The Politics of Cheese

cheese-board(Photo of cheese-board from Aldi)

At our recent DTS Graduation Meal, my good friend Ryan began to sully the innocent activity of cheese connoiseurship with political controversy by suggesting that various cheeses have an inherent bias towards certain parties. He has his own opinions on what these biases might be, but I thought I would set out my own views on the subject by considering a classic supermarket cheeseboard selection.

Red Leicester
Red Leicester seems an easy one to start with — its colour clearly demonstrates its socialist sympathies, and further investigation reveals that its geographical namesake also reliably elects Labour MPs to its three seats. In terms of the cheese’s flavour it is creamy, mellow, inoffensive.

Verdict: Labour

Blue Stilton
Again, its distinctive colour makes the affiliation of this cheese easily identifiable on the British political spectrum–blue is, for some reason, the Conservative colour.

What’s more, in the incredibly conservative world of cheese-naming legalities (in which EU regulations permit only cheeses made within a particular clearly-defined geographical area to use certain prestigious titles), it turns out that Stilton exemplifies this spirit of preservationist politicking in a peculiar way. For Stilton the Cambridgeshire village is in the midst of a passionate campaign to demonstrate that although Stilton the cheese has been produced in the Midlands for the last two hundred years, actually historical evidence shows that it was the eponymous village who were the cheese’s original manufacturers. (This essay on the historical evidence for such a claim is an informative and amusing read.)

Verdict: Conservative

Wensleydale
A distinctively British cheese (apparently in the opinion of George Orwell it was second only to Stilton in the cheese championships), often combined with cranberries or apricots. Some — I’m again looking again in the direction of the esteemed Mister Ryan Macmahon — consider this fruitiness ‘controversial’, but on the whole Wensleydale is surprisingly popular.

Translating this into the political sphere, I think the most natural affiliation would be with a party which is proudly British, which has also courted controversy with its ‘fruitiness’, and which appeals to the sort of small business owner who finds EU legislation a tiring and troublesome obstacle.

Verdict: UKIP

Brie
Soft and creamy, yet with that hard white mouldy rind that no-one is quite sure what to do with, this is a cheese that defies simplistic left/right classification. A vital part of a British cheeseboard, and yet with undisguised internationalist sympathies. Not quite as popular as maybe it should be.

Verdict: Liberal Democrat

Cheddar
Cheddar is everyman’s cheese, the choice of the person who is perhaps only dimly aware that there are other cheeses. Come Christmas and the celebratory cheeseboard that makes its obligatory annual appearance, this person might step out of the boat and try a taste of the Blue Stilton or the Red Leicester, but for most of the year cheese is something to be grated onto spaghetti or sliced into a sandwich, not self-consciously smudged onto a post-dinner cracker — and ‘cheese’ can reliably be taken to mean ‘Cheddar’.

Thus cheddar must represent the largely disengaged apolitical majority of the British electorate–occasionally there may come an election, or a referendum, and they may be persuaded to enter the political fray and remember to trudge to the polling booth and cast their lot in with the left or the right or the alternative protest party, but on a day-in/day-out basis they find politics distant and disinteresting.

Verdict: The Apolitical Majority

+++++++++++++++

So it’s over to you now to discuss and debate my political opinions. And there’s plenty more analysis that the world of political cheese could still use: would Parmesan, a hard Italian cheese, be hard-line Fascist? would Feta inevitably crumble like the Greek economy? what cheese best represents the Scottish Nationalist Party? I look forward to hearing your comments.

Parliament

Four Secrets To Voting Like A Christian

This post is dedicated to my friend Abigail, who is sounding the trumpet for people to use their voice and engage with the political process.

So the British election has come and gone, and in spite of many expecting a hung Parliament, and speaking of impending constitutional crisis (some were even declaring it “abundantly clear [that] the UK’s days where one party has an absolute majority are over”), the Conservatives surprised even themselves by winning an outright majority. (Though Fof shared a fascinating article suggesting that better statistical analysis would have suggested a Tory victory).

As a declaration of confidence in the greatness of Britain regardless of what governments might come or go, I celebrated the occasion by trying to apply for Taryn to become a British citizen (yes, ‘trying’ — but that’s another story), before then heading to North Arbury Chapel — where my friend Martin got saved! — to vote. I’d thought a little about who to vote for and why — though had failed in my attempt to finish reading the Jubilee Centre’s book Votewise, which I had hoped would help me formulate a thoroughly Christian response to the varied issues being played out in this election.

But what impacted me the most on election-day was not the voting itself, nor any conclusion that I was able to come to before voting about which politicians and which party would best govern for the good of the nation and the glory of God, but rather the chance I had to lead the Cam-HoP prayer time that evening. Anyway, here are my four reflections on engaging as a Christian with the political process.

1. Keep politics in perspective
Andrew asked me at that Thursday evening prayer meeting to pick a passage which we could use to pray for the country in the concluding hours of the election, so I immediately suggested 1 Timothy 2, the classic text on praying for those in authority. But in actually praying through it I was powerfully impacted and struck by the revelation that even here in highlighting the priority of praying for political authorities, Paul is still relentlessly focussed on the fact that it is Christ alone who can mediate between man and God; it is only Jesus who can bring forth justice upon the earth; it is only the kingdom of heaven which will truly bring good news to the poor.

“Petitions, prayers, and intercession must be made for those in authority” — but are prayers are not to be primarily focussed on this or that party coming to power, for this sort of messianic mission is misguided. Our primary prayer is for people to be able to live in the peace and freedom necessary for them to hear and consider and believe the good news of the gospel, that Jesus died so that the sins of the world could be forgiven, and the kingdom of God come!

2. Engage anyway–and not just during the election!
Now you might have strong suspicions about which political party will be more likely to govern in such a way as to cultivate those conditions of peace and freedom — so by all means pray for them to win! And canvass for them, and vote for them.

I’ve said before that representative government is in accordance with biblical principle. Our text here is Deut. 1:13-15, in which Moses reminds the Israelites of the way that he instructed the various tribes, clans and families to “choose wise, understanding and knowledgeable men” to lead them.

3. Be wary of demonizing the opposition
But once you’ve made your choice as to who you — as Christ’s ambassador! — you have to guard against the temptation to idolize your candidate, and even more importantly the urge to demonize the opposition.

This is difficult — because our lives in this world are lived in a spiritual battle in which all manner of demonic principalities are at work. And we are called to discern between good and evil, which requires making judgments as to which policies are which. But in the midst of the process of climbing the steep learning curve of political discernment, we must somehow still refrain from too quickly judging the hearts of those who govern, and vote, in ways that we disagree with.

And don’t let it stop with a glib and wishy-washy reluctance to get to close to the heart of the issue. Rather ask the people you disagree with why they think differently, and learn to understand why they think the way they do. At the very least it will help you perhaps persuade them why they’re wrong!

4. Trust that God is at work
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him — this has to be the foundation that we rest upon, in all of our praying, in all of our voting, in all of our living. God is at work in ways that we can never quite understand.

You might have been convinced that we should vote for Labour, because of its roots in Christian socialism, because they convinced you that they were the party that would best protect the poor and the vulnerable — and now you are unashamedly disappointed by the election result.

But maybe the economists are right in suggesting that there are unexpected side-effects to the minimum wage? Or what if — more chaotically — cutting welfare will indeed initially make things worse for those with less money, but through church-supported food-banks and debt counselling, those people end up coming into contact with the transforming love of God in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t? This isn’t by the way an argument justifying deliberate economic nastiness, just a reminder to trust the providence of God in spite of it.

