Sunday, 29 March 2009

A tool to help engage with philosophy and pop culture

I've recently come across a series of very useful books for those of us involved in cultural engagement, apologetics and evangelism.

Published by Wiley-Blackwell, the Philosophy and Pop Culture series helps the reader to get their heads around the various philosophies that popular films and television programmes both espouse and reflect. Why is it that we find David Brent so ridiculous? What is the form of philosophy that drives Jack Bauer? These are amongst the questions that the books investigate. As well as 24 and The Office, there are also guides on other series including Battlestar Galatica, Family Guy, Lost, South Park and the Batman films, amongst others. You can view the full list of titles here.

The books aren't easy reads (especially the one I read on 24). It's academic philosophers that have written the chapters. But I found the guides both helpful in illustrating quite abstract philosophical ideas, and in helping me to engage with the ideas these shows present and play around with. I'm hoping that as well as deepening my appreciation of these programmes, the books have armed me with new material for sermons and lunchbars.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Joel and the gift of the Spirit

I'm studying through Joel at the moment with the Relay Workers. It's been a real treat. This week we arrived at God's restoration of blessings following the repentance of the people in chapter 2.

Verses 18-27 are beautiful. I was particularly struck by the phrase, 'I will repay the years the locusts have eaten' - what grace! The people deserved the covenant curse that they had received, but not only is the LORD happy to restore them to parity upon repentance, but then repays them for that curse! A marvellous reminder that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

But it was verses 28-32 that particularly struck me afresh. They're the famous verses that are quoted by Peter at Pentecost, explaining the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. In Joel these verses are tied to the section of blessing for God's people. It appears to me that there are two blessings here:

  • Firstly, that the Holy Spirit himself will be poured out generously on all of 'Israel' - that is, that all God's people will have the same Spirit that caused Joel to speak out and write his prophecy. In some ways, all of God's people will be 'Joels', having a far more intimate relationship with the LORD than before;
  • But - and here was what was new for me - the second blessing is that the gift of the Holy Spirit is tied to the deliverance of Jerusalem and Zion. The LORD promises that the gift of the Spirit will be closely linked to the day of the LORD - a time of judgement and deliverance. In fact, the pouring out of the Spirit is a sign that judgement against God's enemies is coming - and with this judgement comes a final deliverance of those that call on the name of the LORD.
This second point is, of course, stated propositionally in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit is a deposit, an engagement ring, a foretaste. It's sometimes difficult to see God's final judgement in positive terms, but that is how it is stated in Joel. At last we will know the full extent of the relationship for which we have been saved. At last our bodies will be redeemed. Sometimes that seems like a far-off illusion. But the gift of the Holy Spirit proves it to be a reality.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Bureaucracy and the glory of God

So the last few weeks have been punctuated by regular phone calls to Moldova, last minute faxes (I'd never even sent a fax before two weeks ago!) and lots of prayer.

UCCF in the North West has had a long-standing commitment to partnering with the IFES movement in Moldova, CSC. As part of this, we raised money for two Moldovan Christian students to come over to be part of the New Word Alive conference. On paper, it sounded easy. In reality, it's been really hard work to try and make this opportunity happen. It feels that at every turn, we have been thwarted.

As I write, the British Embassy are still looking over the paper work over the Moldovans that are due to come over. Their flight is due to leave at 5.30am Moldovan time tomorrow. In some ways it's a miracle that we've got this far. I'm praying like mad that the visas will be granted in the next three hours and this time tomorrow I'll have met the Moldovan brothers at Heathrow.

The last few days have been a strange mixture of emotions. I've been absolutely humbled and forced to rely on God. I've examined my heart. I've argued in prayer. I've told God that (although I could be wrong) I can't possibly see how he gets more glory with these Moldovan lads staying at home. I can't see why God would want these resources of time and sacrificial giving apparently wasted. I've wondered whether God is wanting to change me in this whole process so I'm called to rely more wholeheartedly on him.

