27 February 2018

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You can now find World Without End at the new domain worldwithoutend.blog. Goodbye Blogger, hello WordPress.

17 December 2017


htc3Two weeks ago, I preached my last sermon in Kilmallie Free Church as the Assistant Minister. A couple of Sundays before, I preached for the last time and presided over my final communion at Acharacle Free Church. As always I especially enjoyed being at Acharacle. The Lord has brought together a good number of solid and vibrant Christian people there, and I pray that he would add to their number those who are being saved.

In the last two weeks we’ve moved home, with all of the busyness that comes with that. But, there’s been time for reflection too. We came to Kilmallie & Ardnamurchan Free Church in August 2014. Three years and three months later (roughly), we’re moving on. There have been some wonderful moments during that time, but also some deeply distressing and difficult times. Pastoral ministry always has this mix I guess, but the last few months have been particularly tough. But God, through his grace, speaks into these situations and calls us onwards under his care and healing hand. My prayers are very much with the folk at Kilmallie & Ardnamurchan Free Church as they move into the future and a new chapter in the life of the congregation. I pray for good things under the Lord’s good hand.

For myself, and for Rachel and our children (who have their own lives now pretty much) it’s a new chapter too. In January, I take up the post of Lecturer in New Testament studies on the faculty at Highland Theological College. I’m humbled, and grateful, to have the opportunity to work in the academy. I’m looking forward to working for the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland’s newest university. I’m looking forward to working there in the service of the church. I’ve always prayed that my theological endeavours would be undertaken as worship, and that they would serve the everyday folk of the church. My prayer is the same now, as I prepare to begin teaching at my second, and most-loved (sorry Imperial College) alma mater. HTC holds a special place in my heart. So, entering that fine Dingwall building in January – although I’ve done it so many times before – will be a special moment.

But it’s daunting – I have hard acts to follow… My NT Jedi Master, Dr Mike Bird (now at Ridley College, Melbourne), taught me, one of his padawans (!), all of my undergraduate NT modules and laid a foundation for which I continue to thank the Lord. Dr Jason Maston (now of Houston Baptist University) supervised my PhD studies and modelled to me academic rigour. My predecessor, Rev Dr Alistair Wilson (who’s heading to Edinburgh Theological Seminary) loved HTC so much he did two stints! Mike followed him the last time he departed – so I really do have a lot to live up to! All of these are good men, Neutestamentlers of quality, and I hope myself in turn to be able to give a good account to the one of whom the New Testament most eloquently speaks.

16 November 2017

God is Dead. We have killed him.

mitchell“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” Nietzsche, The Gay Science, The Madman.

I thought of Nietzsche’s well-known quote as I came across an article by David Mitchell in the Observer last month. The basis for the article was something said by Neil MacGregor, who is following his highly-successful and fascinating series A History of the World in 100 Objects, with another series: Living with the Gods. MacGregor has proved himself an able art historian, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s qualified to set out a history of religious belief. I heard him on the Today programme a couple of weeks ago, describing the series, and using ‘belief’ and ‘habits’ interchangeably, which is precisely the kind of imprecision that will get you into bother with a history of religions.

Anyway, MacGregor had made a really important observation, an observation that everyone should take seriously. It’s candid, and perceptive. MacGregor had said about Britain in 2017:

We are exceptional. It’s important to know that we are different. We are a very unusual society. We are trying to do something that no society has really done. We are trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time. Our society is, not just historically but in comparison to the rest of the world today, a very, very unusual one in being like that.

Mitchell picks up on the significance of this statement. So should we all. Read that again – let it sink in. After reflecting on it in his usual sardonic manner, Mitchell concludes:

To change so quickly from a society where most people took comfort from the establishment telling them, loudly and clearly, that death is not the end, to one where many proclaim that it is, and few are totally convinced otherwise, will have had an incalculable impact on our state of mind. It’s not a development I regret, but it’s a more persuasive explanation than smartphones or commuting of why we feel so stressed.

So, here’s Mitchell putting together 21st Century Britain’s rejection of it’s Christian metanarrative, in a way no other nation quite has, with the rise in anxiety which so many people feel. There are all kinds of social statistics that suggest that British society is not particularly healthy (whether rates of prescription anti-depressants, teenage pregnancy, or lower measures of happiness and well-being). Then, there’s the evidence from the recent hand-wringing reckoning around abusive and exploitative sexist behaviour in Westminster (which reckoning is the socially acceptable iceberg-tip for the reckoning that no-one – mostly no-ones who are men - wants in their own workplaces or homes or clubs on a Saturday night).

