Thursday, June 26, 2014

On reaching 'Generation Citizen'

In a spate of newspaper articles (here, for example) on the youth of today columnists have drawn attention to 'Generation Citizen'. Apparently today's bright young things are more likely than self-indulgent 'Baby Boomers' to get involved in voluntary activities. When choosing a job they are more interested in a company's ethics and values than its lucrative bonus offers. Reportedly, being raised during the 'Great Slump' has given our young people a more serious and determined outlook on life. They know that if they are going to make it they need self-discipline and hard work. Today's youngsters are not so much hedonistic ravers as altruistic world savers. What's not to like?

My question in this post is how may we contextualise the gospel to appeal to 'Generation Citizen'? John Piper's well known championing of 'Christian Hedonism' could be described as an attempt to contextualise the Christian message for hedonistic 'Baby Boomers', for whom the quest for pleasure was the main thing in life. Admittedly, Piper attempted to reorientate pleasure seeking towards God. He famously proposed a tweak to Answer 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism to the effect that, 'Man's chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him for ever'. But I wonder whether earnest 'Generation Citizen' types will find all that talk of theological pleasure seeking a little bit frivolous and self-indulgent?

The Christian faith lays great importance on personal responsibility, virtuous conduct, stable family life and hard work. Community service is also important for believers.  'Generation Citizens' have grown tired of the narrow individualism of the previous generation. Today's young people want to get involved in their local communities. It needs to be stressed that being a Christian is not an individualistic spiritual quest. It draws one into the shared life of the church, where people of all ages and backgrounds care for each other and bear witness together to the good news of Jesus.

Churches at their best are deeply embedded in their local communities. They run Parent and Toddler Groups, clubs for children and young people, ensure that the elderly are visited, and so on. Aside from the direct activities of the church, believers often get involved in activities like serving as hospital link drivers or school governors, for example. They do so because they want to contribute to the wellbeing of their local community, or 'seek the peace of the city' to use Jeremiah's words, (Jeremiah 29:7). Christians want to make a difference and that in itself will speak volumes to contentious young people.

If the church is to engage with 'Generation Citizens' we will need to deploy what I call the 'Titus Strategy'. By that I mean that we implement Paul's programme for developing thriving gospel churches on the island of Crete. The newly planted churches on that island were in something of a mess. They had become too much like the world to win the world to the different and better way of the gospel. Paul sent Titus to Crete to ensure that the churches were well led by godly and able elders. The task of the elders was to root out false teaching, preach the gospel with clarity and show how the faith should be worked out in every area of believers' lives.

Teaching on practical Christian living was to be applied searchingly and discriminatingly to older and younger men and women. The conduct of believers in the world of work was to 'adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things' (Titus 2:10). Paul wanted believers on the isle of Crete to stand out from that notoriously corrupt society (Titus 1:12-13). They were to be 'zealous for good works', (Titus 2:14), 'ready for every good work' (Titus 3:1), and 'careful to maintain good works' (Titus 3:8, 14).

Paul's 'Titus Strategy' wasn't a 1st Century equivalent of do-goodery. All of the apostle's imperatives on doing good works were rooted in the the grand indicative of the gospel, Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7. It is the life-transforming power of the gospel that impels the believer to do good both within the life of the church and also in the life of the community, Galatians 6:10. What 'Generation Citizens' need above all else is the gospel in all its fulness. They need to see the gospel embodied in the lives of believers as they faithfully play their roles in the drama of redemption. But they also need to hear the message of salvation boldly proclaimed that they may believe it and be reconciled to God.

We welcome a new emphasis on young people becoming engaged and active citizens. That's all well and good. But the Christian faith is not about changing the world by human effort, but the salvation of the world by God's grace. Receiving that message involves accepting that however well intentioned we may be, that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness and a fresh start in life. That's a hard thought to take on board. It humbles our pride and exposes our spiritual brokenness. But the fact is that it is often those who have surrendered themselves to God's free offer of mercy in Jesus who have then gone on to make a big difference in society. Think of William Wilberforce's campaign to abolish slavery or Lord Shaftesbury's agitation for better working conditions for ordinary people, or John Howard's prison reforms. Those whose 'citizenship is in heaven' have repeatedly been among the most active citizens in their generation. We have a message for 'Generation Citizen' that needs to be powerfully preached and practically performed by the people of God today. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

More Important than Life and Death?

I can tell something’s going on. I’m astute like that. Can’t quite figure out what it is, though. Will someone please tell me why people have suddenly come over all patriotic round here? English flags adorn houses. Cars, even. All of a sudden there’s nothing worth watching on the telly. It’s all football, football, football. I’ve heard people getting all het up about England losing 2-1 to Uruguay. Something about Suarez, is it?  Baffles me.
Alright, I know. It’s Word Cup time and England aren't exactly doing too well. It’s not even certain that they’ll still be in the competition by the time you read this*. Football. More of a rugby man myself. But some people quite like the game, apparently. Bill Shankly the great Liverpool manager said,   “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” 
Really? What or who could possibly be more important than life and death? Only One who could save us from death and give us life, and that’s Jesus.  

