I was considering putting an article together commenting on the London riots until I came upon the outstanding piece by the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Jonathan Sacks. It should be read by every Western politician, community leader, educator, pastor, and parent, and anyone who professes to believe in the importance of preserving a civil society. I encourage you to read “Reversing the decay of London undone” and pass it on.
by Peter Corney
The recent bomb attack and massacre in Norway and the violent death of 91 people is a terrible tragedy. The targets also strike at the heart of Norway’s political life and democracy. The events raise many questions for us: Is the perpetrator a contemporary Christian terrorist or something else? Given what appears to have motivated this act can we survive the pressures being created by the massive people movements around the world, the clash of cultures and the xenophobia they produce? The Netherlands have had a leading politician murdered in a racial/ religious motivated act of violence. There are deep tensions in France and Italy that are growing stronger as they now face a new wave of people fleeing the violence in North Africa. Denmark has reintroduced border controls in spite of the E .U’s policy on free movement. It will probably not be long before its followed by others. The financial crisis in Europe will increase the pressure as unemployment grows. It also raises the disturbing link between right wing politics and religion. All public figures, religious or political, left or right need to take great care with their rhetoric in these dangerous days. Christians in particular need to remind themselves that “They will know we are christians by our love.”
But in addition to these socio political questions another ancient question raises its head once more. It’s a question we prefer to keep at bay till another atrocity hits our screens. It’s the reptile we keep locked away in the cellar of our minds – the reality of evil.
Our writers have turned to metaphor to name it and the paradox of its presence alongside human goodness and beauty. It’s been called “the worm in the rose” and “the maggot in the breast”. Alexander Solzhenitsyn made the point most elegantly when he wrote that “the line dividing good and evil goes right through the heart of every human being.” In its larger mystical sense St. Paul described it as “the mystery of iniquity” and Conrad as “the heart of darkness.”
But however we name it we must face it if we are to defeat it, both in ourselves, our societies and our nations. Optimistic Humanism wants to deny it. Scientific Naturalism wants to explain it away as the blind indifferent and brutish survival process of evolution. Secular sociology and psychology wants to explain it sociologically or chemically.
But we all know this will not do. These explanations are inadequate and reductionist. When confronted with the beast we instinctively feel its malevolent spiritual reality. It may be that the reason that our first response is either to deny or rationalise it is because we do not want to face its presence in ourselves and the challenge it presents. But face the challenge we must or the darkness will overpower us. When Bonheoffer faced the darkness in the form of the German Nazi party in the 1940’s he wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Of the many horrors of the 20th and 21st C that one could recount I chose two reflections by people who were actually present when the beast got off the chain. I chose them because they reveal in a very personal way that when intelligent and sophisticated people are confronted with rampant evil they can only describe it in terms that reveal their intuitive sense of its malevolent spiritual reality.
In 1993/4 General Romeo Dallaire a Canadian army officer was appointed the Commander of the UN peace keeping force in Rwanda. Due to an inadequate force size and the criminal unwillingness of the UN to make decisions, in spite of his repeated appeals, he was unable to prevent the deaths of 800,000 people in the intertribal mayhem and murder that erupted over a period of 100 days. In his heart rending book “Shake hands with the Devil” he writes: “This book is the account of humans who were entrusted with the role of helping others taste the fruits of peace. Instead we watched as the devil took control of paradise on earth and fed on the blood of the people we were supposed to protect.” Later haunted by the experience he was driven close to suicide.
The second reflection comes from the experience of a young German lawyer, Sebastian Heffner who fled to England in1938 to escape the Nazi regime. There he wrote a description of Germany’s seduction and corruption by Hitler entitled “Defying Hitler.” In an icy passage he describes the evil he sensed in Hitler well before it took expression in ‘the final solution’. “For a moment I physically sensed the man’s odour of blood and filth, the nauseating approach of a man eating animal – it’s foul, sharp claws in my face.”
So, is the Norwegian bomber a mad man or is he madness in the service of evil? Is he a religious and political fanatic or fanaticism in the service of evil? When and where was the point he stepped beyond reason, morality and his own faith, surrendered to the darkness and was overpowered?
When we ponder the reality of evil other questions leap forward. Can it ever finally be overcome, not just personally, but universally? Who calls evil to the final accounting? Will there be an ultimate universal Hague, a final court of justice for the unnamed victims of history. Will there be a final judgment for the monsters of ancient as well as modern genocides? Is there another kingdom, a kingdom of light that can and will overcome the kingdom of darkness?
The responses posed range from Nihilistic despair that says that life is absurd and without meaning and so there is no reason why anything cannot happen in a meaningless random world, to the Optimistic Humanists who, in spite of all the evidence, believe more education and social engineering will solve the problem. They seem unaware of the naiveté of their position in the light of the fact that it was the most sophisticated, highly educated and aesthetically aware nation in Europe that designed the Holocaust.
Then there is the Existentialist response of heroic decision in the light of no ultimate meaning, purpose or values. Like the hero in Camus’ novel “The Plague”, Dr Rieux, who works courageously on fighting the plague knowing all the time he cannot finally win but who finds his meaning in his actions. Of course this is ultimately no different from the disillusioned young men in David Fincher’s film “Fight Club” who find meaning in the visceral violence of bare knuckle fighting, or Hemmingway’s meaning in adventurous action, “Nobody ever lived their life all the way up except Bullfighters.”
The above are modernist responses, what would a Post Modernist say? With PM’s rejection of all grand narratives that seek to explain life they are driven inward to individual subjectivity – what feels good or right to the individual. This leaves them to their own thin resources. Ironically within their rudderless world there may be a seed of hope as their subjectivism may lead them to rediscover the core of their humanness – “made in the Image of God.” But the journey will be fraught because they will also meet the darkness and dysfunction within themselves as well.
