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Posts from the ‘worldwide church’ Category

6
Feb

To pund or not to pund? The baits and traps of tweology

It is a great sadness to me that the word ‘pund’ does not exist. This is no doubt because the English ‘pundit’ is actually a corruption of an ancient Sanskrit work ‘pandit’ which meant ‘learned scholar, master, teacher’ (don’t worry – I didn’t know that until I looked it up in the OED). But I recommend using it – because I’ve noticed that there is an increasing amount of punding going on. And I’m not sure the sight is all that pretty. Read more »

31
Jan

Power and Weakness, Control and Care within the corporate

We’ve carried on wending our merry way though Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (from which I’ve posted before) where there have been gems and provocations aplenty. This week, we followed his unpacking of the problems of competitiveness and one-upmanship, as part of his reflections on Luke 9:46. He is entirely realistic. He warns that every single community will always be infected by concerns about ‘who is the greatest’ – even if the criteria by which we judge greatness differ widely. And this has got me thinking yet again about the problems of power and weakness, control and care in church (issues to which I find myself returning repeatedly on Q). Read more »

10
Jan

Perfect potboiler plots? Rely on centuries-old Ecclesiastical Conspiracies

So… you want to write a runaway bestseller in 2012? Hoping to fill the cabin luggage of air-travellers the world over? Well, here is just thing… it’s guaranteed to hit the headlines at the same time and thus rake in the cash. An ecclesiastical conspiracy theory novel, ‘based’ on matters of ‘historical’ record and archaeological ‘certainties’. It offers the lot: corruption, scheming, sexual deviancy, hypocrisy, ancient history, power, scandals, and above all, the unveiling of secrets.

You hooked yet? I was. And it seems that the book-buying travelling public never tire of a new conspiracy thriller. So… you’ve got it made. Read more »

4
Jan

The Saigon School of Missiology and Graham Greene’s QUIET AMERICAN

It is not just the victims of imperialism who easily identify its sins and blindspots. Those who have wielded and then lost empires are quick to spot the parallels in others’. Perhaps that was partly why Graham Greene was such a caustic critic of what he perceived as the twentieth century’s new imperialist incarnation: the United States. Of course Greene had strong left-wing sympathies and was openly anti-American, which provided  convenient filters by which the right could ignore his perspectives. It’s no surprise that he was under FBI surveillance from the 1955 publishing of The Quiet American until his death in 1991. Read more »

8
Dec

When Christians disagree… priorities, challenges and imperatives

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.

Read more »

7
Nov

Three blind-spots of the Western Church from Vinoth Ramachandra

Vinoth Ramachandra has had links with All Souls for quarter of a century – and he and his wife Karin have been mission partners for many years. So it was a joy to have them join our staff meeting last week, while they were passing through en route between two conferences before heading home to Sri Lanka. One of the things that was often said of John Stott by those from the ‘majority world’ (including Vinoth) was that he was very good at genuinely listening to their perspectives and concerns, rather than following a paternalistic, one-directional relationship.

So in that spirit, Hugh asked Vinoth to speak about what he perceived as the blind-spots of the western church. Read more »

28
Jul

In Memoriam Uncle John Stott – called home yesterday

Yesterday at 3.15, Uncle John died peacefully at his retirement home. We mourn his loss and rejoice with him.

It is very poignant to be writing this today, as we’re all at the Hookses, Uncle John’s retreat in Wales (see yesterday’s post). The place is full of memories of him – he restored it, oversaw its extension, wrote many of his wonderful books here and above all loved it. And so the news of his death is bitter-sweet.

Read more »

24
Jul

A Song for Norway – a Czech protest song & the redemptive power of suffering

The news from Norway has defied words. Senseless, mindless, pointless; it is cruel, irrational evil. And supposedly in the name of Christ. Sickening.

