Friday, 31 August 2007

Book Review: 'The Kite Runner' (Khaled Hosseini)

Just got back from holiday in the early hours of the morning - had a wonderful time in Turkey, good rest and relaxation in a country that I had no idea was so beautiful.

Of course the time away also gave some chance to do some reading, and I plan to upload my thoughts as I get chance over the coming weeks.

One book that both my wife and I read was the highly-acclaimed novel The Kite Runner, which has recently been reprinted by Bloomsbury as part of their '21' series, a group of books that each represent the first published novel by a group of their authors.

The Kite Runner is powerful reading. Amir is a 12 year old Aghani boy who sees the shocking attack and rape of the son of his servant, Hassan. Despite having shared much of their childhood, he doesn't step in. The consequences of this attack haunt Amir for much of the rest of his life. Eventually an older friend, who learned of the attack, tells Amir that 'there is a way for you to be good again', a way that offers redemption.

There are many things that are very endearing in this novel. It's wonderfully written, and has well-observed and colourful descriptions of both Afghan and American culture. Afghan-born novelist Khaled Hosseini successsfully captures the tension and the fear of life in Afghanistan under Taliban control. The motif of kites, used throughout the book, is also an interesting exploration of freedom and innocence.

However, the one thing that really intrigued me in this book is the theme of guilt. As the novel unwinds, it becomes evident that several of the lead characters in the book. They feel guilty for different reasons and they also deal with their feelings of guilt in different ways at different times - sometimes spurred to philathropy in an effort to try and find atonement for their past errors, one character want to know punishment for his past transgressions. At other times, it's clear that escapism seems the only door open. The background of Islam also adds an interesting dimension to the book - is guilt primarily something we should feel with respect to others, or to God?

As I read this book, I was reminded of Hebrews 10, which describes the conscience of the Christian as being 'cleansed', because of Jesus' death which deals with our sin. We are reconciled to God and know that we are truly loved, even by the one we have offended. It is a wonderful thing to know the cleansing and healing that life with God brings.

I would commend The Kite Runner to anyone. It's not a pleasant read, nor is it a comfortable read. However, it is surely vital reading for those who want to understand Afghanistan better, but also for those who want to think more about the nature of friendship, betrayal, guilt and forgiveness.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

On holiday

I'm away on holiday with my wife getting some sunshine - I'll return to blogging when I get back to work in early September.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Playing the Moldovans at tennis

I've just finished reading Tony Hawks' brilliant book Playing the Moldovans at Tennis - a story of how a bet in a pub led to adventures all across Eastern Europe.

In short, Hawks bet a friend that he'd be able to beat all members of the Moldovan national football team at tennis. This book records his attempt to do so.

It's a fun read - and there's plenty of good laughs. However, what I particularly loved was Hawks' brilliantly observed descriptions. Although he visited Moldova seven years before me, his descriptions of towns and just Moldova in general ring very true. Perhaps what made me smile most was his descriptions of the ways in which he contended with the fatalist Moldovan psyche. He's generally sympathetic in describing a country very different from our own - a country in transition, and with a lot less hope for the future than we're used to. I think he had a similar experience of Moldovans - wonderfully friendly once you get to know them, and they begin to trust you.

I miss Moldova. In fact, it's the only country in the world I've ever had a lump in my throat whilst leaving. In honesty I don't miss the cold showers, the toilets, the food and the general low quality of life there. But I really loved the people, and I hope I get the chance to return soon, and hopefully many times in the future. It's a very humbling experience as you are made to realise that there are people even in Europe who long for many of the things that we take for granted. The Christians there stick out like a sore thumb because they have hope. And in a country without much hope, it's also a remind that Jesus really is the hope of the nations.

Romans: convicting devout Jews of their need for Jesus

I've been re-reading Romans recently, and one of the questions which I've had in the early chapters is this: how does Paul convict his Jewish readers of their sinfulness?

I've realised that in some ways I'm quite out of my depth already in thinking things through - anything below should be read as much thoughts out loud. I've not really read enough 'new perspective' material to really know what I'm talking about at all.

