Thursday, 26 August 2010

Back to School

There's a fierce discussion going on over on Simone's blog about choices in education and specifically whether you should choose a "Christian" education or engage with the State system.  I wanted to comment but it ended up too long so I've posted here instead. 

As usual, life is more complex than our theories and in fact schooling choice is a very complex thing.

In our schooling system there are five options, as opposed to the discussion which seems to mainly revolve around their being two. It’s actually more complex than this, because each school is different. This range is then doubled because parents will make at least two schooling choices, one for primary and one for high school – more if they move or if they make a mistake the first time. The high school choice usually involves some input from the kid too.

The five options
  1. A State school – either local, or a non-local school which has some feature particularly attractive to that parent or child (like a good music program).
  2. A local private school – these are mostly run by Catholic Education and have low fees and a general Christian orientation, but people don’t send their kids there just for religious reasons and often the parents aren’t Christians.
  3. An elite private school – these are mostly also church run but their primary selling point is status and a perception of excellence which comes about because they have lots of resources so can have good stuff and good programs.  Once again people don't send their kids here for religious reasons even though these are "christian" schools.
  4. A “Christian” school which has been formed with a very strong missional focus – this might be to educate the children of Christian families but they may also see their mission as educating other children.  For instance the Baptist Church here in Brisbane runs an alternative school for young people who have dropped out of mainstream schooling – most have suffered some form of abuse or trauma.  Now there's a mission field for you!
  5. Home schooling, where the parents decide to do the schooling themselves. They may choose this for religious reasons (to control the way their children are exposed to “non-christian” influences) or for educational ones like my friend who home-schooled two of her children because the schools were unable to respond appropriately to their learning difficulties. Most home-schoolers I know use the State Distance Education curriculum material and support, although some use other systems.
Each of these alternatives has an opportunity for mission attached to it, but the mission will be conceived a little differently in each case. When choosing between these alternatives, parents will take account of three main issues.
  • The child’s needs – their talents, interests, the way they socialize, any specific learning difficulties or gifts they have.
  • The parents’ beliefs, needs and resources. These include their religious beliefs, their beliefs about education, financial resources (not everyone can afford Brisbane Grammar or even the local Catholic school), time (a sole parent who works full time won’t be able to be actively involved in a school, so will take a lot of care that the child is in a happy environment where he or she doesn’t need to intervene) and their skills (a parent may be attracted to the idea of home schooling but not have the time or the teaching skills to do it, or ditto with involvement in their local State school).
  • The available alternatives in the locality – not all the five options are available everywhere, and in some places the local example of the option you prefer may be wrong for your child or even for any child.
If you wanted to you could turn this into a decision-tree which would be slightly less complex than Kim Beazley’s “knowledge nation” diagram.   Then in the end after working your way through the decision tree you would probably go with your heart, since that's usually the best way to parent.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Hung Parliament

So after one of the least inspiring election campaigns in living memory, Australia looks like it's about to have a hung parliament, which will be way more interesting than the campaign itself.  Most countries in the world have this situation all the time, and parties have to negotiate to form a government.  Our politicians aren't used to this, though, so it it will be interesting to see how they go. 

I think there are a few things we can learn from this election.

  1. If the major parties don't appear to be very different from each other, electors will find it hard to make up their minds.  In this campaign the two parties have outdone each other on who will reduce the debt fastest, who will "stop the boats" (we're not stupid, we know neither can really do this), who will better manage health and education, and so on.  So we're left to try and decide who will do this more competently, and of course we don't know.
  2. If we can't make up our minds we are more likely to vote for an independent (there will be four in the House of Reps and they will probably hold the balance of power there) or a minor party ( the Greens now have their first House of Reps seat and the balance of power in the Senate) - that is, if we don't vote informal, which over 5% of us did.
  3. Australian politics can stop moving to the right now.  Although "right" and "left" are very clumsy political categories, overall both Liberal and Labor parties have been moving steadily to the right over the past 50 years.  This means they support greater market and labour deregulation, a smaller welfare state with more private provision of things like health care and education, privatisation of government assets, willingness to go to war and preference for development over environment.  With the Greens receiving over 11% of the vote and winning nine Senate seats, we now have a third party which is to the left of both major parties. 
  4. Whoever governs will have to look left.  Previous parties holding the balance of power in the Senate have been different - the Democratic Labour Party in the 1950s and 60s was a conservative Labor breakaway, and the Australian Democrats of recent memory broke away from the Liberals to form a centrist party.  There's no more room in the centre but lots of room on the left which the Greens have happily moved into.  If things work out for Labor, or even the Coalition, and they can do a deal with the moderately conservative rural independents in the House of Reps, they'll have to shift a little leftwards to get anything through the Senate.  Long may it remain so!

