Naturally, churches must make ends meet, but St Paul’s does not appear to be on the breadline, with a charitable foundation and a City of London endowment trust showing millions of pounds in assets. Whereas visitors to other European cathedrals pay nothing, Britain’s leading churches have ordained the Disneyfication of God. Even if charging and slick marketing are unavoidable, the pusillanimous behaviour of senior clergy suggests that the God industry has taken precedence over the voiceless and the vulnerable.
The confrontation between the Occupy LSX encampment and the St Paul’s authorities in London over the last couple of weeks has reminded many commentators of Jesus’ shocking display of anti-establishment indignation in the temple. Take Stephen Tomkins, for example:
Major national Churches are often the focus of protest. A homeless man, known to the authorities for his radical activism, once slipped into one with his supporters and wrecked it, overturning tables and lashing out with a homemade whip.
His point was that what should have been a place of prayer for all people had become an institution fleecing the poor. Those were tougher times than now, and he was executed a week later.
It’s a long time since I’ve sung “Abba, Father, let me be yours and yours alone” in public, but it’s the song that is now rather dated, not the sentiment. Evangelical theology is quite insistent on the fact that as Christians, as sons and daughters of the Father, we have the unique right to address him in intimate terms as “Abba”, “Daddy”. We have been taught that this was Jesus’ typical form of address to God, and that because we have all received the Spirit of adoption, etc., we too may call out to God as “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).
In the spirit of friendly deconstruction (I’m not sure that “deconstruction” should be used in this sense, but everybody else does, so why not?) that I hope characterizes this blog, I want to suggest that this misses the point. It is a good example of theological inflation at the expense of contextualized argumentation.
In his book Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination and History, Dale Allison puts forward a number of arguments in support of his view that Jesus is presented in the New Testament as an eschatological figure, whose identity and vocation must be explained with reference to Jewish apocalyptic themes. One of these arguments is that much of what Jesus says about the coming turn of events draws on Old Testament texts that “foretell the defeat of Israel’s enemies, the influx of the Diaspora, the transformation of the land of promise into a paradise, and the realization of God’s perfect will throughout the world” (78). Allison then sets out a representative, not exhaustive, catalogue of passages to which Jesus alludes (79-82).
If ideological factors have encouraged some to doubt or deny that Jesus thought too highly of himself, such factors have also prodded others to do just the opposite, to attribute to him as high a Christology as possible.
“The most fateful issue for Christian self-description,” Frei wrote…, “is that of regaining its autonomous vocation as a religion, after its defeat in its secondary vocation of providing ideological coherence, foundation, and stability to Western culture.” We no longer live in what Kierkegaard called Christendom. But old habits die hard, and Christian theologians had fallen into the habit of trying to delineate the religious dimension of our general culture. Some seem not to notice that our culture, by and large, isn’t much interested. Some grow angry at the lack of interest.
The Fall 2010 issue of the Princeton Theological Review has a diverse selection of essays under the general heading of “The Church After Google”. David Congdon and Travis McMaken have a good article on theological blogging that I think is worth making note of: “Theo-Blogging and the Future of Academic Theology: Reflections from the Trenches”.
A couple of conversations I had over the summer with proper employed theologians got me wondering whether the future of the discipline at university and even seminary level in secular societies is as secure as publishers’ lists and conference programmes suggest it is. Richard Dawkins may well be a rabid fundamentalist, but when he asserts that theology is no more entitled to a place in today’s universities than the study of leprechauns, I suspect that he may have post-Christendom history on his side. Perhaps in coming decades the centre of theological gravitas will have to shift away from the imposing mainstream institutions into more unruly, unregulated neighbourhoods—such as the blogosphere.
Roger Olson has just written a characteristically lucid summary of what narrative theology is. I’ll summarize his summary for those who can’t be bothered to go and read it for themselves: narrative theology deals with the whole Bible as a “dramatic account of God’s activity”; all other literary and theological forms—propositions, commands, prayers, parables, doctrines, etc.—are either subordinated to or subsumed within the story or drama of scripture; theology is only “our best human attempt to understand the biblical drama-story”; and the practical task of the church is faithfully to improvise the rest of the story.
The very same Bible—which biblicists insist is perspicuous and harmonious—gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest. Knowledge of “biblical” teachings, in short, is characterized by pervasive interpretive pluralism.