Then there is the current Western flirtation with Eastern Mysticism and its concept of peace through disengagement from that which it claims produces evil and suffering – attachment, desire, individuality and difference. Leave desire, individuality and the self behind and merge oneself into the cosmic sea of universal oneness. Transcend the illusory world of difference. To critics of EM this is just the ultimate escape, the destruction of the self, a kind of mystical suicide? In the end these mystical and mental gymnastics will, I think, prove uncongenial to Western individualisms preoccupation with personal autonomy and self interest . In fact it is mostly ‘EM light’ that’s flirted with in the West. Historically EM has a bad track record of indifference to social and structural evil. The iniquitous cast system is still alive and well in modern India. (*)
But there is someone who offers another way, the way of redemptive suffering, someone who suffers with and for us. Who neither denies, nor withdraws from evil but engages with it to defeat it. His actions take him into the heart of suffering caused by evil and to a final, terrible but triumphant confrontation. This one is ‘The Christ’, crucified and risen, “the lamb of God offered for the sin of the world”
Johns Gospel describes him in this way: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Although to his friends on that dark night when they came for him it seemed that it had. When the police and the betrayer arrived to arrest Jesus at night he said to them “This is your hour, when darkness reigns.” Yes! Like every oppressive regime before and since this is when the secret police always arrive, at night in the darkness. There is a deliberate play on words here by Jesus. As he said on an earlier occasion “men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil”
But evil overplayed its hand; in attempting to destroy him it destroyed itself. Its cunning, its overweening pride and will to power over reached itself. It precipitated a final showdown with God and his sovereign will and his absolute power, justice and mercy. There is only one outcome in such a contest. And so on the cross Jesus bears all that evil can do, not only in its destructive violence and blood lust, but also through its primary goal, the separation of humanity from God and then people’s alienation from each other. So he identifies with us in our suffering, but also suffers for us by bearing justices’ penalty for our willing participation in evil. He suffers death and then defeats it in his resurrection. The cross reveals how implacably opposed God is to evil and how unrelentingly for us is his love.
How are we to live now in the light of all this? We live now in the tension between the two kingdoms. The kingdom of light has broken in with the coming of Jesus, the decisive battle has been won but the final surrender and the consummation of the Kingdom of God is yet to come. It is like the situation in Europe as WW2 drew to its close. The decisive battle with Hitler’s army had been fought and won late in 1945, the Axis forces were routed and in retreat. It was now only a matter of time before the final surrender and the enemy laid down its arms. But of course if you were in an allied infantry group on the front line there were a dozen more small but deadly battles and skirmishes to survive before you reached Berlin and the formal surrender. That is the Christians position now in the world. God has won the decisive battle on the cross, the end is now decided but we are still exposed to the crossfire of evil and each day we must act both personally and socially to confront and defeat it.
Footnote: For a fuller description of these responses see Chapters 4-9 in “The Universe next Door” by James Sire, Intervarsity Press 2004. Find a copy via the Booko website.
KEY ELEMENTS OF A GOOD SERMON
When I was a theological student there was a preacher we used to call ‘Chloroform’, which calls for no explanation! Then there was ‘Springboard’ who announced his text and then dived into a series of ideas that bore only the remotest connection to the text. But thankfully there have also been many faithful, excellent and exciting preachers that I have learned from. So from years of listening to sermons and working hard to produce them myself what do I think makes a good sermon?
There are at least eight key elements in my view:
- The right attitude in the preacher
- Solid preparation
- Grounded in God’s word
- Christ centered
- A commitment to intelligent orthodoxy
- Delivered from deep conviction
- Application to peoples lives
- Follow the rules of good spoken communication
Let me develop these:
1. The right attitude: Unless you believe that there can be no greater privilege and responsibility than speaking, teaching, explaining and applying Gods word to people’s lives then don’t do it.
2. Solid preparation: Haddon Robinson says that “Every time you preach someone suffers – either you suffer in preparation or the hearers suffer!” Preparation in prayer, in study of the text, in research, in the construction of the sermon is non negotiable. My average when I was preaching weekly was about 12 hours per sermon.
3. Grounded in God’s Word: Jesus said “We do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” All preaching whether expository or topical must be from the scriptures, we are ministers of The Word. The preacher’s primary task is to understand what the text means and how it applies to the life of the people and his own life. The systematic exposition of the Word of God is the spiritual bread of the Church. The various ways of approaching this we will comment on in point eight.
4. Christ centered: Of course not every text mentions Christ specifically but the preacher should always have in mind the central theme of the bible – God’s grace to us in the saving work of Christ. The preacher must consider how this theme comes to bear on all exposition and every human need. This is the frame that sets every passage and topic in its right perspective. Scripture is a unity and its revelation ultimately has a singular focus – Christ.
5. A commitment to intelligent orthodoxy: In a culture hostile to the Christian faith there is a tendency in the contemporary church to “conformism”- the radical adapting and reducing of creedal Christianity to fit the prevailing plausibility structure – what people find believable today. At the other extreme is the reaction of fundamentalism. What is desperately required is intelligent orthodoxy where thoughtful preaching engages the current intellectual idols and challenges and critiques them with the historic faith. This requires reading, study and hard thinking.
6. Delivered from deep conviction: The Bishop of Dublin in the late 18th C said to his clergy “Preach, not because you have to say something, but because you have something to say.” It is very clear to the listeners when a preacher speaks out of deep conviction and when they are just going through the motions. One is compelling the other induces apathy. Conviction can come with a quiet intensity or a forthright passion, both are arresting. If you have nothing to say then please don’t inflict it on us!
7. Application to peoples’ lives: A sermon without practical application is like being given a new task without being given any instructions in how to do it, very frustrating!
Sermons that exhort or inform but have no application to peoples lives eventually have a de motivating effect. If you regularly exhort me to pray but don’t give me any practical tools or guidance in how to pray more effectively the exhortations begin to wash over me.
In application the questions we need to answer as preachers are: How does this teaching affect my life, my work, my relationships? How do I respond to this now and next week? If this is true what transaction do I need to make with God this morning?
8. Follow the rules of good spoken communication: Peoples ears are not just USB ports that you can plug a data stick into and download a whole lot of information to their brains. Communicating with people is more complicated than that. Here are some rules:
(a) Ask, who are the listeners? The closer your language, idiom, humor and culture to that of the listeners the greater will be the attention, understanding, learning and acceptance of what you say. Of course the opposite of this is equally true. To give it its fancy name, be‘culturally contextualized.’
