Dawkins, Fraser, Bartlett and shibba… uh… shibbol… um…

17 02 2012

I have little to say on the Dawkins-memory-lapse that has not already been said. So instead of gloating, musing or a combination of the two, allow me simply to quote my favourite fictitious president:

President Bartlett: There are questions as to the veracity of your claim to the asylum […] How did you become a Christian?

Jhin-Wei: I began attending a house church with my wife in Fujian. Eventually, I was baptized.

President Barlett: How do you practice?

Jhin-Wei: We share bibles – we don’t have enough. We sing hymns. We hear sermons. We recite the Lord’s Prayer. We are charitable.

President Bartlett: Who’s the head of your church?

Jhin-Wei: The head of our parish is an 84 year old man named Wen-Ling. He’s been beaten and  imprisoned many times. The head of our church is Jesus Christ.

President Bartlett: Can you name any of Jesus’ disciples? If you can’t, that’s okay. I usually can’t  remember the names of my kids, or for that matter…

Jhin-Wei: Peter, Andrew, John, Phillip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, Thaddeus, Simon, Judas and James. Mr. President, Christianity is not demonstrated through a recitation of facts.  You’re seeking evidence of faith, a wholehearted acceptance of God’s promise for a better world. “For we hold that man is justified by faith alone” is what St. Paul said. “Justified by faith alone.” Faith is the true… uh, I’m trying to… shibboleth. Faith is the true shibboleth.

President Bartlett: Yes, it is. And you sir just said the magic word in more ways than one.

(The West Wing: season 2, episode 8, Shibboleth)

Good Friday: The Seed, the Serpent and Chekhov’s Rifle

22 04 2011

Russian Playwright Anton Chekov famously wrote:

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The author of Scripture knew this well, and He never hung rifles He was not planning to fire…

Act I

‘Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD had made…  Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
(Genesis 3:1, 13-15)

Act II

‘And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.’
(Numbers 21:5-9)


‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’
(John 3:14-15)

Rob Bell comes clean?

11 04 2011

When I opened Facebook yesterday, virtually one in three items on my news feed contained the following video, in which Rob Bell ‘comes out and states what many have been waiting to hear.’ Each time it has been posted, it has been accompanied by one of the following kinds of comments:

  1. Well done Rob! Glad to see you are orthodox after all (that’ll show those nay saying reformed guys)
  2. I haven’t read the book yet, but I thought everyone’s saying he is a universalist. I’m confused.
  3. I have read the book, and I thought it was fairly clear he was a universalist. Now I’m very puzzled

In the clip, Bell introduces himself as a Christian, and then essentially recites a creed, outlining the details of his Christian faith, all of which I say ‘amen’ to. Listen to it. See what you think. He includes in his list the fact that Jesus is the way, and that there is a hell… All of which seems a little confusing.

Here are a few comments:

I do believe he is a Christian. I believe his faith is genuine. As I’ve said before, I like him very much and enjoy listening to his preaching… though usually armed with a large pinch of salt. It’s great to hear him affirming many of the central tenets of the Christian faith. (Shame he couldn’t have included the virgin birth in there just to put the Velvet Elvis confusion to bed)

However, just because you throw around some titles and terms doesn’t mean you have affirmed where you stand on a particular doctrine. You could glance through the creeds of many different church streams and find them all affirming similar things using similar language, but meaning things that are worlds apart! Get a high Anglican, a non-conformist, a Baptist and a Mormon together and ask them if they believe in baptism – of course they all do, but what they mean by ‘I believe in baptism’ will be entirely different.

Of course, baptism isn’t the best example, because that’s an area of practice that has divided churches, whereas the items Bell includes are all things that evangelicals would have broad agreement on. But my point is this: Saying ‘I believe in X’ means very little when you are regularly guilty of redefining what X really means.

I’ve read Love Wins and I have no doubt Rob believes in Hell. He makes that very clear. But whether he and I and Jesus agree on how you define ‘hell’ is a different matter. I do think that he has redefined hell beyond the boundaries of where scripture goes, and so a simple affirmation like ‘I believe in hell’ means very little.

The central statement in his creed is this:

‘And I’m not a universalist because I believe God’s love is so great God lets you decide.’

