Monthly Archives: December 2013

Top 10 posts of 2013

So as the arbitrary marking of time ticks over another notch, it has become something of a fad for bloggers to say what their most popular posts were in the year. Not so much out of a sense of tradition, but more in the vague hope that you may pick up something useful that you have previously missed, here is my list. Actually, this was compiled on the 19th of December, though I do not expect any of my recent posts to go viral and so break into the top 10.

For those interested in statistics, these 10 account for about 12.9% of the whole traffic on the blog.

1. Thatcher’s Funeral: A Plea for dignified & productive protest

2. Confession of a misanthropic christian

3. I bang my head against the wall when evangelicals are misleadingly portrayed – a response to Giles Fraser 

4. Book Review: The Spirit Level Delusion by Christopher Snowdon

5. Why I love the EDL

6. A christian response to trolling, Part 1: Trolls and what Peter said 

7. On egalitarianism and feminism

8. Sympathy for atheists (part 2 of 2) – some frustrations

9. Putting my money where my mouth is

10. Book Review: The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay

As one final note, the least popular post was:

Law as the light on sin (A Personal Catechism #3) – 2 hits

Book Review: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Some time ago, I had a look at my book reviews, noting the gender of the authors. It was a stark revelation to me how few books I’ve read by women. Does that indicate my reading is sexist? I would posit that it isn’t, but I may expand on that in another post. The point of this as introduction is that I made a conscious choice to pick those books from my reading list by female authors and push them up the order. So while this has been on my radar for some time (when I checked, I had included it on a list I wrote back in November 2010) I picked it from a local bookshop along with the more recent Night Circus by Erin Mortgenstern – which is the next fiction book I’ll review, though probably not for a little while.

So with the preamble over, what of Moon Tiger itself? I have to say, I found the book very difficult to get into. The characters are very poorly defined and there is scant all plot. The idea seems to be that an old woman on her deathbed decides to recount various episodes from her life. These episodes are then told in a very cold manner. Though various characters recur one doesn’t have a chance to get to know them properly. It reminded me very much of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, though it was less pornographic than that.

The woman in question is Claudia Hampton. With one or two exceptions, the episodes she recounts from her life are devoid of place and time, so the reader is left none the wiser if a jump of 10 years or more is made. She might even have gone back in time, but I honestly don’t know. It may be a problem that I have with winners of the Booker prize – as with Midnight’s Children, it just doesn’t get going.

As much as one might try to like it, Claudia’s character is just underdeveloped and relatively soulless. Since the book is her memoirs, that centre is just lacking. If you enjoyed those other novels referred to above, then you may well like this. But if you’ve read them and were nonplussed by them, then it may be best to avoid it.

The only possible recovery for the book is if Lively wants us to view Claudia with the same cold indifference that Claudia views the rest of the world. If that is her intention than she succeeds marvelously in her creation of a wholly unlikeable character. That is not to say Claudia is detestable; she’s not a pleasant person, but she’s not a villain either. An endorsement on the back of the book says it “leaves its traces in the air long after you’ve put it away.” I couldn’t disagree more; it is mediocre work which is instantly forgettable.

A food bank is not just for Christmas

Yesterday saw a debate in the House of Commons on food banks. This was secured after a petition started by Jack Monroe which received over 140,000 signatures in just a few days. I was not able to watch the whole debate as I was at work at the time, but did catch up with some bits and listened to an account from my father, who is currently the operations manager of a food bank in the home counties.

The overall impression that he gave was that there were some good backbenchers but that the behaviour of the front bench was disgraceful. The secretary of state, Iain Duncan Smith, was seen laughing at the debate and also left early, thus refusing to listen to a vital debate on an area of great public concern for which his department is responsible. This abdication of responsibility is not behaviour becoming of a person who is fit to execute office with which they are charged. Esther McVey also did nothing to show that she understood the problems by stating, “As we are saying, it is positive that people are reaching out to support other people.”

When obtaining a voucher for a food bank, those in need are asked to state why they are having to resort to the use of the food bank. This data is gathered by the Trussell Trust, though to my knowledge this has not yet been published as a full scale study. From my father’s experience of administering the vouchers, the overwhelming reason is because of the benefit reforms pushed through by the current government.

The big frustration that arises is that the Conservatives know that the rise in food banks is a result of their policies. Britain isn’t eating because of what our leaders have done in the name of austerity. Yet the Conservatives live in a state of denial, which was exemplified by the debate. They spent more time trying to blame Labour for the increase in the last three and a half years and showed no care or humanity for the half a million or so people who have been helped as a result of the food banks.

