Tag Archives: christianity

Book Review: Thomas Aquinas – A Very Short Introduction by Fergus Kerr

A little while ago, I picked up a whole load of Very Short Introductions (VSIs) about christianity. I have already read and reviewed The Bible VSI. Moving chronologically forward, I now meet Thomas Aquinas. In case you’re interested, the others to follow are the VSIs on Protestantism and Pentecostalism.

Aquinas is not a figure I came to this work knowing an awful lot about. Some things are common knowledge, but one sometimes wonder about the extent of their truth. For example, I have previously understood him to be the person who incorporated Aristotlean philosophy into christianity. This hybrid version went on to form the foundation for medieval catholicism, but his influence has lasted long into philosophy and christianity as well, with Thomas being regarded as the last great philosopher prior to Kant. His Summa Theologica ranks as one of the great ‘large works’ of christian thought, alongside Augustine’s City of God, Calvin’s Institutes and Barth’s Church Dogmatics. It was also ranked recently in the Church Times top 100 books of all time.

So that’s how I approached the book. What of its content?

As is usual with the case when the subject of a VSI is an individual, the opening chapter is an overview of Aquinas’ life and times. It reads like an extended encyclopaedia article, placing Aquinas into his historical context. Following this, there’s a short chapter on Aquinas’ works, other than the Summa Theologica. So a student of Aquinas could well use this as a guide to his lesser known works.

Most of the book is written as a summary of the Summa Theologica. This then gives any potential reviewer a problem. Having not read the Summa from cover to cover, can one really critique how well the summary is done? If I critique the content of what I read, am I then really trying to critique Aquinas through an intermediary who may or may not have given a fair and accurate summary?

It certainly left me with the sense that I had read an overview of the Summa, and it was most interesting to note that Aquinas abandoned his project after his study of the sacraments, so that these read as a kind of culmination of the work. In the more conservative sections of the church, this legacy is evident when christianity is spoken of as being “inherently sacramental” even though the very concept of a sacrament was a post-biblical theological development.

This work then concludes with Aquinas’ legacy and how he is viewed today, in particular the revival of interest in Aquinas through the advocacy of Pope Leo XIII, as well as Aquinas’ influence on the modern human rights movement. Each of these could be expanded much more, so I must say that the ‘Very’ in Very Short Introduction is rather emphasised here. I doubt the experienced scholar who has looked at Aquinas for many years will find much to stimulate them here.

This is a book I think I’ll return to in the future, when I get around to reading Aquinas for myself, as it should serve as a useful guide. If any of you are more familiar with Aquinas’ work and have read this VSI, then your input would be much appreciated.

On celebrating diversity within the church

What follows is the crystallisation of a few thoughts prompted by a recent Guardian article on what it perceives to be a crisis in the Church of England and how it is being taken over by a dastardly sect called evangelicals. This was followed up with a few conversations in various places on similar topics.

The thing that often frustrates me is that when Anglicans use the term ‘evangelical’ they often mean something rather different than when evangelicals use it. When one word is used to denote (or connote) different things, then a mutual lack of understanding can often, needlessly, ensue and can result in hostile, or otherwise unhealthy attitudes between members of the same faith. If one claims that evangelicalism is a “wing” of the Church of England, that’s a misleading statement. Evangelicalism is a far broader, richer, more varied church that can be contained within any denomination (even the largest of them). Rather than try to re-tread well-trodden ground to state who is and who is not evangelical, I attempted to demonstrate that the question wasn’t quite that simple via the use of a Venn diagram that I put together during the last 10 minutes of my lunch break.

 Christian expressions

The point in the diagram was not to highlight differences or to show “why I am not like you” or anything like that. It was rather the opposite. It was to celebrate the breadth and diversity of different expressions of christian identity. It was also to counter some of the overly-narrow focus that some expressions have of themselves, placing them in a broader context. It wasn’t meant to be a complete or accurate representation of all expressions of christianity, merely an improvement to that offered by The Guardian (which in turn, echoed a sentiment I come across frequently, particularly among those who have a phobia of evangelicals). If one were so inclined, you could find at least a dozen things to take umbrage with, and indeed some chose to deliberately miss the point by doing so.

To give example of a kind of unhealthy attitude referred to above,  take someone who is indoctrinated to think that a church must be liturgical in order to be whole, fully functioning, etc. The reason it’s unhealthy is because it gives rise to ecclesiastical snobbery and a hatred towards to the more ecclesiastically liberal churches that can have a well-rounded theology, with healthy worship that have no need of liturgy. Indeed just the other day I read a comment that expressed a fear of any involvement of evangelicalism within that person’s denomination, describing it as “theologically impoverished”. Such a view is not borne of understanding and love, but of ignorance and hatred.

I am not saying that evangelical churches are beyond reproach. There is a time and place for fair, reasoned and loving critique to help build one another up. Even if that sometimes takes the form a rebuke. Yet one must recall “the plank in your own eye” if you find it necessary to speak up about another church/tradition than your own (see here for a recent take on the Evangelical Alliance). Those critiques that carry the most weight come from those that can recognise the weaknesses in their own tradition. It’s fine to pick your particular strand of christian belief, be it Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, etc. but such an identity must be held to lightly, rather than clung on to in white-knuckle defensiveness.

One of the other illustrations that I like to use is that of dog breeding. You can have any number of different types of pedigrees and you have cross-bred mongrels. Pedigrees can look beautiful. But the preservation of the purity of their identity comes at the cost of poor health in some. In contrast, mongrels can be ugly things; one can spend time trying to work out the different breeds that have gone into making the dog what it is. Yet for their ugliness, they tend to be healthier dogs.

In this (yes, flawed, analogy) I’m a mongrel christian. I find my home in the Ichthus Christian Fellowship, but on the weeks when we don’t get to meet, I will regularly visit other churches. In the last 3 years alone, I’ve been to Assemblies of God, Baptist, Church of England, Congregationalist, FIEC, Methodist, New Frontiers, Pioneer, Redeemed Christian Church of God, URC and other independent churches. There are several attitudes one could take when visiting another church. One could go with a kind of sneering snobbery that seeks to see how they “do things wrong”, determined to see the bad and to leave with a smug sense of superiority about one’s own church. I much prefer to think of it as going to worship with a slightly more distant relative and seeing what good things they do that my home church doesn’t.