This, I imagine, is what has confused many people, and put a smug smile on the face of others. And again it’s a labeling thing. Rob is defining universalism as the belief that everyone gets out of hell and into heaven. And of course he is rejecting that, because he believes that Jesus is the way, and so God won’t simply override your decision to reject Jesus. ‘He lets you decide.’

The question is ‘when does he let you decide?’

It’s very easy to reject a label, but functionally Bell is very far along the spectrum towards universalism. Because what he doesn’t say in this clip, but does say in his book, is that he anticipates that God’s love is so strong that people will be wooed to respond to him after their death, even if they’ve been languishing in hell for some time. The gates of heaven are never shut and Sodom and Gomorrah get restored, and this, for Bell, is enough to show that there will be postmortem opportunities for people to respond to the gospel.

(Of course, that’s not all of his argument – read the book if you have the time and inclination, or don’t if you don’t – see if you can figure out what the heck his exegesis of the prodigal son is about? It baffled the hell out of me.)

So Bell can and does reject the label of universalism, but what he actually says is barely different: hell is real, people will go there, but even there they will have the opportunity to respond to God’s love, and God’s love is so great that we can be optimistic that even in the darkest place, people will be swayed to respond.

So if we were to ask him ‘will hell at last be empty?’ I imagine his answer (not that he gives answers per se) would be: “theoretically no, since people will still be able to choose to reject God’s love. But hopefully yes, since God’s love is so compelling, who wouldn’t want to respond?”

I’m not going to get into critiquing Bell properly… that’s been done to death (and beyond). But I would make this appeal, particularly to my friends who fell into category (1) ‘Way to go Rob!’ – Don’t cheer too loudly. Rejecting the title is not the same as rejecting the doctrine. And Rob Bell is still preaching unorthodoxy.

And that leads me to the final point of his creed; the pinnacle:

‘And I also believe it’s best to only discuss books you’ve actually read’

(Cue rapturous applause)

Leaving aside the chagrin I felt at this getting more applause and whooping than the death, resurrection and second coming of Jesus, this wound me up a little…

Of course people are going to discuss books they haven’t read, when you release a promo video raising discussion questions before the release date. You invited them to discuss it!

Of course people are going to discuss it when they pastor churches and need to shepherd congregations.

Of course people are going to discuss it when the fate of their friends hangs in the balance, and they want to ensure they hear a faithful representation of the gospel.

And I would add this; it cuts both ways! And I have heard as many, if not more, people defend Bells book without having read it, as I have critiquing it. If we were to cut their voices out of the discussion, it would be a rather different tone of conversation.

To those who have, on the basis of this clip alone, declared Bell to be orthodox after all; you are just as ill-equipped to make that statement as the people you have criticised. Don’t put your eggs in the basket of a pithy creed. Read what he’s saying and take heed of what he’s not saying. Be discerning.

And remember; all of us run the risk of having itchy ears. Let’s be careful who we allow to scratch them. (2 Tim 4:3-4)

The Adjustment Bureau

15 03 2011

I nearly didn’t get to see The Adjustment Bureau. Not through some kind of conspiracy. There were no men in hats subverting my plans. I simply couldn’t spell it!

For some inexplicable reason, I always forget to but a ‘D’ in adjustment, and I can never remember the order of that veritable mire of vowels in the word bureau. So after a good few minutes of Googling, I finally landed upon the correct spelling, and went to see it on Sunday afternoon.

If you don’t know, The Adjustment Bureau is a film starring Matt Damon, in which he meets a dancer called Elise, and immediately falls in love with her. Soon after, he discovers that a team of people called The Adjustment Bureau are working to keep them apart, because their relationship is not according to ‘The Plan’ as prescribed by ‘The Chairman.’ The film then follows Damon trying to subvert the plan, in order to pursue this relationship.

The film is good fun, not too serious, and generally enjoyable. There’s a whole load of sci-fi, pseudo-philosophical-theological pontificating on free-will and determinism, and a couple of not so subtle hints that ‘The Chairman’ may in fact be God: He comes to all people in different forms (!) and when anybody talks about him, they gesture towards the sky.

