No man is an island entire of itself said the prophetic priest-poet of old. Modernism and its western offspring, individualism, have done their utmost to prove him wrong. In vain. For whether we like it or not, we are all part of one another. And while Donne was clearly speaking of human society, he could equally have been referring to human history. For one of modernity’s most damaging trends has been to legitimise our innate haughtiness about the past. So having discussed how modernist culture shapes our present, and then sensed the crushing power of modernism’s relentless pursuit of progress, we must close the circle by considering the past.
Having speculated a little about how the prevailing winds of modernist culture affect our perceptions of the present, I now want to think about how we face the future. Which in some ways can have an even more dehumanising impact. And yet again, I need to say at the outset that there is a valid counter-argument to each point. But why should simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with oneself get in the way of a blog-post? Read more
Vinoth Ramachandra has had links with All Souls for quarter of a century – and he and his wife Karin have been mission partners for many years. So it was a joy to have them join our staff meeting last week, while they were passing through en route between two conferences before heading home to Sri Lanka. One of the things that was often said of John Stott by those from the ‘majority world’ (including Vinoth) was that he was very good at genuinely listening to their perspectives and concerns, rather than following a paternalistic, one-directional relationship.
So in that spirit, Hugh asked Vinoth to speak about what he perceived as the blind-spots of the western church. Read more
- A great deal has happened since – but it is definitely worth reading this remarkable letter from Dr Mouneer Hanna Anis, Bishop of Egypt, about the situation there (written on 2nd Feb).
- Tim Challies has a nice potted bio of Olympic runner Eric Liddell.
- A really helpful insight into Tim Keller’s prayer life and how he preaches to himself.
- Stanton Jones has some interesting challenges in how to teach about sex.
- 7 things that make a sermon rubbish from Urban Pastor. Been there, done that!
- In case you missed it (it’s done the rounds on the web, so hard to see how you could have), here is the remarkable photo of Egyptian Christians protecting Muslims at prayer. But check out the remarkable account by Nevine Zaki, the person who took it.
- And while we’re on the subject of unjust leaders, Peanuts nails it as ever! (HT Nancy H)
- A Really Bad Week: very interesting list from Foreign Policy of world leaders looking very nervously at the recent events in Egypt.
- How the UK’s growing obesity problem is having an impact in all kinds of unexpected places.
- These are truly beautiful – thread sculptures by Mexican artist Gabriel Dawe (HT ColourLovers)
- The flight of a lifetime: catch this unique view of the last ever Space Shuttle launch (HT kouya):
- Ingenious: The Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator
- Some helpful tips to avoid classic typographical errors (click the image right – HT 22 Words)
- Check out where Wilberforce lived in Clapham this rather fun 1800 celebrity spotters map!
- This picture of a firm of Solicitors was taken by my parents while staying in Coventry. Too good to be true…
- And finally, this is brilliant – clears up all possible confusions
I think it’s fair to say that remaining neutral about anything Carl Trueman writes or says is impossible. And that’s no bad thing! He’s always provocative, stimulating and often (but not always!) right on the button. In his recent short book, Republocrat – Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, he brings a trenchant and powerfully argued British/European perspective to the American political scene. More pertinently, after 10 years in the States, he writes as a Reformed theologian and church historian about the relationship between Christianity and American politics (especially, though not exclusively, about the Christian Right).
Mercutio strikes again?
In his discussion of the Republican and Democrat Parties, he actually does find himself, Mercutio-like, calling for ‘a plague on both your houses’. And it is easy to see why, after being propelled through his breathless polemic. Some would conclude from this that the only remaining course of action is to buy into a simplistic rejection of all things political, with a postmodern, shrugging updating of the 60s mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out”.
But Trueman is far too robust for such a course. And his appeal is a crucial one. For one of his concerns is that politics has become far too simplistic and Manichaean (ie dualism where everything is a matter of ‘us’ (the goodies) vs ‘them’ (the baddies)) – and that the church has significantly contributed to the problem. He is clear – life is much too complex for that.
I would suggest that all Christians should vote, as part of their civic duty, but they should also feel pain when they mark the relevant box, knowing the trade-offs they are having to make as they do so, and how their action belies the complexity of reality. (p83)
Whose side is he on?
The scope of the book (despite the main text being only 100 pages) is vast. He manages to include a sympathetic potted history of Marxism, perceptive analyses of the prosperity gospel, US hot button issues like gay rights and abortion, Rupert Murdoch and the impact of automobiles on American culture – and that’s before we even consider his helpful, expert observations about history writing and objectivity. This is in part what makes his writing so enjoyable – he draws links that one never sees coming.
But this is primarily a book of political punditry. And so his politics matters and is explicit. He is what in Europe would be called left of centre (he openly confesses to be LibDem – though one wonders what difference the Coalition Government now would make to this) – which in the USA is regarded as practically communist. He is conservative theologically, and therefore conservative on some ethical issues – but definitely left on social issues like poverty. As the conservative Peter Lillback rightly notes in his foreword, this makes Carl more of the Old Left than new. This makes him an anomaly in his adopted country – he really doesn’t fit. He casts an outsider’s eye on contemporary US political realities; and so a real fear is that neither end of the political spectrum (Christian or otherwise) will listen to him – and therefore both will fail to heed what are some very important warnings.
So who’s side is he on? Well, he is someone who longs for truthfulness, integrity and genuine public service to mark public life (as illustrated by a powerful quotation from the amazing Vaclav Havel on the last page). And therefore all should take note.
