Here’s a review of a recent book on the “culture wars” and identity politics by Ben Chang, for Christianity magazine. The book is about how modern social justice narratives may make evangelism a lot harder, and it presents some possible solutions. I’m not convinced it goes far enough. Have a read and let me know what you think!
Category Archives: Culture & Arts
Music, film, art, books, etc
Is the wider world more apocalyptic than the church?
Given climate change, Russian wars and covid, there’s plenty to worry about the future of our world. It used to be just very religious people who were announcing the end of the world, but now it’s scientists, journalists and the media. I wrote about it for Christianity magazine – take a look here.
To address tribalism in society, the church needs to unite
I’m enjoying writing regular articles for Premier’s Unbelievable ministry, the apologetics forum hosted by Justin Brierley. A recent discussion on tribalism and the culture wars got me thinking about the church’s own tribal behaviour – and what we should do about it! Take a look here.
Does the West’s individualism distort Christianity and its deconstruction?
I’ve had some interesting feedback from a recent article on Western self-centredness and the ‘deconstruction’ movement that I wrote for Premier’s Unbelievable, a great apologetics and debating outlet. Take a look – it’s a reflection on a recent debate between someone who is “deconstructing” their Christian faith and someone who is more orthodox. Michael Gungor, the deconstructionist, has responded on twitter if you want to get involved in the discussion.
Shia LaBeouf’s faith
I have just written for Christianity magazine on Shia LaBeouf’s recent conversion to Catholicism, which he talked about with Bishop Barron and is posted on YouTube. It’s well worth a watch, but hopefully you can catch the highlights in this article.
For what it’s worth, I think he’s being genuine. With addiction and his other issues, relationships with God can be very tumultuous. I hope and pray he will grow in faith and love.
Beauty and pain
I’ve been writing more for Christian Today lately, but I’m slow at putting them on here. Apologies! Here is one of the recent articles, exploring beauty, attractiveness and how we value ourselves, through a sad recent story from a supermodel. Take a look!
Challenging euthanasia with love
Apologies this is a little late, but I recently wrote on the subject of euthanasia for Christianity magazine. In the UK it’s big news as there are various attempts to legalise the practice. And campaigners are worried that there is increasing support within politics.
Christians have traditionally been against euthanasia, so I wrote about some of the arguments, but also called for action in order to help those who might wish for euthanasia. I don’t think we should treat them any differently from anyone who is feeling suicidal – we should look for ways to support and help those involved and show them how much we value their lives. Have a read here.
Evidence of media bias: airbrushing Christianity out of the (positive) news story
Christians are pretty used to having the positive fruits of our faith being erased from history. The media will happily tag the label ‘Christian’ to ranting or philandering pastors when they hit the headlines, the atrocities of the Crusades or Westboro Baptist Church.
Yet in the secular media, our faith is rarely, if ever, associated with the true inspirations of Christianity: Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce, Josephine Butler. Such people are presented as modern day humanists, rather than the devout and conservative believers in Christ that they really were, motivated by their faith.
So it’s also the case for modern believers.
Earlier this year, successful rugby player Jason Robinson talked to an ITV programme about how he once contemplated suicide. What changed? His Born-Again team-mate, Va’aiga Tuigamala, talked to him about God, and Jason found new life in Christ:
I honestly believe the Lord sent him. He came to me and said: ‘I’m concerned about you. I had a dream about you last night. You were stood on top of the world and as I watched, slowly from underneath you, the world started to crumble.’ The Bible talks about repenting [changing your mind] and asking the Lord into your life. That’s what I did. After I said it, I felt something lift. Had it not been for him I certainly wouldn’t have the hope that I’ve got now. And hope is something that people can’t take away.
Yet, most of the secular media that reported the story totally ignored the main part of the story. Reports from The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Mirror, and the ITV website, all totally ignored that it was Christian faith that changed Robinson’s life.
There was a brief mention in The Telegraph, Wigan Today, and the Yorkshire Evening Post, but it’s very brief.
Is there anything we can do about this? I’m seeing more and more anti-Christian rhetoric and propaganda on social media, even in people I’d have thought would be open and tolerant.
In the meantime, read about Jason’s faith in his own words from a Christian site:
A player called Va’aiga Tuigamala (Inga) joined my club, Wigan. As I watched him it was obvious that he had something I did not have, something that I wanted. He played the same game as me, but didn’t need all the going out and drinking that I did. He was at peace with himself. He was the happiest man in the place. I talked to him about it and he explained his faith. I became a Christian.
