Tag Archives: faith

Book Review: Simply Good News by Tom Wright

Disclaimer: I was given this book by the publishers, SPCK, free of charge. I was not asked to review it, so, as ever, I publish this review off my own back.

Tom Wright manages to write books faster than most can read them. While I’ve caught up with all published volumes of his Christian Origins and the Question of God series and dip into his New Testament for Everyone commentaries every now and then, there are many more works that I’ve not yet got into. Most notably, these would be Virtue Reborn, How God Became King, Simply Jesus (though I bought this last year, it’s not yet percolated its way to the top of my reading pile) and Surprised by Scripture.

This work, subtitled ‘Why The Gospel Is News And What Makes It Good’ could be thought of as “Simply Paul”. For as some of his works published as “Tom Wright” have been closely linked to, and could be thought of an shortened version of, his longer works published under “N.T. Wright”, there is much here that is in common with Paul and the Faithfulness of God. If anything, this could be summed up as the ‘gospel according to Paul, according to Tom Wright’.

The major thesis is that what we refer to as “the gospel” is often misunderstood. He is not here proposing that the church has wholly misunderstood christianity, but that when we speak of the gospel, it is often more spoken of as advice rather than as news. Of course, there is a right an appropriate response to the news, but that response should not be mistaken for the news itself. So calls to repent are not inherently the gospel. Giving your life to Jesus is not the gospel. Taking part in the sacraments is not the gospel.

A master of the analogy, Wright begins by taking us not to the gospels, but to England’s victory in the rugby world cup final in 2003. The game was in Australia, but Wright was in America at the time (a country not exactly well known for its love of rugby). He was excited by news of the victory but found that anyone he wanted to tell simply didn’t care. Until he found some Australians, that is, who weren’t exactly keen on hearing the news of England’s triumph. His excitement about England’s victory was irrelevant foolishness to the Americans and was unwelcome to the Australians. It is in this way that Wright gets across what he understands by Paul’s statement that gospel is foolishness to the Gentiles (what does anything to do with a Jewish teacher have to do with us) and a scandal to the Jews (this person cannot be the Messiah if he died in ignominy).

The heart of the book is laid out very early on. What is the news? Firstly, it is a development, something unexpected happening within a wider context. Secondly, it is an announcement not only that something has happened, but that because of it, things will be different from now on. This then brings about a period of hopeful, expectant waiting.

The rest of the book is the fleshing out of this. So we get an overview of what the wider context was. This entails an overview of 1st century Judaism and the Roman Empire. The second part necessitates the “now and not yet” of christianity to be discussed, though Wright skillfully avoids the technical jargon of inaugurated eschatology, which can be so off-putting to many. Indeed, throughout the book, the theologically well-informed will recognise many a familiar concept, but Wright communicates them with the utmost clarity and gentleness.

In reading this, I could not help but think that the misrepresentations of the gospel Wright is so keen to correct are largely that of the more right wing American churches. In so doing, he does seem to rile up others who interpret him as saying that the whole church has failed to understand the gospel for centuries but thank goodness that Tom Wright has now arrived to correct us all. I don’t think that’s what he intends at all. It is rather that he is here trying to write for as wide an audience as possible, but having in mind particular ways of teaching of christianity that miss the central point of the gospel.

So he is neither being an heresiologist nor a general teacher, but trying to incorporate both aspects in his writing. A tough task, indeed, yet it is my view he does this just about as well as anyone could hope for. In so doing, he does bring a challenge; a challenge to our current understanding and our ways of communicating the news that God has come to earth to restore creation through Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and that we are all invited to be a part of that ongoing story which has already reached its dénouement in his death and resurrection.

To finish this review, one must think of who it would stand to gain most from reading this work. Might it be for the curious non-christian who wants to find out what we mean by ‘the good news’? Perhaps, though Wright does assume a level of familiarity with the ancient world that the person on the Clapham omnibus doesn’t have. Maybe it is more suited to the more Calvinist christian who, though familiar with the bible, doesn’t always seem to get the emphasis right. Maybe it is best for the person who has recently become a christian but is still trying to navigate their way around the rich, vast and multitudinous expressions of christian belief across different churches.

I would suggest that it may be read in conjunction with a few other works. Firstly, the gospels themselves. Examine the source material and make an assessment for yourself. Secondly, it might go well with Rowan Williams’ Being Christian or C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I hope that gives you a fair impression. If it at all piques your interest, then please do read it. It is well-written, gently provocative and has the gospel of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah, running through it like a stick of Brighton rock.

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The idolisation of doubt

Of late, there has been an increasing trend of christians extolling the virtue of doubt. One quote in particular which epitomises this is:

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”

The quote is actually from Anne Lamott, though it seems to be frequently misattributed to Paul Tillich.

