Sunday, April 30, 2006

This month I am mostly listening to...

The Boatman’s Call by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God,’ the opening line of the first track on this classic Nick Cave album. An album that is very dark but makes for great background music. How come pop music can sound great even when the lyrics speak of doom, gloom, and God-less despair? There is hardly one cheerful song, although ‘There is a kingdom’ does try to inject some hope for the future. It feels as if Cave is mourning some deep loss. Inevitably the loss of a lover if I’m hearing the songs right. His juxtaposition of faith in God with faith in the hope of recovered love is a common enough theme. It grates for me to write this, but even though some of the lyrics are just wrong (theologically wrong), you can feel the power of them… you know what Cave is getting at. Can our theodicy learn anything from lyrics like the one below?

Best lyric, in its context of course, is from brompton oratory:

No God up in the sky
No devil beneath the sea
Could do the job that you did
Of bringing me to my knees

Outside I sit on the stone steps
With nothing much to do
Forlorn and exhausted, baby
By the absence of you

Favourite tracks:

lime-tree arbour
brompton oratory
there is a kingdom
(are you) the one that I’ve been waiting for?
idiot prayer

Friday, April 28, 2006

My last essay...!

Below, I've posted my last essay as a student at Glasgow University. Probably not one of my better efforts, but it does include some radical thoughts about funerals. The essay was about the reinvention of rites of passage, for a class called Worship Ritual and Belief - one of the best classes I've taken over the last three years.


My experience of rituals surrounding dying and death has increased during the last three years through personal experience and through my professional training for Christian ministry. My knowledge about such rituals has increased too. I only read about historic Reformed attitudes to funeral services at the beginning of my current university work. This essay allows me the opportunity to share my developing thoughts about the place of funerals in Scottish society with reference to Christian ministers.

In a recent report prepared to mark the end of a training placement I wrote the following remarks:

Pastoral reflection has included discussion … about the purpose of funerals, an
ongoing concern in my preparation for ministry. I am still unpersuaded about the
reasons for Church of Scotland ministers dedicating themselves to funerals and
bereavement pastoral care in a pluralistic Scotland. I am beginning to think
that ministers should restrict such practice to caring for church members
through bereavement. This is a conclusion based on study through the Worship
Ritual and Belief course at Glasgow University, conference speakers at recent
candidate conferences, and personal reflection on my experience of grieving and
bereavement. The basis for this thinking is my growing conviction that there is
a difference between pastoral care for church members (or Christians), and
pastoral care for non-church members (or non-Christians).


It strikes me that the re-invention of rites of passage in Scotland is something that is already happening. The problem for qualitative reflection on this change can be described by considering John Drane’s comments about the post-modern condition. Contrary to standard definitions and descriptions, Drane argues that post-modern people do believe in absolute truth. (Drane 2000: 135) They just do not articulate or express their search for that truth in ways that sit easily with classic modern Western views of meaning, truth and value. Drane argues that far from denying big stories, the post-modern fascination with stories and telling stories illustrates a longing to discover compelling metanarratives. For Drane the New Age movement is one big metanarrative quest. The post-modern condition is a rejection of modernity’s metanarrative rather than a rejection of metanarrative as such. One implication might be the idea that different people will interpret existing rites in new ways without changing the accidental or external forms of those rites.

While other rites of passage are changing dramatically the funeral is becoming the only rite of passage common to all people. This comment does not ignore the decrease of Christian funerals, that is, funerals officiated by a Christian. And it does not ignore the funeral traditions of other religions in Scotland. But I am suggesting that there is very little real difference between a humanist funeral and a nominally Christian funeral.

The following discussion is based mostly on one book. I try to show that Christian reflection on death and funerals does not offer hope that non-Christians can somehow appropriate into their own funeral experiences. The only Christian hope that non-Christians can take involves believing what Christians believe, and practising what Christians practise. But the discussion also critiques funeral liturgies that place emphasis on the dead person. Whatever non-Christians believe about life and death the problems that Protestants in particular have to address over funerals originate in a crisis of theology. Whether conservative or liberal, evangelical or not, Christian ministers need to ask themselves if they can take non-Christian funerals while maintaining any credibility. Does what they believe about life and death affect what they say and do at such funerals?

