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Common myths and misunderstandings about sin: Part 2

Sun, 17/09/2017 - 13:43




Some more thoughts on sin continued from here
http://jsjmarshall.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/common-myths-and-misunderstanding-about.html
Myth 6 Christians are obsessed by sex
We can certainly give that impression! Though the bible has a lot to say about sex, it has even more to say in terms of number of comments about two other areas of sin — greed (number 2) and speech (number 1). For example:-
1. "The tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!"
2. "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.
3. Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body
Christians can come across as being obsessed by sex, but actually the bible is much more balanced. Its crucial to point out that each of the three activities above in the right place are good. God made everything good in the beginning. As I have argued, pace CS Lewis, the devil has no ability to create pleasure. He can only twist or distort God given pleasures by promoting them in the wrong way. Food and drink for example are God given, but can be misused for gluttony and drunkenness. Speech can be used for good — to help others in counselling for example. Money and possessions can be used for example to help others through charity. Sex is inherently good within marriage.  The purpose of sex is explained in a recent blog by Tim Challies — like everything created it's ultimately most of all to glorify God, who gives us pleasure because he is a loving Father who loves to give gives good gifts to his children
 https://www.challies.com/articles/whats-the-purpose-of-sex/?utm_content=buffer97c9a&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
The reason that the church has often viewed sex as sinful per se is rooted in the world that the early church from C1 to C3 lived in. This world was heavily influenced by Greek thinking that matter was inherently evil and the spirit inherently good. A specific version of this was an ancient religion called Manichaeism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manichaeism which taught for example that Jesus was not really human (because to be human would corrupt the divine). They also taught celibacy for the  few 'elect' though according to their opponents they actually encouraged it in their followers who were not part of the core group. 
Possibly the most influential Christian outside the bible was Augustine of Hippo. He grew up as a young man in Manichaeism and struggled with sex, famously asking God to "make me chaste — but not yet". Although Augustine eventually became a Christian he remained influenced by his upbringing. For example when a Christian he made several very strong 'anti sex" statements such that sexual desire was “a disease— a wound inflicted on nature through the treacherous counsel given by the devil—a vice of nature—a deformity—an evil that comes from the depravity of our nature which is vitiated by sin.” A historian explains more "(Augustine) taught that no man was born sinless, because, “No man is now born without concupiscence (i.e. sexual desire).” He said that “all descending from his [Adam’s] stock” are ‘infected… with the occult disease of his carnal concupiscence”.
On the other hand, Augustine taught that Christ alone was born sinless because Christ alone was born without sex and the desires involved, being born of a virgin. He said, “The virgin conceived without that sensual passion; on which account, he [Jesus] alone was born without sin, when he condescended to be born in the flesh.” Augustine was rightly accused of teaching, “Sexual impulse and the intercourse of married people were devised by the devil, and that therefore those who are born innocent are guilty, and that it is the work of the devil, not of God, that they are born of this diabolical intercourse. And this, without any ambiguity, is Manichaeism.”
Augustine, who was in many ways a towering figure in Christianity  had in this area an unfortunate impact, leading to celibacy to this day being mandatory for Roman Catholic priests  One of the many helpful insights of the Reformers was to go back to the bible on sex. The Song of Songs for example is a highly erotic love poem, though (wrongly) some Christians have tried to avoid it by teaching it's purely about Christ and the church. Apart from Jesus  most of the key figures in the NT were married, as far as we can tell. Peter - supposed wrongly by our Catholic friends to be the first Pope - certainly was because Jesus healed his mother in law. Nor did Mary remain a virgin, as the bible clearly tells us Jesus had brothers and sisters. 
The Reformers amongst many other things they taught which stripped away 1500 years of mistakes, were in the main very "pro sex" and you can read about this here 

http://www.salon.com/2015/05/30/martin_luthers_pro_sex_shocker_does_the_pope_set_up_laws_let_him_set_them_up_for_himself_and_keep_hands_off_my_liberty/
So just to take one example from Luther “Kiss and rekiss your wife,” he wrote. “Let her love and be loved. You are fortunate in having overcome, by an honourable marriage, that  celibacy in which one is a prey to devouring fires and to unclean ideas."
So sex, in its God given place, is good. This begs the question which you have all been waiting for "What is that place?" Well, Jesus taught very clearly on this. "But at the beginning of creation God “made them male and female”. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." 
Jesus clearly therefore teaches a) sex is good (thats what One flesh means) b) sex should be within marriage between one man and one woman. This means that sex outside marriage, polygamy and same sex marriage are wrong. On the last issue, you can read my views here http://jsjmarshall.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/sorry-eugene-thats-false-teaching.html
Myth 7 - Christians should never judge/Christians should be a Judge over others.
So what should Christians think or do about sin in other people? As I argued last time, we are all experts at detecting other peoples sin and very bad at seeing our own. Jesus taught about this using the humorous image on a man with a plank in his eye trying to remove a speck from his friends eye. 
My father used to say the verse "Judge not that you be not judged" is the most misunderstood verse in the bible. John Steven here in a very recent blog explains the difference between judging with a big J and judging with a little j. http://www.john-stevens.com/2017/09/religion-politics-jacob-rees-moggs.html
So the Christian should not be a judge with a big J. Thats God's function. The Christian is not in a place to be the Judge because he or he is sinful as well. We shouldn't be looking down on others because we are all in the same boat. Nor should we seek to legislate personal morality for those who are outside the church. As I explained before, Paul precisely tells us not to judge (big J) those who don't believe. Those who formally join the church as members (not those who come to church - the church, like a hospital is open to all) and through this submit themselves voluntarily to church discipline (especially taking communion). Here we cannot as Christians come and feed on Christ at his table while bringing with us our sins from which we have not and will not repent. 
But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't judge little J more generally in the sense of saying whats right and wrong, and as John Stevens so helpfully explains we are told to do precisely that. Therefore, the Christian should point out that sin exists and explain what it is.  Including sexual sin - but not being obsessed with it that we ignore other sins and not by positioning ourselves as inherently better than everyone else. 
Sometimes, the society around us will find that explanation of sin unobjectionable. If we judge that greed is bad, nobody will mind (except Gordon Gecko) and our friends of a left leaning inclination will love it. But on sex Christian teaching is profoundly "out of whack" with contemporary thinking. 
But Jesus warns us not to be embarrassed of his teaching "If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed? If anyone is ashamed of me and my message, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in his glory and in the glory of the Father and the holy angels."
Which is why we see most Church of England bishops eager (rightly) to speak out on greed but unwilling (or even worse setting out false teaching) to do the same on sex.  They are embarrassed about the bibles teaching. 
Ultimately, the world is a mess. All kinds of good and wonderful things, like sex, have been corrupted and twisted by the devil. Thats why the world is in the state its in. The good news is that God came in person to save us from that mess, by dying and returning from the dead. Jesus's very name means saviour from sins "And she (i.e. Mary) will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins". No sin, no need of a Saviour. But there is sin (most of all in our own hearts) which is why Jesus came. As Luther said "Jesus died not for sins but for sinners". Which is why there is wonderful hope for us all, if we trust in Him. 
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To be continued....
Categories: Friends

