If the last Q combo was a chronological mismatch of artist and poet, this one is seasonal. Today’s still been pretty warm for a British September day, so it’s perhaps rather incongruous to be thinking about winter. But a dear friend and colleague, Jennifer, sent me this all too brief poem last week, and so I felt it was a perfect combo contender.
Well, you work on one book for 5 years, and another one for 5 months, and whaddaya know – they appear on the same day! Well in the UK at least. Tim, the noble overlord of the Good Book Co had asked me to contribute to their little series, Questions Christians Ask a while back. But because a big annual conference in London had the issue of human nature as its main theme, the plan was to work on getting this out in time. Read more
I’ve no evidence to back up this claim, but I strongly suspect that those who have the news on 24/7 will go mad. Simply because 99.9% of news items (which usually consist in the urgent rather than the important) are bad – and when taken in such large doses, they can propel one into the deepest of pits. Or perhaps that’s just me. Anyway, we need antidotes, things that bring joy, delight and perhaps even a little dose of optimism. In other words, things to be grateful for.
Notice how none of my list involves spending much (if any) money. Which says something in itself, does it not…? Read more
Well, this is a first: a Quaerentia competition with REAL prizes (rather than the virtual Crunchie bars which I’ve so generously offered in the past! But the lovely people at IVP have given me a few free downloads of the recently published e-book of Cross-Examined. VERY exciting. Just what you always wanted for Christmas I’m sure. I completely realise that it’s themes are more to do with Good Friday and Easter Day, but it seemed reasonable enough to give them away for Christmas. Read more
One or two have asked for this, so here it is: the first of 3 talks given in the gaudy riot of Pugin-inspired colour that is Parliament’s Undercroft Chapel. This is a group that meets mostly weekly under Christians in Parliament. The next two are on 15th and 29th November. We’d decided to do 3 sessions from the opening chapters of Paul’s extraordinary and thoroughly contemporary first letter to the Corinthian church. Read more
We had a lot of fun on Friday night – some friends put on the most epic firework show you have ever seen, (which in fact caused people to come out of nearby restaurants to watch from the streets!), at which I’d been asked to give a 5 minute spiel. For your delight and delectation, here is the general gist:
Guy Fawkes: was he hero or villain? Well, that depends on your point of view, doesn’t it? It’s the classic problem of perspective. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. It just depends on which side you are on. History is of course written by the winners – and Guy Fawkes and his chums lost.
I guess most people aren’t bothered by that very much these days – it’s just an excuse for a bunfight, a bonfire and some rather spectacular fireworks. It’s all quite a laugh.
But the original night was no laughing matter. Robert Catesby, Guido Fawkes and a band of brothers placed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the Parliament cellars. 36! That is a lot of gunpowder – it would certainly have killed James I and decapitated the country. They were rising up against James’ clamping down on religious extremism in both Puritans and Catholics, who, in their different ways, undermined the authority of the crown.
But I don’t want to get into that. I just want to indulge in a little moment of propaganda. For something has been rattling round my head in the last week: what’s the difference between Guy Fawkes and Jesus!?
Now you might think that an odd question. But think about it – they had more in common than you might expect:
- they were both regarded with great suspicion by the political elites of Jerusalem and London
- they were both seen as political subversives and radicals
- they were both executed for treason.
We shouldn’t forget: just as the Court of King James was horrified by the gunpowder plotters, the Roman and Jewish authorities of Jesus’ day were in their different ways threatened by this Galileean carpenter.
But there was one crucial difference (despite the obvious fact that Jesus would never have committed an act of terrorism):
- Guy Fawkes was a subject of the king who attempted to kill his king. He suffered his own punishment by being executed for his own crime.
- But Jesus Christ was the king of kings who was executed by his subjects, not for what he’d done, but for what his subjects had done. He suffered the punishment for others’ crimes.
Now Guy Fawkes & co would certainly have changed British history forever if they’d succeeded. But Jesus DID change global history forever because he DID succeed. And we know that because of the resurrection – he was executed but didn’t stay dead. He rose again. That proves that death is not the end and that Jesus really is who he said he was: the king of kings. How many other kings have done that?
Now you may think this is a fairy tale: well I can assure you it’s not – it’s based on history and reality, evidence and truth. And that is why people like me feel the need to bang on about it. For this 2000-year-old event is of supreme relevance today. The amazing thing as a Christian, is knowing that my king loved me so much that he was willing to die for me – that’s how valuable I am to him. And that changes everything. How many other kings have done that? Most expect their subjects to die for them. But not this king. He dies for his subjects. And he did it for each of us.
So Jesus was different from Guy Fawkes! And while we should rightly have a laugh tonight – I would merely ask that you use it as an opportunity to give Jesus a second thought.
- JOHN: We are taken on the journey of discovery and personal introduction which the apostle John leads us on in his gospel. It is so good to see presentations of the gospel which are governed by how the gospel writers themselves offer them. We might naturally take things in a different order or with different emphases – but methodologically, what Mike does here is on much safer ground. And where aspects of the narrative seem remote or culturally alien to modern ears, Mike does a good job at explanation. What’s more, he doesn’t fall into the preacher’s trap of ignoring the simple fact that John’s gospel is a narrative, a story which demands to be (and stands the test of being) told as such and not trawled for theological coat hooks. Through this modern retelling, we’re drawn into the conversations and discussions Jesus had with real people all those years ago.
