Monday, September 09, 2019

Providence Baptist Church Anniversary Weekend

Over the weekend we celebrated the 209th anniversary of Providence Baptist Church. As has been our custom for the last few years, we had the same speaker for the Saturday afternoon meeting and the Sunday services. This time it was the turn of Gary Brady, who's been pastor of Child's Hill Baptist Church, London for over 30 years. Like me he trained for the Ministry at London Seminary

It was good to have friends from other local churches join us on Saturday, where Gary preached on Psalm 133, offering a biblical vision of unity within and among gospel congregations. The meeting was followed by a buffet tea, where we continued to enjoy fellowship together. 

On Sunday Gary preached on John 4:13-14 and 1 Corinthians 15:55-57. The messages were engagingly delivered, insightful and encouraging. I'm not one of those preachers who expects others to listen to him, but doesn't much like listening to others. It was refreshing to be under the ministry of the Word, taking in rather than giving out.  

It was a pleasure to have Gary with us at ours for the day. We've know each other for years, often meeting up at conferences and things, so it was good to be able to catch up and talk about all kinds of stuff. We showed Gary the local sights. Westbury boasts several picturesque ponds and of course, the famous White Horse that overlooks the town. We took a detour past the school where I serve as a governor. We'll have been here for 16 years this December and feel very much part of Westbury.

Among the hymns Gary chose for the Saturday meeting was 'Blest be the tie that binds' by John Fawcett (1740-1817). I didn't realise until Gary mentioned it when he introduced the hymn, but the writer was a Baptist Minister. He was Pastor of Wainsgate Baptist Church, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Apparently he was converted at the age of 16 under the ministry of George Whitefield. Fawcett served for seven years at Heben Bridge, despite a small income and a growing family. In 1772 he received a call to the large and influential Carter's Lane Baptist Church in London. He planned to accept,  but at the last minute changed his mind and stayed put. It was to commemorate his decision that in 1782 he wrote the hymn, 'Blest be the tie that binds'. 

In modern day parlance, Fawcett was a 'somewhere' pastor, rather than an 'anywhere' pastor. Some ministers crave a wider ministry. They always seem to be off speaking at conferences in their home country or overseas and don't tend to stay for long in one pastorate. Others prefer to cultivate a deeper ministry in terms of rooting themselves in one place. They form a strong attachment to their congregation and community, a 'tie that binds'. I'm not saying pastoral  'somewheres' are better than 'anywheres'. There are 'varieties of service, but the same Lord'. George Whitefield for one was a pretty useful 'anywhere' preacher. But there is a lot to be said for going deep, rather than wide. 

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam by Douglas Murray

Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018 paperback edition, 371pp

Summer reading #1

I read this on the beaches of Costa Balanca. We holidayed in Alicante, the Spanish coastal resort. The city is dominated by Santa B├írbara Castle, a formidable hilltop fortification. It is so called because on Saint Barbara's day, 4 December 1248, the castle was captured from the Moors by Castilian forces led by Alfonso of Castile. It wasn't until 1492 that the final Moorish stronghold on the Iberian peninsula fell. Today the Muslims are back, not by conquest, but immigration. Muslims form a sizable minority of around 2 million people in modern day Spain. From what I could see relations between the Spanish population and their Muslim neighbours are peaceable. But Spain has not been altogether free from Islamic terrorism. Most recently in 2017 14 people were killed and hundreds maimed when a 22 year old Moroccan drove a van into crowds milling along La Rambas, Barcelona. 

Another victor over the Moors is buried in Saint Denis Basilica Cathedral, Paris. At the Battle of Tours in 732 Frankish leader, Charles 'The Hammer' Martel defeated the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate. Martel is credited with preventing the wholesale Islamisation of Europe. These days the Saint Denis district of Paris is a Muslim majority area. The Jewish population has halved. Armed guards are posted at the Cathedral doors to protect the clergy working inside. In Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, northwest of Paris, an 85-year-old parish priest, Father Jacques Hamel had his throat slit while leading Mass by terrorists shouting "Allahu akbar!" 

In The Strange Death of Europe Douglas Murray (@DouglasKMurray) tells the story of how we got ourselves into this position. "Bridges, not walls" was the slogan deployed by advocates of mass immigration such as Tony Blair and Angela Merkel. Europe should be open to the world. Yes, for the benefit of people fleeing the sword, famine and pestilence, but also for the good of Europe itself. Why be old, stale and pale? We need an influx of young workers whose taxes will fund caring for our ageing population. We need multicultural diversity to mix things up a bit. Think of the extra culinary choices, the 'world music', the mind-broadening conversations.

Foreigner suspicious locals might resent it, but Europe's got it coming. We once exercised colonial rule over faraway lands, enslaved people and the like. Now it's payback time. Some payback. Rather than being of economic benefit, immigrants are often low skilled and require welfare support, social housing and intensive healthcare provision. Mass immigration has irreversibly changed the character of some communities, without the original inhabitants of those communities ever being asked if they wanted change. Indigenous Londoners now find themselves in a minority in their own city. 