I’d encourage you to visit churches outside of your normal experience every once in a while. It’s possible you may find something very weird, compared to your regular worship experience, whether that be being asked to kneel in front of someone dressed in robes or seeing someone wave a flag. If you decide to not go back, preferring the ways you are familiar with, that’s OK. But at least if you go and engage with others, then you can come away having shared fellowship with a wider circle of christians than you otherwise might, and you get to experience a different part of the christian life first hand, rather than rely on 2nd hand accounts and scare stories.

Some choose to see different denominations as signs of division within the church. But try seeing it as a sign of diversity instead. Then sample that diversity. If your diet consists of knowing the nuance between different types of potato, then you’re not really having a varied diet. Likewise with churches. To taste and see just how good the Lord is, it helps to sample from a different dish every now and then.

How would you like your church? Rare or well done

I wanted to pick up and expand a little on a point I made in last week’s post on the breaking of bread. In it, I said

This was church in the raw. We are an ecclesiastically liberal church, so there is no need for ceremony, for robes, for procession, for chanting or any number of things that distract and get in the way.

This may have been open to misinterpretation, so a little more clarity may be needed. When I say that things such as robes, procession, chanting, etc are unnecessary, I mean precisely that: unnecessary. I am not saying that they are inherently wrong. My point is that they are things which, though maybe originally intended to help, can end up getting in the way. Whether one includes or excludes these things is merely a matter of taste. My only disagreement is when people insist that to have them (or to not have them) is the “proper” way to do things. i.e. that to have them (or to exclude them) is a necessity.

Let’s pick up on the word ‘raw’ for a moment. It serves us quite well by way of analogy. Beef carpaccio is raw. I’ve had it a few times and quite like it. Others I know can’t stand it. They might prefer a steak that is well done, with a peppercorn sauce on top . We can both equally claim to like beef, but we just like it done differently. The problem arises when one or other makes a claim that ours is how beef should be done. i.e. to denigrate the authenticity of the other. To me, peppercorn sauce obscures and spoils the flavour of good beef; to others, it enhances the flavour.

We each can get entrenched in our ways, but it’s good to occasionally try things from another’s point of view. To use a different, but still culinary, analogy, I can’t stand tea. But once a year, I try a cup, to see if my tastes have changed. So far, they haven’t, but as it doesn’t make me physically ill, there’s no harm in trying something different once in a while.

Last year, I offered to take part in a tradition swap, where I would swap my nonconformism for a more traditionalist expression of christianity. There were no takers. I was rather disappointed by this, as it seemed that plenty were keen for me to temporarily give up my ways and see the virtue in theirs, but they were not willing to give up their ways and see the virtue in mine (seemingly, because of a kind of snobbery that looks down evangelicalism as a lesser form of christianity).

Christianity is a great and varied thing, with many different expressions. When we get used to one, there’s a risk we closet ourselves away and think of the paraphernalia that is built up in our expression as being somehow important. Then, when we see that others don’t do X or Y that we do, there’s a temptation to think that they are in some way lacking. I’m not suggesting we should all abandon our own churches and try a different one each week. Rather, just once in a while, maybe we should put down something we are holding on to in order to test if it necessary. Then, maybe, with a spare hand, pick up something else from another expression of christianity and see if it is helpful.

Why I refuse to love my enemies

In Matthew 5, Jesus is reported as saying, “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies.'”

I disagree with this.

After meditating on the parable of the good Samaritan, I think there’s an apparent contradiction here and I’ve fallen on one side of it. That parable was told to answer the question, “who is my neighbour?” Yet all too often, stripped of his social and historical context, we treat it as a story of loving compassion from one human being to another, with an implicit criticism of the Jewish religious authorities.

I don’t read it like that. The parable has given rise to the use of the term ‘Samaritan’ as someone who does good, even to the extent of being the name of a national charity that does everything it can to give a listening ear to those in need and to do everything that can to prevent suicide. But this use of the word misses the cultural aspects to which Jesus was appealing. To a Jewish audience in the 1st century A.D. the inhabitants of Samaria were an anathema.

The whole parable relies on a presupposition of sectarian hatred. It’s a hatred that gets turned on its head in the course of the story. To portray the parable as being about how to be nice to people is to dilute its shock value. To the people Jesus was speaking to, there was nothing good about a Samaritan. If I were to try to update it to today, I would choose one of 2 scenarios. Instead of speaking to a Jewish audience about a Samaritan, I would opt for:

  1. An audience of UKIP supporters about an unemployed Romanian migrant who wishes to claim child benefit for his 3 children.
  2. An audience of disabled activists about Iain Duncan Smith.

The point of the story, as I understand it, is that even those people about whom every fibre of your being says is no good, is your neighbour. The term enemy isn’t used here. Who is my neighbour? My neighbour is the Robert Mugabe. My neighbour is Kim Yong Un. My neighbours are Westboro Baptist Church. My neighbours are members of the EDL. My neighbour is Katie Hopkins. My neighbour is Richard Dawkins. My neighbours have joined ISIS/ISIL/IS.

To define who my enemy is, is to create an ‘us and them’ mentality. Christians are great at doing this, despite how unhelpful it is. We set up discussions as ‘Christians v Atheists’, ‘Christians v Muslims’, ‘Christians v The World’. The language of alienation is itself alien to the christian ethic that sees only neighbours and which refuses to define anyone as its enemy.

If someone else calls me their enemy, so be it; I will not reciprocate the epithet.

In short, I refuse to love my enemies because I refuse to have enemies. I have only neighbours, and I am called to love them.

Radical christianity and tolerance

[n.b. I had this prepared prior to the events in France last week. If anything I think it is more pertinent now when discussing the backgrounds of the perpetrators of the violence witnessed and some media commentators have used the word ‘radical’ in what I believe to be a misguided sense]

During the Christmas holidays, I found myself (as one does) watching repeats of debates in the House of Lords on BBC Parliament. One that caught my attention was from the 27th of November, entitled the role of religion  in British public life. The comments varied in quality, though it was mostly positive and civilised. Standing out though was this statement by Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick, reflecting on the modern tendency to misuse the word ‘radical’:

I am very grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for introducing this vital debate. This has been a difficult week, in which we had the report on the activities of Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, and the radicalism, as the Home Secretary referred to it, of their lives, which brought about the tragic and evil death of Lee Rigby.

