Tuesday, October 31, 2006


My number one piece of advice to people studying academic theology at doctrinally mixed or liberal universities is to read good evangelical commentaries on the relevant passages. I find here a good place for recommending evangelical commentaries on books, though I disagree with some of their selections.

A while ago, I was asked about the NIV Application Commentaries series. I've recently had occasion to skim quite a lot of commentaries, and I can make the following points:

  • They're probably more consistently solid as a series than Tyndale (or even BST). Some of that is down to the format. On the other hand, I don't think there's anything spectacularly amazing in the series - I think that's also down to the format.
  • They're not heavyweight in terms of textual stuff, translation issues, etc but they do mention them. A few of them are shortened versions of other stuff in print (e.g. Smith's very good commentary on Amos).
  • They're ok at applications (better than Tyndale / BST) - they probably make it a lot easier to preach a decent sermon on a passage, but not much easier to do an excellent one

Intellectual Honesty

I'm currently at a Church of England theological college in Oxford. One of the things that really struck me when I moved here was the intellectual honesty of the place.

I'm used to people thinking through issues, but then trying to make their position look stronger than it is by using arguments that don't really work, and if they're really honest, they know don't really work. That's certainly true on both sides in the women bishops debate; it's certainly true on both sides in the creation / evolution debate; it's certainly true on both sides when arguing about the existence of God. To be honest, it's part of the reason I quit taking sides in the 144-hour creation / 14 Gy creation debate (unless anyone is arguing their case more strongly than is tenable, in which case I sometimes try to argue them more into the centre).

That doesn't seem to happen anywhere near as much here though, especially among the staff. It's a real challenge for me as well - although I really don't like it when others do it, I know I still occasionally use arguments I know aren't solid. So I'm trying to stop doing that.

Here's a challenge for readers of this blog. You try doing the same. Try being honest with yourselves and with other people about when your position is solid and when it's not, about when arguments work and when they don't really work but you like the conclusion anyway.

One of the people who posts comments on this blog gave me a really funny example of this with a modified version of the old (and hideously flawed) so-called Argument from Evil, which he described as an "irrefutable disproof of God". I'll assume he was being humourous and self-deprecating by deliberately hugely overstating his case with a very poor argument. But if he'd been doing that seriously (which I'll assume he wasn't), and if I was observing, I'd think that he was desperate for arguments for his position if that was the best he could come up with.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Growing Up

Here's a wonderful rant from the Telegraph that I somehow missed last week. Here are some highlights:

The plain fact is that you are being treated like a baby. You, I, all of us are on the receiving end of a sustained campaign to infantilise us: our tastes, our responses, our behaviour, our private thoughts, our decisions, our buying habits, our philosophies, our political sensibilities.

My grandfather was born in 1888 and he didn't have a lifestyle. He didn't need one: he had a life.

I suspect that my grandfather's life was real in a sense that my father's life hasn't quite been, and my life is not at all.

We live on a diet of shadows, and we can only imitate them, stuck in the playpen, waiting to be distracted.

Mistrust anything catchy, whether it's the Axis of Evil, advertising slogans, or blatant branding ('New Labour'). Catchiness exists to prevent thought and to disguise motive. Grown-ups can think for themselves.

Watch our language. Is there really much difference between a six-year-old in a fright-wig and his father's waders shouting 'I'm the Mighty Wurgle-Burgle-Urgley-Goo' and an ostensible grown-up demanding to be called 'Tony Blair's Respect Tsar'?

Many thanks to Dr Albert Mohler, who seems to be very good at spotting these things in the UK press, despite being 1) very busy and 2) American.

It's also worth pointing out that the rant is actually trying to sell the book Big Babies by Michael Bywater, from which it was taken.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

God and Canaanite Religion

A long time ago I read a controversial book (well, I've read quite a few of them) called Eternity in their Hearts by Don Richardson. The book had three big ideas in, which all seemed very controversial in different ways, but all of which were well argued. Richardson's ideas were:

  • God was often to be found in pagan religions as the god underlying their pantheons
  • Before the time of Jesus, followers of some religions, if they truly sought after God (as present in their religion) could therefore be saved in much the same way that Melchizedek (for example) was saved
  • God has placed things in pagan religions to point people to Jesus

To be honest, I quite liked all three ideas, but officially suspended judgement on their truth until I had more knowledge of the topics. Now seems to be that time, at least for the first idea.

The Bible tells us (Exodus 6:3) that God did not reveal himself by the name "Yahweh" until Moses, but he revealed himself by the name "El" (or its various compounds, especially "El Shaddai") to Abraham and his descendants. But Genesis was obviously compiled by someone after that, so the name Yahweh does get used a fair bit. There's plenty of evidence though that the original stories in Genesis were from before 1500BC though, even though the final compilation might not have been until 1000BC or later.

