Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Broad not narrow

Jesus' words about sticking with the narrow gate are about entering the kingdom, and they risk getting distorted when applied to politics. It seems to me far better for Christians to be broad in politics. But we struggle to do it. In America, the Christian Coalition has booted out its new leader before he got started. Joel Hunter wanted to broaden the group's focus to look at both 'right' and 'left' issues—AIDS as well as abortion, poverty as well as sexual morality, global warming alongside . I don't know all the details, but it seems to me a shame.
To boast a little, Australian Christians are moving ahead of the US on this one. The 'About Us' page of the Australian Christian Lobby website still sounds very 'family values', but the group has worked hard in recent times to broaden its focus so that in the corridors of power it can represent Christians across the political spectrum. A quick look at their news and articles will see commentary and proposals on cloning, aboriginal health, business ethics, family wellbeing, and international poverty. This has got to be healthy for a Christian political vision that minimises its blindspots and represents Christ in all his fullness.

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Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Silly point

Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
If Lee don’t get you
Warnie must

It’s been a long wait through 2006 for cricket fans. Finally, the English side has arrived to defend their unlikely and unthinkable status as holders of the Ashes, the famed cricket trophy that means more to many Australians than the national anthem ever will. Tomorrow, the Brisbane test match begins. Tomorrow, the short English reign enters its death throes. My prediction is 5-0 to Australia, with a possible boring draw in Adelaide. Bring it on!

But while those of us who feel that all is right in the world when white-clothed figures walk onto a green expanse to hit a red ball around sit back and ready ourselves for the series, let’s spare a thought for those who haven’t been blessed with a love of cricket. This game can go for five days (five times!); it dominates certain TV and radio stations all summer; it has arcane language and strange rules; it alienates non-fans; and it’s just a game.

Life goes on around cricket, and cricket lovers needs to remember it. Especially cricket lovers whose allegiance is first to the Son of God and only second to the King of Spin, Mr Cricket and Pup.

Furthermore, to my regret, I haven't been able to construct any very strong cultural apologetics based around the game. Can anyone help?
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Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Poverty close up

U2's visit to Australia is but one of the cultural events throwing a spotlight on world-wide poverty. This Thursday in Melbourne a Make Poverty History forum will discuss ways of influencing the G20 agenda in favour of poverty alleviation.
For Christians, poverty is a complex issue. The Bible is neither pro-poverty, nor against it. It doesn't see poverty as a barrier to faith, nor as a spiritual good to be sought. The Bible is, however, against selfishness, love of money, and ignoring your neighbour in need. It is also pro- healing, sharing, loving and sacrificing your own comforts for others. Christians have to approach poverty through all of these spiritual guidelines.

But extreme poverty—stupid poverty, as Bono and Geldof call it—is such an affront to human existence that it can't be ignored, especially if we have the means to eradicate it.

A friend in politics, in his HSC economics textbook, quotes the humanist philosopher Thomas Pogge:

"How can severe poverty of half of humankind continue despite enormous economic and technological progress and despite the enlightened moral norms and values of our heavily dominant Western civilization? ... Our world is arranged to keep us far away from massive and severe poverty and surrounds us with affluent, civilised people for whom the poor abroad are a remote good cause alongside the spotted owl... Extensive, severe poverty can continue, because we do not find its eradication morally compelling."

But, thanks to technology, the moral distance between the well-off and the impoverished has been closing. It has become more compelling. TV, the internet and global events like Live Aid have turned Africans into neighbours, harder to ignore, easier to help. And there are more groups trying to help than ever before. Lobbying governments and large corporations to make a difference is becoming an artform.

For Christians who want to love their neighbours, it's just a matter of choosing a way to do it from the many great options available. There are no sure-fire ultimate solutions to extreme poverty outside the New Jerusalem, but there are plenty of working solutions and they are just a click away.

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Monday, 6 November 2006

Like a song

In the week of U2’s Australian tour, I’ll explore some of the songs that are likely to be on the playlist and what they say about the Christian faith. I’ll add songs daily to the bottom of this post, to keep them all in the same place. Add your comments!

It never really works to talk about lyrics. They have to be sung. So I’ll do my best to turn my writing into singing, relax the grammar a little, try to lean on the notes and let it ring, repeat, and rest. The assumption: that you know the songs and the lyrics, or can find them online at somewhere like I’m not being exclusivist; it’s just that printed lyrics aren’t going to sing, either.

