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Here’s a collection of quotations from Russell Brand’s compelling ode to the 12 Steps: Recovery.
As Jesus said, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.” Brand speaks as someone who knows the power of the sickness and our profound need for a help that comes from beyond.
1. “Here in our glistening citadel of limitless reflecting screens we live on the outside. Today we may awaken and instantly and unthinkingly reach for the phone, its glow reaching our eyes before the light of dawn, its bulletins dart into our minds before even a moment of acknowledgement of this unbending and unending fact: you are going to die.
You and your children and everyone you love is hurtling toward the boneyard, I know you know. We all know but because it yields so few ‘likes’ on Facebook, we purr on in blinkered compliance, filling our days with temporary fixes. A coffee here, an eBay purchase there, a half-hearted wank or a flirt. Some glinting twitch of pleasure, like a silvery stitch on a cadaver, to tide you over. And you’re probably too clever to ‘repose in God’, or to pick up some dusty book where the poetry creaks with loathing for women, or gays or someone. Maybe if quantum physics could come up with some force, or web, or string or something that tethers the mystery to something solid, something measurable, you’d think again but until then there’s nothing but an empty grave and a blank tombstone, chisel poised. So no one’s going to blame you if you perch on a carousel of destructive relationships and unfulfilling work, whirling round, never still, never truly looking
within, never really going home.”
2. “Be honest, have you ever sat down and inventoried all of the things that bug you: the childhood skirmishes; seething stings of patricidal rage; your fury with the government or traffic or global warming or racism, or Apple for continually changing their chargers? When are you planning to become the person you were born to be? To ‘recover’ your connection to an intended path? On holiday? When the kids leave school? When you get a pay rise? Tick-tock, tick-tock, chisel poised.”
3. “Do you have that sense that something is missing? A feeling in your gut that you’re not good enough? That if you tick off some action, whether it’s eating a Twix, buying some shoes, smoking a joint or getting a good job, you will feel better? If you do, it’s hardly surprising because I believe we live in an age of addiction where addictive thinking has become almost totally immersive. It is the mode of our culture. Consumerism is stimulus and response as a design for life. The very idea that you can somehow make your life all right by attaining primitive material goals – whether it’s getting the ideal relationship, the ideal job, a beautiful Berber rug or forty quids’ worth of smack – the underlying idea, ‘if I could just get X, Y, Z, I would be okay’, is consistent and it is quite wrong.
Addiction is when natural biological imperatives, like the need for food, sex, relaxation or status, become prioritized to the point of destructiveness. It is exacerbated by a culture that understandably exploits this mechanic as it’s a damn good way to sell Mars bars and Toyotas. In my own blessedly garish addiction each addictive pursuit has been an act of peculiar faith that the action will solve a problem.”
4. “No wonder people hanker after animalism and raw thrills. No wonder people go dogging, hot real breath on a windscreen, torch lights and head lights searching, huddled strangers clutching in the dark for the piercing relief of orgasm. No wonder people use porn, hunched over a laptop, grasping and breathless, serious and dutiful like a zealous attendant clerk at a futile task. From this form of escape I am not long exempt. I usually laugh afterwards. As soon as the biological objective has been reached I am ejected from the mindless spell. I look down on myself and sometimes enquire out loud, ‘What was that all about?’, like some monkey man coming to consciousness, and I glance back transcended, ‘Was that honestly your best idea at solving the way you
feel? Now get me some tissues and a bible.’”
5. “What are we doing when we’re masturbating? Or swallowing mindless food. Or swilling silly drinks? Who there do we serve? What is the plan?”
6. “What happens when you don’t follow the compulsion? What is on the other side of my need to eat and purge? The only way to find out is to not do it, and that is a novel act of faith.”
7. “Here’s some good news for the fallen, for those of you that are reading this in despair, the junkies, the alkies, the crack-heads, anorexics, bulimics, dyspeptics, perverts, codependent, love-addicted, hopeless cases: I now believe addiction to be a calling. A blessing. I now hear a rhythm behind the beat, behind the scratching discordant sound of my constant thinking. A true pulse behind the bombastic thud of the ego drum. There, in the silence, the offbeat presence of another thing. What could it be, this other consciousness? Just the sublime accompaniment to my growing nails, pumping heart and rushing blood? These physical and discernible bodily phenomena, do they have a counterpart in a world less obvious? Are we addicts like the animals that evidently pre-emptively fled the oncoming tsunami, sensing some foreboding? Are we attuned to prickling signals that demand anaesthesia? What is the pain? What is it? What does it want?”
