Thursday, January 15, 2015

Film Notes: The Band's Visit

The Band's Visit is a touching, hilarious yet melancholy film which charts the visit of eight Egyptian musicians of the "Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra" (no less), to Israel. The purpose of their visit is to play for the opening ceremony of an Arab Cultural Centre somewhere in Israel - but the band take the wrong bus and end up marooned in a dead-end town, in land where they are clearly ill at ease.

Having no choice but to accept the hospitality of the local people the audience are invited to watch as the band and their hosts discover the warmth of various aspects of their shared humanity. While some characters remain aloof, the central protagonists meet in the common ground of love, food, families bereavement, sex, music, hopes, fears and regrets. While such a description could be indicative of a dull and ponderous film - or a preachy-epic, The Band's Visit is playful, delicate, and a riot of visual and comic timing. The film is beautiful to watch too, with wide vistas and silences reminiscent of No Country for Old Men, although that is where the similarities end.

This remarkably short film is delightful, surprising and lovely.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Notes: The Locust Effect by Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros

Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros' "The Locust Effect" is a profound, disturbing and important book about the battle to improve the lives of the poor in the developing world. It is also quite different from any of the purely political books on the subject (which focus on the effects of world trade systems) and is different again from the literature of most of the development agencies I have read from folks like TEARFund and Water Aid (which focus on direct, practical economic development schemes). The Locust Effect is not a book which demeans or downplays the importance of political, economic or development work; but seeks to add something of profound significance to the global effort to improve the lives of the poorest: namely the essential need for justice.

Haugen and Boutros explain:
Somehow the world missed the fact that most of the global poor lack the most basic ingredient of forward progress: personal security....... most of the global poor live outside the protection of rudimentary law enforcement and are utterly vulnerable to the locusts of violence that can come on any given day and sweep all other good efforts to improve their lives away. (p276). 
The book contains not merely a weight of statistics demonstrating the global crisis of injustice against the poor; but heartbreaking stories of individuals and families whose lives have been devastated by their vulnerability in the face of the absence of access to justice. The child-rape victims in South America whose attackers are above the law, the African widows whose land (and only income) is stolen from them in land-grabs, the Indian brick-kiln workers beaten and imprisoned as slaves, the Indian girls who won't attend the school built by an International development project, because they are not safe from rapists either travelling to//from the school or within its corridors; are only some of the stories from the book which show what life without the functioning justice system we take for granted, looks like.

The reality that The Locust Effect asks us to confront is that development aid and provision without justice is critically flawed. Haugen and Boutros write:
In their study called Where is the Wealth of Nations, the World Bank sets out to determine how different kinds of capital contribute to a nation's economic development. The sharp-pencilled regression analysts at the Bank started with the familiar sources of a nation's capital: 1) e.g. natural resources, (oil, gas, minerals, forests, croplands etc) and 2) built capital (e.g. machinery, equipment, infrastructure, urban land, etc). But the economists found that these two sources of tangible capital accounted for only 20 to 40 percent of a nation's wealth. It turns out that the vast majority of the wealth comes from intangible capital of institutions, (e.g. education, governance, property rights, justice systems, etc) that makes human labour and the natural and built capital increasingly productive. (p155)
Or as David Brooks wrote in the New York Times:
You can cram all the nongovernmental organisations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law, and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won't add up to much.... In short, there's only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder, head-on. (p157)
While I have been reading this book, the UK has been embroiled in an enormous scandal as the extent to which child sexual abuse has been rife, and carried out by public figures in the world of entertainment and politics. The headlines have focused on the abusers; but the alarming thing is the fact that virtually all the victims of abusers like Saville, Cyril Smith, Peter Righton and the rest, were vulnerable children and adults from care homes, hospitals and the like who would not be believed or would make 'bad witnesses'. This scandal is escalating amidst claims that the elites have conspired to cover up the abuse coming from among their ranks; Don Hale of the Bury Messenger alleges that Special Branch came and removed all the evidence he planned to publish about it in the 1980s, while Leon Brittan still has to account for the "mislaid" dossier of information passed to him by Geoffrey Dickens MP. We stand shocked, appalled and rightly demand a transparent enquiry and action, both the prosecution of abusers and care for victims. What Haugen and Boutros show is that what has so outraged us in the UK, where a tiny minority are below the protection of the law, and another tiny minority is above its reach: is the normal experience of billions of the worlds poorest people.

