Thursday, 29 December 2011

Buy Nothing Sunday

I'm currently nearly half way through reading "Colossians Remixed" by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat.

The book centres around the first century letter from the Apostle Paul to the church in Colossae, which now appears as the book, "Colossians", in the New Testament part of the Christian Bible. Walsh and Keesmat's central premise is that Paul's letter - and the Christian ideology - was deeply subversive to the Roman Empire at the time when it was written, and in the same way it also subverts the Empires of our own time - in particular the "Empire" of consumerist economics.

I often find when I read books like this that it's little throwaway comments that catch me unawares and really make me stop and think. Like this one from Colossians Remixed, which contrasts the life of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament part of the Bible, with that of the empires around it (and of Empire in general):
While the empire is frantically caught up in the management of production and consumption, Israel is called to a sabbath keeping that acknowledges the gift character of its life in the land.
Production and consumption are the mantras of the Free Market - the "Empire" which currently dominates the western world and is fast expanding to take over the rest of it. Walsh and Keesmat have carefully chosen these words in order to emphasise this comparison, but I have to say that I think they have a very important point!

When I was a teenager, most shops didn't open on Sundays and I have vague memories of the "Keep Sunday Special" campaign, which fought tooth and nail to keep it that way. Personally, at the time, I couldn't really see the point and when Sunday trading finally did become "fully" legal (there are still some restrictions) I was as happy to take advantage of it as most other people. Now though, looking back, I wonder if some of those campaigners did actually have a very good point...

I've recently come across "Buy Nothing Day", which is a campaign to persuade everyone, on one day of each year, to buy absolutely nothing. The promoters define this as a "global stand off from consumerism" which is intended to "make people stop and think about what and how much they buy effects the environment and developing countries" (that sentence doesn't quite make sense, but I think you get the idea!). Participants are promised that they will, "feel detoxed from shopping and realise how much it uses up [their] free time" and that "For 24 hours [they] will get [their] life back".

This is a great idea if it really does make people stop and think about what they are buying, why they are buying it and what effect that has on the rest of the world, and in the interests of subverting our global consumerist ideology I have to say that I approve, but it also made me think:  this is only one day a year, but we used to have one of these days every week and it was called "Sunday"!

Nowadays, to not shop or be able to shop for 1 day in every 7 seems unthinkable! What about the inconvenience and - even more importantly perhaps - what would this do to our economic output!? But Sunday was there precisely to remind us that there are more important things in life than this. We don't exist simply as cogs in an economic machine. Life is there for living and not just for producing stuff! The original Sabbath - as celebrated by the Jews - reminded them of this, and of their ultimate dependence on God, rather than their own enterprise and ingenuity, to provide them with what they needed. The Christian celebration of Sunday as "Lord's Day" should remind us of the same things. As a nation which no longer has a "Lord" to celebrate though, we have instead caved in to the "lordship" of the Free Market, which would rather not allow us any rest in our endeavours in its service...

Friday, 23 December 2011

Faith and Fairy Stories

Christmas is a time for fairy tales.

There's that one about the jolly old fat man in a red suit, who travels around the world at the dead of night in a flying reindeer-pulled sleigh and climbs down chimneys undetected to leave us with free stuff.

Then there's that other one ... the one about a very unusual baby, born 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, to a couple who had never slept together and yet - so the story goes - had not been unfaithful either. This birth was accompanied by strange signs in the heavens and the baby had strange visitors who would otherwise not even have known he was there. The God of the Universe had decided to visit His creation, and this was how He chose to make His entrance...

Nowadays, both stories are generally treated with considerable scepticism. Most people over the age of about 3 or 4 know the fat man story is just a fantasy - told by parents, purely for the purpose of injecting some extra magic into the festive season. As far as Jesus is concerned though, no serious historian would doubt that he existed, but whether some of the stories we have about the details of his life should be trusted or taken at all seriously, seems a lot more debatable.

The Bible contains 4 different accounts, by 4 different authors, which tell the story of a man who was more than just a man. This man performed incredible miracles - he healed lepers and blind people, he walked on water, he even raised people from the dead. And then - the greatest miracle of all - after being tortured and killed by the Roman oppressors, he rose from the grave on the third day and appeared to more than 500 of his disciples, before ascending bodily into heaven!

For a good chunk of the last 2,000 years, the truth of this story has been more-or-less taken for granted by the majority of people in the western world, but nowadays we are more sceptical. Miracles like that don't really happen. People don't walk on water and they certainly don't come back from the dead, so how can any account like that be taken seriously? The alternative? - his followers must have fabricated, or at least significantly exaggerated these stories after his death.

But if this is the case, his followers must have known that the stories they were spreading were a lie. They saw Jesus crucified (this event is recorded elsewhere, not just in the Bible), and knew that he was dead and buried. At the time at least, their hopes and dreams must have died with him on that cross. They really had believed - as had many other people - that Jesus was the Messiah - the prophesied deliverer that most Jews had been pinning their hopes on for hundreds of years. To see him naked and dead on a Roman cross must have shattered everything they had lived for. Where did they get the energy and resolve to carry on? And not just to carry on, but to found a worldwide movement that spread and flourished in the face of intense persecution, including severe torture and loss of life for those who had started the story in the first place.

Did the disciples really make it all up? The driving force which enabled the new movement to survive in the face of such incredible opposition was its adherents' belief that one day they too would rise from the dead, just as Jesus had done. Either that happened or it didn't - either the disciples' hopes died with Jesus, or something incredible happened to turn everything around - you can't just "exaggerate" a story like that!

I wonder which "fairy story" you believe...?

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Sexploitation - A Male Perspective

I recently came across this story on the BBC News website about the picture on the right of Pakistani media star, Veena Malik, which has been shown on the cover of FHM magazine in India. The picture shows her naked, but with her arms and legs strategically positioned to cover as much as possible. As may be expected, the picture is generating some controversy in India and Pakistan which are still much more conservative than here in the west. It does seem to be part of a trend though, in which social norms are being continually challenged, just as they have been over here for the past few decades.

Malik herself is very unhappy about the photo and is claiming that she wasn't naked when it was taken and that FHM have subsequently doctored it, although she does admit to having posed topless.

For Malik - as for many other people - the primary issue seems to be one of control. In the BBC interview linked above, she says that, "If ever in my life I decide to go nude, I will stand up and say that yes, I have done it, but I will not allow anyone out there to take advantage of my body".

For many people today, the most important question about the commercialisation of sex - particularly with regard to women - is not whether women should be selling their bodies, or images thereof, for male sexual gratification, but whether or not they are being co-erced into doing so. The primary issue then, is one of exploitation. There are a lot of women now involved in this industry though, particularly in the west, who are happy to talk about their willing participation, and seem to feel liberated or empowered by this experience.

For myself, I have to agree that no woman should be co-erced into doing anything - particularly of a sexual nature - that she doesn't want to. I have to question though, whether our understanding of exploitation has become a little one-sided in this context. The primary concern always seems to be about male exploitation of female sexuality, but no-one seems to be asking whether this might actually be working in both directions.

I like naked women! - there you are, I've said it! As a young(ish) heterosexual bloke, it would of course be rather surprising if I didn't. Most people in this category - a rather hefty percentage of the population - feel the same way, and most would probably never stop to consider whether in some way, they might actually be among those who are being exploited... 