Funnily enough (some might say sovereignly!) I've just found myself writing this paragraph as I put together some cell notes for the University of Cumbria CU on 1 Samuel 1-2:

Hannah’s story should not be read as a promise that God will always remove physical problems, or that he will always get rid of barrenness amongst godly women (although it’s true that the passage does underline the power of believing prayer). The main thing that the writer is trying to illustrate is God’s sovereignty over events: Samuel will become a great and much-needed leader in Israel. If Hannah had had a son at an earlier date, she would never have left him at the house of the LORD in Shiloh. Because Samuel did grow up there, God was preparing him for his future life – to be a man of God and prophet, used to the public gaze and ready for leadership of Israel.
I guess that, regardless of whether or not the visas come through, God works out all things for the good of those who love him. It's a truth I'm still learning.

UPDATE: The British Embassy has closed for the day. I'm about to see if we can change the dates of the Moldovans' flights. I pray on.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Put on the armour of God (Ephesians 6:10-20)

Here's a draft of a message I'm bringing tomorrow to Chester CU. Any thoughts or comments would be most welcome as I've struggled a bit putting it together!

There’s probably no-one here that has been involved in a war time situation. But we all know that the realities of war make people behave very differently. A friend of mine, Jonny, has a brother currently serving in Afghanistan. And that makes Jonny behave differently. He talks about his brother regularly. He emails him and prays for him with gut-wrenching concern for his safety. He’s terrified he might get hurt.

Everything must get ratcheted up a further level when you are in a country that is being ravaged by war. The newspapers there daily carry headlines about how the troops are doing. I spoke once to a person who’d been caught up as war erupted in Kosovo. He said you’d have to be on the alert all the time. You might have to be armed. You’d certainly have to be vigilant. A war touches everybody.

We mustn’t miss the wood from the trees when we come to what, for many of us, is a familiar passage. Paul’s headline is: if you are a Christian, life is a war for you. And the stakes are very high. The war is much worse even than what’s going on in Afghanistan. Verse 12 describes the enemy: ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ In other words, the enemy being spoken about is Satan (that is, the devil) and his demonic powers. That’s why the spiritual war we are in is more serious even than the most awful physical war we can imagine. Satan is a much worse enemy than any earthly enemy. In war, the worst that can happen in physical death – but in the war Paul is talking about the danger is eternal death. And the war is not restricted just to one part of the world, but is in every town and city in the world where there are Christians. The stakes are very high.

Now this passage is written to Christians. What is written is for you if you have turned back to God and personally trusted in Jesus for yourself. There are probably some here tonight that have not yet turned to Jesus. Well, you need to know that Paul – the writer of the passage – holds the conviction that those who are not trusting in Jesus are in serious trouble. Jesus himself said that it’s better to lose an arm or an eye than to enter the hell of everlasting torment, where a person loses everything, including their very soul. It’s because Paul doesn’t want Christians to fall into hell that he writes this section of Ephesians, encouraging Christians to stand firm. As you hear the war that Christians are in described, and as you realise how terrifying the prospect of being without Jesus is, I hope that those of you that aren’t Christians will realise the seriousness of your current situation without him.

For the rest of the evening, I want to look at this amazing passage by thinking about four questions.

Firstly, who is our enemy and why he is so intent on waging war against Christians?

We’ve already seen that the enemy is the devil. Now I think most Christians aren’t very balanced when it comes to thinking about the devil. The Christian author CS Lewis once wrote: ‘There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about demons and the demonic. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.’

Both of these extremes find expression amongst Christians today. There are those who seem to be unhealthily interested the world of the demonic and appear to see a demon hiding around just about every street corner. Here Satan seems to receive as much attention as Jesus does – sometimes even more so. A person loses their car keys or gets a cold and they attribute it to the work of a demon.

On the other hand, some Christians have effectively airbrushed out anything supernatural from their beliefs, and so end up more or less ignoring the spiritual dimension altogether. When their evangelism is ineffective these Christians immediately blame lack of training or inadequate techniques rather than recognising the work of the devil blinding people's minds. When Christians slip up, it’s easier to blame society rather than the one who is working through that society: the devil.

