Blogroll: God Gold and Generals

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Book reviews and comments by Jeremy Marshall on Christian, historical and business themesJeremy Marshallnoreply@blogger.comBlogger269125
Updated: 29 min 47 sec ago

Book Review: Hidden In Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts by Lydia McGrew (De Ward, 2017)

9 hours 50 min ago

Are the gospels and the New Testament reliable? This is a central question as Christianity stands or falls as a series of historical fact, above all on whether Jesus really did rise from the dead
Yet, according to a recent poll 50% of people in the UK felt that Jesus either didn't really exist or is a mythical figure like King Arthur, about whom its hard to know much for sure. Within the church numerous liberal scholars poor cold water on the gospels and select only a small part of the text as reliable. Muslim friends will tell you that the bible has been seriously corrupted from its original version
Against this background, there are a whole number of important apologetic points which can be made in defence of the historical reliability of the Bible and the gospels in particular. Yet a whole new front is opened up in this excellent new book which looks at "undesigned coincidences" in the New testament. This review will focus on the gospels in particular as thats the area I am researching at the moment, but equally good points are made on similar undesigned coincidences in Acts in the second half of the book. 
What is an 'Undesigned Coincidence'? McGrew defines it as  a "Notable connection between two or more accounts or texts that hasn’t been planned but results in accounts fitting together like a jigsaw, thus providing reason to believe the statements are truthful". 
“This is what truth looks like, this is what memoirs from witnesses look like, this is what it looks like when people who are trying to be truthful and who possess reliable memories of things that really happened have these memories put down in writing” 
She is refreshing and revitalising historical arguments previously made in the C18th and C19th by apologists such as Paley and Blunt. As she explicitly says this is defending the "forward position": that the whole of the NT is trustworthy rather than a 'backwards position'  which argues only for smaller and reduced 'historical bedrock'. As she cogently argues if we defend only part — the  “historical bedrock”  — we undermine the rest by implication, and eventually we underline even the 'bedrock' as who can define what is bedrock and what not?

 An undesigned coincidence is not the same as external coincidences — for example where the gospels agree with non Christian sources. Nor are they the same as deliberate coincidences which would be when an author consciously reinforces facts. Nothing to do either with how they were written nor really to do with inerrancy per se — though of course the evidence she marshals clearly supports inerrancy. 
Undesigned coincidences are much more similar to what you would find if the police were taking evidence from eyewitnesses and deducing from the undesigned coincidences they found in the statements that the eyewitnesses neither made the event up nor colluded in a statement. The little details confirm the big picture. As Paley noted “the usual character of human testimony is substantial truth under circumstantial variety”. In fact, he defined the term 'undesigned coincidences'. 
The power of McGrew's argument is cumulative: each undesigned coincidence can be explained away as chance but the cumulative effect as she piles example on example is enormous. Some are more powerful than others but all help reinforce the point.
The order of undesigned coincidences in the gospel from highest to lowest is John - Luke - Mark Matthew 
Let me give a few examples but there are many more and you will need to buy the book to get the full depth of the argument.
Firstly, the Synoptics explain and reinforce John and vice versa
John assumes all kinds of things and especially that his readers have read the Synoptics. He assumes for example that the reader has read Luke and knows that John the Baptist is older than Jesus and that the reader knows from Luke that the voice from heaven at the baptism of jesus says "this is my beloved son".

Pilate asks Jesus "Are you the King of the Jews?" A strange question If it hadn’t been raised before as an accusation against Jesus. It hasn’t in John but it has been in Luke. Luke’s account is therefore filled out by John, which explains why Pilate seems so unfazed by the accusation — he has concluded at this point that Jesus is a harmless religious crank
Similarly, Jesus says in John that his disciples wouldn’t fight: but why didn’t his accusers produce Malchus minus his ear? Because in Luke (but not John) we know Jesus has healed him
Why did Jesus ask Peter after the resurrection "Do you love me more than those" ie more than the other disciples? Because we know from Matthew and Mark (but not John) that Peter had boasted precisely that he did. This is particularly important because these little details underlines the reality of events around the resurrection
How does this prove anything? Well, pretty much everyone agrees that John was the last gospel to be written and he may have had access to the Synoptics and even had them in front of him as he wrote.  But would he leave out information in order that 2000 years later a really alert reader might find the explanation in the earlier gospels ? This is highly implausible, much more likely is that they reflect that the eyewitnesses were there and saw what happened.
Let's take another example, the feeding of the 5000. The accounts are different but there are numerous undesigned coincidences. For example Mark says “many were coming and going” but John explains why this is the case by explaining it’s the Passover. In turn this fits with the grass being unusually or strikingly green (Mark) as this was only time of year it would have been green: at Passover just after spring rains. Why does Jesus ask Philip about the food? John notes that he asked Philip but why him — he's quite an obscure disciple. Luke says the miracles were near Bethsaida while John tells us elsewhere that Philip was from Bethsaida. So Jesus in effect we can see is saying “Philip you are from around here: where can we get bread?”

The account of the feeding of the 5000 has many loose ends  — and John in particular makes no attempt to harmonise his account with those of the others —  but it is precisely those loose ends that are compelling  For example, by putting together the different accounts we can see that the men only sit down in groups; presumably they in turn distributed it to the women and children: with such a large crowd and women looking after children in that culture this makes every sense 
The synoptics also explain each other. For example, Herod's musing to his servants about who Jesus is in Matthew is explained by Luke recording that the wife of his household manager was a follower of Jesus

Only Matthew mentions that the new tomb in which Jesus is buried belonged to Joseph of Arimathea and nobody had been buried there before: he had in effect "prepaid" for his funeral. Mark mentions none of that, so therefore Matthew had his own independent sources while John also brings in Nicodemus and the fact that it was in a garden. None of these coincidences are explainable by saying simply that Matthew and Luke have copied mark 
There are many many more of these carefully argued examples. the cumulative effect I found is compelling. In summary, this well written, easy to read and and very well researched book to me demonstrates that the gospels are reliable. Of course there are other arguments for this as well as coincidences but this book shows that  the vast number of undesigned coincidences in the NT (and especially the gospels) strongly reinforce the fact that they were written by eyewitnesses or using eyewitnesses (as the gospels themselves claim).  They show that they are written by or based on contemporaneous early and reliable eyewitnesses and can therefore be trusted. The cover picture shows a jigsaw and thats a great analogy - each piece on its own is bit a part but when you put them all together they show a whole and truthful picture. 
Categories: Friends

Book Review: "Cancer A pilgrimage companion" by Gillian Straine (SPCK, Jan 2017)

Sun, 10/02/2019 - 13:37

This really helpful, powerful and deeply personal book about living with cancer and living with remission is a combination of personal experience and biblical teaching. As I am just finishing a book along the same lines,  I found it very striking and thought provoking, even though our experiences in many ways could not be more different. Gillian was diagnosed with lymphoma as a young adult in 2000 and went through brutal and harrowing treatment before being told eventually the cancer was gone and that she was in remission. She tells her whole story, including the period since she was "clear": as she points out though you can’t go back into your old life even though the cancer appears to be gone. 

