Whose words in whose mouth?

I find the last few posts have all been uniformly negative about the whole Gospel Coalition/ neo-Calvinist tribe.  I should probably point out that I’m ambivalent rather than antagonistic (some of their stuff has been fantastic, some rather less so), but sometimes the certainty about everything that they uniformly exhibit provides greater rhetorical heft than coherent engagement.  Apropos of which, this post, which a number of Facebook friends have been enraptured by.

And I feel uneasy about its certainty. And I think it could be flawed.  And I could be wrong.

At one level this is clearly right – we should be clear about what the bible is clear about.  But therein lies the precise problem.  Does the Bible, in Genesis 1,  provide a poetic celebration of God’s creativity (as Gospel Coalition founder Tim Keller has argued) or a literal account of how the universe began (as Gospel Coalition council member Al Mohler believes)?  Does the singular “woman” in 1 Timothy 2:11 refer to all women or a specific woman (and if all women, how can any childless woman be saved if verse 15 is to be believed)?  Does Acts 16:33 support paedo- or credo- baptism?

The point is that Bible often needs interpretation and some of it is open to different opinions about what it is saying at any given moment.  And sincere, orthodox Christians disagree. Hence  “the Bible says” can be a slippery slope to authoritarianism, in the sense of  “you can’t disagree with me because I’m only reporting what God has said” (it’s worth reflecting that charges of abusive authoritarianism have been made quite frequently against churches that hold to this sort of theology).  And at worst what flows is idolatry (my thoughts are God’s thoughts).

There is a time for boldness.  There is a time for humility.  And there is need for wisdom to know the difference.



Whose words in whose mouth?

Marriage Ancient and Modern

It’s slightly bizarre to see the church one got married in getting into the national news. The current vicar of St Marks Tunbridge Wells (two on from the one who had the pleasure of matching Louise and I) has hit national headlines for hosting a conference of dissenting parishes threatening to leave the Church of England over “watering down” teaching over homosexuality.  So far, so typically Anglican.  What fascinated me though is his assertion that homosexuality is a “key issue” for Christianity.  Is it really?

The first reason why it might be a key issue is that it is so prominent and unambiguous in Christian teaching that to disagree on it is to deny the truth of Christianity itself. This strikes me as very close to nonsense. Homosexuality is never once mentioned by Jesus, is notable by its absence in the historic creeds, and the bible, while pretty unambiguous in its opposition, mentions it a grand total of six times, which is 0.02% of what it has to say.  This is less than a tenth of what Leviticus has to say about the treatment of contagious skin diseases. Less facetiously it’s considerably less than a hundredth of what the bible has to say about just treatment of people in poverty.  It’s kind of hard to argue from this that God (if you agree that he is the author of the bible) considered this to be an overriding priority.

A second reason, which is more plausible, is that it’s a signature issue of our times for he authority of scripture. If we water down here, we are no longer taking scripture as our authority and this is the beginning of the end of faithful Christianity.  Well yes, to a point. Except there are valid responses to question that.

We need to be careful of equating any interpretation of any scripture other than the literal, uncontextualised ‘instruction manual’ with having a “low view” of it. As has been amusingly pointed out, consistent literalism is literally impossible.  It is perfectly possible to absolutely believe in the inerrancy and inspiration of scripture and use reason and tradition to interpret its message.  In fact everyone does it.  Six day young earth creationists have to in order to make any sense of Genesis 4, for example.  Simply taking the bible as an instruction book makes us all disobedient (- ahem – Matthew 19:21)

All of which is to say that there are Christians who take a high view of scripture, and hold to historic orthodoxy in the fundamentals of the faith who take a different view on homosexuality.  In particular the argument is made that homosexual practice in the Graeco-Roman world was uniformly abusive, largely paedophilic and practiced by basically straight men, and this, not committed, faithful homosexual relationships by people with a homosexual orientation (a concept entirely alien to the ancient world) is what Paul condemns.