Satan is, of course, quite happy with Christians at either extreme. Whether we give him sensational attention or effectively ignore him, he is able to get away with his work in the world – through creating fear or through creating apathy. What we need is the balanced perspective which the Bible gives. And the place where this is laid out most clearly for us is in Ephesians 6. Here we learn about true spiritual warfare.

The Bible teaches us that the essential character of the devil is wicked and evil. He stands against God – and therefore against God’s people – with an icy hatred that is much greater than any earthly metaphor. The devil is the arch enemy of the Lord Jesus. There are several words given in Scripture to describe the devil’s personality – proud, powerful, evil, clever, deceitful, fierce and cruel. He feels extreme contempt for Christians. You should never feel sorry for the devil or under-estimate his dedication to destroy you.

Now God has made it clear that we will have trouble and difficulty as we work our lives out in spiritual warfare with an enemy that seeks to destroy us, but he has also reminded us that Satan is a defeated foe. 1 John 3:8 says that Jesus came to defeat the works of the devil. At the cross, Jesus defeated Satan and gained all authority in heaven and on earth. At the cross, what Satan thought was his greatest victory in taking crucifying Christ was his greatest defeat. The cross shows us that all of Satan’s work in setting human hearts against God, and all of the ways in which this shows itself in the world, will one day be wiped away. The whole of the Universe will one day be reconciled to God and put right. In that respect, Satan is defeated. Jesus’ death and resurrection means that Satan’s downfall is assured and his doom is certain when Jesus returns. But, in the meantime, Satan exists to do all the damage he can possibly do to thwart God’s purpose and work. He wants to prevent non-believers from trusting Jesus, he wants to lead Christians into sin and even to the point where they abandon trust in Jesus. He wants to blunt the witness of your church and your CU. Above all, Satan hates God getting the glory he deserves.

In verse 12 Paul employs a vivid image to depict this war. He describes it as a ‘struggle’: ‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’

Paul probably has the wrestling matches of his day in mind when he speaks of struggle (not WWE but Roman wrestling). It’s as if Paul says, “You can go to the games and see how in a wrestling bout men get to grips with each other. It’s all close contact, it is painful, it uses every muscle, and they do not let go until they have won. They struggle. And that is what it is like wrestling with the devil. This warfare is deadly serious. It is hand to hand combat. And there is a danger of being knocked out and falling into the eternal death of hell, which the devil longs for you.”

This struggle is unrelenting and constant. In verse 13, when Paul speaks of standing ‘when the day of evil comes’, he is talking about the period between Jesus’ first coming and his second coming, when he will return to judge and restore the Universe. In other words, it has been ‘the evil day’ for the last two thousands years and it is the ‘evil day’ today. When we think of demonic opposition, we tend to think of supernatural experiences and demonic possession. And the devil certainly can use these things. But these things are just the tip of the iceberg when we think about the devil’s opposition.

The devil’s opposition tends to be much more subtle. He tempts us: he longs for us deny the Lordship of Jesus in our life; he plays into our own weaknesses to discredit our witness or to make us doubt God’s goodness. The Bible tells us that Satan uses false teaching amongst Christians to get his way, and can even quote Scripture. We also know that Satan tries to destroy those human relationships that God has designed to bring glory to him. Satan likes nothing more than destroying a God-glorifying marriage or dividing a gospel-centred church so that it can’t witness to the Lord Jesus. Satan is very subtle. He knows us much better than we know ourselves – and he uses this knowledge to try and cause us to fall, to abandon our hope in Jesus and so that the gospel about Jesus is not preached and lived.

Now, I’ve spent quite a while on the first question, because I wanted you to see how serious the situation is for Christian. And it brings us to our second question: how on earth can we going to meet this attack of Satan?

