Blogroll: God Gold and Generals

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Book reviews and comments by Jeremy Marshall on Christian, historical and business themesJeremy Marshall
Updated: 12 hours 2 min ago

Why being "locked down" with God would be amazing

Sun, 24/01/2021 - 21:32

 I saw this picture on a great WhatsApp group I'm part of as a joke about what lockdown is like. I commented to my friends  “ah, but he’s the best person to have with you in lockdown”.

 Why? If a person who lived 2000 years is even knowable now (which some of you may very much doubt!) wouldn’t it be so boring to be with that same person every day? Let alone for all eternity! Isn’t the very concept of being stuck with a “God” (Christians believe Jesus is 100% God and 100% human)  who never changes, who is “the same yesterday, today and forever”, in a heaven which is always the same: wouldn’t that be appalling - a sort of endlessly boring celestial lockdown? 
In fact friends, God is the ultimate pleasure giver. 
Jesus told a story (see below) that touches on this question. The younger son feels “locked down” with his father and wants to find pleasure elsewhere. He revels. But when a pandemic-like crisis hits he realises he has gone wrong. He is truly miserable and to achieve happiness he has to come back home. Some flash of memory calls him. If we want true pleasure we can only find that in our true home which is the presence of God. CS Lewis said  “This heavenly fruit is instantly redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures forevermore. “
The father in the story is God who wants us to come home. He doesn’t want us to be miserable, he wants us to come back to the greatest party of all time. As in the story. Why would it be so pleasurable to locked in with God?
Because he is infinite. He made the very universe we live in. He is utterly beyond our understanding. We can never experience him enough we will always want to know him more. And what is his nature? It is love. Karl Barth wrote (slightly edited) “God’s loving is concerned with a seeking and creation of friendship without any reference to an existing aptitude or worthiness on the part of the loved. God’s love is not merely not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved, by any existing capacity for union or friendship on his side … The love of God always throws a bridge over a crevasse. It is always the light shining out of the darkness. In His revelation, it seeks and creates friendship where there is no friendship and no capacity for it, where the situation concerns a being which is quite different from God, a creature and therefore alien, a sinful creature and therefore hostile. It is this alien and hostile other that God loves … “ To know God to be at home with him is like being in the most amazing loving family where we are always at home. 
So why are we so lost and miserable? Why have we chosen to reject the home we have been made for? Because we don’t know what’s good for us. God could lock us down but he throws open the door and says “choose”! And we choose rebellion and misery and ultimately death. Lockdown exposes how screwed up is the human condition. And maybe that’s in a sense good because it exposes things as they are
The writer Marilyn Robinson says “Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful, He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.”
Come home and be happy with God. How? Not by being good (the older brother in the story thinks God owes him a favour and ends up missing the party). But by simply accepting the invitation to come home whatever we have done (the younger brother). How do we cross the chasm between God and us? God has thrown out a bridge across the abyss and his name is Jesus. 

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.  After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.  He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’  So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

Categories: Friends

What is the biblical basis for reading the Bible 121 with our friends?

Sun, 17/01/2021 - 12:14

 What is the biblical basis for reading the Bible with our non-Christian friends (word 121? )

There are I suggest three aspects  
The word of God 
Firstly and most importantly that it’s about unleashing and utilising the intrinsic supernatural power of God's word. We see that power in the OT. “Is not my word like a fire says the Lord and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” says the Lord to Jeremiah or “so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” As God says to Isaiah. Or in the NT the writer to the Hebrews says “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.“ 
We see also the power of Gods word in creation or when the Lord speaks to the dead “Little girl I say to you get up”. In Acts, we see how the Holy Spirit and the word of God work hand in glove. One reinforces the other is the constant refrain. The apostles are of course speaking the words of God in Acts and many people come to faith. When we use those words now written down for us in the NT we are using the power of God. The power to change people from death to life is not in us it is in God's word. 


God very often works with people one on one. We can think of Cain, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Nathan’s rebuke of David, Elijah at Horeb, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah,  Jesus with the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus, Emmaus Road (one on two), the man born blind, Martha at the tomb of Lazarus, Zaccheus, the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul on the road to Damascus  Cornelius, the Philippian jailer and many others. Kuiper in his excellent book “God centred evangelism” says “conversion is an intensely personal experience. Nothing can be more personal..personal evangelism ordinarily affords a better and more effective opportunity for thorough and effective teaching than does mass evangelism”. 
There are also quite a few passages that speak of the power of God's word when opened up one to one - Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch or one to two such as the road to Emmaus. Of course, there are also plenty of examples of teaching small groups or very large groups (Jesus with his disciples, the feeding of the 5000). I am not arguing that 121 is the only way but I have experienced that it can be very effective for evangelism because it allows people to open up and ask questions to be taught. Now if you think of a class at school it’s more efficient for the teacher to speak to all, but the best quality teaching especially in hard situations where the pupil is struggling to learn, is 121. 
Now traditionally this word and its power would be unleashed by preaching in a church. The issue is that very few non-Christians are willing to come to church even if we invite them. The situation is quite different for example in Puritan times where you had to be in church on pain of fining or imprisonment. Hence the third point 
We go out 
Nowhere in the Bible are we told to invite people to church to hear a sermon from a professional (though that is a good thing to do). Instead, we are all commanded to go out (the Great Commission) and make disciples of all nations teaching them to believe. 121 incidentally is a near-perfect form of teaching. All Christians are commanded to "proclaim" which in the NT has a much broader use than we tend to give it today when it tends to be used only of professionals speaking in a sermon context. Think of the parable of the sower where we are commanded to go out into the world and sow the seed everywhere we can. To point out the blindingly obvious the seed goes to the soil, not the other way round. Think of the stories Jesus told of going to search for the lost sheep. Yes, Jesus did teach in synagogues and the temple (in a very religious society where every man would have had to go to the temple) but the bulk of his teaching was in “public”. In our deeply unreligious society so should ours be. 
Categories: Friends

Under a cloud? Help from Billy Graham and Beth Lanario

Wed, 13/01/2021 - 09:53

 My friend Beth shared this devotion, mainly from Billy Graham, about clouds. I have to say that the last few years for me have been like living under a thick cloud, especially so I feel that right now. Everything seems gloomy and dark. Covid doesn’t help but it’s more than that. Life seems dark. 

