Friday, October 31, 2014

A Day at the Tower of London

White Tower
Blood-red moat
Traitor's Gate
Canon Shard
Dragon's roar
Night lights

Monday, October 20, 2014

On promoting 'British Values'

Talk of 'British values' is making waves in the world of education. Great Britain has often prided itself on its moral superiority over 'lesser breeds without the law'. But perhaps our 'values' haven't always been as pure as the driven snow. One tawdry example will suffice. The Daoguang Emperor of China was  rather fed up with the his country being flooded with illegal imports of opium by British merchants. He dispatched experienced Qing official, Lin Zexu to stamp out the drug trade. Lin promptly rounded up the smugglers and impounded 20,000 cases of British-owned opium. The response of Whig foreign secretary Lord Palmerston to this outrageous violation of free trade was swift and brutal. Two ships of the line, two frigates and two flat-bottomed steamers were dispatched, plus transport vessels with the capacity to carry six or seven thousand troops. The aim of this bristling flotilla was to blast the Chinese authorities into submission. Palmerston's gunboat diplomacy worked. The Daoguang Emperor's feeble junks were no match for the likes of  HMS Nemesis, an iron warship armed with rocket launchers and 32-pounder guns. And so it was that British opium once more flowed into China and from thence into the veins of its users, ruining countless thousands of lives. A fine example of 'British values', free trade and all that, or a shameful episode in our history? What do you reckon?

It was the furore over the Birmingham 'Trojan Horse' that affair led to a call that all schools should promote 'British values'. Defined as:
  • democracy
  • the rule of law
  • individual liberty
  • mutual respect
  • tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs
Interestingly these 'values' were first set out as being distinctively British as part of the government's 'Prevent Strategy' in 2011, designed to combat Islamic extremism (see here). Given what happened in Birmingham, one might be tempted to say that this strategy was none too successful in preventing the spread of extremist ideology. Undoubtedly something must be done at a number of levels to stop schools being infiltrated by Islamic extremism. Ofsted has questions to answer here, as schools it had previously rated Outstanding are now in Special Measures because they failed to protect students from being exposed to extremist ideology. Local Authorities did little to stop the rot despite complaints from Headteachers concerning the conduct of governors who were bent on imposing Islamic beliefs and practices on non-denominational schools. Not to mention the failure of the Department of Education to prevent academies sinking into a swamp of extremism. There are signs that what was uncovered in Birmingham was merely the tip of the iceberg, with similar issues coming to light in schools in Bradford and Tower Hamlets. But whatever their own failings in this area, the main response of the education authorities to these cases seems to be that of ensuring all schools promote 'British values'. And that is the matter to which I give attention in this post. 

The very idea of linking values with nationhood is of course risible. As the sorry episode at the top of this article shows, our 'values' have not always been noble and true. Democracy in the sense of the right of all adult citizens to elect a government that is 'of the people, by the people and for the people' has not yet been in operation for a hundred years. In the heyday of British Imperialism 'the rule of law' sometimes meant little more than, 'Britannia Rules the Waves: buy our dope, or you're toast'. In any case, labeling the five 'values' as being in some sense uniquely British is an insult to other nations who hold to them as proudly and tenaciously as we ourselves. Are Johnny foreigners' values somehow substandard? No doubt the American, German, French and Australian peoples to say no more might resent such an implication. 

That the five listed 'values' are prized in Britain as well as other lands is the result of a complex number of factors including admiration for the democratic ideals of ancient Greece, the impact of the Christian faith on western culture, notions of tolerance and freedom developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and so forth. The very notion of uniquely 'British values' is misleading and ever so slightly chauvinistic

However they are labelled in terms of national ownership, it is now the duty of governors to make sure that the five core values are being promoted as part of their school's SMSC and PSHE curricula and also that students are taught about different beliefs in their Religious Studies lessons. Governance should operate on democratic principles, including the regular election of Chairs and Vice-Chairs, collective decision making and ensuring a separation of powers by maintaining the strategic/operational divide. Governors should be subject to the rule of law, working within the legal framework of the education system. They should model 'mutual respect' as people of different faiths or no faith work together in pursuit of the common good of their school. 

It would be difficult to argue that school children should not be taught the importance of the five core values. Helping young people to understand the importance of democracy and the rule of law, and promoting a tolerant attitude towards those who may differ from us is all part and parcel of preparing them for adult life in modern Britain. However, problems may arise when measures designed to prevent the spread of extremist Islam are imposed upon schools where that is hardly a pressing danger. Overzealous Oftsed inspectors may be as interested in a school's commitment to political correctness as in assessing its Pupil Achievement or Quality of Teaching. Signs of that happening are already becoming all too apparent, herehere and here. What about 'tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs' when it comes to schools with a faith-based ethos that, while noting the legal redefinition of marriage and making their students aware of it, continue to teach traditional marriage as the norm? What about the 'individual liberty' of governors, senior leaders and teachers when it comes to such matters? Are seemingly binding guarantees that were given when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was passed worth the paper they were written on? 

