Tag Archives: Christians

SIMPLY CHRISTIAN: gREG sHERIDAN’S NEW BOOK

Greg Sheridan, Christians: The urgent case for Jesus in our world,
Allen and Unwin, 2021.
From $26. Paperback.
Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf

Greg Sheridan introduces his new book on the people of Christianity with his cheerful description of our faith:

‘On the inside, Christianity is full of feast days and family, full of fellowship, full of friendship. And everyone is welcome, surely never more so than at Christmas. It’s full of care for the sick and elderly, and for infants. It’s full of sport and play, hard work and rest. It’s full of good music and laughter, happy rituals and lots and lots of food (it’s very big on food). It is the principle of human solidarity. It’s the search for decency. It’s a conversation with each other and with God. As John Denver might have put it, in Christianity you routinely speak to God and rejoice at the casual reply.’ (Page 11)

Christians is Greg Sheridan’s second book in defence of Christianity. Sheridan writes of a large Christianity, catholic in the widest way. One of his principal arguments, first advanced in his 2018 God is Good for You, is that it is more reasonable to believe in God than not. The first book was mainly a rejoinder to the new atheists. In it, he took on writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and showed how much bigger Christianity is than the caricature Dawkins and Hitchens attack.

In this second book, Sheridan tells stories: the stories of Jesus, Mary and the remarkable Paul. Stories of the faith of Scott Morrison, Alpha’s Nicky Gumbel and the Melbourne Anglican founder of Converge, Jenny George. He tells the story of China’s Christians, and the difference they may make to the future of China. In London, he compares the neighbouring churches of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and the Brompton Oratory, where traditional and informal liturgies, high classical church music and Matt Redman’s Gospel songs are all quite different and all nourish believers.

Christians compresses Christianity to its simple heart. For a reader like me, Sheridan sometimes makes Christianity seem too simple. But his purpose is to provide an attractive portrayal of Christianity for those who do not share the faith. In that, Christians reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and Christians is a more entertaining read than Lewis.

Greg Sheridan’ s writing is compelling and accessible. He works as foreign editor for the Australian newspaper. In Christians, he is open about his political stance (he describes himself as centre-right). In a throwaway line, he suggests that Christians are likely to be centre-right or centre-left in their politics. Extremes are likely to lack love.

Christians is endorsed by well-known journalists and by church leaders as diverse as Russell Evans from Planetshakers International, Peter Comensoli, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne and Pastor Samuel Rodriguez, President of the US National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

It is a book that can be shared both with non-Christians and Christians alike. Those unfamiliar with our faith will find an attractive picture of how Christian faith is lived, and Christians will be encouraged that such a positive book will speak to such a challenging time.

[This review first published in Anglican Messenger, Perth, September 2021)

Christians: The third Race?

A Divided Christendom. Can the Idea of a “Third Race” Help Us?

by Charles Ringma tssf

We seem to be living in a very different time to the 20th century when churches were concerned about the lack of unity of the church and its implications for the witness of the church in society. This concern seems to have disappeared.

Today, the splinterization of Christianity continues with many solo churches coming into being and Christian para-church groups continuing to proliferate. Also, many Christians now prefer to be part of informal “groups” or as alienated from the church while continuing to maintain their Christian faith.

All of this is overlaid with the reality that churches are not only divided along doctrinal, but also along ethnic and economic lines. We have Chinese and Vietnamese churches and churches predominately of the well-to-do.
What all of this indicates is that the concept of church, as the Body of Christ, has become a pragmatic and functional reality with little biblical/theological depth. That being the case, we have freed ourselves to “play church” at will, and our little sense of cooperation has not only led to duplication, but also competition. And with the lack of growth of the church in the West, “branding” has become a dominant operational motif. We have to show how we are different, and move you to join our more desirable form of church.

All of this should be of great concern. While this brief reflection does not provide the space to develop a theology of the faith community, some basic comments can be made.

Being linked to Christ involves the double movement of being “baptized into Christ Jesus” (Romans 6: 3) and being baptized into the faith community: “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into the one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (1 Corinthians 12: 13). This means that God’s reconciliation in Christ is both vertical and horizontal – we are joined to Christ and linked to one another. Solo Christianity is a postmodern fiction. The heartbeat of our faith is relationality – joined to God, the faith community, and our world.

This Christological community in the Spirit is a community where traditional social categories are overcome through a spiritual unity expressed in a concrete life together: “there is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28).

This does not mean that these ethnic and social distinctives disappear in the faith community, but that they are no longer determinative. Christ is the new centre. And as such Christians are a corporate identity and are called “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2: 9).

It is therefore appropriate to ask the question whether in Christ a new “race” has come into being. Are Christians, as distinct from Jews and Gentiles, to be regarded as a Third Race?

The writer of the Epistle to Diognetus seems to think so. The writer speaks of Christians as “this new race or way of life” that has come into the world. The author continues: while they “follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time, they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.” They live in countries as “non-residents,” and “every foreign country is their fatherland and every fatherland is foreign.”

What we may draw from the above biblical passages and from this epistle is the following –
1. Christians are a distinct spiritual and social entity in society.
2. Their identity in Christ is not limited to their particular church.
3. Their identity is also national and global.

Let me draw some possible implications from these most basic points. First of all, Christians need to think about commonalities and sharing across denominations in their particular localities. Secondly, churches should exercise common concerns for the nation as a whole in which they find themselves. And thirdly, and most fundamentally and controversially, Christians need to find commonality with other Christians across the world.

