Monday, 9 November 2015

The Lion and the Unicorn

I picked up this book by Sir Arthur Bryant in a second-hand bookshop in Welshpool, mid-Wales, last week while on a half-term holiday.

It is a collection of articles from the many written between 1936 and 1985 by Sir Arthur Bryant for the Illustrated London News, as a weekly column.

He calls it the 'The Lion and the Unicorn' because these two animals, he thinks, symbolise something of the British character - sometimes great strength and courage, sometimes quixotic idiosyncrasy.

It is delightful book. There are articles about Bryant's boyhood - born in 1899, his father a personal secretary to King Edward VII, Bryant lived in Edwardian London in a house adjoining Buckingham Palace mews. This must have contributed at least in part, one feels, to the romantic patriotism that drove his adult work as a historian.

He writes in one article of how he became interested in history, through marriage into the Shakerly family of Cheshire, and being given the opportunity to sift through their treasure trove of family papers, giving him access to living history over many centuries.

Other articles cover the years leading up to the Second World War, though they do not make any reference to the fact that Bryant was an early admirer of Hitler and wrote an approving (apart from Hitler's attitude towards the Jews) preface to an English edition of Mein Kampf. He was also a supporter of appeasement but once war broke out he was the soul of patriotism and wrote many stirring pieces about the English spirit and values that apparently did much to help the war effort.

He writes interestingly on the oft neglected post war years. Later articles cover the changes of the 1960s; there are a number, too, simply revelling in the England of quaint cottages with wood fires, country house hotels and stately homes that Bryant loved and hated to see passing; a few on animals (read hastily) and finally several on Christianity of a decidedly culture-laden variety.

He is conservative but not necessarily Conservative, which is refreshing. He was married and divorced twice. He died in 1986. He was reputed to be the favourite historian of four Prime Ministers - Churchill, Attlee, MacMillan and Wilson, who knighted him.

Bryant is an engaging writer. He is also a substantial historian, with biographies on Charles II and Samuel Pepys that are still highly regarded. My first encounter with him, in my teens, was his affectionate history of medieval England, Makers of the Realm. It makes you feel proud to be British (or, at least, English broadly defined).

But Bryant is not popular with professional historians, and not only because he was hugely popular with the public, which academics normally do not like (as with C.S. Lewis). His scholarship and analysis were undoubtedly deeply tinged with the rose-tinted spectacles of a sentimental attachment to Olde England. It is Christian (in all the right rather Whig ways) with the right values which we are determined to fight for when pushed. This was not just to boost the war effort - he really was in love with the England of his boyhood and what he saw England to be in the past.

Yet it is not all romance. He has well reasoned arguments and much of what he says is broadly true - perhaps it is just because he was the last of a rather Victorian kind of patriot that he seems out of place in the mid 20th Century - let alone when you read him in the 21st.

Yet - he is just right for a holiday when you want something edifying, informative, not too demanding. I may brush off my copy of Makers of the Realm for Christmas! He certainly beats dusty old scholars of the more cynical variety.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Openness Unhindered : Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert - Rosaria Butterfield

Those who enjoyed Rosaria Butterfield's story of her conversion in Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert will be delighted to see her sequel.

Rosaria, now a Presbyterian pastor's wife (homeschooling, almost inevitably) begins with a summary of her conversion but with new insights. She reminds us that she was saved more fundamentally from being a sinner than from being a lesbian; and was saved by Jesus Christ, not by becoming heterosexual. There are profound wrestlings here with the nature of sin (in 'Gay Pride' there is more sin in the 'Pride' than in the 'Gay').

She then looks at the whole conversion process and her subsequent Christian life through the eyes of experience and doctrine. Her intellectual penetration and sharp writing remind one of C.S. Lewis; her spiritual insights and her theology are thoroughly Puritan.

Butterfield makes an important distinction between 'admitting' sin and 'confessing' sin. The former is acknowledging it, which may lead to confession, but too often today, she alleges, becomes 'well I sin but I live with it' whereas confession is to hate it and turn your back on it.