8. “Where I have found this program most rewarding and yet most challenging is in the way that it has unravelled my unquestioned faith that I was the centre of the universe and that the purpose of my life was to fulfil my drives, or if that wasn’t possible, be miserable about it in colourful and creative ways. So whilst this program will work for you regardless of creed or lack of creed, it will also disabuse you of the notion, however conscious of it you are, that you and your drives are the defining motivations for your life. The reason I worked the 12 Steps was because I was desperate. The reason I continue to is because they have awakened me to the impossibility of happiness based on my previous world view: that I am the centre of the world and that what I want is important.”
9. “My mentor sat and smoked and listened hour after hour while I unloaded the deadening burden… The main thing was there was nothing I said that was too terrible or too trivial to shock or bore him. He identified throughout and through this practical communication an unexpected thing happened: the veil of separation that I had lived my life behind lifted. The tense disconnectedness that I had always felt lifted. It is commonly understood that the opposite of addiction is connection. That in our addictive behaviours we are trying to achieve the connection. Think of it: the bliss of a hit or a drink or of sex or of gambling or eating, all legitimate drives gone awry, all a reach across the abyss, the separateness of self, all an attempt to redress this disconnection.”
10. “I don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘Wow, I’m on a planet in the Milky Way, in infinite space, bestowed with the gift of consciousness, which I did not give myself, with the gift of language, with lungs that breathe and a heart that beats, none of which I gave myself, with no concrete understanding of the Great Mysteries, knowing only that I was born and will die and nothing of what’s on either side of this brief material and individualized glitch in the limitless expanse of eternity and, I feel, I feel love and pain and I have senses, what a glorious gift! I can relate, and create and serve others or I can lose myself in sensuality and pleasure. What a phenomenal mystery!’ Most days I just wake up feeling a bit anxious and plod a solemn, narrow path of survival, coping. ‘I’ll have a coffee’, ‘I’ll try not to reach for my phone as soon as I stir, simpering and begging like a bad dog at a table for some digital tidbit, some morsel of approval, a text, that’ll do.”
11. “My steps 4 and 5 reveal that I am, when in my addiction, selfish, self-centred and think that all my problems will be solved if I get fame, money, power, plaudits, sex and glory. That I think I am some kind of God/Hitler/Gengis Khan/Jesus figure. And that I can’t cope with this world and its occupants unless I have a hook-up to a great er source of power than my ego can provide. When I confess the details of the trauma I had experienced and the shame that I still felt. When I revealed the things that I never thought I’d tell anybody, I felt relief. I also had to acknowledge my helplessness, my brokenness, my need to change deeply. Through the compassion and love of those I shared with I experienced the power of these principles and the reality of forgiveness, of redemption. I felt willing to change not just my obvious addictive behaviour but also the patterns, thoughts and feelings that had long underwritten them.”
12. “In justifying our misery, we recommit to it. The odyssey of recovery begins in earnest when we become willing to truly change. Not content to rotate the object of addiction, we become ‘entirely ready for God to remove our defects of character.'”
13 “We have been taught that freedom is the freedom to pursue our petty, trivial desires. Real freedom is freedom from our petty, trivial desires.”
14. “Each time I have done it [made amends for past wrongs] I have felt a subtle awe and unbidden tearfulness. I have felt humbled. I have felt the grace that occurs when you decide to put aside your own way of doing things and surrender to another way.”
15. “Carl Jung’s verdict [is] that what chronic addicts need is a spiritual experience and ongoing communal support.”
16. “We’ve learned to live with shame and pain, we’ve learned to live disconnected, cast out of Eden. We have forgotten that we can return. The reason you must tackle your addiction no matter how moderate it may seem or whether it be socially sanctioned is it will, in the end, fail you. Because the drive, the fuel, the impetus behind it is legitimate and it’s goals are legitimate –
connection – in the end it will not settle for a simulacrum. It will be found out.
That’s why you’re lucky if you’re addicted to crack or smack. They are fast-hemorrhaging, fast-failing systems. They provide anaesthetic and distraction but are so bloody medically unsound they are quickly exposed as dupes. Sex and food can sustain a longer masquerade.
Now admittedly you see fewer people hunched over in doorways on ice cream than you do on meth but anyone who knows someone who suffers from an eating disorder will tell you that the sufferer is similarly derelict. And because what we are dealing with is a spiritual condition, a post-religious spiritual calling, the inner condition is what we must address.
When you start to drink, wank, eat, spend, obsess, you have lost your connection to the great power within you the great power in others, the great power in all things. There is something in you speaking to you and you don’t understand it because you’ve never learned its language. So we try to palm it off with porn and consuming but it is your spirit calling and it craves connection. Spend time alone, write, pray, meditate. This is where we learn the language.”
17. [We are all] “trainee corpses.”
18. “There is no freedom without forgiveness.”
19. “You can never quench your spiritual craving through material means.”