Sheppy’s books in the bibliography are easily the most impressive I have read in this area. However, despite being well informed about the topic in general (his discussion of the Tony Bland case was useful), there are hints of the theological crisis that has crippled the Christian church. Sheppy begins his first volume with a reference to the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, and its 1965 report on the second series of alternative services. It is claimed that the report’s comments on funeral liturgies emphasise ‘dealing with the dead’, although it is recognised that the Commission looks to pastoral care of the living too. Sheppy, of course, wants to suggest that ‘funerary rites have to address both the living and the dead.’ (Sheppy 2003:10) His concern is to discuss the middle ground between Catholic and Evangelic (sic) streams within Anglicanism.

Immediately, he begins a discussion of the reasons for the gap between the expectation and the performance of ministers at funerals. Four points are made: ministers can appear automatic and remote in their conduct at funerals; the liturgical content is not always appropriate, or not ‘always conducive to a helpful rite of passage’; the theological content may not be appropriate; and the ‘necessary sense of community’ may not be possible. All these appear to me to be symptomatic of Christian ministers attempting to minister to nominal Christians or non-Christians in a post-Christian society. They are almost bound to be true if the minister is leading unknown people in a funeral service – Christian or otherwise. How can you minister effectively if you do not know who you are ministering to?

Sheppy comments to this effect when he writes: ‘Ultimately the rite cannot perform what the community does not share.’ (Sheppy 2003: 20) Perhaps an appropriate paraphrase would be ‘the minister cannot evoke in people thoughts they do not believe.’ Sheppy’s response to this problem is frustrating. He is aware of the problem and he articulates it well. He can appreciate that people mourning without any meaningful understanding of Christian death are likely to be puzzled by words like ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ But Sheppy’s solution to these problems seems to lie in his appreciation of the universalism of Origen. At least that seems to be the conclusion when Sheppy rounds off a discussion of Origen’s eschatology, including these words: ‘In our dying and death, … God is at work once again in a new creation ex nihilo. We cannot know in what form we shall share in this new creation, and it is pastorally unwise to offer as certainity what can only ever be speculation. Our destiny is to live as Jesus lived, united to God by ties of perfect love.’ (Sheppy 2003: 74)

Sheppy follows this with two weak pages outlining his view against a substitutionary atonement in favour of what he calls the representative view. The representative view somehow aligns with the cosmic victory model of the cross of Christ, and Sheppy uses this to offer a hopeful spin on funerals. Sheppy betrays his fears when he writes that the ‘the gospel can be proclaimed, but there will be a determination to avoid using the emotional trauma of bereavement as an occasion of further stress.’ (Sheppy 2003: 76) I can only assume that by ‘gospel’ Sheppy means some reductionist evangelistic statement commending Christianity to the mourners. Is the Paschal Mystery, interpreted according to any view of the atonement, not itself a proclamation of the gospel? The story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus come close to defining the gospel. Indeed, Sheppy wants his readers to believe that funeral liturgies should encourage us to see the death and resurrection of the deceased as part of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There are a number of difficulties with all this, not least Sheppy’s own qualification of his tendency to universalism. He writes about the traditional heaven and hell model, and describes how he cannot change it and remain true to it at the same time. His belief in divine and human freedom means that he cannot declare an absolute universalism. Since love cannot be coerced ‘there must always be the possibility of alienation.’ (Sheppy 2003: 82, 83) This undermines his effort to articulate a theological hope that can be offered to all in funeral rituals.

Hope in the context of death is commonly focused on the hope that the deceased is at peace. Sheppy’s analysis takes this underlying assumption for granted, yet he cannot honestly offer this hope to the mourners. No man or woman - ordained Christian minister or otherwise – can offer that kind of certainty. Rather, the hope that Christians can offer relates to the nature and character of God, not the destiny of those that have died. This move away from hope in a person’s destiny to hope in the character of God would be my tendency in all bereavement and funeral situations.

