Thursday 25 December 2008

Putting Christ back into Christmas

My wife Carmen knitted a wonderful Nativity set recently and our grandchildren have enjoyed playing with it and even retelling the Christmas story. Now while this photo might suggest a different telling of the story, I can assure you that they know the story well, and have done since they were very young.

But it seems that less and less people seem to know the story of Christmas; well at least the true story of Christmas. Some suggest that as few as 1 in 14 children know the real story of Christmas in 'Christian' countries like Australia. There is such limited knowledge of the story of Jesus birth that the story is constantly distorted. Greg Clarke wrote recently about this (here) and lamented that "Baby Jesus Christianity is what we see around us at Christmas; immature, unrealistic, comical, domesticated. It's Jesus without the Christ, the baby without the adult". In fact, for many people, they don't even get as far as the baby Jesus and instead focus on Santa and family celebrations. At this time of year we have a great opportunity to share the story of Christ with everyone. Let's do it in whatever way we can.

I've written a post on my Literacy, Families & Learning blog (here) about using literature to share the story of Christmas. The best place to start is obviously the Bible, but if you're a teacher, or you want to share the true story of Christmas with other members of your extended family or neighbours, then there are many good children's books that can be given away that also share the story of the birth of Christ. Not many get beyond the baby Jesus, but some do faithfully share the details of Jesus birth and the fact that he was and is the Son of God.

I heard Rowan Williams on radio today talking about a competition in Britain to come up with the shortest version of the Christmas story. I couldn't help but wonder why he wouldn't simply get people to read Matthew 1:18-25. This is what my 6 year-old grandson Jacob did recently when his teacher suggested they bring in their favourite story to read to classmates as part of end of year activities. He decided (himself) to take in his Bible and read Matthew 1 (minus the genealogy of Jesus which he didn't think the other Kinder kids would get).

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" —which means, "God with us."

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)

I hope that supporters of CASE and readers of this blog have a wonderful and meaningful Christmas, as we remember, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16). May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you, Trevor

Monday 22 December 2008

The ethics of shopping

Carmen and I spent some time in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong a few weeks ago essentially on New College alumni business. On the Saturday before we left Hong Kong for home we did what many people do when they travel to Asian cities, we went shopping for a bargain in one of the well-known markets. We were mainly looking for Christmas presents for our grandchildren, but as we wandered up and down the rows of merchants there was one very consistent cry:

"Copy watch, you want copy watch sir?"

Typically this was a question asked of me and it occurred at just about every second stand. It was sometimes followed with statements like "We've got Rolex, copy Rolex out the back, you want one, very cheap".

I had no trouble resisting the pleas of the many sales people. For a start, I wouldn't want my friends and the residents of New College to see me wearing a watch that looked like it was worth $5,000 (even though it was only worth $20); I'm not one for bling! But I'm also strongly against people ripping off the trademarks and intellectual property of other individuals and companies. I'd thought this through as a Christian long before I started receiving 6-10 SPAM emails daily offering me similarly wonderful 'replica watches' as the spammers call them. This decision seems like an easy ethical dilemma to resolve. But this made me think, what other ethical shopping dilemmas will I face this Christmas season. And which ones am I not even aware that I'm facing? What does it mean to shop ethically? What guidance does the Bible give us?

The problem of selectivity

Part of the problem with thinking ethically about shopping is that we tend to focus on one area of concern. For example, I know people who act (quite rightly) as campaigners for Fair Trade. Their concern is driven primarily by their desire to see justice for workers and suppliers (fair pay for products as well as the labour that produced them). Others campaign to ensure that we don't encourage the sale of wooden products that destroy the environment. It's easy to pick some issues that you can quickly make an ethical decision about while missing other areas of perhaps equal ethical concern. I suspect that we face ethical decisions as shoppers every day. Here are a few examples:
  • You are given too much change by the shop assistant - should you give it back?
  • You wear a piece of clothing but decide you don't like it - you are tempted to take it back for exchange after wearing it (just once), but should you?
  • You have to answer questions about your driving record when seeking a new insurance policy which will affect the premium you're charged - do you tell them the full story?
  • You see products that have most likely been manufactured by workers who have not been treated justly, (often clothing, but also household items in wood or cane). The workers might have been poorly paid, child family members could have been forced to work long hours and may have been denied education (especially girls), slave labourers may have been used, staff within family sweat shops may have produced the clothing and so on. How do you assess this and should you buy the products?
  • You have the chance to buy something that will tempt you or the recipient of the gift to break the law or act unethically themselves - e.g. police scanners that allow people to listen in on the police broadcasts, machines for multi-copying of DVDs and CDs, devices for detecting speed cameras so that you can speed in 'safety'. Should you buy such a device?
  • You see a book, CD, video or clothing item that is obviously a copy of a well-known brand (like my 'copy watch'). Do you purchase it?
  • You know that the seller is desperate for a sale (often this can occur in Asian countries) and you think you can drive the price even lower to the point that it is costing you almost nothing. Should you? I can well remember bargaining for a painting in a village in Indonesia about 5 years before I became a Christian and getting it for a ridiculous price. I recall later realising that it cost me 14 cents and feeling very guilty, as it was hardly a fair price.
This might all seem a bit much, you might think I'm going over the top! But am I? If you're a Christian reading this blog then like me you need to consider what the Bible has to say about ethical shopping.

