Thursday, 30 December 2010

How Not to Defend the Bible

The Bible is pretty central to the Christian faith. Without it, the Christian faith - as we know it at least - would not exist, because everything we know about Jesus and the early church and about the relationship the Jews had with God before this comes from its pages. It is perhaps not surprising then, that the Bible comes in for considerable attack from those who have a negative view of our faith, and who see it as their mission to discredit it.

Richard Dawkins famously declared in, "The God Delusion", that, "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Leaving aside for the moment, the controversial reference to "fiction", as you can see, Dawkins doesn't pull any punches! Dawkins has a very clear agenda here, which he at least has the decency to be honest about, and the resulting rant above is by no means a balanced or fair assessment of the Old Testament!

Having said this however, there are still elements of some of these things to be found in its pages, parts of the Old Testament have been used to justify some pretty terrible things, and many honest seekers have been put off the Christian faith by some of the stories found there. Marcion in the 2nd century famously concluded that the God of the Old Testament was a different God to the one that Jesus spoke about. This was a powerful idea which persisted for several centuries in opposition to mainstream church teaching.

How do we explain these apparent contradictions? How for example, do we explain why a supposed God of love, would order his people to engage in genocide? Various attempts have been made, including the following:
  1. Morality was somehow different back then. I've never really totally understood this argument so I may not be doing it justice, but it has something to do with everything changing at the death and resurrection of Jesus. By atoning for sin, Jesus' death and resurrection made grace and mercy possible in a way that it hadn't been previously which is why the Old Testament portrayal of God often seems so harsh and uncompromising compared with the God of love that we're more familiar with today.

    I can see some sense in this, but to me it's an inadequate explanation. I still can't imagine the God I love and worship ever ordering his people to engage in the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children (however deserving the victims might have been!). Apart from the obvious damage inflicted on the victims, this has a massive de-humanising effect on the perpetrators and sets a horrendous precedent for future generations!

  2. It is not the Bible, but our imperfect view of morality that is at fault. Yes, God appears to do some terrible things, but they only look terrible because we don't understand all His reasons. If we understood everything perfectly as He does, we would see that His actions as portrayed in the Bible were really all just and good after all.

    I am prepared to accept that in some cases this may be true. I cannot rule out the possibility (remote as it seems to me right now) that it could turn out to be true in every case and that all my discomfort with God's portrayal in scripture may eventually amount to nothing. In the mean time though, there is just too much there that seems too contrary to my own God-given moral compass, for me to just pass it all off in this way. We must always be willing to accept that our understanding - intellectual and moral - is limited, but if something flies in the face of everything that seems to be good or praiseworthy then in all good conscience we surely cannot and should not be trying to excuse it?! 
To me there seem to be 3 remaining possibilities:
  1. God is not really good - at least not completely and consistently. 
  2. There is no God, so nothing the Bible says about him is true anyway. 
  3. The Bible is an imperfect witness to God's behaviour and character. 
1 & 2 are ruled out for me, for all sorts of reasons that I don't have room to discuss properly in this post, which only seems to leave me with number 3.

This is an extremely difficult and controversial conclusion for most evangelical Christians to accept (significantly less controversial than 1 or 2 however!). In fact I think many would claim that you cannot believe this and still call yourself an evangelical Christian. For me though, the Bible doesn't have to be 100% true and accurate in every detail in order to be God-inspired (see 2 Timothy 3 verse 16). I am prepared to accept that it is written by people, who weren't always in possession of all the facts. The Bible is about God speaking to and interacting with people, who are the product of their culture and circumstances. Their circumstances, lives and culture are shaped by this process and God's character, heart and purpose are revealed, but these events are recorded by imperfect people who remain - to a greater or lesser extent - the product of their times.

We must not forget however, that we are also the product of our time, and that our reactions to the text will be influenced by our own, non-universal values and assumptions, coupled with an imperfect understanding of the period in which it was written. For this reason, none of us are in a position to pass supreme judgement on it, but we must be continually weighing it, allowing it to speak to us, and allowing God to use it to challenge our own hearts and prejudices. This doesn't mean we have to agree with everything it says though, or to defend as perfect something which occasionally does seem at odds with so much that we claim to stand for.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Away in a Manger

I have a couple of other ideas for blog posts rolling around my brain at the moment, but seeing as its Christmas Eve I thought it would be fitting to write something more about Christmas.

As I think most people are aware, there's no real evidence that Jesus was actually born on or near December 25th.  This date may have originally been chosen to co-incide with the Roman winter solstice, or with one of various pagan winter festivals which it ultimately supplanted.  However it came to be though, I for one am very glad we have a festival every year to celebrate this incredible event.

Of course, not everyone believes in the Christmas story and for many, if not the majority in this country at least, Christmas is just a time for giving and receiving presents, spending time with friends and family and celebrating all that is good about life and the world - and there's nothing wrong with any of that!

For me though, Christmas is much more than this - it's a time for remembering when God came into the world! How incredible is that?! More amazing still though, is the way in which he did it.

If you were God and you wanted to show everyone who you were and what you were like, what would you do? It would be easy wouldn't it? You could just appear in whatever awe-inspiring form you wanted, whenever and wherever you liked, and everyone would believe in you. They'd worship you - they'd have to! But God didn't do it like this - instead he was born to a poor young Jewish couple, in cramped and unceremonious circumstances, and his first bed was an animals' feeding trough!

I love this God! This is the sort of God I really want to serve and worship! He has all the power in the Universe and he chooses not to use it - he gives it up deliberately! He becomes like us - he lives as just a normal human being. This God really loves his creation and isn't ashamed to be like us, to live as one of us, to experience life in all its joy and all its pain - the same life that we live and that he created. He isn't just sitting up there on high dishing out dictates - he came down here and became a part of it all and was proud to do so!

This is humility. I don't think I'd be able to do that. I'd want big neon signs, or preferably some more heavenly, less tacky alternative saying, "Look at me! Look! It's God here!" I'd want everyone to know who I was and to be awestruck by my presence, but God goes pretty much to the opposite extreme. A few people recognise him - a bunch of lowly shepherds who are primed by the angels and some mysterious travellers from somewhere out east. Also, a prophet and a prophetess in the temple after Jesus is circumcised, who have been waiting for this event and speak tremendous words of encouragement to his parents and to others who are listening. But the rest of the world just carries on, blissfully unaware of what has just taken place.

Could you believe in this sort of God? Supposing he were available to everyone who really looked for him - would you want to meet a God like this? Or would you rather have a more in-your-face kind of a God - the kind you can't not believe in because he never gives you the option? Would you, really?

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Debunking the Nativity

The Christmas Nativity story is well-known the world over and at this time of year it is told and re-told, in school plays, in films, on advent calendars and on Christmas cards.

Some people might be surprised to discover though, how many of the traditional elements are actually quite different from the 2 Biblical accounts (which are the only historical evidence we have of these events): one in the Gospel of Matthew and one in the gospel of Luke.

These are the main examples that come to mind:

No Room at the Inn?
This part of the story comes from Luke, who records that after Jesus was born, Mary "wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room in the kataluma".  "kataluma" is a Greek word which can be translated as "inn" or "guest room" depending on context.  In a small house, a "kataluma" might not even be a room - it could just be a small space set aside for guests.  Elsewhere in Luke, and also in Mark, it is translated as "guest room", but on this occasion many (although not all) English translations have favoured "inn".  It is actually much more likely though, that Mary and Joseph were staying with relatives, since Joseph's family were from that area, and the "kataluma" was full because other family members were also staying due to the census.

Luke's account doesn't even say that Jesus was born in a stable - only that Mary placed him in a manger because it was the only space available.  Small houses at that time were often built on 2 levels, with animals housed on the lower level - so a suitable manger might have been quite close to hand!

