Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Blogging in the name of the Lord: David Ceri Jones

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with Christian bloggers. In the hot seat today is...

GD: Hello David Ceri Jones and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

DCJ: Well I’m originally from Port Talbot in South Wales, but have lived in Aberystwyth since arriving as an 18 year old undergraduate in 1992. I stayed, did a history degree, studied for my doctorate and then worked for 5 years at the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies where I edited the letters of Wales’ most famous junkie, Iolo Morganwg! Since 2005 I’ve been a lecturer in the Department of History and Welsh History at Aberystwyth University.

I’m married to Clare, and we’ve three daughters, Carys (7), Celyn (5) and Alys (2). We worship at St Michael’s Church, a vibrant and outward-looking evangelical Anglican church in Aber.

GD: Your blog is imaginatively called David Ceri's blog. What made you start blogging?

DCJ: Yes I know the title is not the most exciting – I’d did think about something like David’s methodical musings, to link in with the Methodism interest, but I eventually stuck with plain old David Ceri’s blog!

As to what made me start blogging, the well-known Welsh church historian Tudur Jones used to tell young postgraduate students to make sure that they write something every day, even if its only a paragraph – the burdens of a heavy university teaching load tends to mean that I have very little time to write during university term times, and when I do get a window to do some serious writing it can take a while to get back into the swing of it again. So the blog enables me to keep writing regularly, and it also forces me to think in a more joined-up way about whatever I’m reading, in the knowledge that I’ve got to write about it on the blog!

GD: What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for theological/church historical reflection?

DCJ: Can’t say I’ve given this one too much thought to be honest. The blog is just a useful tool to keep me writing regularly; I’ve had enough positive feedback to suggest that it worth me keeping it going.

GD: Who has had the greatest influence on your theological development?

DCJ: Well as I’m not a theologian as such, so can I tweek the question and talk about Christian influences instead?

First of all I was brought up in a Christian home, so my earliest influences were obviously my parents, but I was also brought up in a house full of theological books, and was encouraged to read avidly from a pretty early age. I discovered Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ books at about the age of 17 or 18 or so and devoured every one of them, reading right through the Romans and Ephesians series’ in my first year at university. I guess they were foundational really, firstly in reaching assurance of salvation, and then in giving me settled Calvinist convictions. I got a tiny glimpse of what real personal sanctity looks like in the flesh through meeting Elwyn Davies, and he was also important in instilling strong convictions about the necessity of revival.

Following about a decade or so treading water spiritually, the last 5 or 6 years at St Michael, Aberystwyth, have been a period of rededication and recommitment, and having some of my rough edges knocked off as I’ve come to appreciate Christians very different from those with whom I’d previously spent much of my time. I’ve been really blessed with two magnificent Christian friends, Alwyn Owen and Leith Haarhoff, studying the Bible, praying together and holding one another accountable has been so important. At the moment I’m really benefiting from the acquisition of an ipod, which means that the preaching of John Piper and Mark Driscoll have almost become the soundtrack of my life!

GD: Why should today's Christians be interested in church history and historical theology?

DCJ: This is a good question and one that has been brought home to me in the last few weeks. I’ve been teaching a course in my local Church on the history of Christianity from the early church to the present (part of the Aberystwyth Academy of Christian Discipleship). Ambitious I know, but I’ve had a consistent group of 10 Christians following it, and I’ve been really encouraged to see them enthused with the history of the Church, and to see them beginning to understand some of the reasons why the Church has developed the way it has.

GD: How do you find working as a Christian historian in the context of a secular university?

DCJ: Its terrific! I’m not entirely at ease with the sacred/secular dichotomy implied here, but I’m guessing that what’s behind your question is how I equate my belief in a God who orchestrates the historical process and actively intervenes in it, with the supposed wholly secular agenda of the academy.

There was some fuss about this whole issue in the Banner of Truth a few years ago, [see here - GD]Iain Murray more or less accusing Christian historians, who write to the standards of the professional historical discipline, of selling out on their faith. I think this is just plain ridiculous. There is now a large body of evangelical historians, on both sides of the Atlantic, David Bebbington and Mark Noll being just the best known, who are highly regarded within the academy and have very settled evangelical convictions. They have been outstanding role models for me especially, in the early stages of my career.

Much that goes by the name of Christian history is pretty shoddy history really, its hagiography in the main, often showing very little, if any, sign of engagement with historical evidence. Much is based on a rehashing of pietistic Victorian biographies of Christian worthies of previous generations. I find it odd sometimes that there’s an assumption that any Christian who has read a bit can write a book about an historical subject and expect it to be taken seriously, there can’t many professions in which years of training and patient building of knowledge and experience can be circumvented so easily!! [You should try being a preacher - GD.] As a Christian historian my first responsibility is to the truth; understanding what happened in the past and trying to explain the reason for events or the actions of Christians in past generations; I read the evidence exhaustively, and construct my history on the basis of what that evidence says, not on what I would like it to say. My job as an historian is not to defend any particular group of Christians or any individual, it is to contextualise past events, and if the evidence that I amass challenges some of the shibboleths of present day evangelicals, I see that as a wholly positive thing.