Sheppy goes on to discuss the funeral as a way of representing the journey that mourners require to take. No funeral can fully be the rite of passage required for the deceased or the individual mourner or the community. It is only one aspect of the ritualisation of death. The reader – this reader, at least – is left slightly confused by Sheppy’s actual understanding of what happens theologically at funerals.

It is this theological confusion that qualifies the otherwise excellent work of Sheppy. My feeling was that he was critical of the Reformed reticence surrounding funerals. But I did not feel he embraced the position that the Reformers were reacting against in their reticence. His view of the deceased person or the body during funeral rites appeared to be based upon modern philosophical discussions about the nature of death, and around various discussions about biblical terminology on life, death and human nature. I did not find any passage where he defended traditional prayers for the dead.

The reason for my extended critique of parts of Sheppy’s work is to illustrate the difficulty that Christians have with funerals. The Church itself cannot agree between its different traditions on the basic truths about life beyond death. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are different trends in contemporary funeral and bereavement rituals. Beyond the fact that people tended to bury their dead, there is little or no guidance in the Bible for Christians or others seeking an authoritative word on the matter of funerals. This begs many questions, not least, why do people feel they need to ask someone else to take their family funerals? Why should there be any alarm at the commercialisation of funerals and bereavement? How is the commercialisation of death different from the commercialisation of any other rite of passage, and any other mainstream religious activity? Peter Ward’s Selling Worship could easily be the first in a series: Selling Bereavement, anyone?

Different books summarise the purpose of funerals in different ways. They honour the dead and help the living. (Robb 1996: 9) They allow the sharing of a dead person’s story, the proclamation of the Christian story, and the marking of the end of that life story. (Anderson & Foley 2001: 116) But none of these descriptions requires a Christian content. (Anderson and Foley’s ‘Christian story’ could be substituted by any worldview without changing the sentiments they advance.) And, if a specific Christian content is not required for funerals, then it stands to reason that a Christian minister is not required to officiate.

None of the above should lead the reader to think that I dismiss funerals or the pastoral care of bereaved people. I believe that Christians are called to weep with those who weep. But Grimes is right to state that rites of passage need reinvention, and Christians should be the most confident of people in reinventing responses to death. If and when I become a Christian minister, I will find it very difficult to take funerals on behalf of families that I do not know. I would encourage leaders of families I do know, wherever possible, to take responsibility for the funerals within their family circles. Part of my ongoing ministry will be to offer people a way of life that prepares them fully for life beyond death. That preparation includes preparing to die, and preparing the rite of passage that marks that final journey.


Bibliography
Anderson, H., & Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals. Weaving
Foley, E. 2001 Together the Human and the Divine. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass
Atkinson, D.J., & New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral
Field, D.H. (eds) 1995 Theology. Leicester / Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP
Drane, J. 2000 The McDonaldization of the Church. London, Darton, Longman and Todd
Robb, N.J. 1996 A Time to Die and a Time to Live. St Andrews, Blake Publications
Sheppy, P.P.J. 2003 Death Liturgy and Ritual. Volume I – A Pastoral and Liturgical Theology. Aldershot, Ashgate
Sheppy, P.P.J. 2004 Death Liturgy and Ritual. Volume II – A Commentary on Liturgical Texts. Aldershot, Ashgate
Thanks to Dorothy Granger for providing access to most of the books above.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Post-modern life

I’ve had a rather bizarre 24 hours. I’ve been feeling rough because of a cold, so maybe that’s added to the experience. But I’ve gone through one of those days that stun me into realising how na├»ve I am, and how weird the world is.

It started with a Trinity College seminar. Trinity College is the ‘metaphysical’ gathering of Church of Scotland student ministers at Glasgow University. I’ve gained much from it – it’s through Trinity College that I will spend next academic year at Princeton Seminary. The seminar was good. We discussed our experience of preparing for Christian ministry through studying theology at university. We talked about the issues we will have to think about as ministers in churches. One thing hit me during the seminar: do I have anything in common with these other people? Does anything unite us in our desire to be Christian ministers?

