Having only just returned from one week off, I'm now off on camp for a week or so. It's unlikely I'll be posting much...
Thursday, March 29, 2007
This time from the British Museum (which confusingly is in one pokey and overcrowded little corner of Britain along with just about everything else that's meant to be "national")...
This one was on a rail surrounding a large ornamental hole in the floor. What they meant, of course, was "Beware of the Drop!" rather than telling us that there was danger so we should drop. I wonder what would happen if someone with Asperger's (or something) took it literally and dropped, then sued the museum....
And again. This one was on a door. Presumably forcing it open quickly would be fine...
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Monday, March 26, 2007
This is a modified version of the sermon I preached yesterday, while on mission....
What picture do you have of God?
What picture do you have of God?
I guess one picture a lot of people have of God is an old man on a cloud. And maybe he can see everything, but he can’t always do that much about it.
That's a famous picture of God by Michelangelo. One of the big problems with it is that it shows God as the kind of guy who wears a pink nightie.
Or maybe your picture of God is more like this:
He used to be a great footballer. He's still better than anyone West Ham have got, and he's meant to be a really nice bloke as well. But he's not God, no matter what people say.
Back when God was giving these commandments, people tended to make pictures of God that were more like this:
In fact, while the real God was giving these commandments to Moses, the rest of the people were busy building a golden statue of a cow and saying that it was God. Coz when we make pictures of God, we tend to make him look like things we’re used to.
But this is what God says:
Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it.
In other words, don’t make pictures of God. Don’t think that any of those things really are God. Don’t try to come up with ideas of what God is like that are too much like what we’re used to.
Maybe you think you don’t do that. But I know I do, and I’m pretty sure we all do. We all make our own pictures of God, and I’m going to tell you how we do it.
I think a clever French guy once said “God made man in his own image, and now man repays the compliment.” We have our own ideas of what God looks like, and often we make it so God looks like us and sounds like us, except maybe a bit more powerful.
Maybe we think that our God is a God who doesn’t mind us living the way we live or who thinks our excuses are ok. So I drive faster than the speed limit, but I invent a picture of God that really doesn’t mind how fast I drive and then I act like it's ok.
Maybe our picture of God condemns some sins more than others, so we think that “sin” is talking about what other people do rather than what we do. So sometimes I think that someone else’s adultery is worse than my pride, even though if anything the Bible says that pride is worse. Or that God likes some groups of people more than others. Maybe we’re white and English and we don’t like coloured people, so we make up a God who doesn’t like coloured people either.
Did you know that in the Southern USA, 200 years after we abolished slavery in the UK, some of the last places to have official segregation of white people and coloured people are churches? Because people took what they were like, and invented a picture of God who was like that too, and even the world can see that it's a load of rubbish.
Or maybe we make a picture of God who doesn’t claim the total devotion of everything that we have and everything that we are. Maybe he thinks that we’re good really or that we can cope on our own, that we don’t need to pray and that it’s fine to turn up to church once a week, then go out and ignore God with the rest of our lives. Maybe our picture of God didn’t say thinks like “If anyone wants to save his life, he must lose it, but if anyone loses his life for my sake and for the gospel, he will save it into eternal life.”
Maybe our picture of God doesn’t really mind if we flirt with other gods, if we spend all our time and devotion on things that aren’t about him, if we live for things that aren’t God. Maybe our picture of God never said things like I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals. But the real God did.
I guess there are some people who don’t make that kind of picture though. Maybe your picture of God isn’t one you thought up to be like you, it’s one someone else thought up to be like them.
That’s a big part of what it means when God says “I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants down to the third and fourth generation.” If parents have a wrong image of what God is like, often they pass it on to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Often the reason that people have messed-up images of God is that they’ve got them from other people. These descendants who get punished are still doing wrong – they’ve still got the wrong picture of God, but it isn’t something they started.
I meet all kinds of people who have wrong pictures of God. Women who think that they can never be forgiven because they’ve had an abortion and somebody else’s picture of God said abortions couldn’t be forgiven.
