Monday, 27 August 2012

Saving Paradise, Greenbelt-style

Maybe there are a lot of tulips in Paradise. Perhaps the relative size of things differs there, like the size of reputations. The first shall be last and the last first. And the Lord said 'Behold, tulips will  be bigger than people. Blessed are the tall red flowers, for they shall bring much joy, taking people's mind off the mud.'

The theme at this year's UK Greenbelt Festival was Saving Paradise. You can tell a lot from a strap line and Greenbelt does some good ones - recently we've had: Dreams of Home (2011); Heaven in Ordinary (2007); Standing in the Long Now  (2009) and perhaps my favourite, from 2010: The Art of Looking Sideways. Are they due merely to clever artistic types being a little bit alternative, in a nice middle class sort of way, or do they actually mean something?

The strap lines from Greenbelt increasingly reflect its vision that the whole earth is the arena for God's activity; that the gospel compels us to engage global inequality, human rights, climate change, culture and the poor. All the strap lines quoted above play with themes of 'the here and now' and 'the then', when God will renew the face of the earth and bring justice and peace. Paradise is clearly lost. Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden. But this is not the end of the story. How we live in the interim and what the death and resurrection of Christ have to do with it all, has been the stuff of debate amongst Christian people for centuries. 

But there's a bit more to this year's strap line, in that Saving Paradise is the title of a recent book (2008) by two American theologians, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebeccca Parker (right)
who made an astonishing discovery when they set out on a five year pilgrimage to document early Christian art in the churches and catacombs of Mediterranean Europe. What surprised them was that until the end of the first Millennium Christ is depicted primarily as the risen One, involved in this life, as baby, infant, man, shepherd, teacher and healer. Paradise is close at homeOnly at the turn of the Millennium does he begin to be depicted as the Crucified One, and themes of torture, death and martyrdom point people beyond this world to the next, and, for the Crusaders, appear to sanction bloodshed in his name. This world may be going to hell in a handcart, but no matter: God will welcome us into the next. We are heaven bound, no matter what happens here. Paradise is not here but in the next world. When you're mainly concerned about the next world, it doesn't take too much imagination to conclude that this world is not so important. What we create here (art, writing, dance, music) is of limited value. In addition, 'You will always have the poor amongst you', said Jesus; so tell them the gospel; at least they'll go to heaven when they die, despite having been starving in this world...

Complex themes. We walk a tightrope in faith. 'Set your minds on things which are above, not on things that are on earth', says Colossians. Yet all the great movements of the Spirit have raised up Christians to make a difference here and now on this earth. How can you make a difference if you eschew this world and think only of a Paradise that is to come?

And so Saving Paradise neatly sums up the ongoing sea change in British and American Evangelicalism. Dallas Willard; Brian McClaren; Rob Bell; Shane Claiborne; and in the UK, Steve Chalke and NT Wright, have all pointed to how we need to live in the here and now; bringing heaven to earth, alight with a vision of a Jesus who is teacher, example and ideal human, not just a crucified Saviour who guarantees us a ticket to Paradise when we die. 

And so the net widens. At Greenbelt you will come across Christians engaged at all levels in 'saving paradise': stewarding the earth; fighting injustice; rediscovering spiritualities for every taste in recognition of the diversity of a questioning 21st Century Christianity.

Where it will lead......? 
Who knows. 
What exactly is our part in 'saving paradise?' What is God's part?

For further thoughts and reflections on tulips in Paradise, over to you.

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