Blogroll: God Gold and Generals

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Book reviews and comments by Jeremy Marshall on Christian, historical and business themesJeremy Marshallnoreply@blogger.comBlogger197125
Updated: 1 hour 21 min ago

Forward with Foch: Lessons for the church in England or Ten Reasons to be cheerful (part 2 of 2)

Tue, 07/11/2017 - 18:08

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"Mon centre cède, ma droite recule. Situation excellente, j'attaque. "(My centre gives way, my right is retreating. Situation excellent: I attack")
That sums up my view of the church in England. 
In my previous post - part 1 of 2 - I pointed out the terrible decline in the Church of England over the last 50 years (my lifetime) and posed the question from VI Lenin "What is to be done"? Now, I want in the second part, to pose a different question and seek inspiration from a different source than Lenin
The question is: Are there any good or encouraging things to say about the current decline? I want to look at the church in England as opposed to the Church of England (the latter being an important part of the former).
Are we in danger of talking ourselves into despair? Many recent posts that I have seen point out accurately the declining situation but fail to make any proposals for action. 

Here are I think some "reasons to be cheerful" or "reasons not to despair"
My inspiration is a French WW1 General, Ferdinand Foch. His statue (in London) is pictured above. 
Foch was a highly original military thinker, who is famous for his victory at the Battle of the Marne - the so called "Miracle of the Marne' in September 1914. (In fairness the victory was ultimately that of General Joffre). In August 1914, WW1 broke out. A vast German army of 110 Divisions, swept forward through Belgium, following the brilliant Schlieffen Plan which dictated that the right boot of the rightmost German soldier must be in the Channel. Meanwhile the French Army, fixated by avenging the loss of Alsace-Lorraine in 1870, was attacking German defences in the East, completely oblivious to their impending doom to the West. Like two men pushing on opposite sides of a revolving door. But the danger was of a complete German victory, and Paris looked doomed. Huge piles of smoke began to billow out of French ministries as panic stricken civil servants burned confidential papers. The sound of German artillery could clearly be heard in central Paris. A tiny British Army of 4 divisions (the BEF) was somewhere in the mix: like their French allies they were in headlong retreat before the advancing German divisions.  German victory looked assured. But, you are not beaten until you are beaten. Marshal Foch rallied his forces, including the BEF, and threw them into a last gasp attempt to hold the Germans on the last defence before Paris - the River Marne. The Germans had already crossed the river, but fighting furiously, the Allies threw them back. Legend has it that part of the victory were the Parisian taxi cabs who ferried mainly Colonial troops arriving from the South to the front, in their cabs, meters running. The French treasury reimbursed the total fare of 70,012 francs. Some elements of this story maybe legendary and the number of troops ferried that way were small but Wikipedia notes "The impact on morale was undeniable, the taxis de la Marne were perceived as a manifestation of the union sacrée of the French civilian population and its soldiers at the front, reminiscent of the people in arms who had saved the French Republic Campaign of 1794: a symbol of unity and national solidarity beyond their strategical role in the battle. It was also the first large-scale use of motorised infantry in battle; a Marne taxicab is prominently displayed in the exhibit on the battle at the Musée de l'Armée at Les Invalides in Paris." (see picture above). It was also the first battle in which aircraft played a key role: Allied pilots spotted large gaps in the German lines. As well as Foch's brilliance the German advance also contained the seed of its own destruction, though that was hard to see at the time. German troops became exhausted and supplies (which were horse drawn) struggled to keep up. Also German generals became over confident that they had already won and actually moved troops from the Western to the Eastern front in fear of the impending Russian “steamroller" — which was actually going nowhere due to the incompetence of its leadership.
Foch later commanded the entire Allies to victory in 1918 and although not everything he did was as successful as the Marne, his leadership and inspiration certainly turned what looked  like inevitable defeat into eventual victory. Some idea of his strength of character can be judged by the quotes below:-
"Accepter l'idée d'une défaite, c'est être vaincu..." (Accepting the idea of a defeat, is being defeated...)
"Une assemblée pour décider doit avoir un nombre impair, mais trois, c'est déjà trop" (A committee should have an odd number of members, and three is already too many)
"A la guerre, c’est celui qui doute qui est perdu : on ne doit jamais douter." (In war, he who has doubts is lost: one should never doubt.)
"The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire"
So some suggested lessons and suggestions for action
1. Prayer
This is by far the most important. We are in urgent need of divine intervention. We cannot pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. But the darker the situation, the more we should realise that the most urgent requirement is for prayer and Gods intervention. The example of Nehemiah praying for his people in Nehemiah 1 is striking. Nehemiah blamed neither God nor "them" - either the Babylonians or "the people" - for the disasters that had happened to the Israelites. He confessed using "we". The decline in the church is ultimately "our" fault — the Christians in the UK. Its important to note that when Nehemiah heard bad news his first instinct was to pray - although then he turned to action. Both are needed but the greatest and first need is prayer. Nehemiah prayed fervently and then he swung into action.
Now what has this to do with Foch? Well, its worth noting that in an Army where belief was a disadvantage (due to the strong anti clerical traditions in the French republic of the time) Foch was a staunch Catholic. Closer to home, like Foch we need to recognise that we are in a life or death battle - in our case a spiritual battle - and that we have to fight. "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm."

2. Attack!
Foch saw that its demoralising to always be on the retreat. By imposing his will on the enemy he drove them back. But he was also realistic about what could be achieved — a defect in the pre 1914 French Army who tended to hold to the doctrine of "Attaque a l'outrance" — attack to excess. Faced with machine guns and entrenched positions this was not always smart. Foch counter attacked but he didn't or couldn't win the war in one battle, which then settled into four years of trench warfare. But he avoided defeat. 
We are of course not called to attack our enemies but to love them and try and persuade them of the Christian message. The equivalent is evangelism. But, in many churches this is almost a dirty word because it assumes (rightly in my view) that the Christian message is the only way to God. If it's not, why bother trying to share our faith? 
But we evangelicals shouldn't be complacent. What percentage of our collective time and effort goes into evangelism? We spend an awful lot of money on buildings, for example. If we were audited by aliens, as someone has said, they would conclude UK evangelicals are in the real estate business. Our conferences feature a lot of topics, many of them important like expository preaching, but shouldn't evangelism have a greater precedence? Same thing goes for social projects — it's a sobering thought that according to one estimate I read 95% of the churches giving in the USA goes to such projects and only 5% to evangelism. Yes, I am all in favour of both expository preaching and social projects and of course both help evangelism. My question is simply this: are our priorities right? Is evangelism given enough importance? 
3. Dont give up or wish we were elsewhere
Foch saw clearly that war was a battle of wills. By his own strong will he rejuvenated a shattered army. 
Our will to fight must be equally strong. But, we are of course aided in that by the fact that ultimate victory (unlike in 1914) is assured - I John 5 "For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith". And that we are not serving General Foch, but Jesus Christ, the King of Kings. 
The Bible though is also realistic — that by nature we are all cowards. Jesus's most repeated command to his disciples — by far — was "Dont be afraid". Our natural reaction to what is happening to our church is fear and even defeatism. But we are called to fight. Even out of retreats can eventually come victories — look at the shattered Allied armies in 1914 who were pushed back. But they didn't give up — unlike the French Army in 1940. 
What this means is that we must guard agains defeatism. This can manifest itself in "the country or the church is going to the dogs and theres nothing we can do". Or in a nostalgia for days gone by when things were better. Or in a sense of "circle the wagons and try and retreat from the world"
Things may be bleak — though we often view the past through rose coloured spectacles. Even the mighty prophet Elijah was rebuked by God for assuming that he was the only one left. Not so, said the Lord. We may wish we were at some other time,but God has placed us here in 2017 and our duty is to fight for his cause.  To quote Tolkien (who was also a devout Catholic, with a strong sense of "fighting a losing battle against evil" )