Common myths and misunderstandings about sin: Part 1

Sun, 10/09/2017 - 21:51


Possibly no single topic is more misunderstood than "sin". 
So I thought I would have a go at correcting some common misunderstandings about what the Christian faith has to say about it. 
Most people’s idea would be similar I think to Calvin Coolidge, the famously taciturn 30th president of the USA (1924-1928). Supposedly one day he came back from church and his wife asked him what the sermon was about “Sin" replied 'Silent Cal'. 
 “Well, what did the preacher have to say about it?" replied his wife 
"He was against it" answered the President
Or it might be something to do with the picture above which is a new cafe in Sevenoaks a few hundred yards from my house called "7 sins". So sin is about eating ice creams and milk shakes? 
What is "sin"? is an obvious question and one I shall try and answer throughout this piece. I have quite  few points to make so this is the first of series on sin — cheery thought!
Myth 1. “there is no such thing as “sin"/Guilt is wrong and dangerous/there are no moral absolutes"
This is very common idea. But dear friend, be careful if you are tempted (i use this word deliberately!) by this thought. People who have no sense of sin and feel no guilt are often called psychopaths. If there is no moral absolutes why not for example — to take a relatively trivial example — cheat at exams?  There have been various scandals in recent days where teachers at very prestigious public schools in the UK have fed their pupil the exam questions in advance. Outrage follows. But why feel outraged if there is no right or wrong? "It's not fair" is the answer. But what if I say “ Why should I care whats fair?” Or to take a much much worse example, mass murder. Pol Pot the dictator of Cambodia in the 1970s murdered around 40% of his fellow countrymen, many by being buried alive. Even after he fell from power he showed no remorse at all. But if there is no concept of right and wrong who are we to judge him? The very fact that we feel such moral outrage at evil and that something is ‘wrong’ shows that we have been given (by God) a moral compass. 
Now, many atheists I know are highly moral people and I fully accept that many atheists are in fact moral people, often more moral; than “Christians" (see below).  But this is despite not because of their philosophy of life. In his book ‘The Selfish Gene' Richard Dawkins admits that evolution does not produce such virtues as generosity and universal love. However, he argues that we have evolved to the point where we can rebel against our DNA and teach such values, and he discourages us from drawing our morals from Darwinism. He does not explain, however, why we should move beyond our evolutionary heritage and teach moral values. If there is no transcendent standard of morality, then there is no universal and objective basis for morality. Why not be cruel if it is beneficial for the individual person? Why shouldn’t one people group oppress another for its own benefit? After all, Dawkins says nature does not care about suffering one way or the other. So if I see your car (or house, wife, anything) is nice and I want it, why shouldn't I take it and if you dont like it I will kill you? Now again because I can see some good friends hackles rising at this point, I am NOT saying that atheists live like this or that Christians are inherently morally superior (see point 3  below)!. I am arguing that there is, objectively, evil. In fact most of us have a powerful sense of what is wrong and evil. Sin is if you like the outworking of evil.  

Myth 2. God is a killjoy.
God many people think is going around like a cosmic traffic warden trying to catch us “parking on double yellow lines” - he wants to deny us pleasure that we can enjoy if we escape him. In fact, “God is love” the Bible tells us and His love for us is so strong and powerful that He came Himself to die for us and to save us from the consequences of our sinful actions - for “the wages of sin is death”. Herein is love, not that we loved God - in fact by nature we hate him — but that He loved us first. He loved us so much that even though we want to run away from him he runs after us to try and stop us hurting ourselves. Tim Keller says Gods love is not only unconditional (though it is ) but actually counter conditional (he loves us despite our sin). Even when we ignore God he keeps speaking to us, asking us to avoid the destruction for which we are headed. We read about people who try and stop vehicles proceeding at high speed on the motorway when they see that there is a crash ahead. Sometimes sadly, people driving ignore there desperate efforts to get them to slow down, even sometimes swerve round the people waving frantically to try and get them to stop. God can see whats ahead and he wants us to stop, not because he is a kill joy but because he wants all to find the source of true pleasure in Him. If we make it to hell, it will be by “swerving around” God. 
Part of Gods love is wanting what's best for us, like we want for our children. Sometimes we can see our small children about to do things (for example drinking a whole big bottle of coke) that they might want to do (tastes good) but we know isn't good (dentists and obesity). So we might intervene out of deep love for our children to suggest they experience the God given pleasure but in a way that won't harm them (e.g. a glass is enough!). If it was some random child in the supermarket drinking a whole bottle then we certainly wouldn’t intervene , not least as their parent might take strong exception! Its because God loves us that he wants to intervene. 
So God ultimately is not a kill joy I suggest but a "create joy" who knows what will ultimately make us the happiest. Because he knows the future he can see where we might get hurt and tries to protect us from that. Ultimately the key question is what is God like? Who is he? Is he trustworthy and loving far beyond our wildest imagination? Will following him be good for us and make us happy? The bible promises that “ At Gods right hand are pleasures for evermore". Or is He in fact going to harm us and deny us pleasure? The devil is a liar and the father of lies and he tells us that God is trying to control us because he hates us and precisely doesn't want whats best for us. In fact that's the first thing in the Bible we see — the serpent (the devil) is casting doubt on Gods word and his character. "Did God really say"? But the devil (evil) wants to destroy us — he hates us and wants to damage us. God allows the devil to tempt us up to a certain extent ( never beyond our ability if we want to resist) - but Gods motivation is not control but love like someone protecting their child from a dangerous animal. The devil wants to enslave us and abuse us. God wants not slaves but beloved children. Rebellion leads us away from God who is the source of ultimate pleasure. We think we know best but actually we dont. 
So in CS Lewis’s book '\The Screwtape Letters' a junior devil is being advised on how to tempt a human by a senior devil. Screwtape - the latter — advises Wormwood - the former-   : “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground.” (The Enemy here is God; “we” are the devils.)  True pleasure is God-given. Screwtape admits that the devils manage to win many souls over with the pleasure tactic. Still, “He [God] invented it (pleasure).” By themselves, devils have not managed to produce a single pleasure. What the devils can do — and this is Screwtape’s advice — is to take those pleasures that “the Enemy [God] has forbidden” in the wrong ways, at the wrong times, or in the wrong degrees. Thus, the devils “always try to work away from natural conditions of any pleasure, to that in which it is less natural, less redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable.”
So the devil is a con man who appears to offer us pleasure but is really looking to destroy and harm us. God is the loving father who knows what is good for us. The question is ":Do we trust him"? 

