Archive for July, 2007

The Wheels of Rome Turn Slowly…

July 22, 2007

The wheels of Rome turn slowly but go through a full revolution. In a recent decree Pope Benedict reaffirmed what many suspected. That whilst Vatican II changed perceptions it did not in fact change the essential nature of the Catholic Church.  He affirmed that the Catholic church is the one true church established by Christ and that Vatican II does not contradict that. Although he acknowledges that other churches can be instruments of salvation. To think that Vatican II says anything else is to misinterpret it.

I appreciate this statement, although I profoundly disagree with its substance. It’s good that in a world where words are often spun to make them say anything that the interpreter wishes them to mean that someone can speak plainly. It is also good that they are prepared to promote an unpopular point of view. And, albeit tangentially, that he has spoken up on the the Christian view of the uniqueness of the salvation that is found in Jesus Christ alone.

Whilst I’m not about to defect to Rome Benedict in the form of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has in some respects I think shown us the way.  For the more I observe in terms of how the church is perceived today the more I see the need for clarity before  a watching world.  We need to wade out of the fudge and proclaim to a watching world what we believe and to do so with clarity. For there is abroad I perceive a great deal of misunderstanding concerning the essence of our faith. And this is often fostered by well meaning Christians who instead of maintaining a distinctive witness try to accomodate themselves and their message to the world.

So if I can’t quite bring myself to offer three cheers to the Pope let me at least offer a nod of approval!

Whatever Happened to Harry Potter?

July 20, 2007

Midnight rushes on and with it the launch of the final installment of the Harry Potter series. But what has happened to all those howling protests from Christians that once greeted the arrival of a new Potter? A few years back one could not move for Christians denouncing Potter for using his satanic powers to beguile our young people and draw them into satanism. However whilst the objections rumble on (Potter remains the most objected to figure in the American schools library system)  Potter bashing seems to have slipped off the agenda. Is he no longer to be regarded as satanically subversive? Or have those who make their money (quite literally) from Christian scaremongering moved onto some other target?

Now it seems that there is another way of making money out of Potter. That is by providing a more sanitised version of Potter- enter Christian fantasy fiction. This is now being promoted by both Christian and non-Christian publishers alike as they realise there is a lot of money to be made out there. These books are shaved of the offending elements in Potter- references to the occult, mild swearing, sexual awakening etc. The supernatural is made squeaky clean.

There are as far as I can see certain problems here. First of all this is not really a response to Potter but an attempt once again by the publishing industry to tap into the Christian market. Do these people really care if Christian kids are being corrupted by Potter? Secondly, the people who write this stuff, and who fancy themselves as the new CS Lewis, are not creating fantasy worlds, they are living in one. They are living in one if they think that our children do not live in a rough tough world where kids do swear, families are dysfunctional and even Christian kids face tough moral choices and often get it wrong. Part of Rowling’s great strength it seems to me- as a non-Potter reader- has been her ability to put real people into fantasy situations, rather than merely to create a fantasy world. Thirdly, where do kids go with all of this? Will they forever remain cut off from the great literature of the world because it does not reflect Christian values? Or will we allow them to grow and to mature and to develop a discerning faith that is rooted in Christ and confronts the world without retreating into shallow isolationism?

As I say I am not a Potter reader (its not at all my type of thing)  but my daughter is. she started reading it at seven and now almost fourteen is still as enthusiastic about i- and she has introduced my wife to Potter. They both await midnight with a sense of anticipation. Does their reading of Potter mean they have been drawn to the occult? Not at all. Do either of them love God less because of Potter? No. Has it led either of them to trivialise the power of evil in our world or the work of Satan? No. What they have both enjoyed have been the strong characterisations, the message of the importance of friendship, the humour and the plot sprawled across seven volumes.

It seems to me that those who harangue the occult setting of Potter miss the point- that such things are incidental to the books rather than their core message. I have often discovered across the years that those who have shouted most loudly about the occult and seen Satan’s hand everywhere have been precisely the people who have been least aware of the subtle and powerful warfare of Satan in their own lives. Jesus it appears to me has much more to say about the dangers hypocrisy, worldliness, greed, and envy than people being drawn into the occult.

Grace in the life of Jacob

July 16, 2007

I have been reading again Geerhardus Vos’ Biblical Theology and thoroughly enjoying it. I have just finished the section on the life of Jacob. What struck me most about Jacob was the abundance of god’s grace in his life. How God called him rather than Jacob showing his grace and establishing Jacob, as Paul shows us in Romans, as the paradigm for predestination. How Jacob’s vision of the angels ascending and descending the ladder- Vos says the order is important!- reminded Jacob of God’s providence in his life. And of course that wonderful mysterious wrestling match where God deals with Jacob so graciously.