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo."So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

As this article in the Catholic Herald rightly says, it may well be that none of us alive today see the advance of the Christian faith in our lifetime: but the ultimate victory of Christ is certain
4. Desperate times call for desperate measures
Foch made some highly unconventional steps including using the taxi cabs because the situation was desperate. There was a strong element of complacency in the Allied Armies in 1914. As reports begun to filter through of the German advance, the view in Allied HQ was "so much the better" — the further the Germans came the easier for the Allied advance in the East to progress, it was thought. Only on the brink of disaster did the leadership realise the unutterable folly of their actions
So for the Church.  We have been complacent for far too long, asleep as the culture has drifted away from us. Because things didn't seem 'so bad' we resisted many things which are imperative. Just to take one example, look at the resistance to church planting, which seems to me one of the most important "offensive" weapons we can use. Yet in many circles (not just Anglican ones!) either outright resistance or foot dragging are the order of the day. I was really shocked when someone told me of a church plant in a large city in the UK where other evangelical pastors in the city were canvassed for support. Many were sceptical along the lines of "it wont work" or "it will poach people from our church". While the latter can sadly happen its just wrong to view church planting as a "zero sum" game where Christians are reshuffled around between x number of churches. 

I sense this is beginning to change partly driven by a realisation "things are so bad, what have we got to lose"? Barriers to change and even (shock) to radical change are being  broken down. I am not talking here about theological change but change in how we do things, including a much deeper sense of calling on God for help. 
5. Help comes in unlikely and even despised places. 
Both in 1914 and at other times in WW1 the Allies made extensive use of colonial troops, who fought very bravely, although initially their effectiveness was doubted, tinged no doubt by racial discrimination. Around 650,000 colonial troops fought for Britain and France in WW1, yet their contribution has often been overlooked.
In the same way, one of the most positive trends in UK Christianity is the explosive growth of BME churches. But, I wonder if we are doing our best to embrace them and in fact to encourage them to take leadership roles? Graham Miller the CEO of London City Mission has rightly pointed out that very often the traditional white church doesn't do a good job of supporting and pushing toward our black and Asian brothers and sisters. It is striking to me for example how few of them are given a platform to speak at major conferences. We quickly bring in well known speakers (white, male) from the USA but maybe we should be more supportive of people much close at hand? We should repent of the fact that when the parents and grandparents of todays black and Asian leadership arrived many (including some evangelical) churches encouraged them to go elsewhere and form separate churches. One of the most striking witnesses for the Christian faith is when you have  truly multicultural church that span all racial and socio-economic groups. One church that does do this well is East London Tabernacle, led by Ken Brownell. As various people have pointed out we need to build close bonds of friendship with BME churches and listen to what they want from majority churches, noit tell them what we think they want. 

6. Leadership and Organisation
The Allies were rudderless and a number of generals were defeatist. When Foch (and Joffre) took control they immediately removed a whole swathe of such men. A total of 50 corps, brigade or division commanders were removed by being sent far in the rear to the city of Limoges in SW France. This  was known as being "Limogé"
Do our church leaders need some similar (though less brutal)  intervention "pour encourager les autres" as Voltaire famously said of the execution of Admiral Byng? I just wonder why we relatively rarely hear anything from the leaders of the Church of England about evangelism and the gospel? Even if all else fails can't they just talk about Jesus? (To be fair Justin Welby, although I disagree with him on various things, is an exception on this, he often speaks about the Lord). We hear an awful lot about global warming, politics and social issues: I am not saying bishops should never speak on this but is that really the main thing? Read the Bishops Christmas messages and see what you think.
Nor is evangelicalism necessarily better. Where are the Lloyd-Jones and Stott's of long ago? There are capable men and women but it seems to be exceptionally difficult to get evangelicalism organised into an effective movement. Maybe we are so wedded to the principle of the local church that its difficult to get things moving on a broader scale? Is that biblical if we look at Acts? I am not arguing for a new denomination: we have too many already. The nearest thing to what we need is the FIEC which is a fellowship not a denomination and has been completely revitalised in recent years. Couldn't leading free church and Anglican evangelical pastors figure out some framework of co-operation which allows action that cant be tackled on a local basis to be dealt with?
7. Each victory contains the seed of its own defeat
As noted above, Foch spotted that the Germans had overreached themselves. In particular that they were advancing through a region devastated by the war and their supplies couldn't keep up with the front lines. While the Allies had the benefit of a completely intact rail network to rush troops and supplies to the front. the German troops were exhausted while the French could bring up fresh reinforcements quickly. 
The parallel here is I hope obvious. Secular materialism/atheism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. As its destroys the Judeao-Christian foundations on which our civilisation has stood for thousands of years it has little in the way of alternative moral foundations to support the collapsing buildings. "Money doesn't make you happy" is the crux of the problem with materialism while for atheists their message of "There is no God" is hardly going to fill the human heart. As society begins to unwind more and more people will feel deceived and look for alternatives. This may take some time, because "a lie can travel round the world while truth is putting its boots on". But eventually truth will out. I think here particularly of the relentless attack of both left and right on the family unit. Just wait - as that is damaged, all kinds of issues and problems will arise. This will give Christians the chance to say "There is an alternative".
For the last three 'reasons to be cheerful" I cannot find a parallel with Foch, but I want to make them anyway!
8. Clear who is a Christian and who not
In the past this wasn't at all clear. Many people considered themselves Christian because "they never did anyone any wrong" or "I'm CofE" (meaning they were English). These people were willing to "shelter" under the church label but they never went to church or had any mainstream Christian beliefs. They didn't believe that Jesus is God. (I am to be clear not talking here about fringe people who occasionally come to church and do have some Christian beliefs — in particular that Jesus is God. This is an entirely different question — these people need discipleship and encouragement and maybe in some cases a poke.) Now that church is becoming socially much less of a shelter the first group have re-labelled themselves (as Linda Woodhead has argued) as "none of the above"
Over the next twenty years therefore more and more only the committed (and hopefully more of the fringe) will self identify as Christian. We are told to produce fruit and the nearer we are to Christ the more fruit produced. Therefore, our non Christian friends should see something quite distinctive and indeed unusual in us. Whether they will see that difference is another question — which is why discipleship is also very important.
Tim Keller expresses this need to look and be different superbly in this post about the early church

9. Less people know the better: they are not vaccinated
This sounds like a paradox: are you really saying its better to know little or nothing about the Christian faith than something? Yes, exactly. Firstly many people were exposed not to true Christianity but to a version of it (often at school) which removed all the bits which were distinctive and made it about being "nice". This was (not surprisingly) also quite boring, whereas of all things true Christianity should be, boring is the last. It should be like Marmite — you either love it or hate it.  Result: like a smallpox vaccination protects you from smallpox this "gospel of niceness" was a "belief" vaccination against belief
Secondly, the fact that many people have little or no knowledge of the Christian faith means that it hits them with an immediacy. "Wow these stories are really interesting" I have found is a typical reaction. 

10. People are more open than we might think, but they have little (or a wrong) idea of Christian faith 
That has certainly been my experience doing 121 evangelism. People are very hazy about who Jesus actually was and think that the Christian faith is about "do gooding" or "be nice". 
Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University has pointed out in her extensive and helpful research on the "rise of the nones" that what is happening is that people who had a nominal Christian self labelling are now calling themselves "non religious". But relatively few of them are out and out Dawkinsite atheists. Most have a vague belief in something. 
Dr Lois Lee, another academic researching religion has written along similar lines. In a new article she notes that "Although 51% of the British population identify as non-religious, this hides some important differences within that population". Many people who identify as non religious actually have what she calls 'transcendent' world views.  
Part of evangelism must therefore be us finding out where people are at — by asking them questions. Which was very often the way Jesus worked (see John 4 for example). we need the courage of our convictions to share our faith: all of us, not just pastors and church workers. A tool like Word121 can be invaluable and i have found it tremendously helpful. See here

May God use all of the above for encouraging all of us to prayer and action. 