She writes of repentance, 'You can't bypass repentance to get to grace...grace does not erase my need for the law'. Repentance is the posture of the Christian. Her struggle with indwelling sin is a million miles away from the "Jesus plus Nothing equals Everything" type of gracism; grace shines all the more brightly, as in the Puritans, because of the insistence on law and the necessity of obedience and repentance.

She rejects the concept of 'sexual orientation' as a construct of the late 19thC traceable to Freud which deprives people of their true identity in the image of God. She also points put how heterosexuals are easily tripped up here into feeling a kind of moral superiority. She also rejects the use of the word 'gay' as a self-identification by Christians who struggle with same sex attraction.

Butterfield's analysis of these areas is well worth reading, coming with the ring of authenticity from one who has struggled not just with 'SSA' but with a committed lesbian past. When discussing the idea of homosexuality being unnatural, she argues that Romans 1 is dealing with practice, not inner disposition. But - is that really what Paul is saying when he speaks of 'dishonourable passions' and of women 'being consumed with passion' one for another? This is not easy, but I did not feel Butterfield quite faced this issue squarely.

The last main chapter of the book is all about hospitality - and I struggled to translate her life in Durham, North Carolina to a commuter belt Hertfordshire village. But the principles bear consideration.

The acknowledgements are cheesy - two and a half pages, thanking everyone under the sun. But that is becoming fashionable in American books.

A great book though, essential reading in our day, a good counterpoise to some recent evangelical works where one detects a tendency towards soft-peddling sin in this area.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Worship on holiday

On our recent holiday we went to three different churches for the morning service.

The first had a congregation of about 30. Some were young, in their twenties, one or two children.

Men mostly wore dark suits, younger men more casual. We sang from the old version of Christian Hymns (using books) to keyboard / small organ accompaniment.

The Bible version was the AV.

The sermon was about 45 minutes, three points, two clear pastoral points, the third a clear evangelistic message. Two of the young men were, I learned afterwards, Muslim friends of one of the young men from the local university.

The order of service, prayers and readings (two) were quite traditional. Preacher preached from the pulpit.
Coffee afterwards. People friendly.

The second Sunday saw us in a congregation of about 120. Virtually everybody dressed casually, many men in shorts. Without introduction a young man (whom I knew to be the minister only because I had seen him on the website) gave out some notices and then led into singing of a short song from a screen. A music group of about four was on the platform. We sang again, a couple of times.

The minister, dressed in jeans or casual chinos and hoodie, told the story of the Good Samaritan using pictures on a the screen. We were not sure if it was meant for children or adults.

No pulpit, he held his Bible and used a music stand occasionally to rest things on.

Afterwards he made a few more adult points of application. There was no reading of the Bible (he just talked his way through the parable) – our boys picked up on this.

Songs interspersed. We were invited to talk to our neighbour during the offering. We stayed for communion. Nothing to distinguish believer and unbeliever or to challenge the unbeliever.

Coffee afterwards. People friendly.

The third Sunday morning saw us again in a congregation of about 120-150. Minister (slightly smarter chinos, casual shirt) welcomed people, we sang a song which was a mixture of an old hymn with new added words to a difficult modern tune.

Band of about 7 in one corner. Bible reading. More songs, one traditional hymn. Notices, and then a five to ten minute break for the children to leave and for people to talk to each other. Why?

Sermon – about 35 minutes, expository and quite good, certainly faithfully dealing with the text. Used the screen for three pictures related to the sermon (debatable if they were necessary) and for three points of application towards the end of the sermon.

Quite a lot of movement during the service - getting cups of water etc. All casually dressed, many men in shorts. All hymns on overhead screen.

Where did we find it most easy to worship? I know, for sure.

Was this just because it (the first Sunday – in case you had not guessed) was more what we are used to (though by no means in every detail)? Was it just a cultural, and therefore what people would call an ‘indifferent’, matter? Or is something more serious at stake?

