The Good News—some follow-up thoughts

In response to my last blog—Is the Gospel Good News?—I was asked a very fundamental question:

What are the consequences of our deliberate evil deeds? Can we do whatever we like and will God forgive us anyway?

I decided to post my response here hoping that it may help others.

To be honest, a book is needed to answer this question! I probably won’t write one, though, because others have done a much better job than I could ever do—especially David Bentley Hart whose book (That All Shall Be Saved) I came across after writing my last blog. I write quickly, so my thoughts are not as organised as I’d like them to be! Continue reading “The Good News—some follow-up thoughts”

Rapture theology and the end times

Image: George Frederick Watts, Chaos (c. 1875).

With global anxiety increasing as we face threats in so many areas, how should we—as people of faith—respond?

It is clear that humanity is facing a number of existential crises: sea-levels rising, more frequent “weather events,” insect numbers decimated, oxygen levels in the sea declining, species extinction, plastic pollution, toxic air . . . and the list could go on. When we add to this political posturing, social inequality, the rise of nationalism, and nuclear arms proliferation we end up with the perfect storm. Many are anxious. Is this the end of the world? So prevalent is anxiety in the current climate that one paper recently presented us with the “A-Z of climate anxiety: how to avoid meltdown,” subtitled: “With the climate emergency putting our mental health at risk, Emma Beddington presents an everyday guide to eco wellbeing.” This may, perhaps, result in some personal comfort but offers little hope for the planet. Continue reading “Rapture theology and the end times”

New Zealand and “the wild beast”

George MacDonald, writing in 1868, observed that when there is contempt for the truth:

” . . . then, as we see in the French Revolution, the wild beast in man breaks from its den, and chaos returns.” 1

I have no idea whether MacDonald had ever read Dostoevsky, but he too lamented the human capacity for bestiality.

“Indeed, people sometimes speak of man’s bestial cruelty, but that is very unfair and insulting to the beasts: a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so ingeniously, so artistically cruel.”2

We are witnessing, increasingly, the violence of this ‘wild beast’. In the ‘light’ of the events in New Zealand, Muslims are right to point the finger at mendacious hypocrites such as Trump who spout xenophobic rhetoric, manufacture ‘invasions’, build walls, and deny both the toxic reality and the extent of white supremacy. Speaking directly to the President, Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), says:

“The terrorist has quoted the most powerful person in the world, President Trump… We hold you responsible for this growing anti-Muslim sentiment.”

Trump disagrees. Speaking on NBC news on Friday 15 March, he remarked that white supremacists are only ‘a small group of people’, choosing to ignore the fact that one-third of his countrymen are of the opinion that ‘America must protect and preserve its White European heritage’ (Reuters/Ipsos/UVA Center for Politics Race Poll, 2017) and 71% self-identify as those mandated (many say by God) to dominate the earth as God’s chosen nation (Gallup, 2017).3

But chosen for what? Theology understands that when God chooses people or nations it is not for salvation (leading to a sense of supremacy) but for demonstration—the demonstration of an alternative kingdom of peace; an ideology that rejects ‘the beast’. In short, those who shed blood—and promote the shedding of blood—are in no way ‘supreme’ but deluded.

As the horror of the events in new Zealand became apparent, Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, reminded us of a fundamental Christian truth which seems to have been forgotten by so many:

“Jesus calls us to welcome strangers and love our neighbour however different.”

May those of us who claim faith, of whatever affiliation, have the courage to live in this ‘beastly’ world as champions of truth and agents of peace.

Your Name – a meditation on the moral perfection of Christ

I am reflecting this morning on the name of Christ, that is, ‘the Messiah’.

Some years ago—I think it was ten years ago—I wrote a song called ‘Your Name’, a meditation on the name of Jesus. I was reflecting at the time on how biblical names often summed up the character of a person. We find, for example, that Jacob bore a name which, according to some scholars, means ‘deceiver’ or ‘supplanter’ (and was known for being a bit of a swindler). In the New Testament, perhaps the most famous example is Jesus’s affirmation of Peter’s name as ‘The Rock’. Peter, according to the NT narrative, was for much of his early life anything but a rock: somewhat unstable, he was prone to impetuous outbursts and famously (as predicted by Jesus) denied knowing Jesus three times just before the latter’s death. Continue reading “Your Name – a meditation on the moral perfection of Christ”

Mammon—dedicated to his worshippers

Detail from G. F. Watts, ‘Mammon’ (1885), Tate Britain.

