The 3rd instalment…In my mind, these 2 songs go together – they’re both counter-cultural.
– Stand up for your love which is emphatically NOT RIGHTS (Stand Up Comedy)
– [then what appears to contradict the previous quote, there is one right that does still matter] the right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear. (I’ll Go Crazy) For this is essential if one is prepared to love.
But the important thing is that they counter the culture of both the world and the church (see the little old lady below) – because of LOVE! Which in many ways puts them on a more biblical trajectory than any of us might care to realise. But then, if there is the prophetic and psalmic in the songs on this album, this should not be surprising. And someone who speaks such a message is bound to get brickbats flung at them – from everybody. Just as well there is the personal relationship that supersedes all others – a question of vision taking precedence over visibility… (Moment of Surrender). That’s not to say that Bono takes himself too seriously – fortunately there are hints that he doesn’t… (although sometimes, one might wish he would take himself even less seriously than he does!).
Well, this is the song that makes ‘love’ come out so big on the wordle (see previous NLOTH post). It’s repeated over and over, despite being chanted almost inaudibly. It’s ramming the point home. But this is no soppy romanticism; it’s a call, not to arms of course, but to action. Or perhaps even better, it is a call to arms opened wide.
The tempo, driving rhythm section, the almost retro 70s feel (you can almost see Steve McQueen accelerating over a San Francisco rise) all serve to galvanise and propel us out … to love. This is the MLK dream. But there is an aspect of comedy to this standing up – because self-sacrificial love gets you into the most surreal, even absurd, situations (like when Bono & Geldof find themselves visiting the former Pope, Bush & Blair).
the wire stretched in between two towers… stand up in this dizzy world where a lovesick eye can steal the view. I’m gonna fall down if I can’t stand up for your love. Presumably the imagery is of Philippe Petit, the guy who did a tightrope walk in 1974 between the twin towers of the New York World Trade Center (and who is the subject of the recent documentary film, Man on Wire). Just thinking about stepping out onto such a rope is enough to make one balk with vertigo. But I’m gonna fall down if i can’t stand up for your love, or rather if i can’t serve in your love. It is risky love – but if we’re not serving ‘your love‘ what alternative is there but falling…? Could this have anything to do with Peter stepping out of the boat onto to the water…? ≈ Matt 14:24-33
the DNA lotto may have left you smart, but you can stand up to beauty, dictator of the heart it doesn’t matter what makes us who we are (whether our genes or upbringing or circumstances); the obsessions of our culture age (beauty, smarts) are no match for the fruit of the spirit and the Christian’s trinity: I can stand up for hope, faith, love (explicit reference of course to 1 Cor 13:13, Colossians 1:5, 1 Thess 1:3, 5:8). And of course the greatest of these is love.
But then here comes a provocative challenge to the church (and it’s one of the most powerful images of the whole album): But while I’m getting over certainty stop helping God across the road like a little old lady. Ouch. A hugely suggestive image and one that’s lodged firmly in my head (and it keeps reminding me of that youtube classic that did the rounds a couple of years ago, the old lady and the airbag!!). How many of us have presumed to think God owed it to us, looked to us, depended on us? Who do we think we are? Shush now, cease to speak that I may speak (Unknown Caller). This is all reminiscent of Psalm 50 – esp v7-10 – hear, o my people, and I will speak… I am God, your God… I have no need of a bull from your stall… for I have the cattle on a thousand hills). This is a rebuke the church STILL needs to hear, as we invest in our programmes, strategies and schemes – God is bigger than all of that. To suggest that we need to get over our certainty will for some be a red rag to a bull of course – esp those who fear all things postmodern. But then, if it is a matter of thinking we’ve got everything sussed and that our own way of doing God’s business is THE way, then such certainty surely justifies such a rebuke for what is little short of idolatry. God is sovereign – so get out from under your beds, c’mon ye people, and serve… with love…
But there is an absurdity in the fact that it takes a rockstar to rebuke the church (though perhaps not without precedence in that God will use fruit-farmers, revenue-men and even donkeys if he has to). And Bono has the grace in this song to realise that. He’s the first to admit that he has a healthy ego – but my ego’s not really the enemy. He’s a small child embarking across an 8-lane highway on a voyage of discovery (presumably like the proverbial chicken who crossed to find out what was on the other side). He knows that far from giving God a hand across the road, he’s the one who needs all the help he can get. The tongue is delightfully planted in his cheek though – he’s the little Napoleon in high heels… a small man with big ideas‘. Stand up to rockstars like that, if you must. But isn’t the point even if you think they’re absurd, egotistical and presumptuous little men, don’t lose sight of the point: love? Stand up for that. Why? well it’s obvious isn’t it? because God is love! (1 John 4:8-16) C’mon ye people…
A number of initial reactions have not taken kindly to this song, not least because of the title. It sounds a bit like the sort of improvised lyric that sounded cool at the time, but that doesn’t really say anything. But it is a multi-textured song, musically and lyrically. And like Stand Up, it’s about an almost desperate yearning to love – and without such love, I’ll go crazy. But in order to love like that, could it be that a little craziness will be involved? That’s the need to cry or spit, a sweet tooth‘s need for sugar – and this, my favourite – the need for every beauty to go out with an idiot? There is a madness to love, after all – hence the sadly archaic word, lovesick (cf. The Madness of Love by one Hadewijch of Antwerp). It’s even worse when unrequited – for a girl who’s a rainbow who loves the peaceful life. For how can you stand next to the truth and not see it – oh, a change of heart comes slow.
But there is surely/inevitably a spiritual element to this as well? As one reader, Jason Primuth, nicely observed in an email to me this week with his comparison with Jesus speaking to the pair on the Road to Emmaus – Lk 24:25-27. The chorus is resonant of the pilgrimage psalms – presumably no accident, if rumours of the follow up album later this year are to be believed (apparently to be called Songs of Ascent). Just as a human (marriage) relationship is a lifelong journey, so is that of the disciple – a journey all the way to the light. Do you believe me or are you doubting?
Every generation gets a chance to change the world – remember Bono at the G8 summit – “this is our moonshot“. Any confidence we can have is because the sweetest melody is one we haven’t heard. Is that just the-crock-of-gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow pipedream? Or something more tangible? Well, if there is a real perfect, love that drives out all fear. We’re back in the realms of that 1 John 4 passage again, (here quoting v18). And if this is precisely what love does, then it is no surprise that the right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear. Because, let’s face it, that’s exactly how a billionaire rockstar tackling global poverty looks! But so what! Who cares what the passersby think?
Love is a tough call, though. It is a mountain not a hill to climb. It takes time – a change of heart comes slow. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is shout – and go crazy and look ridiculous. And notice the shift in the final chorus: listen for me, I’ll be shouting, shouting to the darkness squeeze out sparks of light. cf. 1 John 5:5-9. But fortunately, yet again, this is no solitary journey – halfway, the song acknowledges Baby baby i know i’m not alone. She’s joined him. And the climb at the end is one where she is no longer doubting but they’re starting out together. And WE’RE going to go crazy if WE don’t go crazy tonight.
It is not everyday that you get positive religious news from the BBC. But having found myself stuck in Istanbul for an extra day (the result of the snow-enforced closure of Heathrow yesterday), I was watching BBC World with my lovely hosts, Robin & Lorna. And suddenly, on came a televised report by Robert Pigott from Ulan Baator about the re-emergence of religion on post-communist Mongolia. The indigenous traditional form of Buddhism has inevitably been reinvigorated. But what was most surprising was seeing evidence of the rapid growth of Christianity. And one clear point of his report is that it is the practical support and development that Christian workers bring to the country that has given the gospel a platform. We couldn’t believe our eyes!
On the televised report, he showed footage from a church and then from Union Bible college – somewhere that we’ve known a number of people who have worked there. I’ve not been able to find the video online but perhaps it will turn up at some point. But you can check out the radio report…
And on that report for From Our Own Correspondent, he focused on the work of MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) as well. MAF is a fantastic outfit, and we had good friends with them when we were in Uganda. How refreshing to hear something postive about the impact of global mission instead of the usual PC rants.