Finally, the sense of urgency in the traditional Nativity stories - i.e., "quick, find an inn, I'm about to have a baby!" - doesn't quite equate to Luke's more laid back version: "While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born".

We Three Kings?
Matthew records that the visitors were "Magi from the east" (Luke doesn't mention them).  We don't really know anything about them except that they were probably astrologers and had presumably travelled a long way.  This and the nature of their gifts suggests they were likely to have been men of wealth and influence but almost certainly not kings.

We don't know how many there were as Matthew doesn't record this information.  Neither does he record any of their names - "Melchior", "Caspar" and "Balthazar" all come from later church tradition.

Finally, the Magi almost certainly did not visit (as is commonly portrayed in Nativity plays, cards and calendars) on the same night as the shepherds.  The shepherds' visit is recorded by Luke and the Magi by Matthew.  According to Luke, the shepherds visited while Jesus was still pretty much a new born.  Matthew doesn't say how old Jesus' was by the time the Magi found him, only that they came to "the house" and "saw the child with his mother".  After realising the Magi have double-crossed him and are not going to tell him where Jesus is, Herod then issues a decree to kill all boys in the vicinity who are "two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi".

Monday, 13 December 2010

The lamentable state of Christian apologetics

For any readers who are unfamiliar with the term, "apologetics" (according to is "the branch of theology concerned with the defense or proof of Christianity".

In the western world at the moment, Christianity is under sustained intellectual attack, and I'm not sure we're doing a great job of defending ourselves. Many Christians learn about apologetics on theological courses, training schemes, and perhaps even through their local churches, but I think perhaps part of the problem is that we're often more concerned about bolstering our own intellectual confidence than in actually tackling the really difficult questions. It seems to me that Christians are often fed standard answers to difficult questions but are not really encouraged to think! It's much more comforting to feel as though you know the answer to something, than to ask, "But hang on a minute - does that really work? What might be the problems with that?" Then, when Christians who have been trained in this way come into contact with intelligent and well-read atheists who are more than happy to think like this, we suddenly find we're unprepared and out of our depth.

Part of the problem is in the perceived conflict between faith and scepticism. The sceptical mind will always ask, "but what about this?", whereas faith wants to believe, wholeheartedly and without question. Christians somehow need to have both. It's about being willing - even determined - to ask questions, accepting that you don't understand everything, and yet believing anyway - based on what you do know.

It is possible to be completely convinced of the truth of something, and yet be uncertain about many of the details - perhaps even many of the fundamentals. For example, the theory of evolution: 150 years ago, Darwin was convinced that life on earth had evolved through a process of evolution by natural selection and yet there were huge gaps in his knowledge and his theories which are still being uncovered today. Even now enough gaps remain to cause some scientists1 to question whether natural selection is sufficient, where others seem more than happy to stake their reputations on it.

Christians - especially Christian apologists - need to be honest, especially with themselves, about what they don't understand, and be willing to ask questions that will show up more gaps in their knowledge, rather than ones that will make them feel more confident. In my opinion, any apologist worth her salt should have a whole list of questions she can't answer - if she hasn't, then she hasn't been asking enough questions!

1. e.g. Colin Patterson, palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, who wrote in his updated textbook on the subject, just before he died in 1998, "I am no longer certain that natural selection is the complete explanation, and I hope the new edition contains enough information ... for readers to understand the problem and judge the answer for themselves". (Note: Patterson believed wholeheartedly in evolution, he just wasn't convinced that natural selection alone was a sufficient explanation for it).

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Hallelujah flash mob

My wife sent me a link to this video yesterday:

I had 2 reactions to this:

My cynical/suspicious side wanted to know how genuine it was - the sound quality is exceptional and I wondered if it had been dubbed on afterwards. I've now watched it 3 times and am as sure as I can be that it's genuine or that if it is dubbed they've done an exceptionally good job! It was apparently organised by Alphabet Photography as a Christmas thankyou to their patrons. The singers are from Chorus Niagara.

My other, more credulous side, found it deeply moving! I wondered how many of the singers really understood what they were singing about. I have to confess to occasionally watching Songs of Praise - although I blame my wife as I usually only watch it because she's put the telly on! I have another confession - I sometimes enjoy parts of it. There - I've said it! - I've bared my heart and abandoned my street cred! When there's a hymn or a chorus though, I sometimes like to pay close attention to the singers' faces. You can often tell which ones are really enjoying it and understand and believe what they're singing about. Chorus Niagara are not an explicitly religious group as far as I can tell from their web site, but there is a palpable joy and enthusiasm on many of their faces.

I'm currently reading Virtue Reborn by Tom Wright, which I may get round to discussing in more detail in another post.  In this book, Wright says that human beings are made for glory where he describes "glory" as "the effective rank and status which shows that human beings are indeed the God-reflectors, the ones through whom the loving wise sovereignty of the creator God is brought into powerful, life-giving presence within creation".

This glory often isn't very visible and there's certainly a lot in the world - and in human behaviour - that isn't very glorious!  Every now and again though, the glory shines through, and the Hallelujah chorus is all about humans displaying the glory of God. I love how in this clip, this glory appears - apparently spontaneously - in such an ordinary and day to day setting, and the wonderful effect this has on the shoppers, and then on myself and millions of You Tube viewers around the world. This is just a small foretaste of the glory that will one day fill the world - although I think it will involve more than just singing!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Glorious Grace

Most religions - and Christianity is no exception - include some sort of teaching regarding what is or isn't good or acceptable behaviour.

In Christianity, the bar often seems exceptionally high - for example:
  • "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
  • "You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"
  • "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven."
  • "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."
  • "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
(the above all come from Jesus' famous "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew chapters 5-7)
  • "‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

One of the things I love most about my faith, but which in some ways also serves to compound the above, is that God isn't just standing at a distance somewhere dishing out commandments for us to follow.  He actually got involved!  The Bible teaches that God became a man in Jesus, suffered all the same temptations we do and then suffered and died - willingly, and without bitterness - for our sakes.  A Christian - by definition - is a follower of Christ.  We're called not only to obey His teaching but to follow the example He set for us by His way of life.

I have to put my hand up right here and now and say that I can't do this! I am not the sort of person that Jesus was! I am selfish, proud and competitive. I am often critical of others and get jealous of other people's success. I worry about what other people think of me. Even while I'm trying to do good I often find I'm congratulating myself on my "noble" behaviour! As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 7: "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing."

So what hope is there for someone like me (or you, come to think of it!)? Quite a lot as it turns out! The apostle Paul has this to say in Romans 3:

"But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith."

The "law" was the instructions for living given to the Jews through Moses - their greatest prophet. God promised to look after the Jewish people and in return they were expected to live according to God's law.  The problem was that the Jews were not able to keep their side of the agreement - instead of helping them to live better lives, the law all too often just ended up showing them how bad they were! Something else was needed.

Contained within the law, were various instructions regarding sacrifices, which to some extent could be used by the Jews to atone for their failings. Sin - as we all know - has a price. When we behave selfishly or greedily it affects others - they suffer and in the end we suffer as well. The sacrificial system was a way for the Jews to acknowledge the price of sin and take some responsibility for it. It also acknowledges the effect that sin has on those who are not responsible - the poor animals used in the sacrifices had done nothing wrong, but they ended up suffering for someone else's mistakes!

In the above quote from the book of Romans, Paul is referring back to this sacrificial system when he then says, "God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood". When Jesus was crucified he completed the old sacrificial system (which as it now turns out, for various historical reasons, is no longer practised), by taking responsibility, once and for all, for my sin and yours. He acknowledged the damage that sin does, in my life and yours and in all of our relationships - with God and with each other - and He took personal responsibility for it! That's just staggering when you think about it!