The other day, on my iGoogle home page (it doesn't matter whether you know what that is!), I was presented with a link to a story about secret key-logging software that has been discovered on millions of android phones. I have an android phone, was keen to learn more, clicked on the link, and read the article. At the end of the article were links to what appeared to be a number of video clips, including:

  • "Web cam hacker uses hot steam ploy to get nude pics"
  • "British firm advertises for naked female web coders"

I admit, my initial instinct was to click on the links, but I didn't. However - as the reader has probably surmised - these particular examples do not appear to involve willing female participation (although the second one might at some point) and are in fact another example of male exploitation of women. My point though, is that I am bombarded by this sort of stuff all the time - on the internet, on magazine racks and news stands, in papers and magazines, on the TV as I am flicking through channels. If my moral stance is that women shouldn't be treated as sex objects, and yet I click that link, or sit and watch that channel for a few minutes, or even - if I am feeling particularly lonely and vulnerable - buy and take home that magazine, am I a willing participant in the male exploitation of women, or am I perhaps - to some small extent at least - the one who is being exploited?

The further I go down that path, the more it will affect my attitude towards women, particularly with regard to sex. I will perhaps start to judge women primarily on how they look - as if their main purpose in life is to provide me with "eye candy". I will begin to think that sexual stimulation is my right, that it should be available on demand, and that women are there to satisfy my needs and desires. I will start to see women primarily as agents of sexual gratification. In other words, to some extent they will become in my eyes, a little less human. The commercialisation of sex spreads and promotes this message. Surely therefore, any woman who participates in this - willingly and without pressure - becomes an equal if not primary accomplice in crime?

I remember many years ago talking to a friend at work who had recently started dating a stripper. At the time, this was a difficult thing for me to get my head round (actually it still is), and I asked him how he felt - and how his girlfriend felt - about her providing sexual entertainment to strangers. He answered that it didn't bother her, because as far as she was concerned - and based on how they responded to her - the men she danced for were no more than animals, she didn't even really see them as human. This also seemed to be enough to satisfy him and to allay any jealousy he might otherwise have felt. On one level of course, she was right - those men were behaving like animals - but the question that ought to have been asked was, who was encouraging them to behave that way?

We are creatures of base desires and these desires can be exploited. They can arouse powerful feelings of attachment, resulting in deep intimacy with the women we love, or they can provide cheap thrills that distort our characters and our relationships with the opposite sex. Many men feel happy to be exploited in this way, not realising the damage that is being done, but those women who encourage it are doing a huge disservice to us all and it is all of us - men and women - who suffer.

Friday, 25 November 2011

A Little Beauty to Salve the Soul!



A few nights ago I had a very vivid dream.

Unfortunately, like many dreams, it has since quickly faded from my memory and most of the detail has now gone. I do remember though, that I was outdoors in sunny weather, somewhere in the countryside, and the scenery was beautiful. So beautiful - it seemed to me in the dream - that it was overwhelming. It made me want to weep - right from the core of my being. I instinctively associated the dream and the natural beauty it represented with God - who created this amazing and glorious world that we all live in.

I got up the next morning, opened my back door and stepped out. From my back yard I have a sideways view of the local park - not a stunning piece of natural beauty, just a square piece of grass surrounded by railings, with a few trees and a play area for the local kids. At the moment it's in the process of being re-landscaped, which means there's big piles of earth and temporary construction-site fencing all over it. It was a beautiful morning though. The sun was shining and it was foggy at the same time, giving everything a sort of misty ethereal splendour.

I stood outside for a moment or two to appreciate the scene and to let the beauty of it soak into me. It occurred to me that in spite of some of the less attractive features, there was actually still too much beauty here for me to really take in. I had other things to think about and I needed to get on with my day - I couldn't just stand there feeling overwhelmed in my back yard all day! Other people might notice and I would start to feel silly! So I appreciated it for a moment, didn't let myself get too emotional, and then went back inside to get on with things.

This experience made me think about how saturated with beauty the world around us really is and yet how little we tend to notice it. Beauty for me is quite closely linked with the presence of God - it's one of the ways in which He makes Himself known.

A little while back I read C.S. Lewis' science fiction series, "The Cosmic Trilogy". (They're not of the same calibre as his famous Narnia series and the last book in particular is a bit of a train wreck in my opinion, but he has a brilliant and perceptive mind which nevertheless comes through in these stories). In the second book, "Perelandra", the main character, "Ransom", visits the planet Venus (you have to remember, this was written in 1943!), which turns out to be a young and perfect world, as yet untouched by any kind of evil. Every now and then, Ransom becomes aware of being in Someone's presence. This presence is almost suffocating and unbearable in its intensity - until he accepts and gives into it, when it becomes, "not a load but a medium, a sort of splendour as of eatable, drinkable, breathable gold, which fed and carried you and not only poured into you but out from you as well".

Later on in the story, Lewis describes a situation in which Ransom is feeling abandoned by Maleldil (the name given to God in the story) and is wondering where He has gone, when he suddenly realises that the incredible and over-powering presence he had felt previously is still there and has been all along - it's just that he has somehow managed to block it, unwittingly, from his awareness.

In "How (Not) to Speak of God", Pete Rollins talks about God's "hyper-presence". This is the idea that God is not absent, as we often perceive Him to be, but is actually so present that He overwhelms our senses. He is simply too much for us and we cannot take it all in. Sometimes perhaps, He is gracious and makes His presence felt in a way that we can cope with. Or perhaps something in us becomes a little more open and we are able to appreciate just a little of His love and glory.

I felt a little like that, staring at the view from my back yard. There was more there than I was able - or at that point was willing - to appreciate. I live my life lost in the glory of God, and yet most days I wander around with my head down, oblivious and unable to appreciate it!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Reconnecting the financial with the ethical?

This is going to be a little angrier than my usual posts, but it's a subject I feel very strongly about.


The following is my slightly doctored version of a famous story from the Bible (see Mark's gospel, chapter 10).

See if you can tell which bit I've changed (clue - in case you're not familiar with the story, I've typed the edited bit in italics!):
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. "No one is good - except God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.'"

"Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, start an initiative to reconnect the financial with the ethical, then you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
It doesn't work, does it? - for all sorts of reasons. For those who don't know the story, what Jesus actually said was:
"Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven". (my emphasis)
I think you'll agree, the original has a lot more punch!

For those who don't recognise it, my edit is a reference to an initiative recently announced by the Bishop of London in response to the protests at St. Paul's. The initiative is being headed up by Ken Costa, who is ex-vice-chairman of UBS, current chairman of Lazard International, church warden of Holy Trinity Brompton, and chairman of Alpha International (a course which provides a beginner's introduction to the Christian faith).

I do not mean to suggest that Ken Costa should give away all his money, or that it if he did it would help very much to solve the current financial crisis (although who knows, such a radical example might have a positive effect on some!). What I am suggesting though, is that he is not doing what Jesus did in the real version of the above story, which is to cut to the heart of the issue - whatever the cost!

The rich man above clearly had a problem with money. He was a slave to it - money has a tendency to do that to people - which is why Jesus goes on to say to his disciples:
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
Our society is in a very similar situation. It is a slave to money - to capitalism and to the economy. We are addicted to the acquisition of wealth. Simply trying to "reconnect the financial with the ethical" is not going to solve this problem. This is why Jesus once also said:
"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."
Costa seems to me to be trying to "reconnect" two incompatible masters and I believe he will fail in the attempt - unless the fundamental starting point for this "connection" is that money should be subservient to people (and to God) and not the other way around. So far, it doesn't really sound to me as though this is what Costa is proposing. He seems to be saying instead that we should all just carry on as normal - but we simply need to be a bit more "moral" in our approach. Here are some quotes:
"I certainly don’t believe the economic system we have is broken, let alone irredeemably broken. But I do believe that our markets have drifted too far from their ethical moorings."
"The market brings together individual liberty, the human capacity to create, and resources such as capital, land and knowledge to form the most effective known system there is for wealth generation and improved living standards. It gives us the freedom and the opportunity to be responsible for our own future because its mainspring is private enterprise rather than the state or collective. It generates the opportunity to develop latent potential and exercise responsibility. It creates a space in which individuals can be creative and constructive. And over the years it has resulted in a higher standard of living than our ancestors could have dreamed of."
Yes, the market has achieved many of these things, but at what cost, and for whom has its wealth been generated? The "market" has destroyed a massive proportion of our ecosystem, corrupted and destabilised governments, caused massive unrest and global suffering and siphoned most of the wealth of the planet off to a tiny proportion of its inhabitants. This is not a system that has "drifted too far from [its] ethical moorings", it is a system that is deeply corrupt - root and branch - and is in urgent need of reform.

