How God changed Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King is often described as a ‘humanist’, but this is impossible to justify once you have read his work and sermons. His approach, his strategy, was based on Jesus’ teachings. And he frequently relied on God’s strength. I’ve just read the King’s book ‘Strength to Love’, which I would recommend that everyone get a copy of, especially those who are involved in political movements for change. Within there is this clear testimony of how God gave him the strength to do what he did. Without that prayer, it’s possible that the civil rights movement as we know it would never have been.

The first twenty-four years of my life were years packed with fulfilment. I had no basic problems or burdens… it was not until I became a part of the leadership of the Montgomery bus protest that I was actually confronted with the trials of life. Almost immediately after the protest had been undertaken, we began to receive threatening telephone calls and letters in our home. Sporadic in the beginning, they increased day after day. At first I took them in my stride, feeling that they were the work of a few hotheads who would become discouraged after they discovered that we would not fight back. But as the weeks passed, I realized that many of the threats were in earnest. I felt myself faltering and growing in fear.

After a particularly strenuous day, I settled in bed at a late hour. My wife had already fallen asleep and I was about to doze off when the telephone rang. An angry voice said, “Listen nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” I hung up, but I could not sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.

I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.

Three nights later, our home was bombed. Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My experience with God had given me a new strength and trust. I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life.

Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride towards the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better men. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.

 

 

Spirit-filled Christian converts her abductor

This is an old testimony from the 80s, but it is absolutely extraordinary.

Margaret Mayfield was in a parking lot in San Antonio, Texas, having been prompted in the morning to carry some Scripture and evangelistic materials with her in her car.

She met a man who looked ‘rabid’ and ‘demonic’, and she tried to witness to him. He made her get into the car and had a gun.

What she didn’t know, was that he was serial killer and rapist Stephen Morin, who was on the run from the police after killing someone earlier that day – on top of numerous rapes and murders.

However, she showed no fear, and extraordinarily, showed love to him as they talked for hours. He commented on how she was not trying to escape, and how she did not seem to be afraid. “I’ve felt more love from you than I have in my whole life,” he told her.

She told him that he had a ‘satanic stronghold’ following his traumatic childhood with a mother who hated him. He replied that he knew that force of hate, that sometimes it had made him do things that he didn’t want to do.

She prayed in the Spirit throughout, when she wasn’t preaching the Word to him. “Are you an angel?” he asked. He wanted her to go in and get a paper, but she said she did not want to read what he had done because the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin – the impression she left is that she knew this would increase her fear.

He asked her for money, “whatever is in your heart to give me”. When she gave money to him, he started crying and said: “You are the most wonderful person I’ve ever met in my life. This love I feel is not sexual, it’s nothing like that. It’s something I’ve never experienced before.” She had various opportunities to call for help but she did not.

He wanted to kill himself, but Margy continued to witness to him and tell him that he would go to hell if he did, telling him of the gospel, that Jesus loved him and died for his sins.

Suddenly he said: “You’ve been preaching to me all day, and I finally understand what you’re talking about.” He pulled over, raised his hands in the air, and said: “Jesus I am sorry for everything I have ever done. Please forgive me, I want to go to heaven.” He cried and told her that the hate that had been in his heart had gone. Later, he told her that just before his prayer, he had heard an audible voice say: “This is the last time that I will call you.”

He went on to unload his gun, gave Margy the bullets, and said: “I don’t ever want to do this again. I want to tell people about Jesus Christ!” He continued to praise Jesus all down the road.

They went to get a hamburger (she said, “by this time we were friends”) as he waited to get on a bus.

Many people have asked her, why didn’t you call the police? But she said that she wanted to obey the Spirit of God. If she had listened to reason, she says, she would have called the police but then she could have ended up dead. So she obeyed the Spirit.

She went home, leaving Stephen in the bus station, and there were police everywhere. She wouldn’t tell them where he is for a while, as she didn’t want to hurt his fledgling faith. Eventually she did, and the police went there and found him reading a Bible. He handed over some weapons, and said  normally he would have had a shoot-out, but… “I met this lady today, and now I am different.”

Margy said: “The power of love is what won that man. Not criticism, not telling them they’re doing the wrong thing. They already know that. It’s the love of God that cuts across those barriers and wins people to the Lord.”

Later, she realised that God had been preparing her for a long time for this experience. She had spent a lot of time memorising the book of Ephesians, and Psalm 91… she said, that though most people would have been terrified: “[God] had programmed me so much to think the thoughts of the word of God. I think that day, that’s what surprised me so much… how much love and compassion I felt for him. I never would have believed I could have felt that, I mean I couldn’t have, without God in me. I got a glimpse that day of how much God loves humanity, and it’s such a depth! We can’t even fathom it, it’s so great. It’s changed me forever, that’s for sure.”

Morin was later executed for one of his murders, and his last words were a prayer.

Martin Luther King is so inspiring

I haven’t read much of King’s work in the past few years, but as today is the anniversary of his murder, I was asked to find ten inspiring quotes from the great man for the Christian Today website.

Wow I’d forgotten how inspiring the guy is. He really was in tune with Jesus’ teachings to love his enemies, probably because he so clearly had to live them out in his campaign of non-violent resistance against racism and segregation in the USA.

