The Power of Story

It’s no accident that Jesus taught in parables. Humans are creatures of story.

Our movie and entertainment industry is largely engaged in the telling of tales, modern computer games, far from their relatively simple Space Invader-type antecedents, are replete with stories and missions and characters and plot. Go back further and the rise of the modern novel developed storywriting into a high art; go back even further and every inn or tavern had its old greybeard who would regale the patrons with tall stories of the doings of their youth. Ancient mythology finds its parallel in modern superhero stories (what are Jason and the Argonauts but the Avengers of the mythic age?); whoever we are and whatever our culture is like, we surround ourselves with many-coloured weavings of story.

Terry Pratchett, late author of the celebrated Discworld comic fantasy series, expresses the story element of humanity with his narrativium: the Fourth Wall-busting magical element that makes sure the universe doesn’t wander off-plot. It’s narrativium that determines why million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten – if heroes don’t overcome overwhelming odds, what’s the point? – and explains why magic works at all: stories want to be told, every story has a definite shape as it unravels, and a narrativium-based universe is very good at editing out the bits that don’t fit.

I’d go so far as to suggest that storytelling is part of the most basic set of traits that make us human, which would make it part of the Divine image that we are told humans bear. God is a storytelling God: look at the Book He communicates to us through. Not a list of commands or propositional statements (though there is some of that), not a hymn in praise of the Divine greatness (though that’s in there too); at root the Bible is a collection of narrative stories. We believe they’re true, factual accounts (with certain exceptions such as parables, which are couched in such language as to suggest hypothetical examples rather than real-life incidents, and symbolic writing like the book of Revelation), but they are primarily narrative rather than poetry, scientific textbook, discursive writing like a Socratic dialogue, or lists of commandments.

This is important because the ubiquity of story has implications for how we present truth, how we teach, even how we think.

As Westerners, we’re very attached to our propositional, analytical way of presenting information. If you were to ask almost any teacher from a Western country to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven, their first instinct would likely be to create a list or chart, detailing everything we know about the Kingdom: what is it, where is it, who’s in it, who isn’t, how do you get into it, all that sort of thing.

While this is a very good method for passing on factual information, it has very little in common with the way Jesus is recorded as having done it. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

  • A tiny seed growing to become the largest of garden plants; a tree that the birds come and perch in…

  • A net that fishermen threw down into the water…

  • A sower going out to sow seed…

  • A man going on a journey, who called three of his servants together and entrusted them with certain sums of money, each according to his ability…

Since we believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, we ought to trust that He knew what He was doing selecting the teaching mode that He did. Maybe our way of teaching isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

I have to confess that I don’t personally read a lot of Christian books. If you like that sort of thing, there are some good ones out there, but most of the ones I’ve read haven’t stuck with me all that well. I’m blowed if I can even remember the main point of The Prayer of Jabez or Wild at Heart or The Purpose-Driven Life, but narrative stories like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings or even something completely pagan like the Harry Potter books have stayed with me.

I’ve learned far more Biblical truth over the years from the Chronicles of Narnia than I ever have from any number of teaching books, and in a far more important way. The stories make it live, make the truth something you want to emulate and live and be a part of. There really is a great cosmic struggle of good and evil that will take every power you possess (and a few you don’t) to gain the victory in. The power of love and self-sacrifice really is stronger than all the powers of darkness arrayed in their hellish might. The small deeds of kindness and loyalty done by unlikely, out-of-their-depth heroes really can tip the scales; in the Divine economy, these widow’s mites weigh more than the great gifts of the high and mighty.

Our stories don’t need to be strict allegories in order to communicate truth, either. I’m right with CS Lewis in “cordially detesting” allegory, with its one-to-one correspondence of story and truth, so that the whole thing becomes one of those slot puzzles we give to babies to teach them pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination. The round block only ever goes into the round hole; character X only ever represents truth Y.

“Real” stories are more complex and subtle, alluding to truth rather than hitting you in the face with it. Gandalf’s near-death and return in The Lord of the Rings is suggestive of Christ’s death and resurrection, and Gandalf himself does become a sort of Christological character, but there is no absolute parallel. He’s Gandalf, not Jesus in disguise; you can’t take everything he says or does as What Jesus Would Do. But in his character as written there are truths which the Holy Spirit can recall to those hearts He has been preparing.

Allegory seems to be a persistent temptation for the Christian storyteller. It’s neat and tidy; by one imperious gesture on the part of the writer their story world incarnates the truths they want to focus on in visible form.

But it usually makes for a rather artificial or stilted manner of storytelling that seldom works as well on its own terms as a pure story.

While allegory can sometimes be profitable, it’s so rare to find a well-written one. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a classic of Christian literature, but it gets heavy and didactic at times, and all the labels are placed so visibly that there’s little to tell but the eventual proof of a character’s name. Where’s the story in that?

I have to confess to a sneaking suspicion that our love affair with allegory as Christian writers reflects a refusal to trust that the Holy Spirit of God knows His business.

If we are truly regenerate, if we have truly come to the saving trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified that produces real change in a person’s life, we will write regenerate stories. Writing from our heart as believers without necessarily worrying about symbolism will of necessity produce a story as spiritually distinct from that produced by an unbeliever as light is from darkness.

Not that all non-Christian storytelling is necessarily spiritual darkness, either. For those with eyes to see, you can find Scriptural parallels even in the Harry Potter books, and no-one is claiming that Joanne Rowling is a Christian author. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is downright sneaky, putting things in there that even the authors do not necessarily intend. Or as CS Lewis put it, “all good stories are reflections of the one Good Story”.

When we write about great themes like love, self-sacrifice, the struggle of good and evil, triumph against the odds, personal redemption and so on as Christians, of course our faith is going to find expression in what we write. Tolkien’s work is far more intrinsically Christian in this sense, even with its pagan cosmology and elves and gods and magic, than many books supposedly set in this real universe that is a direct creation of God.