GD: You wrote 'A Glorious Work in the World': Welsh Methodism and the international evangelical revival, 1735-50. What is it that draws you to the 18th century Evangelical Revival?

DCJ: That was my first book, based on my doctoral thesis. I guess I’d been interested in the evangelical revival from any early age; I’d been brought up with stories about Whitefield, Howel Harris etc so it was only natural to want to study them more closely. The eighteenth-century evangelical revival is also one of those pivotal moments in the history of Christianity, at least in Britain and America, leading as it did to the creation of the evangelical movement.

The book focuses on Wales in the main, and is an attempt to write the Welsh Methodist Revival into the current historiography of early evangelicalism. For various reasons, partially linguistic, knowledge about the Welsh experience has tended to be forgotten or conflated with that of England, so the book was an attempt to alter that. I’m currently finishing off a book called Calvinistic Methodism in England and Wales, 1735-1811, which should be out next year. It attempts to extend my first book further and cover the whole of the eighteenth century.

GD: How would you define revival?

DCJ: Well from the perspective of a historian, I think there’s an awful lot of confusion about this. The word revival has been used in the past to refer to a number of different phenomenon. So an exclusively theological definition, does not always do justice to revivals of religion as they have played out in real historical contexts.

In particular I think revivals have always been something of a mixed blessing; there are certain elements of evangelicalism that see revival as the panacea for all our troubles (which I’m sure it is to some extent), but history shows that revivals bring their own problems, and I’m always sceptical about those who would argue that what we should do today is circle the wagons and wait for better days, since if we’re not faithful in improving what God has given us in a day of small things, he’s hardly likely to entrust us with the increased responsibilities of better days.

Particularly problematic in understanding past revivals and learning their lessons for today is the tendency of some to argue that the eighteenth century awakenings were the real deal as far as revivals go, and that there’s been a gradual diluting of the meaning of revival, the hinge on which this argument turns of course being Charles Finney who supposedly propagated ‘revivalism’. I think this kind of reasoning just doesn’t stand up to close historical scrutiny. Certainly, there has been a broadening out of the understanding of what a revival is, but I would want to argue that that took place in the eighteenth century evangelical revivals; Whitefield was as keen a promoter and marketer of his revivals, adept at creating the right circumstances for a response to his preaching as Finney as ever was. Lots of the most recent scholarship on revivals is showing how different groups have fought for different understandings of revival, even as those revivals were going on. Kenneth S. Jeffrey’s, When the Lord Walked the Land: The 1858-9 Revival in the North East of Scotland (Paternoster, 2002) is an excellent example of a book that shows this!

Well I’ve not given you a definition of revival, but like every historian worth his salt I’ve just raised three or four more questions instead!

GD: Typical! But I think that there is some mileage in the view that Finney helped to shift the meaning of revival from a sovereign work of the Spirit to something more like an evangelistic campaign (see Revival & Revivalism by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth). Was Martyn Lloyd-Jones right to claim that "the first Christians were the most typical Calvinistic Methodists of all!", equating Calvinistic Methodism with New Testament Christianity at its most vibrant?

DCJ: Its quite a breathtaking claim when you think about it really isn’t it? While I certainly think that the Calvinistic Methodists got some big things right – they were thoroughly Jesus and gospel centred, moderately Calvinist without being hung-up on always defending their reformedness; had a healthy expectation of seeing the Holy Spirit at work, were pastorally responsible and evangelistically daring. But I think Lloyd-Jones was letting his nationalistic pride run away with him a bit to be honest. There’s an interesting chapter about the importance of Lloyd-Jones’ Welshness in John Brencher’s recent biography [See here for a Stephen Clark's review -GD]. Its not always easy reading for us Welshmen, but I think he make some points that have to be taken seriously. Lloyd-Jones was a wonderful preacher, but a shockingly bad historian I’m afraid!

GD: C'mon, that's a bit harsh. It was reading Lloyd-Jones that first got me interested in church history. What was going on with Howell Harris when he parted with Daniel Rowland in the 1750's and took "the prophetess" Sidney Griffith on his preaching tours?

DCJ: This is quite an involved question. The first thing you have to say is that if he were alive today, we’d call Howel Harris an obsessive or something similar. There’s no doubt in my mind that by the later 1740s he was in the middle of a mental breakdown, and that accounts, to some extent, for his more bizarre behaviour. But his relationship with Daniel Rowland had also broken down completely by then, it had never been all that stable anyway. Harris had a massive inferiority complex – Rowland was an ordained clergyman, Harris was not. But there was also his increasing use of unclear language when referring to the Trinity; he had imbibed some elements of Moravian theology, which was never going to be popular among the more narrow-minded Rowland.

And then he met Mrs Sidney Griffith. Some historians, Geraint H. Jenkins in particular, are in no doubt that Harris’ relationship with her was adulterous. I don’t think there’s enough evidence to make that accusation stick, but at one point Harris expected the imminent death of his wife, something he believed was all part of God’s preparation for him to marry Mrs Griffith! Harris thought she possessed special prophetic gifts, and really over-stepped the boundary between relying on the leading of the Holy Spirit and blind enthusiasm, as he thought she was an intermediary between God and himself.