Because of this it is now possible for you and I to have a relationship with God that is based, not on adherence to a set of moral instructions, but on God taking personal responsibility for us and on what Jesus has done on our behalf!  This is "grace" - God's undeserved favour towards us, based not on what we have done or will do, but purely on His love and forgiveness.

Finally, the last 5 words of the above quote from Romans are significant - "to be received by faith".  This is where we come in.  Jesus has done all this for our benefit - but we only get the benefit when we opt in, and we opt in by faith - by saying, "yes I want this, yes I accept it, yes I want to be part of it".  Faith in Jesus still means being His follower which still means learning to live the way He did - and that's not easy, but it's a process. The relationship bit is sorted though - we belong to God now and it's His job to look after us and help us to work this through.

Thursday, 25 November 2010


Last night, Emma and I went to see A Christmas Carol at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

Like most people I was very familiar with the plot, having seen several different renditions of it over the years, so I wasn't hugely excited about seeing another one, but I have to say it was brilliantly done and I found it very enjoyable!

It's a classic redemption story.  Selfish, miserly, miserable Scrooge has no time for anyone or anything except his money and it seems the only thing that can shake him out of it is a good haunting!  Scrooge is visited first by the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley, who comes to warn him of pending doom if he doesn't change his ways.  He is then visited by 3 other spirits - the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future - who show him the current and final consequences of his behaviour.  These experiences shake Scrooge to the core and by the end of them he is a changed man who becomes joyfully generous toward all his fellows and fully appreciates the value of love and compassion over cold hard selfish greed.

This story reminded me first of the New Testament story of Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus was a tax collector, which in first century Judea made him a very unpopular person.  Not only did he collect taxes on behalf of the hated Roman occupiers, but it was common for tax collectors to charge more than was really owed so they could keep a little extra for themselves.

Zacchaeus is curious to see this man Jesus who everyone is talking about, but he's too short to see what's going on - so he climbs a tree!  Jesus stops below the tree, identifies Zacchaeus by name and invites himself into his house!  Zacchaeus is delighted to have such a prestigious guest, but the crowd are not impressed - "He has gone to be the guest of a sinner"!  Zacchaeus however, seems to have had a major change of heart over the whole incident - "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." Jesus' response: "Today salvation has come to this house".

The biggest difference between the 2 stories above is that Zacchaeus is changed by kindness rather than fear (although in Scrooge's case it could well be argued that the fear was actually a kindness to him).  Jesus doesn't seem averse to using the fear approach as well though when necessary - as this story shows, which seems very reminiscent of the fate of poor Jacob Marley:

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

Parable told by Jesus - see Luke 16:19-31

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Waste and Technology

My mobile phone is a 3 year old HTC Touch with a touch-sensitive screen and a stylus.  When I bought it, it was reasonably cutting edge, although in choosing the phone, price and value for money were also significant factors.

It still works, but I'm now on the look out - potentially - for a new one.  I've decided I'd like an Android phone and am currently considering the Dell Streak.

My reasons for wanting to upgrade to this phone are:
  • It has a much larger screen (5 inches) and higher resolution, which makes it a lot better for browsing the internet, reading and viewing photos.
  • Pinch zoom - which my current phone doesn't have - so again a lot better for browsing.
  • Bigger keyboard - so easier typing and no need for a stylus
  • Access to Android app store
  • Accelerometer, GPS

Mobile phone technology is improving at a rate of knots and I think it's great!  I love technological gadgetry and being a bit of a sci-fi fan as a child, I've long dreamed about being able to do many of the things that mobile phones are now capable of.

Here's the rub though - mobile phones are extremely wasteful, to a large extent because the technology is advancing so quickly!  This results in most people who can afford to do so upgrading their phones on a regular basis.  Old phones can of course be recycled to some extent and this helps reduce waste, but you can never recycle everything and manufacture and recycling are both energy intensive processes.

My wife's job is to encourage the public to reduce waste on behalf of our local council.  Her team's mantra is, "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle".  It makes perfect sense.  If you don't need it, don't buy it.  If you do need it, don't buy a new one unless you have to.  If you don't need it anymore, don't just throw it away - find another use for it if you can, then recycle as a last resort.  It's also the opposite of prevailing popular culture, which says if you want it and you can afford it then buy it.  Heck, if you can't afford it, buy it anyway - you can pay for it later on!  We are constantly surrounded and bombarded by adverts which try every trick in the book to persuade us to spend, spend, spend!

So I'm pro-technology and anti-consumerism, which puts me in a difficult spot.  On a personal level there's obviously a tension between a desire to own and use technology and a desire to care for the planet.  There's also a tension on a larger scale though, because technological research and development, which I love, is generally funded by consumerism, which at least in its present form is out of control, causing massive damage to our planet and completely unsustainable.

I don't believe God is anti-technology - in fact I believe inventiveness and creativity are part of God's nature in whose image we were made.  I'm sure it is God's desire that we develop this side of our nature to the full.  There must be a way we can do this though, which is less destructive to others, to the planet and to ourselves.

Thoughts anyone?

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Alien Jesus?

Earlier today I came across this article on the BBC News website.

It's another article speculating about a planet - this one only 20 light years away - that might have the right conditions to support life.  The article also speculates that there could be tens of billions of other habitable, or at least near habitable, planets within our galaxy - although of course even 20 light years is, for the foreseeable future, a long way out of our reach!

Is there life on other planets?  It's a fascinating question!  Even more though - is there sentient life?  As a Christian with an interest in Science Fiction and technology, I also sometimes wonder what theological implications this might have!

On one level, human beings are very similar to all the other animals on our planet.  We share something like 98.5% of our DNA with chimpanzees, 75% with mice and 40% with some kinds of fish!  In evolutionary terms, the earth is our mother - it gave birth to us and sustains us.  Even if you believe in a literal interpretation of the Biblical creation story, we are made from "the dust of the ground".  On another level though, it's not hard to see that human beings are fundamentally distinct.  The ability we have to alter and exploit our environment - for good or ill - is just staggering compared to any other species (at least on earth anyway).  We're in a league of our own.

In Christian theology, human beings occupy a God-assigned place within creation - that of the "image bearer" (see  Genesis 1:26-28).  We are made in God's image (regardless of the process by which that may have happened) and are called to reflect that image to His creation - to rule it wisely on his behalf - whilst bringing out the best in it by our endeavours as an act of worship back to Him.  Because of our rebelliousness though, and our resulting estrangement from God, God became a man himself in Jesus, showing us how to live out our calling and making a way - through his self-giving love, sacrificial death and resurrection - for us and God to be reconciled.

And that's the gospel in a nutshell - although it could probably do with some unpacking!  But what does all this have to do with life on other planets?  Just this:  If God became a man on behalf of the image bearers (us), sacrificed his life and was resurrected for our salvation, where do other sentient life forms (if there are any) fit into this picture?

Are there other image bearers on other planets?  Did they also rebel or was it just us?  Did Jesus (or his many tentacled equivalent!) have to die many times on many other worlds?  Or are there many other sentient life forms still waiting to hear what Jesus has done?

Are we God's image bearers to the earth only, or to the whole Universe?  Is this calling peculiar to our species or will we one day have to share it with others?

My instinct is that this calling is unique and for that reason I don't expect to encounter sentient life on other worlds, though I would be amazed and fascinated if we did!  But then before Galileo we thought the earth was at the centre of the Universe and look how badly wrong we got that one...!

Thursday, 18 November 2010


Last night I went to see Metropolis as part of the Leeds International Film Festival.

It's an early, black and white, silent, science fiction movie, made in Germany in 1927.  It seems to have had a big influence on many later sci-fi movies, including Star Wars and Blade Runner (for more info see here).  It was also the most expensive silent film ever made!

I guess there can't have been too many science fiction films around in 1927 and when it was first released it must have made a huge impact with it's strange vision of a hi-tech dystopian future.  Like most science fiction films though, it connects with its audience by dealing with themes that are common to our daily lives and experience.

