I sometimes wonder whether the pendulum has swung too far. People are too quick to reduce societies to guilt- or shame-cultures, on the convenient premise that both concepts are relative and subjective. Thus we can evolve beyond such antediluvian notions. However, while it’s true that in western Protestantism we spend a great deal of time facing up to the realities of guilt (and rightly so, where it is genuine rather than subjective or self-imagined), what of shame? We can’t hide behind not being a shame-culture. Read more
Thanks to the 10ofThose gang, my little collection of Easter narratives is now out and available for purchase. Called (rather originally, don’t you think) The Resurrection, accompanied by the all-important, explanatory subtitle First Encounters with the Risen Christ, it’s meant to be a bit of a companion to Sach and Jeffery’s The Cross.
However, it’s not quite in the same style as mine is more an expository than systematic journey. My aim was to cover each of the 3 key Easter narratives in turn (from Matthew, Luke and John, in their biblical and length order). Read more
Tom Wright wrote a bit of a blinder in the Guardian last week on the media’s apparent hypocrisy about hypocrisy – and he made some fair points. It certainly chimed with me at a number of levels, and I could certainly feel a post brewing. Jennie Pollock, however, gave a very thoughtful riposte on her blog, simply pointing out that church and media are not on a level playing field – the Church has an obligation to the Spirit to produce His fruit. She’s onto something there; I’m pretty sure she’s right to challenge Wright.
Having spent the last four posts talking about childhood reading in general, it seems appropriate to move onto this. Those familiar with the Jesus Storybook Bible will know (and no doubt love) the style. That is easily the best of its kind for young children. Sally Lloyd-Jones and artist Jago have followed up with Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing. It’s ostensibly for children – though it mustn’t be reserved only for children. I found it thrilling – having expected just to dip and out, I found myself reading cover to cover.
Well, this is a first: a Quaerentia competition with REAL prizes (rather than the virtual Crunchie bars which I’ve so generously offered in the past! But the lovely people at IVP have given me a few free downloads of the recently published e-book of Cross-Examined. VERY exciting. Just what you always wanted for Christmas I’m sure. I completely realise that it’s themes are more to do with Good Friday and Easter Day, but it seemed reasonable enough to give them away for Christmas. Read more
I read Jenell Williams Paris’ remarkable book, The End of Sexual Identity (published by IVP US), over the summer, and have been cogitating on it ever since. It is a brave book, not least because it wouldn’t surprise me if it invites potshots (and worse) from all sides. It doesn’t take a degree in political science to gather that the cultural climate in the west has shifted significantly in recent years. Read more
The chaps at 10 of Those have taken the initiative to produce a number of shorter and cheaper, but decent quality, booklets, and the first of these are now out. There’s a brief introduction to the doctrine of The Cross by Andrew Sach and Steve Jeffery (well-qualified to write on this having worked on the mammoth but important He was pierced for our transgressions). But the other is a lovely new outing from Tim Keller (who’s come up here on Q a number of times): The Freedom of Self-forgetfulness – The Path To True Christian Joy. Read more
Maurice Castle is the wary protagonist of Graham Greene’s 1978 novel, The Human Factor. He works on the Africa desk for the British secret service. He loves his South African wife and her young son but has a deeply burdened and heavy heart. He is a very sympathetic character – a man who, as his mother cuttingly observed, an over-inflated sense of gratitude. And it is his sense of gratitude and indebtedness that gets him into trouble. But I won’t plot spoil. Read more
It’s a given. Christians disagree. Like pretty much everyone else, in fact. They always have. They always will. This side of the eschaton, that is.
So the issue is not whether or not we can avoid disagreement. The issue is whether or not we can disagree badly… or disagree well… This is what lay behind the recent 3-part sermon series given by Hugh Palmer at All Souls. And it deserves a wide airing in its entirety because it confronts some vital and little-appreciated issues.
