Post-truth and the truth

The word of the year has got to be ‘post-truth’, right? I see Oxford Dictionaries agrees, giving it the accolade last month.

Post-truth has been everywhere this year – I even got to experience it myself, with projects I’m closely involved with at work being reported on by various news organisations in less than accurate ways. As an aside, seeing that occur in a field I’m familiar with made me wonder how many other news articles we read are inaccurate and misleading.

While it has been everywhere, post-truth has been most often associated with worldly ‘kings’ (including, but definitely not limited to, Donald Trump). It’s amazing (and concerning) how swiftly post-truth has risen into common usage, fuelled by politicians who should be taken to task by the public for their lies, but somehow haven’t been.

All this talk about post-truth got me thinking about what the Bible says about the truth.

I’m reminded of the scene in John where Jesus is arrested and brought before Pontius Pilate. The dramatic account of this scene is in each of the four gospels, however only John includes this dialogue (John 18:37-38):

‘So!’ said Pilate. ‘You are a king, are you?’
‘You’re calling me a king,’ replied Jesus. ‘I was born for this; I’ve come into the world for this: to give evidence about the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’
‘Truth!’ said Pilate. ‘What’s that?’

Doesn’t that last line from Pilate sum up nicely what’s been happening in 2016?!

In his New Testament for Everyone commentary on John, Tom Wright shares the following insights on this passage:

Truth isn’t something that you get out of a test tube, or a mathematical formula. We don’t have truth in our pockets. Philosophers and judges don’t own it. It is a gift, a strange quality that, like Jesus’ kingdom in fact, comes from elsewhere but is meant to take up residence in this world. Jesus has come to give evidence about this truth. He is himself the truth… Truth is what Jesus is; and Jesus is dying for Barabbas, and for Israel, and for the world. And for you and me. 

Jesus is the truth, and the way in which he bears witness to this truth, the way in which he enacts his kingdom, is accomplished by him dying on the cross – the innocent dying in place of the guilty.

Once again, some thoughts from Tom Wright, this time from How God Became King:

And, in the broader Johannine perspective, we discover that the only word to do justice to this kingdom-and-cross combination is agape, ‘love’.

So, real truth is fuelled by agape, the highest form of love; selfless and unconditional; the love of God for man.

Real truth is what Jesus brings.

In the confusing world of post-truth ‘kings’, let’s instead focus on our king, the truth, Jesus.

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Changing how we communicate the good news

good-news1

At a recent work team building day (which I missed, unfortunately) we had a guest speaker, Dr Paul McDonald, who talked about his research into sustainability and neuroscience. Paul is a lecturer at Victoria University and is due to publish a journal paper on this topic next year.

Talking with others in my team about what Paul presented intrigued me, so I managed to get hold of his paper and have a read…

In layman’s language, he’s basically saying that the typical way that we communicate sustainability and the need to be sustainable doesn’t work. Often it depends on the use of scare tactics to push people to more sustainable measures – in practice, he says, this just triggers a flight response and people tune out.

Also of issue is that we humans are an inherently stubborn bunch and not quick to accept change (often people know something to be true, but they don’t truly believe it to be true; there’s no emotional connection to the issue, so there’s no change).

He emphasises the need for a better way to communicate sustainability. Reframing how sustainability is communicated so that it’s in a positive manner (not focused on doom and gloom, fear and academic facts).

Reading this got me thinking about how often this is also the case for the good news and how we communicate it.

I’ve been reading a lot of Tom Wright recently – his presentation and communication of the gospel (or the good news) strikes a resounding note with me. It’s far broader and wide ranging than the traditionally taught ‘gospel’. I find myself in the same camp as whoever said this in reference to Wright’s book Surprised by Hope:

“If this book is true,” he said, “then my whole life has to change.” (link)

I can’t help but think we need to communicate the good news differently (and more fully, for that matter).

In Simply Good News Wright talks about how the good news is often watered down and communicated as about ‘me and my relationship to God’ or about ‘going to heaven’. He writes (bold emphasis mine):

Let’s be clear. The relationship each of us has with God is hugely important. It is also vital to insist that God will indeed look after his people following their deaths, all the way to his final new creation. But these are not the centre of the good news. We have placed the stress at the wrong point, like people putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable. The words may be true, but the way we say them gets in the way of that truth coming out clearly. The good news is about the living God overcoming all the powers of the world to establish his rule of justice and peace, on earth as in heaven. Not in heaven, later on. And that victory is won not by superior power of the same kind but by a different sort of power altogether… The kingdom of God, Jesus declared, runs on love.

