Friday, November 30, 2007

Calvin - Sacraments

God did not establish the sacraments so that if men strove to keep them they would obtain some virtue which would count for righteousness. Rather, he did it so to teach them that they need to find righteousness in him.


What do I mean? Well, baptism teaches us that we are full of filth and corruption within. Why else do we wash hands, face and body, but because we desire to wash off the dirt? We are told that baptism is our washing; therefore it follows that when we come to be baptised, and when we bring our children, we are declaring that from the mother's womb our children are already lost and condemned....

Secondly, when we receive the Lord's Supper, what is it we are doing? Are we there to acquire some merit in God's eyes? No, we are there to confess that we are like dead men who have come to seek for life outside of ourselves. The flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ must be our meat, and his blood our drink, for in him we find all that we need. Thus, the sacraments should not make us swollen with vain pride, but they should make us walk in humility, so that, empty of pride, we only seek the provision that God has made out of his infinite bounty, and that he would bestow upon us the treasures of his grace according to our need.

John Calvin, Sermon on Galatians 2:14-16

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Images of Mohammed

Silly mess with Gillian Gibbons getting jailed for letting her class vote to call the teddy bear Mohammed. The whole thing raises far too many questions...

  • Was this the same Gillian Gibbons who was my form tutor when I was 11?
  • How does Islam cope with the huge inconsistency in not allowing images of people but allowing a) TV and b) retinas?
  • What would they do if we all named our teddy bears / dogs / pigs Mohammed? Not after the "prophet", of course, but after the child who suggested they name the teddy after him?
  • Is this finally going to make the Islamists look too stupid for words?
  • Do they have photo ID in Muslim countries?
  • How many teddies or equiv called Mohammed are there in Muslim countries? I'm guessing at least hundreds, if those kids were happy to call theirs Mohammed.
  • Isn't this the sort of thing that the army is for? Aren't British passports meant to help in this?

(NB - the picture on the right is a picture of Mohammed (the famous one), but it was made by a (Persian) Muslim in the 16th century, so it's probably ok). From Wikipedia.

O Holy Night

It's starting to be the Oxbridge Christmas season, due to stupidly early holidays and so on. But hey, it's nearly Advent in the real world. I've got some interesting stuff to write on Paul's understanding of law, but at the moment I've got too much work to write something sensible.

So here is a rendition of "O Holy Night"; one of the things that is pretty much guaranteed to get me laughing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Wow - Botafumeiro

I saw this video this morning on the Bishop of Buckingham's Blog, and was somewhat amazed. It's at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (supposed burial place of Jesus' brother, in Spain).

The physics is somewhat cool - it's a pendulum, and you can see the rope-pullers pulling in phase with the pendulum swing, hence adding in energy at a frequency which the pendulum can't lose easily, which means it swings more and more.

Plenty of other random thoughts too though:

  • health and safety... Apparently in 1499, it came off the rope and flew through a high window in the cathedral. But that's about the size and weight of a person - how much damage could it do if the rope broke? (Geeky note - the tension in the rope is highest at the bottom of the swing) Or if someone got in the way?
  • Distraction from the service - like anyone is going to be paying any attention to anything else...
  • How do the rope-pullers keep breathing with that much incense around them?
  • I'm really not a fan of applause in church
  • I think the whole thing seems to detract from the point of incense. As Catholic friends have explained it, incense is about emphasising God's transcendence through production of CO, impairment of vision, strong aromatic odour, etc. But all it would do in that context would be reminding you of how nifty and whatever the botafumey thing was.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Piper, the Prosperity Gospel, suffering and evangelism

Well, John Piper really really really doesn't like the prosperity "gospel"...

Shocking stuff. But it reopened the bit of my mind that had been mulling on the context of 1 Peter 3:15-16 for a while.

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience
1 Peter 3:15-16, NIV

They're so often trotted out as the standard verses for evangelism, and so often we ask why evangelism in the West is so much harder than evangelism elsewhere, and we completely ignore the context of those verses.

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. "Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened." But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
1 Peter 3:14-18, NIV

The opportunities for real evangelism that are talked about in 1 Peter 3 are the opportunities that come from the way that we suffer for doing what is right. And by and large, the church in the West is not willing to suffer for doing what is right. And so we don't get the people asking us for the reason for the hope that we have in the same way. And so evangelism is so much harder.

I've only led two people who weren't already Christians to Christ. In one case, someone close to me was regularly attempting suicide. In the other, my gran had just died. Evangelism works through suffering.

(more stuff on why the Prosperity Gospel is wrong here)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Prosperity "Gospel"

A friend asked me for resources about why the so-called Prosperity "Gospel" is wrong.

Ben Witherington III, a noted New Testament scholar, tackles it here.

Mark Driscoll points out that Jesus's life refutes the prosperity "gospel".

Good News

Some good news for everyone this Christmas...

Except for the waistline that is, and for those struggling with food addictions. I honestly don't understand why we as a society treat food addictions any differently from alcohol or drug addictions, and yet we do. Or why gluttony is such an easily overlooked sin. Or, for that matter, why so much of the church seems to hold a neo-Platonist view of food that says that if it tastes nice it must be evil.

They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
1 Timothy 4:3-5, NIV

So enjoy chocolate, but enjoy it responsibly!

