So it’s been years now that I’ve been working with the categories or healthy and unhealthy theology in order to decide how to take part in certain theological questions in church. Obviously there is still borders, since at some point I consider certain theological ideas to be unhealthy, to be dangerous to the health or the invididual and/or society.

More and more, an important factor in forming my mind on what is unhealthy theology, is seeing if these theological ideas require those who adhere to it to chuck reality out the door. Obviously I now need to recognize that there are many realities, many opinions etc, but let me point to some of what I consider unhealthy theology, because it chucks reality:

  • Obviously creationism. The idea that all scientific research is false and dishonest. That observations must be changed to fit my theological system. This theological position chucks the reality of the scientific world out the door in order to get a theological system that fit. Now, I know that there isn’t concensus on everything in science, but this approach creates caricatures of certain scientific approaches in order to chuck them out the door, so that the theological system can continue to exist.
  • Prosperity gospel. Working with the idea that God will bless you financially if you adhere to certain ideas, it ignores a great deal of it’s own theological tradition (everything on the suffering of the faithful in the Psalms for example), as well as the reality that this simply doesn’t happen. Many are people of faith, but doesn’t experience financial blessings. Others get rich from doing the exact opposite than what the Christian tradition stood for (for example dishonesty in business).
  • I haven’t had much to do with the New Atheist movement. But the little I’ve noticed from them (see for example Bill Maher’s documentary) is that alsi they need to ignore reality to make their theological ideas fit. They need to ignore the reality that not all Christians, Muslims and Jews are fundamentalists, they need to ignore the exceedingly complex approaches that take the sciences seriously, and yet consider language of faith to be a nessecary component of talking about reality.

Don’t try and take this into specifics, because you’ll soon find yourself calling everything that doesn’t conform to your reality to be unhealthy. I’m still working this out, so help me here, but I guess it’s those kinds of theologies that make absolutely no sense to anyone that’s on the outside or downside of it, because it doesn’t seem to come close to reality, that I’m seeing more and more as unhealthy.


in the beginning…

May 16, 2009

hebrew-cosmosI’m reading Genesis 1:1-2:4a. The first creation narrative. Written later than much of the Old Testament, in Babilon (remember that most Jews in later times lived not in Israel, but in Babilon). And it’s the most brilliant story! Imagine with me, how a Jewish father would explain faith to his little son, who have to listen to his Babilonian friends speculate about the universe and about the different gods in existence. Keep the picture to the right in mind, this is how they pictured creation.

What was there in the beginning? Nothing? No, in the beginning there was darkness and water. Darkness and water: In the beginning there was only chaos! Nothing good can come from darkness and water my son. We know that the see is the host of choas, the way to the underworld. It would have been hopeless my son, but God was there. In the beginning, all that was, was chaos and God!

The heaven of heavens did not exist, the firament of the stars did not exist, the underworld, pillars of the earth, nothing existed. That was, except for the darkness, the water and God. God and the chaos.

But then, God said, this wouldn’t do. Let us create light to take away the darkness. Let us get rid of the chaos, so that we can create a space where life can exist. God spoke, and the chaos started receding, because now the possibility of hope was there, the possibility of light, op hope! Where was the light? Well, we don’t know yet, but light was now possible.

But the water was still everywhere, everything was still water. So God said: This wouldn’t do. Let us create space for life to exist. God moved the water around. Some he sent to the underworld, some he sent up to the heavens. Suddenly, a space started to appear where it was visible that God was at work, because the chaos was moved out of the way.

But there was still no place for life to exist. There was space, but the sea was still everywhere. So God said: Let us move this sea out of the way, so that we can have some ground for life to exist on.

Finally, to really nail the chaos, God created two lights. One for the day, and one for the night. Now the chaos was really moved to the underworld, between the pillars that God created for the earth to stand on.

Then God bursted out! “Let’s make life! Earth”, God commanded, “spawn living beings”. Plants, birds and animals, big and small, let us even make fish to swin in the sea, to populate the remaining chaos. And then, my son, God made people, and God made us to look after everything that he created.

So my son. It is true, in the beginning there was only chaos, water and darkness, but in the chaos, there was God. And God got rid of the chaos, to make some space for life. And we are too look after this life. And on the Sabbath, the seventh day, we stop to remember the God who created, we stop and lister to the Spirit of God, the same Spirit that was there when all that existed was chaos.

Oh, and by the way, my son. All those gods your Babilonian friends talk about, that’s just things that God created, not gods.

Creation and evolution. How these two ever got to become two opposing extremes within the church is a study which historians of the present and future really need to help us with. But now we have it. TGIF had one of it’s biggest meetings I’ve seen this morning, listening to Dr Hennie Mouton, creationist, enigineer, elder in the Dutch Reformed Church (last time I heard), and regular contributer to our church newspaper (in the form of letters of critique). The only other time I’ve seen such a large crowd was for the Christian/Atheist conversation between my two friends Roger and Kevin. The number of people attending says something of the hot topics in our society (western, white, post-apartheid, educated etc).

