And that way madness lies

By , 29 January 2010 9:14 pm

I don’t often talk about teaching for all sorts of reasons but mention came up of something this week that has wider implications. It is the fact that we teachers are to be encouraged to pay attention much more to the ‘learner voice’. In other words, the students are to take a more active part in evaluating our courses. Now, of course, much of this is splendid. They are, after all, the recipients of our teaching and in theory well placed to assess its validity. Furthermore, it is no bad thing for people of my age (50+) who grew up in a very different culture to be reminded of the problems and difficulties faced by those growing up in the present culture. Nevertheless, it is a tool that needs to be treated with a very large amount of discrimination. The real danger is that students will start to tell us how and what to teach. And, as I remarked to a colleague as we discussed it, ‘that way madness lies’.

In fact, teaching a subject like geology is very much telling a story; we know the end, but our audience does not. We alone know what plot elements are important; that knowledge is hidden from them. So in geology I labour away on such topics as the classification of igneous rocks in the early weeks. I need no surveys to tell me that the students find it dull. Yet when, as will be the case in the next few weeks, we turn to volcanic eruptions, they will suddenly realise that the hitherto dully academic difference between basalt, andesite and rhyolite is, in fact, of enormous value. A friend of mine who teaches modern languages is almost in despair at the idea of ‘learner voice’. Any sort of competence in language must be built on solid, tedious and frankly unattractive foundations of grammar.

A reminder of how potent this pupil power can be came this week with a well reported Facebook protest by allegedly thousands of biology students over an exam board’s paper. My biology colleagues tell me that the protests were largely unmerited but it has set a rather alarming precedent. Once upon a time, students were in fear of the exam board; now it seems that exam boards are beginning to feel afraid of students. Fail the exam? Don’t blame yourself, blame the board and try and get the decision overturned.

There is much here that if you are at all interested in culture, is fascinating. We have now had a couple of generations of being told that we are ‘consumers’ and ‘have rights’, and during which market forces have been given almost unrestrained freedom. Yet most thoughtful observers – even those from the political right – are now finding some of the resultant muscle-flexing to be troubling.

Churches are affected by this trend. No church of course exists in total isolation from culture and this critical, consumerist attitude is becoming endemic. The result is that there is a danger that in organising our services and preaching, we are driven not by what we feel is right or what we think God wants, but market forces. Not only that but once the congregation sees itself as consumers (‘We can worship elsewhere you know!’) they can all too easily feel they have a right to demand that things are done their way. A number of ministers of my acquaintance have found themselves troubled and perplexed by members of their congregations who have insisted on dedications, baptisms, weddings or funerals being structured and performed according to the desires of those concerned. There are many arguments for and against a fixed liturgy (as in the Anglican prayer book). I am beginning to wonder whether one of the best is quite simply the fact that it limits consumer choice. ‘Sorry’, it says, ‘this is the way it’s done. Like it or lump it.’

As I thought of this I was reminded of the old Latin tag Vox populi, vox dei ‘The voice of the people [is] the voice of God’, and checked it up on Wikipedia. It sounds as though the congregation wishing to have its own way has been something of a recurrent problem in Christianity because the phrase is first cited by the eighth-century Northumbrian theologian Alcuin in a letter to Charlemagne. The translation reads as follows: ‘And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.’ There is indeed nothing new under the sun…

On warfare

By , 22 January 2010 7:20 pm

As often before, this blog really revolves around two things coming together. The first was the widely reported revelation that some US military gunsights have biblical verses coded onto them. This has provoked an utter storm of outrage and I suspect most Christians have run for cover on the matter. Personally, although I find the slightly underhand way of putting the verses on the rifles somewhat dubious I have fewer problems about them being there in the first place. Even in Britain we still have a simple prayer for blessing said over naval vessels (even nuclear armed submarines) at their launching ceremony. Now I do not wish to defend the sort of holy right-wing politics that somehow confuses the Kingdom of Heaven with an earthly state, a view much less common in the UK than in USA. Nevertheless, we really need to ask, if our warfare is legitimate, what is so wrong about invoking God’s blessing upon it? And, if our warfare is illegitimate, then surely we have more pressing problems than verses on gun sights.