The tone reminded me somewhat of the now famous Matthew Parris article at Christmas about gospel work in Africa and how beneficial it was. What both Pigott and Parris seem to have overlooked is actually how beneficial it can be for the west again. But you’d never get the BBC saying that now, would you!?
Picked up by a number of blogs, Matthew Parris has written a brilliantly provocative piece in today’s Times: As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God. He has wonderfully resisted the western secular agenda that lies behind so many development agencies, despite being an avowed atheist, with its barely disguised disdain for what is fundamental to African culture and life. But Parris knows what Africa is like – he was brought up in what is now Malawi, and has returned many times. And more importantly, he has seen what Christians actually do, and what impact it actually has
But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
The fascinating thing in all this is that Parris refers to the Christian God and not any other (especially not the Muslim god). As someone who has reservations about the value of a lot of development work in Africa, i have to say that this article has made a hugely important contribution. If only people would take it seriously.
Read the whole article – and some of the comments are great too. Here are 3:
We had our annual World Needs Sunday last Sunday (21st Sept) – one of our 2 annual gift days at All Souls when we ask for lots of money so that we can give it ALL away! And each year the organizing team take a theme – this year it was WATER. I was oblivious to so many of the global realities (despite having lived in E. Africa) until I had to do some research in preparation for my sermon on Sunday night. It is truly terrifying. Here are a few (taken from UNDP, WaterAid, UN Water etc):
- 2.5 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation = almost 40% of world population.
- 1.8 million children die annually from diseases caused by unclean water and poor sanitation = 5,000 per day.
- African & Asian Women and girls walk an average of 6 km per day to collect water weighing up to 20 kg.
- 40 billion working hours are spent carrying water each year in sub-Saharan Africa = a year’s labour for the entire French workforce.
- £15 per head is all it costs for WaterAid to provide safe water, sanitation and hygiene education.
- For every £1 invested in sanitation, £9 is returned in increased productivity and
a reduced burden of healthcare.
The UNDP Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is just one route to making a difference.
- 1.2 billion people gained access to sanitation between 1990 and 2004.
- 1.8 billion people will still need sanitation even if the 2015 MDGs sanitation goal to halve the proportion of people without sanitation is reached.
- Cost of meeting both the water and sanitation MDGs targets every year until 2015 is US$11.3 billion.
- Cost of meeting the sanitation MDGs target every year until 2015: US$9.5 billion. If the same investment was sustained, it could achieve basic sanitation for the ENTIRE WORLD within 20 years.
Now you think that’s a lot of money – until you read this. It’s inexcusable, don’t you think?
- US$9.5 billion a year is only 1% of annual world military expenditure
- US$9.5 billion a year is roughly 33% of annual world bottled water expenditure
One illustration of the seriousness of the current crisis couldn’t have been more graphic. In the morning, Gordon Molyneux from SIM was speaking. And he showed this terrifying map of how 95% of Lake Chad has simply disappeared in the last few 40 years.
In the evening sermon, I tried to give a bit of a biblical overview of the importance of water – both physical and spiritual. I confess I indulged myself and play a U2 song – except this was actually no indulgence, because Bono’s astounding WAVE of SORROW fitted precisely to the theme. I’ve posted about it before – and click there for a link to see Bono talking about why he wrote it.
Well, we were there. Regulars may be thinking that we spend our lives heading off to big rock gigs, but that’s far from the truth. Still, this felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity to see Mandela on his last visit to the UK and quite possibly his last major public appearance.
The Gig Itself
The concert was great in its own way – could have done without the Sugababes who didn’t seem to manage to be in tune very much – and the remaining half of Queen seemed a curious choice to close out the night. I also just wish Annie Lennox had sung some of her own stuff as well as her impressive, impassioned speech about HIV/AIDS in Africa – and of course it would have been so much better to have had Bono & The Edge in person rather than on the big screen. But for all that, it was a great night.
And we particularly loved the African musicians – one of the most moving moments was the guy Peter Gabriel came on stage to introduce: Emmanuel Jal (right). He was a child soldier in Sudan – and was rescued by an aide worker called Emma McCune – about whom he wrote a song that he sang. (She was an extraordinary figure, an English girl from a private school background who controversially ended up marrying the Sudanese guerilla commander Riek Machar and then was killed in a car crash in Nairobi. All the subject of a fascinating book called Emma’s War.)
There was also a showing from East Africa – Kenyan Suzanna Owiyo and Ugandan BBCool who were both great in their very different ways. Johnny Clegg brought back childhood memories for Rachel and did a great duet with the legendary Joan Baez (although both seemed to battle against technology to be heard). The other South African appearances were great too – especially The Soweto Gospel Choir who backed nearly everyone. Eddy Grant did the old protestors’ favourite of Gimme me hope, Jo’anna. I could go on. But the big highlight was the duet of South African Vusi Mahlasela and American crooner Josh Groban singing Weeping (below).
For those who don’t know it, the song Weeping has a powerful story. Written by Dan Heymann while he was a soldier drafted into the South African apartheid regime army, it poignantly conveys the absurdities and horrors of apartheid in ways that only music can. Mahlasela and Groban have recorded it together with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and you can/should get it from iTunes here – as have the Soweto String Quartet (whose recording was the first i’d heard). Both arrangements brilliantly weave the new South African national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (=God Bless Africa in Xhosa) into the background.
The Man Himself
But of course the centrepiece was the 90 year old man himself. And he looked frail, unsteady and uncertain, perhaps a little deaf, perhaps short-sighted. Countless performers went on about how good he looked for 90 and that is certainly true. But it was poignant to see Graca Machel gently steer him to the podium and then tell him when to wave, and then in classic African idiom, whisper to him at the end (but caught on the PA) ‘we’re moving now, papa’. It is not without reason that he is commonly regarded now as the world’s favourite grandfather.
And yet, when for those brief moments that he spoke, Hyde Park was silenced. It was crystal clarity, and that voice, so unmistakably Mandela’s, rang out – and the moral authority of a man who has suffered, forgiven and led a nation into peaceful transition, transfixed his audience once again. It was unforgettable – and he is surely right about HIV/AIDS – it is not so much a disease as a human rights issue (especially when there are so many competing interests in the western pharmaceutical industry as well as endemic corruption in African health institutions).
So Mandela is my hero. He is certainly unique – and his impact on the modern world is unmatched. It felt right and proper to honour him.
But there are limits, with which I feel sure he would agree. And when compere June Sarpong got carried away by the moment (or at least I hope that that was the reason) and suddenly described him as ‘the greatest human being who had ever lived’ I balked, and so did a teenage boy standing just behind us. When this lad muttered ‘but what about Jesus?’ I could only agree. The thought was picked up by the Daily Telegraph review the next morning which noted:
20 years after massed superstars gathered at Wembley to demand his release from Robben Island jail, Mandela has evolved into a quasi-Christ figure.
Of course it was a gift for me – because I was preaching on Jesus being the Son of Man who forgives 2 evenings later – and had already decided to take the theme of our contemporary yearning for superheroes. And while Mandela has showed remarkable Christlike qualities, neither he (nor his honoured memory post-mortem) will ever be able to deliver on what we demand from our heroes. For idols never come up with the goods in the end. They simply can’t. And I feel sure that Mandela doesn’t believe any of the hype about himself, and nor do his family. For the they know of what he is made, despite his undeniably great and awesome qualities – and they are merely exploiting (legitimately in my opinion) the currency of his fame and prestige for great good, namely the conquest of HIV/AIDS. Revisionists will appear in decades to come and find all kinds of chinks in his armour, all kinds of skeletons, as they seek to right the excesses of hagiographers. And indeed the better biographies make it clear that he is no saint (Anthony Sampson’s biography is my favourite) but is a human being like the rest of us. Well, no surprises there. And in no sense does this diminish what he has achieved. It should merely prevent us from absurdities and idolatries.