Black people who see white people ruling over them and think that God must be white too because that’s how the whites act.
Children who think that God is a killjoy rather than a God who came so we could have life in all its fullness, just because someone else’s picture of God was like that.
But whatever our wrong picture of God is, whenever we have pictures of God that aren’t what God is like, God says that is wrong.
Why is it wrong?
The first reason that it’s wrong is in the passage. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it because I am the Lord your God.
God is God. He is who he is. He doesn’t want to be replaced by our pictures and ideas of who he is, because that’s all they are. Pictures and Ideas. And he is God. And he sees those pictures and ideas that we have of him as rivals.
I often hear people saying stuff like “Well, I like to think of God as like this….” But that’s just your idea! It's just your picture! What you like to think about God doesn’t change what he’s actually like. You can think God’s a hamster, but that doesn’t make it true.
That’s what the other reading was about. We can make up all kinds of ideas about God or pictures of God or statues of God or whatever, but that’s all they are. Our ideas. Our pictures. Our statues. They can’t save us, they can’t help us, they can’t rescue us.
If we want to know what the real God is really like, we need to look at what he has shown us he is like. We can’t just take our own ideas about it.
God is real, and God tolerates no rivals.
Do not bow down to any idol or worship it because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals.
You see, God isn’t going to put up with us making all our pictures.
Imagine that I draw a bad picture of my girlfriend (I couldn't exactly draw a good one!) and then relate entirely to that picture instead of her. She'd be really annoyed, and rightly so.
Making our pictures of God and treating them like they are God is ignoring the real God. He gets angry with it, and rightly so.
If people did that with anything other than God, we’d think they were crazy! But we do it all the time, with the one true God, who made the universe and who can do whatever he wants with it. It’s completely stupid. It’s just as bad as going off and worshipping a different god altogether.
But it’s not just that. You see, what we do affects other people as well, and it’s especially true for church leaders and parents. You see, if I have a rubbish picture of God, then I’m going to tell you about it, then you get the rubbish picture too. That’s another part of the reason God included that stuff about parents and children. If we get a wrong picture of God, we’re going to pass it on to our children and then they’re going to have problems too.
It is really really important that we make sure that our picture of God is right. So how can we get a right picture of who God is?
We can’t get one by our own thinking or by our own imagining, but God has given us one.
This is what God says – Hebrews 1:3
Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. When he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty in heaven.
If we want to see what God is like, we should look at Jesus. Jesus is the perfect picture of God. If we look at Jesus, we’re looking at God. If we listen to Jesus, we’re listening to God.
And what’s the time where we see Jesus most clearly? On the cross. Jesus lived on earth for 33 years or thereabouts. But almost half of what people wrote about him in the gospels was written about the week he died.
So when we look at Jesus on the cross, we see that God really does care about what we do, the way we act, the way we think, the way we make false pictures of God. We see that God takes sin seriously, and that he takes it so seriously that Jesus had to die to take the punishment.
We see that God really does care about us, and that he loves us so much that it wasn’t us dying on that cross under God’s judgement, even though it should have been. It was Jesus, dying for us. We see that because Jesus has died, he has taken the punishment for whatever we’ve done wrong, so that whatever we’ve done, whatever false pictures we’ve made of God, we can be forgiven and we can come back into relationship with the real God, because Jesus has dealt with it. But it's not just us God loves - it's everyone else too. God loves the Man United fans and the foreigners and the refugees at least as much as he loves us. Actually, God was never white and English, but he was a refugee...
We see that God really does care about the way we live. Yes, Jesus died in our place, but Jesus also died to give us an example to follow. Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Jesus gave up his life for us. We should give up our lives to follow him. That might not mean getting killed for it, like Jesus did, but it might. It’s much more likely to mean us saying to God “Whatever you want me to do, wherever you want me to go, whoever you want me to be, I’ll do it.” We might not have to die physically, but we will have to die to ourselves – to say “As far as my ambitions go, my hopes, my fears, my preferences – I’m dead to them. They don’t matter any more. If God wants me to spend the rest of my life running a homeless shelter looking after Man United fans with horrible skin diseases, that’s fine. If God wants me to quit my job, give away all my money and spend my time looking after Somali refugees in Liverpool, that’s fine. If God wants me to stay in my job, but to really live for him in my work – to tell my friends and colleagues about Jesus, to live in a way that shows that we belong to Jesus, and to offer to help out at church, that’s fine too.
