How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Norway's day of fire and the challenge of Christian formation

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There was an interview with a Lutheran priest on the radio this morning from the cathedral in Oslo. He spoke of how he had preached the peace of Christ every week… and then described the dreadful shock of learning that the bombing and killings had been carried out not by radical Islamists, as everyone had immediately assumed, but by a blond Norwegian who claimed to be a fundamentalist Christian. In fact, among the many thousands who were flocking to the cathedral to light candles and pray were a significant number of Muslims—refugees from countless, distant, bloody conflicts. One young Iraqi was thankful that the church was open for prayer to all who believed in God.

I know it’s too early to “learn lessons” from these appalling events, but two rather hurried, but I hope not in appropriate, thoughts struck me.

First, we tend to treat discipleship as a rather banal, routine and aimless business—a process of formation that is somehow meant to make us, broadly speaking, better Christians. In the New Testament, however, Christian formation has in view an impending day of crisis for which the churches must be adequately equipped if they are to survive with integrity. Discipleship is framed apocalyptically.

This is apparent in Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15: churches must be constructed on the foundation of the one who overcame death and from non-flammable materials if they are to survive the coming fire of persecution. The parenesis of Romans 12-13 is intended as preparation for a rapidly approaching day when it will be necessary for believers to put on the “armour of light” (Rom. 13:12) in order to overcome the forces of evil that will seek to destroy them. Similarly, the practical teaching of Ephesians 4-6 culminates in the exhortation to “take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day” (Eph. 6:13). This is discipleship for a critical purpose, for a day of crisis.

So the Lutheran priest preaches the peace of Christ every week to a more or less complacent, probably dwindling congregation, patiently reinforcing a culture of peace and tolerance and openness in this exceptional country. And now that long slow routine process of inculcation has been put to the test on this day of fire. Much of the media comment on tragedy has emphasized the fact that it poses a severe challenge to some of the core values of Norwegian society.

But I think that, as the post-Christendom church, we have to confront the question on a broader basis. What exactly are we discipling—training, forming, teaching, equipping—people for? Evangelical churches tend to work with a generic, standardized, largely theoretical, thoroughly modern model of personal discipleship that, frankly, carries little conviction and makes little impact. What we should learn both from the New Testament and—illustratively, at least—from Norway’s experience is that discipleship needs to be driven by a sense of corporate identity and purpose shaped by a prophetic awareness of historical context. What is our coming day of fire? What crises lie on our horizon? What threatens our existence? What sort of communities do we need to be in order to survive with integrity?

Secondly, I think it is absolutely right that the cathedral in Oslo should be seen as a house of prayer for all nations and for all faiths. The church is not called to be a place of exclusive salvation, in competition with the surrounding ideological and religious empires. We have been “saved” in order to be a committed, self-sacrificing priesthood for the nations.

Jesus is the great high priest who delivered the people of God from self-destruction, from the debilitating, devastating consequences of its bondage to sin, so that his priestly people might minister to the world. We are a community of priests, pastors, chaplains, intercessors, evangelists (in a certain sense), counsellors, teachers, prophets for the sake of the world. We are mediators of the goodness and compassion and justice of God to the world, not least at times of extreme crisis.

That he was characterized as a fundementalist christian was wrong (something a police officer said early in the investigation), the Christian label was to him a part of his Nationalist identity. He wanted a mass conversion from lutheranism to catholicism because more culturally conservative. Norway still has a state church and the church thus is/was an important part of norwegian identity.!/hilango/status/95109873712365568


Hi Andrew,

I have been reading and enjoying you website for a couple of years but never seem to have the time to do more than lurk. I find your historical narrative setting very challenging and refreshing.

As so many of us have, I have thought a lot about extremist ideologies this last few years. Assuming Anders Breivik is living out his world view rather than some mental health fantasy (a thin line often I agree), I have been expecting something similar to happen for a while. It seems that a lot of people have felt alienated by increased immigration, plural morality informed by modernity rather the Christianity, centralised Euro-statism, and worry about Islam. These are not new. And whilst we have seen organised violent backlashes on the streets, we have not witnessed a coordinated paramilitary campaign similar perhaps to the IRA or ETA. I have a sense that this incident might be a precursor to new militant right-wing religiously conservative group(s) with Christendom theologies. Certainly the English Defence League has types within it with psychological profiles who would fit the bill.