So, put Mitchell’s connection together with a story that appeared about the same time in the media. Esther Rantzen appeared on a number of TV slots to speak about a 15-20% rise in calls to Childline prompted by suicidal thoughts. Why this alarming rise? Was there an explanation? Well, the usual suspects were brought out. I’m sure social media is part of it. I’m sure the objectification of women and a highly-sexualised society are part of it. I’m sure that casting our goals in life within the framework of aggressive consumerism and an immoral capitalism – yes, part of it too.

Rantzen pointed out something very important: when you compare children’s happiness across the developed nations, the United Kingdom does particularly poorly. And that’s when my thoughts went back to Mitchell’s article. Why is our culture like this? You can bring out the usual suspects, but one suspect not in the identity parade, but skulking in the shadows (as Mitchell realises), is The Murder of God. Our exceptional experiment, our swift, ignorant and hubristic rejection of a 2,000 year tradition of thought and belief that has formed the pillars of European culture. Our rejection of Christianity. Who will wipe this blood off our hands?

David Mitchell might not regret the Death of God in our culture, but I regret it. Yes, I regret it personally, because of my intellectual convictions about truth. But I regret the cost to our society, and especially to our children.

31 October 2017

Bonhoeffer for Reformation Day

Dietrich Bonhoeffer“Faith - this means, naturally, that no person or church can live from the greatness of their own actions. They instead live solely from the great act that God himself does and has done. And (this is what is crucial) the great acts of God remain unseen and hidden in the world. Things in the church are simply not the way they are in the world and in the history of nations, where it is ultimately a question of being able to point to great deeds.

The church that tried to do that would have already long since fallen to the laws and powers of this world. The church of success has truly not been the church of faith for a long time. The act that God did in this world, and from which all the world has since lived, is the cross on Golgotha. Such are God's "successes," and the successes of the church and the individual are like that when they are acts of faith. That faith abides means that it remains true, that human beings must live from what is invisible, that they live not from their own visible work but from the invisible act of God…

And so it is with the Reformation church. It never lives from its deeds or from its acts of love. It instead lives from what it does not see and yet believes.”

‘The Acts of God, Hidden in the World’, I Want to Live these Days with You, 315 (DBW 13.400)

24 April 2017

If a few people really believed this…

On Easter Sunday, as on most days at the moment, I finished the day reading something from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sometimes, Bonhoeffer is dynamite! Christians often speak about ‘dying well’. They often quote someone (I can’t remember who) who apparently said about Christians: ‘our people die well.’ Or something.
It seems unimportant after reading Bonhoeffer’s critique that Christians wrongly think more about the problem of dying than about the problem of death. He writes, ‘How we deal with dying is more important to us than how we conquer death’ (I Want to Live these Days with You, 111). I’d tend to agree. He points out that we are thinking about the wrong thing: Socrates overcame dying, whereas Christ overcame death. Then come these words, which struck me and quickened my pulse, coming as they did a day after I’d posted my last blog post.
Based not on the art of dying, but on the resurrection of Christ, a new, cleansing wind can blow into the present world…. If a few people really believed this and let it affect the way they move in their earthly activity, a lot of things would change. To live on the basis of the resurrection – that is what Easter means. Ibid.
Bonhoeffer speculates that a time will come when the ‘resolving and liberating’ word of resurrection will be heard in the midst of so much confusion. In this Easter season, my prayer is that the time has arrived for the word of resurrection to be heard afresh in the Church.