Metropolis is a futuristic city, where everything is powered by machines which are built and tended to by the workers.  The workers work long hours and are forced to live menial lives underground, while the managers and planners, along with their families, live above ground in luxury in the city which the workers have built and keep running.

The first thing that struck me about this arrangement was the starkness of the injustice and how shocking it appears on screen.  The second was how similar it is to many aspects of real life which we're all a part of and often either don't notice or deliberately turn a blind eye to.  In particular it made me think about how much Western capitalism is built on the exploitation of the developing/under-developed world, both through trade agreements which reward producers with a pittance for their crops, materials and manufactured goods, and through cheap labour where workers are frequently forced to work long hours for minimum rewards in unpleasant and unsafe surroundings - to produce goods for consumers like us, most of whom live in (at least comparative) luxury!

Apart from strong social themes, the film also contains a lot of religious imagery.  One of the central characters, Maria, tells the story of the Tower of Babel (taken and adapted somewhat from the Old Testament book of Genesis) and compares it with Metropolis.  Hel, the evil female robot who exploits people's moral weaknesses and brings death and destruction wherever she goes is compared with the Whore of Babylon in the New Testament book of Revelation.  The robot is first shown with her head in front of a Satanic star, where Maria, who counsels the workers to wait for a peaceful solution to their problems, is shown in an underground church surrounded by crosses as she presents her case.

WARNING - THIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS A PLOT SPOILER.  When Joh Fredersen, the ruler of the city, learns of Maria and her influence over the workers, he decides to sow discord among them and so he employs the help of Rotwang - a mad inventor and the creator of the robot Hel.  Fredersen orders Rotwang to make the robot look like Maria so he can turn the workers against her whilst manipulating them to his own ends.  This reminded me so strongly of all the ways in which the God I worship has been and is misrepresented - such that people are oppressed in His name, or forced or inspired to do terrible things, or learn to hate Him based on the false impressions they've received.  The workers go from being incited to violence by the false Maria, to hating her for the things she's made them do, while all the time the real (and now misunderstood) Maria is working tirelessly and peaceably on their behalf...

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Help needed!

My inspiration for this blog seems to be drying up a bit!

I am passionate about my faith and want to share it with people.  Like anyone else though, I also have questions and doubts about things.  My intention here was to try to be honest about the things I don't know and have doubts about, as well as the things I feel more confident about.  This isn't an easy place to do this though - its strength and also its weakness is that it can be read by anyone!

I like the fact that this blog (potentially at least) has a mixed audience.  I have different things to say to different people, but my aim, broadly speaking, is to communicate thoughts and ideas that will make sense and be relevant to believers across the spectrum, as well as to atheists, agnostics and anyone in between.  This doesn't mean I always want everyone to like what I have to say - I hope to provoke (positively if possible) as well as to inspire.

For non-believers in the Christian faith I would like to show that:
  • Contrary to what many people think, it is deeply relevant to every day life and to the wider world.
  • Some Christians are capable of thinking sensibly, logically and critically about their faith and the world they live in!
  • Despite the terrible damage that has often been done to people and to the world in the name of "Christianity", when properly understood and applied the Christian gospel is and always has been a message of hope and liberation.

For believers I would like to:
  • Challenge some of the unhelpful (in my opinion) dogmas which have become very prevalent in certain Christian circles.
  • Encourage them to think critically about the world and about their faith.
  • Encourage them to think about what their faith looks like from outside, and how they might communicate its message more effectively to those who don't agree with them.

This was my intention, but I'm running out of ideas!  Also, as I've said, it's hard to be honest about the stuff I don't know or am unsure about because it makes me feel vulnerable - I'd far rather stick to subjects where I feel like I've got it all figured out (or at least am able to more or less give that impression!).

So a question for my readers then - assuming there are still some people reading this who are interested in what I have to say - do you have any questions?  What subjects would you like me to write about?  How do you think it's going so far?  What should I do differently?

As I said earlier, I'm passionate about my faith and want to share it with people, so no offence intended to Christians, but I am particularly interested in the opinions of any non-believers who might be reading this - although believers are of course also welcome to contribute!

Saturday, 23 October 2010


(Warning - this article includes plot-spoilers for an episode of Rev)

A couple of days ago I watched a recorded episode of Rev in which the Vicar has a crisis of faith. This is brought on initially by a review of one of his sermons on the internet, which gives him a mark of -1 out of 10! (this plot line seems to be derived from The Ship of Fools - Mystery Worshipper). The Vicar's disappointment quickly blooms into wondering: does God really care about him?; if God really exists why does he allow so many bad things to happen to people?; etc.; etc.; etc. Consequently, the Vicar goes completely off the rails for a bit, tries (unsuccessfully) to have an affair, gets drunk at a party, tells his wife to f*** off, and tries to pick a fight with a bunch of local hooligans from which he is fortunately rescued in the nick of time by the police!

The Vicar never finds any concrete answers to his deep and existential questions, but what seems to bring him back into line in the end is a realisation that people are depending on him - that he has a job to do and if he doesn't do it then no-one else is going to. This made me wonder about the role of a vicar and the expectations that people put on them. I'm not from a Church of England background so my experience of church leadership is a little different, although there are still many similarities.

One of the themes that comes over quite strongly in the series, is that people expect the Vicar to be spiritual/godly/righteous because it's a vicar's job to be like that. A vicar is expected to be more holy than "normal" people and "normal" people therefore, don't have to be that holy because they're not vicars. This seems to me to be a long way from the Christianity of the Bible. Yes, leaders are supposed to set an example - as the apostle Paul said, "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1) - but it's an example to be followed, not just appreciated from afar!

I think there are a lot of things, particularly about the way the Church of England (and many of the other more formalised Christian denominations) is set up, that accentuate this sort of attitude - for example the dog collar, the special clothes, the fact that only vicars are allowed to perform certain rituals. All of these seem to me to accentuate the idea that vicars are special - more spiritual somehow than the rest of us. I think this works for vicars because it tends to make them feel - if not more important than other people - then at least more significant somehow in their particular role. I think it also tends to work for parishioners because it means they can pretty much get on with life as normal, knowing there is someone else there whose job it is to be spiritual on their behalf!

At the end of the episode, Adam (the Vicar) is jolted back to reality by one of his parishioners who is seriously ill and close to death, and has been hanging on for her vicar to give her the last rites. It is at this point that Adam remembers his calling and for him it is the turning point that brings him back onto the straight and narrow. For me though, I couldn't help wondering about the strange relationship between this woman and her vicar. Adam has a tiny congregation and the implication is that this woman is not part of it and doesn't know Adam, since Adam had no idea she was ill. But she still seems to see the Vicar as some sort of gateway - an interface if you like - between the earthly world of her daily existence and the spiritual life, which has suddenly become a lot more important to her as she feels herself rushing towards it! Adam's job of course - if he is a good vicar - is to point the woman away from himself and back towards Jesus, who is the only one who can truly take responsibility for her soul. But if all the woman's expectation is focused on the Vicar this may not be an easy thing to do - she is likely to accept the words that he uses but for her the meaning may be very different - so that from her point of view Adam may end up with a role that no normal man or vicar should ever have to try to perform!

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Russell Brand on Celebrity

I've never been a fan of Russell Brand.  Until Friday I probably would have described him as a crude, insensitive, exhibitionist egomaniac.  Many people would of course add "extremely funny" to that list, but I'm afraid I've struggled to see past those first four things!

While I can't say that my impression has changed completely, I was reminded on Friday that human beings are multi-layered and complex and that there's nearly always a lot more to people than first meets the eye.