We need to die to those pictures too – to say “As far as they go, I’m dead to them. I might have used them once, but I’m done with them now. No more. Gone. Dead.” Following Jesus means dying to ourselves and to all those comfortable pictures we had of who God is.
But more than that, when we look at Jesus, we see that death is not the end. We see that after Jesus had died, God raised him to life and made him king of the whole universe. We see that if we follow Jesus in his death, we will follow him in his resurrection – that the way to heaven is for us to die to ourselves, to die to all those rubbish pictures we have of God, and to follow Jesus in the way of the cross.
Heavenly Father, we’ve all done it. We’ve all made up pictures of you that aren’t like who you really are. We’ve ignored you and what you say about how we should live our lives. Help us to come back to you now. Thank you that you have shown us what you are like by sending Jesus to die for us. Help us to follow you, the real you. Father, whatever you want us to do, wherever you want us to go, whoever you want us to be, help us to be willing to do it.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Saturday, March 17, 2007
I'm off helping on a mission to Toxteth in a few hours. Please pray.
As a consequence of that, I'm not going to be posting much / anything to my blog for the next week or so.
Oh, and there are still people living in my house, so breaking in isn't really going to work.
Friday, March 16, 2007
There's a fire festival in Broad Street (Oxford) at the moment. I think it's called Luminos or something and it's meant to celebrate 1000 years of Oxford as a city or something like that.
Broad Street is of course well associated with fire - it was famously where the Oxford Martyrs - Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer were burnt to death as it was the place where burnings happened in Oxford.
So to me it seems in particularly bad taste to have a quasi-pagan fire festival there to celebrate 1000 years of Oxford. Or, if you're Philip Pullman (who is said to be a big fan of it), very appropriate...
My main complaint against this book is the author's name. (In case you're American or something, "randy" means much the same as "horny".) What kind of parents give their child a name like that, unless they want him to be a gigolo or something? "Hi, I'm Randy, nice to meet you!" Anyway, it's a very good book, even if the author does have a silly name.
The basic point of the book is that Jesus asked people questions and listened an awful lot more than most of us do when talking to people about Jesus. Being asked questions helps people think about what's being said. Although the focus is specifically evangelism and apologetics, a lot of what's said is applicable to more general conversation as well, which is especially helpful for rubbish conversationalists such as me. I guess learning to integrate what I know about pedagogy into how I do conversations (both ways) would be useful...
Probably the secondary point is that it's important to love people and care about them. The examples given of where this goes wrong mostly seem to be tied into the culture wars in the US and so are of slightly less relevance to the UK situation, but it's nice reading an American saying what seems obvious to so many in the British church. (I wonder what problems in British evangelicalism are invisible to us but obvious to Americans...)
But all in all, a great book, and very helpful for thinking about how to do personal evangelism and stuff.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
One of the topics I've recently had to do quite a bit of reading about is the so-called "Historical Jesus" movement. Basically, some people don't like Jesus claiming what the gospels claim he said and doing what the gospels claim he did. This is usually because they realise that if Jesus did what he did and said what he said, then they really ought to obey him, and they don't want to do that.
So they come up with all kinds of interesting but ultimately rubbish ideas for how to come up with an idea of Jesus who didn't say the things the Bible says he said or do the things the Bible said he did. Most of the ideas involve going against how historians say you should do history when working with sources and end up with a Jesus who often looks very like them and who couldn't possibly have given rise to the early church. The early church, of course, seemed to have as its core lots of people who were in a position to know what had happened with Jesus and were willing to die for the belief that he rose physically from the dead.
