Thursday 27 December 2007

Preaching the Word, not presenting entertainment

I took this photo when I returned to Indiana (USA) in 2005 where I lived with my family in 1984 while doing postdoctoral research at Indiana University. This small Mennonite Church had at least one thing right. Churches are to expect strangers. But I also want to suggest in this post that their task is not to transform themselves so that strangers will feel immediately at home.

As someone who writes a Blog devoted to apologetics and the presentation of Christian truth to others, I'm keen to discuss how the church can do this better. I have always felt that transforming church services into events that non-Christians would be happy with is not the way to go and have argued against this approach in every church I have attended. Even though, I visited one of these churches as an atheist at age 31 and in just 3 weeks believed in the claims of Jesus.

I'm grateful to Puritan Lad for pointing to this YouTube exchange between RC Sproul and Al Mohler on the problems with the Seeker Sensitive service. It supports my view on the matter (and we all like to have our views supported!) but there is wisdom here. RC argues that the thinking behind such services is fundamentally wrong as the concept misses the point of the purpose of the church service, as well as the purpose for which 'seekers' come to church. He argues that seekers don't come to church seeking Christ but rather trying to escape pain, looking for peace, happiness, wanting voids in their lives filled etc. Sproul is not suggesting that we lose interest in evangelism. Rather he suggests that the priority is not providing services that cater to what seekers see as their needs. Instead, church services are events where believers come together corporately as part of our all of life worship of God. These events will include instruction, edification of God, the Lord's Supper, sharing our lives, confessing our sins, praising God, prayer, singing etc. The core and foundation of this worship together will be the preaching of the word! The hope is that as 'strangers' share in this they will be convicted by the Holy Spirit and place their faith in Christ.

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12).

Trusting in the power of God's word rather than human techniques and strategies is the answer. As Al Mohler says in the video, churches that miss this point will have much bigger back doors than front doors. Hopefully when strangers visit our churches the preaching of the Word of God in the power of the Spirit will make them feel uncomfortable enough to seek God's truth and accept Christ as Lord and Saviour.


See later posts on worship and Christian assembly here and here

Saturday 22 December 2007

Memories, life stories and their source

It’s Christmas, and one of the things you do in Australia when you have Christmas holidays is to visit relatives. This week my wife Carmen and I took her Dad to visit his last remaining sister, Isabel (aged 83). Aunty Isabel was the last of 12 children born to Harry and Clara French in Coolongolook (and later Lorne) on the Mid-north coast of NSW. This beautiful area just 15 minutes from the sea is known for its timber and dairy farming. The timber industry has dwindled because most of the original temperate rainforests of hardwood and rare (and non-renewable) Australian Cedar are gone, but regrowth eucalyptus forests are still cut. The dairy industry which once grew around small family holdings in picturesque valleys is now smaller and dominated by large consolidated dairies owned by large companies.

Just two of the 12 French children survive Lyle (Carmen’s Dad) and Isabel. They had seen each other (we estimate) just once in the last 20 years, and that was at the funeral of one of the brothers 10 years ago. Aunty Isabel expressed pride in the family “All 12 of us had not much money, but we all worked and never had trouble finding a job. All of us were respected in our communities, and none of us was stupid. Lyle was the only one who had the chance to go to high school and he only lasted 6 months”. Aunty Isabel expressed her disappointment that Lyle ‘blew his chances’. His response was “I had to leave home on Monday morning alone, ride my horse for 10 miles, leave it in a paddock, then walk for three miles to catch a train for the 2 hour trip to Kempsey to go to school all week, and stay with an aunty (sharing a bed with another boy I didn’t know), then come back Friday and do the ride and walk home in the dark – so they could see if I could learn - but how could a kid learn doing all that.” And who could argue with his response (although Aunty Isabel did!).

We spent hours sharing stories of their childhood (well we listened and they talked). While listening I was struck by a number of things:

  • How different life was in their childhood than that which children experience today in Australia.
  • How different family members' memories of life can be – Aunty Isabel was constantly contesting the details of Lyle’s recounts of childhood. Lyle wasn’t sure the house at Lorne had bag walls as Aunty Isabel suggested, she was certain he only had to walk 2 miles in the morning, their brother John didn’t get killed by a falling tree the first day back from the war but a few years later…..and so on.
  • How much Lyle and Isabel enjoyed re-living those contested memories from the early years
Memories and family traditions are important. It seems to me that the common memories and stories of key life events act as a type of glue that binds families together. There are some key ingredients to this. As you need spend time together – not necessarily good times – your lives become shared lives with much common ground. Your memories also become shared (though in old age perhaps contested) giving shape to who you see yourself as and the way you view the world. As parents, there’s a lot to be said for thinking carefully about the traditions and shared activities that are part of your family and how the sharing of these might be shaping your children’s memories and how they see the world. My daughter Nicole Starling has been writing a lot about developing family traditions consistent with one's faith; particularly, how this has an impact on how our children see the world. We need to think a lot about the dominant stories that shape our families' memories.

For many years I thought that my father had exercised little influence over the shaping of my life. I rejected much of what he seemed to believe and stood for and as a result we weren’t very close. And yet, a few years ago at 50+ years of age I realised that many of my beliefs had been shaped by his beliefs, his personal life story, and the sharing of it with me. My strong commitment to social justice was influenced by his experiences in mining communities on the fringes of Glasgow, and then later on the coalfields of the Hunter Valley where all 10 brothers and their father John Cairney worked in the pits, raised families, played soccer, joined pit bands and were actively involved in the trade union movement. It seemed that I was shaped to some extent by my father’s worldview (i.e. a set of beliefs or framework that affects the way we view the world). I suspect that my Dad’s view of the world had in turn been shaped in part by his Dad’s view of the world. All this reflecting on my family made me think about what I’m passing on to my children and grandchildren through my view of the world and the way this shapes who I am, how I see the world, and how I act on it. I want my Christian faith to shape my life, and the views and values that my family are ‘reading’, to reflect my faith. I hope they also have confidence that this is based on God’s word to us in the Bible.

Jean-Fracois Leotard (1979) suggested that what we accept as the truth is shaped by ‘big stories’ that we hold about the world we live in – he called these meta-narratives. As an atheist he cast doubt upon such meta-narratives, these sets of coherent and related beliefs. As a Christian, I see meta-narratives as important. My view of the world shapes who I am, what I believe and how I act. The Bible is the source of my meta-narrative. I believe what it says. That the Universe and all that is within it was created by God, that he made me, and he seeks to have a relationship with me. And he wants this so much that in spite of the tendency for humanity to want to lead life its way separate from God (in effect in rebellion against him), that he has always had a plan to bring his children back to him. This plan is centred on Jesus. The Bible teaches that God broke into history in the form of a person – he sent his son as both man and God to tell us about him and to take the punishment due for our rebellion against our creator. All he expects from us is that we take this free gift, seek his forgiveness and accept Jesus as our Lord and saviour. This in turn should shape the way I live, the priorities I have in life, my passions and decisions.