Regulations won't make the problems go away, but they could have a significant impact if there is anyone left out there who has both the power and the courage to see them through - we should be forcing through such measures as a matter of extreme urgency. Of course such measures have to be thought through, but we are not ignorant of these problems and have had many decades in which to solve them. Some of the good solutions we used to have were actually dismantled because we were afraid they might prevent us from generating more wealth...! Private enterprise (to quote Costa above) does not give us more opportunity to be responsible for our own future than the state or the collective does - instead it gives the most opportunity to those who happen to be good at private enterprise, rather than to all of us, as democracy seeks to do!

Costa is right that business needs to be more ethically motivated, but the highest ethic should not be to preserve the free market - but to preserve, protect and promote human dignity, equality and well-being, which depend on much deeper things than financial prosperity. Money can help with this endeavour, but only if it is kept subservient to these ideals.

I am not completely anti-capitalist, but I am anti-the-current-global-capitalist-system, which needs a lot more than the quiet talking to that Costa seems to be proposing and that the Church of England seems to support. It needs prophets shouting from the side-lines, confronting it with its evils and abuses and it needs deep and penetrating transformation and reform.

I have little faith in Costa or his initiative, to deliver - or to really attempt to deliver - this kind of transformation. It seems to me that he and the church he represents are still too deeply compromised by the system they are attempting to reform. This was epitomised for me by the following response from Costa to an interview question from the BBC, regarding the ridiculously large salaries so often paid to those in positions of financial responsibility:
Well, that is one of the issues that we're going to have to look at. This initiative is to talk it through. Every time a figure is mentioned of a large pay - we don't know the responsibilities that someone has incurred in order to get there.
Seriously Ken? How much responsibility can you incur that justifies a salary which would satisfy several hundred (or perhaps even several thousand) "less responsible" people? To give him some credit though, he does then go on to say that:
Clearly there needs to be a fairness, and I think we've got to a tipping point...
But then he gets a little hazy again regarding what exactly that tipping point consists of, and large salaries - the point just raised by the interviewer - seem to disappear off the immediate agenda:
...where people now feel we need to articulate an argument for companies to act on in order to do good things and to encourage their employees to actually do the right things.
So to paraphrase then, what we need is a better argument for people to do good things and then everything will be fine - just as long as we can all still hang onto our money...

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Pebbles into Diamonds


A friend of mine is on the board of directors for my local community centre and recently invited myself and some other friends who live locally, to attend the AGM. In amongst the various items on the agenda, one of the presenters told this story:
There were once two travellers on a journey. On their way they met another traveller, and as they began to talk with him it soon became clear that he was a man of great wisdom. They felt extremely fortunate to have met this man and wanted nothing more than to spend time with him and to learn from him. As they neared the end of their journey therefore, they were disappointed to discover that their paths were to separate the next day - leaving them a day's journey to travel without their new friend. 
Before they parted though, they asked the man if he could give them some advice for the last day of their journey. He thought about this for a moment and then said, "Before you set off tomorrow, fill your backpacks with as many pebbles as you can carry. When you arrive at your destination, you will feel very happy, but I think you will also feel very sad". 
The two travellers were stunned by this advice. It sounded like complete nonsense and particularly surprised them coming from the lips of this man who had seemed so wise to them both up until then! They were strongly minded to ignore his advice and put it down to a lapse of judgement, but in the end, seeing as he had otherwise made such a good impression, they decided to give him the benefit of the doubt - but with considerable reluctance nonetheless. And so, the next day they gathered together a small pile of pebbles and loaded them into their packs.
At the end of the day, they finally arrived at their destination, worn out by their journey and especially from carrying the pebbles. They put down their packs and opened them up - to discover that the pebbles they had carried had all turned into diamonds! Both men of course were delighted with their new wealth - but both were also deeply saddened - for had they taken their companion's advice a little more seriously, then they would have carried a lot more pebbles!

The moral of the story - as delivered by the speaker - was that those who look after and run the community centre and its various services, have the job of turning pebbles into diamonds, by helping people, who often find themselves in difficult situations, to explore their potential and become everything they can be. It's hard work sometimes and may not always feel worthwhile, but it pays dividends in the end. Better to make the effort to carry a few more pebbles, than to get to the end of your journey and realise how many diamonds you could have ended up with!

For myself, although as far as I know the story is not meant to have a Christian emphasis, it reminded me strongly of one of Jesus' sayings about treasure:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Matthew 6 verses 18-21
Most Christians today, when they hear the word "heaven", assume that this refers to the afterlife - and so this passage is about earning rewards for the future by performing good deeds in the present. To the original Jewish readers (for whom this was originally written) however, the meaning would have been quite different. "Heaven" for the Jews, didn't mean the place you go to when you die, it meant the place where God is (Jewish belief in the afterlife - for those who believed in an afterlife - was instead focused on the "resurrection", when those who had  been faithful to God would be raised from the dead to live in the new age of the Messiah).

So what does it mean then, to "store up ... treasures in heaven"? I would suggest that it's about what you value, and in my view, the speaker who told us the above story got it dead right. The things that we often think are valuable are not the things that ultimately matter and are not the things that matter to God. To store up "treasures in heaven" is to invest time, energy and resources in the things that God cares about - love, justice and people. When we do this, we are storing up riches that nothing can take away from us - riches that will last. These riches manifest themselves in terms of their current and ongoing effect on the world, and in terms of the type of people that we become - and I believe there is also, beyond this, an eternal dimension.

Christians who take Jesus' words seriously still do hope for a resurrection, although we may not be completely clear (or even all agree) about quite what that means. It does mean though, that we hope for a future with God, in a world ruled by Him and free from all evil. What kind of treasure is going to matter in a world like this?

I am convinced it will be the same kind of treasure that I mentioned above - love, justice, relationships, mercy - those who are rich in these character traits and have stored up treasure in these areas will be the "millionaires" and "billionaires" of the world to come.

When I get there I expect to be delighted to discover that the few pebbles I've carried have become diamonds. I also expect though, that I may feel quite sad, and wish that I had carried a lot more pebbles...

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Truth About Me


This is a follow on to my previous post about Truth.

In that post I commented that there are some truths that seem too big or too scary to face and that consequently we sometimes prefer to delude ourselves. I also suggested though, that if the greatest truth of all is positive - that there is a God who loves and cares about us and will work out everything for good in the end - then it becomes possible to confront all of these awful lesser truths.

One of the truths that is often hardest to deal with is the truth about ourselves. A person's ability to see themself in a positive light will often depend, to a large extent, on the way they have been treated by others, particularly during the earliest and most impressionable years of their life. Low self-image is a curse for many people and not something I take lightly, having suffered with it for many years myself. On the flip side though, however good we may think we are (and there are many good things about all of us), we all carry dark secrets in our hearts that we conceal from everyone, and sometimes even from ourselves. The book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament part of the Bible puts this aptly and very starkly: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?".

