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
It’s easy to forget the psychobabble jargon that is now so part of everyday parlance had its origins in serious academic discourse. It’s pretty obvious when you stop to think about it, because all terms, metaphors and concepts must have their origins somewhere. It only takes a few decades or even years before what starts confined to the lecture room ends up on the street (whether the discipline be philosophy, theology, or psychology). What is scary is how many of the psychological assumptions that we take for granted today are built on such flimsy foundations. That is the main thrust of the first half of Glynn Harrison‘s important new book, The Big Ego Trip. 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.
We’ve all had that frustration of suddenly realising the mot juste to clinch an argument … long after it has been lost and forgotten. ‘If only I’d thought of saying …’ or words to that effect. (And as Don Carson once pointed out, we never lose arguments during their mental rerun.) Well, this is essential what Chris Russell has done in his Ten Letters: to be delivered in the event of my death (DLT, 2012). Though I’m being harsh – to reduce this extraordinary book to argument-clinching zingers after the event is very unfair. These letters are more like deep pastoral meditations after encounters, events, conversations which subsequently required extended reflection and heart-searching
It’s been a germ of an idea for ages, but at last it’s finally come about. Q now has a podcast. Hurrah. I can just sense the infectious excitement simply oozing throughout cyberspace. But there are loads of fascinating people out there: hearing how a few live out their lives and passions ought to be fun. Doncha think?
Well, whatever you feel about the prospect of Q podcasts in general, the inaugural episode in particular is definitely exciting because last week, I had the chance to record a conversation with the very talented and thought-provoking Dutch filmmaker, Jaap van Heusden. Here is the link on iTunes (or if you don’t have that, direct through Jellycast) Read more
I’d heard good things of this book: Rowan Williams’ surprisingly readable appreciation of CS Lewis’ Narnia, The Lion’s World. It seemed appropriate to move on to this having relished Francis Spufford’s recreation of his childhood delight in Narnia. And there are loads of good things about it for he is simply seeking to be an exegete of Lewis’ creativity. I especially appreciated this comment on how the whole experiment works (and thus why it is inappropriate to squeeze details too much into an allegorical mould).
Which is a title sufficiently conceited to put anyone off reading this post. But let’s face it – it’s a not uncommon attitude. It lies at the heart of individualism, that pervasiveness western sickness that lies at the root of so many of our ills. It was the title I had in our current series, Great Lies of Our Time (I’m assured that the talks were not allotted because of some particular problem that needed addressing in each speaker – but who can say for sure?).
You can now download the talk here.
John Smith MP was one of those tragic political should-have-beens. But while Leader of the Opposition riding on Labour’s 23% point lead over the Tories in 1994 and widely assumed to be Prime Minister in waiting, he died 18 years ago tomorrow from a pair of massive heart attacks. He was only 55. For those concerned with public life, it was one of those remember-what-you-were-doing-moments. But the reason for picking up on it here is that I was blown away at the time, and recalled in conversation last week, the piece written by the great Matthew Parris, at the time The Times’ Parliamentary Sketch-writer and oft-quoted by Q. Read more
It’s not every day that you find a newspaper column quoting Calvin, C S Lewis and G K Chesterton without odium or censure. But that is exactly what happened in a New York Times Op. Ed. on Monday. It’s even more surprising when you realise that its writer is a Jewish American social commentator, David Brooks. He is a thoughtful writer who seems genuinely concerned to understand what makes people tick, without prejudice or name-calling. Some will only know him for the fact that he was the one who wrote the piece on John Stott back in 2004 (which was arguably the principle catalyst for him becoming one of the 2005 Time 100). Read more
When a fellow-scientist brands Richard Dawkins naïve you sit up and notice. But that’s exactly what Emanuel Derman has done. I didn’t know anything about Derman before, but it seems that he has rather an intimidating CV: he is a theoretical physicist, economist AND successful businessman originally from South Africa. All of which gives him a rather unique angle on a topic to which I’ve frequently returned on Q: the nature of being human (e.g.see Fritz Kahn’s Industrial Palace or the Nothing Buttery Rant). Read more
Last month’s Wired UK Carried a host of mini-articles by various techie, business gurus and Apple groupies about the phenomenon that is Steve Jobs. One of the standouts though was Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish, an account of his address at Stanford University in 2005. Read more
Most of the exhibition is bathed in unobtrusive but artful lighting. But then one is led down a dark passage into a pitch-black space, with minimal, if any, lighting. In fact there are a number of rooms like this in the exhibition. But two in particular blew us away. We were at the Tate Britain over the weekend – primarily to see the fabulous Watercolour exhibition (HIGHLY recommended if you get the chance). But we then popped upstairs to the Susan Hiller retrospective. Definitely a mixed bag – but the highlights made the entire Tate visit worthwhile.
