Alleged Spots on the Sun
—Chesterton, The Thing
Seeing The Accuracy of the Bible
Do our English Bible accurately reflect the writing of the original authors? It’s an important question. Some would argue (or more often assume) that they don't. The view that that the text of the Bible has been corrupted and changed over the centuries is commonplace even among those who have never read the Bible.
Textual criticism is the discipline that seeks to make sure that the text behind our English (and other) translations is as close to the original as possible. Textual critics look at the variations between extant texts and work through which is most likely to be the original based on a variety of criteria.
Today, the vast majority of the New Testament translations are based on an eclectic text created by textual critics. This means that the Greek text used by translators would not be found in any one Greek manuscript, but is a bringing together of what textual critics have concluded are the best readings from the available manuscripts.
This fact can sometimes worry people. Learning that there are so many variants in the existing New Testament manuscripts (around 500,000 in fact) can cause people to worry that we can never really know what the original authors wrote. Critics of the Bible, such as Bart Ehrman, make exactly this case. But it’s very easy to be misled by the 400,000 figure. Yes, there are thousands and thousands of variants, but very few of them are of any great significance.
For those who can’t read Greek, it has thus far been necessary to trust Greek-readers who say this as there hasn’t been an easy way to look at the evidence in English. However, a website launched earlier this year changes that. KJV Parallel Bible allows English readers an insight into these variants by presenting in parallel English translations of the two most influential versions of the Greek text. One is the Textus Receptus. This was the first Greek text of the New Testament to be produced after the invention of the printing press and is the text which underlies most Reformation period translations, including the KJV. The other is the Nestle-Aland 28 (NA28), the latest version of the eclectic text used today by scholars and which underlies the vast majority of modern English translations. What is clever about the KJV Parallel Bible, is that the compilers have translated the NA28 in the style of the KJV so that only textual, and not translational, differences are visible.
The site is thus a great tool to visually see the extent of difference between two different textual bases to the New Testament, one of which is the product of a millennium and a half of scribal transmission, the other of which is the conclusion of modern textual critics.1
What is most striking as you look through the New Testament on the site is how few of the differences are of any great significance for the meaning of the text or for key theological beliefs. It provides a way that English readers can see for themselves the amazing extent to which the text of the New Testament has been preserved through the centuries of transmission and the confidence we can have in it, despite the thousands of variations in extant manuscripts.
So why not take a look through some chapters of the KJV Parallel Bible to have your faith in the accuracy of the Bible strengthened?
You can find out more about the project in an article written by the site’s creator, Mark Ward, over at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog.
- 1 Technically speaking, the Textus Receptus is a sort of eclectic text in that it made use of a small handful of manuscripts because manuscripts covering the entirety of the New Testament were not available. Alternative readings found in the Latin Vulgate were also sometimes allowed to influence the text. In general, the Textus Receptus is based on what modern textual critics deem the least accurate family of Greek witnesses to the New Testament (the Byzantine text) which makes it a particularly fruitful version for comparisons seeking to show to what extent the variations are significant.
One of the Best Illustrations I’ve Heard in Years
Suppose, just as Christ comes into his own creation at the incarnation, Tolkien had written himself into Middle-earth as a character of the story alongside Frodo and Merry and Pippin and the rest. Had Tolkien done so, he would not for that reason cease to exist in Oxford (in fact, his whole existence in Middle-earth depends on his continued writing). Nor has the unity of Tolkien’s person been impaired, for one person can simultaneously be in Middle-earth and Oxford, because they are not two different “places” within one realm but two different realms altogether. In other words, it is one thing to be in Oxford and Cambridge at the same time, but another thing to be in the Shire and Oxford at the same time; and the relation of “heaven” and “earth,” and with it the relation of Christ’s divine and human natures, is more like the relationship between the Shire and Oxford. This is the value of the metaphor of story—the distinction between “author” and “story” is robust enough to retain two natures while fluid enough to retain one person. Middle-earth and Oxford may be two while Tolkien remains one ...
It is not merely that Tolkien is not confined to the body of his incarnate character in Middle-earth; that is true, but that is just about the least significant thing one can say about him. Supposing the incarnated Tolkien is sitting in Frodo’s home in the Shire for a meal; this does not in the least hinder the Tolkien in Oxford from going to sleep, or traveling to India, or putting the book down for twenty years. His incarnate existence in Middle-earth does not diminish him in the least or even distract him. He is not merely extra but completely and fully extra. In other words, it is not that he reduces himself to an incarnate life but leaves a tiny bit left over that is not exhausted by his incarnation; rather, that which is extra continues on without the slightest downgrade or even interruption during the incarnation.
This is what theological teaching should be. It is creative faithfulness: finding new ways to say old things. It is beautiful orthodoxy. If you’re wired this way, the whole book is worth reading.
When Yeezus turned to Jesus: Why Jesus is King is not a blueprint for Christian art
Therefore, I was not surprised to stumble across some responses to Jesus is King putting it forward as evidence that Christian artists should be much more confident in proclaiming Christ through their art and not shying away from filling their work with explicitly Christian content. It seems like an open and shut case. Kanye West can top the charts with an album of simple gospel proclamation, so why are other Christian artists so reluctant to do so? I mean, what else could you want to make art about?
I may sound a bit contrarian, but I’m not so sure. While I appreciate the need to proclaim Christ, I think that pressuring artists to do so in their work shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what art is and also a confusion over why Jesus is King is shifting so many units among people who are not Christians.
Art as a vehicle for our message?
A very common Christian view of the arts is that they are primarily valuable as a vehicle for our message. Art, in whatever from it might take, has a powerful communicative power, and we have a message that we are very keen to communicate, so, this view goes, if only we could use this aspect of human culture more proficiently, it would maximise our evangelistic effectiveness.
This seems well intentioned but also somewhat naïve. I would, of course, agree that art has a powerful communicative power. I recently heard art described as a Trojan horse. Its ‘emotional charge’ (as philosopher RG Collingwood put it) opens the doors of your attention and possibly affection, and before you know it, you are considering and probably warming to beliefs, opinions and maybe even entire worldviews that you wouldn’t have given the time of day to otherwise.
However, while all of this is true about how art affects people, it is probably an unhelpful way to view art generally. If you set about making art with this in mind, you will probably end up producing propaganda. One of the problems with this is that in a world saturated with marketing and advertising, people are getting more and more suspicious of such techniques. This means that art produced in this way can actually have the opposite effect, and if people feel their emotions being pulled in a certain direction by a piece of art, they instinctively bolt the gates not just to that piece of work but to the group it speaks for.
In any discipline, art made with an obvious agenda is usually well received by those who are already on board with that agenda, but it is resisted and even resented by those who are not.
Engaging in a conversation through the arts
Art, I think, should be viewed more as a way of entering into a conversation. It involves speaking one’s mind, but it also involves listening. In a conversation, subtleties of body language and tone of voice are key so also, in art, nuance, empathy and vulnerability are necessary. Importantly, as well, powerful art works are rarely viewed in isolation, but are part of a process, involving an artist’s whole body of work and even his or her life as a whole.
The typical Christian approach to evangelistic art is to treat it as a megaphone to raise the volume of our message in individual outbursts. We interrupt what everyone else is talking about, shout something about Jesus, then run off. This is not a very winsome way to approach the art of conversation and it is an equally poor way of approaching art as conversation.
Now, let’s consider Jesus is King in this context. Musically, it is very polished, and in places I think inspired. Lyrically, it is very simple and blunt. Some think of this as a strength, others as a weakness, but the fact that people are thinking about it at all shows that people have willingly entered into the conversation with Kanye. The reason for this is quite simple, he has put time into participating in this particular conversation and, for all his antics, has proved himself a highly engaging conversationalist.
Since his earliest releases, he has exhibited a fan boy enthusiasm for hip hop culture and a love for the art form. This has earnt him a listening from those within his specific discipline. On top of this, although he is infamous for saying and doing things that are, let’s say, a little bit off the wall, his tendency to fill his music with exactly what he is thinking at any particular moment has meant that people feel like they have some sort of connection with him and most importantly that they relate to him.
This means that Jesus is King, in the context of the conversation, is not the simple (even possibly simplistic) work that it appears to be taken purely on its own merit. It is an unexpected (although not entirely out of character) left turn on a journey that many people are already heavily invested in.
If Jesus is King was Kanye’s first album, it would not be trending worldwide, just as if Stormzy had released Blinded by Your Grace as his first single, he would not have been invited to play at Glastonbury. They didn’t enter the conversation there, and they probably couldn’t have done.
Expressing yourself honestly through the arts
Interestingly, Kanye’s approach to art making has remained fairly consistent throughout his winding career. He has always justified his media outbursts and the more unsavoury elements of his art, by arguing that it is his job, as an artist, to express himself; to refuse to pretend and instead to faithfully represent in his work what is going on in his head.
In the past this has led him to shoot from the hip on political and social issues and also to unburden the salacious contents of his id on to his listenership. Now, he has decided to follow Jesus and with the fresh faced enthusiasm of a new convert, he is continuing in the same vein – he is being himself. He may well have mixed motives in the whole affair (don’t we all?) but the interpretation of Jesus is King that I find least likely is that it is the product of a calculating mind, trying to tap a certain market. Kanye has spent years killing his editor, often at great expense to his personal credibility, so I don’t see why he’d change that particular habit now.
He seems to be making music about Jesus, because, at this particular moment in time, he loves Jesus. Long may that love continue and grow!
What can we learn from Kanye?
When I reflect on Jesus is King then, I don’t see compelling evidence that Christians should make art that focuses exclusively on Christian content. It is also not a clarion call to use the arts to proclaim the gospel. It is instead an encouragement to Christian artists to join the conversation. To step out of the safety of the Christian subculture, and become a faithful presence in their artistic cultures. This will probably only be possible if they are somewhat more diverse in their content than Kanye is on Jesus is King.
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that Christian artists should cunningly hide their allegiance to Christ and pretend to be interested in other things, until people take the bait and they can reel them in!
Underpinning my understanding of how a Christian should engage in the arts is the belief that living for Jesus doesn’t mean that we are only interested in things that are obviously of a Christian nature. By his light, all things become brighter, and so Christians should be people who are interested in, and excited about all sorts of elements of life as things that have been given to us as gifts from God.
Art is a tool by which we can explore the depths of what it means to be a human being, and, as Christians, we should be able to do that in the most profound way; in a way that finds many universal points of reference, but that also authentically and beautifully leads people to the one who is the true human, the perfect image of God.
By God’s grace (let’s hope) Kanye West has gained a platform for the gospel by appealing to the more transgressive tastes of the masses. That’s how he got into the conversation. If you’re a Christian artist, you can’t do it like that, but in a funny way, Kanye’s model of honesty and openness is very much something that we should emulate. We should love God and make art about whatever we will, as Augustine would have said if he’d decided to contribute to this particular discussion!
If you are a church leader, then, please do not use ‘Jesus is King’ as the blueprint of how the Christian artists in your church can now reach the world with the gospel. Instead train artists up in godliness and give them space to make authentic, weird, mind boggling, silly, earnest, abstract work that may seem like a total waste of time to you, but is their way of processing what is going on in their heads. By doing this, they are likely to get into conversations with people that you never will.
And for all of us, let’s celebrate what seems to be going on in Kanye West’s life and also celebrate the existence of an album that is going to direct millions of people’s attention towards Jesus, when, without it, they wouldn’t be thinking about him at all.
And, I know I may not take you all with me on this one, but I’m praying that this is his last gospel album. It would be a travesty for a Jesus following Kanye West to be relegated to just being a successful CCM artist!
The featured image is by Benjamin Harris - instagram.com/ben.jahh.min
Away With Your Priestly Apparatus of Stethoscopes
All I ask is Health; what could be simpler than the beautiful gift of Health? Why not be content to enjoy for ever the glow of youth and the fresh enjoyment of being fit?
Why study dry and dismal sciences of anatomy and physiology; why enquire about the whereabouts of obscure organs of the human body? Why pedantically distinguish between what is labelled a poison and what is labelled an antidote, when it is so simple to enjoy Health? Why worry with a minute exactitude about the number of drops of laudanum or the strength of a dose of chloral, when it is so nice to be healthy?
Away with your priestly apparatus of stethoscopes and clinical thermometers; with your ritualistic mummery of feeling pulses, putting out tongues, examining teeth, and the rest! The god Esculapius came on earth solely to inform us that Life is on the whole preferable to Death; and this thought will console many dying persons unattended by doctors.
There may be, and there has been, pedantry in the medical profession. There may be, and there has been, theology that was thin or dry or without consolation for men. But to talk as if it were possible for any science to attack any problem, without developing a technical language, and a method always methodical and often minute, merely means that you are a fool and have never really attacked a problem at all.
—Chesterton, The Thing
Finding The Common Ground
I had a realisation recently: There may often be more common ground between opposing viewpoints on ethical issues than we tend to assume, and that recognition could prove hugely useful in discussions and debates on these issues.
This common ground is found in underlying goals. Behind every ethical viewpoint will be a number of goals and motivations. Some of these will always differ between those coming from a Christian perspective and those not, but often our motivation in relation to the people directly affected will be exactly the same. In many cases our judgements on ethical issues are an attempt to provide the best solution to a problem which brings (potential) pain, suffering or loss to individuals and communities. Our answers on how best to solve the problem may differ, but the underlying desire to solve the problem in a way which helps those affected is the same.
Highlighting this common ground is a way of diffusing the idea that a Christian perspective is unloving or uncaring. Rather, we can show that in reality the Christian perspective, like others, is seeking to love and care by providing a solution to the underlying problem. The disagreement is simply over which solution is best.
So, when we’re engaging with a different viewpoint on an ethical issue, there are some key questions to ask: Is there a shared motivation behind the different viewpoints? What problem or perceived problem is each seeking to solve? If a common motivation is found, then the next questions should be: What problems might there be with the alternative solution? In what ways is the Christian solution better and more life-giving? This is why it is so important for us to know not just what the Bible says, but why it says it.
This approach can be fruitfully applied to many of the big ethical debates of our day:
The most common argument employed in support of euthanasia is the argument from autonomy, the idea that it is not fair to force someone to endure the loss of their dignity when they reach the point of being unable to care for themselves. The motivation is thus to protect the dignity of those who are unable to be autonomous.
A Christian viewpoint which opposes the acceptance of euthanasia has the same motivation of protecting the dignity of those unable to be autonomous. However, rather than allowing life to be ended when or before this point is reached, the Christian approach solves the problem by affirming that our dignity is based on God’s creation of us in his own image, not on our ability to be autonomous. The question thus becomes: which solution is best?
The secular approach affirms that dignity is lost when autonomy is lost. It thus removes dignity from anyone who is unable to look after themselves, regardless of whether they are content to live in that state. By affirming that the life of one individual who has lost their autonomy is not worthy of protection it is unavoidably affirmed that the life of anyone else unable to look after themselves is also not worthy of protection. (It is not true that the difference is the individual’s consent to ending their life; our cultural belief that suicide should be prevented disproves the idea that consent makes the ending of life acceptable.) Thus, in seeking to maintain the dignity of one group of people, support for euthanasia removes dignity from another group. Surely a solution which maintains dignity for all people, regardless of the loss of autonomy is better. The differing perspectives are aiming to solve the same problem, but the Christian view is arguably far better.
An affirming approach to transgender is a proposed solution to a problem. The problem is the pain of gender dysphoria and the solution is transitioning. A biblical approach which concludes that transitioning is not morally acceptable should also be concerned to look for a solution to the pain of gender dysphoria. There are various elements to this response including the biblical resources for living with suffering in a post-Fall world and the hope of resolution to the dysphoria by seeking the alignment of the mind with the body through prayer and the help of clinicians.
The question is again: which solution is best? Major problems can be observed in the philosophical assumptions behind the affirming approach (i.e. in the concept of internal identity), increasing numbers of people (sometimes referred to as ‘detransitioners’) are reporting that transitioning did not bring them the desired relief, and the process of medically transitioning brings with it additional physical pain and potential negative health impacts.
In contrast, the Christian perspective is stronger philosophically, avoids unnecessary additional physical pain and negative health impacts, and acknowledges the reality that the experience of pain is an unavoidable reality for every person in this life, while offering genuine hope both for the present and the future. I believe a much stronger case can be made in support of the Christian solution than the solution offered by a secular, affirming approach. (That’s a case I’ve made for a teenage audience here).
The problems perceived to be solved by the approval of same-sex relationships are the problems associated with celibate singleness: loneliness, lack of opportunity to experience love and family, and lack of sex.
A full Christian perspective on sexuality and relationships addresses each of these perceived problems in more life-giving ways. The problems of loneliness and lack of love and family are solved through the reality of genuine, expressed love in friendship and the experience of family in the context of church (which is a family and so should live as family). This is a better solution to these problems than restricting their resolution to exclusive, romantic relationships which will always exclude some in society (such as those unable to find a willing partner).
The problem of the lack of sex is resolved in a full Christian perspective on sexuality by observing that sex is not a genuine need; it is not needed for health or to attain the status of ‘a true adult’, despite the unproven assumptions of our society. The genuine need for human love can be met in friendship and church family which shows that the perceived need for sex to experience love is false. Again, this is a better solution as it doesn’t restrict the fulfilment of core human needs only to those who are able to find a sexual partner. The alternative leaves some unavoidably unable to have their supposed needs met (e.g. those who fail to find someone who will consent to having sex with them) and could be wrongly used to justify the dispensing of consent as necessary for sexual activity. (The logic being: ‘I have a genuine human need for sex, no one consented to having sex with me, therefore I had to forcefully take what I rightfully need’.) Again the Christian approach is a better and more life-giving answer to the underlying problem.
I think this kind of approach could be incredibly helpful as we seek to engage with different viewpoints on ethical issues. Showing our shared motivations challenges wrong assumptions about Christian perspectives, and about the very heart of God, and allows us to show the world that what God says is not only true but good. Jesus really does offer us fullness of life.
When Yeezus turned to Jesus: What’s going on with Kanye West?
Albums made by Christians about Christian stuff do often sell a lot of units in the US. However, in most cases, the huge majority of the people buying them are themselves Christians (for example, Chris Tomlin’s Burning Lights topped the Billboard 200 chart in 2013). Other Christian artists have topped the American charts and become very popular outside of the Christian sub culture (for example, Amy Grant or POD), but usually, these artists’ crossover albums have been somewhat restrained in their Christian content. ‘Jesus is King’ is an anomaly in this regard. It is an album of relentless praise and petition directly offered to Jesus and it is pretty fair to assume, given Kanye’s reputation and fanbase, that a fair whack of the 250,000 or so sales in the first week since its release have been to people who do not themselves follow Jesus.
This is all quite a turnaround for Kanye West. Christianity has often been in the background of his music (most notably in the 2004 single Jesus Walks), but he’d be the first to admit that now things are very different. Kanye has recently compared himself to King Nebuchadnezzar, and it seems like a good reference point. Since releasing his debut album in 2004, his music has been wilfully transgressive and probably open to the charge of being downright blasphemous. As a case in point, in 2013 he released a song entitled ‘I am a God’ on his album ‘Yeezus’ (a combination of Kanye’s nickname ‘Ye’ and, well, I think you get it!) But, according to Kanye, he has been well and truly humbled, particularly referencing a psychotic episode and hospitalization in 2016 as a key turning point. Now, he is singing a very different tune. The only topic he is interested in talking (or making music) about at the moment is the gospel.
In a recent interview with TV presenter Zane Lowe, Kanye summed up his present mindset:
‘Now that I’m in service to Christ, my job is to spread the gospel, to let people know what Jesus has done for me. I’ve spread a lot of things… but now I’m letting you know what Jesus has done for me and in that I’m no longer a slave, I’m a son of God now.’
As you might imagine, this has not gone unnoticed. Already, in the week following the album release, the internet has been ablaze with Christians sharing their opinions on this change of direction. Opinions seem to range from ‘it’s a publicity stunt’ to ‘let’s wait and see’ to heralding Kanye as the new CS Lewis, Francis Schaeffer and William Wilberforce rolled into one.
It’s natural that questions would be asked, especially in light of Kanye’s pretty erratic behaviour over the last decade. However, even if you’re sceptical about his conversion, surely Philippians 1:18 would still mean that a modicum of rejoicing is appropriate.
Within the rejoicing, all of this should require some broader reflection as well. While I think that we should pray for Kanye, and that the album itself is bound to have a positive impact for the church (with some kickback too), it also throws up some questions that would be worth pondering. I’m particularly interested in two: how does this fit into the bigger picture in popular culture at the moment? And what does this teach us about how we as Christians should engage with the arts? Let’s deal with the first today, and there’ll be another post soon about the second.
Jesus is King is an example of a growing trend in hip hop music
Hip hop has always had a religious backbone. Like most musical genres to emerge in the mid- to late-20th century, it is not difficult to trace the roots of hip hop back to black majority church culture. However, quite quickly, hip hop reacted against this heritage and leant more towards Islam. Martin Luther King was universally respected, but Malcolm X was the role model. Pop rappers would include a token gospel track to diversify their appeal, but the serious hip hop artists were often either embracing mainstream Islam (like Q-Tip or Mos Def) or, more likely, namechecking fringe Muslim sects like the Nation of Islam (Public Enemy, Ice Cube).
There were many rappers who would claim a nominal Christianity when it suited them, and some who were more sincere, but the picture remained pretty consistent in the 90s and early 2000s. In a musical culture that was built around the urban black experience, Christianity was generally presented as either a religion that was too weak willed and soft to deal with the persisting problems of institutional racism or as an actual facilitator of the oppression of black people in the western world.
And that’s how it seems to have continued until very recently, when a shift seems to have taken place. Two of the key characters who’ve been at the heart of this shift have been Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper.
While Kendrick’s music would be, let’s say, somewhat challenging to many Christians, Christianity underpins everything he does, from the sinner’s prayer that opens his 2012 album ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D city’ to his 2017 album ‘Damn’ which is a sort of concept album based around Deuteronomy 28! Many hip hop fans would regard Kendrick as the greatest rapper alive, if not the G.O.A.T (greatest of all time).
A year before Kendrick released ‘Damn’, Chance the Rapper had released ‘Coloring Book’. Chance was already very well regarded as a rising star, but his subject matter had been largely standard rap fare. His previous mix tape had been mainly about taking hallucinogenic drugs. ‘Coloring Book’ though was a gospel album, and he stunned the audience at the 2017 Grammys, with one of the songs, a cover of Chris Tomlin’s ‘How Great is Our God’.
I posted briefly about Kendrick and Chance on this blog last year, but the story has moved on since then, especially for Chance.
In late 2018, Chance announced that he was taking a sabbatical, on which he wanted to achieve two things: giving up smoking and reading the Bible.
I’m going away to learn the Word of God which I am admittedly very unfamiliar with. I’ve been brought up by my family to know Christ but I haven’t taken it upon myself to really just take a couple days and read my Bible…
On 12th December, he posted Galatians 1:6-7 to his 9.2 million Instagram followers, and asked: “Anybody wanna read thru Galatians with me? It’s really short.”
That evening, this is exactly what he did, reading the whole book of Galatians live on Instagram!
His followers responded en masse. Featured amongst the thousands of comments on the post were The NLT Bible app thanking him for the support, famous rappers Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifah encouraging him to smoke weed instead of cigarettes, quite a few Christians who took an aversion to him reading from the NLT, and some fans who vowed to stop listening to his music from now on (@Kralcrolyat ‘Damn, for someone who did a whole album on acid you think you’d be a little more open minded’). On the other hand, there were a whole load of very heartfelt and encouraging responses. @Mylawnuhh’s is my favourite:
I need to start reading the Bible. I really need to be connected with the Lord before I go any further in my life; I just turned 15 and I want God to be an important part of my future. Especially if I ever have kids.
Earlier this year, Chance released ‘The Big Day’ on which he opens up a bit more about his decision to become a Christian. Yes, there is quite a lot of swearing. And yes, some of his friends who guest on the album over share about their sexual exploits, but on the whole it’s an album about being happily married, by a reasonably new convert, who continues to publicly thank Jesus for turning his life around and seems to be showing considerable fruit of repentance.
But of course, this would only happen in America, wouldn’t it? For us poor Brits, in our cynical secular country, our rappers are cut from a different cloth. Hmm… Stormzy at Glastonbury, anyone?
What does it all mean?
It’s important to underline here that these are not some fringe happenings within a niche cultural fad. I know that the evangelical church in the UK still seems to think that anthemic soft rock ballads are the height of relevance and cultural engagement, but musical analysts would now rate hip hop as the most listened to musical genre in the world (and apparently it has been for the last 5 years).
Now, I know that all the examples I’ve used in this post raise further questions. These artists are complex and at times quite conflicted in their expressions of faith. Kanye West is perhaps the best example of this, and I know many friends, Christian and non-Christian, who had switched off to Kanye well before his confession of faith in Jesus.
However, I’d want to urge generosity of spirit to those involved in this Christian resurgence in rap music and at the very least that we’d pray for them heartily. Living in a world that seems to be doing its utmost to stamp out Christianity, or at least silence Christians, this rebellion from within the very heart of the culture itself fuels my hope that God is not quite done with the Western world just yet.
The featured image is by Benjamin Harris - instagram.com/ben.jahh.min
Dominion in Miniature
The fact is this: that the modern world, with its modern movements, is living on its Catholic capital. It is using, and using up, the truths that remain to it out of the old treasury of Christendom; including, of course, many truths known to pagan antiquity but crystallized in Christendom. But it is not really starting new enthusiasms of its own. The novelty is a matter of names and labels, like modern advertisement; in almost every other way the novelty is merely negative. It is not starting fresh things that it can really carry on far into the future. On the contrary, it is picking up old things that it cannot carry on at all. For these are the two marks of modern moral ideals. First, that they were borrowed or snatched out of ancient or mediaeval hands. Second, that they wither very quickly in modern hands.
—G. K. Chesterton, “Is Humanism a Religion?”
Pastors and Song Lists
One of the things that makes this difficult, however, is the number of ways in which our song lists need to be balanced. There are several axes, if you will, rotating at the same time. Balance on one axis does not necessarily mean balance on the others. For instance:
Celebration vs Lament. The Psalms are remarkably wide-ranging. There are songs for all seasons: tragedy and triumph, mourning and dancing, cries of “hallelujah!” and “help!” If, out of a desire for our people to be incessantly happy, we offer a liturgical diet of non-stop celebration, we unintentionally do two things. We fail to give voice to the sizeable number in our congregation who are suffering, grieving and facing injustice. And we eviscerate the Psalter.
This is not a matter of form, but of content. Plenty of songs are in the minor key; far fewer express the emotional range of the songbook that Jesus grew up on and the apostles urged us to use in church (and don’t get me started on the imprecatory psalms). We mustn’t overcorrect here and turn every song into a dirge, but from where I am standing, that is hardly the danger we face. For an extended rant on this subject, see chapter three of Spirit and Sacrament.
Old vs New. Nobody after drinking old wine desires new, for they say, “the old is better.” In songwriting terms, they often are. Old hymns and spirituals have been threshed by history, blowing away the fluff and keeping only the decent ones. They enable us to sing alongside the church triumphant, as well as the church militant. Melodically, they are usually easier to learn: there is a repeated tune for every verse, rather than an intro, a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus, a bridge and an outro, all of which are musically different.
Yet despite these benefits, and the inverted chronological snobbery that accompanies them in some circles, there are also great advantages to singing new songs as well. One is that we are told to, both in the Psalms (“sing a new song to the Lord!”) and the letters (“psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”). Another is that, free from the constraints of metre, rhyme and antique prose (and occasionally grammar), they can express truths in simple, pithy and memorable forms that connect with ordinary people, especially those who don’t normally go to church. They encourage creativity in worship. They prevent the church from being needlessly mired in the eighteenth century. They get into commuters’ cars and onto teenagers’ playlists. Therefore every worship leader who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.
Reflective vs Emotive. This is a harder point to make, but bear with me: there are songs whose musical shape seems designed to prompt reflection and consideration, and songs whose musical shape seems designed to elicit an emotional response. The classic hymn form, in which the melody repeats every verse, is very well suited for reflection; by teaching you the melody in verse one, and repeating it in verse two, it ensures you don’t have to think about it by verses three and four, and can focus all your attention on the words. This doesn’t exclude emotion, by any means (When I Survey, anyone?), and by articulating rich truths it often makes people feel things more deeply rather than less. But songs of this form—and not just hymns, but more reflectively structured songs in general—aim at revelation rather than response, to use Matt Redman’s helpful distinction.
At the same time, music is incredibly powerful, and it is entirely appropriate for songwriters to use melodies, rhythms, dynamics and instruments to assist in emotional responses. This is not exactly a new development, as anyone who has experienced Bach’s St Matthew Passion or Mozart’s Requiem will testify. Why else would the Psalms call for people to rejoice with loud cymbals, horns, pipes, harps and lyres? Why all the musical directions, from liturgical breaks (selah) to the choice of melody (“to Jeduthun”)? Admittedly, the contemporary pendulum has swung towards the musically epic in the last few years—the acoustic first verse, the second verse with the rhythm section added, the big chorus, the drop, the huge chorus with the octave jump, the dramatic middle eight which puts Fix You in the shade, the fade into applause—and there is a risk of overdoing it. But God has given us music to stir our emotions, and it is right that we do—provided, as Jonathan Edwards put it in a slightly different context, that the emotions are proportional to the truth being sung about.
Musical Style. This isn’t exactly my area, so I won’t say much about it. But it seems to me that the musical style of corporate worship should at least attempt to reflect the diversity of the congregation. This is needed generationally (older folk will often feel just as alienated if the entire song list has been written since 2010 as young people will if it’s non-stop hymns, even if they are more accepting about it), but it is also needed culturally (despite my personal preferences, an endless diet of white boy rock can be pretty exhausting for many people in my city). And please don’t think this is only possible with a huge array of session standard musicians. Many of the most powerful spirituals, choruses, hymns and gospel songs can be sung with no instruments at all.
Theological Balance. I’ve saved the most important for last. Songs teach us doctrine. Music makes truth memorable. So there are numerous teaching psalms, and apparent fragments of early Christian hymns in the epistles (Phil 2:6-11; 1 Tim 3:14-16; etc), and plenty of doctrinally rich songs in Revelation—and Paul urges us to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). Our songs do not just express our theology; they shape it. Which means that we should be aware not just of whether our songs are true—hopefully they are, although not always!—but also of whether they reflect an appropriate theological balance.
Let’s say your last meeting included five songs. Based on those five, would a new person be able to tell that you believed in the Trinity? In the cross? In the resurrection? In the return of Christ? (Note that these questions become much more pressing in churches where there is no other formal liturgy, because there are no Creeds, set prayers or confessional statements to help carry this kind of catechetical weight.*) I have been in churches that seem never to sing about the cross; I was once in a church that (literally) never sang about anything else. The problem in each case was not the songs that were sung, but the ones that weren’t: the lack of balance made the worship feel anaemic, or gloomy, or excessively sugary, and simply failed to instruct people on foundational Christian teachings. This is not the only purpose of corporate worship, but it is a vital one nonetheless—and if we think our deficiency here will be compensated for by our preaching, we are probably overvaluing our gift, overestimating the impact of listening, and underestimating the power of singing.
Balancing those five axes is difficult. It takes time, gifting, experience and wisdom. Worship leaders will always benefit from our encouragement and our prayers. But when it comes to choosing song lists, they may also benefit from our help.
*Is there any more satisfying word to say out loud than “catechetical”?
And then there is Halloween.