As it happens, I think this is a wrong interpretation (although another common argument that the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality I think is probably correct – see Ezekiel 16:49), but it is not intrinsically ridiculous, and I don’t think can simply be dismissed as an attempt to explain scripture away.

Without wishing to return to the subject of the last post I am struck by the esteem with which this group typically hold a theologian who reinterpreted the Year of the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 from being a prohibition of intergenerational poverty to a prohibition of inheritance tax (which is specifically designed to – er – limit intergenerational poverty)!  So just who is more guilty of seeking to find interpretations of scripture which backed up their prejudices?

Finally, and particularly in the context of the CofE this seems a very odd place to draw the line in the sand about where disagreement about scripture schism needs to happen.  Leaving aside 1966 and all that, when Stott and Lloyd Jones fell out over the latter’s call for evangelicals to leave a “compromised” denomination (which Stott, rightly I think, opposed vehemently), the Church of England has, pretty much since its inception, been tolerant of clergy believing in and teaching the doctrine of real presence (regardless of what the 39 articles actually have to say on the subject).  As this is a doctrinal issue which is intricately bound up with our relationship with God and the nature of salvation, resolving disagreement on this issue seems a rather more urgent task, but it’s been fudged for the best part of half a millennium.

I find myself in an odd position.  I’m also aware that this particular post has the capacity to offend just about everyone who reads it.  I still hold to what I believe is the  historically orthodox Christian position.  And I really, really, really don’t want to believe that the obsession with this particular issue is just homophobia masquerading as moral (and biblical) rectitude, but a bit of consistency, coherence and charity would make this a lot easier…



Marriage Ancient and Modern

C.S Lewis should really be read more… Wayne Grudem not so much

Full disclosure, I’ve never understood the adulation that Wayne Grudem gets as a theologian and ethicist in some circles.  To my eyes, the bleeding obvious is stated as though it was insightful and the controversial and tendentious asserted as though it was bleeding obvious – a cheap rhetorical trick.  Nonetheless he’s clearly qualified as a theologian and knows his stuff on the subject.

This doesn’t mean of course, as he has demonstrated time and again, that he’s qualified to talk about everything else.  He’s a terrible policy wonk, and a worse economist.  This is relevant given his recent endorsement of Donald Trump , subsequently  eviscerated by everyone on the planet (including those who share his reformed theology) perhaps best by Throckmorton.  All of these point out the moral, logical, theological, economic and political weaknesses of the endorsement far better than I could.

To some extent the fact of supporting a particular presidential candidate, however inappropriate, on the basis of the lesser of two evils, is neither here nor there.  There is a strong historical precedent for this in the rise of Popular Front governments in 1930s Europe which included Communists to avoid fascist regimes.  If this had been Grudem’s position then the endorsement would have been of marginal interest.

Yet, shamefully, Grudem went far further than this and sought to articulate a positive moral case which made voting for a man who lies three quarters of the time and has today joked about having his opponent assassinated  a Christian duty.  So I am interested.  How can it be that someone who is greatly respected by people I greatly respect, could have taken this position, and neither sought to resile nor correct misunderstandings subsequently?  How has it come to this?

The answer may have been worked out 75 years ago.  My Rooftops compadres and I have been looking at the issue of secularism (and if not secularism what should be the relationship between church and state/society), and words from CS Lewis in 1941 (!) seem very prescient.  In short, says, Lewis, anointing any political party or politician as the “Christian” candidate is very dangerous.  Why? Because Christians with good conscience and theological orthodoxy can create “Christian” political platforms that run from a type of fascist authoritarianism, through small government conservatism all the way to a sort of christianised Marxism.  Inevitably, pursuing these political goals will mean alliance with secular parties that share the same aims. This is of course how coalitions are formed.  But in attempting to create a “Christian” political platform two disasters unfold.

