The ridiculous Science vs God meme

I don’t get to nerd out about rocks very often, but last Tuesday I had a lot of fun talking to some local primary school kids about Volcanoes.    Subsequently I have had some conversations which suggest that this kind of thing is not normal.  There’s something in the air that tells us that God and science don’t go together. 

In my world this is nonsense.  Lots of my clerical colleagues have first degrees in scientific subjects.  In fact I am not the only Baptist Minister in the West of England Baptist Association who has an earth sciences degree from the University of Sheffield and a Theology degree from London School of Theology!  The previous minister of our local Methodist church was a former nuclear physicist.  Bill Bryson’s brilliant popular history of science ‘A Brief History of Nearly Everything’ begins with a chapter called ‘Reverend Evans Universe’ about a genius Methodist minister who holds the world record for visual discoveries of supernovae.   Clerics don’t seem to think that Science and religion are enemies…..

And neither do many scientists…  Plenty of members of our churches have higher degrees and jobs involving science on a day to day basis.  An atheist friend once told me that the Cambrian explosion of life does away with the need for the creation narratives of the bible.  In response, I noted that one of the most senior palaeontologists in the UK with specific expertise in the Burgess Shale fauna (probably the most famous Cambrian explosion of life fossil fauna), Professor Simon Conway Morris,  IS A PROFESSING CHRISTIAN.  The most famous palaeontologist of them all (and as far as I know, the only one to appear in the Simpsons), Stephen Jay Gould said ‘Unless half of my collegaues are dunces, there can be  – on the most raw and empirical grounds – no conflict between science and religion.’  Lots and lots and lots of scientists hold to the Christian faith and other faiths.

So how did we all learn that science and faith do not go together (every school kid seems to know this).

I’ve blogged previously about the rise of Young Earth Creationism in the 1920s, but that is only half of the story. 

God is very inconvenient.  He likes fair trade and equal treatment of human beings.  He has standards for personal relationships, corporate finances and social care.  So, if you’d like to justify infanticide or modern slavery, late payment of invoices, relationship-free sex or the neglect of the needy etc, God cannot be your pal.  It would be much better for you to ignore him until you feel aggrieved about the cards the random universe has dealt you, briefly wheel him out of the cupboard as a scapegoat and then bolt the cupboard and carry on as before.   It seems to me that this is precisely what popular secular humanism does. We’re all told that science has killed God (which means we can do as we please) and that it’s OK to simultaneously blame God for all the bad stuff people do.    This seems to be a dominant meme (thanks Richard) derived from secular humanism in our culture, which allows us to do away with the inconvenience of God.

So Richard Dawkins shouts about science killing God and how we can now do as we please.  Ken Ham shouts back about how the bible disproves science and how science leads to wickedness and depravity.  And meanwhile normal, moral, sensible, Christians (some of whom are scientists) and normal, moral, sensible scientists (some of whom are Christians) quietly go about their daily lives.  Maybe it’s time normal, moral, sensible people started shouting down this ridiculous meme.  Meanwhile I was glad of the chance to talk Vulcanology with a bright eyed group of year 4s.    

Leaving the party

Seven MPs resigned from the labour party yesterday and I felt glad.    It felt like breath of fresh air for me because like them, I don’t  I feel like I don’t belong in the party politics of 2019.

My parents never told us who they voted for, but the CND marches, support for the miners and general disparagement of privatisation didn’t leave much to the imagination.  So red (and occasionally green) was always where I felt I belonged politically.  My parents did however tell me where they stood regards God – stories of Jesus and of their own faith – but they left it up to me to make my own mind up about that too.

I became a Christian when I was 13, but was not until I was at theological college in my mid twenties that I began to think more seriously about Christian politics.  This has crystallised with the help of Jim Wallis, C.A.R.E., The Jubilee Centre, The Evangelical Alliance and others to a kind of Christian Relationism.  I’m pretty sure that I know what the bible says is important:  human relationships, freedom, justice and good stewardship of resources.   In recent years I have found myself more socially conservative than the Tories (on relationship issues), more liberal than the Lib Dems (on freedom of belief and expression), struggling to see realism in the new green and SNP visions of the future and alienated from Labour (on Brexit, anti-Semitism, Corbynism etc).  I’m disillusioned with the whole system in which profit is always the bottom line and party tribalism seems to be trump the national interest.  Which is why my ears pricked at these resignations. 

