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!

Monday, 23 May 2011

Why would anyone believe the Bible?

I've recently re-written this post, because it consistently gets more hits than any of my other posts and I'm not sure I did a particularly good job the first time around. The comments below this post - at least those  posted in 2011 - relate to the original version which can still be accessed here.

For various reasons, lots of people believe the Bible. I obviously can't cover all the reasons here even if I knew what they all were. As a (pretty much) Bible-believing Christian myself though, I can give some of the reasons why I think the Bible is worth taking seriously.

To start off with, I think it's important to emphasise the fact that the Bible isn't really a single book. It actually consists of 66 separate books1 written by a wide variety of different authors for different reasons in different places and at different times, which for various historical reasons (generally good ones in my opinion) have ended up in the collection we use today. Many people - Christian and otherwise - seem to think that if anything in the Bible is found to be imperfect or inaccurate, the whole thing is therefore thrown into question and none of it can be trusted. To my mind, this attitude does an enormous disservice to the complexity and diversity of the text. Because of this attitude, many Christians read the Bible wearing blinkers, refusing to see anything that might contradict their preconceptions, while many non-believers dismiss the Bible outright because they've read something they don't agree with or which seems contradictory or implausible in the face of logical analysis.

Unfortunately, I don't have space to cover the whole Bible in this post (I lack the knowledge to do so in any real depth anyway!), so I'm just going to focus on a couple of areas:

1.  The Gospels

The gospels are the books of MatthewMarkLuke and John, which appear at the beginning of the New Testament (i.e. Part Two of the Christian Bible). These books were written by Jesus' early followers, in the decades immediately following his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. They tell the story of Jesus' life and ministry, in particular the last 3 years which is when He did most of his preaching and teaching.

I personally have a lot of faith in the gospels. I don't assume though, that they are factually perfect in every detail, because they were written a little while after the events they describe, and have been re-assembled from personal and collected, written and verbal memories. We can see small differences between some of the accounts which show that in some cases events have been remembered slightly differently.

The gospels and the message they contain - which was being preached long before the gospels were written down - had an explosive effect, and the early Christian church grew at a phenomenal rate in spite of intense persecution from the Roman Empire. There is much in the gospels to provoke scepticism in an enlightened 21st century mind - for example, Jesus healing people or walking on water or rising again from the dead - but it is because of stories like these, in particular the story of Jesus' resurrection, that the Christian message had such an incredible early impact. It is possible of course, that all these stories were made up, but I find it hard to see why Jesus' early followers, who lived and travelled with him, would have committed themselves so completely to such an obvious and enormous lie, a) given that such a deception would be the antithesis of the message itself and, b) in the face of the hardships, persecution, torture and violent deaths that so many of them suffered as a result.

2.  The Torah

The Torah is the Jewish name for the first five books of the Old Testament, which Christians traditionally refer to as the Pentateuch. (The Old Testament is Part One of the Christian Bible and is known to Jews as the Tanakh - this is the Bible as it was known to Jesus and His early followers, before any of the New Testament was written).

The traditional Jewish belief is that the whole of the Torah was written by the prophet Moses (who is the central human character in books 2 to 5), but this seems unlikely for at least 2 reasons:
  1. Deutoronomy - book 5 of the Torah - describes Moses' death in the past tense. (some Orthodox Jews explain this by claiming that God revealed to Moses the exact nature of his death so that he could write it all down beforehand as though it had already taken place.)

  2. Even a fairly basic analysis of the text reveals a mixture of interspersed literary styles. The modern scholarly consensus is that the Torah is composed of extracts from a number of earlier sources which have been spliced and edited together into the account we have today. No-one knows exactly when this took place, although there are a number of theories, and no copies of any of the earlier sources remain.
Because the Torah was written so much longer ago than the gospels, and we know so much less about its origins, its authenticity is much more difficult to determine. In some places its contents seem to resonate with and affirm what we read in the gospels, but in some other places the God of the Torah seems stricter or more vengeful or bloodthirsty than the God that Jesus seems to represent.