(Does believing in Jesus Christ make a difference?) I am leading a better and more fulfilled life than I ever lived. I have been a better father, a better husband, and 100 times better morally than I was before.
How did Bono come to faith in Jesus?
It’s not that widely known that Bono is a Christian, and has been throughout his very successful career. It was only when I became a Christian myself in my late 20s that I found this out, and then their music developed new meaning to me, as the lyrics are full of Christian imagery and meaning.
Interesting that his faith seems to have been sparked by Billy Graham, who at one time was a regular preacher in the UK. This comes from this poem released by Graham’s library, which is rather sweet. I wrote about it for Christian Today yesterday.
The journey from Father to friend
is all paternal loves end
It was sung in my teenage ears
In the voice of a preacher
loudly soft on my tears
I would never forget this
Or its lyric voice that gave my life
a meaning that wasn’t there before
a child born in dung and straw
wish the Father’s love and desire to explain
how we might get on with each other again…
To the Rev Billy Graham (that preacher)
Ruth and all the Graham family
From Bono (March 11 2002)
With much love and respect
The Godfather films: love, family and Christianity
I’ve just finished re-watching The Godfather, part I and II. The last time I watched them was before I’d become a Christian (I’ve got the first film on VHS – lol!). This time round, I saw some interesting themes in the films that I wouldn’t have picked up before I was religiously aware.
‘Godfather’ is obviously a religious term. In the first film, becoming a Godfather and the act of baptism is seen as a very important thing, especially to the Corleone family. Godchildren are looked after. They become part of the family. Being part of the family is sacred, vital. It becomes what the Bible calls an ‘idol’ – something that’s made more important than God. So in some senses, the act of baptism (into the family) is actually more important than God in the film: it’s lost the original meaning of the ritual.
However I see the main theme in both movies to be that ‘love’ for your family can lead to evil. Vito Corleone’s concern for his family – which is profound and touching (“a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man”) – is actually what leads him into organised crime. He wants to provide for his family and protect them. Yet you see that the deeper you’re in, the more violence you’ve got to enact in order to keep control and keep on top – and the more at risk your family becomes from the violence.
Why do they want to be in the mafia? For Vito, and initially for Michael, it seems to be because they want to protect the family. Michael initially rejects the Mafia, but gets involved after the attempted assassination of his father. Yet, their families are decimated by the violence of their profession – they see their sons and brothers killed, one by one.
So is a lesson from the film, that attempting to protect people or do good through evil, will not ultimately protect them or do good?
Another aspect of this theme is revenge. Vito wants to avenge deaths of his mother and father, and ultimately does so. Michael wants to avenge his father’s assassination attempt, and does so brutally.
Ultimately this desire for vengeance takes over, and trumps the love for family, in Michael’s life. His wife is banished for aborting his child, and his brother is killed for betrayal. The end of the second film sees him all alone – betrayed, and deserted.
Forgiveness is intrinsic to Christianity, it’s essential and for a Christian, it must be stronger than family love. I think this is the message of The Godfather films. Without it, vengeance and hatred will ultimately ruin your family. Evil cannot conquer, using it cannot protect the love you have. Only love and forgiveness can.
Hence the powerful baptism scene in the first film, where Michael’s profession of faith, where he claims to believe in Christ and to renounce the works of the devil, are contrasted with his brutal acts of revenge following his father’s death. The motive for the killings is to protect and avenge his family – yet he agrees to be godfather to his nephew. The brutality of his vengeance is for the motive of family – but is clearly the opposite of the faith he is professing, as the director makes clear. These contradictions make for the compelling storyline, but there’s a lot to learn from it too.
I think it’s saying, that you cannot love, and you cannot love your family, without forgiveness in your heart, for all people. If you treat your family as a god – as an idol – it will collapse, and be destroyed.
Johnny Cash’s “Man comes around”: what do the lyrics mean?
Johnny Cash was a deeply religious man, who loved Jesus and the Bible.
So much so, that in one of the last songs he wrote, “The Man Comes Around”, he gives a deeply personal message about Christian faith to his fans. I’m going to go into a lot of detail in this post.