The two strands of the book are woven together in a way that is both skilful and very helpful. Her own story she tells with searing honesty and openness and I for one am really grateful that she put the time and what must have been a huge emotional effort into writing it. Cancer remains a taboo subject, the great unmentionable, which means as I know that when you are “dropped into it” as a patient means its disorientating and terrifying. By having the courage to tell her own story in such an honest way I am sure Gillian has helped many others like me. It’s also highly practical and includes helpful overviews of what cancer actually is and other down to earth information and advice on being treated and what cancer typically means. It’s also a very helpful book if it’s not you that has cancer but a loved one as it opens up so clearly what it’s like to have the disease and how it changes everything. As she points out cancer has a profound impact on our relationships and friendships. 

The book is structured as a journey, a pilgrimage, both for the patient and for Christ. It covers Christ’s journey to the cross, the Garden of Gethsemane, his death and the waiting in the tomb before resurrection and our mission after his return. Even though I suspect we could hardly come from more different Christian theological traditions (rare are the books that the eminent Dr Martyn Percy and I would both highly recommend, I suspect!) I found her insights very helpful and deeply rooted in the bible. To think of Christ in his suffering and resurrection is surely absolutely the best place to go. Just to take a few examples of her helpful writing: that Christ  in the garden when arrested didn’t do much.. but through his (relative) passivity he let the glory of God shine through in the events that followed. The cup is accepted and the strength of Christ is ours “do not forsake me. O Lord; O my God do not be far from me; make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.” (Psalm 38/21-22). He was forsaken and alone that we may never be forsaken and alone. 

Or for example “Christians believe that Christ is with us today in whatever happens to us because of what he went through on Good Friday and the resurrection...Christ (is both) God and ‘a man of suffering acquainted with infirmity’... so whatever pain we need to deal with then when we are met with our own ‘Lower Calvary’ then we are assured of God’s presence and can be certain that our suffering is held within the heart of God. ‘In the hour of fear: I will put my trust in you’ (Psalm 56:3)” and “the cross shows there is meaning in the suffering... as Bonhoeffer wrote ‘only a suffering God can help’. Because of  the cross, through the cross and in the faith of what happened on the cross we have that firm ground necessary to fling that question (Why me?) to the heavens, knowing that Jesus has been there too..’see I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands’. “

To which I would say “Yes, Amen, let all adore you!" 

For these are palms that as we see them are deeply scarred for the love that the Lord had for us.  

May this book do you good as it did me. It will do us good because it takes us to Christ and there is nowhere else to go. 
Categories: Friends

"All out War": the clash of 1771 between Calvinists and Arminians and its lessons for today

Fri, 08/02/2019 - 11:04

In 1771, a huge controversy rocked the evangelical Christian world in the UK and USA. The publication of the minutes of the 1770 Wesleyan conference convinced many people that John Wesley was heretical. A backlash ensued from his Calvinistic colleagues and although Wesley made some concessions to his critics which calmed things down for a while, he then "recanted" provoking an even tougher response.

What are the lessons of this for our times?  Church History is useful only if it sheds some light on today. 

Wesley was from birth ill disposed towards Calvinism as his high church mother had reacted against her nonconformist Calvinist upbringing ( as we all can do!) Susannah Wesley said writing to John “The doctrine of predestination as maintained by rigid Calvinists is very shocking and ought utterly to be abhorred because it charges the most holy God with being the author of sin. And I think you reason very well and justly against it for it is certainly inconsistent with the justice and goodness of God to lay any man under either a physical or moral necessity of committing sin and then punish him for doing it”

Wesley throughout his life reacted against three errors he perceived as being prevalent both in England and the colonies. 

  1. "Latitudinarian" clergy preaching respect of the social orders and moralism 
  2. "Pietism": while he appreciated some aspects of the Moravian teaching he particularly disliked their emphasis on doing nothing until prompted by the Spirit.  Wesley wanted to get things done!
  3. Calvinism leading inexorably to antinomianism and lack of interest in evangelism. He (mis)defined Calvinism as the idea that "If I’m elect I can do what I like" and that Calvinists believed "only 1 in 20 is saved" (which as we shall see was one of his favourite phrases).

Wesley was not a theologian and tended to use words cavalierly. As we read in 'Alice in Wonderland': ' "When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." ' Wesley often contradicted himself. Criticised he would tack back in the opposite direction: for example,  in 1765 he said  “I believe in justification just as Mr. Calvin does. “

The 1770 controversy wasn’t a bolt from the blue for hostility between Calvinists and Arminians were rumbling on for years especially at local level. Politically, American tensions were increasing and Wesley was very much a Tory while many Calvinists were sympathetic to the rebels

What did the minutes (which were published very late and Wesley hadn’t reviewed them: they were written by John Fletcher his secretary) actually say? 

"We must guard against “leaning too much towards Calvinism “ (ie antinomianism in Wesley’s definition)
(1) Who of us is now accepted with God? He that now believes in Christ with a loving, obedient heart.
(2) But who among those that never heard of Christ? He that, according to the light he has, “feareth God and worketh righteousness.”
(3) Is this the same with “he that is sincere”? Nearly, if not quite. [The Arminian doctrine of “universal sufficient grace” here comes to the surface.]
(4) Is not this salvation by works? Not by merit of works, but by works as a condition.
(5) What have we been disputing about for these thirty years? I am afraid about words . . .
(6) As to merit itself, of which we have been so dreadfully afraid. We are rewarded according to our works, yea because of our works. How does this differ from, “for the sake of our works? Can you split this hair? "I doubt [i.e. I rather think] I cannot . . ."
(8) Does not talking . . . of a justified or sanctified state, tend to mislead men; almost naturally leading them to trust what was done in one moment? Whereas we are every moment pleasing or displeasing to God, according to our works . . .