These two questions were in the context of recent reading about the nature of current Christian worship. I am slowly beginning to realise how important worship (what we do as church) is for church unity and Christian togetherness. But this is actually a very complicated issue. Peter Ward’s book, Selling Worship, discusses the rise of (charismatic?) evangelical worship music in the UK in particular. Slowly, but surely, we are all singing from the same over head projection screens. There is a PhD in that last sentence for anyone with the ability and energy.

The theme of what churches do underlies John Drane’s The MacDonaldization of the Church. It’s an intriguing book, full of cutting critique of current church culture. I finished reading it last night, and I realised that I had nothing in common with my fellow ministry candidates that mattered – I had never worshipped with them – we, Trinity College, have never done church, we have never been a church gathering according to Drane’s understanding.

Of course, I have lots in common with all the candidates. I even like some of them (that’s meant to be a light-hearted aside). But no confessional or organisational unity can provide the Christian unity that we all long for. And in religious, spiritual, or Christian contexts I think we are beyond the possibility of effective confessional or organisational unity among Christian ministers. Unity can only be found through Christians doing church – as fellowships and as friends – on an ongoing basis. Action becomes all-important. Belief and practice cannot be separated.

Yesterday evening I attended an evangelistic event in Glasgow Uni Union. It took the form of a dialogue evening, with two speakers, video presentations, discussion over refreshments at the end. The current problems of the world were raised, and attempts by different religions to solve these problems were dismissed. The two main speakers were a Muslim academic from the University of Durham, and the Scottish representative of an international sect. I didn’t understand anything I heard, I didn’t know how I was supposed to respond, and I didn’t get the impression that anyone at the event cared for me in any way. I have often felt these things at Christian events too.

So, this morning I was amazed to stumble across this website www.bibledesk.com. I would warn against looking at this site unless you really understand the wacky side of Christianity in the 21stC. I only came across this site because I typed www.itothehills.blogpsot.com instead of www.itothehills.blogspot.com. Please be assured that I do not endorse any of the contents on bibledesk.com. They appear to be Christian. But, I suspect that I would be unable to worship with them. Belief and practice cannot be separated. Christian unity must come through Christian practice. Lex orandi lex credendi indeed.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Faith and the power of the Lord

I’ve started reading through Luke’s gospel, and this morning I read Luke 5. I did two years of New Testament Greek at university, but my mind is too weak and my work ethic is too poor to really gain much from studying the Greek text these days. So, almost all of my observations and conclusions about the Bible are based on English translations (I am most familiar with the NIV, but use the NRSV too). Shoddy, I know, but some of us have to plod.

Luke 5:17-26 stuck in my thinking this morning. Two observations stayed with me on my journey to work.

What did it really mean for the power of the Lord to be present with Jesus? In what sense can the power of the Lord be absent in the experience of Jesus? I wonder if this has something to do with Jesus fulfilling the will of God the Father. Power is given to Jesus, and he is full of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1) in carrying out specific, discrete tasks. Here’s the slightly controversial thought – I’m not sure if Jesus possessed unlimited divine energy as he worked out his service to God.


It is interesting that there are several New Testament references to authority and/or power being given to the risen Jesus Christ – power and authority that is absolute, and which allows him to hand over his perfected kingdom to God the Father (see 1 Cor 15:24-28). Before his death and resurrection it seems that Jesus really depended upon both the Father and the Holy Spirit throughout his life.


The power of the Lord was with him in the measure required for each moment, each hour, each day of his ministry. I know there are texts that talk about Jesus having the Spirit without measure. But I wonder if we can distinguish between the identity of Jesus (he is God/man, full of the Spirit), and the work of Jesus (he works as a man helped by the power of God)? Perhaps not.

More important, I noticed that Jesus recognises the faith of the friends of the paralytic. This helped me to re-think ‘faith-healing’ passages. Perhaps the main lesson is, not so much that God does what we desire or want (though, check out Psalm145:18,19!), but that he has to respond to faith because he himself is faithful. That is, God demonstrates his character in action. Faith begets faithfulness, not healing as such. The power of the Lord is present wherever faithful people seek it. Faith can count on demonstrations of the power of the Lord. He may surprise us in how he demonstrates this power. But he will not ignore us.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Interesting words from James S. Stewart

"The first axiom of effective evangelism is that the evangelist must be sure of his message."

