Two Requirements for Christian Debate

sheldonI’m prayerfully following a couple of debates/issues at the moment which I’m finding somewhat grieving, mostly because of the pain felt by friends, and partly because of the way these discussions are being conducted. One issue is the approval of ordination of women bishops which happened on Monday; the other is the bill on assisted dying due to read a second time in the House of Lords tomorrow. Both issues are highly charged and keenly felt which is why we find ourselves emotionally gripped, both personally, and for others wrestling with the issues. This is all the more reason for a call to properly Christian engagement. That requires two things:

1. First, we need Christian reasoning. Christian reasoning means that the Bible, not feelings, traditions, peers, or culture, sits in the seat of authority. Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, sufficient and without error. Therefore we have to talk about what the Bible says. Now that will involve careful engagement in philology, exegesis, hermeneutics, and systematics. And all of those should be in discussion with historical theology and cultural critique. But Christian reasoning requires us to allow God to speak through his word, the Bible. If we come across something we don’t like we are not permitted to re-interpret on the basis of personal preference. Decisions must be made for sound exegetical reasons. For too long, and far too often, these debates come down to cultural relevancy, personal opinion, majority view, and faulty logic. However intensely we feel the issues, if we are to discover God’s will for us in those issues we must keep coming under the authority of Scripture, even where we find it painful or unnerving. And before we point the finger at those with whom we disagree, this goes for all of us, not just some of us.

2. Second, we need Christian engagement. By this I mean a Christian ethic of engagement. That means a number of things. It means I will first act and speak out of love – love for God and love for neighbour. It means I will engage with the best arguments and not misrepresent opposing views. It means I will not go ‘ad hominem’ and attack a person (fellow-believer or otherwise). It means I might deliberately choose not to make my case through social media or blogs (irony spotted!) since it is difficult for me to engage fully, carefully, and in a context of love and prayer. It means I’ll watch my tone and intentionally avoid inflammatory rhetoric. It means I’ll question myself, my arguments, and my motives. It means I’ll grant charity to people when considering their argument and motive. It means I’ll be quicker to listen than to speak. It means I’ll seek the best for those with whom I disagree, and not simply seek to triumph over them. It means I’ll be patient and forgiving when sinned against. It means I’ll be quick to repent when I get it wrong. It means gentleness. And it means firmness. It means self-control.

If either of these two requirements are missing Christian debate is no longer Christian. If the Bible is not authoritative we are no longer in a properly Christian debate. If a Christian ethic is missing we are no longer in a Christian debate. If the two come together there is the possibility of fruitful, edifying, God-glorifying, forward motion. But it takes two to Tango. Let your gentleness be evident to all.

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ANE Thought and the Old Testament

waltonHere’s a little cracker (I say little – not that little – 368 pp.) by John Walton entitled Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. I know, I know – sounds dull, but is actually really helpful, and, I’m increasingly convinced, really important for OT study.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had someone who knows something about art explain a picture to you – what the various characters, scenes, fixtures, background, etc signify – suddenly the picture becomes more alive and somehow more enjoyable. Well that is what John Walton’s book does for OT study.

Walton takes the novice by the hand for a guided tour of the major literature of the ANE period – what they thought about God/gods, the world, people, ethics, life after death, and a host of other things. As he does so he succeeds in painting, in broad brush strokes, the prevailing views of the ANE culture, and then compares and contrasts that with Israelite conceptual world as seen in the OT. As a result the reader can better appreciate the ways in which the OT engages with and often ‘subversively fulfills’ some of the ideas of the surrounding culture.

It’s the kind of book you could read cover to cover, or have on your shelves as a reference for when particular issues or texts come up. Walton clearly knows his onions and has a great knack of making great learning easily accessible. A worthy addition to any scholars library.

Making Sense of Suffering

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Here’s a poem by Corrie ten Boom that I used to close my sermon on Sunday night. Corrie ten Boom is famous for hiding Jews from the Nazis during WWII. She was eventually arrested and suffered at the hands of cruel guards at the Ravensbruck concentration camp. You can read more of her story in her book, The Hiding Place.

 

My Life is but a weaving
between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

He knows, He loves, He cares,
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives His very best to those
Who leave the choice with Him.

The 10 commandments of leading on camp

keswick youthMany of you give up precious holiday time during the summer to serve at bible camps, youth conventions, beach missions, house parties etc. I’m sure you all get excellent training for the role but, as someone who’s been leading at youth conventions for the last 15 years, here’s my 10 commandments for being a great volunteer leader at summer camp:

  1. Thou shalt teach the Bible – as cool as you are, what young people need more than anything is for you to point them to Jesus in the Bible. They need to hear what God says, not what you think. Make sure the Bible is front and centre of what you’re doing.
  2. Thou shalt pray – in preparation and during the week pray regularly and often for the young people. When you pray remember ‘you are coming to a king, great petitions bring’ – ask great things, expect great things, attempt great things.
  3. Thou shalt model godliness – young people listen to what you say, and they also watch what you do. Watch your language, your dress, and your interactions. They can all have a powerful impact on young people – for good or bad!
  4. Thou shalt prepare well – if you’re doing talks, seminars, studies, group work then be sure to prepare. Don’t wing it. Winging it suggests you don’t think it’s important enough to give your best effort, time and energy. Steward the responsibility faithfully. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
  5. Thou shalt relate well to team – there are energizers and sappers. Energizers encourage other people and bring out the best. They are warm, friendly, positive, and caring. Sappers bring everyone down. They are grumpy, moody, irritable, unhelpful, and negative. Be the former, not the latter.
  6. Thou shalt see a job and do it – don’t slack off. If you see a job that needs doing, do it. Jesus picked up a towel and washed some feet leaving an example to follow. Don’t think you’re above the master when it comes to doing menial tasks. One of the best ways to love people is to get stuck in to the stuff that no-one really enjoys.
  7. Thou shalt actually talk to the young people – resist the temptation to form holy huddles of youth leaders. Of course you love the team and enjoy hanging out with them, but make the most of every opportunity to draw alongside young people. You never know when the opportune moment to encourage them may arise.
  8. Thou shalt get enough food/water/sleep – looking after yourself is one of the best ways to ensure you give of your best to the team and the children/young people. Make sure you’re hydrated, fed, and well-rested. As much as you love team, don’t stay up til 3am talking as you’ll rob the young people of your best the following day.
  9. Thou shalt be on time – the fastest way to wind up your comrades is to be late everywhere. It suggests you don’t think your team or the youth/children are that important.
  10. Thou shalt not diss local church – a word to youth leaders in particular here: some of the yp will come from all sorts of mixed church backgrounds. A familiar tale is the one of the young person who goes to a small church which is made up almost entirely of old people. Resist the temptation to wade in on local church. Parachurch (camps etc) serve local churches. Remember that.

And perhaps an 11th – enjoy it. It’s a real privilege to be able to serve in this way. You get a front row seat to watch what God is doing at a key time in young lives. Love every minute!

Let’s Have An Exchange of Feelings

feelingsOne of the biggest battles I face in discipling people is getting them to think. So often people’s views on issues, theological or practical, are determined by a combination of experience, feelings, and peers. I came across the following quote in Tom Wright’s Virtue Reborn (which I’ve already told you is excellent) which captures the modern mind well:

Furthermore, we often speak of our thoughts as if they were feelings: in a meeting, to be polite, we might say, “I feel that’s wrong.” Similarly, perhaps without always realizing it (which itself is a sign of the same problem!), we sometimes allow feelings to override thoughts: “I feel very strongly that we should do this” can carry more rhetorical weight than “I think we should do that,” since nobody wants to hurt our feelings. As a natural next step, we allow feelings to replace thought processes altogether, so that what looks outwardly like a reasoned discussion is actually an exchange of unreasoned emotions, in which all participants claim the high moral ground because when they say, “I feel strongly we should do this,” they are telling the truth: they do feel strongly, so they will feel hurt and ‘rejected’ if people don’t agree with them. Thus reasoned discourse is abandoned in favor of the politics of the playground. On the day I was drafting this chapter someone wrote to the newspaper I read to express a view about ‘assisted suicide’ – that is euthanasia. “That is how I feel about it,” he said after stating his opinion, “and I know a lot of other people feel strongly the same way.” I don’t doubt it was true. But his feelings were irrelevant to the question of whether the proposal was right or wrong. Lots of people feel very strongly that we should bomb our enemies, that we should execute serious criminals and castrate rapists, that we should abolish income taxes and let the fittest survive. Lots of other people feel very strongly that we should do none of those things. An exchange of feelings may tell us where the pressure points are likely to come, but it won’t tell us what is the right thing to do.

 

Wright captures well society’s self-justification for each man doing what is right in his own eyes. Sadly, not a new problem.

Six Honest Serving Men

kiplingRudyard Kipling once wrote a poem entitled Six Honest Serving Men. It went a little something like this:

I keep six honest serving-men
They taught me all I knew;
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

It struck me that Kipling’s honest serving men could be put to good use today when addressing difficult and sensitive moral issues. Sometimes we’re not all that sensitive when it comes to sharing views which may offend. Stepping back and thinking big picture may help our views be heard. So when it comes to morality our six honest serving men may do the following work:

  • Who get’s to speak to that issue? Who is the voice of authority? Is it Mr. Reason, Mr. Experience, or Mr. Majority?
  • What do they get to speak about? Are some topics off limits? Are some things purely private and others public? If so, why?
  • Why them? What about them gives them knowledge/authority to address the issue? Why are they the trusted authority?
  • When/Where do they get to speak? Just to a particular place and time or more universally? Does their view hold for every person in every time and every place?
  • How do they speak? A voice for all or personal opinion? With force or humility? Do they crush opposing opinion or listen carefully to it?

These questions I think can bring some clarity and humility to thorny questions. It also means people can look at an issue without attacking each other. So next time a difficult moral question comes up think about how you might set Kipling’s men to work.