The other great thing that struck me form the point of view of preaching the life of Jacob was how important it is to keep God at the centre of our message. If you like the story of Jacob is not about Jacob but about God’s great plan of redemption. The danger is that if we keep Jacob at the centre then we preach the passage and apply it by substituting ourselves for Jacob. When, to borrow from one of Dick Lucas’ preaching instructions, ‘Its not about you silly!’

I’m reminded also of DR Davis advice that if we keep God at the centre of preaching narrative we’ll not go far wrong in our interpretation.

Faith in a Blanket

July 15, 2007

My grandmother was one of a large family- about a dozen as I recall, although I only ever knew four of them. One of her brothers, was dying, and she urged him to put his faith in Jesus. However, like many, despite being brought up in church he could not quite grasp the idea of faith. He told her he would love to become a Christian but just could not quite grasp the concept of faith.

As he lay dying in his bedroom upstairs he had one great desire and that was that he could just once more go downstairs and sit by the fire. His brother offered to take him down but he found the prospect too frightening as he was in such pain. His brother said that he and my grandfather would carry him downstairs in a blanket. He eventually agreed. But he sought reassurance throughout the short journey from bedroom to sitting room, ‘Are you sure you won’t drop me?’ Gently they carried him down. And once he was downstairs he said to my grandfather, ‘Tell Nancy(my grandmother), I now know what faith is.’ He died not long after that.

As helpless he put his trust in others to carry him and not let he fall God opened his eyes to see the very essence of faith. That in our helplessness we trust completely in Jesus to do all for us that he has promised in his word. That able to do nothing for ourselves he is able to save us completely. As JC Ryle once noted the only thing we contribute to our salvation is the sin from which we need to be saved.

Christian Authenticity

July 12, 2007

I heard Tim Keller speak at the recent Evangelical Ministers Assembly in London. The theme of the conference was ‘Defining the Times:What is an Evangelical.’ If you were not there get hold of the recordings as his talks were excellent. He was wise, gracious and had a real cutting edge.

Given the theme and its current profile the Emergent Church movement was mentioned on several occasions. I was especially struck by one comment of Keller’s. That the emergent church in its quest to be relevant and authentic had undermined the gospel of penal substitution and in doing so it was in fact cutting people off from the simplicity of the gospel. Keller noted that for those who are broken by sin the message of grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ alone was one that they understood. But one that was being obscured in the emergent church movement with its emphasis on the kingdom.

Another of his key themes was that of the need for repentance in the Christian life, echoing the first of Luther’s 97 theses. That the whole of the Christian life is one of repentance. That even our repentance needs repented of! I was reminded through this theme, as with other EMA addresses that what our world cries out for is not our attempts to be relevant but our need to be real. What we truly need in our day is Christian authenticity.

As John Chrysostom, the 4th century bishop, once remarked, ‘There would be no more heathen if we would be true Christians.’

When Christians were Atheists

July 10, 2007

Polycarp was a Christian Bishop in Smyrna (which is in modern Turkey). He was martyred for his faith about 155 AD. At his trial before the Roman Proconsul he was asked to swear an oath to Caesar, revile Christ and thus to repudiate atheism. He made the rather moving reply ‘Fourscore and six years have I been serving him, and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?’ He was put to death for his refusal to repudiate Christianity, which the Romans called atheism.

It was it seems not uncommon for Christians to be accused of atheism in these early decades. The accusation is itself instructive about the nature of Christianity. In the first instance we see that from the outset it repudiated pluralism. Secondly, it viewed itself as self-consciously arising from a different source than other religions.

The contemporary idea that is trotted out that all religions are the same and arise from the same common psychological need do not fit well with the nature of early Christianity and the distinctive beliefs of those early Christians- nor indeed authentic Christianity today.

Atheism and Intellectual Integrity

July 1, 2007

I have sometimes mulled over how far atheism is a position of intellectual integrity. A quote from Carl Sagan in the Washington Post has made me think about this again. Sagan, the great cosmologist of distinctive voice and, I believe, no particular friend of Christianity once remarked, “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know.” Now here is what makes me think about the intellectual integrity of atheism. Agnosticism I understand- there may be a divine being but we cannot know for sure. Atheism- that there is no God I find more difficult to understand. For does not atheism presuppose the omniscience of the atheist? That he has indeed sufficient knowledge to conclude that there is beyond doubt no God? Is agnosticism not a much more intellectually defensible question?

The current tend towards militant atheism makes me question its intellectual integrity still further. If God does not exist why is that not clear to all who have sufficient education? Why has belief not collapsed? Why the militancy and ‘yah boo’ derision of belief as opposed to sane argument for atheism? Or is it a case of argument weak shout loudly?

Finally if atheists refuse to take seriously arguments for belief is it not a case that they too have closed minds just as surely as the religionists they decry? Is not agnosticism the more intellectually defensible position?

Again I must go back to the Bible and agree with the words of the Psalms which state, ‘the fool has said in his heart there is no God.’