Cash saw the song as one of his most significant pieces of work. “I spent more time on this song than any I ever wrote,” he said in August 2002. “It’s based, loosely, on the book of Revelation, with a couple of lines, or a chorus, from other biblical sources. I must have written three dozen pages of lyrics, then painfully weeded it down to the song you have here.”
So what is the message he’s trying to give?
Revelation is an amazing book of the Bible but it does require work to understand what it means. It’s full of rich symbols and striking images. One of its main themes is the end of time, when God will come to stop the wrongdoing in the world, and give the people the judgement that they have chosen. Instead, God’s Kingdom will reign, a place with no more crying or tears. But for those under judgement, God’s offering a way out.
When you examine the song’s lyrics alongside the Bible passages it mentions, it becomes clear that Cash is giving a very clear message to his listeners – he’s saying, “make a choice, before it’s too late”.
That’s not very fashionable. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t say it bluntly: we’ve got to study the song to understand it. So, here is the song dissected so that we can do this. The Bible verses are in quotes, Cash’s lyrics are in bold.
And I heard as it were the noise of thunder
One of the four beasts saying come and see and I saw
And behold a white horse
This is Cash’s spoken beginning to the song – it makes quite an impact! It’s based on this verse from Revelation:
As I watched, the Lamb broke the first of the seven seals on the scroll. Then I heard one of the four living beings say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked up and saw a white horse standing there… He rode out to win many battles and gain the victory.” Revelation 6:1-2a
So what does it mean? The four ‘living beings’ are first mentioned in Rev 4, and probably symbolise either goodness in Creation or God himself: here they are showing John, the author of this book, events in the future through a series of images such as the white horse. In this passage the horses refer to the judgements of God that are coming to the world – this means that human beings will be allowed to do their worst and therefore there’ll be much evil and many problems: war, death, famine and disease. While some say this is a prediction of what will happen at the ‘end of time’, it’s obvious that this is already happening on the Earth, sadly.
There’s a man going around taking names
The song opens with this line, and it’s key to the meaning of the whole song. A theme in the book of Revelation is the ‘book of life’ – who will be taken to God’s eternal Kingdom? If we are to go there, our names are recorded within the book:
I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books.” Revelation 20:12
As made clear in the rest of the song, it is Jesus who is coming to ‘take names’ and judge the people of the Earth, according to what people have done.
And he decides who to free and who to blame
It’s made clear in this line that it’s Jesus who is making the decisions here, about whether someone is to be ‘saved’. This reflects what it says in the Bible, for example:
Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war… He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. Rev 19:11,13-16
Jesus will make a decision for every person, whether they will be judged by their actions – whether they’ll be free in heaven or live forever with the weight of sin on them. This passage presents a fearsome image of Jesus, but it reflects the incredible horror of the wrong things we do and how God feels about them. Not that God wants people to hurt, but that if people want to continue to do evil, they are choosing for themselves an evil existence for eternity. As we will see, God offers a way out…
Everybody won’t be treated all the same
Again Cash isn’t being very PC. It’s fashionable to think that God does not judge, that he will take everyone to heaven without any consideration of whether their lives have reflected the reality of heaven. Revelation makes it very clear that this is not the case: that there is a black and white, clear choice to be made, such as in this passage:
And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire. Rev 20:11-15
Although the gospel of Christ offers forgiveness and redemption to all those who are willing to accept it and want to turn away from a life of apathy and wrongdoing and towards a life of love, this passage shows that our deeds will be judged. It’s important to follow Christ in this life – that means giving our lives to him. Not just a decision in our minds, but a decision with our hands, our feet, and our voices. What we do, matters. So, Cash is saying, we won’t be treated the same.
There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down
So while he’s warning of the judgement to come, Cash is pointing to the way out of the horrible fate he’s described, from the book of Genesis:
As [Jacob] slept, he dreamed of a stairway that reached from the earth up to heaven. And he saw the angels of God going up and down the stairway. Gen 28:12
This is what God offers – an escape route from the judgement, here depicted as a ladder. We are always offered forgiveness and entry into God’s Kingdom, if we repent. (Repenting means turning away from a life of selfishness, greed, lust, hate, apathy, anger and pride, and toward’s God’s love). So as again elsewhere in the song, Cash is saying that there’s an escape route towards heaven if we want it.
