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We Do Not See the Answers to Our Own Prayers

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We arise from our holy meeting with God in prayer, we expect a real answer, and we look for it hour by hour. But nothing happens. The illness and distress that have prompted us to pray take their natural course. No almighty hand seems to stay their ravages! What disappointments! What discouragements! What weariness descends upon our prayer life after such experiences!

Again, we have made use of prayer for something for which prayer should not be used. We have prayed in violation of the laws which govern prayer life. And the consequences cannot be avoided. Prayer has again become a great effort on our part, and we begin to grow tired of praying.

Now notice what we have missed! Did not God hear our prayer? Indeed He did, and proceeded at once to fulfil it. But He Himself reserved the right to decide when and how the answer was to be given, and in His own time the answer came. We, however, did not experience it as an answer. We had long since forgotten that we had prayed for this particular thing; at least, we did not recognise it as an answer to the prayer we had prayed ... Our prayer life, in other words, makes us poorer than we really are, because we do not see the answers to our own prayers.

—Ole Hallesby, Prayer, 42 (emphasis added)

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Ten Theses on the Benedict Option

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If a book about cultivating Christian virtue hits #7 on the New York Times bestseller list, we should all take notice. That means Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option is worth knowing about. A huge amount has been written about it, especially in the US, but it remains largely unknown in the UK (and in large swathes of the US as well, if the leadership learning community I'm writing this from is anything to go by). So for those who have not read it yet, here's a summary of the Benedict Option, and the response to it, in ten statements.

1. It is difficult to pin down exactly what it is. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why people have got so hot under the collar about it. (Also, lots of people critiquing it admit they haven’t read it, which is weird.) “Strategic withdrawal” is the phrase in the book that comes closest to defining the Benedict Option, but it obviously leaves all sorts of questions (from what? to what? how? why?) unanswered, and the examples of what the Benedict Option looks like in practice vary so widely—from taking full-blown monastic vows to retraining as a plumber—that the essence of the idea can seem elusive.

2. The smartest summary of it is also the shortest, so hats off to Andy Crouch for that.

3. Although there is nothing wrong in principle with writing a book that primarily addresses white Americans, the book misses an opportunity by largely ignoring the experience of the black church under persecution and, in a very different vein, the European church under increasing secularism (with the exception of Benedictine communities within Europe, which I guess are the exceptions that prove the rule). So if you are black, or European, let alone (like a majority of my church) both, The Benedict Option may feel like it has nothing to say to you.

4. Having said that, it still does. The reason is that, despite some of the rhetoric, Dreher is not primarily talking about how to respond to external and explicit persecution from the surrounding culture (as it has been experienced by the black church, for instance); he is talking about how to respond to the loss of Christian identity and fidelity that is taking place within the church. “The world risks careering off a cliff, but we are so captured by the lights and motion of modern life that we don’t recognise the danger.” Because this at times gets entangled with the language of “persecution”, the distinction is not as clear as it might be. But if this focus is borne in mind, the book is far more powerful, prophetic and useful than if it is missed altogether.

5. It is particularly helpful for parents. In reflecting on the way that children are shaped by their peers, and the ways in which parents can and should respond, the book provides some helpful challenges on issues like family prayer, weekly worship when it clashes with the social calendar, technology, hospitality, media and forgiveness. Even the chapter on education, with its insistence that parents should pull their children out of public schools (!), is worth thinking through as a parent, even if (like me) we ultimately disagree with it.

6. There is a sad (and self-refuting) irony to some of the online discussion about it, in which prominent writers have debated the best way to preserve Christian virtue in the face of late modern secularism, but with a mean-spiritedness and a petulance that look more like late modern secularism than Christian virtue.

7. That said, the discussion at Christianity Today, featuring an article from Rod Dreher and four responses from Karen Ellis, John Inazu, David Fitch and Hannah Anderson, is excellent, and would provide an excellent starting point for discussion (as would this from Matthew Loftus). Other helpful articles include those from Trevin Wax and Karen Swallow Prior.

8. Whatever you think of the argument of the book—and I approach the issue slightly differently to Rod Dreher—it has annoyed the right people, and that ought to count for something.

9. The much-discussed “alarmism” in the book, which Dreher is happy to concede and in fact defend, is not so much exaggerated as it is lopsided. R. R. Reno makes a convincing case that it is simplistically negative about contemporary Western culture (“Our times are like every other historical epoch between Christ’s ascension into heaven and his return in glory: a complicated combination of good and bad trends”), largely omitting the many positive features of our society (“Ancient Rome would not have anguished over countless migrants drowning in the Mediterranean”), and failing to note that the same forces which are undermining Christian institutions are undermining secular ones as well, and arguably more so (“this false gospel weakens secular institutions much more than religious ones. People still join churches. They’ve stopped joining Masonic lodges, political parties, and bowling teams.”) Paul Baumann’s review in Commonweal points out that although the sexual revolution presents a challenge to Christian fidelity, it is hardly a challenge of unique and unprecedented magnitude (“Detachers witnessed the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and lived in an increasingly militarized country under the constant shadow of nuclear Armageddon. Perhaps even more pertinently, they refused to be taken in by the lie that a nation that worships the rich and despises the poor can call itself Christian. It seems to me that these are all plausible, even compelling, reasons to separate oneself from American society, and try to carve out a place to live faithful Gospel lives. Does same-sex marriage pose a comparable risk?”) In other words, to use this word for the first and probably last time on this blog: snafu.

10. Few people see more clearly than Dreher that the right answer to the “progressive Christian” line on sex—effectively, that you can have both the sexual revolution and Christianity, both Asherah and Yahweh, both Venus and Jesus—is an unapologetic no you can’t. He may apply that point in ways that would make many of us wince (including me, in places), but he’s worth reading on it nonetheless.

It’s an important discussion. You may want to read the book for yourself.

Finishing Strong (in 146 seconds) image

Finishing Strong (in 146 seconds)

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Sometimes there's no better metaphor for discipleship than riding a bike...

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Complementarity, Marriage and the Gospel (in 210 seconds)

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I think this is an absolutely stunning video. Admittedly I am not unbiased, but the music, cinematography and graphics are superb, and it packs a substantial theological punch, on an important and often controversial issue, in a very short space of time. Hats off to Sam Arnold, Adam and Ellie Brennan, and everyone else involved, for an excellent piece of work. This is about that:

This is about that (with Andrew Wilson) from Kings Church on Vimeo.

Or, if you prefer a version without me in the video, you can use this version.

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How to Live in an Illiberal Liberalism

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Once upon a time there was a cake. Or rather, there wasn’t. It is perhaps the most talked about non-existent cake in the history of the world.

I expect you’ve heard of it. It was a cake that a family of bakers were asked to bake and decorate with a message supporting gay marriage. They declined, on the grounds that they were unwilling to promote something contrary to their firmly held religious beliefs. The family were prosecuted under equality laws, and the case is currently on its way to the UK Supreme Court. The Belfast Telegraph explains that “Judges [have] held that the company cannot provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious message in relation to sexual orientation.”

In other words, they’re free to believe it, as long as they don’t let their belief filter through into their work. This is one of the underpinnings of liberalism – believe what you like, as long as your belief doesn’t affect your actions.

The trouble is, this doesn’t work in the real world. If a midwife believes abortion is morally wrong, how can he or she be expected to perform abortions in the course of his/her duties? The Human Rights Act seeks to patch this hole with a right to the freedom of conscience, but both the ‘gay cake’ row and the recent story of a Swedish nurse who has been denied work three times over her refusal to perform or assist with abortions, show that the patch is a leaky one. Where rights conflict, freedom to act according to your conscience is the first to fall.

What you believe will affect how you live. If it doesn’t, then you don’t really believe what you believe you believe.

And liberals know this.

This week, Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, has come under fire for refusing to state whether or not he believes homosexual sex (or perhaps homosexuality, the question has shifted since it was first asked two years ago), is a sin.1 The twitterati – who have interpreted his lack of comment as a yes – are outraged. Owen Jones, for example, called it ‘an absolute disgrace’. And judging by the 2.2k ‘likes’ on his tweet, many, many others agree.

But what is so disgraceful about a Lib Dem leader being a good liberal and keeping his views to himself? Farron is being condemned for the views that his opponents assume he holds, and which he was careful to state in the 2015 interview he was not looking to impose on others:

Int:         Personally, as a Christian, do you think homosexual sex is a sin?

TF:          I think someone who is a Christian does not go then enforcing their views on other people. It is not our issues, our views on personal morality that matter – what matters is do we go out there and fight for the freedom of every single individual to be who they wish to be?

In fact, the interviewer, Cathy Newman, had also asked on that occasion about abortion, on which Tim was perhaps even more clear:

I personally think that every abortion is a tragedy, but that does not mean that I have any right under law to intervene [in] the restrictions as things are, the law to me – and I’m always guided by the science and the medical evidence on this – the law to me looks about right and- [interviewer interrupts and moves on].

We’ve come a long way from, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The motto of a good liberal today seems to be “I disapprove of what I think you believe, and will publicly criticise you for not saying it.”

So what does this mean for Christians in politics, or in baking, or in any sphere that involves interaction with others?

I wrote this far yesterday, and then got stuck. If we’d been in a movie, there would have been a long shot of the screen with a cursor pulsing at the end of the last paragraph. What does this mean? How then shall we live in a world where even liberals, those great advocates of tolerance, are utterly intolerant of a person even holding beliefs contrary to their own?

I was stuck.

Then this morning I listened to my pastor’s sermon from Sunday (I had been home at my parents’ church when it was delivered, not just dozing off!). It was on how to live as a citizen of heaven fully engaged with the world, and was based on Philippians 1:27-30. Most of what follows is indebted to that sermon and earlier ones in the series (though any errors or misinterpretations are entirely my own).

What should be the marks of a Christian in the world? First, UNITY (see v27b).

It is easy to see Tim Farron or the McArthur family (who run Ashers Bakery), or the midwife Ellinor Grimmark or whoever is hitting the headlines at a given moment as an individual, a lone reed, but that is not how it should be. They are, I hope, part of a community of believers. If everything is working as it should be, the members of that community will be partners in the gospel (Phil 1:5) with the person who happens to be on the frontline that day. The apostle Paul found joy and strength in the midst of his sufferings at least in part because of the prayers and encouragement of the believers in Philippi. When Tim Farron is getting beaten up by the press, he should be absolutely assured of the prayers of his church family, and strengthened and comforted by their love and support – just like a biological family. Who in your church is facing persecution, opposition or a moral dilemma at the moment? How are you partnering with them in it?

The second mark should be COURAGE (v28).

There’s a fine line to be trodden here, because courage can all too easily morph into bullish arrogance. The goal, as Paul goes on to explain, is that our courage will be a sign to our opponents of our salvation. It is a kind of courage that simply can’t be generated by developing a thick skin, putting your head down and powering through. It’s a courage that is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. It’s the sort of courage that enables martyrs to go to the stake singing, that enabled Stephen to stand before the Sanhedrin and preach a message that he must have known would likely get him killed, and to offer forgiveness to his killers as he was being stoned. It’s a courage that is motivated by love.

If we have an agenda, if we’re seeking our own advancement, or rattling cages simply to make a point (and there are, and have historically been, Christian groups who have actively provoked opposition in a misguided attempt to ‘suffer for Jesus’, believing that faith without persecution is dead), then I don’t believe that is glorifying to God or likely to bear witness to his saving grace. Tim Farron is coming under fire because his opponents simply cannot comprehend that someone can call an action a sin but still love the sinner. They see his support for gay marriage as hypocrisy if he also believes homosexual sex is wrong. Yet for Tim, it is loving to give homosexuals equality under the law with heterosexuals, even if he believes their sexual activity is morally wrong.

(It is worth giving some thought to whether you believe the state can or should legislate for morality. If your immediate answer is ‘of course it should’, consider the issue of adultery. It is equally morally wrong, yet we have no legislation against it (nor have we ever had, to my knowledge), and no campaigns to criminalise it. How do we pick the moral issues we think should be backed by law? Something to ponder.)

The third mark of a Christian fully engaged with his or her world is SUFFERING. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should … suffer” (v29, emphasis mine).

In other words, while we don’t seek persecution, neither do we seek an easy life. The calling on Tim Farron is not to work out how he can avoid such questions again, or how he can answer in a way that pleases everyone. His calling is to love the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love his neighbour as himself. The path God has led him on in his discipleship happens to be politics, but his life’s purpose is not to be a successful politician but to be a faithful follower of Christ. That will often lead to suffering, but the biblical view of suffering for the sake of the gospel is that it is a gift, a privilege, something that we get to share in (see Phil 3:10).

That may not be very encouraging. If you’re an MP whose beliefs put you in opposition to your party or your constituents; a medical professional facing the increasing likelihood of being expected to perform or facilitate abortions, euthanasia procedures or gender-reassignment surgery; a teacher who wishes to promote biblical morality and values over secular ones; a baker, printer or signwriter who doesn’t want to promote messages contrary to your beliefs; a banker who takes a stand against immoral banking practices; or any other person anywhere seeking to stand up for righteousness and share your faith with those who don’t want to hear it – I can’t promise you an easy life. All I can offer is the assurance of Jesus:

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12, and in fact the rest of the Beatitudes.)

And the encouragement and advice of other writers who knew what they were talking about:

Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Ephesians 6:13)

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)

 

Footnotes

  • 1. Tim was later asked, in a Parliamentary debate, whether he thought “being gay” was a sin. He answered, “I do not”. It is still, of course, possible that he believes homosexual sex is a sin, but he wasn’t asked that.

On Acts 29 and Spiritual Gifts image

On Acts 29 and Spiritual Gifts

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There's an intriguing discussion taking place within Acts 29 at the moment over whether, and to what extent, miraculous spiritual gifts (like prophecy or healing) continue today. Sam Storms, an Acts 29 pastor who will be known to many readers, has recently released a book called Practising the Power: Welcoming the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in Your Life, which assumes the continuation of the gifts and focuses on how they should be used. Matt Chandler, President of Acts 29, wrote the foreword to it, describing it as a book he has been waiting for for fifteen years. (Full disclosure: I endorsed the book myself, and am speaking on healing at a conference with both of them in October.) Then a few weeks ago Steve Timmis, the CEO of Acts 29, wrote a friendly but critical review of Sam's book, in which he expressed a rather different view of the gifts, focusing particularly on healing. The personal encounters I have had with various Acts 29 pastors, both in the UK and the US, indicate that this exchange reflects the diversity in the network as a whole on the continuation of the miraculous gifts today.

This, as I say, is intriguing. It’s intriguing because, as a local church, it is not an issue on which you can sit on the fence: you either “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy,” or you don’t (although the degree to which you do this can obviously vary). It’s also intriguing because Mark Driscoll was always emphatically charismatic on this point, sometimes insisting that being charismatic was one of his four distinctives, yet the network clearly attracted many who were less persuaded. It’s intriguing because it reflects a fairly important difference in ministry philosophy, not to mention theology, which in turn reflects a rather broader theological bandwidth than I am used to within Newfrontiers. It’s intriguing because the very name of the movement implies a continuationist relationship between today (chapter 29) and the rest of the book of Acts (chapters 1-28). Most of all, it is intriguing because of the debate itself.

Much of Steve’s article is excellent. He is certainly right that the power of the Spirit is not only shown in healings and prophecies, but also in (say) perseverance and evangelism and sanctification (and I imagine Sam would agree). But Steve’s primary concern with Sam’s approach is that “it sets out to challenge its readers to faith and expectancy, yet it inadvertently encourages them to be satisfied with something less than the New Testament Christianity it claims to espouse.” In other words, by explaining how we should pursue miraculous healing today—talk to the person, diagnose the issue, listen to the Holy Spirit, pray, speak to the sickness in Jesus’ name, and so on—charismatics create “a discrepancy between their experience and what’s described in the New Testament.” Charismatics say we believe the miraculous gifts continue today, but our practice indicates such a gulf between the apostles and us that we belie our own rhetoric. In Scripture, “it’s clear the Spirit’s intervention is immediate and effective. There’s no process—described or prescribed. If the gifts are operative for today, then it seems reasonable to expect them to reflect what we see in the New Testament.”

It’s worth taking that challenge seriously. Those who are cautious on the miraculous gifts, let alone cessationist, are making an important observation here: you guys really aren’t at the same level as Peter, John, Paul, Stephen, Agabus and co. In Steve’s critique of Sam, that is followed by ... and you know it, which is a difficulty for your position. In a number of other critiques of charismatic practice, it leads to ... and you pretend otherwise, and should be ashamed of yourselves. But either way, the substance of the challenge is important to consider. Most of your tongue-speaking is not in unlearned, earthly languages. Most of your prophecy is hit-and-miss. Most of your healings are not instantaneous. That’s a problem.

There are a variety of responses that a charismatic could make to this, and each has its place. Jesus himself didn’t always heal instantaneously. There are actually far more instantaneous and dramatic miracles these days than you guys give God credit for. Tongues in Paul’s letters were probably a prayer language rather than an earthly language. New Testament prophecy can be fallible, too. You’re speaking from within a Western, functionally materialist society, which misses out much of the global picture. Paul didn’t heal everyone, and arguably Jesus didn’t either. And so on.

But the best response, I think, is as follows. Yes, the apostles were more successful at healing than we are. There is, indeed, a discrepancy between our experience and what’s described in the New Testament. But the apostles were also more successful at evangelism. And church planting. And leadership. And cross-cultural mission. And church discipline. And teaching. And standing firm under persecution. And handling disappointment. Yet in none of these cases do we conclude that the gulf is so wide, their “success” so much greater than ours, that to write a book telling people how to share the gospel, or teach, or lead more effectively, is to encourage people to be satisfied with sub-biblical Christianity. Rather, we acknowledge the disparity, and seek to learn from it. What did they do? How did they do it? What can we learn? What are we missing? Which contemporaries of ours is God using in this area at the moment? What can we learn from them? And so on.

This is also the most charismatic response, in the best sense of that word: it is the response that places the strongest possible emphasis on charisma, on gift. Some people’s healing and prophetic gifts, like some people’s evangelistic and leadership and pastoral gifts, are more developed than others. I see fewer people healed than my friend Simon Holley, who sees fewer people healed than Heidi Baker, who sees fewer people healed than Peter, who saw fewer people healed than Jesus. When I preach the gospel, fewer people come to faith than when my friend Adrian Holloway does, who sees fewer people come to faith than when Billy Graham did. My teaching gift isn’t John Piper’s, and his isn’t John Calvin’s, and his isn’t Paul’s. Gifts vary. “As it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor 12:18).

So is there a discrepancy between the quality, quantity and immediacy of New Testament miracles and ours? Yes. Does that mean the miraculous gifts are not for today? No. Unless teaching is not for today either, that is. In which case, you probably shouldn’t be reading this in the first place.

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Behold the God-Man

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Some soul food this Good Friday from Gregory of Nazianzus, The Third Theological Oration: On the Son 1, 19-20:

He was tempted as Man, but he conquered as God. He hungered, but he fed thousands. He thirsted, but he cried, “If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink.” He was wearied, but he is the Rest of them that are weary and heavy laden. He was heavy with sleep, but he walked lightly over the sea; he rebuked the winds, and he made Peter light as he began to sink.

He pays tribute, but it is out of a fish—indeed, he is the King of those who demanded it. He is called a Samaritan and a demoniac, but he saves him that came down from Jerusalem and fell among thieves; the demons acknowledge Him, and He drives out demons and sinks in the sea legions of foul spirits, and sees the Prince of the demons falling like lightning.

He is stoned, but is not taken. He prays, but he hears prayer. He weeps, but he causes tears to cease. He asks where Lazarus was laid, for he was Man; but he raises Lazarus, for he was God.

He is sold, and very cheap, for it is only for thirty pieces of silver; but he redeems the world, and that at a great price, for the Price was his own blood. As a sheep he is led to the slaughter, but he is the Shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also. As a Lamb he is silent, yet he is the Word, and is proclaimed by the Voice of one crying in the wilderness. He is bruised and wounded, but he heals every disease and every infirmity. He is lifted up and nailed to the Tree, but by the Tree of Life He restores us—indeed he saves even the Robber crucified with Him, and he wrapped the visible world in darkness. He is given vinegar to drink mingled with gall. Who? He who turned the water into wine, who is the destroyer of the bitter taste, who is Sweetness and altogether desire.

He lays down his life, but he has power to take it again. And the veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of Heaven are opened; the rocks are cleft, the dead arise. He dies, but he gives life, and by his death destroys death. He is buried, but he rises again. He goes down into Hell, but he brings up the souls. He ascends to Heaven, and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.

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“On The Night He Was Handed Over” - But By Whom?

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Tonight we remember the handing over of Jesus after the Last Supper: "who, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it ..." (1 Cor 11:23). That Jesus was "handed over" or "betrayed" (paradidomi) that night is at the centre of our faith. But "handed over" or "betrayed" by whom, and to whom?

The traditional answer is Judas, and this may well still be the best explanation. But notice: the story of the cross is stuffed full of people who were handing over, betraying or abandoning Jesus to somebody else in that twenty-four hour period. If it weren’t so tragic, there would almost be an air of comedy to it. Jesus is the ultimate hot potato.

- Judas “betrays” Jesus to the chief priests.
- The disciples “betray” Jesus by falling asleep, running away and (in Peter’s case) denying him.
- The soldiers “hand over” Jesus to the Sanhedrin.
- The Sanhedrin “hand over” Jesus to Pilate.
- Pilate “hands over” Jesus to Herod, who hands him back to Pilate.
- Pilate “hands over” Jesus to the crowd, literally washing his hands of the whole affair, and then “hands over” Jesus to the soldiers to be crucified.

The point of all this abandoning and blame-shifting is terrible in its impact: nobody can read the story of the cross without realising that all of us, whether elites or crowds or special interests or cowards or friends, have “handed over” Jesus. We did it. “Who, on the night he was handed over (by the whole human race), took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it ...”

Which makes the next statement even more powerful. “This is my body, which is for you.’”

Interpreting the Times: An interview with Brett McCracken image

Interpreting the Times: An interview with Brett McCracken

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Brett McCracken is one of the most interesting and thoughtful Millennial writers emerging from the USA. Among others, he has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Huffington Post and CNN.com, and brings a clear Christian voice to contemporary issues. I recently caught up with Brett to ask him some questions I thought would interest readers of Think.

Your writing tends to focus on the kind of territory we often explore at Think: the interface between theology and culture. You live in Southern California, but I know you are familiar with the UK too - what cultural issues do you see coming down the track over the next 5-10 years that we need to be theologically prepared for?

Obviously the growing confusion about gender and sex is a big one that is already here, but it will likely even become more of a challenge in the coming years, especially within the church as more and more younger believers are growing up with presuppositions about gender and sex that are simply the air they breathe in today’s world, but are decidedly unChristian.

Technology is the other big one that comes to mind. The problems it will pose are multifaceted. One challenge is the disembodying trajectory of technology, which exacerbates existing Gnostic tendencies (a cerebral rather than embodied faith) and subtly deemphasizes the crucial physicality of the church, the “body of Christ” in the material and not just theoretical sense. In our digitally mediated world, churches must find ways to encourage physical gatherings, the practice of the Lord’s Supper, meals together in neighborhoods, bodily movement in worship, shaking hands and hugging each other, etc. Anything to re-sensitize people to the fleshly reality of the church in the world.

A big one that we are already seeing is how the Internet is creating a crisis of epistemology. “Post-truth” was Merriam Webster’s word of the year last year, and “fake news” and “alternative facts” have become part of our discourse of late. In the age of Google, information is everywhere but wisdom is nowhere. How do we know what is true or believable amidst the digital avalanche of information? For churches, an increased skepticism toward truth/authority will certainly be a challenge.

There are other trends in technology we must prepare for: The “status anxiety” of our social media age that leads to narcissism, depression and addiction to “likes”; the ethical and existential questions posed by artificial intelligence; the compartmentalizing trajectory of technology that leads to unintegrated, fragmentary lives; the crisis of work in the post-industrial and automated age; the way online living erodes local community and inflates national and international politics to the extent that they become sources of ultimate meaning and identity.

Another trend to keep an eye on is the way “authenticity” continues to become an ultimate value for 21st century people. While there are some good aspects to it, “authenticity” as it is increasingly understood can become a privileging of brokenness and a “this is just who I am” essentialism and immutability. This is becoming a problem even in the church, where many Christians are quite simply more compelled by sin (though we call it “brokenness”) than we are with holiness, and that is a significant problem the church must address.


SoCal is famous for innovation, and infamous for the incubation of crazy ideas! What opportunities and challenges does this present in making disciples of Christ?

On the plus side, I think the creative energy of Southern California makes it an exciting place to live, full of an ethos of discovery and innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit. From a discipleship perspective it often means there is an optimism and passion in people that can lead them to getting fired up and excited about Jesus, especially if they’ve discovered him or discovered the gospel as something “new” or paradigm-altering in their lives.

But there are challenges too. The pervasive spirit of “new” and “future” often means there is a restlessness and low tolerance for slow growth, as well as a low appreciation for the past and tradition. Newness can become an idol, such that even those who do follow Jesus can become quickly bored, restless and resistant to sticking with one community for a long period of time. You see this everywhere among Christians in SoCal. They often get really excited about a new church, maybe stay there for a year or so, but then the novelty wears off or some “better fit” option comes along, and they move on. The ethos of innovation within churches can also have a downside, when churches are tempted to overstress relevance and the importance of current trends, focusing much of their energy on reinventing the wheel constantly so as to stay ahead of the curve. But this, as I argued in my book Hipster Christianity, simply plays into the worst tendencies of consumerism and chains the gospel to trendiness in a way that misses its transcendent power.


Your writing is potentially challenging for both liberals and conservatives - liberals because of your evangelical convictions, conservatives because of your positive engagement with ‘culture’. Which group do you find it most challenging to engage with, and which tends to give you the hardest time?

I’ve received criticism from both sides, but I think the liberal criticisms tend to be louder these days. In a former era my cultural engagement as an evangelical Christian might have been more countercultural, but these days I think the fact that I’m a Millennial who STILL BELIEVES (shocking!) even in the unpopular doctrines of Christianity (e.g. Christ’s exclusivity, sexual ethics, etc.) is more unsettling to liberals, whose narrative depends on the assumption that Millennial Christians are progressive and will finally move the church beyond its stodgy beliefs. And I also think some liberals don’t like the fact that I’m conversant in popular culture (as well as critical theory, cultural studies, the Frankfurt School, intersectionality, etc.) while also being theologically conservative, pro-life, pro-marriage, and deeply passionate about church.

But more often I find that there are many others like me in the church … people who don’t fit perfectly in these tidy categories; people who are interested in intellectual and cultural conversations but also committed to Christian orthodoxy. My hope for my generation of Christian Millennials is that we won’t follow the typical “pendulum” trajectory but rather be compelled by the nuances and complexity of maintaining faithfulness even while we winsomely engage the questions and issues of our secular age.


I’ve seen you reference your introversion several times. What do you think this personality trait contributes to Christian community that extroversion doesn’t? And how do you handle your introversion in a culture (both a church culture, and the wider culture) that generally seems to value extroversion over introversion?

Like any mix of personality differences, I think introverts and extroverts in the church can help one another. An introvert can help an extrovert learn to value contemplation and stillness. Introverts tend to also be more long-burn processors, needing to sit with ideas longer before weighing in. This can bring important balance to a team when it comes to decision making. If a church leadership team is made up entirely of extroverts, meetings and decision making can be chaotic and at times rash. Introverts slow things down and can often provide thinking and angles to discussions that aren’t there otherwise. Pastorally, I think introverts can minister to other introverts in the church (and extroverts!) in ways extrovert pastors can’t as effectively. Introverts know what other introverts need, and they also know where they need to be pushed and stretched outside of comfort. Likewise, an introvert pastor can help an extrovert grow in areas that are less normal or comfortable for them, such as silent prayer, reading, and other more solitary disciplines. I recommend Adam McHugh’s excellent book Introverts in the Church for a fuller exploration of these questions!

This September you have a new book being published by Crossway. Could you tell us something about it?

The book is called Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community. It’s essentially a call for a post-consumer approach to church, where we embrace, rather than avoid, the uncomfortable aspects of Christianity and the necessity of committing to a local church. I suggest in the book that when the church is uncomfortable and countercultural, she is strong. Exactly what shape this “countercultural” posture should take is a current topic of much debate, but my take is that it must be first and foremost grounded in local church communities, however awkward and uncool and seemingly mundane it may be.

In the book I explore various aspects of Christian faith and church life that are challenging in the 21st century. The book starts with a detailed description of my “dream church” but then proceeds to argue that this is the opposite approach we should take. There is no perfect church. We are better off, and the church is better off, if we embrace and commit to a faithful church even if it doesn’t “fit us” perfectly. As Bonhoeffer once said, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community.”

My sense is that if the church is going to thrive in the 21st century, she needs to be honest and upfront about the cost of discipleship, positioning herself as a radically different, uncomfortably Christ-centered community and not simply another “perfect fit” product in a consumerist world. To the extent that the church is the latter, she is just another extension of our perfectly curated iPhone lives. To the extent that she is the former, she will transform lives and transform the world.

What’s the deal with Terrence Malick?

Ha! You’ve noticed my obsession. Well, Terrence Malick is my favorite filmmaker and someone who, as an artist of Christian faith, has inspired me in my career as a writer looking for connections between theology and culture, the Bible and beauty. When I saw The Thin Red Line (Malick’s third film) as a 16-year-old I had a bit of an epiphany in terms of seeing connections between faith and art where I had formerly seen them as mostly at odds. So Malick has been deeply personal to me as a muse of sorts for my own passions as a writer and thinker. But beyond that, I just think Malick is a very singular and important filmmaker in today’s world. His training in philosophy, his knowledge of theology and literature and history, and his brilliant craft make him one of the most observant cinematic chroniclers of our age. He’s entered a prolific period now in his older age (since 2011’s The Tree of Life) and his recent films have a decidedly “Old Testament Wisdom Literature” feel to them. This is radical and often not well-received by the secular press, but in applying biblical wisdom and hope to the sexual, spiritual and consumerist confusion of our secular age, Malick is a crucial filmmaker who should be noted and celebrated by every Christian.

Trump and Hopkins – inspired examples? image

Trump and Hopkins – inspired examples?

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I heard one pundit say that the division between pro-Trump voters and anti-Trump voters could be described as follows: his opponents took Trump literally, but not seriously; whereas his supporters took him seriously, but not literally.

It seems that many people in the US and the UK find the tell-it-as-it-is style of the Donald, or a Katie Hopkins here in the UK, highly refreshing. Maybe this speaks to how tiring it is to guard your tongue all the time to prevent yourself saying what your mind is thinking.

In Paul Griffiths’ book Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity he asserts that “to lie is a verbal act, something we do with words.” Using Augustine as a conversation partner, Griffiths defines the lie as “the mismatch between what’s in your heart (what you take to be true) and what’s on your tongue (what you say to be true).” We lie when we speak words that contradict our thoughts. Thus, Griffiths argues, the person who speaks objectively false words while believing them to be true is not a liar — though he is deceived.

To be shaped into people who can speak truth to power we need communities that affirm truth-telling and resist false witness. Jesus has a name for such communities: church.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:15-16).

What do truth-telling communities look like? The early Christians knew they were known by God and they had been forgiven everything, so what need had they to hide any skeletons? Mary Magdalene was identified as the Mary “from whom seven demons had come out” (Luke 8:2). How refreshingly honest! Do people have signifiers like that in your circle?

There is a truthfulness about Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins. Neither claims to be anything other than what you find them to be. By all appearances, what they think is what they say.

Most of us have a running commentary going on in our heads about the world around us. Maybe an unspoken curse on another driver. This inner commentary may be harmless when it’s about strangers we won’t meet again; however, close relationships will be strained when there’s a large difference between what you say and what you think about the person.

This truth-gap or truth-deficit exists because we have failed to voice our inner opinion of our friend, spouse, parent, colleague, over a long period. Resolution depends on how accurate our assessment of them is.

When this unspoken inner commentary is highly inaccurate - weighing us down with an inaccurately negative perception of the other person - recalibrating our unspoken negative opinion will allow us to perceive the other person accurately again. It takes some humility, in my experience, to make this journey from suspicion to appreciation.

