Ray Overend lectures at Christian Heritage College, Brisbane. This article was presented as a paper given at the Contemporary Issues in Ministry Conference, October 31, 2002, at Christian Heritage College, Brisbane, Australia.
A new breeze blows through secular academia.
In 1993 John Carroll, Reader in Sociology at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, brought out a book (published by Fontana in London) called Humanism: The Wreck of Western Civilisation. In it he said that the time that Europe put man on the throne instead of God was the time from which Western civilisation began to decline.
Since then postmodernism (the fragmentation that follows humanism) has made an even bigger impact on the sanctity of marriage, on corporate ethics, on liability insurance…in fact on the whole spectrum of private and social life. Western civilisation—founded as it was on the philosophy of the church—is being destroyed from the inside out! Satan too has exploited the weakness of his prey by launching devastating attacks like September 11 and Bali.
Yet in the midst of the postmodern chaos has sprung up from within the secular world—indeed the academic world—the beginnings of a spiritual revolution! Just last year John Carroll brought out a new book called The Western Dreaming: The Western World is Dying for Want of a Story. Carroll, is right now teaching his students through a mixture of concepts, stories and paintings.
Secular university culture is beginning to change! Indeed it is beginning to throw some bright light on the very foundations of Christianity, and on just why the Church has lost spiritual authority in the world.
In Chapter 2 of his 2001 book John Carroll says that the Magdalene story in the Gospels is one of those great expressions of Christian worldview that, traditionally, set the direction of European culture. He says that the 20th Century left us without any such story—except for the Princess Diana story, which has, he believes, an interesting, if minor and hidden, parallel with the Magdalene story.
I do not agree with all of Carroll’s insights into the Magdalene story (if you read his book you will be equally surprised at a few things he says), but to meet such a recognition of spirituality and godliness in a prominent 21st Century secular academic must surely be a signpost to encouraging times! Let’s read the original story in Matt. 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-9! We can leave aside the scholarly debates about the details and recognise simply that there was a sinful woman whose childlikeness of heart struck a chord in the heart of God. 
The wisdom of the Magdalene story
Whoever she was, the woman who anointed Jesus in the home of Simon was totally overcome by the wonder of God in Jesus. The importance of the story to Jesus is proclaimed in his words, “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (By the way, how often do we tell the story?) Let me set the scene as Carroll imagines it, taking some of his imagery, as he does, from a Raphael painting:
The scene is Magdala, a fashionable resort town by the Sea of Galilee where rich Romans and Jews own luxurious villas, a town known for its urbane morals and religious tolerance. Jesus has accepted the invitation of Simon, a pious local Pharisee who is intrigued by him. He lounges Roman-style at one end of the triclinium couches that border the banquet table on three sides. Simon reclines opposite, his feet being washed by a servant.
There is a commotion among the servants at the villa entrance. Suddenly, the dozen or so other guests around the table are startled to observe a woman bursting through, and gliding her way quickly and silently to stand behind Jesus. The colours of her velvet dress dazzle the stately marble columned room, a flowing ruby patterned with deep-green leaves, and green sleeves extravagantly fluted, embroidered with gold. One of its loose shoulders has slipped down, exposing silky olive skin. She wears gold bracelets, and red toenails draw attention to bare feet. In spite of the casual restraint of a yellow ribbon, auburn hair spills abundantly down her back. Fiery dark gypsy eyes flash around the room, then settle.
Jesus senses her close behind him—he has been watching the wide-eyed stare of Simon tracking her, the host pale and stuttering with rage. Now he looks around and sees this unknown woman sink to her knees, tears from lowered eyes streaming down her cheeks. He recalls noticing her across the street on his way here, how she had suddenly looked at him and stopped, as if she had seen a ghost. She must have followed him.
She is bent low, loosening her hair, which cascades down, obscuring her face. He feels the tears splashing onto his dusty feet, which gentle hands caress, hair wiping them, then being kissed, then wiped again. She never looks up, and he sees her mouth hanging open in voiceless anguish, so pained and empty that she wants to sink out of existence, at the shame of what she has done with her life.