Miracle Drug
This is a song about my wife. It’s also about eschatology. Two of my enduring subjects of interest and delight. It’s a hard song to listen to if you have a family member threatened by chronic illness (MS in our case). Amelia is doing fine (‘not visibly disabled’, as they say), but the song forces me to imagine a future I don’t want. Bono has contextualised the song, saying his inspiration was a severely disabled boy he met at school . I had wondered whether he also had in mind John Goldingay and his very disabled wife —he wrote Walk On about his life with his wife (who also has MS) and how U2 had sustained him.
This song has been one click away for years now. I always have in mind Amelia, and wanting to “trip inside her head” if, God forbid, she should ever not be able to tell me what she’s thinking, what she’s feeling. To be able to see “the songs” in her eyes, but not to hear her or know what is going on inside her head. Outrageous and unthinkable.

The production of this song is beautiful, the microphone halfway down Bono’s throat, picking up every catch and croak, the lament and the call to hope. He isn’t giving up on a miracle drug—there’s hope that things could change, there’s still the chance for freedom, there’s still a better future to imagine (and the Dublin boy did get a drug, and he could write the songs that his mother could see in his eyes).

There is amazing strength here, and optimism: “Of science and the human heart, there is no limit”. It could almost seem like hubristic humanism, but it’s grounded in a great reality. Bono prays breathlessly, nearly subsonically, “God I need your help tonight” before preaching his vision of the kingdom coming:
Beneath the noise/ Below the din/ I hear a voice/ It’s whispering
In science and in medicine/ “I was a stranger/ You took me in”
This is resurrection theology, the idea that the kingdom is not only coming, but has already come and the curse is reversing, and we see glimpses here and there, whispers of the time of no pain and no suffering. Just whispers—in science and in medicine, especially when it lifts up the least and the lowest. That’s what seems to drive U2. It’s only part of my eschatology, but its very moving.

I’m also driven to tears by the lines that follow. They are not the sort of thing you expect to find in a rock song. Isn’t rock about chaos, passion and dropping out? So why does Bono sing:

Love makes nonsense of space
And time will disappear
Love and logic keep us clear
Reason is on our side, love….

He sings it because he’s a resurrectionist, a God-truster, a believer in the Great Beyond, on the side of meaning and purpose and plans and the coming age of peace. And he sees signs, here and there, that this age is but upon us, if only we can hang on and hold the faith, and live out the curse-reversal. Reason and love—and even logic—tell us that this world is a poor shadow of the one to come. He’s “had enough of romantic love” and would give it up for the drug that makes everything good again. Science as more redemptive than romance—what a message!

I’m enough of a fan to know that the drug is a cipher for Christ himself. Jesus as a drug. Great apologetics. He’s the fix, except that you score him through love, and reason, and welcoming the stranger. I might want to focus the eschatology a bit more on the One who is to Come, to balance out Bono’s emphasis on the One Who Is (in other words, I think my eschatology is a bit more futurist than Bono’s), but I’m with the song. I just hope I never have to sing it for my wife.

The sheer bravery of it. Naming God in a song title. Not Allah, not just God, but Yahweh, the God of Moses. Lest we just take this for granted, remember that this song was released in the context of war in the Middle East. If you want evidence of U2’s spiritual convictions, turn it up.

It didn’t grab me on first listen. Now it’s my daily prayer. Bono’s vocals are so laid back, so barely in tune, barely melodic that this last song on the album passed me by until on one listen I heard the line, “take this shirt, polyester white trash made nowhere, take this shirt and make it clean”. Then all of the world’s lost souls were before me—all the suburb dwellers, factory workers, fear-faced students, garbage mountain prospectors, street walkers, no-name children of no-future space-fillers, dross of humanity, the people no one but God would miss.

Take these people, and love them so much that you wash them whiter than pure.

I suddenly got it—this was the prayer of the disciple who looks at himself and all those around him, and throws himself on the provision of God for he can do nothing less.

Bono sings this prayer, and in the Vertigo concert footage I’ve seen, the band is often standing in a line, literally praying it over the audience: take us, Lord, take our mouths (“so quick to criticise”), take our hands (“don’t make a fist”), take these shoes and fit them to the good deeds you have prepared in advance for us to do.