On Friday, Russell gave an interview to Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, on the subject of "the cult of celebrity".  The full interview is still available on the BBC website here.  To me, Brand has been one of the people who has seemed to embody the shallowness of that cult, and yet I've rarely if ever heard a celebrity talk so much sense about it (or in so animated a fashion!).

Here are a few snippets from the interview:

Brand: We're presented with the attractive spectacle of fame to distract us from the mundanity of our every day lives.

Paxman: It's utterly empty.
Brand: Of course.

Paxman: In itself it is not something worth striving for.
Brand: It has absolutely no value of itself.  It's a spectacle, an illusion, a distraction.  I think all of us are aware of that on some level.

Paxman: I sometimes think it might be something to do with religion - and the decline of religion.
Paxman: It's about significance.  Famous people appear to have significance and previously it was religion that gave people that sense they had a significance.

Brand: ... No-one cares about religion anymore ... because we've been fed this grey sludge of celebrity glittered up and packaged and lacquered and sent directly into our brains by the media that both you and I work for in different degrees.

Paxman: What happens to you when [fame] arrives?
Brand: What happens is you have the initial thrill of achievement - [you think] "Oh my word!" - the same as if you'd acquired a pair of shoes that you'd long craved and then you realise that the shoes are too tight, they ain't comfortable, "I want another pair of shoes!", "Walking around in these things ain't the same as I thought it would be!", and you realise that you need nutrition from a higher source, something more valuable.  Celebrity in and of itself is utterly utterly vacuous.  It's like being presented with the most glorious meal and then when you eat it there's no taste, there's no succour, there's no nutrition.  It's tiresome.
Brand: Now that I'm here I wonder if it's possible to use it to acquire something more valuable, more beautiful and to illuminate those ideas.
Brand: Someone told me once that all desire is the desire to be at one with God in substitute form.  So perhaps we can draw attention not to the shadow on the wall but to the source of light itself.

Paxman: Do you believe in God?
Brand: Yes.
Paxman: Do you worship?  Do you go to church?  What do you do?
Brand: I pray and I meditate and I try to align my desires with things that are less selfish and it's an ongoing struggle because of the egotism and the needs in me and stuff.  I'm just trying to be a better person.

Paxman: What do you think we should aim for then?
Brand: I think that we should try to examine the things that we're using to make us happy - this pursuit of celebrity, of wealth, of status, this consuming of products, this ignorance towards ecological and economical matters and try and aspire to something more beautiful - something more truthful and honest.
Brand: Perhaps if we were all in tune with more beautiful things, perhaps we wouldn't prioritise such peculiar ideas and notions.

Comments anyone?

Saturday, 18 September 2010

A Modern Creation Myth

No-one knows for sure exactly how the world started, since none of us were there to see it.

The Biblical creation account in Genesis is, in my view, a God-inspired myth.  It's a story, set within the cosmos according to the way the Jews understood it at the time, which attempts to encapsulate what they knew about God, the world He created, and our place within that world.

Nowadays, modern science has uncovered a lot more about the way the world works and has advanced various theories regarding it's history.  None of these theories are complete and what we think we know is constantly being challenged and refined.

Here is a modern "creation myth" based on the generally accepted current understanding.  (I prefer to think of it as supplementing, rather than replacing the original).  I found it in Arthur Peacocke's "Paths from Science Towards God":

There was God. And God was All-That-Was. God's Love over-flowed and God said, 'Let Other be. And let it have the capacity to become what it might be, making it make itself - and let it explore its potentialities.'

And there was Other in God, a field of energy, vibrating energy - but no matter, space, time or form. Obeying its given laws and with one intensely hot surge of energy - a hot big bang - this Other exploded as the Universe from a point twelve or so billion years go in our time, thereby making space.

Vibrating fundamental particles appeared, expanded and expanded, and cooled into clouds of gas, bathed in radiant light. Still the universe went on expanding and condensing into swirling whirlpools of matter and light - a billion galaxies.

Five billion years ago, one star in one galaxy - our Sun - became surrounded by matter as planets.  One of them was our Earth.  On Earth, the assembly of atoms and the temperature became just right to allow water and solid rock to form.  Continents and mountains grew and in some deep wet crevice, or pool, or deep in the sea, just over three billion years ago, some molecules became large and complex enough to make copies of themselves and became the first specks of life.

Life multiplied in the seas, diversifying and becoming more and more complex.  Five hundred million years ago, creatures with solid skeletons - the vertebrates - appeared.  Algae in the sea and green plants on land changed the atmosphere by making oxygen.  Then three hundred million years ago, certain fish learned to crawl from the sea and live on the edge of land, breathing that oxygen from the air.

Now life burst into many forms - reptiles, mammals (and dinosaurs) on land - reptiles and birds in the air.  Over millions of years the mammals developed complex brains that enabled them to learn.  Among these were creatures who lived in trees.  From these our first ancestors derived and then, only forty thousand years ago, the first men and women appeared.  They began to know about themselves and what they were doing - they were not only conscious but self-conscious.  The first word, the first laugh were heard.  The first paintings were made.  The first sense of a destiny beyond - with the first signs of hope, for these people buried their dead with ritual. The first prayers were made to the One who made All-That-Is and All-That-Is-Becoming - the first experiences of goodness, beauty and truth - but also of their opposites, for human beings were free.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Hidden Where Everyone Can See

I finished my last post with a quote from Jesus about how, paradoxically, God often hides truth from the "wise and learned" (or at least, from those who think they are). I also commented that I don't think any amount of scientific investigation will ever prove irrefutably that God exists. That's not to say though, that I don't think there's any evidence!

It's often been said that the best place to hide something is in plain sight, because people often have a tendency to miss things that are right under their noses. It seems to me that the evidence for God's existence is everywhere - it's completely obvious whilst also being quite easy to ignore. The apostle Paul takes a similar line in the New Testament book of Romans:

"For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." - Romans 1 verse 20

No-one really knows - ultimately - how the universe came to be. For every scientific answer we can give there will always be another question, e.g. "why did that happen?", "what was before that?", etc. God as the final answer doesn't really solve this problem because it just raises similar questions, e.g. "where did God come from?", "how did He come into being", etc. Perhaps the main difference with the God answer though, as the final answer that ultimately underlies all other good and true answers, is that it includes the conviction that this question will never be answered. God is the final answer by definition - He is, among other things, that which always was and ever will be.

The universe and our world appear to be full of "co-incidences", without which life as we know it, and probably life of any kind, would not be sustainable (see and To me these are markers of God's providence, but for sceptics there will always be other possible explanations.

Apart from being full of "co-incidences", the universe is also full of awe - wonder and beauty. There is so much out there to delight and astound us. Why is it all so wonderful? Why does it affect us in this way? Why is there even an "us" to be so affected? Some people think these reactions can (at least potentially) be explained by evolution, which in turn is governed entirely by the need to survive. To me though, this is evidence of the spiritual side of life and the existence of something higher of which we are a part.

The Biblical creation story (which I take as metaphor, rather than as literal scientific truth), says we were made in God's image and put here as stewards - to look after His world. If instead we did get here purely by evolution, then in my view evolution still has a lot of explaining to do. Somehow we appear to have broken the mould - the system has produced something which has broken out of the system and now has the formidable power to destroy it!

And finally, there is love. From a purely logical and personal point of view it doesn't make any sense. Why should I put someone else's welfare before my own? Why should I value another person, unless I personally benefit from this transaction? And yet we all need to be loved - for who we are and not just for what we can contribute - and we all know that if we could all love each other, the world would be a far far better place!

The Bible teaches that God is love. Love comes from God and we are all loved by Him. God showed His love to the ultimate, by sacrificing Himself / giving up His Son (it reads both ways) - demonstrating that He really meant business. This is a God we can trust - not one we need to rebel against. A God who really does have our best interests at heart and will go to any lengths necessary on our behalf. The way of love though, is the way of sacrifice, and not the way of power that we all crave. It means laying down all our petty power and control strategies and learning to trust. I'll let you know when I get the hang of it… :-)

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A Different Kind of Knowledge

I've been thinking a lot recently about spiritual vs. non-spiritual world-views.