So all in all it was a great night. And we were near enough to get some fantastic photos (which you can see on my Flickr page). My favourite was not actually of the stage at all. The VIPs stand was off to the side, at the top of which was Mandela’s personal ‘booth’. I turned around and took pics of it every now and then, unsure of what would come out or be visible. Imagine my joy the next morning when i sifted through them and found this one. It needed playing around with the exposure a bit and it is not quite in focus. But you can clearly see the great man sharing a joke with our dearly beloved Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. How cool is that?!
But after getting back from the European Leadership Forum, I was asked to write a review of the whole thing – and lo, and behold, i find that it makes front-page news in EN. They also decided to put my ugly mug on the front (not thinking that sales would be drastically affected by this). But here it is in all its glory. A few things were cut inevitably, and the headline wasn’t mine but hey, that’s the nature of journalism.
Here is the concluding paragraph for those who can’t be bothered to read the whole thing (as if…):
It is almost 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell. The Eastern bloc looks to Brussels more than Moscow now, and the influence of American popular culture appears unabated. Couple that with profound scepticism about authority and truth, we Western Europeans find ourselves sharing, with our Eastern cousins, the challenges of a pan-European postmodern culture (despite, or even because of, our wide diversity). We will increasingly need one another. The ELF is, therefore, a hugely strategic meeting place.
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (TNIV, Titus 2:11-14)
Now I’ve talked about these words on this blog before, but they were buzzing around my mind yesterday morning, during the National Prayer Breakfast in the Houses of Parliament. It was my first chance to go and was a fascinating experience. Very glad to have gone. It is run by the cross-party group, Christians in Parliament with a number of other groups. The proceedings were hosted by the chairman, Gary Streeter MP, a Christian MP from Devon.
Normally, they have some big name speaker at these dos – 2008’s was different and was based on the theme of ‘All over the world, God’s people are going about doing good.‘ Now that was perhaps a bit of a funny theme for something that was meant to be focused on praying for this nation – and the other slight qualm I had was that for the many non-Christians present, it could have felt like merely Christian propaganda saying “Hey, look at us, aren’t we Christians doing wonderful things”! Having said that, the 4 people focused on were indeed truly inspiring, and they certainly put our complacent comforts to shame: an Indian filmmaker now running an orphanage in Mumbai, a British woman caring for homeless in central Asia, a Sierra Leonean running a woman’s refuge out of her home, and a British woman running a crisis pregnancy centre in York.
But how do we do good?
But the highlight for me was the pithy summary by Gary Streeter (right) at the end when he described what his prayer for our nation was. I’m not sure i got it exactly, but it went something like this:
My prayer is that as a nation we would shift from being obsessed with looking good and feeling good, into a being a nation that is concerned with being good and doing good.
That is spot on, in my opinion – and it would i think provide a great core prayer for the nation. The question, I suppose, is how on earth people will become good and do good. You can’t legislate to make people do good; you can’t even simply bring people up to be good. For religious legalism, in the end, can only actually oppress not liberate. Remember what Paul said about the Colossian false teachers when they propagated their own form of legalism. He said that their teachings ‘indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence‘ (Colossians 2:23). In the end it is only divine grace that can change a life. Divine grace is what this nation needs so desperately – and when we have tasted grace, we’ll be almost desperately eager to do and be good.
But there’s the challenge. For if we have tasted it, are we ourselves now eager to do and be good? Paul’s use of those words to Titus use such a wonderful phrase – because it isn’t clenched or restrictive – it doesn’t even begin to define let alone limit what that good might look like. What is clear that it cannot just be about reading your bible, praying and telling people about Jeuss before you ‘go to heaven’, crucial and essential though they are. Jesus clearly had his priorities – but they never excluded the general good.
Some may suggest i’ve just contradicted myself. Haven’t you just said, Mark, that what this nation needs is divine grace? Surely that means a message? True – it can never mean less than a message. But it MUST ALSO mean far more than a message. For it means lives transformed by grace that transform through grace. By doing good and being good. This means different things for different people – politics, arts, sports, business, charity work, parenting, caring for elderly parents – etc etc etc etc. But it is something that we should be eager for
A Surprising impact on Reading
In our secularising culture, faith-based groups are the great bogeyman. What’s their agenda? Aren’t they just trying to convert people? Don’t they just want to control people? Well, that is a negative spin on things. But of course, every group, secular or not, wants to propagate its own worldview. That’s fine. That’s what a public square is all about. But don’t discredit faith-based groups just because of their worldview. If you do, you might find disastrous consequences.
A friend of mine, Tom Rout, recently told me about some fascinating evidence of this in his home town of Reading. Every council has a Local Strategic Partnership (LSP), which aims to work and coordinate with projects from the voluntary sector. Every council has around 100 different government-set targets that it must meet in areas like crime, health, education etc. Without the voluntary sector, these targets would be impossible.
But here’s the surprise. A few months ago, in Reading, the LSP held its annual open forum.
- 52 voluntary sector groups had stalls
- 32 groups were faith-based group
- Of those 32, 30 were Christian.
That’s almost 60% – and that’s just the ones who held stalls. For an idea of what some of them do, check out Impact Reading (which lists 26 of them). It’s easy to disparage, ignore or scorn (and the media has and does). But it is a simple matter of verifiable fact that the people of God, all over the world, are going about doing good. There are plenty of believers who are not – and they are a cause of concern and even embarrassment for the gospel. But please don’t choose to overlook those who are.
And Lord Hattersley has not. There is something in what he says here (which i also quoted in a post from May 07):
It ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian or, better still, to take Christianity à la carte. The Bible is so full of contradictions that we can accept or reject its moral advice according to taste. Yet men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles do not go out with the Salvation Army at night. The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me. The truth may make us free. But it has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army.
The African Children’s Choir were on hand to do their thing at the NPB yesterday, but for me the highlight in the end came from the fact that there we were – 600 people – singing two great songs:
- Be Thou My Vision
- In Christ Alone
reverberating around this awesome, incredible, ancient building (see Westminster Hall right). So much has happened here. So much has been said here and done here. But for all that, what a place to affirm that ultimately it is in Christ alone that our hope is truly to be found.
By the way if you like that rather cool word cloud of Titus 2, Wordle is a free website that generates them with a nice range of variables! As timewasters go, this is an eminently useful and important one.
Thanks to my sister-in-law Lucy for this – it’s quite old now, but still worth passing on. It is barbed, of course – but if anything, the situation is even worse 30 years on…
The Development Set
by Ross Coggins
Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet
I’m off to join the Development Set;
My bags are packed, and I’ve had all my shots
I have traveller’s checks and pills for the trots!
The Development Set is bright and noble
Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
Although we move with the better classes
Our thoughts are always with the masses.
In Sheraton Hotels in scattered nations
We damn multi-national corporations;
injustice seems easy to protest
In such seething hotbeds of social rest.
We discuss malnutrition over steaks
And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
Whether Asian floods or African drought,
We face each issue with open mouth.
We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
Raises difficulties for every solution —
Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
By showing the need for another meeting.
The language of the Development Set
Stretches the English alphabet;
We use swell words like “epigenetic”
“Micro”, “macro”, and “logarithmetic”
It pleasures us to be esoteric —
It’s so intellectually atmospheric!
And although establishments may be unmoved,
Our vocabularies are much improved.
When the talk gets deep and you’re feeling numb,
You can keep your shame to a minimum:
To show that you, too, are intelligent
Smugly ask, “Is it really development?”
Or say, “That’s fine in practice, but don’t you see:
It doesn’t work out in theory!”
A few may find this incomprehensible,
But most will admire you as deep and sensible.
Development set homes are extremely chic,
Full of carvings, curios, and draped with batik.
Eye-level photographs subtly assure
That your host is at home with the great and the poor.
Enough of these verses – on with the mission!
Our task is as broad as the human condition!
Just pray god the biblical promise is true:
The poor ye shall always have with you.
“Adult Education and Development” September 1976
Two very interesting articles to point you to…
Peter May has written an article about the work of the UCLF (Uganda Christian Lawyers Fraternity):
Knowing both the Prices and some of the other folks involved in the UCLF, it is great to hear how things are going, building on previous work and taking things forward in what is a very difficult situation.