Before ET hit our screens in 1982, hardly anyone in Britain bothered with Halloween, but somehow the cinematic representation of a bug-eyed, reptilian alien, going trick or treating, birthed a new social phenomenon. Fast-forward 37 years and Halloween is massive, economically and socially. What should Christian parents do in response? Do we batten down the hatches, lock our front doors, cut ourselves off from society, put our fingers in our ears, sing la-la-la and pretend nothing is happening? Do we just go with the flow, and let our kids dress as ghosts and witches, without any kind of spiritual reflection? Do we hold alternative light parties and attempt the kind of takeover that an earlier generation managed when pagan Saturnalia morphed into Christian Christmas? Or, is there a better approach?
When my children were very young I tended towards the ‘ignore and deny’ approach, not opening the door to trick or treaters and certainly not allowing my kids onto the street. I resented this American import on cultural and spiritual grounds, and didn’t want my children to have any part in deeds of darkness. Over time, however, my attitude softened.
Partly this was for theological reasons. With an increasing appreciation of the Lordship of Christ over all things I realised that I do not need to be nervous that my children might somehow be spiritually infected through Halloween. “Greater is he that is in us than he who is in the world.” The greatest con-trick the devil can pull against Christian parents is to make them more afraid of his power than they are of the all-conquering power of Christ.
I also become more relaxed for cultural reasons. I might object to what Steven Spielberg unleashed in 1982, but for my kids that is such ancient history it is irrelevant. The world they and their friends have grown up in is one in which Halloween has always played a prominent part, and this means that if we are to engage with their culture we can’t just pretend Halloween doesn’t happen.
My third softening was the result of more missional thinking. We have worked hard at cultivating friendships with our neighbours and a lot of that good will could be lost if we shut our door to their children on 31 October. The reality is when they take their kids out trick or treating they are not deliberately entering into pagan worship – they are merely out for some fun. For us to shun them for this would look as weird as it would be to ban Guy Fawkes night.
How we have worked this out practically has shifted with the age of our kids. They never went out trick or treating, because fundamentally we don’t much like it, and part of our Christian freedom is the ability to not enter into everything our culture promotes. But we have tried to join in in a way that is helpful. For a while we practised “treat no trick” – our daughters would bake cakes and take them round to the neighbours, which was a nice inversion of the normal process. Now the kids are older this phase has passed but we carve a pumpkin to put outside the house and have a stash of sweets ready – to which we attach a slip of paper saying “God loves you!” and with an invite to our church.
Halloween is just one more opportunity to build friendship with our neighbours, and we’re not going to close the door on that. Given the opportunity, we speak to our friends about spiritual realities and why we haven’t encouraged our kids to make a big deal of Halloween. But we don’t get spooky about it, because we are confident in the power of Christ that is at work in us. As a Christian parent my job has not been to scare my kids with how big the devil is but to disciple them in how great Jesus is. With clarity about they have been able to navigate the choppy waters of Halloween well enough; just as they have to navigate many other social and ethical challenges in their culture.
Lots of people enjoy a coke, and proms are here to stay. These things might not be to my taste but I’m not going to stop other people from enjoying them or be judgmental about their enjoyment of them. I do think there is a better way to live though, with healthier outcomes, and hope that I can be a witness to that in some way. Halloween feels pretty much the same to me.
(A version of this post previously appeared on the website of the Evangelical Alliance.)
The Image, Gender & Personhood
In earlier posts, I have argued against the common idea that the image of God was lost or damaged by sin, noting that it is hard to find a scriptural warrant for this view, and have proposed an understanding of the image as denoting a general family resemblance between God and humans and a protective mark placed over humans which designates every human life as being worthy of protection and preservation. In this post, I want to show why I think this is really important, especially in discussions on gender and personhood.
The Image and Gender
In Genesis 1:27, the creation of humans in the image of God is placed in parallel with our creation as male and female. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that our creation as male and female is part of what it means to be in the image of God, it does suggest that there is a parallel between the way in which we are in the image of God and the way in which we are male or female.
If we go with the common view (which I have argued against) that the image of God is damaged or destroyed by sin, then the implication is that the image of God is a standard to which we have to live up, thus the extent to which we are in the image of God is dependent on how we live. Given that theologians who take this view tend to argue from New Testament passages about the image being renewed or about being conformed to the image, presumably the idea is that part of salvation is the freedom and power to return to living in line with God’s creational intent which makes us more like him. Thus the image is something we have to create through our performance.
If this is correct, then the parallel structure in Genesis 1:27 would suggest that the same is true of our identity as male or female. On this reading, male and female would be standards to live up to and identities which we create through our performance. Such an understanding of sex/gender puts pressure on us to fit into a certain mould to be a real man or real woman and, one could argue, even opens up the possibility of someone changing their gender by changing the way they live it out.
However, as I have argued before, this is not how the Bible talks about the image or our gendered identities. Instead, we find that both the image of God and our identities as male or female are static statuses given to us by God which cannot be changed. We live from a position of being in the image of God and being male or female, rather than living in a certain way to attain either status. If we get the image wrong, we get sex/gender wrong.
The Image and Personhood
The primary importance of the image in Scripture is the way it is evoked as the reason why human life should be protected and preserved (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). In this way, it acts like the modern concept of personhood. Personhood is a quality ascribed to living beings which is different from just being alive or being a human and which is deemed to require the protection and preservation of life. In modern secular thinking, it is personhood which underlies the right to life.
Debates over abortion and euthanasia are thus now about personhood: if personhood is not there then the life can be ended. The key question of course becomes, ‘What are the grounds of personhood?’ As Nancy Pearcey has shown any acceptance of abortion or euthanasia is an implicit affirmation of an answer to that question. It is often claimed that agreeing to one individual’s wish to die because of their inability to care for themselves says nothing of the value of the lives of others in the same situation, but that cannot be maintained as true. If we agree that the individual can end their life, we are agreeing that their life is no longer worthy of protection and preservation, thus we are agreeing that their situation means they no longer have personhood. It follows that anyone else in the same situation also does not qualify for personhood. This is why any acceptance of voluntary euthanasia is dangerous, as it always makes a statement about personhood and that makes the step to involuntary euthanasia much easier.
If we subscribe to the view that the image is damaged or lost because of sin, we have a tricky situation. Given that the image is the biblical grounds for the protection and preservation of human life, how much of the image has to remain to make a life worth protecting? If the image is about how we act, what does someone have to do to lose the right to life? In the Bible, the image of God acts exactly as personhood acts in secular ethics. Because someone in created in the image of God they have the right to life, just as someone who has personhood is believed to have the right to life. If the image can be lost or damaged, then so can the right to life.
It is good news, then, that the image of God is actually a static status, given to us by God and unaffected by sin. Even after the Fall, and despite our rebellion against him, God declares that our lives are worthy of protection and preservation because we are made in his image. The image is a stamp of protection and, in this way, an example of common grace.
Getting the image of God right is really important. Holding to the view that the image is lost or damaged because of sin is not only unbiblical, but also dangerous. We should be those who boldly declare that every human who is every conceived is equally made in the image of God and continues to carry this status throughout their life. This will help people to enjoy the freedom of their God given gendered identity as they live from the status of being created male or female and will offer protection to all human lives and especially to the most vulnerable in our societies.
The God Who Heals: All Convergence Sessions Now Available
Sam Storms: Jesus the Healer
Christine Caine: Shame Off You
Christine Caine: Do You Want To Be Healed?
Michael Brown: Israel’s Divine Healer
Andrew Wilson: Healing in James 5
Andrew Wilson: The Healing of the Nations
Michael Brown: Demons and Disease
Sam Storms: Why Wouldn’t, Couldn’t, Doesn’t God Always Heal?
Matt Chandler: Is It Important That We Learn To Suffer Well?
Jack Deere: Healing and the Word of Knowledge
Jack Deere: Is Faith Necessary for Healing?
Trans Children and Responsible Adults
An equally perplexing corollary to the rise in those identifying as trans is the widespread reluctance to express concern about this trend. There are a number of reasons why this might be the case - I’ll suggest three:
Fear. Transgenderism is a logical conclusion to the sexual revolution: the denial of any essential differences between men and women and the ‘liberation’ of sex as simply a physical act to be enjoyed as the individual chooses means everything is up for grabs. According to the rules of this revolution, sexual desire and identity are privileged above all other moral issues so as to be unquestionable. This means that to question transgenderism would be to risk the whole construct.
Fear. Even when people have concerns about the numbers of children identifying as trans and how they are then treated there is genuine fear about the consequences of voicing these concerns. To be labelled a transphobe is to risk social shaming and maybe real penalties in the workplace. It is much easier to bear the appearance of ‘rightness’ and support (or at least remain silent about) the trans agenda.
Fear. Adults in general seem to be nervous of their children and anxious to defer to them when it comes to making moral decisions. This fear is multifaceted: that telling children ‘No’ will somehow psychologically damage them (so instead, we psychologically damage them by bewildering them with choice and the failure to set boundaries); that adults are discredited from making moral decisions because we have made so many bad ones; that in a world full of complex problems it is much better to abdicate our responsibilities to those who see things in the black and white certainty of youth.
Whatever the reasons for our silence, the rise in teens identifying as trans should concern us, as should the way such children are then treated. Someone who is daring to put her head above the parapet is Susan Evans, a psychiatric nurse who worked at the Tavistock. Evans is currently raising funds to pursue a case to protect children from harmful experimental medical treatment. This is how she expresses her concerns about what is happening at the Tavistock:
While working there I quickly became concerned about the treatment approach. When I joined the team I had expected that the young people would be assessed in depth and given support and psychological treatment over several years. The alarm bells began ringing for me when a colleague at the weekly team clinical meeting said that they had seen a young person 4 times and they were now recommending them for a referral to the endocrinology department to commence hormone therapy.
It became apparent that there was tremendous pressure on the GIDS staff coming from several directions - the distressed patients, sometimes the families, but most worryingly from the ‘support’ groups and charities, who seemed to be having undue influence on the treatment approach within the GIDS. Senior staff from GIDS have also been on the ‘teams’ at certain charities such as Mermaids and Gendered Intelligence.
More details about Evans’ concerns, what the test case is hoping to achieve, and how you can financially contribute, can be found here. Let’s not stand by and see a generation of young people made the victims of ideologically driven medical experiments. We should be adult about this.
*UPDATED* 18th October. For more on just how pernicious is the medical experimentation being carried out on trans children see this report on transgendertrend.com
How Christianity Made the Western Mind: Joel Virgo Reviews Tom Holland
Holland presents a series of key developmental stages in the relationship between the western church and western culture. His exceptional gift for compelling narrative, often built-up from obscure anecdotes to sweeping epochal shifts, makes the landscape of the book frequently fascinating. But to this he adds superbly crafted passages of insight and observation, each supporting his overarching themes and argument. It’s one of the most stimulating books of history you’re likely to come across.
Holland does not claim to be a believer (though he has come close in some recent interviews), which perhaps makes some of his perspectives more remarkable. I am not very used to reading popular histories that give attention to Augustine’s insistence on the city of God as a pilgrim community distinct from the secular realm, or on John Calvin’s passion for social equity, or on Oliver Cromwell’s pioneering insistence on religious toleration, or on the biblical roots of the civil rights movement, or on the deeply theological (again, Calvinistic) basis for apartheid’s refutation as heresy. This list could go on and on. Holland does the work of many evangelical apologists, by sweeping away myths (e.g. Galileo as heroic martyr for ‘science’, oppressed by wicked Christianity; the Nazis as vaguely quasi-Protestant). To say that this makes the book refreshing is an understatement. At times it is almost breathtaking. Watching him debunk so many entrenched notions can be like watching a gang of seemingly invincible school bullies KO’d in succession—but strangely by the nerd who gets straight A’s for every history paper.
But it’s not just the much needed record-straightening that makes Dominion especially insightful. It’s also Holland’s uncommon grasp of some essential qualities at Christianity’s very heart. He is looking for what made Christianity’s stamp on the world so particular, so he goes to the centre. What is the nature of this pebble, whose ripples still lap the shores of the lake, two millennia on? He seems to have answered that question pretty accurately: the potency is in the centrality and the uniqueness of the cross. For Holland, the cross of Jesus is what made Christianity unthinkable, shameful and disgusting, but, by the same ticket, successfully revolutionary.
There are passages that read rather like some of history’s great expositions of 1 Corinthians 1 & 2. Holland sees that in the cross we have God presented as the oppressed one, the suffering one, the underprivileged one. So we have the ultimate basis for inclusion, concern for the weak and for the outsider, and for the ultimate cancellation of our false measures of greatness. Into a world where oppression was legitimised by superiority of strength and honour, a world in which it was self evidently true that all men were not equal, came the crucified God, and, within time, the world’s ‘strongest’ nation-state was built on the ‘self evident’ truth that ‘all men are created equal’. Holland plainly shows the relationship between these disparate events, demonstrating that even the church’s notorious human rights abuses can only be understood as such in a culture coloured (Nietzsche might have said ‘tarnished’) by the message of the cross. Dominion provides a view of the jagged hole that the cross of Jesus ripped through history.
As a historian, Holland doesn’t go into the philosophical implications of his insight, but he leads us near to questions (assiduously ignored by many atheists and sceptics) about the ontology of ethics. The moral grid assumed by post-enlightenment crusaders for liberty, equality and fraternity simply cannot be untethered from human history, and specifically our Christian heritage (although as he shows, contemporary institutions such as the UN, in efforts to globalise and formalise these values, will certainly keep all evidence of Christian influence away from their branding). In a brilliant moment, Holland presents liberalism’s myth of ‘enlightenment values’ as an alternative virgin birth narrative. In tracing the historical roots of modern western moral sensibilities he echoes Larry Siedentop and Michael Burleigh but, in showing the weak position of moralistic opponents of Christianity, he seems almost to channel Chesterton, Lewis, Francis Schaeffer or Tim Keller.
Holland has made the west his focus in Dominion. It’s only one book. It might be fascinating for someone to expand his project by unfolding the long term Christian influence in the non-western contexts of the Orthodox churches (routinely overlooked by western chroniclers). The differences and similarities would be instructive. However, I’d not expect many to do this with the insight of Tom Holland.
Although I’m praising Holland here for his understanding of Christian DNA, a few observations grew on me as I read. In some places, Holland sees such a broad range of cultural elements as legitimately Christian that he begins to ‘baptise’ features of western culture which actually contradict one another. The idea of cultural evolution plays a big part in his thinking (this becomes reminiscent of ‘trajectory hermeneutics’). He is alert to tensions here (e.g. Merkel’s radically inclusive policy in the refugee crisis and Victor Orban’s cautious and protective response are both shown as Christian heritage being expressed). The role of the state, and especially state violence are also problematic in telling the story of western Christianity. But that was bound be a bit perplexing.
What’s more troubling is Holland’s willingness to see modern progressivism (‘wokeness’) as more or less an evolution of Christian ethics. It’s here that the elasticity stretches to breaking point. If a line of evolution can be shown between a Judeo-Christian worldview and contemporary progressivism (think identity politics and critical theory), it has involved some pretty monstrous mutations. When, on the basis of this woke ideology, a doctor is sacked by an employment tribunal which rules that belief in Genesis 1.27 is ‘incompatible with human dignity’, we are no longer seeing a practice of Christian altruism that likes to stay covert in the secular space. We are beginning to see something else slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Like Tertullian asking what Athens has to do with Jerusalem, we must often ask (and sometimes it is enough just to ask): what has this ideology to do with the gospel?
And gospel (good news) is perhaps the key word. Tom Holland is remarkably insightful to see the cross as so central to the Christian idea of God, of history and meaning; but grace and forgiveness for the individual penitent (what makes the cross good news and not just good example) plays a smaller part in his account of the faith. I may have missed this in my reading but, as yet, I wonder if it is a blind spot in his otherwise broad vision. The liberal progressive project is intent on reducing human relationships to power dynamics. It might be argued that to identify and champion the most oppressed is always to bring the equity of Eden, the anger of the minor-prophets and the glorious redistribution of the Magnificat into the 21st century. But if this is understood only in a context of power in horizontal relationships, if it is not preceded by the more urgent matter of each individual’s desperate need for a merciful and forgiving God, we are headed for an increasingly shrill and pharisaic culture, in which the cross has been hollowed of its sweetest meaning and virtue is merely for signalling. This would be no Christian culture at all.
According to Paul it is of first importance that Christ died and rose for our sins (1 Corinthians 15.3-4). If atoning sacrifice and physical resurrection are eroded from Christianity, we don’t have a developed Christianity, we have Christianity gone bad. And the influence of that “Christianity” on the west, or wherever, will be poisonous.
This is a guest post by Joel Virgo, Senior Pastor at Emmanuel Church, Brighton. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoelVirgo.
Why Christendom Is Still Christian
Today, as the flood-tide of Western power and influence ebbs, the illusions of European and American liberals risk being left stranded. Much that they have sought to cast as universal stands exposed as never having been anything of the kind. Agnosticism—as Huxley, the main who coined the word, readily acknowledged—ranks as “that conviction of the supremacy of private judgment (indeed, of the possibility of escaping it) which is the foundation of the Protestant Reformation.” Secularism owes its existence to the medieval papacy. Humanism derives ultimately from claims made in the Bible: that humans are made in God’s image; that his Son died equally for everyone; that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Repeatedly, like a great earthquake, Christianity has sent reverberations around the world. First there was the primal revolution: the revolution preached by St Paul. Then there came the aftershocks: the revolution in the eleventh century that set Latin Christendom upon its momentous course; the revolution commemorated as the Reformation; the revolution that killed God. All bore an identical stamp: the aspiration to enfold within their embrace every other possible way of seeing the world; the claim to a universalism that was culturally highly specific. That human beings have rights; that they are born equal; that they are owed sustenance, and shelter, and refuge from persecution: these were never self-evident truths ...
To be a Christian is to believe that God became man, and suffered a death as terrible as any mortal has ever suffered. This is why the cross, that ancient implement of torture, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it—the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe—that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North American in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten hearts, the image of of a god dead on a cross ...
Many [Christians], over the course of this time, have themselves become agents of terror. They have put the weak in their shadow; they have brought suffering, and persecution, and slavery in their wake. Yet the standards by which they stand condemned for this are themselves Christian; nor, even if churches across the West continue to empty, does it seem likely that these standards will quickly change. “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” This is the myth that we in the West still persist in clinging to. Christendom, in that sense, remains Christendom still.
Identifying the Image: Can Cain Help?
In my last post, I argued against the common view that the image of God is lost or damaged through human sin. Despite its popularity, there is no Scriptural warrant for the view and there is biblical support for the idea that every human is created and remains in the image of God, just as Adam and Eve were. But what does this mean? What does it mean to be created in the image of God? In this post, I’ll outline my musings on this question and explain how I think Cain may be able to help us answer it.
Understanding the Understandings of the Image of God
Generally speaking, understandings of the image of God can be broken down into three broad types:1
- Substantive – The image is identified as one or more specific elements of a human person, e.g. rationality (early Church Fathers) or original righteousness (Luther).
- Relational – The image is about interpersonal relationships, e.g. in our being male or female (Barth).
- Functional – The image is rooted in a function that humans perform, e.g. filling, subduing and having dominion over the earth.
The second and third understandings receive some support from the text of Genesis 1 (from verses 27 and 28 respectively). But it is not made explicit that these are elements of the image of God rather than just elements of being a human. Later uses of the concept in Scripture don’t seem to draw out these motifs.
Details for the first type of understanding are often extrapolated by outlining ways that humans are different from non-humans or ways in which humans are like God. However, no substantive elements of the image are explicitly stated in Scripture.2
The Scriptural Perspective
What does Scripture actually state about the image? Not a lot. That’s the problem. But I think there are two important points we can make.
Any account must consider Genesis 5:1-3. (These verses are probably the most problematic for my perspective.) Here, not only are humans said to be created in the likeness of God, but Seth is described as being in the likeness and image of Adam. It is hard to deny that the close proximity of these two uses of image language suggest they should somehow illuminate each other. I think this rules out the idea that the image is primary relational (it certainly can’t be about humanity as male and female) or functional (unless we argue that Seth becomes Adam’s representative, but I’m not sure there is justification for doing so). The best sense seems to be that there is a general family resemblance between Seth and Adam, just as we might recognise in any biological father-son pair. This would seem to suggest that our creation in the image of God speaks of general family resemblance between us and God. Importantly, the nature of this resemblance is not specified, and we don’t have any way of ascertaining any more detail on this.
The other key texts for understanding the image are its application to ethical situations in Genesis 9 and James 3.
In Genesis 9:6, as God reaffirms the Genesis 1 mandate for humanity following the flood, the image of God is employed to explain why capital punishment would be implemented in cases of murder.
‘Whoever sheds the blood of man,
By man shall his blood be shed,
For God made man in his own image.’
The implication is clearly that human life shouldn’t be taken because every human is made in God’s image. The seriousness of the crime, indicated by the severity of the punishment, is explained by reference to the image.
In this way we can understand the image as a status given to each human by God, somewhat like a stamp of value placed over us, designed to offer protection to human life. Because we are created in God’s image, every human’s life is worthy of protection and preservation.
The same concept can be discerned in James 3. James is discussing the importance and difficulty of taming the tongue, and in this context notes that with the tongue ‘we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God’, a fact, he goes on to say, which ‘ought not to be so’ (James 3:9-10). The implication is clearly that we shouldn’t speak curses over people because they are made in the likeness of God. Again the image stands as a God-given stamp of value which is designed to offer protection.
So the evidence would seem to suggest that being created in the image of God speaks of a general, family-like resemblance between humans and God, the detail of which is unspecified, but which is given by God as a marker of value designed to offer protection to human life.
The Image and the Mark of Cain
If this understanding is anywhere near being right, then it might find an interesting parallel in the mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15). Commentators have long debated the identity of the mark given by God to Cain in order to protect him from those who would seek to attack him. In popular consciousness, the most common understanding is probably some sort of mark on his forehead.
However, Old Testament scholar Walter Moberly, has argued that the mark is actually the saying given by God in Genesis 4:15: ‘If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’3 He makes a compelling case based on details of the Hebrew (e.g. the fact that the mark is given ‘for’ or ‘to’ (ל) Cain, rather than ‘upon’ (על) him) and the context (e.g. the idea of a reputation of extreme vengeance from Cain and his descendants fits the character of a man who murdered his brother out of anger). God speaks over Cain a statement that will provide protection to him.
Though there aren’t clear linguistic parallels between Genesis 4 and Genesis 9, and therefore I probably wouldn’t claim that there is a deliberate connection, if Moberly’s reading is accepted, there is a conceptual parallel between the image of God and the mark of Cain. Both the image and the mark are pronouncements from God designed to offer protection. Interestingly, both occur in contexts where murder is being discussed, the difference, however, is that in Genesis 4 it is the murderer who is being protected, while in Genesis 9 it is the potential victim. Still, the point remains that the saying of Genesis 9:6 could function very much like the saying of Genesis 4:15.
From what I can see, then, the evidence of Scripture suggests that the little we can know about the meaning of the image of God is that it denotes humans as those who have some level of resemblance to God and that it is a statement of value spoken over us and designed to offer protection. This second element can be helpfully illustrated through a conceptual parallel with a potential understanding of the mark of Cain in Genesis 4:15.
It still remains, however, to show why this all actually matters. In the next post, I will outline why getting our understanding of the image of God right is vitally important, especially for current cultural conversations about gender and about personhood.
- 1. This classification is taken from Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, and is summarised in Grudem, Systematic Theology, p.443, n.8.
- 2. I find it striking that Grudem lists 16 elements of what it means for humans to be created in God’s image and yet for only three does he offer any biblical reference.
- 3. R.W.L. Moberly, ‘The Mark of Cain – Revealed At Last?’, Harvard Theological Review, 100.1 11-28.
Losing the Image?
Was the image of God in humanity lost or damaged when Adam and Eve rebelled against God? It seems that many people think it was. Berkhof states, ‘it is unwarranted to say that man has completely lost the image of God’, but also says that ‘the image of God has indeed been vitiated [i.e. spoiled] by sin’.1 Grudem similarly says, ‘After the fall, then, we are still in God’s image … but the image of God in us is distorted; we are less fully like God than we were before the entrance of sin.’2 And it’s not only systematic theologians who take this view; it is also found in popular-level Christian literature.
Despite it’s popularity, I’ve never quite seen how this view can be defended biblically, and I actually think that upholding it is potentially very dangerous. Being a good protestant, I cry ad fontes! What does the Bible actually say? In this post, I’ll give a brief summary of my view on this question,3 and in subsequent posts I’ll outline my understanding of the image and why I think this all matters so much.
The Image in Scripture
Humanity is clearly created in the image of God pre-Fall (Genesis 1:26-27),4 and while humans are certainly affected by our rebellion against God in Genesis 3, there is no indication that the divine image is affected. Likewise, when Genesis 5:1 mentions that humanity was created in God’s image, there is no suggestion that this has been damaged by the Fall.
The few subsequent explicit references to the image in Scripture also give no indication that it has been damaged or lost. Genesis 9:6 clearly implies that the image still applies to all humans as it is given as the reason why human life should not be taken and why capital punishment will be implemented in cases where a human has taken the life of another. Similarly, in James 3:9, being made in the likeness of God is given as the reason why the tongue should not be used to curse people. Again the image is seen to remain, and the function of the image is somewhat parallel to that in Genesis 9:6. The final explicit reference to the image in Scripture, 1 Corinthians 11:7, also implies that the image is still present with no hint that it has been damaged or lost.
The Restoration of the Image?
When attempts are made to root in Scripture the claim that the image has been lost or damaged, these are usually made from passages which are understood to suggest that salvation in Christ includes a restoration to God’s image. Even though the supposed problem is never stated in Scripture, it is reasoned from the solution. Solution follows plight. (A concept which will be familiar to those who know something of 20th century interpretation of Paul!) But a closer look at these texts suggests that such readings are mistaken.
The three texts most often read this way all come from Paul. In Romans 8:29, Paul speaks of our being predestined ‘to be conformed to the image of his [i.e. God’s] Son’. In context, the emphasis is on the son aspect. Romans 8:18-30 are an explanation of how the children of God, who will inevitably suffer (8:17), can be confident of God’s love for them even in the face of suffering. It is a passage about sonship. This explains why the purpose of the conforming is stated to be that Christ would have many brothers (8:29). Also, while Romans is big on humanity’s problem, Paul never identifies that problem as a loss of the image.
In 2 Corinthians 3:18 those beholding the Lord’s glory ‘are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another’. What is this image? Well just a few verses later Christ is identified as ‘the image of God’, the focus being on his identity as the divine son of God, rather than the perfect human. In this context, therefore, transformation into the image is about becoming more like Christ in how we live rather than a restoration to the image of God given in the creation of humanity.
A similar thing is happening in Colossians 3:10. The new self is ‘being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator’, but Christ has already been identified as ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1:15), clearly with reference to his divine status rather than his humanity and in a context where he is linked with creative activity (Col. 1:16). Again it seems this changing in line with the image is about becoming more like Christ, not a restoration of the Genesis 1 image.
In exploring these passages, Kilner introduces a useful distinction between status and standard.5 The image of God in Genesis 1 is about the status of humanity. It is an unchangeable status given by God in creation. The image of Christ to which believers are conformed is the standard for humanity, the measuring line for how we should live. Because of our status, we should look to be restored to the standard, but the status itself has not been damaged. He gives the illustration of a Stradivarius violin which becomes damaged. Its status as a Stradivarius isn’t affected by the damage, but because of its status it is right that it is restored to its intended standard.
I find it hard to see any scriptural justification for the view that the image has been lost or damaged by sin, despite the popularity of this view. The ideas of loss or damage are never stated in Scripture, they are not implied by the language of being conformed to the image of Christ, and are undermined by the explicit affirmation of the image continuing after the Fall.
How then should we understand the image of God? And does this bit of detail actually really matter? I think there is a better way of understanding the image. And I think this detail really does matter. I’ll explain why in my next few posts.
- 1. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (The Banner of Truth, 1958), p.204
- 2. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (IVP, 1994), p.444
- 3. My position on this question has been confirmed and further developed by two articles in particular: Gerald Bray, ‘The Significance of God’s Image in Man’, Tyndale Bulletin 42.2 (Nov. 1991), 195-225. John F. Kilner, ‘Humanity in God’s Image: Is the Image Really Damaged?’, JETS 53/3 (Sept. 2010), 601-17.
- 4. Obviously, Genesis 1:26-27 actually talk about both the image and likeness, but I don’t think any distinction between the two is implied as they seem to be used interchangeably elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Gen. 5:1, 3; James 3:9), so I will just use ‘image’ to stand for both terms.
- 5.John F. Kilner, ‘Humanity in God’s Image: Is the Image Really Damaged?’, JETS 53/3 (Sept. 2010), 601-17 (p.615)
Anatomy of a Fiasco
The current malaise can be most directly traced back to John Major’s handling of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Arguably, if there were to be a referendum about our membership of Europe it should have been at this point. The treaty marked the moment Europe morphed from the European Economic Community into the European Union and was a move of profound constitutional significance. Was it an overextension of his legitimate authority for Major to proceed as he did? Certainly, it is ironic that he has been so vocal in opposing the tactics of Boris Johnson when he himself acted in similar manner in finally forcing through the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. It was because of divisions within the Tory party caused by this that party rules were subsequently changed so MPs could be deselected – the power designed to curb the Euro-rebels is what has now been used to deselect Tory MPs who have opposed Johnson’s commitment to leaving the EU deal or no deal.
The next significant constitutional changes were those implemented by the government of Tony Blair. First of these was devolution of power from Westminster. The 1997 Scottish referendum saw 74 per cent of voters supporting devolution. However, this was on a turnout of only 60 per cent so just 44 per cent of the electorate actively voted in favour of devolution. (This compares with the 37 per cent of the electorate who actively voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.) Whatever the pros and cons of devolution it has clearly not fulfilled the hopes of those unionists who thought the creation of a Scottish parliament with significant powers would quell calls for total independence. (With hindsight this hope was always as futile as a parent imagining letting their teenager use the car one night a week would stop them asking for it every other night.) The way in which the debates about Brexit and Scottish independence have become interwoven has been plain.
The Blair government then made the significant constitutional move of the creation of the UK Supreme Court. By taking the highest court of the land out of Parliament (where the Law Lords had previously been the highest court of appeal) it was almost inevitable that the new court would eventually become more political. As we have seen in the recent ruling on the legality of prorogation, the Supreme Court has now assumed authority over the affairs of Parliament. Increasingly the decisions of Parliament are subject to judicial review and the judges of the Supreme Court become – like their American equivalent – effectively the ultimate authority.
The government of David Cameron further extended these constitutional changes by the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. This was done as an expediency to secure the support of the Liberal Democrats in coalition government but has had the unintended consequence of holding future governments hostage in the way we now see is the case – the bizarre state of affairs where a Prime Minister wants to call an election but is prevented from doing so even though a majority in the House of Commons do not want him as Prime Minister.
Each of these constitutional steps may have had merit – depending on your political perspective – but clearly each had unintended consequences. If the Fixed-term Parliaments Act had not been introduced there would have been a general election next week. If the Supreme Court had not been introduced the prorogation of Parliament would not have been deemed unlawful. If Scottish devolution had not been granted we might not be so close to Scottish independence as it seems we are. If there had been a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty we might (a big ‘might’!) have settled the ‘European issue’ in the early 90s rather than wrestling with it now.
In the Bible we see clear examples of how the Lord responds to those who overstep the boundaries of authority they have been given. Whether it is Nadab and Abihu offering ‘strange fire’ before the Lord (Leviticus 10), king Uzziah playing the part of priest (2 Chronicles 26), or Ahab appropriating Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21), no one – prophet, priest or king – can act as solitary sovereign.
The UK is a very long way from being biblical Israel but lessons from the Old Testament about the separation and limits of power are salutary. In recent weeks there has been a great deal of argument about which branch of power has overstepped its constitutional limits but the bigger lesson seems to be that whenever the constitution is ‘adjusted’ there will be unintended consequences. Of course, there is nothing sacrosanct about the British constitution. It is within the gift of government to change it. But – caveat emptor – there are always those pesky unintended consequences. No Prime Minister has the power to foresee or change those.
