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Friday, 23 December 2011

Is Wright Wrong? Questions about Tom Wright's Simply Jesus

NT or Tom Wright 
A new gentle giant
Tom Wright, also known as NT Wright in his more scholarly role, was until recently, a bishop in the Church of England.

It is wonderful to have believing bishops in the Anglican church, and it was good to have a bishop who believed Jesus bodily rose from the dead in a city (Durham) where a previous bishop denied the resurrection (and was inexcusably not disciplined for it).

Tom Wright is a prolific author. His influence is growing, and seems to be on the increase in evangelical circles - hence my interest in him here. His reputation stands on three 700-page foundational books, which gained him widespread acclaim in the academic world. But now he's writing lots of "popular" books, so soon he'll be found in a Kindle near you.

I put exclamation marks around popular, because there is popular and there is popular. There is A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking kind of popular and there is Jamie Oliver's 30-Minute Meals popular. No question, Tom Wright's books are of the Hawking variety of popular. This will mean, on the one hand that few ordinary people will get through his books, but on the other hand, many church leaders could be affected by them: Steve Chalke and Rob Bell, for example, have been greatly influenced by Wright. I have read many of Wright's books with growing sadness and alarm, and so I take this opportunity to view his wider mission through the lens of this book. 

The Book: Simply Jesus
So to the book Simply Jesus, or subtitled "Who he was, what he did, why it matters." The book is anything but simple and the Jesus he represents is anything but simple. I cannot imagine many of my Christian friends making it to the end (no, that's not a reflection on my friends), and I certainly wouldn't expect my unbelieving friends to make it to page 230. Understanding why Wright thinks Jesus is difficult lies at the very heart of this book, and at the heart of Wright’s errors. For this reason, I shall spend most of this blog exploring this issue.

I will argue that since Wright has done up the first button of his shirt wrong, all the other buttons are out of sync too.

Jesus is difficult – why is Jesus difficult?
Wright goes out of his way to prepare the reader for how difficult, in his view, Jesus is to understand: "Jesus was not simple in his own time, and he is not simple now" (p. x). Why is Jesus complex? Two main reasons: (a) because the Gospels are difficult: "The sources we have for his public career - the four Gospels... are dense, complex and multilayered." (p.9) and (b) because we cannot understand Jesus without a deep understanding of his historical setting. Somehow we have to get into his world:   "This is absolutely necessary, because first century Jews thought very differently from the way we do now... we have to make a real effort to see things from a first century Jewish point of view, if we are to understand what Jesus was all about." (p. xii). 

Now because you need to understand Jesus’ historical setting, you need to either be a first-century historian, or, rely on a good one......

In the few quotes above lie a universe of questions:

Question 1: What is your “interpretative framework”?
Big words, but simple meaning; please stay with me.  Wright wants evangelicals to move away from our interpretative moorings. We are convinced that the only proper way to interpret Jesus is to place him in the setting of the New Testament and the Old Testament. The Old Testament points forward to Jesus, and the apostles who wrote the New Testament (we are thinking of the 27 books) point backwards to Jesus and make sense of his life and death. We believe that the apostles are the legitimate interpreters of Jesus. In short we believe in sola scriptura – the Scriptures alone. We could represent this with a diagram:

Evangelical View

 Wright disagrees. He wants to add another interpretive framework -  first century history:

An alternative view
But tragically, that is not all. If I understand Wright correctly, he wants to diminish – at the very least – the role of the apostles as the legitimate interpreters of Jesus’ life and work. Proof: very rarely do the apostles get quoted in a book that purports to be all about Jesus! So what we end up with is:

NT Wright's View
In summary, then, Wright is arguing that Jesus and the Gospels be placed in a new interpretative framework, that of the first century. And naturally, it follows, you need a first-century historian as your guide. Who, I wonder, might that be?

Question 2: What is your world? The world of the academic or the humble saint?
This is the second, fatal flaw of Wright’s approach. Wright is primarily a scholar, not a pastor or preacher. A scholar, is concerned with knowledge, particularly cutting edge stuff and his teaching is aimed to stimulate the novel-seeking mind. She is always glancing over one shoulder to see what her peers think: the testing ground of ‘truth’ is the academy (you make a name by finding out new stuff). A preacher or pastor is interested in building up the saints, to edify them, to strengthen their faith through the joys and storms of life. The test of truth is not the academy, but the church. The preacher, while wanting to bring new treasures out – and what amazing treasures the Word contains – has absolutely no interest in novelty. 

Question 3: What is your Gospel (of the Gospels)?
If you exclude the apostles as your legitimate interpreters of Jesus, and consider only the Old Testament plus the first century as your only guides, you are going to end up with a Gospel that differs from the apostolic one. And that tragically is what we get in Simply Jesus. What is the central message of Jesus? Jesus announces and establishes the kingdom of God. That's it. Through his life (and somehow through his death) he establishes the kingdom of God and that's the Gospel of the Gospels.  Jesus did not come "to teach people how to get to heaven" but to "tell them that God was now taking charge right here on earth; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognise, in his own work, the signs that it was happening; and that when he completed his work, it would become a reality." (p.142)

What about the death of Jesus?

Well, Jesus died "not in order to rescue people from this world for a faraway heaven, but in order that God’s kingdom may be established on earth as in heaven." (p.180) While Wright does not deny some kind of substitutionary or penal (‘penal’ is the strange word we use to describe the legal ‘must punish sin to be Just’ characteristic of God's justice)  aspect to Jesus' death, it takes a back seat. Of course it would, if you neglect Romans and Hebrews.

The meaning of the cross becomes this: Jesus "took the full power of evil and accusation upon himself, to let it do its worst to him, so that it would thereby be exhausted, its main force spent" (184). In other words, evil has a battery full of limited power; it expended that battery on Jesus on the cross (how?) and now its energy is gone. Wright is not happy with penal substitution,  regarding it as notorious because it “leaves unanswered the question of how such a punishment could itself be just, let alone loving” (p.181). Come now, even a child can understand how the cross of Jesus can be loving and just! Loving because the lover has given up his life for the beloved and just because a holy and just God is satisfied; sin has been paid for.

Wright is frankly confused over penal substitution: “Jesus has announced God’s imminent judgement on his rebel people, a judgement that would consist of devastation at the hands of Rome. He then goes ahead of his people to take precisely that judgement, literally, physically and historically upon himself.” (p.181) This is absurd! If Jesus bore the judgement that should have come upon Israel, then God was unjust – or even wicked - to then pour it out on the Jews in AD 66-70, for now he has exacted the penalty twice. 

Question 4: Who will be your guide?
In the end, who will be your guide when it comes to understanding Jesus? Will it be the passing findings of the fickle academy, or the passing words of a human scholar? Or will it be the solid Scriptures illuminated by the Holy Spirit?

Question 5: How come it don't all fit together?
If the message of Jesus is "the kingdom has come" how come that message is not the one preached in the Acts and the rest of the New Testament? Theories are successful in so far as they fit the data. I find no evidence that this was the message of the apostles as they went into the world. Instead I find their message was frankly, the old fashioned one: "repent and believe".  

Questions 6:  Isn't this just one more attempt to produce a clever Gospel that has no offence?
Don't we have here, the age old attempt to avoid the scorn of preaching the scandal of the cross of Christ, by preaching a new and clever Gospel, that will appeal to the world (at least the academics, leaving everyone else high and dry and bored)? Clever boffins and an educated world looks for wisdom, but we must continue to preach Christ crucified.

Question 7: Is Jesus really all that difficult? 
On the one hand, Wright is helpful to point out the riches of Christ and not to settle as some have with a reduced Jesus. But on the other hand, I cannot find the apostles ever talking like Wright, preparing their congregations for the enormously difficult and daunting task before them, if they are ever to really understand Jesus. Of course, Wright will reply - they didn't have to because they lived in the first Century. But the Gospel travelled to non-Jews who would have to enter the Jewish world of the Old Testament to understand prophecies and sacrifices. And nowhere do we get the impression this was going to be an impossible task for them. Isn't the real problem that Wright is approaching Jesus from completely the wrong perspective - from the narrow (and frankly irrelevant for 99.999% of the people of the world including the West) perspective of a western academic. And from this rational perspective Jesus is mighty difficult because all the wrong questions are asked about him - of course they would be, for they are asked by scholars, many of whom, it must be sadly said, are unbelievers!