Those people who say Jesus was just a normal bloke are pretty easy to disprove - Tom Wright does it very well (and at very great length), for example, in The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God. Alternatively, you could sit and think about it for a few minutes or have some fun and read CS Lewis's Fern Seed and Elephants.
But the people I'm more interested in are the Christians who go along with that kind of thing - like Marcus Borg. They tend to be coming from the point of view that Christianity is still in some ways true but that miracles don't happen.
The problem with that is twofold. The first is that it's really stupid to look at whether something happened by assuming before you start that it didn't, especially when it involves saying that God couldn't do something.
The second is that people usually say that you can have a genuine experience of God but that God can't intervene physically in the universe. That's a problem because if God can't intervene physically in the universe, there's no way of having a genuine experience of him. Our physical bodies can't just relate to something spiritual unless that spiritual thing has in some way some ability to control the physical. But if God doesn't have that, then we can't have a genuine experience of him.
I'm waffling now. I'd better stop.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
I'm reading a very helpful book at the moment about how to speak lovingly with people who disagree with you. Here's a very very interesting quote about abortion:
When I listened to women describe their situations in depth in small listening groups, a surprising theme emerged. In nearly every case, the abortion was undertaken to fulfill a felt obligation to another person, a parent or boyfriend. My assumption that abortion decisions were prompted by practical problems - food, shelter, poverty, clothing - was not borne out. Instead, the woman felt bound to please or protect some other person, and abortion was the price she felt she had to pay.
Frederica Mathewes-Green, Real Choices quoted in Randy Newman, Questioning Evangelism?
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
"Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea." That is to say, it is the deliberate verdict of the Lord Jesus that it is better not to have lived than not to love.
Henry Drummond, "The Greatest Thing in the World" 
The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that this is a key question for the church, and the more surprised I am that there is so little being written about it (at a popular level, at least). What I'm writing is very much provisional, could doubtless be expressed better and needs thinking through more.
Epistemology is the study of how we become persuaded of things or why we believe what we believe. (πειθω / peitho is the Greek for “I persuade”, which leads to πιστυω / pistuο for “I believe”). How do Christians decide what is true about their faith and what isn't?
Note that this is a very different question from how people come to be Christians in the first place or why non-Christians believe what they believe. I don't actually think there is a solid epistemology that works for non-Christians beyond asserting some stuff and saying “this seems to work for me”.
Christian Epistemology is a huge question, and everything I write here is in one sense an oversimplification and in another sense a searching. I'm not yet convinced I've got it right – I'm still trying to articulate the question...
I guess there are three commonly articulated views, and all were present to an extent during the Reformation.
As far as I can tell, a common view before the Reformation, which is still current in places, especially in Eastern Orthodoxy, is that we are free to believe what we want to believe, within the constraints of the Church. The Church as a whole has met together several times, most famously at Nicea in AD325 and at Chalcedon in AD451 to discuss what it believed.
What it is essential to believe was decided at the Ecumenical Councils. However, our beliefs should of course be shaped by the tradition of the church, by what people who have gone before have taught us, especially in and from the Bible.
Essentially, we should believe what the Church as a whole has said it believes, and where the Church as a whole hasn't said anything, there's room for disagreement.
The reason that that broke down was partly because there were some issues that were very important that the church as a whole hadn't discussed and come to a firm conclusion on. This meant that there were some people within the church who were believing things that (in retrospect) were very clearly wrong and dangerous to believe, and doing things that were very clearly wrong, because the church had not explicitly forbidden them. The obvious example is people's attitude to how they were saved – there were lots of people in the church thinking that they were saved by buying indulgences, or paying for masses to be said for them.
It became very difficult for the church to meet to condemn some of the abuses, partly because the people in power were often the people who were profiting from the abuses of power. And when people spoke out against that, the reaction of those in power was often to try and get rid of them.