Similarly, too, the Holy Spirit working in the heart of a reader might use a single sentence, comment, paragraph, even the very heart of a tale itself, in His drawing of that reader closer to the Lord whether as someone inside or outside the faith. I don’t pretend to believe that JK Rowling intended to present Harry Potter as a deliberately Christological character, but as a person of faith I can make connections whether she intended them or not. In the final book, for instance, Harry is killed by Voldemort, the chief adversary and evil character, and then comes back from the dead to destroy him forever. Sound familiar?

Harry isn’t Jesus any more than Gandalf is, but Joanne Rowling handed the church a great set of culturally-relevant parallels to draw upon when she wrote those books. And the series is a rollicking good tale on its own merits, too.

All this to say what we all already knew by instinct: that storytelling is a powerful thing.

But as to implications for the way we teach, I’m sometimes struck by how dissimilar a modern sermon is from one of Jesus’ parables.

Could you teach entirely in parable-type stories? It’s a fascinating idea. Jesus did it, but the Gospels record that His disciples frequently missed the point or had to come to Him privately for explanation. Not something many preachers of my acquaintance would have time for; the object is to do the explaining, not to tell an obscure tale which requires further explanation before it’s understood.

What’s the point, then? Why take the risk on your hearers misunderstanding?

Maybe some are going to misconstrue, no matter what you say. Maybe it’s a way of guarding your truths from being deliberately twisted by the ignorant and hostile.

Maybe, too, it’s a way to slip past people’s guardedness and plant seeds that will bear fruit in time. A good tale on its own merits can get a hearing where a bald statement of fact will be rejected. Phillip Pullman notwithstanding, there have been hardcore atheists who have loved CS Lewis’ Narnia even with its innate Christianness. We are, as I said earlier, creatures of story, we humans.

Even in politics, it’s easier to make a hardline statement of position if you never hear the story of someone on the other side whose life has been messed about by that self-same position. Listening to their story, you begin to enter into their world, see it from their perspective. Story energises our compassion; they’re no longer a statistic, but a person with goals and hopes and dreams and pain. Listening to their story, we become more fully human, more like the Divine image. We care, we start to love and show mercy. Because we know their story.

Good stories are incredibly powerful things.

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Compromise Is Not A Dirty Word

Compromise.

Remember when it was considered a mostly positive thing?  A way to resolve differences without coming to blows, a recognition that the universe is imperfect and you’re probably not going to be able to have everything you want all at once.  That other people have things they want, too.

These days, it seems like any compromise is universally bad.  I hear radio advertisements beginning “I hate compromise”, like that’s a positive trait to be proud of.  We associate compromise with political double-dealing, with selling out your people or principles, with some sort of hypocrisy.  “I don’t compromise”, we proudly proclaim, meaning “I’m going all out for this”, whatever it is.  Black and white.  All or nothing.  My way or the highway.

I think we Christians began it.  I remember from my growing up how “no compromise” became a rallying-call among the evangelical, Bible-believing community to say “There are some things that aren’t negotiable”.  We believed ourselves under threat from the theologically liberal, secularising, politically-correct world, and the entire evangelical movement was a response to that sense of pressure.  A way to say, in effect, “we understand that sometimes you have to go along to get along, but there are some non-negotiables, beginning with the value of Scripture and the place of faith in our lives.”

These days, that list of non-negotiables seems to have become longer and longer.  My faith.  My interpretation of Scripture, even the questionable, tricky parts that we used to agree to disagree on.  My values.  My political beliefs.  My hopes for the future.  My way, my style, my fashion, my stuff, to the point where “No compromise” is being used to sell underwear to men.

Oh, it sounds rugged and manly to say “no compromise”, I’ll grant you.  A way to stick two fingers up to the world, prove your independence of spirit and general masculinity.  No-one tells me what to do.  Hooah!  I suppose that’s the point, if you’re an advertiser, but it seems to be rather missing it if you ask me.

The point is not that there aren’t non-negotiables.  We are human beings, and there really are things we value enough to say “no, I cannot bend on this point.”  That’s good and right; the basis of the ability to resist evil and stand up for what’s right.  In its best incarnation, it energises the true Christian martyr to be able to stare death in the face and refuse to deny the Lord no matter what kind of pressure is piled on.  We remember stories coming out from behind the Iron Curtain, and there are other stories today from places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea.  Some things really are worth dying for.

It also energises the Godly resister, the agent of change in society.  All the William Wilberforces and Harriet Tubmans and others of that kidney, people who refused to bow to the majority when they knew the majority was wrong about an important issue.

The problem is that we keep adding things to the list of non-negotiable stuff.  If we’re at the point now that the selection of men’s underwear is on the list of things that we cannot compromise, then we are at the point of social anarchy because no-one can get along with anyone any more.

Non-negotiabiliy is a hierarchy.  At the top there are the true non-negotiables; the things it really is better to die than give up.  I don’t think anyone is seriously placing underwear in that category, but it’s symptomatic of the urge to keep enlarging the list.  Then we come down the list to the group of things that aren’t quite as important, but we really don’t want to give them up.  I’ll put myself through the inconvenience of a long commute in order to live somewhere that my children can get a good education, that sort of thing.  It’s not a single category, it’s a ranked scale.  How much inconvenience are we prepared to put ourselves through for this thing?

It’s here that the advertisers part company with reality.  To them, and I’m beginning to suspect to a lot of political activists on both sides of the great divide between parties, it’s not a case of putting yourself through inconvenience for something so much as a rigid determination to make other people bend around what you personally want.  Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of this; it’s the reason politics is such a mess right now.  We all have a tendency to see everything in black and white, absolute evil or absolute good, “he who is not for us is against us”.  And while there are things that are like that, the reality is that sometimes “no compromise” is just code for “I want what I want and if I don’t get it I will sulk.  Or get angry.”

Either way, it’s a little… petulant, sometimes.  Depending on what we’re currently claiming as being of such vital importance that any attempt to meet the other side halfway is wrong and evil, it might be good or it might be a two-year-old’s temper tantrum.

I’m not going to tell you what your core value non-negotiables ought to be.  I recognise that there are issues of black-and-white ethical division, things it’s worth dying for and things it’s worth self-sacrifice for.  I’m also aware that the lists aren’t going to be precisely the same for everyone.  Justice is a big deal for me; situations in which justice cannot be done for some reason anger me.  But I have friends who aren’t quite so hot on the subject of justice but who will spend themselves to the last penny for mercy.  Different values, but both of us valuing good things.