(b) Start where people are. Start with their issues, questions, needs, challenges. The Jewish psychotherapist Irvin D Yalom lists four universal challenges that all of us face at some time in our lives. He calls them the ‘Existence pains.’ First: The inevitability of death for each of us and those we love. Second: The freedom to make our lives as we will. Third: Relationships and our ultimate aloneness as individuals. Fourth: The absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life. Around these four areas cluster most of our inner concerns and anxieties as we try to cope with the harsh facts of life. They echo the book of Ecclesiastes.
(c) Rapport established, the preacher will then try to take people with them on a journey of discovery as they unfold the questions and uncover the wisdom of Gods Word. A journey of discovery, an unpacking of a mystery is far more engaging and involving than assertions and announcements from on high – ‘The preacher, six feet above contradiction!’
(d) Someone said ‘the stairway of abstract argument is necessary but tiring to ascend.’
The preacher must use illustration, example, metaphor and story to aid understanding.
Research on listeners’ attention shows marked jumps when a story is introduced. It also jumps up when personal experience and appropriate humor is introduced.
(e) The other challenges for contemporary preachers are people’s intense subjectivity, shorter attention spans and their highly visual culture. Ravi Zacharias has said “How do you reach a culture that hears with its eyes and thinks with its feelings?” In 2007 the title of the international cutting edge festival of graphic art, The Venice Biennale, was “Think with the senses, feel with the mind.”
Part of the answer is to ‘speak visually’, to tell stories, to use visual media where possible and to not avoid emotion.
Bret Whitley once said that “painting is a struggle between form and content”. The same could be said of preaching, but without that struggle there is no great preaching as there is no great art. The preacher’s primary task is to help the listeners ‘hear’ Gods Word to them, but ‘hearing’ involves more than making peoples’ eardrums move!
( The following resources are very helpful: “Inductive Preaching – Helping People Listen” by Ralph and Greg Lewis, Crossway Books 1983. “Preaching to a Post Modern World” by Graham Johnston, Baker Books 2001. “Why don’t People listen?” (Republished as “The Good Listeners”) by Hugh MacKay, Pan MacMillan 1998)
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible (KJB), sometimes referred to as the Authorized Version. Its influence on the development of the English language, our values, imagination and culture has been profound. It’s phrases still echo in common speech – an eye for an eye, like a lamb to the slaughter, as old as the hills, sour grapes, love thy neighbor, am I my brothers keeper, be sure your sins will find you out, pride goes before a fall, the salt of the earth, the sign of the times, the laborer is worthy of his hire, all things to all men, etc. The largest section in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is the KJB section (28 pages).
But its influence goes beyond language into our art, music, literature and film. It ranges from the explicit text in Handel’s Messiah to U2, Bono and Nick Cave where the phrases and illusions abound. From William Blake’s poetry and Steinbeck’s East of Eden to a recent work, Atonement by the novelist Ian McEwan, and the film that followed, the influence continues. To fully appreciate the poetry of John Milton or T S Elliot requires an understanding of the Bible. It is also hard to read the words of the Prophet Micah (6:8) or Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55 ) or Jesus’ manifesto of his ministry (Luke4:16-21 ) without being inspired about justice, fairness and equality!
Even an aggressive atheist like Richard Dawkins has said You can’t appreciate English literature unless you are steeped to some extent in the King James Bible… not to know (it) is to be, in some small way, barbarian.(1) Andrew Motion, former British Poet Laureate, and self confessed non believer, in an interview in The Guardian, laments the widespread ignorance of the Bible today. He made the point that Bible stories are an essential part of our cultural luggage. He recommended that all children should be taught the Bible in school, since without it they can not hope to understand history and literature.(2)
This is an important observation in the light of the current push from a vocal minority for the dismantling of state legislation that provides for religious education in public state schools in Australia.
Many of the critics of religious education not only seem to have developed a form of cultural amnesia, they also seem ignorant of the very critical role the Bible has played in English culture in the forming of the very liberal freedoms they espouse so loudly. (3)
In fact the translation of the Bible into vernacular English was deeply influential in the development of democratic ideas in England and America. The availability of the bible to ordinary people inspired many egalitarian and radical movements in 16th and 17th C England. It was strongly influential in maintaining the importance of the elected Parliament over the powers of the King in the Commonwealth period. Other examples are the push for equality of access to land by groups like The Diggers and Levellers (17th C) and the demand for freedom of association and the right to organize their own labor in the early 19th C by farm laborers like The Tolepuddle Martyrs , forerunners of the modern Union Movement. These democratic movements were long before the advent of Marxism and were inspired by Biblical ideas of justice, fairness and equality.
To remove the study of the Bible from schools is like a form of book burning by the misguided secularists who either have no cultural memory or are simply ignorant of the forces that have formed our culture and its values, including those they cherish. Values are like water in a storage dam they leak away if they are not replenished from their source.
The KJB was commissioned by James I in 1604, the task was completed in 1611.Its forerunners were Wycliffe’s translation from the Latin in the 14th C and William Tyndale’s translation from original Greek in 1526, his work had a strong influence on the KJB. It is interesting in the light of what we said above about the Bible’s influence on the development of democratic ideas, that James’ reasons for the project were partly political. When James ascended the throne of England the most widely read Bible was the Geneva Bible. This was produced by Protestants who had fled to Switzerland during the persecutions under Queen Mary. It contained marginal notes, or commentary on the text, some of which was critical of the absolute power and authority of monarchs. James’ plan for a single official Bible gave him the opportunity to displace the Geneva Bible and its notes.
The aims of Wycliffe and Tyndale were to put the Word of God into the hands and language of ordinary people so they could read and interpret it for themselves without the controlling filter of priest, prelate or ruler. They also believed that the key to the reformation and renewal of the church was a true understanding of scripture and a restoration of its authority in the church.
