Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: C.S. Lewis (Page 2 of 2)

Evil Must Disguise Itself as Good

Some of the latest Richard Rohr daily reflections have been focusing on evil and goodness in the world. they are taken from his Spiral of Violence CD. This one really spoke to me about the subtleties of evil and some of the strategies of the Enemy. Reminds me somewhat of C.S. Lewis’ brilliant Screwtape Letters. I have highlighted the bits that are most profound to me. Check it out below:

When the first level of the spiral of violence, “the world” (group selfishness), is not exposed for what it is, and the second level, “the flesh,” generates out of control (murder, stealing, rape, lying, adultery, greed), then a third level of fully justified evil always emerges. These are systems like oppressive governments, penal systems, legal systems, military systems, economic systems, and all the other systems we create to control disorder and violence. They ordinarily have a complete life of their own. These can, of course, be good too; but when you worship them, when you let them have total power, when you refuse to critique these systems, they can wreak the greatest havoc in history—and they have. Any system that says “bow down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9) is always diabolical, whether it be church, state, or “the market.”

The devil’s secret is camouflage. The devil’s job is to look very moral! It has to look like we are defending some great purpose or cause, like “making the world safe for democracy” or “keeping the bad people off the streets.” Then you can do many evils without any guilt, without any shame or self-doubt, but actually with a sense of high-minded virtue. Evil must disguise itself as good (Thomas Aquinas), and until Christians start understanding that, their capacity for “discernment of spirits” (1 Corinthians 12:10) remains very minimal. They are easily duped and always misled.

Some of the themes that come out of this for me are the ends justifying the means, a sense of moral superiority (even ‘God on our side’), the politics of division, and the sense that we are inherently right and ‘they’ are inherently wrong. How I have to watch this in my own life.

Biblical politics

Sojourners today has a great article from Jim Wallis on biblical politics. The comment that stood out to me was,

“If you work with and for the poor, you inevitably run into injustice. In other words, poverty isn’t caused by accident. There are unjust systems and structures that create and perpetuate poverty and human suffering. And service alone is never enough; working to change both the attitudes and institutional arrangements that cause poverty is required.”

I remember a story a former colleague told once about when his small group watched the movie Bruce Almighty in which the main character gets to play God for a day. The small group discussed what they would do if they had the opportunity to be God for a day, and the main response was that they would redistribute all the wealth in the world so that everyone had the same. But then came the comment that the next day things would be unequal again because of systems that are in place that perpetuate inequality. Thus the need for justice and changing structures, and not just for ‘giving’.

The area which Jim Wallis’ article doesn’t touch on though is that even changing structures does not go far enough, because structures that are run by unredeemed people will corrupt again sooner or later. The sins of the past will be passed on to the current generation and beyond unless a radical change of heart occurs. When someone affirmed a pastor of mine once by saying they would vote for him to be Prime Minister, he replied that the job is too small. Politics cannot bring in the kingdom of God. Only the Holy Spirit working through the faithful people of God can do that.

That is not to say of course that politics is useless. Far from it. Christians have a responsibility to be politically engaged in the way that Jim Wallis describes in the article. The world needs people who stand in the prophetic tradition of the Amos’s, Isaiahs and Jeremiahs. But it also needs those same people to be filled with the Holy Spirit to proclaim the kingdom come, that there is a God of love and justice who is changing things, who is spreading rumours of hope (as those same prophets did proclaim). As C.S. Lewis puts it in the Narnia stories, Aslan is on the move. The yeast is working through the dough; the Spirit is moving in ways mysterious and some not so mysterious. Thank God for his grace that we are being changed and have been invited to be a part of it.

Truth in a postmodern culture

Showing Christ to be relevant in a postmodern, largely secular society has its share of conundrums. I will say upfront that I am not an expert on postmodernism; the following are simply my observations of being a follower of Jesus in 21st century Melbourne, as well as some insights picked up from other followers on the way.

I have a deep conviction, and in fact I can say – and I understand that this will seem like an incredibly arrogant assertion to make in a postmodern culture – that I know that Jesus is the answer to the question of life, of what it’s all about and how we deal with it. He is the only one who delivers on the life that humanity is after. This conviction has been borne out of years of surrendering my life to this Christ, asking for His will and not my own to be done in my life each day. As C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” You can’t prove that by the logic of reason, and that is one of the benefits of bringing across Jesus today. Many people are not seeking ‘proofs’ these days. As John Smith has said, you could convince someone that Jesus really did rise from the dead, but they could at the same time turn around and say, ‘so what?!’.