This is why we have different political parties to begin with.  Not everyone values every good thing equally, and sometimes the reality of the world is that to get one thing right you have to accept getting other things less right.  Parties are by nature a compromise, a collaboration of multiple people with a whole gamut of functioning core values, but who unify around a specific set of ideals.  Most people aren’t going to hold all of those ideals equally; indeed, in the monochromatic US political landscape there are probably a huge majority of people who vote for one or the other party for a short list of reasons and can’t stand other aspects of the party platform.

We make that sort of compromise all the time, but then we go into black-and-white, non-negotiable mode when it comes to the other party.  Many of whom may very well not like aspects of their party’s stated platform, but who feel like certain other aspects of which are sufficiently important to them that they are prepared to put up with the junk.  I suspect that if we actually listened to people on the other side, we might find that we have more in common than we thought.

And by “listen”, I don’t mean “listen while maintaining a checklist of points on which they are wrong so we can argue with them”.  I mean actually listen.  Assume that there is a valid reason for why they support what they do; it’s not “because I’m eeeeeviiiiiiil!!!!!!!!!!!”  It’s not “I’m just retarded and believe something I ought to know isn’t true”.  We need to rediscover the art of withholding judgement in order to dig a little.  Discover the why.  What’s important about that thing you’re supporting?  What value led you to support something I have problems with?  Not listening to condemn, but listening to understand.

Compromise.  There really are still things that we don’t actually need to get our own way on.  Oh, it’s nice when we can, but we should not use “no compromise” as an excuse to pout when things don’t go the way we want.

And I’m looking at both liberals and conservatives when I say that.  You’re both as bad as each other at this.  You conservatives think you understand why liberals believe what they believe, so you’ve mostly stopped listening.  You liberals think you understand why conservatives believe what they believe, so you’ve mostly stopped listening.  Neither of you are going to get everything you want, because the reality of the situation is more complex than can be encapsulated in a single sentence.  Nor even a paragraph.  We really do have to decide that we can flex on some things; rigid inability to compromise on a single iota isn’t doing anyone any good.

Enough tearing ourselves apart, enough using “no compromise” as an excuse to try and force the other guy to give in to your demands.  This isn’t a hostage situation, and you aren’t the kidnapper.

We’ve just come through the Christmas season, and I should point out that even my five-year-old understands the difference between a wish list and a demand list.  It seems that sometimes, as we grow up, we lose that simple wisdom.

Maybe it’d be a good idea to try and regain it.

We’re Under Attack

Christianity in America is under attack. A coalition of pro-abortion activists, LGBTQRGBetc fanatics, hardcore atheists, Communists, liberals and secularisers is currently persecuting and threatening to wipe out Christianity in America.

Or so we’re told.

It’s apparently the reason so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. According to this article and many like it, they consider the left an existential threat to the faith.

Personally I think this is a lot of fear-mongering guff. I’ve seen enough of the world to know what real persecution and attack looks like, and America, you ain’t even close.

People claiming to be Christians still constitute a massive supermajority of the US population, and even evangelicals are a sizable portion. Ok, the actual percentage of people who take that profession of faith seriously may be tiny by comparison, but if we were really being persecuted it wouldn’t be safe to call yourself a Christian if you weren’t going to be serious about it. The government doesn’t consider the followers of Jesus Christ to be dangerous seditionists. No, not even Obama’s government. He wouldn’t have claimed to be one if that were the case – and he did, in the runup to both his elections. No-one is being jailed or killed just because they call Jesus their Lord. No-one is throwing stones or taking pot-shots at our kids because of what we believe. No-one is forbidding our churches to open their doors or forcing us to worship in secret. No-one is denying us access to government help or anything like that and using our faith as a reason.

Christians are warned in the Bible to expect opposition and even persecution. But we in America really are not being persecuted. Not right now, and God willing we will not be for a long time yet.

To me, a lot of our persecution complex looks like the temper-tantrums of a community who’ve been told that they can’t have their own way all the time.

There are Christians and Muslims and Jewish people and atheists and Buddhists, Baha’i and Mormons, Hindus and pagans and everyone else too in American society. America has had a diversity of religious opinions ever since there has been a United States of America; it’s one of the most genius parts of the US Constitution. The government can’t tell people what to believe, and no one church or religion can tell the government what laws to pass. Everyone is free to believe whatever they like and to try and convert others to their viewpoint by any peaceful, noncoercive means.

Since I believe that followers of Christ have the best answers to the great questions of life, the universe and everything – or rather, Jesus does, even if His followers are lunatics sometimes – I have nothing to fear from this marketplace of ideas. Christianity doesn’t need anyone to protect it; it’s like what CS Lewis said about the Scriptures. “Defend the Bible? One might as well try to defend an uncaged lion.”

If we get the truth out there in a way that people can really understand what we’re saying, the Holy Spirit will do His work and people will trust their lives to Jesus Christ. Well-informed followers of Jesus aren’t going to become Muslims if they really know the One who is the Truth.

The people of Jesus the Messiah in Iran, of all places, are now the fastest-growing church in the world. We don’t need to be afraid just because the government does something we don’t like.

No, LGBTQetc people don’t like us very much. Tell me they don’t have reason, solely in our behaviour as a community without going into matters of doctrine. I still can’t see that the Bible approves of homosexual practice for followers of Jesus, but I cannot and will not approve of the unloving, spiteful behaviour of some Christians towards people of that community. They’re people God loves, made in His image, regardless of what I think about what they’re doing. You think your gossip or greed or self-righteousness or idolatry of wealth or whatever is any less a sin?

We’re followers of the Prince of Peace, the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, the One who instructed us to love our enemies otherwise we’re no better than demon-worshipping pagans. We ought to be better than the hateful spite some of us direct against those we disagree with.

Besides all that, isn’t politics the wrong forum for trying to bring spiritual change to the nation?

