Blogroll: God Gold and Generals
I read blogs, as well as write one. The 'blogroll' on this site reproduces some posts from some of the people I enjoy reading. There are currently 8 posts from the blog 'God Gold and Generals.'
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This excellent new book by Graham Tomlin ( who is both Bishop of Kensington and president of St. Mellitus College London) looks at an area of great debate - what is human freedom? Many opponents of Christianity either portray God as a miserable being trying to control us (one thinks of Philip Pullman for example) or a non existent idea which just ties us up in guilt and stops us doing what we want and achieving happiness. The argument goes that if we can just do what we like we will be truly happy. “Freedom offers the opportunity to do what I like to do...no government or religion can tell me what to do or think, there are no limitations of morality that I have to observe “. This means I can decide anything I like including these days for example my gender - whatever I want to do that makes me happy. Choice is the supreme good (a key idea of the market economy of course as well) and the main argument against Christianity is that it makes us unhappy because it is inherently oppressive and restrictive. God represents all thy we need to escape form - guilt, hierarchy, male domination and a punitive church authority.
Graham Tomlin in this very good new book points out that this view has a number of serious inherent limitations. What do we use our freedom for? The “prison door” of religion it is argued swings open but what then? What when my freedom to do what I like comes into conflict with what others want? What if freedom to do what we like is like freedom for a drug addict to take heroin? What if the sum of all freedoms is disaster? Climate change where millions of individuals free actions appear to be killing the planet is a good example. Tomlin in the bulk of the book traces the debate around human freedom and happiness throughout history. His central point is borrowed from Isaiah Berlin. Freedom is not so much about destroying constraints, but only makes sense when we have an answer to the question "Who are we and what do we use our freedom for."A number of writers have been hugely influential here, notably JJ Rousseau. Nature, he argued, should be allowed to take its course. Children should educate themselves and find freedom by throwing off social convention and returning to an original and pure state. This was developed further by the Victorian thinker John Stuart Mill - where only the individual is concerned, society has no right to intervene. But as Tomlin points out this is problematic. As soon as we decide to drive our own 'car' as we like we begin to collide with others 'cars'- like bumper cars at a fair. Other writers have pointed out that true happiness involves some restrictions on freedom - marriage being an obvious example. Nor does modern consumerism lead to happiness despite the blandishments of the advertising industry. Freedom can be catastrophic if it leads to disaster. In fact as Iris Murdoch points out Lucifer in Milton's great work “Paradise Lost” is the archetype and ultimate destination of freedom “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”. If we look at the bible Jesus talked about freedom as did Paul but interestingly of the two words used in the NT we translate into "freedom" the most common is a word used for freedom from captivity or slavery. As Paul points out, there is a war going on between the powers of light and darkness. The Christian is freed from slavery to the power of darkness not to some kind of free choice limbo but to become instead sons and daughters of God. The God for whom we are made and who loves us and without whom we can’t find happiness. The God who wants to give us the fruits of the spirit rather than the fruits of the flesh This kind of line of thought was powerfully developed, argues Tomlin, by the greatest of all Christian thinkers since the bible - Augustine. 1600 years ago he captures what the novelist Flannery O’Connor described as follows “The Catholic novelist believes that you destroy your freedom by sin while the modern reader believes that you gain it this way”. Augustine in his famous “Confessions” tells the story of how as a boy he and friends ransacked a pear tree not for the pears - they threw most away - but for the illicit enjoyment of doing something wrong.In fact argues Augustine all sin is an attempt to find happiness and beauty in created things rather than the creator. Creation itself is good, it’s just that we use it wrongly. There are no bad things just good things used badly. Creation was meant to lead us to God not be an end in and of itself. To try and find happiness in things like sex, fun and wealth is to turn away from the very being they point to - God - and in the end they will turn to dust and ashes in our hands. God knows how to make us happy but we have to be willing to listen to "the makers instructions". (CS Lewis is very good on this in the "Narnian fall temptation scene" in the 'Magician's Nephew'). Says Tomlin “though Augustine doesn’t use this language the best example is that of addiction...the addict is no longer free to choose to give up the drugs ...only free to continue in bondage to what will ultimately destroy him”. Freedom insisted Augustine is freedom for something - it’s not a void but is meant to orientate us towards both God who gives us freedom as a gift and towards our fellow human beings. Christian freedom is about relationships with God and human society. As Luther notes because freedom is a gift it actually creates relationships. “The Christian free of the fear of death chooses to dedicate his or her freedom not to pleasure but to their neighbour ”. Secular freedom on the other hand tends to be a lonely dead end where we are free to do what we like but at the cost of being alienated from both God and humans. True happiness lies in understanding that we are meant for God but are enslaved by evil. God gives us freely our freedom which enables us to choose what makes us really happy - to see good and evil as they really are. Tim Keller puts it this way "Because a fish absorbs oxygen from water, not air, it is free only if it is restricted to water. If a fish is ‘freed’ from the river and put out on the grass to explore, its freedom to move and soon live is destroyed...Real freedom is finding the right [restrictions]"In summary a very easy to read book with much applicability to all kinds of modern debates. One minor caveat is that i would have liked to hear more from Graham himself: its really useful to have the debate summarised but personally i would have liked more of the authors views. But what it does brilliantly is summarise the main arguments over the last 2000 years in a very short space.Graham Tomlin's conclusion I sum up like this (my words not his)
"God is not a 'killjoy' trying to make us miserable us but a 'killdeath' trying to rescue us. True happiness is not the freedom to do what we want which is, if we but knew it, a form of addiction which leads to death. It’s rather the freedom to be happy by being liberated from slavery to evil and becoming children of God, doing what we will make us truly happy - to live and be loved by our Heavenly Father. "
What's our biggest problem as Christians?
I suggest it is this: that we dont know God enough, we dont trust him enough, we dont love him enough and that we dont pray to him enough. But you know this is not a new problem. And in a strange way we should find that encouraging. For another group of Christians had the same problem - Jesus's disciples. Remember they were with the Lord himself for three years and their general slowness and dopiness should encourage us that God is patient and loving and always seeking to draw us nearer to Himself.
How does he do that?
Lets look at the gospel of Mark, the story of Jesus in the storm
'35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.”36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”'
Firstly, v 35 "let us go over to the other side"
Jesus knew exactly what was coming - he knew there was going to be a storm. He deliberately placed his followers in harms way. Being close to the Lord is no guarantee of a trouble free life - rather the reverse. The same for us.
God leads us into suffering so that he may show us more of himself. Suffering can be redemptive. One of the most helpful verses I have found with cancer is from Genesis when Joseph says "You meant it for harm but God meant it for good". As I put it in my own case "the cancer cells meant it for harm but God meant it for good". The uncertainty, difficulties for my family, pain, frustrations, and fear, are all there, but the joy of being involved in the Lord’s work, of seeing him at work in those I’ve been able to introduce to Christ has been really wonderful. In fact, I have had more opportunities to share faith in the last 3 years than the previous 52 combined. You can read more about my story and others in the City with "City Lives" which is available at the back and is designed to be given away to our non Christian friends.