People want to know that Christianity works. But whilst it is important to bring that across, it is equally important to remember that Christianity isn’t true because it works; it works because it’s true. Again, this will come across to many people as another seemingly arrogant assertion to make. But I learnt from Rikk Watts some time ago, and I agree with him, that truth is something different to what I had always thought. In these postmodern times where what’s true for you doesn’t have to be true for me, I believe we have forgotten what the definition of truth is. I believe we have been looking at it the wrong way. We are still caught in the trap of our post-Enlightenment thinking that sees truth as a concept. But the Scriptures never describe truth in such a way. Have a read through John’s gospel and you will see it. Truth is personal. The truth has come to us in a Person, the person of none other than God incarnate. A concept is impersonal, and truth is not that.

When talking about truth we have been asking the wrong question. Ever since Pilate asked Jesus that great existential question, ‘what is truth?’ (John 18:38), we have thought of truth as a concept. But John tells us that truth is a person. Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). And John in his gospel says that the law was given through Moses, and grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). This Truth is the great ‘I Am’, a designation that the Jewish hearers of Jesus would have instantly recognised as nothing other than the outrageous statement of someone who is claiming to be the living God. No wonder they tried to kill him. How dare he make such claims in front of those who claimed to have a monopoly on truth!

I wonder how society would react if He made those claims today. I don’t think it would be much different to 2,000 years ago. We live in interesting times. While we live in a time when modernity seems a relic of the past, there are still strong glimpses of it. People know integrity when they see it. You will not meet many people have major problems with the church who will also write Jesus off. As Dan Kimball has noted in his book of the same title, ‘they like Jesus but not the church. And, as N.T. Wright says, “we generally know deep down what is good. When we see someone living out a Christian life, we don’t ask ourselves if it’s good or not; we just wish there were more people like that around.”

Throughout the ages, from modern days to these postmodern days, actions still speak loudest. If we want to find out whether or not Christian faith is relevant in the 21st century, we need only look at the actions of those Christians who are walking their talk. The fact is that Christians have had a profound impact on society. I have written elsewhere of the massive contributions that people of faith have made over the centuries. It is that more than anything that has convinced people of the reality of God in the world.

If we want to see what Scriptures speak best to a postmodern culture, I think the relevance of Christ today is seen most profoundly in those magnificent words of Colossians 1:15-20. This is what brings it all together for me. Check it out:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

I think this is one of the most radical passages we can think of for the 21st century. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And, contrary to popular church opinion, God did not make everything for our glory. Colossians tells us that it was all made for Him. The creation and all that is in it was not made for us. We don’t own it. We are stewards, and stewards take care of what they have. If the church would only grasp this and get over its mind-numbing superficiality and obsession with growth and success, we would be more of a fragrance of life than a fragrance of sameness and conformity. And we would actually have something powerful to say to a society that is drowning.

We need to be more aware that society has largely given up on modernity and its failed promises of the good life and inevitable progress. But, as alluded to above, people still want to believe in something bigger. Witness the extraordinary outpouring of hope in Barack Obama in 2008. It’s interesting that such an outpouring of emotion and hope occurred in a country with Christian roots, nominal though its Christianity generally is now. It has largely been overtaken by a consumerism that has taken it to the eve of destruction, as Barry McGuire put it so many years ago.

In such a consumerist society, with so much choice, we suffer from choice anxiety. When our only commitment to life is the commitment to – in that postmodern catchphrase – ‘keep our options open’, we become confused people. We become terrified of missing out because we’re addicted to experience. As a result of this we become wired, unable to settle with being committed to something for the long term. That’s why I think Facebook has taken off like it has. It is a service that both reflects and shapes our times. On the other hand, as I have said previously, it is why marriage is so good for the soul: it’s about a commitment for life to one person.

When we ‘keep our options open’, we rarely take up any of those options and we miss out on much of the joy of being alive, of standing for something, of living with purpose. The line from a John Mellencamp song from the 1980s rings true today more than ever: “if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.”

Having said all this, some thinkers, notably Mark Sayers, believe we are moving away from postmodernity back into something more akin to modernity. Sayers adds though that while there has been a decline in the concept of postmodernity in the wake of 9/11 and the rise of the ‘New Atheism’ with its modernist catchcry of ‘celebrating reason’, the reality of postmodernity is being lived out by average people in the suburbs. Consider this comment by Sayers:

“Postmodernity is seen most clearly in the ethically incoherent lives lived by Western people. Its beat of relativism is heard most clearly in the contradictory hedonistic/altruistic, nihilistic/optimistic, spiritualistic/materialistic lifestyles of average people everywhere in the West.”

Sayers goes on to say that therein lies the challenge of mission in the 21st century. We do well to remember that postmodernism too has made the same mistake as the church. It too still has traits of modernism about it in that it still sees truth as a concept. It just sees truth as relative instead of absolute.

Whilst in our conversations, the use of modernist concepts like reason (an essentially Christian idea by the way) and logic can have its place, there is a challenge to be given to those who live a contradictory lifestyle. But the challenge first has to be faced by people like me who often decry the subversive effects of the very materialism we secretly still hang on to at times; in my case the very technology I secretly want more of. We too need to walk our talk. That will speak louder than anything.