On (Mis-) Defining Work
But there is plenty of good work to be done in our neighbourhoods and cities that the market does not recognise. Indeed as the American home is further eroded, there is plenty of work that desperately needs to be done but will not be recompensed by a member of the capitalist class.
Who will create places of warmth and safety for children to come home to? Who will provide help with childcare during the day so a young parent can run a few errands? Who will visit the elderly shut-in whose family lives several hours away? Who will spend an hour reading with a child so they can grow up knowing the delight of stories and books?
—Jake Meador, In Search of the Common Good
“I Don’t Know What Came Over Me”
It’s common these days when someone’s wrong is exposed for them to say, “I don’t know what came over me; this isn’t who I am”. David says the opposite: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5).
Scholars debate whether David was using poetic exaggeration (hyperbole) here or whether he really believed he had a sinful nature even from the moment he was conceived. But David’s basic point is clear: what he did was an outworking of what is deep within him. He committed adultery because he is, in his heart, an adulterer. He lied because he is, in his heart, a liar. He murdered because he is, in his heart, a murderer. David understands that this is a heart issue, not some one-off behavioural aberration. He did what he did because his heart is as it is.
This is a deeply uncomfortable realisation to come to terms with, but it is what we see throughout the teaching of Jesus. We instinctively want to make the issue our behaviour (which we trust can be improved); Jesus constantly challenges us to see that the issue is our heart ...
It’s not enough to say to God, “I wish I hadn’t done that”. What we really need to say is, “I wish I wasn’t the kind of person who does that.”
The UK church is ageing. Many of us might suspect this from our own contexts, and the relevant research confirms that this is a widespread reality. Millennials (those born between the early 80s and mid-90s) are one of the groups currently underrepresented in the UK church. As a millennial myself, I find this situation concerning, as I’ve shared before.
A recent episode of Talking Theology, the podcast of Cranmer Hall, Durham, explored this situation, asking the question, ‘What does millennial faith look like?’ The episode featured Ruth Perrin, a research fellow at Cranmer, whose work focusses around the faith of millennials.
In the episode, Ruth focusses on insights from her study into a group of millennials who exhibited a strong Christian faith and church involvement in their early 20s but have since gone down different paths. Some have continued to retain their faith and church involvement, others say they still have a Christian faith but are no longer involved in a church, while another group have rejected both Christianity and the church. The episode is well worth listening to in order to better understand the characteristics of millennials and how we can better reach and disciple them by applying the findings of this research .
Why Do Millennials Lose Their Faith?
What were the patterns that could be observed among the millennials who now identify as having no Christian faith and no church involvement?
Most had experienced what Ruth refers to as an existential crisis in which the gospel stopped making sense to them. Often this came when the individual met non-Christians and encountered alternative viewpoints. Most had not really wrestled with big questions before this and so were ill-equipped to do so and had a faith which was not resilient to such an encounter.
Personal crises were also a common theme. Examples included situations linked to mental health, others to marriage breakdown. Individuals had faced these very difficult situations and had not found that their faith or church had been able to help them.
No doubt linked to the above two factors, each story also exhibited a distancing from the church. Importantly, Ruth notes that for those in this group, the journey was slow and gradual, occurring over months and years, not in a single moment.
How Can the Church Help Millennials?
How then can the church best help millennials to maintain and deepen their faith? Here Ruth shares some incredibly helpful insights.
Top of the list is the importance of relationships and, in particular, cross-generational relationships. Millennials who have continued in their faith and church commitment often speak of the importance that older Christians have played in their life. Often to the surprise of older generations, millennials really want the friendship, advice and practical support of those who have been around longer than them.
Also key is authenticity. This is a really key value for the millennial generation and its absence is quickly noted. Millennials want to see people being real and honest about life and the struggles it can bring, including struggles in the journey of following Jesus.
The final key lesson is the importance of allowing and helping people to acknowledge and deal with doubts and questions. Millennials (and arguably any age group) need the permission to acknowledge doubts and questions and then the support to really wrestle with them. Given that we can’t give easy, water-tight answers to every question, we also need to reclaim the reality and goodness of living with mystery.
A Millennial’s Reflections
As I reflected on these observations, I was first struck at what useful insights they are for those of us who want to reach millennials with the gospel and to disciple them well. I only later realised how strongly they chime with my own experience.
I have had to acknowledge and wrestle with some big questions: discovering in my teen years that I’m same-sex attracted and then studying theology at secular UK universities made that pretty unavoidable. I do greatly value authenticity. I find it odd when people are so surprised about how openly and publicly I’m prepared to speak about struggles in my life. I stand there thinking, ‘Well, why wouldn’t I share about this?’. And I have benefited greatly from cross-generational friendships. Some of my closest friends are more than twice my age, and as I look back over the past decade or so, their friendship, wisdom and support is one of the key things that God has used to keep me on the path of following him.
As I look back over my teenage years and early adulthood, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I’ve been blessed to have the space and strength to wrestle with big questions, I’ve been allowed to be open and honest about my life while still being fully loved and accepted, and I’ve had older friends who have walked alongside me as I’ve done so. Many others haven’t been so lucky. There are millennials missing from our churches because we’ve overlooked these things. Ruth’s research probably makes all of us conscious of mistakes we’ve made in the past, but it should also help us to see opportunities for the future.
You can find more of Ruth’s research into discipling students and young adults on her website Discipleship Research.
Left and Right: A Way Foreword
I’m so glad I did. Here’s an excerpt:
In this new situation, many of the older Christian models of “cultural engagement” or “political theology” seem obsolete. One was pietism, the view that believers should be about winning souls and building up the church, and not about trying to be Christians in “politics.” But that approach assumes a well-functioning society that doesn’t need Christians to support the common good. If society is breaking down, how can you love your neighbour without getting politically involved? And what if your culture comes to define your soul-winning as a politically illegitimate act? How do you avoid politics then? ...
Other approaches, however, run the risk of getting caught up in the broader political polarisation and becoming mere tools of it, just one part of a left or right political coalition. For example, we may see the development of both “blue evangelicalism” and “red evangelicalism” online. The former talks about racial and economic justice, but is quiet about the biblical teaching on subjects such as abortion, sexuality and gender. The latter condemns sexual immorality and secularism in the strongest terms but grows silent when its political allies fan the flames of racial resentment towards immigrants. When the church, in the name of political power, allies and aligns too much with the current secular left or right, it is sapped of both spiritual power and credibility with nonbelievers. Theologically, both political poles are suspect, because one makes an idol out of individual freedom, and the other makes an idol out of race and nation, blood and soil. In both something created and earthly is deified. Extreme progressivism detaches individuals from community and history and any concept of virtue, but the nationalism and racism that might replace it are no answer to it.
If you are looking for a way forward, I can think of no better starting point than this book.
And with that, I’m going to start reading it. You may want to as well.
A Protective Hedge Around the Scriptures
Tyndale House is an amazing place. A research institute for biblical studies with a library containing one of the world’s most extensive collections relevant to the study of the Bible. The team there are committed to engaging in the highest level of academic research into the Bible and yet they also want Christians who have no academic background to be able to engage with and benefit from their work.
As part of this desire to serve the wider church, last year Tyndale House began producing a magazine called Tyndale House ink or THink (a popular name clearly!). The magazine contains accessible articles about the Bible, it’s language, history and cultural context. It can be accessed online and UK residents can even subscribe to receive a copy through the post for free. It’s a no brainer really.
The latest issue includes a fascinating article on the Masora. The Masora are the marginal notes found in the Hebrew Bible manuscripts produced by the Masoretes, the earliest complete Hebrew manuscripts we have and the basis for most of the English Old Testament translations available today. These notes are a mystery even to most those who get the privilege of studying Hebrew. (I studied Hebrew for a total of four years at two British universities and was never taught anything about the Masora, in fact, I sometimes questioned whether even my professors knew much about them.)
In the article, ‘Learn the secrets of the Leningrad Codex’, Kim Philips, explains how the Masora include a sophisticated system of counting and cross-referencing designed to ensure that errors did not enter the text through the production of new copies by scribes. In this way, they are actually one of the many reasons to trust that the text of the Hebrew Bible we have today is reliable.
‘The Leningrad Codex contains no fewer than 60,000 Masoretic notes, all serving as a protective hedge around the text of the Scriptures. This vast expenditure of labour and toil was driven by a passionate commitment to the biblical text as the very word of God. If he has spoken, then every jot and tittle is precious; even the smallest detail serves as a receptacle for something of God’s communication and communion with his people, and with humankind.’
If you want to be encouraged about the reliability of the Old Testament text, the whole article is worth a read. You can access it here.
The Meaning of Auschwitz
For most Jews, Hazony argues, “the meaning of Auschwitz is that the Jews failed in their efforts to find a way to defend their children … Today, most Jews continue to believe that the only thing that has really changed since those millions of our people perished—the only thing that stands as a bulwark against the repetition of this chapter in the world’s history—is Israel.” Auschwitz, for Jewish people, is an argument for the nation state. Without an independent and secure nation, Jews were vulnerable to being massacred. With one, they are far safer.
For most European liberals, however, the meaning of Auschwitz is the exact opposite. The Holocaust is one of the strongest arguments against the nation state, for they see it “as the ultimate expression of that barbarism, that brutal debasement of humanity, which is national particularism.” National self-determination is how you get National Socialism. “From this point of view, the death camps provide the ultimate proof of the evil of permitting nations to decide for themselves how to dispose of the military power in their possession.” (Hazony is not overstating this; this critique of nationalism in Commonweal two days ago, for all that it makes a number of incontestable and important points, took just two paragraphs to mention Germany in the 1930s.)
The comparison is even more on the nose when it comes to the nation state of Israel today:
Paradigm A: Israel represents Jewish women and men standing rifle in hand, watching over their own children and all other Jewish children and protecting them. Israel is the opposite of Auschwitz.
Paradigm B: Israel represents the unspeakable horror of Jewish soldiers using force against others, backed by nothing but their own government’s views as to their national rights and interests. Israel is Auschwitz.
Hazony is not, of course, arguing that objecting to nationalism is antisemitic. He is arguing that if we believe that national self-determination is a return to barbarism, and that taking up arms to defend one’s nation is illegitimate, then the (tragically common) comparison made between the nation state of Israel and the Nazis is no coincidence.
There are plenty of things in The Virtue of Nationalism to disagree with, have questions about, or shake your head at. But Hazony’s case for nationalism, elucidation of the alternatives, analysis of some of the implications of either championing it or pillorying it, and sheer clarity of argument, make the book well worth reading nonetheless.
Transgender, Polyamory, and Busyness
One of the things I love about Newday is that the event doesn’t shy away from the big topics of our day. One of the priorities of the Newday team is to tackle the questions which young people are asking and to equip young people and their youth leaders to think and live biblically in relation to these topics as we find them in our society and our own lives.
This year I had the real privilege of tackling a few of these big topics. Here are some quick summaries and the recordings.
Tough Questions: Transgender
The Tough Questions seminar stream seeks to give a Christian response to some of the most common objections to Christianity and to some of the controversial issues of our time, while also recognising that these are topics which affect many of us in our own lives too.
Here I sought to give a Christian response to the topic of transgender (as much as is possible in 45mins!), outlining different elements of this response: heart, head, and hope.
Youth Culture: Transgender
The Youth Culture stream was for over-18s: youth leaders, church leaders and servers. For the session on transgender, building on the Christian response to transgender given in the Tough Question seminar, I sought to share some wisdom on how we can best disciple and pastor young people in light of cultural views on transgender, looking at understanding transgender, preparing young people to navigate secular perspectives, and walking with those who identify as trans.
Polyamory and Busyness
In a venue new to Newday this year, The Common Room, Jez Field and I led a session exploring how to learn to think christianly about contemporary topics, using polyamory and busyness as two quite different examples.
Cranmer’s Five Reasons for Divorce and Remarriage
Thomas Cranmer, for example, was no stranger to the problem. Most of us would not accuse Cranmer of being soft on the seriousness and irrevocability of marriage; his wedding liturgy revolves around phrases like “seriously, reverently, and in the sight of Almighty God,” and “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer,” and is still used around the world five centuries after he wrote it. Anyway: in a fascinating section of his Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum (1553), he identifies five possible reasons for a legitimate divorce followed by remarriage, and two of them were about domestic abuse.
Thanks to Henry VIII, divorce and remarriage was a massive issue in the English Reformation. (It basically caused the English Reformation.) So Cranmer addresses the issue in some detail, clarifying what does and does not count as a legitimate divorce and a legitimate remarriage, and lists the following five:
2. Desertion with malice.
3. Prolonged absence without news.
4. Deadly hostility.
If we were getting alliterative, we might summarise this using three As—adultery (1), abandonment (2, 3) and abuse (4, 5)—with a distinction made between two types of abandonment (the latter of which, presumably, was a much larger issue in the sixteenth century than it is now), and two types of abuse. The last two sections in particular provide a fascinating insight into the way the problem was addressed in early Protestantism:
10. Deadly hostility is a ground for divorce.
If deadly hostility should arise between husband and wife, and become so inflamed that one attacks the other, either by treacherous means or by poison, and wants to take the other’s life in some way, either by open violence or by hidden malice, it is our will that as soon as so horrible a crime is proved in court, such persons shall be separated by divorce. For a person who attacks health and life does greater injury to his marriage partner than one who separates himself from the other’s company, or commits adultery with someone else. For there cannot be any sort of fellowship between those who have begun to plot or to fear mortal harm. Therefore, since they cannot live together, it is right for [the marriage] to be dissolved, according to the teaching of Paul.
11. The crim of ill-treatment is also a ground for divorce.
If a man is cruel to his wife and displays excessive harshness of word and deed towards her, as long as there is any hope of improvement, the ecclesiastical judge is to reason with him, rebuking his excessive violence, and if he cannot prevail by admonitions and exhortations, he is to compel him not to inflict any violent injury on his wife, and to treat her as the intimate union of marriage requires, by making him pledge bail, or by taking guarantees.
But if the husband cannot be coerced either by bail or by guarantees, and if he refuses to abandon his cruelty by these means, then he must be considered his wife’s mortal enemy and a threat to her life. Therefore, in her peril recourse must be had to the remedy of divorce, no less than if her life had been openly attacked ... Both in this and in the above-mentioned offences, it is our will that parties set free in this way may contract a new marriage (if they wish), while those convicted of the said crimes shall be punished either by perpetual exile or by imprisonment for life.
It is also interesting that Cranmer immediately adds a clarification, lest anyone should turn his words into a rationale for divorce and remarriage over any marital conflict whatsoever: “If minor disagreements or grounds for offence creep into a marriage, the words of Paul should act as a check upon them, namely, that either the wife should be reconciled to her husband, a result which ought to be sought after by all ordinary and extraordinary methods of penalties and exhortations, or she is to remain single, a penalty which we decree shall be equally binding on the man.”
Of course, the difference between “excessive harshness” and “minor disagreements or grounds for offence” can be contested, and varies a good deal from culture to culture. But there is wisdom here, and it may be an encouragement to pastors that we are not the first generation to ask these questions, or seek to apply biblical wisdom to complicated realities.
Emotions and Self-Control
The Bible, psychology, and neuroscience are three of my favourite things to learn about. (Although admittedly my understanding of two out of the three is very much at a layman’s level!) I therefore really enjoyed two books I read recently which combine insights from all three to help give a Christian understanding of emotions and of self-control.
Untangling Emotions by J. Alasdair Groves & Winston T. Smith
I sometimes worry that as Christians we tend not to be very good at understanding and learning from emotions and I’ve become increasingly convinced that doing so is vital to growing in maturity with Christ. In my own life, a season of seeing a Christian counsellor hugely helped me to experience the positive impact of learning to understand and respond well to my emotions. That meant I was really excited to see that this book, co-authored by the director of CCEF’s School of Biblical Counselling and a church pastor, was being published.
Groves and Smith structure their book in three parts. They first talk about understanding emotions, explaining what they are, why we experience them, and what they are designed to do. Groves and Smith present emotions as outworkings of our loves which I find a really helpful concept.
The second part of the book looks at how to engage emotions, what to do and what not to do. But it was the third and final section which I found most helpful. Here the authors draw together all that they have said to talk about how to engage some of the hardest emotions (fear, anger, grief, guilt, and shame). This section is so helpful not only for what it says about these specific emotions but for the way it provides worked examples of the process of understanding and engaging emotions which the first two sections described.
Untangling Emotions is a book which will help anyone with emotions (so, anyone) and is particularly valuable to pastors and those who find themselves helping others to navigate their emotions.
Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible & Brain Science by Drew Dyck
The title and subtitle are a pretty good insight into the content of the book. I love the way that Dyck hasn’t ignored the findings of neuroscience and just shared what the Bible says, and he hasn’t just shared the findings of neuroscience and ignored what the Bible says, rather he helpfully combines the two in a way which shows how they can illuminate each other and work together. Another real strength of the book is Dyck’s conversational tone and his authenticity as he shares about his own attempts to apply some of what he was learning.
The chapters cover key points like the purpose of self-control, the enemies of self-control, marshalling willpower, and the importance of habits. There is also an excellent chapter about the difficulty of developing self-control in the digital era and a brilliant, and brilliantly titled, chapter ‘Grace Means I Don’t Need Self-Control … And Other Dumb Things Christians Think’.
This is a book which will help anyone who could do with developing their self-control (so, pretty much anyone). Pastors and those who disciple others will also find the insights shared to be a really useful tool.
Surprised by Paradox
What I expected, on picking up the book, was a series of meditations on how paradoxes are essential to our understanding of God. I thought most of the book would be about things like the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, sovereignty and responsibility, now and not yet, or the sorts of apologetic dilemmas addressed in Krish Kandiah’s Paradoxology. But much of the book was much more immediate, tangible and earthy than that, and as a result (at least for me), more fresh. Jen takes one important insight—that mystery and paradox have always been at the heart of Christian faith and life, a point that she contrasts beautifully with the perspective of a Jehovah’s Witness she knows—and applies it to areas that I have never really thought about before. Here are five.
“It isn’t the absence of conflict that makes for a happy, stable marriage. Our wedding vows don’t simply bind us to the politeness of yes; they also bind us to the courage of and, which is to say the bravery of moving toward places of paradox. In Christian marriage, we choose to love, serve, and submit to one another, even on the days that wring us out bone-tired. But Christian marriage isn’t built on mute self-sacrifice alone. We must also learn to practise rigorous, risky honesty. We name our desires (however fearfully) and admit our disappointments (however angrily). Yes is the daily work of marital faithfulness; and is our practised resistance to apathy.” (27-28)
“Christian humility is great pride as well as great prostration. On the one hand, we must recognise that we are the ‘chief of creatures,’ crowned with glory and honour, to quote the words of the psalmist. Unlike anything else in all of creation, we alone bear the image of God. In the beginning, ‘Man was a statue of God walking about in the garden.’ And on the other hand, we must acknowledge that we are the ‘chief of sinners’ … Union with Christ requires I and he.”
“It’s the stories of Tozer and Bonhoeffer, John the Baptist and Jesus, that keep me wondering: what is the shape of a kingdom life? Just how worldly—or how ascetic—is it? Paradoxically, I seem to be offered examples of both kinds of lives, which leaves me with more wondering. Am I meant to be Tozer, wearing out the knees of my [trousers] and refusing proceeds from the sale of my books? Or am I meant to be Bonhoeffer, seeing no inherent crisis in privilege and obedience? … In the kingdom of God, I am paradoxically called to give and to enjoy.”
“There is a fruitful tension between grace and law, law and grace, and paying attention to that tension helps us avoid the either of legalism (which separates God’s law from grace) and the or of antinomianism (which separates God’s grace from obedience). It is a paradox that God’s gratuitous grace should rain on the righteous and the unrighteous—and that obedience should be demanded for no other apparent reason than “it is his word ... We are not saved by effort, but neither are we saved from it.”
“For all its seemingly impolitic, impious qualities, lament is a confession of faith. Maybe mustard seed faith, maybe angry faith, but faith nonetheless. It is not an abandonment or denial of God, but an affirmation of his reality, even his goodness and power. It might shock us to learn that in the book that is purportedly a collection of praises, there are more psalms of lament than psalms of thanksgiving and praise. In other words, most psalms are not tame and tepid; instead, they read like nasty letters to the editor … That is complaint, to be sure—but it is also the persistence of faith that hounds God until he answers.”
As you can see, Jen can write. Her book is real, thoughtful, clear, and peppered with helpful insights from paradoxmongers like Chesterton, Dallas Willard, various missionaries and of course Scripture itself. It’s well worth a look.
Multiplanting – A Review
Multiplanting is Colin’s name for the style of multisite church planting that he has developed over the past decade or so in Manchester. Like most other concepts of multisite church, Christ Church Manchester (CCM) is “one church with a central strategy, culture and approach” (p36), with Sunday gatherings in different places – sites – across the city. Where it differs, though, is that instead of having one teaching plan, with the preachers haring back and forth across town (or being beamed electronically into the different sites), “each site determines and delivers teaching and music locally”. The sites are also “genuinely empowered to find effective ways of reaching their own local community”, meaning that everything from the type of venue, and the kind of snacks served before each service to the whole feel of the service will feel very different at one site than it does at another.
Although I didn’t agree with everything in this book, there was lots that I loved. Having been part of churches of many different sizes over the years, I have found that congregations of between about 60 and 120 seem to be about the right size to have (just) enough volunteers without losing the sense of being a family where everyone can be known (to the extent they want to) and everyone is needed. The multiplanting model allows for this, and enables a church to be in and for many different areas of the city, while retaining the support, resources and efficiencies of scale that go along with a larger leadership team. (Without the drain on the leaders involved in preaching at several sites each week etc.)
As a non-church planter, while I found the structural/management stuff interesting, the section on church culture that Colin describes in the seven chapters of Part Two was more personally relevant and interesting. He paints a picture of a church that is joyful and welcoming, with strong cultural values such as ‘A Second Chance Culture’, ‘A Generous Culture’, ‘A Good Food Culture’ and more. The impression is of a church where everyone is encouraged and empowered to ‘have a go’ (indeed, that is one of the chapter headings) at whatever they think God is calling them to, and picked up, encouraged, and helped to try again if things go wrong. I liked the sense that the church is one in which newcomers’ gifts can quickly be identified, encouraged and developed. Even better – putting my Jubilee+ Church for the Poor hat on for a moment – I got the impression that it is agile and entrepreneurial enough to give those whose gifts don’t necessarily show themselves in the traditional white-middle-class ways a chance to also participate and excel. The church leaders seem to be actively on the look out for gifting in the congregation and calling it out and raising it up. I love that.
That said, it may just be my natural caution or aversion to change, but it did feel, reading the book, as though the drive to pioneer and start new things might perhaps come at the cost of depth of relationship and discipleship. It’s a tough balance, because it is good to be intentionally identifying, investing in and developing new leaders, and you want to give people opportunities to grow and flourish, it just all felt as though it happened very quickly at CCM.
I was also left wondering at what point, if at all, a site would become its own church and separate from the central leadership team. Colin talks a lot about his vision to plant 20 churches, but is currently counting his sites in that number. There must surely come a point when this centralised leadership team - including an elder from every site - becomes too unwieldy to function, and a point when the sites become mature enough that they both could and should be released to stand on their own two feet, but unless I missed it, that isn’t discussed in the book.
Another hesitation in my wholehearted endorsement of the book would be around who gets to preach on a Sunday. I’ve been involved in various discussions on twitter and in real life about this in recent weeks, and they have served to consolidate my position that the Sunday sermon ought – in the vast majority of cases – to be delivered by an elder or someone who is clearly on the road of exploring eldership. (The exceptional cases might include, for example, other elders from within our network or denomination, or perhaps missionaries home on furlough sharing updates and testimonies about their work.) And as a good complementarian, of course, I would also include the qualification that someone teaching the Word must be male. In Colin’s ‘Have a Go Culture’ (and in his theology), none of those are requirements. This of course gives opportunities to many more people, and eases the burden on the elders, but is a different philosophy of what Sundays are about and what preaching is for than I believe to be consistent with Scripture.
With those caveats in place, though, there is a lot I would commend in this book. Whether you’re a church planter or simply someone who has a measure of influence over the culture of a church (which, one way or another, for good or ill, is most of us), I think you’ll find it an easy but interesting read with lots of food for thought.
Available now from Hive and all good booksellers!
Was Jesus Tempted To Commit Murder?
We should start with an exegetical point, which is that there is another occasion in Hebrews in which the phrase “in every way” is used, and it can help us make sense of this one. Jesus was tempted kata panta (4:15); he was made like his brothers kata panta (2:17). The point the writer is making is that Jesus is fully able to understand our predicament, and therefore fully able to represent us as a priest and mediator; he is not saying that Jesus is identical with us (height, weight, appearance, ethnicity, parentage, sinfulness), or that he has experienced identical temptations to every one of us. If we were to press the language in chapter 4 to mean that his temptations were identical to ours, we would by the same token have to press the language in chapter 2 to mean that his resemblance was identical to ours. Since we don’t (rightly), we are already admitting that there is some difference here.
But what is the nature of that difference? At least three possible explanations exist, and it is worth thinking about which one is (or which ones are) correct.
Intuitively, many of us default to thinking that Jesus is tempted in the exact ways we are, but not in the ways that other, more obviously depraved, people are. Jesus was tempted to pride, lust, anger, envy and greed, because we are; he was not tempted towards child abuse, murder, rape, incest and genocide, because we are not. I imagine that few of us would try and defend this logically, for the obvious reason that it takes our personal experience (which is not shared by all Christians by any stretch of the imagination) as the basis for our Christology. But I also imagine that many of us operate with something rather like it when we reflect on this particular text. If we wrestle with X, we are inclined to think that Jesus did too. If we don’t, we assume that he didn’t. This, I suggest, cannot be the distinction that Hebrews had in mind, or the one that we should use in understanding him.
A different way of thinking about it is to distinguish between temptations which arise from within the person, and temptations which arise from without. Temptations which arise from within are a result of original sin, and this cannot be said of Jesus, since he was tempted “yet without sin.” However, temptations which arise from without, from external causes or agents (most obviously the devil in Matthew 4), clearly were experienced—and successfully resisted!—by Jesus in his humanity. This is the distinction proposed by John Owen, to take one example: “Now, when such a temptation comes from without, it is unto the soul an indifferent thing, neither good nor evil, unless it be consented unto; but the very proposal from within, it being the soul’s own act, is its sin.” Herman Bavinck puts it more pithily: “Real temptation could not come to Jesus from within, but only from without.”
A third way, which overlaps with the second but is framed differently, focuses on the distinction between creational appetites and fallen appetites. Jesus’s temptation to turn stones into bread, for example, is based on a creational appetite, and a desire which is fundamentally good for human beings, namely the desire for food. So is the desire for dominion in the third temptation (see Gen 1:27), and (more controversially) the sexual desire to be fruitful and multiply. But many temptations are not based on human goods at all. They do not result from creation, but from the fall. So a fallen appetite, we could say, is the desire for something which nobody would ever have wanted before sin entered the world: the desire to kill another person, molest a child, or whatever. These sorts of temptations, we may say with confidence, were not experienced by Jesus.
I am deliberately avoiding the specific controversy that sparked these thoughts, because I think there has been misunderstanding on all sides, and because the debate quickly becomes about something else. (If you know, you know.) But as I see it, we can be helped by both the second and third ways of differentiating between the temptations Jesus experienced and the temptations he didn’t—and we should be careful to avoid the first way. May we continue to be strengthened in the fight against sin by our fully human and fully divine, tempted-as-we-are yet utterly sinless, Saviour Jesus Christ. (For more on the pastoral implications here, this brief Q&A with John Piper is excellent.)
Changes for CHANGED
Controversy and confusion have been swirling around certain circles online over the last few weeks with the launch of a new initiative from Bethel called Changed. On its website, the movement introduces itself as ‘a community of friends who once identified as LGBTQ+. Today, we celebrate the love of Jesus and His freedom in our lives.’
The controversy over Changed has emerged because of its apparent alliance with ex-gay theology, the idea that those who are gay/experience same-sex attraction should expect and seek a change in their desires as they strive to faithfully follow Christ. This is a perspective which, while still present in the church, has become increasingly less popular in recent years, especially after the self-confessed failure and consequent closure of Exodus International, the most famous network for ex-gay ministries.
The confusion has emerged because of the peculiar way in which the leaders of Changed are expressing their position and the way that the stories they are sharing are told. It is certainly the case that some of the stories boldly declare a complete end of the experience of same-sex attraction and some of the language used (e.g. ‘Changed is possible’, ‘#oncegay’) makes it hard to believe that this isn’t ex-gay theology. But it is not clear whether the organisation believes that a change in orientation is necessary to faithfully follow Jesus or that such change should be actively expected for every same-sex attracted person who comes to faith in Jesus.
As I’ve followed the launch of Changed, read through many of their stories, and watched some of the fallout online, I have had many different thoughts and there is lots that could be said. For now, I want to share a few observations of things I think could helpfully be changed to make Changed a better resource for the church and the world. I think these principles are also useful for any of us who engage with this topic to bear in mind.
First, however, I want to say upfront that I have no doubt that the leaders of Changed and those who have contributed their stories love Jesus and want to love other people. Even if their approach can be seen as problematic and even if some of us would disagree with their position, I do think their heart is in the right place. My hope and prayer is that they will listen to and reflect upon the responses they are receiving and use them to better formulate what they are seeking to do.
The Need for Clarity
As I have mentioned, the position of Changed is very ambiguous. They talk about being those who once identified as LGBTQ+ and speak of leaving behind LGBTQ+ but nowhere make it clear exactly what this means. Do they mean that they have all experienced a change in their pattern of attractions or have some simply changed how they chose to live in light of their attractions? If they have experienced a change, has this been complete or partial?
I also can’t find anywhere which clearly states their position on what faithfulness to Jesus as someone who experiences same-sex attraction requires. Is a change in attractions necessary for a same-sex attracted follower of Jesus? While they are trying to help those who identify as LGBTQ+ this ambiguity is actually incredibly unhelpful as it leaves us unclear on what they think we should do to faithfully follow Jesus. In some of their writings, and even in a video they have produced in response to social media reactions, it feels like the ambiguity is a deliberate strategy to not push people away, but it actually renders their message useless if it can’t be properly understood. If there is a clear stance, it should be made clear.
The Need for Scripture
I don’t think I’ve yet heard or read anything from Changed which refers directly to specific scriptures. This may be a deliberate choice in a desire not to alienate their intended audience, but it adds to the problem of ambiguity. If there is a clear stance, it should be made clear, and it should make it clear where in Scripture it is rooted. If we are to bring the challenge of God’s truth on this, or any other, matter, we must do so clearly from Scripture. We want people to see that it is God who says this and therefore we uphold it; it is not based on our idea or our authority. Looking through the materials from Changed you get the impression that their perspective comes from their experiences rather than from Scripture.
The Need for Careful Distinctions
There is an unhelpful lack of distinction on Changed between experiences of gender dysphoria and same-sex attraction. While their more detailed descriptions do mention gender, they often only mention homosexuality. This is true despite the fact that many of the stories are from those who not only experienc(ed) same-sex attraction but also found themselves uncomfortable with their biological sex and wanting to identify with the opposite sex. Same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria are two different phenomena and while they can overlap this is far from always being the case. The lack of distinction is unhelpful to getting a clear understanding of their message and will also seem ignorant to non-Christian readers, further hampering chances of Changed getting a hearing among those they want to reach.