I’m pretty sure that Aunty Isabel wouldn’t have a clue what a meta-narrative is, and that she doesn’t hold to my Christian narrative (although I wish that she did). But I do know that in the house where she grew up (whether with or without bag walls) there would have been meta-narratives at work. Christmas is a good time to reflect on the dominant values and beliefs at work in your home and on what they are based. My hope is that the meta-narrative that dominates my life is the Christian story of God’s redemption through Jesus. As always, at Christmas I spend some time reading one of the gospels (available online at Bible Gateway) that tell the story of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection and rule and to remember the story with wonder, joy and thankfulness. I praise and thank God at this special time for the gift of Jesus - "For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

Saturday 15 December 2007

Political accountability: God, the Rudd Code, us

It is refreshing to see that one of the first things the new Australian Prime Minister has done is to release a Code of Conduct for all ministers. Mr Rudd was highly critical of some past government practices and in particular the lack of controls on ministerial employment after resigning from parliament. As I indicated in a previous post, I place a high value on a leader's ethical behaviour and suggested that when evaluating candidates for an election we should consider

"how our leaders handle the truth and how this aligns with the Scriptures....(as well as) whether leaders can keep their promises, admit their mistakes, and lead with integrity."

In a recent article in Case magazine Andrew Errington reminded us that the:

"..right approach for Christian political action is simply to seek to help our representatives govern well, to help our governments be good" and remind our governments "...that their primary role is to defend the common good by making just judgements."

As Paul's letter to Romans 13:1-7 reminds us, government authorities have been established by God and are to be given our respect and obedience. They in turn are God's servants "to do (us) good" and to punish wrong-doing from citizens.

It is significant that as a new Prime Minister Mr Rudd has given some attention to the ethical behaviour of the Ministry. Mr Howard attempted his own code whilst in government (for which he also deserves some credit), but it did not go far enough and was regularly broken by his ministers. The new Rudd Code:

  • places a 12-month ban on departing ministers having business dealings with MPs, public servants or defence personnel on any matter they dealt with in their official capacity during their last 18 months in office;
  • requires departing ministers to undertake not to take advantage of their previous position as a minister;
  • bans ministers from owning shares unless they are held in superannuation funds, publicly-listed funds or in a trust where the minister has no influence over investment decisions;
  • requires all lobbyists to disclose their details on an online public register, kept by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, before seeking meetings with ministers or parliamentary secretaries;
  • bans electoral fundraising at the two official Prime Ministerial homes, The Lodge and Kirribilli House (something for which previous Prime Ministers Howard and Hawke have been criticised).
The previous prime minister’s code of conduct simply required Ministers to sell shares in companies that came under their area of portfolio responsibility.

Mr Rudd was a strong critic of ministerial standards during the Howard years and has suggested that the new measures are designed to increase accountability and transparency.
"The Australian people are entitled to expect the highest standards of behaviour from their elected representatives in general and ministers in particular," he said in the foreword to the code.

Some like Ted Mack a former independent politician who served at local, state and federal levels, see this as futile, arguing that politicians can't self-regulate. Coming from a politician this is a little depressing. I agree that there are always problems with self-regulation but this Code is a good start in placing pressure on politicians to act ethically. As Christians we don't want to display the same cynicism as is common in the world and constantly run down our politicians. Instead, we need to give them the honour that the Bible suggests that we should give them (Rom 13:7; 1 Peter 2:17).

Peter wrote that we are to submit to our authorities "for the Lord's sake" (1 Peter 2:13). We honour God by submitting to and serving those to whom he has given authority, in this instance, our political leaders. This is all part of God's plan for his people to submit first to him and then to others who have been given authority over them.

We do need to keep our leaders accountable, as our representatives they should expect this. Opposition Member for North Sydney Joe Hockey has already warned Mr Rudd that he intends to keep him accountable to his Code. But this isn't just Mr Hockey's job; it's our job as citizens to ensure that as our representatives and God's servants they are to act rightly and justly. Of course our attitude should not be one of looking out gleefully for the first minister to break the code, we should pray that they would keep the code. As Peter reminds us, we should pray "for kings and all those in authority, that they may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" for God wants all men to come to knowledge of his ultimate truths and his plan of salvation centred on Christ - yes, that's right, including our politicians! Our Prime Minister declares that he knows these truths and is a follower of Christ, even more reason to pray for him as he seeks to honour God as our Prime Minister. I intend to continue praying for Mr Rudd and also Brendan Nelson the Leader of the Opposition, and would urge all Christians to do likewise.

Friday 14 December 2007

Christians and the environment

There has been a flurry of good posts about the environment in recent weeks, especially the topic of global warming. It is encouraging that there has been so much discussion generated by the recent federal elections in Australia. The ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by our new Prime Minister has also been well received here and overseas. Of course, it's easy to sign documents and set policies, implementing them is another thing. As Christians we need to be well informed about the various environmental issues that are facing us (in fact the whole world). And this isn't just about our own comfort and efforts to head off disaster before it costs nations and individuals financially. There are significant moral issues and decisions to be made. Policy decisions taken by Australia and other developed nations will have an impact not just on our citizens but on other nations. As Christians we need to keep our governments accountable to make just and right decisions. Andrew Errington wrote an interesting article about the Christian and government in the last edition of Case.

Byron Smith has been writing about these issues for quite a while and has a series of related Blog posts on the topic on his Blog (one of my favourites). You might not agree with everything that Byron writes here, but the posts and the various comments in response to them are an interesting discussion of the issues.

Andrew Cameron also provides a short biblical analysis in an Anglican Media piece, The environment - a Christian response, that is an extract from a longer piece he has done for the Sydney Diocese' Social Issues Executive (SIE).

It's hard to keep up with the environmental commentary at the moment but I for one am making an effort to engage with the issues and I'd encourage all readers of CASE to do likewise.

Friday 7 December 2007

Mobile phone novels: Excellent & praiseworthy?

In a post I wrote in September I spoke of the changes that technology is bringing to communication and language.

“One of the most significant changes has been the extent to which the spoken or written word has been supplemented, replaced or changed by images, video and film, and even led to new representational forms (gaming is a perfect example). This has led some to suggest that the written word is less relevant than it was once. There is little doubt that the written word is used increasingly with other forms of communication and that in our world we are surrounded by more complex ‘multiliteracies’. By this I mean new forms of communication that are multimodal and require much more interplay between words, images, sound, video, spoken language etc. However, we still have much to learn about this topic.”

