Blogroll: God Gold and Generals

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Book reviews and comments by Jeremy Marshall on Christian, historical and business themesJeremy Marshallnoreply@blogger.comBlogger214125
Updated: 2 hours 14 min ago

Why we should support not abolish charities

Sat, 24/02/2018 - 11:54
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Merryn Somerset-Webb writing in the FT (behind a paywall I am afraid) attacks the charity sector and in particular makes four points in the light of the Oxfam scandal. She has repeatedly written on this topic in recent months, attacking all charities and especially small ones
1. There are far too many charities — 99% should be eliminated, especially small charities2. Gift Aid (tax relief on gifts) should be removed3. Religious charities are particularly wrong 4. Charities pay too much and are inefficiently regulated
I couldn't disagree more. I have been involved in charities on an unpaid basis for many years and these arguments just dont stack up. Not only that they are extremely dangerous and if implemented would damage millions of the most vulnerable in our society.  
Point 4. Does has some validity and hopefully out of this terrible scandal will come needed reforms. Oxfam made huge mistakes and is rightly suffering the consequences. But does this mean we should abolish charitable aid to people in disasters? 
A few large charities do pay a few senior staff too much. But most people who work for charities do so and willingly get paid far less than the amount they could earn elsewhere. 
The answer to a scandal in one of the hundreds of thousands of charities in the UK is not to abolish the whole sector. 
1. Charities overall do a huge amount of good, especially so small ones. My friend Neil March is the Policy & Research Manager role with the Small Charities Coalition and says “ I have talked to a number of trustees from small charities and what they all have in common is that they came into existence precisely because of a need that was not being met which someone felt strongly enough about to be prepared to put their own time and resource into doing something about the situation. (A charity supported by a mutual friend), Lucy Air Ambulance, is a classic example of this. Somebody experienced having a premature birth whilst on holiday in the UK miles from home and realised the NHS would not pay to transport mother and baby to a hospital near home as they would get perfectly good treatment where they were. However the disruption and cost to the family of the remaining members having to return home while mum and baby were hundreds of miles away was an issue. As a consequence a charity has formed that owns it own incubator and has developed partnerships with aviation providers so it can safely transport the child and parent(s) to their nearest hospital. Another example is a friend of Neil's who runs a charity that employs nurses to care for people with a rare condition that causes non-life-threatening tumours to grow on the outside of their faces causing disfigurement and other associated problems. The NHS doesn’t fund this because it is low priority as people can live with the condition so she has stepped in and built a charity to support those affected. So the list goes on. What we find is that small charities who understand local communities and cultures and have built up a relationship of trust within those communities are generally those who are best placed to reach the hardest people to reach but the ones who are also the most vulnerable and in need of support. That may have to do with mental health, age, loneliness or a host of other issues. Small charities are not only a lifeline to those people but also they are saving the public purse money by funding these vital services through fundraising, donations, grant applications etc. and usually through a mix of all these. "
The failures of Oxfam certainly mean lessons need to be learned but to argue that this means effectively the whole sector should be abolished is ludicrous and would cause untold damage heart ache and misery. Charities and especially small ones are the life blood of care, the ‘small platoons   of thousands of people who freely give of their time for causes they feel passionate about, often local ones and ones that the state cant and wont support. Edmund Burke said ‘To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind’
2. Gift Aid is just reclaiming our own tax that we have already paid on our income. Some facts would help. The amount in total reclaimed through Gift Aid is a tiny drop in the bucket. In the last year for which figures are available it "cost" £1.19bn. Of which just over a third was the higher rate tax relief (£480m) The state as a whole spends around £770bn. So it’s a tiny and totally insignificant fraction! The idea that the state is going to be more efficient at choosing what activities to support than charities is insanity. Anyone who deals with large bureaucracies like the NHS knows that they are run by dedicated people trying their best to operate in a hugely inefficient system. To find the FT of all papers peddling the argument ‘ Big Brother knows best” is very surprising. Small is beautiful and this is especially so when it comes to charities, yet this is the very sector that Merryn seems to be the keenest to abolish.  One of the most encouraging developments of the last 20 years has been a great increase in philanthropy by rich individuals.  Very often they not only give their money but their time and expertise. If we abolish Gift Aid the result will be a massive drop in such giving by everyone and especially by the rich. This will in turn place even more strain upon the already creaking state run medical and educational bureaucracies. Would Merryn rather wealthy people spent their money selfishly on themselves? More Ferraris and Lamborghini’s and fewer air ambulances and food banks? 
3. Originally in the UK almost all charities were religious. And look at what terrible things they did! Fighting slavery, disease, animal cruelty, children working in the mines, homelessness. Caring for orphans, the sick, the poor, the abused. Providing schools, food, hospitals. Away with them! What incredible  damage did people like Hannah More, Shaftesbury, Wilberforce, Dr Barnardo and countless untold others do! The level of ignorance in the article about what religious charities actually do is staggering. Nor is this only historic. For example, The Cinnamon Network which was founded and run by my friend Matt Bird recently published research showing that “Churches, mosques, synagogues and other faith based groups give an equivalent of £3 billion worth of time to social projects and are filling the “ widening gaps” left by sweeping government cuts. The report estimates that two million people — the vast majority of them volunteers — from faith groups give at least 384 million hours a year to projects like food bank, drop-in groups, debt advice, family support, employment coaching and temporary accommodation." Thank God for what they do — or we would have even more starving bankrupt and lonely people needing to fall back on the governments bureaucracy. 
I close by quoting the famous words of Ebenezer Scrooge of whom Merryn seems perhaps to be - no doubt unwittingly - influenced. Scrooge is approached by philanthropists who ask him for a charitable donation. They say
“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir." "Are there no prisons? "Plenty of prisons..""And the Union workhouses." demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?""Both very busy, sir...""Those who are badly off must go there." "Many can't go there; and many would rather die." “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” (and we might add, save on Gift Aid!) 


Neil March adds 

"According to Third Sector magazine last year the top 3% of charities spent approximately nine times what the remaining 97% spent on advertising such is the wealth gap between the likes of NSPCC, Oxfam and small charities. At the same time the Charity Commission's own stats published in December 2017 showed more government contracting out money went to the big charities at the expense of small ones. 

What actually needs to happen is that the government need to sort out their commissioning policy so that the small local charities already doing vital work and building the trust relationships with the most vulnerable and hardest to reach people in society get more commissioning and grant support through local authorities and community foundations, instead of the work being contracted out and awarded to big charities who may have expertise in writing tender bids but don't have the local knowledge and expertise to deliver.
It should be noted that, contrary to the claims in the FT article, all charities have gone through rigorous registration processes in order to be accepted by the Charity Commission (and not the Charitable Commission) in the first place. 
There are many other examples of small charities usually staffed 100% by volunteers: they include Stay Brave, a charity for male rape victims formed by a male rape victim who was shocked to be rejected by all the existing rape charities because he was not a woman and also Sickle Cell & Young Stroke Sufferers (SCYSS), a small charity set up by the mum of a child who suffered a stroke because stroke and sickle cell charities were only set up to deal with adults. 
People should also understand that these kinds of charities cannot afford to pay big salaries (if they can afford them at all) so the idea that they pay people too much is ridiculous. They are entirely reliant on volunteers giving up their spare time to help out. But they perform vital work that no-one else would provide if they were to close down."
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Categories: Friends

Discussion with a friend : "How can we know there is a God?"

Mon, 19/02/2018 - 09:42
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A new series. 
I have lots of friends with whom I love to chat about 'the meaning of life' or 'Is there a God' or "whats in the bible? '.  Most of them are not Christians, they have all kinds of beliefs and none. I like to hear their perspective and understand their point of view. I greatly appreciate them allowing me to do that as I really enjoy our discussions. 
With their permission I plan to turn some of my emails to them and points I have made in discussions into blogs. Here is the first, many thanks to my friend in this particular case for allowing me to do this and helping me develop my ideas. 
Dear Friend
You asked me "How can we know that there is a God?" 
I will define "God" as a supreme being who made the universe. We will leave for a later time which 'god" of the many available! 

