Is politics part of the church’s mission?

Apologies for the long delay since my last post. I actually spent several months researching this article on politics – it felt a very important subject and I wanted to make sure I was doing it justice. It’s been on my mind a lot following Brexit and Trump. Many Christians, especially those in the ‘elite’ of the church in this country (eg media, heads of denominations etc), passionately think that Christians should get involved in politics, and are often quite left-wing. The reverse is the case in the US, obviously. But is this what Jesus wants? The article explores this question. It helped me to make up my mind on the subject, but I hope I am being fair to all sides. Let me know your thoughts!

Religious fervour in the Sikh diaspora

I had an interesting commission from Lapido Media, to explore the background to recent protests by young Sikhs in the UK.

Sikhism is an interesting religion, and it appears that many young Sikhs are identifying with in in a stronger way than ever before. Some further background about the history, and the reasons why this is happening, is in this article.

Why can’t I feel God’s presence?

I think I forgot to post this article when I wrote it for Christian Today – it’s done pretty well on the internet and I’m not surprised – it’s a common question, and it’s an important one! Knowing the presence and peace of God is one of the most wonderful aspects of Christian faith. We may not always have it, but seeking it is always worth it.

Quotes from Mother Theresa

Mother Theresa has been in the news as she has been made a saint by the Catholic church. Hence why I looked out some inspiring quotes from her for Christian Today. Interesting how much emphasis she put on loving those closest to us, which is often the hardest to do. It’s easy to feel compassion for the suffering who are far away, and donate a bit to charity – but loving those in our own community and especially in our own house is more difficult.

Bart Ehrman: has the Bible been changed, and does it matter?

Bart often tries to be fair to Christians, for example arguing with Jesus mythicists, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

However it’s his popular books, such as ‘Misquoting Jesus’, that bear a lot of responsibility for the widely-held beliefs that our Bibles have been changed so much that they can’t be trusted. He’s argued that the early Christians decided to make up a lot of things Jesus said, or that the ancient manuscripts are so different that we can’t know what the originals said. And a lot of people believe him.

It’s true that we don’t have the original manuscripts of the Biblical text, and the ancient manuscripts we have do vary somewhat. However these variants are nearly always very small and insignificant changes, such as ‘in’ and ‘into’, which don’t change the meaning. Modern Bibles such as the New Living Translation tell you all about this in their notes.

But behind the rhetoric Bart is a bit more fair. I’ve been reading ‘Misquoting Truth’ by Timothy Paul Jones, which summarises some of these points. For example, he says this:

“It is probably safe to say that the copying of early Christian texts was by and large a ‘conservative’ process. The scribes … were intent on ‘conserving’ the textual tradition they were passing on. Their ultimate concern was not to modify the tradition, but to preserve it for themselves and for those who would follow them. Most scribes, no doubt, tried to do a faithful job in making sure that the text they reproduced was the same text they inherited.”

In fact because of the technique of textual criticism, the fact that there are multiple later manuscripts with small errors in them actually gives us more confidence in what the original text said, because the changes act as clues to trace the original. Bart acknowledges this:

If there were only one manuscript of a work, there would be no textual variants. Once a second manuscript is located, however, it will differ from the first in a number of places. This is not a bad thing, however, as a number of these variant readings will show where the first manuscript has preserved an error. Add a third manuscript, and you will find additional variant readings, but also additional places, as a result, where the original text is preserved (i.e., where the first two manuscripts agree in an error). And so it goes—the more manuscripts one discovers, the more the variant readings; but also the more the likelihood that somewhere among those variant readings one will be able to uncover the original text. Therefore, the thirty thousand variants uncovered by [John] Mill do not detract from the integrity of the New Testament; they simply provide the data that scholars need to work on to establish the text, a text that is more amply documented than any other from the ancient world.

 

 

 

What can Christians learn from atheists?

I wrote this article for Christian Today a while back, but just about to post a few new articles on here, so thought I should catch up.