To be honest, it made me think less than I imagined it would. I was expecting a deeply clever, mind-bending film – it was a little light on that… I’m sure if you want to use it as a springboard to debate predestination, open-theism and the like, you can. Russell Moore wrote a good blog post on it, saying that the primary theme is not really the free-will/determinism debate, but rather ‘It seemed to be a retelling of the Eden story, with some sympathy for the Devil.’ I think he’s right.

But the overriding feeling I did have was how sad it is that belief in a Sovereign God leads many to think of a micro-managing, meticulous deity who operates on mechanistic, soulless, thoroughly logical systems, with no kind of emotional engagement. I fear we do God an enormous disservice by painting his grace in such hideous monochrome!

Yesterday morning I sat down to study Ephesians 1, and was struck again by verse 5:

‘In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…’ (Eph 1:5)

Every word of that sentence demands thoughtful engagement, but just a few comments:

In love – Immediately that should guard us against using the language of cold-hard logic. Perhaps I’ve been devious by sneaking those words in… in most English translations they actually fall in verse 4. And that’s the problem! It’s too easy to separate the love of God from predestination, and so we end up with a cold, hard plan etched in a moleskine, whether we like it or not. No, predestination begins with love.

For adoption as sons – There is a purpose to election: it’s not simply that God would be able to micro-manage every bit of our lives; we are given a hope and a future as children of God, welcomed into intimate familial relationship with the God of the universe. And note, there is absolutely no speculation here (unlike Romans 9) of the negative flipside of election, just pure, unadulterated joy!

According to the purpose of his will – Commentators suggest that the word translated ‘purpose’ perhaps more accurately means ‘pleasure’, in which case this verse should read ‘according to the pleasure of his will.’ That blows me away. Predestination is both an act of God’s ‘will’ – his reasoned, decision-making capacity – and his ‘pleasure’ – his heartfelt, joy-fuelled passion. He both ‘decided’ and ‘delighted’ to choose us!

This verse alone ought to stop us from treating predestination as a dispassionate and technical process, whereby God made an arbitrary or mathematical decision about who he would ‘save’, totally devoid of passion.

No, he delighted in election, and so should we.

Muggers with Morals

9 08 2010

A number of people have blogged about the video and article about Nayara Goncalves, a 20 year old girl in Florida who dissuaded a would be robber, by preaching about Jesus. Seeing it reminded me again of an experience I had a few years ago. So I thought I’d dig out an old newspaper article and post it here for all to see, just in case you’ve never heard me tell it one of the countless times it’s appeared as a sermon illustration!

In 2005, I was walking through a park on the way home from a church evening service. It was dark and late, as I’d stuck around to help pack up, and then walked my (now) wife home… Two guys came up alongside me, pulled a knife on me, and demanded that I give them my wallet, phone, keys etc – which I duly did! When they asked what else I had, I said the only other thing I had with me was a Bible.

One of them asked me if I believed in God. I said yes. They asked if I believed God could protect me from people like them. What on Earth do you say to that? The answer was a definite “yes“, and if you’d sat me down in a nice casual environment and prefaced the question with a gentle “purely hypothetically…” I wouldn’t have thought twice about answering in the affirmative. But with a knife pressed against my gut, in a dark and empty park, I wasn’t all that keen on them testing the limits of my faith!

But timidly I said yes.

There was no blinding flash of lights. No trumpet calls and cherubim with flaming swords… alas. But suddenly one of the guys panicked, and told his mate to give me back my stuff – which he duly did! They apologised, told me they were Christians too (though not practicing – no kidding!), shook my hand and sent me on my way.

I called the police immediately, and the two guys were picked up a little later, having mugged someone else straight after they’d left me.