Question 8:  Do you have to be a first-century historian to understand Jesus?
Of all the errors in Wright, this stands as one of the greatest. If God gave Jesus to the academy, yes, perhaps. But he didn't, and frankly, God and Jesus have very little to do with the passing fancies of the academy (one million different and often false Jesus' have been fabricated by them, with another zillion to come). What you need to see Jesus is the Bible, the Holy Spirit and a believing community. I throw in the last one, because whenever we go off on a limb interpreting Jesus without the feedback of God's people, we are bound to err - particularly if we do it in a university setting.

Question 9: Was the world of Jesus so alien to our world that we need a degree in history to get it?
No - if you're talking about hope, love, faith, salvation, service, life, and all the one thousand other concerns of ordinary human life. On these universal and eternal issues we find ourselves immediately in the world of the Bible without scarcely a blink. Yes - if you are interested in secondary matters such as the details of the politics of the age, then perhaps you need a little help. The real problem with Wright is that he majors on minors and minors on majors. The issues that really matter do not separate us one iota from the world of Jesus' day; it's only on peripheral issues that our worlds differ.

Question 10: Isn't this kind of approach the triumph of the enlightenment project (the from-the-dawn-of-time attempt by mankind to find truth without Revelation)?
If the aim of the enlightenment was to arrive at truth using human methodology (like Spinoza's attempt in Ethics to produce a universal philosophy/theology/morality based on first principles), isn't NT Wright merely one more child of the enlightenment and his work the triumph of it in "Christendom". What can be more compelling to a child of the enlightenment than to start off as a historian (using methods, a, b, c such as primary sources only please, to assess probability of event d, etc.) and then from that foundation to build your whole theology, ignoring the apostles along the way.

Question 11: Isn't "you have to know first-century history" simply a modern form of gnosticism?
Gnosticism is the error that teaches that access to some knowledge gives you the real key to understanding Jesus. Without this knowledge you will never really understand Jesus. This is in effect what Wright teaches.  In other words Wright's problem is nothing to do with knowledge, it's a spiritual problem - gnosticism.

Question 12: There is a good reason you don't need to be a First-Century historian to understand Jesus.
The glory of the Gospel is that it floats outside of first-century Palestinian culture. The Gospel is for the world. This is why the apostles, and not the historians are the true interpreters of Jesus. To drag Jesus back into first-century Palestine and force him to be interpreted only in that setting is to misunderstand the Gospel, which floats above culture, so it can make its home in any culture of the world.

Although we may learn much from Tom Wright, "Simply Jesus" is not an adequate explanation of who Jesus was. It emphasises things that are unimportant and minimizes things that are all-important. It complicates things that are actually very simple and overlooks simple truths.

And most tragically of all, it is not a faithful representation of the Gospel of Jesus. 

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Shepherding of Mary's Faith

The tender shepherd
Jesus, the Great Shepherd, is gentle with young believers, "he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart he gently leads those that have young" (somewhere in Isaiah). And nowhere is this tenderness more beautifully demonstrated than in Luke's record of God's dealings with the young Mary.

An explanation from Gabriel
First act of care - Gabriel did not despise the question any young woman would ask about history's first (and only real) parthenogenesis (you can google it): "how can this be so" but told her that her pregnancy would be from God, "the power of the Most High will overshadow you."

An older woman to chat with
Next, God gave to Mary an older woman to chat with and no doubt pray with - for three months! Elizabeth was also experiencing a miracle, but only the restoration of normal reproductiveness, not the big word miracle above. Nevertheless she could help Mary with the questions she would get from Joseph and her village folk. She probably couldn't go to her own mother, and in any case someone outside of the village was better able to see things straight.

Some shepherds with news to calm the shocking birth
So it's beginning to sink in that this baby is something special, "he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever", but then a rude turn of events - the baby has to be born in shocking circumstances, a manger; and what first-time mother would place their precious child in a feeding trough? This needs some explanation. What's gone wrong? This can't be right? What does God do? He sends along some shepherds who tell their story - messengers from heaven who tell them that the Messiah had been born - and would be found, guess where? in a feeding trough. This news from another world, is as much for Mary's faith as for the world's joy.

Some age-d saints to assure them that costly obedience was right!
Next, this poor couple (the Magi haven't yet come with their "we three kings" gifts) have got to make some costly gifts demanded by the law of Moses. Like the two sacrifices required for childbirth purification, like five shekels to pay for the redemption of a first-born son. I mean, they've just undertaken a costly 70-mile journey from Nazareth, they are 'saving for a first home' (modern parlance) and they've got a newborn baby. Surely, they could be excused from these costly requirements. But they were a pious righteous couple and just (providence, not chance) as they were making their costly gifts, God sends into their lives two godly saints to encourage them on their way: Simeon and Anna.

A gracious preparation for future sorrow
And finally, the tender Shepherd of the sheep prepares Mary for the future, when her heart will be torn as she sees the hatred poured out against her Son. Simeon doesn't tell her about bloody thorns and back, or about nails or terror crucifixion, but he tells her that her Son will cause the falling of many, will be a sign spoken against and that a sword would pierce her own heart.

Assurance, comfort and preparation.

What wonderful Shepherdly care.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The simple faith of Mary

Same angel, different response
God gave to Gabriel the task of taking real good news to an old priest (Zechariah) and real good news to a young ordinary woman (Mary). I don't know what angels think of us, but what a shocking difference in responses this one received!

In both cases the news he was sent to deliver was good: "I want to bless you and bring blessing to the world through you." Not judgement, not trouble, just blessing! For Zechariah it was the news that he and Elizabeth would bear a special son in old age and have the ancient stigma of childlessness removed. For Mary, it was the stupendous news that she would bear the Son of God into the world.

Visit One - the unbelief of Zechariah
If anyone should have been prepared for good news, it was Zechariah. For a starters, it was news he had probably prayed for. Then he was a priest on duty - shouldn't his spiritual antenna have been in tune?  Furthermore, he was chosen by lot on this occasion to burn incense - a once in a life time privilege for a priest. The message was even delivered at the height of that ceremony for effect, and for added impact was delivered by an angel! The news was not even 'out of the blue' historically, for Abraham and Sarah had borne a child in their old age.

Everything was arranged to make faith easy for Zechariah, but he did not believe "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years", and was chastised with nine months of dumbness.

Visit Two - the faith of Mary
Six months later, Gabriel was sent to visit someone at the opposite end of the "religious"/ "favoured" spectrum - an ordinary girl from an ordinary village, engaged to the village carpenter. If anyone had reasons not to believe it was her. In addition to her ordinariness ("Why should God be bothered with me?") she had to climb the hill of biological impossibility and novelty. Everyone knows babies aren't born without fathers. Nothing like this miracle is found in the Old Testament. And what about Joseph and what about the response of this news on Mary from the village?

And yet, though the bar is set so very high, Mary believes the good news; "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." 

The Encouragement and the Warning
Zechariah serves as a great great warning to every believer - and especially to older believers who have been on the road for years  - of the danger of a hard cold heart of unbelief. Wow what a serious warning! God may be speaking - and even be speaking blessing - but it's possible to be deaf to his voice.

Mary, on the other hand, serves as an encouragement for those who though small in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world, nevertheless have, not great faith, but faith in a great God.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Why Old Testament Law is so Kind

A common accusation
One very common criticism of the Old Testament is that its laws - especially its retributive justice laws, "an eye for an eye..." are harsh. This of course is not a criticism leveled by anyone who has spent one hour in a typical village in the world - it's made by ignorant western arm-chair academics.   

Village life across the world
Village life in many cultures is self-policing. Without a bobby-on-the-beat, or in some cases because of a corrupt bobby-on-the-make, family groups undertake local justice.