The questions afterwords mostly seemed to come from those who agree, either fully or to an extend, with a little bit of critique. So, this is some of my assumptions on creation and reading texts. Now, I’m not a scientists, so I’ll skip the science, there are others much more capable on those topics. I’ll stick to the theology and the text.

  • The authors of the Bible was very smart people. Don’t patronize them. They were at least as smart as you, maybe smarter.
  • The Bible  was written within time for it’s own time. It contains the science, theology, history and philosophy of it’s day. In short, it’s not a simple spiritual text, but addressed the whole worldview of it’s day, and challenges it with the story of the creator God to become part of the worldview.
  • The Bible has the potential of being important for our day. Challenging us in our time on some extremely needed issues.
  • It was not intended as a science book, or a history book. Both these genres appeared over the last couple of hundred years.
  • The Bible is in tension with itself, showing development and growth in the reflection on God (theology) over ages.
  • The “simple spiritual being, whom we call God” (Belgic Confession), that the people of the Old Testament called Jahweh, created.

There is a very important distinction between literalism and fundamentalism. Important for this discussion. See video below.

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.

Yes, I watched Religulous. No, I’m not going to write a lot. No, I don’t think it was at all helpful.

Bill Maher, the comedian, plays the role of seeker and intellectual? Maybe of an intellectual seeker? Asking intelligent questions to people from the monotheistic religions?

  • His mother and sister
  • A number of Truckers from the Truckers chapel who meet in the back of a trailer. I really liked these guys, no the answers wasn’t theologically sound, but the Jesus narrative changed their lives, and they seem to know something about love (which even Bill admits).
  • Dr Francis Collins, Head of Human Genome Project, to whom he talk about the origin of Biblical texts, especially the synoptic gospels, not about intelligent design, genetics, or anything related to the science-theology conversation which it Collins’ field of expertise.
  • Dr Jeremiah Cummings, The Amazing World Outreach. I’ve never heard of the guy, but he seems to be come sort of tele-evangelist, definitely into prosperity gospel.
  • A Franciscan monk who gets ridiculed for proposing that we might wanna read the Bible a bit differently on homosexuality.
  • Pastor John Wescott of Exchange Ministries. A gay ministry somewhere.
  • Dr Dean Hamer, author or The Gay Gene. But only for a few seconds, and only to say: “yes, there is a gay gene”. You can read on his theories, and that is what they remained.
  • Steve Burg, an ex-Jew. Talks about miracles a lot, and Burg is criticized for seeing the miraculous in the ordinary.
  • Ray Suarez, a journalist and author.
  • Mark Pryor, a US Senator.
  • Ken Ham, from the Creation Museum.
  • Father George Coyne from the Vatican Observatory. One of the only academic theologians interviewed. Coyne gives Maher a very intro on Biblical interpretation, but still Maherridicules those who read the Bible, but doesn’t stick with literalism. Maher use him to prove the young earth creationists to be wrong.
  • Father Reginald Foster. The other academic theologian interviewed. Maher uses him to prove the Catholics wrong.
  • Tourists at the Holy Land Experience in Florida.
  • Two former Mormons.
  • Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda. You’ll find him at allaboutcult, enough said. 

Have you noticed what’s missing? No theologian connected to any university whatsoever. No senior leaders of any mainline Protestant church. Well, no minister of any mainline Protestant church at all actually. There is absolutely no interaction with critical and academic theological scholarship. Is this what they call intellectual? And even though he use the input of two Catholic academics, which I liked, he didn’t interact with their work, and still concludes that religion must die by the end of the documentary.

Maybe just a few last thoughts. Maher refers to three myths which supposedly is the origin of the Jesus story. Only problem is, he need to lie to make his point. I read some thoughts on the Horus myth a few days ago, so I’ll skip that one.

What about the Krishna myth? Bill states that Krishna was:

  • Born of a virgin
  • Carpenter
  • Baptized in a river

All three of these is false. According to the Krishna myth Krishna was:

  • The 8th child of Vasudeva and Devaki. Born in a prison where both was kept.
  • A prince, the son of a statesman.
  • Well, Hindu’s seem to have no idea where Maher got onto the Baptism idea: see here and here.

Point is: With no serious engagement of critical theology, and serious mistakes in Mahers arguments, why should this be taken as a serious intellectual threat to Christianity?

Although I have sympathy with Maher’sconcern with violence cause by fundamentalism, and have done my fair share in trying to point out that fundamentalism is dangerous, Maher’s approach isn’t helping peace along. Making a mockery out of fundamentalism while making obvious mistakes in your argument just have a way of further polarizing the Fundamentalists and New Atheists. Much has been said about the correlation between these two groups, following the twitter feeds on religulous again affirms this, it’s the exact same rhetoric, the kind of totalizing “all religion is bad”, “religion is responsible for all wars”, “religion will cause the end of mankind”, that you find with religious fundamentalists. Does Maher ever notice that his rhetoric equates to something very similar than that which he is opposing? Just on the other extreme of the spectrum.

In the end, I wonder whether it’s Bill the intellectual seeker speaking, of Bill the comedian. Seems more like the latter to me. But I fear that Maher’s comedy won’t be helping us to solve religious violence.