20. “We crave connection, but so much of the time we are not alive, neutralized. Who are you when you’re listening to the radio in traffic? You are not you, you are on standby. Mostly we are free-floating and disengaged, lost in the spectacle.”
As Father, Son and Holy Spirit our God is Sender, Sent and Proceeding. His being is irreducibly bound up in sending – in mission. He is the out-ward focussed God, the spreading God. In the words of David Bosch, he is “a Fountain of sending love.
2. Life in God means life on mission.
To be “godly” is to share in God’s own missionary life.
3. The Father is over our missionary efforts.
He is the real One who summons the world to faith in Christ and who orders all things that they might be brought under His feet (Eph 1:10).
4. The Son is the centre of all our missionary efforts (Rom 1:3-4).
He is the One proclaimed – the substance of all our proclamation (Colossians 1:28). Good thing too because He is unbelievably attractive. Speak of Him and you cannot go wrong.
5. The Spirit is the power of all our missionary efforts.
As we go we are ‘clothed with power’ (Luke 24:49). The One whose very nature is to make known the Son is with us and speaks through us.
6. The world is utterly lost.
The natural state of the race of Adam is disconnection from the God of life – it is perishing. It’s hell to be Christless (Ephesians 2:12).
7. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16).
God is unleashing divine potency as we testify to Christ.
8. In Christ, I’m already who I need to be.
I already am salt and light (Matt 5:13-16). I am a witness (Acts 1:8). I am priestly (1 Peter 2:9). Whether I act on this or not, I don’t have to become evangelistic. In the community of the church, God has made us what we need to be.
9. My greatest problem is not the culture but me.
My flesh is the real enemy to evangelism not lack of evangelistic techniques! My flesh curves me in on myself when mission is to extend myself into the lives of others. My desire for comfort, ease, and approval is what stops me gospelling.
10. Christ has earned me the right to speak.
All authority is Christ’s (Matthew 28:16-18) and he gives it to his people (Matthew 28:19-20). I don’t earn the right to speak, the Risen Jesus has earned it already. “Therefore go!”
11. Giving myself away is the happy life.
As I share Jesus I benefit hugely – I come to appreciate all the good things I have in Christ as I articulate them (Philemon 6). And as I give myself to others I follow in the way of Christ, the way of blessing. (Mark 8:35)
12. Disgrace for the sake of the Name is glorious (Acts 5:41).
There is nothing like evangelism for experiencing standing with Jesus as one chosen out of the world (John 15:18-21).
13. Nothing is neutral (Matt 12:30).
My friends, family, colleagues and the public space is not neutral but conveys spiritual values all the time. I never ‘inject’ God-talk into the world. All talk is god-talk, that is – talk about ultimate spiritual values. I never need to be ashamed that I’m the one forcing spiritual views on another. Such proselytising is a necessary part of all conversation. I may as well bring true God-talk to bear.
14. The Gospel is about everything!
Fundamentally I don’t have to turn the conversation to spiritual things. It’s already spiritual and it has already been addressed by the Father in the Son and by the Spirit. (I just have to figure out how! – but that will come in time.)
15. Church is God’s mission strategy for the world
Christ’s people are already chosen, dearly loved and special in our world-focussed, outward-looking-ness (1 Pet 2:9). I have a whole body – the body of Christ – behind me. In fact no, let me re-phrase. The body of Christ surrounds me as an intrinsically evangelistic organism. The burden is never on my shoulders.
16. The community in its unity is vital (John 13:34-35; John 17:20-26).
Before I have loved the unbeliever, my love of the believer (if done in view of the world) has already witnessed powerfully to Christ.
17. The community in its diversity is vital (Eph 4:10-12; 1 Peter 4:10-11).
I have been uniquely gifted in the evangelistic task and I am surrounded by others (who I need) who are likewise uniquely gifted.
18. I don’t have to be holy first then a missionary.
I strive for holiness in mission. It is the outward-looking holding-up-of-Christ that is the umbrella activity of the Christian under which my holiness is worked out. So we don’t wait to evangelise while we sort out our personal walk. We use mission to conquer those besetting sins and habits (they won’t be properly conquered any other way!).
19. I don’t have to be polished first and then a missionary.
My life on mission is how I am discipled. As I go I learn. And all I really need is the testimony of John 9: “I was blind but now I see.”
20. There is reward for the evangelist!
“Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3)
“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9)
“What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?” (1 Thes 2:19)
In my debate with Musharraf Hussein (listen to the audio, read some follow-up reflections here and here) he made the claim repeatedly that Trinity was a late development. He reckoned the doctrine was thrust onto the church by Constantine in the 4th century at the Council of Nicaea.
Such an assertion is not uncommon. The underlying thought is that everyone was unitarian until a few nefarious characters hijacked Christianity. Maybe the chief baddie was Paul, maybe it was Constantine, but somebody sullied the pure doctrine of Tawhid and we had to wait till the 7th century for Muhammad to put people right again.