If, for example, a lad touches up one of their girls, they will send the boys around, give that lad a sound beating, and two good things will happen as a result. First, the lad who did the touching will learn it's not a good thing to do: that will help him in life and protect all the girls in the community. Second, the family will gain the status as a family not to be messed with. This is also vitally important, because if nothing is done about the 'touching up' this will be seen as a weakness, and next time the girl is alone, she could be raped.

You and I westerners may not like it, we may prefer bobbies on the beat, but village justice is common across large parts of the globe. The village elders know this is going on and allow it - it's just part of the rhyme and rhythm of daily life.  

The dangers of village justice
The great danger of village justice, however, is Justice. It is very easy for two eyes to be taken for one lost, two teeth to be knocked in the place of one. Human anger is impure and often over the top. Enter Old Testament law....

The Kindness of the Old Testament Civil Laws
The purpose of the OT laws is to curb and limit 'village justice'. They impose a limit on the retributive justice that can take place. They prevent the natural desire for revenge to go over the top. They prohibit people going too far.

Seen from this perspective, these laws safeguard the community.

The charge that these laws are 'barbaric' can only be made by people who are wholly ignorant of the ways of the world. Far from being barbaric, these laws are actually very kind.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Love Wins - a review of Bell's Book

Eat the fruit - spit out the seeds
I remember giving a review of Steve Chalke's book "The lost Message of Jesus" to a group of  pastors. They were expecting brimstone and fire, but I began with some positives - because there were some positives.

(Some real big negatives too....)

I am trying to learn over the years to appreciate the fruit and spit out the seeds.
Hold on to the good while rejecting the evil.

So I like some things about this book. I love the positives he highlights in the Gospel. I appreciate Rob Bell's emphasis on the greatest gift of all - love - and his concern for the practical outworking of it in our lives. We should all appreciate the way he questions acquired doctrines rather than just accepting them. (Would be that every believer's theology was first hand rather than borrowed from their church community.)

I also appreciate a fresh attempt to apply the Gospel to our present culture - question is, does he succeed?

Bell indicates his questioning nature stylistically with novel punctuation and page lay out. (Unfortunately this just gets on ones nerves after page 1).

Some background
Perhaps we across the pond can stand back from a book like this and see things native Americans can't.

It's not difficult to detect the following influences on Bell:

(1) Reaction against dead Religion. No question - Bell is reacting against a dead fundamentalist strain of evangelicalism that is all law, thunder and negatives. If you want to see it in action, tune in to some of the God channels.

(2) Western Ease. Where you write your theology, your context, acts like a filter. If you write your theology out of persecution and struggle it is likely to be cross-shaped. If you write it out of wealth and ease, you're shaped by the reaction of your culture to any hard doctrines - out must go a bloody cross, hell and judgement. Contemporary culture just doesn't do tough doctrines such as hell.

(3) Neo-orthodoxy. Unquestionably, and connected to (2), Bell, like McLaren, Chalke and others before him has been influenced by the neo-orthodoxy of scholars such as NT Wright. On the surface these men believe in doctrines like the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, but upon further inspection they turn out to be woolly around the edges, see (4).

(4) "You have to be a first-century historian to understand the NT". This is the cry of the arm-chair academics. If you don't know the historical setting of Jesus and first-century Palestinian Judaism, how will you understand the Gospels? This is a deep deep deep fallacy. All we need to know about first century Palestinian Judaism is in the OT and the NT. It is very likely that uninspired external writings will skew, deceive, obscure and twist.

If, as an important example, Jesus says that many Pharisees believed in works-righteousness and came to the temple telling God that in their prayers (Luke 18), we believe Him against all the writings of contemporary rabbis and what nots.

The New Testament was given by God to float outside of Palestine, around the world; it contains, along with the Old Testament, all you need to know. (This doesn't mean external sources aren't helpful and interesting when interpreting the New Testament; all it means is that they are not absolutely necessary).

(5) Only the Gospels matter, the apostles (especially Paul) are excluded. Part of this neo-orthodoxy is an exclusion of the apostles, and especially Paul as the interpreters of Jesus. The idea (primary documents historian stuff) is that all we really need are the words of Jesus (and many of the ones in our Gospels probably don't come from  him, so now we have a canon within a canon within a canon - Chinese dolls?) These are the primary sources (historian approach to the Bible) - the canon within a canon. All the emphasis is on these words of Jesus in the Gospels (and Oh yes, parts of the OT), but almost nothing from Paul, Peter, John, James.........

(6) Who are Jesus' legitimate interpreters? The moment you rid yourself of the rest of the NT you are left with the words of Jesus hanging in the air with no interpreter at all. In to fill the vacuum comes (you guessed) first-century historians. Actually, that's the job of the apostles - it's their job to interpret the Gospel of Jesus to us. Exclude the apostles, and frankly you have lost the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

(7) Ignore continents that don't fit on your map. We can be all guilty of this to some degree, but most of the time we just ignore small islands and it's accidental. Bell ignores continents: like all the verses that don't fit the 'no-hell' theory, such as......  "They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out of the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes.." (2 Thess 1:9) "Their destiny is destruction." (Phil 3:19) "..the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgement and destruction of ungodly men." (2 Pet. 3:7), etc., etc., etc.

So to the book
With these seven  filters working over-time on the NT, what we have in Love Wins is a tragic misrepresentation of the Gospel in the following ways....

Hell is erased. You see if God says he wants to save people he can and will. Even if they die cursing him, could they not get an eternity of chances to change? After all we all morph and change; could it not be that such people will decide one future day 10,000 years hence that they want God? In which case the doors of heaven (always open, didn't you know?) will welcome them. 

Regeneration is not necessary. Because if men and women can change their mind about God at any time and at their own whim, no powerful tranformation of the heart by the Holy Spirit is necessary. 

God's Justice is denied. Because if there is no hell, God ultimately is unjust - he has allowed sin to go unpunished. How can we love and trust an Unjust God?  

Everyone will be saved. God - and Jesus in particular is much bigger than Christianity. No-one can tame or domesticate him. Who is to say he's not to be found everywhere? After all, if he was the rock that refreshed some weird band of desert wanderers who is to say that he is not everywhere, with everyone, in everything?

In the end, a Bell-shaped Gospel
Ultimately, what we have in Love Wins is not a New Testament-shaped Gospel at all, nor a valid contextualisation of the Gospel for modern men and women. What we have is a Bell-shaped Gospel, which turns out, like so many other gospels before it, to be no gospel at all.

This is a contemporary 'gospel' - but tragically only in the sense that it rides all the fads of western culture and thought. This is not orthodoxy, this is not the Gospel delivered once for all to the saints.

The greatest tragedy of all......
Sadly - weep for Jerusalem - sadly, the greatest tragedy of this book may have nothing to do with its contents.......

What do I mean?

The greatest tragedy may be that the wide-spread acceptance of this book reveals a shocking ignorance of the Bible and basic Christian doctrine in our western churches today. Any believer schooled in Bible Doctrine 101 (the American educational way of indicating basic this or that) ought to discern heresy in this book.

The future of other Gospels
In the fullness of time every old and every modern false gospel, whether from McLaren, Chalke or Bell, will be consigned to history, viewed as a distraction at best, a heresy at worst.

And all the while, the church will continue preaching the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners.

Monday, 3 October 2011

The New Superstitions

Missionary descriptions
Missionary descriptions of people untouched by the Gospel of Jesus Christ often refer to them as beset by ignorance and superstition. For example, William Carey, who wrote an enquiry on the spiritual the state of the world, included these words:

"The Swedes are serious Lutherans
 but most of the Laplanders are Pagans, 
and very superstitious."(p. 39)

Today, westerners who know so much better laugh at such descriptions and think of them as the product of the fevered minds of colonial religious zealots.

But the plain fact of the matter is that men and women who reject God always believe myths and superstitions. They think their knowledge is wisdom, but in fact it is folly!

Examples please
We don't need to scan history in any depth to see this demonstrated. A writer produces a tome which looks indefensible (because it is new and big) and legions jump on the band wagon. Marxism, Freudism, Logical Positivism, you name it. Then given time, the work is analysed, holes found in it, debunking takes place and soon it becomes the burden and concern of no-one but poor students of history - in one branch or another.