Look at verse 13: ‘Therefore, put on the full armour of God...’ The picture Paul gives us is of a Roman soldier carefully putting on his armour to be ready for battle. If even one item is missing then it could spell disaster. Your life depends on getting it right. In other words, despite the very real threat of Satan and his evil powers, God is able to keep Christians from falling and the way he keeps Christians from falling is by fitting us for successful spiritual combat. So if your aim is to keep going in the Christian life and not be defeated by the schemes of the devil, then you must put on the armour described in these verses. This is how God means to keep Christians safe until Jesus returns.

Since the gospel shapes and undergirds the whole of Paul's thinking and action, it should come as no surprise that it does so at this point as he goes through the items of a Christian's spiritual armoury.

Firstly, Paul says, use the pieces of armour that cause you to saturate yourself in the gospel. This is what Paul is getting at when he tells Christians to ‘put on the breastplate of righteousness’ in verse 14. Embrace the gospel. Keep preaching to yourself what Christ has done for you. Keep telling yourself that, if you are a Christian, your status before God is one where you are accepted completely. You are righteous – that is you are right with God – in God’s sight because Christ has taken the filthy rags of your sin on himself on the cross and has placed around your shoulders the gleaming robe of his righteousness. As God looks at you, it’s as if he sees Jesus. One of Satan’s tactics is to ‘tempt us to despair’ as the song puts it. He makes us think we’re too bad to come back to God when we’ve slipped up. Well, listen to the words of the song: ‘When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within, upward I look and see him there who made an end to all my sin. Because the sinless Saviour died, my sinful soul is counted free. For God the Just is satisfied to look at him and pardon me.’ Don’t believe Satan’s lie. Jesus’ sacrifice is completely sufficient. Remember: you are never too bad to come back to him.

A Christian friend of mine, Andy, once slipped up massively. He felt so guilty that he wondered whether God could ever take him back. One morning, Andy emailed another friend of ours saying he felt he was such a wretch and that felt he couldn’t go on as a Christian as he’d blown it for ever with God. Andy’s friend emailed him back just once sentence: “Amazing grace, how sweet a sound, that saves a wretch like me.” Andy was reminded of everything he had in Jesus. When the devil tried to knock Andy out, he could respond with the breastplate of righteousness.

I think this is linked to wearing the helmet of salvation and the shield of faith. A helmet is a piece of armour that protects the head, the brain. And what is the most important thing we can know? It is the fact that you are saved by grace alone in Jesus. So putting on the helmet of salvation means embracing the gospel as it really is. If we’ve put on the helmet of salvation, we’ll know that we have everything we need – complete salvation – in Jesus. Likewise, if you have the shield of faith, you’ll commit yourself to holding on and treasuring the truths of the gospel, even when it is hard to hold onto them. In short, putting on the helmet of salvation and holding onto the shield of faith means putting the gospel first and treasuring it. If you’ve done so, you won’t go off on theological tangents, majoring on minors or plugging your own hobby horse, but you’ll want to sink roots into Jesus as he really is. We put the gospel first.

Secondly, we’re to use the pieces of armour that cause us to live the gospel. Paul talks about wearing a ‘belt of truth’ in verse 14. In Ephesians, truth normally refers to integrity, a kind of goodness that permeates everything. So when we’re called to put on the belt of truth, we’re called to examine ourselves and check that we have an integrity that runs all the way through every area of our life.

One of the blights upon Christianity is when Christians are different people in different situations. I’m one person to one group of friends, and another person to a different group. Or I’m one person in public at CU on Tuesday, and a very different person on my own when the door is closed. We’re disciples of Jesus in only certain areas of our lives. Satan loves this kind of Jekyll and Hyde Christianity. For one thing, it causes Christians to con themselves that everything is fine when it isn’t. Many Christians are much closer to being knocked out by Satan than they think. For another thing, it means that this kind of Christian discipleship is half-hearted. You’ll never make brave decisions for Jesus that last in public if in private your heart is somewhere else. Perhaps above all Satan loves this kind of Christianity because it means that, in this atmosphere amongst Christians, under-handed motives thrive. Tensions amongst Christians, false teaching and power games start in this way.

