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Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

The origins of Halloween lie with the church. This video shows how medieval Christians saw Halloween as “a final fling” for the powers of darkness, safe in the knowledge that the Light  is always stronger. (For more on the thinking behind the video, read this).

And please share on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Vast armies undead do tread through the night and
In hordes march towards hapless victims to frighten.
They stumble in step with glass-eyes on the prizes;
Bunched hither, hunched over in monstrous disguises;
In sizes not lofty but numb’ring a throng;
To unleash on their prey the dreaded DING DONG.
Small faces with traces of mother’s eye-liner,
Peer up to the resident candy provider.

And there to intone ancient threats learnt verbatim;
They lisp “TRICK OR TREAT!” Tis their stark ultimatum.
Thus: region by region such legions take plunder.
Does this spector-full spectacle cause you to wonder?
Just how did our fair festive forebears conceive,
Of this primeval practice called All Hallows Eve?
The answer, if anyone cares to research,
Surprises, it rises from old mother church.

On the cusp of the customary All Saints Day
The Christ-i-an kinsfolk made mocking display.
These children of light both to tease and deride;
Don darkness, doll down as the sinister side.
In pre-post-er-ous pageants and dress diabolic,
They hand to the damned just one final frolick.
You see with the light of the dawn on the morrow,
The sunrise will swallow such darkness and sorrow.

The future is futile for forces of evil;
And so they did scorn them in times Medieval.
For this is the nature of shadow and gloom;
In the gleaming of glory there can be no room.
What force is resourced by the echoing black?
When the brightness ignites can the shadow push back?
These ‘powers’ of darkness, if such can be called,
Are banished by brilliance, by blazing enthralled.

So the bible begins with this fore-resolved fight;
For a moment the darkness…. then “Let there be Light!”
First grief in the gloom, then joy from the East.
First valley of shadow, then mountaintop feast.
First wait for Messiah, then long-promised Dawn.
First desolate Friday and then Easter Morn.
The armies of darkness when doing their worst,
Can never extinguish this Dazzling Sunburst.

So… ridicule rogues if you must play a role;
But beware getting lost in that bottomless hole.
The triumph is not with the forces of night.
It dawned with the One who said “I am the Light!”

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NoCompromiseLast week  someone asked me where I thought it would all end? All these adaptations the church seems to be making to culture. We used to get hung up on keeping Sunday special, but who is bothered anymore? It was only 20 years ago that the Church of England allowed women priests, but who can deny that women bishops will shortly follow? Right now, much ado is being made about gay marriage, but won’t that also seem like an outdated scruple in years to come. Isn’t the trend basically one of distinctives gradually eroded away?  And all those conservative Christians who have fought so hard, won’t they just watch their children accommodate themselves to the very compromises they so feared?

Trouble is… that predictive model is based on the very thing that is shifting most fundamentally. It’s based on the idea of ‘Christian Britain’ and a church that can expect (and demand!) the state to be at least Christian-ish.  But it seems plain to me that this is the one thing that’s really changing. Or rather, this is the reality that’s most obviously being revealed in all the other changes. The culture is not Christian-ish.  It’s not even Christian-ish-ish.  The church doesn’t have the political voice it wants to have. And shouting louder is not helping.  It’s basically communicating peripheral issues as our central message (that’s what’s being heard anyway).

But what if we extrapolate from the real change that’s occurring – the realization that the Christian vision of work/rest, men/women, sex and sexuality really isn’t the world’s?  What then?  Maybe then we’d see church as the place where true rest is enjoyed, true gender relations modeled and true  enjoyment of singleness and marriage nurtured. And we’ll see the world as a place that almost must find the way of Christ baffling and wrong.

If we follow that trajectory then, yes, we’ll have to accept persecution as part of the deal. But I’m pretty sure we all signed up to that at the outset, and, on the upside, it means that we’re not at all destined to ever-increasing compromise. Nor are we doomed to fight all our battles for peripheral issues like sex.  In fact we  might actually find our churches modelling a counter-culture more distinctive than ever.  Meanwhile, those who focus the battle on Westminster may find that they are being just as defined by the culture as ‘the compromisers’ (even if negatively).

I’m no kind of culture-vulture and I couldn’t spot a political trend if it tap-danced on my face. But it seems to me that whatever trajectory we’re on, it does not need to end in a loss of Christian distinctives. Instead in might be the birth of some real distinctives. What’s more it may help us re-assign resources to the true front line – the church – as we re-centre ourselves on our true mission – proclaiming Jesus.

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dawkins_southparkYesterday, Richard Dawkins drew much criticism for the following tweet:

Andrew Brown of the Guardian tells of the fall-out.

Seems to me one response would be to point to this Dawkins tweet from last month:

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander I’d have thought.  The supernatural (for want of a better short-hand) might seem absurd to the naturalist, but, well, it would.  But you can’t do theology by common sense either – and certainly not naturalistic common sense!

Anyway, perhaps the best response is just to list some of Dawkins’ other clangers from the last few weeks and let them speak for themselves…

[now deleted] What kind of person throws chewing gum in the streets, where it sticks to shoes? What kind of person chews gum in the first place?

Greetings to all atheists. But please, not so many athiests, aethists or aetheists. Greek theos: god. Hence theist. Hence a-theist.

I re-tweet for a reason. I know not everybody likes it. They are free to unfollow.

Comparisons often made of Jesus with Horus, Dionysus, Krishna etc. Any real scholars out there confirm each one? pic.twitter.com/IuN1u7McNq

then, when called on such tired and lazy comparisons…

Was it seriously not obvious that I posted that set of other gods because I was SCEPTICAL of the alleged similarities to Jesus?

If you’re used to the obscurantist smokescreens of religion, the sudden shock of the unambiguously clear voice of reason can SEEM aggressive

Dear Americans, please understand that “grade” as in “7th grade” is not part of the English language. Please state the child’s AGE in years

People outside America truly don’t know what “7th grade” means. In Britain we’ve “Year 10” but don’t expect others to know what that means.