15 April 2017

You (yes you) probably don’t believe in Resurrection

Whoever you are, you probably don’t believe in resurrection. Yes, if you’re a Christian, I’m including you. You might be upset by that. But, hear me out. By resurrection, I’m talking not narrowly about the resurrection of Jesus (you probably believe in that), but in the sense that the apostles understood it – that is, as an event within history of which the resurrection of Jesus is an anomalous outlier (a gloriously anomalous outlier). Because Jesus has been raised from the dead to eternal life, then all of God’s people will also. It’s what Paul is saying in Romans 8:11 (and 1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. (Rom 8:11 NIV)
In my last post, I was looking at the numbers in the recently-published ComRes survey into beliefs about the resurrection and ‘life after death’ for BBC Religion and Ethics. In this post I want to look at what people really believe when they say they believe in ‘life after death’. This is, for me, a really important part of this survey – although not really picked up by the mainstream media.
The third question in the survey was: ‘You mentioned that you believe that there is life after death. Which of the following forms, if any, do you believe this takes?’ It was asked of the 46% of the sample who expressed a belief in life after death. Various options were read out (thirteen altogether)! The options themselves are fascinating. I wonder who chose them… (See the data tables here).
You’ve got options which are based around the immortality of the soul, but not the body (including heaven/hell, becoming a ghost, existing as energy of some sort, going to a spiritual dimension) and other options which are specifically Christian (The Rapture/Judgement Day/Armageddon all bundled together (1 option), and the Resurrection/Second Coming of Christ (1 option). You’ve one that’s about existence in a ‘parallel universe’, but this is coupled with the ‘astral plane’ – two entirely different things. And one that talks about bodily existence in another world. Then, you’ve got reincarnation (two options, one straight up reincarnation and the other a combination of reincarnation and immortality of the soul, which is classic Platonism actually). There’s another that’s basically living on as part of the natural world (your atoms I suppose), and something that boils down to a ‘don’t know’.
I’m looking at these options and I’m not really sure how I, an orthodox Christian with a biblical doctrine of resurrection, would answer. No, seriously. I mean, the Christian doctrine of resurrection is not merely the immortality of the soul. It involves the body. Reincarnation isn’t a Christian doctrine (although it is quite close to the biblical doctrine of resurrection in some ways). I definitely believe in the Second Coming of Christ, but not the Rapture. Maybe the option that’s worded ‘I believe in the resurrection/second coming of Christ’ is the one I want. It does contain a statement from the Apostle’s Creed, after all. But there’s not much content in that answer about what kind of life I believe in. I could answer ‘a bodily/physical existence in another world’, but the language of ‘another’ is difficult for me there. So, there are a couple of options which are orthodox anyway.
The troubling thing is, these options polled 1% and 0% amongst Active Christians! Perhaps it’s me? But I don’t think so. Now, the options offered for Question 3 are totally confused in themselves, so you have to take that into account. But, let’s look at the most popular options amongst Active Christians:
86% of Active Christians plumped for ‘Another life where your soul lives on (e.g. heaven/hell)’
16% of Active Christians plumped for ‘Reincarnation (e.g. starting a new life in a different physical body or form after death)’
Then you’ve got a couple of 2%ers (ghosts and ‘don’t know’) and what I see as the orthodox options above. It’s obvious that some people are ticking more than one box, so to speak. But, the headline is that virtually none of the Active Christians chose an option that could be considered orthodox.
The Apostles’ Creed contains the statement: ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’. This is basic to orthodoxy, whatever your Christian tradition. Orthodox Christian belief is that eternal life is not just the survival of the soul. The concern of the scriptures is not ‘life after death’ anyway, but what Tom Wright calls ‘life after life after death’. Any existence of the soul in heaven is just a temporary state. A biblical doctrine of eternal life also contains the idea of the renewal of creation (or in radical, pietist theology the replacement of the creation with a new one). The resurrection of the human body into this world renewed – that’s the biblical view.
You might argue that the question prompts people to talk about ‘life after death’, rather than ‘life after life after death’. Trouble is, I can well-believe that the average active Christian wouldn’t make that nuanced distinction. In any case, the survival of the soul in heaven is actually a state of death. Christians, in my experience, really don’t like to face up to that. Jesus was raised, on the the first day of the week, from the dead (Acts 4:10). Paul hopes above anything else that he will attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:11). The dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess 4:16). So, if you want to be accurate, the only type of ‘life after death’ in the Christian hope is resurrection life. But, according to the BBC survey, a tiny, tiny, tiny minority of active Christians really believe that.
And let’s not be too hard on the Re-incarnationers. The description in the brackets (‘starting a new life in a different physical body…after death’) is actually more-or-less the orthodox view (with some caveats around ‘different’). It’s closer to orthodoxy than the soul living on in heaven. I remember explaining the doctrine of resurrection to a Roman Catholic man once. He hadn’t heard of it, and his reaction was: ‘kind of like reincarnation then?’ Well, yes, kind of… In my doctoral thesis I argue that it was exactly this idea of ‘reincarnation, kind of’ that was part of the problem in Corinth, which is why Paul shaped 1 Corinthians 15 as he did.
Anyway, I would hazard a guess, based on the evidence, that the good BBC folk who put the survey together are themselves entirely sketchy on this (and a number of other things). But, the really worrying thing is how many committed Christians are themselves entirely sketchy on it. To come clean, I’m not really surprised. I see it all around, in so many orthodox, evangelical, bible-believing (choose any of these adjectives) churches. So many Christians have little biblical understanding of eternal life, including the doctrine of resurrection. They think that the great Christian hope is to go to heaven, as a soul, after death. The survey figures just bear out the anecdotal evidence.
I’ve written plenty of times on resurrection (try this, this and/or this). It is one of the (perhaps the most) forgotten doctrine of the church. The figures suggest that you (yes, you) probably don’t believe in the biblical doctrine of resurrection. It’s high time we rediscovered the inspiring, grand Christian vision of the (to quote Jesus, or at least a Greek translation of Jesus in Matthew 19:28), palingenesis – the restoration of all things.