Myth 3 . Christians think they are morally better than everyone else.
Some times we can indeed give precisely this impression. I apologise! But we shouldn't do that. If we look at the life of Jesus we see that the morally respectable people of his age generally repudiated and disliked him, while it was the morally "unrespectable" such as prostitutes and tax collectors (tax collectors were shunned not only because nobody likes paying taxes, but because they were extortioners and agents of the hated Roman occupiers). Why was this the case? Because the morally respectable thought that God liked them because they were "good" and therefore saw no need to have to repent and follow Jesus. The outcasts of society realised they had a problem and heard the message of Jesus gladly. In other words, those who knew they were sick saw the need for a doctor but those who thought that they were healthy didn't see why they had to go to the hospital.  Jesus was especially tough on those who were experts at detecting other people's sin but not very good at seeing their own. I am certainly like this and I suspect most of us have a streak of this. Jesus talked about taking out a speck in other people’s eyes while ignoring the giant log in our own. His message was that all need to escape sin and that everyone is in the same boat. There is a well known passage in John about this 
 "As Jesus was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd. “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!”.  Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”“No, Lord,” she said.And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
Myth 4.  If we dont do any terrible things like murder etc, God will accept us "I never did anyone any harm" is a common view.
Sin is pervasive and its much bigger than we realise. It's not about "doing ones best and hoping God will accept it". Jesus was very critical of the ultra religious of his time who were obsessed with trivia but missed the big picture. For example, the Pharisees, who were the ultra religious of his day, prided themselves on tithing (giving 10% away) even of their herbs. So they would carefully separate 10% of each herb — Jesus even names them, thyme, cumin and others. But they ignored what Jesus calls the "heart" that is to say that sin is in the first place not about what we do but rather how we think and our character. Jesus said for example that adultery is much more than just sleeping with someone else's spouse. If a man looks at a woman lustfully (and lets be honest guys we have all done that) then that is also breaking Gods law. Sin is ultimately rebellion against God. We dont like God telling us what to do, we want our own way, we want a corner of the universe where God is absent and we can do what we like. Ultimately if we insist over a whole lifetime on rebelling against God then he will tell us "Ok you can have your way, I leave you to your own place". That place is called hell. But God doesn't want that, which is why he came with a rescue mission in the form of his Son. 
So very unspectacular sins can take us just as surely away from God as say murder. CS Lewis is very good on this. Again in his book “The Screwtape Letters” we see the senior devil advising a junior one on how to tempt "his human".  He says "You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than (gambling) if (gambling) can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."
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Myth 5. Dealing with Sin is question of following a list of dos and donts. 
Christianity, especially in the C19th, became obsessed with a code of behaviour. For example, Sunday observance, card playing, gambling, theatre, and above all temperance (no alcohol). The last was even adopted in the USA as a constitutional amendment (the 18th, passed in 1920, forbidding the production and sale of alcohol). Now, the background to this was social problems, such as violence against women and children, by drunken men. So the people behind this amendment were well motivated but they ended by trying to legislate morality,  But, sin is a much much bigger issue than conformity to social norms - which change over time. 
Gerald Bray says about this period  "Sin became reduced to a moral code which covered Sunday observance, card playing, smoking , etc. This trivialises sin and makes holiness virtually incomprehensible to the younger generation which can see the weakness of moralism but doesn't know what to put in its place. Sin is (now) seen by many in todays world as an old fashioned and outdated concept with predominantly sexual connotations: as society changes things like divorce which pre 1960 were considers very sinful are now thought of as ok." 

Ultimately, sin about both rebelling against God and also putting other things in Gods place — what the bible calls idolatry. If we are honest, and I include certainly myself, we all tend to make the ultimate goal of our life things like money, sex, family which are not wrong in their right place (the bible does not teach asceticism, celibacy and isolation) but are not to be 'worshipped" as the ultimate goal of life.
Sin is ultimately rebellion against God and putting something else in the place where God alone should be. 
To be continued, next time I  shall begin by tackling the interesting question "Are Christians obsessed by sex when they talk about sin"? p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Helvetica; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} span.s1 {font-kerning: none}
Categories: Friends

Book review: Scramble by Tom Neil (Amberley, reprint Oct 2016)