Where's the ultimate place we see that? When we stand at the foot of the cross. The devil and all the forces of evil in the universe meant it for evil but no - God used it for our good.
So when things go wrong we need to remember this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me”.
Secondly, v 37-38, v 40
"Dont you care" and "Why are you so afraid".
We must note that the storm breaks in the disciples workplace. At least four and probably more were fisherman. They do everything except the one thing they should have done. I am sure they did all the things that experienced sailors would do - turn the boat into the wind, trim the sails, head for shore, bail out the water. But they didn't do the one blindingly obvious thing they should have done - ask the incarnate God who was right at hand for help. Even when they do in desperation do it its very roughly - we know from the other gospel that they shake him awake roughly - and they say "Dont you care?". How hard it is for them to pray ! How small is their faith. How hard it is for us to pray and how small is our faith" Yet how vital prayer is! Corrie Ten Boom said "When a Christian shuns fellowship with other Christians, the devil smiles. When he stops studying the Bible, the devil laughs. When he stops praying, the devil shouts for joy."
She also said "prayer must be our steering wheel not our spare tyre."
But let us be encouraged to pray, for how kindly The Lord is towards the disciples, how patient: yes he reproves them but he is always doing so out of deep love. God is so kind and patient towards us despite all our serious shortcomings. Psalm 103 says "As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those that fear him". God sees all the things that are wrong with us - our laziness, our weak faith, our lack of love, our secret sins, our cold hearts and yes our prayerlessness and what does he do? He is full of what the bible calls in Hebrew 'Chesed' which the Reformers in the C16th translated as "loving kindness."
Thirdly, v40 and 41
"Quiet, be still".
Note that Gods word comes only in answer to prayer - however weak. But then what amazing divine power! Billions and billions of molecules are rearranged and suddenly there is a dead calm. Winds may drop but any sailor knows that a storm tossed body of water takes a long time to drop. In a second all is quiet, all is still. Such is the power of the divine word. It utterly transforms their circumstances
What is their reaction? They are even more afraid! Whats the answer to fear? More fear! "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". It begins to dawn on them who this ordinary looking man asleep in the boat is. When they left the boat they knew him more than when they got in. Isn't that what we need? To know the Lord more, to love him more and to pray to him more. For as good old Thomas Goodwin says "The person who knows Christ best is the person who will pray best "
Finally, what's before and after this? Remember the chapter headings are not original and Mark arranges his material deliberately. The parable of the sower and the mustard seed spreading all over the world are before and the healing of the demon possessed man is after. In other words the spread of the good news about Jesus.
If perhaps our biggest issue is we dont know and love God as we should and dont pray then closely behind is that we dont share our faith. As some of you know I have found The Word 121 https://www.theword121.com amazing in doing this. It couldn't be easier - you just ask a friend if they would like to have a chat about the bible. I've found that lots of people say no, but lots of people do say yes. Usually not the people we expect. The Lord isn’t asking us to guess who’ll be interested but just to give the invite to everyone. Also, it’s been thrilling to see a number of Christians proactively offer 121 to friends and colleagues. Many have done this by putting on a lunch in a pub or in the office for a small group of people who know each other, where someone gives a short talk and then takes question and Word 121 is offered.
According to a recent survey 69% of people in the UK know and like a Christian - but ‘liking a Christian’ won’t help them find rescue in Christ. They need to hear His Word which stilled the storm. The two big obstacles to Christians sharing faith, research has found, are "I am afraid" and "I dont know how". This passage covers them both.
Fear. Its no use having the lifeboat of salvation tied up at the shore. God calls us to overcome our fear and sail into the storm. Whats the storm today? The storm of hostility to the public proclamation of the gospel. Our colleagues wont mind if we keep our faith to ourselves but its quite another thing if we seek to share it. They wont mind if we do it in church but each one is called to do this in our workplace. We need to be more afraid of God than of other people. I find 121 is a great way to do conquer our fear because its such an easy ask "would you like to chat about the bible?".
Dont know how. We need to have confidence in the inspired divine word of God! Thats why the devil hates it and is seeking to undermine it - remember the original temptation is “Did God really say?”. What we need is the incredible transformational power of Gods word in our friends lives. If he speaks, things will change. If he speaks to our friends then darkness will turn to light and death to life. Dont know how to share his word? By using the gospels for thats why they were written!
Maybe you are still thinking despite my encouragement "I just cant do it". Well, you are quite right, you can't, any more than the disciples can still the storm. You see its not about us, its about him. The more inadequate and weak we feel, the more God can use us. I have not changed what I've believed in the last 3 years but what I've believed has become more real to me. With Gods help my weak love for Christ and for people has increased and so I now can speak more clearly and more fearlessly.
The same can be true for you.
Here is the word of the Lord.
"Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always"
Jesus Calms the Storm
I make this review deliberately long because I think the arguments and logic in it are so effective they deserve to be better known.
Apologetics is not about apologising but rather establishing a rational basis for the Christian faith. Of all the books I have read I think this is the best and most comprehensive overview of what you might call “non biblical apologetics”. Apologetics can cover both biblically based issues such as "Did Jesus rise from the dead?" or "Did miracles really happen?" and non biblically based questions such as "Can you prove that God exists?"
While there is a small section on the bible most of the book covers what you might call “arguments from first principle” for the Christian faith. These are increasingly important in a world at least in the West where many people are sceptical about organised religion of any type. Lane Craig points out the fallacy in the argument “nobody comes to Christ through apologetics” by quoting Gresham Machen “false ideas are the greatest obstacle to the reception of the gospel”. If we allow such ideas to go unchallenged the very concept of belief is placed outside the bounds of any rational persons thinking.
Above all Lane Craig shows that there is an underlying rationality and plausibility to Christian belief. This is especially important I suggest with students and teenagers - in pretty much every school and university Christian teenagers are assaulted with every kind of non Christian worldview. We need to equip them to think for themselves with rational arguments. Lane Craig notes “I find it hard to understand how people can risk parenthood without having studied apologetics”.
I suggest that if you read this together with books on the trustworthiness of the bible by writers such as Craig Blomberg, Amy Orr-Ewing or the new one coming from Pete Williams on the gospels you will cover most conceivable questions. Other more specialised books can cover issues like “How can a loving God allow suffering?” or “do all religions lead to God?“. RZIM/OCCA has a wealth of apologetic resources books and speakers for those who are interested in learning more. https://www.theocca.org
I recommend their services very highly.