Radicalised Muslims have brought mayhem and murder to European streets. In the UK Asian Muslim gangs have been locked up for grooming and sexually abusing disadvantaged white girls. In Germany and Sweden the arrival of large numbers of immigrants has coincided with an uptick in the number of rapes and sexual assaults on women. But, as Murray acidly puts it, "if there is a bit more beheading and sexual assault than there used to be in Europe, then  at least we also benefit from a much wider range of cuisines." (p. 57).

Now I'm sure most people see the value of at least some immigration in terms of filling job vacancies and cultural enrichment. The UK has benefited from an influx of peoples from former colonies and beyond. Immigrants often work hard and take every advantage of living in a developed country that offers opportunity for all. The trouble with mass immigration is the difficulty in integrating large numbers of newcomers so that they embrace the culture of the host country, rather than expecting the culture to adapt to suit them. That is complicated further in Europe where society is in a state of flux, having lost its Christian moorings. It is mass immigration and its effect on European identity that Douglas Murray has in his sights in this disturbing work.

Angela Merkel was a leading architect of European mass immigration. In August 2015 she announced there would be 'no limit' on the number of migrants Germany received.  Her open door immigration policy impacted the whole of Europe and had unintended effects. More pressure was heaped on hard-up Greece and Italy as thousands boarded unsuitable boats to land on European shores and then make their way on foot to more welcoming countries such as Germany and Sweden. Douglas Murray details how the small Italian island of Lampedusa was suddenly overwhelmed by vast numbers of immigrants. The number of arrivals expected in Germany in 2015 was upped to 800,000, four times the number taken in one year earlier. Eastern European countries hastily threw up border fences to keep the waves of immigrants out. Little was done to check exactly who was arriving in Europe, or to ensure that those who came claimed asylum in the first country in which they arrived. The boarderless Schengen Area made traversing across the continent all too easy. The November 2015 terror attacks in Paris exposed the ease with which people with ill intent could exploit the open boarders approach espoused by Merkel and other European leaders. 

Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait hardened their hearts at the plight of refugees fleeing from war zones and famine in Syria and North Africa. Muslims from poorer countries could not be expected to integrate with their more well-heeled fellow religionists. Political leaders from Eastern Europe did not want their Christian cultural traditions undermined by the arrival of large numbers of migrants. The attitude of politicians and people from Western Europe was somewhat different, warped as it was by a sense of guilt over past colonial misdeeds. As Murray somewhat sardonically puts it, "Contemporary Europeans may not be the only people in the world to feel that they have been born into original sin, but they certainly appear to suffer from the worst case of it." (p. 162). 

That is one of the reasons why Merkel and others opened the door to mass migration. They wished to atone for past imperial transgressions. Murray cites a case of a white European woman who apologised to an immigrant who brutally raped her and was therefore deported from Germany. As he points out, Europeans are not unique in having aspects of their history of which they might be rightly ashamed, "any student of history much conclude that every community, race and group of humans is not only capable of doing terrible things, but has managed to do such things" (p. 171). Only Western Europeans (and Australians) seem driven to try and expunge their guilt by means of grovelling apologies for historical crimes and masochistic acceptance of whatever pains may be thrust upon them at the hands of violent attackers. We've got it coming.

Murray identifies the decline of Christianity in Europe as a key factor in the continent's crumbling sense of identity. Liberal scholarship helped undermine confidence in the Bible, as did Darwin's theory of evolution. Nothing has been found to replace the faith that shaped Europe for thousands of years. Europeans no longer believe in Adam's origin sin and the fallenness of all humanity,  only their own collective guilt. They no longer have a Christ to atone for their sins, hence the misguided attempts at self-atonement.The author laments the emptiness of much of what passes for secular culture, which he finds either trite and superficial, or parasitic on its Christian heritage. 

Guilt is a powerful, yet flawed motivator for action and has badly skewed the European response to the immigration crisis. Mercy towards "the stranger, the fatherless and the widow" needs to be balanced by a just concern for one's own family and people. Little thought was given to the effect of mass immigration on European society and values, or ensuring that our own people were not needlessly put in harm's way. The answer to what Murray calls 'the tyranny of guilt' that is crippling European society is faith in Jesus who died that we might be forgiven; "if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed", John 8:36. 

The Christian faith may prove more resilient than Murray admits. He has little time for Evangelical Christianity, but Evangelical Churches in Europe are growing, albeit at a slow rate. Globally-speaking Evangelical Christianity is flourishing, especially in China, South America, Africa, and even in Muslim majority lands like Iran. The tide of the 'Sea or Faith' may yet turn, even in Europe. Witness the transforming effect of the Reformation and movements such as the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century. It was the Evangelical Revival that spawned the abolition of slavery associated with William Wilberforce and many other great social reforms of the period. In the UK today churches in areas with large immigrant communities are reporting an increasing number of people from Muslim backgrounds converting to Christianity. Murray's prescription for cultural renewal; Cathedrals and Shakespeare certainly won't cut it. A return to Europe's Christian foundations offers hope. 