Of course a book that is solidly faithful to a text could be stodgy and dull, and thus the sort one would only want to put into the hands of the most dedicated enquirer. For although faithful textual explanations of the text must be the bare minimum, you need that extra something for a book like this…
- CONVERSATIONAL: My guess is that these started out as sermons which were then adapted into book form – and this gives them an accessible and immediate, almost conversational style. This book is therefore a very easy read (which is no mean feat in itself).
- FRESH & FUN: While of course Mike is not flippant when dealing with serious issues, he has a lovely lightness of touch and joie de vivre that sparkles through. This makes his illustrations vivid and captivating, and his humour is engaging and self-deprecating. There is both a humanity and clarity in all that he says. It’s certainly the only book I know that describes with chuckling compassion the human condition as being like a pod of beached whales (a running theme through the book), or likening Jesus claims’ to those of Mike pretending to be Elvis’ manager. There are lots of great one-liners and unusual angles which stick in the mind like grass burs.
This has been doing the web rounds – but in case you haven’t seen it, here it is: the 12 days of Christmas as you’ve never heard it before (with the Serengeti thrown in). Genius.
But did you know what this carol actually means? Well according to my only just recently moved on colleague, Paul Blackham, there is a lot more to this carol than first meets the eye (or ear for that matter):
It has got to be the most theologically intense Christmas song. I know that might sound odd… but it is a song written as a memory aid to teach Christian doctrine. It is one of several songs called “catechism songs”. I’m sure some already know this, but here is a complete list of the 12 gifts and their meanings:
- 1 Partridge in a pear tree = Jesus on the Cross
- 2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
- 3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity (Some think this is The Trinity, but this is not the case)
- 4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
- 5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the books of Moses
- 6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
- 7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit OR the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith
- 8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes (from the start of the Sermon on the Mount)
- 9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Spirit
- 10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
- 11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
- 12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed
Sadly, the carol’s Wiki page rather dismisses such an interpretation. But Paul has a PhD and knows about such things – so I’m going with him on this one.
A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL OUR READERS!
SEE YOU IN 2008 – we’re off for a week’s blogging-free break
There once was a man who was simply doing his job as he best understood it – but was vilified by his countrymen for not fulfilling their expectations of his duty. He kept his cool when emotions were running high. His political masters expected one thing in the circumstances, but he did another. A self-effacing and humble man, he did not seek the limelight. In fact when asked to comment on what he had done, his only response was to say ‘I did nothing’. But it was the very fact of his doing nothing that saved the world.
I’d never heard of him until this week – but it is doubtless due to the action, or rather inaction, of Stanislav Petrov, that you are still alive today and reading this post. What he did was kept secret until 1998 (sorry but I’m a bit slow on the uptake with these sorts of things). Apparently a documentary is coming out next year about him what he did was nothing less than single-handedly averting World War 3, towards the end of the cold war. Soviet-US relations were tense because 3 weeks before the incident, Soviet fighters had shot down a Korean passenger plane, which killed everyone including a US Congressman.
Stanislav Petrov was a Strategic Rocket Forces lieutenant colonel, the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow on September 26, 1983. Petrov’s responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear missile attack against the Soviet Union. In the event of such an attack, the Soviet Union’s strategy was an immediate nuclear counter-attack against the United States, specified in the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction.
At 00:40 hrs, the bunker’s computers identified a US missile heading toward the Soviet Union. Petrov considered the detection a computer error, since a United States first-strike nuclear attack would hypothetically involve hundreds if not thousands of simultaneous missile launches to disable any Soviet means for a counterattack. Furthermore, the satellite system’s reliability had been questioned in the past. Petrov dismissed the warning as a false alarm, though accounts of the event differ as to whether he notified his superiors or not after he concluded that the computer detections were false and that the United States had not launched any missile. Later, the computers identified five additional missiles in the air, all directed towards the Soviet Union. Petrov once again concluded that the computer system was malfunctioning, despite there being no other source of information to confirm his suspicions. The Soviet Union’s land radar was not capable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon and waiting for them to positively identify the threat would limit the Soviet Union’s response time to mere minutes.
Should Petrov have disregarded a real attack, the Soviet Union would have been struck by several nuclear missiles. Had he reported the incoming American missiles, his superiors might have launched a catastrophic assault against their enemies, precipitating a corresponding nuclear response from the United States. Petrov trusted his intuition and declared the system’s indications a false alarm. Later, it was apparent that his instincts were right: no missiles were approaching and the computer detection system was malfunctioning. It was subsequently determined that the false alarms had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites’ Molniya orbits (an error later corrected with cross-reference to a geostationary satellite).
Petrov later indicated the influences in this enormous decision included the facts that he had been told a US-strike would be all-out, that five missiles seemed an illogical start, that the launch detection system was new and not yet in his view wholly trustworthy, and that ground radars were still failing to pick up any corroborative evidence even after minutes of delay. (From the Wiki page on Petrov).
So by doing nothing and saying nothing, Petrov saved the world. Despite this, he got into serious trouble with his bosses: he was reprimanded, transferred and finally dismissed, resulting in a nervous breakdown and retirement into poverty.
Perhaps I’m overegging things a little here and there are of course many differences: but I couldn’t help but be reminded of another despised figure who refused to speak and thus speeded his own demise, while at the same time ushering in a new global era of peace – but with a far grander scope: peace with God.
Taken last night on the tube on my phone – hence the rubbish quality. But rather a classic juxtaposition, don’t you think
On the left we have an advert for yet another grim, celeb chef programme on the TV – Hell’s kitchen. I was taking a photo of it anyway as an example of crass but speaks-truer-than-it-knows advertising. It was then that a friend, Charmaine Muir, noticed what the next ad along the wall was for – the new film Atonement. One of the press descriptions of the film said that it was ‘a revelation’.