13 April 2017

Who believes in Resurrection?

A fascinating study was published by ComRes last week. Commissioned by the BBC Religion and Ethics people, the survey of over 2,000 British adults focussed on the resurrection of Jesus and so-called ‘life after death’. My colleague David Robertson has written on the survey here. I want to look at bit more deeply at the figures, and also to bring out the shocking ignorance it reveals amongst active/practicing Christians about the biblical doctrine of resurrection. More on that in a later post – for now, let’s have a look at the numbers (you can get the ComRes data tables here).
In terms of self-identified religious affiliation, the sample worked out at 51% Christian, 9% Non-Christian, and 37% no religious affiliation (with 3% presumably not responding). That’s a little higher for religious affiliation across the board that in the 2015 British Election Survey.
The first question is about Jesus’s resurrection. The top line is that 44% of the sample believe in the biblical story of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in some way. That’s staggering, especially when just 16% of the sample identified as ‘Active Christians’. The proportion is an aggregation of two answers:
1. it happened word-for-word as described in the Bible;
2. the Bible account has elements which are not to be taken literally.
When you look at the numbers between these, 1. gets 17%, and 2. gets 26% of the sample. Again, that is somewhat amazing – around 1 in 6 people accept the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection! Really!? I mean, maybe it’s true, but it seems high.
I think that there are probably two things to say. First, how many UK adults would have a good idea of the detail of the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, word-for-word? Second, the respondents were given the possible options for replies. Methodology has an impact on surveys and any method skews results. When the options were read out, how much wiggle room was 2 giving, in the minds of the respondents? A fair bit, I’d say – and so 2. might seem like an attractive answer for those who were fairly ignorant of the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection (which I’d guess would be a fairly large proportion). I wonder how the results would look if the respondents had answered unprompted and these replies codified. Anyway, I agree with David Robertson that the numbers are kind of encouraging (more on that later), but I think there needs to be caution. That said, when you see that only 50% answered ‘I do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead’, that is a surprise to me, even with the caveats above.
Another thing that caught my eye is the gender split. Of those accepting the gospels’ accounts word-for-word (17%), amongst women that was 22%, compared with 13% amongst men. Significant. The sample is split down by age and region, but I think then more caution is needed. Of interest (with caution) are the figures showing that Wales stands out as the region where belief in the gospel account is highest (26%), whereas in Scotland the figure is 18% (fourth highest out of the eleven regions). 
When it comes to age, there’s a decline as you go from the elderly to the young, as you’d expect. Almost 60% of the elderly believe in the resurrection of Jesus in some way. Amongst those under 35, the proportion is still over 35%.
But it’s the second and third questions that fascinate me. The second: ‘which of the following statements, if any, best reflect your views on life after death?’ The possible responses were (apart from Don’t Know):
1. I believe that there is life after death (e.g. reincarnation, heaven, hell)
2. I do not believe that there is life after death (e.g. reincarnation, heaven, hell)
The results were evenly split. So, 46% of the sample believe in ‘life after death’. The gender split is again interesting: 36% of males, 56% of females. Pretty informative of the self-identified Active Christians group is the fact that only 85% of them believe in ‘life after death’. The orthodoxy of Active Christians cannot be assumed. When you get down to what kind of ‘life after death’ people believe in, well that’s when it gets really interesting for me. But that’s the next post…
For now, let me throw out some thoughts from the numbers above. First, although David R rightly sees the survey results as encouraging, I see in them a bit of an indictment of the church. In the church we tend to comfort ourselves over our lack of impact in our society with the thought that our message is rejected by ‘the world’. The numbers indicate, at the very least, an openness to resurrection as an idea, and the commonplace view that this life isn’t all there is. We are simply not engaging people with our ways of doing church. We are simply not equipping Christians to engage with people who are probably ready to discuss. If we keep filling our people with fear about the ‘opposition of the world’, then we are failing. Yes, of course, I believe in the opposition of the world, but I also see that these figures are showing opportunity and openness in our culture to the gospel message. If the church could get its act together, and get its message straight on the biblical doctrine of resurrection (rather than itself getting all pagan with its views of ‘life after death’), then I think we would find more of a receptive ear than we imagine.
Second, if you’re a Christian reading this, then you need to realise that people are incredibly interested in what happens after this life. But, if you’re a Christian, I’d guess you don’t feel that confident about explaining your views. That’s because you’ve probably been taught all your life that ‘we don’t really know what heaven’s like’. And you probably feel a bit weird about the whole idea of heaven anyway. Don’t worry, that’s ok (feeling weird about it). Because talk about ‘heaven’ and ‘life after death’ is missing the point of the resurrection of Jesus. Christianity is not about going to heaven. No, really. And the church is too often missing the point. Who believes in Resurrection? Actually, a lot of orthodox Christians don’t really believe in it – as the third question of the survey shows. And so it shouldn’t surprise us that if the church is ignorant about the Christian hope, folk in our communities are too.
Next post soon...

