Tag Archives: lifestyle christianity

Book Review: Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams

This was one of those books I picked up on the off-chance as I was browsing round a bookshop one lunchtime. I was aware of its existence a little while ago, when it seemed to cause a minor stir among some Anglicans but it seems to have little longer-lasting impact. The first thing to note about it, however, is that it’s not a book that Rowan actually set out to write. Instead, it’s a collection of transcripts of various sermons and lectures he gave between June 2002 and February 2012. Much of the vernacular used for a public address has been kept; in fact, I’m not certain how much editing was done to the transcripts at all, apart from the staff at Bloomsbury occasionally omitting spaces whenever they thought italics were most appropriate, something I hope they will correct in any subsequent print runs.

As the title suggests, the book is largely about how issues of faith and religion play out in public life. The lectures have been ordered by theme, rather than by the order in which they were first given, so as to try to give some kind of coherency to discussions on a quite wide variety of topics. The first two parts of the book, which are the longest and, I think it’s fair to say, the most intricate, are about secularism, multiculturalism, pluralism and the different ways these are perceived, coupled with Rowan’s own thoughts about which is the right path to walk down.

If anything though, these chapters could be skipped, as Rowan summarises it all very nicely in the Preface. The rest is more filling in the details. Crucial to this point of view is the distinction between what he refers to as “procedural secularism” and “programmatic secularism”. The former is a stance where no religious (or non-religious) position is given undue privilege in places of public life, such in government or media. The latter is (though Rowan, if I recall from those early chapters correctly, does not use the phrase) “aggressive secularism” – a term that is too often used, more often than not, incorrectly. It denotes the idea that religion ought to have no place in public life; it should be out of sight, out of mind. He does single out the French for having this view, something I have written a little about some time ago.

Rowan advocates procedural secularism whilst rejecting programmatic secularism, as well as those who advocate the latter under the guise of the former. Though he does not mention by name the National Secular Society, the inference is all too easy to draw.

After this opening, which I warn you gets a little turgid, the book moves onto the application of religious (though mainly christian) thinking into other areas of public life. i.e. after having advocated that christians be allowed a voice in a liberal democracy, here is what one influential christian has to say on matters of environmentalism, justice, finance and community.

What he has to say is well thought through, effortlessly sensible and immensely thought-provoking. That said, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Despite the back cover’s claim that he is “the finest theologian in Britain” (a title reader’s of Hannah’s Child may smirk at), there is very little theology here. This more ‘applied’ theology than ‘pure’ theology, to bring in a mathematical analogy. I suppose it is inevitable that the book would appeal to a christian secularist, such as myself, though I would be interested in reading the thoughts of an atheist secularist on the book.

Book Review: The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren

As mentioned some time ago, this is one of my books of shame. I picked this up on the basis of numerous recommendations that mostly came from friends in non-denominational churches (which comprise most of my christian friends) though I had also heard and read strong criticisms from both liberal and conservative ends of the church spectrum.

The book is broken up into 40 small chapters which Warren asks the reader to read at the rate of one per day. The start of the book also contains a very cheesy ‘covenant’ between the reader and Warren (with a curiously presumptive line for “partner”). This is where the problems with the book begin. It’s that with God’s help, a covenant is made between the individual reader and the author. Forget anything about a covenant between God and his people as a collective, that doesn’t get a look in here, this is a new covenant that Warren instigates, which has very little mention of the blood of Jesus which most christians will be familiar with through communion services.

 The point at which I gave up before (OK, I actually threw the book across the room in anger) was at the end of ‘Day 7’ where Warren invites the reader to pray a ‘conversion prayer’. He writes some pithy lines and says that if you say these words then you are a christian. What this seems to imply is that it’s a book that is largely intended for non-christians, or at least for new christians. If so, then the lack of what one would generally consider ‘core theology’ of the gospel is grossly lacking. This is a book of applied theology where the theology is absent, leaving us with a vacuous self-help message dressed up in christian clothing.

The fact is, there is actually much which is commendable here. So it is not a case that I think Warren is trying to be misleading. It is the black-and-white certainty with which he pontificates that irritates me. I think it may be because I take a very different interpretation of the word “assurance” – no doubt coloured by the years I spent working as an auditor, where “assurance” simply means ‘pretty sure there’s nothing majorly wrong’ rather than ‘correct to the very last penny’. Warren presents us with his point of view (nothing wrong with that) but presents it as the only interpretation. Whilst various passages in the bible do warn against teaching a false gospel, I don’t think that means unity means conformity.

Whilst one might be impressed at ‘over 1,000 verses’ are cited, these are very often piecemeal and demonstrates this as more a work of proof-texting than of exegesis. It is as though Warren has written out his viewpoint and then gone in search of soundbites to back up his point of view, often stripping them of their context. It’s not helped when he refers the reader to a list of further resources he said he found helpful, only to find a further list of resources authored by Warren himself or otherwise produced by the church of which he is the founding pastor.

I will be going into more details about this, fisking some aspects of the book as I did with Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. For now, though, I struggle to think of anyone to whom I could recommend The Purpose Driven Life. There are much better introductions to christianity available or, if it is your thing, better self-help books available.

Book Review: Barefoot Disciple by Stephen Cherry

Unlike last year, when, in the weeks leading up to Easter, I read almost exclusively theology, I opted this year for a more laid-back approach and only read one “Lent book” which was this. I only started it about 10 days before the start of the Easter weekend, but as it is quite a short book (172 pages + introduction, acknowledgements, bibliography, etc.) I was able to go through it quite slowly and ponderously and finished it on Good Friday.

The subject of the book is humility, which the author (a fairly high church Anglican at my old stomping ground of Durham Cathedral) acknowledges is very tricky to write about. Most of the first chapter is devoted to the challenges of writing about the subject without taking pride in the fact that one is humble. He puts it much better than I do, though.