The problems at both ends
The most obvious is the way liberals and conservatives often flip-flop on whether big government is good or bad. It is a mantra of the Left that the federal government needs to take a larger role at home, where, apparently it can and should be trusted; but in foreign policy, the Left’s wisdom is that it can do almost nothing of any moral probity. On the Right, however, there is deep suspicion of the federal government in a domestic context; but invade somebody else’s country, and any criticism of the government is decried as unpatriotic and un-American. How can these things be? One plausible explanation is that the logic of Left and Right is shaped more by some form of story, which does not conform to the normal rules of logical analysis, but which nonetheless carries power for the true believer. (p89)
This comes in the context of a really helpful, though chilling, analysis of how narrative informs political discourse, rather than pesky things like facts and realities. It is interesting that only today, Nick Robinson’s BBC blog described the task of Cameron’s new Strategy guy at No10 as bringing much needed ‘narrative coherence’ to the Coalition after a choppy few months – though note how Ed Miliband’s Labour is equally attempting to dominate with their own ‘re-contaminate the Tory brand’ narrative.
Of course, politics, not to mention governing, is SO complex that communicating realities in a democracy is very hard. A story is much easier to tell – especially if it resonates with people who are hurting, struggling or confused. Stories rally troops, motivate action … ignore inconveniences. Ideal, then, if you want people to vote for you. Not so good if you value truth and integrity. And Trueman’s point is that Left and Right both play the same game (as Nick Robinson highlights).
It’s secularism – but not as we have it
One of the most helpful and powerful sections was Trueman’s identification of how secularism in the States has a religious face. I’m sure this is right – and it helps to understand that despite not really doing God in European politics, the US has much more in common culturally than it might care to admit.
Could it be that both Britain and America are both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such language? And could this create more problems for the American church than she typically likes to assume? (p23)
Somebody asked me recently whether Osteen and Hinn (2 key prosperity gospel preachers) were big in the UK. My answer was simple: no, not at all, nothing like they are in the USA. Why is that? came the follow-up to which I replied: They simply wouldn’t work in the UK, because the idiom is all wrong; the British do not respond to religious language the way many Americans do; thus, we have psychobabble self-help gurus, not prosperity preachers. Of course, both preach the same message: prosperity through realizing your own inner potential; but while the British equivalent is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity. (p27)
This makes perfect sense to me – and simply alerts us to the insidiousness of the secular mindset.
It’s what we’ve got – but that doesn’t make it perfect
Another key theme to the book is the danger of (especially the Christian Right) buying into the idea that Capitalism is the most theologically appropriate system. I don’t know many, if any, in the UK who have bought into this line – but it is clearly a big deal in the USA. And while he is pretty sure that there is no real viable alternative in a globalised world (some will no doubt dispute that – I’m not really in a position to argue either way), his case for a more nuanced and discerning approach is undeniably strong. Capitalism simply does not lead inevitably to the characteristics commonly identified as Christian virtue. This is because it presents many underlying challenges to virtue – here is my potted summary of his list (in pp71-77):
- Economic prosperity can never necessarily be identified with divine blessing.
- Capitalism requires a lack of contentment and degree of disaffection with the world in order to make it work. It also breeds a form of idolatry: “ascribing of divine power to things that in themselves do not possess such power, and, we might add, that can be done to systems such as capitalism just as easily as possessions such as golf clubs” (p74). Personal selfishness and acquisitiveness actually then morphs into a social virtue because you are upholding society and the system through your wallet (or credit).
- What we could call financial Pelagianism: “the problem is not simply the gospel of salvation by consumption that they preach; it is also the idea that I am in control of my own destiny, that I hold the answer to my problems, that this lies in the creaturely realm… It is a form of Pelagianism, built on the idea that I am my own god who can work the miracle of my own happiness by what I do with my cash” (p74)
- The fixation on rights of all kinds that a consumer mentality breeds (and this can be found on both Left (eg abortion rights) and Right (eg gun owners’ rights)) – and this is something that we see manifesting in church as well as society.
- The market inevitably determines values and virtues: “Where consumer is king, ultimately taste and profit margins will triumph” (p75)
In summary of this point, then, Trueman states:
Christians must realize that capitalism has brought great goods in its wake; but it is not an unmixed blessing, and some of the things about which Christians become most hot under the collar, from the reshaping of the family to the ease of access to abortion, are not unconnected to the system that they often admire with so little critical reflection. (p77)
Well said… It seems so obvious – but so rarely articulated – perhaps because we have too many vested interests…
American in focus, but British in relevance
I suspect many on this side of the Atlantic will assume this has little relevance. But I would argue that it is of profound relevance over here – it is a very helpful analysis of what is happening in postmodern political discourse. But there is also another reason: some in UK Christian circles are finding themselves drawn to a US Christian Right culture-war mentality (this was particularly noticeable in the lead up to the 2010 UK General Election).
And that is something that, quite frankly, I find very scary. If ever there was a thought-through, theologically aware, warning not to go down that road, this is it. I suspect few if any will find themselves agreeing with everything he says (for all kinds of reasons). But that is all the more reason that thoughtful Christians should read this book. As he says
we are called to be good citizens in this world, and in a democratic society, that involves having as many well-thought-out and informed opinions on the things that really matter as time allows. It is incumbent on us not to surround ourselves with things that confirm our prejudices but to seek to listen to a variety of view points. (p58)
Having had a bit of a Keller-fest on the last few postings, it struck me as rather fitting to conclude with this piercing and poignant little number from the inimitable Steve Turner. It picks up the themes of Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which is a text Keller picks up on in his book.
It’s a painful provocation…
You were hungry
and I was sorry.
You were thirsty
and I blamed the world.
You were a stranger
and I pointed you out.
You were naked
and I turned you in.