When Luther was faced with the criticism that putting the Bible into the hands of every plowboy would create controversy and confusion he replied that he would prefer the hurricane of controversy to the pestilence of an authoritative error, a not so veiled reference to Papal authority and ex cathedra pronouncements!
Once again in these comments we see the desire for freedom of thought and expression that the Reformation and the accessibility of the Bible to everyone promoted. It is ironic that the secular beneficiaries’ of this legacy now want to exclude its study from our schools.
For those of us who are committed members of the Christian community, the body of Christ, the task begun by Wycliffe and Tyndale goes on. Every generation requires and has the right that the Bible be translated into its ‘language’ and every tribe needs it translated into their own tongue. For us the Bible is more than a cultural jewel to be cherished it is the living word of the living God. As Jesus said Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The work of translating the Bible into people’s mother tongue also reminds us that Christianity is not a culturally or ethnically bound faith, we have no sacred language. Jesus as a good Jew knew Hebrew but when he taught the Lords prayer he spoke in Aramaic the language of the ordinary people, these words were then translated into common Greek and since then into hundreds of other languages.
In a time when multiculturalism is being challenged and there is anxiety about the divisive role of religion in the world, the story of “The Commonwealth” is worth reflecting on. It is not perfect but it is one of the more successful political unifiers’ in our troubled world. As well as a commitment to democratic government, part of the glue that has held The Commonwealth together is the English language and also the place and influence of the Bible in its educational systems. This has been far more significant than people often realize, particularly through the schools established in the colonies by Christian Missions in the 19th and 20th C’s. Many of the first nationalist leaders of post colonial governments were educated in these schools such as Julius Nyerere the first president of Tanzania. Nelson Mandela the first black president of South Africa is another outstanding example.
The words of Paul in the NT have had an impact, that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:27-28) In spite of its faults the Christian Church is one of the most powerful examples of multicultural unity in our world.
(1)I am indebted to the excellent article by Antony Billington in the March 2011 edition of EG the magazine of The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
(2) The Guardian 17th Feb 2009
(3) See the outstanding work by Melvyn Bragg in “The Book 0f Books – the radical impact of the King James Bible” by Melvyn Bragg, Hodder 2011.
Why is some evangelical preaching boring? By Peter Corney
Evangelicals have rightly always placed a high priority on preaching and in particular expository preaching, the expounding and explaining of the Bible. We do so because we believe in the authority of the Word of God for our belief and practice – for our life. We believe that it is the spiritual food of the people of God. As Jesus said, “We do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (We have seen what happens to churches that have been starved of its food, when Biblical preaching and teaching has been downgraded; their emaciated bodies are waiting for the body bags.) We believe that it is powerful and as the instrument of the Spirit of God can change and reshape us.
But out of our convictions and concerns there has developed among some evangelicals a style of expository preaching that is frankly boring! It is boring because it often lacks application to people’s lives and so, unintentionally, is not nourishing. It often sounds like little more than a reiteration of the text with some minor and obvious commentary. It’s a bit like having the Bible reading again with some explanatory notes.
This style of preaching has come about because of a conviction and a fear:
(a) A conviction that believes that the scriptures will do their own work of application to the hearers without too much human interference. All the preacher must do is study them carefully in preparation, explain their plain meaning and pray. This high respect for the text fears that too much comment by the preacher will detract, distract or deviate from its message.
(b) There is also a fear that too much attention to creative application and cultural relevance will overpower the plain meaning of the text or at worst distort it by amplifying the preachers own concerns and preoccupations or infect it with the preachers imagination.
Now there is substance to these concerns. We have all sat through sermons that used the text as a springboard to dive into a pool of ideas only vaguely related to the meaning of the text. Some of us have listened to preachers who had read somewhere that Karl Barth said the preacher should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, except that there always seemed more attention was paid to the Murdoch news than the Good News! We have probably all experienced the Entertainer, where the sermon is a collection of anecdotes strung together with a series of jokes and seasoned with a text or two. Some of us have had the misfortune of sitting under preachers of a very liberal theological persuasion whose attitude to the text was that it was an interesting religious resource to be dipped into for the odd quotation, or alternatively, to be the subject of detailed deconstruction or demythologizing. This really is stones for bread.
So evangelicals are right to be concerned and cautious about preaching that departs from the text or places the focus somewhere else. Nevertheless preaching that does not apply the text to life is not evangelical preaching either and it will not feed the people of God nor challenge the enquirer.
Evangelical Preaching is a dynamic experience that involves the following elements:
(1) The text and its priority. The preacher’s first task is to approach the text with great respect and prepare thoroughly through prayer and study to understand what it means.
(2) To explain that meaning clearly. This will often require developing illustrations, metaphors and examples. This will require imagination and creative thought.
(3) To ask and answer the question; how does this apply to our lives now? What does it mean for the way we are to believe, live, think and act today and tomorrow?
(4) The preacher themselves. The whole process passes through the mind and heart of the preacher, their personality, their gifts, abilities and limitations. Preaching is proclaiming Christ, the Word made flesh, through the flesh and words of a human person, the preacher. It is, unavoidably, truth conveyed through personality, which is both its strength and its weakness. Because God has instructed us to convey his Word in this way our role and involvement is not marginal.(Romans 10:14-15)
(5) The cultural context. All preaching takes place in a particular culture at a particular time by an enculturated person to a group of enculturated people.
It is never culturally neutral. The preacher must ask themselves; who are the listeners? The closer the language, idiom, humor and culture of the speaker to those of their listeners the greater will be the attention, understanding, learning and acceptance. The greater the distance the greater will be the loss of attention and the failure to accept, understand and learn. (This is obvious with ethnically different groups when the cultures and languages are radically different, but it is also true between the sub cultures of a shared dominant culture. eg; the difference between a person from a well off private school background who has a university education and a job and lives in Kew and someone from a low income family who didn’t finish high school, has been unemployed for two years and lives in Dandenong. These differences also exist between age cohorts of people in the same overall culture.) Preaching, like publishing the scriptures into a new language, is an exercise in translation, the greater the differences between the preacher and the listeners the more challenging is the process of translation.