Murray is not anti-immigrant, it needs to be said. He appreciates the way in which migrants have been welcomed by native Europeans. He acknowledges that the majority of incoming people are peaceable, even if their views are sometimes worryingly hardline. He is not unmoved by the plight of thousands fleeing conflict and poverty for a better life in Europe. Murray offers practical suggestions for dealing with the immigration crisis such as setting up safe refugee camps in Syria and North Africa. It is certainly more cost effective to supply tents for camps in Syria than Sweden with its frozen winters. Far easier too for refugees to return home once it is safe for them to do so when they are cared for in locally-based camps. People are less likely to risk their lives crossing the sea in rubber dinghies if they know they will be cared for nearer to home. To its credit the UK government has poured millions into creating and maintaining secure and well-provisioned refugee camps. 

None the less, Murray argues that the mass immigration policies pursued by New Labour, Angela Merkel and others were badly misguided and could prove culturally ruinous for Europe. Politicians and the media have tried to shut down public discussion of the negative aspects of large scale immigration. Reports of mass sexual assaults on women at a New Year's Eve party in Stockholm by Muslim young men were suppressed. Similarly with child grooming gangs in Rotherham and Oxford. The authorities were slow to act for fear of whipping up anti Muslim sentiment. There is a growing disconnect between the views of ordinary Europeans and their political masters on the effects of mass migration. Shutting down debate and hushing up legitimate concerns won't help matters (see Murray on The truth about hate speech). Politicians urgently need to give attention to ensuring immigrant groups are properly integrated under the rule of law.

Integration may prove difficult. One of the hopes entertained by advocates of large scale immigration was that newcomers would help innately conservative natives become a little more liberal and cosmopolitan in their attitudes. But what if a large proportion of migrants are even more socially conservative than your typical European or Brit? Witness the protests over LGBT education in schools in cities like Birmingham where there are large Muslim communities. Birmingham was also the scene of the 'Trojan Horse' scandal involving an attempted takeover of state schools by Muslim governors. Their strategy was to try and Islamise education rather than welcoming the Westernisation of their children. The government responded by renewing its drive to promote 'British Values'. But it was successive governments who encouraged people with scant regard for our values to settle here en masse in the first place. That's why 'honour killings' and FGM are now issues that need addressing in 21st century Britain. Not to mention an increase in Antisemitism. Immigrant communities tend to have a higher birth rate than the native population. Integrating people who want to maintain their distinct identity and cultural norms could therefore prove even more challenging in the years ahead. Murray worries that mass migration may end up destroying what made Europe such an attractive place to live in the first place.  

The author's Jerimiad makes for challenging reading. Some may not like the case he presents, but the facts he marshals cannot easily be gainsaid. In an Afterword Murray brings his account up to date and reflects on the 2017 London Bridge and Manchester Arena terror attacks. Europe's political elite wanted "bridges, not walls", but as I witnessed last weekend, the bridges of London now have walls to stop pedestrians being run over by terrorists. Douglas Murray explains how we got ourselves into this position. He isn't quite so good on explaining how we're going to get out of it.

Not exactly a fun holiday read, admittedly. But who said holidays should be all ice cream and sticks of rock? One August Bank Holiday Monday I took a volume of poetry by R. S. Thomas to the beach. 

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Joy of Service by Julian Hardyman


I think I was given this at an FIEC Pastors' Network meeting a year or so ago. A freebie. 

The brief chapters glance at themes like, 'Ministry as Service', 'Ministry and Suffering' and 'Ministry and Prayer'.

I guess this is aimed at aspiring and newbie pastors, with a nod to more experienced ministers.

Biblical teaching on ministry is assumed rather than spelled out. There's nothing much on the call to pastoral ministry, the scriptural pattern of pastoral ministry, and so on. That said, this is part of a series. Other titles (which I haven't read) are devoted to The CallWhy Free Church Ministry? and related topics. 

The format is chatty and anecdotal, with the author drawing extensively on his own ministry experience. Quotes from the Bible, plus the thoughts of other writers are thrown in for good measure.

You'll find a dose of realism here, seasoned with encouragement to serve the Lord with joy.

Maybe it's because I tend to be more guarded in publicly expressing my inmost feelings that the author's confessional style grated on me a bit.

We're all different. Extroverts may find it a struggle to spend long and lonely hours in study and sermon prep. As a self-contained introvert (which, I think Hardyman would agree, isn't the same as being a cold hearted sociopath), that aspect of ministry is a necessary way of recharging my batteries.

I don't tend to find these 'bite sized' efforts very satisfying. In their reading Ministers (and wannabes) should aspire to something a bit more meaty that will stretch their minds and stir their souls to the depths. 

Then again, the weighty Some Pastors and Teachers by Sinclair Ferguson wouldn't have fitted quite so neatly into my back pocket for reading when my wife had a hospital appointment. 

Shouldn't look a gift horse (or pony - 101pp) in the mouth, I suppose. 