This crystallised my thinking on another matter where I need to speak in veiled terms. Some years ago I was involved in chairing a venerable if battered organisation with a long and honourable track record. I expended long hours on this and achieved some degree of restoration. After a couple of years, someone  – let’s call him X – joined me on the organisation and it soon became apparent that he had ambitions to replace me as the chair. Every committee meeting was rendered difficult. He would protest that he hadn’t been consulted, that I had acted against the best wishes of the organisation or that I was simply not following correct procedure. He made temporary alliances with other members of the committee to ensure that what I wanted wasn’t approved. He vetoed sane and sensible proposals simply to undermine my authority.  The result was that I came to dread committee meetings.

Eventually some of the young people involved at a low level in the organisation came to me, closed the doors behind them and said “X wants to take your place. We don’t want it to happen and we are prepared to help you fight against him.” I considered the matter for a few seconds and then said I was not willing to fight and that I didn’t want them to battle against him either. My decision was based on both Christian and pragmatic grounds. On Christian grounds, I did not feel it right to struggle against him; I would have to have challenged him and effectively opened some form of intellectual or committee level warfare. On pragmatic grounds, he was – as far as committees went – something of a street fighter with a rare gift for the strategic amendment or the sudden adjournment and I would, I’m sure, have been outmatched. I suspect there was also too an element of weariness in my decision: I hate such things and like nothing more than universal amiability (a most dangerous weakness). And when I considered the matter, being either excessively self-critical or genuinely humble, I decided that perhaps X might do a better job than me. So when my position came up for renewal I let him replace me and take the chair of the organisation.

Years past during which the organisation effectively severed contact with me. Nevertheless, disturbing rumours reached me. This week I heard from someone close to the organisation who gave me text and verse; X was an utter disaster and all but destroyed the organisation I worked to build up. So I now wonder whether I did the right thing in edging away from confrontation. Perhaps, I did the right thing for myself. But did I do the right thing for the organisation?

As the knee-jerk response to the gunsights issue has shown, pacifism (whether literal or metaphorical) is awfully tempting and indeed is the response we Christians are expected to adopt.  But after deeper thought it seems to me that there are times and places where not only is fighting right, but not to fight is to give evil the victory. I’m sure for many of you this is a truism. But I think we need to think about it. Given that in the West Christianity is now in the middle of what we can call ‘culture wars’ against New-Age postmodernism, an aggressive if shallow secularism, and Islam, simply yielding the field may be catastrophic.  Yes, Christianity has waged battles in the past that have been wrong; yet to refuse to fight for anything is surely equally wrong. We need wisdom!

Earthquakes: theodicy and theological idiocy

By , 15 January 2010 7:33 pm

Naturally enough I have had a considerable interest in the dreadful Haiti earthquake.  In Lebanon I worked and published on precisely the same type of tectonic boundary that gave us such tragic losses this week, and most of my classes cover earthquakes at some point.  Interestingly, the quality of material being pasted on Google Earth is now so good that I was able to overlay photographs of the devastation within 30 hours for my classes to look at. It is slightly unnerving (or ought to be) to look down at a wrecked building knowing that certainly the dead and possibly the living are underneath.

Anyway any unease about my use of the data pales into insignificance compared with Pat Robertson’s monumental monstrosity of a statement to the effect the Haitians are to blame for the earthquake because they made a pact with the devil long ago. As it was fortunately not extensively covered in the UK I need to repeat what he said in a radio interview:  “[S]omething happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. Napoleon the Third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you get us free from the prince.’ True story. And so the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ They kicked the French out, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle, on the one side is Haiti, on the other side is the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island.”

Now Pat’s comments have been leapt on and rejected by almost everybody for all sorts of reasons. (For a start his geography and history is completely and utterly wrong.) Had he talked about the fact that apparently up to 50% of the population practice Voodoo, I might have had more sympathy. But sometimes erroneous comments can actually make you think. Let me make several observations.

1) It is always terribly tempting to try and justify God’s workings in catastrophic natural events. This is a form of what is called theodicy.  To do this has several benefits. One benefit is that you have the opportunity to do what all humans like to do, which is to find meaning in the apparently meaningless. And one reason why many of us would like to be prophets (come on now admit it!) is we would like to be those who wield the power to unlock mysteries. I’m sure we would love to hear people say ‘Thank you pastor/preacher/writer/my friend, I now understand what is going on in the Balkans/with Israel/with the money markets etc.”

2) There is no more attractive form of shedding light on a natural disaster by explaining it in terms of God’s judgement.  Something as seemingly random as an earthquake raises an obvious theological problem; why does God slay the apparently innocent? Explaining this in terms of judgement on sin is a neat trick. It doesn’t simply remove the problem of God causing pain on the guiltless; it turns a vice into a virtue by making the disaster a just judgement.

