It’s Christmas!

Below is the script I wrote for BBC Radio Devon Sunday Service for Christmas 2016 (and I stand by every word, and many other words besides!):

 

I am going to be honest with you this morning.

And my honesty may cause concern, relief or perplexity in equal measure….or it may cause hope.

I don’t know when, exactly, I stopped liking what passes for a British Christmas.

I am at the stage now in my mid-40’s where I am simply tired of the whole merry-go-round.

Am I being unnecessarily melancholy; a party-pooper of Scrooge like proportions?  Probably.

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Not.

But also, possibly not.

I know I am not alone.

I know many people who will shop entirely online this Xmas to avoid the menacingly repetitive Christmas pop songs that blare out, over and over and over again.

To Noddy Holder, Johnny Matthis, Cliff Richard, Mud and all the others, thanks but….give it a rest!

I feel like Henry Thoreau’s line from his 19th c. book Walden hangs in the air:  “The mass of [people] lead lives of quiet desperation.”   The extended quote is more well known, “The mass of [people] lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.” 

I do wish Noddy, Johnny and Cliff had kept their songs inside them!

As a Baptist Minister in Torquay, my view has been received with a degree of astonishment!  Be that as it may!

“A minister who doesn’t like Christmas!”  said either in actual words or, most often, facial expressions!

“Is that even allowed?”

“Don’t church ministers have training in liking Christmas, and ensuring everyone else likes it too?”

Well, although there is enormous pressure to conform unthinkingly to a system of celebration that many people dread, ministers do not undergo a module at theological college called “How to like Christmas and why you must!” 

There is something in the air of Christmas, its impending approach, its imminence, its arrival, and of course the uncompromising aftermath of being full yet feeling empty.

It is a whiff of something we all smell, but keep to ourselves.

We daren’t mention it, lest we be thrown out of the party.

It is not the smell of mince pies and mulled wine, as delicious as that is.

It is the smell of a due sense of dread.

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How To Be A Good Atheist

How To Be A Good Atheist

A few years ago, David Bentley Hart wrote a  review of a book called: 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, co-edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. On Amazon the book is described thus:

“50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists presents a collection of original essays drawn from an international group of prominent voices in the fields of academia, science, literature, media and politics who offer carefully considered statements of why they are atheists.”

Hart’s original article can be found at the First Things website, but here’s a snippet of his sigh-ings against what he delicately calls the “sheer banality of the New Atheists”:

 

“How long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists—with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for? . . .

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

If that seems a harsh judgment, I can only say that I have arrived at it honestly. In the course of writing a book published just this last year, I dutifully acquainted myself not only with all the recent New Atheist bestsellers, but also with a whole constellation of other texts in the same line, and I did so, I believe, without prejudice. No matter how patiently I read, though, and no matter how Herculean the efforts I made at sympathy, I simply could not find many intellectually serious arguments in their pages, and I came finally to believe that their authors were not much concerned to make any. . . .

I came to realize that the whole enterprise, when purged of its hugely preponderant alloy of sanctimonious bombast, is reducible to only a handful of arguments, most of which consist in simple category mistakes or the kind of historical oversimplifications that are either demonstrably false or irrelevantly true. And arguments of that sort are easily dismissed, if one is hardy enough to go on pointing out the obvious with sufficient indefatigability.”

Ah! Wisdom

Ah! Wisdom

We Protesting Protestants are (more often than not – be honest) averse to Christian instruction that talks of rules or maxims, for we have shed the Pharisaical and Catholic yoke of a Religion of Rules.

Pah!

We 500+1 Protestants are basically averse to authority; we don’t like being told what to believe or how to behave, and we have the post-Reformation but un-Enlightened opinion that “Rules: they is bad!”

I highly commend this video below. I came across these maxims a few years ago and, like Luther, nailed (or rather blue-tac-ed) them to the wall in my study at church.  Like Luther’s 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Door, they’re not on my wall now, but I hope in all the wisdom and mercy of Christ that they become me and I become them, that I may not be found a prisoner to rules, but a free man in Christ.

May the same be true for you too. All grace to you.

Bloody Balfour Declaration Debacle

Bloody Balfour Declaration Debacle

One hundred years ago today, a mischievous political promise gave rise to a mischievous political creed:  The Balfour Declaration of 1917.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use its best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in other countries.”

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This short letter amounted to what historian Monroe called ‘one of the worst mistakes in [British] imperial history’, and what novelist Koestler succinctly described as ‘one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third nation.’  Moreover, the only Jew in the British Cabinet, Edwin Montagu correctly objected on the grounds that the Jews were a culture, not a nation.  He rightly refers to Zionism, with deft political understatement, as ‘a mischievous political creed’, even calling the declaration ‘anti-Semitic’, a deftness ignored by Michael Prior who also rightly calls Zionism ‘pernicious’ and a ‘canonical’ ideology on a par with sacred texts.