Sun, 03/09/2017 - 11:34


From Wikipedia

"Wing Commander Thomas Francis "Ginger" NeilDFC & BarAFCAE (born 14 July 1920) is a former Royal Air Force fighter pilot and ace of the Second World War."
This book gives a superb first hand view of what it was like to be a Battle of Britain pilot. Amazingly enough, Wing Commander Neil is still alive, aged 97. I would place this alongside Geoffrey Wellum’s ‘ First Light' as the best way to relive flying a Spitfire, or in Neil's case, a Hurricane, aged 19, pitchforked into ariel combat after a relatively short and equally hazardous training stint. Training to fly was probably nearly as dangerous as actually flying in combat (try this book which I have reviewed on the Fleet Air Arm for even more about this). https://jsjmarshall.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/kamikaze-hunters-by-will-iredale.html
The book “ Scramble”  is a compilation and synopsis of a number of longer previously published autobiographical volumes, though the combined and condensed version is still quite long. It splits into three parts — how he gets into flying and his training, the Battle of Britain and then a further equally thrilling and gripping account as part of the defence of Malta in 1941. This part of the war is much less known than the Battle of Britain and the heroic resistance of the Maltese people to incessant bombing raids is sustained by a handful of old and dilapidated Hurricanes battling waves of German and Italian planes. Just getting to Malta as a Flight Commander is heart stopping — he loses all his maps in an accident as he takes off from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, has to turn back once the guide plane does the same, misunderstands the signal from the ship (in fact they are saying he doesn’t have enough fuel to make it, he thinks the reverse) , turns back to Malta with his flight and they all end up landing with only fumes in the tank, in the middle of an air raid. To be confronted with a bombed up runway, disease and flea ridden conditions and some old and patched up hardly flyable aircraft. 
The heart of the book is what it was like to fly a Hurricane. He writes with an immediacy — as he takes off in his first solo flight in a fighter for example, describing the mixture of exhilaration and terror as he pushes the aircraft into a dive up to 430 mph. The description of learning to fly (especially at night is) gripping, as of course once he gets there is the experience of the actual Battle of Britain. It was a question of sink or swim — very many pilots were lost in their first few sorties, partly because of the use of inflexible pre war tactics which leaves the pilots at times to be picked off by the Germans coming out of the sun. But those like Neil who had a mixture of skill, adaptability and luck to survive quickly grew to become accomplished pilots. This of course inevitably means for the survivors a certain callousness about their lost comrades — otherwise you simply couldn't continue. Neil notes this but his humanity comes out especially in how he sees his parents. An only child, he doesn't really tell his mother and father whats happening. One day they visit his squadron at North Weald only to end up in the middle of a German air raid, which has a devastating effect on his father. The author realises what in many ways is tremendously exciting for him is a daily purgatory for them. 
There's a lot more than just flying. Neil goes to Germany in 1937 and is very impressed by German efficiency and friendliness. He is roped during the Battle of Britain into giving moral boosting speeches to mill girls in his native Lancashire, only to be shocked by their earthiness towards him. As often terror is mixed with humour — like the poor pilot who gets not once but twice trays of boiling soup poured down his neck by a clumsy waiter. He notes how many people in war are not very heroic at all — the Maltese peasant who trundles his donkey across the runway in the path of the landing planes, taking the route as he and his ancestors have done for hundreds of years, the fat cat speculators who fill the London hotels, leaving the exhausted pilot without anywhere good to stay, the bricklayers who work carefully to rule whilst rebuilding the bombed aerodrome, the peace pledge (pacifist) campaigner who tries to stop him joining the RAF and then during the battle sends him a half hearted apology, the snobby Air reserve who turn him down when they discover he doesn’t have a car, the RAF top brass who seem (some of them anyway) to lack basic empathy with what they are asking their pilots to do and so on.  He also has a real gift at sketching out the characters and quirks of his fellow pilots, some of whom are to put it mildly fairly eccentric. 
The truthfulness also shines out in his assessment of the relative strengths of the planes. The best plane, he implies anyway, was actually the German Me109, at least in terms of ability to turn and dog fight. But, it is handicapped by its very short fuel range and the German tactics which leave them stuck to the slow and not very robust bombers. The Spitfire is roughly the equal of the Me109, but most planes in the Battle of Britain are the much older Hawker Hurricane, which is what Neil flies. Even later in Malta its still the Hurricane and he and his fellow pilots are constantly agitating for newer better planes. The Hurricane is basically an updated biplane, and it is particularly poor at higher altitudes, where it dare not tackle the Me109. However, in compensation it is (unlike the Spitfire) relatively easy to fly and very robust and able to take a lot of damage. Except that the early versions have a tendency to catch fire easily, the fighter pilots great fear is being burned alive. To escape the cockpit you have to push back the hood — which in the earlier versions sucks in the flames. Also, that the Hurricane Mk1  had no "rudder bias" so you are continually stamping like an elephant on the rudder on climbing or descending. On arriving at Malta after a very long flight he thinks his leg will fall off!
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Highly recommended and gives the reader an immediacy and a powerful sense of what it was like to be there. There are many good books written at the overall battle level about the Battle of Britain. In terms of what it was like to actually fly in it this is the equal best I have ever read. Makes you very grateful for the courage and skill of a number of 19-21  year old pilots, all those years ago. And, I just realised, highly appropriate to post this on the 78th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 2. 

Categories: Friends

Was the Bishop of Burnley right - are we neglecting the poor?