So I found this devotion very helpful. 
I would also add that God not only sends clouds but that He himself also rides upon the clouds. 
"There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides across the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty.“ (Jeshurun is a poetic name for Israel). 
They are in a way therefore his messengers. I think of the wonderful story of Elijah's servant staring up in the sky and seeing nothing and finally “a small cloud the size of a man's hand is rising from the sea”. God does send clouds but as Beth’s dear mother commented in our group 
Cowper said 
“God moves in a mysterious way ...
‘Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,The clouds ye so much dreadAre big with mercy, and shall breakIn blessings on your head.”
Jesus was promised in Daniel to come in the clouds. While on earth Jesus was transfigured in a cloud and received back into heaven in a cloud. One day the Lord himself will come on the clouds "and every eye shall see him". Then we will be caught up in the clouds to meet him. So clouds may be dark and gloomy, but they contain also a promise. God put his bow in the clouds as a promise as Beth's dear father reminded us . 
Beth writes 
I found this quote a real encouragement in its pointing to the joy that is ours through grace, giving us present help and future hope....when times, like we find ourselves in now, are unsettling, confusing and hard....
Psalm 35 points us to the faithfulness of the Lord reaching to the clouds....
And Billy Graham had a really helpful comment on this when we may feel we are living under clouds....
Psalms 36:5Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,your faithfulness to the clouds.
“My home is on a mountain nearly four thousand feet high. Many times we can see below us the clouds in the valley. Some mornings we wake up to find that we are in lovely sunshine, but that the valley below is covered with clouds. 
At other times thunderstorms come up, and we can see the lightning flash and hear the thunder roar down below, while we are enjoying beautiful sunlight and clear skies above.
I have thought of the clouds of discouragement and suffering that temporarily veil the sunlight of God’s love from us. 
Many people live with a cloud hanging over their lives. Some may be in hospital beds; others are suffering discouragement and bereavement. A heavy cloud hangs over them. (Covid)
The Bible has a great deal to say about clouds. For they sometimes symbolize the spiritual forces which obscure the face of God. 
The Bible indicates that clouds are given to us for a purpose and that there is glory in the clouds and that every cloud has a silver lining. 
It is written in Exodus 16:10, “They looked... and, behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.” 
Without the clouds there would be no lavish sunsets, no rain, no light, no beautiful, picturesque landscapes.
Charles Kingsley sensed this truth when he wrote: “No cloud across the sun but passes at the last and gives us back the face of God once more.” 
The Bible says that God was in the cloud and that He spoke to His people through a cloud. The Lord said, “Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud” (Exodus 19:9). 
Again, God called to Moses “out of the midst of the cloud” (Exodus 24:16). 
“There are clouds in our lives shadowing, refreshing, and oftentimes draping them in the blackness of night, but there is never a cloud without its bright light. So may we long to see beyond our troubles to the brilliance of His face.”
Billy Graham.
May we know the Lord is with us even when the clouds are all we can see. 
May we trust our Heavenly Father, no matter what happens, what clouds we face, we can face, because of the grace given to us through the Lord Jesus giving us present help and future hope....
Categories: Friends

2021: what we need is Christ's character

Sun, 10/01/2021 - 22:06

 I’ve enjoyed reading “Gentle and lowly” by Dane Ortlund as others have too and one thing that struck me was his emphasis on Christ’s character rather than on what he has done for us. Of course, the latter is also, to put it mildly rather important as well! 

This made me think: which aspect of Christ’s character is important for us in what promises to be a tough few months? This morning in church our preacher Matt Taylor said “Christ cares more about our character than our circumstances” and I think that’s true. So here are some thoughts on three character traits of Christ in 2021 which we can try to emulate. Please don’t think that I have any of them and in fact in two of them in particular  (prayerfulness and patience) I’m absolutely embarrassed at how bad I am. Fortunately, Christ is always like a builder who owns a ruined house  “remodeling” us in his image by his word so there is hope for us all. 
Maybe in these troubled times who we are is more important than what we do, for it's so easy to work until we are exhausted and yet there is always more to do. But becoming Christ-like is much harder than rushing around on the ceaseless treadmill of life (and dare I say it the Christian life!) 
It’s so striking that the Lord was constantly in prayer. We may wonder why this was necessary if he was God? Because he needed to pray as to his humanity. The writer to the Hebrews tells that the Lord was able to “offer up supplications with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death”. 
We are of course not like Jesus in his divinity but we are absolutely like him in his humanity. If the perfect God-man needed to pray then so must we in our fallenness. Yet how incredibly difficult we find it! I find it the hardest thing in the Christian life. I struggle every day to pray. I am embarrassed at how poorly I pray. So how can we find help? With the Lord whom we are told prays for us and with the help of the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus himself did miracles and prayed in the power of the Holy Spirit and we have the same Spirit. Where does the Son working together with the Holy Spirit take us? To the Father! Jesus’s model of praying to the Father was revolutionary. What joy it brings to a human father's heart when his children call and ask for help. What delight when we can help them! Think of how much more the eternal Father delights to help us - all we have to do is ask

Hebrews 2:14 “ since  the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (which was part of Matt’s text this morning)

That is the big issue now is it not? Death. Every day we hear the awful statistics 500 750 or even 1000 dead of Covid.  Do you not think when you see an ambulance speeding by lights flashing “that could be me or a loved one”? All the great medical care we have and the wonderful NHS staff and yet the Grim Reaper is ever more active. (He was always active it’s just we didn’t previously want to think about him yet now we can’t avoid it)
Jesus was continuously confronted by death in his ministry,  ultimately most of all by his own. He was afraid of suffering and dying (which again is wonderfully connecting to us as to his humanity). It’s not wrong to be afraid of dying.  What he had and through him, we can have is hope! Everywhere Jesus went he brought hope. Imagine being Jairus - the situation is hopeless. Your daughter is dead. Yet what quality does Jesus being into that sad home? Hope. 
So he triumphed over death, broke its power, delivered us from slavery to it, and promises us “I hold the keys of death and hell”. If you have the keys to something you own it. The Lord owns death therefore we have hope. 
And friends this hope that we have in the face of death because of the Lord   I have found is incredibly attractive to our friends. It’s quite unique and (in the best sense of the word) should be contagious! In the middle of a pandemic that is driving us all to hopelessness and despair, we have the antidote. Let’s share it. Imagine if we sat with vast stocks of Covid vaccine locked up in a warehouse. Never! Let’s ship em out to anyone who wants one. We have something far more powerful and hope-giving  than a Covid vaccine. We have hope in Christ. Let’s share it. 
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. . . . Count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him. (2 Peter 3:915)

