that have been passed down to us in the Bible.

Which brings me to the contrast I found with the U2 concert. The U2 concert was expertly filled with visual imagery, but the Christian Gospel is concerned with an audible imagery (I’m struggling to think of an English word that conveys this idea). The Gospel is not so much something that is “seen”, it’s something that is “heard”. It’s message is conveyed to us through story (predominantly), or teaching, or saying, or singing. For believers in the ancient near-east, where only 5% of the population could read and you had to find a specialized scribe to get anything written down, the Word of God was a constant voice.

Without radio or TV, the people would fill their lives with talking and singing, which is something they still do in places where the radio and TV have not yet penetrated to the saturation that we experience in the industrialized west. So, Paul enjoins the first Christians;
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Ephesians 5:18-20). I don’t think Paul is telling the believers to sing where they normally wouldn’t. Rather, he is telling them to change their repertoire to a Christ-centered Gospel. If Paul were writing today, he’d be saying something like “Change your football-chants to hymns of praise to God”.

Another aspect that should not be overlooked is that Paul, and the other NT authors, do something more than urge the believers to take up this new audio-imagery; they provide the reasons for doing so in their analysis of the Christian Gospel. These songs come with a deep and satisfying theology. The audio-imagery comes with an extensive audio back-story.

One place where the contrast between audio and visual imagery is pronounced is the Book of Revelation. Consider the following;
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man…’Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.'
(Revelation 1:12-13 and 1:19-20).

If I were a film-maker I’d have tremendous difficulty filming this scene, and that’s perhaps why Revelations has never been presented on screen. The problem is in how you arrange the furniture. At first, the “son of man” appears to be walking among the lampstands; then he appears to be holding them in his hand. Clearly, John is not trying to convey a visual image here – it just cannot be imagined. What he is trying to do, I believe, is to convey a story (an audible image). The Lord of the Church walks among the lampstands, as the LORD God did in the garden in Genesis 3:8; the Church is His creation and His domain. He also holds the lampstands in his hand, meaning that the Church is His special possession and it is upheld and protected by Him.

I loved the imagery and spectacle of the U2 concert. However, for it to have meaning, I need more of the back-story. The visual imagery is fine for an evening of entertainment, but I need more of the audible imagery and symbolism for life in the “real world”, and this is why we cannot model our Church services on a U2 concert. There has to be an explanation, but, thankfully, that is exactly what the Church has been doing, more or less faithfully, for 2,000 years. Maintaining this audible tradition, in my view, will sustain the Church for the next 2,000 years, and beyond.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Holy Gospel

No sooner had I finished last week’s blog that I thought of another line to my eclectic credo. Here it is:
I believe in an open Gospel
I believe in a total Gospel
I believe in a holy Gospel

“Holy” is one of those words that you think you know, but when you sit down to write a definition of it, you suddenly realize you don’t. This is the point at which most people will run to their dictionaries. As I am concerned with a Holy Christian Gospel, I’m going to run to my Bible, in particular God’s command to his people to…
Be holy, because I am holy
This phrase occurs several times in the Bible. In Leviticus 11:44, it’s in the context of a command about what animals the Israelites may or may not eat, followed by a repetition in Leviticus 11:45, which puts it in the context of Israel’s redemptive history and provides the rationale to the command. In Leviticus 19:2 it’s a prologue to a variation on the Ten Commandments (see also Exodus 20:1-17). The New Testament sums it up in 1 Peter 1:15-16
...But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Peter, I believe, has the verses from Leviticus clearly in view, and he’s looking at them in the context of the history of redemption. The story line goes like this;

• Israel (which is representative of humanity in general) is captive in a foreign land (Egypt) that treats it very, very badly.

• Israel wants to escape, but can’t, so it appeals to God to save it

• God intervenes decisively and miraculously rescues them

• God brings his redeemed people into his land (kingdom) and sets out the ground-rules for their relationship with him so that they can continue to live there

• One of these ground-rules is that for them to be his people, he should be their God (Exodus 6:7, etc), and he doesn’t want them chasing after other Gods or saviours. He sums this up by commanding them to “be holy”

Peter draws these threads together by preaching to the New Testament Church
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
(1 Peter 2:9).

Being “holy” means being “God’s special possession”. A “holy” person belongs exclusively to God, having been redeemed by him and living a life that’s compatible with the laws of the New Kingdom.

The reason scriptures give for the command is interesting; we are to be “holy” because God is “holy”. If I can say so without being irreverent, just as we (the church) are God’s exclusive possession, so he has committed himself to us in an exclusive relationship – he has made himself our “special” possession.

The metaphor that should spring to mind here is of the marriage relationship between husband and wife, where both parties commit to a total, exclusive, intimate and enduring relationship. It’s an appropriate metaphor because it is used a number of times throughout scripture, including the story of the unfaithful wife (and faithful husband) in the opening chapters of Hosea (Hosea 1-3). See also the imagery of the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelations (Rev 21:2, 22:17 etc).

These metaphors describe the nature of the relationship between God and his people, but the impulse behind it is intriguing. The scriptures say it’s because God is holy. In other words, it is his nature to commit to his people in a total, exclusive, intimate and enduring relationship. God wants to be with us, which profoundly challenges our tendency to try to live independently from him.

Incidentally, the church has traditionally contended for the elevation of marriage between a man and a woman, though the campaign for same-sex marriage is currently challenging its stance. One of the reasons is that the church has held up marriage as a picture of God’s relationship with his church, I remember the phrase from the Anglican Marriage service which spoke of the marriage being like “…the mystical union between Christ and his church”. Defending marriage isn’t just about regulating people’s relationships or sexuality, it’s about holding up what it means to live out God’s holiness. To put it theologically, marriage is an incarnation of the word of God because it “lives out” his “holy” nature in the “real” world.

“Holy” is a God-thing. It’s got God involved in a special, intimate and enduring way. I believe in a “Holy” Gospel because it takes us to God; God is it’s ultimate destination.

There are other “gospels”. The “gospel” of Judaism takes us to the law and the extended Jewish family. The “gospel” of Islam takes us to its law and its prophet, and so does the “gospel” of Mormonism, which also takes us to the Mormon family. The “gospel” of Gnosticism takes us within ourselves. The social “gospel” takes us to secular legislation. The “gospel” of Wicca takes us to the “natural” world. The “gospel” of post-modernism takes us to the shopping mall.

My point is, God can be found in all these “gospels”, though some obscure him more than others, and many aspects of them are positively misleading. However, they are not “holy” gospels if they stop short of God. If their ultimate destination is the book, or the prophet, or the community, or the knowledge, or the legislation, or the product, then they are not “holy” gospels because they do not bring us to the One in whom all these things exist and have their being (see Colossians 1:16 and Colossians 1:23). This is what the Christian Gospel does, and that is why I believe it.

The flip-side is that a “holy” Gospel brings God into all these things. Last week I blogged about a “total” Gospel and what I hoped to convey was that the Christian Gospel touches all aspects of life. As Peter puts it, “be holy in all you do” (1 Peter 1:15). One cannot believe the Christian Gospel and not involve God (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) in every aspect of one’s life.