Well the combination of ads certainly was that – and it added up to more than the sum of its parts – and to think that it was all on the wall of St Paul’s tube station. I suspect the apostle would be quite impressed.
For those who have ears to hear and eyes to see…
Well, i’ve finished HP7 at last. And in common with a frighteningly large number of others, I now feel the need to add my voice to the veritably wiki-sized catalogue of comments. I should come clean: having read the first 4 books, I lost steam (they all seemed to blur into one). But because the film we wanted to see the other day wasn’t on, Rachel & I saw The Order of the Phoenix, which means that the only one i didn’t read/see was the 6th (Half-Blood Prince). I mildly regret this because there were a few gaps that i could have done with filling before book 7 (but it was nothing that Wikipedia couldn’t sort out). Having now finished HP7, I confess to feeling a little bereft. The parallel universe of Wizards and Muggles (or non-wizards) is, on reflection, as engrossing and awe-inspiring a spectacle as they come. It is not without its questions and concerns, which I’ll come to in a mo. But impressive it certainly all is.
It’s all too easy to knock successful things – after all, who wants to look as though they’re following the crowd of several billion schoolchildren? But you have to admit that very often things are successful for a reason (though this is not always the case – quite why Posh & Becks, or even Jordan & Peter, STILL cause such media interest will always remain a puzzle). It would be churlish in the extreme to deny the many causes of Potter’s supremacy. I will do my level best to avoid plot spoilers!
THE SECRETS OF HER SUCCESS
Rip-roaring yarns – Rowling’s might not be the greatest writing (as many critics seem to persist in observing – and there were occasions when the style did clunk a bit – but to be fair, how do you keep coming up with new metaphors for fear welling up inside Harry when he seems to have spent his entire schooling being terrified out of his brains?). But you cannot doubt her page-turning genius. Once an HP book is started, it requires an almost impossible act of will to look up and engage with one’s real-world surroundings. The narrative bounds along at such pace that one is constantly justifying squeezing in ‘just one more chapter’. How those who read HP7 when it first came out without the excuse of being on holiday or shirking work and other responsibilities is a mystery to me.
Intricate Narrative Puzzles – the thing that has really blown my mind with HP7 is that intricacy of the plot. It is clear that the narrative arc of all 7 stories was planned from the start. Half-remembered details and very minor characters suddenly have a clear and sometimes integral significance once you see the whole. It is quite simply an incredible achievement.
Consistently brilliant invention – round every corner, there are new details bringing this parallel universe to life – from the Weasley twins’ confectionery business interests to the genius of the Room of Requirement, Shrieking Shack and Hagrid’s menagerie, not to mention Dementors, Horcruxes and the range of state of the art broomsticks (!).
Consistently funny – this is one of the things that seems to have attracted adults as much as children to the books – because there really are some laugh-out-loud moments. It is refreshing how much of the humour is without malice and generally good-natured. That is not to be sniffed at all in our self-satisfyingly cynical age. Having said that, HP7 is definitely the darkest of the series (as the publishers love to remind us), and there is therefore less humour and light-heartedness all round.
Likeable though flawed characters – there is a realism about the main characters, for all the unreality of the magic and wizardry. The baddies are of course rather pantomimish (eg whenever the Malfoys appear, you can almost hear the boo-hisses in the cheap seats), although some are especially intriguing – like Severus Snape. But even though we are rooting for the good guys, we see them battling against the odds with the hangups, insecurities, bickering and petty feuds that are all too recognisable from our own, rather more mundane, existence. And that is why we like them.
Satisfying and moving conclusion – to be honest, I didn’t really believe that interest could be sustained all the way through 7 HUGE books, or worse, that Rowling could possibly deliver a denouement to do justice to the promise of the early books. But it is and she does! I was racing through to the end desperate to find out how it all fitted together – and there were things that i never anticipated but made perfect sense by the end (especially in terms of the 7th Horcrux & the role of Snape). Some bloggers have confessed to some disappointment, but i think it does the job well. While i was sad to finish, i was satisfied – which is in and of itself no small achievement.
THE GOSPEL OXYGEN SHE BREATHES
So much for the plus points. There are probably many others, but these seemed to be the main ones. But what has zapped me between the eyeballs (especially in HP7) is how CHRISTIAN it all is. Yes, i know that is perhaps surprising to some. But others have noticed it as well – but it has really stimulated these little grey cells. Rowling’s HOGWARTS definitely seems to me to originate from the same muse as Tolkein’s MIDDLE EARTH & Lewis’ NARNIA (though perhaps has more in common with Tolkein than Lewis because the allusions are less obvious). This needs a bit of explanation. Of course, Harry Potter is nothing like as literary and nor is it written as detailed allegory – but I’m talking about the oxygen Rowling breathes, the worldview she inhabits, which seems profoundly Christian.
The Battle between good v evil: many Hogwarts advocates pick up on this and rightly so. Basic to the whole saga is the perennial battle between good and evil. But there’s more to it than that – for of course, how good and evil are defined these days varies immensely. In Rowling’s world, good seems best exemplified by the members of the Order of the Phoenix, who epitomise the virtues of friendship, loyalty, love and self-sacrifice – all in the context of the pursuits of wisdom and humility (hence Dumbledore’s confession about his own lack of humility as a young man, as recorded near the end of the book). These virtues are what Christians aspire to, even if we fail to attain them. They are in contrast to the behaviour of the Death-Eaters – it is each man and woman for him- or herself, and loyalties (such as they are) tend to last only as long as they are useful (eg Voldemort’s treatments of the Malfoys and Snape in HP6 & 7).