This is of course a vast question and any summary will be banal, trite and limited but here goes anyway! 
Lets start by looking at the universe.
This is a famous recent video which starts with a girl called Louise in California lying on the grass, expands from her to the whole known universe, shrinks back to Louise and then keeps shrinking into her eye, ending up looking at an atom in her eye. Please watch the video above.
Science tells us three things:-
The universe is very large and very old while humans are utterly insignificant and very short lived. The scientific consensus is that the universe is very old — about 13.8 billion years. Its size is currently unknown, but the observable universe is about 90 billion light years. Some recent research suggest the whole universe is about 250 times larger than that or 7 trillion light years across. How many stars in that known universe and are there really more stars than grains of sand in the entire earth? A recent study estimated that approximately 100 to 400 billion stars in a galaxy. There are estimated to be around 100 billion known galaxies in our universe (we ignore the x 250 bit we dont even know about) which equals approximately 10 sextillion (10 billion, billion) stars in our universe. How much sand is there? Around 8,000 grains of sand can be packed into one cubic centimetre, which according to the article means that 10 sextillion grains of sand placed in a ball would create a sphere with a radius of 10.6 kilometres.  There are approximately 700 trillion cubic meters of beach on our planet. These 700 trillion cubic meters could therefore hold approximately 5 sextillion grains of sand, which means very roughly there are at least twice as many stars in the observable universe as grains of sand. 
The universe had a beginning and will have an end. This is a very new idea, one that has only been accepted in my lifetime. Before that, going back to Aristotle, the universe was thought to have always existed - the steady state theory. Now scientists agree that the universe had a beginning ' the "big bang". Exactly the form of the "end" is debated but the most likely theory held today is a "big freeze" where continued expansion of the universe will mean temperatures reach absolute zero. Star formation will cease as the universe "runs out" of gas. But dont worry, no need to panic — this could take as long as 100 trillion years. The exact rate and nature of the universe's expansion is itself mysterious. Stephen Hawking said "Why is the universe so close to the dividing line between collapsing again and expanding indefinitely? In order to be as close as we are now, the rate of expansion early on had to be chosen fantastically accurately. If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been less by one part in 1010, the universe would have collapsed after a few million years. If it had been greater by one part in 1010, the universe would have been essentially empty after a few million years. In neither case would it has lasted long enough for life to develop. Thus one either has to appeal to the anthropic principle or find some physical explanation of why the universe is the way it is."

The universe is governed by what we call "the laws of physics" — gravity, nuclear physics and many others. The universe is incredibly predictable and its existence is governed by its own rules and structures. Scientists observe them and give them mathematical formulas to describe them but have no explanation as to why we have them or where they came from
Now, you may think that to get from there to any God, let alone the Christian one is a big jump and you would be right! 
But we can at least derive some suggestions from the above, I think
Something we dont understand "started" the universe and everything in it. There was a beginning. (If we say "it was just random" that just puts the question back one step further - why was there a random event? There simply must be some kind of first cause.)
Something we don't understand means that the universe is structured with "laws"
We are infinitely and laughably small. 
Imagine one grain of sand (our sun) trying to understand all the grains of sand on the planet (all the stars in the universe). But we as individuals are in that analogy even smaller as the one grain of sand equals our sun. The earth is much smaller - you can fit 1.3 million earths into the sun. And of course you and I are just 2 of approximately 7.5bn people alive today on the earth. So one human would need to be multiplied by 7.5 billion and then again by 1.3 million to even reach the size of one grain of sand (our sun) Then that one grain of sand compares with trillions of stars. We humans are utterly insignificant. 
Therefore, if there is "a God" - a supreme being who made the universe, then "God" is unimaginably bigger and infinitely more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine. The idea that we tiny, utterly insignificant humans can find God is laughable. God if he/she/it exists must find us. 

Christians claim that only by stepping back and very consciously looking at where we've come from and what has been created all around us on earth and in the entire seemingly infinite universe, are we able to begin to fathom the enormity of the act of creation that has gone into bringing each one of us into being.
Paul writing 2000 years ago said "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."
David, the writer of many of the Psalms in the Bible, writing about 3000 years ago, was convinced that God is responsible for the universe, and this provided proof of his existence. He said 
"The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world."
Dear Friend, please conduct the exercise of stepping back from your daily life and contemplate the immensity and complexity of all that is around you, as well as you yourself, and ask yourself the question: 
"What or who created/started the universe?"
"Why did the universe have a beginning?"
"If there is a God, how would he speak to me - and why would he even want to speak to me?" 
Or as the Psalmist says "what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should even care for them?"
thanks again for your willingness to discuss!

next time..."If there is a God, what is he saying to us?"
Categories: Friends

10 Myths of Christian fundraising

Sun, 11/02/2018 - 11:21

The pastor leaned forward in the pulpit. "I have good news and bad news" he said "the good news is we have all the money we need for our new project, the bad news is that it's all still in your bank accounts".
I have spent pretty much all my professional life working around raising and investing money. This covers both secular business fundraising and raising money for charitable and Christian causes.
In this blog, which is designed to be provocative and stimulate debate, I would like to take aim at a few "myths" which I believe hinder the Christian church raising money for God's work. The "myths" are based on my experience in the UK and if any of my dear readers disagree then I would say "if the cap fits wear it". Comments welcome! 
1. "We shouldn't ask for money because it sounds like an American televangelist ." Now, it's certainly true that American televangelists have done much harm to the cause of Christ by relentless appeals for money and by then misusing that money either for personal gain or for stupid "Prestige projects". But the church in England in general seems to be in danger of swinging rather to the opposite extreme. There is often a cultural cringe about even mentioning the dreaded "M" word. Often, once a year, the church treasurer will rattle at high speed through the accounts and everyone in the congregation will breathe a sigh relief that the subject will not be mentioned for another 365 days. But a good biblical principle is "ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find".  We should be much more open about talking about money. 
2. "If I am the Pastor and I teach about money from the Bible, my congregation will think I'm after a pay rise". When did you last hear a sermon about money or about giving? Yet the Bible both old and New Testament is packed full of practical teaching about money and giving. According to one book I have read there are more than twice as many verses in the Bible about money and possessions as there are about faith and prayer combined. What's more, approximately 45% of Jesus's parables are about money and possessions. Yet in my experience on money over the 50 years plus I've been listening to sermons (admittedly I can't remember the ones I heard aged 4!) I have very rarely heard sermons on money. The Bible is given to us for a spiritual health and we must teach everything in it, even if we find it embarrassing. Sometimes it feels like the church is obsessed by sex but again there is far more teaching in the bible about money then about sex.  Lack of teaching on the topic of money and giving leads to defective theology and in turn  to insufficiently sanctified lives.
3. "I'm a pastor and there's no way my church is going to give up my donors to anyone else!"  This  kind of thinking is faulty theology because it implies that there is only a fixed amount of money able to be given to Christian work – a zero sum game in other words. Sadly, I have heard the same thinking applied to efforts to start new church plant – a new church in a city or  area will only "cannibalise" existing believers. On both fronts, this is a council of despair. God is able to take a small efforts both in terms of money and new churches and use them to build his kingdom far beyond our imagination. We need faith that indeed it is not a zero sum game but rather that our tentative steps of faith are honoured by our heavenly Father. I argue - see below- that most of us give far less than we could. Now supporting in the first place your local church is good. But, this concerns me if we stop there. For where does this leave for example local churches in poorer areas who can never find the money themselves to be self supporting? (To say nothing of work outside the UK) .The truth is that most of the money in UK evangelicalism is concentrated in London and the M25 area (yes, that where I live!). How can we best serve our brothers and sisters throughout the UK? Especially in poorer areas where the locals will struggle to fund gospel ministry? Could there be some kind of partnership like "twinning" where we link up a wealthy church with a poorer one? Giving isn't just about money its about partnering and building relationships. Stephen Kneale a pastor in Oldham has blogged about this helpfully and
4. "People in my church ( or Christian charity) should just give me their money and I will decide what to do with it". This is view which I'm glad to say is changing. Historically, at least some churches worked on this principle. Some people also prefer to delegate giving to somebody else, fair enough. But in general in fundraising for charities, a better model I believe is to ask people to give money for specific projects and new ventures. I suggest that this is also a biblical model if we look at the New Testament where individual churches supported specific other churches (eg see 2 Corinthians). This kind of relationship where individuals get involved with a specific project is much more likely to be successful than a general statement "we need more money." Donors whether individuals or foundations are looking for specific people and ideas to support. We need to promote closer relationships between donors and recipients. This also encourages prayer. 
5. "People like Hudson Taylor or George Muller never asked for money and God honoured this". Now there is some truth in that statement and again we need to avoid the televangelists desperate weekly appeal for cash to avoid his TV station being closed. I do think there is some biblical basis for being careful about the kind of appeals which you get from time to time along the lines of "we are running out of money". God certainly honoured the faithfulness and prayerfulness of men such as Taylor and Muller.  And as far as I can tell, they did not appeal for specific funds. However both of them were experts in publicising (rightly in my view) what they were doing. So they made their needs known to the Christian  public without overstepping the biblical mark. The idea that we say nothing and somehow the money will come in by itself is unbiblical - see 2 Corinthians
6. "If I give money away, the church will waste it". So far, I have taken aim at our dearly beloved clergy. Now I will turn my attention to myself and Christians in general in the pew. I can tell you from the case of my own father, which I believe to be true of all of the ministers under whose preaching I've had the honour to sit, that they gave up huge amounts of potential financial gain to enter the Christian ministry. This is not necessarily true in other countries but in the UK there is precious little money or honour in being a full-time Christian worker, let alone a pastor or vicar. My father used to burst out laughing when people accused him of joining the ministry to make money. Many years after the event he told me that the roughly £6000 I was making it my first job aged 21 was significantly more than he was making at the same time aged 52. In fairness, he always felt well treated by his church who went out of their way to look after him and my mother – my point is not in any way to criticise his church, which I love deeply, but to make the general point that there is precious little cash in the Christian ministry in England. My general point therefore is that if we give money to the cause of Christ it's unlikely to be wasted on fripperies or extravagance.
7. "I'm already giving all I can". Now, most of all I'm preaching is to myself and I can tell you that this is simply not true for me or for 99.9% of Christians in the UK. Pretty much every single one of us and again I put myself at the head of the queue could give much more proportionate to our income. The wonderful story of the widows mite shows us that the Lord Jesus pays careful attention to what we give and what matters is not the absolute amount but our heart attitude and how we give in proportion to our means. As our heart loves, so we give. Money is a window into our hearts. 
8. "God blessed me so I should spend my money on a new house and new car etc". I'm certainly not arguing, not least because it would  be rank hypocrisy, that it's wrong to buy a house a car or whatever. But one of the many pernicious effects of the so-called "prosperity gospel" is this kind of thinking - that this is the first step not the last. The Bible teaches us that each one of us is accountable to the Lord for the money which he has entrusted us with. The Bible tells us to "lay up our treasure in heaven". In other words, we can send our treasure ahead of us where we don't have to worry about appreciation, financial crashes, fraudsters, and most of all death.  I believe that by supporting Christian  work we are sending our money on ahead of us. 
9. "I give my money to Oxfam"  or "I give my money to Christian social projects". This is a moot point which each of us needs to consider and I certainly don't want to stop Christians giving money to worthy secular or Christian socially oriented charities. I've very much enjoyed supporting and being a trustee of the Woodland Trust, for example. However I know from my own experience, and this is backed up by significant external research which I've seen, especially in the USA, that's what we might call "gospel work" struggles for funding. According to one study I've seen less than 10% of Christian  giving in the United States goes to evangelism, church planting etc.  Each Christian must make up their own mind about their priorities but it seems to me very unfortunate and in aggregate a very poor sense of priority, if in the UK,  Gospel work struggles to be funded.
10. "I don't have any money, so none of the above applies to me". There is certainly a danger of the church becoming too focused on wealthy people with high levels of disposable income. The letter of James warns us precisely about being preoccupied with the rich. But giving money is only one way and in fact one of the less important ways of supporting the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. When I think back on the church I grew up ( a church as I mentioned with very little money) in there were a number of single elderly ladies, I think particularly of a lady called Queenie Waterhouse, who we as children called "Auntie" Queenie. Queenie had a cleft palate (easily corrected now but not pre WW2) worked all her life in the local paper mill in Apsley. To the best of my knowledge she had no money. But what she did have was a wonderful heart and a devotion to prayer and encouragement. Though sometimes the encouragement could be quite sharp! On leaving a particularly difficult church meeting Queenie once thrust a folded piece of paper into my father's hand. He assumed it was some kind of encouraging verse, but when he opened it later it said "Of what use is your strength if it fails on the day of trouble?". I'm sure when we get to heaven that we will find countless thousands of "Queenie's" who had little or none of this world's resources but used their time and effort to do good and especially to pray, being honoured far beyond all the wealthy Christians that ever gave money to anything. How much more is this true when we think that the average Christian today in the world lives in poor circumstances in the majority world.

