Sunday, August 30, 2020

Quarantine Journal


In my justly unfamous Plague Journals I reflected in harrowing detail on the stresses and strains of my transformation from old school preacher to 21st century Cyber Pastor. I can now Zoom with the best of them, although linking the platform with Facebook Live is still a bit hit and miss. And when I say 'with the best of them', that was a idle boast, really. I mean, some flashy churches do stuff like getting their worship band to play and sing together, despite being in different homes. We just stream Aber hymns. 

Ebenezer Baptist Church started gathered worship services at the beginning of August. It was good to be able to preach to a living, breathing congregation, rather than a pixelated version. The Chapel has no internet connection, but I managed to stream the service to FB Live using my mobile phone for the benefit of those unable to attend. At Providence Baptist Church we await the completion of major building works before we can meet at the Chapel. Hopefully it won't be too long before we can gather.

Like many other churches, even when both of ours are able to meet for worship, that will only be for one service a week, with other things continuing online so long as the government's Covid Secure guidance applies in its current form. 

We had a nice holiday in Biarritz in the Basque region of France from 4-18 August. I visited the city when Interrailing  as a student back in 1989. I remember hoping that if a girl I had my eye on and me got together, I'd like to take her to Biarritz one day. It seemed such a lovely, romantic place. Reader, I married her and 29 years since Sarah and I got hitched I finally whisked her off to the South of France. 

We booked the holiday back in January, way before the coronavirus outbreak came to dominate everything. For months it looks as though we wouldn't be able to go. Then the government opened an 'air corridor' to France and we were off.  Covid cases were low in the Basque region, but we kept an eye on UK news, as it became apparent that infections were on the up in France as a whole. Soon enough the 'air corridor' was slammed shut again on Saturday 15 August. But we didn't join the stampede to beat the deadline and avoid having to self-isolate for 14 days, 

While on holiday we enjoyed spending time on the beaches of Biarritz, exploring the town and eating out at local restaurants, We often went for evening walks to watch the sun go down and saw some amazing sunsets. When on holiday Sarah likes soaking up the rays, while I huddle under a parasol reading books, popping out several times during the day for a swim in the sea. I read Rorke's Drift: A New Perspective, by Neil Thornton and Interpreting Eden, by Vern Poythress. I almost finished The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant & His Kingdom, by Samuel Renihan and made a good start on The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor's Heart by Harold Senbbeil. 

The second of the four titles was for review in the Banner Magazine and I've been asked to delay posting a my impressions on the blog until its published there. I'm currently working on a review of the third book, which I've now finished. Still reading the last one. I liked the first two or three chapters very much. The author's gentle pastoral heart shines through every page. But his Lutheranism seems to get more pronounced as the book proceeds. Talk of crucifixes and the like doesn't sit well with me as a Grace Baptist Pastor, but there are good things here too, with a strong emphasis on Word and Spirit in ministry. 

When on holiday we found an English speaking CofE congregation in Biarritz. They had a Lutheran pastor take the service on the first Sunday we were there, but had no preacher for the second Sunday. They knew I was a minister because we made contact with a member of the group before we set off for France. I ended up preaching the second Sunday, on Matthew 15:21-28, which was one of the Lectionary readings of the day. I wondered how I might go down with the people, as they weren't used to your typical Reformed Baptist preaching, but I felt helped and they've invited me to preach there again sometime. 'Guy Davies Global Ministries' really is becoming a thing at last.

Anyway, having returned to the UK after the quarantining deadline, we've been under virtual 'house arrest' for the best part of a fortnight. I don't know why the government can't regionalise 'air corridors' so only people staying in parts of countries with high infection rates are affected, or why they can't sort out airport testing, so only people who test positive need to isolate? Unlike for some, my work wasn't affected too badly, as most of our services are still online. 

In any case I didn't start back to work until last Monday, although there were still some bits and pieces that needed doing before then. We've had to do our big weekly shop over the internet and rely on our daughter to get us the other things we needed from the shops. Apart from work, we've done some decorating at home. I've managed to get a good bit of reading done and caught up with church members via phone and Zoom meetings. 