Living evidence of the changes that technology is bringing is seen in the recently announced Japanese bestseller list. For the first time the list is dominated by fiction written to be delivered and read on mobile phones. Five of the most successful novels, in fact the top three (!), were all “mobile novels”. The number one seller Love Sky sold 2,000,000 copies. Richard Lloyd Parry reporting in TimesOnline points out that these mobile novels are written in short sentences, use relatively few characters, feature melodramatic plots with lots of violence, sex and tear-jerking sentiment. Love Sky, is the story of a teenage girl who is bullied, gang-raped, becomes pregnant and suffers a miscarriage. Anyone who has lived in Japan (or even visited as I have) will no doubt know that Japan has had a history of prolific reading of adult comics with similar themes. I have images in mind of the Tokyo subway where almost every male in the carriage would be reading one of these books (and some women) and most women reading women’s magazines. It seems these texts might soon be supplanted by mobile novels.

There have been critics and supporters of this new form of reading. One critic wrote: “The fact that young readers are being exposed to immature expressions and stunted vocabulary will accelerate illiteracy and damage their ability to express themselves.” Another however, argued that the new genre is doing literature a service by promoting reading among young people who would otherwise have little interest in books. You can see parallels here with debates in the past about comics, television and gaming. Previous predictions of language ruination have not proven accurate, but change does occur.

I have no doubt that this literary form won’t give us too many pieces of classic fiction and that unlike many of the classic love stories (see my post on Books that stand the test of time) mobile novels will have a short half-life. With language like the following, this is a safe prediction: “I'm short, I'm stupid, I'm not pretty, I'm rubbish, and I've got no dreams.” (Love Sky by Mika).

However, while I doubt that electronic novels will lead to a new generation of illiterates (in fact it might have some positive impacts for literacy levels), as a Christian I’m more concerned that the rise of the mobile novel will make even more accessible poor quality fiction that does little for the feeding of the human soul. I’m confident that in fifty years great works of fiction will still be read, but I’m concerned at how much more impoverished young people will be if their literary diet is limited by mobile phone novels of the quality that we’ve seen in Japan.

I keep coming back to the words of the Apostle Paul, recorded in the Bible and written to the Philippian church, to focus their hearts and minds on things that are admirable:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:8,9).

In another post during book week I quoted from one of my books on literacy extolling the virtues of quality literature. I reproduce it once again:

A piece of literature is more than just a good story. I wrote in Pathways to Literacy (1995, p.77-78) that literature can act as:

* a mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances
* a source of knowledge
* a source of ideological challenge
* a means to peer into the past, and the future
* a vehicle to other places
* a means to reflect on inner struggles
* an introduction to the realities of life and death
* a vehicle for the raising and discussion of social issues

As well as helping children to be comfortable using language and to become readers, literature offers all of the above opportunities, and provides parents with a rich and enjoyable means to apply the wisdom of God to the stories our children read.

My plea is for adults to feed their minds and those of their children with narrative forms of quality and which celebrate that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable. Of course, the Bible for the Christian is the book above all books to be read regularly (preferably daily), but there is much to commend in the richness of human narratives that have been passed to us in literature.

Those interested in more posts on literacy, families and learning might find by blog devoted to these topics useful.

Monday 3 December 2007

Shopping till we drop - the planet!

Facts on US shopping

In a recent article, Stan Cox outlined America's insatiable desire to buy clothes. US census data suggest that the No. 1 gift in the USA this Christmas will be clothing. Some key points from his article were:

* US spending on new clothes annually is $282 billion, up from $162 billion in 1992.
* Clothing prices in the USA have dropped by about 25 percent between 1992 and 2002, but purchases went up by 75%.
* The USA population increased only 13% in that decade, so the average annual shopping haul has risen from approximately 50 new articles of clothing per person per year in 1992 to 75 or more items per person by 2002. These trends have no doubt continued since 2002.
* In a response to a comment on his Blog he added the following useful breakdown - Women's clothes account for 56% of sales, men 27%, children the rest. Women's sales increased 73% from 1992 to 2002; men's increased 60%; children's 114%.
* The average American discards 31kg of clothing and other textiles each year, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental consequences

But while on the surface we might be surprised by the apparent volume of sales and the waste, the picture becomes even more worrying when the environmental consequences are considered. Cox points out that:

“Although 10 million tons of unwanted duds per year puts a lot of pressure on U.S. landfills, it's in the origin of the clothes -- fiber production, manufacturing and dyeing -- that the most harm is done. Production of synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester consumes nonrenewable resources -- primarily petroleum -- while emitting greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide and releasing toxic wastewater containing organic solvents, heavy metals, dyes, and fiber treatments. Nylon is also very difficult to recycle. Producing fiber from recycled polyester is easier and produces only 15 percent as much air pollution as using raw materials, but the product is of lower quality than virgin polyester. Fibers made from renewable raw materials are typically no more earth-friendly than polyester. For instance, rayon is made from wood pulp coming from mature forests through a process that pumps out large quantities of air and water pollutants.”

Cotton is an interesting fibre. While it is grown on less that 2% of all US farmland, it accounts for 25% of pesticides and this may be as high as 50% in parts of the world.

This topic is easy to sensationalize, but it is complex. Economists would give some good reasons why consumption is good for economies, with obvious benefits such as employment and reduced prices. This is true, both in the case of developing countries that produce most of the clothes, and also the developed countries where it fuels the retail cities we call shopping centres (or Malls if you’re from the US). But then again, the economic benefits of consumption need to be weighed up against the social costs in developing countries (e.g. some exploited workers in developing countries that produce much of the clothing) and environmental costs in all countries. Then there are the spiritual costs.

A biblical case for living more simply

How do Christians respond to a topic like this? Some self-assessment is a helpful start. It is easy to throw one’s arms up and say, what difference does a bit of over consumption make. But collectively, it makes a big difference, and individually it can be devastating. It would seem that there is a strong biblical case for more modest consumption, less waste and a serious re-consideration of the environmental and social costs.

The biblical pattern in relation to possessions is one of simplicity, of having our needs met, and of generosity with what we have. There seem to be environmental imperatives to change our ways and to limit our wasteful consumption - to be good stewards of what God has given us (Gen 2:15) - and there are also good spiritual reasons. An unhealthy and wasteful preoccupation with things is - well - unhealthy!

The biblical pattern of seeking to satisfy our needs, not our cravings and wants, was clear even in the way God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness as they fled Egypt. God provided enough food for their needs. The Israelites were to collect as much Manna and quail as they needed each day and no more (Exodus 16:15-17). Later Moses taught that God's law required them to be generous with what they had. He urged them always to give generously to the poor. “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11)

This pattern is given plenty of attention in the new Testament. Paul urged the church in Rome to live lives worthy of God “….as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual[a] act of worship.” They were not to be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, “…but (to) be transformed by the renewing of (their) mind.” (Rom 12:1-2). Paul then went on to list generosity as one of the gifts that God gives. If your gift “ contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously” (Rom 12:8). So some people are gifted givers, but all are called to be generous.

