Elizabeth Berridge, until very recently, was the youngest woman in the House of Lords, the UK’s upper house in Parliament. Raised to the peerage in the 2011, she was before that a barrister and then in 2006 became Executive Director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship which exists to bring together Conservative Party voting Christians of all denominations. She describes herself as a classic Tory ‘wet’, as opposed to the ‘Dry’ Thatcherite end of the party’s spectrum. If that terminology is rather meaningless to you (or even sounds mildly offensive!) then listen in! Read more
While I was in the States at the end of last month, I had an afternoon to kill in Philadelphia. So the completely obvious thing to do was record another Q conversation. This time I sat down to chat with Ruth Naomi Floyd, whom I’d met at the European Leadership Conference in Hungary a few years ago. It’s available on iTunes podcasts, or if you prefer a direct feed, here on Jellycast.
Nearly 10 years ago, a dear friend of mine was addressing a gathering of Ugandan MPs in the Parliament building in Kampala (around the 40th anniversary of independence). It included those from all shades on the political spectrum, including not a few post-colonial firebrands. My friend is certainly no great apologist for imperialism, but he posed two simple questions.
- “Which Ugandan regions (of those that the British failed to develop) have we since developed?”
- “What aspects of public life, government and rule of law have we improved on or done better in than the colonial regime?”
Church-planters probably never even consider factoring this in when they start. That was certainly the case for some friends of mine in Turkey. For who would have guessed that setting up a cemetery might have to become a key feature of their growth strategy? Read more
Some news this week has left me feeling very depressed indeed.
These thoughts have been buzzing round my mind for years, but I’ve been provoked to post by 2 friends’ unconnected experiences: both have suffered at the hands of autocratic church leadership. I’m very fortunate not to have to deal with this in my current job, as I work for and with someone who is the antithesis of such things. But I’ve had enough close contact with it (and counselled others who have suffered it) in the past.
A Crying Need
I remember going to visit John Stott back in 2000, in the months before taking up my job in Uganda, a context that he had some familiarity with. I asked him the question I asked many others before and during my years in Kampala – “what do you think the Ugandan church needs?” Uncle John barely blinked before responding: “Servant Leaders”. I certainly encountered a number of Ugandan Christians who are wonderful examples of such leadership. But sadly, they are far outnumbered by those who are not. Stott was absolutely right.
But this need is far from exclusive to Uganda. It is true everywhere – I’ve heard of its desperate lack on my travels in Eastern Europe and the US – and obviously know it’s a UK problem. As the two achingly depressing stories this week prove.
Handling Power Well?
We have SO much more thinking to do in the area of power. Power is a fact of life; it is a fact of church life. We can’t avoid it. It’s just that we must learn how to handle it well when we have it: in the pulpit, chairing meetings, appointing and managing staff and volunteers, discipling young believers etc. Yet too many naïvely assume it’s not really their problem. Others never consider carefully how to wield the authority they do have. While a few are so scared of the trappings of power that they try to avoid the responsibilities of their jobs altogether. We have a long way to go…
At the very least, we must heed the warnings and model of Christ himself. (Matthew 20:25 & Philippians 2:5-11) etc – and bizarrely enough, I took the theme of servant leadership when preaching on Phil 2 just before Easter.
One of the first things we must do is to identify the tell-tale signs. I’m not suggesting that you can find all these traits in one leader. But the combination of even a few of them makes for a grizzly cocktail… And I articulate them not to point fingers or to name and shame – but to search hearts, especially my own. For none of us is immune…
Features of an autocrat’s pathology
- Leaders don’t have to give (let alone even have) reasons for their decisions… they simply expect to be ‘trusted’. Of course, gut instinct has its part to play, especially for those who have long experience of leadership – but if this is the basis for a decision, then at least have the grace to acknowledge it.
- Disagreement (whether on matters theological, pastoral or strategic etc) is regarded as personal betrayal. This a tricky one, I realise – because every conceivable grouping of human beings will contain its own awkward squad – and their motivations are not always pure, to say the least. But betrayal necessarily…? That is an indication of steps too far.
- Church members are merely pawns on the ministry masterplan chessboard. I saw this in Uganda on a number of occasions, where bishops would move their ministers around the diocese to neutralise rivals. But it happens in local churches too…
- Numerical growth is presumed to imply personal endorsement: thus new converts or new members (esp if they are celebrated for some reason outside Christian circles) are seen as trophies of a leader’s ministry, not trophies of gospel grace. No wonder a celebrity culture of church leaders has emerged (which is the complete opposite of what Paul expects of his leaders in 1 Corinthians 1:12). But an autocrat will be grimly possessive about ‘his converts’.
- Seeing the ‘ministry grow’ (whatever that means and entails) becomes the end that justifies every means: pragmatism rules and integrity withers. This is the logical outworking of shoot first, seek forgiveness later. After all, that’s what the gospel does, isn’t it?! But while I’m all for pragmatism as a servant, it is horrific as a master – as Machiavelli once proved…
- Ministry teams are monochrome, or compliant, or both: diversity is a threat to an autocrat, because the leader has to be the best at everything that the team/church does (after all, that’s why he’s the leader, isn’t it?!)…
Each one of these features requires elaboration – each is probably worthy of a blog post of its own. But it’s a start.
We must turn our back on such things, as they characterise some of the shameful ways of ministry we are called to shun when we preach Christ not ourselves. It is not kingdom thinking.
O Lord, deliver us…
A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in the EA’s Digimission day with such online luminaries as Jonny Baker & Maggi Dawn – quite a fun event all round organised by the indomitable Krish Kandiah. And as if to prove how technologically on the ball it all was, we had a talk live-streamed from Phoenix Arizona by Shane Hipps (left). He is an engaging and fascinating guy – with a background in advertising (offering what he now regards as a counterfeit gospel of life-fulfilment through owning Porsches, amongst other things). He’s now a Mennonite pastor and a sought-after figure in so-called emergent circles. Copies of his book Flickering Pixels were available on the day and I was able to get one to read in advance. Click here to read the book’s opening paragraphs.