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by Michael Horton

Zondervan, 2011, 1052pp

One of the formative influences on my ministry was reading Preaching and Preachers by Dr. D. M. Lloyd-Jones. In it the preacher urged the importance of pastors keeping up their theological reading. After all, for him preaching was 'theology on fire', and you can't have that without theology. One particular passage hit home:
Time must be found for reading, and we turn now to the more intellectual type of reading. The first is theology. There is no greater mistake than to think that you finish with theology when you leave a seminary. The preacher should continue to read theology as long as he is alive... Keep on reading; and read the big works. (Preaching and Preachers by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985, p. 177).
Taking my cue from Lloyd-Jones, it has long been my practice to have a big work of theology on the go. For many years that was Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Bavinck. More recently I have been working my way through Michael Horton's systematic theology, The Christian Faith. 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of my pastorate. Our people arranged for a 'surprise' party to mark the occasion. Only my wife asked if I could have any book, what would it be? That kind of gave the game away that something must be up. My choice was Horton's The Christian Faith. 

Weighing in at over 1000 pages, a proper in-depth review would be quite lengthy. I don't have time to write it, and I guess few would bother reading such a prolix post. What I offer here is a rather sketchy appraisal that will hopefully encourage people to read the book for themselves. Toll lege. Job done.

I really appreciated Horton's approach to systematics. Rather than offering up a dollop of doctrine, followed by a sting of proof texts, he seeks of integrate Drama: The Greatest Story Ever Told, Doctrine: The Grammar of Faith, Doxology: Saying "Amen!", and Discipleship: The Way of Christ in the World. If that sounds a bit Vanhoozery (The Drama of Doctrine), it's probably because it is.  Good. 

Horton introduces 'Dissonant Dramas: Paradigms for Knowing God and the World'. This discussion helps to shape his treatment of the various topics of systematic theology. Pantheism is about 'Overcoming Estrangement' between the Creator and the creature by belittling God and bigging up man. That's an obvious 'no-no' from a Christian standpoint. Then we have Atheism and Deism offering, 'The Stranger We Never Meet'. No to that too. Finally, a biblical ontology gives a 'Covenant Account Of "Meeting the Stranger". This preserves the infinite distance between the Creator and the creature, yet shows how God relates to human beings by means of covenants. 'Yes' to that one.  

The divine 'Stranger' whom we meet is the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer and Perfecter. It is possible for us to know the One God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit because he has revealed himself to us in the world he has made, in the written Word he has given and in the Living Word whom he has sent. By the Spirit sinners are granted a saving knowledge of the God of covenant grace. Apart from his sovereign intervention all would be lost. Horton is a thoroughgoing Calvinist. Again, good. 

The author gives attention to the traditional loci of systematics in six Parts: Part 1: 'Knowing God: The Presuppositions of Theology. Part 2:'God Who Lives. Part 3: God Who Creates. Part 4: God Who Rescues. Part 5: God Who Reigns in Grace. Part 6: God Who Reigns in Glory. His discussion is enriched by insightful biblical exegesis, shaped by the broad redemptive historical sweep of Scripture's story, and informed by the theological reflection of the church. Horton engages with contemporary concerns and interacts critically with a broad range of theological voices from Bultmann to Barth. 

Horton argues against a subordinationist understanding of relations between  the Father and the Son in the Trinity, but he doesn't explicitly address the 'Eternal Submission of the Son' controversy. The theologian adopts Meredith Kline's view of the Mosaic Covenant as a republication of the Covenant of Works, which I believe is mistaken (see here). He speaks slightingly of Baptists and the Free Church tradition, which is a bit unfair. We also take covenant theology and  ecclesiology seriously (see here and here). Horton's treatment of glorification is especially helpful (see here). 

Obviously not as big and satisfying as Bavinck. An improvement on Berkhof. Knocks the spots off Reymond. Grudem? Don't ask me. 

Toll lege, as I say. Just what 'the Doctor' ordered.

My current 'big read' is Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of what Every Minister is Called to be, by Sinclair B. Ferguson, Banner of Truth Trust, 2017. Already several chapters in. Great stuff so far. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Lion King

The original animated version of Disney’s The Lion King came out in 1994, a year before the birth of our first child. We bought a copy on video as a gift for our two year old son when his little sister was born. Our children loved the story of Simba, Nala, Pumba and Timon. They watched the video repeatedly. Mum and dad loved it too. The best children’s films appeal to children and parents alike.

Our two are now all grown up. That didn't stop my wife and me going to see the new live action version of the movie on Saturday. It was a revelation. The visuals were amazing, with real looking lions, giraffes, warthogs and meerkats. The actors who lent their voices to the characters gave Simba and the gang genuine emotional depth. The songs really pulled at the heartstrings of nostalgic parents

But what struck me on watching the remake is that the film deals with some really big themes that I hadn’t noticed before. Somehow I missed the nod to Hamlet. Wicked uncle Scar usurping his brother’s throne. Mufasa’s ghost urging Simba to sort things out. How did I not see that when watching the video of the original times without number?

Another thing was the contrasting worldviews presented to Simba by his father, Mufasa and his friends, Pumba and Timon. Mufasa tells his son to be mindful of the ‘circle of life’, the interconnected ordering of all living things. For Pumba and Timon, there is no ‘circle’, but a ‘line’ of meaninglessness. You live, you die, that’s it. May as well enjoy life while it lasts. Perhaps this contrast is more marked in the remake than the original, or maybe I’m a bit dim and just didn’t get it first time around?

