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More Books of the Year 2023

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I’m sure that many of Andrew’s fans, like me, felt somewhat short-changed by his pared down Top 20 this year. We have been denied that moment of delicious self-flagellation as we compare the full strength espresso of Andrew’s reading list with the soy-latte wateriness of our own. This has become as much a Christmas ritual as brussels sprouts and the John Lewis advert.

I’m seeing Andrew next week so will be able to rebuke him to his face (Gal. 2:11). In the meanwhile, let me try to make up some of the ballast.

Surely, at No.1 spot on this year’s reading is Remaking the World, by….Andrew Wilson! I did genuinely enjoy this, having, it must be said, been somewhat sceptical. Generally I don’t like the ‘This Was The Most Important Year/Month/Week/Event in the History of History/Economics/Rock Music/Etc.’ format, but Andrew’s book is splendid. Granted, at times it felt like he was having to work hard to demonstrate that 1776 was the year above all other years, but there is so much here that is illuminating and interesting and “A-ha!” The opening illustration alone is worth the price of the book. If you haven’t yet read it, make sure it’s top of your Christmas list.

It’s always good to be able to recommend books by one’s friends, so two others:

Metamorphosis by Matt Hatch. Matt is one of the best put-it-in-to-practice pastors I know and this book on discipleship practices is excellent.

Pastoring Small Towns by Ronnie Martin & Donnie Griggs does exactly what it says on the tin.

Most enjoyed fiction
I really enjoyed reading Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings again, for the first time since I was 15. So much more rewarding than the movies, although I loved them too.
Mark Helprin, Paris in the Present Tense. Helprin is one of the more interesting and intelligent writers I know.

Most helpful Christian books
Abigail Flavale, The Genesis of Gender
Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God
John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals

 

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Books of the Year 2023

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Choosing a book of the year is incredibly difficult. How do you compare a witty, creative and thrilling novel like Rebecca Kuang's Yellowface with Emily Wilson's beautiful translation of Homer's Iliad? What criteria could anyone use to declare that Simon Gathercole's The Gospel and the Gospels was "better" than Tara Burton's Self-Made, or Peter Williams's The Surprising Genius of Jesus, and what would it mean to anyone else if they did?

Admittedly you can group some books together. I read Andrew Roberts’s and Julian Jackson’s biographies of Churchill and De Gaulle, respectively, and was dazzled by both: two extraordinary leaders, nearly contemporary with each other, and both brilliant, infuriating and hilarious, although in very different ways. Yellowface and Pachinko have obvious points of overlap, but while the former is exciting and clever, the latter is sweeping and evocative. Two books on the seventeenth century, Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite on John Donne and Anna Keay’s The Restless Republic on the 1650s, were thoroughly absorbing and marvellously written. I also used over a dozen Christian books in my devotional times, and was captivated by Gathercole and Williams on the Gospels, John Oswalt on Isaiah, David Gibson on Psalm 23, and (my favourite Christian book of the year) John Starke’s magnificent The Secret Place of Thunder.

My habit of counterpoint reading doesn’t always come off. I read Peter Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The World: A Family History, expecting to love both on the basis of their previous work, and found the former a bit underwhelming (and with several odd inaccuracies), and the latter a thoroughly overwhelming, cluttered and tenuously connected list of facts. But more often than not, it proves illuminating. Chris Watkin’s Biblical Critical Theory and Tim Keller’s How to Reach the West Again were a great combination. Although neither of them made my top twenty, Susan Neiman’s Left is Not Woke and Tomiwa Owalade’s This is Not America gave two intriguing perspectives on some very important issues.

In the end, my Book of the Year came down to a choice between two utterly different sorts of books. Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century blew me away with its portrait of a strange and disturbing period. Her characterisation and analysis are crystal clear and her writing is just sublime; I have just bought her The Guns of August. Even so, I think the book that will make the most lasting impression on me, and cause me to see the world more differently than any other book in 2023, is Iain McGilchrist’s extraordinary The Matter With Things: a totally fascinating and hard-to-describe cocktail of neuroscience, philosophy, psychiatry, science, music, history and imagination that connects the way our brain works with the way we conceive of reality. Volume 1 was breathtaking in its scope and insight. Volume 2 awaits me in January.

Top Five Christian Books to Fuel Joy
Simon Gathercole, The Gospel and the Gospels: Christian Proclamation and Early Jesus Books
John Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39
John Starke, The Secret Place of Thunder: Trading Our Need to Be Noticed for a Hidden Life with Christ
David Gibson, The Lord of Psalm 23: Jesus Our Shepherd, Companion and Host
Peter Williams, The Surprising Genius of Jesus

Top Five Christian Books to Help You Think
Tara Isabella Burton, Self-Made: Creating our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians
Collin Hansen, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation
Rebecca McLaughlin, Does the Bible Affirm Same-Sex Relationships? Examining Ten Claims About Scripture and Sexuality
Karen Swallow Prior, The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis
Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory

Top Ten Other Books of the Year
Homer, The Iliad, tr. Emily Wilson
Julian Jackson, A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle
Anna Keay, The Restless Republic: Britain Without a Crown
Rebecca Kuang, Yellowface
Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
Iain McGilchrist, The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World, vol. 1
Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking With Destiny
David Rooney, A History of Civilisation in Twelve Clocks
Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne
Barbara Tuchman, Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century

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Faith and Fruitfulness

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Episode 7 of our Post-Christianity podcast is out today. Glen and I get practical on the ways in which Christians can respond to the all the developments we've been talking about:

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Selves and Psychologies

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The sixth of our eight Post-Christianity episodes has just dropped. Glen and I talk to Carl Trueman about selves, psychologies and individualism:

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The Secret to Pastoral Longevity

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From Wesley’s Journals:

This being my birthday, the first day of my seventy-second year, I was considering, How is this, that I find just the same strength as I did thirty years ago? That my sight is considerably better now, and my nerves firmer, than they were then? That I have none of the infirmities of old age, and have lost several I had in my youth? The grand cause is, the good pleasure of God, Who doth whatsoever pleaseth Him. The chief means are, 1. My constantly rising at four, for about fifty years. 2. My generally preaching at five in the morning; one of the most healthy exercises in the world. 3. My never travelling less, by sea or land, than four thousand five hundred miles in a year.

 

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Slippery Slopes & Finding Allies

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Does egalitarian theology inevitably lead to an acceptance of same sex relationships?

In response to the decision made by the Church of England to allow the blessing of same sex relationships, John Stevens, national director of the FIEC, made the observation that,

One thing that I have seen is that a number of evangelical women suffragan bishops are actively campaigning for biblical orthodoxy. I think this ought to be noticed and put an end to a common complementarian argument that supporting women’s ordination is automatically a slippery slope to compromise on human sexuality.
This was an argument easy to maintain when the battles being fought over women’s ordination were largely waged by liberals. However, it is abundantly clear that there are evangelical women clergy and bishops who are thoroughly committed to Scripture and standing firm on the issue of sexuality.

I agree with John. We need to find allies wherever we can and support and encourage those who are courageously standing for orthodoxy. In my own context, I am regularly in gatherings of local pastors, including women, who are equally committed to holding the line. I’m grateful for our common purpose and commitments.

Yet (and while not wanting to confuse correlation with causation) it seems unarguable that an egalitarian perspective is more likely to end up as an affirming one. I’ve never known someone who supports same sex marriage who isn’t also a full-blown egalitarian, while I’ve never known a complementarian who also supports SSM. Perhaps such strange creatures exist, but it seems unlikely. This is most definitely not to say that all egalitarians will end up in the SSM camp – the evidence against that, as Stevens points out, is solid. But it also seems true to say that all those who endorse SSM do have their tents pitched in the egalitarian camp.

I’ve been in gatherings of pastors recently where biblical orthodoxy in regard to marriage has been strongly expressed, but egalitarian arguments have been just as forcibly presented. It feels to me that it is difficult to ride these two horses. Certainly it can be done – but there’s always the risk of a tumble. I’d rather stay securely in the saddle of the complementarian horse.

I’m a complementarian because I believe that is the most biblically faithful position. I do think that the theological jumps made in egalitarianism create, if not a slippery slope, a scaffold for further theological innovations to be made in respect of same sex relationships, even though many egalitarians will never follow that route.

I do believe in eldership as the pattern of new testament church government and I do believe that the new testament is implicit that elders are men. I do believe that to be an elder is to be like a father and that by definition only men can be fathers. And I believe that the church needs spiritual mothers, and only women can be mothers. I do see a pattern of male headship in the biblical narrative: that Adam is the representative head of all humanity; Abraham the representative father of all who are God’s spiritual children; Moses the representative liberator of God’s people; David the representative king of God’s people – and Jesus the one who completes, fulfils and renews all this as the new Adam, the one by whom we are welcomed into God’s people, our great Saviour and King.

Jesus had to be the Son: he had to come as a man, because God’s representative head is always a man. And in that I also see complementarity as without Eve Adam could not have been the father of all humanity; without Sarah Abraham would not have been the father of faith; without Rahab and Ruth David would not have been born and come to the kingship; and without the bride Jesus would not be the Saviour.

And I do believe this has ongoing relevance in how we are to understand ‘headship’ in the home and church: that we are called to reflect the beautiful difference in which we are created.

These are biblical convictions that don’t stop me from fellowshipping with my egalitarian brothers and sisters. I want to hold onto my convictions while also holding onto my allies. So my appeal to my fellow complementarians would be that we are generous to those who hold different convictions to us on this. As John Stevens writes,

Same-sex relationships are not in the same category [as egalitarian convictions]. They are a salvation issue, not a secondary issue. No one was ever excluded from the kingdom of heaven because of the gender of the person who preached them the gospel faithfully, but people are excluded from the kingdom of heaven by those who teach them that it is okay to enter into same-sex sexual relationships.

At the same time I would urge my egalitarian brothers and sisters to be generous to those of us who are complementarian – to acknowledge that our position is born of biblical conviction, not misogyny. To say that all complementarians are misogynists is as much of a category mistake as to say all egalitarians support same sex marriage. It’s hard to be in settings where I want to stand with you around sexuality but feel hostility from you because of my biblical convictions around complementarity.

Yes, it’s true, sadly, that sexism has been a greater reality in complementarian settings than egalitarian ones, just as it’s true, sadly, that support for same sex relationships exists in egalitarian settings in a way it doesn’t in complementarian ones. All of us need to be alert to the ‘shadow sides’ of our theologies. Let’s avoid the slippery slopes and find our allies.

 

 

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This isn’t about same sex marriage. It’s about the authority of scripture.

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If you haven't already seen it, this is worth a few minutes of your time - from last week's synod of the Church of England.

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Coffeehouse Christianity

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On a visit to Norwich John Wesley records his displeasure at the leadership of the local Methodist preachers. He determines to ‘mend them or end them’. The cause of Wesley’s angst? What he perceives as an overfamiliar approach to worship.

Accordingly, the next evening, after sermon, I reminded them of two things: the one, that it was not decent to begin talking aloud as soon as service was ended; and hurrying to and fro, as in a bear-garden. The other, that it was a bad custom to gather into knots just after sermon, and turn a place of worship into a coffee-house. I therefore desired, that none would talk under that roof, but go quietly and silently away.

What would Wesley make of church life today? And what would we make of his threats to ‘mend or end’? The cultural gulf there is vast.

In the contemporary church it can feel as though the coffee is the main event. The area available for coffee in any venue being used by a church is a key consideration. When new church buildings are constructed no one now thinks about the need for a graveyard, but we do think very carefully about the space available for coffee. And in church buildings throughout the land, whether new builds or reconfigured ancient spaces, the highest aspiration seems to be the potential to open a coffee shop – because there is of course a terrible dearth of coffee shops on the typical British high street.

The church I pastor constructed a new building last year. Sadly there wasn’t space for a coffee shop but I sometimes fear that the most tangible legacy of my ministry will be getting rid of instant and insisting on at least drinkable filter coffee. “Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawn in two; they were killed by the sword…and some ensured there was a semi-decent cup of coffee available after the service.”

What would Wesley say?

Our culture is a remarkably informal one. That has been one of the great social transformations of the past 70 years and it has of course been reflected in the church. 70 years ago a church minister would have always worn jacket and tie (as would almost all men, on almost all occasions) and probably clerical garb. And he (and it was always ‘he’) would have been addressed as Rev So-and-So, or at least Mr So-and-So. Today, my church would find it odd if I wasn’t in jeans, and even the three year-olds call me Matt. We don’t often notice this change, but it is profound.

There are benefits to informality but what Wesley’s reaction to the goings-on in Norwich helps us see is the distinction we must make between being informal and being casual. These are terms we use interchangeably (e.g., informal clothes = casual clothes) but they should be quite distinct when it comes to our worship.

To be informal in worship can be helpful: It is much easier to be expressive in worship when wearing clothes that are comfortable than when constricted in a stiff suit. By the Spirit we cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ In worship it can be appropriate to laugh, cry and dance: I am a charismatic by conviction!

Yet we cannot afford to be casual in our approach to God. He is to be regarded with holy awe.

Probably the clearest biblical example of this distinction is found in 2 Samuel 6. Uzzah is casual towards what is most holy, reaching out to steady the ark, and in consequence is struck dead. Then, when things are done with due reverence and the ark is finally brought to Jerusalem, David dances with an informality that causes his wife to despise him.

Our worship needs to reflect something of this ‘liberated awe’. We might succeed in serving the best coffee in town, but we mustn’t settle for what is in the end merely coffeehouse Christianity. Come before Him with dancing (Ps. 150:4). And come before Him with reverence and awe (Hbs. 12:28).

 

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Progress and Progressivism

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In this episode, Glen and I talk about progress: on slavery, human rights, civil rights, the sexual revolution, and the dashing of hope by two world wars. We consider how these huge cultural and societal changes interact with the gospel, and why Christianity cannot ultimately be forced into the neat political categories of right and left, liberal and conservative.

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The First Sexual Revolution

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In this week's episode of the Post-Christianity podcast, Glen and I are joined by Kyle Harper, author of From Shame to Sin and Professor of Classics and Letters at the University of Oklahoma. We talk about love, liberty, the first sexual revolution, and what it meant (and continues to mean) for sexuality today:

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The Unity of Isaiah

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Lots of modern interpreters read Isaiah 29:17-24 as if it was written after the exile by a redactor, hundreds of years after Isaiah, and inserted into a (mostly) pre-exilic prophecy. (Similar things are argued of Isaiah 40-66, and various other sections of chapters 1-39.) Here is John Oswalt's careful response, which I have formatted for clarity:

The chief reasons for this are theological, for it is argued that the glowing predictions of salvation to come are not to be found in preexilic prophecy. Apart from the fact that (1) this view begs the question (cf. Micah 4), it must also be asked (2) why redactors felt encouraged to add these passages to Isaiah if the original form of the prophecy was so uniformly negative. Why not to Amos or Micah or Jeremiah? For that theory to be accepted, the original form of the book will have had to have contained the Judgment/Hope motif in more than a germinal way. Of course, if that is granted, then (3) the whole theory of redactions which subtly altered the impact of the book becomes questionable.

Of even more serious import, however, are the theological questions which this point of view raises. The supposed redactors, by putting their words and points of view into the mouth of the older prophet, are (4) making a theological statement which is patently untrue. They are saying “If we repent, there is hope for us, because it was foretold by Isaiah. But, if the causal link is in fact false, their opinions are without force. The redactors have then falsified their evidence to win a case. Can this be the source of some of the world’s great theology?

Finally, there is (5) a literary question. As the text stands now, it has an internal logic: your plans are stupid and corrupt because you will not believe the simplicity of God’s promises. If in fact the prophet had no promises of redemption, what is it the rulers were rejecting? If it be said he had promises, but not these, we are (6) faced once again with redactors whose ethics are decidedly questionable, for they have excised the original promises and replaced them with their own.

- John Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 535

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Protestant Paganism

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The third episode of our Post-Christianity podcast is now out, and Glen thinks it's the best of the eight. It's called "How the West Was Spun: Protestants and Pagans," and I hope you enjoy it:

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Post-Christianity? Contingencies and Convictions

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The second episode of Post-Christianity? is now up. Glen and I discuss the relationship between convictions and ideas on the one hand, and contingencies and material factors on the other, in forming the modern world - and what implications that has for the role of Christianity in shaping our culture. I hope you enjoy it!

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TGC Main Sessions Now Available

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Some of you have been kind enough to ask how my time was at The Gospel Coalition conference last month. The short version is that it was a wonderful experience, and it surpassed my expectations: more joyful, warm, youthful, international, diverse, relational and exuberant than I had been anticipating (I imagine those things are connected), with outstanding worship times led by CityAlight, dozens of intriguing "microevents" (seminars), and top drawer expository preaching. I highly recommend it.

For a longer version, the main session messages have just been posted. There are some cracking sermons in here:

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Post-Christianity? Our New Podcast Launches Today

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The West is increasingly described as “post-Christian.” But is that label accurate? Are contemporary people leaving Christianity behind completely? Or are they adopting some of its values while rejecting others? What’s the origin story for the “post-Christianity” we’re seeing in 21st-century Western culture? How does this story help us understand the rapid cultural changes we’ve seen in recent years? And what do evangelism, mission, and discipleship look like in a post-Christian world?

Glen Scrivener and I have both written books about this topic recently (The Air We Breathe and Remaking the World). In this eight-episode podcast from The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, we consider how we got here, what it means, and how to respond. Our discussion topics range from sexuality, psychology, and economics to identity, theology, hospitality, and art. Also featuring special guests Kyle Harper, Carl Trueman, and Rebecca McLaughlin, I’m hoping you’ll find Post-Christianity? a thought-provoking and hopeful take on contemporary culture.

The first episode is out now.

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Top Tips for Parents

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What advice would you give to a group of parents and other adults involved in the lives of teenagers? That was something I had to think about earlier this year when I was asked to speak to a group of teenagers and parents about the transition from being a teenager to being an adult.

I’ve already shared the advice I offered to teenagers. In this post, I’m going to summarise what I said to parents and other adults.

For parents – Three things to understand

1. Understand that you don’t understand.

I’m sure we all said it, and I imagine a number of us have had it said to us: ‘You don’t understand.’ Of course, in lots of ways, when a teenager says that to a parent or adult, it’s not true. We’ve all been teenagers and we’ve lived long enough to know a fair bit about life and existence. If you’re an adult, you have wisdom to share with younger generations.

But at the same time, I think we need to recognise that it is partly true, and probably more so now than in previous generations. Being a teenager today is hard. Today’s teenagers are growing up in a world that is wildly different from that which we grew up in: The internet, smartphones and social media are defining features of life. They have lived through a global pandemic in some of their most formative years. Popular media, social media, friends, and sometimes even school are telling them they need to work out and express their own identity and their sexuality and gender. They are watching a seemingly endless stream of authority figures be shown to be corrupt and abusive, and they look into the future and see a growing environmental crisis left by previous generations. Being a teenager today is difficult, in ways and to an extent that we probably can’t fully appreciate.

And in many ways, we are not living in the same world as today’s teenagers. When I was a teenager, there weren’t that many TV channels, we could only access the internet on a couple of devices in the house, there was little social media and no music streaming services. My parents were largely aware of the media I was consuming and were usually encountering a lot of the same things I was. That’s just not true anymore. The online world, the exponential growth of popular media and social media, the proliferation of devices that connect us to the internet, all of these mean that teenagers are often living in a world in which we are not.

How should all of this shape us? It should birth love, compassion and patience. It should drive us to want to support more, not to withdraw from supporting. It should birth in us a desire to learn, not just to teach. We need to listen to learn about the pressures and challenges facing young people, asking them what life is like for them and how we can support. We also need to learn by engaging with their world. We probably can’t live in the same world as them, but we can visit. We need to have at least some engagement with the media with which our young people are engaging so we understand something of the context in which they live.

We need to understand that we don’t understand and that therefore we need to learn.

2. Understand that questions are healthy.

As adults, we learn and grow through questioning – we ask, wrestle with and reflect on questions and as we do we decide what we believe. Teenagers are emerging adults. They are transitioning from childhood to adulthood so questioning becomes increasingly important.

Childhood is a time when we are told what is good and true and when, on the whole, our beliefs are strongly shaped by those around us. That’s how it’s meant to be because our brains are not yet fully developed. As adults we need to reach our own decisions on what is good and true. We’re still shaped by what’s around us, but by our mid-20s our brain is fully developed and we’re able to think for ourselves.

Teenagers are transitioning from being a child to being an adult. Starting to think for themselves is not always just rebellion, it’s about becoming the adult God has created them to be. A key part of that is questioning, so we need to recognise that questions are healthy and allow teenagers to ask and wrestle with their questions, even if that means they are thinking afresh about things they have been told or have believed.

For parents, this can be scary. It can take teens into the grey, when most of us feel safer with the black and white. It’s also scary because we don’t know where their questions will lead them. The temptation, therefore, is to shut down questioning and to more strongly declare what is true. But if we do this, we’re not allowing teens to own their beliefs – they’re not able to put down roots which will allow them to continue to stand when the supports of parents and others are removed. You see this in the stories of many in my generation who have deconstructed their faith – they weren’t allowed to ask questions, so they never owned their beliefs, and when exposed to other ideas and experiencing life’s challenges in adulthood they drifted away from what they had believed earlier in life. In the long run, allowing questioning is more protective of faith than not allowing questioning.

This doesn’t mean we encourage radical scepticism, but we don’t close down questioning and we accompany young people on the journey, engaging in dialogue, asking helpful questions in response and pointing to good resources.

And we do all this trusting in God. We’re not abandoning teenagers when we allow them to start thinking for themselves; we’re entrusting them to God. That doesn’t guarantee a certain outcome, but we do so knowing that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.

3. Understand the power of example.

Because teenagers are becoming adults and are learning to think for themselves, they become less open to direct input from parents and other adults. We can easily see this as a negative, and I imagine it must be a hard thing for parents to adjust to. But there is good in this. It’s part of the journey to becoming an adult.

But that doesn’t mean that parents and adults have no role. There’s still a place for speaking into the lives of teenagers, offering wisdom, guidance, encouragement, challenge, sometimes even commands. Speaking is still important. But also important is example. We shape young people not just through what we say, but through what we do.

Example is powerful. Don’t underestimate how powerful it can be. That’s a clear biblical theme for leaders (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:1; Hebrews 13:7), but I think it also stands for parents and other adults.

Have you ever noticed that when people talk about the adults who shaped them in their younger years, they almost always talk about what those adults did more than what they said? It is often people’s example that we remember and that has a more lasting impact than their words. We need to consider what we want our young people to embody as an adult and then ask, ‘Am I embodying that?’.  We help teenagers become the adults we want them to be by being those adults ourselves.

There are lots of ways we need to set an example for the teenagers in our lives. The four areas I highlighted for teenagers are a good starting point to think about.

These are my top tips for parents and other adults who want to support teenagers as they journey through the transition into adulthood. We get to play an important role in this significant transition. We get to be those who walk alongside, cheering on, supporting, making space for questioning, and setting an example.

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Top Tips for Teenagers

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Earlier this year, I was invited to speak to a group of parents and teenagers about navigating the transition from being a teenager to being an adult. I thought it was a great idea.

Transitions are so important to think about and the transition from teens to adulthood may be one of the most significant we all go through. It’s an exciting time – part of God’s plan for us to mature into the adults he has created us to be – but it can also be a difficult time. As a guy in my early 30s, I’m now well through that transition (and would quite like some teaching on how to transition well into mid-life!). I certainly don’t think that I navigated my transition into adulthood perfectly, but I found it really interesting and enjoyable to look back and reflect on the lessons that I learnt.

In the session, I gave four pieces of advice to teenagers and three pieces of advice to parents and other adults. I deliberately addressed the advice directly to each group but also knowing the other group would be overhearing. It’s good for us to hear both sides of the coin.

Here’s a summary of the advice I gave for teenagers – addressed to teenagers. I’ll follow up with a second post with my advice for parents and other adults.

For teenagers – Four lessons to learn

1. Learn to connect with Jesus.

You may not yet be a follower of Jesus, or you may have made a choice to follow Jesus at a young age but now you’re not so sure. My advice to you is don’t let anything stop you exploring the claims of Jesus. You may feel uninterested. You may be concerned about the impact following Jesus would have on your life. You may have been hurt by Christians – I know that’s a sadly common reality, and I’m sorry if it’s been your experience. But none of these things – our level of interest, the potential impact on our lives, even the ways Christians have hurt us – change the reality of whether Jesus is who he says he is and whether what he says is true. If he is, and if it is, it is the most important thing ever. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore the claims of Jesus. Maybe for you that means doing an Alpha Course or Christianity Explored at a church. Maybe you just need to open a Bible and read Mark’s Gospel to see what Jesus says for himself.

If you are already a follower of Jesus, learn to connect with Jesus. It’s easy to be a Christian but not to really connect personally with Jesus, to have responded to the gospel but not develop a relationship with Jesus. I know that because I did that for many years. Everything changed in my mid-teens when I did something radical: I gave up watching Neighbours (the now-resurrected Australian soap). Instead, each day, I used that time to connect with Jesus. I started to read the Bible, to pray, and to worship in my bedroom. I began to develop a personal relationship with Jesus, and it was transformative, laying a foundation that saw me through ups and downs in the years to come. This sort of disciplined, deliberate connection with God is vital – it’s what Jesus calls us to (Matthew 6:6) and what he exemplified in his life on earth (Mark 1:35). If you want to start to connect with Jesus personally but you’re not sure how, ask another Christian to help you – a parent, youth leader or member of your church.

2. Learn to expect things (other than Jesus) to disappoint you.

It’s easy to look to the wrong things to satisfy us. You might have a vision of what your life in adulthood will be like. There might be lots of good things you’re hoping for. It’s easy to look to those to satisfy you, but that, and you’ll find they’ll always let you down.

I learnt this the hard way. I thought that by 30 I would have a decent job, I would have accomplished some stuff, I’d be earning money, have somewhere nice to live and life would be great. I got to 30 and most of those things had become a reality, but they didn’t satisfy like I thought they would. Multiple degrees, a worthwhile job, publishing books, speaking to large crowds – all of these things I thought would satisfy me didn’t.

And when that happened, it wasn’t something going wrong, it was things going right because those things were never designed to satisfy me. There’s only one thing that can truly satisfy us – and it’s not actually a thing, it’s a person. What every human heart truly longs for, deep down, is intimate relationship with God. Everything else will let us down. God never will. Prioritise relationship with Jesus, connect with him personally, put him first, look to him to meet your heart’s desire. That becomes the foundation from which to enjoy all of God’s good gifts, remembering that it is not the gifts that are the greatest blessing, but the giver himself.

3. Learn to prioritise friendship.

Second to Jesus himself, I think friendship may be the greatest blessing that God gives us in this lifetime. I’m talking about real friendship – deep connections with genuine, mutual love and sharing of life together.

It’s important to realise this now. Lots of people find they have lots of friends in their teen years, but then they enter their 20s and gradually lose these friends until they reach 30 and have few if any real friends. Friendship takes deliberate effort, especially in adulthood.

This is another thing that Jesus calls us to (John 15:12-18) and that he illustrates himself – Jesus was a man of friendship. Sometimes people joke that Jesus’s greatest miracle was having 12 close friends at the age of 30. It’s a joke, but it’s also very insightful. It notices both that friendship is rare for adults and that Jesus was a man of friendship.

True friends will bring joy and laughter into your life. They’ll bring love and care. They’ll uphold you when life falls apart and celebrate with you when things go well. Friendship can bring more good into your life than the best job, best house, best car or any amount of money. Learn to prioritise friendship.

4. Learn to experience who you are.

Knowing who you are is vital. Identity – our sense of self – shapes how we think, feel and live. Many of us find our identities in wrong and unhelpful ways. We might allow our sense of self to be shaped by what other people think about us. Or we might allow our sense of self to be shaped by what we find inside – our feelings and our desires. Both of those are unhelpful ways to find our identity. The right way, the life-giving way, is to look to God and to receive our identity from him, to allow our sense of self to be shaped by what God says about us.

Knowing who you are is vital. But experiencing who you are is even more important. I learnt this the hard way. If you’d asked me in my 20s who I truly am, what my identity is, I could have easily listed off all the right answers about who God says I am as a Christian. But I wasn’t experiencing that reality. A series of mental health meltdowns and a season of Christian counselling helped me realise I was actually living with a really destructive identity where I was allowing an assumption of what other people thought about me to shape my sense of self: I had come to believe that I was a freak and weirdo and that nobody loved me or liked me.

I needed to learn to experience who I am. That’s what we all need. And that takes some deliberate effort and some hard work. It requires taking steps that slowly move truth from our head to our heart – things like meditating on Scripture, praying our identity, and declaring it in song (there’s a playlist to help with that). Maybe you want to do that but you’re not sure where to start. Why not ask another Christian to help you? Learn to experience who you are.

There’s lots more that could be said, but these are my stab at top tips for teenagers. Maybe you’re a teenager and these can be useful to you. Maybe you know a teenager you could share this post with, or maybe these bits of advice can equip you as you seek to love and support the young people in your life.

And what about those of us involved in the lives of young people? I have three bits of advice for us too – three things we need to understand. Look out for that post soon.

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The State We’re In

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How do we know when a civilisation is nearing its end? If one sign is a general ennui, listlessness, lethargy, then we could well be almost there. We are always prone to moan and complain and imagine that ‘the good old days’ were a real thing (they weren’t) but there is a collective weariness across the British Isles; a sense that nothing is working quite like it should. Broken politics, broken healthcare, crumbling concrete.

We measure and analyse whatever we can to discern the roots of this malaise and suggest solutions. (How I have come to despise that word, solutions. Every business that has ‘solutions’ in its title simply adds to the weariness and cynicism: take your business solutions, your cleaning solutions, your software solutions and drown them in a bottomless sea of apathy.) We see therapists for our personal wounds and angst. Economists present different routes to economic bounty. Politicians spin a brighter future. We’re not very good, though, at assessing how the multifaceted social changes of the past decades have impacted our national psychology. How could we be? It’s too complicated, there are too many variables and unknowns.

Yet those changes must have affected us.

Human beings have almost always existed in societies with high fertility and high mortality. We grew up surrounded by brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, and surrounded by death. Now we grow up in small and often fractured family units, without much wider family, but with a generational stretch as increasing longevity means our parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents are a part of our lives far longer than is ‘natural’.

Until a century or so ago we were largely rural, now we are urban. Even those who lived in cities would have looked rural to us – horses drove the economy, and droves of livestock would have been common in city centres.

Until the 1830s and the development of steam locomotives no one had ever moved faster than the speed of a galloping horse.

We were analogue, and now we are digital.

Compared with less than a century ago, even, we are far less formal but in other ways less free.

In The Reign, his droll account of British history since 1952, Matthew Engel describes a society where men always wore jackets and ties (to football matches and university lectures) but children roamed the streets from dawn to dusk without adult supervision or intervention. (As a child of the 1970s, this was my experience too.)

We have more superficial freedom now: we can wear what we want, have sex with who we like, be entertained any number of ways, but it may be that our deeper freedoms have been lost.

Engel gives the example of it becoming a legal requirement in 1973 to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle. Not to wear a helmet might seem madness (riding a motorcycle, period, might seem madness) but a motorcycle helmet doesn’t make life any safer – or more dangerous – for anyone other than the biker. So why should the individual not be free to make that decision for themselves?

A trivial example perhaps, but a metaphor for the way in which our lives are increasingly regulated and controlled.

We are constantly monitored and observed, scanned by dozens of CCTV cameras every day, tracked by our phones, algorithmed by Meta, Google and the rest. We are bombarded with shouty signs telling us what we can or (more likely) cannot do at every turn. We are drowning in regulatory red tape. And there is no way out of this. No one can argue for less health and safety – because then someone will get hurt; we can’t have less financial regulation – because then someone will be defrauded; we can’t have less safeguarding – because then someone will be abused. So we have our endless forms to fill, non-jobs are created so that people can fill in those forms, companies are built to provide ‘solutions’ to manage the hassle of it all, and yet we feel that somehow everything is falling apart.

“Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless, says the teacher.” Perhaps our civilisation is nearing its end.

While on sabbatical this summer I spent two weeks walking in the Pyrenees. Two weeks without the commercials, cars or constant cell phone coverage. It’s been a bumper year for sabbaticals – the finally processed backlog from the covid years. I, along with my friends who also had a break from regular ministry this summer, would have liked a lights in the sky moment, for the heavens to open and the divine voice to speak through the thunder. That didn’t happen. Usually it doesn’t.

I did hear some whispers though. One of the most profound was one of the most simple. It’s Christianity 101: don’t worry, be grateful.