Saturday, November 24, 2007


One of the bizarre things about ratings is that violence or sex in animation doesn't attract the same ratings that it does if non-animated (with, I think, the exception of displaying genitals). The problems with this get greater and greater as animation gets better and better, as is hugely obvious in Beowulf.

How was this (12A) less gory or sexual than Apocalypto (18)? In my opinion, it was significantly more gory and more sexual. In Apocalypto, they don't show hearts being ripped out, only the before and after, but in Beowulf they do. There's blood splattered everywhere, people ripped in two, lots of corpses, far more nudity than in Apocalypto, etc. And the animation is so good that a lot of the time you can't tell that it is animation.

Having said that, the animation is still far from perfect when it comes to living bits of living things - I suspect they're only using a single layer technique for human skin for example, which needs multi-layer treatment to get it right, and the eyes aren't great either. Ditto with the horses, which didn't seem to run quite right, rats, etc.

The story is a retelling and a reworking of the Anglo-Saxon epic of the same name. It says something that every other retelling of the story got an R rating in the US, but this one sexed it up a lot, literally, and got a PG-13. It's basically a hero-kills-monsters type story, but with a significant twist, which is a change from the epic poem, and certainly makes a lot of characters a lot more ambiguous. As such stories go, it's done pretty well. Good if you like that sort of thing...

Some great questions that can come out of this about the nature of sin, why we give into it, the effects, etc. Christianity Today's review is good on that front.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Disinterested Good?

I wrote some background to this post here. Lots of bits of Greek philosophy have got picked up by Christians over the years, and it takes a long time to get rid of them. One of the bits which is still hanging on in there is the idea that if we're doing something because we enjoy it, then it can't be good.

So, for example, some people think that it's wrong to follow Jesus with the aim of going to heaven.

Compare that with the Biblical attitude:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.
Hebrews 11:24-26, NIV

The key to doing what is right isn't acting against our own interests - it's acting by faith. Faith is recognising that it is more in our interests to follow Jesus than not to.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?
Mark 8:34-36, NIV

A major motivation the Bible gives for being a Christian is consistently self-interest. But it is a self interest that has faith, and sees that the only way to save our lives is to lose them, and that it does us no good to gain the world yet forfeit our souls.

And I know this is very Piper-esque, but that's because he's right on this.

Greek Philosophy and Christianity

This is part 1 of 2. I started trying to write something about the idea of disinterested good, but realised I needed too much background. This is the background (here's the main point).

One of the big problems that the Church struggled with (largely unconsciously) for hundreds of years was the relationship between Christianity and Greek philosophy. Greek philosophy, in various forms, was widely and popularly held in the Roman Empire when Christianity was growing and spreading. It was easy for Christians to see that they should reject worshipping Caesar or Artemis; it was harder for them to see that there was a problem with Greek philosophy or to see what to do about it.

To create a huge generalisation, the Church in the Eastern Roman Empire, especially Alexandria, where Greek philosophy was strongest, tended to try to integrate philosophy and Christianity. In the West, they tended not to, spurred on by Tertullian's famous rhetorical question:

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?
Tertullian of Carthage

The influence of philosophy on the early church wasn't wholly bad, but it did have lots of major problems. Almost all of the early heresies were caused by people putting their philosophical considerations ahead of what the Bible said. Early Church History (patristics) often concentrates on the East, because that was where most of the big arguments were. On the big questions that they argued about - how the Father, Son and Spirit could all be one God and how Jesus could be both human and divine - Tertullian in the West was hundreds of years ahead of the East. Even by 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, the big arguments in the East were only settled when Pope Leo of Rome wrote a letter explaining what they'd believed in the West for hundreds of years, which was what they ended up agreeing on. And then the arguments rumbled on even longer in the East, with the Syrian and Egyptian churches rejecting the compromise and splitting off.

But Rome wasn't immune either. During the Middle Ages, the western church got more and more influenced by Greek philosophy, especially Aristotelian metaphysics and physics and Ptolemaic astronomy to the point where they came to assume the place of dogma. Some of the difficulties in the Reformation with Luther et al and most of the difficulties in the Scientific Revolution with Galileo et al were because of the way that Aristotelianism had become entrenched as orthodoxy, and so to argue against it was seen as heresy.

Some of it is plainly wrong. The idea, for example, that God cannot suffer ("divine impassibility") is straight from Platonism rather than Christianity. If someone read the Bible with a mind open to the possibility of God being able to suffer, they would almost certainly conclude that God suffered in the person of Jesus. And yet through so much of the history of the church, that last sentence would have been immensely controversial.

All of which goes to show that it's easy for us to confuse parts of the surrounding worldview with the gospel, and then to end up elevating them as the truth. In part 2, I look at one bit of Greek philosophy that is still hanging on today.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Things I have accomplished today

Today, I managed to give up my seat for a feminist, and she thanked me and sat down.

Today I managed to hit a table on the floor so hard that it broke into lots of pieces. The table, not the floor.

Today I managed, I think, to persuade someone that it's ok to be motivated by our own benefit if it stems from faith and trusting God's promises.

Today I edited the links on the right. I removed some that hadn't been updated in ages; I added some interesting ones.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

American Politics

I've seen this video linked to twice today already (1 2), and it largely sums up how I'd feel about American politics if I was living in America. But not entirely - I'd want to question how much it's legitimate to expect non-Christians to obey a Christian morality and so on. But the end of the video is great.