Stewart later comments on the evangelistic message of New Testament evangelism:

"The crucial point is that it was dealing with events, not abstractions or theories or pantheistic generalities, but concrete, actual events localized in time and space. Not ‘the idea of God’ did the apostles preach, but God himself in omnipotent action; not a ‘doctrine of salvation’ but salvation, the living deed; not a Weltanschauung (Ger. worldview) but Christ."

How many evangelists, preachers, ministers do you know who are sure of their message? How many do you know who can articulate that message? How many do you know who live according to it, and not according to ideas of salvation?

(Quotes taken from A Faith to Proclaim by James S. Stewart)

What is truth?

These words are a constant refrain in my thinking. This is most ‘true’ when I’m reminded in discussion or in reading of our apparently confused, post-post modern culture.

Today I was forced to consider them again in their most famous context, in Pilate’s reply to Jesus in John 18. Jesus is on trial for his life before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. The questioning of Jesus turns upon his identity. Pilate wants Jesus to announce himself King of the Jews. But Jesus doesn’t. Rather, we read these words from Jesus:

You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (NRSV Jhn18:37)

Jesus doesn’t announce his kingship. He describes his life and ministry as a truth teller. He is the king of the Jews. But his kingdom is greater than anything Pilate can understand. As such it is not a political threat to Roman power. As such Pilate can find no case against Jesus.

Pilate’s question about the nature of truth is therefore genuine, even if it is also dismissive. Pilate turned his back on Jesus, and so illustrated that he did not belong to the truth.

How can you belong to the truth? The simple fact of the Christian gospel is that Jesus Christ is truth. His life, his death, his resurrection and his continuing life constitute truth. He is the key to understanding what is true about the world. He is the key to understanding what is true about your own existence. If you belong to Jesus you belong to the truth. The truth of Christianity rests on the truth of the person of Jesus Christ. No Jesus, no Christianity. No Christianity, no truth.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Thoughts on the Lord’s Supper

In the third chapter of the last book of the New Testament you can read words to this effect:
‘Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and
repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone
hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him or her, and
they with me.’

The words are words of the risen Jesus Christ to a church in a place called Laodicea.

Let me explain the sequence they contain. First, the people are encouraged to consider how they are doing, and to reconsider their approach to life. They are called to repentance.

Martin Luther started the reformation movement in 1517, and the way he did this was by posting and publishing a list of statements about the Christian faith. The first one reads something like this: When Christ taught that all people should repent, he indicated that the Christian life is a life of ongoing or daily repentance.

I suspect that too often we think of repentance as a once in a life time experience. But even if we need to repent for the first time it is something that we need to do again and again. It is something that we need to practise, turning back to God and his ways rather than claiming allegiance to God while living our own way.

It is in this background of consistently looking back to God and his ways that the next word is given: ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him or her, and they with me.’

We are to live as people who have repented and turned to God once, and who live lives of ongoing repentance. It is in that context that Christ comes to us and says: ‘Let me in! Come and open the door to me. Let’s have supper together.’

Are you one of those people who enjoy visiting stately homes? I sometimes think about the time and money my parents spent taking Helen and I round all kinds of National Trust properties. Totally wasted on us at the time. I’m now fascinated by such places. When you do visit, don’t you just wish to stretch over the dividing rope, and really engage with the rooms you are in? Actually touch the ornaments, pick up the books, throw yourself onto the furniture, play the pianos or harpsichords? So many of these places are just caught in limbo. The objects are untouchable, set apart. You can look, but not touch. Or if you go into an old cathedral, same thing! Certain sections are cut off. They are too holy or too fragile to be open to the general public – you can only admire from a distance.

There is a danger that we treat the Lord’s Supper in that way. We hold back. We are conscious of something holy and set apart. So we become just a little wary of taking communion because we’re not sure we deserve to. Those are the moments we need to remember that the Lord’s Supper is not about being forgiven. It’s not really about repenting either, or confessing our sin. The supper is more about affirming our status. We are those whom Christ has chosen to have supper with, to engage with, to love.