And he prays that God would take our souls, “stranded in some skin and bones”, and make them sing. There are clues in a few songs to Bono’s view of human identity and our future status where souls merge together (“all the colours bleed into one”) and people are deeply connected (on another song, he speaks of his father as “the same soul”). I’d love to know more about this…it’s a vision of human unity that we don’t hear often. Get me that backstage pass and an hour or two to talk mind-body philosophy…

But, yes, take this soul and make it sing. And take this city, he sings, in a splendid, marvellous eschatological statement. “A city should be shining on a hill”. It’s the words of Jesus, its Augustine, its Calvin’s Geneva, it’s the New Jerusalem. It’s people together, a society God would be proud of, a place God could dwell. But it belongs to God, not us. The title ‘Yahweh’ was brave, but this line is even braver: “Take this city, if it be your will/What no man can own, no man can take”. This, into a political climate of battles over Jerusalem, is nothing less than prophecy. It’s a call to humility, and to an end to zealous violence. The city belongs to no one but God, no group can claim it, not even any religion. It is God’s to take, and God’s to abandon. Pray, with Bono, that God would take it.

And throughout the song, the chorus returns us to the human situation—suffering and hope. We are waiting for the birth of a child, always painful, always anticipating joy, always anxious. Switch images to sunlight for another eschatological claim: the sun is coming up, the sun is rising, the new day is upon us. Any love we experience now is just a tiny drop in the ocean compared to what remains to come.

And any suffering is just the same drop. But for us polyester white trash, the question will always be there: why Yahweh, why the darkness before the dawn, why the pain and the terror and the injustice and unfairness? How long, O Lord? How long to sing this song?

All Because of You
This is what they do best: spiritual and Irish romance all at once. “All because of you — I am”. It’s an obvious lyric to anyone who has spent time in the Hebrew Bible, thinking about the name of God, “I am who I am”. The Great I Am. We are everything we are because of I am. It’s mystical grammar that makes sense of the great Personality at the heart of everything.

Then Bono turns the spotlight on himself. He becomes the ‘I’: an intellectual tortoise, enjoying the sound of his own voice, full of himself and hard to love, really. He’s not broke but you can see the cracks (I love that line). This combination of hubris and humility always works for him, because he gives so much. We know he knows that we know he’s a hustler. He’s telling us he’s not perfect, but he’s still taking centre stage. He knows he’s full of himself, but he knows he can’t fool us into thinking he isn’t.

Nor can he fool the I Am. So he doesn’t try. Instead he begs and prays: “You can make me perfect again”. It’s King David calling out to the one who made him. It’s the Apostle Paul asking for unthinkable forgiveness for the Chief Persecutor. It’s Luther sinning boldly and repenting just as boldly. It’s every honest son and daughter not pretending they are anything other than children of grace, ugly, confused, carrying ‘high rise’ burdens on their backs.

And then the song acknowledges that the beginning and the end are all in I am. I am is where we are born, and who we return to. It’s when we set out, and what we want to get back to, back inside the womb, in every way born again.

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Thursday, 19 October 2006

Two 50ths

Two magazines are celebrating 50 years of publication this month—Australia's intellectual monthly, Quadrant and America's Christianity Today. I've been reading both off and on for about 15 of those 50 years, and have a few reflections on the paths they have taken (and, as Robert Frost reminds me, not taken) . CT was founded by Billy Graham, and has his missional zeal at its root. At a time when evangelicals were large in number but low in influence, CT gave them a vehicle by which to connect biblical truth with the wider culture. It was always chiefly a 'culture-critiquing' magazine rather than a 'church-focused' one. Its focus is broad, and often on social issues—from AIDS to poverty to media to politics—and it has influence beyond its readership (still a paltry .005% of US 'born agains', but a higher percentage of leaders). It has to struggle with the problems of success—anyone who is even loosely evangelical wants a place in its pages. By and large, I feel the editors work hard at remaining true to the original vision of "presenting truth from an evanglical viewpoint". Quadrant presents truth from a right-wing political viewpoint, and was praised to the hilt by Prime Minister Howard at their 50th birthday bash. It occasions more intellectual debate than any other rag for pointy heads in Australia, even though it has some strong competitors (among them a young bantamweight called Case). Quadrant has likewise remained consistent to its anti-Communist and Catholic beginnings, and boasts victory over totalising ideologies and "fashionable views".