Anyway, those are just a few thoughts from someone who is quite self-consciously aware of the fact that our citizenship is in heaven. I’d love to hear your thoughts on why you voted as you did — whether you’re a loyal Liberal Democrat, a defiant UKIPper, a disappointed Labourite, or a shy Tory.

The painting of the Houses of Parliament is by Richard Willis.

A Simple Strategy for Revival

We have done what we can to uproot the lie that England is a secular country, by more positively attempting to demonstrate that England is a Christian kingdom and has been since King Alfred the Great. Nevertheless, although the historic structures of the English nation are inextricably bound up with Christian faith the reality is that only a minority of people in contemporary England would regularly worship with other believers (‘attend church’), let alone have real, transformative, saving faith in the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Which means that to simply argue that Christian morality should influence the laws of the land is clearly insufficient — and on its own risks being nothing more than oppressive religious hypocrisy.

So what we need is a revival. But simply saying that we need revival is not enough. We need a strategy that will enable each person who recognises the need for revival to proactively do something towards that desired end. Luckily for England, I have such a strategy 😉


Everyone must hear the gospel
I’m not ashamed of the gospel, for is the power of God unto salvation.
(Romans 1:16)

It all starts with the gospel. If you are a Christian, you must know this. If you don’t know this, you’re not a Christian. The gospel has been described as being “so simple a child can understand it, and so deep an elephant could drown in it”. My favourite simple summary of the gospel is the outline described in the four points pictured above.

The first picture (the heart) explains the context of the gospel: “God so loved the world…” (Jn. 3:16); “God created the heavens and the earth… and indeed it was very good” (Gen. 1); “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you…”. The second (the cross on the left) explains the problem exposed by the gospel: “Your iniquities have separated you from God” (Is. 59:2); “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23); “All our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Is. 64:6). The third (the Cross of Calvary) explains the solution proclaimed by the gospel: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and he was buried, and He rose again the third day…” (1 Cor. 15:3); “the Son of Man [came] to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45); “He was wounded for our transgressions… and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:5-6). The fourth (the question mark) explains the response required by the gospel: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead then you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9); “Whoever desires to come after Me [said Jesus], let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mk. 8:34).

Now before you start complaining that the gospel is a beautiful diamond that glitters in unique and unpredictable ways in different contexts and so can’t be reduced to four bullet points, let me point out that one of the things I really like about this pictoral way of summarizing the gospel is the flexibility it gives to be easily and immediately adapted according to your audience. You can explain the pictures in terms of personal relationship with God, or in terms of God’s plan for a fair and merciful society.

Secondly, we can observe that it is common to find people claiming with great enthusiasm that one or other of these points constitutes ‘the gospel’. In a sense this is true for the third point: specifically and technically, the gospel is the good news that Jesus died for our sins and rose again. But without explaining the context of God’s eternal love, and the problem of sin which keeps us from experiencing that love, the facts of Jesus death and resurrection are not necessarily obvious. And without a call to a costly response of whole-hearted faith that, if accepted, invites the person responding into a community of accountable discipleship, we have not finished the task of sharing the gospel.

Which brings us to our next step…

Every believer must know the basics of Christian faith
Leaving aside the discussion of elementary principles, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation…
(Hebrew 6:1-2)

Once a person has believed, they need to be efficiently discipled so that they can quickly go from the point of never having heard anything about Jesus to being a mature believer able to effectively discern and work towards the coming of God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven”. In a perfect world, every local church would know exactly how to go about discipling a new believer. But this is not a perfect world–that is why we need revival. Now there are already a few discipleship courses that are widely used: the Alpha Course, Christianity Explored, perhaps others. They’re probably quite good, but I might as well throw into the mix my suggestion for a reproducible short discipleship course, based on “the foundation” of “elementary principles” named in Hebrews 6:1-2.

1. The Gospel
2. The Great Commission
3. Baptism in water
4. Baptism in the Spirit
5. Prayer
6. Nature of God
7. Character of the Father
8. Incarnation of the Word
9. Gift of the Spirit
10. Reality of Hell
11. Inevitability of Persecution
12. Simplicity of the Church
+ Transition to long-term Bible-based discipleship.

In due course I will try and get round to explaining what I think should be explained in each part. But since Scripture alone is authoritative and I’m not, if this seems to you like a helpful list of basic Christian doctrines, then I would encourage you to consider how you would unpack the biblical truth of each, and then immediately begin using it as a basic discipleship tool.

Once a person has been taught these basics of the Christian faith, the process of discipleship is not complete, but should then be based not on short-term courses, but on long-term (in fact, life-long!) and comprehensive immersion in the promises and commands of the Bible.

Every believer must be accountable to obey as much as they know
Do you want to know, o foolish man, that faith without works is dead!
(James 2:20)

Lest I gave the wrong impression by my list of doctrinal truths that a basic discipleship course should cover, let me say very clearly that discipleship is by no means just a matter of gaining intellectual knowledge.

The Great Commission (Matt. 28:20) gives all Christians the responsibility of “teaching” everyone they meet–but this teaching isn’t intended to result in mere knowledge. No! We must be “teaching them to obey everything” that Jesus has commanded.

And so our discipleship (both short- and long-term) should be in the context of accountable communities (‘church’) of people all together trying to put into practice the commands of Jesus. Which will result in communities that gather regularly, baptize new believers, break bread together as Jesus commanded at the Last Supper, have fellowship with each other, obey the commands of the Scriptures, pray for the fulfilment of the promises of God, serve the poor… And all sorts of other things.

But in particular, as a consequence of the Great Commission, each person is not only accountable to obey what they have been taught, but to “teach others to obey”. And this must begin at the very start of the process of discipleship, so that as soon as someone has heard the gospel and been taught to obey the command to “Repent and believe”, they are immediately released to share the gospel with whoever they know, and then themselves to continue discipling those who respond. And as this happens at every level, in the fashion Paul encourages in 2 Timothy 2:2, a viral gospel movement should be the natural result.

This must be sustained by continual prayer and worship
Missions exists because worship doesn’t.

In asking God to revive and reform England, we are asking for something that, humanly speaking, is utterly impossible. But the Bible gives us a promise: “Ask of me, and I will give you the nations” (Ps.2). And God is faithful, and the impossibility of God not keeping his promises is greater than the impossibility of there being revival in England. And so we must ask, and keep on asking, until we find ourselves “praying without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5).

But all too often revivals begin with prayer and then fizzle out in over-realized eschatology. Which is to say, we do not want revival not so that when it comes we can pat ourselves on the back and go back to life as usual. We want revival because we were made to glorify God by enjoying Him forever, and by the power of the reviving Spirit of God we can begin even now to do this. So as flickers of revival fire begin to emerge, we need to persevere in prayer and worship. For worship is not just the fuel but also the goal of missions.

This must begin immediately!
Today is the day of salvation!
(2 Corinthians 6:2)

If you’re convinced of the need for revival and reformation in England today, and you think that what I’m saying makes some semblance of sense, then you don’t need to wait for God to audibly speak to your from heaven or for an archbishop to come and lay hands on you. Jesus has commanded everyone who believes to go into all the earth “teaching them [that is, everybody!] to obey everything” that he has commanded.

Now, I don’t believe it’s possible to obey everything Jesus has commanded as isolated individuals, and have specifically mentioned the need for us to be part of an accountable community (a ‘church’). And I’ve mentioned some of the things that a faithful gospel community should be doing.