The only caveat I would make about this well regarded book, now in its third edition, is that in places it’s a little advanced for the non specialised reader. But is good to be stretched!
Lane Craig begins by giving a historical overview of apologetics covering the main proponents such as Aquinas, Locke as well as more contemporary thinkers. He underlines how Aquinas (wrongly) changed the definition of ‘faith’ to something like “intellectual assent to doctrines not provable by reason... a doctrine cannot be both known and believed”. Lane Craig makes what I think is a crucial distinction between the role of the Holy Spirit who convicts us and using good arguments to point us to God. “We (Christians) know that Christianity is true primarily by the self authenticating witness of God's Spirit. We show Christianity is true by presenting good arguments.” This distinction between knowing and showing enables us to give our friends and family who don’t believe some good rational arguments as to why they should believe. These arguments are more effective rather than telling them “just have faith” which tends just to put people off - or leaves them saying “I wish I had your faith” - thus implying that faith is like being left handed - some people have it, others not
Various other historical thinkers are then deployed most notably one of the greatest I think - the French mathematician Blaise Pascal. His thinking is very relevant to the 21C - “I behold nothing but infinity in which I am a mere atom.. all I know is that I must soon die... and fall into nothingness or the hands or a wrathful God... I ought to spend (every day of my life) to find a solution..but I cannot be bothered”. Life is in fact absurd If there is no God. For there is no ultimate value. In a universe without him good and evil do not exist and there is no ultimate purpose. “Vanity of vanities ! All is vanity.” Truly with no God the only viable alternative is nihilism as Nietzsche argued. If He does not exist then life is futile. The human predicament is thus terrible if we lived consistently according to atheistic principles. Fortunately most atheists don’t live that way! They believe often very impressively that there are rights and wrongs and many of them live rather moral lives. But this is because they live as if there is a God. Their actions dont match their beliefs.
Lane Craig then moves to cover the main arguments for the existence of God (not at this point the Christian God). Some of these are well known, others less so. The author uses the analogy of chain mail to show how the various arguments interconnect with and reinforce each other. They are:-
- The ontological argument ("if God is conceivable he must exist")
- The Kalam or cosmological argument ("anything that comes to exist must have a cause: nothing happens without a reason”.)
- The teleological argument (popularised by Paley with his famous “watch maker argument”)
- The moral argument ("reality is characterised by an objective moral order: that order is founded on a morally pure deity")
He then develops the scientific evidence which support the other arguments. Up to less than 100 years ago for example, scientists assumed that the universe was timeless and eternal. Now we know there was a beginning and more than that - The Big Bang theory posits an absolute origin from nothing.
Even more the thermodynamic properties of the universe suggest that the universe was “wound up” at the beginning. It’s hard to disagree with the statement “the universe was brought into existence by something which is greater than and beyond it”. Lane Craig then argues that this first cause must be personal. He draws an analogy with the question “why is the kettle boiling?” Which can be answered either scientifically (heat increasing the kinetic energy of the water molecules) or personally (I turned on the electricity). In summary “we may infer that a personal creator of the universe exists who is uncaused, beginning less, timeless space less and unimaginably powerful. This as Thomas Aquinas was wont to remark is what everyone means by ‘God’ “
Another powerful scientific argument is cosmic fine tuning. The world is conditioned by the values of various fundamental constants such as gravitation. The tiniest variation in any of these would render life impossible. The same is true about the initial conditions of the Big Bang. Hawking for example estimates that a decrease or increase in the expansion rate of one part in a hundred thousand million million one second after Big Bang would make the universe unviable.
Moving onto the moral argument. The question is not “must we believe in God to live moral lives?” Of course not. Plenty of atheists live highly moral lives. The argument is rather that God is necessary (rather than belief in him being necessary) for moral values to be objectively true. If there is no ultimate source of goodness where do any morals come from? This argument is particularly powerful because it exposes the massive contradiction at the heart of modern atheistic thinking. Firstly, we are taught that moral relativism is true: so we have no right to judge each other, everyone's beliefs are true and and morality itself is the byproduct of evolution. Then with the same breadth we are taught that certain things like racism or murder or rape are fundamentally wrong. But these two are inconsistent - one must be false. They both cannot be true. (Christians would agree with the second and not the first in case you were wondering)
This takes us about two thirds through the book and the rest looks at questions such as “Is historical knowledge verifiable?” “Are miracles possible?” “How did Jesus understand who he was?” And “can we prove the resurrection?”. All of these are useful and can be read with profit but are also covered elsewhere in other books. For an overview of modern thinking about natural theology however Lane Craig is hard to beat.
To sum up all of these points - which of course are developed in much more detail - the point is this. Most non believers think Christians believe in God without any evidence. Now we can’t prove that God exists but what we can say is that “arguments make it rational to believe that God exists”. We are not making negative judgements about atheism like “atheism is irrational”. We are saying rather “here are some good arguments for Gods existence - what do you think?”
Understanding these arguments as Lane Craig points out should give us tremendous confidence and boldness in talking about our faith. Most of our friends have never considered natural theology or met a a Christian who is able to offer carefully thought through arguments for his belief in God.
Now all of this begs the question “what about the Christian faith per se??Jesus? The bible? Preaching? 121 work?”.
I would use the analogy here of climbing stairs. Our goal is to help out friend climb to the top but we do that by convincing them to climb one step at a time. The size of the flight of stairs has grown much larger even over our lifetime. People’s familiarity with and openness to the Christian faith is much lower than heretofore. Many highly educated and thoughtful people I know regard Christianity as ludicrous. By showing them that's its actually rational to believe in a God we help them climb the first step of the stairs. Then the next step is to say something like “this ‘God’ whom I have shown is rational to believe in has told us what he’s like - revealed himself - through a book and more than that he has come to our planet as a person who walked the dusty roads of Palestine 2000 years ago.” Personally I then go on to say “would you like to chat about him having a look at one of the eyewitness accounts of his life?”
In summary, an excellent if in places challenging book on 'natural theology'.
My previous post has attracted lots of comments and questions. thank you! Here I try and answer some of them
Is class a biblical concept?
Class as defined commonly is a Marxist term, but the bible talks a lot about rich and poor i dont think there is a big difference - there wasn't much "middle class" anyway in the Roman empire.
What about plants in deprived areas?
These certainly have an important role to play, and for example HTB have supported, i have been told, a wonderful church plant in a deprived area of Brighton. My point is that as well as church plants we need to support the people trying from within these working class communities to "revitalise" or develop churches. Surely we should be listening most of all to what they say they want - which is help for their existing churches. Some plants are of course good but there must be room for both support of existing churches and (in collaboration) new ones.
1). I would like to hear more about what you view as class issues in the UK, referred in your latest post.