What’s worrying is that many Christians seem to share similar thoughts about Trinitarian trajectories. Some think that the Old Testament was essentially unitarian but that there was a shift in the 1st century to trinitarianism. If such a position is assumed it becomes difficult to disagree with a Muslim who reckons we should stick to Moses and the Prophets. If unitarianism is original, why complicate matters? And if the New Testament is such a big development/departure, why aren’t there any chapters in Paul’s letters that begin, “Now, regarding the matter of the Trinity. The Spirit has revealed the doctrine in these last days and so we now declare to you what was kept hidden in ages past…” In fact why does no-one ever attempt to teach the Trinity? It’s always just assumed.
I think this tells us that we’ve been working with faulty trajectories.
The faulty Muslim trajectory says:
There’s a foundation of unitarianism and the key date for development was the 4th century. Later, in the 7th century, Islam put things right, returning to Moses’ doctrine of God.
The faulty Christian trajectory says:
There’s a foundation of unitarianism and the key date for development was the 1st century. In the 7th century, Islam failed to follow the new trajectory and remained with Moses’ understanding.
But the true Christian trajectory says:
The foundation is essentially trinitarian (or proto-trinitarian) and the key dates for development were the 2nd and 7th centuries AD when Jewish and then Muslim theologians rejected Christianity. It’s Christianity alone which has maintained Moses’ doctrine of God.
Let me unpack this third position.
Moses’ doctrine of God was of a multi-personal Being. God is one – Moses proclaims it proudly (Deuteronomy 6:4). But this one-ness is a compound unity. Throughout the Old Testament, God approaches people through his Word/ Glory / Angel, who is both from the LORD and is the LORD. (See many Old Testament passages where this truth lies right on the surface). Moses’ doctrine of God is emphatically not Muhammad’s doctrine of God. And nor is it Maimonides’ doctrine of God (Maimonides was a 12th century Jewish theologian heavily influenced by Aristotle and hugely influential on modern day Jewish theology).
The “development” is not from a unitarian Old Testament into a trinitarian New Testament. To think this way is to grant to Muslim and modern Jewish theologians that they are right about Moses but that Christians have departed from him. This is not the way the New Testament argues.
No, trinitarianism is not the development, unitarianism is. In fact, to call it a development is incorrect. Unitarianism is a devolution, a corruption. Alan Segal, a Jewish theologian, wrote The Two Powers in Heaven to show that it was commonplace in the 1st century to believe in Two Powers: the Ancient of Days together with the Son of Man; The Most High God together with His great High Priest, the Word; etc; etc. Such teaching was uncontroversial and promulgated by colossal figures like Philo of Alexandria. It was only in the second century AD that the Jewish authorities, in reaction to Christianity, began to distance themselves from this teaching. Jewish scholars like Segal acknowledge that it was precisely because “Two Powers” theology sounded so Christian that the Jews began to anathematise it.
More and more, those who rejected Christ began to harden against the doctrine of God that Christians were proclaiming (and remember, Christians were proclaiming it from the Hebrew Scriptures). More and more though the enemies of Christianity became anti-trinitarian. It got to the point where, in the 7th century, a new ‘prophet’ arose so opposed to the Trinity he came to the world with a new religious text: one shot through with quips like “Say not three” and “God does not beget, nor is he begotten.” That is the real trajectory for unitarianism – a corruption from Moses’ original doctrine of God, accelerated decisively by the coming of God’s Son in the flesh.
When it comes to grasping Moses, neither Muhammad nor Maimonides are much help. Those thinkers represent a departure from the original teaching of Scripture. The Bible’s bedrock doctrine of God is emphatically not unitarian. This means that as Christians we don’t have to choose between our Hebrew roots and trinitarian theology – they are entirely of a piece. It is modern Judaism and Islam that reckon they have to choose. And in rejecting the Trinity they have lost both Moses and his God.
I made the point that unitarianism (the belief that God’s one-ness is a mathematical singularity) is not obvious. In fact it involves you in the very thing unitarians wish to avoid: idolatry. Either it makes you posit a lifeless, mute, dark God or a needy God or both (read here for those two arguments).
In this post I want to present a third argument for why unitarianism leads to idolatry. It’s all about Jesus.
In our debate, Musharraf claimed that the 4th century council of Nicaea was the place where the Trinity was invented. Or at least Nicaea was where the doctrine was thrust upon the church by Constantine and his romanising influence. Historically this is nonsense. The first three centuries of the New Testament church were thoroughly Trinitarian already. And besides, the whole point of the debate was to say that there wasn’t only three centuries of proto-Nicene theology prior to the council. Actually there were millennia of proto-Nicene theology – from Genesis onwards!