OK, I realise that’s somewhat anachronistic, not to say speculative. But I’m in a staff small group that’s started reading an extraordinary book: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It is dense, blunt but most of all, persuasive. And even though we’ve only been going at it for a week, it has already stimulated all kinds of interesting discussions. But one of the most challenging ideas from chapter one is his analysis of what he calls ‘visionary dreaming’. Read more
Yesterday was one that will be hard to forget: the funeral of an extraordinary man of God. It was an occasion full of gratitude and even joy, but also overwhelming at moments to say goodbye to Uncle John (or as we were reminded in the service, it is only Au Revoir). There was great pathos to think that, as his coffin was carried out, he was leaving All Souls for the last time. Read more
One of life’s great joys is Radio 3′s CD Review every Saturday morning. And every now and then, it is a wonderful source for discovering previously unheard gems. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was a segment about Baltic Choral music. And I was gripped by the music of Latvian Eriks Esenvalds. I’d never heard of him until that moment. But I’m now a total convert. Read more
Well, we made it to the end of Galatians on Sunday night. And quite a journey it’s been. Phew!
Mark Prentice did a huge job of gathering the threads from the whole of Gal 5 the previous week, and it was left to me to do the same for Gal 6. As with so many of Paul’s letters, the last chapter can seem rather an afterthought and hotchpotch. Well, I certainly don’t think Gal 6 is either. This is his parting shot, including the words in his own hand instead of the usual dictation. FWIW, here is the talk, and the accompanying outline:
Incidentally, I’ve pulled together my various biblical tables into one place, in case it is of interest.
To some (especially Canadians), this is sacrilege. And I’ve definitely got issues about tampering with genius (as I hope you have). Christians especially waste far too much time aping the world’s creativity and consequently only produce derivative pap. I particularly struggle with the tendency to add holy words to populist melodies (eg the Eastenders or Match of the Day signature tunes). Grghghh.
However, every now and then something surprises. Leonard Cohen’s titanic Hallelujah should by rights be left totally alone (especially by Simon Cowell). And it does deal with some pretty interesting themes – David & Bathsheba, Samson & Delilah. They’re even biblical, after all.
But one of this year’s apprentices working with the youth at All Souls, Rhys Owens, came up with his own rewrite to tell the gospel story, a kind of contemporary Philippians 2. We had a fantastic time on Sunday at our All-Age Christmas service, which had the theme of Christmas Around the World. Accompanied by an all-age band, we sang or heard songs in Malay, German & Slovak, Luganda and Zulu as well as English, had readings in English and Mandarin, and Christmas greetings in the above languages plus Spanish, Russian and Welsh. But a highlight was Rhys singing his Hallelujah (photo above). It was a brilliant job – impressive for 9.30 in the morning.
Particularly powerful was the way Rhys clearly sensed the song’s musical progression, managing to match his words and themes to the effortless crescendos and dynamics of the music (the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift). Sing it and you’ll get the idea…
It won’t be to everyone’s taste, of course. But that’s irrelevant. I give it 10/10 for effort and effectiveness.
Have managed to get round to reading Carson’s 2010 book Scandalous – to great profit and provocation. Will get round to fuller comments in due course. But for now, I was very struck by this section, in which he ponders the significance of some historical revisionism in James Cameron’s film Titanic. In expounding the divine love that is the foundation of the gospel, he says this:
It was not nails that held Jesus to that wretched cross; it was his unqualified resolution, out of love for his Father, to do his Father’s will – and within that framework, it was his love for sinners like me. He really could not save himself.
Perhaps part of our slowness to come to grips with this truth lies in the way the notion of moral imperative has dissipated in much recent Western thought. Did you see the film Titanic that was screened about a dozen years ago? The great ship is full of the richest people in the world, and, according to the film, as the ship sinks, the rich men start to scramble for the few and inadequate lifeboats. British sailors draw handguns and fire into the air, crying “stand back! Stand back! Women and children first!” In reality, of course, nothing like that happened.