In general (and yes this is a generalisation) the UK - and especially England - has historically had a major problem with class, independent of any issues in the church. Of course the church reflects the society around it, but hopefully over time the effect of the work of the Holy Spirit is to change us and at least to some extent remove the prejudices and attitudes we bring with us into church by nature.
Society is always divided by something - that’s fallen human nature! Even attempts such as communism to eradicate these divisions and inequalities ironically resulted in far more entrenched privilege. A very simplistic overview would be something like this. Originally there were castes (which persist in India for example) then a system like the Roman Empire with sharp divisions between rich and poor citizens and slaves. Then later came the feudal system with knights, merchants and peasants (the latter persisted into the C20 eg in Russia and China) then finally industrial capitalism which Marx identified as leading to the rich, the bourgeoise (middle class) and the proletariat or working class. If we think of Dickensian England for example this stratification is fairly clear but those boundaries have become to some extent blurred since as capitalism evolved and social mobility occurred. There is recent evidence that this social mobility between classes in the UK has slowed - but also become more complex as gender and race equality have become more important.
The reason why UK has a more entrenched class system is historically complex. Partly as we were the first country to industrialise and partly because unlike say Continental Europe we were spared traumatic exogenous shocks such as the French Revolution and World Wars fought directly in our country. Change has usually (but not always - the English Civil War) been gradual and relatively non violent. An important difference in the UK is that class has been less connected with money than in say the USA. It’s more tied to culture. How you speak is still an instant identification of class as is the famously vexed issue of where you went to school. The UK has had a relatively stratified educational system with products of public (ie fee paying schools) and Oxbridge traditionally dominating the elite. Thus the UK is still haunted by class, maybe to some extent reduced compared to 50 years ago, but compared to the rest of Europe, certainly we are more "class conscious". Now, in the church we see similar historical divisions. The English Civil War and the Cromwellian rule afterwards (1642-1660) was in the main religiously divided but there were also class issues - the extent to which these two issues interplayed is a subject of fierce historical debate. In 1662 over 2000 evangelical pastors were ejected from the Church of England by the returning monarch Charles II. In the main these pastors - one thinks of John Bunyan who was a tinker - tended to be of somewhat lower social class than those who remained. This class division persists (though fortunately much reduced) even between Anglican evangelicals and evangelical “dissenters” or “nonconformists” to this day. Even more so if you add in the Irish, Scottish and Welsh dimensions where there was no Church of England. Until well into the C19th nonconformists were excluded from Oxbridge for example.
So even today Anglicans are more likely to be public school and Oxbridge and southern (another dimension) and nonconformists more likely to be Celtic and state school. This is one of the reasons for the divisions I mention between wealthy mainly Anglican evangelical churches ( which tend to be in the south and have congregations who are more highly educated and wealthy) and less wealthy nonconformist churches whose churches tend to be the opposite. Of course there are wealthy free churches as well eg in university towns and also poorer evangelical Anglican ones eg in the north and this is a a generalisation but nonetheless I contend on average this is still true. For example if I think of Christian friends in the City of London they are 95% Anglican. What’s happening is the pastors from more deprived areas (both Anglican and free church) are rightly I think becoming vocal about their need for help (both financial and other) and also to remove barriers to working class Christians - for example training is often aimed at wealthier, more highly educated churches and people, pastors from working class communities are not given access to platforms to make these points. I see some encouraging things happening. One very good thing is that many of the class and other barriers between evangelicals of Anglican and nonconformist persuasion have broken down over the last 30 years. Previously there was a lot of mutual distrust (partly class, partly English vs rest of UK, partly theological) but this has generally gone. Both Anglican and nonconformist evangelicals are becoming more aware of these class issues and we are now discussing them openly which is good. The single most important way to solve this is I believe is to encourage specific twinning type partnerships between wealthy southern/ London churches and poorer northern and “Celtic” churches. Some have begun this but plenty of room for more.
2) Do you agree with Archbishop Justin Welby that the UK economy is unjust (most provocatively, he describes the gig economy as a reincarnation of an ancient evil), to be remedied by higher public spending, higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy? (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-45412543; https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/sep/14/archbishop-of-canterbury-justin-welby-under-fire-after-church-of-england-advertises-zero-hours-contracts
To answer this question we now need to back up from the church to society as a whole. Yes, the UK economy is unjust - as is every other economy known to humanity. Christians should seek to look for a more just economy whilst recognising that there will always be injustice because there will always, this side of the New Creation, be sin. I am not sure why the AoC picks particularly on the gig economy - yes it has been abused in some cases but it also offers some people independence. Personally, I would look at other issues before that. The Archbishop of Canterbury (like a lot of public school educated people) I suggest feels guilty about his relatively privileged background and tends like most of the bishops to lean to the centre-left. The truth is that neither left or right have an economic solution that has worked. On the left we had very high taxes up to 97% in the 1970s and Labour also tried (spectacularly unsuccessfully) to reform the education system. We ended up with removing the grammar school system which while it had serious faults was to some extent effective at creating a meritocratic escalator for bright working class children. On the right there was a massive deregulation under Mrs Thatcher which while necessary (in 1979 the country was on the verge of collapse) went too far and allowed untrammelled and at times predatory capitalism (for example aspects of the gig economy). Nor were the Tories very interested in improving state education historically, for their children did not attend such churches What is the churches attitude? Christians of good conscience have been on the left and the right. However the mainly liberal church establishment has as noted historically tended since WW2 anyway to lean left and been socially elitist. As "Yes Prime Minister" put it
James Hacker: "Humphrey, what's a Modernist in the Church of England?"
Sir Humphrey Appleby: "Ah, well, the word "Modernist" is code for non-believer."James Hacker: "You mean an atheist?"Sir Humphrey Appleby: "No, Prime Minister. An atheist clergyman couldn't continue to draw his stipend. So, when they stop believing in God, they call themselves "Modernists". "James Hacker: "How could the Church of England suggest an atheist as Bishop of Bury St Edmunds?"Sir Humphrey Appleby: "Well, very easily. The Church of England is primarily a social organization, not a religious one." James Hacker: "Is it?"Sir Humphrey Appleby: "Oh yes. It's part of the rich social fabric of this country. So bishops need to be the sorts of chaps who speak properly and know which knife and fork to use. The sort of people one can look up to."Personally I find it striking that bishops are very interested in social and economic issues but much less in talking about “religion” let alone the Lord Jesus. I would exempt Justin Welby from this incidentally - I disagree with him on a number of things but in fairness he often speaks about Jesus very boldly in the public square.