Again I am utterly embarrassed at how poor I am at this. When we look at Christ we see how patient he is with his followers and with “random” people he meets. The patience of the Lord with his followers is amazing. At the crucial point of the Last Supper, the disciples are continually getting it wrong - Philip, for example, says “show us the Father and that’s enough”. Does Jesus bring down retribution on him? Three years day after day with the son of God and Philip doesn’t even get the most basic thing? No! How gently and kindly he guided him and them all in truth. A word here for pastors and leaders in particular: it’s so easy to become discouraged and exasperated by people,  especially in Covid. How much do we need the character of Christ of patience with our flocks
And finally, note the patience that Christ has with the random lost people who crossed his path. Think of the man waiting with his son at the bottom of the mount if transfiguration. The disciples have failed.  (Yes it’s them again and yes it’s us again - note by the way that their and our problem is prayerlessness). How kind and patient is the Lord  Jesus with this troubled man. “If you can do anything” which is what he says is hardly a ringing endorsement of Jesus and of course Jesus gently rebukes him for his lack of faith. But by doing that he patiently and kindly fans into flame the dying embers in the heart of the man. So must we be with our non-Christian friends. One thing I have found good for patience is to keep gently asking people “would you like to chat with me about the Bible?”. Some people say “yes”. Praise God! Some say “no”. Leave them. They may well in my experience come back to you. But most people say neither yea or nay. So next time you see them ask them patiently and kindly something like “did you have a second to look at the little book on John I gave you?”. (99% of the time the answer will be no and that’s ok!). Keep going, keep asking, be patient like Christ. 
May we in 2021 be more like Christ, more prayerful, more hopeful, and more patient. 
Categories: Friends

Book Review: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman Crossway Nov 2020

Sun, 03/01/2021 - 20:35

 Carl Trueman's new book is perhaps best described as a history of the development of an idea. It is not a study of the sexual Revolution or the LGBTQ movement or even freedom of speech - but a study a “prolegomenon” of how we came to where we are today.

His central argument is that the sexual revolution did not come from nowhere but that it is the result of a much deeper revolution, brewing over three centuries,  in the meaning of what it means to be a self.

Today we can see that “My feelings trump everything”. The writer Charles Taylor write about  “mimesis “ and “poiesis”. We have moved in our views of society from the world having a given meaning which we must discover, to having to form our own meaning. The statement “ I am a woman trapped in a mans body” which is commonly accepted today (and that disagreeing with is so dangerous - see JK Rowling) only makes sense in a poietic world.

the writer Philip Rieff argues that we learn who we are by conforming ourselves to the purposes of a larger community. But for the modern person we believe in expressive individualism - that each of us finds meaning by giving expression to our own desires and feelings. Originally therapy by the priest taught individuals the norms of society. Now it’s the reverse:  that the therapist seeks to protect individuals from the harmful neuroses that society itself creates by smothering the individuals ability to be themselves. You go to institutions not to be formed but to perform - a platform to be yourself.

Hence “snowflakes”: students go to university not to be exposed to and challenged by profound ideas but to be affirmed. Anything which challenges my feelings is by definition harmful and to be rejected. Once harm and oppression are regarded as primarily psychological then crucially freedom of speech becomes part of the problem, not the solution.

Not all identities are affirmed. Only some. More than tolerance is demanded: society requires not tolerance but recognition and affirmation of specific identity. And why is sex such a basic marker of identity?

Rieff suggests that cultures without any “sacred order” will not survive. Culture in the west today can only justify itself by reference to itself -  “ because I say so”. Ethics become a function of feeling: “Emotivism”. Hence the use of the word “phobia.” Having moral discourse therefore becomes impossible.

Trueman then traces the way in which the ideas we see above arose in the first place. Beginning with Rousseau and continuing with the romantic poets such as Shelley, Blake and Byron, Trueman claims “we see the outlines of modern  individualism..the real identity of an individual is to be found in the inner psychological autobiography. The authentic individual is one who behaves in accordance with this inner psychological nature. Society and its conventions are the enemy”. Especially for Shelley the key enemy was the Christian  religion and monogamous marriage. Next, looking at Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin, Trueman argues that these subsequent thinkers stripped the world of any intrinsic meaning: meaning and significance can be given only by the actions of human beings.

Freud took the whole movement much further. He created a powerful myth - that sex is the real key to human existence. Freud also successfully planted in the popular mind the idea that we should be defined as human beings by our sexual identity. If happiness is the fundamental goal of human beings then for Freud the pleasure principle - sexual gratification- is the purpose of life. Morality which restricts such gratification  is therefore irrational and subjective. It is a phobia: an irrational fear. “Before Freud” suggests Trueman “sex was an activity: after Freud sex is definitive of who we are”. Freud’s statement was prophetic -  “ the two main points (that need to be changed) in the programme for the education of children today are retardation of sexual development and premature religious influence”. Reich pushed this further melding Freud and Marx: the traditional family and its morality both resulted in people acting against their own class interest and even more in establishing a system of oppression. “Sex is no longer a private activity because sexuality is a constitutive element of social identity”. Therefore the family itself needs to be dismantled. A writer called Herman Marcuse went even further. Good words and thoughts about defeating oppression must not only be promoted but enforced and given a monopoly in public discourse. Free speech is therefore not a virtue but fundamentally harmful. (As Trueman notes: who defines the truth? Herman Marcuse!). Finally he notes that the French writer Simone de Beauvoir argues for a divorce between identity and body. There is a dualism where the body is made of malleable stuff separate from the will that presided over it. Sex is merely biological but gender allows us to self create as we wish. Standing in the way of all this, argues Trueman is the family which must be destroyed.

Now many of these thinkers will be completely unknown to the average person in the street. One of the most important transmission mechanisms suggests Trueman is popular culture  and especially pornography. Porn is the therapeutic culture of the day: “if it works for you and promotes that inner sense of well being then... all is good”

Which brings us up to the present day. “The idea that sexuality is identity is now basic in the west.. sex is identity, sex is politics, sex is culture. “

Freedom of speech is under attack because in a world “where the therapeutic is the ethical ideal, the notion of good or bad..becomes psychological... words and images that promote psychologically unhealthy views should be silenced”. The same with “hate speech”. Once violence has come to include the psychological then certain expressions which contradict what I feel is my psychological well being are criminalised. As the protesting students at Middlebury College in 2017 said “ we are tired of having to engage with those who repeatedly devalue our experience and values”.

Trueman looks briefly at LGBTQ thinking today. He points out that it is an unlikely and unstable  coalition. T and Q are predicated upon a denial of the fixed nature of gender something that L and G assume. How then did this coalition emerge? A shared victimhood. The T is rooted, proposes Trueman, in the thinking of “expressive individualism, connected to the central concern of the therapeutic society, that is an inner sense of psychological well being”. The LGBTQ culture he writes is an anti-culture: defined negatively by its rejection of past norms”.