When the Man comes around
Cash’s song title comes at the end of each section of the song. He’s referring to Jesus’ return to Earth at the time of judgement, which is mentioned throughout the Bible, including this vision the Old Testament, which Jesus later said was referring to himself:
I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One [God] and was led into his presence. He was given authority, honour, and sovereignty over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey him. His rule is eternal—it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed”. Daniel 7:13-14
The man comes around’ refers to this passage from Daniel. Jesus often referred to himself as ‘The son of man’ in the New Testament.
The hairs on your arm will stand up
Cash continues to paint a picture of a frightening time, which Revelation also makes clear:
“Then everyone—the kings of the earth, the rulers, the generals, the wealthy, the powerful, and every slave and free person—all hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they cried to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to survive?” Revelation 6:15-17
This isn’t a fashionable way of viewing the end of the world. But it’s what Cash was saying, and it’s what Revelation says.
At the terror in each sip and in each sup
Will you partake of that last offered cup?
There are two references here to drinking. The first probably refers to this Revelation passage, talking about drinking from the cup of judgement:
Then a third angel followed them, shouting, “Anyone who worships the beast and his statue or who accepts his mark on the forehead or on the hand must drink the wine of God’s anger. It has been poured full strength into God’s cup of wrath. Rev 14:9-10
Although a cup of suffering is referred to in the first line, the second ‘Partaking in that last offered cup’ probably refers to the cup of communion – that salvation through Jesus’ blood will still be offered even at the end, however bad it gets. Again, and as the Bible passage referred to in the next slide says – God will always offer a way out of the judgement if a person or a nation repents. So however frightening it is, there is a way out. Cash is telling his listeners that there’s an offer on the (communion) table.
Or disappear into the potter’s ground
When the Man comes around
I think this lyric means, that if you don’t repent take that ‘last offered cup’, which is the cup of forgiveness and new life that Jesus offers us, then the alternative is the potter’s ground, which is a symbol from the book of Jeremiah:
The Lord gave another message to Jeremiah. He said, “Go down to the potter’s shop, and I will speak to you there.” So I did as he told me and found the potter working at his wheel. But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so he crushed it into a lump of clay again and started over. Then the Lord gave me this message: “O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand. If I announce that a certain nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down, and destroyed, but then that nation renounces its evil ways, I will not destroy it as I had planned. And if I announce that I will plant and build up a certain nation or kingdom, but then that nation turns to evil and refuses to obey me, I will not bless it as I said I would. Jeremiah 18: 1-10
So the implication is that we’ll be ‘crushed and started over’ if we don’t repent. However this Bible passage is again talking of the possibility of a new start, of forgiveness. So, again, Cash’s inclusion of this passage indicates he is telling his listeners that there is a way out – God always offers a way of avoiding the judgement. We must turn away from wrongdoing, and towards God’s way of love.
Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers
Cash is again using the imagery of the book of Revelation, painting the picture of the end of time:
Then I looked, and I heard a single eagle crying loudly as it flew through the air, “Terror, terror, terror to all who belong to this world because of what will happen when the last three angels blow their trumpets.” Revelation 8:13
David Pawson says the trumpet is used in Jeremiah and Ezekiel to warn people to ‘get ready’… because God wants to save them. So once again, it’s an image that gives a warning: that bad things will happen if we don’t pay attention.
One hundred million angels singing
Cash makes another clear reference to Revelation, where the angels are singing praise to God:
Then I looked again, and I heard the voices of thousands and millions of angels around the throne and of the living beings and the elders. And they sang in a mighty chorus:
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered— to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and blessing.” Revelation 5:11-12
God is being worshipped by angels all the time. The ‘Lamb’ is a name for Jesus used throughout the Bible, who took on all our suffering and sin at the Cross so that we could be free. So the angels are praising God, for his sending Jesus and offering a way out of the judgement and the pain of a life without God.
Multitudes are marching to the big kettledrum
Voices calling, voices crying
Cash is probably referring to the armies of heaven on white horse that we saw in Revelation 19. The image of voices crying is again painting a picture of a time of trouble and suffering.
Some are born and some are dying
Again Cash is making it clear that there’s a clear division between those who are saved and those who are not:
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” John 3:7
On the day of judgement some will be reborn into God’s Kingdom, and some will face the second death – a terrible fate. Cash is trying to warn people of this.