11 April 2017

Stormzy and Folk Christianity

I sometimes hear people talking about a post-Christian society in Britain. I think it’s a bit premature to talk like that, to be honest. I think Christianity is still present and recognised in our culture to a sufficient degree that the ‘post-Christian society’ label is too pessimistic. However, I do recognise that there are post-Christian communities – towns, villages, schemes, where any shared cultural and community life is totally unaffected by Christian truth. Where talk of Jesus, human sin and God’s salvation just does not figure.
But, I see a lot of Christianity around. If we’re attentive to culture, we pick up frequent references to the Christian message. Sometimes they pop up in surprising places. I’ve been reading a bit about, and listening a bit to, the grime artist Stormzy. Before I go any further, I’m not necessarily advising you to do the same… neither am I advising you not to. Anyway, read on. On his album Gang Signs and Prayers are two tracks entitled Blinded by your Grace (Parts 1 & 2). Here are some of the lyrics:
Lord, I’ve been broken, although I’m not worthy, you fix me – now I’m blinded by your grace, you came and saved me 
You saved this kid, and I’m not your first, it’s not by blood and it’s not by birth, but Oh my God, what a God I serve
You can watch a public performance at the Westfield Shopping Centre here. Stormzy raps about being ‘God’s son, look at what God’s done.’ It seems on the face of it a bona fide declaration of Christian faith. Stormzy has said he wanted to make a beautiful gospel song, ‘to touch on the gospel side of things and my faith, because that’s so integral to my character.’ He’s spoken of church and clearly has some idea of the gospel. When Christians come across something like this they can, because of the familiarity of the ideas, embrace tracks like this. That’s what I did initially. But I think we need to be more discerning.
First, it’s interesting that Stormzy doesn’t mention Jesus (either on the track, or in any interview I could find). Sometimes we forget that the heart of Christianity is Jesus. Singing or talking about God, or the Lord, can be all well and good, but if Jesus doesn’t figure at the forefront of our conception of who ‘God’ or the ‘Lord’ is, then we’re not talking about orthodox Christianity.
Second, as Nathan Jones who reviewed Gang Sings and Prayers at Premier Gospel points out, alongside Blinded by your Grace (Parts 1 and 2)  are tracks with ‘plenty of bad language’ (there’s a fair bit of effing) and ‘unsavoury subject matters’. I found the few tracks I listened to contained quite a bit of in-your-face arrogance (par for the grime course), aggressive language and sentiments (including the repeated denigration of others),  references to guns and drugs, and the ever-present bare materialist-consumerist outlook of so much urban music. These tracks definitely don’t reflect the values of Jesus, or the Kingdom of God. In fact, they represent the values of a world that lies in the power of the evil one. So how can Gang Signs and Prayers contain this stark contrast? What are Christians supposed to do with Stormzy’s Blinded by Your Grace?
I think what’s going on with this album is a manifestation of what I think of as ‘Folk Christianity’. Folk Christianity is usually a label applied to syncretistic religion in places like the Philippines. But, I think it’s a valid label for here in the UK too, when Christianity  loses its place and people start to pick and choose which part of it they want to believe. It becomes a kind of superstitious, folk religion. I see Folk Christianity as a stage in the decline of Christianity in Western culture. God, life-after-death, prayer, heaven, blessing – these all seem to find a place. But these are combined with all kinds of un-Christian and anti-Christian beliefs. Things like the church, like allegiance to Jesus, like discipleship, like obedience to the way of Christ – these get lost.
Folk Christianity is a feature of Highland communities – amongst young and middle aged people. I think it’s actually more of a feature of these age brackets than amongst the elderly. I go to funerals, and talk to different folk, who have this Folk Christian worldview. It contains ideas of God in heaven, and how departed loved ones are with God, looking down (see Ed Sheeran’s ‘Supermarket Flowers’ for a great example of this). There are ideas of an afterlife, which are usually quite pagan. Sometimes it contains ideas of Jesus. It usually has some idea of prayer, and of the church (as a place to be for funerals and weddings). It seems to value Christian iconocraphy – the cross, the saints – and often has a place for the Lord’s Prayer. It identifies as ‘Christian.’ It contains a lot of spiritual ideas – miracles, ghosts, the dead as surviving somehow. Most of the time, you can see that these ideas are the vestiges of Christianity, but have been formed into a kind of Folk Christianity that bears very little resemblance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Notable by his general absence is Jesus himself. And all these are combined with a fair dose of superstition, and the kind of attitudes and behaviours that the apostles were warning Christians about in the early years of Christianity.
Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NIV
I would argue against people who say that this kind of Folk Christianity is a total negative, or that it offers the church nothing to work with. I thank God that there are still vestiges of Christianity. We can use these vestiges, use this Folk Christianity as a way into speaking about Jesus and the genuine Gospel of the Cross, the Resurrection, God’s grace and forgiveness, and the way of discipleship. But my concern is that there are too many Christians in orthodox churches who don’t recognise Folk Christianity for what it is, and who are not critical enough of it, and who don’t challenge it enough. Which is why Christians need to be clear about the centrality of Jesus in our faith. To be provocative: there are too many people, even in Free Church congregations, who are too sketchy on the centrality of Jesus for our faith. That’s my opinion, based on my experience.
Going back to Stormzy, don’t get me wrong – I’m not judging whether or not his faith is genuine. I’m just saying that a Christian faith that is comfortable with aggression, the devaluation of sex through sexual obscenity, the demeaning of others, violence, the values of an arrogant consumerism – that doesn’t seem to me, on the face of it, to be a faith which is serious about Jesus. Nathan Jones hopes that Blinded by Your Grace ‘will make people think about God’s goodness in their lives.’ I hope the same. No bones, Stormzy is talented (and talent is God’s gift). I like Stormzy’s Blinded by Your Grace, but I’ll never feel totally comfortable listening to it. Jones also writes:
The Christian life is a process, one which is started by the gospel becoming central to all aspects of your life. For that reason, change is one of the most important components. It’s impossible to meet with Jesus and stay the same. Let’s hope and pray that as these artists continue to be open with their faith, they are also open to the change that we are all in need of.
I agree; I hope and pray the same. Jones also pointed out that Blinded by Your Grace sounds like ‘something you would have heard on a Christian rap album circa 2006.’ After listening to some of Gang Signs and Prayers, another track from that time came to mind: The Cross Movement’s 2007 track We Were They. Whereas I think Stormzy’s ‘gospel’ track probably represents a kind of Folk Christianity within black culture, We Were They is the real deal. Like some of Stormzy’s work, it’s provocative, even a little aggressive in places. But, it’s a challenge to those living within a black American Folk Christianity to hear the call of Jesus to put him at the centre, and to follow him in a repentant and obedient lifestyle of discipleship.
They stay the same, no they never change, ain’t nuttin strange… / They wanna hang, just wanna party, kick some slang, sip on some Bacardi… 
Think about this, then think about that / think of what they do, think of how they act… / they say God knows my heart, but that don’t get ‘em off the hook… 
They don’t want to learn, they just want to know… / They just want the watch, don’t want to know the time… 
They don’t want to become, they only want to be… / They just think he’s gracious, what about his wrath? 
They might not be sheep, they might be the goats… 
They say that they’re we, we used to be they / we had our last night, we live in a different day
The line about the watch is great, considering the in-your-face consumerist, exhibitionist attitude of a lot of urban music when it comes to blingy jewellery, including watches (Stormzy mentions Hublots on one of his tracks). Ditto for the Bacardi reference, which is also one of Stormzy’s on the same track.
Folk Christianity and Real Christianity are not compatible. That’s the kind of challenge we need to bring when we encounter Folk Christianity in our communities. Ministers especially, when preparing for, and conducting, funerals and weddings, need to gently but firmly put Folk Christianity in the spotlight of Jesus’s Gospel. Folk Christianity might give us a way in, but Folk Christianity is not enough.