And while we’re on the topic of social and political involvement, I’ve just finished reading a really helpful article about who to vote for in elections in Christianity Today (although, of course, the focus is very much the American presidentials). There is a lot of wisdom here:
How to Pick A President (Why Virtue Trumps Policy) by Daniel Taylor and Mark McCloskey
Especially helpful was the exploration of the relationship between the classical virtues of prudence/practical wisdom, justice/fairness, fortitude/courage and temperance/moderation and the Christian ideals of faith, hope and love. Mediaeval scholars embraced all seven of these as what they termed the cardinal virtues. The article is full of political realism and good sense, without appearing (to an outsider at least) too partisan. Anyone in leadership (of any sort) would do well to learn from this stuff, I’d have thought.
Thanks to Alex Webb-Peploe for this link – fascinating article from the Sunday Times – about the impact that Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali is having, and the similarities with Mary Whitehouse, although the main difference being that Nazir-Ali is getting more of a hearing and respect than Whitehouse ever did.
No more retreat – the right finds its moral nerve by Minette Marrin
This comes in the week when Nazir-Ali’s controversial and oft-derided remarks (about there being no-go areas for non Muslims in Britain) seem to have been proved true. Two church leaders in Birmingham have been accused of hate crimes for leafleting and visiting in a ‘Muslim area’. See Faith Central’s Is Preaching a Hate Crime?
My heart slightly sank when I noticed that Lindsay Brown’s morning expositions were going to be on Colossians. This was certainly not because Lindsay was doing it (!) but because I have been teaching through Colossians on the Bible Teachers’ Network and I was anxious about people getting Colossians overload. Instead, it has been very helpful for us all and complemented well. Over the course of the week, he has come out with some great lines and gems, as he has picked truths out from the text.
In particular, I’ve been struck by the points he has been making about how we form Christian community, and especially the differences these communities can (and should) make for members and non-members alike. This is so vital for a European individualistic culture which barely values society beyond its utilitarian personal advantages. And Colossians has MUCH to say to challenge this. Here are a number of illustrations and remarks from Lindsay’s 4 talks:
In Zimbabwe, during the bloody civil war on racial grounds during the 70s, that troubled country seemed as divided and traumatized as it is now. And race was the heart of the problem. And the University of Harare (or Salisbury as it then was) was as riven as the rest of the country – particularly vividly illustrated by standard operating procedure in the uni canteen. Whites on one side, blacks on the other. Except, that is, for the Christians. They were an integrated group – and deliberately sat together on tables right in the middle of the dining hall. During the first course, the white Christians got up and fetched the food and then served it to their black brothers and sisters; then for pudding, the blacks the same, serving their white brothers and sisters. And the effect on the rest of the university, without a single word of explanation or proclamation, was scandalously but marvelously electrifying. For it was clear to all that they were ONE body, united and mutually serving.
John Stott: We are to be morally distinct but not socially segregated… We should avoid “rabbit-hole Christianity”. We pop out of our holes into the world, but as soon we encounter something evil or corrupting, we rush back into our holes.
When things got really bad in Burundi around the time of the genocide in the early 90s, Tutsis were of course fleeing for their lives. The Chancellor of Bujumbura University made this extraordinary remark, despite the fact that he did not profess to be Christian. He announced: ‘Our culture is disintegrating. There are 3 groups of people on this campus: Hutus, Tutsis and Christians. They are the only ones who look beyond our differences and make a difference.
Meanwhile, in Rwanda, all the leaders and graduates of the national Christian student movement were killed – with only one exception. Only one staffworker was left. Lindsay was there a year later and as well as the appalling shock and agony of what had happened, the obvious question was why had they been picked on specifically. It transpired that the week before the genocide broke out (but when the storm clouds were gathering) Hutus & Tutsis met publicly on campus together, holding hands and singing songs together – “we are one in Christ, one in the Spirit”. And for that they died.
Another key theme has been the need to cultivate an attitude of constant thankfulness. Not least because this challenges our independent-mindedness. Hence this challenging line from the great Schaeffer:
Francis Schaeffer: The first sign of backsliding is lack of thankfulness (cf Col 3:15)
But the most important thing is how all-embracing our discipleship should be (I guess that is one of the ELF’s constants). There were various illustrations of this:
Lindsay remarked to the 25-yr old son of a key European Christian leader that it was interesting how few sons of great leaders became leaders themselves. The response was very helpful indeed: ‘Why should they? Leadership is a gift of God – and not everyone has that gift. As long as they are trusting in Christ, they are complete in Christ, and as long as they are exercising whatever their gifts have for him, that is ok.” Spot on.
Sir Fred Catherwood (former VP of the European Parliament): To try to improve society is not worldliness but love. To wash your hands of society is not love but worldliness.
But with so many people at the forum from the former Eastern Bloc / Communist countries, the challenges of living in a corrupt society are daily reality. But even if we don’t all find ourselves facing that directly, we all increasingly find ourselves surrounded by hostility. So how do we handle this? Well, here are some helpful principles for those seeking to make their stand in all walks of public life (whether commercial, political or artistic). These are loosely based on the life and witness of the prophet Daniel in Babylon:
- Set clear ethical standards from the start
- Develop a support group (of people who understand the challenges of your workplace or context) – John Wesley: The bible knows nothing of solitary discipleship
- Consider the cost of compromise (so you know what you lose if you do)
- Be prepared for sacrifice – the Lord doesn’t often deliver immediately – and sometimes the sacrifices last until the day we breathe our last. Our call is to fidelity.
Now despite the political incorrectness of saying this, for all its nobility, ethics and undoubtedly impressive advocates, I do find Buddhism a worldview of dark hopelessness and depersonalizing despair. You might question that interpretation. You might suggest I’m misguided. But whatever you do, you must never doubt my right to say so. And our generation perhaps more than ever before needs to learn this.
You see, I’ve been thinking a lot about tolerance recently. I was speaking on Real Tolerance at All Souls on Sunday night as the conclusion of our 3D Life in Perspective week. And these famous words of Voltaire (who was by no means a friend of religion – that’s him below!) have been ringing through my mind, and I quoted them in the talk.
I may detest the things you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say them.
Tolerance begins at disagreement not unanimity – for if you are unanimous, tolerance is entirely unnecessary. In fact, tolerance almost presupposes disagreement. But the politically correct crowd wants to stifle views (even obnoxious views), in the name of a completely reinterpretated (even deconstructed or revisionist) concept of tolerance. This D A Carson quotation is helpful (I paraphrased it in the talk as it was too complicated for that context).
It used to be that a tolerant person was one who insisted that those who disagreed with him had rights no less than his own to speak their own positions freely. The slogan was, “I may detest the things you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say them”. The tolerance in other words, was directed toward people, not their ideas. In fact, the idea implicit in this notion of tolerance is that the tolerant person DISAGREES with some idea or other: that is precisely why tolerance is needed. One does not “tolerate” someone with whom one is already in perfect agreement!
By contrast, the new tolerance is directed not to people who are permitted or even encouraged to articulate repugnant views, but to the ideas themselves: under the priorities of postmodern ideology, it is wrong to say that any worldview or set of ideas or religious opinion is wrong or untrue or evil. Ideas alien to us may be “bad” in the relative sense that our own system sees the other system as flawed. But (postmodern tolerance urges) it is wrong to say that a contrary view is wrong, at least in any objective or absolute sense.
… As a result, genuine tolerance withers and dies. The most compelling evidence that this is the case lies in the fact that postmodernists are notoriously intolerant of those who do not share their epistemology. And this fierce intolerance is often directed against the PEOPLE whose views are disliked, not simply against the views themselves.
From D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places, Crossway Books, Wheaton, 2002) p147.
