Friday, 1 April 2016

When style trumps substance

So what do we make of Donald?

It may be that the storm over his quickly retracted advocacy of punishment for women who had abortions (if it were ever made illegal) has done for him. But the question remains - why has he got so far? As one commentator said recently, even six months ago it would have seemed impossible.

Obviously he gives vent to and has tapped into a deep anti-establishment feeling. The UKIP factor writ large. Also very UKIP is the anti-immigrant stance - fear of and hatred of foreigners - in his case Muslims and Mexicans. Not that all immigration control is wrong nor is the desire for it racist or xenophobic. Trump's rhetoric on the subject however is in a class apart. He articulates the American equivalent of the visceral pub rant.

The saddest feature in all this is what it says about America - even though not half of Republicans have voted for him according to the stats.

That he could get this far though is a demonstration of something gone wrong with the American dream. A dream severed from its spiritual and moral moorings becomes a nightmare.

Americans have justly always cherished - though almost idolised - freedom. Trump promotes it as the licence to trample on anyone who gets in your way to the top.

The capitalist dream has flowered in America. Trump represents it in its corrupt form as the worship of mammon.

He personifies both self-aggrandisement posturing as freedom with all the bullying and condoning of violence that implies; and the vaunting and flaunting of money that comes with the idolising of wealth.

Add to that the apogee of the cult of personality that he represents and you have a toxic mix. Style, heavily lacquered, over substance.

There may be signs the wind is changing. The rant at the political establishment and political correctness can only go so far - for most people. Let us hope so. Though nothing is certain.

But he is a wake up call to us in Britain.

Who would be our equivalent of Donald? And what do we need to do to restore trust in and respect for our political institutions? And our politicians?

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Tim Ward on Stott and Lloyd Jones on Preaching - Westminster Fellowship

The February visit of Tim Ward (Director of the Cornhill Training Programme) to the Westminster Fellowship was a bit like Daniel wandering into the lions' den clasping a bunch of lecture notes, but it was greatly appreciated and we are grateful to Tim for putting a lot of careful thought into his paper. He gave us a comparison of the theologies of preaching of Dr Lloyd Jones and John Stott. What follows is an incomplete account taken from my notes.

We need a theology of preaching. It is not enough to say ' we preach because in certain situations it works (but in another culture/situation we'd do something different)'.

Tim wanted to concentrate on the commonalities rather than on what separates the two men. Yet we cannot ignore the cultural differences - LJ from Wales, Stott through the English public school system. Without lapsing into caricature, this difference is significant. Does this not have some bearing on what might be called their great emphases viz.

LJ : a sense of the presence of God was paramount.
Stott - clarity was paramount.

'Have I ever preached once in my life?' said LJ. This is a crucial statement.

Their great books - Preaching and Preachers - and I Believe in Preaching. The man is important for LJ - the personal element.

No mention of 'anointing' in Stott.

Four aspects to a framework to analyse their positions:

1. Church setting of preaching.

LJ hated tape recording - the individual listening is too much in control. The very presence of a body of people is a part of preaching. Faith comes by hearing - the message received in a congregation. A monologue expresses the gospel best.

Stott similar on this.

Four elements in preaching: (i) The preacher divinely called, commissioned and empowered; (ii) a shared faith between the preacher and hearer; (iii) a Word from God in which the people encounter God; and (iv) an event in which God speaks through the minister. All of these are best combined in preaching in church: 'God's people in God's presence to hear God's Word from God's minister'.

Preaching is one of the marks of the church; the Word preached creates the church.

In the west our deep rooted individualism makes us resistant to such a view of preaching. Our philosophical tradition, wealth and consumerism turn us into people who do not readily become corporate people. We have individual Bibles in church!

2. The proclamatory character of preaching.

The preacher is declaring something. All may evangelise but only the preacher proclaims. More than teaching, it is a revelation, an exhortation.

3. The Prophetic character of preaching

A man with a burden from the Lord (LJ's view) - an OT prophet. He is a mouthpiece of God, standing between God and man.

Also Stott - a bearer of a Word from God.

4. The Prophetic character of the preacher himself.

NB the significant (even if not intended) titles of the two books.

