Let me begin with a brief introduction to the notion of the so-called “big other” as the symbolic substance of being, as it were the symbolic space within which we human beings dwell. People usually think about symbolic rules regulating social interaction, but I think it is much more productive to focus on another aspect of what Lacan calls the “big other”. The intricate cobweb of unwritten implicit rules. Their never explicitly stated, if you state them explicitly you even usually commit some kind of crime or violation. This is what always interest me, how what holds communities together are not explicit rules but the unwritten rules which are even prohibited to announce publicly.

Now you will say that I’m exaggerating here. No I’m not. Imagine even the most totalitarian communities imaginable. The Stalinist regime. The real old one from the 30’s. You would say but there everything was clear, no unwritten rules. Oh, their were.

Imagine a session of the central committee where someone stands up and starts to criticize Stalin. Now, everyone knows this was prohibited. But that’s the catch. Imagine someone else standing up and saying: “But listen, are you crazy? Don’t you know that it’s prohibited to criticize comrade Stalin?” I claim the second one would be arrested earlier than the first one. Because although everybody knew that it’s prohibited to criticize Stalin, this prohibition itself was prohibited. The appearance had to be unconditionally maintained that it is allowed to criticize Stalin, but simply why criticize him since he’s so good.

My point it that the appearance of a free choice had to be sustained.

This is the introduction of a talk by Slavjok Zizek that can be downloaded from the Slought foundation website.

Imagine someone standing up and saying: “Black people will not be allowed in our churches. And definitely not on our church boards“. This person would be immediately shunned. But it would seem that it’s prohibited to actively create inter-racial churches in most places. It may never be said. It is even more wrong to state this prohibition than the prohibition itself. And when the observations which support the theory that there is an unwritten rule against inter-racial churches is pointed to, the appearance must be unconditionally maintained that this congregation is open to begin an inter-racial church, but simply why force this when no one wants this/it’s not really central to the gospel/it’s not about race but about culture or language/whatever reasons are given to why “the most segregated hour of Christian America [or South Africa] is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning” to quote Martin Luther King Jr.

I belief a similar argument can be made for poor people in rich Christian communities. Therefore we will never say that they are not allowed, since stating this rule is against the rules, but everyone would work together to keep the community basically rich, and no one would dare to openly attempt to change this.

Is it possible that what determines how the Christian community work is not the written rules of shared confession, faith, mission or community, but some form of unwritten rules which underlies the ideology? If this is true, then these unwritten rules need to be understood, deconstructed, and challenged for change to happen within these communities. Someone would need to publicly state the rule which is not allowed to be stated.

Anyhow, your thoughts would be appreciated…


The Latin phrase Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus means: “Outside the Church there is no salvation“. This expression comes from the writings of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop of the third century. The axiom is often used as short-hand for the doctrine, upheld by both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, that the Church is absolutely necessary for salvation (cf. “one true faith“). The theological basis for this doctrine is founded on the beliefs that (1) Jesus Christ personally established the one Church; and (2) the Church serves as the means by which the graces won by Christ are communicated to believers.

sourch: wikipedia – Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one for whom this sounds somewhat strange.

  • Firstly, any New Testament scholar, and many critical readers of the New Testament, will tell you that Jesus did not personally establish the church. He did not start a new faith either.
  • Secondly, the idea that the church serve as the means by which grace is won obviously won’t hold ground if the first foundation doesn’t hold ground.
  • However, to be honest, most of us probably had to change our minds because we had friends who simply don’t attend church. These doctrines won’t hold in a post-Christondom environment, because the concept of “church” and it’s place in society has changed completely.

The environment within which these doctrines developed worked with this structure:





King and Nobles




Animals, Plants, and Objects

But this has changed. Or so we would think.

Andrew Root has done a brilliant study on how we made the relationships of relational youth minitry an end to a means, the end being getting kids into heaven. But getting kids into heaven doesn’t even seem enough of an end anymore. We gotta get them into church. So even though we talk about missional churches all the time, we structure entire youth ministries around getting kids into church. Yeah, they do short-term outreaches and community projects, but in the end we add these to a growing list of “church-stuff” that our kids have done.

If our entire youth ministry goes about to get the next generation into church, aren’t we then still holding to “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus”? If we measure our success against how many kids we got to church how frequently, what is the theological presupposition underlying that?

so I’m naive

July 21, 2009

There is this old blessing, which supposedly goes back to saint Francis (but then again, so does a lot of sayings), which I often use when preaching. It’s my favourite. I only have the text in Afrikaans, but the last part goes something like this:

and may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a differance in this world, so that you will be able to do the things that others believe to be impossible

I remember reading this post at The Jesus Manifesto a few months ago that was a reminder that contrary to modern liberal thoughts, the way of Jesus is not the utmost thoughts in ethical and social thinking, as if common reason would bring us to the same place that the teachings of Jesus brought us. Reality is that sometimes I simply feel like I’m naive to actually think that the way of Jesus will change the world, sometimes the grand scemes of poitically correct capitalist welfare programs look much more effective. Seems like large companies investing millions into Africa has a better plan than me trying to get myself to a place where I’ll actually house the stranger, sell my stuff, and give to the poor.

But that’s the journey that the teaching of that prophet from Nazareth is getting me onto. I’m getting more and more aware that it’s probably naive. But then again, I must be naive to still believe that God’s kingdom is actually coming, and that I can be part of bringing that into existance…

What’s the task of the preacher? Is she/he the comforter of the church? Is she/he to be the critical voice of social transformation? Is the preacher the person who is to answer the questions of day-to-day practical life from a religious perspective? Is the preacher the authoritative voice speaking the words of God?