If you only care about communicating to Americans, “7th grade” is fine. But there’s this obscure little place called The Rest Of The World

I’m NOT arguing for British English. “Year 10” not part of the language either, which is why I wouldn’t use it in an international medium.

“Hit a home run” great metaphor, understood internationally. But “7th grade” conveys precision. Don’t you WANT to be understood outside US?

Struggling with London tube notice: delays because “customer” taken ill on train earlier in day. Sorry for sick passenger, but why DELAYS?

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Below you can watch Richard Dawkins speaking in advance of the 2011 KJV celebrations. He makes the case for being steeped ‘to some extent’ in the King James Bible.  If we don’t know the KJV we are ‘in some small way barbarian.’  But he ends by saying:

it is important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource.

Notch it up as another Dickie Dawkins classic.  But before we laugh and point, let’s make sure there aren’t three fingers pointing back.

You see, because he’s talking about the bible the stupidity of his position is obvious.  Of course it’s ridiculous to view the bible as first a cultural resource that religion then hijacks.  Any fool knows that the bible is originally, purposefully and most meaningfully a religious text (or if you don’t like ‘religious’, say ‘spiritual’ or ‘theological’ or even ‘Christian’).  It is evident (but not to Dawkins) that the essence of the bible is appreciated only when it’s treated according to its true theological nature.  And that to read it through atheistic lenses is the real hijacking.

But Dawkins’ inability to appreciate the bible according to its true nature is only one more example of his inability to appreciate the world according to its true nature.  The whole atheistic project follows exactly the same line.  It says that everything is most ultimately a physical, chemical, biological, historical or cultural artefact, let’s not allow ‘religion’ to hijack it.  But to pretend you are honouring the world by treating it non-theologically is just as ridiculous as pretending to honour the Word by treating it non-theologically.

The only reason we don’t see its foolishness is because we have, to some extent, bought the double-decker atheistic approach.  When it comes to the world around us we pretty much assume along with the atheists that there are brute facts that are perfectly understood in non-theological terms and that we then work with this raw data to make our theological (or atheistical) pronouncements.  And even if we do dare to wear some theological lenses to view the world, we have a slight guilty feeling that maybe we are hijacking a properly non-theological reality.

But no.  You’ve got to begin by treating the Word theologically.  And you’ve got to begin by treating the world theologically.  And it’s best you do so in that order.

It’s those who fail to see the world according to its essentially theological character who hijack it.

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meatDear Mr Lama, (Reverend Lama?? Your holiness???)

I’m sorry I’m not trying to be rude, I don’t know how to address you, not being Buddhist myself.

I heard your “teaching” (sorry if that sounds patronising, I don’t know what you call it :-?) at a uni thing put on by the Buddhist Society. A friend invited me and tbh I was there for the free lunch. Lol! – no offence.

Anyway.  You’re clearly a good speaker and you seem like a nice guy.  But this is why your teaching is SO INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me tell you that I am A PRACTISING CARNIVORE. And proud of it!  Right now I’m half-way through a cornish pasty and I’m LOVING it.  That probably sounds BLASPHEMOUS to you, but it’s WHO I AM.

I can’t remember a time when I haven’t enjoyed sausages, steaks, fried chicken, you name it.  And I can honestly say it has NEVER done me ANY harm. (Alright, there was that dodgy kebab last week, but you can’t judge a whole food group by one salmonella infection).  You preach about meat but you’ve never had a bacon sandwich yourself, so how on earth can you comment??

Maybe I’ve now committed some “”sin”” by tempting you with the wonders of bacon but, honestly, I think if God – or whoever – exists he wants you to be happy :-)

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried your whole Buddhist thing.  Well, I tried giving up meat anyway.  When I was 16 I dated a sweet vegan guy called Chris. He made it all sound so convincing at the time. (Love does strange things to people!)  I gave it my best shot for three long months.  But it REALLY wasn’t for me. I know that in my heart of hearts I have always been – AND I ALWAYS WILL BE – a meat-eater. SORRY!!

In fact, no, NOT SORRY! And this is why I’m writing.  When you told us that your branch of Buddhism denounces meat-eating, my blood  l i t e r a l l y  boiled.  Like literally!  I wonder if you realise just HOW OFFENSIVE that is???  One of my best friends is studying agricultural science and next year he’s returning to manage the family farm. Do you denounce him??  My cousin Joe works in an abattoir, but HE IS THE NICEST, MOST BUDDHISTY GUY YOU COULD EVER MEET. Do you denounce him????

And just now I Googled Buddhism and found out that many branches of your own belief system ALLOW meat-eating. So not only are you out of touch with the real world – YOU ARE DISAGREEING WITH YOUR OWN WIKI PAGE!!

From personal experience, I know how damaging it is to fight your omniverous desires. When my boyfriend pressured me into veganism I felt guilty, repressed and seriously protein-deficient.  Your message is one that makes us hate other people and hate ourselves.  And don’t give me that crap about ‘love the meat-eater, hate the meat-eating’!  That’s just patronising.  In the end it’s just thinly veiled CARNI-PHOBIA.

You gave out your details in case we wanted to find out more about your religion but seriously, NO!  I do NOT want to know anything more about your sick, demeaning life-philosophy.  You said that if we spent time chatting you could make me understand your position on meat.  You said that it fits in with some cosmic understanding of life, the universe, karma, compassion blah, blah, blah.  All I know is that I’m a Meat-Eater and if the universe hates me for that then we’ll have to agree to disagree and go our separate ways.

So no, I’m not getting in touch to find out more. I’m getting in touch to say PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE stop the hate-mongering!  Meat is food too.  Carnivores are people too.  And now, if you don’t mind (AND EVEN IF YOU DO!) I’m going to finish my pasty, nom nom!

yours respectfully,

Jenny.

