Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas with Uncle Nick

If I were to describe Christmas as a person, then the nearest fit would be that badly behaved but loveable uncle who turns up once a year to entertain and offend in equal measure.

Not that I have an actual uncle like that, but that’s how I would describe my relationship with Christmas; complicated. For convenience, let’s call him Uncle Nick.

As a believer, I enjoy meeting Uncle Nick; we’ve got the same DNA and we share the same history, going back some 2,000 years. We share a common ancestry. He’s family. He’s also a prize idiot with some very strange opinions, and he’s not afraid to tell us about them. There are times when I wish he would simply shut up and stop being so embarrassing. But, just as he provokes me to the point of simultaneously hugging him and smashing his face in, he disappears for yet another year.

I could easily focus on the bad side of Uncle Nick. It's impossible to ignore. He’s crass. He’s the walking embodiment of kitsch. He's a glutton and a drunkard. He’s shamelessly commercial; using the idea of giving as an excuse to get everybody buying his latest products. He usually nods his acknowledgments towards the holy cradle, though his schizophrenic idea of religion vacillates between humanistic therapeutic moralism and fairy stories. Most irritating of all, he seems to do his utmost to remove the Christ from Christmas.

For example, successive re-writes of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol have progressively expunged references to the accepted Victorian custom of actually worshipping the child in the crib as God incarnate. It’s deemed less offensive nowadays to worship a generic, faceless God who can, and does, fit into whatever religion anyone cares to invent, though Dickens and his Victorian readers might have been severely offended at our post-modern interpretation of his allegory. They would have known, better than us perhaps, that our image of God is not what Luke and the first Christians described in the story of the nativity.

Another thing about Uncle Nick is that he’s infuriatingly promiscuous. He belongs to everyone and everything. Of course, the supermarket chains love him; we get reminded here that “Christmas is Woolworths”. He allows himself to be seduced by every merchant who wants to sell something. One media empire, though, is getting ahead of itself by wanting to rename it “Foxmas”. I get offended by the replacement of Christ with a product in any context, even in a tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign. We’ve been pushing God out of the frame and sitting ourselves in His place ever since the beginning, with consistently disastrous consequences.

Last week, I provoked quite a reaction by suggesting on one on-line forum that a joint Christmas Service with Mormons might not be such a bad idea. Uncle Nick belongs to them too, it seems. The problem here is that he’s pretending that there are no differences between Christianity and Mormonism, when there are, and they are important to both factions. Uncle Nick doesn’t care whom he parties with.

And this is where I confess to a secret admiration of my rogue uncle. He has perfected the art of fitting in. He’s fluid. He simply adopts the shape of whatever situation he finds himself in. That’s what happens when you give yourself to the world (and Christ himself set the precedent on this issue). However, despite his glaring flaws, Uncle Nick still carries the DNA of the story of the Christ-child. Somewhere in there, beneath the Santa outfit and the clutter and mush of sleigh-bells, pixies, yule-logs, tinsel, bad TV and unrelenting advertising, there is still the wonder and mystery of the God who became a baby to live among us.

That’s why Uncle Nick sings. He sings gratuitously, and he sings in everyone’s voice. There are times when he sings with excruciating ineptitude, and others when he’ll make angels weep. Most of his repertoire should be permanently consigned in the garbage-heap of elevator music. Very few of his songs should be allowed in Church, but some deserve to be there, perhaps all year round. When he sings these songs, which he still does, I am willing to overlook his manifold and manifest transgressions, and I thank God he is in my family and I love him for it.

It will be another 364 days before I meet Uncle Nick again. I'm both dreading it, and counting the days. Life would be so much simpler without him but, then, it would be infinitely poorer.

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King

Christ, by highest heaven adored
Christ, the everlasting Lord
Late in time, behold him come
Offspring of a virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus our emmanuel

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace
Hail the sun of righteousness
Light and life to all he brings
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild, he lays his glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Eve

I was unable to post anything last week because my evenings have been taken up in preparing the music for tonight's Christmas Eve service at our church (St Stephen's Coorparoo).

Here's a quote I found this week, that I really like...

No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.

'God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas.' By Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As posted on

Happy Christmas to you all.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Signs and symbols

We had the privilege of seeing U2 on Thursday evening. We had “standing” seats, which meant we were on our feet for hours. The pain was well worth it.

It was one of two concerts in Brisbane as part of U2’s 360 degrees tour of Australia and New Zealand. The stage rig was immense, and filled half a football pitch. Within the rig a large circular screen was hung, rather like a gigantic upside-down lamp shade, for the visuals, which included live footage of the band and a collage of other signs an symbols.

I loved it, but I took special interest in the religious imagery. U2’s iconic song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”, which was originally written against the backdrop of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, was now performed against a backdrop of gun-toting, burka-wearing Jihadis. Bono, U2’s charismatic lead singer, conveyed messages of support for Aung San Suu Kyi, whilst a couple of dozen young men and women placed illuminations bearing the candle and barbed wire logo of Amnesty International around the ring of the stage. Desmond Tutu’s beaming face appeared on screen with a brief message of hope. The message was clear – this was Rock’n’Roll with a conscience, with an overt spirituality, politically aware.

Something struck me during this audio-visual extravaganza; the saturation of visual imagery. I’m not objecting to it per se, but I couldn’t help striking the contrast.

The world of visual imagery is something that I’m kind of tuned into, but kind of not. For me, the imagery makes no sense unless it comes with some sort of narrative. I’m the kind of person who will go through an art gallery and read all the plaques next to each painting to see who painted it, what was their context, and what they saw that compelled them to try and capture it in their creations. In other words, the symbol means nothing to me without the back-story.

Incidentally, this is where many of the New-Agers and Gnostics lose the plot. They argue that the meaning is in the symbols themselves, rather than the back-story. For example, they will get into all kinds of silliness about Christmas and Easter, as if the festivals themselves held more meaning than the Christian back-story that they are now used to convey. No, the “true” meaning of the Christian celebration of Christmas and Easter is not found in the pagan festivals that might have preceded them; it’s actually found in the stories of the Nativity and the Passion that have been passed down to us in the Bible.

Which brings me to the contrast I found with the U2 concert. The U2 concert was expertly filled with visual imagery, but the Christian Gospel is concerned with an audible imagery (I’m struggling to think of an English word that conveys this idea). The Gospel is not so much something that is “seen”, it’s something that is “heard”. It’s message is conveyed to us through story (predominantly), or teaching, or saying, or singing. For believers in the ancient near-east, where only 5% of the population could read and you had to find a specialized scribe to get anything written down, the Word of God was a constant voice.

Without radio or TV, the people would fill their lives with talking and singing, which is something they still do in places where the radio and TV have not yet penetrated to the saturation that we experience in the industrialized west. So, Paul enjoins the first Christians;
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Ephesians 5:18-20). I don’t think Paul is telling the believers to sing where they normally wouldn’t. Rather, he is telling them to change their repertoire to a Christ-centered Gospel. If Paul were writing today, he’d be saying something like “Change your football-chants to hymns of praise to God”.

Another aspect that should not be overlooked is that Paul, and the other NT authors, do something more than urge the believers to take up this new audio-imagery; they provide the reasons for doing so in their analysis of the Christian Gospel. These songs come with a deep and satisfying theology. The audio-imagery comes with an extensive audio back-story.

One place where the contrast between audio and visual imagery is pronounced is the Book of Revelation. Consider the following;
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man…’Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.'
(Revelation 1:12-13 and 1:19-20).

If I were a film-maker I’d have tremendous difficulty filming this scene, and that’s perhaps why Revelations has never been presented on screen. The problem is in how you arrange the furniture. At first, the “son of man” appears to be walking among the lampstands; then he appears to be holding them in his hand. Clearly, John is not trying to convey a visual image here – it just cannot be imagined. What he is trying to do, I believe, is to convey a story (an audible image). The Lord of the Church walks among the lampstands, as the LORD God did in the garden in Genesis 3:8; the Church is His creation and His domain. He also holds the lampstands in his hand, meaning that the Church is His special possession and it is upheld and protected by Him.