The comment on the Telegraph's above-linked page is particularly interesting.

It's shocking, incomprehensible stuff. A US Christian political campaign video that's... well... thoughtful. And calm. And humble.

This cynical atheist finds himself a little disarmed.

Incidentally, I did a quick quiz on political issues in the US, and didn't come out with more than 38% agreement with any candidate. That's got to be worth something...

You can tell it's near the end of term...

... when I start an essay like this. I then sent it off before bothering to proof read. I'd been semi-intending to think about changing the start...

Are the ethical sections of Paul’s letters independent from the theological teaching in them?

I must admit that my first reaction on reading the title of this essay was “Of course not – why would anyone think that?”, closely followed by a supposition that somewhere there might have existed some third-rate New Testament scholar desperately searching for an original thesis who suggested such a thing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Bible Translations and Handling Media Rights

An interesting thought:

One of the reasons I am coming to use the ESV so much is that of the fairly literal translations, it is so readily available and easy to use. Whoever owns the copyright has let publishers of free Bible software use it; it's on Bible Gateway, it's free on e-Sword and even on Gnomesword. I therefore use it a lot, and am more likely to get my church to use it and to buy copies, because I use it more for my own reading as well.

Compare that with, for example, the NRSV. Leaving aside translation issues, the NRSV is in some ways quite similar to the ESV. They are a similar age (came out within 10 years of each other) and had similar remits. The NRSV is the official translation for my course, and yet I hardly use it. Not because of translation issues, but because the publishers are so restrictive with its use. The NRSV is, as far as I know, only available online at this site, and isn't available free, as far as I know, for any software.

So when I write essays for my university course, I quote the ESV not the NRSV, because it's a lot easier to copy and paste. And over a year in, no-one's complained yet.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Funny Videos

Today, I discovered the Telegraph's Weird Wired Web, which showcases some of the odder things to appear on the internet. Here's a funny one. In case you need convincing, here's a quote - "Oh great - I'm becoming trapped in the balloon."


And another, for any animal-loving people out there. (Or - why lions do not make good pets).


Oh, and the Nazi War Robots deserve a link too...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Flaccid Christianity?

Why is it that in talking to other Christians I'm much more likely to hear "Don't beat yourself up" than "Paul said that he beat his body and made it submit"?

I'm not advocating physical self-mutilation or flagellation or anything like that. I'm advocating the kind of attitude to sin that wants to get rid of it.


Interesting film, this one. It's in a slightly fictionalised setting, with the Maya people of what is now Mexico, set in about 1500. A Mayan war party raid a village, and take the survivors to one of their cities. One of them escapes, wanting to rescue his wife and son, and the Mayans chase him.

The film that sticks in my mind as being most similar to this is the Arnie classic Predator. Levels of violence are fairly similar, they're both high-paced, with a lot of running round in jungles and a hero who is willing to go through pretty much anything to save (in this case) his wife and son. If you're sensitive to violence, don't watch it. Apocalypto famously shows some human sacrifice, but actually I found the violence much less disturbing than in Pan's Labyrinth (to give the example of another film I watched recently).

What it does have that Predator doesn't really is a bit of thought-provokingness. The Mayans are seen destroying their environment and running their empire on the backs of the poor, which, as the opening quote tells us, shows that they have the seeds for their own destruction.

There was a whole load of historical controversy with this one, with some historians saying "Oh, they didn't really sacrifice people, those wall paintings just mean something else." My response to that is that I think human civilisations are perfectly capable of human sacrifice, and we'd probably still be doing it if it wasn't for the influence of the Gospel on our culture. Maybe we still are (ref). It's all very well to try to pretend that all cultures are equal. If you assume an absolute morality (e.g. human sacrifice being wrong), they aren't, because your absolute morality will be better reflected in some cultures than others, especially if it's implicitly based on a Judaeo-Christian framework. People aren't inherently more valuable than each other or inherently better than each other. There but for the grace of God go all of us.

Overall, I thought this was a good fun film, but then I'm (for historic reasons) desensitised to violence that doesn't actually show stuff being cut and so on. Seeing the back of a man with a spike through him, or a heart having been ripped out of the body doesn't cause me too many problems, unless I see it actually being ripped out, which we thankfully don't.

Oh, and those Aztec / Mayan step pyramid things? They look interesting and all, but this film was a useful reminder that they are actually horrible things...

Friday, November 16, 2007

Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Presuppositions

One of the reasons I chose to study at the college I am at now and on the course I am on now is that I thought it would help me to think through my own beliefs in a context where I wasn't being taught what to think. I was pretty much right in that assessment. No-one tells me what to believe. My main teaching this term is one hour a week with a liberal New Testament scholar, who sets me essays on aspects of Paul's writings, and I go away and read about them.

One of the things I am finding immensely encouraging as I do so is that although I am willing to question the extent to which my conservative evangelical background is consistent with what the Bible teaches, I am finding more and more that it's pretty much right in most of the important respects.

One example of this is over the whole question of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, as defended in books like Pierced for Our Transgressions (and the link was because the book wasn't on my official (vague) reading list, or in the college library here).

The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.

