Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

"I can't hear you" prays Desmond Doss. The last time Andrew Garfield played a character struggling with God's silence, the heavens remained silent. But now God's voice is heard. "What do you want me to do?" persisted Doss. The heavens answered in the form of a wounded soldier crying for help. Strengthened by a sense of divine calling the army medic braved Japanese bullets and bayonets to rescue his injured comrades. In all Doss was said to have rescued 75 soldiers from Hacksaw Ridge. 

They thought he was a coward. But our medic hero didn't refuse to bear arms because he was a scaredy cat. He was a pacifist who wanted to do his bit for the war effort by saving rather than taking lives. Cue attempts by his fellow infantrymen to bully him into leaving the army. It didn't work. 

Eventually a military tribunal granted Doss his wish to enter the heat of battle unarmed. And off to war he went. 

Doss's company was charged with taking Hacksaw Ridge as part of the Battle of Okinawa. The ridge was heavily defended by well dug in Japanese soldiers. The battle scenes are a graphically depicted riot of fire, blood and guts. Like the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, only worse. 

The film muddies the reasons for Dross's pacifism. On the one hand it's related to his Seventh Day Adventist faith. On the other, a flashback sees Doss threaten his drunken father with a gun. Horrified by what he had done, Desmond swears never to touch a weapon again. Maybe regret over his actions led him to commit more deeply to his faith? I dunno. 

What's clear is that Doss took the biblical command 'you shall not kill' as an absolute prohibition of the taking of human life. While his pacifist exegesis might be questioned, his sincerely and courage could not. He was willing to brave the scorn and derision of his comrades and enemy fire to remain true to his beliefs. In the end Doss won the respect of his company and was awarded the Medal of Honour for his sacrificial bravery. 

In a Baptist Church of which I was once a member were two elderly men who served in WWII. One was a Desert Rat who fought with Monty to defeat Rommel at the Battle of El Alamein. The other, like Doss, was a 'conscientious collaborator' who served as a medic, risking his life and limb to save others. Brave men both. The film is a tribute to those who helped the war effort with bandages rather than bullets. 

It is noteworthy that Doss treated injured Japanese soldiers as well as Americans. He was a patriot, not an enemy-demonising nationalist. If that aspect of the film has resonance for the United States today, then well and good. 

Exhausted and alone, after rescuing each injured comrade Doss prayed, "Just one more". The secret of his resilience was revealed in the opening scenes of the film as Doss is heard reading the words of Isaiah 40:28-31. "Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength". 

In a nod to Band of Brothers, the closing credit sequence features contributions from the men behind the characters portrayed on screen. The real life Desmond Doss recalls the prayer just quoted, "Just one more" - 75 'one mores'. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Affinity Theological Study Conference March 1 - 3, 2017

The Christian Church: 
Its Mission in a Post-Christian Culture 
Looking forward to this. A hugely relevant theme. The conference format includes opportunities for in-depth discussion of papers that are circulated beforehand. See here for full conference details and booking information. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

La La Land

Think that was a chick flick. Boy meets girl. Singing and dancing. Be true to yourself. Pursue your dreams. No especially theological thoughts generated. One line hit home though, 'People love what other people are passionate about.' Can use that somehow. Are we passionate about the gospel? 

Sarah enjoyed it anyway.

Suppose I did a bit.

Maybe there is something in that line.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Christ and the Decree by Richard A. Muller

Baker Academic, 2008, 240pp 

Why should a busy pastor give time to studying a work of historical theology like this? Surely we'd be better off reading a how-to manual on sermon illustrations, counselling, leadership, or what have you. If we must read theology, let it be an entry level piece, or a nice little primer that won't overload our poor little minds. A work of in-depth scholarship about what people from hundreds of years ago used to think about stuff, what's the point in that?

Well, because we might learn something and gain valuable insights into God's word and ways. Also, those insights may provide us with resources to help resolve some of the theological controversies that are raging in contemporary evangelical circles. Arguments over the eternal submission of the Son, for example. 

It is sometimes claimed that the theologians who followed Calvin and the early Reformers regressed into scholasticism. Not quite arguing over angels on a pin head, but as near as. They moved away from the biblical simplicity of Calvin and Bucer and began to employ hair splitting theological definitions, and developed elaborate theological systems. Those systems used Calvin's teaching on predestination as the axiom from which they deduced their doctrines. 