I loved the imagery and spectacle of the U2 concert. However, for it to have meaning, I need more of the back-story. The visual imagery is fine for an evening of entertainment, but I need more of the audible imagery and symbolism for life in the “real world”, and this is why we cannot model our Church services on a U2 concert. There has to be an explanation, but, thankfully, that is exactly what the Church has been doing, more or less faithfully, for 2,000 years. Maintaining this audible tradition, in my view, will sustain the Church for the next 2,000 years, and beyond.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Holy Gospel

No sooner had I finished last week’s blog that I thought of another line to my eclectic credo. Here it is:
I believe in an open Gospel
I believe in a total Gospel
I believe in a holy Gospel

“Holy” is one of those words that you think you know, but when you sit down to write a definition of it, you suddenly realize you don’t. This is the point at which most people will run to their dictionaries. As I am concerned with a Holy Christian Gospel, I’m going to run to my Bible, in particular God’s command to his people to…
Be holy, because I am holy
This phrase occurs several times in the Bible. In Leviticus 11:44, it’s in the context of a command about what animals the Israelites may or may not eat, followed by a repetition in Leviticus 11:45, which puts it in the context of Israel’s redemptive history and provides the rationale to the command. In Leviticus 19:2 it’s a prologue to a variation on the Ten Commandments (see also Exodus 20:1-17). The New Testament sums it up in 1 Peter 1:15-16
...But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Peter, I believe, has the verses from Leviticus clearly in view, and he’s looking at them in the context of the history of redemption. The story line goes like this;

• Israel (which is representative of humanity in general) is captive in a foreign land (Egypt) that treats it very, very badly.

• Israel wants to escape, but can’t, so it appeals to God to save it

• God intervenes decisively and miraculously rescues them

• God brings his redeemed people into his land (kingdom) and sets out the ground-rules for their relationship with him so that they can continue to live there

• One of these ground-rules is that for them to be his people, he should be their God (Exodus 6:7, etc), and he doesn’t want them chasing after other Gods or saviours. He sums this up by commanding them to “be holy”

Peter draws these threads together by preaching to the New Testament Church
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
(1 Peter 2:9).

Being “holy” means being “God’s special possession”. A “holy” person belongs exclusively to God, having been redeemed by him and living a life that’s compatible with the laws of the New Kingdom.

The reason scriptures give for the command is interesting; we are to be “holy” because God is “holy”. If I can say so without being irreverent, just as we (the church) are God’s exclusive possession, so he has committed himself to us in an exclusive relationship – he has made himself our “special” possession.

The metaphor that should spring to mind here is of the marriage relationship between husband and wife, where both parties commit to a total, exclusive, intimate and enduring relationship. It’s an appropriate metaphor because it is used a number of times throughout scripture, including the story of the unfaithful wife (and faithful husband) in the opening chapters of Hosea (Hosea 1-3). See also the imagery of the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelations (Rev 21:2, 22:17 etc).

These metaphors describe the nature of the relationship between God and his people, but the impulse behind it is intriguing. The scriptures say it’s because God is holy. In other words, it is his nature to commit to his people in a total, exclusive, intimate and enduring relationship. God wants to be with us, which profoundly challenges our tendency to try to live independently from him.

Incidentally, the church has traditionally contended for the elevation of marriage between a man and a woman, though the campaign for same-sex marriage is currently challenging its stance. One of the reasons is that the church has held up marriage as a picture of God’s relationship with his church, I remember the phrase from the Anglican Marriage service which spoke of the marriage being like “…the mystical union between Christ and his church”. Defending marriage isn’t just about regulating people’s relationships or sexuality, it’s about holding up what it means to live out God’s holiness. To put it theologically, marriage is an incarnation of the word of God because it “lives out” his “holy” nature in the “real” world.

“Holy” is a God-thing. It’s got God involved in a special, intimate and enduring way. I believe in a “Holy” Gospel because it takes us to God; God is it’s ultimate destination.

There are other “gospels”. The “gospel” of Judaism takes us to the law and the extended Jewish family. The “gospel” of Islam takes us to its law and its prophet, and so does the “gospel” of Mormonism, which also takes us to the Mormon family. The “gospel” of Gnosticism takes us within ourselves. The social “gospel” takes us to secular legislation. The “gospel” of Wicca takes us to the “natural” world. The “gospel” of post-modernism takes us to the shopping mall.

My point is, God can be found in all these “gospels”, though some obscure him more than others, and many aspects of them are positively misleading. However, they are not “holy” gospels if they stop short of God. If their ultimate destination is the book, or the prophet, or the community, or the knowledge, or the legislation, or the product, then they are not “holy” gospels because they do not bring us to the One in whom all these things exist and have their being (see Colossians 1:16 and Colossians 1:23). This is what the Christian Gospel does, and that is why I believe it.

The flip-side is that a “holy” Gospel brings God into all these things. Last week I blogged about a “total” Gospel and what I hoped to convey was that the Christian Gospel touches all aspects of life. As Peter puts it, “be holy in all you do” (1 Peter 1:15). One cannot believe the Christian Gospel and not involve God (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) in every aspect of one’s life.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Total Gospel

Last week I blogged that I was a proponent of an open Gospel. At the time I didn’t intend to extent the theme, but this week I’ve been thinking further about it, especially as a background response to my exchanges between an on-line character called LDS_anarchist on his blog and mine.

So, I’ll add another line to my “credo”;

I believe in an open Gospel.
I also believe in a total Gospel.

It was in my teens that I first heard that if I put my faith in Jesus Christ, he would save me. So I did.

As I got older (I’d like to say “matured”, but I’d be presuming), I began to wonder about what it meant to be “saved”. Looking back, I have been spared from major trauma in my personal life, but not all my Christian friends have been so fortunate. One of our closer friends died of cancer a couple of years ago, leaving a wife and two teenage kids. Many people with no Christian faith have been equally as fortunate as us. While I think it’s true that Christians are generally better at staying out of trouble than their unbelieving neighbors, it should be obvious that calling oneself a Christian does not immunize one against the trials of life and death.

I also found fairly quickly, that when the Bible talks of salvation it is a salvation from the disaster that’s about to come. The Israelites were saved from the imminent judgment on Egypt (by the blood of the Lamb, Exodus 12:12-13), the Prophets tried to save the Jews by warning them of the coming judgment around the 6th Century BC, and in the New Testament, we see the storm clouds gathering again in the lead-up to the destruction of the Temple in AD70 (see Acts 2:40). The picture that emerges for me is being saved from the coming wrath of God.

However, if this is all that the Christian Gospel has to offer, then it’s nothing more than an insurance policy against some future disaster. It’s not a total Gospel in the sense that it does not cover the whole of life.

The partial Gospel has other variations. For some (increasingly few, I believe) it’s something you “do” on Sunday, or at births, weddings and funerals (hatches, matches and dispatches, as they say in the trade). Church, for some, is nothing more than the "club" they subscribe to, and it is kept securely in the confines of the Sunday morning routine. For others, it affects one’s internal thought-life or perspective, but there is little connection to the “outside” world. The latter is a form of pietism and it’s prevalent amongst Pentecostals and Charismatics. I’m a post-charismatic myself (not an ex-charismatic), but I worry that such pietism retreats into an internal experience to such an extent that it has nothing meaningful to say to the world. The other extreme is to interpret the gospel purely in terms of a socio-political agenda, which ignores the moral and spiritual dimensions of the Christian Gospel. All of these are partial Gospels and if there was one word that summed up what they lack, it is integrity.

That lack of integrity grates against such passages as John 10:10b
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
Or Colossians 1:19-20
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
“All things”, “the fullness of life” – these phrases point to a fully integrated total Gospel.

Increasingly, I have been drawn to the writings of John (his Gospel, the three letters and Revelation). It's because he is concerned with a total Gospel – a Gospel that’s more than just an insurance policy against some future eventuality. It is something that encompasses my whole life; and not just my whole life, but the entire cosmos and my place in it. Put coarsely, John sees God as the origin, meaning and ultimate goal of life, as he writes Jesus' declaration in Revelation 22:13
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.

This changes everything. When we see our lives, and every aspect of our lives played out within him, it changes everything. This is the start of the Total Gospel.

But where does it lead and what does it save us from? Put coarsely again, it saves us to God and it saves us from Hell. The difference is that we’re not just saved to God from Hell in the next life, we’re saved now (see Luke 19:9).