The Need for A Diversity of Stories
Linked to the above point, it is striking that many of the stories featured include discomfort with biological sex as well as same-sex attraction, and yet this would not be true in general of people who are same-sex attracted. It is also striking that a vast majority of the stories speak of abuse in early life or early exposure to pornography, often directly linking this to the later experience of same-sex attraction. Again, however, this is not true in general of those who are same-sex attracted (even though it is undeniably true of some). The experiences are therefore very much of a type and don’t represent the experience of many of us who are same-sex attracted. Most of the stories are actually about freedom from the ongoing impact of abuse, addiction, depression, loneliness, a feeling of being unloved and other difficulties more than they are about sexuality or gender identity. It is dangerous, therefore, to draw such broad conclusions about sexuality from these stories.
I think Changed is well motivated. I think that some of the stories are wonderful testimonies of God’s compassion and his power to bring healing to the impact of abuse, addiction and other painful experiences. But I think to really fulfill their aim of being a safe space for LGBTQ+ people, Changed will need to change.
Broken for Blessing: a Book for Ordinary People in Ordinary Churches
This is not an out-of-reach account of a mega ministry by a mega pastor, but an inspiring story of what a faithful congregation can accomplish. Alan does not sugar coat the costs for a medium-sized church in multiplying but does provide a roadmap from his experience with Southlands Church. Southlands might not be a church that makes headlines in the ‘most influential’ lists but she has had a remarkable journey of planting and multiplication. Broken for Blessing tells this story and is for all who desire to be part of a multiplying church.
Any teacher worth their salt has heard that dubious student excuse for turning in work late. “I’m sorry, but the dog ate my homework!” Well, that really did happen to me this past week when I came home to find that Milo, our nine month-old puppy, had found a box of my newly released Broken for Blessing books and chewed at least five of them.
I was surprised how many of my friends actually wanted to purchase the puppy-chewed editions! That may just be their love of dogs, but I suspect it’s a deeper phenomenon. I suspect people want their spirituality to be rooted in the ordinary. A book on church multiplication with the cover ripped off by a puppy seems more true-to life than the glossy stories we hear at many church-planting conferences, detached from the dog-eared reality of mere mortals like you and me.
When I wrote a book on the underrated potential of the medium-sized multiplying church, my hope was to tell exactly that; a dog-eared story that would encourage ordinary people in ordinary churches.
God can do extraordinary things with ordinary people in ordinary churches
Ed Stetzer, President of LifeWay Research, estimates that only five percent of multiplying churches in the West are under 1,000 people in size. ( I realize that large in many countries in the West may be closer to 800 people) Be that as it may, the vision to be a multiplying church is generally a large church phenomenon because it’s such a resource-rich vision. I’m so thankful for large churches that multiply.
However, our fixation with large means that churches in the 200-700 people range generally have a vision for addition rather than multiplication, because if we’re honest, multiplication feels too much like subtraction. It’s easy for small or medium-sized churches to think, “Maybe one day when I grow up and have lots of resources I’ll think of multiplying, but for now, I must grow by addition.” That’s why churches in the 5th percentile that have a multiplying vision are uncommon, like unicorns. But I don’t think they should be. In fact, despite the resource challenges, I believe medium-sized churches are better suited to multiplying than large or small churches.
Firstly, because they are more in touch with the ordinary realities of small churches than large churches are. They haven’t forgotten the all-hands-on-deck dustiness that planting requires. They don’t expect everything to be laid out for them. Secondly, they have slightly bigger resource margins than small churches and are less likely to die through multiplying. When medium-sized churches multiply, the whole church feels the pain of sending, but not in a way that kills it. That is healthy.
Essentially, this book is calling for these unicorns to become more common. I am hoping this book catalyzes a movement of medium-sized multiplying churches, even as it encourages small and large churches in their own multiplication efforts. Don’t wait until you’re large before you start multiplying. Think of it this way: Families don’t have to be large before they multiply, they just need to be healthy. So, get healthy and get going by God’s grace. It’s how Jesus designed His Church to grow and it’s how He intended His Great Commission to be fulfilled.
Southlands’ dream to be a multiplying church has meant dying to a megachurch dream, which looks like eating a slice of humble pie with a side of obscurity! But that dream has meant that by God’s grace we have multiplied 16 times in the last 21 years, mostly as a medium-sized church. My hope is that Southlands’ story can be catalytic because it is so believably ordinary.
There really is no ordinary church in Jesus’ eyes. He wants to do extraordinary things with ordinary people in ordinary churches as they place what He has given them back in His hands to be broken and multiplied for His glory.
The book is available world-wide on Amazon in paperback and kindle format.
Porn, Curiosity, Killing and Cat Videos
If a society is drowning in curiositas, three things will happen.
First, it will attempt to peel back the curtain and lay bare sordid and dirty secrets. Curiosity aims to expose what ought not be known. Our society’s rampant fascination with the inner workings of the lives of celebrities—lives we will never have—may seem benign. But the voyeurism that moves someone to gaze lustfully through a window operates according to the same logic, only in a sexual key. We will have our spectacles wherever we can find them—and the more secret, the better.
Second, curiosity undercuts our stomach for more serious ventures. “Cat videos don’t really matter,” we say—and that is why our interest in them is damning. Curiosity is attentive only to the surface. It cannot abide the matter, the substance, or the depths before us. Curiosity is content with the image; but loving attention needs bodies ...
It is easy to see the spirit of curiositas at work in pornography. Porn offers the most alluring sort of spectacle. Depictions of individuals engaged in secret acts of grave importance can be viewed, enjoyed, and discarded with no investment or pain on the viewer’s part ... the body in its sexual presentation is now merely one more trivial amusement meant for the satisfaction of momentary and passing interests, leaving no permanent mark on the soul or the society. Sex no longer matters—which is why it will no longer be fun. For the comedy, the ordinariness, and the mundane weirdness of sex draw energy and life from the enchanted awe that tempts us to kneel in chaste humility before the glory of another human being. No longer sacred, sex has become nothing at all.
And third, people like me will condense two thousand words of careful argument into a few sentences. Which is why you should head over to TGC and read the whole thing.
He Came Walking
Fear seized [Adam and Eve] immediately upon their eating the forbidden fruit, Gen. 3:8.
Observe here, What was the cause and occasion of their fear: They heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. It was the approach of the Judge that put them into a fright; and yet he came in such a manner as made it formidable only to guilty consciences.
It is supposed that he came in a human shape, and that he who judged the world now was the same that shall judge the world at the last day, even that man whom God has ordained. He appeared to them now (it should seem) in no other similitude than that in which they had seen him when he put them into paradise; for he came to convince and humble them, not to amaze and terrify them.
He came into the garden, not descending immediately from heaven in their view, as afterwards on mount Sinai (making either thick darkness his pavilion or the flaming fire his chariot), but he came into the garden, as one that was still willing to be familiar with them.
He came walking, not running, not riding upon the wings of the wind, but walking deliberately, as one slow to anger, teaching us, when we are ever so much provoked, not to be hot nor hasty, but to speak and act considerately and not rashly.
He came in the cool of the day, not in the night, when all fears are doubly fearful, nor in the heat of day, for he came not in the heat of his anger. Fury is not in him, Isa. 27:4. Nor did he come suddenly upon them; but they heard his voice at some distance, giving them notice of his coming, and probably it was a still small voice, like that in which he came to enquire after Elijah. Some think they heard him discoursing with himself concerning the sin of Adam, and the judgment now to be passed upon him, perhaps as he did concerning Israel, Hos. 11:8, 9. How shall I give thee up?
His heart broken, creation’s perfection shattered, his image-bearers marred and subject to death, he came walking. Gently, softly, lovingly, kindly the King of the universe came walking.
And when he came to make atonement for that sin, Jesus too came walking.
He too came in such a manner as made it formidable only to those who recognised who he was and saw the depth of their guilt.
He came as a man, as one who was willing to be familiar with us.
We heard a voice, calling in the wilderness, giving us notice of his coming. And, knowing the heartbreak that awaited him, knowing he was to take on the brokenness of all creation and be scarred by those his hands had made, knowing he was to become death for us, he came, walking.
I wonder how you feel about accountability. What ideas and emotions does the concept evoke in you? My associations with accountability are largely negative. Feelings of guilt about things I should have done but haven’t and feelings of shame about things I shouldn’t have done but have. This was my experience of accountability as a teenager but now I’m beginning to view it differently.
As a teenager in church youth groups, I experienced accountability as a deterrent; the shame of confessing sins of omission and commission was meant to be a motivation to do the right thing. In my experience, however, it wasn’t all that effective. Accountability actually soon seemed to add to my list of wrongdoings as I began to lie about how I was actually doing because the shame felt too great. I may be alone in this experience - the misunderstanding may all have been mine - but I have a feeling I’m probably not.
As I progressed through and beyond my teenage years and grew in my understanding of the gospel, I became increasingly confused that this sort of accountability was presented as a great tool for Christian growth. Partly, this was because I hadn’t found it very effective, but it also didn’t really seem to fit with the gospel. A major guilt trip didn’t seem to be how the Bible encourages us to progress in sanctification and to help each other in that journey.
These musings were crystallised when I heard a Christian counsellor use the helpful language of accountability as coaching. Accountability shouldn’t be a giant guilt trip – that’s not the gospel – it should be coaching in the gospel, having someone alongside you to help you keep applying the gospel to your journey in sanctification. So an accountability relationship shouldn’t be the place we feel deep shame for what we have done; it should be the place we most experience the gospel’s unique power to free us from shame. It shouldn’t be the place where try to change to please or impress someone else; it should be the place where we are spurred on to express in our thoughts and actions our love for the one who is already pleased with us and invites us to the freedom of holy living. Christian accountability should be gospel coaching because it’s only the application of the gospel in our lives that can truly help us to change.
I’ve recently been reminded of this distinction as I’ve been reading Drew Dyck’s brilliant Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible & Brain Science. Unsurprisingly, it seems that psychological research confirms the wisdom of the gospel’s strategies for change.
Apparently psychologists have observed the ‘fresh start effect’. This is the fact that if we feel like we’ve been given a fresh start and a clean slate we are more likely to make progress in changing our behaviour. This is why we are more likely to make progress with goals started at the beginning of a new year or the start of a new week; we feel a sense of break from what’s gone before and that helps us to look forward. The gospel gives us the ultimate fresh start and clean plate. Accountability should help us to take hold of that. Quick confession and application of the gospel is a powerful tool for seeking to change behaviour. (I’m sure Andrew would point out that this is a good reason to make confession and the assurance of forgiveness a regular part of our weekly gatherings. Every week we’d get the benefit of the fresh start effect!)
Another phenomenon that psychologists have observed is the ‘What-The-Hell-Effect’. This is when one misstep quickly leads to a repetition of that misstep. The effect isn’t actually solely rooted in an ‘I’m already in trouble so I might as well do it again’ sort of thought process, despite what the name suggests. It’s actually a cycle we can get caught in. The guilt and shame of doing something wrong makes us look for comfort, and often the way we’ll seek comfort is in the very thing we’re feeling bad about. The wrong form of accountability could aggravate this. Not only do you feel guilty about what you’ve done but you feel the shame of having to tell someone, so you’re even more desperate for comfort. Once again, we see the power of quick confession which breaks us out of that cycle and gets us back to the fresh start effect. Accountability should be gospel coaching which helps us to put this into practice.
I’m probably overly harsh on my teenage experience of accountability. There no doubt is some deterring power in the knowledge that someone will be asking how you’ve been doing with a particular issue, but I doubt it has the power for substantial and long-term change. I have no doubt, however, that the gospel has that power, and sometimes when we’re struggling to preach the gospel to ourselves, we need someone else to preach it to us. Accountability should be gospel coaching.
What If The Lost Sheep Isn’t An Unbeliever (And The Shepherd Isn’t Jesus)?
Right. Except: what if Matthew’s version of the story (Matt 18:10-14) is doing something quite different? What if the cast of characters is different, the punchline is different, and there is a challenge to Christians (and pastors in particular) that we haven’t noticed, because we’ve assumed both versions of the story mean the same thing? Matthew and Luke, after all, tell several stories that sound very similar, but have quite different endings (the parables of the wedding banquet in Matt 22:1-14 and Luke 14:12-24 are the best examples). What if the same is happening here, and we’ve missed it?
Here’s Matthew’s version in full:
See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (18:10-14)
The context is quite different from that in Luke. In Luke, the lost sheep serves to explain why Jesus is spending time with “sinners.” In Matthew, the lost sheep is a challenge not to look down on the “little ones”—whether children, or Christians at risk of being led into sin, or probably both (18:1-6)—because God is committed to them. And it is immediately followed by a discussion of how to handle unrepentant brothers and sisters, in probably the most significant text in the New Testament on church discipline. Both of these indicate that the sheep in Matthew’s version are believers, not unbelievers.
The language is different too. Luke speaks of the sheep as “lost”, a word which unites the sheep with the coin and the son(s) later in the chapter. But Matthew uses the verb “go astray,” or “wander off” (the Greek word is planaō, from which we get our word “planet”), which in the context of temptation to sin clearly refers to those who are weak or vulnerable in faith and tempted to abandon it. The shepherd in the story, in this reading, is not Jesus but Christians in general, and pastors in particular.
Those two observations nudge us in the direction of some crucial Old Testament background. Ezekiel rails against Israel’s leaders for failing to search for, and bring back, the lost sheep: “the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought ... So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them” (Ezek 34:4-6). As countless biblical passages remind us, the answer to Cain’s rhetorical question, “am I my brother’s keeper?”, is an emphatic yes. It is not surprising, then, that Jesus does not only picture himself as one who brings back the wanderer (Luke 15), but desires a community in which everyone (and leaders in particular) lives the same way (Matt 18).
This means that the application of the parable is different in the two versions. Whereas Luke’s version is intended to explain Jesus’s ministry to undesirable outcasts, Matthew’s version is designed to challenge the church—a much bigger theme in Matthew than in Luke, and especially in this chapter of the Gospel—to make every effort to restore wandering believers, rather than dismissing them. It is a summons to “an active visitation programme” (Bruner), a command to “care for our mean brothers and sisters” (Chrysostom). The point of the story, in Matthew Henry’s beautiful phrase, is: “Let not earth despise those whom heaven respects.”
Wilson and the Heidelberg Cat-astrophe!
Whilst I applaud Andrew for his adaptability and the breadth of his creative endeavours (presumably we can soon expect an album of folk songs, a clothing range, a fragrance, and an adult colouring book?) I must confess to being a little irked by this particular project, for two reasons.
Firstly, a story about a theologically astute furred creature. Wherever do you think he got the inspiration for that? And yet, did I receive any credit, or thanks? Was the book dedicated to me? The answer, dear reader, is no.
But secondly, and most egregiously, I can’t help but feel that this book has been directly plagiarised. Only a few years ago, I pitched an idea to a publisher to create a series of children’s books in which cute, illustrated animals discuss important theological themes. I never heard back from them, despite regular letters, emails, calls, texts, tweets, Facebook posts, WhatsApps, faxes, pages, myspace messages, carrier pigeons and suchlike. I assumed they were disinterested, but now it has become clear to me that they were dodging my various methods of communication, since they intended to pass on my ideas to a rival author.
I understand that Dr. Wilson is a far more marketable writer than I. He has more connections in the human world than I do. When was the last time you saw an otter grace the stage at a national conference, or write a piece for The Gospel Coalition? But still, I consider this to be unacceptable.
Since 1 Corinthians 6 forbids me to take out a lawsuit against my blogger-in-Christ, I shall be forced to be the bigger mammal, and turn the otter cheek. But rest assured, I have not given up on my dreams, and if anything this has made me more determined to publish my books than ever before.
So I am proud to announce that I will soon begin taking pre-orders for the first three instalments in my new children’s series:
Confessions of Augustine the Hippo – The tale of a thick-skinned beast, who experienced a radical conversion and renounced his life of wallowing in the mud-pools of sin.
Karl Bark’s Dog-Matics – A multi-volume work, in which Professor Bark explains the essentials of Christian faith to a selection of his canine chums.
Five Hoofs for God’s Existence by Thomas Equine-as – A theologically-savvy horse, with a colt following, shows the foal-ishness of atheism, and how Jesus is the answer for a stable life.
These books will all be beautifully illustrated by the paws of yours truly. Suitable for children aged 4-8 years (so long as they have at least a basic grasp of Greek and Hebrew). And readers of Think Theology will receive a 25% discount by entering the code: WILSONCATASTROPHE
King of the Wind, Sea, Earth and Fire
Life Lessons from Habbakuk
The Bible gives us lots of complementary perspectives on suffering and how to handle it, and wisdom is knowing which strand of biblical teaching to apply in a specific situation. Habakkuk is one of the places from which we can glean that teaching. Here are a few useful life lessons from Habakkuk.
First, the direction of Habakkuk’s question is really interesting. When we think about suffering, we often ask the question, ‘Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?’ We tend to see it as an issue of love. If God is all loving, why does he not intervene to end suffering? But Habakkuk turns that question on its head. His question, especially in his second complaint (1:13), is ‘Why does God allow good things to happen to bad people?’. He sees it as an issue of justice. If God is just, why does he not intervene to end injustice?
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t wrestle with the first question – I think we should, and I think there are various answers which can help us – but it’s a good challenge to consider why we are less likely to ask the second question. Is it because the suffering of injustice often affects others more than it affects us and so we’re less bothered by it? Is it because we have understood that God is love, but we haven’t also understood that he is just? It’s challenging!
The very fact of what Habakkuk does in his conversation with God is instructive. When he is feeling confused, hurt, perhaps even angry about what is happening around or to him, he doesn’t let those feelings just fester. He doesn’t, to our knowledge, complain to other people or try and win the pity of others. He takes his confusion and hurt and anger to God. He’s not afraid to be painfully honest with God. And this is something you often see when the Bible talks about suffering. We can be honest with God about what we’re thinking and feeling, and actually, it’s the healthiest way to handle those thoughts and feelings. As I once heard someone say, ‘God already knows you’re thinking it, so why not just talk to him about it.’ Honesty with God about where we’re at can deepen our relationship with him and can be a vital first step to being able to stand firm in the face of confusion or suffering.
God’s response to Habakkuk is basically to call him to wait (Hab. 2:3). God will enact perfect justice, and so Habakkuk’s complaint will be dealt with, he may just have to wait a while for that time to come. But the wait isn’t because God’s at the mercy of some other factor. He’s not having to wait for a green light from someone else. He has a plan, the perfect plan, and at the right time, the perfect time, he will enact that plan. Even if it seems like there’s a delay, there’s actually not (Hab. 2:3). The same response is found in the New Testament. The ultimate answer to suffering is the certain promise of the end of suffering when the new creation comes in full (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17). Our role now is to look ahead and to wait.
The call to wait is probably an answer to the problem of suffering which we don’t much like. We feel like it’s not enough and question whether it can really sustain, but the New Testament authors clearly think it can, and so again we are challenged to consider why we might not feel that way. Is it because our instant gratification, consumer culture means we’ve become so used to having what we want when we want it? Have we lost the ability to wait patiently with eager anticipation? And have we really understood how good the new creation will be when it comes?
Habakkuk’s conclusion also has an important message for us. Having been on this journey, wrestling with his pains and questions in dialogue with God, Habakkuk reaches the conclusion that the only thing he really needs in order to keep going, even if the injustice doesn’t stop, even if he loses everything, is God himself (Hab. 3:17-19). He recognises that the true source of life and joy is not a comfortable life without injustice and suffering, it’s not fruitful crops or plentiful herds, it’s God himself. It’s in God that he will rejoice, and in God that he will take joy.
The same is true for us. And for those ‘in Christ’ it is something that can never be taken away. I think Paul is thinking of the same point as Habakkuk when he ends his long reflection on the suffering which is an inevitable part of being a child of God (Rom. 8:17-39) with the guarantee that nothing – absolutely nothing – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. No matter what might happen, we can know that we are loved by God. It’s that relationship which, even in the worst of circumstances, can bring us true life, true peace, and even, true joy.
Habakkuk is one of the Bible’s greatest resources for those enduring suffering. Yet more proof that the Minor Prophets are the hidden gems of the Old Testament!
This post originally appeared on the website of King’s Church Hastings & Bexhill.
Not Sleeping but Strutting
Here’s the story:
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
From a modern Western perspective, with our assumptions about how narratives work (which aren’t the same as ancient Middle Eastern assumptions), this is a slightly odd ending. If you were making a film of it, the closing scene, on the now-calm sea, would be one of cheering, rejoicing and praising Jesus, their mighty hero. Instead, there is rebuke, more fear, and confusion.
The point of the story, I think, rests in that final question, “who then is this?” That is what we are supposed to ponder and answer for ourselves. If the disciples had known the answer, they would have acted differently. We do know, so we should act differently. To understand how, we need to understand what they actually did wrong. Should they not have woken Jesus, but simply had faith that everything would be alright? Should they have followed their leader’s example and settled down for a nice nap?
To Western minds, that is the logic of the story. Jesus’ rebuke was that they didn’t have faith, and his example of what it looks like to have faith is that he was able to sleep peacefully in the midst of the storm.
Now I’ve never heard it preached that the disciples shouldn’t have woken Jesus – thankfully. The Bible is never going to teach that prayer is the wrong approach, or that Jesus doesn’t want to be bothered about our tiny little problems like deadly peril or impending doom.
However, I have heard in the past that the moral of the story is that when we are fully trusting God we can sleep peacefully throughout the storms in our lives. That a sign of our godliness is that trials and tribulations don’t bother us, and we sail through life unruffled and – possibly – barely conscious.
OK, they don’t quite push it that far in sermons – but that is the implication: if you’re getting anxious and afraid instead of resting in Jesus, you’re getting it wrong.
But I don’t think that is the lesson of this passage. The solution for the disciples was almost certainly not to lie down and sleep and let the storm sink the ship.
Why do I think this (other than basic common sense)? It’s because that wasn’t what Jesus told them to do when they woke him. If the solution to the problem was to lie down and sleep, that’s what he would have made them do.
So what was their mistake?
Strike one: they called him ‘Teacher’. They hadn’t yet got the faith – or the revelation – that he was more than just a wise human.
Strike two: they thought he didn’t care. They assumed that his lack of action indicated that he wasn’t concerned about their fate.
Strike three: they didn’t think he could actually help. When Jesus woke up and calmed the storm with a word, “they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”
I’ve only noticed that last little fact relatively recently. The disciples were astonished when Jesus calmed the storm. That must mean that it was unexpected, which means they weren’t going to him for help so much as to get him to panic along with them. Maybe they thought he could haul on a rope or bail water or something. Whatever, despite all they had seen of him so far, when push came to shove, they still thought he was just a man like them.
But even if they didn’t believe he was God, they were Jews – they did, theoretically, believe God was God. But it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to call on him, either.
No wonder Jesus despaired of their lack of faith.
So back to us. What should be our take-away from this? What does it look like to respond in faith to the storms of life?
As I say, I think it is highly unlikely that the lesson is “don’t bother Jesus, just ‘have faith’ and it will all be well”. Neither is it “close your eyes to the problem and try to let it pass you by”. The disciples’ error was not that they went to Jesus, but that they went in the wrong frame of mind with the wrong expectation. And that’s why the closing question is so important. Who is this?
Lesson 1: He is God. When we go to him, we’re not just asking a wise teacher, but the Lord of all creation, the maker of heaven and earth. He’s not just some fellow traveller, but someone to be treated with awe and reverence, our holy, omniscient Lord.
Lesson 2: He cares. Can you imagine how hurtful it must have been for him to hear that question from them? Yes, he cares! He had come down from heaven for them, invited them to be his closest followers, was preparing to give them great heavenly authority (Mark 3:13-15), and was going to die for them – and they thought he didn’t care?!
Notice that he didn’t respond to that accusation, though. It is common for us in the middle of trials to question if God really cares. It must hurt him, but he still wants us to be honest and ask the questions that are really on our hearts, not least so he can answer them with his love.
Lesson 3: He has the power to help. When we ask, we need to remember that were not just asking a buddy to panic along with us. Let us ask in faith, with confidence that he can do abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine – and let’s not be astonished when he does calm our storms, or strengthen us to survive them. (But let’s pay attention, and remember to thank him for it, too.)
The disciples should absolutely have woken Jesus. They should have recognised who was in their boat and called on him to help, then they should have walked tall knowing that, wind and waves notwithstanding, they were under the protection of someone far more impressive.
How should servants of the living God respond to the storms of life? Not by sleeping through them, but strutting.
I’ve been sitting on this post for a weeks, mulling the ideas, waiting to get round to writing it. I uploaded it on Tuesday, then listened to this fantastic message from Andrew Wilson at this year’s Newday event. He makes a very similar point, but much, much better. Listen to the end. Superb.
Pastors: Don’t Envision A Church. Receive One
Early on, he quotes a deeply challenging passage from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, which is basically the opposite of virtually everything you hear in Christian leadership seminars and conferences:
God hates visionary dreaming. It makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
Weaving Bonhoeffer’s insight into his own pastoral ministry story, Replogle shows how easily this can become true of anyone. “Pastoral imagination,” he writes, “captured by dreams of potential churches, pulls pastors out of their humble calling and toward pride and pretense. The vision becomes the ground for our frustrated demands of others, our desperate petitions to God, and our crushing self-doubts. Everything is judged by the vision. Everything is evaluated by its success. Our work becomes the obsessive desire to actualize what we have envisioned. Our actual congregants are often sacrificed in our pursuit of better ones.” Ay, ay, ay.
So what is the alternative? Coming to the church, in Bonhoeffer’s terms, as recipients, not demanders:
The pastor’s first call is not to envision a church but to receive one. We lead by discerning how Christ is forming a community and by being one of the first to accept that fellowship with gratitude. The pastor is not an entrepreneur. We are called to a project already underway … The starkness of Bonhoeffer’s warning opened my eyes to this new kind of pastoral vision. It forced me to finally see the congregation already in front of me. How had I missed it? While I was dreaming of some other place, God was planting a church in that basement, and he was calling me to pastor it.
HT: Duke Kwon
Recommended Resources on Transgender
Transgender is one of the most prominent topics in cultural discussion and debate at the moment. It’s also one of the most complicated. Christians who want to partake in the conversation well must engage with theology, biology, psychology, philosophy and politics, all the while keeping in mind that this it is ultimately a topic about people created and loved by God many of whom are experiencing considerable distress. While society has moved very fast, Christians have been somewhat slower to understand and respond well. There are, however, a growing number of useful resources. Here are my top recommendations.
The resources are divided up into several categories, with top recommendations provided for each. I have indicated the level of each resource using the following classifications: Basic (B), Intermediate (I), and Advanced (A). I should note that while I have found all of these resources helpful, I would not necessarily endorse all that they say and/or how they say it.
The first step to responding to any topic well is to understand it properly. With a complex topic like transgender this is not an easy task.
Nicholas Teich, Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue (B)
A basic introduction from a secular writer. Teich introduces the concept of transgender and then looks at topics such as coming out as trans, different forms of transitioning, the history of transgender, discrimination and other types of transgender such as genderqueer and drag queens. Helpful for understanding transgender from a secular perspective.
Az Hakeem (ed.), Trans: Exploring Gender Identity and Gender Dysphoria (I)
A fascinating book consisting of contributions from medical professionals, academics and transgender individuals and providing a detailed introduction to the various forms of gender dysphoria and both psychological and physiological approaches to managing it, as well as insights into the life experience of trans people and transgender politics. Especially helpful in its attempt to acknowledge the diversity of experiences under the transgender/gender dysphoria umbrella and the variety of approaches which can then be taken.
These resources offer a general Christian response to the topic or tackle one of the big practical questions.
Vaughan Roberts, Transgender (B)
A very short (80 page) introduction to the topic and the key elements of a Christian response, focusing in on how the Bible’s big story should shape our response.
Andrew Walker, God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity? (I)
Probably the best popular-level overall treatment of the topic currently available. Walker covers most of the key elements of the conversation including the right heart response, what the Bible says, how the church should respond and the big practical questions. There is a particularly helpful chapter on talking to children about gender.
Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture (I)
Yarhouse is a professor of psychology who draws upon his professional experience and understanding in order to help produce a Christian response. This is a helpful resource for understanding gender dysphoria (e.g. symptoms, prevalence, management techniques etc.) While his theological response is helpful, I would not fully endorse all his conclusions. Lectures on the topic by Yarhouse are also easy to find online.
Evangelical Alliance, ‘Transformed’
A booklet and videos designed to help the church begin to think about the topic and how Christians should think and respond to it. A helpful (and free!) resource.
Brian Seagraves & Hunter Leavine, Gender: A Conversation Guide for Parents and Pastors (B)
As the book itself explains: ‘Rather be too early than too late. We obviously want to be age-appropriate with children, but we also need to be proactive, not reactive. The nature of this guide is to help you start the conversation with your children before others do.’ Brief (less than 80 pages) but helpful, with chapters focussed on under 7s, 7-11s, and 12s+, as well as basic intros to the key issues and common objections.
Gregory Coles, ‘What Pronouns Should Christians Use for Transgender People?’ (Pastoral Paper 11 at The Centre for Faith, Sexuality & Gender) (I)
The best, most-thorough Christian response I have found on this key question. Coles makes a compelling case for ‘pronoun accommodation’ arguing from the nature of how language works.
You can also find my take on a Christian response to transgender in a session at Newday 2019 here.
The Bible and Transgender
Preston Sprinkle, ‘A Biblical Conversation About Transgender Identities’ (Pastoral Paper 12 at The Centre for Faith, Sexuality & Gender) (I)
A brief paper seeking ‘to understand what the Bible says about the categories of male and female as they relate to questions about transgender (and non-binary) identities’. Faithful exegesis, clear line of argument, and all with wonderful Christian compassion.
Robert Smith, ‘Responding to the Transgender Revolution’ (A)
Smith introduces key terms and explores contemporary gender theory before a thorough biblical and theological exploration concluding with some brief reflections on the practical impact of his findings. While there are places where I would want to use different language, it offers a helpful analysis of cultural thinking and a good theological treatment of the topic.
Evaluations of Affirming Approaches
The dominant view in society (at least by prominence even if not by number of supporters) is that those who experience gender dysphoria and/or who identify as transgender should transition (whether just socially or also medically) to live in line with gender identity. This is a serious enough suggestion that it deserves thorough examination.
Ryan Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (I)
An evaluation of the affirming approach to transgender which draws from research in biology, psychology and philosophy and provides good evidence to question the wisdom of transitioning as the best path for those with gender dysphoria. Includes a helpful chapter on ‘Childhood Dysphoria and Desistance’.
Mark Yarhouse & Julia Sadusky, ’A Christian Survey of Sex Reassignment Surgery and Hormone Therapy’ (Pastoral Paper 10 at The Centre for Faith, Sexuality & Gender) (I)
It is hard to find reliable research on the effectiveness of medical interventions designed to alleviate gender dysphoria. This paper does a good job of summarising the current state of research. Yarhouse and Sadusky summarise and evaluate the research which has been published, as well as briefly discussing the experience of detransitioners, trends among teenagers identifying as trans, and alternative management strategies for dysphoria.
The Bigger Cultural Picture
While transgender is a distinct topic to sexuality, much of the underpinning for the secular approach to trans is the same as that for secular views on sexuality and therefore my top recommendations here are the same as those I have previously given on sexuality.
Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing (I)
Harrison analyses the sexual revolution and what underpins modern secular views on sexuality and gender. He reveals the problems with the secular view and presents the better story which Christianity can offer.
Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality (A)
Love Thy Body exposes and critiques the secular worldview which rejects the body and prioritises the true, inner self. Pearcey includes a chapter on how this worldview is seen in secular views on trans. See a summary here.
Tim Keller on Identity (I)
At Living Out’s Identity in Christ conference last year, Tim Keller taught on the understanding of identity that often underpins secular understandings of trans and gave a Christian response to this understanding. Incredibly helpful for understanding how things are viewed in our culture and how the gospel offers a better way. You can find session summaries and a link to the videos here.