So Nicaea was not an alien development thrust on God’s people. (For more, listen to the debate). Here though I want to raise something else about Nicaea – something I touched on early in our conversation. The problem for the Muslim is that no-one at Nicaea represents anything like the Muslim position. Not Arius, no-one. And no non-Trinitarian Christian prior to Nicaea said anything about doctrine of God that would be remotely acceptable to a Muslim – not the docetics, not the adoptionists, not the Ebionites. No-one who had a ounce of regard for the New Testament or the person of Christ could have a Muslim doctrine of God. Why? Because Jesus.
Even if you were a heretic who conceived of Jesus as a man adopted into the life of God as his Son, you had a far more exalted Jesus than Islam could ever accommodate. And the Jesus that Arius represented at Nicaea was even more exalted than that. Arius claimed:
We know one God – alone unbegotten, alone everlasting, alone without beginning… who begot an only-begotten Son before eternal times, through whom he made the ages and everything.
Here we have an only-begotten Son who is older than the universe and is the mediator of all creation. Remember Arius reliedon passages like Proverbs 8 concerning Wisdom (which everyone at Nicaea agreed referred to the Son). Arius therefore said that, obviously, the Son is a partner with the LORD and works together with him as his Craftsman. From both Old and New Testaments you can’t get around it, there’s something divine about Christ. For Arius he is emphatically a lesser deity. But nonetheless he made the world and is in some sense divine.
That’s the Arian Jesus. That is emphatically not the Muslim Jesus. And it could not be the Muslim Jesus because of the Muslim doctrine of God. For anything like Islam to get off the ground whilst also holding onto Jesus, the history of religions would have to wait a long time. We would have to wait until the biblical Jesus was forgotten. We would have to wait 700 years and move 700 miles south into the desert. There would need to be another book essentially supplanting the Bible – a book which mixes in apocryphal gospels and Talmudic material. This new religion would have to dilute and dilute and dilute the biblical Christ until there was virtually nothing left. Then Islam could accommodate Jesus.
Of course even this Quranic, 1-part-in-1000-diluted-Jesus is still pretty cool. He’s still born of a virgin for goodness sakes. He does incredible miracles. He will judge the world. But over half a millennium after he lived, and with a major rebrand as ‘Isa’, Muhammad just about manages to de-God Jesus. Enough to make him palatable for unitarian consumption anyway. Just about.
(By the way this is the opposite of the mythology that imagines Jesus to have become increasingly deified in the popular imagination as the centuries progressed. In fact the trajectory runs in the other direction. It’s the earliest preaching, creeds, hymns and gospels that speak in the most exalted terms about his deity. People have to forget Jesus and ignore the earliest, most trustworthy sources (the New Testament) in order to make him just a prophet. Those who deal with him up close and personal recognise the enormity of his divine person).
So then, back to Nicaea. There are 318 bishops. 316 of them are against Arius. Now imagine you put a Muslim in a time machine and place them at the council. Whose side should they prefer?
You might imagine that they would prefer Arius. After all it’s Arius who has a doctrine of God that sounds closer to tawhid (the Islamic doctrine of God’s oneness). Remember what Arius said. God is “alone unbegotten, alone everlasting, alone without beginning.” That word “alone” sounds pretty Islamic.
But careful now. Because if our time-travelling Muslim chooses the Arian side, what has he done? He has actually multiplied divine beings. Arius thought of Christ as a divine being subordinate to the Most High. He had to because the biblical material would not let him think any less of the Son. But then, this is the dilemma for any who face up to the Scriptural Christ: Does this divine Son exist within the one divine being of God, or outside? Arius said outside. And so he committed shirk. “Shirk” is the foulest sin in Islam – it means associating partners with God. But that’s what Arius does. Arius is forced to see Christ as another divine being who partners with God in all his work. This is of course completely unacceptable to Muslims. But – here’s the point – it’s completely unacceptable to Christians too.
This is why Arius was condemned. The orthodox bishops at Nicaea were adamant that there are not multiple divine beings. There is only one God. The Son is not a second, lesser deity who the Almighty uses in creation and redemption. The Son is “of one being with the Father” as the creed says. The ‘partnership’ of Father and Son is not of two beings. Christians are revulsed by the thought, just as Muslims are. But the fact remains, the Scriptures speak of some kind of ‘partnership.’ The LORD creates through his Wisdom, the Most High reveals himself through his Sent One, the Ancient of Days rules through his Son of Man. You cannot get around this if you’re at all honest in your reading of the Bible. But Nicaea is insisting that what we see in this union is not the interaction of two deities – a greater and a lesser one. Blasphemy! Orthodox Christians have always condemned Arianism because it multiplies gods. Heresy! No, God is one. The doctrine of the Trinity insists on it. The doctrine of the Trinity upholds it. Therefore a Nicene reading of Scripture is the one that is true to monotheism. When a Nicene theologian reads these Scriptures about the Ancient of Days and his Son of Man, she sees a Father-Son union that is the very essence of God’s unbreakable oneness. It’s the doctrine of the Trinity that keeps us from shirk.