Some of you will have watched the film Chariots of Fire, the true story about the runner Eric Liddell. Well, after the 1924 Olympics, Liddell went as a missionary to China where he travelled from village to village on foot and by bicycle sharing the gospel. During World War II the Japanese invaded China. Liddell was branded, along with many others Westerners, as an ‘enemy national.’ In 1943 he was confined in a prison camp with thousands of other so-called nationalist enemies. While there he had an impact on the prison camp: he organized athletics events, conducted worship services, preached the gospel, counselled people, and comforted the sick and the dying. Liddell’s commitment to Jesus permeated every area of his life.

A man called David Michell was a child in the camp during that time. He later wrote of Liddell: "None of us will ever forget this man who was totally committed to putting God first, a man whose humble life combined muscular Christianity with radiant godliness in every area.” That is a description of someone with integrity, someone who evidently had put on the belt of truth. Can the same be said of us?

Thirdly, we come to the only offensive piece of armour: ‘the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God’. It’s this piece of armour, which will cause us to hold out the gospel. What is it that cuts into Satan's territory? What is it that causes him to shudder? It is when the gospel is proclaimed within a context where the gospel is lived out. That is when God's power is unleashed, for then through Word and Spirit people are liberated from Satan's snare, lives are changed and society is transformed, when God's truth is promoted and the devil's lies are dethroned.

A sociologist called Rodney Stark has written addressing why only Christianity amongst all the other religions of the day turned the Roman world upside down. He describes the cities of the time as places filled with ‘urban disorder, social dislocation, filth, disease, misery, fear and cultural chaos’. And, he says, Christianity alone provided a solution to these problems. Where people were gripped with the fear of death, the gospel of Jesus gave hope. Where self-centredness reigned, amongst the disciples of Jesus self-sacrifice became the order of the day. Instead of babies being left on the hill tops to die, Christians were moved by the gospel of Jesus to take them in and give them life. That is what the gospel of Jesus does when it is proclaimed and lived. As Paul writes in chapter 1, ‘You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of God, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed in him, you were marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.’ People are freed from slavery to the devil as they hear and believe the gospel. And so if you are serious about making headway in the battle against the devil, then you must be a group that is committed to living out and proclaiming the word of God.

Fourthly, says Paul, if you are serious about spiritual warfare, you will pray. Look at verses 18-20: 'Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.'

Now prayer is presented as something a bit like air-power that can cover us and others when we’re in a situation when fighting ourselves is by overwhelming. And notice what it is that Paul asks these Christians to pray for with regards to himself; not that God will enable him to get out of the prison in which he is rotting, or provide him with an extra blanket, but that he will proclaim that gospel. Why? I think for two reasons. Firstly, because as we have seen it’s this which causes the demons to shake as they lose their power, and second because gospel proclamation is not easy.

I’ve got to say that when I’m involved in some evangelistic ministry, like giving a talk to non-believers at a CU meeting or speaking at a mission week, that is when I will feel particularly under spiritual attack. Often while I am preparing there will be interruptions and distractions. As I bring the message, the battle goes right on. There are doubts (‘no one is listening’). I feel inadequate. A mobile phone goes off in the room at a crucial point in my message. It’s then when I feel the spiritual attack – I can almost smell the sulphur! And that is when I am also praying away at the same time as I am speaking: ‘Lord Jesus, please help me, give me everything I need’. And it’s when I’m aware I need the prayers of others. And so, says Paul, pray for all Christians everywhere all the time. But pray especially for each other’s witness to non-believers. It’s as we do this that the devil is going to target us especially. As we pray, let’s get serious about wrestling with these evil powers.

And so we come to our final question: what is the aim of the spiritual battle?

Quite simply, it’s ‘to stand’. Paul says this is explicitly in verses 13-14: ‘Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then...’