The universal testimony of the witnesses who survived the disaster is that the men hung back and urged the women and children into the lifeboats. John Jacob Astor, was there, at the time the richest man on earth, the Bill Gates of 1912. He dragged his wife to a boat, shoved her on, and stepped back. Someone urged him to get in, too. He refused: the boats are to few, and must be for the women and children first. He stepped back, and drowned. The philanthropist Benjamin Guggenheim was present. He was traveling with his mistress, but when he perceived that it was unlikely he would survive, he told one of his servants, ‘Tell my wife tha Benjamin Guggenheim knows his duty” – and he hung back, and drowned. There is not a single report of some rich man displacing women and children in the mad rush for survival.
When the film was reviewed in the New York Times, the reviewer asked why the producer and director of the film had distorted history so flagrantly in this regard. The scene as they depicted it was implausible from the beginning. British sailors drawing handguns? Most British police officers do not carry handguns; British sailors certainly do not. So why this wilful distortion of history? And then the reviewer answered his own question: if the producer and director had told the truth, he said, no one would have believed them.
I have seldom read a more damning indictment of the development of Western culture, especially Anglo-Saxon culture, in the last century. One hundred years ago, there remained in our culture enough residue of the Christian virtue of self-sacrifice for the sake of others, of the moral imperative that seeks the other’s good at personal expense, that Christians and non-Christians alike thought it noble, if unremarkable, to choose death for the sake of others. A mere century later, such a course is judged so unbelievable that the history is distorted. (pp30-31)
Having blogged a few weeks back about the tragedy of Tani Prroj, it seems that all kinds of things have been happening. It has made waves. Out of that terrible evil have come glimmers of good and redemption.
- A big rally against Blood-feuds took place the other day in Tirana, organised by VUSH (the Albanian Evangelical Alliance). The photos and short clip gives an idea of the crowd (filmed during the singing of the national Anthem)
- Various speakers addressed the crowds – but Elona, Tani’s remarkable widow, spoke powerfully and movingly, about the situation despite her profound grief. She made clear that she forgave the perpetrators and that wanted the cycle to stop. The rally was a powerful call for the tradition to end, and justice to be done, right in the heart of the capital.
- On a much smaller note, it has been really encouraging to me (and will certainly be to Elona and the children) to see that readers and friends of this blog have raised well over £3000 for the family – a wonderful testimony to global Christian ties that cross boundaries and even non-acquaintance.
Of course, after the intensity of these weeks, now the real agony begins as the reality bears down on the family. PLEASE PRAY hard for Elona, and the two children (both under 10) who are struggling to come to terms of life without their father.
And while we’re on the subject, a major article (and quoted below in translation) was written in one of the main Albanian newspapers by Besnik Mustafaj (right). He is a former Albanian Ambassador to France and Foreign Minister.
On October 8 this month, the center of Shkodra, in the pedestrian path that Shkodra proudly call “Piaca” in the middle of the day, exactly at 13:30, was killed a man about 30 years old, a father, an Albanian-servant of God, whose name was Dritan Prroj. I have not had the chance to know him. And from his short life mostly just know the circumstances under which he was massacred and those learned from the press. Even know who was a member of the “Evangelical Alliance in Albania…
He was an Albanian pastor at the church “Word of Christ” in his hometown, a choice that he certainly has made himself and sufficient showing his good nature, said more clearly, for his love for people. He was completely innocent. But his life was not snapped in between the age of the most beautiful by accident. It makes our pain and his loss to us even more severe. Killer is a guy 21 years old. I do not deserve mentioning his name in homage to Dritan Prroj. But one thing must be said: he has committed a barbaric act. Killer is in jail now and will probably rot all his youth there and possibly the age of the husband. Woe to the soul the suffering that awaits him!