If we’re saved now, today, what does that salvation look like? There are, I believe, at least two dimensions to this that are equally important – we are reconciled to God and we are reconciled to each other. The acknowledgment of who Jesus is, and the worship of him is what unites “every tribe and nation” in John’s vision in Revelation 5. We are saved into community, and this is a message that the Evangelical Church, in particular, must rediscover if it is to embrace the Total Gospel of the New Testament. The Kingdom becomes apparent when we live out the values and characteristics of our King (see John 13:35). You could even say that it is the Church’s mandate to live out, or incarnate the Word of God (John 1:14 and Colossians 3:16).

There is a third dimension to it that is alluded to in Revelation 5. The reconciliation of Christ does not simply extend to God and humanity, it extends to the entire cosmos. It’s a restoration of the created order in which God, humanity and the “land” interact; the order that our sin broke apart (see Genesis 1-3).

So, the Total Gospel not only saves me from ultimate disaster. Nor does it just give me a mystical internal experience or the basis for a political agenda. It saves me to God, it saves me to my fellow human beings and it saves me to the cosmos. It gives me something of value to say to the world.

Now, that’s a Gospel worth preaching!

Friday, November 19, 2010

An Open Gospel

I am a proponent of an open Gospel.

I mean “open” in the sense of “open house”; where a real estate agent opens up a house for sale so that interested people can come in and look around. They will poke their noses into the cupboards, check various certificates (termite protection is a big issue here), wander around and generally scrutinize the place. Some will be genuine buyers, others will be just curious. The point of the exercise is to allow the buyer the chance to inspect the property before proceeding further and the real estate agent gets to know the neighbors for potential future business.

By contrast, “closed” refers to the situation where you can see the outside of the house, but you can’t look in; or at least, not until you’re fully signed up or initiated.

My theology for an “open” Gospel is derived from my reading of the Bible. It starts with an act of divine disclosure – God creates the Cosmos so that He can be known by it. Without a creation, God remains alone and there is nothing to which He can be known. He declares His creation “good” (Genesis 1:4 etc) because it fits His purpose and it reflects who He is. He creates humankind in His image, male and female (Genesis 1:27) so that they can recognize Him. Of all God’s creatures, we are the ones with the special privilege of being able to comprehend God; see the comparison with the Angels in Psalm 8:4-6, in which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews sees special significance in Hebrews 2:5-9.

Jesus is God’s ultimate act of self-expression, so much so that John calls him the “word made flesh” (John 1:14). When Christians think of God, they rightly think of Jesus – he is The God, come to make Himself known to us. Perhaps the most confronting image from this story is that of a crucified God, stripped naked and impaled, spread-eagled on a cross for all the world to see. This is God, bearing our sin. This is what our sin does to God. And yet, God triumphs, even over death.

Moving into the church age, we see that the Christian church has always striven to get the word out. Initially by word of mouth and handwritten scripts, then by the printed press and now by the internet. Christians want to make the Gospel of Christ known, and the more they can broadcast it, the better. The Bible is replete with admonitions to do this, not least of which are the concluding words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel;
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:18-20).

Did you get the “teaching” part?

God wants to be made known. He wants us to see Him as He fully is. Put it another way; He wants to be scrutinized by us, all of us and not just a select few. It’s “open house”, and we get to set the agenda.

So, I get pretty worked up when I detect the introduction of “secrets” to the Christian Gospel. To me, this cuts right against the whole tenor of God’s self-revelation to us. To put it bluntly, it’s blasphemy of the highest order.

However, these “secrets” do crop up, and they do so in the Christian community. That’s because the people who promote the idea of “secrets” are thinking more like Gnostics than Christians.

Gnosticism has made something of a come-back in recent years, and because western culture has been inculcated with Gnosticism-lite, it’s quite difficult to diagnose.

One of my theological hobbies is to develop diagnostics for heresies and here’s one for Gnosticism – if I find myself thinking that I am justified by my knowledge, then I’m thinking like a Gnostic, not a Christian. Why? Because I am justified by Christ, and Christ alone and He is not me nor is He any part of me. In fact, if I find myself thinking that I am justified by my anything, I am not thinking like a Christian.

Gnostics, as their name suggests, put a great deal of emphasis on knowledge. That’s appealing to an educated and knowledge-based culture like ours, but it’s no accident that the most active proponents (e.g. Elaine Pagels) are those who pride themselves on their knowledge. I’m not saying that knowledge and education are bad, rather that they are not the end-goal of human existence – that’s God’s prerogative.

Further Gnostics pride themselves on their ownership of a “secret” knowledge – a knowledge that is only available to their initiates. They operate a “closed” house.

A prime example is Mormonism. Joseph Smith, it’s founder, joined the Freemasons on 15 March 1842, setting up a Masonic lodge in Nauvoo ( In his early career, Smith promulgated a message that retained some Christian imagery, and this is the Mormonism that is familiar to most everyday Mormons. However, Smith progressively moved to a more secretive form of Gnosticism, introducing an elaborate system of temples, rites and initiations. The difference between the two has been described by Mormons as the "Preparatory Gospel" and the "Full Gospel", but by Mormon critics as the "Bait and switch" (see here for a discussion). Remarkably, both sides acknowledge that there is a difference.

These Mormon Temple rites remain secret today, and Mormons are forbidden to discuss them or what they were taught in them.

However, the keeping of secrets is a hard business in the days of the internet, and any enquirer can quickly search for what they want to find. To cut a long story short, the theology that emerges from these secrets is that Mormonism is actually a polytheistic religion, in which men become Gods by acquiring multiple wives and subscribing to the Church. Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s direct successor, said “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy" Journal of Discourses 11:269, 1866. Ask the next Mormon missionary who comes knocking on your door, though you're unlikely to get a knowledgeable answer.

Remember my diagnostic above about “I am justified by my [fill in the blank here]”? Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the Mormon prophets after them want to tell you that you are justified by your polygamy.

In discussing this with Mormons, the most common response I get is the “milk before meat” thing. It’s a misappropriation of what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 3:2, where he’s actually saying “I’m going to take you back to basics because you seem to think that the Gospel of Christ gives you a license to sin”.

However, the Gnostic isn’t interested in allowing the text to speak for itself because he already has a “special knowledge” that tells him what he wants to know. Why does he have this “special knowledge”? Because he has been initiated into the brotherhood, of course.

I once asked a Mormon Bishop what he thought the main intent of Christ’s mission was. He replied that it was to give us the ordinances and principals of the Gospel. His answer indicated that it was all about transferring a special knowledge to his followers. When I replied that we don’t read much about that sort of thing in the Bible, he retorted that that’s because it had been changed by the Catholics. I feel that he considers himself to have this “special knowledge” because of his connection to the “one true Church”, and it’s not his fault the Bible doesn’t agree with him.

There are a couple of themes in the Bible that might seem to support the Gnostic view, but I think they can be dispelled as giving support to it. I’ll address a couple briefly.

The first is that Jesus spoke in Parables. The dialog in Matthew 13:10-11 addresses this directly;
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.
Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 78:2. This is one of those instances where it’s worth going back to the scripture quoted to get a fuller picture. Here’s the opening stanzas of the Psalm…
My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
(Psalm 78:1-4).

In other words, the Psalmist is proclaiming an “open” Gospel, using such phrases as “we will not hide”. If there is a “secret” knowledge here, it is only so because the people have forgotten it and needed to be reminded - a situation that the Psalmist seeks to correct.

So, is Jesus misquoting the Psalm? I believe he is doing what the Psalmist is doing, by opening the eyes of the people to what they can already see. The Parables are a superlative vehicle for this message, because Jesus takes everyday scenarios and uses them to point out the obvious. It remains a “secret” to his opponents because they are incapable of “getting” it. Jesus’ opponents don’t see the Kingdom of God described in the parables because they see it in the building of their Temple and the “principals and ordinances” of their law. Thus the parables divide between those who are Jesus’ followers and those who are not.

Another verse I needed to reconsider this week (because it was brought up in a post at, click here and do a search on "white stone") was Revelation 2:17b
I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
My reply was that it is not appropriate to interpret the apocalyptic language of Revelations too literally, however it is appropriate to understand the meaning from the imagery provided. The “white stone” signifies a permanent monument or marker post, like the Ebenezer in 1 Samuel 7:12. The “new name” denotes a change in ownership, like the change in name that God gave to Abram and Sarai (Abraham and Sarah, Genesis 17:5 and Genesis 17:15).