The book is very well written and well argued and I suggest is important for every Christian leader to read. Unlike many other books it’s not tied up in the American culture wars, perhaps because Trueman is a Brit. 95% of its equally relevant in Europe. You don’t need to know the details of long dead writers but you do need to understand how we got where we are. Trueman is also fair minded in allowing the writers he cites to speak for themselves and it’s far from a polemic. Importantly, he points out that some of the points the revolutionaries argued were true: women and gays were discriminated against for example and he is careful not to argue for the return to an imaginary golden feudal age. Nor is Christianity itself immune from emotional individualism: look at the smorgasbord of denominations and churches available. If one doesn’t affirm you try another. I would hope that someone on the other side of the argument could read the book and think that their arguments have been presented in a fair and even handed manner. 

My only criticism is that the book massively begs the question “So what? what then should the church then do about all this?” which he covers in but a very cursory fashion. He argues for four responses

Avoid the aesthetic (ie personal story) approach to beliefs

Be a community

Recover both “natural law” and a high view of the physical body.

For historical precedent look at the 2c not the 16c.

None of these points are at all developed (eg what does he mean by natural law?) and I was disappointed because there is much much more that could be said. The first and third points in particular as argued were not at all convincing to me. For example, it seems to me that you could convincingly argue the exact opposite on point 1, not in terms of where we derive truth but in terms at least in terms of communication: that we should hear more not less of the stories of godly people from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences . Not to determine what we believe but to communicate it in a convincing and culturally connecting fashion. On the other hand the second and fourth points I find to be extremely powerful. I shall write more on this shortly and try and develop my thinking on these points.

All in all a very thought provoking and a carefully constructed book which if you want to understand "how did we get here" you need to read. .
Categories: Friends

The greatest party invite of all time.

Thu, 31/12/2020 - 12:31

New Years' parties are canceled but I would like to invite you to the greatest party of all time. 

An 18c German writer called Johan Andreas Rothe wrote this as one verse of a poem/hymn and John Wesley translated it. It’s by way of inviting you to a party.

“Father, Your everlasting graceOur scanty thought surpasses far,Your heart still melts with tenderness,Your arms of love still open are,Returning sinners to receive,That mercy they may taste and live“
Here is the party invite, looking at each line

1. There is an everlasting Father God who created us and who from before the beginning of the universe has in store for us wonderful things which we don’t deserve. He invites us to the party at his home - which is our home but we have rejected it and have wandered far away from it.

2. Our feeble and laughable attempts to understand this universe creating God and his eternal purposes and the scope of his party are doomed to fail. We simply don’t understand 0.000001% of the greatness and kindness of this infinite Creator.

3. God's heart towards lost and sad human beings is full of tenderness. He doesn't want us alone and outside. How can we know this, as the infinite creator God is so beyond our understanding? Because the infinite creator became a human being 2000 years ago. This God-man, Jesus Christ was so full of tenderness to the sad and lost of his day. And that God-man invites all who will find solace to come to him today,  for he is the same solace provider and party-giver 2000 years ago, yesterday, today, and forever

4. The arms of God are wide open to all who will return home and enter the great celebration. He looks out for us coming and while we are a great way off he runs and throws his arms around us: “welcome home” he says. Where do we see the arms open to everyone most of all? On the cross.

5. What must we do? We must return to the Father who made us for we will never find what we are looking for until we come home to him. Who may come? Anyone! Anyone at all!  Not “good” or “healthy” or “moral” people but the exact opposite “bad” “ill” and “immoral” people. In fact, it’s only when we realise that we are like that by nature, that we are alienated from God that we begin to turn round. What will happen when we do that U-turn? We will be eagerly received in the greatest celebration of all in the universe. What do we need to bring to that fantastic party? Nothing. Come as you are. The bill for the party has already been paid (at great cost) and all are invited. Come as you are

6. “Grace” is getting what we don’t deserve. “Mercy” is not getting what we do deserve. We will find both at this party. How do we know this invitation is true? We try it and see what its like What have we to lose by trying? Nothing! How do we “try”? It’s easy: we RSVP. Talk to God: “Oh God if you are there show me the way to the party at your home”. What will we get at the p[arty? Life. An answer to death, both physical death and the eternal death of being separated from God, being outside the home we are made for. “Come and welcome,” says the Lord Jesus, holding his arms wide open and beckoning us to come in through the open door. 
Categories: Friends

John Le Carré and the culture of betrayal, disillusion and cynicism

Wed, 16/12/2020 - 21:40

 John Le Carré in my view by far the greatest British novelist of the last 50 years has died. I loved his books and just finished what I assume was his last one, "An Agent running in the field". Before that, I read "The Pigeon Tunnel" which were his (somewhat unreliable) memoirs. 

