Church Unity

On Friday, I was invited to participate in an ecumenical symposium put on by the National Council of Churches in Australia, Faith and Unity Commission.  Held in Canberra, the event celebrated 100 years of the ecumenical movement, which traces its origins to the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh.  Its goal has been a vision of a united church in mission and, to this end, visible unity.

Although i have been involved in various ecumenical events, i have not been a participant in formal ecumenical dialogues or World Council of Churches and Faith and Unity Commission forums.  In this i am typical of our movement and my invitation to the event in Canberra to speak for Pentecostalism provided the ‘novelty’ factor; the strange pentecostal academic amidst the traditional churches!

This is not to say that Pentecostals have been against ecumenism, as is sometimes assumed.  It is noteworthy that global Pentecostalism traces its origins to around the same point in history as the ecumenical movement – to a series of revivals that occurred throughout the world in the first decade of the twentieth century which were ecumenical in spirit.  The early history of Pentecostalism involved the pursuit of revival, believing that the Holy Spirit was capable of breaking down the divisions that plagued the church. Pentecostal revival, thus, brought together black and white, poor and (occasionally) rich, women and men and people from diverse church denominations.  There was a strong desire to reject ‘tradition’ and ‘creed’, since these were understood as being both stultifying and divisive.  The founder of Australian Pentecostalism, for example, a women named Sarah Jane Lancaster, had as one of her driving motivations the goal of ‘non-doctrinal unity’- a unity in the Spirit that transcended creeds. Half a century later, the charismatic movement, with its roots in Pentecostalism, elicited a similarly ‘spiritual unity’ – a unity that set aside the formalities of doctrine and church structure, a unity that was informal and grassroots in its orientation, a unity that was grounded in the pursuit of the Spirit whose work it is to bring diverse people together.

Of course, i should not paint to much of an idealised picture. Pentecostalism has been far from perfect in its pursuit of church unity.  As is well known, the movement has become as denominationalised, as doctrinal, as divisive as any other.  It also tended to avoid the ecumenical movement, and few Pentecostal groups became members of World Council of Churches.  I have my own opinions as to why this was so – but i am interested in any suggestions.

TD Jakes and the Trinity

The Bishop is back at Hillsong conference again this year**. Pastor of the Potter’s House in Dallas Texas, TD Jakes is not only an extraordinary communicator but the pastor of a church with an extraordinary missions program addressing issues of social and economic injustice.

While I am one to celebrate Jakes’ ministry, his invitation to preach in Australia has not been without controversy, largely because of his doctrine of the trinity, described on his website as follows:

For those familiar with trinitarian theology this is a fascinating doctrinal statement.  In using the word ‘manifestations’ rather than ‘persons’ it echoes the modalism traditionally considered to be heretical.  What is perhaps more interesting, however, is the attempt that has been made to mediate between Oneness and Trinitarian Pentecostalism.

Jakes’ himself was raised a Baptist but became a Pentecostal when joining the Greater Emmanuel Apostolic Church. A Oneness Pentecostal church, it is affiliated with the United Pentecostal Churches, a movement that explicitly rejects the doctrine of the trinity.  Its statement of belief notes:

  • In distinction to the doctrine of the Trinity, the UPCI holds to a oneness view of God. It views the Trinitarian concept of God, that of God eternally existing as three distinctive persons, as inadequate and a departure from the consistent and emphatic biblical revelation of God being one. The UPCI teaches that the one God who revealed Himself in the Old Testament as Jehovah revealed himself in His Son, Jesus Christ. Thus Jesus Christ was and is God. In other words, Jesus is the one true God manifested in flesh, for in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (John 1:1-14; I Timothy 3:16; Colossians 2:9).

This position clearly reflects modalist perspectives, although it is not true to say that Oneness Pentecostals merely repeat ancient modalism.  In recent years, there have been formal dialogues between Trinitarian and Oneness Pentecostals, reports of which have been published in the Society of Pentecostal Studies journal. It is beyond our purposes to comment on this dialogue, except to applaud the move toward mutual understanding between these two movements with a common heritage and shared spirituality – whatever the extent of theological disagreement.

Back to Jakes.  The Potter’s House is an independent church that is not affiliated with the UPC.  As Jakes’ preaching became more public and ecumenical, he recognised the need to move away from the UPC rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity, but in doing so he sought to retain a friendship with the movement that shaped his ministry.  His doctrine on the trinity (see above) is thus an attempt to mediate between trinitarian and oneness pentecostals – taking on the form of the former but avoiding wording that would offend the latter (i.e. Trinity and Person).