Does my questions reflect the age-old question of a priestly and a prophetic role. Of a pastoral and a prophetic role. I recall that Moltmann said somewhere that the church have become so pastoral that it has lost it’s prophetic voice. But ain’t the church supposed to care for the flock? But which flock? Is the flock that’s paying your salary by default the flock that you should care for? When do we turn prophetic? Is there a danger in being a prophetic voice? Maybe we are too quick to think of ourselves as prophets, to quick to preach social transformation, I mean, do we really understand what social transformation should look like?

But saying that we should be slow on the prophetic voice closes a large portian of the text that we hold sacred for preaching. Can the preacher do anything but preach the text? Open the text? Well, we are sure busy doing more than this…

I’ve spent the past 2 days with some 15-20 reverends from the Dutch Reformed Church, Smith, Reggie Nel, Gert Steyn, the lecturer that taught me exegesis (although maybe he don’t want to be linked to that), and Scot McKnight. We started a discussion on the theology of Acts and what that might mean in practice for the church in South Africa today. The final reports was done by myself and three others that also blog, so we’ll be giving some thoughts on our reports. I’ll add the links as the posts come in.

Reggie Nel on Acts 21-28

Our group worked on Acts 15-20. Between 11:00 and 12:00 today, we identified the following as the most important theological thread for South Africa today:

Looking at our text, but also at the whole of Acts, we notice that Acts tell the story of boundries that was crossed. Of course, we didn’t notice this first, the scholars that introduced he discussion also pointed us to this.  However, what we believe is important is that the boundry crossing always caused the Jerusalem church to change their theology. When Peter visit Cornelius, the theology change. At the meeting in Jerusalem, the fact that boundries have been crossed changes the theology.

That we need to cross boundries is commonly accepted in South Africa today. But crossing boundries need to change the theology of those on the inside. The Dutch Reformed Church need to cross the racial and economic boundries (among others) that form our context, and this need to deeply change the theology of our church.

Missiologists call this contextualization. Contextualization should not be misunderstood as mere translation. Bosch pointed to this in Transforming Mission. I’ve written some thoughts on this about 2 years ago (check page 4 about of this document). Translation would imply a rethinking of symbols and language. Contextualization would imply a rethinking of theology, a transformation of our reflection on God and what that would mean for this day and age, within a differing context.

The core question for our church today: How would our understanding of God and the gospel be transformed when we cross the borders of our community? How would this changing reflection on God impact the practice of congregational and church life today?


I’m reading The Song of the Bird by Anthony de Mello which Cori and Kevin gave us for our wedding. The following story de Mello wrote explains a lot of my own struggle with religion, faith and church. But it’s a story, so you decide what it mean for you:

Nasruddin is Dead

Nasruddin was in a philosophical frame of mind: “Life and death-who can say what they are?” His wife, who was busy in the kitchen, overheard him and said, “You men are all alike-quite unpractical. Anyone can tell that when a man’s extremities are rigid and cold, he is dead.”

Nasruddin was impressed by his wife’s practical wisdom. Once when he was out in the winter snow, he felt his hands and feet go numb. “I must be dead,” he thought. Then came a further thought: “What am I doing walking around it I am dead? I should be lying down like a normal corpse.” Which is just what he did.

An hour later, a group of travelers, finding him by the roadside, begad to argue whether he was alive or dead. Nasruddin yearned to cry out, “You fools, can’t you see my extremities are cold and rigid?” But he knew better than to say that, for corpses do not talk.

The travelers finally concluded he was dead, and hoisted the corpse onto their shoulders with a view to carrying it to the cemetery for burial. They hadn’t gone far when they came to a forking of the ways. A fresh dispute arose among them as to which road led to the cemetery. Nasruddin put up with this for as long as he could. Then he sat up and said, “Excuse me, gentlemen, but the road that leads to the cemetery is the one to your left. I know that corpses do not speak, but I have broken the rule this once and I assure you it will not happen again.”

When reality clashes with a rigidly held belief, reality is generally the loser.

Well, you interpret the story. I’ll keep on telling it for some time I think, because it so beautifully sums up my feelings on so many things I find in the way people approach religion, faith and church.

I love the Christian Mission and Modern Culture series from the 90’s. Little A6 books of about 60 pages (some much longer) written by authors such as David Bosch, Leslie Newbigin and Alan Roxburgh. Pity they are so expensive! I just started reading The end of Christendom and the future of Christianity while walking through the streets of Hatfield this afternoon, doing shopping for my wife. Some quotes from the first few pages worth mentioning:

Opening paragraph to the preface to the Series:

Both Christian mission and modern culture, widely regarged as antagonists, are in crisis. the emergence of the modern mission movement in the early nineteenth century cannot be understood apart from the rise of technocratic society. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, both modern culture and Christian mission face an uncertain future.

Opening paragraph in the forward:

The title of this book is intended to suggest the overall hypothesis that I want to develop in it. Briefly put, it is my belief that the Christian movement can have a very significant future – a responsible future that will be both faithful to the original vision of this movement and of immense servide to our beleaguered world. But to have that future, we Christians must stop trying to have the kind of future that nearly sixteen centuries of official Christianity in the Western world have conditioned us to covet.

Nothing new for most of us, and although these books is a few years old, they are still worth reading for everyone believing that something seriously need to change for the church in the West.