You think that fallen human beings are going to stop being wicked just because we legislate against wickedness? You think passing a law banning something is enough to change people’s hearts? What about your guns, O right-wing Christian? You make the argument that banning guns won’t get rid of them but will only drive them underground, but you want to ban certain behaviours and think that will work. This is double-mindedness. You can’t legislate spiritual change.

The nation will change spiritually when people come to Jesus and acknowledge Him as their Lord in truth and with actions, not just in words. We can achieve this only through fervent, heartfelt prayer and proclamation of the Good News about what Jesus has done for us, in all humility and grace.

I’ve heard Christians say things like “God will send revival if we overturn Roe vs Wade”. This is tosh, and we ought to know it. Genuine spiritual revival is a sovereign work of a merciful God at His discretion, and the only prerequisite that matters is that His church, those who call on His name, humble themselves, seek His face and turn away from their own wickedness.

It’s not about society turning away from godless liberalism or whatever human face you put on the enemy. It’s about you, personally, and me, personally, turning away from our little white lies and our whitewashing of certain forms of evil and our personal greed and our personal impurity and our personal arrogant pride and so on. It means we have to own our own personal crap: we can’t fudge or generalise to make ourselves feel better.

We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the high call of God to which He has called us. None of us truly deserve to take the name of Christian, “little Christ”. Real revival has always begun not with a political movement but with the church of the Lord Jesus Christ falling on our knees and getting serious about living for Him. Revival and a restoration of the church to the wider society will only come when we do that.

Christians can’t assume an automatic prominence of our own viewpoint any more, but that doesn’t mean we’re an endangered species. “Existential threat”? Please; how can mere human legislation extirpate what our Lord said the very gates of hell would not be able to hold out against?

Is our view of our Saviour truly that weak and pitiful? Do we truly have so little sense of the true strength of our God that we believe we have to do His job by politicking? If we try to fight to preserve and protect visible public Christianity in America, we will lose, because we are fighting the wrong battle with the wrong weapons. If we truly want to demolish strongholds of the enemy, we have to use the true weapons of our warfare, which are “not carnal”. Not of the flesh, not the way the world does it. No barrage of Facebook memes or tweets or angry hostility or political campaigning: heartfelt prayer, personal repentance, real holiness of lifestyle, graciousness. Love God and love other people. All the rest is commentary.

Those are our weapons. And all the powers of hell tremble when we take them up.

You think “the evil liberal agenda” won’t wither like a snail in a fire, faced with genuine compassionate love from those calling themselves by the name of the Master? You think “the evils of reactionary conservatism” can stand up to people acting with real love for them despite what they believe? You think the devil’s politics stand a chance? What does it matter if abortion remains legal, if we have such a spiritual revival that no-one wants to take up that option?

If we’re under attack, the mastermind behind it is that foul spirit called the devil. I’m sure he’s laughing at all the wasted energy we’re expending counterattacking the wrong targets. The human ones. The ones he’s duped into being his puppets. Put whoever you think fits into that category, but be aware that someone else probably thinks you should be there.

Yes, we’re under attack, but not in the way you think. The war is spiritual, not political or social except at second hand. The appropriate weapons for the true battle are found in the Scriptures, in prayer, and in the character of Christ. Facing temptation to greed? Give generously. Being reviled? Speak positively in return. Under attack with lies? Hold unswervingly to the truth and trust your reputation to the Lord. All sorts of accusing lies were told about the early church by the pagans, too, but they didn’t reply in kind. Guess who won in the long-term.

What I’m trying to say is that spiritual warfare isn’t just some weirdly mystical exercise of naming and shaming various unclean spirits. It’s right here and right now, every Christian, every point of decision. Am I going to act in loving obedience to my Lord or selfish rebellion? That’s the fight that’s ours to fight.

It’s war, people. And we need to stop shooting at the POWs the enemy has taken.

Betrayed

I’m still trying to come to terms the prospect of a Trump Presidency.

It’s not really the fact that he won the election. People are allowed their political opinions and I totally understand the perspective of much of the Midwest whose jobs and job prospects vanished a long time ago and were faced with a man promising to bring them back.

No, it’s the fact that self-confessed evangelical Christians voted for him and supported (and support) him in such overwhelming numbers that is giving me such difficulty.

If you want the truth, I feel betrayed.

Betrayed by a Church that I expected to show more discernment, betrayed by a Church that has been talking for a generation and a half about how much character matters in politics and then sold themselves to elect one of the vilest-charactered individuals ever to enter the Oval Office.

Betrayed by a community of which I still basically consider myself a part, whose central defining characteristic I believed to be a desire to take the Bible seriously as revealed truth and to live lives in accordance with that.

Betrayed that the Church – my people – who are so earnest about establishing modesty and purity of lifestyle could stoop to elect a man who owns a strip club, brags about his adulteries against his multiple wives and talks about committing sexual assault as if it’s “just something men do”.

Betrayed that a community who say they believe that it’s what’s inside that counts, that “man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart”, could so perjure themselves by electing a man who treats women as numerical values based entirely on their outward physical attractiveness and has contempt for anyone he considers less than a “7”.

This is not something you can shrug off with your “Trump’s not a perfect candidate” whitewash. There’s a difference between “not perfect” and actually actively vile, and Trump is on the wrong side of that line. How can you claim to follow Christ and actively support someone who brags about “grabbing women by the p*ssy” as some sort of godly choice?

This is not something you can paper over with your “don’t vote character, vote the platform” whitewash. We the Church have been the ones waving the flags about how important character is to leadership, and now we give the lie to all of that by voting for this arrogant sexual predator?

This is not something you can weasel out of with your “But Hillary” smokescreen. This is not about her. I don’t care that you didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton – goodness knows her stance on abortion is problematic for Bible-believing Christians – what troubles me is that you voted for, whitewashed and somehow sanctified Donald Trump as if he’s some Christlike leader who will save the nation. The Bible has a lot to say about the sanctity of life; we agree on that much. But the sanctity of life means ALL life, both sides of the birth canal. Donald Trump’s willingness to use nuclear weapons has to give us pause, particularly given his what’s the point of having them if we aren’t going to use them?” rhetoric. This is like “what’s the point of having a gun if you aren’t going to shoot someone?” and does not sit well with respect for the sanctity of life. Abortion is a big issue, but please stop making an idol of it to the exclusion of everything else.

