The missing word

By , 30 October 2009 6:30 pm

Well my flu is more or less over but I don’t feel inclined to tackle the heights of theological debate just at the moment, although thank you all for your contributions. Today I want to try something else and it’s still a slightly difficult topic. You see I was sitting in traffic the other day, listening to yet another volume in Suzuki’s excellent Bach series, and I tried – and failed – to come up with a word to describe the qualities of the performance. In the end I felt I that there probably wasn’t an English word to describe the sentiment I want to express. Not only that but I realised that if such an adjective existed I would be able to use it for an awful lot of things that I value. ‘Go on!’ I hear you say ‘what was it?’ Well here the problem begins because, of course, there isn’t a single word to describe it. If there was I wouldn’t be writing this blog would I?

Let’s start by saying that the missing adjective is an admirable quality that brings together virtues from three separate areas. First, it is close to such ideas as ‘reliable’, ‘trustworthy’ and ‘will never you down’. Yet it is more than merely reliable because it is also the quality of being consistently good and even excellent. Second, there is also something about it that is, well, understated: it doesn’t draw attention to itself, it isn’t flamboyant or garish but it just does what has to be done and does it well. In fact, it can be so understated that you even forget it’s there. A final aspect is that it is profoundly ‘comfortable’ and never awkward, unpleasant or challenging. The nearest word I can come to is the word ‘homely’ but that isn’t quite right. (If memory serves me correctly, in the old days if you couldn’t call a girl ‘pretty’ you called her ‘homely’ which was very definitely damning with faint praise.)

Do you sense what I’m trying to express? Perhaps you are fluent in a language in which such a word exists. If such a word was available in English then I would use it not just for this series, but for many other things. I might start with the trainers I am wearing at the moment (reliable, comfortable and very unflamboyant). I would use it (99% of the time) for the now ageing turbodiesel VW Golf that I go to work in. I have colleagues for whom I could probably use this word; dependable, easy to overlook but always pleasant and always comfortable to be with. I live in a house for which I could use the word. I have at least one anorak which would be accurately described this way. Many of us are fortunate enough to have marriage partners who we would happily describe with such an adjective. I’ve no doubt that C S Lewis had pubs (especially on wet winter nights) for which he would have used such a word gladly. In fact, I’m fairly certain that no single word exists in English. If it did I have no doubt it would be used frequently by poets and writers for the English rural landscape itself, for it applies to that: consistently good, quietly understated and easy to be at home with.

By now you are probably thinking well this will be one of those rare blogs where Chris doesn’t bring in Christianity. Well I’m sorry to disappoint you; isn’t it precisely this sort of quality (unfailing, unobtrusive, and never irritating) than actually conveys the sort of consistent Christian life that we really ought to live? Yet the interesting thing is that these qualities are rarely trumpeted as being desirable values today. It seems to me that we are in danger of being taught to applaud only the dramatic and even the shocking rather than those things that are ‘merely’ good, decent and workmanlike. Passion and even infatuation are elevated over affection and compassion. We are asked to applaud celebrities and megastars with their towering and brittle egos rather than men and women who do ordinary jobs effectively modestly and with grace. No, whatever we decide we could call my mystery virtue, I think I’ll happily stick with that.

On fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism

By , 23 October 2009 7:34 pm

There were a number of possible topics to write on this week but I am disinclined to touch them. In part it is that I am a bit drained because I have just had flu and also because I have just upgraded my computer to Windows 7. (Very nice, thank you, but it’s really just Vista working as it ought to have done.) Instead I think I will look at one or two of the issues raised in the blog two weeks ago on ‘K’s Argument’. K, very kindly, has come out fighting in defence of fundamentalism as being at least logically consistent. This of course raises the interesting question ‘What is fundamentalism?’ I remember a member of our church coming to me at the end of one service with a worried look and asking me in that quiet ‘I-do-not-wish-to-be-overheard’ tone of voice, ‘Chris, am I a fundamentalist?’

You could of course try and define fundamentalism in terms of specific creedal beliefs; such as believing in a creation in a literal six days, holding to the authorship of Isaiah by a single person, not doubting a single miracle in Scripture, belief in an imminent Rapture, etc. I think however this is very difficult on all sorts of grounds. Let’s say you came up with ten criteria, what you do? Give a ‘Fundamentalism Index? ‘He’s a 10 out of 10 fundamentalist.’ It all seems rather mechanical. Besides how do we know which fundamentals are truly fundamental?