Here’s the piece, ‘Ten inspiring quotes from Martin Luther King’. But I’d encourage you to read more! This is an extract from his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

 

I like Richard Dawkins, and these are some reasons why

I’m a Christian, and so naturally, Richard Dawkins sometimes gets right up my nose. However, there is a lot that I really like and respect about him, even though I consider his arguments against Christianity to be false.

I also think that in many ways, he has been good for the church. So I wrote for Christianity magazine, on “10 reasons for Christians to thank Richard Dawkins”. Hope you enjoy it!

Did Jesus exist?

I read a piece of ‘journalism’ yesterday that was probably the best example I’ve seen of how to make total nonsense sound reasonable to people who know nothing about a subject. It said, “A growing number of scholars are openly questioning or actively arguing against Jesus’ existence’. Who are these people? Richard Carrier. Who he? He has a PhD. That’s it. That was her ‘growing number of scholars’. But he’s not even a scholar.
Carrier is a joke. Here’s agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman on this subject, he couldn’t be any clearer:
“There is a lot of evidence. There is so much evidence… I know in the crowds you hang around with, it’s commonly thought that Jesus did not exist. Let me tell you, once you get outside of your conclave, there’s nobody. This is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity. There is no scholar in any college or university in the Western world, who teaches classics, ancient history, New Testament, early Christianity, any related field, who doubts that Jesus existed…
“The reason people think Jesus existed is because he is abundantly attested in early sources… Early and independent sources indicated certainly that Jesus existed… I think atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism because it makes you look foolish to the outside world.”

Why did Kenneth W Daniels lose his faith? A Christian response to his book

stjohnsashfield_stainedglass_goodshepherd_portrait_croppedKenneth is now an atheist, though once a Wycliffe missionary. He describes what happened at length in his memoir: ‘Why I believed: Reflections of a former missionary’. The book attempts to convince the reader of his arguments against Christianity, and claims that his deconversion was due to ‘weighing the evidence’. Though he says at various points that he is not trying to persuade believers to doubt, this doesn’t tally with his rather sinister invitation at the end of the book: “Consider taking a swim in the waters of unbelief. You won’t be struck by lightening…”

His analysis did not persuade me to doubt my faith. In fact it reminded me of the strength of the intellectual arguments for Christianity. Perhaps that is because of our very different backgrounds.

Kenneth grew up in a supportive but fundamentalist Christian environment, then began to have doubts while at university, which did not go away. Not an unusual story, as university is where we start to think independently from our parents. I think that’s why I was more convinced that God exists at the end of my science degree than when I began. My mind had been opened – though it took some time before I truly adopted Christian faith. But I grew up in a secular environment. Neither of my parents were practising Christians. I came to faith in my late 20s, after a lot of searching. It requires a lot of independent thought, as I’ve written elsewhere, to break out of the secular, atheistic worldview we are immersed in. It takes effort and courage. Becoming a Christian helped me to open my mind further. Though now, I absolutely, without hesitation, believe orthodox Christianity to be true.

Yet, Kenneth took the opposite path. Why? Well, he claims throughout the book that he didn’t want to lose his faith. One reason he cites, is that his family, wife and career are all devoutly Christian. (It’s worth pointing out that his doubts existed before he went to Wycliffe). Kenneth describes heartfelt prayers, spiritual experiences, earnest studying, that he hoped would bring him back to faith. He says that his deconversion was purely because he ‘weighed the evidence’ (p.56).

However, I do not see this careful ‘weighing’ in his book, which leaves me puzzled. He read fairly widely, yet often confidently makes assertions without apparently being aware of some of the counter-arguments. He seems to me, to be trying to convince himself that God’s not real. He also appears to be arguing against a particular kind of Christianity – fundamentalist, creationist etc – rather than the Christianity that I know, which is evangelical, but thoughtful and open. This leads to a whole load of straw men and red herrings for someone who does not identify with “fundamentalist” Christianity. (Though as I point out at the end of this piece, in some ways I think Christians should be more concerned about the fundamentals as Jesus described them).

The objections that Kenneth raises are nothing new. The violence and “un-Christian” commands of the OT, the “conflict” between evolution and creationism, the Biblical “contradictions” or “errors”, the existence of hell, suffering.

I was raised in British culture that sees such problems as insurmountable objections to Christianity, and rarely mentions the Christian point of view. This counter-Christian rhetoric is all over our TVs, in our most popular books, claimed as fact by many of our teachers. Most younger people in the UK now uncritically accept these ideas. For that reason, most committed Christians, especially adult converts, have thought through these objections carefully, and found them to be unfounded or secondary to their experience of Christ in their lives.

So how could these issues have been so devastating for Daniels? I don’t know, but I spot a few interesting possibilities. From a spiritual point of view, on the surface he had everything he needed. He grew up in an apparently loving Christian home, his experiences of Christian community seem to generally have been positive.  He must have been covered in prayer, because he was open about his doubts while a missionary.