What the Bible has to say that can help us?

The easy part is that if your action or choice is going to lead you or others to break the law then you shouldn't do it. While we are to be obedient to Christ first, we are to be obedient to the laws of the land that are set by authorities appointed ultimately by God. So, a 'copy watch' is out, as is an illegal video, copied music etc. Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1 and 1 Peter 2:13 are helpful here, especially Rom 13: 1,2 & 7:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment....Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honour is owed.

But the Bible teaches more than simply obedience to the laws of the land; we are called to pay attention even to the 'spirit of the law' not just the 'letter of the law'. Jesus teaches about this in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-20) when he says:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus is suggesting to the Scribes and Pharisees that the righteousness that he expects is nothing less than complete conformity to God’s law. Jesus is teaching that it is the heart not just the outward deed is that is ultimately most important. This is God-given righteousness; hearts transformed by the saving grace of Christ, not a righteousness of outward compliance. Jesus demands more than just an outward pretence of honesty while all the time acting unethically and unjustly by seeking some level of right action, to keep up appearances, but quietly pushing the boundaries of what is right in one area while trying in another.

I’m challenged by Jesus’ words for I know that in my heart I’m tempted constantly to ‘cut corners’ so to speak, hiding behind a fa├žade of ethical action a heart that while viewed as free of guilt because of the righteousness of Christ, is still engaged in a daily war against the flesh. Jesus teaching is hard teaching here. What is expected of us? Mere token observance of the laws of the land? No much more than this. As Christians we must not relax “one of the least of these commandments” and what’s more I must flee the false righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees that fails to satisfy the heart and the mind, that seeks to glorify self in our actions, that is self made, not reflective of a repentant and obedient heart.

Sunday 14 December 2008

The culture of control

“The yearning for control has become a kind of modern madness. Stressed and destabilised by the rate of change, we have been looking in the wrong place for a solution to our anxieties and insecurities.”

These are the words of Hugh Mackay from an edited version of a speech he gave recently as the Annual Oration to the Australian Psychological Society of which he is a fellow.

He suggests that the global financial crisis has once again reminded us that most things are out of our control, including “the greed of others; the slackening demand for our resources; the fragility of under-regulated capitalism”.

He suggests that the human tendency at such times is to “crave…stability and predictability…ritual and repetition”, and that as a result, many have tried to take ‘control’ of their personal lives and the world itself in varied ways:

  • Reinventing the institution of marriage.
  • Transforming the nature of family life (e.g. 25%of Australian families are now single-parent families).
  • Having less babies, hence sending the birthrate tumbling to an all time low;
  • changing the way we work (e.g. increased female participation; increased part-time work etc).
  • Adopting what he calls “positive action” – if we can't solve global environmental problems then “let's clean up the bush, paint the school, join a choir, buy a hybrid car”.
  • Retreating into their shells and disengaging – turning attention to the self, including an obsession with the body, home renovations, putting our children in the best schools to "control” them.
  • Supporting greater controls for government, the courts and law enforcement.
  • Embracing dogmatic and hard-line fundamentalism in many forms – “…religion, economics, environmentalism or medicine and psychology”.
  • Excellence or perfectionism – seeking the perfect marriage, the perfect wife, the perfect school for our children etc.
  • Happiness – some have put their focus on seeking the secret to happiness.
He suggests that “….we shouldn't be surprised that so many people feel as if they're trapped on a runaway train, or that our consumption of antidepressants has tripled in the past decade, or that about 25 per cent of young Australians are suffering serious psychological distress, or that the incidence of binge drinking and serious assault has increased markedly over this period.”


While Hugh Mackay seems to have put his finger on lots of things that ring true for most of us, his suggestions as to how we might respond to this failure to control our world, fall well short of what is needed. Even in his suggested solution, he has demonstrated simply another hopeless attempt to control the world and our future. I am reminded of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun? (Ecc 1:2-3).

We toil generation after generation and yet all of life still seems meaningless and futile. As the Preacher writes later, “there is nothing new under the sun”. Ecclesiastes stresses again and again that we have little control over our future. There is little that is ours to command. As Derek Kidner points out in his commentary on Ecclesiastes:

….we cannot extrapolate from the present. Whether things are going well or ill, we have to take them as they come, knowing that the whole picture will change and go on changing. ‘God has made the one as well as the other’ – good times and bad – ‘so that man may not find out anything that will be after him’ (Ecc 7:14)

God is in control

Hugh Mackay, might have put his finger on the ongoing malady of humanity vainly attempting to control its world, but he fails to point to a meaningful solution. He would have done better to have looked for an answer in the biblical words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph 1:11-14):

“11In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory.”

There are at least three things worth mentioning from this passage. First, that God's desire for us is that we might be secure in his love and power. While Hugh Mackay rightly points out that we are unable to control our world - health, careers, aging, the economy, your family, education, the ills of our world, global terrorism, global warming etc – he misses the point that we can be secure in the knowledge that God IS in control of his world. God has a plan for each of our lives; one that he has planned in advance. Paul of course knew what it was like to feel as if life was out of control. In Romans (8:35-36) he talks about the tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and the threat of the sword. And yet, he knew that ultimately God was in control.