Also, just like sustainability, how often are ‘scare tactics’ used as a proxy for the good news: we’re all sinners deserving death, Jesus died in our place, if we believe in him we’ll go to heaven. What Wright has shown me is that there’s so much more to the good news than this over-simplification. We’re ignoring or missing the broader context of Jesus’ death (and, for that matter, his resurrection)[1].

In his paper Paul McDonald also notes the importance of storytelling – saying that “neurological evidence supports the power of rhetoric and storytelling”. This has to be true for how we communicate the good news also – we need to tell the good news as a compelling story. Paint the picture of why it is truly good news. When that resonates with people, they will be more willing to believe it and make real and lasting change. Of course, we’re not doing this under our own steam – we have the Holy Spirit to enable us to do this work.

I had the privilege of sharing the message with my church last weekend as part of the service where the kids put on their Christmas production. As an aside, it was my first time preparing and delivering a sermon – I really enjoyed it! I took this opportunity to begin to communicate the good news differently. Using the passage about Anna the Prophetess celebrating Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:36-38) as a frame, I had a go at telling the story of the good news in its fullest sense: starting with God creating the world, through to Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, God’s promises to Abraham, the prophecies of a coming rescuer and king, Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, and what it means to have Jesus as king.

This was all condensed into a very brief sermon and would benefit from the various aspects being teased out more in future sermons, however hopefully it gave people a taster of what the good news truly is.

It feels strange to have been a Christian for so long but to only now discover the good news in this way. I’m looking forward to exploring this more – further reading, study, prayer, blogging and application in my life (and hopefully those around me). After all, it is the good news, and it should be central to my faith and my life.

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[1] The Distorted and Competing Gospels chapter of Wright’s Simply Good News explains this way better than I could – recommended reading!

The sound of silence

I was watching the new Alter Bridge[1] single on YouTube the other day when I came across a live cover of The Sound of Silence, the classic Simon & Garfunkel song. The song features Alter Bridge’s lead singer Myles Kennedy in a guest duet spot with David Draiman and his band Disturbed during a recent tour. It is an incredibly beautiful cover. Two singers at the top of their game, especially as they build into the song.

I’m quite fond of Simon & Garfunkel as their songs are the music that I associate the most with my childhood – they were a favourite band of my parents. The Sound of Silence is obviously one of their best and well known songs.

The Myles Kennedy and David Draiman version of the song struck a chord with me – I couldn’t help thinking of the many injustices that are often overlooked in this world[2]. The sound of silence that follows a moment when we, as Christians, really should have stood up and been a voice for the voiceless.

Proverbs 31 tells us to:

8 Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
ensure justice for those being crushed.
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
and see that they get justice.

Tom Wright, in his book Simply Good News, writes about how the gospel compels us to act on injustices:

…the early Christians prayed and acted on the basis that the good news was true. There is no reason on earth, and certainly none in heaven, why we today should not do the same. And if anyone tries to say that the good news is not about all these things – about freeing slaves, helping the poor, about reconciling warring factions, ethnic groupings, and whole nations, about looking after the blessed world we live on and in – but instead is only about coming to faith in the present and going to heaven in the future, then we must reply that something has gone very, very wrong in their thinking.

And just in case we really need convincing, Jesus calls us to do this too: God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6).

So what does this look like? I think it starts with prayer: Thy will be done, thy kingdom come…

But it also needs to be followed with action.

I met a guy over the weekend who is a missionary in Thailand. The organisation he serves with (Empowerasia) provides a home for teenage girls from nearby villages – a Christ-filled environment that rescues them from what can be, from the sounds of things, terrible situations. Jamie is a living example of what the Bible is calling us to do, someone who hungers and thirsts for justice.

The questions I’m going to finish with are: How does this play out in our lives in New Zealand (or wherever we are living)? What does seeking justice look like for us, as individuals and as church communities? How might we be willing to disturb the sound of silence?


[1] As an irrelevant side note – Alter Bridge are one of my favourite bands and I’m looking forward to the new album in October!

[2]  A quick Google search suggests this isn’t the meaning of the song, but it’s what I get out of it!

Scarface Claw and Romans

Last year I was reading NT Wright’s translation of Romans and noticed how frequently Paul uses the phrase ‘Certainly not!’ – an emphatic answer to a number of theological questions he poses (see Romans 3:4, 6, 31; 6:2, 15; 7:7, 13; 9:14; 11:1, 11). Coincidently Son #1 was also loving Hairy Maclary books at the time and we’d just had Scarface Claw out of the library.

In Scarface Claw Lynley Dodd also uses the words ‘Certainly not!’ and it’s more colourful variant ‘Not a jittery jot!’ to emphatically show that Scarface Claw is not afraid of anything (spoiler alert: except, as it turns out in the end, himself).