In the few minutes available to me, I want to do two things. First, I want to recapture the word radical—and radicalism—from being seen as negative. It enters the lexicon of common understanding as something we despise. As a follower of Jesus, I am convinced that the lifestyle he promoted and spoke of was radical. People criticised him for being associated with those who society despised. He made it clear that if you want to find life you must choose to give it away. He made it clear that the obsession of our day, which is the relentless pursuit of materialism, ought to be focused on the pursuit of the kingdom of God. These are radical truths, and if radicalism is to be seen as a negative and religion is to become known—and if I dare say so particularly Church of England Christianity, of which I am very grateful to be at times a member—for its tolerance and its mediocrity, then we have lost something profoundly essential. The very nature of faith allegiance, belief, and the love relationship that followers have with the one they follow requires radical living.

Radicalism, in our modern society, is seen as extreme. If you hold strong views—if you believe distinctly in certain values—that puts you on the edge of unreasonableness. However, that is exactly what would have been said of Jesus, and many of us are happy to line up with him. That radicalism is the pursuit of justice, the sharing of the commitment of one’s life, and the giving away of oneself. That is the radicalism that we need to discover in our century.

When I think of radical people I am delighted to mention two people who live in the noble and right reverend Lord’s own area of Oxford: two very dear friends of mine, Tom and Jane Benyon. In the last three years, these two people—one in their 60s, one in their mid-70s—have walked 1,500 miles to raise £2 million for the poorest people of the broken communities of Zimbabwe. Why does a former Conservative MP from another place choose to commit himself to the task of walking around England when he needs a hip replacement, in order to raise money for the people of Zimbabwe, for which he gets no gratitude from the British Government, let alone the Zimbabwean Government? It is because of his radical pursuit of the conviction that he says Jesus has placed on him and on his wife—the founder of the first food bank in Oxford, now a network of food banks; it is because the radical pursuit of Jesus, of belief, of conviction, leads you to defined and distinct actions.

The embrace of people on the outside is not about a tolerant place in which we can all feel easily comfortable, it has to be about a radical place in which we make distinct decisions to help those on the margins, to choose to act with justice, to receive those who have little and to give to them, even from our little. The Economist, just a few weeks ago, had an amazing report on the growth of the church in China—fascinating: 300 million committed believers, followers of Jesus, in China. It is amazing—almost more people than the population of the United States. However, the Economist concluded with a very interesting reflection: what, it asked, would kill this church dead? The answer was: if it becomes institutionalised, if it becomes a state-accepted church. In that case it will accept the tolerance required by the state and the system; it will lose its edge; it will give way to being simply an accepted mediocrity. It will no longer challenge its society. And so it will die. Let us get radicalism back into the agenda of our faith.

It is worth noting a later comment from Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve on the matter of toleration, whose views are more similar to my own:

I want to make three points. First, this right [freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as stated in Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights] is the successor to the great traditions that established the importance of religious toleration in north-western Europe, above all in Britain and the Low Countries in and following the Reformation. Today, toleration is often interpreted in a tepid way as no more than a matter of putting up with something, so as to demand no more than mere indifference. Unlike my noble friend Lord Hastings I take a more radical and classical view of toleration. Nothing could have been further from the view of the early protagonists of religious toleration than the thought that it was something tepid or mere indifference. They thought of it as a profoundly, excruciatingly difficult virtue—a duty not to repress belief or to persecute others, even when their beliefs were taken to be profoundly wrong and subversive.

When Oliver Cromwell famously wrote in 1650 to the Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland with the words:

“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken”,

he was acknowledging that tolerating others’ beliefs can be enormously hard because we may find it impossible to imagine that our own beliefs could be mistaken. Toleration became central to the history of Europe and, subsequently, of human rights, not because it was a matter of indifference but because it was profoundly difficult and yet a duty.

I was pleasantly surprised to see such informed comments on matters of religion be uttered in Parliament. You may find the full debate in the Parliamentary record, Hansard, here (scroll down to 11:53am).

One of the offshoots of this is a question that’s troubled me for some time. We often hear that the fastest growing church in the world is the Chinese, as testified to above, but I never hear of any Chinese school of thought in theology. Are they producing a generation of theologians to inform their congregations and the servant leadership? If not, from where do they draw their theology? If you know what shape the answer may take, then please let me know.

#CNMAC14 – a return to the christian new media conference

Pre-conference thoughts

Two years after last attending the christian new media conference and having skipped last year’s, I returned this year, after buying an early bird ticket. Also, with the advantage of having moved to London, it took little more than half an hour to get to the venue and at no additional cost. Last time I went I had the intention of trying to meet various people who I had spoken to online before, though it was all rather a stressful and draining experience. This time, I decided to stick to my more natural disposition by observing others and hiding in plain sense.

On arrival I grabbed a coffee, a welcome pack and sat down to plan what sessions I would attend. I spotted a few people I recognised come in, though such recognition was not mutual. One piece of information omitted from the agenda was to say what room the introduction was in. Thankfully, this year there was a wifi available to all (a vast improvement on 2 years ago) and my query was soon answered by someone else who was monitoring the #CNMAC14 hashtag.

So I found the main room and sat in my usual position; that is, as a way of reflecting my political views I tend to sit on the far left. I must say I thought the main room was very nice. It was far more spacious than the lecture hall we were in last time, with nice wooden beams augmented by some tasteful blue lighting.

Introductory session

The first session was given by Rachel Jordan, who is the national advisor for Mission and Evangelism in the CofE. The theme that it was her job to introduce was that of “Transformers” which has nothing to do with toys from the 80s or big budget terrible films of the last few years. Rather, it was linked to Romans 12 and the theme of transformation that one may find there.

Her key point was that transformation takes place when we meet God face to face. She used a few examples of people meeting Jesus as he was passing by and having their lives transformed as a result of those encounters. Secondary to a direct encounter is an introduction. So bringing in the aspect of the digital, she noted that the accessibility facilitated by the internet allows for more opportunities for people to meet and this then includes possibilities to meet or be introduced to Jesus. From here, the emphasis shifted to one of the busyness of modern life and how such busyness can get in the way of such encounters. Therefore, we need to get good at appropriate filtering and making the time and space to allow ourselves to be transformed.