But there's more! Paul goes even further and makes a connection between being generous and our relationship to God; connecting godliness with contentment: "But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it" (1 Timothy 6:6,7). Paul stresses to the young Timothy that he is to put his hope in God, and that to be "rich towards God" is to "to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share" (1 Timothy 6:17-18).

Paul suggests that contentment is the key. He had learned what it meant to be content with what he had, rather than hankering after more. As he sat in prison and gave thanks to the Philippian church because of its generosity to him he wrote: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil 4:12-13).

It seems to me that the US statistics on shopping are reflective of one of the key characteristics of our age - over consumption and waste. This is an age in which we always seem to want more. An age in which for a woman to have 100 pairs of shoes and a man to have 50 ties is not unusual (of course in my case, some of them are 30 years old!). Where new houses invariably cover the block and technology purchases and gadgets can be a preoccupation for all of us. And when a rich man like Renee Rivkin, might just have 37 watches worth up to $500,000. There are consequences for the planet, for our contentment and more importantly for our souls. The article by Sam Cox is a challenge to me and I hope it will be a challenge to others.

Tuesday 27 November 2007

So which one was God's party? Any post-election lessons?

Australia has just voted in its federal election and the government of 11 years led by John Howard has been defeated and Kevin Rudd is the new Prime Minister. I was 'over' the election by the time it came and was glad that Australians finally had a chance to cast their votes. I'm a very interested citizen in politics but I have to say that I was weary from political advertising overload, from dissecting policies, listening to media reports and debating the same issues - call it campaign fatigue! I felt that we had the opportunity to be informed and I was ready to vote. And as a Christian I felt that we had political parties that were offering a choice. I don't buy the argument that the major parties were the same - there were some key differences. It was also helpful to have some new tools designed to help negotiate the policy maze and unpack the differences. The most useful was that offered by the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) that I described in a previous post. One of the most helpful bits of this site was that it showed me how my local member had voted on legislation that is important to me. But the frustration above all frustrations that seems to be part of every election, is that some of my fellow Christians pedal three simplistic false assumptions EVERY time!

1. That if you're a Christian you'd better vote for Christians because no-one else will.
2. That if you're a Christian that the Christian Democrats are the party that we should vote for because of its stand on a number of critical moral issues; and a sub-theme that there is a limited set of moral issues or values that should concern me.
3. That if you are choosing to vote for one of the two major parties to have your say about the government in the lower house then you need to vote Coalition because no right thinking Bible believing Christian would vote Labor.

I don't want to bore readers of this Blog by examining each of these assumptions but I feel compelled to comment in general terms. I struggled to vote for the CDP. Why? Because I have never been able to trust the policy platform of the party and the accuracy of its policy analysis. Yes, I do agree with its stand on specific moral issues and can stand with them on many of the values that are explicitly outlined (e.g. opposition to the creation and destruction of embryos for research, opposition to same sex marriages, opposing adoption for same sex couples, opposing euthanasia and abortion etc). But there always seems an intellectual dishonesty about the way the party defines its key values, the values it doesn't concern itself with, and the way its members denigrate other politicians and parties based on their assessment. As well, many of the issues on the checklist assume only one Christian position and I believe that for some of the issues they outline there are different positions that are possible (e.g. in relation to school vouchers, vilification laws etc).

In 1998 I was horrified to see the CDP preference Pauline Hanson above the local Labor party candidate in my electorate. Given Pauline Hanson's policies at the time it was difficult to see how this could be justified as a Christian. I was appalled in the current campaign to hear a CDP supporter talking about God's blessing on Australian being withdrawn if Kevin Rudd was elected Prime Minister of Australia. Why, they were asked? Because John Howard is a Christian and Kevin Rudd is not. I haven't spoken to John Howard about his faith but I am confident that Kevin Rudd has a genuine and sincere faith in Christ based on the words from his own mouth when he visited New College in 2005 and the testimony of others who know him well, including some politicians on the other side of the house. I won't say much about the failure to understand the sovereignty of God in assuming that God is somehow powerless to work through a Labor government. God's word teaches us that "The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases (Proverbs 21:1)".

The latest CDP analysis of 27 moral issues prior to the recent election is yet another example of how selective choices of moral issues and selective assessments of party policies leads to misleading guidance for Christians on how to vote. It seems that The Rev Canon Sandy Grant from St Michael’s Pro-Cathedral Wollongong is just as annoyed as I am. In his assessment of the regular CDP analysis of the major parties he suggests that the Australian Christian Values Checklist 2007 ‘is simplistic, reductionistic, and unbalanced’ and therefore ‘runs the danger of being sub-Christian’. While the last point is harsh I agree with the first three comments. Like Sandy I have pointed out omissions from the checklist in the past to no avail. He points out that as usual the checklist is reductionist, limiting values seen as relevant and simplifying others. I agree with these points. Could we not have asked for an analysis of the major parties' stance on:

* the care of widows and orphans;
* the homeless;
* giving aid to foreign nations in crisis;
* the right of an employee to receive fair pay and just employment conditions;
* policies on climate change and how that might impact on developing nations, especially their ability to feed their people, meet their health needs and so on;
* the treatment of aliens;
* the treatment of Indigenous Australians.

Some might also ask for an analysis of how our leaders handle the truth and how this aligns with the Scriptures. We might also consider an assessment of whether leaders can keep their promises, admit their mistakes, and lead with integrity. I could continue but others can join the dots.

At the end of all this, does it matter? Yes it does! Why? As kingdom people we are to be different, to view the world differently and to be salt and light in it. I want to make headway on the critical issues that I know CDP are committed to including abortion, stem cell research, gambling, the damage done by drugs and so on. But I don't believe that their regular checklist does justice to their cause, nor will it take us far enough. As a group of people who represent less than 5% of the population Christians are a minority in a secular society. Yes, we need to speak boldly and with conviction when necessary on issues such as the need to defend the rights of the unborn and to oppose any research that seeks to destroy or manipulate that which God has created. I applaud the Christian Democratic Party in its stance and courage in arguing for such issues. But we also need to open our eyes to the needs of the tragic deaths of children in developing countries who lack simple medication, clean water and sanitation, we need to seek justice for the alien, we need to respond with compassion to the poor. We need to be concerned that climate change has the potential to kill millions through extreme weather events. As a Bible believing Christian I know that this world is under a curse due to sin and that the pain we experience is but a symptom of a creation "groaning as in the pains of childbirth" (Rom 9:22). But I also believe that God expects me to strive to serve God earnestly all the days of life, to be a "blameless and pure (child) of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation" (Philippians 2:15). This of course is not about seeking perfection, but rather, wholehearted devotion to doing God's will. Like light in the darkness we are to shine. I believe that God meant the words he gave to the prophet Micah that what he requires of us is "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with (our) God" (Micah 6:8b).