What has been especially striking in my reading for this is that the critics of penal substitution tend to fall quite quickly into heresy. For example, the famous criticism of it as "cosmic child abuse" clearly demonstrates that the author doesn't understand the doctrine of the Trinity (as expressed by Augustine, for example). And Gustav Aulen shows that he doesn't hold to Chalcedonian Christology (which is the standard for orthodox Christian understandings of the nature of Christ) when he sees it as a discontinuous divine work because it starts with the will of God the Father, but is completed by Jesus as a man.

One of the key verses in this is Romans 3:25.

21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Romans 3:25, NIV

The phrase translated "sacrifice of atonement" is the Greek word ιλαστηριον - hilasterion. In Greek culture, it meant a sacrifice that turned aside the wrath of an angry god (propitiation). In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, it was the place where the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled (mercy seat). Some people have also argued that it could mean a sacrifice that takes away sin (expiation). And there have been lots of arguments that it means one or the other.

It seems obvious to me that arguments that it means "propitiation" or "expiation" or "mercy seat" and not the others are probably wrong. It ignores one of the basic principles of translating from one language into another - there often isn't a word with the exact same range of meaning. In this case, it's pretty obvious that the word hilasterion covers all three of those - it's a sacrifice that turns away wrath and covers sin, with particular reference to the blood being sprinkled in the temple.

Besides that, the place of the argument in Romans means that just before the passage quoted, you've got everyone under God's personal judgement, condemnation and wrath. And just after it, you've got Christians justified. Something's got to have happened to that wrath. Likewise, verse 26 suggests that whatever happened in v25 meant that God could be both just and merciful, which kind of needs it to be some kind of "Jesus taking the punishment we deserve" thing.

Of course, it's in plenty of other places in the New Testament too - it's obvious in Hebrews, but Romans 3:25 is the passage I was discussing.

What I found particularly interesting was that in discussing this with the aforementioned liberal NT scholar, he only ever argued what the primary meaning of verses was, not whether the logic required penal substitution or whether the meaning was present in the verses.

My understanding of the conservative evangelical position is that Penal Substitutionary Atonement is an important way of describing what happened on the cross. It is by no means the only way, but it is an important one, not least because it helps explain how some of the other ways work.

All the literature I've read and all the conversations I've had that try attacking it tend to go one of two ways. Either they rapidly degenerate into heretical gibbering (denying the Bible provides a valid account of what Jesus did on the cross, and/or denying the conclusions of one of the major Church Councils) or they attack the idea that Penal Substitution is the only way of explaining it. But as they say in Pierced for Our Transgressions:

We agree that a comprehensive doctrine of the atonement must include other themes besides penal substitution. But then again, we have never read a proponent of penal substitution who claims that penal substitution is the only motif connected with the atonement in the Scriptures.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Church Stuff

Last Sunday, the church I go to had the official opening service for the new building, which we are all very grateful for. Here's a picture.

On a largely unrelated note, we were studying Galatians 5:13-26 in homegroup last night. Someone commented that some of the "acts of the sinful nature" in v19-20 weren't too common today, giving witchcraft as an example. However, the word translated "witchcraft" is φαρμακεια - pharmakeia, from which we get the English words pharmacy, pharmacology, pharmaceuticals and so on.

Needless to say, I'm not a JW, just thought it was an amusing etymological thing...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Gaarder - "the fairy-tale magic of each single moment on earth"

The question I was asking myself was whether I'd got lost inside my own science and forfeited the ability to see the fairy-tale magic of each single moment on earth. I saw the extent to which the agenda of natural science had been to explain absolutely everything. In that lay the obvious danger of becoming blind to everything that couldn't be explained.
Jostein Gaarder, Maya

Transformation by the Renewing of the Mind

Too many reviews lately. Time for some meat. And, at the risk of generalising from my own experience, here it is...

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:1-2, NIV

For Paul, the normal way of seeing transformation in people's lives and the way that they act is by the renewal of their minds. That is part of the reason he so often spends the first half of his letters doing what can seem like dry theology - because he knew that simply telling people to do something doesn't make much difference. People need to be motivated to change, and that motivation often seems to come from having their mind changed first, so that they hear a dissonance between the way that they live and the way that they know it is better to live. Our actions flow from our thoughts, so transformation starts with the renewing of the mind.

I usually act in what I perceive to be my own best interests. Pretty much everyone does. So for me, when I do not do what I want to do, it is because I am in two minds about something. There is part of me that thinks that work is good; there is part of me that isn't actually convinced there's any point to it, so I don't do it. And that's part of the normal human experience, at least for the Christian - the sinful nature and the Spirit want different things, and both are in us. And part of that battle is the battle for the mind. It is teaching my mind to follow the Spirit, not the sinful nature, and doing so by meditating on the underlying truths.

In context, the example Paul is using is the idea of pride. Paul's letter so far has essentially been about how God has saved us by his grace, through faith, in Christ. And his first application in 12v3 is the consequence that we should not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to. If we want to deal with pride, we should spend time thinking about God's salvation by grace and praying through God's salvation by grace.

The same is true, only even more so, where we sin persistently and seemingly unavoidably in one area. When I do that, it is usually because the whole way that I think in that area is determined more by the world and the sinful nature than by God, his Word and his Spirit. And what we need to do in those situations is to identify the topic, to work round it in our own mind, rather as a gardener might do with the root of some horrible weed, and then pull it out, or cut it out, and replace it with how God views the topic.

Three quick examples - money, sex and power. There's lots more that could be written on each of them, and lots more that has been.


