Saturday, January 31, 2015

Learning from past church history

Why do Christians believe what they do today? Where did current practices and institutions come from? How can we not repeat the mistakes of the past?

I am in a study group starting a short course on Early church history (up to about 600 AD), using a Moore College Correspondence course.

I thought this video was a nice introduction to the subject, both why the subject is important, and a few major events of the first century.

The second video in the series is here.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Biblical justice, reconciliation, and Majority world debt

My wife and I watched this excellent and challenging video. N.T. Wright first reviews the themes of justice in the Psalms and Jesus teaching on the Kingdom of God. Then he considers the case of Philemon and slavery. Finally, he makes a particularly insightful and poignant analysis of the problem of financial debt of the Majority world.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A great satire on Australian upper middle class pretensions

My family is really enjoying watching the Australian TV series Upper Middle Bogan. It is very funny, being quite the satire on upper middle class Australia and its pretensions and anxieties.
Much is sometimes made of the egalitarian nature of Australian society. Although, it is certainly much more egalitarian than most societies, both Western and Eastern, it still exhibits class distinctions. Furthermore, there are distinct sub-cultural differences, even within caucasians. The series highlights the clash of sub-cultures.

The importance and value of families, with all their faults, is nicely portrayed.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A moving personal account from a former Muslim

I highly recommend the book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi. In particular, I would recommend this book not just to people with Muslim and Christian backgrounds but also secularists and atheists. It may rattle your cage a little. It did mine.

The book is extremely well written and easy to read. It tells a fascinating and moving story. I read the whole book within two days because I just could not put it down. Besides the great story, the book has two significant strengths. First, it is quite educational. As he tells his story he gradually explains key aspects of Islam and Muslim practise and beliefs. I learnt an incredible amount. I was unsettled by my ignorance, but also challenged to learn more. Moreover, Qureshi does not just present facts but helps the reader see the world from the viewpoint of a Muslim, including what it feels like to be a Muslim, particularly living in the West. You are invited to walk in his shoes. The second strength is that Qureshi is warm and respectful of Muslims as people, while being (eventually) critical of the Qu'ran and Mohammed. Reading the book should be quite unsettling to Westerners who have a harsh and hostile attitude to Muslims. It also explains the diversity of Muslims and how many are greatly distressed by terrorist acts being committed in the name of Islam.

Qureshi grew up as a "third culture kid". His parents immigrated to the USA from Pakistan and are Ahmadiyya Muslims. His father served in the US Navy, including several years at a nuclear submarine base in Scotland. The family life centred around the local mosque and extended family. The family was warm, close knit, highly protective, and devout. Yet they were very isolated from the surrounding community. Although Qureshi attended secular schools, he had virtually non-Muslim friends, until he went to college. There he had a close Christian friend, who played a significant role in his life. This led to a long and painful re-examination of his religious beliefs. This should stimulate all of us to critically evaluate what we believe and why we believe it.

Qureshi highlights the incredible and tragic personal cost of leaving Islam, even for those living in the West. Some of the discussion of violence in the Qur'an and the life of Muhammad is unsettling.  The book makes clear following Jesus and following Muhammad are not the same thing. Also, a Muslim and a secular Westerner do not see the world in the same way.

Certain practices of Muslims were described that one could be easily critical of: weak apologetic arguments, appeal to authority, not going to source documents, social pressure to conform (role of shame), partisan factions, self righteousness, uncritical faith, special pleading to explain difficult verses in a holy text, double standards of reasoning, not really listening to others, ....
Yet, as a Christian I found this somewhat unsettling because I have sometimes seen somewhat similar practises in the Christian community!

So read the book and be unsettled.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The responsibilities of free speech

I am thankful that in Western democratic societies, free speech is a valued and fundamental right. However, I think it is right that comes with responsibilities.
I am not particularly sympathetic to claims that it is fundamental free speech issue when it comes to

-tabloid newspapers publishing titillating details of the private lives of celebrities,
-people gratuitously using swear words on prime time television
-"art" that deliberately seeks to be offensive to religious people

These may be celebrated causes of libertarians in affluent Western countries.
Instead we should consider focusing on cases such as

Sri Lankan newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge who was murdered.
He was a longtime critic of the oppressive and corrupt government that was just voted out of power.

Xu Zhiyong is a Chinese legal scholar and human rights activist. One year ago he was jailed for four years.

I found the two articles below raised important issues.