But at its most basic, if “two or three” (a Hebraism meaning “at least two”) gather in the name of Jesus, the Faithful Witness of the True God, and are themselves committed to being obedient faithful witnesses, then in that place are all the necessary elements (in embryonic form, admittedly) of a biblical ‘church’.

So, whoever you are who might be reading, I end by commissioning you reminding you that you have already been commissioned by the One who has “all authority” to share the gospel with everyone you know. And as you do that, meet regularly with all those who respond to the gospel invitation to learn together what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and to keep each other accountable.

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Any wisdom here is the result of my reading the book, T4T: A Discipleship Re-Revolution, based on the experience of church-planter Ying Kai who in 8 months saw three hundred churches planted by putting into practise these principles. I highly recommend the book to you.

This strategy is at the heart of the Circuit Riders school that I am part of this July. The motto is Save the lost, revive the saved, train them all.

Not Secular Democracy But Christian Kingdom

Having tried to sketch a biblical defense of constitutional monarchy, thus laying the foundations for us to resist the Zeitgeist of hyper-democratic zeal that fills our world, the second step is to trace the history of England to see how it is that this country has an Established Church which has the unique privilege of being catholic, evangelical, liberal (tolerant, reasonable), and even increasingly pentecostal (experiential).


The mythical St George, patron saint of England

Catholic History
Although there is already evidence of British Christianity by the third century, the Church of England generally marks the beginning of its formal history in AD 597 with Pope Gregory sending the missionary Augustine (no relation to the theological genius Augustine of Hippo) to help the Britons evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. He became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

The next character worthy of mention is King Alfred, rightly called The Great. It is said that he was anointed by the Pope to be King while still a child (at which point he was not even heir apparent to the throne). As King he then drafts a Doom Book (law code), circa AD 890, which very deliberately frames English law in biblical perspective. Only after beginning with an introduction which includes the Ten Commandments, a translation of “several chapters of Exodus”, and the Apostolic Letter of Acts 15:23-29 does he then offer an account of English law.

Fast-forward to Henry VIII and we see Catholic England reaching its zenith as the king is awarded the title of Defender of the Faith in 1521 by the Pope. This comes as reward for Henry’s attempts to counter Luther’s reforming zeal with a tract that argued contra Luther that there were indeed seven sacraments, in keeping with Catholic dogma.

And to this day the English monarch continues to hold that title.

Evangelical Reformation
Something bizarre then happens. Being an unstable character with an uncontrollable desire for a male heir, no sooner has Henry VIII been commended by the Pope for his faithful Catholicism than he is getting in a strop because the Pope won’t let him divorce (or rather, annul his marriage to) his wife. And so in 1532 he declares himself head of the Church of England, thus breaking off all relationship between the Church of England and the Church of Rome.

Into this somewhat messy situation comes Thomas Cranmer, a somewhat equivocating character (who ultimately dies as a courageous martyr) who is faced with the challenging task of putting together an English liturgy. And after several revisions he finally succeeds in putting together a Book of Common Prayer that manages to hold true to Biblical (‘Evangelical’, ‘Reformed’) doctrine, while also managing to retain the best of Catholic tradition (frequent communion, liturgical drama).

Political Liberality
Holding together a respect for Catholic tradition with an obedience to Evangelical doctrine is no easy thing, and for a few years the nation swings back and forth between bloody Catholicism (Queen Mary had nearly 300 Evangelicals put to death in less than four years) and oppressive Puritanism (Cromwell notoriously tried to ban Christmas).

When the monarchy is restored after Cromwell, the “ideal of encompassing all the people of England in one religious organization, taken for granted by the Tudors, had to be abandoned” (ref.) and since then England has had an established church which, in theory at least, is both Catholic and Reformed whilst being politically tolerant of unorthodox (‘Non-Conformist’) views.

Pentecostal Openness
Much could be said about Wesley and Whitefield and the missions movement by which the English Church blessed the world, but we’ll skip past that to the twentieth century, and the second wave of the Charismatic Movement that began in the 1960. Without going into any detail, we note only that this was the beginning of what is now perhaps the most influential stream of the Anglican church. And if you think that’s an exaggeration, consider that the well-known Alpha Course developed by charismatic Anglican Nicky Gumbel is probably the world’s best known basic discipleship course, and has been attended by over 15 million people worldwide.

Need for Revival
So then, we see that today’s English Christian (‘Anglican’) can justly see himself as being part of a Christian tradition that is simultaneously catholic, evangelical, liberal and pentecostal (which, I will at some point have time to argue in writing, are the four essential epistemic pillars of the Christian imagination). And thus I boldly suggest that England has a Christian heritage which is perhaps richer than that of any other nation, and which means that the English church is uniquely poised to be used by God to bless the nations and prepare the globe for the long-awaited return of the Messiah.

But unfortunately the situation is not all rosy. For although the Anglican church as a whole is all of those things, it is rare to find any one Anglican who embodies even two of these characteristics. Too few of the Charismatics have a deep and robust confidence in the authority of Scripture, too many of the Evangelicals are quenching the Spirit by their cessationist fear of the unknown, too many of the Catholics would rather be in the Roman Church than the Anglican, and too many of the liberals seem unconvinced of the rational reasonableness of orthodox Christian truth.

Yet there is hope. And so we end with that word of Smith Wigglesworth (a confirmed Anglican!) that “When the Word and the Spirit come together, there will be the biggest movement of the Holy Spirit that the nation, and indeed, the world, has ever seen. It will mark the beginning of a revival that will eclipse anything that has been witnessed within these shores, even the Wesleyan and the Welsh revivals of former years. The outpouring of God’s Spirit will flow over from the United Kingdom to the mainland of Europe, and from there, will begin a missionary move to the ends of the earth.

Will you join me in praying that God would revive and reform Christian England?

God Save The Queen : A Defense of Monarchy

A few people have suggested that my attempt to translate my convictions about the true definition of marriage into political involvement (signing the C4M petition) is mistaken because “The fact is that Britain is a secular country”. To which I must respond by pointing out that I (unlike whatever Americans might be readers of this blog) am not in a secular democracy, but rather a Christian kingdom.

In fact, I would even suggest that England has a Christian heritage which is perhaps richer than that of any other nation, and which means that in spite of the urgent need for revival and reformation in England today, the English church is nevertheless uniquely poised to be used by God to bless the nations and prepare the globe for the long-awaited return of the Messiah. I realize this is no modest suggestion, and so must be shown with at least some argument.

Because we live in an age of hyper-democratic sensibilities, I will therefore begin by trying to give a (biblical) defense of (constitutional) monarchy, and the blessing of being ‘one nation under God’.


Royal Coat of Arms

Foundations for a Godly Kingdom
Samuel does not criticize monarchy per se
But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us’. (1 Samuel 8:5-22)

It is common among Christians of antimonarchical inclination to claim that the Bible itself is critical of monarchy as a governmental system. They would argue that Israel’s monarchy comes into existence solely as the result of human sin, and suggest that this is confirmed by the prophet Samuel’s view of the situation.

However, a closer examination of the text will show three things:
i) Samuel’s displeasure is specifically in reaction to the people’s desire to be “like all the nations”, thus attempting to cast off their God-given uniqueness.
ii) While Samuel himself may be straightforwardly against the idea of monarchy, the LORD does not seem to share this sentiment, thrice (1 Sam. 8:7,9,22) instructing Samuel to heed the people’s voice and give them a king.
iii) Samuel’s final word of warning to the people is a warning about “the behaviour of the king”, rather than simply about monarchs in general.