Whether or not he is successful I will leave for you to decide.  In Feb 2000 Christianity today published a response by Jakes to charges that he was a “heretic”, My Views on the Godhead.  It is a fascinating read, reflecting a number of elements common to pentecostal theology.  These include

  • the restorationist tendency to avoid theology and tradition and “go directly to the bible” (from my perspective, an unfortunate method, since presumes we have little to learn from theological tradition and naively presumes we can access an unmediated biblical theology.  Unfortunate, but not heretical – and common to Pentecostal and conservative evangelical communities)
  • Efforts to affirm trinitarian theology without using the word ‘person’ – e.g. “My views on the Godhead are from 1 John 5:7-8, “For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.”
  • Some unusual attempts to describe the trinitarian mystery.  e.g. “Many things can be said about the Son that cannot be said about the Father. The Son was born of a virgin; the Father created the virgin from whom He was born. The Son slept (Luke 8:23), but the Father never sleeps (Psalm 121:3—5). The Son took on the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3), but God is a spirit (John 4:24). Likewise, several characteristics are distinctive to the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit alone empowers (Acts 1:8), indwells (2 Timothy 1:15), and guides the believer (John 16:14). In spite of all the distinctives, God is one in His essence. Though no human illustration perfectly fits the Divine, it is similar to ice, water and steam: three separate forms, yet all H20. Each element can co-exist, each has distinguishing characteristics and functions, but all have sameness.”

The Christology implicit in this latter assertion is unusual indeed, since it makes a basic category error.  That is, it fails to distinguish between the two natures of Jesus, his full deity and full humanity.  In trinitarian terms, it thus makes no sense to say that the Son differs from the father because he was born a virgin and sleeps, since these are part of Jesus’ human nature not his deity.  Notwithstanding this, what is clear is that Jakes is attempting to affirm a trinitarian perspective by distinguishing between the (persons) of the trinity.  Whatever criticisms might be made of how he goes about it, this is NOT the view of a oneness pentecostal.

As a Pentecostal theologian, it is something of a disappointment to me that a public figure of Jakes’ stature does not seem to understand the insights church tradition.  If we are honest, however, Jakes is not alone in this; many (most) Christians would struggle to explain the doctrine of the Trinity or makes sense of the distinction between the two natures of Christ.  That does not make them (or Jakes) any less ‘saved’, any less in relationship with Jesus’, or any less effective in ministering the grace of the gospel.

To conclude.  I dare anyone to assert their own superiority over Jake’s in the things that matter most.  I might be better equipped to teach the doctrine of the Trinity, but i have more important things to learn from his dedication to the preaching of the good news of Jesus to the lost, poor, outcast, addict, abused etc.

Obviously, i believe that theology is important and that theological study helps enrich our proclamation of the gospel.  But Jake’s is surely also correct when he observes:

  • I look forward to the day when Christians do not judge one another by the diversity of our associates, nor the distinctives of seman­tics. Rather by the love of Christ we reflect, the integrity of our personal convictions, and the sweet fruit of both in our lives. There are a few things I would die for; a few more I would argue strongly; after that I am too busy trying to preach the Gospel to split hairs. People in my generation are lost, hungry, in prison, wounded, and alone…. Many of our generation are dying without knowing God — not dying for the lack of theology, but for lack of love.

** DISCLOSURE** I attend Hillsong South Western campus.  While I believe this does not colour my opinion, readers should be  aware of the potential conflict.

The Godfather Part II – Film Review

The Godfather Part II is widely acknowledged as being that rare sequel that equals (perhaps betters) the original, a deserving winner of its six Oscars, including Best Picture.  Those setting themselves to the watching would be well advised to start early as the film runs at a staggering 200 minutes.  Apart from the need for an intermission (unless your bladder is stronger than mine) there is, however, no sense of time dragging; it captures your attention instantly, with the funeral of Don Vito Carleone and the crowning of Don Michael as the new Godfather, and when the film ends you still want more – thank goodness for Part 111!