We got up to speed with the BBC's A Suitable Boy (1 episode still to watch) and used our freebie week's subscription to Now TV to see the powerful and thought-proving drama, Chernobyl. What a harrowing expose of the corrupt old Soviet Union. The whole system was based on illusion and lies, but the truth about the nuclear disaster  as told by Valery Legasov and others at great cost helped to bring the system crashing to the ground. 

I usually don't bother to shave when on holiday and have continued unshaven while quarantining. Here I am wearing at hat that was a birthday gift from our son. We'll be able to venture out again on Tuesday. The beard may have to go by then, but we'll see. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Can Science Explain Everything? by John C. Lennox

The Good Book Company, 2019, 127pp

I forgot to review this book when I read it sometime last year. Not sure why it slipped through the net. I think I quoted from it in a sermon shortly after reading it and a member of the congregation expressed an interest, so I lent it to them. When they returned the book the moment had passed and I simply popped it on a  bookshelf, unreviewed. 


I bought the title having watched a discussion between John Lennox and Peter Atkins chaired by Justin Brierley on Premier Radio. Here it is. Lennox came to my attention more recently when I noted that he's one of the speakers on Sing! Global, hosted by the Gettys. On seeing a promo clip I was pretty sure I'd read one of Lennox's books and tried searching my blog for the review to see what I thought about it. Nothing. The one that got away.

So, here's a review of a book I only vaguely remember reading and haven't gone to the trouble of re-reading, just a brief skim through. In my sermon I believe I quoted the bit where Lennox recalls a conversation he had with a senior academic when he was a student. The professor told him that if he wanted to get on in the scientific world he would have to abandon his Christian faith. Lennox responded that atheism had nothing better to offer than his faith, so he would maintain his beliefs. 

Some people like to suggest that scientists observe the world with chilly detachment. From their Olympian heights they hand down definitive explanations of how the universe originated and operates. The explanations proceed on the basis of physical laws of cause and effect. Everything can be accounted for on that level. Even if some stuff can't be scientifically explained at the moment, one day it will. God doesn't get a look in. The Bible, a book of primitive mythology has nothing to say to the world of science, which is based on observation and reason, not faith.

And what about Galileo? He turns up in chapter 1, Can you be a scientist and believe in God? Hint, yes. Science certainly offers explanations of how the material universe works that are cogent on one level, but meaning and purpose in the universe isn't exhausted once the equations have been reeled out. Lennox uses the illustration of a boiling kettle. At a scientific level the water is boiling because the electrical element in the kettle has heated the H20 to 100°c. That's good as far as it goes, but it would also be perfectly correct to say that the kettle is boiling because I fancy a cup of tea. To say that only scientific explanations count is reductionist 'nothing buttery'. (Not to be confused with Utterly Buttery). 

The Bible may not deal in scientific theories, but its message reveals the purpose of life; that human beings were made to know, love and glorify their Creator. By way of contrast, Richard Dawkins views the world as devoid of ultimate purpose, seeing only "blind, pitiless indifference". If that's all atheists have to offer, no wonder Lennox couldn't be persuaded to abandon his faith in God. 

Science has done a wonderful job in discovering the presence of natural laws such as gravitational force, but it cannot explain why those laws exist or how it is that we are able to understand their workings. Lennox exposes the logical flaw in Stephen Hawkin's argument that, "Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing." (p. 37). So, because there is something (gravity), the universe must have created itself from nothing? OK. And anyway, laws do not create, they simply describe how created stuff operates.

Self-creation is self-contradictory. But if God made everything, who made God? Lennox addresses that one too. God is by definition outside of the world of material causation. He is an infinite and eternal being, without beginning or end. Science depends on the universe working in orderly and predictable ways and assumes that human beings are able to decipher the laws of nature, That makes perfect sense if God created the world in his wisdom and to display his goodness. That we are able to make sense of things also makes sense if we were created in the image of God. Which is why the scientific method arose in a context where the Christian faith was the prevailing worldview. The scientific method in itself gives no rationale for the scientific method. 