For Jews, the Torah is the most important part of their scripture, and Jesus - who was born and raised a Jew - quoted from it frequently and seemed to identify His own life and mission with many of the stories that it contains. In a nutshell, and for the most part, the Torah tells the story of how God chose a group of people (the Jews) and made an agreement with them whereby He would take care of them and protect them, in return for which they would learn to live His way and be faithful to Him and obey his commands. When they kept their promise to God, God kept His promise and things went well with them but when they were rebellious or wilfully disobedient, things tended to go rather badly!

Jesus drew both on the Torah and also on the Old Testament prophets (see next section). The Torah includes God's promises to Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith, an important part of which was that through Abraham all nations would eventually be blessed. Later on, the prophets predicted that God was going to form a new agreement/relationship with His people to supercede the one He had previously made with the Jews. This relationship wouldn't just be based on a set of rules though, it would go much deeper and would be able to change people's hearts. Jesus and his followers believed that Jesus came to initiate this relationship through His life, sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection, and that this new relationship was for everyone and not just for the Jews.

Getting back to the Torah though, I find it very hard to know how much of it I should treat as historically true, but it was and remains a central part of Jewish identity,  played a central role in Jesus' own life, and because of this and because He drew so heavily from it, it is also very important to other Christians and to me. I have often found it a source of great wisdom and comfort, but at other times I wrestle with some of the confusing or contradictory things it sometimes seems to say.

A Quick Bible Summary

So far I've only covered 2 small parts of the Bible. To Christians and Jews respectively, these are the most important bits, but there is so much more to the Bible which I just don't have room to do any justice to here. As a very brief summary, the Bible also includes:
  • The story of the Jews from when they first entered the land of Israel, throughout their time there, through their exile in Babylon, and their eventual repatriation in Israel about 400 years before Jesus. This whole story is about the outworking of the Torah - when things go well and when they don't go well as the Jews more or less cyclically reject and return to God.

  • Various books of prophecies - the records of those who spoke on God's behalf, often urging the Jews to turn back to God and away from their wicked ways. These books often have a strong emphasis on social justice as well as on trying to repair whatever damage the Jews have done this time to their relationship with God.

  • Books of wisdom and poetry.

  • Letters - found in the New Testament part of the Bible - written by the early Christian leaders to various different parts of the Christian church. These give us an invaluable insight into the beliefs and practices of the early Christians, before Christianity became institutionalised and tainted by political power to the extent that we often see today.

A Religion of the Heart

If you're not a believer, I'm not sure that I'll have said much so far to convince you of the truth of the Bible, although perhaps I might have said something to make you think it a little more worthy of your consideration. In the end though, there's probably quite a lot in there that won't ever be scientifically verified. How do you prove for example, that 2,000 years ago a man was raised from the dead? (Or, for that matter, that he wasn't?).

The Christian faith isn't based entirely on the Bible though - if it was it would be a religion of the head and not of the heart. In the end, the Christian faith is based on an encounter - through Jesus - with the living God. The Bible may help to facilitate this, but unless you encounter God in some way for yourself, then debating its truth is little more than a logical exercise. It might make a difference in your head, but in the end the truth of the Bible is only really worth anything if it also succeeds in changing your heart.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The End Of The World As We Know It...!

Well, as you probably all know by now, the rapture is apparently scheduled to happen tomorrow, followed by the end of the world on October 21st!

Harold Camping has apparently worked out the dates through some kind of numerical analysis of Biblical history which, frankly, I can't be bothered to properly delve into! It seems to be based on:
  1. Assigning precise dates to ancient Biblical events - which is frankly impossible as the Bible records nothing like enough information to come to such conclusions.
  2. Some extremely dodgy mis-interpretation of certain Bible passages to come up with some other numbers that can then be applied according to Camping's unique logic to come up with tomorrow as the day of the rapture!
First of all, in defence of evangelical Christians everywhere, I'd like to start by saying that I'm pretty certain that only an extremely small percentage of us actually believe Camping's predictions (I don't personally know of anyone who does).  It's certainly attracting a lot of publicity though!

The standard position among evangelicals is that it is and always will be impossible to predict such dates.  When talking about His predicted return, Jesus himself famously said (as recorded in Matthew's gospel),  "about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father".  There are also various other passages in the New Testament which talk about Jesus coming back when we don't expect it, so we should always be watchful, etc.