Some people have been asking me about the picture in my last post. It is worth a closer look. Its message is, sadly, timeless, but particularly relevant to our troubled age. In the 1880s, the artist, G. F. Watts (1817–1904), was a senior figure in the London art world and known as ‘England’s Michelangelo’. He was an intellectual whose work pioneered symbolism; a deep thinker who painted ideas. Oscar Wilde called him ‘a great originative and imaginative genius’.1 Barak Obama was particularly drawn to Watt’s Hope which, I read somewhere, hung in the White House, and Watts was an inspiration to Martin Luther King. (This Guardian article is a good introduction to Watts.)

The full title of this work is Mammon—dedicated to his worshippers and the heavy, gilded, obscene demonic deity dominating this image is ‘massive’, that is, weighed down by gold whose gravitational pull binds him to the earth. His gouty leg (more visible in the artist’s line drawing of the subject) and unfeeling, swollen arm bear down on lifeless figures—fragile humanity, the imago Dei crushed by the weight of unfeeling avarice. Continue reading “Mammon—dedicated to his worshippers”

Faith in the White House

G. F. Watts, ‘Mammon’
(1885), Tate Britain.

Many years ago (I think it was 1983) I was invited to attend a conference in Blackpool, U.K. featuring as its guest speakers two Kenneths—Hagin and Copeland. I was young and naive and had no idea who these people were. I soon discovered. It hit me when I was driving home from the event in my beaten up old car (purchased for £120) when Mr Copeland barrelled past me in a fast-driven Rolls-Royce. 

Fast forward to 2018, and I discover that Kenneth Copeland is one of those praying for, and supporting, a certain President. Should we be surprised? Continue reading “Faith in the White House”

Draining the swamp of American Evangelicalism

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been troubled of late. It’s all down to the storm on the western horizon and what seems (from this distance) to be an alliance between Christians and radical evil. Someone sent me a link to a video showing a posse of what were described as ‘Evangelical faith leaders’ praying for a certain President in the White House and, to be honest, I found it profoundly disturbing. I wondered (not without a pang of guilt) how many times one could sell one’s soul to the devil before it became the latter’s property. Continue reading “Draining the swamp of American Evangelicalism”

The ethics of cartography

OK, a slightly pretentious title, but all will become clear…

In 1945, in the aftermath of the second world war, the victorious allies represented by the likes of Harry S. Truman, Clement Attlee, and Joseph Stalin sat round a table and decided the future of Europe. Various lines were drawn on maps, and the land I now call home found itself behind what became known as the Iron Curtain. Prior to this — perhaps for many centuries — the Czech lands of Moravia and Bohemia were peopled by a mixed population speaking both Czech and German. There was rich intercultural cross-fertilisation and diversity.

But, as always happens when lines are drawn on maps by those who claim power, some people found themselves in the ‘wrong’ place at the wrong time. In Czech Silesia, for example, to the north of Moravia, many German-speakers — despite their families having centuries-old roots in the communities in which they lived — found themselves demonised and deported, often sent ‘back’ to Germany, a land unknown to many. And most troubling of all, Czechoslovakia, despite having fought bravely with Western allies, was betrayed and found itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

When lines are drawn on maps by the powerful, a kind of osmosis occurs. In places where different ethnic and cultural groups had happily cohabited previously, there now emerges a them-and-us attitude. If one side of the line, for example, is ‘German’ and the other side ‘Czech’, a migration occurs. Those who find themselves on the wrong side of the line feel the need (or are made to feel the need) that it’s time to move to the other side: the line become a ‘membrane’ and the cultures on either side of it become increasingly separate and distinct. Where perhaps in the old days a language would slowly transition from one dialect to another during a day’s journey, now border posts and fences appear, and a few paces brings a world of cultural and linguistic difference.