This is what I would describe as a “lifestyle christianity” book. It’s not self-help dressed up in christian clothes but neither is it a detailed theological study. Cherry picks out examples from his own life and draws on as many, if not more, secular sources as he does biblical quotations. In this respect, the writing style is not entirely dissimilar from that of C.S. Lewis.

The barefoot of the title is derived from Cherry’s own experience of pilgrimages to Lindisfarne where some people went barefoot as they crossed the mud flat at low tide. The subtitle of the book, “walking the way of passionate humility,” is sort of defined but is really demonstrated throughout the whole book. It is hard to sum up in a paragraph, so having made several attempts whilst writing this review, I decided not to and simply recommend that you read the book yourself.

What is core to Cherry’s viewpoint that passionate humility goes firmly against conventional (or we might say ‘worldly’) wisdom. It is not piousness or grovelling, where the example of Dickens’ character, Uriah Heap, is held as an example of exactly what Cherry doesn’t mean. This is far more affirmative, yet not self-seeking. It is the practicalities of ‘living out’ this worldview that Cherry unpacks.

The only downside I found in the book is that Cherry does adopt an extremely “high church” position where there is some talk of “holy spaces” (a subject I have been intending to write about for some time, and hope to pick up soon) and at one point slights some elderly people for saying bits of liturgy that only the priest ought to say, as if some words ought to be forbidden from being uttered by the hoi polloy.

Yet this is a small aside and may well pass unnoticed by readers of a similarly high church background. This is an intensely thought-provoking book and one that I would recommend to you to read at any time, not just during Lent/Easter.

Stephen Cherry’s personal blog may be found here.

Celebrity Christians

[Please note that this was written before the recent flare-up of vitriol both propagated by, and in reaction to, Mark Driscoll’s comments about UK christians]

Those of you who know me will know that I’m quite critical of what I call the ‘cult’ of celebrity Christians. By cult, I do not mean occult, or necessarily that all such folk are unsound teachers (though I do have strong reservations about some). I merely mean that that they often have a wide following that is much broader than that from their own individual churches.

Such people include (but are not limited to): Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Bill Johnson, Alister McGrath, Joyce Meyer, Joseph Ratzinger, Rick Warren, Rowan Williams & Tom Wright.

I was tempted recently to go to a one day conference where another of these kind of people was to be speaking: William Lane Craig. But then I just caught myself and started questioning my motivation. So this post is simply an exploration of what went through my mind in relation to that, as well as my concerns in relation to the phenomena of the celebrity preacher.

The bite from the blogosphere

For just about everyone that gains any level of “fame” there will be detractors. It’s not hard to find them; all you need do is type their name into Google and add the word “false” at the end. One has to be very cautious with this, I think, as it is tempting to think “there’s no smoke without fire.” You can also go the other way, and think that because someone is coming up against a lot of opposition that they must be talking sense.

The truth is, the blogosphere can be filled with a lot of junk and people pushing their own agenda. As an aside, I will let you draw your own conclusions about this tiny and obscure corner of the blogosphere that you find yourself reading at this instance. For me, the key word is “discernment.” There is a subtle difference between this and “judgement” though the consequences can be very far apart.

It is very easy to condemn someone with whom you disagree as “false” and to launch attacks on them. Of those named above, the newcomer to the scene who has only really come to prominence in the last couple of years is Mark Driscoll. I do not agree with everything he teaches, but I will not condemn him as a false teacher. I think he is mistaken on some issues, but I do not, based on that, reject anything and everything he says.

On those that I tend to agree with more, say, Alister McGrath, I do not accept uncritically everything he says or writes as being true and correct. To do so would be to fall foul of the Argument From Authority fallacy, though I do have some unorthodox views on this which I may expand upon on in a future post.

Are we guilty of “itching ears?”

Amongst the detractors, there is a common verse that is referred to. 2 Timothy 4:3 says

“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

In today’s world of social media, it is easier than ever to listen to whatever you want to listen to. Sermons and blogs are published online and you can gather all the soundbites you like off Twitter. In so doing, one can filter out anything you disagree with and choose a select group of people to listen to.

This is not something new. Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians

“What I’m talking about is this. Each one of you is saying, “I’m with Paul!” “I’m with Apollos!” “I’m with Cephas!” “I’m with the Messiah”” (1 Corinthians 1:12, NTFE)

You could take any period of history and substitute any names. If you take the slightly later church, you could have Origen, Tertullian & Ignatius. Move on to the Reformation and it might be Luther, Calvin & Zwingli. Today, it could be any of those I named at the top. The important thing to me is that we don’t become followers of men & women, but that we are followers of Jesus. That’s pretty much Paul’s gist in this passage and it’s one that I think has never ceased to be relevant.

Some individuals may be self-promoters, others are promoted by the institutions and organisations they are a part of. I would love if it the prominence were given not the person writing the books & blogs or preaching the sermons, but to the words that are written and spoken themselves. Instead of looking to a select few and hanging on their every word, I think it would be far better for the anonymous masses of churches to declare truth and have their words assessed on their own merits.

Of course, that then begs Pilate’s question: “What is truth?”

Sacraments as Signposts

I was having a little think the other day about what those of a high church persuasion refer to as “sacraments.” I wrote a little about these fairly recently. What got me thinking was a few instances where I had various people push the idea of the sacraments as being the main part of any church service. That is, they were more important than the worship or the sermon, even to the extent that anything else was marginal.

Also, I was recently described as being anti-anglican, though I think this is not really an accurate label. What I am opposed to is tradition for tradition’s sake and instances where a church has become an institution. There are strong aspects of these in both Catholicism and Anglicanism, though it would be unfair to apply such a specific charge universally against such large and diverse bodies.