If this inner commentary is, in truth, pretty accurate, resolution requires truthful confrontation. A sudden disclosure of all the opinions that have been kept hidden up to that point would worsen the relationship. Gossip will also be destructive. The better strategy will be to speak in a progressively more truthful way with the aim of developing a more honest, enriching and productive relationship. As we do this both our perceptions of the other, and their perception of themselves, will be modified. The stakes are high – but the potential gains are huge.

So, tentatively, I suggest this may be one area of behaviour in which Donald Trump is giving us all an example of sorts. The gospel adds a lot more to this however. It tells us how to be changed from the inside out; how to get a new heart; because, as Jesus said:

“You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Matthew 12:34

Maybe the liberals are on to something. God does care what we think. And he knows that what we really think will always, in the end, come out of our mouth.

Christians are people who are on a journey to the place where we believe that truth brings more hope than lies. That journey makes us more and more honest — more and more like God our Father who never speaks what he knows to be untrue, and whose heart is disclosed to us perfectly in the words of Scripture, and, above all, in the Word of God, Jesus his only-begotten Son.

On Not Having Your Cake, but Eating It image

On Not Having Your Cake, but Eating It

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There’s something weird going on out there in liberal-land. It’s causing a clash of individualisms that would be laughable if it wasn’t so damaging to so many.

It’s all to do with how you know whether someone is a boy or a girl.

If they’re in the womb, the doctor can look at the scan and say, ‘It’s a girl!’

In fact, the embryo doesn’t even have to make it to the scan. IVF treatments can identify the sex of fertilised eggs in the petri dish, since the sex is determined at the point of fertilisation.

If the child manages to make it to birth, the midwives will confirm ‘It’s a boy’ or ‘It’s a girl.’ Anyone changing the baby’s nappy for the next couple of dozen months will concur. The evidence is right before your eyes. It’s Biology 101. (And if you’re now hearing Nursie saying ‘A boy without a winkle? Lord be praised it’s a miracle!’, I salute you.)

Once the child grows up a little, however, these little details like body parts and chromosomes are deemed, by some, to be irrelevant. What matters is whether the child identifies as a boy or a girl.

While this seems, to most of us, to fly in the face of logic, we’re not allowed to say that, for fear of being accused of intolerance, bigotry or worse. Children must be free to express their true natures and decide for themselves who and what they are.

But the real bizarreness (bizzarity?) comes when the abortion lobby get involved. Some of them (though by no means all) say things like “If a woman does not want to have a foetus who is one sex or the other, forcing her [to go through with the pregnancy] is not going to be good for the eventual child*, and it’s not going to be good for [the mother’s] mental health.”

But if we can’t know what gender the child is going to identify as until they’re, say, two or three years old, how can the woman be certain what she is aborting? It may look like a girl, but really be a boy (and Nursie would look like a good liberal, not a daft old woman).

Who would you sue if your IVF doctor, on your instruction, implanted a male embryo, and it turned out to identify as a girl? Pity the mother’s mental health then.

I’m no supporter of the transgender agenda, but it seems to me that it could actually be used to prevent at least some abortions, if trans activists were able to convince the courts that abortions on the grounds of sex were not only discriminatory but recklessly premature.

Maybe we should let them fight this one out amongst themselves.


* I couldn’t let this slide without pointing out that it’s not terribly good for the ‘eventual child’ to be injected with saline and dismembered, either…

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Image credits: Cradle (cc)

Keep Off the Grass: An Allegory image

Keep Off the Grass: An Allegory

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Once upon a time, in a college somewhere in England, there was a sign saying ‘Keep off the grass’.

Most people, being obedient types, kept off the grass, though once in a while someone did cut across a corner of it, or even run right across the middle if they felt the consequences of not doing so were worse than any possible consequences of doing so.

And yet…the grass was so lush and beautiful, and some people really wanted to step on it. After all, what is the point of a lawn that no-one can use?

The arguments were persuasive. Perhaps a blanket ban was a little out of touch with the needs of a modern college, perhaps the prohibition should be eased. To save the lawn from being turned into a quagmire, though, a compromise was reached and a new sign was made.

This sign said, ‘Please keep off the grass unless accompanied by a Senior Member of the College’.

'Keep off the grass unless accompanied' sign

But students were students, and many of them really wanted access to the grass without having to take the time and considerable effort required to find a Senior Member and persuade him or her to accompany them. Sometimes there simply wasn’t time – the lecture was about to start, no-one was around, and cutting across the grass would save valuable seconds.

Eventually, one student decided to speak up. “Couldn’t we,” she asked, “remove the original sign and do away with that rule? It is archaic and outdated. It doesn’t take account of the kinds of busy lives people have these days, or the fact that nowadays people like to sit on grass for picnics instead of using the more formal benches around the edge of the quad. The world has changed and this restriction should be lifted.”

Many people objected. “The grass would be ruined,” they cried, “if everyone were allowed to walk on it all the time.”

“No, don’t worry,” she assured them, “they would still have to be accompanied by a Senior Member, we could keep that sign in place. It’s just that there would be no punishment meted out if anyone crossed the grass without a Senior Member.”

To those who supported the motion, this seemed perfectly reasonable. Yet to others, who had been around students long enough to know that they were quite bright really, it seemed that there was little chance of them going through the hassle of finding a Senior Member to accompany them each time they wished to do something that they were already allowed to do anyway.

The question was taken to the College Council: Should they remove the archaic restrictions on walking on the grass and trust the students to always walk responsibly, accompanied by a Senior member?

Was the freedom of the students more important than the protection of the grass? Was the idea of preserving green spaces hopelessly outdated? Did those who cared about nebulous concepts such as beauty and life have any right to restrict what students did with their feet?

How would you have voted?

—————

In case you’re wondering if I’ve completely lost my marbles, try this.

For ‘Keep off the grass’, read ‘Offences Against the Person Act 1861, Sections 58 and 59’ (the law that makes procuring or helping someone to procure an abortion a criminal offence).

For ‘Please keep off the grass unless accompanied by a Senior Member of the College’, read ‘Abortion Act 1967’, which sets out the conditions under which abortions may legally be carried out.

For the question taken to the College Council, read: ‘Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill’.

This Bill, introduced by Diana Johnson MP last week, seeks “to regulate the termination of pregnancies by medical practitioners and to repeal certain criminal offences relating to such terminations; and for connected purposes.”

This wording is confusing, but in her speech Ms Johnson made it clear that she is seeking the decriminalisation of abortion: “I hope that hon. Members will join me in saying that in England and Wales in the 21st century, abortion should no longer be considered a criminal offence, and that the 1861 Act is now obsolete and no longer fit for purpose in this century.” (Emphasis added.)

She claims that this won’t lead to any increase in the number of abortions (ie that students will still meekly seek out a Senior member to accompany them across the grass), even though she cites examples of three women whose circumstances typify the kind of scenarios she’s trying to solve – the implication being that these women are currently unable to procure abortions (or at least would find it extremely difficult to), and therefore may not be able to terminate their pregnancies. In other words, if the Bill were passed tomorrow, Ms Johnson knows of three more abortions that would take place. These would most likely all be conducted outside of the safeguards that Ms Johnson claims would remain in place, since it is those safeguards and restrictions that are currently causing the problem.

I could go on. There are other weaknesses in her logic which mean that unless an entirely new law was crafted making abortion an offence under certain circumstances, the way would be opened for abortion to take place on any grounds – gender, hair colour, inconvenient timing – potentially right up until the point of birth. (There is legislation from 1929 making it an additional offence to ‘destroy the life of a child capable of being born alive’, defined in the legislation as a child at 28 weeks’ gestation. It is unclear whether Ms Johnson wishes to abolish this law or not. Early reports suggested so, but it appears her language may have changed by the time the Bill was proposed, such that this is not explicitly included.)

The second reading of the Bill is scheduled for this Friday, 24th March. Please pray that it will be voted down. If you live in the UK, you can write to your MP (find them here) and ask them to vote against the Bill (you can check how they voted on the first reading, if they were present, here, and thank them and encourage them if they voted ‘No’). Maria Caulfield MP, responding to Diana Johnson in the House, made some further excellent points, that you may wish to use in formulating any such letter.

Even if nothing materially changed, even if every woman seeking an abortion did so following the restrictions currently in place, and there were no more abortions on any more liberal grounds than there are currently, still everything would change. The decriminalisation of abortion would fundamentally change the status in law and, eventually, in the public perception, of the unborn child. A sign saying ‘Keep off the Grass’ might be quaintly old fashioned, but removing it signals loud and clear that grass is no longer a thing of beauty to be treasured and protected, but merely an object to be enjoyed in the sunshine, but trampled on whenever it gets in our way.


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Image credits:
Keep Off the Grass (cc)
...Unless Accompanied (cc)

Anglican Observations image

Anglican Observations

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The recent selection, and then withdrawal, of Philip North as Bishop of Sheffield generated a lot of spilled ink and emotional-blood among Anglican commentators. North’s withdrawal seems to mean that it will no longer be possible for a ‘traditionalist’ who disagrees with the ordination of women to become a diocesan bishop, despite provisions that were intended to accommodate such traditionalists.

One of the more interesting responses was that of Elaine Storkey. Storkey laments the “appalling hounding, vilification and name-calling meted out to Philip North,” and regrets that he will not be bishop – despite being a strong advocate of women’s ordination herself. I have no axe to grind in Anglican arguments, but is has been interesting to trace how things came to this pass.

Storkey describes how, “The Women Bishops measure would not have gone through the General Synod without the co-operation of many traditionalists. I say co-operation, rather than agreement, because that is what it was.” It was that co-operating despite disagreement that was meant to preserve space for traditionalists in the Anglican church, but to me this looks a naïve hope.

There is an inevitable trajectory in these matters: first women become regular preachers of the word, which makes keeping them from ordination inexplicable. Once ordained, it is equally inexplicable to keep women from serving in any church office. Parallel to this same-sex relationships are increasingly accommodated and legitimised, then blessed and sacralised. And, finally, those who oppose such moves are themselves prevented from holding office in the church. This happens because the initial denial of functional differences between the sexes eventually erodes the foundation for any difference between men and women; in effect making sex (gender) something that is contingent rather than essential to the understanding of human personhood.

I am not here offering any value judgment about this trajectory: some mourn it, many celebrate it. My observation is simply that the end result seems inevitable. And while this particular instance applies to the Anglican church, the principle is true for all churches. There are parallel examples aplenty in the nonconformist/evangelical/charismatic waters in which I more normally swim. But for Anglicans, the direction of travel was effectively set when in 1992 the decision was made to ordain female priests. No one should be surprised about what has happened to Philip North: the fruit you harvest is always born of the seed that you plant.

Sam Allberry, Synod and Same-Sex Attraction image

Sam Allberry, Synod and Same-Sex Attraction

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I don't know why this only appeared in my twitter feed last Friday, but it's a follow-up Q&A by Ravi Zacharias Ministries after 'that' speech at the Church of England Synod last month. (If you don't know to which speech I'm referring, just click through, the short video clip is reproduced there.)

It’s all excellent, measured, wise, and well worth your time, but here are a couple of extracts that stood out to me:

On celibacy:

God never says “No” to something without saying a bigger “Yes” to something else.

This came over wonderfully clearly in Sam’s speech. Celibacy, for whatever reason, is not an intolerable burden, laid upon us by a kill-joy God who has chosen to prevent some people from full human flourishing. Jesus is the best example of human flourishing we have. If he managed to find some kind of hope and meaning in life, maybe singles can, too. We believe that the laws and restrictions he puts on us in all other areas of life are for his glory and our good, so why would this one be any different?

On identity:

The most important insight the Bible gives us when it comes to identity is that it is not earned or discovered, but received. We cannot on our own determine or discover our own true identity, whether it is sexual identity or any other kind. We cannot know who we are without first knowing whose we are. The only way to make sense of who we are is to make sense of what we’re for.

This is not news, hopefully. We’ve all heard it before, but it is worth repeating, since it is very, very easy to forget in a world that doesn’t imagine for one moment that there could be any source for your identity than what you know/believe/feel yourself to be. It’s one of the key issues of our time and we need to continually remind ourselves of the truth.

And finally,

On the cost of discipleship:

I suspect that Christians who balk at what the gospel seems to cost their gay friends haven’t really started counting the cost of discipleship in their own lives.

Ouch.

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Sympathy for Jonah

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David Benjamin Blower is a musician, writer and community theologian from south Birmingham, UK. For the last ten years he’s been making apocalyptic junk-folk music – sort of protest music in the spirit of the biblical prophets - writing books and, as he puts it ‘experimenting with ways of making radical public art to challenge the powers’. His latest project is his most ambitious yet - a radiophonic performance of the story of Jonah, narrated by none other than Nicholas Thomas Wright. Jonny from Sputnik caught up with him to find out all about it.

Your new release about the prophet Jonah is a book (Sympathy for Jonah) and an album (The Book Of Jonah). How did this project come about?

This happened haphazardly. I started writing a musical of the story of Jonah, mostly out of a fondness for the Bible, Moby Dick, Pinocchio etc. and while I was putting together songs about how terrible things were in Nineveh, I saw on the news footage of ISIS blowing up the tomb of Jonah in modern day Nineveh; that is, Mosul, in northern Iraq. I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t want to go to Nineveh either.” The news about ISIS (back in 2014/15) became so disturbing that I lost all taste for the musical and started, wide-eyed, writing a book about how frightening real enemy love might actually be. Everyone picks on Jonah for his lack of warm feeling towards the enemy, but I don’t see many of his pious critics marching off to Mosul to make peace with the regime there. And any historian will tell you that the Ninevites (Neo-Assyrians) were more dreadful than ISIS, by a long way.

The book was published last summer, and then after that, rather more soberly, I finished recording the musical retelling.

I know it has been gestating for a while and I imagine that there has been a weight to living with these ideas for so long before being able to finally unleash them on the world. How do you manage to contain such a strong prophetic vision (alongside the accompanying passion and restlessness) without it eating you up?

I think it probably does eat me up. I don’t know if you can make good art about something without allowing yourself to swallowed up by it. If you’re not battered by the journey, then where did you go, and what do you have to tell? Perhaps this is why artists have often been considered dangerous by controlling societies. We’re unhinged openings for dangerous and unpredictable kinds of power to enter the orderliness and disrupt it: in this case, grace, forgiveness, re-humanisation of the enemy, redemption of the irredeemably evil, etc. The prophetic job is to bring in this dangerous new thing, not, I suppose, to always come out in one piece.

Living with this story over the last few years has also been interesting, because the contemporary subject matter has changed. When I began, the monster of public discourse was ISIS. Today, many struggle to see people like Trump, Farage and Le Pen as human beings – an attitude which is quietly and dangerously transferred onto all those who support them. I also know people on the right who can only talk with disgust about “liberals” and people on the left. Who wants to go Jonah-ing over to the terrible other now?

So, how did you end up getting NT Wright on the album?

No living theologian has made a deeper mark on me than NT Wright, and I would have been tickled just to meet him. So it was a strange and unexpected thing to get to work with him on something like this.

A couple of friends of mine from Nomad Podcast were going up to interview him about his new book The Day the Revolution Began. They were up for having me involved in the podcast, so I emailed Tom to see if he’d be interested in narrating Jonah while we were up there. He’s a very good sport.

We recorded in his study, surrounded by huge, wobbling towers of books, as you might expect. He was very engaged and eager to capture the sense of drama I had in mind for each point of the story. I didn’t need to say too much really; he had an instinct for the book’s inner logic, and I think his wisdom and wit have made their marvellous mark on the story.

Besides his sonorous voice and scholarly brilliance, he’s a warm and wonderful character with a very kind and connected presence. A delight to work with.

The Book Of Jonah/Sympathy For Jonah then - give us the hard sell. Why should this release be added to our bookshelves and iTunes libraries?

The Book of Jonah is a radiophonic production of the biblical story, read in it’s entirety from the old King James Bible by the deep voice of theologian Professor NT Wright. Jonah himself is played by the theologian and activist Professor Alastair McIntosh, in his wheezing Hebridean sea-dog’s tones. The story is punctuated with dark folk ballads and awash in spaghetti western soundscapes.

Sympathy for Jonah is a series of meditations on the biblical tale, delving into the necessity, and the dreadful cost, of enemy-love, for all of us. Especially in these divided times. It’s short. I’m told it’s funny, though I didn’t particularly mean it to be. And it gives theologically digestible exploration of both the Book of Jonah and of the cross of Jesus.

What’s next for you? How are you going to promote this project, and have you got anything else in the pipeline?

I’ll be spending time performing The Book of Jonah where I can - lounges, bars, churches and gatherings - and holding discussions around the themes of the book. There’s always something new in the pipeline, but I’ll focus myself on planting our community garden and gathering some theological learning groups in the coming months.

If you’d like to find out more about David Benjamin Blower, you could try here, here or maybe even here

As for the album, you can pre-order it here, or if you can’t wait until 13th March, here is an exclusive little preview of a track called ‘Sackcloth and Ashes’ to whet your appetite…

A Little Communion W(h)ine image

A Little Communion W(h)ine

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In Andrew's annual Lenten absence from this blog, I feel obligated to try harder than usual to find things to blog about, and since he often posts other people's posts with a bit of commentary, I think I'll give that a go.

This, by Luke T Harrington, is an excellent (in the sense that it agrees with me) post on ‘Those Little Communion Cups, Whatever Those Are Technically Called’.

It starts off light - an amusing little look at the history of a Christian oddity, but packs a punch later on. It’s as though Luke thought it didn’t bother him, but discovered as he wrote that it did. Quite a lot.

Apparently, the idea of using individual communion cups dates back to around 1894, and Luke says the idea and its popularity were due to that heady cocktail of industriali[s]ation and convenience:

What made it seem like such a good idea? Part of it was just a side-effect of industrialization. More people had been moving into the urban centers for a new life of 12-hour sweatshop shifts and never seeing the sun again, and because the sewer hadn’t been invented yet [citation needed], the era was seeing outbreaks of infectious diseases like diphtheria and tuberculosis. Fortunately, germ theory was revolutionizing medicine, and Americans have never met a problem we didn’t think we couldn’t solve with whatever scientific discoveries were grabbing headlines at the time.

...

By 1906, the practice was becoming popular enough that Pastor J. D. Krout published an article in Lutheran Quarterly arguing that (1) no one can say for sure that there was only one cup at the first Lord’s Supper (except, presumably, everyone who had ever read the relevant Scriptural passages before he did), (2) individual cups are more sanitary, and (3) hey, it’s more convenient. Maybe it’s that last point that really led to the practice catching on—Americans have never met a convenience we didn’t like. We won’t eat food unless we can microwave it or get it out of a drive-thru window (preferably both), and we want our movies in three easy acts and our pop songs in two simple verses (and, like, a million choruses). “In this advanced age,” Krout wrote (weirdly describing an era before spray cheese was invented as “advanced”), “when congregations swell to the ranks of hundreds and thousands, it is necessary to expedite matters as much as possible. People are no longer willing to sit in the sanctuary and watch the minister as he slowly moves to and fro in administering the Lord’s Supper.”

I like this guy’s writing style.

I like his biting sarcasm, too:

If you’re wondering, there’s actually never been a disease outbreak traced back to the common communion cup. Nor is it likely to occur, given the particulars of the ceremony—silver and gold don’t constitute a hospitable environment for bacteria, and neither does an alcoholic beverage. And if you come from a tradition, as I do, that believes Jesus is actually present in the wine (and the bread), it seems pertinent to point out that that guy is in the business of healing disease, not spreading it. But then again, if Americans were the sort who let sound science and good theology get in the way of our love of novelty, we never would have invented Hot Pockets, either.

...

Once you get that “convenience” ball rolling, though, it’s hard to stop it. It wasn’t terribly long before we had gone from silver-and-gold communion cups to disposable plastic ones, and then—once we realized filling all those little cups was a pain in the butt—we started selling all-in-one, prepackaged communion. You can buy this convenient product right now, hermetically sealed for astronaut-caliber freshness, complete with a styrofoamy wafer and your choice of red or white grape juice—because nothing says “sacred rite” like, “Here, peel the plastic off of these Lunchables.”

I liked the post and I shared it on my twitter and Facebook feeds. Twitter responses: Zero. Facebook responses: lively, thoughtful conversation.

One person noted that with the individual cups the congregation can all drink together, and indeed this was what happened the first time I encountered them, at Spring Harvest back in the 1980s. I was in the youth work, and, however much I might have liked the symbolism of it, passing round a single communion cup to thousands of teenagers would have been less than practical. Instead they arranged us into groups and handed each group a piece of bread (probably pitta) and a tray of shot glasses of juice. We broke the bread, then ate it together, then passed around the juice and drank together. I was very struck by the feeling of all of us joining in with the single moment. It made it very meaningful to me.

That seems to have been a one-off, though. Probably more a reflection on me than on the relative holiness of the act.

Another commenter pointed out that in her church there was a large number of people for whom the presence of alcohol would be a genuine problem, and it seems to me that that is the best possible reason for going with juice, and once you’ve done that, individual cups are also probably wiser (she also mentioned that using a shared cup in her situation you risked catching rather more than a cold…!).

The why is, as ever, so much more important than the what or the how, and informs them, even as it is informed by them.

Luke points out that, “How we do something has a direct effect on how we feel about it”:

When we share a cup, we proclaim that we’re all united in one Christ, not only with each other, but with the saints throughout space and time. When we take shots of grape juice, we’re telling the world…what? That we can’t find some decent Scotch?

Maybe sometimes we’re telling the world - and God - that we feel we’re “spending way too much time on the most sacred of all Christian rituals”, and need to speed things up a bit. Sometimes we might be telling them (and him) that we don’t trust him enough to obey him (‘I would do what you command, Lord, but I might get ill.’). But sometimes we may be telling the world, and God, that we’re finding a way to be obedient to both this command and the one “never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. ... For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” (Romans 14:13, 15)

I would love for more of our churches to be forced to have individual juice cups for all because there were simply too many people in the congregation with communicable diseases, addictions to alcohol or sensitivities for other reasons (perhaps recent converts from Islam) for it to be loving to continue to bring wine into the building.

Changing an ancient ritual because we’re too middle class and sophisticated to follow it any more is one thing. Changing it because we’re too committed to loving God and neighbour is another thing altogether.


———————-
Image credit: fcor1614 on Flickr.

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What Did the Tearing of the Temple Curtain Mean?

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I've always taught, and assumed, that the meaning of the temple curtain at the moment of Jesus' death is fairly straightforward: it removes the barrier between God and man. I wrote a whole chapter in my book GodStories about this, and it honestly never occurred to me that anything else might be going on.

Fleming Rutledge thinks there is. In The Crucifixion, she suggests four things:

First, Jesus predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, so that rending of the curtain vindicates Jesus by signaling the destruction of the sanctuary.

Second, the Markan wording implies an act of the wrath of God against the corruption of the temple and its priests (as, for instance, in Mal 1:6-3:4).

Third, since the rending of garments signified mourning, there may be an element of that as well.

Fourth, the rending of the veil is included by Matthew in his carefully worked-out list of four signs indicating that the apocalyptic turn of the ages is occurring with the death of the Messiah.

Plus the possibility of human beings approaching the presence of God, when formerly it was off-limits. Plus the corresponding reality that the presence of God is now spilling out into the world. Pretty good news, in other words.

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The Jewish Calendar

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I don't think I've ever posted here before with a picture as the main item, but this one is so good that I'm breaking the habit of a lifetime. Behold: the Jewish calendar in one picture.

HT Patrick Schreiner

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One Thousand and Counting

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This past Sunday I preached my one thousandth sermon.

On the advice of an older pastor (well, he was probably the same kind of age then as I am now) I have kept a preaching log, in which I record all the times I speak in public. It’s a somewhat idiosyncratic list: if I do a whole day of teaching that gets logged as just one talk, whereas if I preach the same thirty-minute sermon three times on a Sunday, that gets logged as three talks. For some reason I haven’t logged weddings I have spoken at, but have recorded some of the funerals (Eccl.7:2). But overall, since speaking from Luke 9 at a university Christian Union meeting in October 1993, to preaching from Luke 19 at Gateway Church this past Sunday, I have delivered a thousand public talks.

This works out at preaching more than forty times a year, although it took me seven years to clock up my first one hundred messages. Since taking on the primary teaching role in the churches I have served, and then with going to multiple Sunday services, the pace has quickened substantially.

I reckon it was only after I had preached about 300 times (a milestone that took thirteen years to reach) that I began to get to grips with the process. Learning how to prepare a message, working on delivery, the whole A to Z of communicating to a crowd, takes time and repetition to get on top of. But if Malcolm Gladwell is right, and it takes 10,000 hours practise to ‘become good’ at something, then I still have an awfully long way to go – death will catch up with me long before I hit that total.

Another way to calculate this is that in the nine years I have been at Gateway I have preached on 266 Sundays. A rough estimate is that adding together preparation and delivery time, each Sunday represents about ten hours work – so, thus far I have put in about 2,500 hours of labour. At the same rate, I’d need to be here nearly forty years (and be well into my 70’s!) to clock up the 10,000 hour mark.

That feels rather dispiriting, but it is probably not an accurate reflection of the reality; because the reality is that sermon preparation is going on all the time, albeit not the conscious, sit at a desk and put pen to paper preparation. Learning the ways of a congregation, and of the town which the congregation is from, is an exercise in constant preparation. There is an exegesis of the people, as well as the text, and a constant focus on seeking to connect the text to the people. This means I hit 10,000 hours some time back. But it is also an argument for pastors staying in their towns, and with their congregations for lengthy periods. It really does take a long time to get to know a place, and a people, and to be a pastor, rather than just a deliverer of talks.

 

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Your Vision May Not Be What You Think It Is

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The vision you say you have matters less than you think. The vision you actually have matters more than you think. That's my theory.

If you lead a local church, it will be shaped far more by the vision you actually have—the things you are genuinely passionate about and committed to—than by the vision you say you have. With a company it can be hard to see through the spin (if there is any) to the reality, but with a family, like a church, it is different; people know each other, integrity is critical,  spades are spades whatever you call them, and most people know that. Hopefully, of course, the vision you have and the vision you say you have are the same. But in my experience they often aren’t.

The question is: how do you tell? How do you tell whether the vision you (or they) say you have is the vision you (or they) actually have? Well: the vision you say you have is the one on your website, poster, flyer, bulletin, billboard, projector screen, video, order of service or whatever else you do. That much seems clear. The vision you actually have, though it is not as immediately obvious, can fairly easily be identified by asking five questions.

1. What are you reviewing? What are the things that, every week, you are keeping an eye on to see how you’re doing? (Many companies and more than a few churches would call these Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs). In many churches these will focus on the Sunday meeting: the number of people present, the number and quality of the charismatic contributions, the length and intensity of the sung worship time, the quality of the sermon, the number of visitors, the size of the offering, the number of public responses to the gospel, and so on. But they might include all sorts of other things: the percentage of regular attenders who are in small groups, the turnout and level of encounter at the prayer meeting, the number and quality of healing stories, the number of people touched through ministries of mercy or social justice, the success of conferences and resources produced by the church, or whatever else. The things that you review—or, in churches that review lots of things, the things that you focus on most in your review process—are almost certainly the things you actually care about, rather than merely the things you claim to care about.

2. What are you paying for? Generally speaking you get more of what you incentivise, and less of what you penalise. So: what are you paying for? If serving the poor, or reaching unreached people groups, gets forty percent of your vision time but only four percent of your budget, then while it may be central to the vision you say you have, it probably isn’t quite so central to the vision you actually have. As journalists often tell us, borne out by a fair bit of experience: follow the money.

3. What are you disappointed by? If you had to make a list of the top five things about the church you serve that can really ruin your Monday (or whatever day it is), what would they be? I know leaders who are fine with low attendance but devastated if the sung worship time feels “flat” (and if I’m honest, that’s a category I fall into myself); I know others for whom the most disappointing thing would be a duff sermon, or a meeting with no visitors, or declining giving, or poor attendance at the weekly prayer meeting or evangelistic initiative or ministry to the poor. The things that make you most disappointed when they don’t happen, in all probability, are the things you are actually most envisioned by.

4. What are you celebrating? This one is a great question for two reasons. Firstly, there is the flip side of the previous point: the things you celebrate the most are almost certainly the things you care about the most. But secondly, there is the power of public celebration (or, if you are from a tradition that doesn’t really do celebrating, the power of commendation or even honourable mention) in communicating and reinforcing your public vision. We replicate what we celebrate. It’s like a comment Don Carson made about teaching at seminary: my students won’t remember what I taught them, but they will remember what I was passionate about. If you celebrate large meetings, intense times of prayer and fasting, successful youth events or generous offerings, then the church will catch how important those things are to you. Vision is easier to show than tell.

5. What are you praying for? This is the most revealing of all, because it reflects the vision we are carrying when absolutely nobody else is looking. In the quiet place, when you are pouring your heart out to the Lord for his church, what are you asking him for? The chances are, that’s your vision.

Hopefully, those five things will help you establish what your vision—or, if you prefer, your dream or hope or ambition for the church you serve—actually is, whether or not it is what you have so far been saying it is. And if there’s a conflict between them (or, equally, if there is a conflict between your vision and the vision of your team members!), it’s probably worth knowing about, and doing something about. Just a thought.

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Beauty of the Word

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Do you ever find the Bible hard work?

Probably we’re meant to. It is full of comfort and light and life, but it is also full of challenge, culturally alien references, and hard sayings. Almost every time I read a passage of scripture there is something that I have to wrestle with, and submit to once again. But it is not only the content of the Bible that can make reading it demanding work; stylistically it can also be a challenge.

As a young teenager I was already experiencing the rub of this. I started reading in Genesis 1 when I was 13, and got to Revelation 22 by the time I was 15 – a cover to cover approach that I would never advise to a first time Bible reader now. There was plenty to stumble and trip over along the way, but I remember one frustration being that much of the Bible just didn’t seem very well written. As literature, it didn’t always stack up well against other books I was reading.

Many cover to cover readings of the Bible later I have a greater appreciation for the different biblical genres, the challenges of translation, the cultural context of the narrative, and so on. But there are still times I wish Scripture was written differently.

So this, from Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay in Allen & Swain’s Christian Dogmatics has really helped me:

That Scripture is made up of human language and literature no more disqualifies it from being a vehicle for God’s Word than does Jesus’s humanity: both are servant forms. Jesus is God’s corporeal discourse (the Word incarnate); Scripture is God’s canonical discourse (the Word inscribed). We should not impose our concept of perfection on Scripture but rather acknowledge that God in his wisdom chose to employ just these forms of human discourse to present Christ and administer his covenant.

Why have I never seen it this way before? Jesus was perfect, but in his flesh appeared ordinary, with ‘no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.’ Had Jesus been physically superhuman, it would have been a denial of what the incarnation meant to achieve. Similarly, a Bible written to always win every prize for literature would have been a denial of what Scripture is for. Jesus stands supreme over all men and the Bible over all books, but not by normal human concepts of perfection. God in his wisdom became incarnate in the body of a first century mid-eastern peasant, and God in his wisdom speaks to us through the pages of Scripture.

There is beauty here for sure.

 

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Substitution in the Church Fathers

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Jesus died as our substitute, argues Fleming Rutledge in her remarkable The Crucifixion. The Bible says so; the fathers said so; the Reformers said so; I say so. This is standard fare in evangelicalism, of course, but given her Episcopalian background, academic context and substitutionophobic audience, it is both interesting and very encouraging that Rutledge is there too (albeit with some differences of emphasis). Yet, as she points out—and as I experienced first-hand on Twitter only minutes before writing this post!—the idea that substitution was invented by Anselm, or even the Reformers, continues to reappear in contemporary discussions like a bad smell. So, in her very kind and Episcopalian way, she goes in for a spot of debunking. It's all over the fathers, she explains:

Athanasius: “Taking a body like our own, because we were all liable to the corruption of death, he surrendered his body to death instead of all and offered it to the Father ... Whence, as I said before, the Word, since it was not possible for him to die, took to himself a body such as could die, that he might offer it as his own in the stead of all.”

Ambrose: “Jesus took flesh so as to abolish the curse of sinful flesh, and was made a curse in our stead to that the curse might be swallowed up in blessing ... He took death, too, upon Himself that the sentence might be carried out, so that He might satisfy the judgment that sinful flesh should be cursed even unto death.”

Cyril of Alexandria: Christ “was stricken because of our transgressions ... this chastisement, which was due to fall on sinners ... descended upon him.”

Melito of Sardis: “The Lord ... suffered for the sake of him who suffered, and was bound for the sake of him who was imprisoned, and was judged for the sake of the condemned, and was buried for the sake of the buried.”