The five 'British values' are perfectly unobjectionable in themselves. But there is a legitimate concern that they may be used as a mask for a secularising agenda that is designed to squeeze faith-based views out of the education system. If so, where does that leave Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who voted against same sex marriage on the grounds of her faith (see here)? Will one of Sir Michael Wilshaw's PC hit squads soon be paying her a visit? I think not. Sauce for the goose isn't always sauce for the gander.  

We're in a right Pickle when the Christian faith that helped shape so-called 'British values' is in danger of being sidelined in favour of hard nosed secularism. Some have used the 'Trojan horse' saga to argue that all state-funded schools should be made to forsake their religious ethos. But if history is anything to go by forcing faith out of public life doesn't guarantee that mutual respect and tolerance will prevail. That's not exactly what happened in Robespierre's France or Stalin's Russia now, is it? If the promotion of  'British values'  in schools is policed in a doctrinaire and insensitive way, measures intended to safeguard liberty and tolerance could have the exact opposite effect. How un-British would that be?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ruth and Billy Graham: The Legacy of a Couple, by Hanspeter Nüesch

Ruth and Billy Graham: The Legacy of a Couple,
by Hanspeter Nüesch, Monarch Books, 2014, 378pp

When this book arrived for review I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It promised an intimate biography of a world famous couple; Billy and Ruth Graham. That the author seemed so breathlessly awestruck at his first meeting with the Grahams didn’t exactly dispel my misgivings. The thought of having to wade through over three hundred pages of sycophantic hagiography stretched my commitment to book reviewing almost to breaking point. But from a misguided sense of duty I decided to plough on.

While I can’t exactly say that I’m overjoyed that I did, there are some good things in this work. Nüesch isn’t blind to the faults of his hero-couple and paints a very human portrait of the well-known 20th century Evangelist and his wife. Their commitment to each other and the Lord whom they served is both endearing and challenging. Nüesch probes the way in which their lives were marked by partnership, authenticity, humility, integrity and so on. Ruth was evidently a woman of spirited piety and a tower of strength to her husband.  

Nüesch tells the story of Graham’s emergence as globetrotting Evangelist and friend of US Presidents. He describes some of the preacher’s key achievements, such as the founding Christianity Today and inspiring the Congress of World Evangelisation, 1974 and its successors.

Theologically, Nüesch places the Grahams on the Calvinistic side of the spectrum. Billy certainly believed that only God can save lost sinners by the gospel preached in the power of the Spirit. But his practice of issuing calls for people to come to the front to make a public commitment to Jesus smacked more of Finney-style revivalism. The writer says little about Graham’s accommodating stance towards Roman Catholicism. Indeed at one point he sums up Billy and Ruth’s commitment to ‘compassionate living’ by quoting the words of Mother Teresa.     

Stylistically the book veers from an intimate account of the faith and life of a couple to passages of conventional biography that describe Billy’s evangelistic ministry and other endeavours. Nüesch can sometimes be a little preachy in his eagerness to set forth the Grahams as shining examples of Christian faithfulness. While not entirely hagiographical, the writer fails to maintain the critical distance between himself and his subjects that is necessary for a rounded biographical portrait. This title is not altogether without value, but putting it kindly, I doubt it should be at the top of anyone’s reading list.

*Reviewed for Evangelical Times

Friday, October 10, 2014

Systematics for God’s Glory: God, creation, decrees and providence by Jonathan Bayes

Systematic Theology 1:
Systematics for God’s Glory: God, creation, decrees and providence
by Jonathan Bayes, Carey Printing Press, 2013 edition, 256pp

It is vital for all Christians not simply to be familiar with the stories of the Bible and its basic plot-line, but also to understand the teachings of Holy Scripture in a logical and systematic way. That is the purpose of systematic theology. Preachers especially need a solid grasp of the way in which biblical revelation hangs together as a coherent whole. Having that will better enable them to preach ‘the whole counsel of God’. Some works of systematic theology are forbiddingly large, dry and technical, but Jonathan Bayes has succeeded on producing a systematic theology for the people of God.

This is the first contribution to a projected three volume set of systematics. As the subtitle suggests, the author covers the subjects of God, creation, decrees and providence. His method throughout is first to grapple with the biblical teaching on the topic in hand, second to draw on the insights of the creeds and confessions of the church, third to chart key historical developments of the doctrine, and finally to conclude with some words of personal reflection and application. This approach can seem a little formulaic by the end of the book. It has its uses, but there are also limitations. For instance in the chapter on the Doctrine of God, the author's exploration of the biblical material is almost exclusively concerned with God's mercy. Discussion of God's oneness, power, spirituality, eternality and omniscience is divided between the creedal and historical sections of the chapter. It might have better had study of those attributes been rooted in the explicit witness of Scripture rather than the teachings of the church, however valuable. The approach works better in the chapter on the Doctrine of the Trinity, where the creeds and confessions use extrabiblical language in order to safeguard important biblical truths over and against heretical views. The writer also helpfully  charts the important contributions made to the church's understanding of this great doctrine by Augustine and Calvin. 