The world's view is often that money makes people happier or is a good in itself. God's is that money passes away - just look at how often money and death are paired in the Gospels - and that while money can be useful, especially if given away, loving it is a root of all kinds of evil.


The world's view is often that sex is good and enjoyable and should be had as often as possible. God's view is that sex is a wonderful gift, and is a beautiful thing to be celebrated when it happens inside marriage, but outside is horrible and disgraceful. In my experience, Christians often tend to try to take the world's view, then bolt on the idea that sex outside marriage is wrong, which leads to an internally contradictory view and all kinds of tensions and problems.


The world's view is often that power is a good and useful thing to have, and is used to serve the powerful. Hence if you are powerless, you should seek to take power. The Bible's view is that power should either be laid down or used to serve the powerless, and that if we are powerless, we should submit to those in power.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:1-2, NIV

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

John Grisham - The Last Juror

This is Grisham near, but not quite at, his very best. In many respects, it's absolutely standard - small town Mississippi, nasty murder, the killer gets a long prison sentence, but vows revenge... The biggest variation is that this time the main character is a journalist rather than a lawyer.

Grisham hasn't forgotten how to write a page-turner, there's good use of suspense, and a reasonable twist, which I saw coming quite a way before it happened.

It's interesting to see the use of Christianity in this one. Grisham manages at the same time to point out some of what people see as oddnesses of the church and to portray it in a sensitive light. The main character here is an atheist living in a very heavily church-going area, and he gets the gospel explained to him clearly and lovingly by the nicest character in the book. But he doesn't do anything about it (unlike in The Testament).

Good fun, fairly light reading, some disturbing bits, but the book is based around a nasty rape/murder, so that's to be expected.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Elizabeth - the Golden Age

I wasn't a great fan of the first one. But I went to see this with a friend who is a bit of a history buff, which might not have helped.

It's hard to know where to start with the annoying bits. The film is basically 1585-1589, but the main event isn't the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, or even the Spanish Armada. The main feature of the film is a heavily fictionalised love triangle between Elizabeth, her lady in waiting and Sir Walter Raleigh (who did marry the lady in waiting in real life). Gone is Elizabeth's "I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman..." speech. Gone is most of the Spanish Armada being destroyed by storms, though the storms do play a role - in fact the Spanish Armada itself only seems to be tacked onto the end of the film.

They did seem to get most of the Mary, Queen of Scots storyline right though, which is something. Except that the execution seemed much more dignified than the historical accounts suggest - there was more mockery and mistreatment, and it took more than one blow from the axe to kill her...

If you want a trashy love triangle film, with random bits of history thrown in, this is a good bet. If you want something that helps you understand the past better, this probably isn't.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

"Emergency Contraception"

I was chatting to an A&E doctor recently, who used the phrase "emergency contraception", and it struck me just how bad a phrase it is. Here are some basic dictionary definitions (from wiktionary):

contraception - the use of a device or procedure to prevent conception as a result of sexual activity

conception - 3. The initiation of an embryonic animal life; the fertilization of an ovum by a sperm to form a zygote

So contraception is acting to stop the sperm fertilizing the egg as a result of sex.

"Emergency contraception", however, is a hormone pill given to women after sexual activity, commonly called the "morning after pill". As far as I recall, the hormones don't actually do much to the egg or sperm cells; it's much more likely that they act by preventing implantation of the fertilized egg cell. And that isn't contraception.

"Emergency contraception" is what those machines on the walls in pub toilets are for (as far as I can tell). If a doctor was to provide emergency contraception, it would be as a result of someone running in saying "Quick, give me something. I think I've pulled"...

So why use a misleading term? Simple - "contraception" sounds a heck of a lot better than "abortion" or "termination", which themselves are nicer names for embryocide, just the same as "family planning" sounds like something sensible rather than being largely about planning families by killing unwanted members, which is what it often ends up as.

People would doubtless argue that using language like "emergency contraception" means that the choice becomes less emotionally charged, which is true. But is being emotionally uncharged a good thing? Surely if calling a spade a spade leads to decisions being emotionally charged, then it's right that they should be.

An extreme example. Someone who shoots innocent people without experiencing some degree of emotional charge is a psychopath. That is a bad thing. Some decisions, especially decisions involving ending life, should be emotionally charged. So call a spade a spade.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

If only one fish could be found in the sea, people would probably have noticed how perfect it was.
Jostein Gaarder, The Christmas Mystery

Jostein Gaarder - the Orange Girl

I like Jostein Gaarder. His books are usually really good at that childlike sense of wonder, and at getting me thinking, as well as being very easy to read. The Orange Girl is all of that. It's not a masterpiece, like I remember The Solitaire Mystery being, but it's very good nevertheless.

A 15 year old boy, whose father died 11 years before, gets a letter that his father wrote to him just before dying.

This book is funny, it's sad, it's romantic, it's got a great sense of wonder and enthusiasm, and it makes me happier to be alive than I was when I started reading it.

The big question here is if you had the choice at the beginning of time to live or not to live, knowing that if you lived you'd only live for a short time, what would you do?

Pan's Labyrinth

I generally like fairly dark films, and this one is very dark and gets good reviews from people who usually agree with me. So I wonder why I didn't like it. Maybe it's because my prejudices against fauns, and things looking like that, and voices that deep made me think of him as evil from the start. (On the prejudices against fauns thing, I remember a discussion where someone managed to persuade me that Mr Tumnus in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was probably gay instead of being a child molestor, which was my first reaction.)