(6) Communication skills. The preacher must ask themselves; why will people listen? Why will they pay attention? Even when the culture of preacher and listeners is similar it does not guarantee communication! Unless preachers understand the basics of communication they will fail to gain a hearing. Gifted preachers have an intuitive feel for this but all preachers can learn the basics and greatly improve the hearing of the Word of God. Relevant application is an important issue here.
The following books offer very helpful insights into the communication issues:
Inductive Preaching – Helping People Listen.By Ralph L Lewis and Gregg Lewis Crossway Books 1983.
Preaching to a Post Modern World. By Graham Johnston Published by Baker Books 2001.
Why Don’t People Listen. Republished as The Good Listeners. By Hugh Mackay published by Pan MacMillan 1998
Signs, Symbols and Icons – their strengths and their weaknesses by Peter Corney
What is a symbol?
When we say something is a symbol or something is symbolic what do we mean? The dictionary defines it as a sign or thing that stands for or represents something else. It could be an idea, a quality, a process, an object. An Australian army slouch hat symbolises the courage and resilience of the ANZAC spirit and the men of Tobruk and Kakoda. A symbol can also be defined as a mark or character taken as a sign of some object, idea or process, like a mathematical sign, musical notation or a road sign. Words are symbols. Certain music can be symbolic. Symbolism is the use of symbols to express the essence of things by suggestion, to express abstract or mystical ideas. A story, a painting or a poem may use symbolism. Words associated with symbol are: sign, badge, emblem, image, logo, mark, token, representation, icon. Often allegory and metaphor are closely connected with the symbolic. Bunyan’s story “The Pilgrims progress” or Lewis’s “Narnia Chronicles” are allegories that use metaphor and symbol.
It is extraordinary how saturated our lives are with symbols, from road signs to advertising, the symbols on our car dashboard or our computer and I – pad screens. Symbols dominate and influence our lives every day.
Symbols are very important in Christianity.
The cross is a central and dominating symbol but there are many others; the flame or the dove for the Holy Spirit, the two edged sword for the word of God, the three intersecting circles for the Trinity, the water in baptism, etc. The regular meeting of Christians at the celebration of the Lords Supper is rich in symbols; the broken bread and the cup of wine representing Christ’s body broken and his blood shed for us. The New Testament and in particular the book of Revelation is rich in symbolism and metaphor; like the seven lamp stands representing the seven churches in Asia minor.
The power and strength of symbols
(a) Symbols have great communicative power. It has been argued that we would find communication difficult and impoverished without metaphor and symbol. Just listen to a football commentator “he’s as quick as a flash”…… “he hit the pack like a Mack truck”…… “he’s like a terrier at the ball”. We all frequently resort to metaphor to explain our thoughts and feelings and experiences. We often say “it felt like…”, or “it sounded like …”, or “its like……” Whenever we begin a sentence in this way we are inevitably about to introduce a metaphor or symbol!- They concentrate meaning, significance and emotion without having to use a lot of words, which of course is why advertisers use them. (b) They are easily recognizable. (c) They are often visual and tangible; the flying kangaroo, a handshake. Words or phrases like “..as quick as a flash” recalls a visual image like a lightning flash that we all instantly understand. (d) They can hold many interpretations and feelings within a general concept. The song Waltzing Matilda is deeply symbolic and iconic for Australians, it can hold any or all of the following: national identity, nostalgia for our bush past, the outback myth, egalitarianism, anti authority, a fair go for the underdog – the ‘Swaggie’. (e) Symbols appeal to the imagination, they can excite faith
The weakness and dangers of symbols, especially religious ones.
(a) Symbols oversimplify complex ideas. (b) They can also lead to literalism where we think if we posses or employ the symbol we automatically have what it symbolizes. The cross and the Lords Supper are examples of this. (c) They can encourage emotionalism and sentimentality that replaces active thoughtful faith. (d) Superstition and ‘magic’ can easily attach to symbols where people feel they can receive, control or exercise power through them. The wearing of a cross may be accompanied by the belief that it has a protective power for the wearer rather than as a reminder for the wearer that the basis of their acceptance with God is through Christ by faith in his atoneing sacrifice. The mechanical transfer of power can also be associated with symbols like the belief in the power of relics or religious icons. (e) When faith is too closely attached to or dependent on images or symbols it can loose its depth and inner reality and its thoughtful understanding, faith can crystallize into images. (f) Symbolism without substance where we retain the signs but loose their real meaning. (See ‘The parable of the pie sign’ under the category “Parables for Preachers.”)
The erosion of meaning in Christian symbols.
The erosion of meaning, and therefore the erosion of the truth and spiritual reality the symbol points to, is often caused by the gradual reduction or erosion of their original (first order) meaning. This is then followed by a change in the original meaning but the symbol is retained. This is a very common tendency in liberal Protestant theology. The anxiety to over adapt to the spirit of the age or the plausibility structure of ones secular contemporaries – what they find easy to believe- leads to this tendency.
The NT belief about the resurrection is a clear example. Finding the NT belief about the bodily resurrection of Jesus unbelievable to contemporary minds the resurrection is redefined as an idea or a moment of insight as a person comes to realise the importance of Jesus and his teaching. Jesus lives again as an inspiring idea in the mind of those who have embraced the Jesus ideal. ‘He has come alive in our mind and heart.’ This is similar to saying the spirit of Gandhi is alive today through those who believe in his principle of non violent protest. This of course is a far cry from the NT teaching on the bodily resurrection. (1Cor.15) A similar process has taken place within liberal Protestant theology in relation to the cross and the NT doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
This process leads to Christian symbols having only aesthetic, sentimental or cultural influence rather than the spiritual power that comes from the divine truth they originally represented. If we change this we change their effect.We should also be aware that when we change their original meaning we have created an object of faith that is false or in error. Only the truth sets us free.
The power and weakness of symbols is seen in the churches experience with Icons.
Icon is from a Greek word meaning image, or a portrait of a person. (In NT see Colos. 1:15) Later the word was used to describe a particular form of religious painting. Icons had a checkered career in the early church because of the fear of idolatry and the first commandment. The word iconoclast comes form the negative reaction of Christians in the early Church. But their use remained and grew in the Eastern and Orthodox churches where they form an important part of their spirituality. The churches of the reformation have always been critical and cautious of their use. Interestingly there is a renewed interest in Icons in parts of the Protestant church today which we will comment on bellow.
