Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reading Titus 3 with reality TV

[Here is a shortened version of a sermon/talk I did at my church this morning. Let me know what you think. Or if you were there let me know what you thought. Positive and negative comments are all appreciated, otherwise how can I get better? Just click on the word 'comments' below, thanks :)]

The Big Stuff, Downsize Me, Extreme Home Makeover, What Not To Wear, and Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares are a selection of TV shows shown in NZ that all follow a similar story line. The plot goes like this: once there was a messy house/overweight person/needy family/unfashionable woman/failing restaurant; but then Sian and Gez/Damian and Lee-Anne/ Ty and team/ Trinny and Suzzana/ Gordon Ramsey appear and bring about a miraculous transformation; so that now the transformed house/body/family/fashion victim/restaurant live a transformed life totally and wonderfully different to what went before.

This desire for and interest in transformation is not a new thing. It's not only the reponse of disgruntled post-moderns who are never satisfied. On Roman Crete (the stated destination of the letter to Titus) they were into transformation too.

Archeology shows that the Egyptian Goddess Isis was worshipped in Roman Crete at the time when the letter to Titus would have been written. Her followers had water 'poured out' onto them to bring them into a mystical rebirth. (There are a number of linguistic clues that suggest Paul may have had this ceremony in mind when he wrote Titus 3. I will deal with those and the implications of that in another post.)

So for those of us who have been exposed either to reality TV or the cult of Isis we can spot a similar plot taking place in Titus 3.

Titus 3:3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.

Here is the mess we are in. Here is the dysfunction. Now the common complaint about this verse is that while it may describe some people it certainly doesn't describe everyone. Dont we all know people, who despite their atheism are moral and content and peace loving, often more so that some Christians we know? I know I do. But here is the thing. What is the difference between your average upstanding Kiwi and a genocidal African? What is the difference between the secretary of the Lions club and a member of the Taliban? Is it one of kind or is it one of circumstance? We as a human race need to admit that we are better doing evil than good. Even if certain individuals are examples of good moral lives they do not outweigh the genocide, injustice, torture, war, child abuse, rape, oppression, degradation and misery humanity is continually practising. Watch the news, Titus 3:3 is what we are.

Titus 3:4-7 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure.
Being transformed by someone else is humbling. You can see it in the resistance people put up to their television saviours, they argue with Gordon Ramsey, they refuse to follow Damien's diet, and they wont let Sian throw out that sofa even though it doesn't fit 'the vision.' Why do you think Extreme Home Makeover ships people off to disney land before they destroy the house? But when you are in a real mess, you need intervention. When you are stuck in the bog you can't pull yourself out by your bootstraps, you need to be connected to something or someone who isn't stuck in the same bog. And so at our moment of need, not because of anything we had done, Jesus appears and makes possible our transformation by baptism and the Holy Spirit. We are justified (made right) by grace (God's free giving), have the empowering Spirit of God richly poured out on us, and are made heirs of eternal life (part of God's family with an everlasting hope). This is all done for us, not by us.

But no reality TV show is complete without a final visit months later to see how people are doing after the transformation. To witness their new life. Have they stuck to the diet, have they kept their house tidy, have they followed Gordon's menu advice? The point of the transformation was not just for a different experience for a week or so but to initiate an entirely new way of living.

Titus 3:8 I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.

Titus 3:1-2 Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.

For the Christians on ancient Crete this meant a lifestyle of obedience, peace and politeness. Doesn't sound very radical does it? But the Cretans were a warlike people with a reputation for deceit. Thier national passtimes were piracy and inter-village warfare. These Cretan Christians were being expected to live in way way that was radically counter to the culture in which they lived. We are not saved/rescued from the human tradgedy by doing 'good works.' We are saved so that we can then live a life filled with 'good works.' These good works necessarily run counter to the culture we live in because our nation's culture is dysfunctional, though perhaps not in entirety. As those who have been transformed we need to take advantage of our transformation to live lives that are different. In order to 'be careful to devote' ourselves to good works we must observe our culture and notice those parts of it which which are not compatible with our new life. Here are some suggestions, I'd love to hear yours...

  • Instead of consumerism, let's do stewardship
  • Instead of avoiding suffering, let's spend time with those who suffer
  • Instead of watching the news and doing nothing, let's act on the information we have
  • Instead of thoughtless reactions and sound-bites, let's think more about the things we do and say
  • Instead of obsessing over our leisure, let's obsess over worshipping God and serving others
  • Instead of seeking punishment and retribution, let's seek forgiveness and restoration
  • Instead of individualism, let's exist in community

And remember, this isn't about you trying harder. This is about living in the reality of the transformation that Jesus has accomplished. The empowering Spirit of God has been given richly to us who have been transformed. So let's stop mucking about and live in the new life.


  1. Can you think of other places in our culture where transformation is a significant theme?
  2. Do you think Titus 3:3 offers a good description of the human race?
  3. How would you describe the transformation that Jesus brings (Titus 3:4-7) in language that today's 'person on the street' might relate to?
  4. If you have been transformed by Jesus, what do you think is the most important 'so that' for you? Could you choose something from my list to put into place this week?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Blog manifesto

The blog's manifesto has now been completed! The next task will be to start doing what we have been talking about. If you are new to the blog, you might find it helpful to read these to see what we are about.