In terms of content, Quadrant stuck with form, with articles on Chairman Mao, the American alliance, and religion in society (plus lots of good poetry). CT likewise looked back on the Billy Graham legacy, how views of marriage have changed, and , but it also looked forward to the challenges ahead. Its mission is before it and, unlike Quadrant it doesn't feel like it has won the battle.

But the biggest difference I noticed is profound and worth reflecting on. 49 of Christianity Today's 152 pages are advertising, plus a 48-page ads insert. Quadrant carries none. The former influences the culture in partnership with the many and various projects advertised in its pages (publishers, colleges, church building programmes, charities); the latter only through the power of ideas conveyed in words on the page. Is one approach more likely to succeed in its mission than the other?

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Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Whose children?

The New College Lectures on childhood explored the early years, 'good enough' parenting, and child abuse. Professor Kim Oates displayed a medical head getting blood from a Christian heart--a great model of pastoral care from an academic context. In closing the lectures, Trevor Cairney (New College Master and a professor of education himself) alerted us to what seems to me to be a very Christian ethic for parents as we worry away at childraising:

Each of us must come to care about everyone else's children. We must recognize that the welfare of our children is intimately linked to the welfare of all other people's children. After all, when one of our children needs life-saving surgery, someone else's child will perform it. If one of our children is harmed by violence, someone else's child will be responsible for the violent act. The good life for our own children can be secured only if a good life is also secured for all other people's children .
Professor Lilian Katz (Director of the ERIC Clearinghouse for Early Childhood Education and Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois)

Love thy neighbour's children...

For full Lectures coverage visit the New College site

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Thursday, 12 October 2006

Idiot's Jesus

There's a Complete Idiot's Guide to Jesus. In this series, there is always ambiguity about whether it is the author or the reader who is the idiot. I'm pleased to say that the authors of this volume exonerate themselves of this charge. Their book is an excellent introduction to Jesus, as he is presented in the four Gospels. Most of the book works carefully, thoroughly and humorously through the Gospels, examining what Jesus said and did, and his various claims. In 'Jesus a.k.a' boxes throughout the book, they explore the many offices, titles and metaphors applied to him, adding something of a theological flavour to the otherwise person-centred approach.

It interests me that they began the book with Jesus as the fulfilment of Jewish prophecy, and they give an appendix listing the prophecies that Jesus fulfils. Does this assume a concern among readers for Christianity's relationship to the Hebrew Bible? That can hardly be the case. I wonder if it takes priority of place for the authors because of its 'wow!' factor. If Jesus' life and words were predicted in detail before hand, there's a heightening of excitement surrounding his identity: what kind of person has prophecies made about him?

The authors are clearly Christians, but their approach in the rest of the book is even-handedly historical and expository. Is the appeal to prophecy their efforts to make sure the book has apologetic and evangelistic impact? If so, do you think this kind of approach is likely to succeed in bringing people to ask "who do you say that I am?"?

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Wednesday, 27 September 2006

Doctors and gods

I attended a lecture on 'Health and Spirituality' by a leading Sydney psychiatrist (a Jewish guy). It was a graduate seminar, mainly for medicos. I was struck again by how little people know about Christianity (and religion in general). The level of discussion was very introductory, as if it were a new idea that people's spirituality and belief systems might interact with their health and well-being. But there does seem to be a genuine shift among doctors, from thinking they should disabuse people of the idea that spiritual things matter to their health ("here, take a pill, that will fix your depression") to respecting a patient's religious views and building them into patient care ("as part of your history, tell me about your religious views").

What I found most intriguing is the idea that the doctor (a self-confessed god-figure, according to the lecturer) is now feeling some responsibility to be a spiritual advisor, too. In fact, one of the slide titles presented was "Correcting Dysfunctional Beliefs". And there are guidelines for spiritual assessment in the provision of care. Some even explore whether religious activities could form part of a medical prescription for a patient's health.

If doctors want to do this, they will need to educate themselves about specific religious beliefs. In the US, the number of medical schools offering courses in spiritual issues rose between 1992-2002 from 2% to 68%. But in Australia, there is still precious little such education to be had. We could also use greater involvement of trained Christians, moral philosophers, theologians, even apologists, in the health system, where people are often asking the hardest questions and looking most earnestly and urgently for the answers.