Anyway, the ‘circle’ vs ‘line’ thing got me thinking. A cyclical worldview is often associated with Eastern mysticism; reincarnation and all that. The Christian faith offers a more linear view. At a cosmic level we can draw a line from creation to eschatological consummation. More individually, we get one life, that’s all. No reincarnational recycling. We are born, we die, ‘it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement’. (Hebrews 9:27).

But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Within the linear world of time and space there are many cycles; the orbiting of planets around the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, the annual round of the seasons, the water cycle, the complex interconnectedness of the ecosystem and so on. Ecclesiastes speaks of this, ‘All is vanity’. Things just seem to keep on going round and round, Ecclesiastes 1:1-10. The world is not without meaning, however. When we remember our Creator, life has moral purpose, Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13-14.

For Pumba and Timon, the apparent meaninglessness of linear life leads them to take a ‘let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ approach. Simba buys into this and grows up enjoying a carefree existence with his friends. The ‘problem free philosophy of Hakuna Matata’.

Scar’s disregard for the ‘circle of life’ takes a more sinister turn. In a world without meaning all he has left is his obsessive desire for the crown. He must maintain his position as king. Even if that means his kingdom becoming a desolate wasteland as his hyena henchmen indulge in ‘overkilling’. If life is without meaning you either get hippy drop outs who couldn’t care less, or a Nietzschian ‘will to power’.

When she eventually finds him holed up in Pumba and Timon’s carefree commune, Nala helps Simba realise that life does have purpose. Simba must take his responsibilities seriously, fulfill his destiny, and liberate the Pride Lands from Scar’s tyrannical rule.

It is at this point that the film takes on a Christian aspect. Simba becomes Aslan. The true heir to the Lion King’s throne must fight to topple the Usurper, free his people and restore the ravaged earth. There are obvious echoes here of the Lion of the tribe of Judah who conquered the powers of darkness and ransomed his people by his own blood that they may share in his reign over a renewed creation (Revelation 5:5, 9-10).

In the final scenes of the film all the creatures of the Pride Lands pay homage to King Simba. One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. He is the true Lion King, the rightful ruler over all God’s creation, Revelation 5:11-14.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Yesterday

We went to see Yesterday last week. Old married's 'date night'. The trailers looked fun, although reviews were a bit sniffy. You probably know at lest the gist of the plot. The write-up contains spoilers. A global power outage made people forget stuff. Like The Beatles. Most people anyway. A chosen few could still remember the Fab Four. 

One of them was failed musician, Jack Malik. On realising no one he encountered knew anything about The Beatles, he passed off their songs as his own and became a global pop sensation. Stadium tours, screaming fans and lucrative record deals were in the offing.

But being a global pop sensation meant leaving behind his "manager" from when he was a big fail, maths teacher, Ellie. Somehow Jack contrived not to fall in love with Lily James's character until the end. She who stuck with him in the lean times and encouraged him to pursue his dream of pop stardom. After all, as she said to him, why should he return to teaching, which would involve pouring his genius into school kids? What a waste. I mean, the bloke was the new Lennon and McCartney. Although no one had heard of them. Or Oasis, or Harry Potter. No Beatles, no Oasis figures, but no Beatles, no Harry Potter, how's that work? 

Now, I can't remember exactly how. (Was there a real life global power outage, or is it just my age?) But in a pivotal scene Jack meets up with John Lennon, who gets to still be alive. In the film's alternative universe Lennon has lived a life of obscurity, missing out on the success he enjoyed with The Beatles. That's not a failure, however, Lennon tells him because he's spent his life with the  woman he loved. And love, not fame and fortune is the measure of success. 'Money can't buy me love' he could have said, but didn't. Sadly.

Taking Lennon's advice Jack owns up to not writing songs by The Beatles, gives up on being a global pop sensation and marries Ellie. They have a family together and our hero and returns to teaching. All you need is love, see? But in the film Jack has a school assembly singing, Ob La Di Ob La Da. McCartney at his most annoyingly cheerful. Hey Jude (not dude) is saved for the credits. 

The film has a nice message. Pursue success in the ordinary, rather than chasing empty dreams. X-Factor wannabes and 'grass is greener' discontents take note. Ed Sheeran didn't get uninvented. He's in it. Some good jokes. When Jack plays Yesterday to his friends one says its a good song, but not a classic like Coldplay's, Fix You. The soundtrack is great and Himesh Patel who plays Jack sings the songs well. His Help! really feels like a cry for help. 

I didn't quite believe in Yesterday. A nice bit of escapism, but good to Get Back to reality.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Losing our religion? British Social Attitudes report


The British Social Attitudes report published this month appears to evidence a sharp decline in Christian belief over the last 35 years. In 1983 66% of the population identified as Christian, while by 2018 the figure had fallen to 38%. The percentage of the population attending religious services on a regular basis remained stable over the same period. It seems that  for many people ‘Christian’ is no longer a default label that bears little relation to what they actually believe and how they live. A key feature of the survey was ‘the rise of the nones’, with 52% of the public now saying they do not regard themselves as belonging to any religion. The United Kingdom is becoming a more secular country. Saying that, 55% still believe in some kind of divine being, 42% believe in life after death, and 50% pray, at least occasionally.

