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.