The debate, however, was poorly attended for most of its duration. I have yet to investigate this, though I read several notes from people claiming that no more than 50 or 60 Conservatives were in the chamber at any one time, yet when it came to a vote, they mustered enough people to win the vote, though for each who voted for Conservative denialism (a vote, in my view, which demonstrates a callousness and a deep disrespect that is a shame to our common humanity), there were opposition members who didn’t come along. For any member who represents a constituency which has no present need of a food bank, I can understand why they might not have attended, though given the widespread nature of the problem, they could have stood in solidarity with their neighbours.

There is much more that could be written, though I would rather move on to a more practical and forward-looking proposal.

Christmas is less than a week away. This is a very busy time for many people for a variety of reasons. This is no less so for those who help keep the food banks running, collecting and distributing essential items to those in need.

Many people will also have either finished or come close to finishing their Christmas shopping. My request to you is that as you do you shopping for your family or friends or just for yourself, that you pick up two or three additional non-perishable items that you can donate to your local food bank. If you are not sure where yours is, simply Google “food bank [place name]” and you should very quickly be able to find one. There are contact details on any Trussell Trust website so you can find out where to drop items off. If you cannot drop food off, please consider a monetary donation.

As busy as Christmas is, the need for food banks doesn’t end there. There will be people who are struggling to eat at New Year, in the 2nd week of January, the 3rd and the 4th. Please continue to support on an ongoing basis. A food bank is not just for Christmas. Please help ensure that help is available for those who need it. If a society is judged by how it treats its elderly, its poor, its disabled and its most vulnerable, then let’s demonstrate to our politicians that society is more decent than that which they are attempting to engineer.

It is a tragedy that in a modern society we have to have food banks. It is a shame on our leaders that so many are denial that the policies they have planned, voted for and implemented are a leading cause of the massive increase in food poverty over the last three and a half years. Jack’s petition was one form of democracy and we will have another in a year and a half’s time to change the current status quo. Until then, our humanity compels us to help one another.

Book Review: The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction by Lawrence Principe

This was another of the books I received for my birthday. It is also a continuation of my addiction to Oxford University Press’ series of Very Short Introductions.

As can be supposed from the title, this is the telling of the story of how modern science emerged. The story of that emergence, however, must be told from something that might loosely be called a beginning. As such, much of the text is devoted to matters that we might no longer regard as being part of the scientific mainstream.

However, in telling the history of science, Principe gives the reader due warning against anachronistic thinking. In this respect, the book makes for a pleasantly refreshing change from some modern sneering of the ideas prior to the scientific revolution. An example of this might be found in how Principe looks at the origins of humanism in the first chapter, noting that its origins are complicated and shaped rather differently from its current dominant form.

Having sketched out the medieval origins of the scientific revolution (for more on this, I recommend God’s Philosophers by James Hannam), one might think Principe would simply move on, but this isn’t really possible. To understand this one period of history, Principe constantly points us to its origins. If there’s one lesson hammered home here it’s that the scientific revolution didn’t emerge out of some sort of act parthenogenesis.

An example of this is his look at how the ideas of Aristotle influenced science, not least in how things are connected, the subject of chapter 2. There’s a great little treatise on magia naturalis here which is well worth a read, as it contains a good warning about dismissing past views that are now discarded as being superstitious.

Having laid these foundations, Principe goes on to look at two major topics: the superlunar world and the sublunar world. This mostly covers what we would now know as physics and chemistry, though given the phase in history which is being looked at, chemistry wasn’t really developed yet, so Principe uses the term chymistry instead. Without recapitulating it here, these are fantastic chapters which are evident of Principe’s rigour and faithfulness to the history of the period.

Having looked at what we would recognise as these two areas, the next, naturally was biology, and indeed that is the subject of the following chapter. We get a whistle-stop tour of anatomy and microbiology, though in his brevity, there is no great loss suffered. Indeed, I could hardly praise Principe’s writing enough, as he maintains the reader’s interest from start to finish.

This could never be a comprehensive review of the period and all the developments that occurred within it. But insofar as giving the reader an excellent grounding, this is a work I would thoroughly recommend. There are, of course, references and lists of further reading on each subject. But if you have any interest whatsoever in the history of science, please do read it.