Although I was loving it I found the first few days in the mountains quite stressful. I have little experience in that kind of environment and had all kinds of anxieties about the things that might go wrong. This wasn’t helped by talking with walkers coming in the other direction telling me horror stories about what lay ahead. This meant that fear about tomorrow was robbing me of joy for today (doesn’t Jesus say something about that?). So I consciously chose to enjoy today and not worry about tomorrow. And I chose to be grateful for all the good I was experiencing and the blessings I was receiving. That was a lesson I needed not just for the Pyrenees but for all of life.

‘Don’t worry, be happy’ is trite, a bubble-gum summer tune. What Christ leads us into is deep and satisfying, sustenance that can survive the winter. Being grateful and not worrying is not a CBT mind hack but a deliberate submission to his sovereignty that provides security and hope. Gratitude for common grace, all the good things of everyday life, even among the brokenness – married to gratitude for saving grace, the miracle of God in Christ condescending to meet us in our sin and need: his stooping down to our level.

Confident gratitude for this grace is what empowers us to hand over our worries. He really does hold us. That’s true eternally, and it’s true now, even at the end of the ages.

We live in an era of profound dissonance. Too much has happened, too fast. The impact on our personal and collective psychology will take a long time to shake out. But we don’t need solutions so much as we need to learn who we are in Christ and to build resilient communities of the saints who express deep gratitude to the Saviour and know how to turn their worries over to Him. “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

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THINK 2024: Reaching Post-Christians

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The West is not as post-Christian as it thinks it is. No doubt there are places on earth where it can feel like the wider culture is currently rejecting Christianity at an unprecedented rate. But the ideology that characterises post-Christendom is still, despite itself, irreducibly Christian. Imagine a cryogenically frozen Viking waking up in twenty-first century Scandinavia, or a Mayan exploring contemporary Mexico, or Asterix and Obelix encountering German social democracy or French laïcité. As “secular” as those places might feel to many of us, their values would seem deeply Christian to anyone who had not experienced them before.

Still: it is obviously the case that living in the world of late modernity presents plenty of challenges for orthodox believers. Whatever we call the religious outlook—secularism, post-secularism, post-Christianity, or something else entirely (I like the term “Protestant paganism”)—people are still skeptical toward Christianity, and in some cases downright hostile. The old gods are still here, in varying levels of disguise: Mammon, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Gaia and Dionysus in particular. Renouncing them all to follow Christ is still costly. It is still harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. The church still has many flaws, and the cultural influence of Christianity has made those flaws even more unattractive to everybody else.

So how does the Western church not merely survive, but thrive, in this particular moment in history? How do we reach post-Christians: the nones, the dones, the not-yet-wons, our daughters and sons? Some of the answers, of course—prayer, evangelism, discipleship, hospitality, service, the power of the Spirit—are the same as they have always been. But others might require theological, historical and cultural reflection: on how and why we got here, what challenges and opportunities are before us, and how we might respond to them.

So, from 2-4 July 2024, we are going to spend some time thinking about all this. I am delighted to announce that we will be joined by the outstanding duo of Rebecca McLaughlin (author of Confronting Christianity, The Secular Creed, and several other excellent books) and Rachel Gilson (author of Born Again This Way) to help us. The conference will be hosted by Andrew Wilson (King’s Church, London) and will include plenary sessions, breakout discussions, meals together, and time for Q&A.

The cost of THINK 2023 is £150 per person, which includes tea, coffee, and meals together at lunchtime and in the evenings but does not include breakfast or overnight accommodation in London. We will begin at 3:30pm on the Tuesday, and finish with lunch on the Thursday, at King’s Church London King’s Church London, 21 Meadowcourt Road, London, SE3 9DU.

Come. Take time. Be refreshed. Think. You can book in here.

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Remaking the World Launches Today!

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After three years of reading, writing, rewriting and editing, my new book Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West is out today. It's a mixture of deep history and cultural apologetics, and it tells the story of the seven transformations that have shaped the modern West—globalisation, Enlightenment, industrialisation, the great enrichment, democracy, post-Christianity and Romanticism—through the lens of one year. It concludes with three ways in which the church at the time responded, and how we can learn from them.

As far as I know, the cheapest place to buy it is here (£12.99!), and it’s also available on Kindle and Audible. Don’t worry: I won’t clutter up these pages with every excerpt, interview and review of it. But I did want to let you know it was out, and I hope you enjoy it!

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Death of the Innocents

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Three different women. Three very different public responses.

In June Carla Foster was given a custodial sentence of 28 months (half to be spent on licence) for “illegally procuring her own abortion when she was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant.” Foster had duplicitously obtained abortion pills during lockdown, claiming she was seven weeks pregnant. Foster’s sentencing provoked widespread outrage and on appeal was reduced to 14 months suspended.

Close on the heels of this was the case of Paris Mayo who, aged 15, delivered her baby in secret and then killed him. Unlike Foster, the Mayo case generated little sympathy and she was roundly condemned. As the BBC report concluded,

Mayo’s version of the story is that of a troubled teenager, a victim herself, who feared her parents’ disappointment and acted in panic.
The prosecution, and the jury, see Mayo as a lesser victim than the baby whose life she extinguished.
Her actions, they decided, were deliberate, cruel and criminal.

Mayo was jailed for at least 12 years.

And then there was Lucy Letby, given a whole-life sentence for the murder of seven babies on a neonatal unit. (“Whole-life orders are the most severe punishment available and are reserved for those who commit the most heinous crimes.”) This story generated an incredible amount of coverage and there was widespread horror at the actions of this ‘normal looking’ nurse.

What do these stories tell us about how we understand ourselves?

Objectively – at least for the babies themselves – there is little to choose between these three cases. In each one innocent lives were ended by those who should have preserved them. The very different responses, both in their reporting and in the sentences applied, seem to stem from Mayo and Letby killing babies after they were born whereas Foster killed her baby before it was born; although at 32-34 weeks Foster’s baby was as viable as the babies Letby killed.

In Letby’s case there was a particular revulsion because she was a nurse. The British national myth is largely woven around the wonder that is the NHS with nurses the angels who uphold the whole tottering edifice. So for a nurse to be a killer is a very particular betrayal. But isn’t it at least as much of a betrayal that a mother should kill her baby? That reality was reflected in the sentence handed down to Mayo, but not to Foster.

There’s some incongruity here, and that incongruity comes down to a perception of rights. So Letby is ‘cruel and evil’ while Foster is the victim of ‘archaic’ legislation.

John Piper describes something of this incongruity in his experience of having lunch with an abortionist.

I went to lunch armed with my arguments that unborn children are human beings and therefore should not be killed. I was unprepared for what I heard. He said, almost incidentally, that the main driving force behind his involvement was his wife, because, for her and thousands of other women, he said, this is a root issue of women’s rights. Will they govern their own bodies and reproductive freedom or will others? More essentially, and even more surprisingly, he conceded my arguments immediately and said I didn’t have to waste my time proving that the unborn were human beings. He said bluntly that he believed that. The issue was whether the taking of human life is warranted by the greater good of a woman’s rights. I have found this position repeated in talking with other pro-choice professionals; when pressed they don’t dispute that they are taking the life of human beings. They admit it is not ideal but the lesser of two evils, especially in view of the tragic situations into which so many of these children would be born.

Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, p233

It’s important that those of us who are pro-life see this, just as we would want those who are pro-choice to acknowledge it. We know that killing babies is wrong regardless of circumstances (hence Mayo being described as a lesser victim than the baby whose life she extinguished), just as we know that a baby in the womb is a baby, so killing it should be equally wrong. But we then run up against the shibboleth of reproductive freedom. Something has to give, and at the moment it is the babies.

What to do? Keep on pointing out the incongruities, yes. But grieve. Mostly grieve. Three different women. Three different responses. Each unbearably tragic.

 

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Why Isn’t the Church Speaking Out About Abortion?

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‘Why isn’t the Church doing more to speak out against abortion and help women who have been hurt by abortion?’


This was a question posed to me and others on a hot topics panel at an 18-25s event earlier this year.

I was hugely encouraged by the question. It was encouraging that young adults want to talk about abortion. It was encouraging that they acknowledged that abortion is something Christians should oppose. And it was encouraging that they recognised we ought to speak out not just for the sake of the babies who lives are lost through abortion but also for the sake of the women whose lives are impacted negatively by abortion.

But alongside that encouragement, I also felt deeply challenged. Here was a young person expressing discontent that the Church is not expressing God’s heart of love and justice in relation to the heart-breaking reality of abortion. How often have I heard that discontent from older Christians, and especially from church leaders? Very rarely. My first response to the question was actually to say, ‘I agree’. Why isn’t the church talking? We should be.

Trapped by Fear?

There may be various reasons why the Church isn’t doing more, but I suspect a big reason is fear. We are fearful of what will happen if we do.

Some of these fears are probably wrong: for example, the fear that we’ll lose popularity or social respectability (as if Christians are ever meant to be popular or popularity should trump speaking up against injustice). Many of our fears might be good and understandable: fear of seeming judgemental, fear of causing pain to those who have been personally involved in an abortion, fear of handling a complex and emotive subject badly.

But these fears – even if understandable – leave us trapped. We know we should engage with this topic and yet we feel unable to do so. And so we don’t. In the meantime, those we lead are left without Christian teaching on the subject, abandoned to the perspectives of the world or to quasi-Christian prejudices. Women facing pregnancy crisis situations, and those alongside them, including men, don’t know where to turn for support or how to make decisions that honour God. And those who have been negatively impacted by abortion feel unable to seek help either because the church’s silence communicates that abortion is the unmentionable sin or because it abandons people to the world’s narrative where acknowledging any negative impact of abortion is a betrayal of women’s rights.

Instead of being trapped by our fear, we need to face our fears. Some of those fears will be things we need to reject – things we shouldn’t be prioritising over speaking out for the wellbeing of babies, mothers and fathers – others will be things we need to allow to impact how we engage, but not to stop us from engaging. Our good fears should lead us to engage wisely; they shouldn’t stop us from engaging at all.

Learning to engage wisely

What does wise engagement look like?

It looks like doing our research and understanding the complexities – the many different factors that can drive people to seek an abortion and the many potential negative impacts of abortion on the mother and those around them.1

It looks like taking a wholistic view – recognising that we must speak out for the sake of babies in the womb, but we also speak out for the sake of women who are often negatively impacted by abortion. As it is sometimes helpfully summarised, ‘Both lives matter’.2

It looks like learning to engage with compassion and humility. Before we can engage publicly, we need to be moved privately, moved by the plight of babies in the womb, by the women who feel abortion is their only option, and moved by the women (and men) negatively impacted by abortion. Any head response needs to be first impacted by a God-shaped heart response. And we engage with humility. Of all people, we should be able to call out what is wrong and yet do so in a way that is not judgemental and that doesn’t leave people trapped in shame. The gospel – its impact on us and its offer to others – is what enables us to engage with true compassion and humility.

And it looks like engaging practically. We need to speak out against abortion, but we can’t only speak out. We must also act: act to see the situations and circumstances that drive people to abortions change; act to educate people about the reality of life in the womb; act to see support offered to those negatively impacted by abortion. Ultimately, we want to engage practically to see abortion become both unthinkable and unnecessary.3

A challenge to the Church

The question posed by a young person at that event is a challenge to us. Maybe it’s a question many of us need to ask ourselves. If we do, and we’re honest, we might well find that we’ve been trapped by fear. In the process, we’ve left others in the same situation: those facing crisis pregnancies can be left trapped in fear that they can’t cope with bearing or parenting a child, and they become trapped in thinking that abortion is their only option; those experiencing some of the negative impacts of abortion are trapped in their pain, fearful of talking about their experience and how others, perhaps especially Christians, might respond. If we allow ourselves to be trapped, others are left trapped too.

It’s time for us to face our fears so we can engage in wisdom.

Footnotes

  • 1. A short but very helpful book that acknowledges these complexities well is Lizzie Lang, Abortion (The Good Book Company, 2020).
  • 2. The idea that abortion often negatively impacts women is controversial but, I think, justified. On medical risks and mental health, see ‘Abortion: Risks and complications’ and ‘Abortion and Mental Health’, CMF. For real-life stories sharing a range of experience of abortion, see ‘Abortion Stories’, Pregnancy Choices Directory.
  • 3. For examples of organisations that can help churches think about one form of practical engagement, see Pregnancy Centres Network and OPEN.

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A Letter to the Deconstructing

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Matt Anderson's wonderful new book, Called Into Questions, finishes with a superb letter to the deconstructing believer. I can't think of a better way of persuading you to read the book - which is an excellent treatment of how to ask good questions - than by showing you how he concludes it:

Emily,

“Deconstructing” is a popular term, but a complicated concept.

For some people, it seems to mean a systematic rejection of many of the core tenets or practices they were raised in—like their understanding of God, or the Bible, or church. Many have deconstructed their way out of Christianity; some have made their way into different types of churches. Many of them have experienced pain at the hands of the church, their parents, or other Christians they trusted. Others have felt alienated by some of Christianity’s long-held moral convictions. Some have been frustrated by how political partisanship has captured some Christian communities. Many of them have found each other on the internet, gathering around Twitter and TikTok hashtags. My impression is that people who are deconstructing are often concerned first and foremost with injustice, not whether a theological framework is true or false. They tend to think their church community was not only wrong but harmful. The “deconstructing” are looking to escape and transform their past, as you are. Sometimes they have good reasons for doing so, but much depends on what type of life they “reconstruct” afterward. Generalizations are dangerous, and I want to be careful here.

It is hard to know how to be helpful as you work through your troubled history with the church. “To whom shall we go?” a disciple once asked Jesus, for “you have the words of eternal life.” The disciples were disoriented, confused, and scandalized by Jesus’ proclamation that they would have no part in Him unless they ate His body and drank His blood. His claim offended religious sensibilities and drove people away from Him. His disciples stayed with Him, though. What did they see in Jesus that those who left Him did not? I suspect they did not stay because they understood or thought everything was going to be all right. They could go nowhere else to hear life like that which Jesus offered.

I think about that passage sometimes when I hear one more story of someone who is deconstructing their faith. How can my words participate in Christ’s words of life? It would take a miracle for me to say something that would bring comfort and exhortation, to help turn you again toward the faith you are now turning away from. After all, this is a book about how questions fit in a life of a faith that is bound to the church, with all the suffering and pain that she sometimes causes.

It is hard to believe that God is good when the body He has given us can cause such damage. I hated the church the day she kicked out my dad after seventeen years of faithful service as a pastor. I still remember sobbing as he walked down the aisle of the church after his final sermon. I was twenty-four. I wept while taking Communion this Easter Sunday—not with joy, but with sorrow for all the damage the church and I have caused this world. I am glad Christ rose from the grave and defeated sin and death—but why did He have to leave us to ourselves and stay away for so long? Sometimes it feels like all we do is make a hash of things. I am more impatient than God is, clearly, and shocked myself with how angry I felt at His absence. I pray to God to never know another Easter like it. Our families shape us from the moment we are born, but the church promises us eternal life or death. It has a power over our imagination no other institution can match. The church can do enormous good or cause almost infinite damage.

Still, I do not think the sins of the church are a reason to leave it. Christianity is an odd religion—it builds alienation and pain into the church almost from its beginning. Why should we be free from participating in Christ’s sufferings in church—His body, which suffered at the hands of sinners? None of us have yet been made perfect. The Old Testament is one long reminder of the damage God’s people cause and the persistence of God’s love. God’s forbearance with His people is the real scandal. Why is He so patient with us when we clearly do not deserve it? I realize that this seems like a neat trick to those who are skeptical about Christianity: the church’s sins and failures suddenly become one more reason to believe because the Bible predicted them! I understand the frustration. But if we are going to oppose the church, we should at least accuse it of the right crimes—and Christianity has never held out that people would be safe from sin in her midst. Judgment will begin with the house of God. In some ways, it already has.

It might be that I am willing to put up with the church because I have nowhere else to go. Where else can I hear the truth about my own sins, and receive the power to repent? The fact that I have so many sins makes it hard for me to be severe toward the church. Our sins do not give others license to harm us, and our suffering is not (necessarily) punishment for them. But in an imperfect world, victims have their own vices. In a letter to his son that I recently read, J. R. R. Tolkien points out that the scandals of the church are a convenient temptation to disbelieve because they “turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scape-goat.” Confessing our sins frees us to hold wrongdoers accountable while still offering them forgiveness. Is there a more powerful sign of strength than showing mercy to the undeserving? There is nothing weak about forgiveness.

Maybe I am too sanguine about the church—but I don’t think so. “Sanguine” is an interesting word in this context: it means optimistic and cheerful, but it comes from a Latin word (sanguinis) that means “bloody.” How blood became optimistic has more to do with outdated theories of medicine than it does religion, but history has never stopped writers from making our point, has it? I am sanguine about the church because the blood of Jesus flowed for her, and for me. Where else shall we go? There are words of life here, even if they demand our death with Christ on the cross.

I was recently asked by a non-Christian why I had not tried to convert him to Christianity during his relational turmoil. I reminded him that I did mention Jesus to him once, so I am not that bad of a Christian. But I am reluctant to persuade someone to believe in Jesus because He will make their life better. Sometimes Christ does solve our problems. But sometimes He allows those problems to continue, and sometimes He seems to throw new problems at us. The whole question of Christianity is not whether it will make us feel better, or have better relationships with our parents, or have less anxiety at work—but whether it is true and good and beautiful. The cross of Jesus answers our deepest questions
and liberates us to ask a million new ones. But it is still a cross, which hardly offers the comfort and security we want.

I sometimes wonder whether people today are turning away from Christianity at all—or whether they are rejecting a cheapened, sub-Christian optimism that worships the false god of personal peace and affluence. Many people my age seem to have made Christianity a means to a stable job, healthy family, and happy emotional life—and then are surprised when the world lets them down. Sometimes God sounds more like a “life coach” than the terrible, strange, living God of the Bible. I suspect some of the “deconstructing” are only replacing one form of therapy for another—only access to their new sources of happiness is limited to those with money to pay for it. Think about the practices that have replaced church: people pay for therapy, for wellness classes, for yoga, for meditation apps, for relational counseling, for career counselors, for dieticians and personal trainers, and so on. All those can be helpful. Yet if that is what it takes to live a good life, no one with a working-class job and a couple of kids is going to make it. For all its problems, the church at least offers confession, meditation, and singing for free. All she asks is that you take up your cross and follow Jesus.

I am running out of space here, and this letter is already too long—though I dare say you expect such rambles from me by now. I want to close by putting some questions to you. I know doing so is dangerous: questions can easily sound like judgment. I do not mean them to be. I offer them only as opportunities to think about deconstruction with someone who is outside the community. My questions are not neutral. They are rooted in my impressions of what deconstructing has come to mean. Whether they are helpful will be limited by whether you resonate with them. Yet I offer them as expressions of my love for you. I wish you knew how troubled my soul is on your behalf—not because I am angry, but because I am grieved for the damage you have suffered and the course you have chosen.

First: Are you sure that deconstructing is the right stance to take toward the intellectual and religious inheritance you have received? We tear down buildings that we have judged to be condemned. Is being raised in a narrow corner of the faith enough to condemn it? Or is there more to Christianity than what you were given? Our intellectual inheritances are often more ambivalent than the language of deconstructing seems to permit. The tools we use to tear down were often given to us by the systems we are now turning against, and by the people who believe in them. The church I grew up in broke my heart—but they also helped me pay for college. We might need to cultivate gratitude for the gifts we were given alongside our anger at the pain we suffered. Otherwise, we risk reacting against a distorted picture of the world we grew up in.

A related question: Does deconstructing as an intellectual posture offer you sufficient resources to avoid cynicism? I take it that the aim of debunking is to see through a framework, to expose it as insufficient, whereas the aim of understanding is to discover how and why it works the way it does. The former offers no constructive alternative because it does not need one to survive; the latter mode of inquiry allows better options to emerge from within if the outlook under consideration is found wanting. Understanding strives to truthfully see the world; cynicism wishes only to dismiss it. If you will indulge me, I think C. S. Lewis said this better than I:

The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to “see through” first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.

It is possible that the community you grew up in worshiped idols. Sin is real and really distorts our understanding. But the mantle of deconstructing those idols is a heavy one to carry on our own. Where does the deconstruction end? As Oliver O’Donovan has written, the “prophet is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion.” What kind of damage are you willing to cause in order to undo the damage that has been done to you?

Third: Are you confident the digital community of deconstructionists is helpful? Publicizing our doubts changes them. We become more attached to beliefs that we broadcast, as attaching our reputation to them raises the stakes for us. Having company in our questions is intensely comforting, to be sure. Many people have gathered in online communities because they have struggled to find offline connections. But the social pressures of groups make it easy for them to take us places we never set out to go. (This is true of churches as well: any group of people that gathers around a shared set of interests runs the risk of becoming narrower as time goes on.) Off-line groups have other points of connection to hold them together, though, which makes it easier to keep things in proportion: members of a church live in the same city, are subject to the same politicians, and enjoy the same weather. They have much besides church to talk about, which helps keep their religious life from devolving into fanaticism.

This is less true of digital communities, as the people who gather only have their shared interest in common—whether it is their love of a sports team, a movie, or an influencer. The more time we spend in narrow interest groups online, the easier it is for them to take on a disproportionate significance in our self-understanding. It is undoubtedly helpful for people wrestling with doubt to have support—but we need solidarity from those who know us in real life, so they can help us keep perspective on what we have been through. Social media is a constant performance, which makes it difficult to know what is real about our doubts. Are you sure deconstructing in that environment is helpful?

Finally: Do you think it noble or good to love your enemies? Are your questions to the church motivated by charity or suspicion? Are your questions aimed at calling the church to repentance—or destroying it? Would you prefer a church that only offers comfort, or are you willing to accept one that makes demands? Justice is the external form of love, and love is the inner core of justice. They live and die together. Yet justice and love depend upon distinctions, on separating this from that. They demand an openness to the world, a capacity to be surprised. Are you sure your questions about your church embody a desire to tell the truth about it, rather than only to tear it down? What is true of one institution like Mars Hill Church in Seattle might not be true of another. You might have “seen this story before,” but you also might not have. The details, the actors, the context—all of them might need a different set of questions than those from the stories you have heard.

I have argued in these pages that seeking understanding should be the primary impulse of the Christian mind—but I really just mean the mind, whether Christian or not. Maybe that is wrong. But it seems to me that we should avoid turning deconstructing into a program or project. If nothing else, it distorts the intellectual life by turning one away from its primary aim and end.

Christianity is far stranger than many of its critics know and more compelling than most of its defenders can imagine. If it is true, everything hangs upon it. I hope you will allow the sorrow you feel to drive you deeper into the depths of God—for I am confident that you will discover words of life there more beautiful and good than those I can offer.

With my prayers,

Matt

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Is Same-Sex Marriage an Issue of Equality?

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One of the things I sometimes hear is that I am a victim of discrimination. Traditional Christian teaching, still followed by many denominations and churches, holds that only opposite-sex couples can unite in Christian marriage. In these contexts, two people of the same sex cannot unite in Christian marriage. This, it is claimed, is discrimination against people like me who feel exclusively attracted to people of the same sex. For those who make this argument, the acceptance of same-sex marriage in the church is a simple matter of equality, and failure to accept such unions is discrimination.

There are some things in this argument that resonate with me – and probably with most of us – because they are good things. There’s a hunger for justice. There’s a right belief that inappropriate discrimination is wrong and that equality is something we should be fighting for. These very beliefs are rooted in the Christian tradition: they flow from the truth that every person is made in the image of God, and from the example of Jesus.

But I think this argument is also confused and unfair. Same-sex marriage is not an issue of equality. Restricting Christian marriage to opposite-sex unions is not about discrimination, it’s about definition and distinguishing.

Definition

Christian marriage is, by definition, the union of a man and a woman. This has always been Christian belief, rooted in God’s creational design, as revealed in Genesis 1 and 2 and reaffirmed by Jesus (Mark 10:1-12 and Matthew 19:1-9). And it’s a purposeful definition: the union in difference of opposite-sex marriage reflects the union in difference of Christ and the Church. Restricting marriage to opposite-sex unions is not about discrimination; it’s about definition. It’s simply an outworking of what marriage is.

This same principle can be seen elsewhere in life. For example, I couldn’t join the Royal College of Surgeons because I am not a surgeon. The fact that they would deny me membership of the organisation is not unacceptable discrimination; it’s simply an outworking of definition. Similarly, I couldn’t get an academic scholarship through a scholarship scheme for ethnic minority students. Again, that wouldn’t be outrageous discrimination; it would simply be an outworking of definition.

The traditional Christian restriction of marriage to unions of one man and one woman is an outworking of the definition of Christian marriage, not an act of inappropriate discrimination. And same-sex unions aren’t the only place we see this at work. Whatever our views on same-sex marriage, there will be some forms of relationship we don’t feel can qualify as an acceptable marriage. For us that might be unions of more than two people or unions where one person is already married to someone else. The point is, we all have a definition of marriage that we feel should dictate who can and cannot enter into such a union.

So people can and do disagree that Christian marriage is, by definition, an opposite-sex union, and that is a conversation that needs to be engaged in. It’s something to be discussed, debated and defended, not a conversation to be overlooked or shut down through unfair accusations of discrimination and inequality.

Distinguishing

The traditional Christian perspective on marriage is also an issue of distinguishing: distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable sexual relationships.

The general concept here is unexceptional. Pretty much everyone agrees there are some relationships that are inappropriate and that should not be sexual. That’s not really an area of disagreement. However, disagreement emerges when we consider where the line falls between acceptable and unacceptable sexual relationships.

For Christians following a traditional sexual ethic, that line is dictated by God’s plan and design for sex, as revealed in Scripture: that the only relationships that should be sexual are marriage relationships between a man and a woman, reflecting the relationship between Christ and the Church.

Christians are not unusual in distinguishing between relationships that can legitimately be sexual and those that should not be. We might place the dividing line somewhere different from other people, but the fact we believe there is a line is not unusual.

This being the case, we should be able to explain why we believe the dividing line should fall in a certain place and should be up for discussing and defending that in dialogue with others who would put the line in a different place. Claims that Christians following traditional Christian sexual ethics are unfairly discriminating fail to acknowledge that we all distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable sexual relationships. Such claims can also be used to try and shut down the conversations that might help us to better understand each other’s positions.

So, I don’t think there’s any reason to say that I am a victim of discrimination when churches and denominations hold to the traditional Christian sexual ethic in relation to marriage. It’s not about equality and discrimination; it’s about definition and distinguishing. Claims of inequality and discrimination are unfair and unhelpful, making it hard to cultivate respect for each other and to dialogue about our differences. So let’s put to one side the strategy of accusation and instead take up the strategy of conversation.

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The Moral Argument Still Works

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If you haven't come across Gavin Ortlund yet, he's doing some outstanding work on apologetics, philosophy and historical theology on his YouTube channel. This is an excellent half hour response to the claim that the moral argument for God no longer works (the first half summarises the discussion so far, and the second half is his response). It's excellent:

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Jesus on Procreation

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A few months back, I shared a revelation I had while reflecting on Jesus’s discussion with the Pharisees about marriage and divorce. Jesus’s deliberate choice to quote from both Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 help us to understand his perspective on both same-sex marriage and what it means to be a man or a woman.

More recently, it has struck me that another of Jesus’ conversations also reveals something important about his perspective on marriage. This conversation was with the Sadducees – another of the Jewish groups in Jesus’s day. You can read it in Mark 12:18-27, Matthew 22:23-33 and Luke 20:27-40. It was a little detail in Luke’s account that stuck out to me recently.

The Sadducees were a group who didn’t believe in the resurrection – the truth that God’s people will be raised from the dead at the end of this age to spend eternity with him. So, they proposed a scenario that they thought proved the idea of resurrection to be absurd. They were trying to catch Jesus out.

The Sadducees ask Jesus to imagine a man who marries a woman but who dies before they have any children. In that scenario, following an Old Testament law designed to ensure the continuation of the family line and to secure an heir for the man who had died, one of his brothers would be expected to marry his widow and have a child on behalf of the deceased brother (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). The Sadducees share a hypothetical story in which brothers keep dying, each time with the next marrying the woman but none of them producing any children. If the resurrection is true, the Sadducees challenge Jesus, this woman will be married to seven men in the age to come. Surely that’s absurd? You can’t really believe in this resurrection idea?

But Jesus’s response is not to deny the truth of the resurrection but to explain why the Sadducees’ story doesn’t work. They had assumed that resurrection life will be just like life in the here and now. But that’s not the case, Jesus says. In particular, ‘those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage’ (Luke 20:35). Human marriages are a reality in this age, but not in the age to come. Marriages that exist now won’t exist then and those who are not married now won’t enter into marriages then. Marriage – and so also sex – are temporary. They are part of this age.

And why is this? There are probably multiple reasons, but Jesus offers one explanation explicitly: ‘for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection’ (Luke 20:36). There’s no marriage because there’s no death. What’s the logic here? No death means no need for procreation which means no need for marriage and sex because sex and marriage are, in part, about procreation.

Notice what this shows us about Jesus’ understanding of marriage and sex. In part, they exist for the purpose of procreation. The rest of Scripture shows us that is not all they are about, but it is part of what they are about. Both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 would suggest the same.

Recognising this helps us to further understand Jesus’s perspective on what marriage is. Marriage is meant to be a relationship that is be open to the possibility that God will bless it with the gift of children through the act of sex.1 This tells us that Jesus understood marriage as being a union of two people and only two people – only two people can be involved in the production of children through the natural means of sex. And it tells us that Jesus understood marriage as the union of a man and a woman – only that union-in-difference can result in a child through the act of sex.

I still sometimes hear it claimed that Jesus had nothing to say on the matter of same-sex marriage. In strict terms, it’s true to say he didn’t address the topic directly. And why would he in a Jewish cultural context where everyone recognised that same-sex unions fell outside of God’s parameters for marriage? But to admit Jesus didn’t address same-sex marriage directly isn’t the same as saying he didn’t communicate anything relevant to the matter and that we can’t know what he would say to us now. Jesus’s conversation with the Sadducees is another place where the words of Jesus himself help us to understand his view on what marriage really is.

Footnotes


  • 1. Two things might come to our mind at this point – contraception and infertility. On the first, it’s helpful to remember the place of sex in marriage. Sex in marriage is not a series of one-night stands but part of a whole-self, whole-life union. It is this union which is to be orientated towards procreation, not every sex act within it. In practical terms, this probably means that while contraception for wise family planning is acceptable, the deliberate attempt to exclude procreation from a marriage through the consistent use of contraception probably doesn’t fit with God’s plan and vision for marriage. It seems every marriage should at some point leave open the possibility that God will bless it with the gift of biological children.

  • On infertility, it is sometimes asked whether an emphasis on procreation as a central purpose of marriage is insensitive to those who experience the deep pain of infertility. However, we should rather recognise that it is the affirmation of a God-designed link between marriage and procreation that explains and legitimises the pain of infertility. Affirming the marriage-procreation link should increase our understanding of and compassion for the pain of infertility and our commitment as church families to weep with those who weep and to be the kind of community where everyone gets to have a genuine experience of family.

Editing the Declaration

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In one epoch-defining edit to the Declaration of Independence - from "sacred and undeniable" to "self-evident" - Benjamin Franklin captured the spirit of the post-Christian West. Here's a short explanation of how, which serves as a sort-of-trailer to my new book, Remaking the World. Happy Fourth of July to all our American readers!

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Introducing the Risbridgers

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This week, after fifteen years of running a Leadership Training course (and ten years of doing it for the Catalyst network of churches), I am handing it over to John and Alison Risbridger. It's a huge privilege to be able to pass the course on to such outstanding and experienced leaders - and I can already see how they will improve the training and take it beyond where I have been able to - but I am also aware that there are plenty of people who don't know them at all. So I thought it would be a good idea to introduce them by asking them a few questions. If you like the sound of what they have to say, you can find out more about the course here.

Tell me a bit about yourselves.
We have two young adult daughters, one a Civil Servant and the other a recently qualified Doctor. Since we felt God was leading us to move on from our previous church, Alison has been teaching English to internationals at Southampton City College, reflecting her heart for people from all the nations, and John is doing an MA at All Nations Christian College in Church, Mission and Global Christianity. We love being part of King’s Community Church with our dear friends Andy and Janet Johnston and enjoy spending time walking and running in the New Forest where we live.

What do you think is the greatest leadership challenge of our generation?
Equipping and repositioning Spirit-dependent churches to live and speak the gospel openly, faithfully and plausibly in a post-Christian, secularised world.

Where do pastors come from? How are they best identified, developed and trained?
The ideal is for pastors (and other leaders in churches) to be identified, developed and trained by the local church and the wider movement of churches working together in partnership, so that they are rooted, discipled and accountable within their church community, but also supported, stretched and given a broader vision by being exposed to other leaders and thinkers within the wider movement. God wants to grow us as whole people so leadership training needs to balance and integrate input for the heart, the head and the hands so that people grow in their character/spirituality, their theological understanding and their gifts and skills.