As Muller demonstrates, however, Calvin was not averse to using the apparatus of scholastic theology in giving expression to his thought. Reformed orthodoxy that followed in his wake continued where he left off. Both in terms of methodology and as they developed key Reformation doctrines. When it came to predestination, it was not the axiom from which they deduced their doctrinal systems by logical extension. 

Predestination underlined the Reformed emphasis on salvation by grace alone. But the decree was discussed in relation to  higher order doctrines, with a concentration on trinitarian ground of decree and its Christological focus. Christ and the decree was the point where the infinite and finite, the eternal and historical met. Christ was seen in relation to the decree in three ways: he is the electing God together with the Father and Holy Spirit; the Elect One, chosen to become the divine/human mediator; and the one in whom sinners were chosen for salvation. 

When it comes to Christology, the Reformed were fully in line with the teaching of the Definition of Chalcedon in confessing that Christ was a divine person with a human nature. But their preoccupation was on Christ as mediator, acting as prophet, priest and king to redeem his people from sin. Close attention was given to Christ's mediatorial work in both his state of humiliation, from his incarnation to the cross, and exaltation, from his resurrection to eternity. That the incarnate Son was and remained fully God when he became man was safeguarded by the so-called extra Calvinisticum. He who was held in his mother's arms as a baby also upheld the universe by his power as the Son of God.

As I say, there has been a lot of rather heated discussion in recent days over whether we may rightly speak of the eternal submission of the Son to the Father. In a way the phrase sounds right because the New Testament bears witness to the fact that the Son was sent into the world by the Father. And that arrangement was made in eternity. In another way, we might feel a bit queasy over the idea that the Son stood in a relationship of eternal submission to the Father. Do we not confess that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are homoousios, of the same divine being? The fullness of that divine being is in all three persons, ruling out any notion of subordination.

Calvin taught that concerning his divine nature, Christ was God in himself, autotheos, but concerning his person he was of the Father. The Reformer acknowledged that there is an order of persons in the Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but insisted that all three persons were equally God, with one divine being and will. Muller brings out that Calvin and his theological heirs successors grasped this point very well when it came to discussing predestination. They saw that Christ was not simply the Elect One, or the means by which the decree was executed. He was also, together with the Father and the Spirit, author of the decree to save. In that sense, the Son was self-designated to act as mediator, willingly submitting to be sent into the world by the Father. 

Reformed thinkers accepted the Partristic insight that in their external actions the three persons of the Trinity act as one, but not in the same way. All things are of the Father, by the Son and through the Spirit. This entails no hint of ontological subordination on the part of the Son as God, but recognises that it was singularly appropriate due to the order of persons that it was the Second Person of the Trinity who became incarnate. 

Talk of the eternal submission of Son to Father is therefore inappropriate. At least it needs to be highly qualified. Better to speak of the Son submitting to the will of God that he be sent into the world by the Father.  But it must be underlined that by 'God' we mean one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We may, indeed then say that the Son is the Electing God, the Elect one, and the one in whom we are elected for salvation. It is partly because we seem to have forgotten that the Son is himself the Electing God that we are having such trouble over the language of eternal submission with its subordinationist overtones. See here for more on Calvin, Beza on this theme. 

Muller expertly traces lines of development from Calvin through to Polanus and Perkins by way of Beza, Ursinus, Zanchi and others. He corrects the notion that Calvin was the gold standard of Reformed theology and that the slightest doctrinal development should be viewed as a deviation. The whole 'Calvin and the Calvinists' thing popularised by R. T. Kendall is shown to be baseless. 