From the outside, I'm pretty sure I don't look like an evil person. I give money to charity. I've never murdered anyone. My wife seems to think I'm mostly a good husband. I'm generally reliable and conscientious. I don't steal. I have a speeding ticket, but that was due to a lapse in concentration rather than a contemptuous disregard for the law... I'm not perfect of course, but I think you get the general idea!

So what dark secrets do I hide? What's so terrible about me...? The truth is I am afflicted by a killer disease which brings death and darkness to my soul! When I hold an honest mirror to the depths of my own heart I often hate what I see. I see insecurity, jealousy, selfishness, pride. I see character traits that - if fully acted on - would render me unloved and unlovable by all but the most determined and long-suffering of friends. And so - I conform. I maintain an appearance of decency and keep my worst excesses in check. I am glad to say though - before you think me a complete fraud - that I am sometimes also stirred by good and noble motives!

In the Bible, in chapter 7 of the book of Romans, the apostle Paul describes his struggle with what he calls his "sinful nature" like this:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do ... I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing ... What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
Facing the truth about ourselves is hard, especially when it's bad, which in part at least it is - for all of us. Not facing up to a bad truth won't make it go away though. It still affects us and if anything its effect is more insidious because:
  1. We're not wise to it.
  2. We can't do anything to change it.
So, as Jesus said (see previous post), knowing the truth - even when it's bad - has the potential at least to set us free. But what if we can't see any way past it - surely then it's better to just bury our heads in the sand?

But - to repeat again what I also said in my previous post - if the ultimate truth is good, then any lesser truth can be squarely and honestly faced. In particular, the truth about ourselves can be faced because:
  1. God loves us anyway.
  2. He has made a way - through Jesus - for this unpleasant truth to be dealt with!
If you would like to know more about this, then please click here.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Truth


Last night I was out with some friends in Leeds City Centre. I often go out on Fridays for 1 or 2 quick drinks after work and then head home and leave the others to it, but on this occasion I stayed out a little later.

The city centre seemed a lot quieter than on previous occasions when I'd been out, and on mentioning this I discovered it had been like this for the last few weeks - the general feeling was that the recession was finally starting to bite. As we sat in Jake's Bar on Call Lane, listening to "Tell me Lies" by Fleetwood Mac, it made me think about the recession versus the "good times" as many would probably think of them. I thought about traders living the high life as markets boomed, celebrating their success, oblivious to the pain that would inevitably follow from their reckless behaviour. I thought about how, even when things are going bad, as much as possible we still want to party - to have fun - and to pretend to ourselves that it isn't really happening.

On my way home later (even in my slightly inebriated state!) I was thinking about truth versus the lies we often tell ourselves because the truth is scary and the lies are more comforting. I thought of that great line in "A Few Good Men", where Jack Nicholson roars out, "You can't handle the truth!!" I also thought of those famous words of Jesus, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free!"

Often we don't want the truth because the truth seems unpleasant or too big to face. A friend of mine who doesn't believe in God (and who shall remain nameless) recently confessed to me that for many years he struggled with a fear of death as he believed (and still does believe) that death is the end - there is nothing after that and this ultimately renders life pointless. This is the kind of "truth" that most people don't want to face - or at least they don't want to think about too often! If this is the nature of ultimate truth, then our constructed fantasies and self-delusions would certainly seem like a much better place to live!

But what if the ultimate truth was actually good? What if - as Christians believe - there is a God who loves and cares about us? What if - in spite of all the pain and suffering in the world - there is a plan, and in some not entirely fathomable way, it is all going to work out well in the end? Many people claim to have encountered this truth - and many others denounce them as nutters or deluded for saying so!

But if the ultimate truth is good, then evil is the anomaly and can eventually be conquered. If the ultimate truth is good, then lesser truths - whether good or evil - can be faced head on. We can face the terrible reality of this situation, or that injustice, knowing that evil doesn't get the last word. We can be courageous in fighting injustice, whether we succeed or fail in the short term, knowing that evil is short-lived and that one day all our efforts will finally pay off.

If the ultimate truth is good, and you can know this truth, then as Jesus says, the truth will set you free!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Love/Hate religion

My faith - as anyone who's read any of my posts has probably gathered - is very important to me.

I grew up in a Christian family and have been in various evangelical churches and it's thanks to my family and the churches I grew up in that I was first introduced to Jesus. [pause for intake of breath]. It hasn't all been good though.

Church can be a confusing place sometimes because it's populated by people, and people are neither all bad nor all good. Even the good ones are not always good and can sometimes affect you badly. Also - not everything you learn in church is true or helpful! I think that might be - at least for some people - one of the most important things you can learn about church! Of course, this goes for most things in life, which of course includes this blog - but some people don't seem to realise it applies to church and some churches actively discourage people from thinking like this.

I seem to have spent an awful lot of my life trying to sort out the good stuff from the bad. I'm not sure why this is. I think certain circumstances or character traits can make us more susceptible to absorbing the bad stuff and sometimes our natural defences become weakened or compromised, or perhaps just don't develop as they should. Similarly we can often become defensive against the wrong things - i.e. the things that would otherwise help us or do us good.

Because there is good and bad in every situation, and because of our different make-ups, different people can sometimes go through similar circumstances and fare very differently. I once heard an analogy put something like this:

There were 2 donkeys carrying a load into town. One of them was loaded up with salt, and the other with bales of unprocessed cotton. The donkeys had a river to cross.

It wasn't a swiftly flowing river and the donkeys were sure-footed and could swim, but it was so deep that both of their loads were all but submerged as they crossed.

When they got to the other side, one of the donkeys - the one carrying the salt - found that his load had all but disappeared. As he wasn't a commercially-minded donkey he was delighted to be rid of the weight he'd been carrying!

The other donkey however - the one carrying the cotton - found that his load had become massively heavy, to the point where it was now a huge struggle for him, simply to walk.

Just a small example of how the same situation can have a very different effect on you, depending on what type of baggage you happen to be carrying!

So I've carried some baggage, and absorbed a lot of bad stuff, and sometimes I've found it difficult to sort out. But I've absorbed a lot of good stuff which has done me a lot of good as well. I've known many Christians who have given up on their faith over the years, and at times I've felt tempted to do the same. In the end though, I found something at the heart of it all that is more precious than anything I'd care to trade it in for.

This poem is intended to portray something of my struggle:

Getting to the heart of things

For the longest time...

Too much truth
Too many lies
Too hard to separate
Too well disguised

Innocence with subtle thorns
That dig deep into soul and heart
Brain confused by tainted truths
That pull the mind apart

Word of life
That chains my soul
Come set me free
And make me whole

Promised life - restrictive cage
That keeps safe from doom and dark
Love's veneer but hiding fear
A shadow on the heart

Word of peace
Come settle me
Unbind these chains
And make me free

Food for thought and heart and soul
Wrapped about with poisonous barbs
I take my fill, it tears me still
I eat this or I starve

Word of hope
You speak to me
Your breath brings life
I start to see.

While I look on, the thorns die back
Fresh growth brings hope and life
I feel Your peace, it brings release
And calms my angry strife

Word of truth
I honour you
Re-work in me
As you would do

And in my hands a rarer fruit
Deep purged of wound and pain
But not quite free - still rimmed with thorns...
...until that promised day

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Unfulfilled Life

My wife and I spent last weekend at the Greenbelt festival. It's a wonderful hotch-potch of music, arts and comedy, along with speakers on various topics, mostly related to the Christian faith and/or social justice. It is held at the Cheltenham Race Course and as far as I can work out, attracts about 20,000 people or so each year. There's always some speakers, and some views expressed, that I disagree with, sometimes quite strongly, but one of the things I like about the festival is the variety of perspectives that are represented and the freedom - often absent in other Christian contexts - to challenge established and generally accepted ways of thinking about things.