Majoring on this last point, I believe that we need to rethink our order of priorities. If Christians are indeed a Third Race as a spiritual/social entity in Christ, then my priorities cannot be Australia first, the USA first, or China first, and then my commitment to Christ. Instead, the priority is Christ first, and then my commitment to local, national, and global Christian communities.

This means that I need to question what my country is doing in its policies towards other countries which will also affect my Christian brothers and sisters in that country. Put in the starkest terms I may need to become an “enemy” of my country if my country’s actions hurt another country and its faith community.

While this may all sound far too grandiose or abstract, let me make a simple point. If a church community in Australia forms a link with a church, in say Timor Leste, then the Australian church would have to take an interest in Australian Government policy towards that country and the church may well need to raise its voice in prophetic protest and work hard in expressing caring and practical solidarity.

And moving in the other direction, our solidarity with a faith community in Myanmar or Nigeria or Bolivia could open our eyes to things we are not properly seeing because of our cultural blinkers and arrogance.

All of this does not in any way suggest that we neglect responding to our neighbours and institutions in the general community. Love of God involves love of neighbour. But love of neighbour does not cancel out love of brothers and sisters in the faith in other parts of the world for with them we have a Christo-centric common identity. Paul’s words ring loud and clear: “So then, whenever we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family faith” (Galatians 6: 10).

What could it look like if the local cooperation of faith communities could propel us out of our myopic perspectives and liberate us to embrace a global concern of Christians as a Third Race?

Charles Ringma, tssf,
Emeritus Professor Regent College, Vancouver; Honorary Research Fellow Trinity College Queensland; and Professor in the PhD program in contextual theology at Asian Theological Seminary, Metro Manila.

Coronavirus and ascetism

Coronavirus and Asceticism

by Charles Ringma tssf

Much of the Christianity in the Western world has been focussed on blessing and much-having. One almost gains the impression that God has been cast as the perennial Father Christmas in the sky.

This one-sided notion of God’s relationship with us, has been somewhat dinted in this time of pandemic.

What most people are now grappling with is not the reality of blessing, but the challenges of pain and struggle in the midst of loss. And much has been lost – jobs, businesses, homes, health and general well-being. More that, our economies have received such a blow that recovery will take many years. And who knows what else will be lost in the aftermath of COVID-19.

Possible deeper losses may include the loss of confidence in our global order, in our governments, and in other social institutions. And some may be entertaining doubts about the church and other religious associations.

In countries that have not been so severely impacted by this pandemic, the refrain is – back to normal as soon as safely possible. And while this is understandable, I hope that this time of abnormality has taught us something so that there will be a new “normal” that we all aspire to and will work towards.

I believe that the hope for a new “normal” is also appropriate for the church. I hope that the present-day church won’t rush back to the old normal. This is important, because the church of the old normal has been too captive to the dominant ethos of contemporary culture, and has functioned too much on a business model for its institutional life. Moreover, the church has hardly exemplified its communal identity in Christ through the Spirit, and has failed to function as a prophetic community in society.

It is hard to predict what a new “normal” may look like for the church, but one lesson that can be drawn from our present circumstances, is learning from the present realities of loss. Rather than seeing loss as an enemy, we may learn to see it as friend. And loss is a companion to emptiness, and emptiness may be the seed-bed for a new receptivity.

Of course, it is right that we have emphasized gain in the Christian life. We have gained much through Christ’s redemptive love, even life itself. And in Christ, we have gained as gift the life-giving Spirit. But we have failed to accent the reality of loss. And loss brings us into the domain of asceticism, which from the Greek, asketikos, means sacrifice for the purpose of training and formation (as in a sport). And by way of application, sacrifice and self-discipline, for the sake of growing in Christlikeness and service.

Asceticism has not always had a good track record in Christian spirituality. At times, ascetic practices have negated the body, made salvation a self-effort, and reflected a distorted view of God. Bradley Holt rightly notes that a faulty asceticism “leads to despising God’s good gifts of creation: our bodies and the world around us.”

However, there have also been laudable perspectives and practices. While in religious orders and the priesthood, the dominant commitments have been poverty, celibacy and obedience, for the laity ascetic practices have traditionally included prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

But all of this can be framed much more basically. Asceticism is far more central to the Christian life than simply fasting. Coming to faith in Christ involves the loss of the old life of human autonomy and self-sufficiency, and embracing the new life in Christ. In coming to Christ, we hand over to him our sin and our goodness, in fact our very selves. This new life involves a life of obedience and openness to the Spirit. Thus, it involves the loss of going our way.

There is also more that we need to surrender. The love of God involves us in a commitment to seeing God’s shalom erupt into our world and the love of neighbour involves us in service to the other. What this means practically, is that we are willing to lay things aside and to sacrifice so that a something much better can swim into view.

In the light of these perspectives, it should be clear that ascetic practices lie at the very heart of Christian spirituality and service.

So, the question for us in this time of COVID-19 when we are already experiencing so much loss, is: what is it that we need to learn in anticipating the new “normal” about living more prayerfully and sacrificially? In other words, do we need to become more ascetic? Do we need to embrace loss in new and productive ways? Is the “desert” as important as the “promised land”? Is “not-having” as important as having?

In taking these questions on board we may need to hear the challenge of St. John Chrysostom: “those who live in the world, even though married, ought to resemble the monks in everything else.” Clearly Chrysostom is making the point that there should not be a huge difference between monks and the laity. “Ordinary” Christians also, need to live in community, practise hospitality, live prudently, live in obedience to the gospel, and live in fidelity. Thus, like the monks, we too need to practice asceticism and in relinquishing the good make may for the greater good in the Kingdom of God.

Charles Ringma, tssf.