The Dominance of Death: Rowling has made no secret of the fact that death is an obsession – and it overshadows the whole HP series. After all, the whole point of Harry’s mystique is that he didn’t die when Voldemort killed his parents. And, as someone who read Classics at university (hinted by the fact that nearly all the spells and curses in the books are in Latin – well, a Latin of sorts), Rowling clearly seems to be hinting something by Voldemort’s name. Harry’s nemesis and arch-enemy has death in his name – and of course in character, he is heartless and chillingly oblivious to the suffering & lives of others.
In her conception for the books, Rowling had some very clear rules for herself. Here she is in an American radio interview (given after the 3rd book had come out) (grateful to Tony Watkins excellent Damaris review for this link & quote):
Lydon: Peter, what is your guess about Lily – the real story about Harry’s mother?
Peter: Er – I don’t really know, but I’m guessing that maybe she is going to come back to life, maybe in the seventh book or something like that …
JKR: Well, it would be nice, but – I’ll tell you something – you’ve raised a really interesting point there, Peter, because when I started writing the books, the first thing I had to decide was not what magic can do, but what it can’t do. I had to set limits on it immediately, and decide what the parameters are. And one of the most important things I decided was that magic cannot bring dead people back to life; that’s one of the most profound things, the natural law of of death applies to wizards as it applies to Muggles and there is no returning once you’re properly dead. You know, they might be able to save very close-to-death people better than we can, by magic – that they have certain knowledge we don’t, but once you’re dead, you’re dead. So yeah, I’m afraid there will be no coming back for Harry’s parents.
From Accio Quote
Now this is significant because it is a direct correspondence with the real world – death remains as much of an enemy for wizards as it does for muggles. Which is the background for the first of 2 scriptural thunderbolts in HP7: 1 Corinthians 15:26: ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death.’ To say that death is a central preoccupation of the Bible is an understatement. From Genesis 3 and the expulsion from Eden onwards (especially after the unique death drumbeat genealogy of Gen 5), it remains the enemy to beat all enemies, the fear of which is the one that stands over all fears. You could even say that an answer to death is the Bible’s supreme concern. So it is no wonder that it is a concern to someone breathing gospel oxygen (if i can put it like that).
Ethical Concerns: there are a number of sub-themes which resonate with a Christian worldview (although of course that is not to imply they are exclusively Christian). The biggest is the opposition to the racism behind the Death Eaters’ agenda: to wipe out so-called mudbloods (ie non Wizard-born wizards) and to control and oppress all muggles. The Order of the Phoenix is determined to stand against this (hence the need for Phoenix protection of the British Prime Minister in no 10). And Harry is himself consistently open to relationships with non-Wizards (despite his own genetic purity) – from Dobby the house-elf to muggle-born wizards like Hermione. Very often, it is these friends who come to his rescue at the most crucial moments.
But the spells and charms?? Many Christians are understandably disturbed by the wizardry in the books – and it is there on every page. After all the series is set in a school for wizardry! Of course, we should never underestimate the seriousness and dangers of the occult. The spiritual world is real and not all of it is benign. And the essence of animism and a great deal of occult practice is to seek ways to manipulate the spiritual realm for one’s own agendas. We must be clear about this. Now, perhaps I’m being naive here, but i am not sure that it is entirely fair to dismiss the HP books on these grounds. This is not necessarily the thin end of the wedge.
They are clearly set in a fantasy world – but to reject Hogwarts because it is fantastical would mean (for consistency’s sake) rejecting all kinds of other children’s fiction – eg Peter Pan, Superman, Beatrix Potter etc, not to mention Middle Earth & Narnia. But children can tell the difference much more than we give credit for (or even than video game junkies can, which i think is far more serious a problem). Fantasy surely has its rightful place in the canon of children’s literature (whatever that is).
Magic and spells in fiction are not necessarily unhelpful or unchristian – after all, in Middle Earth, there is a magical good v evil battle when Saruman fights Gandalf; and then think of the wonderful Creation narrative in The Magician’s Nephew as Aslan magically sings Narnian life into existence (which is in total contrast to the destructive rage of Queen Jadis in her home world of Charn). No one disputes the Christian power of these two fantasies. Why shouldn’t HP have resonances with the gospel as well?
What matters in the book is not the spells and magic per se, but what they are used for. There is a moral framework surrounding them. This leads to the next and most important main point here.
It is love not magic that matters in the end. Without wanting to spoil too much, the dramatic denouement of HP7 is actually about NOT using magic to defeat death – or rather an approach that completely catches Voldemort off guard, because it is about a powerless and selfless sacrifice that turns the evil magic in on itself. There are clearly resonances here with Aslan’s deeper magic in The Lion, the Witch & The Wardrobe, both in terms of his own sacrifice and the means by which Jadis is destroyed. And surely it is here that the gospel oxygen is at its most detectable. For in the New Testament, there is no alternative means to destroying death than by a powerless and selfless sacrifice which turns the evil of sin in on itself. Such sacrificial love is simply incomprehensible to the Death Eaters and those in their thrall – again without revealing too much, it explains why Voldemort never really understood Snape, but why Dumbledore always did.
- Other hints of the gospel?