Now, what has been going on on the other side of the globe is an important test case. I may not agree, or even approve, of some of the things the Dalai Lama says, but I will defend his clear right to say them. That is what true tolerance must be all about. And if we don’t stick up for him in this, we are failing to be truly tolerant (even though there are elements of the bandwagon and the ‘easy cause’ about supporting him from our western armchairs and computer screens). It still has to be done. For otherwise speech disintegrates into a conformity with whoever holds the political whip hand. It might be the communists today, the gay lobby tomorrow and the Christian or Muslim fundamentalists the day after that. Despite the politically correct lobby, tolerance is not about kowtowing or being afraid to say unpalatable things. Tolerance is about not being afraid of the quest for truth, not being afraid to speak out the truth (albeit one’s own limited grasp of the truth) and not being afraid to have those claims rejected / criticised / analyzed / rebutted. Otherwise, such a society will bear all the hallmarks of fascist / marxist / fundamentalist oppression.
So as I walked past those silent and puny-looking protesters on Portland Place this morning, I could only offer an even more puny smile and thumbs up to encourage them in the wintry and political cold. No doubt an embassy curtain across the road twitched and somebody noticed and noted, so that any future possible visa application is rendered more complicated. Or am I just being paranoid?
It is no accident that this is all happening now, of course. The run-up to the Olympics was always going to heighten the tensions as well as the protest opportunities. For sure, one suspects that these blips will make not much difference in the long term. 6 months after the Olympics have been packed away to await their London visit, will there really be a change. And will the rest of the world have really shifted their fundamental economic imperatives? Probably not. But because it is a matter of principle, it is all the more reason to shout out loudly now. Which is why i think this Amnesty ad campaign is so brilliant and deserves wider coverage. For tolerance demands it. Just contrast this subservient, but actually quite sinister, Chinese Adidas ad (I mean, isn’t it the ultimate collectivist nightmare, where the countless millions get trampled to serve the greater good of the nation’s kudos in order to produce a single athlete?) with Amnesty’s hard-hitting European sequence:
I’ve been wanting to blog about this song since it hit the streets last autumn, but yesterday’s posting seems to lead into it reasonably well. This is a song that achingly captures the questions surrounding the Ethiopian famine of 1984/5 (link to excellent BBC flashback, from which the picture is taken). Provoked by working on Live Aid, Bono and his wife Ali spent 6 harrowing weeks working in a feeding camp. This song was a personal response. It was only finished last year as part of the 20th anniversary re-release of The Joshua Tree (as he describes in the video below). It is quite simply heart-rending – you can somehow actually hear the heat-haze in the arrangement, as well as the sheer desperation and injustice of the situation. For while this was at first sight a natural disaster (the result of failed harvests several years running, and then to top it all, the tragic threat of rain on uncultivated and desiccated fields), there were plenty of culpable people involved as well – civil war in Ethiopia itself and Western indifference despite living in plenty.
What makes this song so powerful, though, is Bono’s contrast between modern Ethiopians forced into humiliating begging for food and the great and proud heritage of their ancient (and biblical) ancestors. For it was the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon (the “Son, of shepherd boy, now king” in the song) in Jerusalem (1 Kings 10). And it was Solomon who was famed for his wisdom – a divine wisdom, from which many of the Proverbs in the OT are derived. But the OT wisdom literature that this song most harks back to is the searching agony found in some of the Psalms, Job and Ecclesiastes. Where is God’s wisdom to be found in the heat of famine, under the boot of oppression, in the despair of begging? “What wisdom can you bring? / What lyric would you sing? / Where is the music of the Seraphim?” If the rain comes it doesn’t just bring waves of flooding – but sorrow.
But this is the poetic genius of the song (and I do not use those words lightly, despite not being either a poet or a genius). For Bono (together with the Edge, when they collaborate, though i think this song is single-handedly Bono’s) is a profound lyricist. Not only do the sparing words evoke the horror and despair so searingly, but they also provide the hint (and in such circumstances, it is surely the only hint one can possibly make) of hope and light. The song’s conclusion is a radical application (rather than a straightforward updating) of Jesus’ Beatitudes in The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12). When Jesus originally taught the Beatitudes, I suspect that he was epitomizing the whole of that great sermon, in that he was articulating a fully-rounded picture of every Christian (rather than picking out lots of different types of people). What is clear, though, is that the poor and marginalised are those for whom God is profoundly concerned. And when humanity in its evil and idolatrous self-centredness ignores the plight of the poor, God is rightly furious… and he promises blessing. It is not for nothing that he is called the God of the Fatherless and the Widowed.
The point then is that Jesus, who is one greater than Solomon, is the only one who can bring eternal hope, a hope that endures, permeates and transforms the horrors of a cruel, cruel world. As Jesus said in Matthew 12, referring specifically to the Queen of Sheba herself:
The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.
To miss Jesus is to miss his wisdom – which has devastating consequences. And his wisdom is one of both justice and judgment, AND love and blessing. But NEVER let this generate a laissez-faire attitude amongst those who have discovered his wisdom. This song won’t let us sit smugly in our favourite recliner chairs and bursting refrigerators and the churches which Bono frequently derides as ‘Bless Me’ clubs… because GOD WON’T. This is surely a boot-up-the-proverbial-reminder that God is concerned with those trapped in sex-work, in tin-shacks, in voicelessness. Let this wave of sorrow flow into prayer and action:
The hearts of the people cry out to the Lord.
O wall of the Daughter of Zion,
let your tears flow like a river
day and night;
give yourself no relief,
your eyes no rest. (Lamentations 2:18)
To see Bono talking about the song (as well as singing and forgetting the words towards the end !), check out the video at the bottom.
WAVE OF SORROW
by Bono & U2
Heat haze rising /On hell’s own hill
You wake up this morning / It took an act of will
You walk through the night / To get here today
To bring your children / To give them away
Oh… oh this cruel sun /Is daylight never done?
Cruelty just begun / To make a shadow of everyone
And if the rain came… / And if the rain came…
Souls bent over without a breeze / Blankets on burning trees
I am sick without disease / Nobility on its knees
And if the rain came… / And if the rain came… now
Would it wash us all away
On a wave of sorrow? / Wave / On a wave of sorrow?
Where now the holy cities? / Where the ancient holy scrolls?
Where now Emperor Menelek / And the Queen of Sheba’s gold?
You’re my bride, you wear her crown /And on your finger precious stones
As every good thing now been sold
Son, of shepherd boy, now king / What wisdom can you bring?
What lyric would you sing? / Where is the music of the Seraphim?
And if the rain came… / And if the rain came… now
Would it wash us all away
On a wave of sorrow? / Wave / On a wave of sorrow?
Blessed are the meek who scratch in the dirt / For they shall inherit what’s left of the earth
Blessed are the kings who’ve left their thrones / They are buried in this valley of dry bones
Blessed all of you with an empty heart / For you got nothing from which you cannot part
Blessed is the ego / It’s all we got this hour
Blessed is the voice that speaks truth to power
Blessed is the sex worker who sold her body tonight /She used what she got /To save her children’s life
Blessed are you, the deaf cannot hear a scream
Blessed are the stupid who can dream
Blessed are the tin canned cardboard slums
Blessed is the spirit that overcomes
learn to do right!
encourage the oppressed.Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow. [Isaiah 1:17]
This song and video was written and put together by Helen Mottee, a friend of a friend (Phil Warner), working in Hong Kong for a unique organisation called Crossroads International. A few years ago, Bob Geldof & Midge Ure asked the west to answer the unsettling question, ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ A fair point, and it certainly generated much (if short-lived) soul-searching about our materialistic world. But the catastrophes exemplified by the Ethiopian famine of 84 haven’t gone away. And in some ways, many are far worse than ever before. The global catastrophe of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) is a case in point. So Helen Mottee’s question is not simply a matter of “Do you know about them?” but “do you know what it’s like?” Well of course, unless we’ve been through it, there’s no way we can know. But that is no excuse for not being concerned about such things. Watch and learn:
As someone who carries a British passport, I’m blasé about passing through customs without much of a hassle. Customs are an inconvenience not a dread. But I’ll never forget what it was like to travel to Europe from Uganda with a dear friend, John, a refugee from Congo. He was carrying a much sort after UNHCR passport, because technically at the time he had no nationality. (And if, for whatever reason, he ever set foot back in Congo, he would automatically forfeit it.) This special blue, refugee passport made it possible to travel, but it didn’t necessarily make it straightforward to travel. A few little things happened on our journey which for John were totally uneventful, but which we all too eye-opening for me.