The genius of this sequel is not only that it brings back to the screen everything that was great about the original; a steady and relentless pacing, a rich set of characters and outstanding performances, an emotive score, a series of surprising events and an emotional tapestry of joy, fear, love and hate.  More than this it takes us beyond Part I by telling two stories simultaneously; that of Michael and his increasingly tragic journey into the corruption of wealth and power, and that of his Father Vito’s early life and the emergence of ‘the family’ as a crime force in America.  Played perfectly by a baby-faced Robert De Niro (hard to recognise at first, but his voice and glance are soon familiar), Vito is a likable character, a generous rogue.  He is a killer, and a person not to be crossed, but he operates according to an ancient code of Sicilian ethics, kills only those who seem to deserve to die, and has about him a benevolence that is somehow attractive – although we can never forget that this is the same man who had a horse slaughtered in the previous film (among countless other murders).  By way of the interweaving of the two stories, Francis Ford Coppola contrasts Don Vito’s colourful life with the darker rule of his son.  It is a contrast drawn out by setting, light, cinematography and score , and the comparison is an increasingly tragic one.  Both men are powerful, successful in business, targets and victims and capable of brutal decisiveness, but where Vito draws people to himself, Michael is increasingly isolated; where Vito is a family man whose wife and children adore him, Michael, even when trying to save his family, repels them.

Of course, whatever their differences, Michael is what is his father has made him.  In telling Vito’s immigrant story, there is something being said about both the potentiality, as well as the corruption, of the American dream (as an Aussie, i should call this the capitalist dream of the West).  At the heart of that dream is the potent idea that anyone can succeed, including a penniless, orphan and uneducated migrant.  But success in this dog-eat dog competitive environment extracts a price, which seems almost inevitably to involve some degree of corruption of the soul and character of the ‘man’ (and i use the gender exclusive term deliberately).  Vito reaches for the American dream but when Michael has that dream in his hands it turns out to be illusory.  Of course we might respond that the issue is that the Corleone’s suffer because their success is built on crime but the film implies that their story is analogical, that every element of American power is similarly corrupted; policemen, lawyers, senators, business.

This corruption extends especially to the masculine nature of its social structures.  Women are kept completely in the dark about events.  When business is discussed, they are pushed out of the study and the door is shut.  They rarely ask about events and it seems they are largely unaware of the true nature of the families business.  They are, metaphorically, kept in the dark although it is the men whose black business is conducted in dark rooms away from the music and light of the wider family.  It is Diane Keaton’s Kay (Micheal’s wife) who eventually resists, aborting the male child of Micheal’s dreams and prayers.  Whether this marks a feminist transition for ‘the family’ is yet to be seen (and seems unlikely), but it is surely significant in the light of the 1970s feminist uprising underway when the film was made.

Once again, so much more could be said.  Godfather Part II was released in 1974.  The fact that it remains so eminently watchable and relevant almost four decades later speaks for itself.

The Godfather – Film Review

My wife and I have decided to watch some of the films that top the charts of best ever movies on lists such as meta-critic and IMDB.  Francis Ford Coppola’s  The Godfather trilogy tops almost every list but (I am ashamed to admit) we had never seen it.  This is a situation that is now being rectified.  In this brief review i will focus on the first of the films:

As you are no doubt aware, having high expectations is generally enough to kill the experience of watching a film.  The Godfather, in its narration of a transition in generational power in the Mafia, deserves all of its accolades.  In fact, in our present era, when special effects has displaced character and storytelling (consider Avatar), this 1972 movie is a reminder of what filmmaking can be.

So much has been written about the film so i shall try to keep things brief.  It is perhaps most famous for its iconic performances and its genius one liners that have become part of our everyday vernacular.  You would have to be martian not to have seen Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone “make them an offer they can’t refuse” but the real thrill is to see the emergence of the then very young Al Pacino, Robert Duval, Diane Keaton and James Caan (among others). More than the acting, it was the pacing of the film that gave it its true power.  We are so used to films that rush us by, stirring our adrenalin but giving us no time to think.  This film, in contrast, proceeds at a more brooding pace, made all the more potent by its emotive score.

There is so much that we might discuss in terms of its themes.  I was especially struck by the exploration of evil.  What one expects of a Mafia film is gunfire and murder and gore (none of which is lacking), but The Godfather explores the interplay between this evil and the values of family.  It is strange to find oneself rooting for cold blooded killers, but you do so because you are invited to consider the world from their perspective; to appreciate the bonds of loyalty and respect that help to explain (although not justify) the family’s action.  There is, thus, a certain ambiguity about evil or, rather, a mix of good and bad in us all.

