19 December 2011

Taking a break

I’m going to be taking a break over Christmas. Not just work-wise but blog-wise too. I’ll continue to write, but I can’t guarantee I’ll have ready access to an internet connection to upload. I haven’t decided if I’m taking my laptop with me as I tour the country visiting family for a few days at a time. I’ve got a large pile of half-finished posts that I really ought to get back to. So even though January will be the busiest month of the year for me work-wise, I hope to be able to make some regular postings. Some of these will be responses to posts that are months old and others will be the product of the musings of my mind over the Christmas period.

Besides, I’m sure you’ve got plenty of better things to be doing at this time of the year than perusing the web. With over 100 posts written this year, I think I’ve done enough for now. I hope to have more time in 2012, though I can easily imagine that that will disappear somehow. Either way, some changes are afoot, some of which can go online, others of which probably can’t. The blog has certainly grown in readership this year. For the first 5 months it averaged a meagre 100 hits per month whilst in the last 5, it’s garnered almost 900 per month, though it’s still a long way short of the superstar blogs.

Have a good Christmas!

14 December 2011

A suicide on the rails

I apologise for any typos or lack of coherent thought in this post. I am typing this in a short space of time as I try to gather my thoughts. Last night all the trains on the line I use to get home were heavily disrupted. The reason was because a person was hit by a train; in all likelihood, a suicide. This is a reasonably common occurrence on this line. I delayed leaving work and stayed a few hours late (having arrived a couple of hours early in the morning), but managed to get home in a reasonable time. As usual, I buried my head in a book on my commute. Only this time, what I was reading was resonating with my surroundings. The section of the book I got to was a long suicide note. I haven’t yet finished it, but I couldn’t help but overhear the chatter on the train.

There were phrases used like “inconsiderate behaviour” or “thoughtless act” and all I could think was this: which is more inconsiderate: to end one’s life or to not care as to the reasons and circumstances why someone might do it. I don’t know the person’s identity, so I don’t know if I ever knew them. But I have had friends attempt suicide before, some unsuccessful, some successful. Today there is most probably a family grieving and friends wondering what signs they missed, digging through their memories in search of a reason.

When we have no direct connection with another human being it becomes far easier to be judgemental (not that it’s particularly hard, otherwise) and to treat them as something other than a valued individual. This is something J. B. Priestley in his play, An Inspector Calls. There may 1, 2, a dozen or hundreds of people I pass by every day who may be in a very dark place yet managing to mask it, while inwardly crying out for someone to understand them, to accept them, to love them.

9 December 2011

The books of shame

As you may have worked out, I’m a bit of a bookworm. It’s what keeps me sane on my commute into and out of London every day. I’ve made way through lots great books but I’ve also come across some fairly disappointing ones. There are those, though, that I am ashamed to say I never finished. I have a pile of them on the desk in my study, staring at me. Like Poe’s Raven, they just remain there implacably, goading me to give them another go.

In the meantime, I find excuses to not revisit them, mainly because there are plenty of other books I would rather read as a matter of priority. So here I will swallow my pride and admit to the books that I have but which failed to get through cover-to-cover. Just note this doesn’t include the books I am currently reading (which, if you’re viewing this on the desktop version, you can see in a widget on the left sidebar).

The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren – I briefly went through the reasons for this recently (see point 2).

The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick – An odd one. I love Philip K Dick’s short stories and have quite liked a few of his books, but I just couldn’t get into this one. The premise was that the Nazis won the Second World War, but that’s not really very clear in the text. I just got bored and moved on.

The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose – This is another one from a writer I love. My Master’s thesis was written on a subject Penrose pioneered. This is his first book on computing and artificial intelligence (the follow up being Shadows of the Mind). As fascinating as the ideas are, I just got bogged down in the technical computing of Turing machines and pages and pages of binary code and programming instructions.

Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton – one of the most important books in the history of science. Whilst I spent my formative years being taught a lot of ‘Newtonian’ mechanics, I felt it was important to read Newton himself. Similarly, for Euclidean geometry, I read Euclid; for Darwinism, I read Darwin’s The Origin of Species; and for Platonism, I read Plato’s Republic. But this was just so hard to get through. I have subsequently become aware of a hypothesis that Newton was being deliberately obscurantist in his examples in order to avoid plagiarism.

The Book of Dave by Will Self – Truly one of the most frustrating reads of all time. I picked it up on the premise that it was a witty satire on religion, where the diary of a London cabbie became the basis of a post-apocalyptic society. What I wasn’t aware of until I started reading is that the dialogue is written entirely phonetically in a cockney accent. To try and make sense of it, you have to try and read each sentence two or three times. Some things are worth a lot of effort to read; this wasn’t one of them.

God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew – I’ve been questioned as to how I could put this down. It’s been maybe about 12 years since I started this. I just didn’t find it terribly interesting at the time and got distracted by Frank Herbert’s Dune series, the entirety of which I read between my GCSE mocks and my finals, which probably contributed to me losing a grade on 8 out my 9 GCSEs.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – One of the classics, but one I just struggled to be able to get a handle on. This probably had much to do with the fact that I didn’t try to read it until after I had seen Apocalypse Now. The book I have it in contains many other stories by Conrad, all of which are fairly similar and could be considered as early attempts building up to the masterpiece. But once you’ve read 2 or 3, they do just seem to merge into one.

Does God Believe in Atheists by John Blanchard – Creationist claptrap. I heard him speak when he came to my church, promoting this book, many years ago. The book manages to waste a lot of paper by not saying much. Blanchard wants to start by defining an ‘atheist.’ He does this by first defining a ‘theist’ in an extremely narrow way that would exclude Muslims, Catholics, Jews, Hindus, a fair few christians and many others besides. He goes on to use Richard Dawkins as the primary spokesman for all atheists, getting muddled up between atheism and an understanding of various sciences including evolutionary biology, cosmology and geology. It was just painful to read.

A User’s Guide To The Brain by John Ratey – This is another one that I found utterly fascinating, but at the same time I just couldn’t understand it. It’s a pop science book on neurology, though it doesn’t shy away from the terminology. What I have read, I have loved. I just find it easy to get distracted by other books.

So those are mine. Have you got any books of shame, or have you managed to finish any of those that I haven’t?

7 December 2011

10 Reasons why I’d make a rubbish charismatic christian

I recently came across a few posts that were along the lines of “I’d make a rubbish [insert denomination/tradition/affiliation] christian” where the person identifies their own particular type of church. I’ve long thought that I don’t really belong in the kind of church that I do. I think part of it is that I would never want to attend a local church where I was totally comfortable; I like to be challenged and, in turn, to challenge others.

So this is my contribution/confession. I don’t identify my church, as I am not a spokesman for it, but it is sufficient to say that it is an independent charismatic Pentecostal church with no strong ties to any major national or international umbrella organisation. Just note, the only order here is the order I thought of them, and they are no way meant to represent any sort of scale of importance.

I’d make a rubbish charismatic because…

1. I’m not very charismatic. OK, I know that charismatic in the church sense is derived is ‘charismata’ meaning spiritual gifts (see point 6 below) but it is commonly taken in the English vernacular meaning of an outgoing, bubbly sort of person. I’m a quiet, withdrawn, dull sort of person.

2. I never finished The Purpose Driven Life. This seems to be one of the most widely read books in charismatic circles, but I couldn’t stand it. The introduction asks you to sign an agreement with the author, and asks that you only work through 1 tiny chapter each day. I don’t sign agreements readily and don’t’ restrict my reading. I could quite easily have finished the book in a week. But it was just so trite and patronising. And as for the theology, don’t get me started…

3. I’m highly sceptical about the Toronto Blessing and Lakeland Revival. Much has been written and said on both of these events. My personal take (briefly) is that what may have started out as a genuine outpouring of the Holy Spirit was quickly overtaken by mass hysteria and hype. To the best of my knowledge, not one of the claimed healings at Lakeland was ever verified (please point me to the supporting evidence if I am wrong).

4. I don’t have the gift of tongues. This often seems to be over-emphasised in charismatic circles. I think it partly comes about as a result of a particular reading of 1 Corinthians 12:31 where Paul writes “strive for the greater gifts” and this is taken immediately to mean talking in foreign languages (or xenolalia). I’m not convinced it is (Paul, in the same book, writes that he would rather people prophesy than speak in foreign languages). I also find it quite demeaning when you hear the occasional preacher saying that if you don’t speak in tongues then you’re not a “true christian.” I find that really unhelpful and wonder how many people have left churches because of a similar rhetoric.

5. I don’t have a copy of the New Living Translation. This seems to be the most common version of the bible used in Charismatic churches, though it’s surprisingly hard to get hold of a copy in print. I had a discussion on what version of the bible I used recently.

6. I read the bible in Greek. This is not a boast. I can only read Greek due to the fact that I did a maths degree at university. We quickly ran out of symbols from the modern alphabets and by convention, Greek was the most common. I have had a go at reading Euclid in its original form, though that’s pretty touch going. I rely on Strong’s Greek dictionary in my concordance for the translations. If I am ever unsure about the particular phrasing I go back to the Greek to look it up. Most charismatics I know quote the bible as if it were written in English. Jesus did not say “I am the way the truth and the life,” because he didn’t speak English.