I always resist to tweet or post about every event or topical twist and turn. I’m just not that kind of blogger, I guess. Read more »

21
Jul

The Stott Legacy: news of a new PhD scholarship

Just received this news from Langham Colleagues – worth spreading the news far and wide, as this is one worthy way of recognising and celebrating the extraordinary legacy of Uncle John. Read more »

19
Jul

Means and Ends: when churches resort to bribery

It came as a shock when this was first pointed out to me. Or rather, to be more accurate, it was a shock when I first realised how true it was of me. For a pastor friend was pointing out how perfectly capable we all are of justifying any action to ourselves; and worse, how perfectly capable we all are of justifying any action in specifically spiritual terms. Read more »

17
May

The Legacy of Sydney’s Mr Eternity

I’d never heard of Arthur Stace before a week ago. But that’s because I have never visited, let alone lived in, Sydney, Australia. But he left an extraordinary, even weird, but compelling legacy. For he was converted to Christianity as the result of walking into a Sydney church in 1930 and hearing a sermon by R. B. S. Hammond. Two years later he heard another sermon from John Ridley entitled “echoes of eternity”. Read more »

27
Apr

Happy 90th Birthday Uncle John

This is a post I wrote 4 years ago on the occasion of John Stott’s 86th Birthday. Quite a lot has changed since – not least the fact that he has moved into a retirement/care home in Sussex, and is not really able to move around now. But with this milestone, it seemed entirely appropriate to repost, not least because everything I said in this tribute remains true. Read more »

11
Apr

How churches argued when “men were men” & other mediaeval nuggets


Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is a lot of a fun. It’s a very refreshing take the social history of a time and place, offered in the guise of a Michelin guide to the 14th Century. This is not to say that it is tr

ivialising or populist in the worst sense. Much though I and the children enjoy the zaniness of Horrible Histories, they are necessarily slight and far too oversimplified.

This book is, thankfully, by no means a horrible history – although it is clear that the history of the period could certainly be horrible. It is a scholarly but wittily written book that opens eyes and even stimulates all the senses to evoke what life was really like in an unimaginable age. As befits any time-traveller’s guide, it is all written in the present tense, and thus full of possibility (like any good DK or Lonely Planet guide). It is an irresistible invitation for readers to be fully immersed in an alien culture.

Read more »

1
Apr

Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 31 (April 2011)

Sacred Treasure

  • Martin Bashir is interviewed about his interview of Rob Bell. I was particularly struck by his perception of what C S Lewis called chronological snobbery in contemporary theological debates – whereby those over a certain age (ie 30!) are dismissed out of hand.
  • Ian Paul has offered a really helpful response to the BBC1 series Bible’s Buried Secrets
  • A wonderful example of doing good to all – let’s hope it works in all senses… Christopher Hitchens and Francis Collins.
  • And while we’re thinking about him, here’s a nice if brief interview with Francis Collins – quite old now (originally from 2007), but I’ve only just seen it.
  • At the other end of of the spectrum, here is a list of the 25 most influential atheists (though quite how you measure influence is anyone’s guess)
  • In case you missed it, here is the extraordinary testimony of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s assassinated government minister: Read more »
29
Mar

Capturing a legacy: A Portrait of John Stott by his friends

On 27th April, John Stott will celebrate his 90th birthday. In the coming years, there will be a great multitude claiming to be inheritors of the Stott legacy. Just has happened with a towering figure like Bonhoeffer, so will it happen to Uncle John. And it is not as outlandish to put them in the same bracket as some may think. For both, albeit in very different ways and as the result of radically different experiences, made a profound impact on twentieth century (and therefore, twenty-first century) Christianity. Of course, some will pick and choose, some will appropriate its mantle without its substance, while others will wonder what all the fuss is about and doubt whether it matters at all.

Well, I think it probably does matter – not least because not to understand the legacy properly is to open the door to a dishonest, partisan or manipulative abuse of history. It is, in large part, a matter of historical, and indeed Christian, integrity. Therefore, this new book, edited by my Langham boss, Chris Wright, and subtitled A Portrait By His Friends, will play something of crucial role in coming years. This is not a chronological account nor deep historical and theological analysis. Those will certainly come in time (and no doubt draw heavily on Timothy Dudley-Smith’s excellent two-volume biography). This is a collection of sketches by some of those who have been closest to him over the years. Thus it will provide essential insights into grasping his personal (though perhaps not his theological) legacy. It really gives a sense of the man (rather better than the image on the cover!). Read more »

3
Mar

The oppressive shadows of the Berlin Wall: Anna Funder’s Stasiland

The Berlin Wall has been gone for over 20 years. But its shadows haven’t.