Book Review: Post Charismatic? by Rob McAlpine

Post charismatic? is a book about the charismatic movement in modern christianity, about some of the harm that has come about as a result of it and where it how a healed future might look. This is summed up by the subtitle, which asks 3 questions:

Where are we?
Where have we come from?
Where are we going?

McAlpine acknowledges from the outset that he writes from a North American perspective. So while there are strong echoes with my experience here in the UK, there are some areas McAlpine writes about which are less familiar.

The book is split into two parts. The first is a brief history of the charismatic movement; the second is a sort of manifesto, an outline for how a post-charismatic church might look. One thing need to be made clear, though. Post-charismatic is not to be confused with non-charismatic. McAlpine at all times embraces a fully trinitarian view whereby the Holy Spirit is a real and active part of the Godhead; this is not an advocacy of cessationism or a sort of non-charismatic trinitarianism whereby the Holy Spirit is paid lip-service but largely sidelined, as one may find in the more conservative traditionalist churches.

The history section is done in a very odd way. McAlpine goes out of his way to avoid a comprehensive history. Instead, he picks a few small episodes, noting where some terminology or praxis has been used which is also echoed elsewhere. The aim behind this is that readers will recognise some features and then apply the wider narrative to their own situation.

I have a problem with this approach, as it encourages a kind of ‘guilt by association’ whereby, for example, a church has preached on “touch not the Lord’s anointed”. In the chapter on ‘covering and authority’ this is cited as an excuse for not questioning authority. Yet abuses of power take many different forms, which McAlpine overlooks, using a very limited number of examples as though these were synechdoches for the whole charismatic movement.

What is present is generally good material. There are some notable exceptions. He states on page 31, “There are many well-known people in the Pentecostal movement whom you won’t read about here. People like John G Lake, Smith Wigglesworth, Kathryn Kuhlman, David DuPlessis….[M]y intent is…to trace the historical roots as they pertain to the developing theology and praxis of the movement, not to write an exhaustive historical account.” This may seem to simply be a matter of constraint on writing time and page space, though such obvious omissions which are incredibly important to the modern development of the charismatic church look rather suspicious. It’s a little like someone writing a history of American politics and choosing to omit Jefferson, Lincoln and Nixon.

The reason for these omissions become clear once you realise what McAlpine’s agenda is, which is not explicit. One notes from the back cover that, “Rob McAlpine has ministered in various settings, ranging from house churches to pastoring and church-planting within the Vineyard movement in Canada and the United States.” So the author is part of the Vineyard church, the home of the Toronto outpouring, the one movement whose consequences and impact on pentecostalism has caused more harm than any other. Yet in the few instances where it mentioned (downplayed) McAlpine is swift to say that it wasn’t really the Vineyard church that started it.

It’s always interesting to note who is referenced, either in support or in opposition, by any author. Two names crop up with regularity that are spoken of with unmitigated praise. They are John Wimber and Wayne Grudem. Grudem should be a name familiar to most, as the author of one of the widely used books of systematic theology, as well as, more controversially, his book claiming that capitalism is not only compatible with, but is supported by, the bible. However, if you do a little digging around, you will find that Grudem has spoken strongly in favour of a particular network of churches. Can you guess which one? Yes, Vineyard.

What about John Wimber? It’s not a name I’ve ever come across before, it’s never mentioned in any churches, so one has to do a little more research. Though I had my suspicions given that he the way he was quoted was almost in the same way that christians sometimes quote Jesus, or how catholics quote the pope. One soon finds out that Wimber was a church leader in a particular network of churches. I think you can have a reasonable guess as to the way this is heading in.

What we end up with is a whitewashed version of history where examples have had to be contrived in order to make a relevant point without talking about the Toronto-shaped elephant in the room. That should not mean, though, that the cases discussed are wholly irrelevant. There is much that is good here regarding things like the “prosperity gospel“, claims about healing, spiritual authority and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It’s the manner in which McAlpine has gone about it which detract from me wholly recommending the book.

The second half, the practical proposals for how the church might be reimagined in the light of past abuses, does contain much which is creditable. However, given the undue emphasis that is given to a Vineyard viewpoint, this must be taken with a great pinch of salt. Some other churches get mentioned early on, though the likes of New Frontiers, Ichthus, Kingdom Faith, and Elim are pushed to the margins.