Second, note that God's ultimate purpose in sealing us with his Holy Spirit (v 13) and guaranteeing us an eternal inheritance is for “the praise of his glory and grace”. Our real purpose is not to serve our own good, to gain personal happiness and fulfilment, to change the world for good and so on; no, it is to bring glory to God.

Third, note that the people for whom God gives a guarantee are those who believe in his Son:

“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit

In spite of the uncertainties of this world and our inability to control it, God is in control, and he wants us to feel secure in his love and power.

There is another biblical truth to keep in mind (and in balance) with the words of Paul to the Ephesians. It is that, as good as this life can be at times, even when it isn’t ours to control, living this life isn’t the purpose for which God made us. In the Apostle Peter’s first letter he calls on the people of God to live their lives on earth as if they “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), people who while living on earth for a time and bound for a heavenly eternity.

Hugh Mackay’s response to our inability to control our world falls well short of the biblical explanation of God’s purposes for us. Mackay’s solutions are still grounded in the futility of ‘chasing the wind’. His writes:

“The current obsession with control looks to me like a symptom of a deep unease in our society. The yearning for control is a cry for help. The most useful response to that cry is not to say, "Here's how to get your life under control" but to explain that the deepest sense of wellbeing springs not from mastery of our circumstances - let alone mastery of others - but from mastery of ourselves.”

This is an attempt to control one’s world in yet another form! Mackay, suggests that while we can’t control the world, we can gain new purpose by controlling ourselves! His solution is as follows:

“We need to shift our focus from control to participation and engagement; from resistance to adaptation; from an unhealthy utopianism to a more realistic acceptance of life's disorderliness, its irrationalities, its unpredictability, its disenchantments, as well as its joys, its gratifications and even its occasional small triumphs.”

This different form of human control won't work either. Self control won’t take the emptiness away from human hearts, or the fears and the uncertainties; only throwing yourself at the mercy of the God of the universe and accepting the free gift of grace and forgiveness that he offers in Jesus will do that. We were designed and made by God for a higher purpose than simply to live for a short time on this earth. Simply taking the good with the bad, as Mackay suggests, won't work either, we will still be chasing after the wind. Ecclesiastes again helps us, as it teaches that God places some sense of eternity in our hearts:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

There is no need to see God’s unfolding plans for his creation as scary, frustrating or unsettling (while we might experience these emotions at times), there is purpose and pattern in what God is ordaining. It is God given and it is for his praise and glory. For us the challenge is not that life is constantly out of control, but that we can only ever grasp part of the unfolding plans of God. Instead of chaos there is actually a divine purpose. In this life there will be joy and sorrow, fear and confidence, love and isolation, evil and good, a time to live and a time to die. The answer to coping with a world that seems out of control is to understand that it is actually in the control of God, and that he has an eternal a plan for those who trust in Christ. Paul similarly (in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10) tells us that in this life we will "groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling" (v2). We struggle as wait to leave our 'earthly home' for our true destination, an eternal home. It takes the Preacher in Ecclesiastes twelve chapters until he too reveals the answer to the futility of chasing the wind and of humanity's struggles to control the world:

“13The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecc 12:13-14)

One day there will be death and judgement so drop our pretence of self-sufficiency and commit our lives to the creator and God of the universe.

You can read the Sydney Morning Herald edited version of Mackay's oration here

Sunday 7 December 2008

Christ & Culture Revisited: A review

In 1951 H. Richard Niebuhr wrote the classic book, Christ and Culture. He set out to address the tricky matter of how Christians deal with culture, relate to culture and are positioned in relation to culture. He suggested that there are five main patterns when describing the relationship: Christ against Culture; Christ of Culture; Christ above Culture; Christ and Culture in Paradox; and Christ the Transformer of Culture. He outlined each in detail presenting their strengths and weaknesses and aiming to allow the reader to make up his or her mind about the option they felt made most sense.

For over 50 years Christians have looked to this book as a key guide to understanding the relationship between their faith and culture. In a recent book Don Carson has respectfully ‘revisited’ this work and offers a new perspective on Niebuhr’s now classic text. For those just returned from a 30-year trip to the outer edges of the Galaxy, Don Carson is Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author or co-author of many well-known books on theology.

Carson’s book, Christ and culture revisted was born out of discussions with his students at Trinity, a lecture series in Paris and his own theological reflections and study of the thorny problem of how any Christian sits in relation to his or her culture. Even in writing the last sentence it sounds as if I am positioning myself outside culture. The inability of any Christian to sit outside culture is something that Carson rightly points out is a serious challenge. To my mind this should lead us to admire and be thankful for the early and seminal work that Niebuhr did, while not denying that the work needs to be reconsidered.