7. I’m not a young earth creationist. Though not a universal amongst charismatics, I think there is a broad leaning towards this view. I know there are some in my own church, and some that are not. For most, though, I don’t know what their view is. I’ve laid out mine here.

8. I don’t drink beer. What I find distinguishes charismatics from, say, baptists, is that fewer charismatics are tee-total. Meetings at the pub are fairly commonplace. However, I never acquired the taste for beer and the smell of it makes me nauseous.

9. I’m highly interested in Biblical origins. This is linked in with points 6 & 8 above. Most charismatics I have across don’t seem to consider the question too much and treat the bible as a neat package, delivered on their doorstep, with no questions about its origin being considered. I find it a fascinating field of study and makes me look at both biblical and non-biblical theological writings in a quite different way than I used to. I am writing a blog post on this subject at the moment, but have no idea when I shall finish.

10. I think that doubt is a valuable thing. I have often heard the notion “don’t think, just believe.” This is usually my prompt to walk out, as I think it’s an abandonment of rational thinking. When we’re called to “love God...with all our minds” I take that to mean we have to be intellectually honest, acknowledge uncertainty and be willing to admit we might be wrong. I subscribe to the view that doubt leads to enquiry which leads to improved knowledge & understanding. For an overview of my theological epistemology, see this.

6 December 2011

Book Review: One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Prior to reading this, I was well aware than this is considered something of a modern masterpiece, with it often being cited as the book that led to Marquez being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Therefore I approached it with some anticipation, particularly as I enjoyed Love In The Time Of Cholera. However, I have also had many disappointments of books that have had high praise but which have nonetheless been disappointing. Notable recent examples have included Cloud Atlas and Midnight’s Children.

The start of the book is fantastic, and a real pleasure to read. In style, it is very similar to Love In The Time Of Cholera in that the language used is extremely poetic. This, however, is about as far as it goes. Having read the book from cover to cover, I really couldn’t tell you what it’s about. The story is set in a place called Macondo. It is somewhat ambiguous as to what sort of settlement Macondo is. At the start of the novel, it comes across very much as a small village. Later on, it seems to be a provincial area and at times it seems to be a whole country. The story itself is non-linear which adds to the confusion. So a character that is killed very early on crops up again alive and healthy later on.

The other thing that really annoyed me was the names. It’s supposed to be set across several generations, only to keep the idea of a link between them, almost every male character is named Aureliano or Jose. When this is combined with the non-linear story line what you end up with is a book made up of pages and pages of beautiful word-imagery that is disparate and incoherent. There are individual sentences in here that are wonderful, but adjacent paragraphs often bear no relation to one another.

The ending of the book (which I shan’t spoil) does go a long way to explaining why this is. I felt, however, that it was a bit too convoluted. Because of the issue of the names, the reader can’t really get to know any of the characters which is something I value a lot in a fiction book. So would I recommend it? Barely. It is a frustrating read, but there are some really beautiful phrases used where Marquez can, with just a few words, conjure up images in your head of stunning aesthetics.

5 December 2011

On web anonymity

It may not have escaped your notice that this blog is semi-anonymous. The username I tend to go by, Sipech, is actually related to my real name, though I choose to not reveal it in full. Those that know me “in real life” may be aware of the blog, and I estimate that about 25% of those of you who are reading this have met me. But for the rest of you, does it matter that you can’t put associate my writings with a name or with a face?

This led me to think: are web users who choose to retain their anonymity less credible than those who don’t?

Prompted by this, I asked an open question on Twitter. Interestingly, all the responses I got were from users who, like me, opted to retain their anonymity. I don’t keep mine a particularly closely guarded secret. I’ve entered into email correspondence with some people, and my email address bears with it my real name. Part of the reason I choose to use a pseudonym is to distance my work life from my blog.

On the one hand, someone who opts for anonymity may be perceived as hiding something in some way. On the other hand, though, I don’t see what is materially gained from knowing an individual’s identity in some way. There are exceptions, where a blogger may have specialist knowledge or access to information that the public in general wouldn’t have. In such a circumstance, the writer may meet with some scepticism (and rightly so, I believe) if it may be thought that they are making things up. There have been some notorious cases of bloggers who have faked their identity or where they have been ‘unmasked’ for various reasons.

What about those who choose to reveal their true identity? Do they (or you) think there is something to be gained by doing so, or is it an issue to which little thought is applied?

One experiment I had in mind would be for a well-known blogger to create a second blog and write anonymously. The content need not be significantly different. I think it would be interesting to see if the same content under an anonymous label would garner the same level of attention.

Of course, there are a number of other factors to consider in such an experiment, like how long it took for a particular blogger to gain a significant following. So it’s not an experiment that could be done a few weeks. Several months to a year may be a more reasonable estimate.

I don't know the answer to these questions. I'm just throwing them out there. What do you think?

2 December 2011

Book Review: Did St Paul Get Jesus Right by David Wenham

This is actually the second time I’ve tried to write this, as I accidentally deleted the first one. Normally I don’t write reviews more than a couple of weeks after I finish a book, but this is an exception to that.

This was the first book I finished that I received for my birthday last month. The reason I was interested in this was to explore the idea of Pauline theology as it relates to christian theology as a whole. In many online discussions I have, there is often reference made to Paul in particular shaping the form of the early christian church. Though it may be difficult to do, because of prior knowledge of Paul, I think it would be nonetheless interesting to see what kind of belief might emerge if someone were given the Bible, but with all of Paul’s writings erased. Would the theology that emerged be radically different from the many ‘flavours’ of christianity that we already have?

It has to be noted that the book is very short, at just over 150 pages, and I got through it in a week, even though I was reading another book at the same time. The basic question is that of the title of the book. The author begins by making more of a populist case than a scholarly one, by citing Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ as representing the viewpoint which Wenham sets out to oppose. Since these are both works of fiction, it seems a similar approach to opposing christianity by taking The Shack and Left Behind as your starting point. He does mention a couple of more serious writers in passing, though they are not mentioned again beyond the opening chapter.

Wenham starts his answer by looking at whether or not the documents we have are the most reliable sources for our information. In this, he stays close to the orthodox views of F.F. Bruce’s Are The New Testament Documents Reliable. This orthodox theme runs through the book; so although Wenham claims he’s trying to taking an impartial view, I couldn’t escape the idea that his conclusions had already been reached and that the substance of the chapters was his filling out the pages.

He goes on to look at various issues, which are all pertinent. These include Paul’s view on Jesus himself, ideas of apostleship, sex and the afterlife. One of the more interesting points is how little Paul directly refers to the teachings of Jesus. Though Wenham correctly points out that there may well have been a difference between Paul’s letters and his preaching, I don’t think the explanation that recalling Jesus’ teaching was restricted to Paul’s preaching which we don’t have preserved, though reasonable, is not entirely convincing.

What I felt was lacking was a rigorous engagement with the views that Wenham sets out to oppose. I wouldn’t quite say he was setting up a straw man; it was more a case of occasionally talking about a straw man that you couldn’t examine in detail. What Wenham does present is very good and deserves serious consideration; if a writer were to put forward a case proposing that Paul was primarily responsible for the foundation of christianity, they would have to engage with Wenham’s arguments and do a lot of work to cast doubt upon or refute them. Well worth a read, but it’s left me wanting to read some other follow-ups.

1 December 2011

Should I write a book?

This is just a quickfire posting, written in haste. I’m rather behind in my blogging as work is taking up the majority of my time and all I have time for when I get home is a quick dinner and a wash, which I prioritise over writing. So I may be infrequently posting, but at least I smell OK and have am ample waistline!

I do have some time off over Christmas, though, and I was pondering writing a book. I don’t have the time needed for something the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) which ended yesterday but I’ve long considered the possibility. I’m no spring chicken anymore, with my 30th birthday not seeming all that far away. So if I weren’t to start now, would I ever?

Then I run into my second problem: what to write? As with my blog, I am full of ideas and great at doing outlines and making a start. What I’m not good at is finishing and polishing the thing off. I now you’re supposed to write about what you know and are passionate about, so I was thinking about doing one of the following:

1) A fictionalised history of the early church, only setting it in modern business. The story would start with the retirement of the CEO and document the spread of the business along with the personal wranglings of the directors, especially the relationship between one of the CEO’s most trusted execs and a new guy who had previously made several attempts to kill the company off.

2) A manifesto for religionless christianity. This is a challenge that Dietrich Bonhoeffer laid down in his Letters & Papers From Prison and one I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I don’t know if something like this has been done already, or whether that falls under an Emergent/Fresh Expressions label; to be honest, I don’t know much about those two, so I may be inadvertently following someone else’s footsteps.

3) The joy of science. I would just go through all my science books and notes from college and university, pulling out all the things that I just find fascinating and interesting. It would be a bit of a compendium, with no overall narrative. It should just be something to bring a smile to a geek.