Having established that Samuel’s negative view of monarchy is not categorical and final, we must then ask whether there is anywhere else in the Bible where we might find a foundation for a more positive view.

Deuteronomy gives principles for good kingship
You shall surely set a king over you… (Deuteronomy 17:14-20)

We find this foundation in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. In brief, this passage:
i) predicts desire to emulate other nations (v.14)
ii) permits monarchy (v.15)
iii) specifies that the king should be the one God chooses (v.15)
iv) specifies that the king must not be a foreigner (v.15)
We could note here that while monarchy is thus in line with biblical principles, imperialism is not.
v) forbids royal greed (“he shall not multiply horses for himself” v.16)
In view of this, the irony of of Solomon’s wealth (as described in 1 Kings 10,11) becomes apparent.
vi) forbids royal polygamy (“he shall not multiply wives for himself” v.17)
Again, Solomon in particular comes to mind, but we could also name David.
vii) exhorts the monarch to read the Bible! (v.18-19)

Israel’s history shows the need for a king
Moses commanded a law for us… and he was King in Jeshurun (Deut. 33:5)

As well as Deuteronomy’s foundational principles for godly monarchy, we can also construct an argument for monarchy by contrasting the orderly state of affairs under Moses’ leadership with the chaos described in the book of Judges.

While Moses was “King in Jeshurun”, the people of Israel were kept in some semblance of order, in spite of a lack of heart-felt love for God and obedience to His commandments. When Moses died, he was succeeded by Joshua, who had been personally appointed to the task by Moses (Deut. 34:9) having served as his assistant (Numbers 11:28) presumably since the start of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, when he was noted for lingering in the presence of God (Ex. 33:11). Under Joshua, Israel continues to serve the Lord (Josh. 24:31) — and indeed, they continue to do so for as long as “the elders who outlived Joshua” were alive. But after that, there being no clearly appointed successor, the nation descends into chaos and anarchy. In spite of Moses’ warning to Israel that when they enter the Promised Land they must not merely do “what was right in their own eyes” (Deuteronomy 12:8), this is exactly what happens (Judges 17:6, 21:25). Which means idolatry, gang rape, and civil war.

It is in this context that the people of Israel realize their need for a king.

The Reality of Family Privilege

But someone will say that while Moses might in some sense have been functioning as a ‘king’ over Israel, Joshua wasn’t his son, and what we have said so far only demonstrates the orderliness of having one recognised leader.

The Privilege of Good Parents
So then we must continue by pointing out that family privilege is a spiritual reality. By this I’m not saying that inheritance tax is Satanic, or anything like that–I’m merely pointing out that to have good parents filled with the fruit of the Spirit is (clearly!) a blessing, and to have parents that are liars and thieves is a curse. As Christians we are not fatalists, and we do not believe that the character of the parents will absolutely determine the character of the children. But it will have some influence, and where this influence is good this should be recognised as a privilege.

Divine Promises to Families
We can go further than this, though, and show that God actually makes specific promises to families. Most importantly God makes a promise to Abraham (Gen.12:2-3):

I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.

More obsurely, we could note God’s promise made to the nomadic teetotalers descended from Rechab (Jer. 35:18-19); or, less comfortably, the promise of judgment upon the family of Amalek (Exodus 17:16). Specifically regarding monarchy, there is of course the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 6) in which God seals the rule of the house of David with divine approval.

Jesus then is not a president, but a king. And as such he inherits the family privilege of God’s promise (as the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel painstakingly demonstrates) and has an inherent authority that is not given but merely acknowledged by the people.

Blessings of Democracy

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Being a royalist doesn’t mean I am utterly authoritarian and anti-democratic.

Representative Government
We can note first that representative government is also in accordance with biblical principle. Our text here is Deut. 1:13-15, in which Moses reminds the Israelites of the way that he instructed the various tribes, clans and families to “choose wise, understanding and knowledgeable men” to lead them.

Prophetic Critique
Second, when we look with a biblical lens at the ‘right to free speech’ that most contemporary Westerners assume they have, then we see that the reality underlying this ‘right’ is the responsibility of prophetic critique. By this I mean the duty that we have as the people of God to honor those in authority by keeping them accountable to biblical truth and bringing whatever word of rebuke God might instruct us to deliver without being afraid of the reaction. An example of someone exercising this responsibility would be Elijah coming before Ahab in 1 Kings 17:1.

I refrain from describing this responsibility as a ‘right’, for two reasons. First, I think Western Christians tend to take free speech for granted, when in fact we should expect persecution for publicly proclaiming the challenging truths of the gospel. Second, I’m aware that it is common for those who profit from pornography to defend their evil trade by appealing to their supposed ‘right’ to free speech. And this is clearly absurd.

Nevertheless, something like a ‘right to free speech’ does emerge from the fact that a wise ruler, realizing their own imperfection and their subsequent need to hear prophetic critique, would create a culture where people feel free to share truth and wisdom without fear of retribution. And thus we see (in 2 Samuel 16:5-12) that the wise king David endures even the cursing and stone-throwing of one of his subjects.

_____________

Her Majesty the Queen celebrates her Diamond Jubilee this year. God save the Queen!

I should probably note that my views should not be taken as representative of YWAM, which includes Egyptian Secularists and American Anabaptists, as well as English Royalists like myself.

I realize that I haven’t yet said anything that shows that Britain is a Christian–and not secular–nation. That is the next step. Be patient with me!

‘How Dare They Tell Youngsters Abortion Is Bad!’

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I used to refrain from saying very much about abortion for fear of getting myself embroiled in an argument regarding an issue about which I don’t know very much. Which is to say, that I don’t know enough to guarantee that I will be able to respond to all the objections I might come against. And so cannot guarantee that I will win the argument.

But as a Christian, we are not called to win arguments. We are called to be witnesses–to testify to as much truth as we know. And in the process of stepping out beyond our comfort zones to speak boldly in defence of the little truth we know, we will find ourselves being confronted with questions to which we don’t yet know the answers–which will then push us to search for more answers, to understand more of the truth.


So, I am repenting of my fear of man and resolving to not let my lack of comprehensive knowledge keep me silent.

In particular, this week I present to you some thoughts cobbled together in belated response to the recent uproar over a Cambridge Year 10 Religious Studies class having a debate on the issue of abortion, in which the pro-choice Feminist Action Cambridge and the pro-life Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) each presented their case.

What happened to our proud tradition of free speech?
One might think that in a city which has the oldest debating society in the world, to have a controversial issue discussed by two parties of opposite opinions wouldn’t be anything to speak of. But details of the presentation were “disclosed to the Guardian”, which then published an article with the provocative title, ‘Revealed: what children are being told about abortion‘. Stephen Munday, principal of the school in question, then had to send out a letter to parents explaining that, contrary to the impression given by the Guardian’s slant on the story, it was not the case that the only information students were being given about abortion was coming from pro-life campaigners, but rather that this was part of a balanced dialogue in which both points of view were represented.

But what was it that students had been told? Well, according to the details obtained by the Guardian, students had been told “abortions are linked to a raised risk of breast cancer”.

Is this really about breast cancer?
“The causes of breast cancer are not fully understood” (NHS Website)

This SPUC document explains in measured tones that “Whether breast cancer risk is elevated by abortion is a controversial question that has been the subject of numerous studies, several showing increased risk and some showing none”. But goes on to point out that since it is a “well established fact that carrying a first pregnancy to birth is protective against breast cancer… this means that a woman [who is pregnant and considering abortion] will have higher breast cancer risk if she undergoes an abortion compared to carrying to term”.