Categories: Friends

Review of BBC 2 programme "Reformation: Europe's Holy War" with David Starkey

Sun, 05/11/2017 - 10:53

According to recent reports, up to 200,000 mainly young people gathered recently in the main square of Kiev to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The Ukrainian president passed a decree recognising the anniversary. Given that Ukraine was hardly an epicentre of the Reformation, the contrast with the UK could not be greater. Here we should I suppose be grateful for a one hour BBC 2 documentary fronted by the irrepressible and entertaining TV historian David Starkey on the Reformation. Like the proverbial  curates egg it was “good in parts”. Dr Starkey bounds around various historical sites, there were some clever graphics using printers ink to show the Reformation spreading through print and in the inevitably compressed one hour time frame quite a lot was covered. Though Calvin, Zwingli, the Counter Reformation and indeed the rest of Europe were not even mentioned: the focus was very much pre 1540 on Luther in Germany and Henry VIII, William Tyndale and Thomas More in England.  
On the positive side, the programme  paid careful attention paid to what Luther’s ideas were and especially how they spread. The importance of sola scriptura and sola fides came across clearly as did the way in which Luther’s early attack on purgatory and influences broadened out into a much more general attack of the whole doctrinal edifice of medieval Catholicism. As Starkey said “the church had forgotten Christ and become fixated on wealth”. Joel Osteen you see had his forerunners! Luther’s  central idea was of course the question (as now) of authority: once you accept “sola scriptura” as the cornerstone everything else flows from that. Andrew Pettegree, the author of an exceptional new book on Luther “Brand Luther” was interviewed. To understand Pettegree’s ideas more generally you need to read the book, but the programme managed to convey the gist of Pettegree’s ideas. Luther was not only a superb theologian but also what we might call nowadays a brilliant marketeer. He was not a theologian debating abstract ideas in Latin with other theologians but a man with his finger on the pulse of everyman  and everywoman. He boiled down complex theological ideas into short and easy to read pamphlets. The 95 theses in Latin became 20 points in a few pages in German. Rather than two hour sermons he produced snappy, pithy, easy to read pamphlets which were expertly marketed and attractively branded. Luther also was heavily involved in the business process of actually getting his ideas out. Of course all this was guided by the Holy Spirit but nonetheless it is amazing to realise how quickly Luther’s ideas spread. Within 5 years he had produced 60 original books and was the worlds best selling author. 
Similarly William Tyndale’s  massive contribution to the Reformation in England was recognised. Ironically, the first recorded arrival of the 95 theses in England was as an attachment to a letter sent by the humanist scholar Erasmus to the man who was to become Tyndale’s sworn enemy, Sir Thomas More. Debating ideas in Latin was one thing: Starkey points out the revolutionary impact of the bible in a language that everyone who was literate could read. Uniquely in England - because of the fear of the Lollards - the bible was unavailable in any shape or form in the vernacular. The bible as the programme made clear went from something the ordinary man or woman knew about only as a concept, which could only be accessed or interpreted by their priest, to something that was directly available for all. As Starkey says, thanks to Tyndale, “The bible comes alive”.
So far so good. What was disappointing about the programme was the question of motive. Why did the ideas spread as they did? What motivated men and women to be willing to die horribly for an idea? The answer, argued Starkey was effectively politics. He maintained that Luther’s ideas appealed to the German princes because it meant they could pay less tax and to the English because as proto Brexiteers they could shake off the papal European bureaucracy. Now there were of course elements of the Reformation that were political, especially in England. Had it not been for Henry VIIIs wandering eye catching that of an attractive lady in waiting to his estranged Queen Catherine of Aragorn, things might have been very different. Truly, God works in mysterious ways. As the programme argued, Anne who was accused by her opponents of being “more Lutheran than Luther”, was a decisive influence in propagating Lutheran ideas at court. Even to the extent of giving Henry one of Tyndale's books with relevant passages highlighted for his ease of perusal  Henry was always wavering theologically backwards and forwards, depending on where his marital interests lay, even burning three Protestants and having three Catholics hung drawn and quartered on the same day, in the interest of balance. But the fundamental claim of the programme, that the main motivation of the Reformers was nationalism and politics, and by implication that it was “ top down” is deeply flawed. The idea that the Reformation  was a top down imposition of Protestant ideas in the teeth of a devoutly Catholic populace, is that of the Catholic historian Eamon Duffy in his books such as “The Stripping of the Altars”. But recent historical research has shown that both in England and Germany the main drivers were rather “bottom up” — ordinary  men and women who believed that the ideas of the Reformation  were true and were willing to die for what they believed. Perhaps the most remarkable of all these in England was a young woman, Anne Askew. Unlike her namesake Anne Boleyn, she came not from the court but from an obscure corner of England -  Lincolnshire.  Anne became convinced of the truths of the new religion through reading the Bible in English and this led her, perhaps uniquely, to challenge not only the church but her own violent and abusive husband. So off she went to Lincoln Cathedral leaving her two young children behind and started reading the Bible (in English of course) out loud to the consternation of the assembled male clergy. Next thing she is repeating this act in London, promptly arrested, eventually tortured on the rack ( highly illegally) and running theological rings round her male persecutors. Her refusal as a woman to submit to all the assembled ecclesiastical dignitaries infuriated them. Her courage is simply, even five hundred years later, astounding. Replying to Bishop Gardiner she said " the Bishop said I should be burnt. I answered that I had searched all the scriptures yet could I never find there that either Christ or his apostles put any creature to death". So weakened was she by her torture that she had to be carried by chair to the site of the execution. Her example and that of others, inspired the watching crowds, in the same way that the Roman spectators were struck by the courage of unschooled men and women who were thrown to the lions. You can read more about Anne and similarly brave witnesses in a recent book “The Burning Time” by Virginia Rounding which chronicles the Smithfield martyrs. 

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This is the real reason the Reformation succeeded. The BBC programme ultimately fell down therefore in failing to even engage with the reason why the Reformation spread like wildfire: in the final analysis not because it was politically expedient but because the ideas revealed to everyone from the scriptures in their native languages lit a flame in the hearts of ordinary men and women that have continued to this day. Five hundred years later may God fan these embers again back into the flame of a new Reformation. 

This review first appeared in "Evangelicals Now"
Categories: Friends

Lessons from Lenin for the Church of England on its attendance statistics: Part 1 of 2

Tue, 24/10/2017 - 17:59

The Church of England has released its yearly survey of attendance and other measures of participation. The figures are above. I have drawn heavily on David Keen's blog, also above, which provides an excellent analysis of the trends. As he notes, the good news is that the Church of England provides a detailed analysis of the attendance figures. Any "business" that doesn't analyse its figures will (deservedly) collapse. Now the church of England isn't a "business", but if it doesn't open its eyes and look at whats happening and take corrective action, then the same fate awaits. A plane headed straight for the ground needs to pull up. (I use quite a lot of business analogies below: church is not a business and this can be overdone but there are some obvious parallels to business - “if the cap fits wear it”. )

And there's good biblical authority for understanding whats actually happening - Matthew 16 "The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”Jesus then left them and went away.

So if we look at the numbers, the fact they are available is the good news, the rest is bad news, verging on places on the catastrophic. The pace of decline of the Church of England, which has been occurring since at least 1945, is actually accelerating. You can see a longer term analysis provided by David here

Sadly the rate of decline in children attending is even faster than for the church as a whole. In some dioceses as noted by David the figures are so bad as to take your breath away. In fact, you even wonder if they can be accurate — can any diocese lose 50% of its children in one year? But analysis of research provided by Linda Woodhead and others shows that this picture is pretty consistent — that the Church of England is melting like snow on a warm day. Although I quite often disagree with Linda Woodhead’s conclusions on what is to be done, her main point is “look at the figures” - I find it staggering as she points out that churches don’t do more data analysis, or in many cases even look at or obtain the data.