Of Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf (1561-1610) and William Perkins (1558-1602) Muller writes,
In their thought we perceived at last the convergence of parallel lines of christological and predestinarian doctrinal development, the convergence of which can only occur in the infinite depth of the Trinity. And when the lines do converge in the realisation that the Son considered as God is the source, while considered as mediator in union with the human nature, self-determined executor of the decree, then on this infinite scale we also perceive the ultimate doctrinal "arch" of which not predestination but the trinitarian ground of all theology is the keystone. This structure had developed from Calvin, reaching fruition at the end of the century in the codification of early orthodoxy.
Muller's work also teases out the pastoral implications of the orthodox Reformed treatment of Christ and the decree. How are poor sinners meant to know whether they are among the elect? The decree in itself lies hidden in God. But the God who decrees is no deus nudus absconditus, an inaccessibly hidden deity. Muller explains, "There can be no deus nudus absconditus because the Christ who redeems is, according to his divinity, the God who decrees." The trinitarian foundation and Christological focus of the decree means that the believer can be sure they are elect because the Father has drawn them into saving union with Christ by the Spirit. We are in him by faith because we were chosen in him before the foundation of the world. Christ, as Calvin put it is "the mirror of our election." 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Silence. The silence of God. How do you cope with that? Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) set out for Japan on search of their lost mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The last news of him suggested that he had renounced the Catholic faith and gone native, embracing Buddhism and a Japanese a wife. Surely not, think his acolytes. Unthinkable. And off they go. 

Wasn't easy being a Catholic in seventeenth century Japan. The authorities viciously persecuted missionary priests and their Japanese converts. They were doused with boiling water, burned alive, drowned.  This is all shown in wince-inducing detail. But nothing could induce Ferreira to renounce his faith. Right?

We'll see. The film is beautifully shot, with the glories of nature standing in contrast to the ugliness of human cruelty. The pace is slow moving and meditative. The main 'priest' parts are played well, as are the Japanese characters. Rodrigues has his own serial Judas iKichijiro; too cowardly to stick to his beliefs, yet racked with guilt over his frequent lapses from faith. The Inquisitor not a is not portrayed as stereotypical sadist 'baddie'. He seems almost kindly on occasion, visibly deflating when Rodrigues refuses to yield. But he will stop at nothing to stamp out the alien faith, using physical and psychological torture to achieve his aims.

The film explores some thought-provoking themes. When Garupe expresses disappointment with their flock of devout peasant villagers, Rodrigues reminds him, "Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt." In his suffering Rodrigues becomes increasingly identified with Christ. Before his arrest by the Japanese authorities, having been betrayed by Kichijiro, the priest stoops to drink from a stream. His face reflected in the water suddenly becomes that of Christ's. Paul wrote of the 'fellowship of Christ's sufferings' (Philippians 3:10). 

The Inquisitor explains to Rodrigues that Christianity will never take root in Japanese soil. It is a Buddhist country. What might be true for Europeans won't work in Japan. The priest counters that according to the Christian faith, truth is the same everywhere, or it's not truth at all. When Rodrigues finally encounters his mentor, Ferreira, his worst fears are realised. The Jesuit missionary had lapsed from the 'true faith' and conformed to Buddhism. How could he?

How could anyone? The renegade priest explains that Japanese believers who had turned their back on Roman Catholicism under the pressure of persecution had not really understood it. Under the influence of Buddhism the Japanese could not conceive of any reality beyond nature. Christianity had not been properly contextualised so that indigenous people could grasp the Creator/creature distinction. When they heard of the Son of God, they identified him not as the second person of the Trinity, but as the sun that shines in the sky. But a sense of the transcendent beyond nature is not that easy to eradicate. According to Paul, even idolatrous pagans know God, even though they would prefer not to, Romans 1:20-21.  

The Christianity under the spotlight in the film is decidedly Roman Catholic, replete with religious icons, symbols, masses and priestly absolution. Iconoclastic Protestants would not have had qualms over treading an image of Christ into the dirt as Roman Catholic believers are forced to do in the film. So what? But if such an act was seen as a repudiation of faith in Christ, that would be more tricky. 

One of the main things that hit home to me in watching the film was the great evil of religious persecution. No one should be forced to abandon their beliefs. The Inquisitor concocted a cruel dilemma for Rodrigues. Only if he denied his faith would his friends be spared untold suffering. Now he understands why Ferreira had gone native. The priest turned Buddhist suggests to the younger man that his apostasy would be an act of love; laying down his faith for his friends. What Rodrigues wrestles with throughout his trials is the silence of God in the face of such wretchedness.

It's nothing less than tragic that people are still persecuted for their faith in the 21st century. Organisations such as Open Doors campaign for an end of religious persecution and seek to channel aid to suffering believers. 

The final scene reveals whether Rodrigues had indeed lost his Roman Catholic faith as the heavens remained silent. When facing death, what did he have left to hold on to?