However, something which I think I've fallen into in reading Romans before is caricaturing Judaism. It's very easy to read these chapters and to assume that the Jews whom Paul addressed were just relying upon their actions to make them right before God. And I guess it's possible that Paul could have been addressing a particularly legalistic group of Jews - the gospels show that legalism was widespread at least amongst the Pharisees that Jesus addressed.

However, this doesn't seem to be the basis of being right with God that is described in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament - and particularly in the book of Exodus - God makes it clear that the people of Israel have been chosen to him in a covenant on the basis of grace alone. The Law is given to a people that have already been redeemed, and with in comes the sacrificial system - which reminded the people that grace was at the very centre of all of God's dealings so that he could go on living amongst a sinful people. In other words, to be a devout Jew in the Old Testament was to be devoted to God because of the grace he had shown, therefore seeking to live out God's law and to trust in the grace of his sacrifices when one falls short. Through this sacrifices, God had promised to forgive.

So, making the assumption that Paul is addressing these Jews and not more legalistic Jews in Romans, what is his argument? It appears to me to be something like this:

- 2:1-5: Jews cannot think that they are outside of God's judgement, because they too fall short of God's standards; God's covenant does not give a Jew the opportunity to sin with impunity - instead it should bring them to repentance;
- 2:6-16: God's basis for judgement is based on works that a person has done. This is true for all: God shows no favouritism and judges universally.
2:17-3:8: The blessings of the covenant (including circumcision, the outward sign of being part of God's people) do not in themselves bring impunity from judgement. To assume that these blessings themselves save is to misunderstand the reason why these covenant blessings were granted to Jews. Jews are hugely privileged as God's people - but hold no ultimate advantage in facing God's judgement. The blessings were given to draw the Jewish people to repentance.
3:9-20: All people, including Jews, are 'under sin': there is no way for any person - either Jew or Gentile - to achieve God's ultimate standard of good works. The Law makes us conscious of sin and the need to repent.

I think this is the flow of Paul's argument. In the OT, this would have showed itself amongst Jews in a commitment to the sacrificial system - which in itself was forward looking to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ (3:21-26). Without placing faith in this sacrifice, Jews still face God's judgement: neither the privileges of the covenant or legalistic law keeping can save. True repentance will show itself in a commitment to the sacrificial provision of Jesus. And so Paul's warning to the Jewish members of the church in Rome is this: don't mistake the privileges and response to God's grace for the means for receiving this grace: that only comes through repentance and faith.

I guess this flow of argument might cause a person to say: if you are right, Paul, then why did God bother with the covenant? - something which he begins to cover in chapters 2-3, but returns to later in the letter to the Romans.

Be interested to hear your thinking on this....

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Snippets from Romans 1

Three snippets that jumped out at me from Romans 1:1-17 as I was meditating on it.

(1) 'Called to belong to Jesus Christ' (verse 6) - I love this idea of belonging! Verse 5 makes it clear that the proper response to the gospel is obedience to Jesus, but this goes alongside the idea that Christians are the Lord's very own.

(2) 'I am bound both to Greeks and barbarians' (verse 14) - this is obscured in the NIV which has 'Greeks and non-Greeks'. Paul makes it clear that his calling as apostle to the Gentiles was to all Gentiles, regardless of social standing or educational background. I wonder what Paul would make of the British evangelical church, which seems to be so skewed to the middle classes.

(3) 'I am not ashamed of the gospel' (verse 16) can apparently be accurately rendered 'I am not disappointed by the gospel'. As Paul reflects on his apostolic ministry and all it has involved as he has sought to plant it into the lives of many Gentiles, he can say that he has not been disappointed by the gospel. Why? Because the gospel does what it says - it brings salvation for all people, based solely on faith.

Restless hearts

Driving back from a wedding in the early hours of Sunday morning, it was interesting to hear Radio Five Live's Stephen Nolan discussing why so many phenomenally successful celebrities are so unhappy - Amy Winehouse's admittance into rehab and 'suicidal tendencies' just the latest incarnation.

