I am reflecting once again on some of the lessons learned during our recent sabbatical in Israel-Palestine. I am remembering the time Julia and I caught the No. 15 bus back to Saint Margaret’s Guest House in upper Nazareth (where our group was staying) after church one Sunday morning. The No. 15 bus route in Nazareth is a circular route – rather like the Circle Line on the London Underground but with buses not tube trains. It doesn’t matter which side of the road you catch the bus – either way will eventually get you to your chosen destination. Of course if you don’t know where you are going to begin with, or haven’t travelled the route before, or think you know where you are heading but don’t really, you can end up just going round and round in circles!? I am thinking about our nightmare journey that Sunday morning attempting to get back to our hostel at Saint Margaret’s. I recall a friend of mine – who worked in the City – who had a recurring nightmare about being permanently stuck on the Circle Line?!
In my last ‘blog’ I started to write about the way our cultural influences affect what we believe and how we behave as Christians – far more than we are probably prepared to accept? I am still working through the implications of this, and suspect I will be doing so for quite some time to come. My thesis is that we need – both as individuals and as local churches – to re-examine all our beliefs and behaviour patterns to determine what is genuinely born of the Spirit of Christ, what is truly ‘kingdom stuff’, what is truly ‘Christ-cultural’ … and what is actually simply the product of the various secular and ‘religious’ cultural influences around us?
One of the things that forcibly struck me during our time in the ‘Holy Land’ – perhaps especially because I was ‘out of my comfort zone’ and therefore the discrepancy stood out all the more – was the cyclical nature of so much belief and behaviour. ‘Cyclical’ simply means going round and round in the same old circles – rather like a worn old gramophone record suck in the same groove. The more time I spent listening to Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Orthodox Jews, Zionists, and even many Evangelical Arab Christians and Messianic Jews, the more I heard the same old well rehearsed cyclical arguments used to justify outworn beliefs and behaviour patterns. A visible example of this while we were there were the tee-shirts, with their ‘political’ slogans on sale in many of the market stalls and gift shops, championing the various intransigent views passed down the generations that keep Israel-Palestine perpetually locked in the same negative scenario. One would hope that in the white hot heat of the crucible that is the Middle East situation today, it would be the Christians, particularly the Arab Christians and Jewish Believers – those who have been ‘reconciled to God in Christ and entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18) – who would together be at the heart of endeavouring to broker peace and reconciliation between the Jews and the Palestinians? They, of all people, are surely in a unique place to be able to do so? Sadly they are so caught up in cyclical traps of their own that they appear unable to do so.
The unquestioned dispensationalist and Zionist views held by the Messianic Jews, rather than enhancing and commending the Gospel, hinder cooperation between Jewish and Arab Evangelical Christians. The traditional Arab ‘shame-honour’ views held equally strongly by Evangelical Arab Christians, are equally cyclical, and rather than help the cause of the Gospel make it difficult for ‘singletons’, divorced people, and the many casualties of this broken and hurting world to fit in. There is a lot that I respect and admire and love about both the Evangelical Arab Christians and the Messianic Jews, but both groups need to discover prophetic figures within their midsts who will stand up, think ‘outside the box’, challenge the status quo, break the repetitive cycles of purely culturally based belief and behaviour!
Of course we evangelical and charismatic Christians here in the West are often equally bound by our own versions of cyclical belief and behaviour? In a number of ways we mirror both the Messianic Jews and the Evangelical Arab Christians. Probably the majority of evangelical and charismatic Christians in the West subscribe to the same dispensational views as the Messianic Jews, completely unaware that a) such views are less than 200 year old, b) the implications of such views concerning the ‘right’ of Israel as a nation to ‘the Land’ is probably more harmful than helpful, and c) there are other views of the ‘end times’ that may actually have more biblical support behind them? Equally, a growing number of evangelical and charismatic Christians in the West appear to be lining up behind our own version of the ‘honour-shame’ concept, with a seemingly ‘zero tolerance’ approach to ethical problems such as divorce and re-marriage, abortion, and homosexuality – all of which are far more complex issues than many of us are prepared to concede? And I haven’t even got on to some theological matters – such as there being other valid and insightful ways of understanding the atonement as well as penal substitution, or that there may be alternative ways of interpretting those Scriptures that have resulted in the intransigent negative attitude of Anglo-Catholic and Conservative Evangelical Christians to the Ordination of women?
On all of these subjects one gets sick and tired of the same old cyclical arguments getting churned out again and again. In biblical hermeneutics (the science of interpreting scripture), one interesting method is known as the hermeneutic of ‘suspicion and retrieval’. The concept originated with the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur who suggested that when considering any text (including the Biblical text), we need to first be critically aware of our tendency to project our own pre-conceived wishes, concepts, ideas, and views into those texts instead of listening with an open mind and heart to what those texts are truly saying to us. Whenever we read a passage of Scripture, therefore, we need to begin by being ‘suspicious’ of everything we have been taught or believed about that passage and allow God to speak afresh to us by his Spirit. In this way we will be able to ‘retrieve’ what is good and true about what we had previously learned (whilst leaving the dross behind) but see it afresh and anew, whilst at the same time probably learning new things we had not seen before. We too need God to raise up those prophetic voices among us who will be prepared to stand up and be counted, who will ‘think outside the box’, challenge the ‘status quo’, and break the cyclical chains of purely secular and religious cultural beliefs and behaviours that have been handed down to us, many of which are never fully explored because we are trapped in a predetermined cyclical web of handed down cultural belief and behaviour.
In one of my previous churches there was a couple who had gone through the Alpha Course some seven times? They had not simply done it once, and then become helpers. They simply kept on going over old ground again and again. They were spiritual Peter Pans who had never grown up?! Instead of heeding the biblical exhortation to move on from baby milk to solids spiritually (Hebrews 5:11-14) they stayed baby Christians. We ourselves may not be like this couple in this particular way – but maybe we are just like them in our own particular way? Still rehearsing the same old cyclical views and arguments about … well about all sorts of things … without actually having really thought and prayed them through with an openness of heart and mind since the year dot!? We remain trapped on the Circle Line?!
So, after an hour or so we finally manage to catch the No. 15 bus in Nazareth!. Nobody told us that it only runs in one direction on a Sunday, and that therefore we had to get the bus on the other side of the road … but we eventually worked it out for ourselves having watched a couple of buses go by the other way? When we eventually get on the No. 15 it is going a way we have never been before? We don’t know where we are going? We don’t know where to get off? We don’t know how to get to Saint Margaret’s Hostel from the bus stop, even if we knew what stop to get off at? The bus driver has never heard of Saint Margaret’s? We look as though we are just going to be stuck on this particular bus going round and round in circles for ever? Suddenly Julia has a ‘moment of inspiration’! ‘It used to be the old orphanage!’ she tells the bus conductor. ‘Ah!’ he says … and promptly turns off the regular route, takes us down various new roads … and delivers us right to the door!