In most of the countries under discussion the justice systems are simply broken, or absent. Many of the systems are barely reconstructed colonial hang-overs from the Early 20thC and were designed, not to provide justice for the poor; but to manage a turbulent population resisting occupation. For others, policing and the justice system are simply absent and the poor have no access to any impartial dispute resolution, protection from crime or compensation for it. As disturbingly as Don Hale's accusations about Special Branch, for vast swathes of the worlds poorest people the police themselves are the problem. Untrained, unequipped and barely paid police forces act as corrupt militia's of the elite, the rich and powerful - consistently siding against the poor. Almost three-thousand years ago, The Jewish prophet Isaiah charged: They deprive the poor of justice and deny the rights of the needy among my people. They prey on widows and take advantage of orphans. (Isa10:2). He would shudder at how little has changed in 2015.

While much of the book is taken up with demonstrating the veracity of the central thesis of the essential requirement of criminal justice for the poor; The Locust Effect also assesses what the spending priorities of Western governments have been in their various development programmes. They conclude:
There has been no meaningful, large-scale attention or resources focused on protecting the common poor in the developing world from violence with basic law enforcement.(p215)
In fact, they estimate that of the trillions of dollars invested in international development over the last half a century, less than one percent has been used to fix broken justice systems.

After the painful, and difficult stories it contains, The Locust Effect concludes in optimistic terms. The authors assert that improving justice for the poor isn't something that has been tried and abandoned because of its difficulty - rather that it remains work which has simply never been really tried on a scale that fairly reflects the size of the problem.

Some localised case studies, many of which are the work of The International Justice Mission (IJM) founded by Haugen, are highlighted. Using their system of Collaborative Casework to identify the points in the system which deny the poor, the IJM team were able (with others) to rebuild the justice and policing system in Cebu, The Phillipines reducing corruption, freeing slaves and training the judiciary. The results were spectacular. Likewise the introduction, of mobile courts in rural DRC has led to the first effective prosecutions of gang-rapists causing a subsequent enormous improvement in the lives of previously vulnerable women who now live under the covering of the rule of law for the first time. The Locust Effect contains several such inspiring case-studies. They prove that huge progress for the most vulnerable in our world is possible if we can invest in justice. They point out that some cities which have reasonably well-functioning justice systems today such as New York - were utterly corrupt and dysfunctional a Century ago.

Haugen and Boutros conclude;
"the critical question of our era is before us. At this historic inflection point in the struggle again severe poverty, are we prepared to do something different? Are we prepared to honestly acknowledge that the abandonment of criminal justice systems in the developing world has been a disaster? And are we prepared to leverage what we know know to finally begin securing for the poor that safe passage out of the violence that history tells us is both indispensable and possible."(p275)
Critics on the left will perhaps be suspicious of an American book which seeks to shift the 'blame' for severe poverty in the world away from the likes of the G8, trade and tariff agreements, and debt - and onto problems within developing countries themselves. Likewise Economic determinists will insist that only wealth distribution will empower the poor and provide justice - and will be suspicious of any suggestion that cause and effect might also run in the other direction. However, even if one shares any of those starting assumptions, Haugen and Boutros demonstrate in The Locust Effect that alongside whatever vision of social and economic justice we pursue, providing the poor of the earth with safety and security is a basic human-right that must go hand-in-hand in a positive dynamic relationship with traditional development and political work.

Buy The Locust Effect is online here
Read more about The Locust Effect here:
Read more about the International Justice Mission (and their notable work freeing slaves) here:

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Distant Fire

Penton Hook

Where my Grandparents used to take me when I was a toddler...

Monday, January 05, 2015

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Book Notes: The Permanent Revolution by Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim

Hirsch and Catchim's 300+ page book on church leadership and structure is quite unlike anything I've read before. It is closely argued, detailed, comprehensive and engaging. Despite the fact that I am no longer involved directly in church leadership, I found this book stimulating and thought-provoking - perhaps because the authors write from a slightly different theological perspective to my own. There is a tendency (or rather a temptation) when reading a familiar or favourite author, to feel so at home with the assumptions of one's own theological stable that you simply steam-through the book on auto-pilot. Reading something different is like an away-match; which can be more stretching, higher risk, harder work - but potentially more rewarding. When the authors are especially persuasive they force the reader to ask if this 'gain' can be reconciled across the different sets of assumptions or whether their coherence on the point in question presents a problem for the reader's starting assumptions. 

Having read the book in detail - and wrestled with it at length, I come away with the sense that there are some problems with it - but that the core argument of the book is both immensely challenging, and hugely helpful for the Western church in the predicament in which we currently find ourselves; namely spiritual weakness and numerical decline in the context of a secularising culture.