Susan Hiller is an American artist who has been working in the UK for years. Her output is immensely diverse – from installations to collections to experiments with colour, video and sound. The two installations which stood out though were the rooms entitled WITNESS and THE J. STREET PROJECT. Read more
It was all so predictable. I suppose the only surprise is that it took 14 years to manifest itself. But it seems that the idyllic, picket-fence world of Disney’s ‘perfect’ town, Celebration, is just a facade, as reports on Saturday told of murder and suicide within this corporate utopia. Every detail of the town was planned, owned, controlled by Disney. They presumably hoped that they could purvey their own branded style of happiness. But they couldn’t control the activities and passions of their residents.
I remember first hearing of it years ago when I first read Naomi Klein’s seminal No Logo – and she really went to town on this fabricated town, seeing it in many ways, rightly, as indicative of the most sinister but logical outcome of any multinational game-plan.
For the families who live there year-round, Disney has achieved the ultimate goal of lifestyle branding: for the brand to become life itself (No Logo, p155)
But Mickey’s big ears are never sufficient to mask the human heart. No amount of white picket fences will restrain the antics of those living behind them. We all need something far greater than the ‘perfect’ environment in which to live if harmony and shalom are to be possible.
For, as Philip Yancey quotes in What’s So Amazing About Grace:
After reporting on such moments in church history, Paul Johnson concludes, ‘Attempts to perfect Christian societies in the world, whether conducted by popes or revolutionaries, have tended to degenerate into red terrors.’ This fact should give us pause as voices today call on us to break down the walls between church and state and restore morality to our society. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, ‘The project of bringing heaven down to earth always results in bringing hell up from below.’ (Yancey p234)
So it seems that Celebration is a double whammy – a symbol both of Disney’s profound naiveté about people, and, at the same time, its disturbing ambitions to swallow people up in its corporate machine.
Fritz Kahn was a remarkable man – a scientist, gynaecologist, artist, polymath – and eventually a Jewish refugee to the USA from Nazi Germany. He produced a series of extraordinary images in which he portrayed the human body as a machine.
This is his most celebrated picture, Man as an Industrial Palace (from 1927). Its details are stunning in their intricacy and accuracy. This is a work of true genius. I just love it.
But I’m provoked by it too. For it illustrates, whether intentionally or not (and I don’t know enough about Kahn to say which), a prevailing modernist view that we are skinfulls of chemicals, preprogrammed to perform certain biological functions as the consequence of some overarching but closed evolutionary process. This fits with an enlightenment agenda which Os Guinness brilliantly summed up:
The goal of modernity is ‘to know everything in order to predict everything in order to control everything.’
But the reality is that there are so many things about us that don’t make sense or that don’t fit into our categories. Now, please note. This is not an anti-science rant. Science is a noble quest – seeking to understand and explain. At its best, it is able to perform wonders of healing, and restoration. But is it really simply a matter of time before we understand everything about ourselves? Or are there aspects of our humanity that just don’t fall into scientific categories? Is there not a ghost in the machine?
I suspect that this was something of what Churchill was getting at in a House of Commons speech in 1950:
Man in this moment of his history has emerged in greater supremacy over the forces of nature than has ever been dreamed of before. He has it in his power to solve quite easily the problems of natural power to solve quite easily the problems of natural existence. He has conquered the wild beasts, and he has conquered the insects and the microbes. There lies before him, if he wishes, a golden age of peace and progress. All is in his hand. He has only to conquer his last and worst enemy – himself.
Or as controversial but influential philosopher Martin Heidegger put it:
No age knows so much and so many things about man as does ours and yet no age knows less than ours of what man is.
Enter not the ‘God of the gaps’ but the God of the cosmos - the one ultimate cause and sustainer of every aspect of the universe. As Martin Luther King put it when accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:
I refuse to believe the notion that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life… unable to respond to the eternal oughtness that forever confronts him.