The fact that the new name is known only to the person who receives it is a little more problematic, because it appears to imply some kind of secret initiation. However, I think that John is saying that the only people who can be sure of this change of ownership are the people themselves, perhaps at an individual level. In other words, the fact that God’s people now belong to God is a fact that the world cannot comprehend or “know”.

In my experience, I’m often greeted with blank stares when I tell people that I don’t belong to myself – I belong to God, doubly so because He created me and He redeemed me
You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
(1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

That’s a confronting message to give to the next person who protests at Christianity’s interference with his or her life, saying “it’s my life, I’ll do with it as I please”. They might even challenge the Christian with “it’s your life, why do you allow yourself to be dominated by God”. They cannot see the white stone with the new name written on it. God owns us.

There may be secrets in the world. The revelation of God, whom He is and what He is like, is not one of them. If it is a secret, then it’s a secret that’s meant to be exposed.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Letter to Kevin Rudd MP and Mr Rudd's reply

As the polls were counted, it became clear that the 2010 Australian Federal elections would result in a hung parliament. In order to form a majority, the two major parties (Labor and Liberal) would have to recruit the required number of independents and minor parties, the Greens included.

On the Saturday night after the voting booths were closed, I watched the reaction of Bob Brown, leader of the Greens, on TV as he retained his seat. I also saw our MP, Kevin Rudd (who had until recently been Prime Minister) retain his seat with a convincing margin. Faced with the prospect of Mr. Rudd’s Labor Party negotiating with the Greens, I wrote to Mr. Rudd on 22 August 2010. On 26 October 2010, I received a reply from Mr. Rudd’s office. My letter and Mr. Rudd’s replies are reproduced below, though I have removed postal addresses, email addresses and phone numbers out of courtesy.

Letter to Kevin Rudd, 22 August 2010.

Kevin Rudd, MP

Dear Sir,

Congratulations on your re-election in my constituency of Griffith.

In watching the results come in these last 24 hours, it seems that whoever forms our next government will have to enter into some sort of deal with the minor parties, including the Greens. I would like to take this opportunity to let you know my reaction this prospect but, as I hope to explain, my concerns remain whether this particular circumstance eventuates or not.

The Greens, I think, have a valid message in the sphere of climate and environment. I am a professional civil engineer, specializing in flooding and drainage and my particular concerns in this area are to do with planning for climate change, particularly its potential impacts on increased flood risks to coastal infrastructure. Like the Greens, I am concerned to preserve and best manage our natural heritage because, whichever way you look at it, our well-being is sustained by our natural environment. Last night Bob Brown said that as a general rule, what’s good for our grandchildren is good for us, and I agree.

However, Bob Brown also promised to continue to campaign for same-sex marriage, and this is where we part ways. In part, my reason for writing to you is because I feel that I, and those who share my convictions, appear to be increasingly silenced and demonized as homophobic. I wonder how long I have remaining to raise my concerns and objections to same-sex marriage without being stigmatized, and that should be a concern to those of you who support parliamentary democracy.

My reluctance towards same-sex marriage does not, I sincerely hope, arise from a desire to deny happiness and a sense of fulfillment to same-sex couples. Further, I refuse to discuss sex and sexuality in any context that regards persons with differing sexual orientations as anything less than human beings. This leaves me at a disadvantage, however, because the pioneers of same-sex marriage can project an image of themselves striding confidently into the 21st Century with a revolutionary vision of great value, leaving me with the circumspective and undeniably boring sound-byte of “no it’s not”.

I could appeal to the thousands of years of human wisdom relating to family and home that the pioneers of same-sex marriage look set to jettison, but that’s unlikely to appeal to them. Instead, I ask that we look forward to the potential consequences and what effect, as Bob Brown suggests, this will have on our grand children.

These consequences, I suggest, relate to the deconstruction of marriage as a coherent social entity and it’s reconstruction as a contract between private individuals. The question I ask is, if we allow this to play out to its ultimate conclusion, what will we be left with? I suggest that we will be left with something that’s virtually indistinguishable from current de-facto and living-together relationships and, if this is case, what’s the point of legislating for it? To me, it’s rather like buying the lease for a coal-mine and building wind-farms on the land instead of mining it. It’s a dog in the manger.

What business is it of mine to object? I fully respect a couple’s prerogative to exclude my intrusion into its private life and to tell me that it’s none of my business. However, by bringing that relationship under the auspices of marriage, that couple necessarily brings its relationship into the public sphere, and in doing so, it implicitly seeks my approval, my validation and my affirmation of its relationship. In the case of same-sex couples, this is something I feel I would be unable to give. If I were put in a position in which I were forced to either express my endorsement of the relationship or shut up, then I would have to question my rights.

The Greens have successfully positioned themselves as the intelligent, progressive choice. The pioneers of same-sex marriage have successfully generated a sense of inevitability about their cause. Their positioning has given them the advantage of being able to dismiss people like me as unintelligent, regressive and resistant to moving forward. They may be right but, to borrow a phrase from the gay rights movement, this is who I am and why can’t they simply accept it? It seems to me that there is a clash of rights. If we cannot have a win-win situation, then we need to think carefully about whose rights we decide to deny.

There are other important and solemn issues to consider in government, of course. However, the advocacy of same-sex marriage is one way to lose my vote.

Yours faithfully,
Martin Jacobs

Letter to Martin Jacobs, 26 October 2010.

Dear Mr Jacobs

Thank you for contacting Kevin with your policy suggestions. I note your specific reference to same-sex marriage policies.

Kevin appreciates you taking the time to share your feedback.

Community views are of critical importance to the Government when forming its policies and your views will be taken into account in relation to this process.

If there are any other federal government matters with which Kevin may be of assistance to you, please do not hesitate to contact his Electorate Office on [phone number and email provided]

Yours sincerely

Amy Cooper, Constituent Officer

The Honourable Kevin Rudd MP
Federal Member for Griffith

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Myths of New Atheism – Part 3 – We’ve grown out of the need for faith in God

The myth of the New Atheism is that it’s not a myth.

At the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to return to the theme of faith, specifically faith in God.

Professor Richard Dawkins (author of “The God Delusion, a vocal atheist whom the BBC seems to like) argues that early humans needed faith in a deity to fill in the gaps of their knowledge of the universe; what they could not explain, they attributed to a supernatural deity. He goes on to argue that now our scientific knowledge is complete, particularly with respect to the origins of the universe, we no longer need the hypothesis of God. Everything we need to know about ourselves, he has stated on air, can be explained by our knowledge of evolution. God, Dawkins says, was needed to fill the gaps, but now that the gaps have been filled, we no longer need him.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a Professor of evolutionary biology at Oxford University should interpret the whole faith/God thing from the perspective of our knowledge of our origins. However, he profoundly misunderstands faith – what it is and what it does.

One reason I wanted to return to this topic was that on Monday my family and I attended the homecoming dinner of Michael Young, who became the youngest person to cycle around Australia. He, and his support driver Glenn Walker, are friends of ours from Church. Michael’s ride raised about $28,000 for the Cancer Council of Queensland.

Michael’s venture, to me, is a superb example of faith. Michael Young’s faith was not “needed” to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of what lay ahead. Michael had planned the route very carefully, but he still did not know what to expect when he set out. There remained plenty of unknowns and risks, not the least of which was the risk that Michael could become another tragic road traffic statistic (which, thankfully, did not eventuate). I recall seeing Michael set out from one of the parks in Brisbane and it was clear that there was so much he and Glenn did not know. They did not even know if they would finish.

But, and this is my point, Michael’s faith was the thing that drove him to action. It was a faith that fully acknowledged what he did not know, but it propelled him to launch into the venture anyway. Without his faith, he could not have cycled into the unknown.

The intrinstic aspect of Michael’s faith is that it produced action. I don’t think Michael theologized too much about it; judging from my conversations with him, he seemed content to believe that he would do this thing and some good would come of it. However, I find it remarkable that Michael’s faith did not simply result in him adopting a particular intellectual position; it resulting in him doing something. Contrary to Richard Dawkin’s assertion, faith isn’t about simply changing intellectual property; it’s what gives us our reasons to do the things that we do.

That’s precisely what the New Testament author is writing about in James 2:26 “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” Another passage on faith is in Hebrews 11, which lists out the heroes of faith and identifies them by what they did. John writes that the dead would be judged according to what they had done (Revelation 20:12,13).