Gregory of Nazianzus: Christ saves us “because He releases us from the power of sin and offers Himself as a ransom in our place to cleanse the whole world.”

John Chrysostom: “Christ has saved us ... by substituting Himself in our place. Though He was righteousness itself, God allowed Him to be condemned as a sinner and to die as one under a curse, transferring to Him not only the death which we owed but our guilt as well.”

Jerome: Christ “endured in our stead the penalty we ought to have suffered for our crimes.”

Rutledge continues through the tradition, by way of Anselm, Thomas, Luther, Calvin and all the way up to Karl Barth (“the Judge judged in our place”), and makes a couple of insightfully acerbic comments in the process:

“It is not an exaggeration to say that in some circles there has been something resembling a campaign of intimidation, so that those who cherish the idea that Jesus offered himself in our place have been made to feel that they are neo-Crusaders, prone to violence, oppressors of women, and enablers of child abuse.”

“A good deal of the opposition to the substitution motif is rooted in an aversion to its fundamental recognition of the rule of Sin and God’s judgment upon it.”

I think she’s probably right.

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Ten Reasons You Should Read Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion

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Sorry for the double-posting today, but I've just written a review of Fleming Rutledge's magnificent The Crucifixion over at The Gospel Coalition which you might be interested in. Here's how it begins:

Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ is an extraordinary book. It’s theologically deep and beautifully written, pastoral and scholarly, ecumenical and evangelical. Like its author, it’s Episcopal but not as you know it. It’s endorsed by people you rarely find endorsing the same book: Stephen Westerholm and David Bentley Hart, Kate Sonderegger and Stanley Hauerwas, Larry Hurtado and Robert Jenson. In some ways, it’s the successor to John Stott’s The Cross of Christ; in other ways, it’s nothing like it. Readers looking for something on the cross that incorporates both richness and retrieval should forget N. T. Wright’s latest offer and get this.

In no particular order, here are 10 reasons why.

Read the rest here.

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Why Is Theology So Difficult?

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Here's a helpful paragraph from Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) on why theology is so difficult (or, in his words, the incomprehensibility of the divine nature). In his Five Theological Orations (2.12), he suggests three reasons:

... we say that perhaps one reason is to prevent us from too casually throwing away the knowledge of it because it was so easily come by. For peopel cling tightly to that which they acquire with labour; but that which they acquire easily they quickly throw away, because it can be easily recovered. And so it is turned into a blessing - at least to all whoa re sensible - that this blessing is not too easy.

In other words: easy come, easy go. Perhaps theology is difficult to teach us appreciation. Or, alternatively:

Or perhaps it is in order that we may not share the fate of fallen Lucifer, lest, as a result of receiving the full light, our necks become stiff against the Lord Almighty and we fall from the height that we had attained - a downfall most pitiable of all.

If theology were too easy, we would become proud. So perhaps it is difficult to teach us humility. And there is one more possibility:

Or perhaps it may be to give a greater reward hereafter to those who by their labour and glorious life have here been purified and have persevered in seeking what they desired.

That is, the difficulty of theology teaches us hope, and encourages us to persevere in faith until, one day, we see face to face, and know as we are fully known.

Why is theology so difficult? Perhaps - and Gregory would stress that these are possibilities, not certainties - it is to provoke a mixture of appreciation, humility, and hope. And even if it isn’t, those are good things to cultivate anyway.

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What Happened to the Absurd?

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I was in Paris a few days ago, and as luck would have it, I was staying right by the Pompidou Centre on its 40th birthday, so admission was free. I browsed the massive modern art collection for a while—Duchamp, Dali, Picasso, Braques, Miro, Kandinsky, Pollock and so on—but modern art has never really been my thing, so I mainly ended up looking at the rooftop views across the city. I had seen enough, however, to be prompted again to consider something that has often made me curious: the relative decline of abstract, absurdist, surrealist and nihilist visual arts in the last half-century. Eric Hobsbawm wrote years ago about the death of the avant-garde, and the Pompidou Centre highlights it accidentally, simply by juxtaposing these great names from the first half of the 20th century with a group of more recent artists, clearly overshadowed by their illustrious predecessors, that no non-specialists have even heard of. (I am no expert on any of this, but it seems to me that the same thing is true of music since Stravinsky, drama since Beckett, novels since Joyce, and so on.) So the thing I am given to wonder is simply this: what happened to the absurd?

The next day, by coincidence, I was reading Terry Eagleton’s (quite superb) The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, and to my astonishment he started talking about exactly this question. Here’s what he said:

Life seems absurd in contrast to a meaning which it used to have, or which you believe it used to have. One reason why modernists like Chekhov are so preoccupied with the possibility of meaninglessness is that modernism is old enough to remember a time when there was still meaning in plenty, or at least so the rumour has it. Meaning was around recently enough for Checkhov, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, and their colleagues to feel stunned and dispirited by its draining away. The typical modernist work of art is still haunted by the memory of an orderly universe, and so is nostalgic enough to feel the eclipse of meaning as an anguish, a scandal, an intolerable deprivation. This is why such works so often turn around a central absence, some cryptic gap or silence which marks the spot through which sense-making has leaked away. One thinks of Chekhov’s Moscow in Three Sisters, Conrad’s African heart of darkness, Virginia Woolf’s blankly enigmatic lighthouse, E. M Forster’s empty Marabar caves, T. S. Eliot’s still point of the turning world, the non-encounter at the heart of Joyce’s Ulysses, Beckett’s Godot, or the nameless crime of Kafka’s Joseph K. In this tension between the persisting need for meaning and the gnawing sense of its elusiveness, modernism can be genuinely tragic.

Postmodernism, by contrast, is not really old enough to recall a time when there was truth, meaning and reality, and treats such fond delusions with the brusque impatience of youth. There is no point pining for depths that never existed.

What happened to the absurd? Artists stopped remembering the meaning they had lost. If that’s not an opportunity to preach the gospel from Ecclesiastes, I don’t know what is.

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Trinity and Akedah

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Here's the conclusion of Fleming Rutledge's wonderful treatment of the Akedah, Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac:

We note two verses especially: “The Lord himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” and “You have not withheld your son, your only son, whom you love.” Abraham is for us the unparalleled example of steadfast trust in unimaginable circumstances. God enver asked this of anyone else; it was a onetime event, never to be repeated. Never, that is, until the day of the ultimate “counter-attack” (Calvin), God seeming to be against God, when God’s own Son cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

For Isaac, a substitute was provided - Abraham saw a ram caught in the underbrush. “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” When Jesus came to the cross to bear the sin of the world in fathomless darkness, there was no substitute for him. He himself was the Lamb. God did not withhold his son, his only son. The Son himself became the substitute - for us. But the crucial difference between the Akedah and the cross, finally, is that the Father is not sacrificing the Son. God the Father and God the Son together, with a single will, enacted the eternal purpose of God that the second person of the blessed Trinity would become “once for all” the perfect burnt offering, for us human beings and for our salvation.

 

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Long Hours and Laziness

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Sometimes we work long hours because we are lazy. It's counterintuitive but, I suspect, true. I'm speaking as a WEIRD man with young children and a desk job, so this may well have nothing to say to people in other demographics, but there are at least three factors that can contribute to laziness at work expressing itself in longer, rather than shorter, working hours. I can see elements of all of them in my own life.

One: laziness can manifest itself as distraction, which makes us inefficient, which means we have to work for longer. Instead of remaining focused on the task at hand, we flit, we procrastinate, we have unnecessarily lengthy discussions about things that could be resolved quickly, we toggle across to email or news or social media screens more than we should, we chat, we do personal administration—and all of these things mean the actual work we are paid to do takes longer. But there is a badge of honour to working long hours. We can tell people about it, and ostentatiously send emails after we know everyone has left, and huff and puff about how tired we are. So given the choice between working efficiently for eight hours, and working inefficiently for eleven, many of us will choose the latter out of laziness.

Two: laziness can manifest itself as busyness, which makes us do more than we should, which means we have to work for longer. This is Eugene Peterson’s point in his excellent The Contemplative Pastor: I am busy because I am lazy, he says. Instead of making active decisions about what I will and will not do, I become passive, reactive. I let others set my agenda for me rather than doing it myself, either because I am disorganised, or because I am fearful of confrontation. Laziness in priority-setting manifests itself as busyness, as I get pulled from pillar to post by the expectations of others, and have to work extra hours to get it all done.

Three: laziness can manifest itself as avoidance of genuinely hard work in favour of work which looks difficult but is actually easier. The classic example here is parenting. I doubt I am the only man in the world who battles the temptation to stay late at work, at least partly because it is an environment in which I am in charge and control my work flow. I have a desk, a phone, some space, a PC, and a level of autonomy over what I do next. As soon as I get home, however, those privileges disappear, to be replaced by privileges which are a great deal noisier, messier, less obedient and more demanding than my computer. When I feel tired, my flesh wants to work more and parent less, which turns into longer hours in the office. I need to fight that desire, and I do, but it’s there all the same.

None of which means that all people who work long hours are lazy, or even that when I do, I am. Nor is it to say that people should only ever work X hours, or anything like that. I trust nobody reading this is going to draw prescriptive conclusions from a descriptive piece like this. It is simply to say that laziness doesn’t always manifest itself in the classic Proverbs way: “a little slumber, a little sleep, a little folding of the hands to rest.” A person can work short days and still be diligent. A person can work long days and still be lazy. As always, brothers and sisters, we need to guard our hearts, pursue genuine diligence—and work as to the Lord.

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Christophanies in the Old Testament?

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There is an ancient practice of identifying Old Testament theophanies as manifestations of the second person of the Trinity in particular, that is, as the preincarnate Son ... In some cases, while the authors were orthodox, they took their positions based on a kind of naive (by which I mean not quite ontological yet in the years before the Arian crisis) subordinationism, according to which the Father was too exalted to appear to creatures, but the Son was not ...

Augustine countered the Arian interpretation by emphasising that the Son is no less invisible than the Father, and therefore either of them could well have been appearing to the patriarchs. On the other hand, there is no reason it could not also have been “the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit,” or “sometimes the Father, sometimes the Son, sometimes the Holy Spirit,” or “simply the one and only God, that is the Trinity without any distinction of persons” ...

Augustine’s judgment is that we do not have clear enough warrant to say what is actually happening in these most mysterious events of the Old Testament. But his more substantive reason for rejecting the idea that these are appearances of the Son (not the Father or the Spirit) has to do with the uniqueness of the visible mission of the Son in the incarnation. If the Father sent the Son repeatedly during the old covenant, it derogates in some way from the uniqueness of the incarnation as sending. The question is not so much where the Old Testament Jesus got the body he appeared to the patriarchs in (though that surely calls for some speculation). It is more a matter of the unrepeatable uniqueness of the incarnation of the Son.

—Fred Sanders, The Triune God, 224-5

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The Triumph of Religion in the Nineteenth Century

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At a popular level, the nineteenth century is usually seen as a century in which religion begins to decline. Quite the opposite, argues C. A. Bayly in The Birth of the Modern World; it was in fact a century in which religion triumphed. If you look at the global reach of the world religions, the spread of their sacred texts, their levels of identity, centralisation and control, the proliferation of sacred buildings, the religious commitment to proselytising—frequently learning from and sparking off one another—and so on, the world religions held far more sway at the end of the nineteenth century than they had at the start. "Among the rich, the middle class and the poor, the claims of the great standardising, world religions were much more widely known and acted on in 1914 than they had been in 1789." This conclusion, formed on the basis of a truly global social history, has interesting parallels with that of Alister McGrath in The Twilight of Atheism that the French Revolution was, to all intents and purposes, the zenith of modern atheism, and that it has been on the wane ever since.

So why, we might wonder, do we assume the opposite? Bayly suggests five reasons, the last two of which are quite challenging.

The first is that, as children of the French Revolution, we have unwittingly swallowed the rhetoric of the philosophes: organised religion, and Christianity in particular, were part of the ancien regime, and should by now have been consigned to the dustbin of history by a mixture of popular uprisings, intellectual maturity and political progress. The fact that this did not in fact happen—and that, as Bayly notes, the influence of organised religion grew at precisely the time that Kant, Diderot, Voltaire and co predicted it would disappear—is inconvenient, but like many other simple modern myths (“the glories of Rome,” “the Dark Ages,” “Renaissance,” “Enlightenment,” and so on), it has sticking power.

Secondly, and closely related to the first, is the influence of anticlericalism in the Western intellectual tradition, even where (as in Mill, for example) religion itself was praised for its benefit to the poor. It is not just that the Church in France possessed immense wealth and power; the Church in Europe, and the Roman Catholic Church more specifically, was increasingly identified as the bogeyman from which the bien-pensants were trying to escape—an anticlericalism that was reinforced, not always fairly, by clashes over scientific questions like Copernicanism and Darwinism. The anticlerical sentiment has coloured the Western story ever since.

Thirdly, there is the dominant paradigm of Marxism in leftish intellectual circles right through to the 1970s and 1980s. The Marxist narrative sees no ongoing place for religion once class consciousness has reached a tipping point, so the clear expectation is that religion will gradually fade with the advent of a self-aware proletariat. Again, this did not in fact happen, but because Marxist analysis suggested it should have, many people hardly noticed.

Fourthly, and most challengingly for those of us who are evangelical Christians, Bayly argues that revivalism has played a big part. Revivalism, he explains, requires a narrative of religious decline in much the same way as Marxism and Enlightenment philosophy do, albeit for opposite reasons: when the Church is in decline, and everything is going to pot, it is time for the true Church to rise up, take religion seriously, and keep the flag flying. (And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that the Church was still there ...) As such, revivalists have the tendency to exaggerate the bleakness of everyday religion for polemical purposes; it heightens the call for radical obedience, and increases the contrast when revival actually occurs. This then reinforces the narrative of decline, even when the Church is in fact growing worldwide.

Finally, we all suffer from good old-fashioned ethnocentrism, such that the Europeans among us treat the health of the global Church and the health of the European Church as one and the same. If religion is facing stern tests and challenges in Europe, we assume, then it must be on the wane worldwide; if Christendom is thriving, then all is well. This, it barely needs saying, is not the whole picture when it comes to Christianity (let alone to religion in general, which is more the focus of Bayly’s analysis here). Even if the Church in Europe was in retreat from 1789-1914—and, as we have seen already, this was nothing like as true as we think—this would tell us very little about the state of the Church across the world, of which quite the opposite was true.

Theory says that the nineteenth century should have been a century of religious decline. Practice suggests it was a century of expansion, growth, and even triumph. Fancy that.

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Devoted to the Breaking of Bread

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We've been in a short series called Devoted at King's London, based on Acts 2:42, and I just preached on what it means for us to be "devoted to the breaking of bread." It might be that somewhere in this half hour, as I talk about the various names there are for the meal (Eucharist, Communion, the Lord's Supper, etc) and what Paul thinks it actually means and does, there is something useful for our theology of the sacraments. I'll let you be the judge of that.

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Convinced of This (by John Hosier)

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John Hosier is a fairly remarkable chap. In my book, anyone who can pastor a church and raise Matt Hosier at the same time has got to be fairly impressive; John has been doing these things for four decades, and just recently he stepped down after serving as an elder for an astonishing forty-seven years. Here is a guest post of his, reflecting on ten convictions which have not changed over a half-century of ministry. It's well worth your time.

It’s over 47 years since Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon and said: “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” As that happened, I was beginning my ministry in a small Baptist Church in Southampton. At the time that was one small step for me, though hardly a giant leap for mankind! And now, having just stepped down from eldership, this is a brief summary of a message I preached about my convictions 47 years on, based on Paul’s statement that he is “convinced of this” (Phil 1:25; admittedly I have played somewhat fast and loose with the context!) Here are ten things that, for all that I have learned and changed, I remain convinced of.

1.  I’m convinced of this: Jesus is Lord. US Presidents come and go; British Prime Ministers are sometimes here for a time and then, like David Cameron, suddenly gone. Even the Queen, having reigned for so many years, will one day be succeeded. But Jesus said: “Before Abraham was, I am.” Before time began he was there, and when time as we know it is over, he will be there. Our own lives are like a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. But Jesus always is. As the song says: “Forever he will be.” Jesus is Lord.

2.  I’m convinced of this: God loves me. I’ve always been proud of my good health. In forty years of “full time ministry” (forgive the phrase) I only ever had two Sundays off because of illness. Moving to Bournemouth six years ago, and joining the Leadership team of Citygate Church as a volunteer elder, I found myself a few months later facing a Hospital Consultant who told me I had serious cancer. Surgery followed and over five years later I have been fully discharged. But following that diagnosis I walked and prayed a lot while facing the possibility that I might be dying. As I did so I found it was the personal note of salvation that came home strongly to me. In Paul’s words, “the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Certainly God so loved the world, and that truth launches our worldwide mission, but the world is full of individuals—and so however much God loves the world, God loves me.

3.  I’m convinced of this: The Bible is true. Common, but frankly ignorant opinion often claims that the Bible we have today must be vastly altered from the original texts. But over five thousand ancient manuscripts give us the opportunity to make such detailed comparisons that we can be entirely confident of the accuracy of our Bibles today. This is further supported by archaeological research, and only a bodily resurrection fits all the evidence for what happened to Jesus three days after his death. Having said that, we also need revelation as well as historical proof. That revelation means the Bible speaks to me and tells me it’s true by the way it speaks. In 1 Thessalonians 3:10, Paul says, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.” That expresses a passion in my own ministry, and it is the reason I didn’t “retire” when I moved to Bournemouth. For me, to explain the word of God to others is to help supply what may be lacking in their faith. I do it because the Bible is true.

4.  I’m convinced of this: The Church is the hope for the world. Surely, some object, Jesus is the hope for the world. But it is the Church that conveys the message of Jesus and establishes community that in some way should look like Jesus to the world as the Body of Christ. I’ve suffered plenty of disappointments. People leave and that’s painful. Leaders have fallen and that’s an agony. I’ve never belonged to a church that fulfilled all its hopes and desires, though that’s probably helpful in keeping us stretched and reaching for more.  I’ve not seen revival and wish I had. I’m disappointed in myself for not being a better pastor, preacher and evangelist. But I can set all that aside and say there is no community like the church. She has the destiny of being the Bride, she is what Jesus is building, using and coming back for. She is a community of love and care, a place of refuge and safety with vision and purpose to advance God’s kingdom and reach out to the ends of the earth. It’s a scary world we live in today, but it’s the church that is the hope for that world.

5.  I’m convinced of this: We must keep the main thing the main thing. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of different fashions and trends sweep across the church. At the risk of being misunderstood, I believe that certain good things can mean that we neglect the central thing. So, as one who fought for spiritual gifts and believes that they are good gifts that come from God today, I see also that people can become introspective and obsessive about what their gift might be, or what their destiny is in God, or how their dreams are going to come to pass. These may be good things, but they can mean we are diverted from the central thing. Jesus said: “Now this is eternal life; that they know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Paul puts it like this in Philippians 3:10: “I want to know Christ.” Yes. A passion for Christ. Let’s keep the main thing the main thing.

6.  I’m convinced of this: We should be up to date. In 1 Chronicles 12:32 we read that men from Issachar were joining David and these were men who understood the times, and knew what Israel should do. So we, too, need to understand the times we are in and what we should do. This affects our use of language, our illustrations, our songs, our music, our use of social media, our evangelism and so much else. We are not depending on guitars, or PowerPoint or good coffee or shorter meetings to save the lost and build the church and we know that. But we do need to look and sound as though we belong to the 21st century and know what we should do. Let’s not put people off before we even begin! There’s a huge amount of application possible here, but we should be up to date.

7.  But I’m also convinced of this: We don’t compromise to our culture. During the last forty-seven years, two of the bigger legal and moral challenges we’ve had to face have been those of abortion and gay marriage. There are other challenges on their way, like end of life choices. Maybe we haven’t always helped ourselves by being more forthright about what we are against rather than what we are for. We are for life, for children, for adoption. We are for marriage and for faithfulness within marriage. But inevitably some things don’t stand up to what we are for. Our churches submit to biblical authority, and if we are convinced of this then we can’t simply surrender to the prevailing culture. The argument that most people believe this now does not mean we are persuaded to change our convictions. In his day, Daniel and friends stood against their culture and ended up in lion’s dens and fiery furnaces. They never compromised—and nor should we.

8. I’m convinced of this: The Christian life is a battle. My most quoted Terry Virgo statement is that the Christian life is not like a battle; it is a battle. This eventually led Terry to quote it as originating with me! But the Bible tells us there is a battle. There are evil days; we have to take our stand against the devil’s schemes. We need to resist the devil, and Revelation tells us that the devil has come down to us and is filled with fury. Even our need to pray at one level points to the fact that we are engaged in a fight. We have to fight all sorts of things. Some fight depression, for others it’s a tragic loss, or illness or difficult circumstances, or persecution or misunderstanding or even false accusation and so on. So we need the Bible to encourage us, to understand who we are in Christ to reassure us, to belong to a church so others can care for us. We need the prayers of others to help us and to pray for breakthroughs ourselves. We need to strengthen ourselves in God or, as Jude says, “Keep yourself in the love of God.” In battles there are victories as well as losses, and Jesus reminds us that it is our faith that will overcome the world and all its challenges. The Christian life is a battle but faith will win the day.

9.  I’m convinced of this: We have victory over death. Death is the final enemy and the last battle. Having in the last couple of months lost a younger sister and two younger friends to cancer, it throws you back on Philippians 1:21: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Note well that to die is gain; but it doesn’t seem like that if you have a dull view of heaven, something I’ve often tried to address in my preaching. If death is gain then it follows that Paul says that it is better by far to be with Christ. This doesn’t remove our grief and tears, but when a loss occurs, we know that for the believer who has gone it is better by far. Our loss may be severe but it’s not without hope. We have victory over death.

10. I’m convinced of this: There’s an end to this story. The Bible opens with the book of Genesis and the declaration, “In the beginning, God …”  But the Bible ends with the book of Revelation and the promise that God will one day declare: “It is done.”  I’ve never fought shy of teaching on the End Times, but I’ve never believed that I or any other bible teacher has got every detail correct, and the programme of events perfectly worked out. However, it is clear that one day Jesus will return in majesty and glory, and that he will bring about the regeneration of all creation, which will be heaven for the saints who will reign with him in resurrected bodies. And from the throne will come the voice of the one who is there at the beginning and the end: “I am making everything new.” There will be a glorious end to this story that will precede everlasting glory.

After forty-seven years, I can still say: I am “convinced of this.”

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Modernity and Man Utd

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One of the challenges faced by any student of "modernisation," or whatever we call it, is how to sail between the Scylla of Eurocentrism and the Charybdis of fashionably inclusive political correctness (as in, "everyone modernised in their own way, and Europe had no more impact than anyone else.") On the one hand, we want to avoid the idea that the world only advanced through contact with Europe, because Europeans are culturally, intellectually or morally superior. On the other hand, if we ignore the unique place of Europe in the story of modernisation, industrialisation, the rise of science and the shape of the modern world, we will fail to understand it.

Well: I’m hugely enjoying C. A. Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 at the moment, and he grasps this nettle superbly. He demonstrates both the global interconnectedness of the growth towards modernity in the long nineteenth century, with the majority world shaping Europe and vice versa, and the central and irreplaceable role played by Europe in the story, as evidenced around the world to this day in patterns of dress, language, naming, medicine, leisure, mapping, freedom of women, communication, bureaucracy, literature and timekeeping. Modernisation has happened globally, in thousands of different ways, but each instantiation has remained indelibly marked by European features, and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

Here’s a helpful summary paragraph of why that happened, applied in this case to scientific inquiry (p. 318):

Complex human societies everywhere had developed rational systems of thought and ways of applying technologies to production. The early expansion of industrialization and the creation of professions in Europe and North America, however, had given specialists there a substantial lead in the creation of general systems of scientific thought which legitimated themselves internally, rather than through recourse to theological or cultural arguments. Euro-American economic expansion also allowed physical, chemical and biological discoveries to be applied to routine mass production more rapidly. When non-European societies began to experience rapid urbanization, state formation and industrialization, they, too, rapidly found ways of borrowing from the Western centres, as well as adapting aspects of their own, older systems of knowledge and rational investigation to create indigenous scientific thought.

It’s an important idea, although admittedly difficult to explain on the back of a napkin. But this is where Manchester United comes in.

Football teams rise and fall. You win some, you lose some. But if the ones you win happen to coincide with a period of dramatic growth, global expansion and economic power—such as the formation of the Premier League in 1992, and the massive financial investment made by Sky as part of Rupert Murdoch’s bid for world domination—then you are likely to be able to build on your victories, plough your profits back into the system, and set yourself up as a key footballing power for a very long time. As a lifelong Liverpool fan, I obviously hate Man Utd, and would have the strongest possible objection to the idea that they were better than all other football clubs. But by being the best team in the country at the right time (1993-97), thanks to a top manager, a strong youth team, a global support base stretching back to the Munich air crash, and the two best bargains in the history of the modern game (Schmeichel plus Cantona for £1.5m?!), they were able to capitalise on the huge money that had started flowing into the Premiership, turn a team into a squad into a dynasty, finally win in Europe, and consolidate their position as the UK’s leading club without the need for an oligarch owner. Despite two calamitous subsequent managerial appointments, in which I have personally delighted, they are still in a position to buy Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in one year, and will remain a force to be reckoned with, in all likelihood, for generations.

That, if I am reading Bayly right, is basically what happened to Europe. The sudden breakthroughs of international communication, industrialisation, scientific acceleration and global commerce happened to occur in a period when Europe was in the best position to profit from them. If globalisation had begun when the Chinese, or the Ottomans, or the Safavids or Mughals or Spanish were the key world power, then we would now be living in a world shaped by their discoveries, their languages, and their culture. They would have been the ones in the best position to consolidate their power. But for whatever reason—and this is not the place to go into that, although my reading leads me to believe it has something to do with Christianity, something to do with Roman law, and something to do with slavery—it was Europe who was in the right place at the right time, and therefore able to profit from the sudden influx of money and innovation that took place in the long nineteenth century. Europe is not superior, any more than Man Utd is superior. It just happened to be the power with the most advantages at the moment when everything changed.

And, of course, the situation will be entirely different a hundred years from now. There will be a new global powerhouse, and Europe, and Man Utd, may be playing in the Vanarama National League for all we know. That should prompt a bit of perspective, as well as humility. “My name is OzyManUtdias, king of kings …”

 

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Is art really all about beauty?

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Recently I was at a gathering of Christian leaders at which we were encouraged to pray for ‘art that releases the beauty and power of heaven’. Now I know that as the head of a Christian arts network, I should have been delighted by such a prayer but instead my mind started whirring. The initial question that popped into my head was ‘is that really what art is for?’ and this was quickly followed by the conclusion that I didn’t think it was, which then hastily led to a sense of concern that this may be more than an issue of pedantry, but that such headlines may actually box in and limit the very people we’re praying to be released.

Of course I am aware that beauty is a pretty important concept when considering art (yes, it was the b-word that caused me most consternation) but in my experience, when trying to explain why artists make art, Christian leaders reach for this word far more quickly than artists do. There is a danger then that if we misunderstand what artists are giving their lives for, we may alienate the very people we think we are valuing.

Or on the other hand, maybe I’ve just got a bee in my bonnet! ‘Only one way to find out’, I mused as I was supposed to be praying, ‘I need to put my contrarian angst to work.’

Therefore, a month or so ago, I began a research project of sorts to test whether my annoyance to this sort of language may be in any way justified. I began to ask some of the Christian artists whom I know and respect about how they would understand the relationship between art and beauty, and then I put their responses on our blog. And then, as a final move, I have summarised their four posts into just one post for Thinktheology, with a neat little application for you, even if art’s not really your thing. (I may be obtuse but at least I’m thorough.)

Here then is the summary of my findings…

Some Starting Definitions

First we need to define this elusive word: beauty. Alastair Gordon noted Umberto Eco’s conclusion that we use this word simply ‘to indicate something we like’. Surely, this is how the word is commonly used, but Alastair pointed us towards a more objective grounding. The classical Greek notion of beauty as a system for formal aesthetics, reliant on symmetry and proportion and the like, is surely helpful to a degree (which I suppose would relate to other disciplines in the conventions of melody, grammar, metre, or even the craftsmanship of a slate floor or coffee table) however, as Alastair again pointed out, probably not as much as the other Greek concept of beautiful things being ‘horaios’ or ‘of the hour’. (To read Alastair’s complete post, click here)

In layman’s terms, contemporary relevance as well as purely aesthetic considerations must be considered when we think of beauty. But we shouldn’t stop there. My insightful friends pointed us to consider whether beauty should be considered even more broadly.

Beauty as a glimpse of the new creation

Alastair again got the ball rolling. Isaiah’s apparent foot fetish (Isaiah 52:7) suggests that biblically we should possibly look at the redemptive power of something, rather than its actual appearance, when considering its beauty. But even more than this, is there an indication in Scripture that beauty can be understood as an anticipation of the new creation in our present experience? David Benjamin Blower then took up the baton on this one and followed this thought through with one of my favourite paragraphs of the series:

Christian hope is anticipatory. We are not forever looking backwards at a merely mechanistic atonement in the past, nor are we looking sideways for momentary escape from the experience of the present. Christian hope looks, ultimately, forward, to the renewal of creation, to the healing of the nations, and to a time when God’s Goodness resides fully among us. Every glimpse of beauty is a glimmer of this end, a present manifestation of a future which will ultimately swallow up and transform a suffering and broken present, and the faithful artist works to cultivate this sort of anticipatory imagination.

(For David’s post in the series, try here)

But here’s where things get really interesting. NT Wright, Andy Crouch and others have made much of the continuity that will exist between this creation and the version 2.0 that Jesus will unveil when he returns, and they’ve been quick to bring art into it. Perhaps, they’ve mused, works of art from our times will make it into the galleries, theatres and spotify playlists of glory. The safe example they always trawl out for this one is Johann Sebastian Bach. Surely, Bach will be in heaven!

Now, I must confess I’ve never found this idea very compelling partly because I’m presently making a conscious effort to resist the inevitable pull towards classical music and middle age, and partly because it all seems a bit Eurocentric, and partly because it still strikes me as just a bit silly! Well, whether Johann gets to warm up for Metallica in New Wembley or not, this way of thinking seems to have led people to conclude that only nice, pleasant and ‘beautiful’ work will make it through the flames, so Christian artists should focus on this type of work now. However, there is a problem with this, as David Blower pointed out with his parting shot. The Bible doesn’t map out the new heavens and new earth in much detail, but we can bank on one thing that will be there - Jesus’ scars! The lamb will look as if he has been slain (Rev 5:6) and Jesus’ new creation body was (and presumably still will be) marked by the wounds of his crucifixion (Jn 20:25,27).

While I’m sure we’d all agree that the meaning of those scars is infinitely beautiful, I’m sure you can also see how, in more commonplace terms, this is significantly messing around with how we think of that particular word!

So, the least I can conclude on the matter is that beauty is not as simple as it may seem (it certainly isn’t about looking or sounding pretty or making us think happy thoughts). Perhaps then it is not unfair to add that we may need some different lenses through which to understand what art is and what artists can justifiably be aiming to achieve through their work.

So What Else Could Art Be About?

Well it could be about:

  • forging community identity (Native American art);
  • preservation of the past (Ancient Egyptian art. These two are explored by Benjamin Harris in his excellent historical survey of the theme, which you can read here);
  • exposing the unacknowledged ugliness we have come to value (the Old Testament Prophets- Dave Blower);
  • giving expression to the unexpressed and unspoken suffering within (the Psalms- Dave Blower);
  • deconstructing both heavenly and earthly rulers and authorities (Revelation- Dave Blower);
  • language…

Yes, language! This last one may seem most ambiguous, but Huw Evans puts forward the case that this is the fundamental purpose of art and helpfully also tells us what he means:

Art is fundamentally about language (hear me, language, which is not the same as speech or words) and about communicating emotion, or rather what R G Collingwood refers to as the ‘emotional charge’. This is not quite ‘how I feel’, as emotions are too primal for sharing directly, but is the ‘power’ of the emotion, which can then be experienced by another person.

(And finally for Huw’s whole post, click here)

Well, while we could argue all day about which of these is of paramount importance, surely they could all be worthwhile goals. In fact, some of them are absolutely vital both within and outside the church. Art it seems is not only about beauty. Actually in many ways, it may be that beauty is one of the less helpful ways to define the goal of genuine artistic practice because of its frustratingly slippery nature.