Often (perhaps always when power is involved) lines drawn on maps are artificial. The straight lines drawn on the continent of Africa by colonial powers is testament to how little language or topography played a role. And those in power seldom ask the opinion of those on the ground; for the former, the lust to rule is the driver — the acquisition of assets and resources which will bring further riches… and the lust for even more power. Such is the nature of imperialism.

But what about religious imperialism?

I am troubled at the moment by an emerging narrative in the States, for example, by those who might be described as ‘alt-right Christians’. They see their ownership of certain Christian ‘lands’ — and by this I mean certain putatively incontrovertible truths — as theirs by right; that is, that their understanding of what truths make up the Christian faith is the only ‘true truth’. Such people (as, it has to be said, we all do) draw ethical lines on a kind of religious map according to what they (we) hold to be incontestable. This is the essence of fundamentalism: that ‘we’ know what is true and ‘you’ are wrong.

In New Testament times, for example, religious purity in Judaism was seen as paramount. To be labelled ‘unclean’ was to find oneself on the wrong side of a line and – potentially – alienated from God. This could be temporary and perhaps bearable (if, say, you were having your period), or it might have resulted in permanent exclusion (if you were a leper, for example). An elaborate religious scheme developed which was absolutely sure who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Read in this light, the ministry of Jesus is seen to be radically subversive. For example, in a world where childminders (because they dealt with the messy business of interacting with children) were considered unclean, as were shepherds (ditto re sheep), and where women could not be witnesses in a court of law (one Pharisaic prayer was: ‘I thank you God I was not born a dog or a woman’), Jesus comes along and calls himself ‘the good shepherd’. Not only that, the angels announcing the Messiah’s birth appear first to shepherds, and the first witness to the resurrection of that Messiah was a woman. Furthermore, Jesus had many female disciples. Martha’s indignation at her sister Mary’s preference for ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus’ [Luke 10:38–42] concerns not Mary’s lack of service, but has more to do with the fact that Mary has pretensions to be a rabbi’s disciple — a theologian — in the same way, for example, that the Apostle Paul ‘sat at the feet of Gamaliel’ [Acts 22:3]. In other words, Mary is refusing social stereotyping, and it is this that upsets Martha — but not Jesus. Jesus’ ministry is characterised by the erasure of social boundaries (he eats, for example, with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ — the former political opportunists, the latter often associated with suspect sexual behaviour). He erases the lines artificially drawn on the religiously-motivated social ‘map’.

Today, a friend of mine is going to speak at a Christian LGBT community meeting here in Prague. A community that, it could be argued, exists primarily because ‘mainstream’ Christians have drawn lines on a modern religious ‘map’ based on the perception that the LGBT community are on the wrong side of acceptable Christian behaviour. Let’s explore this for a moment. Communities only exist because those in them have a sense of unique identity. This can come about in two ways: either through self-identification or imposition. In the former case, those with certain predilections, interests, or characteristics draw together in the interests of mutuality. They are not necessarily against ‘normal’ society, but have a unique identity within it. (Train-spotters come to mind, but I guess some would argue that they are not normal!) On the other hand, some (such as lepers in the ancient world) had their identity imposed on them by society, an identity forged by society’s sense of unacceptability, and that those so classified must be — for example, for health reasons, or from the felt need to maintain religious purity — excluded. Far right political movements have always tended towards the latter — that ‘they’ do not belong in ‘our’ world.

So I have a question. What if we as Christians stopped drawing so many lines on the religious map? If, for example, LGBT people were accepted instead of stigmatised, would there even be an ‘LGBT Christian community’ here in Prague? And if there were, surely it would be a much more positive community for it would be based primarily on mutuality rather than exclusion?

I suppose the issue is that deep down I am troubled by those who seem so certain about the mysteries of God, and that when it comes to moral judgements, they are ‘right’. Of course, a brief discussion such as this can only begin to unearth the complex issues to do with the acceptable limits of moral behaviour, but it seems to me — to put it crudely — that the more lines we draw on the ‘map’, the more people will be forced to migrate away from one side to find refuge in the other, and before long, fences and border posts will be put up in order to prevent the ‘lepers’ from infecting ‘us’. Perhaps we should follow more closely the example of our Saviour who socialised regularly with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ and gave himself for them. As the Pope recently remarked, true Christians build bridges, not walls.