Sunday, December 31, 2006

What Would the Bible Look Like with an Old Earth?

I'm continuing my series on creation / evolution questions, where I explain why I'm genuinely unsure about how old the Earth and the universe are.

Having asked what the Earth would look like if it had been suddenly created from nothing, I'm now going to ask what the Bible would look like if the Old Earth Creationists were right. Old Earth Creationism, roughly, is the belief that God created the universe over a very long period of time a very long time ago, quite possibly using stuff like a Big Bang and evolution to do it. What would the Bible say about it?

The first thing to note is that Genesis was written to a group of Iron Age subsistence farmers. We should not therefore expect it to contain stuff that they wouldn't understand. Not that they were stupid, but they hadn't exactly had much of a modern scientific education. They didn't know what genes, quark-gluon plasmas or quantum vacuum fluctuations were; they didn't have any use for numbers bigger than those in a census, and even then they seem quite capable of confusing thousands with leaders (the two are the same word in Hebrew - see e.g. Wenham on the census in Numbers). So what would a true description of creation written for those people be like? Certainly not like a modern scientific description would be. What use could they possibly have for that?

They were also in the context of the ancient Near East, with lots of various creation myths about other gods doing the rounds. So an account of creation written for people in that situation should include references to those myths - maybe showing important points where they were wrong (like having gods as part of creation and the universe as always having existed). And where these myths said that other gods did things that the True God really did (like imposing order and so on), the account should say that he did those things. And it's important to know that God was always in control and that he did things at his own pace rather than being forced by events.

In fact, I think a creation account written for the ancient Israelites, telling them what they needed to know about creation, even if it was written by someone who understood about quark-gluon plasmas and stuff, would probably look quite like the one in Genesis.

Friday, December 29, 2006

What a Young Earth Would Look Like

I'm continuing my series on creation / evolution questions, where I explain why I'm genuinely unsure about how old the Earth and the universe are.

Let's just explore the idea of an Earth that was created suddenly, without a Big Bang or accretion disks or anything, and think about what it would be like. We need to do this so that we can test it as an idea against what we observe the Earth to be like, and see if they fit.

Suppose that Adam decided to dig down underneath the Garden of Eden. What would he see? Well, eventually I guess he'd see rock. And rocks on Earth are classified as igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic. But we observe all three of those being formed today, and all three therefore have inferred histories - we look at them and say "this rock used to be part of a volcano" or "this rock used to be a bit of sand at the bottom of an ocean" or something. In other words, if a geologist had been there looking at the rocks, he wouldn't have been able to tell that the Earth was new (well, not just by looking at the rocks).

What about trees in the Garden of Eden? If Adam had cut a tree down, would he have seen rings? I guess so. But again, when we see tree rings, we infer a history from that. What about horses' teeth? Did horses in the Garden of Eden have rings in their teeth? (I don't know much about horses, but apparently they have rings in their teeth - like trees rather than bulls' noses).

What about limestone? Limestone today is formed by lots of dead sea creatures (or their shells) getting squashed by huge pressure. Would there have been limestone on Earth when it was created? I don't see why not, but if there was, then a geologist there would infer that there had been lots of sea creatures millions of years before, which had died.

I don't think there's any way to escape the fact that if Earth was created suddenly in the last 20 000 years, then it probably in some sense had to have the appearance of age, even down to having the appearance of previous organisms having died.

That's really annoying in a way for trying to work out how old the earth is, of course, because it means that we need to be very careful with dating techniques.

Some people might well point out that this could be said to lead to (the unscientific and unfalsifiable) "Last Thursdayism" - the belief that the whole universe was created last Thursday, with the appearance of age and everyone having memories. But the difference is that there's no good reason to believe Last Thursdayism but some people say there is good reason to believe in a sudden creation of the universe during the last 20 000 years. I think they're probably exaggerating the evidence, but that's a different story...

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Creation / Evolution

I'm going to try to be honest (and therefore controversial) on this; I tended to get asked about it a lot when I was a science teacher.

There are a few things it's important to say to start with before I focus on individual areas and why I think what I think in later posts.

Firstly, I think it's very important to say that I think that God knew what he was doing when he got people to write the Bible. So if the Bible teaches that the world was created 6000 years ago over a period of 144 hours, then that's what I believe happened. But I'm not at all convinced that that's what the Bible teaches (and I'll discuss why later). I don't think that the Bible tells us whether the world was created 6000 years ago or 14 billion years ago.

Secondly, I think it's important to say that science is a valid method, and comes up with valid answers to valid questions when done properly. Lots of religions don't teach that, but Christianity does. The traditional way of thinking about it is saying that we can know things via the book of revelation (the Bible) or the book of nature, and both of them come from God. So if the scientific evidence pointed unambiguously to the world starting 14 billion years ago (or 4.5 billion years ago, depending on whether “world” means the universe or the Earth), then that's what I believe happened. But I'm not at all convinced that the evidence for an old earth is as unambiguous as it's often presented (and I'll discuss why later). I don't think that science tells us clearly whether the universe came into existence 14 billion years ago or in the last 20 000 years.

What do I do when what I'm sure science says and what I'm sure the Bible says disagree? I'll deal with that if it ever happens, and it hasn't done so yet.

When I discuss the issue, I usually try to argue people into the middle.

For my part, I've read lots of the arguments on all four sides (old and young universe from the Bible and from science) and I think all of them display cognitive bias and none of them make their case well enough for me to agree with them. I don't think any of them deserve to win...

Interestingly, Scott Adams says much the same thing for different reasons, and then explains it again for the people who didn't understand it the first time.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Revelation and Persecution

One of the (many) things I get depressed about from time to time is how stupid some Christians get in interpreting Revelation. Mind you, I probably would if I hadn't had some good teaching on it. But as a book it was clearly written to churches who were being persecuted, and it's great (in a way) to see that in the context of persecution, it's much more obvious what it means.

[American Pastor]: What book of the Bible is most precious to you?

[Chinese Pastor]: Well, probably the book of Revelation because...

[AP]: Because your suffering makes you long for the end of the world, and you are strengthened by the vision of how it will end, with Christ's victory?

[CP]: That too, but we don't just take Revelation to be a description of the way the world will end; we see it also as a description of the way the world is now.

[AP]: I'm not understanding you. Surely Revelation is a book that tells us how the world will end.

[CP]: And I'm telling you that it's also a description of the way the world is now. Suffering has made this clear to us in China. Clearly prosperity has hidden this from you in America. You see, we had a Caesar here in China, called Mao, and he, like the Caesar of the early church period, demanded what was not only his but God's. As in Revelation, he used a beast to coerce us (Communism) and a false prophet to beguile us (false bishops). When we resisted this idolatry with the “testimony of the Lamb”, we were slaughtered and jailed. In this way, we saw that Revelation is a description of the spiritual war that always goes on in every society, including yours.

Faith that Endures, Ronald Boyd-Macmillan (p316-7)

One of the (many) things that makes me rejoice in God is when people seem to really get it.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Faith that Endures

I'm reading a great book at the moment - Faith that Endures by Ronald Boyd-Macmillan. It's probably the best book I've read on the persecuted church. The back cover says that it sets out to answer the following questions:

What does contemporary persecution look like? What is a persecuted Christian? Where is the persecuted church? How can we best assist the persecuted church? What does the persecuted church have to teach us?

And it answers those questions pretty well. Here's a quote from near the end:

So, what is the purpose of life now, in this world of beasts, lies, death and oppression? Here again the experiences of the persecuted point us unmistakalby to a vital biblical principle: God builds his kingdom not on our achievements, but on our sacrifices. It is not the fulfilled life that God takes but the yielded life. The purpose of life is to lose it for God.


Only empty hearts are filled with Jesus.

Ronald Boyd-Macmillan, Faith that Endures (p318-320)

More on the "Covenant"

first thing I wrote on it

In a way, the key to the issue seems to be how differently people are reading it. I know quite a few of the signatories, and I read it one way, as do most of the people I know from that sort of background. On the other hand, people from other backgrounds tend to read it very differently.

This is roughly how I read it:

We (the signatories) agree that there are several things that often really frustrate us about the Church of England:

  • the parish system often hinders mission
  • very good candidates for ministry are often rejected because of some low quality selectors
  • there are too many people in the Church of England who don't share the historic and Biblical faith
  • we think it's unfair that we should have to support them financially

Some of us feel so strongly about these, and find them so much of a problem that they might ignore the C of E when it does silly stuff like stops us from serving God for no really good reason, and the rest of us, while we might not do that ourselves, can certainly understand where they're coming from and will support them in that.