Mon, 28/08/2017 - 12:08


The Bishop of Burnley has said that evangelicals are neglecting  the poor. 
Is he right? And if yes why? And how do we address it? 
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/03/bishop-church-abandons-poor-clergy-wont-leave-middle-class-areas/ is a useful synopsis
There has been a lot of comment on social media about this. Graham Miller, who is a friend and heads London City Mission has done written some particularly helpful articles on this which I thoroughly recommend. I also refer below to some of things LCM is working on
https://www.lcm.org.uk/blog/2017/08/25/good-news-for-the-poor-pt-1https://www.lcm.org.uk/blog/2017/08/25/good-news-for-the-poor-pt-2
As several people have pointed out, some church leaders have said "Yes, the bishop is right, but my particular part of the church is doing relatively better". 
Pastors of churches in poor areas have said simply "yes". :)
Let's try and get some hard facts. 
Firstly, we need to start by defining terms. What is "poor"? The UK government defines it as earning 60% of the median household income. As this is around £27000, 60% is around £16,000 household income pa and below. Other analysis might focus not on income but on social class — there are many people in the working class who make much more than the median income, incidentally (think footballers!). According to the ONS around a third of the population have experienced poverty once but around 4 m are in "persistent poverty". If you want an idea of what that's like try watching the film "I, Daniel Blake," which even allowing for the left wing agenda behind it is a moving film. The difficulties and suffering experienced by the characters in the film underline also how useful initiatives such as food banks can be - many of which are supported by churches. the scope of these type of help is outside the scope of this blog, however. 
Research by the Evangelical Alliance shows that over 80% of practicing Christians have a degree. A you gov survey undertaken by premier radio showed that roughly twice as many church goers were middle class as working class ( and also that they were much more likely to be women than men). Now we have to be careful with statistics because it depends on your definition of "middle class" and it would also be useful to have the comparative data for the country as a whole. For the former definition re graduates by the way, it's around 30% of the UK population that have degrees.
So empirical date for the church as a whole indicates that Philip North is correct. Studies just on evangelicals are harder to find but indications are that the pattern for the church as a whole are similar to that for evangelicals. 
My analysis will focus on the evangelical church in England: Wales , Scotland and especially Northern Ireland have different dynamics though I suspect the data points in a similar direction
So the data I suggest supports the Bishop's case. I suggest that the more interesting question is why this situation exists? It shouldn't because the clear biblical command is to spread the good news about Jesus to everyone. Paul stresses that the church is for rich and poor. James specifically warns against favouring the rich. There is also a lot more in a similar vein in the OT (see Amos for example). The Lord Jesus himself of course was born in poverty. 
On a positive note, when a church has rich and poor harmoniously working together, this is a powerful witness to the watching world. For example, the church I attended in the 1980s, East London Tabernacle in Mile End had an incredible mixture of young, old, rich, poor and English and immigrants — including a wonderful American pastor, Ken Brownell, who is still there after 30 years. Thank you so much, Ken! 
We must start by underlining that this disparity is not a new phenomenon. The Reformation In England spread most rapidly amongst the educated and literate —  especially in Oxford and Cambridge and London. It spread most slowly amongst remote, poorer rural areas with  comparatively low levels of education (Lancashire and Cornwall for example). There is also a whole enormous school of literature ( see Weber and Tawney) on whether Protestantism itself caused people to rise up the social scale and become wealthier. In other words, that when poor people become Christian they rise up the wealth scale. 
While Methodism is an important exception, in general Protestantism and evangelicalism in England has prospered  most among the middle classes. This was even true  in the heyday of the evangelical movement in the mid C19th. The great C19th evangelical leader and preacher Charles Spurgeon had a congregation which was predominantly lower middle class. He himself was passionate about reaching the poor but it was said that the working class area immediately around the Metropolitan Tabernacle broke his heart. 
Historians argue that Nonconformity historically with some important exceptions ( e.g., High church missions in the early c20th) has been more effective in reaching the poor than Anglicanism so the collapse of nonconformity in the C20th reinforced this divide. 
So unless something changes, the past will tend to be repeated in the present and the future. Successful areas of evangelical outreach such as student Christian unions and summer camps aimed at public schools of course tends to reinforce this. In my view, by far the most common way that people become Christians is either a) born into a Christian family b) a friendship with a Christian c) CU and camps. All of these tend of course to reinforce existing trends in terms of the type of people in our churches. But that must not mean that we stop reaching students or public schools. All blessing to the efforts of UCCF and Titus Trust! Rather that we need to reinforce what we are doing in poorer communities. 
But there are other factors as well. One is the fragmented nature of evangelicalism. Evangelicals have been suspicious of denominations which they have viewed as agents of liberalism. They have stressed the primacy of the local church. This has many good features, but has tended to mean that both in Anglican and nonconformist evangelicalism that the typical local evangelical church sometimes sees little responsibility for addressing the national picture and especially for reaching poorer areas. Now, there are exceptions, but I suggest in general this has been often the case. 
Church planting has to some extent reinforced this, in that quite understandably churches tend to plant locally. I know from personal experience that it's much easier to raise money for wealthier areas than for poorer ones. People tend to give to areas they know. There have been some recent positive developments, however  For example, to give a few examples,  Co-mission which is a very effective church planting organisation in London has deliberately targeted poorer areas such as Brixton for planting. A friend of mine Jay Marriner, is leading a predominantly black church plant in Brixton. https://co-mission.org/co-mission-churches/brixton-local-church/(The question of the racial mix in evangelical churches is a separate but related one !). Another friend of mine, Lewis Allen, moved from a middle class area of London to Huddersfield to start a new church. See here. http://www.hopechurchhd.org
There are quite a few other examples which show that something is stirring and it is interesting that Philip North's comments sparked such a large reaction. 
Next, I would say a lack of teaching on money and generosity. The bible has a huge amount to say on money. It has been estimated that there are twice as many verses in the bible on money and possessions as there are on prayer and faith combined. Nearly half of Jesus parables are about money or possessions. Yet  we rarely hear in my experience sermons on this. Pastors are understandably reluctant to preach on this in case they are accused of being greedy. When combined with a local church view, this tends to mean that giving is limited, and what is given is either on local needs or global missions. The answer is not to stop supporting either of these excellent things, of course, but to expand giving to poorer churches and areas. I comment more on this below. 
Is social snobbery a factor? Historically probably yes, I would be interested in people's comments here but in my experience today not so much. What there probably is is an unconscious "middle class" feel to our churches and services. Just to take a trivial example, in the type of evangelical church I grew up in, the men wore suits and the women dresses or skirts to church. Visitors coming in from a poorer background might feel this is not for them. Now this has changed, and also in fairness in the church I grew up in there were quite a few people who came to faith from a working class background, despite (or my father if he were alive would say in part because!) of the dress code. 
Possibly another element recently has been an over use of "business tools" to determine where we place resources  A word which I tend to be cautious about because we certainly dont find it in the bible is "strategic" which tends to be deployed to argue that we should target the wealthy and influential, students, people in big cities. This can mean that poorer areas are neglected.
Reluctance to go and live in poorer areas is certainly a factor  (Before anyone accuses me of hypocrisy, I grew up in a fairly blue collar area, lived in the East End after university, lived abroad for 15 years and after that until now live in Sevenoaks, which is a pretty affluent area. So "physician heal thyself"). 
I think of this both in terms of Christians and especially pastors. But again there are exceptions, I mentioned both Lewis Allen and Ken Brownell both of whom I admire immensely. I also think of my father who was for nearly 50 years a pastor in a fairly blue collar town, Hemel Hempstead.  Now Hemel is not Moss Side but nor is it Sevenoaks (or St Albans)!. Many people asked him why he was there or suggested he moved, but he felt thats where God had sent him. There does seem an imbalance between people leaving college well trained and tending to go to middle class areas. But as a "son of the manse" I know this is not an easy decision, especially the vexed issue of education — though Academies are improving the choices immensely in many poorer areas, especially in London. 
Training of pastors and Christian workers has tended to focus on people with degrees (which excludes 70%) of the population. Again there are encouraging innovations to allow more people from poorer backgrounds to train. One of the most impressive organisations doing this is London City Mission and I plan a guest blog about their very exciting new scheme "Pioneers" to train people from poor and often violent backgrounds which sounds great.  LCM is doing in my view an outstanding and vital role. I'd be interested to learn if there are similar initiatives elsewhere in the UK. 
What is to be done? 
Most obviously, we should ask the Christians in the poorer areas what they want, rather than people like me pontificating about what we think they want. Our job as wealthier Christians should be to serve them. From reading in particular this powerful recent blog, this seems a good place to start - what people in such churches say they want https://stephenkneale.com