If you want to think through these issues more I recommend above all the huge wealth of resources from Stewardship, of which I am a trustee For over 100 years Stewardship has supported and enabled Christians and churches to give in a Godly and efficient way. If you use Stewardship, you are not only getting excellent technology and reporting, your money when it is in Stewardship is also being used for excellent purposes, such as lending money to churches to buy or expand their buildings. Stewardship also allows monies to be raised for individual Christian full time workers. I particularly recommend which supports individuals fund raising for charitable causes. Online giving is now one of the most popular ways to support charitable causes. According to the Charitable Giving Report, online donations now make up roughly two thirds of total funds that are being raised.

If you want to read more, I suggest Randy Alcorn's excellent book "Money Possessions and Eternity"

A few friends and I also started Generous Journey a few years ago to help Christians think through these issues This is a very good and safe place to learn more about biblical teaching on giving and how to be generous. Its aimed at  givers rather than fund raisers.

There are relatively few books on Christian fundraising per se, a very good recent one is by Peter Harris

Another one which was recommended to me but i haven't read yet is by a Dutch Catholic writer thinker, Henri Nouwen.

Categories: Friends

Review of "Darkest Hour": why the fictional Tube ride makes sense or "It was Labour wot won it" or 'Then none was for a party/Then all were for the state"

Sun, 04/02/2018 - 14:49

I enjoyed the film, though I think it's a good not a great film. It might be better as a play and it flags in places. 
But it's certainly a great story in history: indeed it is perhaps one of the greatest stories of history in terms of the incredible narrowness by which events emerged as they did: and the impact on human history had they varied, even by a tiny amount. I am reminded strongly in particular of the Ray Bradbury short story  I have already expanded on Bradbury and the 'what ifs' of history in my review of "Dunkirk"
It is very easy to imagine a "butterfly" here and in fact one existed and he was a real person — a New York taxi driver called Edward Cantasano
Had Churchill not existed and more, had he not behaved as depicted in the film, then world history to this day would have been profoundly different as i explained in the 'Dunkirk' blog
My topic this time is different: various critics have objected to 'Darkest Hour' because it's historically inaccurate. Here's one vocal critic, Peter Hitchens  for example (thanks Ben Dean)
In my view this is pure nitpicking and completely misses the point that it's a film not a history book. i also respectfully disagree with Ben that the film demeans Churchill or Britain or even men in general. It  is truthful, notably in its portrayal of history and of Churchill himself, who like all of us had many sides to his character. His secretary, who plays a central if fictional part in the film, said in her 1958 memoir "(That) great man - who could at any time be impatient, kind, irritable, crushing, generous, inspiring, difficult, alarming, amusing, unpredictable, considerate, seemingly impossible to please, charming, demanding, inconsiderate, quick to anger and quick to forgive - was unforgettable. One loved him with a deep devotion. Difficult to work for - yes, mostly; loveable - always; amusing - without fail."
The main historical points that the film is making are accurate. The scene on the Tube obviously never happened and its also an extraordinary tube carriage which allows crystal clear conversation over several minutes between St James Park and Westminster on the District Line!
it makes sense as dramatic licence because the basic decency and patriotism of most of the ordinary British men and women of all classes was decisive. It is in my view justified. Churchill drew strength from ordinary Britons and vice versa. Without that support, all the rhetoric of Churchill would have fallen on deaf ears. Its also true as pictured that much (though not all) of the appeasement of Hitler came from the upper classes and the right. There are a whole list of wealthy and aristocratic supporters and admirers of Hitler, some of whom continued that way even after 1939. This class was personified more than any other by the Duke of Windsor, Edward VIII before he abdicated. As Episode 6 of series 2 of "The Crown" shows Edward was a Nazi sympathiser, who dallied in Spain and Portugal in 1940 and allowed the Nazis to tempt him with the prospect of a negotiated peace including possibly his return to the throne. The long hidden "Marburg Files" showed that. 
The Nazi's certainly believed that King George VI  was still open to peace in 1941. Thats why Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland on a bizarre scheme to seek peace In fact George VI as shown in the film was a resolute patriot who while distrustful of Churchill came to admire and respect him and unlike his brother was unflinching in his loyalty. Of course, there were many left wing pacifists and very brave aristocrats who were fierce opponents of Hitler, but the broad brush of the film is accurate
We must remember that Churchill was fiercely opposed by his own party. In fact as depicted in the film, it was the Labour party that supported him in the aftermath of the Norway debate of 9 May 1940, not the majority of Tories. It was Labour's support that enabled him to back down Halifax and Chamberlain when they wanted to pit out peace feelers to Hitler via Mussolini. In particular, the support of the two Labour party members of the War Cabinet - Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood were absolutely pivotal. Gary Hassan notes "But where ‘Darkest Hour’ falls short, despite opening with Clement Attlee, is in failing to give proper space to the critical role of... Labour.. over the course of May 1940. Clement Attlee opened the Norway debate for the opposition; it was Labour post-debate who forced a vote of no confidence which altered the course of British history. .. Chamberlain... didn’t resign immediately. It was Labour’s attitude - that no coalition government was possible unless Chamberlain resigned - which forced him to go. It was Labour....which made the ultimate decision not to go into coalition with Chamberlain, but to support coalition under a new PM. Thus Labour played a pivotal role in not only bringing Chamberlain down, but aiding Churchill into Downing Street."
This was despite Churchill being the public enemy number 1 of the Labour party due to Churchill's past record — for example in dealing with Welsh miners (see Labour party put the national interest ahead of party.  Clement Attlee writes John Bew "provides a clue to the things our modern political classes are most uncomfortable or awkward talking about: ethics, Britishness, loyalty, patriotism, duties and rights. Born and bred in middle-class south-west London, he found his ideological home in the working-class East End. He greatly enjoyed the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, but adapted Kipling’s imperialistic verse to the conditions of the English working class and, when prime minister, brought an end to Britain’s empire in India. Indira Gandhi once said that he embodied the “non-imperial face” of Britain, 'a reassuring counterweight to the haughty mien of the Raj in India. I came to appreciate the understatement which characterises the best in Britain...of which...Attlee was a good example' "
It was only with Labour backing that Churchill was able to say to the War Cabinet "that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground." 