4) A snapshot of the churches in England. Similar to the Mystery Worshipper, my plan would be to take a sample of churches from across the country (one per county/major city) and just find out what is being preached on one particular Sunday, randomly chosen. I would download the sermons off their website, listen to them and write some notes on them. I already download quite a few from churches I’ve never been to and listen to them while I do the washing up.

29 November 2011

Book review: Churchill’s Empire by Richard Toye

I was made aware of this book some time ago by a friend with links to the New York Times, where it had been reviewed by the now discredited journalist, Johann Hari. My understanding, based on that review and a couple of other references I picked up that this was not going to be a totally fawning biography of Churchill, focusing more on his early years in the foreign office.

This is not an holistic biography. The author’s aim is solely to look at Churchill’s influence on matters relating to British imperialism. As such, very little time is spent looking at the particulars of the First World War and when it comes to the Second World War, much might appear to be overlooked, though I think in reality the author is here correcting what has previously been overlooked in other Churchill biographies.

The subtitle of the book, The World That Made Him And the World He Made, is very apt. Toye works in a chronological order, starting with Churchill’s schooldays in the late 19th century. Toye shows us the influence that Churchill’s old schoolmasters had on him, along with his reading of Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall Of The Roman Empire.

From here, we look at Churchill’s time in Africa which influenced his own writing of My African Adventure. Throughout the book, the portrait of Churchill that is painted is that of someone who contrary. The book doesn’t flinch from including some of the racist language used, which may offend some readers. Certainly, if it were to be read aloud, such a reading would be unbroadcastable, though for the sake of decency, I shan’t include any of the offending words here.

In my opinion, the most fascinating sections of the book are those dealing with India. The Churchill we see here is one who cares for the needs of those would call India ‘home’ but he also lacked any confidence in their ability to rule themselves. So we have two threads of racism and care intertwined throughout Churchill’s life. Probably the most damning section looks at Churchill’s role in the Mau Mau uprising, and I was left thinking had the same thing happened in the 1990s whether or not Churchill might have been pursued and charged with war crimes.

It’s a very enlightening book, well-written and really quite accessible. Some of it does seem to get a bit ‘samey’ though I think this is just a consequence of the events being described, rather than the fault of the book’s author. I think it’s an important read for anyone interested in Churchill or in British imperial history.

28 November 2011

How do you define a christian: Concluding remarks

This has been a brief overview of some of my thinking as to how we may define a christian. I’ve looked as self-definition, creeds & confessions, the sacraments as boundaries and a cocktail of beliefs.

Hopefully, if you’ve had the patience to read it all, you will have realised that I don’t have a definitive version of what defines a christian and what doesn’t. All I have done is looked at some of the ways in which christians have been defined and shown how they fall short of making a clear demarcation. What that leaves us with is a grey area, and quite a large one at that. Does that mean that there isn’t a definition? No; I don’t think so.

Lurking in the background to all this is of course, the No True Scotsman fallacy. For those unfamiliar with it, please follow the link above. To my mind, there is a difference between there not being a definition and for me as an individual being honest enough to say “I don’t know.”

The way I think of it is like this: The visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is quite narrow, but we can perceive multiple colours within that narrow range. We might very clearly say that an atheist is a radio wave or a Muslim may be an X-ray, they clearly aren’t in the visible light spectrum. When we look at ourselves, we are more inclined to say those in our own nearby vicinity are christians, and perceive those as being far away as being at least questionable. So you might say that I sit at the orange end and am happy to worship alongside the reds and yellows, but I’m not so sure about the purple lot. Meanwhile, those that I perceive as being merely purple are having a fight over whether they’re indigo or violet, whilst viewing me as being a long way from their beliefs and practices. Simply because there is a spectrum of belief within christianity doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a “true christian,” just as you can’t really uphold the idea that there’s no such thing as “visible light.”

Most importantly, I don’t think it is the job of any individual or any organisation to make a determination of who is and who isn’t a christian. The writer to the Hebrews said “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is also able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render account.” (Hebrews 4: 12,13). I’d rather let God decide. It’s a far better judge than I am. Each of the factors discussed in the parts of this series is, I think, a strong indicator, but any one of them alone is not sufficient to be able to tell apart who is a christian and who isn’t. Throughout this, I tried where possible (and probably failed) to distinguish between being discerning and being judgemental.

We are called to be discerning, but warned against judging others; it’s a fine line to tread and I know I get it wrong on plenty of occasions, just as I see others around me do the same (and yes, I will confess to judging people because they judge others).

I think I probably ought to call a halt to it there. So that’s an outline of my muddled thinking. Do you try and define who is and who isn’t a christian? Is it too thorny an issue? Do you think I’m a heretic that should be burned at the stake?

22 November 2011

Should christians accept bonuses?

Background

I had a recent chat with another christian when this question came up as part of the conversation. Anyone who knows me or reads this blog will know that I am distinctively left-leaning. One of the main reasons for this is because I am a christian. I have a lot of difficulty understanding the idea of the “christian right” as I consider it to be an oxymoron.

Subsequently, I have quite strong views when it comes to money. So I wanted to lay out my reasoning for why I think the answer to the question ought to be “no,” though I wanted to understand the counter-argument. As a result, I asked around a little bit, which is laid out below. I have also attempted to play devil’s advocate.

Of course, I am not judging christians who do accept bonuses as part of their remuneration. If you do, all I’d like to do is make you think and question your motivation for accepting it.

Why I think the answer ought to be “no”

The fundamental reason why I would not be happy to accept it is one of motivation. Without giving too much confidential information away, employees in my company are given a choice. They can accept a fixed salary of £x per year, or else they could take a lower salary with a bonus which, when combined is greater than £x. So let’s say someone might be offered a basic pay of £30k, or they might be offered £28k with a £4k bonus. Of course the bonus is tied to their meeting certain conditions. If they meet their targets, they will obtain their bonus; if they get part-way they will be awarded part of their bonus. If they don’t meet the minimum target, they won’t get anything.

To my way of thinking, this creates a danger that we then work, our motivation becomes the creation of personal wealth. Following on from my recent post on worship, this would indicate that we are worshipping money. Of course, we may to rationalise this by claiming that we are accepting the bonus structure in order to pay our rent, fund the train fares, feed the family, etc. What I do not like about this view is that it creates the false impression that we would not be able to make ends meet without the bonus.

I would rather my motivation to work be because I want to do a good job. As I touched on briefly recently, there are many ways we can worship. To me, trying to do a good job at work is a part (though by no means all) of my worship. There is the very famous warning in 1 Timothy, where Paul writes “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Tim 6:8-10, NRSV) Often only a part of that is quoted, but I wanted to include the lot.

Having worked in financial services for several years, and subsequently working in the finance side of a different type of business, I am surrounded by those who are obsessed with money. It would be very easy to get sucked into that world, where I’d care about profit and trying to boost my own pay, quite possibly at the expense of others. That’s not someone I’d ever want to become. I want to be someone who is content with what I have.

Another passage in my thinking (though I recognise that money is not the primary purpose of this particular discourse) is Romans 4, where Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.” (Romans 4:4, NIV) This is as close as I can find to anything about bonuses. I hope you don’t think I’m stretching scripture too much; that’s not my intention.

The devil’s advocate argument (why it might be OK)

You have to recognise that the pay culture we have in modern society would be totally alien to those living in the 18th century, let alone anyone before then. So the people of the bible wouldn’t have known enough to either speak in favour or against company bonuses.

There are various people in the bible who had great wealth and who were not condemned for it. Abraham was a bit of a Richard Branson-type figure of his day, and in terms of a single individual owning a high proportion of the world’s wealth, Solomon was probably one of the richest men in history. Yet neither of them were condemned for their wealth. It was incidental to them. This brings us on to the so-called ‘prosperity gospel.’

Proponents of this view often cite Psalm 37 as a justification for not only claiming that wealth is acceptable, but that it is a sign of reward for faithfulness: “Trust in the LORD, and do good; Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the LORD, And He shall give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:3,4, NKJV) I interpret this quite differently. Given the preamble of verse 3, I think what constitutes the “desires of [our] hearts” will be changed so that we no longer will be desiring of wealth, but rather we will be desiring the riches of God. (c.f. Romans 12).

Given the balance of the number of times wealth and money are referred to in the bible, I think that prosperity advocates must have a hard time defending their position. For brevity, I’ve omitted most references I could use to back this up; maybe another day.

Some practical considerations

Of course, not everyone is given a choice to not have a bonus as part of their pay packet. You have to be in a particularly high-end job to be able to change the terms of your employment contract. Given that I have only ever taken jobs whilst unemployed, I never had much bargaining power, so I simply wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise the prospect of employment.

Then you have the choice of what to do with it. I asked on Twitter what people thought about it, though I only got 1 reply which was that it’s OK to accept a bonus, so long as it is donated to charity. More widely, there are a number of good things you could do with additional money, of which giving to charity is but one. However, I think christians always have to keep a tight reign on their motives. For example, if you donate via a Just Giving page (or similar) do you disclose your name and the amount you are donating, or do you go by the principle of "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." (Matt 6:3)?