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The True Myth

Lewis Tolkein

During mission week at Falmouth CU we showed The Dark Knight Rises. I was going to give a short talk at the end but we had some technical problems halfway through so I gave the talk in the middle instead. Thankfully it didn’t affect the talk too much since it wasn’t based on the plot of Batman but on the concept of myths.

Audio

Slides

JRR TOLKEIN: ‘The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories… But this story has entered History… There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.”

CS LEWIS: “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others but with the tremendous difference that it really happened.”

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unapologetic_cover_2372637a

This might only make sense for those who have read or are reading the book… but I don’t have much time so I’m not going to spell things out too much.

Read this extract from chapter one to get an idea of the book.

The whole ’emotional sense’ thing is a brilliant idea. And it’s wonderfully written.  Here are 6 thoughts:

1) The book connects every time it’s about sin and Jesus. It floats away on Spufford’s soaring prose the rest of the time.

2) Spufford continually speaks of sin as the “human potential to f*#k things up”. That’s very well put. If I was Spufford, I’d object to any priggishness about the term. ‘Transgression’ and ‘iniquity’ don’t describe transgressions and iniquities the way we  experience them today. “F#@k ups” do.  Jesus meets us here or not at all.

3) “Yeshua” – his Jesus chapter – is the stand-out. (Surprise, surprise).

4) Jesus shines. Spufford’s “God”, on the other hand seems simply to be a “Shining” and so, ironically, he doesn’t.

5) Spufford is strong on the uncontainable, unreachable, beautiful-yet-bonkers teaching of Jesus. On the issues of forgiveness, generosity, worry and non-violence, Spufford captures the irrepressible overflow of the kingdom.  These sections are very refreshing to read, but…

6) …Spufford doesn’t follow this same trajectory when he treats Jesus’ teaching on sexuality and hell. He hides it away saying, on the one hand, that Jesus speaks very little about sex and, on the other, that the church doesn’t really believe in hell anymore, so…  Well, so Spufford should have treated Christ’s teaching here, the way he treats it on every other subject: bonkers-but-beautiful,  demanding more from us than could possibly lie within us – and, at the same time, speaking of a Kingdom and King in which these things are and can be.

Spufford points attractively towards a fruitful line of gospel engagement. Let’s pray others follow.

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top-10This is my 369th post for 2012 and here are the top ten in terms of views.

But wait, before the big reveal… Here’s the blog’s new Facebook page. LIKE ME!

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10. Jonathan and Charlotte – a Parable of the Kingdom

Here are some other responses to cultural phenomena:

What Jimmy Savile, Jeremy Forrest and Lance Armstrong teach us…

Living beyond the end of the world (a reflection on the Mayan apocalypse)

Bert le Clos’s “Behold My Son!”

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9. What is sin? Falling short? Rebellion? Something else?

This was probably my favourite post of the year.  I had a pop at some other evangelical shibboleth’s in these:

It’s not about rules it’s about Working Hard at My Relationship With God…

Accountability

 “God’s work and our work”?

Grace is not a cheese sandwich

Idolising idolatry

Genesis 12: Key to the OT?

Memorialist Communion (in church and in marriage)

Memorialist Preaching

Memorialist Prayer

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8. Five minutes on the bible and slavery

Here were the others in that series:

Five minutes on the bible’s sexual ethic

Five minutes on the conquest of Canaan

Five minutes on the bible and gender equality

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7. 321 – The Story of God, the World and You

Exciting things happening with 321, I’m looking forward to developing them in 2013.  Here’s some of the philosophy behind it:

The importance of explaining Trinity and original sin and “union with Christ” in evangelism

321 and the Gospel EventsCreation, FallRedemption and Repentance (part onepart two)

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6. The Road to Emmaus – Sermon on Luke 24:13-35

On the subject of preaching, here are posts on my three favourite preachers

Paul Blackham

Mike Reeves

Steve Levy

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5. Legal recognition of marriage and the way of Jesus – by Paul Blackham

Paul wrote some other excellent guest posts for me this year:

Translating “Son of God” – Paul Blackham

The Insider Movement (a series of 4 posts) – Paul Blackham

Paul Blackham: A Sermon on Fear

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4. Bible Read-Through in 120 Days – wanna join?

This read-through was very popular and Matthias also organised a Greek audio bible too. Download it for free:

Free Greek Audio Bible

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3. A Trinity Sunday / Jubilee Sermon

Other more thematic sermons of mine:

Five Talks on Isaiah

Does God exist? How does He fit with Science?

What happens when we die?

Why is there so much suffering?

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2. Stephen Fry offers good advice on depression – by ditching his atheism

This was a provocative post looking at the interaction between pastoral care and evangelism. If your “gospel” can’t help you deal with life it’s no gospel. And if you have to borrow Christian convictions in order to care for people, that might point you to the good sense of Christianity.

On the theme of pastoral theology, here are some posts that were close to my heart.

“This woman you put here”

Jesus is Utterly, Horrendously, Maddeningly Infuriating

Death because resurrection

Helping the Helpers

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1. Fear and Faith: Derren Brown undone in 60 seconds by his own subject

I’m a big fan of Derren Brown but his claim to have shown God as the ultimate placebo was just silly.  Here are some more posts about atheism:

Not the God story, the Hero story

“Just show me the evidence”

An introduction to humanism – transcript and comment

“A universe with a god would look very different to a universe without one.”

Beginnings and Before Beginnings

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There you have it.  Thanks for making blogging so enjoyable.  And don’t forget to LIKE ME, LIKE ME, LIKE ME!

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The Mayan Calendar has run out, giving tweet-fodder to wits all over the world. Some of the better ones:

And perhaps my favourite…

What’s it like to live beyond the end of the world?  What’s it like to find yourself on the other side of judgement day unscathed?

Well Christians ought to know.  We are 8th day people.  Through Christ we’ve been taken through the history of the old world, beyond the limit of the old Adam and into a whole new calendar.