It also seems to overlook the fact that we vaguely know that there is more to fundamentalism than simply holding to a tight creedal confession.  Now please don’t get me wrong, creeds are vitally important but I would hazard a guess that there is something else going on here. In fact I think that Catherine (who I don’t always agree with!) is close to the mark when she describes fundamentalism as easy. There is indeed a simplicity to fundamentalism; it is a religion that shuns questioning. And when you get rid of questions life becomes really quite simple. You are all singing from the same hymn sheet because there is no other hymn sheet (and if there is, those who sing from it are going to hell). Yet I think behind that is something else and I think it is fear.

A nice image I came across a number of years ago and I wish I could remember who coined it said that the difference between fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism is something like the difference in mediaeval times between a walled city and a market town. Fundamentalism is a religion of barriers, battlements and, just occasionally, burning oil. It is haunted by the fear of the enemy (and isn’t there always an enemy?). The enemy may be Catholics, New-Agers or – most dangerous of all because they are wolves in sheep’s clothing – Liberals. There is no engagement with the enemy, no dialogue. All there is survival and conflict. As the Rev Ian Paisley used to shout with his all too imitable Ulster accent: ‘No Surrender!’

Here Conservative Evangelicalism is very different. (I’m sorry about the clunky term but I think it’s best used here because it’s the faith that on the surface can appear to be most similar to fundamentalism.) At the heart of Conservative Evangelicalism is the relationship with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. That affects everything, not least how we view others. With them there is (or ought to be) a courteous engagement, an open debating, a confident discussion. But to go back to the imagery; the gates are flung open. Yes it’s risky, but that’s the way it ought to be. You can’t do evangelism from behind the ramparts.

Anyway that’s my take on it. But I’m open for further discussions. Now if you excuse me I’ll go and  take my cough medicine…

Death and Nobelity

By , 16 October 2009 6:00 pm

I see that they have just awarded the Nobel prizes. I have no particular comment to make on the most widely noted one (Barrack Obama’s award for peace) except that given that he has at least three years left in the White House, it is perhaps well, a little premature.

What did cross my mind was that if there were a Christian version of the Nobel prizes I’d certainly award one for the man or woman who could come up the right thing to say to those who you meet who have close relatives facing death. I have two colleagues/friends at the moment in this sort of situation, one where the affected relative is in their 20s; the other late 50s. It’s not easy to know what to say. At an earlier stage of their cancer, one could offer to pray for healing and I did, but now with both having developed secondaries and been pronounced incurable I’m less inclined that way. The problem is that however we phrase it, (and boy, do people avoid spelling it out) they face death.

Interestingly enough I actually hesitated writing that last little word, death and instead wrote ‘the big D’. And that of course is part of the issue. It’s not a case of applying the Christian solution to a problem, it’s that we are now so far back that we barely recognise there is a problem until it is staring us in the face. Today, death is the great unmentionable; the thing above all that that we must not talk about. An alien living amongst us might assume that modern humans believe that our life is endless because we so rarely talk of its ending. The result is we now live in what is effectively the worst of all possible worlds in this respect. Our culture has lost the Christian hope of resurrection beyond the grave but not regained the social and intellectual defences that most pagan societies have to enable them to handle the monstrosity of death. We don’t really know what death is except that it is an abomination and that it tears at the very fabric of our lives.

As with so many trends in the secular world there is a parallel (if slightly muted version) in the church. Within Christianity we pray for healing, rejoice that aches and pains have gone away in the name of Jesus, talk in distant and abstract terms about heaven and glory but rarely, if ever, dwell on the inevitable termination of bodily existence. It may be that it is a little bit of the trend I talked about last week, that we have decided to become so seeker-friendly in our churches that we don’t want to put people off by mentioning the great unmentionable. Even if it is an unavoidable unmentionable.

Let me make two cautious and related observations. The first is that these times of bereavement or impending bereavement are probably the worst time to share the Christian view of death, suffering and resurrection through Christ. There is too much aching and hurting for lectures. Such vital beliefs probably need to be taught (and rehearsed) in times when the sun shines, not when the clouds are gathering. You practice fire drills well before fires, not during them.