One of my favourite stories in the bible is the parable of the Shrewd Manager. The manager realises he is going to get fired and cuts his masters debts, ingratiating himself with the debtors and painting his master in a generous light.  When he gets fired, the master has to grudgingly commend him for his shrewd handling of the situation.  Jesus goes on to say ‘use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone you’ll be welcomed into eternal dwellings.’ (Luke 16:9)   The point is not that Christians should cheat their employers – there are plenty of commandments and stories in the bible that show God does not approve of that.  The point is that if you’re a follower of Jesus, you graft for a different gaffer, you belong in a different kingdom – not round here. Use whatever is at your disposal to invest there.

The Christians I know are activists, stuck into making a difference to society through all sorts of voluntary community, development and advocacy work in their spare time.  This voluntary work can be really fulfilling, but it can also feel like you are swimming against the tide of a world where people and relationships are deemed less important than profit and party politics.   The same Christians work in industry, for statutory bodies and in the finance and service sectors.  Faith generally makes for loyal, honest and hard-working employees; but there are times when Christian values clash with company procedures and Christians take a stand and/or feel marginalised. Holding a different set of values and investing in a different kingdom can feel alienating.

Maybe this voicing of political alienation by seven ex labour MPs is the dawn of a new politics in the UK or maybe this will come to nothing. Whatever happens, I’m going to keep using such economic and political influence as I do have to invest in God’s kingdom, where I feel and know I belong…  And it’s good to know that I’m not the only one who does not feel they belong in the party politics of the UK in 2019.

Phoebe

Most of the books I read are theological texts for nerds like me and are not worth recommending publicly.  I do like a good story however and occasionally put the big books down to read a novel someone has recommended.  Last week I did this to read Paula Gooder’s novel Phoebe.  This week I want to recommend it to you.

Many theological nerds are good at arguing over fine points of doctrine.  A few of them, like NT Wright or Greg Boyd are also good at communicating at a popular level and a very small number of them like Walter Wangerin or Bruce Longernecker can write a good historical novel which weaves together biblical history and a good yarn. 

In Phoebe, Paula Gooder has done this with aplomb & I would recommend this book to anyone who either likes a good story or wants to get their head round the environment into which much of the New Testament was written.  The real Phoebe was a Christian leader and benefactor at Cenchreae near Corinth.  She gets a brief mention in Romans 16:1-2 and Paula Gooder extrapolates out from this point, drawing in threads from across the New Testament and other historical sources.  She paints some lovely true-to-Christian-life character pictures around marginal biblical and fictional figures with lots of local colour.  I smiled at the biblical allusions, laughed out loud at the parallels with church life and am wondering whether I need to read it again because I did not see the ending coming! 

I’d love to think that Paul was not quite so ugly or antisocial as Gooder paints him, but history and what remains of his own writings have definitely left him open to these charges.  Also, I struggled to get the voice of Dobby the house elf out of my head when reading about the young Felix.  That said, this is a really good book, looking from a Christian viewpoint at the spread of the good news of Jesus and at the honour and filth of first century Rome.    Buy it and read it!  (Or borrow my copy because it’s only available in over-expensive hard back at the moment).

Phoebe, a story,  Paula Gooder,  Hodder and Stoughton 2018 ISBN 978-1-473-66972-7

Why I’m Offended

So, DC comics have decided to release a new comic called ‘Second Coming’ featuring Jesus as a second rate superhero.  Author Mark Russel explains in an interview:

“The concept is that God was so upset with Jesus’s performance the first time he came to Earth, since he was arrested so soon and crucified shortly after, that he has kept him locked-up since then.

“God then sees this superhero on Earth a few thousand years later and says ‘that’s what I wanted for you!’ He sends Jesus down to learn from this superhero and they end up learning from each other. They learn the limitations of each other’s approach to the world and its problems.”

I find this offensive.  Here are some reasons why.

  1. Jesus of Nazareth was real.  He lived and died and rose in first century Judea.  Without lifting a sword or writing anything much, he started a revolutionary movement which transformed the world.  The historical evidence for his life, death and resurrection is plain for thinking people to see and continues to stand the test of historical and literary criticism.  This kind of ideologically loaded 21st century retelling of the story undermines historical truth in an era of fake news.  I think this is deceitful.
  2. Jesus laid the foundation for the freedom we enjoy in the West today.  It is Jesus who reveals the God who appeals to us in love rather than coercing us with force.  Consequently all of the arguments which produced the religious freedom we enjoy in the UK today came from dissenting Christians (those who took the teachings of Jesus more seriously than the threats of the state)…..  And America became one nation under God with a separate church and state and freedom of expression.  This has not happened where the teachings of Mao or Mohammed have been at the fore.  To mock Jesus is to bite the hand that gave you the freedom to mock. I think this is just plain rude.
  3. Jesus is my saviour.  I believe that I cut myself off from God with principled ideological deceit and selfish rudeness.  The teachings of Jesus in the bible introduced me to a holy God who is aware of my deceit and rudeness and still loves me.  They reveal a son of God who is willing to die to take away the separation from God which I have brought upon myself.  They also reveal that Jesus genuinely historically rose from death, and is with God able to receive and reinforce my prayers.  So I pray to God, through Jesus, and I love and worship Jesus for what he did for me.  I dislike it when people I love are slandered or libelled.