From creation, the week has proclaimed God’s work in giving life (cf Exodus 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15).  Day 6 is the pinnacle of His work – the Day of Man.  Day 7 is the Day of Completion.  On this day, the finished work of giving life is celebrated and rest is brought.

When Jesus died on the 6th day, He was summing up Man and the death he must die (“on the day you eat of it you will surely die” – Gen 2:17).  On the 7th He rested in the tomb.  The 8th day was the first day of a whole new week, a whole new world.

And ever since, the Lord’s people have been 8th day people, celebrating His resurrection into new creation life.  We don’t live like old covenant people, with the day of rest and completion yet future.  We have no work to do in order to arrive at the end of the world.  Christ has taken us through our death and judgement – through the End and out into a New Beginning.

“Worldly” people are 6th day people. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we’re dead.

“Religious” people are 7th day people.  Appearing in their own person at the End and hoping to be let through.

Christians are 8th day people.  We’ve burst through to the other side.  The old calendar is gone.  The old code is gone.  The old man is gone.  There’s nothing ahead to judge or condemn us.  It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

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The first thing to say is that the bible’s sexual ethic is different to the world’s sexual ethic.  And it always has been.   This might sound too basic to mention, yet the point is commonly forgotten.  Egyptian and Assyrian views of sex were markedly different from Israel’s.  As for the Greco-Roman culture surrounding the New Testament church… what’s the saying? “A woman for necessity, a boy for pleasure and a goat for ecstasy!”

Both Christians and non-Christians need to realise that the bible’s ethics were never the ethics of the surrounding culture.  Therefore Christians ought not to hearken back to some golden age when the bible’s norms were upheld by the culture.  Neither should non-Christians insist that “Christians move on from their conservatism and embrace a new golden age.”  The truth is that the bible never enshrined the culture’s sexual ethic – it always stood apart from it.

This leads to another basic observation… secularists need to recognize that they too have a sexual ethic. They are not champions of liberation – except in the most limited sense. They are simply trying to impose a different sexual ethic and therefore to define a different set of sinners.

The next point is the explosive one, but it needs saying in order to blow apart some suffocating assumptions: Jesus is utterly anti-heterosexual.  It’s difficult to think of anyone as anti-heterosexual as Jesus.

I mean really, can you imagine Jesus in the sermon on the mount turning to his disciples and saying “Let your sexual desire be unto the multitude of women.”  If you can imagine that sentiment on the lips of Jesus, you don’t know Jesus!  Christians are not – or at least should not be pro-heterosexual.  Lust is lust and never a positive marker of identity – no matter which cross-section of potential sexual partners are in view!

These modern taxonomies of sexuality are so limited, so unruly, so new, so western, so 21st century.  We struggle to apply them to other 21st century westerners, let alone other parts of the world, let alone other parts of history.  If you try to use our modern categorisations and apply them beyond our tiny blip in time and space you’re in for trouble.  If you want to actually listen to Jesus’ teaching on sex you’ll need to forget everything you think you know about “modern liberal” notions and “out-dated conservative” notions.  Because Jesus’ teaching is something else…

Jesus’ view of sex is crazy and it’s beautiful.  Same as everything else.  “Turn the other cheek?  Go the extra mile?  Love your enemies?”  Crazy!  Impractical!  Totally unrealistic!  But beautiful!  Let me explain…

Jesus only really said three things about sex, but on these three foundations you have a crazily beautiful / beautifully crazy view of sex.  In Matthew 19 He quotes approvingly from Genesis 1: “In the beginning the Creator made them male and female.”  Then Jesus quotes from Genesis 2 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. What God has joined together let not man put asunder.”  Combine these two truths and what do you have?  You have humanity created as interlocking opposites who become “one flesh” when man and woman come together in an exclusive permanent marriage bond.  That’s his teaching on sex and marriage.  And to that He adds, in Matthew 5, that sex is not for any other context.  Not even in your thought life.  Don’t even think about sex outside marriage.  That’s Jesus’ sexual ethic.  It’s crazy, but it’s beautiful.

Because, according to Jesus, when you have sex with someone you are saying “I give myself to you utterly, exclusively, irreversibly and unconditionally for life.”  It’s the most romantic view of sex the world has ever seen.

This is sex as a Ferrari.  If I owned a Ferrari, you could not drive it.  Only if your name was Scrivener could you get behind the wheel.  But if I owned a beat-up old Lada – anyone could drive it.  The Christian view of sex is a Ferrari.  The modern view is a Lada.

But for that reason, this sexual ethic is for the followers of Jesus.  Explicitly the bible tells Christians not to bother non-Christians about their sexual ethics.  1 Corinthians 5 tells Christians not to worry about what people are doing outside the church.  God can worry about them, we’re meant to only worry about ourselves.  This point will be controversial among Christians but I suggest that, in line with the first truth outlined, we address ourselves with the ethics and the world with the gospel.

Which means that the question for the non-Christian is not “Can I live under this sexual regime”?  The question is, What do I make of Jesus?  If He rose from the dead as Lord of the world, then maybe He knows a thing or two about sex.  And if I come to Jesus – not as hetero-sexual, homo-sexual or bi-sexual but simply as a sinner – then there’s a place at His table equal to every other sinner.  And though I fail at His crazy-beautiful life in a thousand ways, He knows how to lead me, step by step, into greater and greater freedom from sexual slaveries as well as the other really dangerous sins – like greed, unforgiveness and moral self-righteousness!

For another approach, here’s an older post on the subject…

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I’m 9 days late to this, but last Friday Derren Brown’s “Fear and Faith” aired – watch here.

It was 10 minutes of fascinating viewing padded out by some seriously underwhelming logic by way of explanation.