So what?

So after all of this spilt ink, what does it matter? I think that there are important lessons to learn here for artists and non-artists alike, but I’ll confine myself here to speak to those who would like to engage more with the arts, but wouldn’t necessarily call yourself an artist (especially if you happen to lead a church)

If we want to serve artists, we need to understand what it is that they are trying to do. The artists in your church may not dream of creating pretty pictures that could happily hang in your church coffee shop. They may not want to make songs that would be safe to let your toddler go to sleep to. They may not want to write stories where everyone lives happily ever after. They may not even want to release the beauty and power of heaven. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, they’re probably just living out their calling. And doing it in an appropriate and godly way.

You may not be able to find a place for their work in your building or even in one of your meetings, but if you can’t appreciate and value what they are doing, they probably won’t find a place in your church.

And if they don’t find a place in our churches, Christians are unlikely to regain any sort of voice into our culture through the arts.

And if we don’t do that… Well, I think you get the idea.

A Fascinating Cessationist Argument

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I find cessationism intriguing. I have a great many friends who are theologically and/or functionally cessationist, and many of them are cleverer than me, but I just cannot see how it convinces them (although I continue to try; I have Dick Gaffin on my desk at the moment, for instance). So when I find new cessationist arguments, I like thinking about them, or even sharing them. This one, which is especially creative—and which comes, I should point out, in a context which is not about cessationism at all—is from the quite brilliant James Jordan:

Now, children are also nursing, not eating and drinking, when they are first born. Yet, they are not weaned until they stop nursing, which comes later then when they first start to eat and drink. If we look at covenant history, we can also see that this phase also occurs. For the sake of convenience, we shall call the time before a child begins to eat and drink the time of swaddling, and the time after he starts to eat and drink but before he stops nursing the time of weaning. Thus, there are four phases:

1. Womb, while the child is being prepared for birth.

2. Swaddling, while the child is still getting everything from his mother and needs to be held and coddled.

3. Weaning, while the child still needs to nurse, but is also eating and drinking from sources outside his mother.

4. Full separation from the womb, when the child is fully weaned and receives all his food and drink from outside his mother.

Consider that even after God moves His people fully into a new world after a swaddling time, He continues to nurse them with special “old” provisions. The exodus from Egypt provides the most obvious analogy. After exiting the womb of Egypt we were swaddled and nursed by God’s miraculous care in the wilderness and then sent into the land. But even after we entered the land, God continued to provide some miracles during the Conquest until we were fully ready to stop nursing from Him. Then the miracles ceased.

(HT: Alastair Roberts)

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Thinking about Multi-Site

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A conference you may be interested in...

On May 24th Matt Hatch (Mosaic Church, Leeds), Toby Skipper (King’s Community Church, Norwich) and myself are hosting a day on Making Multi-Site Work.

In recent years many churches have ‘gone multi’, with more than one service, and meeting in more than one location. Multisite is exciting, but also presents many challenges, and we know we need help! Resources to help make multisite work tend to come from very large churches in the USA which, while useful, can have limited relevance to our context in the UK.

At this day we will be learning together how mid-sized British churches can navigate the leadership, organisational and theological opportunities and challenges multisite presents. The day will consist of a series of short learnings from church leaders already engaged in multisite, followed by guided discussion in small groups. The aim is that all those attending (both pastoral and administrative team members) learn from the successes and mistakes of others, and that together we help develop good models for leading multisite churches in the UK. The day will be relevant to those already doing multisite, as well as those exploring the options.

The day will be focused around 3 questions

SESSION 1: IS MULTISITE BIBLICAL?
Multisite seems to offer many pragmatic advantages for mission and church growth, but it also raises a number of theological issues. In this session we will consider the biblical case for going multi, and how we can ensure our understanding of the local church is theologically robust.

SESSION 2: HOW DO WE KEEP THE SHOW ON THE ROAD (pt1)?
When and how do you launch a new site (and with how many people)? How many sites do you go for? Will the sites become autonomous churches in the future? What’s our plan for preaching? In this session we’ll explore how we develop a sustainable strategy for multisite.

SESSION 3: HOW DO WE KEEP THE SHOW ON THE ROAD (pt2)?
What does administration and operational management look like in the mid-sized multisite church? How can we make good decisions about who controls the money, how we communicate across sites and how we structure our teams? In this session we will get down to the nuts and bolts of making church life work when we go multi.

SESSION 4: HOW DO WE LEAD WITHOUT LOSING OUR HEADS?
Multisite stretches leadership in all kinds of directions and makes demands that leading in one location do not. In this session we will think about the leadership challenges for the individual leader, and for leadership teams, created by multi.


You can book in here.

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An Evolutionary Crisis?

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For a brief time between graduating and starting a PhD I worked at London’s Natural History Museum. Each day on the way to the entomology department I had to pass an exhibition about Darwin, and each day I felt an inner conflict about the question of origins.

The Natural History Museum is a temple to Darwinism, and any questioning of the received dogma would result in ridicule. Still, I had my doubts about Darwinian evolution – both because of my Christian faith, and because the scientific foundations of the theory seemed so wobbly. Evolution by natural selection is a beautiful theory, as it can function as a theory for everything: any aspect of the natural world or the human experience can be analysed through Darwin’s lens. Yet while evolution at the micro-level seemed observable and provable, I couldn’t get my head around Darwinian evolution being a mechanism for macro-evolution. There were too many gaps that were too large, both in terms of missing fossils, and the extraordinary complexity of many biological systems. It was at this point that the ‘modern synthesis’ seemed to enter the realm of speculation rather than demonstrable experimentation.

In the end, I grew weary of trying to work it all out (weary of the aggression of the new atheists, and weary of the dogmatism of some six-dayers), decided to mentally park worrying about the details, and simply enjoy the knowledge that God is creator and Lord of all. (And I never finished that PhD.)

Questions of origins won’t go away though. At last year’s THINK conference, Andrew was desperate to get us onto the typology of the Exodus but all people wanted to talk about was origins!

I’ve just read Michael Denton’s Evolution: Still a theory in crisis. Denton is a medical doctor and biochemist without any particular faith conviction, but many doubts about Darwinism. In this fascinating book Denton argues the case for ‘structuralism’ – that due to the fine tuning of the universe there is a natural law to nature that results in the lifeforms we see today. Just as chemical crystals form the shapes they do as a result of innate structures, so, argues Denton, plant and animal life are inherently the way that they are, rather than as a result of adaptive selection.

While recognizing the reality of adaptive evolution in limited extent (for example, the development of different bill shapes in Galapagos finches) Denton argues for ‘saltation’ (major step-changes) being a better explanation for species development than natural selection. He calls as evidence plant and animal features that are type-defining but lack any apparent selective advantage, insights from the new field of evolutionary developmental biology, the lack of fossil evidence of intermediate stages, and the lack of any ‘plausible well-developed hypothetical evolutionary sequence’ for biological systems like the cell.

Denton’s thesis will no doubt infuriate Darwinians. It will also fail to satisfy the more literal-minded creationist, as he does believe in evolution, and is most definitely not a young-earth creationist. He would also hugely benefit from a strong editor to help his argument be expressed with greater clarity and to do away with some of the repetition and irritating stylistic ticks that dog the book. But as a scientific rebuttal of Darwinism I found this tremendously helpful – it has given me some of the answers I was reaching for as I walked through the corridors of the Natural History Museum all those years ago.

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Donkeys, Alexander and Christ

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About a year ago, I was teaching on the doctrine of Scripture when I suddenly realised that I didn't understand the book of Zechariah. At all. So I bought a series of teaching sessions on Zechariah 9-14 by Peter Leithart and James Jordan, and I've been slowly working through it with the text in front of me. It has been a fascinating journey into one of the trickiest parts of Scripture, and it has been full of intriguing suggestions. One of the most striking ones is the idea that the famous prophecy of Zechariah 9, in which a king enters Jerusalem on a donkey, refers in the first instance to Alexander the Great, who then serves as a sort of type of Christ.

The central idea is that if the oracle of Zechariah 9:1-8 is taken to be about Alexander, as it usually is, then it would seem natural to read the well-known triumphal entry prophecy as referring to him as well. Conversely, if 9:9-10 is about Jesus, then it would seem that we should also take 9:1-8 that way, which leaves us either shoehorning in completely unknown events to make things fit, or spiritualising a section that seems for all the world to be about real nations and real battles. The opening oracle is as follows:

The burden of the word of the Lord is against the land of Hadrach
  and Damascus is its resting-place.
For the Lord has an eye on mankind
  and on all the tribes of Israel,
2 and on Hamath also, which borders on it,
  Tyre and Sidon, though they are very wise.
3 Tyre has built herself a rampart
  and heaped up silver like dust,
  and fine gold like the mud of the streets.
4 But behold, the Lord will strip her of her possessions
  and strike down her power on the sea,
  and she shall be devoured by fire.
5 Ashkelon shall see it, and be afraid;
  Gaza too, and shall writhe in anguish;
  Ekron also, because its hopes are confounded.
The king shall perish from Gaza;
  Ashkelon shall be uninhabited;
6 a mixed people shall dwell in Ashdod,
  and I will cut off the pride of Philistia.
7 I will take away its blood from its mouth,
  and its abominations from between its teeth;
it too shall be a remnant for our God;
  it shall be like a clan in Judah,
  and Ekron shall be like the Jebusites.
8 Then I will encamp at my house as a guard,
  so that none shall march to and fro;
no oppressor shall again march over them,
  for now I see with my own eyes.

This, it would seem, is a fairly clear description of an invader from the North (Damascus) moving south down the Mediterranean coast, capturing Tyre as he does so, and then four of the five the Philistine cities, before stopping short of taking Jerusalem because the Lord is camped “at my house as a guard, so that none shall march to and fro.” Alexander, of course, did just this, and was the only person to capture Tyre (in a remarkable attack that involved building a causeway). The correspondences between the text and the event are so close that many interpreters assume the text was written after the event.

Then, with no break other than the one we insert in our Bibles, comes this:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
  Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
  righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
  on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
  and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
  and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
  and from the River to the ends of the earth.

This, Leithart and Jordan argue, would surely have been taken as a continuation of the previous text: following this military campaign, Jerusalem is kept safe, and the conquering king arrives in peace, on a donkey, rather than in war, on a horse. Alexander, in that sense, will foreshadow Christ. He will move through the land, then enter the holy city in peace—but with the obvious and ominous threat that if people reject the peaceful king who rides on a donkey, he will come back again on a horse, and nobody will be able to withstand him.

Which, if correct, sheds fascinating light on this (otherwise uncorroborated) passage from Josephus’ Antiquities XI:

... [Alexander] gave his hand to the high priest and, with the Jews running beside him, entered the city. Then he went up to the temple, where he sacrificed to God under the direction of the high priest, and showed due honour to the priests and to the high priest himself. And, when the book of Daniel was shown to him, in which he had declared that one of the Greeks would destroy the empire of the Persians, he believed himself to be the one indicated; and in his joy he dismissed the multitude for the time being, but on the following day he summoned them again and told them to ask for any gifts which they might desire ...

As I say: fascinating stuff.

Sermon Illustrations from a Hollywood Monster image

Sermon Illustrations from a Hollywood Monster

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“You’re a tree of healing, I need you to heal!” the boy cries.
“And I shall,” replies the monster, and shivers run down my spine.

Insofar as it is possible for a big, deep, booming voice resonating around a cinema to bring to mind the ‘still, small voice’ of God, this voice did. It was the kind of voice that left no room for doubt, and was both awe-inspiring and deeply comforting. It sounded like the feeling of being wrapped in a thick, warm blanket; powerful and safe.

The monster in this superb film, A Monster Calls (based on a novel of the same name by Patrick Ness), is the embodiment of an ancient yew tree that stands in the churchyard on the hill that is visible from Conor O’Malley’s bedroom. The animation is incredible, and the film would be worth seeing just for that (if you’ve missed it, or are a ‘book first’ sort of person, I highly recommend you watch the trailer at least). But I loved it most for its depiction – whether conscious or not – of a figure who reminded me rather a lot of God.

Quick synopsis: Conor’s mother is dying of cancer. Conor knows this, but won’t let himself believe it. He is hoping against hope that each new treatment will work, will heal her. Yet he has a recurring nightmare in which his mother is swallowed up by the earth (as, fascinatingly, is the church on the hill. Symbolic, maybe?). Conor tries to hold onto her but cannot, and she falls from his grip into the belly of the earth.

One night Conor awakes from this nightmare only to enter what seems to be another one – the tree on the hill comes to life and starts walking towards him, crushing walls, fences and streetlamps as if they were made of matchsticks, and punching through his bedroom wall to grab him. Yet this enormous beast is gentle, too. It doesn’t crush the boy, but talks to him. Conor wants the monster to heal his mother, to fight off the disease that is eating her up, but the monster just wants to tell him stories. “I will tell you three stories,” it says, “And then you will tell me a fourth. Your truth, your nightmare will be your story.”

For those of you who preach and need sermon illustrations, you’ll find some really great ones throughout what follows. Here are a few I picked up:

1) We need (and have) a God who has a bigger, longer, deeper perspective than we do.

The stories the monster tells are parables, each illustrating that things are not always what they seem; it becomes very clear that the information the boy is given and his expectations based on prejudice and past experience are not sufficient to equip him to make the correct judgements about people’s hearts or the consequences of different actions.

The fact that the monster is a yew tree is no accident – they can grow for thousands of years, their bark, sap, berries and wood are deadly if misused, but have also been used for centuries for their healing properties, and they have long been associated with eternal life. This God-figure is timeless, is to be respected and not misused, but is able to heal and to bring life.

2) The truth will set you free [NB There’s a BIG plot spoiler in this paragraph – skip to point 3 if necessary!]

The story Conor has to tell the monster is about the truth of what happens in his nightmare. The truth is, he lets his mother fall. He could have held on longer, but he just wants it to be over. The film does a brilliant job of building the tension to this revelation, and of illustrating how much it costs Conor to admit it. He is afraid that it will actually kill him to confess – it’s such an awful truth – but as he himself falls into the abyss, the monster catches him. He raises him up and speaks the truth over him – again, with that huge, all-encompassing, still small voice. He speaks the truth, and Conor is set free, and is able to curl up in the embrace of the tree’s roots and fall asleep.

It’s not a confession that brings forgiveness, and in fact there’s a recurring theme of Conor not being held responsible for his actions throughout the film - nor is there any scapegoat/Christ figure, so you won’t find a substitutionary atonement illustration anywhere, but the truth line is a useful one anyway.

3) The answer we need is not always the answer we want

The monster assures Conor that he will bring healing, but it is not until much later that he reveals he meant he would heal Conor, not his mother (I haven’t flagged this up as a spoiler because really, it’s so predictable. If you didn’t see it coming then you need to get out more, watch more movies and read more books!). When Conor spoke the truth, the monster was able to heal him and give him the strength to cope with what came next – it was only while he was trying to hide and carry it all inside that he felt like the monster wasn’t coming through for him.

A quick synopsis could leave you thinking this was a film about unanswered prayer, but a closer viewing reveals that it is all about prayers answered – differently to how we wanted, maybe, but by someone bigger and wiser than us.

4) We humans are good at deceiving ourselves

After Conor has confessed his deep secret, he tries to get to grips with how his thinking managed to get so muddled, how he could convince himself that his mother’s treatments were working, whilst knowing that they were not. The monster explains:

“Humans are complicated. They believe comforting lies while knowing full well the truths that make them necessary.”

You could write reams and reams on that – it’s a study in itself. I’ll let you ponder it and see how it fits in your situation but our culture is adept at telling itself comforting lies (‘Abortion doesn’t hurt anyone’, ‘I could quit any time I like’, ‘Disagreement equals intolerance’…the list goes on). If this monster is right, the lies are often held to most vociferously when the truth is rattling the doors of a person’s mind. That gives me hope that somehow, if we can find the right key, we can unlock those doors and bring the truth out into the light, where it can begin its work of healing.

There’s probably more in the film that I missed, and I’ve bought the book, too, so I can read it in more depth, but I highly recommend it. See it, if you possibly can. As a secular depiction of a God-like figure, it’s got some incredible insights.

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Woke Church

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Here is a superb message from Dr Eric Mason on "Woke Church." If you know what the slang refers to, you'll probably be interested; if you don't, you probably didn't click here in the first place, but a good summary of the label for white people (along with some warnings about running too fast with it) can be found here. It's a wonderful, quotable, passionate and clarifying call to recognise racial injustice and do something about it, delivered at Dallas Theological Seminary by an anointed and gifted black leader. It's well worth your time.

Happy Martin Luther King Day.

 

How Many Otters Can You Possibly Imagine? image

How Many Otters Can You Possibly Imagine?

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I suppose I should take being parodied as a compliment, as per yesterday's effort from the Otter (the writer of which, I am embarrassed to admit, I was not able to identify). Nevertheless, I feel like some sort of lutrine retaliation is needed—and happily, my friend John Finnemore has the ideal material for doing so.

How many otters can you possibly imagine? Because if I say I can imagine a million otters, I’m obviously lying. I can’t really even imagine a million pounds. I know what it could buy, but I can’t imagine an actual million actual pound coins. Still less otters. They’re famously harder to imagine than coins. Now, a thousand pound coins I think I can imagine. I can certainly imagine a thousand page book. But I don’t think I can imagine a thousand otters. But then, what are my criteria here? To qualify as being imagined, do I have to be able to imagine each individual ottery face, and be able to distinguish in my imagination young Tasmania the Otter from Old Uncle Winchelsea the Otter? (I’m assuming here that otters use broadly the same naming system as Wombles.) No, I don’t think so. I think I just have to be able to imagine what that mass of otters would look like, how much space they would take up, and how cross they’d be about it. I can imagine eight otters around my dining table, for instance, but I can’t really imagine a thousand otters. My guess is that that’s about a double decker bus full, but I can’t imagine whether that’s a tightly packed RSPCA nightmare of a bus, or whether the otters are lounging in relative comfort. (Remember they can sit under the seats as well as on them. And in the aisles).

Now, the ADC Theatre in Cambridge seats about 220, and I reckon I can imagine that full of otters. (An otter on every seat, that is. They only sit under them on buses. I mean, come on, they have to be able to see the stage). This is good - let’s ramp it up. The Garrick theatre in London has a capacity, so Google tells me, of 656… but with regret I must admit I can’t really imagine that full of otters. I mean, I can… but if I’m honest with myself, I’m just imagining the theatre, filling the stalls with otters, and then mentally clone brushing those same otters into the dress circle and upper circle. I’m not even certain I’m imagining the otters at the back of the stalls. I’m just imagining ‘a theatre full of otters’. And now, confidence crumbling, I’m beginning to doubt my feat of imagination with the ADC. Did I really imagine 220 otters? Even the ones at the back, and the sides? Or am I just imagining 220 seats, and then tacking the word ‘otters’ over the word ‘seats’? Hell, can I even imagine one otter? Let me check. Right, I’ve checked, I definitely can imagine one otter. He’s called Barney, he’s slightly over medium size, and he has a white mark on his muzzle where a larger otter named Velasquez snatched a trout from his mouth. From this we can draw two further conclusions: 1) I can imagine two otters. 2) The Womble naming system is not invariable amongst otters.

So. I’m confident I can imagine those two otters and their struggle to come to terms with that terrible summer’s day when Barney’s trust in Velasquez was forever shattered; but shifty about those 220 otters enjoying a patchy but basically competent student production of The Duchess of Malfi. So, maybe the thing to do is avoid any helpful framing device like a theatre or a bus or a netball team, and just imagine an increasing number of otters in a blank white void. No, that’s too depressing. I’m just imagined Barney there alone, and it’s breaking my heart. I’ll imagine them in my garden. Ok. One otter. Check. Two otters. Will Barney ever forgive him? Three otters. Easy. Four otters. Piece of cake. Five otters. Yep. Six, seven, eight - yes. Nine, ten, eleven. I think so, yes. Twelve otters… ... ... ... ... no. I can’t imagine twelve otters. Not really. When it comes right down to it, I’m just imagining six otters twice. And if I don’t break it down into sub-groups like that, it’s basically no different from my image of eleven otters. Come to that, I’m not sure my eleven otters were that different from my ten. What about my ten from my nine? No, there is a difference there. That’s interesting. Because that seems to suggest that the number of otters I can possibly imagine… is ten. Ladies and gentlemen, it was funny because it was true.

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Eukarysmatic

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One of my many theological goals for 2017 is to finish a draft of the following book, Eukarysmatic (Ring of Bright Water, 2018). This book, and in fact this title, are an attempt to share my main theological passion at the moment: the idea that you can have the best of both worlds, plants and animals, mitosis and meiosis, sexual and asexual reproduction, the cellular and the spiritual.

There are a number of things that distinguish we Eukarysmatics from the less spiritually developed Prokarysmatics:

We like repetition or predictability, where the same set of words is used every week, because this is like the predictable behaviour of organelles.
We like things that make it harder for visitors to participate, because visitors are like a virus, that can infect the body.
We like the idea of the minister telling the congregation to do something, and then all of them having to do it, because this is the natural order of things.
We like it when the rite of worship (or meeting plan) cuts across what we are doing and tells us we need to move on to the next bit, at the same time every week, because it reminds us of the relentless energy production of mitochondria.
We like routine, because it is like photosynthesis.
We like setting aside regular chunks of time to do something that isn’t singing or preaching, and we like the sense of compulsion that comes with it, because a cell has to do what a cell has to do.

Eukarysmatics are the true kernal of the church (εὖ “true”, κάρυον “kernel”), and won’t be distracted from our call and purpose. Sometimes we are accused of being a bit religious, formal, stuffy, inauthentic – tedious even. But that’s life – eukarysmatic life!

 

With One Obvious Exception image

With One Obvious Exception

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Charismatic pastors don't like formal liturgy.*

We don’t like repetition or predictability, where the same set of words is used every week.

We don’t like things that make it harder for visitors to participate.

We don’t like the idea of the minister telling the congregation to do something, and then all of them having to do it.

We don’t like it when the rite of worship (or meeting plan) cuts across what we are doing and tells us we need to move on to the next bit, at the same time every week.

We don’t like routine.

We don’t like setting aside regular chunks of time to do something that isn’t singing or preaching, and we don’t like the sense of compulsion that comes with it.

It all feels a bit religious. Formal. Stuffy. Inauthentic. Tedious.

*unless it’s the offering

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The Parable of the Sort-of-Shoes

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It's common these days for baby sleepsuits, or onesies, to come with sort-of-shoes built in. My son has several of them. The material around the feet becomes bumpy, and firmer, almost as if its very presence will enable the baby to walk quicker. So when it comes to putting the baby's flexible shoes on, you find yourself fitting the shoes, not around the baby's feet, but around the sort-of-shoes in the onesie. Which is awkward for you, and very uncomfortable for him.


The trick is, of course, to focus on the feet rather than the sort-of-shoes, acknowledging that the sort-of-shoes are helpful, and reasonably similar to the feet, but nevertheless shaped somewhat differently. But oddly, it’s easy to forget. The sort-of-shoes are so structured, so clear, so emphatic in their definition, that you are unconsciously inclined to fit what you’re doing around them, rather than the softer, more erratic, more uncontrolled, less defined, and more fundamentally human entity they are there to serve.

Systematic theologians, take note.

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Without Prejudice

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This email is so good that I just had to share it. It's one of those emails that begins with courtesy, moves to confusion, and gradually builds in rage until it explodes forth in hysteria and bombast (as well as making the counterintuitive suggestion that adherence to the creeds makes you more likely to be a cult). The sign-off, for me, is the best bit. Behold:

Hi,

Can you please let me know your statement of faith?

Thank you for enquiring about our statement of belief. It is as follows:

As part of the universal church, we hold to the ecumenical creeds (the Apostles’, Nicene-Constantinopolitan, Chalcedonian and Athanasian Creeds).  As Protestant Christians, we affirm that justification is by faith alone, and stand in the tradition of Reformation confessional documents like the Heidelberg Catechism, although we believe water baptism is only for believers.  As contemporary evangelicals, we also affirm modern statements such as the Lausanne Covenant and the Evangelical Alliance statement of faith.

Every blessing,
Yours etc [on behalf of Newfrontiers].

Thanks for your reply.

I’m a little confused with this answer - I expected a clear statement of faith with Bible proofs; not a mixed-up, contradictory bunch of nonsensical statements about belief in semi-biblical creeds made by lukewarm church attenders.

How can a “protestant” Christian be involved in ecumenism? Ecumenism is cancer to the body of Christ. Ecumenism will lead to the One World Religion.

I’ll leave the rest to the leaders of your cult to work out their salvation with fear and trembling - their judgement is nigh.

Without prejudice,

[name]

Film Review: Silence image

Film Review: Silence

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A black screen. The escalating hum of cicadas. One word appears on screen as the noise stops. Silence. Then, the camera slowly reveals hot springs in the Japanese mountains, almost a beautiful sight until you realise why we are there. Five western missionaries are having the scalding hot water poured slowly over their skin, while a sixth, Padre Ferreira, is forced to watch.

It’s a stark, disturbing and gripping opening to Martin Scorsese’s latest. It lets you know that you are in for a harrowing 161 minutes, as relayed by someone in complete control of his craft. Silence is a masterpiece and it led to probably the most profound spiritual encounter I’ve ever had in a cinema*.

The next thing we find out about Ferreira is that he has, apparently, apostatised. His two young Jesuit protégés, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe this of their old master and they embark on their own trip to Japan to find him. They are told that the persecution in Japan is so relentless and powerful that they shall be the last priests sent there. Their mission is not just about Ferreira, but the eternal fate of an entire nation. What follows is the two zealous priests witnessing an onslaught of torture and execution, as well as remarkable displays of faith as hidden Christians attempt to live out their faith in the face of extreme persecution.

I’m no Scorsese apologist, as I’ve struggled to connect with his films in the past, but it is clear in Silence that you are watching a master (or several masters) at work. Japan, under Scorsese’s eye, is as bleak and unforgiving as it is beautiful. Everything here is stripped back, from its almost imperceptible score and sound design to frames that carry very little visual information. While there is rarely true silence, this is nevertheless a film of remarkable quietude. Some have called it a slog, and there were numerous walkouts when I was watching it, but I was mesmerised.

He’s backed up by some of the best names in the business. His regular collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker edits so well you barely notice her work (editors are like your church’s PA team in that sense; you often only notice them when they’re going wrong.) Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto seemingly lights everything with only candle-power and makes haunting use of close-ups, while production designer Dante Feretti recreates 17th-century Japan to striking, stark effect.

Scorsese’s unflinching eye for bleakness does make Silence an exceptionally hard film to watch at times. Three hidden Christians are exposed and executed by being tied to a cross and drowned by the rising tide. At one point, there is a swift and shocking beheading. One crane shot I will not forget swoops out to show a family being burned alive. Such violence against Christ-followers isn’t a thing of the past – over 320 Christians are killed for their faith every month, often by similar methods. As such, any recommendations to see this film come with the caveat that it is, at times, intensely uncomfortable viewing. Yet such brutality (which is never excessive or there to thrill) also makes Silence a powerful and relevant film; it should stir you to pray and act.

What elevates Silence beyond a gruelling, well-made depiction of persecution, however, is the weight behind its ideas. Watching it is like witnessing Scorsese himself wrestle with some of the most complex ideas in theology. Rodrigues’ greatest test comes when confronted with the suffering of others – he is prepared to suffer himself, but instead he is regularly confronted with the suffering of others, namely poor and downtrodden Christians. Their faith throughout this all is their balm, a very real embodiment of Romans 8:18. Rodrigues cries out in anguish to God regularly throughout it, and Garfield’s haunted, physical performance conveys both depths of devotion and equally powerful doubt. He veers wildly between the two states and both feel like credible responses to his experiences.

Meanwhile, their guide to Japan is Kichijiro, played with a manic energy by Yosuke Kubozuka, a man who regularly denies God before coming back to Rodrigues to beg for forgiveness. At one point Rodrigues looks at the tragicomic character and you hear him pray in his head “how could you forgive a wretch like this?” Kichijiro is, at best, a Peter and, at worst, a Judas. Yet there’s something uncomfortably real in his weakness – would we act any differently in the face of such unimaginable punishment? Few films confront the tension between suffering and faith in such a gripping way. One film that comes close is Scorsese’s own The Last Temptation of Christ, a theologically wonky but undeniably fascinating approach to the life and sacrifice of Jesus.

The screenplay, by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, is remarkably even-handed and complicated. The motivations of Rodrigues are muddled as he longs so much to mimic Jesus that he strays into seeing himself as a saviour. The missionaries are accused, with some validity, of cultural imperialism, yet Rodrigues fires back that the truth is true all around the world. It’s a provocative film; few people in the audience will remain comfortable as every worldview is put under the microscope. The central dilemma, of whether to profane an embossed image of God (a fumie) by stepping on it in order to end suffering, comes with no easy answer.

Silence isn’t a film that can really be spoiled, but for the rest of the review I will mention developments in the final act that I can’t not talk about as a Christian approaching this film.

Rodrigues eventually finds Ferreira as a man who has given up his faith and is ultimately confronted with the same choice as his old mentor. Five Christians are being dangled upside down in pits, moaning in agony, as Rodrigues is presented with an image of Christ to step on. “It’s just a formality,” he is told, insidiously, by his translator. Then, something truly remarkable happens; as Rodrigues stares at the image, Jesus breaks the silence. The whole film builds to this decision. To trample on the fumie is an act of apostasy, but it would end the pain of countless Christians. In a moment of silence, Rodrigues hears Jesus speak, saying: “Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.”

At this point, Silence became more than just a powerful piece of cinema; I was deeply, spiritually moved. I left the cinema partly looking inwards to see if I would endure the same for the gospel. But mostly I left with a sense of astonishment at the sufferings of Christians and grateful for a God who would suffer, too, for the sake of me. Earlier in the film, Rodrigues quotes Psalm 22 when asking why God has forsaken him. What he didn’t realise was that while he was using the lines of the psalm to question God, he was also providing himself with God’s answer.

 

Silence is out in cinemas now.

*I must make an exception for visits to my parents’ church, as they actually meet in a cinema.

Why Cell Phones to Millennials are like Booze to an Alcoholic image

Why Cell Phones to Millennials are like Booze to an Alcoholic

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This 15 minute riff on Millennials from Simon Sinek is well worth your time.

Sinek’s framework for understanding Millennials is very helpful, but those of us from other generations can be far too constrained by technology too. If you are the kind of person who likes to make new year resolutions, planning regular tech-abstinence might be worth considering. In 2017 let’s put down our phones, and actually talk to one another!

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Is There A Connection?

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Two brief observations, then a question.

1. The last generation has seen a dramatic rise in the number of women in eldership and/or priesthood in Protestant churches, for all sorts of reasons. I don’t have the statistics, but I doubt anyone is going to disagree with me on it.

2. The last generation has also seen substantial shifts both in the terminology that is typically used for church government offices, and in the way that words like “pastor” and “pastoral” are understood, from implying traditionally paternal functions (like defending, admonishing, confronting and guarding) to traditionally maternal ones (like nurturing, caring, developing and encouraging). Both features have always formed part of the job description of the priest/pastor, of course; anyone who has read pastoral manuals from previous centuries will know that. But it is not uncommon today to hear people use the word pastoral virtually as a synonym for sympathetic, sensitive, relational or therapeutic, and even as an antonym for combative, robust or confrontational. You frequently hear comments like, “X’s position on divorce and remarriage may not be as biblically robust, but it is far more pastoral,” or “Y’s approach to same-sex relationships is not very pastoral.” I may be giving a slight caricature, but I’m guessing most readers recognise it.

So here’s my question: are those two things connected? And if so, is that because the former causes the latter, or the latter causes the former, or—as I suspect—something else causes both? Answers on a postcard.

2017 and the Recalibration of the Expert image

2017 and the Recalibration of the Expert

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A cartoon in the New Yorker, showing a man in a plane with his arm raised: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?” All other arms are raised.

That cartoon was much retweeted, and captured much of the spirit of 2016, but I think the New Yorker may have been missing its own irony. The thing is, no one questions the expertise of airline pilots.

2016 marked the ‘death of the expert’ and I am not so gloomy about that as many commentators; probably less so than the New Yorker. A positive outcome of the cultural shakeup of the past twelve months would be if expertise is put back within its proper limits – rather than the death of the expert, perhaps we are seeing the recalibration of expertise.

