Friday 26 November 2010

Life's End

Issue #25 of Case Magazine has the theme 'Life's End' and had its genesis in the 2010 CASE conference, 'Christian perspectives on the end of life'. In this issue you can read the papers of all speakers from the conference. The contributions include papers by Dr Megan Best, Dr Russell Clarke, Rev Rod Benson, Kate Bradford and Dr Frank Brennan.

There are many common threads running throughout the articles, but for me, three stand out:

  • Society does not value all human lives equally
  • The Bible teaches that death is not simply the end
  • Death is both a curse and an opportunity for blessing

Each of the above themes has a relationship to one over-arching theme, they intersect in the idea and hope that it is possible to end life well. It is possible, even in one's death, to have an influence on others for good.

Dr Best reminds us that the word ‘euthanasia’ comes from two Greek words: 'eu' meaning ‘good’, and ‘thanos’ meaning ‘death’. Most people today link the word with the idea of taking someone's life in order to end their suffering. Ending the life of someone who is suffering is seen by some as the only logical or humane path. But all our writers stress that while death is a curse, it is also an opportunity for ultimate blessing for those who trust in Christ.

A number of the articles also speak about the way in which we too quickly make judgements about the relative value of life, and the dangers of thinking this way. The unborn of course have very few rights and seemingly, for many, no value. A life that cannot be lived exactly the way one wishes can also be seen as not worth living. This point was highlighted by Professor John Wyatt when he presented the 2009 New College Lectures.

Prof John Wyatt told the story of a couple at his church who, after a routine ultrasound, discovered that their unborn child had a tragic and rare chromosomal disorder which causes multiple malformations, severe mental impairment and a uniformly fatal outcome. In this condition nearly all obstetricians will recommend abortion. But the parents decided to continue the pregnancy and little Christopher was born.

Christopher lived for almost 7 months and in Wyatt’s words exercised ‘an extraordinary ministry’. The weakest member of the church exercised a strong, strange influence. ‘He became, in the end, almost public property.’ Wyatt concluded:
Christopher in his way was a God-like being, a flawed masterpiece. His life was an example of Christian theology in practice, and it was a privilege for me to know him. Here is a strange paradox. Sometimes we see the image of God most clearly, not in the perfect specimens of humanity, not in the Olympic athlete or the Nobel prize winner. We see Christ in the broken, the malformed, the imperfect. It is an example of the Easter mystery. God is revealed, not in glorious majesty but in a broken body on a cross.
Dr Megan Best, a bioethicist and palliative care doctor, considers the arguments for and against euthanasia, and presents a Christian ethical response to these arguments. Dr Best also presented a second conference paper evaluating the use of Advanced Directives – documents that state a patient’s preferences regarding medical care in the event they can no longer speak for themselves. This article is available on the CASE website together with an extended version of the euthanasia article published HERE.

Geriatrician Dr Russell Clarke provides biological and biblical perspectives on what it means to age. He explains why ageing and death are biologically inevitable, then considers how this sits with a biblical understanding of the topic, and the hope of renewal it offers (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)?

Rev Rod Benson reflects on how death is portrayed in Scripture. He begins by quoting Arwen’s words from Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' as Aragorn dies. For Arwen, the loss of Aragorn seems to leave her with little but memories, pain and loss, but in the Bible he explains, death is both a curse and a blessing (1 Corinthians 15).

Kate Bradford, Anglican Chaplain at the Westmead Children's Hospital presents a practitioner's perspective on the privilege of visiting and caring for seriously ill people. With compassion she gives practical advice on how to conduct such visits, taking into account the awkwardness we can feel as visitors, and providing insight into the fears and needs of patients.

Finally, Dr Frank Brennan discusses a number of ethical challenges arising within the area of palliative care, including transparency and withholding treatment. Drawing on his many years of personal experience, he uses case studies to show how ethical considerations can influence decision making in this difficult area.

The issue ends with two reviews. John Diacos looks at 'This Mortal Flesh' by Brent Waters, who assesses the potential impact of life-extending technologies, envisions what a society made up of long-lived people would look like, and asks how Christians should respond to these technologies. Rosemary Albert’s reviews a very different book, 'The Art of Dying'. In it, Rob Moll combines pastoral, theological and cultural considerations as he seeks to revive the Christian art of dying well. Christ should make a difference not only to how we live, but how we die.

