On sin and economics

By , 30 January 2009 6:57 pm

I was advising a student this week about potential university subjects. Normally I stay within my own science specialisation but somehow she had ended up in my tutor group despite her geography, sociology and economics A-levels. I realised I found it astonishingly hard to be positive about economics in the present climate. ‘It doesn’t seem to work’, I said, and she nodded with sad agreement. But were we being unfair to economics? Or were we simply asking too much of it?

It is interesting isn’t it, how hard it is to know whether the present appalling economic crisis is due to bad economic theory or bad economic practice. I suspect the problem is a combination of both. I remain unconvinced that we have a full understanding of the way a global economic system works. (If we do, why were there not greater warnings of disaster ahead?) I am definitely not convinced that we had enough safeguards to stop greed and corruption taking over. There seems little doubt now that we have sown not just the wind but a variety of winds and are now reaping the perfect whirlwind. Why did it happen?

I think that our churches must take some responsibility. It may not be attractive but I think it is our duty to repeatedly labour the fact – so basic to the Gospel – that human beings are sinful; that even the best of us find power so corruptive that we need the most rigorous safeguards to prevent abuse. Of course, such a message, even coupled with redemptive grace – is appallingly unattractive. But the fact of the matter is that good breeding and good education are utterly inadequate to give any protection against financial abuse. In fact, as we have always known, education merely makes for a smarter class of sinner. I used to work for a university which could easily have boasted that it had educated more Lebanese warlords than any other academic institution.

Anyway, it is to be hoped that the economic downturn is brief and it is equally to be hoped that we learn our lessons from it and institute global checks and balances that prevent the greed of a few producing the misery of the many. But I trust that I’m not being unduly pessimistic when I say that unless our churches preach more boldly the fallen and sinful nature of man I have doubts about the outcome.

Still let us rejoice. The exchange rate of the Bank of Heaven is unaltered and our investments there are utterly unshaken. That leads me to a final and more upbeat thought: maybe we need also to preach more, not just about sin but also about heaven.

Have a good week.

The inauguration: an aside from a neglected author

By , 23 January 2009 7:43 pm

Well, we watched the inauguration. Having spent a number of weeks talking about the differences between Britain and the States this was a classic; other than a vaguely common language, there was a gulf as wide as the Atlantic between us on this. We just don’t do inaugurations, but of course this was far closer to a coronation than a changeover of a British administration.

Anyway I paid careful attention to Rick Warren’s invocation because I knew something of the furore surrounding it. Frankly I generally approved of what he said. I sensed him footstep very gingerly around a number of difficult issues and I applauded his courage in using the word ‘Jesus’ at the end. A key factor in my approval was simply that nothing remotely like such a public and explicitly evangelical prayer would have been allowed in the UK.

Later on I was directed to a reformed website for a transcript by son number two and made the mistake of commenting on the speech. No one directly answered me but as a result I got the remaining 99 or so e-mails. What astonished (and to be honest appalled me) was the real unpleasantness of tone of many of the comments. I read that Warren had no business making the invocation, that he was wrong to use the Lord’s prayer, that he should have prayed for Obama to be converted, that he should not have made any concessions whatsoever to Islam and Judaism so on.

One interesting one that troubled me was the complaint that he should have used some of the Old Testament prayers directly, such as Ezra’s great prayer of contrition (Ezra 9). Why did that bother me? It troubled me because that was a prayer specifically for God’s own chosen people and however great a view you have of the United States’ manifest destiny, it does not replace the Old Testament nation of Israel. Ultimately it seems to me that there is no scriptural mandate or parallel for anything remotely like an invocation at the inauguration of the President of a secular state. Yes, there were things I would like to have changed and added but I am not Rick Warren (much to my publisher’s dismay). I think he did a jolly good job under the circumstances and I felt he came over well as a genuine warm-hearted believer with a faith worth having. His words were carried to the ends of the earth and I pray that God will mightily use them. The fact is there are clearly people – within the Christian community – who so hate him that nothing that could be said would have appeased them. Or maybe they hate Obama so much that he got caught in the spillover.

Anyway as I read the comments I actually found a terrible thought dawning in my mind. I realised that I was beginning to formulate a prayer. It’s a prayer that I have not yet prayed but after being immersed in the vitriol I think I probably could. It is this: ‘Thank you God that my books have not been a vast success because I’m not sure I could handle bitter criticism from fellow Christians.’

Have a good week.

On interesting times

By , 16 January 2009 9:10 pm

When I was a youngster I always wanted to live at a time of crisis. I suspect it was largely because I felt that it would mean that school was closed for ever. I also had the naive belief that having adventures would be fun. The reality is, of course, that what we call an adventure is actually an extremely unpleasant experience that is rebadged retrospectively by the survivors. My recollection is that most of these disasters, whether they were alien attacks, month-long snowfalls or Russian invasions, all started in a rather obvious and dramatic fashion. I was really rather envious of those people who on 3rd September, 1939 had heard that famous radio broadcast by Neville Chamberlain with its spine-chilling announcement ‘that consequently this country is at war with Germany’. In short, I wanted to live in interesting times.