* Written for the July/August edition of News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine. The deadline was before England were knocked out of the Word Cup when Italy lost to Costa Rica 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Faith in Education

The prayer handbook Operation World devotes much of June to prayer for India. Today I read the entry for the state of Mizoram, an Indian enclave between Bangladesh and Myanmar inhabited by almost 900,000 people. It is reckoned that 85% of the population are Christian. OW records that, "Awakenings and revivals in recent years have dynamised the Church and transformed society. It is now the most literate and well-educated state in India." The entry made me reflect on the relationship between Christianity and education. During the Medieval period learning was kept alive by the Church. The Reformation stimulated increased levels of literacy and gave impetus to scientific inquiry and artistic flourishing. The role of faith in education has grabbed the headlines in recent days. But not in a good way. 

As a school governor I've been keeping a weather eye on the so-called 'Trojan Horse' story. School governance was seemingly part of the problem in at least some of the Birmingham schools that have been placed in special measures by Ofsted. Hardline Muslims were found to have infiltrated governing bodies. They used their power to force through drastic changes to the curriculum. In one school students were deprived of expressive and performing arts lessons. Systems of governance intended to ensure that decisions were not made by a small, unrepresentative number of board members were used to block measures with which radical Islamists disagreed. Cliques would walk out of meetings when agenda items they opposed were up for discussion. Committees were consequently rendered inquorate and incapable of making a decision. It is reported that some governors became far too involved in the everyday running of their schools, creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for senior leaders and staff. Religious preachers were allowed to use extremist language in school assemblies, such as labelling white women 'prostitutes'. 

The affair has caused a huge spat between Michael Gove and Theresa May on who was to blame for allowing this situation to develop. Was it the Department of Education, or the Home Office? Part of the problem was a misuse of the freedom that comes with academisation. Unlike LA maintained schools, Academies are not bound to follow the National Curriculum. But that educational liberty was never intended to become a licence to ban music and drawing lessons because they are 'un-Islamic'. Head of Oftsed, Sir Michael Wilshaw has suggested that there needs to be some tightening up in that area. Schools should be free to vary the curricula they offer, but not to the extent that key components such as the arts are dropped altogether.  

Some commentators have used what has been happening in Birmingham as an excuse to call for all faith schools to be closed. But there's a subtle difference between having children sing All things bright and beautiful in your local CofE primary school and the dark goings on reported in Park View and Oldknow Academies. The Church was the main education provider for children in this country before the State ever got in on the act. Church schools are often academically successful and provide a strong Christian ethos that enables children to thrive and develop. 

That said, all schools are expected to give their students a rich social, moral,  spiritual and cultural diet that will help form them into reflective individuals with a strong sense of moral purpose. RE lessons rightly teach pupils about all faiths. Having some understanding of different belief systems is important for young people growing up in a multicultural society. It isn't the job of RE teachers to proselytise, but to inform, explain and provoke reflection. It's a great pity that Gove chose not to include RE in the range of EBacc subjects. The predictable result has been that the subject has been sidelined in many schools. Nevertheless, Ofsted will no doubt be keeping a much closer eye on the ethos of schools, to ensure that they are promoting 'British Values' such as democracy, freedom, tolerance and the rule of law . 

Some Christian parents may wish to home-school their children, others may opt to send them to Christian schools. That's their right. But many believers send their children to the local State school. It is the responsibility of Christian parents to bring up their children in the 'nurture and admonition of the Lord'. But it has never been part of the faith to shun what may be learned from those who do not share our beliefs. John Calvin has a wonderful passage in the Institutes where he says,
If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skilful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God? [Calvin, John (2008-04-03). Institutes of the Christian Religion (Kindle Locations 4899-4906). Signalman Publishing. Kindle Edition]. 
Believers often get involved in PTAs or Governing Boards because they want to be of service to their communities in some way. But a Christian governor will not use underhand tactics in order to impose their beliefs on a non-denominational school. Christian teaching on the moral frailty of all human beings underpins a proper emphasis on transparent systems of  scrutiny and accountability. 'Power corrupts, absolute  power corrupts absolutely' and all that. Accountability in the world of education means that there needs to be a clear separation of powers between the Governing Board at the strategic level and the operational running of the school by senior leaders. That separation of powers breaks down when governors routinely meddle in the everyday affairs of the school, often with deleterious results. What's been happening in Birmingham is a rather extreme case in point.

Speaking with some governors you would think that the strategic/operational dividing line is only in place to stop them having fun. But it is not the job of governors to 'play schools'. It seems passing strange to me that any Board of Governors would wish to descend from the commanding heights of strategic leadership to muddy their fair hands in the everyday running of the school. Others are well paid for doing just that. Governors should simply focus on what they are not paid a penny to do: set the overall direction of the school and hold senior leaders to account to make sure the school is heading in the direction they have set.