Jesus has come to us, and we have responded to his love. So we can open the door and let him in. We made that initial commit when we professed our faith, and now, we are those who enjoy close fellowship with Jesus, our friend and Saviour.

So, at the Lord’s Supper, we open up the doors, and we let Jesus in. He sits at the head of the table and he feeds us with his word, with his grace, and with his encouragement to go on. He comes into our lives, into our homes, and he prepares supper for us. The food is a tangible reminder of what he has done for us. We bring all that we are to the supper. We remember that we are in the Lord, and we eat at his invitation.

The glory of the saints

I’ve just come to the end of my latest read through the book of Psalms. One Bible reading plan that I’ve devised splits into 5 sections. One of these sections is Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. My Bible reading habits vary quite a lot, but I usually read through these 4 books continually, taking at most a chapter or two a day. (The other sections are the OT history books, the OT prophets, the Gospels and Acts, and the rest of the NT. I try to read the whole of the NT at least once every year. I have to confess I am not so familiar with the OT.)

Psalm 149 struck me this morning. It contains a peculiar combination of praise and cursing. The Lord takes pleasure in his people, and they have the joy and glory of praising him in song all day long, in ‘the assembly of the faithful’ and in the seclusion of their homes. A happy thought.

Still, as these saints praise God with their mouths they are to hold swords in their hands. Because the glory of the saints includes the task of judging the ungodly. Suddenly the Bible forces its reader to stop and think. Do I have the stomach to be a saint of the living God? Am I really prepared to execute the judgement of God upon the godlessness of the nations? That is my calling if I’m a child of God. No doubt this calling is mostly through the sword of the Spirit (Eph6:17, Heb4:12). But is the sword of the Spirit any less dreadful than a sword of iron? Praise God that Jesus is our advocate and protector. In him there is no condemnation (Roms8:1).

Monday, April 10, 2006

Save the CofS?

I wish I knew who came up with idea to use http://www.savethecofs.com/ as the http for a campaign to raise awareness about the civil partnerships furore in the Church of Scotland. However I’m not sure how I’d react if I did know – so please don’t publish any names if you leave a comment!

I should declare an interest here – I’m currently preparing for ministry in the Church of Scotland as a ‘candidate for ministry’. As such I am bound to my local presbytery and to the Ministries Council. Funnily enough the convenor of that council has signed the statement found at http://www.savethecofs.com/. On the other hand, my local presbytery would be the last presbytery to ever do such a thing. I feel slightly torn!

The last time I looked at the list of signatories there were just over 100 Church of Scotland ministers. This means that, assuming these ministers are all current parish ministers, perhaps 15% of working CofS parish ministers have signed up to a statement that is written in classic disruption language. The question is: do these ministers really intend to form a remnant Church of Scotland? If so, would this be the Church of Scotland according to the law of the church in 2005? I have only noticed one female minister on the list so far… And, what would this church actually believe about doctrine and practice? The Westminster Confession and its associated orders and directories? What would a successful Save the CofS campaign actually save?

Forward Together appears to be preparing procedural opposition to the report that is raising all the bother. If successful it will achieve something unique in the history of the Church of Scotland’s last 100 years or so. It will be the first major demonstration of evangelical political power in the Kirk (that I know about at least). But I don’t think non-evangelicals will be converted, and I don’t think they will leave the church in disgust.

If, as I predicted in an earlier post, the report is successful I dread to think what the outcome will be. Those who have signed up to a disruption style statement will be forced into one of two positions. They will have to stand by their principles and announce to the world another Scottish Presbyterian denomination. Or they will have to carry on in a situation described by Carl Trueman in a recent blogpost. Neither scenario is appealing to up-and-coming CofS ministers...