The trouble with the usage the way this quote is used, and the way that doubt is spoken of sometimes, it comes across that doubt is the end goal, the point of enlightenment. This can tip over into hubris, whereby there can be a kind sneering at those who stand firm in their convictions.

Doubt is indeed a useful thing, but then again, so is medicine. Medicine doesn’t do much good unless you use it. It’s no good parading it around, saying “Look, I have medicine.” You actually have to take the medicine and allow it to perform it’s healing work. Likewise, doubt has to be used for something. It has to be the basis of enquiry, of searching for the answers.

One of the conundrums when dealing with questions of faith, doubt and certainty is that there can be a certainty that nothing is certain. OK, that’s a bit twisty, let’s try putting it another. The idea that ‘everything can be doubted’ is itself an idea that is so certain in some people’s minds that it has become an unquestionable dogma, precisely of the kind the same people so frequently oppose.

If I doubt something, I investigate. The fluidity of that doubt may firm up as I learn more and understand more. If I have the same doubts in a year’s time, is that a sign of maturity? I think not; it is stagnation. It’s a giving up in the face of a tough problem.

Compare the quote at the top with that from the letter to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Another translation has ‘confidence’ and ‘assurance’ in place of ‘substance’ and ‘evidence’. The relevant Greek words being translated are hypostasis and elenchos. To equate faith with doubt here seems like a wrong way of reading the passage. And yes, I do think it is possible to state that some ideas that some christians hold about christianity are wrong.

Please don’t mistake me. I am not arguing for dogmatic, unquestionable assertions here. My point is that the way doubt is spoken of is that it is an end in itself and that there can be a temptation to humble-brag about having doubts. Such a display is, in my opinion, little more than an example of blowing one’s own trumpet or of being the self-righteous Pharisee. Instead, it is preferable for us to be firm in our convictions, not swayed or tossed by the winds of the latest opinion, but to have those convictions open to challenge. For firmness does not the mean the same as immovability. We must be open to learning, to being corrected, yet to be so to a reasonable degree.

Walking by faith, not by sight

A few Saturdays ago I had to go shopping in the city centre, very close to where I work. In fact the most convenient way to get there was to use the route of my normal commute. In doing this, I travelled a familiar route but at an unfamiliar time and with travelling companions who weren’t familiar with this stretch of the London underground.

I knew which carriage I needed to be on and which side the doors would open on. When I got off the train I knew when to turn left and when to turn right. I didn’t need to look too hard in order to know where I was going. My eyes were open and I made sure I didn’t walk into other people, but I had assurance of where I was going so I could step out in confidence. In contrast, the tourists around me were hesitant. They had to stop and look at the signs in order to get where they were going. Even after having seen the signs, their steps were still faltering and they kept looking behind them.

We all ended up in the same place eventually, using the same route, but just with different mindsets. It was as I ascended the steps into the spring sunshine that this gave me a refreshed understanding of what we mean by “walking by faith, not by sight”. I wasn’t blind as I walked through the corridors, but having done the route so many times, it wasn’t necessary for me to constantly look out to make sure I was on the right path. I had confidence, based on the evidence of my experience, that I was going the right way. This was a demonstration of faith in my own ability to navigate.

When we speak of faith, there ought to be two elements included to give proper meaning. The first of these is the object of our faith. i.e. what is our faith in? In the case above, it was faith in a particular skill. The other element is the basis of faith. i.e. what is the epistemological source for that faith? In the case above, it was the experience of having done that route hundreds of times before.

So that’s my challenge both to myself and to you: when we speak of faith, let it not be left dangling, in isolation, prone to misinterpretation. Let’s be clear about the object and basis of our faith.

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.

Uncertainty

Creative Commons: Horia Andrei Varlan

Creative Commons: Horia Andrei Varlan

In this blog post, I wanted to look in a bit more detail at a quote I posted on Twitter on Saturday the 4th. The quote was as follows:

“Interpreting the bible is very interesting, but we don’t really know what it means.”

This prompted a response from an old friend I know from university, asking me what I thought of it. I replied as follows:

“Kind of agree. I aim to declare with boldness that which I acknowledge I might be wrong about.”

This prompted a response from a Methodist follower of mine to say

“Then we are lost”

I stated at the time that I would then aim to put a little more nuance on this in a blog post. So this should hopefully add a little more flesh to the matter, though it is by no means my final word on the topic.

First, a little on the context. This came up at a monthly bible school I have recently started attending at the church I’ve settled at after having moved house last year. The overall discussion was about the Magi, with a significant portion devoted to whether or not they were Zoroastrians. The point at this stage in the discussion had been about Jewish eschatology and how a good many intelligent people had ideas about how and when the Messiah would come, but what actually happened, even though it fitted up with the Old Testament prophecies, still came rather unexpectedly. Therefore, though we have a wealth of ideas about christian eschatology, ideas of heaven, hell, resurrection and annihilation, it might well turn that we have all got a little bit right most mostly wrong, and that what we expect will be radically confounded. It was at this point that the original quote came in.