The central plank of the argument of the book is that the structure of the church described in the New Testament book of Ephesians (4:11-12) was not intended to be a unique arrangement for the Ephesian church, nor exclusively for the benefit of the "early church"; but was intended by God to be the permanent way in which the church was to be organised. The text itself says: So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (NIV) and can be summarized as follows:

Sometimes referred to as "The Five-fold Ministry", Hirsch and Catchim refer to this as "APEST"; (Pastor in the NIV changed to Shepherd). The authors are certain in their assertion that many of the ills which have befallen the contemporary Western church stem from our failure embrace this model and flow definitely from the distortions we have placed upon it. 

There is one exegetical question and one theological question which more theologically traditional Christians immediately raise with regard to the implementation of this model. The first is about whether Eph 4 is a really four or five fold model, and the second is about the legitimacy of any claim to contemporary apostleship. Both of these require some thought because unless they are answered the detail of the rest of the book is irrelevant.

Firstly with regard to the four-or-five fold division: The long-term scholarly consensus has been that the shepherd and teacher categories are actually one and that the pastor-teacher is therefore one and the same. This has by no means been a universally accepted division, but it is an important one nevertheless. I would want to suggest that to  hang great theological weight on points of Greek grammar is a precarious basis on which to proceed, and that being dogmatic on this point is perhaps unwise. I think on balance the four-fold model is exegetically more secure and it does have some consequences for the book - but does not render the actual argument Hirsch and Catchim make redundant, even if it requires some modification. The reason the main argument of the book is not defeated by this concern over categories is because in all key points of argument the authors actually group these two together. Their central thrust is that while Eph4 has the weight of leadership spread five ways, we have effectively abandoned the APE functions and handed the church over exclusively to the ST giftings. In my diagram above that means the top of the wheel has been neglected while the base has dominated. The separation of the pastor-teacher roles does perhaps indicate a subtle shift in the authors' understanding of the role of the Bible in the life of the church though; as the unity of this category inherently elevates the prominence of scripture in the church's philosophy of ministry. Its important to note however that this distinction does not invalidate the central argument of the book.

Secondly, conservative theological sensitivities will always be ruffled by any contemporary use of the word 'apostle'. Such rejection of the term is based upon two primary concerns, theological and pastoral. Theologically there has been the concern to defend the core of New Testament theology - "the Apostolic deposit" given by Jesus to The Twelve and Paul. Paul's writings on the "rights of an Apostle" and the qualifications for Apostolic office are clearly linked to the verification of the original gospel and authorship of the New Testament. Any suggestion of contemporary apostleship is frequently associated with an assault on the authority of scripture (either theologically or functionally in the church's life), in a way more dangerous than any claims to contemporary 'sign gifts' ever would. Pastorally, the term 'apostle' when used in anything but its New Testament context conjours up in the minds of many, dark images of heavy-shepherding, power, domination and religious abuse. These two concerns are valid and pressing; and Hirsch and Catchim go out of their way to answering them. They address these concerns in the following ways: Theologically they carefully establish that what they mean by contemporary Apostleship differs profoundly from the Apostleship of the Twelve and Paul, but invokes the Apostleship referred to in much of the rest of the New Testament. I have previously come across this distinction referred to as between "Apostles of Christ" and "Apostles of The Church"; but Hirsch and Catchim use "Apostle" and "apostle", capitalised for Peter, Paul et al to mark the difference. No reader should think that these authors think that any of their leadership equates to the likes of "St" Peter! This is helpful, and incidentally maps nicely onto my personal "Open but cautious" view on the role of the gifts of The Holy Spirit today, which allows for a shift in the Holy Spirit's emphasis on the death of the original Apostles and completion of the Canon; but not a withdrawal of His New Testament functions. The pastoral concern about authoritarianism is equally well met. Huge swathes of this book are devoted to describing what a contemporary small-"a" apostle looks like and how they function; and authoritarianism is thoroughly inimical to their understanding of it.

It is important for more theologically traditional readers not to dismiss this book out of hand on these points of definition and emphasis because there is much in it of value. In the remainder of this review I want to mention a few things which I struggled with in this book, and then conclude with the things which I consider to be of great benefit.