Finally, two points in conclusion
1. In fact, the lines that Churchill quotes on the tube are from Macaulay's "Lay of Ancient Rome" which every school child used to know.  I add two extra stanzas from the same poem! 
"Then out spake brave Horatius,    The Captain of the gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
    Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
    Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
    And the temples of his Gods
Horatius,’ quoth the Consul,
    ‘As thou sayest, so let it be.’
And straight against that great array
    Forth went the dauntless Three.
For Romans in Rome’s quarrel
    Spared neither land nor gold,
Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,
    In the brave days of old.
Then none was for a party;
    Then all were for the state;

Then the great man helped the poor,
    And the poor man loved the great:
Then lands were fairly portioned;
    Then spoils were fairly sold:
The Romans were like brothers
    In the brave days of old."

Truly great politicians (Churchill and Attlee) are such because they put in times of crisis national interest above party politics. They rise above petty party squabbles and unite, not divide, their fellow countrymen and women. Where are their equivalents today? Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees-Mogg? O Tempora! O Mores! 

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2. Churchill was not (despite attempts by writers to make it so) a Christian. Ironically, it was Halifax who was the believer. If there is a God, who sustains every atom in the universe and orders them all, then his plans are far beyond our understanding. God says in the bible (Isaiah 55) “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth,so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
Churchill would rather have called himself a "buttress" of the church - supporting it from the outside. What I would call God he called destiny or providence.  About 1940, he later wrote "I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial... I thought I knew a good deal about it all, I was sure I should not fail.". Can human free choice and Divine destiny really co-exist? I leave the last words with the great man:-  " Which brings me to my conclusion upon Free Will and Predestination, namely - let the reader mark it - that they are identical"
Categories: Friends

More thoughts on leadership from the bible

Sun, 28/01/2018 - 18:46

I am very grateful to CARE for allowing me to talk about leadership and for the poor men and women who had to sit and listen to me and not only stayed awake but made great contributions. 

You can read some of my thoughts last time I spoke at CARE here
this time I (of course) rehashed some of the old thoughts but also developed some new ones

The bible has a great deal to say about leadership. It uses amongst other things the model of "Prophet Priest and King" to talk about leadership. In summary, a prophet speaks God's word (e.g. Elijah) a priest intermediates between God and His people (e.g. Moses) and a King leads and rules (e.g. David)

This has been seized upon (inevitably) by our American friends who have even given it a name  "triperspectivalism" (groan) and it has generated numerous books and even been subjected rightly to some good humoured satire

The mistake is to 

a) make it some kind of Christian Myers/Briggs test 
b) assume its only about church leaders or even worse only about male church leaders (no Queens eh?) 
c) telling every leader that they try and be or should see if they are, P, P or K

The whole point of the model is precisely the opposite of what many people have said - that none of us by nature can fill even one of the models, let alone all three.

If we look at the three great OT characters I named above, each of them had a critical weakness which was closely allied to their core strength. 

Elijah was tremendously courageous in speaking God's word, for example when he stood alone against the 850 Prophets of Baal and Asherah (1 Kings 18). He called down fire from Yahweh which burned up the sacrifice, vindicating Elijah and His God. Yet then he runs away in terror to the desert and wants to die, as he fears he is the only prophet left. His courage has led to despair. God meets him in a "still small voice" and tells him he's wrong. there are 7000 who haven't bowed the knee to Baal. he tells Elijah to get back to work and especially prepare to hand over his work to his successor, Elisha. 

Moses is a marvellous example of a priest - an intermediary between God and the people of Israel. He was from the priestly tribe of Levi and we know from Psalm 99 that he was a priest as well as a prophet.  On Sinai (Exodus 32) when the people of Israel were worshipping the golden calf Moses steps in and persuades God not to destroy them. Yet, this amazing ability to interpose himself between God and people could go wrong. For in Numbers 20 Moses disobeys God and strikes the rock to bring out water. He takes it upon himself to do something that is God's work. God punishes him by telling him for his disobedience he will not enter the promised land. Joshua his assistant leads the people into Canaan. 

David is the great King who after the failure of the first King Saul, creates the archetypal Jewish kingdom. He leads his armies to great victory and rules with authority. Yet he misuses that same authority and kingly position to steal another man (Uriah)'s wife and even worse to murder him to cover up his tracks (2 Samuel 11 and 12). As a result the son born from the affair dies and David is publicly humiliated by his own son Absalom. David cannot build the temple, which is reserved for his successor, Solomon. 

Each person in their "core capability" fell. Each persons work was only fulfilled by their successor. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't learn from them as examples but means we look through them to the ultimate leader.  The only person who can even do one of these jobs perfectly, is Jesus Christ. He alone can be all three - a perfect Prophet (see the book of John), Priest (see the book of Hebrews) and King (see the book of Matthew). Each of the three was anointed with oil and of course Messiah means "Anointed one" who was to alone hold all three offices. In fact, it was expressly forbidden (separation of powers) to combine all three - especially those of King and Priest. King Uzziah usurped the priests and was struck down by God with leprosy as a punishment (2 Chron 26). It was the prophet Nathan who spoke truth to the King David - "You are the man" he courageously told him when he confronted him about the murder of Uriah. 

So what are the implications for Christian leadership?

1. Christ is a completely different type of leader to anyone else. See previous blog. 'My ways are not your ways' says God. Christian leaders should be and feel very different to secular ones.  

2. To be a great leader don't think for example  "Am I a King?" (yes, right, thats really good for our humility). We are called to think little of ourselves (trust me, thats a challenge for me and all of us!) We are to become more like Christ, model ourself on Him, read about Him, talk to Him, love Him, obey Him, be changed by the Holy Spirit towards Him and be united with Him. Christ calls us to be a completely different type of leader - the Servant (or slave) King who is here to serve. 

3. Our greatest strength tends to be closely allied to our weakness. Elijah's courage led to despair, Moses intercession led to presumption, Davids rule led to abuse. Being aware of our weakness also means that for one of the three biblical roles we will typically especially struggle. For example, sometimes great preachers are not so great at pastoral intercession. Certainly many pastors and vicars who are terrific speakers didn't miss an alternative career in administration :). And so on.

4. Because we are all flawed checks and balances are good. Wise were the drafters of the American constitution to separate powers - also interestingly three ways (President, Congress and Supreme Court). The founding fathers had a variety of religious convictions, but even the least "religious" of them Benjamin Franklin said "I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth - that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?" Do Christian organisations model the separation of powers? I fear sometimes not. It's good to have strong leaders but ask them "To whom are you accountable?" Friends, if the answer is 'God alone' then you have a problem! Trustees and elders shouldn't rule over their pastors CEOs and founders but they are called (also legally) to hold them accountable. Some Christian organisations have opaque or weak collective leadership and governance. (I know it can be the other way round too sometimes - where pastors for example are sabotaged by their own eldership - if the devil can't drive us into the ditch he will make us hit the crash barrier) 

5. Because all human leadership is flawed, collective leadership is good and biblical. Paul tells Titus to appoint elders plural in every town. In business and especially in accounting we talk about "the four eyes principle" i.e. two people checking things, especially money. Four eyes is a good principle in churches and Christian organisations too. 