And I have to say it was a very enjoyable read indeed. I thoroughly recommend it. Clearly Marshall McLuhan is a massive influence, and indeed, he spoke of his debt to to him during his streamed address, as is (perhaps to a lesser extent) Neil Postman. The crucial insight of these scholars was to recognise that the medium of a message is by no means a neutral phenomenon. Everything from the invention of writing (as Plato had Socrates point out in his Phaedrus, with his Egyptian myth of Theuth and Thamus: oh those were the days, with the snail-paced plod through Plato’s impenetrable text for A Level – arrgrghgh) to printing, telegraph and wifi both affects the message AND the society that embraces that medium. McLuhan put it very provocatively:
The context or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stencilling on the casing of an atomic bomb (p25).
The Impact of Media
I found particularly helpful Hipps’ 4-fold articulation of the impact of any new medium (pp32-38):
- A new medium stretches, extends or amplifies some human capacity (e.g. a tennis racquet extends the ability of a hand, binoculars extend the ability of the eye, the phone the voice and ears etc)
- A new medium makes older technologies irrelevant or obsolete (or perhaps occasionally, to be fair, it might change how we view or use an older technology – e.g. cars didn’t render horses obsolete entirely)
- Every medium retrieves some experience or medium from the past (e.g. one example he gives is the surveillance camera, which is designed to protect in a way that evokes the medieval city wall)
- Every medium, when pushed to an extreme, will reverse in on itself, revealing unintended consequences (e.g. to takes the surveillance camera, it can actually restrict the freedom of those within the city wall).
It is this last dimension that Hipps is anxious to warn us about. We must wake up. Hipps offered in his talk, and expands in the book, 3 disturbing paradoxes of the reality of online experience, nicely summarised in 3 oxymorons (or perhaps that should be oxymora?!):
- We have become Tribes of Individuals
- We have Empathy with people online, but it is mediated, Empathy At A Distance
- We have the possibility of Intimate Anonymity – so that we do and share with people online things we would never open up to in real time/space.
Now one of the key yearnings of the emergent movement, it seems to me, is a striving after community – true community, life-embracing, sanctifying and gospel authentic(ating) community. And Hipps goes on to articulate some of his experiences of how media have disrupted or even broken that (e.g. through people answering mobile phones during a conversation, sharing photos with Facebook friends before closest real friends, using emails with LOTS OF SHOUTY CAPITAL LETTERS to have an argument with someone instead of just talking with them). This is very valuable stuff. And I was very struck and challenged by the Mennonite Commitments for the Times of Disagreement, which Hipps quotes in full (pp127-129). I’d not come across it before, and it is one of those things that deserves far wider readership. For as Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder is quoted as saying:
To be human is to be in conflict, to offend and to be offended. To be human in light of the gospel is to face conflict in redemptive dialogue. (p129)
So far so good. It is not hard to see why the internet is a far from ideal medium for building community life – and yet one of its most touted virtues is that it extends and creates community life (e.g. by so-called social networking) in exciting new ways. This is a word of warning that must be heeded – and its negative impact on genuine community engagement is one of its most serious consequences, a case of the medium reversing in on itself. But that doesn’t mean it should be avoided altogether. Of course Hipps is by no means saying that. It’s just that sometimes he sounds as if he might be.
I sometimes felt that towards the end, his was a case of babies and bathwater. It’s a partly question of what the web is for – and it is surely for a zillion things. That complex diversity is precisely the core of its phenomenal success, surely? It won’t inevitably destroy community, just impact it in new ways (some of which will certainly make it harder), not least because community-building is not the only thing it does (e.g. information distribution, democratic levelling, commerce, academic engagement, publishing, fun etc etc). He helpfully quotes McLuhan again, at the end of the book
There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening. (p182)
It’s just a question (again, as he says at the end) of learning how to use it rather than be used by it. Where this book does that, I think it is simply excellent. But every now and then, there are just a few too many sweeping judgments or less than careful generalisations. One example is his clever juxtaposition of an image of printed text and a photo of the serried ranks of pews in a church, with his comment, ‘after the printing press, church seating started to mirror the page of a book’ (p47 – see right – I hope this is not a copyright infringement – will remove it if so).
Well yes – it may be the case that one followed the other but there are plenty of examples in history where serried ranks of seats are found in pre-printing buildings – e.g. the chapels of medieval monasteries. It wasn’t an inevitable consequence of printing – it’s what’s called in the trade the post hoc propter hoc fallacy (familiar to all West Wing fans), which is short hand for the type of thinking that goes “because X comes after Y, X must have been caused by Y”.
In particular, the impact of printing comes under particular fire – almost at times as the root of all evil and Public Enemy No 1 in the quest for authentic community life (I’m overstating this – but only just, I fear!).
Our entire educational system is based on the mastery of reading and writing. As long as these educational objectives remain, individualism will continue to be woven into every fiber of our beings. (p123)
Individualism is clearly one of the great flaws of western culture. But what is this saying, precisely? He’s, I’m sure, not advocating abandoning literacy programmes – after all, without them, people wouldn’t be able to understand his book. And if printing was such a problem, why publish a book in the first place? It’s interesting, for example, that the Mennonite Commitments for the Times of Disagreement mentioned above is a document distributed in print and online. Without literacy, its impact would be profoundly limited and localised. Of course, print media can and does reverse in on itself. But I suspect the advantages of not being literate are FAR outweighed by the disadvantages. I’ve said before on this blog more than once that our job so often is actually to teach people to read well: to read their culture, their influences, their music, their movies, the Bible!
Which is of course a challenge. Especially because of this phenomenon unique to our age, which Hipps articulates with great insight: the impact of the culture of technology on the generation gap.
This shift marks the first time in the history of the world that parents have limited access to the world of teens and children. Go back five hundred years to the dawn of the print age and the situation was reversed. Printing empowered adults. It led to a more pronounced elevation of adults over children It shrouded the adult world in mystery, leaving children on the outside straining to look in. A child wanting to access adult information was required to learn a complex code – phonetic literacy – which could take decades to master. (p134)
If teaching this generation to read seems a mountain to climb, then imagine how hard it must have been for those who sought to spread literacy in the post-medieval world, or in cultures which had no writing system whatsoever. And this is particularly crucial for a revealed religion, as Christianity has always claimed to be. From its earliest days, it has been shaped by texts, printed or not. Just because one culture finds some texts easier to handle than others is no reason to leave out the latter. He rightly observes (p49) that medieval people found Paul’s letters hard to penetrate but coped better with the gospels (partly because they could be communicated through image and drama). That seems to be happening again in our culture. But we don’t neglect Paul just because he’s harder.