Quoting things on Twitter is fraught with danger, as the brevity of that medium necessarily entails curtailed explanations. I posted the quote almost at a whim (something I do far more often there than on this blog), but it highlighted a strand of thinking that often runs through my head; that being what I expressed briefly in my follow-up. To expand upon it, I would draw a dichotomy between humility and hubris. Humility says, “I might be wrong.” Hubris says, “I am right.” Of course, just about any human who holds an opinion does so because they think they are right. But it is one thing to think you are right and another to state categorically that you are right.

So I hold many opinions on a variety of topic – some of which get written about here, some of which it may be wiser to refrain from – and in each of these I think I’m correct. But to think that I am so well-informed, intelligent and wise to think that I understand all things perfectly would be absurd. I have been wrong about a great many things before and I think it is probable that there are views I hold now which will turn out to be wrong. Of course, I don’t at this time know which ones they are.

So when I use the word “know” I mean an epistemological certainty. Those things that I “know” are really very few. For all other things, one might consider some sort of scale of doubt. I might be pretty sure about some things. For example, I would have no doubt that the main colour of the laptop on which I am writing this is red. That is something I am happy to say I know. I am pretty sure of the contents of my fridge at the moment. I last looked in it a few hours ago and could quite happily run off a list of what’s there; yet I might make a mistake. I might have miscounted the tubs of yoghurt, for instance, or forgotten to put the sweet chilli sauce back in the fridge after using it for tonight’s dinner.

So when it comes to something like christianity, I am constantly revising my views in light of new evidence or a new perspective. Because I believe the great commission, I am an evangelical. It is right for the church (as a whole) to educate people about the gospel. And we do not do it with a spirit of timidity, but that doesn’t mean it is to be done with a kind of bolshie arrogance. To try to sell christianity as something that ‘has all the answers’ is to not only mislead others, but is a lie to oneself. I can say ‘this is what I believe and this is why’ and even state ‘I believe, to the best of my understanding, that this is true’ but I cannot go so far as to state my beliefs are unequivocally perfect and complete. And if they are not, then I must, out of honesty, confess that I might be wrong.

Return from blogging break

Picture courtesy of Damian Gadal (Creative Commons)

Picture courtesy of Damian Gadal (Creative Commons)

Hello all. I’m back from my blogging break. There’s been an awful lot happening in the last couple of months. There have been lots of thoughts running through my head that have gone by without being written down or explored. I’ve made a few comments on other blogs or news/comment websites, but taking a break from the blog was necessary and I think it’s done some good.

I must confess that I have done some writing during the ‘off’ period, mostly in August. Though many are not finished, I thought I’d give a taster of what’s to come, either to whet your appetite or else warn you to stay away.

At some point, I plan to finish my series ‘The Nature and Origin of Morality’ which has lain dormant for a few years now. I tried an initial sketch when the opportunity arose when guest blogging for The Big Bible blog a few months ago, but I hope to build on this if I get a few days uninterrupted to think and write.

One of the main reasons for the break has been that I moved house. I have written two bits on this. One is a detailed account of the process; the other is a list of hints and tips that I either employed and found useful or things I wish I had done but didn’t. The former was written more for my own reference, but some of you may find it interesting. The latter is more for your benefit or, if I word it correctly for search engine optimisation (SEO) it might help a complete stranger.

Over the summer, one of the big buzz topics has been feminism and the online reaction to some of its outspoken advocates. I’ve commented a little on some points and offered messages of support who have been victims of online bullying, but this piece will hopefully clarify my position of why I will support many feminists but why I don’t adopt the term myself, preferring the expression ‘egalitarian’.

Another topic, as triggered by the cases of Julian Assange, Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden is that of whistleblowing. I think, given this name of this blog, I ought to explore the nature of speaking the truth and what consequences that has and whether there ought to be any restrictions on doing so.

I’m working on a couple of pieces on christian belief, atheism and existentialism with the slightly provocative working titles of ‘Sympathy for atheists’ and ‘On the non-existence of God’. These are quite embryonic in their development and have yet to start their journey from my brain to my fingertips.

One piece that I started a couple of years ago, but have struggled with the wording explores the fallibility of human nature and the wrongdoings that are committed by christians, sometimes in the name of christianity. I’ve restarted it a couple of times and shelved it again and again. This time, I’m aiming to finish it. If you can goad me on or offer encouragement, then that’ll be much appreciated.

The most ambitious project, which I’ve started work on, but am a long way (maybe 2-3 years) from finishing is a statement of faith. I realise that I don’t have anything like that which is at all thorough on this blog, so my intention is to look at the 129 questions of the Heidelberg Catechism, looking at the answers given and giving my own response. I’m aiming to do one per week, in the hope that this will be as much an investigation into my own beliefs as it is an exposition. The objective, as ever, will be to provide food for thought.