King’s Cross – I agree with Tony Watkins here; it is surely more than coincidence that King’s Cross is the station chosen to reach Hogwarts from, and more significantly, that is the venue for the dazzlingly surreal conversation Harry has with Dumbledore in HP7. For surely it was the cross of a king that was the means to defeating death in the real world? (Photo taken from Wiki)
The annual celebration of Christmas – I’m not sure about this, but isn’t it interesting that even in this magical, fantastical world, Christmas always features? Probably reading too much here – and it may be simply the fact that Christmas Day festivities are eagerly anticipated for the pressies by children all over the western world, regardless of whether they are Christian or not. But Rowling could easily have substituted it with a wizard/pagan equivalent that one might have expected was more in keeping with the ambiance of Hogwarts. Philip Pullman (of His Dark Materials fame) certainly would have done.
Now some of Harry Potter’s more strident Christian critics will no doubt suggest that this doesn’t exactly amount to a full-orbed explanation of the Christian message (ie Creation, Sin/Fall, Redemption, New Creation). Fair point – it doesn’t. But then, so what!? Does every narrative have to have the same storyline? Does every character have to have the same flaws or life goals? Of course not. That would be irredeemably dull. Fiction is meant to transport us, but also, paradoxically, to reveal reality to us (well as it seems to me anyway). And there are such profound things going on in JKR’s world that i definitely want to encourage my children to read and learn from her. The heart of the books – death and Voldemort being defeated by humble, self-sacrificial love – is as Christian as it gets.
In case this has all got a bit too heavy/serious for you, here is some light silliness to finish with:
There are geniuses (genii??) in adland. They have their finger on the pulse far more than most, and certainly far more than most Christians. I have to say that I’m in awe a lot of the time when its good and/or clever. It was certainly a genius who came up with these. The secpmd (as i understand it) is a UK derivation of the US original – which appeared in San Francisco and New York (ie far enough apart to prevent rats being smelled too quickly). The US version plugged a CourtTV programme; the UK version plugged MySpace. The latter was particularly clever, appearing in central Birmingham, because it generated huge amounts of chatter (on local and national radio, newspapers (incl Daily Mail)) and above all caused people to check out the ‘Jane’s Revenge’ MySpace page. I did! And you can too – Jane’s Revenge.
The thing is – and this is what really struck me about these ads – they are clever not just because they are creative but because they really do tap into the zeitgeist (hmm, i always feel that its good to throw in the odd German word to lend credibility – which is a bit of a problem because i don’t know many). Marital infidelity (wow, that sounds like an old-fashioned phrase when put like that, doesn’t it?) is SO common that it is just an accepted part of the landscape. But that means so are the casualties – while Jane, Mark & Shelley (and Steven & Emily) are figments of an imaginative brain, they are nevertheless all too familiar and recognizable. And that is why i, along with countless others, was taken in for a time. While extreme perhaps, “Jane’s” behaviour didn’t seem entirely implausible. She might not have been real – but the feelings of rage, humiliation and agony are for far too many.
And I came across all this while preparing for last Sunday’s sermon on Hosea, that poor OT prophet who had to live out an extraordinary living parable through his own marriage. And while the feelings of humiliation and rage that God feels about the people who’ve forsaken him are similarly understandable (a fact that many people today simply dismiss unthinkingly), the MORE astonishing thing is the contrast that his attitude has with that of the Janes of this world. I’ll quote from both to see it most clearly.
First from the Jane’s Revenge MySpace entry:
Don’t bother phoning, don’t bother calling around, as far as I am concerned neither of you exist! TO ANYONE WHO HAS EVER GONE THROUGH BEING LIED TO AND CHEATED ON… They say revenge is sweet, it doesn’t feel sweet; but it feels great to no longer be the little paranoid women at home, and finally be able to take control of my own life again…
And then a few weeks later, “Jane” added:
To all you who have sent kind words – thank you. Life is going on… (as you said it would)… I have not even entertained the thought of taking him back… I am a strong woman… and myself and the children are just living our lives the best we can!
Clever isn’t it?! This advertising comes supplied with all mod cons (including bad grammar and spelling but visceral emotions and pain). But notice the words highlighted: not even entertained the thought… And who can blame her?
Now contrast this with what God says to his two-timing and multi-timing people:
I will punish her for the days she burned incense to the Baals; she decked herself with rings and jewellery and went after her lovers, but me she forgot, declares the Lord. Therefore…
well, Therefore what? Legal Separation? Annulment? Divorce? No.
Therefore, I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. Hosea 2:13-14
These two verses are the hinge of the whole passage and of God’s relationship with his people – for quite simply, and unbelievably, he does not give the unfaithful what they deserve. On the contrary, he woos them back and takes them back to the place of their first date (the desert was where he supplied ALL their needs after the Exodus). That is a picture of his AMAZING grace if ever there was one. Thank God he’s not like Jane or Emily… or me.
If you want to hear more you can download the whole sermon
Couple of interesting observations from the last few days.
First is from Private Eye (Issue 1187, p6) this week that quoted some market research carried out by Playboy UK Magazine (!). The mag’s executives wanted to discover which newspapers their readers regularly buy:
One title led the field by a mile, and they are now drawing up plans for cross-promotions and other marketing campaigns using the newspaper. The Daily Star, perhaps? Of course not. The news organ of choice for Playboy readers is … the Daily Telegraph.
Well, i never… I may have to reconsider my subscription… of the latter, of course, not the former.
But i suppose it just goes to show what the vast majority of people think – namely, that what you do in private is nobody else’s business. As long as you look respectable (which you can do from wandering around with the Telegraph under your arm – after all it is still the UK’s most popular broadsheet), you can get up to all kinds of stuff behind closed doors. People seem to have failed to spot the moral quicksand we enter if we think that who i am behind closed doors does not affect who i am out on the street… Please note, I’m not being moralistic here, nor superior, nor even saying I’m immune from the temptations – merely stating what i think is the completely obvious. You tell me that porn never does any harm – well, I’ll just introduce you to the marriage partners who’ve felt betrayed and humiliated on discovering their spouse’s addiction to ogling other people’s bodies.
