Earlier this year, Unbelievable? held its annual conference, the theme of which was God Unmuted: It’s Time for the Church to find its authentic voice again. The title of the conference itself raises some very important questions. How does God speak? Who muted God in the first place? Is the Church the best mouthpiece for God? And what does an authentic voice sound like?
God is fond of speaking. He spoke creation into being, He breathed into scripture, and He became the incarnate Word. We are surrounded by Godspeak yet hearing we do not hear. We treat His creational words as if they were produced by a random word generator. We knock the breath out of His written word and leave it gasping for air. And we inter the incarnate Word and reduce His life to an epitaph on a historical tombstone.
We live in a culture that is incapable of getting good God reception because the church towers have been torn down and the only option left for us is to tune our radios to the state sponsored postmodern frequency. Since God hasn’t stopped speaking, we don’t need to unmute Him, we just need to reestablish better broadband reception. We don’t need divine hearing aids to boost His signal, we just need to shut up and listen.
The life-giving seed of God’s word is just as fertile now as it has ever been, the problem is that our soil has become much harder. Our culture needs some serious tilling if His word is to germinate and grow a hundredfold crop. Tilling elicits images of toil, where hard surfaces are broken up, rocks are cleared, and fertile soil is only discovered once you dig deeper. Tilling is a wonderful metaphor for apologetics because it reflects the often-uncomfortable nature of the work and the need to get one’s hands dirty. It also reveals the consequences of ineffective apologetic farming, because when done improperly, the word of God falls on hard paths, quickly dies in shallow soil, or gets choked out by doubt.
Loving God with Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength
“The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility…The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.”(Albert Einstein)
Einstein was stunned that humans could comprehend the universe but if you believe the Genesis account then a thinking, speaking God who created image bearing humans equipped with divine voice recognition software isn’t surprising at all. If we worship a speaking God then we need to understand how we hear His words, integrate them into our lives, and put them into action. This process is often discussed in terms of the relationship between spirit, soul, mind and body. If you are a materialist, then your job is easy because you don’t have to contend with a God delusion and can focus solely on safe and sane chemicals.
However, if you are a religious person, reducing existence to matter in motion doesn’t explain why your mind is always spinning with thoughts of the immaterial. In the concluding Big Conversation session of the conference, Dr Iain McGilchrist, author of the influential book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ and Sharon Dirckx, Christian neuroscientist, tackled this issue by discussing brain science, the hard problem of consciousness and the role of God. After listening to their discussion, I was inspired to develop a schema to help me better understand the relationship between spirit, soul, mind and body.
The spirit is the supernatural essence that animates us. The soul is the temple where that spirit resides. The mind is the interface between this inner immaterial duo and its outward expression. And the body is the uniquely crafted physical articulation of the mental activity generated when a spirit fills a temple. Once our sanctuary is inhabited by a spirit it comes alive with worship, a worship that generates a very particular soul music shaped by the unique architectural acoustics of our temple. The mind then transmits this worship to the body and we see it physically manifested as the fruits of the spirit. Therefore, we need to be very careful about the kind of spirit we invite into our sanctuary because the one we choose will have a profound downstream effect on our soul, mind, and body.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. (1 Corinthians 2:12)
Lisa Fields, founder of the Jude 3 project, said at God Unmuted that we need an incarnational apologetics where all the information we impart is simultaneously lived out in our day-to-day behaviour. In other words, a proper apologetic shouldn’t be limited to a temple talk but must also incorporate the dance our bodies perform to the praise music emanating from our spirit filled sanctuary. Seekers will not be content to just pick our brains but will also want us to name that tune.
Walking the Talk
Glen Scrivener, author of The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress and Equality, opened the conference by explaining how Western values owe their very existence to a people who heard God’s creational words, read His written word and formed a relationship with His incarnate word. While it may feel like God has been put on mute, history is full of evidence of His ongoing rhetorical genius. God promised us that His words would never return to Him empty, and as Scrivener pointed out, God walked His Talk, and we see evidence of His footprints throughout history.
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
Christianity is the air we breathe, and while our atheist friends tell us we never inhaled, their theories just go up in smoke every time they light up a history book.
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Paul portrayed the Church as the Body of Christ and compared its members to His fingers and toes, eyes and ears, while constantly reminding them that it was Christ who was the brains behind the operation. We need to take Paul’s words to heart because when the Church loses its Mind, its body begins to wobble and shake, and looks more like a collection of jerks rather than a well-oiled biological machine. Sadly, the negative body language we frequently give off has made the world look the other way.