We don't want to leave the Church of England – we are Anglicans and still see ourselves as Anglicans.

On the other hand, people who aren't from that background tend to read it as something that's essentially starting a schism or something by drawing a line and saying “we're on this side, you're on the other, we don't like you”. To my mind, that suggests that the people who wrote it probably wrote it too quickly, as Tom Wright points out, and should probably have asked more widely about how people would understand what it said.

As to where I stand - I'm certainly in sympathy with the concerns of the people who wrote the Covenant, but wish they had expressed them better and that Tom Wright and others had been more loving in their responses. I'm not saying I'd have done any better in any of their positions though...

Some people have written some more stuff on it worth reading:

Thanks to Thinking Anglicans for the links.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Quote - Prophecy

[The entire Old Testament] ground-plan is the whole scheme of Messianic prophecy, from the germinal revelation in Genesis concerning the suffering, yet triumphant Seed of the Woman to the coming to His Temple of the long-absent "Angel of the Covenant" in Malachi. That hope alone explains the Book, giving meaning and consistency to its story. Was it a chimera, an hallucination? According to the prophecy of Micah, the messianic Shepherd of Israel had to be born in Bethlehem. It is unthinkable that an heir to the throne of David could be born in Bethlehem now, and be also able to prove his legitimacy by documentary evidence. The event must clearly have taken place already, or Micah is a false prophet, a raiser of false hopes, along with the other writers in the Old Testament.
Max I. Reich (1867-1945)

Must ask some Jews how they figure it... Oh, and hat tip to CQOD.

Cakes to Order?

I was at a tea shop today, and I saw the following written at the bottom on the menu:

All cakes can be made to order.

Here are some suggested reply:

I have here a cupcake. Please train it to order me a hot chocolate and a chicken sandwich next time I'm at Starbucks.

Could I have a cake that can command a platoon of soldiers please? It might save lives in Iraq if we can replace our army with specially trained cakes.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Islamic Art

I was in a (very obviously) Muslim-run takeaway last night, and noticed the decor.

The Qur'an doesn't officially ban pictures of people, even of Muhammad, so there is a lot of Islamic art depicting him (see here for examples). But in common with Christianity and Judaism, there's a ban on worshipping images of people. (Some Christians sometimes give the impression of worshipping images - what they say they are doing is using the images of people as a kind of visual biography to recall to mind what those people did and help them focus on God through what he has done in the lives of people. I reckon that's possible - it's between them and God but personally it's not something I do much.)

In modern Islam, the ban on worshipping images has grown into a virtual ban on images of people in art, with the result that even early on their art became very heavily based on geometry and letter forms - it looks very nice actually. Some Christians have gone down the whole prohibiting images of people line, but when they have usually haven't produced such nice alternatives.

Anyway - back to the take-away. The decor was mostly geometric with Arabic words in, with some big framed photos of Islamic shrines, mosques, etc. What suddenly struck me as odd though was the television in the corner. The Christians I know who don't like any pictures of people don't like television either. I just don't get how people can be against any pictures of people in their art, yet be absolutely fine with them on television. Are good films not art?

Another bit of me wants to point out that they're actually making images of everyone they see on their retinas - otherwise they couldn't see them.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Covenant Mess

I've been wanting to blog my own thoughts on this for a while, but don't have time to write much at the moment. In the meantime, here are a few links to events saying what is going on. I've used original sources where possible.

Here are some thoughts I've posted elsewhere on some of the underlying problems which Tom Wright didn't address in his piece:

The rapid growth of some churches and decline of others has meant that the C of E synodical system is no longer fairly representative of the membership. Instead, it is heavily weighted towards members of small churches (which tend to be more liberal and/or catholic) compared to larger ones which tend to be more evangelical and/or charismatic. For example, St Ebbe's in Oxford has five main congregations on a Sunday, with a total attendance probably over 1000, yet it only counts as one church. HTB is a lot bigger even than that. 1000 members of local traditional anglo-catholic churches (of which there are many) would probably be 20 or more churches, with far more seats on Synods. This means that a high (and growing) proportion of congregants in the C of E, particularly the more evangelical ones, are greatly under-represented in the structures of the C of E.

The increasing mobility in society has led to a situation, particularly in urban areas, where the parish system has broken down. Parish boundaries are increasingly irrelevant and the majority of members of many churches do not live in the parish. Urban churches are therefore becoming more specialist - students, young families, elderly people, evangelical, liberal, anglo-catholic, whatever. The hubs of communities in towns are no longer the old village high streets, which worked well with the parish system, but larger developments. In such a context, it makes little sense to have a parish system, at least within towns. That's actually a large part of the thing they wrote.

As society becomes decreasingly Christian, people are more and more recognising that most people in Britain have very little awareness of the good news of Jesus Christ. This means that people who think it is important to proclaim that good news to everyone, and who don't see it being done effectively want to be able to work with the unreached wherever they are.

With the whole women bishops thing being debated, it is felt that there is a fair bit of debate going on about the role of bishops, and it is likely that the next few years will be formative for the structures in the C of E for the next few decades. If they're going to make a point about bishops, it seems a sensible time to do it.

There is a growing unity among the different groups of evangelicals within the C of E. As far as I can tell, this is the first time New Wine and Reform have got together on something. Certainly, it feels like the charismatic divide is starting to heal, which is good. That also means that they are more likely to be listened to.

What I think Tom Wright's response risks doing, however, is to create divisions within evangelical Anglicanism, which isn't good. I don't think that the original covenant did that in the same way, and Bishop Tom would have been much better (in my opinion) to gently point out a few faults rather than lay into them so heavily.

Here are a few more quick thoughts:

  • I know a fair few of the people who signed the covenant personally, and I really don't think they're trying to do schism. What they're trying to do is be clear that there's a lot that they agree on about ways forward in the current situation, specifically with the debates about the future of bishops in the Church of England and the debate that should be happening about the future of the parish system
  • The covenant is a covenant with each other - it's them agreeing on something.
  • They represent a lot more people than Dave Walker suggested. I know at the college I'm training at, only a minority are members of any of the groups officially listed there (I think, though that might be close), but probably a majority would agree with the substance of what was said
  • I don't think the purpose of it is to establish an us-and-them situation - it's to try to kick start dialogue. If someone else wants to come back at them with a discussion about how the parish system enables mission today, for example, I imagine they would be more than welcome to. But as it is, there's a large chunk of the C of E that thinks it hinders it.

More here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Sorry that all these blog posts are short. I'm still on my tour of the country, so don't have much time on the computer to write them!

Here, therefore, is a video of the song "Bob" by Weird Al, which is entirely in palindromes!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas Carols

On my dashing round the country tour, last night I was at a carol service where "O Holy Night" was sung as a solo.

That song always (however well it is sung) reminds me of this rendition, which is hilarious.

NB - since I don't currently have access to my ftp server (being on tour and all), I "borrowed" the link from this page. And yes, I did check that their audio host gives unmeterd bandwidth... I don't seen any reason for them to complain, but if they do, I'll happily remove that link.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Islamic Dialogue

A few weeks ago, I attended a dialogue between three Islamic scholars from Al-Azhar university in Egypt and three Christian scholars from Oxford.

Lots of interesting stuff was said – here are a few highlights.

Attitude to Revelation

The Muslims, understandably, went for the traditional line, with the Qur'an as perfectly dictated from God. The Christians, by contrast, also took the traditional line, which is far too often neglected in the popular understanding. They defended the view that God's perfect revelation of himself is in the person of Jesus.

The Muslims also took the somewhat odd, though orthodox Islamic view that the gospels were revealed verbatim to Jesus rather than written by and through human authors, albeit inspired by God. The Christian view is that the books have both human and divine authorship – that God used the people who were writing them and their situations and knowledge to have written exactly what he wanted written. It's interesting that that has been the view back as far as we can tell, including at the time of the rise of Islam. In fact, the only evidence for the Muslim view of the origin of the Christian Scriptures at all is that the Qur'an says it.

Attitude to Jesus' Death

The Muslims seemed scandalised by the idea of the cross – that Jesus could take the punishment for others. Probably the clearest explanation for them to understand was in terms of taking the dishonour and shame for humanity. The importance of recognising that Jesus' death was voluntary was also stressed.

I was interested in asking them two questions, but didn't get the chance.Given they believed that God was all-powerful, whether they believed that God could have made himself human, or how they recognise that God is both just and merciful – how they reconcile those two facts. For Christians, the two are reconciled in Jesus – that God is both just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus, to quote Romans 3:26.