3) Another advantage of pontificating on disasters is that it subtly set you up as being privy to the mind of the Almighty. You alone have been able to eavesdrop at the door of the chamber of heaven where decisions are made.

4) I can’t help but think that Pat fell into the old trap of talking the Devil up; always a good way to get your audience’s attention. The notion of an entire nation cursed with generations of disaster as a result of a satanic pact has the makings of a wonderful novel; a heady mixture of Stephen King and dodgy theology.

5) One or two people have made the comment that Pat clearly can’t distinguish an act of God from an act of plate tectonics. This of course conveys very poor understanding of theology; there is no inherent problem for Calvinists at least, with God acting through his own mechanism of plate tectonics.

6) One of the things that puzzles me most is that this seems to represent a very Old Testament view of things. There Israel was told that failure to keep the covenant would result in natural disasters. (Mind you even in the Old Testament earthquakes can get treated as natural events without any attempt to invest them with moral or judgemental significance.) Yet I can think of no such teaching on cause-and-effect in the New Testament. The nearest I can come to it is Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 11 that individuals who have treated communion frivolously have died. Certainly Jewish culture in Jesus day believed in a very tightly linkage between sin and disaster.  In Luke 13:1-5 we read: ‘Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”’  Or John 9:1-4: ‘As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”’  A parallel example are famines which are mentioned frequently in the Bible but sometimes with no reference whatsoever to them being an act of judgement (for example Genesis 12:10; 26:1; Acts 11:28).

No; I’m afraid we must resort to the uncomfortable truth that on many matters God keeps his own counsel and resist the temptation to explain. We tend to consider the book of Job as being about individual suffering; but its lessons also apply to universal suffering. At times we simply do not know why these events happen and all we can do is keep our mouths closed (and our wallets open).

Snow, satellites and science

By , 8 January 2010 6:45 pm

I really do not know who reads these blogs. All sorts of people seem to dip on and off without me being aware of it. Anyway, for those who do not live in the British Isles, it’s been cold here. In fact since Christmas it’s been persistently very cold. It is eloquently summed up in the photograph below from Nasa’s Terra satellite. I added the red blob for normally mild Swansea where the cold has been almost unprecedented. Snow fell on my car on Tuesday and is still on it on Friday afternoon despite me having travelled about 30 miles in the intervening period. Many of you who live in harsher climes will no doubt snigger at we Brits throwing up our gloved hands in horror at temperatures of a mere -10oC. Well, we just aren’t prepared for it.

Britain in snow

A couple of observations. First there has been much discussion as to whether this demonstrates that worries about global warming are misplaced. The answer is surely a long the lines of, if one swallow does not make a summer then one cold snap does not make a new Ice Age. The larger-scale and longer term evidence still, to my mind, suggests global warming. I gather, for instance, that at the moment parts of Alaska are warmer than Florida. Nevertheless, I am somewhat uneasy about the way that meteorology seems incapable of medium-term prediction. To my knowledge no one predicted the worst cold spell for either 30 or 47 years (depending on who you talk to). In fact our hapless Meteorological Office, undaunted by the fiasco over its ‘barbecue summer’ predictions that predated one of the wettest summers on record had been predicting a warmer than usual winter. This leads to my second observation: the reminder that there are two kinds of science: hard and soft.

‘Hard science’ is wonderfully exemplified by this photograph. I am old enough (just) to remember the wonder of the grey grainy smudges of the first photographs laboriously transmitted from space, and now we have full colour high-resolution imagery bounced back to us almost instantaneously. The process by which we get these images: the launching of satellites, their injection into precise orbits, their painstaking navigation and the transmission and reception of digital imagery is a marvel that we take for granted. This is hard (and splendid) science. Yet medium to long-term weather forecasting – not to mention climatic prediction – is science of a much softer and more speculative nature. Clearly, the systems involved are so complex that is virtually impossible to precisely predict what is going to happen. Interestingly enough in geology we have both; the precise analytical and very measurable details of rocks and the speculative modelling of what really did happen 350 million years ago.