This is perhaps where the greatest difference comes. LJ speaks of the moment when the preacher is wholly taken up. Stott speaks of the preacher and people together brought face to face with God. Is this two men describing the same thing? Stott is keen for the preacher to be hidden - the best man at the wedding, self-effacing. Is this being 'English'? LJ says the preacher must hide his pride and eloquence and make no shows of cleverness, but he cannot get himself out of the way - you are part to the means of grace.
'I am here to tell you...' would never be heard from Stott who preferred 'we' in preaching, not 'you' when addressing the congregation.

In all this there is a deeper issue, the continuation in the minister of Christ's offices of prophet priest and king.

In discussion:

Is there not a important difference in theologies of the Holy Spirit? Yes said Tim - LJ's preaching is in some ways his pneumatology at the service of his ecclesiology.

It was commented that both men put a high value on godliness in the minister.

LJ it should be remembered, regarded Jonathan Edwards as the 'Everest' of theologians, who insisted on the importance of extraordinary outpourings of the Holy Spirit to revive the church.

My comment.

One wonders if a summary of the difference between the two men would be that Stott concentrates on preaching as something man can do and the Anglican tradition tends to major on that - clarity, technique, teaching how to preach - while LJ was much more conscious of preaching as something man cannot do - hence his question 'have I ever preached?'. Of course, Stott believed in the necessity of the Holy Spirit and LJ did not belittle 'ordinary preaching' or the importance of doing it well - but the emphases are in the one case on teaching men to do it better, and being content to leave the Word to do the work ( ex opere operato is perhaps too strong a phrase but it leans in that direction) while LJ leans to the absolute necessity of the Holy Spirit and our inadequacy - hence leading us to pray with greater urgency and feeling that true preaching usually evades us altogether. The typical result is a striving for God in the latter case; in the former, a sense of complacency in the act of preaching.

We thank Tim for stimulating us to think these things through.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Newish Atheists

I have been catching up with atheist literature.

First came God is Not Great by the late Christopher Hitchens. It is a racy read as befits a book by a journalist. In the end though it is not compelling - you look for arguments and get anecdotes. You expect a reasoned discussion about why atheist regimes (Stalin, Hitler) killed more than religious ones in the 20th Century and get an angry diatribe about the support given to said regimes by the Pope and the Orthodox church. I agree - it is appalling - but hardly demolishes Christianity or whitewashes atheism.

It is interesting to see the arguments these writers marshall: religion kills (all the wars religion has caused); it is hazardous to health (refusal to allow condoms in Africa); metaphysical claims for existence of God are unconvincing; arguments from design fallacious; revelation – OT is a ‘nightmare’, NT is evil, the Koran borrowed; the miraculous is tawdry; hell is immoral; religion's corrupt beginnings (Mormon - yes well...); religion not needed for moral behaviour; the East is as bad as the west (not according to Sam Harris who rates Buddhism as light years ahead of anything in the West); child abuse; collusion in secular totalitarian regimes (as above); it resists rationality and seeking truth; above all it is manufactured.

My appetite whetted I went for Atheist Universe - The Thinking Person's Answer to Christian Fundamentalism by a less well known author, David Mills. Four fifths of this book is about the scientific issues of creation and evolution. Hardly in itself the answer to Christian Fundamentalism. There were a couple of other chapters - on hell, the non-danger as he sees it of internet porn and a brief dismissal of the notion that America was founded on Christian principles.

Most engaging was Sam Harris's The End of Faith. Like all the 'new atheists' he is fixated by a definition of faith I have yet to come across in any reliable Christian context - that it is 'unjustified belief', or believing without any evidence.

Armed with this mis-definition Harris brilliantly picks apart religions: it is anti-rational and dangerous, there is no place for it in civilised society; progress is not possible in religion; fear of death is at root of much of it; evidence – religion is satisfied with relying on none; there are legitimate experiences that we call religious but which can be brought under the government of reason and should be; good and evil – based on what causes happiness or suffering; we need a study of consciousness - spirituality without religion – Buddhism rocks, Christianity, Judaism and Islam suck; remember how Christianity treated witches and Jews; the horror that is Islam; we waste too much time and money fighting sin - especially drugs, and Christianity holds back medicine (embryo research etc).

And so on.

Harris has written other books, on ethics (The Moral Landscape) and spirituality without religion (Waking Up). He is the most penetrating of the new atheists so far but - I shall be interested to see what he makes of the morality and spirituality issues in his books. I know John Lennox has had a go at his morality without religion arguments (see Lennox, Against the Flow , a superb exposition of the book of Daniel).