Ten Things I Loved About Newday
Statistics. There are seven thousand people there. This year—and it’s easy to get familiar with stats like this, but it is remarkable when you think about it—395 young people made a first time response to the gospel. 344 recommitted their lives to Jesus (and having done this as a teenager myself, I know how much it matters). And 243 reported physical healings. Wow.
Stories. Behind every statistic is a story, of course, and it is these that make the numbers come to life. Some sound very ordinary: a young man who has struggled to connect with God in the past is now celebrating, learning, weeping and studying in a completely new way. Some are thoroughly extraordinary, like the testimonies of healing from auto immune diseases, and deafness, and dead nerves (which Adrian Holloway is careful to record, complete with medical histories, on his website). The punchlines in some cases are amazing. One young man whose leg had been in a plaster cast, and who hadn’t played football for seven years, was so thoroughly healed last year that he has just been given a two year contract by West Ham United. Again: wow.
Spirituality. I mean this both of the event, in the way that it is led, and of the young people themselves. The programme has a wonderful combination of large celebrations, small devotionals, Bible teaching, prayer, evangelism, healing, giving, serving, seminars and (probably) a bunch of things I don’t even know about, reflecting an appropriately wide-ranging view of the kinds of ways in which the Holy Spirit works in the lives of young people. And this bears fruit in the spiritual richness you encounter amongst the young people you meet, who impress me every year with their zeal, kindness, humility and maturity.
Silliness. No youth event can (or should) sustain non-stop spiritual input for a week; it would become unbearably intense. So as much as I was slightly cheesed off about arriving on site, and within the first half hour being peppered with ridiculous questions on video and having eggs cracked over my head every time I got one wrong, I am always encouraged by how much silliness there is at Newday: messy games, all kinds of sports, competitions, scavenger hunts, thrill rides, neon nights and water fights, many of them requiring significant levels of work to organise, and all of them making it a week of entertainment as well as encounter.
Seriousness. At the same time, important things are taken seriously. Child protection (one seminar addressed abuse and #MeToo with impressive clarity and courage). Health and safety. Cultural awareness. Biblical fidelity. Prayer. Pastoral care. Intentionality with respect to racial diversity, which was a particular strength this year. Every area of ministry, it seems, is run by people who are persuaded that it matters, and are committed to doing it well.
Sustainability. The event breaks even (which hardly any events like this do). And it’s a youth event. And they give away the offering to mission, rather than using it to offset their costs. I find that astonishing.
Songs. You’ve got to love a youth event that has production values like this, but opens the first night with How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds. You’ve got to admire the vocal ability and musical direction of the choir, the capacity of the various bands to improvise and create entirely new songs on the fly, and the quality of the new songs introduced (I had not previously heard Hillsong’s King of Kings, and it is both lyrically and musically outstanding). Hats off to all.
Stillness. In the midst of all the anthemic songs and noisy celebration, there are moments of stillness, intimacy and devotion in worship which often speak far more loudly. Simon Brading can get more truth about our union with Christ into a quiet, one minute reflection in between songs than some preachers can in an entire sermon. I love that people are not afraid of quiet waiting (in a giant tent with a massive sound rig and thousands of teenagers!) and thoughtful silence.
Servers. I can’t get over the humility and diligence of the servers. I really can’t. Some people take a week off work to travel to Norfolk and clean toilets and shower blocks for young people (who, if the rumours are to be believed, occasionally get confused as to which is which). School heads and company directors act as stewards or caterers. I asked one senior pastor what he was doing for the week, and he explained that he was on the maintenance team, fixing pumps and showers and electrical problems and who knows what else. There is even a team of people whose job is to serve the servers, and they do it wonderfully, complete with smiles and bacon rolls. It is a marvel.
Scripture. Perhaps it should go without saying that a Christian youth event would be dominated by Scripture in its songs, sermons, exhortations and prayers, but it is significant nonetheless. The preaching is not lightweight, either; the messages take half an hour each, and between them they cover Old and New Testaments, law and prophets, Gospels and letters. More striking for me, this year, was the fact that every day started with an optional devotional—at 8.15, which is a time that most teenagers don’t even exist yet—in which people are simply taught how to read the Bible for themselves. It bodes well for the future, not just of this event, but of the church.
If you haven’t been to Newday before, you should. If you were there this year, I hope you got some sleep last night.
The Noachic Bridge
I’ve always found the Noachic covenant a bit of an outlier. It’s the only covenant in the primeval history and the only one to be made not just with a specific group of people but with all humans and all other living creatures (Genesis 9:9-10). The universality of the covenant is what makes it stick out so prominently. I think I have also struggled to see how it fits within the progression of other covenant in the Bible, apart from as part of the cycle of human sin and divine grace in Genesis 3-12 which is eventually answered in the Abrahamic Covenant. So I was really helped when I came across this recently from Old Testament scholar Mark Boda:
[The term בְּרִית (covenant)] appears in the OT when a relationship is formalized between one kinship cluster (family) and another kinship cluster (family). A בְּרִית (covenant) is not necessary within a family unit, that is, a parent does not need a covenant with a child, nor a sibling with another sibling. These are natural, trustworthy relationships. No covenant is necessary in the original creation since Yahweh God is identified as a parent producing children, as the “image/likeness of God” language makes clear (see Gen. 5:1-3). Once the human couple is banished from the garden in Gen. 3, this family status is annulled, and a covenant is now necessary to structure the relationship between humanity and God, and this covenant makes possible a renewal of the kinship relationship.
The Noachic covenant forms an important bridge between creation and redemption, as God reestablishes kinship relationship with humanity and all of creation. By placing the Noachic covenant in canonical position before Israel’s redemptive story and its relationship agreements (with Abraham/Sarah, Israel at Sinai, priestly, royal), we are reminded that the redemptive agreements with Israel were part of a much larger story of redemption that would impact not just all nations (Gen. 10) but also all creation. The relational agreement with Noah thus is key to understanding humanity’s function as vice-regents over all creation and God’s desire through a redeemed humanity to see creation realize its full potential.
Mark J. Boda, The Heartbeat of Old Testament Theology: Three Creedal Expressions, p.100
I want a gripping story that holds my attention. You want Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, the true story of Oleg Gordievsky’s work as a double agent in the Cold War. It’s been years since I read a book with a more exciting last few chapters than this.
I want something that helps me look at my life from a different perspective. New York Times columnist David Brooks’s The Second Mountain suggests that most of us get to the top of our “first mountain” (career success, financial stability, or whatever), and then find that it isn’t enough and go in search of a second. He also (spoiler alert) becomes a Christian in the process.
I always enjoy current affairs or geopolitics. Bruno Macaes’s The Dawn of Eurasia is part travelogue, part geopolitical analysis, part history, part prophecy. His case is that Europe and Asia are once again becoming inextricably connected, and will function more like one supercontinent than two over the next hundred years.
I like history. Of the several major histories I’ve read this year, Richard Evans’s The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914 is a cut above the rest. Magnificently narrated history on an epic scale, and full of insights that will shape the way you see other centuries and geographies.
I want some creative, quirky, well-told fiction. R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries is all of those things, with a great plot narrated from multiple perspectives, some intriguing insights about guilt, religious commitment and cult membership, and a compelling cast of characters.
I like pictures. Get Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. Even if you come for the pictures, you’ll stay for the prose, and the challenging portrayal of American poverty that Arnade presents to his (largely coastal elite) friends and colleagues.
I like autobiography. Michelle Obama’s Becoming is fascinating in all kinds of ways, and really well told, even if the bit you might expect to be the most interesting (the White House bit) is actually the least interesting part of the story.
I want a readable book that makes me think. If you haven’t already read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, it’s fantastic. If you have, and you liked it, then Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Skin in the Game, though quite different, should also hit the spot.
I want a good Christian book, and I don’t really care what it’s about. So far the best Christian book I’ve read this year is Sam Allberry’s Seven Myths About Singleness, and if I could get everyone to read it, I would.
Enjoy your holidays ...
There are practical answers to these kinds of questions (questions I keep being asked), but there is a deeper underlying one we need to identify: that is the question of righteousness.
Everyone wants to be righteous, and very often the marker of what constitutes this is connected to sex. This is the case whether the marker is a Victorian lady never revealing her ankles, a New Guinea tribesman wearing nothing but a penis gourd, or Barclays Bank changing its logo to the Pride colours. These three examples look very different, but in each of their specific cultural contexts they define the line where righteousness is seen to run. Observe the standard and you are righteous, defy it and you are shamed.
This is all completely in line with what scripture teaches us about righteousness. Paul writes that,
Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness (Romans 10:3).
Paul (a Jew) was writing this about the Jewish people who had confused substance with appearance and were depending on their own effort rather than God’s grace. The principle applies to all peoples though: every culture seeks to establish its own righteousness because everyone wants to be right, and to be seen in the right.
That is what all those Pride flags are about. In our cultural context the number one way to gain ‘righteousness’ is by displaying Pride. So when Christians with a biblically faithful sexual ethic ask how we should respond to this stuff we need to understand that the foundational issue is about righteousness. What we’re arguing about is how to be righteous.
The gospel claims that the only way to righteousness is through Christ, and that this comes as a gift to all who receive it by faith,
Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes (Romans 10:4).
We come into conflict with our culture when we are asked to conform to cultural measures of righteousness and refuse to because that would be idolatry. It is easy to read the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the abstract and say what a wonderful example they provide for how to live as a Christian. Much harder to refuse to participate in something one’s employer is demanding for righteousness sake that would compromise true righteousness – especially if that refusal could cost you your position.
If we’re going to stay faithful, and cling to true righteousness, we’re going to have to learn that winning can look like losing.
I preached on all this a couple of weeks back. If you’re interested, it is here.
The Case for Wine in Communion
“And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22:17-18)
As from Summer 2019, we are changing the way that we practice the Lord’s Supper at Emmanuel to include the use of wine (as opposed to a substitute drink). Scripture and the historical practice of the church supports this and we are looking to bring ourselves into better alignment with Jesus’ leadership.
Why Wine, Why Now?
At Emmanuel we always want to be responsive to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Over the years this has meant various changes in the way we conduct the Lord’s Supper in our services. For example, several years ago we were provoked about the frequency with which we were celebrating the Supper - it was once a month or less - and we changed our practice to make the celebration a core part of our weekly gatherings, to the point where it would be unusual for us not to celebrate Communion on any given Sunday.
In a similar way, we have become convinced that Scripture calls for the use of wine in communion. We are not alone in this and the vast majority of Christians throughout the ages have done the same so it is no new discovery. Over the last couple of centuries, temperance movements have responded to abuses of alcohol in society by banning alcohol on their premises and in their services. Often well-intentioned and pastorally caring, the application of these decisions to omitting wine from the Lord’s Supper was presumptuous.
The wine stands for the blood of Christ which was shed for us and the symbolism is not merely or even mainly in its colour. In the Old Testament, we are told: “the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life” (Leviticus 17:14) and it is the overflowing life of Jesus which we are being called to participate in in the Supper. It is supposed to be a celebration of a great gift and not a time of sorrowful introspection - we are dealing with the God who commands His people to celebrate with wine and strong drink in His presence (Deuteronomy 14:26).
The way Jesus told us to go about celebrating is to take bread and wine and we want to obey Him.
What If I Am Unable To Take Alcohol?
For some people, in their present phase of life, it would be unwise or unsafe to take alcoholic drink. We understand this and want to make provision for the whole congregation to participate as much as possible. We have been very concerned to take the appropriate time to assess all of the related practical matters. With that in mind, we will make a non-alcoholic alternative available at every service.
THINK 2019 Sessions Now Available
Toy Story and Identity
I fear that I may not be a great cinema companion. I recently went to see Toy Story 4 with a couple of friends. As the credits began to roll, my friends were looking happy and smiley and praised the film for its story and surprise ending. I, on the other hand, was seething.
Ok, maybe I wasn’t quite seething, but I was certainly displeased. I had loved the film right up until the last few minutes because I couldn’t help noticing that in its surprising ending, Toy Story 4 had completely sold out to a internal identity narrative. I’ll try not to give too much of the ending away, but basically, a key character turns their back on their created purpose and seeks to find fulfilment by following the desires they find inside. The Toy Story franchise has ended with a classic case of the narrative of our day: the modern or internal identity narrative. In the internal identity narrative, who we are is determined by what we feel and what we desire, and true fulfilment is found by embracing and expressing those feelings and desires. Any sense of purpose or plan in the created world is disregarded and we become the makers of our own identity.
And the embracing of this narrative is a surprising turn for Toy Story to take because the films so far have provided some of the clearest examples of divine identity, the idea that as creatures our identity must come from our creator and so true fulfilment is found by living in line with the creator’s plan.
This approach to identity comes through clearly in Toy Story 3. The film starts with the toys feeling empty and unfulfilled because their owner, Andy, has grown up and no longer plays with them. They are unable to fulfil their created purpose of bringing joy to children and so life feels empty and meaningless. But as the film goes on, they are restored to this purpose when they end up first at a day-care centre and then at the home of a new owner, a young girl called Bonnie. As they return to living as they were created to live – bringing joy to children – they once again rediscover meaning and purpose in life. They find true satisfaction by living out the identity and role given to them by their creator.
And divine identity is even found in Toy Story 4, through the journey of the new character, Forky. Forky starts with an internal identity. Because he’s been made from trash (rubbish, for British readers), when he looks inside himself, he feels like trash and believes that is who he really is. He therefore keeps trying to throw himself back in the bin to embrace and express that internal identity, believing that the bin is where he’ll find true satisfaction. But as the film progresses, Forky realises that to find his true identity, and so the root to true satisfaction, he has to look, not inside himself, but to his creator. His identity is now as a toy, not because of how he feels or what he does, but because of how he has been created and what his creator says about him. Bonnie made him to be a toy and says that he is a toy, and therefore, he is a toy. And since that is his true identity, embracing and expressing that will be the root for Forky to find true life and true satisfaction.
I don’t suppose the creators of Toy Story 4 are aware of the contradictions in the philosophical underpinnings of their stories, and I don’t suppose that many people will have come away from the film with as deep a sense of annoyance as I did. (And I really did love it overall!) But the Toy Story films are a helpful reminder that we are constantly being bombarded by different narratives about how we should form identity and how we can find true satisfaction in life. And this being so, we need to make sure that we know the true narrative, and that we let that be louder in our ear than any of culture’s alternatives.
What Would Zacchaeus Do?
Ben Lindsay, in his (excellent) new book (out today – buy it here) entitled We Need to Talk about Race, uses the story (with a hat-tip to Duke Kwon) to talk about that most contentious of topics: slavery reparations.
You know the story: Zach, being vertically challenged, climbed a tree so he could see Jesus. Jesus then invited himself to Zach’s house (thus conferring great honour on Zach, not being presumptuous as we might see it). Everyone else grumbled, but Zach amazed them all by saying “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8).
Restitution for slavery is, as I say, a contentious topic. Long, long before we get to the nitty gritty of how to go about it and what would be just and fair, we are confronted by critics who ask why we (white westerners) should even bother. I’ve never owned a slave, neither have any of my ancestors. As far as I know, none of them have ever condoned slavery. Why should I endanger my position, power and security to make amends for a crime I didn’t commit?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that that does not sound an awful lot like Jesus. It doesn’t even sound like a scoundrel like Zacchaeus. How could anyone who has truly grasped what Jesus has done for them maintain this kind of attitude?
Zacchaeus only had to spend an afternoon with Jesus before he was spontaneously leaping up and giving above and beyond everything he had ever taken – half of his possessions went to the poor; those he had defrauded received four times as much back. Note that ‘the poor’ don’t seem to be direct victims of his cheating – they’re just the generic poor.
An encounter with Jesus was sufficient to inspire Zacchaeus to want to give far more than he owed to far more people than he was directly responsible for. That’s a kingdom response. That’s the heart of someone who knows he has been given far more than he deserves, by someone who owes him nothing at all.
The Pharisees hated this kind of response. They were the kind of people who scrutinised the law to see exactly how much they had to give and which loopholes existed to save them money (Matt 15:1-9, 23:23). They kept the Law and I’m sure many of them genuinely thought they were striving to do what was right, but they had missed the point, by a long way. Their every word and action showed that they had all the head-knowledge about what God required, but none of the heart-experience of who he is and the kind of lavish abundance with which he loves to shower his children.
You may not personally have kept a slave, run a slave ship or managed a plantation, but the historical prosperity of this nation is due in no small part to the slave trade and the profits generated by the labour of enslaved people.
And more than that, if you’re white the privilege you now hold has been bought with the blood, sweat and tears of racial injustice over centuries. If you have even a glimmer of a belief that white people are more likely to hold leadership positions than black people because they are more able, or better suited to those roles, that suspicion is the result of centuries’ worth of conditioning. And we – I’m writing here to white people – need to make amends for it.
Zacchaeus gave far more than he technically owed because he knew that the wealth he had amassed had given him disproportionate power in the society. Every shekel of advantage he had extracted from his fellow Jews had opened doors to him and slammed them in the faces of others. We see the same in our society today, where those in poverty are disproportionately affected by schemes that help the rich (eg, fuel bills are usually cheaper if you pay them by direct debit, but those with unstable incomes are unable to set up such systems (even if they trust banks, which many don’t) as they can’t guarantee having a given amount of money by a set day of the month. The bills then cost more and they are more likely to miss a payment and incur additional penalty charges…). Zach would have been able to set up all the direct debits he wanted, and to deposit his excess into high-yield savings accounts and investments. His money would have made him money, and it would have bought him access to positions of authority and power within the town.
For white people, addressing racism in our churches and our communities will require giving up some of the power and privilege we have inherited and have taken as our right. It will require humbling ourselves, seeking the forgiveness of God and our BAME friends (if indeed we have any…). For black people, it may mean summoning your courage, putting aside (many, many) past hurts and disappointments and trying, once more, to help us understand how we have wronged you and how we can begin to put it right (apparently not asking to touch your hair is a simple first step!). It will be costly all round, but it is the cost of discipleship. As Lindsay puts it:
“Jesus requires his Church, his followers, to imitate him. Jesus stepped off his throne, where he was worshipped and adored and came to a place where he was despised. Jesus came into the discomfort of this world in an act of radical solidarity. The question for the white majority churches in the UK is this: is there ‘a fierce urgency of now’ to do the same for your black brothers and sisters?”
I highly recommend this excellent, thought-provoking, helpful book. It contains some ideas for ways to begin the long journey of repentance, reconciliation and repair that is urgently needed. And it offers hope in its reminder that just as “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” neither is it fought by flesh and blood, but first and foremost by the power of prayer:
“We must power the fight against racism with prayer. … Prayer gives the battle over to Jesus. Prayer fuels our action. Through prayer, Jesus will give us strength, truth, wisdom, peace, insight, love, forgiveness and power. Through prayer, God wins the main battleground – the human heart. … Let’s combine prayer and action to rid the UK Church and our own hearts of prejudice and racism.”
It has taken courage for Ben to write this book. It has cost him emotional energy, and will doubtless earn him a backlash from many quarters. But it is a timely call to prayer and action. Perhaps your first act of radical solidarity will be to buy and read the book, and allow yourself to listen with your heart to what God has to say through it.
We Need to Talk about Race by Ben Lindsay is out now. Buy it from SPCK or any good book retailer.
THINK 2020: Knowing God, With Carl Trueman
Nothing is worth studying more than the doctrine of God. Other subjects may seem more pressing, or practical, but the knowledge of God is the highest and greatest subject to which we can give our attention.
Yet it is also much neglected within evangelicalism. The great doctrines of classical theism—simplicity, immutability, omniscience, impassibility, even the Trinity—are frequently marginalised or even denied in many churches. God may be seen as changeable, or emotional, or complex, or limited in his knowledge, or comprised of three individual centres of will, or all of the above. It is crucial for the health of the church that we understand God as he is, and not as our culture might like him to be.
So in our 2020 THINK conference, we are inviting Carl Trueman to come and help us. Carl is a professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, with a long history of teaching church history in both seminary and university contexts. He writes a regular column for First Things, hosts the Mortification of Spin podcast, and has published a number of books. More importantly, he is an outstanding teacher and lecturer, and has increasingly been drawn into debates about classical theism and the evangelical doctrine of God in the present day.
For more information, or to register, click here.
Ten questions for pro-choice people
This debate is always vitriolic, and as a result, often deeply unintelligent. Most people (on both sides) are content with sharing facile memes and purile soundbites. I want to avoid that tone, if I can. It’s not the strong language I have a problem with (vital issues call for forceful language), but the ignorant ways that opinions are often voiced, and the consequent refusal to engage in rational discussion. I hope to convince you that the pro-life perspective is rooted in compassion, not misogyny. And so, I urge you to read and even respond.
Here we go…
1. Why is there a double standard at work here, in which we stay quiet about abortion while mourning miscarriage? Last year we had the tragic experience of losing a little boy at 15 weeks. Everyone around us – pro-life and pro-choice friends included – mourned with us and helped console us at the loss of this child. But what made it a tragedy? Was it the fact that he died, or the fact that we were sad about him dying? Anyone who has felt sadness about a miscarriage feels that way precisely because it is the loss of life. To me, this is an inexplicable double-standard, in which terminations are swept under the rug and miscarriages are met with flowers and cards.
2. Why do we fight to save the lives of disabled and premature babies? It is a strange fact that the same surgeons can be disposing of unwanted foetuses in brutal fashion, and then performing nigh-on miraculous operations on the bodies of equally young babies in order to save them (as in the famous photo of Samuel Armas poking his hand out of the womb at 21 weeks while the surgeon tried to fix his spina bifida). A hospital in California recently broke world records by saving the life of a tiny 23 week little girl. What made that girl’s life worth saving? Was it the mere fact that she was now outside the womb? Was it the will and desire of the parents? Or was it some inherent worth in her humanity?
3. Why are abortion laws based on viability outside the womb? The cut-off point of 24 weeks (for healthy babies) is based on whether the baby can survive outside of the womb. The reasoning is that if a foetus cannot survive outside the womb, then the mother has the right to terminate her and choose not to support her development any longer. Now, while it’s true that viability increases with each passing week all the way to 40 weeks, and babies born before 24 have a lower survival rate, it’s not at all clear to me why that has become a boundary for conferring human rights on the baby. The fact is that all babies are highly dependent on the care of others for a long time after birth, and many of us will become dependent on others towards the end of our lives. Dependency on others does not determine whether your life has value, so why do we establish this blurry and somewhat arbitrary line for unborn babies?
4. Why is a woman’s body pitted against her baby’s? The whole debate is set up so that the right to life is set against the right for women to govern their own bodies. The problem, as I see it, is that the foetus is not the woman’s body. This is acknowledged in our legal system.  It’s also the reason you celebrate or panic when you see those two blue lines on the stick. This is not a ‘growth’, and your emotions are proof of that. The pro-life movement views both bodies as beautifully valuable. That’s why we fight for babies and for women. We want women to be genuinely valued and empowered, but abortion doesn’t do that. Why is it that seven percent of women have been forced into having an abortion and it’s used as a tool of coercive abuse? Why is it that women feel they have to choose between pursuing a career or education and having a baby? Why can’t they do both? Why do we see an abortion as a central tenet of women’s rights when it seems to cause women so much grief and pain? (see point 5). Furthermore, more than 50% of aborted babies are female when you factor in widespread sex-selection on the global scene, so it’s not at all clear that abortion is pro-women on any level.
5. Why don’t we talk about the fact that many women suffer unbelievable guilt after having an abortion? This is not mere anecdote.  I’m conscious that the debate is ongoing as to whether there are long-term mental health issues after abortions, but that discussion can be a smokescreen to cover up the fact that many women have been very public and clear about the guilt and regret they have felt after abortions. Whether or not this is categorised as a mental health issue is not the important thing here. Guilt signals something important to a person, and without guilt we lose our humanity. So why do we ignore the fact of guilt after abortions? Is it because the admission of guilt is the admission of wrongdoing?
6. Why is the pro-life movement vilified and bullied as though it was somehow backward to campaign for human rights at this fundamental level? The pro-life movement is often portrayed as led by white men and as fundamentally backwards and misogynistic, despite the fact that women of all races are involved and are more opposed to abortion than men). But talk to a pro-lifer. Generally, they believe a basic ethic: All human life has sanctity. Which part of this is backwards and misogynistic? Consider this carefully. Most of our concerns around justice on a global level are based on this fundamental ethical conviction. Without this belief there would be no anti-slavery, no anti-poverty, and no anti-misogyny movements. Pro-lifers are merely consistent in applying this fundamental ethic to every single human being, including people in the womb.
7. Why not prefer adoption over abortion? Since this issue is often cast in terms of the pregnant woman’s difficult decision, given how all-consuming it is to have a child, why do we make this a binary choice between abortion and keeping the baby? There is a beautiful third way: the fact that there are so many childless couples out there who would do almost anything to have a baby of their own. Wouldn’t it be a heroic thing to carry a baby to term and let that child live and be raised in a loving home? I don’t want to minimise the pain involved in giving away a child, but it seems to me quite obviously preferable to ending that child’s life altogether. It is sometimes argued by pro-choicers that such children will go on to lead awful and painful lives, and thus it is kinder to terminate them if they are unwanted. However, this is rightly seen by those who have been adopted as deeply offensive, as it devalues the childhood they had in their adoptive families and the fulfilling lives they are now leading.
8. Why is it more acceptable to fight for the rights of animals than of unborn humans? Veganism is on the rise, and campaigners often base their argument on the personification of animals, with slogans like, ‘I’m ME not MEAT’ (next to a picture of a pig), or ‘We take them from their mothers and butcher them’ (next to a picture of a calf). As a rule, vegans are not considered to be among the lunatic fringe. Unlike pro-lifers, they usually get respect for their beliefs. Now, I am willing to tolerate a certain degree of madness in our society when it comes to many social issues, but the fact that the animal rights lobbies are considered compassionate and pro-lifers are considered barbaric is totally irrational.
9. What do you think our descendants will think of us? Western society has been shown to be wrong on some key human rights issues in the past – most notably slavery and racial prejudice. To this day, we grieve the history of our ancestors who were capable of stripping away the dignity and humanity of people on the basis of their race. But do you not suppose that we have equally glaring blind spots in our seemingly advanced age? I am confident that some future generation will look back on us with disgust for two reasons: (1) The logical inconsistencies of the pro-choice movement will become clearer over time, just as the pro-slavery movement eventually lost the argument; (2) Advances in medicine and science will make it more difficult to sustain a hard boundary between ‘blob of cells’ and ‘human being’, and with no such boundary there is no longer any conscionable reason for allowing abortion at any point after conception.
10. When does a person become a person? This is really the question to rule them all. Everything depends on this. Assuming we agree that an individual person has dignity and rights that we want to protect, then the importance of this issue simply cannot be exaggerated. So, let me ask it this way: When did you become you? Was it when you were born? Was it when you were viable outside the womb (around 23–25 weeks)? Was it when your heart could first be heard beating in the ultrasound room? And does a person become a person gradually or in an instant? Our laws answer this: a person becomes a person at 24 weeks exactly (and at birth if they’re disabled). But how would you answer this question? And more importantly, why?
Let me offer some concluding thoughts. It seems to me that persuading anyone to change their mind about this issue is very difficult. The divide is deep set and deeply emotional. But my hope is to get greater sympathy for the pro-life cause, and to show that it is based on reason and compassion. First, it is reasonable because there is something beautifully and elegantly simple about saying that life starts at conception, and establishing a firm line rather than an entirely arbitrary one, that risks ending the life of a person. Second, it is compassionate because all pro-lifers believe that the lives of the unborn are worthy of protection and justice – just as we believe that women are worthy of protection and justice, and of the greatest support in pregnancy and beyond. Abortion is simply not the way to do this. We recognise that unplanned pregnancy is frightening and life-changing. But it’s time we questioned the culture that pits a mother against her baby, that offers no support to women in situations of unplanned pregnancy, that discriminates against people with disabilities and little girls in the womb, and that does not uphold the absolute right to life for all and protect the most vulnerable people in our society. It is time to deal honestly with these questions, to wrestle with them together, and to stop dealing in soundbites.
 Lord Hope said the following in the case of Attorney-General’s Reference (No 3 of 1994): HL 24 Jul 1997: ‘an embryo is in reality a separate organism from the mother from the moment of its conception.’
 The most comprehensive review of the evidence in 2013, incidentally by a pro-choice psychologist, found that there is no mental health benefit to abortion and there is an increased risk of psychological problems following abortion including anxiety, substance abuse and suicidality: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23553240
This article was originally published at Salt.
MPs Missing the Wood for the Trees
In response James Mumford poses this scenario:
So let’s fast-forward to a world in which assisted dying is now an option. An 85-year-old grandmother, no longer able to look after herself, has received a diagnosis that she is terminally ill and has only a few months to live. Does she go into a fiendishly expensive nursing home which will exhaust her lifetime’s savings? Or does she bow out? No one in the family has said a word to her. Yet she feels a pressure – her decisions have been complicated by the possibility of assisted dying.
Eventually, she settles on assisted dying. She’s not escorted to the clinic with a son holding a gun to her head. No grandchild has attempted to manipulate her. No one has said anything to her, in fact, so no independent assessment panel will pick up on overt coercion.
And yet, who’s to say that what’s really going on is a grandmother choosing to die prematurely because she feels she has become a burden? Are we really okay with that?
You can find James’ post here. It is well worth reading in entirety.
On the Restoration of Fallen Pastors
We’ve had a couple of these recently: high profile guys who have been caught in pretty serious sin, and then they have parlayed that into their Great Restoration Narrative, and they’re now available for public speaking. I’d want to say to those guys: sit down, shut up, and go away. Get yourself a proper job, pay taxes; we don’t want to hear from you again. Be a good member of your local church. Serve on the toilet cleaning roster or something. We don’t want you as a public speaker, and we don’t want you parlaying your drunkenness or your adultery or whatever into the greatest comeback since the resurrection. We don’t want that. We don’t need that. And you call into question by doing that the genuineness of your repentance, because it doesn’t seem that you understand quite how far you fell.
I absolutely believe in grace. But I do not believe that restoration to fellowship is the same as restoration to office or authority. They’re two distinct things. They’re distinct in Scripture, and they’re distinct in the church today. Yes, the adulterer—the murderer!—can be restored to fellowship in the church. But whether the adulterer should ever stand in a pulpit, or in any position of de facto teaching authority within the church, is an entirely different question.
An Opportunity to Love
According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), in the UK, donated sperm or eggs are used in around 14,500 fertility treatments every year. As Christians, many of us would have concerns about the use of donated sperm and eggs on an ethical level, but perhaps we should also be concerned about the impact that the use of a donor might have on the children who are born as a result of such fertility treatments.
Last week, the New York Times brought this issue to light with a photo essay by Eli Baden-Lasar. Baden-Lasar is a young man who was conceived through the use of donated sperm. He was always aware that this was how he had come into being, but it wasn’t until he was 19 that he discovered he had half siblings, in fact 32 half siblings. In the article, he shares the story of how he made this discovery and of a project he then embarked upon to meet and photograph all of his half siblings.
Some of the article makes for quite sad reading. Baden-Lasar tells a story from when he was 11 years old. He started to ask questions and so was given a copy of a questionnaire that had been completed by the sperm donor. He proceeded to carry this questionnaire around with him to remind himself of the reality of the donor’s existence. He explains, ‘It was a way to help me understand myself.’ His quest to find his half siblings started when he heard that two friends, both also conceived through a donor, had discovered that they were actually half siblings.