It was a good introductory presentation, which was evidently well-rehearsed. The general impression was one of agreement, with the Twitter feed buzzing with soundbites from the talk. Though here and in most of the talks I heard during the day, there seemed to be less of a strain on the part of the speakers to generate soundbites. That had been a bit of a plague 2 years ago that detracted from well-constructed arguments. That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of quotes used and generated this time round, but they didn’t feel quite so forced.

Breakout 1

After this, I headed down to a talk on crowdsourced theology. It was done in two parts, the first given by Danny Webster, the second by Marika Rose. It was a very different kind of talk, not least because the two speakers didn’t exactly agree on all points, though it wasn’t framed as a debate between the two. Danny began by noting that dissent is often the oxygen of social media. The upshot of this is that the priesthood of all believers can be abused and becomes the priesthood of the loudest voices. There can also be a temptation to think that if we garner a strong, negative or otherwise hostile response that we can convince ourselves we must be on the right track. It’s a symptom of “[if you go looking for it on the internet, you will be able to find something]” – which can lead to confirmation bias if we’re not careful.

It seems that frequently, attempts to engage on more serious issues quickly go off the rails with every Thomas, Richard and Harry jumping in with an opinion; often an opinion that hides where people come from, hiding their background theology and their agenda. So if, on the one hand, social media prioritises polarisation and isn’t very good at patience, while on the other hand, working out matters of doctrine require patience and less polarisation, then the natural conclusion is that social media isn’t the best place for discussing church doctrine. In this I would largely agree with him.

Marika’s response was characteristically robust. She began with the proposition that “Patience isn’t always a virtue.” She continued by pointing out, correctly in my view, that theology is always political. Unfortunately, she didn’t expand much on this point as that assertion could be taken in a number of different ways. Instead, she used the example of the civil rights movement to illustrate changing attitudes in that Martin Luther King was considered an extremist until Malcolm X appeared on the scene. With a caveat that analogies between civil rights and other issues including egalitarian leadership in churches and the accepting of LGB people are fragile; parallels can’t be drawn without invoking false reasoning. It’s worth noting that this caveat was later questioned by one of the members of the audience, to which there was no convincing backup of the assertion.

She further contended, contrary to Danny, that asking for patience is equivalent to taking sides with the status quo. Harking back to Martin Luther King again, the response to the demand for change that is worded as “not yet” is really just a “no” put a little more politely. She also queried whether polarisation was necessarily a bad thing or something to be avoided. A very interesting point that resonated with me, though I’d never quite enunciated as such, was that the prophetic speaks with a harsh voice, while the pastoral speaks with a softer voice. This was backed up by noting that Paul could be firm with those he addressed his letters to and that the Old Testament prophets hardly adopted a softly-softly approach to dealing with the sin of a nation.

Breakout 2

The second breakout session was on the subject of church websites. And who better to present this than Sara Batts? The session didn’t get off to a great start as we were invited to turn to our near neighbours and discuss two questions with them. Those who know me know that I find such things to be really quite tortuous and in my own church it is the one thing I dread more than any other.

The two questions were: 1) What sort of thing might a visitor to your church website be looking for? and 2) What information does your church website have on it?

It was put to us that these two lists of information may not coincide. We were shown a few examples of good church websites though Sara stayed away from showing a bad church website (possibly because there was a risk that the creator of such a website might be in the audience). The key warnings were to avoid the mentality that information should be there “in case someone might want to know”. There was also a warning against the essence of traditionalism: we do it this way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

One of the responses from the audience to the first question was “to find out what sort of church it is” which I think was a much better answer than the person who posited that the most important information is about weddings, funerals and baptisms (which indicates that they probably came from one particular denomination!). One of the other topics that cropped up was the question over membership logins. I am very firmly against these, as they seem exclusive and divisive. The church where I grew up (but haven’t been a part of for many years) hides the recordings of its sermons behind a login, so anyone who wants to sample the teaching of the church are prevented from doing so online, as a conscious act of the church, which I find a bizarre way of sharing the gospel.

Speaking to someone afterwards, they shared my impression that this was overall a bit of a ‘beginner level’ talk; that this was all fairly basic things that constitute competent website design, not necessarily exceptional design. So it might be an improvement to have the agenda labelled a bit more clearly (ironically enough) to say who the target audience is. I’m sure it will have helped quite a few people there, though the impression given was that the digital surgeries were more designed for beginner level.

Probably the most pertinent point was that 16% of all adults in the UK have some level of difficulty with reading and that if our websites are too text-heavy then we run the risk of excluding them.

So with that we headed off for lunch. I must say it was quite disappointing. There was nowhere on site and we weren’t permitted to bring food in from the outside so we all piled into an eatery next door. Unfortunately, I’d developed quite a headache so nipped to get some paracetemol first, which put me rather far back in the queue. So we were late in being served and they ran out of various dishes so I had to wait for them to do another batch of mine; even then they added mushrooms which I had to pick out. I mean, why ruin perfectly good food by adding a fungus to it?

Transformative Technology

Coming back from lunch, we had 3 short talks entitled ‘Transforming Technology’, ‘Transforming Mobility’ and ‘Transforming Humanity’ given by Alastair Somerville (Acuity Design), Paul Johnston (Padajo) and Pete Philips (CODEC) respectively.

The first of these focused on the ‘sensory web’ which was essentially technology that we wear and beacons that detect when a suitable device is nearby and automatically send messages to it. The purpose of these is mainly advertising, so you would be bombarded with shoe ads any time you get near a shoe shop, which I find to be an extremely annoying prospect. The idea here, though, was that they could be used to augment a space you are travelling through (say, within a building) and to then create an alternative experience of pilgrimage. It was an interesting idea, but it struck me as a case of IT-itis. i.e. what *can* we do instead of what *should* we do. I’ll touch on this theme again below.

The second was on mobility, but this was nothing to do with accessibility for the disabled. The only point I really picked up on was that if messages become free to send, then they can lose their value. Our tendency to regard anything as slow if it is not instant creates impatience that has subsequently shortened our attention spans. This results in the idea that messages that are created quickly also fade quickly. In my head, the contrast that was conjured up was the difference between a Snapchat message and a stone engraving.