For more information on how to obtain single issues of Case Magazine or to subscribe to receive the magazine quarterly, simply visit the CASE website.

Other resources and posts

Audio downloads of all lectures at the 2010 Medical Ethics Conference are available HERE.

Previous blog posts on Prof John Wyatt's 2009 New College Lectures HERE.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

'Real' Community

As I contemplate an overseas conference in a beautiful European country, the words of G.K. Chesterton* on 'real' community life, are an important reminder. Living in one's own community is where we need to concentrate most of our energy and prayer. We need to guard against the tendency to want to escape everyday life in favour of more exciting adventures.

In this quote Chesterton argues that families and communities are good, not because they are "peaceful, pleasant and at one" but because, often they are not, and that we need to learn to stick it out, not simply run away to exotic locations as an 'escape'.  How desperately do we at times seek to escape the mundane grind of daily life?

If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives. First he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate. Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive. He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at; if he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active. He is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society of his equals--of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different from himself. The street in Brixton is too glowing and overpowering. He has to soothe and quiet himself among tigers and vultures, camels and crocodiles. These creatures are indeed very different from himself. But they do not put their shape or colour or custom into a decisive intellectual competition with his own. They do not seek to destroy his principles and assert their own; the stranger monsters of the suburban street do seek to do this.
Living in community day after day where we rub against those who are different in appearance, values, priorities, interests, habits and beliefs is ultimately the default position that God calls us to. Yes, he calls us to the ends of the earth too, but most of us live ordinary people in ordinary places, amongst other ordinary people to whom we are to witness of Christ.  This of course will be played out with other believers through our local church, it will be evident as we live the life of a neighbour in our street and it will be seen as we live together as families. We are to imitate Christ's humility as we live out our lives (Philippians 2:1-18)

This is challenging stuff!
1So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil 2:1-4).  
Other posts

'God, the City and Us' HERE

'The Tyranny and Challenge of Time' HERE

* HT: Thanks to John Smuts for pointing me to this quote

Tuesday 9 November 2010

God's Story Reflected in Children's Literature

I have been an academic for 30 years and a Christian for 26 years.  At first when I became a Christian I struggled to see connections between the life I was living day by day, and my new life of faith as a believer in Christ. But as I grew in my understanding of the Bible I began to see the presence of God in my work and my study.  As an academic interested in how children learn I have maintained a long-term interest in literature and its power not just to teach about language and life, but also to enrich our lives and even transform the way we think about our world. Over time, I have come to realise that stories, even when created by non-believers in Christ, contain echoes of the central meta-narrative of the Bible.

The 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. Salvation for those who repent of their sin, seek the mercy of God and in faith commit their lives to following Jesus. This is the meta-narrative of the Bible.

You don't have to go far to begin to see how literature often echoes (even if imperfectly) God's foundational story of salvation told in and through the life of Christ. J.R.R. Tolkien once said (to C.S. Lewis) that “The Christian story is the greatest story of them all. Because it’s the real story. The historical event that fulfils the tales and shows us what they mean.”

Lewis and Tolkien both saw the gospel narrative as the central or foundational human narrative. The rescue of a pig by a spider in a children's story, which at one level might seem trivial, is a faint echo of the ultimate act of sacrifice of God in redeeming his children through the sacrifice of his Son. The real event ultimately fulfils the literary narratives and makes sense of them. After studying children's literature for over 30 years I have come to see the wisdom of Tolkien's comment. There appear at least 5 main ways that Christian writers of children's books can point their readers towards God's divine narrative of redemption:

Type 1 – Stories that directly present the Christian gospel explicitly, often in the form of the retelling of Bible stories suitable for children. Children’s Bibles and collections of Bible stories fall into this category.
Type 2 – Stories that allegorically present the gospel (e.g. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress).
Type 3 – Stories that present or address essential biblical understandings and teaching; where the key elements of the Biblical plan of salvation are woven within the story, or can be seen as explicitly reflecting the key elements of the divine narrative (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S.Lewis). While some would see the latter as allegory, Lewis denied this and instead claimed that the narrative came first and the biblical parallels followed.
Type 4 – Moral tales that have direct biblical parallels or that reflect moral principles consistent with the Bible’s teaching (e.g. evil will be punished; sin has consequences; honesty is better than falsehood). Nursery rhymes and many fairy tales fall into this category, as do many cautionary tales (of course not all such tales reflect biblical moral insights, but many do).
Type 5 – This is really a variation or extension of the above. Here the links or parallels are at the thematic level rather than in the form of moral teaching. Stories of this kind demonstrate or echo biblical teaching (e.g. salvation narratives, stories of redemption, parallels to biblical narratives or parables). These narratives parallel the gospel narrative without explicit commentary. Such stories can be read at one level as simply a nice tale, but at another level the key themes parallel biblical themes that can be discussed.