However, "El" was not just a name plucked out of nowhere. At the time of Abraham, El was the chief god in the Canaanite pantheon. Abraham, having grown up in Mesopotamia, would have been familiar with him by the name "Il", which is the Mesopotamian version. So when God revealed himself to Abraham as "El", Abe would have thought it was the top god in the local pantheon speaking to him.

We get more evidence of this in Genesis 14. Abraham meets a guy called Melchizedek who is priest of El Elyon (which was at the time a kind of title for El), and they clearly recognise that they worship the same god.

It does look very much as if Abraham is a monolatrist (worshipping only one god, even if he recognises that others might exist). Certainly, later on, the worship of other gods from the Canaanite pantheon, particularly Asherah (thought to be El's consort) and Ba'al (El's son, who later became the dominant god in Canaanite worship) was pretty heavily opposed.

So what was God doing revealing himself as a god within the Canaanite pantheon? Well, Richardson's thoughts were that since the Bible tells us we are all descended from people who did worship God (like Noah), that the memory of worshipping God would have been carried down through cultures, even though they might later pick up other gods round the edges (and in later Canaanite religion, these later gods like Ba'al eventually displaced the original El).

The idea is certainly also implicit within the way that the Bible gets translated into other langauges, particularly the word "God". Translators tend to look into the historical religion or mythology of an area, and they almost always find that there is one original god, who is seen as being uncreated and who made all the other gods and stuff, even if he's now only a footnote. And that's usually what they pick to translate "God" as.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Reading Week

This is officially my college half term and reading week.

I'm doing a university course, not a college one. Reading week therefore means for me:

  • fewer friends around, coz they've gone away
  • less support in terms of college services and so on
  • slight frustration beforehand with quite a few people saying "what are you doing on the holiday next week?"
  • just the same amount of work
  • realising I'd much rather do it this way because I'm finding it hard enough to keep going now - with a week off I'd have an adrenaline crash and it would take too long to get back up to speed
  • less time wasted in silly meetings
  • God is still good :o)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Approaches to Old Testament History

For those interested in more academic theology, I've put a few thoughts on my other blog about different people's approaches to Old Testament history.

Approaches to Old Testament History

I've been spending much of this term so far studying Old Testament history. And one of the interesting things has been the range of different approaches people take to it. Here's a quick guide from three weeks of studying it...

The Fundamentalist Approach

The first approach, which I'll label "fundamentalist" is to say that the historical sections of the Old Testament (Genesis - Esther or Job, + bits in the prophets) are intended, at least in part, to communicate history accurately and that they do so truthfully. There are loads of people who think like this out there in the world, but their main function in academia seems to be being used as a stereotype so other people can dismiss what the Bible says.

An example of this would be saying that Israel conquered the Promised Land by invading with a huge army, killing all the inhabitants fairly quickly, destroying all their cities and settling down and living there, and we'd expect archaeology to back that up. If that isn't what the archaeologists say, then they've obviously got it wrong.

There have been a few academics like this, but I don't know any current ones who teach Old Testament.

The Evangelical Approach

Another approach is to say that the Bible is true, but in a more nuanced sense. So the Old Testament narrative books do provide true descriptions of what actually happened, but that isn't necessarily their main agenda. They are very selective, often one-sided, often polemical.

Archaeology can then help us understand some details of what happened, how the writers were being selective, and hence help us to see the point they were making with the details they included. If there are discrepancies between archaeology and what the Bible says, they might be due to us getting bits of archaeology wrong, or they might be due to us getting our understanding of the Bible wrong, and we'd need to do work at both to see what actually happened.

This is pretty much my point of view, and there are some academics like this as well, but not that many...

The "Believing Academic" Approach

A more common approach among academics seems to be the idea that archaeology, etc is our primary source of knowledge about the events in the Old Testament. The Bible may have some factual errors, or may be changing details to make a point. Some books might be fictionalised retellings of what actually happened.

On the other hand, this approach can still be held by Christians, and often is within Old Testament studies. Some might say, for example, that the story in the book of Joshua is a story told by the Israelites about how they came to be in the Promised Land, though actually the reality was different - a few people who might well have left Egypt and one of whom might have been called Joshua, entered the land, bringing the religion of Yahwism and sparked some kind of revolt, which then led to at least a hundred years of fighting between small groups of revolters and the established order.

My reaction, though, is that this approach comes from being (epistemologically at least) an academic first and a Christian second - running Christianity as software within an academic operating system, so that the academia undergirds, permeates and changes the Christianity. That might be completely wrong and unfair, but it's how I read the situation.

The "Neutral Academic" Approach

Another common viewpoint seems to be that of the "neutral academic" (but no-one is really neutral). They'd tend to say that while the historical interpretations of the evangelical are possible, the more likely interpretation is that given by archaeology or by attempting to take the Bible texts apart in various different ways. In practice, their reconstructions of history are often pretty similar to the "believing academic" ones, except that "neutral" academics often completely discount the possibility of miracles, which isn't very neutral at all.