Was it miracle or curse, that infinitesimal speck of time in the street when her eyes were opened? The instant that changes a life, catching her unawares, has been like concentrated acid dropped on tender skin, the more caustic for him having been no more than the mirror. He senses her fighting against a huge weight of humiliation crushing down on her drained and tainted body.
One hand fumbles to find some hidden pocket, from where she produces a small alabaster flask. She uncorks it, and pours rare and costly perfumed oil onto his feet, tenderly massaging, regularly on impulse breaking her motion to kiss them. Tears continue to flow from bloodshot eyes. The large, airy room is filled with the powerful fragrance of myrrh, enough
to induce a dreamy intoxication in the guests if their host’s darkening mood had not infected them.
Jesus recovers from his surprise. He concentrates, bathing her in his own meditative gaze. Now he knows her, and his own mind. Meanwhile, the resentment of Simon spears at him across the table, the host mumbling under his breath that if Jesus were who he claims to be, he would know the immorality of this woman. And to let her touch him!
So Jesus turns to face Simon and poses a riddle. A man is owed money by two others—one owes five hundred denarii, the other fifty. Neither had anything, so he forgave them both their debts. Which one will be more grateful?
Simon tentatively replies with the obvious answer. Jesus tells him that he has judged rightly, but turning to the woman, he launches into a stern rebuke:
Simon, seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but she, since the time I came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet. Mine head with oil thou didst not anoint: hut this woman hath anointed my feet.
Wherefore I say unto thee: Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little
Simon flushes bright red with humiliation and rage and confusion. From the moment this gutter slut violated the sanctity of his home, he has been subject to insult upon insult. The great teacher whom he invited in as his guest of honour has offended him, in front of his closest friends and most prestigious associates, all intrigued to meet the rumoured miracle worker. This so-called holy man now indulges that notorious whore’s excesses as if he were one of her after-dark visitors. Not only that, but he makes fun of Simon by posing him a riddle so simple that any schoolboy could work it out, yet punishes him for solving it. Then he questions Simon’s hospitality, which has been proper, it is true, but then this is a God-fearing household that wastes not. And how can the servants be expected to proceed normally with their washing duties when chaos descended from the moment of Jesus’ entry?
Worst of all is the confusion. Simon is an intelligent man, well read, and practised in discussion. He prides himself on his scrupulous understanding. Jesus has just reversed the logic of the riddle, which had love following from forgiveness, with the more that is forgiven, the greater the debt of gratitude. Moreover, the teacher had repeated that logic in his last utterance. But he has deliberately baffled them with this scandal of a woman, forgiving her because she loved. How can that be: has he got it the wrong way round? In any case, we know the nature of her love.
This dear woman who anointed Jesus was totally overcome by the wonder of God in Jesus. It broke her heart and she cried uncontrollably as she saw divine love. God loved her, even her. But what is unique is the purity of her love. Humanly we cannot possibly explain it. Many people talk about the depth of her gratitude to Jesus for God’s forgiveness. But it seems that the divine beauty in the story is that she loved Jesus before she knew anything about his forgiveness. Yes her heart would receive. But she had not come to Jesus to ask for something, even though it would have been appropriate to do so.
Her love was transcendent. It was worship. She didn’t want in any way to “possess” God. She was utterly captivated by the wonder of God in Jesus. She gave her heart to God. And there was not a spark of self-consciousness about her love. It was utterly childlike. Simply, she was blown away. The disciples would do anything for Jesus, but Jesus had this woman’s heart. I personally am still discovering the depth of this. Her attitude was Theistic! Yes, it was transcendent.
The joy of reflection
During the 20th Century, the culture of much of the world’s cities lost transcendence! In some cases the church lost transcendence! Some people do not have a philosophy. Many people, even some Christians, choose not to be reflective. They don’t ask “big” questions. They don’t ask “why” questions. They don’t get a “big picture” of life and creation, let alone of God. Some people—yes even some Christians—have no conscious philosophy of life. We are going to Heaven but we don’t really know what for! Our life can be guided by certain quite unconscious and never examined presuppositions!
Gaining a reflective understanding of Christian worldview enables us to enter fully into the discovery of divine love. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
How many Christians in ministry spend quality time simply beholding the presence of God? Is God more important to us than ministry? Is God more important to us that evangelism and mission? Is the beauty of our relationship with our wife more important to us than our ministry?