You might be surprised to hear me say that I welcome the results of the survey. I think it shows a more authentic and thoughtful approach to faith. In the past when asked about their religious allegiance people often used to say, ‘put me down as CofE’, irrespective of their personal convictions or habits of church attendance. Now people are more honest about their beliefs (or lack of them), which is a good thing. Odd as it may seem, church groupings that are trying hard to adapt to today’s more secular climate are declining. Meanwhile churches which maintain a firm belief in the teachings of the Bible are holding their own, or growing. That figures. What’s the point in going to church if the church itself doesn’t keep the faith? You can stay at home and not believe.

But you can’t have the benefits of the Christian faith while rejecting its teachings. Consistent atheists understand this. Richard Dawkins said, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” That must be the case if you don’t believe the universe was created by God to display his wisdom and goodness. In such a godless universe human beings are nothing special. According to Stephen Hawking, “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.” Bleak, eh?

Maybe that helps explain why belief in God is stubbornly persistent in the 21st century, despite bold predictions that faith will eventually fizzle out. Whatever may be happening here, globally the Christian faith is growing rapidly, especially in Africa, South America and China. In the secular West people sense that something is missing from their lives. The novelist Julian Barnes confessed, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I miss him’. The American journalist Hunter S. Thompson sighed, ‘All my life I have sought something I cannot name.’ We cannot escape a longing for transcendence that seems hardwired into the human mind. It seems losing our religion empties out our souls.

For many ‘nones’, however, all faith is a load of nonsense. We are well rid of ancient superstitions. Stephen Hawking quipped, ‘Heaven is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.’ To which Christian thinker John Lennox cheekily responded, ‘Atheism is a fairy story for people afraid of the light’.  The Christian faith sets our little lives against the backdrop of eternity. Believing that there is a God to whom we must one day give an account is hardly a comforting thought. In the words of the Bible, 'it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment' (Hebrews 9:27). 

Human beings are not ‘chemical scum’ in a universe without meaning and purpose. We were made in the image of God that we might know God and live for his glory. In our sin we have turned our backs upon our Maker. But God loved us and sent his Son into the world to bring us back to him. That is why Jesus came as one of us to die in our place and rise again from the dead. A Christian is a person who believes these things to be true and dedicates their lives to following the Lord Jesus.

The British Social Attitudes report reveals that nominal Christianity is declining rapidly. And no wonder. A vague sense that people should be a bit nicer to each other doesn’t cut it. Neither can the God-free zone of secularism satisfy the deepest longings of the human soul. That 'something'  for which poor old Hunter S. Thompson sought, but could not name is in fact someone. His name is Jesus. He is the way, the truth and the life. 

Monday, July 08, 2019

Leadership worth following


As I write the Conservative leadership elections are in full swing, with final two candidates having launched their campaigns to be the next Prime Minister. Needless to say, each of the contenders believes they are best placed to lead our great nation through Brexit and beyond. I am no political pundit, so I shall refrain from trying to predict the winner. All will be revealed later in July.

But this might be a good time to reflect on leadership. We all know that having a good boss can make a massive difference in the world of work. We want someone with a clear idea of where they want to go and are able to inspire their staff to work with them to achieve their goals. US President Harry S. Truman once said, ‘Leadership is the ability to get men to do what they don’t want to do, and like it.’ I’m sure there’s something in that. We are often reluctant to embrace change, but a decent leader will enable us see the benefit of new ways of doing things. It certainly helps if people believe the boss has their best interests at heart.

Becoming Prime Minister in the current circumstances will present a huge leadership challenge to the successful candidate. Yes, there’s Brexit, but a host of other big issues have been kept on the back burner by the process of Britain exiting the EU. What about social care, the environment, further investment in education and defense, and so on? All got to be done, and more. 

It is sometimes suggested that politicians are motivated solely by self-interest and delusions of grandeur, but most get involved because they want to make a difference. Accusations of self-interest are nothing new,  however. It was said of Liberal Prime Minister Henry Campbell Bannerman that he 'always thought more of his policy than he did of himself'. By way of contrast, when David Lloyd George became Prime Minister, ‘he ensured the death of the Liberal Party by reversing the order of priorities.’ Remind you of anyone? 

We’ll have to see whether the next Conservative Prime Minister puts policy or himself first. Jesus offered a radically new style of leadership. His followers were vying amongst themselves to see who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God.  Jesus told them that was entirely the wrong approach, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Matthew 20:25-28)

Jesus put his people before himself. He came to serve them. He gave his life to pay the price of their sin when he died upon the cross. He is the original model of self-giving, servant leadership. Jesus Christ is the world’s true Lord with all authority in heaven and earth in his hands, yet he is gentle and lowly in heart. He calls upon us to follow him. He has taken the burden of our sins upon himself. He rose again that all who believe in him may have the hope of eternal life. Jesus will share his glory with his people when he returns. He said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ (John 8:12). Now that’s leadership worth following.