What they are "neutral" on, however, is the importance of the Biblical text. Sometimes they'll say it's useful, sometimes they won't or will say it reflects reality at the time of writing, which they'll put at 700 years after the event, usually because they've rejected miracles and predicting the future or something. Some might say that the Bible is roughly as useful for talking about history as the film Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.

I can see where people with this sort of view are coming from - they are trying to investigate the history of ancient Israel the same way as they'd go about investigating any other history. The big problem is that Israel is pretty much unique in the world in having a written account which has been passed down as Scripture through a community (rather than through being buried in the ground or through libraries of people who thought it was an interesting but largely irrelevant document) for at least 2500 years (and bits of it 3500 years). And it's really difficult to know therefore how reliable it is as history. Well, they're happy that it's fairly reliable back to about 1000BC, but from there back to Abraham (sometime 2000-1500BC) is more difficult to gauge.

The main reason I think it's reliable before that is that Jesus is God, so he's in a position to know, and he treated it like it was pretty reliable. But if other people don't agree that Jesus was God, I don't see why they should treat it as reliable.

The "Liberal Academic" Approach

This approach seems to have as one of its prior assumptions that what the Bible seems to say is inaccurate in almost every possible respect. They then try constructing an alternative scenario which bears as little resemblence as possible to the Biblical one, but which tries to explain how the Bible came to say what it did. Sometimes they do this on the basis of no evidence whatsoever.

For example, the classic "liberal academic" approach to the question of what Abraham believed is that he must have been a polytheist (or a tribe of polytheists) who worshipped a whole load of gods (using all the different things God is called in Genesis as the names for these gods). They'd also say that "the God of Abraham", "the God of Isaac" and "the God of Jacob" are three different gods, and that the authors / editors of Genesis (over 1000 years later) messed about with it to combine all these different gods to make them look like one god, but somehow keeping all the different names.

In many cases, the conclusions of the liberal academic arguments have since been shown to be complete rubbish, or at least not to fit with any of the archaeological evidence either. To me that would indicate that their approach is flawed, but a lot of their arguments are still thought of as the "orthodox" approach in academia.

The Dangers of Labels

It is of course a very dangerous thing to label people - I've tried only to label points of view here, and that because I think it's worth distinguishing them. In reality, people are probably much more nuanced than I've presented them.

So What?

Whether someone takes the first or second (or indeed third) approach to history might not make much difference to the way that they preach a passage or on the significance of the passage for the hearers. (Yes, there are clearly some examples where it would make a big difference).

But I think in a way the biggest difference is over the confidence that we can have in the Bible. If people are going into studying theology (or reading quite a bi of theology stuff) believing the "fundamentalist" approach, and not aware of the "evangelical" approach (and there are plenty of people like that) then their reaction to some of the stuff they come across will either be to reject it outright (which is bad) or to lose confidence in the truth of the Bible (which is disasterous). I, for one, am very grateful that people explained to me stuff like non-linear storytelling before I arrived.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Dawkins Again

Here's a very interesting video clip with Richard Dawkins being "interviewed" on American TV. So many questions spring to mind...

  • What kind of dumb programme is that? The host seemed to spend more time high-fiving members of the audience than he did interviewing Dawkins. He (the host, not Dawkins) also appears to be a few cans short of a six-pack.
  • What on earth is Dawkins doing appearing on a programme like that, especially when he refuses to debate McGrath? Is he trying to reinforce his stereotypes of Christians as stupid or something? (possibly he's trying to appear intelligent)
  • What does it say about the quality of both people when they just stoop to insulting one another?
  • I note the programme was on Comedy Central. Were any bits of that funny? (I honestly can't see the humour there...)
  • Why does Dawkins say it's not due to random chance? "Darwinian natural selection is the exact opposite of random chance." Ummmm... I thought the mutation had to be random...
  • "Nothing in nature looks random" - really, even nuclear decay?
  • I'm not sure about the natural / artifical distinction Dawkins makes.
  • "That's just so easy. If God is outside time, you can explain anything." Well, quite. What's wrong with being easy?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The God Delusion? - Alister McGrath

These are my notes on Rev Prof McGrath's talk on Richard Dawkins' latest book. Any mistakes are mine, but I will often refer to my perception of McGrath's views without clarifying that that is what they are. I'll try to make it clear where stuff is my own thought, and think it worth noting that I don't agree 100% with what I think McGrath said - it's more like 95%. Much of what he said was of course recapping his earlier work in this book.


McGrath noted that Dawkins had, over time, become incresingly atheistic in his writings, and that at the same time, he had become decreasingly scientific. So at the start of his writing career, he wrote the brilliant The Selfish Gene, but his latest offer The God Delusion is not up to his usual standard. McGrath even said later that he did not think that Dawkins' new book read as if it was written by a scientist, as it tended to rubbish opponents rather than using evidence.