Most atheists - in my experience - are also scientific materialists. This means they believe only in the material world, where "material" means that which is potentially accessible to scientific investigation. If anything non-material exists then either it never interacts with the material world, in which case it is irrelevant, or if it does then we must be able to detect it and thus potentially scientifically analyse it in some way, in which case it is in fact a "material" thing, albeit a different kind of material from anything else we've encountered.

Most non-atheists on the other hand, believe there are (or at least may be) things in life, including for example God, spirituality etc., which may not be open to scientific proof or investigation, but which may be no less real and may significantly impact our lives.

While I have some sympathy with the first position, I nevertheless find myself quite squarely in the second camp. Rather than try too hard to justify this though, I thought I would just tell you my story:

I grew up in an evangelical Christian home and was taught from an early age that God was real and He loved me and that Jesus was God's Son, who died and rose again so that I could be forgiven for my sins.

When I got to the age of about 13 I started to question all this. Deep inside I felt instinctively that it was true, but I was also aware that I was in a minority and that most of the people around me didn't believe this stuff. I wondered whether actually, I only believed it because I'd been taught to, at home and at church, and because I happened to have grown up surrounded by a lot of other Christians who believed it as well.

I didn't have an easy adolescence, for various reasons and at this point was feeling pretty depressed about life. I came to the conclusion that if there was no God and no afterlife then it was basically pointless - you lived, you died. I wasn't enjoying life and I figured death was an easy escape - no more suffering, no more mental or emotional anguish. I knew I'd miss out on a lot of good stuff, but so what - I'd be dead so it wouldn't matter would it?  On the other hand, if there really was a God then perhaps there was something worth living for? - I needed to find out!

I remember going to a prayer meeting where we were all encouraged to pray for a "God encounter". This sounded like something I needed so I joined in fervently. I didn't know what I expected to happen and wasn't really surprised or disappointed when nothing did. Afterwards I walked home on my own, which must've taken about 20 minutes. Half way home, out of nowhere, God descended on me - that's about the only way I can describe it! I had an overwhelming sense of His presence and love which was like nothing I'd ever felt before. I also had an acute sense of my own sinfulness. I suddenly and unexpectedly became aware of all my self-centredness and unpleasant attitudes. As I responded to God's love and forgiveness though, I felt as though I was being cleaned up - like all the bad stuff was being washed out and replaced by God's love and acceptance.

This was the first I can remember of many experiences of God I've had over the years - some subjective and personal, some more external, some quite obviously miraculous and many more subtle and open to interpretation. My purpose is not to list them all here though, or to convince you to believe in God on the basis of my experience.

Later on, at university, I did a science degree. I very much liked (and still do) the scientific way of thinking about things. I recognise that human beings are deeply subjective and that subjectivity often leads to false and sometimes harmful conclusions. I am deeply attracted to the idea of an objective method which can cut through all this confusion and replace it with hard facts.

I have experienced too much and know too much however, to accept that this is all there is to life - and many of my experiences are not open to scientific investigation (although some of them may be open to alternative interpretations). I believe in an all powerful God, who could show Himself in an instant and prove to everyone that He was real if He wanted to. However, since His existence isn't totally and irrefutably obvious, I can only conclude that He doesn't want it to be - in which case no amount of scientific investigation will ever prove irrefutably that He exists.

I know that people believe subjectively in all sorts of things which are patently false. I probably have many false beliefs of my own which I nevertheless defend vigorously! This sometimes makes me feel insecure about reality and truth. I'd like a universe which is always predictable and which - potentially at least - I can explain. I'd like there to be some objective standard - and this is how many see the scientific method - against which all truth claims can be measured and all disputes settled.

In my experience though, God-knowledge is not like this. God-knowledge starts in the heart and not in the head. God makes His truth accessible to those with the right attitude, not to those with the best brain. It is primarily dependent on His revelation, not our investigation. As Jesus once said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure."

Monday, 2 August 2010

A Superior Perspective!

I really liked this cartoon from today's xkcd:

Good job I'm not like this!  Oh, wait...  :-)

Saturday, 24 July 2010

When is the Church not the Church?

I'm a bit late in the day on this, but someone at work alerted me to this recently and I was a little horrified so I decided to do some digging.

After an 18 year legal battle, a couple have been forced to sell their farm house in order to pay more than £200,000 in repairs to their local parish church because of an archaic medieval law making some land-owners liable for repairs to nearby churches. The Wallbanks have also racked up £250,000 in legal costs contesting this decision which was initially overturned by the Appeal Court as a breach of the couple's human rights. However the PCC (Parish Church Council) then took the case to the House of Lords, who overturned the appeal on the basis that the Human Rights Act did not apply because PCCs are not Public Bodies. 

This is what the Church of England had to say about the case (see here): 

"The Church of England has financial responsibility for 45% of the nation’s Grade 1 listed buildings and many other architecturally important churches. 70% of repair bills are met by local fundraising, with only a minority coming from English Heritage, lottery funds and other non-church sources. This places a considerable financial burden on PCCs, which largely rely on voluntary giving to support their work. Against that background, the Church cannot be expected to forego sources of funding to which it is entitled unless it receives adequate compensation." 

This makes me really angry! 

In the Bible, in the New Testament, the apostle Paul refers to the church as "the body of Christ". The analogy is, that when Jesus lived on earth he went around showing people, by His words and actions, what God was like. He loved people, He taught them, He did miracles and He showed compassion. He also had some angry words to say against systemic corruption and abuse of power! Now that Jesus is no longer physically here on earth, His church - those who follow Him and are filled with His Spirit - have become His "body". We're supposed to go around doing the things that He did and still wants to do through us, His disciples. 

When the church puts financial gain - even financial need - first, and uses this to justify forcing a couple to sell their home for a liability that in real day to day terms (as opposed to obscure legal terms) has little or nothing to do with them, it forfeits the right to be called "the body of Christ" - since Christ would never have dreamed of treating anyone in such a way!

To find out more about the Wallbanks' case from their own perspective, see here, although the site has not been updated since before the couple sold their farm and the petition is now closed, so it looks as though they have sadly had to give up their fight.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Department for Dodgy Deals

Got this email today from the Jubilee Debt Campaign - I think it speaks for itself:

Dear supporter,

The Export Credits Guarantee Department is a little-known part of the UK Government that uses public money to back exports to the developing world. We call it the Department for Dodgy Deals.

Why? Because all too often, it underwrites dodgy deals like arms sales, coal power plants and oil pipelines. Last month, the Guardian reported on the ECGD's support for a deep-sea drilling platform off the coast of Brazil that is even riskier than BP’s Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.

What’s more, when these exports fail, they create toxic Third World debts. Over 90% of developing country debt to the UK government is now Export Credit debt. And there’s no sign of these debts being cancelled.

The new Coalition Government is urgently considering the future of this department. It's one of the few areas where the two parties haven't worked out what they're going to do. So we have a real opportunity to open this department up to scrutiny.

Since the financial crisis, rather than tightening up the rules to promote responsible exports, the UK has relaxed them even further – exempting some projects from any environmental or social assessment at all and making an existing ban on child and forced labour ‘optional’ in some cases. It’s as outrageous as that.