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Cyberiad

I think we need a break from all this heavy gauge ethical and ecclesiastical discourse.  So, in my little bits of spare time I've been travelling the weird and wonderful world of The Cyberiad, quotes from which keep appearing at random on the header of this blog.   This is a collection of tales by the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, most famous in the English-speaking world as the author of Solaris. 

Nothing could be less like Solaris than these fractured fairy tales, set apparently in the far future in a universe mostly inhabited by robots.  The central characters are two "constructors", Trurl and Kaplaucius, friendly rivals, tricksters who can make a machine for any purpose if the price is right.    Beware if you try to cheat them of their fee!  They get themselves both into and out of deadly scrapes much like the wizards and demi-gods of more traditional mythology. 

Lem uses these tales to present oblique, quixotic and often highly perplexing views of the world.  For instance:
  • Their philosophical investigations into the non-existence of dragons end up bringing these very beings into existence - at least partially - which is scientifically fascinating but rather inconvenient for those who would rather not have their barns burned down. 
  • After surmising the existence of beings at the Highest Possible Level of Development (HPLDs for short), Kaplaucious sets out to find these amazing beings and ask for their help in improving the lot of his fellow robots.  He eventually finds them living a seemingly pointless existence on a cubic planet (with a huge HPLD label on the side) orbiting a cubic sun, only to find that their existence is no help to anyone.  The main discovery of their exalted wisdom is that it is impossible to help anyone achieve happiness, especially not "by revolutionary means" - not sure how that one got past the 1960s Polish censors!
  • Trurl finds a dethroned king living alone on a deserted asteroid.  Recognising him as a fearsome tyrant, he refuses to restore him to his throne but creates a tiny toy kingdom in a box for him to rule.  He is most pleased with himself until Kaplaucius points out to him that he has made it so real that the tiny subjects suffer just as much as any full sized ones.  Horrified, he returns to the asteroid, only to find they have overthrown their tyrant and set up a miniature republic.
  • Confronted by a pirate who demands all their information, rather than all their gold, they create a device for extracting coherent information from the random pairings of particles in ordinary stale air, drowning the pirate in a stream of inconsequential facts.  He must have been thinking of the Internet.
There's so much more, it's marvellous, wierd, compelling and thought provoking.  Let me give Mr Lem (or Trurl) the last word.

"You are our guest, noble constructor.  Come therefore and sit at our humble table among these faithful friends and tell us of the deeds you have performed, and also of the deeds you chose not to."

"Your Majesty is too kind," replied Trurl.  "Yet I fear I lack the necessary eloquence.  Perchance these three machines may serve in my stead...."

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The work of the Church is in the world

We did a fascinating activity at church this morning.  We read the story of Nehemiah and the Israelites rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.  Then someone got us all to line up around the edge of the church and represent the walls.  Each of us, they said, is part of the walls of the church.  Each of us play our part - whether we preach,  play music, go out as missionaries, make the morning tea, mow the grass, or just turn up, each of us is vital to the whole.

Like all good visual/tactile activities, it made me think, and here is what I thought.

1.  The work of the church is in the world, not in the church
What was left out of the list was as interesting as what was included.  On the list were all the activities that go on within the church institution, from the least prestigious and visible to the most.  All are equally valuable and important.  So far so good.

What wasn't on the list was anything that took place outside the "church".  If the church is a body with a mission, God's visible presence here on earth, then the work of the church is what we do in the wider world.  Engineers, accountants, doctors, nurses, sales assistants, garbage collectors - all are playing a vital role in the church not just when they come on Sundays or do their bit of "church" service, but in everything they do.  Yet when we pray in our church we pray for our bishops, our ministers, the missionaries and aid workers we support, our administrators and Sunday School teachers, but never for these other church members out there representing God - unless they get sick, then we pray for their health.

2. The work of the church is to spread the kingdom of God
The kingdom of God is where things are done as God wants them to be done.  Spreading the kingdom includes leading people to Christ but it is way more than this.  It is being God's people in the world.  It's very important that we have preachers and teachers and helpers and encouragers who help us to do this.  We should pray for each other in these roles.  But there's so much more.