Coming from an independent church background, looking as an impartial outside observer upon the public face of these two organisations, I cannot escape the idea that today’s anglican and catholic churches are the equivalents of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Key to this is the sermon on the mount as recorded by Matthew. Throughout this section, Jesus emphasises that there is a reason for the law. The law does not exist for it’s own sake, it is an application of more fundamental ideas. He gives something of a backhanded compliment in chapter 5:17-20 (Green):

“Do not think that I came to annul the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to annul, but to fulfil. Truly I say to you, until the heavens and the earth pass away, in no way shall one iota or one tittle pass away from the law until all comes to pass. Whoever then shall break one of these commandments, the least, and shall teach men so, he shall be called least in kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches them, this one shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. For I say to you, if your righteousness shall not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, in no way shall you go into the kingdom of heaven.”

His point, which is also made elsewhere in the gospels is that the law was being observed for its own sake. The scribes and the Pharisees come across as being more concerned about the letter of the law than the underlying reasons for it. So while law and tradition are important, they are not the end goal.

So when I look at the institutional churches, what I see are institutions that are more concerned about their self-preservation and keeping their own rules and traditions than they are about actually being a church; where I’m using the term church to mean a collection of people.

So coming back to the sacraments, they are important for christianity, but they are not the be all and end all. They are signposts and symbols for God and the gospel. To become “evangelical for the sacraments” is like a person who spends their time admiring and arguing for the preservation of a motorway sign. We may be used to seeing the signs in a particular form, and if this form is changed, then I don’t doubt a conservative element would protest at such a change. But if a new format of the sign is used, which still serves the function, then it is in no way false, misleading or heretical. It’s just a different way of doing things.

Of course, one can to the other extreme and try to rid christianity of any and all traditions, embracing everything new just because it is new. Here, I am thinking particularly of the use of technology within churches. If you have song books that work well, is it really justified to spend a lot of money of a projection system? Of course, some investment may be necessary, but upgrading one’s PA system just for the sake it shows, in my opinion, questionable discernment; and I have seen instances of this is quite a lot of churches of varying stripes.

Returning to the signpost analogy, by concentrating on the sign, you never embark on the journey. This is probably my biggest concern for those whose energies are devoted to the preservation of tradition. Trying to stick to the precise methodologies by those who lived in vastly different time period and culture seems to against the instruction for each “to work out their own salvation.” By concentrating on treading in the footsteps of others, we may never look up and notice our surroundings or where we are headed. To this end, I love the maxim from Hebrews “Looking unto Jesus” which was, by the way, my old school motto.

Should christians accept bonuses?

Background

I had a recent chat with another christian when this question came up as part of the conversation. Anyone who knows me or reads this blog will know that I am distinctively left-leaning. One of the main reasons for this is because I am a christian. I have a lot of difficulty understanding the idea of the “christian right” as I consider it to be an oxymoron.

Subsequently, I have quite strong views when it comes to money. So I wanted to lay out my reasoning for why I think the answer to the question ought to be “no,” though I wanted to understand the counter-argument. As a result, I asked around a little bit, which is laid out below. I have also attempted to play devil’s advocate.

Of course, I am not judging christians who do accept bonuses as part of their remuneration. If you do, all I’d like to do is make you think and question your motivation for accepting it.

Why I think the answer ought to be “no”

The fundamental reason why I would not be happy to accept it is one of motivation. Without giving too much confidential information away, employees in my company are given a choice. They can accept a fixed salary of £x per year, or else they could take a lower salary with a bonus which, when combined is greater than £x. So let’s say someone might be offered a basic pay of £30k, or they might be offered £28k with a £4k bonus. Of course the bonus is tied to their meeting certain conditions. If they meet their targets, they will obtain their bonus; if they get part-way they will be awarded part of their bonus. If they don’t meet the minimum target, they won’t get anything.

To my way of thinking, this creates a danger that we then work, our motivation becomes the creation of personal wealth. Following on from my recent post on worship, this would indicate that we are worshipping money. Of course, we may to rationalise this by claiming that we are accepting the bonus structure in order to pay our rent, fund the train fares, feed the family, etc. What I do not like about this view is that it creates the false impression that we would not be able to make ends meet without the bonus.

I would rather my motivation to work be because I want to do a good job. As I touched on briefly recently, there are many ways we can worship. To me, trying to do a good job at work is a part (though by no means all) of my worship. There is the very famous warning in 1 Timothy, where Paul writes “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Tim 6:8-10, NRSV) Often only a part of that is quoted, but I wanted to include the lot.

Having worked in financial services for several years, and subsequently working in the finance side of a different type of business, I am surrounded by those who are obsessed with money. It would be very easy to get sucked into that world, where I’d care about profit and trying to boost my own pay, quite possibly at the expense of others. That’s not someone I’d ever want to become. I want to be someone who is content with what I have.

Another passage in my thinking (though I recognise that money is not the primary purpose of this particular discourse) is Romans 4, where Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.” (Romans 4:4, NIV) This is as close as I can find to anything about bonuses. I hope you don’t think I’m stretching scripture too much; that’s not my intention.

The devil’s advocate argument (why it might be OK)

You have to recognise that the pay culture we have in modern society would be totally alien to those living in the 18th century, let alone anyone before then. So the people of the bible wouldn’t have known enough to either speak in favour or against company bonuses.

There are various people in the bible who had great wealth and who were not condemned for it. Abraham was a bit of a Richard Branson-type figure of his day, and in terms of a single individual owning a high proportion of the world’s wealth, Solomon was probably one of the richest men in history. Yet neither of them were condemned for their wealth. It was incidental to them. This brings us on to the so-called ‘prosperity gospel.’

Proponents of this view often cite Psalm 37 as a justification for not only claiming that wealth is acceptable, but that it is a sign of reward for faithfulness: “Trust in the LORD, and do good; Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the LORD, And He shall give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:3,4, NKJV) I interpret this quite differently. Given the preamble of verse 3, I think what constitutes the “desires of [our] hearts” will be changed so that we no longer will be desiring of wealth, but rather we will be desiring the riches of God. (c.f. Romans 12).