Firebombed French Paper Is No Free Speech Martyr
by Bruce Crumley, published in Time magazine in 2011.
 Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile. Baiting extremists isn’t bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well. And within a climate where violent response—however illegitimate—is a real risk, taking a goading stand on a principle virtually no one contests is worse than pointless: it’s pointlessly all about you.
When 'free speech' becomes a kind of fundamentalism by historian Charles Walton.

I find the readers comments on both articles rather disappointing. Many appear to have made little effort to actually understand what the authors are trying to say and simply condemn them. This simple lack of civil discourse is a worry to me.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Emotional health and theological health are inseparable

Let me be honest. Due to certain prejudices I am reluctant to recommend books written by pastors of large American churches. Nevertheless, I did recommend Radical by David Platt.  

Recently I read The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that actually changes lives  by Peter Scazzero and Warren Bird. In a small group I also worked through some of the material.

I think the book raises important issues that are often overlooked, neglected, or even opposed in some church, ministry, and mission contexts. Humble, gentle servant leadership versus "sanctified" ambition [male testosterone]. Organisations and programs before people. Mental health. Sabbath rest. The profound effect [good and bad] of family backgrounds. Grief over past losses and trauma. Focus on numbers. Work-church-family balance. Unresolved conflict. Parochialism. Diversities of personalities. Embracing failure and weakness. Modelling....

The personal honesty and transparency of Scazzero make the book easy to read and there are some helpful practical quizzes and suggestions. You will probably find stuff to disagree with and may cringe at some of the American cultural baggage. But I don't think that should stop Christians seriously taking to heart and acting on the issues the book raises.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What draws people to or away from the church?

'More people have been brought into the church by the kindness of real Christian love than by all the theological arguments in the world. And more people have been driven from the church by the hardness and ugliness of so-called Christians than by all the doubts in the world.'
William Barclay

Monday, January 5, 2015

Is the Trinity conceptually possible?

The Trinity is one of the most confusing concepts in Christian theology.
How can God be three persons [Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] yet one?
Non-Christians sometimes say it is illogical and nonsense.
This is particularly true of Muslims who consider it offends the unity of Allah.
[Aside: It also seems that most Muslims think Christians believe the Trinity is God, Mary, and Jesus.]

I am currently reading the fascinating book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi.
I will write more about it later. Here I just want to highlight one small part of the story I found fascinating because of my interest in the relationship between science and theology.

Like most Muslims, Qureshi thought the Trinity made no sense.
But he became open to it in a completely unexpected circumstance. In an organic chemistry class (!) he learnt about the resonance structures of the nitrate ion [shown above]. This molecule does not have a single structure. Rather, it simultaneously has the three structures above. It is not one or the other, but all three of them. This is a result of [the bizarre properties of] quantum physics, it is the same as Schrodingers cat, being both dead and alive at the same time.

Learning about resonance structures did not lead Qureshi to believe the Trinity was true. It just made him open to the idea that it was conceptually possible that it could be true. He could no longer dismiss it out of hand.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The historical context of the origins of natural theology

Nothing happens without a context.
Furthermore, events can be influenced to varying degrees by their social, historical, and political context.
In his lectures on Science and Religion, Lawrence Principe nicely puts various key events in their historical context. For example, he points out how it needs to be remembered that the trial of Galileo by the Catholic church occurred just after the Reformation. The Pope was under extreme pressure on a number of fronts. His patience was probably bearing thin and figuring out how to respond to dissent was not easy. Furthermore, the whole issue of who [laity vs. clergy] has the right to interpret the Book of Nature, let alone the Book of Scripture, was controversial.

What was the context of the development of natural theology, particularly by William Paley, in late eighteenth century England? The Church of England had lost its pre-eminence due to the rise of non-conformists such as Puritans and Methodists. Furthermore, this had led to not divisions in the church but also in the country. How was unity to be found? Surely, reason not faith, could win people over to find common ground.

But, who would find the arguments of natural theology most compelling and attractive? Those who had comfortable lives that allowed them the leisure to contemplate and study the beauty of the natural world, e.g, wealthy Anglican clergy in the countryside! Not Methodists working among uneducated and poor labourers in cities, exploding with the industrial revolution.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The danger of unbridled email

5 So also email is a small activity, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And email is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The email is set among our communications, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame email. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same keyboard come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?
James 3 (slightly edited!)

Friday, January 2, 2015

Deconstructing LEGO

When I first heard of The LEGO movie, I groaned. I thought it would be just another marketing movie aimed at getting parents to waste lots of money buying kids more toys. However, my daughter (aged 22) finally convinced me otherwise and convinced me to watch it with the family.

I enjoyed it. It actually has some social commentary about conformism, big corporations, and capitalism. It is light-hearted fun too.