But before we start arguing about whether the above argument is valid or not, we should probably step back and point out that whether or not abortion is linked to breast cancer has no bearing at all on the essential moral question of abortion–which is this: is the unborn child (the foetus) a real human being entitled to the same rights and privileges that anyone gains simply by virtue of being a mere human? Or is there something more than being biologically human that is required to gain ‘human rights’?

How you answer this question should immediately decide the question of whether you are pro-life or pro-choice. It will also have some obvious effects on how you talk about the consequences of abortion.

The reason for this is simple. If you think that there is nothing morally problematic about abortion in itself–and are therefore pro-choice–then when you hear horrible stories about backstreet abortions with horrendous consequences, then you will conclude that abortion should be made safer so that those who choose to abort their unborn babies will not have to suffer in such ways. Whereas if you think that unborn babies are still human babies entitled to the same human rights as you or me, then you will see in such horrible backstreet abortion stories a vivid picture of the suffering that abortion causes, and you will conclude that we must work harder to provide support to women so that they do not feel like abortion is their only option.

Now before we go on, let’s just say–
It isn’t just evangelical Christians who are anti-abortion.
“Children were shown a video by a Christian campaigner from the USA who calls for abortion to be made ‘unthinkable’.” (Guardian article)

One sometimes gets the impression that in the minds of the British public, to be against abortion is almost synonymous with being “a Christian campaigner from the USA”.

So it is worth pointing out that this is not the case.

There are pro-life Hindus who argue that abortion runs contrary to the principle of ahimsa, non-violence. There are pro-life Jews, who argue that condoning abortion “promotes the eugenics movement which historically has targeted Jews for extinction”. As “Al Qur’an and the sayings (ahadith/sunnah) teach that it is prohibited to intentionally end the life of any unborn child (abortion) or to kill oneself or assist someone to end their life”, there are pro-life Muslims.

But this isn’t a religious issue–there are also pro-life atheists, such as this progressive liberal who argues that: “From this leftist viewpoint, opposition to abortion is not an aberration, but a natural, organic and logical outgrowth of one’s leftist whole. In other words, we oppose abortion for the same reasons we oppose violence against women, gays and lesbians, or ethnic minorities. Our anti-abortionism is the only response possible with our dedication to and demand for social justice.”

Or perhaps a better example would be the late Christopher Hitchens: “As a materialist, I think it has been demonstrated that an embryo is a separate body and entity, and not merely (as some really did used to argue) a growth on or in the female body. There used to be feminists who would say that it was more like an appendix or even—this was seriously maintained—a tumor. That nonsense seems to have stopped. Of the considerations that have stopped it, one is the fascinating and moving view provided by the sonogram, and another is the survival of ‘premature’ babies of feather-like weight, who have achieved ‘viability’ outside the womb. … The words ‘unborn child,’ even when used in a politicized manner, describe a material reality.” (God is Not Great pp. 220-21)

So then, rather than writing sensationalist articles about secondary issues, let’s consider the real question. Which, to repeat, is this: Is the unborn child (the foetus) a real human being entitled to the same rights and privileges that anyone gains simply by virtue of being a mere human? Or is there something more than being biologically human that is required to gain ‘human rights’?

Both sides agree–abortion and infanticide are logically identical
Now, it is a biological fact that new life begins at conception. And from the moment of fertilization the foetal life has a full set of human DNA–making the foetus a human being. This isn’t even disputed by those who think that it is acceptable to kill the unborn foetus.

Instead they argue that we must distinguish what it means to be a ‘person’ from what it means to be a mere human. But to this we say, if it’s wrong to kill a developing human being after birth (which legally it still is), why is it permissible to kill the developing human before birth?

Now this is meant to be a proof by contradiction. But a pair of pro-choice medical ethicists were recently in the news for openly embracing the logical conclusion of such an argument that abortion is logically indistinguishable from infanticide. That is, if killing a baby is acceptable before its birth, then there is no reason why it should become unacceptable after the baby’s birth.

They argued: “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual. Rather than being ‘actual persons’, newborns were ‘potential persons’…Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.” But how do we know what another person would consider a loss? Surely we can only know this if they are able to effectively communicate this to us.

But what about disabled people? I spent an all-too-brief week or two before I came to university volunteering with Bethany Home, a school for disabled children and adults. And a large source of frustration for those struggling with disability was that although they often knew exactly what they wanted, they struggled to communicate this to others.

Indeed, what about a sleeping person? If you were to try and wake me up in the morning, would I be able to coherently ‘attribute to my own existence some basic value’? My wife and my mother could probably both testify that most mornings I’m not able to attribute value to anything very much at all–but I think that in spite of that they wouldn’t deny me the right to live.

I do believe that good can come out of evil
“For some people who’ve been raped and had the baby, even if they don’t keep it, something positive comes out of that whole rape experience,” pupils aged 14 and 15 were told. (Guardian article)

This comment drew a furious response by one of the student’s parents–who also happened to be a stem cell research scientist. It was published in the print edition of the Cambridge News but was strangely missing from the online version, so I can’t quote him exactly. But (if someone finds the old newspaper in their recycled paper box, then please let me know the exact quote) it was something along the lines of ‘How dare they suggest that something good could come out of rape!’

But it shouldn’t be so difficult to see that to say that something positive can come out of something evil is not to justify evil, let alone advocate it.

As Christians we unashamedly do believe that good can come out of evil. This is most evident in the death of Jesus, who was betrayed by a friend and then unfairly condemned to death, but who had to die in order that the sins of the world might be forgiven. But the principle that God can make “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28) is one that we believe applies to every situation.

And I would argue that this means that as Christians we can offer real hope to a victim of rape–or of any other evil.

I do believe abortion is a sin — but also that sinners can be forgiven!
“God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”

Statistically in the UK there are about 18 abortions per thousand women each year. So there are doubtless at least a few people who will come across this who have had an abortion.

If you are one of those people, my desire is not to make you feel condemned. My desire is to tell you that “In Christ there is no condemnation” (Rom.8:1)–not because God doesn’t name and judge sin, but because “if we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us” (1 Jn. 1:9).

I speak to you as someone who is certainly guilty of what the Bible calls ‘sin’. But I speak also as one who has experienced the transforming mercy of Jesus. And I enthusiastically recommend it to you–and to everyone else I know.

‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die? (Ez. 33:11)

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On a related note, highly respected pro-life spokesperson Phyllis Bowman died this past Monday. May God raise up more prophetic voices like her who would speak out with wisdom and courage in defense of the vulnerably voiceless.

If you’re interested in further exploring the arguments against abortion then Abort73.com is a useful resource.

You can find out about the the history of the iconic image of a mouth sealed shut with red tape inscribed with the word LIFE at the Bound4Life website.

‘Disgustingly Intolerant & Unconvincing Bigotry’

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After causing something of a stir last week with my post on atheism, I seem to have caused similar controversy by dipping my toe into the debate regarding the issue of the definition of marriage–currently the subject of a British government consultation on how (not whether) it should be redefined to include gay relationships. William has urged me to respond to this, and he’s right–

We need to talk
When I began this blog a couple of months ago I explained that one of the reasons that I am writing is for the sake of transparency. I wrote then:
«for a long time — all my life! — I have stood with one foot in an evangelical missionary culture and the other foot in the predominantly secular culture of the contemporary English-speaking world. And I’m not sure I’ve ever quite managed to overcome the challenge of communicating in a way which makes sense to both cultures — which probably explains why so many of my non-Christian friends from university find me somewhat peculiar.» So, I should be–and indeed am–glad that this small controversy has compelled me to consider my views and created opportunity to try and explain myself.