Yes, but what about the scientific claim that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, rather than a mere thousands of years old as the Book of Genesis seems to claim. Lennox distances himself from 6 x 24 hour creationists, saying that their view is a 'particular interpretation' of Genesis 1, one that he doesn't hold to himself. He advances a 'gap theory' position, which isn't especially convincing either. I'll return to the length of the creation days in my forthcoming review of Interpreting Eden, by Vern Poythress. 

Anyway, the Christian belief isn't ultimately a worldview that is worth holding to because of its explanatory power. The faith is founded upon the historic claim that in Jesus God became man to die for our sins on the cross and that he rose bodily from the grave. As the author shows in chapter 8, if that claim isn't true, Christianity can be disproved and dismissed as false. But it is true and the New Testament provides compelling evidence for us to believe that Jesus lives. 

Here's where it gets personal. We must believe in order to understand. By faith in Jesus we are reconciled to God, experience the forgiveness of sin and know the hope of everlasting life. Science can't explain everything. The ultimate purpose of life is disclosed in Christ, though whom and for whom God created all things. 

People who have fallen for the oft-repeated claim that 'science has disproved God' would do well to give this book a read. Christians studying the natural sciences in an atheistic environment will find reassurance here that their their faith is not incompatible with science. In writing Can Science Explain Everything? John Lennox has provided a handy apologetic tool that will enable believers to give a reason for their hope in a sceptical age.

There. done it. 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Rorke's Drift: A New Perspective, by Neil Thornton

Fonthill Media, 2016, Kindle edition

Earth! render back from out thy breast

A remnant of our Spartan dead!

Of the three hundred grant but three,

To make a new Thermopylae!

Lord Byron 

Corporal Francis Atwood of the Army Service Corps was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his exploits at the defence of Rorke's Drift. As the Commanding Officer pinned the medal to his chest, he alluded to Leonidas and his band of three hundred Spartan warriors who held the pass at Thermopylae in the face of a 'great barbarian host'. He hoped that as poets had sung of Thermopylae some 2,000 years after the battle, so the 'small but intrepid band of men who fought and died, but held their ground against a savage foe' at the 'glorious defence of Rorke's Drift', would be similarly acclaimed down the ages. 

Zulu

Partly due to the 1964 film, Zulu, the events of 22-23 January 1879 are unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. My first encounter with this 'new Thermopylae' was by means of that film. There were two cinemas in Newport, South Wales where I grew up, the Odeon and the ABC. For some reason the ABC decided to screen Zulu, which was originally released two years before I was born. I was still a kid when my parents took me to see it in all its big screen glory. In the interval I went to buy an ice cream. The film restarted before I returned to my parents. I was confronted by a the image of a massive Zulu brandishing an assegai at me. I ran back to my mum and dad as quickly as my legs would carry me. Since that startling first encounter I have probably watched Zulu more times than any other film.

I've also done a bit of casual reading about the defence of Rorke's Drift and watched the occasional documentary, so I was aware that while the film was based on an historical event, some dramatic licence was used in retelling the story. The regiment wasn't called the South Wales Borderers at the time, but the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment of Foot. The stirring 'Men of Harlech' sing off between the British soldiers and the Zulus before the final wave of attack was more Hollywood than history. 


There we are. The main aim of this book isn't simply to debunk Zulu, however, but to provider an accurate historical account of the defence of Rorke's Drift. The author, Neil Thornton alludes to Martin Luther's emphasis on sola scriptura, which took him back to the sources of the Christian faith in the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament. In Thornton's case, he determined to review the primary sources, rather than simply repeat the received wisdom found in secondary literature. His account offers fresh insight into the evacuation of the sick from the hospital at the height of the battle

 Rorke's Drift must fall?

The heroic defence of the mission station has been celebrated as one of the most illustrious episodes in British military history. The reason for British intervention in what became South Africa isn't quite so illustrious. A great game was being played by the great European powers to carve up Africa. The author neither condemns or condones British imperial adventurism. The geopolitical context of the iSandlwana massacre and defence of Rorke's Drift is sketched out simply to provide the backdrop to the military campaigns. The men who fought at Rorke's Drift admired the noble bravery of their opponents, but racist overtones are undeniable in the contemporary accounts, which speak of the British soldiers shooting  down countless assegai-wielding N******. Woke hadn't been invented back then. History is a messy business that was forged by less than perfect human beings, often acting from mixed motives, with ordinary squaddies caught up in the thick of it. Whatever we might think of British Imperialism, there are certainly things to admire about the defence of Rorke's Drift.  