The show centres on the challenge Brown sets himself to elicit “a religious experience”  from an atheist.  To be fair the emotional “conversion”, when it came, was indeed dramatic.  In a candlelit church, Derren spoke to atheist Natalie and through various NLP-type techniques evoked feelings of father-hunger, a sense of awe at the mystery of the world, regrets over her past, that kind of thing.  Having anchored those feelings and established some triggers, Derren left and – BOOM – the “conversion” was dramatic.  There were tears and exclamations of both sorrow and joy, almost simultaneously.  Alone with the candles and the stained-glass images, “I’m sorry”s came flooding out along with “I love you”s.  It was a salutary warning of how prone we are to emotional manipulation.  This woman was an avowed atheist and her discussion with Derren contained no “God-talk” whatsover.  He simply spoke about feelings of love, awe and regret in a “religious” setting and his techniques produced a “conversion” the envy of many an evangelist.

So lesson number one – beware Christian evangelists using manipulative methods!

But then lesson number two has got to be: Beware atheist evangelists too.  Because Derren’s preaching was seriously misleading.  Throughout the programme he put two and two together and made 600.  First came the trivially true assertions: “religious experience can be explained by psychology”.  In the same vein he asks “Can our experience of religion be explained by psychology alone?” And he expects the answer yes.

Well of course the answer is yes!  Of course “our experience of religion” can be explained by psychology!  Even psychology alone.  My experience of falling in love with my wife could be explained in entirely psychological terms.  And if Derren did it, I’d be all ears.  I’m sure there’d be insights – certain needs from my childhood met in ‘some sort of spouse figure’, yes, yes.  All useful, all true.  And, I suppose, such psychology might – at another level of explanation – be put down to biology, and biology reduced to chemistry and chemistry explained by physics… or something.  I’d be genuinely interested in all such analyses.  But…

A) the further we “progress” into those materialistic explanations, the less satisfying they are as an account of what is, irreducibly, a personal experience.

And, crucially….

B) the claim that, because there might be a perfectly satisfying psychological explanation, my wife doesn’t exist needs unmasking as the rank idiocy that it is.

Yet Brown’s whole show is set up on precisely this absurd foundation.  Derren says he’s out to prove that “religious belief comes from us, not from the existence of the divine”.  Which is exactly parallel to saying my love for my wife comes from me and not from the existence of Emma.  Well of course it comes from me – my religious and my marital experiences come from me. But what’s that got to do with the truth or otherwise of the object of those feelings??

David Bentley Hart nails this in Atheist Delusions as he turns his withering wit upon Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell”. Dennett, a philosopher and one of the four horsemen of the Atheist apocalypse, similarly attempts to describe religion as an entirely natural phenomenon. Against this Hart writes

Not only does [Dennett’s project] pose no challenge to faith, it is in fact perfectly compatible with what most developed faiths already teach regarding religion. Of course religion is a natural phenomenon. Who would be so foolish as to deny that…

…It does not logically follow that simply because religion is natural it cannot become a vehicle of divine truth, or that it is not in some sense oriented towards ultimate reality (as, according to Christian tradition, all natural things are)…

As for Dennett’s amazing discovery that the “natural desire for God” is in fact a desire for God that is natural, it amounts to a revolution not of thought, only of syntax.  (David Bentley-Hart, Atheist Delusions, p7-8)

How else would you measure a religious experience anyway, if not via natural methods?  What else could provoke such an experience, if not natural phenomena?  The God who meets us in a Jewish carpenter, a library of ancient texts, men and women of faith, water, wheat and wine… His encounters with us do not happen in the 7th dimension.  He meets us where we are.  (That’s the meaning of Christmas by the way).  But since He meets us where we are then He meets us in naturally measurable and naturally explicable ways.  Neither Dennett nor Derren will have any objections from Christians at that point.

Where we might raise an eyebrow is during the galactic leaps of faith they employ to tell their naturalistic story.  Derren speaks of pareidolia whereby the human brain naturally sees personal significance in randomness – seeing “a man in the moon” when really there are only craters and shadows.  This is, according to Derren, “probably the biggest contributor to religious belief” in our evolutionary story.

Notice the irony though.  Derren is trying to tell you a story – the naturalistic evolution of all things, including belief.  His story is all about going from randomness to personality.  And now, here we are, persons at the end of a random process, telling other persons not to read personal significance into randomness.  Eh?

The only way you could take that move seriously would be to reduce everything personal down to randomness.  That sounds bleak, but Derren makes other such moves in just that direction. He happily gives accounts of morality and religion entirely based on the survival benefits they bestow in the grand evolutionary scheme.  But if he were consistent I suggest he should also add love, beauty and truth to that same heap.  And at that stage of course the whole endeavour collapses.

Which is very depressing.  And the show was indeed very depressing.  But for me it was saved by the last few minutes in which Derren interviewed Natalie.  He revealed that her conversion was all a psychological trick – the emotions were real, but God was not, yada yada.  Yet in my view her response, completely unscripted, torpedoed Derren’s whole enterprise. And I think he knew it.

When asked whether she now viewed her experience in the church differently, she said

It has added a kind of artificial element to it for me now…  But inducing an emotional reaction to something, if it’s through external influences, is always artificial in a way…  If I’m listening to an amazing piece of music, that’s an emotional stimulus that’s come from an artificial source…

Amen Natalie!  Preach it.  All emotions come from somewhere beyond us.  To explain the feeling doesn’t explain away everything to be said about the experience.  At this point Derren talked right across her and didn’t let her speak again.  He forcefully asserted…

The emotions are real, that’s the point. It’s just important to me that you don’t feel it has to be attached to something supernatural or superstitious. Because it wasn’t.  And it’s not even like it came from me, it certainly didn’t come from God, it came from you. They were perfectly real emotions, they are things you can carry with you for the rest of your life but you don’t have to attach them to a superstitious belief.

Carry the emotions Natalie – that’s Derren’s take home message.  Keep hold of the emotions.  Emotions that can be conjured up in 15 minutes by a TV showman.  Emotions based entirely on our ancient and selfish survival instincts.  Emotions which probably reduce down to randomness anyway.