Dritan Prroj certainly knew that the disaster had caused five years ago his uncle in the family of killers. His family came from Dukagjin and he must have known that Canon. But Dritan Prroj has judged as belonging to adjudicate a citizen of 2000, an Albanian to be honest, a man of God: he is not stuck. Hiding in the house would make Dritan Prroj part of a fault where there was no finger. He has continued to make his own life to help his family, his fellow believers church where served. Dritan Prroj not knowingly be admitted so in tune with his assassin, has refused to do his evil game. Contrary. Blessed his soul to the memory that has left!
Dritan Prroj, refused to hide in the house and this is a adorable and bravery. He paid a very expensive price, it is true. But this is not a reason to think today penance he should be preserved. Why should be preserved when he was not guilty? And by whom should be preserved in the end, when he did not make anyone worse? I guess he guarded by himself, yes, probably preserved by himself not to lose the way of justice. One thing is clear as the light of the sun: from the barbarity of this kind does not save by hiding. Until the last moment of life when even stopped to tell his name to the killer, Dritan Prroj has proved that there was a quiet man with a clear conscience. Such people, who have the audacity to disagree with evil, our civilization needs as much as air. In this sense and this is a superb sense, Dritan Prroj is a hero for our time. We, all of his compatriots, we must turn our eyes for a moment with deep humility towards the hero. Who said that the time of heroes has gone?
Evangelical Alliance in Albania gave to Dritan’ funeral the event that it deserved. And it would like, I am sure now, even the deceased. They walked in silence, dignified city center, upholding placards with calls. I turn to the conscience of our society as much as state law, including leaders of religious communities to join all the weight of each word of his work on behalf of the need to end feud , this “national disaster”, as called Fitor Muça, president of the Evangelical Alliance.
Among those who joined the calls were relatives of Dritan Prroj. And this is a fact particularly important. The significance of his example would be incomplete without their presence at the event where combined into one policy as the work of citizens, morality as obedience of believers and culture like behavior of people who love life, to serve a purpose common: order and social peace. I believe that the presence of relatives of the deceased at that escorts have understood the relatives of the killer, as I found out in Tirana, as an advertisement that between their family and Prroj there will be no revenge. This ominous chain is broken here. Glory to those who breaks the chains like that!
Believing with all my heart and mind in these words that I say, I feel obliged to explain better my opinion. May God forbid anyone to make the mistake and ask to the Prroj family to forgive the killer. Prroj family has no right either to forgive or to punish. It has power only to believe the killer in the hands of justice, in the hands of the law, who strongly wish to show in this case too harsh. With my heart in hand I feel no compassion for the lost youth of the killers, as I do not feel compassion for the endless torture of his parents’ mind today and in the future. I am convinced that 21-year-old boy would not do this if he would not been pushed and encouraged from his close circle of his family. Now it is late to ask them if they really wanted their son to do all this tragedy and to take an innocent life. A few years ago they remained without a son, and that time they were to be comforted, now they are left without two sons. Lord grant them the knowledge to understand how great fault they made to themselves and to the Prroj family!
Besnik Mustafaraj, President of the Albanian Forum for the Alliance of Civilizations
I think if I were not a Christian, I’d be an existentialist of some description. It’s not just the attraction of sitting and chilling in French cafés, sipping espressos and smoking Gitanes, putting the world to rights. It’s just that I see little alternative – it is the only logical, honest conclusion to draw.
I remember having to read Albert Camus’ L’Etranger for French A Level at school – and being pretty nonplussed by it – but not totally put off either. It is a truly fascinating book. Bizarrely enough, I only came back to it and took it more seriously after hearing the The Cure’s 1978 classic ‘Killing an Arab‘. Those who didn’t know it’s inspiration were scandalised – the title itself is pretty provocative. But that’s completely to miss the point. It is a spare, harsh but brilliant evocation of the book’s Algerian setting. And I’ve found the book disturbingly beguiling since.
So it was with considerable interest that I read Rob Moll’s brief testimony in last month’s Christianity Today, intriguingly entitled on Saved by an Atheist. Read the whole thing. But here are a few gems:
Christians gave Albert Camus good reasons not to believe. He gave me a reason to return to faith.