The wisdom has been revealed as folly, and in the worst of cases, blood has been spilt along the way.

The New Superstitions
New superstitions will arise in every age, and today one of the most prominent is a spin off from evolutionary theory and brain studies. In other words the latest superstitions are coming from the scientific world. Not from science itself, but from devotees of neuromania and darwinitis.

Talons Tallis
More of us should know about Raymond Tallis - because he is on a campaign to expose and debunk these silly myths. Remarkably, he is an atheist (and has to constantly defend this, since many of his readers will think he is a cloak-and-dagger theist). I know that God doesn't need atheists to defend his cause, but it is always interesting when unbelievers can see through some folly - it shows how obvious the mistakes are.

The book to read is "Aping Mankind" (subtitle: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity) and the superstitions he wishes to expose are legion. Here are a few:

"Mankind and animals are really the same"
With only the light of natural revelation, Tallis is able to see what anyone who thinks can see - that human beings rise infinitely above animals, that the gap between the two can only be called a chasm. Made in the image of God, mankind is in a totally different league.

Tallis exposes the urban myths that attempt to bring the two together. On the one hand, animals are lifted up, and their wonderful but absolutely limited behaviour is humanised: "tool making" for example; and on the other hand, humans are brought low. Eating a meal with friends is described as "feeding behaviour." A tiny little bit of thought reveals the absolute folly of these attempts to connect beast to man. When I eat a meal with friends, that behaviour is infinitely more complex and full of significance than the 'feeding behaviour' of a brute beast that sees a banana and gobbles it up. In my case, where I eat, the shopping and planning beforehand, the cooking, the preparation, the laying of the table, the invitation, the cultural manners at the table, even the lighting, the background music, the conversation, etc. ad infinitium are not in any way like the "feeding behaviour" of a brute ignorant beast! Describing it as such is not just an insult to humans it's an insult to my intelligence.

The point is many westerners believe this hokey pokey - that we are the same as beasts! But it's superstition on par with the fairies who come out at night! (National Geographic is full of the stuff.)

"Your behaviour is shaped by evolution"
Apparently, girls like pink because when we were hunter-gatherers they had to know when fruit was ripe! And boys like blue because they had to know what colour of sky revealed a good day for hunting! Only problem with this view is that in Victorian times, situation was reversed. Boys liked pink (a toned-down version of brave red) and girls liked blue (for some reason the colour associated with Mary). The point is that these things are culturally determined and nothing to do with evolutionary behaviour.

"You are your brain"
You must read the book, but Tallis shows the nonsense of thinking that the real conscious 'me' is nothing more than the product of firing neurons. The identity between electrical activity and our consciousness is facile and foolish.

These and many other superstitions are revealed in this rip-roaring read. Though it's tough going at times - and for that reason may not have the impact it deserves.

Chesterton's word
The west thinks it lives in a world full of fact and solid reasoning, but in point of fact it inhabits a world of lies, myths and superstitions, barely indistinguishable from the pagans of the past.

This of course should not surprise us, and it should move us to the tragedy and lostness of life without God. When people do not believe in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything.

God's last word
"Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools..."

Friday, 23 September 2011

Why Politiking and the Kingdom of God don't mix

"We're different bro"
I smiled and smiled all week. Every time the Lib Dem conference was reported, we heard the little fellows making a big noise. Either they were saying "we're doing wonders and without us the nation would be in a state and the government a mess." Or they were saying "we're not like them, we are totally different and we want to maintain our uniqueness." My guess is that no-one spotted the apparent contradiction between these two messages:  if you are so different from the Torries, how can you have worked together so closely to have achieved such amazing things?

Church Politiks
It was the second message that made me smile the most, the constant insisting that "we ain't like them". (By the way this smile is not party-political bias - I find myself in 2011 apolitical - completely unable to commit to any of the mainstream parties). The "we is different" message is a structural theme of western democracies: without distance all parties would look the same and who's to know who to vote for. Disunity is, by definition, an essential element of western democracies.

The great tragedy is that many western churches have bought into this political system. They run their churches much like the world runs its governments; we have agendas, constitutions, voting, resignations, abstentions, one-upmanship and every other curs-ed political implement and apparatus. If the Holy Spirit wanted a look in or a say at our church meetings, he'd have a job on His hands.

Curs-ed political implements?
Yes, curs-ed because in the world, politics is all about division, disunity, differences, disputes, disagreement, and every other d-word you can think of. But is that what the Kingdom of God is about? At the very heart of the Gospel is its unifying power, the ability to join very disparate people into one people, with a common doctrine, common love, common Saviour, common aim and purposes. In the Kingdom of God division is regarded as Satan's work.

"I resign"
Take resignation as an example. In the world it's a way of protesting against some decision you don't like - and here is the important feature of resignation in the world - and letting everyone know that you are unhappy with the decision. People even want their resignations minuted, so the future as well as the present is informed of their dissent! In the Kingdom of God, however, Jesus insists that if a brother offends you, you are meant to go to him without telling another soul (Matthew 18) so that needless ripples are avoided and unity prevails. "I resign" is all about disunity, it says "I want to divide the church into two groups, one who agree with my dissent and one group who disagree". By contrast the Gospel is all about unity. Resignation is worldly.

And so I could go on, showing that every activity of democracies was at root about disunity, or in one way or another promoted division. 

We foolish western Christians
But the fact that we bring all this junk into the church is just one more example of how blind we western Christians are to our real heritage. All this barking about being biblical is often pure bluff, since in point of fact we are often mere children of The Darkening*, having adopted every foolish method of the world.

Poltiking, in other words, since it is a divisive system, belongs to another kingdom.

* The Darkening is a phrase I use to describe the enlightenment (not worthy of capitals). The Darkening (capitalised to remind us of it's true nature) represents all human reasoning without God, from the dawn of creation.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Another approach to 9/11?

The terror of the twin towers
We all remember where we were when we heard the news. And ten years hasn't dimmed the shock, horror and outrage at this attack on America, and perhaps on her symbols of material wealth and prosperity. We are all glad that Ohitler Bin Laden is dead. But is there an alternative approach to 9/11, beyond the pure justice, superpower, "they got us, so we got them back" approach?

Israel's 9/11, 605 BC
In the year 605 Israel faced it's 9/11 - Nebuchadnezzar destroyed and burnt Jerusalem - and took items from the temple of God and placed them in the temple of his god (the ancient way of saying "1-0 to our god"). The shock, the horror we cannot imagine - this was not supposed to happen. (Of course no-one should have been surprised because from Deuteronomy 28 onwards God had warned that idolatry would be punished; in 722 BC the northern kingdom had gone off into captivity; one prophet after another had warned God's people).

Here is the point: Daniel 1:2 reads "And the LORD delivered Jehoaikim king of Judah into his hand...." Far above the petty power plays of the world, stands the great Ruler of the Universe. And it was he who allowed Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Jerusalem.

The humbling of a proud nation?
I realise that Israel was a theocracy in a way that America isn't (though some in America think they are).  But isn't God still in sovereign control of the universe - which includes the affairs of the world? And if so, perhaps it is possible to say that God allowed the planes to....

And if he did, perhaps he had some purposes in mind? Perhaps to humble a proud empire? Perhaps to bring to her attention the rampant greed in her financial systems?

A different attitude
I wonder if anyone in America thought that way? Dared to just think that way? (It would take a prophet with Elijah guts to say it out loud!) "What is God trying to teach us? A plane hit the Pentagon, what is God saying about our use of military power? Two planes hit the World Trade Towers, what is God saying about corporate greed?"

A different outcome?
And then, I wonder, what would the world be like today if America had dared to ask the God question ten years ago....

What if America's political masters had thought twice about military might, may the world have avoided some wars?

And what if America's financial masters had thought twice about sub-prime mortgages and every other financial instrument which encouraged greed, would the world have avoided a recession?

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Parasites into Pearls

Joy and Tears, or only Joy?
Today some "A level" students will be filled with joy, others with tears. Some will thank God, others will wonder why. The differences are understandable, but actually both (I am thinking of believers) should rejoice. In point of divine fact there is no difference between the earthly categories of 'fail' and 'succeed': God is sovereign in both cases.