These minutes sparked off the heated and tragic controversy of the next five years, in which Wesley’s lieutenants John Fletcher and Thomas Olivers exchanged fierce literary punches with Augustus Toplady, the Hill brothers, and Berridge, while the Calvinist and Arminian segments of the revival movement drifted further and further apart. 

Confusion reigned for the 1771 conference more or less simultaneously published the contradictory statement “we abhor the doctrine of justification by works.. our works have no part in meriting our justification, from first to last either in whole or in part”. 

To pour fuel on the fire Whitfield died in America on 30/9/1770 and Wesley preached a notorious memorial sermon in London that November. Wesley dwelt on what they had in common and ignored what he had just published, to which Whitefield would have taken strong exception. Even stronger protests then ensued, led by Walter Shirley who was the cousin of the Countess of Huntingdon, the main funder of both Wesley and Whitefield, and  Augustus Toplady. Eventually, Wesley agreed to sign a revised version of the document. In it Wesley and 53 other preachers reassured people that they were not upholding justification by works and “has no confidence but in the alone merits of Jesus Christ for justification or salvation...our works have no part in meriting or purchasing our salvation either in while or in part” 

But John Fletcher Wesley’s assistant, made it clear that the teaching at 1770 was not Calvinistic: he defended the idea that justification was not a one off but could be increased or  decreased. He even taught that you can move out of it completely as David did when he murdered Uriah and then move back in. 

So what did they mean by 'salvation' and 'justification'? In another version edited by Fletcher 'justification' is replaced by 'salvation' which is the Wesleyan version.  Wesley was accused (with perhaps some justification) of being slippery. Disputes became personal and a lot of mud was slung: for example Toplady called Wesley “the old fox”. Wesley infuriated Toplady in turn by publishing a fake declaration supposedly made by him saying “Only one in 20 of mankind is saved... the elect shall be saved do what they will, the reprobate shall be dammed do what they will can...believe this doctrine or be dammed”

The debate wasn't polarised as there were some people like good old Henry Venn who felt that both sides should stop abusing the other. He said he felt like Christ "crucified between two thieves: ranters clamouring for instant perfection and antinomians abusing grace"

Certainly the level of vitriol and abuse was wrong, something we should learn when we dispute with fellow believers. A good thing they didn't have social media in 1771! 
What actually was Wesley's view? Was Wesley slippery? Or a man in hurry for action and impatient with doctrinal niceties? He was certainly not a theologian but a man of action. 
Wesley was often inconsistent eg he affirmed the Westminster Shorter Catechism answer on justification but around the same time removed Bunyan’s explanation of the same point in ‘Pilgrims Progress’

Wesley changed his views over time. Richard Hill confronted him with the question “is justification by faith the article of the standing or the falling church?” (Is it in other words the litmus test). Wesley replied "I used to think so but I found reason to doubt and since that time I have not varied”.

What had Wesley changed? He wanted says Iain Murray “to distinguish between the believer being accepted on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and his personally being accounted righteous. By means of this distinction he meant to reduce the content of “justification” to forgiveness only. “

What did he believe then as far as we can tell? That:
  1. God offers salvation to all and all are free to accept or reject it (by virtue of Gods grace in allowing this what Wesley called “prevenient grace”)
  2. We are saved by faith not works but: we must never relax, we must actively pursue salvation (not sanctification which every Calvinist would agree). Salvation begins with justification by faith alone but must continue and be brought to completion by sanctification. 
  3. Salvation is a process and is the product of what Wesley called “those two grand branches” justification and sanctification. Whereas a Calvinist would think of a tree with the roots being justification and this in turn leading (as it must) to the branches and fruit of sanctification.  

J.I. Packer expands on this in his analysis of Wesleyan Arminian teaching 
  1. Atonement makes salvation possible but not necessary.  
  2. Faith is not 'fiducial' (trusting in what another has done) but 'volitional' committing to do something
  3. It denies and strongly dislikes the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ 
Packer distinguishes sharply between classic Arminianism which is man centred and humanistic and tends to end up over time in Deism, and Wesleyan Arminianism which is far nearer to Calvinism. (In the first half of the C19 most Methodists were Calvinistic and in fact you could say at points Wesley's theology is a muddle but a Neo Calvinistic muddle.) On many points (eg Original Sin) Wesley is fully Calvinistic. He would I suggest be horrified by much in modern Arminianism.  Packer says “Wesleyan earlier Reformation theology, both Lutheran and Calvinist, distinguished faith from repentance, defining it as assured trust in Christ, correlative to the witness of the Holy Spirit, and springing from the sense of hopelessness and helplessness which God’s law induces. Having thus excluded all self-reliance from the psychology of faith, Wesley seems never to have seen the oddity of continuing to profess a theology which obliged him to view faith as a man’s own work of response to God."

Packer again “ We conclude, then, that Arminianism should be diagnosed, not as a creative alternative to Reformation teaching, but as an impoverishing reaction to it, involving a partial denial of the biblical faith in the God of all grace. The lapse is less serious in some cases, more so in others, but in every case it calls for responsible notice and compassionate correction. The logical conclusion of Arminian principles would be pure Pelagianism, but no Arminian takes his principles so far (otherwise one would call him a Pelagian, and be done with it). Calvinists should therefore approach professed Arminians as brother evangelicals trapped in weakening theological mistakes, and seek to help them to a better mind." (highlighting mine)

I am sure don't need to convince you if you are a Calvinist that that biblically Wesley was wrong and his opponents right. Romans 6-8 is perhaps the crucial passage, there are others, space doesn't allow me to cover this in detail. 

However, I think Wesley does have many things to teach us and I actually have some sympathy with his actions (as opposed to his theology). With Wesley its best to "do as i do not as I say".

Iain Murray (hardly an Arminian) writes

"While I know of no evidence that Hyper-Calvinism is recovering strength, it would appear that the priority which soul-winning had (for example) in Spurgeon’s ministry is not commonly seen to be our priority. The revival of doctrine has scarcely been matched by a revival of evangelism… Doctrine without usefulness is no prize.”

It's so easy to proudly look down on fellow evangelicals and swell with pride as to our correct doctrine. But what if we have correct doctrine but no heart for the lost? What if we are armchair FB doctrinal police, quick to detect heresy in others but without a fraction of Wesley's concern for the lost? 

I see the following as serious dangers for us Calvinists 

1. Lack of interest in evangelism: especially in acting as Whitefield and Wesley did, going out and 'seeking by all means to persuade some". Do we risk preaching theologically polished sermons to the chosen, safe in our churches while millions go to a lost eternity? Are we willing to leave the comfort of our churches and studies and venture out boldly into the world — maybe to get dead cats thrown at us like they did? 