People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head. I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in the Stasi men’s minds as something they hope might one day come again, and in their victims’ minds too, as a terrifying possibility. (p233)

Read more »

25
Feb

United Church of OMG

Somewhat irreverent (and oh, how I hate the OMG acronym) but this New Yorker cartoon did raise a smile. It amazes me when standing at the door on Sundays how many people are already thumbing away on their mobiles before leaving.

By Ed Koren, from The New Yorker (31 Jan 2011)

 

19
Feb

Swedish sculptural surprises amidst Lund’s mediaeval grandeur

I’ve been in Lund, Sweden since Wednesday, as a guest of Teofil to speak for Langham at 2 conferences this week. It is a real thrill to be here for the first time, since my late Grandmother was Swedish and the country has always been part of our family’s folklore.

Lund is a lovely, ancient University town right in the south (only 40 mins by train, in fact, from Danish Copenhagen). It is dominated by the magnificent cathedral, which dates from AD1080. So with a couple of hours to spare before things kicked off on Thursday, I was able to go for a wander. It is an impressive building – I was especially taken with the wonderfully atmospheric crypt, the extraordinary astronomical clock and the severe grandeur of the original Romanesque architecture.

But a nice surprise was a temporary sculpture exhibition in a lady chapel of contemporary Swedish sculptress Lena Lervik. There were no explanations in English so I can’t be 100% sure what they were all seeking to suggest – but it was possible to make a pretty good stab. The photo above shows 2 installations – one in the foreground is clearly a pregnant Mary – it is stunning because the back is covered in gold leaf which shimmers in the subdued mediaeval light. But facing her is what I can only assume is the bronze serpent of Numbers 21 and John 3:14, observed in the shadows by a number of penitent believers. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition – for of course, John’s use of the serpent imagery points to the lifting up of the Son of Man on the cross (and probably also the resurrection). In other words, the suffering of the Christ. And the way these pieces were installed (who knows if it was intentional – I’m inclined to think it was) Mary looks on, bearing the child who will suffer in this way. There is a profound poignancy here.

Here are a few other snaps from around the building (to see the whole set, click here).

Finally, I encountered this curiosity on the choir stalls. What can it mean?! 2 earnest pilgrims seeking God – only find that he’s a squirrel…?!? Or what? Not exactly the sort of piety you’d expect from a devout mediaeval carpenter… Any suggestions?

16
Feb

A plague on both their houses? Carl Trueman’s polemic Republocrat

I think it’s fair to say that remaining neutral about anything Carl Trueman writes or says is impossible. And that’s no bad thing! He’s always provocative, stimulating and often (but not always!) right on the button. In his recent short book, Republocrat – Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, he brings a trenchant and powerfully argued British/European perspective to the American political scene. More pertinently, after 10 years in the States, he writes as a Reformed theologian and church historian about the relationship between Christianity and American politics (especially, though not exclusively, about the Christian Right).

Mercutio strikes again?

In his discussion of the Republican and Democrat Parties, he actually does find himself, Mercutio-like, calling for ‘a plague on both your houses’. And it is easy to see why, after being propelled through his breathless polemic. Some would conclude from this that the only remaining course of action is to buy into a simplistic rejection of all things political, with a postmodern, shrugging updating of the 60s mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out”.

But Trueman is far too robust for such a course. And his appeal is a crucial one. For one of his concerns is that politics has become far too simplistic and Manichaean (ie dualism where everything is a matter of ‘us’ (the goodies) vs ‘them’ (the baddies)) – and that the church has significantly contributed to the problem. He is clear – life is much too complex for that.

I would suggest that all Christians should vote, as part of their civic duty, but they should also feel pain when they mark the relevant box, knowing the trade-offs they are having to make as they do so, and how their action belies the complexity of reality. (p83)

Whose side is he on?

The scope of the book (despite the main text being only 100 pages) is vast. He manages to include a sympathetic potted history of Marxism, perceptive analyses of the prosperity gospel, US hot button issues like gay rights and abortion, Rupert Murdoch and the impact of automobiles on American culture – and that’s before we even consider his helpful, expert observations about history writing and objectivity. This is in part what makes his writing so enjoyable – he draws links that one never sees coming.