Attitude to Conversion

As with Tariq Ramadan, the Muslims argued that people should be allowed to follow Christianity if they wanted to, and should be allowed to convert from Islam to Christianity or vice versa. They recognised that most Muslim countries did not allow this and that the “classical” view was that people who converted from Islam should be killed. Also as with Tariq Ramadan they argued that that view should also be respected and seemed disinclined to try to change the situation in Muslim countries.

On the other hand, when the subject got near the idea of blasphemy, they got angry having previously been chatting in a kind manner for over an hour. They seemed adamant that speaking ill of Mohammed should be very illegal. Which made me wonder what about religious freedom. If I am allowed to be a Christian, am I allowed to say that Jesus is God's perfect revelation, and therefore that the Qur'an is not? The answer seemed to be “no”, but again I didn't get a chance to ask in more depth.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Is Pornography Good?

Nothing I write here should be taken as in any way condoning lust. Lust (by which I mean something along the lines of "dwelling on the idea of having sexual intimacy with someone you're not married to") is wrong, but I don't expect non-Christians to agree with me on that at all, and discussing why lust is wrong is probably the subject for another time.

There's a common line among some people (and I used to be one of them) that men lusting is partly the fault of women for showing so much flesh. Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali went much much much too far down that road, and Scott Adams lampooned him brilliantly for it. Yeah, I know it's a bit old news. I've been wanting to write this for over a month.

Al-Hilali was obviously wrong. Women wearing revealing clothing might not be the most loving thing to do if there are men around who have problems with lust (and most men do), but it doesn't force them to lust and it doesn't make them rape you. That's their fault. But if he was wrong, if it's actually mens choice whether they lust or not, if women wearing revealing clothing isn't intrinsically wrong, why is pornography wrong?

Here's another angle, which sheds some useful light on the situation. Paul wrote:

everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving
1 Timothy 4:4, NIV

God created naked women (Genesis 2:22,25). So if everything God created is good, surely that means that the naked female form is good and is not to be rejected. So why is pornography wrong?

The answer, and one solution to lust, is in the verse. Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.

I used to struggle a lot with lust. I still do, but a lot less than I used to. One of the ways I used to try and deal with lust was avoiding pictures of women wearing revealing clothes or no clothes at all. That's a fairly common approach among Christian men. There were loads of problems with that. I've got a very good memory and (at times) an overactive imagination. I can avoid actual images in my own space, but I can't avoid them in public space, and I can't avoid women wearing revealing clothes without cutting myself off from the world. So just trying to cut off the supply of images actually had very little effect.

So what about thanking God for them? After all, God made naked women. I find that if I see an attractive woman wearing suggestive clothing, and I thank God for making attractive women, it gets my whole attitude much more right, and I am much less likely to want to treat the women in ways that the God who made them would disapprove of. It also makes my attitude to women much healthier.

Here's another slant on it. In Romans 1, Paul has all kinds of sin stemming from just two - ingratitude and failing to worship God.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened....

Romans 1:18-21, NIV

Paul then goes on to list loads of consequences and ways that the sin works itself out in people's lives. But if the essence of sin is ingratitude and failing to thank God, then isn't the essence of lust failing to thank God for attractive people and so want to experience them in the way that God designed? So how better to combat that than by thanking God for people instead of lusting after them?

So, my view is that pornography isn't wrong in itself. But if someone wants to look at pornography (of the sex they're attracted to), there's at least a 99% probability that their motivations are lustful and therefore wrong.

Oh yes, and a quick random plug for - #1 Christian Porn Site, if only because of the name.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Science Quote

The game of science can accurately be described as a never-ending insult to human intelligence.
Joao Magueijo, Faster than the Speed of Light (p13)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Murders in Ipswich

For those who haven't been following British news recently, there seems to be a serial killer at work in the quiet and prosperous town of Ipswich. Over the last 10 days, 5 prostitutes have been found murdered... ref - BBC News

Quick tip for the police - check out the journalists. They're the ones making a profit out of it. In particular, check out ITN - they had people on the scene when one of the bodies was found and got an interview with one of the victims a couple of days before they were killed.

Part of the problem, of course, is drugs. The UK has a welfare state, so women don't need to work as prostitutes to survive - they only do it to get drugs money. Predictably, the Daily Telegraph makes this connection and half-seriously suggests killing a large number of drug dealers to combat the problem. And yes, it might work. As usual for the Telegraph, it spots the problem and isn't afraid to name it. Also predictably for the Telegraph, it doesn't seem to understand the people who do it.

As I understand it, a large part of the reason people turn to drugs in the first place is because their lives are so boring and dull they need to be escaped from. Due to impoverished horizons and social outlook, they see drugs as the easiest way out. Yes, making drugs harder to get would be one solution to that. Others would be providing youth clubs (except the goverment don't do that any more - it's pretty much just the churches) or improving their education so that they can earn enough money to fund a drug (or computer game) habit without resorting to prostitution. Lets face it, that's the modern middle class solution.

Or a really radical solution - how about helping them to see that life without drugs is worth living? How about showing them that the God who made the whole universe cares about them and wants them to know him personally? How about helping them to see that it's worth living a life if it's for the one who made life? Or don't we do that these days?

Nick King and the New Testament

One of the books I was (very kindly) given for my birthday was the New Testament as translated by Nick King.

That was odd, because I know Nick King - he's a Jesuit priest who has been teaching me Greek this term. Nice guy too. His translation seems fairly good as well - I'm currently reading the gospels in Greek, ESV and Nick King's, and comparing the three. Where NK is less good English than the ESV, he's closer to the Greek. This isn't a dynamic equivalent like the NIV; this seems to be a translation of idiomatic Greek into idiomatic English with the idiom somewhere between English and Greek. And in general it works. When I want to check my translations from the Greek against an English which makes sense, this is really helpful - slightly more helpful even than the ESV.

Flicking ahead to the epistles, he seems to try to keep the sentence structure the same as in the Greek (which often has very long sentences), but he uses bullet points to keep clarity with subordinate clauses. There are a few things I'm not overly keen on - the Greek of Romans 3:22-25, for example, seems to fit much better with the ESV or NIV than with NK's. Part of me might suggest that's because he's got a commitment not to translate it in a way that disagrees with Roman Catholic doctrine, but the rest of me would assume he'd just had a hard time marking someone's work.

All in all, I'm finding it quite helpful and an interesting take on translation.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

To Understand is to Forgive?

One thing I mention quite a bit, largely to remind myself, is the importance of listening to other people and trying to understand where they are coming from before condemning them.

Alexander Chase said that to understand is to forgive. I think there's a lot of truth in there, but I don't think it's quite true. To understand someone else is usually to see that they're no worse than us, which can often lead to forgiveness because our standards are so low - they have to be, if we accept ourselves.

In a sense, to understand is to condemn, because our motives are so rarely pure. So God understands everything, and sees that we so often set ourselves up against him and so often fail to trust him, and rightly condemns us for that. It is then astounding that even though God both understands us and has perfect standards that he still offers to accept us by giving himself for us.

For us, to understand is to cease to be judgemental and to condemn without understanding is to run the risk of being judgemental.

The apostle Paul wrote this:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment?
Romans 2:1-3, NIV

It is striking to me that the verses immediately before that are often used to condemn people, specifically over homosexual behaviour. But to do that is only to condemn ourselves.

I am not saying there is no place for moral standards - I am saying that the only place we should proclaim them from is the explicit recognition that they condemn us too, but that there is real forgiveness to be found in Christ.

Here is a story from the Bible that illustrates the importance of listening to other people before condemning them. I believe it is particularly relevant for those who would condemn other Christians because of their musical styles, use of liturgy (or lack of it), use of images in worship, etc, etc. The context is that Israel have just settled in the Promised Land, with lots of laws about how they could only do sacrifices to God at the Tabernacle.

So the men of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh left the rest of Israel at Shiloh in the land of Canaan. They started the journey back to their own land of Gilead, the territory that belonged to them according to the Lord’s command through Moses.

But while they were still in Canaan, and when they came to a place called Geliloth[a] near the Jordan River, the men of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh stopped to build a large and imposing altar.

The rest of Israel heard that the people of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh had built an altar at Geliloth at the edge of the land of Canaan, on the west side of the Jordan River. So the whole community of Israel gathered at Shiloh and prepared to go to war against them. First, however, they sent a delegation led by Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, to talk with the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. In this delegation were ten leaders of Israel, one from each of the ten tribes, and each the head of his family within the clans of Israel.