Where was the greatest sense of God? Of the magnificence and holiness of the one with whom we have to do in worship? Where did we sense that old fashioned thing called reverence, humble piety, the conviction that we were coming into the presence of our Maker and Judge and not just our buddy?

It was noticeable that only the first church preached a clear gospel message and directly challenged an unbeliever. You could concentrate on the words of the hymns, on the Bible reading, on the sermon – on seeking God - without the countless little distractions that attend greater ‘informality’ and the quest for innovation. Casualness, informality and chatty busyness are antithetical to spiritual worship which is the hardest activity to which human nature can address itself.

The atmosphere and approach in the latter two churches would have been unrecognizable as worthy of Sunday worship to non-conformists of an earlier generation. Isn’t worship meant to be a serious matter?

Is it just that the times are a-changing? Cultural adjustments we should just get used to? Or is something going seriously wrong with evangelical worship?

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Inventing the Individual

I have been engrossed recently in this book by Larry Siedentop. His thesis simply is that western liberalism and western secularism owe more to Christianity than to any other single cause. The gift of Christianity to the world has primarily been the concept of moral equality. He traces this from Paul through Augustine, to monasticism, what he sees as the Carolingian compromise between tyranny and the care of souls, the Cluniac monastic revival and the papal revolution of the Middle Ages, to one of his big heroes, William of Ockham.

Siedentop's big idea is that Christianity invented the individual, giving space for conscience. It created a world where the individual matters and society had to be organised around him, not around family (though not abandoning the family). Equality rather than inequality was assumed, and in the Middle Ages this broke down feudalism and local interests.

The Renaissance did not contribute to this, says Siedentop. Siedentop sees through the popular view that the Renaissance gave dignity to the individual; instead, he argues, it brought about a cult of the individual but did not add to the value of the individual.

From an evangelical perspective it is healthy to see the argument for a Christian West taken back to the early church and in particular to the Middle Ages, even in some ways to the papacy, instead of all being due to the Reformation.

Secularism is the moral equality insight taken to the nth degree. Siedentop sees this as an opportunity for secularism to see that it has a friend in religion and to recover its moral roots. But this is ambitious; secularism wants to cut its links with religion.

He says:

“Properly understood, secularism can be seen as Europe’s noblest achievement, the achievement which should be its primary contribution to the creation of a world order, while different religious beliefs continue to contend for followers. Secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world, ideas and practices which have often been turned against ‘excesses’ of the Christian church itself.

“What is the crux of secularism? It is that belief in an underlying or moral equality of humans implies that there is a sphere is which each should be free to make his or her own decisions, a sphere of conscience and free action. That belief is summarized in the central value of classical liberalism: the commitment to ‘equal liberty’. Is this indifference or non-belief? Not at all. It rests on the firm belief that to be human means being a rational and moral agent, a free chooser with responsibility for one’s actions. It puts a premium on conscience rather than the ‘blind’ following of rules. It joins rights with duties to others.

“ This is also the central egalitarian moral insight of Christianity. It stands out from St Paul’s contrast between ‘Christian liberty’ and observance of the Jewish law. Enforced belief was, for Paul and many early Christians, a contradiction in terms. Strikingly, in its first centuries, Christianity spread by persuasion, not by force of arms – a contrast to the early spread of Islam.

“When placed against this background, secularism does not mean non-belief or indifference. It is not without moral content. Certainly secularism is not a neutral or ‘value free’ framework, as the language of contemporary social scientists at times suggests. Rather secularism suggests the conditions in which authentic beliefs should be formed and defended….This is the way secularism has traditionally been understood in the United States… [In Europe, by contrast,] for centuries a privileged monolithic church which was almost inseparable from an aristocratic society , confronted Europeans…”

All this is a very inadequate summary of a carefully argued and beautifully written book. The scholarship is profound and broad, the case argued cogently yet clearly considering the amount of history covered. It is not always an easy read but it is a very worthwhile one with much to stimulate the mind in many directions as we face a Christian retreat today in the West. What should our attitude to secularism be? What should we be defending? One feels that we should be engaging in arguments far more profound than trying to protect and preserve a crumbling Establishment and its church.