My fear is that this is what some so-called emergents are doing though – and it’s not just for Paul but the whole bible. We must, must, must heed the warnings against (often arrogant and intensely individualistic) modernist hermeneutical certainties which Hipps rightly outlines (p58). But that doesn’t mean abandoning our diligence in reading well (with, for instance, what is sometimes called critical realism). And anyway, isn’t it ironic how, despite all its images and multimedia, how just plain wordy the web is?!
Changing the message?
The point in saying all this is that one of the book’s thrusts is that ‘our methods and our message must both evolve’ (p153, his italics). He accepts this ‘will sound odd’ but claims it is a consistent biblical practice.
But it is one thing to say that every generation grasps one aspect or another of the gospel, often in reaction to the previous generation’s blindspots (and the same goes for different cultures as they interact with each other) – and one of the joys of diverse communities (like All Souls, for one) is that we are constantly chafing against these differences as we engage together with the gospel. We always have more to learn, often from the least likely or expected.
It is quite another to suggest that the need is to change our message or that
Jesus is pointing us to a God who keeps communicating an ever-evolving message. That is why the Spirit is given. (p157)
It isn’t as simple as that. For there will be little to stop a church from losing its orthodox moorings altogether – isn’t that something which Paul for one warned his friend Timothy and us about in 1 Timothy 1:12-16? Note that I’m not saying we never change – far from it. We must always be changing, growing, developing. The Christian life is about the change business. That includes how we go about our ministry and communication – and we may even adjust our message (sometimes radically) because we understand something better or more clearly. But we don’t change the message! As Paul says in that passage, the Holy Spirit is actually given as much to help us guard the message as to grow in our understanding of it. I can already hear my emergent friends groan at me saying all this, but I don’t see how we can avoid this one…
This ended up much longer than expected! Apologies. But this book really challenged and stimulated me. Please do read it – it’s hugely insightful and helpful. But as so often with books like this, I found the cultural analysis profoundly helpful but was far from convinced by its prescriptions.
- Redeemer Church has seen the light – and allowed part of their sermon archive to be available for free download.
- Some interesting maps of religious distribution in USA from the Pluralism Project
- Jonathan Miller gets the BBC Online 5 minute treatment – and is fascinating as ever (though i would of course take issue with his atheism). He’s a bit crotchety and clearly doesn’t have much time for the notion of a 5 minute interview (e.g. his point that nothing of worth can be discussed in a short time – 3 cheers for that). Particularly struck by his observation that ‘the considerable is often to be found in the negligible’… Do not despise the day of small things and all that…
- Travelling to the USA (as I am this month)? This is scary – what the Dept of Homeland Security knows about you when you check in… Big Brother eat your heart out…
- A suggestive chart showing the Generation Gaps in the USA (but with knock-on effects for us Brits) between the Greatest Generation, The Baby Boomers, Gen X and Millennials.
- Here’s an interesting map: can you work out what it represents? Click it to find out. (HT Simple Pastor)
- Ever been to Argleton? No? Well nor has anyone else, despite the fact that it was marked on Google maps.
- Bet you didn’t know this: today (1st November) in 1512, the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was opened to the public for the first time. Or that 1st November was the birthday of painter L.S. Lowry (1887) or the day that actor Phil Silvers died in 1985.
- The M1 is 50 years old this year – BBC has some fun archive photos
- 2009 Wildlife photos of the year – stunning as ever. the winner is amazing. But i particularly love this one. Click on it for a description:
- This is extraordinary: the façade of Waterloo Station transformed like you’ve never seen before
So I want to mention 2 books which have made a big impression on me over the last few months. Both books force us to reconsider how we look at the world and cultures around us, albeit in very different ways. And for those involved in the task of articulating and defending the heart of the Christian message, this is essential. I’ll come to Tim Keller’s stuff in a future post, but want to focus on Wade Bradshaw’s SEARCHING FOR A BETTER GOD today. I read it on holiday this summer, and couldn’t put it down.
I met Wade almost 20 years ago when he was a member of staff at English L’Abri, but he is now a pastor back in his native US. He has noticed profound changes in the ways in which people argue against the gospel, and he has summarised the differences in what he calls ‘The Old Story’ and ‘The New Story’. While obviously not an exact parallel, seismic changes in perception led to many in the Roman Empire converting from the Olympian pantheon to the Christian Trinity. As he says:
If I am right, Zeus ‘died’ not because a scientific expedition to the top of Mount Olympus found it deserted but because people saw that he was morally inferior to them and unworthy of their devotion. The God of the Christians, on the other hand, seemed noble and properly austere. This God didn’t date anyone at all. (p23)
Articulating The New Story
Something similar has happened in our generation, but unfortunately, it has gone the other way. ‘The New Story’ maintains that far from the Christian God being morally good and pure, he is oppressive at worst, morally flawed at best.
In Devil’s Advocate, it dawns on the audience only slowly that the unnerving character portrayed by Al Pacino, the head of a multinational law firm, is Satan himself. He oozes a constant sexual hunger, but it is not until the end of the film, when everyone’s identity is known, that he finally drops his usual aplomb and rants at the human he is trying to seduce with his power. It’s a fine piece of acting that leaves one admiring (and a bit worried for) Pacino:
Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He’s a prankster. Think about it: he gives man instincts – he gives you this extraordinary gift – and then what does he do? I swear for his own amusement, his own private gag reel, he sets the rules in opposition. It’s the goof of all time. Look – but don’t touch. Touch – but don’t taste. Taste – but don’t swallow. And while you’re jumping from one foot to the next he’s laughing. He’s a sadist, an absentee landlord! Worship that? Never!