I have to admit that I struggled with the style of this book. Much of that is nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of the argument, merely a clash between approaches. I don't think that it is unfair to point out that this book is too long because it suffers from a great deal of repetition of ideas and at times somewhat pedantic outworking of them. More importantly however, I struggled with it because it is written stylistically like a technical manual for a car or a company management strategy document;  genres I would usually go some way to avoiding! This is more significant than mere style however as it does point to perhaps an underlying difference between my perspective and that of the authors. The technical-manual, corporate fix-it, approach contains assumptions which perhaps need to be probed a little. It may be doing the author's an injustice, but as I read Permanent Revolution I got the impression that Hirsch and Catchim felt that our primary problem in the church is structural and organisational; but more importantly that our fate is in our own hands and that fixing it is primarily something we can do. The authors make regular historical forays to illustrate their claims, regularly citing the apostolic role of John Wesley in the 18thC revival in England as evidence of their claims. One could be forgiven for thinking that the well-established problems of Charles G. Finney's Lectures on Revival, in which great spiritual awakenings allegedly inevitably flow from us following the formula to create the right spiritual conditions; have been appropriated and applied to roles and structures within the church. That is of course, not to say that we shouldn't either repent and pray as Finney advised, nor get our structures in shape as Hirsch and Catchim demand - but we shouldn't make the error of then assuming that certain results will necessarily follow. Its important to also reflect on the Sovereignty of God and the way in which such reformations as these can be the response to great spiritual movements as much as their cause. Hirsch and Catchim are certain that only when the APEST categories are deliberately applied and the Eph4 language used that the benefits of the church as an apostolic movement will be known (eg p11). It is of course equally realistic to interpret the ministry of Wesley in completely different terms. Granting that Wesley fits their definition of a post NT 'apostle', is it not the case that he was propelled into this role, not by a deliberate embrace of the APEST typology; but because the Holy Spirit was poured out which meant that ministries spontaneously expanded out of their man-made boxes? These sundry observations don't negate the central thesis of this book, but do contextualise it and limit its scope somewhat. 

The most serious problem with The Permanent Revolution however, lies in its handling of scripture. I am not arguing here that the book contains major doctrinal errors, or deviations from essential Christian theology, it does not. The problems here lie not so much in poor exegesis, but rather in selective exegesis of key texts. The five-fold ministry of Ephesians 4 is given a book length treatment, and the repeated assertion made that this typology is foundational for all-times-all-places. Given that there are a range of structures present within the Early Church (initial communal-ism, 5-fold apostolic, elder-led); this is a very bold claim which requires detailed justification, rather than just the assertion that Ephesians is foundational. Its not even that the authors see Ephesians as a whole as foundational and trans-historical and trans-cultural; they make it abundantly clear that they do not regard the household codes of chapter 5 in such lofty terms. Rather - they take Eph4:11, and apply a fundamentalist hermeneutic to it in isolation. It does make for a lively and fascinating agenda for church reform but I am unconvinced that it is a fair reflection of the breadth of the New Testament. Perhaps only someone claiming CAPITAL-A Apostle status would say they have the authority to make such a call! Of particular note are the pastoral Epistles, universally acknowledged to be among the later NT documents. Here the emphasis given to Timothy (in Ephesus!) is not to establish the five-fold ministry but to preach the Word. When the gift of preaching (as distinct from teaching) is arrived at, it should be noted that an overly rigid five-fold typology is an imposed straight-jacket because the word itself is irrepressibly Apostolic, Prophetic, Evangelistic, Pastoral in its Teaching. That is why for centuries Christian exegetes have taught that Eph2:20  (the Prophets and Apostles are the church's foundation) refers to the Old and New Testaments in their completeness. Hirsch and Catchim dismiss the learning of many great scholars on this point as procrustean (Procrustean!!). It was disappointing that such a critical point of textual difficulty for their thesis was so lightly swatted away with an epithet, when serious engagement with other views was needed.

Having mapped out some misgivings, fans of Hirsch and Catchim (like the great folks who gave me this book!) might be wondering if I am writing a full-on assault on it here. Far from it. I think that there are some extremely valuable things in this book which need to be grasped, firmly and urgently. While I thought it was only honest to outline some reservations I want to spend the remainder of this review focussing on the many positives in it.

The first things to note is that while Eph 4 might not have been contextualised adequately within the wider New Testament this is a very rich, and deep exploration of this part of chapter four. Given that these verses have been overlooked by the Western church (the Bible I inherited has the verses either side underlined in red!) a book-length treatment of these verses is appreciated. Furthermore, because the authors are not just theologians but practicioners they have a huge wealth of wisdom to share about implementation of their ideas into the realities of church life. Again one does not have to accept every nuance of every argument to benefit hugely from absorbing this.