Icons can be objects of :
- Instruction – to teach and inform, like a visual aid.
- Inspiration – to inspire us to honor the one the icon images eg: Jesus
- Veneration – where the icon becomes a sacred object with power in itself.
The first two are legitimate but the third collapses quickly into superstition where faith becomes mechanistic. “If I kiss this Icon I will receive a spiritual blessing,” or “the icon hanging on our wall at home will protect us.”
In recent years interest in Icons from the Eastern tradition has grown in some parts of the Anglican and UCA churches in Australia. This tends to be among aesthetically aware Christians who appreciate the artistic value and beauty of Icon painting or have a fascination with the way they are created and painted and the underlying spirituality expressed in the Orthodox tradition. For some theologically liberal Christians who have rejected or reduced the original meaning of the symbols there is a danger that the aesthetic and intellectual appreciation can become a substitute for lively faith. This may be more sophisticated than superstitious veneration but it can be equally delusional. We all need to be constantly aware of Paul’s critique of those who “hold the form of religion but deny its power.”
If we ask why people wish to retain symbols whose original meaning they have rejected or radically changed, the answer is probably emotional security, sentimentality or nostalgia. The classical Christian symbols are associated with their childhood and their religious formation and so they are part of their identity, culture and security. Also the process of reduction for most people is a gradual one. Of course to create new symbols for their new beliefs that have departed from creedal Christianity would be the honest way to go but that is a bridge too far for most. They know instinctively that it would put them too far outside the Christian community and its tradition.
The nature of Biblical Faith
A key to understanding the proper use of Christian symbols is to understand the nature of Biblical faith and its relationship with symbols. This is sometimes described as sacramental theology. Biblical faith involves at least six elements:
1. It is centered on Christ– the object of Christian faith is crucial to its validity.*
2. Intellectual assent – belief involves understanding and reason.
3 A decision of the will – it is volitional.
4 Trust- it is relational and involves vulnerability and commitment.
5 Submission – it involves obedience and submission.
6 Emotion – one to five above will involve and effect our emotions.
(* The value of faith or an act of faith is significantly affected by its object. Faith can be misplaced eg; the ‘snake oil syndrome’ or faith in the evil leader.)
A Christian sacrament.
In the reformed tradition it has been defined as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’
For a sacrament or a sacramental act to be valid and spiritually effective rather than just a an emotional, aesthetic or cultural experience or even a superstitious act, it must have the following elements:
- The sign and the action commanded by Jesus, eg; the breaking and eating of the bread in the Lords Supper, the water in baptism.
- The word of God read and expounded that explains and applies its meaning.
- The faith of the participant as defined above. We are to ‘feed on Christ in our hearts by faith’ as it is expressed in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.We are to engage with God relationally in spirit.
- The Christian community. The action/the sign is done both by and within the faith community. It is both an individual and a corporate act. The body of Christ is not only represented by the bread we break and eat but also by each other, together we are ‘the body of Christ.’ (See I Cor. 11: 17-34)
Baptism and the Lords Supper are the two signs commanded by Jesus. They are the preeminent signs of Gods love for us because both are centered on the saving actions of God for us. They point to God as savior, redeemer, forgiver, the one who rescues and renews.
( See also the article “Would Jesus have worn a mitre?” on the website under the catergory: The Anglican Church in Australia)
By Peter Corney
At the heart of Christmas is generosity and celebration. We are celebrating the lavish, extravagant generosity of God towards us in Christ. God has given us the most extraordinary, most precious gift one could imagine. The son of God steps into human history and takes on human flesh. He identifies with us in our joy and pain so that he might bear the judgment justice demands for all our inhumanity to one another, our violence, our exploitation and our petty betrayals. He does this so that the gift of grace and forgiveness can be made available freely to us by God. That is why we give gifts to each other at Christmas. That is why we party, feast and celebrate.
The other reason we celebrate and feast together at Christmas is that Christ’s first coming reminds us that he will come again to complete his saving actions and fully consummate the Kingdom of God. He will renew and restore this broken world, banishing death, entropy and decay and will usher in the new heavens and the new earth. (Rom 8:18-24) Interestingly that event is symbolized in scripture by the image of a great banquet,the Messianic banquet.
Jesus returned again and again to this image in his parables and stories, sometimes as a wedding feast, sometimes as a dinner party, sometimes as a great banquet.(Luke 14:7-24) The Lord’s Supper is also associated with the Messianic banquet. Jesus said; I will not eat this meal again until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. (Luke 22:16) In his famous story of the prodigal son, when the lost son returns the father is so overjoyed he throws a great banquet and kills the fattened calf, a great extravagance in those times. In the book of Revelation the Messianic banquet is described as the marriage supper of the Lamb. (Rev 19:9)
Jesus was not doing something unusual in the use of this banquet image; it was one the OT prophets had used. The Lord almighty will prepare a table of rich foods for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine, the best of meats and the finest of wines…He will swallow up death forever, the sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces….(Isaiah 25: 6-8). It also appears in the well known Psalm 23 which we think of as the shepherd’s psalm. Now while the psalm begins with the image of sheep in the fields, at verse five it moves indoors and changes the metaphor to a banquet table, you spread a table before me…….my cup shall be full. The anointing, you have anointed my head with oil is part of the welcoming formality, along with the kiss of peace and water to wash one’s feet, that was the polite introduction for every honored guest to your house and table in the middle east of the first century. And then the promise of life in the eternal banquet of the Kingdom of God, I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
So when we gather around our Christmas tables loaded with special food and drink and decorations, this is what we are celebrating, this is what we are anticipating. All the work of preparation, all the food, all the gifts carefully chosen and wrapped, all our family and friends gathered together, all this is to remember, celebrate and give thanks for the future hope made possible by the entry of the Son of God into human history to restore and renew this broken world. We are celebrating what this rich image stands for – the joy of the kingdom of God, the abundance of the renewed creation, the unity of all people in Christ and our unfiltered fellowship with God. We can think of our Christmas celebrations as a parable of the future, even the tensions around the family table! Because we know that one day they will all be healed and we will all be in perfect unity and peace.