Now, Donald Trump is the President-elect. He will be the President, whether we like the idea or not. And the evangelical church put him there, may God have mercy on us. We’re alienating our mission field, driving away those we should be seeking to win. That doesn’t mean we need to all become liberals. But it does mean that we ought to have a big problem supporting a vile individual who says evil inflammatory things, lies like a rug, changes his story to fit his audience, boasts about sexual assault, owns a strip club, sexualises his own daughter, etc, etc, like Donald Trump has shown himself to be.

I forgive you as an act of the will, evangelical church in America, but I’m seriously put out with you right now.

Husbandry

Though I say so myself, I have a pretty good marriage relationship.

We’ve never had what we consider a fight. Plenty of disagreements, but no fights (fights get personal. We don’t do that). We love one another. We genuinely value each other in our different talents and giftedness and personalities. Evidently we’re doing something right.

Not that you’d guess it if you listened to some Christian teachers talking about submission and then did a comparison, because our relationship doesn’t look a lot like the hierarchical arrangement which is so often touted as the Christian ideal.

Nearly every time it comes up, you hear someone saying that “trying to have 50/50 control leads inevitably to fighting”, and that only with a proper marital hierarchy can there be harmony. Along with “your kids will become homosexuals if you don’t dominate your wife”, this seems to be the main threat used to try to force a hierarchical pattern onto Christian marriages: “exercise husbandly authority or your wife will fight you constantly”.

Speaking from experience, I assure you that this is not the case. When people ask me “but who’s ultimately in charge?” I have to sort of look at them blankly. “When there’s a disagreement, who makes the final decision?” they insist, and I reply “we both do”. We discuss it until we can agree. Or at least find a compromise we can both live with. God is in charge; we both serve Him.

Needless to say, I baffle a lot of these people. They seem to think that the way we do it shouldn’t work. But it does.

For me, one of the major secrets of our success is that we both fully realise that we are on the same side.

A lot of the marital-hierarchy folks seem to be assuming a level of competition and struggle between husband and wife that I think is deeply unhelpful. A healthy marriage is not a competition; it’s a relationship of mutual support and encouragement in which you prefer one another and build one another up. Get that part right and you’re making a nonsense of the whole hierarchy thing even if you believe you have one. If you constantly fight over control, you probably both need to stop assuming that marriage is a game with one winner and one loser. It isn’t. Either you both win, or you both lose.

I’m going to deliberately invert the threat-type statement I referred to earlier, just to make a point. From what I’ve seen, trying to have a positional hierarchy in your marriage relationship leads inevitably to resentment and fighting, or one person’s desires and needs being sidelined by the dominant partner. The only times it works is when the people involved do not live as if they have a hierarchy even when they say that they do.

I said last time, talking about submission, that the proper context of Ephesians 5:22 is Ephesians 5:21, and that the two form a single sentence in Greek. But what I want to focus on this time is the role and responsibility of a husband.

The Scriptural command to husbands is “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy…”

This takes the whole question of who is in control or who has the authority and consigns it to the junkpile. Nowhere are husbands told to make sure that their wives submit to them with proper respect (though that seems to be the essence of some people’s mentality about the question). God did not make us men to be His enforcers or judges in our families. We are told simply to love our wives and give ourselves up for them.

Even people that believe in a Divinely-ordained positional hierarchy in marriage recognise this; it’s the one thing that can make a stated marital hierarchy work.

The question of who’s in charge and who has the authority is quite simply the wrong lens through which to view the matter. Particularly if you are a husband. You do not get to concern yourself with whether your wife is “submitting” properly; your responsibility is to love her as Christ loved the church.

What does this mean in practice?

Well, what did Christ’s love and giving Himself up for us look like? What did it achieve? What resulted from it?

Jesus died to save us. He gave up His life for our freedom from sin; God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God. More, He intercedes for us before the Throne, by His Spirit He refines us so that we become like Him, doing the will of God fully in our lives.

Now obviously a husband doesn’t lay down his life to save his wife from sin in the same way, but there are lessons here. It is the role of a husband to give up himself in order to bring his wife to the place she is meant to be in the Lord. It is his job to serve her just as Christ washed the disciples’ feet, to encourage and support her in her God-given ministry and to do all in his power to see to it that she is able to fulfill the call of God on her life.

Even our English word “husband” carries this sort of meaning. Though it is almost exclusively used nowadays as a noun meaning a male spouse, in the Middle Ages the word meant a farmer. Someone engaged in the work of cultivation. (The English town of “Husbands Bosworth” preserves a last remnant of this meaning; it refers to “Town on Bosworth field where the husbandmen, ie farmers, live”, as opposed to the nearby “Market Bosworth” which is “Town on Bosworth field where the farmers come to market”. Anyway, moving on…)

Husbandry, then, in the modern sense of the word husband, is the art of cultivating your wife. Raising her up, doing what you can to ensure that she is fruitful in her ministry and life, cherishing and preferring her in the Lord. Being her advocate when needed, taking care of her, developing her.

No farmer expects his farm to support him without his doing any work; on the contrary, farming is hard work. Marriage is also, in one sense. It’s hard to give yourself up. But in another sense, it really isn’t hard at all. How hard can it be to give yourself up for the one person in the universe after God that you value above all others? How hard is it to prefer the one you prefer? How hard is it to love the one you love?

Someone will look at all this and see a lot of work for little gain. While that’s about my perspective on farming – a life I have very little interest in actually living – it really isn’t like that. As I said before, a healthy marriage is not a competition, and me making sure that my wife wins does not mean that I lose; it means that we win. We’re in this together, husband and wife. We’re on the same team, not racing against each other.

A wife who knows that she is cherished, loved, valued, respected, listened-to, a true partner not a subordinate – who wouldn’t want a wife like that? I have a suspicion that this is how Proverbs 31 Women are made.