As can partly be seen from this though, it is part of standard Christian doctrine that the world as we know it will end at some point, Jesus will return and somehow set everything to rights and there will be some kind of final judgement.  Much of the Biblical language used to describe these things seems very figurative and I personally find it very hard to imagine how any of it might really happen.  I find it less hard to believe that it will happen somehow though - because I've already been convinced of the miracle of Jesus' coming the first time around and my whole life has been a series of encounters (along with countless other believers) with Him and the amazing God who sent Him.

On the subject of the rapture specifically - i.e. the idea that on some specific date all Christians will be mysteriously transported from the earth - this is a belief that does have widespread support among evangelicals - particularly in America - but seems to me to also be based on some rather dodgy interpretations of the Bible.  One of the 2 passages usually cited in support of it reads like this:
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.  For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. (Matthew 24 - see the last few verses)
The popular assumption seems to be that the "one taken" will be the Christian, and the poor unbeliever will be left behind to meet their miserable fate.  But the passage above makes a clear comparison with the story of Noah, in which it was the unbelievers who got taken away (but unfortunately not to anywhere nice!).  So whatever else Jesus was getting at with this story, it doesn't seem to have been about Christians getting whisked off to heaven!

The other passage normally quoted is this one:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 4)
This one does look a bit more like the standard vision of the rapture, although frankly it's pretty minimalist.  It's main purpose is not to provide a comprehensive theology of the end times, but to encourage the believers in Thessalonica that their dead Christian friends are going to be alright (see the preceding few verses).  Even if it is intended completely literally though, which is disputed, it says nothing about who gets left behind, whether there's even anyone else there at this point, or what might happen to them if they do.  Neither does it say what happens to those who get "caught up", except that they are destined to be "with the Lord forever".

Accomplished theologian N.T. Wright has recently pointed out that the image of believers being caught up to meet the Lord in the air fits better with the idea of the citizens of a colony going out to meet and escort an emperor who was coming to visit them - the early Christians always believed that Jesus was going to come back to put the world right, not that they were going to be transported off for ever to some other-worldly dimension.

So Biblical evidence for the rapture - in my opinion - is pretty thin. But the New Testament part of the Bible does say that Jesus will come back and that the world as we know it will come to an end and be renewed and/or replaced with something better. What all that might mean exactly though, is not completely clear to me, and is probably a subject for another post...

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Pubs, church and music

I suspect it's a little known fact among non-believers, but there are some churches in this country - and have been probably for the last 30 years or so - who don't have their own buildings and instead hold their meetings in pubs.

I suspect this sounds like a strange idea to many non-religious and also perhaps to many over-religious people, but to me it sounds like the perfect combination. Pubs are where people go to hang out and a good pub takes advantage of and helps to foster a sense of community. For many people in today's much less religious society, I think the pub has perhaps replaced the church as the community focal point - but I see no reason why the two can't work together.

Many people seem to feel however, that alcohol and church shouldn't really mix - as if the one is somehow disrespectful to the other (or perhaps vice versa!). While alcohol is certainly frowned on by some more conservative Christian groups, this is usually because such movements have their historical roots in periods of social excess, often involving widespread alcoholism. The Christian faith itself is not intrinsically anti-alcohol - there is even a Psalm in the Bible praising God for "wine that gladdens human hearts"! (Psalm 104:16) - although the Bible is quite strongly against drunkenness (e.g. Proverbs 23:29-35Ephesians 5:18). Personally, I'm a lover of good beer, but I do try to drink in moderation.  At a recent beer festival, I met a guy wearing a T-shirt which said, "Love God, Love people, Love beer", which I thought was a pretty good summary! (although perhaps open to some misinterpretation!)

Last night I went to a gig at the Brudenell Social Club, just around the corner from where I live. Not strictly a pub perhaps, but certainly very similar. It has a bar in any case, and the atmosphere was very similar to other pub gigs I've been to - although the venue was perhaps a little larger.