Expertise is valuable in areas where we are confident it produces consistent and predictable results. No unqualified passenger thinks they should take control of an airliner – every time we get on a plane we willingly entrust ourselves to experts. We trust this kind of expertise because a pilot is performing functions for which he has been well trained and which follow well tested protocols. That is the kind of expert we trust.

But the limits of the expert have been cruelly exposed when it comes to things less predictable than programming a flight path. From Gary Lineker promising to present Match of the Day in his underpants if Leicester won the Premier League, to all those experts who called Brexit and the US election the wrong way, we have been firmly reminded about the embarrassingly small capacity of human beings to accurately predict future events. In fact, we are so consistently poor at predicting the future the really surprising thing is how enthusiastically we continue trying to do so. 2016 simply underlined that even the cleverest and most informed people (would it be cruel to draw attention to Andrew’s predictive abilities again?!) are not expert when it comes to accurately predicting the future.

A backlash against the arrogance of experts who think they can predict the unpredictable might be a very useful recalibration. It doesn’t have to mean that we all become ‘post-truth’. Actually, it might enable us to be more truthful. More humble and honest, “I really don’t know” commentary would be welcome, and more true.

This morning I was reading Proverbs 16. There is some good advice for us all there, especially those who consider themselves to be experts: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” 2016 demonstrated that in spades – that’s not post-truth, it’s gospel.

Oh, and for those who have fallen into the “2016 was the worst year ever” trap, take a look at these statistics, and begin the year with a smile: it’s almost enough to make me post-millennial.

Happy New Year everyone!

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Ten Theological Goals for 2017

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No posts I write attract more mockery from my friends, or eye-rolls from my wife, than the lists of things I hope to achieve in a year. But I remember the time when "blog" was still short for "web log": an opportunity to tell your friends what you were up to, whether travelling, writing, reading, cooking, playing sport or whatever. I have also found it helpful to make some goals public, for accountability as much as anything—and I sometimes get asked what I'm working on, if I'm writing anything new, and so on, so it seems a good idea to write it down. So in that spirit I shall heroically defy the scoffers once more, and list ten theological goals for 2017.

1. Finalise my PhD for publication. The marvellous Jennie Pollock is doing most of the editing on it—that woman is a magician with an index—and I’m hoping to get the final version of The Warning-Assurance Relationship in 1 Corinthians off to Tübingen in January. It’s a privilege to have Mohr Siebeck including it in their Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament Zwei series (although I’ll be the first to admit that it won’t be the most commercially successful book I’ve written).

2. Read a book a week. Last year was an anomaly for me, because of a job transition, and I was also given a prophetic word at a key time by Mick Taylor, which challenged me to work hard in this fallow year. This year things are different, and I’ll do well to read half as many. But it’s good to have goals, methinks.

3. Fast social media for Lent. As usual.

4. Complete the manuscript for my next book, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing the Theme of Redemption through Scripture, which is being published by Crossway and co-written with my friend Alastair Roberts. A chance conversation with Bobby Jamieson last year convinced me that popularising is probably the thing I’m best at, so rather than trying to write deeply original and profound things, I might be better off using my time to translate the deeply original and profound things that more intelligent friends are saying, and present them to a popular audience. Hence this project, which I am massively enjoying writing. In a nutshell: the exodus makes appearances everywhere in Scripture, you’ve probably missed many of them, and it will enhance your understanding of the Bible and your joy in God if you encounter some more.

5. Teach a three day THINK conference on reading Galatians 500 years after Luther. Preparing for this takes months of reading and preparation, but it is well worth it (at least for me!)

6. Finish a draft of the following book, Eucharismatic (Zondervan, 2018). This book, and in fact this title, are an attempt to share my main theological passion at the moment: the idea that you can have the best of both worlds, the old and the new, the liturgical and the experiential, the depth and the bounce, the eucharistic and the charismatic. I’m sure I’ll be saying more about this in the months to come.

7. Communicate and embody this vision at a couple of conferences in the US. Specifically, I’m going to be in the DC area in July and Oklahoma in October, and this idea will probably pop up in both of them. My sense is that the divorce between eucharistic and charismatic is more obvious in America than the UK, but I could be wrong.

8. Focus on the Gospels in my personal devotions. The last two years I’ve had an Old Testament focus in my devotional times, but this year I want to spend a lot more time in the Gospels, with the help of Richard Hays, Stanley Hauerwas and no doubt others. I’m really looking forward to this.

9. Get my head around the eighteenth century. My ignorance of this massively important period is embarrassing; the map of Europe is an enigma to me, the Spanish Wars of succession a total fog, and I only realised two weeks ago that the Battle of Blenheim didn’t take place in Oxfordshire. I’m hoping to fix that a bit.

10. Engage more with open theism. More people take this seriously than I would have thought, given what seem to me to be extremely shaky exegetical, historical and philosophical foundations. I’ll probably read, think and write a bit more about this in 2017.

More importantly than any of this, of course, is the regular work of study, prayer, preaching, family, and following Jesus in everyday life—so all of these goals are conditional on having the time, capacity and spiritual space to pursue them. But if so, these are some of the things I’ll be shooting for. Happy New Year!

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The Film Year in Review

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2016 has been one of the most exciting and busy years for me yet, but the flip-side is that I’ve seen far fewer films than normal. Never letting something like that stop me from talking like I know everything (and assuming I’ve still seen more films than the average Think reader) I thought I’d run through some of the films that I’ve enjoyed the most this year. There’s a depressing lack of foreign and niche cinema in my list, while I’m annoyed to have missed films such as Your Name, Ethel & Ernest and Embrace of the Serpent. In fact, there is a whole host of apparently excellent cinema from 2016 still to be seen so, more than most years, this is a far from exhaustive list. Everything on this unordered assortment of titles is, at the very least, interesting, well-made and has something to recommend it… hopefully.

The films that made me smile

The year hasn’t even ended and I’m already tired of people lamenting how bad 2016 has been. Judging by current trajectories, 2017 is only going to be worse, so such complaints feel moot. The world is broken; for Christians that should be old news. However, even saying that, 2016 does seem to have been unusually packed with depressing stories. Perhaps in some unconscious response to this general malaise, two of my favourites this year are films that made me smile in a big, big way.

If one film this year has to take the number one spot, it is probably Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This tale of a “troubled” teenager who has been ferried around foster homes is joyous and funny from start to finish. It features one of the worst eulogies in cinematic history, stunning New Zealand scenery and a warmth towards its characters that won me over entirely. The other feel-good winner for me was Sing Street, a musical about an improbably talented school band in ‘80s Ireland. The tunes are great, the characters are beautifully drawn and its cheesy ending is entirely earned.

I also found myself smiling a lot at two wonderfully old-fashioned children’s films. The lukewarm reception of The BFG proves that we don’t value Spielberg enough. This is children’s storytelling at its most effortless and it’s a delight. Pete’s Dragon is an update of a little-loved ‘70s movie that creates a magical, earthy atmosphere and it enthrals even with a relatively slow pace.

Genre movies with ideas

2016 was a largely dismal for blockbusters, but genre cinema still had a strong showing across the board. Sci-fi fans were treated to the magnificent Arrival, a thoughtful, mesmerising twist on the alien invasion thriller. The drip-feed of information and sensory cinematography made watching this an immersive experience, while the gut-punch of a conclusion lent it real emotional weight. Mostly, I loved it because it showed me things I hadn’t seen in cinema before. Midnight Special, from one of my favourite young directors Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), also had big ideas, a whole load of religious imagery and a divisive final act that I loved. Read it as study of parental grief and it takes on a whole other level of meaning.

For the second year in a row, after 2015’s Crimson Peak, I’ve found horror cinema creeping into my list. While I failed to convince my mum that I was quite ok after watching The Witch, the images and ideas of that film have stuck with me. Few films create an atmosphere as well as Eggers’ puritan fable, although the Girl With All The Gifts came close. That British zombie movie worked wonders with a small budget, creating a convincing apocalyptic landscape on an impressive scale. See it for provocative ideas, striking cinematography and an ending that (again) divided audiences.

Animation sensations

It wouldn’t be one of my end-of-year reviews if I didn’t mention at least one animated film. Thankfully, there were enough in 2016 to merit an entire paragraph or two. Kubo and the Two Strings from stop-motion studio Laika was a visual marvel about the power of storytelling. It says something about the state of big-budget CG destructathons that the year’s most memorable action sequences emerged in an animation that involved tiny moving puppets on hand-made sets.

When Marnie Was There was an enchanting tale of love and loss by the masters of the medium, Studio Ghibli. Japan also produced The Boy and the Beast, which received a very limited release but deserved a wider audience. Perhaps its dizzying tale of an underworld populated by ancient gods was too culturally oblique for British audiences, but it was about as exciting and imaginative as cinema can get.

Those three were my favourites, but The Red Turtle, The Little Prince and Moana all had their own unique magic.

Oh the dramas

Remember back in January when all the Oscar and BAFTA films hit cinemas? That was when two difficult but thrilling films were released – Spotlight and Room. It’s almost irrelevant to say this after both won Oscars, but they really are terrific films.

Many other dramas impressed me this year, including the Turkish film Mustang, about five school girls who find that their home is increasingly a prison. Vibrant direction from Deniz Gamze Ergüven made this serious topic come alive; while it never shied away from the harsh reality of the girls’ lives, it still captured the rebellious energy of childhood. Captain Fantastic, which followed a family of “philosopher kings” growing up in the mountains and rejecting modern life, was not quite the hipster utopian tale that trailers suggested. Sharp writing and universally strong performances made this a fascinating study of ideological grey areas and it treated all of its characters with generosity. If you’re after something even more low-key than that, the eventless Paterson is a gentle, thoughtful treat about contentment and artistic desire.

Would that it twere so simple

Almost as rare as horror films appearing on my end-of-year lists is any acknowledgment of comedy. The vast majority of pure comedies released in cinemas just aren’t particularly funny. This year, however, two films (both of which played at the excellent Glasgow Film Fest) made me bray like a donkey with laughter. Hail, Caesar! – the latest from the dependably excellent Coen Brothers – features the two best scenes of the year. The first is a song-and-dance number called No Dames and the second is an increasingly absurd scene of enunciation direction. Hail, Caesar! is a funny, deceptively emotional love letter to cinema, with a side-order of religious pondering. Love & Friendship, meanwhile, was Jane Austen as you’ve never seen it before. Cutting, perfectly paced and relentlessly hilarious, it’s the most I’ve laughed at the cinema this year.

The Worst

Having less time to visit the cinema this year has meant that I’ve mercifully avoided some of its greatest stinkers. Thanks to my “friend” Paul, however, I had to endure both Gods of Egypt and American Pastoral. The latter, which is Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, is inexcusably dull, an aimless meander through one family’s life without any semblance of storytelling skill. Gods of Egypt, meanwhile, has to be seen to be believed, a CG-fuelled mess so incompetently made it’s almost mythological. It’s close to being so-bad-it’s-good, but really it’s just incoherent, overlong and features effects that would have looked dated in 2001.

And finally…

I also loved the documentary 13th, which is on Netflix and should be compulsory viewing before anyone talks about race in America. Unlike many documentaries with important messages, this is also really well made (it’s by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma) and its relentless pace will leave you crying out for justice. It’s probably the only film this year I would deem to be essential viewing.

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Review of the Year 2016

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The last week of the year is an excellent opportunity to review it, enabling me to revisit (and enjoy once again) many of my favourite moments, and to share them with those of you who may have missed them. The usual caveats about the personal and whimiscal nature of the list, and its mixture of humourous and serious, irenic and polemic, statistical and anecdotal, all apply ...

Best TV show (fictional): The BBC’s The Night Manager was the best of an outstanding batch of programmes they released between Christmas and Easter, which also included And Then There Were None, War and Peace, and the excellent Undercover. If you then chuck in The Crown, The Missing and Line of Duty, you’d have to say that for the first time in decades, the UK made more compelling new shows than the US.

Best TV show (factual): Planet Earth II. No contest:

Favourite hashtag: Back in January Derek Rishmawy started the ridiculously niche, but amusingly ridiculous, #HeresiesAs80sSongs, which included Like A Virgin (Ebionites), Two Hearts (Nestorianism), Take A Look At Me Now (Iconodulism) and You Can Call Me Al (Islam).

Most provocative sentence: Robert Jenson, in his commentary on Ezekiel: “The ancient church rightly assumed that the Eucharist is a sacrifice.” I’m still pondering that one.

Best fake news: I was actually quite gutted when I discovered that the best of the Clinton-Blair transcripts had been made up (although based on some which were real). But they remain some of the genuine laugh out loud items of the year, especially on Leeds Castle and punching a ham.

Best movie: no idea. I don’t think I watched a single new film in 2016, so hopefully Nathanael will tell us tomorrow.

Best word: it was a delight to discover the word Götzenopferfleisch in my research on 1 Corinthians. It means “food offered to idols.”

Tweet of the year: This:

Being 28-2016: I’m not ready for a relationship
28-1816: I have 13 kids
28-1000BC: I lived a good life, thrice I ate a berry and once a pear

Best blog post title: Racial Held Evans.

Best typo: John Piper, 1 May: “Christ is not glorified by a spiritual experience that is not based on the knowledge of Chris.” Even Trump couldn’t beat that.

Best new book: Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots.

Most important book I read: Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind.

Think Theology posts of the year: Our most read post this year was not actually written this year, but remains our most popular article ever—Phil Moore’s “What Your Biology Teacher Didn’t Tell You About Charles Darwin.” The only two others which were read over 20,000 times were “What’s Wrong With the Passion Translation?” and “On Throwing the Baby Out With the Bethelwater.”

Best talk of the year: The two best talks I heard this year were both at Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit, which we hosted at King’s London: Patrick Lencioni on hiring people, and Erin Meyer on culture mapping. The level of communication skills, as well as the very insightful content, was a cut above any other leadership content I have previously heard taught.

Best meme: Robert Petersen’s “Rare image of a shark stepping on a Lego.”

Best new worship song: “Lion and the Lamb,” by Leeland Mooring, Brenton Brown and Brian Johnson. Wonderful music, wonderful lyrics, and beautifully performed.

Best review article: Fred Sanders’s review of Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance. People who think reviews should always be encouraging rather than primarily critical will struggle with it, but Fred shows his working, and yet demolishes the book for its handling of Trinitarian theology.

Post of the year: Alastair Roberts addresses the crisis of discourse in the contemporary West, and makes some fascinating connections to the way sex and gender are thought about. Although Francis Spufford’s piece on spiritual literature for atheists, which I only saw this January, is also worth an honourable mention.

Happy New Year.

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Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 52

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[If you've followed the Heidelberg Catechism this far, and you're actually reading this on Christmas Day, then I will just say three things. First: well done! Second: they saved the best for last (with the possible exception of the first), with their beautiful answer to the very last question. And third: Happy Christmas!]

Q127. What does the sixth petition mean?

A127. “And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one” means:
By ourselves we are too weak
to hold our own even for a moment.
And our sworn enemies—
the devil, the world, and our own flesh—
never stop attacking us.
And so, Lord,
uphold us and make us strong
with the strength of your Holy Spirit,
so that we may not go down to defeat
in this spiritual struggle,
but may firmly resist our enemies
until we finally win the complete victory.

Q128. What does your conclusion to this prayer mean?

A128. For the kingdom
and the power
and the glory are yours forever” means:
We have made all these petitions of you
because, as our all-powerful king,
you are both willing and able
to give us all that is good;
and because your holy name,
and not we ourselves,
should receive all the praise, forever.

Q129. What does that little word “Amen” express?

A129. “Amen” means:
This shall truly and surely be!
It is even more sure
that God listens to my prayer
than that I really desire
what I pray for.

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Happy Christmas: Sunday is Coming!

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Normally we would not re-post on Think, but sometimes exceptions can be permitted. I haven't been on social media much the past couple of weeks, but have picked up that there has been some to-ing and fro-ing about whether churches that don't have a Christmas Day service are in some way being unfaithful. In light of that discussion, this post from nearly six years ago seems relevant.

Christmas Day, last year, fell on a Saturday, and we took the decision at Gateway Church not to have a Christmas Day service. Partly this was a pragmatic decision – we felt that holding two services in two days would not generate a positive response…! This pragmatic decision then required a choice – meet on Christmas Day or Sunday? And that took us in a more theological direction…

Part of this theology is that we are free to make something or not of ‘special’ days as we see fit – these things are ‘a shadow’ (Col 2:16-17) so there is no more spiritual value in meeting on Christmas Day than on any other. Digging a bit into the history, Christmas is a Roman Catholic (and essentially pagan) feast, married to a festival born out of Victorian sentimentality, whereas we know that from the book of Acts onwards believers have gathered to worship ‘on the Lord’s day’. For me, theologically and historically, Sunday is a far more significant day for Christians to gather than any other, so in making a choice I’d rather stick with Sunday – and yes, had I been alive at the time of the English Civil War I would probably have been on the side of those who wanted to abolish Christmas!
 
Pragmatically again, Christmas is a great opportunity for us to get people into our church buildings who would never normally darken our doors, which is why any sensible church leadership team puts effort into some kind of Christmas event that gathers the crowds. We do this at Gateway with a pre-Christmas Day carol service – but this is born of missional strategy, not a theological conviction about the value of Christmas.
 
So we had good pragmatic, historical and theological reasons for not having a Christmas Day service – but the decision still upset some members of my congregation!
 
It is interesting how certain days matter more to some people than to others. One encounters it occasionally with those believers who have a bee in their bonnet about the Sabbath. Sometimes these people are those who say Sunday is the Sabbath, and that in some way the OT Sabbath laws still apply to Christians. Another camp is those who say that Saturday is the Sabbath and that is when Christians should meet to worship.
 
Strictly speaking, Saturday is the Sabbath. It is the last day of the week. The day on which God finished his work of creation and rested. However, it is clear that from the earliest decades of the Church, followers of Jesus were meeting to worship on ‘the Lord’s Day’ – Sunday, the first day of the week, the day that Jesus rose from the grave (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2.). One can imagine Paul in the Synagogue on the Sabbath, “proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ,” and with the church on Sunday, worshipping that same Christ. It is also clear that the early believers felt no restriction about limiting their meeting to just one day a week – indeed, the first church met daily (Acts 2:46).
 
Christ is the fulfilment of the Sabbath, the one in whom we have already entered rest (Heb 4:9). So while having a ‘day of rest’ each week is still advisable as a creation principle, and while there seems wisdom in following the example of 2,000 years of church history and meeting to worship on the first day of the week, we are not bound to keeping any particular day – certainly not Christmas Day!
 
As for those people in my congregation who would like to meet on both Christmas Day and Sunday, well this year Christmas Day falls on a Sunday so problem solved. And beyond that, when Christmas Day does not fall on a Saturday or Monday I would expect to do services on both – so we should be ok until 2017!

A few years on from writing this post and with Christmas day again falling on a Sunday my position would be pretty much the same: For Christians, Sunday should be a bigger deal than Christmas Day. So to cancel a service this Sunday is a problem not because it is Christmas, but because it is the Lord’s Day! However, I have also softened my stance somewhat. It is true that we cannot know when Jesus was born (personally I think it is much more likely to have been during the feast of tabernacles in September/October than at ‘Christmas’), so at Christmas while we celebrate the birth of Christ, we really are not celebrating ‘Jesus’ birthday’. That phrase is more often Christmas schmaltz than genuine piety. But pastorally, it is wise to hold Christmas Day services: I know that members of my congregation who live on their own or who have difficult family situations need the experience of being with the body of Christ on what can be a stressful day. And - certainly in my kind of church context - organising the Christmas morning service is hardly an onerous task. We gather briefly, sing songs of praise, have a short talk pointing us again to Christ, greet one another, and go, strengthened and ready for the day. (And for some of us, for a swim in the sea!).

Happy Christmas - have a wonderful Sunday!

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Incarnation Through Middle-Eastern Eyes

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Our perspectives of Christmas are hugely shaped by cultural assumptions. For those of us in the West, our traditions are largely a very recent creation, only a century or so old. Prior to this, things we think of as essential to Christmas (present giving, Santa Claus, Christmas trees) did not even exist, yet they are now so ingrained we couldn't imagine Christmas without them. So it is helpful to get other cultural perspectives, and this, from a friend in a Muslim majority nation, is excellent.

When we first moved to the Middle East we heard from our language helpers that on festival days everyone dresses in their best clothes and goes to visit their relatives and neighbours to celebrate. So, for our first Eid festival we very carefully cleaned our apartment, dressed up in our best clothes, got some sweets and chocolates which are traditional to hand out to visitors and waited in our house. But no-one came to visit.

We asked our language helpers what we had done wrong. Laughing they explained “On festival days, the small visit the big, and the big give out presents”, for example everyone in a family visit their eldest brother, or their parents or grandparents. When they arrive they would kiss the hand of the older person to show respect and honour. The host would then make sure that their guests are well looked after, feed them, serve them, give them gifts such as good quality chocolate or sometimes money or other presents. Being newly arrived foreigners who didn’t speak the language and thus having no social standing or relatives, naturally no-one came to visit us. We are considered ‘small’ by the culture so we are the ones who need to do the visiting.

Reflecting on this over the Christmas season with some of my local believing friends I was struck again by the awesomeness of the incarnation we celebrate at this time. Whilst in every other religion, especially those prevalent in the Middle East, humans (the small) try to visit God by their own strength – ritual, moral purity and good works; the Christian God knew that this was impossible for us due to the barrier and stench of our sin; as much as we try to dress up nicely we cannot be clean enough to enter his house without polluting and disrespecting it.

In fact, another way of viewing the fall is that even if we were able to go to God’s house and honour him we would rather stay in our own house and not give away our honour - then we would have made ourselves ‘big’ and perhaps other people around would come and honour us. This is exactly what Satan does, stealing the honour and respect that is due to only the Creator God.

In the incarnation God decided to play the role both of the ‘small’ and of the ‘big’. As we couldn’t visit His house, and probably wouldn’t want to even if we could, He humbled himself totally to become ‘small’, so that he could visit us in our squalid house. But also as the ‘big’ He played the role of host and gave gifts – atonement, the Holy Spirit, and clean clothes – which means that as believers we are now appropriately dressed and thus free to enter His house without disrespecting it.

It is interesting to see that at His birth He was honoured by both the ‘big’ (wise men) and the ‘small’ (shepherds). They realised that even though the child should kiss the hand of the elder and the poor should kiss the hand of the rich, actually compared to this baby born in poverty and out of wedlock, all humanity was ‘small’. They counted it as an honour to be able to humble themselves and give honour to Him.

We were far, unreachable, without even the standing in His sight to be counted ‘small’. So knowing this and loving us in spite of it, He descended to visit us so that we may dwell with Him, enjoying His gifts and Presence.

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It Started in a Stable

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It started in a stable.

It’s a story,
Not a fable,
Of a Son who laid aside his glory
And left his Father’s table
And stepped into a world unstable,
To save the weak, the powerless, the unable,
To make the powers crumble,
The wise to stumble,
But beautify the humble.
It’s the story of a Saviour able
To still the storms and make the mountains tumble,
Yet who comes to heal and save the lost,
The marginal and tempest-tossed,
Whatever the cost,
And invite us to his table.
It’s the story of a man who broke the curse of Babel,
Who welcomed all mankind, regardless of label,
Whose blood speaks better than the blood of Abel,
Who resurrects creation from the grave back to the cradle,
So all can see that God is able,
The all-wise author of the story,
The King of glory.
And it started
In a stable.

Merry Christmas.

[It may not have been a stable, of course, but you get the idea.]

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A Christmas Prayer

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The Christmas edition of The Spectator has a feature on answered prayer, or rather, as the piece is titled, ‘Have you ever had a prayer answered?’

The answer to that question is provided by a range of media and establishment types and range from the sweet (Anthony Seldon’s answered prayer for a wife) to the grating (Amber Rudd’s ‘wish that nothing should stand in the way of [my daughter’s] ambition’). Bear Grylls, Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Justin Welby provide the more mainline Christian responses.

As a Christian I of course expect to experience answered prayer – especially as a reformed and charismatic Christian. My theology expects to see evidence of God’s working in the world he created, and my experience confirms that. I once asked my congregation who had experienced answered prayer and almost every hand went up. But every hand stayed up when I then asked who had experienced unanswered prayer too. And that demonstrates the limitations of the question posed by The Spectator, or more to the point, that it is simply the wrong question.

Within the limits prescribed by the question, Cardinal Nichols probably comes closest to escaping its narrow confines and giving a truer definition of prayer: “In 47 years as a priest, even in the hardest of sorrows and confusion, never – yet – have I had a sense of being abandoned by the Lord.” Yes, that’s a better answer – prayer is about our relationship with the Lord.

I expect answered prayer, and experience it regularly, but that doesn’t seem to me the primary purpose of praying. Yes, Jesus himself instructed us to ask of God, but even that asking is in the context of communion with God – and that is what is largely missing from the answers given to The Spectator survey.

It is also what is largely missing from most people’s experience of Christmas. The incarnation has made possible our union and communion with God. So it is Christmas that makes true prayer possible! It is this that Christ invites us to: Just as the Son abides in the Father, we are called to abide in the Son (John 15:10). This means prayer is a way of living for us. It is not a task to get through, or a shopping list of requests to make,  but an expression of our knowing God and being known by him. Of course, this leads to answered prayer because prayer is the fruit of our relationship with Jesus, and what makes us fruitful.

We can wish one another a merry Christmas, but we also get to pray, and that is something far more solid than any wish.

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Advent Calendar

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My friend Joel Virgo just pointed me to this incredibly beautiful advent poem by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. It's worth reading slowly.

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.


He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.


He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.


He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

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Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 51

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[Praying for forgiveness of sins is a powerful, liberating thing to do, even when you know—especially when you know!—that God will say yes. That's one of the most striking aspects of the Lord's Prayer, I think: the fact that it is full of petitions that God has promised to answer (the hallowing of his name, the coming of his kingdom, the provision of bread, the forgiveness of sins, and so on). I find it beautiful that Jesus gave us a prayer filled with things for which we can ask with absolute confidence, rather than a list of requests that he might or might not honour. So we can pray: "Becaue of Christ's blood, do not hold against us any of the sins we do or the evil that constantly clings to us." And we can pray it in certainty and confidence that he will say: "Glad you asked."]

Q126. What does the fifth petition mean?

A126. “Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors” means:
Because of Christ’s blood,
do not hold against us, poor sinners that we are,
any of the sins we do
or the evil that constantly clings to us.
Forgive us just as we are fully determined,
as evidence of your grace in us,
to forgive our neighbours.

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Interview with Tim Keller

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We had the privilege of interviewing Tim Keller a few days ago, as part of the Mere Fidelity podcast. It was loosely based on his book, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Sceptical, but it was pretty wide-ranging (scurvy, cricket ...), and I got to ask him about the fate of the unevangelised, and what he thought was the most challenging objection to Christian belief. If you're into podcasts, or just into theology and apologetics, you might enjoy listening to it:

Does Revelation 20 Support Judgment According to Works?

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I received a great question recently from a friend of mine, on judgment according to works. He had heard me teach that although we are justified by faith, we are also judged according to our works, and he basically agreed. But he wanted to know how that idea cohered with the fact that there are two sets of books in Revelation 20:11-15--the books of works, and the book of life--and that entry into the new creation was dependent only on our names being in the latter. In other words, he was saying, doesn't Revelation deny that final judgment is according to works? And if so, how does that cohere with Matthew 25 and Romans 2, which seem to affirm it?

Here's how I replied.

It’s probably worth saying that I think I’d differ very slightly from your reading of Revelation 20 on this one. The exegetical question there is whether the distinction between “books were opened” and “another book was opened” is (a) the distinction between the books of works and the book of (effectively) grace, or (b) the distinction between the books of the wicked and the book of the righteous. If (a), then you’re right; the righteous are not really judged according to deeds at all. If (b), then the picture is different: we are all judged according to works, but all those in the book of life are regarded as righteous anyway.

I think there are two exegetical reasons to prefer (b). The first is that both v12 and v13 explain that “all were judged according to their works / what they had done.” This implies that the “other book” is also a book which records works, even though it is a book of life. The second is that the “books were opened” is obviously drawing from Daniel 7:10, in which the books represent the judgment of wicked pagan nations, and the book of life refers back to Daniel 12:1, where the righteous are delivered.. So I think Revelation is contrasting the judgment of the wicked (“books were opened”) with the judgment of the righteous (“another book was opened”), rather than contrasting judgment by works with judgment by grace/faith/other. Greg Beale is good on this in his big Revelation commentary. If all of that is right, then there is no conflict with Matt 25, Rom 2 or anything else (and I continue to read Rom 2 with Schreiner, Gathercole, Wright et al as referring to a judgment for all according to works).

That all makes the pastoral question simpler, I think: what about deathbed conversions? And the answer here is that Scripture never goes there (at least into the mechanism of how this works)—but it seems to me that the repentance of (say) the brigand on the cross is itself an astonishing piece of spiritual fruit. I don’t think the idea of judgment according to works has to become a modern version of the treasury of merit, where good deeds balance out bad ones; if I did, I think I would be perilously close to abandoning the gospel of grace, and/or becoming a medieval Catholic! It is surely in the nature of biblical repentance and faith that our previous sins are washed away, so we could speculate (again, since the Bible doesn’t) that the dying brigand only has a few hours worth of “works” to consider, and that they were done in faith. Generally, though, I think the “deathbed conversion” scenario is thrown in more as a reactive response to a new idea (judgment according to works doesn’t sound like it can be right, so there must be a prooftext somewhere—quick, get the thief on the cross!); interestingly I find the same thing happens when you say baptism is part of becoming a Christian.

As it happens, in this morning’s devotions I was reading Obadiah (coincidentally) and then Jonah, and it hit me how beautiful the canonical balance is there: judgment of Edom according to deeds, and then the forgiveness of Nineveh despite their only action (it seems) being to repent. I think that’s a helpful thing to bear in mind when preaching or talking about the biblical balance between the two, not least in Paul and Revelation.

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The Unbundling of the Left

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2016 has been many things—you don't need me to list them—but it strikes me that it has been the year of the unbundling of the Left. I'm sure this is not a new development, and that the major political fallouts of 2016 have simply exposed (rather than created) the dissggregation I'm talking about, but things have certainly come to a head this year, with problematic consequences both for the Left and for many on the Right. Here's what I mean.

The binary political spectrum that has dominated my adult lifetime, and from what I can tell a good many other lifetimes as well, has been that of Left and Right. This binary was originally the fruit of the French Revolution, with its rive gauche and rive droite, and it was happily if accidentally reinforced by the emergence of communism and then the Cold War, in which the “free” market confronted state socialism and won. The Thatcher-Reagan era confirmed the post-War political alignments: moral conservatism went hand-in-glove with market liberalism and small government, and moral progressives (though most didn’t use that word) were almost always in favour of larger government, more welfare and tighter constraints on the market. The oddity of this—that conservatives on economics were usually liberal on morality, and vice versa—was noticed, but never what you’d call an issue.

Things have changed. There are now at least three axes which could viably run Left to Right, and the fact that someone is on the Left of one tells you little or nothing about where they will be on the others:

Socialism — Capitalism. Few people in the West today are pure socialists or pure capitalists. Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t believe the state should do everything (distributing food and land, for instance); Ron Paul believes the state should do something (e.g. fighting wars and policing). But the size of government remains a major area of debate. Should the government pay for trains? Roads? Healthcare? Schools? Universities? Unemployed people? Those with disabilities? Pensions? And how much? The more things a person believes that government should pay for, the larger they think government should be, and the more left-wing (in this particular sense) they are. I think of Rupert Murdoch’s question to Andrew Neil after hearing one of the Reagan budgets: “But what about government? Is government going to be smaller as a result of this?” That is one way of cutting the Left/Right cake. But only one.

Progressivism — Conservatism. Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the reaction that it generated in America from the mid 1970s to early 1980s, a second way of viewing people as Left or Right has emerged based on (to use an unhelpfully bland word) morality. Again, nobody is a pure “progressive” or “conservative”—we all want progress in some areas and conservation in others—but at the same time there remains a marked difference between those who think the gains of post-War individualism (like increased racial and sexual equality) outweigh the loss of pre-War social solidarity (in mediating institutions like unions, churches, political parties, societies, families, etc), and those who don’t. Yuval Levin’s treatment of this subject is the standout contribution of his excellent The Fractured Republic, I think.