But in the end I have not found a compelling argument to give up believing in God and in Jesus Christ. Or in the glories of a personal God, of the Trinity, of eternal love, of a personally created universe and of man in his image, of the beauty of holiness, of eternal life, of the wonders of God's law, of inviolable justice, and yes, of the horrors of hell, of the glories of the Bible and God's plan for his people, and of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.

Unverified belief Harris calls it. But there is plenty of evidence. And there is the human soul - an idea he plays with. And there is a knowing that is not based on the senses but does not contradict them (usually) and is stronger and deeper than them. How can these atheists be so sure that what they cannot sense is not there?

And I think what a skimmed milk universe these people live in, how thin, tawdry, empty. After all, their philosophy is bounded by what can increase happiness and decrease suffering. What? Is suffering the worst evil? And is earthly happiness the greatest good? How sad.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Lion and the Unicorn

I picked up this book by Sir Arthur Bryant in a second-hand bookshop in Welshpool, mid-Wales, last week while on a half-term holiday.

It is a collection of articles from the many written between 1936 and 1985 by Sir Arthur Bryant for the Illustrated London News, as a weekly column.

He calls it the 'The Lion and the Unicorn' because these two animals, he thinks, symbolise something of the British character - sometimes great strength and courage, sometimes quixotic idiosyncrasy.

It is delightful book. There are articles about Bryant's boyhood - born in 1899, his father a personal secretary to King Edward VII, Bryant lived in Edwardian London in a house adjoining Buckingham Palace mews. This must have contributed at least in part, one feels, to the romantic patriotism that drove his adult work as a historian.

He writes in one article of how he became interested in history, through marriage into the Shakerly family of Cheshire, and being given the opportunity to sift through their treasure trove of family papers, giving him access to living history over many centuries.

Other articles cover the years leading up to the Second World War, though they do not make any reference to the fact that Bryant was an early admirer of Hitler and wrote an approving (apart from Hitler's attitude towards the Jews) preface to an English edition of Mein Kampf. He was also a supporter of appeasement but once war broke out he was the soul of patriotism and wrote many stirring pieces about the English spirit and values that apparently did much to help the war effort.

He writes interestingly on the oft neglected post war years. Later articles cover the changes of the 1960s; there are a number, too, simply revelling in the England of quaint cottages with wood fires, country house hotels and stately homes that Bryant loved and hated to see passing; a few on animals (read hastily) and finally several on Christianity of a decidedly culture-laden variety.

He is conservative but not necessarily Conservative, which is refreshing. He was married and divorced twice. He died in 1986. He was reputed to be the favourite historian of four Prime Ministers - Churchill, Attlee, MacMillan and Wilson, who knighted him.

Bryant is an engaging writer. He is also a substantial historian, with biographies on Charles II and Samuel Pepys that are still highly regarded. My first encounter with him, in my teens, was his affectionate history of medieval England, Makers of the Realm. It makes you feel proud to be British (or, at least, English broadly defined).

But Bryant is not popular with professional historians, and not only because he was hugely popular with the public, which academics normally do not like (as with C.S. Lewis). His scholarship and analysis were undoubtedly deeply tinged with the rose-tinted spectacles of a sentimental attachment to Olde England. It is Christian (in all the right rather Whig ways) with the right values which we are determined to fight for when pushed. This was not just to boost the war effort - he really was in love with the England of his boyhood and what he saw England to be in the past.

Yet it is not all romance. He has well reasoned arguments and much of what he says is broadly true - perhaps it is just because he was the last of a rather Victorian kind of patriot that he seems out of place in the mid 20th Century - let alone when you read him in the 21st.

Yet - he is just right for a holiday when you want something edifying, informative, not too demanding. I may brush off my copy of Makers of the Realm for Christmas! He certainly beats dusty old scholars of the more cynical variety.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Openness Unhindered : Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert - Rosaria Butterfield

Those who enjoyed Rosaria Butterfield's story of her conversion in Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert will be delighted to see her sequel.

Rosaria, now a Presbyterian pastor's wife (homeschooling, almost inevitably) begins with a summary of her conversion but with new insights. She reminds us that she was saved more fundamentally from being a sinner than from being a lesbian; and was saved by Jesus Christ, not by becoming heterosexual. There are profound wrestlings here with the nature of sin (in 'Gay Pride' there is more sin in the 'Pride' than in the 'Gay').