Conclusion

For my conscience, I am happier to not take a bonus. I do not think it is inherently wrong to do so. What is important is what you do with it. In this, I probably ought to be honest about my own pay packet. I contribute to a pension scheme which removes from my pay packet 10% of my gross pay. This pushes me down into the “basic rate” tax band. Had I opted not to do this, I would be higher rate tax payer, having a marginal rate of 40% on a small portion of my salary. As it stands, my effective rate (total tax+NI/total pay) is 26.7%. From this, you can tell that I am paid significantly more than the average salary. This is slightly tempered by my train fares of £87.50 a week. Once you take tax into account, this means that if I got a job within walking distance of home, I could take a gross pay cut of just over £6,000 per year and it would have no effect on my take-home pay.

Given that I am such a highly paid job, putting me amongst the top few percent of UK workers, I think that to demand any extra would be selfish and immature. When I work long hours, I don’t complain about a lack of overtime, in spite of pressure to do so. When I think of all the millions in this country alone (let alone the billions elsewhere in the world) who do not have the material riches that I have, it is very humbling. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b, NIV) It is a huge responsibility and one that has to be taken seriously. Personally, I find those who have abundant material wealth, and yet who complain about a lack of it, to be repugnant; it’s one of the biggest intolerances I have. Maybe I’m being harsh and lacking grace; I don’t know.

So that’s my choice. What’s your take on the matter?

17 November 2011

The best of the web

Well, it’s been a little while since I did one of these round-ups. I also managed to overwrite one of my blog posts with an earlier version, so I haven’t got as much material to publish this week as I’d hoped. So this is my lazy stop-gap.

First up, I knew my recent post on liturgy would not be universally liked, though so far I’ve only been informed of one response, which was actually from my brother-in-law. You can read his response in full here.

There was a marvellously silly story in the Daily Fail about people forgetting things as they walk through doors. In trying to hunt down the research paper the Fail were using, they stated it was published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, which according to their website is published 12 times a year. An article in the Fail is dubious enough, but I just found that hilarious. However, I never did manage to the find the relevant paper, either in the journal or on the website of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Dr Sky Skull present us with some interesting science facts.

Over at Pam’s Perembulation, Pam notes the pertinent difference between a church and a church building and asking the question: ‘is the church Christ-filled?’

Dyfed Wyn Roberts gives some food for thought on how our theology often shapes the translations we use, rather than the other way round, similar to something I touched on recently.

15 November 2011

How do you define a christian? Part 4: Denominations, cults & heretics

Link to Part 1: Self-definition
Link to Part 2: Creeds & confessions
Link to Part 3: Sacraments as boundaries

To say one is a christian, but to not identify exclusively with one denomination can be like saying that you’re a football fan but refusing to be drawn on which team you support; it’s possible but really quite unusual. You are generally expected to pin your colours firmly to one mast or another.

I am very happy in a large number of different types of churches. The church I attend at present is usually described as Pentecostal, though I would consider it to be quite non-denominational. I do not include a link here as I am not a spokesperson for the church and the views expressed here are my own. *waves to the one church elder who I know reads this blog*

Though I made reference to “my church” there are actually several that I attend, depending on whereabouts in the country I find myself on a Sunday morning. Of those that I attend, the one unifying theme is that they have a culture of “come as you are.” They could all be described as a “jeans and t-shirt” church where all are welcome and no one is elevated above anyone else by use of an elaborate garb.

I will admit to feeling less comfortable in Anglican churches. There are a few reasons for this: I sketched my thoughts on Anglican worship recently, so I won’t cover that again. My other objection, and here I use Anglicanism as an example, though the objection extends elsewhere, is that it has become a hierarchical organisation. [I ought to note, for honesty’s sake that I started to ramble at this point, but have cut much out and will save for a later post on why I am not a fan of hierarchical organisation as a substitute for church]. Then we have the problematic issue of Roman Catholicism, which I will come onto shortly.

As I see it, the differences between most denominations are barely skin deep. It might be fairest to describe such differences really as issues of emphasis rather than of fundamentally different beliefs. I find it helpful to think of a picture that has some sort of computer editing going on. One denomination may emphasise the blue hues of a picture, another may emphasise the reds. Nonetheless, they are looking at the same picture, with the same lines and forms, though to an outside observer, they may note the slight differences without spotting the overwhelming similarities.

But what about denominations that take things away from the gospel that others would consider essential? I think of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unitarians, neither of whom recognise Jesus as being equal with God. In this respect, their theology is far more like that of the Ebionites, who considered Jesus to be fully man, and a good man, great teacher, etc. but without acknowledging him as being one with God. Are they christians, or a quasi-christian cult?

Then what about Mormons? With their additional book by Joseph Smith, have they added to the gospel, and maybe in so doing taken something out of it? I find it quite interesting actually to compare the origins of Mormonism with that of Islam, with the author of their key books claiming it was given to them by an angel. I can’t help but think Joseph Smith nicked the idea somewhat.

The truth is, I’m not really sure how to write about this subject. I merely think that the issue needs raising and perhaps one of you, who I am sure is a better writer than I, can take it up. To my mind, there is something of a sliding scale with no real demarcations between denominations, cults and heretics.

A battle I constantly face is one of balance between judgement and discernment; a battle that I don’t think I always get on the right side of. On the one side, christians have the famous instruction: “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” whilst at the same time the books of the New Testament are littered with calls to be discerning and to avoid false teachers. In general, I am in favour of what is known as the “ecumenical movement” (cue mental images of Father Jack!), which is a fancy way of saying “have lots of different churches work together.” But I do sometimes question whether in a search for unity, that sometimes there may be a danger of accepting something which is false. At one extreme, you may abandon discernment and accept all & sundry; whilst at the other, you may exclude just about all apart from the Baptist chapel across the road. I have seen both extreme ends of this in practice.

On the subject of heresies, I would heartily recommend two books I have read recently on the topic: My review of Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities may be found here and a review of Alister McGrath’s Heresy is here.

One thing McGrath helpfully describes in his book is that such groups just about always arise from within the ‘mainstream’ church (however you define that: though that may be a significant part of the problem). When I talk of cults, the most obvious examples I have in mind are the cults of Jim Jones or the Branch Davidian cult of Waco fame.

But then there are other groups, which may not be as well known about, that share similar characteristics. One that I have come across, and after prayerful consideration decided it would be best to not have anything to do with, call themselves The New Mystics. This group is quite different in structure from some other cults in that they do not isolate themselves off from the world. Nonetheless, they would claim to be christians and openly preach ‘a’ gospel. What they declare though is very often cherry-picked (though if I’m honest, I’m sure most christians, and non-christians too, have done this at one time or another to try to back up their point). The key feature of the New Mystics is that they are a group of “experientialists.” In other words, there is no place for truth in their teaching apart from the truth of what you feel; it's all about "experiencing God." It is noticeable that many of their key figureheads (the most notable being John Crowder) is that they are former drug addicts, and as such their whole worldview is based around the language and imagery of drugs.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking cultural adaptation. Jesus himself was great at using the everyday examples he had around him as communication tools with his followers. But when the symbolism is used as substitute for the thing which it is meant to represent, you are on deeply dangerous territory. In this respect, I think the New Mystics have much in common with the Roman Catholic take on communion.

The observant among you will notice that in much of what I say and write, I will often draw a distinction between what I would call christians and Roman Catholics. This may be seen as antagonistic, though it is never meant to be. I know quite a few catholics who are christian, but even they recognise that the two are not synonymous. The issue here is not of taking things away from the gospel per se, but rather the “add-ons” which detract from the gospel. I won’t go into detail here, but to summarise the things I am uncomfortable with in Catholicism include (but are not limited to): papal status, absolution by priests, forbidding of marriage, mass, saint worship and the over-emphasis on Mary.

As noted by McGrath in his book on Heresy, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Germany, an act which ultimately resulted in the Reformation, he was considered be a heretic by the catholic church. However, he successfully rebutted the accusations and demonstrated that the ideas of the reformation were not new, but were rather a partial restoration of the early church model.

At this point, history should record that Catholicism join the list of heresies that has been rejected by mainstream christianity throughout the centuries, placing it alongside Docetism, Pelagianism, Valentinism, Ebionitism, Arianism, etc. It is just a curious feature that the organisation as retained adherents and survived to this day. I know that’s not a particularly popular view, but it is the truth as I see it.

But does this mean that adherents to such views are not christians? No. That's not what I'm saying. While I believe them to be mistaken, I am not in favour of the "excommunication" route. As christians, we do make mistakes and get the wrong end of the stick, just like anyone else. But what is so amazing is that we are given the freedom and grace to make such mistakes. Holding incorrect views doesn't nullify salvation. I believe the church should be open to all, and that any such views which may cause division or misunderstanding only become an issue when it comes to what the church teaches.

So where does that leave us in our search for how define a christian? Well, I’ll wrap up in a concluding post (which should hopefully be shorter than this one) soon.