I have no need to overrule and exercise the sort of positional authority I mistrust and fear in my marriage relationship. I trust my wife’s judgment; I know that she’s on my side and that even when she might not make quite the same decision that I would have, that she’s taking my preferences and desires into account just as I do hers when we have to make decisions by ourselves. We’ll usually try to talk it over and come to a mutually-agreed-on decision, but when it comes to it, we trust each other to make a decision that’s good for both of us as far as that lies in our power.

You may disagree, but this doesn’t feel like any kind of authority-based relationship. She’s not my subordinate and I’m not hers. We’re in this together. We try to have a system of 100/0/0 control, in which God is in charge and we both follow together.

Some people would probably say I wear my headship too lightly. I disagree with this assessment, but you have to understand that I consider headship to be a position of service, just as any other position of Christian leadership. As it is written: So Jesus declared, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you shall not be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves(Lk 22:25-26).

Proper Christian leadership is the opposite of hierarchical dominance. Why should husbandly headship be any different?

So I don’t buy the argument that trying to have a relationship of mutuality is setting yourself up for failure as a Christian spouse. In my experience it is not so; let’s leave the dominance games to the buffalo and the veiled threats to the pagans, shall we?

War Room studies

In the post-service Bible study time that my current church has (Americans, strangely, seem to know this pre- or post-Sunday service event as “Sunday school”; to me that still tends to primarily mean what Americans call “children’s church”) we recently watched the Christian film The War Room. And now we’re going through the associated Bible study.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s basically about the power of prayer, and is centred around a “normal” churched-but-barely-Christian couple with relationship issues. You ought to be able to guess most of the plot from that.

Surprisingly, I actually found it basically enjoyable. It’s not a great film as films go. It’s not Oscar material. But it’s enjoyable enough. Enough that I might have to revise my rock-bottom opinion of Christian filmmaking up a little.

I have to confess to being the arch-cynic of Christian media. My overarching impression is that 98% of it is lame, amateurish, preachy and contrived.

My being impressed by The War Room is at least in part simply because I have the bar set so low that merely not being total crap would impress me.

I think War Room is better than that. It has high production values and is very well-acted. Most of the characters actually come across as real people, not actors hamming it up. It has a few issues, but most of the time it’s not being annoyingly preachy. At least, none of the occasional preaching from the mouths of the main characters was ever out of character. It was… all right.

So now we come to the Bible study, tying in to a film about the power of prayer.

Now, my personal bar for Bible studies and guided prayer workbooks is about as high as my bar for Christian media is low. I want real, meaty content, practical pointers and encouragement for the mature believer and seasoned pray-er as well as ground-level introductory material for the clueless. I want to be treated like a literate adult with a functional brain at minimum; fill-in-the-blank reading comprehension questions are something I would have found simple as a ten-year-old.

I want to be challenged and I want to be taught something.

In short, I want quite a lot.

But apparently, even though this is the consumers’ paradise of the United States of Walmart, I’m going to be somewhat disappointed.

As I consider the film, I’m almost wondering why there’s a tie-in Bible study at all. Jesus didn’t provide the solutions to His parables for all the crowd to examine, and many of those were a lot less straightforward than The War Room. He let people figure it out.

Let’s take, for example, the “lukewarm coffee” scene. If you are trying to tell me you missed the point of that, then I begin to seriously doubt whether you have a functioning brain. This is, cinematically, Jesus’ words to the Laodicean church: “you’re lukewarm and it makes me want to puke”. And I’m using “puke” deliberately; this is the literal meaning of “spew you out of my mouth”.

Ok, if you’re a new believer you may not have read that verse, but still, the point is made abundantly clear solely using movie material. Do we really need an entire group Bible lesson rehashing it?

I mean absolutely no disrespect to our Bible study leaders. They’re a good couple and the themes raised by this film are worth delving into. Prayer is something we ought to know how to do, something that we ought to study in the Scriptures. And the film was even quite a good encouragement to get off our fat, lazy arses and spend time in prayer. Not really a practical “how-to” guide or theological treatise on the subject, but no-one should be expecting that. It’s a movie. Its purpose is to entertain.

This is absolutely not about our study leaders. It’s about published Bible study guides in general, and this one in particular.

I come to this Bible study guide and I notice that it has a lot of features in common with the Pray31 national prayer initiative guide that I was so disappointed in last year. Like that guide, it’s glossy and slick and very professional-looking. Really, it looks great. Someone’s really gone to town on the presentation.

But unfortunately, like the Pray31 guide, it’s rather more disappointing in the actual content department.

If you want a ground-level introduction to basic Christian discipleship that ties in to this movie, this is what you’re getting. Honest assessment of where you are right now, accountability, grace and works, forgiveness, foundational spiritual warfare, identity in Christ. There’s some meaty subjects right there. It could be challenging for anyone.

But like the Pray31 initiative, I find myself asking why it’s pitched so very, very low.

I understand that it can be a good idea even for the most mature Christian to refresh the basics once in a while, and I’m by no means that Christian yet. But there is a point at which we leave the elementary teachings about grace, faith, obedience to God and righteous living. There ought to come a point at which we exchange milk for solid food for the bulk of our intake.

This study seems to be pitched at churched people who have been challenged by the film to get more serious about their faith.

That’s ok; they had to make some kind of a decision about what their target audience was. But my question is why decide to pitch it to churched near-pagans? I’m not sure they will be that likely to be watching the film in the first place, and I’m fairly certain that unless they’re already reasonably serious about their faith they aren’t going to make the time for a Bible study that purports to be on the power of prayer.

If you need to go over salvation-by-grace-not-works in a Bible study on the power of prayer, it doesn’t say good things about the state of the church at large.

And I know enough pastors and church leaders to be really doubtful that this stereotype is as prevalent as it appears from where we pitch our published teaching. Just about all of the pastors I actually know are good, well-informed servants of Christ who preach the whole Good News and teach the whole Scripture. They aren’t keeping their flocks in the dark about the truth of the Word. So who is, if the church at large is really this clueless?

I’m not saying that there isn’t a need for introductory-level material on a number of different discipleship topics. But I am saying that there is also a need for deeper studies as well.