Given the balance of the number of times wealth and money are referred to in the bible, I think that prosperity advocates must have a hard time defending their position. For brevity, I’ve omitted most references I could use to back this up; maybe another day.

Some practical considerations

Of course, not everyone is given a choice to not have a bonus as part of their pay packet. You have to be in a particularly high-end job to be able to change the terms of your employment contract. Given that I have only ever taken jobs whilst unemployed, I never had much bargaining power, so I simply wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise the prospect of employment.

Then you have the choice of what to do with it. I asked on Twitter what people thought about it, though I only got 1 reply which was that it’s OK to accept a bonus, so long as it is donated to charity. More widely, there are a number of good things you could do with additional money, of which giving to charity is but one. However, I think christians always have to keep a tight reign on their motives. For example, if you donate via a Just Giving page (or similar) do you disclose your name and the amount you are donating, or do you go by the principle of “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matt 6:3)?

Conclusion

For my conscience, I am happier to not take a bonus. I do not think it is inherently wrong to do so. What is important is what you do with it. In this, I probably ought to be honest about my own pay packet. I contribute to a pension scheme which removes from my pay packet 10% of my gross pay. This pushes me down into the “basic rate” tax band. Had I opted not to do this, I would be higher rate tax payer, having a marginal rate of 40% on a small portion of my salary. As it stands, my effective rate (total tax+NI/total pay) is 26.7%. From this, you can tell that I am paid significantly more than the average salary. This is slightly tempered by my train fares of £87.50 a week. Once you take tax into account, this means that if I got a job within walking distance of home, I could take a gross pay cut of just over £6,000 per year and it would have no effect on my take-home pay.

Given that I am such a highly paid job, putting me amongst the top few percent of UK workers, I think that to demand any extra would be selfish and immature. When I work long hours, I don’t complain about a lack of overtime, in spite of pressure to do so. When I think of all the millions in this country alone (let alone the billions elsewhere in the world) who do not have the material riches that I have, it is very humbling. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b, NIV) It is a huge responsibility and one that has to be taken seriously. Personally, I find those who have abundant material wealth, and yet who complain about a lack of it, to be repugnant; it’s one of the biggest intolerances I have. Maybe I’m being harsh and lacking grace; I don’t know.

So that’s my choice. What’s your take on the matter?

On worship, liturgy & evensong

Introduction

As promised earlier, here’s a collection of thoughts in relation to christian worship. There are a few sources for this, which I will endeavour to incorporate into this post. It began last week with a sermon at church, a copy of which is here. As is the practice in my church, the housegroup the next week looks at the same subject, but in a much more informal environment. So I will be including some of the discussion we had there into this post, as well as some discussions I had with a few Anglicans regarding evensong (which I kept incorrectly referring to as “evening song”) and my experience of attending one as part of a flashmob outside St Paul’s cathedral, at the OccupyLSX camp.

Unless otherwise stated, assume all opinions are my own. I have attempted to be as fair and representative as possible, though I doubt I have been successful in all of this. This is, for the most part, an exploration of my own thoughts and feelings on subject matter, guided by the discussions mentioned above. Any mistakes that remain are purely my fault. Please feel free to join the discussion via comments or by any response, which I will be happy to either include as a guest post, or link to if hosted elsewhere.

This has ended up quite long, though I have chosen not to break it into several posts. Instead, I have simply included headed sections to ease your navigation and break it up a little bit, if one part interests you more than any other. My hope is that you will find each section interesting enough to motivate you to read the rest.

What is worship?

Before we can look at expressions of christian worship in particular, we need to consider the general notion of worship.

One of things mentioned in the sermon is the proposition that everyone is “programmed” for worship. It might be articulated as “designed” or as an “inherent tendency.” I don’t want to worry about the semantics here; I do enough of that most of the time anyway. So when I talk about “worship” I do not always have in mind any kind of religious ceremony. Instead, I mean the prioritising of ‘something’ in your life so that the majority of your spare time & energy is devoted to the pursuit of this goal.

One thing I asked the housegroup was “What’s the first thing you do when you get home; and what does that say about you?” My idea behind this is that while we can try and bring little acts of worship into our working day, your real priorities are betrayed by what you do as soon as you get a free choice. I’m sure a case could be made to say that I worship work, given that in any given day I spend more time there than I do anywhere else. In between work and home I have my commuting which I tend to fill with reading (or occasionally a Sudoku puzzle or sleeping, depending on what sort of day I’ve had). But when I get home it’s “me time” and I have a completely free choice as to what I do. In the past, I’ve ended up watching far too much tv. I would come in, take my shoes off and put the tv on, where it would then stay on for a couple of hours until I go to bed.

I realised that this was getting in the way of my own personal time with God, whether it be reading the bible, doing any wider study and from prayer. So I took to a slightly unusual habit. When I left my house in the morning, I would put the tv remote control underneath my bible. That way, when I got home, in order to turn the tv on, I’d have to pick my bible up. This is simply a methodology I developed to deal with a self-discipline issue I had; I’m not saying everyone has that same issue, though it did seem to be common amongst those in my housegroup that the tv could be a major draw. For those that were married and/or had children, the first thing they would do would often be to talk to their families.

One way to identify what it is that you worship is to ask yourself how you view other people. If it’s money you worship, then you may see people as debtors, creditors, potential sources of future income or competitors. If it’s sex you worship, you can view people as potential partners or rivals. If it’s sports you worship, you will want to find out who else supports your team and who supports your rivals, or has no interest in your given sport(s).