How have you both developed and invested in future leaders in your ministry to this point?
In our previous church we worked with others to develop a discipleship/leadership school, based on Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations. The program focused on biblical theology, spiritual formation, missional leadership and practical disciple-making. Alongside this we’ve worked extensively with emerging and existing leaders in one-to-one, team and conference settings.

What excites you about the next phase of your ministry together?
As a couple we have always felt called to ministry together and, while we share the same heart for Jesus and for people, we complement each other in terms of our different gifts, experiences, strengths and weaknesses. We’re excited about being part of Catalyst and love the vision for growing churches which are deeply rooted in the Bible and expectant for encounter with the Holy Spirit.

It’s been so encouraging already to see the calibre of the men and women on the course, and we have seen for ourselves some of the great things it equips them to go on to do. It’s an incredible privilege for us to have the opportunity to invest in future generations of leaders - both in teaching on the course and in getting alongside individuals.

What are your hopes for Catalyst Leadership and Theology Training? Why did you want to take on the role of Course Director, and what do you hope God will do through it?
For quite a while we had been sensing that a big focus of our next chapter in ministry would be on growing and supporting emerging leaders. This was powerfully confirmed in a prophetic word for us from someone who had never met us before, just as we were deciding whether to apply for this role.

God has given us a big heart for mission in and through the local church, and for the cross cultural mission opportunities on our doorsteps. So we are really excited to be involved in growing and equipping leaders to step into that vision, with a heart to witness to Jesus in words and in actions and to see his love and power transforming individuals and communities.

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Cancellation and Accountability

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Some typically clear thinking here from Jake Meador on a very important distinction:

One effect of the irritable gesture problem is that language is now mostly used as a tool to gain control or power rather than as a descriptive tool or something we use to try and approach truth together. For example, many now use the idea of “cancelation”, which is a real thing and a genuine problem, as a way of redirecting responsibility when a public figure is criticized for doing something reprehensible. So instead of a person “experiencing the consequences of their actions,” that person is now “canceled,” and can now be deployed as a martyr for the cause. This has the effect of insulating your side from critique because real problems with your movement as well as sound criticisms of it can now easily be brushed aside as “cancel culture.”

This, for example, is how some reactionary Reformed Christians have tried to absolve Thomas Achord of all wrongdoing. Because Achord lost his job, Achord was “canceled.” The facts of his case can then be ignored, minimized, or brushed aside. Once it’s been declared that he was “canceled” it no longer matters that he was, by his own admission:

- trying to smuggle white nationalism into the classical Christian school movement
- posting plainly misogynistic and anti-black racist sentiment on his many anonymous accounts
- rudely criticizing the church that hosted his school from anonymous social media accounts
- making creepy comments that sexualized children
- praising the attempt to “lay” as many women as possible
- comparing Afro-American teens to “chimps”

And it doesn’t matter, to them, that he did all of this while working with and educating children.

But it should matter, shouldn’t it? If you were a parent, would you want a man who said all the things Achord said on his anonymous accounts educating your children? I would not. And the board of his school, given all of this, decided that Achord was disqualified from his job as the headmaster of the school. This is not “cancelation.” This is “experiencing appropriate consequences for your behavior.”

So when I refer to someone being “canceled,” I am not referring to someone who experienced proportional, real-world consequences for bad behavior.

Even so, the reason that “cancelation” has such cache now is that anyone who has spent five minutes on the internet knows that it refers to a real thing that often happens online. So it won’t do to simply dismiss the entire idea of “cancelation” anymore than it would to act as if any form of severe criticism is “cancelation.”

A distinction from church life might be helpful here:

For pastors, there are certain sins that clearly disqualify you from continued ministry as a member of the clergy. If, for instance, a pastor has an affair, he should lose his job and his ordination should be revoked immediately.

There are also sins that might require a pastor to lose his job and have his ordination revoked: If a pastor has a pattern of verbally abusive behavior toward church staff, it may be that the pastor needs to be fired. Or it may be that the pastor simply needs a stern warning from the church’s leadership board or the presbytery or bishop overseeing the congregation and also needs to make amends with the people he has hurt with his unkind speech.

Then there are other cases where pastors sin and no such action of any kind is called for beyond the ordinary penitence and restitution we are required to make any time we sin. Everyone sins and in most cases the right response is simply to confess that sin, ask forgiveness from the parties wronged, and then get on with life.

In other words, when we’re reckoning with the social import of a given sin, we need ways of making distinctions between, say, a person who had an affair, a person with a divisive spirit, and a person who was rude on social media for a few weeks before shutting down their account because they recognized what it was doing to them. All three are examples of sin, but the way each is addressed will (rightly) look different.

Cancelation is when every form of moral offense is treated like a fireable offense, when, say, a bad attempt at writing in the Christian mystical tradition about sex and marriage leads to you losing a fellowship and your pastorate. Or, to slightly shift metaphors, it is when the notion of venial sin is lost altogether and every sin is treated as a mortal sin.

In other words, cancelation works by flattening important moral distinctions between actions and then punishing that action in the most severe way possible. So it by definition cannot be merciful or gracious, nor can it even engage in basic forms of moral deliberation. (A closely related point, I expect, is that when things like mercy and grace are largely unknown to a culture, all that remains to atone for wrongdoing is penance and often penace of a rather extreme sort.)

Because cancelation operates according to the logic of PR rather than the logic of reflection and deliberation, cancelation isn’t intended to be gracious or merciful. It doesn’t care about that, if we can ascribe intent to the concept in that way. Cancelation is an automated process whose goal is not the restoration of the wrongdoer or the reconciliation of severed friendship or trust. The goal, rather, is to either cow the swarmed party into suppliance or to purge the swarmed from the community so as to preserve the moral rightness or purity of that community.

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Arctic Forests

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Objectively speaking, you might say, the Arctic and the equator receive the "same amount" of sunshine. The critical difference, of course, is when and how. Not even the nonstop sunshine of an Arctic summer can make up for the night. The "same amount" of sunlight is not equally distributed ...

What if the first eighteen years of your life were an Arctic winter? What if all the sunlight in your life comes late, at an oblique angle? What if the sun cyclically disappears from a life for nights that seem like they’ll never end? To grow just one membraned layer under such conditions is a feat. To add another ring - to endure - is an achievement. Some years are longer than others.

Don’t compare your sturdy temperate trees to your neighbour’s Arctic forest. You can’t imagine how much implacable energy it took to grow those saplings. You might not be able to fathom what they have endured. You don’t know how ancient that forest is, how much time it has spent enveloped in darkness.

Even more importantly: don’t compare the trees of your tundra existence to someone else’s equatorial rain forest. God doesn’t. They live in different conditions. The sun shines upon the just and the unjust, but not at the same angle or with the same intensity. The birch saplings that have punched up through the crust of your prior life are miracles of grace. (Remember when you thought nothing could ever grow there?) They’ve never lived through your winter. They don’t know how long your night has been. By the grace of God, you’ve endured the dark.

- James K. A. Smith, How to Inhabit Time, 53-54

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Understanding Violence Against Women in the Bible

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The accounts of violence against women recorded in the Bible are probably some of the passages that make us feel most uncomfortable and that we feel most inclined to avoid, whether as Bible readers or Bible teachers. We feel unsure how to interpret them, unsure how to teach them, and even unsure why they are even in the Bible. But these stories are important because they speak to a reality that is sadly ever-present in this age and they reveal to us God’s heart in the face of this reality. Claudine Roberts, a former human rights solicitor, has just published a great book in the Cover to Cover Bible study series, exploring six biblical stories of violence against women. I asked Claudine to share a bit about the book and about this important topic.

AB: What led you to want to write on the topic of violence against women?

CR: In 2019 God started speaking to me about my own experiences of male violence, causing me to turn to the biblical stories of violence against women and cry out in prayer, “What do you say about what happened to me, Lord?”. I needed to understand why those stories of violence are included in the Bible and what we’re supposed to learn from them. I looked for a study guide or book that would help me find those answers, but I couldn’t find what I wanted. I did find various books tackling one or two of the biblical stories, but many of them were academic in style, a challenging read, not widely accessible. As I made notes on the stories for myself and noticed the common threads and God’s response to violence against women, I believe God showed me that I was writing the accessible guide I’d been looking for and it would be helpful for others in the Church who want to understand the Bible on the subject.

AB: What missteps do we need to avoid when reading stories of violence against women in the Bible?

CR: First, it’s important to note that sometimes the violence is difficult to spot. For example, we may be very familiar with the story of Abram and Hagar in Genesis 16. That account doesn’t actually say that Hagar was raped, but there are elements in the narrative that point to sexual violence – for example the fact that Hagar’s voice is entirely absent in that part of the story, she isn’t given a choice in the matter, Hagar’s mistress Sarai just decides she will be the answer to their infertility. So we need to read the biblical narrative with an understanding that at times the text offers no moral judgment, it’s simply an historical account of the facts, but that doesn’t mean everything that happened was good and just and within God’s will.

We also need to be careful about the language we use to describe biblical characters and our resulting preconceptions. For example, Abram (Abraham), Jacob, David and others are often described by Christians as ‘Bible heroes’, which might lead us to approach Scripture with the idea that those characters will always be the ‘hero’ in every story. In fact, we need to read these accounts with an awareness that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and that the only Bible hero is Jesus. We can expect the Bible to include stories of great men and women failing and demonstrating sinful attitudes and behaviour.

AB: What hope and help can studying these biblical accounts offer to women who have experienced violence?

CR: The biblical stories of violence against women really do point to the hope we have in Jesus. They systematically demonstrate that our hope and salvation does not lie in family members, judges, or kings, only in Jesus who sees our suffering and is moved by compassion to act.

Personally, I also found that these stories helped to negate the lies I had come to believe about myself as a result of the violence committed against me. I was seriously sexually assaulted twice in my teens and then raped in my twenties and on each occasion the enemy told me that my ‘no’ didn’t matter, my voice didn’t matter, and therefore I didn’t matter. Slowly I began to believe that lie; it crept in. The biblical stories of violence against women and God’s response to that violence show that God cares about victims and survivors of violence, they matter to Him. For example, God cares so much about Hagar that He seeks her out in the wilderness, invites her to be part of His family and makes promises to bless her. I hope other women will receive truth in studying these stories too.

AB: The subtitle to your book is ‘Discovering El Roi, The God Who Sees’. Why did you choose that subtitle?

CR: Studying the biblical stories of violence against women has deepened my understanding of the character of God. At times, we can forget that God is the same yesterday, today and always (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8), and we can separate the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New Testament who we see in the person of Jesus (Colossians 2:9). It’s often the Old Testament stories of violence that cause this disconnect. Hagar gives God this title, ‘El Roi’, because His response to her abuse changes everything for her. She is seen, known, and loved by Almighty God. I pray that others (victims, survivors, perpetrators and others) will also discover that they are seen, known and loved by Him. The subtitle is an invitation to know Him.

AB: What advice would you give to church leaders who want to engage with the subject of violence against women as they teach the Bible?

CR: I would love to see more church leaders and preachers engaging with the subject. It’s imperative that we begin to preach on these stories in our regular church meetings, not just at women’s days or one-off special events, because they’re there in the Bible and so many people in our churches need to know what God says about what happened (or is currently happening) to them.

Leaders need to be aware that there will be victims and survivors of violence and abuse within their churches. The first step will be to ensure that the church has robust procedures in place for dealing with any disclosures, so that victims and survivors are listened to, believed, and supported to take action if and when they are ready.

In terms of preparing to teach on the Bible stories, I would urge church leaders to recognise the limitations of their own life experience and read or listen to different voices on the subject. (For an excellent overview of the different forms of violence against women and girls I would recommend Elaine Storkey’s Scars Across Humanity, and on domestic abuse I would recommend Revd Dr Helen Paynter’s The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So.) Specifically, male church leaders may want to invite a female preacher to speak on the subject, or give female leaders an opportunity to input, even if they won’t be teaching. They may also want to consider inviting an outside organisation (like Restored) in to provide training, support, or a guest speaker.

Given the resources now available, there’s no excuse for avoiding the biblical stories of violence against women and remaining silent on the issue when it’s such an important issue for many and so frequently in the news. We, the Church, need to recognise that we are called to speak out against injustice and oppression, and Jesus is the answer to the problem of male violence against women.

If you would like to seek support in relation to any of the issues raised, you may want to contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Line on 0808 500 2222 in the UK (both 24 hours).

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Time to Think

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For many years, cracks have been appearing in the (metaphorical) walls of the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), the only NHS gender-specialist service for under-18s. Those cracks – in the form of concerns from staff members, employment tribunals, court cases, and deeply discontented ex-patients – were warning signs that the foundations of GIDS are unsafe and unfit for purpose. The Cass Review has now given official confirmation of this, and a demolition order (still metaphorical!) has been issued. GIDS will soon close and will be replaced by new NHS services that will follow a very different approach to that which has been the norm at GIDS.

Time to Think by Hannah Barnes tells, as the subtitle states, ‘the inside story of the collapse of the Tavistock’s gender service for children.’ It is not a comfortable read. Barnes offers a thorough account of the progress and subsequent demise of what’s hard not to conclude has been a significant medical and safeguarding scandal.

The scope of the book is primarily to tell the story of GIDS: ‘This is a story about the underlying safety of an NHS service, the adequacy of the care it provides and its use of poorly evidenced treatments on some of the most vulnerable young people in society. And how so many people sat back, watched, and did nothing’ (p.22).

In the process, however, through interviews with staff, patients and parents, and through examination of the available data and research, Barnes also gives us a lot of helpful insight into the phenomenon of trans-identification among teens. For those of us who have been engaging with this phenomenon for a while, there’s nothing particularly new, but there’s a lot to confirm what we already know or have suspected. Here a few points I think are particularly helpful for us to be aware of, especially those of us working with young people.

It so often isn’t about gender

For many – perhaps most – young people identifying as trans today, there is very good reason to think that gender isn’t the main issue. So often, gender is a symptom of something else, not the root cause. This means the best way of helping young people, is to support them holistically, not letting gender trump everything else, and helping the young person to put gender in perspective.

‘Why were more teenage girls being referred to the clinic than ever before, many of them with no previous problem with their gender identity in childhood – girls who often had complex mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm? Could the past traumas of some of these children explain why they wanted to identify as a different gender to escape from their bodies? Did the increasing number of patients who appeared to experience homophobic bullying before identifying as transgender need to be explored in greater detail? Was GIDS actually medicating some gay children, and some on the autistic spectrum?’ (p.20).

‘An audit of patients in the early 2000s ‘showed that it was very rare for young people referred to GIDS to have no associated problems. This was true of only 2.5 per cent of the sample. On the other hand, about 70 per cent of the sample had more than five “associated features” – a long list that includes those already mentioned [e.g. family difficulties, depression, time in care, self-harming] as well as physical abuse, anxiety, school attendance issues and many more. Those who were older (over 12) tended to have more of these problems’ (p.31).

‘What was really going on was that I was a girl insecure in my body who had experienced parental abandonment, felt alienated from my peers, suffered from anxiety and depression, and struggled with my sexual orientation … I was an unhappy girl who needed help. Instead, I was treated like an experiment’ (p.332).

‘Harriet says her trans identity provided “an easy answer” to her poor self-esteem and mental health problems. “I think sexuality was my big trigger for it at the time, where I started freaking out. I was a repressed lesbian at a girls’ school. And then I was quite a heavy Tumblr user. And it was like, you can jump ship and be this other thing … I’m very into computers, and always have been,” she explains, and this was portrayed as being interested in “male” pursuits. Reflecting on those conversations now, Harriet says many were symptoms of autism. Or just being a teenage girl’ (pp.382-383).

It’s usually about distress

To say that gender isn’t usually the main issue, isn’t to say that there isn’t something real going on for these young people. For many, it seems that trans-identification is embraced as an explanation for very real distress and transition is then seen as the solution. In many ways, the trans narrative is a gospel – good news of salvation from distress. The problem is, it’s a false gospel.

‘Clinicians did not agree on what exactly they were treating in young people: were they treating children distressed because they were trans, or children who identified as trans because they were distressed? Or a combination of both? It was unsurprising then that they couldn’t agree on the best way to treat it’ (p.43).

‘I kind of wonder if in these moments of distress in people’s lives – it’s not that I’m saying being trans or [poor] mental health causes you to say you’re trans, but that that might be the thing you think it is because you’re so unwell … you might think that your life might be better if … you’ve got a label for the struggle you’re feeling that isn’t mental health, and it’s part of your identity’, Jack, a trans man (p.94).

‘[H]ere was a potential solution to that distress. The problem with that was that part of what GIDS was trying to do as a service was to “support families to support young people with distress”. “Part of life and development is learning how to manage and tolerate distress, not thinking it’s supposed to be taken away,” [Dr Natasha] Prescott explains. The decision may have been well meaning, but “lots of things can be well meaning, and ill-informed”’ (pp.122-123).

Sexuality is very often a factor

The thing that most surprised me in reading Time to Think was the prominence of sexuality. I knew that many of the young people identifying as trans experience same-sex attraction. I knew that past studies have shown many children who express discomfort with their gender prior to puberty turn out to be gay in adulthood. I knew that being gay at school often isn’t deemed cool, but being trans is. I think I just hadn’t realised how big a factor this is and how hard it is to be a same-sex attracted teenager today, especially if you’re a girl.

‘Homophobic comments from young people themselves, or their families, would be an almost daily occurrence … Some young people themselves would be repulsed by the fact that they were same-sex attracted’ (pp.203-204).

‘He [the patient] had “experienced horrific homophobic bullying” after telling another boy he had feelings for him. This had then spread around the school. “In talking to this young person, I could hear lots of things which pointed towards same-sex attraction, and very little which pointed towards gender dysphoria, discomfort with a body, nothing more indicative of a trans experience”’ (p.204).

‘When GIDS asked older adolescents about who they were attracted to, over 90 per cent of natal females reported that they were same-sex attracted or bisexual. Just 8.5 per cent were opposite-sex attracted – attracted to males. For the natal males, 80.8 per cent reported being same-sex attracted or bisexual’ (p.206).

‘[T]here were families who could not “tolerate” their sons being gay: “the child then sees trans as a way out of this dilemma and the family pressure the child to go along with this”’ (p.211).

‘Young people appeared to be experiencing internalised homophobia and […] some families would make openly homophobic comments … Some parents appeared to prefer the idea that their child was transgender and straight than that they were gay, and were pushing them towards transition’ (pp.309-310).

There are still many unknowns about the impact of transition

While transitioning is often trumpeted as the solution to gender-related distress, there is much we still don’t know about the impact it has on a young person. We need to be honest with young people about this.

‘While there are studies that describe the self-reported high satisfaction of young people and their families of being on puberty blockers, and some improvement in mental health, others suggest there is evidence that puberty-blocker use can lead to changes in sexuality and sexual function, poor bone health, stunted height, low mood, tumour-like masses in the brain and, for those treated early enough who continue on to cross-sex hormones, almost certain infertility’ (p.18).

‘There is a lack of evidence on the impact of social transition, and what limited data there are can be interpreted in different ways. A study showing that only a small proportion of children who socially transitioned later reidentified with their birth gender has been argued to show both how gender identity is stable and unlikely to change through time, and that social transition shuts down options for a child, cementing a gender identity that may change. While there are opposing views on the benefits versus the harms of early social transition, it has been argued that “it is not a neutral act, and better information is needed about outcomes”’ (p.130).

‘Transitioning was a very temporary, superficial fix for a very complex identity issue’, Keira Bell, a detransitioned woman (p.341).

Young people need adults to focus on their long-term good

While things are changing at the level of official NHS policy and this should have an impact in other areas (such as schools when new guidance is released shortly), this will not quickly change things in youth culture. If anything, the changes in official policy may cause a further solidifying of the dominance of the trans narrative among young people.

This is a generation who are suspicious of traditional authorities. They often prize personal experience over professional expertise. And many are more likely to turn to the internet for answers to their questions than to the adults in their lives. The task of rescuing young people from the unhelpful narratives to which they have been exposed will be a bigger and slower one than the task of changing official policy.

So, it’s likely that for a while we will continue to be in a context where adults will sometimes have to act in the long-term interests of young people, even if doing so will be unpopular with those young people. This will be particularly important for parents (and probably won’t be a new situation for most parents!).

‘I wish someone would have been there to tell me not to get castrated at 21’, a detransitioned woman (p.330).

‘When I was 16 … I never considered that I could be interested in my [long-term] health’, a destransitioned woman (p.330).

‘Harriet believes that with more discussion of her sexuality, and the fact that she was a heavy social-media user, she may well have decided not to go through with medical and surgical transition … “I would have liked to be challenged on why I thought certain things were signs of gender dysphoria, such as not liking skirts or not liking my voice. They could have questioned why I changed identities so rapidly through non-binary to trans boy to whatever else’’’ (p.383).

Reading a book like Time to Think it’s hard not to conclude that as a society we have failed a huge number of young people. I imagine we can expect various attempts to hold certain people accountable for that in the coming months and years. Looking forward, this recognition gives us a chance to make a difference. We can do better at protecting and helping teenagers who are finding the challenges of life too much. We can love them well, not by denying their distress or offering false quick fixes, but by coming alongside them in their distress and helping them learn how to navigate it well. For Christian parents, youth leaders and church leaders, this is a moment of opportunity. Time to Think shows us it’s time to love.

From Worldvision to Worldview image

From Worldvision to Worldview

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"While we all begin life with a worldvision, a proper worldview is a momentous achievement," writes James Eglinton. "Few individuals move from one to the other." It's a conceptual framework he draws from J. H. Bavinck, and he describes the distinction like this:

A worldvision is a set of intuitions about the world formed in all individuals by their family and home environment, their teachers and education, and the broad culture within which they live. It is also closely bound to the idiosyncrasies of an individual person’s temperament. That particular combination provides a workable (albeit limited) frame of reference with which to live from day to day. Indeed, it is possible to spend the entirety of your life only looking at life and the world through the single lens that is your worldvision.

In the same sense, it is possible to spend an entire life navigating the streets of New York City only in a first-person perspective, never seeing a map of the city (and all that lies beyond it) or climbing a skyscraper in order to move from the limitations of your individual vision of each street to a more capacious view of the whole city. Worldview relates to worldvision in that sense. It elevates the limitations of first-person vision to the breadth of a bird’s-eye view. An individual vision within the world is a necessary starting point, certainly, but it should not be confused with a capacious view of the world. Every individual has a worldvision, but few have a worldview ...

To adapt one of J. H. Bavinck’s own illustrations, a worldvision is like a map of the world that has been crumpled up into a paper ball. Although that ball now feels manageable in your hand, and while its visible parts offer you some tools for navigation (and a limited degree of truth about the world depicted), it nonetheless must be uncrumpled. The map’s potential far exceeds whatever the crumpled ball can offer.

As a complement to that cartographical picture, Johan Herman adds a further useful illustration: if a worldview is a map, a worldvision is a compass. Those who have no wish to make a map, who reject the struggle to cultivate a worldview in order to remain grounded in whatever worldvision life happens to have given them, have something far more basic—a tool that orients and directs them, albeit without offering any grand view of the world in which they move.

In Personality and Worldview, neither worldview nor worldvision is inherently bad. In fact, quite the opposite is true. A person’s worldvision is a necessary starting point in life, a location in God’s good creation, a set of home coordinates somewhere in nature and history. As such, we must all begin with a worldvision and should see it as a basic good. It is by God’s kind providence that no one starts off nowhere.

Despite this, worldvision nonetheless becomes problematic when it is made a permanent abode rather than a starting point. A worldvision shows you one way to live in the world on the basis of all manner of untested assumptions, and as such, it is utterly subjective. It is an assumption—but not the truth—about the world.

Ethical challenges posed by biological neuronal networks image

Ethical challenges posed by biological neuronal networks

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That computer technology grows ever more powerful, refined, and efficient is self-evident. Moore's law observes that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years, and we are familiar with factoids such as the phones we carry in our pockets containing more computing power than the Apollo spacecraft that carried men to the moon.

There are now suggestions that the rate of improvement in chips is slowing as development starts to run up against the physical limits of silicon technology. Impressive as today’s computers are, there is no doubt that they are in many ways puny compared with the power and efficiency of animal brains. While a smartphone has hundreds of thousands of times the memory and processing power of the Apollo computers, they still lag way behind the brains of mammals.

While silicon computers transformed society, they are still outmatched by the brains of most animals. For example, a cat’s brain contains 1,000 times more data storage than an average iPad and can use this information a million times faster. The human brain, with its trillion neural connections, is capable of making 15 quintillion operations per second.

This can only be matched today by massive supercomputers using vast amounts of energy. The human brain only uses about 20 watts of energy, or about the same as it takes to power a lightbulb. It would take 34 coal-powered plants generating 500 megawatts per hour to store the same amount of data contained in one human brain in modern data storage centres.


This vast disparity in storage, processing speed, and energy efficiency between animal brains and silicon-based computing means that researchers are beginning to explore the possibility of creating biological computing.

This possibility was brought into focus when Melbourne-based Cortical Labs incorporated brain cells in a computer chip. In a paper describing their research, the team show how they made these first steps in creating a ‘synthetic biological intelligence’ (SBI). Their ‘DishBrain’ computer used neurones from both rodent and human sources to create a computing network that learnt to play a version of the classic arcade game Pong.

A biological neuronal network (BNN) like DishBrain offers great potential for more powerful computing as the ‘wetware’ of neurones integrates with computing hardware using the common language of electricity. DishBrain demonstrated that a BNN is capable of self-organising - that neural development can occur as the computer responds to stimuli and learns to better complete the task it has been set.

This fascinating piece of research represents more than mere scientific curiosity: BNNs really could offer the potential for much faster and more powerful computers, breaking free of the constraints imposed by silicon circuits. As well as massively improved processing power, these neural computers could use far less energy than existing machines. They would be smaller, more flexible, and cheaper to run than silicon-based computers.

But alongside these fascinating possibilities lie substantial ethical questions.

The very name chosen by the Melbourne team is troubling: DishBrain highlights the disembodied nature of what has been created - human neurones, yes, but human neurones operating in a Petri dish culture rather than within a human body.

The researchers report significant differences in performance between different cell sources, with human neurones possessing superior information-processing capacity to rodent neurones. If this is the case, we would expect human neurones to be preferred in future and used in more sophisticated BNNs. How might we feel about super-powerful computers running on wetware comprising self-organising human neurones? And what ethical considerations should researchers and legislators be mindful of as such computers are developed?

The human neurones in DishBrain were developed from a stem line from ‘an XY donor isolated from neonatal foreskin’. As stem lines go, this is ethically a relatively untroubling one. But if BNN’s are developed from stem lines such as this, we should still ask ethical and practical questions.

For example, what of donor consent? If tissue samples are used in the creation of neural computers, do the donors need to know this and give consent? What rights might donors then have? Presumably, BNNs could be of significant economic value, so might donors expect some financial compensation? What about intellectual rights as synthetic biological intelligence develops? Or copyright if such computers are able to self-replicate?

DishBrain is described by its creators as a first step in synthetic biological intelligence. This raises the question of whether BNNs could develop a form of consciousness. Might they be able to feel pain? If so, would they have some kind of rights analogous to existing human or animal rights? What would be the legal status of such entities?

These ethical questions might feel less sharp if human stem lines were being used to develop, say, cardiac or skin cells that were then somehow incorporated in a computer. That it is neurones being used certainly ‘feels’ more problematic, even if at a fundamental, ethical level, the questions are similar. The reason neurones will be used is because of their ability to self-organise. It is this neural plasticity that will enable more powerful BNNs to be developed. But does this mean we really could end up with a brain in a dish?

An issue here is the common dualistic tendency to separate consciousness from bodies rather than to speak of humans having embodied consciousness - the ‘embodied soul’ we see in the biblical account of the creation of human beings. In the popular imagination, human consciousness resides in human brains, and machines that incorporate human neurones might therefore be assumed to have the capacity to develop human-like consciousness. Certainly, AIs are increasingly able to pass the ‘Turing test’ and give the appearance of consciousness, even if this is only appearance and not reality. It is likely that BNNs would push ever further in this direction.

If computers increasingly incorporate human neuronal networks, and the information they hold is passed from one computer to its replacement, the idea that humans are essentially brains contained in disposable ‘meat shells’ will be reinforced. This notion, in turn, will have a bearing on other applications of technology in health and on some gender-related issues that society is grappling with. This is one reason why the use of neurones, as compared with other types of cells, feels significant.

So we need to be clear: a biblically framed understanding of humanity would reject the notion that DishBrain represents the first step in creating human intelligence abstracted from the human body. Biblically speaking, human beings can only be understood as embodied souls created in the image of God.

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

This creation was bodily (material flesh and blood), binary (male and female), and self-sustaining (oriented towards reproduction). Human beings are not smartphones whose hardware can be upgraded while the SIM card of the soul is maintained. There is a body-and-soul integrity to men and women which cannot be abstracted one from the other. That we might use the analogy of computing hardware and software to understand human intelligence (just as previous generations used the analogies of the technologies of their day, such as steam power, or clockwork) is understandable. But we are made in the image of God, not the image of a computer.

The fantasies of sci-fi seem to be increasingly being realised, and it is not impossible to imagine that, in time, we will be able to create androids with ‘brains’ built around a BNN and bodies that are able to interact with the world in a way analogous to how humans do - like Bishop in the movie Aliens. Such creations would be impressive and ethically troubling, but they would not be human. They would still be hardware and wetware, not embodied souls created in the image of God.

Far more likely than such a scenario, however, is that BNNs start to be incorporated into more prosaic computing technology to improve battery life, processing power and memory. Even if we are clear that such computers are not human, we will still need to decide whether their use is appropriate - where on the ‘lawful but not beneficial’ spectrum would such machines sit?

So long as the stem-cell lines from which neurones are produced are ethically sourced and issues around consent and ownership properly addressed, we might find no particular problem in the use of BNNs. In this case, we might view neurones as simply a type of circuitry. However, it is likely that many would feel disturbed by such computers or troubled in conscience by their use. An analogy might be found in vaccines developed using fetal tissue lines. That there is a direct connection, albeit distant and attenuated, with a real person could cause understandable disquiet.

Another theological line of thought to consider is the general biblical prejudice against one human possessing ownership of another human or even parts of their body. This is seen in a variety of biblical sources, from the rigid prohibition against murder in Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 20:13, to a rejection of prostitution, to the condemnation of slave traders. Within our cultural framework, this Christian legacy has led not only to the abolition of slavery but to the fact that in English common law, no one actually legally owns a dead body.  (There was a subtle but significant change in this in May 2020 with the introduction of the ‘opt out’ register for organ donation.) If BNNs were to develop to the extent that the phones in our pockets contained human tissue; tissue which we own, that would represent a significant moral and legal shift.

For these reasons, and others space does not allow us to consider, we should be extremely cautious about the development of BNNs. As with developments in embryo research, we should wish for governments to be a step ahead of researchers in setting ethical guardrails around the development of such technologies. Sadly, that might be wishful thinking.


This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 edition of Triple Helix, a publication of the Christian Medical Fellowship.

 

On Church and Culture: Look East image

On Church and Culture: Look East

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Brad East has written one of the essays of the year so far, on the subject of church and culture for Mere Orthodoxy. He summarises and critiques some of the ways that modern Christians have understood the relationship between church and culture, and then proposes an alternative.

In the 1950s, Richard Niebuhr described five ways in which the church engaged with the culture, and clearly favoured the fifth one:

1. Christ Against Culture (Anabaptists, radical sects)
2. Christ Of Culture (German Protestant liberals, Clement of Alexandria, Abelard)
3. Christ Above Culture (Thomas Aquinas, theorists of Christendom)
4. Christ and Culture in Paradox (Luther, Kierkegaard, Troeltsch, early Barth)
5. Christ the Transformer of Culture (Paul [!], Augustine, Calvin)

James Davison Hunter’s much more recent overview (remember To Change the World?) was somewhat different, and was deliberately offered as an alternative and corrective to Niebuhr’s. Cultural engagement in American Christianity, for Hunter, can emphasise:

1. Defensive Against (conservative populist activism)
2. Relevance To (liberal mainline, pop evangelicalism)
3. Purity From (neo-Anabaptists, urban monastics)
4. Faithful Presence Within (Hunter’s own vision)

Hunter’s summary has been hugely influential in Reformedish evangelical circles, even among those who have never read it, not least because of the influence it had on Tim Keller. But it suffers from several drawbacks, several of which (it pains me to admit) were highlighted over a decade ago by our very own Matt Hosier. As Brad East argues in this essay, although Hunter’s call for faithful presence sounds unobjectionable and even irrefutable on the surface, it is articulated in a way that is (a) deeply American, (b) deeply modern and Western, (c) upper-middle class, and most importantly (d) naively sanguine about the professions and institutions in which Christians are called to be present:

When my students read Hunter, they readily voice agreement. I then ask them a simple question: In what professions or spheres of life would “faithful presence” not be possible for a Christian? After not quite following my meaning, they start to rattle off answers. Pimp. Prostitute. Pornographer. Stripper. Slumlord. Drug dealer. Torturer. Assassin. Abortionist. Nuclear weapons manufacturer. Lawyer. Politician. Spy. One student wondered aloud about selling guns or alcohol. Another volunteered that her dad, a pastor, also runs a gun shop. (I teach in west Texas.) Still another raised the question of marketing — a popular major at my university. If marketing aims to manipulate consumers to buy what they don’t need with money they don’t have, may Christians do it? Or suppose that marketing per se is licit; what of working for a firm that advertises an immoral product?