 Courage

Around 150 British and other soldiers stationed at the Rorke's Drift faced Zulu forces estimated at 3,000 warriors. Some of the men of 2nd Warwickshire Regiment stationed at the mission station under the command of Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead wished they could have joined their comrades as they invaded Zulu territory in a quest to engage with the enemy. When news filtered through that a column of over 1,300 British soldiers had been cut down at  iSandlwana on 22 January, the reports were greeted with horror and disbelief. Zulu warriors who similarly had been denied their shot at glory on that field of battle were now making their way towards Rorke's Drift for what looked like a straightforward victory. 'You will all be murdered and cut to pieces!' cried a mounted messenger from the scene of slaughter. 

Bromhead's orders were to stand firm. Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers was supervising the building of ponts across a nearby river. As the superior officer he assumed overall command of the defence of Rorke's Drift. With the benefit of advice from Acting Commissary James Dalton Chard began to organise the defences, setting up a wall of mealie bags and stationing men to defend the hospital. 

Thornton describes the ensuing action in gripping detail from the first shots fired at the enemy by Private Hitch. The vastly outnumbered men of the 2nd Warwickshire kept the Zulu forces at bay by bullet and bayonet. While all showed great courage, some went well beyond the call of duty. Private Hook did sterling work in defending the hospital and helping evacuate the sick. Bromhead, Chard and Dalton fought alongside their soldiers, often in the most dangerous and exposed positions. Men fought on although injured and terribly weary. Defeat seemed inevitable, but the soldiers were determined to stand together and not lose their lives cheaply. 

In Zulu, the Swedish clergyman Otto Witt is portrayed as a drunk and a coward. In real life, Witt fled the scene before battle commenced to look after his family at nearby Msinga. The mission station chaplain, Reverend George Smith remained at Rorke's Drift, however. He did his bit too, making sure the men were supplied with cartridges, which earned him the nickname 'Ammunition Smith'. The chaplain moved among the soldiers offering words of rebuke and encouragement, 'Don't swear men, don't swear, but shoot them boys, shoot them!'. 

The Victoria Crosses and Distinguished Conduct Medals detailed in chapter 7 were well deserved, 

Leadership

Bromhead, Chard and Dalton showed themselves hugely capable and courageous leaders at the defence of Rorke's Drift. They thought and acted quickly to shore up the mission station's defences. At Chard's instructions a final redoubt was constructed out of mealie bags and biscuit boxes. Blind spots were covered. Bromhead led small detachments of men to reinforce the line where the battle was at it fiercest. There was no petty rivalry between the two Lieutenants. After the siege was lifted, Bromhead visited his wounded men and ensured they received the best possible treatment. After the action some higher up officers held a low opinion of Bromhead and Chard. Despite their outstanding leadership at the defence of Rorke's Drift, they were deemed to be rather ordinary men. Thrusting, ambitious types unfairly looked down on them. True leadership isn't flashy. Competence, courage and the ability to inspire confidence when it counts are the thing. 

Tragedy

Chapter 7 not only details the VCs and DCMs awarded to the men who fought at Rorke's Drift, it also shows what became of the heroes of that battle in later life. While some lived to reach a good old age, others died before their time. Some of disease, others in destitution, One man took his own life, the balance of his mind disturbed. It struck me as particularly tragic that men who had fought so hard to live should then die in such miserable ways, Ecclesiastes 9:11. 

Thornton provides a well-researched and compelling account of the action. The book loses a bit if steam after chapter 6, Salvation, where the mission station is relieved and the siege lifted. Unlike King Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans, the majority of the defenders of Rorke's Drift thankfully lived to tell the tale. There is a fair bit if repetition in chapter 7, Gallantry Recipients, which stricter editing could have avoided. Chapter 8 and a number of appendices detail the thinking behind the author's proposed two stage evacuation of the hospital. 


Highly recommended for anyone who wants to get at the truth behind Zulu. If only Richard Burton was around to narrate a version of the book for Audible.