First, any compromise is accepted if it advances the political cause.  Nearly all non-American christians I know who think about these things have long held a view that the religious right, if push comes to shove and the gospel and the Republican party platform conflict, will compromise on the gospel. Sadly the same in reverse is now true of the US religious left as well.  Saint Bernie is starting to trump King Jesus – and ten years ago I genuinely think this wasn’t the case.  What follows from this, of course, is syncretism; the perpetual curse of Christendom.

Second, and this is what it truly dangerous, is what Lewis calls “a real and most disastrous novelty”, when claims are made that there is a Christian duty to vote in a certain way then those making the claims…

will be not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole. By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal. It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to that temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time — the temptation of claiming for our favourite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith.

I can think of no better summation of this foolish endorsement.  Grudem has a perfect right to consider Trump the better candidate, and a perfect  right to say so. He is quite at liberty to argue that it is more important to have supreme court justices who may limit abortion than ones who may limit private citizens access to machine guns.  Just as I have the right to critique what I perceive as his economic illiteracy and misrepresentation of UK crime statistics.  What is unwise, and I think almost idolatrous, is to suggest that agreeing with his political prognostications is a Christian duty (“Politics according to the Bible” – remember), and this is fundamentally what he’s done.  We are in need of Lewis’s wisdom and lucidity of prose, now more than ever.


C.S Lewis should really be read more… Wayne Grudem not so much

Colour blind Christianity

Many eulogies to Muhammed Ali contained the story of his faith journey from being raised a Christian, to embracing the Nation of Islam and eventually aligning with historic Islam in the 1970s.  This was bound up with his rejection of a racist white hegemony.  He “rejected his slave name and his slave religion”.

My Rooftops compadre Hayley has written an elegant blog on the irony of being lectured by white friends on Christianity being a white colonial imposition when it was a/founded by a brown-skinned man, and b/ she was introduced to it by brown-skinned people.

Which set me thinking what actually is the distribution of Christians around the world?  What is the relationship between empires and evangelism?  And why do people make the connection between Christianity and the west?

Numbers are always good – so a wee bit of data to start – is Europe more Christian than the rest of the planet?  Well the most unpartisan and rigorous figures I can find suggests that the situation is complex.  Pew Forum’s excellent report suggests that, in fact, only 40 per cent of the world’s Christian population lives in the “global north” (Europe, North America and High income Oceania).

To some extent this is unsurprising – a much larger population lives in the global south.  So we do need to look at Christian identifying populations across different parts of the world.  And doing this the picture is again more complex than you might expect.  In fact Latin America has the greatest proportion of self identifying Christians (around 90%), larger than North America and Europe (both around 76-7%), while Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania have distinct Christian majorities (63 and 76% respectively). Meanwhile Asia has a smaller proportion of Christians (perhaps 7-12% of the population with around 5% of Chinese and 3% of Indians identifying as Christian).

Now what these figures  represent is open to question.  Degree and nature of belief, activism, cultural identification rather than living faith, etc, are all unanswered by these raw stats.  However, if the complaint is that these numbers exaggerate the extent of Christian commitment (which they almost certainly do), it would seem likely that Europe and to a lesser extent North America, the most secular of the regions, would be those where the figures were most exaggerated – increasing the global south majority of active Christians.

A further reasonable critique is that these figures do nothing to repudiate the “Christianity as by product of colonialism” thesis.  In fact, one could argue, they demonstrate it.  “Successfully” colonised countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa have high Christian populations as a colonial legacy, while India and China, which resisted colonisation, have low ones.

The contention that India wasn’t colonisedis something of an eccentric view. Further, outside of the former Spanish Empire – which substantially predates our common understanding of colonialism –  the link between missions and colonies is questionable.  Missionaries almost universally predated colonists – even in New Zealand this was by 30 years.

In fact the Pew report is particularly useful because if compares 1910 (at the height of what we now think of as colonialism) with 2010 (50 years after the disintegration of European empires).  If the adoption of Christianity in non-European countries was merely a colonial imposition then 50 years – a full two generations on – should start to show a reduction in the proportion (if not the numbers) of Christians in the global south.  In fact we see the reverse.