A definition of culture

Before commencing his critique Carson begins by seeking a definition of culture. Finding an appropriate definition of culture is obviously critical to understanding where we fit in relation to culture. Carson dismisses ‘high culture’ definitions then considers a number of alternatives before settling (primarily) on Clifford Geertz’s definition as one that is workable:

“[T]he culture concept……denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life.” [From Geertz, C. (1973), The interpretation of cultures, New York: Basic Books, p.89]

Carson's 'gentle' critique

Carson then summarises Niebuhr’s categories, with ‘gentle’ critique along the way, before making his agenda clear; what does Niebuhr’s work look like when viewed through the lens of Biblical Theology? While accepting that Niebuhr’s work has been influential and praise worthy because it has been able to embrace “…Catholics and Protestants, East and West, examples from the Fathers, the Middle Agers, the Reformation, and the Modern period, conservatives and liberals, mainstream believers (whatever they are in any period), and sectarians”, Carson suggests that this as a significant weakness for a number of reasons:
  • He does not exclude any branch of “Christian” Gnosticism, nor any branch of “Christian” liberalism; why include heresy is Carson’s justified question;
  • His use of Scripture is not always good, perhaps related to his quest to be comprehensive and inclusive; in particular his use of John’s gospel, and his tendency to use (for example) the 4 gospels as separate justification for differing patterns and in doing so, fail to see that the whole of Scripture constitutes the Canon;
  • His broad and sweeping use of key historical thinkers leads to some unusual positioning of their arguments for one or more of his five patterns; in fact he uses the likes of Calvin, Augustine, Tertullian and Justin Martyr in support of specific patterns when the work of these writers would seem to cut across several patterns.
All of the above should signal where Carson next moves with his critique, an application of biblical theology. For the purposes of this post, biblical theology can be defined as the interpretation of Scripture that insists that any passage must been seen in relation to the great themes and turning points in redemptive history. The whole of Scripture points to God's redemptive plan in Christ. Carson begins his critique with a his own summary of the key turning points:

  • Creation and the fall – God created us in his image and likeness, but God’s creation rebelled against him and now stands condemned and faces God’s wrath and judgement.
  • Israel and the Law – God chooses Abraham, makes a covenant with him and through him also chooses a people, gives them the law, the tabernacle, the priesthood, and the sacrificial system.
  • Christ and the New Covenant – God had a plan, he sends his Son, he dwells with us and becomes our new tabernacle and temple; he reveals his ultimate solution to man’s sin and rebellion; his own son will be the perfect sacrifice to atone for man’s sin. Jesus announces and inaugurates the kingdom of God and yet, the kingdom is still to come when Jesus the King returns.
  • A heaven to be gained and a hell to be feared – there will be a culminating glory; judgement will be followed by a new heaven and a new earth for those who avoid the second death (Rev 20-22).
Carson concludes his important 2nd chapter with some quick reflections that shape much of the rest of the book. First, that biblical theology should control and shape our thinking about Christ and culture. This Carson suggests help to explain why Niebuhr has so much trouble domesticating Calvin and Augustine to one of his 5 categories. Carson comments:

“… his idealisation of ‘Christ the transformer of culture’ model, he has simply left out the consummation. What he sees as a weakness in Augustine and Calvin suddenly becomes a strength: Augustine and Calvin are trying to integrate all the non-negotiables of biblical theology, which is precisely why they cannot adopt Niebuhr’s ‘pure’ form of the conversionist model.”

He concludes that under the lens of biblical theology “…perhaps all, of Niebuhr’s five patterns need to be trimmed in some way”.

Second, Carson warns against seeking patterns or paradigms or models to consider the relation between Christ and culture as Niebuhr has done. Instead, he argues, we should seek wise integration.

“….if for any reason we continue to think of different models of the relationship between Christ and culture, we must insist that they are not alternative models that we may choose to accept or reject. Rather, we shall ask in what sense they are grounded within the Scriptures, and how and when they should be emphasised under different circumstances exemplified in the Scriptures.

Third, that we must insist on God’s sovereignty over the entire created order. “…the reality of God’s sovereignty reminds us that the categories ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’ are not mutually opposed in every respect……the two terms ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’ cannot be set absolutely over against each other, not only because Christians constitute part of the culture, but also because all authority is given to Christ in heaven and on earth, so all culture is subsumed under his reign.” While much of culture appears to be in opposition to God, or at the very least, people act as if they are free from God’s rule, the Bible teaches that Christ does and must reign with all authority, operating to bring about God’s plans.

Fourth, although the world is corrupted by sin, because the world was created by God it cannot lose all the glory that God built into it (Psalm 8). God continues to do good and to bestow his good gifts, and in holding back the judgement that must come. The natural world that God called into being operates under the authority of the resurrected Christ, and this includes everything that man creates including art, music and all creative works.

Refining Culture and Redefining Postmodernism

Chapter 3 is essentially an opportunity for Carson to say more about culture and how it is defined before moving on to consider postmodernism. He reaches some conclusions on culture which while self-evident are worthy of restatement. Culture is not just a noun, something out there to look at and observe, but also a verb, something in which individuals participate as insiders. As well, this discussion is not just about the individual, but rather communities and groups. Carson puts it this way:

We cannot “….reduce ‘culture’ to the level of the isolated individual. Culture, as developed in almost all contemporary discussion, is essentially communal….”

There is great cultural diversity in the world and the locus of particular cultures is variable and may overlap with other cultures. However, the diversity of culture as well as the commonalities across cultures, “…does not mean that one culture cannot be usefully compared and contrasted with another culture.” Culture, like every other part of creation stands under the judgement of God.

