Sunday, March 30, 2008

Morality

There's a really interesting article here.

What is especially interesting is not the comments on Manhunt 2 (very violent computer game), but the comment on the attitude in society to the use of the word "moral", spinning off this quote from Tanya Byron.

My review is not about making any kind of moral pronouncements, although I do think that it is important to look at the desensitisation to violence.

I think there's something in it. Kant saw the moral as belonging to the same world as the religious, which was a different world from science and truth. And the relativisation of religion, so that we cannot say that one person is right and another wrong, also seems to be leading to the relativisation of morality, so that we cannot say that someone else's morality is wrong.

Of course, that leads to a society which cannot function, which is why we get inconsistencies like Dr Byron's comment...

Saturday, March 29, 2008

How to Stop Snoring

Quick tip for dramatically reducing snoring and sleeping better:
 
Make sure that the pillows are roughly the same thickness as the length of the top of the shoulder - the distance from shoulder to neck. That way, sleeping on the side is much more comfortable than sleeping on the back, rolling in sleep is reduced dramatically, snoring doesn't happen as much and therefore the airways stay clearer and there is better sleep all round.

Friday, March 28, 2008

despising providence

I'm staying in the (English) Lake District at the moment, which is really amazing - I haven't been here for ages.
 
It's been grey and/or raining pretty much all day today, so I haven't been able to see the great view.
 
But I'm not complaining; I'm thanking God for the rain. After all, without the rain, the grass and trees wouldn't be so beautiful and green when there isn't rain. And without the rain, there wouldn't be such a lovely lake just down the hill from where I am now.
 
If it wasn't for the rain, the Lake District wouldn't be anywhere near as nice when it is sunny. So thank God for his providences rather than complaining about them...

apologies for the lack of updates

Sorry for the lack of updates recently. I'm on camp, and the venue we are using has a truly bizarre internet access setup.
 
This is an attempt to post something on my blog using the e-mail posting feature, which I hardly use at all. Except I'm having to do it from Hotmail, because my usual server isn't accessible from here. I've also therefore enabled comment moderation while I'm away. Sorry if that means your comments aren't updated as regularly as normal.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

"The Secrets of the Twelve Disciples"

Just watching / watched this program on Channel 4. As with so many of these things, it's got some good and widely acknowledged information (James as leader of the Jerusalem Church, Thomas in India, conflict in the early church over Jews / Gentiles), and tries to say that a lot of it has been suppressed to make it look like a big conspiracy with the Vatican as the evildoers. Sometimes they were, and often they weren't.

There's an interesting mix of scholars and crackpot conspiracy theorists. The stories seems to fall into several main groups:

  • focusing on well-acknowledged stuff (Thomas in India) which they find crackpots to deny and then claim that the deniers represent the church establishment
  • focusing on well-acknowledged stuff (Peter in Rome) which they find ultra-sceptical people (described as neutral) to deny and then focus only on the most controversial aspects of it (are the bones identified as Peter's bones really his?) and focus on the potential vested interest. There was even an ossuary (bone box) from Jerusalem labelled "Simon son of Jonah" which the guy who found it claimed wasn't Peter, but the presenter claimed had to be. The classic test is the question as to if, in 2000 years people found a tomb labelled "Elizabeth daughter of George" in the wrong place, would they think it was the remains of Queen Elizabeth II?
  • really dubious stuff (James in Compostella) that they get church people to defend

The whole thing seemed to strike me as very anti-Catholic. Now I'm not the greatest lover of Roman Catholicism in the world, though I know some good Catholics and the current Pope seems generally excellent, but it seemed to be decidedly nasty. Why the hatred of Catholicism? That's what I'd like to know... (but I could make some good guesses, mostly to do with embryology and authority claims)

A Good Bit of Ceremony

Last night I had the immense privilege of going to the Easter Vigil service at the local cathedral.

I really enjoyed it - it was a great service. Lots of incense and robes and powerful liturgy and a sermon that taught Scriptural truths well, and at the heart of it all the great affirmation that Christ is Risen! (He is risen indeed, Hallelujah!)

And the fact I thought it was such a good service got me thinking again about the role of ceremony and so on. Normally, I prefer a fairly light liturgy; none of the churches I usually frequent uses robes very often, and I think if we have that sort of thing every week it is easy to get distracted from Jesus and from being forced to confront the truth for oneself by the ceremony. But ceremony can work very well on occasion, particularly when done on special occasions.

It's easy for evangelicals to reject all the ceremony, but we often overargue our case and end up seeming to say that the physical world doesn't matter and all that matters is feeding brains in jars with more information about God. (I'm a conservative evangelical - I'm allowed to say things like that about conservative evangelicals). But it isn't. We're human beings, with bodies and senses and minds that are not as rational as modernism likes to think they are.