The point is not that my students are right, about these or other jobs. It is that, even setting aside the fact that our imagined audience is white-collar professionals and not the Christian community as a whole, the Kuyperian-Hunterian vision does not prepare believers to consider all the ways their faith will require them not to participate in the workforce, not to attain lucrative careers, not to benefit from the economy, not to “engage” the culture.

It is a powerful point, powerfully made.

So what is East’s alternative? Well, he argues, there is no one “model” or “posture” that we need to adopt to all cultures in all places. Rather, we have four ways of faithfully engaging with the culture which will all be needed at different times according to context, often simultaneously. They are:

Resistance. “The church is always and everywhere called to resist injustice and idolatry wherever they are found. It does this whether or not it has any social power or political prestige to speak of.”
Repentance. “The church is always and everywhere called to repent of its sins, crimes, and failures. Which is to say, the injustice and idolatry the church is universally tasked with resisting is reliably found, first of all, within the church, not without.”
Reception. “The church is always and everywhere called to receive from the world the many blessings bestowed upon it by God. For God is the universal Creator; the world he created is good; and he alone is Lord of all peoples and thus of all cultures.”
Reform. “The church is always and everywhere called to preach the gospel, which is the word of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ ... The gospel, in a word, reforms. It generates adjustment in the way things are with a view to what they shall be in the kingdom of Christ.”

Such a response has several benefits, East concludes. It recognises that context is everything; it does not prioritise paid work as the setting in which the church encounters culture; it is not limited to a particular class, or particular sorts of political or economic regimes; it is concerned with ways of living rather than results or impact; and it is differentiated. (I would add another: it is alliterated.) Sometimes the church has to enter in, settle down, get married and plant vineyards; sometimes she has to “come out from them and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean” (2 Cor 6:17). We need all four modes at our disposal, depending on the times and seasons in which we live.

I think that is tremendously wise. Read the whole thing at Mere O.

The Case for Passivism image

The Case for Passivism

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This is a really nice little piece on "passivism" (as opposed to activism) from Jeff Reimer. "Activism is about getting angry, refusing to accept the status quo, and agitating for change," he writes. "Passivism is the opposite of all that. Passivism is about learning to be a connoisseur of letting things happen. It’s about aspiring to be an ordinary dude living your best life now. Its praxis is very mellow."

Reimer elaborates:

Actually, passivism and activism are not mutually exclusive ... Passivism is the way to incorporate the inevitability of failure into your attempts to accomplish good in the world. Because let’s face it: change is going to happen to you (It already has! It just did again!), and chances are you’re not going to be able to do a thing about it. Even if you give changing the world the old college try, the likely outcome is that you’re going to get steamrolled by the inexorable force of history and have to accept a world you did not choose or want. Better to do that well than poorly. The more activist you are, it turns out, the more important it is to be a passivist.

He then gives ten ways of cultivating passivism, and expands on each:

1. Be born.
2. Log off.
3. Put your own house in order.
4. Pray the Psalms.
5. Plant a garden.
6. Suffer.
7. Serve somebody.
8. Lose a political battle.
9. Start a project you will never finish.
10. Die.

It’s a great read.

What is the most interesting article on Think? image

What is the most interesting article on Think?

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That’s a question I put to Bard, the new Google AI. His (“its”?) response was,

That’s a tough question, as there are many interesting articles on the Think Theology blog. But if I had to choose, I would say that the most interesting article is “The Most Attractive Quality in a Leader.” In this article, Andrew Wilson argues that the most attractive quality in a leader is not power or charisma, but humility. He writes that “the most attractive quality in a leader is when you discover that the inside is bigger than the outside.” He goes on to say that “the best leaders are those who are not afraid to be vulnerable, who are not afraid to admit when they are wrong, and who are not afraid to ask for help.”

I think this is a very important and timely message, as we live in a world that is often obsessed with power and celebrity. Wilson’s reminder that the best leaders are those who are humble and vulnerable is a much-needed corrective.

Whether or not you agree with Bard’s assessment, that it should be able to articulate it feels fairly remarkable. Why it chose this article is presumably buried deep in the algorithms by which Bard operates: the number of times this post has been shared, liked and commented on. And, one suspects, a Google ‘anti-Trump’ leaning that makes a post on leadership humility approvable.

The power of AIs like Bard has garnered a lot of attention recently as their sophistication increases. There are times when Bard feels more like a computer program – when it gives answers that are more bullet-point in format and could have been cut and pasted from Wikipedia. But much of the time Bard feels very human, which is of course what it is striving to achieve. Actually, a very interesting human. Because Bard has read everything, it can be asked anything, and is able to supply interesting answers – it feels like a dialogue.

This apparent humanity is the very thing that makes AIs alarming. It means that AIs (as is the case with Replika) can be designed to stimulate and reinforce very human emotions and desires. And if your AI always gives you the answer and affirmation you feel you need, why speak to real humans, who tend to be far less reliable and more cranky.

There will be a lot more comment in the days ahead about all this. Elon Musk’s recent intervention being a case in point. But this is Easter week, when we focus particularly on the bodily suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. Core to our Christian hope is that what Jesus experienced was genuinely bodily – it was not a ‘conjuring trick with bones’ or mystical metaphor. Christ died, Christ is risen. Hallelujah!

It is in the living, flesh and blood, Saviour that our hope of re-creation is centred. Not an upload of ‘consciousness’ into a galactic mainframe, but the certainty that we too will be raised as spiritual bodies. Not as AIs but as imperishable people, found in the image of Christ.

Bard reaches the limits of its knowledge when it comes to questions of faith. It says,

For example, if you ask me “What is the meaning of life?”, I can provide you with information about different philosophical and religious perspectives on the meaning of life. I can also tell you about the different ways that people have tried to find meaning in their lives. However, I cannot tell you what the meaning of life is for you. That is something that you will have to decide for yourself.

If you ask me “Does God exist?”, I can provide you with information about different arguments for and against the existence of God. I can also tell you about the different ways that people have experienced God. However, I cannot tell you whether or not God exists. That is something that you will have to decide for yourself.

But we are not AIs. We are able to know. We know Jesus, slain for our sin, raised for our righteousness. And that is way more than interesting!

 

A Twelve Percenter image

A Twelve Percenter

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Apparently I’m one of the twelve percent: three years on since the first lockdown was imposed only twelve percent of the British population strongly agree with the statement, “In retrospect, lockdowns were a mistake.”

I am part of the “dissenting minority” who, “Have had to grapple with the possibility that, through panic and philosophical confusion, our governing class contrived to make a bad situation much worse.”

If you’re part of the majority can you,

Imagine living with the sense that the manifold evils of the lockdowns that we all now know — ripping up centuries-old traditions of freedom, interrupting a generation’s education, hastening the decline into decrepitude for millions of older people, destroying businesses and our health service, dividing families, saddling our economies with debt, fostering fear and alienation, attacking all the best things in life — needn’t have happened for anything like so long, if at all?

And I was sceptical right from the beginning about it needing to happen at all. This seemed clear from what happened aboard the Diamond Princess, which on February 20th, 2020, contained half the known cases of covid globally, outside China. 3,711 passengers and crew (median age of passengers, 69). 712 infections. 13 deaths. Not good, but not the end of the world.

Despite the evidence, then and much more since, that lockdown was A Bad Thing the majority of people still consider it a good thing, with many thinking we didn’t lockdown enough. Extraordinary.

Being in a minority is often challenging, but then I’ve spent my whole life holding to minority positions. I’m a Christian, and an evangelical, generally Calvinistic, one at that. A minority thrice over! A far smaller minority than twelve percent. Twelve percent would look like winning!

Being in a minority is uncomfortable. It feels like being constantly buffeted – of always walking into a strong wind. But, as Andrew wrote a few months before the pandemic, “intransigent minorities” can have incredible power for social change.

I tried not to be too intransigent about lockdowns (though some readers of Think thought me too intransigent by far). I was pastoring a church in which most of our members agreed with the general lockdown narrative: it was more important for me to pastor them than to precipitate divisions. I would contend that those of us who were sceptical read the data and projected the outcomes more sensibly than the lockdown zealots, but no one really knew how the pandemic would pan out, or what effect non-pharmaceutical interventions would have.

But I do want to be intransigent about my spiritual convictions. I don’t want to look back at the end of my life knowing I conceded ground where I should have stood firm. What happened during the pandemic was hugely important – people either died or didn’t because of the measures that were taken – but it wasn’t ultimate. The gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimate. It is the good news for all peoples. Believing that makes life uncomfortable at times but I’m happy to walk into that wind, believing the power of the gospel to change lives. Number me amongst the intransigent minority!

 

 

 

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What is an Emotionally Healthy Christian?

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Monday 19th November, 1739
I earnestly exhorted those who had believed, to beware of two opposite extremes – the one, the thinking, while they were in light and joy, that the work was ended, when it was just begun; the other, the thinking, when they were in heaviness, that it was not begun, because they found it was not ended.

What is the state of your emotional health? This is not only a very au courant question but one that John Wesley was dealing with three hundred years ago. I doubt that Wesley would have used the term ‘emotional health’ though, or even known it, but he was concerned for the spiritual health of believers and the spiritual and emotional are deeply connected.

As a good pastor, a physician of souls, Wesley identifies the reality that our emotions are often deceptive. The currently trendy maxim to ‘follow your heart’ is about the worst advice that could be given. The heart – the emotions – are so often deceptive.

Not that Wesley was afraid of emotion. He knew that those deeply affected by an encounter with God would display ‘enthusiasm’ and his journals are littered with accounts of people swooning, crying, and shaking as he preached. But these emotional responses need to be understood as exactly that: responses, not the thing itself.

When someone first comes to Christ (and I’ve seen this many times) there is often a response of incredible joy. Life is transformed, everything looks different, and there is a spiritual/emotional high. Quickly though, as Jesus warned (Matt. 13:20), the realities of life can lead to that joy withering and the new convert drifting away, disappointed. Equally, those who have been in the way a long time can become weary, ‘heavy’ in Wesley’s terminology, and allow that emotional state to dictate their relationship with God.

A key element of Christian maturity is discerning our emotions and learning to lean into what is truly healthful while rejecting that which undermines us. Our emotions need to serve us, not lead us. How we feel is not always the most reliable guide to where we are. Wesley knew that; so should we.

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Masculinity, Marriage and Maturity

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I’m a young(ish) man. Young men often get a bad rap in contemporary society. Apparently we are lazy, with a fear of commitment and a failure to take responsibility. Some say that we are in an extended adolescence. Obviously this isn’t universally true; I’m not even sure it describes a majority, but it probably is sometimes true and it certainly seems to be something people are worried about.

Sometimes in Christian circles, I hear this situation referred to as a crisis of masculinity. What we really need is for these young men to start being real men. And what that often means is that they need to get married. We call men to true masculinity through marriage.

And let’s be honest, sometimes such a call works. I have a friend who says he can relate to the stereotype of a young man in contemporary culture. In his younger years, that was him. And what helped him out of that was being challenged to be a man and get married. He heard that call and heeded that call, stepping into commitment and responsibility through marriage.

Marriage often does young men a lot of good. I’ve observed that in many of my male friends. In particular, I’ve observed that marriage is often good for the spiritual lives of my friends. Before marriage, their walk with Jesus seemed a bit lukewarm and half-hearted. In marriage, they seemed to quickly grow in maturity as a follower of Jesus.

It was this observation that really got me thinking about this phenomenon. It got me worried about single guys like me. If marriage is often the thing that helps young men get serious about being a follower of Jesus, what does that mean for men who don’t get married, and especially for those of us who are unlikely to ever get married? It seems to me that calling young men to true masculinity through marriage is problematic – it leaves some of us unable to be truly masculine and at risk of being unable to be real adults. (It also runs the risk of lumping young women with men who are still like teenagers and are not ready to take on the responsibilities of being a husband!)

But it’s also problematic because it’s clearly not what the Bible teaches. For one thing, the New Testament doesn’t call us to a certain form of masculinity. The New Testament authors lived in a world that had very clear ideas about masculinity – to be a man was to be one who mastered both oneself and others. Masculinity was mastery; femininity was being mastered. The form of your body wasn’t as important as the way you acted. Having a male body might give you a head start on being a man, but it didn’t guarantee that you would be considered a real man.

Into this context comes Jesus. A man who in his example and his teaching taught men (and women) to lay down any right they might have to master others and instead to use their position to serve others. A man who allowed himself to be mastered, to suffer at the hands of others, in order to benefit those who had wrongly tried to master their own lives and the lives of others. Jesus radically undercut his culture’s expectations about masculinity.

And, following the example of Jesus, the New Testament authors don’t partake in the masculinity games of their day. They recognised that being a man is a given identity, received through the gift of a male body, not created through acts of mastery. The New Testament doesn’t call men to masculinity; it calls men (and women) to Christlikeness.

The New Testament also doesn’t call us to marriage. Marriage is seen as a good gift, certainly. It’s seen as an opportunity to model the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33). But men are not called to marriage in the New Testament. If there’s any challenge laid down for men in regards to relationships, it’s to seriously consider whether long-term singleness might be the right path for us (Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:6-7, 8, 40). Marriage is good; so is singleness (and let’s be upfront, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says it’s better). The New Testament doesn’t call men to marriage; it calls men (and women) to faithful sexuality whether in marriage or, even better, singleness.

That means we have a problem. The New Testament doesn’t call men to masculinity or to marriage. And yet it seems Christian leaders often do. But what we men are called to is maturity. Maturity doesn’t equal masculinity and it doesn’t require marriage. Maturity can be lived out by men who fit all our cultural stereotypes about masculinity and by those who fit none of them. Maturity can be lived out by those who are married and those who are single. If that’s not been our experience, we might need to consider why: how can we help single men to grow into maturity?

So, let’s stop calling young men to masculinity and marriage. That’s not what God asks of us. But let’s start calling young men to maturity. And let’s do what we can to help them grow into that maturity.

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Who Are the Poor?

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I was put in mind of this quote while having lunch in a restaurant at a table alongside a group of striking school teachers. Their placard, propped up on a seat, read, “Too poor to buy soap or deodorant” – which made it difficult to imagine how they could afford lunch in a restaurant. About as hard as it is to imagine that in living memory people were going to the butcher to have their teeth extracted.

Poverty has a way of being like that – you know, a bit relative.

While it might not now be routine for the British to go to the butcher to have their teeth removed, there are still plenty of poor people in the world. Sadly, the covid pandemic (or at least the response to it) pushed 70 million or more into extreme poverty. That was the result of all those lockdowns and closing of economies. I don’t believe anyone intentionally hoped to push tens of millions into teeth crumbling poverty but that was the result, and that result was very predictable from very early in the pandemic – just as current inflation rates were a predictable result of all that magicked-up cash being injected into the economy. The lockdowns were inhumane – they were a fuel for poverty.

While hundreds of millions live in extreme poverty (and despite the impact of covid), the overall decline in poverty is one of the miracle stories of our age. As recently as 1990 38 percent of the global population, some two billion people, lived in extreme poverty. By 2019 these figures were down to 8.44 percent and 648 million people. Christians pray “Thy kingdom come!” Those look like prayer answered statistics. We should celebrate the incredible strides taken in reducing global poverty while grieving the grip it yet exerts.

Deuteronomy 15:4 tells us that, “There need be no poor people among you” yet seven verses on it says, “There will always be poor people in the land”. There’s no need for anyone to be poor: there is sufficient abundance in the world for all. But corrupt structures, personal sin, inequalities, and sheer ‘bad luck’ mean the poor are still with us. 

And every time you walk past a butchers shop, or a protesting teacher, give thanks if you can afford to keep your teeth.

 

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Off the Cliff

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"To our 21st-century, Western ears, love across racial and cultural difference, the equality of men and women, and the idea that the poor, oppressed, and marginalized can make moral claims on the strong, rich, and powerful sound like basic moral common sense. But they are not. These truths have come to us from Christianity. Rip that foundation out, and you won’t uncover a better basis for human equality and rights. You’ll uncover an abyss that cannot even tell you what a human being is. Like cartoon characters running off a cliff, we may continue a short way before we realize that the ground has gone from underneath our feet. But it has gone."

The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims by Rebecca McLaughlin


"My comments about her, err, the person, being a rapist is in context of what should happen to them within the prison service…She regards herself as a woman. I regard the individual as a rapist."

— Scotland’s First Minister
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From WEIRD to Absurd

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Joseph Henrich’s The Weirdest People in the World may be way too long and convoluted but his overarching thesis is compelling: that the ‘marriage and family programme’ of Christianity completely reordered western society and is the reason for our liberal values, democracy, and economic success. Imposing the rule that you should not marry more than one person, and that person should not be your cousin, transformed everything – and made us WEIRD.

That Christianity lies at the roots of western values and assumptions is something we’ve often posted about on Think. It’s been the observation behind some fantastic books we’ve profiled (hello Siedentop, Holland, Trueman and Scrivener), and other excellent ones we haven’t (like those by Hobson and McLaughlin). Christianity is ‘the air we breathe’ – without it we simply wouldn’t assume that freedom, equality and consent are values everyone holds, and should hold.

Often the purpose of the books we’ve highlighted and posts we’ve written has been to point out not only western society’s debt to Christianity but the way in which the very values conceived by Christianity are now being distorted and threatened. That this is the case is all too evident.

We may be WEIRD but it is surely absurd that (as currently in Scotland) it is considered ‘righteous’ to earnestly believe someone with a penis can really, truly, be a woman, but to believe that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, and that children should be born to those so married, is morally repugnant. When WEIRD-ness morphs into absurdity we have a problem.

This is not a problem only for those like Kate Forbes who wish to lead political parties but for society at large. It risks putting a hole below the waterline of the very things that explain our success.

As I watch the debates in Scotland, and talk with my Anglican friends – agonizing as they are over the implications of their bishops’ absurd decisions around same-sex blessings – I grieve but also feel a growing conviction that we shouldn’t take any of this too seriously. The devil loves to be taken seriously, he hates to be mocked. What we are living through is ridiculous, absurd, and passing. Christianity gave the world an enduring model for success; the current distorted representation of that model will limp on only briefly. We need to be more Luther-like and laughingly defy what is so self-evidently preposterous.

We also need to see that the best hope for our world is the true message of Christ. We are not single-issue fanatics, except about the gospel, because we believe the gospel is good news for all the world. As Carl Trueman writes,

We can become so preoccupied with specific threats that we neglect the important fact that Christian truth is not a set of isolated and unconnected claims but rather stands as a coherent whole. The church’s teaching on gender, marriage, and sex is a function of her teaching on what it means to be human.

We’re not the absurd ones. We have the message that speaks to the heart of what it is to be human. That’s not absurd, it isn’t even WEIRD: it’s beautiful.

 

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Virtually Everything I Know About Preaching

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Recently I sat down with Jez Field to talk about preaching for the New Ground podcast: what it is (in spite of what most people think it is), how to preach like music (in which I draw a sermon and talk about how we communicate well), and how to prepare a sermon. I don't know much about preaching, but virtually everything I know is in these three videos, or if you prefer, on the podcast.

See you after Easter!

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Jesus’s Most Important Redundant Words

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It struck me recently that some of Jesus’ most important words for us today were arguably almost redundant when he first said them.

In Mark 10:1-12 (and Matthew 19:1-12), the Pharisees are trying to test Jesus. Desiring to catch him out, they bring up one of the big contentious issues of their day: divorce. Jesus’ response is well known. Rather than debate a point of law with the Pharisees, he goes back to creation, back to Genesis, to God’s design for marriage and makes his case from there.

Jesus’ basic point is simple enough. In marriage, God unites two to become one and no human should seek to separate what God has joined together. To support his case, he quotes Genesis 2:24, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh’. It’s this concept of the two becoming one flesh that Jesus is drawing on to support his position on divorce.

But Genesis 2:24 isn’t the only part of the creation narratives that Jesus quotes here. He also quotes Genesis 1:27, ‘God made them male and female’. Strictly speaking, as far as I can see, Jesus didn’t need to include that quote. His point about not separating what God has joined is rooted in Genesis 2:24, and Genesis 1:27 has nothing to add on that point. In formal terms, Jesus’ use of Genesis 1:27 in this conversation is redundant.

And yet, for us, the inclusion of this additional Genesis verse is vitally important. By quoting these words, Jesus gives us an insight into his perspective on two of the biggest debates of our day.

Sexuality and marriage

When Jesus thinks of marriage, he thinks of God’s creation of male and female. The juxtaposition of Genesis 1:27 – ‘male and female he created them’ – and Genesis 2:24 –‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife…’– shows that Jesus viewed the creation of two different types of human, men and women, as a key reason for the existence of marriage.

The fact that Jesus retains the original ‘Therefore’ at the beginning of his quote of Genesis 2:24, placed immediately after the quote of Genesis 1:27 in Mark’s account, further strengthens this point. The word ‘therefore’ means ‘this thing I’m going to say is true because of what I’ve just said’. The thing he’s going to say is that a man and woman unite in marriage. The thing he’s just said is that God created men and women. Jesus is saying that marriages exist because God created men and women. He couldn’t make it any clearer: he believes that marriage is, by definition, the union of a man and a woman.

This is of huge significance to us. At a time when the church is tearing itself apart over the question of whether to bless and accept romantic and sexual unions of two people of the same sex, we need to hear Jesus’s words. The claim that Jesus has nothing to say about same-sex marriage just isn’t true. When trying to help people understand what marriage really is, Jesus explicitly stated that it is the union of a man and a woman. He could have made this point simply by quoting Genesis 2:24. After all, the union in that verse is clearly of a man and a woman, and yet, he decided to put it beyond doubt by also quoting Genesis 1:27.

To be a follower of Jesus is to submit to him in our thinking and our living. Any person who wants to take following Jesus seriously has to take what he says here seriously when considering the topic of same-sex relationships.

Gender and identity

Jesus’ double Genesis quote also helps us understand how he would answer one of the most contested questions of our day: what does it mean to be a man or a woman?

One popular view in our culture says that to be a man or a woman is to feel like a man or a woman. Our bodies don’t reveal who we really are; only our internal experience of gender can do that. A popular move on this view is to make a separation between the terms male/female – which are thought to refer to body types – and man/woman – which refer to true identities, based on internal realities. So, you might be born with a male body, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a man. Only you can know who you are. What really matters is what you feel inside.

But Jesus’s words here show us that he sees no division between these two sets of terms. He places Genesis 1:27 – using the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ – alongside Genesis 2:24 – using the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ – side by side, taking for granted that they refer to the same thing.1 Jesus saw no distinction between males/females and men/women. For him, to be a male is to be a man and to be a female is to be a woman.

And we can be confident that Jesus would have understood these words to refer to primarily bodily realities. In Genesis 1, the creation of humans as male and female (Genesis 1:27) flows immediately into the command to procreate (‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’, Genesis 1:28). Why? Because to be male or female means to have a body that is structured towards playing one of two roles in procreation. The Bible points to the same definition of maleness and femaleness as is used by biologists to classify creatures across the species.2

This means that Jesus’ words on marriage also offer us his perspective on one of the most contested questions of our day. What does it mean to be a man or a woman? For Jesus, it means to have a male or a female body. God determines who we are and communicates that to us through the body he gives us.3

Jesus offers us answers to the biggest questions of our day. Followers of Jesus need look no further than Jesus himself to find clear guidance on what marriage is and who we are as men and women. The implications of how we live this truth out may be a little more complex, but the truths themselves are made clear by Jesus, and all through a redundant quote from the Old Testament. Maybe Jesus knew his words wouldn’t prove to be redundant after all.

Footnotes

  • 1 In Mark 10:7 and Matthew 19:5, the word translated ‘wife’ is the standard Greek word for ‘woman’ which, in certain contexts, can take on the meaning ‘wife’. The same is true of the Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:24.
  • 2 Lawrence Mayer & Paul McHugh, ‘Sexuality and Gender Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences’, The New Atlantis 50 (2016) 10-143: ‘There is no other widely accepted biological classification for the sexes’ (p.90).
  • 3 This remains true even when we acknowledge the reality of intersex conditions or differences of sexual development (DSDs). In most intersex conditions, an individual is clearly male or female with their body exhibiting only minor variations from the expected form. In cases where there is genuine ambiguity over biological sex, this is best understood as a very small number of people being a blend of both sexes. Importantly, there is no third body structure that can play a role in reproduction and so there is no third sex. For more, see Preston Sprinkle, ‘Intersex and Transgender Identities’, Living Out.

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Institutional Leftism: An Alternative Explanation

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Last week I posted Janan Ganesh's explanation for the fact that cultural institutions always lean left in the end: essentially, he argues, it is because right-leaning people today prefer commerce and business to arts and education. Here is an alternative (and more mischievous) explanation from Ed West, who thinks it is the result of elite overproduction:

The politicisation of previously neutral institutions is a facet of elite overproduction; large numbers of people are going to universities to study areas of the humanities and social sciences where progressive ideas about deconstruction are overwhelming and unopposed. The number of these courses has expanded to the point where they no longer select for people bright enough to question their claims, and who struggle to find useful or profitable work afterwards.

The quickest route towards advancement in such a competitive environment is by pushing progressive orthodoxy further, and because there is almost no pushback, these organisations get increasingly extreme until the only step left is to denounce their own founders.

I suspect that a) these two explanations are complementary rather than competitive, b) right-leaning people will prefer this one, and c) left-leaning people will prefer Ganesh’s one.

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Ups and Down’s

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The American Journal of Medical Genetics documents the results of a remarkable study of a particular people group that is not generally characterised by worry: "Among those surveyed, nearly 99% ... indicated that they were happy with their lives, 97% liked who they are, and 96% liked how they look. Nearly 99% ... expressed love for their families, and 97% liked their brothers and sisters."

Who are these extraordinary people? The answer: those with Down’s syndrome. “A slew of recent studies has shown that people with Down’s syndrome report happier lives than us ‘normal’ folk. Even happier than rich, good looking and intelligent people.”

Wouldn’t you suppose we’d want more people of any group characterised by such happiness? Tragically, however, studies show that of mothers who receive a positive diagnosis of Down’s syndrome during the prenatal period, 89 to 97 per cent choose to get abortions. This means that the children most likely to be happy are also most likely to be killed before birth.

- Randy Alcorn, Happiness, 377

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Does Original Sin Involve Victim-Blaming?

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The idea that the fault line runs down the middle of us all may well raise some concerns among those with a heart for protecting the weak, poor and vulnerable. Surely some people are victims, "more sinned against than sinning," so to speak, and surely some are oppressors who need to be stopped. When we say that "we are all sinners," are we not in fact blaming the victim and enabling the perpetrator?

No, we are not. The same Bible that shouts loud and clear “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10; Pss 14:1; 53:3) also raises its bullhorn and hollers in the face of the powerful that “the LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed” (Ps 103:6).

How can these two truths be held together? The response comes in two steps.

1. There is indeed a pure victim, and unmitigated oppressor, and a perfect liberator, but they are not us. The only truly innocent victim was Christ; the only unredeemable oppressor is the devil; and the only perfect liberator is God.

2. Innocence is not a precondition of love and liberation. God does not clothe Adam and Eve and make them promises because they were innocent dupes of the serpent; he does not liberate the Israelites from Egypt because they are innocent victims (Deut 7:7-8).

- Chris Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 129

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The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics

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It's a huge privilege to be one of the inaugural fellows of the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, which launched yesterday. The basic idea is expressed in this video; the list of fellows includes a number of people who will be known to regular readers, including Sam Allberry, Josh Butler, Rachel Gilson, Mike Kruger, Rebecca McLaughlin, Glen Scrivener and Trevin Wax. Check it out:

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Why Do Cultural Institutions Always Lean Left?

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This is probably the best article I've read this year so far, from Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times. Why do cultural institutions - in education, the arts, literature, comedy, and so on - invariably lean left? Basically, because the right are more interested in money:

There is an axiom that is often attributed, probably wrongly, to the historian Robert Conquest. Any organisation that is not explicitly rightwing will sooner or later become leftwing. The genius of the insight is that it avoids paranoia. It doesn’t pretend that there is a plot afoot. It doesn’t imagine some Gramscian scheme to train up leftist cadres and send them on a long march through the institutions. It just recognises a general gravitation of left-leaning people to careers where the profit motive isn’t paramount ...

Imagine, if you can bear it, the life of the average stand-up comedian. You traipse from pub to club for a small fee and expenses. “Success” is the occasional slot on a television panel show. You start a deeply unremunerative podcast. You self-publish a novel and lose money on it.

No one who is financially motivated would enter this world. Those who prioritise other things, such as creative expression or public exposure, might. And that — not the innate unfunniness of conservatives, not a liberal plot against them — is why comedy is a near-monopoly of the left. The right is usually the first to say that a state of affairs can be “unequal” without being “unfair”. It struggles to do so in this instance.

Conservatism is to a large extent self-eroding. A philosophy that (rightly) salutes enterprise will not attract enough people who want to serve in the culture-shaping institutions. Sure enough, the culture becomes less and less conservative. This problem is all the more acute in the US, where conservatism so exalts the profit motive that it is itself an industry. Burning away in the Republican gut is a historic grievance. Even as the “movement” achieved electoral success over half a century, the texture of life in the country went the other way. The school curricula. The policing of language. The positive discrimination. Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes didn’t win for this.

Some conservatives have rationalised this discrepancy between electoral triumph and cultural retreat as a kind of leftwing swindle. Or, worse, as proof of democracy’s futility. Their own complicity is lost on them. There are Republicans who can’t believe how leftwing universities are and also can’t believe that anyone would ever choose the unlucrative life of an academic. At some point, you’d hope, the irony will dawn on them.

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Is 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 Pauline?

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Was 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 written by Paul? Was it interpolated, and if so why, and by whom? Is it even antisemitic, or is that just a function of poor punctuation? Is it unclear? Have the NIV and the ESV made a mess of the phrase eis telos by translating it "at last"? I think this is one of the best Mere Fidelity discussions we've had recently, and if you've wondered any of those things - or if you're wondering them now - have a listen:
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Climate Change or Demographic Collapse: Which is the Greater Danger?

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This is a fascinating piece from Ross Douthat in the New York Times, which argues that (a) demographic collapse is a greater challenge than climate change, and (b) there are five geopolitical rules which follow from this. Agree with him or not (and honestly I'm not sure yet), it's a very insightful and thought-provoking article:

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who believe the defining challenge of the 21st century will be climate change, and those who know that it will be the birth dearth, the population bust, the old age of the world.

... Whatever the true balance of risk between the two, the relative balance is changing. Over the last 15 years, some of the worst-case scenarios for climate change have become less likely than before. At the same time, various forces, the Covid crisis especially, have pushed birthrates lower faster, bringing the old-age era forward rapidly. The latest evidence is the news from China this week that its population declined for the first time since the Great Leap Forward, over 60 years ago. A tip into decline was long anticipated, but until recently it wasn’t expected to arrive until the 2030s—yet here it is early, with the Chinese birthrate hitting an all-time recorded low in 2022.

This means that just as China emerges as an almost-superpower, it’s staring into a darkened future where it grows old and stagnant before it finishes growing rich. Meanwhile, variations on that shadow lie over most rich and many middle-income nations now—threatening general sclerosis, a loss of dynamism and innovation, and a zero-sum struggle between a swollen retired population and the overburdened young. (The week’s mass protests in France over Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 were a preview of this future.)

So it’s worth thinking about some rules for the age of demographic decadence—trends to watch, principles that will separate winners and losers, guideposts for anyone seeking dynamism in a stagnant world.

Rule No. 1: The rich world will need redistribution back from old to young.
In recent decades we’ve seen many cases of technocrats proven wrong in their assumptions—from the widespread belief that we needed deficit reduction almost immediately after the financial crisis, to the unwise optimism about the effects of free trade with China. But in an aging world, the technocratic desire to reform old-age entitlements will become ever more essential and correct—so long as the savings can be used to make it easier for young people to start a family, open a business, own a home. And countries that find a way to make this transfer successfully will end up far ahead of those that just sink into gerontocracy.