Second is from the BBC Online Magazine, about middle class criminality – which is apparently rampant!
Surveying 1,807 adults in England and Wales, researchers found that 61% admitted to having committed a crime at some point. Subjects were given a list of 10 petty crimes to choose from, including paying in cash to avoid tax, taking something from work, and exaggerating an insurance claim. Presumably, that 61% would be higher still if the list had included a wider range of crimes, such as downloading music and copying software illegally.
While only 3% of those surveyed have gone for falsely claiming benefits, one in three of us have kept the money when given too much change. The same proportion have paid “cash in hand” to avoid taxation. The report authors Susanne Karstedt and Stephen Farrall concluded crime does not belong to the margins of society and there is no “law-abiding majority”. The respectable middle classes, they say, are a “seething mass of morally dubious, and outright criminal, behaviour“.
Quite a statement that last one. I assume the authors had a tongue planted firmly in their cheeks as they said that – or at least most would expect so because we don’t honestly think these things constitute criminality, do we? But whatever we call it, the truth is, these things go on. And here’s the point.
WE HIDE IT WELL, don’t we!? If we’re good at anything, we’re good at masks. The ancient Greeks had it right, then. All Greek drama was done behind masks – anyone who has seen a Greek tragedy performed like that will know the incredible emotional impact such a technique can have. You are distanced from the actor and his personality, and instead forced to focus on the power of the play (and the script in particular) in conveying emotional, dramatic and moral truth. For there was a tacit recognition that an actor could never manage that dramatic ideal – the human being would always get in the way. Masks had their uses then. But as preachers just love to point out, the Greek word for actor was ‘υποκριτης – (and i usually cringe when preachers quote derivations because they are often if not normally off beam – but in this case it is more or less OK) from which we derive the word hypocrite. This derivation is OK because what we mean by hypocrisy is precisely the same as its root – it is acting. The inner reality doesn’t match up with the outer reality.
And here is the big shock. I AM A HYPOCRITE!!! And so, i suspect, are you! I make no bones about this. It’s just a matter of looking in the mirror, of facing facts. I have a feeling i will need to say more about this in future, but i leave this hanging for now (and for fun)! But i do think that this is an essential apologetic line we need to take more often than we do. This is not moral defeatism – for we Christians really should live better than we do. We’re told to live like Jesus, after all. It’s just that for all my aspirations, exhortations and public appeals, I’m still a moral failure in need of divine forgiveness (which i just happen to have found)! To pretend otherwise is hypocritical – and i do pretend you know. Far more than i would like to admit.
some of you may be interested in the fact that two recent series of talks are now available to download for FREE on iTunes. I suppose they complement one another a bit, in that both were recorded at 1-day seminars at All Souls in the last year and both seek to present the big picture – the first of the Bible, the second of western culture over the last 1000 years or so!
Just click on the images to get the respective link
These 5 talks trace the Bible’s story under the banner theme of HOPE – what gives us hope today? The foundational verse is:
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Romans 15:4
A journey in 5 parts:
- 1. ESTABLISHED HOPES: Genesis to Babel
- 2. FOUNDATIONAL HOPES: Abraham to Moses
- 3. DISAPPOINTED HOPES: Joshua to Exile
- 4. REALISED HOPES: Exiled People to Jesus People
- 5. ENDURING HOPES: Last Days to Last Day
Referring to all kinds of movies, songs, works of art, this traces the worldview journey taken in the west over the last 1000 years – it is necessarily brief and a birds-eye view, but it will hopefully provide a helpful introduction and map for understanding our so-called ‘postmodern’ world.
- 1. Where have we come from?
- 2. Where on earth are we?
- 3. Where do we go from here?
I can’t tell you how exciting it is to get these photos. To some it might look like an ordinary photo of an everyday scene – the sort of thing that happens in nearly every country in the world. But for those of us who have been involved with KEST (Kampala Evangelical School of Theology), this was a moment that seemed far off, if not downright impossible, on the bleaker days – but dreams do come true sometimes. And these pictures are the evidence.
The seeds of KEST were sown in 1989 by some visionary Ugandan leaders – at a time when life was still particularly tough in Uganda. Museveni had only come to power 3 years before, and before him the country had been plagued by a cycle of lethal regimes and unrest. The genius of the dream for KEST was the realisation of the need to teach and train future generations of pastors and Christian leaders in an integrated and holistic, African-oriented and inter-denominational setting. No one else in Uganda had that vision – and it remains almost unique in that part of the world. But the struggles and hurdles sometimes seemed mountainous. We battled with issues of accreditation, student recruitment and inter-denominational balance, money, resources, staff recruitment and salaries, property, thefts, etc etc etc. Nothing unusual there then.
But i always had a strong conviction that the Lord was in this thing. A verse that i ripped out of context but which seemed to apply to the work was Philippians 1:6 (because even though Paul meant it for the work God was doing in the lives of Philippian individuals, it did seem to be applicable to other things that God gets involved in, simply because we know his character. He never gets bored or does a botched job – he might stop something when it has served its purpose, but it always seemed to me that in the early days, KEST hadn’t yet had its chance fully to serve a purpose and fulfill a potential). Miracles were not uncommon. We were able to buy the property outright in the mid 90s; we were given significant gifts to develop the library and computer resources at the school. We’d examine the finances on or around the 15th of every month and realise that paying salaries that month looked impossible – and every month they seemed to get paid. We very quickly drew in some impressive men and women to come and train – with what was a very ambitious curriculum for a college so young and fragile. We taught everything from Pastoral Ministry to Christian Counselling, Christian Development Studies and Communications. Seems crazy looking back on it all. But it all still happened somehow!