The second is that we probably ought to declare our belief in eternal life through Christ more readily and more frequently than we do. Again, difficult times are the worst times for us to come up with our own personal views on death. As I have mentioned recently I am currently listening through a lot of Bach’s cantatas. One of the plus points of doing this is that (particularly when I read the words in translation) I am exposed to a lot of nearly 400-year-old Lutheran theology from a very different church world. They did things differently there and it helps me put my own 21st-century faith in perspective. One of them, No. 161 has a title whose very words make you blink: Komm, du süße Todesstunde which is perhaps best translated ‘Come, O sweet hour of death’. A few lines give you its flavour:

“Pale death is my rosy dawn,
with this rises for me the sun
of glory and heavenly delight.

Therefore I sigh truly from the depths of my heart
for the last hour of death alone.

I desire to pasture soon with Christ.
I desire to depart from this world.”

Universally, modern commentators, even Christian ones, struggle with such sentiments. Yet we cannot accuse Bach, of all people, of being naïve about death; I forget how many of his children died in infancy, and on one appalling occasion he returned from a relatively short trip to find his wife dead and buried. It may be that he, and what theologians call the German Pietist school, went too far in looking on the bright side of death. But surely it seems undeniable that we have gone too far in the other direction.

K’s argument

By , 9 October 2009 6:00 pm

Let’s call him K. He is an American ex-Christian of some sort who follows these blogs and has written to me courteously at some length about my books. I have replied back, answering his questions as best I can and challenging him on his current agnosticism and the debate sporadically continues. K has an interesting take on Christianity which I think is worth sharing even if I think it is flawed.

Most of us are familiar with the standard kind of anti-Christian argument which begins “I can’t believe in Christianity because…” and then goes on to talk about our alleged views on women, science, homosexuality and so on. A major problem with this sort of argument is that it is extraordinarily naive. K’s argument is – at least on the surface – somewhat more sophisticated. To simplify his position somewhat, he claims that there are two major groups within Christianity: the hard-edged fundamentalists with their strident and uncompromising gospel and the fluffy seeker-centred ‘mainstream evangelicals’ (my term not his) with their gentle, winsome and somewhat soft-edged preaching. What K says is that he actually admires the fundamentalists more than the ‘mainstream evangelicals’. According to him they at least have intellectual consistency and some measure of honesty in their understanding of Scripture: they also are prepared to confront the world not to conform to it. For him although they adopt an unbelievable creed, the fundamentalists score in the area of integrity and ethics. In contrast, in a search for bridge building and populism the soft evangelicals have actually become so close to the world that they have lost any real integrity. Compromise has undone them.

First, I want to say that I think that there is something in his critique of seeker-sensitive Christianity that is worth considering. Let me give you one example: an old friend of mine does quite a bit of speaking on the troubled matter of ‘origins’ from a contemporary evangelical perspective that is rather sympathetic to evolution. I recently read a review of a debate he was in and the non-Christian commentator was actually quite dismissive; he detected nothing in any way distinctive in what my friend said and found it almost impossible to separate his position from that of his atheist opponent. Examples can be multiplied; for instance, it is hard for instance to separate the modern evangelical’s view of Sunday from that of anyone else. I think there is a real danger that in the interests of evangelism (or is it cowardice?) evangelicals try to blend into the world in such a way that we lose the radical difference that is perhaps Christianity’s most appealing feature. There is a tragic irony here: in an effort to preach the gospel effectively we somehow lose the gospel.

However I also want to point out that K has engaged in a clever sleight of hand. By splitting Christianity into two poles he has created two artificial positions. On the one hand are the manic fundamentalists who hold to an unbelievable creed but who are at least intellectually consistent. On the other are the jelly-like mainstream evangelicals who hold to a more believable creed but who suffer from the fatal intellectual flaw of compromise. He can’t follow the first party because they believe in manifest nonsense: he can’t follow the second because of their intellectual inconsistencies. His head prevents him from joining the fundamentalists, his conscience from joining the evangelicals. Thus doubly protected, K’s agnosticism is safe.

K’s perspective is no doubt shared widely. It is not enough to simply critique it. We have to admit that the churches are flawed; after all, they are made up of flawed people like me. Yet it is not the church that draws men and women to God, it is Christ. It sometimes seems to me that the greatest proof of the gospel is that, despite the church, men and women continue to come to God through Jesus Christ.