You were sick
and I said a prayer.
You were in prison
and I wrote a poem.
Poems, p67 (2002)
So having been motivated by the biblical appeal to action in Keller’s Generous Justice (see previous post), what’s the difference? It would hardly be right to leave us as armchair activists with an impetus to think but not act.
The political tightrope
Speaking as a transatlantic observer, it seems to me that one of the acute problems for American Christians when talking about matters political or social is that hearers are constantly trying to identify tell-tale signs of partisan politics. These quickly become a weapon to justify ignoring a case or to add it to your name-checks of supporters. And meanwhile the importance of the issues at stake gets lost.
Keller does not give hostages to fortune. There’s no way that either Republicans or Democrats can claim him as their own – which is entirely as it should be – he finds biblical grounds for challenges and affirmations to both.
Take, for example, the rather fundamental discussion of what justice is:
But underneath all the name calling are sharp differences of opinion about what justice actually is. Democrats think of it in more collective terms. They believe a low tax rate is unfair because it deprives the poor and minorities of the help they need to overcome years of discrimination. Republicans think of justice more individualistically. They believe that a high tax rate is unjust because it robs people of their due who have risked much and worked hard to keep what they earn.
… The fact is that the word ‘justice’ does not have a definition in our culture that we can all agree on. So we just use it as a bludgeon. We self-righteously imply that those on the other side know they are simply being unjust. But they don’t. (p150)
Conservatives may argue that this is the parents’ fault. It is due to a failure of moral character and the breakdown of the family. Liberals, however, see it as a failure of the government system to stem systemic racism and to change unjust social structures. But nobody says that it is the children’s fault they were born where they were. Those children are in poverty largely because they were not born into a family like mine. My three sons, just by being born where they were, have a far better chance to have a flourishing, happy life in society. There is an inequitable distribution of goods and opportunities in this world. Therefore, if you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice. (p92)
But as mentioned in the last post, it is gospel grace that transforms social attitudes, and thus it supersedes political creeds or loyalties. Here are 3 striking quotations which show how this happens…
In Christ we receive grace, unmerited favour. Nevertheless, in the mind of the Old Testament prophets as well as the teaching of Jesus, an encounter with grace inevitably leads to a life of justice. (p49)
My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitating towards the materially poor. (p102)
I believe, however, when justice for the poor is connected not to guilt but to grace and the gospel, this ‘pushes the button’ down deep in believers’ souls, and they begin to wake up. (p107)
And he goes on to illustrate precisely how this works with an extended quotation from a sermon by nineteenth century pastor and Keller hero Murray M’Cheyne. (p107 ff)
There should be no poor among you…
As can then be appreciated, how to help bring about justice for the marginalised and trapped is going to be very complex. After all, the ideologies of left and right have evolved over decades of thought and experience – and complexity simply begets more complexity. But Keller’s point is that the Bible’s analysis of poverty and injustice is far from simplistic – it’s much more nuanced than many give it credit for. Drawing on commentators like Chris Wright, for example, (and especially his excellent commentary on Deuteronomy), Keller explains how the Bible understands both poverty’s causes and appropriate responses. A key passage is Deuteronomy 15 (one which i was challenged to revisit with further study) as well as a number of others, which together offer 4 provisions for those trapped in poverty (p26 ff):
- Release from debts
- Provision for gleaning (i.e. leaving some food by not harvesting the edge of fields): ‘gleaning was not … what would ordinarily be called an act of charity. It enabled the poor to provide for themselves without relying on benevolence’ (p26)
- Tithing for the poor every third year.
- The Year of Jubilee
If we combine the requirements of radical generosity with the regulations on profit-taking and property use, we are not surprised that God could say, ‘there should be no poor among you.’ This does not mean that people would not continue to fall into poverty. But if Israel as an entire society had kept God’s laws perfectly with all their hearts, there would have been no permanent, long-term poverty. (p28)
But the bible is not naïve about how poverty arises. And Keller’s analysis is all the more striking because he approaches it all from a theological background more commonly associated with the Christian right.
The three causes of poverty, according to the Bible, are oppression, calamity and personal moral failure. Having surveyed the Bible on these texts numerous times, I have concluded that the emphasis is usually on the larger structural factors. (p38)
So what to do…
This book gave me one of those lightbulb moments at the point where he ingeniously imagined a Good Samaritan follow-up.
Imagine a sequel to the Good Samaritan parable. The months go by and every time he makes his trip from Jerusalem to Jericho he finds another man in the road, beaten and robbed. Finally the Samaritan says, ‘How do we stop the violence?’
The answer to that question would be some kind of social reform – instituting a new social arrangement that stops the flow of victims because of a change of social conditions. (p126)
And thus, every problem is part of a wider context – what he calls a ‘matrix of causes’ (p33). Which is why it needs a matrix of responses. He articulates 3 levels of support – relief, development and reform. Here he draws on the famous theologian and former Dutch Prime Minister, Abraham Kuyper and his distinction between the institutional and organic church (the latter being the impact of individual Christians going about their business in the world).
I believe Kuyper is generally right. We have spoken of different ‘levels’ of ministry to the poor – relief, development and reform. As we have said, churches under their leaders should definitely carry out ministries of relief and some development among their own members and in their neighbourhoods and cities, as the natural and crucial way to show the world God’s character, and to love the people that they are evangelising. But if we apply Kuyper’s view, then when we get to the more ambitious work of social reform and the addressing of social structure, believers should work through associations and organizations rather than through the local church. While the institutional church should do relief inside and around its community, the ‘organic’ church should be doing development and social reform. (p145)
The book does give examples of transformational work happening through churches and individuals. And as an avid devotee of The Wire (having devoured all 5 seasons in with equal measures of horror and rapt amazement!), I was hugely encouraged to hear of the work of New Song Urban Ministries in Sandtown Baltimore (started up by his friend Mark Gornik). Here all these levels are being worked out.