So this is the choice you must make. Once you take Jesus seriously – once you take him Scripturally – you must either become Trinitarian, seeing him as internal to the unique and unified divine identity, or you must put him outside that identity. If you do the latter, you make for yourself another god.
I genuinely mean both sides of these tweets. I really did learn from Musharraf. I was struck by his regular quoting of Muslim scripture. It showed a real trust in the authority of his scriptures rather than simply the cleverness of his arguments. I should have done more of that.
I went into the debate with the intention of discussing some specific Scriptures from Genesis and Daniel. I wanted to show how, in its own context, the Old Testament speaks of a multi-personal doctrine of God. “The Angel of the LORD” (in Genesis) and “the Son of Man” (in Daniel) are titles for the pre-incarnate Christ and if we take the Old Testament Scriptures seriously then we must see that in their own context they proclaim the compound unity God.
When it came to it though, I spoke more generally about the whole sweep of Scripture because I felt I didn’t want to get bogged down in one particular verse. But maybe the problem was with me. “Bogged down”, eh? The Bible doesn’t bog us down, does it? I probably should have approached the debate as intended and brought the specific Scriptures to bear, pressing home their implications. Ah well. Regrets!
On the other hand I hope that Musharraf, and other Muslims listening in, would also learn from the debate. In particular I would love Muslims to consider whether the Muslim doctrine of God is itself incoherent or even idolatrous.
Idolatrous? Yes, let me show how Islam’s unitarian doctrine of God actually makes the Muslim guilty of the very last crime they wish to commit. Tawhid – the Muslim doctrine of God’s mathematical oneness – entails shirk – the sin of associating partners with Allah, i.e. idolatry. This is true in three ways. In today’s post let me show two reasons the Muslim commits idolatry and then next week, I’ll unpack the third reason.
The Muslim Doctrine of God (tawhid) entails the sin of idolatry (shirk) because:
The Bible says that Christ is God’s eternal Word (John 1:1); His eternal Radiance (Hebrews 1:3); His eternal Son (John 17:24). This means that God has always been expressing himself, always shining, always giving life. If God’s eternal being does not include this expression/shining/life-giving then it would make God mute, dark and lifeless. The Bible has a name for gods who are mute, dark and lifeless. It calls them idols.
A Muslim may respond to the above by saying that Allah’s attributes include self-expression, radiance, life-giving, etc. The mathematically singular Allah does not need a Son or Spirit in order to be communicative, or so the argument goes. Unfortunately for the Muslim this doesn’t work. If Allah is essentially communicative then he is incomplete until he shares himself with creation. If he is essentially loving and merciful (as the Quran says) then he needs creatures to be loving and merciful towards. But the Bible has a name for gods who are needy. It calls them idols.
Either Allah is needy and can, through the help of creation, communicate/shine/give life, or Allah is not needy and is shut up within himself as a mute, dark, lifeless god. He could be one kind of false god or another kind of false god. But, having rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, the Muslim God can never be anything but an idol.
Listen to the debate when it’s out and, next week, I’ll write some more here reflecting on the very different doctrines of God which Christianity and Islam proclaim.
So far 367000 people have retweeted it. That’s a very decent response. Certainly better than violence. Cvjetanovic has used his freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to espouse race-based garbage. Having done so he is not free from the consequences of that speech and that assembly. He has lived by the angry torch-lit protest, now he dies (figuratively) by the angry torch-lit tweet-storm. There’s a poetic justice there.
But is that our only reaction to Peter Cvjetanovic? If so I hazard to suggest that it won’t solve the problem of racism. Because what is racism? It’s basically the most naked and vulgar expression of “the flesh.” The Bible uses the word “flesh” to describe our natural instinct to raise ourselves up rather than pour ourselves out. It’s been said that you understand “flesh” when you knock off the last letter and read it backwards. Flesh is all about self. I trust myself, I serve myself, I strengthen myself, I assert myself, I boast in myself – this is the flesh and it sticks to me like skin to my bones.
Racism is the most obvious expression of “the flesh”. “The flesh” says: “I’m OK, I’m secure, I have an identity because of something in me, something you don’t have.” The flesh raises itself up, over against others, in order to make a name for itself. To be driven by the flesh you could point to your own achievements, intelligence, ideology, looks, strength, gender, sexuality, wealth, fame, influence – you could point to anything in you and that would be “the flesh.” But there’s nothing more obviously carnal than pointing to your own skin and saying “Look! Look at my flesh! It’s right there on the surface. I’m somebody because I’m white.” That’s pathetic. It’s tragic. It’s diabolical. It’s the flesh undisguised.