But this is primarily a book of political punditry. And so his politics matters and is explicit. He is what in Europe would be called left of centre (he openly confesses to be LibDem – though one wonders what difference the Coalition Government now would make to this) – which in the USA is regarded as practically communist. He is conservative theologically, and therefore conservative on some ethical issues – but definitely left on social issues like poverty. As the conservative Peter Lillback rightly notes in his foreword, this makes Carl more of the Old Left than new. This makes him an anomaly in his adopted country – he really doesn’t fit. He casts an outsider’s eye on contemporary US political realities; and so a real fear is that neither end of the political spectrum (Christian or otherwise) will listen to him – and therefore both will fail to heed what are some very important warnings.

So who’s side is he on? Well, he is someone who longs for truthfulness, integrity and genuine public service to mark public life (as illustrated by a powerful quotation from the amazing Vaclav Havel on the last page). And therefore all should take note.

The problems at both ends

Because he is no partisan, he is able to spot ironies and blind spots, and doesn’t pull punches in exposing them. Here is one fascinating example:

The most obvious is the way liberals and conservatives often flip-flop on whether big government is good or bad. It is a mantra of the Left that the federal government needs to take a larger role at home, where, apparently it can and should be trusted; but in foreign policy, the Left’s wisdom is that it can do almost nothing of any moral probity. On the Right, however, there is deep suspicion of the federal government in a domestic context; but invade somebody else’s country, and any criticism of the government is decried as unpatriotic and un-American. How can these things be? One plausible explanation is that the logic of Left and Right is shaped more by some form of story, which does not conform to the normal rules of logical analysis, but which nonetheless carries power for the true believer. (p89)

This comes in the context of a really helpful, though chilling, analysis of how narrative informs political discourse, rather than pesky things like facts and realities. It is interesting that only today, Nick Robinson’s BBC blog described the task of Cameron’s new Strategy guy at No10 as bringing much needed ‘narrative coherence’ to the Coalition after a choppy few months – though note how Ed Miliband’s Labour is equally attempting to dominate with their own ‘re-contaminate the Tory brand’ narrative.

Of course, politics, not to mention governing, is SO complex that communicating realities in a democracy is very hard. A story is much easier to tell – especially if it resonates with people who are hurting, struggling or confused. Stories rally troops, motivate action … ignore inconveniences. Ideal, then, if you want people to vote for you. Not so good if you value truth and integrity. And Trueman’s point is that Left and Right both play the same game (as Nick Robinson highlights).

It’s secularism – but not as we have it

One of the most helpful and powerful sections was Trueman’s identification of how secularism in the States has a religious face. I’m sure this is right – and it helps to understand that despite not really doing God in European politics, the US has much more in common culturally than it might care to admit.

Could it be that both Britain and America are both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such language? And could this create more problems for the American church than she typically likes to assume? (p23)

Somebody asked me recently whether Osteen and Hinn (2 key prosperity gospel preachers) were big in the UK. My answer was simple: no, not at all, nothing like they are in the USA. Why is that? came the follow-up to which I replied: They simply wouldn’t work in the UK, because the idiom is all wrong; the British do not respond to religious language the way many Americans do; thus, we have psychobabble self-help gurus, not prosperity preachers. Of course, both preach the same message: prosperity through realizing your own inner potential; but while the British equivalent is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity. (p27)

This makes perfect sense to me – and simply alerts us to the insidiousness of the secular mindset.

It’s what we’ve got – but that doesn’t make it perfect

Another key theme to the book is the danger of (especially the Christian Right) buying into the idea that Capitalism is the most theologically appropriate system. I don’t know many, if any, in the UK who have bought into this line – but it is clearly a big deal in the USA. And while he is pretty sure that there is no real viable alternative in a globalised world (some will no doubt dispute that – I’m not really in a position to argue either way), his case for a more nuanced and discerning approach is undeniably strong. Capitalism simply does not lead inevitably to the characteristics commonly identified as Christian virtue. This is because it presents many underlying challenges to virtue – here is my potted summary of his list (in pp71-77):