Both hard and soft versions are science; but they differ in methodology and the problem is that soft speculative science shelters under the aura of hard science. It’s worth bearing this in mind. I am a scientist and happy to be one. Nevertheless we who are scientists need to carefully distinguish between hard science where the results can be measured to within millimetres, fractions of a degree or milliseconds, and the softer more exploratory science which has more guesswork than we would like to admit. Scientists need to be wary that the unassailable facts of hard science do not lead them into the arrogance of claiming too much for speculative models of soft science. And those of you who are not in any shape or form scientists need to be aware that despite its stunning achievements not all science is quite a solid as its proponents would like us to believe. I suppose you could say that knowledge is a vast sea of uncertainty in which science has created small clusters of firm but growing islands. But a lot may yet be hiding in those unknown seas.

Have a good week and stay warm. Or, if you’re in Alaska, I hope things cool down.

On the ‘coming Evangelical collapse’ and the Welsh experience

By , 1 January 2010 8:12 pm

First of all happy New Year to you and I hope you were blessed by the Christmas season. I did a lot of college work, got some plot ideas together and read a lot.

Following through a mention on the Christianity Today review of the year I came across some much discussed blogs by Michael Spencer  on the ‘coming Evangelical collapse’.  There is a similar sort of treatment on this website as well and I gather the matter has been discussed widely elsewhere. The basic thesis of these authors is that Christianity in the United States (and it is distressing that a number of authors fail to distinguish between the United States and the rest of the world) is, for all its apparent strength, in deep trouble and a massive decline or even collapse looms in the next few decades. Now being on the other side of the Atlantic I do not feel able to make any serious comment on this thesis as it applies to the United States. Ignorance is not a good basis for opinion. However, I do think it is worthwhile pointing out the experience of Wales in the last hundred years and suggesting that anybody who is interested might find it very profitable to do a detailed sociological and theological comparison.

The basic situation is thus. One hundred years ago, buoyed by the 1904 revival (itself the last of a number of great revival events) Welsh nonconformity of an essentially evangelical hue was the dominant cultural feature of Wales. Chapels of every size and shape dominated the landscape and in any sort of urban area you would often find chapels every few hundred yards. On my five-mile drive to work I pass seven buildings that were chapels 100 years ago and I could easily adjust my route to pass nine. Welsh culture was dominated by the hymn singing and choral tradition of the Church: hymns were sung at rugby matches; they still are but no one knows what the words mean. The Welsh churches were sufficiently powerful that they were regularly consulted by administrative authorities at every level. Chapel culture dominated the moral, cultural and spiritual landscape. Deacons ruled the world.

And then slowly at first but soon at an appalling rate the tide went out. Chapel culture was still lingering on in the 70s when I came to South Wales and was converted. There were still parts of Wales where you could not buy alcohol on the Sunday, the Saturday evening paper had a full page advertisement for church services for the following day and on Sunday itself people (true, mostly by now old women) could be seen regularly filing to church from 10 o’clock onwards. Every year began in Swansea with a civic ceremony in which some chapel or other hosted civic leaders. But these were the twilight years and all these phenomena  have now gone. Indeed my own church is held to be one of the largest in Swansea (population 250,000 ) and we barely get 150 people on a Sunday morning. The percentage of people attending church regularly in Wales is now less than 3%, which means that you can put every churchgoer in Wales in the great Millennium stadium in Cardiff and still have space.

There are certainly some striking parallels between Welsh nonconformity a hundred years ago and American evangelicalism today. There was an emphasis on controlling culture and setting the moral tone, there was a glorification of big-name preachers, an encouragement of peripheral activities such as male voice choirs which, although church sponsored, were somehow not really Christian.  There was the often sycophantic wooing of politicians which was heartily reciprocated by the vote-hungry politicians themselves. There was an emphasis on music and events and on novelty and status. There were weighty rulings on such vital matters as what one wore and what one said. There were the massive building programs which saw chapels rise up like mushrooms.

Now don’t get me wrong – there were giants in those days; great missionaries, great preachers and great scholars. Yet seemingly, all that they laboured for vanished within a few decades.  Many of the bright young men were lured into liberalism or ecclesiastical showmanship; others perished in the trenches of the First World War. Many others found the heady politics of the 1920s far more attractive than churchgoing. Nevertheless the scale and speed of the collapse is extraordinary. I think I remember reading that Martyn Lloyd-Jones found himself the only evangelical minister in the sizeable urban sprawl of Port Talbot in the late 1920s.

Quite simply and I’m sorry it is such a sober thought at the start of the year, it is worth bearing in mind that even the most apparently solid church culture can collapse within decades. In one sense that’s a scary thought. On the other it’s an encouragement to put our trust not in denominations or programmes but in the living God.


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