Our God works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Eph 1:11). We receive the governments that our sovereign God has ordained. Kevin Rudd is not Prime Minister by mistake. Our prayer now must be that God will work in his heart to make him the best Prime Minister that this nation has had. We must uphold him in prayer and plead with our God that he might bless this nation and pour out his Spirit upon many. Our prayer must be that God might "let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:24).

Tuesday 20 November 2007

The importance of fathers

I wrote in Case magazine earlier in the year (The Role Of Fathers: Aligning biblical wisdom and research) on how research on families and demographic trends have demonstrated a number of significant changes in families and parental practices in recent decades. The trends can be summarized under four headings:
  • Family structures are changing – e.g. there are less children in families, women are having children later in life, there are more sole parent households, there are more blended families, children stay at home longer (and many more return as adults) etc.
  • Employment structures are changing - that have an impact on families, with more parents working in multiple jobs, more women back in the workforce, many workers working longer hours, more people working from home etc.
  • Fathers and mothers have changed roles and levels of engagement as parents - While there is a trend towards some fathers spending more time caring for children, for others longer working hours have affected family life. As well, the increase in women doing paid work outside the home has led to more children in the critical first five years of life being placed in childcare.
  • Research has highlighted the critical role that fathers have - For example, fathers have a significant impact on their children’s learning and behaviour. The influence on children’s education alone (the quality of which is also correlated with many other behavioural factors) is significant, as a UK centre on fatherhood has outlined.

In a synthesis of five key UK studies Goldman (2005) concluded that higher involvement of fathers in their children’s learning alone is associated with:
  • better class and exam results;
  • higher educational expectations & qualifications;
  • better attitude to school, attendance & behaviour;
  • less delinquent & criminal behaviour;
  • higher quality family relationships; and
  • better mental health.
Other research has suggested that the influence of fathers and family structures flows well beyond children’s learning. Qu and Soriano (2004) conclude that family formation has important implications for individuals and society in relation to health and wellbeing, financial security, life outcomes for children and population growth.

Research also suggests that fathers who show affection, give support and yet offer an authoritative parenting style, have a more significant impact on their children, when compared with fathers who adopt a more authoritarian and detached style. Other evidence indicates that who the father is, and what he does in life makes a difference. For example, Goldman reports research that suggest that high levels of antisocial behaviour (eg, not paying bills, aggressiveness and so on) in fathers were associated with sons displaying more difficult behaviour at home and school.

In summary, what many research studies show is that fathers have a significant influence on the cognitive, emotional and social development of their children and that this is even more significant for boys.

What the Bible says about fathers and families?

The importance of families and the critical role of fathers are seen throughout the Bible. The concept of family is central to God’s plan for his creation and its restoration. The Bible teaches that relationships, like creation itself, were affected, disrupted and dislocated by sin in the Garden (the book of Genesis describes what happened). But God sustained his people in families and sought to restore them to their rightful place and adopt them into his own family (Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 1:4-5 talks about this). He continues to do so in spite of the curse that has been placed on family relationships as a result of sin, and the struggle that ensues between men and women (Gen 3:16). God’s plan to rescue his people ultimately involves family – his family!

Throughout the pages of the Old and New Testaments, family is important. The nation of Israel was one family, descended from Abraham. Within the nation that would rise up as a result of God’s promise to Abraham, there would be tribes defined around family lines and ultimately families within the family, all linked through fathers. Fathers are central to families in the Bible. Marriage in turn is seen as necessary to create a nuclear family – a man and woman, committed to each other in a covenant relationship, who seek to have and raise godly children (Mal 2:14-15).

Some practical implications

I can’t cover lots of implications in one post (but I might over a series of posts). There are many places I could turn to in the Bible for guidance, but there can be no better place than the advice that God gave to Moses to pass on to the Israelites in the desert before they entered the Promised Land. Having exhorted them to fear God and obey his commandments and to take care how they live (Deut 6:1-3), God gives instructions on how this is to be done within their families.

"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house
and on your gates.”
(Deut 6:4-9)

God expected the men of Israel to obey his commandments and to love him with all of their being – heart, soul and strength. He also expected them to teach God’s commands and expectations to their children in the ‘everydayness’ of life. To talk about God when they sat together at home, when they walked from place to place, when they were preparing for bed and rest, and when they rose in the morning. They were to speak of God’s ways, to wear the words of God’s law on their foreheads (no I’m not about to suggest we re-introduce this practice that is still followed by some Jewish people), and write them on the doorposts and entrances to their houses, so that they would not forget them and so that they could teach them even more effectively to their children.

Here is a picture of a father with a right view of God, who trusts, obeys and serves his God and who seeks to teach his children to understand the wisdom of God and to follow him. This is also a picture of an involved father. If we were to translate this biblical picture into contemporary terms, we would see a father who seeks to obey and honour God, who sets a good example for his family, who models what it is to be a child of God. Such a father spends time with his children (indeed will 'waste' time with them), listens to them and shares godly wisdom at meal times, while resting, while together at home, while travelling. This is an engaged father who makes time for his family!

Wednesday 14 November 2007

The Christian and Politics

The theme for the latest edition of Case (a quarterly magazine published by CASE) is The Christian and Politics. The motivation for this themed issue is not simply the upcoming Australian Federal election. Rather, it flows from ongoing debate about the way Christians view their citizenship and the roles of government and politicians. Readers of Case and this Blog would be aware of the issues that have been raised. This is not a Case ‘how to’ on voting; rather, it is a collection of papers that present arguments concerning the way our biblical understanding should inform our political minds and actions.

In 2005 I hosted the annual New College Lectures with three speakers, the Hon John Anderson MP (Leader of the National Party and former Deputy Prime Minister to John Howard), Kevin Rudd MP (at the time shadow minister for Trade, Foreign Affairs and International security) and Dr Andrew Cameron, (Moore College Lecturer in Ethics). The theme was Church and State. All three speakers gave wonderful addresses that are available in MP3 or Pdf forms from the College website or for sale as a DVD ($5 each).

In his address Kevin Rudd (who for non-Australian readers is now the leader of the Opposition and may well be our next Prime Minister) argued that Christians need to be engaged politically with views informed by the gospel. He suggested that there are a number of possible reasons that Christian politicians offer for voting in a particular way, including “vote for me because I’m a Christian” or vote for me because this is my stance on this particular moral issue. In rejecting the legitimacy of such reasons, he suggested that Christians should understand that the gospel should challenge the way they think about the broad sweep of political and social issues that we entrust to government. Readers of this Blog will be aware that I've written on an excellent tool that might help us to do this. The Australian Christian Lobby has provided on its website an outline of the major parties' responses on 25 key policy issues.