But, that’s definitely quite enough for now! Read the book – he says it all much more fluently and coherently. His case is cogent and hard to dismiss.
Finally, for those who think our only responsibility is to help fellow believers, there’s this resounding battle cry. Ignore it your peril:
However, the Bible is clear that Christians’ practical love, their generous justice, is not to be confined to only those who believe as we do. Galatians 6:10 strikes the balance when Paul says: ‘Do good to all people, especially the family of faith.’ Helping ‘all people’ is not optional, it is a command. (p61)
I have been waiting for years for someone to write this book. And so I’m hugely grateful to Tim Keller. He’s clearly the man for the job – his years of ministerial experience, academic ability and personal integrity well qualify him to write of the crying need for Evangelicals to engage with issues of justice and poverty. He’s done it before in his celebrated Ministries of Mercy, but this book seems to have a greater apologetic edge.
And he knows his audience. Or rather his audiences. For he is well-aware, no doubt from heated interactions, that there are various groups out there who are profoundly sceptical of this passion. The problem is that they are coming from such conflicting starting positions; so it takes a masterly lightness of touch to engage each without alienating another.
A complex battleground
But part of the approach is to identify his interlocutors from the start (from page xi) and then interact with each as he goes along – I’ve tried summarise them like this:
- The Instinctive Advocate: those Christians with the gut feeling that poverty and justice are important but who have never been able to integrate that with their faith. To them, Keller seeks to give a thought through, biblical rationale for why this instinct is god-given.
- The Sceptical Evangelist: those who fear any journey down this road will inevitably lead to doctrinal compromise and the ‘social gospel’. We’re here just to evangelise, aren’t we? To which Keller challenges by articulating both Old & New Testament motivations and commands to love the poor, and to question what a reluctance to such love might indicate about their ministerial context and personal spirituality. He doesn’t think they are the same thing - and this is important to what he goes on to say – but he does argue that we can’t have one without the other:
… to consider deeds of mercy and justice to be identical to gospel proclamation is a fatal confusion. I propose a different way to understand evangelism and social justice. They should exist in an asymmetrical, inseparable relationship. (p139)
It is also impossible to separate word and deed ministry from each other in ministry because human beings are integrated wholes – body and soul. When some Christians say, ‘Caring for physical needs will detract from evangelism’, they must be thinking of only doing evangelism among people who are comfortable and well-off. (p141-142)
- The Revisionist Campaigner: frustrated by evangelicals’ sluggish or avoided engagement, these go further than Instinctive Advocates and blame what they perceive as the ‘individualism’ of protestant orthodoxy. Their solution is to water down or distance themselves from it. To them, Keller is resounding in his appeal to evangelical orthodoxy – not just because he seeks to prove its biblical faithfulness, but also because he sees it as the fundamental bridge to a changed life and ethical behaviour, when it is properly understood. This quotation could serve as a summary of a point that he frequently returns to:
But as we have seen, doing justice is inseparably connected to preaching grace. This is true in two ways. One way is that the gospel produces a concern for the poor. The other is that deeds of justice gain credibility for the preaching of the gospel. In other words justification by faith leads to doing justice, and doing justice can make many seek to be justified by faith. (p140)
- The Atheist Accuser: those who follow the likes of Christopher Hitchens by claiming that ‘religion poisons everything’. Keller has interacted with such issues before, most notably in The Reason for God. But the focus is narrower here. His approach is to question the ethical basis for human rights in the forbidding frigidity of a godless universe, and then to suggest that talk of human dignity is an inevitable corollary of divine creation and redemption. He even seems to have Derrida on his side on that point! (p167) It is a trenchant argument – proving that far from being poisonous, religion, and Christianity in particular, is pivotal for the protection of the vulnerable and the weak. This is, of course, why it is such an affront and scandal when Christians don’t do that.
I suppose for a number of years I fell very much into the first camp – troubled by the world’s injustices, but unable to articulate an integrated theological response. Many friends, whom I hugely respect, were in the second – and part of the problem, I think, is that they would not read or engage with many who think differently on this issue (because of their lack of orthodoxy in other areas). What is so refreshing therefore about Keller’s approach is that he is explicitly and deliberately approaching the question from the vantage point of the classic reformed doctrines of creation, substitutionary atonement, justification, sanctification and so on. Some attack him because his social involvement leads to suspicions that he has gone soft on these. But Keller retorts by saying that it is precisely this gospel that drives him to it. And he enjoys great precedents in reformed luminaries as diverse as Jonathan Edwards, Murray M’Cheyne and Abraham Kuyper (all of whom he quotes at various points).
Getting back to the Non-Question
Having lived in the two-thirds world for a number of years, it was impossible to ignore the appalling conditions and social realities of people’s lives. It would have been callous to do so. That, in part, is why very few African friends understand the western church’s hang up on social action and evangelism. It’s a non-question for them. But in Generous Justice, Keller convincingly argues in a coherent, accessible and readable way why it should be non-question for us all. I sensed when we lived in Uganda, and I sense all the more strongly having read this book, that one mistake is to get lost in the intricacies of working out theoretical priorities (a necessary activity, of course). You start pitting this life against the next life and … well … it seems no contest.