Some of the questions are pretty good. A few of the “honest evaluation” questions are questions we really should ask ourselves if we want to evaluate our spiritual life.

But others are just annoyingly brainless. I know every Bible study guide under the sun has a tendency to ask “fill in the blank” questions and “did you actually read the Scripture we told you to?” questions. And I never have seen the point of them. I’m a literate adult. I have a functioning brain. We cease giving our children these sorts of reading-comprehension questions when they reach high school. Why do we think they are appropriate for adults?

Surely I can’t be that much smarter than the average bear? Am I really alone in a nation full of third-grade readers? I expect more from my ten-year-old, to be brutally frank.

From what I remember (and it’s been a while, so time may be clouding my memory), if you go into a Christian bookshop in the UK looking for Bible study material, you’ll be presented with a range of options, and the sales assistant might say something like “if you want something introductory, this one’s a really good basic overview, this one’s a little deeper and that one’s really practical but not much theology.”

My experience of American published Bible study material is that it all seems to be pitched at the lowest possible level.

America has produced some of the greatest preachers, Bible teachers and Christian writers of this present generation, and I’m including the entire world when I say that. And when I come to studies like this I’m really baffled as to how.

Reading through the whole guide, this is not really a Bible study series on the subject of prayer, like you might expect from watching the film. It’s an introduction to basic discipleship for non-believing church attendees. You can tell that by the subjects it covers. Honest assessment of where you are spiritually, Christian accountability and fellowship, grace and works (why on earth does Christian accountability take precedence over this, if this is the basic discipleship workbook it appears to be?), basics of spiritual warfare, and identity in Christ (another subject that I’d consider significantly more important than accountability) – this is a lot more foundational Christian discipleship than it is power of prayer.

There’s a need for this sort of thing, I’ll acknowledge that, but I have serious doubts that those who actually need this will make the time to participate, and I have even stronger doubts that those who are actually likely to participate – the already-committed Christ-followers – will really be brought that much deeper into the knowledge of God.

Ok, I admit that my expectations are high. But why shouldn’t they be? Why do we assume that American disciples of Jesus are necessarily ignorant of the One they serve?

It was quite a good film, and the studies are well-tied to both the film and the Scriptures. But this isn’t the study we need.

I reiterate, this isn’t about the study leaders.  They’re actually doing a great job of mitigating the worst of the stupid.  And it’s not everyone that can write their own Bible study materials – I’m currently making my first attempt, and it’s hard – this is why published materials exist in the first place. It’s not about their selection of this; you’d expect that a tie-in Bible study to a film about the power of prayer to concern, well, prayer, right? Well, I would, anyway.

No, this is about the assumption of those who write and publish such things that the church at large is only ever in need of basic introductory-level materials. Can we have something deeper? Please?

One and the Same?

I’ve blogged about this before, but with Wheaton College’s recent dismissal of one of their professors for claiming that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, it seems like a timely subject to revisit.

It seems as though this is a sensitive as well as timely subject, as evidenced by Wheaton’s reaction to what some Christians (even Bible-believing Evangelicals) would see as a legitimate intellectual position, and it’s not really one that the Bible itself weighs in on very clearly. In the period in which the Bible was being written, there were no other extant monotheistic faiths about which the Bible authors saw fit to comment. Even Akhenaten’s solar monotheism goes unremarked in Scripture, and Islam was several hundred years in the future at the time of Christ. At the time of writing even the last books of the New Testament, Christianity wasn’t even fully divorced from Judaism, the only other existing monotheisting faith..

So we’re dependent for an answer largely on our own reasoning and wisdom, and our interpretation of certain few Scriptural precedents.

There are simplistic arguments and poorly-reasoned responses on both sides. It would be incredibly oversimplifying the question (as well as denying the real differences between us) to say that since both Muslims and Christians believe in one God who created and rules the universe that therefore the Muslim and Christian views of this God are identical at all points, but equally, it would be oversimplifying the question (and denying the considerable body of basic truth that we do hold in common) to say that since the Muslim and Christian doctrines of God are not identical at all points that therefore the Islamic Allah and the Christian God are fundamentally separate beings.

What the debate boils down to is how significant are the differences, and how significant are the commonalities?

It should be evident to anyone that Muslims and Christians do have several crucial differences in how they conceive of the Divinity. Christians believe in a Godhead who is Triune. Muslims consider any attempt to compromise the singularity of the Divinity as the ultimate sin of shirk, or blasphemy about the Divine nature. Christians believe in a God who is Love. Muslims see this as an anthropomorphism at best and almost certainly a heretical notion. And so on.

But it should also be obvious that there is a lot of overlap in how we perceive the Divinity. The Muslim Allah and the Christian God are both shown in the relevant texts of the two religions as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. They are both known as Creator, Sustainer, Almighty, Ruler of the angels, Lord of the Universe. It’s not totally unreasonable to suggest that we might be looking at the same Being from different angles.

Ah, but that relativises revealed Christian truth and undercuts missions by suggesting that Muslims don’t need to be saved, we are told sometimes.

Personally, I find that to be avoiding the question. Jews who are not Messianic also consider the Christian concept of the Trinity to be blasphemous, yet no-one I know about is suggesting that the Jewish Adonai is not the same Being as the Christian God. Indeed, our very foundational theology rests on the fact that they are one and the same: “Christianity is Judaism fulfilled”, as we sometimes put it.

So what makes Islam different?

Saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is not the same as saying that Islam is wholly right. Some of their theology is wildly divergent from mainstream Christian doctrine, as I have said. The real question is over how significant those real theological differences are to the question of whether or not we worship the same God. After all, Calvinists and Arminians sometimes hold some wildly divergent theological doctrines, yet no-one seriously claims that Baptists and Methodists are following different gods. Or Protestants and Catholics, for that matter. I don’t hold with the Catholic elevation of the Bishop of Rome or their doctrines of purgatory and penance, and some of their veneration of the Virgin Mary and other saints is a little too close to outright worship for my personal comfort, but I don’t try to say that Catholics are worshipping a false god. That would be rather ridiculous, in my opinion.