Christian expressions of worship

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he answered “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt 22: 37, NRSV). Christian worship is the expression of this love. An analogy I like to use (the flaw in which will be obvious, but I hope you can see past it) is of illness. If a person has the kind of love that Jesus describes, then worship will be the symptom of that love. My own view is that there are strong parallels between this and the relation between faith and works, which is described in James. If you have faith, works inevitably follow. If you have love, worship will inevitably follow.

A point made in the sermon was that the start of worship has to be a correct understanding of God. Now this is always a lifelong process, I think. There has to be a distinction between worshipping God and worshipping our idea of God. Now I get told by various atheists quite often that I worship a magical sky fairy or a figment of my imagination. However, such views are rarely based on any level of sensible thinking, and a theology no more advanced than that rejected at Sunday school. I don’t profess to have a perfect understanding of God, but I would claim to have an understanding slightly better than such puerile jibes suggest. Personally, I am highly suspicious of anyone who would claim to have such an understanding, since one thing I am convinced of is that God is beyond human comprehension. There is a saying often applied to quantum mechanics which I think is applicable here: “If you think you’ve understood it, you haven’t.”

It is for this reason that I support the idea that all christians should be amateur theologians. This doesn’t mean we all have to talk in obscure multisyllabic words that no-one can comprehend; quite the opposite really. When I say this I mean that all christians should regularly study their bibles, challenge themselves and check what they believe against the available evidence.

So, having made our most honest attempt to understand God, and constantly revising that view as we learn and understand more, what next? Well, it’s pretty much up to you. How do you react to receiving grace and forgiveness?

On the notes provided to me for housegroup, there is a statement that, “Worship isn’t just singing songs on church it is also about our lifestyle and surrender to God. Every Godly action that comes from a surrendered heart to God is true, authentic worship.” At one point in a previous week I ended up observing a conversation I have had many times on the question of ‘is it really worship when you don’t really feel like it?’ When most christians talk about love, this is not a reference to a woolly emotion; it is a far more fundamental desire of the heart. Emotions are like the waves that kicked up by the wind that froth on the surface and are easily visible, but true love is the ocean current that is underneath, providing a far greater force, even if it’s not immediately apparent.

There’s a very famous phrase Jesus uses when talking to some of his followers in the garden of Gethsemane where he says “the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.” (Matt 26:41, Mark 14:38) As a side note, it’s interesting to note the Greek in Matthew & Mark for this phrase is identical, but in the KJV they have minor differences in the translation. Anyway, I think helps to illustrate what I have not been clear in expressing; that it is possible to worship when, on the surface, we are just too weak, either physically or emotionally, to express what our inmost being desires.

A reservation

I tried to articulate on facebook and twitter some reservations though I don’t think I worded it particularly well. When it comes to worship, a lot of very high churches make this synonymous with something known as liturgy. This is form of chanting where all the words are dictated in advance and where this is no free expression to worship from the heart. In talking to many Anglicans, they are completely perplexed by the idea of worshipping freely. I know this is disputed by some clergy friends, but their view is not backed up by the evidence I have from talking to members of the congregation. One friend I was talking too recently had been so ingrained with the idea of liturgies that he found it incomprehensible that someone could pray from the heart, making up the words as they naturally came to you. This left me wondering whether or not they were worshipping at all, or merely taking part in ritualistic religion; but it is not for me to judge.

If worship is a natural thing for a person to do, then the expression of that worship should also be natural. This may be taken to the extreme end, and Paul wrote to the church in Corinth pleading for orderly worship, as it seems the place was quite chaotic. But there is a difference between orderly worship and worship which is put in a straightjacket.

The expressions that worship take will probably be highly influenced by the society which we inhabit, along with its social norms. In the English society I inhabit, it is really very natural to sing. The X Factor is one of the most popular programmes on tv, and is mostly about singing. At a football or rugby match, the crowd will engage in singing en masse, so singing in churches shouldn’t really seem that unusual. But chanting doesn’t fit naturally into our society. The closest I could find was poetry-reading, but even then, it will only ever be one person. You don’t find poetry readings where hundreds of people adopt a monotone voice and speak in unison.

It is because of these shamanistic overtones and the dissuasion from free thinking that make me extremely uncomfortable with liturgy. Please note, this is not an objection to the words themselves; it is merely the form I have qualms about. Most that I have read are extremely truthful.

There is a second side to my reservations. I have long opposed the idea of regarding christianity as a religion. The best articulation of this comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote on the 30th of April 1944:

“…theology rests on the ‘religious a priori’ of mankind…if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless – and I think that this is already more or less the case…what does that mean for ‘Christianity’? …. how can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?”

Once we acknowledge that our society is increasingly secular, there are 2 choices christians can make. One is to become more religious, focussing on God as something disassociated from the world, or to become more secular by engaging with the relevant issues of the day that concern ordinary people. The former simply alienates the church from society, making it less and less relevant; the latter puts the church back in the public eye and allows the church to be relevant, giving it a voice with which it can then educate people about the gospel.

So anything which makes the church seem more religious or mystical, or other such objections to modernisation I view as an obstruction to the great commission.

A report from Flashmob Evensong

With those reservation noted, I was uncertain about a fairly impromptu evensong outside St Paul’s cathedral. The thinking behind it was that because, at the time, the building was shut but that this shouldn’t prevent the scheduled services from taking place.

I thought I’d have to make a decision by 6pm in order to get down to St Paul’s cathedral on time. I was talking to a couple of people of twitter about this, and one chap said he would equally uncomfortable and one chap from my church was also possibly going to go along late. The other thing that swung it was empathy for the organiser, who blogs and tweets under the name The Artsy Honker. Having organised many events where people have not turned up having said they would/might, I know how much of a kick in the teeth it is to spend time and effort organising something that turns into a damp squib. Since I hate the feeling myself, I decided to do what I could to avoid inflicting that on someone else.