Rule No. 2: Innovation isn’t enough; the challenge will be implementation and adoption.
If you want growth in an aging world you need technological breakthroughs. But as the economist Eli Dourado noted in a recent piece about the effects of the new A.I. technology, the big bottlenecks aren’t always in invention itself: they’re in testing, infrastructure, deployment, regulatory hurdles. And since aging, set-in-their-ways societies may be more inclined to leave new inventions on the shelf, clearing those bottlenecks may become the central innovator’s challenge.

Rule No. 3: Ground warfare will run up against population limits.
You can see this dynamic already in the Russia-Ukraine war. Vladimir Putin’s mobilization efforts aren’t what they presumably would be if his empire had more young people. Ukraine, with lower birthrates even than Russia, faces a deepening of its demographic crisis if the war drags on for years. The same issue will apply to Taiwan and other flash points: Even where strategic ambitions militate for war, the pain of every casualty will be dramatically compounded.

Rule No. 4: In the kingdom of the aged, a little extra youth and vitality will go a long way.
This is true internationally: Countries that manage to keep or boost their birthrates close to replacement level will have a long-term edge over countries that plunge toward South Korean-style, half-replacement-level fertility. And it will be true within societies as well: To predict the most dynamic American states and cities, the most influential religious traditions and ideologies, look for places and groups that are friendliest not just to the young but to young people having kids themselves. (Also, expect to have a lot more Amish neighbors.)

Rule No. 5: The African diaspora will reshape the world.
The faster aging happens in the rich and middle-income world, the more important the fact that Africa’s population is still on track to reach 2.5 billion in 2050, and reach four billion by 2100. The movement of even a fraction of this population will probably be the 21st century’s most significant global transformation. And the balance between successful assimilation on the one hand, and destabilization and backlash on the other, will help decide whether the age of demographic decline ends in revitalization or collapse.

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Lessons from a Clinical Psychologist

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I recently had the pleasure of connecting with Jo Johnson, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist. I learnt so much from her understanding and experience that I thought others might also benefit from hearing from her. Kindly, she agreed to sit down and answer a few questions for me.

AB: Jo, you’re a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist. Can you explain what that means and tell us a bit about what you’ve done in your professional life?

JJ: Hello, a clinical psychologist is a psychologist who works in health-related settings, for example the NHS. Psychologists are interested in how human beings think, feel and behave; why we do what we do. A neuropsychologist specialises in conditions impacting the brain, like stroke or brain injury. Neuropsychologists assess abilities like memory, attention and language and help people adjust to the changes after a diagnosis or injury. 

I worked in the NHS for eighteen years in the field of neurology. I have worked mostly with people with dementia, brain injury or multiple sclerosis. I left the NHS in 2008 as I wanted to prioritise my four children’s needs and that was increasingly difficult with a demanding job. 

I’m currently employed by the local constabulary to provide anti-burnout training. This means I train large groups of police officers and staff to manage difficult thoughts and feelings. 

I would love to do more psychological work within a Christian context. In a secular context, I feel I am offering a flimsy Elastoplast to address a life-threatening bleed. Most people seek psychological help because they are feeling overwhelmed by big emotions such as guilt, shame or a sense of failure and hopelessness. I long to tell them of the remedy that works, that Jesus Christ died to bring life and an antidote to those feelings. 

 

AB: What has your work taught you about people and about the Christian faith?

JJ: That the Bible is right about human nature. Of all the textbooks, the Bible includes the most accurate description of how we flawed humans truly think, feel and behave. The Bible says we are created in the image of God but are also deeply flawed. It’s the only ‘textbook’ that explains correctly why we do what we do and why we can’t do what we’d like to do. 

Many people who seek my help have been hurt because of the lies that are being pedalled as truth. Beliefs like the idea that we deserve happiness, that we must find our true selves, that you can have sex with whom you like without harm. By seeking happiness and pleasure as a primary goal, people lose what gives true meaning and suffer terrible self-loathing. I have learnt that the most attractive, wealthy and successful people are still hurting because their soul problem remains unaddressed.

 

AB: You like to make use of the acceptance and commitment therapeutic model (ACT). Tell us a bit about that and why you’ve found it helpful.

JJ: I love acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT as practitioners call it. It’s one of the more recent versions of Cognitive behaviour therapy or CBT. CBT sensibly said that thoughts impact feelings. So, if I believe the thought that ‘I am stupid’, it will undermine me, make me less willing to speak out and perhaps force me to decline opportunities. Traditional CBT encouraged people to challenge negative thoughts with evidence to the contrary. So, I could argue I have two degrees, I wrote some books etc. For some, CBT is helpful, but increasingly the research suggests thought-challenging doesn’t really work.

ACT recognises that humans are flawed and that as a part of our condition we experience negative thoughts and feelings. The Bible says that too. The response of ACT starts with values. It says what helps people feel better is to discover what and who is important. Then, to focus on behaviours that move them towards those important things and people. It acknowledges that we find it difficult to behave well because of our undermining thoughts, urges and feelings.

For example, I have chosen each day to take my husband a cup of tea in bed. That’s one of my chosen committed actions towards what and who is important. But, even a tiny act of goodness provokes tricky thoughts and feelings. I feel bored because I’ve done it every day, anxious that I might make myself late. I have the urge to not bother. I have thoughts like, ‘He’s lazy. When did he make me a cup of tea?’ So, even these small acts of goodness create in me an inner rebellion. ACT teaches some easy tools to manage difficult thoughts and feelings so you can choose what you want to do and not be sabotaged by your inside stuff. These tools help but provide only a partial solution. Only the Holy Spirit has the power to change us from the inside out in a lasting way.

ACT fits well with the Christian faith and is a helpful model of therapy for Christians. The tools have helped me and can be adapted to use with many difficulties including clinical depression, addiction, OCD, trauma, gender confusion and also with everyday struggles like relationship conflict, over-eating or jealousy. 

 

AB: In your work, you’ve often helped people think about identity. What are your key observations after many years of these conversations?

JJ: As a clinical psychologist, an exercise I frequently use in therapy is the ‘I am’ exercise. You can try it. Simply write out ‘I am’ five times. What are the first things that come to mind when you complete that sentence?

For me, it would be:

  • I am a mum
  • I am a psychologist 
  • I am a writer 
  • I am clumsy 
  • I am healthy 

I see a diverse range of people in my clinic. They all come because they are experiencing high levels of psychological distress. The problem can often be traced back to one or more ‘I am’ beliefs.

Our ‘I am’ beliefs are central to our identity, the ways we have come to think about ourselves. They might be to do with my job ­– I am a psychologist. They might be roles I have ­­– a youth leader, a pastor, a housewife, a mother. They might be things I do – I am a writer, a runner. They might be to do with my mental or physical health – I am depressed, I am healthy, I am disabled, I am infertile. Or my physical appearance – I am fat, ugly, pretty. Or my abilities – I am useless, I am clever. ‘I am’ beliefs show what you hold in high esteem, even if you don’t perceive yourself to have it! 

I see people who’ve defined themselves by their success at work. Then they retire, are made redundant or are sacked. Others might pride themselves on being healthy and invincible or strong, and then they are diagnosed with a long-term or terminal condition. I might pride myself on some of my roles like wife, psychologist, mother. But sadly, every ‘I am’ is vulnerable to being lost or undermined. 

1 John 5:21 says ‘Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts’ (NLT).

My ‘I am’ beliefs give me clues about the things that could potentially become so important that they may take God’s place. Many of them are not objectively bad. In fact, my family, work, health, and abilities are gifts from God, things he intends for my blessing, skills I could use in his service. 

As Christians we need to be careful since anything we put after ‘I am..’ has the potential to distract us from God and also to destroy us if we lose them. 

When we become saved, Jesus Christ swaps his righteousness with our sin and shame. As Christians the only safe ‘I am’ is ‘I am in Christ’. No one can change that. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

Any other ‘I am’ that gives me a sense of value or self-worth is vulnerable and its loss might make me psychologically vulnerable.

 

AB: You’re also a novelist and have used fiction writing to explore some big themes. Tell us about your books.

JJ: My novels are psychological suspense. I am told that they are fast-paced with satisfyingly flawed characters and always a good twist. They are all free of smut, bad language, blasphemy and violence. I’ve just published Surviving Her, my second novel which explores the theme of emotional coercion. My first, Surviving Me explored depression, neurological illness, and suicidal thinking. I’m working on a third called Surviving Him about dementia and adolescence. 

 

AB: If you could pass on a few key lessons to pastors and others who help support people, what would they be?

JJ: I think the most helpful thing anyone can do is to listen without agenda and then acknowledge a person’s pain. Often, we think we know what it’s like to stand in someone else’s shoes, but if we don’t listen we can’t understand. Most people who seek help are in emotional pain. We might need to tell them what they want will harm them or that they have created their situation, but it is rare to find a situation where we can’t first affirm their deep pain. 

If the pain is a result of loss – loss of a person, role, hopes or dreams ­– we can reassure people their pain shows they cared. We can also confirm that emotional pain is natural and not hurting would be abnormal. 

I also feel it’s helpful if we can all acknowledge our own struggles. The Bible tells us we will suffer and experience trouble. We all experience difficult thoughts, feelings, and urges. If we can be open about our own struggles, others will be able to be open about their own. This builds authentic communities where people are safe to share burdens, confess sin and grow. Shame and sin thrive on secrecy and a desire to pretend.

The most recent research has highlighted self-compassion as a positive thing. We are called as Christians to show compassion, but often we are harsh with ourselves. We can model self-compassion and help people see when they are self-beating.

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Everyone Has Faith. What’s Yours?

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This is a fabulous three minute piece of apologetics. We are all believers - in consent, equality, progress, compassion, and numerous other things which cannot be "proved" scientifically - whether or not we believe in the Christian God. And many of our beliefs derive directly from the Jesus revolution. (This is obviously a short version of the argument. For a medium sized version, see Glen Scrivener's The Air We Breathe, and for a long version, see Tom Holland's Dominion.)

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The Basis is Biology

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On Christmas Eve Melissa Courtney set a new women’s parkrun world record at Poole parkrun. Melissa is originally from Poole so all our local runners basked in the reflected glory as she ran a time of 15 minutes and 31 seconds.

This was a truly world class performance. There have been millions of parkruns completed by women, but 15:31 is the quickest ever. One of the really fascinating things about it though, is that on the same day, just at Poole, four male runners were quicker than Melissa. Three of whom were teenage boys.

Abigail Favale (The Genesis of Gender, p.122) writes how during a gender theory class discussion,

I noticed some students parroting the line that biological sex is “assigned” at birth by doctors and parents rather than identified or recognized. “Wait a second”, I said. “Is sexual orientation innate, something we are born with?” My students nodded readily. This is well-established dogma. “And you’re also saying that biological sex is a construct, a category arbitrarily ‘assigned’ at birth?” More vigorous nods. “How is that possible? Aren’t those claims contradictory? How is possible to have an innate attraction to something that is merely a social construct?” Aha. In that millisecond, I saw a brief glimmer of light cut through the postmodern haze. Even if they quickly turned away, they had at least recognised the contradiction.

It’s a brilliant observation but the pity is that the postmodern haze is more an impenetrable fog. Biology is objective, essential, given. Male and female bodies are different: even parkrun demonstrates that. Yet in our foggy world the subjective and psychological is accorded a greater ‘reality’.

I sit on the board of an organisation that (very on trend) recently adopted a menopause policy. Under the ‘Definitions’ section of this policy was a statement that while most people who experience the menopause are women, not all of them are.

I contested this definition but was soundly outvoted. The majority of those voting against me were educated, middle-class, ‘cis-gender’, straight, men, in their 50s to 70s. Even that demographic, who might be expected to be more conservative, have been so captured by the cultural narrative that they reject objective reality.

This can all feel rather depressing. It is depressing. Yet I also see light at the end of the tunnel, the fog beginning to disperse. The current gender construct is a house of cards. It has no solid foundation. It is a fairy castle in the air, built on oxymorons and the theorizing of the paedophile Michel Foucault. It cannot stand. At some point the wind will shift and it will fall.

So if you are enduring indoctrination sessions with your work HR department over the correct use of pronouns, stand firm. If a teenager you love has announced they are trans, don’t despair. If you’re flabbergasted by the way Rosie Duffield MP has been treated in Parliament. These things will pass. Sometimes it’s best just to laugh at the craziness of it all, because the postmodern narrative cannot bear to be mocked. Thus, a closing illustration from Abigail Favale:

“What, pray, are you?” asks the caterpillar.
“I’m a woman.”
“Oh are you?”
“Yes, at least…” I pause, suddenly unsure. “I think so?”
“Do you feel like a woman?”
“I’m not sure” I say. “What does it mean to feel like a woman?”
“To feel like a woman is to be a woman”, pronounces the caterpillar, taking a long drag from his hookah.
“But what is a woman?”
“Someone who feels like a woman.”
“But…what does it mean to feel like a woman, if being a woman is defined as feeling like a woman?”
“Transphobe”, puffs the caterpillar.

 

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Hope Amidst Judah’s Collapse

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There is a fascinating recurring pattern in the closing chapters of 2 Kings, and it bears witness to the mercy of God and the order he is able to bring out of political chaos. Look:

1. Judah’s king reigns for three months (Jehoahaz / Jehoiachin).
2. The king does evil.
3. A foreign emperor captures him (Pharaoh Neco / Nebuchadnezzar).
4. The foreign emperor appoints a new king (Eliakim / Mattaniah) ...
5. ... and changes his name (to Jehoiakim / Zedekiah).
6. The new king reigns for eleven years.
7. He does evil.
8. The old king (Jehoahaz / Jehoiachin) is taken into exile by the foreign emperor (Pharaoh Neco / Nebuchadnezzar).
9. Eventually, the new king (Jehoiakim / Zedekiah) rebels against Nebuchadnezzar.

With the tenth parallel comes the surprise. Having read 2 Kings 23, we are assuming that Jehoiachin will die in exile, just like Jehoahaz did. But instead, something thoroughly unexpected (and wonderful) happens, which assures us that God is not finished with Judah:

Evil-merodach king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison. And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, as long as he lived. (2 Kings 25:27-30)

Judah, like Jehoiachin, has been sentenced to exile for her sins and the sins of her fathers, but will find mercy there and be lifted up, freed and fed by the king himself. Evil and exile will turn to emancipation and exaltation. Even in the darkest moment of Israel’s story, there is hope.

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Prodigals and Spares

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It's hard not to notice the parallels between the sibling rivalries in Scripture and the royal one playing itself out in the media at the moment. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, David and his brothers, Adonijah and Solomon, Israel and Judah, the older brother and the prodigal son ... and now William and Harry. Clearly the struggles between brothers is a staple of human experience. Here's a great column from David Abulafia on that:

A historian should feel a strong sense of déjà vu on reading about Prince Harry’s rebellion against his family. Rebellious ‘spares’ are a constant feature of English history since at least 1066. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s characteristically vivid new book The World: A Family History offers plenty of gory examples from ancient Egypt, medieval China and even, when we move away from royalty, within dynasties such as the Kennedys. While the Byzantine emperors preferred to poke out the eyes of family members who competed for power, the Ottoman sultans regularly had their brothers strangled within hours of acceding to the throne. North Korea, where Kim Jong-un appears to have disposed of his half-brother by having him poisoned at Kuala Lumpur airport, is a recent example of lethal sibling rivalry within a ruling dynasty.

Turbulent princes might but presumably will not turn to the Bible. A constant refrain there is the way younger sons supplant elder brothers. These stories were probably tailored to justify the seizure of the ancient throne of Jerusalem by younger sons. The Bible describes how King David (himself a youngest son) chose Solomon as his heir, unaware that another son, Adonijah, had already tried to seize the throne from his dying father and his much younger brother. The theme of younger brothers gaining not just human but divine preference is there in the story of Jacob and Esau, even if Jacob was younger than his twin only by a matter of minutes. The worst case of sibling rivalry, the sale of Joseph into slavery by his jealous brothers, culminated in their humiliation when they appeared as supplicants in front of their unrecognised brother, now the Pharaoh’s vizier in the greatest empire on Earth.

Primogeniture is not entirely to blame for resentment on the part of younger princes. Elective monarchies too have had their share of sibling conflict. The great assemblies at which the Mongols elected their supreme leader generated rather than suppressed sibling rivalry. Mongol law required the youngest son to take charge of the family’s lands, while his brothers fanned out across the vast Eurasian spaces that had already been conquered, fracturing the empire into what became competing states. But there have been imaginative solutions to the problem of succession. In Sumatra, the early medieval kingdom of Srivijaya controlled the prosperous trade routes leading into the South China Sea. At court ceremonies the king was expected to wear a very heavy crown adorned with hundreds of jewels, and the succession was decided by choosing from among his sons the one who could bear its weight on his head. If tried here, my guess is that Prince Andrew, the burliest of the late Queen’s sons, would have lasted longest under the 5lb weight of St Edward’s Crown.

Prince Harry is open about his resentment at being number two. In medieval Europe there were imaginative but strikingly unsuccessful ways of addressing sibling jealousy. Lands recently acquired by conquest were often seen as disposable. William the Conqueror provides one of the best examples. The rivalry among his sons Robert, William and Henry, and the Conqueror’s sense that the true patrimony of his family lay not in England but in Normandy, led him to confer his Duchy of Normandy on his eldest son, and to grant William Rufus England and the royal title. This left Henry hungry for a share in the proceeds – everything resolved itself nicely for him when Rufus was shot by accident in the New Forest, and within hours Henry I had seized power.

The Christian kings in medieval Spain had for centuries tried to deter in-fighting between royal princes by dividing up their kingdoms in their will. Even so, this tended to set off fighting between Christian princes that was more bitter than their famous battles against the Muslim rulers of southern Spain. The will of King James I of Aragon deprived his ambitious elder son Peter of the newly conquered island of Majorca as well as the area around Perpignan, the ancestral lands of their Catalan dynasty, all of which was granted to his younger brother James as a separate kingdom. Peter grudgingly promised his father that he would live in harmony with James after their accession. But in 1283 Peter took advantage of a wider war for control of Sicily in which they stood on opposing sides. Peter hunted down James in the Palace of the Kings of Majorca that still stands in Perpignan. As Peter hammered on the door, James barricaded himself in his bedroom, insisting he was suffering from flu, and then fled through a sewer under the floor – an undignified and messy escape.

Keeping an eye on younger brothers was essential. Among the four sons of King Henry II of England, intense rivalry erupted into armed conflict between the eldest, also named Henry, and the immediate ‘spare’, Richard. Then, after Henry predeceased his father, Richard faced the unbridled ambition of the new spare, John, whose fits of anger sometimes had him rolling on the floor in fury. Later, King Edward IV failed to foresee that his scheming brother Richard would declare Edward’s children bastards and seize the Crown for himself.

Rather different, though, is the case of Edward VIII. Albert, Duke of York, had no ambition to supplant his elder brother, but after the abdication the envy went in the other direction: for several years the Duke of Windsor seems to have hoped for his restoration, even if it would be at the hands of Nazi allies. And, as nowadays, what he saw as ill-treatment of his wife sharpened his pain.

What is so very different now is that it is possible to harness the world’s media in just about every form. The new weapons are the press, television (notably Netflix), Twitter and book sales: better obviously than Richard or John taking up arms, but also very risky. At least there is no danger of the loser being locked up in the Tower.

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Project 23

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I don't usually promote events here (except for the THINK conference, obviously), but I wanted to make an exception for Project 23, an event for students and 20s in Newfrontiers churches. It's being held in Milton Keynes from 17-18 March, costs just £25, and will involve a bunch of great hosts and speakers including Tim Simmonds, Taylor Bentliff, Andy McCullough, Katherine Brown and Tom Scrivens. As someone who benefited enormously from Mobilise over many years, I am a fan of events pitched at this age group, especially national ones. Here's a two minute promotion for it:

You can book here.

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On Dismissing 1 Timothy 2

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I've hugely enjoyed and frequently recommended Dale Bruner's commentaries on the Gospels, especially his two volume masterpiece on Matthew. He has always struck me as someone who takes the authority of Scripture, as well as the tradition of the Church and the pastoral needs of today, seriously (and he does his exegesis in animated and often beautiful prose, too, which is not always the case in biblical commentaries). So I was both astonished and dismayed to read this in his new commentary on Romans:

We now rightly dismiss the Paul-attributed texts against women teaching or preaching in the church (1 Tim 2:11 and 1 Cor 14:33b-36), not least because the risen Lord had women sent as his first resurrection messengers in all four Gospels. Should we also, perhaps, pass over Paul’s present condemnation of homosexual practice in the light of Jesus’ general silence on the subject? (The Letter to the Romans, 17)

Leave aside for a moment the question of homosexual practice within the argument of Romans. (Reading Bruner’s comments in context leaves me unclear on what exactly he thinks about it; it was slightly odd to hear that his reason to “appreciate afresh Paul’s present conviction” in Romans 1 was reading an article about drag queens in the Los Angeles Times.) What I find dismaying here is the way that a scholar of Bruner’s standing can simply “dismiss” parts of Scripture, feel the freedom to say that he is doing so “rightly,” suggest that we might also “pass over” other passages in the same way, and publish it all in a biblical commentary. Perhaps it is just an Eerdmans thing; perhaps putting that word “now” at the start gives the game away (as if previous generations had never noticed that the witnesses to the resurrection were women, let alone considered how that might be compatible with Paul’s teaching); perhaps the denominational debates of the last few years have ground him down. Anyway: alas.

Plenty of egalitarians do not reason that way at all, of course. Ian Paul and Andrew Bartlett, to take a recent example, do not “dismiss” or “pass over” 1 Timothy 2 in their response to my “Beautiful Difference” essay; they just read the passages differently. (They think, as far as I can tell, that Paul is prohibiting some women from teaching men falsely or exercising authority illegitimately; I think there are good lexical, grammatical and contextual reasons for disagreeing with that.) Nevertheless, in a culture like ours, it may still be worth asking: does the way I handle this text make it sound like I am “rightly dismissing” it? Would a new person hear me talk about it and conclude, “Ah, so that’s OK: there are some bits of Scripture we simply overlook”? Or would they see me taking the Word of God seriously, wrestling with it carefully, and acknowledging the authority of all of it, even those passages I struggle with most? (This cuts both ways, obviously. Complementarians need to ask similar questions of Acts 18:26, Romans 16:7 and so forth.)

Incidentally, on a related note, the last few months have seen a flurry of new contributions on this subject which you might find interesting. I have a review forthcoming of Abigail Favale’s The Genesis of Gender and Josh Butler’s Beautiful Union, which are both superb; Preston Sprinkle is working on a big book on the topic, which I’m really looking forward to reading; and although I haven’t got either of them yet, I’ve had people recommend both Graham Benyon and Jane Tooher’s Embracing Complementarianism and Stef Liston’s Gender Quality. So much to read, so little time ...

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Nativity and History

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If you've been listening to The Rest is History over the festive period - and if you're a regular reader of this blog, there's a decent chance you have - you may have heard their two episodes on the historical Jesus. In general they make an excellent case for the existence, strangeness and genius of Jesus, the basic plausibility of the Gospel narratives (in outline if not in detail), and the importance of the first century context in which both make sense. But the second episode, particularly at the very start and the very end, makes two points with which Christians will want to disagree. The first relates to whether the nativity stories actually happened, and the second - which is obviously related - to whether historians can talk about supernatural phenomena at all.

Both are fascinating discussions, not least because they present standard challenges to Christian belief in sympathetic and persuasive ways. The fundamental issue, it seems to me, comes at the end of the second episode when they engage with the question of methodology. Can a historian say that the most likely explanation for the data we have, given the principle of Occam’s razor, is that Jesus was indeed the Son of God? Or is historical enquiry committed to materialist or naturalist explanations by its very nature, and therefore unable to acknowledge the possibility of miracles or religious truth claims more generally? (I found it interesting that the logic of David Hume and Edward Gibbon loomed so large in Tom Holland’s response here; it’s almost as if 1776 has ongoing cultural significance.) Clearly, if the word “history” is defined in such a way that divine interaction with the world is ruled out altogether, then many of Scripture’s most important claims cannot be “historical.” Whether that definition is warranted, or suitable for studying a figure like Jesus in the first place, is another matter.

Here is a much fuller discussion on the question of method, and the historical problems (and solutions) in the nativity stories, from the reliably excellent Glen Scrivener and Peter Williams. If you listened to the episodes and were pondering the issues they raise, or are simply curious about how to respond to such questions from a Christian perspective, it is well worth a look:

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Melchizedek & the Loins

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Hebrews 7 is not an easy chapter for the casual Bible reader: who is this Melchizedek? But, for the non-casual reader, Melchizedek is a figure of fascination and importance (Don Carson once gave the best talk I’ve heard on this).

The point of Melchizedek is to point towards the superior greatness of Christ, but the writer to the Hebrews does this in a way that feels circuitous. The greatness of Melchizedek is demonstrated by how he was honoured by Abraham, culminating in Abraham’s offering of a tithe to Melchizedek. This tithe, says the writer, shows that Melchizedek’s priesthood was superior to that of the Levites, the descendants of Abraham, because, “Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor” (Heb. 7:9-10).

Much could be said of this but of particular interest in light of contemporary discussions around ‘identity’ is the bodily connection envisaged between Abraham and his great-grandson Levi. Levi is ‘in the loins’ of Abraham and so, somehow, directly engaged in Abraham’s offering. In this worldview identity is tied to ancestry: Levi the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah… What counts is not so much who Levi is, but who is father is.

In such a worldview the idea that personal psychology could determine identity is literally unthinkable. It is a very biological view of identity: the son springs from the father’s loins – there is no way the son could then imagine himself to really be female. It is also a very hierarchical view of identity: the son does not get to choose to be anything other than his father’s son and has to carry forward the familial identity and responsibility that go with that. There is no self-defined ‘my truth’. Identity is objective and given, not self-realised.

Such a view of identity has been the traditional one, the ‘normal’ one. It is certainly the view that has characterised the institution of the Royal family – an institution that depends for its survival on heredity. That Harry has so deliberately sought to cut against this tradition is what has led to the widespread ridicule of his and Meghan’s narcissism. By seeking to invent a new, personal and subjective ‘truth’, Harry has denied his birth right.

The thing about subjective truths is that they are not really true: Harry can no more deny who he is than a man can become a woman. The tragedy to come is when the Montecito fairy-tale begins to crumble, as it surely will: when Harry wants to return to the fold will he find the earth too scorched and all possible bridges burnt?

As we approach Christmas we think of the one who was like Melchizedek: the one who was greater even than Abraham. Yet in his greatness he condescended to empty himself, taking on the nature of a servant (Phil. 2). In this we see that Jesus was constrained – he didn’t attempt to write his own destiny, but rather,

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission (Heb. 5:7).

True greatness, and in the end true freedom, won by true obedience. That is the place to find our true identity.

 

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Emending Grace

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And so our theologian comes to his inevitable emendation of Romans 5:8: "But God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, on the condition that after a reasonable length of time we would be the kind of people no one would ever have had to die for in the first place. Otherwise, the whole deal is off."

- Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three

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The Bethlehem Story

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This is a fantastic animated Christmas poem from Laura Tomasello and Nadine Walker, which manages to be both child-friendly and deeply thought-provoking. "Every culture has two types of city," it begins: the City of Kings, and the House of Bread. It's well worth four minutes of your time:

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Undivided: Race, Grace and Galatians

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We've just completed a nine week series at King's Church London called Undivided: Race, Grace and Galatians. If you are looking to address the subject in the context of a teaching series based on a biblical book, you might be interested to see how we went about it:
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Books of the Year 2022

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Choosing which books to read is always a challenge. The number of titles that people either recommend to me, give me, or ask me for my opinion on is so large that I could not possibly read them all, even if I gave twice as much time to reading as I currently do. What I tend to do is only to buy books that are either (a) necessary for my work - which this year means books on Matthew's Gospel, race and racism, the post-Christian West, and eighteenth century history in particular - or (b) have been recommended to me by multiple sources that I trust. And that's why I also tend to summarise my reading towards the end of each year, in case I am a trusted source (as if) for anyone else.

My reading highlight this year was going through Dominic Sandbrook’s magnificent series on the history of post-war Britain: Never Had It So Good (1956-64), White Heat (1964-70), State of Emergency (1970-74), Seasons in the Sun (1974-79), The Great British Dream Factory, and my book of the year, Who Dares Wins (1979-82). From a narrative point of view, it is hard to see how history could be written better, not least because the views and habits of ordinary people in ordinary towns - as opposed to the more elite and therefore unrepresentative characters who usually dominate the history books - play such a large role in the story. From a pastoral and apologetic point of view, the series explains all sorts of developments in contemporary culture that I had never connected with each other (falling church attendance with rising interest in gardening and increased television ownership, for instance, or the rise of Britain’s cultural exports with the decline of imperial power). And from an entertainment point of view, they are just enormously good fun. Each book has numerous laugh out loud moments, culminating in an index of comic brilliance:

Benn, Anthony Wedgewood, (Tony): airy-fairy stuff 36; and the CIA 153-4; consoles himself with a new quartz clock computer 649; fails to take part in orgies 154; has the most ghastly piles 786; inhales his own rhetoric 273; insularity 501-2; as a madman 275-6, 329-30; on the towering genius of Mao Tse-tung 488-9
Heath, Edward: disappointed by Himmler’s handshake 136; as a frustrated hotelier 53; massacres French language 150; massacres Mozart 42; peculiar voice of 17-18; plays the piano for Union bosses 105: leans nonchalantly on an Italian deep-freeze 425; stacks books on his chairs to stop Thatcher sitting down 257; stares at Thatcher with undisguised hatred 238, 328; unconvincing attempts to look cuddly 158
Thatcher, Margaret: admits she is not as kind as Jesus 43; flirts with parrot 647-8; hideous birthday cake 269; insists you can see the moon and the stars from Spalding 37
Thorpe, Jeremy: contracts gonorrhoea from Greek prostitute 442-3; plans to have his ex-lover eaten by Florida alligators 444; wades ashore from sinking hovercraft 159
Toynbee, Polly: disapproves of Brixton housing block 249; disapproves of Falklands War 771; disapproves of king size prawns 127; disapproves of Majorca 165
Wilson, Harold: views on cheese 139; elaborate getaway plans 634, 637; plans to sail up the Clyde in lighthouse-keeper’s uniform 84-5; compares himself to a big fat spider 452; complains of ‘the squitters’ 38, 418; coup hysteria 141; polishes off five brandies 39; polishes off six brandies 39

Having said all that, it is possible that some of my readers may not have the time (or the inclination) to read through four thousand pages of post-war British history, no matter how sparkling the prose or amusing the anecdotes. So here are my top tens, plus a list of all the other titles I read, many of which are also superb:

Top Ten New Books

Abigail Favale, The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory. Rich prose, serious theology and trenchant critique combine to wonderful effect in this Catholic response to our current gender paradigm.
David Ford, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary. A beautiful commentary which draws out the theme of abundance in John to glorious effect.
Tom Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. A remarkably well-written and compelling history of the rise of Islam and the decline of the Persian and Byzantine empires.
Cat Jarman, River Kings: The Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads. A captivating history of the Vikings in both East and West, told through the discovery of a bead.
Dane Ortlund, Surprised by Jesus: Subversive Grace in the Four Gospels. Even better than his new book Deeper, which I also read this year, this is a wonderful devotional book on the distinctive portraits of Jesus in the Gospels.
Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary. It’s not easy to make an academic argument both intellectually fresh and devotionally satisfying, but Pennington manages it in this wonderful study.
Louise Perry, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century. A trenchant and fiery critique of the sexual revolution from a feminist perspective, which I reviewed here.
Dominic Sandbrook, Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982. Sparkly, insightful, mischievous and utterly absorbing, this is the best volume so far of his histories of post-War Britain, and I cannot wait for the next one. Book of the year.
David Stubbs, Numbers. A rich and engaging study of a vital but often neglected biblical book, which I worked through in my devotions and enormously enjoyed.
Colin Thubron, The Amur River: Between Russia and China. The most beautiful piece of travel writing I have read so far, from an undisputed master of the genre.