28 February 2017

The Power of the Created World

Last Sunday evening I was preaching the third of three sermons on Genesis 3 – the last few verses of that chapter. It’s the part of the Story of Adam & Eve where they’re driven from the Garden of Eden, that place of fruitfulness and beauty in the presence of God. The Garden is the place where they function as God’s Image, human beings of god-like character able to relate fully and joyfully to one another and to all the riches of the created world. But they’re driven out, because this isn’t enough for them. In a way, they want to be gods. It’s a deeply poignant story which speaks about loss to all of us, that speaks about the realities of human nature.

I often reflect on the incredible power of the created world to stir deep longings in our souls. A few Saturdays ago, George Monbiot wrote eloquently about it:

I believe we possess a ghost psyche: a set of capacities that helped secure our survival in more dangerous times, but that now are vestigial. I picture this as a seam of intense emotion, buried so deeply in our minds that we can seldom find it. I believe this because, on rare occasions – in all cases when immersed in the living world – I have been confronted with a set of feelings that are so rich, raw and thrilling, so different from anything else I know, but at the same time so strangely familiar, that I have had no way of reconciling them with the rest of my emotional life. I believe that on these occasions I have inadvertently triggered a kind of genetic memory, an ancient adaptation to the circumstances that once shaped our lives.

You’ve probably experienced it yourself. I’ve experienced it encountering a deer in the woods (like Monbiot) in the early morning light; or travelling in a small boat surrounded by leaping dolphins; or crouched on a high mountain ridge watching an eagle ride the updrafts. I’ve experienced it in the solitude of a remote glen, or of a mountain summit, but mostly it’s been in encounters with other creatures.

Does Christianity offer an account of this? An account of these rich and raw emotions, which are strangely familiar? Something more substantial than a ghost psyche? Or perhaps a Christian understanding of this ghost psyche…? I believe it does. The lost Garden represents a lost reality to humans – something yearned for and understood in our deep (sub)consciousness as being lost.

The opening lines of the ancient Jewish and Christian scriptures tell us that we are created for relationship, not only with our creator, not only with one another, but with the natural world. We are created to live alongside, and to relate to, all of God’s creatures. The first man is Adam (the Hebrew for ‘soil’ is adamah), and he’s formed from the earth. This simple truth sets a trajectory for all of the scriptures – that human beings are inextricably bound up with the earth, with the natural world. This is our home, it’s where we belong. That fact that many Christians will baulk at that statement (thinking thoughts such as ‘where’s that Bible verse that says that heaven is our home?’ Let me save you some time – it’s not there), only shows how far we have travelled from this anchor of truth.

The sense of primal joy (and sometimes primal fear) – that deep, seemingly genetic memory – recalls something fundamental to our being human. And yet it is, in some deep sense, lost. We’re unable to grasp the wholeness we are created for, to hold in our minds the value and beauty of the natural world. And we’re unable to live lives which ‘fit’ into this beautiful world, that ‘fit’ in love, joy and peace alongside these amazing creatures. We are created to Image God – to represent him – in his world. Yet, we can’t.

