Saturday, June 16, 2007

Being happy

The Tibetan Dalai Lama is in Australia. From the newspaper reports it appears that the main thrust of his message is that the point of life is to be happy.

Perhaps most people would be surprised to learn that Jesus taught the same thing!

Unfortunately, the teachings of Jesus have been so shrouded in religious jargon that few people would associate Jesus' teachings with "being happy". Yet His most famous sermon - the sermon on the mount - begins with the word "Happy". The sermon on the mount was placed in Matthew's account of the life of Jesus in a way which indicated that this sermon was an encapsulation of Jesus' main message - the "good news of the kingdom" (see this post for the evidence of that). And He began this sermon with a series of statements about happiness.

But most people will miss this point - especially if they are reading from the most popular English translations which have the word "blessed" instead of the word "happy". The word "blessed" in Greek is makarios and the word "beatitude" often used in Christian literature and in some Bibles comes from a later Latin translation. The Amplified Bible (AB) translates the opening words of the sermon this way:

"Blessed (happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous - with life-joy and satisfaction in God's favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions) are the poor in spirit" (Matt 5:3)".

In subsequent verses the AB tried to capture the richness of meaning in this word by translating it these ways:
  • enviably happy [with a happiness produced by the experience of God's favor and especially conditioned by the revelation of His matchless grace]
  • happy, blithesome, joyous, spiritually prosperous - with life-joy and satisfaction in God's favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions
  • Blessed and fortunate and happy
This is what William Barclay wrote about the word translated "blessed" or "happy":
Makarios describes that joy which has its secret within itself, that joy which is serene and untouchable, and self contained, that joy which is completely independent of all the chances and the chances of life. ... "No one," said Jesus, "will take your joy from you" (John 16: 22). The beatitudes speak of that joy which seeks us through our pain, that joy which sorrow and loss, and pain and grief, are powerless to touch, that joy which shines through tears, and which nothing in life or death can take away.
. . . The world can win its joys, and the world can equally well lose its joys. A change in fortune, a collapse in health, the failure of a plan, the disappointment of an ambition, even a change in the weather, can take away the fickle joy the world can give. But the Christian has the serene and untouchable joy which comes from walking for ever in the company and in the presence of Jesus Christ.
The greatness of the beatitudes is that they are not wistful glimpses of some future beauty; they are not even golden promises of some distant glory; they are triumphant shouts of bliss for a permanent joy that nothing in the world can ever take away.

("The Gospel of Matthew" Volume 1)

It's a pity that Christianity often fails to appeal to 'ordinary' people simply because it's presented with it's own jargon which makes little sense to people without a church background. I was recently give a rather nice little summary of the Christadelphian faith being used by an ecclesia which is making a real effort to present the Gospel more simply. Given its brevity I was therefore surprised to see it included the words "righteous", "grace" and "spirit" without explanation. These are all familiar terms to church-going people or Bible-readers, but not to the average person in the street.

Let's make a real effort to de-mystify the teachings of Jesus by avoiding terms which are confusing, ambiguous or devoid of the power that was originally intended. If we did that, then rather flocking to hear the Dalai Lama speak about "being happy" people might respond by saying "there's nothing new in that - after all, Jesus taught the same thing".

Dan Brown was right

Ever since Dan Brown wrote his popular novel The Da Vinci Code in 2003 there has been a great deal of criticism and controversy in a proliferation of books refutting, rebutting and reviewing his claims. Evangelical Christians and Catholics have both been vocal in pointing out the inaccuracies and historical errors in the book, although possibly for different reasons.

These subsequent books have debunked many of the myths in The Da Vinci Code. For example, a substantial part of the plot of Brown's book is based on the claim that "The Priory of Sion" was founded in 1099. In fact, the 'Priory' didn't exist before 1956.

While there is a brass line running north-south through the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, it is not a part of the Paris Meridian, as claimed in the book. The Paris Meridian actually passes about 100 metres east of it. The line is instead more of a gnomon or sundial/calendar, meant to mark the solstice and equinoxes. The book also claims that at the explicit demand of French President Fran├žois Mitterrand, the Louvre Pyramid in Paris was constructed with 666 panes of glass. The pyramid actually contains 603 diamond-shaped and 70 triangular panes of glass, totalling 673. And Mary Magdalene isn't buried beneath the pyramid.

The claim that Rosslyn Chapel was built by the Knights Templar is also false. It was actually founded by Sir William St Clair, third Earl of Orkney and Lord of Rosslyn, and its construction began in 1470, long after the Knights were suppressed.

In fact, there are so many historical and geographical errors in this book it is good to be reminded that it is, after all, a work of fiction (and not a particularly good one either, in my opinion). No one should take its claims seriously.

However, there are a few things which Dan Brown got right (but not many).

First, he tapped into a widespread interest in the community in matters of faith and religion. A lot of people are interested in the historical Jesus and in His teachings. This interest is also reflected in the substantial number of books about Jesus and early Christianity which have gone on to become best-sellers since the publication of The Da Vinci Code.