Anders Breivik is rather beautiful looking from all the photos I’ve seen. His ideology, whilst grotesque, appears coherent, simple, and resonates with many angry people across Europe. His methods are simple enough to empower most individuals to do the same. And political violence against governments young future political leaders has been common throughout history. He will make an excellent figurehead for European terrorist movements with Jesus Christ perversely as their figurehead.

The reason I have expected it to happen is that when I look at how empire deals with dogma, we see a great example of the alternatives at play in the New Testament. Small politically motivated religious groups who are oppressed have three choices available. 1) fight back using insurgent methods as they cannot command large armies. The Zealots would fall into this. 2) internalise more forcefully such as becoming more strict, and romanticising the past and forcing followers to turn back to a purer time. The Pharisees would fall into this 3) finally, compromise with Empire. Work with the enemy in the hope of obtaining special dispensation for your way of life. This would be the Sadducees. Empires have always needed collaborators, they have never maintained control through brutality alone.

I suggest that in Europe we have seen the Sadducee impulse sadly in more liberal & evangelical churches compromising with modernity. We have seen the Pharisee impulse amongst many strict sects within wider denominations seeking a return to assumed purer, stricter times. But up until now we had not seen the Zealot impulse amongst Christians. I wonder if we might have now in Breivik?

If Breivik is living out a zealot impulse then this too is a form of discipleship. All three alternatives are methods of discipleship. So your question regarding the post-Christendom church that we have to confront: “What exactly are we discipling—training, forming, teaching, equipping—people for?” would be relevant here I think? I too don't think that the more banal discipleship methods we have seen in the last 50 years will be enough to stop it. I think we need something more tangible than violence, strictness, or compromise. The example of Jesus, confronting Empire through suffering might be the way however.

This is the first place I have discussed my thoughts about empire and dogma so would be interested in your own. The Norway incident and your questions on discipleship has simply given me a context in which to test this hypothesis.

He's supposedly a fundamentalist Christian, but the media have yet to identify the group to which he belongs. It's more likely that the media jumped at the occasion to link violence to religion. He also has blond hair, so that might explain why he carried out the killings too. Or maybe it's because he's a man. After all, every progressive person knows that men are violent. Right?

Hi Daniel,

It depends on what the media mean by "christian" and what they mean by "fundementalist." More will drip out as the court case is aired. I am assuming he is claiming a Christian identity becasue of his Facebook profile etc. I however am not sure that "the media" are simply trying to find ways to poison Christian identity.

My point however was really twofold

1) that just as with other political murders (such as of Franz Ferdinand, or 9-11) these things have a habit of spiralling politcally. The media have sneared at his claims that a revolution will be started by his work. I think that they are wrong to sneer as it quite possibly will ignite further similar acts of violence but perhaps more corodiated than individual violence or simple street protest. For example the English Defence League have Irish loyalist sympathies, and thus might be the well from which ultra right-wing violent resistance might be sourced -watch their blogs and tweets, I bet some will be celebrating Breivik as a hero.  

2) that violence is one of three natural reactions of people who hold to a religious dogma that feel marginalised, and whose corporate identity is being erroded. The others being an inward turn and collaboration. We see this his form of religious violence expressed in The Zealot factions of the NT. I am simply thowing out a possible senario that his form of Christianity is one of the three that we have not yet witnessed across Europe (we do see it in Northern Ireland). In the context of Andrew's post, he was refering to discipleship, and I was contextualising Breiviks' actions, if religious or partially religious, as a form of disciplship that needs countering.

Daniel, this is simply an experimental idea of mine and may well be wildly inaccurate. But we have all observed ever increasing right-wing violence across Europe in reaction to Islam, immigration, and European intergration. I am simply trying to  give it some theological coherance for the church can approach this discipleship of hate in Jesus name, after-Christendom.

Do I make sense? Thanks for the reply.