6. Because all human leadership is flawed, small organisations are inherently likely to be better because they are more manageable and human in scale. Jesus only had 12 disciples - who with some help from others such as Paul changed the world.  "Small is beautiful". Small is also good in terms of accountability. A ministerial friend of one of my heroes, the 18C Scottish preacher Thomas Boston, complained to him about the small size of his congregation."You'll find that more than enough to give an answer for on the Day of Judgement" came the acerbic reply from Boston. 

7. This leadership model is applicable to everyone. Yes, that includes both men and women - see Acts 2 "Even on my servants, both men and women,I will pour out my Spirit in those days,and they will prophesy." There are plenty of female Christian leaders today and i am very grateful for them. For example OCCA has a number of great apologists - some might even call them 'prophetesses':). I distinguish here on gender roles between Christian leadership (sacred or secular) and specific leadership roles in churches. Which is why I dont agree with John Piper on women in seminaries. Seminaries precisely aren't churches. This amusing satirical article from the wonderful 'Babylon Bee' shows what happens if we get general leadership and church officer roles muddled and try and generalise from specific teaching about church offices to society as a whole.

We are all called to model ourselves on Christ and each of us may show leadership within the spheres to which God has assigned us and given us the call to lead. " A leader is someone who has followers". The qualification for specific officers of the church such as elders and deacons are clearly set out in the NT. This is of course itself a rather burning topic. I could go on, but I won't. This blog is long enough already and its time to stop. 

May we become more like the Lord and show His model of servant leadership as best we can.

Categories: Friends

Book Review "City Lives" by Marcus Nodder (10 of those, Jan 2018)

Tue, 23/01/2018 - 18:15

Reviewing this book has been a huge effort for me as by nature I am a retiring shy type who likes to avoid the spotlight and delights in being self effacing....well perhaps not...

Yes, I am afraid that one of the chapters in the book is about me, and tells in a few pages (you will be relieved to hear) my life story: my bible smuggling youth behind the Iron Curtain, my career in private banking and especially the last few years trying to deal with cancer. If you want to know what its like to be me and told you have incurable cancer and will likely be dead in 18 months (cheery thought but as it turned out too pessimistic!) then read on.

But dont worry, there are 13 other chapters which are much more enjoyable! Written by Marcus Nodder, the vicar of London's only floating church, St Peter's Barge at Canary Wharf, each one tells in a few pages the inside story of a Christian living and working in a regular job. A huge range of jobs and professions are covered. So we have another banker (yes, I know, one is quite enough), a hedge fund manager and an insurance executive, but also a footballer, an opera singer, a soldier, a judge, an Oxford professor, a Paralympian, a TV "Bake Off' star and lots more. One or two stories, such as Jonathan Aitken are relatively well known, but most of the biographies will be new to most readers. Each one is well told, personal and revealing. Each person has had their life transformed for the good by an encounter with Jesus Christ. Marcus could have had an alternative career as a journalist, so skilfully does he tell each individuals story.

If you have even a little curiosity as to why people are Christians when society in the UK has moved so far in the opposite direction, this is a great book to read.  Each person's life story stands by itself and each tells their own story of the reasons why they came to faith in Jesus Christ. Everyone is different. Some people experienced a dramatic "Road to Damascus" experience such as Mike Farmer, a noted hedge fund manager who had no Christian contact at all and had what can only be described as a vision in the middle of the night. He saw the words "Jesus Christ is the Son of God" written in the dark in his bedroom. Most people though came to faith via Christian friends who shared their faith with them. A few came to belief like me from a strong Christian family, others like my friend Akeel Sachak were from a Muslim background, most were good old English atheists or agnostics. 

One of the most important messages in the book is that Christians are absolutely not good people who think they are better than everyone else. Nor are we preaching moralism "try harder, be better". We are rather like people who have discovered a cure for cancer and want to share it. As one of these dreadful bankers says " the message about Jesus is not for good people but for bad people...a Christian is someone who has recognised they are sick and need a doctor, spiritually speaking." The good doctor is of course Jesus Christ and if you want to understand what he means to me and others, this is the place to start. The book also gives the lie to the claim that only oddballs and failures need the crutch of faith (well, 13 of them seem fairly normal, anyway). It additionally will dispel any illusion that being a Christian is some kind of passport to health, wealth and happiness - looking at the topics covered we have not only cancer, but also losing your lower limb in boating accidents, alcoholics at deaths door pulling the wool over their doctors eyes, convicted criminals going to jail and fearing for their life when they hear what their fellow prisoners are shouting and much more.

For the Christian, this book, especially at the incredibly attractive price being offered by the excellent publishers, is a great one to give away to your friends. In particular this is because Marcus has looked at the reason why each person came to faith, their pathway to belief. If you want to present your friends with the arguments for why the resurrection actually happened, why science has not disproved God but rather points to him, why a good God allows suffering and evil, they are all here. Personally, and I realise I am biased, I think thats a particularly readable format.

Categories: Friends

Book Review; Ulysses S Grant by Ron Chernow (Head of Zeus, Nov 2017)