Top Ten Old Books

Augustine, On Grace and Free Will
William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience
Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark
Dante, Paradiso
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
William Golding, The Inheritors
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
Johann Georg Hamann, New Apology of the Letter H
David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
C. S. Lewis, First and Second Things

The Rest

David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
David Hume, The Natural History of Religion
Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularised Society
Mark Sayers, A Non-Anxious Presence: How a Changing and Complex World Will Create a Remnant of Renewed Christian Leaders
Tim Marshall, The Power of Geography: Ten Maps that Reveal the Future of our World
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan the Wise
Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution
Michael Ferber, Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction
Daniel Strange, Making Faith Magnetic: Five Hidden Themes our Culture Can’t Stop Talking About and How to Connect Them to Christ
Ritchie Robertson, Goethe: A Very Short Introduction
Ian Kelly, Casanova
Isaiah Berlin, The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism
Robert Wokler, Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction
*T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
*T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
Elliot Clark, Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land
Chris Richards and Liz Jones, Growing Up God’s Way for Boys
James Joyce, Dubliners
Leo Damrosch, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius
Tim Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Bruce Duncan, Lovers, Parricides and Highwaymen: Aspects of Sturm und Drang Drama
Jordan Biel, The Process of a Leader
William Blake, The Book of Thel
Peter Ackroyd, Blake
Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at its Best
Jake Meador, What Are Christians For? Life Together at the End of the World
Sam Storms, A Dozen Things God Did With Your Sin (And Three Things He’ll Never Do)
Rebecca McLaughlin, Jesus Through the Eyes of Women: How the First Female Disciples Help Us Know and Love the Lord
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Christabel and Other Poems
Vibia Perpetua, The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity
Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings
Will Storr, The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It
John Newton and William Cowper, Olney Hymns
Andy Crouch, The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World
David Hempton, The Church in the Long Eighteenth Century
Isaac Adams, Talking About Race: Gospel Hope for Hard Conversations
Glen Scrivener, The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress and Equality
Tony Reinke, Newton on the Christian Life
Alison Mitchell, Queen Elizabeth II: The Queen Who Chose to Serve
James Joyce, Ulysses
James Hamilton, Psalms 1-72
Dominic Sandbrook, Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles
George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow
Paul D. Miller, The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong With Christian Nationalism
Graham Robb, France: An Adventure History
Laura Wifler, Like Me
Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties
Alan Frow, Psalms for a Saturated Soul: An Ancient Guide to Emotional Health
Judith Herrin, Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe
John Marrant, A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, A Black
Dominic Sandbrook, State of Emergency: Britain, 1970-1974
Jon Sensbach, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World
John Wesley, Thoughts on Slavery
Granville Sharp, The Just Limitation of Slavery in the Laws of God
Kelly Kapic, You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News
Ellery Lloyd, The Club
Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons in the Sun: Britain, 1974-1979
Johann Georg Hamann, Aesthetics in a Nutshell
Johann Georg Hamann, Metacritique on the Purism of Reason
Frederick Dale Bruner, The Letter to the Romans: A Short Commentary
Thomas Kidd, Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh
Angie Cruz, Dominicana
Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography, Volume Two
Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark
Dane Ortlund, Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners
Catherine Ryan Howard, 56 Days
Dominic Sandbrook, The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination
George Yancey, Beyond Racial Division: A Unifying Alternative to Colorblindness and Antiracism
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949
Andrea Wulf, Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self
Hannah and Nathan Anderson, Heaven and Nature Sing: 25 Advent Reflections to Bring Joy to the World
Carl Laferton, God’s Big Promises Storybook Bible
Patrick Schreiner, Matthew, Disciple and Scribe: The First Gospel and Its Portrait of Jesus
James Jordan, Primeval Saints: Studies in the Patriarchs of Genesis
Harold Senkbeil, The Lord’s Prayer for All God’s Children
Dave Gobbett, The Environment
David Abulafia, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean
Trevin Wax, The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith
René Breuel, The Paradox of Happiness: Finding True Joy in a World of Counterfeits
Peter Leithart, On Earth as in Heaven: Theopolis Fundamentals
Andy Kind, Hidden in Plain Sight: Clues You May Have Missed in the Search for Meaning
Terry Hayes, I Am Pilgrim

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Alice in Genderland

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"What, pray, are you?" asks the caterpillar.

“I’m a woman.”
“Oh are you?”
“Yes, at least ...” I pause, suddenly unsure. “I think so!”
“Do you feel like a woman?”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “What does it mean to feel like a woman?”
“To feel like a woman is to be a woman,” pronounces the caterpillar, taking a long drag from his hookah.
“But what is a woman?”
“Someone who feels like a woman.”
“But ... what does it mean to feel like a woman, if being a woman is defined as feeling like a woman?”
“Transphobe,” puffs the caterpillar.

- Abigail Favale, The Genesis of Gender

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Conquest and Exodus

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"Joshua portrays the conquest as a continuation of Israel's liberation from Egypt's power," writes Matthew Lynch in his very helpful new book, Flood and Fury: Old Testament Violence and the Shalom of God. "Moreover, the focus of Israel's destructive energies was directed against the four symbols of imperial power present in Canaan."

Warlords: Joshua consistently emphasises the defeat of the Egyptian-backed warlord kings, as the summary report in Joshua 12 makes abundantly clear. Psalm 136 remembers the conquest as the time when Yahweh struck down Canaanite mighty kings (Ps 136:17-22).

Walled Cities: Throughout the conquest, battles feature the destruction of ‘arim (walled cities), not unwalled villages or settlements.

Weapons of War: In addition to downplaying the significance of human weapons and foregrounding divine military power in Jericho and at Gibeon, in Joshua 11 Israel decommissioned Canaanite horses and chariots, preeminent weapons of war.

Wealth: Achan “covets” and takes clothing, silver and gold of Babylon (Josh 7:21) ... The emphasis on imperial wealth is notable here.

This is very significant when it comes to understanding the oft-debated violence in the book of Joshua. “The violence in which Israel participated as it gained a foothold in Canaan was aimed at weakening an ages-old colonial power that held the land in a vice grip,” Lynch concludes. “Recognising Israel’s relative weakness before Egyptian-backed military superior forces casts the stories of Joshua in terms of a David versus Goliath contest. But even those battles were defensive responses to Canaanite aggression, just as the ten plagues were divine responses to Egyptian oppression. Ethicists have typically distinguished between defensive wars and wars of aggression. The battles of Joshua 9-12 were all defensive in origin, and if we include Jericho in the mix (given Joshua 24), Ai is the single outlier.”

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Why Acts 27 is the Most Missional Chapter in the Book

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"Paul's voyage to Rome is an allegory of the aims and trajectory of Christian mission," writes Peter Leithart in On Earth as in Heaven. It sounds like a stretch. But he makes a fascinating case:

Paul’s journey is a new exodus as he crosses water from Jerusalem, the new Egypt, toward Rome, the great city of the empire. He moves from the land of Israel through the gentile sea. The ship is a fairly obvious symbol of the Roman ship of state. Paul sets sail in a Roman ship as a Roman prisoner, under custody to a centurion named Julius, who is from the Augustan battalion (Julius! Augustan!), who treats him with consideration (Acts 27:3).

Against Paul’s advice, Julius sets out from Fair Havens and immediately runs into a turbulent storm. The sky turns apocalyptic; darkness blots out sun and stars (27:20). It’s another Deluge. A world is coming to an end, and the Roman ship of state is sure to be wrecked. During the storm, Paul effectively becomes the ship’s captain. He assures the crew that no one will be lost (27:21-6) and orders the sailors to stay on the ship (27:30-2), while Julius prevents the soldiers from killing the prisoners because of his determination to bring Paul to Rome (27:42-3).

On the morning of the fourteenth day after Yom Kippur (27:9, 27, 33), Paul encourages the crew to eat. He takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and passes it out to the 276 on board (27:35-7). He turns the Roman ship into a church, the site of Eucharist. He’s another Jonah who leads a ship’s crew to worship the living God while travelling to preach in a city threatened with destruction.

A skilled workman in the company of the Carpenter of Nazareth, Paul measures not only the church but the world, in anticipation that both the land of Israel and the sea of Rome will be brought into the ark of Christendom, dry and safe. This is what Paul is after from the outset. He doesn’t intend merely to rescue a few from the shipwreck. He and the other apostles aim to save everyone and to pilot the Roman ship safely through the storms of coming judgment. He intends to overthrow the powers and replace the sacrifices to demons with the Eucharistic sacrifice. As an apostle of the Greater Noah, he pilots a new ark that will bring the voyagers to a new world.

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How Do I Find Who I Am?

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My new book Finding Your Best Identity: A short Christian introduction to identity, sexuality and gender comes out today! The book is my attempt to show how the Bible’s approach to forming identity is better than the approaches offered to us by our culture and how the biblical approach gives us a better foundation from which to respond to our experiences of sexuality and gender. Here's the introduction. If you want to read the rest, you can buy your copy here.

Who am I?

‘Who am I?’ This has been a big question for me.

For a period in my childhood, I was convinced that I was a girl. Though externally I seemed to be a boy, and everyone thought I was a boy, I felt that internally I was a girl. I remember living with the fear that one day I would get pregnant (obviously this was before I was aware how these things work!) and then my big secret would be revealed. I quietly resigned myself to the fact I’d just have to live with my parents for the rest of my life and never get married. As I grew up, this feeling went away, but I remained uncomfortable as a man, never really feeling I fitted in, uncomfortable in all-male environments, and secretly wanting to be considered ‘one of the girls’.

My teen years raised new questions about my identity. As puberty hit, new desires emerged, but they weren’t desires for girls, as I might have expected; they were for guys. At first, I didn’t really realize what was going on; I don’t think I had any understanding that some people are same-sex attracted or gay. I kept quiet about these new desires for several years, and it was still a secret known to only a few by the time I reached my twenties.

But all through those years I was listening, trying to make sense of what I was experiencing. Judging by what some people said, it seemed that this was the worst thing possible, that these desires somehow made me a lesser person, and this all made me believe I should never tell anyone. But at the same time, others seemed to think these desires were the most important thing about me, that they were actually who I am. These people seemed to think I should declare to the world ‘I’m gay’ and that I should be sure to embrace and act on my desires to find my best life.

In my twenties, identity continued to be an issue. I was now an adult who had left home and was trying to find my way in adult life, but I was also becoming increasingly self-conscious. I began to find that just being on my own in public made me so uncomfortable that my face would involuntarily twitch. During these years, I had a few fairly major meltdowns as my mental health yo-yoed up and down. In the wake of one of these meltdowns, with the help of a counsellor, I discovered I was living with an identity of which I wasn’t even aware. Deep down, the controlling self-understanding in my life was that I was a freak and a weirdo. I assumed that was what everyone thought of me, and so I assumed that was just who I was.

I’ve had to wrestle with the question, ‘Who am I?’ Am I how I feel inside? Not a woman but not really fully a man? Am I my sexual desires, a gay guy who needs a husband to be happy? Or am I what I instinctively assume other people think of me, a freak and a weirdo?

These have been uncomfortable questions to ask. At times they’ve been very painful to ask, but as I’ve done so, I’ve found there is a better answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’ I have found that my best identity isn’t based on what I feel or desire inside, and it isn’t based on what I assume other people think about me; my best identity is based on what my Creator says about me. God dictates my identity. And therefore, I will find my best life, not by embracing every- thing I find within or by listening to what I hear (or just assume) around me; I will find my best life by living out my God-given identity.

What is identity?

What do I mean when I talk about identity? As I’ll use it in this book, identity is our controlling self-understanding. All of us live with a concept of who we really are and what we believe to be most fundamental and important about us. This is a self-understanding. It’s how we understand our self.

And that self-understanding, even if it remains subconscious, impacts how we feel and how we live. Your self-understanding can be involved in giving you a sense that you have worth and value, or that you don’t, and it can therefore have a big impact on your emotional and mental health. That’s why having an unhealthy identity can be so harmful and can take us to very dark and painful places.

Your self-understanding will also often impact how you live. Sometimes that’s because we want to live out an identity in order to display it to those around us and to experience our best life through doing so. At other times it’ll be because we’re trying to escape from an identity; we want to be someone else. Who you think you are influences how you live your life.

In these ways, our identity controls us; it impacts how we feel and how we live. That’s why it’s a controlling self-understanding.

Working with this definition, there are lots of things that are true of us that aren’t our identity (things like our race and ethnicity, occupation, and history). Something that is true of us only becomes our identity when it becomes core to how we view ourselves and when it therefore begins to exert some control over us, affecting how we feel and how we live. Identity is our controlling self-understanding.

How do I find who I am?

Understanding what identity is helps us to see why it is so important. It shows us that it’s right and good to ask the question ‘Who am I?’ But there’s actually another question that needs to be asked before this, a question we rarely think to ask. That question is ‘How do I find who I am?’

In asking ‘Who am I?’ we take for granted that we know how best to find our identity. But do we really? My own journey hasn’t just been about finding out who I am; at different points, I’ve been pretty certain who I am: a girl in a boy’s body, or a gay man, or a freak and a weirdo. In reality, the question I needed an answer to was ‘How do I find who I am?’ That’s the question that helps us find our best identity. And we want to find our best identity because doing so, and living out that identity, will help us experience our best life. Getting this right is really important.

Over the next few chapters, we’ll unmask some of the different ways that people find their identity, seeing which work and which don’t, and looking for the best answer to the question ‘How do I find who I am?’ Once we’ve got that answer, we’ll be in a better position to ask, ‘Who am I?’

Identity, sexuality and gender

One of the reasons identity is so important is because of the way it intersects with two aspects of human existence that are important for all of us: sexuality and gender.

In times gone by, and sadly all too often still today, some people have been made to feel like freaks or in some way less than human because of their experience of sexuality or gender. Identities have been placed on LGBTQ+ people, branding them with labels such as degenerate or disgusting. Christians have played our part in this, both in the past and the present, and the Bible’s teaching has been wrongly understood and applied, resulting in damaging and destructive identities being placed on LGBTQ+ people.

But the importance of identity in relation to sexuality and gender is also seen in a very different way. In modern Western society, both sexual orientation (our enduring pattern of sexual and romantic attraction and desires) and gender identity (our internal sense of gender) are considered to be core identities. Many believe that these internal experiences are who we are, and that they therefore need to be embraced and expressed in order to allow us to live our best life. Against this backdrop, the historic Christian sexual ethic is seen as offensive and intolerant because it seems to ask people to deny who they really are.

Gay people are asked to deny who they really are because the Christian sexual ethic says marriage and sex are to be reserved for lifelong unions of one man and one woman.

Trans people are asked to deny who they really are because the Christian ethic says that our bodies are determinative for our gender, and so we should live out the gender of our biological sex.

When Christians and non-Christians, and increasingly Christians and other Christians, clash on issues of sexuality and gender, it isn’t just because we have different views on who we can have sex with (which we do) or, more importantly, because we have different views on what sex and marriage are about (which we do), it’s also because we have different views on how to find our best identity.

We need to think about this. If we don’t think about it, we won’t be able to engage with the world around us. We might try to engage, but we’ll be talking past each other because we’ll be talking about different topics without even realizing it and we’ll be unaware of the pain that some people are experiencing, some of which may have been caused by Christians.

We need to think about it so we can engage with young people in our churches and our families. Every day the world around them is telling them that sexuality and gender are identity issues. It’s no wonder that many hear the Bible’s teaching, believe that God is asking them or their friends to deny who they really are, and consequently reject it as unreasonable and unloving.

And we need to think about it so we can engage with ourselves. Sexuality and gender are real life issues for all of us, and all of us, in different ways and to different extents, will be surrounded by the message that our sexuality and gender are who we are.

We need to think about identity. Is there an answer to the destructive identities that have often been placed on LGBTQ+ people? Is it true that the historic Christian sexual ethic asks many of us to deny who we really are? Before we can answer these questions, we need to know how to find our best identity, and to know that, we need to first ask the question: ‘How do I find who I am?’

 

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Where Does Theology Happen?

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Theologians and Bible scholars often think that they're the primary teachers of the church. They're wrong.

Theology and biblical scholarship are ministries of the church, which means that scholars are servants of pastors, preachers and people. Theology doesn’t come to its climax in a plenary lecture at the Society of Biblical Literature or a paper published in Modern Theology or in a widely-reviewed book that wins a Christianity Today award. Theology and biblical scholarship come to their climax in the liturgical assembly of the people of God, where a pastor delivers the word of the Lord to the people of God at the Lord’s table.

To you theologians and scholars, remember that you serve the church, its pastors and its people. And to those who are pastors, theologians exist for your sake, to assist you as you do the really big work of theology. Don’t let them belittle you.

And to those in the pews: The whole apparatus of Bible study and teaching is for you so that you can be shattered and reborn by the hammer of God’s Word. The Word of God is the light of God, and everything that comes into light is light (Eph 5:13). If you receive the light of the Word, you’re being made over into a light source. As you obey the word, your good works shine before the nations.

- Peter Leithart, On Earth as in Heaven: Theopolis Fundamentals

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How Does a Work of Art Become Great?

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This is a fascinating piece from Ian Leslie:

How does a work of art come to be considered great? The intuitive answer is that some works of art are just great: of intrinsically superior quality. The paintings that win prime spots in galleries, get taught in classes and reproduced in books are the ones that have proved their artistic value over time. If you can’t see they’re superior, that’s your problem. It’s an intimidatingly neat explanation. But some social scientists have been asking awkward questions of it, raising the possibility that artistic canons are little more than fossilised historical accidents.

[James] Cutting, a professor at Cornell University, wondered if a psychological mechanism known as the “mere-exposure effect” played a role in deciding which paintings rise to the top of the cultural league. In a seminal 1968 experiment, people were shown a series of abstract shapes in rapid succession. Some shapes were repeated, but because they came and went so fast, the subjects didn’t notice. When asked which of these random shapes they found most pleasing, they chose ones that, unbeknown to them, had come around more than once. Even unconscious familiarity bred affection.

Back at Cornell, Cutting designed an experiment to test his hunch. Over a lecture course he regularly showed undergraduates works of Impressionism for two seconds at a time. Some of the paintings were canonical, included in art-history books. Others were lesser known but of comparable quality. These were exposed four times as often. Afterwards, the students preferred them to the canonical works, while a control group of students liked the canonical ones best. Cutting’s students had grown to like those paintings more simply because they had seen them more.

Cutting believes his experiment offers a clue as to how canons are formed. He points out that the most reproduced works of Impressionism today tend to have been bought by five or six wealthy and influential collectors in the late 19th century. The preferences of these men bestowed prestige on certain works, which made the works more likely to be hung in galleries and printed in anthologies. The kudos cascaded down the years, gaining momentum from mere exposure as it did so. The more people were exposed to, say, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, the more they liked it, and the more they liked it, the more it appeared in books, on posters and in big exhibitions. Meanwhile, academics and critics created sophisticated justifications for its pre-eminence. After all, it’s not just the masses who tend to rate what they see more often more highly. As contemporary artists like Warhol and Damien Hirst have grasped, critical acclaim is deeply entwined with publicity. “Scholars”, Cutting argues, “are no different from the public in the effects of mere exposure.”

The process described by Cutting evokes a principle that the sociologist Duncan Watts calls “cumulative advantage”: once a thing becomes popular, it will tend to become more popular. A few years ago, Watts, who is employed by Microsoft to study the dynamics of social networks, had a similar experience to Cutting in another Paris museum. After queuing to see the “Mona Lisa” in its climate-controlled bulletproof box at the Louvre, he came away puzzled: why was it considered so superior to the three other Leonardos in the previous chamber, to which nobody seemed to be paying the slightest attention?

When Watts looked into the history of “the greatest painting of all time”, he discovered that, for most of its life, the “Mona Lisa” languished in relative obscurity. In the 1850s, Leonardo da Vinci was considered no match for giants of Renaissance art like Titian and Raphael, whose works were worth almost ten times as much as the “Mona Lisa”. It was only in the 20th century that Leonardo’s portrait of his patron’s wife rocketed to the number-one spot. What propelled it there wasn’t a scholarly re-evaluation, but a burglary.

In 1911 a maintenance worker at the Louvre walked out of the museum with the “Mona Lisa” hidden under his smock. Parisians were aghast at the theft of a painting to which, until then, they had paid little attention. When the museum reopened, people queued to see the gap where the “Mona Lisa” had once hung in a way they had never done for the painting itself. The police were stumped. At one point, a terrified Pablo Picasso was called in for questioning. But the “Mona Lisa” wasn’t recovered until two years later when the thief, an Italian carpenter called Vincenzo Peruggia, was caught trying to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The French public was electrified. The Italians hailed Peruggia as a patriot who wanted to return the painting home. Newspapers around the world repro­duced it, making it the first work of art to achieve global fame. From then on, the “Mona Lisa” came to represent Western culture itself. In 1919, when Marcel Duchamp wanted to perform a symbolic defacing of high art, he put a goatee on the “Mona Lisa”, which only reinforced its status in the popular mind as the epitome of great art (or as the critic Kenneth Clark later put it, “the supreme example of perfection”). Throughout the 20th century, musicians, advertisers and film-makers used the painting’s fame for their own purposes, while the painting, in Watts’s words, “used them back”. Peruggia failed to repatriate the “Mona Lisa”, but he succeeded in making it an icon.

Although many have tried, it does seem improbable that the painting’s unique status can be attributed entirely to the quality of its brushstrokes. It has been said that the subject’s eyes follow the viewer around the room. But as the painting’s biographer, Donald Sassoon, drily notes, “In reality the effect can be obtained from any portrait.” Duncan Watts proposes that the “Mona Lisa” is merely an extreme example of a general rule. Paintings, poems and pop songs are buoyed or sunk by random events or preferences that turn into waves of influence, rippling down the generations ...

The innate quality of a work of art is starting to seem like its least important attribute. But perhaps it’s more significant than our social scientists allow. First of all, a work needs a certain quality to be eligible to be swept to the top of the pile. The “Mona Lisa” may not be a worthy world champion, but it was in the Louvre in the first place, and not by accident.

Secondly, some stuff is simply better than other stuff. Read “Hamlet” after reading even the greatest of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and the difference will strike you as unarguable. Compare “To be or not to be”, with its uncanny evocation of conscious thought, complete with hesitations, digressions and stumbles into insight, to any soliloquy by Marlowe or Webster, and it becomes clear that Shakespeare stands in a league of his own. Watts might say I’m deluding myself, and so are the countless readers and scholars who have reached the same conclusion. But which is the more parsimonious explanation for Shakespeare’s ascendancy?

A study in the British Journal of Aesthetics suggests that the exposure effect doesn’t work the same way on everything, and points to a different conclusion about how canons are formed. Building on Cutting’s experiment, the researchers repeatedly exposed two groups of students to works by two painters, the British pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais and the American populist Thomas Kinkade. Kinkade’s garish country scenes are the epitome of kitsch—the gold standard for bad art. The researchers found that their subjects grew to like Millais more, as you might expect, given the mere-exposure effect. But they liked Kinkade less. Over time, exposure favours the greater artist.

The social scientists are right to say that we should be a little sceptical of greatness, and that we should always look in the next room. Great art and mediocrity can get confused, even by experts. But that’s why we need to see, and to read, as much as we can. The more we’re exposed to the good and the bad, the better we are at telling the difference.

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Does the Future Have a Church?

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“The danger of quiet infiltration, is that you are quietly infiltrated.”

Last month The Gospel Coalition ran a fascinating article with Sinclair Ferguson reflecting on his return to Aberdeen: how ‘a city of spires’ became ‘the most secular city in Scotland, which is the most secular country in the United Kingdom.’

How was it that Scotland in general, and Aberdeen in particular, experienced such an extraordinary emptying of the churches in just a few decades? Ferguson identifies some reasons: theological drift, lack of institutional structures, and a strategy of ‘quiet infiltration’.

“The strategy [of Scottish evangelical leaders]—and there was a very definite strategy—was essentially not to have a strategy,” he said. “The language that was used was ‘quiet infiltration.’”
In a single congregation, a conservative pastor can sometimes pull that off. But on a denominational level, it doesn’t work. Instead, the mild-mannered middle—even if it’s full of people who believe in Jesus—chooses the path of least resistance. In a liberalizing culture, that’s liberalization.
“The danger of quiet infiltration,” Ferguson said, “is that you are quietly infiltrated.”

The case of Scotland is especially stark, but we can trace a similar pattern across the UK, and increasingly in the USA too. We see it even in some very large, very influential churches where on some key theological issues (especially those concerning sexuality) there has been a deliberate strategy of silence, of saying things like, “I’m not going to say my own view, because…I want people to be able to be here and find a unity in holding different views.” That sounds very reasonable, very generous, but inevitably, ‘in a liberalizing culture, that’s liberalization…you are quietly infiltrated.’ This is a one way street. It is why what is apparently thriving and full of life can, in a few years, be empty and dead.

If the future is to have a church we need church leaders, denominations, and congregations that are willing to pay the cost of standing firm on doctrinal matters, who build robust institutions on those convictions, and who are unafraid to publicly articulate what they believe. Evangelical christianity is very much not the cultural majority in this cultural moment. This means the ‘rigging’ that makes belief easy has been torn away. Much of that has been good – a clearing out of the deadwood and a stripping away of what masqueraded as the church of Christ. But if we keep digging away the ground under our feet by abandoning theological clarity we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves also swept away.

Quiet infiltration is a strategy for the dead. The living gladly proclaim what they believe, build houses, cultivate fields, have babies and hope for a harvest.

 

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An Anthropological Rorschach Test

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At the core of the Protestant tradition, especially its Lutheran and Reformed versions, is an emphasis on the sinfulness of humanity in distinction from God. The pervasiveness of this emphasis can be seen in an experiment I have done in class among my (mostly Reformed) evangelical students: I ask them to offer the first word that comes to mind when I say the word "humanity." Nearly always the answer is "sinful."

From a biblical and Protestant perspective it is certainly accurate and true that humanity is sinful and separated from God as a result. This foundational reality is at the core of the gospel message: humanity needs to be rescued and reconciled to God because of sin. Yet it is fair to inquire whether this sinfulness is the first or properly primary descriptor of humanity from God’s perspective. At least we can observe descriptively that this common answer reveals like a Rorschach test what lies at the core of much evangelical anthropology. There is an enculturation or training of sensibilities and habits such that the primary evocation or association that is made with “humanity” is “sinful.”

I would recommed that “sinful” is an appropriate second word to say about humanity. The first reaction/word according to the Bible’s vision should be instead “loved” or even “beautiful.”

- Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing

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Truth, Love & Making People Sad

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So the Bishop of Oxford has come out in support of same sex marriage – the most senior cleric in the Church of England so far to advocate for the church to bless and marry gay couples.

The bishop’s ‘journey’ on this follows a familiar path, a response that is primarily emotional, governed by the impact of his church’s decisions on the feelings of others.

“I need to acknowledge the acute pain and distress of LGBTQ+ people in the life of the Church,” he wrote.
“I am sorry that, corporately, we have been so slow as a Church to reach better decisions and practice on these matters.
“I am sorry that my own views were slow to change and that my actions, and lack of action, have caused genuine hurt, disagreement and pain.”

Contrast this with the more robust approach described by Carl Trueman in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

If sex-as-identity is itself a category mistake, then the narratives of suffering, exclusion, and refusals of recognition based on that category mistake are really of no significance in determining what the church’s position on homosexuality should be. That is not to say that pastoral strategies aimed at individuals should not be compassionate, but what is and is not compassionate must always rest on deeper, transcendent commitments. Christianity…is dogmatic, doctrinal, assertive.

According to Trueman, the decisions of the church should not be made in response to their emotional impact: ‘truth’ is a bigger, and harder-edged, category than what I, the bishop, or anyone else feels about things.

In Mark’s account of the encounter between Jesus and the rich young ruler we are told that,

Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Mark 10:21-22)

There is an interesting dynamic at play in this encounter: Jesus loves the young man, yet his truth criteria makes the young man sad – and Jesus doesn’t do anything to mitigate that sadness. This is a rather different approach to the bishop, who appears to have turned from what is ‘dogmatic, doctrinal, assertive’ and towards the therapeutic. Does this mean that Jesus is less loving than the bishop? Or does it mean that love itself has more to it than whether we are made happy or sad?

Practicing authentic truth and love at times means making people sad. Understanding that should be a basic requirement for anyone seeking to be a follower of Christ, and especially for those carrying ecclesiastical office. Seeking to sanctify what is a mirage is in the end neither true nor loving. We need more transcendent commitments than that.

 

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Some Questions About Therapy

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This is a zinger of a post from Jake Meador on the relationship between therapy and pastoral ministry. He starts by asking some good questions:

1. Who needs therapy?
2. Is there anyone that does not need therapy?
3. Do people who do need therapy ever reach a point of not needing therapy?

Therapy can do a huge amount of good for people, and it has done within my immediate family and amongst my friends. And Jake is not objecting to therapy per se. “What I object to is the totalizing tendency in much therapeutic rhetoric which seems to run on the assumption that everyone needs therapy and you never stop needing therapy. My fear, in short, is that we have a growing contingent of more centrist, urbanite evangelicals who get their doctrine of sin and doctrine of salvation not from Scripture and the teachings of the church passed down to us over millennia, but from therapeutic categories and ways of imagining the human person.”

What is the problem with that? Well:

Within this model, Christianity is one crutch we can use to realize peace. But it doesn’t really define what “peace” is (or what anxiety is, for that matter) and it cannot really critique the therapeutic in any kind of real way. It can only accommodate it and support it.

This has the effect of rendering therapists the new priests and of making pastoral leadership and discipleship virtually impossible because any attempt to actually encourage people in Christian discipline can be dismissed as potentially abusive or indicative of narcissism in the pastor.

It also implicitly re-situates the church and the individual Christian disciple into a different sort of world. In this world, the church is a community that stands beneath the judgment of the mental health professional and the Christian disciple is simply someone who has found Christianity to be a helpful part of emotional health and self-actualization. But the engine driving the train isn’t Christianity; it’s emotional health, harm prevention, and self-actualization.

I think this idea of the “implicit world” is a very illuminating one. “Consider,” Jake continues: “You cannot have therapists and counselors and mental health practitioners and all the rest without graduate programs, health clinics, credentialing processes, pharmaceuticals, and so on. There is an entire social imaginary latent in the therapeutic which foregrounds the individual person, backgrounds communities, and centers the therapists office (and the pharmacy) as the place where we are made well.” Indeed there is.

If that wasn’t provocative enough, Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas are then brought into the conversation. I’ve added emphasis here:

Willimon: Lacking theological governance and guidance, pastors are tempted to give people encouragement to be even more self-concerned than they already are before they come to church. The trouble starts in seminary. There’s an overemphasis there on self-care, keeping sabbath, and finding emotional support, as if that’s the purpose of the church and its ministry. Better than self-care is responding to the call to care about what Christ cares about.

Hauerwas: That’s why I have little sympathy for clergy who present themselves as a member of the “helping professions.” Such pastors are using people in pain to legitimate their ministry. Pastoral care has become so important because it’s the last socially approved activity of pastors.

No doubt some people will take this as an attack on the therapeutic industry and all who sail in her, which is not Jake’s intention (and certainly not mine). In reality, it is simply a call for both therapists and pastors to take their rightful place, and for the latter not to be misled into thinking that their work is somehow a deferential subset of the former. The whole piece is well worth reading.

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Romans 1-8 at Newday

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This August I did a performance of Romans 1-8 at Newday, complete with several visual illustrations and one infamous labour scene. (I have lost track of the number of teenagers who have either said to me, or to someone in my family, that I am the guy who gave birth on the stage at Newday.) Anyway: here it is.

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The Harder our Earth, the Sweeter our Heaven

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This is one of the best articles I've read this year, from Tim Challies. The harder our earth, the sweeter our heaven:

The man who lives in the Swiss Alps is probably not terribly impressed when he visits North America and strolls through the Adirondacks or the Smokies. The woman who has spent her life snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef is probably not too enthusiastic about snorkeling off the East Coast of Canada. The person who has grown up on the beaches of Maui is probably not going to break the bank to vacation on the beaches of Lake Superior. There is nothing wrong with the Adirondacks or the Smokies, nothing wrong with the East Coast of Canada or the beaches of the Great Lakes. It’s just that they are not nearly as good, not nearly as impressive, not nearly as awe-inspiring as the alternatives.

It does us good at times to ponder heaven, to ponder the future God has promised to those who love him. He has promised that we will be with him forever in a new heaven and a new earth—a re-creation of this world in which all sin and sorrow, all pain and danger will have been removed. Here we will live out the purpose for which God created us—to spread out over the earth and enjoy it with him and for him.

As we make the pilgrimage from here to there, as we endure this long journey, we expect that it will be difficult. We expect that we will experience the consequences that have come with mankind’s fall into sin. We expect that we will endure sickness, bereavement, persecution, chastisements, and so many other forms of suffering. This is all inevitable in a world like this one.

While we do not wish to suffer, we must be confident that God always has purposes in it. And one of these purposes is undoubtedly to prepare us for what is to come, to shift our hearts from earth to heaven, from what is temporal to what is eternal. The sorrows here prepare us for the glories there. And this makes me wonder: wouldn’t it be the ones who suffer most on earth who are best prepared to enjoy heaven? Wouldn’t it be the ones who were deprived of so much here who will be most satisfied there?