2. A love of doctrine for doctrines sake. The devil is a master at doctrine but it does him no good. Wesley was not a great theologian but a wonderful man at getting things done. Do we value doctrine so highly that we lack men and women like Wesley who are "doers"? Are we overly cerebral? Do we look for a right balance in our leaders? Having right theology is vital but it's not enough. 

3. Insufficient attention to human effort in sanctification. The importance of personal holiness, becoming more like Christ, knowing Christ more, can be lost. is there is a danger of stressing so much the atonement and justification that in practice we risk being the kind of people whom Wesley was reacting against? Are we Calvinists at risk of a  suspicion of the work of the Holy Spirit in personal sanctification for fear of being labelled charismatic?

4. A suspicion (at times bordering on paranoia) about doing good and what we might call mercy ministries. Yet both Wesley and Whitefield saw no contradiction at all between being passionate evangelists and establishing orphanages and other good works.  

5. Vitriolic language in arguments with fellow Christians is un Christ like and creates bitterness. Best to talk face to face rather than "drive by shootings" on social media. 

We should be like Wesley in practice but not in theology — which being translated means we should be like Whitefield! Or better, more like Christ. 

May we learn from Wesley's love for evangelism and his tireless devotion to the cause of Christ and personal holiness.  

If you want to read more about this period I highly recommend Iain Murray's excellent "Wesley and the Men who followed"

I would like to thank very much the brilliant Robert Strivens who teaches this period at London Seminary for inspiring me in this topic! 
Categories: Friends

Book Review: the Bible Theft by Peter Sanlon (Credimus, Dec 2018)

Tue, 29/01/2019 - 15:58

Peter Sanlon is a vicar in nearby Tunbridge Wells and has turned a series of recent sermons from different parts of the New Testament - Romans, 1 Corinthians, Jude, 1 Timothy and revelation- into a book. It’s short, punchy, contemporary and to the point. No punches are pulled! 

Peter's theme, which he draws out from a wide range of bible passages, is that the bible is being “stolen” from Christian believers  by teachers within the church who refuse to teach (or worse, actively undermine) the core teachings of the bible. Not in secondary or disputable areas but very basic ones such as perhaps the central issue at stake today in contemporary society: sexual morality and the biblical call to sexual purity. His analysis is clear and highly relevant to whats occurring today in the UK. He is careful to distinguish between those outside the church - to whom we are not preaching morality but seeking to point them to Christ - and those inside the church, especially those in positions of authority who either turn a blind eye to sin or even worse teach that evil is good and sin pleasing to God. Here we must indeed "earnestly contend for the faith once for all entrusted".  

Nor can we bury our heads in the sand and hope all of this unpleasantness and difficulties  just go away. Thinking (especially for those of us not employed by a church) “not my problem” is not an option.  For, as Peter notes in the letter to the church in Thyatira, the Lord Himself takes that church to task, not for what they do but for what they don’t do: for tolerating false teaching they should be opposing. He is very good on the ludicrous sight of the church chasing helplessly after our contemporary culture : as if imitating the broken world will somehow help the church. He rightly points out that we have to be radical in our discipleship, imitating Christ not the world, and that a desire for unity and love, though important, cannot be allowed to unilaterally overturn biblical truth. This is a common argument "lets agree to differ" and there are many areas (baptism, ecclesiology, last things, creation, worship and liturgy, spiritual gifts all spring to mind) where we must do so. But on the absolutely fundamental gospel matters such as the ones Peter covers this is not possible.  

My only mild criticism is that you can easily see - as Peter acknowledges upfront - that these are transcribed sermons. In places some editing would have improved the literary style and removed some passages which would be of interest mainly to Peter's local church, plus one or two digressions. No doubt Peter was too busy and if that’s the worse fault in a book it can easily be forgiven! 

In summary, from the bible, Peter issues a clear and biblical call to believe and obey the Bible and stand up for truth and oppose false teaching, for “if you love me you will obey my commands ” 
Categories: Friends

Whats stops people believing? 'Head in sand' and other questions

Sun, 27/01/2019 - 20:27

My friend Chris helpfully replied to my previous post
with some follow up points about the nature of fear that stops people taking a look at the Christian faith. Here are his comments (in italics) and my replies 

Hi Jeremy,

I haven’t troubled your inbox for a while, but wanted to add some thoughts in response to your latest blog. I can’t claim to have interviewed hundreds of people, but since the 3 topics of conversation banned (and therefore most frequently embarked upon) in most offices and all ships are sex, politics and religion, I can claim to have witnessed and even occasionally contributed to many such conversations with quite a diverse collection of participants. A few highly educated, many ‘ordinary Joes’ and definitely no bankers!

“What stops people believing?” is your question. I would say straight away that I believe there is clear blue water between what many people would say in public, and their private thoughts. The common theme running through them all is, I would say, fear. Here’s a distillation of the most popular responses:

In general Chris my general advice is a) try and understand where people are coming from by asking them questions b) try and get them to look at the evidence "is it true"? c) if they still reject Christian faith move on (and often people who react most negatively is because there is something nagging at them, sometimes they come back when the nagging gets worse ) d) always if possible chat 121: I use John's gospel plus the notes I recommend, as people are far more open 121 and a lot of the points below go away. But sometime's thats just not possible!  Anyway, thank you very much for the input and I hope the below is helpful

1. “Leave me alone”
This is the head-in-the-sand approach from people who are neither atheist nor truly agnostic; they simply refuse to engage with the topic. Ranges from a fingers in the ears la-la-la-la to an indication that prolonging the conversation will be interpreted as a hostile act. Interesting that this can provoke such an emotional response so quickly… if they were genuinely uninterested you might just expect a dismissive shrug...

I think you are spot on Chris that if people were really just not bothered they would not react so strongly. In fact, would suggest that such people are really in one of the categories listed below! Especially the one directly below! In all cases I'd try and ask a question to understand more about where the person is coming from. As the apologist and evangelist Ravi Zacharias says "behind every question is a questioner". I'd maybe ask something like "what makes you reluctant to even think about it?" "have you had a bad experience?" "what puts you off the Christian faith?". Usually as you say there is some kind of fear. Sometimes if people really wont talk about it, its best just to leave it. God determines what ground the seed falls into, our task is to throw out the seed. We cant change anyones opinion by one iota, but God can. 

2. “I’m scared that there may be something in it”
People are scared that they are in some way signing up for judgement on themselves, and that they will be found wanting, which could have bad consequences. Have the notion that they will somehow be OK by just ignoring the whole issue (overlap with above point), but at least acknowledge it.