This special woman who anointed the feet of Jesus, in opening her heart to pure love, saw God in Jesus. Seeing the wonder of God’s glory and feeling the wonder of God’s mercy and love, she never even thought to say sorry or plead for forgiveness. She was too far down in her life to try any religious tricks. She knew that, within her, there were no answers. But the presence of Jesus captivated her. She was so lost in the love of Jesus and in the vision of God’s purity and truth that her heart simply broke to pieces in a cloudburst of tears. She was totally overcome, transformed and anointed in God’s Spirit (yes, before Pentecost). Her spiritual lights were turned on and she saw God! Heart was plugged into heart. In a staggering moment she saw that God created us first for relationship. I think that is what the story is really about. Unlike Simon she had no religion to overcome.
So is relationship at the centre of our Christianity? Is relationship for the sake of relationship the cornerstone of our worldview? Nothing else will bring the full anointing of God’s Spirit upon us. Nothing else will bring spiritual authority to the church. I submit that Carroll is touching on the very reason why the church has so little credibility in today’s world.
Those who take time out to be reflective will discover a music to life that transcends the wonder of anything they have ever known! We must allow God, by his Spirit, to develop us in philosophical reflection! God wrote the New Testament in Greek and (I suggest) he
planted some of the first Gentile churches in the Greek culture because the Greek people were reflective. In the market place they would sit and talk for hours, in the ancient equivalent of today’s coffee shops. (The Greeks of course also worked!)
Above all else, Christianity means encounter with God. Knowledge without encounter means nothing. But, on the other hand, the most vivid encounter in the Spirit, without a God-given philosophy of life, leaves us almost stillborn. When we talk with people, what do we talk about the most? Do we empathise and discover the person in the person, and the wonders of God in the person? Or do we talk most about the things that we do (which of course need to be talked about too)?
Our Australian culture
The conductor of a well-known French symphony orchestra was asked (on ABC FM by Margaret Throsby) how he would like to live in Australia. He said (quite uncritically) that most Australians (including professionals) spend much of their spare time servicing their house, garden and cars. He owns none of these. He lives in a rented apartment in central Paris. Instead of spending their money on the facilities of a busy suburban culture, his wife and he relax and dine every night down on the boulevard with friends, rejoicing in people, life and creativity. He said that it is in this quietly reflective atmosphere that his music receives its soul and inspiration.
The meaning of life
What does Christ show you to be the first purpose of life? Yes one sentence that keeps coming back to me lately is the three-word sentence in 1 John 4: “God is love.” The verse doesn’t say “God loves”, which he does. Rather it says God is love. As we walk with Jesus and enter into the heart of God, so our heart becomes a little like God’s heart. How could a wonderful piece of music be born of anything but inspiration that comes from divine love?
So all creativity is meant to be inspired by the heart of God—everything from building houses to teaching to running a business or governing the nation. Whatever the practical outcomes—and there must be practical outcomes—nothing has ultimate meaning unless it is birthed in divine love and divine inspiration. Everything in life is meant to flow from our relationship to God! This is true biblical Theism. Talking even of the physical universe Colossians 1:17 says that, “in Christ all things consist.”
That is of course why 1 Corinthians 13 implies that what we do is not as important as who we are. In our Australian culture, many (but by no means all) Boomers (particularly men, and that is somewhat natural) find their identity in what they do. But many of the X generation, and more especially of the Y generation, have questioned this worldview. And, thinking of seniors, well, the standard ‘grace’ for food was often “Bless this food to our bodies, Lord, and us to your service!”, as if at any moment of the day life was first about service. In a course last year one student from overseas shared how in the church in which she grew up, Christianity, as she had heard it, was about two things, belief and service.
Yes, we are saved only ever by the grace of God, and through our personal belief in the death and resurrection of Christ. But the great commandment begins with the heart, and then adds mind, and soul (life) and strength. And John Carroll’s book The Western Dreaming is a wake up call, not only to the contemporary culture but also to the church. The Twentieth Century demythologised the heart of our culture. We no longer dreamt visions or saw beyond the stars. Let me tell you a story of a Year 11 student at a weekend Christian schools conference for 11 and 12 students.