The meeting place was given as “outside M&S” though when I looked on a store finder for M&S, the closest it had was London Bridge, another mile away, so I was at a bit of a loss as to where to go. St Paul’s is a pretty large building and takes a fair few minutes to walk around. I tweeted a couple of folks who were around and between us, we just about managed to meet up. I was stood immediately outside the door, and to identify myself said that I would hold a stick of celery in my hand such is my eccentric wont.

Still being decidedly uncomfortable, I tried to stay as near to the back as possible. Someone was going round giving out hymn sheets. Having grown up in a baptist church with a mixture of ancient hymns and 80s Graham Kendrick, I was able to know 3 of the 4 hymns that were to be sung. Standing in slightly the wrong place, The Artsy Honker thought I was part of the choir, and asked what I sung. I bit my tongue and resisted saying “loud and out of tune” and opted for “bass or baritone.” To be honest, my range varies depending on the song, as there are some ‘in-between’ notes that I just can’t hit. So when the hymns came along, I gave it my gusto, although trying to sing above the noise of the London traffic and general hubbub was certainly a challenge. When it came to the liturgy, I maintained a dignified silence and chose to listen and to offer my own prayers silently. It was interesting that at one point, there was a recitation of the Apostles Creed, which I have written about recently.

The reaction we got was quite encouraging. A few people approached once the singing had started and asked what was going on. So those of us at the back did our best to give a brief explanation. People came and went every few minutes, though I would estimate the core was about 25 or so people, though at times there may have been double that in attendance. I think I was the only person wearing a tie, and I’m sure I was outnumbered by those wearing dog-collars.

There were a couple of readings with one notably coming from the Apocrypha, which prompted one person to say something “[I dread to think what my dad would think if he knew we were reading from this.]” Given the very short notice, the guy who was asked to speak didn’t have time for a full length sermon, but just gave a 5 minute talk. The chap himself, I discovered, was the bishop of Buckingham. He was the opposite of your stereotypical milky tea & cucumber sandwich style vicar, although his beard was of the kind only found in high churches or some university departments.

Afterwards, a few of us went of the pub. To be precise the person who suggested it (whom I shall not name) may have wasted as much as a millisecond between the service ending and making the suggestion. We hung around for a little while first (mainly because I had to go and visit a cashpoint) but it was good to meet, if ever so briefly, a few of the folks I had only spoken to on twitter. I caught a couple of extra people there too.

One of the subjects that was discussed at the pub was the issue of “high” and “low” church. What I hadn’t realised was the extent of the difference in how various people view and define “high” and “low.” Growing up, there was something jokingly dubbed a happy-clappy scale.

An approximate scale of happy-clappyness would have a papal mass at 0 (high church), while a day at Revelation church (where you get greeted by drum n’ bass DJ in a giant old warehouse with no seats and a sound system to rival the Brixton Academy) would be 10 (low church). The church I grew up in was about a 4, although it had been a lot more charismatic when my parents joined; it just got old and conservative later on. My current church I would say is about a 7. There is the occasional dancing the aisle, the guitarists are sometimes allowed to finger-tap and there is the odd bit of clapping every now and then.

I would have put the evensong at 1 on this same scale. Yet one of the Anglicans I was talking to seemed to have a similar notion but the scaling was completely different. To them, there was a wide of liturgical-based worship, with those that use incense in a completely different class from those that don’t.

Such talk is all a bit tongue-in-cheek. I’m not suggesting that any one form is inherently superior to another; that’s not what I mean when I say have reservations. I’m sure plenty of people will have issues with some of the forms of worship that go in the more charismatic churches.

Closing word

This went on for a lot longer than intended, and there are thousands of posts more that could be said about worship. I hope if you’ve read this far you’ve found it interesting and at thought-provoking. I know my views on liturgy are not shared by all, but I hope you haven’t found it offensive, that was not my intention. Please do comment, and let me know of any response posts so I can post a link to them.

Book Review: The Didache: A window on the earliest Christians by Thomas O’Loughlin

Before I start this review, it needs to be pointed out that there are really two books here. One is the Didache itself, and the other is a book about the Didache. For purposes of clarity, I will refer to the former as the Didache and to the latter as O’Loughlin’s book.

For some reason, which I cannot fathom, the Didache itself is put at the very back of the volume, making it look more like an appendix. So I was forced to read the ending before I could start on the introduction. It is a modern English translation which is perfectly understandable and doesn’t take long to get through, as it is only 10 pages long.

For those of you have not come across this before, the Didache is a sort of handbook for new christians. Much of it will already be familiar, as some of the text is taken straight from the canonical gospels. It is not regarded as part of scriptural canon by the majority of christians, though it is a useful insight into how the early christian communities lived. From a reading of it, it is clear that it doesn’t have the theological richness which we would associate with the books we find in our modern Bibles.

So having read the text that is to be analysed, we move onto O’Loughlin’s book. He starts with the story of how it was rediscovered in the 19th century, having been lost for over 1,000 years and the only way we knew about its existence was a few references in other writings from the first few centuries of christianity.

Now while O’Loughlin does, at a few occasions, try to write with an even-handedness, his own theology and interpretation does break through, and this does sour the book somewhat. For example, while the idea of the Two Ways is a dominant theme in the Didache, O’Loughlin chooses to skip over much of this and spends a disproportionate amount of time in the book talking about the Eucharist, or communion, as most christians call it. This shows us that he takes a particularly Roman Catholic stance, and this is evidenced elsewhere by his use of other non-canonical texts as being equally authoritative as the Bible, with no delineation point discernible.

O’Loughlin’s lack of rigorous scholarship shows itself as he also advocates a few minority views and misrepresents the weight attached to these views. For example, while the gospel with the Didache is most closely paralleled is Matthew, there is some debate as to which came first: Matthew or the Didache. O’Loughlin takes the stance that it was probably the Didache which was written first, or at least that they were written at the same time. He also appears to subscribe to the ideas of the Jesus Seminar, where at one point he refers to Matthew putting words in Jesus’ mouth, seemingly dismissive of the idea that the author of Matthew might have actually been recording words that Jesus said. This lazy scholarship does mar the book somewhat, and I was surprised to see it got passed the editorial board of SPCK (the publishers) who normally have such a high standard.