As to intellectual issues – he appears to have read many of the great Christian apologists. He has definitely thought through the issues to a certain degree. This is too small a space to go into all his objections – reams and reams have been written about all of these things from apologists on both ‘sides’. Kenneth has read fairly widely, but what interests me more, is the underlying assumptions he was holding as he read them. On what basis was he evaluating these arguments, and why? He describes ‘weighing the evidence’, but what scales was he using, why, and what is his criteria for evidence? On page after page of his long book, I found many holes in his arguments, or at least valid critiques. The most common thought I had was: “But you could apply that criticism to atheism too”. (This is a crucial point that I’ll come to later, and it is picked up in the video ‘The Skeptic’s Dilemma’, posted below.)

So what’s the reason Kenneth lost his faith? My hunch is that ultimately, God gives us choices. We choose what we read, and we choose what criteria we will use to adopt our beliefs or reject them. Certainly during my faith journey, there have been a number of crossroads at which I think I could have chosen to turn away from God. I didn’t want to do so. For me, they were more emotional than intellectual. However, my intellectual searching and questioning has helped me to develop my theology and way of understanding my faith – I am a fully ‘intellectually satisfied Christian’ and I see many good rational arguments to believe. But my faith is something more fundamental than just a ‘belief’ or an ‘experience’.

Daniels sometimes expressed a passivity when he was a doubting believer – along the lines of ‘please God, show me that it is true because I want to believe’. I think this is a good prayer to pray. But was it honest? What choices did he make along the way that reflect his heart in the matter?

Daniels writes that he found his faith was on ‘sinking sand’. I suspect he is right. Let’s say that the OT does have errors, and evolution is true – both things I would be open-minded about, to a point. So what? Why does this make anyone doubt the existence of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God and died for us? Why does that lead one to think that the material world is all there is?

Most testimonies of coming to faith are not clear logical arguments from one intellectual position to another (though some do experience intellectually-driven conversions to Christianity). Neither is Daniels’ deconversion. For example, several times his doubts seemed to appear from nowhere and he doesn’t challenge them. If he had applied his ‘doubting’ to his own doubts, he may have had a more balanced rational journey. Yet he seems to accept his doubts as fact, in the same way that others would accept their faith as fact. If only skeptics would be as sceptical of their own beliefs as they are of religious ones.

For example, once Kenneth describes doubts came from observing the evolution of language and then thinking that this is plausibly how species evolution occurred (p.29). I’m at a loss to understand how this could have damaged his faith, it just doesn’t seem logical to me. But then, before my conversion, I read a degree in Molecular Biology, so I understood evolution pretty well to start with. I came to faith with the presumption that evolution was entirely true – it didn’t stop me believing in Christ. Other logical leaps are described in the book that suggest to me that this can’t have been a purely intellectual deconversion, though this is what Kenneth experienced it to be.

There is the odd almighty clanger in the supposed ‘evidence’ against Christianity. It would take a book in itself to challenge all of Kenneth’s arguments in detail, but I choose a select few here:

Clanger 1: “As long as moral behaviour is grounded in the relational consequences of our actions and we can ask ourselves, “what kind of society would result if everyone behaved like me? then no holy text or divine design is necessary to explain or support morality.” (p.164) He spends a long time arguing that you don’t need religion in order to be good. No, he says, we only “need to decide what’s ultimately in our best interest in the long term.” Goodness, as if every terrible act in history hasn’t been done with that in mind! A motivation to stop doing evil because “if everyone did it it would damage society” has not prevented the evils of the world. He’s also assuming quasi-Christian morals. But what about a community in which murder, or rape, or cannibalism, was seen as morally acceptable and pleasing to society? Is that OK because they’ve decided that such behaviour was ‘in their best interest?!’ This naivety at how human beings have decided and enacted their moral codes is worrying. As William Lane Craig simplifies, morality on naturalism is a matter of, “Who says?”

Kenneth also betrays a very legalistic understanding of Christianity. His understanding of how Christianity might help society is to restrain people’s worst instincts by fear or motivation. He says that he regularly prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide him, but says there was no difference to his moral behaviour after he lost his faith. He seems not to have experienced the increases in love, patience etc that the Holy Spirit can bring. (Note, I’m NOT saying he doesn’t have love, patience etc, but I do say that the Holy Spirit can bring breakthroughs in those areas that are not found otherwise – that is my personal experience and that of countless others). It’s not the rules that help real Christians to be moral, it’s the Holy Spirit and a change of heart. Obviously there are lots of half-hearted Christians in the world, as Kenneth is keen to point out. He says that the similar (or worse!) divorce rates among Christian groups compared to outside show this. Yet he’s talking about the US, again, and there are so many confounding variables in these kinds of studies, that make such conclusions are not empirically valid. In my culture, where Christians are in the minority, I can say that though there is much lukewarmness and bad behaviour by Christians – regularly I see, experience and hear about moral breakthroughs that have come from prayer.

Most importantly, he’s missed the real point of the moral argument that he claims to be refuting. The question is, does objective morality exist? Kenneth seems to believe so, as he’s very sure that atheists can be moral, and that his behaviour as an atheist is just as moral as when he was a Christian. So presumably he is happy to define morality as something beyond just what he thinks to be true. If objective morality exists, then how and why? Is it on some metaphysical moral plane that science can’t currently detect? If not, than who says Kenneth’s understanding of what is moral is correct?  I suspect that Kenneth has not wrestled with the real dilemma that he faces. Atheistic moral philosophers are very aware of this problem, and are trying to find ways of getting around it, but it is not easily done.