In discussing Camus’ novel, The Plague, and the scene where the protagonist Rieux discovers he is in as much difficulty as everyone else. He too has ‘the plague’.
It was this scene that struck me most forcefully. Camus was right, I knew, and I too, had plague. I was sick and in need of a Physician. Camus’ willingness to accept the truth that human beings are fallen allowed me to do the same. Camus held a mirror to my face – in a way that no pastor, preacher, or professor had – and I knew I needed salvation.
Then in discussing why people turn to atheism, there is this pointed observation:
Most of my wandering friends, like me, seem to have returned to Christ. But I’ve found that a surprising number who had fully accepted the faith have now left it. Each tended to have had some experience in which Christian leaders acted as hypocritical, power-hungry, judgemental, or arrogant elites. For some, the church’s inability to shepherd during a painful period led directly to rejecting God. “If God isn’t there when I need him”, they say, “I don’t need him.”.
So he ends with this crucial advice:
But before we begin dueling on blogs and arming ourselves with television talking points, let’s learn to see atheists not as deniers of God, but as wrestlers with him. And let’s remember that their deepest arguments against belief are the people they’re arguing with.
A fair point indeed.
I was given My Name Is Charles Saatchi & I Am An Artoholoic for Christmas and have only just got round to it. Not a heavy read by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Saatchi admits at one point to having comics as his most regular reading. This is essentially a compilation of scores of questions from different people on a wide range of subjects.
It is as revealing as one can reasonably expect from one of the most creative advertising geniuses of the 20th Century – i.e. I suspect not so much. He’s sharp, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, occasionally insightful and quite fun. His obsessions for the so-called YBAs (Young British Artists) like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin are well-documented, and they are a regular topic of conversation. As are some of the highly influential exhibitions around the world that he has instigated.
This is the sort of book to have on the go in the loo (if you like that sort of thing) or to read in an hour or two.
I was struck, though, by the rare occasions when he revealed (albeit rather flippantly) his worldview perspective. He is an Iraqi-born Jew whose family fled to London in 1947, so no doubt has quite a few stories to tell. But these all-too-brief remarks are quite suggestive…
Does a love of art, particularly Renaissance art on a biblical theme, make one feel closer to God?
I believe God must be very disappointed in his handiwork. Mankind has clearly failed to evolve much in all these years; we’re still as cretinous and barbaric as we were many centuries ago, and poor God must spend all day shaking his head at our vileness and general ineptitude. Or perhaps, we might just give him a good laugh. But of course, I hope God likes our art enough to forgive us our sins, particularly mine. (p14)
Then even more briefly…
What do you buy apart from Art?
I have a shocking Frappucino habit, so what doesn’t go on art goes to Starbucks.
What is the one thing you now really wish you could buy?
My way into Heaven. (p112)
One wonders whether or not he might have had much to talk about with another, wealthy influencer of public opinion from a former age…
This is a review I’ve just written for Themelios, out next month. Tim Chester is an old friend who writes with great clarity and compassion. His is not an easy book – it is not an easy subject. For many in our culture, the very notion of why one might actually want to live porn-free seems utterly ridiculous. It’s as harmless an activity as riding a bike or reading the newspaper. But for others, it impairs relationships and even destroys marriages. This is not a neutral business.
We desperately need there to be some countervailing voices out there who are not shrill, self-righteous or smug. Tim’s voice is none of these things, for which I’m hugely grateful.
It is a brave man who talks openly about sexual sin. It is an even braver one who writes a book about it! But Tim Chester now has an established track record of writing well-crafted, profoundly theological but deeply pastoral books. This book, specifically tackling the blight of pornography head on, follows naturally from his 2008 publication, You Can Change. That Captured by a better vision is needed and timely should not be in doubt. The statistics for pornography usage and the sex industry’s profit margins are truly terrifying. Porn’s repercussions (for users, for those involved in the sex industry and for society as a whole) hardly bear thinking about. Its pervasive presence amongst Christians is the western church’s vast, unspoken secret – in one survey quoted by Chester, it is suggested that out of every 100 adults, twenty-five men and ten women are struggling with regular porn use (p. 11). Yet, despite its prevalence, it is a problem of such shame that it is confined to the shadows and never properly addressed.