Carson turns in the second half of this chapter to a discussion of postmodernism. This is a relevant diversion, for as Carson points out, postmodernism with its acceptance and celebration of deconstructive pluralism, has argued against the use of any grand narratives to make sense of the world. Carson suggests that rather than simply dismissing postmodernism, that there is another way and cites Christian Smith’s “perspectival realism as the alternative way:

“A chastened modernism and a ‘soft’ postmodernism might actually discover that they are saying rather similar things. A chastened or modest modernism pursues the truth but recognises how much we humans do not know, how often we change our minds, and some of the factors that go into our claims to knowledge. A chastened postmodernism heartily recognises that we cannot avoid seeing things from a certain perspective…..but acknowledges that there is a reality out there that we human beings can know, even if we cannot know it exhaustively or perfectly, but only from our own perspective.”

Secularism, Democracy, Freedom and Power

In chapter 4 Carson addresses what he sees as four of the most significant cultural forces in the Western world: the lure of secularisation, the mystique of democracy, the worship of freedom, and the lust for power.

He argues that the Bible presents us with realities that run counter to prevailing worldviews when these forces are considered. He suggests that even where there are overlapping values in alternative worldviews (as there are), that we will view and deal with each of these forces differently to the rest of the world. Christians and Christian communities seeking to live under the authority of the Word of God as sojourners and exiles in this world (1 Peter 2:11-12), will inevitably live (to at least some extent) in a counter-cultural way at times in opposition to the values of the dominate culture. But the individual and the church does not simply withdraw from the dominant culture, indeed it cannot ever completely do so, rather Christians are to be salt and light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16) and contribute to the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7):

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Church and State

Chapter 5 is devoted to a discussion of the relationship between church and state. Carson explores definitions of the church, nation and state before outlining what he sees as the biblical priorities for the relationship between church and state. He uses the topic (in a sense) as a test case for practical application in the light of his exploration of Niebuhr’s patterns and his own critique. While I found this chapter somewhat ‘meandering’, its conclusions show the worth of the journey that Carson takes us on:

  • Christians who wish to be faithful to Scripture will not lose sight of the fact that they are citizens of heaven and that our identity is found not in the world but within the Kingdom of God.
  • That the political system that Christians live in will change the way they work out the relationship they have to the state and the nation. Those living in western democracies have a different relationship to the state than the Christians of the 1st century living under Roman rule. This leads to many subtle challenges as we seek to make up our minds about things as diverse as: whether the state should give money to the church for welfare work; how we consider the Christian institution of marriage for non-believers; our attitude to religious liberty for Christians and for those who are not Christians in Christian nations.

Ultimately, while we tussle with such complexities, Carson draws on Richard John Neuhas to remind us that we must always come back to the truth “Jesus Christ is Lord. This is the first and final assertion Christians make about all of reality, including politics……every sovereignty is subordinate to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

On disputed agendas, frustrated utopias, and ongoing tensions

In Carson’s final chapter he addresses a few extra agendas and ongoing tensions (somewhat serendipitously) and concludes:

“What the potted survey ought to tell us is that none of the powerfully advanced theories commonly put forward to explain the relationships between Christ and culture or to implement an approved dynamic is very compelling as a total explanation or an unambiguous mandate…..Christians need to adopt an extra degree of hesitation about canonising any of [Niebuhr’s patterns] in an age in which we are learning the extent to which we are learning the extent to which our own cultural location contributes, for better and worse, to our own understanding of these theological matters, as of all theological matters.”

My View of the Book’s Contribution

Carson’s book makes a useful contribution to the revisiting of Niebuhr’s work and the ongoing need to understand the relationship Christians (individually and collectively) have with culture. The strength of Carson’s book, for me, lies in his initial unpacking of the issues underlying any analysis of Niebuhr’s work, particularly his discussion of culture and his treatment of Scripture. Carson’s own application of biblical theology to Niebuhr’s work is insightful and engaging. The weakness of the book is that it lacks a degree of coherence and made me want more. I suspect that this is due in large part to its genesis. The exploration of the relationship between church and state was interesting, but I kept wanting to get my teeth into an exploration of other daily challenges such as the way Christians live within the workplace, the community, how we approach education and educational institutions and see the place of these sites of human activity in relation to the kingdom of God. For me, this is the sharp end of any discussion of how we understand our place as followers of Christ in relation to the culture in which we participate and the rich cultural transactions that are part of our daily lives. I look forward to future contributions from Don Carson who I admire enormously and whose work continues to inspire me and many others.

Christ and Culture Revisited, D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids (Mich.):William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

Saturday 29 November 2008

The glory of God: 25,000 orchids have their say!

I’m currently in Asia doing work on behalf of my college. The trip started in Singapore where I had the chance to visit The National Orchid Garden. I’m an amateur orchid grower so when I noticed the garden was close by I had to visit. Orchids are an amazing flower. The Orchid family (Orchidaceae) is the largest family of the flowering plants. It has been estimated that there are 880 genera and nearly 22,000 accepted species. However, the exact number is unknown and has been estimated at 25,000. This is four times the number of species of mammal. The variety is incredible; orchids vary in size, colour shape, number of blooms and frequency of flowering.