In conclusion, for what is included, it is a good book, with some realistic and practical suggestions. For what it leaves out, though, it presents a distorted view of recent church history in order to exonerate the author’s own church. It could do with a re-write that not only includes case studies (for there are none here, McAlpine writes in generalities) but also tackles “charismania” head-on dealing with the likes of Toronto and Todd Bentley, possibly also the cult of the New Mystics that has emerged recently. I would also remind potential readers of the book that it is US-centric. If writers in the UK, South Korea or Nigeria were to write a similar book, then it would take a different shape. However, I know of no other books of a similar nature that are not cessationist (one might think of Strange Fire); so perhaps this is just the first of a flurry of such books dealing with a great need that has arisen within the Church.

Book Review: Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by David Miller

Regular readers of this blog may well recognise my growing addiction to the Very Short Introduction series published by Oxford University Press. As they are so short and so interesting, they are ideal for me to keep in my desk drawer as an “emergency stash”. One day in early October, I switched the bag I took to work, but forgot to transfer the book (The Extended Phenotype). So it was that I dipped into the emergency stash and pulled out this take on political philosophy, which I had bought a few months beforehand.

In reviewing books, one likes to have some foreknowledge of the subject at hand, even if one does consider oneself omniscient on the subject. We read non-fiction not to be entertained, but to be informed. Though I do, from time to time, post my political opinions on this blog, the idea of political philosophy is more fundamental than the level at which I usually ponder. As such, it fitted the bill as a short introduction rather well. The individual notions will be familiar to us all. What makes this an interesting work is the particular combination of topics, along with their interplay.

He writes under the headings of political authority, democracy, ‘freedom and the limits of democracy’, justice, ‘feminism and multiculturalism’ and finally, ‘nations, sates and global justice’.

In the discussion of political authority, the figure of Thomas Hobbes looms large. In many ways, this is quite a sad outlook, particularly as I look at it from a christian perspective, as much of Miller’s argument is to do with a carrot-and-stick approach, whereby adherence to political authority is done so out of the threat of some form of physical violence. The root of this seems to be the notion of human selfishness and greed, but this seems to be accepted as a fact to live with rather than a problem to be addressed.

In democracy, attention switches from Hobbes to Rousseau. The discussion pulls on a few threads that will likely occur to anyone who has considered democracy, such as how to protect the rights of the minority and how democracy differs from mob rule, but there’s nothing earth-shattering here.

In discussing freedom, our central figure is John Stuart Mill. As with those before, he is another writer who I must confess am familiar with only by reputation than by their writing. Miller doesn’t so much give answers and just ask the reader a series of questions to consider. This is a theme throughout, so even if you disagree with the particular slant that Miller presents, he does at least give the reader room to come up with their own answers.

What seems to be the heart of the book is the notion of justice, where Miller takes as his key guide, John Rawls. The focus here is not about justice of outcomes but of justice of machinery. i.e. let’s not look at the outcomes, but at whether the systems in place are fair. At one point in this chapter, Miller seems to lose the plot entirely, trying to draw principles of justice from living in a desert. The concept of social discussed though he does bring in the counter point of Friedrich Hayek, an ideologue who I have little time for.

As he looks at the nation states, he continues to ask us questions, while sketching out the answers that others have given. At times it felt less like a book a politics and more about ethical dilemmas. One thought that flashed through my mind was about the curbs to liberty; specifically to the idea that one cannot be free to as one wishes, as that may include the ability to curb the freedom of others, hence not everyone can be free to do as they wish.

One thing that soured it was Miller’s pessimism in human nature. There was a theme running through the book about the need for either coercion or the threat of it. My personal reaction to this is that, as a species, we can do better this. It may require education, even a more enlightened worldview, but that it is possible for people to work together for a common good without the need for violence.

At this point he seems to run out of steam and so the chapter on ‘feminism and multiculturalism’ feels quite different. Here, Miller tries to ask the same questions as he has before, only through alternative lenses, as some factors fade into the background and others get highlighted. The treatment given to these subjects are so brief, though, as to be rather unsatisfying. I doubt many of the feminists I know would consider Miller to have captured the nuances of their views.

In any discussion of politics, one cannot write from a neutral perspective, just as one cannot really read such a book from a neutral point of view. Miller attempts to give a fair weighting to different viewpoints, though his choice of representatives may be questioned by some. The other thing that I picked up on, which other readers may do so, is that is quite UK-centric.