I wonder if we have let ourselves be walked over by the claims of postmodernism. Can we say that truth still has a claim on the hearts and minds of people today? Can we talk about truth in a world where there is no meta-narrative, no greater over-arching story anymore? We can, but only if we remember the nature of truth, that truth is a Person, that it is about relationship, something that goes to the very core of our identity as human beings. Jesus never spoke in abstracts; he told stories, and people respond to stories because there is usually something in them they can relate to. The Christian message is a story. It is the story of creation, fall, Jesus, redemption, and new creation. Stories touch something deep in us. That is why the Christian Gospel will always touch the deepest part of our soul, that part which wants a place to call home, which wants to know absolutely that all will be ok, that there is love in the universe, and that good will triumph in the end.

My conviction is that Jesus makes internal and external sense. Internal in the sense of giving meaning and real hope as well as joy and the ability to become more loving and more whole. And externally in the sense of being the initiator of the new creation, a world where justice rules, where everyone knows both their own and everyone else’s dignity, a world where all is renewed and in its rightful place, where people are truly humble – seeing themselves rightly in relation to God, a world where grace rules. And it is all because of Him, it is all for Him. He satisfies the hungry soul with goodness (Psalm 107:9) and fills our cups to overflowing (Psalm 23:5). A postmodern culture longs for such Truth.

Movie Review – Voyage of the Dawn Treader

This third movie (but not the third story) in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia follows on from the brilliant fantasy and wonder that we saw in the previous two movies. This time only Lucy and Edmund of our four heroes are transported to the magical land of Narnia (older sister Susan plays a bit – but significant – part as well). And they are accompanied, not a little unwittingly, by their cousin Eustace, brilliantly portrayed by Will Poulter as what can only be described as a pretentious little git who is too clever to believe in ridiculous fairy tales of magical lands, witches, and half-human/half-animal creatures.

It is the story of Eustace that is perhaps the most revealing of the effect that time in Narnia, and in particular, time spent in the company of Aslan, can have on its inhabitants. For, as well as being pretentious and pompous beyond measure, the difficult cousin of Lucy and Edmund is a selfish little boy as well. Inevitably his selfishness gets the better of him and he succumbs to the lure of riches that are seemingly there for the taking. The effect of his ugly transformation after giving in to the temptation reminds me of the old saying that we become that which we worship. The ugliness of Eustace’s act turns him into the ugliest of dragons, and it is only then that he realises what a right mess he has gotten himself into.

It is interesting that our response to being found out in the way that Eustace is, is generally twofold. We can either repent and turn our lives around with the help of what 12-Steppers call a Higher Power, or we can doggedly continue on in our life of destruction, becoming less and less human on the way. Fortunately for him and his companions in Narnia, Eustace chooses the former and realises that he doesn’t want to be this way anymore. As often happens in the process of conversion though, Eustace begins to change for the better before he becomes a boy again. But it is a painful process for him, as he becomes despondent at his inability to communicate properly to the others, and at his utter powerlessness to change back to a boy on his own. It is only with the help of Aslan that he is ultimately transformed back into what he was, and better.

The power of temptation and sin to corrupt is a theme that runs strongly throughout this movie, and it is seen elsewhere when even people as good as Edmund and Caspian start to fight each other over some riches that are theirs for the taking. The viewer is quickly attuned to the transformation that overtakes the two as their lust for greed turns them from heroic leaders into selfish competitors. It only takes the sense of Lucy, the younger sister whose trust in Aslan is as strong as ever, to turn Edmund and Caspian back from their errant ways. But even Lucy feels the lure of being other than what she is, regularly fantasizing about being as beautiful as her older sister Susan.

As with the previous Narnia stories, Aslan comes across in this movie as strong, fierce, but also completely trustworthy and good. When our intrepid travelers find themselves in the trouble that they do, it is Aslan and who he is that brings them back to their right minds. And when, in another poignant scene, they come upon a table set for a feast in their journey through Narnia, they are encouragingly told that all are welcome at Aslan’s table. As well as being ultimately good, Aslan evokes a healthy fear and trust but is never one who can be mocked. Sort of reminds you of someone doesn’t it?

With Aslan in control, Narnia is a place where good reigns and those who trust in him are friendly and at peace. It is a place where courage is a virtue, and fearlessness and strength are held in the highest esteem. These attributes come from ultimate trust in Aslan and are demonstrated by the seemingly most vulnerable of children. When the storms are raging on the uncharted waters and the ship, Dawn Treader, is being tossed about like a cork, it is Lucy who, in the midst of it all, is able to soundly go to sleep with the smile of one who knows – despite the chaos all around – that all is going to be ok.

This is a movie that highlights the best and worst of human attitudes and endeavours. And it highlights once again our utter inability to change ourselves on our own, and the hope that there is someone who is ultimately good and trustworthy who will transform us into who we are meant to be. Highly recommended.

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