Attempted Scriptural Epistemology
The solution that the Protestants came up with was essentially a Scriptural epistemology. They said that we should believe what the Bible says, which sometimes contradicts what people within the Church said. Lots of protestants today still say this, but the big problem with it is the question of who interprets the Bible – the problem of hermeneutics. Actually, saying that we know things because the Bible says them is just shifting the epistemological problem to be a hermeneutical problem.
The most common idea among the Protestants is that it's my idea about what the Bible means that is right and other people who disagree with me are wrong. This led to a few influential teachers (e.g. Melanchton, Calvin) essentially writing books to tell people how to interpret the Bible correctly. And quite a lot of people followed them, and denominations were born. So Lutheranism was essentially people who interpreted the Bible the same way that Luther and Melanchthon did, Calvinism was people who interpreted the Bible the way that Calvin and Beza did, and so on. Yes, it's more comple than that, but that's the general idea. People like Luther and Calvin agreed on quite a lot of issues (like how to be saved), but disagreed on some (like what happens at Holy Communion).
On the other hand, there were also lots of people who didn't want to go along with what the teachers who ended up running denominations said and stuck with their own interpretation – they were the radicals, including the Anabaptists, Unitarians and so on. Because they essentially had an individualised epistemology, it was very easy for one little group to disagree with another little group and so split from them. That's the kind of thing that still seems to happen a lot in their spiritual descendants in the USA. All it takes for a split is two people with different interpretations of what the Bible says who are both sure in their own minds that they are right and the other person is wrong.
Some people go so far as to claim to interpret the Bible to mean the opposite of what a lot of people think it obviously means. The problem is that with an individualised hermeneutic, there's not much you can do about it. As a result, some people are heading back towards saying that we interpret Scripture as the Church has always interpreted it, which is essentially heading back to church-delimited epistemology.
One way out of this was the imposition of magisterial epistemology - you believe what you believe because the people who run the Church say that you should believe it. The pope (or whoever) has the power to say what is right and what isn't because he has the ability to interpret the Bible. This is the way that, for example a lot of Roman Catholics take.
Most of the Protestant denominations ended up claiming to have a Scriptural epistemology, but had an essentially magisterial hermeneutic – the Bible was their authority, but the Bible needed to be interpreted according to the rules of the denomination, whether Calvin's Institutes or the Augsburg Confession or the 39 Articles, or whatever. And there isn't actually much difference in practice between that and the Catholic magisterial epistemology.
The Problem for Protestants
The problem for protestants then is that we need a way to be able to have a definite heremeneutic without resorting to saying that the Church as a whole is right, because we've seen that the Church as a whole can be wrong with the Roman response to the Reformation.
A Way Forwards?
My suggestion of a way forwards is what I call a hermeneutic of brokenness. It's probably very unoriginal, but I don't know where I lifted it from. In practice, lots of people seem to do it anyway.
The idea is that we can only interpret the Bible correctly if we come at it completely broken and without any presuppositions. Of course, we can't do that perfectly, but the more broken we are, and the more we reject our presuppositions and let them be changed by the Bible, the closer we get to a correct interpretation. It's like in science, where we can never know if we've actually got the right interpretation – we can only know that our theories fit all the available data. But as our theories enable us to get better data, so we can re-evaluate and modify them. Just like that, we allow our views to be changed by Scripture, then re-read Scripture with our changed views and understand it slightly better.
Because all interpretations are ultimately provisional, it means that we are much more generous towards people that disagree with us – we listen and try to understand their point of view, being willing to change our mind if what they say fits better than what we say. But where they seem to be putting their pride or their cultural presuppositions first, then we can legitimately disagree with them or point out where they are doing that. And if they don't listen to dialogue, it suggests they aren't broken enough yet.
Having a hermeneutic of brokenness would mean that we were much less likely to splinter into more denominations and much more likely to be in dialogue with people of different traditions. It would mean that we wouldn't be confessionally defined, as confessions would not be necessarily true in the same sense as the Bible.
It does however make the question of defining heresy more difficult...
Sunday, March 11, 2007
The stereotypical female psychological problem is that of lack of self-esteem. The stereotypical male psychological problem is that the self-esteem is based on the self.