*For July editions of News & Views and Trinity Magazine 

Monday, July 01, 2019

C. S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath

Hodder, 2013, 431pp

When C. S. Lewis died on 22 November 1963 his passing was overshadowed by the assassination on that same day of US President Kennedy. Even the UK media gave scant attention to the life, achievements and death of one of the key Christian voices of the 20th century. By the end of his days Lewis was in danger of becoming a forgotten man. It perhaps seemed that interest in his writings would dwindle, as sometimes happens with authors who have their moment, and then largely fade from public awareness. 

That was not the case with C. S. Lewis. There has been a revival of interest in both his life and works in recent years. In the Christian world, Tim Keller for one has championed Lewis's approach to apologetics. In the wider culture the Chronicles of Narnia are still much loved children's stories, with adaptations by the BBC and several Hollywood films based on the books. Shadowlands starring Anthony Hopkins explored Lewis's relationship with Joy Davidman. 

Many people are aware of at least the barest outline of C.S. Lewis's life; Ulsterman, Oxford scholar, the Inklings, Mere Christianity, Screwtape, Narnia, the Davidman affair and all that. In this excellent biography Alister McGrath helps to fill in the gaps, bringing Lewis to life as a brilliant, if flawed human being. McGrath is well qualified to write this life, hailing as he does from Northern Ireland, an Oxford Academic and theologian to boot. In preparation for this biography the author read Lewis's vast correspondence in chronological order, which proved an important source of insight. 

In McGrath Lewis has a sympathetic, but by no means uncritical biographer and one who is not afraid to challenge conventionally accepted aspects of the Lewis story, even those propounded by the man himself. A close reading of Lewis's letters leads McGrath to propose a revised chronology of his subject's conversion experience. All to do with bluebells, apparently. Lewis's relationship with women as it emerges in these pages was a bit odd, from Mrs. Moore, to Joy Davidman, whom he married to enable her to remain in England rather than return to America. Yes, they fell in love later, but still. 

As a young man Lewis turned his back upon Ulster Protestantism and became an atheist, confirmed in his unbelief by his experiences as a soldier in World War I. But his atheism left him feeling unsatisfied. While lecturing at Oxford Lewis came to believe in God and then under the influence of his friend J. R. R. Tolkein he came to see that Christianity was the 'true myth' that helped to make sense of the world. By June 1932 (according to McGrath's chronology), Lewis became convinced of the deity of Christ when travelling by bus to Whipsnade Zoo. 

Lewis's initial attempts to convince others of the truth of Christianity were of a highly intellectual variety, exemplified by his books, The Pilgrim's Regress and The Problem of Pain. He found a more popular audience for his reworked BBC Radio addresses published under the title Mere Christianity. Although an Anglican, Lewis had little time for denominational labels and devoted scant attention to doctrinal disputes. The Chronicles or Narnia were an attempt on Lewis's part to show his readers the truth of  Christian faith by appealing to their imagination rather than by the use of rational argument. McGrath is insightful on the genesis of the Narnia stories and how Lewis used them to convey key aspects of the Christian message, especially through Aslan, the Christ-like hero of Narnia. 

C. S. Lewis, was, of course an academic and McGrath describes some of the tensions and difficulties Lewis encountered at Oxford University. While he produced some solid academic works in the field of English literature, fellow academics appeared to dislike Lewis's Christian faith and resented the attention he attracted as a popular apologist. Hence the move to Cambridge later in Lewis's career. 

20th century evangelicals seemed to have viewed Lewis with some suspicion. McGrath cites D. M. Lloyd-Jones's view that he was 'unsound on a number of issues, chiefly relating to the doctrine of salvation'. No doubt those looking for doctrinal instruction shouldn't make Lewis their first port of call. We can go elsewhere for that. Lewis's life story is testament to the fact that the believer is at one and the same time 'righteous and a sinner'. 

Lewis's use of the imagination in apologetics has much to recommend it. Many parents (us included) have read some if not all of the Lewis's Narnia titles to their children. Enduring interest in the Chronicles of Narnia gives the church a point of contact with the culture. At a time when the Christian story is fading from public consciousnesses in the West, the magnificent figure of Aslan, especially in his substitutionary death and resurrection acts as a signpost to the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. 

Alister McGrath has given us a fine introduction to the life and writings of C. S. Lewis. Well worth a look. 

Monday, June 03, 2019

Paul A Biography by Tom Wright

SPCK, 2018, 464pp

Any endeavour to understand the Christian faith and its impact upon the world must grapple with the apostle Paul. Who was this man who contributed huge chunks of the New Testament, and who Luke portrays as the great hero of the Acts of the Apostles? How did his ideas catch on and shape the future direction of the church? Is it possible to construct a convincing biography of Paul from the materials found in the New Testament? Tom Wright has certainly made a good attempt at answering these questions. 