So time for an Easter quote from Richard Hooker:

The end which is aimed at in setting down the outward form of all religious actions is the edification of the church. Now men are edified when either their understanding is taught somewhat whereof in such actions it behoveth all men to consider or when their hearts are moved with any affection suitable thereunto; when their minds are in any sort stirred up unto that reverence, devotion, attention and due regard which in those cases seemeth requisite. Because therefore unto this purpose not only speech but also sundry sensible means besides have always been thought necessary and especially those means which being object to the eye, the liveliest and most apprehensive sense of all other, have in that respect seemed the fittest to make a deep and a strong impression...

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Carson - Science

Nice to see I'm even further from alone in my understanding of the theology of science...

Designed by [God], the universe hums along according to regular and predictable laws; but it does so only because he constantly exercises his sovereignty over the whole. No part of the system ever operates completely independently.

Moreover at any instant he chooses, he is free to suspend or abolish scientific 'laws'; that alone will account for such a miracle as the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Man can discover scientific 'laws'; indeed, he must, he is commissioned to do so as the steward of creation. But the scientist who has adopted this Biblical cosmology will not only recognise such laws and allow for divinely initiated exceptions, he will realise that these laws continue faithfully because of God's sustaining power. More specifically, since divine sovereignty is mediated through the Son, the Christian will hold that it is the Son who is, even now, 'sustaining all things by his powerful word' (Heb 1:3).

...

Old Testament believers were quite aware that water evaporates, forms clouds which drop their rain, which provide rivulets, streams and rivers which run to the sea; but more customarily they preferred to speak of God sending the rain. Such is the biblical cosmology.

Don Carson, Sermon on Matthew 6:19-34

Friday, March 21, 2008

Divorce Lawyers

In private, divorce lawyers not only say you shouldn't employ yourself for your divorce; they also say you shouldn't employ them either - ie just don't get divorced.

The divorce rate among divorce lawyers is incredibly low - however much they dislike their husbands or wives, lawyers know it's not worth paying people like them a fortune to make things worse.

from here

Reminds me of the magnificently tragic film The War of the Roses, which features a divorce lawyer who always advises people to get reconciled to their partner because he has seen just how awful not being reconciled can be.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

C.S. Lewis - Till We Have Faces

C.S. Lewis has written a lot of books. Until recently, the only fictional books I was aware of that he had written were the Narnia series and the science fiction trilogy. Since then I've read The Pilgrim's Regress, which I didn't especially get on with. But a few weeks ago, my girlfriend recommended Till We Have Faces. And I have to say that it is magnificent. As adult fiction goes, it's the best of Lewis's I've read. As Christian fiction goes, it's among the very best ever written. As fiction generally goes, it's superb. There's better psychological insights here than in almost anything else I've read.

The story is a reworking (and improvement) on the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche, set in a barbarian land with distant influences from Ancient Greece. As in the myth, a king has three daughters, the youngest of whom is amazingly beautiful, but gets demanded by the goddess of beauty as a sacrifice to her son. Part one of the book is the retelling of the (improved) story, from the point of view of the ugly eldest sister, who is seen very unsympathetically in the original myth - this whole story being presented as a complaint against the gods. At the end of the first part, I thought it was a very good book. But part two blew me away.

Do you think we mortals will find you gods easier to bear if you're beautiful? I tell you that if that's true we'll find you a thousand times worse. For then (I know what beauty does) you'll lure and entice. You'll leave us nothing, nothing that's worth our keeping or your taking. Those we love best - whoever's most worth loving - those are the very ones you'll pick out. Oh, I can see it happening, age after age, and growing worse and worse the more you reveal your beauty; the son turning his back on the mother and the bride on her groom, stolen away by this everlasting calling, calling, calling of the gods. Taken where we can't follow. It would be far better for us if you were foul and ravening. We'd rather you drank their blood than stole their hearts. We'd rather they were ours and dead than yours and made immortal.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Clerical Role of "Answer Man"

An interesting quote here which raises interesting questions about theological education. For what it's worth, I certainly know quite a bit more than I did when I started my theology degree, but I don't think I'm much better at coming to an opinion on a new topic than I was as a "proper" layperson. So on topics I have studied at university, I think I'm better informed than I was, but that doesn't mean I was wrong or incapable of refuting bad theology before. On topics I haven't really studied much, I don't see why my opinion now is worth more than it was two years ago.

To perpetuate the clerical role of answer man, the layman when inside the church building must act as if he has only half a brain, while outside, in the world, he is expected to be an ambassador for Christ, a lay transmitter of faith. Outside, he is to be informed and vocal; inside, he must appear ignorant and mute as a sheep. Christians have within them many questions--questions that are at once elementary and profound, questions that would ripple the water were they raised. However, because a Christian is supposed to have "answers," life's important questions are not discussed outside the church building; and, because the pastor is the educated, spiritual authority, they are not discussed inside either.
Paul G. Johnson (b.1931), Buried Alive [1968]

Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke has died. He was one of my favourite writers when I was a teenager, and had the great strength that most of his science made sense - he was for a long time more of a visionary populariser of science who could write than an author who liked science.