This is an example of what I call the New Story. This is not the scientific skepticism that doubts God’s existence or His role as Creator. Nor is it the pride of Milton’s 17th century Satan, for whom it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. The great suspicion here is that God exists but is not worthy of our affection or devotion. He cannot be a source of hope, not because He isn’t real, but because He would not be god to know and to live with forever. (p17)
A Better God
This New Story works itself out in a whole host of ways in what Bradshaw terms ‘common-sense theology’. These are the axioms that our tolerant western culture adopts unthinkingly, and which render a defence of orthodox Christianity complex and even fraught. The flash points for ‘common-sense theology’ are obvious once they’re pointed out:
- issues of gender
- issues sexuality
- divine judgment
- universalism/uniqueness of Christ.
In each of these areas (and of course, many others), people reject the gospel, not because they can’t believe in God (the old, atheist & Enlightenment, story) but because, quite frankly, they don’t think this god is worthy of they belief. They are therefore ‘searching for a better God’. Better than the Christian God… Now, it is interesting that the New Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens and co have jumped on this New Story bandwagon – the former’s God Delusion is an action-packed rant about the immorality of what is (to be fair) a distortion of the OT God. But most people won’t go the whole Dawkins hog and reject theism altogether – which is why they are often as critical of Dawkins as they are of the gospel.
A film like Fight Club confuses and terrifies us when the character Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) expresses contempt for both redemption and damnation. And the Church must revise its thinking to comprehend something like the novel Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, where the serial killer Hannibal Lector
… had not been bothered by any considerations of deity, other than to recognize how his own modest predations paled beside those of God, who is in irony matchless, and in wanton malice beyond measure.
Unspeakable statements are becoming everyday, throwaway observations, and the Church is shocked, slapped in the face, punched in the head, and reeling. (p36)
There’s a lot of work to do
Quite how we respond, Bradshaw goes onto explain. And perhaps that is a post for another day. He is determined not to retreat into a safer apologetic (that might have been useful a generation ago), nor will he compromise or change the message to fit with the culture. Forging a new path to engage with the new story is bound to be risky – but it is VITAL. He gives some very helpful pointers in how to go about that. But at this stage, I simply want to whet appetites and strongly encourage people to read this book. What I found so helpful was that it articulates what I’d vaguely been aware of, but never quite been able to put my finger on. In London, observing that we live in a culture that prizes tolerance above all other virtues is a common place – but this book helped me to grasp how profoundly this means people reject traditional orthodoxy. And once you get it, it’s everywhere.
A case in point is the recent hoo-ha about the so-called Top 10 Worst Bible Passages, published last week in the Telegraph (of all places), picked up from The Ship of Fools. The Apostle Paul comes in with 3, and most of the others are gruesome OT narratives or laws. Quite apart from the many and inherent dangers in plucking the most spine-chilling and tabloidy verses out from context (yes, I know that’s what people always say, but it’s still true), what do you notice about the list? Don’t they all belong to the New Story’s rejection of trad. Christianity?
We have a lot of work to do. Society’s anti-Christian (and indeed anti-religion) narrative has undergone a paradigm shift. I’m just not sure that (for the most part) the Church’s apologetic has yet caught up at all.
As part of efforts for the All Souls history I’m working on, John Stott was keen that I read his paper on Parochial Evangelism by the Laity, originally given at a London diocesan conference in 1952. Because it is out of print and the copyright has now expired, he has given explicit permission for me to publish it online. All I’ve done is simply to scan and reformat it (with the odd minute tweaks like getting rid of Roman numerals for Biblical verse references).
It is both a fascinating historical document and a classic Stott distillation of useful and practical wisdom. In many ways it gives a glimpse as to why much of what he did at All Souls in the 50s and 60s was so pioneering. But you won’t fully grasp that at first sight, since so much of what he advocates is old hat in evangelical churches these days. Which is great – and powerful evidence of the influence he has had.
But you’ve got to remember the context (and for non-Anglicans, this will feel very Anglican! But then he was addressing all the clergy in the London diocese, few of whom would have been evangelical in 1952):
- He was speaking into a Church of England full of the complacency derived from being the state church. In the 50s it was still assumed that most people went to church, whereas now of course that is unimaginable. Stott was clearly saying then that this was not enough. They had to be much more proactive.
- He was speaking into a Church of England where ministry was all too often a matter of what clergy did. To be so deliberate and determined in training and delegating ministry to ‘the laity’ was fairly revolutionary. In so doing it anticipated later calls for every-member ministry.
- In advocating such work, it was clearly important to train people. This paper outlines the elements that he regarded as essential. It is pretty extensive and rigourous – showing how seriously this was taken. It’s hard to know what other things one would add, if any.
- Furthermore, a huge number of churches have training courses of all sorts, these days. In 1952, very few did.
- Church planting is very fashionable these days – and it is absolutely right to be investing in it. But in 1952 it was practically unheard of in Anglican circles. In the paper, Stott describes one or two attempts – more church grafts than full plants, but it is fascinating to see him thinking on these lines even then.
You could argue that much of this was not particularly new – he was merely taking cues from the New Testament in particular, lessons that had been rediscovered at various points in church history. But post-war Anglicanism had forgotten many of them. Nearly 60 years on, there are scores of Anglican churches that are putting nearly all of this into practice.
So, all in all, this is a treat. Thank you Uncle John for letting us have renewed access to it!
I’ve just come back from an extraordinary week’s travels. What a privilege. 3 days in Turkey and 4 days in Romania, in both places with a view to helping local church leaders develop preaching movements for their respective countries. I think i should blog about them separately because of their marked differences – there are only 3000 evangelicals/protestants in the whole of Turkey (nat. pop. = 70+ million) and roughly half a million in Romania (nat. pop. = 23 million). My entire time in Turkey was spent in Istanbul, which has to be one of the most beguiling and overwhelming cities on earth (and it’s crazily big – 20 million residents!) – i got trigger happy with my camera and so took 100s – I’ve added collages of Bosphorus views here (one from each side). And the folks i spent time with were inspirational. But the context for living as Christians in that part of the world is far from it.
Turkish Secularism Or Turkish Democracy?