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Monday, 4 September 2006

Grace to Derrida

I have just discovered that, for Derrida, not everything is a text. In a long interview published in Derrida and Religion(or here), Derrida is recorded as saying: "On or about 'grace given by God', deconstruction, as such, has nothing to say or to do. If it's given, let's say, to someone in a way that is absolutely improbable, that is, exceeding any proof, in a unique experience, then deconstruction has no lever on this...In relation to this experience of faith, deconstruction is totally, totally useless and disarmed." (p.39).
If I understand this properly, he is saying that you can't argue with personal experience. And if that experience is one of God's grace, then it is not deconstructable. What are we to make of this claim? Is Derrida saying that the revelation of God might be direct, unmediated by discourse, and all of the problems that follow? If so, does his claim fit better with sacramental or pentecostal Christianity than it does with evangelicalism?

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Thursday, 31 August 2006

Second preference

Phillip Adams, in an unusually mild article suggests what we have been saying all along at CASE--that there is no political party that really represents the Christian view of the world. And that we should expect a great deal of diversity from Christians as they work out how to be in the world, not of the world. I do like his suggestion that Christians are looking for someone to give their second preference--a fine summary of the Christian approach to politics.

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Wednesday, 30 August 2006

Vanity Fair enough

In the CASE Great Books courses, we've been studying Thackeray's novel, Vanity Fair. In the recent film version starring Reese Witherspoon, the ending is changed so that Becky Sharp (the opportunistic heroine of the story) has a 'happily ever after' ending in India rather than the book's pointed final comments about her pointless social climbing. It struck some of the group that this was a sign of the times--the filmmaker could not cope with the hopelessness of the book, where the true vanity of the characters is left to hang over the reader like a warning sign. I wonder whether this is something we need in apologetics today--the capacity to let hopelessness and vanity echo forth around people's empty lives, so that they might seek out something more substantial than wealth and social status.

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Monday, 21 August 2006

Vilification--is to win to lose?

The Dannys vilification case in Victoria is a test case for religous pluralism in Australia. What kind of criticism of other religions is acceptable? Are all religions treated equally on this issues? Should they be?

As a strong advocate of free speech, but an equally strong believer that it is a relative not an absolute right, I want to see a society where religions can be vigorously attacked, defended, promoted and even rejected. However, my biggest fear in the Dannys case is that it will achieve the opposite of what Christians wish. My fear is that if the Dannys win their appeal, it will send the bizarre message that Christians think it is OK to vilify muslims. Of course, that would be a misreading of what has happened, but it is the kind of vibe that could so easily come across.

That would be a tragedy, because the Christian message is meant to come with respect and gentlenessand honorable conduct. It's not up to me to suggest who has conducted in what way, but I've read Judge Higgin's decision and some of the transcripts of the offending seminar, and I found myself pondering the challenge of speaking the truth in love.

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Sunday, 20 August 2006

The fist of Buddha

My eight year-old son wanted me to list him as a Buddhist on the national census form. Since he knows nothing about Buddhism other than the lotus position, I refused. Try me again when you can explain the Four Noble Truths, I said. However, his real reason for wanting to identify with Buddhists is friendship. His best friend at school is a Buddhist (well, at least, he comes from a Buddhist family and presumably his Dad listed him as Buddhist on the census).
My son's real problem is that anyone would challenge their friendship because of their religious affiliation. Employing a 'points of contact' style of apologetics (having just read this book), I suggested to him that there are some things that Buddhists have in common with Christians, but we believe very different things about Jesus. My son's passionate response was, "If anyone said anything bad about Buddhists, Buddha would punch his face in". When I pointed out to him that wasn't a particularly Buddhist thing to do, he shrugged his shoulders. "I'll do it then", was his solution.
I wonder whether, as time goes on, their friendship will survive their different belief systems. Or will one of them shift faiths? Or will something else happen between them. My prayer is that they will both be confronted by the uniqueness of Jesus—the one way to God and the true revelation of God—and remain friends, whatever happens. But is that too much to hope for?

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Wednesday, 9 August 2006

Aust Christian Future?

I attended an intriguing conference in Canberra on Monday exploring Australia's Christian Heritage. One speaker mentioned the need to distinguish between 'heritage' (our celebration of the past and the aspects of it that we hope will endure) and 'history' (the whole shebang, warts and all). I felt happiest with the many and various speakers when they admitted this need both to celebrate the ways in which Christianity has contributed to Australian life, and mourn the ways in which the name of Christ has been abused and brought sorrow and suffering. The conference struggled most when it came to outlining what the future of Christianity in Australia could/might/should look like. Here's where we need robust discussion about what Christian witness and living look like in a 21st century pluralistic secular state such as ours (and we shouldn't expect agreement!)