As a Christian I believe that God created these flowers. But why? Why 25,000? Would 2,000 have done, or even 20? Genesis 1 is helpful and helps us to understand that God takes pleasure in his creation. In Genesis 1 we not only have recorded the order of creation, we see here that God looks at it with pleasure. He stood back (so to speak) and “..saw that it was good" (Gen 1:4, 12, 18, 21, 25). And when he had finished all of his creative work he declared that “…it was very good."

God seems to be delighted in his work; it gives him pleasure. The Psalmist also helps us to gain a sense that God takes pleasure in his creation, indeed, he rejoices in it.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever, may the Lord rejoice in his works (Psalm 104:31)

The works of God are an expression of his glory, and as long as God’s glory endures (and Psalm 104 suggests this will be forever), he will take pleasure in his works. And the wonderful thing is that the 25,000 varieties of orchids, and in fact all of creation, brings ongoing praise to God. In fact the Psalmist (Psalm 148) calls on creation itself to praise the Lord:

Praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD from the heavens,
praise him in the heights above.
Praise him, all his angels,
praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, you highest heavens
and you waters above the skies.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for he commanded and they were created.
He set them in place forever and ever;
he gave a decree that will never pass away.
Praise the LORD from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars,
wild animals and all cattle,
small creatures and flying birds,
kings of the earth and all nations,
you princes and all rulers on earth,
young men and maidens,
old men and children.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for his name alone is exalted;
his splendour is above the earth and the heavens.
He has raised up for his people a horn,
the praise of all his saints,
of Israel, the people close to his heart.
Praise the LORD.

God’s 25,000 varieties of orchids bring praise to him simply by being what they were created to be in all their amazing variety. As well, they reveal the wonder of his knowledge and wisdom (Psalm 104:24):
How many are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

And God’s creation should also move us to look to the one who created them (Is 40:26):

Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.

As I marvelled at God’s orchids I was moved to consider how great God must be. If his work in one family of flowering plants is so amazing, just how amazing must God be himself. Again, the Psalmist (Psalm 104:31-34) has some words that point us in this direction:

May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
may the LORD rejoice in his works-
he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.
I will sing to the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
as I rejoice in the LORD.
Related posts

The wonders of space: Seeing the creator in images of the universe (here)

Friday 21 November 2008

Freedom to choose: A biblical perspective

Is this fish free?

Freedom is a word on everybody’s lips. It seems everyone places high priority on personal freedom. However, the focus of individual desire for freedom often finds expression in varied ways:

• The economist wants free trade
• The feminist wants to be free from male oppression
• African nationalists want freedom from colonial rule
• The capitalist wants to be free from government control
• The teenager wants to freedom to make their own choices

Don Carson in his recent book “Christ and Culture Revisited” suggests that the desire for freedom is one of the big 4 cultural forces in secular western societies (along with secularisation, democracy and lust for power).

The freedoms people are seeking involve freedom from something – from oppression, control, fear, traditions, poverty, social institutions or values and so on. But as Tim Keller points out in his book The Reason for God - Belief in an Age of Skepticism:

Freedom, then, is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us.

Freedom and God's purposes

The picture of the fish above alludes to this idea that human freedom is related to God’s purposes for our lives. Tim Keller uses this illustration to make this point about freedom.

“A fish, because it absorbs oxygen from water rather than air, is only free if it is restricted and limited to water. If we take it off the hook and put it on the grass, its freedom to move and even to live is not enhanced, but destroyed. The fish dies if we do not honour the reality of its nature.”

Keller goes on to argue that freedom isn’t simply the absence of confinement and constraint. In fact, confinement and constraint can actually be a means to liberation.

But talk to non-Christian friends and you will see that the image of Christianity today is not freedom but bondage. Christians are the fun police and Christianity is a religion of don’ts. Many show their opposition in varied ways: “I want to do what I want to do.” “My sexuality is my business.” “It’s my body, I’ll decide what I do with it.” “Don’t tell be how to behave.”

Where can we go in the Bible for help in responding to our friend’s challenges in this area? Gal 5, Romans 6, John 8, and 1 Peter 2 are all good places to start.

Freedom from the law

Paul tells the Galatian Church (Gal 5:1-15) that they are free from the law and must avoid the temptation to believe that more is needed to experience true freedom.

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery”

Because tells the Galatians that because Christ has them free, that they are to enjoy the glorious freedom that it brings. They must not drift back into thinking that they can win favour with God by their own obedience or observance of the law. The law won't help the Galatians or us. Like them we can never be good enough in the eyes of God to earn his favour, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).

Freedom from sin

But Paul tells the Galatians that there is a second form of slavery that they had escaped. They are not just free from the law, they are also free from sin.

“13For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Gal 5:13)

Paul has more to say in Romans 6 on our freedom from sin in Christ.

15What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 20For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Choosing slavery

Paul makes the point here that we aren't just free from sin and the law, we replace one form of slavery with another. You become slaves of the gospel (v17), a slave of righteousness (v18) and finally a slave of God (v22).

The imagery here is of the voluntary slavery – self-surrender leading to slavery (v 16). The voluntary slave was one often living in poverty who could offer themselves as slaves to someone simply in order to be fed and housed.

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Rom 6:16)

Like voluntary slaves we have a choice – slavery to sin or righteousness. Jesus taught that no-one can be slaves to two masters (Matt 6:24).