If you haven't read any of his books, you have a wonderful treat in store, though possibly not the author to read if you need cheering up in Covid! I shall not attempt an obituary for others far better qualified than I have written about him. What I wanted to write is how should we assess his novels from a Christian perspective. What does he have to say about the state of our culture? How should we as Christians think about that culture? 
Le Carré was emphatically not a Christian. His father, of which more shortly, was the black sheep son of a devoutly nonconformist family, his grandfather was a respected Dorset alderman and a Baptist preacher. Le Carré himself though hated the "muscular Christianity" of his school, Sherborne, and fled to Switzerland to escape it and other aspects of the school such as bullying he disliked. In later life he was very dismissive of religion in general " a consequence of the detestation of the painful forms of authority forced upon him by various schools" he told the writer Philippe Sands. Christianity ranked alongside other institutions of the British state - most of all the Secret Services and politics - as declining, decaying, and corrupted
In this, he differed greatly from the author who clearly influenced him heavily, both stylistically and subject-wise - Graham Greene. Greene too had a spell in the Secret Services, also had a very chequered personal life, also created his own world of spooks and betrayal (for example "Our Man in Havana", a book to which Le Carré paid homage in "The Tailor of Panama" ). However,  unlike Le Carré, Greene had a close if a highly tortured relationship with (Catholic) Christianity. Le Carré seems to have rejected not only the institution of the church but the concept of faith itself and almost never refers to any religious beliefs playing any role in his characters' inner lives in his books, except perhaps to Islam in a couple. As opposed to say the spook Wormold in Greenes' book, whose precocious daughters rather unconventional Catholicism is a crucial part of the plot. Le Carré is almost Marxist one might say in his dismissal of Christianity as irrelevant and of a previous age.
Despite, or perhaps because of this, his characters are far from nihilistic and frequently wrestle with deeply moral issues, even if they are constrained by the author to do so within a completely humanistic universe. Most Le Carré novels feature a dilemma somewhat along the following lines. The central character is trapped within a system (often the secret service but also later after the collapse of communism, big business) where they can choose (and are often ordered) to use deeply compromised means such as lying, cheating, and bribery, to say nothing of torture and murder. The bureaucracy in which they operate pressures them to choose these means in the interests of a greater good, such as the defeat of Soviet communism. The poor operational "moles" or "pavement artists" (terms that Le Carré virtually invented)  are cynically sacrificed to protect the major pieces in the great game of espionage. Yet all parties search for something that isn't there - moral purpose. William Cash writing in the Catholic Herald says perceptively " If the West has largely moved beyond religion there remains something curiously reassuring about fictional worlds that displays design or purpose, even if its heroes are alienated and self dammed sinners conmen or betrayers."
Ah, betrayal. Along with cynicism and disillusion, this is the key theme in the dark universe. Le Carré, who was very careful to play his personal cards close to his chest, was haunted by his betrayal by his parents. His father Ronnie Cornwell (Le Carré was a nom de plume, his first name was David ) was a truly wicked con man and swindler., who served 5 terms at Her Majestys Pleasure, as well as time inside in Zurich and Jakarta. Le  Carré recalled being sent as a teenager with his older brother to try and buy time from a pathetic elderly couple whose life savings his father had embezzled. His relationship with his father was complex: he paid for his father's funeral but refused to attend. But even worse was that young David was also abandoned by his mother who, perhaps due to her husband's multiple infidelities and lies, walked out on her young son aged five. They were never reconciled.  
Cash again quotes Le Carre, "Betrayal is like imagining when the reality isn't good enough..Betrayal is love as a tribute to our unlived lives". Or we could add "Love is whatever you can still betray". How do we betray? with lies "We lie to each other every day, in the sweetest way, often unconsciously."
So here is the rough Le Carré storyline: in a grey,  morally compromised world, with no good guys and bad guys, where everybody is deceiving and lying to everyone else, people end up inevitably betraying even the ones they love. All his institutions are fundamentally controlling and dehumanizing with their own cynical agenda where the end justifies the means. The result of this given time is disillusionment and cynicism amongst the inhabitants of these systems: which in turn leads to more betrayal and more moral failure. “He met failure as one day he would probably meet death, with cynical resentment and the courage of a solitary.”
I believe this is not untypical of many peoples underlying view of life, a sort of post-modern cynical Stoicism, it is just that Le  Carré expresses it with greater clarity. As he once said, “If you see the world as gloomily as I see it, the only thing to do is laugh or shoot yourself.“ As most people understandably want to live,  then amusing ourselves about the cynicism of life is the only remaining strategy. Hence the popularity today of comedy
So where does that leave Christians? 
1. Let us be honest. Christianity has simply no place in most people's lives. It is irrelevant. You might as well ask the average person what they think of phrenology. It is not that most people are convinced Dawkinsites. We make a grave mistake if we think that. Rather we are not part of their world, and therefore we are irrelevant.  But this is an opportunity for us. How do we offer something relevant? By being radically indeed revolutionarily different: not betraying,  disillusioned, and cynical but loyal, hopeful, and trustworthy. The church is sadly often not like that: but if it is full of the Holy Spirit then it can be! And when it is like that then it can be highly attractive. Ultimately the Le Carré world is fundamentally repellent: it is deeply depressing and repellent. But I would suggest that he is a prophet of our times, for he saw not only the moral bankruptcy of Cold War espionage (whilst ignoring at times just how evil the Soviet system was) but also the moral bankruptcy post the soviet collapse of the victorious capitalism system itself. See for example many of his later novels such as  “The Constant Gardener” where the global pharmaceutical giant is betraying the unknowing African “guinea pigs” for its own end. 
2. Certainly,  any attractiveness is not going to come from the church if it is communicating as a typical power institution: for we see in his work that the ever-growing distrust in institutions, so typical of our age, absolutely includes the church in its traditional institutional role. If the church is acting, as it was seen by Le Carré, as simply another means of controlling other people, then it will inevitably be undermined in the long run by the same cynicism which is destroying trust in other institutions. Instead, the church must be willing as it was in the first century to be not a “big” top-down typical institution which is secretive and powerful, seeking to control other people,  but a counter-cultural decentralized “small” grassroots, volunteer,  transparent, bottom-up movement,  offering something radically different and attractive to a cynical world. This also means being honest and open about our own sins and failings: for otherwise, we are at risk of becoming a Le Carré institution where the truth is sacrificed for the greater good. 
3. We have something to offer to a gloomy Le Carré world which I believe is rather attractive. Even the author felt this. Talking interestingly about Judaism and Israel he said, “I am no different from any other artist anywhere in the world who feels himself an outsider in his own country and believes there’s another country somewhere else where he will be happier and safer.”
We are ambassadors from that other country and what a country it is! 
For the betrayed, we can say: we have someone who has been there,  who was also betrayed, who was set up to be murdered, just like a doomed, Le Carré mole, betrayed by his closest friend. The Betrayed knows your pain. 
For the disillusioned, we can say: we have hope that we are not all trapped in a grey bleak institutionalized moral maze where one lie builds on another and one betrayal begets another and all roads lead to death. . We have been told the way out of the maze, another country where all are welcomed, who will enter. 
For cynics, we can say: we have someone who is trustworthy. You will never be disappointed in him, he will never let you down or betray you and if you don’t believe us, please,  try the Betrayed for yourself. 
4.As Christians live in the culture, it is inevitable that some of that cynicism and disillusionment, that sense of betrayal, will seep into the church. Pastors are particularly prone to become disillusioned. They start out brightly but all kinds of things can shatter their initial enthusiasm. John Benton has recently written a helpful booklet which is called "Seven Disillusioned pastors" which I recommend very highly. Different things undermine different workers - John looks at Peter (disillusioned with himself), Cleopas (disillusioned with Christ), Elijah (disillusioned with ministry), John Mark (disillusioned by difficulties and others. Sometimes pastors feel betrayed by their own congregation or even members of their own family who turn on them or become alienated. I can remember my own father being deeply grieved when long-serving members of the congregation fell out with him and left. Some give up but it can just as easily make the leader cynical, mistrustful, always expecting the worst. Add the potent effects of Covid into an already toxic mix, it's no wonder so many pastors are struggling. 
Church members can also become cynical and disillusioned. Sometimes they feel let down or betrayed by their own church, but perhaps the biggest weakness I see in the contemporary church is that we so easily become disillusioned with evangelism.  We are cynical that anyone is really going to listen to us, doubtful that any of our friends are ever going to respond. Pearhsp the typical reaction in a Le Carré novel is a weary shrug of the shoulders
What do we need? We need encouragement. I heard about Holy Trinity Clapham which had a large banner made and hung on the side of the building, saying "Take heart". This I assume is a quote from John 16 where Jesus tells his disciples "I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart I have overcome the world". We are in the same world and culture as George Smiley et al. We will have trouble, not least from our adversary the Devil. But Christ has the ultimate victory through his death and resurrection. We are on the winning side!  We belong to a different country! These words should help us also to encourage each other.  The more we encourage the faster we will shed cynicism. Yes we need to face the truth and sometimes the truth is depressing, but in the long run, the truth will be the triumph of Christ. There will be no cynicism in heaven! The vaccine to cynicism betrayal and disillusion is Christ and we are the NHS staff charged with distributing it. This life is a hard slog but in the long run, Christ will have the victory. Let us encourage one another with these words. 
Categories: Friends