The trouble with our man-centred approach
Our real problem with all disappointments, whether exam results or job loss, is that we are viewing things from a small, human perspective. What we mean by joy is "what I wanted happened" and what we mean by tears is "what I wanted did not happen." If we take a larger and frankly God-centred approach, the question becomes "what does God want for me?" And Providence provides the answer: if we pass the exams or not, God's will is accomplished.

The example of Dame Cicely Saunders
God led the Christian woman who started the modern hospice movement through disappointments. Key moments of sadness were the very moments on which her career hinged. She went to Oxford, but the war put an end to studies and so she had to change direction. She met and fell in love with a Polish man who died in pain and so learnt about pain in the closing days of life. Without these 'disappointments' perhaps there would be no modern hospices.

Our God reigns
And so, whatever the trials we face, pure joy should be our settled, prayerful and reasoned  response because we know that God is King. And as King of the Universe, and king of our lives too, he turns parasites into pearls, our disappointments into his divine appointments.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Primary and Secondary Truths

To some folk the very idea of there being primary and secondary truths is anathema and smacks of compromise! "Everything in the Bible is true, so how can you say some is primary and some is secondary?"

And there is something to be said for this view, for all Scripture is God-breathed.

The source of the problem
The problem is not with Scripture, the problem is with us. The problem is that there are - in the wisdom of God - some truths that every believer understands as central or fundamental, and there are other truths on which they find they disagree with their brothers and sisters. For example, all believers believe that Jesus is returning one day, but exactly how he is returning is a subject on which they differ.

So a believer who says "all the truths in Scripture are primary" is simply saying, "all the truths I believe are primary". I think we can all sniff pride here.....

We - even as believers - are fallen sinners. And there are many factors that play into our understandings of secondary doctrines, such as pride, what books we've read, what preachers we've listened to, what backgrounds we've come from - even our ability to think and reason.

We're not to blame Scripture - indeed there is only one set of truths there - but there is not one believer on earth who is the perfect interpreter of Scripture (remember we don't believe in popes?)

Ways to discern primary from secondary
This is no new debate, of course. The early church fathers wrestled with it and came up with creeds in an attempt to codify the central indisputable truths.

One way to discern a primary truth is how often it is repeated in Scripture. For example, that God is the Creator of the universe is stated so frequently that to deny it is to be a heretic. (You will notice that I did not add created the world in 6 24-hour days - why? Because on detail Christians - real ones - are genuinely divided).

Another way to discern primary truth is this: sometimes the Scriptures themselves say "this is of first importance". Take for example 1 Corinthians 15:3, "For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day..." People who deny that Jesus died for our sins, deny that he was buried and died, deny that he was raised from the dead are heretics. It really is as simple as that.

A third way of discerning primary truth is to ask what the church has held down the ages. We are not on our own, we are privileged to be in a long line of believers stretching back 2000 - no more - years. What did they believe? Creeds are not irrelevant.

The so-what question
Once we have discerned primary from secondary the hard part begins. Because the only conclusion to such a process is to love and cherish all those who hold to these primary truths and treat them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

For some this is too great a cost, and so they resort to "all my truth is the truth" "there are no secondaries" which helps them to justify living in their ghettos and not bothering with their "wacky" brothers and sisters in Christ.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Why you must never trust a Scientist......

....when she talks philosophy, morality, ethics or God.....

The Altar of Science
In our Western culture we place scientists on a pedestal and nigh on worship at their altar. Why?

Reason One: we have benefitted from the great advances that scientific endeavours have bequeathed to us. I am glad to be in a modern hospital rather than a Victorian one. And should my last days be ridden with disease, I will thank God for the advances in drugs which will enable those days to be largely physical-pain free. (And I thank God for Dame Cicely Saunders for pioneering the new hospice movement).

Add to medicine the wonderful advances in communication and transport and all the other ways in which our lives have been enriched by scientific discoveries. Science is worshipped because it has made life more comfortable.

Reason Two: it is said that scientific knowledge is the most certain knowledge we possess.  What I think is meant is that ten different scientists working to verify a particular theory in different labs are likely to come up with the same answer. Compare that with ten ethicists working on a moral problem. But this is no credit to science, it is credit to the created world which works in an orderly way; gravity works in the same way in Germany as it does in Indonesia or England. And the kind of knowledge on which science can be so sure is almost irrelevant to our day to day community lives.

Reason Three: ever since the Enlightenment (the narrowing we should call it - and of course the Enlightenment is just proud human nature codified), knowledge has been prized in and of itself, and those who have lots of the stuff are honoured because of that. The high priests of a knowledge-based culture are those with knowledge. Who possesses lots of knowledge? Scientists.

Reason Four: loud high-priests. Amidst the scientific community are religious priests and philosophers who, to perpetuate their religion have put on the sheep's clothing of science. They use science as a weapon (thinly disguised) to propagate their religion, normally some form of atheism. We're thinking guys like Dawkins who are philosophers first (not good ones of course) and scientists second, but who parade as scientists claiming to have come to their religious views in the lab. Of course tis other way round.

Put all together these explain why many Westerners bow at the footstool of sacred science and listen to everything that scientists say.

Why you shouldn't listen to Scientists
When they talk about operational science we ought to listen and thank God for the remarkable discoveries they are making. We should be of course skeptical and questioning, but they are likely to be right on how cells work, new insights into matter and so on.

But when they talk about historical science (trying to work out what happened in the past) or ethics (how we should behave)  or God, we should stop our ears.


Reason One: Just read a little bit of the history of science or the philosophy of science. All the big stories change with time, so why hitch your wagon to a star that will most likely fall one day?

Reason Two: Big stories (e.g. evolution, cosmology) must start with presuppositions which no-one can prove, because (not rocket science, this) we weren't there. Anyone who has done mathematical modelling will know how sensitive outcome is to initial conditions. To put it bluntly, you can model anything perfectly if you tweak the initial conditions.

Reason Three: Big Stories not only start with scientific presuppositions, they also start with philosophical presuppositions. The notion that no intelligence was involved in the evolution of living things is a dogma asserted against all the evidence to the contrary!

Reason Four: When finitude faces infinity, all it can do is select. Human beings are simply incapable of assimilating all the data to hand. All they can do is pick a fraction of it. Result? What bits you pick will be shaped by your prejudices. We're into conspiracy theory territory. This is exactly why conspiracy theories work - from a massive bank of material you mine facts which suit your theory. President Bush, don't you know, blew up the twin towers. I'm serious it can be proven with many, many 'facts'. Evolution, didn't you know, is true. I'm serious, there are tons of facts supporting it (it's just that the ones that don't support it are left out in the cold). 

So thank God for the comforts science brings, but smile at the nice men and women in white coats when they tell you how to behave or what to believe. 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Why words are never enough

Words in a postmodern culture
I remember a class at Sheffield University. The class was considering different forms of 'criticsm' (a word that sounds harsh, but in some settings simply means 'interpretation'). Being a scientific block-head, I was there to broaden my education and learn something about literature. We were being taught a technique / philosophy called "deconstruction", now probably consigned to the history dustbin, since we are talking 1991.

Deconstruction, a daughter of postmodernism, says, in effect, that any piece of writing has within it the seeds of its own destruction: a text fights with itself, can be deconstructed: words can't and don't say much. All part of the modern attack on words, on truth, blah, blah, blah.

The wonder of words and The Word
In spite of the highfalutin ramblings of post modernism, words are wonderful, and they remain the most basic way we communicate to one another. So important are they that God has communicated to us in words, in a Book, the Bible.

And so important is the idea of "word", the incarnate Son of God  is called "the Word". No Christian should be found on the side of postmodernism's dislike of words.

But words are not enough
But words are not enough. Can you imagine communicating to a loved one only through words on a computer screen? It's how some romances start, but that's the point, start. Why only start? Because communication is much much much more than words. Two people falling in love want to be with each other, smile at each other, laugh with each other, and much of that stuff is beyond word.