Interestingly, while Paul compares Christians with organs of reception, such as eyes and ears, He is careful about making them Christ’s mouthpiece because he understood, as James did, that the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness, capable of undoing all the good the Body has done.
It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:8-10)
During one of the panel discussions at God Unmuted, Phil Vischer pointed out that the Church has a crisis of credibility because it recites God’s word and then acts as if it didn’t hear a thing it just said. As we all know, Jesus didn’t have much respect for hypocrites, and we fool ourselves if we don’t see that same hypocrisy when we look in the mirror. I once heard someone say that young people aren’t surprised by hypocrisy because they see it everywhere, but it is the Church’s denial of it that irks them.
The interesting thing about living in a postmodern world is that when truth is relative and individually determined it’s impossible to be a hypocrite. It’s only when absolute truth exists that hypocrisy can be called out. Christianity, therefore, is a victim of its own success, and while it often doesn’t walk the talk, it at least acknowledges that it has been Spoken to.
What is the authentic voice of the Church? Merriam-Webster defines authentic as conforming to an original to reproduce essential features. The Church’s authentic voice therefore should be an accurate rendition of His creational words, written word and incarnate word. A spoken word performance that isn’t a lecture but an invitation to those who labour and are heavy laden.
We all know that our sin has made us objects of God’s wrath, but He loved the world so much that He didn’t want it to end that way. God’s last Word on the matter was a Son who offered us undeserved grace and forgiveness and it is that grace and forgiveness that should set Christians apart. Judgment and punishment are easily dispensed by the culture with digital fire and brimstone so when we engage in similar technological chastening, we become indistinguishable from the rest of the world. God made it clear that He didn’t want to delete anyone but desired that all be rebooted back to the original Garden settings.
Sadly, Christians who speak of the city of God but operate by the rules of the city of man make Kingdom citizenship very unappealing. We need to acknowledge that we are imperfect citizens but also remember that despite being broken vessels, God still wants us to carry His Living Water to the world, and even though we are far too leaky, He has confidence that we can deliver enough to wet the tongue of those dying from spiritual dehydration.
Pastor Jeff Vines pointed out that no one lives consistently and that we are all in need of grace and forgiveness. So, while Christianity has made the world a better place by setting the behaviour bar high, it must also generously dispense forgiveness because it knows how very difficult it is to be holy like He is holy.
God speaks and we need to be megaphones for His creational, written and incarnate words, but how can we best magnify His speech? We all know that we get into trouble when we put words in His mouth so a better strategy would be to show what life looks like when His words are taken to heart, and that is only possible when we “talk story.”
“Talk Story” is a Hawaiian expression that means “to chat informally” or “to shoot the breeze.” Maxine Hong Kingston uses the term to describe a Chinese / Chinese-American storytelling style, which is “an oral tradition of history, mythology, genealogy, bedtime stories, and how-to stories that have been passed down through generations, an essential part of family and community life.”
Good apologetics is good storytelling because it incarnates the incarnate into our incarnational apologetics. When we share our personal stories, we allow others to vicariously take Christianity for a test drive without first having to come up with a down payment. We then pray that once they have experienced the ride of their life, they may just sell all they have and purchase a faith of great price.
I suspect most of you have been moved to tears by a personal testimony. Individual stories of redemption are far more compelling than sermons because they aren’t easily intellectualized, or bullet pointed, but dramatically reveal the power of the Gospel to transform lives. While creeds and doctrines are important marquees for the Christian faith, it is the daily performances of the image bearing characters that move us.
Alister McGrath, in his talk at God Unmuted, pointed out how Christianity allows people to flourish and what better way to show what a flourishing life looks like than to tell our own story. Since the postmodern world is littered with deconstructed narratives, we have a wonderful opportunity to show how Jesus puts these broken pieces back together so that people may have life and have it to the full. Every time Jesus touches a life, an autobiography becomes another compelling chapter in the Greatest Story Ever Told.
Still Small Voice
We worship a speaking God whose voice reverberates throughout the universe, but sadly are deaf to His words. I believe the problem isn’t that God has been muted but that He has been drowned out by the incoherent ramblings of a people whose mouths are still full after biting off more knowledge than they could chew. I think the best strategy for the Church moving forward is to encourage silence so that people can hear echoes of the words He spoke into creation, attune their ears to the historical acoustics of His written word, and perhaps most important of all, listen to the stories of those whose lives have been transformed by His incarnate Word, because it is only when we are quiet that we can hear His still small voice.