And don’t ever ask yourself why you live in a universe in which father-hunger, awe and regret can trigger such feelings.  Boil it down to selfishness in the struggle for survival, that’ll satisfy. That and the emotions.  Induced for entertainment.  As a trick of the mind.  Take that away with you Natalie.  Cos that’s all this evangelist can offer.

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In 1776 Thomas Jefferson introduced the Declaration of Independence with these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This bold and attractive vision of human flourishing is articulated in the context of some very specific views of God, of humanity and the good life.  Yet without this framework it’s difficult to imagine anything less self-evident than the truth that “all men are created equal.”  If you divorce this conviction from its theological foundations, it’s one of the  most instantly falsifiable “self-evident” truths going!  When you look at the mass of humanity born in such differing circumstances, with such differing opportunities and capacities, who on earth are the “we” who are able to see “equality” when all that’s really “self-evident” is endemic inequality?

The answer is that the “we” who hold this vision of equality have soaked for long centuries in a view of God, the world and humanity which has been completely alien to the rest of thinking people.

Take Aristotle in Politics:

For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…

Aristotle took inequality to be the thing “self-evident.”  He repeatedly called slaves “living tools” and was quite comfortable with that arrangement.  Same with Plato:

…nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior. (Gorgias)

According to these brilliant pagan minds, equality is not taught by nature.  The very opposite.  Whatever “human nature” was, clearly some humans conformed closer to the ideal than others.  So who could object if some were given more human “rights” than others?

The point is this: if observations of “nature” were all we had to go by, who on earth could disagree with the inequitable status quo?  Of course nature produces more powerful and less powerful creatures, superiors and inferiors.  If nature is our teacher why not endorse a class of rulers and a class of the ruled?  Why not support the inequalities which nature clearly intends?  Why fight it?  On what grounds?  With what justification?  From where could you get an alternative vision of humanity?  The only humanity we’ve ever observed has been one of profound inequalities!

Thus it seemed absolutely right to have a perilously steep hierarchy of being – the emporer at the top, the slaves at the bottom, with every subject knowing their place.  Who could possibly object?

Except that the ancient Scriptures kept speaking of another way.  The God who gets dirt under His fingernails forming humanity (Genesis 2), who wants to walk with His creatures in the cool of the day (Genesis 3).  The Saviour who would fight for us and take the blow (Genesis 3:15).  The Son who would give Himself in atoning death (Genesis 22).  The LORD who is Servant and Sacrifice (see Isaiah 42; 49; 50; 53).

And then He comes to a humble “servant” (Luke 1:48) as a humble servant (Philippians 2:5-11).  The whole pyramid is subverted as God becomes a Slave!  And He becomes a Slave so that we, the slaves of sin and Satan, might become sons and daughters in His royal family.  He descends to the depths and raises us to the heights so that now we might all feast at the same table – royals and commoners, masters and bond-servants.

And through this divine stooping, Christ shows us a radically different way of assessing “human nature.”  The Son “became flesh” – just common or garden humanity.  He became a Jewish pauper with nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him (Isaiah 53:2).  Whatever might be deemed “ideal humanity” had nothing to do with the properties inherent in it.  The Man Jesus was valuable not because of the attributes of His humanity but only because the Son had chosen this flesh to be.  Thus a Christian account of “human nature” does not look to the properties and capacities of particular persons but declares that humans as humans are inherently valuable.  From there it’s a hop, skip and a jump to declaring their “unalienable rights”.

But wait – doesn’t the bible (particularly the OT) endorse slavery?  Well distinguish Hebrew slavery from Greco-Roman practice and distinguish both from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 16th-19th centuries.  Hebrew slavery was nothing like that which Wilberforce fought.

Certainly the Western mind has difficulty with the idea of selling oneself into slavery for a limited period (we prefer other forms of economic slavery), but those OT provisions were always temporary arrangements.  In everyone’s lifetime Jubilee was always just around the corner (Leviticus 25) – and the great hope was the Messiah who would bring ultimate and eternal liberation (Isaiah 61; Luke 4:16-21).

In the NT, Paul counselled slaves (in this new Greco-Roman context) to seek their freedom if they could (1 Cor 7:21-24) and declared slave-trading to be sinful (1 Tim 1:10) thereby cutting the jugular of the whole practice.  But really, it was the intellectual revolution of the gospel that was so much more subversive than any ‘revolt of the slaves’ could be.

And it’s a revolution that we need to continue today.  It’s estimated that there are 27 million slaves in the world right now and so often it is Christians who continue to be at the forefront of the fight against human-trafficking.  Why?  Because Christians actually have an anthropology that treats each human with “unalienable rights” rather than as “living tools”.  Anyone who seeks to take some high-ground on the issue of slavery must produce an account of human nature that will actually protect the weak and the vulnerable from being used.  But on what grounds will they justify such a stand?

I live in a country that kills 200 000 of the weakest members of our species every year because of the will of the strong.  Our culture can claim no high ground in protecting the “unalienable rights” of all people.  We have our own hierarchies based on the properties and capacities of individuals and we discriminate with extreme prejudice.  If we want real equality we must return to the only true foundation: the Master who became Slave.

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My final entry for Radio 2’s Pause for Thought competition:

Triumph Through Adversity

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Three Australians in a pub compare their scar stories. One points to purple flesh on his calf: “Box jellyfish” he complains. The second says “You big girl’s blouse” – shows his left hand missing: “Shark Attack!” he says.  The third simply takes off his shirt revealing a massive scar from his throat straight down to his belly button. The other two say “Jeepers, what happened?” He replies “Post-mortem.”

We love a scar story.  Do you have one?  It’s a tale of triumph through adversity.

Think of the Paralympian on the podium winning gold. And you know that this gold has come through a furnace: a life-time of struggle, a car accident, a war wound, but through the furnace: Gold. We love triumph through adversity.