Nevertheless, the declaration became a major milestone in Zionist history.  Its minimalist content achieving maximum impact for the Allies as nation states determined where their loyalties would lie.  The partition plans for post-War Middle East would significantly favour British interest whilst affording them the authority to carry it out.  On the aspirations of a return to Zion, two views were distinguished and both were achieved at this juncture:

  1.  The hope of a return and
  2.  Constructing a program to achieve it.

The declaration alarmed the Arab world not only by its wording, but because the political apparatus was now in place to achieve it, and this despite the promise that Palestinian residents, who formed ninety percent of the people on the land, would have their civil and religious rights protected.  By 1918, Arab consensus believed the Zionists aimed to take over the country and place them in subjection.  They perceived that civil and religious rights may be protected, but political rights were blatantly omitted, since the territory formerly belonged to a defeated enemy, the Ottomans.  The Arabs were right to be alarmed, for as Sizer demonstrates, not only was the Declaration itself penned by the Zionist Organization on Balfour’s behalf, the author was the same man in the British government who also drafted its response, a Jew – Leopold Amery.  Additionally, as Assistant Secretary to the British War Cabinet, Amery was responsible for establishing the Jewish Legion, ‘the first organized Jewish army for 2,000 years and forerunner of the Israeli Defence Force.’  Sizer then quotes historian Rubinstein who comments that this was ‘possibly the most remarkable example of identity concealment in 20th Century British political history’ because he misled officials as to his sympathy for the Jews.

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Goldman points out the ignorance of almost everyone, by highlighting the view that many understood Palestine to be uninhabited, and it should therefore be inhabited by Jews, ‘the descendants of the lands’ ancient biblical inhabitants.’  This grave oversight, fostered by idealised notions of a Jewish return contradicted the reports of many visitors to Palestine, who witnessed first-hand the hundreds of thousands of Arab dwellers.  The phrase ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ was now used to claim that the Arabs of Palestine, despite their massive numbers, had no distinct “Palestinian identity”.  But this is a moot point.  Palestine was not empty, be it demographically or politically, as was attested by two unnamed Rabbi’s from Vienna, who visited Palestine in 1898, and reported, ‘The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.’  These two Rabbis knew only too well that Palestine was not only occupied by its indigenous people, but that this also meant that to deny them their national identity would be the first stage of dehumanization that would allow the Western powers and the Zionist movement to ignore their rights.  It would be colonisation and ethnic cleansing of the most nefarious kind.  And so it turned out to be just that!

 

 

We pray for holy peace and reconcilliation:

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For Hair-Splitting

“Theological distinctions are fine but not thin. In all the mess of modern thoughtlessness, that still calls itself modern thought, there is perhaps nothing so stupendously stupid as the common saying, “Religion can never depend on minute disputes about doctrine.” It is like saying that life can never depend on minute disputes about medicine. The man who is content to say, “We do not want theologians splitting hairs,” will doubtless be content to go on and say, “We do not want surgeons splitting filaments more delicate than hairs.” It is the fact that many a man would be dead to-day, if his doctors had not debated fine shades about doctoring. It is also the fact that European civilization would be dead to-day, if its doctors of divinity had not debated fine shades about doctrine.”

G. K. Chesterton
[The Resurrection of Rome]

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randonnée refuge du Varan – vue sur le Massif du Mont-Blanc

Transformative Bible Reading

This post is not a cheap shot at the “please read your Bible more” brigade, but an exploration into the truly transformative effects the Bible brings to bear on an individual or community.  Furthermore, this is not about bibliolatry either!  When Thiselton, from whom much of what follows is derived, talks of Transformative Bible Reading, he is referring to the work of God in Christ by the Spirit at work via a proper hermeneutical use of the Bible.

P. T. Forsyth lamented, 110 years ago, about the “…the decay among our churches of the personal use of the Bible.”PeterTForsyth

And there is good reason for this.

Anthony Thiselton rightly talks of the “transforming effects of the Bible”:

“The Bible does not spoon feed us as if we were babies, but provokes us to do some adult thinking of our own.”  And this is why the Scriptures lead to transformation after God’s purposes.

And this is precisely why I think the Bible is a mere dusty heirloom in many homes, including some Christian homes.  I think we kind of intuitively know why, Martin Luther certainly did, “The Bible confronts us as our adversary, demanding response and transformation.”

