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Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

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

AUDIO

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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