The most detailed account of this whole relationship is in the last two chapters of Geraint Tudur’s, Howell Harris: From Conversion to Separation, 1735-1750 (2000).

GD: David Bebbington famously claimed that evangelicalism is largely a product of the 18th century Enlightenment. What do you make of his thesis?

DCJ: Lots of reformed Christians struggle with Bebbington’s thesis about the rise of evangelicalism because they fail to understand that he is making an argument based on history, on the balance of the historical evidence; he’s not making, or at least not primarily making, a theological point.

Its not so much that Bebbington argues that evangelicalism was a product of the Enlightenment (and, by the way, lots of evangelicals also don’t adequately understand the Enlightenment; in Britain it wasn’t primarily atheistic as it was in France), but that evangelicalism has always been conditioned and moulded by its context, and that context happened to be the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, its was Romanticism in the nineteenth century and has been Modernism for much of the twentieth century. For many of Bebbington’s chief critics though, its not so much the Enlightenment influence, but his first sentence that causes most problems, the one about evangelical religion emerging in the 1730s!

I’m in print in a number of places where I express wholehearted agreement with Bebbington’s position; the most accessible would be my essay on English Calvinistic Methodism in Michael Haykin and Kenneth Stewart (eds.), The Emergence of Evangelicalism (IVP, 2007).

GD: Carl Trueman will be addressing this issue in the Pastors' Forum next Marsh. It will be interesting to see what he has to say. Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism have some things in common, but what are the key differences between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism?

DCJ: I think this is a really tough question; I’ve been involved in a research project over the past few years trying to explore the similarities and differences between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. I’ve written about each of them over on the blog.

I’m not that much clearer in my own mind whether its possible to make that much of a distinction between the two groups really. James Barr and Harriet A. Harris’ would argue that a shared belief in an inerrant Bible and a foundationalist method of biblical interpretation means that there’s actually no difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists. Others would prefer to limit fundamentalism to inter-war America, seeing it as very much a fringe movement in Britain, associated perhaps with individuals like an R. B. Jones in Wales, or a John Kensit in England.

What we have been doing in the project is trying to identify fundamentalist characteristics, things like biblical inerrancy, belligerence, separatism, a selective reading and appropriation of tradition and history, social and cultural marginality, or wild eschatological views. But the difficulty with this is that many of these characteristics are as true of some evangelicals as they are of fundamentalists. It might sound slightly banal, but I’m increasingly convinced that when George Marsden said that fundamentalists are evangelicals who are angry about something, he was actually quite close to the mark!

GD: Do you see evidence of old fashioned Fundamentalism alive and well in the UK scene today?

DCJ: Oh yes, its very much alive and in rude health in British evangelicalism today! Peter Master would be an ideal example, his objections to the New Calvinist awakening in the US being largely based on his dislike of the way Mark Driscoll dresses, and his dislike of modern Christian music. In typical fundamentalist fashion his criticism is largely based on his own personal prejudices.

But I think the fundamentalist mentality is much more prevalent than just among fringe figures like Masters (there aren’t many people Masters does agree with are there?). The belief that reformed evangelicals have the truth in its purest form, and have as little as possible to do with other non-Calvinist evangelicals is surely evidence of it. Keeping alive a style of worship that has more to do with 1950s Britain than the Bible I would also suggest is also evidence of fundamentalist marginality. I could go on . . . .!

GD: If time travel were possible, which figure from post-biblical Church history would you most like to meet and what you say to him/her?

DCJ: I’ve always been fascinated by George Whitefield. I’m not sure what I’d say to him, but I’d quite like to have been in the crowd when he preached his sermon on the new birth in London and Bristol in the late 1730s.

I’m currently heading up a research project on Whitefield, the aim being to produce a critical edition of his massive correspondence. There’s so much mythology surrounding Whitefield, and so much of the work done on him is bad history, that a proper reassessment is long overdue. The ultimate aim is to write a critical biography!

GD: What is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because?

DCJ: Can I change theological to historical again? A number of times in the interview I’ve criticised evangelical history for being bad history. Thankfully, there are lots of evangelicals writing superb history. For a model example of how one evangelical should write about another evangelical I’d recommend George Marsden’s, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2004). Its outstanding in every possible way.

I’ve also recently discovered the novels of Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2005) and Home (2008). I’ve never read anything quite like them, and am currently recommending them to everybody I meet!

GD: Care to share your top three songs or pieces of music?

DCJ: Not sure about top three, but I’m going through a bit of a Neil Young phase at the minute, much to my wife’s disgust (I just blame the Northern Irish Fundamentalist influence for that!!).

I’m also really enjoying Stuart Townend’s latest album, Creation Sings, just now, particularly the song ‘Speak, O Lord’.

GD: What is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?

DCJ: Actually, I think that’s one of the easier questions here! In all of the Christian circles I happen to move in the big issue facing evangelicals today is the authority of Scripture.

GD: Which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?

DCJ: Far too many, although I keep a weather eye on the blogs written by John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Justin Taylor and Adrian Warnock.
GD: Well, that just about wraps things up. Thanks for dropping by for this bracing conversation.

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