If we look in more detail, only two dioceses show any growth, and the stand out exception over the long term is London which stands in stark contrast to Southwark. For those of you not into Anglican diocesan boundaries, "London" diocese is north of the Thames and Southwark is south. This is interesting because you have two dioceses with pretty similar demographics. Not identical — "Sarf" London is more blue collar than leafy Hampstead but then you have Clapham in the South and Tottenham in the North. But the two are close enough to allow analysis.

Without this contrast, one might assume this growth in London was because of immigration (though how many Polish and Nigerian people attend the CofE is an interesting question — much more likely to be say Catholic and RCCG respectively) or because the church was better at reaching wealthy people than poor people. Which it is but thats the subject for another blog. Others have written on London diocese but to me striking is that while north of the river church planting has been embraced and supported, south of the River, Richard Coekin, in my view probably the UK's leading church planter through Co-Mission, has been shunned and ostracised. So in Southwark growth is outside the CoFE while in the London dioceses its within. Thats Southwark's loss. My point is that the London diocese has embraced church planting of all types (not just evangelicals) while Southwark and frankly most other dioceses shun it or at best are not exactly helpful. I know that from lots of Anglican churches who come to me for help on planting. In business terms this is like a business in 1990 deciding it doesn't allow customers to access it through the internet. If you shut down the main source of growth — and I am convinced church planting is key to growth — then dont be surprised if your business dies.

So does the picture look rosy for evangelicals within the CofE and in non Anglican churches? Data is not available and it would be fascinating to be allowed to see it. Why doesn't the CofE publish data for different types of church? thats how we could learn. Liberals argue that the reason is the church is unfriendly to LGBT people. Evangelicals argue its the reverse - because the church is unfaithful to God's word on this and other issues. Very well - lets have some data and a trial. Lets have a defined period of time and look at say 50 or 100 liberal Anglican churches and 50 or 100 evangelical ones and see what happens.

Without this you can only surmise, but my guess is the picture is better but not massively so. Firstly within the church of England, my assumption is that conservative evangelicals are somewhere between flat and slightly up. I dont have data but from being involved in various churches, including my own, St Nicholas Sevenoaks, I think thats a reasonable assumption. If anyone has more data I'd love to see it. It would be by the way an obvious thing to gather, as all the data exists at the church level and I wonder why nobody has done it? And from discussions with John Stevens and others at FIEC (the largest grouping of evangelical free churches) I believe a similar pattern is occurring in FIEC churches — that overall the picture is of modest growth, but certainly not collapse. So no room for complacency or evangelical triumphalism (perish the thought!). Nobody is seeing revival.

Why is this happening?

This is a vast subject, outside the scope of one blog to cover in any detail. The short answer I believe is:-

1. In the past it was socially normal to count yourself as "CofE"even if you had no religious beliefs or very fuzzy ones which amounted to nothing much more than a belief in being "nice" maybe some kind of vague Deism. As materialistic-atheism has grown (and it's a creation of the Tories as much as the Left) this kind of belief has become unfashionable. I dont necessarily see this as a universally bad thing — while maybe having a large fringe helped spread the good word, it led an awful lot of people to think they were Christians who were not. To be clear I am not talking about evangelicalism as the definition of Christian - I am talking about believing that Jesus Christ is God

Linda Woodhead has written very helpfully about the rise of the “nones” and this is where we are heading - that most people believe in nothing. Linda shows that most people are not “Dawkinsite” atheists but tick the box “none of the above”. I recommend everyone looks at her research, its extremely useful.

2.It is hard to understand  what the Church of England actually believes. Look at the recent interview of Justin Welby by Alastair Campbell in which the Archbishop couldn't answer the simple and hardly unexpected question question "Is gay sex a sin"? As Paul says "If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?" There is a spiritual battle occurring but from the ranks of bishops comes (there are exceptions but mainly this seems to me anyway to be the case) silence. The main priority seems to be trying to avoid upsetting anyone. Sounds to me a bit like the church in Laodecia.

3. If the Church of England has taken significant corrective action based on this data, which has been available for many years, then its news to me. Some things in fairness like "Reform and Renewal" have occurred but so far the impact has been small. Maybe over time they will have more impact? The single most important thing the church could do is to embrace church planting. I see sadly though little sign of this happening, mainly because the main people church planting (but not the only ones) are evangelicals. HTB in fairness has some (but far from all dioceses) supporting it, conservative evangelicals are generally stymied. Church buildings that are shut or rarely used are blocked from being used for new plants because they (maybe 50 years ago) “had an Anglo Catholic tradition”. This is the definition of insanity. Again London is a well known exception.

4. Evangelism. Few resources are put into this. If you have a business with no sales and marketing function it will die. The Church of England is maintaining its "Machinery" — its buildings — as best it can but as far as I can tell spends relatively little on reaching those who dont believe. In the case of liberals, this is because often they think there is nothing unique about the Christian faith. If a sales person turns up at your company and implies that their product is good but others are pretty much the same then why should I buy? But I am also not convinced that we evangelicals prioritise evangelism as we should. We tend to prioritise expository preaching which is vital for building up Christians but what about the 98% of the population who never darken the doors of the church? Are our pastors and vicars willing to leave the safety of their studies and commentaries and sally out into the rest of the world and engage in front line evangelism?

So, in the words of VI Lenin “What is to be done?". This is the key question. The trend is blindingly obvious but “ what is to be done”?

I still have a copy of this pamphlet, which I acquired along with others when bibles were forcibly
“ exchanged” at the border of the USSR when my father with my mother and sisters and I in tow were trying to take bibles behind the Iron Curtain. It was written in 1901 when the communists were at a low ebb. Interestingly, Lenin says that revolution will not happen by itself but that the Bolsheviks (which means majority because of the division of revolutionary parties shortly after this: his opponents were Mensheviks which means minority) need to understand whats happening in wider society and act on it. Its not enough just to wait. You have to do something. Lenin’s radicalism split the revolutionary parties and for many years Lenin was ostracised by his fellow Marxists. However, in the long run he was right. In the next 16 years Tsarist Russia collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions and Lenin and his comrades were there to pick up the pieces. They had the courage of their convictions to stand for what they thought was right. They particularly benefited from being the only political group that was consistently opposed to the First World War

Now, I am not arguing at all that the church should attempt a "coup d'etat" and unlike Lenin we are called not to murder our opponents or starve them to death, or place them into Gulag archipelagos. We should love our enemies and bless them who curse us. But I am saying that when things look desperate that is precisely the point where we need to be very clear about our message. In the not too distant future the current atheistic-materialistic consensus will begin to buckle under the weight of its own contradictions. You can see some sign of that in the breakdown of the nuclear family. As this begins to disintegrate under the combined attacks from the left and right (the latter is perhaps less obvious but if money and the market is all there is then what place for conventional families?) the cost of papering over the cracks becomes bigger and bigger as the cracks widen and grow. As Lenin could see that Tsarist Russia was going to collapse he positioned himself and his party to pick up the pieces. They did this by taking action and having a clear and consistent message (unlike sorry to say the Church of England)

This is all the more so as unlike Lenin and his followers who ended up murdering millions of innocent people we are on the side of the angels. We are on the Lord's side and have supernatural help. Lenin, despite some of the evils of Tsarist society which he was right to attack, was on the other side.

More than that as Peter said to Jesus “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life"

So my summary of “what is to be done" is as follows:-

Most important: prayer. Humanly speaking our country is like a plane heading straight into the ground. We should be shouting “pull up” The plane will only pull up with divine intervention.