So with that aside, we have try and read O’Loughlin’s book through the distortions, much like trying to do ground-based astronomy, counteracting atmospheric disturbances. What we end up with is a very low-level introduction to early christianity for those who may look at the modern strands of christendom and think that one modern denominational church basis itself on the early christians. In this manner, O’Loughlin seems to be having a go at some Catholics, where phrases are banded about such as “one true church” or who still propound the myth that Peter was the first pope (in spite of the fact that the earliest evidence for anything resembling a papacy didn’t emerge until the 6th century).

As to the date of the Didache, it seems to have not been in widespread circulation until at least the end of the first century or perhaps even the early 2nd century. No single or small group of authors is ever identified, and the Didache does seem to be a compilation derived from several sources. One of these may be the gospel of Matthew (or at the very least, the same oral tradition of which Matthew’s gospel is the written form) but also of the practices that the early christians had adopted and were looking to turn into traditions. So the Didache is much more a forerunner of modern “lifestyle christianity” books than theology, and this is why I think it is worth reading, but when measured alongside the rest of the New Testament, it falls short of the level of depth that we see elsewhere.

There are plenty of other books that put across the history of the early church much better than O’Loughlin does, and where the Didache is considered in the context of other non-canonical writings of around the same period. So I would recommend anyone read the Didache, which can be done online, though there are plenty of better books on the early church than that written by O’Loughlin.

Out of sight; out of mind – a parallel view of cigarette packets and aggressive secularism

There have been a few discussions recently concerning the future of cigarette packaging and it brought to mind my recent post on the nature of secularism. The current proposal, as I understand it, is to remove any particular branding from cigarettes and to not have them displayed in shops. The end-game, if you will allow me to jump, is to reduce the consumption of cigarettes. The idea is to make them as unappealing as possible. Now, from my own point of view, I still find it pretty hard to see why anyone would want to roll up fragments of a dried weed into a small tube of paper, stick in their mouth and set fire to one end of it. But, my own personal views on the matter aside, what I’m interested in is looking at the parallels between the government’s plan and what many Christians see as an aggressive secular agenda in society as a whole. I will also aim to point out the differences, so as to not appear scaremongering, unreasonable or to possess any other characteristic that could be considered characteristic of your average Daily Mail article. I shall attempt to lay this out in a slightly simplistic manner, though for reasons of my own clarity, rather than patronising of you, since you are almost certainly more intelligent than I am. As ever, if you think I have made any factual errors, or have misunderstood something, then please let me know; I don’t profess to be perfect!

Removal of packaging
In the smoking debate, you will need to know the name of the brand if you are to request it from a shop keeper. If you were to walk into a shop and have a browse around, then there should be no evidence of the existence of cigarettes in the shop, expect for maybe a surreptitious reach under the counter when someone else asks for them. If you see someone smoking on the street (because that’s pretty much the only public place you can do it now) then it should be something of a mystery as to where to obtain these magical fire sticks and what the difference is between one and the other.

In discussions about various religions, there is a parallel of debranding by referring to “religion” as though it is one thing, with the various different religions being merely variations on a theme. In other words it becomes acceptable to ignore the cultural, historical and revelatory nature of the origins of various beliefs and instead to speak of a post-Enlightenment master narrative whereby all religions can be considered to be some sort of mental illness. The aim of this type of discussion is to assume that all religions must, a priori, be false and to start the discussion from that point; if you start from the same position over and over again, you can kid yourself that that is the appropriate place to start from, regardless of the falsity of the proposition.

So in order for someone who is vaguely interested in one or more of the religions will, by societal conditioning, find it harder and harder to know where to start. If one religion is, on the surface presentation, essentially the same as another, then what is there to decide between them? One would have to try out various “brands” to find out what the substance is behind them. But this is a lot of effort for a speculative investment of one’s time and therefore likely to be offputting. So just at the aim with the smoking is to reduce demand for smoking, so discussions about religions as though they are part of a more or less homogenous continuum subverts the ‘real’ discussions, particularly those of comparative studies and serve the purpose of putting off people from investigating religions, thinking for themselves and coming up with their own independent conclusions on the validity of the claims of various systems of beliefs.

There are, however, differences. For one, the smoking reforms are coming from a governmental mandate, whereas as the secular agenda is far more subtle. In spite of various conservative Christians decrying an alleged anti-christian agenda within politics, I would find it extremely hard to imagine a set of circumstances whereby a similar law would be proposed, let alone passed, within the UK to “remove the packaging” from the various religions. Churches can still display crosses (whether empty or full), mosques will still be allowed to display crescent moons on top of them and synagogues will still be able to show the star of David. The closest thing to this sort of legislation being proposed anywhere that I can recall was about a year ago when Switzerland called for the banning of the building of minarets.