In other words, just because we have some different beliefs and teachings about God, it does not necessarily mean that there is a black-and-white separation and “our God” is the true one and the fact that their teachings differ from that is prima facie evidence that “their god” is a false one. That seems rather simplistic. The truth is a little more complex.

For those who believe that Muslims and Christians are worshipping different beings, the crucial difference comes down to character. They point to the apparent capriciousness of the Muslim Allah, the recorded harsh, demanding aspect of his character and the total lack of any sense of the Christian idea that “God is Love”. They point to the absolute and uncompromising monotheism of Islam, with no room for the complex Christian idea of the Trinity. They point to the apparent distance of the Muslim Allah from his believers.

These are all valid points and critical differences. Muslim concepts of Allah and Christian concepts of God are really not the same.

But is that the same as saying that therefore they are two separate beings? I’m not sure.

If we were to encounter a new tribe of polytheistic pagans who had a notion of a “high god” who was a good Creator deity, but distant from humans and uninvolved, most of us would probably identify that “high god” with the God of Scripture, even if the local religion’s concept of that God was that He was limited in power, presence and knowledge. After all, isn’t that what Paul did with his Mars Hill speech to the Athenians, proclaiming the “unknown god”?

Paul was even prepared to repurpose pagan poetry (functionally almost equivalent to Judaeochristian prophecy for the ancient Greeks) addressed to the vengeful, capricious and lustful Zeus to convey Christian truth about the Divine Being.

Was Paul saying that all of the Greek ideas and stories about Zeus were right? No, of course not. And honesty compels me to admit that he wasn’t saying that the pagan Zeus and the Christian YHWH were the same being, either. But historians tell us that at this period the more philosophical among the Greeks were beginning to dimly grasp that humans needed a Deity who was higher than the pagan stories. Though framed in the language of Zeus, there was a groping towards the notion of a High God. Zeus at his most exalted begins to approach Yahweh at His lowest ebb.

Can we build on that? Paul thought so.

Can we do the same with Islamic ideas about the Divine Being? Why would we be unable to? They are far closer to the whole truth.

A lot of the argument seems like a deliberate misunderstanding of one another’s position. To those who claim that Muslims and Christians are worshipping the same God, saying that we aren’t is perceived as a simplistic and unhelpful denial of the very real overlap in conceptions of the Muslim Allah and the Christian God. As one who holds this position, I often want to point out that it is unhelpful, when trying to lead a Muslim to faith in the Messiah, to start out from an attitude of “everything you believe is wrong”. Because it isn’t so. He (or she) already knows the Divine Being as good, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, just as we know the Divine Being as good, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. He already knows that there is a spiritual world. He acknowledges angels and demons, the Messiahship of Jesus and the reality of the Last Judgement. It seems foolishly ignorant to dismiss all of that.

However, it cuts both ways. For many of those who say that Muslims and Christians are not worshipping the same God, this is merely a way of acknowledging that the Muslim doctrine of Allah does not entirely square with the Christian doctrine of God. They are (most of them) not saying that Muslims do not believe any Biblical truths about the Deity, just that the differences are significant enough that it is perilous at best to equate the Muslim Allah and the Christian God. They really aren’t the same.

As for me, I’m more comfortable with giving Muslims the credit of at least worshipping the same Being that we are, even if, like the pagan polytheists in my hypothetical example, they get some of it wrong. To me, what the differences largely come down to is a difference in focus on various aspects of the nature of God. We look on the differences as largely differences in character, and they are (given that we are prepared to believe that Jewish people worship the same God despite their rejecting the notion of the Trinity), but to my mind that obscures a very interesting difference in how we approach the nature of God.

Both Muslims and Christians hold that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Or in simpler words, all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere at all times. We both hold that He is both good and eternal. But we have different areas of focus, and they affect the way we perceive His character.

Muslims acknowledge all of those attributes, but the really important one to Muslims is His omnipotence. God is first and foremost great, supreme in power and without rival. To Muslims, even His justice and goodness are second to His omnipotence; whereas Christians believe in an objective standard of right and wrong to which even God is subject, to a Muslim the idea that God could be subject to anything, even the idea of right and wrong, is nonsense. Whatever Allah does is right, not because Allah constrains Himself to never do wrong, but because whatever He does becomes right. It’s right because God is doing it.

By the same token, referring to God as “Father”, “Lover”, “Bridegroom” or many other of our Christian titles is to do the all-powerful, supremely exalted Godhead the blasphemous disservice of equating Him with our human expressions of those titles. We’re bringing God down to our level, as far as they are concerned. God isn’t like a fallible human father in all ways, much less the equality that “lover” can sometimes communicate.

By contrast, for many Western Christians the really important attribute of God is His omnipresence. Yes, God is all-powerful and all-knowing, but the important thing is that He’s close to us. “Emmanuel” is a truth that much of Christian doctrine rests upon, but even beyond its meaning that “The Word became flesh”, we focus on God’s nearness and readiness to act on our behalf. Look at our worship songs. “What a Friend We Have In Jesus”. “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”. “Your Love Reaches Me”. And so on. We acknowledge God’s transcendence and power, but it’s subordinated to, and in service of, His with-us-ness.

If Muslims err in bending all of God’s other attributes around His omnipotence, it seems like a lot of we Christians err just as much in bending all of God’s other attributes around His intimate Presence. Emmanuel does not mean that Jesus is my Boyfriend, after all, though we often seem to sing and make music as if it does.

But the question of whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God is a nuanced and subtle one, as much a matter of interpretation as various “difficult” passages of Scripture. I personally believe that it is reasonable to suggest that we are, but I take the point that we do indeed really believe some very different things about Who we are worshipping.

In other words, the debate is still open. And in light of that, I’m afraid Wheaton College’s dismissal of one of its professors over this question is not going to do anything to further the debate. At best it seems counterproductive; at worst, a little like intellectual dishonesty. This is apparently, in Wheaton’s eyes, not open for discussion. If you even dare to suggest the possibility, it is as much grounds for dismissal as claiming that the Resurrection did not physically happen.

I’m a little saddened that not even a respected academic institution like Wheaton seems able to have an adult discussion about the issue.