Maybe it was the way that he could just as well have done the things he asked Ophelia to do, which suggested there was something nasty going on. Maybe it was the way that the good characters were the ones who disobeyed authority, though sometimes disobedience is the right thing to do. Maybe it was the fact I never got close to understanding some of the motivations - like Ophelia's behaviour around the Pale Man, or the faun's motivations, or Ophelia's mothers motivations for going with the Captain. Maybe it's because the redemption theme didn't work because I thought it was fiction and so taglines like "innocence has a power evil cannot imagine" just didn't seem to resonate with the film. Or maybe the whole thing just creeped me out a little too much. Yes, there's a running theme of self-sacrifice, but I'm not convinced that works either.

Anyway, the film is described accurately as a very adult fairy tale. It's set during or just after the Spanish Civil War, where a young girl and her widowed mother go to stay with a sadistic Fascist army captain. She gets involved with a fantasy world thing, which may or may not be real. There's some pretty nasty violence and torture; no sex.

It's well made, lovely music and all, but I just didn't like it. Oh, and what's with all this thinking that Guillermo del Toro is a genius? His previous film was the eminently forgettable Hellboy.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Kim Stanley Robinson - The Years of Rice and Salt

The best word to describe this book is “epic”. Kim Stanley Robinson is best known for long and detailed science fiction – his Mars trilogy, for example, but this is much more clearly speculative fiction.

Science fiction and speculative fiction are fairly similar – in fact the nature of speculative fiction is quite similar to how science works – the idea is to change a few details of reality and see how that affects the rest of the world. In speculative fiction, of course, the results are speculative – it isn't like changing what surface something is sliding on to investigate friction. Speculative fiction, however, is much more respectable as a genre than science fiction...

Here, two main things are changed about the world. The Black Death kills almost everyone in Europe, instead of just a large proportion of them, and the story starts with the Mongol Hordes about to invade Europe, but who find everyone dead. The other thing that is changed is that reincarnation happens, which allows the book to take what some of the characters later describe as a Buddhist model of story-telling: following a group of people through successive reincarnations.

In doing so, Robinson cover nearly 1000 years of speculative history, through seeing the same characters reincarnated, sometimes as men, sometimes women, sometimes Muslims, sometimes Chinese, sometimes Indians or Native Americans, in lots of different contexts, so that we see the major turning points of his alternative history.

There's a few things I'd pick up on – he seems unaware of the Christian communities in South India, for example. Sometimes he gets self-referential, especially when discussing historiography or hypotheticals in history, which I can see might annoy some, but I think is quite clever.

It's a clever book, and a fun, thought-provoking read.

Romans 7:14-25 (Part 2) – Living with Sin but not in Sin

Part 1 - Sin And the Christian

One of the big weaknesses with a lot of evangelical preaching through Romans is that because Romans holds off the direct application until chapter 12, the preaching isn't applied enough. So how does this passage apply?

1. Do we acknowledge sin in our lives?

This is particularly a danger for those of us in leadership positions in churches. It seems that there are two main dangers in this. Either that we set up a quasi-sacerdotal us/them mentality, where we present ourselves as if we were sinless, we might not deny our sin, but we don't acknowledge it publicly either. And that's dishonest because it's implying that we're not sinful and that we are different from those in our care, which makes it much harder for us to live as a model for them to follow.

Alternatively, the other danger is that we are so honest and unconcerned by our sinfulness that we imply that it is ok to sin. We need to avoid both of them.

We need to live, and to be clear that we are living, as sinners striving for holiness, and so to encourage those we have responsibility for, who generally know that they are sinners, to strive for holiness too. It should be a struggle, and we should model that struggle.

2. Do we acknowledge sin in the life of the Christian?

It is so easy to present the Christian life as if it is wonderful, moving from one triumph to the next. We should be clear that reality often doesn't match up to that. Yes, sometimes it does, but we should be teaching the whole counsel of Scripture, otherwise we run the risk of becoming irrelevant, because we only ever say the good stuff; we don't talk about life as it really is.

I don't know how well you know Psalm 88. It's a great passage, often reckoned to be the most depressing chapter in the whole of the Bible. Here's an extract.

From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.
Psalm 88:15-18, NIV

When I was at school, one of my best friends became a Christian after reading Psalm 88, because she saw that God wasn't about some kind of namby-pamby fluffiness – he understood where she was at.

3. Do we make promises we can't keep?

The sinful nature lives in Christians, but Christians don't live in the sinful nature. We do not do what we want. So do we expect people to make promises they can't keep? Do we make promises we can't keep?

Do we say that becoming a Christian means promising to obey Jesus as our Lord? Can they do that? Do we do that? Becoming a Christian means acknowledging that Jesus is our Lord, and striving to obey him, but we aren't going to do it perfectly so we shouldn't promise to.

An example of this is covenant renewal services. Which covenant are we renewing? The one that says that Jesus has saved us by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to God's glory alone, so that we can do good works? How can we renew that? Or have we made some kind of other covenant where we try to make a deal that we can't keep to try to avoid the gospel?

4. Are we paralysed because we aren't good enough?

I guess for a lot of people, this passage sounds really like their current Christian experience. And they feel guilty because they don't live up to the standards they set.