But suppose we take the concern for justice out of the mission equation, just for a moment (don’t panic – I do think that it is an integral part of what God is doing on earth, which is why we should be involved. But bear with me just for a moment.) Instead, place justice and poverty in matters of holiness and discipleship and suddenly the landscape changes. It’s not then primarily a question of priorities. It’s a question of godliness. We don’t ask, ‘is it more important to be honest, humble or generous?’ That would be ludicrous. We shouldn’t expect to have to choose – we should strive after all three.
So it is with seeking justice and loving the poor. And as that is God’s heartbeat, so it should be ours. As Keller points out, it’s fascinating that God introduces himself as
‘a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows’ (Ps 68:4-5). This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause. (p6)
To be like God is to do the same thing – to care for what has been called the “quartet of the vulnerable” (the widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor cf. Zech 7:10-11). (p4)
Grace changes everything
The thrust of this book’s argument is that grace is the heart of everything. And so Keller returns to the well-worn but crucial paths on the dangerous road to Jericho. His earlier book Ministries of Mercy was subtitled the Call of the Jericho Road. And here he is very clear why we should:
Before you can give this neighbour-love [e.g. as the Samaritan does], you need to receive it. Only if you see that you have been saved graciously by someone who owes you the opposite will you go out into the world looking to help absolutely anyone in need. (p77)
This is why the gospel of grace is absolutely pivotal – both for motivating and modelling an all-round holistic ministry, and for reminding us of our own deep needs and equality with those we serve and love.
In the next post, I’ll pick up some of the more practical and political aspects of Keller’s case.
Despite what Ikea will tell us, the answer to this question is not more of their maddening self-assembly furniture.
I’m really impressed with the Breathe network. Here’s one of their recent Conspiracy of Freedom videos – and it speaks very powerfully for itself:
Jubilee Centre is a great organisation – and this looks like a fun development. Check it out by clicking below…
My boss Hugh has just completed an epic 4-part series at All Souls entitled “Cash and the Christian“. Each talk is based on an episode in Luke’s gospel (for Luke is especially concerned both for the marginalised and the pitfalls of wealth).
- The Chains of Materialism (Luke 12:13-21) - The Parable of the Rich Fool
- Fear and the Father (Luke 12:22-34) - Learning not to worry
- Investing in Eternity (Luke 16:1-15) - The Parable of the Shrewd Manager
- Generosity: the Family Trademark (Luke 19:1-10) - The Story of Zacchaeus
In these straightened times (and all the more so if we ever return to boom times), we are all forced to consider what our finances are truly built on and building for.
I was particularly struck by this simple point which came up more than once in the series: every time we give, we take one more step in the process of releasing the grip of materialism
Slavery is a fraught subject – and for too many, it’s no historical artefact or long-gone curiosity. Its effects are still pervasive. Furthermore, it’s not simply a matter of its legacy for African-Americans in the US or the Caribbean. UN estimates suggest that 20 million people were held in bonded slavery in 2004; and in that year, there were more slaves than were seized from Africa in all 4 centuries of the transatlantic slave trade combined. It is a matter of no small interest, therefore, that slavery is such a significant biblical theme – and for a large number it can form a stumbling block by itself.
Michael Card is a renowned singer, but he is also a careful student of the Bible (the result, in part, of a long mentoring relationship with William Lane, author of e.g. The Gospel of Mark in the NICNT series). More than either of those factors, however, is the fact that he has a pastor’s heart and passionate commitment to integration across racial barriers – so crucial in his home town of Nashville. It is through his many African American brothers and sisters that he has learned truths about slavery in the Bible. Particularly striking is the insight from one friend who said:
slaves generally referred to Jesus as ‘Master’ to let their earthly masters know they weren’t (p19).
Because being freed from human slavery doesn’t exempt us from all slavery – we are, if Christian, slaves of Christ, who was himself humanity’s slave.
This book is unusual for its effective combination of pastoral warmth and academic research. He very skilfully weaves between three eras of slavery in order to establish what being a slave of Christ is all about, and just as significantly, what it is not. He shifts with ease and learning between the covenant-tempered slavery regulations of ancient Israel, the harsh realities of Roman Imperial slavery and the horrors of the American Deep South. This approach is simply unavoidable for any treatment of this subject – but this is one of the best because Card is so personal committed to the discipleship implications of what he finds.
The chapters are short and pithy – and many are illuminating of familiar texts. It was particularly striking to see how many of Jesus’ parables were immersed in the world of slaves. The book closes with some very helpful appendices, listing such things as the slaves in the Bible’s story, the distinctives of the slavery from the 3 eras mentioned above, and chillingly, statistics about contemporary slavery. Having done a little work (but by no means as much) on this subject (The NT & Slavery), this is a book that I would love to have written, had I even half of Card’s insight and passion! If you’re looking for a more thorough and sustained handling of the topic, you could do much worse than Murray Harris’ Slave of Christ (in IVP’s fab NSBT series) but A Better Freedom is a great introduction and, more importantly, stirring devotional.
This is a challenging book but it is pastorally real and at times very moving, approaches some familiar truths with an engaging freshness.
I was asked by some friends at CARE to plug this, and I was very happy to do so. A great way to combat to prevailing political apathy. It’s a great website – a really good starter pack – and of course the campaign name’s play on words is a nice one…
Here is the blurb they’ve sent about it:
Make The Cross Count 2010 features a range of resources that will help equip Christians to actively participate in the forthcoming General Election. The policy issues that will be covered in detail are the ones CARE has policy experience in, however we will have a My Manifesto section which will include policy suggestions from various church leaders, theologian and public intellectuals, written in non-technical language. Once the election campaigns get going in earnest, we will be updating the site with content just like a blog, with comment features and so on…
The site includes the following:
- A hustings guide: This guide contains everything you need to know to organise a successful hustings in your local constituency.