When they arrived in the land of Gilead, they said to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, “The whole community of the Lord demands to know why you are betraying the God of Israel. How could you turn away from the Lord and build an altar for yourselves in rebellion against him? ... today you are turning away from following the Lord. If you rebel against the Lord today, he will be angry with all of us tomorrow.

“If you need the altar because the land you possess is defiled, then join us in the Lord’s land, where the Tabernacle of the Lord is situated, and share our land with us. But do not rebel against the Lord or against us by building an altar other than the one true altar of the Lord our God. ...

Then the people of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh answered the heads of the clans of Israel: “The Lord, the Mighty One, is God! The Lord, the Mighty One, is God! He knows the truth, and may Israel know it, too! We have not built the altar in treacherous rebellion against the Lord. If we have done so, do not spare our lives this day. If we have built an altar for ourselves to turn away from the Lord or to offer burnt offerings or grain offerings or peace offerings, may the Lord himself punish us.

“The truth is, we have built this altar because we fear that in the future your descendants will say to ours, ‘What right do you have to worship the Lord, the God of Israel? The Lord has placed the Jordan River as a barrier between our people and you people of Reuben and Gad. You have no claim to the Lord.’ So your descendants may prevent our descendants from worshiping the Lord.

“So we decided to build the altar, not for burnt offerings or sacrifices, but as a memorial. It will remind our descendants and your descendants that we, too, have the right to worship the Lord at his sanctuary with our burnt offerings, sacrifices, and peace offerings. Then your descendants will not be able to say to ours, ‘You have no claim to the Lord.’

“If they say this, our descendants can reply, ‘Look at this copy of the Lord’s altar that our ancestors made. It is not for burnt offerings or sacrifices; it is a reminder of the relationship both of us have with the Lord.’ Far be it from us to rebel against the Lord or turn away from him by building our own altar for burnt offerings, grain offerings, or sacrifices. Only the altar of the Lord our God that stands in front of the Tabernacle may be used for that purpose.”

When Phinehas the priest and the leaders of the community—the heads of the clans of Israel—heard this from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, they were satisfied. Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, replied to them, “Today we know the Lord is among us because you have not committed this treachery against the Lord as we thought. Instead, you have rescued Israel from being destroyed by the hand of the Lord.”

Then Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, and the other leaders left the tribes of Reuben and Gad in Gilead and returned to the land of Canaan to tell the Israelites what had happened. And all the Israelites were satisfied and praised God and spoke no more of war against Reuben and Gad.

The people of Reuben and Gad named the altar “Witness,” for they said, “It is a witness between us and them that the Lord is our God, too.”

Joshua 22:9-34, NLT

Oh, and thanks to Liam, whose post got me thinking once again about this.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Dan Brown - Angels and Demons

This is a book review I wrote quite a while back on a previous site, but I'm reposting it here.

Dan Brown is a controversial author in the light of his book the DaVinci Code. Some of my pupils had told me this book was much better than DVC, and asked me some interesting questions about physics as a result of reading it. So I thought I probably ought to read it and write a review. Here it is...

Links to reviews of the DaVinci code can be found here and here (need to click past ads on the second one, but it's by a non-Christian, so fewer accusations of bias are likely).

The good points first. It seems to me to be very readable. Dan Brown seems to have an ability shared with the likes of Tom Clancy, John Grisham and J.K. Rowling to write long books that can be read in a single sitting. The suspense is generally handled very well, and brings some not especially well known physics into the public domain. I guess that is to be expected - Dan Brown is a professor of creative writing or something like that. But that is also at the heart of some of the bad points of this book.

Also worth noting is that Dan Brown is virulently anti-church in a very similar way to Philip Pullman, and that lies behind a lot of what goes on...

As in the DaVinci Code, Dan Brown is quite clever in the way he introduces spurious facts. He sets the book in a world very similar to this one, set slightly in the future, with lots of references to real people, places, statues and institutions. There is lots of truth here, but then you get people who are claimed to be experts in a field claiming things which aren't true at all, which means that people are likely to take the false on board with the true. Yes, there are fictional aspects to the story, and factual aspects to the world it is set in. What Brown does is that he adds some wrong fictional aspects to a factual world. And not just so the story can work - they are mostly ones which are directly anti-church.

However, again as with the DaVinci code, Brown makes sufficient factual mistakes in other supposedly parts of the book that if people know what is going on with, for example, high energy physics, they can see that he doesn't really know what he is writing about. I don't know much about Roman geography, art history, etc. I do however know about physics and some of the history of science and religion, and some random other stuff. I know little about the Masons and less about the Illuminati. I've only read the book once, not especially carefully, and these are the mistakes I bothered to note down. Yes, there are spoilers.

Physics mistakes first.


In the FACT section at the start, it claims that “antimatter is identical to physical matter except that it is composed of particles whose electric charges are opposite to those found in normal matter”. This isn't true. Antimatter in fact has all its properties opposite to normal matter except its mass / energy. So charges are opposite, but so are other properties such as lepton number, strangeness, charm, signs of interactions with gauge bosons (of which charge is just one example), etc.

The idea that matter can be created from energy is not especially new. In fact, it happens all the time when photons (“light particles”) get above a certain energy - equivalent to high energy cosmic rays. However, this produces no solution to the problem of where the mass / energy comes from in the Big Bang, since it seems that matter and energy are just different forms of the same thing. It is where either of them came from in the first place that is the problem. But see later for my comments on miracles. We'd also resist the idea that God is “energy” in the sense the word is used in Physics.

In fact, that is the way that antimatter is produced currently - a few atoms at a time. Producing ¼ of a gram would be.... difficult. It contains roughly 1.5e23 atoms.

On p96, Dan Brown strongly implies that electrons and protons are opposites, as are up and down quarks. They aren't. The opposites are respectively positrons, antiprotons, antiup and antidown. Particle physicists are original like that.

Also on p96, a physicist claims that using a vacuum to “suck” antimatter would work. It wouldn't. Vacuums (or vacuua) don't suck - it's the pressure of the air that causes air to rush into them. On the other hand, using the fact that matter and antimatter are bent opposite ways by a magnet is the way that matter and antimatter are currently separated, and it doesn't produce ¼ of a gram.

On page 108, the claim is essentially made that if you make larger quantities, it is more efficient than smaller quantities. This is true. But the gain in efficiency decreases as the quantity increases. The efficiency can never exceed 1. That is why antimatter can never be used as an energy source, because even if we make it using a perfect system, we can never get more energy out than we put in. Antimatter could potentially (in the distant future) be used to store energy, but not as a fuel.

Yes, CERN does exist, and yes, the Web was invented there. I'm not an expert on it - my closest connection is that one of my supervisors at university worked there half the time. I think Dan Brown has very much transferred the US idea of a lab onto Europe, and then scaled it up to account for the size of CERN. Needless to say, I think the chance of the director of CERN ever having a Mach 15 jet at his disposal are very very small. I also very much doubt they go for the whole crazy over-technologising of everything (rooms with air conditioning that can freeze everything inside, etc). Physics in Europe is notoriously underfunded compared to in the US. CERN even have their own page correcting a lot of the mistakes here.

There is a large part of the story spent running around Rome looking for a radio source. All they needed to do was set up three receivers at that frequency, see the time differences between the signals and use that to locate the source.


On page p53, “Islamic” is described as a language.

Brown translates “Novus ordo seculorum” is translated as “new secular order” (as opposed to “new order of the age”). The Latin “seculorum” doesn't necessarily have implications of “secular” (though secular is derived from seculorum in the sense of “of this age” rather than “set apart”). For example, the Gloria in Latin reads “Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.” (or secula seculorum). So “novus ordo seculorum” does not contradict “In God We Trust”. If you don't believe me, see here. Yes, of course there is Masonic influence in the US currency.

Brown claims that every story the BBC runs is “carefully researched and confirmed” (p289). Well, the examples I have known in real life as well as on the BBC haven't been.

Understanding of Christianity

The director of CERN says “There are no churches here. Physics is our religion.” This despite the fact that there are quite a few Christians who work at CERN, even in this story!

Christian belief is continually seen as false because it claims events happened which are contradicted by science. This is to make the same mistake as Hume. The argument goes something like this. “We know that such events are impossible, so we know that any claims they happened are false.” But how do we know those events are impossible? And why are they recorded? The people who recorded Jesus walking on water didn't think it was an everyday event. They knew it was normally impossible, which is why it was so important that it happened, because it showed that Jesus was not a normal man - that he could command nature and it obeyed, especially when that went against the normal way that nature works. If Jesus was God, then he could have commanded the world to do whatever he wanted to. God created the laws of the universe - he can tell it to do whatever it wants. The same goes for creation. Yes, the start of the universe cannot be explained in terms of the observed laws of the universe, as it involved a huge amount of mass / energy coming into existence from nothing. But God can do it - he is above the laws of the universe and they don't apply to him.