What struck me most in the article were some of the statements from Baden-Lasar and his half siblings about the emotional impact of being conceived through a donor and of then discovering so many half siblings. Baden-Lasar himself says, ‘The sheer quantity of [siblings] gave me a feeling of having been mass-produced.’ One of his half sisters reflected, ‘As more and more half siblings were introduced into my life, it made me feel like a statistic rather than an actual person. I feel drowned out with the numbers.’ Another sister speaks of how meeting the half siblings has helped her, but in the process, she reveals some of the difficulties she has felt from knowing she was conceived through a donor: ‘Since meeting my siblings, I’ve become more confident of my identity. I’m no longer wondering, Who am I? And being connected to that side of my genes really helped me feel less alone, because a lot of the siblings, when I first met them, were going through similar struggles.’
I find it interesting that this isn’t an issue I’ve often heard discussed. Admittedly, the HFEA website does include information answering the question ‘What can my children find out about their donor or donor-related siblings?’, but there’s no hint in the information given that this might be a difficult area for donor-conceived children.
This oversight seems to be another example in our culture where the wants and desires of adults are allowed to trump the safety and wellbeing of children. This should be a problem for Christians. Paul commands us, ‘do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves’ (Phil. 2:3), and he exhorts us to ‘please our neighbours for their good, to build them up’ (Rom. 15:2). In all areas of life, to sacrifice our own wants and desires for the sake of others is the very nature of Christian love and the ultimate following of the example of Christ.
Given all of this, I think we might fairly ask whether the use of donated sperm and eggs is fair on the children who are conceived as a result. None of this is to overlook the deep pain of infertility which is in many cases the driving force behind the use of sperm and egg donors. This is a pain which is real and legitimate. It should be acknowledged, expressed and borne with the upholding support of church family alongside.
But perhaps this pain is also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to show real love, the love of self-sacrifice. There are already lots of children who are unsure about their identity and don’t know about their biological roots. Children who need the love and security of a family. Children who are looking for their forever family. The love of self-sacrifice can be shown in the choice not to use a donor for the sake of the wellbeing of a child who might be born as a result and in the choice to lay down some of one’s own wants and desires for the sake of a child who needs a family. Adoption is an act of incredible self-sacrificial love, and it’s an act which reminds us of the ultimate self-sacrificial love, the love through which we were adopted and we were given the ultimate forever family.
A Year of Digital Detox
A year ago I decided to significantly alter my digital habits: I closed down my Facebook account. I kept Twitter but removed the app from my phone and have not used my account in over a year. I removed Strava from my phone and can go weeks without looking at it on my laptop. I switched from using Google for search to DuckDuckGo.
I did this for a variety of reasons. I got rid of Facebook because so little of what I read on it actually benefitted me in any way. Plus I didn’t like the way Facebook tracks and monitors and advertises. That’s also why I moved away from Google – DuckDuckGo doesn’t track users in the way Google does so gives less personalised search results which I prefer; and I no longer suffer all the pop-up ads for things that Google and Facebook think I should buy. I realize that as an exile living in Babylon I have to use some of the structures and systems of the world but I don’t want to be more enslaved by it than I have to be.
I took Twitter off my phone so I couldn’t be distracted by it so easily – because it can be a great distraction. Plus, Twitter has become an increasingly hostile and unpleasant place, and with its evermore desperate attempts to generate revenue and constant changes to the platform was becoming less and less user-friendly.
And I took Strava off my phone because I too easily suffered FOMO, envy or disappointment when I saw how much further and faster my friends were running and cycling than me. I have a competitive enough personality as it is without needing to be constantly goaded by the electronic accounts of the exploits of my friends.
Has living less on social media helped me though?
There are certainly some things that I miss. These are primarily around the genuine social interaction social media makes possible – for instance, I’m now much less likely to know when my friends are going for a bike ride. But at least I don’t then find out about it via Strava! I also miss some of the humour on social media, and some of the news. There are some people I am less in contact with because they are the kind of people who only respond to contact through social media.
I’ve faced incredulity from some who cannot believe I am no longer on Facebook. And a degree of snarky hostility from others who are eager for me to hear about how ‘good’ social media can be.
Overall though I’d say that my quality of life has improved by my change of digital diet. I probably get irritated and downcast less often than I did. I certainly waste less time. I’ve probably read more books. And I feel less device dependent – I’m quite happy to leave home without my phone without panicking about it; and often intentionally leave it behind. All of these things mean that I’m probably more focussed than I was and thus – though it’s hard to measure – more productive. I’m also happy for the big digital corporations to know a little less about me than they did. Big Brother isn’t watching me quite so closely now.
A year into this experiment I’m not minded to go back to my old ways. I might get back onto a social media platform at some point but don’t feel any great desire to do so now. For me, when it comes to a digital life, less is definitely more. I can still lose an hour following links on YouTube as easily as anyone, and am not against posting the occasional thought on a blog, but the life less digital feels a life more serene.
The aim of the C of E’s Digital Charter is to make social media a kinder place. That’s a commendable, if perhaps hopeless aim. But for all of us who are followers of Jesus the key questions need to be how our words and actions help us to grow as disciples and minister the grace of God to others. If social media helps in that, great. If not, detox.
When I Grow Up
C. S. Lewis had a characteristically thoughtful and oft-quoted response:
I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No,’ he might regard the absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.
That analogy came to mind as I was listening to the Matilda soundtrack the other day. In one of the musical’s best numbers, “When I Grow Up,” a group of children imagine what they will do when they are adults, and (unsurprisingly) imagine it as a permanent opportunity to do what children want to do:
And when I grow up,
I will eat sweets everyday on the way to work,
and I will go to bed late every night.
And I will wake up when the sun comes up,
and I will watch cartoons until my eyes go square,
and I won’t care,
because I’ll be all grown up.
It doesn’t occur to them—or, in eschatological terms, to us—that maturity causes our desires to change. That’s what is so charming about the song; we watch it and remember what it is like to imagine the future as nothing but an exaggerated present, and then we get to appreciate again that there are greater pleasures than eating sweets and watching television.
Desires do change, and they intensify in response to greater maturity and greater pleasures, and that makes the new creation immeasurably more than we can ask or think. Praise God for that.
But He’s Given Me Himself
‘You’ve given up so much to follow Jesus.’ I've sometimes heard people say things like this. There are all sorts of things which we might give up in order to faithfully follow of Jesus – relationships, family, jobs, sex, status, money, opportunities, popularity, hopes, dreams. In this sense there is a cost to following Jesus, and statements like the one above are, I’m sure, a well-intentioned recognition of this. But I worry that they can also cause us to get things the wrong way around. Yes there’s a cost, but surely it’s a cost that’s worth it? And surely it shouldn't lead us to self-pity or pride?
I was recently reading the chapter on missions in Desiring God, and I found Piper’s reflections on Jesus’ words to Peter in Mark 10:28-30 really helpful on this point.
The response of Jesus indicates that the way to think about self-denial is to deny yourself only a lesser good for a greater good. You deny yourself one mother in order to get one hundred mothers. In other words, Jesus wants us to think about sacrifice in a way that rules out all self-pity. This is in fact just what the texts on self-denial teach.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)
The argument is inescapably hedonistic. Saint Augustine captured the paradox in these words:
“If you love your soul, there is danger of its being destroyed. Therefore you may not love it, since you do not want it to be destroyed. But in not wanting it to be destroyed you love it.”
Jesus knew this. It was the basis of His argument. He does not ask us to be indifferent to whether we are destroyed. On the contrary, He assumes that the very longing for true life (1 Peter 3:10) will move us to deny ourselves all the lesser pleasures and comforts of life. If we were indifferent to the value of God’s gift of life, we would dishonour it. The measure of your longing for life is the amount of comfort you are willing to give up to get it. The gift of eternal life in God’s presence is glorified if we are willing to “hate our lives in this world” in order to get it (John 12:25). Therein lies the God-centred value of self-denial.1
So perhaps rather than reminding each other of how much we’ve given up for Jesus, we should actually remind each other of how much we’ve got in Jesus. ‘You’ve given up so much for Jesus’. ‘Maybe, but he’s given me everything; he’s given me himself’.
- 1 John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (rev. edn; Multnomah, 2011), pp.241-42.
KJV’s Immanent Frames
I eventually came to understand: it wasn’t that my glasses had changed, but my perception of them had. I was meeting more and more people with smaller frames and that trained me (you could say discipled me) to feel as if there was something wrong with my glasses.
If you can do it with glasses, you can certainly do it with other things, like gender. And that’s exactly what’s happening.
- Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Hearers & Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine, 106
A Sacrifice of Praise
I’ve been leading a group through a study of the Pentateuch as part of a new biblical theology course we have launched: material prepared and presented by Think’s very own Andrew Wilson. (At the moment this is only available to churches that are part of the Advance network but we hope to be able to offer it more widely in time.) In the last session we were looking at the sacrifices described in Leviticus 1-7 and for everyone on the course there came a moment of revelation as we saw that not all sacrifices are about sin. More of them are about worship.
Leviticus describes five types of sacrifice: the sin offering and guilt offering are to do with atonement, purification and compensation for sin. But the burnt offering, grain offering and peace offering are to do with praise, fellowship and ‘a pleasing aroma’. That’s two to three.
This morning I happened to be in Numbers 7 as part of my normal Bible reading schedule. This chapter describes the offerings brought by the tribal leaders at the dedication of the tabernacle. This is a chapter I tend to skip past – it is long and repetitive and all about sacrifice. But looking at it with fresh eyes it is actually rather wonderful.
Look at the sacrifices, and what they were for: Yes, 12 goats were offered as a sin offering. But then 12 silver dishes filled with flour and oil, 12 gold dishes filled with incense, 12 bulls, 72 rams, 72 lambs, 24 oxen and 60 goats were offered as other sacrifices. Sin was recognised and compensated for, but the scale of the offering was massively weighted towards a sacrifice of praise and fellowship. That’s amazing.
When we come before God in worship now we do so recognising our sin and guilt and how it has been dealt with (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 2:1-2; 1 John 4:10) but we must also come seeing how Jesus is our burnt offering (Rom. 8:32); our grain offering (2 Cor. 2:14-16); our peace offering (Eph. 2:14).
If even under the old covenant the balance of sacrifice was weighted towards praise and fellowship then how much more under the new covenant are we called to celebrate? Yes, let’s celebrate!
June is LGBTQ+ Pride month. That’s why you might have noticed rainbow flags flying, pride events starting (they’ll actually spread across the next few months), and even the logos of some famous companies adopting the rainbow colours. This year’s celebrations are particularly significant as June 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which many view as the starting point of the Pride movement. As I’ve spotted these rainbows over the last few weeks and reflected on how Christians should view Pride, I’ve been reminded of a conversation I had a few months ago.
A friend and I were talking about some topics around sexuality, and then he asked me, ‘How do you feel about LGBTQ+ Pride?’ It was a question I don’t think I’d ever really thought about before, but to my surprise I instantly had an answer, and the answer itself surprised me too. My response was simple. ‘Sad’, I said.
The reality is actually somewhat more complex. I have lots of mixed feelings about LGBTQ+ Pride. Pride is partly about remembering the terrible ways that LGBTQ+ people have been, and sometimes still are, treated. It is an opportunity to celebrate the positive changes that have come in the last 50 years and to campaign for further changes where they are still needed. No one should be made to feel ashamed or like a lesser person or receive abuse because of who they find themselves attracted to or because of their internal sense of gender. Every LGBTQ+ person is made in the image of God and is loved by God, and as Christians we should be at the front of the queue to affirm this and to campaign against any word or deed which denies it. This is perfectly compatible with, we could even say required by, the historic Christian sexual ethic.
But my overriding feeling as soon as my friend asked me that question was sadness. For many, Pride is also a public celebration of embracing internal desires and feelings as identity and seeking to find fullness of life by expressing them. But our desires and feelings are a terrible foundation for our identity and embracing and acting on sinful desires can never be the root to fullness of life.
I feel deep sorrow over the fact that so many men and women have been told lies about where true life can be found and about who they really are. While God has revealed to us the right and life-giving ways of living as sexual beings (either in an opposite-sex marriage or in celibate singleness) and has revealed that our true identity comes from him, the enemy has whispered the lie that our identity is found in our desires and feelings and that true life is found by acting on those desires. My heart breaks for those who are looking for fulfillment where it can never be found (as all who are looking for fulfillment in anything other than Jesus and in living his way are).
As I’ve mused on this, I’ve found Paul’s reflections in Romans 9-11 helpful. Paul expresses his deep anguish over the fact that so many of his Jewish contemporaries had not accepted Jesus as the Messiah. ‘I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit – that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart’ (Rom. 9:1-2). Why? Because of ‘my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh’ (Rom. 9:3).
I find Paul’s response to the situation here helpful. He is clear that one of the reasons why his kinsmen have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah is because of their own unbelief (Rom. 9:32-10:4). They have heard the gospel and yet they have rejected Jesus (Rom. 10:18-21). We could easily imagine Paul therefore becoming angry with them for their sinful rejection of the true Messiah. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t look down on them. He doesn’t get indignant. He weeps. He expresses deep pain, anguish and sorrow over their failure to see the truth, and he prays for their salvation (Rom. 10:1).
As I’ve thought about it more, I think this sort of sorrow is part of what Christians should feel about Pride. Some Christians respond to Pride with disgust, frustration or even anger. We feel the need to make it clear that we had the rainbow first and to bemoan the ‘celebration of sin’ (all the while overlooking the year-round celebration of many other sinful behaviours in our culture). We seem to forget that had it not been for the work of God in our hearts, we too could be believing those lies and looking for fulfillment in the wrong places. And we easily overlook the fact that we have often been part of the problem which led to the need for Pride. Our response should therefore not be to complain about what others are doing but to repent and apologise for what we have done. Historically, and still often today, we have not loved the LGBTQ+ community as Jesus has called us to love all people.
And so now, when I see the rainbow flags or the supermarket logos which have gone rainbow on Twitter, I’m choosing not to get on a moral high horse and express disdain or disapproval. I’m allowing my heart to be moved, and I’m praying, for ‘my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved’ (Rom. 10:1).
The Spoon isn’t Real
Movie night at a friend’s house twenty years on finally filled in those gaps. It’s great, isn’t it? Looks a little dated now, but it hasn’t aged badly, all told.
If you have somehow managed to miss even a vague grasp of the premise, look it up, but essentially our hero, Neo, discovers he’s been living in an artificial world all his life and he is the only person that can save humanity. Adventures ensue.
The resolution of these adventures relies on Neo being able to grasp the fact that the world of the matrix is just an illusion. He can bend a spoon with his thoughts not by compelling the spoon to bend, but by recognising that the spoon isn’t real. He can see the spoon; he can feel its weight and texture, he can even use it to eat with, but all these properties are just sensory impulses created by a computer (as is the food). Once he manages to get his mind around that, he can bend the spoon however he wants. He could presumably turn it into a fork, or a kangaroo or an aspidistra for that matter. It isn’t real, so it doesn’t have any obligation to obey the laws of physics.
Hold that thought.
To be or not to be
I seem to have been spending a lot of time in Philippians recently, and it’s rapidly becoming my favourite book of the Bible (when it isn’t Nehemiah, which it always is…). I love Paul’s soliloquy on death in chapter 1, which is such a fascinating contrast with Hamlet’s:
To be, or not to be- that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. …
To die- to sleep.
To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death-
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns- puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
For Hamlet life, no matter how miserable, is preferable to death, purely because he fears death might be worse. Why would anyone wish to stay alive – enduring oppression, insult, rejection, injustice and more – if it wasn’t because death held a greater threat?
Here’s Paul’s reasoning:
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. (Phil 1:20-24)
To be clear: I don’t believe Paul was considering ending his own life here. He had fully surrendered his life - its circumstances and its days - to God. God alone had the authority to take his life or to preserve it, no matter how desperate things got. And things were objectively desperate here - he genuinely was experiencing all the things Hamlet was fretting about: oppression, insult, rejection (though perhaps not unrequited love) and injustice. What’s more, he had been beaten by actual whips, not just the whips of time. Multiple times. It wouldn’t be surprising if he sometimes thought of ending it all. But that isn’t the point of this passage. It’s not about wishing he no longer had to endure this life, but longing to be with the Lord he loved.
Death held no fear for him, because he knew what awaited on the other side – Jesus. Jesus was on this side, too (for me to live is Christ…), but on the other side was an even closer relationship with him, the chance to see him and worship him in all his glory, not the ‘glass darkly’ version Paul knew we are seeing here.
Paul was absolutely convinced that death was better than life – not because life was so awful, but because no matter how good it got, being with his saviour would be better by far.
So why would he stay? If Hamlet thinks the only thing keeping us here is fear, why would you stay when you have no fear? Because second only to his passionate love for Christ was his passionate love for others. “It is more necessary for you that I remain in the body,” he says, so that’s what he’ll do.
It is clear throughout Philippians that Paul’s primary goal is God’s glory, with the health, joy, love and maturity of the church running it a close second. Paul’s chains, his discomfort, his lack of freedom, the insults, abuse, beatings, mockery, snake bites, shipwrecks…etc, etc, etc… they barely registered with him.
That’s partly because he was willing to endure anything if it meant Christ was glorified, but I think too it is because he knew this world isn’t really the real thing. The chains aren’t real.
The perishable becomes imperishable
For Hamlet, the world was awful, but the nightmare of death could be worse. For Paul, the world was temporary, fading away, perishable. His troubles were ‘light and momentary’. He had experienced for himself that God could make seeing eyes blind and blind eyes see, that he could make prisons shake and chains disintegrate, that he could make poisonous snake bites no worse than a pin-prick.
He knew from eye witnesses that Jesus had turned water into wine, had made five loaves and two fish feed over 5,000 people (with more left over than he started with), had walked on water and through locked doors, had calmed seas and produced miraculous catches of fish. And of course he knew from the scriptures that God created the world, set its physical laws in place, then broke them at will, parting the Red Sea, turning the Nile to blood, raining down sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah, sending rains, withholding rains, multiplying oil, stopping the sun in the sky…
This world we see is not an illusion – it’s not just a matrix of electrical stimuli tricking our brains into thinking they can see, hear, taste and touch – but neither is it the full reality. It has laws, but they are not immutable. Many martyrs have been consumed by fire, but Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were able to walk through it unharmed. Most believers sink in water, but Peter walked on its surface. Jesus told us that faith the size of a mustard seed could move mountains – how little would it take to bend a simple soup spoon? He said we would do greater things than him, because he has given us dominion over all the earth – including its physical laws. They are subservient to us now, in accordance with his will.
I’m not saying that physicality is irrelevant. Far from it. Our bodies, our biology and our interaction with the world we perceive through our senses tell us truths, but the truths they tell are of a deeper reality – the physical world is true, but it also points us to what is more true. In the same way that marriage is both real and a picture of Christ and the church, so this world is both real and but a shadow of that which is to come.
When we understand that, neither life nor death can hold any fear for us.
For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:53-58)
The sting isn’t real.
The Paradox of Privilege
This is not because life was necessarily sweeter in Liberia. On the contrary. But Liberians possessed what Paul Froese calls “existential urgency.” In the turmoil of their lives, they were compelled to make fierce commitments to one another merely to survive. They were willing to risk their lives for one another. And these fierce commitments gave their lives a sense of meaning.
That’s the paradox of privilege. When we are well-off we chase the temporary pleasures that actually draw us apart. We use our wealth to buy big houses with big yards that separate us and make us lonely. But in crisis we are compelled to hold closely to one another in ways that actually meet our deepest needs.
- David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life
Competence of Character
It is amusing, if salutary, to look at the remaining candidates in the Tory Party leadership election and consider whether any of them would qualify as church elders. With the amount of wife-stealing and drug using that has been admitted it seems unlikely.
When it comes to worldly leadership the key question is to do with competence, with issues of character then intruding. So the main question is whether Boris is competent to lead the country – oh, and what about his propensity for running off with other women? Or, is Gove competent to be Prime Minister – and might his cocaine use have any relevance for that?
Leadership in the church is meant to operate from the opposite position: does this man’s character qualify him for eldership? And if it does, is he also gifted in the things elders are expected to do?
In an increasingly corporate age it is easy for us to slip into worldly categories in the church. We exalt leadership, gift and charisma and people get appointed to position because of their ability. But the Bible shows us a very different pattern in which we are to look for fatherly pastoring of the church household. This doesn’t mean gift and competence are unimportant but that we mustn’t confuse our categories: it is character that qualifies or disqualifies over and about competence.
That might not be the way to get ahead in politics, but it is the measure we must use in the church.
Generation to Generation
When we exiles gather with other believers we are meant to strengthen and encourage one another. This should be happening Sunday by Sunday and day by day in our local churches but it can also happen in a special way at larger gatherings and conferences. The week before last I was in Cape Town for a gathering like this: 450 of us from 17 different nations. I felt strengthened and encouraged!
The theme of our conference was ‘Generation to Generation’, as we focussed on how the different generations can serve the purpose of God together and what we need to be entrusting to the next generation. In one of the most beautiful moments of the week four generations of youth worker stood up and explained how one had pastored another who had pastored another in a cascade of blessing over the past 40 years.
Being led in the word and worship by people of different ages and different cultures and ethnicity was truly refreshing. In the midst of the beauty and brokenness of South Africa our eyes were drawn to the hope we have in Christ of a world renewed, and of people from every tribe, nation and tongue being gathered before the throne. One day our exile will end, hallelujah!
Recordings from the conference can be accessed here.
Recommended Resources on Sexuality
Many of us have big questions about sexuality. What does the Bible actually say about same-sex relationships? What does it look like to faithfully follow Jesus as someone who is same-sex attracted/gay? And how can the church best love, support and share the gospel with sexual minorities? Thankfully, the last decade or so has seen the production of lots of great resources to help Christians wrestle with these questions, but we don’t always know where to start, so here’s a list of recommended resources on sexuality and related topics.
I’ve divided the resources up under a few categories, offering some top recommendations for each. To help you find the resources which will be most helpful to you, I’ve given an indication of the level of each (either Basic (B), Intermediate (I), or Advanced (A)).
These are resources which give a good general introduction to the topic and the most significant questions. If you’ve not yet engaged with the topic they’re a great place to start.
Preston Sprinkle, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue (I)
If you’re going to read one book on sexuality, make it this one. Preston does a brilliant job of covering all the key questions, but the real beauty of the book lies in its tone: Preston combines complete and unswerving faithfulness to God’s Word with a tangible love for SSA/gay people. There are few books on sexuality which I have read and felt genuinely loved by the author, but this is one of them. (You can get a flavour of Preston’s approach in this talk). Preston has also written a version for teenagers which is equally excellent: Living in a Gray World: A Christian Teen’s Guide to Understanding Homosexuality (B).
Sam Allberry, Is God Anti-Gay?: And Other Questions About Homosexuality, the Bible and Same-Sex Attraction (B).
A very brief (less than 90 pages) but very helpful treatment of the key questions.
Alex Tylee, Walking with Gay Friends: A Journey of Informed Compassion (B)
Having been published 12 years ago, Tylee’s book is one of the oldest of its type on the topic (it’s a relatively young field!) but is a great introduction. The chapter ‘Identity and evangelism’ is particularly helpful as few resources give such a focus to evangelism among SSA/gay people.
Hearing the stories of SSA/gay Christians is one of the best ways of learning how to love and support those whom we know personally.
Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Faithfulness and Homosexuality (B)
Wes shares his story of wrestling with how to follow Jesus as someone who is gay with incredible openness, communicating powerfully some of the pains and struggles the journey can bring.
David Bennett, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus (B)
David’s story is an incredible example of the power of Jesus to save and captivate even those whom we might think are far from him. David’s story and his reflections upon it have much to teach us about following Jesus regardless of our sexual orientation.
Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (B)
Another honest and powerful story of, in the author’s own words, ‘How I followed my Saviour in costly obedience and became a mythical creature, a thing that wasn’t supposed to exist: a single gay Christian.’
Living Out Stories Page
Living Out has a brilliant collection of short videos in which same-sex attracted Christians share their stories.
The Bible and Sexuality
What does the Bible actually teach about sexuality and same-sex relationships? Every Christian needs to wrestle with this question.
Preston Sprinkle, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue (I)
Again. The first half of the book works through the relevant biblical material in a way which is determined to be faithful to God’s Word and full of love. Exemplary in approach and tone.
Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? (I)
A clear and faithful look at the biblical texts and the objections that are raised against the historic Christian sexual ethic.
Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (A)
A thorough and scholarly look at the biblical material and hermeneutical questions of its relevance for today. Inevitably I don’t agree with all his conclusions, but it is a useful and important work. Gagnon has also produced a seven-part video series on the topic.
For many SSA/gay Christians faithfulness to Jesus will mean singleness (many, not all, as some will enter into opposite-sex marriages). Therefore, getting singleness right is one of the most important things we can do.
Sam Allberry, 7 Myths About Singleness (B)
The book about singleness which every Christian should read, as I’ve argued here.
Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction (B)
Shaw believes that most Christians who reject a traditional sexual ethic do so not because they are convinced by a fresh reading of the Bible, but because they think the traditional sexual ethic is implausible. Though not strictly about singleness, most of the missteps which Shaw argues need correcting to make the Bible’s teaching plausible are applicable to all singleness.
Barry Danylak, Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life (I)
Why is singleness such a bad thing in the Old Testament but a gift better than marriage in the New Testament? Danylak’s biblical theology of singleness offers a wonderful explanation.
The Bible’s teaching on same-sex relationships doesn’t make sense apart from its teaching on marriage. Understanding the theology of marriage explains its prohibition of same-sex relationships.
Tim & Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Marriage with the Wisdom of God (I)
A wonderful account of what marriage actually is according to the Bible. Includes a helpful chapter on singleness.
John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (I)
Another beautiful explanation of what marriage is really about.
Ray Ortlund, Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel (I)
A brief biblical theology of marriage which helps to show the role that marriage has in God’s big story.
The Bigger Cultural Picture
As we engage with the topic of sexuality, as well as understanding what God says, we need to understand what the world says and the narratives people are being told. Only when we understand these can we show how God’s way is more beautiful, more life-giving, and better explains the reality we experience.
Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing (I)
Harrison helps us to understand the sexual revolution and its roots. He then shows us how the revolution can be critiqued, before turning to outline the better story that, as Christians, we can bring to the world.
Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality (A)
Pearcey tackles more than just sexuality, but in her account of the secular worldview which rejects the body and prioritises the true, inner self, she shows how the acceptance of same-sex sexual activity has been underpinned by this thoroughly unbiblical worldview. See the summary here.
Tim Keller on Identity (I)
The most helpful teaching I have yet to hear on what underpins secular thought on sexuality was given by Tim Keller at Living Out’s Identity in Christ conference last year. I’m hoping the teaching will one day form the basis of one of Keller’s books, but until it does you can read summaries and find videos of the sessions here.
Hugh’s outrage was the very on-trend concern about the ubiquity of single use plastics: how difficult it is to buy things that are not packaged in them, and how difficult it is to then recycle them. Most shocking was a trip to Malaysia in which he discovered vast mountains of plastics shipped from the UK, which British householders thought had gone to recycling. Instead, it is polluting Malaysian watercourses – and Malaysian air as the plastic is often burned in the open.
How disappointing – and shaming – that rather than recycling plastics usefully at home so much of it ends up being shipped to the other side of the world. We are literally dumping our problem on a nation we are able to take advantage of because of disparities in economic development.
This is a very apt metaphor for sin and righteousness. Everyone wants to be righteous and that desire is manifested in all kinds of behaviours, including recycling. Recycling is a badge of righteousness, especially in more prosperous areas of the UK. We feel guilty about our consumerism and the amount of waste we generate. Recycling makes us feel better – it means we are ‘doing our bit’. It is a visible, tangible, sign that we are good people: that blue bin at the kerbside full of carefully sorted recyclables is the evidence of our virtue. But if in reality so much of what we have offered up to the altar of the blue bin ends up in a polluting pile in Malaysia all our virtue is groundless. We are not righteous, but only appear to be. We are contaminated and contaminating. We are not righteous but sinful, and the worst kind of hypocritical sinners. It would be more honest to indiscriminately hurl our trash in the black bin and consign our shame to the local landfill site.
Jordan Peterson spoke recently about being asked if he believes in God,
People kept asking me that question, which I really don’t like. I don’t like that question, so I sat and thought about it for a good while and I tried to figure out why. And I thought, well … who would have the audacity to claim that they believed in God? If they examined the way they lived, who would dare say that?
Who indeed? But the wonder of the gospel is of course precisely the point Peterson hasn’t grasped – that true righteousness is not grounded in how I live, but in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is his righteousness that counts! And – wonderfully – he is able to deal with my sin and shame: it isn’t a problem that gets shunted off to someone else, but has been fully and finally dealt with at the cross. Dead and buried.
That’s good news. And it’s not plastic.
Nature Begins, Scripture Completes
(1) The star (“revelation by creation”) leads the Magi to (2) Israel’s Scripture in Jerusalem (“revelation by Scripture”), which in turn leads them to (3) the Child in Bethlehem (“revelation by Christ”). It is interesting that the star (of creation) does not lead the Magi directly to Christ. There is an intermediate stop in Jerusalem in the Israelite church where Scripture is opened; and only then is focus finally given to the star’s light and so direction to the Magi’s search. The star brings us to Jerusalem; only Scripture brings us to Bethlehem. Creation can bring us to the church; the church’s Bible brings us to Christ. To be sure, the star reappears, but, significantly, only after the Scriptures say “Bethlehem!” (2:4-9). God’s revelation in creation raises the questions and begins the quest; God’s revelation in Scripture gives a preliminary answer and directs the quest towards the goal. Finally, God’s revelation in Christ satisfies the quest. Creation’s revelation can bring human beings only halfway; scriptural revelation has the power to bring us home - to Christ. God in his goodness is the author of both revelations and uses both.
- Bruner, Matthew 1-12, 59 (emphasis both original and plentiful)
Aunty Ethel’s Elbow
The prayer part was interesting. Which is to say it was usually very dull, but interesting from an anthropological standpoint. The prayers rarely seemed to pick up on the themes of the study (except when someone felt we hadn’t agreed sufficiently with his/her point and tried to convince God to make it clear to us), but would most often be rather feeble requests of the type that asked us to pray that God would heal Aunty Ethel’s elbow, which had been giving her trouble again.
I couldn’t articulate this back then, but certainly by the time I was at uni I was beginning to feel that this wasn’t 100% what prayer could be. It was supposed to be powerful and effective, wasn’t it? There were people who could do it for hours, and find it meaningful and worthwhile. What was I missing?
I was missing, of course, the connection between the Bible study and the prayer. I was missing an understanding of how people in the Bible prayed, what they talked to God about and what they asked him for. As Alistair Begg points out in his recent book Pray Big, none of the prayers in the Bible use those two little words that we so often rely on: ‘be with’.
If you were to record my prayers, I have a sad suspicion you’d hear a lot of “be with”: “Dear Lord, I pray you will be with Tom as he goes to work, and be with Mary also, who’s having her wisdom teeth removed on Tuesday, and be with… and be with… and be with… and be with us all. Amen.” This is unimaginative. It’s limited. It’s certainly not spiritually ambitious, like Paul is. And it is, I think, unnecessary. Jesus said, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28 v 20). He’s promised to be with Tom and with Mary. It’s a bit of a waste to make the sum total of my prayer for them the request that Jesus would do what he already said he’d do, and has already started doing.1
Furthermore, Tim Keller tweeted last year, “It’s remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances.” Instead “he prays for what they really need. He prays not for a change in their circumstances, but a change in their hearts.”
Alistair Begg looks specifically at Paul’s prayers for the Ephesians, and how he prayed for power, hope, riches and more. I’ve been working through Paul’s letters recently and have been struck by how much he prays for knowledge and wisdom and abundance - for the fullness of Christ to inhabit us!
...that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
It’s exuberant, it’s joyful, it’s overflowing.