It’s Alpha and Omega’s kingdom come
This means that it’s God’s Kingdom come:
I am the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end,” says the Lord God. “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come—the Almighty One.” Revelation 1:8
The ‘kingdom come’ is often referred to by Jesus, as in the Lord’s prayer. When we pray ‘Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven’, we are hoping for a time when life on Earth will be as it is in heaven: no wrongdoing, no suffering, no pain. Just purely in the will of the Father, pure love, peace and joy. But for those who do not want God’s Kingdom, it’s not a joyful time.
And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree
The virgins are all trimming their wicks
And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. Matthew 25:6-7
This is a passage of the Bible again referring to judgement – the wise young women had their lamps ready for when Jesus (the bridegroom) comes – the foolish ones were going to get some oil and weren’t ready. So it seems clear that Cash is warning his listeners to be ready for the day of judgement.
The whirlwind is in the thorn tree
It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks
This is a reference to a dream that Johnny had that inspired this song.
Till Armageddon no shalam, no shalom
Revelation says that there will be a battle at the end of time, at a place called Armageddon. This might by symbolic of the spiritual fight between good and evil, or it might refer to a real battle:
And they gathered them together at the place which in Hebrew is called Armageddon. Revelation 16:16
As we’ll see later, the terrible events of the judgement and the war that will take place will not last – God will bring his peace (shalom) to the world once all evil has been vanquished.
Then the father hen will call his chickens home
This comes from a very comforting passage in Scripture – which shows that even while we reject God, he longs for us to come to him as children and be protected under his wings:
Truly I declare to you, all these [evil, calamitous times] will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. Matthew 23:36-7
God longs to draw people to himself and be kind to them, as a mother hen. And yet, we continue to reject him. I think it’s clear from this passage that any judgement, as fearsomely described in Revelation, is not what God would ultimately want: he would want to care for and protect his children. However, he allows us to choose what we want to do, as any good Father does.
The wise man will bow down before the throne
And at His feet they’ll cast their golden crowns
When the Man comes around
This is another clear reference to Revelation, where the people who have accepted Jesus as Lord will bow before him at the end of time:
Whenever the living beings give glory and honour and thanks to the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever), the twenty-four elders fall down and worship the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever). And they lay their crowns before the throne and say, “You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honour and power. For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased.” Rev 4:9-11
The casting of crowns is an indication of worship.
Whoever is unjust let him be unjust still
Whoever is righteous let him be righteous still
Whoever is filthy let him be filthy still
This is a direct quote from Revelation. The actual passage makes it clear, again, that there is a judgement coming, according to what we have done:
Let the one who is doing harm continue to do harm; let the one who is vile continue to be vile; let the one who is righteous continue to live righteously; let the one who is holy continue to be holy. Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. Revelation 22:11-12
Again, we will reap what we sow – we will face the consequences of our actions. But as Revelation and Cash makes clear, there’s always a way out. That’s why he’s writing the song:
Listen to the words long written down
When the Man comes around
When Cash says ‘listen’ – he is again showing that this song is very personal, written directly to those who listen to it. As it says elsewhere in Revelation, the invitation to come to God is always open:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. Revelation 22:17
The song repeats itself. Then:
In measured hundred weight and penny pound
When the Man comes around.
This probably refers to:
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine. Revelation 6:6
Theologians debate as to exactly what this means, but in this song it probably again indicates that we will be judged by God, as it says in Daniel 5:27; ‘You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting’.
Johnny’s narration returns to give a chilling finale:
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts
And I looked and behold, a pale horse
And his name that sat on him was Death
And Hell followed with him.
Well, Cash couldn’t make any clearer what he means. The four beasts and pale horse come from this passage:
I looked up and saw a horse whose colour was pale green. Its rider was named Death, and his companion was the Grave. These two were given authority over one-fourth of the earth, to kill with the sword and famine and disease and wild animals. Revelation 6:8
This judgement could be said to be on the Earth now. But I think Cash is ending the song with these words to emphasise that the choice is stark: loving God and giving our life to his law of love, or going to the place of Death – the natural extrapolation of a life of wrongdoing.
This can all sound very frightening – I think Cash and Revelation do intend to do this, actually. It’s interesting that both of them are presenting a crucial and alarming message: but both are doing it using imagery, not going around with sandwich boards.
However Revelation also has a very positive message, for those who have repented of their wrongdoing and accepted Jesus as Lord. We have a future that has no more evil, only pure love and God’s rule:
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.”
Will you listen to the words, long written down?