- My Manifesto Project: Christian leaders and thinkers explain what policy issues they would like to see in a party manifesto.
- Faith and politics bible studies: An excellent resource for individuals or small groups
- Policy papers: Researched and written by CARE’s public affairs team these provide an overview of key policy areas and help Christians think through the issues.
We are also on twitter: @careorguk
With impeccable timing (i.e. the week we had our Christians Facing Issues service on Assisted Suicide), one of the key people involved in the service (you can see him introducing the whole issue very helpfully in the first youtube clip I posted) has a book out. Prof John Wyatt originally wrote his Matters of Life and Death in 1998 (based on his 1997 London Lectures of the same name). This has been fully revised and updated to include a number of recent developments in start and end of life debates. It is an excellent book and he really knows what he’s talking about (he is Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College, London).
For some bizarre reason, IVP asked me to write an endorsement – quite why, I don’t fully understand for I am by no means an ethicist nor at all medical (though perhaps being married to a nurse-midwife is some sort of qualification – a stretch I realise) – but John is a faithful and long-standing member of All Souls, so here it is anyway!
The experience of shrill headlines and some scientists’ over-reaching claims can be bewildering at the best of times. But when that feeling is coupled with the vague unease that ethical boundaries have been crossed, it is a great relief to know that wise guides like John Wyatt are at hand. I am immensely grateful for the new edition of this book. Skilfully combining the insights of a scholar, the compassion of a practising doctor and the nuanced convictions of a mature Christian, Wyatt is uniquely qualified to write it. His style is readable and fluent, but never superficial or sloganeering.
Because he takes care to tackle difficult ethical questions head-on, applying biblical wisdom and drawing on a wide range of case studies (some of which derive from his own professional experience), I cannot recommend this book enough, to medical professional and concerned onlooker alike.
So all I can say is check it out! Matters of Life and Death is the simply best thing I’ve read on these difficult issues and will certainly help to get you thinking.
Fellow West Wing addicts will remember the great episode (1:8 Enemies) in which Bartlet & Josh figure out a way to foil a Republican plan to commence strip mining on federal land in Montana – because of the Antiquities Act, the President has the power to create National Parks.
The Catalyst for the Antiquities Act
I’d completely forgotten all about this little moment – but was reminded of it while reading David Reynolds’ quite brilliant book, America: Empire of Liberty. It’s a book so full of fascination that I feel sure i’ll be quoting from it again in the future – I can’t recommend it enough if you want a sense of the factors and paradoxes in her history make the United States what she is today. But because this year’s All Souls World Need Sunday focussed on the Bible’s First Great Commission – the call to be stewards of creation – it seems very apt to turn to it here for Reynolds’ account of what spurred Roosevelt to pioneer the Antiquities Act. And remarkably, it was his passionate concern for the environment:
It was President Theodore Roosevelt who put this issue firmly on the national agenda. In 1906 he signed an Antiquities Act, allowing presidents to declare as national monuments ‘historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest…
… In a quite unheard-of way T.R. Devoted large parts of his annual messages in the 1900s to what was being called ‘conservation’ – articulating a mood of deep disquiet in America’s progressive middle classes. He insisted, for instance, in 1907, ‘The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our National life… We are prone to speak of the resources of this country as inexhaustible; this is not so. The mineral wealth of the country, the coal, iron, oil, gas, and the like, does not reproduce itself, and therefore is certain to be exhausted ultimately. (p291)
In the light of recent history, for a President to be suggesting such things seems at best rather incongruous (though not perhaps since the 2008 election). But to think that a White House occupant was talking about this a century ago, a century characterised by unbridled resource consumption and exploitation, is nothing short of prophetic.
Care for Creation to Care for the Poor
As if reasons for caring for creation were needed, this Sunday’s primary angle was the simple fact that caring for the Environment is one of the key ways to care for the poor (the primary aim of our annual World Need Sunday). And while the causes are debated, the realities of the environmental crisis are obvious. Peter Harris was the main speaker – one of the founders A Rocha – and he gave one or two chilling stats.
- To sustain the present rate of consumption, we would need 3 planets Earth
- By 2050, between 23 & 37% of all the species on earth will be extinct – 1000x the natural rate of extinction.
As a way of seeing that the poor are always the first to suffer from environmental degradation, he mentioned that in 2007, 2 hurricanes of exact size hit similar lengths of coastline:
- one hit Texas: there were 140 deaths
- one hit Myanmar: there were 135,000 deaths
The difference was not meteorological – it was that the latter hit a poor country. And that IS of profound Christian concern.
What can one do? These are huge problems and private action can feel pointless. But if everyone did things…? Well, check out Peter Harris and others’ stuff follow up some of the things on the A Rocha site… Many Christians don’t. He mentioned that if you go to an international development conference, a large percentage of the individuals and NGOs will be Christian; but if you go to a conservation/environment conference, there may well be individual Christians – but chatting to Peter, he was saying that A Rocha is usually the only organisation. We really are far too late into the game on this one. And yet, there is a despair amongst many environmentalists. For the last few decades they have pumped millions into education – and it’s not worked. People haven’t changed. Simple education is never enough. Peter’s contention is that in the end it is a spiritual issue – in which the human heart needs redirection away from the selfish consumerist to the worshipper of God. Which is a whole other ballgame! And a Christian approach to creation care actually offers a right perspective – I suppose you could put it like this: God worship for creation care, not creation worship for creation care.