14 November 2011

Book review: The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

I make no apology for the fact that I am a big Thomas Hardy fan. My intention is to finish reading all of his Wessex novels. The return of the native is the last of the “major” novels for me to have got through (the others being Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure).

The setting for the story is the region of Egdon Heath. The Heath itself is almost a character in itself, and a very dark and malevolent one at that. The ‘native’ of the title is Clym Yeobright, a young man who has spent several years away from the heath where he grew up in order to live and work in Paris, though, having grown disillusioned with that life he chooses to return and train as a schoolmaster.

The early part of the novel, though, doesn’t feature Clym at all. Instead, the first part of the story sets us up my meeting who I would really regard as the main character of the novel: Eustacia Vye. In terms of the evolution of Hardy’s women, Eustacia is most similar to Bathsheba Everdene from Far From The Madding Crowd, only for all that Bathsheba had in naïve innocence, Eustacia has in scheming selfishness.

Eustacia’s character is given its introduction by her attitude towards Mr Wildeve, who has just postponed his wedding because he may still have feelings for Eustacia. This first part I felt wasn’t Hardy’s best opening as many of the male characters are given inadequate introductions, with the exception of Diggory Venn (the reddleman). It’s only in the second main section of the book that we learn who the main characters are as other drift into the background.

It is quite a classic Hardy novel in that the central theme is that of love in a fatalistic setting. As ever, his use of the English language is exquisite, which makes every paragreaph a pleasure to read. Because some of Hardy’s characters seem to be very similar to those in his other writings, one may consider criticising him for not being original in his character creation; I would not, though. All of his main characters are realistic and readily identifiable in people I know, have known, and in some cases there are characteristics that I see in myself. In this book, I found myself identifying much with Diggory Venn, as I have identified with Michael Henchard in Mayor and with Gabriel Oak in Far. As for Eustacia, it’s fair to say I’ve met one or two in the past, and am careful to steer clear of them in the future.

As the novel progresses, each of the characters, driven by their own desires of betterment, drive themselves to the point of destructive obsession. While the book is most similar to Far From The Madding Crowd in terms of the ‘love polygons’ that Hardy creates, by this time in his writing career, Hardy was not afraid of a tragic ending. Indeed here, there is a tragic end for at least one of the characters, though the very very end of the book does contain a positive note which I actually felt spoiled it a little. Hardy himself does actually include a small footnote to say that this “additional” ending was somewhat forced upon him by the fact that book was originally published as a serial.

While maybe not as good as Tess or Mayor, this is still one of the best novels I have ever read and would heartily recommend it to you.

7 November 2011

On worship, liturgy & evensong

Introduction

As promised earlier, here’s a collection of thoughts in relation to christian worship. There are a few sources for this, which I will endeavour to incorporate into this post. It began last week with a sermon at church, a copy of which is here. As is the practice in my church, the housegroup the next week looks at the same subject, but in a much more informal environment. So I will be including some of the discussion we had there into this post, as well as some discussions I had with a few Anglicans regarding evensong (which I kept incorrectly referring to as “evening song”) and my experience of attending one as part of a flashmob outside St Paul’s cathedral, at the OccupyLSX camp.

Unless otherwise stated, assume all opinions are my own. I have attempted to be as fair and representative as possible, though I doubt I have been successful in all of this. This is, for the most part, an exploration of my own thoughts and feelings on subject matter, guided by the discussions mentioned above. Any mistakes that remain are purely my fault. Please feel free to join the discussion via comments or by any response, which I will be happy to either include as a guest post, or link to if hosted elsewhere.

This has ended up quite long, though I have chosen not to break it into several posts. Instead, I have simply included headed sections to ease your navigation and break it up a little bit, if one part interests you more than any other. My hope is that you will find each section interesting enough to motivate you to read the rest.

What is worship?

Before we can look at expressions of christian worship in particular, we need to consider the general notion of worship.

One of things mentioned in the sermon is the proposition that everyone is “programmed” for worship. It might be articulated as “designed” or as an “inherent tendency.” I don’t want to worry about the semantics here; I do enough of that most of the time anyway. So when I talk about “worship” I do not always have in mind any kind of religious ceremony. Instead, I mean the prioritising of ‘something’ in your life so that the majority of your spare time & energy is devoted to the pursuit of this goal.

One thing I asked the housegroup was “What’s the first thing you do when you get home; and what does that say about you?” My idea behind this is that while we can try and bring little acts of worship into our working day, your real priorities are betrayed by what you do as soon as you get a free choice. I’m sure a case could be made to say that I worship work, given that in any given day I spend more time there than I do anywhere else. In between work and home I have my commuting which I tend to fill with reading (or occasionally a Sudoku puzzle or sleeping, depending on what sort of day I’ve had). But when I get home it’s “me time” and I have a completely free choice as to what I do. In the past, I’ve ended up watching far too much tv. I would come in, take my shoes off and put the tv on, where it would then stay on for a couple of hours until I go to bed.

I realised that this was getting in the way of my own personal time with God, whether it be reading the bible, doing any wider study and from prayer. So I took to a slightly unusual habit. When I left my house in the morning, I would put the tv remote control underneath my bible. That way, when I got home, in order to turn the tv on, I’d have to pick my bible up. This is simply a methodology I developed to deal with a self-discipline issue I had; I’m not saying everyone has that same issue, though it did seem to be common amongst those in my housegroup that the tv could be a major draw. For those that were married and/or had children, the first thing they would do would often be to talk to their families.

One way to identify what it is that you worship is to ask yourself how you view other people. If it’s money you worship, then you may see people as debtors, creditors, potential sources of future income or competitors. If it’s sex you worship, you can view people as potential partners or rivals. If it’s sports you worship, you will want to find out who else supports your team and who supports your rivals, or has no interest in your given sport(s).

Christian expressions of worship

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he answered “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt 22: 37, NRSV). Christian worship is the expression of this love. An analogy I like to use (the flaw in which will be obvious, but I hope you can see past it) is of illness. If a person has the kind of love that Jesus describes, then worship will be the symptom of that love. My own view is that there are strong parallels between this and the relation between faith and works, which is described in James. If you have faith, works inevitably follow. If you have love, worship will inevitably follow.

A point made in the sermon was that the start of worship has to be a correct understanding of God. Now this is always a lifelong process, I think. There has to be a distinction between worshipping God and worshipping our idea of God. Now I get told by various atheists quite often that I worship a magical sky fairy or a figment of my imagination. However, such views are rarely based on any level of sensible thinking, and a theology no more advanced than that rejected at Sunday school. I don’t profess to have a perfect understanding of God, but I would claim to have an understanding slightly better than such puerile jibes suggest. Personally, I am highly suspicious of anyone who would claim to have such an understanding, since one thing I am convinced of is that God is beyond human comprehension. There is a saying often applied to quantum mechanics which I think is applicable here: “If you think you’ve understood it, you haven’t.”

It is for this reason that I support the idea that all christians should be amateur theologians. This doesn’t mean we all have to talk in obscure multisyllabic words that no-one can comprehend; quite the opposite really. When I say this I mean that all christians should regularly study their bibles, challenge themselves and check what they believe against the available evidence.

So, having made our most honest attempt to understand God, and constantly revising that view as we learn and understand more, what next? Well, it’s pretty much up to you. How do you react to receiving grace and forgiveness?

On the notes provided to me for housegroup, there is a statement that, “Worship isn’t just singing songs on church it is also about our lifestyle and surrender to God. Every Godly action that comes from a surrendered heart to God is true, authentic worship.” At one point in a previous week I ended up observing a conversation I have had many times on the question of ‘is it really worship when you don’t really feel like it?’ When most christians talk about love, this is not a reference to a woolly emotion; it is a far more fundamental desire of the heart. Emotions are like the waves that kicked up by the wind that froth on the surface and are easily visible, but true love is the ocean current that is underneath, providing a far greater force, even if it’s not immediately apparent.

There’s a very famous phrase Jesus uses when talking to some of his followers in the garden of Gethsemane where he says “the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.” (Matt 26:41, Mark 14:38) As a side note, it’s interesting to note the Greek in Matthew & Mark for this phrase is identical, but in the KJV they have minor differences in the translation. Anyway, I think helps to illustrate what I have not been clear in expressing; that it is possible to worship when, on the surface, we are just too weak, either physically or emotionally, to express what our inmost being desires.

A reservation

I tried to articulate on facebook and twitter some reservations though I don’t think I worded it particularly well. When it comes to worship, a lot of very high churches make this synonymous with something known as liturgy. This is form of chanting where all the words are dictated in advance and where this is no free expression to worship from the heart. In talking to many Anglicans, they are completely perplexed by the idea of worshipping freely. I know this is disputed by some clergy friends, but their view is not backed up by the evidence I have from talking to members of the congregation. One friend I was talking too recently had been so ingrained with the idea of liturgies that he found it incomprehensible that someone could pray from the heart, making up the words as they naturally came to you. This left me wondering whether or not they were worshipping at all, or merely taking part in ritualistic religion; but it is not for me to judge.