I think this is fairly common view: like the reaction that we have if we find something like a lump on our body and think "Should i go the GP or not?" I guess Chris this depends on whether or not we think we are OK - whether if you like we think we need 'treatment" in the first place. I find that the vast majority of people in their heart of hearts know that the world is a mess and that their life is broken and damaged in places. We all know (even if we dont want to admit it) that we have done things in our life that we would be ashamed about if others knew about. That's what we mean by "conscience". I wouldn't say this (normally!) but its also true that judgement is coming if we like it or not. Not human judgement (and the the church and people in it can sometimes come across as judgemental) but divine judgement. The proof of that is that we are all going to die, for "the wages of sin is death".   

3. “I’m scared that there may not be anything in it”
People are unwilling to make a significant commitment to something which may not bear any fruit. It’s seen as an expensive insurance policy which may never be needed. Doubts over some of the difficult questions such as “Why does God allow suffering/not help us?”, many clergy disbelieving in the Resurrection/miracles etc. Surely it’s sufficient to just rely on own personal moral code.

My response to them would be: there are two possibilities. If its rubbish and you give me 30 minutes to look at the evidence you have wasted 30 minutes. But if it is true, its more important than anything else in your life ever will be. You will be perhaps familiar with 'Pascals wager' -  "Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas he stands to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell)." This argument has limitations as a) its not enough to tick the box you have to genuinely believe and b) which God to believe in, if any. But it does underline the craziness of not at least thinking about whether it's true or not. 30 minutes vs eternity? I ask people to give me 30 minutes and say upfront that if at the end of that time they tell me "never ask me again" i wont. So far nobody has taken me up on “never asking me again”.

Our own moral code is inadequate to get us to God - he asks us for belief not morality.  See point 6. 

On suffering, thats a huge issue too big to go into here, i am working on a blog on this. 

As for clergy who just dont believe in the resurrection etc - they are I am afraid to say 'false prophets'. if you are a vicar or pastor and you completely stop believing in something (as can happen - or maybe you never believed in the first place) you need to find another career. Its hypocrisy to get paid for something you dont believe in. Doubts from people who aren't in a position of authority though are different - see below. 

4. “I’m scared of losing face”
People feel peer pressure to act strong, not be a prawn, not be seen as weak, feeble or meek. Doesn’t fit with their own self-image.

This is why I much prefer 121 to any other type of witness — because it enables people to say what they think and ask questions without any fear of being laughed at — either by their non believing friends or indeed by the Christians in church. Thats very common. Often it's not so much colleagues and friends but fear of the reaction of their immediate family and especially for the reaction of their spouse or partner. I can think of several friends where I suspect they think the Christian faith is true but they are afraid to acknowledge it for this reason. My advice to someone in that position would be "keep going". Keep exploring the bible, keep pressing on and eventually with Gods help you will see more clearly and your courage will overcome your fear and doubts. It's normal to have doubts, but seek to resolve them. (Having doubts and coming to church is a good thing, though of course over time you want to try and remove your doubts by looking at the evidence if they are major in nature. My beef is not at all with people like that - the church is open for all - but people in authority who should be helping their flock with doubts who simply dont believe)

5. “I’m not old enough”
Plenty of time to worry about all that later – its only pensioners who go to church anyway. And, if all that stuff about forgiveness is true, then I can enjoy myself now and apologise when I’m older. Maybe. Is there an app?

Ha ha! I dont think there is an app. First of all at least in the churches I know (ones that truly believe that Jesus did rise from the dead -see previous question!) there is a pretty good cross section of ages. Secondly none of us know how long life is, we may die tomorrow. Thirdly, this assumes we can pick and choose when we will listen to God. But we cant. Now is the time that the door to God is open, it may shut at any time. Thirdly, I would argue and have indeed found myself that I am far happier as a Christian than not. God is not a 'kill joy' (that is the lie from the devil) rather, he is a 'make joy' who knows whats good for us and wants us to be truly happy. We are by nature like a three year old who thinks if he eats ice cream after ice cream until we are sick that will make us happy. Augustine said “God made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Him”. There is no peace or rest without knowing God and there is no knowing God without being right with God

6. “It sounds hard”
People are put off by the perception of strict “life rules”, arcane ceremonies and rituals and not knowing how to start – can’t just go to church since won’t know what to do and will feel stupid. In a funny way, many of these people might welcome a non-religious(!) church service as an easy introduction. People are happy to set their own standards which seem more relevant to modern life. They would sign up for ‘some of it’ but not everything, so by default do nothing.

Fair point. The church is its own worst enemy here. It often does come across as very dusty and arcane. People do feel strange about going to church, many things that happen in church seem weird and Christians are often weird too!  You are absolutely right that this puts them off. I dont ask people to come to church (nor did Jesus ask them to go to the synagogue) but to take a look at the evidence and if you like “kick the tyres”. I also dont ask people to conform with morality - because just as you say we/they cant keep Gods standards even for an hour. It's impossible. Even if I could convince someone that some aspect of their lifestyle was wrong and they (very unlikely) changed it baaed on my say so, that would not make them right with God. If they on the other hand meet God, get right with God, then naturally, they will realise what they are doing is wrong and will feel what the bible calls "repentance" - they will feel sorry for the things they have done wrong and going forward they will want to try and obey his commands. There is a cost to becoming a Christian: it's best expressed as this: who knows best what's good for me: me or the God of the whole universe? If the former carry on as you are now (but the end is eternal death) if it's God then make a change, turn 180 degrees (and the end is eternal life).

7. “I don’t understand the question”
This is pretty much equivalent to your first point, and includes the fear of the unknown.

There is a major fear-giving known unknown: death. The Christian claim is that one person came back from beyond death: more than that actually conquered death. Is it true? "If I could offer you eternal life, would you take it?"
If you dont understand (and many people genuinely dont) my friendly invitation would be - "Do you fancy having a chat about the bible using these notes on John's gospel?"

Anyway, keep blogging — always good to read, and we're always thinking of you.

Thank you!

All the best,
Categories: Friends

What stops people believing? Some informal market research

Fri, 18/01/2019 - 15:01

Someone on an excellent FB group posed the question "What are the most common reasons you’ve encountered amongst family, friends and acquaintances for them not being a Christian: or what is it that draws them to an alternative belief?"

This is a great question. It's a wonderful way to start a conversation as well. Rather than then responding and trying and bash our friends views we should listen: I have suggested some kind responses below 

Anyone reading this who isn't a Christian and has other views on what they find stops them (or people in general) please do post. 