If you are a doctor or nurse and you provide excellent care for your patients you are spreading God's kingdom.  If you are a financial administrator and you keep thorough, honest accounts you are spreading God's kingdom.  If you work in a shoe shop and you welcome people and provide them with shoes that fit them perfectly and look great on them, you are spreading God's kingdom.  Not because it might lead to an opportunity to talk to them about Christ, but because this is how God wants things to be.  Everything we do matters, not just what we do when we are being "holy".  We are being the church at all times, in all places.  We need prayer and support to do that well.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Is There a Christian Law? Part 2 - The Sermon on the Mount

In my first post on this subject I looked at what Paul said in his letter to the Galatians on the subject of the Law.  This time I'd like to have a look at what Jesus says on the same subject in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7).

I recently read somewhere that this sermon could be described as "the best of Jesus".  In other words, Jesus probably didn't say all these things at once, he said them seperately and the author of Matthew put them together.  If this is the case, Matthew took a lot of care over it because the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.  I know you're not supposed to have favourite sections of the Bible but I have to confess that this is the place I come back to most often, ever since I first read it in my teens and was blown away by the depth of its moral vision.

The Sermon on the Mount is a sustained critique of the torah as practiced in Jesus' day.  He starts by affirming his respect for the law in the following way.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Mat 5:17,18)

This passage has caused all sorts of problems for Christians.  Its most obvious interpretation is that the Law still applies to us now - the argument of the Judaisers of Paul's day.  This argument is usually rejected by Christians, and has been since the beginning of the church's history.

A second possible interpretation is that "until everything is accomplished" refers to Jesus death and resurrection - hence, in his day the law still applied, but once his passion was complete it did not anymore.  This is a favourite argument among the dispensationalists among others.  There may be something in this, but it seems that there is still a lot to be accomplished - heaven and earth, after all, are still here.

Personally, I think the main explanation is found in what follows.  Jesus goes on to say

I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:20)

For Jesus' audience this would have been a shocking statement.  The characteristic of the Pharisees was their commitment to keep the whole law.  Every command of the torah was explained, interpreted and put into practice in every situation.  How could you be more thorough in obeying the law than them?  Some Christians like to interpret this as an example of the law revealing our need for grace - the only righteousness that could fulfil Jesus' criteria is his own, and we must appropriate this through faith to enter the kingdom of heaven.  All well and good, but I think the rest of the sermon shows Jesus had something different in mind.  The very next words are as follows.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, "Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement."  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement.  (Mat 5:21, 22)

This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees.  They looked at the concrete action of the law - if you committed muder you would be punished.  Jesus wants us to look within, at our attitude to one another.  Do we harbour anger and bitterness?  Do we speak harshly towards each other?  This, says Jesus, is equivalent to murder - note how he applies the phrase "subject to judgement" to both murder and anger.

What is Jesus saying?  This can't possibly be a new law.  You can't outlaw anger.  Which of us is not angry?  You can only outlaw specific acts, like murder or assault.  Yet these stem from anger - without anger there is no murder.  Jesus is going to the source.  He's saying you have to deal not just with the external act, but the inner motive.  To enter the kingdom of heaven you have to be transformed from the inside out.

To emphasise the point, he applies the same principle to a range of issues.  Lust is equivalent to adultery.  You should keep your word all the time, not just when you take a solemn and binding oath.  True love involves loving your enemies, not just your friends.  Pray from the heart, not just with your mouth.

None of these things break the law, but the law on its own will not get you to this point.  The trouble with law is that it can only deal with externals, with observable, concrete acts.  It is possible to obey every concrete command in the law, yet not be righteous.  As Darcy says in Pride and Prejudice, "I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit." 

This was the problem with the Pharisees and teachers of the law.  Jesus reserves his harshest criticism for these earnest, zealous Jews. 

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypicrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee!  First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will also be clean.  (Mat 23:25,26)

They were obsessed with the details of the law, with ritual purity, with being seen to do the right thing, but their hearts were rotten.  They were full of pride, harsh and unforgiving, driving more people away from God than they drew to him.  When you hear voices from outside the Christian faith criticisng Christians, this is most often what they are criticising - our self-righteousness, our capacity to kill joy in the name of righteousness, our "holier-than-thou" attitude, our desire to impose our favourite rules on those around us.  Interestingly, they are almost never criticising Jesus and what he said or did.