Globalism — Localism (or Nationalism). Both of the previous axes were clear five years ago. What 2016 has really brought home to us (or brought crashing around our ears, depending on our perspective) is the third axis, and in particular the extent to which those who may be Left on the previous two may be Right on this one. Virtually all elite opinion-formers are globalists: people who think national identity, borders, cultures and customs matter less than they used to, and should be relativised or even ditched altogether if they prohibit economic growth. But a surprisingly large number of Western people have turned out, whether in America or Britain or France or Italy, to be localists: people who think those things matter more than they used to, and that internationalist trade deals and uncontrolled immigration benefit rich people more than poor-to-middle-income people. Not only that, but they have been prepared to vote on this basis, in numbers large enough to make previous Leftish alliances look very shaky. Where this leaves the Democrats, the Parti Socialiste or the Labour Party, going forward, is not yet clear.

As regular readers will probably know, I sit mildly to the left on the first, mildly to the right on the second—which disaggregates further, as these things do, into being progressive on race, the environment and war, and conservative on marriage, life and family—and firmly to the left on the third (which unfortunately coincides with the belief that everyone else is too, hence my terrible record of political predictions this year). That is quite a mouthful, and certainly makes things confusing. But that sort of muddled combination of Left and Right is now common to many, if not most, people in the West, and it doesn’t look like changing any time soon. And for now, it looks like being a significantly bigger problem for the political Left, who have always had to hold together middle class globalist progressives with working class localist socialists, than the political Right.

That said, I’ve been wrong about almost everything politically this year, so the odds are that the Left will have been rebundled before the pixels are dry on this post. We shall see.

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Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 50

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[Even the simple act of asking for daily bread is an act of worship. The chances are that nobody reading this lives with a daily concern that they will not have enough to eat—people with access to the Internet usually also have access to breakfast—but if anything that makes it all the more important that we pray this particular line of the Lord's Prayer. Why? Because we, of all people, need to know that "you are the only source of everything good," and to "give up our trust in creatures and trust in you alone." Some of us assume that we have secured for ourselves bread by means of our diligence; others are anxious lest we haven't. Heidelberg says: stop it. "Neither our work and worry, nor your gifts, can do us any good without your blessing." Absolutely.]

Q125. What does the fourth petition mean?

A125. “Give us this day our daily bread” means:
Do take care of all our physical needs
so that we come to know
that you are the only source of everything good,
and that neither our work and worry
nor your gifts
can do us any good without your blessing.
And so help us to give up our trust in creatures
and trust in you alone.

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Conversion, Then and Now

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Historically speaking, might it be the case that the periods which have seen the greatest missionary expansion were those which placed the least emphasis on conversion, rather than the most? Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his excellent (if occasionally eccentric) A History of Christianity, reflects on the difference between conversion in the first millennium of the Church (and much of the second), and conversion as we understand it today. It is provocative, and worth reflecting on:

These conversions sponsored by missionaries from Ninian through Patrick and Augustine far into central Europe were not conversions in the sense often demanded by evangelists in the twenty-first century, accepting Christ as personal Saviour in a great individual spiritual turnaround. In the medieval West, there were only one or two recorded examples of such experiences, taking their cue from the New Testament’s description of what happened to the Apostle Paul. So Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century and Anselm of Canterbury in the twelfth do indeed write about spiritual struggles which sound like those of Paul on the Damascus Road: they talk of dramatic new decisions, realigning their whole personality. In the Reformation, Protestants picked up the same tradition, and since then personal conversion based on assent to an itemised package of doctrine has become almost a compulsory experience in some versions of Christianity. Yet from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries, one of the most successful periods in the expansion of the faith, when all Europe became Christian, people rarely talked about conversion in that sense. If they did, they generally meant something very different: they had already been Christians, but now they were becoming a monk or nun.

How, then, did the Western Church convert Europe piece by piece between the thousand years which separated Constantine I from the conversion of Lithuania in 1386? At the time, those who described the experience normally used more passive and more collective langauge than the word ‘conversion’: a people or a community ‘accepted’ or ‘submitted to’ the Christian God and his representatives on earth. This was language which came naturally: groups mattered more than single people, and within groups there was no such thing as social equality ... Mass rallies were not their style; most evangelists were what we would call gentry or nobility, and they normally went straight to the top when preaching the faith.

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Film Review: Moana

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Disney are back once again with Moana and the extent to which you already appreciate the studio will determine how much you get out of their latest. I’m an unabashed fan of Disney and I loved it.

A couple of years ago, I watched every single one of their animated classics (at the time, 52 of them) in one year and wrote lengthy articles about each one. My contention throughout the project was that these are far more than just kids’ films, they’re important works of art – not all of them good, by any means – that can be subjected to as much critical interrogation and examination as any film by David Fincher or whoever else “serious” film critics are obsessing over.

If anything, wrestling with the ideas and craftsmanship of Disney’s output is more important than doing so for many others as the studio exerts a massive cultural influence over waves and waves of children. Just think, there’s a whole generation growing up with ‘Let It Go’ as their mantra. Moana is frustrating because it’s a terrific film and a whole heap more fun than Frozen, but Disney are still clinging to the ideologies that have shaped their storytelling since The Little Mermaid in 1989 and it’s getting harder to simply shrug it off.

Moana is named after the heroine of the story, the daughter of a Polynesian chief and the future ruler her island. Her eyes, however, are constantly on the horizon and she feels the sea calling to her, even though her people are forbidden from sailing beyond the reef. An ancient myth surrounding the demi-god Maui and an encroaching darkness, however, forces Moana to embrace her ancestral traditions of seafaring and wayfinding. She sets out to find Maui, right an ancient wrong and save her people.

Many of the hallmarks of Disney at their best are present and correct. The animation once again pushes the boundaries of what computer generation can achieve. Audiences now take for granted how the brains at Disney can perfectly capture the light falling on water or animate finely detailed sand, but even by their standards Moana is astonishingly beautiful. Yet any animator will tell you that their craft is not just about making something look pretty, you have to imbue every frame with character and appeal. In Moana, we are presented with lurid, neon realms of monsters (the film is rightly a PG due to it being exhilaratingly scary in places) and an ocean that is very literally a character.

The House of Mouse cottoned on to the fact that when they’re telling stories from other cultures, they should probably consult authorities on storytelling from that culture (check) and hire people from that culture for their writing and voice cast (check and check). Bringing on Taika Waititi, the writer/director behind one of the year’s best films, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, to work on the screenplay was an inspired choice. Waititi brings a surreal edge to humour and even brings his old Flight of the Conchords buddy Jemaine Clement along for a hilarious, Bowie-tribute song. Moana is funnier than most of the straight comedies I’ve seen this year.

The multicultural talent behind the film also brings a richness to the storytelling that feels a world away from the trite orientalism of Mulan (a film I love nonetheless). Instead of focussing on one culture, the team were advised to blend different elements from different Polynesian peoples.  Moana feels, to this inescapably English critic anyway, soaked deep in Polynesian culture and myth, making the Pacific Islands and rich and rewarding world to explore and giving it an edge over more familiar pseudo-European princess films.

Then there are the songs. Again, I have to declare pre-existing bias, as for the past 18 months I have been singularly obsessed with the original cast recording of Hamilton, a Broadway musical about the founding fathers of America. There’s a whole separate article to be written about that work of unmitigated genius, but when I found out that the man behind it, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was writing the songs for Moana, I figured the film was actually being made for me, personally. Sure enough, the songs are amazing and a good deal more musically interesting than anything in Frozen or Tangled. Miranda’s lyrically dextrous style brings fresh life to familiar tropes such as the “heroes desire” song. (Trend fans! In almost every Disney film, the second song in the film is the one where the protagonist expresses their deepest desire). The highlight of the soundtrack is ‘You’re Welcome’, in which Dwayne Johnson’s Maui extols his own virtues in an insanely catchy number that everyone will be humming in a vaguely blasphemous manner as they leave.

Combine Miranda’s superb songwriting with the aforementioned qualities, as well as a superlative voice cast and pacy, thrilling storytelling and you have a fun, exciting family film that it’s almost impossible to dislike.

Yet there is still a nagging feeling, when watching Moana, that Disney are stuck in a thematic rut. The opening song in English is a revamp of the same ideas explored in the opening number to Beauty and the Beast. There, Belle longs for more than her provincial life, here, Moana is convinced of the virtues of staying within her community and finding everything she needs where she is. This is presented as the bad option. Her song that follows, which is an absolute belter, is then about looking to the horizon and sailing off by herself to find out who she truly is. The entire film revolves around her ‘finding herself’.

Moana herself is actually a great heroine and displays many admirable qualities; part of her self-discovery comes through learning new skills and finding bravery in the face of terrifying sights. Yet my thematic beef with the film boils down to one conversation she has with Maui when they are sailing at night. She discovers that everything Maui has done was to earn the approval of others, to gain affirmation from people cheering his name. It looks like there’s going to be a genuinely powerful message behind it, then Moana literally says that perhaps Maui “was worthy of being saved.” Both characters then go on to prove their ‘worthiness’, proving that you should be yourself as long as yourself is a hero who can defeat lava monsters. Then you’ll find true satisfaction.

It would be easy for Christians to react against surface details in Moana, such as the existence of reincarnation and an arrogant demi-god who makes a lot of similar claims to Yahweh in the book of Job. Yet such details are far less likely to affect audiences than its central message. Kids are more likely to try and find salvation within themselves than convert to Polynesian polytheism. It’s frustrating because after almost two decades of being told to “be yourself” and to “look inside,” western culture still hasn’t found the magic bullet for happiness. Surely by now we’ve worked out that unrestrained independence isn’t the key to the deep dissatisfaction that troubles human hearts? We’ve tried that. To hear a message about self-actualisation once more from Disney makes it harder than ever to just dismiss the ideologies being perpetuated by the studio when they are so persistent with it.

Change your thematic tune Disney (although the music is just fine, thanks).

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Top Twenty Books of the Year

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There are so many ways of doing a "best book of the year" list, it can be difficult to know where to start. If you read a wide variety of books, which this year I've tried to, you can enjoy books for completely different reasons, and people who chime happily with some of your choices will stare in disbelief at others (so I wonder if I'm the only person to have read Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination and Matilda for the first time this year, for example). It's also hard to tell whether you should choose the best books released this year, in which case you narrow the field dramatically unless you pretty much only read new books, or choose the best books you read this year, in which case people will be tutting that some of your choices are now old hat, and some of them you really should have read before (which I certainly concede). Well: so be it. It's my list.

Top Ten New Books

Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots. I was privileged to endorse this, and measured by its impact on the Wilson family alone, it is probably my book of the year. Hannah does a wonderful job of combining theological and biblical reflection, rich horticultural imagery and practical application (so you end up with a chapter on blackberries and suffering, for instance), and both Rachel and I found it spoke right to our souls. It is also the first book I’m planning to re-read from this year’s crop. Superb.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, Christian Dogmatics. A superb collection of theological essays on all the major doctrines of the Christian faith, including Kevin Vanhoozer on Scripture and Oliver Crisp on Sin. This, for those who have used prooftexty systematic theology textbooks and lost confidence in systematics altogether, is a great way to rehabilitate.

Joshua Ryan Butler, The Pursuing God. Josh is one of my favourite younger writers—and I use that term to simply mean “younger than me”—and this is a beautiful series of reflections on the way the love and character of God works. If you’ve read his previous The Skeletons in God’s Closet, you won’t need any further encouragement to buy this; if you haven’t, this excerpt may help.

Ben Judah, This is London. Ben Judah is a remarkable writer, and the kind of person who thinks journalism means you have to go out into the world and find stories, rather than sitting at your desk and googling them. In this hard-hitting travelogue, he goes into underground London (both metaphorically and, sometimes, literally) and meets all kinds of people who never appear in the travel guides: Afghan migrants, Lithuanian prostitutes, Filipino slaves, oligarch wives, litter pickers, drug runners, illegal builders and so on. The result is a perspective on London that you won’t find anywhere else, complete with some heartwarming moments and some serious food for thought.

Tim Keller, Making Sense of God. Certainly the best apologetics book released this year, and all the more so because it is pitched at people who aren’t really interested in apologetics, this is vintage Keller. As I put it in my review, “Instead of assuming Christianity has the answer to a burning secular question, Keller talks to those for whom there’s no burning question.” We’re introduced to important recent works by Jonathan Haidt, Andrew Delbanco, Terry Eagleton, Luc Ferry, Julian Baggini, Thomas Nagel, and many other skeptics and agnostics, and in each case, we’re shown how their insights can and should provoke us to consider Christianity carefully, whatever conclusion we come to.

Peter Leithart, Delivered from the Elements of the World. Leithart is one of the few theologians I know of who is worth reading no matter what they are writing about, and no matter whether or not you agree with him. His take on atonement and/or Galatians and/or justification is no exception, especially if read alongside Brad Littlejohn’s critique. The section on the flesh is probably the most theologically informative passage I’ve read this year.

Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic. This book on American society and politics was a great read before the election, and would be even more so afterwards. Levin argues that a certain nostalgia for the post-War years dominates political discourse for both Left and Right, and that a more positive future vision requires what he calls an ethic of subsidiarity: the rehabilitation of the middle layers of society (clubs, unions, churches, mosques and so on). I briefly summarised his case here and here.

Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual. Technically this book was released in 2014, but it’s new enough for most of us. Siedentop traces the origins of concepts like equality and individuality—starting with the earliest societies, worshipping around the ancestral fires, and then moving through the classical period, the early church, Christendom and the Renaissance, and finishing with the modern West—and gives a good deal of the credit to Christianity. It is a masterful piece of intellectual history. The fact that I read it alongside Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity and Edward Said’s Orientalism made it even more compelling.

James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love. The fascinating thing about Jamie Smith is that you know what he’s going to say, but you still delight in hearing him say it. If you don’t know what he’s going to say, on the other hand, this is a must-read. His central Augustinian insight on desire and habit, and his application of it to the contemporary church, is hugely significant for all of us.

Jen Wilkin, None Like Him. Jen is one of the outstanding women teachers I have come across, and she has written a book about the character of God (which is a good start). But the twist is that she has only written about those attributes of God that we do not share: infinity, unchangeability, and so on. Her section on the way we count things as a way of controlling them, and the way God is utterly beyond this, was worth buying the book for on its own.

Top Ten Older Books I Read This Year

Augustine, City of God. Magisterial, sweeping, brilliant, civilisation-shaping, and (in my view) even more readably written than the Confessions.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. Hilarious, bombastic, provocative, inflammatory, paradoxical, mystifying, conservative, radical.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. The longest whodunnit I’ve ever read, as well as a stunning portrayal of the difference made by hope in the resurrection.

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets. Poetry that is Christian in a way it makes you rethink all kinds of things, and so beautifully written you don’t want it to end.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind. The most important book I read this year.

Tim Keller, Prayer. The book I took the longest to read this year (around eight months), and also the book that shaped my devotional life more than any other.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity. An extraordinarily vivid yet meticulous history of the Church, which sheds light on virtually everything.

George Orwell, 1984. Thoroughly gripping, disturbing, dark, savage, mesmerising storytelling.

Blaise Pascal, Pensees. This set of philosophical, religious and literary musings is practically unsummarisable, but no less brilliant for that.

If you’re on Twitter, I’d love to hear the best books you read this year, especially if you think I’d like them (and the books being released next year that you’re most excited about!) I’ll probably read half as many next year, and that will involve being a bit more selective ...

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Those Books Won’t Read Themselves

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So how many books will you read this year?

To be honest, this is not a question that vexes many people – but it is one that can get under the skin of people who read blogs like this one. Let’s ask some other questions: How many movies have you seen since January? How many hours have you spent watching TV? How about hours spent on Facebook/Twitter/Etc.? Or time spent reading blogs? And how many different blogs? What about how much of the Bible you have read? And how many hours have you spent in prayer?

All these are valid questions. They are also ones that can generate, in varying degrees, a sense of competitiveness and inadequacy, superiority and inferiority, pride and guilt.

I generally read at a rate of about one book every ten days. In ‘good’ years I might hit a book a week, but more normally I get through thirty or forty a year. However, I am a nerdy completist, so a book doesn’t make it to my ‘read’ list if I haven’t read it first page to last page. And my reading patterns change over time. I subscribe to The Spectator (weekly) and The London Review of Books (fortnightly) and getting through those certainly cuts back on my book reading time – although reading the book reviews in these publications means I feel like I’m reading more books than I actually am.

I tend to have a reading total immersion when on holiday: a baptism of books, during which I will hit an almost Wilsonian rate of page turning. Few things are as pleasurable as sitting on a sunny French terrace with a good book in one hand and a good glass of wine in the other. I often take something I might not normally pick up, but think I ‘ought’ to read, because of its wider cultural impact.

This year that book was Marlon James’ much feted A Brief History of Seven Killings. I got nearly halfway through it before giving up and throwing it in the recycling. (Looking at the reviews on Amazon, I am not the only one.) It’s clever, yes, but overwhelmingly unpleasant. But it took me a day or two to come to my senses and realise I didn’t need to read it – I was free not to. Having woken up, in the bin it went, and I purged my soul with some Wendell Berry.

It made me think though, about what we read and why we read it. And about the power of books to bring us pleasure, or make us feel guilty – either because we are reading things we shouldn’t, or we are not reading things we think we should. I guess there are blogs where people keep a record of how many movies they see each year, but books exert a special pull on us. If you’re reading this post, I bet you are a book reader too – and I bet you have a pretty good idea of how many books you’ve read this year. And I bet you felt some conflicted internal emotions when you read Andrew’s account of his one hundred books.

So how about this for an early New Year resolution: In 2017 read some books, because books are good, and teach us many things. (And they are far better when physical objects than Kindlefied files – though if you’re going on a beach holiday you may take your Kindle.) Read broadly, but wisely – you don’t have to read stuff that does your soul no good. Read for information, and for pleasure, but not competitively. And don’t feel guilty about all the books you haven’t read, or those you only skim through, because of the making of many books there is no end. And read your Bible!

And just in case anyone is interested, here is my list of books read so far in 2016, with a brief comment about each:

Moore, Onward: Engaging the culture without losing the gospel. Helpful, and probably even more so now than it was at the start of this crazy year.

Murray. The Happy Christian. Outstanding.

Kennedy. The First American Evangelical: A short life of Cotton Mather. Superb.

Thornbury. Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the wisdom and vision of Carl F.H. Henry. Very helpful.

Scruton. I Drink Therefore I Am: a philosophers guide to wine. Wine & philosophy? What’s not to like?

Simpson. Touching the Void. As gripping as it was when I first read it nearly thirty years ago.

Meyer. The Culture Map. One of the most helpful books I’ve read this year.

Harmon. Philippians. An excellent commentary.

Updike. Rabbit, Run. Admire the writing, depressed by the story.

Mead. One Perfect Day: the selling of the American wedding. Bridezilla, hang your head in shame!

Ferry. A Brief History of Thought. Yes!

Griggs. Small Town Jesus. Yes!

Sprinkle. People to be Loved. Yes, but…

Grant. Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and found in the Mississippi Delta. I need to visit Mississippi.

Newsham. All the Right Places: Travelling light through Japan, China and Russia. A well-written travel book.

Leithart. Solomon Among the Postmoderns. This is good.

Klebold. A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy. Clear-eyed heartbreak.

Park. The Great Soul of Siberia: In search of the elusive Siberian tiger. Woah, what do we have here? Extraordinary.

Matar. The Return: Fathers, sons and the land in between. Beautiful, sad, profound.

Berry. That Distant Land: the collected stories. Soul purged.

Dahl. Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s letters to his mother. Laugh? I did.

Helprin. A Soldier of the Great War. Mark, how do you do that?! Utterly extraordinary.

Backhouse. Kierkegaard: A single life. Either/Or? Still not sure.

Smith. You Are What You Love. Unlike everyone else, I didn’t much enjoy this.

Yarhouse. Understanding Gender Dysphoria. The most useful book on the subject so far.

Haidt. The Righteous Mind. Have we mentioned this book on Think yet?

Vance. Hillbilly Elegy. It’s true.

Theroux. Deep South. There’s just something about the Southern States of America. I need to go to Mississippi.

Yeats. Poems Selected by Seamus Heaney. Tread softly on my dreams.

Crossman. Mountain Rain: A biography of James O. Fraser. As inspiring as it was when I first read it 22 years ago.

Sayers. Disappearing Church: From cultural relevance to gospel resilience. Lots of books have jacket puffs saying, “A must-read.” This is a must-read.

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Lewis on Headship

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We're going through C. S. Lewis's The Four Loves on the Mere Fidelity podcast at the moment, so I'm reading it for the first time. Here is a wonderful, challenging and thought-provoking section on headship in marriage:

And as we could easily take the natural mystery [=sex] too seriously, so we might take the Christian mystery [=marriage] not seriously enough. Christian writers (notably Milton) have sometimes spoken of the husband’s headship with a complacency to make the blood run cold. We must go back to our Bibles. The husband is the head of the wife just in so far as he is to her what Christ is to the Church. He is to love her as Christ loved the Church—and gave his life for her (Eph 5:25). This headship, then, is most fully embodied not in the husband we should all wish to be but in him whose marriage is most like a crucifixion; whose wife received most and gives least, is most unworthy of him, is - in her own mere nature - least lovable. For the Church has no beauty but what the Bridegroom gives her, he does not find, but makes her, lovely. The chrism of this terrible coronation is to be seen not in the joys of any man’s marriage but in its sorrows, in the sickness and sufferings of a good wife or the faults of a bad one, in his unwearying (never paraded) care or his inexhaustible forgiveness: forgiveness, not acquiescence. As Christ sees in the flawed, proud, fanatical or lukewarm Church on earth that Bride who will one day be without spot or wrinkle, and labours to produce the latter, so the husband whose headship is Christ-like (and he is allowed no other sort) never despairs. He is a King Cophetua who after twenty years still hopes that the beggar-girl will one day learn to speak the truth and wash behind her ears.

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Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 49

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["Your will be done" could easily be a passive and fatalistic prayer, a sort of Christianised inshallah. Heidelberg will have none of this; it is supposed to be an urgent prayer for help, filled with active verbs like "help," "reject," "obey" and "carry out." And in the midst of the explanation, we find this delightfully contemporary phrase: "to obey your will without any back talk." As so often, the Catechism shows us that most of the pastoral and personal issues we regard as unprecedented are, in fact, as old as the hills.]

Q124. What does the third petition mean?

A124. “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” means:
Help us and all people
to reject our own wills
and to obey your will without any back talk.
Your will alone is good.
Help us one and all to carry out the work we are called to,
as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven.

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Nineveh As Jonah Saw It

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This is an extraordinary 3D simulation of Nineveh under King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (seventh century): in other words, pretty much what Jonah saw when he went to call them to repentance. Remarkable stuff:

“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11)

HT: Tony Reinke

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Stunned by the Holy Spirit

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I have heard that it was said (by Andrew Wilson among others), that you shouldn't use your quiet time to study scripture for work. But I tell you that I have found the times I've had to wrestle with scripture (for writing Bible reading notes, for instance) to be far more fruitful than my normal quiet times. So I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Of course, I understand the principle of keeping your quiet times for worship, not work, and it makes sense if ‘the Bible’ is your full time occupation that you need to make sure you’re taking time to nourish your own soul as well as expound on the text for others, but for me, having to find something worth saying about the scripture passages I’m reading means I am forced to pay more attention to them than I otherwise would. I know so many of them so well that it’s easy just to let them drift past my eyeballs without connecting with my brain, but there’s knowing and knowing, isn’t there? It’s true what they say, that you never really understand something until you can explain it to someone else.

There’s one thing that hit me earlier this year that just keeps cycling back round my brain again and again, so I’m writing it down again in case it’s useful for someone else.

It was just a little verse in John 14, that I wrote about for Daily Bread:

Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” (John 14:22)

Jesus had just been telling the disciples that he was about to send the Holy Spirit, but in Judas’ mind, Jesus was the key thing – if only people could see him, then they would believe, surely.

But here’s what hit me – Jesus had shown himself to the world. He appeared to thousands of people before the crucifixion, bringing power and wisdom like they had never seen before, and had appeared to over 500 people after the resurrection (1 Cor 15:6). Yet by the time of the day of Pentecost the believers numbered only 120 (Acts 1:15).

Seeing Jesus, in the flesh, bodily resurrected…you’d think that would be a guarantee of belief, wouldn’t you? But no. Only 120 stuck with it, continued to worship together, and waited for this Holy Spirit that had been promised to them.

And then he came, and ‘about three thousand were added to their number’ in one fell swoop (Acts 2:41), then ‘the Lord [continued to add] to their number daily those who were being saved’ (v47).

It seems a strange thing to post at the beginning of Advent - the time when we celebrate, perhaps more than ever, Jesus’ bodily presence on earth. I’m not sure why the timing has worked this way. It’s of course right that we point to the baby in the manger, the fulfillment of centuries of promise, and point people forward to the salvation that this child would bring, but maybe we’re in danger of minimising the power and significance of what came next.

It’s so easy to think ‘If only Jesus would appear again on earth, if he were here and could speak to my friends, then they’d believe,’ but the evidence of the Bible contradicts that. An unusual man claiming to be God attracts far fewer followers than a bunch of flawed people empowered by the Holy Spirit. More people came to Christ through one sermon preached by a failed fisherman than through seeing the risen Christ in person. Thomas wouldn’t believe unless he saw. The other disciples only believed once they had seen, but somehow for the rest of us, not seeing is actually more effective.

God is made visible through us more compellingly than he was through Jesus.

That blows my mind.

The Holy Spirit living in you - in me - is more powerful than a virgin birth, a new star, a host of angels, and an empty tomb. Incredible.

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100 Books in 2016

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Last December, prompted by a challenge from Tim Challies, I decided to read one hundred books in 2016. It probably strikes some as a silly, artificial, vainglorious or unachievable target, and in many contexts I'm sure it would be. But for me, this year, it has been an extremely useful challenge that has helped me make the most of the time, especially in those months (March to August) when my work responsibilities were lower than usual because of a job change. I have ended up reading all sorts of things that I would (wrongly) have assumed I did not have time for, read as part of a book group for the first time, read according to the calendar for the first time (Luther on Reformation Day, Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, etc), and read a series or two (the Narnia stories, and several books on both Genesis and Diversity). Over the next couple of weeks I'll summarise some of the best ones, to help with Christmas shopping if nothing else. In the meantime, here's the full list. (Asterisks indicate a book I had read before.)

January (13)

Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis
David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth
N. T. Wright, The Paul Debate
Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism
*C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
Peter Leithart, Heroes of the City of Man: A Christian Guide to Select Ancient Literature
David Anderson and Brent Zuercher, Letters Across the Divide: Two Friends Explore Racism, Friendship and Faith
Owen Hylton, Crossing the Divide: A Call to Embrace Diversity
*C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Amy Black (ed.), Five Views on the Church and Politics
John Stackhouse, Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism
John Calvin, Reply to Sadoleto
Peter Leithart, A House for My Name

February (8)

C. S. Lewis, The Horse and his Boy
1 Enoch
Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America
Charlie Cleverly, The Song of Songs: Exploring the Divine Romance
*C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair
Maxwell Louth (ed.), Early Christian Writings
Martin Luther, On the Freedom of a Christian
Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism and the Gospel—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters

March (15)

Douglas Wilson, Father Hunger
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
John Piper, Living in the Light: Money, Sex and Power
C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle
Rick Kennedy, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather
*Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
David Anderson, Gracism: The Art of Inclusion
Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church
C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian
Carl Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic and Contemporary Evangelicalism
John Piper, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness
*Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

April (9)

Goethe, Faust
Preston Sprinkle (ed.), Four Views on Hell
Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided About Politics and Religion
Karl Barth, Learning Jesus Christ Through the Heidelberg Catechism
Tim Keller, King’s Cross
Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader
James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

May (8)

Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture
Patrick Henry Reardon, Creation and the Patriarchal Histories: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Genesis
Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island
Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
Tony Reinke, Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You
Michael Allen and Jonathan Linebaugh (ed.), Reformation Readings of Paul: Explorations in History and Exegesis
Joshua Ryan Butler, The Pursuing God: A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That’s Dying to Bring Us Home
Roald Dahl, Matilda

June (8)

G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World?
William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird, Next: Pastoral Succession That Works
John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership
Simon Gathercole, Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul
Roland Muller, Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door
R. R. Reno, Genesis
Donnie Griggs, Small Town Jesus: Taking the Gospel Mission Seriously in Seemingly Unimportant Places
Glyn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing

July (8)

*Andrew Neil, Full Disclosure
Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots
Augustine, City of God
Matthew Lee Anderson, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith
Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries
Peter Leithart, Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays
Michael Allen and Scott Swain (ed.), Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic
Matthew Lee Anderson, The End of Our Exploring: A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith

August (11)

Thomas Aquinas (ed. Peter Kreeft), A Summa of the Summa
Edward Said, Orientalism
Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion
*J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism
Marcus Peter Johnson, One in Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation
Andy Johnston, Convinced by Scripture: A Life of Martin Luther
R. R. Reno, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society
David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Peter Leithart, Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission

September (8)

Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism
Tim Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical
Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Ben Blackwell, John Goodrich and Jason Maston (ed.), Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination
David Gibson, Destiny: Learning to Live by Preparing to Die
*T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

October (6)

Ben Judah, This is London: Life and Death in the World City
Preston Sprinkle, Go: Returning Discipleship to the Front Lines of Faith
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Collin Hansen (ed.), The New City Catechism Devotional
Tom Wright, The Day the Revolution Began
Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will

November (6)

Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism
Robert Jenson, Ezekiel
Jen Wilkin, None Like Him: 10 Ways God is Different From Us (And Why That’s Good News)
Stef Liston and Dan Jones, Who Was And Is And Is To Come
*J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
C. S Lewis, The Four Loves
(Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity)

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Is Faith Without Works Dead, Or Just Sleepy?

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For those interested, I have a post up at The Gospel Coalition today in which I engage in a bit more detail with Steve Holmes and Alan Jacobs, on sola fide, ethical behaviour and final salvation. Here's a brief excerpt:

Recently they’ve both written articles arguing that, although they hold to the traditional view of sexual ethics, holding to the revisionist view doesn’t make a person a false teacher. That perspective will cause some people to agree strongly, some to disagree strongly, and some to wonder what to think. But I want to focus on a particularly fascinating—and, I think, ultimately wrong—reason given for this view, especially in Steve’s article. The argument, essentially, is that ethical behavior does not put a person’s final salvation at risk ...

This is a thoughtful argument, and one with which many evangelicals, especially from a Reformed background, will identify. After all, we were all saved before we had produced a single good work, weren’t we? If ethical behavior can disqualify persons from final salvation, then what happens to assurance, or the perseverance of the saints? And if obedience—relationally, sexually, morally, financially—is essential for salvation, then haven’t we lost the gospel?

The problem is, there are lots of New Testament passages that warn disciples away from behavior that would jeopardize their entry into the kingdom.

You can read the rest here.

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Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 48

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[Everybody knows that the kingdom of God is a pretty central theme in Christianity, but many are slightly unclear about exactly what it is, or how to pray for it. Is it about seeing people saved? About justice and peace in the world? Personal holiness? Church growth? Political progress? Physical healing, and freedom from demonisation? The future reign of Jesus? All of the above?

Into the (potential) confusion wades the Catechism. Rule us in such a way that 1) we submit to you, 2) your church grows, 3) the devil's work is destroyed, until 4) you return and fill all things. So the kingdom is about ethics, evangelism, expulsion and eschatology (or at least, it would be if the original hadn't been written in German). Marana tha.]

Q123. What does the second petition mean?

A123. “Your kingdom come” means:
Rule us by your Word and Spirit in such a way
that more and more we submit to you.
Preserve your church and make it grow.
Destroy the devil’s work;
destroy every force which revolts against you
and every conspiracy against your holy Word.
Do this until your kingdom fully comes,
when you will be
all in all.

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True to Form

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True to Form is a pastoral and theological resource you should know about. It's a readable but in-depth look at gender and sexuality from a Christian point of view, and it forms part of the excellent Primer series that the FIEC has been producing, edited by David Shaw (who, as an irrelevant but nice aside, will be joining us at next year's THINK conference). Given its length and intended audience, it might be the most useful one-stop-shop publication on the subject I've found.