Due to my illness (i have incurable cancer) I have had many many opportunities to ask this question - with maybe 50-100 such discussions in the last few years, so this is reasonably statistically accurate.  Of course its accurate within my friends who are obviously similar to me: white, male, highly educated often work in the City and around 40-60. Based on this reasonable sized sample  I would say 

1. Most people have no idea what the Christian faith actually is about: if any idea it’s mainly moralism. They certainly have no idea about the bible and it’s message . Crucially they know almost nothing about the historical Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Palestine. 

2. They either think Christians think they are better than everyone else, or they think "I've never done anyone any wrong". If you think about it thats two sides of the same coin: that Christianity is an exam and you have to get a certain pass mark.  They see religion as a system of doing good and they see no need for that. Crucially they don’t understand (our fault not theirs) that our faith is a free gift not works. The most common reaction by far is “I’m not religious”: people see Christian faith as something like being left handed - some people are born that way most not its fairly  harmless but not very important 

3.Some will see attractions in other religions mainly some kind of Buddhist influenced philosophy: they wouldn’t call themselves Buddhist in the main (some would) but that kind of Eastern enlightenment.  I have found relatively few out and out atheists mainly some sort of vague agnosticism or deism. So most have not rejected Christianity but see no need for it and see themselves as “non religious” or "none of the above".

4. Of the ones who have rejected Christianity (and again that is the minority) dislike of religion and bad personal experience of church as mentioned above. They see the church as moralistic hypocrites (which has some truth lets be  honest) and think that Christians look down on other people (linked to point 1 above). 

5. Finally some do have some specific objections. The most common objection is I would say "all religions, including none lead eventually to God - why are you Christians so exclusive?" 

Followed next by “science has disproved God”. 

Some say "I dont want God telling me what to do"

How can God allow suffering? 

Some do mention  that the bible isn't trustworthy (especially Muslim friends)  

Fired up by this discussion i asked a good friend what put him off Christianity. he said

"1.  The church is about morality. The church (and to some extent the people I meet) are judgemental, harsh, look down on people, Christianity is about “Sunday best” and dressing up, Christians tend to think that they are morally inherently superior to other people

2. On the odd occasion I have been to church felt like going back to the 1950s — old people, old buildings, everything old and dusty, everything feels in a time warp and outdated.

3. It doesn't accept me (or others) “as I am” but is all about rules, dos and donts. I dont like being told what to do by other people  (which I said was very honest!)

4. All religions are basically the same, so ultimately doesn't matter"

How to tackle it? I use stories from the Bible and especially Johns gospel  - which i am trying to get them to look at with me, so its like a trailer for an upcoming film 

If we make straight for Christ we can't go far wrong. 

I use them as follows (i dont whip out my bible thats off putting, I tell them the story in my own words) 

1. Dont know: Would you like to chat about/look at the bible (ie John) with me? 

2. Morality/Not 'religious'/church is terrible: Most importantly dont defend the church! we are here to promote Jesus Christ not the church, which is indeed full of hypocrites. as my father used to say to people who said this to him "You are quite right; come along and make one more". Bible wise: Nicodemus (thought he was very religious, Jesus sent him off with a flea in his ear) or Prodigal son (older vs younger brother) 

3. Rules and regulations: Pharisee and tax collector - who went home right with God? Not here to defend the church which is full of bad people - its a hospital not a moral Oxbridge. Or Prodigal son. But we also must stress "if you love me you will obey my commands" Christian faith about a relationship with God, knowing him, if we have that we want to try and obey his commands. 

4. Other religions: Samaritan woman - followed another religion/lived an immoral life: Jesus rises above religious traditions and points her to himself. 

a) Science: John 1:1 plus a simple discussion of “where did the universe originate from?” (The first cause argument) I find extraordinarily powerful. 
b) Rebel: (this is a very honest answer!) Prodigal son (especially "when he came to his senses"). What is sin? ultimately about how we treat the Father.
c) Suffering: Lazarus 
d) Bible not trustworthy/not true: Thats my all time favourite objection (i say to  myself thank you God  when it comes up ) as it is such a gift to talk about Johns gospel and the historic Jesus and how we can know him. 

I have never had anyone ask me about some things that we worry about like Predestination, Genocide in OT.  

In summary it’s not that our friends in the main  have considered and rejected Christianity but that they have never considered it as they dont know what it is. Whose fault is that? In part it’s ours because we haven’t properly communicated it! How do we do that? Through reading John’s gospel with notes  (word 121) has been my experience. I have found it utterly amazing and forgive me for boasting (and it’s God not me) but I have 15-20 people I regularly do this with and have had quite a few come to faith. I ask all my friends “would you like to chat about the  bible ?”

So brothers and sisters our friends (at least some of them anyway!) are much more open than we think. Let’s have the courage to ask them to chat about the bible: God will do the rest. If they say "no" thats their right, we should respect that, on to the next. 

If anyone has any questions about how to do it just DM me or make a comment. 
Categories: Friends

Have we 'lost heart' in evangelism? Encouragements for the New Year

Fri, 11/01/2019 - 15:58

2 Corinthians 4:1 "Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. "

Let me be blunt. I wonder if we Christians in the UK have lost heart, have lost faith in the "ministry" of the good news about Jesus Christ. Being honest, I feel that we as a church are discouraged about evangelism and have lost to a certain extent faith in evangelism. 

As Dave Griffith-Jones pointed out on Twitter "Most UK Christians assume no-one they know would be interested and certainly wouldn't turn to Christ, so have given up looking and praying for opportunities".

Friends let’s change this in 2019! 
Our pastor John Khnana posed the question in a discussion about evangelism recently  "Do we talk about God much"? The honest answer is "No." 

Who talks about God a lot ?  It would be fair to say:-

  • New Christians 
  • Pentecostals (reformed and evangelicals  much less so) 
  • Muslims and other people of other religions (eg JW) 

Some people when we discussed this in a group feel its become more difficult but the consensus from the group John was leading was that actually it’s easier now to talk about God. The younger generation are perhaps somewhat easier as society isn’t composed of nominal Christians who have been “vaccinated” against the real thing. The rise of the “nones” has been noted - the  shift from nominal Christianity to none. But  actually now their faith is correctly labelled. People who would have said historically “I’m CofE” which was actually a cultural label not a statement of belief. They have relabelled themselves not as  atheists but “don’t know”.  
I have found just in the last few days that many of our non Christian friends (not everybody but many) are wide open to the gospel. I ask pretty much all my friends “would you like to chat about the bible” and am amazed by how many say "yes". I have many friends who are doing this with me and loving it. the more i ask the more my faith is boosted. Admittedly this is helped by my having incurable cancer but even without this massive unfair advantage
Categories: Friends

Happy 127th birthday JRR Tolkien! What can we learn from 'Lord of the Rings'?