Now in my view that is really worth celebrating lavishly and enthusiastically!
What I find most difficult about the Christmas season is how some Christians become negative and critical. I’m so stressed, its so busy, there’s so much to do, sending all those cards, getting all the food ready, buying all those presents, all that expense…(This is partly driven by their reaction to the culture’s rampant consumerism and the Christmas credit card binge. They also feel that the true meaning of Christmas gets lost among the reindeers and snow flakes.) The problem is their negativity doesn’t help. It just reinforces the view of people outside the church that we are a judgmental bunch of miserable spoil sports who don’t know how to celebrate.
I often think we sound like the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. He comes home from the fields to find a party going on for his black sheep younger brother who has suddenly turned up. They thought he was dead. He is angry that a lavish party is being thrown by his father for this irresponsible waster who has blown his inheritance in wild living. The father pleads with him to come in to the feast and celebrate with them. This my son was lost but is found. But the older brother refuses to go in. This is a parable of the gospel and Gods relentless love for us and his desire for us to come home no matter what we have done. The banquet is an expression of God’s joy when any one comes home. It is also an image of what awaits us in the Kingdom of God. Don’t lets be ‘elder brothers.’
In fact one of the ways we could recapture the true meaning of Christmas for our culture would be for us to return to the full throttle way Christians originally celebrated our greatest festival. Part of our problem as western Christians is that we live our lives every week at a celebratory level and so when a real festival comes along the celebration is a bit ho hum. We need to scale back our normal living, live more simply, less extravagantly, spend less, eat and drink less and get ready to pull the stops out for the big Christian celebrations like Christmas and Easter Day. A practical suggestion is that in the month before Christmas we deliberately live more simply and frugally, like many Christians do before Easter. What we save we could then spend on our celebrations and give away in generous gifts to others.
Christmas is the time to celebrate at full throttle the saving power of the Gospel made possible by Jesus’ coming.
Peter Corney December 2010
Leadership and the future
The future of the Church is only as secure as the next generation of leaders it is recruiting and training now.
We do not discover the future and we can’t predict the future with any certainty. We in fact create the future! The future is shaped by us in the present.
We do that by the visions of the future we imagine and the decisions we make now. The most strategic visions and decisions we make now are about the recruiting and training of leaders.
Three key roles of Christian elders are:
- To pass on the faith faithfully and truly to the next generation.
- To live the faith with integrity before the next generation
- To discover, encourage, prepare and make way for the next generation of leaders.
By Peter Corney
I have read a lot of books on leadership both secular and Christian and found useful insights in many of them. (My top ten are listed at the end of this article.) But recently I read a study of major leaders of the 20th C. “Leading Minds -An Anatomy of Leadership” by Howard Gardner.(1) Many of the leaders he analyses faced the enormous challenges of the Second World War period, the post Colonial era and the dramatic changes of the sixties. Included are people as diverse as General George Marshall who conceived and implemented The Marshal Plan for the reconstruction of Europe after the devastation of the war and Martin Luther King Jnr. who lead the successful civil rights campaigns in the US. In the 60’s
I found Gardner’s analysis and conclusions about the common elements of effective leadership insightful and compelling. They also resonated with my own experience of leaders and leadership.
Here is his own summery of what he describes as the six enduring features of effective leaders.
A leader is likely to achieve success only if he or she can construct and convincingly communicate a clear and persuasive story; appreciate the nature of the audience(s), including its changeable features; invest their own (or channel others) energy in the building and maintenance of an organization; embody in their own life the principle contours of the story; either provide direct leadership or find a way to achieve influence through indirect means; and, finally, find a way to understand and make use of, without being overwhelmed by, increasingly technical expertise. (2)
The six key things identified here (in my order) are:
1. The ability to develop a story and communicate it. This is what is sometimes called the power of a vision. It might be the possibility of curing a disease or creating an organization to eliminate poverty in a community or provide a new education system that will engage marginalized youth or building a business that will be more efficient and profitable and fun to work in or it might be the vision to transform a church into a radically committed and powerful community. The story has to be clear and understandable by both the tutored and untutored and it must be communicated convincingly and persuasively.
2. The leader must embody the story in their own life. If the vision is to eliminate poverty in a community then the leader must live a life style that is frugal, sacrificial and responsible. They must demonstrate personal commitment to the story.
3. The leader must build an organization and channel others energy into the organization. The story will not be translated into reality without an effective organization. The organization must be maintained for the story to have long term effect. To have wide influence and long term effect the leader can not just be an impractical visionary.
4. Understand and appreciate the ‘audience’ and its changeable features. What is sometimes called the ability to read the culture of the people you want to lead and influence. This is ‘the language of the people’: their idiom, style, music, level of formal or ‘street’ education, their humor, employment, their entertainment, etc. Over time this changes. This is all crucial to communicating the story and motivating people to participate in developing the organization.
5. Provide direct leadership. Politicians are direct leaders and their ability to speak directly to the ordinary voters is crucial to their success. Providing hands-on direct development of an organization is direct leadership. Influence may also be exercised through indirect leadership, which Gardner sometimes refers to as creative leadership. This can be exercised through the influence of symbolic creative work. Artistic works like the novels of Solzhenitsyn who had no direct political role but contributed significantly to the unraveling of the Soviet Unions moral credibility. Some leaders can combine both. Vaclav Havel who led the Czech Republic out of Soviet control at a critical time was a poet and a direct leader whose poetry was very influential with the Czech people. Academic research can also produce indirect leadership like Sir Mc Farlen Burnett’s scientific research work. Creative academic leadership is often confined to a particular sphere of activity.
6. Understand and make use of new and developing technology without being lost in technical detail and expertise. For example in an earlier period in churches it was sound systems, copying machines, slide and movie film and overhead projectors, later computers, data projectors, DVD, now web based communication systems like email, face book, twitter etc.