So here’s my advice to Bill Maher:

  1. If you wanna be an intellectual, go talk to the experts in the fields you are studying. If you wanna present yourself as academic, open yourself up to academic debate.
  2. If you wanna make something public, check the facts! If a simple google search can point to the flaws in your argument (talking about your seemingly wise comments on Krishna, Horus and Mithra), chances are, that the DVD won’t make a lasting impact.
  3. If you wanna be a comedian, try and help the world along. Comedians can have a very important influence on the world, but if it means ridiculing the masses and polarizing the world into two extremes, your probably not helping.

Anyone saw the film? What was your thoughts?

One of the things in life which I was introduced to much too late, was Cinema Nouveau. But as of late, I’m becoming a fan. I first saw the preview for Jesus Camp while watching 11th hour. Jesus Camp is a documentary on a

You will find very little critique on what is going on in the film, and are left to figure out your thoughts on the stuff by yourself, a good thing I think. It portrays kids “talking in languages”, point out how these people put the kids on extreme guilt trips regarding sin(1), also the believe that America is the chosen nation of God, and in one interview the senior pastor claim that when the Evangelicals vote, they determine the election. Actually, a major theme in the film is the fundamentalist reaction to American politics, and the Bush administration(2). They are portrayed as supporting the war(3), creationism, against public schools, animal rights movements, and considering global warming to be just a political issue.

What got me is that you get to see how much these ideas have infiltrated the thinking in our own churches. See for example the magical approach used to prayer before they start the camp, where every chair and piece of equipment are prayed for individually, as if this will give more credibility to your prayer, God will be forced to listen, of the devil to stay away? (I have previously written some thoughts on this here).

Or what about the concept of sin being some form of supernatural cause of evil, especially when believers are not faithful. This is not the idea that our sin cause evil (that when we do bad things, we cause bad things to happen, when I don’t feed the poor, they remain hungry), rather that when sinning it opens some supernatural door for evil to enter the country.

The film has caused some controversy after being released (it’s been some time before it hit South Africa), many evangelicals not liking it, saying that Pentecostalism is portrayed in a negative light. Personally, although I have seen forms of evangelicalism with which I am much more comfortable, I’ve also seen things much worse than what get portrayed. And I personally wonder how big the difference in the end will be between Muslim and Christian fundamentalism, do we really want Christians willing to kill those they differ with?  Maybe we already have that in certain parts of the fundamentalist movement?

If you haven’t seen the documentary yet, take the time, see it, and think about it.

Maybe a last thing. I have used fundamentalism, evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in a way that it might sound as if these terms are synonymous, which they are not. Maybe it’s when all these terms come together that you find what is portrayed in the film, since each of them occur in other forms as well.

(1) see the one scene where the kids are crying, and the pastor say stuff like staying in the boiling pot a little longer etc

(2) especially the supreme judge theme running throughout the film, and the prayer for the election of a conservative supreme judge

(3) see for example the one kid shown wearing a “my dad is in the army” shirt, not that this is that big a deal, but a number of small detail are pointed to throughout the film.

questions they ask

October 8, 2007

Haven’t been blogging for a while now. It’s amazing how fast you get out of touch with your ideas if you stop. If I keep on blogging, I tend to have something to blog about, once I stop for a week or two, I just can’t seem to think what to write about!

But OK, I’m back to blogging for now:-)

From July – October is the time for camping on our churches. And the past few years this has been a hectic time, with camps almost every weekend, and some week-long camps as well. The last two camps was one with primary school kids in the congregation where I grew up, and one with 17year olds in the congregation where I am currently. This last one was really an amazing camp. One of those experiences which you just can’t say what caused it, or how to repeat it. But the young people really started talking about there thoughts about God, and questions and stuff. Amazing deep stuff.

They have been doing there last year of “Sunday school” and we took them on a camp at the end of it. I think it all started on Friday evening. We did an activity where they were blindfolded, and then led up to a point where they had to leave the hands of the rest of the group, and then took to a rope. They had to find the end of the circular rope, with people stading around, telling them that they are here to help them, the whole time! The end of the rope is when you ask for help, and the blindfold is taken of.

Through a process of reviewing we then started some conversation. The activity is made a metaphor for talking about God and faith, and we also started talking about the Bible. And then at one stage the pastor that came with me asked a question about how we understand creation (we knew that there was some creationists in the group). This started some discussion, but somewhere in this I think they started to see that it’s OK to ask questions.

They started some conversations among themselves, and on Saturday we had some individual conversations with everyone. They asked questions, and shared ideas, among themselves, and in the individual conversations some questions came out as well.

I think some of the following is what get’s asked a lot by young people in our context:

Why do bad things happen? A lot of them have lost friends through death. They mostly believe that God has a purpose with everything, although they doubt this sometimes, and some find it better when they get told that maybe we do not need to believe that there is a purpose behind everything. I’m actually very much troubled by the fact that so many of our young people have this idea, as I’ve also said here.

Some other questions is the classis: “Where does God come from” and some questions concerning the devil. Some of them don’t know how to handle the evolutionists, and rather decide not to believe the scientists at all. But OK, this is all church youth.