Incidentally, the twist at the end is nicked from a Father Brown story (GK Chesterton). Except, there the priest realises that it is being set up so that he seems to have risen from the dead, only for the “miracle” later to be exposed as a fraud. So he is totally honest about it from the start.

This links in to the general attitude to faith in the book. Faith is seen as involving a “suspension of disbelief” (p132) and as being something that, while useful for providing a moral framework, goes against the evidence. That is certainly a common view, but is not the traditional Christian one, nor is it the one taught in the Bible. As far as I recall, it was the view popularised by the Existentialist philosophers like Kierkegaard. The Christian view of faith is basically one of “trust”. On the basis of the available evidence, we decide to trust God. As we trust him more and more, we see that he is more and more trustworthy. Faith is not believing against the evidence; it is trusting our lives to God based on the evidence.

The famous (and wrong) “God of the Gaps” idea is also used on p43. Brown pictures religion and science as both about asking questions, most of which have now been answered by science, restricting religion to fewer and fewer questions. That isn't true at all. Here are some verses from the Bible.

God is more than we imagine; no one can count the years he has lived.
God gathers moisture into the clouds
and supplies us with rain.
Job 36:26-28, CEV

The sun knows its going down.
You make darkness, and it is night,
Psalm 104:19-20, MKJV

The writers, even though they were writing around 1000BC, clearly have a reasonable idea of how rain happens (moisture gathering in clouds) and that night is caused by the Sun going down. But that does not stop them from ascribing those same actions to God. The Bible does not say that the two are competing explanations - it treats them as complementary. Both descriptions are true.

History of Science and Christianity

However, the main area where Brown's treatment of history is hugely different from real life is in the historical relationship between science and Christianity. For example, on p50, Langdon claims that “since the beginning of history, a deep rift has existed between science and religion.” That just plain isn't true. While there were personal tussles and power struggles between scientists and the religious establishment (as happened with Galileo and Bruno), in many ways modern science sprung out of Christianity. The view that they have always been at conflict was actually invented in the late 1800s as part of the debate over Darwinism.

Many of the early opponents of Darwinism were Christians, not always because they believed the Bible taught it to be wrong, but because the evidence was shaky and because they had an alternative theory in direct creation, whereas the atheists had no alternative theories. To discredit these Christians, books were written which distorted the earlier debates with Galileo by saying that the church at the time taught that the Earth was flat and that the church had always opposed science. Neither was true. [At the time, the Roman Catholics had taken on board a lot of Greek philosophy, including Ptolemy's description of the Earth as a sphere at the centre of the universe. This was by no means held by all Christians, and isn't taught in the Bible.] There's a lot more detail on this in Kirsten Birkett's book Unnatural Enemies. Kirsten, if I remember correctly, has a PhD in History of Science, so knows what she is talking about.

See, for example, here or here for stuff on Galileo.

The current hostility is also hugely exaggerated.

I am not aware of any opposition to Particle Physics from Christians for example on principal. There may well be some on the grounds that particles physics tends to be very expensive, and many (Christians and non-Christians) think the money could be better used.

For example, the Vatican is said to be creationist on p159. Odd, since the (now previous) Pope is on record as saying that evolution is not incompatible with Christian belief.

And yet, the Vatican is strongly opposed to in vitro fertilisation, as it involves the production of many fertilised eggs, most of which are destroyed. They are not opposed because it is science, but because they believe it involves the destruction of human life. It is therefore incredibly unlikely that a priest and a nun would be allowed to go through the procedure, as they would need to have done thirty-something years before the story is set.

Of course, Brown's argument is more with the Roman Catholic Church, and especially with its claims to absolute truth than with Christianity itself. I am no great fan of the Roman Catholic Church; I agree that the concentration of power has in the past led to horrible abuses of that power, but the claims for the authority of the Christian message are shared by many other groups of Christians who do not abuse the power in the same way. To an extent, Brown attacks the part of Christianity most open to such attack - the Catholics, and then implies the same is true for all other groups, when his argument holds even less for them than it does for the Catholics.


All in all, an interesting read, but it would be easy for this book to mislead people who did not already know what Christianity taught and something of the history involved. I think that's the idea.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


Now this is in a way quite amusing. The government seems to have ruled that since we're not at war in Iraq (we won it, remember?) all those people still being injured are actually the victims of crime, and hence should get large amounts of compensation.

There's a bit of me that wants to think "serves the government right". Except it doesn't, because it doesn't matter to them how much money they spend - they just mug the taxpayer for more.

The only thing that will serve this government right about the war is if they get kicked out, sued by the relatives of those killed, and if those who knew they were lying get sent to Iraq to help restore the peace.

That's not a suggestion (well, apart from the kicking out bit); it's an observation about the nature of justice in society.

Evolution of a Blog

I realised the other day that I've had a webpage that did much the same as this one for 10 years, as of last month.

So, with that in mind, here are some of the exciting page designs I've used.

(from 1997/1998 to October 1999) This wasn't the original design - that has sadly been lost (but it was black, with text links, tables and WordArt at the top). Note the buttons over at the left that change colour when you hover over them (oooooh). The most distinctive feature of this site was that every page had the same texture background (kind of like rough paper), but in different colours, including bright magenta. A lot of them managed to be tasteful by my very limited standards, but others were truly hideous.

(October 1999 - January 2000) The buttons got on my nerves after a while - specifically the fact I couldn't be bothered pasting them onto every page, and they didn't look right if it was a long article, so I replaced them with a toolbar at the bottom, which didn't change colour even when the rest of the page did, because it used frames.

(January 2000 - 2002) This was probably my favourite design. Text-based navigation, pictures to liven it up a bit, fast, efficient, easy. But then some pupils found it, so a change was in order. This was still handcoded, but I'd written some software to do the donkey work of changing text to HTML.

(2002-2006) This design was done almost overnight. I stopped posting much to it fairly quickly, and ended up disabling large chunks of the website after abuse by pupils, and found another outlet for my writing.

Ah, my first experimentation with blogging software.

Trying to break the mould and do something different. But the square corners just looked wrong...

This was a nice, stable design, but I ended up having to use absolute positioning to get the border graphics lining up in both IE and Firefox. And it just got a bit boring after a while...

And so onto today's. I've been wanting to use that photo since I took it. I'd better stop now, before I turn into one of those old men who just goes on and on about things that nobody cares about.... (some would say it's already too late)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Adrenaline Crash

As I expected, I'm having a major adrenaline crash! They're pretty much reliable enough for me to put into my diary...

The new site design isn't completely finished, but I'll probably let it drift from here as I notice things that need tweaking. I'm still completing the indexing on the right; I haven't yet found a way to shorten the list. If you've got any nice ideas about ways to improve the blog design, let me know.

Friday, December 08, 2006


With the end of term, I think it's time I redid the styling of this blog. So I've upgraded to the new(ish) beta and will try to redo the template this evening. Sorry for any inconvenience during this change...

St Paul's Tomb

It appears that they've found what could well be St Paul's tomb. Having said that, personally I don't see the moral difference between excavating a 1900 year old tomb where people still remember and respect the person involved and excavating a 10 year old tomb. It sounds like what they've done at the moment is restored it closer to its condition 1700 years ago. That's ok, I guess. But the last paragraph of that article reads

His sarcophagus will be on public view for the foreseeable future but the church is yet to rule out the possibility that one day the interior itself will be opened and examined.

In what way is that different to, for example, opening Nelson's tomb? Or Reagan's tomb? Or Shakespeare's? Or Jane Austen's? Or Mother Theresa's?

There's a bit of me that's uncomfortable with seeing mummies and stuff in museums. If those around them buried them, why should we dig them up and put them on display? Would it be different if we knew them?

Thursday, December 07, 2006



Here's an interesting maths fallacy (and thanks to DH for pointing me to the page with it on).

Sci-Fi Stuff

I also had a nifty scientific idea this morning. I was watching Firefly (TV sci-fi series, they only ever made one series of it) yesterday. One of the odd details is that all the planets and moons are meant to be in the same stellar system, but they all look remarkably like Earth. Odd that.