We know that words are not enough because the Son of God chose to come into the world and communicate by shared life, pain and joy. He could have communicated just through words, but he chose to communicate through a life lived before and with the Twelve and others.

A heritage from the knowledge culture
In my evangelical tradition (Reformed-ish) we rightly give great emphasises to words. But I don't think we give enough emphasis to non-verbal communication. Our charismatic and pentecostal friends by contrast give much attention to that form of communication. They put up their hands in worship, express emotion far more freely, speak in tongues they know not, are affectionate with each other and smile alot.

I don't think our limitation to the verbal is Biblical, I think it's cultural. We are products of the knowledge culture (university education, books, essays, more books, more essays).

Tired of lonely words
Sometimes I get so tired of words alone. Just recently I understood why a little bit more. A convert from China spoke of the contrast between what the communist party churned out and what they saw in Christians. They said that they were tired of words, but saw in the church the love of Christ which attracted them to Him.

Chairman Mao - Words - Little Red Book - Words - words, words. Tired of words. But then they met Christians who did not assault with words, but expressed love.

Unless words are accompanied with something non-verbal - love - they are little more than an irritating noise (the Word says this in 1 Corinthians 13).

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Why small is beautiful when it comes to church

Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher
The British economist E Schumacher (British with a name like that?) argued against the conventional economic wisdom that big is beautiful. Can you apply this philosophy to church life?

Why Big is the Preferred Option in the World
But first, why is big so desirable in the world? First, Big means Power. A man who runs a business with 1000 employees has more power than a man who employs a mere five. And like it or not, people like power. Second, Big means Fame. Why have we heard of Coca Cola and McDonalds? Because they're big. Third, Big means Rich. The guy who employs five may be doing well, but the man who takes a slice of 1000 wages will be richer.

So in the world Big means Power, Fame and Dosh. 

Why Big is the Preferred option in the Church
For the same reasons? (Is there a prophet in the blogisphere?) A big church means power and influence! A big church gives the pastor and its church a name and fame! A big church rakes in more money and can employ more staff to bring in more people to bring in more money to employ....

The price of deliberately staying small (by dividing / planting) is just too great. You are unlikely to have much influence. You will be ignored by the Christian press who work in the same way as the secular media - they go for the big names. You'll be ignored by your denomination / grouping. You're likely to struggle financially, because small numbers means small budget. 

And so, since we are deeply influenced by the "Big is Beautiful" philosophy, we are unprepared to even consider small as a deliberate option. Small = death.

Perhaps I am being a cynic. But knowing my own heart and having sat in one too many ministers fraternals, I don't think I am that far off the mark. And frankly, if these are the secret motives for big church, they are nothing more than sinful worldly thinking of the 1 John 2 kind: "the cravings of sinful man - the lust of his eyes - the boasting of what he has and does."

Upside down Kingdom Logic
But since the Gospel turns upside down the thinking of the world, perhaps this very thinking itself is topsy turvy. Perhaps the best way to grow the kingdom is actually to aim to be small! Perhaps by insisting that churches remain small by splitting when they get too big, the interests of the kingdom are best served. Here are some reasons I believe this to be the case... 

Why small is beautiful in the church
For one thing, the small church is more organic than organisational. An organism is living, informal, dynamic, free and divine. An organisation is man-made, formal, constrained. 

For another, small churches require the use of every gift.  In large churches (unless you badger, bow-beat and on occasion torture!) people can always say "someone else will do it" - and they are right! In small churches every-man ministry is not necessary.

A third reason for small churches is that they feel more like a family than a crowd; a place where everyone knows one another. If I could have a pound for everyone who looks back longingly at the first days of a young church plant with fondness  now that the church is X00 strong, I'd not be rich but I'd have a fair few quid in me pocket.

Fourthly, small churches encourage ownership, rather than pewship. This is 'my community to which I am committed', rather than a faceless congregation who just happen to have the best preacher in town!

In the fifth place, Oh what silly billies we are!, small churches grow by conversions much faster than larger churches - why? If for no other reason evangelism is not a tag-on activity but a survival strategy!  (And small churches are able to adapt to culture and change must faster than large ones). Isn't that what we are actually after?

So why do some churches refuse to plant and play big ball? Sometimes its a constraint placed on them by their buildings. A congregation of 50 can't support a building that seats 200. Isn't this a case of the cart before the horse? Sell the Albatross and meet in a school instead! Sometimes it is fear? Sometimes its pride? 

But what about preachers who attract a crowd?
The argument is sometimes used that if you have a Spurgeon in town shouldn't that congregation naturally expand to fill the giftings of the man? But is a church a preaching centre? Should a church really revolve around one person's gifts - an emphatic no. Is it really possible to be the family of God and large? Wouldn't it be better if the man preached at four smaller sites? Used his time to train others rather than all that energy to preach the 'big sermon'?  In my experience 'preaching centres' are not churches at all - they may have a small 'church' at the core, but the rest are passengers - or better described, joyriders, who as soon as the big fella goes melt away, making succession a nightmare.

And what about the numbers in Acts?
What about them numbers? 3000, 5000, "a great many"? There are features of Acts that are unique (by definition beginnings are unique: you can't be born twice for example - remember that Nicodemus conversation?). Unique because this was the apostolic age in which God was founding something new. Big numbers along with spectacular miracles demonstrated God was powerfully and uniquely at work. 

The place to look is not Acts but the letters. And here, there is not one pip squeak about numbers. No church is commended for being large and no church is condemned for being small. Numbers are simply no necessary reflection of kingdom growth (in fact we all know from the Old Testament stories that numbers are often a mark of the enemy's reliance on strength, a la prophets of Baal v. Elijah).

Lost in the blogisphere.....
But this message will get lost in the blogisphere because "The Establishment" in any denomination or grouping of churches  can't encourage small (they'd be out of a job), and they got in because they were once leaders of (numerically) big congregations.

So you, my dear reader, consider just how privileged you are to read this message (!) - for you won't read it anywhere else. Why don't you thank God when you go to sleep tonight......

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Intelligent Design are Not The New Boys on the Block

The mortal Threat of ID
ID scientists believe that there are aspects of the world that simply cannot be explained by naturalistic processes and that the best explanation for these features is that an intelligence is responsible.

You will notice that I didn't start the word with a capital 'I'. That's because IDers, ruthlessly persecuted by the scientific establishment, are reluctant to come out and call that intelligence God. If they do they'll lose their job - perhaps more. Inquisitions do not belong only to the past.

But why is ID such a threat to (a certain definition of) western science? Because it is an all-out assault on the very foundation of a narrow view of science that says  "the universe is entirely naturalistic and can admit nothing beyond energy, matter or natural law". Stuff - that's all there is in the Universe. This is a purely atheistic and hypothetical definition of science, but it has managed to become establishment dogma, and entered the popular mind through the secular media.

Because IDers say there is more to the universe than 'stuff' they are hated.

Of course, you and I who know our Bible realise that the narrow definition of science is a deliberate philosophical - no theological - no heart - move. At very root, they want God out of their lives (and out of their universe is a rather good first move), and so they define the universe as a closed system which is about nothing other than stuff. Nothing to do with science, everything to do with the suppression of truth in unrighteousness. We know that, right?

Onward Christian Soldiers
The time has come for an unashamed and unapologetic campaign to reclaim science as a Christian enterprise, not a pagan one. And there are two ways to do it.

First, to demonstrate historically that the founders of modern science (Newton, Faraday, Maxwell....)  were all  IDers - they believed in a God (or at least Supernatural Being) who created the universe. This was not a side issue for them - it was precisely what motivated their research and why science moved ahead with such speed. We need to show that science will die out (or become boring or spend it's time pursuing fruitless cul-de-sacs) unless it is re-motivated by a passionate desire to discover the mind of it's Maker and glorify his Name.

(I have just read a book on the cell, which spends so much time trying to fathom how it came to be that I put the book down plain and simply bored. Tail-chasing gets a trifle wearing after a while.)

The second way to reclaim science is to show that all the findings of modern science demonstrate a Designer who is there and is not silent.