Kevin Rudd suggested that an understanding of “….the gospel is just as much about the decisions I make about my own life as it is about how I act in society and how in turn I should act, and react, in relation to the exercise of the coordinated power of society through the state.” He went on to argue that Christians need to be concerned with issues of justice not simply single policy agendas. Rudd's bigger point is that Christians should not focus narrowly on one or two moral issues and ignore other issues of justice, which also should be seen as moral issues by Christians. His point of course sits well with some of the points made in James stressing the close connection between faith and action (e.g. James 1:26-27). Rudd appears to be making the point that there is a danger that in (perhaps rightly) focusing on a narrow moral campaign one might just as easily ignore other significant issues of justice and fail to act accordingly.

The themed articles in this latest edition of Case all put the case (no pun intended) for an understanding of government and political issues from an informed biblical ethical framework.

Mike Thompson considers the Christian response and stance in relation to democracy. Should Christians support the promotion of democracy as a foreign policy objective? He argues that Christians need to be discriminating about the universal validity of “the constellation of ideas known as liberal democracy”.

Andrew Errington inspired by the work of Oliver O’Donovan and our 2007 New College Lectures has written a short discussion and reflection on the nature of representation. He argues (as O’Donovan does) that a right understanding of political representation is fundamental to understanding our roles as citizens in liberal democratic society.

Kenny Liew has written an article concerned with justice and its fundamental place in liberal democracy. Drawing partly on an earlier review in Case of Rawls' work by Andrew Bain, Liew suggests that Rawls' concept of ‘justice as fairness’ is consistent with a Christian understanding of the role that liberal democratic governments play in seeking to make just and equitable decisions that benefit all members of society. Rawls argues that a fair society is egalitarian with both the weak and strong citizens agreeing to the terms of their association. Liew suggests that while Rawls develops his position from a secular view of society that would trouble most Christians, his concept of justice provides room for Christians to “create space” in which to persuade others of the good of the gospel.

Finally an article is included from John Anderson that is based on his presentation at the New College Lectures in 2005. He argues that Christians should play their part in politics. While accepting that the separation of Church and State is justified, he argues passionately for the active participation of Christians in politics and cites the key role that Christian reformers have played throughout the centuries. He then lays out a framework for political involvement.

If you aren’t a CASE Associate and so don’t receive Case magazine you will find some of the past articles on our website, but if you'd like to receive the magazine quarterly and gain the other added benefits of being an Associate, you can subscribe for just $AU55 per year.

Sunday 11 November 2007

Books that stand the test of time

One of the things I commented on in a recent post on writing was that not all forms of writing have the same longevity. I suggested, "Web-based communication is less permanent (links quickly disappear, websites close down, Blogs 'mutate' into new untrackable forms etc)." Implicit in this comment was my view that some texts will endure due to their quality and significance. It seems that even in the not so weighty area of romance novels that people do tend to favour novels that have been read and loved for generations. Judgments are being made about the quality of language, plot, structure and significance.

A recent survey commissioned by UKTV Drama that reached 2,000 people found that the top 20 choices for a favourite romance novel were all major works of English literature. The top 10 were:

1 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte, 1847
2 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen, 1813
3 Romeo and Juliet - William Shakespeare, 1597
4 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte, 1847
5 Gone with the Wind - Margaret Mitchell, 1936
6 The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje, 1992
7 Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier, 1938
8 Doctor Zhivago - Boris Pasternak, 1957
9 Lady Chatterley's Lover - D.H. Lawrence, 1928
10 Far from The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy, 1874

Nevertheless, 175 million Mills and Boon romantic novels are sold each year and more than 800 new titles are released each month. However, while these books might meet a short term market, the key question is, will they have the same longevity as many of the novels that made the top 10 in the UK survey.

When it comes to books that have stood the test of time, it's hard to match the Bible. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy suggests that it is "the most widely known book in the English-speaking world . . . No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible". It has long been accepted that the Bible is the most printed and distributed book in the world. Its dominance is extraordinary. Wikipedia suggests that an estimated 5-6 billion Bibles have been sold. Wikipedia lists Quotations from the Chinese leader Chairman Mao in a distant second at 900 million copies.

In age of increasingly diversified modes of communication, and with demands on our time that make it increasingly difficult to read something even as long as this Blog post, it is to be hoped that significant cultural texts are still read. As a Christian I would argue that the Bible is in a category of its own. God's word is eternal (Psalm 119:89), as the Prophet Isaiah (40:6-8) made clear to the Israelites almost 700 years before Christ. While nations and people might perish, God's word endures:

All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers
of the field.

The grass withers
and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD
blows on them.

Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers
and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God
stands forever.

Sunday 4 November 2007

Family Heritage: A reward, blessing and responsibility

I've just returned from a family reunion in Newcastle. The Linton family in Australia is traced to Hugh and Mary Linton who arrived on the SS Scotland on 4th September 1882 – 125 years ago. As I considered the family tree I couldn't help but think that my Great Grandfather must have understood the Psalmist who said:

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
 the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! 
He shall not be put to shame 
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate (Psalm 127:3-5).

Hughie Linton and his wife Mary had 11 children, and as I looked around the room 125 years after he arrived from South East Scotland, I could see his heritage. God does not promise wealth fame and fortune in this Psalm, he promises that one’s family will be a reward and blessing. A family is wealth enough!

I was struck by the fact that the group of 100 people gathered in the Minmi Community Hall had more than its share of Christians, perhaps as much as 50%. Today, every strand of the family tree is littered with men and women of strong faith - lay preachers, ministers, church elders, a Bible college lecturer etc. Mostly Open Brethren and Baptists they seem also to have taken the words of Paul to heart to imitate Christ’s humility, to have the same attitude (Phil 2:5-11) and to:

Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world (Phil 2:12-15).

My Grandfather Alexander Linton, the 6th child of Hughie and Mary lived as closely to this as anyone I’ve known. He followed in his father's footsteps to run a general store in the Hunter coalfields town of Kearsley and attended a Brethren Assembly for most of his life. As a young boy with parents who didn’t see themselves as Christians, I would spend all my holidays with my Grandfather and Grandmother (Viola), following him as he did home deliveries of orders for the customers of his general store near Cessnock, working on cars with him, building and repairing radios and TVs, building houses, fishing (that's me in the middle below, Christmas 1954).

He loved the Bible and in particular the Proverbs and seemingly had memorised many of them. Life was full of situations to which he would respond with an appropriate verse.

An angry outburst of temper from me when frustrated by a hammer that didn’t like my thumb, or anger at my sister, would be met with:

“A gentle answer (Son) turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1)

When I had far too much to say about things for which I had little knowledge he would say:

“Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” (Prov 17:28)

When I was becoming far too sure of myself or too confident in my own ability he would say:

“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18

Proverbs is not a set of rules for life, or precise promises that God makes to all people in all situations. Rather, it is a book of general wisdom that offers a key to life. Patterns for life, not promises and rules. Yes, some parts of the Proverbs do speak of the promises of God, and it does offer rules that only the foolish would ignore, but it seeks to do much more than this.