He'll pretty much always be credited with inventing the communications satellite. Actually, as I remember, he just popularised the idea which was already hiding in some obscure scientific literature.

He probably stands out to me as someone who was excellent at popularising and motivating people to love physics. He'll be missed.

Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go

Ishiguro is a very versatile and talented writer, and doesn't seem bothered by conventions of genre, which is a good thing; I guess he's quite like Margaret Atwood in that regard. This book probably best fits into the category of speculative fiction, rather like The Handmaid's Tale, except not quite as dark.

The central characters are three friends from an unusual English boarding school who come across each other later in life, and it's written as one of them looks back. A lot of the perennial major themes come up - memory, relationships and what makes us human. It's very well written. Yes, there's a central mystery to the book, as becomes apparent quite early. And if I hadn't pretty much figured it out by the end of chapter 4, the book would probably have been stunningly good rather than just very good. And lots of people don't - I guess I was somewhat more predisposed to get it than usual because of some of the stuff I've read and seen before.

There - I didn't give much away, I don't think.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Gay" as an Insult

There's a piece on the phenomenon here, though I'm not sure why it classes as news because everyone even vaguely aware of young people has known it for a long time. I was quite surprised that when I was a teacher, I was one of the few who objected to its use. As far as I can tell, it's a word used to describe an aspect of some people which they can't control and hence is inappropriate for use as an insult.

I'm sure I read someone arguing that it was appropriate because children's words and attitudes showed that homosexuality was intrinsically evil. Odd that we don't seem to see that sort of attitude in ancient Greece then, which suggests the commenter may have to come to grips with their own homophobia.

Here's my comment which I tried posting on the above page. I don't expect it to get included, because it isn't especially politically correct.

"Blowing trivial matters out of proportion" is not a good way of teaching. Much better to deal with the problem by always taking the word in its sexual sense and gently mocking the child who uses it in ways that don't then make sense.

But on the other hand, the concept of sexual orientation is itself an unhelpful one and does not go "to the core of someone's identity". There are people, and there are sexual desires. And most people experience most sorts of sexual desire at some stage. My identity is not defined by whether I prefer Indian or Chinese food on a given day.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Self-Definition

Most people define themselves by their past - who their parents are (it's even in the name!), what job they have been doing, who they married, etc.

I think as Christians, we are meant to define ourselves by our future - the fact we are going to be united with Jesus in heaven, we are going to be raised with him, etc.

Think about it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Great Advert...

I'm shocked. I knew pretty much what was coming and I still missed it... And it's an important message too.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Danger of Certainty

Apologies for not posting more at the moment.

One of the things I've been thinking about this term is the nature of knowledge, and more to the point, how we can know things. Of course it's very important in science and in theology, but isn't studied enough in either.

It's wrong to be certain about a fact

The first point I think it's worth making is that it's wrong to be certain. We can never know all the possible information about something. Nor can we ever be sure that our reasoning is right. The traditional answer is that certainty is only possible in maths, but I don't think it's possible even there because human reason is fallible. I can make mistakes. So can anyone else. So can everyone in the whole history of humanity.

Because of this, if people say they are absolutely certain of something, I find it very offputting. If someone says they are certain that climate change is caused by human activity, or that humans evolved from the same ancestors as apes, or that Paul did or didn't write 1 Timothy, that makes me think they are delusional and overstating their case. In my opinion, people should state their case and present their arguments, but not overstate it.

We can know things

But at the same time, it's stupid to say that we can't actually know anything. I am sitting on a chair at the moment. Can I prove that? No. Can I even prove it to myself? No. But all the evidence I have got suggests it. Maybe I am having a vivid dream, or am a brain in a jar or something, but the idea that I am sitting in a chair perfectly fits all of the evidence, so I'm going to say that it might as well be true, even though I can't be totally sure of it. And yes, if things happen that make me question the nature of my assumed reality (as in The Truman Show), then I'm willing to change my opinion.

Tom Wright describes the situation very well by talking about stories. We all try to find the story that best describes the world around us. If there are things that don't fit, it might be that we need to add some small details to our stories; it might be that the stories we tell need to be changed completely. Other people's stories of how the world works might well be different because they have been designed around different bits of information. A perfect story will fit absolutely everything into it and help us to see what we should be doing in life. But because we can never know absolutely everything, we can never see whether we've actually got the perfect story or not.