At the end of an evening session I invited my group (we were looking at Christian spirituality and philosophy) to wander outside into the vast and beautiful grounds and just, individually, find a spot and do nothing! Next morning I invited some sharing. This Year 11 girl said:
It was really painful. I’ve had a very full year. I love activity, and, sitting there last night, I longed for something to do. I really hated doing nothing, and it got worse, but I was determined to stay there, doing absolutely nothing.
After a while I glanced up and, through the clearest air I’d ever known, I saw a sky like no sky I had seen before. I was overcome by the sheer beauty.
I so began to enjoy the wonder of it all that I could have stayed there for hours. To my amazement I was actually enjoying doing nothing. I had come through something like the pain of the long distance runner.
But then something even more amazing happened. As time went by, in the joy of the stillness, somehow my eyes went beyond the stars. God opened my spiritual eyes and—I saw God.
May I encourage you to stop and look up!
We can be so preoccupied as Christians that we clearly see neither God nor the people in people. And, because we sometimes have no philosophy, we simply get driven by the secular culture around us! So we must discover the wonder of stopping. We must look up. But, too, we must reflect upon life! We must become philosophical. We must inspire one another to reflect! As a Christian culture we must become more philosophical! And, as God has it, you and I now live in a world that is searching for meaning as never before. It is a culture too that is crying out for meaningful relationship, for genuine friendship. A new coffee shop is birthed every four days in Brisbane. In fact in the CBD alone there are one hundred—bustling with relationship. And, increasingly, movies (from Mr Holland’s Opus to Chocolat and beyond) are reflecting the worldview that, while achievement is essential, ultimately, relationship is more valuable than achievement.
Do you recall in Mr Holland’s Opus, this big-hearted music teacher frustrated because he could not help give and give his time to his students of music, even to the seemingly hopeless, yet, because of it, could never fulfil the ambition of his life to complete the writing of his orchestral symphony? Then you will remember that, some time after Mr Holland had to leave the school, he was invited back to hear an amazing orchestral performance. The story of the movie closed with the words from the students, “We are your opus!” This movie, like Chocolat, is typical of the emergent culture in Western cities.
The coffee shop culture only came to Brisbane in the 1960’s, but by the 1860’s in Vienna there were already one hundred coffee houses. By the end of the 19th Century—the finale of the Romantic and Idealistic periods in philosophy, literature, music and the arts—“the Viennese coffee house blossomed into a place where highlights in Austrian culture were written, conceived, drawn and discussed. In particular it was said of the Cafe Central that it was ‘not a coffee house but a worldview’.” (From Edition Skye, published by Felicia Oblegorski, Vienna)
But if you think some of this talk about ultimate meaning is fanciful, listen to Danah Zohar who lectures at Oxford University in their Strategic Leadership program. In a recent book called Spiritual Intelligence (London: Bloomsbury, 2000) Zohar says:
The major issue on people’s minds today is meaning. Many writers say the need for greater meaning is the crisis of our times. I sense this when I travel abroad each month, addressing audiences from countries and cultures all over the world. Wherever I go, when people get together over a drink or a meal, the subject turns to God, meaning, vision, values, spiritual longing. Many people today have achieved an unprecedented level of material well being. yet they feel they want more. Many speak of an emptiness [inside]. The ‘more’ that would fill the emptiness seldom has any connection with formal religion. Indeed most people seeking some spiritual fulfilment see no relation between their longing and formal religion.
What you see as the most important thing in life defines your worldview. Is it friendship with God? (Do you give God friendship?) Is it friendship with others? Is it your creativity? Is it your career? Is it your ministry? Yes, all of these things, and more, are vital. But the priorities you and I set day by day, and the order in which we place them, define our worldview.
Life demands the continual anointing of God’s Spirit. No amount of philosophy in the human sense will bring us to divine truth or divine love. No amount of unanointed reflection will take us anywhere. But because God is love and is truth, in his fellowship we can feel true love and in his fellowship we can see the truth behind all truths. Humanly, this will always remain a mystery. Our mind is like a magnificent violin. Of itself it cannot make music. But in the hands of an artist it expresses love and truth. The spirit within us, plugged into the Spirit of God, is the artist.