It’s not that our deeds justify us before God (that’s a whole topic in itself), rather that our deeds tell us about the kind of faith that we have. And where there are no righteous deeds, there can be no faith in God. The kinds of deeds we carry out tell us about the kind of God we worship

I’m qualifying this faith-deeds relationship because everybody, including atheists, is moved by faith. Hitler had so much faith in his Third Reich that he was willing to send his armies into Western Europe and Russia and murder 7 million Jews for it. Dawkins has so much faith in his atheism that he is willing to publish books to promote it. Michael Young had so much faith that he was willing to cycle into the unknown for it. There’s no differentiation. This isn’t about who has faith and who doesn’t; it’s about what or whom we put our faith in.

Jesus had so much faith in his God, that he was willing to be crucified for it.

Faith is part of what it means to be human. Everybody has it, and every person’s actions are directed by it. The question is not whether we “need” it, or whether we’ve outgrown it. The question is what we have put our faith in.

Faith came up in another context this week. I watched the TV show on the rescue of the Chilean miners. In reflecting on what brought the miners through their ordeal, the narrator commented that if the psychologists summed it up in one word, it would be faith. The program then cut to a psychologist who expanded with words to the effect that it was “…faith in their fellow miners, faith in their families that they were doing all they could to rescue them, faith in themselves and their religion.”

I was disappointed to hear the psychologist’s voice trail off as he got to the bottom of the list and the “religion” word. It’s as if he was afraid his fellow practitioners would chastise him if he acknowledged this aspect of the miner’s perspective. Other footage showed the community bringing in the statue of Mary and relieved and grateful miners and families genuflecting, praying and crossing themselves. I’m not going to speculate on what this overtly Catholic faith meant to the miners and their community, but it was obvious that they were looking to God to save them. As far as they were concerned, He did.

The miners had appealed to one who was outside their imprisonment to save them. They acknowledged that they could not save themselves, not even by trying harder at being better miners. This is a fantastic example of the faith that the Christian Gospel seeks to promote. It reaches beyond ourselves into the unknown, with the hope that the God of the unknown will welcome us because of His own great love and mercy. (He can and He does because of the cross of Christ, but that's another story.)

We have not outgrown the need for faith. Our faith, which is part of what makes us human, continues to be worked out in our deeds, great and small. Without faith in a great and loving God, this faith becomes small, mean and self-centered, and so do our works.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Myths of New Atheism - Part 2b – People are good, religion is evil

The myth of the New Atheism is that it’s not a myth.

I’m using the term “myth” loosely to describe a tenet or dogma that’s not supported by observed fact or deductive reasoning. I have my dogmas, and I’m not ashamed to name them. I wish atheists had the honesty to do likewise.

Last week’s blog was the first installment about the myth that people are good, but religion is evil. I argued that “true” or “pure” atheism had no basis on which to judge something to be objectively “good” or “evil” and that the whole hypothesis of good and evil rests upon a theistic foundation. Without God, “good” and “evil” becomes nothing more than my self-interests verses yours. If you want to call people “good” in an objective sense, then you need to do it in a theistic context, which, of course, the Christian Gospel provides.

So, I agreed broadly with the statement about people being “good”, but I don’t see how it is compatible with pure atheism. It’s more at home in a Christian context.

I’m going to do the same with the statement that religion is evil. Again, I’ll ask that you please follow me carefully here because I’m going to argue that religion is neither good nor evil of itself; it can be (and has been) used evilly, but, more to the point, it cannot deliver.

What’s more, I believe that Jesus and his followers knew this; that religion cannot deliver. It was the major impetus behind the writing of the New Testament. To support this hypothesis, I’m going to have to take you on a journey through some Biblical theology.

The Bible is a big book. In fact, it’s a collection of writings that was put together over a long period of time by a large number of people (contrary to the urban myths that in one of my previous blogs). It’s an unfolding story, and the people in the middle didn’t live to see how the story ended.

Incidentally, one important feature of the story of the Bible is that the later authors could not change what the earlier authors had written because the earlier writings were already in circulation, which blows holes in the commonly held misconception that the Bible had been radically re-written to suit the particular agenda of a minority group some time after Christ (the Catholics, for example).

A legitimate reading of the story from Genesis to Revelation is that it’s the story of the Temple. I know Evangelical Christians like to read it as the story of God’s interactions with humanity, but I would add that the theater of these interactions is the Temple. We understand these interactions better if we see them played out in the context of the Temple.

What’s this got to do with religion? Well, if by “religion”, we mean the rites, self-identity, habits, culture, focal point, authority and legitimacy of a community, then the Temple is the personification of religion.

One problem us Westerners have here is that we’ve got no first hand experience of how the Temple operated or what it meant in the ancient world. We’ve got some vague notion that it was the place where worship happened, but it was much more than that. Here are my observations on some of the important, but overlooked features of the Temple;

• The Temple was the focal point of the city. Think of the Acropolis in Athens. Ancient cities grew up around Temples and they drew on the resources of the surrounding lands to sustain and maintain the activities that revolved around the Temple. They were built on high places as a statement to the worlds, saying “We are here, and these are our gods”. (See Jesus’ assessment in Matthew 5:14 “…a City on a hill cannot be hidden.”). The Temple was the expression of civic pride.

• The Temple symbolized the presence of the gods among the people in a tangible, practical way. The Temple was perceived as the incarnation of heaven on earth.

• The Temple housed the important treasures of the King and his people. Part of the reason Temples were guarded so jealously, was that they were the “banks” of the ancient world. Guarding the Temple was synonymous with national financial security. In this respect, the Temple was like Fort Knox.

• The Temple was the source of fresh meat and food for the city. The livestock that was slaughtered there was divided into ritual sacrifice (burnt offerings and the like), and consumption. In this respect, the Temple was something like the supermarket sitting in the center of town.

• The Temple was the repository of knowledge and the forum for communicating that knowledge to the people. The writings were secured in the Temple, and they were read out and preached to the people in the Temple. In this respect, the Temple was the central library; it was the central repository for the Word of God.

• The Temple was the place of forgiveness, cleansing and healing.

The Israelites were not unique in having a Temple, nor were they unique in claiming that it was divinely commissioned. Even so, their Temple was unique in at least two respects;

• The God it housed was the God of the entire cosmos, not just the city kingdom centered on the Temple

• The Israelites candidly recorded the careers of their Temples (and those records made their way into the collection of writings that we now call the Bible)

It’s this last point I’d like to follow. In brief, the Temple started out as a mobile tent until Solomon got to build a permanent structure in Jerusalem around 950 BC. Though the Temple building was a national success for Solomon, it’s fortunes waxed and waned from there on, mostly waning, despite the warnings of the Old Testament Prophets, until it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC, and the people taken into exile.

Upon the return from exile, a chastened remnant of Israel rebuilt the Temple and consecrated it in 515 BC. Again, it’s fortunes waxed and waned under successive empires until Herod the Great decided to rebuild it in 19 BC (this is the same Herod whom Matthew holds responsible for the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem in Matthew 2:16-18). Herod’s vision, or perhaps the vision of the Jews, was to reform and reconstitute Israel around the New Temple and they embarked upon a lavish building program and missionary effort to impress the importance of the Temple on the Jewish people.

Maybe it was this resurgence of national pride and its inevitable opposition to the powerful Roman Empire that prompted a re-think of what it was all about in Galilee. I can imagine the Pharisees coming up to the provinces from Jerusalem, reading their scrolls to the synagogues, and some of them wondering whether the lessons of the past had been truly learned. Didn’t they know that pride goes before a fall?

Jesus and his followers, I believe, must have pondered this question, and the solution they came up with was truly revolutionary – a stroke of pure genius. They believed that Jesus was the true Temple.

Remember all the functions that I listed for the Temple above. Every single one of these functions is fulfilled in Jesus, according to the New Testament. That is why the writer to the Hebrews writes about the true Temple that cannot be touched and that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:18-28) and John writes in Revelation 21:22 that “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” Finally, Christians had an eternal Temple in which God’s name would dwell forever (see 2 Chronicles 7:16), unlike the stone buildings that had been successively raised and razed in Jerusalem.