Clanger 2: Prophecies. Warning bells should ring when he recommends to the reader a book written in 1807 on Jesus’s fulfilment of Biblical prophecy. His chapter on this subject begins by arguing Daniel’s apocalypse in chapter 10-12 is not prophecy, but written after the events in the second century BC. He cites the ‘Oxford Companion to the Bible’. He says that there’s no evidence that the book wasn’t written afterwards. Well, maybe not, but using secular assumptions that a genuine prophesy is impossible probably won’t help. It’s a strange place to start, as I don’t know many Christians who find this prophecy to be foundational to their faith.

The really important prophecies to Christians have clear evidence that they were written well before the events prophesied, and Kenneth barely mentions them. As for the most convincing prophesy, tellingly Kenneth limits his comments: “Perhaps… Isaiah 53 was not presented primarily as a prophesy but a series of past events.” (p. 210) and “most of what it refers to is spiritual in nature, so it was possible to apply it to Jesus or any other righteous person who was unjustly executed.” I’ll leave this to readers’ own conclusions – though it’s fair to say that people who are not well acquainted with the life of Jesus will not realise how astonishing Isaiah 53 really is.

Clanger 3: “There is no evidence that any of the authors of these five sources [of the gospels] witnessed any of the events they described.” As Kenneth’s book was written three years later than Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the eyewitnesses’, the claim there is ‘no evidence’ was, and is, patently incorrect.

These are three examples, but there are more problems with the ‘evidence’ cited in the book.

So, why did Kenneth lose his faith? I can only speculate. I would never attribute it to some great moral failing – everyone suffers from great moral failings of some kind. I did observe some interesting themes throughout the book that might offer some possible routes to understanding.

  • He describes not being exposed to secular or atheistic ways of thinking until adulthood, and feeling afraid of reading non-evangelical authors or having his fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity questioned. Obviously, this does not help someone to really explore what they believe and why. Someone who comes from a non-Christian background such as myself, will have had exposure to all these things, and analysed them without ‘fear’. Though I think it would be better for a child to be brought up in the Christian faith, clearly there can be a downside, if they do not encounter the problems that ‘outsiders’ have with the faith, and so consider such ‘doubts’ to be more significant than they really are.
  • Often he described being persuaded by a book, just by reading it – whether the author was Christian or atheist. This suggests to me that he tends to take things at face value and accept them, perhaps because of his fundamentalist roots? Though he has clearly thought a lot about the subjects – his childhood non-critical acceptance of what he is told does reveal itself in the adult Kenneth. Mind you, many atheists and Christians are also like this – we all have blind spots of some kind. Lack of critical thinking is as much a problem in atheism as it is in Christianity, and Kenneth displays a lot of rigid thinking.
  • He does not fully understand many of the Christian arguments for God. Eg, he is confused re the moral argument, as explained above. He also doesn’t engage with a lot of good Christian arguments for the existence of God, such as the argument from consciousness, and the excellent Christian challenges to atheistic naturalism, such as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.
  • He says he had been brought up with the idea “Christian = good, non-Christian = bad”. This is so easy to refute (and begs questions of what is good, how can we label something Christian etc) that I’m not surprised he was confused.
  • Regularly, he cites a potential alternative to the Christian viewpoint, as if it is a damning indictment. Perhaps again, this is a reaction to his upbringing, but to me such possibilities do not undermine my faith. Reasonable atheists and Christians acknowledge the strong points and weaknesses of their own and the other ‘side’ in terms of the rational debate. But I didn’t read Kenneth – once – acknowledging some of the very real problems with atheism and naturalism. He appears to find the unanswered questions or uncertainties of Christianity to be devastating for belief, yet doesn’t see the massive rational problems with his adopted worldview. Yet plenty of atheists are willing to acknowledge, along with Christians, that atheism has many difficulties intellectually.
  • To whom do we listen, and why? It’s worth examining our motives and emotions about our choices of what we read and what we believe. On what basis are we evaluating something, and how have we chosen this criteria? And why? Kenneth said: “I came to my present perspective initially against my will, and I persevere in it only because it is genuinely where I believe the evidence leads.” This begs an awful lot of questions. What kind of evidence is he talking about? Why choose that kind of evidence? Isn’t that choice culturally constructed? On atheism and naturalism, how can we trust the cognitive reasoning of our brains in any case? And, is there any such thing as a ‘choice’ as the world has to be scientifically determined? And, the biggie… to the next point
  • There is often a blatant inconsistency by which atheists pick holes in arguments for theism or Christianity, yet ignore the holes of the atheistic arguments. This phenomenon is well articulated by David Wood in this talk: The Skeptic’s Dilemma. This summarises what I believe Kenneth does so often in his book.
  • We are not just passive accepters of faith. Unless Calvinism is true (I don’t believe so), faith requires decisions of our own making.
  • He seems to have picked up quite a lot of rigid assumptions, such as ‘if the Bible is not inerrant, it is worthless’ and ‘if I feel uncertain or doubtful about one area of Christian belief, all other areas are in doubt too’. Having such absolute beliefs without any notion of a ‘middle way’ may not be helpful. I can testify to the fact that it is possible to be a passionate believer, holding to the basics of faith, while still being open-minded about certain issues. Our faith shouldn’t rest on whether or not it’s possible to prove that every piece of our theological system is infallible. Surely, it should rest on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ and His love and sacrifice for us.
  • A significant factor preventing Kenneth from rejecting Christianity was the fear of hell if it was true, and the rejection of his family (though they have not rejected him). This reveals quite a legalistic ‘faith’, once again. This kind of fear-based adherence to God can’t be a good thing. Did he really, genuinely, know that God loves him, before his deconversion? It doesn’t sound like it, sadly.
  • Very early on in his doubting, he said he didn’t believe Jesus was the Son of God. In fact, I noticed a surprising lack of discussion about Jesus – the book was much more about the religious trappings of the faith. Did he actually know and love Jesus, before he lost his faith? I suspect he would say yes, but the lack of mention does intrigue me. If he had a more Christ-centred hermeneutic to his Bible reading, would this help him to know God?