She then looks at the whole conversion process and her subsequent Christian life through the eyes of experience and doctrine. Her intellectual penetration and sharp writing remind one of C.S. Lewis; her spiritual insights and her theology are thoroughly Puritan.

Butterfield makes an important distinction between 'admitting' sin and 'confessing' sin. The former is acknowledging it, which may lead to confession, but too often today, she alleges, becomes 'well I sin but I live with it' whereas confession is to hate it and turn your back on it.

She writes of repentance, 'You can't bypass repentance to get to grace...grace does not erase my need for the law'. Repentance is the posture of the Christian. Her struggle with indwelling sin is a million miles away from the "Jesus plus Nothing equals Everything" type of gracism; grace shines all the more brightly, as in the Puritans, because of the insistence on law and the necessity of obedience and repentance.

She rejects the concept of 'sexual orientation' as a construct of the late 19thC traceable to Freud which deprives people of their true identity in the image of God. She also points put how heterosexuals are easily tripped up here into feeling a kind of moral superiority. She also rejects the use of the word 'gay' as a self-identification by Christians who struggle with same sex attraction.

Butterfield's analysis of these areas is well worth reading, coming with the ring of authenticity from one who has struggled not just with 'SSA' but with a committed lesbian past. When discussing the idea of homosexuality being unnatural, she argues that Romans 1 is dealing with practice, not inner disposition. But - is that really what Paul is saying when he speaks of 'dishonourable passions' and of women 'being consumed with passion' one for another? This is not easy, but I did not feel Butterfield quite faced this issue squarely.

The last main chapter of the book is all about hospitality - and I struggled to translate her life in Durham, North Carolina to a commuter belt Hertfordshire village. But the principles bear consideration.

The acknowledgements are cheesy - two and a half pages, thanking everyone under the sun. But that is becoming fashionable in American books.

A great book though, essential reading in our day, a good counterpoise to some recent evangelical works where one detects a tendency towards soft-peddling sin in this area.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Worship on holiday

On our recent holiday we went to three different churches for the morning service.

The first had a congregation of about 30. Some were young, in their twenties, one or two children.

Men mostly wore dark suits, younger men more casual. We sang from the old version of Christian Hymns (using books) to keyboard / small organ accompaniment.

The Bible version was the AV.

The sermon was about 45 minutes, three points, two clear pastoral points, the third a clear evangelistic message. Two of the young men were, I learned afterwards, Muslim friends of one of the young men from the local university.

The order of service, prayers and readings (two) were quite traditional. Preacher preached from the pulpit.
Coffee afterwards. People friendly.

The second Sunday saw us in a congregation of about 120. Virtually everybody dressed casually, many men in shorts. Without introduction a young man (whom I knew to be the minister only because I had seen him on the website) gave out some notices and then led into singing of a short song from a screen. A music group of about four was on the platform. We sang again, a couple of times.

The minister, dressed in jeans or casual chinos and hoodie, told the story of the Good Samaritan using pictures on a the screen. We were not sure if it was meant for children or adults.

No pulpit, he held his Bible and used a music stand occasionally to rest things on.

Afterwards he made a few more adult points of application. There was no reading of the Bible (he just talked his way through the parable) – our boys picked up on this.

Songs interspersed. We were invited to talk to our neighbour during the offering. We stayed for communion. Nothing to distinguish believer and unbeliever or to challenge the unbeliever.

Coffee afterwards. People friendly.

The third Sunday morning saw us again in a congregation of about 120-150. Minister (slightly smarter chinos, casual shirt) welcomed people, we sang a song which was a mixture of an old hymn with new added words to a difficult modern tune.

Band of about 7 in one corner. Bible reading. More songs, one traditional hymn. Notices, and then a five to ten minute break for the children to leave and for people to talk to each other. Why?

Sermon – about 35 minutes, expository and quite good, certainly faithfully dealing with the text. Used the screen for three pictures related to the sermon (debatable if they were necessary) and for three points of application towards the end of the sermon.

Quite a lot of movement during the service - getting cups of water etc. All casually dressed, many men in shorts. All hymns on overhead screen.

Where did we find it most easy to worship? I know, for sure.

Was this just because it (the first Sunday – in case you had not guessed) was more what we are used to (though by no means in every detail)? Was it just a cultural, and therefore what people would call an ‘indifferent’, matter? Or is something more serious at stake?