OK, so we’ve established that having a Temple cannot save you, not even a God-ordained Temple replete with all the proper rites and furniture. Religion, we can safely conclude, cannot deliver. Furthermore, it will get you into trouble, as the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70 and the diaspora of the Jews testifies.

But why is this so?

The main reason why, and this is an opinion I might actually share with the atheists, is that religion gives a person a sense of entitlement. If I subscribe to this religion and go to that Temple, then I am entitled to land, honor and riches.

If there is one thing the Bible rails against more than any other, it is this sense of entitlement. It persistently and repeatedly warns us against relying on our own sense of worthiness, from Deuteronomy 9:4 “do not say to yourself, "The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness”, to Matthew 3:9 “And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” to Galatians 3:11 “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law” to Ephesians 2:8-10 "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast."

Get the message? You cannot rely on your religion. Those who did so got slaughtered and exiled and they had their Temples destroyed in front of their own eyes, before they got their own eyes gouged out. You’d think we would have learned it by now.

Religion does not deliver. But what does?

Christians like to call Jesus the Son of God. One rather odd feature of the Gospels is that Jesus preferred to call himself not the Son of God, but the Son of Man (Bar Enosh – strictly, the son of a human being). On a quick counting at, the phrase “Son of God” appears about 30 times, in various contexts, including the pejoratives used by the demons. “Son of Man” appears 76 times in all four Gospels, mostly in the context when Jesus is talking about himself.

The reason this is important, I think, is because Jesus wants to impress on his followers that what’s important is not a system of religion, but a person. To put it in religious language, the center of God’s plan is not the system of religion, or a Temple; it’s a person. That person, uniquely, is Jesus Christ. However, he is the true human being as his favorite epithet states. In him we find our true humanity and we become the people we were created to be. Can he deliver? According to the logic of the New Testament, he has already passed through death and having done so, we can pass safely through when we are in him. Jesus delivers when the Temple does not.

There’s much, much more than this brief summary provides, so I just want to return to the question in conclusion; is religion evil? Atheism cannot answer the question, but the Christian Gospel can, and does in spades.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Myths of New Atheism - Part 2a – People are good, religion is evil

The myth of the New Atheism is that it’s not a myth.

That is, it's founded purely on observed, deductive reasoning and there's no myth or dogma about it.

Unfortunately for the apostles of New Atheism, in drilling down to the foundations of some of the basic tenets of their faith, I have found that instead of being built on the solid rock of demonstrable, objective science, it may as well be build on aether. Here's another example; 'people are good but religion is evil'.

Please follow me carefully on this because I'm going to agree broadly with the idea.

My contention with it is that it is utterly incompatible with 'pure' New Atheism. The idea actually belongs at home in a peculiarly Christian context. In other words, the New Atheists cannot say this if they want to advance their cause. Christians might say it without contradicting their own world-view, but I advise caution (I hate slogans, even good ones, anyway).

To be more specific, my objection to the New Atheist's use of this slogan is twofold;

1 'Pure' atheism cannot comprehend that good is 'good' and evil is 'evil', therefore it has no logical basis to call people 'good' and religion 'evil'. A better paradigm is found in the Christian Gospel.

2 Jesus and his followers spearheaded a counter-Temple movement. I'll tackle this next week.

Are people 'good'?

My understanding of 'pure' New Atheism is that there is no external, divine influence on the cosmos. Everything is cause and effect. Everything in the cosmos is what it is now purely and wholly because of what it was one micro-nano-second earlier. And where it was one micro-nano-second earlier was because of where it was in the previous micro-nano second, and so on, all the way back to the Big Bang.

Each and every electron, for example, in the entire universe is located where it is located now because of a seamless and uninterrupted chain of events since the Big Bang. That's an unimaginable number of electrons and an unimaginable period of time but, and this is the point, because they all obey natural and reasonable laws with no surprises thrown in by an external deity, their current locations are entirely predictable (we don't have the computational power to do the math for an accurate prediction and we never will).

Another way to look at it is to say that each and every electron, and everything else in the cosmos was always going to end up exactly where it is today. It doesn't have a choice.

This includes all the electrons spinning round the atoms in the electro-chemical impulses in your brain in that great flux that you perceive as 'thought'. Curiously, you don't have a choice either, because those electrons were always going to line up exactly as they have done and coalesce into what you perceive as a choice, ever since the Big Bang.

So, if we were only ever going to make the choices we make, what makes a good choice 'good' and an evil choice 'evil'? What makes Michael Young's attempt to cycle around Australia to raise money for the Cancer Council good, and what makes implementing a policy to systematically exterminate Jews evil? According to the New Atheism, both choices are simply the results of the laws of nature exerting themselves inexorably on the cosmos.

The common response, I suspect, is to call something 'good' if it is beneficial to humanity. The Nazi Holocaust was obviously not good in this context; in fact, we call it 'evil'.

Now, I'm absolutely not going to defend genocides and other atrocities here, but I need to ask the question about why 'beneficial to humanity' constitutes 'good' in an objective sense.

As I have argued above, the impersonal laws of nature have simply acted to bring everything to where it is today. In the process, they threw up human beings, but they also threw up cockroaches, HIV viruses and a host of other creatures. What makes us think that the interests of human beings are more important that these other things, and what happens when their interests conflict?

We like to think we are special. But, according to the New Atheism, that sense of 'specialness' is nothing more than the result of the normal, impersonal forces that shaped our anthropogenic heritage. There's nothing 'special' about the 'special' feeling, and the universe certainly doesn't care one way or the other. Will that 'special' feeling save me from being killed by a tsunami? Of course not! Though, it might give me the motivation to try to get myself saved.

If we step outside our own self-interests for a moment, we are faced with the unsettling truth of the Atheistic Cosmos – what right have I got to pursue and defend my interests? Who should we kill; the patient or the malarial protozoa? They both owe their existence to an unknowing and uncaring universe that has no purpose in its existence and no way to know the difference between the human or malarial creature. To assert otherwise would be to insist on an intelligent and purposeful deity, which is strictly forbidden under the rules of New Atheism.

By contrast, the Christian Gospel, following the older Jewish tradition, asserts that when God made the universe, he made it 'good' (Genesis 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:20, 1:25 etc.). In other words, God looked at what he had made and he liked it. Furthermore, he particularly liked the human beings he had made and considered them to be a special part of his good creation (Genesis 1:27-31). Interestingly, he continued to safeguard their interests, even when they lost interest in his (read from Genesis 3:21 to the end of the book), but I digress. Here, we have a logical basis to call the protection of humanity's interests a 'good' thing.

The picture is nuanced by the introduction of sin, which tends to draw people to the wrong thing. However it is complete in the sense that we are created as sentient beings with the capacity of choice and, even though we often choose evil, we have a basis to promote and defend the things that are beneficial to our neighbors. In other words, my neighbor might harm me, but I still have a reason to love him (Matthew 22:36-40).

So, the Christian Gospel lays a rational, logical foundation on which to call people 'good' and to pursue the things that benefit them.

There is no such foundation in New Atheism.

In New Atheism, it's a myth.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Myths of New Atheism - Part 1 - The Myth of Inevitable Progress

The myth of the New Atheism is that it’s not a myth.

Or, technically, it’s not founded on its own myths.

What I aim to do here is to expose some of those myths, as I see them. I concede at the outset that this doesn’t prove the New Atheism to be false, any more than it proves my Christian Faith to be true. However, what I hope to do is to counter the shrill voices of New Atheism that condemn me, and people like me, for no other reason that we hold to our particular mythology.

Mr. Kettle, let me introduce you to Mr. Pot.

(They’re both black, in case you didn’t get it.)

The first myth of the New Atheism is what I call the myth of inevitable progress. It’s more a sentiment than a doctrine, but it still ends up as dogma. It is expressed in a number of ways, but it ends up at roughly the same place – we are better than our parents because…well, just because, OK?

And by ‘better’, it can be ‘better’ in any number of ways. We are more tolerant, better informed, more rational, more reasonable, better communicators. In its crudest form, it’s the voice of the petulant teenager screaming out that his or her parents are stupid idiots (because they have ordered said teenager to tidy up his or her bedroom).

Now, it may just be that we have access to better information and education (though the latter is moot), but the wry commentator will note that not all change is progress. Certainly, this is the case if you look in the broader history of humankind. Nazi Germany thought it was progressing to a new age, the infamous Third Reich, and we know how that story ended.