Take heart! God hasn't finished with us yet. God doesn't expect us to be perfect; he commands us to follow him and to trust him, however falteringly - to trust that in Jesus he has dealt with all our sin, past, present and future - to follow him, even though we mess things up, to recognise that he is Lord, even though we don't always treat him like that. What our disobedience shows is that we still need God's grace to work in us and to keep making us more like his Son.

This was the experience of the Apostle Paul, one of the men God used most in all of history. Are we willing to follow Jesus, to give him what we've got, even though we're foolish and sinful and we stuff up?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Romans 7:14-25 (Part 1) – Sin and the Christian

Romans 7:14-25 is one of the more controversial passages in the New Testament. Lots of scholars have suggested lots of different interpretations of it, mainly because they find it difficult to see how Paul's emphasis on struggle in the passage fits with what he says in the verses around it.

People seize on verse 14, for example, and say that Paul's describes himself as being sold as a slave to sin, so conclude that he can't really be talking about himself; he must be using “I” to talk about Jews under the law, or something like that. On the other hand, some people read verse 22, and see that Paul says he delights in God's law in his inner being, which is a very Christian thing to say, so conclude that Paul must be talking about himself in this passage.

Lots of people seem to take the approach “my explanation fits this bit, so it's right”. Actually, that's a silly way to look at it. A much better way to try to understand a passage is to say “if my explanation doesn't explain the whole passage, it's wrong”.

If we are going to say who this passage is about, we need something that fits both v14 and v22, and explains why Paul uses the word “I” to describe them.

The obvious answer, of course, is that Paul is talking about himself. Roman Christians wouldn't have read this letter and thought “ah yes, Paul is using 'I' to describe the archetypal Jew living under the law but with an awakened awareness of the gospel”. They'd have thought “yeah, that's what it's like for me too sometimes”.

And it's clear from elsewhere in Paul's writing that he does see the Christian life as a struggle between the flesh and the sinful nature. Perhaps the clearest other place is Galatians 5:17. That also explains the “I”.

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.
Galatians 5:17, ESV

So how does that fit with being a slave to sin? Verse 25 is very helpful:

So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Romans 7:25, ESV

Paul is talking about himself, specifically himself and his sinful nature (“flesh” in the ESV). So in verse 18 he can say

I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.
Romans 7:18, ESV

So Paul is describing the struggle that goes on in himself with his sinful nature. He describes both himself and his sinful nature as “I”, and even draws a distinction between them in v20.

How does this fit with what Paul says elsewhere? In Romans 7:5 and 8:9, Paul says that the Christian is in the Spirit, not in the sinful nature. I therefore suggest the following summary of the Christian's relation to the sinful nature.

The sinful nature lives in the Christian, but the Christian does not live in the sinful nature.

In other words, sin is beaten in the Christian, but it is still there. It is neither dominant nor absent.

Part 2 - Living with Sin, but not in Sin

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Stupid Laws

from the BBC...

It is illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament

Is it sad that some of the laws make perfect sense to me? Like it being illegal to stick a postage stamp on upside down because it is defacing an image of the Queen and you have to draw the line somewhere. Like using looroll with the US flag on would be illegal there. But I'm glad that sticking a stamp on upside down is no longer punishable by death.

But others are great, like this one:

In Ohio, it is illegal to get a fish drunk

Was Adam Immortal?

When I was younger, I used to spend a fair bit of time looking at and refuting lots of alleged contradictions in the Bible. They were mostly really really easy, which gave me confidence that the people arguing against the Bible didn't really have any good arguments. Here's an example of one of the better ones.

Now I'm studying academic theology, it turns out that there's a different set of poor arguments for contradictions in the Bible (though there are a few overlaps, such as the Abiathar one). It's not that they are any better - they're just more difficult to see. One of them is the question of whether Paul saw Adam as being immortal or not before he sinned, and the resolution is kind of interesting.

The Problem

If people want to argue that Paul saw Adam as immortal before he sinned, they tend to use Romans 5:12.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned
Romans 5:12, ESV

In context, that verse is clearly talking about Adam, and death entering into the world because he sinned. (In the context of Romans 5, it's obvious it's human death, which means that it's a poor argument for a Young Earth, but that's not really relevant here. The point is that Adam died because he sinned.

And if they want to argue that Paul thought Adam was necessarily mortal, they tend to use 1 Corinthians 15.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
1 Corinthians 15:42-49, ESV

Paul's argument is a little involved, but his main point is contrasting Adam's body, which was "dusty" and perishable with Christ's resurrection body, which was "spiritual" and imperishable, the implication being that Adam was intrinsically mortal, even before he sinned.

So what do we make of it?

The Solution

In Genesis, God says that Adam and Eve will die when they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They eat the fruit, God judges them. But he doesn't kill them immediately, and his words to them don't have anything to do with death. Instead, after the "curse" in Genesis 3, we see this:

And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
Genesis 2:22-24, NIV

In other words, the death sentence on Adam is by stopping him from getting access to the tree of life. He never was intrinsically immortal, it was only because he had access to the tree of life. And that manages to neatly fit with what Paul says in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. Adam was mortal, but he had access to the tree of life, which would have enabled him to live forever. But when he sinned, he lost that access.