While we waited at check in at Entebbe airport, some border guards came up to us and asked to see John’s documents. They muttered to themselves and then said they had to inspect them. They told us to sit down and they pottered off to some office. Everything in the passport was correct and he had a valid UK visa. But even being in possession of such a passport made him suspect. We had to wait for a very long (and for me, tense) 45 minutes or so before they returned and gave them back.
Then there were complications with the journey. It just so happened that there was a lot of snow at Heathrow (clearly the wrong kind), so our direct flight from Entebbe was cancelled. It was a stress because we had an engagement in Oxford that we had to get to. But we managed to get onto a Sabena flight to Brussels later that day, with the hope of finding another connection once we got there (as there was no knowing when Heathrow would reopen). That was fine – but once we got to Belgium we struggled to get a flight without a long wait in transit. So I contemplated us getting the Eurostar train – but then another refugee reality hit home. Because Congo is a former colony, Belgium has an agreement with DRC whereby they will never take in Congolese refugees. To get to the Eurostar, we’d need to cross the city, which would require a visa for John – which he would never ever get even if he’d applied months before. This meant that we were contemplating a long wait without even being able to leave the departure lounge to go to on onsite hotel. Fortunately for us, Heathrow then had the right kind of snow and was opened very soon. We got the next flight within a short space of time.
But on arrival at Heathrow, we of course had customs to navigate. Getting John’s UK visa back in Kampala had been no small thing in itself. I had to produce evidence of my own bank accounts, plans, our itinerary (we were on a fund-raising trip for the college I taught in) and addresses of everywhere we would be staying. I also had to pledge that i would be with him every day of our 10 day trip. Having done all this, we had the longed for stamp in his passport (50% of applicants at the British High Commission fail to get even this, regardless of the validity of their trips). But at Heathrow, we had to go through it all over again. It helped a bit that I got John to come in the queue with me, and so could vouch for him as he was questioned. I should say that the officer was very polite and helpful, and was simply doing his job. We got through eventually without a worry so that was fine.
Now I’m certainly not naive enough to think that we can do without all these safeguards or hurdles. But what it brought home to me was simply the nerve one needs to do anything, let alone travel, with this constantly hanging over you. As someone who has posted flippantly about the stress of going through customs before, it is not something I would relish at all. And John is one of the LUCKY ones! He had his passport. That took years of bureaucracy, patience, luck and playing by the rules. There are millions who have nothing like this sort of security.
But of course, whether we like it or not, this time of year the Christmas story bursts our security bubbles because it rubs our noses (if we choose to allow it) in the simple fact that Jesus was born as a refugee himself. Not only were his family away from home when he was born (not quite internally displaced, but not exactly in Bethlehem for personal convenience), but as soon as the coast was clear they had to run for their lives to Egypt. Just a small element of what he and his family had to endure in order to fulfil his mission to save us all. How can this issue not concern us? Not a gospel issue, perhaps? Not something we should get involved in, perhaps? Too many other things we should be getting on with at Christmas, perhaps? I suspect our answers would be very different if we were refugees or IDPs ourselves. It is a quirk of providence that we are not.
Here are some other summaries of the situation (taken from the International Medical Corps website):
If you start asking the question, “What can we do about this?” then this at least a start, and this post has been worth the time taken to write it.
Prosperity Gospel. It is an affliction. And it is a cruel hoax. And I saw first-hand the damage it does to believers in Uganda during the 4 years that we were there. But it is STILL gaining influence and credibility – and it is not just in the poorest countries in the world (which is where the exploitation is at its worst). It is creeping beyond the shores of the USA (where its modern incarnations originate) and across Europe and Australia.
This was why I felt the need to speak about it in a sermon 10 days ago at All Souls. It certainly raised eyebrows – and a little bit of consternation. I guess the issues will rumble on. You can download/listen to the sermon and make of it what you will: Acts 8 – Shaken but not stopped. It was certainly a sermon that caused me great trepidation and is not the sort of thing that one could, or should, do every week.
But let me give a few explanations.
1. What is The Prosperity Gospel?
As far as I can see, the prosperity gospel is a spiritualisation of the American Dream. Quite what the American Dream is precisely is a moot point, but this definition from the relevant Wiki page seems helpful enough:
The package of beliefs, assumptions, and action patterns that social scientists have labelled the American Dream has always been a fragile agglomeration of (1) individual freedom of choice in life styles, (2) equal access to economic abundance, and (3) the pursuit of shared objectives mutually advantageous to the individual and society. 
When you start saying not only that this is available to you, but that it is precisely what God wants for you, you have the lethal cocktail of a Prosperity Gospel. No wonder it sounds like good news! No wonder it is attractive!
1. Turning a divine might to a divine ought
This is how Andrew Heard (at the start of the paper mentioned below) describes it:
In some Christian circles at the moment another gospel is making itself known. It looks a lot like the gospel that we received—the gospel of Jesus Christ who died and rose again to bring us reconciliation with God—but it has an emphasis upon physical healing, material blessing and success that is very different from traditional evangelicalism. The difference doesn’t lie in the conviction that God can and does bless his people with physical healing or material prosperity as this has always been accepted as biblical; the difference lies in the conviction that Christians OUGHT to expect God to bless them physically and materially here and now.
The problem is that when the realities of life kick in – through sickness, redundancy, bereavement etc etc etc, who do people start to blame? Instead of blaming the person who related these promises to them in God’s name, they blame God himself. That is both unjust and tragic. It is a huge slur on the character of God – whereas it is the prosperity preachers who should have to answer for these problems, not God. And supremely, it completely bypasses the centrality of the cross of Christ – both for our rescue and as our inspiration and lifestyle blueprint (see Philippians 2:5-11).
2. Twisting a divine word for an idolatrous church
On a slightly different note, prosperity teaching can only thrive where a woeful mishandling of the Bible takes place, and in particular with a literalistic and unnuanced reading of the Old Testament. For sure, there are elements of the Old Covenant of Abraham and Moses which resemble a prosperity type view – for the covenant people were to enjoy material blessing when they lived in the Promised Land, which was, after all, flowing with milk and honey. But you can’t draw a straight line from those Moses promises to the contemporary disciple – without taking into account, for example the Book of Job (from the OT); or the call of Jesus in Mark 8:34-38 and his radicalisation of what the Kingdom of God actually is in John 18:33-37 (from the NT). Furthermore, the nature of Christian new covenant experience is one of ‘now and not yet‘ – we don’t have all the blessings of God yet, but that is not to say that they will never come. It is all a question of timing – God’s timing.
As John Piper pointed out, Christ warned the apostles that they would suffer great persecution for the sake of his name. In a January 2006 sermon entitled “How our suffering advances the gospel”, Piper stated bluntly that “the prosperity gospel will not make anybody praise Jesus; it will make people praise prosperity”. (quoted on Wiki)
3. Lining the pockets by fleecing the poor
All of this needs a whole load of unpacking – and there are plenty of places where this is done well – see below. But I hope it is beginning to be clear (at least) why this is so serious and dangerous. This is no minor aberration – this is unfortunately a different gospel which is no gospel – it is a pipedream which in the end is not good news at all. And what is not addressed enough is the practical impact all this has – especially in the poorest countries in the world like Uganda.
I have never forgotten Bob, a dear Ugandan friend and former student, describing how his fingers got burned in a prosperity gospel church in Kampala. He described one sermon in which the preacher was sharing some “wisdom” about marriage. He was advising the single women on who would qualify as a suitable husband. He had this to say: If the man you are interested in does not have a wardrobe in his room, then take that as a sign of the lack of blessing from God. God has not blessed that man. This man has not trusted God to provide him with a wardrobe. Marry him and you will share his curse.