The important thing here is that Christians stand together. This command is written to a group of Christians; the ‘you’ here is plural. One of the reasons that the Roman army was so effective was because of their tactic of creating a phalanx. As the barbarian hordes rushed at the Roman army with screams and swords, the Romans stood together, shoulder to shoulder, shields overlapping, swords drawn, acting as one man, steadfast and immovable, forming what in effect was a human fort. There was strength in numbers. And it’s the same in the Christian fight. The New Testament writers assume that if you’re a Christian, you’ll be active in a local church. When my shield of faith begins to slip, I need the Christians around me to cover me with theirs. When the trust of Christians around me is waning, I need to uphold them with mine. Christians need each other.

Make no mistake. We’re in a war. Our foe is mighty and frightening; he hates us and would, given the power, destroy us and cast us into hell. But our Saviour, Jesus, is mightier still and he loves us. He has given us everything we need. And that is the heart of the gospel message.

Let us pray.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Who will reach the north of England?

I've been in the north of England for nearly five years now. It certainly wasn't my plan to move this way, nor did I envisage my move northwards being any more than a brief foray. But the Lord has other plans, and now it seems that we're set to be in the north of England for the forseeable future.

One of the things that has struck me in the north of England is the comparitive need of the Church here compared to the south of England. I guess I'd always assumed that the needs of the gospel were fairly similar across the UK. But this isn't the case.

Most recently, I came across this article from Tearfund. The statistics aren't full and there's a lot more going on, but I was impacted by the paragraph showing the groups of people that are consistently under represented in UK church attendance (the figures are the percentage of people that attend church at least once a year - the UK figure for adults was 26%):

  • Men (21%)
  • 16-24s (16%)
  • 25-34s (22%)
  • C2 social class i.e. skilled manual (21%)
  • DE social class i.e. unskilled labour and unemployed (22%)
  • single people (19%)
  • council tenants (19%)
  • NE region (18%)
  • Yorkshire & Humberside (17%)
  • Wales (24%).
I guess there'd be quite a lot of cross over between some of these categories. The headline is, I think, clear. It's the poorer areas in the north of England where church attendance is at its very lowest. (Interestingly, the north west of England had also featured in previous surveys as being under-represented but church attendance apparently shot up 8% last year - possibly a sign for optimism but possibly a statistical anomaly).

I think this fact has been brought home to me personally over recent years. In my region of the north west, the churches are generally reaching middle class people (certainly evangelicals seem to be making barely any impression on the working classes). There have been a number of occasions when northern students have become Christians through CUs and we've wanted to recommend an evangelical church in their home town, only to realise their isn't one.

What is to be done? I'm pleased to see that Tim Chester and co. and others are seeking to buck the trend. I'm seeking to do my bit too (and getting a reputation for it!) - through encouraging fairly footloose Christian graduates to stay in the north (whether in full time paid Christian ministry or not). Often more attractive jobs are in the south of England (both in secular work and Christian ministry). But we need to ask - if we are not to reach the poorer northern towns with the gospel, who will?

Monday, 16 March 2009

How should Christians go about their university studies?

I'm currently involved in writing a resource for college students and Sixth Formers who are heading to university. Here is a short piece that I've started writing on Christians and university studies: what do you reckon?

Above all, Christians undertake their studies as acts of worship.

As Christians, we believe everything comes from God our Creator. Your brain, your aptitude at maths or history, your eye for design and your ability with your hands (delete as appropriate!) all come from him. Not only that, but he’s given us his world to steward, explore and enjoy. And that’s what you’re doing on your course.

When these realities hit home, you’ll want to humbly pursue excellence on your course. You’ll be humble as you use your God-given gifts to study, because you know that you never whipped them up from within yourself. Instead, you will want to use these gifts and skills to please God – simply because of who he is: the Creator and Lord of the Universe, and the God who loves so much.

Christians should want to offer their talents and abilities in their studies as an act of worship. That means that we will work hard, regardless of the grades we receive and when our studies aren’t fun. We won’t make an idol of our studies – because we know that we’re acceptable to God just as we are, regardless of whether we get that first (or 2:1). But we need never be ashamed of wanting to do our best in our studies provided that our motivation is to please and honour God, rather than to earn our own praise.