Checks and balances should be in place to ensure that governors do not abuse their power. The clerk should advise the board if it is acting inappropriately. Should their advice be ignored, irregularities should be minuted and the LA or Department of Education informed of what has been happening. Action should then taken quickly to investigate alleged improprieties and  the situation remedied before things get out of hand. Heads and other concerned governors should also be prepared to sound an alarm. The problem with Birmingham was that warnings concerning the conduct of governors went unheeded by the education authorities. The situation was allowed to deteriorate and schools ended up being  placed in special measures. Better not to turn a blind eye while schools sink into a swamp of extremism rather than having to take drastic action to 'drain the swamp' when it's too late.

However, there is a role for faith in education, both in terms of faith schools and believers getting involved in various ways. The Christian faith especially has often gone hand in hand with a strong emphasis on the importance of broad-based, value-laden education. I also have faith in education as a driver of social mobility, helping every student, even the most disadvantaged overcome barriers to achievement in life. But even the best of educations can only do so much. That's why my ultimate faith is not in education, but the God of the gospel. 

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

On the Rich List?

It’s that time of year when The Sunday Times publishes it’s annual Rich List. Maybe you’ve been checking it out to make sure you are on its list of Richest People on Screen, Richest People in Fashion, or what have you. Maybe not. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with people being wealthy. Especially if their riches are hard earned and put to good use. But it’s difficult for those of us who are unlikely ever to trouble a Times Rich List to avoid just a twinge of envy.

The Christian faith doesn’t make a virtue of poverty, but the Bible warns us not to trust in uncertain riches.  It encourages those who believe to be contented with their lot and generous towards others. Turning conventional wisdom on its head Jesus said that it is ‘more blessed to give than to receive’.  He spoke of the folly of those who lay up treasure for themselves, but are not rich towards God.

C. T. Studd was involved in the original Ashes cricket match  against Australia. As a child of wealth and Cambridge graduate, Studd had the world at his feet. But he gave away his inheritance and became a missionary in China. His life’s motto was, "If Jesus Christ is God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him." That’s what it means to be ‘rich towards God’. Are you on that Rich List?

* From June's News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine. 

Monday, June 02, 2014

On meeting Thomas Hardy at King Alfred's Tower

On Saturday Sarah and I headed for King Alfred's Tower, which stands tall in the Stourhead estate. Not for the first time we climbed the 205 steps to the top. The vantage point affords wonderful views of the Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire countryside. Once we'd got our breath back and taken in the scenery we made our way back down the spiral staircase to the bottom of the tower. We lingered in the entrance hall to read the information displays. The tower was built in the late 1700's by Henry Hoare II, owner of Stourhead. Amongst other things the folly was erected to commemorate the achievements of King Alfred the Great. In that sense it serves as a memorial to 'Christian England'. A stone tablet above the door on the east face of the tower reads,

AD 879 on this Summit
Erected his Standard
Against Danish Invaders
To him We owe The Origin of Juries
The Establishment of a Militia
The Creation of a Naval Force
ALFRED The Light of a Benighted Age
Was a Philosopher and a Christian
The Father of his People
The Founder of the English

One of the information boards mentions that Thomas Hardy referenced the tower in one of his poems, Channel Firing. Written in 1914, at the outbreak of the Great War, it recalls the firing of heavy guns in the Channel. Such was the force of the gunfire that the poet reckons that some may have mistaken the racket for Judgement-day,

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

What Hardy calls 'Stourton Tower' gets a mention in the final verse,

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

Hardy lost his Christian faith as a young man. Nevertheless in the poem he imagines God reassuring anyone who might have been alarmed that it was not Judgement-day after all. In his verse the poet gently mocks the idea of divine judgement. He suggests that even with the madness and horror of the Great War, that what he calls 'our indifferent century' was better off without a belief in the Day of Reckoning. Wishful thinking, I wonder. 

And so we met with Thomas Hardy at King Alfred's Tower. In one way it was fitting that the structure that looms over Wessex should be associated with the king of that ancient domain and the novelist whose stories were set in the Wessex of his imagining. Far from the Madding Crowd, and all that. 

On the other hand, that Stourton Tower is haunted by the memory of both Christian monarch and sceptical poet seems somewhat incongruous. Hardy was one of a select band of authors who were determined to undermine Christian faith and morality in the late Victorian era (see here). The critic Edmund Gosse wondered, 'What has Providence done to Mr. Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?' 

Hardy's last words were to his nurse, Eva Dugdale, 'Eva, what is this?' Was it his Maker, whose existence the writer had long denied and whose judgement he derided, Hebrews 9:27? 

In an earlier post Juxtaposition: Herman Bavinck on God's fatherly providence and Thomas Hardy's blighted star (here), I contrast Thomas Hardy's bleak fatalism with Herman Bavinck's teaching on the providence of God.