Second, and perhaps even more noteworthy, Dan Brown realised that while there is an interest in Jesus and matters of faith generally, an enormous number of people do not trust the church to interpret such things for them. It seems, in fact, that they trust a fiction-writer more than they do the institutionalised church. Of course, Brown profited substantially by writing a book which tapped into the community interest in Jesus while at the same time further eroding the credibility of the church. This was actually a great deal more clever than anything in the book.

Third, Brown realised that there was a watershed in the development of Christianity in the fourth century, and that Christianity took a significant change of direction. Two significant landmarks in this development followed the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD) to Christianity. By the Edict of Milan in 313 AD he legalised Christianity and made it the preferred religion of the Roman empire. Then, in 325 AD the Emperor himself presided over a council of Christian Bishops called the First Council of Nicaea which was held in Bithynia in modern-day Turkey. This Council set the church on a new course which was to irreversibly change the way Christians thought of their founder, and the way the teachings of Jesus Christ would be interpreted and applied.

Although Brown made some historical errors about Constantine and fourth-century Christianity, he at least realised that there was a change of direction after Nicaea. But he missed the main issue completely. The key to understanding what went wrong at Nicaea lies in understanding why the debate about the divinity/humanity of Jesus was important to the Emperor of Rome, why it was a political issue (more than a theological one), and why the victors at that particular Council sought to destroy their opponents and eradicate their writings and teachings. It had everything to do with power and politics and had nothing to do with Mary Magdalene.

To put it simply (something Brown didn't do) Christianity has been distorted by its neglect of the actual figure and teachings of Christ. It seems that a lot of people intuitively know this, and therefore do not trust the church to tell the truth about Jesus or faithfully interpret His teachings.

Brown's alternative, however, is sheer nonsense.

I believe that the success of books like The Da Vinci Code have created an opportunity for us to teach the same message which Jesus taught. Jesus didn't come to build a church. He didn't come to do three days work. He came to prepare people for His Kingdom. His message is surprisingly simple, and if we remove the clutter which the church added to His message, and take away the church's authoritarian structures and trappings of power, the teachings of Jesus are also amazingly attractive.

Jesus was undoubtedly an interesting speaker. Large crowds followed him, sometimes travelling long distances and going without food so they would not miss a word. His audience were impressed by the way in which He taught, as well as by His message and His unique personality. The reason He drew large crowds was a combination of what He taught, who He was, and how He taught. If only we could re-focus on His message and methods, and disconnect it from 'doing church', I believe that more people would be interested in looking at the actual teachings of Jesus.

Monday, June 04, 2007

More on 'Chinese whispers'

Rumours are rarely true.

I mentioned in my previous post that over recent weeks I have heard some rumours which are so bizarre it surprises me that intelligent people could be instrumental in passing them on.

For example, I heard one rumour which said that on a missionary trip to China I spoke in Chinese by the power of the Holy Spirit!! As the rumour goes, as a result of this incident the brother who was with me refused to do any more missionary work with me. Well, not only is the story so utterly untrue, it is actually beyond belief. IF I could speak Chinese without learning it (and I certainly can't and don't speak Chinese, either with or without the Holy Spirit), then any 'miraculous' ability to speak it would surely be a sign that God was doing something wonderful, and it would be sheer madness for anyone to refuse to work with someone who was demonstrably working under the power of God. In fact, I'd think it would be a definite advantage in a mission field to have someone who could speak the local language, especially if he could do it without learning it! But it never happened, and nothing even remotely like it ever happened. I have no idea how absurd rumours like this start, but it seems quite malicious to me.

I generally try to ignore rumours, and the more absurd they become the more justified I feel in taking this approach. However, the recent scurrilous attacks by North Oaks (Qld) ecclesia on the Pine Rivers ecclesia, are not simply unsubstantiated rumours - they include complete fabrications of a malicious nature and it's about time people stood up to the intimidation and bullying from ecclesias like North Oaks. The Lord hates a sower of discord among brethren (Proverbs 6:16, 19), and the Arranging Brethren of the North Oaks ecclesia will one day have to give an account for their actions.

One has to wonder about the reasons North Oaks ecclesia has mounted their assault on the Pine Rivers ecclesia. We recently visited Pine Rivers and noted that the ecclesia seemed to be a particularly happy place. Their meeting room was packed to capacity, the youth group is growing, the worship was joyful and vibrant, and everyone we spoke with was positive and grateful for a place like this where they could worship, study the Word of God, fellowship and grow in grace. I understand that people who have not been to Christadelphian meetings for years are now finding a spiritual home at Pine Rivers. Others who have been bullied in the hardline ecclesias, or who find their stifling legalism just too much to bear, are also discovering that Pine Rivers is a place where they can learn about the way of grace, and where they find grace and acceptance. Now pressure is being put on some of these folks to return to the graceless ecclesias from which they'd escaped, and some are reporting intimidation and threats of exclusion from families if they don't.