But it’s also why racism will not be fought simply by shaming. Exposure is good. Exposure helps. It brings the darkness out into the light. But shame-storms? Not so much. Why? Because we enjoy them too much. There is a deep part of us – mostly hidden, largely unacknowledged – that’s glad Peter Cvjetanovic exists. I mean he’s perfect – right down to his pasty torchlit face and immaculate side-parting. Twitter asks us, relentlessly: “Do you condemn Peter Cvjetanovic and all his ilk?” Gladly, we cry as we slam ‘RETWEET.’ Job done. Good Guys 367000, Racists 0.
But what’s happened to our flesh – our own flesh? This is important because it’s not just the flesh in Charlottesville that needs condemning. The flesh in me needs to be condemned too. And something else needs to take hold or else the whole world is doomed to replay the carnage of this last weekend, both offline and on. So let me suggest a three-fold response:
First, expose the darkness.
Yes indeed, retweet the photo if you like. And certainly call evil “evil” because racism is definitely evil. But then also…
Second, admit that I am part of the problem.
I wouldn’t join this march, but like Peter Cvjetanovic’s namesake I’ve warmed myself by fires that I shouldn’t have in order to find acceptance. I too have taken the easy route, fallen in with the wrong crowd and trusted in unworthy grounds for my sense of self. I too seek an identity in ways that make me despise and diminish others. Maybe it’s because of my progressiveness, my piety, my pure theology, who knows but I too have flesh and that flesh needs condemning.
Third, admit that he is part of the human race.
Cvjetanovic is not a different species. He’s me. We don’t like to think this way. Miroslav Volf said that ordinarily “I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.” We must do the opposite. Having included myself in the community of sinners, I also need to include Cvjetanovic in the community of humans. Which means, having condemned the evil of racism, I pray for the poor bigot.
Maybe something like this:
Dear Lord Jesus, we have seen this weekend the fig leaves stripped away and the flesh in all its horror. We grieve. Lord have mercy.
We desperately need your grace because we all warm ourselves by the wrong fires, we all trust in the wrong saviours, we all condemn the wrong things – our neighbours and not our sins. We live by the flesh and we ought to die by the flesh.
But Lord Jesus, you took our flesh and you took our sin. You gave yourself to a torch-lit mob, you were convicted by an unjust system, you were shamed by hate-filled crowds, you were torn apart by the politics of envy and pride. Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned you stood, sealed my pardon with your blood: Hallelujah, what a Saviour!
Lord, reveal yourself again to my heart. Assure me that my flesh is condemned in your cross and my life is hidden in your risen glory. May I know myself crucified with you and therefore dead to the flesh.
Reveal yourself to Peter and to all those swept up in this false gospel of flesh-righteousness.
Reveal yourself to a world so intent on justifying self and shaming others.
As you once revealed yourself through the mob, the hatred, the darkness and the death of Golgotha, reveal yourself again – through your gospel, through your people, even through me. Amen.
Last week we thought about where we centre our evangelistic preaching. Too often we focus on the pig-sty (to use the example of Luke 15). We basically call rebellious youths to come to their senses, to wrench themselves away from the far country and to return to the father with a pre-prepared sorry speech. The evangelist will even feed the prodigals a ready-made, line-by-line repentance spiel – one with magic words guaranteed to effect a reconciliation. The whole encounter goes something like this:
“We all know who God is don’t we? He’s the Big Guy and you’ve been avoiding Him haven’t you? Allow me to latch onto some guilt feelings you’ve experienced. Let me call that ‘conviction of sin’. And now let me promise relief from those feelings if you’ll only return to the Big Guy and bring this speech with you. I guarantee it’ll work (because-there-was-this-thing-called-the-cross-which-you-don’t-need-to-know-about-now but-I-need-to-crow-bar-it-in-because-these-words-are-magic). Anyway, the ball is now in your court. It’s all down to you. If you’re up to the challenge, carefully repeat this prayer after me…”
The whole paradigm is one in which “God” is taken for granted, Jesus is a helpful mechanism to fix the guilt problem but the real Name above all names is Decision before Whom all must bow in self-willed surrender. Almighty Decision towers above you, are you equal to his call?
Let me suggest that the answer to all of this is (unsurprisingly) focusing on Christ. Evangelism is speaking of Jesus. It’s lifting Him up by the Spirit (which means Scripturally) so as to present Him to the world as good news. So we say ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’ We basically hold out the Bread of life saying “Tasty isn’t He??”
Now if we approach evangelism with Christ at the centre, there are many advantages:
1) Jesus simply is the most interesting and attractive Subject.