A practical definition of worldview
In our cities there are some very well known chains of hairdressing salons. The hairdressing leaders who run these groups of salons have a certain philosophy for recruiting and training staff.
Periodically a chain will advertise for applicants to attend a kind of “discovery” and “selection” week at their headquarters. On the first day the facilitators will divide, say, 100 candidates into small groups. Then one by one in each group the applicants will share where they are from, a brief story of their lives to date, the things in life that excite them most and their dream for their future. Then in their groups (perhaps over coffee) the girls will engage one another as they “discover” their newfound friends. The experienced facilitators will, in one day, select out those girls who enjoy people. Of course we all enjoy people, in a sense. But the hairdressing leaders are looking for those who spontaneously empathise, that is, those who enjoy other people for themselves, that is, those who find it a joy to “discover” the wonders of other people and therefore who make those other people feel good. In other words, the hairdressing leaders are looking for those candidates who spontaneously and unselfconsciously love other people. This is the first criterion in selecting candidates for training.
Tuesday begins with those candidates who have passed the first and most important test. The facilitators explain that the salons are not first about cutting hair. They are first about relating to people, about giving something to people. Then on this second day the facilitators, through a new series of activities, “pick out” those girls who spontaneously love being creative. There is still no emphasis on ability in cutting styling hair. On this second day the leaders want to know who spontaneously loves playing music, or arranging flowers, or designing clothes, or who spontaneously loves the skill and beauty of playing tennis. The facilitators have ways of selecting those applicants for whom creativity has meaning in itself. They are looking for people who just have to create, people who spontaneously love being creative.
So summing up so far, applicants who naturally empathise with others and whose hearts also love creativity, these people will make good hairdressers for the salons—provided they pass one more test.
In the third stage of the week, the job of the facilitators is to discover who amongst the remaining candidates prefers tennis doubles to singles, who prefers playing flute in an ensemble rather than playing as a soloist—in other words, who, amongst all the candidates, is more excited by participatory creativity than by being alone in creativity. The sound that an ensemble creates is far more than the addition of the individual sounds of the instruments. Music goes into a higher dimension as instruments of different tones play in harmony. And the leaders in hairdressing know that when people are happy together in creativity, an atmosphere is generated that is uniquely wonderful..
So, in the way I have described, a selection is made of hairdressing candidates. The chosen ones are then taught the salon worldview—and hairdressing. The salons are not first about hairdressing; they are first about people. I am not saying that leaders’ eyes are not on money. Of course they are in business. (And business is as much in promoting the purchase of hairstyling products as it is in cutting, shaping and colouring hair.) But these leaders in their field see that business is more than money. Another “get rich” book came out in 1999 by an extremely successful businessman, Brian Sher, called What Rich People Know and Desperately Want to Keep a Secret (Sydney: Pan Macmillan), in which we learn that, if money is our first goal, we will never make much money! There has to be a higher purpose.
The approach of the hairdressing leaders I have described represents a growing awareness in Western society, and certainly in Australia, that there is a higher dimension to life than what modernism and postmodernism proclaim.
Let’s now think of the three things for which the leaders I’ve talked about are looking for in their candidates. First a heart love for others, a true sense of empathy. When a woman comes into a hairdressing salon, what is she looking for? The contemporary woman, of whatever age, is looking for more than a hairstyle. She enjoys unwinding. She enjoys being able to talk with someone who takes an interest in her, who likes her for herself, someone too who is outside her “circle”. She also enjoys being pampered. She enjoys the atmosphere, where all the girls are having “fun” in what they are doing. They enjoy life; they enjoy styling hair.
In short, they enjoy looking after you! They appreciate you as a person, not as a mere customer. You are welcome.
When a girl or woman first enters a good salon, a hairdresser will approach her, introduce herself and offer her coffee and a comfortable place to sit. Then, in an empathic but very unthreatening way, the girl will ask her a few key questions. “Have you had a good week?” After a short time the hairdresser has a “picture” of what makes this woman tick.