Inevitably, a key element of our discussions in Turkey was the extent to which religious freedom that exists there. I am by no means an expert and so could only pick up a few things here and there in my short visit but the 20th Century background is key. After the 1st World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a new political reality was forged by Mustafa Kemal (dubbed Atatürk or Father of the Turks) when he sought to create a new secular Muslim state, influenced by enlightenment values. He was both a soldier (left, one side of his monument in Taksim Sq) and statesman (right, the other side). Ever since there has been an inevitable tension between secularism (defended by the military) and Islam (adhered to by the vast majority of Turks).
This was shrewdly summed up by one of the folks I spent time with this weekend, and is perhaps understood by way of contrast to what in Europe and North America we are used to. In the west, it is almost axiomatic that secularism and democracy go hand in hand, and western countries, to varying degrees, attempt to keep religion at arm’s length. That might be more acceptable to post-enlightenment protestants especially, but it is hardly going to wash with an Islam that has no concept of public/private or sacred/secular distinctions.
So in Turkey, if you want secularism, you are effectively opting for military rule; if you want democracy, you are opting to support a government that will increasingly ‘Islamify’ the nations institutions and culture.
But here’s the catch – if you’re Christian, you are caught in between both stools:
- The military regards you as subversive and not truly Turkish (even if you are Turkish) because they are seeking to sustain secularism.
- Then the Muslim powers-that-be oppose your very presence in what should be the global heart of Islam (the Ottoman Empire used to control the entire Middle East after all); the Turkish flag is emblazoned with the Crescent moon of Islam, and the Old Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul, the Topkapı, houses amongst other things, the Sacred Trusts of Islam (like Mohammed’s sword, beard, cloak and a handwritten letter).
The Fate of Christians in Turkey
For generations, Christians in Turkey were almost by definition not Turks. There were thousands of Greeks and Armenians who were predominately orthodox. The Armenian genocide is a rightly matter of wide concern and horror even to this day. But far less well known has been the drip-drip of hostility, oppression and ostracism of Christians within Turkey. I cannot vouch for these stats at all, so don’t quote me – however, they fit more or less with what a number of people told me last weekend.
- In the early 1970s there were over 8500 Orthodox churches in regular use as places of worship in Turkey. Now there are only 500 or so – the rest were forcibly taken over by state authorities.
- In the second half of the 20th Century it was estimated that there were over 20,000 Greeks living in Istanbul. There are now barely more than 1000. I’ve no idea how it was done – but a range of intimidation tactics was certainly used to make sure people knew they were not wanted.
- I gather that if you are a Christian, certain professions like being a practising lawyer are barred to you.
- Whenever you buy a building, you have to indicate what use it will have (eg residence, business, school etc). It is impossible to do this for a church. In fact there is only one building in the whole of Turkey registered as a Protestant church. A number of Istanbul protestant churches therefore end up renting the chapels of western consulates for their services. Those that do use other buildings live on the edge.
- It is not possible to set up a seminary in Turkey because of restrictions. Being a pastor is not really recognised in law and so because they don’t really exist, they don’t need training! Anyone therefore wanting to do this is allowed to give them “instruction” (because ‘instruction’ doesn’t necessarily lead to anything) but they cannot give them “education” with its implication of recognised degrees and status. Muslim leaders have even offered their own training institutions to church leaders with the suggestion that they train Christian pastors and priests on their behalf! Can you imagine what would happen if Anglican colleges in the UK offered that to Regents’ Park Mosque!?
- Then of course, there has been the recent Malatya murders. One can’t help but wonder whether or not this only hit the headlines because one of the victims was German, and thus caused the Turkish government acute diplomatic embarrassment.
Facing the Future
Persecution is never far from the surface, either from the state or from the neighbourhood. One tiny example – it’s petty in one sense. You see the Turkish flag everywhere. But in a little church I visited last week, the street was festooned with Turkish flag bunting, presumably because in their midst was a little Christian community. The implication was clear: if you’re Christian, you can’t be Turkish, because Turks are Muslims. So what did the church do in response? Well, they bought a huge Turkish flag and they now hang it from their meeting place. Gloriously gracious but absolutely the right response. We might be Christian but we’re Turks too, it eloquently proclaims. And i think this is the interesting thing about what’s happening. For in contrast to previous centuries and decades, where Christians were effectively foreign or at least ethnically different, this is no longer the case. Turks are becoming Christians, in their ones or twos. And this is fantastic – but to some, it’s intolerable. So for the future of the Turkish church, these brothers and sisters are the greatest hope but also at greatest threat – because the phenomenon of Turkish Christians shouldn’t actually exist, if Turkish Muslims are to be believed. We must pray for them. Now, i repeat, i was only there for a few days – and I may have got some or much of this wrong. But there was no doubt, that in all my conversations with people, the issue of the stresses faced by Turkish Christians was a key subject.
Religious Tolerance because of Europe?
It seems to me that just as the secular west completely fails to understand what tolerance should be (see this blog, passim) so does Islam. I, as a creedal Christian, absolutely uphold the right of people to express their views and religion. I don’t have a problem with people building mosques in England (although the proposed super-mosque at the Olympics site is different and seems merely to me to be a power-play). But talk about double-standards! Freedom for Muslims to proselytize in the West does not bring Christian freedom even to exist and grow in the Muslim world. This was a point that Ed Husain in his book The Islamist makes as well.
And as i’ve been thinking about all this, there comes the timely post by Cranmer about the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt. They are apparently on the verge of extinction.
It all makes me wonder – I am by nature more Eurosceptic than not – but i do think that enlargement is a great thing for a number of reasons. The more countries that join, the more the absurd super-state ideals of some are rendered increasingly inoperable. And should Turkey ever be allowed to join, it would hopefully provide a powerful protection for the Christian minority there to grow and flourish. But that looks far off – there are far too many vested interests both in Europe and Turkey to make it desirable, despite the political, economic and justice advantages that it could bring. Europeans are terrified of the thought of 70 million Turks suddenly having freedom to live and work anywhere, and the Islamic groups in Turkey fear their influence being undermined.