The nature of the ‘story’.
An interesting issue that Gardner raises is how inclusive or exclusive the leaders ‘story’ will be. He makes the point that most effective leaders have an inclusive story. They help people to feel part of a broader community or movement. But inclusive leaders will eventually be challenged by some group or faction who feel that their story is the correct one and the leaders story is not pure enough or is compromised. It is also true that for any organization or movement or church to have cohesion and momentum it must have a limit to its inclusiveness, or to put it another way its story must also have an attractive distinctiveness. Gardner makes the point that the fascist leaders of the WW 2 period were powerful and influential because of their exclusive stories, eg: Hitler’s ideas of the purity and superiority of the German race. Religious cult leaders also tell exclusive stories. While they are powerful they can also be enormously destructive. There is of course a big difference between extreme exclusive stories and those with a healthy and constructive distinctiveness. Every reformer has a distinctive story or moral call that excludes something.
Space for reflection
Gardner’s study also shows the importance of space for reflection for the direct leader. He calls this retreat to the mountain top. Without this the direct leader can loose the big picture or the sense of vision or the moral imperative energizing them and their sense of ‘agency’, that, they are an agent of change and influence. It also enables the regaining of perspective and awareness of change.
In an examination of the early lives of effective leaders (or as he expresses it Exemplary leaders), he shows that often while still young and inexperienced they were willing to challenge the leadership above them, often to their disadvantage. Established leaders of organizations should be sensitive to this as they can thwart the potential talent because they challenge the status quo and don’t toe the line. They also show early on skill in speaking, posses a general energy and resourcefulness, they also have a concern for moral issues. (3)
This book is a rich mine of insights on leadership and will repay the time spent in reading it for anyone involved in the selection and development of leaders.
References: (1) Basic Books 1995 (2) page 302 (3) pages 284-290
My ten top leadership books.
1.‘Leading minds. An anatomy of leadership’ by Howard Gardner, Basic Books, 1995
2.‘Leading at the Edge- Leadership lessons from the extraordinary saga of Shackelton’s Antarctic Expedition’ by Dennis N.T. Perkins, AMACON, 2000.
3. ‘Intelligent Leadership’ by Alistair Mant, Allen &Unwin.1997
4. ‘Leaders on Leadership’ by George Barna, Regal, 1997
5. ‘Harvard Business Review on The Mind of the Leader’, edited articles from the H.B.R Harvard Business School Press,2005
6. ‘Spiritual Leadership’ by J Oswald Sanders, Moody Publishers 2003
7. ‘Identifying and Developing Leaders’ by Ian Jagelman, Open Book, 2003
8. ‘Finishing Strong’ by Steve Farrar, Multnomah, 1995
9. ‘On Becoming a leader’ by Warren Bennis, Addison Wesley, 1989.
10. ‘Hiring Strategies for Success’ by Ken Byrne, Wright Books 1990
By Peter Corney
In the 2004 edition of his brilliant and provocative book The Wreck of Western Culture –Humanism Revisited, John Carroll has added a last chapter on the significance of 9/11 and the attack on the Twin Towers in New York.
He argues insightfully that the attack on the World Trade center in New York has deep symbolic significance for western culture. He makes the acute observation that Osama Bin Laden did not target the Vatican, Westminster Abbey, Washington Cathedral or some other religious symbol of Western culture but the city that is home to the ‘persuaders’ of Madison Avenue, to Wall Street and the building that housed the bond traders, bankers and money manipulators at the heart of Western capitalism. New York has come to symbolize many things with its ethnic diversity and rich cultural life, its art galleries, theaters and vibrant music scene. But as they daily ring the bells at the NY Stock exchange it has also come to symbolize the real heart and soul of contemporary Western culture today – money and materialism. Bin Laden attacked and successfully destroyed a most potent icon of this, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Bin Laden correctly judged what has now become the soul of Western culture, what it’s real metaphysical core is – Mammon. This is what has replaced its Christian foundation, lost as a result of the impact of the secular humanism that grew out of the enlightenment. (1) Having lost its faith the West is now vulnerable to those who are unafraid to die for theirs.
The towers of the World Trade Centre are being replaced and once again will house the Bond Traders and the ‘money changers’. But the 2976 who died and the 6000 who were injured are not to be remembered with a memorial that reflects the West’s Christian foundation, such as a cross as in many of our past war memorials, but an International Freedom Center, although apparently this idea may now be abandoned as a result of controversy about its meaning and purpose. But what is the nature of the freedom that might be symbolized in this building? Is it the freedoms and rights expressed in the US Constitution, or the freedom of the individual from all moral restraint, the freedom that has all but destroyed the best in the West? Carroll wryly quotes the Janis Joplin song “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose..!” (2)
There are also two reflective water pools as part of the new center. Their dark stone walls will bear the names of the dead. These are to “reflect absence”, presumably the absence of those who died. It may also ironically reflect the absence of our spiritual heart, the story that gave Western culture its greatest creative and moral energy. That built the soaring towers of its cathedrals to the glory of God. What will a visitor see as they stare into those pools? Will they see a reflection of our emptiness or will they see people made in the image of God whose glory shines most clearly in the face of Jesus?
God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (3)
In spite of impressive progress with construction it seems that Ground Zero is to continue to be surrounded with controversy. Now, in a strange twist, that ironically brings into sharp focus the real tension in all this, there is a plan to build a $A.123 million Islamic center with a Mosque and “Interfaith Center” just two blocks from Ground Zero. The plans have touched off a furious debate in America between those siding with the Constitutional right to freedom of religion and those who feel this is an insensitive affront to those who died at the hands of Islamic extremists. This debate taps into a very sensitive nerve in the US and other Western countries. It is interesting, that to my knowledge, no Christian body has planned to build something as significant near Ground Zero. This tragic site is set to be a controversial symbol for the West for a long time to come.
(1) Carroll J “The Wreck of Western Culture”, pp261-265.Scribe 200
(2) Janis Joplin “Me and Bobby McGee”
(3) 2 Cor. 4: 6 NIV