I once listened to a talk by Michael Ramsden about the ‘ontological grounding’ of the gospel, which I thought was a good way to articulate the reality of a Christian. Essentially, he said that his faith was more than just a belief, more than just a feeling – that it was a way of being, something much more fundamental. Did Kenneth ever experience this? I wonder whether this internal “being” influences our emotions, beliefs and choices – though the influence can go the other direction too? I’ve known a number of people who have converted to Christianity through intellectual means, as well as emotional, spiritual, and other routes. Likewise, people appear to make the trip the other way through these same means. How can we trust our own thoughts, our own logic? If we are nothing but dust, atoms and molecules, material objects – nothing can be trusted. As Plantinga has persuasively argued, atheism is a philosophy that refutes itself. But faith is something more than just matter, thoughts or emotion.

No, I think that there is something much more fundamental going on. The ultimate point of our existence is the acceptance or rejection of God. This is something more than a belief, an experience. It is who we really are.

 

 

 

Is religion to blame for war and other evils?

I wrote a piece for Christian Today that challenges the idea that ‘religion’ as a category can be blamed for war, oppression and other ills of the world.

Take a look.

I’m not arguing that different religions can’t influence for positive or negative in the world. But that’s one of the problems – religions are so diverse, it’s impossible to group them all together and judge as one.

Defending Tyson Fury from the waves of hate

I wrote an article “Tyson Fury’s a working class Christian man and we should celebrate him” for Christianity magazine’s blog that’s basically supporting him, though I don’t agree with everything he says. It’s provoked a lot of comment, which I expected, and I’m finding very interesting. You can see the comments underneath.

In essence I’m pointing out that the people who are criticising him often express hatred, prejudice and judgement – so why are people not calling them out on it?

Jesus came to save sinners, not those who think they are righteous. He taught against self-righteousness and hypocrisy so clearly. Though, it’s often hard to see in yourself. But Tyson is a classic example of the great Northern value of “what you see is what you get”.

The guy really needs prayer, because one of the hardest teachings of Jesus was to love your enemies. He has a lot of them at the moment, and needs all the help he can get. The BBC Sports Personality of the Year competition is on Sunday, so it’s all gonna get heated up again.

 

 

Why I want Christian schools to stay

I really hope to respect y’all in your opinions and beliefs, but just to try to explain why it would be important for me for my child to go to a Christian school – still taught with tolerance towards  people of other beliefs, but ultimately coming from the worldview that Jesus and God are real, alive and central to life.

I grew up in a culture that provided lots of barriers to believing in God (though am grateful to have been taught the Lord’s prayer and a few hymns at primary school, which not all children get nowadays). It was only when I sought and explored the subject in depth that I found faith – and I was obstinate enough to pursue this despite all the cultural pressure against Christianity. And I’m so incredibly glad that I did.

Raising children is such an awesome responsibility. We’d all, I’m sure, share the value that it’s vital that our children know the love of their parents and family. But for me also, one of the most precious things I could give a child is the knowledge and experience of God’s very real and present love for them – and confidence that it is real. If they choose to reject that I would absolutely want to respect their decision and love them regardless. But I wouldn’t want to give them the barriers that I had to overcome in my own faith journey.

However, while I think that would be my responsibility as a parent, I would definitely want to respect other people’s choices and how they choose to exercise their own responsibility. So, I think there should be a range of schools to choose from – faith schools and secular ones. I do not want to disrespect anyone – just explain why this would be so important to me, and why I am passionate that we should give schools the freedom to be ‘faith schools’ if there are people in the area who want this.

Nowadays, many people believe that religion shouldn’t be taught in school, or only as a distant, impassionate observer of different faiths. I disagree. I grew up in a secular home that held a similar viewpoint, coming to faith in my late 20s. I don’t think it is possible to create a neutral space where you really let kids choose for themselves. I think that we all teach, and raise children, from within a particular worldview, and there is no ‘neutral’ position. Personally, I wish I had grown up with a more Christian worldview.