So how to tackle it? That is the painful question for pastors who minister to such people, not to mention those who themselves struggle. The age-old resort of the well-directed rebuke, or naming and shaming, has never worked. Many caught up in pornography are wracked by crippling shame as it is, but that is barely enough to halt their indulgence. Furthermore, such an approach falls headlong into the trap of legalism, which can never bring transformation (only pride and defeat or both) and which is fundamentally incompatible with the authentically Christian gospel of grace.
This is something that Chester understands deeply – which is precisely why he is able to navigate so successfully through this pastoral minefield. His tactic seems to be as much about displacement as it is pastoral diagnosis. As his quotation from an anonymous article makes clear, porn addicts ‘need something more than mere information: they need to be wooed by the true and pure lover that their heart secretly seeks.’ (p. 76)
Chester is determined to offer precisely that. This does not, of course, mean he is afraid to provide important information or to speak very frankly (as he warns in the introduction) – a topic like this demands straight talking. He thus rightly begins, in the first of his five sections, by piercing porn’s façade of consensual pleasure and ‘harmless fun’. He ruthlessly exposes what the sex industry actually does to people at every level – his list of twelve reasons to give up porn is brutal in its trenchant but indisputable analysis. It thus easily achieves his aim to make pornography abhorrent.
Fortunately, however, this is not the book’s exclusive agenda – as the title suggests, Chester has a far more encouraging and inspiring concern. He wants to move us from abhorrence to adoration of God, with its resulting confidence of forgiveness and determination to battle sin. He has sought to understand, at a deep level, what insecurities and idols cause people to get hooked in the first place – and then proceeds to expose why the gospel is both infinitely better and far more compelling. Especially powerful was his articulation of the new confidence brought about by a believer’s justification in Christ. He nicely applies the apparent paradoxes of this divinely-granted status: we are freed by Christ to be free, we are cleansed by Christ to be clean, we are made holy so that we can be holy (pp. 90-94). As he says, ‘battling porn in our lives is not an exercise in denying pleasure. It’s about fighting pleasure with greater pleasure.’ (p. 76) ‘So with every false promise of porn there is a true promise of God. Whatever porn offers, God offers more.’ (p. 51)
Along the way, some inevitable pastoral conundrums need handling with care. What of the struggles of those who are not married? Chester tackles this, though probably not as fully as some might hope for (that is the remit of other books). Still, he makes clear how great the gospel compensations are for all, married or not. Or what of those who are in Christian leadership and struggle in this area? He was especially sensitive here. He does not pull his punches and explains how detrimental porn can be for ministry. Yet he reminds us that ‘using porn doesn’t disqualify you from serving God. For one thing, you were never qualified in the first place!’ (p. 87) This is something everyone in ministry needs to hear, porn or no porn. His advice is to keep battling but earnestly look to Christ for our righteousness.
Chester’s writing is always lucid and biblical but, in this book, his compassion is even more evident (as it needs to be). He makes frequent use of personal testimonies and experiences, from other books or from the anonymous research he carried out. These ground the book in reality.
Above all, though, the book is encouraging! I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by that; but I was. The presenting issue of the book is a crucial and painful one, and his critique and analysis are relentless. Nevertheless, I found myself swept up by a refreshed enthusiasm and excitement for the gospel as he spoke with relish and delight about the grace of God, the glories of Christ and the wonders of sex in its right context. To my mind that clearly demonstrated he had fulfilled his aim of capturing us with a better vision. I certainly was.
It just so happened that Anne Jackson, who’s blog I regularly read, has made a video for XXXChurch talking about her addiction – very honest, down-to-earth and helpful.