But this concerns more people than just me. According to Operation World, there are more than 500 million (half a billion) evangelical Christians in the world. The number of gay people is a contentious issue that depends on how you count (do we mean gay attraction, orientation, behaviour or self-defined identity?) but regardless of the exact figures, both groups wield quite considerable influence in today’s world. So it is important that we try to understand each other.

I therefore am offering this post not merely to explain myself. Rather I hope that what I write will help make transparent the biblical Christian perspective on ‘gay marriage’ to those who feel sometimes that evangelical Christians are from another planet. And I hope that what I write will better equip Christians to “be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear, having a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:15).

But first, some ground rules for the discussion.

We need to respect each other
If we are to have a conversation then each party must have at least a basic degree of respect for the other.

If one is a Christian (I am), then this should be motivated by the knowledge that each of us, whatever our sexuality, is made in the image of God, and therefore worthy not only of respect but love. It is also worth saying explicitly that the gay people I have known have in general been friendly and intelligent.

We need to begin by refusing to demonize each other.

But we need more than that.

We need to distinguish disagreement and intolerance
To disagree with something someone says or does isn’t of itself intolerance. On the contrary, if there was no disagreement there would be no need for tolerance.

Further, as the famous Tolerance Paradox points out, unrestricted tolerance is not possible, whether or not it is desirable. This is evidenced in Boris Johnson’s recent remark (intended I think without any irony) “London is one of the most tolerant cities in the world and intolerant of intolerance.”

Now, I have written before that I am doubtful that secularism can ever co-exist comfortably with ‘religion’. But, uncomfortable as this might be, here we all are, me with my Bible and you with whatever worldview you happen to have, and unless the pre-tribulation rapturists are right, no-one’s going to be suddenly disappearing. So we need to learn how to peacefully disagree without becoming apathetic and passive.

So for example, we Christians must see that the disagreement we have on this issue with those who are unconvinced that the Bible offers a universally valid definition of marriage is understandable and quite different from the unacceptable intolerance of those who have, in distinct situations, threatened death to the MP David Burrowes and a fourteen-year old American girl for respectively speaking in defense of the current definition of marriage.

Now our use of terms like ‘disagreement’ in some cases, and ‘intolerance’ in others, actually reflects a moral judgment: ‘disagreements’ are legitimate and ‘intolerance’ is not. And this judgment is not always a simple one.

But if we are to make it (and in fact we must and already do), then:

We need to acknowledge that there is an objective morality
This is also necessary if we are to believe in real human rights. As the Archbishop of Canterbury points out, if we “take away this moral underpinning, language about human rights can become either a purely aspirational matter or something that is simply prescribed by authority”. And given the eagerness of some (but not all) within the LGBT movement to use the language of human rights to argue for gay marriage, it seems that there is a generally shared belief in human rights.

As a Christian, I believe that this objective morality is grounded in the existence of a transcendent good God, witnessed to by biblical revelation (and the hand-carved ten commandments), and known in an instinctive but limited way (‘conscience’) by all humans (being made in the image of this God).

This might be–but probably isn’t–the same as saying I believe in natural law. As with everything, this depends on your precise definitions. The way the term is usually used suggests that if such a thing exists it can be recognised by reason alone. Which I reject–I think we need the witness of Scripture–and hence my lack of optimism that a secular society could ever agree on what constitutes ‘morality’.

Thus if I were to say (as Dr Saunders does) that “Throughout history in virtually all cultures and faiths throughout the world, marriage has been held to be the union of one man and one woman”, I would offer such an observation not as proof of that definition of marriage but merely evidence.

Clearly if we accept that such things as human rights and morality are real, then:

We need to see that there is such a thing as wrongdoing
This is all the Bible means when it uses the word ‘sin’. As we see in this definition from the book of James: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

Now sin is an unpopular word. And I have Christian friends zealous for the glory of God and eager to share the gospel who would say that we need to update our vocabulary because otherwise we will unnecessarily confuse and alienate people. But sin is undeniably a word which the Bible has no qualms in using. So can the word be redeemed?

I believe it can. And that if we are going to become comfortable with the Bible we need to become comfortable with the word (though not with the activities that it describes). And to do that we need to understand how the Bible uses the word.

Which means:

We need to notice the breadth of the Bible’s ‘intolerance’
Before we move on to discussing the specifics of the marriage debate, it’s important to see that we Christians (or at least those of us who still do the good old street-preaching evangelism thing) are not trying to pick on gay people by pointing out their sins in particular. Our focus is much less specific than that.

A few quotations from Paul should demonstrate my point:

«Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries and the like»
(Galatians 5:19-21)

«Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners…»
(1 Corinthians 6:9-10)

«God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting, being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful…»
(Romans 1:28-31)

«The law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers…»
(1 Timothy 1:9-10)

In all of these cases, Paul is not trying to emphasise any particular sin on the list over and against the others. His aim is rather to cover the whole wide range of types of wrongdoing that the biblical God refuses to tolerate.

The reason for this is simple:

We need to realise that each one of us is a moral failure
Paul explains in the third chapter of his letter to the Romans that the reason he aggessively quotes the various activities forbidden by the biblical law is so “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God”, “for by the law is the knowledge of sin” by which we come to understand that “all have sinned and are falling short of the glory of God”.

This is why it is not simply an intolerant bigoted power-play when Christians say that particular activities are ‘sins’, because to be a Christian a person needs to have recognised that they are in the category of ‘sinners’. From the point of view of a perfect God, being ‘undiscerning’ and ‘unmerciful’ are as bad as anything else on the list, be it sexual sin or ‘inventing evil things’.

So immediately after his brief list of sins in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul reminds them that “such were some of you”. But he’s equally willing to point the finger at himself. So in 1 Timothy 1:15 Paul writes “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am chief”.

If it still strikes us as strange, that Paul can boast almost shamelessly that he is ‘chief’ of sinners, while all the while condemning sin wherever he goes, then we will also doubtless find the suggestion that we should consider ourselves ‘moral failures’ rather repulsive. Hence:

We need to understand the relationship between sin and shame
Robin (who I gladly count among my friends) points out that “in John 8:6 we see Jesus writing in the sand instead of joining the religious leaders in condemning the women for her sin”. He then concludes that “He was more concerned with her shame than with the law,” suggesting that shame is the real issue rather than sin.

But then what about Jesus’ closing words to the woman: “Go and sin no more”?

What about the fact that Jesus himself says very specifically that he came to call “sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17)?

What about the fact that when Paul is writing to the Galatians he begins by reminding them of the gospel that “our Lord Jesus Christ…gave himself for our sins that he might deliver us from this present evil age” (Gal.1:3,4; cf. 1 Cor.15:3) and immediately goes on to say that “if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Gal.1:9) ?

From a biblical point of view, sin and shame are related as cause and effect. So, in Gen.2:25 before there has been any sin, we see that “the man and his wife were not ashamed”–but after they have been tempted and have disobeyed God they become ashamed and “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God”(Gen.3:8), instinctively knowing that the sin they had committed would incur a penalty.

The good news for shame-faced sinners is not that Jesus has been superficially unconcerned with our shame, but that through dying on the cross Jesus has radically dealt with the cause of our shame–that is, sin. And now in Jesus there is “forgiveness of sins” for “everyone who believes” (Acts 13:38-39).