Prayer. 
Gods help is always the place to start with any problem, plus of course reading the considerable amount the bible has to say on this topic
As the above blog says this needs to be specific. Given there are lots of churches, is it possible to consider some kind of "twinning" approach between larger wealthier churches and smaller struggling ones?   Our church in Sevenoaks had this with a church in Toxteth a few years ago and getting people to know each other,  sending people from one church to another seemed to me a really good idea. All our children went to help with the youth work at the church and really enjoyed the experience.  
Organisation
While there are lots of things that individuals can do, there is a need to get organised and address the "in those days there was no King in Israel, each man did that which was right in his own eyes" tendencies. 
One answer is to form groups of churches working or planting in poorer areas. Here is an excellent example in Scotland- https://20schemes.com/uk/
(A scheme is a council estate in England and a project in America.) 
https://vimeo.com/57561798 is the very moving testimony of the founder, Mez McConnell. 
An organisation which is doing a lot of work in this area is the FIEChttps://fiec.org.uk
This is a federation not a denomination and has a real vision for planting churches in areas where there are few evangelical churches, typically poorer ones. 
Gospel partnerships, which are informal groups of evangelical churches, is another way of addressing the same question. http://thegospelpartnerships.org.uk/network
http://www.gospelyorkshire.org.uk. gives one example of a region (Yorkshire) which has developed a vision for church planting and I am encouraged to see that the topic of their upcoming conference is about planting in tougher areas and that one of the sepoakrs is Mez McConnell. Lewis Allen whom I mentioned is very active in this organization. 
Another example is the Free Church of England, which spun off from the CofE in the C19th and has many of its congregations in poorer areas. They too are thinking about this question http://fcofe.org.uk
I am sure there are many others as well. This question seems to be moving up peoples agenda, which is encouraging. 
People 
Sending both full time workers and members seems very important to churches in poorer areas. Possibly some way could be developed through the web where churches who particularly want this can make people aware. Some people (e.g., before they have children and after the children have left home) may be particularly able to move. Seminaries can perhaps invite pastors from such churches to come and speak and hopefully inspire the students to consider Gods call to such areas. Over time, work such as LCM are working to train leaders from within poorer communities might be even more helpful. 

Money 
Their must logically be some better way of organising giving for struggling or new churches in poorer areas.  I was struck by Stephen Kneale's comments that he has never had any support from other churches. At the moment giving feels very haphazard. Some kind of web based central clearing house, sort of a "Funding Circle" type approach for such churches would seem logical.  I and various others are working on this and have had great support from evangelical leaders, but it's early days and takes time. The small group of us trying to develop our plans started this because we feel overwhelmed with requests for help with plants, many in poorer areas. We need a much bigger number of givers and gospel patrons. One way of giving which i very much commend is the Gospel Partners Trust which was set up by a friend of mine. I have been very impressed by their focus on poorer areas. See https://www.gospelpartnerstrust.org 
Training. Seminaries are becoming aware of the need to attract people from less well educated backgrounds. London Seminary, where i am the Treasurer  just to take one example, does not award degrees and as a result has students from a very wide variety of backgrounds. I am doing a day a week and am struck by the great breadth of peoples backgrounds. many of the students are planning to work in poorer areas. see https://www.londonseminary.org 
Its worth remembering also that two of the greatest preachers of the last 150 years, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones, did not have theological degrees (though MLJ was a doctor before he was a pastor)
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May God continue to richly bless them and their workp.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} p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px Arial; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px Arial; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 18.0px} p.p3 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px Arial; color: #4787ff; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} p.p4 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px Times; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 19.0px} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} span.s2 {font-kerning: none; color: #000000} span.s3 {text-decoration: underline ; font-kerning: none}
Categories: Friends