You might have some cracking gags, moving anecdotes, contemporary illustrations and memorable catch-phrases, but they’ve got nothing on the power and beauty of Christ.
2) Faith is immediately seen for what it is – receiving a Person.
Faith is not “banking the cheque” of forgiveness. What does that even mean? What do any of our illustrations of faith actually mean? Far better simply to hold out Christ and say “Do you see Him? You can have Him. Ask Him now into your life.”
3) Decision is dethroned.
We don’t so much tell the world to believe in Jesus. Far more than this, we tell the world about Jesus such that they do believe. This is because faith is a response. It’s not something we push out of ourselves by willpower. It’s something Christ pulls out of us by His promises. The spotlight should not fall on the listener and their willingness to summon up the necessary response. The spotlight is on Christ Himself.
4) You don’t have to worry about offering cheap grace.
You’re not offering ‘a blank cheque’ for free, you’re offering the Lord for free. To receive the it of grace/forgiveness/a ticket to heaven is entirely different from receiving Him – the LORD our Righteousness. In this way conversion and discipleship are held together. The one who simply receives Christ has unmistakably received a new Master.
5) You don’t sell Christianity on the back of some abstract fringe benefits.
It’s not about health and wealth prosperity, it’s not about feelings of purpose and spiritual fulfilment, it’s not about a “get out of hell free” card, it’s about having the Lord Jesus Himself in your life. Therefore the preacher says “The one thing you get for receiving Jesus, is Jesus. But if you’re seeing things clearly, the one thing you want is Jesus.”
6) The responses are de-emphasized.
George Whitefield and John Wesley knew where to put the emphasis in their preaching. They didn’t make claims for their “converts”, instead they spoke of people “awakened” to the things of God. Instead of trying to gain converts, most often they thought of “offering Christ.” The power is in the preached gospel itself and so we focus not on heavy-handed “response times.” We focus where God is at work – through His word as we lift up Jesus. Faith comes by hearing so let us not preach decisions, let’s preach Christ.
Is it the moment when the young rebel ‘comes to himself’ in the pig-sty?
That’s certainly the way the story gets preached. But let’s think about this for a minute. If the pig sty is the turning point, then how will we preach the ‘moral of the story’? With this emphasis the parable is all about looking around, understanding the wretchedness of the sty, weighing things up and choosing obedience.
What’s wrong with that? Well for one it effectively makes the prodigal his own saviour. It leads to preaching that follows this all-too-familiar pattern:
Life can be great in the far country can’t it?
But the money always runs out, doesn’t it?
The pig sty is pretty horrible.
Maybe now is the time to come to your senses.
Here – here’s a sorry spiel you can use. Practise it. The words are magic and will guarantee your acceptance from the Father… Let’s pray.
Such preaching is rife but it doesn’t focus us where we need to be focused.
Let’s ask the question, what is the turning point of this story? I’m not so much talking about literary devices. I’m asking the question, What is the point that determines the prodigal’s fate? What is the decisive moment for his life? Is it ‘coming to himself’ in the sty?
No. Of course not. He could have devised the greatest repentance plan known to man and still been rightly shunned by his father. The true turning point was the father’s embrace.
The real change in the prodigal – both his change of status and of heart – happens in the arms of the father. That’s where repentance occurs.
Imagine yourself in those arms. You may have been sorry before but now you loathe yourself… and yet… you cannot escape his love. You’d thought you stank in the sty, now you feel your stench to the core. Yet you are held close. You had composed a repentance speech. Now the awareness of your sin is overwhelming. But you’re enfolded in grace.
This is true repentance – that which occurs in the Father’s embrace. And this is where our ongoing repentance occurs.
When we sin, do we consider ourselves to be in the pig sty – the long journey home stretches ahead of us? Or do we consider ourselves to be already in the Father’s arms? There’s a big difference.
I remember speaking with a Christian man about his extra-marital affair from years earlier. As he spoke about the pain of those memories I said to him “You realise that in the midst of your worst sins, Jesus was rejoicing over you as a Bridegroom rejoices over His bride.” He paused for a long time and said “That makes it a hundred times worse!” I said “Yes it does. A thousand times worse.” We think that we manage to sin away in a corner somewhere. No, no, no. Just read 1 Corinthians 6:15-20 to see that we are very much united to Christ in our sin!
We stink of pig in the Father’s arms. That’s a thousand times worse than stinking in the sty. But it’s a million times better too.
Next week, we’ll consider what it sounds like to preach this way, but for now let’s feel the wonder of the Father’s arms. The place for our turning – at the beginning and throughout our Christian lives – is His unchanging embrace. When you sin, don’t imagine yourself alone in the sty. You are there in His arms – reeking and held fast. It’s a thousand times worse. A million times better.