This is the message: Trust in Jesus! And then all your sins will be forgiven. And thus your shame will be taken away. Hence you need no longer be ashamed of your moral failure, because you have a gospel in which you can be unashamed.

This is true for gay people just as much as heterosexual people–just as it is true for women just as much as men, and for Gentiles just as much as Jews. But to trust a Jesus who claims to be a king and is inviting people to be part of his kingdom means to obey this Jesus.

Now, to be honest to obey Jesus you only need to know three things: the First and Second Great Commandments, and the Great Commission.

But the Great Commission does include ‘obeying all that Jesus commanded’. And if we are to obey Jesus on the subject of marriage:

We need to know the definition of marriage
Hebrews 13:4 says that ‘Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.’ But simply to say that it is wrong to do anything ‘sexually immoral’ begs the question—what is sexually moral? Clearly the verse contrasts adultery and sexual immorality with keeping “the marriage bed pure” – but it assumes that we know the definition of ‘marriage’. And this is precisely the issue which we must now address.

I have already said that I don’t think that we can prove a definition of marriage on the basis of secular reason. The best we can hope for is to find a biblical definition and then see if the anthropological evidence corroborates the biblical witness. So: Is there a biblical definition of marriage?

Yes, there is-–and in fact we find it in Jesus’ own response to the Pharisees when asked about divorce.

Jesus takes his definition of marriage from Genesis: «Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female’ (Genesis 1:27), and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24).»

So we have immediately and clearly the “one man and one woman” part the current definition of marriage (“the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”), and the “union for life” part becomes apparent when we see that Jesus concludes from the fact that the two have “become one flesh” that divorce is not to be permitted.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that this definition of marriage ‘discriminates’ not only against gay couple couples but also against heterosexuals in a variety of modes: promiscuous, non-commital and polygamous.

But why did Jesus define marriage this way?

Now at one level, we simply have to be content to hold our hands up and admit that we don’t know for sure. The Bible doesn’t tell us. The secret things belong to the LORD our God… and all of that.

Nevertheless, not only are humans curious creatures (in both senses!) but trying to answer questions like this that are not explicitly revealed are a good way of testing whether we have understood the things that have been revealed. So:

We need a theology that makes sense of why marriage must be heterosexual
If we were to speculate, what are the options as to why marriage must necessarily be heterosexual? I can think of two lines of approach: children and headship. The former being the Roman Catholic argument that marriage “forms the best atmosphere in which the children who result from their union can best be brought up”. Indeed, even the gay Matthew Parris writes: “I am glad I had both a mother and a father, and that after childhood I was to spend my life among both men and women, and as men and women are not the same, I would have missed something if I had not learned first about the world from, and with, both a woman and a man, and in the love of both”. But, as this writer notes, “the idea that marriage is solely for the procreation of children is easily dismissable” since “Plenty of straight couples, particularly older ones, do not marry to have children.”

An alternative theological explanation could be forged around the biblical theme of husbandly headship. It would go something like this: marriage is a picture of the relationship between God and his people (Isaiah 54:5), ie. Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). Christ is the head of the Church in a way analogous to the way “the head of a wife is her husband” (1 Cor.11:3). (It is important that we go with the ESV’s translation here as the Bible nowhere suggests a general submission of women to men, as this writer points out). Hence to reject the authority (headship) of God naturally leads to homosexuality (Rom.1:25-27). Further, this is grounded in the relationship of the Father and the Son within the Trinity, where both are equal in worth (Revelation 5:13), but in function it is the Father who is head (1 Cor.15:28).

One final thing before I open this up to the world:

We need to ask big questions
One of the questions that is often assumed to be central to the issue of gay marriage is whether someone of homosexual orientation is born this way. Brendan O’Neil notes the peculiar transition that has occurred in the last century
‘Once upon a time, conservatives and Christians argued that homosexuality was a genetic trait, while gay-rights activists insisted it was a lifestyle choice. Now, in an eye-swivelling turnaround, their arguments have reversed. Surely, this is the most comprehensive position swap in the history of culture wars?’

But rather than getting caught up too quickly in the disputed details of the questions everyone assumes are key, let’s remember at least occasionally to step back and gain perspective. Sometime it’s important to question the question.

So, for example, rather than running round in circles asking whether people are born gay or not, perhaps instead we should ask what it is that people are born for.

What’s the purpose of human life?

You probably know by know what I think the answer is. So instead of telling you what I think the answer is, I’ll tell you what I think it’s like when someone finds the answer: It’s like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

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What do you think of the idea of redefining marriage? What do you think of what I’ve just said? Please let me know your thoughts–I welcome disagreement. But not intolerance 😉
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Some links:

If you’re interested in the question of how we can help evangelical Christians and LGBT people understand each other a little better, then Andrew Marin is a man who is probably doing the job as well as anyone out there.

If you’re a Christian and you’re interested in thinking more thoroughly about your theology of marriage, then you can’t do any better than Christopher Ash’s ‘Marriage.

If (but not only if!) you agree with Jesus’ definition of marriage you can sign the Coalition for Marriage petition here.

If you’re interested in a thorough analysis of Jesus’ understanding of why it was necessary for him to focus on the problem of sin, I recommend George Smeaton’s The Doctrine of the Atonement which you can actually download for free.

Should I Be Making Fun Of Atheism?

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I caused a little bit of controversy yesterday by posting the above tongue-in-cheek definition of atheism on Tumblr. So I felt I should try and explain why I felt justified in passing on this caricature of the beliefs of my atheistic friends. So here are a few thoughts and clarifications in response to the comments.

First: Atheists should be distinguished from agnostics.

Jon thinks atheism should be defined as the rejection of belief in the existence of deities–I disagree.

For the English-speaking person who does not believe in God, there are two commonly-used words which he can use between to describe his position: ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’. I use the term ‘agnostic’ for the person who humbly admits that he does not (and in most cases thinks he can not) know whether there is a God. And I use the term ‘atheist’ for someone who is confident that there is no God. So, consistently with the way I use the terms, I consider atheism a belief in the non-existence of God. Feel free to tell me if you think I’m not using the terms correctly.

Second: Atheism is not only a positive belief in the non-existence of God, but a worldview.

After all, Atheism is an ‘-ism’.

Julian Baggini’s ‘Heathen Manifesto’ (which Nic just pointed out to me) is an example of an atheist who would seem to agree with me in thinking that this is a legitimate consideration. (The person who commented at the bottom of Baggini’s Guardian article to say ‘I don’t need to follow rules of atheism, if I wanted to follow rules and be part of the crowd I could go to church’ would be an example of someone who disagrees with us).

Three: A ‘worldview’ is the way a thoughtful person answers the major philosophical questions that occur to him as he finds himself in the world.

Specifically and most basically, questions of:

Anthropology: what am I? what does it mean to be human? (who am I?)
Cosmology: where am I? what is this world like?
Metaphysics: where did it all come from?
Theology: who do I thank and worship for the blessing of being alive?
Axiology: what is good? (ethics and aesthetics)
Teleology: what is it all for? where is this all going?
Epistemology: how do we know what we know?

A consistent and coherent worldview will hold compatible answers to each of these questions. And so when a group of people share convictions regarding the answer to one of those questions, they usually have similar answers to others of those questions.

Four: Thus ‘Worldview’ might loosely approximate to what most Western English-speakers mean when they use the generally misunderstood term ‘religion’.