But planning how to move forward from where you are—rather than longing for an idealised past or throwing your hands up in despair—is always the hardest part, and Proverbs 16:9 kept springing to mind. Besides, it was a conference was organised by historians!

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Tuesday, 1 August 2006

Site for sore I's

I hope you are enjoying the new site, and look forward to your feedback. Now that it is running reasonably smoothly, we are filling in gaps that have existed for months, as well as adding exciting new material. There are still some teething issues: when you search the site for 'God' you come up with just one entry, 'Jesus' gives you three, but 'Greg Clarke' gives you eight entries. Something is awry; I know I should be there more than eight times...

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Sunday, 25 June 2006

From farm to slum

I was surprised to discover that only now are more people around the world living in cities than in rural contexts. I thought we crossed that line decades ago, but according to a UN report, 2007 will be the first year in history that it is true. It looks like remaining true, too, with predictions that 60% of the world's population will be urban by 2030. The UN report says one in three of these future urban residents will live impoverished and unhealthy lives in slums.

Urban mission is the pressing need. I wonder whether apologetics looks different in the city and the country? From my speaking experience, it's hard to say. Thoughts?

More here and here.

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Naming the problem in Africa

What role does sin have as an explanation for world affairs? Back in 2003, CASE held a seminar with UK theologian, Alistair McFadyen, where he argued that the doctrine of sin has the most explanatory power in the two particular situations of child abuse and the Holocaust—it makes more sense of the facts than any other explanation.
Now, in this week’s Guardian Weekly, a Sierre Leone filmmaker, Sorious Samura, says as much to explain AIDS in Africa, without using the s-word.
“The things I said in Living With AIDS [his recent film documentary] about the African male’s sexuality are things that no white journalist can say”, he is recorded to say. In explaining why Africa is trapped in an epidemic, he says, “We should turn around and say this is happening because people are bad to the bone, people are greedy, people are selfish, people are corrupt”.
It’s personal and social sin, the two intertwined and no doubt causing each other, too. Surely the beginnings of a solution in Africa must be to deal with the problem of sin.

More here

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Wednesday, 21 June 2006

Best Joves

Finally, we discover the secret society behind it all... (thanks, Byron)

Monday, 29 May 2006

Deadly vices and Narnian ransoms

Following up on our C.S.Lewis Today conference, I'm doing some reading on Lewis and atonement. The question has always been whether Lewis continues the view of Origen (3rd C) that Jesus' death was a ransom paid to Satan. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan is a ransom, presumably to the White Witch, to pay the penalty for Edmund's rebellion (they call it the Deep Magic).

There's an interesting essay on this in The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy. The authors defend the Ransom theory, saying it is less offensive when Satan is viewed not as a person, but as pseudo-personal (like a mutant?). N.T.Wright says something similar here. It also helps if God and Satan aren't considered to be 'doing a deal', like business colleagues. I'm still pondering all this.

In this same essay, the writers speak of sinning as a loss of freedom, becoming "a slave to booze, sex or eBay". I love the way eBay has replaced rock and roll in this triumvirate of vices!

Saturday, 20 May 2006

Fave Da Vinci film quotes

What are your favourite quotes from the Da Vinci Code film?
Here's mine:

1. Robert Langdon: "I have to get to a!"

2. Sophie to Robert: “Do you have eidetic memory?”
Robert: “Not quite…but I can remember what I see”

Please add to the list!

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Tuesday, 2 May 2006

Paranoia or planning?

Who owns information about whom? It's an old question, and not one that this website will answer. Thanks for the link, Malcolm.

Thursday, 20 April 2006

Ethics, Scripture and teaching religions

An important debate is unfolding about teaching Scripture in schools. In a pluralist society such as Australia, what place does religion have in public education? Most people agree it has to have some place, since understanding religion is surely a key to being a properly educated citizen. We've gotten over the modernist/materialist insanity that would ban religion (haven't we?).

My hope is that this debate will serve to distinguish Christian teaching from ethics. Jesus taught some great ethical principles, and Christians do believe (in various ways) that the world reflects the reality of God and we should live in accordance with it. But I think Christians so easily slip into teaching morality and civil niceties rather than theology that this is the kind of shake-up we need.
I like the theory behind Emily Maguire's suggestion that all faiths get their 15 minutes of chalk. Although, I boggle at the utopian politics of trying to pull off such a situation. John Dickson has given it a good go in his Spectator's Guide to World Religions (also a CASE course!), which the educational powers would do well to look at.