I've been going every year for the last 6 years now - excepting 2010 - and I always like listening to Pete Rollins. He's one of the speakers who sometimes comes out with stuff I strongly disagree with, although it does take me a while sometimes to figure out whether I agree with him or not! For those (probably most of my readers) who've never heard of him, he's a kind of mad Irish philosopher type with a brilliant mind who is extremely animated and entertaining to listen to. He can also be pretty difficult to keep up with, but for me that's part of the fun and the challenge of hearing him speak! Rollins specialises in deconstructing standard Christian ways of thinking and turning them on their heads - often exposing the hypocrisy and double-mindedness that can sometimes be hidden within our standard "spiritualised" approaches to things. Jesus sometimes took a very similar approach towards the religious practises and practitioners of his day.

This year, Rollins was speaking about fulfilment. He started off by explaining how a baby, in its first few weeks of life, has no concept of itself as an entity which is separate from the rest of the world. All its needs are instantly provided for - usually by its mother - and so from its point of view it is the centre of its own private universe and its mother is simply an extension of itself.

There comes a point though, pretty early in the child's life, when it realises it can't have everything it wants whenever it wants it and that its mother is actually a separate person with needs and desires of her own. At this point - according to Rollins - the child feels an overwhelming sense of loss. It has become separate from its mother in a way that it wasn't - or at least didn't feel itself to be - up until that point. All of us - Rollins believes - go through life with this sense of loss deep within ourselves and come up with all sorts of different ways of trying to plug this perceived "gap". Much advertising for example, is aimed at trying to convince us that this product is the thing that will make everything all right and will finally make us feel fulfilled. People search for fulfilment in all sorts of ways - for example through relationships, perhaps by searching for the perfect partner, or through possessions, or by chasing success in various forms. Rollins used the example of Looney Tunes cartoon character Wile E. Coyote, who spends his whole life trying (unsuccessfully) to catch the Road Runner. He also made reference to this cartoon (not made by Looney Tunes) in which Wile E. finally succeeds and then has an identity crisis because he no longer has anything to live for. He didn't mention the punch line though, which is especially poignant in the light of the rest of his talk!

Rollins argues that the way in which Christians often present the gospel is just an extension of the thinking above. "Come to Jesus", the message goes, and He will fill that hole inside of you. He will make you feel complete. He will satisfy that need. But many Christians find that after the initial excitement of discovering God, that need hasn't actually gone away and they then have to search for other ways of satisfying it. If I pray more, read my Bible more, or whatever, perhaps God will approve of me more and the gap will be filled! According to Rollins though, we shouldn't be trying to fill this gap at all because this isn't what the Christian faith is all about. Rollins cites the example of Mother Teresa who for nearly 50 years had no tangible experience of the presence of God and suffered agonising doubt as a result, yet continued in faithful service to God and to others, encountering Jesus instead in the lives of the poor to whom she ministered. Living the Christian life then, shouldn't be about searching for personal fulfilment, but should rather be about giving up that search, recognising and accepting our brokenness, and reaching outwards to others in love. It is as we do this that we truly encounter God, who is love in His very essence.

I find that I agree with Rollins - and disagree with him - at the same time. I feel that it's natural and appropriate to crave one-ness with God. The Bible presents God as a father who cares deeply about His children and is accessible to them. While I deeply admire Mother Teresa for her faithfulness, I feel very grateful not to be in her position! Mother Teresa is one of many good examples of Christian faithfulness, but at the other end of the spectrum are those like Brother Lawrence, who from his own account spent the last few decades of his life almost perpetually enveloped in God's presence. Given the option, I would far rather be in his position! I do agree with Rollins though, that the desire for personal fulfilment is not the primary goal and does need to be surrendered.

I do believe that God is the ultimate answer to all our craving and that one day that craving will be fulfilled. I also believe it's possible to encounter God now in anticipation of that time - I have done so and can think of no other more deeply fulfilling experience. For me though such experiences have always been temporary and in between I still have to live with my own brokenness and the normal struggles of day to day life. I also have to accept the fact that deep down I still feel unfulfilled. I've chased fulfilment in many things - including spiritual experiences - and as yet I haven't ultimately found it. Rollins has exposed for me the selfishness that often lies at the heart of this search and reminded me that true discipleship is about laying myself down and accepting my lack for the sake of others, in anticipation of that day when all of our wounds will finally be healed.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Dachau

To anyone who regularly or even semi-regularly reads this blog - I'm sorry it's been so long since I last posted.  My inspiration seems to have dried up a bit recently, plus I've been on holiday in Germany for 2 weeks and only got back 4 days ago.


Whilst in Germany though, I visited Dachau concentration camp, and thought this might be an interesting subject for a blog entry.  It sounds like a rather depressing subject I have to admit, but although I did find the visit very moving, I (surprisingly perhaps) didn't find it a depressing experience and would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to make a similar visit.

Dachau was the first of the Nazi concentration camps and served as a model for most of the others.  It wasn't an extermination centre in the same way as some of the others (e.g. Auschwitz), but over 25,000 people died there nevertheless, due to the terrible conditions and treatment.  Many prisoners were tortured, used for medical experiments, or murdered by the prison guards.  After the war, the camp was used as a prison for SS officers awaiting trial, then as a refugee camp and eventually it ended up as a memorial site primarily due to the efforts of ex-prisoners.

We were taken on a tour of the camp and told various stories about the kind of welcome inmates used to receive when they arrived, the conditions in the camp and also its eventual liberation by the invading American army.  Parts of this tour were very moving and I found myself on the verge of tears a couple of times while trying to imagine what some of these people must have been through.  I cried a bit later on as well, after looking around the exhibition.

Despite the pain and the horror of what happened here though, the overwhelming feeling I came away with was one of hope, but tempered by the reality of suffering and the depths to which humanity can sink.  For those who lived through Dachau - or any of the other concentration camps - and for those close to them or to those who didn't survive, these are defining experiences that have shaped their whole lives, but nevertheless - and partly due to their efforts - hope has still been able to come out of these appalling tragedies.

One of the things that has always impressed me about Germany as a nation - and Dachau epitomises this - has been its willingness - it's determination even - to face up to and come to terms with its past.  Terrible things were done in Germany by Germans and many other Germans, for various reasons, did not prevent this from taking place.  There were all sorts of reasons why this happened and I'm not sure any of us are in a position to judge how we would have behaved under similar circumstances (see the Stanford prison experiment as an example of how easily "ordinary" people can be influenced to do terrible things), but Germany hasn't tried to sweep any of this under the carpet.  The attitude is that yes, this did happen.  It was terrible and it's painful now to remember, but let's face up to it, learn from it and move on!  In this way the past can be redeemed, and is being.  Instead of breeding bitterness and resentment which leads to more and more problems, it has become a seed of hope and healing as the sins of a nation are confessed, acknowledged and dealt with.

To me it seems significant that the Dachau site now includes a significant, explicitly spiritual presence.  The site contains Jewish and Catholic monuments in honour of those from both faiths who were incarcerated and/or died here.  There is also an Orthodox Christian chapel, a Protestant chapel and a convent of Carmelite nuns.  The Carmelites' aim is, "to make this place, where there has been so much horror in the past, into a place of offering and prayer, and to establish here a living symbol of hope."