I am now beginning to wonder if gently, rather than dramatically, we have entered ‘interesting times’. Our own government seem to be running around like crazy, companies that were once the very epitome of stability and value (Wedgwood and Woolworths for two) are now closing or worthless, interest rates (in Britain at least) are now lower than they have been for 300 years and unemployment is racing upwards at several thousand a day. There has been no sudden fanfare, no radio broadcast á la Chamberlain, no angry crowds in the streets and no distant rumble of the guns, yet suddenly we are in the midst of the unthinkable. Four months ago people were apologetically daring to suggest the possibility of ‘recession’, now the word ‘depression’ is in circulation.

Let me – very cautiously – suggest two questionable responses to this. The first is I think to seek an eschatological get-out. You know the sort of thing: ‘these are the End Times, brother’, ’the Antichrist will be here any day, mark my words’, or, ‘we see Scripture’s prophecies clearly fulfilled’. Now actually, those who utter such statements may, for all I know, be right. But when I look at fulfilled prophecy in the Old and New Testaments, it only seems to have been understood as prophetic fulfilment well after the events had occurred. And, in my experience, an emphasis on interpreting signs often comes at the expense of the more fundamental Christian duties of showing love and bearing witness.

The second questionable response is to gleefully rejoice that God is judging a wicked and sinful world. There is a lot I can say here. Of course, I am in favour of God’s judgement and I have no real problem in praying ‘thy Kingdom come’. The trouble is that in this world God’s judgement seems to be a blunt instrument. We see that those who are the worst offenders sometimes seem to walk free. So, in the present economic crisis, many of the entrepreneurs at the heart of this sorry mess sold up six months ago and put their wealth in gold. Others have secure, government-backed, inflation-linked pensions. Indeed, it sometimes appears that those who are suffering seem to be, if not the innocent, at least the relatively guiltless. The problems at the moment seem to be descending on some whose only sin was a naïveté that allowed them to be persuaded by men and women who knew better, to take to out mortgages that they could not afford. In fact, the current crisis seems to be punishing many who held onto the traditional Protestant virtue of thrift and actually saved money on the assumption that the interest would cover their retirement costs. Of course, in eternity, I have no doubt that perfect justice will be done. It’s just that at the moment it’s all a bit rough-edged.

So what is the right response? Let me suggest that at the core is the simple prayer that God will have mercy on us and on our neighbours, that he would spare the weak, that he would bring out of the present economic mess some good and that his kingdom come.

I’m sorry if this sounds a little bit lacking in the clarity and insight that you might like. It seems to me though perhaps the most useful thing to do at the moment is raise the issues and let us try to work them through. I’m not sure that the glib soundbite is helpful; we seem to have had too many of those. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.

Incidentally it is also incumbent upon us to pray for the man who will shortly be the new president of the United States. It has rather naughtily crossed my mind that the Barak Obama will go onto the platform on Inauguration Day and say that having looked at all the facts he’s decided that he doesn’t want the job. Quite simply, a third dubious response – and I hear a lot of it – is to look to him to sort out the mess. And that, friends, is not simply a questionable response, it is a bad one. For him and for us.

Blessings upon you all.

On study Bibles

By , 9 January 2009 8:02 pm

Frankly I really feel that I ought to write on Gaza and the mess there. However I find it difficult to say anything that will not antagonise some people for whom I have a very great sympathy and affection.

So, instead let me scuttle in a cowardly fashion to the safer ground of study Bibles. I have before me – occupying a sizeable proportion of my desk – two study Bibles published last year: the New Living Study Bible (Tyndale) and the ESV Study Bible (Crossway). We are clearly living in an age of ‘Bible Wars’ where the battle is on to try and find the successor to the New International Version as the standard Bible for the evangelical world. I wish I could say that I felt it was theological truth driving this struggle, but of course it isn’t. If there is going to be a winner who takes all then the profits will be enormous.

Anyway one result of Bible Wars is that these books include everything except the kitchen-sink. They all have indexes, articles, special topic studies, cross references, systematic theology sections, access to online versions, maps and even, in one case, four or five pages of Hebrew and Greek words that you really should know. Both are between 2,500 and 2,800 pages which must be close to the maximum for a printed volume. Frankly, both are excellent resources and represent real bargains. In the old days you used to get a Bible and a separate one-volume Bible commentary. These books largely do away with the latter.