Nothing is more human than to create rules, and then to punish people who fail to keep them.  Rules make us feel secure.  They provide us with an illusion of certainty.  We feel that if the rules are clear and specific, we will be able to follow them and all will be well.  Sure we will sometimes fail, but it will be clear where we failed and we will be able to repent and improve.  A vague principle like "don't be angry" leaves us too uncertain about what we should do.

Jesus wants so much more from us.  He wants our righteousness to be much deeper, much more transforming, much more complete than this.  He wants us to change from the inside out.  Then the law will not pass away, it will be surpassed, and we will truly demonstrate the nature of the kingdom of heaven.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Sustainable Asylum Seeker Policy?

This Labor Party election flyer appeared in my mail-box yesterday.  My expectations of electioneering are quite low so I rarely react strongly but this one definitely got under my skin!

Sustainable Australia: We are ensuring a sustainable Australia with tighter control of our borders and record investments in solar and other renewable energy.

Since when was detaining aslyum seekers or diverting them to an as yet un-named third world country a sustainability initiative?  Is this what we get now in place of an ETS?  Get real, Labor Party!

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Is there a Christian law?

A spirited discussion about gender over on Simone's blog has led me to think for the thousandth time about Paul's attitude to law, so I thought I'd share some thoughts.  This post comes with a warning - you may find its contents heretical.  It's also a little long, but then it's a big subject.

The usual and orthodox view of how to read the New Testament is that Paul's instructions (and those of the other apostles) to the various churches in his letters are commands, and that these are generally binding on Christians everywhere and for all times, with a little allowance (but not much) for cultural change.  Paul is referred to as the chief lawgiver of the Christian church and his writings more than any others are the foundation of the long tradition of canon law.

I have a problem with this view, and its this.  Paul himself made some very strong negative statements about law in general.  Would he have liked his words to become a new law?

Let's start with the book of Galatians.  This book is set against the background of Paul's ongoing dispute with the Judaisers - those who believed that Gentiles who converted to Christ needed to obey the Jewish law, the torah, in full.  In Acts 15 you can read the story of how some Jewish Christians were teaching that circumcision was necessary for salvation, and got into "sharp dispute" with Paul and Barnabas.  At the subsequent meeting with the apostles in Jerusalem to resolve the issue, the group accepted a resolution suggested by James - that the only requirements placed on Gentile converts should be that they "abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality."  It is interesting that of these four rules, only the first and last are generally observed among Christians now.

Paul tells the story rather differently in Galatians.  He describes how, fourteen years into his ministry, he went down to Jerusalem for a private meeting with "those who seemed to be leaders" to check that his version of the gospel was the same as theirs.  Here is how he describes their response.

As for those who seemed to be important - whatever they were makes no difference to me, God does not judge by external appearance - those men added nothing to my message....All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing we were eager to do. (Gal 2:6-10)

He then goes on to describe how Peter, under the influence of James, later changed his tack and gave ground to those advocating circumcision, and how Paul rebuked him sharply.  In the process, we get an intimate look into the tensions present in the early church.  Two things stand out for me.
  1. Paul had scant respect for the apostles and did not recognise their authority - "whatever they were makes no difference to me!"  He did not learn the gospel from them.  He is completely unafraid to rebuke Peter, the leader of the apostles, when he falls away from what Paul considers the true gospel.
  2. He has no truck with the idea of prescribing a shortened list of rules for Gentile converts.  The apostles "added nothing to his message".
All this is background to Paul's purpose in writing to the Galatians.  They have fallen into the same error as Peter did, and he wants to steer them back towards the message of salvation by faith.  He says:

Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith could be revealed.  So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.  Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.  (Gal 3:23-25)

...when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.  But when the time had fully come, God sent his redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.  (Gal 4:3-5)

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1)

The picture is a very clear one.  The torah, the law, is equivalent to slavery.  His hearers needed it because they were immature, like children, and so needed to be restrained.  Now that Christ has come and delivered them they don't need it any more.  Christ didn't come to call people back to the law, or to bring a new law.  Instead, he replaced the law, a childish thing, with the possibility of a direct, loving relationship with God.  This is how he emphasises the point.