And we needn’t be scared of really engaging with the ideas that are taught on our courses. Some Christians sometimes give the impression that if they engage their brains in their studies too much, they might discover something that causes their beliefs to all come tumbling down. But the Bible claims to be public truth and not private fantasy. You may well come across challenges to Biblical Christianity on your course – but, if you do, don’t be afraid. If Christianity really is true, it will stand up to the hardest scrutiny.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Debaptism and institutional religion

Andy Jinks refers to a BBC article on the latest atheist statement against the institutional church: debaptism.

The article is worth a read, touching on subjects like the individual's freedom to religion, the role of theology and baptism, and the issue that seems to be dominating many atheists' soundbites: whether or not it is right to bring children up with religious beliefs.

It's interesting that original sin seems to be the thing that the guy in the article is particularly angry at. It's also interesting how the article closes:

The Church wonders aloud why, if atheists and secularists believe baptism is so meaningless, they are letting it upset them.

Mr Hunt supplies his own answer.

"Evangelical noises are getting louder and louder. The recent change in European legislation has led to religious beliefs not being challenged at all, and there's no limit at all on what anybody can claim as a valid religious belief. I think it's important that more people speak out and say they don't subscribe to the historic beliefs of the Church."

It still seems that many equate institutional Christianity with (abuses of) power, and that Christian beliefs are merely superstitious. What a challenge we Christians face in debunking these ideas.

God's grace of the model of Israel to the world

Tomorrow Linda and I will be teaching Deuteronomy 28 to the 11-14 year olds belonging to our church family. It's been quite a challenge getting to grips with it.

As Moses closes his sermon to the people of Israel on the edge of the Promised Land, he presents Israel with a choice. They can choose to obey the LORD (verse 2) - in which case they will experience unique blessings (verses 3-14). But disobedience to the LORD will also have unique consequences: those of curse (verses 15-68). The climax of this curse is described in verse 68: 'The LORD will set you back in ships to Egypt on a journey I said you should never make again. There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you.' The climax of the curse is slavery, humiliation and degradation.

These blessings and curses do not imply a kind of salvation by works. Salvation by believing God's promises and trusting him (supremely regarding the Messiah) is already an established pattern in Scripture by the time we get to Deuteronomy. Instead, God is using the people of Israel as a kind of model. Israel are to model to the nations what humble reliance on the LORD brings (blessing and life), and what life that removes the LORD from his rightful place is like (curse and death). That this is what is happening in Deuteronomy 28 is made explicit in verses 9-10, 36-37 and 47-48. Israel are a unique model - both in blessing and in curse. The LORD is teaching that human life must be LORD-centred if it is not to be a dangerous delusion.

The lesson being taught in Deuteronomy 28, however, is not new. Genesis 1-3 show that life that is lived in relationship with the LORD brings blessing and life (from the Author of life), whereas those who live out of relationship with God face death and judgement. Christians are not under the law - Galatians 3 makes it clear that in Christ we have no fear of curse and possess his unique blessing. Nor are the people of Israel aren't used in quite the same way today. But the message of Deuteronomy 28 still speaks clearly to us today: to have life centred on the LORD is to live life as it was created to be. How foolish we are to think that we can experience true blessing away from the LORD, the fount of blessing.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Where are the men?

OK, so there's loads of rubbish written about Christian masculinity (which says masculine = macho) and about men in church. The CUs that I work with are broadly representative of their campuses in terms of gender.

But one thing I am noticing is that - with a few notable exceptions - the students that are willing to hang their lives on discipleship to Jesus, and those who are willing to take real risks for the gospel, are female. This is particularly noticeable amongst first year students. Those who lead - in other words, those who lead by example - in sacrificial and radical discipleship, are almost all women. There seem to be lots of boys about but not many men.

No doubt part of this is to do with processes of maturity. I remember reading a few years ago that females mature more quickly than males. But it would seem to me from my perspective that there's a broader trend. Christian youth groups and festivals are good at keeping boys involved, but aren't encouraging them to take responsibility and to own their Christian discipleship for themselves. Why is this the case? Why is it that female students are much more likely to volunteer for summer teams? Why is it that those who are willing to count costs of friendship and reputation are women?

