As Rev. Prof Dean Drayton explains in his latest book – Apocalyptic Good News – it’s how we articulate the gospel in a way that people can understand, and how we locate ourselves in the cosmic story of Christ that presents a new paradigm for the church. He asks “what role does denominational church have in an apocalyptic future?”
Today, for more and more people, the sheer scope of an evolutionary universe renders life on Earth as utterly insignificant, and religion as nothing more than superstition, the book dust jacket reads. We live on a pale blue dot in a vast cosmos in an apocalyptic age where there are constant events that threaten the future of the planet. But according to Apocalyptic Good News the apocalypse has already happened, we just need to get our collective heads around what this means for us and the message of the gospel.
The cover of Apocalyptic Good News is a picture of the earth taken Voyager from beyond Saturn – a pale blue dot – in an infinite sea of the cosmos. By locating the gospel in the context of the cosmic and the personal, Dean begins to make sense of the fact that we might already be experiencing the cosmic work of Christ in the world.
The book was launched at the Centre for Ministry on 3 October, but before its launch, we had a opportunity to listen to Dean talking about how he came to write the book.
An adjunct research professor of the Public and Contextual Theology Research Unit of Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Dean is the author of Pilgrim of the Cosmos (1995) and Which Gospel (2005). He was national president of the Uniting Church in Australia from 2003-06 and geophysicist, so the nature of the universe has always been a passion.
“I was a geologist before I became a minister, so that probably gives some indication that the age of the universe has always been an important issue,” explains Dean. “I wrote a book in 1995 called Pilgrim in the Cosmos which really ended up with a big question and an assertion, but it’s important that the particular photo that’s taken from the Voyager One is on the front cover. I didn’t even realise the earth was on the cover until I got the book. I thought, thank you Mike (who designed the cover) you have actually captured the point of the book.”
The first chapter of the book is titled called “The Pale Blue Dot”. As a background to that famous photo, Carl Sagan asked NASA to turn the cameras around when they just got past Saturn to take the now famous shot of the Earth. Sagan referred to it as the pale blue dot and subsequently wrote about it and his assertion was that all religion is superstitious. This assertion was based on the vastness of the cosmos and humanities misunderstanding of our place in it.
What is the gospel?
“I’ve increasingly believed that there are the issues that we need to address,” says Dean. “I’m always interested when we speak about the gospel. What is the gospel? Well it’s good news, but that doesn’t tell you anything. It’s like saying ‘headline’. If you think further, we refer to it as the Kingdom of God at hand. Then, that doesn’t seem to grab people very much. But if we push it a little further Mark and Luke (gospel writers) used the term Kingdom of God. And if you look at the backgrounds of the groups that gave rise to the documents, they are part of what is called The Gentile Missions,and so it was the Kingdom of God that was spoken about.”
“But when you look into Matthew, mostly the phrase is the Kingdom of Heaven, because he is talking to a predominantly Jewish audience. So that’s not the general understanding that people have of Heaven – it’s usually something we refer to at the end of life. But actually in the proclamation, Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is in the midst of us. Try telling that to most people.”
If we push a little more we discover that the message of Jesus is an apocalyptic one and this dimension of the gospel has really been lost for 2000 years. Now whenever we talk about the apocalypse we think of the end of the Earth.
“The book of Revelation is actually called the book of the apocalypse in the Greek,” Dean continues. “So we immediately think that this is the end of everything, but actually that’s not what Jesus meant. If we look at the apostle Paul in Galatians, in the beginning of the book he is talking about the fact that no one taught him the gospel or shared it with me. Galatians talks about the ‘revelation of Jesus Christ’ but actually the Greek says ‘the apocalypse of Jesus Christ’. For Paul the life, death, resurrection and ascention of Jesus Christ is the apocalypse. Its not the end time, its an apocalypse that’s happened in the midst of time.”
This Dean believes is a whole new way of looking at the gospel and Jesus life through the lens of a disruption that has already happened and what it to come.
“The apostles had no clue about the universe that we know now. But if you look at the beginning of John’s gospel it rewrites Genesis chapter one,” Dean explains. “Genesis focusses on the creation of the Earth but John chapter one explains the beginning of the world in a very different way. Everything that came into being was through the Word: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’
“No longer is the focus on one planet, now the focus is on everything. As our understanding of the universe exploded our thinking in the last century how now are we going to speak about the reality of the way Jesus Christ is known in our local congregations. How are we going to speak about how the transforming power of the Spirit of God can take us and create ‘a new creation says’ the apostle Paul. How can the whole reality that we know, be substituted or transformed into another reality? That’s what the New Testament is on about.
Dean struggled with early drafts of the book as he tried to marry this information with how we “do” church. What are the fresh expressions that came out of this thinking.
“I’ve been doing it for 40 years in the life of the church, but it always ran dry until the penny dropped, that the issue is what is the gospel that we are sharing? How adequate is it? When in fact not everybody lives in that universe yet, but it is slowly imploding upon us.”
There was a question placed in the National Church Life Survey (NCLS): Do you believe in life-long allegiance to your denomination? For people over 50 – 50% said no, for people under the age of 50, 93% said no.
“That was a real shock,” recalls Dean. “This was for people sitting in the Church, not the wider community. Something profound has happened in people’s understanding and knowledge of what the church has been on about. Now I am not interested in talking about a declining church. I’m more interested in talking about what we can do to grow the gospel, but to do so we need to place it within denominational church.
“So we need to look at how the denomination came into being (Uniting Church) and how has it restricted the options we have for understanding who Jesus Christ is for a cosmic future. Its about unpacking all the terms that we use. The Spirit of God gets through any way, but its very clear that in the western world we back away from talking about God and who Jesus is and how do we know ourselves.
“That’s been the passion that has kept me at the task,” says Dean. “And I just thank God for the last four or five years, they have been the best years of walking with my Lord that I’ve ever known.”