McGrath then pointed out that although Dawkins claims that science "has disproved religion", this is an exceptionally ambitious claim since there is not a generally agreed definition of "religion". McGrath then spent most of the time addressing Dawkins' arguments against God, centred around his claim that science had made religion redundant.

Who Created the Creator?

Dawkins argues that invoking a creator simply leads to infinite regress - who created the creator, who created her, etc?

McGrath countered by pointing out that the holy grail for science is a Grand Unified Theory, which would itself explain everything yet must necessarily remain unexplained. It is therefore universally accepted that an irreducible is necessary, so Dawkins' argument fails.

Real Scientists Don't Believe in God

So how come so many scientists disagree? Surveys show a stable proportion of 40% theistic, 20% agnostic, 40% atheistic for career scientists.

McGrath also cited Steve Jay Gould's claim that science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God - that nature itself does not impose either a Christian or an atheist framework on our interpretation of the data.

Faith is Belief in Spite of the Evidence

McGrath countered this firstly by observing that many of Dawkins' own assertions about religion were beliefs without evidence. He then went on to speak about his own conversion - how he had become a Christian, from being a militant atheist, largely because of evidence and reason. Furthermore, he cited C.S. Lewis and John Polkinghorne, among others, who used reason as evidence for Christianity. He quoted Lewis - "I believe in Christianity as I believe the Sun has risen, not just because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."

McGrath then pointed out that atheism itself is faith. Science does not prove or disprove God, so anything except agnosticism requires going beyond the scientific evidence.

A belief in God is the result of a virus of the mind

McGrath noted that it was a particularly vivid image, especially in terms of values. He also noted that Dawkins is making less use of it than he used to, but that Dawkins needs a reason for people believing in God.

He then addressed it by pointing out that we can see and examine real viruses. Further, Dawkins claims that irrational ideas count as viruses of the mind, but not rational ones. However, that is ultimately a subjective distinction!

On questioning, McGrath clarified his comment about viruses of the mind not being visible in terms of needing to examine whether or not it was a valid description of the spread of ideas - it is not clearly "something" in the way that a physical virus is.

Memes - believing because it is effective

McGrath pointed out that the gene / meme analogy is very tenuous and is now generally rejected in science and cultural anthropology, principally because the development of ideas seems to be far more Lamarckian than Darwinian (i.e. with intent). On the other hand, Dawkins remains committed to cultural Darwinism, and treats the idea as if everyone accepts it to be true. With genes, there is no other way of explaining the evidence. With memes, there are other ways that work much better.

Since there is no God, there has to be a natural explanation

McGrath considered Dawkins' claim that we are psychologically predisposed to believe in God, an idea which goes back at least to Feuerbach's argument that God was invented as a projection of our desire.

First he pointed out that traditional Christian doctrine also says that people are predisposed to believe in God. Using the analogy of a glass of water, McGrath pointed out that just because we want something, doesn't mean it is there, but neither does it mean that it isn't there.

He then highlighted how the desire for autonomy in the 18th century was a key factor in the development of modern atheism, and hence that the argument cuts equally both ways.

He also pointed out how frequently Dawkins uses "might" and "maybe" when discussing this area - highlighting that it is conjectural. In the questions afterwards, McGrath did discuss briefly some of the issues in neurology and so on, concluding that the issue would probably need to be revisited by both sides in 20 years' time.

Religion Causes Violence - 9/11, 7/7, etc. To get rid of violence, we need to get rid of religion

There is a narrow line between getting rid of religion, and getting rid of religious people....

McGrath pointed to the work of Paik on suicide bombing, showing that religion is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for suicide bombers, but that there seeemed to be a very strong correlation with people groups who felt oppressed and that there was no other way of changing society.

He also agreed that sometimes violence is caused by religion, but pointed to the Amish reaction to the recent shootings as an example showing that it was not typical. He mentioned in passing Dawkins' dismissal of the Amish... He then went on to point out that violence arises from anything that people regard as important and gave the example of the transcendentalisation of human values at the time of the French Revolution. He also asked the simple question as to which issue would be most likely to cause a violent riot in Oxford today, with the answer of Animal Rights. It therefore seems to be an aspect of human nature that is the underlying cause of violence, rather than religion per se.

McGrath also pointed to institutional atheism's somewhat spectacular record when it comes to violence, which Dawkins dismisses offhand. He gave the particular example of Stalin...

Religion leads to gross impoverishment - delusion, danger to society, etc

Here, McGrath accused Dawkins of cognitive bias - that he airbrushes out all the good bits of religion and the bad bits of atheism, and reiterated the point that Dawkins was now less effective as an apologist for atheism than he was 10 years ago. The term "atheist fundamentalist" was used quite a few times, and it was pointed out that Dawkins now seemed to be being disavowed even by intelligent atheists.