It’s done quite well – always interesting to observe which articles ‘do well’ now us journos have the internet hit rate as a guide – probably because it’d appeal to atheists as well as Christians.

I offer 7 ways in which Christians can learn from our unbelieving friends, so do check it out.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The search for true intimacy and love

I love this post about developing intimacy with God. So often, intimacy is confused with romance or sex. But true emotional intimacy and love is what we all need. The ultimate source of this is God. I’d really recommend reading the post. Here’s a quote:

The first step to developing an intimate (and fulfilling) love relationship with God is to admit that the abundant life He promises will never be found in another person. Instead, as the definition of zoe (life) shows, true abundant life is internal and it’s found in Christ alone.

Once we have that intimacy and love relationship with God, then we can start to share our love with others.

She writes again in a different post about emotional intimacy, which I really agree with:

There is one particular key to open the Intimacy Door in your relationships: it’s called the Key of Acceptance. Because intimacy means that we allow another person to “see into” us and they allow us to “see into” them, the Key of Acceptance must be used. After all, no one wants to allow someone to “see into” their heart who is controlling, judgmental, critical, sarcastic, unforgiving, abusive, selfish or just plain nasty.

So, if you want others to open their heart to you, you’ve got to give them a safe to do so. Why? Because the truth is that while most of us may act like we’re not afraid of anything, in the deepest part of ourselves, our hearts are very tender, fragile and generally fearful of relational pain. For hearts to thrive in intimacy, they’ve got to feel safe and accepted.

This is true for all relationships – whether romantic or platonic. But perhaps, first of all, we’ve got to accept God’s love for us, deep and truly from the tips of our toes to the hairs on our head.

Stephen Fry, it’s not God that’s the problem with the world, it’s you and I

I write this knowing that there’ll be very few who read my opinion, compared to the millions for your recent tirade against God. Apart from the Pope, or perhaps Bono… even learned and accomplished believers get little coverage compared to you and Dawkins and all of the other famous celebrity atheists. You have an awful lot of power. Somehow The Archbishop of Canterbury doesn’t seem to go viral, he seems a nice man but he’s just not got the street cred I suppose. Most of the believers who get the headlines are the nasties like Westboro Baptist Church, and they’re about as representative of Christians as Stalin and his cronies are of atheists.

As many of my learned friends have pointed out, your anger against God assumes that this world is the way he designed it to be. But it’s not, if we take a Christian view on the subject. It doesn’t take much reading of the Bible to see that the God described in those pages is not very happy with the world as it is. In fact when he’s most angry, in the much maligned Old Testament, then God’s raging about the lack of compassion for people in poverty, the murdering of children in pagan blood sacrifices or just plain selfishness and hate. Most clearly in Jesus’ teachings, you can see clearly that God wants people to care for one another, not to be greedy etc. Yet, we ignore him.

The problems you cite in your rant on RTE – as with most of the suffering of the world – could be alleviated, if not eradicated, if human beings chose to love. (Not the fickle, randy, romantic kind of love that is usually what’s counted as ‘love’ these days, but the agape, compassionate, caring kind of love that Jesus talks about.) How? Well, we could be giving our money to the care of those children turned blind by worms, rather than spending it on nice meals out, posh clothes or sunny holidays. We could be adopting the orphans and tending to the sick kids – spending all our time caring for them rather than all the ‘leisure’ activities that us Westerners love so much. We could be studying for the ultimate purpose of relieving suffering and treating illness rather than just the learning for enjoyment’s sake that we tend to do – or the learning we do to make ourselves sound clever and be admired, even worse. We could be spending as little money as possible on ourselves, in order that we can give it to others. In short, we could be living lives of pure love, and focusing all of our time and energy on relieving the suffering of others. But, we don’t. You and I, Stephen Fry, do not do that. Even the people I know who do a much better at it than I do, still obviously fail at it on a regular basis.