In fact, not only can I know things, I can know things with enough confidence to bet my life on them. So when I get onto a plane to fly to the US, I'm willing to bet my life that the plane will make it across the Atlantic, and I'm willing to bet that on the basis of the evidence. If I'm feeling worried about it, I'll reassure myself with stuff like a knowledge of how aircraft work, the fact that lots of planes fly across the Atlantic and almost all of them make it with no problems, and so on. If the journey was a lot more dangerous, whether I did it or not would depend on how important it was.

In exactly the same way, I'm willing to bet my life on the trustworthiness of the God and Father of Jesus. Tom Wright goes on to ask how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus fits into our stories, and argues that they can only fit in if our stories end up built around them. That doesn't mean that I'm absolutely certain of everything - I have doubts. Everyone does. It doesn't mean I understand everything - I don't. It means that I know God well enough to trust him with my life.

I love the old hymn by Daniel Whittle:

I know not why God’s wondrous grace
To me He hath made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
Redeemed me for His own.

But I know Whom I have believ├Ęd,
And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto Him against that day.

I know not how this saving faith
To me He did impart,
Nor how believing in His Word
Wrought peace within my heart.

Refrain

I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing us of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in Him.

Refrain

I know not what of good or ill
May be reserved for me,
Of weary ways or golden days,
Before His face I see.

Refrain

I know not when my Lord may come,
At night or noonday fair,
Nor if I walk the vale with Him,
Or meet Him in the air.

Refrain

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Scandal of Loneliness

I had an eye-opening conversation recently, with a fellow Christian from a different social background. He spoke of his extreme loneliness living on his own in a council flat. I can identify with that - when I lived on my own, I'd have gone mad without an intensely social job, a church with a strong social life and friends I could chat to online. And of those three, only one was open to this man.

He spoke of his time trying to persuade people to let him stay in sheltered housing for the mentally disabled, because he wanted the company. But they wouldn't let him, because he was too clever. The government's assumption is that people are best off living on their own if they can, because that's society's assumption. But it's wrong.

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."
Genesis 2:18, NIV

We have such a fractured individualised society. And yet so many people, on leaving university, find that the best way to live is with housemates, in order to stay sane as well as in order to be able to afford to live.

We are not meant to be alone. Why is it that in contemporary TV, there are so few stable characters who live on their own? And yet why is it that in reality, so many people do? Why is it that the biggest internet industries - pornography and gambling - are essentially solitary pursuits? When are alcoholics most likely to relapse? When are people most likely to get depressed?

We are in a society which is gradually ripping itself apart, and one of the key factors in its self-destruction is loneliness.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Mark Twain - Explaining Life

When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.
Mark Twain

Monday, March 03, 2008

Where are all the Men?

This post arises out of several conversations I've had in the last few months, most recently last night.

One of the tragedies of modern evangelicalism is the women. Or is it the men?

There seem to be far more young women than young men in many churches, which means that the women are often faced with a very difficult choice. Either they marry people they have big differences with theologically, often even non-Christians, or they stay single. I know people who have done each. Generally it seems that those who are struggling more in their faith tend to marry, but it is a horrible decision to have to make.

So the question is - where are all the men? In the discussion, we came up with three reasons why there are often so many more young women than young men (older women, there's a difference because of the different life expectancies, as in the population at large). There's probably lots more too.

Reason 1 - Friendships

An important part of how people come to faith is through friendships. Our society is a lot better on female-female friendships than on male-male friendships or male-female friendships. Women have friends. Men have people they do things with. So I might have friends I do sports with, or go to the pub with, or whatever, but they aren't friends I'd talk to about stuff or friends in the abstract. So because women have better friendships, they're more likely to come to Christ through their friends.

Proposed solution: church-based football leagues, church-based activities generally with a very gentle evangelistic focus.

Reason 2 - Lack of Acceptable Role Models

Christian leadership is seen more and more as being relational (and that's important). However, because the leadership is gentle, relational and so on, it's often also seen by society as being more feminine, and the men who do it are less accessible as role models for other men. It's notable that the one societal cross-section of British evangelicalism where men aren't under-represented is the one where there is a strong archetypal role model still in place - the posh public-school section.

Proposed solution: male leaders - listen to Mark Driscoll on this one.

Reason 3 - Feminisation of the Gospel

We tend to emphasise some bits of the Bible over others. Specifically, we tend to emphasise the bits about God loving us and accepting us, which can be seen as fitting in with stereotypically female concerns. And we don't tend to emphasise the bits which fit in with characteristically male concerns - the risk taking, the pictures of the soldier and the athlete, the heroes of the faith, the pressing on to win the prize, the eschatological goal of the faith, and so on. Which means that, because we present an unbalanced view, we get an unbalanced group of people in.

I'm not saying that the facts that God loves us and accepts us and so on aren't important - of course they are. I'm saying that they're not the whole story.

And a quick note on stereotypes - of course men and women do not all precisely follow their stereotypes, and some of the stereotypes are culturally conditioned. But they're still sometimes useful generalisations for getting a big picture.