1: Reading the Bible in a strange land

2: Doing theology like it matters

3: Living life in the diaspora

Living life in the diaspora

A diaspora is a scattered people. The word has been commonly used of the Jewish people who for centuries have been a minority group in nations around the world. In most European countries, the USA, Australia and even New Zealand, Jews live and work, often participating as full citizens of their host nations. The explosion over the last century of global migration has meant that Jews are no longer unique in being a diaspora. Now Europeans, Africans, Asians, Indians, and Pacific Islanders are found throughout world in nations in which they are resident aliens. However much a first generation migrant to a new country tries to assimilate and adapt, she will always be aware of difference. There will be cultural and social norms in their new country that just dont come naturally; stories, beliefs and attitudes that are integral to the host nation but that are foreign to her, and vice versa.

But with each generation those distinctives must be held tightly or the host culture will eventually absorb its immigrants. Many migrant communities hold tightly to their identity and often get criticised for failing to adjust to their new country. In cities throughout the world you will find communities of ethnic minorities that are attempting to maintain their ethnic identity without any change at all. Who can blame them? If they dont they will be completely absorbed in a couple of generations and they will have lost their identity. The middle ground between absorbtion and stuborn refusal to change is a hard place to live. Identity is easy to maintain when you refuse to accommodate yourself to your new country. As soon as you start to make accommodations for your host's culture you are constantly having to draw lines around which parts of your ethnic identity need to be maintained and which can be adjusted to context.

Living in this middle ground, as a distinctive minority who yet engage their host culture, is the task of the church. When we fail to draw those lines well we end up with the crusades, or the inquisition, or George Bush jnr. These failures are the result of absorbtion, a failure to maintain our distinctive identity. But where accommodation is not made at all the church becomes an exclusive ghetto unable to fulfill her mission to bring God's peace, reconciliation, and love to the world.

The task of the church is to maintain our identity and connect with the country in which we are resident aliens. The task of theology is to draw lines in some places and enable accommodation in others. This is done by reading the Bible carefully and respectfully, aware that it, and we, are in a strange land.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Doing theology like it matters

In the modern western world Christianity is declining fast. Although some churches are growing they are not growing fast enough to offset all the shrinking that is going on. What is the point of doing theology? How can theology matter when most our world believes belief is a private and personal matter, 'up to the individual,' isn't theology just a matter of trying to enforce your opinions on others?

Someone, who wasn't a Christian, once asked me what I was studying. When I told him 'theology,' he was impressed. I was surprised, I expected it to be a conversation stopper. But he was interested, he told me 'everything comes back to theology in the end, who we are, what we do, good and bad, the meaning of life, I would love to study theology... but I have to make a living.' I thought, 'wow, and this guy isn't even a believer and yet he understands why theology matters better than most Christians I know.'

You see, whever we make statement about something that we consider to be true, or good, or beautiful, we are really making a theological statement. We are refering to something which is outside of the physical material world, some quality that is transcendent (beyond).

Whenever we choose to accept a fact (scientific or otherwise) as reality we are making an assumption about reality and our own ability to accurately perceive it. This is a theological assumption because only by their being some objective truth beyond the material universe (i.e God) and us being somehow related to this truth (e.g. 'made in God's image,' see Genesis 1:27) can we expect our perception of the material world to actually connect us to reality in any meaningful way. The same goes for statements of good and evil, whenever we (rightly) state that child abuse, or genocide, or rape, are evil and wrong we are comparing them to an objective good which cannot be measured by the natural sciences, but which none of us doubt exists, because we all intuitively know somethings are just plain wrong (evil) and some are just plain right (good). Likewise, when we find beauty in a face, or sunset, or work of art, or event, we are recognising in that coincidence of physical properties and happenstance that there is a resonance in this beautiful thing with something other, with something that is capable of bringing purpose, meaning, wholeness, and peace to the world which otherwise appears to be random, meaningless, incomplete, and disrupted.

So my point is this: we all do theology all the time. The problem is we often dont know we are doing it and we end up doing it badly. Theology isn't about me imposing my opinions on you, but about us all learning how to do theology better; to do theology as best we can, because it really matters.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Reading the Bible in a strange land

I thought I would start by explicating (or unfolding) the subtitle of this blog a phrase at a time. This will create the 'mission statement' for the blog, so that anyone interested in what might follow will know roughly what to expect.

I live in New Zealand. It is a strange land to read the Bible in for two reasons.

First it is strange for me because I was born and raised in Britain, and New Zealand is a long way away. I still feel new here, although I have now adjusted to the different flavoured Marmite.

But more importantly it is strange for the Bible. The Bible was written in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of thousands of years ago and in lands thousands of miles away. New Zealand has two official languages Te Reo Māori and English. New Zealand is also a 'developed' democratic nation with the technology, infrastructure, welfare state, and police services that go along with that. When the Bible talks about thirst, poverty, injustice, politics, or even worship, we have difficulty understanding what it could mean because our experiences are so different from those who wrote it. The Bible didn't make it to New Zealand until the 19th century, by which time it was already old, old, old.

When we read the Bible as if someone like us had written it, we are being careless and disrespectful. The Bible is an ancient and strange text, we need to treat it with respect, as an honoured guest. The other day I invited a Malaysian-Chinese family to our home for dinner. I had only recently met them. I knew I did not fully understand their culture, I had to work hard to see if they were comfortable or merely being polite. I had to constantly ask questions out loud and to myself. As host my concern was not that they would fit into my idea of a pleasant meal and conversation, but that I would fit into theirs.

The Bible is not 'my Bible' and it's not 'your Bible' either. If it really is God's word, then it is God's Bible and God is not much like you or me at all (Isaiah 55:8-9). When I read the Bible I must read it as a stranger, eager and careful to please my guest, not to conform the Bible to my idea of what it should be, but to be transformed by it (Romans 12:2).