This, according to the Bible, is why God is angry. He doesn’t want it to be this way, because he loves us. He created a world that was meant to be good, where humans were meant to love one another. But, we were given free will. We have many choices that we make each day, that could make the world a better place. They involve more than just giving a fraction of our handsome surplus or of our time to our favourite charity – it involves genuine sacrifice of our whole lives for the sake of others.

We’ve been given that responsibility. And most of us have it in our power to do something about it, however small that something is. If everyone used their little bit of power for love’s sake, then most of the evil in the world would either be stopped at source, or at least alleviated. It’s no use shouting at God for the evil we claim he is responsible for. He’s given us the power and the free will, to make things different. And we choose not to do that. Heaven is the place where what God wants is done perfectly, not here. He’s given us the reins while we’re on Earth, and we’re doing a hopeless job of being in charge.

Jesus was pretty clear, when he was asked by a rich young man how to be good enough get to heaven. He said, we’re to give all our money up for the poor – to the people who are genuinely suffering. The rich young man was sad, as I suppose we would be too, if told we had to give up our comfortable, Western lives, to help those who are suffering today.

His disciples were too. But thankfully, Jesus had more to say – “nothing is impossible with God”. Christianity is not about us being good enough, but instead recognising that God is good enough. That’s pretty good news given the very clear reality that there’s no-one who’s perfect in this world – no-one who is giving up everything for the sole purpose of genuine self-sacrificial love of others. It says that Jesus saw this problem, and decided to take on the negative consequences of all our selfishness so that we can be free of it. If we choose to, we can accept this free gift, accept our own responsibility for the problems of the world and say sorry to God for this – and then learn from Him how to love better, love more, and relieve suffering. But we have to recognise that we can only do this, by turning to God, for his leadership and his love. On our own, we just don’t manage it.

Now you might say, with good reason, that the church is not presenting this utopia to the world. We’re not the perfect houses of love that we’re meant to be. That’s very true. There are some pretty irritating and occasionally nasty people within church walls – such as myself, I would say. But I came from a very typical liberal, secular culture and then moved into the church after I became a Christian as an adult. No, it’s not perfect, but when you find a genuine church that is truly seeking to follow Christ, then you do start to see something a little bit different. You see glimpses of the way the world is meant to be. Not a window, but just glimpses. A drug addict who has been healed and now has a happy family and is holding down a job. A church rallying round a mum whose disabled daughter and poorly husband have left her exhausted. People who give up well paid and powerful jobs in order to go and practically help the suffering in other countries. Those who suffered terrible abuse as a child who find peace through faith, and start to give their lives to help others. These are glimpses of heaven, and of the way the world is meant to be. Sometimes those glimpses are seen outside the church, it’s true, but in my lifetime I’ve most often seen self-sacrificial love within the church. It’s not a wishy-washy, State-dependent, ranty, political kind of ‘love’, either (though there is quite a bit of that too, to be fair, it not being perfect). There’s a ‘taking on of responsibility’ kind of love, making things happen with our own hands and not blaming the government or whoever else for the problems. It’s recognising the massive responsibility that has been given to humans to choose. To choose whether to obey God’s commands for genuine love and to avoid greed and suchlike – or not. To choose his way, his redemption, or not.

So, when you get to the Pearly Gates, you rage to God all you want to. I suspect what he might say to you or I, or anyone who chooses to start wagging their fingers at him: “And what about you? What did YOU do with the money, time, gifts and relationships that you had? Did you love others or did you love yourself and your own desires? Did you follow Jesus’s instructions for making the world a better place, or not?”

I think that we’re living in this world where God’s will is not done, to see whether we want to live in the world where his will IS done – heaven. There, is pure joy and pure love, with no greed or selfishness at all. If you don’t want to follow his way of love – loving God, loving people, and recognising that the world’s problems are our fault and saying sorry for that – it’s your choice. But you might find out that who you should really be angry with, is not God, but yourself, myself, and everyone else.