In amongst these, I’ll also be putting in some book reviews. Specifically, these are:

Thinking in Numbers – Daniel Tammet
Dogmatics in Outline – Karl Barth
Borders: A Very Short Introduction – Alexander Diener & Joshua Hagen
From the Earth to the Moon – Jules Verne
Longitude – Dava Sobel
A Broad Place – Jurgen Moltmann
Dialogues and Natural History of Religion – David Hume
Around the Moon – Jules Verne
Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction – Timothy Gowers
History of the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories – H.P. Lovecraft
Robotics:A Very Short Introduction – Alan Winfield
Confessions – Augustine of Hippo

So that’s the plan. I can’t say it’s all a promise I’ll stick to. I may well get stuck with some of these posts and have to shelve them for a while. Other things may crop up which will intrude, either because they are interesting or there is some need that must be addressed. Meanwhile, the offer is always open to host any guest writers. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested. If you’ve got things you’d like to see here, whether it be a point of clarification over some issue or just something you think would be interesting, then please send your suggestions in. I’m always on the lookout for further book recommendations. I’ve got a few hundred on my reading list, but it can never be too long.

So what about you? Been up to anything interesting over the summer?

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

Around Christmas (I forget if it was just before or just after) I received a text message from a friend asking how to deal with trolls. This friend was fairly new to blogging and had just received a host of comments on their blog which they had either not anticipated at all, or at least not the passive aggression contained within them. I gave a rather pithy reply (due to constraints of time and message space), but here I hope to elaborate on that a bit more. In fact, this has been expanded so much, I’ve had to break it up into several parts.

I’m guessing most of you are more internet-savvy than I, so I don’t need to do too much explaining to you as to what trolling is. I only want to highlight some features of them, but I really want to focus on how a christian might respond to them.

Some background on trolls

Trolls are not always rude or impolite. In fact, most that I have come across are not and some even pride themselves on the fact. Their purpose is to antagonise or otherwise get a rise out of someone. To engage in abusive behaviour is sometimes known as flaming. A good troll will get their kicks without being identified as such.

Identifying a troll isn’t always clear cut. The most boring of them are very obvious. Commenters on the Guardian’s website may recall a particularly nasty troll called MoveAnyMountain (MAM) which posted hateful things about disabled people on a number of threads before eventually being banned. It may sometimes be easy to cast the term “troll” at someone you disagree with, but that doesn’t mean they actually are and to misidentify someone as a troll is generally considered poor form.

This was recently put quite succinctly by a message that was retweeted to my attention from @renireni who stated “Amount of big name twitterers who use the word ‘trolling’ to deflect accountability is astounding.”

In my experience of them, they are often concerned about either a single issue or at least a very narrow spectrum of issues. To use the MAM example above, they never expressed much interest in threads which didn’t include any aspect of disability rights. I have come across several atheist trolls in my time who seem only to have negative things to say about “religion.” I wonder if they have anything positive to say or have any other interests!

Another feature is that they often ask others to justify themselves, without giving much justification of their own views. In other words, they ask others to do a lot of the “work” for them. Goading others into wasting their time is seen by the troll as a victory for them. This is linked to another characteristic: a lack of real engagement. I have seen some who delude themselves into thinking that because they post and reply to others, that they are engaging. This is rarely more than simple hectoring, however, and I’ve seen good commenters being battered online by a barrage of naysayers who show no open-mindedness or willingness to discuss matters on anything other than their own terms.

What Peter taught

Moving away from general observations to more specific ones, I wish to talk about responding to trolls from a christian perspective. Foremost in my mind is Peter’s instruction to the dispersed churches when he writes “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” He carries on but I would encourage you to read the whole section in context.

I read this as both an encouragement and as a warning. For me, the ability to communicate an idea effectively shows that you have understood it. Even if someone disagrees with you, if they understand what you are saying, then at least any debate can be conducted with parties talking about the same thing. There are few more depressing debates than when two people use the same words to describe different concepts.

For this reason, I think it’s a fairly good idea to have close to hand an explanation, in your own words, the reasons for your faith. On this blog, one of the first posts I made was about a scientific approach to faith (not a methodology, but an approach that was as evidence-based as possible) and later I wrote a summary of Easter, which I see as being at the heart of my faith.

The warning comes with how we do this. If asked, I will direct people to read these, but I don’t arbitrarily send them to anyone I disagree with. Though I doubt I always succeed in explaining my faith “with gentleness and respect” I do try. Where I fail to do so, it is more often than not a reaction against those who show no gentleness or respect; i.e. “an eye for an eye”. I don’t claim that I, or any other christian, is perfect.

In the next part, I’ll look at what Jesus taught and what Paul did, before concluding in a third part later on.