I say this for two main reasons. The first is that it covers all the issues you want to have covered—a biblical theology of gender, biological difference, homosexuality, complementarity, gender dysphoria, the implications for medicine and education, recommended resources on all of the above—as well as one or two you weren’t expecting (like a piece on Foucault and sexuality, for example). Even so, it manages to do so in a digestible level of detail; the entire publication is only eighty pages, not to mention beautifully laid out, and most of the articles are no more than ten pages. The second is that the writers are about as good as it gets on this subject: Ed Shaw, Alastair Roberts, Sam Allberry, Sharon James and co. The result is superb.

If you want a more detailed summary, David has provided one here. But seriously: this is a resource that all pastors in the UK should consider getting hold of. It really is a superb guide to the most pressing and controversial pastoral question of our time.

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Story or Scripture? How should we share our faith?

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The forecourt of Waterloo Station wouldn’t have been my first choice of where to be at 7.30 last Friday morning. At home in bed, just reaching out to turn off the alarm would have ranked higher on my list of preferences, but there I was, handing out evangelistic magazines to any commuters who weren’t too cold to take their hands out of their pockets and accept one.

A man came over to ask me what we were giving out, so I explained: we’re from a church that meets locally and we produce a weekly ‘single article magazine’ called Salt, written by a team of church members, with the aim of opening people’s hearts to the Gospel. (OK, I didn’t say it quite that eloquently, and didn’t include the hyperlink, but you get the idea.)

He was not impressed.

He too was there handing out leaflets which, from the glimpses I got of them, appeared to be tri-fold glossy sheets with scriptures leading people through the gospel message.

His objections to our publications were:

First, that I had said we were part of a church, and he didn’t like the idea that we were promoting a church, because we don’t win people to churches. I agreed, absolutely, we want to win people to Jesus, whatever church they then go to.

Second, and more importantly for him, that we were using human words not scripture. He simply refused to accept the idea that there was merit in capturing people’s attention with a personal story, sharing a testimony of how Jesus had changed their life, and then pointing them to scripture to evidence our claims.

I appreciated the high value he put on Scripture, of course, and he even started to make me wonder if he was right – if we were in danger of devaluing scripture by the use of personal story and anecdotal evidence – in a post-truth society, everyone can only speak about their experience and their perceptions/interpretations of events, so what was there distinctive that we were offering?

Ironically, he then undermined his own argument by an appeal to Scripture.

“What did Paul say?” he asked.

“I don’t know, what?”

“You don’t know what Paul said?!”

“Paul said several books’-worth of things, which in particular are you thinking of?”

He gave me a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 2:

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Let’s lay aside for the moment the fact that at the time Paul was writing to the Corinthians the gospels had not yet been written, so if he was only using scripture, his hearers were doing well to suddenly grasp that he was talking about Christ, which seems a torturous reading of the text. The response that sprang to my mind in the moment was that Paul also used his own testimony, and stories and resonances from the culture in order to win the attention of his audiences and demonstrate the truth of his message.

Later, of course, I realised that Jesus did the same. He spoke to Bible scholars using scripture, but to the everyday crowds he told stories (and not even true stories, at that!).

Maybe a post-truth society isn’t that different from a truth-based one after all – we humans are story-seekers, we resonate with stories in a way that few of us do with lists of dry facts. Yes, we have to get to the facts – stories can only take us so far, they need to be interpreted, and it is often only through divine revelation that we can understand their truths (again, look at the parables, and the disciples’ blank incomprehension of what Jesus was talking about most of the time) – but stories are the doors, enticingly ajar, through which the curious can peer and, with God’s help, discover the truths beyond.

My interlocutor was perfectly courteous, and clearly genuinely believed that we are mandated to present scripture alone to the lost, through which they will reach awareness of their sin, and meet the saviour they need. But he did not really want to discuss my perspective, or to understand what I believed (other than asking me what the doctrine of the church was, of which, perhaps, more at a later date). He was listening in order to respond, rather than to understand, so we were never going to be able to reach agreement.

But hopefully between his leaflets and ours, many people on that bitter morning had an encounter with God and will push open the door and meet the Truth in person – then go and tell their stories to the next generation.

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The Difference Between Envy and Jealousy (and Why it Matters)

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What is the difference between envy and jealousy? And does it matter? In modern English the words are used almost interchangeably, so much so that when people read both of them in the same vice list (Gal 5:19-21), they assume Paul is repeating himself. To be jealous of someone is to be envious of them, surely, and vice versa (and if not, then it cannot possibly matter). Right?

Wrong. Envy and jealousy are different things, and it actually matters a great deal.

The difference is stated simply. Jealousy is the desire to keep for yourself what rightfully belongs to you. Envy is the desire to have for yourself what rightfully belongs to another. Envy is when a husband wants to sleep with somebody else’s wife. Jealousy is when he doesn’t want his wife to sleep with somebody else’s husband.

Both, of course, can cause enormous damage. “Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” (Prov 27:4). “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy rots the bones” (Prov 14:30). Yet while envy is always sinful—you shall not covet your neighbour’s house, or car, or personality, or ability, or well-behaved children—the same is not true of jealousy. In some circumstances, and marital infidelity is an obvious example, jealousy is both entirely natural and entirely appropriate, as much as it needs to be handled very carefully.

And this is why the difference matters: God himself is said to be jealous, in numerous occasions in the Scriptures. “You shall not bow down to [idols] or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Ex 20:5). “You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Ex 34:14). “For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deut 4:24). For the Bible to say that God is envious would be bizarre; it would imply that there is something he wants that he does not have. To say that he is jealous, on the other hand, is to say that there is something he has—Israel—that he does not want to lose. And that, not to put too fine a point on it, is the storyline of the entire Old Testament.

Envy and jealousy are different things. And yes, it matters.

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Sex, Gender and Public Discourse

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Alastair Roberts has just written what may turn out to be my post of the year. Simply put, it is an extended argument for the idea that sex and gender differences have a huge (although largely ignored) impact on our public discourse, from universities and safe spaces, through social media and stand-up comedy, to the recent US election. If you can possibly carve out half an hour to read it, it will make you think more than reading ten other posts for three minutes, and shed light on all sorts of areas, however much you agree or disagree with it. On the basis that many people can't (it comes in at 12,400 words), here are twelve quotations to summarise it:

1. “There is an elephant in the room of our social discourse ... Men and women are different, and their differences have an immense impact upon the climate of our social and political discourse.”

2. “While men generally do dominate in positions of overt and direct public power and authority, women often exert considerably more indirect and relational power in their communities and societies. We just need to be more alert to the reality that is directly in front of us.”

3. “Yes, men do naturally tend to dominate on the stand-up circuit. It is an aggressive and pugilistic context of discourse, played to a larger audience, with a significant element of risk involved, and typically involving frequent violations of the laws of politeness. Men will naturally come to the fore in such realms. However, the limited presence of funny women in that realm is a poor argument for the claim that women are the least funny of the sexes. Women’s humour is more likely to be encountered in the dense social environment than in the highly aerated arena of overt verbal combat. Women’s wit is generally played for much smaller audiences, and can display acuity of psychological perception and marked verbal adroitness.”

4. “It is easy to presume that men monopolize power. Yet, when one looks closer and deeper, the reality is considerably more complicated: the men may occupy most of the prominent positions of power, but their primary loyalties are often to the women closest to them. The man, as Chesterton observed, may be the head, but he may often only be the figurehead. He may have the direct power, but the woman may have most of the leverage.”

5. “The culture of agonistic discourse implicitly upheld by the code of manly honour has served us well in many respects. It is an integral element of our traditional culture of ‘free speech’. However, over the past few decades our realms of political and academic discourse have become mixed contexts, which has thrown a great deal into confusion and disarray. The fact that we have become ideologically hampered in our ability to talk about the differences made by sexual difference has greatly limited our capacity to deal with these changes.”

6. “Women do not naturally gravitate to a manly code of honour. The social virtues that are elevated in women’s groups tend to be things like inclusion, supportiveness, empathy, care, and equality. Through his and his students’ research on the subject of ‘social justice warriors’, Jordan Peterson has identified that it refers to a real phenomenon in the world, but also suggests that it is specifically related to a maternal instinct: ‘the political landscape is being viewed through the lens of a hyper-concerned mother for her infant.’”

7. “This instinct causes all sorts of problems when expressed in an academic or political context. It infantilizes perceived victim, minority, or vulnerable groups (women, persons of colour, LGBT persons, disabled persons, etc.), perceiving them as lacking in agency and desperately in need of care and protection. When persons from such groups enter into the realm of political or academic discourse, they must be protected at all costs. Unsurprisingly, this completely undermines the manly code that formerly held, whereby anyone entering onto the field of discourse did so at their own risk, as a combatant and thereby as a legitimate target for challenge and honourable attack. The manly code calls us all to play to strength, whereas the maternal instinct calls us all radically to accommodate to weakness.”

8. “People pushing for free speech complain about stifling climates of discourse on campuses, which dangle the threat of social ostracization over those who do not rigorously affirm and uphold politically correct values ... Again, we should be paying attention to where this behaviour is especially concentrated: in contexts dominated by women and LGBT persons, contexts where the traditional norms of manliness are the least operative. This is not, I believe, principally some bizarre product of a radical Marcusian ideology. Rather, the ideologies are almost certainly rationalizations of the social dynamics that naturally characterize the dominant demographics in those realms.”

9. “Symbolism will tend to replace substance. Given the choice between talking about the compounding crises of automation in the Rust Belt or transgender bathrooms, [the political classes] will choose the latter. Given the political classes’ turning in upon themselves, it shouldn’t surprise us in the least that the last few years have been dominated by precisely the sort of primarily symbolic social issues that are most useful for virtue signalling within the elite class (same-sex marriage, fights over transgender bathrooms, getting the first female president, Black Lives Matter protests, etc) ... Bernie Sanders is correct: the progressive liberal elite is incapable of talking to the working class, and this is why.”

10. “Men and women don’t cease to behave like men and women simply because we have declared ourselves to be living in a gender-neutral society.”

11. “A politics of empowerment and a culture of victimhood go hand in hand. Just as the kid that bursts into tears and runs to their mother at the slightest provocation can use parental sanctions to empower them against others, so the feminist elevation of the rhetoric and ideology of victimhood serves to increase their social leverage (one thinks of the new mansplaining hotline that has just been set up in Sweden!). Exaggerated vulnerability can be exploited as a means to gain power. The term ‘crybully’ has been coined to describe such weaponized victimhood and vulnerability.”

12. “We must teach both men and women to value the strengths and instincts of the other sex and to accommodate themselves to each other. We must teach men to understand, to honour, and to make space for women’s social instincts and expressions and vice versa. We must restore a posture of wonder towards the other sex in their subtle yet profound differences and eschew the posture of envy. Men and women can both easily fall into the error of disdaining those behaviours and instincts in the other sex that most contrast with their own. This must be firmly resisted. Both the giggling teenage girls with their relational dramas and the belligerent and tribal boys with their various obsessions are making their first faltering steps towards what may become noble virtues and aptitudes that can serve both them and society at large greatly in the future. Both should be celebrated and taken seriously.”

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Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 47

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["Hallowed be your name" is probably the phrase in the Lord's Prayer that people find the hardest to understand, so Heidelberg gives one Lord's Day over to explaining it simply. It is about honouring, glorifying and praising God, not just in our thoughts ("help us to know you") but also our lives ("what we think, say and do"). To be honest, using the two key sentences ("Help us ...") as prayers, independent of the catechism, would be a worthwhile practice in its own right.]

Q122. What does the first petition mean?

A122. “Hallowed be your name” means:
Help us to truly know you,
to honour, glorify, and praise you
for all your works
and for all that shines forth from them:
your almighty power, wisdom, kindness,
justice, mercy, and truth.
And it means,
Help us to direct all our living—
what we think, say, and do—
so that your name will never be blasphemed because of us
but always honoured and praised.

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The Identity of Ezekiel’s Prince

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The identity of the prince in Ezekiel 40-48 is puzzling, and understandably disputed. Why is he called a prince, rather than a king? Is he a regular king in the manner of Zedekiah or Jehoiachin, and if so, why does he have priestly privileges? Is he even a Messianic figure? And so what?

Here’s Robert Jenson in his commentary on Ezekiel:

Who is this prince whose responsibilities are here laid down? The princely line that cheated on the offerings is finished: the prince cannot within Ezekiel’s purview be a reformed successor to Zedekiah. Thus, reference to what is possible within the history of this age becomes shadowy again. This leaves one possibility: whatever picture Ezekiel may have had in his own mind, the prince of an eschatological Israel, responsible for her offerings in the perfect temple, can only be that prince whom tradition came to call the “Messiah,” the “Christ.”

Thus, in my judgment, we may with full loyalty to the text as it stands read “Christ” for “the prince.” When we do that, we learn something vital about the reign of Christ: he now and eschatologically continues to mediate our creaturely presence before the holy God. He now and in all eternity provides the sacrifice that enables us to survive life with and in the holy God. And from the Gospels and the book of Hebrews we further learn that this sacrifice is himself.

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Why Preach Truth in a Post-Truth World?

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It’s official. We are now living in a post-truth society. The Oxford Dictionary has selected ‘post-truth’ as its word of the year. The concept, it says, has been around for a decade, “but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States.”

Its definition should ring some bells with those of you who read The Righteous Mind after Andrew and Matt’s recommendations: post-truth is “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’” (emphasis added).

If you’re not picturing an elephant1 galloping through the undergrowth with its rider clinging on for dear life, and rationalising away why he really wanted to be going that way anyway, you need to read the book. Suffice it to say that Haidt comprehensively demonstrates how our moral decision making is influenced almost entirely by our emotional (and physical – the stuff about hand-washing is mind-blowing) intuitive responses, and our reasoning is almost entirely post hoc rationalisation of why we believe and act the way we do. In effect, we don’t make up our minds, we follow our hearts.

We find facts less convincing, less compelling, than honesty.

That’s a controversial statement, and there’s still a large part of me that isn’t sure if I believe it – yet its evidence is all around me.

It is the key to understanding how a compulsive and comprehensive liar won the US election.

Back in September, Dara Lind wrote an article for Vox entitled, ‘Donald Trump lies. All the time. And a stunning number of people don’t seem to care.’ In the article she said:

Even though fact-checkers deploy their forces on Trump regularly, he never apologizes or retracts. Calling out his lies doesn’t make his supporters any less loyal to him. A substantial number of Americans still find him more “honest and trustworthy” than Hillary Clinton…

Donald Trump lies. It’s what he does.

His nonchalant dishonesty is horrifying. The fact that much of the American public simply doesn’t appear to care about his dishonesty — or that they don’t consider it a deal breaker for a potential president of the United States to tell several lies even on his most honest days — is more so.

His supporters may not believe everything he says — in fact, they often say they don’t even think he believes everything he says. They assume that he’s not going to do all the things he promises; the assumption that Trump is a liar is priced into their support of him. The literal things he says matter less to them as facts than as signals that he’s on their side.

Or as Alastair Roberts put it (in an article Andrew has already quoted other bits from):

Trump has his supporters’ trust because truth is a great deal more than factual accuracy; Trump is ‘true’ in a way that Clinton and other politicians don’t seem to be. Trump’s unreservedness, plain-spokenness, and preparedness to say politically incorrect things mark him out from the slipperiness most people have come to expect from politicians. Trump’s willingness to speak his mind—with all of its inconsistency, reactivity, dangerous impulsivity, and confusion—is a dimension of truthfulness that can be intoxicating to people accustomed to the rigorous self-censorship, spin and polish, and artful evasion of regular politicians. His preparedness to spark outrage and damage his reputation among the rich and powerful in going against political correctness can serve as an effective signal of his commitment to telling it as it is. People will forgive a great deal of inaccuracy when they think that you are being open and candid with them, unfeigned in your sentiments, and not purposefully trying to deceive or withhold your true opinion from them.

Just let that sink in.

“They assume that he’s not going to do all the things he promises.”

“The literal things he says matter less to them as facts than as signals that he’s on their side.”

“Truth is a great deal more than factual accuracy.”

“People will forgive a great deal of inaccuracy when they think that you are being open and candid with them.”

I think America is a little further down this road than the UK. It would be fascinating to hold the Brexit referendum again, however, to test that theory. My perception is that many people who voted ‘leave’ felt betrayed when it became clear immediately after the vote that promises such as £350m-per-week extra funding for the NHS would not be kept (and had never had any factual basis anyway), that we wouldn’t immediately be kicking out all immigrants, and that the economy would not ‘thrive’ – at least in the foreseeable future. But I may well be wrong. It may be that the people who voted to leave based on those promises (and I know that doesn’t account for all Brexiters) never really believed them either, and care more about the emotional reasons for leaving the EU than the economic ones anyway.

But fascinating though all this is, what does it mean for Christianity?

Last night my church held an evangelistic event in which the leader, Andrew Haslam, gave a short talk entitled ‘Can you ever be sure about God?’ then answered questions about it.

We had polled our friends to find out their big questions about God and the Christian faith and this was one of the most common. How can Christians be so sure they’ve found the truth? Is there even any such thing?

In a post-truth world, is there even any value in holding such events?

I think there is, and here’s why:

Firstly, people still enjoy debating and discussing ideas - the room was packed on a wet Wednesday evening when many people had lots of reasons to be anywhere else, and I know of at least two weekly philosophical discussion groups held within a fifteen minute walk from my house. Although the way ‘discussions’ are conducted online (and in Presidential debates) is aimed more at closing down discussion and vilifying the other, if we can model good discussion, good disagreement, we demonstrate the truth of God by showing that we are not personally threatened by opposing viewpoints. Our security in God and his love for us is as compelling a truth as any facts we can list ‘proving’ his existence.

Secondly, we believe that there is a truth and that it – that He – can be known. Declaring truth in a post-truth society may seem fruitless, but it is our mandate. We’ve never been called to do what is popular, to go along with the crowd, to adopt the world’s perspective on life. Events like these, and blogs like these, and sermons filled with the Bible are tentpegs, pinning down the canvas of truth against the winds of change that seek constantly to sweep it away.

And thirdly, although people will only come to Christ through a move of His Spirit opening their eyes and drawing them to him, and although most often that will happen in the context of their relationships with honest, open, struggling, non-hypocritical Christians – although they will follow their hearts – we are all called to be able to give a reason for the hope we profess. The heart will make the decision, but if it isn’t backed up with facts, people will make up their own rationalisations and reasons why they decided to follow, and when the storms come, those reasons won’t be sufficient to keep them dry, let alone give them shelter.

I don’t know how long the post-truth world will last. It doesn’t seem as though it would be sustainable for long, but equally I’m not sure how truth can be reclaimed for those to whom it seems so utterly irrelevant. In terms of our evangelism, though, it seems that nothing has really changed – after all, Pascal knew 350-odd years ago that people were persuaded by their hearts before their minds. His advice still rings true today: “make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.

Plus ça change…

Footnotes

    1. All associations with the Republican Party symbol are, as far as I understand it, entirely coincidental.

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The Key to Leading a Bad Meeting

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Few things in modern life are more frustrating than sitting in a meeting that, for whatever reason, has lost focus. We've all been there. Everybody knows what the topic is, but nobody is quite sure what the point is. Everyone knows how the conversation started, but no one can imagine how or when it will finish. People pitch in, not because they have anything especially insightful to say, but because they are a) eager to show that they know something about the subject, or b) bored with sitting there in silence listening to those who are a). The meeting becomes a list of collated musings, with no particular focus or destination, and no end in sight. The result is thoroughly exasperating.

Whenever I am in such a meeting—and, as you can probably tell, I am writing this from within one—my mind turns to three different individuals who, between them, highlight the essence of a good (and a bad) meeting. The first is Benjamin Disraeli, who reportedly said of William Gladstone: “He was never quite sure what he wanted to say, so he was never quite sure whether he had finished saying it.” The second is Sam Waterston in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, who spends an entire episode (arguably the funniest one) repeatedly asking Jane Fonda, in tones of increasing frustration, “I’m sorry, but what the **** is this meeting about?” Both comments exemplify what bad orators and bad meetings have in common: a lack of clarity about exactly what the debate, or meeting, is trying to achieve.

The third is an almost entirely unknown strategy consultant named Richard McKenzie. He was my project manager when I was twenty-two, and he began every single meeting, no matter how long or short it was (and no matter how senior or junior the personnel) by saying, “Right, the aim of this meeting is ...” and then crisply summarising it in one sentence. As junior consultants, we could almost lip sync the phrase. But the result was that you never ended up in a meeting with him without knowing what it was trying to decide. And the result of that was that you always knew when someone was waffling, when a discussion was irrelevant, when a discussion was vital, and when you were done.

But here’s the oddity: lots of people who lead meetings think they have done this, when in fact they haven’t. And the chief culprit, I think, is the agenda. Agendas typically contain headings that are not formulated in terms of questions, or decisions, but merely topics. Item one: the challenge of Brexit for widget manufacturers. Item two: the Von Hottentot Report. Item three: the year ahead. Richard McKenzie would never allow anything so vague. “The aim of this meeting is to decide whether we should suspend trading in our British widget-making operation.” “The aim of this meeting is to agree which of Von Hottentot’s five recommendations we are going to accept.” “The aim of this meeting is to summarise in one sentence our vision for 2017.” Or whatever.

No doubt there are many other things that can make meetings faster, more efficient and more interesting. Switching formats. Standing only meetings. Limiting discussion to X minutes per topic. Inviting the smallest possible number of people. “Speed dating” style meetings. But these format adaptations are only useful when the purpose of the meeting is clear to everyone at the outset: “the aim of this meeting is ...” Otherwise, whether they say it or not—and Christians often won’t—there will be a whole load of disengaged people sitting in a circle, glancing at watches or smartphones continually, and fighting a losing battle against the desire to expostulate, “I’m sorry, but what the **** is this meeting about?”

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Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 46

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[Heidelberg's teaching on the Lord's Prayer is not just excellent teaching on prayer; it is also an excellent model of biblical exposition. Why do we say "our Father"? To awaken a childlike reverence and trust. Why do we say "in heaven"? So we don't underestimate God. The beautiful double-whammy of the opening line of the Lord's Prayer--its intimacy and its majesty--is brought out powerfully by a mere two questions and answers. Look.]

Q120. Why did Christ command us
to call God “our Father”?

A120. To awaken in us
at the very beginning of our prayer
what should be basic to our prayer—
a childlike reverence and trust
that through Christ God has become our Father,
and that just as our parents do not refuse us
the things of this life,
even less will God our Father refuse to give us
what we ask in faith.

Q121. Why the words
“in heaven”?

A121. These words teach us
not to think of God’s heavenly majesty
as something earthly,
and to expect everything
needed for body and soul
from God’s almighty power.

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The Case For Congregationalism

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Jonathan Leeman will be known to regular readers here as a thoughtful, rigorous Baptist theologian, and the editorial director at 9Marks. Thanks to my friend Bobby Jamieson, I found myself with a copy of his new book recently, Don't Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism, and it is a fascinating (and very thorough) argument for elder-led congregationalism. The title "Don't Fire Your Church Members," much as it may sound like a critique of oafish, heavy-handed leadership, is actually an exhortation not to remove the God-given office of member from the church, simply by not honouring it in your governmental structure. Whether or not it convinces you in every detail, and whether or not you can follow Jonathan in moving from Matthew and 2 Corinthians to congregational voting in regular members' meetings--which admittedly, as a functional Presbyterian when it comes to local church polity, I cannot--it is full of important insights and arguments, and well worth considering as a wise expression of an influential idea.

Here’s his extremely helpful summary of twelve arguments for congregationalism (p. 122):

1. The final court of appeal in a matter of discipline, which is the highest authority in a church, is the church (Matt 18:17).
2. Jesus says that the church has authority to make this assessment and judgment because it possesses the keys (Matt 18:18).
3. Jesus promises that his authoritative presence abides with two or three witnesses to his reign and to one another gathered in his name (Matt 18:20). This locates authority in a gathering. But to say that this promise applies to a gathering smaller than a church would divide a local church against itself and make the basic unit of kingdom authority something smaller than a church, or create churches inside of churches.
4. There is no mention of bishops or elders in Matthew 16, 18 or 28, nor does the New Testament give a single example of elders or overseers unilaterally exercising the keys.
5. The apostles treat the gathered congregation as something of an equal partner when selecting and affirming the seven proto-deacons.
6. Paul invokes the language of gathering with the authority of Jesus to act in Jesus’ name from Matthew 18:20 when he charges not only the leaders of the Corinthian church but the whole congregation to “hand this man over to Satan” (1 Cor 5:4-5). The judgment, to be clear, does not occur behind closed session doors.
7. Paul explicitly tells the whole congregation that it is their responsibility to judge (1 Cor 5:12).
8. Paul tells the Galatian churches that they should act as a check even on his apostolic authority when he departs from the gospel (Gal 1:6-9).
9. Paul affirms that the decision of the “majority” was sufficient for removing a man from membership (2 Cor 2:6).
10. Churches can exist without elders (e.g. Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
11. Much of the New Testament is written to whole churches.
12. This explanation has the advantage of corresponding more closely with the Greek conception of an ekklesia, which involved an assembly of citizens who shared rule together and each had one vote, not an assembly of subjects.

As I say: interesting.

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Trust, Truth and Trump

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Obviously I am now a pundit of no credibility whatsoever, having successfully bungled a) the UK election in 2015, b) Brexit and now c) the US election in 2016. But this explanation of Trumpism from Alastair Roberts, and its implications to church leaders, is of huge importance, whatever Trump does or does not do. Beginning with Trump's bizarre dismissal of the scientific consensus on vaccines and autism (i.e. that one does not cause the other), and in advance of a thoughtful application to areas like the recent Hatmaker controversy, he writes:

If we were to plunge directly into a scientific debate about vaccines, virtually every layperson could soon be shown to be out of their depth. At some point, all of us have to take someone else’s word for it. The difference between anti-vaxxers and the rest of the population typically lies less in their level of smarts than in their level of trust in authorities.

Trump’s argument against vaccines works because people no longer trust the authorities—the governments, the scientists, the medical professionals, etc.—who tell them that they are safe. The biased mainstream media, the liberal elite, lying politicians, activist judges, crony capitalists, politically correct academics, the conspiring government, scientists bought off by big business, hypocritical religious leaders: all are radically corrupt, motivated by self-interest, and radically untrustworthy. In such a situation, people’s realm of trust can become more tribal in character, focusing upon people of their own class, background, friendship groups, family, locality, ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc. and deeply suspicious of and antagonistic towards people who do not belong to those groups. This collapse of trust hasn’t occurred because the general public has suddenly become expert in the science behind vaccinations and discovered the authorities’ claims concerning vaccines to be scientifically inaccurate. The trust that has been lost was never directed primarily at such scientific claims. Rather, it was a trust in the persons and agencies that presented us with them.

Later, he begins to apply all this to church leaders:

To understand the future of evangelicalism, there are few things more important than attending to currently shifting networks of trust. If people are confident that evangelicalism will generally be opposed to same-sex marriage in twenty-five years’ time, for instance, I wonder whether they have been paying close attention to the movements that have been taking place. The most prominent voices that have opposed same-sex marriage are now regarded with deep distrust from many quarters, especially by the younger generations, not least on account of their politics and the abuse scandals that have tarnished their reputation. People no longer trust them as leaders, so their position on same-sex marriage is now thrown into greater question. Although they may officially have authority, practically they have little authority over the younger generations. Most of us have LGBT persons in our families and friendship groups and many of us have a much closer bond with them than with an older generation of Christian leaders. Many people’s trust in Scripture’s power to speak to issues of gender and sexuality has also been damaged through the influence of purity culture and the often hateful extremism and callousness that they associate with traditional evangelicals’ opposition to homosexual practice and same-sex marriage.

People trust people, not abstractions. Watch your life, and your doctrine, closely.

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The Trumping of Andrew

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It really is not in my nature to say "I told you so" - as I am generally right about everything there is very little point in my drawing attention to the fact. But I have been surprised today by the unusual reticence of my young disciple.

Nearly four years ago Andrew made the bold claim that Hillary Clinton would be elected President of the United States, providing twelve reasons for his assertion. Even at the end of last year Andrew was still holding to this prediction, and telling us how was planning to, “Gloat when it turns out that my prediction of a Hillary win in the presidential campaign, from three years ago, is vindicated in November.”

In my more modest way, I responded to Andrew’s original post with just two reasons why he was clearly wrong, and why Hillary would not be President. They bear repeating (as do all my posts, come to think of it):

1. The smart money is very often placed on the wrong otter. Five years ago the smart money was pretty much all riding on Clinton winning the Democratic nomination ahead of Obama. ‘nuff said.

2. Her age. In 2016 Clinton will be 69, and while our American cousins may like to think they are neither ageist nor sexist it is most improbable that they will elect an elderly lady as Commander in Chief.

As I have previously pointed out, while it is true that “A disciple is not above his teacher,” I am hopeful that when Andrew is fully trained “he will be like his teacher.” I’m sure we are all praying for America today, but let us spare a moment to pray for Andrew, too. It’s not easy, being trumped by an old otter.

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The Most Interesting Conversation I’ve Had This Year

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The most interesting conversation I've had this year took place with three New Testament scholars, in a pub on the Strand, in June. It was on the subject of life on other planets.

Doctoral examinations are strange affairs. One minute you are sitting across a table from two experts you barely know, scared to your boots that you will say something dim and expose yourself as the ignorant fraud you are; the next minute they are congratulating you, inviting in your supervisor, and heading to the nearest pub for a couple of pints and a wide-ranging chat. In my case, the scholars in question were Simon Gathercole (Cambridge), Jonathan Linebaugh (Cambridge) and Eddie Adams (King’s College London), the pub was The Wellington, the pints were excellent craft IPAs, and the wide-ranging chat was very wide-ranging indeed.

We were talking about research interests, as academics always do, and then somebody mentioned that a colleague of his had recently been given funding by NASA. That, as you can imagine, is not something that happens very often in biblical studies. Why on earth, we all wanted to know, are NASA funding post-doctoral research in theology? And what is the project? Well, he replied: the project is on the theological implications of life on other planets. (I’ll let that sink in for a moment. NASA are funding a biblical studies project into extraterrestrial life.)

Why? Because, he continued, they are all-but-certain that they will discover evidence of life on other planets within the next twenty years. And when they do, they are all-but-certain that the American evangelical community is going to go absolutely bananas. So they are investing (what for them is a very small amount of) money to research the implications of such a thing happening—for anthropology, for the doctrine of creation, for theology proper—in the hope that it will stave off whatever furious apocalypses might otherwise result.

On hearing this, my first thought was: what? We are all-but-certain to find life on other planets within twenty years? Much of the rest of the day was spent pondering that concept, even as I tried to get my head round having passed my viva. My second thought was: wait, what are the theological implications of life on other planets? It turned out I was not the only one to be wondering that. By common consent, we all ended up looking at Simon Gathercole for an answer.

Simon put his beer back on the table. “So far, I don’t think I’ve got much,” he said, “but for now I’d go with C. S. Lewis. If it does turn out that there is life on other planets, Lewis said, then I will simply have to conclude that he has been there, too.”

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How Should The Church Patronise Art? A Thought Experiment

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Let’s imagine together an undesirable, unhealthy but intriguing situation.

Let’s imagine that Christians temporarily stopped paying artists to make art for the church and ploughed all this money into artists who are making art for those outside the church. I’m not suggesting this money would go to any old Christian artist making art outside the church (many would be getting paid for this already in their jobs). I’m imagining the church diverting funds from resourcing artists who are making art that blesses Christians in order to patronise (providing patronage, not condescending) artists who are creating provocative, engaging, high quality art that is likely to stimulate conversations about faith and warm people towards Jesus.

Okay, parentheses and convoluted sentences out of the way- do you get the thought experiment?

Well, assuming that you do, the first thing to say is that there would be a pretty healthy stash of cash freed up by this. I have heard several artists recently calling for the church to re-establish itself as a patron of the arts as it did in bygone years, but I actually think that the church is still taking on this role today, investing healthy amounts of resources into creative projects and practitioners. It is just that it is only patronising Christian artists who are making art within the church community.

This came home to me recently when a friend of mine went to check out one of the largest Christian worship organisations in the UK. It puts on training opportunities for people who’d like to develop as worship leaders specifically- training days, courses, internships, that sort of thing. He asked the guy who was running it how they helped musicians who wanted to make music for people outside the church and he simply replied that they didn’t cater for them at all. Now, in a sense this was always going to be beyond the scope of the organisation in question which is focused on developing the worship life of local churches (a thoroughly decent aim of course). However, the problem is that there are loads of organisations like this, but very few (as far as I’m aware) seeking to help Christian musicians like my friend who wants to engage with people outside the church.