Anyhow - I was wondering how one might go about getting enough light and heat from the Sun to make them warm enough for habitation, and I figured that putting a lens at the Lagrange Point could well do it. Then I realised that such a lens would need to be pretty huge - nearly planet-sized even, and so would effectively require you to demolish a planet / moon to make it.

Then I thought of an interesting way round - use a Fresnel Lens (like those magnifying sheets you can get). You'd still need a big lens, but it'd be essentially 2D rather than 3D, so would need far far far less material and at least be possible.

And finally...

It's my birthday! Woo!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Experiencing the Life and Death of Jesus

We can't experience Jesus' life without experiencing Jesus' death.
We shouldn't experience Jesus' death without experiencing his life.

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
2 Corinthians 4:5-11, ESV

I hear lots of claims of experiencing Jesus' new life. But here the apostle Paul says that it is necessary to “always carry in the body the death of Jesus” in order for his life to be manifest in our bodies. We can't experience Jesus' life in our bodies without also (and at the same time) experiencing Jesus' death in our bodies.

On the other hand, some people, myself included, tend to emphasise the experience of Jesus' death – the self-negation, the giving of self over to death, “the never-ending road to Calvary” – without remembering that Paul says that the carrying around of the death of Jesus is “so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies”. We shouldn't experience Jesus' death without also experiencing his life.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Website for Christian Teenagers

Some friends of mine have been involved with setting up this site, which looks pretty good and is aimed at Christian teenagers.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

British Culture

Imagine two quite different people meeting. Maybe one of them is a bit taller than the other, and the other a little heavier. But their facial features look similar, although they use them differently. Maybe they were twins, separated at birth and brought up in very different families. One of them might be a public school university educated respectable middle class person (and there are plenty of them round here), and another person might be a dissillusioned state-school educated (but left at 16) working class person who has difficulty holding down a job. Neither of those people has necessarily consciously chosen to be the way they are, and they'd probably disagree on many things simply because of background. Both might well be able to give a partial critique of the other person's culture - whether pointing out one person's arrogance or the other's lack of aspirations, but both would find it hard to give a good critique of their own.

Most cultures have at least some good aspects in. Many of the aspects of most cultures are fairly neutral. Most cultures also have some bad aspects, and it's often difficult to point those out, either because we share them, or because we'd risk being accused of arrogant racism if we did. For example, some aspects of working class Afro-Caribbean culture in the UK are good and commendable. It also is notorious in educational circles for being frequently strongly anti-intellectual with boys, which leads to very poor grades for pupils in that group. This is widely recognised among educationalists, but they are afraid to say so openly because it goes against the idea of multiculturalism and so the problem sadly goes unaddressed.

What I'm going to try and do here is to criticise some aspects of my own (white, heavily educated, fairly traditional, middle class) culture which I think are bad, as measured against the Bible.

1. Intellectual Arrogance

We tend to place a high value on intellectual achievement and education, which is good. However, that sometimes spills over into valuing the intellectual achievers and the educated more than those who are not - those who conform to our stereotype of a successful person more than those who conform to a homeless Jewish manual labourer.

Of course, the Bible does tend to suggest that while God loves everyone, he especially values and cares about the poor and the weak, and that he uses those who seem foolish to humble the wise.

[God's] mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1:50-53, NIV

2. Emotional Detachment

We tend to follow the Stoics in thinking that

self-control, fortitude and detachment from distracting emotions, sometimes interpreted as an indifference to pleasure or pain, allows one to become a clear thinker, level-headed and unbiased.
Wikipedia, Stoicism

Yes, self-control, fortitude and the ability to keep going however bad the situation is are important and valuable skills. But emotional detachment is not a price worth paying for it. Emotional detachability, quite possibly. In some ways we remind me of Michal daughter of Saul in 2 Samuel 6

So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets.

As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart.

2 Samuel 6:12-16, NIV

Not only do we detach ourselves from our emotions too much, we teach others to do so too. Those who are reading who are from similar backgrounds to me, how often do we look down on little children dancing in church? How often do we expect or require that when people grow up, they lose their exuberant enthusiasm for Christ (or indeed for anything else)?

In many African cultures, they don't seem to discourage dancing (as just one example) at all. Are those cultures less healthy for that? No.

Even Paul wrote

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord.
Romans 12:11, NIV

Quick application to the whole question of musical styles. If our musical styles don't allow the kind of expression of passion that David showed, then they're probably being unhelpful. Are we keeping our spiritual fervour? Are we allowing and encouraging others to do the same?

3. Pharisaism

Closely linked to this is the whole area of Pharisaism, both in making and in keeping rules.

Here's a (heavily adapted) version of some of Matthew 23. In the original, it was Jesus speaking about the Pharisees. Here, I've made it more of a personal corporate confession.

So much of what we do is done for men to see: We make our Bibles large and our public prayers long; we love people to think that we are intelligent and know our Bibles well; we love to be greeted at church and on the street and to have people respect us.

When it comes down to it, we recognise that we only have one Master and are all brothers, we know that we all only have one spiritual Father - and he's in heaven. Likewise, there's only one who is really qualified to teach the truth about God. It's not us; it's Jesus. We know that the greatest among us is the one who is the servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. But we don't live like that.

We shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. We ourselves do not enter, nor will we let those enter who are trying to because we expect them to become like us before they become like God.

Even if we travel over land and sea to win a single convert, when he becomes one, we make him twice as much a son of hell as we are.

We elevate trivial issues like styles of music to top priority, while completely ignoring the whole purpose of music - to praise God with everything that we are.

We make sure not to fiddle our tax returns, yet we completely ignore the whole idea of giving ourselves completely over to God. We give to Caesar what is Caesar's, but we try holding onto what is God's. We should have done both, but we only bothered to do the less important one.

We make a huge effort to look respectable to other people on the outside, but inside we are sinful, compromised and failing. What hypocrites we are, what whitewashed tombs! We look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside we appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness, which we often don't even admit to ourselves.

We respect and honour great Christians who have gone before, without realising that if they were here today, they would slate us for our materialistic, arrogant, passionless, unloving, worldly pretence at faith. We fail to see that it was people just like us who opposed the great Christians of the past, who crucified and murdered Jesus. How on earth do we think we can escape?

And yet, we recognise that you still love us, that you still long to gather us together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but all too often we are not willing.

May God open our eyes and turn our hearts back to him!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Tariq Ramadan

A few weeks ago, I went to hear prominent Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan speak on "The Future of Islam in the West". These are some of my quick reflections.

TR drew a strong distinction between the central tenets of Islam and certian cultural expressions of them. He said that faithfulness to the central tenets was what mattered from a muslim point of view, however that might be culturally expressed.

He then said that many of the problems with Islam in the West are because many of the muslims here are trying to use cultural expressions of Islam from their previous cultures (e.g. traditional Pakistani culture) in the West, rather than the longer and more difficult process of finding a Western cultural expression of Islam.

There was also a fair bit of stuff about using the central tenets of Islam to critique cultures, both in the West and in countries more used to Islam.

There were too many silly or boring (from my point of view) questions, so I didn't get a chance to ask mine. However, it seems to me that his arguments have some interesting consequences...

Firstly, he was careful not to criticise anyone's cultural expression of Islam. So if someone's cultural expression is to blow up anyone who disagrees with Muhammed, I'm not at all convinced he'd criticise them for that.

Secondly, and more seriously from a logical point of view, he didn't define how to tell the central issues apart from the cultural issues. The Qur'an clearly contains what he would say are both cultural and central, and it's hard to see why he'd put eating pork as something that is absolutely forbidden, but shaving as something only culturally forbidden (which I think he does).

This is also interesting because it kind of parallels some questions in Christianity, especially with regard to interpreting the Old Testament laws. Except there I think it's easier, and it's pretty obvious that the Bible says we should love our enemies rather than killing them.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


I've got loads on interesting stuff to post about Islam, but I've just got back, have quite a bit of Greek to do for tomorrow and am off to Liverpool for the weekend. So I might post it next week sometime.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Suspicious-Looking Device

Dave Walker, in his blog, drew my attention to the Suspicious Looking Device, which seems very cool.

The only function of the Suspicious Looking device is to appear as suspicious as possible

And while on the subject of Dave Walker's blog, here's one of his excellent cartoons.

cartoon from

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Are Evangelicals Semi-Marcionite?

The Marcionites were a group of heretics in the early church, who followed a guy called Marcion. Basically, he said that the God of the Old Testament was evil and different from the God of the New Testament. He did that by deciding that a lot of what we call the Bible wasn't actually the Bible. He ditched the whole Old Testament and large chunks of the New, including most of the gospels, and even bits of the ones he kept.