Happy Christmas: its about a rescue

Sun, 13/12/2020 - 19:13


Christmas is so familiar, cosy and sentimental that we have mainly lost its meaning. For example, what was it like to receive the original message? It was like this? 

"We were sitting on the floor and Coach Ek told us to quiet down and told us to stop speaking. ... It was actually real, there was someone there. I was really excited, I was shocked, and Coach Ek told me go down first.

"Why me first? Because I was the one holding a flashlight. So Coach Ek told me to hurry, to go down, because he heard someone's voice.

"We were scared. I was scared to go down myself. I took the flashlight, so I went down and I said hi to him. I said hello to him. He was still diving. ...

"When I went down, I immediately said: 'Hello, is there anyone there?' “

As you may remember this was the incredible and moving story of the Thai boys and their coach rescued underground  more than 2 1/2 miles from the cave mouth. In particular I’d suggest the following 

How did the boys and their coach feel - joy, amazing, pure joy. One minute it looked like all hope was gone the next a rescuer arrived and  everything changed. “Behold I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all the people”. 

They were alive and had food and light they could live but there was no ultimate hope given their circumstances. eventually, they would die it was just a question of time. Hope and rescue had to come from outside. They couldn’t save themselves. The people outside had to be motivated to help them: not saying "their own fault for being so careless" but loving them enough to be willing to save them. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son"

Outside help was being assembled on a scale they simply couldn’t imagine. There were over 10000 rescuers and the whole world was watching. At Christmas it’s even bigger: it’s the entire universe. "Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel"

What did the boys have to do ? (for they of course were at the point above only found, not yet rescued ). They had to “believe” the divers, follow the rescuer's instructions to get out, however strange they found them. The rescuer knew how to get out but the boys had no clue.  "the shepherds said to one another 'Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing which happened which the Lord has told us about"The rescuers were willing to die to get the boys out and in fact two did die (one drowned and one died of a disease they picked up in the cave system). Here there is a difference with Christmas for the tiny baby in the manger came not only with the possibility of death but the certainty of it being the only way to get the rescued (us) out. "you see at just the right time Christ died for the ungodly"

How did the boys feel: to put it mildly they were thankful to their rescuers ! No doubt they had a party to celebrate. And so should we. "The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen"

Thanks to our Rector Angus for setting me thinking about the Thai boys and Christmas ! 

Categories: Friends

Devotion from Psalm 121: help for those facing a major illness or operation

Sat, 05/12/2020 - 12:55

 My friend Philip Eveson in his excellent commentary says that this psalm has particularly been encouraging or used before departing on a journey or leaving loved ones behind. 

When you go in for a major operation you are doing both. You are on your own except for busy medical staff and of course, you are about to become unconscious so you don’t even know what’s happening. Your loved ones can’t be in the hospital during Covid

With small children, we repeat comforting phrases when they are afraid and crying. “Don’t cry”, “there there” and so on. There is a comfort in this gentle repetition and there is a comfort here in gentle repetition. “He who keeps” “keeper” and “watches” are all part of the same word and are used 6 times while “my help” and “slumber” are used twice each

Philip compares this repetition to climbing a stair and that’s apposite as this psalm and the psalms around it would have been recited by the Pilgrims climbing the paths up to Jerusalem. They are the “songs of ascent”. We may be walking in the valley of the shadow of death but we can see beyond the valley there are hills with a welcoming home. More than that we are promised that the very maker of the valley and the hills will in time take us out of the valley.

But now we are in the valley: for example in Covid and specifically when we go through an operation or treatment. As we lie helpless on the hospital trolley, looking at the rather boring hospital ceiling, doctors and nurses look down on us - kindly to be sure and I’m very grateful for their medical care -  but they are in the end people just like us. The Christian has help of course from medical staff (and should be grateful!) but our ultimate help comes on an entirely different scale. We can look to the creator of the universe, to God.

First of all the Psalmist speaks. The Lord he remembers is first of all the maker of heaven and earth. He created everything from nothing, both the earth and the whole universe. He is if we trust in him, “my help”

Then comes another person's voice in the psalm: perhaps that of friends and family and fellow Christians. They comfort us  “fear not,” they say for God will not:-

Let your foot slip.

I am very clumsy and am always tripping over my own feet I used to be a nightmare on the ski slope. I certainly didn't miss a career as a surgeon!  Happily, God is not like that he is always sure-footed and no accidents can befall God

Slumber or sleep.

In an operation, we of course are insensible and are utterly helpless and reliant on others. We have not the slightest clue of what is going on. God is not like that at all: the maker of the universe who watches over us will never forget something or miss anything. On the contrary, he is always attentive, always watching. Yes, attentive to everything but above all to his children.

Positively, he is your “keeper”

Because of that in all the uncertainty and fears of life, God is able to deal with the whole gamut of potentially harmful events. The “sun and the moon” poetically speaks of all the days and of all the time: and by extension of all the possible things in life that are harmful and troubling.  God can deal with them all. He shades us from any harmful effects of danger. He is equal to every emergency. He will keep us from all harm. He will watch over our life. No evil may ultimately harm us.

Three times we have this mighty promise that  “the Lord “ (Yahweh) will keep us. Not just for yesterday and today and tomorrow but for all time. No hour of the day and no day of our life will we be forgotten or partially protected. He is perfect and nothing can damage his care.

Before we finish an obvious question arises: well then can I expect a life of joy, good things, and happiness and to die painlessly in my bed aged 100?  Can we expect simply to sail effortlessly from strength to strength? And are these promises all automatic in some Panglossian paradise?