  • Economic prosperity can never necessarily be identified with divine blessing.
  • Capitalism requires a lack of contentment and degree of disaffection with the world in order to make it work. It also breeds a form of idolatry: “ascribing of divine power to things that in themselves do not possess such power, and, we might add, that can be done to systems such as capitalism just as easily as possessions such as golf clubs” (p74). Personal selfishness and acquisitiveness actually then morphs into a social virtue because you are upholding society and the system through your wallet (or credit).
  • What we could call financial Pelagianism: “the problem is not simply the gospel of salvation by consumption that they preach; it is also the idea that I am in control of my own destiny, that I hold the answer to my problems, that this lies in the creaturely realm… It is a form of Pelagianism, built on the idea that I am my own god who can work the miracle of my own happiness by what I do with my cash” (p74)
  • The fixation on rights of all kinds that a consumer mentality breeds (and this can be found on both Left (eg abortion rights) and Right (eg gun owners’ rights)) – and this is something that we see manifesting in church as well as society.
  • The market inevitably determines values and virtues: “Where consumer is king, ultimately taste and profit margins will triumph” (p75)

In summary of this point, then, Trueman states:

Christians must realize that capitalism has brought great goods in its wake; but it is not an unmixed blessing, and some of the things about which Christians become most hot under the collar, from the reshaping of the family to the ease of access to abortion, are not unconnected to the system that they often admire with so little critical reflection. (p77)

Well said… It seems so obvious – but so rarely articulated – perhaps because we have too many vested interests…

American in focus, but British in relevance

I suspect many on this side of the Atlantic will assume this has little relevance. But I would argue that it is of profound relevance over here – it is a very helpful analysis of what is happening in postmodern political discourse. But there is also another reason: some in UK Christian circles are finding themselves drawn to a US Christian Right culture-war mentality (this was particularly noticeable in the lead up to the 2010 UK General Election).

And that is something that, quite frankly, I find very scary. If ever there was a thought-through, theologically aware, warning not to go down that road, this is it. I suspect few if any will find themselves agreeing with everything he says (for all kinds of reasons). But that is all the more reason that thoughtful Christians should read this book. As he says

we are called to be good citizens in this world, and in a democratic society, that involves having as many well-thought-out and informed opinions on the things that really matter as time allows. It is incumbent on us not to surround ourselves with things that confirm our prejudices but to seek to listen to a variety of view points. (p58)

15
Feb

Heinrich Heine foresees the fragility of the cross in the face of Hitler’s Thor

Having finished Metaxas major biography of Bonhoeffer the other day, lots of things have jostled around my mind. I confess I skimmed bits of it (it is nearly 600pp including notes); I found the style a bit jarring at times (especially when he allows his inner satirist to get the better of him when describing Hitler’s Nazis; or when there is a sudden interruption of an incongruous colloquialism, such as the moment when Bonhoeffer ‘delivered an unrelenting homiletic bummer’ – p209!!); and I wasn’t too comfortable with some of the assumptions, or even appropriations, of his churchmanship (there has been quite a blogosphere debate about quite how evangelical it is possible to claim Bonhoeffer was).

But I learned a great deal – especially when Bonhoeffer is allowed to speak for himself, through his writings, letters and papers. This is a substantial book about an exceptional and challenging life. It is definitely worth investing time in.

However, one section blew me away – in the course of his discussion of the Nazi’s infamous book-burning orgy of May 1933, Metaxas quotes the poet Heinrich Heine at a couple of points…

Thus Germany would be ‘purged’ of the pernicious ‘un-German’ thoughts of authors such as Helen Keller, Jack London, and HGWells. Of course Erich Maria Remarque’s books were included, as were those of many others, including Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. In 1821, in his play Almansor, the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote the chilling words: “Dort, wo man Bucher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.”

Heine was a German Jew who converted to Christianity, and his words were a grim prophecy, meaning “Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too”. That night across Germany his books were among those thrown into the crackling flames. Sigmund Freud, whose books were also burned that night, made a similar remark. ‘Only our books? In earlier times they would have burned us with them.’ (p162)

But then Metaxas ends this chapter with these words:

Heinrich Heine’s famous words about the book burnings are often quoted and today are inscribed at the Opernplatz as a memorial of the ghastly ritual. But another passage from Heine’s works is perhaps more eerily prophetic of what would take place in Germany a century hence. They are the concluding words of his 1834 book, Religion and Philosophy in Germany:

Christianity – and this is its greatest merit – has somewhat mitigated the brutal German love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals… Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder… [W]hen you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world’s history, then you know that the german thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar, the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll. (p163)

Breathtaking, but terrifying, prescience.