So often I see events aimed at Christian women (for example) trying to boost their self-esteem or sense of self-worth. All that does is teaching women to sin like men instead of like women.
The cross tells us that our self-esteem should be zero. Our sense of self-worth should be zero. Our Christ-esteem can never be high enough. Our knowledge of the fact that he accepts us despite our zero self-worth (and then seeks to transform us and use us for his glory) is where our confidence should be.
Not in self-esteem.
Friday, March 09, 2007
I've done some light reading over the last few weeks. Here are some of the books...
Shadow Puppets by Orson Scott Card is the third in the Shadow Saga by my favourite Mormon writer. It's not vintage Card sci-fi, like Speaker for the Dead is - it's more geopolitics a la Tom Clancy, but without the details of weapons and stuff. Still, a decent light read.
Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall-Smith is another book in the Botswana series. They are great fun, likable and understandable characters, really well written. Light reading, but good fun.
The Letters of John by John Stott is a good and fairly light commentary on 1 John, 2 John and 3 John. ("Good" and "fairly light" by no means always go together when I use them.) He does use the Greek, but not in a heavy way and sticks to explaining the passage. Occasionally he overstates a case, but in general I found this a really helpful book to use devotionally.
Wednesday, March 07, 2007
C.S. Lewis, the famous Christian apologist and expert in English literature, wrote an essay about Biblical criticism called Fern Seed and Elephants. I highly recommend it if you haven't read it already. Here are some highlights.
This then is my first bleat. These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.
All theology of the liberal type involves at some point – and often involves throughout – the claim that the real behaviour and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by his followers, and has only been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars.
My impression is that in the whole of my experience, not one of these guesses [of reviews trying to reconstruct how he wrote things] has on any point been right; that the method shows a record of one hundred per cent failure. You would expect by mere chance they would hit as often as they miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can't remember a single hit.
They assume that you wrote a story as they would try to write a story; the fact that they would so try explains why they have not produced any stories.
You cannot know that everything in the representation of a thing is symbolical unless you have independent access to the thing and can compare it with the representation.
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Another week, another cinema trip, another film.
This one was great fun. The writers, director and stars of Shaun of the Dead do a spoof of American slasher films and cop / shoot-em-up films.
Basic storyline - an obsessively good London policeman gets moved into the "village of the year" because he was showing up his colleagues too much in London. He quickly becomes suspicious of goings on in the village...
Very funny, and increasingly surreal, especially once he finds out what is actually going on. There are some fairly horrible deaths and injuries, at least one of which I sadly found very funny, to the point where I'm still laughing about it...
Monday, March 05, 2007
I'm meant to be sitting an exam at the start of next term. College decided to make it just before the start of term. That was a bad move.
On the day of the exam, I am meant to be in Israel on a trip which isn't an official college trip, but is run by people from college. I told them this.
I booked to go on the trip as it will hopefully be a nice holiday and will be useful for being a vicar and stuff.
The college are making me sit my exam anyway. During the vacation. In Israel. On holiday. Bah!
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Alas, and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sov'reign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity, grace unknown,
And love beyond degree!
Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut his glories in,
When Christ the mighty Maker died
For man, the creature's sin.
Thus might I hide my blushing face
While Calvary's cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt mine eyes to tears.
But drops of grief can ne'er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away,
'Tis all that I can do.
Friday, March 02, 2007
I've been really struck over the last day or so by the appalling ignorance of basic science. On the news last night, they reported that silicone had been found in some petrol. I was quite surprised. Silicone (polydimethylsiloxane or other similar polymerised polymerised siloxanes) is a modern polymer famous for its use in breast implants and stress balls.
However, the BBC website says it's silicon that has been found. Silicon is a semi-metallic element commonly used to make computer chips. It is present in silicone in much the same way that carbon is present in sugar. The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile says "silicone" but everything they say about it is actually about silicon, including it being an element.
Get an education - I taught that in the first term of 6th form physics! How acceptable would it be if you ran a story about Iraq that was actually about Iran?