Some thoughts on Charlottesville

Sat, 19/08/2017 - 22:01


Some thoughts on the last week in America, especially on the events in Charlottesville. If you allow me to toot my own trumpet I did a lot of C19 American history at university so found the historical background very interesting. I am well aware that there are many strong views on this topic, of course many of my readers may disagree with my views. 
President Trump was totally wrong to make any kind of equivalence between the neo - Nazi protestors and the counter protestors at Charlottesville. If you watch what the neo-Nazi's were chanting its vile, racist and anti semitic. While not all the left wing protestors were peaceful, the vast majority were. To say "there are fine people on both sides" is morally bankrupt. There is no defence whatsoever for espousing Nazi views and carrying swastikas. 
As my friend Ben Grizzle has pointed out, there has been in the main a deafening silence from the evangelical pastors who form Trumps’s advisory council. Although in fairness, one, AR Bernard, has resigned. I have commented on this before, but I think it's a really really bad idea for pastors to get involved in politics in general. Firstly, it puts them in a cleft stick purely of their own making. Secondly, I can see no biblical warrant whosoever for such involvement and lots of reasons why pastors shouldn't play party politics. Jesus's final instruction to his disciples wasn't to go into politics but preach the gospel and make disciples. The mission of the church is a spiritual one, not a political one. The USA is deeply polarised between left and right and by wedding evangelicalism to the Republican party (not just Trump) you immediately tend to alienate the other 50% who oppose him. 
Yes, of course individual Christians can and should get involved in politics and there may well be moral issues like abortion where Christians will tend to support the party which has a view closer to that of the bible. But, there is a world of difference between individuals and pastors. Possibly where the state is pure evil, such as Nazi Germany, there pastors would stand up publicly on politics. But these are very rare cases. 
It is ludicrous for the church to be racist or anti Semitic. Jesus was after all a dark skinned Aramaic Jew, with a Jewish mother. He certainly didn't look like a Norwegian, as he is normally pictured! Pretty much all of the New Testament writers were Jews. The bible also teaches us that the Jews are Gods chosen people. As christians we should be deeply ashamed of anti Semitism which has sadly disfigured the church — also on occasion evangelicals (Luther most notably)
Racism is also profoundly unChristian. We are explicitly told in Galatians “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is their male and female, or you are all one in Christ Jesus". The bible teaches that we are all equal, of whatever race. Any idea of one race being better or superior to another is absolutely wrong and against every bible teaching.  Sadly, the church has often picked up racist attitudes from the society around it. Its easy for us in the UK to be smug about race and church in the US, but our record is not much better. Look at the racist way that the first generation of West Indian immigrants who came on the “ Windrush"  and other boats in the 1950s were received, in the main.  Shame on us. Even today, its noticeable that while for example in London probably I would guess a majority of evangelicals are black, the money and resources supporting them is relatively small. Graham Miller, the Director of London City Mission has commented and I think he is absolutely right "We condemn the blatant racism we see on the streets of Charlottesville, but we are slower to confront the institutional biases that divide is on racial lines closer to our own homes. The evangelical church goers of London are majority black, but our Summer camps, our Uni CUs, our church plants, our apprenticeship schemes are majority white.Paul says in Ephesians 2 that in the Church the wall of hostility has come down and now we have become one people regardless of whether we used to be Jew or Gentile.There is still much work for us to become a Church without any walls of hostility, but Jesus calls us to repent and trust and find our identity in him."
In fact, the church should be (though sadly thats not always the case) noted for having within it people who outside the church would often be antagonists
Guy Davies, a pastor in Wiltshire, quotes from a song by my and his boyhood heroes, The Jam, which bears witness to this principle. In "Man in the Corner Shop" they sang,
"Go to church do the people from the area
All shapes and classes sit and pray together
For here they are all one
For God created all men equal”
What about statutes of people like Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson? Both Confederate generals and of course the American Civil War was primarily (but not only) about slavery. It was the planned removal of a statue of Lee at Charlottesville which led to the protests and also tragically the murder of a counter protestor.
Space doesn't allow me to cover all aspects of the slavery issue so just a few comments. Slavery is wrong and Christians, especially evangelicals have a long history of (in the main) fighting against it. In fact, the opposition to slavery in the US pre war was heavily influenced by evangelical Christians. 
Ian Paul's excellent blog Psephizo has the following in a recent guest blog "It is of course true that the New Testament does not condemn the institution of slavery outright or give clear instruction to seek its abolition. However, it's teaching on freedom and equality in Christ, on love for neighbour and enemy, and on the universal application of the moral law, contains the seeds of all the later movements throughout Christian history to suppress it, prohibit it and, ultimately, abolish it.Very importantly, the New Testament never affirms slavery, but only accepts it as an established part of the social order. This leaves the door open to the real possibility that, when the opportunity arises, it might be much better to do away with it completely. That possibility is shown to be highly desirable by all else that the New Testament teaches. For the New Testament is clear in affirming the humanity of slaves (Revelation 18:13); in proclaiming freedom and equality in Christ for slave and free (Galatians 3:28Ephesians 6:9); in urging slaves to obtain their freedom where possible (‘for whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord’, 1 Corinthians 7:22); and even in portraying an apostle urging a slave owner to free his runaway slave (Philemon 16). This does not of itself add up to a call for abolition. But it provides all that is necessary for such a call—and in the meantime, a clear agenda for limiting slavery, softening it, and keeping it in check. Which is precisely what Christian peoples did."
(Slavery in Roman times, though brutal and evil,was in many ways very different to American slavery. It wasn't race based, it was more like serfdom — people ended up slaves for economic reasons and you could buy your way out. )
So, what to do about the statues?  Statues are of people and people are complex things. For example, Abraham Lincoln, who defeated the South, made many openly racist comments.  A wag has pointed out that 4 of the US $ bills picture slave owners and has offered to accept them from anyone who finds this offensive. (Washington, Andrew Jackson, Jefferson  and Grant: yes thats the Grant that won the war and defeated Lee. Its certain his wife owned slaves and probable that he did or at least exercised control over them.) 
While Lee and Jackson were both slave owners and fought for a repugnant cause, they both had some better features as well as being superb soldiers. To compare them, as has been done,  to Eichmann (the author of the Nazi “Final solution”) is absurd. Lee campaigned after the war for reconciliation. A history blog notes “When Congress ordered the drafting of new constitutions in the former Confederate states and disgruntled southerners contemplated a boycott of the system, Lee announced that it was “ the duty of the [southern] people to accept the situation fully” and that every man should not only “prepare himself to vote” but also “prepare his friends, white and colored, to vote and to vote rightly.” Ironically enough Lee was against statues or memorials. Lee was invited after the war to a meeting of Union and Confederate officers to mark the placing of a memorial honouring those who took part in the battle of Gettysburg. He declined, writing  "I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered".
Stonewall Jackson (who was killed during the war) was noted before the war for his care for slaves and black people generally. In contravention of Virginia state law, he organised a school for slave children to read and write. In 1906, long after Jackson’s death, Reverend L. L. Downing, whose parents had been among the slaves in Jackson’s Sunday school, raised money to have a memorial window dedicated to him in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church of Roanoke, Virginia— as has been pointed out "likely making ‘Stonewall’ the only Confederate general to have a memorial in an African American church.”. 
Trump is not entirely wrong to bring in Washington and Jefferson either. Jefferson fathered children with a mixed race slave and Washington  even by the standards of the time, was noted for his harsh treatment of slaves. Irony of ironies many of them fled from him to the British who quite rightly after the Revolutionary war refused to respond to Washington's pleas to return them. To quote Samuel Johnson "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"
None of this is meant in any way to denigrate great Americans, which is what Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson were. The American revolution was a decisive step towards democracy and freedom. The influence of the US in the world since has been in the main for good. Even though they manage to turn up late each time, twice the US has sacrificed thousands of its sons for our liberty in Europe. Senator Orrin Hatch said "We should call evil by its name. My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home." My point is much more general one — that we are all flawed and any historical character has aspects that by the lights of today we would regard as wrong at best and repugnant at worse. On our side of the pond, the obvious example of this is Winston Churchill who was an imperialist and racist. But he also saved the world from Nazism. Or take a look at Gandhi - a great man but with many unattractive features (sexual abuse, for example). If we only have statutes of people who are perfect we wont have any (Jesus being God, shouldn't have statues in case you ask — see the 10 commandments) 
Having said all of the above, I equally can fully understand black people feeling its wrong to have Confederate generals so publicly on show. Even worse to have thm protected by Nazis. African-Americans have been discriminated against even after slavery to say nothing of lynching and murder. The statues  are a living reminder. It was a very good thing that the Union won — incidentally strongly supported by most people (though not all) in the UK. See my review of a recent book on this here. http://jsjmarshall.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/a-world-on-fire-by-amanda-foreman.html
In summary, I hesitate to even suggest to our American friends what to do, but a biblical principle is “ blessed are the peacemakers" so perhaps some suitable compromise could be reached which wouldn't inflame feelings further and would promote peace and reconciliation. We cant change history but we can learn from it. 
For example, one idea has been to move the statues to Civil War battlefields. US Civil War battlefield are wonderfully well preserved and this might be a better place to have them. Gettysburg for example, has become a symbol of peace and reconciliation and was hallowed and commemorated by Lincoln in his famous Address which deliberately honoured soldiers of both sides. 
Ultimately  it's a question for our American friends to decide. What those of us in the rest of the world who love America and American history and are troubled by what has happened hope, is that America will rediscover its better nature and will, as it was planned from the beginning be a “city upon a hill". Usually in history its the President who rises above the hatred and violence and sought to guide the nation in paths of peace. Most notably, Lincoln. This tragically Trump has signally failed to do. The ultimate goal, for which we should pray, and which is a profoundly Christian one, is peace and reconciliation. Martin Luther King (who was murdered by a white supremacist) said “The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community. A boycott is never an end within itself. It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption."