Pete’s talk on transhumanism rather passed me by as I was scribbling notes from the previous talks. Also the live Twitter stream on screen had been hijacked by a load of spammers, so quite a few were trying to alert the tech team that their filters had failed. The most seized upon soundbite was that “we are all cyborgs” though the follow up to this appeared to verge on bullying one of Pete’s colleagues on the CODEC team. [Late edit: To clarify, this last reference is to the follow up to the talk, not the content of it. This should not be taken as any statement or hint of anything untoward from any member of the CODEC team]

Between the three talks, they all had their interesting points, but I couldn’t see much that was very applicable here. It was more a session of tentative prophecies, some of which may look quite out of date in just a few years; only time will tell.

Breakout 3

I had a change of mind about the 3rd breakout session. Having seen a session that posed a question of “How should Christians react to militant atheists and people of other faiths who challenge their beliefs?” I was rather turned off by the use of the phrase ‘militant atheists’ so I had planned instead to go to Chris Juby‘s session on digital engagement with the scriptures. At the last minute, though, I changed my mind and decided to give the apologetics talk a go. As it turned out, it was very popular and was in one of the smallest rooms, so we were rather squeezed and one or two latecomers turned back or else had to stand by the exit.

The talk was given by Ruth Jackson of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and who also runs the social media for Ravi Zacharias Ministries. As might be predicted for a talk on apologetics, there was a strong focus on 1 Peter 3:15, though I wasn’t familiar with the version used. I suspect it was The Message, the New Living or some other paraphrase. This particular version began with the phrase “If any asks you…” with the emphasis put on the ‘if’. i.e. we shouldn’t go looking for a fight, but we ought to be willing to answer anyone who asks.

Ruth did put a qualifier near the start of the talk which was to define what she had meant by the term ‘militant atheist’. She confessed that she hated the term but that it was a shorthand for the kind of person who instead of having their atheism as a default position or apathy, it’s the kind of person who frequents social media and where the majority of their output is concentrated on their atheism and who sometimes take a hostile or otherwise highly negative view of anything vaguely religious.

Ruth advocated the idea that “I don’t know” is a powerfully honest and highly respectable answer. While I would like to agree with her, my experience of discussing christianity online is vastly different. It’s taken as a fob off whereby one goes away to find a clever christian apologist to rabbit back at the atheist. Though in fairness, any atheist who says that God is our imaginary friend or is a sky fairy is themselves merely rabbiting a line that is far from original.

It’s important to remember that behind every profile is a person (or people, I might add). This is the antidote to dehumanisation. She gave an example using The Wee Flea blog, where some hostile commentators had found their way to the site, but where the host was far more interested in them as people rather than in trying to satisfy his own ego by winning an argument. [n.b. a quick search of the site didn’t yield anything resembling the conversation Ruth describes and I would not endorse some of the content of that blog]

A recommendation that was put to us was that online discussions should avoid denominational or controversial issues. This wasn’t really expanded on, so it was open to (mis) interpretation. Harking back to the 1st breakout session, I wonder what Marika Rose would’ve thought of Ruth’s advice.

There were some fairly fundamental points that anyone wishing to engage in online apologetics should take as lesson 1. These included listening to objections and trying to understand someone else’s point of view, so as to avoid constructing a strawman argument. She pointed out some atheist memes (oh the irony of the origin of the term ‘meme‘!) and how they demonstrate a lack of understanding of christian issues, but rather than use the same kind of mockery that is sometimes encouraged of atheists to use against christians, she encouraged us to be more serious-minded and engage with the issues at hand in a mature manner. In trying to understand someone else’s views, that includes being able to spot the clichéd fallacies that get churned out from time to time including assertions that faith is blind belief or misleading notions of the nature of God.

However, Ruth went a little bit further than this. She advocated that we christians should try to make sure that “the ball is in the other court” and we do this by enquiring of atheists what their views are. Now, any time I’ve tried this, I’ve found not only evasion on the part of the person who I’m talking to but also an accusation that I am the one avoiding the issue. For example, if someone asks a question of me, I think it is at least courteous to attempt a response. Sometimes people will try to ask 6 part questions where several conflate various issues. This is what should be regarded as “trolling” though that term has somewhat morphed away the meaning it used to have online (meaning a time waster or someone who was simply trying to get a rise out of you) into a term to describe abuse – which ought to be known as “flaming”. Yet I do think that avoiding answering a question by asking them back is no less an element of trolling than the original question (or series thereof) might have been.

One of the little things that caught my eye was that Ruth put up a screenshot of various resources she recommended and I noticed a reference to the book that so riled me that it prompted me to write a review of it, which gave birth to the current incarnation of this very blog: Who Made God by Edgar Andrews.

The final point was that in all online apologetics we mustn’t forget to pray. It can be easy to get drawn into debates and there’s a great temptation to forget graciousness and idolise the idea of being right. But if the lesson of the Wee Flea above is heeded, it is better to lose an argument if you win the person – though on reflection I wonder if that soundbite actually makes sense!

Breakout 4

The final breakout session I went to was on the topic of creating community. I was surprised to not see many of the faces I thought would be there, as I know quite a few people treat the online world as a community in its own right and would want to listen to this talk. It was given by Jason Ham who was simply described on the agenda as “Church Online Leader”. In fact, he’s a facilitator for the online dealings of a particular church in Exeter as well as being responsible for the social media output of God TV.

The opening gambit was to look at what sort of communities can be created by social media. He used the example of the American megachurch, Saddleback to demonstrate an example of people posting prayer requests on Facebook. However, using that example didn’t make it seem very close to home. If, in a church of that size and fame, a prayer request could generate about a dozen responses of people saying that they were praying, how would that translate to a church of more modest size and of no great fame? Then there’s also the question of privacy which wasn’t addressed at all.

Again, we had demonstrations of IT-itis, whereby lots of possibilities were shown but there didn’t seem to any kind of coherence to it, or really a questioning of what the needs were of the potential audience (see breakout 2) of the church and then trying to address them. We were shown a bookclub that consisted of members in the UK, USA, Australia and another couple of countries I missed as I was writing notes. The impression that we were given was that just because you can connect with people from across the globe, that is an inherently good thing and therefore is to be embraced.