No. The psalm acknowledges and is realistic that there is evil in the world and there are many things that can and do albeit temporarily harm us. Not least the evil in our own hearts. Each one of us must eventually die for the wages of sin is death. This is bad news.

But here is the (infinitely greater!) good news: if God is our “soul keeper”: if we place our soul, our very being and all that we are into his hand, if we repent and trust him that he will forgive us for the evil within us for the sake of his Son, then indeed we are utterly and eternally safe. He may well lead us onto some very dark paths,  with terrible enemies,  but God not only watches over us there, he also knows what walking along those paths was like. The Lord Jesus went through suffering to the cross and “slumbered in the grave”, we may say, and the Father then raised him (Galatians 1:1) and reversed the death sentence on him. But what assurance for us -  for while the body of the man Jesus lay in the tomb, Gods watching and keeping was just the same.

In the same way,  if we trust in Christ's death and resurrection, in his power to keep us, then when we slumber either in an operation or just asleep, He will hold us fast. Both for this time and forevermore

Categories: Friends

Jews and the Reformation, Kenneth Austin, Yale, June 2020

Sun, 29/11/2020 - 22:58

 This fascinating book slays a number of myths: that Luther defines the Reformers attitude towards Jews or conversely that Protestants were all about tolerance to Jews and Catholics all about the Inquisition.

Jews were in Europe a very small and at times persecuted minority. At the beginning of the Middle Ages most Jews lived under Muslim rule (where they were generally tolerated). Increasing emigration occurred - but not into England and France where Jews were banned, as they were in various parts of the Holy Roman Empire such as Vienna and cologne, and Zurich. Around 1% of Europe’s population was Jewish in 1500. This increase in Jews in Christian lands was accompanied by a nascent revival in interest in Hebrew through the Renaissance. This is easy though to overstate. Erasmus the High Priest of Renaissance humanism  was an anti semite “if it is Christian to detest the Jews on this count we are all good Christians”

Some date the Reformation not from 1517 but from 1492 - the expulsion of Jews (by far the biggest concentration at that time in Europe) from Spain. The underlying concerns argues Austin were the same: anxiety over who exactly was a Christian and a determination to root out heresy. At around the same time for similar reasons, the Venetian authorities restricted Jews to a specific area - probably the foundry or “geto”. These were ways by the authorities of confining but also protecting the Jews from attacks by overzealous church authorities.

Growth in Hebrew studies was remarkable. In  1500 nowhere taught Hebrew, yet by mid-century pretty much every university - both Catholic and Protestant - did (and there were many more universities to choose from ). Many reformers became passionate advocates of learning Hebrew. Robert Wakefield the first person to teach Hebrew in England said that even the King himself believed that “that no one will make any progress in the scriptures without a knowledge of Hebrew”    

Early Luther was not a fan of learning Hebrew nor did he learn it himself. But he did advocate respect for the Jews “we are aliens, they are blood relatives of the Lord.. the Jews are nearer to Christ than we are”. He spoke of the importance of being kind to the Jews - not toleration for its own sake but for the sake of converting them. Discrediting Catholicism was also vital.  If the Jews finally embraced the new religion that would prove the errors of the old.

Though finding out what Jews thought of the reformation is not easy the evidence points to an enthusiastic response. They were certainly impressed by Luther's gentleness and kindness. But sadly this initial optimism would not last long.

Interestingly, one of the results of the interest in Judaism was a focus on the Sabbath (to be observed much more strictly) and even in some anabaptists to move Sunday to Saturday. Indeed it was concern about this trend that bought Luther later in life, with disastrous consequences for posterity, back to the topic of the Jews. He seemed not only worried about anabaptists being influenced by Jews but rather frustrated by what had not happened, that Jews had not converted. Sadly he went far beyond frustration. In his most infamous passages, he repeated the vilest and infamous ( Catholic) Jewish slanders about child murder and other false charges. He urged rulers to “set fire to their synagogues or schools and bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn so that no man will ever see a stone or cinder of them again”.

Other Lutherans did not share Luther's wicked invective. His successor Melanchthon shortly after Luther's anti-Semitic rantings, intervened to protect Jews in the Protestant territory of Brandenburg. Other examples occur and thankfully Luther’s appalling views were not shared by most Lutherans, let alone most reformers.

In Geneva, one sign of renewed interest in Judaism was children’s names. Saints names were banned and OT names were de rigeur. (My father who gave all his children Jewish first names - as did we - would have approved !). Such names were intended to convey an identification with the people of Israel. Calvin was aware of Luther's views but actually said relatively little about the Jews. He had a close friend Tremellius who was a converted Jew and he repeatedly defended him when he was attacked for being of Jewish blood. (Tremellius and other Christian writers started to write and translate books in Hebrew for Jews and these often took a  friendly line “bountiful and ever-increasing greetings..dear brothers “ began one work ). Attacks on converted Jews (as pretending only) were common in Protestant and Catholic countries, especially in places like Spain where many had converted for fear of the inquisition.

In Calvin's commentaries on the OT, he frequently speaks of the Jews of those times in high terms “the firstborn in the family of God”. But in other places, he spoke in a more hostile way of contemporary Jewish biblical interpretation especially those rabbis who felt Christians overplayed the messianic character of OT prophecies. Writing for example of Psalm 72 he warned “ we must be wary of giving Jews the opportunity of making an outcry as if it were our purpose to apply to Christ those things which do not apply to him”. Austin notes in conclusion that it is difficult to tell whether Calvin’s more benign attitude reflects a friendlier underlying attitude or different circumstances for there were no Jews in Geneva. Perhaps both. 

One important element in reformed thinking (which we see in names) was the increasing identification of the people of God with the children of Israel. Sometimes this was for individual rulers such as Josiah for Edward VI of England but it was much more than that. The Bible and an increased interest in the OT were of course very important but a deep influence were the frustrations that the Reformation was slowing and in some cases being reversed. Just as the Israelites suffered hardships and went into exile so did the Calvinists. This of course made for respect for Jews in general - even if less so for the Jews of their day.