The proportion of Sub Saharan Africans who identified as Christian increased from 9 to 63%.  In Asia the proportion has tripled (as the population has exploded).  The Pew report concludes,

“the fastest growth in the number of Christians over the past century has been in sub-Saharan Africa (a roughly 60-fold increase, from fewer than 9 million in 1910 to more than 516 million in 2010) and in the Asia-Pacific region (a roughly 10-fold increase, from about 28 million in 1910 to more than 285 million in 2010).”

This simply doesn’t fit with the growth in Christianity being tied to colonialism.

Finally, the global north is not homogenously white, and is increasingly ethnically diverse (in my view a jolly good thing). Fascinatingly in the US and UK, the most likely ethnic group to self identify as Christian is not European – so even in the global north, Christianity is not purely, or even primarily  a white man’s religion.  Still looking for comparable NZ data, but the very high rates of Christian affiliation among Pacific Peoples compared with the overall rates, highlight that the predominant European population is not the most likely to identify as Christian.

US  70% white population identifies as Christian, 79% of African American

UK 59% of white population identifies as Christian, 69% of African Caribbean

So to recap: a majority of Christians aren’t white; the regions with the largest proportions of the population self-identifying as Christian are in non-white regions of the world; even in majority white countries, the populations with the largest proportion of self identified Christians are non-white; and further, explosive growth in the Christian populations of majority non-white countries post-dates independence from colonialism.

All a bit of a mouthful, but it suggests that wherever it comes from, the view of Christianity as a “white man’s religion” doesn’t come from looking at the people who are actually Christian!





Colour blind Christianity

And the winner of today’s “worst person in the world”

The story of Ken Shupe, the tow truck driver  who left a disabled woman in her crashed car because she had a bumper sticker supporting a politician of whom he disapproved, is of course appalling, and would have made him a strong contender for Keith Olbermann’s much missed “Worst Person in the World”

What makes this both worse and interesting is his claim that God told him to do it.  “Something came over me, I think the Lord came to me, and He just said, ‘Get in the truck and leave,’” Shupe said. “And when I got in my truck, you know, I was so proud, because I felt like I finally drew a line in the sand and stood up for what I believed.”

This is quite an astonishing claim to make.  The story of the Good Samaritan is almost perfectly analogous to this (roads, physical danger, cultural opponents etc) and the explicit and unequivocal instruction that Christ makes is that his followers should act in precisely the opposite way that Mr Shupe did.   Indeed, Mr Shupe was apparently worried that a “socialist” wouldn’t pay her bill – when the Good Samaritan went out of pocket to put the victim into a hotel.

Mr Shupe clearly behaved like a dick, and his claim that God told him to do so simultaneously breaks the first and third commandments.  But the broader and more interesting issue that his thinking is not so far outside of the mainstream.  Even politically conservative Christians in the US are starting to worry that biblical illiteracy amongst self proclaimed “evangelicals” (and not spotting the Good Samaritan is pretty illiterate) is driving a conceptualisation of Christianity which is entirely about power and winning.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that when beliefs repudiate what Christ actually said and did, so does behaviour.




And the winner of today’s “worst person in the world”

Dead air

Recent blog free-ness just a combination of some familial ill health and a bereavement  together with a very busy period at work leaving insufficient mental space for thinking and writing.  Now back writing again.  More secularism, colonialism and bad Samaritans to follow.

Dead air

an 18th century solution to a 17th century problem

Human society was not born secular. Long before Christendom, the role of the shaman/priest in the political power structure was well established: druids in north-west Europe, court magicians in Egypt, emperor worship in Rome and so forth.

In that sense the secular state is a modern concept. This doesn’t necessarily mean it is wrong, simply that it must reflect a response to human history. I believe it’s fair to say that modern secularism really dates from the 18th century – in particular the thinkers of the French enlightenment. To understand why this was such a powerful intellectual trend, we need to go back a little further.