It was amazing to hear the range of views expressed on why celebrities are unhappy. One panellist refused to believe that rich and successful celebrities were unhappy at all. He put Amy Winehouse's recent confessions down to wanting to promote herself, and the lyrics of those like Robbie Williams as merely wanting to seek attention. He was quite convinced that being rich and successful would definitely lead to happiness and refused to think otherwise. I have to say that Stephen Nolan seemed to think otherwise. In one of the most moving parts of the programme; despite admitting to earn twenty times the amount of some of the happiest people he knew, and despite having won more Sony awards for broadcasting than any other person, Nolan confessed to still not being happy, and far less happy than many of those around him.

Other panellists and those that phoned in gave other reasons for the unhappiness of so many successful celebrities. I guess that many of us will be familiar with the insatiability of wanting just a little bit more: one person, for example, put Robbie Williams' unhappiness and restlessness down to the fact that he'd yet to conquer America. No matter how famous a person is, there's always someone that little bit more successful or in vogue. Another person suggested that famous people are seeking to find their pleasures in the wrong places, in things and not people, which is no doubt at least partly true.

However, what stuck out for me in the discussion was the suggestion that, actually, it's the fear of the future that cripples many celebrities. No matter how successful they are now - and no matter how many 'trimmings' come with that success - there is no guarantee of success and acceptance in the future. Amy Winehouse is currently phenomenally popular and acclaimed, receiving awards right, left and centre. But what guarantee is there of her future? I guess Robbie Williams is perhaps a case in point: just a couple of years ago, easily the most popular solo artist in Britain. Now we're all beginning to think that his bubble has burst. And so perhaps it's realising that their lives - including their success - are so fragile, that successful celebrities are left crippled and paranoid.

The gospel of grace, of course, addresses this need. God's acceptance of us is not based upon our latest record or any performance of us at all. He loves us deeply as we are and through Jesus' sacrifice the guarantee of our relationship with him is made, regardless of what we do and how things turn in the future. God's grace - his unconditional acceptance of us - guarantees us a wonderful future of love in relationship with him and an unshakeable identity as his children. This, it seems, is what so many celebrities crave - but overlook in Jesus.

You can 'listen again' to Stephen Nolan's Saturday programme here.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Wedding sermons

This morning I'm writing the sermon for the wedding of some friends of mine that were students in Lancaster, Greg and Alex.

Greg and Alex have asked that the message is evangelistic, as they'll have lots of people at their wedding that aren't Christian. I'm finding it quite tough - because whilst they want me to speak about Jesus, I'm figuring that most people there will want me to talk about Greg and Alex!

Fortunately they've picked a great passage - Matthew 7:24-29 - which tells us of Jesus' incredible authority in his teaching. But please pray for me as I put this talk together!

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

You Pharisee!

Perhaps one of the things that we're clearest on when reading the gospels is this: the Pharisees are the 'bad guys'. Yet quite why Jesus is so critical of the Pharisees is, I think, sometimes misunderstood by many.

It's often assumed that whenever we read of Jesus criticising the Pharisees that he is criticising the religion and spirituality of all who held to the Old Testament Law. People understand Jesus to be criticising the desire to want to keep the Old Testament Law. This is an error. In fact, the sect of Pharisees was not established until after the return from exile. The Pharisees themselves claimed theological descendency from Ezra. However, history shows that the Pharisees probably did not become part of mainstream Judaism until after 400BC.

Jacob Neusner, a Jewish writer, explains that what set the Pharisees apart from other Jewish believers of the time was their approach to the Old Testament Law. He suggests that the Pharisees interpreted Exodus 19:3-6 literally – i.e. that God wanted all members of the people of Israel to act as literal priests. This meant that the Pharisees believed that all Jewish men should observe all of the rules and rituals concerning purification that were originally given to the Temple priesthood alone. In addition, a massive number of traditions, which the Pharisees rooted in the unrecorded oral teachings of Moses, held an authority alongside the written Law.