Recently Derren Brown was asked why his magic shows are so different.  He said “Magic tends to be about people clicking their fingers… and it happens.  Which is a God-like whim… What’s more interesting dramatically – he says – is a Hero-story… somebody who’s struggling with something and then goes through a journey but at some cost to himself.”

Derren Brown’s absolutely right.  We’re just not interested in the God-like figure – all triumph and no adversity.  We all respond to the Hero’s journey – struggle through adversity.

But what if the God story IS the Hero story?

At the end of John’s Gospel, Doubting Thomas is confronted by the Hero of the Bible.  The Risen Jesus shows him His scars – proof of a love that took Him to hell and back.  And Thomas blurts out “My Lord and My God!”  Thomas has seen God, because He has seen His scars.

We’ve all got scar stories. The Bible says even God’s got a scar story.  If that’s true then, in all our struggles, there really IS Triumph through adversity.

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Here’s my second round entry for Radio 2’s Pause for Thought competition

Lost and Found

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This week, universities up and down the country are holding Freshers’ Weeks. I’ve been at a couple this week and I’ve discovered two realities that are powerfully at play in Freshers’ Week.  The first is that EVERYONE is utterly LOST.  Folks are far from home, with a new environment, new people, new rules, new routines, and everyone’s LOST.

That’s one reality.  The other is that everyone’s trying to FIND themselves.  I still remember my mother’s parting words to me on the first day of uni.  I think she’s now embarrassed by them, I’m certainly embarassed by them, she said with tears (and I quote) “Glen, I want you to FLY… Just… fly.”  It’s the Bette Middler school of parenting I believe.  But we know what she meant!  In new environments we want to FIND the person that we want to be. We want to flourish and thrive and maybe even fly, I dunno.  We certainly want to stop feeling lost.

That’s Freshers’ Week – but it’s also life.  So often we feel lost and we want to find ourselves.  But let me tell you – If you are LOST, the last thing you need to FIND is YOURSELF.  Because you’re lost.  And finding a lost person is NOT that much help. Lost people who find themSELVES find that they are Lost.  Which is no great find.  When you’re lost, you need to find HOME.  And when you’re HOME then you can just BE yourself.

Jesus was always telling stories about how HE had come to find the lost.  He’s like a searching shepherd finding lost sheep.  He’s like a searching woman, finding a lost heirloom.  He’s like a searching father, finding a lost son.  Read more in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 15.  Jesus comes from HOME – that ultimate Family Home of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and He’s come to FIND the lost.

If you’re lost, you don’t need to find yourSELF.  You need to find home.  The good news Christians proclaim is that someone from Home has come to find you.

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Recently I entered a Radio 2 competition to present Pause for Thought.  Unfortunately I didn’t win, but what a consolation prize: meeting Vanessa Feltz at the final!

Here’s my round one entry: We Are The Champions…

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We Are The Champions

It’s official, the Olympomania Geiger counter has gone nuclear.  As an Australian who’s lived half his life in the UK I’ve undergone a bit of a conversion experience, I’ve been caught up in Team GB hysteria.  For the last fortnight I’ve been, in the words of Dylan Moran, ‘roaring advice at the best athletes in the world.’ And when you catch yourself screaming at the planet’s greatest sportsmen: “NOT LIKE THAT!” you realize you’ve been gripped by something bigger than yourself. There is a deep connection between us and the athletes – they are our champions.

Just this Friday, the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, published a poem about the Olympics with the line: “We are Mo Farah lifting the 10 000m gold”.  And on one level that’s just ridiculous.  I’m not Mo Farah, I’m part-man, part-sofa. Brushing my teeth is about as aerobic as I like to get.  But there’s something deeper going on.  Our champions belong to us and their victory is our victory though we haven’t expended a calorie of effort.

And here is the very heart of Christian faith.  You see I’m probably like you – I’m an arm-chair critic when it comes to life.  I talk a good game, but my own performance is laughable by comparison.  Step forward our Champion, Jesus.  He comes at Christmas as our representative, wearing the colours of Team Earth.  He lives our life for us, He dies our death for us, faces off against our biggest enemy – the grave – and beats it hands down.  Now His victory is our victory – though we have not expended a calorie of effort.

Put it like this:  If Usain Bolt is my competitor, I have no chance.  If he’s my Champion, I can’t lose.

If you think God just sets you standards, then of course you’re going to fall short. But Christianity says there’s a Champion.  And if He’s your Champion, you can rejoice like an Olympomanic long after the Games have gone.  Because His victory is your victory.

 

 

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Three prominent stories in the news reveal the same human condition.

Jimmy Savile’s molestation of minors was even recorded in his autobiography.  It’s not even disguised, it’s right there on the page.  He remembers an incident in the early ’60s when he managed a dance hall in Leeds. Police asked him to keep a lookout for an attractive 16 year old girl who was missing.  He told the female PC if he found her, he would keep her for one night as his reward.  She did indeed turn up at his club that night and, as he writes, it was ‘agreed that I hand her over if she could stay at the dance, come home with me, and that I would promise to see her when they let her out’.

This is precisely what happened and he ‘handed her over’ to the police at 11:30 the next morning.  Jimmy adds, she ‘was dissuaded from bringing charges against me by her colleagues, for it was well-known that were I to go I would probably take half the station with me’.

Scores more stories like these are emerging a year after Savile’s death.  People knew.  People were told.  Savile even told us.  But somehow we couldn’t quite allow the truth to confront us in all its stark horror.

Today is the day Jeremy Forrest appears in Eastbourne Magistrate’s Court.  The 30 year old maths teacher, who’s been married for a year, ran off with a 15 year old student.  They ended up in France before the authorities caught up with them. Back in May he wrote a blog post entitled “You hit me just like heroin.”  After speaking of the difficulty of an unnamed moral decisions he concludes: “At the end of the day I was satisfied that if you can look at yourself in the mirror and know that, under all the front, that you are a good person, that should have faith in your own judgment.”