Discipleship as a praxis relies upon gaining the hearts of people first, before shaping their understanding. It is, first of all, a matter of allegiance and alliance. Loyalty and faithfulness to a core set of values. Values that may be: incarnated in a partriarchal figure (Jesus; Rev. Moon; Keynes etc.), written down in a set of documents (Talmud; Mao's Red Book; Deming's Profound Knowledge) or represented by an institution (Vatican; Conservative Party; Google).

Some form of discipleship is at the core of all people movements — be they social, political, religious or industrial. Popular (of the people) movements have phenomenal potential to impact and transform societies and nations. Witness the Arab Spring. Or the Revolutions of Russia, France and America. Or Nazism. None of these would have succeeded without becoming popular movements. Or without the making of disciples in the earliest stages of revolution.

At some stage, institutions get on board with the popular movement. They do so in order to survive when the new order emerges. (Institution almost invariably become self-serving after a period of time, whatever noble mission guided their emergence.) For this reason, institutions never lead renewal. They can't. They have too much to lose and have to hold on to the status quo, until doing so threatens their survival and then they morph into something that it is hoped can gain a foothold in the new order.

So, Andrew's question about discipleship in the wake of the postmodern undermining of the totalitarianism of the Enlightenment paradigm and the post-evangelical undermining of the Christendom paradigm could not be more pertinent.

From my perspective, I perceive that Evangelicalism's present fervour depends, by and large, upon two presumed crises: individual death and an apocalyptic return of Christ. The motivation comes from the need to continually hold out the word of life to people who will die and risk eternal destruction. Or who will face a similar crisis at the Second Coming.

But that is not selling well any longer. That message does not have the potential to socially impact an increasingly sophisticated western population (sophisticated not only in Enlightenment thinking, but in personal choices and values about what is really WORTHY in this life…). And beyond the westernised nations, such as in Africa, people need a faith that can make a difference in this life, first of all, even if it does also provide hope beyond the grave.

The crises that people are facing are what has always CALLED OUT new people movements. The "emergent church" movement offered the hope of something new, but hasn't really delivered because it does not have a compelling vision of what needs to come next. It's moved the furniture around and provided a valid alternative to many, but it does not seem to have the innate philosophical strength to offer a truly NEW paradigm, a freshly articulated hope of how God wants to incarnate his Presence within his people, at this point in history.

The crisis that we are facing today are the crises of global capitalism. That is the imperial, totalitarian philosophy that holds sway over the masses and the nations and the world leaders today. Witness the debt crisis at the heart of the US right now and the EU and Africa and the lines can be drawn directly to the philosophy and praxis of unhindered global capitalism.

The Christian church emerged during the period of one of the most brutally successful empires ever, the Romans. Todays' challenge is no less significant. In fact, it is more so, because the world's population is so much greater. If God had compassion on the 120 thousand people and animals of Nineveh (who did not form a part of his covenant community), then he surely has compassion on the nations today, who "do not know their right hand from their left."

The role of the Christian community is to become a community of disciples covenanted to the Lord who can be the priestly intercessors, as Andrew so eloquently summarises, on behalf of the nations as they go through the massive crises that are coming because of the out-of-control (CHAOTIC) nature of the forces of global capitalism (GC).

This is not a political argument. There is no political argument in existence that threatens GC. It is a call to radical Christian discipleship that requires the (re)formation of a renewed covenant community whose allegiance is not to the ceasars of GC and does not march to that tune. Does this mean we have to give up our iPads and flat-screen tv's and western style housing? It means being ready to sacrifice whatever is an idol in our lives, stopping us from being available to serve God wholeheartedly.

Andrew asks what are the crises that confront us. They are the crises of famine in Africa. Not just the one on the TV screens right now. But the famine of injustice. The famine of godly leadership. They are the crises of debt in America and Europe. Living off the fat of other people's land and labour. Of living beyond our means to pay. Of refusing to sacrifice any aspect of our entitlements and selfish-largess. And they are the crises of drugs and insolvency and family breakdown.

Amidst all these crises and more, the Christian community is called to be God's priests to the people who are suffering. Compassion means to acCOMpany people in their suffering, their PASSION.

The crises are all around us.