One of the many interesting insights that Proverbs offers is that when righteous people understand the wisdom of Proverbs, and seek to live by its patterns, people notice. In Proverbs 11:1-11, a passage that talks primarily of ethical practice in business (of having accurate scales and weights), we are told that when righteous people act justly the city benefits:

When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices, and when the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness. By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown (Prov 11:10,11)

My grandfather was the most respected person in his town. I can vouch for the accuracy of his weights and scales! “Old Alex” as he was affectionately known was to be trusted with the deeds of your house in the depression when you had no money for food and he extended the whole town credit (for years). He was the one to whom community members turned for wise counsel. He was the one person universally trusted.

He knew that the Proverbs were wisdom for his private life (as husband, father, brother, grandfather, son), his spiritual life (as church member and child of God) and his public life (as shop keeper, money lender, repairman of everything that was broken & as a community leader).

My Grandfather’s faith and the living of it shone so brightly that he had an influence on me that eventually (after some 31 years) saw me come to faith. As I looked around the small community hall at my many relatives in disparate branches of the family tree, I silently rejoiced at the fact that men and women of strong faith had been used by God to shape lives - their heritage was in the room for all to see. And I felt the challenge afresh that my life is to be lived in the same way, with a right understanding of God’s expectations of my relationship to him in Christ, and with a clear understanding that my children and grandchildren are indeed a precious heritage from the Lord that he has entrusted to me and who are also a great blessing to me and to others.

Thursday 1 November 2007

Australia Votes: Assessing the policies

The Australian Christian Lobby has developed a new web-based tool to help Australian Christians make a choice in the Federal Election on the 24th November. The site allows you to consider what the parties propose in the 25 policy areas, how all politicians currently in the parliament voted on all conscience issues (e.g. cloning human embryo bill and the RU486 legislation) during the last session of the Parliament, and how you can find opportunities to take part in forums with your local member or gain access to key resources on their views. This site goes well beyond discussing the traditional moral issues that rightly concern Christians (e.g. abortion, the importance of families, human cloning etc) to issues for which Christians should have opinions such as climate change, civil liberties, health, Indigenous Australians, refugees, overseas aid etc. This is an excellent resource that is worth a look. There are a number of ways to read through the site but I found it most helpful to read all responses from the major parties and then to compare responses to issues that I believe are of highest priority. You’ll find some of the usual political evasiveness in relation to specific questions and a bit of double speak, but the responses on the site are a starting point for personal decision-making.

When we do vote it's my view that we need to consider the full sweep of policy agendas that one would expect from a federal government. Of course there will be some issues that will be of greater interest to us, and some Christians are prepared (legitimately) to vote based on single issues that they see as of fundamental importance.

Many Christians find it difficult to make the choice between major and minor parties. Do we vote for a local member or a party? Should we vote for a party simply because it is made up of people who are all Christians? Interestingly, Kevin Rudd (Leader of the Opposition) made some comments about this at the 2005 New College Lectures (you can read or listen to his talk on Church and State). Do we cast our vote differently in the House of Representatives and the Senate? Should our major concern be the key policy agendas of the parties or where our local member stands on specific issues? Are there key moral issues, or issues of justice, that might sway one's vote in one direction or the other?

I'm not going to offer any answers to these questions but as voters we need to think about them. Maybe you've got some thoughts on them. What I will say though is that we have a responsibility to vote and to consider the policies of the people we vote for, not to vote simply for someone we know and like, or simply to vote as our parents, friends or other Christians vote.

When Oliver O'Donovan spoke to the residents of New College this year just prior to the New College Lectures he reminded them that a government is “representative” of the people:

"I don’t mean that government is elected, though sometimes it is. Government is representative in all it does in that it speaks and acts for us, as a political community. What the Australian government agrees to and has lawfully ratified, you will have agreed to."

Readers of this Blog from other countries should also be able to relate to these questions as they face their own elections in the future. For our many American readers there are plenty of web resources that allow you to compare presidential candidates on issues of concern to Christians. For example, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life allows you to compare candidates on issues such as bioethics, the death penalty, gay marriage, religion and schools, immigration, the Iraq War and so on.

I wouldn't begin to offer advice on how Christians (or non-Christians for that matter) might make such choices between the parties based on their policies, but the ACL site should help us to assess the various party responses to key issues that should concern Christians.

If you find the responses lack the detail you need an alternative that I know some Christians use is to email their local member and ask him or her for their views on specific issues. You may get responses from party staffers but I’ve known some to receive detailed personal responses from their local member or state senators.

Sunday 28 October 2007

Christians and Climate Change

In Australia our national government has been criticized because it has been slow to accept that climate change is a major issue in the 21st century and to accept that humans have had a significant impact on global warming. Critics of the federal government have pointed to a lack of attention to renewable energy research and development and the failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change as evidence of this inactivity. Political commentators have suggested that this is one of several key policy areas that are hurting the government's chances of re-election in the upcoming elections on the 26th November. To be fair to the government, they have not been alone in being too slow to understand that governments can and indeed must act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (although only the USA and Australia have failed to sign the Kyoto Protocol). But before judging the government, we need first to examine our own response.

Putting to one side the fact that climate change is just one issue that Christians might consider when they go to the polls, it is an issue worthy of our careful and informed attention. As Christians prepare to vote in the coming election they have an opportunity to consider this issue amongst others in casting their votes. There seem to be two key questions that are worth considering: What do the experts say about climate change? What should be the Christian response to this?

The answer to the first question seems to have become more clear-cut in the past year. While there continues to be a small number of scientists who doubt that climate changes being observed are inconsistent with broad long term climatic patterns, this is a rapidly shrinking group. The Al Gore documentary has popularised much of the recent evidence. If you're one of the few people not to view it you can see a trailer using the following link - "An Inconvenient Truth" trailer.

The US Environmental Protection Agency site suggests:

"If greenhouse gases continue to increase, climate models predict that the average temperature at the Earth's surface could increase from 3.2 to 7.2ºF above 1990 levels by the end of this century. Scientists are certain that human activities are changing the composition of the atmosphere, and that increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases will change the planet's climate. But they are not sure by how much it will change, at what rate it will change, or what the exact effects will be."

Scientists have observed that some changes are already occurring. Observed effects include sea level rise, shrinking glaciers, changes in the range and distribution of plants and animals, trees blooming earlier, lengthening of growing seasons, ice on rivers and lakes freezing later and breaking up earlier, and thawing of permafrost.

But the impact of climate change will be seen in many subtle ways. The Live Science website recently outlined "Ten surprising results of global warming", suggesting there will be many unexpected impacts such as break down in significant archaeological sites, increased problems with asthma and other illnesses and diseases, unexpected animal migration, changing vegetation patterns, unpredictable fire patterns and so on.

For those who want more detailed scientific information the best place to go is the final report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was handed down this year. This report (The physical science basis of climate change) is seen as the definitive synthesis of the world's leading scientists view son Climate Change.