Kingdoms and Empires rise and fall. On what basis do we say that one is ‘better’ than another? On what objective basis can I claim to be a ‘better’ person than my forebears?

If the New Atheists look to evolutionary theory to underpin this sentiment, they are looking in the wrong place. Specifically, our species has been recognizably distinct for many tens of thousands of years. I’m sorry if my science is a bit vague here, but it’s certainly a very long time when compared to the time span from one single generation to the next. In other words, we (modern 21st Century human beings) are genetically indistinct from those people who hid in caves and told themselves creation myths in the dark. Apart from the chronology, the only thing different between them and us is our access to better technology, and the internet.

If we were to get hold of a caveman, give him a shower and take him through our education system, he would look at the world in much the same way as we do. The question here is not what opportunities that education would open up to him, but how he would use them. Would he be wiser or more stupid than us? Would he be ‘better’ than us? Genetically, he would be indistinguishable from us; same man, different clothes.

What’s worse, and this is something ‘proper’ evolutionists would probably agree on, is the myth that evolution will make me into a better person. Face it; evolution by natural selection will NOT make you into a better person. What it does is that if you’re genetic make-up is better suited to the circumstances in which you find yourself, you’re more likely to pass it on to your progeny than someone who’s make-up is less suited. It’s all about your progeny, not you, and by the time they benefit (several generations into the future), you’ll be dead. You will not benefit one iota. It offers no hope to the individual.

You cannot call on evolution to claim that you are being made into a better person. What’s more, we cannot claim that evolution is making us better as a species, because we have interrupted the process of natural selection. Put simply, instead of being forced by our environment to change our genetic make-up over the generations, we have changed our environment to suit our genetic make-up. The Eugenics movement tried to correct this perceived imbalance, but they went the same way as the Nazis, which is no mere coincidence.

See. I’m appealing to history, which might be a waste of time on some New Atheists because they were the first to discover the universe, stupid.

We could go on with the current misuse of the word. For example, we could say that the personal computer has ‘evolved’ from its humble beginnings.

No it hasn’t. Not in the naturalistic sense. The reason PCs are better now than they were is wholly because an external intelligence (PC engineers) looked at previous generations and figured out how to improve them. Apply this metaphor to the natural world, and you actually argue for Theism (an intervening external intelligence), not Atheism.

So, please, let’s abandon the idea that evolution is somehow responsible for the law of inevitable progress – it isn’t.

It changes stuff, but it doesn’t necessarily make it better. In fact, you could argue that it actually makes it worse through a rather poor exegesis of the Laws of Thermodynamics and entropy.

One of the more insidious expressions of the myth of inevitable progress is the Richard Dawkins doctrine on the evolution of religion. Put simply (and you’ll find this pap all over the internet) Mr. Caveman didn’t have science to explain how the universe worked, so he invented God. The argument follows that now we have the science, we don’t need God. In fact we need to progress beyond the idea of God because…well, just because its progress, OK, and progress is inevitable. God, therefore, is holding us back.

Crucially, Dawkins and his disciples miss the point that its not just about science. If you believe that the purpose of humanity is to produce good science, then Dawkins’ hypothesis might actually work for you. (I’m not convinced, and I don’t see why, in an Atheistic Universe, improving our understanding of it will make any ultimate difference to it whatsoever). However, human beings are more than walking test-tubes – we try to understand our universe for a reason, and that reason is life and living (to put it crudely).

Allow me to illustrate. A few months ago, a friend of mine, Michael Young, set out to cycle around Australia and raise money for Cancer Research. Incidentally, he’s a Christian and I know him because we go to the same church. When he set out, I don’t think he thought to himself, “I’m going to need to invent a God who will fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the route”, which is akin to Dawkins’ simplistic analysis of why religion came to be. What I do think he thought was that by undertaking this venture, some good will come of it (because, ultimately, there is a God who is interested in such things), and I sincerely hope it does. (PS Please donate through Michael's website, if you can.) The former is an enquiry into the nature of the universe; the latter is faith. Dawkins confuses the two in his quest to replace Christianity with a cult of his own making.

I digress, but the myth of inevitable progress ignores the evidence, which is inexcusable for a movement that prides itself on being led by the evidence. And, by evidence, I’m referring to the many, many instances in which faith in God has propelled the advances that we have benefited from today.

For example, the very fact you are reading this has much to do with the Reformation. The Reformers vigorously promoted the learning of reading and writing and the reason, for them, is that they wanted people to be able to read the Bible for themselves, without relying on the Roman Church to read and interpret it for them. In fact the whole premise that we function better in the universe if we understand it finds its origins in the Judaeo-Christian traditions, and we’re talking about traditions that stretch back maybe 3,500 years to Moses and beyond.

Surely, if we are to become ‘better’ people, then we need to allow ourselves to learn from our forebears, and to do that we must abandon our bombastic claims that we are intrinsically better than them. Progress is possible, yes, but it’s not inevitable and it takes a lot more humility and hard work than the New Atheists might acknowledge.

When I see the kind of propaganda put out by some New Atheists, my mind instantly goes to the petulant teenager. Usually, bound up with these objections, there is some reason to jettison God. It’s usually an objection to the possibility that God could interfere with that person’s life in some way. Heaven forbid that this same God might actually judge that person and (horrors!) decide whether that person belongs in heaven or hell.

The Christian Faith stands in the tradition of God. The progenitors of this ideology certainly did believe in a God who would judge them (along with everybody else), and that made them into the best people that I have ever heard of. As far as the myth of inevitable progress is concerned, our spiritual ancestor pronounced that “No servant can be greater than his master” (John 13:16). I agree, and that’s why I count myself in his family. To me, Jesus of Nazareth is the pinnacle of what it means to be truly and fully human – and he lived 2,000 years ago. Have we really progressed since then? We have changed, but are we ‘better’?

So, what gives us the right to claim that we are ‘better’ than our ‘religious’ Caveman and his colleagues? That’s right, nothing more than a myth. We are better than him because…well, just because, OK.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Vaporware and FUD

At the risk of sounding like a fanboy (which I am), I must admit to being somewhat underwhelmed by a slew of potential products that all promise to beat Apple’s iPad (see here, for example).

Now, I’m not saying that some of these products might actually work, and they might actually work better than the iPad, but before you rush out to buy one (and give Steve Jobs the finger), consider this – you can’t. That’s because they don’t exist. Not yet. They’re vaporware. They’re in development, due for release some time in late whatever.

So, why would producers of consumer goods go to all this hoo-ha about promoting something that doesn’t (and sadly, in most cases I suspect, will never) exist? Partly, the reason has got to do with a sincere effort to produce something that can compete with someone else’s hugely popular thingo. Partly, as one observer wryly put it, it’s all about FUD (that’s fear, uncertainty, doubt). In other words, if Google can get a rumor going that it’s about to launch an iSlate, it might delay a consumer’s choice to buy an iPad, and thus prevent a defection to the opposition.

The moral of this story is that if you put enough FUD out there, you’ll immobilize people who might want to explore something new and they’ll stay at home (with you).

Strangely, this is the story of the Christian Gospel.

No, I’m not saying that the Christian Church is generating all the FUD I see today. It might have done in the past, when the Church had a significant role in western culture, but not today when it has been marginalized and largely discredited. Today, it’s the turn of the forces of modernism and popular culture to throw the FUD at the Christian Gospel and the Church that promotes it.

If my recent TV watching is anything to go by, you can’t get a person with profoundly religious convictions unless he or she is a murderous psychopath. I honestly cannot recall the last time the Bible was quoted on TV fiction unless it was in the context of someone doing something that was unspeakably evil. Add that to the urban myths/infomercials (sorry, documentaries) that are peddled about how unreliable the Bible is and the picture that emerges is that you shouldn’t touch it if you don’t want to get infected with the green death. I get the feeling that TV producers actually fear the Bible because it seems to make people do bad things. It has become the root of all evil (see 1 Tim 6:10, and note the irony).

Of course, my experience, and the experience of my Bible-reading colleagues, is the polar opposite. That’s not an argument to say that everything that anyone has done in obedience to the Bible has been good (and I include myself in this category). But it is an argument against the assertion that everything that the Bible inspires is evil. There’s something more nuanced here than the presence or otherwise of the Bible in a person’s decision-making.