Other questions

A variety of questions were asked afterwards (this was a meeting for postgrads at Oxford). They included:

Asking about whether Dawkins had read the Bible. McGrath wasn't sure but cited some examples which suggested a near complete lack of knowledge or comprehension - "Paul's Letter to the Hebrews", and not being aware of the parable of the Good Samaritan or the importance to Christian ethics of loving enemies.

Another questioner highlighted Dawkins' use of sources - specifically quoting Luther hugely out of context with quotes that appeared to be copied and pasted from the web.

McGrath was also asked about why there was no evidence for the existence of God cited in Dawkins' God. His response was that that was not the aim of the book, his aim being solely to critique Richard Dawkins' view of God. Actually, that was one of the things that really made me think that McGrath was far more concerned about the truth than about being right. Most Christians would have taken the opportunity to talk about God - McGrath seemed content merely to discuss Dawkins' views.

He was then asked why he believed in God, and he replied that it wasn't because of science, and he did not think there were any knockdown arguments for the existence of God. Instead, he said that it was because Christianity seemed to make more sense of the universe than atheism, that it was real in that it had the capacity to transform, specifically to give reasons for living and hope, as well as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

He was also asked about his views on creation / evolution. He replied that he saw Darwinian evolution as plausible, but not necessarily true. The key point, according to McGrath, was that atheism is not built into Darwinianism - it works equally well using a doctrine of divine providence instead.

Halloween Choice

Quick heads up and link to Halloween Choice, which is campaigning for a wider range of products to be available at Halloween.

And on a site front - I know all the graphics have gone. I'll get them back next time I have half an hour free and at my computer...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

McGrath v Dawkins - live

Last night I went to a talk by Alister McGrath about Richard Dawkins' latest book. Dawkins had been invited too so they could have a debate, but as is his usual style, he declined.

McGrath was generally very good - most of his points were the same as in his book on Dawkins, with a few changes reflecting Dawkins' slight changed to his argument.

I could do a write up of McGrath's talk - I made fairly extensive notes - let me know if you want that.

Here are a few things I thought were interesting though:

  • McGrath comes across as being far more interested in the truth than in being right. He's quite happy to admit when Dawkins has a good argument and some of the good work Dawkins has done. He's also willing to admit when he doesn't know something. Neither does he push for knockdown arguments - he's much happier just showing that Dawkins' claims don't work
  • Dawkins seems to be heading more and more into what McGrath calls an "atheistic fundamentalism" - his books are getting less and less scientific and more and more anti-religious polemical
  • Dawkins seems more interested in point scoring than in the truth. For example, his assertion that atheists don't do nasty stuff like religious people do. Has the man never heard of Stalin or Mao?

ETA - I've added my notes on the debate here.

Monday, October 16, 2006

College Quotes

Here are (paraphrases of) a couple of the more interesting / scary quotes from people I've been chatting to in the last week or so at college:

It's odd, you know, I think "Wow, [insert name of college here], bright hope for the future of the Church of England". But then I look around, and it's like, us."

And yes, I know that inasmuch as there is hope for the future of the C of E, it's God, not us.

Before I was a Christian, I had a load of Muslim friends who used to talk to me a lot about their faith. So I started looking into Islam, but I realised that their idea of God is exactly the sort of thing I'd have come up sitting in an armchair for fifteen minutes, so it couldn't possibly be true.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Terry Pratchett - Thud

A bit of light reading...

I think this is actually one of Terry Pratchett's better books - he tries taking on the whole area of racial and religious stereotyping and tensions, in his usual style, and does a fairly good job of it.

I think this is better than the average Terry Pratchett book because:

  • He seems to handle the tension better
  • I laughed a fair bit (which isn't always true with his books)
  • Dealing with serious issues as well

Saturday, October 14, 2006


Here's a conversation that's happened several times (almost verbatim) with me today:

[Me] That's / this will be the second time I've matriculated here
[Them] When was last time?
[Me] 2000, when I was going my PGCE
[Them] But you shouldn't (have to) matriculate twice
[Me] Yeah, I know. But I couldn't be bothered arguing

Oh, and today doesn't feel like a day off (because of aforementioned matriculation, and some Greek learning that I might as well do while I'm in a work-related frame of mind).

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Lifestyle Persecution

On Sunday, I was having a discussion with some other Christians about what persecution looks like in the UK. In some countries it's easy to spot - taking part in a Christian act of worship is punishable with the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, for example. In Sudan, the army seem to be waging a war against tribes in the south, largely because they are Christians. In China, leaders of churches that don't agree to comply with all of the government's ideas are routinely imprisoned, in many countries families hold funeral services for relatives who become Christians because it is better to think of them dead than Christian. I could go on.

But what does it look like in the UK?

Of course, in some ways it's less significant. I've been a Christian publically for longer than I've been a Christian privately, and only rarely have I been attacked for it. I've had stones thrown at me for it a couple of times and a bit of verbal abuse, but nothing serious.