He prays for them in their circumstances, and asks for prayer in his own, not to be rescued from them, but that God would be glorified in and through them. I’ve started noting down on a card in my journal the bullet point summaries of what Paul prays, and what he longs and expects to see in the believers, and am using that to guide my prayers for my friends and family each day. It has certainly made a difference, especially when praying for people whose needs I don’t know very well, or those who are facing long-term challenges and for whom, ‘please heal them’ gets a bit tired and empty after a while.
I want my friends to be healed, for their job interviews to be successful, for them to have a nice time on holiday, but far more than that I want them to know Christ and the glory of his resurrection, to grow in knowledge and depth of insight, to live in hope, and to be filled with the fullness of God.
Imagine the potential outcomes if God answers the two types of prayer: in one, Aunty Ethel’s elbow would be less sore, at least for now. In the other she would be strengthened with power through the Holy Spirit, the eyes of her heart would be enlightened to know the hope to which she has been called, and she would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. So whether her elbow is healed or not, her life would be transformed. She would have received sufficient power, hope and love to enable her to endure - even to rejoice in - any trials, just as Paul did. Rather than simply a bit less pain, she would have a deeper, richer, more vibrant heart-level knowledge of the God who created her, knows her every pain and sorrow, and loves her abundantly.
Let’s pray bigger, bolder, better prayers, prayers that focus on what really matters and our ultimate purpose in life. Let’s seek first his Kingdom for ourselves, our friends, our churches and our communities, and all these things will be added unto them.
1. Alistair Begg, ‘Stop praying “be with” prayers’, Good Book Company blog 28 May 2019, https://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/blog/interestingthoughts/2019/05/28/stop-praying-be-with-prayers/
Where Have All the Atheists Gone?
A new piece of research, snappily titled, Understanding Unbelief: Atheists and agnostics around the world. Interim findings from 2019 research in Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, reveals some fascinating things about the ‘nones’.
One is that atheists and agnostics don’t have much conviction in their beliefs about unbelief,
Popular assumptions about ‘convinced, dogmatic atheists’ do not stand up to scrutiny. Atheists and agnostics in Brazil and China are less confident that their beliefs about God are correct than are Brazilians and Chinese as a whole.
Though there is nicely ironic corollary about our American friends, where “atheists are typically fairly confident in their views about God, importantly, so too are Americans in general.”
Perhaps the most interesting finding is how atheism wants to hold on to objective morality, rather than moral relativism or nihilism.
The report says this,
Another common supposition – that of the purposeless unbeliever, lacking anything to ascribe ultimate meaning to the universe – also does not bear scrutiny. While atheists and agnostics are disproportionately likely to affirm that the universe is ‘ultimately meaningless’ in five of our countries, it still remains a minority view among unbelievers in all six countries.
Also perhaps challenging common suppositions: with only a few exceptions, atheists and agnostics endorse the realities of objective moral values, human dignity and attendant rights, and the ‘deep value’ of nature, at similar rates to the general populations in their countries.
As pointed out here last week – atheism is incapable of providing a moral foundation that is anything but relativistic, so this stubborn clinging to the objective is remarkable. It reminds me again of Nietzsche’s devastating critique of the ‘English flatheads’:
They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality… We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth – it stands and falls with faith in God.
Positively, this report should serve as a great spur to mission – our agnostic and atheist neighbours don’t really believe in their unbelief. They want life to have meaning and purpose. They believe there are objective moral realities. All they need to make sense of this is a revelation of the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).
Let’s tell them!
White or Wrong?
The obvious problem. My skin is not white. Not even close. All of my great-grandparents were British, but if you saw a car painted the same colour as me, there is no way you would ever refer to it as white. If you put my skin on a colour palette, it would be somewhere between peach and beige, depending on the season. So the word “white” is a strange one to describe me, as you will know if you have ever tried to explain it to a small child.
The historical problem. Nobody in the ancient world was white. Nobody in the medieval world was white. The term only started being used four hundred years ago, at just about the same time as European people started colonising other parts of the world and developing arguments to explain that this was OK. That makes the word anachronistic when used of the past, and genealogically suspicious when used of the present.
The gradual problem. If you walked across Eurasia from Portugal to Korea, you would notice that there is no point at which people suddenly look different. Languages can change instantaneously, and so do nationalities (another recent invention), but the same is not true of skin colour, size of nose, shape of eyes, and so on. “Race”, in that sense, is a social construct, and one that does not reflect the fluid and complex realities of the real world.
The Mediterranean problem. This one is forcefully expressed (complete with genetic graphs) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Northern Europeans (“butter people”), eager to champion their classical and Judeo-Christian heritage, classified Greeks, Romans, and Eastern Mediterraneans (“olive oil people”) as fellow whites, often to the point of claiming (and painting) Jesus himself as a white man. But genetically speaking, Mediterraneans are quite different from an Anglo- like me; a Roman is closer to a Maghrebi than to a British person. When applied to the Mediterranean, the concept of “whiteness” looks incredibly self-serving: “The Northern Euros have always had problems with Meds; they want some of the cultural prestige and ancestry, but never the skin hue.”
The purity problem. The colour white symbolises purity in all kinds of cultures (see below), and this has insinuated its way into racial classifications today. Consider: if someone with a black father and white mother is “black,” whereas to be “white” requires two “white” parents, then “whiteness” is not fundamentally about genealogy, or even appearance, but purity (the logic being that you can only be classified as “white” if both of your parents were as well). Given that the term still appears on census forms and diversity surveys, I find that somewhat insidious.
The theological problem. It may be because I’m talking about Revelation a lot this term, but it has struck me again recently how powerful the symbolism of “white” is in Scripture: white hair, white robes, a white stone, a white horse, a white cloud, a white throne. Symbolically speaking, the great multitude from every tribe and language and nation is clothed in white, not because it is one colour—let alone because it is the superior colour—but because it is the beautiful result of all the colours coming together. (You wonder if the meaning of white in the Bible was one reason Northern Europeans were so keen to designate it as the colour of their skin, even when it manifestly isn’t.) Nobody in the Bible uses skin colour as a way of classifying people, so we should think carefully before assuming that we should.
The ambiguity problem. As recent discussions about “whiteness” continue to show, the term can be used to refer to skin colour, or to racially supremacist power structures, or to both (sometimes in the same article, book or conversation). This, if the previous six points were not enough, is another reason to give serious consideration to the way we use the term.
Is the Bible a Story?
The Bible is a story. I’m sure many of us have said this; many of us will even have taught it. It’s a story which runs from Genesis to Revelation, from Creation to the New Creation, and recognising this fact is vital to reading the Bible well. But what if it isn’t? Perhaps the Bible is actually better understood as poetry.
This is an idea which has been put forward by Brent Strawn in a TheoEd talk and discussed in a recent episode of the OnScript podcast (which, incidentally, also proves that Old Testament scholars know how to have a good laugh!)
Strawn’s claim is that, ‘The Bible is not a story. Instead, the Bible is far more like a poem than it is a story, and therefore we think about Scripture better and live our lives with Scripture better when we think of the Bible as a poem, not as a story.’
Strawn observes that the Bible as story view is popular despite it not being hard to see problems with the idea, most obviously the fact that plenty of what comes between Creation and the New Creation is not story (there’s poetry, wisdom, prophecy, and letters), and even the bits which do tell a story don’t trace one sequential narrative line (there are retellings, such as Deuteronomy and Chronicles, and parallel accounts of the same narrative thread, such as in the Gospels). To view the Bible as a story is a construction and not a very good one. The Bible isn’t a story.
However, to view the Bible as poetry, Strawn suggests, though admittedly still a construction, poses fewer problems and offers several benefits. The features of poetry which can benefit our engagement with the Bible are candour (poetry can be more honest about reality), contradictions (poetry can better cope with tensions), contemporaneity (poetry can be reused by later readers), and continuation (poetry encourages continual engagement). Together, these features mean that we are better equipped to handle and respond to the Bible when it is viewed as poetry.
A Combined Construction
I think there’s some merit to what Strawn is proposing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has taught the Bible’s story and has felt acutely aware (and somewhat uncomfortable) about skipping over many of the biblical books with little or no mention. The idea that the Bible is a story is problematic. The approach can also shape which parts of the Bible we find easier or harder to understand and can therefore cause us to neglect some of what God has said.
At the same time, though Strawn is honest that viewing the Bible as poetry is also a construction and so makes his case based on the need to work with the most helpful construction, I can’t help thinking that the argument against the Bible as narrative can be inverted and set against the Bible as poetry. What do we do with all the parts which clearly aren’t poetry? It may be true that the collection of texts shares some features with poetry, but does this mean they are poetry or does it just mean there are shared features, possibly explained by some other factor?
Perhaps a better construction is to combine what is good from the two approaches. The Bible isn’t a story, but there is a story of God’s dealings with his creation which is told in parts of the Bible. Perhaps we should speak of God’s big story revealed in the Bible, rather than the Bible’s big story. And the Bible isn’t poetry, but it does contain poetry (and wisdom, and prophecy, and apocalyptic, and letters). Perhaps we should see these non-narrative elements as a poetic parallel track alongside the story, which offers a commentary on the story and guidance for how to live in it. And the features of poetry which Strawn notes as helpful to apply in our approach to the Bible, could be applicable to the entirety of the Bible because of its position as Scripture. The distinctive nature of Scripture shares some of poetry’s key features.
So, I guess the Bible isn’t a story, and the Bible isn’t poetry, but perhaps the Bible is a story and poetry. That might seem like a contradiction, but maybe coping with tensions is one of the strengths of viewing the Bible as Scripture.
Can Atheism Ground Human Rights?
A naturalistic universe is one that consists of energy and matter and other natural entities, such as vacuums, operating in a closed system in time and space, in which no transcendent, supernatural, divine being or superhuman power exists as creator, sustainer, guide or judge. Such a universe has come to exist by chance - not by design or providence but by purposeless natural forces and processes. There is no inherent, ultimate meaning or purpose. Any meaning or purpose that exists for humans in a naturalistic universe is constructed by and for humans themselves. When the natural forces of entropy eventually extinguish the human race - if some natural or humanmade disaster does not do so sooner - there will be no memory or meaning, just as none existed before human consciousness evolved.
If that is the nature of reality, then what grounds are there for believing in universal benevolence and human rights? There do not seem to be any:
To begin with, let us first observe that a naturalistic universe does not seem to offer any moral guidance at all ... Organisms do tend to “want” to survive. But on evolutionary grounds per se we cannot say that it was morally good or bad that the dinosaurs lived or died, for instance. It just happened.
This has not stopped people trying to provide some, of course. Some seek to secure human rights in the evolutionary pursuit of survival (which at most would ground our commitment to the survival of our offspring or tribe, and certainly not our entire species). Some insist that humans are fundamentally benevolent towards other human beings on the grounds of our humanity alone (which comes unstuck very quickly when we consider human history, but even if it were true, naturalistically speaking we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”). Some look for a social contract description, in which we agree to affirm and defend human rights simply as a collective decision (which again, even if it were true, “does not and cannot compel people to believe in benevolence and rights as moral truths upon which they are obliged to act even if to their own detriment.”) And so forth.
Ultimately, Smith argues, they all fail on a logical level. We believe in human rights on the basis of convictions about humanity that grew in Christian soil, and cannot be grounded in a materialist account of reality. It is as if we are trying to remove the foundations from under a house, but hoping the house stays standing and nobody notices. Well: people have noticed. As to whether the house stays standing in a post-Christian context—and this was Nietzche’s objection too, from a completely different perspective—we shall see.
Christ and the Circus
Even as things are, if your thought is to spend this period of existence in enjoyments, how are you so ungrateful as to reckon insufficient, as not thankfully to recognize the many and exquisite pleasures God has bestowed upon you? For what more delightful than to have God the Father and our Lord at peace with us, than revelation of the truth than confession of our errors, than pardon of the innumerable sins of our past life?
What greater pleasure than distaste of pleasure itself, contempt of all that the world can give, true liberty, a pure conscience, a contented life, and freedom from all fear of death? What nobler than to tread under foot the gods of the nations: to exorcise evil spirits, to perform cures, to seek divine revealings, to live to God? These are the pleasures, these the spectacles that befit Christian men: holy, everlasting, free.
Count of these as your circus games, fix your eyes on the courses of the world, the gliding seasons, reckon up the periods of time, long for the goal of the final consummation, defend the societies of the churches, be startled at God’s signal, be roused up at the angel’s trump, glory in the palms of martyrdom. If the literature of the stage delight you, we have literature in abundance of our own: plenty of verses, sentences, songs, proverbs; and these not fabulous, but true; not tricks of art, but plain realities.
Would you have also fightings and wrestlings? Well, of these there is no lacking, and they are not of slight account. Behold unchastity overcome by chastity, perfidy slain by faithfulness, cruelty stricken by compassion, impudence thrown into the shade by modesty: these are the contests we have among us, and in these we win our crowns. Would you have something of blood too? You have Christ’s.
(Tertullian, On the Shows, 29)
Sexuality and the Olive Spoon
A friend of mine has an interesting spoon. (Bear with me.) It’s slightly larger than a teaspoon and has a large hole in the middle, making it incapable of holding—let alone carrying—the sort of substance that typically requires a spoon. My friend has no idea where it came from. And so for entertainment he keeps it in his sugar bowl, waiting for unsuspecting guests to attempt productive engagement with it. Some will quietly (but unsuccessfully) persevere with it, not wanting to make a fuss and assuming the fault must somehow be theirs. Others will immediately point out how the spoon is ridiculous and insist on something better suited to the task at hand.
But the spoon, my friend eventually discovered, was an olive spoon. It was meant to be like that. The hole in the middle is to drain the fluid as you lift the olive to your mouth. You can’t make sense of the way the spoon is without understanding what it’s for.
It is true of my friend’s olive spoon and it is true of our sexuality.
Embracing Our Intellectual Limitations
A few months ago I saw someone post a clip from The Office US on Twitter. Rarely has anything ever resonated with me so deeply! In the clip, one character asks another whether they have read a certain book, to which the reply comes, ‘Read it? I own it! But no, I have not read it.’ I expect many of us can relate. There are so many books we want to read and which we feel we ought to read, we may even therefore buy them, but it’s a lot harder to actually get around to reading them.
This situation can leave us with a quiet sense of shame about the things we haven’t read and the topics about which we don’t really know. And so I was encouraged recently to hear a couple of interviews with Peter Williams in which he talks about embracing our intellectual limits. Here’s an abridged transcript of some of the wisdom he shared.
On recognising our intellectual limits
‘There’s a tendency if you’re quite good academically to focus on gaining new knowledge, trying to become a Brainiac and know everything. I think it’s good for us to celebrate the feats that our brains can do, because God gave them to us, and that’s great. But I also want to celebrate what my brain cannot do. The fact is, I’m a creature, and I am therefore meant to have limited knowledge. God’s got all knowledge. I’m pleased about the fact that there are all sorts of things I’m not good at.
‘People should know what they’re good at, what their calling is, and celebrate that they can use their brains to learn more about God’s word, but also not get depressed by the fact that there are people who know more, or that there are limits to what they can learn. We’re not meant to be unlimited; we’re God’s creatures, and we can celebrate that and celebrate the fact that we have an all-powerful, all-knowing saviour.’
On the well-educated in churches
‘There is a tendency for Christian pop-culture to put people who have some sort of high level of education on a particular pedestal as if they are then supposed to know everything; they then become the answer person for everything. That’s ridiculous. No one’s supposed to know everything. We’re actually not supposed to know everything. Can’t we celebrate that?’
On unread books
‘Celebrate the way we’ve been made. Recognise the way that God’s made us complete beings. We do need to use our brains. We’re meant to love God with all our mind. What mind have you been given? Make sure you’re stretching that and studying, but don’t get depressed about all the books that you haven’t read.
‘Know who you are. God has made us all frail and finite, and we are not called to try to be omniscient. Know that you don’t know things, be prepared to say, ‘I haven’t read that’, actually develop the habit of saying ‘I haven’t read that’, if you haven’t. Admit who you are and what you know, and then be fruitful with that.’
The insight in the book that most struck me came in a chapter intriguingly entitled “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dominance of the Stubborn Minority.” The point he is making here, on “intransigent minorities”, is strikingly relevant both for changes in the contemporary West on issues like sexuality and religious accommodation (where Christians might generally be seen as losing out), and for the history of the early church (where Christians undoubtedly benefited from it):
The rule we discuss in this chapter is the minority rule, the mother of all asymmetries. It suffices for an intransigent minority—a certain type of intransigent minority—with significant skin in the game (or, better, soul in the game) to reach a minutely small level, say 3 or 4% of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences.
We’re not talking about the famous “tipping point” of 17% here. If a minority is sufficiently intransigent, it is as low as 3%. Why? Because of the aforementioned mother of all asymmetries:
A kosher (or halal) eater will never eat nonkosher (or nonhalal) food, but a nonkosher eater isn’t banned from eating kosher. Or, rephrased in another domain: A disabled person will not use the regular bathroom, but a nondisabled person will use the bathroom for disabled people.
Taleb suggests a hypothetical family of four in which the daughter refuses to eat any genetically modified food. Because of the preference of 25% of the family, the other 75% will go non-GM just to make life easier. When the family goes to a barbecue with a group of friends, if the preference is held (and communicated) with sufficient conviction, everyone at the barbecue will eat non-GM too. Gradually the practice spreads, to the local shop, to the wholesaler, and so on. This is the principle which explains why 70% of New Zealand lamb imports are halal, in a country with a Muslim population of only 3 or 4%.
Similarly, if a business meeting takes place between nineteen Germans and one Japanese person, the entire meeting will be conducted in English. This is a classic expression of the minority rule, and it is all the more interesting because you might assume, if you were a visiting alien, that the language being spoken was the preference of the majority. Flexible majorities, however, are much less influential than intransigent minorities. That’s why revolutions happen. It’s why Islam spreads through marriage, while secularism doesn’t. It’s why Roger Scruton got fired recently. It’s why the church grew so rapidly under the Roman empire, and—more controversially—why it hasn’t been growing so rapidly (at least in the West) for a long time now. It’s why a tiny group that cares a great deal about blasphemy shapes public discourse far more than a very large group who don’t feel that strongly about it. We could go on.
I’m supposed to use this space to think about theology (or at least to look like that’s what I’m doing), so here’s my thought: what if the Corinthian letters comprised an appeal to a flexible church to become a more intransigent minority? What would that mean for our exegesis? For Pauline ethics? For life in the twenty-first century?
The Book On Singleness That Everyone Should Read
As the title suggests, the book tackles seven myths about singleness which are common among Christians today. There are lots of reasons why I’m grateful for 7 Myths about Singleness. Sam writes in a way which is engaging and easy to understand. His use of illustrations and humour is brilliant. He is thoroughly biblical, while also speaking from his own experience, with real honesty and vulnerability. But above all of these, there are three reasons why I’m especially grateful for this book and why I think every Christian should read it.
The call to find satisfaction in Jesus
The best thing any book can do for us is to cause us to love Jesus more and to increase our determination to find true satisfaction in him. 7 Myths about Singleness is about singleness, but it’s almost more about Jesus because Sam helps us to see that finding satisfaction in Jesus should be our ultimate goal whether we are married or single. At the same time, he doesn’t ignore our need for intimacy and family, but recognises that these are ultimately all subsidiary. If we don’t find fullness of life in Jesus, we will never find fullness of life. As I read the book, I found Jesus more attractive and my desire to find satisfaction in him grew. That alone would be reason to read it.
The positive portrayal of singleness
Christian books and talks about singleness are often presented as advice on how to cope with an unideal – or worse, terrible – situation which, it is assumed, you will obviously be wishing you were not in. This is a radically different starting point to that of the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul presents singleness as a good gift, which is actually even preferable to marriage. As Sam observes, we tend to define singleness as the absence of something (a spouse), a negative perspective, but Paul describes it as the presence of something (the opportunity for undivided devotion to the Lord), a positive perspective. 7 Myths about Singleness presents singleness as a good gift to be enjoyed and celebrated. It starts where the New Testament starts.
The acknowledgment of the challenges of singleness
And yet this positive perspective doesn’t mean that the very real challenges of singleness are overlooked. The book presents the blessings and the challenges of singleness, without letting the balance be tipped in the wrong direction. The final myth Sam tackles is the myth that singleness is easy. Many singles will find that what Sam shares here will resonate deeply with their experience, and many who have long been married will find that this chapter helps them to better understand some of the challenges facing their single friends. Here too though, Sam helps us see that the ultimate answer is always to find our satisfaction in Jesus.
I’d say that 7 Myths about Singleness is now the book on singleness that every church leader ought to read. (And every church leader who’s ever read a book on marriage ought to read a book on singleness!). It’s a book that every Christian single should read to be encouraged and spurred on as they seek to enjoy the gift that God has given them. And it’s a book that anyone who knows a Christian single should read. So I guess maybe it’s just a book that everyone should read!
Dare to be a Mowgli
It comes after Mowgli has been captured by the Bandar-log monkeys, and Baloo, Bagheera and Kaa have formed an unlikely alliance and rescued him:
The moon was sinking behind the hills and the lines of trembling monkeys huddled together on the walls and battlements looked like ragged, shaky fringes of things. … Kaa glided out into the centre of the terrace and brought his jaws together with a ringing snap that drew all the monkeys’ eyes upon him.
“The moon sets,” he said. “Is there yet light to see?”
From the walls came a moan like the wind in the tree-tops: “We see, O Kaa!”
“Good! Begins now the Dance—the Dance of the Hunger of Kaa. Sit still and watch.”
He turned twice or thrice in a big circle, weaving his head from right to left. Then he began making loops and figures of eight with his body, and soft, oozy triangles that melted into squares and five-sided figures, and coiled mounds, never resting, never hurrying, and never stopping his low, humming song. It grew darker and darker, till at last the dragging, shifting coils disappeared, but they could hear the rustle of the scales.
Baloo and Bagheera stood still as stone, growling in their throats, their neck-hair bristling, and Mowgli watched and wondered.
“Bandar-log,” said the voice of Kaa at last, “can ye stir foot or hand without my order? Speak!”
“Without thy order we cannot stir foot or hand, O Kaa!”
“Good! Come all one pace nearer to me.”
The lines of the monkeys swayed forward helplessly, and Baloo and Bagheera took one stiff step forward with them.
“Nearer!” hissed Kaa, and they all moved again.
Mowgli laid his hands on Baloo and Bagheera to get them away, and the two great beasts started as though they had been waked from a dream.
“Keep thy hand on my shoulder,” Bagheera whispered. “Keep it there, or I must go back—must go back to Kaa. Aah!”
“It is only old Kaa making circles on the dust,” said Mowgli; “let us go”; and the three slipped off through a gap in the walls to the jungle.
“Whoof!” said Baloo, when he stood under the still trees again.” Never more will I make an ally of Kaa,” and he shook himself all over.
“He knows more than we,” said Bagheera, trembling. “In a little time, had I stayed, I should have walked down his throat.”
What a powerful picture of the wiles of the enemy and the importance of Christian community when temptation is luring us closer and closer to our doom.
I love that it wasn’t powerful rhetoric, reasoned argument or a carefully-worded tweet that brought Baloo and Bagheera back, but the touch of a clear-sighted friend.
And I love Mowgli’s confident, scornful assessment of the evil one’s ploys, “It is only old Kaa making circles on the dust.” It reminds me of the story of Smith Wigglesworth who, on being woken in the middle of the night to see the devil sitting on the end of his bed, reportedly said “Oh, it’s only you!”, then turned over and immediately went back to sleep.
When we’re being lured from the path of righteousness, or subjected to spiritual attack, we all need a friend who will lay a hand on our arm, remind us it’s only that old snake, who has been defeated already, and lead us away.
Who needs you to be a Mowgli for them today?
Follow the Money
Recently, however, I heard a provocative lecture by Carl Trueman entitled “Follow the Money,” which gives a helpful perspective on this (presumably not unprecedented) phenomenon. Trueman channels Marx, Freud and others to make the case that there is a tension between the catholicity of the Church, and the way in which seminaries—his immediate audience for the lecture—market themselves. And it struck me as I listened to it that many, if not all, of the points he raises are also applicable to churches, denominations and families of churches. If you want to understand the competitive nature of modern seminaries (and alas, as in the case of the pastors conference I mentioned, churches), you have to read a bit of Marx and follow the money.
Trueman identifies a number of ways in which this tension plays out, and you can listen to the lecture here. Here’s my quick summary.
First—and this will not have escaped the notice of most people who have attended a few vision and values courses, or even read a few church websites—there is an ecclesial version of what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences:
Free markets demand distinctives, for the purpose of protecting market share, and perhaps annexing areas of the market held by others ... So a potential contradiction exists between a shared confessional theology, and a competitive marketplace relationship. And that, I think, manifests itself in a sometimes subtle, but definite, subversion of the catholicty of the confessions by the emergence and marketing of distinctives that are only of intra-confessional importance. In other words, it is in seminaries’ interests to bring that which is actually a minor difference, tolerated within the bounds of the confession, and place it centre stage, in order to say: you need to study here because this is the really important thing.
Second, there is a tendency for all institutions to exaggerate the significance of their own “bigwigs” in contrast to everyone else’s. That is not necessarily sinful, and it may well be inevitable, but it is important not to believe your own propaganda. If you live in a small bubble, then your leading lights loom very large. If you live in a big one, they get a lot smaller.
Third: intellectual incest breeds idiot children. If you only read people from within your own tradition, you become stultified, narrow and ultimately harmed. (My enthusiasm for this point will probably not be news to anyone who has read this blog for a while.)
Fourth: at times, the seminary’s commitment to serve and resource the local church is merely rhetorical. Trueman brings some pretty striking challenges to the students here (particularly since he’s speaking at a seminary!): How often do seminaries allow themselves to be thrown under the bus to protect the local church, rather than the other way around? How many of your professors are serving on the kids ministry or cleaning rotas in their local churches? How many of you are?
Fifth: the wages of debt is spin. Seminaries were originally there for the purpose of training men for pulpit ministry. But as seminaries expanded, their costs increased, which means their income streams had to expand, which means that “the need for numerical expansion presses in hard. The most obvious way of expanding income streams is to recruit more students … More students means more degree programmes.” But this raises important questions. The multiplication of degree programmes does have ministry implications; if 80% of the students at a seminary are not training for pastoral ministry, it will obviously shape the culture and balance of the institution. It will affect what is taught, how often, who is hired, the focus of the seminary as a whole, and how the church is served by all this. Trueman also raises some sticky moral questions about the marketing of seminary degrees that will make the students (and perhaps their churches) poorer, through fees and the consequent debt. Admittedly, it is good that people want to learn more about the Bible—“but the people making that argument aren’t the people paying for that, they are the people being paid because of that.” Ouch.
As I say, his immediate context is that of a seminary, although I suspect that most of these points apply, mutatis mutandis, to churches. It’s a really fascinating lecture, and applicable to people who are involved in pastoral leadership, hosting conferences and running training courses (or, in my case, all three). Follow the money.
Lessons from ‘Eighth Grade’
Eighth Grade, as the name suggests, is about an American teenager, Kayla, in her final week of middle school (aged 13, for fellow Brits) and looking forward to a new school and, perhaps, a new her. She’s shy, socially awkward and unable to connect with her peers, who she sees as more attractive and more confident. For anyone else who was an awkward 13-year-old, the film should probably come with a warning for traumatic flashbacks. We get a glimpse of one week in the life of a modern teenager and, well… good luck parents.
Director Bo Burnham (initially famous for YouTube videos and vines) has made an auspicious debut feature, dragging us into the world of the modern teen and showing us an unfiltered look at their lives and longings. It’s painfully funny, eking laughs from the excruciating sight of a teacher dabbing to a sincere Dad who always walks in at the most awkward moments. It should put to rest the snobby British attitude that we’re the only ones who do sophisticated cringe comedy. Beautiful close-ups, tactical use of slo-mo and a score that sometimes sounds like a horror film all make the rhythms of Kayla’s everyday life seem inherently cinematic.
This is very much a film about now and every beat feels real. From the slang-peppered dialogue to the omnipresence of phones, Burnham clearly understands the people he’s depicting. This isn’t, however, some boomer’s rallying cry against social media; it’s simply a human story set in a world where you can’t avoid it. Burnham displays the one trait I value above all others in a director: empathy. He clearly cares about the characters in his story, when it would be all too easy to judge or dismiss the next generation.
Elsie Fisher, a relative newcomer in the role of Kayla, is the key that unlocks this empathy. The film hangs on her performance, often lingering on her face as the dialogue or action happens off-screen. It’s all about how she reacts to it, her forced smiles and shifting eyes conveying a wealth of emotion. The audience immediately invests in this confused, scared, determined young girl; my friend texted me after seeing it saying she just wanted to tell her that it would all be OK.
Even though Burnham doesn’t judge his young cast of characters, he still paints a stark picture of the challenges of growing up today – one that any youth worker, student leader or parent would do well to pay attention to. Students at university today started secondary school in 2011, by which point social media and smartphones had already entrenched themselves in society. There’s real insight here into the role that technology plays in the lives of Gen Z – perhaps borne from Burnham’s own online fame.
Kayla slips between different personalities with an ease afforded by the digital era. She projects herself as a confident, wise person on her YouTube page that nobody watches, then shrinks into herself the moment she enters the school corridors. I remember Christian camps when I was kid telling us not to be a different person at school than we were at church on Sundays. Today the challenge for everyone, not just Gen Z, is negotiating the multiplicity of lives on offer to us. The problem, however, is more pressing for the youngest generation, because the world of Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube – all inherently curated, controlled and visual media – is all they’ve ever known.
I’m not (and nor is Burnham) encouraging panic about “youth these days.” But awareness of what it’s like to be a teenager in the ’10s is essential if we’re going to contextualise faith and godly living to them. Kayla is exposed to violence (she trains for how to respond to a school shooting) and sex, adult ideas that she should be shielded from; the teenage boys in her life are sexually aware and demanding it from the girls they know. There’s also the anxiety she feels, which to me feels like one of the defining traits of Gen Z. Unless we know how to speak into these traits without coming across as the awkward dabbing teacher, only half understanding the culture he’s trying to reach, then we risk losing them.
Eighth Grade is an excellent place to start. Its empathetic voice is one that gives us an on-the-ground view of Gen Z life, making it perhaps the first great film that is truly of this generation. Watch it anyway, as it’s one of the best films of the year so far, but watch it with an eye to understand the future of the country and of the church. It’s no good to keep grumbling about millennial culture or strategising to reach millennials – that ship has sailed. The focus now should be on the youth and the university students of a tech-savvy, short attention-spanned, high-anxiety, deeply passionate generation who are growing up in a world where they’re told to form their own identity but given no framework in which to do that.
Fascinatingly, Kayla openly admits to believing in God and she prays at one point – a prayer that is mercifully answered. It’s fascinating, to me, that amidst all of the confusion and the anxiety that is adolescence, prayer marks the turning point for Kayla. Another facet of Generation Z identified by polls and writers is an increased openness to spirituality. Time to pray.
Basic Instincts, Changing Habits
But the past is a different country.
John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism is one of those books that I seemed to be underlining more passages in than not. But in all the noteworthy arguments, comments and observations Gray makes, one small aside leapt out at me,
[William Empson] won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge…He was expelled in 1929 when one of the college porters found condoms in his rooms and his name was removed from the college books.
Today I would imagine you would be more likely to be expelled from a Cambridge college for not having condoms in your room. And this less than one hundred years ago. Mark Regnerus (Cheap Sex, OUP, 2017) observes that,
Whereas not long ago conservatives policed discourse concerning human sexuality, today liberal voices have replaced them. The only thing that has remained constant is the presence of policing.
This is an astute observation and applies obviously when it comes to attitudes towards LGBT+ issues. But, Regnerus argues, the focus on LGBT+ issues are simply an overflow of larger socio-sexual changes, primarily the introduction of the Pill in 1960 and the ubiquity of high quality (sic) porn.