I was encouraged by seeing quite how neatly that works. Hope others are too.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Remember, Remember

It's odd - most people I've spoken to about this didn't seem to know how the rhyme about remembering today ended. Here it is. Can't say I completely agree with the sentiment, but it's interesting history.

On the subject of Christians being nasty to each other, a couple of random facts from today:

  • The last person in England to be judicially burnt for heresy died in 1612.
  • During the English Reformation, only two monarch didn't burn any (Roman) Catholics for heresy. They were Edward VI and Lady Jane Grey. Admittedly, LJG wasn't on the throne for terribly long, but it's interesting that it was the two most Reformed monarchs.

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder, treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up the King and Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below,
Poor old England to overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, make the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
Hip hip hoorah!

A penny loaf to feed the Pope.
A farthing o’ cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.
Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah hoorah!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Either Valjean or Javert!

As people who know me well know, one of my all-time favourite stories is Les Miserables.

One of the many great elements about it is the relationship between Jean Valjean and Javert, which explores the tension between law and grace.

Javert is an implacable policeman, who knows Valjean from prison before the story starts. Valjean is a paroled hardened convict, who is transformed by an encounter with grace in probably the most famous scene in the book, which I might discuss some other time. Javert finds out that Valjean has broken his parole, and vows to hunt him down.

A large part of the book is Valjean hiding from Javert, escaping from Javert, handing himself in to Javert, and so on. Eventually, they find themselves on the same side of a barricade in the Revolution of 1830. Javert is an undercover agent working against the rebels; Valjean is trying to save the life of one of them.

Javert's identity is discovered, and Valjean volunteers for the job of executing him, but then lets him escape. Javert goes away, his whole system of values destroyed by the fact he owes his life to a convicted criminal. There is no place in his mind for grace or change. So when he again captures Valjean, he does not know what to do. Either he frees the man to whom he owes his life, making himself into a criminal, or he hands him over to the galleys, which makes him incredibly ungrateful.

Javert sees no option for himself but suicide - grace not just triumphing over law, but destroying it utterly.

Friday, November 02, 2007


This is a very strong contender for the title of Cheesiest Film of All Time. I'm struggling even to think of anything in the same league as it.

The closest film to it stylistically that I can remember is probably the Princess Bride (both fairytale-style funny romances), but Stardust has much better special effects (not hard), less humour (but still got some), more famous actors, more magic and almost infinitely more cheese. Because of that, it's not as good at the Princess Bride, but it's still worth a watch.

Among the cheesy elements were: old men with significant martial arts skills, a chorus of ghosts, a "hard guy" who is a closet extremely camp transvestite, repetition of cheesy lines at important points in the plot, music that completely conformed to the cheesy stereotypes, wicked witches, plot developments that may or may not have been intended as twists (it's hard to tell sometimes), non-tragic use of dramatic irony, people revealing the secret of their strength during combat, ...

The only thing it didn't have was a song for everyone to sing at the end.

Potentially great family film; there's some extramarital sex and some interesting ways to die, but you don't see anything in either case.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Christians and the Old Testament Law

One of the questions I am most often asked in my capacity as person who knows something about theology is what the point of the Old Testament Law is for Christians today. I've got to do a lot of reading about this in the near future, so my opinions might change, but here's roughly what I think after however many years it is of thinking about it so far...

There are two main purposes of the Old Testament Law, and both of them function for us as Christians.

First Purpose - Modelling a Response to Salvation

The first purpose is to model a response to God's salvation. Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy are very clear that the Law was how the Old Testament people of God were meant to live in response to God saving them. Of course, it's going to be different for us now, for loads of reasons, the biggest of which are:

  • We've got the Holy Spirit indwelling us now
  • We know about Jesus
  • We aren't a theocratic state but a group of Christians living in countries that aren't Christian

That means it's often going to be hard work applying aspects of the OT Law to us today. Some areas are easier for others. For example, one of the big areas in the OT Law is a concern for social justice, and though the categories of who are oppressed are different today (due to a welfare state, less respect for the elderly, family breakdown and abortion legislation among other things), some of the ideas are still applicable. An even easier example would be commandments such as "do not murder", which pretty much just apply straight (though the punishments don't necessarily, given the different nature of the state).

A more difficult example would be some of the food laws and ceremonial laws which are about showing how holiness applies to every area of life. The OT Law doesn't apply directly to us, but it's all still relevant if we're willing to do the work.

Second Purpose - Showing Us We Need a Greater Salvation

The OT Law also points forwards to Jesus. It shows us that we are sinful and need to be forgiven - that we continually need God's grace, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness that comes by the blood of Jesus.

Civil, Ceremonial, Moral?

The traditional way of doing this (I think Calvin used it, but he might have got it from somewhere) was to split the Law into civil, ceremonial and moral, and say that the ceremonial law was fulfilled in Christ, the moral law is still binding and the civil law is a model for how society should be, or something like that.

I don't like that distinction, for the simple reason that it isn't in the Old Testament, and it ends up being an arbitrary decision of the interpreter which bits are which.

Much better to ask questions like this of the whole OT Law:

  • How does this point forwards to Jesus?
  • What does this tell us about God?
  • What does this say about how we should respond to our salvation in Jesus?

We don't have to obey the OT Law - it has been fulfilled in Christ, but it can be very useful in showing what it meant for the Israelites to be God's saved people, and hence point to what it means for us.

The discussion continues here.