Bayes sees systematics as 'an attempt to have a tidy faith'.p. xi. That seems to imply  that the truths of Bible are distributed in a rather haphazard fashion and it is the task of the theologian to arrange the jumbled pieces of the jigsaw to form a clear picture. But that is to do disservice to God's self-revelation in Holy Scripture. Biblical revelation is historical and progressive in character, but that does not mean that it is untidy or disjointed. There is more to systematics than a tidying up exercise. Theology is an endeavour to think God's thoughts after him and articulate God's talk after him. Systematic theology is faith seeking understanding of what Scripture as a whole has to say on key doctrinal topics set out in a logical order. In addition, theology is meant to be practical. According to John Frame, "Theology is the application of the Word by persons to the world and to all areas of human life." (Salvation Belongs to the Lord by John Frame, P&R, 2006, p. 79). Happily, as mentioned above, Bayes' practice is better than his stated approach. His systematics is a work of holy reason that is intended to promote holy living. 

In some instances systematic theology can seem like a sequence of logically ordered doctrinal statements backed up by a long string of proof texts. Bayes very helpfully avoids that pitfall by giving careful attention to  key Bible texts and tracing the development of biblical themes in the course of the Scripture's unfolding story. Biblical theology is thus placed at the service of systematic theology, which is as it should be. The writer’s handling of the biblical material is fresh and insightful. He is evidently familiar with the original Scripture languages and draws on a range of commentators to help unfold the meaning of the texts he draws to our attention. But all this is done with a light touch that does not envelop the reader in thickets of abstruse scholarly exegesis.  

The creedal and historical aspects of the work are a useful reminder that we are not the first generation of believers to approach the Bible and inquire as to its meaning. We have much to learn from the thoughts of those who have gone before us. The creeds and confessions of the church serve as helpful summaries of the biblical doctrine, often written against a background of intense theological controversy. Knowledge of these documents can help us to detect and reject old errors that often present themselves in new clothing. While Bayes gives welcome attention to the theological heritage of the church, he also interacts with present day concerns, tackling issues such as biblical inerrancy and ‘Open Theism’. However, Bayes is sometimes content to summarise the teaching of creedal and confessional statements in his own words, or to cite commentaries on the these documents rather than taking us back to the sources themselves. That is especially the case in the chapter on the Doctrine of Providence, which is a shame given the rich teaching on providence found in the words of the great Reformed Confessions and Catechisms (see here). Ad fontes, please Dr. Bayes. Having said that, a number of ancient creeds are reproduced in full in the book's appendices, which is good to see.

The author’s stance is unashamedly Reformed, but there is no sense that he is attempting to foist a prefabricated system onto the Bible. Rather, he shows that Reformed theology accords with the Word of God and is consistent with the best insights of church history. Biblical doctrine is meant to stir the soul to faith, action and worship. Bayes’ handling of the themes covered in this book is practical in its orientation and doxological in its goal. Reading it reflectively and prayerfully will help enable the people of God to play their roles in the great drama of God’s redeeming grace.

This series is especially aimed at preachers. It will be of special benefit for 'lay preachers' who may have had little theological training. Pastors will also find it helpful, but this is an entry level systematics that is no substitute for larger works such as The Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Bavinck. Any Christian who wishes to deepen their understanding of the great doctrines of the Bible will do well to pursue what looks from the first volume to be set of books that will enhance our vision of the glory of God.

* An edited version of this review will appear in Evangelical Times

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Thank God for Harvest!

Gratitude is the antidote for grumpiness. People who think that the world owes them a living are always quick to complain about anything and everything. You know the sort. But the fact is that whatever our problems in life, we have a lot for which to be thankful. We live in a beautiful part of the country with green fields, rolling hills and trees decked in their autumn hues. Our local shops are packed with plentiful supplies or food and drinks. It’s easy to take these things for granted. But a moment’s thought should make us grateful for rather than grumpily about our lot in life.

Some of the Psalms in the Bible are full of exuberant thanks to God for his goodness in creating this world and so richly providing for our needs. Psalm 65 pictures valleys clothed with grain shouting for joy. If the very fields proclaim God’s praise, then we should also thank him everything that  comes to us from his hands.

Psalm 65 also speaks of God providing atonement for our transgressions. That was the gift that cost God the most to give. He sent his Son the Lord Jesus Christ into our world of selfishness and ingratitude to die on the cross for our sins. Through faith in Jesus we receive God’s offer of forgiveness and the gift of eternal life. What a giving and forgiving God! Recognising that whatever we may possess is a gift from God should make us grateful to him and generous towards others who are in need. 

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above,
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord

For all His love.

* From the October edition of News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine.
Harvest Thanksgiving Services at the usual times this Sunday.