Spirituality goes right to the heart of mankind's search for meaning and the presence of suffering often brings these kinds of questions more sharply into focus.  They are not questions that can be satisfied by simple, logical answers - they require us to reach out to something deeper, something beyond ourselves and the feeble limitations of our daily lives.

According to the Christian story, this something is a someone - a God who loves us in spite of all the suffering that we experience and inflict on one another.  For whatever reason, suffering is part of the world order that we currently inhabit, but the Bible holds out the promise that it will not always be like this.  According to the Christian story, God has not kept Himself aloof from suffering but has participated in it fully - as Jesus - by being tortured and executed on a cross.  Jesus did not respond with bitterness to those who treated Him in this fashion, instead he prayed, "Father forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing".  His followers - at least those who have taken His message seriously - have always tried to continue in this tradition.

The Bible also teaches that Jesus' death was not the end - and that out of His suffering, and His resurrection, has come hope for all of us!  On the cross, Jesus stared evil in the face, suffered its full effects, yet remained steadfast in love for His creation.  Because of this He overcame, was resurrected and now extends reconciliation and forgiveness to all those who come to Him.  He knows what you've been through - and also what you are capable of! - and He alone is now fully able to heal, forgive and restore.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Gospel according to Harry Potter

WARNING: MAJOR PLOT SPOILER FOLLOWS!! DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THE LAST HARRY POTTER BOOK OR SEEN THE FINAL FILM AND STILL INTEND TO DO SO!!

Last night I saw the eighth (were there really that many?!) and final Harry Potter film: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows". The film has its moments but there's a strong sense of too much being packed into too short a space and over all it feels rushed and disjointed. There are one or two quite clever twists in the plot, but the film doesn't unfortunately do them much justice. However - my main aim in writing this post is not to provide a critical review of the film, but to discuss some of its contents.

An atheist friend with a highly sceptical view of the Christian faith recently made a comparison between the Bible and the Harry Potter books - the implication being that the former was perhaps no more truthful than the latter! After seeing the last of the Harry Potter films last night though, I found myself wanting to make a comparison in the other direction.

To summarise the plot very briefly, the evil and powerful wizard Voldemort, who threatens to destroy all that is good, has hidden parts of his soul in seven different places called "horcruxes" - thus making himself almost impossible to kill. Harry and his friends have the task of finding and destroying these horcruxes before Voldemort kills Harry and takes over the world. When the sixth and penultimate horcrux has been destroyed though, Harry learns that there is in fact an eighth: When Harry was a baby, Voldemort tried unsuccessfully to kill him, but was prevented from doing so by Harry's mother who gave her life in his defence. As a side effect of this attempt, a part of Voldemort's soul became accidentally lodged within Harry himself. The result is that now, in order for Voldemort to be killed, Harry himself must also die!

Challenged to confront Voldemort, and threatened with the death of all the other good wizards if he refuses, Harry accepts and faces him, knowing that he will be killed in the attempt. Harry has learned that he must be killed by Voldemort if the horcrux within him is to be successfully destroyed.

Voldemort kills Harry and thinks he has won, but Harry finds himself in some sort of spiritual limbo world where he meets Dumbledore (his mentor, killed in one of the previous films) and is given the option to return. To cut a long story short, he does so, there's a big fight with Voldemort, the final horcrux (located within Voldemort's pet snake) is destroyed and Voldemort is finally killed.

Having seen the previous seven films and having had some idea where the plot was going, Harry's self-sacrificial death didn't come as a big surprise, but I was surprised by just how closely this climax seemed to mirror the central message of the Christian faith.

The Christian gospel is all about Jesus, laying down his own life so that others could live free from the power of evil, but the parallels don't end there. Harry doesn't just die - willingly, as Jesus did - he is also similarly resurrected. And why does Harry die? Because the source of evil is within him, and so it is only by his death that evil itself can be destroyed. Similarly, the Bible teaches that Jesus took on sin for us - the language used is that He "became sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21) - so that through His sacrifice the power of sin (evil) could finally be destroyed. When Harry dies and is resurrected this isn't the end of the story, but Voldemort has been fatally weakened, and in true Hollywood tradition it is now only a matter of time before the victory Harry has gained by his sacrifice is realised, and Voldemort is finally destroyed. This too (deliberately? - I don't know) mirrors the Christian story - Jesus has died and been raised, but evil has not yet been fully vanquished. It is only through faith in Him and perseverance to the end that His victory is worked out and finally becomes complete in the lives of those who follow Him.

Of course, the films and the Christian story are not a perfect match!  There is a clear Christian influence but they don't serve as entire and perfect allegories. They do contain many other parallels however. For example, another central character is Dumbledore - the apparently all-wise good wizard who acts as Harry's primary mentor. He is not of course completely infallible, but in terms of his wisdom and the comfort and re-assurance he provides to Harry and the other good wizards he often came across to me as the God-figure within the story. He is the closest thing Harry has to a real life father, but it later transpires that Dumbledore knew all about the "horcrux" within Harry, and has in fact "set Harry up" to sacrifice himself - knowing that it is the only way to kill Voldemort. Snape - another central character - thinks this is deeply callous of Dumbledore and other characters also question his motives. In the same way, many who are critical of the Christian faith seem to feel that it was deeply callous of God (if indeed He did such a thing) to wish such a terrible fate on Jesus, His only Son. The ultimate message of the film though, seems to be that death is not the end and that there is a greater good to be gained. It is significant as well, that Harry makes the sacrifice of his own free will, regardless of Dumbledore's intentions. Dumbledore's character - as it is portrayed in the film - seems to be such that one could not imagine him having wanted it any other way!

As another friend has already pointed out to me, many of the themes that come through the Harry Potter story are universal and are not confined to the Christian faith, but I had to wonder how closely Rowling was influenced by Christianity and how deliberate, or otherwise, some of these parallels were.

So I did a little digging and came up with this Wikipedia article. Apparently, Rowling has had a Christian upbringing and despite her many (primarily evangelical) Christian detractors, does have a faith of sorts. She freely admits that this was a significant influence on the books, but also admits to struggling with her faith and says that these struggles are also reflected. Perhaps the parts about Dumbledore that I've mentioned above are one example of these struggles, where in the end Rowling comes out in favour of the Christian version of events?

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Believe or Burn?

I've recently discovered Some Grey Bloke (courtesy of The Vernacular Curate). He's done a series of simple animations on various topics which are generally witty, dry, insightful and entertaining. He's not too keen on religion though, as partly demonstrated by this clip:


For those who don't have time (or can't be bothered) to view the clip, the gist of it is that the following two claims are contradictory:
  1. God loves everyone
  2. If you don't believe in Jesus and accept Him as your lord, then God will burn you in Hell forever!
It's not too hard to see why someone might find it a little difficult to reconcile the above! Having been raised as an evangelical Christian myself though, it wasn't until I first seriously questioned my faith in my teens that this dichotomy really started to bother me.

According to basic Christian doctrine, at the moment good and evil are all mixed up in the world, but one day there will be a final judgement of everyone - alive or dead. At that time there will be a separation and some people will get to live with God forever in paradise (whatever that consists of) and other people ... won't!

There are various Biblical metaphors for what happens to those who are excluded from paradise, including eternal fire (Matthew 25:41), a fiery lake of burning sulphur (Revelation 21:28) and a place of darkness where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:12). Basically though, none of them are very nice!

The big question though - assuming for the moment that this view of eternity is essentially correct - is who will go where, and how will it be decided?