Just think of the wonder of a stroll in the garden for those who were long confined to the sick room, a hike in the mountains for those who spent their lives in a wheelchair, a place in God’s mansion for those who lived in nothing more than a hut.

Imagine the music of the heavenly choir to those who ears were deaf, the splendor of the New Jerusalem to those whose eyes were blind, the joy of crying out praise to those whose lips were mute.

Imagine never hearing a sound for your entire earthly existence only to have the heavenly choir as the first notes to ever reach your ear. Imagine never seeing anything on this side of the grave, only to have the face of Jesus be the first sight that ever meets your eye. Imagine never being able to form a word here only to have your tongue loosened in Christ’s presence so the first words you ever speak are an expression of love to him.

Surely it’s not the man who lived in fine palaces who will be most amazed by the streets of gold, but the man who lived in poverty. Surely it’s not the woman who enjoyed fine dining every day of her life who will be most satisfied by the heavenly feasts, but the woman who lived in deprivation. Surely it’s not the person who traveled to the four corners of the earth who will be most satisfied to explore the wonders of God’s creation, but the person who was unable to leave his hometown, or perhaps unable to leave his bed.

Those who were lonely in this world will marvel at the joy of fellowship, those who were abused in this world will be satisfied to experience perfect safety, those who were estranged in this world will rejoice to know full acceptance. The one who had so many loved ones taken from her arms will be most satisfied to know that pain and death and sorrow and sighing shall be no more.

We know that heaven will be a wonder for all who are admitted, a place of perfect peace and perfect satisfaction for all who enter its gates. But surely heaven will be a greater wonder still for those whose joys were fewest, whose sorrows were deepest, whose earth was most distant from heaven.

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How Do We Pray Psalm 137

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If you pray the psalms, at some point or other you will have wondered how to pray Psalm 137. "Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" (137:7-9). Gulp.

Here is a superb explanation from Trevor Laurence at Cateclesia:

Pray for Proportionate Justice. The longing of v. 8 is explicitly framed as a specific application of the lex talionis (cf. Exod 21:23–25; Lev 24:17–22; Deut 19:21), yearning that Babylon receive a judgment that matches what the empire delivered to Israel.

The principle of proportionate retribution in Israel’s law prohibited two possible abuses of justice: a penalty could not harshly exceed what was fitting, but neither could it grant a leniency that might minimize the seriousness of an offense or permit nepotistic treatment of powerful offenders at the expense of their victims. The lex talionis placed a limit on judgment while simultaneously mandating a public administration of justice that vindicated the innocent and validated their suffering.

When Psalm 137 cries for Babylon to be repaid with what she has done, it joins a chorus of psalmic prayers (e.g., 28:4; 94:2; 109:1–20) that ask for proportionate recompense according to the standard of justice given by God.

Pray for the Actualization of Divine Promises. Through several prophets, God had already declared in quite precise terms the judgment he would bring upon the nations who participated in desecrating his temple, slaughtering his people, and carrying them into exile.

Obadiah indicted Edom for her violence during the Babylonian invasion (vv. 10–14) and prophesied talionic justice (v. 15) that would leave Edom without survivor (v. 18; cf. Ezek 25:12–13; Jer 49:12–13). The Lord promised by the mouth of Isaiah that Babylon’s infants would be dashed in pieces before their eyes (13:16) and that he would cut off Babylon’s name and descendants from the earth (14:22; cf. 47:1–15). And in Jeremiah 50–51, God announced that he would repay to Babylon as she had done (50:15; 51:56), that her little ones would be dragged away (50:45), that the great empire would be made desolate forever (51:62).

Psalm 137’s requests are not the creatively barbarous whims of an especially imaginative sufferer. They are pleas for God to keep his promises, pleas that self-consciously employ the very language of God’s promises. They are prayers that ask nothing more than that God do the justice to which he has committed himself.

Pray for the Definitive End of the Wicked. The presence and persistence of the wicked is a preoccupation of the Psalter. The psalmists look forward to a covenantally ensured future in which God inherits the nations (82:8), expels the wicked from his presence (1:4–5), and fills up the whole creation with his glory as a holy temple (72:19; cf. Num 14:21) even as they lament over a present in which the predation of the ungodly and violent threatens the life and peace of God’s people and wages war against God’s reign upon the earth.

Accordingly, several psalms rehearse the divine guarantee that Yahweh will one day bring an end to the line of the wicked, stopping the seemingly perpetual generational cycle of violence that assaults his kingdom community and corrupts his world with idolatry and bloodshed: “Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you. You will make them as a blazing oven when you appear. The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them. You will destroy their descendants from the earth, and their offspring from among the children of man” (Ps 21:8–10). “For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. They are preserved forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off. The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever” (Ps 37:28–29).

Insofar as the descendants of the wicked are conceived as offspring who are formed by and follow in the footsteps of their parents—which is, of course, the way that families and societies have generally operated throughout history—God’s assured interruption of the line of the wicked is an element of the decisive justice that will finally enable the godly to dwell upon the earth in his holy presence without threat or fear.

In Psalm 137, the psalmist turns the promise into a prayer. Having experienced the horrors of invasion, the destruction of Yahweh’s house, and exile at the hands of Babylon, the psalmist reaches for the day when the line of the wicked will be cut off forever so that those who trust in the Lord might flourish before his face in unimpeded worship and joy.

Pray for the Advent of the Messianic King. Who is the “blessed” man of v. 9, expected to administer judgment against Babylon? Read within the structural movement of the Psalter, Psalm 137 offers several indications that the hoped-for individual is the royal heir from David’s line who will arise to restore Israel and reign over the nations in fulfillment of God’s covenant.

At pivotal points in the Psalter, this royal figure is foregrounded as the locus of Israelite hope, the mediator of Yahweh’s purposes for his people and the world. The collection opens in Psalm 2 with the Lord’s decree to his anointed that this royal son will rule over the nations, possess the ends of the earth, and “dash” (v. 9) his enemies like a potter’s vessel. At the Psalter’s center, Psalm 72 begs for a Davidic king who will enact justice, crush oppressors, and have dominion “from the River [that is, from the Euphrates in Babylon] to the ends of the earth” (v. 8).

By the time we arrive at Psalm 137, the Psalter has primed us to recognize that the blessed one who will “dash” the offspring of wicked Babylon in a consummate exercise of divine justice is the anticipated anointed of Psalms 2 and 72. That Ps 2:9 and Ps 137:9 are the only two uses of the Hebrew verb rendered “dash” (npṣ) in the entire Psalter only underscores this royal association.

It is unsurprising, then, that the longing benediction of Ps 137:9 is immediately answered by the Psalter’s final collection of Davidic psalms (Pss 138–145), a group of prayers that culminates with a royal voice celebrating God’s victorious deliverance, the certain destruction of the wicked, and Yahweh’s everlasting kingdom.

The Psalter as a whole is eschatologically oriented toward the advent of a messianic son of David, and the climactic plea of Psalm 137 falls firmly within that trajectory.

Pray for the Justice Jesus Will Accomplish. In line with the messianic and eschatological framing of Psalm 137 within the Psalter itself, the New Testament alludes to the judgment prayer of Ps 137:8 when narrating the eschatological judgment Jesus will exercise when the Davidic Son of God returns in glory to cleanse the world of wickedness, consummate his kingdom, and renew the cosmos as the temple of Yahweh.

Paul declares in 2 Thess 1:6–7 that God “considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you . . . when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels,” echoing the psalm’s expectation of one who repays Babylon with what she has done to Israel. Even more explicitly, Revelation 18 envisions the final fall of the Babylon-esque world system in language pulled from Psalm 137 and the related oracles of Jeremiah 50–51, depicting the definitive interruption of the line of the wicked at Christ’s return as God’s answer to his promises and the psalmist’s prayer.

Jesus, the seed of David, will administer perfect justice and drive out all unrighteousness when he comes to renew the world as the holy—and wholly joyful—dwelling place of God with his people. Every prayer that whispers “Come quickly, Lord Jesus” pleads for the same basic reality for which Psalm 137 yearns.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, waiting for the actualization of God’s promises and the full restoration of his kingdom in the midst of suffering, oppression, and dehumanizing violence?

Psalm 137, a song to the Lord, is the answer to its own question. We sing for justice. We sing for the advent of the promised king. In that hope of God’s perfect justice, as the book of Revelation so clearly communicates, is the power to persevere in faithful witness to the way of the Lamb even unto death (Rev 12:11). Maranatha.

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Dear Louise Perry

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Thank you so much for your extraordinary book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. It must have taken courage to write, and at times the writing must have been traumatic. The damage caused by the sexual revolution (especially to young women) that you so clearly describe makes for painful reading.

Your conclusions are fascinating and it is incredibly refreshing to read such a staunch defence of the benefits of monogamous marriage. Of course, coming from my own conservative Christian perspective I would say this, but you identify ‘goods’ of marriage in a way that, sadly, even some Christians have lost sight of.

I’d like to push you further though, as I think your commitment to a contemporary liberal worldview keeps you from embracing your own conclusions as clearly as you should.

You write that “The institution of marriage, as it once was, is now more or less dead.” I would agree with this statement – and grieve it. You also put your finger on the nub of why this is the case: that, “Where once marriage was all about reproduction and the pooling of resources, it is now more often understood as a means of sexual and emotional fulfilment.” It is (as you again identify, as has Mark Regnerus previously) primarily technology that has forced this shift – in this case the reproductive technology of the pill. Without the risk of pregnancy women have been ‘freed’ to act sexually like men and the nature of relationships has dramatically changed; although as you point out, the pill is not as failproof as generally imagined.

Where I think you join the wrong dots, or at least join the dots wrong, is in concluding that because the institution of marriage as it was is dead, and because the shape of relationships has shifted to be more about personal fulfilment than creating a family, we should “extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, who necessarily lack ‘sexual-reproductive complementarity’.” This is a rephrasing of the arguments made when same-sex marriage was legalised that extending marriage does not weaken marriage. I would argue the contrary, and I suspect in your heart of hearts you agree with me.

In order for your advice to be taken seriously, that women should, “Get married. And do your best to stay married. Particularly if you have children, and particularly if those children are still young”, we need to – somehow – work for the institution of marriage to be rebuilt. In order for it to be rebuilt it has to stand for something, and that something always was about conceiving and caring for children. By extending marriage to those, “who necessarily lack ‘sexual-reproductive complementarity’” a very important message is communicated: the message that marriage is simply a personal lifestyle choice, divorced from any greater good.

I’d like you to go the whole way: not only to recognise that monogamous marriage is the best system we have for safeguarding women but that to safeguard women requires us to safeguard marriage. In our laws around who can marry, how divorce can happen, how tax benefits should be applied, and so on, we should be doing all we can to rebuild the institution of marriage, because that is the only way we can start to heal the damage wrought by the sexual revolution.

You are right to say that, “The marriage system that prevailed in the West up until recently was not perfect, nor was it easy for most people to conform to, since it demanded high levels of tolerance and self-control.” Yes, marriage can be difficult but our mistake has been to try and make it easier. It really is the institution that is our best hope for creating a society where there is more sexual health than disease.

Then, of course, I’d like you to take the final step – to recognise that the institution of marriage cannot only be safeguarded by cultural and policy decisions but by seeing it as God intended it to be: a model and picture of the relationship between Christ and his people. It is grasping this theological, spiritual, reality that transforms marriage and makes it something that is truly good, both for those in the marriage, and for society more broadly. That’s my prayer for you, and for us: the poor beleaguered sons and daughters of the sexual revolution.

Thanks again for the book. I wish you all best in your future writing and campaigning; and in your marriage.

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Newfrontiers, Global

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Anyone who calls their annual conference “Global” is taking a bit of a risk. It could all too easily become a name which looks good on a logo, or in a vision statement, but simply does not reflect reality (cue all the obvious jokes about the “World Series.”) If you’re going to talk about being a global movement, as we emphatically and passionately do in Newfrontiers, you need to make sure that the people invited, the subjects discussed, the vision cast, the prayers raised and the leadership represented all reflect that vision. It is a high bar. But at last week’s conference in Cyprus, from my perspective at least, that bar was cleared with room to spare.

You can tell from the languages. In just three days, I heard people speaking (or singing) from the microphone in Albanian, Arabic, Bemba, Bulgarian, Chinese, English, French, Greek, Hindi, Igbo, Kurdish, Portuguese, Russian, Shangana, Shona, Spanish, Swahili, Turkish, Ukrainian and Urdu, and I know I missed at least one. I haven’t done the maths, but I would hazard a guess that four out of every five people alive today can speak at least one of those languages, and it could be more. This wasn’t just a conference that looked international. It sounded international too.

You can tell from the prayers. At most Western conferences, the central feature of the event—the bit that gets the plum slot in the programme, where the meeting overruns, the band go nuts and the delegates spend the rest of the week talking about it—is a main stage tubthumping sermon of some kind. At Global, it is one of the prayer meetings. And the focus of those prayer meetings is almost always the Majority World: famine in Kenya, persecution in South Asia and the Middle East, church planting in Mexico and West Africa, frontier mission in nations that you can’t even mention in an article like this. The miracles and testimonies we heard about from many of those places make you want to dance. The challenges and opposition we heard about make you want to cry. Plenty of us did both.

You can tell from the mealtimes. To take just one example: you’re sitting at dinner with five Russian speakers, one of whom (probably the person who works the hardest at the entire conference) is translating everything, both ways. You hear a story of a paralysed person being healed in Baku. You hear another story about the work among unreached peoples in the high Arctic, with the pastor who originally travelled there. You hear how the war in Ukraine is affecting the churches in both countries. You discover that unbeknownst to you, one of your courses has been translated into Russian through the Broadcast Network, and is being used right now to train leaders. You talk about which resources have been translated, and which ones need to be. You hear Russian jokes about English people, and laugh together. Then you have baklava.

Most strikingly, you can tell from the focus in the hosting of the meetings, the prophetic ministry, and the preaching. The typical Western preoccupations—from size, systems and processes to cultural influence, intradenominational squabbles and sexual ethics—were refreshingly absent. (Regular readers will know I care a lot about several of these things. But it’s delightful to be at conferences where they are not allowed to dominate the agenda.) The first main session saw a Zimbabwean pastor preaching on suffering. The second message, from someone who spent seven years planting a church in Istanbul, considered the diversity of the global church through the lens of Ephesians 1-4, complete with some fairly robust application for us. The third was a deeply moving message on persecution from an Indian pastor, whose (sadly unshareable) stories sounded like they had come straight out of the book of Acts. The fourth saw a young couple from London raise the intergenerational challenge for us, and the fifth was a beautiful summary of the whole conference, complete with some profound reflections on unity, difference, sameness and togetherness.

And you can tell from the reactions: from Terry Virgo, Kemi Koleoso, Mike Betts, Edward Buria, and many others. (Those names may or may not be familiar to you, but they are basically people who pray more in a day than many of us do in a week.) No doubt the fact that we have been unable to meet for three years, with all the sense of loss that brings, is part of that repsonse. But it was not just that. This was a genuinely global conference, in purpose and in unity.

For a family of churches that has been held together for years by our conviction that we are more together than apart, it was a joy, an honour and a challenge to be there. Which is just as it should be. The church is always bigger than you think.

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The Need for Roots

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A few years ago I noticed how many of my favourite authors were writing during or immediately after World War II. It had not occurred to me before, and I wondered why it might be the case.

There are probably some stylistic reasons. Their language is near enough to our own day not to sound arcane, and the crispness, simplicity and visual quality of their prose has been shaped by the advent of the cinema. Their works are also marked by a deep awareness of radical evil, which is hardly surprising given the times in which they lived. It gives their essays an urgency, and their poetry and fiction a cosmic drama that few writers before or since have achieved: think of Big Brother and Room 101, Sauron and Saruman, Lord of the Flies, the White Witch, Animal Farm, and the role of sin and the devil in Graham Greene’s novels.

So it is fascinating how often their responses to radical evil involve an appeal to history. Sometimes this comes as a direct address to the reader, like James Baldwin’s writings on race, Hannah Arendt‘s on revolution, Leszek Kołakowski’s on communism, Isaiah Berlin’s on liberalism, or Dorothy Sayers’s Creed or Chaos. T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden do it through their numerous references and allusions. Greene and Flannery O’Connor draw on their Catholicism. C. S. Lewis makes the point through essays on why we should read old books, and by skewering chronological snobbery at every opportunity, from That Hideous Strength to the fates of Uncle Andrew and King Miraz in the Narnia stories.

J. R. R. Tolkien does it through his medieval language and setting, his complex prehistories, and his plot: remember Sam on the edge of Mount Doom, reminiscing about the Shire and reminding Frodo of the old stories long before totalitarian evil seized the world. Simone Weil’s greatest work is entitled L’Enracinement, usually translated The Need for Roots. Most powerfully of all, George Orwell creates worlds where nobody remembers the past, and where those in power, from the pigs in Animal Farm to the Party in 1984, are free to manipulate it for their own purposes, throwing unwanted recollections down the memory hole. “History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” All of these writers had witnessed the near-collapse of the West in recent memory, and they knew the dangers of losing their history, and the importance of not allowing it.

We do not have to look too hard for contemporary equivalents. History is the most contested of subject areas, now as then, because (as Orwell pointed out) those who control the past control the future. If you want to prevent twenty-first century Christians from preaching the gospel, pursuing social reform and holding fast to orthodox faith, then history is your friend: just cast eighteenth century missionaries as rapacious villains, nineteenth century reformers as patrician moralists, and the defence of biblical authority in the twentieth century as a thinly disguised power play, and browbeaten believers will flee the public square like rabbits in the field when the fox arrives. Conversely, if you want to ensure that the divisions and injustices of the eighteenth century Church continue into the present, give people a triumphalist historical narrative of evangelistic breakthrough, social transformation and spiritual revival, while carefully omitting the egregious racial, sexual and political failures of their heroes. Paint goodies and baddies in lurid colour, and make all historical context a vague, indecipherable pastille grey. Rinse, wash, repeat.

We are storytelling creatures, so narrating origin stories is inevitable. Indeed, since it is impossible to be theologically neutral when it comes to history, narrating theological origin stories is probably inevitable. The only question is whether those origin stories are true, good and beautiful: whether they reflect what really happened and why; whether they nudge us towards courageous humility and love; whether they recount the wondrous deeds of the Lord alongside the successes and failures of human beings. The arrogance of amnesia is always a threat, not least in periods of great technological and economic change, and so is the defeatism born of weary cynicism about flawed ancestors. So it is vital, as the Psalms and the prophets remind us, to remember.

And to that end, Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West will be out next September.

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How Not to Manage Change

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John Stevens, the National Director of the FIEC, has written an excellent piece on what pastors can learn from Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng's calamitous mini-budget and its aftermath. The whole debacle has provided "an inadvertent masterclass in how not to lead," he argues, and offers seven lessons on managing change:

1. Don’t exceed your mandate

The mini-budget exceeded any policy mandate that Truss has received. She had no mandate to cut the top rate of tax from the public, as it was not part of the 2019 election manifesto. She had no mandate from the Tory party members as it did not feature in her campaign promises. She had no mandate from the cabinet, as it had not been discussed. She had no mandate from her MPs, and they have rightly challenged and refused their support. Leadership is ultimately always by the consent of the led.

The equivalent would be a new pastor taking up his post and then seeking to change the church in ways that he had never shared during the appointment process. He should hardly be surprised if the church objects and opposes his proposals. You need a clear mandate to make radical changes.

2. Listen to advice

Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng apparently rejected expert advice that warned them of the inevitable consequences of their plans. Kwarteng had already sacked the senior civil servant in the Treasury because he wanted to abandon the ‘orthodoxy.’ They refused to heed the wisdom of their own economic experts. The calamitous impact of the mini-budget proposals had already been identified by Rishi Sunak in the leadership contest.

The reason they rejected advice is that they were self-confident in their own dogmatic ideological convictions. The equivalent is a pastor who seeks to change the church without seeking the advice of the wise older saints in the congregation, or of other experienced pastors who have seen it all before.

Self-confident dogmatism that will not listen to majority opinions destroys leadership credibility and churches. Beware of those who refuse to listen to advice.

3. Consult your senior team

The mini-budget proposals were apparently adopted without informing the cabinet. While it is often the case that specific budget measures are announced by the Chancellor without prior cabinet discussion of details, the broad framework of overall policy will have been discussed and shaped by wider cabinet discussion. This ensures collective responsibility. The new government had hardly had a chance to discuss economic strategy.

The equivalent would be a new pastor implementing policy without first gaining the consent of the eldership, or in a more congregational church model of the wider congregation. It is hardly surprising if the result is internal rebellion and loss of confidence.

4. Don’t announce a partial plan

The mini-budget failed to explain how the tax cuts were to be funded, leaving the impression of a vast hole in the public finances that would have to be plugged by additional borrowing. In fact, the government seems to have been contemplating significant reductions in public spending, though this was too damaging to reveal. The government wanted the benefit of the good news while trying to hide the bad news for a later day. The result was a plan that lacked coherence and was not believable.

The equivalent would be a new pastor implementing a radical plan for change that is wildly optimistic and takes no account of the costs, both financial and non-financial. Congregations and donors see straight-through fantasy proposals that lack realism. Effective leaders will be honest about the cost and risks as well as the benefits. Leaders who fail to anticipate this will quickly lose all credibility.

5. Accountability and transparency are vital

The PM and Chancellor apparently rejected the opportunity to receive an assessment of the budget proposal by the OBR (Office for Budget Responsibility). This is the independent body charged with keeping the government honest in its dealings with the economy. The PM and Chancellor tried to argue that an assessment would not be ready in time, but the OBR said that a report could have been produced and was offered. Even if this had not been possible, prudence would have waited for the report to evaluate the proposals. The refusal to await an OBR assessment feels like a deliberate attempt to avoid scrutiny and criticism of proposals that they knew would not stand up.

The equivalent would be a new pastor deliberately refusing to allow his plan to be scrutinised by the church treasurer, finance committee or deacons. It suggests he knows that there is something doggy about what he is doing, but he is determined to do it anyway. It suggests a refusal to be held to account and to act with transparent honesty that is open to question.

6. Take personal responsibility

When the hostility to the 45p highest tax-rate cut became apparent, Liz Truss was at pains in interviews to say that it had been the Chancellor’s decision. She distanced herself from the unpopular decision and seemed to be preparing herself to throw him under the bus to save her own skin. This is disingenuous. It seems inconceivable that he could have announced such a significant policy without her having first signed off on it. She is the PM, and it is the budget of her government. Passing responsibility to her subordinate ultimately makes her seem incompetent.

The equivalent would be a new pastor blaming those in more junior positions for the failure of a policy that he had advocated and implemented. This is cowardly and exposes his unsuitability to lead. Leaders need to take responsibility for their own mistakes, and senior leaders need to own their responsibility for the mistakes they allow their subordinates to make.

7. When you get it wrong, honestly acknowledge your failure

With some inevitability, the government has had to perform an embarrassing U-turn on the cut in the top rate of tax. They have sought to sell this as a virtue, claiming that it shows that they are ‘listening’. However, their explanation has been cloth-eared. The PM and Chancellor have explained their U-turn on the basis that the policy was a ‘distraction’ from their wider growth agenda. This suggests that they still think that the policy was right. There is no recognition of the moral repulsion felt by the public and many Conservative MPs at the idea of cutting tax for the very richest people in the country while ordinary people are facing a cost-of-living crisis.

The equivalent is a new pastor rapidly backtracking from unwise radical changes he has imposed, but who fails to properly acknowledge the mistake that he has made and the damage it has caused. It is a self-serving exculpation which suggests that he has not really learned better. A genuine apology has the potential to build leadership trust, but a purely political climbdown only exacerbates the problem in the long run.

The sad irony is that the government has implemented some good plans, such as the energy price cap which will protect the most vulnerable, but this has been eclipsed and forgotten by the perceived handout to the wealthiest. It is not too late for Liz Truss to redeem the situation, but she no doubt regrets having allowed herself to get into this mess. Once goodwill and credibility are squandered, they are very hard to rebuild. A newly appointed pastor begins with goodwill, optimism and the benefit of the doubt. It is foolish to waste it in unnecessary haste and unwanted radicalism.

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The Psychological Impact of Lockdown

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It is amazing how many dog owners seem to lack even a rudimentary understanding of canine psychology and behaviour. When two dogs meet and start to play very often one, other, or both owners will start to panic, saying things like, “Oh Jasper,” because these kinds of dog owners think their dogs are children and so give them human names, “do stop being so rough. Stop it, stop it, please.”

The way that dogs like to play can indeed look very rough to sheltered suburbanites. There is a lot of rolling around and bared teeth. But dogs are really wolves, and that’s what they like to do. When dog owners try to stop what is normal canine behaviour they tend to produce pets that are neurotic, nervous, or aggressive.

Human beings are not dogs, but like them we are social animals. There are natural patterns of human behaviour which if suppressed can result in psychological dissonance – rather like the dog that is never allowed to act like a dog.

The lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions that were imposed in response to the pandemic were an extended experiment in disrupting normal human behaviour. Unsurprisingly, we are now seeing the psychological dissonance this caused. A new study in the USA, involving 7000 participants, has looked at the impact of the pandemic on the ‘Big 5’ personality traits: extroversion versus introversion, agreeableness versus antagonism, conscientiousness versus lack of direction, neuroticism versus emotional stability, and openness versus closedness to experience.

The results of the study are sobering, showing that,

The pandemic appears to have negatively affected the following areas:
• our ability to express sympathy and kindness towards others (agreeableness);
• our capacity to be open to new concepts and willing to engage in novel situations (openness);
• our tendency to seek out and enjoy other people’s company (extraversion);
• our desire to strive towards our goals, do tasks well or take responsibilities towards others seriously (conscientiousness).

As well as the implications for society at large, there are things here for us to think about in our call to make disciples. I’ve heard many pastors lament that since the pandemic they have found a greater reluctance in their congregations to ‘engage’: fewer volunteers, less commitment, reduced socialising. These things all fly in the face of the biblical exhortations of how we are to ‘one another’ in the church. The study found that these trends were especially pronounced among the young, which is unsurprising, but again has implications for Christian community.

Whatever one’s personal perspective on the effectiveness or otherwise of covid NPIs (and regular readers will know that this blog was generally sceptical - a scepticism that looks increasingly well-founded) the longer-term impacts should concern us all. Lockdown was a mass experiment in behaviour modification. To do this with puppies would be one thing, to do it with people is quite another.

So we are going to have to work harder, because lockdown made the pastoral task harder. In the church we want people to take their responsibilities seriously, to seek out the company of others, to be open to new ideas, and to demonstrate love to one another. The good news is that we do not have to be conformed to the negative impacts of lockdown: we have been made alive in Christ and that frees us to put to death what is negative and clothe ourselves with all that is positive (Col.3:1-17). In Christ we can be what humans were really made to be.

 

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How Much Theological Education Do You Need?

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How much theological education do you need? It depends, obviously. If you're a pastor, responsible for preaching and teaching God's Word, you need a lot more than if you're a group leader, who might in turn need a lot more than a new convert. But whoever you are, you are called to grow in the knowledge of God, without in any way thinking that your knowledge makes you any more saved than anybody else. It can be a tricky line to walk.

My friend Dimeji Téibo has a wonderful way of thinking about this. Pilots need to know a lot about aeronautical engineering. They are responsible for the safety of the people on board their plane, and that means that they need to know not just the basics, but how to navigate dangerous crosswinds, land in hostile weather conditions, and so forth. A rudimentary knowledge is insufficient when you have other people’s destinies in your hands. For that reason, pilots spend years studying every possible eventuality - even the ones they think and hope will never crop up - so that if and when they are confronted by a dangerous threat, they can respond to it wisely and protect their passengers.

The cabin crew need to know a fair bit less. Plenty of practical eventualities will face the pilot that they will never encounter. There is also a bunch of theory, crucial for pilots to do their jobs properly, which is simply unnecessary for performing cabin crew tasks well. But at the same time, they need to know a lot more than the average passenger, for the simple reason that they are the people to whom the average passenger looks for reassurance and clarity when things get bumpy. They need to know what to do in the case of a crisis. They need to know the difference between minor turbulence and serious danger. They need to be able to handle awkward and obstreperous individuals, calling for help when necessary.

Ordinary passengers need to know very little. They might know a lot, but they don’t need to. They might only know the bare minimum: that even if you don’t grasp all the mechanics of it, you can trust this plane to take you safely to your destination. Ultimately, it is that faith that saves them, whether or not they can explain it in language that a pilot would find compelling. Indeed, they are carried by the plane every bit as safely as the pilot - despite the vast difference in levels of aeronautical education - for the simple reason that your knowledge cannot make you fly. Only entrusting yourself to another can do that.

Whoever has ears, let them hear. (And if you want to do some in-service training to sharpen your aeronautical awareness, our THINK conference next July is focusing on the Gospel of Matthew. Just saying.)

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The Case Against the Sexual Revolution

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Louise Perry has written a feminist critique of the sexual revolution, and it’s brave, excoriating, and magnificent.

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution isn’t a Christian book. Perry’s critique is rooted in evolutionary biology, feminist passion, and empirical observation, not biblical interpretation or theology. (We could of course argue that feminist passion is ultimately a product of biblical interpretation and theology, but that discussion can wait for another day.) Her language will offend some readers. She mentions practices and depravities that most of us would prefer never to think about. The devastating consequences of sexual “liberation” on vulnerable young women, particularly through loveless sex (chap. 4), pornography (chap. 5), sexual violence (chap. 6) and prostitution (chap. 7) are unsparingly exposed through analysis and personal narratives that can be deeply uncomfortable to read.

But it’s an outstanding book nonetheless: courageous, punchy, compellingly argued, and well written. From the haunting epigrams on the opening page to the delightfully robust conclusion, Perry—a New Statesman columnist and campaigner against male sexual violence—mounts a full-on assault against the sexual free market, the denial of male-female difference, the exploitation of women, the trivialization of sex, and “the matricidal impulse in liberal feminism that cuts young women off from the ‘problematic’ older generation” (189–90). If you have the stomach for it—and if you don’t, you can always skip chapters 5 to 7—you would do well to read it.

Perhaps the best way of summarizing The Case Against the Sexual Revolution is through the chapter titles: “Sex Must Be Taken Seriously” (chap. 1), “Men and Women Are Different” (chap. 2), “Some Desires Are Bad” (chap. 3). It almost sounds like a preaching series based on the opening chapters of Genesis. The echoes of Christian anthropology continue throughout the book, as Perry engages the various ways in which sex is distorted and abused in our culture (chap. 4–7) and concludes with “Marriage is Good” (chap. 8) and “Listen to Your Mother” (conclusion). Yet the rationale for each of these statements is empirical, not exegetical, and draws on peer-reviewed research rather than biblical authority.

Sexually speaking, Perry explains, men and women have different interests. These interests are rooted in biology and are as old as the hills. Some relate to the basic facts of life: the male contribution to creating a child takes minutes and costs nothing, while for the female it takes months and could cost everything. Some emerge from psychological differences, such as the statistical reality that men have a much higher desire for sociosexuality, or sexual variety, than women. Some are simply a function of anatomy; the differences in strength and speed between the average man and the average woman mean that men pose an incalculably greater physical risk to women than vice versa.

Every society has to work out how to balance these interests, and no way of doing it is flawless. But, Perry argues, “Western sexual culture in the twenty-first century doesn’t properly balance these interests—instead, it promotes the interests of the Hugh Hefners of the world at the expense of the Marilyn Monroes” (10–11). Powerful men win. Vulnerable women lose.

At the heart of this culture is the disenchantment of sex. Sex means nothing for the liberal feminists Perry is challenging; sexual intercourse is just a form of physical recreation, sex work is just a form of work, and any restrictions on either are nothing but outdated, patriarchal, Victorian prudery. Any way in which you want to express your sexuality is good, by definition: “A woman should be able to do anything she likes, whether that be selling sex or inviting consensual sexual violence, since all of her desires and choices must necessarily be good” (14).

But this, for Perry, is simply not true. Some desires are bad. “Liberal ideology flatters us by telling us that our desires are good and that we can find meaning in satisfying them, whatever the cost,” she explains. “But the lie of this flattery should be obvious to anyone who has ever realized after the fact that they were wrong to desire something, and hurt themselves, or hurt other people, in pursuing it” (20).

Many women (and no doubt men) make sexual choices they defend at the time as an expression of genuine desire but look back on later as products of environmental or social pressure, pornified expectations, fear, financial desperation, or coercion. Even the category of consent, which does a huge amount of work in a sexual culture like ours, is for many women an inadequately thin defense against unwanted male attention. Lots of the stories that came out as part of the #MeToo movement related to “sexual encounters that were technically consensual but nevertheless left [women] feeling terrible because they were being asked to treat as meaningless something they felt to be meaningful” (12).