If worship is a natural thing for a person to do, then the expression of that worship should also be natural. This may be taken to the extreme end, and Paul wrote to the church in Corinth pleading for orderly worship, as it seems the place was quite chaotic. But there is a difference between orderly worship and worship which is put in a straightjacket.

The expressions that worship take will probably be highly influenced by the society which we inhabit, along with its social norms. In the English society I inhabit, it is really very natural to sing. The X Factor is one of the most popular programmes on tv, and is mostly about singing. At a football or rugby match, the crowd will engage in singing en masse, so singing in churches shouldn’t really seem that unusual. But chanting doesn’t fit naturally into our society. The closest I could find was poetry-reading, but even then, it will only ever be one person. You don’t find poetry readings where hundreds of people adopt a monotone voice and speak in unison.

It is because of these shamanistic overtones and the dissuasion from free thinking that make me extremely uncomfortable with liturgy. Please note, this is not an objection to the words themselves; it is merely the form I have qualms about. Most that I have read are extremely truthful.

There is a second side to my reservations. I have long opposed the idea of regarding christianity as a religion. The best articulation of this comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote on the 30th of April 1944:
“…theology rests on the ‘religious a priori’ of mankind…if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless – and I think that this is already more or less the case…what does that mean for ‘Christianity’? …. how can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?”
Once we acknowledge that our society is increasingly secular, there are 2 choices christians can make. One is to become more religious, focussing on God as something disassociated from the world, or to become more secular by engaging with the relevant issues of the day that concern ordinary people. The former simply alienates the church from society, making it less and less relevant; the latter puts the church back in the public eye and allows the church to be relevant, giving it a voice with which it can then educate people about the gospel.

So anything which makes the church seem more religious or mystical, or other such objections to modernisation I view as an obstruction to the great commission.

A report from Flashmob Evensong

With those reservation noted, I was uncertain about a fairly impromptu evensong outside St Paul’s cathedral. The thinking behind it was that because, at the time, the building was shut but that this shouldn’t prevent the scheduled services from taking place.

I thought I’d have to make a decision by 6pm in order to get down to St Paul’s cathedral on time. I was talking to a couple of people of twitter about this, and one chap said he would equally uncomfortable and one chap from my church was also possibly going to go along late. The other thing that swung it was empathy for the organiser, who blogs and tweets under the name The Artsy Honker. Having organised many events where people have not turned up having said they would/might, I know how much of a kick in the teeth it is to spend time and effort organising something that turns into a damp squib. Since I hate the feeling myself, I decided to do what I could to avoid inflicting that on someone else.

The meeting place was given as “outside M&S” though when I looked on a store finder for M&S, the closest it had was London Bridge, another mile away, so I was at a bit of a loss as to where to go. St Paul’s is a pretty large building and takes a fair few minutes to walk around. I tweeted a couple of folks who were around and between us, we just about managed to meet up. I was stood immediately outside the door, and to identify myself said that I would hold a stick of celery in my hand such is my eccentric wont.

Still being decidedly uncomfortable, I tried to stay as near to the back as possible. Someone was going round giving out hymn sheets. Having grown up in a baptist church with a mixture of ancient hymns and 80s Graham Kendrick, I was able to know 3 of the 4 hymns that were to be sung. Standing in slightly the wrong place, The Artsy Honker thought I was part of the choir, and asked what I sung. I bit my tongue and resisted saying “loud and out of tune” and opted for “bass or baritone.” To be honest, my range varies depending on the song, as there are some ‘in-between’ notes that I just can’t hit. So when the hymns came along, I gave it my gusto, although trying to sing above the noise of the London traffic and general hubbub was certainly a challenge. When it came to the liturgy, I maintained a dignified silence and chose to listen and to offer my own prayers silently. It was interesting that at one point, there was a recitation of the Apostles Creed, which I have written about recently.

The reaction we got was quite encouraging. A few people approached once the singing had started and asked what was going on. So those of us at the back did our best to give a brief explanation. People came and went every few minutes, though I would estimate the core was about 25 or so people, though at times there may have been double that in attendance. I think I was the only person wearing a tie, and I’m sure I was outnumbered by those wearing dog-collars.

There were a couple of readings with one notably coming from the Apocrypha, which prompted one person to say something “[I dread to think what my dad would think if he knew we were reading from this.]” Given the very short notice, the guy who was asked to speak didn’t have time for a full length sermon, but just gave a 5 minute talk. The chap himself, I discovered, was the bishop of Buckingham. He was the opposite of your stereotypical milky tea & cucumber sandwich style vicar, although his beard was of the kind only found in high churches or some university departments.

Afterwards, a few of us went of the pub. To be precise the person who suggested it (whom I shall not name) may have wasted as much as a millisecond between the service ending and making the suggestion. We hung around for a little while first (mainly because I had to go and visit a cashpoint) but it was good to meet, if ever so briefly, a few of the folks I had only spoken to on twitter. I caught a couple of extra people there too.

One of the subjects that was discussed at the pub was the issue of “high” and “low” church. What I hadn’t realised was the extent of the difference in how various people view and define “high” and “low.” Growing up, there was something jokingly dubbed a happy-clappy scale.

An approximate scale of happy-clappyness would have a papal mass at 0 (high church), while a day at Revelation church (where you get greeted by drum n’ bass DJ in a giant old warehouse with no seats and a sound system to rival the Brixton Academy) would be 10 (low church). The church I grew up in was about a 4, although it had been a lot more charismatic when my parents joined; it just got old and conservative later on. My current church I would say is about a 7. There is the occasional dancing the aisle, the guitarists are sometimes allowed to finger-tap and there is the odd bit of clapping every now and then.

I would have put the evensong at 1 on this same scale. Yet one of the Anglicans I was talking to seemed to have a similar notion but the scaling was completely different. To them, there was a wide of liturgical-based worship, with those that use incense in a completely different class from those that don’t.

Such talk is all a bit tongue-in-cheek. I’m not suggesting that any one form is inherently superior to another; that’s not what I mean when I say have reservations. I’m sure plenty of people will have issues with some of the forms of worship that go in the more charismatic churches.

Closing word

This went on for a lot longer than intended, and there are thousands of posts more that could be said about worship. I hope if you’ve read this far you’ve found it interesting and at thought-provoking. I know my views on liturgy are not shared by all, but I hope you haven’t found it offensive, that was not my intention. Please do comment, and let me know of any response posts so I can post a link to them.

1 November 2011

Paul: Disciple, apostle, both, neither?

About a month ago now, Gurdur delivered an interesting post on the ministry of Paul, and how it does or doesn’t relate to the ministry of Jesus. The idea that Paul was the real “inventor” of christianity who misinterpreted Jesus is a very old one, but one that has had something of a mini-revival of late.

As it references a couple of other blog posts, I would recommend you follow-up on those as well. I promised Gurdur a response, so here is mine. OK, it’s the start of mine. This has started to snowball, and I’m still trying to dig up some reliable evidence for the later parts. So this is going to be split across several posts, to avoid it becoming a thesis.

As it happens, I was given the book Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? by David Wenham for my birthday, after I made that promise. Though I had an outline of a response in mind after reading Gurdur’s original post, I have subsequently read Wenham’s book (and a review will follow later). So while the thrust of my discussion is unchanged, some of the fine details have been influenced by this subsequent reading.

The main point I wanted to pick up on here was this quote:
“it's odd how much regard many Christians give Paul, given Paul never even was rumoured to have met Jesus. An experience, a vision along the road to Damascus? So what? Many of us have such things without getting adulated for it. Paul simply wasn't one of the disciples.”
I’m not sure if Gurdur meant modern christians, early christians or both, though I think in terms of the modern christians, the dominant reasons are the fact that he is credited with writing the largest number of books of the New Testament (even though the writings of Luke actually account for a largest number of words) and also his great erudition in those writings.

I think Gurdur has made a very common mistake here that many christians still get confused about; that of equating the terms “apostle” and “disciple” and using them interchangeably. The Greek term translated as disciple is ‘mathetes’ which can also be translated (according to Strong’s) as ‘student’, ‘follower’ or ‘a committed learner and follower’. In this parlance, a disciple is a very wide group, in a similar way that the term ‘saint’ was originally meant to mean ‘a believer’ and was not reserved for any special set of individuals, which is why I refer to Paul rather than to St Paul. If Gurdur meant he wasn’t one of “The Twelve,” then this is, of course, correct.

On the other hand, the term translated as apostle is ‘apostolos’ derived from ‘apostello’ which means to send out. Etymologically, this is also where get the term apostate from, although in the former sense it is used to mean sent out in a more missionary-style meaning, whereas the latter has connotations of excommunication. Again, referring to Strong’s, one of the uses specifies “often used as in a technical sense for the divinely appointed founders of the church.”

To me, one of the key passages in understanding the difference is Matthew 10, when the gospel author begins by saying “And having called his twelve disciples, He gave them authority over unclean spirits, so as to throw them out, and to heal every disease and every weakness of the body. And the names of the twelve apostles were….”