As far as meeting the brief, Miller does as good a job as one can hope. From my point of view, I acknowledge that my formal learning in political philosophy is somewhat lacking. Though I know my own mind, I probably ought to learn the minds of some of those others who have gone before me. So I have added some works of Mill, Rousseau, Hobbes and Derrida to my reading list. Though as that is rather long, it may not be until late next year before you can expect to see any further book reviews on the subject.

Book Review: Love Wins by Rob Bell

Those of you with a good memory may recall a post I wrote a while back stating my intention to look into the theology of hell. Well, I must admit, that I have somewhat neglected that intention as other things have cropped up. So, slow as progress may be on that project, this was an essential part of getting to grips with the universalist position.

Even before the book came out, it prompted a vicious backlash from some quarters of the christian blogosphere, denouncing Bell as a heretic and declaring the book harmful. Though books that are condemned before anyone has had a chance to read them are amongst those that interest me the most. So I came to the book with a certain understanding of the view espoused. If you’re reading this review, then maybe you have a similar understanding. Of course, that understanding may be outright wrong, have an incorrect emphasis or be incomplete. However, the idea that it is about heaven & hell is absolutely correct.

Bell likes to ask questions.

Leading questions.

And spaces.

He likes to leave lots of spaces.

Like that.

If you’ve not read any of Bell’s writing before, he does have a particularly annoying style. In fact, ‘style’ is a good word to use. There a great focus on the manner of the presentation which does mean the content is sometimes compromised; not necessarily so that it is absurd, but there is a laxity here that one would hope not to find in a theological work. But then Bell’s writings aren’t those of a systematic theologian; they are the work of a pastor with a great heart.

Throughout the book, as if the title didn’t give you a clue, the idea of love shines through. No one could be in doubt as to the passion and compassion of the author both for his readers and the subject matter. On that count, no word of criticism can be levelled at Bell.

Diving into the subject matter, Bell opens with a look at the idea of heaven. It is a fairly well-known fact that Bell has much respect for (as do I) Tom Wright. The exposition given of repainting heaven here has undeniable echoes of Surprised by Hope, which is duly referenced at the end of the book. He portrays heaven not as a place where we go when we die – a view that I wish would die its own death. Instead he outlines the idea of the restoration (or rather, recreation) of a new heavens and new earth much closer to the vision outlined in the bible than one finds in tradition.

There shouldn’t be anything particularly controversial here, though for those who have grown up in churches teaching the idea that “[the aim of life is to go to heaven when you die]” and not questioned it, then this may come as something of a shock to you.

So that’s heaven done. Onto hell.

Before coming to this, the book’s reputation was for a particular idea that Bell had regarding hell. The accusation (for that is what it was) was that Bell was a universalist, advocating a view that after death everyone would have an opportunity to repent. The impression is that it was sort of half way between two heresies: universalism on the one hand, but with elements of purgatory on the other.

However, after I finished the book, I was left wondering “where was it?” It just didn’t seem to be there. I thought that half a dozen pages or so must have been stuck together. I had to go back and skim read two-thirds of the book in order to find what it was that got so many people in a tizz.

Because the fact is, that’s not what the second half of the book is all about. To portray it as such is to misrepresent Bell and the point he is driving at. When you read Bell, one must keep in mind that he writes for different groups of people at a time. With Velvet Elvis, for example, there was a distinct feeling that he was writing for those who had grown up with a particularly conservative viewpoint, showing them that christianity was more freeing than religious conformism, that there is scope for disagreement without condemnation. With Love Wins, he is writing to those who have been hurt. This is brought out in a Q&A at the back of the book, written after the initial publication, where Bell recounts the testimony of one his readers who had previously faced a very condemning attitude in church and had come to think of themselves as doomed and unloveable.

I don’t agree with Bell’s outlook, as he seems to portray a view of christianity that best suits his pre-existing ideas, rather than changing his ideas to best fit scripture. If you think of it as a message about love, rather than a detailed theology of hell, then it becomes more palatable. If someone only read Bell and took him as authoritative, then one would get a skewed idea; so in this respect I agree with his critics. But I would not go so far as to denounce the book as heretical. There are some very good questions posed here, and all Bell asks is that we try to answer those questions ourselves. Some of these very leading, but many more are worthy of deep consideration. The other thing that slightly rubbed me up the wrong way was Bell’s opening defence; he claims at the start that all that he discusses has been considered by orthodox (small o) christians for centuries, but he fails to mention that some of these views have been rejected, denounced or otherwise declared as heresies by a good number of those same people who have considered the issues. In so doing, he tries to present his view as mainstream. Though it is interesting, I really don’t think it is mainstream, nor should it be.