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Figuring atheism

At a recent lecture I gave at James Cook University in Townsville, I suggested that atheism is on the decline. It is being replaced by a new kind of spirituality which emphasises ethics but poo-poos dogma. I defended dogma while also praising the turn away from naturalism and materialism (in the Marxist sense) towards a more soulful understanding of life, then I used the Da Vinci Code to suggest we had to be careful to combine spiritual interest with solid thinking. But some in the audience were not happy, hearing me to say that an atheist could not be spiritual.
I got my thesis on atheism's decline from Alister McGrath's recent history of ideas and from the forthcoming Cambridge Companion, some of which is online. The stats are intriguing, showing a worldwide decline in atheism but with some strong pockets of resistance. It's hard to discern a pattern. Russia has a high percentage of atheists, but China doesn't. There doesn't seem to be a strong correlation between poverty and theism, or wealth and atheism. Among a few conclusions, the author suggests one strong correlation: the more atheistic nations also report a higher sense of individual and social security. Evidence against God?

True self

Discussion of 'the self' might be the ultimate in navel-gazing. It can be so circumspect, so convoluted and awkward that it leaves you cold. However, it is an important theme in postmodern thought, and very valuable for distinguishing Christiantity from other ways of understanding the place of the human being in the world. This article starts by asking what is missing from Charles Taylor's significant study of the topic. It then explains how the Christian understanding of who Jesus is solves so many identity problems as to be well worth considering by all but the most recalcitrant pomos.

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Thursday, 23 March 2006

Waiting for Bono

Bono did well to quell the disappointment of U2's tour cancellation by speaking his mind on Andrew Denton's Enough Rope. It's worth reading just for his answers to the problem of evil questions—a model in what might be called apologetic restraint.

Before U2 opened the Live 8 concert last year, a friend and I debated what song they'd sing. I thought 'Crumbs From Your Table', an impassioned plea to American Christians to feed the poor. It seemed obvious. But my friend thought 'Beautiful day', and she was right. It was a good corrective to my angry approach. Better to have people with you, celebrating the day and singing 'don't let it get away', rather than telling them first-up what black holes they are.

There's a time for calling for repentance, and a time for trying to throw your arms around the world.

Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Uncertainty on the ABC

Here's the transcript of a well-produced radio programme on the ABC about postmodernism, certainty and faith, and post-September 11 religion. They interviewed a very diverse bunch of postgrads, academics and religious figures—among them some CASE locals. See what you think of it.

Thursday, 23 February 2006

Yes, Prime Minister?

I have a brief piece up on today. It's a summary of a speech I gave at a forum on Christianity and politics on UNSW campus last year. The topic is the connection between the values of a nation and the beliefs of an adherent. Our Prime Minister makes an assumption that I don't think many of us can go with...

Monday, 30 January 2006

Pluralism's problems

I'm a fan of pluralism, when it is administered properly. It seems to me that religious freedom is an essential aspect of an earthly society. Christianity teaches as much when in 2 Corinthians 4 and 5, the apostle Paul describes Christian ministry as 'free persuasion', not secretive or coercive but yet still clear in its own position. The situation at the University of Birmingham suggests that some institutions are struggling to generate real pluralism. They've kicked out the Christian Union. Here's the story: what do you think should have happened in order to have a campus where people can believe what they wish, freely?

This article from the CASE archives might interest you, too.

Just in CASE

Tuesday, 17 January 2006

The Lion, the Pitch and the Auction

Back on deck after a season of feasting. Saw the first Narnia movie with a large contingent of 4-10 year olds. They had their usual reaction—"It was good"—which makes me wonder what it will take to arouse the senses of their generation. I thought it was better than good, with an appropriate focus on the spiritual awakening of the children, as they discover that they are both immortal diamond and quintessence of dust, kings and queens precariously. It was always going to be hard to get Aslan right, so I'm glad they went with the 'Aslan is a great lion' rather than anything more laboured. I liked the treatment of the sacrifice, too—a good balance of story and symbol.

I've escaped a lot of the hype, but I still enjoyed the C.S. Lewis auction hosted by the Wittenberg Door.

What did you think of the film?

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