There is a wonderful progression here: conversion involves self-surrender; self-surrender in turn leads to slavery; and slavery demands uncompromising obedience.

17But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom 6:17-18)

John Stott reminds us that: “We have here an exchange of slaveries. Each slavery is a kind of freedom (one authentic and the other spurious) and each type of freedom is a kind of slavery (one leads to death and the other life)”.

We were made for slavery to righteousness in accordance with the manufacturer’s design. It is possible for the fish to be free of the restraint of the pond, but if this freedom is not consistent with the way he was designed, it is a false freedom that leads to destruction. So too, for humans. If the freedom we seek is not in accord with God’s purposes then it is pointless freedom. No, the fish isn't free, and neither are we when we try to live our lives separate from God. We were made to give our lives in obedience to Christ, there can be no true freedom outside Christ. Jesus said:

"If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)

Related links

A review of Tim Keller's The Reason for God can be found here.

Thursday 13 November 2008

The Redemption of Children's Literature

1. The importance of children's literature

Some readers of this blog know that I also write a blog called "Literacy, families and learning". This blog aims to "to provide practical, timely and sound support and advice for parents, teachers and teachers in training". It isn't written with a specifically Christian audience in mind, but if you read it I hope that you will see the influence of my Christian worldview. This has been perhaps most evident in some posts that I've been doing on Key themes in children's literature.
These posts intersect with two posts I wrote on this CASE blog in August about Christian Writing for Children (here and here). I suggested in my posts on writing that in the Western cultural tradition the gospel of Christ is the central narrative to which virtually all other narratives have some relationship. The central focus of the Bible is Salvation History; with its central narrative tracing both the history of Judaism and Christianity and God’s redemptive plan for his people. In the beginning God created…and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against him and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgement. But God always had a plan for such rebellion; a plan of redemption motivated by love. An amazing gift of grace; his own son sent to die and three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death. A plan that provided a way for his creation to be restored to a relationship with him.

In my first post on Christian writing for children, I suggested that while there are many legitimate forms of writing for children (I suggested at least five types), I urged Christians to consider writing good fiction for the secular marketplace. In a sense, I was arguing for the redemption of children's literature for the sake of the gospel by having more Christians writing good narratives for children.

2. The place of God's redemptive plan for creation in literature

In this post I want to go further and suggest that much literature is already suitable for parents to use as an extension of the biblical education of their children. While I'm not suggesting that literature can be a replacement for the Bible as the key text for life, what I am suggesting is that the gospel inhabits literature in stories that echo the central redemption narrative of the Bible. I've written three posts in my Key themes series:

The environment
Being different

3. Making better use of literature

I wrote in one of my books written for academics and university students (Pathways to Literacy, Cairney 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
I'm pushing the above claims one step further. My point is simple. For many books, there are links or parallels at the thematic level with the biblical redemption narrative. Many stories demonstrate or echo biblical teaching (e.g. salvation narratives, stories of salvation and redemption, parallels to biblical narratives or parables). Others simply distort these biblical themes and require comment and critique. Such stories can be read at one level simply as nice tales, but at another level the key themes that parallel biblical themes can be discussed with children. In many cases, the authors are not Christians, but Christian teaching has indirectly influenced their writing. Many children's stories:
  • offer knowledge that for the Christian affirms that God is in control of his world and is unfolding his purposes for it;
  • act as a mirror allowing the reader to reflect on life and their future in the light of biblical teaching;
  • lead us to consider aspects of the human condition (life and death, fear, loneliness, pain, loss, frailty, brokenness etc) that once again relate to biblical wisdom and teaching;
  • point to the central redemption narrative of the Bible.
Alternatively, literature can offer perspectives that are at odds with biblical teaching and require comment. This type of critical reading of literature against the grain is a vital skill for children to learn, so that as independent readers they will be better able to read books, view movies, listen to songs and read texts of all kinds with a biblical lens. This type of biblical engagement with literature can begin very early (albeit in modest ways!).

4. An example - Teaching our children about death, human frailty and judgement

The topic of death is not a very popular one for some parents. Many parents make the mistake of trying to hide the reality of death from their children with the result that when their children do encounter it they may have difficulty coping. At this point I should confess to telling my eldest daughter when she was about 3 years old that our pet yellow budgerigar ("Mr Hooper") had got out of the cage and flown away, when in fact he had died. As non-Christian parents at the time, we weren't ready to deal with the topic so we simply lied about the bird's death (sorry Nicole!).

While there is little point in deliberately raising death prematurely for the child before they have the emotional maturity to deal with it, it's hard to artificially put a time frame on when it's a good time to speak of death.
While thankfully few children will have to deal with death and dying at too young an age, some will, and of course we have no way of knowing when and if this might be the case. Furthermore, from an early age they will be on the 'edges' of conversations and discussions that will give them their first hints that this life is not permanent for any living creature. An awareness of death may emerge very early with the death of a family member, or more commonly, through the death of an animal (typically a pet like Mr Hooper). However, more often the child's first awareness that all living things will one day might be through a book or a film, DVD or television program. As the child grows older the chances of some first-hand experience of death will increase. By the teenage years a close experience with the death of a friend or loved one will be more common, and might well come in tragic circumstances.