But in a way that makes it more dangerous. Because we often don't notice the persecution, we don't realise that it is persecution, so we give in to it. We deny our faith rather than face it, because we have got so inculturated with it, sometimes we even think the persecution is right.

What is this persecution?

Two words: professionalism and ostracism.

The idea of professionalism seems to be responsible for quite a bit. For example, when I was training to be a teacher, lots of Christian teachers assured me that it was unprofessional to speak to the pupils about my faith. But my faith is a part of me - it's actually a very big part of me! Following Jesus isn't meant to be about 90 minutes every Sunday - it's meant to be a life-transforming relationship. We aren't meant to compartmentalise our lives and say "this is the Christian bit". All of our lives are meant to be given to God's service.

Don't get me wrong, I think professionalism is really important. When I was teaching, I tried to do the best job I could, to help the pupils learn physics as well as possible and get the best marks they could get. But that doesn't say anything about whether or not I should share my faith with pupils. If one of my colleagues was passionate about rock music, or about the Galapagos islands or something, I'd expect their pupils to know it and I'd expect them to talk about it to their pupils as part of the relationism that good teaching is based on. Ditto with Jesus.

But all too often, Christians are scared of being thought unprofessional and chicken out. They give in to the persecution.

Ostracism - same kind of idea. We're scared of people ignoring us or taking the mick. So we go along with the crowd. Maybe we draw lines and don't get plastered or sleep with everyone we can. But we still shy away from sharing our faith, because we're scared of being ostracised.

Christians, look. If Christians in Sudan can cope with being killed by the thousand for their faith, I'm sure you can cope with people taking the mick or thinking you unprofessional or not speaking to you.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Presuppositions and Miracles

One of the things that's coming up quite a bit at the moment in discussions and lectures is the presuppositions that we bring when we come to look at a text.

For example, there are plenty of accounts of Jesus performing miracles.

If someone looks at them with the presupposition that miracles can't happen, they will have to conclude that the account should not be taken at face value, but is either untrue or is using metaphor in some sense to communicate that truth. That's actually an underlying principle behind a lot of modern liberal theology.

They'll look at a passage from the Old Testament, for example, and notice that it has some straightforward historical accounts (which can frequently be verified archaeologically) and a scene where an angel turns up and does something. They'll then conclude that the passage they're reading is actually a composite made by combining a genuine historical document with a fictional account with angels in or something.

On the other hand, a Christian (me, for instance) could read the passage and say “Historical events, yep. Angel appearing, fine. No worries.”

I've got some sympathy with the liberals here. I think they're wrong, and often far too arrogant in stating their position, but I understand where they're coming from.

It looks the same as we might do with the Iliad. The Iliad is a long poem by Homer, about the Greeks attacking and capturing Troy. And again, the Greek gods do a fair bit of stuff. People used to think the account was totally fictional, until some archaeologist with a name like Schliemann or something discovered the ruins of Troy. So what classical historians do now is they try to keep the story, but take all the god-bits out of it. And it's reasonably possible to do – it turns out that the god bits are mostly back story – and you can end up with a story a lot like the one in the film Troy, except with the gay sex bits kept in.

So if that's ok with the Iliad, why isn't it ok with the Bible? The difference is in the role the “supernatural” bits play in the story. In the Iliad, the gods are mostly used to explain motivations (when there could have been other ones), to give ideas to people (which they could have had anyway) and so on. In the Bible, God does much more than that. He doesn't just slightly influence the course of battles, he strikes all of one side dead before the battle starts. He parts rivers to let people through. He brings people who have died in a very real, public and verifiable sense back to life. The Iliad can be rewritten without the god-stuff as the story of a great military victory, which it would make sense to write poems about. Without Jesus' miracles and rising from the dead, there isn't anything special about him for the whole religion to have started around.

So if we look at the Bible with the presupposition that supernatural events don't happen, what we are left with is an impossible puzzle. In the early apostles, we have a group of people who were clearly in a position to know what had happened, claiming not just that there were everyday events to which they attached a supernatural significance, but where the events themselves could only be explained supernaturally and where the events have a significance which is deeply uncomfortable.

It also raises the question as to what the correct presupposition is when we are looking at an alleged supernatural event, and I think I can explain this with reference to science.

Scientists argue about whether cold fusion is possible. Pretty much all serious scientists agree that it hasn't happened, most think that it can't happen either. But that doesn't stop people trying (mostly because it could make whoever discovered it very rich indeed). Suppose that someone claims that they've managed to achieve cold fusion, and that I, as a scientist, am asked to investigate.

What should I assume? Should I go in assuming that cold fusion is impossible, and whatever evidence comes up, keep on believing that it's impossible? No – what would be the point of either asking me to investigate or me investigating? I'd just conclude that it hadn't happened, whether or not I could come up with another explanation.