This focus on social and economic issues to the exclusion of the gospel by the church leadership is for me is a strange set of priorities. What is the mission of the church? Kevin De Young's book of this title is a good place to start, although I believe he he overstates his case in places. I would draw a distinction between the mission of the church (to make disciples of all nations) and the mission of individual Christians (which should be to address social economic and political issues in the name of Christ). The two aims reinforce each other they are not exclusive. But as I argued here in another post a while ago http://jsjmarshall.blogspot.com/2016/12/help-horse-reflections-on-theos-report.html we need first the horse (the gospel of salvation) and then a cart (tackling social issues flowing out of that) and we seem in the CofE in particular to have the cart in front of the (rather sick looking) horse.Jesus didn’t tell us to go into the world and solve the worlds social problems but to make disciples. In the first place we should win people for Christ. Social justice will flow from that and a change in society will come with it (horse and cart). Which is exactly what happened between the end of the NT and the adoption of Christianity as the main religion of the Roman Empire around 300 years later. So the early church grew by witnessing boldly at the point of death that Jesus was Lord, but also by courageously caring for the sick and dying in plagues while the pagan elites fled the cities. Rodney Stark in his excellent books on the rise of Christianity draws that out. One helped the other and in fact social justice is an inescapable result of the gospel. The two are separate but related, but the Number 1 priority was and must remain the gospel of Jesus Christ making disciples. Furthermore, if you run a company which is headed for bankruptcy (which is the CofE, attendance is collapsing) your first priority should be I suggest to turn it around by winning disciples, rather than spend most of the time on other priorities which while important, are not priority Number 1 at the moment. In summary therefore I believe that Justin Welby makes some fair social points (if a little on the left) and is free to do that. My concern is about priorities: that excluding him many bishops seem to feel much more comfortable talking about social and economic policy than "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved". The cart is before the horse. I will return to more questions posed on this once time allows, many thanks to all for your interest.
What's a modernist in the Church of England? Ah, well, the word ''modernist'' is code for non-believer.
- You mean an atheist? - No, no.
An atheist couldn't continue to draw his stipend, so when they stop believing in God they call themselves modernists.
How could the Church of England suggest an atheist as bishop? The Church of England is primarily a social organisation, not religious.
- Is it? - Part of the rich social fabric of the country.
Bishops need to be the sort of chaps who speak properly, know which knife and fork to use
Read more: https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=yes-prime-minister-1986&episode=s01e07What's a modernist in the Church of England? Ah, well, the word ''modernist'' is code for non-believer.
- You mean an atheist? - No, no.
An atheist couldn't continue to draw his stipend, so when they stop believing in God they call themselves modernists.
How could the Church of England suggest an atheist as bishop? The Church of England is primarily a social organisation, not religious.
- Is it? - Part of the rich social fabric of the country.
Bishops need to be the sort of chaps who speak properly, know which knife and fork to use.
The sort of people one can look up to.
Read more: https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=yes-prime-minister-1986&episode=s01e07
There is a lot of discussion occurring amongst evangelicals in the UK about the lack of help that churches in deprived areas are getting from churches in wealthy areas, as well as the related issue of the many barriers to working class pastors and church workers and even to working class people coming to faith in the first place.
You can read more about it in these pieces written by friends of mine and others exercised by this
https://stephenkneale.com/2018/09/19/affinity-council-address-resourcing-churches-in-deprived-communities/ https://stephenkneale.com/2018/09/01/how-will-deprived-areas-be-reached-if-we-wont-fund-those-willing-to-go/ https://thomasmedhurst.comhttps://20schemes.com/us/blog/https://twitter.com/revandyprime/status/1043086472268734465https://www.acts29.com/the-gospel-class-communities-of-belonging/
There is an important conference on this taking place next Saturday at my old church east London tabernacle. I would have loved to attend but am speaking at an evangelistic event. Still plenty of time to sign uphttps://fiec.org.uk/events/event/the-gospel-class
The same issue has been raised by friends such as Graham Miller about race - I think Graham is right - but here I focus on class
I don’t claim to be an expert on this and am certainly firmly middle aged, white and middle class. I live in Sevenoaks and you don’t get more middle class than that, trust me! But I do have some background - my father's church where I grew up in Hemel Hempstead was firmly skilled working class. C2 in the jargon. So in the church there were plumbers and printers, skilled and unskilled factory workers, technicians etc. Now I think of it of the whole church leadership when I was a child my father was the only one with a degree. It was a hard place to do church - nearby wealthier towns were much easier. But keep going my father and his working class leaders faithfully did for nearly 50 years. I thank god for their perseverance.
Then in the 1980s I attended the said ELT church which was a wonderful mix of working class east Enders, immigrants and even a few “yuppies” like me
We were having a discussion about "the Prosperity Gospel" on another friends FB page
I thought I'd set down my thoughts for the people who disagreed with me when I argued that the above statement was wrong
Thank you so much for being so open and friendly in our discussions and willing to dialogue. I am very happy to offer you the right of reply on FB or here as you wish.
You very kindly offered to let me put my case in my own words as opposed to quoting say John Piper whom you don’t like. Fair enough - this blog is of course based on books I have read by people like Piper and like everyone I am influenced by what others say. I don’t claim therefore that this is original thinking! And I may be wrong, we need to always check back with the bible. Also this is my understanding of the PG in general, it may not at all be your views I am always conscious of the need not to create a straw man.
A number of things you and others with similar views expressed in FB are entirely right. The “non PG” views are not always right and many of the points you made are good ones
For example you and others agreeing with you pointed out that God is a generous God, that having money per se is not wrong, that there very often is a lifestyle uplift when people become Christian and so on. Sometimes the "non PG" view can be that having money per se is evil but as you rightly say the bible is full of godly rich people. Its the love of money thats the danger.
I did as you know however disagree with your statement “God wants to give us lots of stuff”
My issue with the PG (you mentioned Kenneth Copeland can also be Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn and many others) is that it’s teaching as I understand it is not biblical. At best it is based on a misunderstanding or at worst does violence to the bible. Verses are taken completely out of context. Just to take one example the common PG use of Isaiah 53:5 is to argue for health and wealth whereas it’s clearly about Jesus Christ and his atoning death for us.
The key question is this: “What is our biggest problem?” Looking at John 6 the feeding of the 5000 we see that “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.’”
The problem we have is not lack of stuff (in this case food) but lack of belief in God and His Son. The crowd wanted stuff but Jesus said they were going down the wrong path.
Why do we need to believe in Jesus? Because we are under God’s judgement for our sins (including our greed). Jesus came into the world to save us from our sins not to give us more stuff. Not that once he has saved us will he give us more stuff: otherwise we are following him for the stuff. He wants us to know him and live him and be indwelled by the Holy Spirit not to accumulate more possessions
You see by nature we think “I am the centre of my universe”. But the bible says that God must be the centre. Revelation is about knowing God not about having stuff.