The Biblical perspective on this is actually not quite as straightforward as many Christians would like to think. For example, according to this passage, God will only accept those who show compassion towards others, especially the most needy and vulnerable - although this might raise the question: how many people do I have to help in order to be good enough for God? Or conversely perhaps: how many needy people can I get away with ignoring before I am excluded?

Other passages - e.g. this one mentioned earlier - state that bad behaviour or bad character traits of various kinds will get you excluded, e.g. cowardice, murder, lying, sexual immorality etc. But again, none of us are perfect - e.g. not many of us are murderers but most of us have told the odd lie from time to time. So again, where does God draw the line?

Other passages however, suggest that it is not so much what we do, but what God does for us, which determines whether or not we are accepted by Him. e.g. this passage, written to the early church in Ephesus - "For it is by grace you have been saved ... not by works, so that no one can boast".

Similarly, in this passage, one of the criminals who is crucified alongside Jesus petitions Him for mercy. He was presumably guilty of many of the deeds that should by rights - according to other Biblical passages - have got him banished to Hell, yet Jesus tells him, "today you will be with me in paradise".

To me, the only sensible interpretation of this (and I think most Christians would agree), is that inclusion in (or exclusion from) eventual paradise is actually based on both of the above. God wants people who want to be (and are willing to work at being) genuinely good people (paradise wouldn't be paradise without them) but at the same time, none of us can really manage this on our own - which is where grace comes in.

Christians believe that by dying on the cross, Jesus somehow bridged the gap between us and God, making it possible - by His sacrifice on our behalf - for us to be forgiven for all of the stuff we've done and keep on doing that separates us from God and prevents us from becoming the sort of people He always wanted us to be. If we're willing to accept what Jesus has done for us and accept Him as lord of our lives, He will (a) help us to live the way God always intended and (b) extend grace and forgiveness to us wherever it's needed.

This is great for believers who accept this message and take it on board (assuming that it's true for the moment), but what about everyone else? What about those who haven't heard this message or have simply come to the apparently quite logical conclusion that it's all poppycock? What about those who have had such negative experiences of Christianity that they wouldn't touch it in a million years with an extremely large barge pole, or who have concluded (quite reasonably in some cases) that the best way to be a genuinely good person is actually to stay as far away from the Christian faith as possible?

Many Christians (mostly evangelicals) believe this is basically tough luck (although they may try to express it a bit more gently). Only God's grace, extended through Jesus, makes it possible for us to be saved, so if you turn away from that grace (or perhaps even just never hear about it) for whatever reason, you've missed your chance. Some take a very hard line on this, insisting that there are no exceptions, while some are open to the possibility that God may still somehow extend his grace to those who have never heard for example, and have therefore never had the opportunity to respond.

One famous Biblical passage, often quoted in support of the above position, is John 14:6, where Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Jesus doesn't pad this out much further though and to conclude that it is therefore only possible to escape Hell by believing in Him here and now, seems to me to be stretching things a little. Other Biblical passages tell us that Jesus had always been with the Father, for example, this bit in John 1: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (the "Word" means Jesus - as the passage itself subsequently explains). Long before Jesus arrived on earth, many people had already "come to the Father". Based on John 14:6 though, we can conclude that whether they knew it or not, Jesus was still somehow involved in this process.

Here's a couple more passages that are a little harder to deal with:

"For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son." - John 3:17-18

"He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." - 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9

From the first quote however, it's worth noting that if someone has never heard, they can't be considered guilty of not believing, so this quote really can't be considered to apply to them. For those who have heard the message though, not believing is clearly being treated as a pretty heinous offence! But on the other hand so is lying in Revelation 21:8 and it seems to result in the same sentence!

A big part of the problem here (in my view) is that many Christians, particularly evangelicals, tend to treat the Bible as if it is a precise book of doctrinal statements, where every word and sentence can be taken to have an exact and precise meaning, as if it was written in some kind of perfect and unambiguous "legalese", but it simply isn't that kind of a book! Normal day to day language isn't like this and tends to be easily misinterpreted (which is why "legalese" was invented). The Bible isn't written in "legalese" though, it's written - for the most part - in a much more conversational style, addressed to real people in real situations. Much background knowledge and many shared assumptions are taken for granted and hyperbole (stressing a point by exaggerating it for emphasis) is common and is not generally qualified.

All of this means that a certain amount of common sense is required when interpreting scripture and a little reading between the lines is sometimes needed. Of course, the problem with reading between the lines is that what you are reading could be entirely different from what the author intended, but then reading it too literally can sometimes also have the same effect!

My own reading of the above is that yes, rejecting God's grace - especially if you have really understood what that grace is all about - is a heinous offence and will in the end disqualify you for salvation, because without grace none of us can be saved. It's a step further to conclude though, that anyone who rejects the Christian message for honest (if misinformed) reasons, will automatically be scheduled for damnation. Such a conclusion seems to me to fly in the face of God's love and righteousness as portrayed elsewhere in scripture. It also contradicts passages such as Jesus' sheep and goats parable, quoted above (Matthew 25:31-46), in which it is a person's heart attitude that is presented as the determining factor and believing the Christian message is not even mentioned.

So I will continue to campaign on behalf of the Christian message, because I believe Jesus' grace is the only way to God, both now and in the life to come. I will also continue to hold out the reality of judgement as a warning to those who insist on going their own way. I don't think it is my place however, to pre-judge the fate of all those who - for reasons unclear to me - continue to be unmoved by my appeals!

Monday, 6 June 2011

Jesus - my imaginary friend?

I think most Christians - especially those of a sceptical and analytical bent - occasionally have doubts, and I should confess that this has sometimes been one of mine. Since a friend recently asked me if God is really just a grown up person's imaginary friend, I thought I would try to address this question here.

Many children have imaginary friends who apparently act as a source of comfort, companionship etc. - in fact many of the roles that God often seems to fulfil in the lives of those who believe in Him.

I can see why then, for unbelievers - especially those of a strongly atheist disposition - this might seem like the best way to explain the beliefs and "alleged" experiences of such as myself. If you're 100% convinced that God does not exist (as many atheists do claim to be), then you still need some sort of explanation for the persistence of millions of believers around the world who not only believe in God, but also claim to have encountered him in some way. This explanation would seem to fit the bill quite nicely!

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, I have occasionally wondered this myself. It seems most Christians experience times in their lives when God seems particularly distant. Many renowned spiritual authors have written about this phenomenon over the centuries. During times like these I have sometimes found myself wondering whether God was ever really real to me at all, or whether I just imagined the whole thing. Also, because I do have an enquiring mind and am not afraid to challenge others to question their own perspectives, it seems only fair that I should be willing to do the same. Accordingly, even when things have been going well, I have sometimes asked myself - is this really God? Am I just making this up? Is what I'm experiencing really just wishful thinking or some other kind of deep-seated psychological reaction?

The short and honest answer is that it's actually very difficult to be 100% sure! When you're in the middle of something that may or may not be a delusion, it's extremely difficult to completely step back from that and analyse it from a totally objective point of view - especially if it's something in which you have a very strong emotional investment! Obviously I want this to be true - and that does sometimes make honest attempts at debunking it quite difficult!

The conclusion I've generally come to though, is that there have just been too many things - too many "coincidences" if you like - to put this all down to chance and wishful thinking. Even if I was just talking about my own life and experience this would be true, but if I then factor in millions of other Christians around the world and their recorded experiences down through the centuries, and the extraordinary and surprising resonance I've so often found with my own, the only sensible conclusion seems to me to be that there really is some kind of external guiding hand out there - and the God of the Christians, especially as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, seems to me by a long way to be the best available fit.