I was struck on this occasion - as I often have been on similar occasions in the past - by how spiritual music is and how intensely spiritual an experience a good gig can sometimes be. For me, on a spiritual level, it's the only thing that comes close to a good session spent worshipping God with other believers! As I sometimes have been in the past however, I felt a little flummoxed by this. These people aren't worshipping anything and yet somehow the music is capturing and giving expression to something of their humanity - something of their spirituality - which is enabling those present to be caught up in the shared experience. I wasn't sure where this experience was going but it felt like a corporate reaching out to something - someone? - as yet perhaps unknown or poorly understood by those present. This is another aspect of modern culture - the gig (pub or otherwise) - which seems to me to have replaced the church in many people's lives.

This gig wasn't quite like my normal experience of worship though. In worship there is a similar sense of reaching out, but also - usually, for me at least - a very real sense of connection with the one we're reaching out to. The gig felt more like a very poignant sense of connection with one another, and a deep expression of our shared experience, but for me there was also what felt like a deep sense of melancholy that there was ultimately nowhere else for it to go.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Oh - How He loves us!

OK, I realise I did pick the URL, "thescepticalbeliever" for this blog, but there are some things I just can't afford too much scepticism over! :-)

I just love this song - not so much for the music as for the lyrics and the passion that lie behind them. This song sums up for me, passionately and beautifully, what the God I worship is all about:
He is jealous for me
Loves like a hurricane
I am a tree
Bending beneath
The weight of his wind and mercy
When all of a sudden
I am unaware of these
Afflictions eclipsed by glory
And I realize how beautiful you are
And how great your affections are for me

Oh how he loves us so
Oh how he loves us
How he loves us so

Yea He loves us
Oh how

We are his portion
And he is our prize
Drawn to redemption by the grace in his eyes
If grace is an ocean we're all sinking
So heaven meats earth like a sloppy wet kiss
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest
I don't have time to maintain these regrets
When I think about the way
He loves us

Oh how he loves us so
Oh how he loves us
How he loves us so

Yea He loves us
Oh how

Friday, 6 May 2011

One more dead terrorist

I know I'm a few days late with this, but I'm afraid I've only just got around to putting my thoughts on this into type.

As just about everyone in the world knows by now, Osama Bin Laden - Western public enemy number one - was shot and killed by US special forces on Sunday night just gone. But what is an appropriate Christian response to this series of events? The killing of another human being is never a good or pleasant thing, but are there ever circumstances under which it can and should be justified?

I have to say that, had I been in Barack Obama's position, I probably would have given the same order that he did, even had I known (as I assume he probably did) that the death of Bin Laden was the most likely outcome. I'm not sure I can fully justify this morally, but on the basis of my limited knowledge and understanding, it just feels like - however much I might normally object to such an action - that under these circumstances it really was (unfortunately) the only right thing to be done. To what extent the West and America in particular were responsible for creating these circumstances in the first place however, is of course another issue...

Of course, this event doesn't mark the death of Bin Laden's ideology and others will do their best to take up and continue this cause, but hopefully it will significantly weaken his organisation and have a demoralising effect on his more committed supporters. This won't be helped though, by those in the West who have been publicly and jubilantly celebrating his demise, however understandable this reaction might be.

Those involved in the strike on his compound, and in tracking him down in the first place, do of course have good reason to be proud of their success and they have performed an unpleasant - but I think necessary - service to the rest of us. The death of another human being though - made in the image of God - is always a reason for lament, however corrupt and dangerous to others that life may have become.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011


A few days ago, I stayed in Glenridding in the Lake District with my wife for a couple of days and while we were there we climbed Helvellyn, via Striding Edge (shown in the picture below).

The weather was amazing, as it has been over most of the Easter / May Day period and the views - as you can see - were stunning!

As anyone who's ever tried to photograph a landscape like this will know, no photo can ever come close to the total-immersion experience of actually being there. This view in particular just took my breath away. It actually brought me close to tears! So much awesome beauty - just there, for me or anyone to experience. A picture - but not just a picture, an experience - of God's awesome power, love, beauty, abundance and generosity, all rolled into one! And yet just the minutest taste of all that there is out there to behold in this incredible universe - just a tiny fraction of the amazing glory of God!