A clear and unwavering conviction and message that eternal life is only found in Jesus Christ.
If this means very reluctantly breaking fellowship with the rest of the Church of England (though not Anglicans in many other countries), because it wont allow this message to be shared, then very sadly that is what we must do. We must put the word of God ahead of our culture and being “nice”

An investment in and a prioritisation of evangelism

A focus on church planting. Within the CofE we should be allowing church planting wherever.

A focus on children and young people. OCCA for example does a splendid job here with their Reboot programme.

I shall expand on this in Part 2 where I plan to turn not to Lenin for inspiration but a prominent WW1 French general....p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Arial; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Arial; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 16.0px} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} span.s2 {font-kerning: none; color: #001220; -webkit-text-stroke: 0px #001220} span.s3 {text-decoration: underline ; font-kerning: none; color: #4787ff; -webkit-text-stroke: 0px #4787ff} p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Arial; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Arial; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 16.0px} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} span.s2 {font-kerning: none; color: #001220; -webkit-text-stroke: 0px #001220} span.s3 {text-decoration: underline ; font-kerning: none; color: #4787ff; -webkit-text-stroke: 0px #4787ff} p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Arial; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Arial; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 16.0px} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} span.s2 {font-kerning: none; color: #001220; -webkit-text-stroke: 0px #001220} span.s3 {text-decoration: underline ; font-kerning: none; color: #4787ff; -webkit-text-stroke: 0px #4787ff} p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Arial; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Arial; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 16.0px} p.p3 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Arial; color: #001220; -webkit-text-stroke: #001220} span.s1 {text-decoration: underline ; font-kerning: none} span.s2 {font-kerning: none} span.s3 {font-kerning: none; color: #000000; -webkit-text-stroke: 0px #000000} span.s4 {font-kerning: none; background-color: #fdfeff}
Categories: Friends

Guest Blog: Book Review by Lukasz Krol of Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (Vintage March 2017)

Sat, 21/10/2017 - 19:18

Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari’s first widely-sold book, reviewed by Jeremy here, attempted to comprehensively chart the history of humanity. It swiftly became known for its grand, sweeping ideas. Harari famously argued that ‘we did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us’. Similarly, he made a very persuasive case that millennia of technological progress have not made humans happier or more fulfilled.

Harari continues to expound similar claims in his later writings. One of his articles argues that humans create and inhabit man-made realities, such as religion or even Pokemon Go. This is a fascinating idea that deserves further thought. Unfortunately, both Harari’s further articles and his latest book, Homo Deus, fail to develop it in sufficient depth.
Harari is at his strongest when explaining (accurately) why everything will change, as demonstrated by his brilliant analysis of immortality. Homo Deus argues that physical limitations have been the key factor that shaped our existing social and political configurations. Soldiers risk their lives on battlefield in an attempt to to cheat physical death, because dying in the name of the nation would bestow a sense of immortality unto them.

But what would happen if physical limitations such as death were to disappear? Harari insists that medical advances could allow us to live forever. If we achieved immortality, then we would no longer need to pursue it through grand projects or major sacrifices. None of the current mental structures we currently embrace, be they nation or religion, would function in the same way if immortal humans no longer needed to worry about the finite.

Still, Homo Deus fails remarkably when it comes to getting right the small details that underpin its analyses. Harari has, for example, completely misunderstood the role that religion and spirituality play in people’s lives. For him, humanity has already gone through two stages: the divine and the humanist. First, people’s lives were characterised by a nearly blind obedience to God’s will often mediated through local religious figures. Then, in the humanist era, all that mattered were individual feelings and motivations. In a typically Nietschean manner, Harari asserts that God has died. Now, only humans matter and that they are now free to explore their own desires through means such as consumerism, meditation, and introspection.

Still, he conveniently forgets how people frequently paid lip service to the Church in the past, while frequently indulging in their own (often immoral) desires. He overlooks just how important spiritual life and inward examination, as opposed to a blind obedience of religious leaders, proved to be in the early Church. A more critical (and perhaps post-Christian, in the Rowan Williams sense of the term) reading of history would point to a completely different conclusion: religion becomes much less hypocritical, and much more genuine, when it focuses more on the transformation of individuals than on social and political duty.

It would be easy to gloss over those errors, and argue that they solely result from insufficient research. But the real problem lies much deeper: Harari spends much of his effort on discussing how the human sense of morality and meaning will change in the far future. It is difficult to trust his predictions on this matter when he fails to accurately trace historical processes on issues as important as religion, introspection, and meaning.

This does not mean that all of Harari’s thinking about religion and spirituality is necessary wrong. He is correct in one thing: the progress of technology is likely to make our current moral systems unrecognisable in a couple of centuries. If technology allows us to be immortal (and this seems doubtful - but it may prolong life) then the Christian notion of life will undoubtedly need to be re-examined as well. And there has been worryingly little theological thinking and research of how religion will react to such a future. Harari acknowledges this: one of his other articles describes how religion has largely reacted to technology rather than prepared for it. But, given the analytical shortcomings in his work, I would hardly trust him to make more detailed predictions about how humans will embrace morality and meaning in the centuries to come. To paraphrase one of my former lecturers - historians shouldn’t predict the future; they are bad enough at predicting the past as it is.
Categories: Friends

Notes from a Reformation Conference with Garry Williams and Ken Brownell on 7th October at East London Tabernacle