Thu, 03/01/2019 - 16:58

This is part 2 - my friend Tim Stackhouse wrote part 1 which you can read here and is about the usefulness of fantasy literature in general.

This one's by me. 

Tolkien was a convinced Christian and Catholic who heartily detested allegory - which ironically was the main fictional device deployed by his great friend CS Lewis. So unlike Lewis’s Narnia series  where you can easily point to Aslan being Christ and so on Tolkien deliberately does not employ any allegory or even parallels. This Is also a function of Tolkien (except in “The Hobbit”) writing for adults, while Lewis wrote the Narnia series for children. Lewis and Rowling write of the real world with magical overlays: Tolkien has a completely  imaginary world. 

This means that there is no direct connection between the characters in 'The Lord of the Rings' (LOTR) and the Christian faith. And in a way that’s good. I can see various of my readers eyebrows raised at this point. 
Perhaps it’s best to leave the explanation of what I mean to the man himself. “We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic "progress" leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.”

In other words the LOTR is a story. A myth which contains signposts to truth but without bashing us over the head with it (as Lewis occasionally does). For the sceptic they may see truth in unlikely places which may point them to the ultimate truth. You can perfectly well read the LOTR as an atheist and enjoy it as a story.  But beware if you do for Tolkien is trying to instil some deep Christian beliefs. For it is a deeply Christian book grounded in Christian truth and if you follow it and imbibe it it may lead you to God (with apologies to my many atheistic friends who love it too!)

What truths does Tolkien seek to instil?

Most profound is his insight which he shared with Lewis about the nature of evil. This was garnered especially from their time serving in the trenches in WW1. His biographer Bradley Birzer notes “Though he spent less than a year in the war, if affected him deeply. Tolkien had lost several of his closest friends, and their loss, he believed, gave him an even greater duty to carry on their jointly conceived project, which was to do God’s will in the world.”This influence of the war threads throughout the book: for example in the “Dead marches” where swamps full of rotting dead bodies reflect the Somme and Passchendaele. However, Tolkien differed from Lewis in one respect: he disliked Lewis great book “The Screwtape Letters” as he thought it best not to delve too deeply into the devils tactics. 
What Tolkien shows is that nobody (even Sauron the “Satan” of LOTR) was evil in the beginning. God made everything good but evil (for reasons neither the bible or Tolkien explain) entered the world. Evil is derivative - it can’t make anything new so it twists and distorts all that is good. It seeks to take things that are God given and good in their right place like sex, power and intellect and destroy and corrupt them. The orcs are Sauron's attempt to imitate and thereby thwart the creative acts of God in making humans. We also see that in the destructive power of evil on the natural environment- especially the wanton felling of trees which is a recurrent motif of evil - the 'massacre' of the trees at Orthanc and its environs and the destruction of the Shire.

Evil is also pervasive - because it’s in each of us. The real enemy is within not without. The struggle between the good we want to do and the evil that overpowers us is most famously drawn in Gollum. LOTR does not portray “baddies and goodies” (although some of the latter are a little too good to be true in places!) but “human” nature as it is in a fallen world. 
The  ring is so dangerous because it draws out the inherent craving for power which lies within each of the people who wield it. Even ultimately Frodo is unable to resist it and has to be “helped” by Gollum. The ring is particularly dangerous because it appeals to those who think they can use evil for good purposes. Those who think the ends justify the means. 

On the other hand, Tolkien clearly teaches that there is a deep purpose for good at work in the world. Here is a famous passage between Frodo and Gandalf discussing Gollum - which of course is fulfilled when Frodo decides he will not destroy the ring. 

“What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in.‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many - yours not least.”My friend Tim notes "Tolkien's portrayal of providence or the "bigger picture" is credible because it has some level of nuance to it (and therefore resonates with people of all faiths and none). An example might be Boromir's fate. Here is one of the "goodies" who succumbs to evil and subsequently perishes (though not without a redemptive last stand). The fact that not all of the "goodies" survive to see the end of the tale adds a certain level of richness and complexity to the theme of providence. Without this, the tale might be robbed of some of its drama, if it's simply a foregone conclusion that good will triumph over evil without a struggle and without casualties. A parallel of providence being complex in Harry Potter are the deaths of Sirius Black, Fred Weasley and Lupin." 

Closely linked to the part of “fate” is that this providence or purpose (which Christians would call God and Calvinists would call divine sovereignty) works through the weak and insignificant things, not the powerful. The hobbits are us - they are small, insignificant, ignored: in fact they are basically foolish and even laughable. Yet they are the chosen instrument of “providence” to defeat evil. 1 Corinthians 1:27! The child like hobbits do something which the powerful such as Gandalf, Aragorn and Elrond cannot do. Not only does this reflect on the mysterious nature of Providence it also invites the reader, I suggest, to make similar choices to the hobbits. In the safety of the shire there appears to be a “broad way” of comfort and avoidance of difficult decisions or a “narrow way” which is passing perilous. Each of us must choose and each of our choices have moral consequences. Each of us finds ourselves in a strange and at times frightening place where we must confront the evil without and the evil within. We feel inadequate and that we can’t do what we should. Gollum like we want to do good but we can’t. Yet equally there is something much bigger and yes redemptive going on, in which we are summoned to play a small role. As Gandalf, at the end of The Hobbit, says to Bilbo, "You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?I think ultimately this sense of something “bigger”’at work is the most profoundly Christian element in Tolkien. For we are all basically selfish. We think of ourselves and our own small interests and trivial preoccupations. The bible says “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. It is this sense of something “other”, a bigger,  divine redemptive plan and a struggle against evil in which we are asked to serve, which calls to us, as to the hobbits. For the Christian I suggest this is to “take up our cross and follow me” daily. I leave the last word to Tolkien himself “the Gospels contain... a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. … But this story has (actually) entered history and ....has the inner consistency of reality. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true ...this story is supreme; and it is true. The (gospel) has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them. The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope and die, but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.”