Saturday, April 08, 2006

CDs/Albums in my car CD multistack

Faithless – Forever, The Greatest Hits
Teenage Fanclub – Songs From Northern Britain
Vivaldi – Gloria
Handel – Zadok the Priest; My heart is inditing.
JS Bach – Magnificat
Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks
Blur – the best of
Rachmaninov – Symphony No 2
Damien Rice – O
The Smiths – Best…I
The Smiths – Best…II
The Killers – Hot Fuss

This month I am mostly listening to…


The Life Pursuit by Belle and Sebastian. Apparently it’s getting rave reviews. My sister bought it for me a couple of months back, and I’ve been hooked ever since. This morning I heard Mark Lamar on Radio 2 compare it to Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. I don’t really know previous stuff by B&S but this album is chirpy and upbeat. Sophisticated lyrics too – do pop lyrics mean anything though?

Favourite tracks:

Another Sunny Day
The White Collar Boy
The Blues are Still Blue
Dress Up In You
To Be Myself Completely
Acts of the Apostle II (if only for the last 95 seconds)

Next month, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, The Boatman’s Call

Friday, April 07, 2006

Why I am a Christian

I probably became a Christian in 1990 or 1991. One of the first Bibles I owned had ‘March 1990’ scribbled on the inside page. I lost it on a train journey last year, which was a real shame. It contained some of my first exegetical notes on various passages. I can still remember cross-referencing Mark 8:38 with 2 Timothy 1:8. For me, at the time, that was an astounding feature of the New Testament in particular. You could read one part of it, and then find allusions or similar sentiments in other parts that were clearly independent. My best explorations of the Bible have probably been those times when I had the time and enthusiasm to read, re-read, and freely compare different sections. That’s how I retain my faith in its message – simply by reading favourite bits to remind myself of the influence they have had in my life.

You see one of the two reasons I am a Christian is that I was introduced to the Bible. In the winter of 1989/1990 I started attending a church where the Bible was taught seriously. I started going to a Bible class for teenagers on Sunday mornings, and then I would attend the church service after that. Over three or four years I was treated to about 2 hours of Bible teaching a week. That sounds like child abuse. Here’s the twist. I loved it. I found something compelling about everything I learned. I wanted to learn more. From the age of about 14 I began to read and think about most of the things I came across through this Bible instruction. My heart and my head were changed forever.

Christianity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The gospel message is not an abstract power that turns random unsuspecting people into Christians. The Bible rarely changes people for good in isolation. The second reason I am a Christian is the influence of other Christian people in my life. It was other Christians who taught me the Bible. It was other Christians who invited me to spend time with them. Christians gathering together to worship God through singing, praying and studying the Bible persuaded me that Christianity was a good thing. They showed me that the gospel could change people for good. I came to see that Christianity provided a way of life that was satisfying. The gospel of Jesus Christ provided a framework for understanding the world I lived in. This church introduced me to Jesus, and slowly Jesus became everything to me.
Jesus became everything to me. I sometimes think that sounds like mindless mumbo jumbo. But there is a difference between knowing a lot about stuff, and knowing the surpassing greatness of Jesus Christ. No blog or book in the world can give you that knowledge. But Jesus promises that all who trust in him receive it. That trust comes through hearing and obeying God’s word. And most of the time God’s word comes to us through others who know what it is to trust. If you want to know Jesus you need to know the Bible. But you also need to know his friends. The two cannot be separated.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Other theological blogs

Here are my thoughts on some excellent theological blogs. The few blogs I discuss below are becoming my gateways of knowledge on most things theological, church historical, and ecclesiological.

Crawford Gribben’s blog (listed in my links across the page) is fun to read, and he has a link to a guy called Michael Haykin. Both Crawford and Michael are church historians - their sites contain provocative articles and posts on all manner of subjects from a Christian perspective.

Another blog majoring in historical theology is offered by Sean Lucas. Sean’s main interest is American Presbyterian history, but all the posts have implications for thoughtful Christians - perhaps not the stuff about baseball, football and all those other American games that no-one east of Manhattan really understands.

Michael Bird provides a blog which opens up vast New Testament resources. I discovered Ben Witherington’s fascinating blog through Michael's Euangelion blog.

Can anyone recommend good blogs where the writer has a major interest in either Systematic Theology or Old Testament?