This is what underpinned Luther King’s political philosophy – and in fact, being made in God’s image was the backbone of his conviction that we have equal value as human beings, regardless of race, social standing or any other division (as Tim Keller explores in his recent, excellent Generous Justice pp86ff).
But it’s pretty difficult to draw that. It’s also impossible to categorise that in a laboratory-friendly pigeon-hole.
Well, so much for these ramblings. They’re all an excuse to post this phenomenal, recent animation of Kahn’s image. It manages to bring the picture to life brilliantly and faithfully, with some fab sound effects. Enjoy!
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…
Earlier this week, I was speaking at a consultation of international seminary teachers (organised by Langham) about the educational potential provided by new technologies. We got onto blogging and its pros/cons – and especially how careful one needs to be about editing before posting. For everything uploaded gets downloaded by Google – and remains in perpetuity (or for as long as their data farms have power). That’s how they achieve such speedy searching.
What it means is that even if you delete a post or file from your blog, myspace or any other site, a record of it will remain somewhere out there. Hence the warnings about firms discovering the less than savoury antics of potential employees from their facebook pages. Publishing and broadcasting have, up until now, been the preserve of such a few, some would say elite, and the processes involved so complex and involved, that the potential for the man on the street to leave trivialities and embarrassments to posterity has been greatly restricted. (Still, it’s incredible how much triviality and embarrassment has been broadcast and published). The web has changed all that. Now, anyone can say anything to anyone ‘forever’. So be careful. Google really does ‘know everything’ (cartoon is from the ingenious and iconoclastic Wellington Grey).
“Quod scripsi, scripsi”
Pontius Pilate famously uttered these words (though he probably said them in Greek, not Vulgate latin as quoted here) ‘What I have written, I have written‘ in response to the request from chief priests to remove the sign on Jesus’ cross declaring him to be ‘The King of the Jews’ (in John 19:21-22). Of course, his was the rather dismissive, and perhaps apathetic, response of power – it’s a simple statement of his authority.
But you could say that anyone who writes anything online needs to learn to echo those words, to own those words. Because anything we write could return to haunt us. Who knows? Without wanting to sound melodramatic, such an acknowledgement may be a confession we must make, not because of a position of power but because of our own powerlessness. I’m certainly not wanting to sound paranoid here – but it is extraordinary how much more of ourselves we make accessible to anyone than people ever did before. Of course, the existence of a Google archive of everything we have posted doesn’t mean that anyone will actually look at it. But they could, if they wanted to…
But that’s actually nothing new…
But then one of the consultation leaders simply pointed out that, in a sense, it’s always been like this. For there is an accountability that we all have to the one who does know everything. And the awkward thing is that it’s not just what we post that he knows – but even what we contemplate posting and then think better of it. As the psalmist wrote:
O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. (Psalm 139:1-4)
Alarming? Well, yes, not least because of these words of Jesus :
There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (Luke 12:2-3)
So in a sense, we have always had to fess up to what we’ve written, seen, said, done, thought.
- Quod vidi, vidi
- Quod dixi, dixi
- Quod feci, feci
- Quod putavi, putavi
But there is one crucial difference…
The difference is not what is known but who knows it
You see, one perspective on the exponential growth of technology is that we are constantly gaining abilities that were for centuries regarded as the preserve of divinity.
We have gained the ability to communicate instantly over vast distances (a revelation of a sort); we have achieved speeds unthinkable even 100 years ago (like the fiery chariot given to Elijah); we have sources of power that can destroy the planet several times over (we seem to strive after omnipotence). And we now have the ability to discover almost anything about anyone: the algorithms that Google relies on to power its search engines have remarkable power not just to remember what you search for but actually to predict what you’ll search for next (see this fascinating article from yesterday’s Telegraph). It’s an omniscience of sorts.
All in all, it should shatter the myth of total, autonomous invisibility. As if that ever existed.
I suspect that our ancestors were much more aware of the consequences of their actions than we are because they knew there would be a reckoning. What’s salutary now is that it’s not just God who has the ability to know some of our most hidden realities. And I know who I’d rather trust to do the right thing with such knowledge of me: a judge who is also an advocate; a defender of truth and goodness who is also a merciful rescuer. It’s when human beings play at being God that I get really concerned.
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.