Clearly a “sexual free market” (47), in which promiscuity and sexual experimentation are encouraged, chastity is sneered at, pornography is ubiquitous, and sex means nothing, is in some people’s interests. Powerful men with a high desire for sexual variety think it’s wonderful. So do people who can make money out of it. But it’s not in the interests of the vast majority of women, let alone their children. Perry puts it this way: “Research on male and female attitudes towards casual sex, combined with what we know about the sociosexuality gap, makes it clear that what is really happening here is that it is overwhelmingly women who are being advised to emotionally cripple themselves in order to gratify men” (81).

And the consequences of that development, tragically, aren’t limited to emotional damage. They extend to the abuses of the porn industry (94–113), the horrors of sexual violence (114–34), the myths and realities of prostitution (135–60), and the prevalence of campus rape. As Perry writes,

Few liberal feminists are willing to draw the link between the culture of sexual hedonism they promote and the anxieties over campus rape that have emerged at exactly the same time. If they did, they might be forced to recognize that they have done a terrible thing in advising inexperienced young women to seek out situations in which they are alone and drunk with horny men who are not only bigger and stronger than they are, but are also likely to have been raised on the kind of porn that normalizes aggression, coercion and pain. (15)

What, then, is the answer? If the “sexual Thatcherites” (64) are wrong to treat sex as a commodity which can be traded like any other, what’s the alternative? “I propose a different solution,” Perry writes, “based on a fundamental feminist claim: unwanted sex is worse than sexual frustration. I’m not willing to accept a sexual culture that puts pressure on people low in sociosexuality (overwhelmingly women) to meet the sexual demands of those high in sociosexuality (overwhelmingly men). . . . It should be men, not women, who adjust their sexual appetites” (79).

Practically, she suggests, that has implications for both men and women. Men should master their desires, practice chivalry, and opt out of porn altogether: “Giving it up costs the consumer nothing. . . . I’m telling you that you have an obligation to stop” (113). Women should date men within their social circle rather than people they’ve met online, wait months rather than hours before having sex with them, avoid getting drunk or high with men they don’t know, and only sleep with men who they think would make a good father to their children (187–88).

But how can this kind of behaviour be incentivized, rather than merely recommended? Perry’s primary solution is arrestingly obvious: “In order to change the incentive structure, we would need a technology that discourages short-termism in male sexual behaviour, protects the economic interests of mothers, and creates a stable environment for the raising of children. And we do already have such a technology, even if it is old, clunky and prone to periodic failure. It’s called monogamous marriage” (181).

Many of us find it refreshing to read accounts of our culture that, while not written from a Christian standpoint, still reflect a Christian perspective. Books like Tom Holland’s Dominion, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and now Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution can be both apologetically helpful and pastorally reassuring. They join the dots between social developments and biblical convictions and demonstrate there are good reasons to frame things in a Christian way, even if one doesn’t start with Christian presuppositions. Common grace goes a long way. This is the sort of book I can imagine leaving lying around just to see if anyone might pick it up and have a conversation about its contents.

At a personal level, one of my main responses to reading Perry’s argument was to weep and pray. I’m 43 now, and a member of the last generation of young men before internet pornography became nearly (but not quite) inescapable. I have two sons and a daughter and numerous young men and women in my church for whom the images, ideas, preferences, or even practices in Perry’s book are lived experiences rather than theoretical concepts. The challenges they face are different from mine, and in some ways I’d rather not know too much about them.

But as a father and a pastor, I can’t remain aloof. Books like this, as uncomfortable as they are in places, can remind me what young people (and our daughters in particular) are facing and stir me toward compassion, action, and prayer.

The modern sexual revolution was responding to real problems. But its solution, Perry argues, has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. It hasn’t delivered on its promises. Young people are having less (and less satisfying) sex than their parents or grandparents; divorce, abortion, sexual violence, and pornography have all shot up. And women have borne the brunt of it. Feminists, like Christians, should be saying so and writing books about it. Louise Perry has. You should read it.

This article first appeared on The Gospel Coalition’s website.

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Hope in the Wilderness

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A year from now, I have the huge privilege of speaking at The Gospel Coalition's conference in Indianapolis. The theme is Hope in the Wilderness: Encouragement for Pilgrims from the Book of Exodus, and I am already looking forward to it; it will be a wonderful opportunity to meet lots of people and hear what God is doing in all sorts of places I never get to visit, not to mention worshipping with and hearing from a great range of speakers (present company excepted). You can see the trailer and book here:

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The Power and the Glory

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I’ve been reading the Narnia stories the past few days, something I haven’t done in decades.

As well as a vocabulary that would probably be considered challenging in adult fiction today, let alone stories for children, there is a strain of social conservatism throughout the tales that would not be considered appropriate in our cultural moment. The social conventions of the 1950s were very different from those of the 2020s.

Lewis was writing the Narnia stories around the time that Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne: perhaps that was a subconscious link that prompted me to pick up the books again. Our Queen, for all the modernising tendencies of the Royals, was in many ways a figure of the 1950s. As has been repeatedly observed since her death, Elizabeth represented the mid-century, war-time, generation – she was the bridge between Imperial Britain and Cool Britannia. It was that living connection to the past that makes her death so significant.

The Queen’s funeral, too, was in many ways a 1950s event. The representation of women among the clergy and military apart, this was a deeply and deliberately ‘traditional’ event: a merciful absence of LGBT flags, no interfaith references during the service, discipline, uniforms. In its symbols and structures it could as well have been 1922 as 2022. What we saw was a display of power and glory.

That such a display should have caught the imaginations of so many people is fascinating. Power, in our world, is generally understood negatively. Through the lens of critical theory, power is oppressive and always held by the ‘wrong’ people. We do little better at understanding glory. We know what fame and celebrity are, but glory? Which means that in our world a verse like 1 Corinthians 11:7 is deeply troubling.

In Narnia Lewis is reaching for a depiction of power and glory. Things are not actually quite so socially conservative as they might seem: in Narnia a cabbie can become king, and little Lucy the most beloved of rulers. But whatever the sex or social background of the characters, it is the power and glory of Aslan that Lewis is wanting us to see – a power and glory that Aslan, in measure, is ready to share with the likes of the cabbie and Lucy.

Without access to power and glory the human race is terribly diminished. We enter the realm of cancel culture, of the White Witch. Of course, the promise of Christianity (and what Lewis was allegorising) is the hope of sharing in power and glory.

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
- 2 Corinthians 3:18

As Christians we must never lose sight of the wonder – the childlike wonder – that in Christ power and glory will be ours. In Her Majesty’s funeral we saw a glimpse of what power and glory are. in Christ, we will enter into its fullness.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
- 2 Corinthians 4:6

 

 

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A Patriotic Post

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If you can't be patriotic on the day of the Queen's funeral, when can you? So here's a heartwarming paragraph (at least for British readers) from Dominic Sandbrook's marvellous The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of our National Imagination:

Whether British culture is the world’s best is an unanswerable and ultimately pointless question. But it has a very good claim, pound for pound, to be its most successful. There is a strong case, of course, for American culture, but the facts and figures make interesting reading. Only Shakespeare and the King James Bible have sold more books than Agatha Christie. Almost half a century after they broke up, The Beatles are still comfortably the most successful musical group of all time. The Lord of the Rings is the second bestselling novel ever written, behind only A Tale of Two Cities. No children’s hero has ever sold more books than Harry Potter, not even Noddy or Thomas the Tank Engine. The James Bond films are the world’s longest-running film series; Doctor Who is its longest-running science fiction series; Coronation Street its longest-running television soap opera. Indeed, British television can claim to be one of the nation’s outstanding export industries. Between 2011 and 2014, Britain sold more than 600 shows abroad, six times as many as Germany, a country with a bigger economy and a bigger population. Sherlock is watched in some 200 countries, and when the second series began in China, the video site Youku Tudou reported almost 50 million hits. Downton Abbey, meanwhile, is watched in more than 250 countries, and has received more Emmy nominations than any other international series in history. Even Top Gear is sold to some 214 countries, more than any other factual programme on the planet. It even boasts a loyal audience in Iran, which protested fiercely when the BBC’s Persian channel dropped an episode for an exclusive interview with Hillary Clinton. The world could hardly say it had not been warned. ‘The British are coming!’ yelled Colin Welland, accepting his Oscar for Chariots of Fire in 1982. But few people could have guessed that Jeremy Clarkson would be leading the charge.

What has any of this got to do with theology? Actually quite a lot, for reasons that I might well get into some time. But not today. God save the King.

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Remaking the World

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This summer I finished the draft of a book I've been working on for nearly four years. It will be published this time next year, with the likely title being Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West. Regular readers will know how excited I am about this, but may have little idea of why I've written it. (The short answer is: to explain why the modern world is the way it is, so the church can understand, serve and love it better.) So over the next few months I'll publish some excerpts, make some wider comments, and try to explain why someone who is interested in contemporary culture should consider reading it.

Today, though, I will start as simply as possible: with the table of contents. Everybody knows that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (though we do), let alone by its endorsements (though we might). But if you must assess a book by looking at just one page, I reckon the contents page is the best way to do it. Here goes:

    Part One: Changes

1. Roots: The Presence of the Past

2. Quirks: The WEIRDER World

    Part Two: Origins

3. Maps: Becoming Western

4. Patriots: Becoming Democratic

5. Lights: Becoming Educated

6. Sceptics: Becoming Ex-Christian

7. Machines: Becoming Industrialised

8. Lovers: Becoming Romantic

9. Profits: Becoming Rich

    Part Three: Responses

10. Christians: Grace, Freedom and Truth

11. Opportunities: Hamilton, Hunger Games and Human Rights

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Saved Times Twelve

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I recently finished Dane Ortlund's marvellous book Deeper, which has certainly been one of the devotional highlights of my year so far. Of the many excellent things he says, one that particularly struck me was the twelvefold summary of salvation he provides in his chapter on union with Christ. He summarises our rescue, and what we are consequently "no longer", as follows:

1. Justification—the lawcourt metaphor—no longer condemned (Rom 5:1)
2. Sanctification—the cultic metaphor—no longer defiled (1 Thess 4:3)
3. Adoption—the familial metaphor—no longer orphaned (Rom 8:15)
4. Reconciliation—the relational metaphor—no longer estranged (2 Cor 5:18-20)
5. Washing—the physical cleansing metaphor—no longer dirty (Titus 3:5)
6. Redemption—the slave-market metaphor—no longer enslaved (Eph 1:7)
7. Purchase—the financial metaphor—no longer in debt (1 Cor 6:20)
8. Liberation—the captivity metaphor—no longer imprisoned (Rev 1:5)
9. New birth—the physical generation metaphor—no longer nonexistent (John 3:3-7)
10. Illumination—the light metaphor—no longer blind (2 Cor 4:4-6)
11. Resurrection—the bodily metaphor—no longer dead (Eph 2:6)
12. Union with Christ—the organic metaphor—no longer on our own (1 Cor 1:30)

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An Insight Into Influencers

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Who are the most influential people in the lives of teenagers? Most of the potential answers to that question probably haven’t changed much across centuries and cultures: parents, siblings, wider family, friends and educators. But now, in the 21st century, we have to add to that list YouTubers and social media content creators.

It’s not for no reason that such people are often just referred to as ‘influencers’. They are a group who have an unprecedented opportunity to influence young people, being always just a few taps away on a device that almost all young people will have by their side at all times. Couple that with the fact that young people today often have a suspicion of authorities and experts and a belief that real-life experiences are the only reliable source of truth, and you have a group of people who wield amazing power to influence teenagers and young adults.

And this is certainly what we are seeing in relation to the topic of transgender. Teenagers are learning a very particular perspective on gender and trans experience from online influencers. Admittedly the online world isn’t the only place such learning is happening, friendship groups and even school classes are often also involved, but there’s no doubt that influencers are living up to their name when it comes to this topic. Rarely will you ever hear the story of a trans-identifying teen where the internet, usually YouTube or Reddit, doesn’t feature prominently.

What is it that young people are hearing about gender from these influencers? Well, you could spend hours trawling through a lot of videos or discussion pages to get an idea, or you could just read Juno Dawson’s What’s the T? This book is Dawson’s guide for teenagers to all things trans. I’ve just finished reading it, and I’m struck by how clearly it articulates the trans narrative that many young people are being exposed to. If you want to understand the messages being sent to teenagers today, this is a book to read.

Here are a few key elements of that message that are illustrated in What’s the T?

Identity

It’s all about identity. In fact, the first part of the book is titled ‘All about identity’. Who you feel yourself to be is who you really are. Your body doesn’t dictate your identity, and neither does how others view you. No one else can tell you who you are; only you can decide that. And this is really important. Getting your identity right, living that out, being true to yourself – these are the things that are vital to a happy and healthy life. It’s down to you – who are you?

Opposition

Anyone who doesn’t agree with this understanding of trans experience is, at best, uneducated, and, at worst, outright evil. They are to be ignored and cut out of our lives with no debate or discussion. This isn’t one perspective among many which can be explored and discussed in a respectful, mature way. This is the truth and you either accept that or you’re out. As one chapter title puts it, ‘Other people are the problem’. Parents are often a particular problem. That won’t always be the case – some parents will recognise who you really are – but not all will. Sometimes you’ll want to keep all this secret from them for quite a while. You might need to find other people you can trust, maybe your friends at school or a trans community online.

Education

Since this is the only correct and acceptable viewpoint, education is key. Dawson, like other similar influencers, is one of the enlightened who has learnt the mystical truths of gender and transgender. This book is a kind invitation to also be welcomed into that not-so-secret society. Those who don’t agree have not been suitably educated and need to take the time to get educated or else should not speak on the topic. And of course, the only people who can really be trusted are people with personal experience themselves. Don’t turn to traditional experts like doctors or academics (unless they are also trans), and don’t turn to those you know and have reason to trust (like parents or church leaders). Turn to the people who really know ­– trans people. You can find them easily enough online.

Rights

Trans rights are human rights. The freedom to self-identify is a right. The freedom to change your name, pronouns, clothing style and body is a right. The freedom to choose what single-sex spaces you will use is a right. This means that not only does no one have the freedom to question any of these things (that’s definitely not a right), everyone has a duty to fight for them to be recognised in society and enshrined in law.

It’s not hard to see some of the problems and dangers in these perspectives. What’s the T? is at times a slightly infuriating read because of its harsh intolerance and incredible inconsistencies, but it is also a helpful read.

Unsurprisingly, this perspective on trans experience resonates with young people who want to know who they are, who care about justice and fairness, who have seen good reasons to distrust traditional authorities, and who want a sense of belonging. This perspective connects so easily with young people because it meets them where they’re at. The question we therefore need to wrestle with is, how do we make the biblical perspective connect with where young people today are at?

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Mapping Culture

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I had never come across the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map until recently, but it looks absolutely fascinating and the sort of thing that those in cross-cultural ministry might find interesting. The X-axis measures survival versus self-expression, and the Y-axis measures traditional versus secular values.

The key thing is the numerical data rather than the coloured shapes; at least one of the groupings (“African-Islamic”) sounds a bit arbitrary to me. But if you have a lot more people from Hong Kong, or Ukraine, in your community now than you did three years ago (like we do), it might be worth reflecting on how these cultural differences cash out in practice.

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The Ages of the Patriarchs

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The ages of the patriarchs follow an intriguing pattern, notes Alastair Roberts:

Abraham died at 175 (Gen 25:7): 52 x 7
Isaac died at 180 (Gen 35:28): 62 x 5
Jacob died at 147 (Gen 47:28): 72 x 3
Joseph died at 110 (Gen 50:22): 52 + 62 + 72

Joseph, it seems, is a summation of the patriarchs. He brings blessing to all the nations on earth, like Abraham. He is the child of his father’s old age who is nearly sacrificed, like Isaac. He is hated by his brother(s) and leaves his homeland, but is ultimately reconciled to them, like Jacob. There is probably more to it than that; I’m about to start James Jordan’s book on the patriarchs, so I’m sure I’ll find out.

There is plenty of weird numerology out there, as Alastair would be among the first to admit. But for those with eyes to see, there is plenty of meaningful numerology too. You can listen to the discussion here:

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The THINK Conference is Back!

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Save the dates: the THINK Conference is back next year, from 4-6 July in London, and we're going to be looking at Matthew's Gospel. I can't wait! You can get all the information and register here.

Matthew is the first Gospel for a reason. It is the only one of the four to contain all the major events in the Jesus story (nativity, baptism and temptation; teaching, healings, exorcisms and parables; transfiguration and confrontation; triumphal entry, crucifixion, resurrection and great commission). Its portrait of the kingdom is uniquely detailed and challenging. It is intricately and magnificently structured along literary, theological and even geographical lines. Many passages that Christianity would be unimaginable without - the wise men, the Sermon on the Mount, “come to me all who are weary,” “I will build my church,” the workers in the vineyard, the sheep and the goats - appear only in Matthew. It tells the story of Jesus as the story of Israel, from Genesis, Exodus and Law to Prophets, Exile and Return. And the Jesus we encounter here radiates paradoxical glory: unifying and divisive, rejected and victorious, zealous and holy, gentle and lowly.

So for three days in July 2023, we will immerse ourselves in this magnificent book: reading, worshipping, studying and building friendships. The conference will be hosted by Andrew Wilson (King’s Church, London) and will include plenary sessions, breakout discussions, meals together, and time for Q&A.

The cost of THINK 2023 is £150 per person, which includes tea, coffee, and meals together at lunchtime and in the evenings, but does not include breakfast or overnight accommodation in London. We will begin at 3:30pm on the Tuesday, and finish with lunch on the Thursday, at King’s Church London King’s Church London, 21 Meadowcourt Road, London, SE3 9DU.

Come. Take time. Be refreshed. Think.

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Why Does Jesus Sound So Different in John’s Gospel?

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Anyone who has ever read the Gospels will have wondered how to square Jesus's language and style in John with his language and style in the Synoptics. Did Jesus talk — to his disciples, his opponents and his Father — like he does in John, or like he does in Mark? There are obvious points of overlap, not least the shared miracle stories, the passion and resurrection narratives, the emphatic speech ("truly, truly"), and the so-called "Johannine thunderbolt" of Matthew 11:25-30. And there are numerous contextual factors that account for some of the change of style. The Synoptics have a different focus to John when it comes to geography (Sea of Galilee vs Jerusalem), timing (all year round vs major festivals), mood (support vs opposition) and audience (generic crowds vs specific individuals), all of which would naturally affect the choice of words and the structure of conversations. But even so, there remains a marked difference between the way the Synoptic Jesus talks ("the kingdom of heaven is like ...", "once there was a man who ...", "blessed are the ...", "what man among you will ...") and the way the Johannine Jesus talks ("this is eternal life ...", "I am the ...", "I in you and you in me ...", "you shall know the truth", and so forth).

The standard way of explaining that phenomenon has been to distinguish between the ipsissima vox (very voice) and the ipsissima verba (exact words) of Jesus. The Gospels do not give us the exact words of Jesus. Apart from anything else, they are written in Greek and Jesus was speaking in Aramaic. But they do give us the very voice of Jesus, represented (or re-presented) accurately but differently by the four evangelists. Here are a few ways of thinking about it I have found helpful.

First, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin: “The prayer [of John 17] is not a free invention of the evangelist; nor is it a tape recording of the words of Jesus. It is a representation of what Jesus was doing when he prayed in the presence of his disciples during the supper, a re-presentation which rests upon the authority of the Beloved Disciple guided by the Holy Spirit.”

Second, the Victorian poet Robert Browning (emphasis added):

Since much that at the first, in deed and word,
Lay simply and sufficiently exposed,
Had grown (or else my soul was grown to match,
Fed through such years, familiar with such light,
Guarded and guided still to see and speak)
Of new significance and fresh result;
What first were guessed as points, I now knew stars,
And named them in the Gospel I have writ.

Third, explaining Browning’s meaning to a contemporary audience, the Johannine scholar John Ashton: “To account for the Fourth Gospel we have to accord its author a quite exceptional vision. For the object of that vision Browning chose the word stars. The evangelist’s word was glory.”

And finally David Ford, from whose commentary I drew all these references: “In other words, it is testimony distilled and enriched by the Spirit, who ... ‘will guide you into all the truth ... and ... will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you’” (emphasis added).

Testimony distilled and enriched by the Spirit. Beautiful.

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My Last Year of Leadership Training

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I have been running Leadership Training courses for fifteen years, and this year will be my last. I have loved every minute of it, and in many ways I wish I could carry on for another fifteen years; it is a continuous joy to see former trainees leading ministries or churches, all over the country, and know that we played a part in equipping them. But sadly, there are only so many hours in the week, and I am away from home a lot these days. The hour has come.

The basic idea of the course has always been the same: to provide in service training for those in church leadership, with forty days of training over two years covering biblical and systematic theology (twenty days), and leadership skills in areas like preaching, pastoral care, finance, evangelism, contextualisation, discipleship and spiritual gifts (twenty days). But the way of delivering that content has changed a lot. The structure of the syllabus and the range of speakers today are almost completely different from what they were in 2008. No doubt both of these things will look completely different again in fifteen years’ time.

I mention all this because it is possible that you, or somebody in your church, might be interested in joining us. (By “us,” I mean “forty or fifty men and women, some of whom work for the church and some of whom do not, who want to broaden their leadership skills and deepen their theology.”) Training takes place in Milton Keynes, for one Friday/Saturday block per month, and my (admittedly not very neutral) opinion is that it’s superb. You can get all the information here.

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A Gospel of Abundance

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John is a Gospel of abundance. What a terrific opening to a commentary from David Ford:

“From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). John is a Gospel of abundance. The prologue first sounds this note; the first sign that Jesus does turns a huge amount of water into good wine; the Spirit is a wind that blows where it will and is given “without measure” (3:34); the “living water” that Jesus gives is “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14); when Jesus feeds five thousand with five loaves, there are twelve baskets of fragments left over; through Jesus there is abundance of glory, healing, light, life, truth, fruitfulness, joy, and love; the last sign that Jesus does brings about a large catch of big fish; and John’s closing sentence responds to the impossible task of writing all that could be said about what Jesus did: “If every one of them were written down, I suppose that the whole world could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).

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Do Not Be Ashamed

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Wise, beautiful and haunting counsel from Wendell Berry:

You will be walking some night
in the comfortable dark of your yard
and suddenly a great light will shine
round about you, and behind you
will be a wall you never saw before.
It will be clear to you suddenly
that you were about to escape,
and that you are guilty: you misread
the complex instructions, you are not
a member, you lost your card
or never had one. And you will know
that they have been there all along,
their eyes on your letters and books,
their hands in your pockets,
their ears wired to your bed.
Though you have done nothing shameful,
they will want you to be ashamed.
They will want you to kneel and weep
and say you should have been like them.
And once you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.
They will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach. Be ready.
When their light has picked you out
and their questions are asked, say to them:
“I am not ashamed.” A sure horizon
will come around you. The heron will begin
his evening flight from the hilltop.

(HT Jake Meador)

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Lessons From a Week Teaching Teenagers About Sex

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Last week, I had the amazing privilege of being at Newday and heading up a team running a seminar stream called ‘Sex Questions’. Our aim across five sessions was to help young people to ask, discuss and wrestle with some of the big questions we all have about sex and relationships. We talked about sex (‘Why does God care?’), sexuality (‘Does God love gay people?’), porn (‘What’s the harm?’), and dating (‘How do I do it right?’).

It was an amazing week that I feel has given me helpful insights into where some of the teenagers connected to our churches are at when it comes to questions around sex and relationships. Here are a few of the things I learned.

Teenagers want to learn about sex and relationships

Every one of the main seminars in the stream was packed out with teenagers and youth leaders. In the seminar on sexuality, 130 questions were anonymously submitted in the space of just one hour! An afternoon discussion on the same topic gathered four or five times the number that came to a similar session four years ago.

There is a huge appetite among young people to wrestle with big questions about sex and relationships. They want to hear teaching on these topics; they want to have a chance to ask their questions. This should be a challenge and an encouragement to all churches and youth leaders: our young people have lots of questions and they want to hear what we have to say about them. We need to be offering them spaces where they can hear a biblical perspective and where they can feel safe to ask their questions and think through the answers.

Teenagers hold a range of perspectives

This was a point that surprised me. I expected the majority of young people coming to the seminars to have views strongly shaped by a secular sexual ethic. Many of them do seem to have been shaped by that ethic, but the questions and conversations across the week revealed a broader range of perspectives than I expected. Some young people did seem highly influenced by our secular culture, but some seemed to be at the other end of the spectrum with very conservative (and I’d say equally unbiblical) beliefs such as that the very experience of same-sex attraction is something for which we incur guilt before God. There were also young people somewhere in the middle whose main concern was how to love their gay friends well and how not to come across as homophobic.

This range of views makes it complicated to know the right starting point from which to engage young people on these topics, but it reminds us of the importance of having conversations and finding out the perspectives and questions of the young people we get to serve.

Teenagers care about justice and fulfilment

The most common objection to the biblical sexual ethic was: ‘Is it fair that some people don’t get to be in a loving relationship?’ For some young people, this seemed to be a question motivated by justice: ‘Isn’t this unfair discrimination against gay people?’. For others, it seemed to be rooted in a belief that sex and romance are necessary for fulfilment: ‘How could God deny us something we need?’.

Young people today care deeply about all people being treated fairly and about all people having the chance to experience fulfilment in life. Both of those are really good things to care about because they are things that God also really cares about. We need to help young people to see that their sense of justice only makes sense because of what God has said about humanity and that he is even more passionate about justice than they are. Within that, we need to help them see that God’s parameters for sex and relationships are not unjust but are good for all. We also need to help young people see that God cares about us experiencing fulfilment in life, but that such fulfilment can only come through relationship with Jesus and not through romantic or sexual relationships. Jesus’ promise of fullness of life – effectively his way of talking about enjoying our best life – is a powerful way we can communicate the gospel to Gen Z.

Teenagers want detail but also need the big picture

Our aim was to root everything in the big picture of God’s plan for sex and relationships. We were exploring God’s purpose in designing sex and marriage and how that impacts the way we seek to live in order to honour God and flourish as sexual beings. We were trying to avoid the classic approach to youth talks which has often focussed on dos and don’ts. While we were giving big picture dos and don’ts – because they are God’s guidelines for our flourishing – it was noticeable from the questions coming in that the young people wanted more direct and detailed guidelines. (The questions also revealed what a wide range of sexual practices young people are being exposed to today.)

I’m still convinced that young people need a deep understanding of the bigger picture. If we don’t understand why God has designed sex and marriage (to be signposts pointing to Jesus), we can’t understand his specific instructions. In reality, we don’t always know the questions we need to ask, so sometimes our role as teachers and pastors is to help people ask the right questions. But I also think I learnt that there is a place for direct and detailed guidelines if it is built on that big picture foundation. My hope is that youth leaders will be able to take the big picture we have tried to paint and use it as a basis from which to discuss some of the details with their young people.

Teenagers are acutely aware of gender

We didn’t directly engage with questions of gender identity and transgender within the seminar series, but it was clear from the questions coming in that these topics are at the forefront of young people’s minds. Some young people were asking about God’s perspective on trans experience. Many were asking about how biblical sexual ethics work for trans people. On hearing that the biblical pattern for marriage is one man and one woman, many young people seemed to instinctively wonder how that works for trans people. I wonder if this reveals that for many teenagers trans is not an issue of ethics but an issue of practicalities. The primary concern is not how individuals should respond to trans experience but how we make space for trans people within our sexual ethics. This might suggest quite wide acceptance of an affirming approach to trans experience among many young people.

If my analysis of the situation is anywhere near being right, it’s a reminder of how important it is that we engage with young people on the topic of gender and the more fundamental topic of identity. I’ve shared some thoughts on how we can do that well here.

God is still at work

Running the Sex Questions seminar stream highlighted to me many things about today’s teenagers and reminded me of how much things have changed since I was a teenager. But the week also highlighted and reminded me of one thing that has not changed: God is still at work.

Across the week, I had the absolute privilege of sitting down with a number of teenagers who love Jesus, want to faithfully follow him and who also experience same-sex attraction. They were wrestling with exactly the same questions and expressing exactly the same fears that I was facing, even on that very campsite, when I was their age.

As we chatted, I could see the evidence of God at work: he has set his love on these young people, has brought them into his family and is now helping them to work out what it looks like to take up their cross and follow him on the path that can look like death but is actually life. So much in the world around us has changed since I sat in seminars on sexuality on that campsite over 10 years ago. I’ve no doubt that in many ways it’s far harder for young Christians to work through questions of sexuality today. But Newday also left me in no doubt that God is still at work. He’s seeking and saving, sanctifying and sustaining. He’s helping young people to work through their big questions about sex, relationships and following Jesus.

You can listen to all of the seminars below:

Sex: Why does God care?

Sexuality: Does God love gay people?

A chat with some gay Christians

Porn: What’s the harm?

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New Day, New Surprises

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I have been going to Newday since 2004, so there shouldn't be any surprises left. But this year was different. There had been no event for three years because of Covid; there was no Big Top; up to half the delegates had never been before; and one of the delegates who had never been before was my teenage son, so it was also a brand new experience for me personally. Despite myself, I kept being astonished by things. Here are ten examples.

1. The ingenuity of the production team. After being told at the last minute that the Big Top would not be available due to staffing shortages, the Newday team had four days to figure out what they were going to do, and how they were going to assemble a festival stage in the middle of summer when all of the usual options are already booked. The results were astonishing. Six thousand teenagers in a field (inevitably christened the Big Topless), all of whom were able to see everything, hear every word and experience it all under a sunset sky.

2. The speed with which teenagers adjust. As the first song begins on the opening night, you look around and wonder whether corporate worship is going to work in this setting, with no roof, no darkness, and an absence of three years meaning that many of the young people know none of the songs and look slightly startled by the scale of things. An hour and a half later, those same teenagers are raising their hands, jumping for joy and singing their hearts out, and many of them have streamed to the front to respond to the gospel for the first time.

3. The lengths that 12-14s will go to if it means they will get on the stage. If you’ve never seen the wonder that is I’d Do Anything, then you haven’t seen youth events as they are meant to be.

4. The seamlessness of the transition to the next generation of leaders. Present company excepted, it’s hard to think of a single person on the main stage who would have been there in 2015. Ben Rowe’s leadership of the event, Rebekah Walker’s hosting, the preaching from Joe Macnamara, TJ Koleoso, Taylor Bentliff and Daniel Macleod, the worship leading from the teams at King’s London and KCC Hedge End (and that’s without mentioning the similar handovers taking place in operations, pastoral care, seminars and so forth). I’m sure there were places when it didn’t feel seamless, but given the scale of that shift in the last few years, it is astonishing how well that was done.

5. The humility of the serving teams. I find it amazing when people take a week off work to go camping with teenagers and cook for them in incredibly sweaty conditions. Or look after young children. Or fix technical problems, or serve coffee, or operate machinery, or clean. At one point I saw a friend of mine with a huge grin on her face, and then noticed the rubber gloves she was wearing. She told me that when she came in 2019 she had seen the toilet block, and resolved that she would join the cleaning team at the next Newday. She was true to her word. So were hundreds of other people.

6. The length of time that young people will queue for a milkshake. (It took me 45 minutes in the Cowshed. The results, admittedly, were amazing.)

7. The range and extent of the sporting activities. I always thought it was volleyball and water fights; I hadn’t realised how many hundreds of kids were playing in football, dodgeball, basketball, rounders, netball, rugby and who knows how many other competitions, nor how eager they all were to beat Jubilee Church London (the undisputed favourites in virtually every event). Playing the finals in the dark after the main meeting was a masterstroke.

8. The cohesion of Newfrontiers. Newday is one of only a handful of events that gathers people from right across the Newfrontiers family in the UK (and often beyond), and it is much the largest. So it serves as a beautiful microcosm of what the movement is at its best: biblically robust, spiritually passionate, beautifully diverse, unapologetically prayerful, evangelistically fervent and relationally warm. It is not perfect, any more than we are; any youth leader will tell you that. But it is delightful.

9. The quality of the youth workers. Leading teenagers at an event like Newday requires a very tricky combination of energy, humour, spiritual resilience, physical stamina and pastoral wisdom. It is not at all unusual to see a youth leader laying down the law about behaviour on day one, praying for teenagers to be filled with the Spirit on day two, working through a complex safeguarding issue on day three, leading a Bible study on day four, and volunteering to be slapped in the face with a fajita on day five. (If you know, you know.) Extraordinary.

10. The goodness of God. You can see it in the weather, the number of people who responded to the gospel for the first time, the pouring out of the Spirit, the number of physical healings, the personal encounters with God from six year olds to sixty year olds, and the truths that the young people were listening to and singing about. God is good, all the time. I never want to stop being surprised by that.

What a week. Roll on next year.