You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.  But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.  For in Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.  (Gal 5:4-6)

If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. (Gal 5:18)

Now I know you're going to say that he's talking about the Old Testament law, and that his own commands supercede it, but that's not what Paul is saying.  His message is not to replace one law with another, it is to replace law with grace.  It is to bring us into a relationship with Christ which transcends the law, as freedom transcends slavery.  He constantly observes the tendency to drift back towards law, even in the apostles, or to set up a new law, as he describes in Colossians, and he fights it at every turn.

It is ironic, but hardly surprising, that the man who fought this battle should find his own writings used to establish a new law.  The big fear that church leaders constantly face - and you can see this already in Paul's writings - is that this teaching would be interpreted to mean "anything goes".  Paul warns the Galatians, "do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather serve one another in love." (Gal 5:13)  In Romans he quotes inaccurate reports of his teaching; "let us do evil that good may result" (Rom 3:8), and returns to the same theme later: "shall we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means!" (Rom 6:1).

So, if he is not preaching a new law, and he is not preaching "anything goes", what is he saying?  To continue the image from Gal 3 and 4, he is asking us to live as God's adult children, children who have come into our inheritance.  We no longer live by a set of rules which govern our behaviour, because now we are grown up we are expected to be responsible for ourselves.  But we still have obligations - to our Father as head of the family, and to our siblings.  The honour of our family is at stake, so we need to behave in a way that increases that honour.  This is why Jesus says, "all men will know you are my disciples if you love one another".  Paul echoes this time and again in his writings.  In Galatians he says

The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbour as yourself".  (Gal 5:14)

He expands on this in Romans.

The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, is summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbour as yourself."  Love does no harm to its neighbour.  Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.  (Rom 13:9,10)

We need to learn to love, not to obey a new law.  He knows that this is not easy, indeed that it is much more challenging than simply following a set of rules, and in his letters he provides all sorts of guidance to the various churches about how to live this out.  As is his way, he is often very emphatic about this guidance.  Much of it is still good for us today.  But for it to be turned into law goes against the very heart of the gospel Paul himself was preaching, and represents a loss in his lifelong fight against those who wanted to bind Christians to laws old and new.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

New heaven, new earth

Fran Boydell says

When Jesus inaugurated his kingdom it was not as people imagined.  It was upside down.  It was inclusive of unexpected people.

What if the new heaven and the new earth is also different from our imaginings?  What if our resurrection bodies are as diverse as the ones we have now?  What if the lame will leap for joy because someone helps them?  What if the dumb speak because they have been included in the conversation and the deaf hear because we all care desperately to make ourselves understood to each other?  After all, who decides what is the perfect body, or the perfect mind?  What if this inclusive community celebrates everyone the way they are because God has glorified us in our diversity and we know how to live caringly, carefully and joyfully together?

From "Enabling Education for All" by Fran Boydell, in Zadok Perspectives, No 107, Winter 2010.

Monday, 2 August 2010

21st Century Schizoid Man

Lately I've been catching up with the weird and wonderful delights of King Crimson, still going (with ongoing personnel changes - no-one could work with Robert Fripp for 40 years!) and still making thought-provoking music. 

Here's the lyrics from the one of their earliest - 21st Century Schizoid Man, from "In the Court of the Crimson King", made around 1969.

Cat's foot iron claw
Neuro-surgeons scream for more
At paranoia's poison door.
Twenty first century schizoid man.

Blood rack barbed wire
Politicians' funeral pyre
Innocents raped with napalm fire
Twenty first century schizoid man.

Death seed blind man's greed
Poets' starving children bleed
Nothing he's got he really needs
Twenty first century schizoid man.

Some of the imagery dates it, especially the "napalm fire" from the Vietnam War era.  Yet some is really timeless.  The last verse hits me every time - our blind greed, our addiction to the acquisition of useless possessions, our sowing of the seeds of death in the water, the atmosphere, the soil.  And while the enemies have changed, we remain locked firmly behind "paranoia's prison door".  Thank God for those who stand up for something different - all power to them.
Of course for King Crimson, the lyrics are the smallest part of it, so you should have a listen.  The music is especially schizoid, with the edgy, distorted sound that became their trademark and the benchmark for so much experimental or "alternative" music.  Chopped up rhythms, sounds  no-one knew you could get from a guitar, weird jazz moments and distorted vocals make you feel like you really have entered a schizoid parallel universe.  Enjoy!  Or something...