Wed, 18/10/2017 - 18:05

( I missed Ben Virgo's talk unfortunately. Any mistakes in the notes are my responsiblity not the speakers!)
Garry Williams - Young Luther
The Reformation is a rip roaring story. God works in history not in abstract theology.
The C16th was a very different life and hard for us to imagine today. 
The religious reality was that everyone was (or thought they were) a "Christian". The whole of life was woven into the church through ceremonies, festivals and rituals. 
The church taught that you were regenerated by baptism but you could lose your salvation through the ill defined "mortal sins"  and so lose the state of grace. If you made confession (or desired to do so ) you would be restored to grace. But you would still be left with temporal punishment - your sin must be atoned for by purgatory. So you would need to do "works of satisfaction" to avoid 100,000s of years in the terrible and painful purgatory
Seven sacraments: the  central one the mass: the church taught it was actually the body and blood of Jesus which gave it extraordinary power. Rarely would the laity get to eat the bread (wine being for the priest only) but looking at it was enough: can still see in some churches slots in the rood screen at head height if kneeling - "elevation squints". Seeing the moment where the bread changed to body would be enough for the congregation. Multiple masses were held at once in the same church and the congregation would hurry around to try and see them all. 
Luther was taught and brought up in thinking informed by teaching of the "Via moderna" -  attempting to answer the question "what must I do to be saved"? 
"Do your best" was the summary of this teaching. God knows we are sinful and cant reach the 100% we need to "pass". So he graciously makes an agreement with us - if you do your best I God will consider it good enough.  This "best' comes from our own  natural efforts not grace. Works based thinking, even though our works aren't good enough it's about God "meeting us halfway" if you like. Semi Pelagian 
Garry challenged us to inhabit Luther's universe and believe what Luther believed pre Reformation - how does it feel ? 
Every day we think
"Have I committed a mortal sin?" (definition unclear)
"Have i confessed it sincerely?" 
"Have I done enough penance?"
"Have I done my best today?"
Result not surprisingly was fear and anxiety 
Famously for Luther this fear was in a thunderstorm - "St Anne help me!"
But also as a friar celebrating his first mass. He cannot do it: he feels unworthy to hold body of Jesus 
This sense of unworthiness and fear is the dominant experience for rest of Luther's life, including post Reformation. 
We know little about the Reformers personal conversion. For Calvin almost nothing. Even for Luther where we have more biographical information we don't even know which year - 1519 Luther himself suggests in his autobiographical fragment - which seems very late. 
What we do know is that he went public 31/10/1517
The key issue at debate was that of Indulgences, which got you out of purgatory. The church had it claimed the "Power of the keys". It was able to offer not only forgiveness (if you paid) for specific sins but if you paid much more it would sell you plenary indulgences - for all sins past present or future. This was the ultimate "Get out of jail free card." Tetzel was selling them in Germany to help the new Archbishop of Mainz pay off his debts to his bankers, which he had incurred to pay the Pope for his new post in the first place. As Tetzel entered a town he would display the papal Bull of indulgence on a velvet cushion. This if you are an ordinary German all you know as you can't read the bible. Tetzel had a great sales technique pulling on people's heartstrings. He would say "Listen to the voices of your dead relatives and friends beseeching you to release us... they say 'will you let us lie here in flames will you not for a quarter of a florin free us from Purgatory'... the moment you do freedom will soon as the coin in the box doth rings the soul from Purgatory doth spring."
Wittenbergers went en masse to buy them. 
Luther decides to start an academic debate. The 95 Theses are not a reformation manifesto
But events acquire a momentum of their own: they were quickly translated into German and spread like wildfire. 
Very dangerous for Luther who was criticising very powerful people and whole papal system. 
Debate became quickly about authority. Luther was inexorably pushed to position of sola scriptura. 
Other people have made similar criticism  before: why does this become the Reformation? 
1. Printing.
2. Politics. Frederick the Wise the ruler of Saxony protects him and Charles V the Holy Roman Empire who has overall control of most of Europe is distracted by Spain and the Turks. It is key that Charles honours the safe passage he offers to Luther on his way to the Diet of Worms - unlike Huss whose safe conduct was torn up and as a result Huss ended up burnt at the stake. 
3. Reformations plural is best way to think of it. 
Luther's personal journey is that to start with he understood the phrase "the Righteousness of God" to be the attribute by which He punishes sin. Romans 1 for Luther is thus a disaster. "I hated God and was angry with him." The gospel he saw as bad news and adds sorrow on sorrow. 
Then he reads Paul and finds the gospel is good news and that the real meaning of Gods righteousness is 180 degrees from what he thought.  
Ken Brownell on Luther's later years and prayer 
Katerina Von Bora was one of the nuns smuggled out of the nunnery in fish barrels. All the other nuns married quickly, but Katerina took her time and in the end it was  she that proposed to Luther. Luther married at 41. He acknowledged the improvement in his lifestyle - before marriage "My bed wasn't washed for a whole year and was foul"
They enjoyed a very large  "manse". They were always entertaining many travellers and needy people, plus Luther was giving a rolling "stream of consciousness" teaching as they ate meals to his students - his "Table talk:. She was financially sophisticated and even started a brewery. They had 6 children. He approved of and liked husbands changing nappies - when people laughed at him Luther said "Let them laugh, God and his angels are smiling". Two children sadly died in infancy. Forgiveness in marriage he saw as key. 
Luther's political involvement grew over time eg Peasants revolt. While initially sympathetic, as violence grew Luther condemned the peasants and promoted violent repression. He came to be very politically conservative and identify with rulers. 
Luther got bogged down in controversies with many people eg Anabaptists.  As time wore on he became violently anti Semitic. In old age somewhat cranky. Disappointed that the Jews didn't respond to the Reformation, his language became intemperate and then even violent. Also true in controversies with other reformers especially around the Lords Supper at Marburg with Zwingli. Violent in language. 
Prayer and pastoral 
Luther strong on prayer
Luther can help us to pray. A close friend wrote "No day passes  that he (Luther) doesn't give three hours to prayer....once I happened to hear him. Good God! How great a spirit, how great a faith was in his very if he was speaking with God with such hope and faith, as with a father and a friend "
Luther himself said “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”
Luther stressed our relationship with God who has adopted us into his family if we trust in Christ. He is no longer a terrifying judge. Pray as children to a father. Stressed Lord's Prayer "our father ".   
"Earnest and familiar talking with God" Knox's definition of prayer: no prettying up but honest and even impulsive. Bring big petitions urged Luther - "your Father is a generous (billionaire) who offers up everything and anything but  we ask for a bowl of beggars broth ". 
All the Reformers stressed the role of the Holy Spirit who is active 
The Devil hates prayer 
The ally of the devil is our lazy old nature which we have we have to fight. Luther said   “You must learn to call on the Lord. Don’t sit all alone or lie on the couch, shaking your head and letting your thoughts torture you. Don’t worry about how to get out of your situation or brood about your terrible life, how miserable you feel, and what a bad person you are. Instead, say, “Get a grip on yourself, you lazy bum!" Fall on your knees, and raise your hands and eyes toward heaven. Read a psalm. Say the Lord’s Prayer, and tearfully tell God what you need.” 

Garry Williams on Luther's Theology of the Cross
Luther would have been a quarrelsome person to have in your church
Not only as an anti Semite. He would have had little time for you if you advocated
adult Baptisma position on the real presence in the Lords Supper which was different to hisThe "Two kingdoms" view - Luther thought one kingdom ruled by a Christian princeSecular education
Opinions held today by Christians differ widely from Luther
He disagreed vehemently and violently 
So are we really heirs of Luther? 
Authority of scripture and justification by faith alone we do share
Theology of the cross is the key to understanding Luther: by which he meant something broader than what we might think: Luther meant the Christian life and Luther's world view. This is the heart of Luther. In the Heidelberg disputation he spoke of Christians as "people of the cross". All Christians must be cross shaped. How and where you come to know God and then how day by day you practice Christian living. Where can God be found? Strange places replied Luther because God hides himself. 
We are impatient with mystics but Luther was not. In Exodus God appears by hiding himself.
Luther asked "Where is death and wrath and hell most visible ?"  At the cross:  God appears in his own opposites. The last place humanly speaking you would look to see a revelation of God. "See how His heart beats with such love for you that it bears such pain ...look at the cross and you will find the fatherly heart and be drawn to him". 
Why? It allows room for faith. Everything that we believe is not seen. We believe life when we see death, mercy when we see wrath. Faith rather than sight. What Luther called "Naked trust. "
This extends to the believers own sufferings. The cross is unique to Christ but we are also called in a sense to share it. To carry the cross and follow our master.  In a sense therefore, argued Luther, the experience of the cross extends to the believer. Human experience and Christian life are shown there. Faith joins us to Christ and unites us with him. We should show a cross shaped life. Makes us conformable  to Christ. 
Our "anfechtung" are based on Jesus's. If God is our father he will take us into suffering. because He loves us. The word "anfechtung" was central to Luther's writing: its a German term which is hard to translate into English - could mean trials, temptations, affliction, tribulation, inward sadness, fear, poverty, scorn, illness and weakness 

Comes out in his own biography. If we accuse ourselves God pardons us. Even our good works are flawed. But if we think "actually that was quite good". we are in danger.
Luther lived his theology, or his theology was shaped by his life. He had the constant threat of death. Isolated. Discouraged. Disappointed with his followers "i would rather preach to mad dogs". In 1530 he was so fed up with his congregation that he stopped preaching for six months. 
Luther characterised Christian life as an experience of death and hell. First die and then be raised up. Feel death at hand. All forms of suffering. Fear of death is "real death". 
We all look for praise : Luther said we must resist: when we feel proud its as if we take ourself by the ears and make ourselves long donkey ears and decorate them with golden bells "God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble ". 
We are blessed when we struggle and feel weak. If God left us with no temptation that is the worst because we are vulnerable to pride. Joseph's life and his suffering is a pattern. God has hidden himself under his opposite. "God hides himself under the form of the worst devil". "God cannot be God unless he first becomes a devil".
God uses the devil, evil and suffering for his own purposes. Luther as much a Calvinist as Calvin - in fact he even says things that Calvin wouldn't say. Certainly, he believed in God's sovereignty. God has the devil under his control but the devil is unwittingly accomplishing Gods purposes. We see  that on the cross - the greatest evil in human history but also the greatest thing for good. 
Just endure and wait for the Lord advised Luther. Be joyful and of good courage. But that's not always possible acknowledged Luther: so if you can't do that just cling on. Jacob wrestling with God just holds on. Saints in bible were not senseless logs. They were not always firm and strong. Look at circumstances because that shows that God loves you. Give thanks in all circumstances. 
But Luther didn't stop there: he also had a strong Theology of the resurrection. We mustn't stop at humiliations but have to reach exaltation via the cross, whatever your affliction and there can be many types every Christian believer goes through. Antidote to prosperity gospel "life should be easy" shouts the culture both secular and parts of the Christian church. Luther a realist. 