I think there's a danger that evangelicals do that today in a sense. Not that we say the God of the Old Testament is evil or anything, but that we ditch far too much of the Bible.

In far too many churches, the Old Testament is rarely read or preached, and large chunks of the New are ignored. Here's what's left in, give or take a bit...

  • Genesis 12, 2 Samuel 7
  • a few Psalms
  • Isaiah 6, 9, 53, Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 37, Daniel 1-3, 6
  • Jesus' birth narratives from Matthew and Luke, crucifixion and resurrection narratives from all four gospels
  • The Sermon on the Mount and Great Commission from Matthew
  • Mark
  • parables from Luke
  • most of the "I am" sayings from John, and some bits about the Holy Spirit
  • a few bits of Acts, but by no means all of it
  • Romans - 2 Timothy, but with a few gaps (Romans 9,11; much of 2 Corinthians; 2 Thessalonians)
  • A few bits of Hebrews

If you don't believe me, what I've mentioned there is probably under 1/4 of the Bible. What proportion of the sermons and Bible studies at your church over the last year have been on it?

Of course, it's not just the evangelicals who do this. The Anglo-Catholics tend to preach on the gospels, and not much else.

But if we believe it's all God's word, we should preach on all of it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Sermon on the Magnificat

This is lightly adapted from a sermon I wrote last week for preaching class. The passage is Luke 1:46-55.

Suppose you had to pick a woman to change the world. Who would you choose? Someone famous - a pop star, an actress, a celebrity, a TV presenter? Someone influential - A politician, a top lawyer, maybe a teacher or a doctor or an academic? Or maybe you'd go for someone spectacularly bad who could be turned around – a prostitute maybe or a criminal?

Chances are you wouldn't do what God did in v27 of Luke 1. God is going to change the world, and he starts with Nazareth - a town so obscure that no-one had ever written about it - in Galilee - a provincial backwater that most people ignored, and he starts with Mary, probably a teenage girl who's never even had sex and is engaged to be married to a guy whose only claim to fame is that 1000 years before, he'd had a famous ancestor. Lets face it, she's not the obvious choice for the job. At least get someone with maybe some influence, or useful life experience or at least from somewhere people have heard of! But that's not the way God does things. God chooses Mary.

Reading from verse 28...

The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you."

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

“How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail."

"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me according to your word." Then the angel left her.

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!"

Mary has had an angel appear to her and tell her that she's “found favour with God”, and that she's going to be the mother of the Son of God. Even her respectable relative, Elizabeth, is acting like she's amazing. She's probably realised that she might well become the most famous woman of all time.

How does she respond?

She takes everything people have said and points it back to God. It's not about her at all really. Listen again to what she says:

My soul glorifies the LORD – literally that's closer to “my soul bigs God up” - and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant – that would be better as the “humiliation of his servant”. From now on all generations will call me blessed for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name.

She's praising God because God has noticed her, even though she's nothing.

Actually, it's not just Mary. She doesn't even mention herself again in the song, but she notices that actually when God chose her, he did what he's always been doing.

His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers (powerful ones) from their thrones but has lifted up the humble (or the humiliated ones – the low ones). He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised his ancestors.

God has been doing what God has always done. Mary has been looking at the Old Testament, and realising that's always the way that God acts, and that's the way God promised to act. You know, they say that 60% of this song is lifted directly from lots of different bits of the Old Testament, and the other 40% is heavily influenced by it. How many teenage girls could do that. Come to think of it, how many adults who are regular church attenders could do that?

Mary's been studying her Bible, she knows what God is like. She knows that God always looks out for and helps the humiliated, the low, the hungry ones who fear him, who respect him, who honour him. He doesn't go for the proud, the powerful, the rich – if anything, God brings them down because they are too cocky, they don't respect God properly. So God chose Abraham. He was a nobody too – he was a nomadic Chaldean sheep herder. He was so unimportant, archaeologists reckon they'll probably never have any archaeological evidence that he even existed. But God met him and told him that he would become a mighty nation. Why? Not because Abraham was great, but because God loved him.

Here's Moses speaking to the people as they are about to enter the promised land. It's Deuteronomy 7

The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

God didn't choose his people because they were great. He chose them because he is a loving God. He loved them because he loved them, he made promises to them because he wanted to. God doesn't choose the best people, he chooses whoever he wants.

God chose Mary.

And when he did that, he did exactly what he always does, and what he's promised he'll keep on doing. He chose the foolish things, the weak things, the despised things, so that no-one can boast.

We need to hear this today.

Maybe you're feeling weak. Maybe you're feeling foolish. Maybe you're feeling despised. Maybe you're feeling like you're a nobody. Well if so, Mary would say that's great, because God chooses people like you. If you respect God for who he is, if you fear him, then God will show mercy on you. God will lift you up, God will fill you with good things. That's what Mary's son Jesus came to do – to show mercy to people like you so that you can know the incredible joy of knowing God for yourself, and praise him as Mary does here.

If you to find out more about how you can come to know God, e-mail me, or talk to a Christian you know.

Or maybe you don't feel like that. Maybe you're proud, maybe you're powerful, maybe you're rich. For you then, this isn't such good news, because God scatters those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He brings down the powerful, he sends the rich away empty.

To you, what this passage is saying is “Change”. Come before God, recognise that he is the amazing God who created the universe with a word - the God who keeps everything in the entire universe running, the God who is so big and so powerful that we can't even begin to get our heads around it, the God who is so pure that if anything or anyone is less than perfect in his presence they just get burnt up. Come before that God, and realise that you are nothing. Realise that however rich you think you are, you are bankrupt in God's sight – that however clever you think you are, you are a complete fool – that however powerful you are, that you can do nothing. Recognise that, then maybe when you see that you are poor, that you are humiliated and worth nothing, when you are hungry for God, then he will have mercy on you. Or maybe, like me, you're a bit of both. Maybe you need to hear that where you are weak God is longing to bless you and to build you up, but where you feel strong and rich, he will tear down your pride so that you come to trust in him alone.

Because that's what he's doing by choosing a nobody like Mary. That's what he's always done. And that's what he's promised to do.

Lets pray.

Father God, where we are proud, break us. Make us into people who recognise our poverty, our humiliation, who hunger and thirst for you, and then who know what it is to be filled and lifted up by you, and to rejoice in God our Saviour.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


I've jsut got back from a weekend away with the young adults' group at church. A good time was had, but as ever a fair few things got me thinking. Here's one of them - it happened this morning and was the lowest point of the weekend for me...

The power in the buildings we were staying in had gone (no real problem), so the meeting was moved from our usual meeting room (which was apparently too cold) to the dining room (which was warmer as we'd already been using it for breakfast and it had a nice log fire. Great, I thought, as I saw all the seats in a nice arrangement round tables and the musicians making room for their instruments.

But then people started moving the tables towards the back of the room, and putting all the chairs out in horribly regimented rows. The room looked so much worse, and I had to leave to try to avoid getting angry or something.

If we're singing to God and one another, surely it makes more sense to be facing one another than to have everyone looking in the same direction, so you can't see the face of anyone you're singing to! God doesn't say "when two or three are gathered in my name, there I am hiding under the table at the front!"

If we're listening to a talk, it's just as easy to listen when sitting round tables - just turn your chair to face the speaker.

Given that we spent a fair bit of time discussing stuff, surely it would have been better to discuss round the tables that were there to start with than try to move the chairs again to discuss things.

I've been to a few churches where people normally sit around tables for the service, and they're generally much friendlier, and it doesn't make it any harder to listen to the sermon or anything.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Clothes Shopping

Today I got my first new pair of jeans in a few years.

This is actually quite a big achievement - I had to try six different pairs of different sizes and cuts before I could find one that fit me (and even now I'll probably have to wear a belt).

My problem? Thighs. Most people don't think I'm overweight. I am, but only slightly. But I've got 27 inch circumference thighs (each - I measured), and most trousers aren't designed for that. My last pair of jeans literally split down the leg, Incredible Hulk style.

Well, actually, that's not my problem. My problem is that trouser makers are inconsiderate. And yes, I know that in many ways women have it worse with standard sizes...

Oh yeah, and I'm going away for a few days, so don't expect any posts until late Sunday at the earliest...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Last night, some friends from college and I watched some films which took the mick out of Christians - Saved! and The Church. They were pretty funny actually. Saved! is made by non-Christians and set in a "Christian" high school in the USA, and The Church is a spoof done by a church in London in the style of The Office. To be honest, I thought both were quite funny.