I don’t want to talk particularly about the differences in translation as that merits another blog. Suffice it to say, as far as I can judge, I find the ESV a translation that is accurate to the text. Unfortunately, it suffers from the major defect that the result is not English as it is spoken by anyone today. The sentences are far too long and words such as ‘behold’, ‘distaff’, ‘debased’, ‘lyre’, etc. abound. It is also extraordinarily archaic in the style of writing, as for instance Acts 19:23: ‘About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.’ No way! Some people may find this more troubling than others but as a writer and communicator let me tell you that it bugs me. The NLT is freer and much easier to read but I always have a slight unease that more may be being read into the text than is actually there.

The ethos of the two Study Bibles is also very different and is those of you who are interested in the future of evangelicalism would probably find it interesting to compare the two. As far as I can make out both seem to take very considerable pains to be doctrinally orthodox and both merit the title ‘conservative evangelical’. The NLT is, I think it’s safe to say, more forward-looking and seems at least on the surface to dialogue much more with modern conservative evangelical scholarship. So although the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ is not mentioned by name, there is a balanced (if short) discussion of what is a major debating point in New Testament scholarship. There is also a short list of recommended further books at the end of each chapter which includes some stimulating volumes. Theologically, the NLT seems much more open-ended and seems to try to balance both Calvinist and Arminian positions.

On the other hand, the ESV Study Bible seems somewhat more backward looking and the level of English much more demanding. It is also much more concerned to promote a particular doctrinal basis, that of the Reformed Faith, and the long series of articles at the end on biblical doctrine are very Calvinistic. I have no problems with that but I’m slightly uneasy about it being pushed in a study bible.

Frankly, I find myself using both. What I am also using is the excellent ESV Study Bible on the iPhone produced by Olive Tree. Here all 2,700 pages can be somehow packed inside my phone and can be accessed instantly. Amazing! The really helpful thing is that in this digital version the notes section is separate from the text so, if you want, you can only see the Bible text. What is also good is that the ESV notes can be used with any other Bible; the result is that I am often using the NIV with the ESV notes. All I really need now is for Apple to implement a proper cut and paste tool. Anyway, if you haven’t seen them I urge you to take a look.

So have a good week. Read the Bible and don’t forget to pray for Gaza.

We know we are here but we don’t know where here is

By , 2 January 2009 9:01 pm

First of all, a happy New Year to all my readers, wherever you are. I trust that 2009 is going to be a year of blessing, at least spiritually (if in no other area) for you.

I am preaching on Sunday night at our church and am giving the first in what is probably going to be a monthly series on Christ in the Old Testament. It is actually far more than just ‘fulfilled predictions’ and the like, but about some of the great themes such as Prophet, Priest and King. Thinking about it I have recognised a problem that I have come across with my students in a totally secular context.

The background is this. Alerted to something of a general failure to answer a vaguely mathematical problem I asked my students this question. ‘If you had to buy a cupboard for your bedroom, what units would you measure it in?’ The answer was – as I expected – centimetres. I then followed up with a second question: how far is Swansea from Cardiff? The answer – as I feared – was ‘about 40 miles’. ‘I see,’ I said. ‘Can anybody tell me how many metres there are in a mile?’ No one knew. The sorry point that had emerged was of a completely dysfunctional measurement system. They had no real way (at least in a strictly mathematical one) of understanding how things related to each other.

I suspect this phenomenon is far more widespread. Our A level history course results in students only knowing about three elements. If I’m correct they are: Nazi Germany, the French Revolution and a part of 19th century Britain. Only the latter unit covers more than two decades. So you can get a grade A without any knowledge of any other time period and without knowing whether the American War of Independence occurred under Henry III or George III. The problem goes beyond education: with the aid of GPS it is all too easy to find out with utter precision where you are. The only trouble is you don’t really know what that answer means because you have no real concept of regional geography. I have invented the phrase ‘We know we are here but we don’t know where here is’, nevertheless I think it reflects very well the problem. To coin a word, it is the googlisation of knowledge. We have accurate but atomised fragments of information and we do not know how they relate to each other.

Incidentally I do not entirely blame the settlers of syllabi, the Internet, GPS or Google because I think it is also connected with the postmodern mindset. Our local museum has become very trendy and has scattered the formerly systematic layout of knowledge into thousand splintered shards of information so that apparently random facts about population mingle uneasily with images of industry and observations on botany. It’s all very clever but …

Taken like this can see you how it applies to my sermon series? Our congregations know bits and pieces. These facts are not in themselves fallacious but the problem lies in the way that they are not connected in any real systematic manner. This fragmentation of knowledge is enormously problematic. It makes any sort of logical defence of the gospel difficult, it torpedoes a consistent morality (you cannot argue from first principles because there are none) and it opens the door to making decisions on emotion alone. The cults – and Hell – must be very pleased.

So my challenge this year is to try to hold things together into some sort of consistent pattern. Long live systematics in whatever part of our lives, but particularly in the area of belief.

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