That’s why, for so many people, these joyful and ecstatic encounters with nature are often accompanied with a sense of the transcendent. A sense of reaching for something, or someone, that’s out of reach. People of all kinds of belief (and none) often describe to me the spiritual feelings they get whilst in the outdoors. There’s not only a sense of a lost Garden, but of a lost God, our Creator, who we are also created to know. The hopeful message of Christianity is that there is a way back.

Thinking these thoughts brought to mind again a beautiful little film based on the writings of John Muir, the Scottish naturalist and environmentalist. Take a look, and hear words which resonate so much more deeply when heard as a Christian:

‘A lifetime is so little a time, that we die before we get ready to live. But here in the wilderness, surrounded by beauty beyond thought, the landscape carried me back into the midst of a life infinitely remote.'

3 October 2016

What is the Gospel?

gospellukeLast week and the week before I was lecturing to the first year class of the Practical Theology course at ETS. My lectures were part of a module on the Great Commission, using a sentence from the Lausanne Covenant for its structure: ‘World evangelisation requires the Whole Church to take the Whole Gospel to the Whole World.’ The Lausanne Covenant is worth a read, if you’ve not come across it, as is the Manila Manifesto. Anyhow, my lectures were on ‘The Whole Gospel.’

What is the Gospel? The Gospel is the Good News (that’s what Gospel means)of Jesus Christ – his life, death and resurrection. The Gospel is also the Gospel of the Kingdom – a summary that wraps up into the Gospel a load of context from the Old Testament. It’s the Gospel of Resurrection and New Creation too. The Gospel is multi-facetted and rich. We have a tendency to package it, to pare it down. Tom Wright recalls John Stott speaking at a NEAC meeting:

I remember a long time ago now in the 1970s when we had one of those NEAC conferences, and John Stott gave the summary speech and he said, "People are always saying: what is the irreducible minimum gospel?" And I remember him saying "I don't want an irreducible minimum gospel, I want the whole gospel."

As Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen write, in their excellent The Drama of Scripture,

We cannot grasp the meaning of the story of Jesus until we begin to see that it is in fact the climactic episode of the great story of the Bible, the chronicle of God’s work in human history. 135

So, there’s a lot to say about the Gospel, a lot to explain, a lot that’s rooted in the backstory of God’s dealings with Israel – the covenants, the promises of the Kingdom. But Gospel summaries have their place. Paul summarises the Gospel in several places in his writings. One, in First Corinthians, goes like this:

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached… By this gospel you are saved… For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that the Messiah died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve... Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Here, Paul summarises the events of the Good News of the coming of Jesus. But the hooks to the wider story are there: what does the title Messiah mean? What is the story the Old Testament scriptures relay? And, as Margaret Mitchell has pointed out, Paul wraps up his own encounter with the risen Jesus in this Gospel narrative.

If we are going to speak about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we need to know it. We need to know how to speak about it; how to summarise it as any particular situation demands; what language to use. Often these summaries just provide the ‘hooks’ for later, extended conversations about what Almighty God is doing through and as Jesus Christ. The more we understand the Gospel, the more effective our speaking of it will be (and not only so, but also our living out of the Gospel, and the formation of our lives and characters by the Gospel). And right there is the task of Christian discipleship and growth – to know the Gospel. Not some irreducible minimum, but the rich, full-orbed Gospel of the King and the Kingdom.

In the last lecture, we thought a little about how we might summarise the Gospel and I encouraged the class to give it a go. I’d encourage you to give it a go too. Here’s my quick effort in three short paragraphs.

The Gospel is the good news that God is keeping promises he made long ago. Promises to deal with all of the pain, evil and injustice in his world. Promises to save a broken and sinful humanity from itself, and promises to save a groaning planet from a broken and sinful humanity.

The Gospel is the good news that the human Jesus is God, come into his world to make these promises come true. He died on a cross to put people right, so that they could be forgiven for their sins. He rose from the dead, breaking death’s power, and is alive. So, he can give people a new start, a new kind of life in a new kind of community; and one day, in spite of death, to give them another life – an unending life – in a world put right and set free.

The Gospel is the good news that if you change your path, put your trust in Jesus, and follow his path, this can all be yours – as a gift; no payback required.