Could it be that people can and do interpret what they receive (from the Bible or other sources) and they often get it wrong? In other words, it’s not simply a question of what is transmitted, it involves the reception as well. Here is my starting point for the old-fashioned notion of original sin and total depravity.

So, what’s our response? Do we throw up counter-FUD to scare people into Church?


(Even if the resulting message is less entertaining)

The antidote to fear-uncertainty-doubt is not more fear-uncertainty-doubt or even, Heaven forbid, religious or anti-religious vaporware.

The antidote is actually the Light of the World (John 8:12), which the People of God has been called to hold up for the benefit of all (Matt 5:14). In one sense, this makes the Christian’s job easy – we are to preach Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). In another, this makes the job hard – what does it mean to live as one who bears the light of the world? I guess you’ll have to read the rest of the Bible to figure that out.

Don’t be afraid. Ignore the FUD. It won’t kill you.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Decisions, Decisions

I had something of a revelation recently; people don’t tend to make decisions rationally. Also, they don’t tend to make decisions – they actually see an outcome they want and then frame their decisions to secure the outcome.

I know, I know. Everybody else knows this, but I didn’t (or I have forgotten). Maybe its because, according to the Myers-Briggs typology; I’m an INTJ borderline ISTJ.

More probably, my work as a consultant engineer means that I put in an inordinate amount of analysis and logic into the decisions I recommend to clients. So, my working environment conditions me to backing up my decisions with a body of work, and to having my decisions scrutinized and challenged. I’m OK with that because the decisions I make have big dollar values associated with them. In my mind, the bigger the implication of the decision, the more effort is required to research the issue to come to a conclusion.


The problem with people is that we routinely fail to prioritize, or rank, the decisions that face us in life. The apocryphal tales that come out of the retail business indicate that a person will spend just as long deciding which new toaster to buy as he or she would in deciding which house to buy (the reason it takes longer to buy the house than the toaster is that we’ve got to co-opt the banks into the venture we’ve decided to undertake). Of course, the situation is not helped by an advertising industry that wants us to get worried if we’re not seen driving the new car or if we’re not taking the right diet supplements. God help us if we’re using last year’s toasters!

I could run through the whole gamut of decisions from here – from relationships, to how to vote, to how we need to address climate change and global inequities. Yes! This last one is a real biggie, and we’ve got to jettison the urban myth of the infinitely growing economy.

What, I hear you say? Martin’s getting all political and tree-huggy. And shouldn’t we simply blame global industry (a.k.a. anyone but me)?

Seriously, though, we need to consume less, and we need to distribute our planet’s limited resources more equitably (because they will run out). And I don’t see it happening when the biggest thing on the agenda in the negotiations between the Bank of America and Merryll Lynch on the eve of the global financial crisis was what compensation needed to be paid to the senior executives (as I found out this week). I don’t know the final dollar amount was, but it was enough to bail entire cities. It could have saved thousands of families defaulting on their mortgages. What determined their sense of what decisions were more important than others? The word ‘greed’ seems the most appropriate.

The trouble is, when you listen to CEO John Thain’s “rationale” behind his remuneration, you’d think the guy was making sense. Listen up, he’s a bean counter. He might be a rather good bean counter, but who made the decision to pay him $4 million per year, when actual bean growers have to live off less than $2 per day?

I’m not suggesting that pay and rewards should not be differentiated, but at what point do they become obscene and shameful? Who decides what is obscene and shameful? It seems we have a conflict of interest between the likes of John Thain and the 5,500 (approx) bean growers who collectively earn as much as he does individually? What a bunch of bankers – it seems they pay themselves these amounts not because they deserve it, but because they can.

I could lapse into cynical depression at this point. Can anyone make sound judgments? And what makes a good judgment “good”, or a bad judgment “bad”?

My problem is that I refuse to believe that the best judgments are those that serve my self-interests the best, yet that is how most people will evaluate the decisions they make. They have wisely decided that they will not entrust their self-interests to people who tend to put their own self-interests first.

So, here it is – the ultimate engine of our individual and collective decision-making mechanisms. Self-interest rules! And bugger the world (even if there’s not much of a world left for everyone else after I’m finished with it).

My only hope is to appeal to One who is higher than all these muddied undertows (see Gen 1:2 and Psalm 93:3-4); One who has demonstrated His willingness to abandon His self-interest on our behalf (see Romans 5:8).

The biggest decision I need to make is whether I can believe in Him.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Parable of the iPad and the Swimming Pool

Last week’s episode of the Gruen Transfer, in which the panel discussed the marketing of religion, did more than just prompt my musings on the “H Word”. It also touched upon something else that’s been on my mind about the inestimable impact of modernism on what David Wells calls “Our Time”.

David F Wells is the author of a book that my brother loaned me called, “No place for truth, or whatever happened to Evangelical Theology?” (IVP, 1995). I’m half way through and I hope my reading of it doesn’t end up like so many of my unfinished projects, which is, of course, unfinished.

According to the bio, David Wells is (or was) a Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Massachusetts. The central thesis of the first part of his rather dense book is that we’ve got more to worry about from modernism than any other “ism” out there.

Wells describes a massive paradigm shift that has occurred, largely unnoticed outside specialist circles, in the last 200 or so years of western civilization. In a nutshell, before we derived our self-identity from family and place (in which Church played an important role) and after we derive our self-identity from our own internal experience.

The rather profound outworkings of this paradigm shift are that a pre-modern person would look outside himself or herself in order to interpret and understand the world, and a post-modern would look inside himself or herself.

This might sound highly theoretical, but it becomes important when you consider that the Biblical idea of God is someone that transcends human experience. If you've got difficulty following the jargon, think of a God who was there before there were any human beings to experience Him (Gen 1:1), and who will be there after the end of all things, too (Rev 22:13). In other words, God is outside of us, but He also enters into our experience in a tangible way (John 1:14).

According to Wells, the post-modern mind finds this concept confusing, incomprehensible and, possibly, very frightening. Basically, there’s a God out there who does not conform to whatever image we have of Him in our minds. To the post-modern, God is a threat and that’s seen as a bad thing (even if it’s true).

Anyway, the Ad-luvvies on the Gruen Transfer articulated the post-modern view superbly (if unconsciously), with their talk of “building the brand”. To them, religion is a consumable, and the success of the advertising is measured in increased sales (or bums on pews). They weren’t concerned with content, or whether something was true or not, and that might not be such a bad thing in the context of mass marketing. They were simply concerned about whether the adverts did the job of getting people into church (or, keeping the converted in the church).

So, the Ad-men’s appraisal of religious advertising was set within the same context of marketing the iPad. It might require some initial investment, but it’s something you can slip into your handbag with everything else that you carry around with you, and once you’ve got it, you’ll find that it’s cool and useful. The connection to post-modernism is that the “usefulness” of the product is assessed according to each individual’s experience. And, like the proverbial product, we have the right to discard it when it interferes with our predispositions, aspirations and habits.

Another one of my projects (which I hope to continue) is that I’ve been doing lane-swimming at the local pool on Saturdays and Sundays. I’m quite pleased with my progress, but I still get passed by human torpedoes more regularly than I’d like.

One of my musings, while swimming, is that I’d like someone to ask me if I find my Christian faith “useful”. I’ve been looking for answer such a question for a while, and I think I’ve found one. Ask me if my Christian faith helps me in my life, and I will ask whether the swimming pool helps my swimming.

It’s a riddle, of course. The water in the pool slows me down tremendously (I’d get to the other end much faster if I could walk). But without the pool there would be no swimming. Without God there would be no life, so the question about whether He helps you in it or not is unanswerable. OK, so there are some rules, like don’t try to breath in when you’re head is under water, but the rules make sense when you acknowledge that you’re in a swimming pool.

So, we’re back to the pre-modern/post-modern thing. Like God, the swimming pool is outside me, and I am in the pool. It’s not simply a figment of my imagination, which I can re-create according to my internal dictates. Acknowledging the pool and my place in it is the start of my sustainable relationship with the pool.

The acknowledgment of God is the start of a sustainable relationship between Creator and creature, and it is also the start of the sustainable relationships between us creatures. The first lesson in this is that we cannot re-mold reality just because it doesn't suit us. Truth is important and, contrary to the conspiracy theorists (like Dan Brown) the concept of transcendent truth is highly valued in the Christian faith.

Oh, and iPads are cool, too.