As the relationship with his student grew, you can imagine the secrecy and the insanity ratcheting up in equal measure.  With no-one to break in from the outside and say “This is nuts!”, they end up fleeing to France.  And then what!!?  That should have been one of a thousand questions bringing them up short.  But no.  He ‘looked in the mirror’, was content with what he saw and acted accordingly.

The third story is about Lance Armstrong.  The US Anti-Doping Agency has released “staggeringly voluminous supporting documents” for the decision to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles.  ESPN journalist, Bonnie Ford, writes “After today, anyone who remains unconvinced simply doesn’t want to know.”

But what’s fascinating is the admission by Ford that there would indeed be many who don’t want to know.  She concludes her article saying:

Armstrong will always find a place to race and people who want to race with him, or at least come to watch. He is stubborn enough to be capable of existing indefinitely in a sort of parallel universe where he is still who he purported to be — a purveyor of hope on wheels. And there will always be people who loved those three-week travelogues every July and don’t want to give up on their longtime protagonist, either.

Sunflowers and lavender and Alpine switchbacks are far more appealing images than syringes and blood bags and a cult of personality channeled into coercion. Armstrong’s legacy lies now not only in the eye of the beholder but in the willingness of that beholder to take off the blinders and see.

Here’s the common thread… no-one wants to take off the blinders and see.  With Savile, for Forrest and for Armstrong’s fans, we just don’t want to know.  As the saying goes, there’s none so blind as those who will not see.

But that’s all of us, according to the bible.  “All men are liars” said Paul in Romans 3.  Calvin said this should be the first principle of Christian philosophy!  And Thomas Cranmer’s anthropology was well summarized thus:

“What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.” (Ashley Null)

Our minds are brilliant at justifying what we already love.  We don’t see because we don’t want to see.  This is part and parcel of our human condition.

When people pretend to a dispassionate appraisal of “the cold hard facts” and pledge to follow them “wherever they lead”, we can admire them.  But we also have permission to smile and shake our heads.  It’s just not how we tick.

So is there an answer to our universal flight towards fantasy?

Well Paul and Calvin and Cranmer would say Yes.  The answer comes in the Word.

We need to be confronted with Truth from beyond.  We need a Voice that contradicts us – that judges us and frees us.  If it only judges us, we’ll flee it indefinitely.  But in Jesus, we have a verdict that condemns us as sinners, but then raises us as justified.  It tells us – Yes, Savile really could be this evil, but still there’s a way to confront it and deal with it.  No, Forrest cannot look in the mirror and see a good person, but still there is a way back from this madness.  No, Armstrong is not a hero but we don’t have to divide between truth-deniers and Armstrong-haters.   

This is a problem that besets us all.  We are all, continually, involved in justification.  Either justification of ourselves or justification of our heroes and principles.  Christ alone can free us.  He brings truth and grace.  Truth to judge our lies.  And grace to raise us again on His footing.  The only answer to self-justification is Christ’s.

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An older rant about Rev, comedy, Christianity and not taking yourself too seriously

If there’s one thing Oscar Wilde teaches us about comedy it’s the vital importance of not being earnest.  If Earnest was earnest there’d be no Earnest – if you catch my drift.

Whatever you put at the centre of your comedy it cannot be earnestness or else it will pull all things down into it’s righteous self-absorption.

Which brings me to Rev – the BBC sitcom set in an East London church.  At the centre is Adam, a well-meaning priest who seems world-weary long before his time.  From the outset he seems worn down by the clash of his sincere liberalism and the harsh realities of modern ministry.  His heavy soul dominates the show and there just aren’t any interesting characters to offset this earnest-overload.  The writers seem very aware of this, desperately trying to punctuate the morass with some fairly blunt sex gags.  Something’s got to break up the moralism.

Maybe this sounds weird coming from a minister – but the whole thing is just way too preachy.  The punchlines all fall to Adam who turns them into sermonettes:

Colin isn’t vital to anyone, Darren, except God. And if God loves you, Darren, then he loves Colin just as much.

In any other comedy this would be the feedline.  In Rev it’s the punchline.

Now there are ways of communicating the love of God creatively.  But you couldn’t shift gears more clunkily if Adam turned to camera and said “You know guys, if you’re affected by any of the issues raised by this episode, phone the number on your screen…”

So much comedy works off pricking the bubbles that Rev produces.  But it’s usually a wide-eyed, joyful bubble pricked by a caustic, insightful wit.  Think of Blackadder with Baldrick, or Peter Cook with Dudley Moore, or Basil Fawlty with the Major / Manuel, or Del Boy with Rodney, or Sir Humphrey with Jim Hacker, or Bernard with Manny, or Mark with Jez.  There’s an ebullience and joy to the bubble and a razor-sharp riposte to burst it.

But in Rev it’s a tired moralistic bloat bludgeoned by sex gags (oo er vicar).

And it’s not as though you need a sardonic crank at the heart of the show.  In the church context, Father Ted and The Vicar of Dibley worked exceptionally well as comedies – I’d say largely because there was a joie de vivre in the central characters.  In fact here (and with anything Graham Linehan does) it’s not so much about bursting the bubble, more about the bubble gloriously flying off into the stratosphere.

But this is so desperately lacking in Rev and instead we have a black-hole of worthiness in the worst sense.

I think it goes to show something I harped on about last year.  There’s nothing less joyful, nothing less funny, than taking yourself seriously.  True joy comes when we take God seriously but not ourselves.

More posts on comedy here.

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Happy Friday

I remember the second half of Titanic being almost watchable.  That verdict would have been completely undone if they’d gone for this astonishing Telenovela ending.

What lies ahead includes some swearing, blasphemy and the most cringe-worthy dialogue ever conceived.  Even worse than Rose’s earlier line “I’ll never let go, Jack. I promise.”  Uttered as she let’s him sink into the Atlantic.

Anyway, you’ve been warned…

For 49 more alternate movie endings, go here

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