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.