Cosmology shows the remarkable fine-tuning of the universe; the mind shows the presence of 'other', and the molecular biology of DNA can only be explained as dazzling layers of information - and here is the point - the only known entity in the universe capable of information generation is intelligence.

Darwin is pre-science
Let's face it, Darwin is bunk. Every science has its defining moments and 1953 is biology's - the discovery of the structure of DNA which led to the revolutionary understanding of DNA as information and the cell as a factory of unimaginable and still unfathomable complexity.

Before 1953, biology was butterfly collecting, to borrow a phrase from Professor Steve Fuller of Warwick University. After 1953 it is information technology - and everyone in IT knows that the only known source of information is intelligence.

Time for revolution
It really is time for the truth to come out and for the public to be made aware of the amazing complexity of biology post 1953 and for the ID community to stop hiding its light under a bushel and demonstrating to a world, tired of boring Darwinian thought that there is a lively alternative that opens up research and above all points to a God who is the Creator of the Universe.

Its the Darwinian atheists who are the new boys on the block, IDers are the old boys.

It's time for IDers to go on the offensive. If the public, for example, can be taught cell biology 101 no cunning philosopher will be able to follow it with all that chance and time stuff. The public won't be fooled by all this "appearance of design" stuff.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The love and truth "balance"?

The right metaphor / illustration / analogy?
It is sometimes argued that truth and love lie at the opposite ends of a spectrum and that churches are either loving (but not truthful) or truthful (but not loving).

The problem with this "spectrum" analogy is that it does not allow both ends to be represented fully - the best you can get is 50% loving and 50% truthful!

So let's ditch the metaphor because it just ain't Biblical. 

Jesus - full of both grace and truth
About the nearest we get to both love and truth appearing in one verse is John 1, first  verse 14, referring to the Word, "who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" and then verse 17, which reads "For the Law came through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."

Jesus Christ, in other words, was filled with both grace (undeserved loved) and truth. It was not either /or, but both.

The double-barrelled gun
So a better analogy, perhaps is a double-barreled gun; and the question becomes "Are you/ is your church filled with both love and truth?"

A church which has love but no truth turns into a sentimental community - easily swayed by error of all kinds. A church which has truth but no love dies.

Love the priority?
If there was a priority of virtues, or to put it another way, if you had the choice between which came first, it would certainly be love. Jesus says that love is the badge of NT discipleship (John 3:34-35) - he never says this about truth. Paul argues that of Hope Faith and Love (notice truth doesn't appear in his top three), love is the greatest (1 Corinthians 13).

Love is the platform across which the truth - which is sometimes painful - travels. Jesus went around doing good as well as preaching  (Acts 10:38).

Why did people listen to Jesus? Not only because of the winsomeness of his words, they also listened because they were loved.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

All of us are worshippers

Made in God's Image - designed for relationship
Mankind, made in God's image is a worshipper - not because God is a worshipper - but because man was built for relationship with someone Greater. In the same way that the Triune God dwells in perpetual love and communion with Himself (see the Gospel of John as an example), so we are designed for relationship.

For us, that longing and need for High relationship takes the shape of worship: we long for something (SomeOne actually) infinitely greater than us who will satisfy the desires of our hearts, fill up our empty souls and inexhaustibly intoxicate us with their greatness and beauty.

Another way of putting this is to say that our inbuilt desire for relationship is a dependant one; we know that we cannot survive by ourselves, and so we look outside ourselves for someone or something to lean on.

Now, of course the man without God doesn't fess up to this longing, and yet absolutely everything about his life belies his worship. Take Richard Dawkins, one of the world's greatest worshippers, as an example.  Unhappy to be a small ordinary scientist he has found his big Mission in life, to which he has given all of his energies: to rid the world of religion. Everyone around him can see that he could not live without this Mission, that it - and all its multiple components such as fame and money - motivates and drives him.

A frank admission
In 2008 a famous American writer and thinker David Foster Wallace tragically committed suicide. No friend of Christ, he was nevertheless able to see with a rare clarity that we are all worshippers. And even further, that if we worship small created things rather than the Creator, they will eat us up.

Read this as a sermon....

"Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship--be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness."

"Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings."

"They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing."

Some sermon.
Only true worship leads to true happiness.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Worship leads to Service

Worship only Worship?
Is it possible for a community of Christians to worship God but do nothing for the lost? To prioritise worship at the expense of evangelism? By 'worship' I mean here singing God's praises, praying and enjoying God's Word.

Of course it's possible, but is it right?

Acts 13 verses 1-3
In the church at Antioch, the saints were worshipping the Lord and praying. And it was in this context that the Spirit told them to set apart Paul and Barnabas "for the work to which I have called them." Worship led supernaturally to service, naturally.

Worship leads to Service. Service flows out of worship. And this is to be expected, for the following reasons:

(1) God is a worker (John 5:17). How on earth can we be said to honour a Worker without trying to  follow him, and his hard-working Son?

(2) God loves the world (John 3:16). How can we be said to love the God who loves the world and not love the world he loves?

(3) God calls us to serve the world in love (e.g. Matthew 5:13-16).

So if you find a community that says it worships but does not serve you have found at the least a distorted community, at worst a disobedient community.

The justification of apathy
Tragically Christian communities that have become detached from the world through laziness or so-called 'unworldliness" often end up justifying their position. They say things like "all that make disciples and be my witnesses stuff was for the apostles and early church."

Little by little they become a spiritual ghetto, drifting ever more eccentrically away from the world and the Gospel, while the world around them dies for lack of bread of life.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Why we need a new generation of commentary writers!

Why I am angry
I am preparing to speak to a wonderful group of ordinary people this Sunday from Luke 5. So I get out my commentaries (only after meditating on the passage myself, of course!). And I trawl through far too many pages of explanation (on just 11 verses) looking for nuggets of insight and revelation. (I am convinced that it is much easier to write a long commentary than a short one, which explains the existence of so many long commentaries and the sparsity of short ones).

And then I get to this "corker" of a comment: 

"We are on more solid ground when we refer to the parabolic interpretation of the miracle drawing on clues from within the pericope. Most transparent is the nexus between catching fish and proclaiming the word: success in fishing, under Jesus' authority, is a prophetic symbol for the mission in which Peter and the others will participate.."

No I didn't understand it either.

My clever word checker has never heard of "pericope" before and thinks I should change it to periscope. Perhaps I should, won't make much difference to the intelligibility, and since we are talking about fishermen and fishing boats....

For the unlearned, pericope is "I know the scholarship lingo" fancy-speak for the humble word paragraph.

Good money was paid for this commentary which has supposedly come from an evangelical stable. And then I  get this kind of incomprehensibility - you can see why I'm mad.

Who are they trying to help (or impress)?
These kinds of comments which are liberally sprinkled through these kinds of commentary make you wonder why the guy (or gal) wrote it. Did he write it to help us ordinary preachers (in which case he plain doesn't understand our needs) or did he write it to impress his friends or peers (who will after all write the blurbs which sell the books which pay the bills, which helps to write more books, which.... )

What the church needs is commentators who have no other desire but the edification of God's people. They do not think when they write "what if Professor Dr Rev Clever Kloggs reads this? He'll turn up his nose and give me a duff review in The Journal of Incomprehensible Scholarship." They don't think "I want to impress that pastor with my deep learning." Instead they write to please Christ (which means to feed his flock).

They do exist
Thankfully such commentaries do exist. And invariably they are written by pastors on the beat not academics with their heads in the clouds. Look out for them and sell your shirt (or ipod) to get them.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

How do we maintain the balance between the dynamic and the static?

The two aspects of Church Life: Static and Dynamic
There are two aspects to church life, according to the NT. First of all, there are those static elements. We need to feed the flock, sustain the ongoing fellowship, teaching and life of the church. Spiritual life is not automatic but must be maintained and nourished.

But then there is also the dynamic aspect to church life. This is its outward mission to the world, its evangelism, its kingdom growth.

No church has got these two in balance or proportion!

Imbalance (1) Too much Dynamic
You might think this imbalance was impossible, but not so. Churches - very often led by men whose primary gift is evangelism - place too much emphasis on outreach. You end up with tons of young believers, but if you are not careful, the church ends up a mile wide and only an inch deep.