In summary, that Tolkien wrote LOTR in a way that shows his characters are all part of a bigger, more important story (even if like us they are small and insignificant). That's why it  triggers something important with within us. This story and stories like it remind us of something that is going on in this real world. The Christian faith shows us that we are too also part of this kind of story. There is something bigger going on that is about the fate of each of us the whole world. Each of us must write our part in that story.  
Categories: Friends

most popular blogs of 2018

Tue, 01/01/2019 - 14:59

Many thanks to everyone who read my blog last year and especially to those who commented.

Here are my top 5 blogs of 2018 in terms of readership size

Wishing everyone a wonderful and blessed New Year!


1. Does the church in the UK have a class problem?

Yes was my answer and I suggested some ways wealthier churches could help poorer ones in deprived areas. This blog was not only number 1 for 2018 it was by a factor of 2x the most read blog i have ever published.

2. Support not abolish charities

The FT published an article attacking charities (fair enough) and calling for drastic restrictions on charitable status (unjustified I felt). I especially defended smaller charities staffed exclisvely or mainly by volunteers

3. Review of John Stevens book "Knowing the Times"

John Stevens wrote an excellent short book on the church and British culture, highlighting areas for action and challenges facing the church.

4. How to be a Christian in the workplace

How should Christians view work? How should we share our faith with our work colleagues?

5. Extra time: thoughts on my birthday

On my birthday, I reflected on being given "extra time" and looked at the story of Jesus's raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.

Categories: Friends

Book review: 'Disruptive Witness' by Alan Noble (IVP US, September 2018)

Sun, 30/12/2018 - 21:25

This book by an American professor  comes highly recommended by many people and influential organisations like the Gospel Coalition and Tim Keller. While I enjoyed reading it and found it made some important points it didn’t in the end I found quite live up to the hype. 

The first part which draws heavily on the Catholic thinker and writer Charles Taylor makes some interesting and insightful points about the nature of modern western culture and is well written and thought provoking, but the second half which considers what the church should do about the culture I found in places less than wholly convincing for reasons I shall explain below

Noble begins by analysing contemporary western behaviour and culture which based on Taylor’s analysis he calls the “distracted, buffered self”. He defines this as “the practice of continuous engagement in immediately gratifying activities that resist meditation and reflection”. Its effects following Taylor, he argues, are amplified or exacerbated by the growth of secularism. Taylor doesn’t mean here atheism per se but that faith is but one of many options available and one on which “the transcendent feels less and less plausible”. 

Developing Taylor’s thinking Noble makes some important points. The flattening out of communication means the space between the trivial and the crucial has shrunk. The difference to put it another way between “thick” belief and “thin” belief (say between faith in God and following a sports team) have become much smaller. Our culture doesn’t easily allow us to wrestle with thick ideas, ideas with depth and important implications. The church can easily mimic the culture and risk “contributing to the clutter and Distraction of modern life rather than helping to lift our neighbours out of it”. We are confronted by a worldview which looks at whether Christianity fits in with each persons authentic identity rather than whether it’s true. “We choose beliefs that comprise our worldview...based principally on what will grant us a sense of personal fulfilment".

So far so good and so helpful : however  I detect in both Taylor and Noble a nostalgia for a pre Reformation world which is both impossible to recreate and itself highly idealised. Whether for example people in pre Reformation  Europe were really as open to “thick faith” is a moot point.  Examination of priests in England for example around the Reformation showed an abysmal level of understanding of even the basic level of Christian belief. Many were unable even to recite the Lords Prayer. So it wasn’t so much a thick culture of Christian faith as ignorance of what the faith was in the first place. The idea that the non Christian in ages past was “active, attentive and aware of the costs of believing” is also arguable. 

This brings me to the second half of the book which I found in places less than convincing. 

Noble does makes some good points about the way the church mimics the surrounding culture; for example by having the service as a kind of performance where the focus is on the performers and as in contemporary culture every novelty is deployed to keep the  audience entertained. 

But his main point I find questionable: that the church can best achieve a “disruptive witness” by focusing on a double movement “in which the goodness of being produces gratitude in us that acknowledges God “. In turn this leads to him stressing liturgy and sacraments in worship as bringing in silence and solitude and to use a modern phrase “mindfulness”

I have two concerns. Firstly that all of this assumes that the non Christian is there in church in the first place. In parts of America such as the South there maybe “cultural” Christians who might fit this bill but hardly in say New England the Pacific North West let alone Europe. How these non Christians will be persuaded to come to church is not really dealt with and I am not convinced even if they came that they will be struck by more transcendent sacraments and liturgies. I find it fascinating that the focus is very much on the church and its witness through services rather than the relationship of the individual Christian to their non believing friends and family. This rather begs the question “why should the non Christian come to church in the first place?” Secondly I have noted before that some American evangelicals  have a deep rooted attachment to liturgy and sacramentalism. Whatever you have not got you tend to want. Those of us living in a more liturgical environment in Europe tend to be somewhat more immune! 

Incidentally I have many friends who love a more liturgical worship and I respect them for it: but my point is this: that if we want to introduce our friends to the transcendent God and break through the barriers of contemporary culture there is a much more logical and easier to access means to do this: through the word of God. Surprisingly enough use of the bible  plays a small part in Nobles book, though he does emphasise the use of stories there are secular ones ones such as “The Great Gatsby” or “The Road”.  

In my view (and I think the bible itself says this!) personal sharing one on one of the bible should be the centre of our “disruptive witness”. It does need to be disruptive as Noble cogently argues and the bible fulfils all the criteria Noble helpfully sets out:-

  1. It’s supernatural and transcendent. That is why it was written! 
  2. It’s a story (especially the gospels)
  3. It’s easily accessible when we go out of church 
  4. Like art or novels or films of music it provokes what Taylor calls “epiphanic transcendent reference “: thoughts of something greater and transcendent than say day to day life on social media. But unlike the means suggested it takes us direct to the person of Jesus Christ who is both transcendent and personal and the whole point of the exercise. Not so much a double movement (us to the transcendent and then from that to God) but a single movement 

I am not against much of what Noble recommends and feel that his diagnosis of culture is very helpful and accurately depicted. But his remedy is not so much wrong as missing the point: it’s not wrong to have better liturgy or art or stories and they can be helpful but they won’t ultimately do the job. 

No, surely to break through to contemporary cultures and “buffering minds” so expertly analysed by Noble we should use the means appointed  beforehand and sitting at our finger tips. This - especially using the gospels read 121 with friends I have found - is the bible which when the Holy Spirit works, as he promises He will, will penetrate the most buffered mind and break through the most secular mentality to introduce our friends to Jesus Christ. 
Categories: Friends
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