And for those who consider religion to be negative, which is why they want it out of schools… I ask that they would be tolerant and respect my beliefs and opinions on how I would want to raise a child. I would hope to do that to them. The idea that we should force other people to have their children raised in a different worldview from their own does not seem fair to me. I think that atheists should be able to send their children to schools that teach this, if they so wish. I might disagree with their decision, but I wouldn’t want to force them to accept my views. I am concerned that increasingly a section of the population want to inflict theirs on me. As I’m a taxpayer, there should be no reason why I can’t get the kind of school I want, but atheists get their kind of school. And vice versa.

We live in a culture in which it is acceptable to make absolute statements such as “faith schools are harmful”. But if I expressed my beliefs in such an absolute fashion, almost certainly I would be called a bigot. In some ways that’s good for me because it causes me to question myself. But it seems to me unfair – and is one of the reasons why I think the idea of this ‘neutral’ space is a myth and not possible.

Some would point to faith schools that take a more extreme position. I consider extremism within religion to be a separate matter, and a very complex one at that, in our multicultural society. I don’t have the answers. I just don’t think a version of secular totalitarianism is the answer.

In summary, I would want a Christian school for my kids, because I think the ‘secular neutral space’ idea is a myth. You have to teach from within one particular worldview, imo. As I would want your choices to be available, I would hope others would respect my choices. We should do what we think is best – an naturally that will be different for different people, and different faiths. Though, those who want a Christian school aren’t always Christians – I know Muslims who would prefer it to a more secular school – and some people of faith would prefer a secular space. And lots of Christians would prefer something more neutral. But I don’t think one group’s preferences should be imposed on others.

Was Jesus a pacifist? Early church beliefs about war and violence

I had a debate with someone about pacifism the other day, online. Did Jesus teach pacifism? To me it is fairly clear that He did, with words such as ‘love your enemies’, ‘pray for those who persecute you’, ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’ etc.

It’s not easy being a pacifist, especially if faced with violence personally, or when there are murderous expansionist fascistic regimes who hope to kill or rape all those who don’t agree with them. I honestly wouldn’t want to judge anyone who committed violence, and there are many situations where it would be an automatic reaction for me. Sometimes it is done with good intentions – those going in to rescue people from slavery, for example.

I just can’t see that violence is God’s will, based on the New Testament. Yes it was ‘allowed’ in the OT, though there are many passages that show this would not be God’s ultimate will for the world. But post-Jesus, things change, it seems to me.

One of the strongest arguments that this is what Jesus taught, I believe, is that the early church was unanimously pacifistic. I’d highly recommend a book called ‘Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs’ compiled by David Bercot. It’s a quick way of examining what was taught in the pre-Nicene church (the first couple of centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection). Here’s a very quick summary:

Many church fathers taught that it was not right for a Christian to go to war, or be in the army. Explicitly condemning war and violence (rather than the idolatry of the army etc, which some say is the reason early Christians were not allowed in the military) were: Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Lactantius, Arnobius.

Also saying that they personally would not go to war, or making less explicit condemnations of war, or commenting that Christians do not commit violence or go to war: Tatian, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus.

There are a small number of mentions of Christians being in the army. But they had this restriction, which is a pretty extraordinary one, when you think about it:

By the close of the second century, if someone who was already a soldier came to faith, they were allowed to stay in the army after baptism, but only if they didn’t use the sword, take oaths, or engage in idolatrous practices. This was confirmed in the writing of Hippolytus, who wrote: “A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism.”

The earliest Christians had the heritage of the early church, led by people who spent 3 years in Jesus’ company. Wouldn’t they have a pretty good idea of what His views were on this subject?

War may seem the easiest way. But Jesus doesn’t teach the easy way.

 

What do I mean by the “living Christ” and morality?

I was chatting to an atheist on twitter, and we were discussing how we can know what is right and what is wrong – and how we can be sure we’re not being deceived. My answer is, ‘The Bible and the living Christ’. He said he didn’t understand the latter, so I thought I’d write a blog post to explain.

Christians debate about what extent their own experience of God – which could also be called the presence of God, mystical experiences, being filled with the Holy Spirit, the indwelling Christ – should play a role in the Christian life. Usually if they are concerned or sceptical, then they say it should just be the Bible. After all, we could be deceived as to what we’re feeling. And, presumably, most atheists would think that we are deceived.

Yet – a secular morality has to come from conscience and/or rational thinking. But how do you know whether your conscience, or reasoning, is correct? Both of those things can be entirely subjective. Even groups of people can come to very wrong moral decisions together through their own thinking and feeling. So the atheist has the same issues as a Christian does – how can we know what is right?

That’s why the Bible as a foundation is so important to me – and why the living Christ is just as important. The Bible is an objective measure of standards, particularly if we are focused on the simple and beautiful teachings of Jesus, as I think anyone who follows Christ should be. If I am tempted to have an affair, and ‘feel’ that it might be right, or even think that God is telling me to do this – I can look to the words of Jesus that tells me adultery is wrong. (I can also see his words of mercy for things I’ve done wrong in the past – but I would be clear that he does not want them to do this in the future).