Where was the greatest sense of God? Of the magnificence and holiness of the one with whom we have to do in worship? Where did we sense that old fashioned thing called reverence, humble piety, the conviction that we were coming into the presence of our Maker and Judge and not just our buddy?

It was noticeable that only the first church preached a clear gospel message and directly challenged an unbeliever. You could concentrate on the words of the hymns, on the Bible reading, on the sermon – on seeking God - without the countless little distractions that attend greater ‘informality’ and the quest for innovation. Casualness, informality and chatty busyness are antithetical to spiritual worship which is the hardest activity to which human nature can address itself.

The atmosphere and approach in the latter two churches would have been unrecognizable as worthy of Sunday worship to non-conformists of an earlier generation. Isn’t worship meant to be a serious matter?

Is it just that the times are a-changing? Cultural adjustments we should just get used to? Or is something going seriously wrong with evangelical worship?

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Inventing the Individual

I have been engrossed recently in this book by Larry Siedentop. His thesis simply is that western liberalism and western secularism owe more to Christianity than to any other single cause. The gift of Christianity to the world has primarily been the concept of moral equality. He traces this from Paul through Augustine, to monasticism, what he sees as the Carolingian compromise between tyranny and the care of souls, the Cluniac monastic revival and the papal revolution of the Middle Ages, to one of his big heroes, William of Ockham.

Siedentop's big idea is that Christianity invented the individual, giving space for conscience. It created a world where the individual matters and society had to be organised around him, not around family (though not abandoning the family). Equality rather than inequality was assumed, and in the Middle Ages this broke down feudalism and local interests.

The Renaissance did not contribute to this, says Siedentop. Siedentop sees through the popular view that the Renaissance gave dignity to the individual; instead, he argues, it brought about a cult of the individual but did not add to the value of the individual.

From an evangelical perspective it is healthy to see the argument for a Christian West taken back to the early church and in particular to the Middle Ages, even in some ways to the papacy, instead of all being due to the Reformation.

Secularism is the moral equality insight taken to the nth degree. Siedentop sees this as an opportunity for secularism to see that it has a friend in religion and to recover its moral roots. But this is ambitious; secularism wants to cut its links with religion.

He says:

“Properly understood, secularism can be seen as Europe’s noblest achievement, the achievement which should be its primary contribution to the creation of a world order, while different religious beliefs continue to contend for followers. Secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world, ideas and practices which have often been turned against ‘excesses’ of the Christian church itself.

“What is the crux of secularism? It is that belief in an underlying or moral equality of humans implies that there is a sphere is which each should be free to make his or her own decisions, a sphere of conscience and free action. That belief is summarized in the central value of classical liberalism: the commitment to ‘equal liberty’. Is this indifference or non-belief? Not at all. It rests on the firm belief that to be human means being a rational and moral agent, a free chooser with responsibility for one’s actions. It puts a premium on conscience rather than the ‘blind’ following of rules. It joins rights with duties to others.

“ This is also the central egalitarian moral insight of Christianity. It stands out from St Paul’s contrast between ‘Christian liberty’ and observance of the Jewish law. Enforced belief was, for Paul and many early Christians, a contradiction in terms. Strikingly, in its first centuries, Christianity spread by persuasion, not by force of arms – a contrast to the early spread of Islam.

“When placed against this background, secularism does not mean non-belief or indifference. It is not without moral content. Certainly secularism is not a neutral or ‘value free’ framework, as the language of contemporary social scientists at times suggests. Rather secularism suggests the conditions in which authentic beliefs should be formed and defended….This is the way secularism has traditionally been understood in the United States… [In Europe, by contrast,] for centuries a privileged monolithic church which was almost inseparable from an aristocratic society , confronted Europeans…”

All this is a very inadequate summary of a carefully argued and beautifully written book. The scholarship is profound and broad, the case argued cogently yet clearly considering the amount of history covered. It is not always an easy read but it is a very worthwhile one with much to stimulate the mind in many directions as we face a Christian retreat today in the West. What should our attitude to secularism be? What should we be defending? One feels that we should be engaging in arguments far more profound than trying to protect and preserve a crumbling Establishment and its church.

There is much one would disagree with in Siedentop’s applications, not least the idolatry of secularism without God and with no adequate doctrine of sin or salvation. But there is also much one can use in the sense of developing as a weapon the analysis he gives us. He is at least giving a us a clue as to where to start the debate with secularism – one which points out how much secularism owes to Christianity, the tree from which it is now sawing itself as fast as it can.