It doesn’t matter where you start: at least recycle even within the home before putting things in bins; work out how to carbon-offset; use heating less etc etc; but above all, do something…
For those who missed it, here is The Branch Church’s beautiful compilation of BBC footage for Brian Doerksen’s Creation Calls:
become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe (Philippians 2:15)
Was chatting a few weeks back with my mate Tim Plyming when he was looking for an image to illustrate the reality of the All Souls family being out there in the workplace – and I vaguely suggested the thought of having stars in the constellation of the London tube map. He came up with a nice version of it on the day – but I’ve been playing around with it in the odd idle moment, especially having fun with some of the station names. So here it is for your general delectation and viewing pleasure.
- Hugh Palmer on “Work in the beginning” in Genesis to Revelation
- Tim Plyming on “It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it” from Ephesians 6
Then throughout the day, we plugged the great book by old friend and erstwhile colleague, Jago Wynne, Working Without Wilting. It’s a brilliant, funny and insightful book – am planning to post a proper review in due course. (Be afraid, Jago).
One of the most helpful things that Tim, Dim & Charms organised for the day was the workplace appraisal – which i’ve uploaded and attached. Check it out and feel free to use – they’ve agreed for it to be distributed to give more people the opportunity to think methodically through how they are working out their faith in the everyday and mundane.
It should go a long way to putting a stop to that wretched and nonsensical divide between the sacred and secular.
Which leads me onto the humiliation of the morning. For the families’ slot, the dynamic trio organised a little line-up – a barrister, police officer, nurse, structural engineer, and er… vicar. And they asked the kids who the full-time Christian worker was. Ha ha. Answer: All of us. By the way, I’d just like to make clear that this was the ONLY time that I’ve worn robes in a main service at All Souls in 4 years.
Tim in his evening sermon then put the icing on the cake by suggesting that we were a Village People tribute act. So there you have it.
It’s not everyday that you read a book for which you are profoundly grateful. But this is one. Hans Fallada (the pen-name of Rudolf Ditzen) wrote this book in a frenzy in just 24 days, and died just weeks before it’s publication.
First published in Germany in 1947, it has only now been translated into English by Michael Hofmann (in the USA, for some reason it is called Every Man Dies Alone). It recounts the lives and fears of the occupants of 55 Jablonski St in 1940 Berlin. This one house stands as a microcosm for the various forces at work down at street level during the horrors of the Nazi regime. Life is hard, decision-making complex, consequences terrifying. The key thing is that this is the about what happens at the bottom of the pile as a result of decision made at the top. The regime has corrupted and infected every aspect of daily life.
What is so extraordinary about this book is that it opens a window on to ordinary life in Berlin at time when the Nazis still seemed to be winning the war. The conquest of France looms large and Hitler was unstoppable. Was resistance possible at all? And could it ever be remotely effective? It’s one thing to agitate on the fringes of the Nazi empire – but what about at its kernel? In a climate of suspicion and hatred, the slightest misstep out of line would be observed by the countless informers simply out to cover their own backs. The result of this is a profound sense of isolation and distrust – hence the book’s title. In an imperial city of millions, everyone in Berlin is ultimately alone – not just when they die, but while eking out their existence beforehand.
But this is where the wonder of this novel strikes home. There are shafts of light in the midst of the darkness. The activities of the protagonist couple, Otto & Anna Quangel, seem futile. And yet they have a profound effect on the most unexpected individual. (I won’t spoil who). There is the unexpected, silent but nevertheless consistent kindness of a retired judge. Then there is the Lutheran prison chaplain dying of TB who does what he can (it is surprising to find such a positive portrayal of a Christian in fiction – though it is counterbalanced by another chaplain who is clearly more venal and vile like the regime he works for). The universe of Nazi darkness is vast (the cast is full of the basest and cruellest in fiction) – but the few and far between stars that do shine out, do so with compelling and wonderful brightness.
The point seems to be that there are things that one should do because they are right and good – however futile, inconsequential or irrelevant they might seem. And even those small acts can have some sort of redemptive quality. To top it all, this is a beautifully written and steadily paced book – that captures the reader and draws one into the myriad connections and dark alleys of a city at war. It is no wonder then that the magisterial writer Primo Levi called it:
The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis
This is no easy read – but it is an unputdownable and vital read nevertheless.
The 3rd instalment…In my mind, these 2 songs go together – they’re both counter-cultural.
- Stand up for your love which is emphatically NOT RIGHTS (Stand Up Comedy)
- [then what appears to contradict the previous quote, there is one right that does still matter] the right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear. (I’ll Go Crazy) For this is essential if one is prepared to love.
But the important thing is that they counter the culture of both the world and the church (see the little old lady below) – because of LOVE! Which in many ways puts them on a more biblical trajectory than any of us might care to realise. But then, if there is the prophetic and psalmic in the songs on this album, this should not be surprising. And someone who speaks such a message is bound to get brickbats flung at them – from everybody. Just as well there is the personal relationship that supersedes all others – a question of vision taking precedence over visibility… (Moment of Surrender). That’s not to say that Bono takes himself too seriously – fortunately there are hints that he doesn’t… (although sometimes, one might wish he would take himself even less seriously than he does!).
Well, this is the song that makes ‘love’ come out so big on the wordle (see previous NLOTH post). It’s repeated over and over, despite being chanted almost inaudibly. It’s ramming the point home. But this is no soppy romanticism; it’s a call, not to arms of course, but to action. Or perhaps even better, it is a call to arms opened wide.