Removal from the shop display
In spite of this, the false perception of the homogeneity of religions still assumes that they are out there and in the public eye. At present, smoking paraphernalia is still displayed behind shop counters so that, providing you have the courage to ask for it, you can purchase the said goods. With the proposal to move cigarettes away from the shelves, we have another prong in the government attack on the demand of cigarette consumption. The idea behind it is “out of sight, out of mind.” So whilst smoking is still legal on the street and in the private home, this is a further curb at trying to push it as far out of the public mind as possible. In particular, a key demographic being targeted are the under 20s who may be considering taking up smoking as their expensive and carcinogenic habit of choice. The best way to reduce the demand for a product is to create a culture that is ignorant of its existence. While not going all the way to banning smoking, this is just one step further along that path. I don’t know if I’ll ever see smoking outlawed in this country during my lifetime, but I would be fooling only myself if I thought that this was the final measure taken by any government to reduce smoking via legislation rather than merely a health initiative.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels with certain aggressive strands of secularism which want to drive the remaining aspects of religion out of public life. For example, the British Humanist Association has an active campaign against Thought For The Day, a 5 minute religious slot in Radio 4’s The Today Programme. Every now and then, you also hear whinges about the existence of Songs of Praise taking up prime broadcasting time. Most recently there is another campaign by the BHA to try and tell people what they should put on their census forms. The underhanded trick that they have used, though, is the one of the lack of branding mentioned above. It is all about being opposed to any religion by lumping them together and saying that you are not religious. Now I am a christian, but I rarely describe myself as religious. While this may go slightly against Paul (“the mysteries of our religion”) the main use of the term in the New Testament is as a negative connotation denoting those that are bound by rules and those that do the binding as a form of political power; e.g. the Pharisees. But Christianity is not founded on this. Any ‘rules’ per se emerge from the only 2 underlying principles of “love God with all your heart, mind, soul & strength” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” Anyone who thinks Christianity is a set of rules has not understood it (see Romans 7:6 – plus the surrounding context).

Anyway, minor rant aside, the aim of the BHA census campaign, along with a poll which they commissioned to look at a smaller sample but which they nonetheless profess to be more accurate (could it possibly be because the second poll agreed with their pre-formed conclusions, perhaps?), is to drive religion out of public life. Now while I have said before that there is a fine line between a lack of religious privilege (something Martin Luther was very keen on) and the removal of the face of various faiths from the public arena. The pettiness of the Today Programme campaign shows to what extent this attempt to remove religion has. I have yet to really make up my mind on the inclusion of bishops in the House of Lords. On the whole, I lean towards not having them there, but then I would not single them out as an object of prejudice in the manner of the BHA. If any change is to be made to the Lords it needs to be wholesale and non-discriminatory. There is also the matter of how important a role they actually play. In any televised proceedings, I have not seen any bishops present, let alone speak. And I think they have rather better things to do with their time.

Yet this does differ from the smoking reforms insofar as the attempt to marginalise different faiths (and Christianity in particular) is not government-led. It is led by small, vocal, sections of society who are intolerant of those whose opinions in certain matters differ from their own. While this country has a distinct and well-evidence christian heritage, in spite of what various revisionists may claim, this is a secular state. Different faiths co-exist almost entirely peaceably with one another and faith communities lead the drive in charity and volunteering. I am happy that we don’t have a supposed theocracy, where a fallible person is appointed as an unquestionable authority acting in loco deus. But what I do not agree with are attempts to make those who practice various religions/faiths/systems of belief into social pariahs. Though ideas of freedom of expression and democracy are not inherently biblical, I don’t think there can be many of us of a liberal persuasion that disagree that they are fundamentally good things. In order for the fair balance allowing religions and beliefs to operate freely within a secular framework, there has to be an absence of privilege and prejudice in relation to these matters. It is increasingly evident that organisations like the BHA and NSS are not really acting as balanced as they would like to think they are. In the name of removing religious privilege, they are instead acting as prejudicial bodies, pandering to the phobias of their constituent members – not unlike some churches!

Conclusion
So what shall I say then? It seems clear to me (and I hope I have been clear in my written communication to you) that there are parallels between the marginalisation of smokers and those of adherents to particular belief systems. The key difference is what is the subject of official legislation and what comes about from a less clear-cut, societal pressure, epitomised by certain scaremongers with their own agenda. But underneath this there is a difference of substance. I can imagine the scoffers thinking “Ah, but one is a carcinogenic menace to society that serves only to meet an irrational craving. And the other is smoking.” In reality, and here I speak only of Christianity, the difference is of life on the one hand and death on the other, and I’d rather walk down The Way of Life.

Book Review: Why Men Hate Going To Church by David Murrow

First of all, what is this book about? It is part sociology, part church life. It is not a theological tome. The basic premise is that even though men dominate the pastoral and similar key leadership roles within church, the majorioty of the church is female-dominated and that is driving men away, thus perpetuating the problem.

In a very methodical manner, he then looks at the reasons why men don’t seem to want to go to church. That would seem obvious, given the title of the book, but thanklfully he does go further than that. He looks at what it is that fulfills men’s needs and contrasts this with what the church provides. Finally he sets about giving some practical advise on how the church ought to change in order to attract men to it.

So this is not the book for you if you think the church is fine and you want to find ways to change men to make them want to go to church. This is stresed from very early on in the book. However, if you look around your congregation and notice a lack of men, particularly those in the 18-35 age group, then this is certainly valuable reading for you. Note that this is not just a book for men to read; this has just as much in it for women to read.

We cannot pass without a few downsides, though these are relatively minor. While valiant efforts are made by Murrow to expand his viewpoint beyond american boundaries, it still retains a very american feel to it, and though, as an Englishman, I can see hints of the issues he looks at, there is a slight disparity between what he sees in american churches and what we have here in the UK. In a few places, he goes a little overboard with the statistics, even though this is not a comprehensive study. It can be easy to be blinded by statistics and at times I felt he made the same point a few too many times in a short space. And in one or two places, he does seem to single out liberals and environmentalists for some unfair criticism, thus showing his slightly right-wing politics where they don’t belong.

Practical, engaging and broken down into a very logical, readable structure, it is quite well-written and relevant to many people in many churches, though perhaps not all. As I am myself, one of those perculiar creatures of an unmarried man in my late 20s, I can guarantee I will be a rarity in most churches I set foot in. However, given the strong message promoting masculinity in quite an Ed Cole sort of manner, this is not an anti-feminist book at all. Murrow is very much about recognising an imbalance and restoring that balance rather than promoting a male-dominated church.