In conclusion, it’s not for everyone and I wouldn’t recommend it as a first port of call on studying hell. However, as a way of gaining and understanding Bell’s view, it is better to read him than only those who reject him. For those who have been hurt by those in church and are seeking assurance, this is a resource, but it is not a complete set of answers. It may be an interesting exercise to go through the book, noting all the questions and coming up with your own answers.

Book Review: The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins

Following on from last year’s reading of The Selfish Gene, I decided to carry on reading some of Dawkins’ early works. In fairness, as I admitted when I read The Selfish Gene, there was an extract of The Extended Phenotype which lured me in.

As it turns out the extract was taken from near the back of the book, which is where Dawkins lays out the main thesis. In fact, it seems as though the last quarter constitutes the “real” book, with the rest being preamble as an attempt to lay the foundations and clear up any misunderstandings.

From the introduction, we are given something of a warning. The intended audience for The Extended Phenotype is not the same as that for The Selfish Gene. This volume is not as geared for the lay reader, directed more at the working biologist or the educated student. With regards to biology, I must regard myself as being in the first of those three, though Dawkins does help us out a little by including a glossary at the back which I used with fair frequency.

The opening to the book is a work of genius. He guides the reader to the Necker cube and how, though unchanging, the cube may appear different depending on how you choose to perceive it. Once you see it in a new way, you cannot help but continue to see it that new way, even with the some effort. That is the way that Dawkins wishes us to look at biology. There has been a prevailing viewpoint of viewing the organism as the basic unit at which evolution happens. In his earlier work, he sought to view things from the gene’s “viewpoint” and here he is looking at the extent to which genes have an effect.

So if you don’t recall the different between genotype and phenotype from your GCSE science, you will struggle with the book. I must admit I struggled at a few points, as I never went into study molecular biology in any formal sense. That doesn’t mean it’s impenetrable, but just that that some nuances may not be fully grasped.

As such, I must admit I am tempted to curtail this review, on the admission that though I thought I could grasp the big picture, the details at times eluded me. The only thing more silly than appraising or critiquing an idea you haven’t understood is to do so to an idea you think you’ve understood, but haven’t.

So rather than deal with the subject matter, I will instead make a comment on the writing. Dawkins, as ever, is erudite, lively and at times provocative. Even for a book aimed at the professional scientist, I doubt anyone who was intrigued by it and wanted to read it would find it dull. In dealing with those with whom he disagrees, there are some early signs of irascibility are in evidence here, though they are mostly reserved for his fellow scientists and are nothing compared to the scale of his irrational anti-religious vitriol for which he has been most well known over the last 10 years or so.

The only thing that spoilt the book slightly was the afterword which was written by Daniel Dennett. It is nothing more than a sycophantic review, loaded with gushing praise which, though well-meant, doesn’t add anything the reader’s understanding. One might guess as to whether its inclusion was at the behest of Dawkins or his publishers. The one thing we can pin on Dawkins is that in the foreword, he wrote (in 1989) that if you only read one of his books, this would be the one to read. It would be interesting to find out if he stands by that or if anything he has written subsequently supersedes it.

Please don’t take my demurral from going into the details as a criticism of the book. It is fascinating and I learnt a lot from it. Just consider yourself duly warned that it’s not a light read.

Law as the light on sin (A Personal Catechism #3)

Link to #2

Q: Whence knowest thou thy misery?

A: Out of the law of God

Response

As this is a short question and answer, this should bring a short response. As stated in the previous part, I was not especially happy with the term ‘misery’ appearing in the catechism. It is such a common word with a very specific meaning (as pointed out in the comments to part 2) that the risk of it being misunderstood in a modern context is too great to warrant its continued usage. See, for example, my recent take on semantics and the changing nature of words.

As such, and particularly given the answer in the catechism, I would rather answer a slightly different question, which makes the answer more coherent. This may be a methodological flaw, but so be it. I do not pretend to be perfect and I’m not presenting a systematic theology in this project. Here, the pragmatist supersedes the purist. So I would rephrase the question as “How are you aware of sin?”

Most of the answers have footnotes on them with references to passages in scripture to back them up. Some have multiple attestation, though how closely the answers fit the scriptures is quite variable. In this instance, the whole answer is built on a single scripture, Romans 3:20. I would possibly cite quite a bit of the early chapters of Romans in support of this idea, though some of this will be expanded upon in the follow up questions in the coming weeks.