Amen. 
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Categories: Friends

Book Review: In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott (Fourth Estate, June 2017)

Fri, 11/08/2017 - 19:31


I found this book desperately sad to read but also very truthful, candid and honest. Rebecca Stott was raised in the Exclusive Brethren "sect". I use the word "sect" but it could also be described as a cult. A cult is characterised by brainwashing, control and an inability to allow anyone to leave. The exclusives and the much larger and more "normal" Open Brethren movement traces its origins back to a man called JN Derby who is the early C19th set up a whole network of assemblies (deliberately not called churches) of Christians marked in particular by not having pastors or vicars. The Open Brethren have become a noticeable and mainstream form of evangelical Protestantism and have done much good — for example two of the most famous Victorian philanthropists, Dr (Thomas ) Barnardo and George Muller were both Open Brethren. But by the late C19th the Exclusives, as the name implies, had split off from the main movement and were particular careful to shun contact with not just "the world" but any non exclusives. By the 1950s as the book explains, their culture in some ways appeared quite similar to the one in which I grew up in an evangelical church — no theatre, cinema, TV , etc. I am almost exactly  the same age as the author.  However, crucially, my parents could not have been more different - loving and much more willing to allow debate, thus leading me in a completely different spiritual direction.
Enough about me, back to the book. Into this world, suddenly in 1961, as Stott explains, their new American leader or   “ Man of God” JT Taylor Junior , imposed what amounted to a Stalinist style reign of terror, pushing extreme exclusivity (e.g. couldn’t even share a house with a non exclusive family member). This forced families to split and renounce any contact at all with non exclusive brethren. Strict enforcement of this in turn led to spying, show trials, brainwashing, and even in various parts of the world, abandonment of elderly dependent relatives, suicides and mass murder. Then ten years later JT Taylor was revealed to be a serial sexual abuser and alcoholic. The movement split and split again. The account of the meeting in Brighton where the final split involving Rebecca's father and grandfather is truly shocking, even by the harsh and unloving standards of what went before. 
This is the background to Rebecca Stott's autobiography. Her family was destroyed by these splits, her parents left the cult, then her father then left her mother destroying the family and not surprisingly Rebecca Stott endured a very difficult adjustment — what she calls “ decompression” like a diver returning slowly to the surface to avoid the bends. The only people who show her love and friendship throughout her childhood are (irony of ironies) Catholics and drug dealing hippies. She is searingly honest and it is painful in the extreme  to read many things in the book - the way that she and indeed all the women in the story were appallingly treated, the destroyed families, the brainwashing techniques, the lies and hypocrisy and perhaps worst of all the cruelty and the lack of Christian love. Not surprisingly, given what she experienced,  she seems to have lost all Christian faith, though right at the end her children are surprised when she shows some awareness of what we might call in today's language "spirituality"
Most moving of all though is her relationship with her father, who had been a leader in the exclusive brethren but ends up an alcoholic bankrupt, addicted to gambling, renounces all faith, is imprisoned for embezzlement and as the book opens is dying of cancer in a remote dilapidated windmill in the Fens. She pieces together his story from interviews with him, papers left behind and research with old friends of his, many of whom are with people who are still afraid to talk to her. I would have liked to hear much more about her mother and brothers, whom I assume are still alive but maybe precisely because they are alive that makes it difficult to write about. But even with this caveat, throughout the book the author is unsparing of herself in her willingness to detail what happened.  It is also suffused with dark humour e.g a trip to see “Macbeth” with her father which goes horribly wrong makes you unsure as to whether to laugh or cry.
p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px Arial; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px Arial; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 18.0px} p.p3 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px Times; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 19.0px} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} So for anyone who is an evangelical Christian (which is what the exclusive brethren are theologically, though fortunately their life style and brainwashing control are not typical) this is thought provoking and painful stuff. In a separate blog I will develop some thoughts about what lessons can be learned. Like other religious traditions, we must be willing to tackle the dark corners of our faith.
But even if this angle is of no interest to you, you can read the book on its own terms and be struck by the honesty and truthfulness of the writer. Jesus, who lived in a very different way to the exclusive brethren —  being criticised  (and ultimately killed) by the ultra religious of his day for mixing with tax collectors and prostitutes, someone less "exclusive" is hard to imagine —  said - "The truth shall set you free". While I don’t pretend to know if this account is the whole truth of what happened it certainly has the ring of truth for one sad and troubled "little girl in a red cardigan." This makes for a striking and gripping book. It must have taken tremendous courage to write it. 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
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