Sun, 21/01/2018 - 11:33

Ron Chernow’s new and monumental (i.e., very long) biography of Grant is a fascinating read of one of the greatest of all Americans, a man often overlooked and unfairly maligned both in his lifetime and since. I have always admired Grant but discovered though this book a whole new side to his greatness and especially to his leadership capabilities. Chernow is explicit in his attempts to rehabilitate Grant and restore his reputation. With some qualifications he achieves his goal. But perhaps the biggest impression — having like some weary soldier at the end of an epic Civil War battle, made it to the end — is the sheer power of Grant’s life story. Born in very humble circumstances in the mid West, the son of a tanner, he attended West Point and performed well in the Mexican-American War of 1846-8. But that was about it on the positive side. Negatively, his army career went from bad to worse, he was slovenly, depressed and above all acquired a reputation as a terrible drinker. He was miserable as he was separated from his family by thousands of miles. Most of his own family (though not his fiercely loyal wife) looked down on him, especially his wife's wealthy Southern landowning father. Finally, he left the Army in mysterious circumstances and tried to make a career in business. Here he was even less successful, several business ventures flopped and eventually he was reduced to taking a lowly role as a clerk in his father's leather goods store in Galena Illinois, which was where he was, toiling in disgrace and obscurity on the outbreak of war.
War changes many things but rarely (maybe Cromwell would be another?) has there been such a transformation in one individuals fortunes caused by conflict. Within four years he was the commander of all the US forces in the field and accepting the surrender of Robert E Lee. Skip forward another few years and he was the only consecutive two term President between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson - so around 100 years. Chernow traces his rise to greatness through the preliminary skirmishes of the Civil War, the bold captures of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson and above all, the bloody and hard fought victory in what was at that time the biggest battle on American soil ever, Shiloh. Here on the - disastrous for the Union- first day the Rebels caught the Federals napping and hurled them back almost into the Mississippi.  Later, all kinds of stories were told about Grant including (falsely) that he was in an alcoholic stupor, but in fact the battle was won by a key element in Grant’s success — his steady refusal to admit defeat. After this first day, which had seen the Union army teeter on the brink of defeat, Sherman (who was later to form what has been called the greatest partnership in US military history with Grant) came to him and said “Well, … we’ve had the devil’s own day of it, haven’t we?” "Yes," came the reply from Grant. “Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.” Grant survived this and other setbacks due to the unflagging backing of a man he had never met - Lincoln. It was Lincoln who eventually gave him total command. Grant repaid that loyalty unflinchingly, only narrowly escaping Lincoln's assassination because his wife and Mrs Lincoln didn't get on, so Grant had declined the invitation to attend the fateful performance of “Our American Cousin” at Fords Theatre. 
But Grant wasn't simply stubborn and resolute. Plenty of generals have been that and their troops have often paid a heavy price. Grant has acquired unfairly a reputation as a butcher, who threw his men unthinkingly into battle to be chewed up by the entrenched Confederates. While this did happen, notably at Cold Harbor towards the war's end, Chernow argues that Grant was a skilled strategist who was often willing to try the unconventional and who for example out thought Lee in his overall 1864/5 campaigning strategy.  No better example exists of this than the earlier Vicksburg campaign. Vicksburg held a seemingly impregnable position overlooking the Missisippi and was the last piece holding the two halves of the Confederacy together. Grant managed eventually both to wear down and out think his opponents, by using innovative tactics and clever engineering. On the same day as Gettysburg, Vicksburg eventually fell and the South was permanently and fatally divided in two. Chernow highlights the differences between Grant and Lee: Lee was without peer on the individual battlefield while Grant, though by no means a poor battlefield commander, excelled at the strategic big picture. In particular his use of Sherman to cut a swathe through Georgia to the sea left Lee isolated and even though the final campaign ended in stalemate around Richmond, Grant’s concept of total war starved the Confederacy of men and supplies and led to their eventual capitulation.
While I felt Chernow was excellent in recovering the reputation of Grant the General, I was not wholly persuaded by his attempt to do the same for Grant the President. He makes an excellent case for Grant’s overlooked support for African Americans in pursuing Reconstruction in the teeth of both northern war weariness and southern resistance. Post war Reconstruction aimed to give African Americans full civil and legal rights in the southern states. Grant more than anyone tried to make it succeed and its eventual failure was despite his valiant efforts. The pernicious legacy of that failure were the “Jim Crow” laws and the sad history of racial division and intolerance which persists to this day, despite valiant Republican efforts at the time. (We tend to forget that the Republicans were the party of civil rights and protection for blacks, while it was the Democrats who sought ferociously to restrict or undermine them). The great black leader Frederick Douglas said “the liberty which Lincoln declared with his pen Grant made effectual with his sword.” At the same time Grant was a wonderful reconciler of North and South, being widely respected by the Confederate soldiers for his magnanimous gestures, such as his treatment of Lee at Appomattox  At Grant’s funeral, grizzled veterans of Jackson’s fabled Stonewall Brigade marched proudly alongside Union columns. The famous Confederate general, General Joseph E Johnston acted as a pallbearer. A few years later he did the same, bareheaded, at the funeral of another great reconciler, Sherman. When others remonstrated with him, Johnston said “If I were in his place and he in mine, he would not put on his hat”. He was dead five weeks later. 
However, Chernow is less than convincing in his attempts to rehabilitate Grant’s presidency. Although Grant himself was honest, he was bedazzled by money (sounds familiar regarding a certain recent UK Prime Minister)? and surrounded himself with corrupt politicians who proceeded to enrich themselves at the expense of the government. Grant had a fundamental naivety when it came to judging civilians character — most unlike his military career where he had been ruthless in dismissing political generals who owed their appointment to nepotism. Chernow does his best to defend his hero but is forced to admit that the greatest mystery of Grant’s presidency is how “ his upright man tolerated..the arrant rascals around him”. That same naivety was to return to haunt Grant in retirement where he entrusted his savings and his name to a fraudster, Frederick Ward. In one of the greatest con tricks of all time, Ward bamboozled Grants son ‘Buck'  first and then the father himself. Ward had developed a giant Ponzi scheme and proceeded to embezzle all of Grants money and those of many of his army colleagues and friends. Ashamed and penniless Grant was then afflicted by terrible and fatal cancer of the throat. Yet a measure of the man and his greatness was that he then (to make some money and help his family) produced one of the most extraordinary autobiographies ever written, his “Memoirs”. The dying Grant dictated at great pain his detailed autobiography, guided by Mark Twain. 
The other topic that Chernow tackles is alcohol. Grant had a tempestuous relationship with the bottle. He certainly went though long periods, especially at times of great importance, when he was on the wagon. But then once the moment passed and he relaxed,  he fell off with great severity. His devoted officers and family on the whole managed to cover his drinking up and there is no evidence either that it ever affected his decision making. On the contrary as (sadly probably apocryphally) attributed to Lincoln "When someone charged Gen. Grant, in the President’s hearing, with drinking too much liquor, Mr. Lincoln, recalling Gen. Grant’s successes, said that if he could find out what brand of whisky Grant drank, he would send a barrel of it to all the other commanders.”
Chernow's biography is monumental, vast in scope, too long even for a voracious reader such as myself, scrupulously fair and certainly deserves its place amongst the greatest of Presidential biographies. 
Grant is a fascinating study in leadership. He was fundamentally a solitary man — nicknamed “The Sphinx” for good reason. He stands uniquely amongst his peers in the American pantheon for as Chernow observes “Grant brooded no vast dreams, harboured no spacious vision and would have settled for a contented small town life". Perhaps only Harry Truman, another greatly underrated President who was also from a poor Mid Western background and who also came to power by chance, had a similar personality. Grant was thrust into greatness by the fortunes of a bloody war: he led the Union to victory not merely by his military skills, but much more by his constancy of purpose, his stillness under fire and by above all the clarity of his thinking and decision making.  Several of his classmates recognised this strength of character, , one saying at West Point “ If a great emergency arises in this country…Sam Grant will be the man to meet it.” The other person to recognise his inner steel very early on was his devoted wife, Julia. When Grant was at his lowest ebb pre war she told her slave owning relatives, who despised Grant, that she had dreamed the last night he was President; to which they all laughed uncontrollably.
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While his Presidency was marred by corruption, it is safe to say that he ranks in war and peace somewhere in the pantheon of great Americans - Washington, Jefferson, FDR - and perhaps only below the man who in my opinion is the greatest American of all, the man who made Grant great - Abraham Lincoln. 
Categories: Friends

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt (Bodley Head, Sept 2017)

Wed, 10/01/2018 - 21:02

This is not a book about Darwin and creationism, nor is it a theological treatise. The author as far as I can tell is a Jewish atheist who doesn’t believe in the literal truth of the story. Everyone, whether devout follower of the blessed Dawkins or convinced monotheist, will find lots to disagree with. 
Most importantly, Greenblatt is trying to reclaim and make important again what is without doubt the most influential myth in human history (and remember, myths can be true, in various senses of the word). So in summary, this fascinating book is an absolutely compelling and highly original discourse on the story of Adam and Eve, it’s impact, it’s treatment by thinkers and believers and non believers down the ages. Additionally, in fact perhaps most of all, it is an analysis of why the story has been so extraordinarily powerful and influential. It’s a story shared by the main three monotheistic religions, though each has their own take on it. Muslims for example focus not so much on Adams sinfulness (as Christians do), but on Adam as the first prophet. Some Muslim commentators believe that the form the tempter took was not a serpent but a beautiful camel with “eyes like the planets Venus and Jupiter and an aroma like musk blended with ambergris”. It is also worth noting that many of the words most closely associated with the story don’t actually occur in it - “sin” “fall” “devil” “Satan” and most surprisingly perhaps to many readers “apple”.
From the beginning, what is a tiny part (about a page or so) of a vast bible  has always attracted both devotees and curiosity. Talking snakes? What kind of God would forbid his creatures to know the difference between good and evil?  All these and more perplex Greenblatt, though in fact that’s not exactly what God does forbid in the story. He traces how the story evolved over time. From its earliest days it marked the uniqueness of being human - of trying to understand how things came to be the way they are. 
As a Jew, Greenblatt starts by trying to understand why the Torah begins there and not in chapter 12 of Genesis  with Abraham.   Because, argues the author, Jews were refusing the divinities of surrounding peoples, abjuring their worship and rejecting their accounts. They were also claiming that Yahweh was speaking not only to them, but in fact to everyone. Yahweh was a universal God with a universal message. Yet this claim appeared laughable as the Jews staggered from one disaster to another, enslaved, exiled and marginalised. But then Christians as Greenblatt points out subsequently took this strange argument to a whole different level - that not only were His chosen people beaten and spat upon and enslaved but that happened to God himself in human form and that “miserable fate was precisely proof of his fulfillment of the designs of the omnipotent God.” Therefore in order for the Jews to claim universal resonance, the story could not begin with Abraham but had to begin at the beginning - with Adam And Eve.
Next, he traces how by the early modern period there was a concerted attempt to make the story 'live', most memorably in the famous poem “Paradise Lost” by the blind English Republican John Milton. Like many writers and artists before and since his personal tragedy drew him back again to this story. The problem after that was that the more Adam and Eve were made “real”, even given a “back story” as Hollywood  might say, the more sceptical Enlightenment thinkers became. Today, as with Mark Twain, Adam and Eve have become mainly a joke or an object of ridicule. Greenblatt doesn’t allow this to stand and keeps redirecting our attention back to the transcendent  power of the story and asking the question “why is this story so powerful”? 
Space doesn’t allow me to cover each twist and turn of the treatment of Adam and Eve. As you would expect some of the angles are more interesting than others but none are dull, all reveal a lot about the story and about their age. For example in ancient times Greenblatt points out that the strangeness of the story, it’s radical character is seen most of all in the fact that it’s a man and a woman (most creation myths were two men) and even more striking that the relationship is one of equals not something hierarchical. “Life was unfinished before the woman but now it’s is complete. “ 
Which makes  Augustine’s role all the more important. Augustine of Hippo argue many writers is by far the most important non biblical Christian thinker -  in fact it is not exaggerating to say that much of Christianity since (notably the Reformation ) is a development of his thought. Greenblatt points out how many different views there were pre Augustine amongst the church fathers about Adam and Eve. Augustine it’s fair to say was extremely keen on the story, in fact he spent a large part of his life thinking about it and writing on it. It is to him, suggests Greenblatt, that our world owes the prominent place which Adam and Eve came to occupy. To understand what he then did with the story you must read the book, but a short summary is that while Augustine saw the difficulties of blaming one act of sin for everything else, the alternative was far worse - that human suffering was a matter of complete divine indifference (or non existence the modern day sceptic might say). Such was the crux of the issue- “originale peccatum” or original sin
Augustine subsequently went further, and unhelpfully argued that not only was sin all pervasive but that all sex was inherently sinful, even that between husband and wife. And from that Augustine’s successors began to teach that women were inherently more sinful and dangerous than men - whereas in fact the Christian bible focuses the finger of blame on Adam, not Eve. 
In conclusion, Greenblatt says “the story speaks to all of us, it addresses who we are where we came from why we love and why we captures the strange way our species treats work sex and death as objects of speculation, as if they were contingent on something we have done, as if it  could all have been otherwise “ and “humanity didn’t have to turn out to be the way that it is now: it could have all been very conveys a longing to be other than what we have become.” 
Whether or not you believe that there was a real Adam and Eve, that longing for something better, for something else, for a rescue from the mess of the human condition, remains very powerful. It is indeed a most strange and hard to understand story, perhaps the strangest and most perplexing in a book full of strange and paradoxical stories. But it still speaks to us, as Greenblatt argues, with transcendent power. It is above all, he suggests, a story of choice and the consequences of choice, of a broken communion with the divine and (for Christians anyway) the first faint sound of a very distant voice which would offer a way back into the garden. It is a story that has defined what it means to be human more than any other. You simply can’t understand the human condition without at the least thinking about what the story of Adam and Eve means and why it has been so influential. This excellent and thought provoking book is a very good place for the thoughtful person of whatever belief or none  to start thinking. p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Helvetica; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Helvetica; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 14.0px} span.s1 {font-kerning: none}