Well, I was hoping to do it – and have. At last I have seen the Pacific Ocean (for the first time in my little life). But what was even better was the chance to walk along the Atlantic on Saturday (in Hollywood near Miami, Florida) – left – and then walk along the Pacific yesterday in Miraflores (a suburb of Lima, Peru). I seemed to stick out like a sore thumb on the plane to Miami – it was full of Scottish retired couples going on Caribbean cruises as far as i could make out – at least I had my walking stick so I could blend in a bit. I stayed with friends in Miami, Gordon & Marilyn Woolard, who are also involved with Langham Partnership. It was lovely to walk along the beach in the Florida morning sunshine, ambling past the power-walkers and Saturday brunchers in their beach-side cafes.
Then yesterday, the lure of the Pacific, with its paragliders and Sunday afternoon strollers. Out in the bay, in the far distance, was an island on which an Alcatraz-type prison stands. It is notable for being the location of the subterranean incarceration of Óscar Ramírez, former leader of the communist Shining Path (and thus a reminder of Peru’s less happy side). Still, the sea breeze was a tonic in what can be a rather stultifying and polluted Lima atmosphere.
Before leaving Miami, though, i was able to join the Woolards at St Andrew’s Presbyterian, their local church which was celebrating 50 years. This sort of event happens the world over, and the church is friendly, down to earth and welcoming. It is not a church one has any reason to have heard of necessarily, and is all the better for that. It is simply doing what local churches should doing, as far as I could make out from my briefest of visits. Especially encouraging were the testimonies of the various members of the church, some of whom have been around more or less since it was planted. A number suffer various kinds of illness now, and thus their faith is challenged to its core – but it was very moving to hear of people still battling on and enduring. I found it very powerful, despite not having a clue who anyone was. The only slight off note was when one of the early pastors informed us how he started small at this church (presumably in his 20s, now he’s in his 70s) but now was preaching to crowds of 20,000.
All well and good, but I really don’t think we necessarily need to know that. It was encouraging to hear the next guy get up and say that he was now preaching to a few individuals in mentoring relationships. Much healthier, I felt! All power to them for the next 50 years.
Gordon drove me down Hollywood Boulevard a few times – hence the picture. But before you get confused, like one German tourist Gordon once helped out when he asked where all the movie studies and film stars were, this is Hollywood Florida (more or less a suburb of the sprawling Miami) not Hollywood California. Quite fun though.
Now, before anyone starts presuming I’m just having a jolly on Langham’s expense, swanning around the beaches of the world, am off today to the Peru Langham preaching conference. Very much looking forward to catching up with friends made this time last year – and you never know – i might be able to reconnect with my dear friend Hugo Chavez!
HAPPY GUY FAWKES DAY for all those back home!
This is the rationale, apparently:
This is Emmaus church in Germany being transported 12 kilometres to the neighbouring town to give way for the extension of an opencast lignite mine. During the journey it couldn’t tilt more than two degrees.
I’m sure it was worth it.
Sometimes people get crazy ideas. And then other people realise that they’re not so crazy after all. This is the case with THORNCROWN CHAPEL, built in a forest in Northern Arkansas, USA as the result of the vision of one man – Jim Reed (read the story on the chapel’s website). I came across it only the other day, even though it was completed back in 1980 – and the photos blew me away. You can see more in their photo gallery. The place has become internationally renowned and won all kinds of architectural awards – and you can see why just from the shots included here.
‘Hot prots’ (of which, i suppose, i am one) don’t tend to get too excited about church buildings as a whole. As one famous spokesman for the constituency once said, church buildings are just ‘glorified rain-shelters’. And to a large extent, I do agree (e.g. see previous post)- especially having spent time in East African churches, where a church building could literally be a decrepit shed, if that, but where you could never fault the churches that used them (more often than not for protection against the sun rather than rain) on the vitality, vibrancy and passionate reality fronts. I would say that these churches truly are beautiful. (I had some involvement with this one (pictured) in Kampala for a while.) The same cannot always be said for many of the architectural jewels in the ecclesiastical crowns of the west.
But at the same time, if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well, surely – and even beautifully. We need rain-shelters (especially in England) – so why not make beautiful ones, buildings that actually say something at the same time? As long as we are always clear that the building is not the end but the means.
Thorncrown chapel seems to me to do just that. It is a stunning building in and of itself – made from local timbers, and ahead of its time in seeking to be environmentally sensitive in both its construction and setting (for an architect’s point of view, see inhabitat’s commentary). But it is more. It is an enclosed space that seems deliberately to conceal the fact. From the photos (I’ve never been there), it is as if one is sitting in an Edenic paradise. The observer’s gaze is irresistibly drawn far beyond the building walls into the forest – and then even beyond that, as the grandeur of creation demands the worship of its creator. For this is a building that glories in and immerses one in the created world. It is almost as if it is laying down the gauntlet, demanding a response from those who sit quietly, a response to a simple question: you can’t honestly believe that this is all a product of chance, can you? The effect is quite simply breathtaking. It doesn’t require images or power point presentations to do that – it simply has windows!
But even saying that doesn’t do justice to it. Because the Chapel’s name and construction point us beyond the building’s witness to the grandeur of creation; they draw us at the same time into the wonder of creation’s redeemer. THORNCROWN – that cruelly sarcastic, piercingly vindictive ‘gift’ from the redeemer’s armed guard. The criss-crossing latticework of the chapel’s roof beams, high up above, evoke that crown of thorns – reminding us that an Edenic paradise is not without its ugliness and pain – a ugliness which in the end was the very means to securing the most beautiful creation of them all – a new rescued people, rescued to worship the one who doubly deserves it: the Creator AND Redeemer; the one who provides the greatest shelter of them all – the Rock of ages, cleft for me.
As the Book of Revelation has it – and as this Chapel so beautifully evokes – the songs of heaven will rejoice in both wonders:
… You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being. Rev 4:11
…Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise! Rev 5:11-12
The 3 amigos as I like to call them: 3 venerable DWEMs (i.e. – Dead White European Males – of course, I’m all too aware that I fit 3 out of 4 of those epithets, but refuse to say which). If they but knew it, they would be spinning in their graves somewhere (look out for unusual subterranean activity in the vicinity of Highgate Cemetery). Not with despair but glee, mind. Why? Darwin (1809-1882), Freud (1856-1939) and Marx (1818-1883) were the intellectual titans of the 19th Century and in some ways became the 3 key foundations for 20th-21st century secularism (who together made God redundant in explaining zoology, psychology and sociology/history). And while experts find many things to quibble with them on details of their thought (perhaps Freud most of all), most today assume they have won convincingly in that wider project. You just have to look at what has happened to a number of buildings to see what i mean.