The silence has been shattered. The Cross is the grand announcement of God's love. Jesus suffered with us and for us that we may be rescued from sin and suffering though faith in him. He endured the awful silence of God, crying from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He did not die for the good and beautiful, but for the miserable and corrupt. Those who share in his suffering will also share in his glory. 

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Effective School Governance by Mark A'Bear

Very few people know exactly what they are letting themselves in for when they join a school governing board. I certainly didn't. 

Whatever your preconceptions may be, you'll find that it isn't quite as you imagined. Your admirable desire to 'make a difference' will have to be channeled through the appropriate decision making processes.

You may have skills that could be of use to the board, but knowing how to apply them in the context of governance is another matter. For example, the role of a governor with accountancy expertise isn't to do the school accounts. That's the business manager's job. But your background may help you enhance the board's ability to ensure value for money is achieved in the use of school funds. Hopefully, anyway. 

The same applies whatever one's work experience or skill set. Governors aren't there to do stuff, but to decide what important stuff needs doing and ensure that it's done well. In the jargon, governance is a strategic, not operational role. 

If you don't fancy that, go and do something else. 

Mark A'Bear would agree. He even has a chapter on 'When should you not become a governor?' But there are many good reason for becoming one, and those who do should want to maximise their effectiveness. 

Good governance makes a difference by giving a school a clear sense of direction, and then making sure it is making progress towards the direction that has been set.

It's all about vision and strategy. 

Simples. But how do you go about creating a compelling vision for a school, how may governors contribute to the strategy devised to make that vision a reality, and how can they tell if the vision is being achieved? 

That's where A'Bear's book comes in. He breaks down the essentials of governance into their component parts, chapter by chapter, and puts them all back together again at the end. A bit like James May does on the telly with Hornby train sets, or electric guitars, but in this case the author is working with the concepts and procedures of school governance. 

All the key parts are here, including who should govern, stakeholder engagement, operating strategically, establishing accountability, governance structures, the roles of the chair and clerk, Ofsted preparation, and more besides. 

A'Bear writes in a  clear, crisp and accessible way that will not leave new recruits to the world of governance scratching their heads. More experienced colleagues will find his guide a useful primer and source of best practice.

The recent Ofsted survey report, 'Improving Governance' suggested that lack of self evaluation is a common feature of weak governance. This book is a self evaluation aid in itself and contains some of the key documents that have been produced to help governing boards evaluate their effectiveness. Such as the APPG's 20 questions for governing boards and an equivalent 21 questions for MAT boards (Appendix V). Governors would do well to use the material in this book to help them reflect critically on how their own systems of governance measure up. If we don't, Ofsted certainly will next time they come a-knocking. 

A'Bear has governed in both primary and secondary sectors, but those involved in governance at secondary level will notice some gaps in his coverage. For example, newly appointed secondary colleagues could probably do with having things like Attainment 8, Progress 8, EBacc, and Sixth Form accountability measures included in the glossary alongside info on SATs and Sports Premium Funding. Can't have it all, I suppose. Maybe such lacunae can be made good in a second edition?

As the author acknowledges, it isn't easy to keep up with the rapidly changing world of education in England. He does his best to ensure that his treatment is up to date, addressing both the LA maintained and academy sectors. He also has a word or two to say about the shiny new world of multi academy trusts (MATs). Greater attention is given to governance in the maintained sector, however, with details provided of the different categories of governor in LA schools that don't apply in academies. Little is said about the roles of members, trustees and local governors in a MAT. The main functions of governance apply whatever the type of school, but more academy-specific information wouldn't have gone amiss.

Speaking of academies, it's no good boards of maintained schools burying their heads in the sand and hoping that full academisation isn't going to happen. It is, eventually. Like it, or not. A key question for governors of LA schools is whether they will take the initiative and form a MAT with other like-minded local schools, or wait until they have to join an already established one to avoid being left high and dry. It would have been useful had A'Bear given some guidance to schools in making that choice, or at least flagged up the excellent materials provided by the National Governors' Association created to help governors make informed decisions regarding academisation options - see here and here (subscribers only). According to the Department for Education, 97% of schools converting to academies in the last couple of years have joined MATs (see here). 