Perhaps the hardline Brisbane ecclesias, like North Oaks, are themselves feeling threatened by the steady drift of their members towards a grace-based way of faith and away from their legalism. Perhaps their ecclesial rulers feel threatened that they will lose their power base if this drift turns into an exodus.

For years the hardline neo-conservative Brisbane ecclesias relentlessly attacked the Brisbane (Petrie Terrace) ecclesia, and refused to fellowship with them. Their campaign targeted one brother in particular, and they managed to divide the ecclesias across an entire continent as a result. When they finally resumed fellowship with Petrie Terrace ecclesia I predicted it wouldn't be long and they'd find a new target to bully (a leopard doesn't change its spots). It seems I was right and they've now identified their next victim.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Truth in reporting

I haven't been blogging for a while as I've been busy with several commitments. I have a few posts partially written, and I hope to finish them soon and get back to some regular blogging.

However, some very recent happenings among the Christadelphian ecclesias in the Brisbane area (Australia) have prompted me to post something about truth in reporting. We often hear things through the "grapevine" and wonder whether they are actually true or have simply been churned out by the rumour mill.

I guess we're all familiar with the game of 'Chinese whispers' where something whispered to one person in the room then makes it's way around a group of people, each time being slightly distorted until the end result is something which is so distorted from the original message that it bears no resemblance to it.

Sometimes we just dismiss misreporting as a kind of innocent game of Chinese whispers. But what if an untruth was started deliberately and maliciously?

Over recent months I've heard rumours about myself which are contradictory and so far from the truth that I cannot imagine how they could possibly have started. The recent rumours have included things which are so bizarre that I cannot understand how any intelligent person could seriously pass them on, yet they do! (I may give an example of this in my next post.)

I want to give just one example here of what I believe is simply troublemaking of the worse kind.

On 25 April this year I received an email from someone I don't know, but who I later discovered is an Arranging Brother of the North Oaks ecclesia in Queensland. He said he'd heard a rumour that I believed in the trinity. I replied immediately and told him quite clearly that the rumour is untrue, and added "In fact, I was instrumental in having a lengthy work disproving the trinity translated into Urdu for use in preaching by the Christadelphians in Pakistan. That's hardly something I would do if I believed in the trinity!"

Not satisfied with this answer he emailed again and asked "As for beleiving in the trinity and being a trinitarian probably these could be different its like saying I believe the same as a roman catholic but im not a roman catholic which is it. (sic)"

It seemed to me that this fellow was determined to believe the rumour rather than anything I could say to the contrary, so I sent this reply: "I fail to see how believing in the trinity and being a trinitarian could be different, unless you've come up with a new kind of hair-splitting that's beyond my comprehension. I definitely don't believe in the trinity and I'm not a trinitarian. I don't think I can make that any plainer and it's 'saying it as it is'."

That seemed to satisfy him. He replied the same day and said "thank you for clearing up the trinity problem". He then added: "I can now say without a doubt you do not believe in the doctrine of the trinity. This is what happens unless we get actual words then people don't believe us I will not make my own judgment its what you have said "I definitely don't believe in the trinity and I'm not a Trinitarian" if people ask me I can now say exactually (sic) what it is".

Having given me the impression that he was now going to report accurately what I'd said, you can imagine how surprised I was to learn that the next day he wrote to another Queensland ecclesia (Pine Rivers) "On behalf of the arranging Brethren of NorthOaks Ecclesia" with this comment: "We believe that he [Stephen Cook] probably will fellowship those who believe in the Trinity". Although he'd sent me four emails over the previous two days he never once asked whether I would or would not "fellowship with those who believe in the Trinity", and didn't ask me even a single question about who I would or would not fellowship. What he thinks I'd "probably" do is pure speculation. And even though he thanked me "for clearing up the Trinity problem" it's clear that he still had a problem - but the problem now was that I hadn't given him the answer he was looking for!

The simple fact that he speculates about what I'd "probably" do (even though he didn't ask me when he had the opportunity) rather than reporting what I'd said (even though he said he would report "exactly" what I'd said), indicates to me that he wasn't really interested in the truth, just in getting some 'evidence' he could use against me.

The reason why North Oaks wrote to Pine Rivers ecclesia, apparently, was to object to some of their members facilitating an event where I was to be one of the speakers. Incidentally, this event was a meeting of non-trinitarians where I spoke against the trinity! And now they are actively lobbying the other Queensland ecclesias to have Pine Rivers ecclesia ostracised because some of their members invited me to speak at the gathering. I don't know if they've stopped telling the lie about me being a trinitarian, but today I learned that they've invented (or are actively passing on) at least two more lies about me!

These truly are worrying times for Australian Christadelphians. My advice to anyone who may have been approached or lobbied by North Oaks ecclesia in an effort to ostracise Pine Rivers ecclesia is to think carefully and prayerfully about what you are being asked to do, and to ask yourself if you can trust any information coming from an ecclesia with a divisive and disruptive agenda.