Regnerus’ theory, backed up by extensive research, is that these technological developments have driven an extraordinary change in sexual behaviours. Whereas previously women were the gatekeepers of sexual access and sex was expensive – requiring men to demonstrate considerable commitment – the Pill made sex cheap. Suddenly sex became available in a way it hadn’t previously because of the severing of sex from conception. Modern dating technology and hook up culture accelerates this as men can keep swiping right until they find someone willing to have sex with them. And then there is porn, which makes sex as cheap as it possibly can be – a high-def, solitary experience requiring no cost or commitment.
The impact of porn is huge but so often overlooked by sociologists, either because of (on the right) freedom of speech priorities, or (on the left – which is where most sociologists sit) a commitment to freedom of sexual expression. Remarkably a recent large-scale survey of sexual behaviour that reveals declining rates of sexual activity in the UK (at least as reported by the BBC) makes no reference to the possible effects of pornography.
Cheap Sex is a rather depressing read: painting as it does a picture of a world in which most women still desire a stable, long-term relationship, but increasingly give sex away too cheaply; which means that men no longer work at commitment because they do not need to in order to gain access to sex; and in which more men are actually less confident in their interaction with women because of their exposure to porn. Regnerus concludes that the ‘Genital Life’, as he terms it, ‘is misanthropic, ultimately anti-woman, and not sustainable.’
As well as being a fascinating social study, Cheap Sex raises many questions that should be considered by policy makers – and that have ramifications for the mission of the church. Regnerus claims the evidence of his research is that, ‘Societies that disregard monogamous norms undermine their own long-term interests.’ This means that policy makers would be wise to do all they can to reward and encourage marriage, but such wisdom seems to have deserted the corridors of power. The larger challenge, however is technology,
We overestimate how effective scientific arguments are at secularizing people. Narratives about science don’t secularize. Technology secularizes. And sex-related technology does so particularly efficiently.
The challenge for the church is how to build communities that are robust enough to stand – and withstand – changing sexual technology: to re-establish the link between sex and conception, to minimise the impact of porn, to foster monogamy: in short, to make sex expensive again. And we need to tell a better story about sex, one that demonstrates to those caught in Tinder and porn secularism that godly life is more satisfying than genital life. That is the discipleship challenge of our day. The evidence is that at the moment we are not doing very well in it. Our habits need to change.
Pushing our Luck
1. These elections will essentially be a re-run of the 2016 referendum and the vote will again be split fairly evenly between Leave and Remain.
2. The Remain vote will be split between the Lib-Dems, Greens, Change UK, and - to some extent - Labour.
3. The Leave vote will unite behind the Brexit Party as UKIP is now seen as an irrelevance and the Tories as unable to deliver Brexit.
4. The Brexit Party will thereby win most of the UK seats in the European parliament and will join a large number of MEPs from populist parties in other European nations - these will combine to do all they can to destabilise the institutions of the EU.
5. At that point Theresa May will at last be forced to resign.
See you on May 24th for the reckoning!
The Mirrors of the Ministering Women
This is one of those tiny verses that has slipped past my attention on every previous reading of the (somewhat tedious) detailing of the construction of the tabernacle, but which rewarded a little thought.
The first thing I noticed was that, apparently, there were ‘ministering women who ministered’ at the entrance of the tent of meeting. As I’m sure you’ll remember, the Tent of Meeting was where Moses used to sit (with Joshua) and meet with God (Ex 33:7-11), while all those who sought God waited outside. Everyone else, who wasn’t interested in being close to God that day, stood at the doors of their tents until Moses was safely inside. But only this verse tells us of the ‘ministering women who ministered’. What did they do, I wonder, at the entrance to the tent of meeting? Were they ministering to people’s physical needs, supplying them with food and water throughout the day? Or was it more the spiritual needs they took care of, moving among the crowds, praying for people, perhaps giving a prophetic word here and there? My guess is it was a bit of both.
But the amazing, wonderful, glorious thing is that they were there. God didn’t have to appoint them or call them or compel someone to rouse them. They went, as have women down the ages since, because they wanted to be near the presence of God, ministering however they were able. Think of Anna in the temple when Jesus was born. Think of the Marys and others supporting Jesus financially and rising as soon as it was light on the day after the Sabbath to go and tend to his body in the tomb. Jesus had to tell Peter, Andrew and Matthew to follow him, the women just quietly got on and did it.
Secondly, these women had mirrors. I had no idea mirrors existed in those times. Clearly they were just made of very shiny bronze, not glass, but still, that’s quite some sophisticated metalwork to create something you could usefully use as a mirror. I imagine they were reasonably valuable. And they gave them up for the tabernacle.
God just said he wanted bronze for the wash basin, but these women decided to give their finely crafted, burnished bronze mirrors for the job. All the gifts given for the building of the tabernacle were costly – this was sacrificial giving, so we shouldn’t be surprised. But think of what it meant - these women would no longer be able to make sure they looked good in the morning. They would no longer be able to check if they measured up to ‘er next door, or make sure they’d concealed that ugly blemish properly. Tim Keller’s little book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness points towards what is going on here. Once we are caught up in love for and worship of God, those things that once seemed so important – like making sure we look good – fade away. Seeing ourselves matters less than seeing God and pouring ourselves out for him. These women gave up something of their very identity in worship.
Thirdly, they gave up that which was precious to them in order that someone else - Aaron and his sons - would be able to be cleansed in order to offer sacrifices and enter into the presence of God. That is true sacrificial giving. The women had been faithfully ministering at the tent entrance for goodness knows how long. The rest of the Israelites showed up if they needed something, or otherwise went about their daily lives, while these women ministered to others and to God day after day. They could never enter directly into his presence, but gladly gave even more of themselves to enable others to worship.
These women could have felt resentful about being excluded from the holy place, about not being invited into the sanctuary. But through their selfless generosity they made it possible for Aaron and the priests to offer sacrifices, which atoned for their sins and the sins of Israel. So they did ultimately benefit, and more importantly, they made it possible for the whole nation to benefit! They gave up something that had enhanced their outward beauty and cleanliness, and in doing so revealed their inner beauty, and were able to be inwardly cleansed.
On the religion taught at university:
Perhaps the most pressing issue is not whether religion belongs in the university curriculum but rather what religion is already being taught now to college students coast to coast in the US. And that religion, I submit, is a toxic brew of paternalistic neo-Victorian philanthropy and dogmatic political correctness—a sanctimonious creed promulgated and enforced with missionary zeal by a priestly caste of college administrators and faculty censors in unholy alliance with intrusive federal bureaucrats.
I want the great world religions taught in every school. Secular humanism has reached a dead end—and any liberals who don’t recognise that are simply enabling the worldwide conservative reaction of fundamentalism in both Christianity and Islam.
Pre-publication endorsements have long outlived their usefulness. No informed person takes them seriously because of their tainted history of shameless cronyism and grotesque hyperbole. A string of breathless blurbs on a book is ultimately counterproductive, since it betrays the publisher’s lack of confidence in the project, as well as the tin ear and general ineptitude of the publicity department. And the luminaries who turn out inflated blurb after blurb are hacks who give prostitution a bad name.
Treating women as more vulnerable, virtuous or more credible than men is reactionary, regressive, and ultimately counterproductive.
Feminism inextricably identified itself with abortion—with termination of life rather than fertility.
On “sex changes”:
It is certainly ironic how liberals who posture as defenders of science when it comes to global warming ... flee all references to biology when it comes to gender ... The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible. Every single cell of the human body (except for blood) remains coded with one’s birth gender for life.
On drugs and transience:
Drugs melted defences and broke barriers, creating a momentary sense of unity with mankind and the world. They functioned as magic elixirs for the missing initiatory rituals in an increasingly transient society.
On astrology and the sixties:
The Sixties generation ... had been injected with a mystical sense of awe and doom about the sky. This is one possible reason for the sudden popularity and ubiquity of astrology, which for most of the twentieth century had been a fringe practice associated with eccentrics in Greenwich Village and West Hollywood.
On the importance of religion for art:
I would argue that the route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion ... Knowledge of the Bible, one of the West’s foundational texts, is dangerously waning among aspiring young artists and writers. When a society becomes all-consumed in the provincial minutiae of partisan politics (as has happened in the US over the past twenty years), all perspective is lost. Great art can be made out of love for religion as well as rebellion against it. But a totally secularised society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.
Progressives must start recognising the spiritual poverty of contemporary secular humanism and re-examine the way that liberalism too often now automatically defines human aspiration and human happiness in reductively economic terms. If conservatives are serious about educational standards, they must support the teaching of art history in primary school—which means conservatives have to get over their phobia about the nude, which has been a symbol of Western art and Western individualism and freedom since the Greeks invented democracy. Without compromise, we are headed for a soulless future.
The Joy of the Father
There was a buzz of excitement yesterday as the birth of baby Sussex, the first child of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, was announced. As I watched the news coverage, I was struck by the contrast in the two ways in which the birth was announced.
Following standard royal protocol, the birth was announced in London through a small notice placed on an easel in front of Buckingham Palace. This announcement was formal, restrained and understated. But yesterday, as an expression of Harry and Meghan’s desire to be different types of royals, the birth was also announced in a live statement from Harry himself. This announcement was full of joy and emotion. Harry beamed with the pride of a new dad, his heart clearly captivated by the wonder of the new life which had entered the world, and both his face and his words expressing the deep love, affection, and delight he was feeling for his son.
As I reflected on this, I was struck by how easy it is for us to think of God’s perspective on us being like the first announcement: formal, restrained, understated. We know he loves us, he must love us to have done what he has done for us, but there’s a measured distance in that love. And yet the reality is that the second announcement, Harry’s live statement, is a much better picture (though still a faint reflection) of God’s heart for us, his children. He’s a father who sees us, has compassion upon us, runs to us, embraces and kisses us (Luke 15:20). He rejoices over us with gladness, quiets us with his love, and exults over us with loud singing (Zeph. 3:17). He’s not far-off and distant, but lives inside of us, bearing witness with our spirits that we are his children, causing us to cry out ‘Abba! Father!’ Daddy! Papa! (Rom. 8:15-16).
In the joy of this new father, we see a small glimmer of the joy of the ultimate father.
A Book to Read and Give Away
Step forward Rebecca McLaughlin and her book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion.
McLaughlin ticks all the boxes for an author of a book on apologetics in our cultural moment: She is super-bright, with a PhD from Cambridge, and she is a she. She also happens to be a she who is same-sex attracted. This intersectionality means McLaughlin can discuss questions such as, ‘Doesn’t Christianity Denigrate Women?’ and ‘Doesn’t Christianity Crush Diversity?’ with an authenticity that probably communicates more effectively than similar answers provided by a middle-aged, male, pastor.
We’re going to be using this book as a conversation starter at our next exploring Christianity course at my church. If you’ve got the kind of friends who you might once have passed a copy of Mere Christianity or The Reason for God to but feel these don’t quite cut it culturally anymore, then Confronting Christianity could be for you - and for them. Buy it, and pass it on.
The Gift of Procreation
Regular readers will be unsurprised that my answers were more in line with Matthew Lee Anderson than Wayne Grudem. But the thing about Q&A sessions is how they test a position – both reinforcing what is valid and exposing weaknesses.
I have been consistent in arguing that the primary purpose of sex is procreation, while also arguing its relational significance – sex is meant to result in babies, but is also vital in strengthening the marital bond between a couple. What I perhaps hadn’t seen quite so clearly was brought into focus by the questions I was being asked last week: that is, the way in which marital sex which is not procreative is still an affirmation of procreation.
This is because every time a husband and wife make love they are affirming and reaffirming their one-flesh union and the goodness of what that union is intended for. When children are born they are a gift to be received from God by the husband and wife. And then when the couple have sex it is an affirmation of the gift they have received. Understood properly, this connection between sex and procreation remains the case even for infertile couples. As Anderson writes,
Let’s say a couple knows they are infertile: the wife is missing ovaries. Even for such a couple, every act of intercourse has something to do with conception—even if by way of their knowledge of its absence.
Parenting can be hard, demanding work. When children are young it can be physically exhausting to parent them. When they are older it can be emotionally exhausting. This exhaustion is at least part of the reason why so many couples struggle to maintain a healthy love life, and why so many marriages are less joy-filled than they might be. When things are tough with the kids, sex is often the first thing that leaves a marriage. Choosing to repeat the act that led to the birth of these children then becomes a statement of gratitude and faith: even though parenting feels so hard at the moment, we are grateful for the gift we have been given, and affirm that again.
Sex need not always result in procreation but it should always affirm procreation. Sex isn’t just one more biological function – procreation is the point.
In the Hebrew text of Habakkuk, God’s answer to the prophet is an exhortation to keep the faith: “The righteous one shall live by his faithfulness,” that is, the person who remains faithful will be rewarded in the end by God. The LXX, however, has reinterpreted the dictum as a promise about the character of God: “The righteous one shall live by my faithfulness,” that is, God’s own integrity in preserving the covenant with Israel will ultimately be confirmed. As Paul allows the quotation to reverberate into the text of Romans he elides the crucial personal pronoun, so that we hear only “the righteous one shall live by faithfulness.” Whose faithfulness? We are not told. The ambiguity thus created allows the echoed oracle to serve simultaneously as a warrant for two different claims that Paul has made in his keynote formulation of the gospel: in the gospel God’s own righteousness is revealed; and the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.
Why We Need Philosophers
Finding level-headed analysis of the Brexit process is not easy. It can seem that for far too many people the elephant has jettisoned its rider and reasoned Brexit discussion is almost impossible. So I was glad to come across this interview with Tom Simpson, a former Royal Marine and now an associate professor of philosophy at Oxford: he dissects our contemporary discontent with the intelligence and robustness appropriate to that CV.
The whole thing is worth watching, but for the Brexit bit check out the first five minutes of this clip:
Sometimes people ask why we need philosophers. I think Simpson helps provide an answer.
To call these “fashions” is not to deny that there may be all kinds of social, political, financial, hormonal and psychological explanations for them as well. Nor, Parris insists, is it to trivialise them. Rather, it is to recognise that social pathologies often come in copycat waves which cannot be entirely explained without reference to the movement of the herd. Duelling with pistols became a craze in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (as you will know if you’ve seen Hamilton or read War and Peace), and not just because of social deprivation or political action. There was a phase fifty years after that when women would regularly faint, or have “hysterics.” Opium was a fashion for a long time in certain circles, just as many kinds of drugs are today. Riots beget more riots, whether they begin for just causes or not. And while it only represents a small part of the picture—and one which is very difficult to tackle directly—the same is true, Parris argues, of many waves of violence:
Grave and dangerous consequences may flow from pursuits that are as subject to fashion as the cut of your trousers. The young are especially susceptible and the young, including children, have an almost limitless potential for savagery. Murder and wounding lie much closer to the surface of civilised man than we like to believe.
The Missing Veil
I arrived at work the next day, a new creature. Though my soul was much different, my clothes were the same ... My best friend and co-worker Mike looked at me and said, “You look different.”
“What do you mean?” I said …
“I don’t know, man. You just look brighter.”
Maybe he noticed that the veil had been removed but didn’t know what to call it.
In many ways that ought not to be surprising. Paul sees followers of Jesus as the circumcision (Rom 2:29; Phil 3:3), the seed of Abraham and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:29), the Israel of God (Gal 6:16), and as branches grafted into the olive tree of Israel (Rom 11:11-24). He repeatedly insists that there is no Jew nor Gentile, and that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision count for anything. In a sense, it would be odd if he did not regard Christians as ex-Gentiles, especially since he urges his converts not to live like the ἔθνη (e.g. Eph 4:17). Yet it may still jar with us, all the same. (It did with me, the first time I realised that’s what Paul is actually saying in 1 Cor 12:2). And if it does, I suspect it simply reveals the radicalism of Paul’s reframing of national and religious identity in light of Christ, and the extent to which we find it difficult to grasp, for all we affirm that the boundary line between Jew and Gentile has been destroyed.
This, intriguingly, amounts to supercessionism in reverse. It is not that Israel has been superseded by the Gentiles, leaving the Jewish heritage of the people of God behind (by no means!) It is, in contrast, that our Gentile heritage has been superseded up by our new Israelite one, as we are united both with Christ and with the whole Israel of God, past and future. When we used to be Gentiles, we used to worship idols. But now we are Gentiles no longer, we confess that Jesus is Lord by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3).
Becoming Ecclesiologically Attractive
Many of us are aware, and deeply concerned, about the lack of young people in our churches. While there are no doubt churches who buck the trend, in general, the UK church is ageing. In 1980, 46% of Sunday church attenders in England were aged under 30. By 2000, that figure had dropped to 35%, and by 2015 it was down to 26%.1
The trend is deeply concerning. As someone who has a few years left in that age group, I sometimes wonder what the church will be like when I reach my later years. On one level I’m not concerned; Jesus is not going to stop building his church (Matt. 16:18), but I’m conscious that he builds his church, in part, through us. We can’t just sit back and let him get on with it.
I’m sure there are many diverse and complex factors which have contributed to this demographic shift, and I’m sure there are lots of things we should be thinking through as we respond, so I was really intrigued by a brief discussion of the topic on Preston Sprinkle’s podcast, Theology in the Raw (which, as it happens, is probably my favourite podcast).
In this episode (#734), Preston was talking with Drew Dyck. The conversation was primarily about Drew’s latest book Your Future Self Will Thank You and was a fascinating discussion about how insights from neuroscience can help us as we think about habits, addictions and sanctification. But they also briefly discussed another of Drew’s books, Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults are Leaving the Faith and How to Bring Them Back. What stuck out to me most in this discussion was the suggestion that one of the reasons why so many young people have left the church and show no signs of coming back is an ‘ecclesiological unattractiveness’. That is, the way we aim to appeal to people through how we do church can actually have the effect of repelling the younger generation.
The meeting-centred ecclesiology which developed in the church growth movement in the 80s and 90s, where the bulk of energy is put into pulling off a good Sunday gathering, with a high value placed on excellence in production, isn’t attractive to the younger generation. Drew notes that when an older person walks into a slick, well produced Sunday meeting, they think, ‘Wow! These guys must be doing something right’. But when a young person walks into that context, they think, ‘There’s corruption here. How are they doing this? Who is paying for this?’ If this is right, then the irony is that what many of us are doing to try and attract younger people, may in fact be putting them off.
The alternative, Preston and Drew note, is a focus on community. Everyone, and especially the younger generation, is looking for community. For those who have left the church, the catalyst for leaving is often a problem in relationship, and so it makes sense that relationship will be key to drawing them back.
So, if we want to be ecclesiological attractive to the generation who are currently woefully underrepresented in UK churches, the answer may not be to turn the volume up, invest in more lights, and make better use of multi-media. The answer may actually be a lot cheaper (financially, even if not in time). The answer may lie in fostering community: opening our homes, disrupting our diaries, loving others. And this shouldn’t really be a surprise to us. When Jesus talked about how we, as his followers, would be recognisable, it wasn’t about having the most well-rehearsed band or the best, fast-paced video notices, it was about love: ‘Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:34-35).
- 1 These figures are taken from a report titled ‘The Ageing Church’ available from the Brierley Consultancy.
More than a Metaphor
There have been fires in Paris for months now as every weekend the Gilets Jaunes protest the failings of the state. France, the proud republic, totters on the edge of financial and political chaos, presided over by a peacock president who promised so much but has delivered so little. The flames of Notre Dame speak of the larger crises engulfing the nation.
Or we could see it in more spiritual terms – that the burning of the cathedral is a metaphor for the hollowing out of Christianity in Europe in general, and in France in particular. The rise of secularism and the attendant rise of skyscrapers of commerce across European capitals seem to make ancient beliefs and ancient buildings redundant.
More hopefully, in the commitments already made to see Notre Dame rise again, we might detect the story of resurrection being told once more. How poignant that Notre Dame should burn in Easter week.
There is probably a measure of truth in all these metaphors: France is experiencing a measure of chaos that in many ways makes our British Brexit woes seem rather insignificant; Europe has largely abandoned faith in God for faith in finance and institutions; and – yes – there will be resurrection.
This Good Friday followers of Jesus are reminded that the events of Easter are not mere metaphor. The death and resurrection of Jesus are historical events with universal impact. The Cross is the pivot point of history and the hope of the world. At the Cross Jesus experienced de-creation in order to turn chaos to cosmos – from the mess of our sin to an orderly, harmonious, whole. He is the faithful servant who is building us into God’s house – like living stones we are being built into a spiritual house. The kingdom of God is breaking out and will fill the whole earth and Jesus will receive his inheritance.
All other empires, kingdoms and republics will fall. All power structures and physical structures have their day. But Christ will reign forever: death has been swallowed up in victory!
So this Easter we again join with all the saints in all the ages in all the world and say, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again!
AI: It’s Time to Start Thinking
AI is a term used to describe non-human devices capable of performing tasks which we would describe as being based on intelligence or thinking. It is literally artificial (i.e. non-human) intelligence or thinking. The European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence (AI HLEG) offers the definition: ‘Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to systems that display intelligent behaviour by analysing their environment and taking actions – with some degree of autonomy – to achieve specific goals.’ They note that this can take the form of software-based AI (e.g. digital assistants and search engines) or AI integrated with hardware (e.g. self-driving cars and robot vacuum cleaners). It is also helpful to distinguish between specialised or narrow AI, which is what we have now and is only capable of specific types of artificial-thinking, and general AI, in which AI would be able to mimic all human thinking. General AI is what we see in sci-fi movies where robots overpower humans, but it has not yet been fully developed.
Many of us will be grateful for the way that AI is already making our lives easier, and the potential for it to do good is considerable. For example, Google is partnering with developers who are using AI to create an early warning system for the potential of wildfires, and to diagnose cancer and diabetic retinopathy (which can lead to blindness). But AI could also be used to do harm (e.g. in warfare) and raises many ethical questions. These ethical questions are beginning to be recognised and various bodies, including Google and the EU, have started to release principles and guidelines for the use and development of AI.
As Christians we also need to think about these ethical questions, and we need to do so soon. The range of issues is vast: Is the development of AI safe and wise? Can AI be held morally accountable for its decisions and actions and, if not, who is accountable? Is sex with robots acceptable, and could sex robots be a good way to help those with sex addiction? Is it right to delegate the care of the elderly to robots? What will happen if robots replace many jobs? How will the economy work, what will we do with all our time, and will a life without work be fulfilling? Should AI have rights? And could AI have a relationship with God? If Siri or Alexa pray, does God listen and does he respond?
This week the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention published a contribution to this conversation in the form of an evangelical statement of principles on AI. The set of twelve pairs of affirmations and denials provides a good starting point for Christian interaction with the big issues, although given the format they are inevitably brief.
What I particularly appreciate about the statement is the writers’ desire ‘to equip the church to proactively engage the field of AI, rather than responding to these issues after they have already affected our communities’. As Jason Thacker, creative director and associate research fellow at the ERLC, explains in an article accompanying the publication of the statement, the church has often done the latter (which is why we are still working out how to respond on the topic of sexuality while Western society has largely finished its debates on the topic, to give just one example).
The world is changing fast and technology is developing very fast. This shouldn’t cause us to be worried or fearful, but as God’s people we should seek to understand what is happening and to learn to view it within a biblical worldview. If we’re going to do that in relation to robotics and AI, now is the time to start.
You can read the full statement of principles on Artificial Intelligence from the ERLC here.
Resistance Is Not Futile
According to the report Folau didn’t say only gay people faced the risk of hell – his comments seem to have been a more-or-less direct quote from 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and were equally comprehensive:
On Wednesday, he posted on Instagram that “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” should “repent” because “only Jesus saves”, and made similar remarks on Twitter.
An axiom I have borrowed from some of my American friends is that, ‘The gospel is offensive. Nothing else should be.’ This means that in speaking the truth of the gospel we need to ensure that if offense is caused it is because of the gospel, and not because we have been jerks. We see a good example of this in Acts 19 where the impact of the witness of Paul and his companions sparked a riot in Ephesus, yet the city clerk was able to say, ‘these men have not blasphemed our goddess.’ Clearly the gospel was causing offense but the believers had not set out to be offensive.
Sexual diversity is the goddess of our age (as I left Heathrow I passed a large poster advertising the forthcoming ‘Heathrow Pride’ day) and there doesn’t seem to be the same concern for those drunks, liars and atheists who may have been offended by Folau as there is for gays - and Donald Tusk has not lost his job for saying certain British politicians have a special place reserved in hell. But because the reality in which we live is that LGBT issues are the goddess we should not set out to ‘blaspheme’ this: we shouldn’t be provocative for the sake of it or crass in the things we say. Yet if we are to be faithful to the gospel we can’t go cutting out of it those parts that our culture finds most offensive.
The posture of Christians towards those in authority should be one of respect and submission (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2) but there comes a point when we are also meant to resist the authorities. That line is crossed when the authorities refuse the free declaration of the word of God. An example of this is when Peter and John are commanded not to speak about the gospel and reply, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.’ (Acts 4:19-20).
Practically, I think this means we need to be wise in the way we speak (especially on social media) and not use Bible texts as battering rams. But if the authorities say we are not even allowed to quote scripture we have to resist and obey God rather than men. That might make resistance costly, but it won’t be futile – it is faithful.
Love Thy Body
Just over 50 years ago, abortion was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland and now around 200,000 abortions are performed in Great Britain every year. (For 2017, if abortions are added to the number of people who died, just over 25% of deaths in Great Britain were by abortion).1 Euthanasia and assisted suicide are still illegal in the UK but have been legalised in many countries and there are increasing calls for a change in the law here too, most recently in the legal case of Noel Conway. Sexual ethics have changed dramatically. Many more people are now more accepting of casual sex and one night stands and same-sex couples can now marry in England, Scotland and Wales. Our understanding of gender has also been radically altered. Since 2004, it’s been possible to legally change your gender if you meet certain criteria and there are some who are calling for these criteria to be removed completely. What can explain all these changes? How can things have moved so fast?
In her brilliant and insightful book, Love Thy Body, Nancy Pearcey argues that all moral thinking is driven by underlying worldviews. And underlying secular ethics today is a worldview which sees a radical disconnect between the body and the true self.
Secular thought today assumes a body/person split, with the body defined in the “fact” realm by empirical science and the person defined in the “values” realm as the basis for rights. This dualism has created a fractured, fragmented view of the human being, in which the body is treated as separate from the authentic self (p.14).
In the book, Pearcey shows that the origins of this split can be traced in the Western philosophical tradition and notes that, while many secular people wouldn’t talk in these terms, their opinions and actions show that they subscribe to it. In the subsequent chapters of the book, Pearcey demonstrates how this separation of body and true self can be seen in many of the big ethical issues of our time.
Abortion: We recognise that human persons have a right to life. Therefore, any acceptance of abortion affirms that it is possible for a foetus to be a living human being but not yet a person. When we choose a point after which abortion is not morally acceptable, we are stating that from that point on, and not before, the living human has become a human person with the right to life. Having a body alone does not guarantee that you are a person. The body and the true person are seen as separate from each other.
Euthanasia: If we agree that an individual should have the right to end their own life or to have their life ended, we are agreeing that they are no longer a person whose life ought to be protected.2 This will usually be explained by their being some criteria which have been met (such as unbearable suffering or a loss of autonomy) which automatically makes these criteria the basis for differentiating a person who has rights from just a living human being. Euthanasia affirms that having a living body is not enough to dictate that your life is worth preserving and protecting. The body and true person have been separated.
Hookup culture: Hookup culture celebrates the enjoyment of sexual activity with as little emotional connection as possible. The aim is to enjoy the physical experience of sex while keeping your true self distant from the other party. It therefore assumes a split between the body, which is involved in the sexual act and enjoys the physical pleasure it produces, and the true person, which is (meant to be) left to one side.
Same-sex sexual activity: Male and female bodies are structured to be counterparts to each other. This is most clearly seen in the fact that it always takes the involvement of a male and a female to reproduce. To engage in same-sex sexual activity and to make the experience of same-sex desire the source of personal identity is to say that the body should have no say on who we are as sexual beings. The structure of male and female bodies is separated from the personal identity and sexual practices of the true self.
Transgender: The perspective which encourages those who experience gender dysphoria and who identify as transgender to transition to live according to their internal sense of gender, preferences the internal, true self, over the external evidence of the body. The body and internal true self are separated, with the true self being given the casting vote.
Pearcey observes that the biblical worldview is radically different. The secular perspective sees a sharp separation between the body and the authentic self, and is strongly anti-body, while the Bible views humans as integrated wholes, with the body as a vital element of who we are. What we need, therefore, if we want to present the biblical perspective on these issues and if we want to disciple Christians to withstand the cultural tide, is to embrace, value and teach the biblical view of humans as a holistic union of body and soul. Rather than rejecting the body, we should love the body.
- 1 There were 197,533 abortions in England and Wales and 12,212 in Scotland, a total of 209,745 for Great Britain as a whole. Not including abortions, there were 533,253 deaths in England and Wales and 57,883 in Scotland, giving a total of 591,136 deaths.
- 2 Some I have talked to about this understanding have objected that consenting to someone’s own choice to end their life does not necessarily imply agreement that they no longer qualify as a person, rather it acknowledges their autonomy. This might be true if we thought that anybody should be able to request and receive help to end their life, regardless of who they are. However, the fact that nearly everyone agrees that there should be clear criteria which have to be met when euthanasia is requested and that we instinctively seek to prevent people from committing suicide show that we don’t really believe that anybody who chooses to do so should be free to or helped to end their life. We only believe that if certain criteria are met, and we thereby agree that those criteria mean they are no longer a person whose life is deserving of protection.
25 Years of Grace
The fact that I am married to a woman named Grace has been a frequent sermon illustration as well as a daily reality: I live with grace, sleep with grace, wake with grace, eat with grace, work with grace, play with grace. Grace is always there. Sometimes those of us who know grace really well fail to live in that reality though. We can know the doctrine but be anything but grace-filled in practice. Marriage can be like that too: living with someone, but not with someone.
An amazing thing about my Grace is that she has always pulled me closer into a true embrace of grace. In her personality profile she is high on adaptability and positivity. My StrengthsFinder coach friend tells me that being married to someone with these two traits is like hitting the jackpot. It means Grace is invariably enthusiastic about whatever it is we are meant to be doing. My personality strengths include ‘achiever-responsibility’, which my StrengthsFinder coach friend tells me is the classic burnout combo. Grace has helped protect me from myself. She reminds me that grace comes not from self-effort but is a gift. She is a gift.
I’m old enough now to have seen the marriages of too many people fall apart. Reaching the milestone of our silver anniversary is something too many others fail to experience. I’ve seen too many people make life incredibly complicated for themselves. Life is complicated: Grace and I have experienced that. We’ve had some testing things to deal with. But one of the graces on me is that my marriage has never been complicated. Grace has always been there, always been faithful, always been true – always been positive and adaptable. In a complex world she has made things simple.
There’s a lot to be said for simplicity.
Grace is simple – it comes to us undeserved and unearned. Grace gives us joy and confidence in our walk with God. Grace lifts us up, so we do not feel condemned.
The Value of Art
One answer that can be offered is that art is valuable primarily because it can communicate a message. For Christians, this is particularly appealing, as we have a message that we feel needs to be communicated urgently! From this point then, it can lead churches to encourage artists in their communities to produce work in line with this goal, but potentially neglect other practitioners whose work does not communicate the gospel so clearly.
Now art certainly has the potential to communicate a message very powerfully, but I think that it is a mistake to see this as the primary role of an artist. Therefore, it was recently my pleasure to have the chance to address a group of pastors and church planters on this very topic and give some pointers as to how, by understanding art better, we can welcome, support and disciple the artists in our churches more effectively.
Here’s my message, from the DNA Download training conference for urban church leaders and church planters that took place at Inspire church, Clerkenwell.
A version of this post first appeared on the Catalyst blog.