Our new campaign aims to confront the reality of our unjust global economy: dodgy trade creates toxic debts, and it’s the world’s poorest people who suffer. Here are three examples:

  • The Turkwel Gorge hydro-electric power station in Kenya was built on a known earthquake fault and cost four times what it should have, with ECGD support. The Kenyan press described it as ‘the whitest of white elephants’ and ‘a stinking scandal’.
  • Indonesia is still repaying hundreds of millions of pounds to the UK for Hawk aircraft, Scorpion tanks and other military equipment sold to the dictator General Suharto, with ECGD insurance. Evidence shows they were used against the civilian population, including during the vicious attacks on East Timor.
  • The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline received ECGD backing despite warnings that it would fuel conflict in the Caucasus. The construction of the pipeline led to human rights abuses, environmental devastation and, campaigners claim, was a factor in the escalation to war between Russia and Georgia.

Our campaign is calling for an audit of past UK debts – to uncover the injustices that are keeping people locked into poverty. But it’s also about the future: about ensuring much stronger standards are adopted and enforced to control British ‘lending’ in the decades to come.

Please write to Vince Cable now, and ask him to use his new powers to end Britain’s Dodgy Deals >> 

Best wishes,
Nick Dearden
Jubilee Debt Campaign

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The Shape of Love

Another cartoon from the naked pastor:

This is what the naked pastor has to say about this image:

"This guy has just come into the awareness that love is in the air. He’s realized that he is surrounded and sustained by love. He hears love. He thinks love. He speaks love. He breathes love. No, he hasn’t subscribed to any creed. He has just come to know, deep within, that Love, the Blessed, the Beautiful Benediction, is above all, through all, and in all things. It is That from which all things come and That to which all things go. He smiles."

My view is that without love, nothing ultimately makes sense.  Love is the one thing from which everything derives meaning.  Life, the Universe, everything, is suffused with love - but often, although it's all around us, we just don't seem to know where to look for it!

Love though, isn't something that can simply exist in abstract.  Love is always personal - love has to come from someone.  This is what the Bible has to say:

"God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him."

Many different religions have many different things to say about God.  Some don't even seem to recognise that love is part of the equation, let alone God's primary and over-arching characteristic! Many people on the other hand are against all religious creeds and doctrines because of their capacity to restrict and divide. I assume this is why, according to the naked pastor, the guy in the picture is creed-free.

Well it's true - you don't need to subscribe to any creed or doctrine to understand, appreciate or show love - and neither do you need me to tell you that!  Love transcends race, culture, class, gender, sexuality.  It will cross any barrier except for those of entrenched pride or selfishness and even then it will not give up until it has exhausted every effort.  But the Bible also has this to say:

"This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."

This isn't a creed (although it's been included in many) but it is a statement which you can choose whether to believe or not.  It's one of those places where God's love becomes concrete and personal - in fact in many ways about as personal as it gets!
Love cannot be confined to a creed, but neither is it nebulous or void.  Love has a shape and to me, Jesus is the shape of Love!

Friday, 9 July 2010

Shades of Colour

I recently stumbled across this cartoon on the naked pastor's website (I discovered this via Lesley's Blog, which I discovered in turn, thanks to David Cloake at The Vernacular Curate):

This picture made me want to smile and cringe at the same time! I have to say, with some shame, that this is a phenomenon I can relate to, although for me the timeline has been (and I think to some extent still is) less straightforward.

I instantly want to contrast this picture with the words of Jesus, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full", or according to the New Living Translation, "My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life".

Where have we gone wrong? How did the words of Jesus, above, turn into this picture?

Obviously this picture is not true for all believers, or for all converts to Christianity, but religion often does seem to have this sort of effect on people. Evangelical Christians often don't like the word "religion" for this reason, but what they (we?) are offering often doesn't seem much different!

"Black and white" can mean monochrome as in boring, or it can mean definite, rigid and uncompromising.  I think these concepts are often related.  "Definiteness" however, is one of the things that often attracts people to Christianity - that sense of re-assuring certainty in a perilous and uncertain world.

I remember one of my church leaders once admitting that life isn't always black and white. When faced with a difficult choice or situation, there often isn't a straightforward "right" or "wrong" answer. Instead - we often end up being faced with "shades of grey".  I remember recognising this as true, but also feeling a little short-changed - in response to my desire for strong-minded clarity, I was being rewarded with a drab and unappealing mushy grey!

Since then I've had a bit of a rethink.  The problem with black and white is that the rigidity often seems to be imposed from outside.  These are the rules and you must stick to them - whether or not you understand why.  This is OK and sometimes necessary for children - and to some extent we are all still children - but I think God's desire is for us to become fully mature adults, understanding the rules, but more importantly being motivated by the things that caused the rules to come into being in the first place.

The problem with rules - even good ones - is that they never apply perfectly to every situation, because life is more fluid and dynamic than that.  This is why we have such complex legal systems, and no matter how many laws you make and how complicated they are, people will always find a way round them if they're determined enough.

Someone who lives by the heart and spirit of the law though, rather than by a rarified code, will be able to adapt to new situations and respond appropriately.  This requires creativity and ingenuity, but channeled in positive directions rather than destructive or self-centered ones.  The results are likely to be beautiful and surprising.  And suddenly we find that instead of black and white, we have shades of colour,  rather than shades of grey!

Tuesday, 29 June 2010


My MP, Mr Greg Mulholland, has recently called for a debate in Parliament about the adoption of an English national anthem (in case anyone isn't quite sure, there isn't one at the moment, at least not an official one - "God Save the Queen" is the anthem of the whole UK).

Apparently "Jerusalem" has been chosen by public vote, ahead of "Land of Hope and Glory", to be played for English winners at the Commonwealth Games this year, so if we do ever get an English anthem it's likely to be a strong contender.  The words go like this:
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant Land
I've always felt a little uncomfortable with this hymn, mainly because of the somewhat militaristic overtones of the last 2 verses, which in the context of a national anthem (or similar) I can't help associating with the Crusades.  The first 2 verses have always annoyed me a bit as well - every time I hear them I want to reply: "Of course he didn't!"; "Of course it wasn't!".

Before I dismiss it too heavily though, it's worth remembering that this hymn is based on a poem - by William Blake - and poetry is rarely meant to be taken entirely literally.  The first 2 verses are actually inspired by an (admittedly extremely unlikely) apocryphal story that Jesus once travelled to England with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea and visited Glastonbury.  Blake doesn't say that these events happened, he only asks the question, and uses this story as the basis for his poem, the emphasis of which is on the here and now rather than on what may or may not have happened in the past.

In the Bible, Jerusalem, as well as being a real physical, historical city, also represents God's eventual dwelling place with man.  In the New Testament book of Revelation, the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven to earth, representing the eventual union of heaven and earth in future paradise as God and man are finally able to dwell together in peace for eternity.  Blake's poem foreshadows this and sets it up as a goal to aim for - something all our energies, mental and physical, should be directed towards.

I don't believe we will ever achieve this goal on our own - ultimately I think only God can do this - but if we want to live in line with his purposes then I think this is a fairly good summary of what we should be aiming for - although not just for England of course!

Thursday, 17 June 2010

God is not the answer

I recently watched this programme - - which was the 6th and final part in BBC Four's "History of Christianity".

It was a fascinating and informative series, but near the end the presenter, Diarmaid MacCulloch, quoted Thomas Aquinas who apparently once said, "God is not the answer, God is the question".  I've done some googling and I can't find when, where or in what context Aquinas said this, so it's difficult to tell exactly what he meant by it.  I did however, find this interesting article on the subject.

I like the idea, mentioned in the article I've just referenced, that God does not "exist" in the sense that anything else exists - instead He is the cause of all existence.  I first came across this idea listening to Pete Rollins at Greenbelt last year, but it's not a new one - in theological discussion God has often been referred to as "the ground of being".

Thinking about questions and answers though, got me pondering that perhaps there are some questions that  actually ask us, more than we ask them.  For example, questions about suffering and the meaning of life.  These are questions that will probably never have complete and satisfactory logical answers, but perhaps our response to these questions is in the end more important than any answers we might find.  These questions don't just challenge our intellect, they call on our deepest emotional and spiritual resources - how will you respond to this question?  What will you do about it?  How will it affect the way you live your life?