It is sometimes feared that the ascent of MATs will lead to the demise of governance at the individual school level. In some large MATs local governance has been removed altogether, or  reduced to functioning as little more than focus groups. 

That need not happen, however, and a good case can be made for maintaining a tier of  local governance in MATs. The MAT board is ultimately responsible for the governance of its schools, but I believe local governing boards (LGBs) still have a role to play in exercising the core functions of governance at individual school level. They should  champion the distinctive vision and ethos of their school and  scrutinise its performance data with a forensic thoroughness that would not be possible at MAT board level. Especially if the MAT grows to accommodate numerous academies.

Admittedly, if local governance has become dysfunctional or ineffective, the MAT board will have to step in to turn things around, but otherwise a good measure of 'earned autonomy' should be the order of the day. 

Aside from anything else, it seems strategically flawed and short termist for MATs to abolish LGBs, not have them in the first place, or deprive them of core functions. The founding boards of many locally based Community MATs were largely drawn from their member schools' old governing bodies. Where are successors to members and trustees on MAT boards going to come from in the future, if not from the ranks of local governors who have cut their teeth at that level? 

When considering joining or forming a MAT, existing governing boards should pay careful attention to the extent to which they will still be exercising core functions of governance set out by A'Bear within the MAT structure. Being abolished, or reduced to a glorified focus group shouldn't cut it. But boards should be open to the enhanced development opportunities that are part and parcel of belonging to a MAT. Among them: deeper collaboration with other schools, sharing best practice and achieving economies of scale. The economies of scale bit will become increasingly important as the impact of a 3 billion pound shortfall in education funding is felt by schools. As reported by the National Audit Office (see here). 

A'Bear's Effective School Governance lacks the political dimension present in its nearest equivalent on the market, Improving School Governance by Nigel Gann (Routledge, 2016). The latter title could almost be styled A Guardian Reader's Guide to Governance. You won't find a critique of Thatcherite educational neoliberalism and its deleterious effects on schooling in A'Bear's volume. Both books cover similar ground when it comes to the practicalities. Gann is stronger on the history of school governance. But I'd probably want to place Effective School Governance into the hands of a new colleague ahead of Gann's lengthier work.

Educational structures in England are in a state of flux at the moment and school governance is being shaken up as the system moves towards wholescale academisaion. This timely book is a reminder that good governance makes a difference and sets out exactly what that looks like in practice. Let's ensure for the sake of our pupils' education that school governance at all levels is as powerfully effective as it can be. That's certainly one of the things that needs to happen if we are going to construct a school led system in which every child exceeds their expected potential.

* I am grateful to the publishers for providing a complementary review copy. 

Sunday, January 01, 2017

A Brand New Start for 2017

Amongst our Christmas presents were tickets for my wife and me to see Paul Weller perform at one of the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Roll on March. I’ve been a Weller fan ever since his days with The Jam, when I was a teenage mod. One of his songs, Brand New Start seems kind of appropriate for this time of year. It sounds like a set of New Year’s resolutions:
I'm gonna clear out my head
I'm gonna get myself straight
I know it's never too late
To make a brand new start
The track is an expression of confidence in human ability to turn our lives around. Weller even sings of his desire to “build a heaven on the ground”, which seems a tad ambitious given the state of the world. There have been many attempts  to create a perfect world over the course of history. But man made utopias have been doomed to failure. There is something stubbornly self-destructive about human nature that resists all attempts to create heaven on earth.
How many of us manage to keep our more modest New Year’s resolutions? Will we still be off the chocolate, working out at the gym, or whatever it is come February, March, April? While full of good intentions with our ‘brand new starts’ it’s often a matter of, ‘same old, same old’ as the months roll by.
For all his determination to make a fresh start in life, Weller realises that some things are beyond his grasp,
There's somewhere else I should be
There's someone else I can't see
There's something more I can find
There's only love to me
The things that we long for most deeply often seem elusive. Jesus once had a conversation with a very religious man who seemed to have everything up together and sorted. But it was not enough. Jesus told him, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3). But how is that supposed to happen? My favourite Christmas carol, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing says of Jesus that he was “born to save the sons of earth/born to give them second birth”. 

Jesus is God’s way of giving us a brand new start. 

*For Trinity Dilton Marsh parish magazine