So we know it is generationally neglected.  We know it is powerful and transformative.  We know it is God’s written Word-in-the-words-of-men to us.  Yet we are beguiled into taming it so that it accords with our own prior wishes, concerns and expectations.  And I am not alone in thinking a tamed Bible makes tame Christians.

A reason why the Bible is marginalized and attacked is suggested by Professor Anthony Thiselton, “The Bible can transform and enlarge our vision, so that we are no longer trapped within our own narcissistic selfhood or within our own limited tradition or limited community.”  In other words, God uses the Bible to shatter our illusions about pretty much everything, which explains in part why it is attacked, marginalised and mocked.  We human beings simply don’t like having our illusion bubble burst, but the Bible is the pin that pops it.  In Flowers that Never Bend, Paul Simon sings,

“Through the corridors of sleep past the shadows dark and deep

my mind dances and leaps in confusion.

I don’t know what is real, I can’t touch what I feel

and hide behind the shield of my illusion;

So I continue to continue to pretend

that my life will never end

and the flowers never bend with the rainfall.

In other words:  God will not allow us to “continue to pretend” forever!  The Bible forces us beyond ourselves/communities into a truer vision of reality:  GOD.  Thiselton again, “The social reality of our everyday life is structured in terms of relevancies.  Yet the truth of Romans 5:5 and God’s love being poured into our hearts “will constitute a new set of motives that redefine criteria of relevance for the believer.”

In other words:  God’s loves changes us by changing what we think is relevant in our everyday life.  Thiselton continues“The goal of transformation into the image of Christ is to see the world through the eyes and interests of God’s purposes for the world.”

God’s love poured out does not give us personal fuzzy feelings of religious vagueness, but rather it turns kittens into lions, and babies into adults, and people, like David, after God’s own heart – a dangerous thing indeed!

So no wonder we struggle with it.  We’re fallen, fallible and finite.  And within church should be the exact place where we hear this challenge.

We need to man-up and woman-up so that our kids grow-up truly transformatively Bible-savvy.

Lest we join those in Mark 7:13 who “…nullify the word of God…”

We nullify the Bible in so many ways.  Ludwig Wittgenstein says this is why struggle and judgment include “a battle against bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”ludwig

And it is this “language” of the text that, according to Thiselton, “delivers us from self-preoccupation or self-centeredness, as we open ourselves to what is “Other”, “beyond”, or to the voice of God.”  For when we are not “open” we prove our own “bewitchment of intelligence.” Another way to say we actually allow the bliss of ignorance to facilitate the theological-cognitive dissonance that maintains the social relevancy of our oh-so-busy everyday lives.

Yet the Bible is not an encyclopedia of information on all subjects, but “a source of transformation that then shapes readers in accord with God’s purposes for them”, for if it was merely an encyclopedia of information, devoid of a relational “I-Thou” reading, then the text becomes “merely a mirror of the self, which bounces back what the reader desires or expects to hear, [thus] it will hardly transform the reader” (Thiselton).  For me, this chimes with Forsyth who wrote in his outstanding 1907 book Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, the Bible is “…so much more than literature, because it is not merely powerful, it is power.  It is action, history; it is not mere narrative, comment, embellishment or dilution.  It makes history more than it is made by history….It is news to the world from foreign parts.”

post01-bonhoeffer-centuryBonhoeffer offers a superb analysis of how our nature interacts with relating with God through the Bible, “Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where he will be found.  If it is I who says where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature.  But if it is God who says where he will be, then that will truly be a place which at first is not agreeable to me at all, which does not fit so well with me.  That place is the Cross of Christ.  And whoever will find God there must draw near to the Cross in the manner which the Sermon on the Mount requires.  This does not correspond to our nature at all.”

We are constantly in danger of reading the Bible as though prescribing medicines “in accordance with the patients whims” and this is to be first noticed or observed; then named and finally and decisively tackled in a deliberate intention towards what Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship” which includes transformative Bible reading as a central aspect.  Forsyth again, “The theology of the Bible is but the moral adequacy and virility of the word of the Cross, and the thews of a powerful Gospel.”

It is the Divine promise that shapes both the nature of reality and how the present is to be understood.  T. S. Elliot may be right that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”, and this may explain the reason behind Forsyth’s lament that opened this post, and it also explains why the Bible is often maginalised within and attacked without the Church.  But if Thiselton, Bonhoeffer, Wittgenstein and Forsyth are right (and they are), God somehow uses faithful interpretive reading-in-relationship of Scripture so as to transform, save and renew.  It is dangerous; it is necessary and it is so very vital.

Dodman Cross