Where are the men?

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Franklyn: "If you believe in something strongly enough, who is to say whether it's real or not?"

Franklyn is a British film that is set between the parallel realities of modern-day London and a futuristic metropolis called Meanwhile City. The theme of the film is an examination of the link between reality and perceptions of reality.

The movie traces the lives of four people. Jonathan Preest is a masked vigilante of Meanwhile City (where he is the only atheist) - and he won't rest until he finds his nemesis, a religious leader known only as 'The Individual'. Emilia is a troubled young art student whose artwork mixes reality and hyper-reality. Milo is a jilted man who yearns for love. Peter is a man steeped in religion, searching desperately for his missing son amongst London's homeless. In the final scenes of the film, their lives dramatically coincide.

Although I enjoyed this film, its low-budget clearly showed. The acting was okay - although I was perhaps distracted by the fact that several of the actors are better known for roles on the small screen. Expect to see actors who've cut their teeth in The Bill, Life on Mars and Cracker. Bernard Hill (who was our next door neighbour once upon a time) was the standard actor, playing the character of Peter admirably.

The movie examines the relationship between perceptions of reality and 'reality' itself. Emilia's art blurs the distinction between her art and real life. Religious belief, psychosis and wish-fulfilment portrayed as other examples of when a perception of reality drives an individual so that they are not engaging with 'reality' at all. Hence the most powerful line of the film, spoken by Emilia, which is in the post title.

There's no doubt that this idea has some truth in it. In fact, I wondered whether the film really took this idea far enough - implying, as it did, that there are some who operate in life with no such filter - as if an atheistic, well-rounded, psychologically healthy person engages with reality alone. An so, according to the film, to recognise our psychological crutches and filters is to do away with them. But this is somewhat simplistic. Postmodern theorists have rightly shown us that each of us has only a shard's view of reality - we can't claim to see everything ourselves. It seems to me that the best way of thinking about life is the position of 'critical realism' - that there really is a real world, but that for all of us our cultural baggage and experiences affect how we live in it.

Northumbria CU mission update

Just a quick note from Northumbria...

Please do keep praying for the Free outreach here. It's been quite a struggle over recent days - there are a small number of committed CU members, but pray that more get involved over the next couple of days. I'm speaking on Mark 7 tonight at a pub quiz, and then Mark 8 tomorrow night. Pray that there's something of a gathering of momentum, and that we see some of the same faces coming back.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Free in Central Lancashire and Northumbria

I'm writing from Newcastle, where I am this week for the Free outreach organised by the University of Northumbria Christian Union.

I've not had a chance to update things here much. Last week, we had a brilliant time at the University of Central Lancashire's Free outreach in Preston. All of the events were packed and it was brilliant to be partnered by my friend Andrew Norbury who presented Jesus from Mark's Gospel at each event. There is something very special about working with people time and again, especially when you have learned almost by intuition what they are thinking. Paul modelled this with Silas, Timothy and the others. It was great to have a taste of ongoing gospel partnership with Andrew last week. The week built on a steady but discernible growth in love for Jesus and in passion for evangelism amongst the CU members. Thursday night was particularly brilliant - nearly 100 crammed in for a three course meal prepared by CU members and Andrew's message entitled 'Free from guilt'.

This week I'm speaking each day here in Newcastle. The lunchbar today provided a solid start to the week's events. Tonight I'm speaking on 'Free from spin: will the real Jesus please stand up.' The CU here is less experienced in evangelism and this is the first time they've had a single speaker at their events for the whole week. I can't help feeling a sense of anticipation in launching these students into a lifetime of speaking for Jesus.

Please do pray for me over the coming week, especially as I've damaged tendons in my right foot which is causing my energy levels to sap more quickly than normal. I'm very aware that I'm a jar of clay (which is a good thing) - pray I'd rely on Jesus as I seek to present him as the supreme treasure this week.