Of course, many people have twisted what the Bible says to suit their own ends, sometimes for evil and murder. This is harder to do though, when you focus on Jesus, what he did and said, as a whole. How can you be deluded into thinking that Jesus wants you to kill, or even hate someone, when Jesus said ‘love your enemies… do unto others… pray for those who persecute you… he who lives by the sword dies by the sword?”

But, coming back to the living Christ. Why is this important? Why not just the words written down? Well, one danger is to just think that Jesus was a good teacher who lived a long time ago, which can mean we don’t pay much attention to him. But as a Christian, I believe that he lives today, that he is the visible image of the invisible God. That his presence can be felt in the here and now, as a very clear reality. That we can talk to him and know his love – in the here and now. I do feel this, though there are ups and downs in this journey and I am not always in this state of bliss!

The Bible says that when we are filled with the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Christ, that we will feel and demonstrate: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

In this state of feeling or knowing the goodness of God inside of us, the written words of Jesus written down are also given more insight, beauty and clarity. Because as we KNOW Christ in the here and now, by experience in our hearts, we can also read his clear, objective words in the Gospels, and clearly hear His voice. They become alive, and have more power and meaning.

Many times as I’ve struggled with something, particularly if I’m annoyed with someone, or hurt, or in some way battling with anger and negative feelings – if I repent and focus on Christ’s presence, and His words in the gospels, then there is a breakthrough and I feel love once more.

So this is how the living Christ influences what I do and think in the present. By knowing Him in my heart, and also knowing him through his Word. This can be kind of a simple morality – about what I need to do with myself in my life in the here and now, rather than philosophical debates. But without doubt it has led to more love in my life (though there is still plenty of room for improvement, and more of that love).

This was the experience of the early Christians, as St Paul wrote as a prayer to other believers, that God would: “empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.”

This is obviously difficult to understand for someone who has never experienced it. I am no better than anyone else for having had these experiences – and I need much more of his indwelling presence in my life, as I have only made limited room for it so far. But Jesus makes my life richer and more beautiful, and has brought much more love to my life. I still make wrong judgements and I’m sure I could be led astray with wrong thinking or emotions. But I know it’s only the living Christ who could bring me back to a place of love, and its his presence and his words that I rely on.

I hope that makes sense to you, please feel free to ask questions.

Are religious children less altruistic? Bad science and anti-faith propaganda in The Guardian

I am on a bit of a writing break at the moment – but felt I should very quickly respond to this report of a recently published scientific article. The Guardian’s headline is “Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds” and it’s been published elsewhere, including the Daily Mail, Time and other esteemed outlets.

This is rubbish, and worthy of The Guardian’s excellent former ‘Bad Science’ columnist Ben Goldacre. Why?

  1. Social science experiments such as this have limited application to the wider population, for a number of reasons. Psychological experiments often test issues in artificial ways that can’t be extrapolated to real life.
  2. This particular study seems to have a serious design flaw: the use of the ‘dictator game’ as a measure of altruism, when it has been critiqued to be more a measure of susceptibility to peer pressure. See this post from John Baskette for details. Even if it was a good measure of altruism, the other problems with such experiments still apply, and experimenter demand effects are common confounding variables.
  3. The fact that this study is in a biology journal, when it is a social science study, makes me wonder if it was rejected from journals where a rigorous and learned peer review would have taken place. Biology and psychology are very different disciplines, with very different experimental designs.
  4. The children being tested were from USA, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa. Are these countries representative of people as a whole? How did they select the religious children, from which kind of religious communities were they? As anyone who has faith will know, even within one particular religion, there is wide diversity of practice and belief. There is very little information on sampling – how the researchers chose the schools and children involved, which seems as though it would have a crucial effect. For example, if their USA school was one run by the Westboro Baptist Church, it’s likely that Christian children would not be representative of Christian children as a whole!
  5. The researchers appear to have a particular axe to grind. They say at the end: “More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite.” To make such a politically loaded statement in the conclusion of a research article indicates a degree of experimenter bias.
  6. The fact that the experimenters claim their findings ‘robustly demonstrate’ less altruism in religious children, and omit all the usual qualifications about generalising from experiments that are in good quality social science papers, again suggests experimenter bias and poor interpretation.
  7. There are other experiments that could suggest that religious people are more altruistic. These are barely mentioned in the paper. Of course, such experiments also have limitations in how they can be generalised and should have lots of qualifications too. But they should surely be given more weight and discussion in a report that finds the opposite?

[Update] Since I wrote this, more learned souls have been pointing out other problems. George Yancey points out the lack of control variables, along with other similar criticisms; and William M Briggs points out problems with the statistical analysis. And atheists who have understanding of the social sciences are pointing out the problems with this study.

This article is so poor, that I’m sure I could find more flaws if I spent more time on it, but I’ve just whizzed through. It’s a shame that it is being taken seriously by media and public alike. Please add any other flaws you see in the experiment in the comments below.

God is love

I’m reading a lot of Neil Anderson books at the moment, and I recently came across this gem, actually from one of his colleagues, Steve Goss. I thought I’d share it with you.