That's where literature (and film of course) can help parents, in particular, to discuss the reality of death with their children. Books that address death can be read with children and by children themselves as a source of insight, comfort and emotional growth. Once again, I stress that this isn't a replacement for the Bible's discussion of death, but is a complement to our discussion of the Bible's teaching about death. At this point, I should stress that I am not deliberately ignoring classic works of Christian fiction that are more allegorical in their approach such as Bunyan's "The Pilgrims Progress", The Chronicles of Narnia written by C.S. Lewis and even new works like R.C. Sproul's children's book, The Prince's Poison Cup. This genre has a different place in our literary traditions that I won't address in this already long post.

Let me offer a few examples of how some books raise the theme of death and dying.

5. Some books that deal with death

a) Traditional fantasy and fairy tales

Fantasy has always been a common introduction to human frailty and death. Fairy tales from many different cultural traditions have not been afraid of death as a theme. Traditional versions of 'Little Red Riding Hood', 'The Three Pigs', 'Jack and Beanstalk', 'The Gingerbread Man', 'The Little Match Girl' and many other tales, all dealt with death in graphic detail. However, today it is common for such tales to be sanitised and death expunged or pushed into the background of the narrative. But traditional fairy tales, myths and legends still offer a rich array of stories that deal with death. In contemporary literature there are also many good examples of books that deal with this important theme.

b) Some books for younger readers (0-6 years of age)

I’ll always love you
, Hans Wilhelm – a delightful picture book that tells of the death of a little boy’s dog called Elfie and the impact of the death on him. This would be appropriate for children aged 3-7 years. There is so much to talk about in this story of devotion and loss. Be warned, children ask the most challenging questions about stories, e.g. "Do dogs go to heaven?"

Granpa, by John Burningham - This moving book provides an insight through simple words and pictures of the relationship between a little girl and her grandfather and the impact of his death on her. Some struggle with the staccato nature of the text (that mirrors the disconnected nature of adult/child conversations) but I believe that this is a wonderful book. The story shows how the Grandfather who holds the child's hand, teaches and protects eventually faces his own frailties and death; and yet life for the child goes on. But what about Granpa (something on which the book is silent)?

Love You Forever, by Robert N. Munsch -- this book tells of the cycle of life as a child grows to be a man and a mother grows to be an old lady; and of course of the relationship between a boy and his mother as they both grow old. Some find it a little unusual but it is an intriguing treatment of the topic from a great children's author.

Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, by Tomie de Paola - Four-year-old Tommy enjoys his relationship with both his grandmother and great-grandmother, but eventually learns to face up to their inevitable death.

c) Primary Readers (7-12 years of age)

Charlotte’s Web
, E.B. White – It’s hard to go past this classic tale of survival, hope, life and death. Even if it has been seen first on DVD it is worth reading with your children. In his masterly tale E.B. White shows through Wilbur (the pig), Fern (the little girl) and Charlotte (the spider) how death is part of life; and yet, how death is not the end. Life goes on.

Number the stars, Lois Lowry – This wonderful book tells of the escape of a Danish Jewish family by boat from the Nazis in World War II. It is a novel that touches on numerous themes such as human cruelty, life, death and survival.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
by Eleanor Coerr - this book is based on the true story of an 11-year-old Japanese girl diagnosed with leukaemia as a consequence of the bombing of Hiroshima. Sadako Sasaki was just 2 when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The author does not hide the horrors of death providing vivid descriptions of her pain, weakness, sadness, and loneliness. The book also shows the impact on a family of the tragic death of a child. For the Christian parent there is also the opportunity to talk about pain, suffering and judgement.

The machine gunners
, Robert Westall – This one is for the boys! Guaranteed to interest any boy. The tale of a group of boys living in Britain through the Blitz, their war souvenir collecting, their brushes with death and of lots of moral choices along the way.

d) Teenagers

Death of a Princess, by Susan Geason - When the Pharaoh's beautiful eleven-year-old daughter, Isis, dies under suspicious circumstances, the beautician becomes the prime suspect! This mystery is set in Ancient Egypt during the reign of the mighty Ramesses II. For the older reader there is a lot to get your teeth into here, particularly the contrast of the stories treatment of death and the Bible's

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson - This brilliant book won the Newbery Medal in 1978. It is the story of two lonely children who create a magical forest kingdom. Paterson drew inspiration for the novel from the death of a friend of her son, who was struck by lightning at a beach. It is the story of fifth grader Jesse Aarons, who befriends his new neighbour Leslie Burke after losing a race to her at school. The touching story ends in tragedy.

6. Some final comments

The purpose of this post wasn't to encourage Christian parents to put the Bible to one side and present the gospel according to literature. Rather, the purpose was to highlight how literature has much to offer in terms of the discussion of biblical themes as part of narrative encounters in books and even film. As well, I'm not suggesting that parents and teachers ruin the reading of literature by dissecting books to such an extent that children are not given the opportunity to simply enjoy the narrative themselves. And I'm not suggesting that we become bibliotherapists, although some psychologists use some of the books I've mentioned as part of their clinical work. You can read a little about Bibliotherapy here and here.

But I do want to stress that literature offers many possibilities for rich discussions with our children that have significance for their developing faith in Christ.