The 150 years following the reformation in Europe were marked by vicious wars of religion. The 30 Years’ War, fought by most major European powers in “Germany” (then of course a collection of principalities and statelets) killed or displaced 40% of the German population, with some horrific atrocities committed by all sides. By way of contrast, the second world war led to the deaths of only 10 per cent of Germany’s population.

In the UK, the war of the Three Kingdoms (a more accurate description for what used to be called the English Civil War), between Crown and Parliament led to the deaths of 30 per cent of the Irish population, 5 per cent of the English population, with regicide, an oppressive theocratic dictatorship, and a vicious counter-revolution, before ending in William of Orange’s coup d’etat against James II.

Now it’s easy to claim that religion was simply a pretext rather than real reason for these wars, but this is questionable. One of the leaders of the atrocities at Magdeburg justified his troops’ behaviour thus:

“I believe that over twenty thousand souls were lost. It is certain that no more terrible work and divine punishment has been seen since the Destruction of Jerusalem. All of our soldiers became rich. God with us”

Similarly, the arguments that the wars in Britain were about an emerging middle class rising against a long standing landed gentry rather than different theological positions has been pretty much discredited since Conrad Russell’s work on the subject . The English Civil War was about religion, just not quite in the way Sellars and Yeatman satirised.

This is the context in which the enlightenment developed. The horrors of the 17th century wars of religion haunted the enlightenment’s imagination in much the same way that the holocaust haunts ours.   The assumption that if you let religion near power it doesn’t end well, most powerfully articulated by Voltaire in the Philosphical Dictionary, was not unreasonable in the circumstances.


“I was plunged in these ideas when one of those genii who fill the intermundane spaces came down to me. I recognized this same aerial creature who had appeared to me on another occasion to teach me how different God’s judgments were from our own, and how a good action is preferable to a controversy. He transported me into a desert all covered with piled up bones; and between these heaps of dead men there were walks of ever-green trees, and at the end of each walk a tall man of august mien, who regarded these sad remains with pity.

“Alas! my archangel,” said I, “where have you brought me?”

“To desolation,” he answered.

“And who are these fine patriarchs whom I see sad and motionless at the end of these green walks? they seem to be weeping over this countless crowd of dead.”

“You shall know, poor human creature,” answered the genius from the intermundane spaces; “but first of all you must weep.”

He began with the first pile. “These,” he said, “are the twenty-three thousand Jews who danced before a calf, with the twenty-four thousand who were killed while lying with Midianitish women. The number of those massacred for such errors and offences amounts to nearly three hundred thousand. “

In the other walks are the bones of the Christians slaughtered by each other for metaphysical disputes. They are divided into several heaps of four centuries each. One heap would have mounted right to the sky; they had to be divided.

“What!” I cried, “brothers have treated their brothers like this, and I have the misfortune to be of this brotherhood!”

“Here,” said the spirit, “are the twelve million Americans killed in their fatherland because they had not been baptized.”

“My God! why did you not leave these frightful bones to dry in the hemisphere where their bodies were born, and where they were consigned to so many different deaths? Why assemble here all these abominable monuments to barbarism and fanaticism?”

“To instruct you.”

In this context the desire to build a firewall between religion and government that flowed from Voltaire et al and was practically applied in, for example, James Madison’s contributions to the US constitution, is entirely understandable, yet it is an 18th century solution to a 17th century problem. Its limitations were exposed by French Revolution.

The enshrining of the Goddess Reason coincided with the Terror, which led 40,000 to the embrace of Madame Guillotine (including, ironically the founders of the cult of reason). Perhaps it’s the combination of any universal truth claim with untrammelled power that leads to disaster, rather than specifically religious ones. If such be so, perhaps we should think more deeply about how we limit power rather than which universal truth claims we refuse into the public square.

an 18th century solution to a 17th century problem