Some things I've experienced that could potentially be put down to the imaginary friend syndrome:
  • A sense of God's love and presence. If this was imaginary though, I would generally expect to have more control over it. As it is, I generally cannot predict when this will happen. There are some situations in which it seems more likely, but sometimes I am disappointed and other times God seems to reveal himself quite unexpectedly.
  • A sense of God's guidance - e.g. unexpected and surprising wisdom or insight into a difficult situation or problem. There are similar psychological phenomena which could potentially account for this - particularly the idea that the brain will sometimes process things sub-consciously then provide flashes of insight to the conscious mind.
  • I've run out - I can't think of any more at the moment...

Some things I think are less easy to explain in this way:
  • Knowledge or insight given to me into other people's situations which I knew nothing about - which has sometimes been very surprising to those concerned.
  • Similar knowledge or insight given by others into my own situation. For example, being told by a complete stranger what I'd been praying about for the past few weeks (no-one else knew) and that my prayer would be answered (it was).
  • Praying for people with various physical ailments and seeing them healed on a number of occasions. Most of these could be put down to co-incidence by a determined sceptic but for me they fit together with too many other things I've experienced and understand about God and the world and I'm afraid I'm just not that determined! A critic will of course ask why God doesn't heal every time a person is prayed for - but that's for another discussion...

So there you are - a few more reasons why I believe what I believe. I don't propose to provide details of any of the above. These are my experiences and are not for sceptics to pore over. As I've said elsewhere on this blog, if God wanted to prove Himself universally and indisputably, I believe He would have done so by now. The above are not meant to be testable or falsifiable by unbelieving sceptics - they are just some of the reasons why I personally have chosen to believe.

If you don't believe, I think you have 2 choices: Carry on not believing, or have a go at reaching out to God for yourself. If you're willing to try the second, in a spirit of honest humility, then you may just end up with some very good reasons of your own...

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Being a Christian - What do I get out of it?

Someone asked me this morning (see the comments on this post) what I get out of being a Christian (to be more precise, the question was what do I get out of God, but this is how I've interpreted it).

The answer is, I get all sorts of things, but I thought I'd try and cover a few here. I realise not all my readers will share my beliefs but to me these things are very real and so for now I will dispense with saying things like, "I think", or, "in my opinion".

This is how it seems to me and this is my experience:

First of all, the best and most important thing I get out of this is God Himself! God created and sustains the whole Universe and yet is interested in, and has time for me! Not only does He have time for me though, He loves me passionately! This is not something I always find it easy to get my head round, but I get powerful glimpses sometimes and - in a good way - it shakes me to the core!
My relationship with God is central to a lot of what I am and what I do with my life. I know lots of people - Christian and not - who can be very loving sometimes, but I don't know anyone who displays the passionate self-giving love I see in Jesus. This love inspires and motivates me - gives me something to aim for - but also encourages, supports and forgives me when I fail.

Prayer and worship - which from the outside perhaps look to some people like meaningless rituals, designed perhaps to try to win God's approval? - to me are usually a delight. I don't pray or worship to get God's approval, I do these things because I have His approval (unwarranted as that might be) and because it's a delight to spend time with Him. Prayer is a mystery I don't have room to try and explore properly here, but it changes things, and it's a 2-way thing. It involves listening to God and working with Him, because our input matters to Him and He wants to involve us in His purposes.

Worship too, is a 2-way thing. It isn't just telling God how wonderful He is - it's a reaching out to God who sweeps you up in His embrace, lifts your spirits heaven-ward and raises your perspective above and beyond the day to day joys and struggles of life.

Beyond these immediate benefits, being a Christian also gives me hope for the future. I believe in a God who is good and who will one day straighten everything out. He has allowed evil and suffering to exist in His world, but only for a time - these things are temporary and are not destined to have the last word. There will be a day when evil has had its chance, done its worst, been fully shown up for what it really is, and is defeated once and for all. Being a Christian means being part of defeating evil now - not through superior might or aggression though, but the way Jesus did it - through self-giving sacrificial love. Being a Christian gives me hope that it's worth working for a better world - even if the fruits aren't immediately visible, even if my efforts seem futile - because Jesus' resurrection is a foretaste of the future, a sign that good will triumph and that one day I will be a part of it!

Being a Christian also gives me a sense of perspective. It does give a sense of meaning to my life, and it's the only central meaning that really makes sense to me in the end which is love. I'm pretty selfish sometimes and find love difficult, but I've encountered in God someone who really is truly loving and gives me hope that I can learn to be the same. Love, in my view makes sense of everything. If people are loved then they are valuable - intrinsically, for who they are, and life has meaning. Without love, it's ultimately just a competition to survive - and perhaps to get the most possible pleasure out of your short, pointless existence. Love means we're all worth the same - because it's about who we are and not about what we can contribute. If I don't think you're worthy of love then I'm in trouble, because there's nothing intrinsically different about us. We all have our faults, strengths and weaknesses. So in my mind, love is the ideal, but true, unselfish love is not something to which humans naturally aspire. It is at the very heart and nature of God though - or if it isn't, then I think we are all ultimately lost anyway...

Monday, 30 May 2011

A parody of the gospel

Came across this (below) in a book recently.  It was written in 1947 by Dorothy L. Sayers as her impression of what most people thought the Church believed at the time.  (N.B. Sayers was passionate about the real Christian message and this wasn't in any way meant to reflect what the church actually does believe!)

Sayers' parody is funny and tragic for the same reasons - because it's so wide of the mark, and yet probably rang true for so many people. In many ways it's a damning indictment of the Church's failure to communicate - and perhaps also to model - what the Christian faith is really all about.

I suspect the only significant difference between then and now is that there are significantly more people now who would not be able to give any answers to a lot of these questions.  Unfortunately though, that's probably an improvement...
Question: What does the Church think of God the Father?

Answer: He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfilment. He is very angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgement and miracles, distributed with a good deal of favouritism. He likes to be truckled to, and is always ready to pounce on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the Law, or is having a bit of fun. He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.

Question: What does the Church think of God the Son?

Answer: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. It was not his fault that the world was made like this and, unlike God the father, he is friendly to man and did his best to reconcile man and God. He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it's best to apply to him.

Question: What does the Church think of God the Holy Ghost?

Answer: I don't know exactly. He was never seen or heard of till Whit Sunday. There is a sin against him which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is.

Question: What is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity?

Answer: "The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible" - the whole thing incomprehensible. Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult. Nothing to do with daily life or reality.

Question: What was Jesus Christ like in real life:

Answer: He was a good man - so good as to be called the Son of God. He was meek and mild and preached a simple religion of love and pacifism. He had no sense of humour. If we try to live like him, God the Father will let us off being damned hereafter and only have us tortured in this life instead.

Question: What is meant by the Atonement?

Answer: God wanted to damn everybody, but his vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of his own Son, who was quite innocent and therefore a particularly attractive victim. God now only damns people who don't follow Christ or who never heard of him.

Question: What does the Church think of sex?

Answer: God made it necessary to the machinery of the world, and tolerates it, provided the parties (a) are married, and (b) get no pleasure out of it.

Question: What does the Church call sin?

Answer: Sex (otherwise than as excepted above); getting drunk; saying "damn"; murder, and cruelty to dumb animals; not going to church; most kinds of amusement. "Original sin" means that anything we enjoy doing is wrong.

Question: What is faith?

Answer: Resolutely shutting your eyes to scientific fact.

Question: What is the human intellect?

Answer: A barrier to faith.

Question: What are the seven Christian virtues?

Answer: Respectability; childishness; mental timidity; dullness; sentimentality; censoriousness, and depression of spirits.

Question: Wilt though be baptised in this faith?

Answer: NO FEAR!