The answer to the second question is much more complex. In a social issues briefing on climate change Andrew Cameron and Lisa Watts (Social Issues Executive, Anglican Diocese of Sydney) suggest that the responses of a number of US evangelical Christian organizations to Climate Change fall into two major categories:

* those who see climate change as anthropogenic (caused by human activity) and believe that governments need action to halt it;
* and those who believe that climate change is natural and hence governments should concentrate their attention on protecting economies.

Jenny Beers in a Case #11 article titled "Can Christians Agree on Global Climate Change?" provides a more extensive discussion of these issues. Beers, Cameron and Watts all point out that there are major evangelical Christian organizations that fall into both groups. The social issues briefing points out that these organizations invariably use the Bible to support their stance. The anthropogenic advocates use Genesis 2 to support their view that God has given us responsibility to work the earth and care for it, while the natural climate change group tends to place more emphasis on Genesis 1:28 and see the words "subdue" and "rule" as supporting man's shaping of earth to their ends and purposes. Advocates of the first position place more emphasis on tackling climate change in order to reverse the effects and preserve the earth, whereas those supporting the second place more emphasis on coping with climate change so that economies and people are not inconvenienced by it.

However, there is no simple dichotomy of views, there are many different positions. What hasn't been discussed as much by Christians is the differential nature of the impacts of climate change. It is unlikely that climate change will affect all nations or even individuals the same. It is likely that:

* some nations will suffer more from rising sea levels (some island nations will disappear completely);
* some economies will experience greater negative impacts than others;
* some regions of the world will benefit from climate change as rainfall increases in once arid areas, while others will sea agricultural production plummet;
* technology rich nations will be better placed to cope, but the control of global climate is well beyond single nations;
* some people will be affected more due to pre-existing health conditions - the old and the young will perhaps be at greatest risk;
* some will face greater hardship due to increased energy costs, water costs, food production costs and so on;
* some developing economies will not be as well placed to cope with climate change;
* some nations will experience a greater loss of biodiversity than others;
* some nations will have to spend more to cope with the impact of climate change.

There are issues of justice here not just environmental impacts. Jenny Beers asks in her Case article whether climate change is in fact a moral issue. Likewise, Andrew Cameron and Lisa Watts suggest that climate change is a moral issue worthy of our concern. As Christians we should be at the forefront of people who argue not just for solutions to the problems of climate change but just solutions.

What can we do? As well as engaging in discussion of the issues and encouraging political parties to address climate change there are many practical things that every person can do each day. The US EPA site has some useful suggestions for practical action that individuals can take. These include replacing incandescent globes with energy efficient globes, recycling waste, insulating our homes, checking the energy rating of any new appliance, adopt 'green' habits in our yards (e.g. composting), using water efficiently and so on. Groups or churches might find Case #11, that adopted climate change as its theme, to be a useful resource for small group discussion.

Saturday 20 October 2007

Truth and the internet

In a recent post on "Writing, communication, technology and relationships" I commented on the limitations of the Internet (as well as its strengths) and cited the problem of not knowing whether content on websites is sound or indeed truthful. I suggested that the accuracy of any communication is largely untested and unreviewed, that individuals are able to misrepresent themselves more easily to unsuspecting audiences and that anyone can self-publish giving a misplaced sense of their own expertise and knowledge.

My argument has been given support by the "Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus". When researchers asked 25 seventh-grade students (judged to be high-performing as online readers), to check out a website with details about the rare octopus, they all thought the tree octopus was real.

As the local School Superintendent in Middletown (New York) commented, "Knowing truth from fiction on the Internet is a huge problem. Students might be good researchers, but they tend not to scrutinize the information."

I've had my concerns further reinforced in recent days by belatedly realizing that it's difficult to control the content of web-based resources like Wikipedia. When someone recently changed the description of New College to include some not so generous (and inaccurate) comments about our residents, I was led to contemplate how this happens, what you can do about it, and how you stop it from happening again? The answers were: a) anyone can change anything on Wikipedia; b) there isn't much I can do about it but there are processes used to restore content when it has been grossly misrepresented and I can always change it back; c) and, that there isn't much protection against such attacks. Now all the true believers in the Internet will say that this is its great strength. It is so open to all and hence difficult to control, allowing people to search out truth rather than having to be limited to newspapers, television and even books which are more easily controlled by powerful people, organizations or governments. There is some truth in this viewpoint and evidence that the written word can be used to coerce and manipulate. But there are also great dangers in not understanding the limitations of the internet. For there is such a thing as truth and also fiction. Wikipedia at best is founded on the belief that there are various versions of the truth (see Wiki's entry for the Bible), and at worst is influenced by the extreme relativist view that there is no such thing as truth, just individual and group constructions of meaning. Relativism has many forms but broadly teaches that we can only know things in terms of our historical and/or cultural experience and context. In its most extreme form the claim is made that there is no such thing as truth. For a non-Christian discussion of Relativism explore this link.

While the internet can be useful for communicating truth, readers need to be able to assess information to judge if it is true. As Howard Rheingold points out in a recent newspaper column, "the responsibility for determining the accuracy of texts shifted from the publisher to the reader when the functions of libraries shifted to search engines". Children and adults need to ask themselves more questions of the content they encounter. Who wrote this piece? What is the author's claim to expertise and knowledge in this area? From where does the writer derive his or her sources and how well regarded are such sources? What is the purpose of the writing? What are the underlying assumptions, ideology, values and world view of the writer? How do the claims of this text match the claims of others?

There has never been a time (in my view) when we needed to give greater consideration to the authority of the texts we read and the things we see, for even images can no longer be trusted with the visual effects technology available. That's why Christians place so much importance on the reading of God's word and place so much trust in its accuracy. Its reliability has been tested over centuries. In spite of endless attempts to discredit it and cast doubts on its accuracy, it has been shown to be reliable. While the Bible has many internal references that speak of it as the word of God (2 Tim 3:16, 17; 2 Peter 1: 20, 21; 1 Cor 14:37; 1 Thessalonians 2:13) and God's truth (2 Timothy 2:15b), some might also want to explore historical evidence that also supports the authenticity of this book. There are many sources including web based freeware on sites like (e.g. a basic introduction has been written by Michael Cleghorn) and Paul Barnett's very readable look at the historical evidence for the New Testament - Is the New Testament History?.

The Apostle Peter wrote in his 1st century letter recorded for us in the New Testament of the Bible (quoting from an even older text in the Old Testament, Isaiah 40:6-8), that while many generations of men and women have been born and in turn have died over the centuries, God's word to us has endured and can be trusted:

For, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever" (1 Peter 1:24-25a).

As we use the Internet increasingly as a resource for many varied purposes, all users (adults and children) need to learn to test that which is communicated. For the Christian, the ultimate test will be whether the wisdom of the web is supported by the Word of God that we know can be trusted.