Have a good week.

Various

By , 2 October 2009 7:24 pm

First of all, welcome to the new blog site which you’ll see is attached to my own website. There are lots of reasons for this but it ought to make things a lot easier. I presume you’ve got here from the old site, so please adjust your favourites accordingly.

This is one of those catching-up type of blogs. It’s been good, if busy, week here. After the ceaseless grey skies and endless rains of July and August, September has been almost totally dry here. Even if I haven’t been able to enjoy it most of the time, it’s still been pleasant. This week I had a really great field trip with 35 students to the south coast of Wales where we looked at the Carboniferous, Triassic and Jurassic rocks. The sun shone, the rocks were revealing and I was reduced to wearing a T-shirt on the last day of September. This is the Jurassic.

fieldtrip2

I’m afraid I don’t possibly engage with the responses that I get to my blog in the way I ought to. Writing the blog has become a regular Friday evening task which I (largely) enjoy and I don’t try and do too much during the week to it. We all know stories of writers whose writing suffered because they spent too much time dealing with the fan mail. Well I’m afraid I don’t have that much fan mail but this blog could preoccupy me. However that is not to neglect your contributions: I am not deliberately flattering you in saying that you almost all raise stimulating and challenging points.

Last week was no exception: I was fascinated by the feedback on Thomas Kinkade. Kirsty said effectively that she didn’t mind his paintings but they were ‘twee’. That raises an absolutely fascinating question as to whether in a world of suffering, woe and potential redemption we actually ought to do ‘twee.’ Mind you, I’ll take tweeness over in-your-face brutality and gratuitous ugliness any day. Boaz said some nice things and wondered quite provokingly about the nature of heaven and set me thinking about whether there will be any shadows there. Surely light needs some measure of darkness to emphasise it? Could you ever create a picture without some darkness? Taking the subject less metaphorically, could goodness be seen as goodness in the absence of evil? Well I’m reluctant to meditate on the nature of heaven (I have already done more than any man ought to do on that subject) but I wonder if it is worth considering that, although evil will be gone, the memory of it will be allowed to linger? There are at least hints in the book of Revelation that the redeemed will praise God because of what they were rescued from. In heaven, evil will be without power and threat but I’m pretty certain that we will not all be amnesiacs in that area. I wonder if in some way evil be will be preserved; like some sort of stuffed animal in a museum or as tales in books to remind us what the world once suffered. As others have said, perhaps what are wounds now will be merely scars there.

Zoomie added the revelation (or should I say ‘allegation’?) that the paintings were in fact mass produced by a team of copyists. While I cannot say that this is true or false, the sheer number of different paintings using common elements but done in an identical style is rather striking. Frankly, the thought had crossed my mind but I didn’t dare utter it. Of course, many great artists working to deadlines got their pupils to do various elements such as the sky and background and then filled in the foreground themselves. I read somewhere that Arthur Sullivan (the composer half of Gilbert and Sullivan) got his students to write many of his overtures using themes from the operettas. Nevertheless the suggestion here is of something on a much larger and more outrageous scale. When I mentioned the possibility to someone he said ‘I’m not surprised given the sort of painting he produces’. I think what he meant was poor art goes together with poor ethics. I think there is some truth in this but I’m still thinking it through. (Some great artists were utter rats). My take on this would be something along the following: If an artist is determined to create original and valued works of art, he or she is unlikely to get someone else to do that for them. Conversely, if they produce works of art that are neither original nor which they value, then it is hardly surprising that they might get others to do it for them. So its a broad, but not perfect, correlation. Anonymous (I think) defended poor old Kinkade but referred to a website presumably of their own work. The interesting thing was that I felt that the images on that site had precisely the freshness, newness and excitement that the tired old Kinkade images didn’t have.

Aranel made an interesting comment about an ailing friend who took comfort from the paintings. Now here, friends, is the problem with being a Christian critic. Faced with a brother or sister being comforted by some work of art that we dislike intensely, what can we do? I would say that if we are certain that it is actually doing no theological harm surely all we can do is mutter ‘bless you’ and tiptoe away as quietly as possible.

Have a really good week.

Every blessing

Chris

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