We need more God, not more stuff
We need Christ alone - too often in the PG the emphasis is on “the man of God” or “the prophet”
If God is generous to us ( and he has been to me) then if we have money (which I agree is God's generosity to us ) then as far as we can we should give it away. As Paul sets out in 2 Cor 8-9 we should live sacrificial lives
We should live for eternity 1 Cor 15. For example, how much better to use our money for gospel work and through that meet in heaven people who became humanly speaking Christians through our giving, rather than spend money on the things of this life. Many of the PG leaders live in luxury and even have private jets! We won’t be having them in heaven. What a waste!
God promises us not stuff but suffering Romans 8:18. The way of Christ is the way of the cross.
Prayer for things must always be in Gods will. God is not a slot machine where we can put our prayers in and get stuff out. Prayer is primarily for spiritual benefit eg Colossians 1
The PG idea of “sowing and reaping” is actually a good one in origin. But the understanding of 'reaping' is far far too small! Matthew 6:19 and 20. We should lay up treasure in heaven not private jets!
The love of money is very dangerous 1 Timothy 6. We ned to watch out! Money can easily take our heart away from God. Jesus has far more to say about greed than sexual immorality, for example.
If we give to God only to get money back that’s sowing to the flesh not to the spirit
The PG concept of “Word of faith” is faith in our faith not God
Our “reward” eg Hebrews 10 and 11 is in the future and achieved through suffering
The PG seems to have little room for suffering, illness and death. As you know I have incurable cancer and I believe thats Gods plan. If he wants to heal me he can, if no, not. I hope and pray that he does but He is sovereign.
How did Christ live? Luke 2 (with the type of offering made for him) shows that his parents were very poor. Yes, as pointed out people especially women supported him, but he lived a life of sacrifice and poverty.
The apostles were exactly the same 1 Cor 4
PG seems to have little room for the persecuted church which is normative for Christians. We don’t read in Acts of the apostles living in luxury but of them being persecuted and living in poverty and suffering.
So my issue with the PG is that it at best misunderstands the bible and at its worst is a false gospel.
If (as may happen) God blesses the believer with great money there is nothing wrong with that, agreed, but lets give as much as we can away. “Lay up treasure in heaven”. We should live modestly and give abundantly.
The idea that “men of God” i.e Christian leaders should live in great luxury and wealth off the back of their flock is in particular an abomination and these leaders will have to answer for this to Almighty God on the Great Day of Judgement
Thanks again so much for being willing to dialogue and if I have misunderstood the PG (as well may be the case) I’m very happy to amend any of the above. It’s always good to look for the best of the ideas in people you disagree with and if i haven’t understood what you believe very happy to correct.
May God bless us and lead us into His truth
I am reading lots of church history at the moment.
One of the many negative consequences of the post Constantine adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire as the state religion was a dramatic change in the way that people were treated after they became Christians. Before this the process for admission was thorough and in fact the job of preparing the new Christians - "catechumens" for admission and baptism was viewed as extremely important and absorbed much of the time of some of the greatest of the early church fathers. This covered both belief and the expected way of life. However, after the adoption of the church as having a privileged status the church was overwhelmed by new entrants flooding in to gain advancement, many of whom didn’t actually believe the faith was true. This led to an awful lot of nominal Christianity - people who would have called themselves Christians but whose may of life was indistinguishable from the surrounding culture
The same problem exists today. I find very striking that very few books are available for new Christians trying to explain how Christians should now actually live. Yes there are a reasonable number of books on the basic beliefs of Christianity but virtually nothing for the new Christian on “what do I do now?” I know because through the word 121 I have had several people recently come to faith and have struggled to find something good.
Into this gap my friend Stephen Kneale has produced an excellent new book (really a booklet) designed precisely to answer the question “what do we do now?”
It’s very practical and covers the following;
- identifying as a Christian
- joining a church
- praying and reading the bible
- sharing our faith
- finally and most importantly persevering
Stephen has a real gift for writing and the book is both short (less than 50 pages) and a pleasure to read. He gives lots of bang up to date and easy to understand illustrations which both amuse and inform. It’s very practical and focused on the kind of issues that are really important for new Christians. Obvious pitfalls are discussed and the new Christian will find plenty of food for thought and practical advice. Its really good that topics we sometimes shy away from like evangelism and what we do with our money are included.
I also liked the fact that although Stephen as a Baptist has views on church membership and on baptism itself, I felt he skilfully managed to write a book on these points which is true to his own convictions but also well able to be used by Christians who have a different views on these points. Its also not legalistic (always a danger with this kind of book) but uplifting to read. It might well also benefit the mature Christian pondering "is my life really as different as it should be?'. I am sure it would make an excellent study guide for a house group of church members meeting.
In summary a short, easy to read very well written book which fills an important (and in a way depressing -is there such little demand that among all the thousands of Christian books there aren't more books already on this?) gap in the market.
Guest Post by Tim Stackhouse: Is "fantasy" literature like Harry Potter, Narnia and LOTR good bad or indifferent? Part 1
Thanks for this guest blog, Tim.
I have edited this and will contribute a second part on Tolkien, Part 1 focuses on JK Rowling and CS Lewis
Is fantasy literature good, bad or indifferent? For the Christian believer or the non believer?
in what sense might the escapism of fantasy be a good thing? Can the flight to an imaginary world (or an imaginary place within this world) draw us nearer to the one whom Christians believe is the author of our own world? Does all "truth" leads us to the Truth, and if so and an imaginary world contains truth, can it lead us to God?
Like "The Matrix" Christians believe that we are being deluded about the true nature of this world by malevolent evil. That we are slaves, or in prison, but dont know it. J. R. R. Tolkien writing about fantasy, reasonably asked: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
Of course people who arent Christians will laugh at this point and think "Yes, Christians are escapists! I knew it!". That all depends on the question "What is the world really like?"
We suggest that the escapist fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, and (perhaps controversially!) J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone can teach us about "reality"
We assume everyone has read them or at least knows the basic plot, but just in case not
"The Lord of the RIngs" is a vast and epic fantasy trilogy set in an alternative "earth" - Middle earth. Hobbits are small, human like creatures living peacefully in the Shire. One of them, Bilbo, finds a mysterious ring of power in the prequel "The Hobbit" but it falls to his nephew, Frodo, who together with 8 companions must embark on a perilous quest to try and destroy the ring and by so doing prevent the Ring's owner, Sauron, enslaving Middle earth.
The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe follows four schoolchildren: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, who are evacuated to a mysterious house in the countryside during the Blitz. One day Lucy stumbles upon a wardrobe that is a portal to a fantasy realm called Narnia. Narnia has been subjugated by the White Witch, and the Lion Aslan and the children must play the saving part appointed to them by destiny.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the first book in Rowling’s heptalogy, Harry Potter. Harry is a downtrodden orphan living with his cruel aunt, uncle, and cousin. One day he is apprised of his true identity as a wizard, and is invited to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he finds a home, adventures, and great danger in the person of his nemesis, Lord Voldemort.