Aside from the rather bizarre nature of the experience, a couple of facts particularly stick in my mind:

  • The sermon that evening had been on the faithfulness of God. To be honest I’d not thought a lot of it. Others were raving about it, but somehow it hadn’t really connected with me. This incident rammed home the truth in a way the sermon hadn’t. Application: be careful about which sermons you criticise!
  • I remember the confused look on the face of the officer who took my statement. There was a distinct moment at the end when he looked at me and said ‘are you sure this is what you want to say? You don’t want to change anything?‘ Probably a routine question… but I remember at the time noting a hint of scepticism in his voice and thinking that this really did sound like quite a tall story! I almost felt a little foolish describing what had happened; like it was so weird I almost had to apologise for it!
  • It’s funny – when you have an encounter like that, you can sort of end up wondering if you’ve made it up. Not totally, but the finer details. You wonder if you’ve embellished it by accident. You rationalise it. You explain it away. I was therefore thrilled to walk past a billboard a few weeks later to see the title ‘Bible Saves Rob Victim.’ I bought the paper and read the article (below). It was encouraging to have it in printed form, with comments from the court case. It reassured me I wasn’t crazy! Though I still maintain the headline made it sound like my name was Rob. And surely they could have come up with something a little more ‘tabloid’ and glamorous!
  • I remember meeting the other guy who was mugged, when we went to do an identity lineup. I remember how bitter he was; understandable, of course. But the way he referred to the muggers was full of anger, and in total contrast to the sense of peace I found myself with. It was a peace that came from outside of me. I’m not usually that calm. But somehow it didn’t affect me as it might have done. It ‘passeth-ed’ all understanding…
  • I remember being told a while later that the church I attended had previously had input into the life of one of the muggers. I believe he had attended a Sunday School the church had run for a while. Incredible how things like that pay off in unexpected ways.
  • Before this, I’d previously led worship at a couple of Alpha courses in young offenders prisons. I was told I wasn’t allowed to for a while, as I couldn’t be told where my attackers had been sent. That was fine… but I did often wonder where they were and what they were up to. Who knows what’s become of them?

So… here’s the article from the Kentish Gazette. It makes me chuckle to read it again – the way they struggle to comprehend and articulate the oddity of this ‘Christian’ mugger with a strong ‘ethical code.’ It’s a pretty prosaic article, but just so you know I’m not making it all up:

Christian robber hands back wallet

A religious youth carried out a knife-point robbery but then repented and handed everything back.

Mugger Sean Lismore, 18, a Roman Catholic, realised his victim was carrying a Bible and returned the stolen wallet and mobile, believing it was wrong to rob someone of the same faith.

The teenager had pounced on Liam Thatcher in February this year as he walked through St Stephen’s Park in Canterbury.

He asked “what have you got for us?”

But after taking the money and phone, Lismore and a 16-year old accomplice found Mr Thatcher clutching a Bible.

Lismore asked Mr Thatcher “Do you believe that God can protect you?”

After a brief conversation, Lismore then handed back the victim’s belongings, Canterbury Crown Court was told.

Prosecutor Alistair Keith said of Lismore, of Watling Street Canterbury, then apologised to Mr Thatcher, telling him he had only robbed him because he needed money to get home.

However, two hours later, the two teenagers attacked a second victim, Graeme Lawrenson, and stole £60 and a lighter as he walked through St Dunstan’s Street.

“It was an identical attack and again the lock knife was used,” said Mr Keith.

The court heard after taking Mr Lawrenson to a cash machine and withdrawing £100, Lismore handed back £40, informing his victim that £60 was all the money he needed for his train fare.

Mr Thatcher later told “detectives he has found the incident “very disturbing.”

Mr Larenson, the second victim, said he felt “in fear of violence” and found the attack “unreasonable and petty”.

The court was also told Lismore’s criminal record included 19 previous offences since June 2002 and he had a number of aliases.

But when he was arrested by police, Lismore had “admitted the offences, giving details of the circumstances”, Mr Keith told the court.

Katie Fox, defending, described Lismore as a “mixed-up kid”, adding “there were some bizarre features to the robberies because he has a moral code which he stands by.”

She said “as a Roman Catholic, he felt it was wrong to rob someone of the same faith as him, that was why he handed back all the items to his first victim.”

She added Lismore had also returned £40 to his second victim, together with a mobile phone sim card “because that was personal”.

Lismore, who admitted charges of robbery and attempted robbery, was sent to a young offenders institution for four years,

Judge Nigel van der Bijl told Lismore: “you think it is wrong to rob a fellow Christian… but then you go on to rob someone else the same night. I don’t know how you came to that conclusion.”

Sentencing on Lismore’s teenage accomplice, who admitted the same charges but cannot be identified for legal reasons, was adjourned until May 13 for probation reports.