If you caught a bit of the first programme in David Dimbleby’s new series How We Built Britain, then you won’t need any persuading that buildings have huge symbolic significance. It was no accident that one of the greatest achievements of post-Norman invasion architecture was Ely Cathedral – a breathtaking mediaeval skyscraper built in the heartland of the remnants of opposition to the conquest – the Fens. It was saying, ‘we’re here now, we’ve won, so deal with it’. Of course, religious fervour had something to do with it but it wasn’t the whole story – politics always had a part to play in mediaeval church-buildings (despite the cathedral’s website appearing to ignore the fact!). Public buildings are all too often designed to overwhelm, humiliate, subdue, inspire, impress. Everyone plays the same game. Consider the impact of the imposing courts of the Foreign Office here in London on a trembling ambassador from a miscreant client state. Or take the space, scale and classical grandeur of Washington DC? Or even the proposal of some London Muslim groups to build a mega-mosque near the 2012 Olympics site? They are all designed to communicate messages of longevity, power and authority. So what’s this all got to do with the 3 amigos?
Well last week was the children’s half term, so we went to stay with my folks in Norfolk. Had a lovely time, in case you’re interested. But at a loss to know what to do with the kids on a number of rainy days, we took them to Norwich’s answer to London’s Science Museum: the Inspire Discovery Centre. It was all quite fun – with more buttons to press and things that go zing than you could ever dream of. It was small and compact, and yet such fun in fact that we were forced by pester power to go TWICE. The thing is – it had taken over a disused church (St Michael’s, Oak St). Which is fun – i really don’t have a problem with that. There’s no point these ancient buildings sitting derelict, unused and unloved. Far better this, than getting pulled down. But i couldn’t help but smile about the ironies. For at the sharp end (where there is usually a table or altar – depending on your theological sensibilities), there was an exhibit about dinosaur bones and – yes, you guessed it – EVOLUTION!!! This is not the place to get into all that today – perhaps a topic for the future (which will of course be great fun and make everyone on every side jolly and happy). But I’m sure the Darwins and Dawkins of this world must relish the irony. In a church of all buildings! They’ve won. You can’t believe in God – we’ve done away with him. Just visit mediaeval Norwich to see how.
But Darwin’s not the only one. Freud and Marx have also pulled it off from beyond the grave.
Soviet Russia was heralded to be the great communist paradise that Marx dreamed of. The victory it seemed was absolute. As well as the removal of capitalism with all the temptations and oppressions that capital brings, religion had to go. For religion in general, and Russian Orthodoxy in particular, was one of the worst culprits and tools of oppression.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
So it was no doubt with considerable glee that the architects of the new era set about commandeering all the Churches and Cathedrals within their grasp. Many were magnificent buildings – and even the communists appreciated great architecture enough to preserve the better examples (this was particularly noticeable on a visit to Prague some years back where no new buildings were allowed in the city centre – the result is that the centre is gloriously evocative of the past but now completely ringed by concrete towers and neo-brutalist architecture). They would now serve a new purpose – as MUSEUMS! To the glories of the cause. One of the most striking is St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg. This had been the primary cathedral of Peter I’s great imperial city – and so to claim it for the revolutionary cause was a high priority. And unlike with London’s Millennium Dome, the Bolsheviks knew exactly what they wanted their showcase to contain – a museum of atheism! Some of the symbolism had to go of course. The dove was replaced by a Foucault’s Pendulum, that arch-testimony to human ingenuity and scientific progress (it proves the rotation of the earth). Even today in the supposedly more Orthodox-tolerant era of Putin’s Russia, the museum remains (although it is now an Art Museum), with Christian services occurring only in a side chapel. That’s quite revealing in itself – public improvement and culture marginalising religion instead of oppressing it (which is much more of a 20th Century western approach). How Marx would have enjoyed it all. Which just leaves the old shrink…
It’s a bit more tenuous this one, i know. But from uni days, i well remember Freud’s cafe bar down in trendy old Jericho, Oxford. OK, so it’s not exactly presenting his worldview at one level, (but perhaps prizes for contriving the most convincing link! – just add your comments!) but it too has taken over on old church building. Quite an interesting building in fact which was making its own statement at the time – it was built in the form of a Greek Temple dedicated exclusively to the Christian God (see, a not so subtle gauntlet laid down there). Well, things have gone full circle, since it is now by implication dedicated to Dionysus. The mini-chain that owns it is called Freud’s Cafe bars – no idea why – probably just the name of the owner. But they no doubt revel in the fact that the table/altar is now the bar from which all manner of beverages are served. People get quite a kick out sipping cocktails in these ‘spiritual’ surroundings. And perhaps that is the perfect setting, after just a few glasses, to start spilling the beans about your childhood experiences of your mother and turning to psychobabble for help, instead of the narcotic fantasies and wishful-thinking of religion.
Of course these three are not the only ones. I know of church buildings that have been converted into offices, flats, concert-halls, shops. There’s one that sells rather rubbish carpets of all things. And in Norwich, there is of course the Norwich Puppet Theatre (whose patron divinity is also presumably Dionysus, since his portfolio actually also included responsibility for the theatrical stage and not just the crush bars ). This is not to mention the churches that are now mosques (e.g. Istanbul’s magnificent Hagia Sofia), gurdwaras, synagogues and temples.
I remember friends in Uganda being alarmed by the thought of Christian buildings being taken over by Muslims – at which point i would tell them about Freud’s cafe, which would just about finish the teetotallers amongst them off. But i can’t help being relatively unfazed by it all. That’s not to say that some of the plans that the more aggressively radical Muslims have for Britain leave me unconcerned – far from it in fact. But not the buildings. There are a number of reasons for this.