We will examine the Lord of the Rings in a second blog, because its in many ways quite different to the other two.
The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are escapist fantasy par excellence. They expertly lead the reader into their worlds via the familiar. When the reader arrives in Narnia with Lucy they are greeted by the sight of a solitary lamppost standing in the midst of a dark, snowy wood. The lamppost, an ordinary enough object, bridges the gulf between their world and Narnia. Similarly, the reader’s first journey to Hogwarts is not via something as unbelievable as a flying broomstick, but via the Hogwarts Express. The reader’s passage into this imaginary place is eased by the fact that they know what it is like to ride on a train, however magical this particular one is. These two works have been treated very differently by Christians. Lewis is the darling of many contemporary Christians, and The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe has almost been accorded the status of a fifth Gospel by many. On the other hand, Harry Potter has been regarded by many Christians as antithetical to their religion, on the grounds that it involves witchcraft. Detractors conveniently forget that Narnia involves magic (and witches!) too. In the following part of this blog we shall see that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, so far from being hostile to Christianity, can be of significant theological value.
Both of our fantasy worlds are caught up in a conflict between good and evil. This conflict involves everything and everyone in the Narnian universe, to the extent that when Mr Tumnus is escorting Lucy out of Narnia, away from the clutches of the White Witch, he says to her: “‘we must go as quietly as we can… the whole wood is full of her spies. Even some of the trees are on her side.’” Similarly, Harry views the world in binary terms when he declares to Ron and Hermione: “‘I’m never going over to the Dark Side!’” The forces of good and evil are visible in his world. The reader may be wondering how any of this can get one nearer to God. It can because when the reader returns to this world through the wardrobe door, they cannot forget what they saw on the other side. Their experiences in fantasy worlds influence their perception of this world: the reader is opened to the possibility that this world might also contain forces of good and evil. Cynics will claim nothing is wholly good. This can give rise to an amoral view of the world, which is actually what Professor Quirrell, one of Voldemort’s followers, articulates when he says: “there is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” Against this, when the reader meets unambiguously evil persons, like the White Witch and Voldemort, they are encouraged to recognise the evil in this world for what it is. Similarly, meeting Aslan and Dumbledore (the benign headmaster of Hogwarts) opens us up to the possibility that there might be truly good forces at work in our world. Being aware of good and evil does not necessarily lead us to think about their sources. However, there is a chance that (somewhat ironically) we might progress from the knowledge of good and evil to the knowledge of God, as we search for the source of the good. In this way the escapism of fantasy places a signpost in the path to God, which we may or may not choose to follow.
Both of our fantasy worlds feature destiny. We see this in Narnia when Mr Beaver tells the Pevensie children about a prophecy concerning them: “‘down at Cair Paravel there are four thrones and it’s a saying in Narnia time out of mind that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit in those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life.” In Narnia there is a higher purpose or power guiding the events below. Harry also interacts with destiny, but in a less deterministic way. On detention in the Forbidden Forest one night, Harry is nearly attacked by Voldemort. He is protected by a centaur called Firenze, however. Another centaur, Bane, rebukes Firenze for trying to change the course of destiny, protesting: “‘we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens. Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets?’” Harry interprets this to mean that “‘Bane thinks Firenze should have let Voldemort kill me… I suppose that’s written in the stars as well.’” It is suggested that the course of destiny can be changed, as Harry survives. The question of destiny might cause the reader to ponder whether there is a higher purpose at work in this world. This in turn might lead to the thought that if there is destiny, it must have an author. Of course, many will simply stop there and consider destiny to be meaningless
This "stopping or going on" has a lot to do with our curiosity, or lack thereof. Interestingly, some of the greatest instruments of destiny in our two fantasy worlds are children. Peter is chosen by Aslan to lead his army, and when Harry confronts Voldemort he does so without adult supervision. This feature of course in part stems from the intention to make the books appeal to children. However, the escape to a world where the smallest person can decisively shape events has theological truth. (It is also one of the main themes of the LOTR)
If sceptical modern humanity cannot accept the possibility that God could save the entire world through one man, let alone one born in obscurity in a manger 2000 years ago, the encounter with Harry and the Pevensie children might cause them to rethink their sense of what is possible.
Both of our fantasy worlds feature non-physical beings, such as ghosts. In Narnia many of these are malignant beings on the side of the White Witch, inspiring terror in the reader. For example, hiding from the White Witch and her cronies, Lucy and Susan “felt the Spectres go by them like a cold wind.” Hogwarts is home to a number of ghosts as well. Some are benign like Nearly Headless Nick, and some are less so, like the Bloody Baron. Christianity does not in any way seek to foster an interest in ghosts. However, by encountering non-physical beings in these fantasy worlds we might return to their world open to the possibility that reality might not be purely physical. Reading about ghosts could of course lead to a morbid fascination with them, but it also might lead one to think about whether there are in fact benign non-physical beings, like angels, and from thence to thinking about God Himself. Fantasy can unsettle worldviews like physicalism, that is, the view that all reality is physical.
In Narnia, Edmund represents the evil (sin) in each of us. At times he is spiteful, such as when he teases Lucy about the seeming non-existence of Narnia: “he sneered and jeered at Lucy and kept on asking her if she’d found any other new countries in other cupboards all over the house.” In addition, his thoughts are often selfish: “he had just settled in his mind what sort of palace he would have and how many cars and all about his private cinema.” He is also particularly vulnerable to temptation, as shown by his craving for the White Witch’s Turkish Delight. These are nothing to his act of betrayal, however, when he discloses the whereabouts of his siblings to the White Witch. It would appear that many people in secular society believe that sin has no spiritual consequences. If one has blood on one’s hands, all that needs to be done is to wash it off, and (if caught) to serve a prison sentence.
However, when the reader is transported to Narnia sin is not like this. Edmund’s betrayal has eternal effects that can only be undone by the willing, sacrificial death of another, which in his case was undertaken by Aslan. An apology is not enough. Sin has permanent consequences in Harry’s world too. Firenze explains to Harry that “‘it is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn… only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenceless to save yourself and you will have but a half life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.".
When we go back through the wardrobe, when we close the book, our experiences in these fantasy worlds might cause us to be more open to the possibility that there might be spiritual consequences for sin. This at least makes us think about the nature of evil, guilt and repentance and especially the need for forgiveness, to make things right again.