There is much one would disagree with in Siedentop’s applications, not least the idolatry of secularism without God and with no adequate doctrine of sin or salvation. But there is also much one can use in the sense of developing as a weapon the analysis he gives us. He is at least giving a us a clue as to where to start the debate with secularism – one which points out how much secularism owes to Christianity, the tree from which it is now sawing itself as fast as it can.

Friday, 10 July 2015

From Heaven He came and Sought Her

This 660 or so page volume, edited by David and Jonathan Gibson, teaches you all you will ever need to know about particular redemption / limited atonement.

Numerous excellent contributors cover the ground under four sections - historical, biblical, theological and pastoral.

Some essays are of the sort where one says - well, yes, if I need it I know where to find it. Others were more compelling and helpful to read. Foremost for me was the second of Garry Williams' two contributions, in which he deals with the nature of punishment and argues very clearly that if the atonement is not penal it is not a true atonement and if it is not particular it cannot be penal. Garry helpfully draws on John Owen and shows how God gives faith in the covenant of grace along with forgiveness.

Also helpful was John Piper's closing essay, in which he deals with Bruce Ware's idea, in defending an universal atonement, that double punishment is possible, because , after all, the elect are under wrath before they are converted, and so they are being punished for their sins as well as having Christ being punished for them.

I did a 'double take' when I read this - can he be serious? Piper does a good job of the (not really difficult) task of showing that the position of the elect, who have been relieved of final eschatological punishment, is very different, in the period until they are actually converted, from that of the non-elect who live under the wrath of God eternally, and for whom it cannot be argued in any meaningful way that Christ died for their sins.

All in all a very useful book - Paul Helm, Robert Letham, Henri Blocher, Donald Macleod, Daniel Strange, Michael Haykin, Sinclair Ferguson and others constitute a formidable array of talent and make it treasury of scholarship on this subject.

Keller: The Freedom of Self-forgetfulness

This booklet from Keller is an exposition of 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7.

‘What are the marks of a heart that has been changed by the grace of God?’ asks Keller. Paul condemns pride and boasting. We are after the trait of humility. Until the 20th century people said high self-esteem (pride) was the source of social and personal problems. More recently it has been low self-esteem that is seen as our big problem. This has been debunked by experts but is still deeply engrained in us. 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7 gives us a different approach to self-regard.

Keller looks first at ‘the natural condition of the ego’. Problem: he does not define ego and nowhere relates it to anything biblical – is it the soul? The flesh? The unregenerate heart? But he goes on: it has certain features: it is empty, painful, busy and fragile. [Not, note, anything necessarily sinful.]

Secondly Keller looks at ‘the transformed view of self’. Paul’s freedom is that he does not care what the Corinthians think of him, nor what he thinks of himself. He has found the secret of true gospel humility that doesn’t think of self so much as of others. ‘Both low self-esteem and pride are horrible nuisances to our own future and to everyone around us’.

[Notice: the emphasis is not on what God might think, but on the unpleasant effects of sin on ourselves and others.]

Wouldn’t you like to be the kind of person who comes second but is just glad for the person who comes first, without fretting about how it reflects on you? asks Keller.

Thirdly, how to get that transformed view of self. ‘What Paul is looking for, what Madonna is looking for [he has used a Madonna illustration early on], what we are all looking for, is an ultimate verdict that we are important and valuable.’

[Is that really what Paul, a first century pharisee, was looking for? Does the context of this passage even suggest that?]

However Paul has found the secret – the trial is over for him – he says that what counts is that it is the Lord who judges him. With Jesus Christ you get the verdict before the performance. In every other religion and in the secular worldview, performance leads to the verdict. Because in Christ God has imputed Christ’s perfect performance to me, I am free of having to perform to be accepted. I simply ask the Lord to accept me because of what Christ has done.