- The Church is not a building but a people. This is axiomatic in the New Testament. In fact, the NT subverts building language altogether by describing believers in such terms (e.g. 1 Corinthians 3:8-10; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-8). This is not to say that we shouldn’t appreciate great buildings as places to meet in (who cannot be stunned by the beauty of such architectural as King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, or even, dare i say it, All Souls, Langham Place) – i would definitely prefer a beautiful building to an ugly one. And there is something special about the fact that there are places where people have committed their lives to Christ in the same particular place for centuries, even a millennium. It can feel a bit like Hebrews 12‘s grandstand of the faithful cheering on this generation’s marathon runners. But we don’t actually need these buildings. I well remember some of my best experiences of ‘church’ being in a shabby lecture room in downtown Kampala, where some of us met to pray for one of my students who had lost his second daughter to the perils of giving birth.
- The Church is not a denomination but God’s kingdom people . This is related to the first point. One of the biggest mistakes we make is to equate God’s kingdom with a particular denomination – one of the biggest flaws of mediaeval Catholicism for example. Denominations like to demonstrate their influence and authority by building smart buildings. Why else did the Methodists want to build the cavernous Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, or the Catholics their Cathedral in Victoria (even though they probably wanted to argue that Westminster Abbey was originally theirs!)?
- Church-growth is not brought about by Church power. Stimulated by some interesting talks recently (see David Field‘s blog and in particular his stuff on Samuel Rutherford), i have to say that i disagree and think (in common with many today, but not necessarily because I’m just going with the flow) that Christendom was on the whole an exceedingly bad thing (as Sellar & Yeatman might say). This is not just because Christians (e.g Crusades, Inquisition) do terrible things when we get power (just like anybody – after all, look what Communists (Soviet Russia, China), Capitalists (Corporate America & EU), Muslims (Taleban Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia) and Hindus (the BJP in India) all do with such power). No one really knows how to handle power responsibly or ethically. No, it is simply that the Christian gospel subverts power and authority – completely. The trappings and privileges of state imperium are fundamentally rejected by the king whose kingdom is not of this world. He didn’t sit on a throne but crawled on hands and knees to wash disciples’ feet; he wasn’t crowned at some international state occasion but on a cross. The apostle Paul follows this up with all kinds of implications (some of which i’ve outlined in my paper on unimpressive preaching from 1 Corinthians 1-2). But surely one is that we don’t need big buildings to show impressive we all are. We don’t need a building to say, ‘hey, look at us, we’re worth joining.’ We have a message about a crucified king instead. Doesn’t sound too impressive? Well, you’ve got the point! And yet the church has grown, is still growing, and will continue to grow (with or without great buildings and despite the global impact of the 3 amigos) – note these stats quoted by David Field:
- It took 1400 years for 1% of the world’s population to become Christians.
- For that to double to 2% took the next 360 years.
- It was then 170 years for that to grow from 2% to 4%.
- From 1960 to 1990: the proportion of the world’s population who are Bible-believing Christians rose from 4% to 8%.
- Now in 2007 one third of the world’s population confesses that Jesus is Lord and 11% of the world’s population are “evangelical” Christians.
- The evangelical church is growing twice as fast as Islam and three times as fast as the world’s population.
- South America is turning Protestant faster than Continental Europe did in the sixteenth century.
- South Koreans reckon that they can evangelize the whole of North Korea within five years once that country opens up.
- And then there’s China. Thousands converted and millions following Christ – despite being persecuted, hunted down and executed by those with the ‘real power’. For much of the ‘underground’ church, owning buildings is not even a possibility.
- Building ‘Churches’ is not Church Planting. Think about where the majority of redundant church buildings are today: cities like central London, Oxford & Cambridge, York & Norwich. What do they have in common? They were mediaeval cities. And in the Middle Ages there was a form of clergy job creation – done by building a church on every street. Mediaeval Norwich had 56 churches within its city bounds and a population of around 6000 before the Black Death killed 2/5ths in 1349; it then rose to around 21,000 by 1670. That’s about 1 building for every 100 people in the Middle Ages, growing to 1 for every 375. That’s quite a ratio, especially when a significant number could comfortably seat well over 100! There may well have been reasons before – lack of mobility, compulsory attendance, keeping clergy employed, etc etc. But totally irrelevant today – when people will often drive to church, for instance, if they go at all. And having a building in a particular spot doesn’t mean a church will want to meet there, especially if it is inconveniently located (as most mediaeval city churches tend to be – try parking for services at Oxford’s St Ebbe’s or Cambridge’s St Andrew the Great – total nightmare); that’s not to mention the upkeep costs and difficulties to trying to make these buildings usable for modern church life. So does it matter that they are used for other things – not in the slightest. I may be an Anglican but i can’t see the justification in having so-called ‘hallowed ground’. By all means pray for a building’s use. But if a building outlives its usefulness and purpose, then fine – let it find another use and purpose. If Darwinists or Muslims want them – then good luck to them.
- Church-planting is the key – and buildings help! The key is communities of people – this is what England needs who will live differently, following the Christlike model of service and hope – and who draw people in by their convictions and quality of corporate life. And these communities need places to meet in – buildings which meet their various needs and sizes (from living rooms to large halls). And they need to be where people are. Which is why it can be helpful to build church buildings on new housing estates as a kickstart for new communities. But buildings by themselves will never be enough by themselves. They might be useful community centres, but there won’t be anything to mark their use out as specifically Christian. Having a wonderful building can be draw in itself – as we find with All Souls because it is a bit of a landmark – great – let’s make the most of it.
After all this burbling spurred on by a visit to the Norwich science place, let me close with the thought that occurred to me as we went to the car. I noticed that we’d parked outside another church building (there were 3 different ones on this street alone – case in point), but it wasn’t mediaeval. Built in 1886, its grim exterior said it all. Zoar Strict & Particular Baptist revealed the ancient notice. Now – who knows – the members of this church may well be lovely people who are full of warmth and openness to outsiders. But their building certainly isn’t. Perhaps we’ve deserved to lose our buildings if we behave like this.
I don’t want the last word though. No idea who he is but these are wise words from one John Havlik:
The Church is never a place, but always a people; never a fold, but always a flock; never a building, but always an assembly. The church is you who pray, not where you pray.