The leadership model Paul develops in his Ephesian epistle has a wonderful balance which Hirsch and Catchim rightly call our attention to. On p48-49, they summarise what imbalances brought into the APEST model can look like as follows:

A (Without PEST) = "hard-driving, autocratic, pressure for change, leaving wounded people, unsustainable"

P (Without AEST) = "one-dimensional, factious and sectarian, superspiritual, either too activist to be sustainable or too quietist to be useful; not viable"

E (Without APST) = "obsessed with numerical growth, lacking theological depth, charismatic leader-dominated, not empowering many people"

S (Without APET) = "risk averse, lacking in healthy dissent or creativity, lack innovation unable to transfer core message across generations"

T (Without APES) = "controlling, moralistic and uptight and Pharasaic".

It is of course unlikely that any ONE of these will dominate a church, it is a useful list because it is obvious which direction any church is tempted to stray from Paul's Ephesian balance. Hirsch and Catchim's analysis of the church in these terms is as welcome as their call to return to the kind of balanced ministry explicated in Eph4.

One of the obvious-but-hard-to-practice lessons that comes from this is that leadership teams in churches are not meant to always agree on matters of emphasis and direction! Leadership can be frustrating when people seem driven by different concerns and agendas - but what this model makes clear is that the desired outcome is usually the result of the tension created by the legitimate concerns of different giftings exerting their calling. The model is like that of guy-ropes supporting a marquee. The fact that some leaders are essentially driven by the pastoral effect of a proposal on existing members, while others are driven to experiment in new ways of sharing the gospel outside the church, should not be a cause of grief, but a recognition of the type of diversity found in the APEST. The Permanent Revolution does not call for the five APEST categories to be made into job-titles and people forced into roles; rather they describe these types of gifts/personality types as five-intelligences to which every church leadership should have access. This is very useful indeed and an associated resource is the Five-Fold-Survey . This questionnaire allows participants to weigh their gifting in these five areas. If a leadership team, say a group of elders, were to do this survey together and discover for instance that none of them were driven by apostolic gifts they would need to give special attention to working with wider church leaders to help them build vision and pioneer longer-term strategy. If they found that they lacked pastorally driven people - again that would indicate a quite different need they would have to address.

While churches I know all vary hugely on this, The Permanent Revolution argues that the consistent pattern in the church in the West has been to elevate the Pastors and Teachers (or Pastor-Teachers!) to the fore, and therefore neglect the Evangelist, who engages the world with the gospel, the Prophet who calls the church to Covenant faithfulness and keeps the church distinct from the world, and critically apostles, who lead the church into being people-led missionary movement; driven by a powerful vision of the church as a mobilised community participating in the mission of God in the world. Hirsch and Catchim call these modern-day apostles "guardians of the church's missionary DNA". Frankly, and honestly; theological quibbles aside, I think that they expose a critical weakness in our churches. If we have lost our missionary heart, we need apostles to reawaken us. If identifying visionaries, who can act apostolically in our churches challenges or even threatens those of us who function as preachers and teachers; then good!

In a telling aside, the authors note that while the Pastors and Teachers have dominated church life and made the churches inevitably decline through inward looking imbalance; the apostles and Evangelists have fled to the para-church organisations. It is not insignificant that there are many para-church organisations which are dominated by apostolic visionary types who drive their staff to breaking point and are pastorally destructive; precisely the opposite imbalance to the churches.

The second thing to note is that the authors have both a healthy realism about the challenges we face, and some very telling and astute insights into our dynamics and our condition. Time and time again while reading their analysis I could picture situations to which they relate, to myself, the fellowship of which I am a part and the wider church scene. The diagrams of decline they offer in their introduction on the "Life Cycle of Movements" I found shocking, and accurate for example.

This has been a long review, but it is a very long book. In conclusion, I am very glad I was given it to read - because I would not have been initially drawn to it as "not my kind of book". Despite my various reservations about its method and the hard work of reading all the managementy/psychology stuff; this is a hugely stimulating a worthwhile read that exposes a real weakness in our churches and points towards a cure based on a New Testament example. We have indeed marginalised out visionaries, plotters, dreamers, planners, entrepreneurs, missionaries and pioneers. We have lost our ability to connect, to innovate to create and to inspire; we do not have churches which have the kind of balance that Eph4 promotes. Argue about whether we should call these people apostles (let alone Apostles), if you want to; but oh how we need to set them loose in our churches today.