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"Come and learn how to carry a cross on the way to death " is maybe unlikely to be seen outside a church as a poster. Glossy magazine covers are a lie. "Everything is uncertain only death is certain" Augustine. But through suffering we are redeemed.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

Book review: Charles Darwin, Victorian myth maker by AN Wilson (John Murray, Sept 2017)

Sun, 08/10/2017 - 12:58

Let’s imagine that a new biography of Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha had been written by someone who was neither a follower of their teaching nor a trained theologian. The biography was somewhat critical in some respects but also praised them in many areas. It especially pointed out the way in which their ideas influenced subsequent thinkers in a dangerous way. The result, lets imagine, was a storm of criticism by the followers of the biographical subject, based especially on the cheek of someone who is neither an adherent nor has any formal religious or historical training in daring to write about their hero. Substitute  Darwin for Jesus and science for theology and history and you have much of the reaction to AN Wilson’s new biography of Charles Darwin. Many reviewers are infuriated by the temerity of Wilson in even daring to write something about their hero, let alone to criticise him. Abuse is poured on abuse “ abysmal..worst book ever written on Darwin…rubbish…tripe…etc etc.” To me that proves that the view of Darwin amongst some scientists is analogous (oh the irony)  to that of fundamentalist devotees of a religion. 
In fairness, not all the criticism is wrong and there are serious flaws in the book as the saner reviewers who are willing to at least engage with Wilson’s criticism demonstrate. Various factual inaccuracies  have been pointed out by these reviewers and a more careful proofreading and fact checking would have provided less free ammunition to the devotees of Darwin to load into their cannon. More seriously, the contention that Wilson’s lack of scientific training leads him to confusion on various points  about the validity of Darwin’s findings on evolution and natural selection seem to me to be in many places correct. As one of the more saner critical reviewers suggest, the book would have benefited from “more time for research and consultation with specialist academics and scientific historians”.  There is a case to be made as to the limitations and indeed wholesale errors and revisions of Darwin’s theories which continue to be debated by scientists to this day, but this is book not it! 
What remains though is a very readable account of Darwin’s life which is best read from the perspective of a historian of Victorian England - an area where Wilson has considerable credibility with a string of popular and well researched biographies and histories. 
Wilson begins with Darwin’s vast and very wealthy family, who made their fortune through pottery manufacturing and were steeped in science and the teaching of Unitarianism. This as the name implies denies the Trinity and attempts to match the teachings of Christ with reason and the culture of the age. It is worth noting that Darwinism did not lead inexorably to disbelief in Christianity but that the trend was much more the other way round. As rationalism and liberalism undermined Christianity from the inside the whole structure of Christian belief had already been severely weakened before Darwin . As Wilson points out in 1817 even Jane Austen wrote “ I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to become evangelicals” but 50 years or so later George Eliot and many other thinkers had moved decisively in the opposite direction, driven mainly by the impact of German liberalism.
Darwin himself, though he didn’t believe that Jesus was divine ( as a letter which emerged long after his death showed) was very concerned about the impact of his ideas on the church and as Wilson showed “played his cards very close to his chest” when it came to Christianity, both because he disliked controversy and because  he was concerned about the impact of his ideas. "On the Origin of Species" deliberately avoids discussion of the human species, argue Wilson. Wilson also shows that many Christians, even committed evangelicals, saw no incompatibility between the  bible and Darwin’s writings. It was Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”, who turned the natural selection guns on the church. Here the church was its own worst enemy, especially in the infamous debate at Oxford in 1860 where Bishop Wilberforce, very unwisely, asked Huxley whether he was descended from apes on his grandmother or grandfathers side?. Huxley, who up to this point had got the worst of the debate supposedly murmured “the Lord has delivered him into mine hands” and the rest is history.
Darwin’s family also plays a key role in one of Wilson’s main criticisms: that Darwin plagiarised others research and eliminated or sidelined their contribution to what he usually (unless writing to his co researchers) called “his theory”. In particular that Darwin was heavily influenced by his grandfathers work in the same area: Erasmus Darwin had proposed that all life sprang from non life in the ocean flow. His grandson, argues Wilson, sought to airbrush his grandfathers influence out of his life, to present his theories as springing fully formed from Darwin’s mind. The same thing, suggest Wilson happened not only with Erasmus Darwin but with the scientist Alfred Russel Wallace who arrived at the theory of evolution independently and whose letter spurred Darwin to publish his long researched ideas. As well as the much less known Calcutta based Edward Blyth on whose work Darwin drew heavily. Wilson is balanced here : he shows that both Wallace and Darwin behaved with honour when they realised they had made the same discovery. His point is more general: that Darwin sought to portray in general his theories as “all his own work”whereas in reality (like all scientists) he drew heavily on others. 
The best of the book is really Darwin the man rather than the appraisal of his science, which as I have stated, is not the books strong point. The account of Darwin’s youthful interest in geology is informative and even though his voyage on the Beagle has been extensively written about elsewhere, Wilson makes some interesting points. For example about Darwin's typically Victorian attitude towards the “ savages” of Tierra del Fuego. Although the book has been accused of being a hatchet job on its subject, the book stresses not only his scientific abilities ( a brilliant naturalist and indefatigable and loyal correspondent) but also his human qualities, in particular as a devoted husband and father. The heartbreaking death from TB of his beloved young daughter Annie is a key milestone:  her tragic illness drove away the last vestiges of Darwin’s religious belief. The last twenty years of his life were spent mainly in seclusion and often in bed in his home in Kent, partly because of the constant stream of celebrity hunters wanting to see the great man and partly because of Darwin’s growing hypochondria. Darwin, argues Wilson, picked up some kind of disease on the Beagle, that was lactose intolerant, so his habit of retreating to bed with milk was the worst thing he could have done.
The other part of the biography that has attracted fury from his disciples ( a word I use deliberately ) is the impact of Darwin's work on subsequent thinkers that developed his ideas. Unlike the scientific arguments above, I consider this criticism quite unfounded. Wilson does not say that Darwin caused Nazism and is nuanced in his criticism. He shows for example how warmly how another influential and heavily bearded prophet, Karl Marx, embraced Darwin's work - in some ways a very unlikely alliance. But it is inescapable that Darwin’s ideas were seized upon by even his own son George and by his cousin Francis Galton to advance the morally bankrupt ideas of eugenics — that the intellectually deficient should be limited in their right to marry and have children — or even sterilised. There is an inescapable direct line from Darwin through  his own family to the malign figure of Herbert Spencer then to Hitler. Those like other reviewers of the biography who argue bizarrely that the causation is rather from the bible show their ignorance of history. Wilson is surely right to say that “Darwin, Galton and Spencer made into a disastrous commonplace the notion that aggressive competition is the guiding principle behind the universe.” 
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The fact that any criticism  of Darwin or even his followers provokes such a storm of vituperation is proof to me also that Wilson is right when he says “ the worship of Darwin as a man, the attribution to him of…the discoveries of others…this is all necessary to bolster the religion of Darwinism.” The  abusive reaction to the book underlines this point. Any “religion” stands or falls on whether it is true. Darwinists should allow free debate about their founder and his propositions in the same way that Christians should about theirs. Christians have often been their own worst enemy when it comes to Darwin  - see for example my recent review of the autobiography of  someone who grew up in a religiously fundamentalist home - “In the days of rain” where the authors father carefully cuts out any reference to Darwin from the encyclopaedia. 