I say misunderstood, because it is generally assumed in the Christian-influenced English-speaking world that a person’s religion answers the theological question. But this is not the case. To see what I mean, let us consider two different world ‘religions’, Christianity and Hinduism.

First, Christianity: Christianity, as we all know, defines itself theologically: that is a Christian thinks that the one we should worship is the Creator of the world who has revealed himself to the Jewish prophets (this revelation being contained in the Hebrew Scriptures) and came in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (of whom we have reliable testimony in the New Testament). Which is to say, Christians are defined by being those who worship the God of the Bible.
This immediately suggests a partial answer to the epistemological question–‘we know some of what we know because God has revealed it to us in the Bible’. But this is clearly only a very partial answer, and hence Christians disagree over how to understand the nature of God’s revelation in the Bible: is the Bible a Christian’s absolute epistemic authority, being the infallible (ie. totally trustworthy) Word of God? or is the Bible merely a fallible human witness to God’s previous revelation of himself in history? (Going with the latter position the point at which Liberal Christians disagree with Evangelicals and Catholics). And if the Bible is the infallible Word of God, is it made comprehensible to anyone who believes by the help of the Holy Spirit, or only by the magisterium of the Church? (The former being the Evangelical position, the latter being the Catholic position).
The centrality of the Scriptures (however understood), and the fact that Scripture touches in at least some way on all of the basic worldview questions, means that there is a fairly rigid outline of what a Christian worldview looks like although the precise details will differ. For example, in answering the cosmological question of what the universe is, all Christians will hold that it is the creation of an unchanging God — thus giving us a rational basis for assuming that it will behave consistently (thus providing the necessary framework to do science) and for expecting it to be beautiful (it being creatively constructed and not randomly generated). And then depending on their understanding of the epistemic relationship of scriptural and scientific authority, some will hold further that it is about six thousand years old, whereas others will hold it to be much older.

Hinduism, on the other hand, begins with the axiological question, ‘What is it good to do?’. This is illustrated par excellence in the Bhagavad Gita’s dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna. In scholarly speak, ‘Hinduism is characterised by orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy’. In lay-man’s speak: to be a good Hindu does not mean to worship a particular god, or to believe a particular set of doctrines, but to observe the duties (dharma) of your caste. In particular, this means practicing endogamy (marrying within your caste) and commensality (eating according to caste purity rules).
But Hinduism allows for a diverse range of answers to most of the other questions. Specifically, let us consider the theological question. A Hindu can worship Krishna, Shiva, or Kali, and be a good Hindu regardless. A Hindu can think that all of these are but manifestations of the cosmic divine energy and that it doesn’t matter which you worship, or a Hindu can worship one exclusively and believe that it is mistaken to worship another. A Hindu can even be theologically atheistic.
Hence, some argue that Hinduism, “is not correctly described as a religion but rather as a civilization”.

Note that I am not saying that Christianity is better than Hinduism because it provides a more rigid worldview, I am just saying that if we use Christianity as a default to give us an answer to the question of which parts of a worldview a ‘religion’ provides answers to, then we will certainly misunderstand the other major world religions.

Five: No individual has a worldview which is entirely consistent and coherent.

This is why it is worth challenging each other whenever disagreement arises, and indeed even occasionally provoking disagreement. As Proverbs says, ‘Iron sharpens iron’. This is why discipleship needs to be an ongoing process.

I include myself in this category and if you think I am being inconsistent with reality, my own human nature, or the Bible, then I want you to tell me so that I can change and become more consistent.

Six: There is probably only one entirely consistent and coherent worldview.

This is why it is difficult for secularism to co-exist comfortably with religion. But I won’t go into this now.

Seven: Humour is a legitimate tool in demonstrating the incongruity of someone’s beliefs.

To see this we must step back and consider how humour works. The theorists say we laugh at things for three reasons: Relief, superiority, and incongruity. In the first case laughter is the physical mechanism by which we reduce psychological tension. In the second it is a social mechanism for making us feel better about ourselves at the expense of others (for Plato, this is why some laugh at ugly people). And in the third, humour is the result of an intellectual realization.

Now, if someone is laughing purely because of physically uncontainable tension, then we’ll probably regard them sympathetically and excuse any resulting breach of social etiquette. But if humour is being used as a social device to make someone else look stupid and yourself look stupid, then it is unkind–and hence Simon and Anjali (both Christians) have understandably taken exception to my post. But there is a third option: we laugh because we realize the ridiculous incongruity of things.

These can be things that a comedian makes up for the specific purpose to be funny. So Rowan Atkinson says things can become funny in three ways: by behaving in an unusual way, by being in an unusual place, or by being an unusual size. And so for example we get the brilliant Eddie Izzard suggesting to us the idea of Darth Vader being in an ordinary canteen.

But these can also be incompatible convictions that a person holds. And by laughing at a person’s incongruous beliefs, we are thus able to show the inconsistency of their worldview in a way that is more interesting and enjoyable than merely having a boring discussion. To keep this from being unkind, the Golden Rule must be obeyed: so we must be prepared to have our own worldviews exposed to humourous critique. In particular we should be able to laugh at ourselves.

So make fun of me: I won’t mind 😉

Eight: I don’t think Atheism can give satisfactory answers to the metaphysical, anthropological, or epistemological questions.

‘Atheism: The belief there was once absolutely nothing. And nothing happened to the nothing until the nothing magically exploded (for no reason), creating everything and everywhere.’

This, as Theo correctly saw, is the Cosmological Argument in its reductio ad absurdum form. Now, the cosmological argument does not show that the God of the Bible created the universe, but it does show that a belief in the God of the Bible is compatible with a lucid and logical answer to the metaphysical question of where this all came from.

As a worldview, ‘Atheism’ (‘Naturalism’, ‘Heathenism’, ‘Rationalism’—take your pick) also has at some point to come to terms with the metaphysical question, ‘Where did this world come from?’ The main possiblity being–correct me if I’m wrong–the multiverse explanation.
To which we give you the thoughts of the scientist Paul Davies: As one slips down that slope, more and more must be accepted on faith, and less and less is open to scientific verification. Extreme multiverse explanations are therefore reminiscent of theological discussions. Indeed, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence it requires the same leap of faith.

‘Atheism’ is also faced with the anthropological question, ‘Who are we?’, which goes hand in hand with the question of ‘Where did life come from?’. The answer to this latter question being something like ‘random chemical processes generate amino acids which then form simple cells which evolve’. Which might or might not convince you, but is in a similar vein to this:

Then a bunch of the exploded everything magically rearranged itself (for no reason whatsoever), into self-replicating bits which turned into dinosaurs

But if we are the product of random chance, and thus exist ‘for no reason whatsoever’, then a consistent worldview must address the implications of this. Albert Camus faces the question most frankly, and sees that if there is no God, then there is no basis for our necessary conviction that our lives are meaningful. Hence ‘Il n’y a qu’un problème philosophique vraiment sérieux: c’est le suicide’ (There is but one truly serious philosophical question, and that is suicide).

And this is not just a theoretical issue. In 2004, the American Journal of Psychiatry reported the following: ‘Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation.’

Nine: I do think Christianity offers a worldview that is rationally coherent and consistent with reality.

And so I encourage you to consider it.

Read the Bible, do an Alpha Course, ask a thoughtful Christian why they believe what they believe.

Go on–we won’t bite.

And we’ll try not to make fun of you 😛

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What’s your worldview? How would you answer my seven worldview questions? And are you ready to laugh at your own worldview?