Now I may just be unlucky with Tim Keller. I remain disappointed. I have read a few of his books and there is much that is helpful, but the abiding impression is that the weight of his focus is on our psychological problems and the personal and social consequences of sin rather than the fact that we have offended a holy God.

This little piece is no doubt helpful in a way – but it is not the gospel. It is at best an application of one aspect of the gospel. The danger is that many might think it is the gospel. It treats Jesus as the great release mechanism from the performance treadmill (performance induced not even by a misguided desire to please God but to please others). Just as a few decades ago Jesus was preached as the ‘best trip’ now he is the best way of finding psychological freedom from the rat-race.

No doubt these may be the problems that Keller’s congregation faces on the surface, but books like this are not the gospel – not even the gospel articulated for a particular congregation. There is no mention of sin as against God, no mention of his displeasure and wrath against sin, no mention of the propitiation (even in modern language) needed by sinners and provided by the cross; no mention (in a booklet heavy on human judgements) of the great judgement to come.

I remain, shall we say, unconvinced by Mr. Keller.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Sri Lanka April - May 2015

It has been my privilege to travel three times to preach and teach in Sri Lanka, the last two occasions with the Grace Fraternal group of churches.

My hosts have been pastor Benet Surendran (‘Suresh’) of Grace Evangelical Church, Colombo (a church of three congregations, English, Tamil and Sinhalese, each with its own pastor) and pastor Huthin Manohar, a former LTS student, who is principal of Baldaeus Theological College, Trincomalee.

After preaching at Grace on Sunday 26th April I travelled with a group from the church to Trincomalee for a three-day youth conference. About 29 youngsters from five churches attended; I preached once and spoke four times on ‘Thinking Biblically’ from Romans 12:1,2. Three other speakers, including Suresh, covered different topics including very practical ones like how to apply for jobs. After a day’s rest back in Colombo I spoke at Grace church’s own three-day Family Conference at a centre near Colombo. I preached three times and gave a variety of papers including two on ‘parenting’ (a brave thing to do, as I discovered, in a different culture).

Back, then, to Trincomalee (I think I spent 33 hours on this road in all!) for a course in New Testament Introduction with 25 students at Baldaeus. Not all are Reformed but it is exciting to see those from different theological traditions coming to appreciate the richer teaching of the Calvinistic heritage. Some of the young men here will be pastors; all are committed to working in their churches in Sri Lanka. I flew home on 8th May.

All my preaching was translated into Tamil and in some cases into Sinhalese as well. It is precious to enjoy fellowship with these kind and generous believers but language is a real barrier with most. It is good to see the ravages of war receding and the economy appearing to pick up, including the all important tourist industry. The election of a new President has given the Tamils at least a new optimism politically.

Spiritually there is much to give thanks for; pray for the fruit of the ministry of the word; for the overcoming of divisions and rivalries; and that our God ‘may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of the Lord Jesus may be glorified’ in Sri Lanka (2 Thess 1:11,12).

Overseas trips (especially on my own) give me a chance to catch up on reading too. I am having a crusade at the moment to read books which have been sitting on my shelves for a while. So I took with me 'A Pair of Blue Eyes'(a lesser known novel of Thomas Hardy); 'The Weight of Glory', a selection of C.S. Lewis essays, which I read twice; 'Travelling to Infinity', Jane Hawking's memoirs of her life with Stephen, made more piquant by the fact that I watched the film version, 'The Theory of Everything' on the flight to Colombo; Bradley Green's 'Covenant and Commandment'; Tom Lennie's 'Glory in the Glen' (revivals in Scotland 1880- 1940) and I began to read before coming home 'The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism'.

Two other films I was able to watch, this time on the way home (well, it is an eleven and a half hour flight), were the third in the 'Hunger Games' series, 'Mockingjay I', and the film version of the musical 'Les Miserables'.
Reviews some other time may be...