But as I sat listening, I couldn’t help but think that this was an indirect indictment of the local churches. After all, I had agreed with Danny Webster earlier when he said that if you hold opinion X, it is easy to go online in search of someone who agrees with you and who will back you up. If someone is relying on a community that is so disparate, does it not imply that either there is a failing in their local community to adequately look out for the needs of someone who is potentially isolated in plain sight?

One of the other examples used was that the church in Exeter which Jason is a part of rebroadcasts its services 67 times per week. While having the availability of an online service can be valuable to those who are elderly, disabled or otherwise have difficulty getting to a meeting, this was not clear at all from the talk. Instead, what seemed to be advocated was a wholly new, and rather haphazard, way of doing church. i.e. it was more of a substitute than a supplement.

I think the root of my issue was the question of isolation. It’s possible to be physically isolated but digitally connected, in which case some of the ideas of open forums, Skype, etc. are valuable tools which can be used to address the need of these kinds of isolations. But instead, what was advocated was the provision of online services because they can be provided. It certainly wasn’t clear that there was a need to which these were a solution. Instead, there was more of a mentality of ‘if you build it, they will come’. There was a muted acknowledgement of the limitations of online community, but there was no solution proposed. There was a Q&A at the end, where the tone seemed to be mildly hostile, as was the question I wanted to ask but which ran out of time. So somebody asked about safeguarding vulnerable people online, particularly as one of the forums demonstrated allowed posting without any kind of sign-up process to it. So people could just come and go. In a church where the congregation is so transient, can there really be adequate pastoral care given to someone who hasn’t been around for the last month? How would such people be noticed?

My question was going to along these lines: For anyone who regularly visits an online church, what efforts are made by that church to put them in touch with an offline, local church who can provide what the online community cannot?

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t answers to these questions, but the relentless optimism generated by IT-itis seems short-sighted. If anything, it is an issue that pervades the whole christian new media conference, in that while there are some fantastic tools to enhance our spiritual lives and help to connect those who might otherwise be isolated, the increasing reliance on the digital realm creates its own form of isolation: digital isolation.

If there were any topic I’d like to see addressed in the next conference as a burning issue, it is this one. Looking around my church, nearly all the over 15s have a mobile phone and access to the internet, about half have a Facebook account, maybe about a dozen are on Twitter, but for the most part there isn’t as much focus on what can be done as there is at the conference. It is my fear that if we pile more and more resources into creating the best digital spaces that we can, then all we do is create a great space for a few people who are very interested in it at the expense of ignoring a great many people. One obvious comeback is to become evangelists for what can be done digitally and try to get as many people interested in our particular way of doing things as we can. Yet this runs into two problems: 1) Not everyone will be interested and it is arrogant to suppose that because we see good in a given tool that someone else will; and 2) if we are to evangelise, then should that not be evangelism to the wider world about gospel of crucified and resurrected Messiah? These two could be summarised by the phrase: misdirected effort.

Final session

The final session was billed as a cross between Songs of Praise and the Graham Norton show. To an extent this true. It consisted of 3 guests having short interviews by the host (Vicky Walker) and each guest was then to showcase their work. As with guests on Graham Norton, they only seemed to have gone there to plug their products. We had a rapper called Faith Child who performed his forthcoming single, a subversive artist (think a christian version of Banksy) called Micah Purnell who was launching a new website and a singer called Tabitha Webb who was launching a new musical. By the end of the day, and having been less than impressed at the previous session, it’s fair to say I was in a cynical mood. This final session just came across as a series of commercial plugs. OK, rap music isn’t my thing so I can’t say whether, given that particular artistic medium, it was very good or not. The subversive art was quite good as was Tabitha’s singing, though I couldn’t help but think of Danny Webster’s piece on the christian reviews of her musical as I watched.

It seemed that the whole concept of transformations which began the day and had been key to the mini sessions just after lunch was by now out of the window and forgotten about. I noted this on the Twitter stream and had a couple of responses which advocated the idea that the purpose of the session was to show how digital means had been used to transform creativity particularly in how these 3 people marketed their material. I could kind of see that, but it was heavily buried under the immediate promotion that they were making here, in person, to the audience of around 500 people.

As we ended fairly promptly, I stuck around for 5 minutes in case there was anyone who wanted to quickly chat, but I just stood around looking like a lemon so I shot off and headed back for home.

Conclusions

So with all that observed, what were the impressions I left with and which I have dwelt on in the 30 hours since leaving?

My strongest thought on leaving was on the issue of digital isolation mentioned above. It may have been addressed in other sessions which I didn’t attend, though it wasn’t plain from the agenda summaries. Unless that issue is addressed then new media will fail to live up to the prophetic hopes which surround it and become a clique for the initiated and those who have grown up with it. Yet there remain a generation of people who form an integral and loved part of the church for whom this generates little excitement and we must not leave them behind or exclude them in any way.

Looking back, trying to draw the threads together, I think the theme of confirmation bias, of looking for things that back up your views, that came out in the first breakout session can be seen in several of the other talks. We might project onto others our ‘ideal’ visitor to a church website and miss the real people who find us in their searchings. In the Transforming Technology session, it came across as all too easy to think that because something is new that it is inherently good. This was also true of the final breakout session. Of course, one could react the other way and think that anything new is inherently bad.  In the third session one could see this idea of bias in seeking out argumentation, where we may have a presumption of how someone arrived at their expressions of atheism and to argue to those presumptions rather than love the person who may hold a very different and more nuanced view.

Of course, this theme isn’t really linked to transformations. Maybe that’s indicative of how loosely that theme permeated the day. Yes, it was strong in the introduction and after lunch, but it was tenuous at best elsewhere. Perhaps it was a case that the theme was decided independently of the proposals for each session. I can only speculate at that.

Only time will tell what ultimately sticks. One of the noticeable things was at how little emphasis there was on personal blogging. It’s been noted by many that some have given up their blogs while others have merged or stepped back. Is it possible that the day of the blog is over? I can’t say there was much there that seemed of imminent practical use. Of course, there were useful reminders of basic issues that could be immensely useful to the newcomer to new media.

So those are my thoughts. Over to you now:

  • Were you there?
  • Did you go to any of the same sessions?
  • What was your overall impression?

Oasis, unity and bad news for evangelicals?