Imbalance (2) Too much Static
By far the more common imbalance in Western Christendom is the tendency to be inward looking, concentrating on the needs of the existing believers.  In this case you end up with fat sheep inside (and totally lost sheep outside).

Enter - the NT
The first five books of the NT (Dynamic) demonstrate the balance when placed alongside the rest of the letters and Revelation (Static). The Pentateuch of the NT reveals the dynamic growing, expanding ministry of Jesus, first in his ministry and then through the church by his Holy Spirit. The rest of the NT display nurturing care for the flock.

Churches that focus only on the letters end up with fat sheep (fat by the way = unhealthy). Churches that focusonly on Acts end up with harried and thin sheep (equally unhealthy).

Input and Output
Another way of putting this is to say that the church has been blessed (static) in order to be a blessing to others (dynamic). And only when churches and individuals give out as well as take in will they grow and mature.

Living Seas and The Dead Sea
Living seas give out as well as take in. There are enormous ocean currents that carry water and nutrients and heat into and out of the oceans of the world. Without this the oceans of the world would be all input and no output.

But there is one wierd sea, wierd because it is all input and no output. It's got a ton of nutrients in it, but nothing can live in its waters. So as well as being weird it is dead.

Churches - or Christians who are all input and no output become wierd
- and eventually die. Isn't this what happened to the Amish? Without output, they became an eccentric community spiralling away from the real world. Soon they put secondary truths first (and that always results in putting primary truths secondary). Now, so far away from the world, they cannot even relate to the world.

Only when there is both output as well as input in our lives will there be balance and the beauty of Jesus in our lives and our communities.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

New Arab Spring or old-fashioned Winter Rebellion?

A good thing?
While the small-minded West imagines that any rebellion in those "backward" countries is a good thing - for they are becoming more like us "civilised" nations (read: they're adopting the same form of government as us; read: Western pride) - I have often wondered how a Christian within those countries would think about the rebellion. A good thing or a bad thing?

What shall I do with Romans 13?
In particular what shall a Christian in those countries make of Romans 13 and other passages which speak of a humble respectful view of those in government - no matter who they are? "The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.." (verses 2-3). If anyone lived under tyrannical regimes, it was the first Christians, and no-where do we find them rebelling against their rulers.

Instead we find a submissive spirit "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king...or to governors.." (1 Peter 2:13) and again, "Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities." (Titus 3:1).
The blunt fact of the matter is that the Scriptures do not sanction one form of secular government over another. For good reasons. All world systems are flawed root and branch - but in different directions. Although democracies may be easier on the body, they may be far more lethal to the soul. While dictatorships may be more difficult on the body, they may in fact prove more beneficial to the soul, for in those environments, true faith in Christ shines and the great multitude of false ones wither and die.

Scriptures, instead of espousing any political system, view all authorities (dictatorships and democracies) as appointed by the Supreme and Sovereign King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Grabbing the ear of the Dog
The great danger in the present situation for the West (I almost wrote 'us', forgetting that I refuse to be called a westerner) is to become involved in a dispute that has nothing to do with them and reap the fruit of Proverbs 26:17, "Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own."

For this set of disputes may turn out to be, not an Arab Spring, but just an old-fashioned Winter of Rebellion.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Why I read more old books than new books

Keeping in touch with the times
It is a good thing for a Christian, and especially a Christian leader to know what's going on around him in today's world. To that end he must read stuff written today, whether in print, blogged or tweeted. Without this constant refreshing, his ministry is unlikely to connect.

But should he be a spiritual  fashion junky? Should he only read the latest books and blogs and twitter feeds? Should he make these his staple diet? Should he forget  Augustine, Luther, Spurgeon and Tozer and concentrate only on Bell, Chan and Driscoll?

Reasons to be sceptical about the new stuff
He'd be a fool to spend all his time 'on the latest' for the following reasons:

(1)  Much of the new stuff may be simply the product of the commercial machine. In other words, a book may be pushed more by the publishing machine behind it than on the merit of the book. The book may be 'in my face' for no other reason other than that the publisher is a e-savvy.

(2) The popularity of the author may be due to their clever use of e-technology. Take Twitter for example. In today's world, the celebs have to twitter on constantly because otherwise they could lose their fan base. It doesn't matter what trivia they tweet, they just have to tweet. In the same way - and here's the point, and as far as I can see for the same reasons - some Christian leaders have taken up tweeting. The content of their tweets is unbelievably humdrum (for none of us has an original thought 5 times an hour) but it's got to be done otherwise the fan base will dwindle. My point? The 'fame' of some of the 'leaders' of today may be e-fame, rather than merited fame.

(3) The popularity of older authors is tested by time. What none of the new authors have - or can have (it's not their fault) - is the sieve of time. Time itself sieves out here-today-gone-tomorrow books. Books which were hyped as the most important book of the year/decade/century just years ago are to be found  at the bottom of the Amazon ranking today. Why? Simply because time allow novelty to mature into reality.

(4) The popularity of authors is tested by the church. Even more important than the sieve of time is the test of the church. In the same way that hymns and songs are accepted or discarded over decades by the church, so the works of authors are evaluated theologically by the church over time. Only the good ones survive this test.

So if you gave me a choice of reading on my Desert Island, between Bell, Chan and Driscoll  or  Spurgeon, Tozer and Lloyd Jones, and I was pressed for time - and let's face it life is short - I'd go for the latter every time.

Perhaps this should be the rule: for every new book you read,  read ten old ones!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Theology flows out of life - an important correction to "Life must flow out of Theology"

Which way around?
Which is true? What we believe is shaped by our lives, or our lives are shaped by what we believe? The letters of the apostle Paul begin with theology and move to practice, and for this reason we tend to think that you begin with theology, doctrine, belief and this then shapes your life.

And certainly, you would want, with say a new believer, to get their doctrine straight praying that new life would flow out of that, in response to truth and in obedience to the commands of Christ.

The missing step - Paul's theology was written in blood
The missing step in this train of reasoning is this: the person who wrote that theology in the first place, lived a life of suffering, trouble, persecution and heartache (always shot through with holy joy, of course). Paul walked in the steps of his Master, the man of sorrows acquainted with grief. Paul did not write theology from an armchair (or any other kind of "chair"), but from gutsy front-line back-breaking, heart-aching ministry. His theology was written in the trenches. And so was every other NT author. In other words the theology we have to pass onto the saints was itself forged in extremis. 

An illustration (not theoretical)
Here's an example. Take a group of Christians who live for pleasure (I know this is an oxymoron, but Paul says somewhere that many live as enemies of the cross). They spend their free time, as the world does, caught up in hobbies, holidays, families, pleasure. These "saints" (on the last Day, they may be called goats rather than saints, if I understand Matthew 25 correctly) get together for a home group and decide to study the Bible together.

Let's watch: how will their (easy) lives affect their theology?

(1) The will avoid all talk of the cross. Oh I don't mean the cross of Christ, they are likely to revel in what JESUS SUFFERED FOR THEM (and they will know that talk of the cross is an essential to orthodoxy). No, I mean, the calling of the Christian to take up their crosses, to suffer for his sake. A veil will cover their eyes as they read such verses.

(2) They will resist all teaching that challenges them to serve the world in sacrificial love. Called to love our neighbours? They'll find clever reasons why that command no longer applies (if they didn't they might have to give up a hobby, or a weekend with the family, horror of horrors!)

(3) They will resist the idea that the mission of the church is to reach the lost. Jesus was only speaking to his disciples in Matthew 28 (No, seriously, I have met such people!). I mean, if Jesus meant us - them - to reach the lost, we'd have to give up an evening's pleasure: Joking aren't you?

(4) They will judge the churches. Most seriously of all, they will judge their brothers and sisters in other churches whose hands and feet bear wounds, who work hard, who serve Jesus.

Our theology, you see, does follow life.

Don't pay attention to armchair theologians. And now you know why the names of Luther, Calvin and Spurgeon will live on (they wrote their doctrine in the sweat of ministry) while so many of the Big Names and Big Authors of today will be forgotten ere before they die.