When the client comes to the chair, the hairdresser asks her about a style. If it’s her first time in the salon, she is probably looking for an “uplift” from what she has been getting. She might say, “I want something different, but I don’t know what!” The hairdresser (who knows something about her by now) will open a book of styles, flip the pages and say, “How do you like this?” Chances are the woman will say, “That’s fantastic; let’s try it!” During the process of having her hair done, the conversation (never imposed) develops. The client feels “cared” for. She feels that somebody values her. Many women in our society, though they have family and may have many friends, are inwardly lonely.
Finally the client looks at the finished style. It’s transforming. She steps outside feeling like a new person.
A holistic philosophy
Now these hairdressing leaders may or may not know it, but they are seeking to express some of the foundational keys in the biblical worldview! Implicitly they acknowledge that the first purpose in life is relationship—a giving of one’s self to others. Secondly, the purpose of life includes a giving of one’s self to the creating of things that are good and true and beautiful. Thirdly, the unity of hearts is a special joy in creativity. And these three things cover exactly what Genesis shows to be the purpose of life.!
I am not of course saying that God’s anointing rests on the salons I have described. But, through what John Stott and others call the ‘common grace’ of God (as distinct from redeeming grace), there is some measure of spiritual light in everyone born into this world. (John 1:9)
I have taken some time to open up part of the worldview of some significant hairdressing businesses. Such a worldview we don’t always teach in practical terms in our churches! It gives us a real life illustration of a major part of the heart of the biblical philosophy.
Our secular roles on earth are not simply “stewardship”, though they involve that. At a higher level, all creativity—even the driving of a truck—is a ministry of love to God and to others.
Spirituality in secular dimensions
In her 1998 book An Authentic Life (ABC Books) Caroline Jones records the most significant of her Search for Meaning interviews. Very early in the book come these remarkable but deceptively simple words from Australian writer and cartoonist, Michael Leunig:
I watched a man making a pavement in Melbourne in a busy city street: the concrete was poured and he had his little trowel and there was traffic roaring around, there were cranes and machines going, and this man was on his hands and knees lovingly making a beautiful little corner on the kerb. That’s a sort of love and that’s important, that’s very, very important. That man’s job is important and he’s a bit of a hero for doing it like that. So that’s why love is important, because love involves that as much as it involves what happens between people. It’s about one’s relationship between oneself and the world and its people and its creatures and its plants, its ideas. (An Authentic Life, p2,3)
It seems that the man with the trowel rightly saw what he did as a celebration of life. You and I know that all true creativity is a celebration of—God. This is a form of love. Ecclesiastes 3:11 states that God has set eternity in our hearts. What does this mean? As well as living in the space-time world, we are already, every day, connected with eternity, through God’s Spirit!
When we love a beautiful flower we are actually loving not only the flower, but also God in the flower. As in speaking of eternity in time, this is metaphorical language, but do you get the message? When the man with the trowel loves the beauty of what he is doing, he is loving God in that beauty. A hairdresser said to me just the other day, “I like cutting hair!” Although this gifted hairdresser may not know it, this is spirituality.
So while all of our creative joys and responsibilities on earth are part of our stewardship, they are actually more than that. Ultimately our creativity is part of our love for God. In the highest sense, all secular work is born out of relationship. And this explains why our huge corporations based on humanism are falling apart! And, although Christian, some churches are now suffering from the same disconnectedness.
The prophetic voice of the Church
Professor David Tacey, another academic from La Trobe University, in his 2001 book ReEnchantment, challenges the church to see that it will never impact the world for as long as its philosophy contains a humanistic dimension. He says that people do not want to hear about a God “up there” unless they can see a God “in here” (in our heart).
I submit that the fragmentation around us in today’s world is a wake up call for the church to see that everything in life must be born out of relationship. Proverbs 11:11 declares that the lives of those in tune with God bring God’s blessing “upon the city”. As God’s people walk with God and allow a biblical philosophy to dictate priorities, then, and then alone, will revival come upon the church. It is our hearts and our lives that hold the key to revival, not our ministry (much as ministry is needed). Out of revival in the church would come a new prophetic voice to the nation.
With the new yearning for spirituality that our culture is embracing, Australia could see a revival in our nation transcending anything we could imagine!
© Renewal Journal #19: Church (2002, 2012) www.renewaljournal.com
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