We should therefore avoid the mistakes of Bishop Wilberforce and engage in scientific and theological debates with our atheistic and agnostic friends  in an open, friendly and respectful search for truth. While Wilson is not the best place to start on Darwin the scientist, he is certainly worth reading on Darwin the man and the impact of his ideas. 
Categories: Friends

Should we model ourselves on 117 not 1517?

Sat, 30/09/2017 - 16:12

This is not meant to suggest we shouldn't celebrate the Reformation. I have written a lot about why we should. Nrext week I am going to a conference about it and plan to write a blog on it.
But when it comes to evangelism, sharing our faith,  I wonder if we should be thinking more about 117 than 1517. 
If we look at the book of Acts we see that the apostles tailor their message to their different audiences. For example, compare Paul's message to a predominantly Jewish audience in Pisidian Antioch in chapter 13, with how he addresses pagan Greeks in chapter 17.
So I suggest should we. And because the world today is very different to 1517 our message and crucially our source material should I think in some ways be more like 117 than 1517. This also means that the logical starting point for sharing our faith may well be the life of Jesus (i.e. the gospels) rather than the Pauline epistles. 
In 1517, everyone would have accepted that there was a God and that Jesus was God. They would have differed in terms of how we can be made right with God and there would have been much confusion about basic biblical beliefs. This was revealed for example by the reforming Bishop Hooper of Gloucester who on visiting the clergy in his diocese in 1551 discovered that half of them didn't know the 10 commandments and there were also high levels of ignorance about the Lords Prayer and the Creed. Out of 311 clergy examined only 79 were judged satisfactory. With clergy like this no wonder the laity were confused at best and ignorant at worst. Assuming this was not dissimilar elsewhere in Europe, much of the task of the Reformers was to educate people who believed in God and that Jesus was God but were otherwise muddled, especially thinking that God accepts us because we are good. Incidentally, for any Catholic friends reading this, much of the Counter Reformation was the Catholics stealing the Protestants educational methodology, albeit with different tunes. So for example in Spain, where the Reformation made little progress, the Catholic church was already "reforming" itself and especially had poured money and resources into theological education
But in 1517 there were no atheists or even agnostics. There were atheists in the ancient World, notably among Greek playwrights and philosophers from the 5C BC onwards. But in early modern Europe there were none. The very word "atheist" is a later invention. It was only around 150 years later at the end of the c17th that anything like "proto atheists " began to evolve. Even then thinkers in the C17th who were accused of atheism, like Hobbes and Spinoza, were really "deists": that is to say they denied a personal revealed God, whether Christian or other, but believed in some kind of divine being or at least "first cause."
One reason for the fact that there were no overt atheists in Europe (nor in Islamic lands) was that the penalty for atheism was death. Christians of one sort or another controlled all states in western and north Central Europe. 
The situation earlier was very different. The year 117 saw the Emperor Trajan (pictured above) in power and he was a well known persecutor of the Christians. We know quite a lot about this because of the letters of one of his governors Pliny to Trajan - I actually did them for O Level Latin! Top marks, since you ask :). Pliny, an educated man, was worried that he was executing Christians on the emperors instructions, who seemed relatively harmless and asked for guidance from Rome . 
Pliny wrote "It the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition." Trajan replied "You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age." 
These Christians were very brave: as of course were the martyrs of the Reformation whom we should also remember. In Roman times one Christian wrote "It's a beautiful thing to God when a Christian does battle with pain.When he faces threats, punishments and tortures by mocking death and treading underfoot the horror of the executioner; when he raises up his freedom in Christ as a standard before kings and princes; when he yields to God alone, and—triumphant and victorious—he tramples upon the very man who has pronounced the sentence upon him.God finds all these things beautiful. " (Minucius Felix, writing a little later in The Octavius 37)So Christians were persecuted and faced death for their beliefs in 117. Most people at that time were of course "religious" although there were some in the elite who either doubted the whole thing or saw religion as convenient fodder  for the masses but not very credible. There were again few atheists. But there was tremendous  religious pluralism and confusion. Just like today! Every time Rome conquered another country they would happily incorporate their Gods into the Roman pantheon. Many of the "coolest" Gods and myths such as Mithras in the second century AD were borrowed from the east. The only thing that was required of any religion was tolerance of other Gods and in particular a willingness to worship ( a small pinch of incense sufficed) the emperor. This was of course precisely and uniquely what Christians (and Jews) were unwilling to do. 

The situation today is much nearer to 117 than 1517. Christians dont have a monopoly of power or even a privileged position in society. The UK is not (and hasn't been for many years) a "Christian" country. Its taking us time to get used to that. Most people around us ( I exclude our Muslim or Hindu friends and colleagues) are in practice likely to be atheist or agnostic. A simply staggering statistic is that according to a recent survey nearly 50% of people in the U.K. think that either Jesus didn't exist or they are not sure, that he is a mythical figure like Robin Hood or King Arthur who may or may not have existed. 
So the challenges we face with most of our friends when sharing their faith is that a) they don't think there is a God b) they don't think, or aren't sure, that Jesus even existed. 
Yet I think that many of our evangelistic sermons and messages are still tending to use more of a 1517 paradigm. In particular I am struck - and I have no quantitative evidence for this and am happy to be corrected if needed - how many pastors say that Romans is their favourite book. Romans is of course a towering book and I can see that for a pastor Romans is tremendously helpful as it works through the Christian message systematically. But I suggest that for the non Christian in the UK a better place to start is a gospel such as John. 
The traditional evangelistic talk or sermon certainly 30 years ago and even today starts with God, then moves to sin, then Jesus life, then atonement, then justification, then calls for a response, then outlines how you live as a Christian. The gospels start (at least in John) with Jesus the word, then describe his life and teaching and miracles, then his death and resurrection. To be very clear I am not saying we shouldn't teach about sin, or justification or atonement (it's pretty hard to get through John 3 without doing that) but that it's much more likely to interest our non Christian friends if we do so through a Jesus orientated biographical lens than a Pauline theological one. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't study Paul or that there may be contexts where this kind of approach works, but my contention is that for the average non Christian the gospels and the question "who is Jesus" are the place to start.
A final reason is that like it or not (and we probably don't like it) our culture is highly suspicious of abstract ideas and moral ultimates like theology. If we start with them we risk losing our audience before we begin. They are true but not the best way to start. It's like teaching maths starting with calculus but with the very concept of numbers not understood. Conversely, as Glynn Harrison has well argued in his very helpful recent book "A Better Story", stories are very much the way in which today's society passes on ideas and how peoples opinions get changed over time. We Christians have failed, he argues, to capture peoples' imaginations in the way that our opponents  - especially on sexual matters - have done. We need Harrison argues cogently a "better story" and we have one.  In fact, in the words of Hollywood which are often quoted cynically but are true - it's "the greatest story ever told".
There are various ways to do this. Christianity Explored for example is based on Mark's gospel. The theme is (Jesus's) Identity - Mission - Call. The Word 121 which I have personally found so good is simply notes on John. I find that many people are gripped by Jesus's series of encounters with different people. But even if we can't persuade our friends to do a course or a 121 we can at least tell them about Jesus and relay stories about him, for of course the gospels are packed with them. And paradoxically the fact that our audience may well have never heard the stories before (unlike previous generations which learned them at school in scripture) is good. For they haven't been "vaccinated" against them! These stories have all the more impact because they are fresh
So if we have confidence in the gospels God will use them for his glory. It's not about us but about Him and by using the gospels we give the purest and most powerful way of introducing our friends to Him

(My thanks to Chris Bennett for some stimulating recent teaching on this subject)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}

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