You may perhaps be wondering why i use the word ‘we’ – well, Rachel & I with 2 very small children moved to Kampala in the summer of 2001 as associate mission partners of CROSSLINKS. I was to join the KEST faculty as lecturer in Biblical Studies in time for the commencement of full-time training that September. It was all fairly chaotic and rudimentary – no one actually knew when that first term would actually end, for example! And we only had around 14 students and a not very clear idea of what was actually IN the curriculum! But still, it all happened. We grew pretty quickly – doubling student numbers for the next couple of years (not hard when you start small, i know!). I got sucked out of the classroom, first to become Academic Dean and then Acting Principal. Shame really as i loved the teaching and getting to know some of the students (like the ones in the 2nd photo, all of whom i taught at various points). But it was the right thing to do at the time and for a time – and I was able to have a small part to play, alongside many others, in the building of the school.
One of the constant questions i would be asked by the students was when will we have the Graduation. I used to dread it – because i could never say with certainty – so many things depended on it and yet having it depended on so many other things, some of which were completely beyond my control (like our academic accreditation for one thing). But at last the dream has become reality – and KEST has its first class of graduates! I only wish i could have been there last month – but this blog posting will have to suffice as my expression of commitment and partnership with them all. (This last picture was taken at a Langham Partnership Refresher day conference – when free theological books were given out to all the delegates. Here with Isaac Sanyu, who is now pastoring in downtown Kampala.)
SO CONGRATULATIONS to Principal, Rev. Dr Solomon Nkesiga, and all the faculty and, above all, GRADUATING STUDENTS. This is a mighty achievement! But of course, the real work starts now – because this was what it was all about in the first place: training for ministry. ALLELUIA!
Grateful to Steve Smith who sent the graduation photos to me today; he’s part-time with KEST & AMG Uganda.
Well, it wasn’t all fun, fun, fun – there was some work as well – but it was full of joy. We all met at a government-owned training hotel in Runaway Bay on Jamaica’s north coast (what a great idea that is – 90% of the staff are students training to work in the hotel industry across the Caribbean – each has to spend a few months doing all the various jobs needed in a hotel – from the front desk to cleaning the rooms via the kitchens and waitering). There were around 80 delegates on the conference, from around 7 or 8 different denominations and representing the whole island of Jamaica.
United by Language
This is the only country that i’ve visited with Langham where English is everybody’s first and only language – and what a difference that makes. In fact, Bishop Harry Daniel, one of the leading lights behind Langham’s work in Jamaica, told the story of how years back he was filling an application form to study at an American college which asked him to fill in a box on the standard of his English – he left it blank because it seemed unnecessary. For he was from JAMAICA, after all! The truth is, from my little experience of being there, many Jamaicans have much better English than Brits, let alone Americans. But far more significant that simply sharing a language, it really felt like a meeting of minds – sharing the joys and challenges of ministry with people who face similar issues despite huge differences in culture and context.
There’s an old gag about the student who was asked to name the 10 commandments in any order, to which his response was “3, 6, 1, 8, 4, 5, 9, 2, 10, 7”. Ha ha – that sort of humour i know will appeal to handful of you out there (well one in particular – you know who you are).
But anyway – a while back i was talking to someone about the 10 commandments (as you do – though i don’t do this very much, mind – but then again, perhaps i ought to). The response i got was not exactly original – but i was still rather taken aback by it: “Why focus so much on that part of the Bible? It’s such a NEGATIVE passage, isn’t it?” Well – yes, it does include a lot of NOT’s and so in that sense i had to agree. But is it really that negative? Sure, it exposes our shortcomings and that makes us feel bad. Many people don’t appreciate having that happen, which is fair enough i suppose. I can’t say I particularly enjoy it myself. But surely that says more about me than it does the commandments. The fact that I might feel bad is hardly the fault of the commandments themselves, is it?
For example, I love to dabble on the piano or with a paintbrush from time to time and these things help me relax. More importantly they help me appreciate even more the true experts and masters. I can listen to an Alfred Brendel or Keith Jarrett CD, or look at a Rembrandt or Hockney, and feel depressed that they far surpass me artistically – but I certainly don’t blame them for that (even if I am more than a little bit jealous – oops, there goes another one broken). They give me something to aspire to, to head towards. So it is with the Commandments. Because just think what it would be like if we lived in a world where they were kept. It would be a very different world. In fact it would be unrecognisable, i suspect. Because when you stop to think about it, the vast majority of structures built into human societies are ultimately necessary precisely because we fail to keep the principles laid down in the Commandments. How much better things would be if we didn‘t actually need security guards, inspectors, police, courts, unions, ombudsmen, arbitration panels, traffic wardens, social workers, marriage counsellors, etc, etc. Now remember, this is not a description of anarchy. It is a description of a truly other-person centred society.
15 years ago, someone wrote into the Guardian Newspapers Notes & Quotes pages asking a simple question on these lines. Here was one response:
How many jobs would be lost if everyone in Britain behaved lawfully?