I squirrelled the observation away in my catalogue of blog ideas and didn’t give it much more thought until we started a series on Romans a few months ago at our church. I thought the kernel of a blog idea could be turned into an interesting kids’ talk, so volunteered to do a talk on a Sunday when the sermon would be covering one of the chapters which included the phrase (Romans 6).

I worked through the chapter (and a bit of the preceding one) to pull out what I saw as the key points, then attempted to create the Scarface Claw version of Romans 6, complete with a similar rhyme scheme. Here’s where I ended up (with a brief commentary under each slide to show which part of the chapter it relates to), hopefully it’s theologically accurate! It seemed to be well received by the kids and rest of the church.

Background to the chapter, introduces the Mosaic law (Romans 5:20)
Slide 1: Background to the chapter, introduces the Mosaic law (Romans 5:20)
Slide 2: Jesus – the new covenant Then God sent his son, Jesus who put sin in its place (Romans 6:6) Jesus saved us from sin (6:7) and we live in his grace. (6:2) So rather than sin having such a strong pull we now live a life where God’s grace is in rule (5:21)
Slide 2: Jesus – the new covenant
Then God sent his son, Jesus who put sin in its place (Romans 6:6)
Jesus saved us from sin (6:7) and we live in his grace. (6:2)
So rather than sin having such a strong pull we now live a life where God’s grace is in rule (5:21)
Slide 3: Romans 6:1
Slide 3: Romans 6:1

 

Slide 4: Romans 6:2
Slide 4: Romans 6:2
Slide 5: Romans 6:15
Slide 5: Romans 6:15
Slide 6: Romans 6:15
Slide 6: Romans 6:15
Slide 7: Romans 6:12
Slide 7: Romans 6:12
Slide 8: Romans 6:13
Slide 8: Romans 6:13

Image source (the pictures in the slides are taken from Scarface Claw – thanks Lynley Dodd!)

Learning to pray

Lords_Prayer

Our son turned two today – he was very excited, especially about the birthday cake and candles, which he has been anticipating since we went to a birthday party a few months ago.

He’s been making amazing strides in his language over the past month, and we’ve begun to teach him how to pray, which has been lovely.

Ever since the day he was born we’ve been praying with him. The first blessing he got was from his Nan in the delivery suite, when he was only a few minutes old. Later that night, I vividly remember holding him as Kim slept in the hospital bed, bringing his face close to mine and praying that he would grow into a strong man of God.

Prayer is a part of daily life for our family, something he has been, and always will be, exposed to. We pray with him at least a few times during the day; grace at dining table (he’s always reaching out to hold our hands once he’s in his high chair (probably because it means dinners almost ready!) and once he’s in bed.

More recently he’s been asking for prayer, especially at bedtime and sometimes more than once. He’s been sick quite a bit (for him) over the last month, so when we ask him what he wants us to pray for he says ‘peace’ in his cute little voice. I find that our prayer with him definitely gives him comfort – he almost always will be peaceful and fall asleep after we pray.

Kim has been teaching him he doesn’t have to have wait for us to pray, that he can talk to God all by himself; he just needs to say ‘peace Jesus’. I think he’s starting to get the hang of it.

This has got me thinking about how we learn to pray. I’ve always felt some sort of deficiency in this space, like I’m not very good at it. But over recent years I’ve become more intentional, learning new ways to pray and spiritual disciplines, attending a course that our church in Dunedin offered a few years ago, and studying the Bible more.

It heartens me to know that even the disciples seemed to struggle with prayer, asking Jesus to teach them how to pray in Luke 11. What followed was the Lord’s Prayer, which I’ve often overlooked in the past. During our church’s week long prayer vigil this year, I spent some time reading NT Wright’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. It gave me a much deeper understanding of what this particular prayer is really about, and helped me think more about how I pray in practice. NT Wright likens the Lord’s Prayer to a framework, scaffolding rather than the whole building. It made me realise in particular that I have a tendency to spend a lot of time praying about my needs or the needs of my nearest and dearests, but not nearly enough time praying for God’s kingdom, asking forgiveness, and just genuinely honouring and praising God. A new perspective I’d overlooked, but am trying to focus more on now.

I’m never going to be a perfect pray-er – I, like my son, will always be learning (who isn’t?!), but who better to learn from than Jesus!

9So this is how you should pray:
Our father in heaven,
may your name be honoured
10may your kingdom come
may your will be done
as in heaven, so on earth.
11Give us today the bread we need now;
12and forgive us the things we owe,
as we too have forgiven what was owed to us.
13Don’t bring us into the great trial,
but rescue us from evil.

Matthew 6:9-13 (as translated by NT Wright)

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