What was striking though was that in both situations, the Christians were almost entirely graceless. The characters in them seemed not to understand that Christians are not better than other people - that we're all bad, we're all deserving of hell, but that Christians have been forgiven, and therefore have no right to claim any moral high ground. Given the number of times that judgementalism is condemned in the Bible, and the amount of emphasis on the total undeservedness of God's love for us, I think that's significant.

Interestingly, it's also the major thing missing from the (very twisted) church in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.

So, is the church not communicating grace? Are we denying it by the way we act towards others? (I think we are sometimes - my attitude towards smokers, for example, or the way the church has been seen to respond to homosexuality)

Monday, November 13, 2006

Fun with Physics

Fun with non-Newtonian fluids.

The basic idea is that in fluids, adjacent particles can swap places instantaneously, so the fluid can flow. In solids, adjacent particles can't swap places, so they can't flow.

However, that's actually just an ideal. All fluids take a finite amount of time for the particles to swap places, and many solids can have the particles swapping places, just they take a long time for it to happen.

So "solid" lead or glass will flow, if you give it long enough, and if you do stuff quickly enough to water, the particles won't have a chance to flow and it will behave more like a solid.

Another way of seeing the effects is to do what they do here - use a thick suspension of cornflour in water. Because the particles are big, they are very slow to swap places compared to most fluids, but still quicker than solids. So if you do stuff to the suspension very quickly, the particles won't have time to swap places and it'll behave like a solid. But if you do stuff to it very slowly, the particles will have time to swap places and it'll behave like a liquid. The results are as seen in the video...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Tale of Two Kings

(for a bit of background on this post, look here).

These are some thoughts of mine on 2 Kings 3, modified from this morning's sermon at St Ebbe's Church, Oxford.

We meet our two kings right at the beginning of the passage...

Joram son of Ahab became king of Israel in Samaria in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned twelve years. He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, but not as his father and mother had done. He got rid of the sacred stone of Baal that his father had made. Nevertheless he clung to the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit; he did not turn away from them.

Now Mesha king of Moab raised sheep, and he had to supply the king of Israel with a hundred thousand lambs and with the wool of a hundred thousand rams. But after Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel. So at that time King Joram set out from Samaria and mobilized all Israel. He also sent this message to Jehoshaphat king of Judah: "The king of Moab has rebelled against me. Will you go with me to fight against Moab?"

"I will go with you," he replied. "I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses."

2 Kings 3:1-7, NIV

A bit of background...

After Solomon's death in 931BC, the nation of Israel split into two. The northern (larger) "half", often confusingly called Israel was ruled from Tirzah by a series of short-lived dynasties, most of which were ended quickly by coups. The southern (smaller) "half" was ruled from Jerusalem by the dynasty of David, who had earlier ruled the whole nation, and whom God had promised he would be with. The two kingdoms, as one might expect, fought quite a lot.

Then, around 880BC, Omri came to the throne in the north, and was the first king to establish a proper dynasty there. He was a strong (and evidence suggests brutal) king, who moved the capital from Tirzah to his new city of Samaria - the northern kingdom was sometimes called "Samaria" after that. In a remarkable insult, the Bible hardly says anything about Omri, except that he was wicked and didn't follow God (1 Kings 16:21-28). But archaeology suggests that he was incredibly influential - in fact Assyria called Israel after Omri for another 150 years. Although Omri only reigned for 12 years, it seems that he became the dominant king among the small states in the area, with the others paying tribute to him. Omri was succeeded by his son Ahab, then Ahab's two sons Ahaziah (who didn't last long) and Joram, who is the first king we meet here. But Ahab had been a wicked king, and God promised to destroy him and all his descendants. So We have Joram, the powerful king but he's under God's curse.

Probably late in Omri's reign, the other king, Jehoshaphat came to the throne in Judah. He was a much more godly king than Omri (and Omri's descendants after him), but is often criticised by preachers for being weak. However, we are told that he was at peace with Israel (1 Kings 22:44) - the first southern king we're told that of. We also know that Jehoshaphat tended strongly to ally himself to the king of Israel, as he does here, even acting as double for him once in a highly dangerous situation (1 Kings 22:29-33). What is going on?

Given the political situation, the size of the kingdoms, and what we know of Omri and his power and influence I think it makes most sense to say that Jehoshaphat was essentially a vassal king to Omri and his descendants. Why else would he put himself literally in the line of fire for Ahab, as in 1 Kings 22? Why else would he say "my people are as your people, my horses as your horses"? Joram is clearly the dominant king of the big and powerful kingdom; Jehoshaphat is following him around and doing what he says (well, mostly).

We also get hints of this with Mesha king of Moab. Mesha was clearly another king who was a vassal of Ahab. Now he is rebelling, so Joram gets an army together to crush him. And who does he call on? His two loyal "friends", Judah and Edom.

So if this is the situation, why doesn't the author of Kings say so explicitly? I think it's fairly clear what's going on in the passage, especially in the light of 1 Kings 22. While the author of Kings is describing actual historical events, he isn't always describing them as a modern historian would. His main interest isn't to provide a detailed history for telling us exactly who did what, where, when, how and why. He is far more interested, for example, in the fact that Omri and his descendants ignored God than that they were powerful. He's reporting facts, but he's reporting them from one point of view. Actually, that's what all historians do - they put their own slant on history, but this guy does it blatantly. If you want a good example which doesn't need archaeology, try 2 Kings 17, where he spends most of the chapter giving a sermon on why Israel got conquered.]

So we've got two kings - Joram the powerful Omride king of Israel with a curse and Jehoshaphat the weak vassal king of Judah but with amazing promises. What do they do?

"By what route shall we attack?" he asked.
"Through the Desert of Edom," he answered.

So the king of Israel set out with the king of Judah and the king of Edom. After a roundabout march of seven days, the army had no more water for themselves or for the animals with them.

"What!" exclaimed the king of Israel. "Has the LORD called us three kings together only to hand us over to Moab?"

But Jehoshaphat asked, "Is there no prophet of the LORD here, that we may inquire of the LORD through him?"

An officer of the king of Israel answered, "Elisha son of Shaphat is here. He used to pour water on the hands of Elijah."

Jehoshaphat said, "The word of the LORD is with him." So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom went down to him.

2 Kings 3:8-12, NIV

We see here the difference in the attitude of the two kings to God. Joram tries blaming God for their own mistakes, Jehoshaphat wants to ask God via the prophet Elisha (who is a Good Thing).

Incidentally, it's worth noting that God's original judgement on Joram's father, Ahab, was a big drought, back in 1 Kings 17. Then, the drought ended in 1 Kings 18 after Elijah (Elisha's predecessor and mentor) had confronted all the prophets of Baal, demonstrated that Baal was powerless and God could do whatever he wanted and then had the prophets of Baal killed. The lack of water here might well be pointing back to that.

What does God say?

Elisha said to the king of Israel, "What do we have to do with each other? Go to the prophets of your father and the prophets of your mother."

"No," the king of Israel answered, "because it was the LORD who called us three kings together to hand us over to Moab."

Elisha said, "As surely as the LORD Almighty lives, whom I serve, if I did not have respect for the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not look at you or even notice you. But now bring me a harpist."

While the harpist was playing, the hand of the LORD came upon Elisha and he said, "This is what the LORD says: Make this valley full of ditches. For this is what the LORD says: You will see neither wind nor rain, yet this valley will be filled with water, and you, your cattle and your other animals will drink. This is an easy thing in the eyes of the LORD; he will also hand Moab over to you. You will overthrow every fortified city and every major town. You will cut down every good tree, stop up all the springs, and ruin every good field with stones."

2 Kings 3:13-19, NIV

What does God think of these two kings, the impressive and dominant Joram and the weak Jehoshaphat?

Elisha doesn't even recognise Joram by name. He wouldn't give him the time of day. Without Jehoshaphat, Joram would be stuck in the desert, and his diagnosis of the situation would be right. Moab would destroy them, his empire would fall. But God recognises Jehoshaphat, the weak king, the king of Judah, the descendant of David, the king with all the promises. God recognises him and helps him and those with him.

Who is the dominant king now?

But the implications of the passage are far better. You see, Jehoshaphat isn't the end of the kings of Judah. There is a far greater king - Jesus, the weak king, the king of Judah, the descendant of David, the king with all the promises. God recognises him and God helps him and those with him. However sinful we are, however much we have ignored God, however much we deserve to be under God's curse, God will help us if we stand with his king, Jesus.