Categories: Friends

The Church and British culture 2018: John Stevens "Knowing the Times" reviewed

Wed, 03/01/2018 - 17:13

John Stevens superb new booklet 'Knowing our Times' seems a good place to start some New Year thinking  for the church in England (as opposed to the Church of England). 
John leads the FIEC (Federation of Independent Evangelical Churches) which is a federation of around 600 independent evangelical churches and he has I think a particularly good insight (some might even call it prophetic) into what is happening in churches in general. 
His booklet which is relatively short and highly readable, makes the points below. I was particularly struck and very pleased to see that his findings were supported by some empirical research amongst churches about what is happening. More research and data please Christian peeps - we have tons of information available but dont seem very willing to analyse it. Part of "knowing the times" is to know whats happening.

 I think every thinking Christian should read it (its only 55 pages) as its a superb and insightful piece of work.

Here are his main points (the numbering and the summary is mine, apologies to John if I get any of them wrong):-
  1. We live in the "Last days" as defined biblically — between the first and second coming of Jesus.
  2. If we look at the pattern for the church in Acts, we shouldn't be surprised by opposition both within and without the church
  3. In Acts, the same gospel is preached and shared in different places — but with very different results. The same is true today throughout the world. While we might wish we lived in places where the Christian faith is growing rapidly — like Africa, Asia and even parts of the Middle East, we dont.  
  4. The UK is not a Christian nation and indeed has it ever been? Or has any such nation ever existed? Wide-scale collapse of Christian faith is unfortunately a meaningful reality for majority of British population 
  5. While many political and legal changes have been for the worse in the last 50 years,  some have been for the better e.g. tackling racism and systematic discrimination against women 
  6. Contemporary social and political context is a direct result of the collapse of Christian belief rather than the other way round. A William Wilberforce quote is particularly helpful “But fruitless will be all attempts to sustain, much more to revive, the fainting cause of morals, unless you can to some degree restore the prevalence of evangelical Christianity."
  7. We live as aliens in a hostile territory. The zeitgeist is individualism, hedonism and libertarianism, together with the wholesale collapse of sexual morality. We cannot set the agenda unlike during the Reformation. For most people Christianity is at best irrelevant, at worst evil. 
  8. The church situation is dire. Liberalism is dying it cannot propagate itself — in fact it regards propagation as inherently wrong — so to continue is it has to get defectors from orthodoxy.  Recent "new" or "milder" liberalism is more dangerous to belief. For example, rather than a wholesale denial of Christian belief — the infamous “conjuring trick with bones” we now have this replaced by “scholarship” which argues for example that the resurrection is "spiritual". John says “ contemporary liberalism claims to take scripture seriously...while simultaneously denying what it has always been taught to teach”
  9. "Inclusivity" distorts Jesus message which was to go to the outcasts and despised certainly (something evangelicals have often been poor at)  but also to call them to repentance. The early church accepted people as Christians on basis of profession of faith/baptism and repentance of sin ( a daily activity for most of us!)
  10. So far so bad, but more positively against a backdrop of church collapse evangelicals have not grown but haven't shrunk either. "Evangelicalism' has not declined but has remained stable, unlike the rest of the church. Some particular parts of the very diverse evangelical world, such as HTB and BME churches are fast growing. 
  11. Within evangelicalism theological conflicts are today mainly around the character of God. Large swathes of evangelicalism don't believe in (I might say rather "down play") Gods righteous anger towards sin. The Same Sex Marriage issue, like indulgences 500 years ago, is the presenting issue of the day which will force each and every minister and church to decide where they stand 
  12. Wales and Scotland strangely given historical strength are even worse than England - church collapse has been faster. 
  13. Church plants "still grow predominantly by transfer growth" (from other churches) but have a higher than average conversion rate. (I am not convinced by the transfer growth argument, which rudely is called "sheep stealing", above all I am not convinced of this in areas where there are hardly any bible teaching churches, but thats a topic for another blog)
  14. Conversions are not evenly distributed: students and ethnic minorities offer fantastic opportunities: paradoxically the very rich and the very poor are the most open the average white person the least. City centre student churches are thriving. We may train people and then lose them to other churches. And thats OK. 
  15. We face a major pastoral challenge because of peoples backgrounds — is the church equipped to handle this? The typical person coming to faith, writes John, will have had several partners, will likely be cohabiting and may in future have been in a same sex marriage or had gender re-assignment. “Many churches are simply not equipped and prepared to welcome people whose lifestyle and experience has deviated so far from the Christian norm”  How to disciple and help them? (I consider this further below)
  16. We have to understand the culture we are in. Many sociological  and demographic factors are neither positive or negative, “we need to recognise just how cultural or understandings of church mission and ministry often are reflecting the patterns of a bygone age”. What works for the middle class doesn’t work with working class  Churches in less reached poorer areas won’t be self sustaining: we need to give generously. (I consider this further below) 
  17. No magic bullet exists: we are called to be faithful and do what is commanded by God for its own sake not for “success”. In the wider world the gospel is advancing but not in our country. John says  “The gospel does not change and it remains the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. We need to preach this unchanging gospel in appropriately contextualised ways and to seek and save the lost just as Jesus did. This will be hard work.”
  18. We need to be faithful and pray for help and keep on keeping on.
  19. We need all types of church for different contexts. But that these different types of church need to mutually support each other 
  20. England needs re evangelising not revival. There are lessons from the early church in C1. There was to start with no gospel penetration at all in the west or north of Roman Empire. Even in the East there were few believers and they were despised by wider society. The believers both refused to compromise and kept loving and caring for the people around them. The church grew steadily despite at times fierce persecution for 300 years. 

I agree with John's booklet and I think his analysis is correct. I especially like the fact that he thinks broadly across the nation, society, culture and the church as a whole. Though his job is to represent (an important) strand of non conformist evangelicalism, he does not bang a partisan drum but looks at the big picture. As he says, the culture is what it is: the Essence of the Christian faith remains the same but the way it is communicated across different cultures will always be different - as in Acts. 
 I would add some points of my own, focusing especially on some suggestions of "what is to be done". 
1. Fight Discouragement and encourage your pastor
The biggest enemy we face is General Defeatism or his second in command Colonel Cynicism. We need to fight discouragement. Feeling discouraged is a relatively natural reflex, especially if you are the minister of a church which is not in a big thriving, student influenced town. My father who was nearly 50 years in the same (independent evangelical) church in a new town near London (perhaps the epitome of "average England") often felt discouraged and depressed. He would say (in public) something like "people come into my church and I can see them thinking 'You've been here 30 or 40 years and thats all the congregation you've got?'" Someone once said to him "Did you ever feel like resigning" to which he said "Yes, once a month for 25 years". Its tough being a pastor. So, dear church member, do your best to encourage and help your pastor or church worker. He or she like all of us will have flaws and weaknesses, but it is a lonely and at times depressing job. Do your best to say a word of encouragement, give 10 praises for every 1 criticism and and if criticism is needed (and it may be sometimes ) make it warm and constructive and give it 1 on 1, face to face. My friend Paul Levy has written an excellent blog on how (not) to encourage your pastor which you can read here.