This has been milling around my head for some time before I started to draft it a couple of weeks ago. After the events of last Friday, when the Evangelical Alliance decided to eject Oasis from membership, this has come into sharp relief. The discussion that then follows has been reshaped following this, though I have kept some aspects of the more general blog post I had begun. I hope it still reads OK, though please forgive me if it subsequently reads slightly jumbled and for any repetition.

The original question I had in mind was:

Are evangelicals bad news for the Church?

It’s a question that’s been bugging me some time. Whenever I read the term ‘evangelical’ (or the more condescending ‘evo’) it is almost always used in a negative sense.

I have written before about my frustrations when evangelicals are misleadingly portrayed. My objection is not a denial that there are issues within the very broad church that is evangelicalism, but rather that the negative aspects are those that people go looking for in order to highlight and then apply more generally so that they are portrayed as being in some way symptomatic of evangelicalism as a whole.

Part of the difficulty comes in trying to pin down precisely what one might mean by the term ‘evangelical’. There is little consensus (though not a violent disagreement, either, it might be added) amongst those who identify as evangelical as to precisely what they mean by it. I’ve broached the topic before, as has Danny Webster (who works for the Evangelical Alliance). My own church has its view here and the Evangelical Alliance has its own take. And these are just British viewpoints!

For an American viewpoint, one may look at the Evangelical manifesto. I must confess I was not aware of it’s existence until a few months ago, though upon reading it, I was struck by how much I agreed with it and was pleased by its moderate tone, in distinction from the tone one often hears coming across the Atlantic where the boundary between evangelical and fundamentalist views seems somewhat fuzzy.

As has been pointed out by others, the very breadth of evangelicalism sometimes waters down the effectiveness of the term. One danger is that ‘evangelical’ simply becomes a catch-all term used by those who don’t identify as such to label anyone with whom they disagree. In much of modern parlance, adjectives can be used as insults, and the most common word read in association with the term evangelical is ‘conservative’. In a world of black and white, it is not uncommon for ‘conservative’ to applied to someone, not on the grounds of a fair description, but rather to push them away and effectively say “[they’re conservative (i.e. bad) but we’re liberal (i.e. good)]” – The difficulty with this is that things aren’t really black and white and especially within christianity there are elements of being conservative and elements of being liberal in just about all strands of christian belief and expression. [late edit: as has been pointed out in the comments, some use the ‘liberal’/’conservative’ insult the other way around. My experience is that this is less common, but I acknowledge my limited experience may not be representative] To take just a few:

Social attitudes

This encompasses some of the hottest topics in the Church today, not least those surrounding women in leadership roles and whether or not we fully affirm christians who identify as LGBTI. For the record, this evangelical does recognise women in leadership and has no issue worshipping alongside LGBTI christians, a term I would deny is oxymoronic. In so doing, I acknowledge that there are some who would differ from me in good faith; while I might, from time to time, try to persuade such a person, I would not seek to enforce my view on them or to break fellowship with them over such a matter. What sometimes frustrates me is when I see christians who like to portray themselves as liberal attacking or criticising other christians who hold different opinions on such matters, especially when they go looking for areas on which to disagree. It demonstrates a level of intolerance that I think is quite unloving and certainly a betrayal of the term ‘liberal’. [late edit: I saw this comment was under discussion on the Changing Attitudes FB page. An example which I would cite was a post I saw from a friend who consistently affirms as ‘liberal’ but who said they would not consider in a million years going to a church they perceived as being conservative, going so far as to question why such churches exist at all. In my view, this goes too far.]

Economic attitudes

Roughly speaking, is one a capitalist or a socialist. Confusion comes here when capitalists try to claim to be liberal by means of “neoliberalism” or “economic libertarianism” which are both shorthand terms for, in my view, “freedom to economically oppress others”. This is a massive topic which I have written a bit about before, so I won’t further expand on it today.

How one views the bible

Much of the discussion around (and around and around) this centres on how one views the principle of sola scriptura. In so doing, one needs to bear in mind the historical background of the reformation in which the principle was formed. It is an instance of ‘definition by opposition‘. One may get a glimpse of how non-evangelicals think evangelicals view the bible from a comment on this piece, but which represents a slight caricature. I cannot do justice to the matter here, so in summary all I will say is that I view the bible as a collection of books which is the most reliable source we have for understanding the origins, themes, aims and beliefs of the christian faith. To get as true and fair an understanding of christianity, out of which flows a faithful adherence, the Church and its members must make the best effort to understand it in its his historical context and from there to apply it to the society, geography and time that we find ourselves in today. That understanding may be aided by any available tools we have, whether that be linguistics, historiography, tradition, etc. (all of which may be brought together under the umbrella term, ‘theology’).

How we express our christianity

In very broad terms, which are sometimes helpful and sometimes not, we might use the analogy of “high church” or “low church”. Similar terms one might hear are “creeping up the candle”. Though this terminology originated with the English part of the reformation, it has come to indicate how ceremonial a church is. So a church that has a very conservative expression of worship, where the leaders have to dress in special clothes and where there’s bits of processing around and chanting could reasonably be called “high church”. In contrast, one might have a “low church” which is far more informal and where the worshippers are allowed a greater degree of freedom of expression. These latter churches, in their style of worship, is far more liberal.

Unhelpful adjectives

Of course, these 4 I’ve listed are neither exhaustive nor are they mutually exclusive. For example, how one views the bible may well inform how one approaches the other 3. Yet it is sometimes the case that those which are more liberal in their expression of christianity are more conservative (capitalist) in their economic views. I think here particularly of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) which is known for both having an exuberant Pentecostal worship style and for advocacy in some parts of the church for the prosperity gospel. So it is that almost any church may be described as conservative by one group and as liberal by another.

Yet with almost any term one may choose to use to describe oneself or to describe other churches and christians, we risk trying to hold on to so tightly to the  adjective as to what type of christian we wish to describe that we lose focus on being a christian. As such, I would advocate using adjectives with the utmost gentleness and little to no sense of posession, as one try to hold a bunch of bubbles in the hand. To press the matter too hard will simply burst the bubbles which may sparkle for a time, but are ultimately empty and pass quickly.

So with that said, what of the matters of the last week?

Oasis and the Evangelical Alliance

I would assume by now that anyone reading this is familiar with the events of last Friday. If you are not, I would refer you in the first instance to the two press releases made by the Evangelical Alliance and by Oasis regarding the expulsion of the latter from membership of the former.