What I should assume is that it might be possible, and then look at the claims and at alternative explanations.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Quote about consciousness of sin

Never let us be discouraged with ourselves; it is not when we are conscious of our faults that we are the most wicked: on the contrary, we are less so. We see by a brighter light. And let us remember, for our consolation, that we never perceive our sins till He begin to cure them.
Francois Fenelon (1651-1715)

more quotes

Monday, October 09, 2006

Being Taught

One of the things I'm spending my time doing at the moment is learning Greek (as written around the Eastern Mediterranean in the 1st century AD). That's good fun, but in a way very odd.

Lectures aren't too bad. OK, I've not been to many in the last few years, but I very rarely gave them. But sitting in a room with 12 other pupils and a teacher, who then proceeds to teach, is very odd, because I've done that as a teacher as well.

It's odd for several reasons:

  • I'm automatically picking up on the various teaching skills he uses (and sometimes wish he wouldn't always give me difficult questions)
  • I'm now going away and doing homework after setting and marking so much of it, so I get more of an idea of why people sometimes don't get full marks, etc
  • I'm a lot more conscious of what I'm doing and why, I understand some of the odd advice (like doing bits of Greek every day rather than just spending the morning on it) better
  • seeing how I've changed as a pupil in the 10 years or so since I last had to do something like this. I'm probably less of a perfectionist, but much better at taking the long view. I'm not aiming to get 100% on every test and piece of work; I'm aiming to get fluent.
  • bits of Latin grammar keep popping into my head. At least once, I've been asked to translate some English into Greek and the Latin version has just appeared...

Friday, October 06, 2006

Song - See His Love

Sang this song recently, and it really stuck in my head.

Verse 1:
See His love nailed onto a cross
Perfect and blameless life given as sacrifice
See Him there all in the name of love
Broken yet glorious, all for the sake of us

This is Jesus in His glory
King of Heaven dying for me
It is finished, He has done it
Death is beaten, Heaven beckons me

Verse 2:
Greater love no one could ever show
Mercy so undeserved, freedom I should not know
All my sin, all of my hidden shame
Died with Him on the cross, eternity won for us

Such love, such love
Such love is this for me (repeat)

Tom Lockley / Tim Hughes
©2005 Thankyou Music (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Hebrews 13, Labels, etc

I found yesterday's quiet day very helpful. One of the passages that was spoken on (albeit briefly) was this bit of Hebrews 13. Some of what follows is what was said. Some of what follows are my own thoughts. All the mistakes are mine.

We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.
Hebrews 13:10-14, NIV

The significance of things being done "outside the camp" is a reference back to Israel's wanderings in the desert. Things that were somehow unclean happened there - executions, toilets, and so on. People with infectious diseases were sent there, as were other people in "quarantine" for coming into contact with dead bodies, etc.

But "outside the camp" was also where the remains of sacrificed animals were disposed of. And the author to the Hebrews is picking up on that idea too. Jesus, as the perfect sacrifice, was outside the camp. So going to him means leaving the camp - in a sense, losing all our affiliations and ties, being willing to be on one's own (in a sense) and to be rejected by society but to gain Jesus. Jesus is the one who is outside the camp.

That then links in to another big theme of Hebrews - the idea that we don't have any real home, any lasting city, this side of eternity. So to be at home in Jesus means to renounce our worldly ties.

That doesn't necessarily mean coming out from the world in a physical sense - it doesn't mean I have to leave England (for example), but it does mean I have to stop seeing my identity as primarily English. On a church level, it means that I have to stop seeing my identity as primarily evangelical (for example). Camps are things that we're meant to leave to follow Jesus.

On a similar note, Dan Edelen wrote a very good piece yesterday about our obsession with labels, and why it's a bad thing. Here's his conclusion:

I'm sick of labels, personally. I'm a Christian; that's the only label I wish to be known by. As to other labels, Jesus offers nothing but rebuke. The older I get, the more I understand that truth.

Time to stop the obsessive labeling. We're only hurting the cause of Jesus Christ by loving our labels more than each other.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Sound of Silence


It's a Quiet Day today, meaning we aren't meant to talk in college.


I think our culture is very afraid of silence.


A Quiet Day seems like a very good idea to me.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Theological Colleges

I'm very glad I'm at the theological college I'm at, even though (and perhaps partly because) they are working me very hard at the moment. Another college I applied to has been in the news recently for difficulties between them and a former student.

Here's a piece from the Daily Mail and the college responds here.

Knowing about this story was part of the reason I turned Cranmer Hall down - I don't know young Mr Howard, but we do know quite a few people in common. The thing is that I trust most of them, and they only told me bits and pieces when I mentioned I was looking at Cranmer, which seemed to be consistent with them wanting to warn rather than gossip.

To be honest, there were other things I felt very uncomfortable with there. For example, the weekly communion service I attended used explicitly feminine language of God (and I don't mean just feminine metaphors) and the sermon there wasn't on the passage. The whole college felt largely as if it was preparing people for churches that they were expecting to be declining, and it didn't feel anywhere near as joyful as Wycliffe does.