In some cases the traditions of the Pharisees led them to extend what the law required. The Law, for example, requires priests to bathe themselves before entering the Temple to make sacrifices. But the Pharisees demanded washings before all meals. Other laws – for instance, those governing the Sabbath alluded to in the gospels – also had extra-Biblical rulings added by the Pharisees.

With this background, we can see that much of Jesus' teaching - where he has often been understood to be criticising Law keeping - is actually criticising the traditions of the Pharisees.

A clear example of this is shown in Mark 7:1-13. In this passage, the Pharisees (and, according to Mark 7:3, 'all', which seems to mean all observant Jews) were attempting to ensure that they were in what they considered to be a state of ritual purity when they ate their everyday meals, in order that their food would remain ritually pure. However, the shock here is that nothing is said in the Law about ritually washing hands before eating everyday meals; this set of rules must have been added by the Pharisees. Similarly, there's nothing about purifying cooking and eating utensils in the Law, apart from those used in Temple worship (see Leviticus 11:32-35; 15:12; Numbers 19:15), even though the Pharisees demanded this. And so the question asked by the Pharisees of Jesus and his disciples in this passage is not why they are breaking the OT Law, but why why Jesus and his disciples did not abide by the Pharisees' written regulations.

Jesus is not anti-Law in this episode. In fact, both Mark’s narrative and Jesus’ teaching uphold the source of the Law as coming from God. Jesus’ criticism is not of the desire of ordinary Jews to seek to keep the Law. Instead, Jesus criticises the placement of man-made burdensome traditions above those of God (including the Pharisees teaching regarding ‘corban’, which does not appear in the Law) and legalistic self-righteousness (which in itself was never designed to be a feature of the old covenant) above actually wanting to keep the covenant, shown in obedience to the Law. Thus the Pharisees ‘nullify the word of God’ by the traditions that they have passed down, which take precedence over why the Law was originally given.

This context is vital when we consider Jesus' teaching on food laws, that appears later in the chapter (in verses 17-19). At a first glance, it appears that Jesus repeals the laws of clean and unclean meats from Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. But as we have seen, the subject of the discussion is not food in general. It does not regard which meats are clean or unclean. The Greek word used in verse 19 is ‘food’. Apparently an entirely different Greek word, kreas, is used in the NT where meat is specifically intended (see Romans 14:21; 1 Corinthians 13:8 etc.). So this passage concerns the general subject of food rather than meat.

Verses 1-2 and verse 5 helps us understand the context: the subject debated concerns eating ‘with unwashed hands’, and the traditions of the oral law. Food laws are not in question here. The topic is ritual purity based on religious traditions of the oral law. The disciples were being criticized for not following the proper procedure of ceremonial hand-washing prescribed by these revered religious traditions, not for the foods they were eating.

Jesus explains that ceremonial washing is not necessary for spiritual purity or spiritual health. In fact, whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods (verses 18-19). Dirt not removed through elaborate hand-washing will be purged out by the human digestive system in a manner that has no bearing on the heart and mind of a person. Since spiritual purification must involve the heart, the traditional ceremonial washings of the Pharisees are ineffective and unnecessary in preventing spiritual defilement.

Jesus' over-riding point in this chapter is, I think, this: the Pharisaic traditions have presented the will of God from being done. Their religious traditions and misunderstanding of Scripture is preventing people from making the right response to the covenant: a humble obedience to God's Law. And so Jesus rejects the Pharisaic traditions and vehemently rejects them.

Which leaves us, I think, with an interesting question that I've been mulling over: What traditions do we have today amongst God's people that prevent the will of God from being done? What do you think?

Monday, 6 August 2007

Trusting in the power of God's word

On Sunday I preached at Moorlands Evangelical Church, my church in Lancaster, on the subject of wives and husbands from 1 Peter 3:1-7.

I was fairly concerned about this task: only having been married for eight weeks myself, I didn't exactly have very much marital experience of my own to bring. Add to this phrases such as 'wives, submit to your husbands' and the wife being referred to as 'the weaker partner' and it felt like there was quite a task on my hands!