The tempo, driving rhythm section, the almost retro 70s feel (you can almost see Steve McQueen accelerating over a San Francisco rise) all serve to galvanise and propel us out … to love. This is the MLK dream. But there is an aspect of comedy to this standing up – because self-sacrificial love gets you into the most surreal, even absurd, situations (like when Bono & Geldof find themselves visiting the former Pope, Bush & Blair).
the wire stretched in between two towers… stand up in this dizzy world where a lovesick eye can steal the view. I’m gonna fall down if I can’t stand up for your love. Presumably the imagery is of Philippe Petit, the guy who did a tightrope walk in 1974 between the twin towers of the New York World Trade Center (and who is the subject of the recent documentary film, Man on Wire). Just thinking about stepping out onto such a rope is enough to make one balk with vertigo. But I’m gonna fall down if i can’t stand up for your love, or rather if i can’t serve in your love. It is risky love – but if we’re not serving ‘your love‘ what alternative is there but falling…? Could this have anything to do with Peter stepping out of the boat onto to the water…? ≈ Matt 14:24-33
the DNA lotto may have left you smart, but you can stand up to beauty, dictator of the heart it doesn’t matter what makes us who we are (whether our genes or upbringing or circumstances); the obsessions of our culture age (beauty, smarts) are no match for the fruit of the spirit and the Christian’s trinity: I can stand up for hope, faith, love (explicit reference of course to 1 Cor 13:13, Colossians 1:5, 1 Thess 1:3, 5:8). And of course the greatest of these is love.
But then here comes a provocative challenge to the church (and it’s one of the most powerful images of the whole album): But while I’m getting over certainty stop helping God across the road like a little old lady. Ouch. A hugely suggestive image and one that’s lodged firmly in my head (and it keeps reminding me of that youtube classic that did the rounds a couple of years ago, the old lady and the airbag!!). How many of us have presumed to think God owed it to us, looked to us, depended on us? Who do we think we are? Shush now, cease to speak that I may speak (Unknown Caller). This is all reminiscent of Psalm 50 – esp v7-10 – hear, o my people, and I will speak… I am God, your God… I have no need of a bull from your stall… for I have the cattle on a thousand hills). This is a rebuke the church STILL needs to hear, as we invest in our programmes, strategies and schemes – God is bigger than all of that. To suggest that we need to get over our certainty will for some be a red rag to a bull of course – esp those who fear all things postmodern. But then, if it is a matter of thinking we’ve got everything sussed and that our own way of doing God’s business is THE way, then such certainty surely justifies such a rebuke for what is little short of idolatry. God is sovereign – so get out from under your beds, c’mon ye people, and serve… with love…
But there is an absurdity in the fact that it takes a rockstar to rebuke the church (though perhaps not without precedence in that God will use fruit-farmers, revenue-men and even donkeys if he has to). And Bono has the grace in this song to realise that. He’s the first to admit that he has a healthy ego – but my ego’s not really the enemy. He’s a small child embarking across an 8-lane highway on a voyage of discovery (presumably like the proverbial chicken who crossed to find out what was on the other side). He knows that far from giving God a hand across the road, he’s the one who needs all the help he can get. The tongue is delightfully planted in his cheek though – he’s the little Napoleon in high heels… a small man with big ideas‘. Stand up to rockstars like that, if you must. But isn’t the point even if you think they’re absurd, egotistical and presumptuous little men, don’t lose sight of the point: love? Stand up for that. Why? well it’s obvious isn’t it? because God is love! (1 John 4:8-16) C’mon ye people…
A number of initial reactions have not taken kindly to this song, not least because of the title. It sounds a bit like the sort of improvised lyric that sounded cool at the time, but that doesn’t really say anything. But it is a multi-textured song, musically and lyrically. And like Stand Up, it’s about an almost desperate yearning to love – and without such love, I’ll go crazy. But in order to love like that, could it be that a little craziness will be involved? That’s the need to cry or spit, a sweet tooth‘s need for sugar – and this, my favourite – the need for every beauty to go out with an idiot? There is a madness to love, after all – hence the sadly archaic word, lovesick (cf. The Madness of Love by one Hadewijch of Antwerp). It’s even worse when unrequited – for a girl who’s a rainbow who loves the peaceful life. For how can you stand next to the truth and not see it – oh, a change of heart comes slow.
But there is surely/inevitably a spiritual element to this as well? As one reader, Jason Primuth, nicely observed in an email to me this week with his comparison with Jesus speaking to the pair on the Road to Emmaus – Lk 24:25-27. The chorus is resonant of the pilgrimage psalms – presumably no accident, if rumours of the follow up album later this year are to be believed (apparently to be called Songs of Ascent). Just as a human (marriage) relationship is a lifelong journey, so is that of the disciple – a journey all the way to the light. Do you believe me or are you doubting?
Every generation gets a chance to change the world – remember Bono at the G8 summit – “this is our moonshot“. Any confidence we can have is because the sweetest melody is one we haven’t heard. Is that just the-crock-of-gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow pipedream? Or something more tangible? Well, if there is a real perfect, love that drives out all fear. We’re back in the realms of that 1 John 4 passage again, (here quoting v18). And if this is precisely what love does, then it is no surprise that the right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear. Because, let’s face it, that’s exactly how a billionaire rockstar tackling global poverty looks! But so what! Who cares what the passersby think?
Love is a tough call, though. It is a mountain not a hill to climb. It takes time – a change of heart comes slow. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is shout – and go crazy and look ridiculous. And notice the shift in the final chorus: listen for me, I’ll be shouting, shouting to the darkness squeeze out sparks of light. cf. 1 John 5:5-9. But fortunately, yet again, this is no solitary journey – halfway, the song acknowledges Baby baby i know i’m not alone. She’s joined him. And the climb at the end is one where she is no longer doubting but they’re starting out together. And WE’RE going to go crazy if WE don’t go crazy tonight.