I understand this as a demonstration that there is a difference between a disciple and an apostle, and that difference is the authority given to them by Jesus. A disciple is someone who follows a given leader, but an apostle is someone who is sent out with authority by a leader.

The split in the uses between apostle & disciple is very interesting. The term apostle is used only once in Matthew (in the passage cited above), once in Mark, 6 times in Luke and never in John. The majority of the uses are in the book of Acts with the rest of the uses scattered amongst the epistles. If you compare this to the term disciple, the latter’s use is never used in the epistles. It is used 242 times between Matthew & Acts. Matthew has the most with around 75 uses; Acts has the fewest with about 27 (I haven’t been too precise in my counting).

Further evidence to support the difference between the disciples and apostles is provided in the first use in Acts, in chapter 1. Peter is described as standing up in the middle of the disciples, who numbered about 120. He goes on to talk about replacing Judas, who by this time had committed suicide. Two possible candidates were chosen from amongst those who had been with them since Jesus’s baptism from John. This implies to me there was a bit of a crowd that followed Jesus regularly, in addition to The Twelve. This does make for an interesting view when you read the gospels and read of Jesus talking to his disciples, where many (I think) assume the gospel author is talking about 12 individuals, when I think it may in fact be more; but I'm not certain of this.

Anyway, that was a long interlude. Back to Paul. The question is, was he really an apostle?

Although I am not well versed in the reasons for believing it, I am of the understanding that Galatians is widely considered to be the earliest of the books to be written by Paul. His opening statement is pretty unequivocal in affirming his apostleship.

It is not surprising that there is general harmony between the accounts of Paul’s conversion (I really hate that word, by the way, it makes it sound like a person is a car) in Acts and Galatians. Given that is likely that Acts was written by Luke, who joined Paul on one of his later journeys, then the accounts that Luke gives (in chapters 9, 22 and 26) was probably passed on to him by Paul in the first place. It has to be noted that even Luke makes a bit blunder in internal consistency as to whether or not Paul’s companions heard a voice or not (compare 9:7 with 22:9). Again, here we see a differentiation between the disciples and the apostles in that Paul says he didn’t meet up with the apostles for 3 years after Damascus (Galatians 1:12-20) yet in the account in Acts the first thing he did was go to the disciples in Acts 9:1-26.

When the term apostle is used in relation to Paul, the main passage I would reference is 1 Corinthians 9 where it seems evident that Paul has made a claim to be an apostle but that this is disputed by some people in in the church at Corinth. In verse 1, Paul’s own definition seems to be someone who has seen Jesus, which is where we come back to Gurdur’s point about the road to Damascus.

I don’t know precisely what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. I have heard the explanation of an epileptic fit, and indeed I have heard that used a possible explanation of what some passages of the bible describe as demonic possession. Some of this is explored by Charles Foster in his book, Wired For God, where he states, “The history of religion is crowded with epileptics,” and this is then referenced to The Falling Sickness: A History of Epilepsy from the Greeks to the Beginning of Modern Neurology by O. Temkin, though I have not read this book myself. The one thing I think it is fairly safe to say is that something happened to Paul; I think to claim that the whole episode was conjured up seems far-fetched, given that Paul was travelling was others present at the time who could have easily testified otherwise. The fact that they are neither named nor referred to again except for the Damascus testimonies is, for the historian, just a bit annoying. But it doesn't falsify Paul's testimony.

I think Gurdur summed it up well with the phrase: "Unanswered and unanswerable questions." From my point of view, I don't think it's particularly important whether or not we consider Paul to be an apostle. The only time it really makes anything more than a semantic difference is if one appeals to "apostolic authority" in relation to the formation of the New Testament canon.

In the next part of the response, I'll be looking a bit more at the authorship of some of the Pauline corpus and considering whether or not some, all or none was forged.

28 October 2011

The quiet before the storm

I feel I must apologise for my lack of postings this week. Despite it being relatively gentle in terms of my day job, I haven’t had the time to finish any blog postings to a degree I consider satisfactory. Readers who notice my regular spelling and grammar mistakes will know how low my standards are, so you can possibly imagine how terribly half-formed my posts are at the moment.

I was also asked to lead my church housegroup on the subject of worship (which my church will looking at over the next month or so), so I spent a fair amount of time this week researching that. I do hope to summarise my thoughts on that, not least as it coincided with the opportunity to attend a “flashmob” evening song outside St Paul’s cathedral. I have various reservations, which I attempted (and probably poorly at that) to summarise on twitter & facebook, which prompted some interesting responses. I’m still not sure whether or not I will attend. My aim will be to clarify my thoughts and allow for a more open discussion.

I also promised Gurdur a response to a piece he wrote a couple of weeks ago, though in trying to search for references I have not been very fruitful, and that which I have found has not been of the highest quality. My lack of brevity has again struck, and the response is likely to span several posts. At present, it looks like this:

1) the difference between a disciple & an apostle, and was Paul either?
2) Authorship of the contested Pauline writings (this is the one which is hard to find any solid evidence on) and
3) Paul’s guilt and self-forgiveness in relation to the death of Stephen. This is subject to change.

I am also approaching the end of a couple of books and will be reviewing these also. There are many more in the pipeline, but these are a little further away from completion.

I hope to be able to finish a good number this weekend, to be posted next week. In the mean time, have a good weekend. I leave you with this beautiful time-lapse video from Kielder Forest in Northumberland:

A Great Place to Stargaze from Martin Whipp on Vimeo.

25 October 2011

Political whips

This should be a fairly short post, hopefully. I’m working on a few others where my lack of brevity is causing a significant delay, particularly as they have been promised for many months now.

The news was abuzz over the weekend and Monday with the news of a vote that was to take place in the House of Commons. The proposition was to hold a referendum on whether or not to remain part of Europe. At the time of writing (Monday evening) this vote has not yet taken place. This should change by the time this goes live on the web.

I have my own opinions on Europe, but that is not the point of this post. I wish to concentrate more on the relation between referenda, democracy and party whips. The Conservative party said they would impose a “3-line whip” on MPs to ensure that they opposed the bill. It was estimated that up to 70 Conservative MPs may rebel and vote for the motion. It seems unlikely that the motion will pass, due in part to this whip. The meaning of “3-line” as I understand it (as ever, please correct me if my facts are wrong) is that if an MP holds a ministerial post, that they will either be expected to resign from that post, or be sacked, should they choose to go against the party line.

The job of a Member of Parliament is to provide representation in the House of Commons on behalf of their constituents. The job of a party whip is to ensure that an MP of a given party follows that party’s policy, regardless of whether or not it was in a manifesto on which it was elected. It is easily conceivable that the interests of the party to which they belong are different from the interests of the constituents they represent. So the MP is left with a fundamental quandary. In such a situation, they have to choose between two mutually incompatible choices.

If they value democracy, and consider it to be the heart of our system of government, then there can be only one choice: to represent the constituents. If they think it is more important to toe that party line than it is to provide the people of this country a voice in government, then they should obey the party whip. This clearly demonstrates that party whips are inherently opposed to democracy. It is shame on our Parliamentary system that this anachronistic post is allowed to continue to existence.

If party whips were banned then we would lose nothing of value. What we would gain would be MPs who are more accountable to their electorate than they are to their party. This is what democracy should look like. It doesn’t fix everything. There are other problems we have in our system. But this would be one change that would improve the status quo. I am not a revolutionary; I believe most progress comes gradually, but this would be an easy improvement to make that would pave the way for further improvements.

I know that referenda are expensive and it is simply impractical to use them for every decision. Personally, I would welcome a referendum on Europe, given how wide-ranging it is. The question of EU membership is no less relevant today than it was when we last had a referendum in 1975. I wasn’t even born then. My grandparents who had the vote then have all since passed on. Though I am not certain of the statistics (if anyone can provide a source for the numbers, please do!) I think it is reasonable to suppose that those who were eligible to vote in 1975 now form the minority of the electorate today. 36 years of life in Europe may also have changed some opinions. I am not saying what way I would necessarily vote, I merely point out my belief that having the opportunity to have a democratic vote on the matter is more welcome than a dictatorial stance of “this should not be talked about.”



Update: It is now early in the morning and the news is that the motion was defeated as expected. A full list of the rebelling MPs (which, I am glad to say, includes my own representative) may be found here.

19 October 2011

How do you define a christian? Part 3: Sacraments as boundaries

Part 1: Self-definition
Part 2: Creeds & Confessions

In most forms of christianity, there are various “ceremonies” which are often referred to as ‘sacraments’ by those of a high church persuasion. Sociologically, these can be good demarcation boundaries for who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ In particular, the two I am thinking of are baptism and communion (the latter also known variously as eucharist, holy communion, mass or The Lord’s Supper). Personally, I’m not a fan of the term sacraments, as it is quite pretentious and off-putting for those who are not well versed in high church terminology. My own view is that church should be open and welcoming, including in the terminology used. The ordinary person on the street should not be given any reason to stay away from church on the basis that they don’t know what the “right way” is to behave and talk in church.