Well, praise God that he speaks through his word by his Spirit: something I was reminded of again on Sunday. I tried to let the passage speak for itself as much as possible, and was delighted to chat afterwards with an engaged couple, a woman who had been married for more than fifty years, and a divorced man, all of whom said that God had spoken to them through the passage.

Praise God that the preacher's task is not to preach himself! Thank goodness that a sermon is not for a preacher to broadcast their theories or opinions. As John Stott puts it, 'we are trustees of God's revelation, and are determined above all else to be faithful in our stewardship.'

Incidentally, if you would like to listen to the sermon, it's available online at

Friday, 3 August 2007

Book Review: 'Integrity' (Jonathan Lamb)

'When leaders at any level fail to live with integrity,' writes author Jonathan Lamb, 'the fallout is deadly serious. It poisons the community, destroys trust, torpedoes a coherent and unified mission and, most seriously, betrays the cause of Christ's gospel and dishonours the God whom we serve.'

'But,' he goes on, 'when Christian leaders live their words, keep their promises, serve their community - in short, show us Jesus Christ - then Christian community is built and Christian mission is enhanced.'

One of the most powerful parts of the book Integrity, by Jonathan Lamb, is when he outlines quite what is at stake in whether we live or not with integrity. Not only does a community without integrity see trustworthiness soon disintegrate, but it has a massive effect on our outreach too. As he commonly does, Lamb looks to society to provide his illustrations:

In a recent speech at Georgetown University in Washington, Tony Blair called on the West not to give up on its moral responsibilities to the subjugated peoples of the world. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown commented in The Independent that this was 'an idealistic message immediately contaminated by the messenger. His words sounded fraudulent, because he had lied over Iraq and was contemptuous of the UN. The resulting cynicism has spread from east to west.' Whatever our view of the intervention in Iraq and its aftermath, we understand her point: this was an idealistic message apparently contaminated by the messenger. People stop listening. They become cynical not just about the messenger, but also about the credibility of the message itself.

Jonathan Lamb is clearly passionate about integrity, and that shines through in his book. Outlining in the early chapters what he means by the word 'integrity' - that is a commitment to the sincerity of pure motives, the consistency of living life as a whole, and the reliability of seeking to reflect God's faithfulness - Lamb then goes on to show how the apostle Paul lived this out in his own life. The majority of Lamb's content comes from Paul's writings in 2 Corinthians, where the apostle was under pressure. He was accused of being completely unreliable, promising to visit the Corinthians and then not turning up. He was accused of acting deviously and insincerely: instead of being transparent, he had been accused of being evasive. And so Paul's defence of his integrity in 2 Corinthians can teach us a great deal about the subject of leading with integrity.

There are several stand-out chapters in this book: I was helped tremendously by the chapter on confronting failure and humbled by the chapter on status and true ambition. There are useful chapters on showing integrity in handling money and in exercising authority. Perhaps above all, though, I will remember the section on Paul's sacrificial love and parent-like concern for those amongst whom he ministered. Lamb introduces what he calls the 'for your sake' test: Is my first concern for the best interests of others? Will I go to any length to care for others? When such service is thrown back in one's face, it's difficult to keep persevering in love. But, as Lamb writes,

Serving others, even those who reject us, is part of our Christian calling. We are doing nothing other than following the service of the Master. Jesus made the connection between service and rejection when he spoke to his disciples. 'For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many' (Mark 10:45). [...] So is my attitude 'here I am' or 'there you are'? It will not be easy, but it is worth pausing regularly to evaluate your motives. You are holding a responsibility in the church which perhaps takes a great deal of time and energy; you give up other things which you would have liked to do in order to take on thr role; and you are then faced with criticism. I am afraid it happens. It is not always intentionally hurtful, but when you have given of your best, and you are tired and drained, the critical reactions of others can be very wounding. That is the best time to assess if you are truly following in your Master's footsteps. That is a test of servant leadership.

I would commend this book as a great read for anyone in Christian leadership of any sort, within a local church, CU or other form of Christian ministry. It's not a quick read, nor will it be painless, but it will make you ask godly questions of your character regarding your personal integrity.

See also An Authentic Servant by Ajith Fernando - available for purchase here.