Meanwhile what of the Catholic response? The Jesuits were famous for the number of Jewish converts they employed. Earlier in the sixteenth century there were a number of efforts to reach out to Jews in a friendly way (to convert them but the tone was notable) but as time went on these efforts became harsher and especially under Pope Paul IV many of the indignities such as badges (often yellow) and ghettos and restrictions on work were harshly implemented. The goal was conversion: make life unpleasant for Jews and they will convert. In parallel, there was related burning of Jewish books especially the Talmud.  These papal or inquisition anti-Jewish led efforts were to some extent tempered, suggests Austin, by the powerful rulers of city-states,  for whom having Jews in ghettoes means you could better manage them and even at times protect them, not persecute them. Exemptions and non-compliance were very common and some rulers went out of their way to attract Jewish emigrants to bolster their merchant classes. In general relations in Italy between ordinary citizens and Jews seemed to have been cordial even friendly at times. The same very confusing pattern was true elsewhere. Some countries notably Spain had a harsh attitude and in general, the Catholic church was hostile, but powerful rulers such as Ferdinand of Bohemia (who was also tolerant to his Protestant subjects) actually attracted many Jewish immigrants to Prague and other places in his empire. There was no monolithic “Catholic” or indeed “Protestant” attitude to their Jewish populations

As the reformation period continued into the second half of the sixteenth century and the seventeenth century,  historians have often talked about “confessionalization”. This inelegant phrase covers not only the process of publishing confessions (Catholic and Protestant) but a closer link between church and state and much greater monitoring and interference into the everyday religious life of subjects. At the same time, there was a “professionalization” of clergy with the foundation of seminaries and universities and a major effort to train and develop clergy. On the one hand, this intensified the interest in Hebrew (both in Catholic and Protestant areas) as well as the development of what we might be called “Jewish ethnography”  - books often written by Christians about Judaism, some of which were written sympathetically. At the same time, it also left Jews in a rather strange and ambiguous status. Sometimes in cosmopolitan cities as in say Prague all three main religions existed side by side in what we might call “multiculturalism”. True religious tolerance in the modern sense stresses Austin hardly existed but in some places “live and let live” began to take root. But in others, places both Catholic and Protestant (but much more the former because that’s where the large majority of Jews lived) the drive for conformity forced more restrictions. Spain is an obvious example. In general, however, on both sides of the religious debate Jews were (perhaps ironically) regarded in a less hostile way than the “other” lot of Christians.

This translated into complex politics. In Frankfurt for example the main tension was between Calvinists and Lutherans. Ironically representatives of the former group in 1614 reprinted Luther's diatribes to create riots and expel the large Jewish population partly as a tactic against the elite,  only for the Catholic emperor to intervene execute the ringleaders and restore the Jews. Meanwhile, in Prague (supposedly tolerant) the Catholic crackdown led to Protestants but not jews being expelled.

In general in these complex times, however, the trend was for Jews to migrate from the more hostile Catholic south (especially Iberia) to the Protestant north (especially Holland). However to add a twist to a certain extent this was despite the Dutch reformed church, not because of it. Holland and especially Amsterdam and its environs were the places for all kinds of refugees (most famously the Pilgrim Fathers). The city authorities allowed the Jewish refugees to settle and even discreetly helped them build a synagogue. The reformed clergy on the other hand were unsympathetic and many Calvinistic theologians advocated a repressive policy towards Jews. The Dutch Calvinistic welcome was the product of the city government and certainly not of the church.

Meanwhile, in those troubled times (the 30 years war and the English civil war) a strong strain of messianic and millennial expectancy grew in both Jewish and especially Protestant circles. Feverish calculations of the expected date occurred using respectively the Kabbalah or Revelation. Various Jewish "messiahs"  circulated including one who was even protected by the Pope (though the Holy Roman Emperor took a rather different view and executed him). The conversion of the Jews was a key element in Protestant millennial thinking, allied (especially in England amongst the Puritans) to an expectation that the Jews would return to the physical land of Israel.

Austin gives many interesting examples dating from the latter decades of the c16th and later of Puritan writers predicting that the Jews would return to Palestine - and more than that, that England would play a central role in this happening. (They were perhaps 300 years ahead of their time!). Not surprisingly this led to a huge outpouring of interest in England in the study of Hebrew and Jews in general. Again it’s important to note that this was not driven by some (anachronistic) modern-day adherence to “diversity” but a belief that the Jews were to be treasured because their return to Israel (and subsequent conversion) would bring the return of Christ. Some Puritans were convinced that the newly discovered American Indians were the lost 10 tribes of Israel

The Puritans were frequently attacked by their opponents as “Judaisers” and again their strict adherence to Sabbath observance was seized upon by their opponents to show that they were Jewish influenced heretics. One Puritan minister, John Traske,  who was particularly keen on sabbath observance even had the letter “J” burned into his forehead by the authorities. Less painfully,  the playwright Ben Jonson presented the audience with a stereotypical Puritan “Zeal of the land busy “ whom the other characters refer to as “Rabbi busy”

All this brings us eventually to Oliver Cromwell. Despite his (very unfair) reputation he was by the standards of his age highly tolerant and did not attempt to suppress Catholicism in his kingdoms. He summoned the Whitehall Conference in 1655 to consider readmitting Jews. The driving force behind it was Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel. This talented and unusual man became a prolific publisher and put huge efforts into proving to Christians that Judaism was not blasphemous and that Jews should be the friends of Christians, not their enemies.  Menasseh traveled to England and met personally with Cromwell, whom he found highly sympathetic. By no means all the Puritan clergy though agreed with Cromwells wishes to readmit the Jews, so rather than an official announcement, an informal acceptance of Jewish migration became widely known, and buildings and cemeteries were quickly acquired and the Jewish community in England  (which very happily remains to this day) began to grow.

There we must let the story rest. Austin’s book is easy to read, well-timed, and fascinating, and addresses a poorly researched part of the Reformation. To simplistically say Protestants loved Jews and Catholics hated them is wrong. There were relatively (by the standards of the day) tolerant Catholics in for example Italy and violently anti-Jewish Protestants (for example in Germany). What is striking is the renewed interest on all sides in Jews and especially in the study of  Hebrew which was utterly transformed in both Catholic and Protestant universities. This in turn led to a genuine interest in Jews per se and in Judaism. The more you know a people the less likely you are to fall foul of lies such as the dreadful blood libels. By the end of the Reformation period, Holland and England were emerging (thanks to Calvinistic rulers but certainly not in the case of Holland especially, the clergy) as safe havens for Jews as well as places with a particular interest (which continued to this day if we look at the Puritan influence in America ) in the return of Jews to their ancestral home. But the main driver of increased tolerance  (except perhaps in England) was often not the Protestant clergy but Calvinistic rulers, over the objections of their ministers. 
I hope this book appeals both to fellow Christians wanting to understand more about our complex and at times utterly shameful and appalling history (not just Catholics) towards the Jews and to my Jewish friends to whom we can only apologize for the terrible mistakes of the past, whilst hoping that the improvement in relationships, which was notable by the end of the Reformation, can continue and deepen.
Categories: Friends
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