There’s an early christian handbook for new believers, which seems partly based on the gospel of Matthew, called the Didache [you can read the full text of the book here]. If you read down, chapter 7 has specific instructions on baptism and chapter 9 has instructions on communion. Both are very formal and ritualised but will be familiar to those who have grown up in many western churches today.

I recently read both the book itself, along with an analysis of it by a catholic professor, Thomas O’ Loughlin (you can read the review here). Although I think O’Loughlin missed the point somewhat, he does make an interesting observation when he says:
“any group which has a developed sense of belonging…; a firm sense its own history….; and a clear unifying set of ‘facts’….will have a very clear sense of its boundaries, and of who is within the group. Furthermore, it will ritualize [sic] the gateways in those boundaries so that the whole group have a badge of identity and newcomers know they have crossed a threshold.”
This is also echoed slightly by the christian theologian, Tom Wright, in Surprised by Hope, when he says:
“I have come to believe that the sacraments are best understood within the theology of creation and new creation….God’s future has burst into the present and…somehow the sacraments are not just signs of the reality of the new creation but actually part of it. Thus the event of baptism – the action, the water, the going down and coming up again, the new clothes – is not just a signpost of the reality of the new birth, the membership (as all birth gives membership) in the new family. It really is the gateway to that membership.” (emphasis added)
I do not think that the purpose of baptism and communion is to act as ritualised gateways, though I do think such the sacraments may be used thus. To draw an analogy, the raison d’etre of a book is to be read, although that doesn’t stop me from using it as a doorstop or as a spider-squashing device. The purpose of baptism is to publically declare one’s faith, but this is no way determines whether or not someone is a christian. If you accept the idea of baptism as a “gateway” then, when taken in a soteriological sense, this would mean that those who are not baptised cannot be part of God’s kingdom. I would argue instead that it is an indication(but not a definitive marker) that one already has become part of God’s kingdom.

One very interesting thing to note is that while we have a record of Jesus being baptised, and of John the Baptist doing the same to others, there is no record of any members of The Twelve themselves being baptised. They are instructed in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The book of Acts describes some of the early church leaders performing baptisms, yet I don’t recall seeing a specific incident where they themselves were baptised. The closest I could find was in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he uses the inclusive term “us” to describe those are baptised, implying he was shortly after his experience on the road to Damascus (watch this space for a further post on that topic, later this week or early next week).

This, of course, does not mean baptism is a once-and-for-all thing, which I suppose sets me apart (pardon the pun) from Calvinism where the idea of a secure election is sacrosanct. I have many friends who have publically declared their faith and been baptised only later to have left church life, renounced their faith or just plain old given up. One of the better writers on the web who has done this is Daniel Florien, author of the Unreasonable Faith blog.

In any sociological group, there is an important concept of “the other” – i.e. to define oneself not only by what you are, but also by what you are not. So I acknowledge it can be helpful to think in terms of those who are baptised as different from those who are not, or to consider those who take part in communion as having a different belief from those who do not take part. Yet I think it isn’t helpful to regard these as absolute boundaries.

There is a very obvious thought experiment one could do: suppose someone, having examined the evidence and reasons for belief, makes the free and conscious decision to “become a christian” (however they want to phrase this). They are on their way to publically acknowledge this by being baptised and on the way there they are killed. If we take Wright’s view at face value, then this person would not have met the membership requirement of the new birth. O’Loughlin’s view is not quite as harsh, but there would certainly be considerable doubt over whether they might be considered to be an ‘insider.’

It is also interesting to note that between them, the different stances churches adopt on baptism and communion are probably two of the main reasons for divisions and splits, which in my opinion is a sad state of affairs. I won’t go into any detail here, as the next section in this mini-series will be on denominations where I will be exposing some of my own prejudices on the matter.

Dale Farm: 2 Questions

"The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence."
Robert Peel
This was the view given by Robert Peel, the founder of the metropolitan police force.

Looking at the scenes from Dale Farm and reading the accounts, it seems that this vision has been lost. I simply ask these questions:

How many people were being harmed, and to what extent, by the occupation of the land at Dale Farm?
How many people were being harmed, and to what extent, by the eviction of the occupants of Dale Farm?

The interests of community welfare and existence have been least in the minds of those ordering and carrying out the eviction. Instead, the existence of the community has been openly persecuted and their welfare ignored and trampled upon. The violence that has been seen on both sides has been shameful. The protesters should not have thrown bricks and debris at the police, but it has to be noted that this was an act of desperation to which they have been driven. Likewise, the police use of tasers is deplorable.
"Agitation is the marshalling of the conscience of a nation to mould its laws."
Robert Peel

18 October 2011

Book Review: Surprised By Hope by Tom Wright

Before reading this, I knew it was a kind of ‘lite’ version of the Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG), which Wright published a few years earlier. There was also some additional material included, where he built upon the conclusions reached at the end of RSG. The only other thing I was aware of was that it was not universally welcomed by all christians, and has faced something of a backlash at times.

The book is certainly aimed at a wider audience than RSG as Wright tries as hard as possible to say away from technical terminology, though he can’t resist returning to ‘inaugurated eschatology’ on one or two occasions. As usual, though, his writing style is brilliant, clear and easy to follow. He picks his analogies carefully, and always maintains a pace to keep the reader interested.

His basic thesis is as follows: many christians have muddled beliefs about death, resurrection and the afterlife. This then leads on to a confused idea of how the ideas of life after death relate to ideas of life before death. The book outlines some of the current ideas about these topics and Wright contrasts these with the beliefs of the early church, or what we might consider to be “authentic” christian belief. He demonstrates how some ideas that are commonly assumed to be christian are in fact adopted or adapted from alternative sources. One example of this is the notion of Hell. Many christians that I know have very firm ideas of a literal lake of fire and eternal torment, when in fact this is really just the Hellenistic idea of Hades, with some twists put on it by the likes of Dante Alighieri and John Milton.

Similarly, the traditional idea of heaven and the Roman Catholic idea of Purgatory are also shown to have no real relation the beliefs held by the early church. As I read it, I found myself agreeing with much of what he said, sometimes suspiciously too much, so that I questioned whether or not my own prejudices were being pandered to. Certainly I find myself frustrated when I wish to challenge fellow christians about what they believe only to have told to me “The bible says… [insert Sunday school cliché]” to the extent that I question how many people regularly question what they believe and look to the bible for a proper basis, rather than cherry-picking certain passages and claiming the bible “says” what their particular interpretation is of this particular passage.

Of course, I don’t deny the possibility that I may do that myself. Just like anyone else, I’m a fallible human. If you think I’m wrong, please feel free to point me in the right direction (or at least, what you believe the right direction to be!).

Wright develops his own idea of “Hell” which he admits has no significant precedent. His view is that we become more and more defined by that which we worship and define ourselves by. So while christians become more Christ-like, those who “refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light…by their own effective choice, [become] beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.” (emphasis included in original text).

I do not agree with this, as my understanding of the bible leads me to be an annihilationist. I know this is also not a widely accepted view, though this does only prove Wright’s point that there is a wide range of beliefs within christianity.

From here, the level of controversy only increases. Having set out his stall with the historic evidence for the resurrection, what the ascension meant and what the earliest creation hope for “life after life after death” he then moves on to the idea of salvation. The two key questions posed, which I think we all ought to answer, are:

1) What are we saved from?
2) What are we saved for?

Wright’s particular answer is framed in terms of creation and new creation. Given my own liberal-baptist background, I have been used to the idea that salvation is about the restoration of a broken relationship with God. Wright calls this into question and claims such a worldview has missed the point. Personal salvation is a secondary matter to the restoration of creation. This view is, I think, one of the main areas where he rubs up against a large number of christians, who have been taught a different emphasis. I say emphasis, because I don’t think it really is a fundamentally different understanding from that taught from the front of churches week in, week out; but the deanthropocentrication represents a massive shift in focus.

Following on from this, the final section of the book looks at how this all affects the look of the church. Here, Wright does not shy away from politics. And when christianity (or religion, if you consider christianity to be a religion) and politics mix, controversy almost inevitably follows. It is probably fair to describe Wright as morally conservative but socially liberal. He has criticisms of both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Probably the most insightful area of this section is when he talks about the “massive economic imbalance of the world, whose major symptom is the ridiculous and unpayable Third World debt.” He goes on to say, “I simply want to record my conviction that this is the Number One moral issue of our day….The present system of global debt is the real immoral scandal, the dirty little secret – or rather the dirty enormous secret – of glitzy, glossy western capitalism.” Now that you’ve read that, consider this: this book was published in 2007, a full year before the Credit Crunch.

The conclusions of the last couple of chapters are not always that insightful or strong. Here, Wright does betray an Anglican bias, particularly with his advocacy of liturgy and other such religious rituals. So in one moment he calls for us to be living as “resurrection people” but in the next he supposes that the best way to live this out is in religiosity. I completely disagree with this application. I don’t think religion should have any part in christianity, so for me, this final section devalues the book slightly.

Other than that, it is an insightful and thought-provoking read; well-written with a razor sharp wit and a well-researched basis.