So, in my crazy thought experiment, let’s imagine all of these musical, worshipful organisations are suspended for a period of time. So, all full time worship pastors are given a hiatus and all the money that churches give to improving the quality of their gathered times of sung worship (smoke machines, lighting rigs, etc) is put on hold. While we’re at it, let’s suspend activity in the whole contemporary Christian music scene as well. Rappers who rap theology. Rock bands who aren’t quite as angry as their secular contemporaries. Dance groups who replace references to illegal stimulants with references to Jesus. All given a break for a few years. (I know it’s a stupid suggestion, but bear with me).

But why stop there as I’m building up a bit of a head of steam! What about the performance arts? Well, this may not be such a significant pot of gold, but there are a good number of Christian dramatic companies who put on plays largely for churches. Let’s free up a few quid there. And writers? I suppose that fiction writers would be the ones to get the chop. There are a few Christian publishing houses you could asset strip, so let’s throw them in too.

As regards the visual arts, we’re not going to save a lot of money from the professional fees of banner designers, flag makers and church hall interior designers, but there may be some cuts we could make to communications budgets. Graphic designers and video makers who make sure that our internal comms are up to date and eye catching could be replaced by amateurs who’ve watched a couple of YouTube videos on Photoshop or Final Cut Pro. Again, this would add to the general pot.

Okay, as I’ve been at pains to emphasise, I’m not saying that this should happen, I’m just asking you to imagine if it did. Well, what would happen? As I’ve noted, lots of money would be saved. Harry Enfield quantities of money in fact. The church does have a budget for the creative arts when it comes to creativity towards Christians. But obviously there would be a cost to this madness.

Here’s the question though: what would that cost be? What would be the negative impact of these draconian measures? Would Christianity crumble in the western world? Would our churches fall into apostasy, heresy and idolatry?

Or would Christians simply be less entertained?

Would we have to put up with a few slightly older songs in our worship times for a while?

Would people just have to do a bit more work to find things out about what is going on in the church programme?

Thank you for indulging me for this long everyone. Much appreciated. I’ll leave you to think that imaginary one through in more detail as it is not impossible that I’ve missed a couple of things. However, as you’ve made it this far, I’ll just throw one more crazy, awful, distressing, imaginary world at you.

What if, on the other hand we took all of our resources away from those artists who are both highly skilled and wanting to create work to subtly and authentically turn our society back to Jesus and reach into people’s hearts and minds to soften them to the Christian worldview? Imagine we cut them completely. What if we refused to give any resources to such artists and just left them to make culture shaping art in their spare time, off their own backs, paying for it all from their own pockets?

Just imagine!

We’d risk removing a compelling Christian voice completely from the heart of our culture.

We’d risk only ever being able to reach out to people who are already on the verge of faith, because most people would have no credible Christian voices speaking into their lives from their music collection, from their gallery visits, from their Netflix viewing list.

We’d risk our worldview (and in turn, Jesus himself) being discredited as being lifeless, dull and impotent as we’d be unable to produce more than a handful of people who can create art that expresses spiritual vitality, depth of thought and an honest appraisal of our human condition.

Seriously, just imagine…


Image credit: Mike Petrucci (cc)

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A Remarkable Difference

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I've just finished my first preaching series at King's Church London. It was seven weeks long, apologetic in nature, based on my book If God, Then What?, and we took questions at the end of each talk. Three years ago, as it happens, we did a very similar series at Kings Church Eastbourne, called The Big Objections. It was seven weeks long, apologetic in nature, and we took questions in the run-up to each talk.

Eastbourne is only sixty miles away from London. Admittedly, the demographic in London is much more ethnically diverse than it is in Eastbourne, but the two churches share identical values, are in the same country, are of comparable sizes, and are both evangelistically engaged in their communities. Even so, once you put the problem of evil to once side—and let’s face it, there are few towns or cities in the Western world where that is not the biggest question people have about the Christian faith—the most common question is Eastbourne did not come up once in South East London, in seven weeks of asking. And the first question I was asked personally after the first message in London did not come up once in Eastbourne (as far as I can remember; I certainly didn’t engage with it in any of our resources), in seven weeks of asking. The topics in each case were sexuality and slavery, if you’re interested.

This is not to say that sexuality isn’t an issue in Lewisham, or that slavery isn’t an objection in Eastbourne, of course. The sample size here is small, and necessarily selective, and a great many people have questions that they don’t ask. But the experience nevertheless illustrates three things, I think. 1) Diversity makes a big difference. 2) Cities are not necessarily more secular than provincial towns (partly because of 1). 3) Contextualisation really matters.

Just saying.

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Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 45

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[My favourite section of the Heidelberg Catechism is the last one, in which the questions and answers focus on the topic of prayer. Maybe that's because it is so intensely practical in its advice; perhaps it's because it comes immediately after the Ten Commandments, and as such feels spiritually refreshing after a more rigorous section. In any event, the discussion is so warm and helpful, it would benefit any believer. Why pray? To thank God, and to receive gifts from him (which only come to those who pray). How do we pray? To God alone, in humility, and in confidence of being heard. What do we pray for? Everything we need, as explained in the Lord's Prayer. Marvellous.]

Q116. Why do Christians need to pray?

A116. Because prayer is the most important part
of the thankfulness God requires of us.
And also because God gives his grace and Holy Spirit
only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly,
asking God for these gifts
and thanking God for them.

Q117. What is the kind of prayer
that pleases God and that he listens to?

A117. First, we must pray from the heart
to no other than the one true God,
revealed to us in his Word,
asking for everything God has commanded us to ask for.
Second, we must fully recognize our need and misery,
so that we humble ourselves in God’s majestic presence.
Third, we must rest on this unshakable foundation:
even though we do not deserve it,
God will surely listen to our prayer
because of Christ our Lord.
That is what God promised us in his Word.

Q118. What did God command us to pray for?

A118. Everything we need, spiritually and physically,
as embraced in the prayer
Christ our Lord himself taught us.

Q119. What is this prayer?

A119. Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For the kingdom
and the power
and the glory are yours forever.
Amen.

Submission image

Submission

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The other week I did a Q&A at the Christian Union at my daughters’ school. All the normal questions came up: Is there freewill? What about suffering? How about equality? And all that somehow led on to the question of submission, with only a few minutes left to discuss it in.

In the hyper-WEIRD culture of a girls’ grammar school any notion of submission is not readily received. I gave the example of Christ submitting to Mary & Joseph (Luke 2:51) as evidence that ‘submit’ does not mean ‘inferior’ and tried to begin exploring how our western assumptions create cultural issues for us to navigate when picking a way through subjects like these. I didn’t make much progress. I didn’t have much time.

A few days later some friends from Istanbul came to visit. Ruth is an artist, learning the Turkish craft of decorating ceramic tiles. She described attending a ceramics conference at which a celebrated artist began her presentation with a dedication to the master craftsman who had instructed her. It was her submission to her teacher that gave this artist her credibility – just as it had been her teachers submission to his master that had given him credibility, and so on back through the generations.

The contrast between the world of Turkish ceramic art and my daughters’ school was illuminating. In one context submission is seen as wholly negative: it is experienced as restricting, patronising, and oppressive. In another it is positive: experienced as freeing, empowering and validating.

It should be possible to see the truth in both these positions – that submitting to someone can mean being placed in an abusive situation; and that submitting to someone can mean receiving prestige. It could also be observed that one response is much more focussed on the individual while the other is more concerned with the integrity of a wider community; in turn, each of those responses carry strengths and weaknesses.

But what I found most helpful is to see again that what we in the West tend to unthinkingly regard as ‘normal’ and morally correct ain’t necessarily so. So it is no surprise if when we turn to the non-WEIRD world of the Bible there are things that appear toxic to us. It may be that they are not actually poisonous, but they will probably take longer to chew through than is possible in ten minutes during a school lunch break. The question is, will we submit ourselves to this?!

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Sifting Contextual Theology

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I've seen some interesting discussions recently on "Contextual Theology" (sometimes used almost interchangeably with "Global Theology"). Some friends of mine have celebrated it and explained how important it is. Some friends of mine have critiqued it and explained how problematic it is. Both groups have invoked the famous Philip Jenkins quotation, either as a good or bad example of how to think about this ("Libraries have books on Asian theology or African theology, but books by Europeans or North Americans are just called 'Theology.'") And I have merrily commended and linked to both sorts of comment, because I think they're both right. Contextual Theology, it seems to me, is the sort of thing that can be either a very good thing or a Trojan horse for a very bad thing, depending on—ironically—context.

So here’s a shot at identifying the different sorts of things people mean when they commend and/or criticise Contextual (or Global) Theology.

1. Some people mean that the Western church (where Christianity is generally shrinking) has a lot to learn from the church in the Majority World (where Christianity is generally growing), specifically on areas that affect ordinary church life, discipleship and evangelism. Unashamed supernaturalism, for instance. Simplicity of communication. Passionate prayer. Storytelling. Seeing church as family. A strong emphasis on what the gospel means for the poorest among us. A preference for wisdom over knowledge. Write all the books and blog posts you want; if your theology doesn’t work in an Asian megacity or an African village, it doesn’t work. These are the sorts of things many of my friends in Newfrontiers are talking about, I think.

2. Others, especially missionaries operating in a Majority World context, mean slightly more than this. They agree with #1, but go further: there are all sorts of ways in which Westerners misread the Bible and formulate theology poorly because of our Western context, and need correction and balance from our Majority World brothers and sisters. Ethnocentric assumptions (the classic example being the “impudence” of the man in Luke 11:5-8). Honour/shame dynamics in biblical narratives and soteriological formulations. Reading the Gospels, and especially the parables, as if the events actually took place in Middle Eastern villages. Seeing the gospel significance of what might seem like subplots or marginal characters (Hagar, Abimelech, Dinah, Tamar ...) This kind of thing is what friends of mine working in Turkey and Armenia are focusing on.

3. Then there are those for whom Contextual Theology is an academic attempt to broaden the Christian tradition through the integration of liberation theologies, postcolonial theologies, Asian theologies, African theologies, Latin American theologies and so on; the postmodern impulse in contemporary scholarship, combined with the need for research to be original, has given this considerable momentum in the academy. Books and essays on this subject are often written not by missionaries or even pastors, but by academics from Majority World cultures working in (often Western) universities, and even good examples of the genre accidentally show how context can be less to do with ethnicity than with location, socio-economic status and church practice. (In other words, Chinese house church members probably have more in common with black or white house church Pentecostals in Brixton than they do with Chinese academics in American universities.) If people have this in mind when they talk about Contextual Theology, they will obviously react to it rather differently than if they are thinking of #1 or #2.

4. The most revisionist use of the language comes when progressive Western theologians berate conservative Western theologians for adhering too closely to the rule of faith, the Creeds, the theological reading of Scripture or whatever else in their biblical interpretation, on the grounds that doing so is “Eurocentric” or even “white” rather than “global” or “contextual.” This is what Alastair Roberts and Matt Anderson are objecting to, and it also risks falling foul of this pithy comment: “So, non-white people who train at elite western institutions and employ the historical-critical methods developed by 19th century Germans and critical theories put forward by 20th century French and German philosophers bring needed diversity, but theological interpretation that uses 1600 year old creeds written by Middle Easterners and North Africans and accepted by nearly all Christians throughout the world as a guide is tainted by whiteness. Check.”

So here’s why I think both critics and celebrators can all be right. I think the friends of mine who are championing Contextual Theology are almost entirely talking about #1 or #2, and those who are warning against it are almost entirely talking about #3 or #4. Context is everything: my Armenian and Turkish pastor friends are simply not that concerned with #4, since it is not a huge issue in Yerevan or Istanbul, whereas those engaged in biblical studies intramurals in North America would be negligent if they weren’t concerned with #4, seeing it (rightly, in my view) as a Trojan horse inside which all sorts of agendas can be smuggled. As such, my guess is that if those same Majority World pastors were shown Daniel Kirk’s recent article, or if those same evangelical academics were talking to church pastors in Kenya or Kolkata, they would completely agree with each other. The same term, used in different settings and with different meanings, can be either poisonous or glorious.

So is Contextual Theology a good or a bad thing? It depends on your context. That’s how I like my irony.

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The Word Did Everything

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This is possibly my favourite Martin Luther quotation ever. Happy Reformation Day:

Take myself as an example.  I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force.  I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.  And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it.  I did nothing; the Word did everything.  Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe.  But what would it have been?  Mere fool’s play.  I did nothing; I let the Word do its work.  What do you suppose is Satan’s thought when one tries to do the thing by kicking up a row?  He sits back in hell and thinks:  Oh, what a fine game the poor fools are up to now!  But when we spread the Word alone and let it alone do the work, that distresses him.  For it is almighty, and takes captive the hearts, and when the hearts are captured the work will fall of itself.

— The Second Sermon, March 10, 1522, Monday after Invocavit.  [Luther, M. (1999, c1959).  Vol. 51: Luther’s works, vol. 51: Sermons I.  (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.).  Luther’s Works (51:III-78).  Philadelphia: Fortress Press].

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Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 44

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[It's not that keeping the law completely is hard; it's that it's impossible. The tenth commandment is given that "not the slightest desire or thought contrary to any one of God's commandments should ever arise in our hearts," which, in this life, is something that even the holiest people "have only a small beginning of this obedience." So why on earth is it given, or preached? Two reasons, says Heidelberg: so that we look to Christ for forgiveness, and so that we keep pressing on towards perfection. And, while we're doing those things, may we "never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after God’s image." Quite.]

Q113. What is the aim of the tenth commandment?

A113. That not even the slightest desire or thought
contrary to any one of God’s commandments
should ever arise in our hearts.
Rather, with all our hearts
we should always hate sin
and take pleasure in whatever is right.

Q114. But can those converted to God
obey these commandments perfectly?

A114. No.
In this life even the holiest
have only a small beginning of this obedience.
Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose,
they do begin to live
according to all, not only some,
of God’s commandments.

Q115. Since no one in this life
can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly,
why does God want them
preached so pointedly?

A115. First, so that the longer we live
the more we may come to know our sinfulness
and the more eagerly look to Christ
for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.
Second, so that
we may never stop striving,
and never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit,
to be renewed more and more after God’s image,
until after this life we reach our goal:
perfection.

A Bizarre Tweetstorm on the Burial of Jesus image

A Bizarre Tweetstorm on the Burial of Jesus

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I came across a rather bizarre tweetstorm yesterday from Francesca Stavrakopoulou on the historicity of Jesus' and/or his burial. Professor Stavrakopoulou will be known to some British readers for her appearances on television, which (at least in the UK) are still pretty rare for biblical scholars, and the prompt for her comments was the Guardian's story about the restoration of the tomb in which Jesus was supposedly buried, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. She began with a very odd claim:

Jesus of Nazareth was probably buried in a mass grave after execution. But this is still an interesting excavation.

“Probably.” This, in spite of the fact that there is no first century (or any century, come to that) evidence for the idea, and four distinct first century sources that explicitly contradict it. Nevertheless, “probably.” Then this:

To clarify: no *direct* contemporaneous evidence that Jesus existed; just early Christian writings and disputed reference in Josephus.

Wait: is a biblical scholar in a mainstream university proposing that Jesus never existed? If she is, that really is quite a bombshell; if she isn’t, then what on earth does this comment have to do with anything? How do you bury a person in a mass grave if they never existed? And what exactly does this “clarify”? Next:

Ossuary inscriptions attest to common ancient Palestinian names, not specific personalities.

Except for the fact that every Palestinian name refers to a specific person, this is obviously true.

Some NT scholars think the gospels, Acts, etc, attest to ‘eyewitness’ accounts. But this approach is critically-flimsy & unpersuasive.

I love that compound word, “critically-flimsy.” I think it is an excellent descriptor for the tweet as a whole: the euphemistic use of the word “some”, the scare quotes around “eyewitness”, and the lack of reasons to believe that memory studies or the work of Richard Bauckham & co are “unpersuasive.” Then:

Particularly when they argue ‘supernatural’ or ‘divine’ acts are to be taken as a category of historical possibility.

Now we’re zeroing in on it. We cannot take seriously historical sources (or contemporary scholars) who believe that God acts in history, because otherwise, we might end up having to consider all manner of ancient nonsense (including bodily resurrection, presumably). So let’s double up on the scare quotes, and attempt to shame people who allow for the possibility that materialism might be untrue; after all, if it wasn’t, then secular Westerners might be wrong about something, and we can’t have that. I often think of Tom Wright’s comment at times like this: “What if the moratorium on speaking of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, which has been kept in place until recently more by the critics’ tone of voice than by sustained historical argument (‘surely,’ they imply on the edge of every discussion of the subject, ‘you cannot be so impossibly naive as to think that something actually happened?’), should itself turn out to be part of that intellectual and cultural hegemony against which much of the world is now doing its best to react?”

To my knowledge, we don’t find historians of the Armada agreeing with Elizabethan sources that God blew the invading ships off course.

It’s like talking to Eddie Izzard’s fictional “Captain Non Sequitur.” No, we don’t, because we know that winds blow on a regular basis, sometimes even in ways that favour the English. The same is not true of people walking on water, calming storms or healing the sick with a word, or rising from the dead.

So why should historians of the Bible entertain supernatural or divine explanations? It’s very silly.

So, just to be clear: there’s no contemporary evidence that Jesus existed at all. But if he did, he was buried in a mass grave. But if he wasn’t, he didn’t leave an empty tomb behind him. But if he did, it had nothing whatever to do with anything “divine” or “supernatural”. Got that?

“It’s very silly.” Quite.

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Teaching and the Local Church

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Of all the books in the New Testament, 1 Timothy perhaps gives us the fullest picture of what local church leadership is meant to look like. Yes, it was written to address particular issues in Ephesus, but it contains timeless principles for how the local church is to operate. And teaching is central to that. Let’s trace it out…

1:3 Charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine
Teaching shapes the church. The church will be shaped, either truly or falsely, so the charge given to Timothy, and to pastors ever since, is to teach the truth, truthfully. Actually, it’s stronger than that: the instruction is that those teaching what is false are to be stopped. In this instruction Paul seems less concerned that ‘every voice must be heard’ than that the church doesn’t waste time getting distracted by what is false. That must have been a tough sell in first century Ephesus, just as it is in the 21st century West.

2:5-7 There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher [‘herald’] and an apostle…a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
As a summary of the gospel this ‘testimony’ is as good as it gets: This is who God is; this is who Jesus is; this is what Jesus has done. Brilliant! What we also see is the extent to which Paul’s ministry was defined by teaching. Teaching was what he did. The gospel was heralded, and then it was consistently taught. Paul was unique, but the pattern of teaching he modelled was embedded in the practices of the church: there is meant to be teaching in the church. And this helps explain what in a WEIRD culture (see here) is probably the most contentious verse in scripture…

2:12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man
What exactly ‘authority’ means here has been hotly debated (including here) but what is clear is that there is an authority about teaching – or, there is teaching that is meant to be done with authority. And seeing that helps explain the weight Paul puts upon an elder’s ability to teach…

3:2 An overseer must be…able to teach.
There are different contexts for teaching, and yes, I think the ‘Big-T/Little-t’ distinction is helpful, and scriptural. There is teaching that overseers are meant to do, and there is teaching that everyone in the church is called to do (Col. 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom). But teaching is tied to eldership because it is one of the means by which the health of the church is preserved, and elders are responsible for this health. It is interesting to note that the very similar character requirements for elders and deacons do not have a corresponding teaching requirement. Elders are guardians of the flock and part of the way by which they guard it is by teaching – something that is not expected of deacons. As elders teach, they equip the flock to discern right from wrong, which helps explain this verse…

4:5 Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
Teaching the word is central to the life of the church because it is by the word we are equipped to receive all the good things God has for us. Paul can’t keep himself from underlining this…

4:11 Command and teach these things.
Teach the truth. Teach the truth. Teach the truth! And, do this…

4:13 Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.
Note here that the focus is on public scripture reading, exhortation and teaching. That is, Paul has in mind a different setting than one on one teaching, or the kind of Colossians 3:16 teaching that might go on when a small group of believers meet together in a home. Not all gatherings of the church are alike, and for most of us, Sunday morning is the ‘public’ space. This is a space that is in large measure defined by teaching, and Paul clearly expects that to be the task of the elders. Which is why he goes on to say…

5:17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching.
Preaching and teaching is labour. I know this from personal experience: public teaching is both the most rewarding and exasperating thing that I do! Not all leaders (or even all elders) are meant to carry out this public ministry, but those who do are to labour at it because it is how the church is shaped. What is taught in the church really matters…

6:2-4 Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.
With this instruction Paul brings us back to where we started in 1:3: if the church is going to head in the right direction then right teaching is non-negotiable.

Teaching is certainly not the only leadership role in the church, and we should fight very shy of building preaching centres: we don’t want preaching centres – we want churches! But without truthful teaching there isn’t a church to lead; or something is being led, which isn’t a church. As it was in Ephesus, so it is today.

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Why Does Bad Theology Produce More Healing?

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I am often asked at conferences and training events: why does bad theology seem to produce more healing? Sometimes the person asking is an impish conservative type, and they mean, maybe it doesn't produce more healing. It's all a scam. Sometimes the person asking is an impish Pentecostal, and the subtext is clearly, maybe it's not bad theology. It's all true. But more often than not, the person is genuinely worried: I'm pretty sure that so-and-so's theology on this is wrong in important ways, and that mine is right, but s/he sees way more healing than I do. Why? I sympathise.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think there are several plausible reasons why “bad” theology could produce “more” healing. (I’ll keep both words in quotation marks to avoid begging the question for now.) Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a particular person (a) holds a view of divine sovereignty, sickness, suffering and healing that is clearly unbiblical, and (b) sees credible, verified, remarkable healings at a rate that most of us get nowhere near. Why might that be the case? Four reasons occur to me.

They pray with faith. Assuming you believe that God heals today—and let’s face it, if you don’t, you probably aren’t interested in this article in the first place—then you’re presumably going to agree that there is a connection between praying with faith and people getting healed. Now: if you are theologically persuaded that God is going to heal every single person for whom you pray with faith, you will pray with a lot of faith for a lot of people. If you are theologically persuaded that God sometimes wants to heal people and sometimes doesn’t, you will pray with less faith for fewer people. (And if you are theologically persuaded that God never wants to heal people, you will pray with no faith for no people.) More faith for healing, more prayer for the sick. More prayer for the sick, more healing. It’s like John Wimber used to say: I’d rather pray for one hundred people and see one person healed, than pray for nobody and see nobody healed. I’m not saying it’s a simple percentages game—but then again, “you do not have because you do not ask.” As you sow, so shall you reap.

They have the gift of healing, whether or not they also have the gift of teaching. Paul is very clear in 1 Corinthians 12: “For to one is given ... gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles ... Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing?” Notice three things here. One: not everybody works miracles or has the gift of healing. Two: not all are teachers. Three: therefore the people with the gift of healing and the people with the gift of teaching will often be different people (or, put differently, the people with the strongest theology of healing will often not be the people with the strongest gift of healing). God’s gifts, you see, are not rewards for good behaviour, or good theology, or good devotional lives; they are gifts given for the good of the whole body, and no believer has all of them, and no believer has none of them. When firing on all cylinders, the local church will have great theology and lots of prophecy and lots of languages and lots of healing, because of the diversity of gifts within the body. In practice, this often doesn’t happen, because of the third reason.

People with similar gifts gather together. Like attracts like. Birds of a feather flock together. People with teaching gifts go to conferences run by TGC or T4G, or even THINK. People with leadership gifts go to conferences run by Leadership Network or Willow Creek. People with healing gifts go to conferences run by Bethel or Andrew Wommack Ministries. On its own, that wouldn’t be a problem; it would equip people to use their gifts more effectively, and strengthen the whole church. But because of the number of options available to the modern churchgoer, and the lack of institutional stickability, and even the invention of the motor car, people with particular gifts are able not just to go to entirely likeminded conferences annually, but to attend entirely likeminded churches weekly. You can probably find a church where gifts like yours are prized, and gifts that might clash with yours are either ignored or subtly denigrated. Wise church leaders will recognise the dangers of this, of course, and build teams and church cultures that honour and celebrate all of the Spirit’s gifts, but the temptation to specialise further is always there—not least because drawing likeminded people from all over the world to your school of theology, or leadership, or supernatural ministry, or worship, may well lead your church to grow in influence and numbers as a result. Which, if it happens, means that churches led by people with healing gifts see more and more healing (and less and less robust theology), and churches led by people with teaching gifts see less and less healing (and more and more robust theology), and everyone wonders why. What is needed is wise leadership that values and honours the strengths of others, and eagerly desires spiritual gifts, and guards the church from false teaching, and looks to preach the gospel to all nations, all at once. Which is harder than it sounds.

They are less sceptical about reports of healing. This final reason cuts both ways. In a good way, it means that people with strong healing gifts are more likely to hear about, announce and celebrate physical healings, more likely to thank God for them publicly, and more likely to encourage others to pray for more—which takes us in a nice feedback loop back to the first reason. (Scepticism kills that kind of thing. We don’t celebrate a healing straight away, because it hasn’t been verified. We don’t celebrate a healing a week later, because they might lose it. We don’t celebrate a healing a year later, because everyone has forgotten about it. Bah, humbug.) On the other hand, being less sceptical can also mean that people are proclaimed to have been healed when they have not, and a mixture of atmosphere, hormones, suggestion, emotion and euphoria has convinced them that they have. This double-whammy is bound to increase the number of reported healings, partly in a good way and partly in a bad way. Wise pastors, of course, learn how to celebrate healing without being merely swept along by the moment, and to verify reported miracles without pouring cold water on them. (For what it’s worth, my guess is that most people who have read this far will probably struggle more with cynicism than credulity, given our wider culture, and as such we should probably lean in the opposite direction. Take it or leave it.)

So there are four reasons why “bad” theology might produce “more” healing. Clearly, there are also such things as charlatanry and chicanery, just as there are such things as sneering judgmentalism and intellectual pride. But if we are able to assume the best of our brothers and sisters, even if we believe they are theologically wrong, and if we are prepared to sacrifice some of our personal preferences for the good of the whole body, we should not give up hope of being a community with both great theology and plentiful healing. Personally, I don’t want to settle for anything less.

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Gay Cakes & the Unkindness of the New Totalitarianism

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In the year 250 an edict was issued that everyone throughout the Empire was required to sacrifice to the Roman gods and the well-being of the Emperor Decius. These sacrifices were to be witnessed and certified by a Roman magistrate. This was state-enforced conformity.

The Decian edict does not seem to have been specifically targeted at Christians, but nonetheless had significant implications for the Christian community. Some apostatized (perhaps crossing their fingers, and not really meaning it), some fled, while others refused to make the sacrifice and suffered the death penalty. Once the persecution had subsided its effects lingered on, as the church was divided over how to treat those who had denied their faith, or ran away from trouble.

Today’s ruling in the Ashers cake case does not have the life and death implications of the Decian persecution, but the parallels are uncanny.

The craziness of the ruling is obvious: That it is all too easy to trot out all the, “It would be like…” examples. (Like a Jewish baker being forced to endorse pig eating; like a Muslim baker being compelled to endorse the superiority of Sikhism; etc, etc.) That Ashers had previously served Gareth Lee and would do so again – his sexuality not being an issue. That same-sex marriage remains illegal in Northern Ireland, so Ashers have been criminalised for refusing to endorse an illegal act. And on and on.

What this case makes crystal clear is the intolerance of the new sexual totalitarianism. No dissent will be tolerated: all citizens of this empire must demonstrate their obeisance. And that raises a question for Christians as to how they should respond: Acquiesce? (Perhaps with some finger-crossing and nose-holding involved). Go into hiding? (Which amounts to acquiescence.) Or face the penalty by refusing to swear fealty?

Imagine the instructions of a Roman magistrate in some dusty corner of the Empire: “Just make the sacrifice, say the words. You don’t have to really mean it. Doing it doesn’t mean you really support it. It’s just something you have to do. Come on, why are you being so unreasonable about this? Don’t you know it could cost you your life?”

That is pretty much the situation that Ashers finds itself in.

Of course, to refuse to bow before this new deity does not mean the death penalty. Practically, for Ashers, it simply means they will now only decorate birthday cakes to order – though that they should be thus restricted is itself a kind of craziness. Also revealed is one of the most disturbing aspects of the new totalitarianism: just how unkind it is.

Yes, the implications for freedom of speech and religious and political freedom are significant, just as they were in the year 250. (Even Peter Tatchell agrees with that.) But also significant are the implications for how we treat one another in the contemporary West. To try and compel a Jewish baker to produce a cake advertising pork products would not only be an assault on that baker’s religious convictions, it would be a profoundly ungenerous thing to do. To push the point because it was legally sanctioned would not make it any more morally justifiable. To push the point would be to undermine the civic bonds that enable a society to flourish. It would be unkind, and vindictive. What we are seeing is that the new totalitarianism does not have space for kindness or generosity – it seeks simply to dominate and control. Mr Lee has not gained any more freedom by pursuing this action; he has merely restricted the extent of business in which Ashers may engage. And he has made his community a less pleasant – a less tolerant – place in which to live. That’s what enforced conformity does.

All hail the new totalitarianism.

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Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 43

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[Today's comment on the ninth commandment is what happens when you meditate on the spirit of the commandments, through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount, rather than the mere letter. The letter says, "you shall not bear false witness." The spirit (Spirit!) says, "I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name." This is not just avoiding defamation; it is actively seeking to honour. What a beautiful yet challenging target.]

Q112. What is the aim of the ninth commandment?

A112. That I
never give false testimony against anyone,
twist no one’s words,
not gossip or slander,
nor join in condemning anyone
rashly or without a hearing.
Rather, in court and everywhere else,
I should avoid lying and deceit of every kind;
these are the very devices the devil uses,
and they would call down on me God’s intense wrath.
I should love the truth,
speak it candidly,
and openly acknowledge it.
And I should do what I can
to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.

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Open Theism or Larva Dei?

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Process theology among liberal theologians and open theism among evangelicals have produced metaphysically more or less coherent accounts of primary divine agency and secondary temporal agency. But they have done so only by revising Christian language about God past all biblical recognition. A God who is one pole of a universal process is not the God of Ezekiel or any other prophet ...

In ancient drama, the actors brought the gods and heroes into the theatre by and as masks by which the acros hid and through which they spoke; within the ceremony the masks were dramatis personae. Martin Luther adduced this phenomenon, but reversed the relation of actors and masks. God brings the created heroes and villains of the temporal drama onto history’s stage as masks that hide him—for were he to appear barefaced creation would perish. Thus Nebuchadnezzar and his like are larva dei, God’s masks—as indeed are all creatures in one way or another, and we masks truly are the personae of the drama; we re not puppets manipulated by someone distant from us. Yet behind us hides the Creator.

—Robert Jenson, Ezekiel, 238-239

THINK 2017: Reading Galatians 500 Years After Martin Luther image

THINK 2017: Reading Galatians 500 Years After Martin Luther

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Five hundred years ago, the world was turned upside-down by an unknown theology professor in a small German town. Within five years of Martin Luther's call for an academic debate on 31st October 1517, he had caused uproar throughout Western Europe, destabilised the papacy, prompted new biblical translations, written numerous inflammatory pamphlets, been excommunicated, placed under imperial ban, kidnapped for his own safety and imprisoned in a castle, and his reform movement was already shaping churches across Christendom. The religious, political and even economic landscape of Europe, and in many ways the rest of the world, would never be the same.

Fifteen hundred years before that, the world had been turned upside-down even more emphatically by an unknown Jewish preacher in various small Asian and Greek towns. His radical new message about the kind of God there is, the kind of gospel he had revealed and the kind of communities that should result, expressed with such clarity and fire in his letter to the Galatians, brought about what some secular historians regard as the only genuine “revolution” there has ever been.

Because of the obvious similarities, many have regarded Luther and Paul as saying exactly the same thing. Many others have regarded them as saying very different things, with Luther thinking he was representing Paul when in fact he wasn’t. A newer movement in scholarship has proposed that both these views are wrong, and that Paul is a much more “apocalyptic” thinker than most of us realise. How should we locate ourselves in this debate? And more importantly, how can we read this astonishing, brave and bombastic letter in a way that does justice to all its themes: unity, freedom, baptism, fruit, faith, table-fellowship, spirituality and (yes) justification?

Join us for three days in July 2017. Be enriched. Take time. Think.