Is God a question?  If so, what sort of answers are there to this kind of question, or should we even expect to find any?  The Christian God is at once transcendent (far above our human understanding) and also immanent (with us and accessible to us).  He is the question that keeps asking us, but He is also the answer that we will discover as we keep asking the question.  Ultimately the answer is not an intellectual one.  This is a question that calls right down into our very beings and re-unites us - if we dare to keep asking - with the ground of being - with God himself.  God may not be the "answer" in the conventional sense, but He is always there - the reason, who is waiting to be discovered!

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Fear of Science

A few days ago I caught part of this programme on Channel 4:

Near the end they showed a two-way interview between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.  During the interview, Hawking asked Dawkins why he was “so obsessed with God”, which I found quite amusing! I was also interested though, to hear Dawkins’ response. Dawkins said (paraphrased – I can’t remember his exact words) that science was all about asking questions and trying to understand things and he felt that belief in God got in the way of this because it encouraged people to use God as an explanation for anything they couldn’t understand.

To be honest I think this is a bit weak as many Christians are also scientists and this doesn’t appear to stop them from doing what they do.  In fact, the belief in an ordered world, which stemmed from a belief in a God of order, underpinned much early scientific research.  I do often wonder though, whether for many people, religious belief does sometimes present a barrier to honest scientific enquiry. I certainly think this is the case for many Creationists (in the narrowest sense of that word). It seems to me that hard-line Creationists have a very strong pre-defined view of what the world should be like, so that any “science” they employ is bent entirely towards proving this picture, rather than towards investigating what’s actually out there with an open mind.

On the flip side however, I think Dawkins actually does something very similar with his hard-line approach towards natural selection. He’s been quoted many times for saying that Darwin made it possible for him to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist”. Dawkins doesn’t like mystery – he doesn’t like the unexplainable – and he believes that natural selection is able to explain everything about how the biological world – including humans – came to be the way that it is. But although most scientists (excluding Creationists) now accept that evolution has happened, there is no universal agreement on whether natural selection is the sole cause. Many (if not most) scientists would be happy to accept that there is still a significant amount of “mystery” around our understanding of what exactly has taken place.

For some Christians though, there can be a significant amount of fear involved in uncovering this mystery. What if we do manage to understand everything? Where would this leave God? If God is in the gaps in our understanding, where does He go if the gaps disappear? What if the things we discover disprove everything we thought we knew about the world?

First of all I think it’s extremely arrogant to assume that we will ever know or understand everything. For every answer we find there are - and always will be - a lot more questions. And if God is real, as Christians believe, then the mind of God will always be beyond ordinary human investigation.

Secondly though, what if the things that we discover disprove what we thought we knew? Well then, we should take it like men (or women)! Christians should have nothing to fear from the truth – it’s the foundation of our religion! If the truth we discover isn’t quite what we thought it was then obviously we have some learning to do! If God is real then we have nothing to fear from discovering His Universe. We should always be prepared to be surprised by God – and also by the truth!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Havoc and Healing

Bad stuff happens.

Sometimes life just seems to go screwy, for all sorts of reasons, or seemingly for no reason at all.

In the Bible, chaos and evil are closely linked. In the first Genesis creation account, God brings order out of chaos. The forces of evil on the other hand, seem continually intent on undoing this process.

Sometimes, precious things that we've spent days, weeks, months, years, a lifetime, lovingly and carefully building and nurturing can come crashing down - be reduced to chaos - in what seems like no time at all.

The gospel on the other hand - the Christian message of hope through Jesus - is all about healing. It's about undoing the chaos - reversing the damage. But what's the point if every time you try to bring healing or to build something good it dies or is destroyed - doesn't chaos always win in the end?

Not according to the gospel - in the end chaos is defeated, death gives way to resurrection. Resurrection isn't just about bringing the old thing back to life though - it's a whole new kind of life. It's a life that's endured suffering and been through death and out the other side - a life that has conquered evil and can hence no longer be touched by it!

This is what Jesus demonstrated through His life, death and resurrection and this is the life that works now in those who put their faith in him. One day this life will emerge fully triumphant in us, just as it did in Him, "if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory" - Romans 8 verse 17

Saturday, 29 May 2010

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us

This post may not mean a whole lot to you if you're not a Christian

The title is taken from the New Testament book of Acts. The context is a letter that has just been written from the early Jewish-Christian elders in Jerusalem, to the new non-Jewish believers in Antioch. The letter addresses the difficult problem of whether or not the new believers should be expected to keep all of the Jewish religious laws. This was the conclusion:

"It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things." - Acts chapter 15 verses 28-29

I like that phrase - "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" - it leaves a somewhat blurry line between "what we think" and "what God thinks". There's a definite sense of God's involvement and approval, but it isn't just a dictate from on high - the elders are taking responsibility for this.

2,000 years later, looking back on their conclusion, we get a slightly different perspective. In fact, even later on in the New Testament, the apostle Paul advises the believers in Corinth not to get too hung up about food that's been sacrificed to idols (see 1 Corinthians 10 vs 23-33). For most of us of course, this is much less of an issue nowadays, but most Christians today are also a lot less bothered about the whole blood thing (mmm… black pudding!), where for the early Christian elders with their Jewish background this was a really big deal!

Sexual morality on the other hand, remains a big deal for most Christians to this day, and to my mind rightly so. Although secular western society now takes a far more permissive approach, sexual immorality continues to have deep and far-reaching emotional and social consequences.

Getting back to my main subject though, I like this idea of a dynamic interaction between us and God. There's a degree of God speaking and a degree of us listening and interpreting - seeking to obey Him, while taking responsibility for our choices. Sometimes we may need to revisit those choices as our understanding of God and the world develops.

Most evangelical Christians today see the whole Bible as the indisputable "Word of God" - although they usually tend to ignore the inconvenient bits, such as the above quote! Perhaps a slightly softer approach would be more appropriate - "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us"!

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Gaia Hypothesis

Watched this fascinating program a couple of days ago which my wife had recorded:
Unfortunately it's no longer available on iPlayer.

It's all about James Lovelock, who first postulated the theory that our whole planet effectively functions as a single interdependent organism. For example, animals and plants do things that effect the climate, which in turn makes it possible for them and for other organisms to survive.

One of the things that interested me was Lovelock describing the reception his ideas received. He said he was very pleasantly surprised by the strong positive reaction he got from religious people.  He mentioned a certain bishop - who I think he said was the bishop of Birmingham at the time - who was then shown on camera talking about how Lovelock's ideas dovetailed with his own concept of a benevolent creator God. Lovelock said he didn't share those ideas, but for Christians he thought it gave them a useful way of thinking about his theories.

By contrast, the reception he got from the scientific community was a lot more mixed. Richard Dawkins in particularly was (and I think still is) extremely anti-Gaia, and as I watched Lovelock explaining the theory I could see why. It's very hard to see how such a complex interdependent system could have evolved all by itself by a process of natural selection - which is indeed Dawkins' primary objection to it.

In response to some of these criticisms, Lovelock developed his ideas to explain how he felt natural selection could in fact account for Gaia, although he hasn't managed to win over all of his opponents.

The thing that struck me most about Dawkins' reaction, was how strongly wedded he is to a particular point of view, which makes it impossible for him to consider anything that doesn't line up with that. There's an incredible arrogance in his approach - the assumption that science must be capable of explaining everything, which leads to the conclusion that if something isn't (or even doesn't appear to be) susceptible to that kind of explanation then it must not be a true thing!

Maybe though, this is to some extent true of anyone who has a strong emotional investment in a particular point of view? I can think of plenty of religious people this applies to!

What do you think?