Well, I ask you! Of course that is a ridiculous example and you can’t tar everyone with the same brush. But what do you notice about this? Firstly it shows a hopeless and devastating approach to pastoring human relationships, which are fragile and fraught at the best of times. Secondly, it shows the level we’re talking about here. I know exactly which church this was preached in – and it is in a particularly poor area of Kampala. A wardrobe can be picked up on the side of the road from the myriad of carpenters for a handful of US$. That’s all. So these are people who can’t even afford that. Thirdly, it actually demonstrates a total degradation of what God’s blessing actually means. I mean, honestly, is that all God can muster?! Is a $10 wardrobe the best God has in store for us?! To think in such terms is to insult the unimaginable scope of divine generosity.
However, it wasn’t until Bob suddenly woke up to what was really going on at his church that he finally left. The congregation had been promised Mercedes Benzes (or at the very least BMWs) if they believed God enough. No wonder then that when their church was built, it was equipped with a spacious car park, despite being located in a Kampala slum. No one had cars. Or at least, no one apart from the pastors. And that was the shock – people who were so poor that they were barely able to pay the nominal taxi fares to get to church were being manipulated into supporting the excesses of the pastors’ lifestyles. All in the name of sowing seeds for God. That is sickening. And so Bob left – and for a while couldn’t face going back to any church at all. Thankfully he is now himself in full-time ministry in Uganda because he saw that there was another way.
2. Whys and Wherefores
So having spelled out why this is such an issue, i need to touch base on one or two issues relating to the sermon itself. I was questioned by one or two people about the wisdom of mentioning people by name (in particular Benny Hinn, and at the end of the talk Hillsong in parenthesis). This is a potted summary of my response:
1. Mentioning No Names?
- Firstly, it is not something that was done at all lightly nor unilaterally. It was something discussed beforehand with a number of colleagues (including at our weekly All Souls preachers’ breakfast, which happens every Thursday morning – each week the preachers for the coming sunday have to present the outlines of their sermons to the rest of the ministry team for discussion, crits and suggestions – a scary but excellent discipline!).
- Secondly, there is biblical precedent, both for dealing with the problems of prosperity teaching and for mentioning individuals by name. Intriguingly, the closest NT precedent for both issues occurs in the same place in 2 Timothy 2:17-18. Hymenaeus and Philetus are claiming that the resurrection (i.e. the second resurrection and therefore the full and final promises of heaven) has already occurred (thus making a sinlessness / perfectionism possible as well as, presumably, a truly blessed life). Paul describes such teaching as gangrene and something which has wandered away from the truth (v18) – and that ‘destroys the faith of some’. What’s more, Paul is explicit about their names! And it is not just because it is a private letter to Timothy – he does the same on many other occasions (eg Philippians 4:2-3 etc). Sometimes, people need to be warned about these things in explicit terms.
- This does not imply I have apostolic pretensions! I am by no means claiming to know everything, nor to have a Pauline authority! But it seems to me that we do from time to time have to be quite clear about things especially where they are dangerous. Isn’t this precisely the role of the pastor teacher – 2 Timothy 4:2: in and out of season (i.e. including the times when things are most uncomfortable), and that includes both encouragement and rebuking (the latter being something that in Britain we shy away from far more than we should). Of course we don’t want the opposite extreme – it would destroy people if there was nothing but rebuke and correction (and far too many preachers err in that direction).
- Would such actions cause division in a church? Well perhaps. But while we should wish to do everything we can to preserve relationships and pastoral concerns (of course), there is still the need to raise awareness when this sort of thing is being actually taught, even if people get upset about it. No one said that ministry was easy – nor did they say that a faithful preacher’s ministry would be a short cut to popularity!
2. Mentioning Benny Hinn?
I’m afraid (and I say this with all tentativeness!) I am not apologetic about talking about Benny Hinn – not least because what is inescapable is the appallingly lavish lifestyle and hypocrisy that are features of his ministry. That, it seemed to me, made him a legitimate parallel to Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 – a desire for God’s power for the purpose of developing one’s own ministry and even personality cult (hence in Acts 8, Simon’s desire to pay the apostles for the ‘use of the Holy Spirit’ – presumably in his eyes that was a good financial investment).
What we see in Benny Hinn is a frightening cynicism about his lifestyle. This is not hearsay – for this is a matter of current USA Congressional Investigation (you can’t get much more serious than that); and it is the subject of a sober and thorough report by MinistryWatch.com. This organisation seeks to hold Christian organisations in the US to high standards of financial transparency. This is what the report alleges about Benny Hinn. Should these be the sorts of things that a pastor’s lifestyle, consistent with the ministry of Jesus, be noted for?
- Hinn’s salary is somewhere between half a million and a million dollars per year (+ huge book royalties)
- Personal perks for Hinn, family and his entourage include a $10 million seaside mansion; a private jet with annual operating costs of about $1.5 million; a Mercedes SUV and convertible, each valued at about $80,000
- What the church termed “layovers” between crusades included hotel bills ranging from $900 per night to royal suites that cost almost $3,000 for one night’s stay. Layover locations included Hawaii, Cancun, London, Milan and other exotic locations.
- Beverly Hills shopping sprees; Receipts showing Hinn’s daughter receiving $1,300 in petty cash; her boyfriend getting $2,550 for babysitting; $23,000 in cash dispersed to Hinn and his wife; and, $25,000 in cash for expenses for a crusade – 30 minutes away from Hinn’s home;
- Hinn continues to espouse the theologically-suspect self-serving Word-of-Faith or “prosperity” gospel. Jesus and his followers never amassed personal wealth through their ministry and instead lived a clearly sacrificial life. Hinn would be wise to follow this example and encourage his followers to do likewise as this would lead to much greater spiritual prosperity, the value of which far exceeds anything material
- Hinn employs two primary methods to manipulate those that watch him – promising healings to those afflicted with chronic or terminal illnesses, and claiming that donations are “seeds” being planted by the donor that will result in the gift giver enjoying financial blessings;
- Television producer Nathan Daniel, a former BHM employee who was hired to improve the public image, instead reported to NBC, There was never one complete record that would suit the criteria for documented miracle healing.
3. Mentioning Hillsong?
This is a much trickier area – and in some ways I wish i hadn’t mentioned them, not least because they are very close to home geographically (their London venue is a stone’s throw from All Souls). This is not because there are no issues there, but because the issues are slightly different and not as clearly drawn from Acts 8. I certainly do not wish to imply the sorts of impropriety and lifestyle that Benny Hinn is alleged to characterise. The problem is that when you analyse mainline Hillsong teaching (and indeed some of their song lyrics) it is clear that they are following the same tradition. Their founder, Brian Houston teaches a prosperity gospel which gets lapped up and is spreading fast. I have been to London Hillsong – and I honestly went with a real desire and openness to hear from God (quite apart from the fact that I actually enjoy a lot of their music). What’s more, I have read some of their stuff. And to my great sadness, nothing I’ve heard or read has given me any reason to change my mind. Take this one example, quoted by Andrew Heard:
the Scriptures … [are] full of promises of prosperity. … Is it God’s will for you to prosper? … the answer is undoubtedly “YES”
Fair enough, perhaps – but it all depends on what we mean by prosperity. According to Heard, there is no doubt Houston meant material prosperity, given the book’s premise:
If you and I can change our thinking and develop a healthy attitude toward money, I believe we can all walk in the blessing and prosperity that God intends for us. We will never have a problem with money again.
Now, please understand, I am VERY willing to sit down and chat with people who think differently. I certainly do not wish to malign or misquote – if I have been unfair or unkind, then I do seriously want to know. There is plenty of scope for responding thru this blog or directly with me at All Souls. Furthermore, we all have our blind spots – and I’m sure there are areas where I/we here need to be confronted by the challenges of the word. None of us is immune or perfect (in theology or lifestyle).
But I cannot escape thinking that the issues raised by prosperity teachers are so serious that they demand people speak out and point out the emperor’s new clothes.
Some Follow-up Resources
- Time Magazine – Sept 10th 2006: DOES GOD WANT YOU RICH?
- Ben Witherington III: Just In Time – GOD WANTS YOU WEALTHY?