2. Better days will come
The church overall in England is in retreat and has been for most of the last 100 years. We wish it were not so but we have to be honest (which John is)
The question is will it be a managed retreat or a rout? If we look at military history there is great value and indeed skill in a managed retreat. The movie "Dunkirk" which I enjoyed greatly in 2017, reminded us of this. The British Army could have been completely cut off at Dunkirk but by the narrowest of margins it escaped.  No army and Britain would have had to reach an accommodation with Hitler. Had they done so  the world would be a very different and much worse place. The biggest factor was that unlike the French Army in 1940, the British Army though poorly equipped and out numbered,  had not lost the will to fight — though its political leadership came close to doing that a few weeks earlier when Neville Chamberlain was nearly replaced by the appeaser Lord Halifax. The Army and the nation 'lived to fight another day'. Just over 5 years later the boot was on the other foot with D Day. 

So, "living to fight another day" is surely our job now. Better days will come. They will take more than 5 years - I would guess humanly speaking more like 50-75 so outside the lifetime of all but they youngest readers of this - but come they will. In the long run the cause of Christ will triumph. In fact, we are not in 1940 but in 1944 as 'Gods invasion' of the evil empire has already occurred: his "landing craft' arrived 2000 years ago. But as the Allies found out the Nazis were perfectly capable of inflicting huge casualties on the Allies and just because eventual victory is certain doesn't mean all kinds of losses and painful defeats may not occur en route to the end.  
3. Evangelism is the highest priority
As John stresses and I couldn't agree more, evangelism and how to do it must be our greatest challenge. John thinks that friendship evangelism is less effective, with people having a different friendship nexus than in the past, not least due to social media. I am not sure that’s the whole picture: rather that our friends may not be our near neighbours but people we work with or shared interest groups. Personally I continue to be so encouraged by 121 bible reading as a means of sharing my faith. I think given the barriers that have gown up to getting people into church for events, a much better and indeed more biblical route is to go where the people are and engage them in friendly dialogue. This means if needed getting away from insisting that they fit into our schedule ("there is a meeting at 730 next week, would you like to come?") and meeting with them 1 on 1 wherever and whenever they want. We may feel daunted by this and thats why we need to Gods Word to help us, such as John's gospel, because that has supernatural power to wake the dead which we dont have — we will put them further asleep by our own efforts!  
I am also strongly convinced that our evangelism tends to start much too far along and often assumes much to much knowledge. We can jump straight into concepts like the atonement (which is of course very important to get to — in time) without getting to the basics first of who Jesus actually was and what happened to him. First priority is that Jesus was a real historical person and that we have reliable eyewitness accounts of his life. In other words, start with a gospel like John then Acts then Romans, not vice versa. 
4. Mobilise everyone
One notable feature of 1940 was that the government, led by the oratory and impulse of Churchill, succeeded in mobilising a larger number of ordinary people in a common cause. I suggest that this is important today as well — its neither biblical or fair to put all the pressure on the pastor or the church worker. We need to mobilise women in particular and we can also do that within a complementarian model. I sometimes think we are so paralysed by this issue that we ignore completely the fact that women can provide very effective leadership. Many of the most effective para church organisations are run by women. Women as public advocates for the Christian faith for example have an obvious and massive advantage over men. They are precisely not what the world expects. They expect a middle aged man from a middle class background (someone like me!)  The same is true of course for people from a working class background or from BME etc. Graham Miller of London City Mission and others are doing a great job here in terms of training up people for leadership from "less conventional" backgrounds. Churches - what are you doing to train and develop the many talented women (or minorities or working class men and women) who want to contribute and provide leadership? Are we fighting with (more than half) of our troops not provided with "training and arms"? Again this is not hinting that we should change our theology of the role of the pastor (including the complementarian angle)  but simply suggesting that the pastor is best employed as the person serving and mobilising the whole congregation rather than having to do everything themselves. 
5. Getting alongside people as they progress through stages of faith
John mentions that we need to be better equipped to deal with "Stages of faith" and that churches are going to have people on that process whose lifestyles are at huge variance to traditional Christian norms. John gives various examples of this which are spot on. I think John is absolutely right that the church is often not well equipped to help such people through the "stages of faith", where God is at work and to think through what this means for their lifestyle as their beliefs change over time. This may take some considerable time and mean a lot of love and effort. We need to get alongside such people and help them along towards Christ. Not everyone is at the same stage. People are going to arrive at church with huge messes in their lives. Indeed long standing Christians may have messes also and be afraid to talk about them. This means that for pastor and church member alike personal/pastoral work is very important. Life is often messy and we need to get off our horses at times and get down and involved in the mess. It concerns me that some (though by no means all) pastors may feel tempted to shy away from what the Puritans would have called "heart work". 

While the sermon is important to get right, its far from the only component of being a pastor or indeed a Christian. Our lives and our conversations are also 'sermons" for our friends. This is too much for the pastor alone and I feel it's a shame that the diaconate which historically has been used precisely for this role has fallen into relative disuse in some churches. Christian or biblical counselling has a very important role to play here and the training provided by organisations in this area like CWR and CCEF is of great use. 
6. Have we got the right organisation model?
 This can be of course a contentious issue and John does mention that in general co-operation is pretty good across historic fault lines (most notably Anglican and free church). But I wonder (at the risk of tackling a few sacred cows) if we are at risk of not having a good theory or practice of the local church? In many ways the stress on the local church is a very good thing and very biblical. Its also been necessary when many denominations have generally been hostile to evangelicalism. But if we look at Acts we can see that the local church has its limits - the Acts model is somewhat different I think to what we see today in evangelicalism, even allowing for the fact that most evangelicals dont think we have Apostles today.
For example, Roger Carswell in a thoughtful article in this months EN also pointed out that we may have think again about the effectiveness of parachurch organisations and how they fit in to the "model". There are certainly, as he argues, some activities that are better done on a pan church basis. The particular issue he writes passionately about is youth camps. read the article here see what you think. He says "It became an evangelical ‘mantra’ in the 1970s and 1980s to argue that ‘God’s way is the local church’ and to patronisingly criticise ‘para-church’ organisations. This contributed to the undermining of what were very effective evangelistic ministries."

On the other hand, David Robertson, who blogs brilliantly as the "Wee flea" here in his predictions for the New Year the exact opposite:  that the growth in parachurch organisations amounts to "atomization of the church, largely due to a willingness to accept the autonomous individualism of the West and an unwillingness to accept the Bible’s teaching about the centrality and importance of the Church, will continue in 2018 – unless the Lord brings renewal."
This is a big topic beyond the scope of this already much too long blog! I suspect both Roger and David have a point and will try and reconcile their comments in a different blog which will consider para church-local church relationships. 

In any case, I would argue that the most important  activity - one in which we need local churches and para church involvement -  is church planting and revitalisation in poorer areas. One of the biggest weaknesses of what we see today in British evangelicalism is that the resources - by which I mean both money and people - are focused on churches in wealthier areas. But what about churches which are struggling financially and in poorer areas of the country? People like Mez McConnell and Stephen Kneale who are in Scotland and Manchester respectively have written a lot about this and  I encourage you very much to read their blogs and also if you feel so minded see if you can help them or a church like them
They point out the issues around money for church planting in tough areas and also the related one of getting people from working class backgrounds trained and then developed in leadership. But surely wealthier churches have an urgent duty to help churches start to expand in areas where they will likely for many years not be self sustainable. How do we do this? I am emphatically not arguing for a new denomination but more cross church collaboration — and in fairness the FIEC has been leading the way on this.  But a lot more could be done. For example, why couldn't we "twin" established wealthy churches with newer ones in poorer areas - twinning because generosity is ultimately not about money most of all but relationships and mutual support. Wealthy Christians and wealthy churches it seems to me have this urgent God given duty to help develop the gospel in less well off areas.  And by doing this we will be blessed for "it is more blessed to give than receive". 

Whenever I go to Eastern Europe and visit (much poorer) Christians there I always feel i am being blessed much more by them than vice versa. 

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7. Prayer. 

The most important priority of all. As our individual prayers and as the prayer meeting goes, so the church. 
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