It is fascinating to consider the seduction of evil.  Al Pacino plays the Godfather’s son, Michael, and he starts the film as an American hero soldier who has determined to reject the family business.  As the movie proceeds, however, he finds himself ineluctably drawn into the family’s crises. I am reminded of the theology of original sin. We are all, despite our best intentions, victims and perpetrators of sin, caught up in a relentless and escalating cycle that is beyond our ability to control.

What becomes clear as the movie progresses is that the goodness of family is corrupted by the exercise of power.  There is something significant in this insight – that the pursuit and exercise of power is the root of evil.  When defending his father to his fiance, Michael notes “My father is no different than any other powerful man — any man who’s responsible for other people, like a senator or president” and in so doing he is endorsing the machiavellian, utilitarian approach to ethics and life that is to become his undoing.  It is precisely this way of life that Christianity rejects.  Jesus, in taking the path of Golgotha, shows us that true ‘power’ is the self-sacrificial surrender of power.  Only on the cross – and in our preparedness to give up our power – can the relentless cycle of sin be overcome.  Only in this paradoxical approach to power can we truly act responsibly for other people, and protect the values of love and family.

More could be said.  I am certainly interested in your response to The Godfather.  As far as I am concerned, it deserves its five star rating.

Should we vote for an athiest?

One of the interesting questions arising from Julia Gillard’s public statement that she does not believe in God is whether or not this will or should make any difference to the Christian vote.  I suspect that it will make a difference but am of the opinion that it should not.  Let me explain myself.

Religious values operate in a different sphere to economic and political values.  My religious values tell me that Jesus is my saviour, that the triune God loves the whole world, and that i am called to love God and neighbour.  There is no doubt that these values influence my economic and political priorities.  They remind me that all people are equal (including non-Australians), that God cares for the poor, oppressed and the outcast, that the earth and her creatures are important etc.  None of this, however, means that i would make a good political leader or economic manager. Indeed, the historic failures of Chrisendom prove the point.  The problems are many, but i will just name two:

  • we cannot presume that a Christian – just because they claim the label Christian – will act in a loving and unselfish manner, any more then we could presume that a non-believer is not altruistic and concerned for neighbor.
  • We cannot presume that a Christian – just because they are Christian – will know which economic policy (or mix of policies) will be best served to help the poor, just as we cannot presume that an athiest is incapable of implementing laws that facilitate justice

Some have argued that we should vote for Christian leaders, not because they will make better economic or political decisions but, rather, because they will make better ‘moral’ choices – better decisions about issues of abortion or gay marriage etc.  This, however, is to forget that economic and political policies are vital to national morality, since these go to the heart of what it means to live in grace and justice.  More significantly, many of the things we label ‘moral’ are not in fact what government is about.  This, indeed, was the problem of Chrisendom – the effort to legislate morality ends up in legalism and oppression.  Personal morality, including the choice of who we have sex with, is not the responsibility of government, and we miss the point of the gospel when we think it is.  Of course issues such as abortion are not merely personal, but speak to justice for the unborn.  But in Australia, at least, laws on abortion are largely settled, and neither political party is likely to change them.

All of this to say that, while i certainly appreciated the fact that Kevin Rudd was Christian, my decision about who to vote for will not be swayed by Julia’s atheism – a position that at least she was honest enough to own up to.  The real issues upon which we should determine our vote are those of economic management and political justice, especially for the poor and the refugee.  Sadly, on these issues, it seems that Australian politics is in a race to the bottom (but that discussion for another time).

Full Gospel and the Environment – Part 2

I mentioned in an earlier post my intention to respond to a review by Rayford Hughes of my article, “Preaching the Full Gospel in the face of the Global Environmental Crises,” published in Amos Yong’s The Spirit Renews the Face of the Earth.