Take the single instance of people paying for their train fares without cheating and the effect of their honesty on society. First, we would not need tickets. Literally tons are bought every day and thrown away after a short use, so printing them, delivering them, stamping them, checking them, collecting them and disposing of them provides a considerable amount of work, which serves no purpose in actually transporting people. The railway staff involved in the above work require uniforms, accommodation, equipment. Their job is to check people and not transport them. The barriers, technical equipment and automatic ticket machines cost millions in development and upkeep, and need to be updated constantly. These prevent the free flow of traffic, so cause other problems that have to be paid for in station design, making stations far larger than they need be, and creating problems beyond the stations themselves. A large amount of money is spent on advertising the consequences of ‘not paying one’s fare’ and more money spent prosecuting those who don’t, which in turn provides the courts with work. So, given that people were honest on rail fares alone, travelling by train would be cheap and fast but would certainly put tens of thousands of people out of jobs. Although it is not possible to say how many jobs would be lost if everyone were honest, it is generally accepted that about 5% of the population can provide the rest with all the food, clothing, shelter and fuel we need to survive, and that the rest of us are simply doing jobs that have no real purpose other than filling in the day. To that extent unlawful behaviour – like war – is a great job creator.
Stan Hayward, London NW2 (Quoted in NOTES & QUERIES 4 (ed. Brian Whitaker), Fourth Estate, London, 1993)
It all seems rather a pipedream and when put in purely economic terms like that, the cynics (or realists as they would inevitably call themselves) might assume there is no practical alternative to the status quo. There is a cruel irony in the fact though that while we might aspire to this sort of Utopian society, as soon as we try to create one we fail miserably. As the philosopher Karl Popper rightly observed: “Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell.” For we human beings seem to have an innate desire to grasp and exploit authority for our own ends and to resist others’ authority because it feels restrictive and constraining – we value our autonomy too highly and legitimise it by calling it freedom. So what alternative is there in the face of this apart from legislation, law enforcement and checks and balances? We can never legislate for utopia – the communists tried and failed. We’re back where we started.
The thing is – while the 10 commandments of course represent an unattainable aspiration, that should not stop us aspiring. And despite everything said so far, there is something far from unreal about them, even if they might be unrealistic for us. For what life do they actually describe – with their all-encompassing, God-centred, other-person-centred ethic? Surely it is none other than that ancient Galilean carpenter whom TS Eliot called ‘the still point of a turning world‘? He lived in time and space – and he was a category-defying, non-partisan, love revolutionary. And he is the one who alone offers to the ‘fallen short’ the outstretched arms of forgiveness.
The commandments surely ultimately present the best way to live. But they also point us to the only one who ever lived in complete compliance with them . The shock is that Jesus is at the same time the one who welcomes moral failures. That’s not the way you’d expect a moral perfectionist to behave is it!? But in compliance with his all-encompassing God- and other-people-centredness, it took him to the cross to rescue such moral failures. And now that we’ve been rescued, we have an even greater incentive to aspire to the commandments. What really depresses me is how often we fail to aspire – how complacent we are with the status quo personally, culturally, politically, globally. Christians should NEVER be satisfied with the status quo.
Which is why i’ve rather cheekily borrowed this American bumper-sticker. It is a small tool in the incessant war between the American liberal left and Christian right – and its inclusion doesn’t really represent a partisanship on my part. Merely the fact that Jesus was not politically partisan (although he was certainly very political) and that Christians must get on with living like him (as in fact many more conservative Christians are). Being right (in whatever sense of the word one takes it) on some moral issue or another can never be an excuse or justification for behaving in an un-Christlike way. I suspect that a conservative who truly behaved like Jesus might be no less controversial but allow only ‘the truth’ and ‘the good’ offend instead of their behaviour or attitudes.
thought i’d let you know about another recent musical discovery: a great Canadian singer, Miriam Jones. She’s made a couple of albums, both available on iTunes: sign and semblance (august 2005) and more recently being here (march 2007)
Hers is a very approachable folksy style, but one is very quickly drawn in by her raw honesty and emotional truth. This is what her website bio has to say:
Miriam Jones is a bold writer with a restorative, liberating, and whimsical voice. Her sound shares characteristics with the likes of Beth Orton, Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, and Delores O’ Riordan. Miriam shows herself at home in an acoustic and harmonic geography akin to David Gray, Iron & Wine, and Simon & Garfunkel. Her work is arresting in its artistry, but also possesses a lyrical depth intent on engaging the thoughtful listener.
“…a style of heart felt yearning from a performer that compels your attention.”
I love songs that can match lyrical music with profound lyrics. And you get that here in buckets. They are beautiful and thought-provoking. One that has got me going today is from the second album, called I AM ONE. In this song, Miriam brilliantly articulates the contradictions and paradoxes of being an everyday Christian. There is a sense of progression through the song and yet at the same time, each verse equally describes a simultaneous reality. Martin Luther once described the Christian as simul iustus et peccator (the only reason for quoting the Latin is that it is so wonderfully succinct!). What Luther was on about is the unavoidable but hugely important truth that a Christian is both a saint (literally someone who has been justified or made right with God) and a sinner (someone who rebels against God) at one and the same time. Miriam’s I AM ONE gets it all. Here are a few excerpts:
I am one of his disciples; I am one who bears his name
I am one of Satan’s rivals; I am one and I am … Unashamed
I am orphan made a daughter; I am a harlot made a wife
I am a poor man called to dinner; I am a stranger recognised
Though I am the image of a hidden glory
… Alleluia – I am home to coming king
I am one of his defiers; I am one of his runaways
I have fought him to the wire; I have cursed him to his face
I am one who he has pardoned; I am one who knows his grace…
Oh and for the sake of transparency – i should add at this stage that Miriam has recently got engaged to Jez, my brother-in-law, and they are getting married this summer! Hurrah. Canada’s loss is Britain’s gain!