The thrust of questions 3-9 in the Heidelberg Catechism are really looking at the idea of “total depravity” as famously espoused by John Calvin. In this particular question, I don’t disagree with the answer.

However, I might change the emphasis so as to focus on what functions the law fulfilled. The traditional reformed view has, to be very brief (and admittedly, crude), been one of a dichotomy between law and grace. One of the insights that I learned from looking at the new perspective on Paul was the notion that the law was one of the ways in which the Jews identified themselves. They were the ones who were partakers of the Abrahamic covenant but also those who adhered to the Torah. With the advent of christianity, the view of the law was reformulated. The idea of the law being an identifier has been replaced (but please don’t take my use of the word as indicating that I am a wholesale supersessionist – I am not) by the notion of our identity being found in the Christ, the Messiah. The law, however, is not superseded. I am trying to be careful so as not give the false impression that I am a supersessionist. It is tricky to give a nuanced view which inevitably uses some of the same vocabulary but which has a different focus. So while the law remains, its function is now rethought.

Now, the idea of “sinning” (as a verb, meaning to transgress) is an act which highlights the state of sin which we are in (see previous part in this series). Though there may be legal repercussions with local authorities, the focus here is not on a framework for government or jurisprudence. This is about the state of relationship between humans and God; a relationship that has been broken by one party and fixed by the other.

However, as the next question asks more about the law, I shall not elaborate further here. So my summarised response thus looks like this:

Alternative answer

By ‘misery’ I understand this to be better described in the modern vernacular as ‘sin’. My sin is highlighted to me by my own transgressions of the law of God, which illuminates that which is dark in me.

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This was a title that had been on my radar for several years, having seen a friend reading it whilst we were at university. That might give you some idea of how long it takes for me to work through my reading list. I had wavered about whether to read this as my first book by Kingsolver, as some had encouraged me to start where she started. Though as a general rule, I find it easier to get “into” a writer if I start with their best work, rather than their first. An under-appreciated first book may put me off reading more.

The story revolves the Price family. Told through the eyes of the women of the missionary family, we meet them on their arrival from America to the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Each chapter is voiced by one of the women, starting with Orleanna, the wife of Nathan and mother of Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth-May. Each subsequent chapter is written by one of the girls, roughly sequentially. The timeline stays linear so we don’t get much repetition by seeing the same events from multiple perspectives. While one may narrate, later voices echo and reflect on what has happened, but Kingsolver spares us a retelling.

It is no spoiler to tell you of the family order. Ruth, the eldest, is determined teenager. Not always the most articulate, she knows what she wants and how to get it. Leah and Adah are twins, though due to a problem in the pregnancy, Adah was born disabled. Ruth-May, when we meet her she is just a little girl. This was then a bit of a problem for Kingsolver, as one needs to find an authentic voice, but one which is also readable. If anything Kngsolver does make her slightly over-mature for her age at this stage.

The story is told is several acts, each named after either a book of the bible or the apocrypha. Along with the title of the book, this gives us a flavour of one of the underlying themes. The chief protagonist, though not given a voice, is Nathan Price, a baptist minister who has come to Congo to convert the people to his vision of christianity. We are witness to the immense cultural gap between the family and the lives of those amongst whom they have come to live. Though the younger they are, the better they adapt.

One of the masterstrokes that Kingsolver does is to adapt the voice of each of the narrators of different ages and keep them both distinct and consistent. It is fabulously well-written. The story as it unfolds draws you in, to the extent one might be tempted to check one’s feet for red dust. The stresses and strains that the family are under quickly become evident, with those stresses coming to  head at various junctures.

The unfolding story also reveals to us the motivation that Nathan had for going to the Congo, though I shan’t spoil it for you. The only thing that put me off was the last bit of the book. The whole things comes to a great climax but then the book carries on and we catch up with the characters years later. This felt like an unneeded add-on which merely extended the wordcount for wordcount’s sake. But I would hope that that doesn’t deter you from reading it, as I would strongly encourage you to do so.

There is much to be admired here. The seed of the idea works fantastically well, quite probably because Kingsolver drew on her own experience, with the family being a kind of parallel to her own. Her mastery with words makes it a pleasure to read and her characterisation (with the exception of the ending) lifts it from being a good story into being a great novel.