I really liked this biography of Paul and found it immensely enjoyable and informative. The author is an expert in the background history of Paul's times and deftly draws upon his knowledge of the period to bring the apostle to life. Wright offers a fascinating take on the development of Paul's thinking and personality. Inevitably the writer is a little speculative at times as he looks to fill in the gaps to construct a convincing Paul. How can it be known that Paul was meditating on the throne vision of Ezekiel 1 as he encountered the risen Jesus on the Road to Damascus, for example? 

Wright adopts a conservative stance to the Pauline authorship of the letters attributed to him in the New Testament. He takes historical accuracy of Luke's Acts pretty much for granted. That said, the author is not afraid to question common assumptions. He argues for an Ephesian rather than Roman captivity as backdrop to the 'prison epistles'; Philippians, Ephesians and Colossians. He almost had me pursuaded on that one, but not quite. The theory he advances at least deserves serious consideration. 

I would highly recommend this work to pastors and serious Christian readers. Wright enables us to approach Paul's life and writings with fresh appreciation and insight. Identifying Phinehas (Numbers 25:7-13) as an inspiration for Paul's persecuting zeal (Philippians 3:6) is a real eye-opener. The apostle to the Gentiles' role in ensuring the church did not split along Jewish/Gentile lines is  properly underlined. Wright is a fine writer and his narrative zips along nicely. His retelling of Paul's stormy sea passage to Rome (Acts 27) almost has you on board ship with the apostle and his shipmates. You can virtually taste the salty sea spray. There are many fine things here and I wish this could be a more glowing review. But there are some points of criticism. 

The fly in the ointment is Wright's account of Paul's gospel of justification by faith. He translates 'the righteousness of God' in Romans 1:17 as 'the covenant faithfulness of God'. Justification is not so much about sinners being put right with God, as defining who belongs to the people of God.  He characterises the traditional Reformation reading of Paul's gospel as little more than a means of achieving the necessary merit for the believer to go to heaven when they die.  Over and against this reductionist account Wright sets his more capacious understanding of Paul's theology. According to him the main focus of the apostle's eschatology is on the resurrection of the body and the hope of a new creation. 

The 'Poundshop Paul' of Protestantism needs the enrichment of Wright's superior 'Harrods' product. That ain't necessarily so. On the justification front, Paul certainly seems to place the forensic aspects of the doctrine front and centre. 'Justification' is the polar opposite to 'condemnation' (e.g. Romans 8:33-34). Certainly, those who believe and are justified also belong to the people of God, but the thrust of justification is vertical rather than horizontal. Having said that, no account of justification is complete if it fails to spell out the implications of the doctrine for church life. See The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ and Christ and the Covenant by Cornelis P. Venema for a thoroughgoing critique of Wright's methodology and teaching on justification by faith. 

Wright almost gives the impression that Evangelicals are so fixated on dying and going to heaven that they have failed to notice that Paul (among others in the New Testament) has a thing or two to say about the resurrection of the body. I wonder. My current 'big read' is The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, by Miachael Horton, (Zondervan, 2011). I'm getting towards the end now, and am in the process of reading Horton's chapters on eschatology. Interestingly, in chapter 27 the theologian makes the point, "Going to heaven when we die is the way station, not the final hope announced in the gospel." (p. 906). The 'final hope' is described thus, "In the consummation, not only the earth but heaven itself will become new. As human bodies will be reunited in everlasting joy with their souls, so too earth and heaven will become one cosmic sanctuary of everlasting joy." (p. 915). Richard B. Gaffin Jr has also emphasised the central importance of the resurrection hope in Paul's theology in his Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul's Soteriology (P&R, 1987 edition). 

This is not a late development in the Reformed tradition, either. Book III:XXV, of The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin is entitled On the Last Resurrection. In the space of 17 pages the Reformer anticipates many of the main arguments made by Wright in his excellent, The Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK, 2003). According to Calvin, "Wherefore, he alone has made solid progress in the gospel who has acquired the habit of meditating continually on a blessed resurrection." (See this series of blogs on John Calvin and the resurrection of the body).  In his Body of Divinity, the Puritan Thomas Watson discusses Question 38 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism 'What benefits to believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?' He insists, "The doctrine of the resurrection is a fundamental article of our faith...The saved body shall rise again." His treatment includes this remarkable insight, "The bodies of the saints in the grave, though separated from their souls, are united to Christ. The dust of a believer is part of Christ's mystic body". (Emphasis added, A Body of Divinity, Banner of Truth Trust, 1978, p. 305, 309). The Reformed tradition has taught consistently that for the believer dying and going to heaven is but the intermediate state. The ultimate is the resurrection of he body and the renewal of creation.  

Wright's account of key aspects of Paul's teachings leaves something to be desired. His work scores more highly when it comes to helping readers get inside Paul's world, perhaps even inside the apostle's head as he proclaimed the gospel, planted churches, agonised over them, suffered for his faith, and at last sealed his testimony with his own blood.

The Jesus-following communities Paul gathered and the letters he addressed to them changed the face of the ancient world. Paul's life and writings continue to resonate today, for the good news he preached is, after all, "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also the Greek." (Romans 1:16).