The debate that has been stirred up has been phrased by some (unhelpfully in my view) as a battle for who gets to decide how the term ‘evangelical’ is defined, and consequently who can and cannot be described as such. This seems to me like too much stock is being placed in the adjective and that in so doing, emphasis from the noun is lost. i.e. in my view, it is more important to identify as a christian than it is to identify as an evangelical. So the actions of the Evangelical Alliance is not so much a threat to the use of the term ‘evangelical’, it is a threat to the use of the term ‘alliance’.

One of the great ironies over the Oasis/EA separation has been that in choosing to eject Oasis, the Evangelical Alliance has stepped outside of the reformation ‘tradition’ (for want of a better word) of questioning the status quo. They have sought to impose their own form of orthodoxy on others and have chosen to excommunicate a valued part of the alliance for not adhering to one particular interpretation. In so doing, they have acted, not as the reformers did (the latter of whom had great courage to step out of the shadow of medieval Catholicism), but have played the role of the authoritarian who dictates how scripture can and should be interpreted. [late edit: This is not intended as a Marcus Borg style ‘because is it orthodox, it must be wrong’ type argument. See the comments below]

While Chalke wanted to be open and welcoming, the Evangelical Alliance chose to make it a divisive issue. In my view, the most appropriate response is to try to restore unity, rather than exacerbate disunity. This is why I would disagree with @losthaystacks who indicated that she thought the most appropriate reaction was to end her personal membership of the Evangelical Alliance. There is a point to it – that to maintain membership may be interpreted as giving consent to the action taken – though I would disagree, preferring to maintain church unity and to speak plainly that one disagrees with a particular stance. In this way, I would agree with the Evangelical Alliance’s policy, which in this instance they seem to have chosen to not apply in this instance:

“We respect the diversity of culture, experience and doctrinal understanding that God grants to His people, and acknowledge that some differences over issues not essential to salvation may well remain until the end of time.”

“We call on each other, when speaking or writing of those issues of faith or practice that divide us, to acknowledge our own failings and the possibility that we ourselves may be mistaken, avoiding personal hostility and abuse, and speaking the truth in love and gentleness.”

So in that very spirit, I recognise that my view may be wrong (as always) but the evidence of the Evangelical Alliance’s treatment of Oasis appears to be an attempt at unity by bullying. In other words, “agree with us or we will have no fellowship with you”. The statement regarding the matter makes clear that there had been prior communication and that Oasis had been asked to distance themselves from the view held by Chalke. Yet the idea of resigning membership over the matter seems to be to be equally ungracious and no less an example of an attempt at unity by bullying.

The usefulness of an analogy

One of the key objections that Evangelical Alliance later cited was that Chalke was endorsing a change in the definition of marriage. During the discussion on the legislation as it was going through Parliament. As an example, you can read a well-articulated objection on these grounds over on @PeterOuld’s blog. Underlying the objection is the assumption that marriage should not be redefined. It is this assumption I would challenge on 2 accounts.

Firstly, the idea of marriage as being “between one man and one woman” is not a permanent an unchanging definition that has stood since time immemorial. It just hasn’t (until now) changed an awful lot in western democracies in the last few centuries. I well recall a useful set of seminars I attended a few years ago given by Rabbi Lionel Blue about how the changing definition of marriage can be seen just within the Torah; the example that sticks in mind was from Deuteronomy 24, where the granting of a certificate of divorce was a radical change recognising that the wife being divorced had a “greater level of humanness than a pot or a pan” (Rabbi Blue’s words, not mine).

The second objection is the analogy in the New Testament regarding the analogy of the church as the bride of Christ. As an approximation (hopefully not a caricature) the argument goes that to change the definition of marriage undermines or invalidates this analogy. Yet in my view, the underlying message of the analogy is not so closely tied to referent in the analogy that a change in the latter renders the former redundant. We might need, in later years, to do some more work to understanding it, but it seems odd to think that same-sex marriage is any threat to the idea of the Church as the body and bride of Christ. To cite 2 examples of this, one may understand the Parable of the Good Samaritan on a surface level as an encouragement to see all people as our neighbours, to whom we are to behave in a way honouring (and being part of) the kingdom of heaven, but one understands more how counter-intuitive this was once you realise the animosity between the Samaritans and the Jews. The fact that that precise ethnic tension is not obvious to today’s readers doesn’t render the message of the parable null and void. As a second example, the invention of the seed drill for regular planting of seeds did not invalidate the Parable of the Sower.

What does this say in our witness?

I am coming to an end, but if you have read thus far, I thank you for your patience. Though it has been pointed out how general the term ‘evangelical’ can be, I would hope that there can be agreement that a key feature is a particular emphasis which is placed on evangelism. Evangelism takes many forms. Part of it is pedagogical – teaching the world about the gospel so that one may make an informed decision as to whether or not to accept it. But it is more than that. Our very lives are to be a witness to the calling we have received; how we treat one another says a lot about the values we hold. This may be seen in Romans 12 and in particular in Jesus; exhortation: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

So what does the forcible exclusion of an organisation that is open and welcoming to all say as a witness?

What is says to me is that the message of the Evangelical Alliance only differs from that of Westboro Baptist Church in its tone, but not in content. [late edit: I am aware this is a provocative comparison. I considered removing it, but once drafted, I could think of a good reason to delete it; it remains my honest (though of course, potentially flawed) opinion] This undermines the living out of the principle of “love your neighbour as yourself”. In ejecting Oasis on the basis cited, there is an effective statement which says “evangelicals oppose equality for LGBTI people.” That is not a sentiment I agree with. Yet it would be a mistake to cause further disunity or to use this as a reason to abandon the Evangelical Alliance and all the very good work that they do, through their member organisation and individuals.

Unity isn’t easy. So while I agree with the support and inclusivity that Chalke has expressed, and while I disagree with the actions of the Evangelical Alliance, I will not speak a word of condemnation. That is all too easy to do and is, I believe, the cheap way out.

My remaining hope is that the hurt cause to LGBTI individuals, families and communities as a result of this will not deter them from the gospel. Not all evangelicals are open and welcoming, but many are. And I hope that there is peace and forgiveness, in spite of the cost.