The books also look at the nature of belief. Lucy is the first of the Pevensie children to discover Narnia, and until the others go through the portal they do not believe her claims. Alarmed by these claims, Peter and Susan eventually take the matter to the Professor with whom they are staying. Quite to their surprise, he responds that: “‘there are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.’” The Professor, for all his oddities, is a learned man, and enjoys the trust of the reader. Observing his response to what seems to be a very tall tale on the face of it, the reader is encouraged to be open to the possibility that other remarkable stories might be true. Perhaps resurrections can happen…
The Professor’s response to Lucy’s story opens up the possibility of believing in such things, despite the fact that they clash with the reigning material/physicalist view of the universe. One of the reasons the other Pevensie children do not believe Lucy’s claims is that Narnia’s time does not run parallel to this world’s time. Susan explains this particular aspect of her disbelief: “‘Lucy had no time to have gone anywhere, even if there was such a place. She came running after us the very moment we were out of the room. It was less than a minute, and she pretended to have been away for hours.’” The Professor responds that “‘I should not be at all surprised to find that the other world had a separate time of its own; so that however long you stayed there it would never take up any of our time.” This opens the reader up to the possibility that the human experience of time is not the only experience of time, and it may cause the reader to draw a step closer (though never more than a step) to understanding God’s experience of time, where “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Such a notion, though not robbed of its mystery, now seems less incomprehensible.
For Christians, retelling the Christian story through fantasy has great value because it makes that story fresh to the reader. The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe is an allegory of Christianity, with Edmund’s betrayal symbolising the Fall, and Aslan’s death symbolising the Crucifixion. It is perhaps the case that many people, Christians especially, do not perceive the true horror of the Crucifixion. For Christians, regularly hearing about it inures one to the pain, the blood, and the cruelty of those who sent Jesus to his death. Moreover, the event is often sanitised in churches. As Aslan goes up to the Stone Table, his place of execution, he passes a horde of evil creatures: “ogres with monstrous teeth, and wolves, and bull-headed men; spirits of evil trees and poisonous plants; and other creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book - Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins.” The horror these creatures inspire enables the reader to clearly perceive the cruelty and moral ugliness of the merciless men responsible for the Crucifixion - and by extension all of us who would have done the same had we been there.
Reading about the violence of Aslan’s death wakes us up to the violence of Jesus’ own death: “then she began to whet her knife. It looked to the children, when the gleam of the torchlight fell on it, as if the knife were made of stone, not of steel, and it was of a strange and evil shape.” Escaping to Narnia allows us to look at the Crucifixion in a new light. We may not be convinced of the truth of Christianity, but it is possible that our casual indifference to the brutal events on Golgotha will have been broken through. So fantasy can have as much use for Christians as for non-Christians, and perhaps even more.
Unlike Narnia, which is accessed through a portal, the magical world of Harry Potter exists in this world, hidden from the gaze of muggles (non-magic people) like us. For example, when Harry and Hagrid are standing outside a magical pub the narrator observes that “the people hurrying by didn’t glance at it. Their eyes slid from the big book shop on one side to the record shop on the other as if they couldn’t see the Leaky Cauldron at all. In fact, Harry had the most peculiar feeling that only he and Hagrid could see it.” At times the magical world breaks into this world. One of Harry’s conversations with his boon companion, Ronald Weasley, runs as follows: “‘but there aren’t wild dragons in Britain?’ said Harry. ‘Of course there are,’ said Ron. ‘Common Welsh Green and Hebridean Blacks. The Ministry of Magic has a job hushing them up, I can tell you. Our lot have to keep putting spells on Muggles who’ve spotted them, to make them forget.’” When the reader escapes to Harry’s world, they return to this world open to the possibility that there might be extraordinary things going on right under their noses that they have no idea about. The experience of Harry’s world has unsettled the casual acceptance that this world is all it at first seems to be. This is of value because we might then be led to explore the possibility that God is working in this world in invisible ways. To even consider the possibility is to draw nearer to God. (This is not to argue that JK Rowling, unlike CS Lewis is a Christian, or that Harry Potter is allegorical, neither is the case. And incidentally Tolkien abominated allegory! Rather, that Harry Potter makes you think differently about the world we live in.)
At the climax of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry grapples with Professor Quirrell, who is serving as a host for Voldemort’s spirit. However, contact with Harry burns Quirrell. Dumbledore explains why this happened: “‘your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.’” In Harry’s world love has magical power. It is not an illusion, existing only in the mind. Lily Potter’s sacrificial death for Harry could save him again years later.
After journeying to a world where this is possible the reader may look at the claims of Christianity differently. Perhaps it is possible to be saved, in some mysterious way, by the blood of Jesus two thousand years after his death in Jerusalem.
All three works are interestingly twentieth century British creations, and of course Lewis and Tolkien were great friends at Oxford. All show many common links and influence, notably the bible
Lewis's books are straight biblical allegories as noted.
Tolkien, whom we shall look at in the next blog, richly borrowed from biblical sources, especially in his understanding of evil and how it can be defeated.
In Harry Potter the biblical quotation "And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" (1 Corinthians 15:26), featured on the tombstones of Harry's parents, refers to Christ's resurrection. The quotation on Dumbledore's family tomb, "Where your treasure is, your heart will be also", is from Matthew 6:21. Rowling revealed to an Open Book conference in October 2007, "So on a very practical note Harry was going to find biblical quotations on tombstones, [but] I think those two particular quotations he finds on the tombstones at Godric's Hollow, they (…) almost epitomize the whole series
Again, Rowling isn't a Christian while Tolkien and Lewis are. But all have aspects of the one truth. Christians may need to be more open-minded about the ways in which people can come to faith. Today’s world is cynical and suspicious of methods of evangelism such as street preaching or leafleting. But fantasy can be (not always, but sometimes) useful in opening up the mind to see the real world we live in in a different way.
Let's leave the last word with CS Lewis who said “if good novels are comments on life, good stories of this sort (which are very much rarer) are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience. Hence the difficulty of discussing them at all with those who refuse to be taken out of what they call ‘real life’ – which means, perhaps, the groove through some far wider area of possible experience to which our senses and our biological, social, or economic interests usually confine us – or, if taken, can see nothing outside it but aching boredom or sickening monstrosity. They shudder and ask to go home.”
So, dear reader, what is real life?
We (Jeremy) will return to this theme by looking at Tolkien in a second part.
Bibliography:Bowditch, Rachel. “Utopia.” Ecumenica 7, no. 1–2 (2014): 125–32.Lewis, C. S. “On Science Fiction.” In Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966.———. “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” In Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966.———. The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe. Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1965.More, Thomas. Utopia. Translated by Paul Turner. London: Penguin Books, 2009.Nikolajeva, Maria. “Fairy Tale and Fantasy: From Archaic to Postmodern.” Marvels and Tales 17, no. 1 (n.d.): 138–56.Quinn, Dennis B. “The Narnia Books of C. S. Lewis: Fantastic or Wonderful?” Children’s Literature 12 (1984): 105–21.Ricoeur, Paul. “Imagination in Discourse and in Action.” In From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1991.Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Great Britain: Bloomsbury, 1997.Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” In Tree and Leaf. London: Unwin Books, 1966.Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Biblical Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: A Study in Hermeneutics and Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.