Some Happy Songs

Shiny Happy People - REM
Funny Little Frog - Belle and Sebastian
Song 2 - Blur
Rosealie - Thin Lizzy
She’s Electric - Oasis
You are the sunshine of my life - Stevie Wonder
You’re my best friend - Queen
Wake up Boo - Boo Radleys
Club Tropicana - Wham
All the Neil Diamond songs where the DJ cuts out some of the chorus so that everyone in the pub can sing instead.

Some Sad Songs

Hide your love away - The Beatles
Ticket to ride - The Beatles
Song for Guy - Elton John
Atlantic City - Bruce Springsteen
Nothing Man - Bruce Springsteen
You’re Missing - Bruce Springsteen
Exit Music - Radiohead
No Distance Left to Run - Blur
You’re a big girl now - Bob Dylan
The Winner Takes It All - ABBA
Don’t believe a word - Thin Lizzy
Sail away with me - David Gray
Who wants to live forever - Queen
You were always on my mind - Elvis / Pet Shop Boys

I'd love to write about some of these songs, perhaps I'll do it at some stage in the next few months. I guess writing about your favourite songs can be really indulgent. But I will write this much: the Dylan song above contains the best pop lyric ingrained in my consciousness. If you don't know the song, check out the lyrics through a google search, listen to it somehow (it's on the album Blood on the Tracks), and remember, it is a sad song...!!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

What is Christianity?

One of the earliest statements of Christian belief reads like this in its standard English translation (don’t let the slightly old fashioned language put you off):

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and
invisible;

and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the
Father, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light,
true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father,
through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth;

who
for us men and our salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man,
suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge
the living and the dead.

And in the Holy Ghost.


Christianity is a way of life that is based on certain beliefs about the nature of God. More specifically, it is a way of life based on believing the New Testament accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Basic Christian belief includes an understanding that God exists as one God. God also exists as three related beings – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. These three beings are united as one God, yet they exist as three distinct divine beings.

If Christianity is true then everyone should follow the Christian way of life. If it is false or if truth doesn’t matter then Christians are very foolish people.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the basic message that Christians try to spread to all people. You can read about it here.
Christianity has a distinctive contribution in the world of ethics and morality. Christians believe that God has given the world guidance on how to live life to the full. This guidance is found in the writings that make up the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The gospel of Jesus Christ

A simple definition of the gospel can be written around the following structure: God; humanity; God; what if I believe?; what if I do not?

God created all things. This includes the universe, our world, and all life on Earth. God is the ruler and king of all that he has made. Christianity teaches that everything that God created was originally good. In particular, God created men and women to live in the world, and to live in relationship with him as a friend even though he is God and king of the universe. Men and women are created in the image of God. They are special. Whoever you are you matter to God.

Humanity has chosen to break this relationship with our creator, our king, and our friend. Collectively and individually our natural condition tends away from living to please God and towards living to please ourselves. This natural tendency to ignore God or rebel against God is called sin. Whatever its origins sin is a problem for the world because it constitutes our break with God. Whether we like it or not we are struggling with the effects and the implications of sin.

God does not ignore our sinful rebellion against him. In fact, according to the Christian message, he has acted and is acting to restore the world from the consequences of its sin. God does this in all his actions. He has done it supremely through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus lived to fulfil the potential of humans in relation to God. He died to pay the penalty for the sin of the world. He rose to life as a demonstration that those who look to him and believe the gospel can find a new relationship with God. Jesus Christ is now God’s judge, and he is overseeing God’s restoration of all things. He will return when his work in this world is complete.

What if I believe this gospel? Those who believe that Jesus is Lord and judge of all receive the forgiveness of their sins. They enter into a new relationship with God, and they can look forward to life in God’s recreated world. This new relationship begins the moment we believe the gospel. Physical death no longer means the end of life, but the beginning of a new stage in this new relationship.

What if I do not? Christians do not really like to think about this question, but the gospel forces us to reckon with it. The broadest and easiest thing to write is this: those who do not believe the gospel of Jesus Christ remain separated from God in this life. They reject the new relationship that is offered. And the implication must be that they will remain separated from God in and beyond their physical death.