Hughes’ overriding concern is that, in my criticism of the Pentecostal failure to develop an eco-theology I have failed “to empathise with the underlying twentieth century Pentecostal context.”  His concern has two elements:

First, he feels that i should not be critiquing Pentecostals for failing to develop an ecotheology when concerns about enviormental issues were not on the public horizon at the time movement emerged preaching the ‘fourfold or full gospel’.  It is, self-evidently, unreasonable to be overly critical of previous generations in the light of more recently emerging perspectives and values.  We could hardly expect early twentieth century Pentecostals to think and act like twenty first century people.  Having said this, it is possible to seek to understand and empathise with our forebears, all the while making important critical judgements that will help frame our own attitudes and actions.  In the case of early Pentecostalism for example, they had the foresight, in the power of the Spirit, to be ahead of the public attitudes on gender,  advancing the place of women in ministry when society and most other churches had not yet addressed the issue.  But, the same prophetic foresight was not apparent in respect to ecological issues,  for the theological reasons I note in the article (and summarise in my previous post).  In particular, I note that the issue is not the fourfold gospel per se, but the impact of fundamentalism on the way in which this ‘gospel’ came to be proclaimed; narrowly focused on salvation of the soul, on healing and baptism in the spirit for the individual, and on an eschatology that looked for the immanent destruction of the earth.  Indeed, my point is not to critique early Pentecostalism per se – or any particular Pentecostal preacher or leader – but to make the vital observation that the current generation of Pentecostals needs to seek for a broader understanding of the gospel, one that recognises that the earth is created by God and that creation itself is a recipient of the good news of the Kingdom.

Secondly, Hughes accuses me of “eisegetical trickery,” for critiquing the fourfold gospel in the light of contemporary insights – again because one cannot read current trends into earlier texts.  This critique would be valid if my paper was simply a historical analysis. This, however, is not the point.  The fourfold (or full) gospel is not simply a historical proclamation but, rather, a way of thinking about the gospel that continues to frame the way in which Pentecostals think about the mission of the church.  Perhaps I needed to make this point clearer in the original article.  My criticism is not of early pentecostalism – i merely use the fourfold gospel as a point of reference – as a way of framing the discussion.  My point is that far too many Pentecostals still today frame their proclamation in ways that lead to ‘anti-green’ rhetoric and climate change scepticism.  Whatever the context of our forebears, this situation is no longer good enough, and continued failure to develop an ecological theology certainly is a failure to preach a full gospel.

I trust that my response is not taken to be overly defensive.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading Hughes’ review (and critique) of my paper, and i appreciate the time he has taken to respond to my writing.  My purpose has been to clarify my argument, not because my original chapter is perfect but, rather, because this is such an important topic.  In this light, i am interested in any readers comments about Pentecostal theology and its relationship to care for the earth.

Does Julia Gillard Have Balls?

The day after her election as the first Australian Prime Minister, all the talk is about the nature of gender and its relationship to power.  On the one hand, people on the left are celebrating the rise to power of a women who is strong, independent, unmarried and has no children (and is apparently an athiest).  On the other hand, people on the right are lamenting the thought that a women has to become like a man to get the top job.

This latter assumption, however, is based on a false premise.  The principal of Alphacrucis College, Steven Fogarty (his colloquium presentation on this topic at this link), has recently been doing doctoral research in the relationship between gender and leadership.  It has sometimes been assumed that men are more likely to take hierarchical and power based approaches to leadership, and women relational and participative approaches – in formal terms, that men are more likely to lead transactionally, and women transformationally. Yet Fogarty’s research, along with other sociological studies, has rejected these gender based assertions.  In fact, what he has concluded is that the style of leadership is determined not by gender but, rather, by the requirements of the role.

Fogarty’s point can be illustrated by Gillard’s ascendancy.  To become Prime Minister, a person needs to be able to exercises power, to manipulate political situations, and to do so decisively and sometimes brutally (just ask Kim Beasley about Kevin Rudd’s skills in this regard).  No doubt there are other characteristics necessary for the job, but these are the ones that are traditionally described as “masculine” and that will be used to disparage the femininity of our new Prime Minister.  Fogarty’s research, however, reminds us that Gillard’s skills as a leader (and as someone capable of stabbing a colleague in the back) are no indication of gender but, sadly, are just the prerequisites needed for anyone who wants to get the top job in politics.

Aside from the research, i should also say that, as a man, i take offense to the suggestion that such capacities are necessarily or exclusively male – as do my female colleagues at the assertion that women cannot be feminine AND powerful, decisive (and unmarried and childless).  Just because all previous  decisive Prime Ministers have been men, it does not mean that strength, determination, ruthlessness etc. are male characteristics – that is a non sequiter (a leap in logic).

So does Julia Gillard have balls?  Only her partner can answer that question, but i think we can safely presume the answer is no.