- Andrew Heard (Sydney, Australia): Prosperity Gospel
- MinistryWatch report: MinistryWatch recommends donors withhold giving to Benny Hinn Ministries
- MinistryWatch report: Reflections on Benny Hinn – ‘Not A Preacher’s Life’
- Ship of Fools report on visiting the London Hillsong Church (although we have to be careful – their mystery visitor wasn’t too complementary about All Souls, even though it was a few years ago!)
Also, there’s this (if you like things in your face)
- John Piper – video montage by a student in USA
This video is based on a sermon by John Piper given at the University Christian Fellowship (Birmingham, Alabama, USA) which you can listen to HERE. I’ve not yet had a chance to hear it all myself but from what i’ve listened to, Piper is his passionate and in your face self! His style is not everyone’s cup of tea (esp in the UK) but his challenges are never without a point.
It’s soundbite politics, for sure – and it is impossible ever to do justice to any of the issues touched on in the video briefly, let alone with just a one-sentence response or scriptural quotation. But in so far as it forces people to think for themselves, this little snippet feels like a breath of fresh air in what can feel like an oppressively humid atmosphere in American Christianity.
Grateful to playpolitical.com
On Thursday night, Brenda Becket, Rachel & I went to a special screening of the new South African film, SON OF MAN at the South African High Commission in Trafalgar Square. Was a bit surreal to be invited (they wanted people from different churches, social action networks and those with African links apparently) but it was fun and an interesting evening. The film was made in 2006 and has won various prizes including a major nod at the 2006 Sundance festival – the aim is to generate a buzz for it in the UK. It is produced by the same people who created THE MYSTERIES – the group is called Dimpho Di Kopane from Cape Town (the name means company of talents and is made up of all kinds of different people from South African am-dram and singing groups, talent spotted by the British director Mark Dornford-May & his South African Wife Pauline Malefane, and Conductor Charles Hazlewood). Despite being created for the stage, I remember watching the DVD of the Mysteries while we were in Uganda and being completely blown away. Such a simple concept (which so often is the heart of genius, is it not?) whereby the medieval York Mystery plays are transported to contemporary South Africa with its 9 official languages and huge musical diversity. There are many great things about it and it has rightly been a triumph around the world.
So SON OF MAN seeks to take things the next stage with an equally simple premise. Take the life of Jesus and transpose it to the Cape Flats townships in Cape Town. This is nothing if not provocative – but of course is not the first time someone has done something like this (eg Jesus of Montreal). The bit issue is how one handles that. Now there are some fascinating things about the film – it recreates Judea as a fictitious country in ‘Afrika’, where there are constant political tensions and invasion. Sadly these political realities are tragically familiar to an African setting – but they also bring to life a sense of the turmoil and confusion caused by the different vested interests at work in 1st Century Palestine. And that is representative of one of the big strengths of the film – it obliterates any of the beautification of the Jesus story created by Old Master paintings. The shed where the baby is born is just that – a shed, full of old tyres and the other detritus of modern life. Herod is more like an African rebel commander whose face is printed everywhere. His militia are just thugs: unpredictable, intimidating, lethal. This is particularly powerful in the telling of the massacre of the innocents sequence. The insecurities of Jesus’ family are palpable in the world of warlords and refugees.
There are other nice little touches – the angels and shepherds are played by children – echoing the value that Jesus gives children. And the scene where the angels throng round the risen Jesus is exhilarating (see left). The music is wonderful – much of adapted from the music of the Mysteries stage play. Mary (played by Pauline Malefane) is a very poignant character, full of unspoken grief and pain. Satan is a constant malevolent presence – from the temptation in the wilderness which opens the film, then backtracking to Jesus’ birth all the way up to the crucifixion – he is superbly played by the red & black clad Andries Mbali (see below). It was fun to see that the Centurion present at Jesus’ execution is called ‘Hundred’, a suitably gangsterish name! Some adaptations were very clever but I’m not quite sure how appropriate they are because they miss the point somewhat – so Jesus’ baptism is now seen as part of a Xhosa man’s coming of age ceremony with the wilderness temptation rather like an Aboriginal walkabout. Clever – but more a ritual with sociological and personal significance than it is spiritual. It is not now something one chooses to do but is compulsory for all men of the tribe. The crucifixion now becomes a totem post-execution whereby Jesus’ followers dig up the body from his unmarked grave and hang it high to bring his death to everyone’s attention.
And this is where the problems do begin somewhat. For what actually is the film seeking to communicate? This film powerfully exposes the nightmare of war-torn and riven Africa (and while things are not quite as extreme as this in South Africa, they certainly are in places like Somalia and Liberia). It exposes the injustices caused by evil and sin, not just within Africa but on Africa by the west. So there is such a thing as evil. But as soon as this Jesus starts preaching, he speaks of the ‘inherent goodness of humanity’ and his message is one of peaceful revolution. The sermon on the mount then becomes more of a rally on a soapbox. Andile Kosi who plays Jesus is a wonderful actor, who exudes humanity and compassion – it is impossible not to warm to him or be drawn to him. So in that sense he is well-cast. But this is the problem with so many (if not every) portrayal of Jesus: you have to pick and choose what to play because it is impossible to encapsulate the Incarnation in a performance, impossible even for a redeemed sinner to portray the divine-man.
The Son of Man’s Jesus then is more like Gandhi with an OT prophet’s passion for justice and society. That this is a message that Africa, let alone the rest of the world, DESPERATELY needs to hear is not in doubt. That this is a profoundly Christian message should not be in doubt either. But that this was the totality of Jesus’ message is clearly false. For Jesus addressed the root causes of injustice much more than he tackled oppression – not because the latter was unimportant (far from it), but because it is impossible to deal with the latter without facing the former. Human sin against God leads inevitably to human inhumanity to fellow human. While we ARE created in the image of God with all the wonders and joys entailed by that, it is not enough to leave it there. To do so is actually to endorse the status quo of a fallen world. Then perhaps the biggest problem with the film is the death of Jesus – how can it not be a failure of a successful political martyr (if I can put it like that). Is that all it achieved? In the film it can only be a stimulus for political change. God, while mentioned a few times, is only a bit player in the story – and not the subject of the story, not the one who is at work bringing about his purposes. Of course, his angels are there – more to protect Jesus from Satan until the right moment (which is good) – but Satan certainly has a greater presence. It is hard not to conclude that in some ways he has won by the end of the film. Because whether intentionally or not, the resurrection of JEsus is only witnessed by the hoard of angels and us the audience. None of the dramatic characters get a chance to see what we see.
And that’s why in the end i think that the film does not do justice to the Christian message. Perhaps that is because no cinematic life of Christ can (and maybe that is why cinema should steer clear altogether – but of course that will never happen because whatever society makes of Jesus, he is still unavoidably fascinating). For there is a sense in which Jesus is both attractive to those from every walk of life but at the same time hugely difficult and challenging. NO ONE can be comfortable in his presence, however much they want to be there (as the disciples so often discovered). That means that the campaigners for social justice may well champion the SON OF MAN Jesus – but even they will find things they won’t like about the real Jesus – just as those who exploit and oppress the poor will.
But as long as we understand that there is so much more to Jesus that can ever meet the eye on screen, I think there are things to gain from this film. NT Life was gritty and grimy not cosmetically enhanced. The gospel is supremely relevant in Africa – and it is wonderfully refreshing to have to face a BLACK Jesus – a corrective that is only healthy if we remember that Jesus TRANSCENDS culture as well as inhabits culture – he was of course a 1st Century Jewish male (the scandal of his particularity) but he is also the one, true, universal, human being (and therefore, neither white, black nor anything else). The film is beautifully directed and put together, with strong acting from people who are not professional film-stars, backed by an evocative soundtrack, and full of nice creative touches. If it gets people thinking, then great. If it spurs people to reread the gospels, even better.
- For Jesus’ followers, I hope that means they will revisit his radical and subversive ethics which challenge so many of the assumptions of the modern era;
- But for non-followers, I hope that above all his radical analysis of the human heart will drive them to the cross where the madness of the divine solution to sin is uniquely to be found. And it is far more radical than political revolution ever could be.