But when I think about colleges like that, I realise my guilt in failing to pray for them and for those with the difficult task of leading them.

Working Hard

Well, they certainly know how to get me working here!

Most of the time so far has been spent quite usefully - we had three days of getting to know each other and the college, then a week of being introduced to the course and the idea of training for ministry.

We've had a series of Bible readings on the Pastoral Epistles, talks on topics such as "Essay Writing", "Academic Theology and Personal Faith" and an excellent Bible Overview. I've been to voice training sessions (apparently mine is "frighteningly loud" when I want it to be) and fellowship groups and random pub trips.

This week so far has been more academic - the "real" undergrads are around now and I've done 5½ hours of (fairly intensive) Greek classes over the last two days. I've also got my first essay title (and am doing a silly amount of reading for it).

Oh, and my laptop power cable has ceased to function, so I'm having to get a new one. All good fun, and more reason to trust God.

My biggest concerns at the moment are that I would spend more time in prayer and that the relationships I'm building here would be genuinely supportive ones. In a meeting early on, I identified the fact that while I hoped relationships would be deep and supportive, I didn't expect them to be so.

One really good point - my studies are a really useful way in to talking to people about Jesus. Pray that I'd be sharing my faith lovingly, boldly and clearly.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Isaiah 26

Here are some striking verses I was reading this morning.

The path of the righteous is level;
you make level the way of the righteous.
In the path of your judgments,
O LORD, we wait for you;
your name and remembrance
are the desire of our soul.
My soul yearns for you in the night;
my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.

For when your judgments are in the earth,
the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.
If favour is shown to the wicked,
he does not learn righteousness;
in the land of uprightness he deals corruptly
and does not see the majesty of the LORD.
Isaiah 26:7-10, ESV

A few quick thoughts:

The path of the righteous is level, but it is also in the path of God's judgements. And though it is level, it is also the path of waiting for God's salvation, even though the waiting might be painful.

God's judgement is needed so that people learn righteousness. It doesn't happen otherwise - we are wicked, and so need the judgements to teach us.

The purpose is so that we see the majesty of the LORD. And that majesty will be glorious.

He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
"Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the LORD; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation."
Isaiah 25:8-9, ESV

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Christians and Pubs

WARNING - this post may say more about me than it does about anything else. If you're a Christian, think about it and if you disagree with me, work out why and say so. If you're not a Christian, feel free to read on with an interested curiosity...

I can understand people who aren't Christians going to pubs. I can understand wanting to get away from the hustle and bustle of life, to unwind and relax, to lose a few inhibitions, to have a good time, maybe meet someone nice, etc. I don't have a problem with that - I think that for many people (but not neccesarily everyone) it's a sensible thing to do. Of course, I think it's far better if those people realise that actually Jesus is the only one who can really satisfy them, but that's a different matter.

I can understand Christians going to pubs too, if they're going with non-Christians or they want to meet non-Christians there or something. If you're spending time with people, it's usually fine to go where they go. Pubs are often a decent place to talk. There's nothing inherently wrong with them. If Jesus was in 21st century England the way he was in 1st century Israel, then I'm pretty sure he'd go to pubs. That's cool, I don't have a problem with it.

And when Christians go to pubs, I can understand them having a few drinks. Sure, alcohol was part of God's creation - the Bible says some good things about it. Not about getting drunk, but there's nothing wrong with a drink or two. Unless you're a recovering alcoholic, or you're trying to support a recovering alcholic, or you find it really hard to cope in pubs or something, when it's probably a bad idea to go.

What I can't really understand is one specific situation, which seems quite common, in England at least. That's Christians going to the pub with other Christians, not to meet people who aren't Christians or anything.

I've been trying to understand that, and here are some possible reasons I've come up with:

  • It's a good place to sit and chat. Well, maybe it is. But there are lots of other places that are much better. Coffee shops, for example. Or ice cream cafes. Or people's houses. (Kudos to the person who suggested I organise a trip to one of the local ice cream cafes here!)
  • It's easier to get to know people after a few drinks. Well, not really. Sure, drinks can relax inhibitions, which means you can talk more freely about stuff you'd usually have issues with. So I guess maybe pubs could be useful in counselling people or something. But normally, if we've got inhibitions which make it more difficult for us to get on with other Christians, then that's a problem, and we should be sorting it out. We shouldn't need alcohol to get over it.
  • It's just harmless fun. Quite possibly. I honestly can't see how Christians enjoy pubs more than coffee shops (for example). If this is you, care to explain?

What's worse, all too often over the years, I've seen Christians drink too much in pubs and act in ways that don't especially point out to people how amazing Jesus is. We shouldn't need to escape from our lives - if our lives are that bad, then we should focus more on God and how amazing he is.