I have suggested before (here) that types 2-5 offer special potential for audiences beyond the children of Christians. The following demonstrate some type 5 examples of what I mean.

Example 1 – “Charlotte’s Web”, by E.B. White

This is a well-known book written for 6-10 year olds. It is a beautifully written tale about a group of talking farmyard animals, a spider, a rat and a little girl named Fern. While it makes no attempt to teach the gospel narrative, or even disguise it within an allegorical telling, it has themes that parallel key themes within the biblical gospel narrative. At one level, it is the celebration of loyalty, love and friendship. But it is also a salvation narrative. The story of a runt pig rejected by the farmer, sentenced to death but then rescued first by a small girl and later by the work of an intelligent and literate spider. At this thematic level, the narrative points to the power of faith, hope, love, charity, sacrifice and new life.

Example 2 – “Why do you love me?” by Martin Baynton

This is a beautiful little picture book written for 3-6 year olds. It is essentially a dialogue between a dad and his little boy, prompted by the boy’s question, “Do you love me?” This is one of those conversations that only a parent could full appreciate. The little boy asks, “Why do you love me?” “Do you love me because I’m kind?” “..brave?” “..funny”? “…clever”? “…good”? “…naughty?” To each question the Dad says “Yes”. “So why do I try to be good” says the boy. “You tell me,” says his dad. “Because I love you too”, replies the boy. The echoes to the biblical account of God’s grace are evident. Like God whose love towards us is an unconditional act of grace not linked to who we are and what we do, the father loves the boy in spite of who he is and what he does unconditionally. He loves him through the good and the bad. And the boy, in response to the love of the father, loves his father as well and seeks to please him.

Example 3 – “The Delivery of Dancing Bears" by Elizabeth Stanley

This is a picture book written for children aged 4-7 years that is essentially a contemporary fable, although it was written in opposition to the cruelty that 'dancing' bears had experienced in many countries.  The dancing bear is enslaved and mistreated at the hands of a cruel man who uses her to entertain people in the market square of a village in Turkey. The bears hope of freedom keep her alive until one day a noble peasant comes to rescue the bear by paying the cruel owner a ridiculous price (all he had in the world) well beyond what the bear was seen as worth by its keeper. This great act of grace frees the bear and the old man Yusuf takes her back to his humble cottage near a stream and loves it back to a life of freedom from the fear and pain of the past.

The story is centred on an act of great mercy from the old man, who gives all of his earthly wealth to rescue the bear.  This is a story of rescue from slavery, redemption due to the love, grace and mercy of Yusuf and the bear's ultimate restoration to the life she was meant to live.

The Special Merit of Children's Literature

There is great merit in Christians seeking to write literature in its many forms for children. Such writing needs first to meet the basic criteria for good writing – good tales well told; language used well; narratives that work at multiple levels; rich authentic characters; interesting ‘page-turner’ plots. But beyond this they should:
  • offer knowledge that is a celebration of God’s world and his purposes;
  • act as a mirror allowing the reader to reflect on life and their future;
  • lead us to consider aspects of the human condition (life and death, fear, loneliness, pain, loss, frailty, brokenness etc);
  • point to the central redemption narrative of the Bible.
What is important to stress is that Western literature is an essential communicator of cultural traditions that reflect the central biblical narrative of Christ. Good books, shaped by Christian understanding, offer an opportunity for the essential foundations of the biblical narrative to be communicated in stories that connect with children's contemporary world.  This offers a bridge to the biblical narrative and its life-changing opportunity to be repent and believe in Christ.

Related Links

This post appeared in a different form in a post I write in 2008 ('Christian writing for children - Part 1')

'Christian writing for children' - Part 2 (here)