Here is a basic truth: God is love. You already knew that, didn’t you? But od you really know it, have you made a deep connection with it? For example, if God really is love, it means that he simply cannot not love you. The love of God is not dependent on the one being loved but on the character of the one doing the loving. God is love. That’s his nature. He couldn’t not love you. It doesn’t make any difference whether you perform excellently one day, and mess up the next. God will still love you because God is love. Nothing can make God love you more or love you less. It has nothing to do with you – or what you do or do not do – it’s all about him.

Faith is seeing things as they really are. If you saw that truth as it really is, would it have an effect on how you felt about yourself and consequently on your behaviour? More than likely. This is where the rubber hits the road in terms of how the rest off your life as a follower of Christ works out.

From ‘Free to be yourself: enjoy your true nature in Christ’ by Steve Goss.

I think if we all really knew this truth, it would transform the church, and then the world…

A beautiful prayer

I’m just finishing Heinrich Arnold’s book, ‘Discipleship’, which I’d heartily recommend. Lots of helpful wisdom, very Biblical, very absorbed in the reality of Christ’s presence with us. I thought I’d share one little prayer, which I think is beautiful:

The Spirit pierces hearts like a sword
that cuts through bone and marrow.

We plead: give us your Holy Spirit
and pierce us deep into the past,
into the present, into the future.

May Jesus enter deep into our hearts and change them.

May he reach his hand into our past,
to the ultimate beginning of our being.

The Holy Spirit can change all things.

We believe this.

For this, Jesus experienced godforsakenness
on the Cross.

Is Christian faith a triumph of heart over head? No. For me, both win.

I’ve just written a piece for Christian Today, reflecting on a recent article by Brandon Withrow. He was brought up in an evangelical home, and had worked in a Christian university. But after what he describes as an ‘intellectual journey’, he has publicly declared he does not believe, and is now a secular humanist. He sounds genuinely heartbroken over this, which I find really sad – even more so as I don’t think it’s necessary.

I’ve probably said all I’d want to say in the piece, so please do go and have a read. But I think it’s really important that those of us who have a ‘thinking’ faith articulate very clearly why we believe – the ‘heart’ reasons and the ‘head’ reasons. There’s no intellectual reason to abandon Christian faith. The only reason to do so is to conform to the dogmatic secularist worldview that most of us are absorbed without even being aware of it.

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.

Radiant smiles, and forgiveness in the face of cruelty: the Charleston church is showing the world the face of True Christianity

When I heard of the Charleston shooting story broke, I was asked to write a background piece on the State Senator who was killed, Clementa Pinckney. I was touched by the photos of this man, which suggested a loving and humble character. I was touched by the tributes, that he was kind, without cynicism and served others. I was touched by his words about service to the community.

Why would God allow such an outrage in a church? My answer to this is not about whether God ‘allowed’ it, but more what the people of that church are demonstrating – the real face of Jesus Christ.

Clementa was clearly a man of faith. When I saw the faces of the other victims, all I could see was that radiant joy that you see when people are really close to Christ. They are beautiful:

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All the more in contrast with the angry, confused and hateful expression on the killer’s face. He is reported to have said that he nearly didn’t kill them because they were so nice to him.

The legacy and fruit of that Bible study group is next displayed in one of the most extraordinary expressions of Christ I’ve ever seen. One by one, the family members of the victims spoke at the killer’s bond hearing, and told the killer, whose impassive face is seen in this video, some extraordinary words:

I forgive you. You took something really precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. God have mercy on your soul. You’ve hurt me, you’ve hurt a lot of people. But God forgive you, and I forgive you.

I would like you to know that… I forgive you and my family forgive you. we would like to take this opportunity to repent. And give your life to the One who matters the most, Christ, so he can change you. He can change your ways no matter what happen to you. And you’ll be OK. Do that. You’ll be better off than you are right now.

We welcome you Wednesday night in our Bible study, with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fibre in my body hurts. I’ll never be the same. [My son] was my hero. We enjoyed you [in the Bible study]. May God have mercy on you.

Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate. But everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived in love, and their legacies live in love. And, hate won’t win.

I’m a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I am very angry… we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate… may God bless you.

If you don’t think that Christianity is true, and Jesus is real – I don’t know how you can deny the reality of Christ living in these people. The ability to forgive while in such pain and grief is the power of God, the fruit of the Holy Spirit. What an amazing community.

Blog: Tanzania and “How planting trees can tackle poverty”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Sorry I’m a bit late with this. I took a trip to Tanzania to observe the work of a charity – Plant With Purpose – and see how permaculture ideas, Christian faith and development can be integrated holistically to help people. I’m writing a few articles about it, here’s the first short piece for Christian Today, about how something as simple as a tree can help people as well as improve the environment.

For people on the breadline, the link between the environment and poverty is much clearer and easier to see. A significant root cause of poverty is the state of the land.

The picture is of a beautiful area in this lovely community of Marangu that’s been set aside as a nature reserve, and it’s truly gorgeous. Leaving nature to do its work has also brought them a new water source – good news for rural farmers in a hot country. They were so generous and welcoming – it was an amazing experience.

If you’ve any questions about the work, I’d be really happy to answer them.