Because of #2, I don’t feel that recourse to law in these matters is appropriate.  I’m glad we have abolished blasphemy laws in the UK and pray that they will do so in Pakistan one day too. However, along with over 100,000 others I have signed a petition asking the publisher not to release this comic.    If you find this offensive, maybe you’d like to do the same.    

Deep Truths and Childs Play

I decided it was best not to leave it there with such a gloomy blog before the holidays…

On Christmas morning we will have an all-age worship service at WBC where the kids and teenagers stay in the service instead of going out to separate groups.  We do this on every first Sunday of the month.  I know that putting together an all age worship service is a nightmare for some people.  The idea is to communicate something to the adults in a way which is fun for the kids.  You have to try and occupy that kind of space that the Simpsons occupies on TV – funny and poignant in different ways for different people.  I actually quite enjoy all age worship services – partly because I get on well with kids and partly because I remember a key truth that I read when I was in preaching class at theological college:

You can only ever say one thing in a sermon / service, so say it in a way that is memorable.

And so we have the generosity game – where the two halves of the church try to out-give one another using ball pool balls over a badminton net and then we talk about how generosity is the Christian response to the self-grabbing greed of our society…. And we have Doug, the character with the country accent who long ago discovered some hidden treasure in a field, sold everything he had, bought the field and now lives to dig and then we talk about how God’s kingdom is the treasure worth giving up everything for….  And we have the no toe race where kids hobble towards the finish line and we talk about the importance of every part of the body of Christ…… and so on.  From time to time someone tells me that the teaching in these services is not very deep.  Sometimes they are right.  It is easy for me to miss the point or for an illustration to overwhelm a truth.  They are right that there is no blow by blow exegesis, no greek or no hebrew.  But they are sometimes fundamentally wrong. Because greek, hebrew and blow by blow exegesis do not necessarily make deep effective teaching.  Jesus said  “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

It is not philosophy or theology that saves us.  It is simple childlike faith in Jesus (please see the below blogs if you are concerned that this means jettisoning your brain).  The question is not ‘can you fathom great mysteries?’  The question is ‘can you believe in simple truths?’ Like a child.  All age worship services serve two purposes: they welcome kids and they remind adults of the deepest life-transforming truths of Christian faith.  They also give volunteer kids group leaders a deserved break.

Enough blogging already – I need to pray and think about what to say on Tuesday morning. May the peace of the mighty-God-child and the light of the word-become-flesh and the salvation of the saviour-baby be yours this Christmas time.

Child Abuse and the Church

You’ll know if you watch the news that some horrendous child abuse took place in the UK church in the eighties.  Also in the seventies and nineties… and noughties and teens.  There can be no excuse, there should be no more cover-ups.  This abuse is an abominable betrayal of trust.

You may also have heard that similar abuse has been taking place in schools, in sports teams, scouting and guiding groups, hospitals and summer camps….  Just about everywhere in the UK where kids are entrusted to the care of adults.

Part of my role as a church leader is to make sure that does not happen in kids and youth work at WBC.   No one is ever left alone with a minor here without having been DBS checked and having attended one of the Baptist Union’s brilliant child protection training sessions.  More than that, no-one who is not a church member can be involved in leading a kids group.  This means that we know more about them and their family life than any employer would.  We also have a trained Designated Person for Safeguarding and a trustee who is responsible for overseeing training and DBS checking.

I’m also responsible for leading a community of people who demonstrate the self-giving love of Jesus to the world through generous, kind and honest personal lives and relationships.  This is the place in the church where I see the effects of child abuse on an almost daily basis.  According to the NSPCC, one fifth of the UK adult population suffered severe mistreatment of one kind or another as a child.  Children who are abused are far more likely to grow up to be adults whose habits, relationships and lives are dysfunctional than children who are not abused.   By virtue of being generous, honest and loving communities, churches attract a disproportionate number of people whose habits, relationships and lives are broken and dysfunctional – selfish, unkind and dishonest.  Which means that many of the deeply painful relational breakdowns, depressions, employability issues and family dysfunctions I walk through with people can be linked to child abuse as a root cause.  Most of the effects of abuse I encounter stem from abuse by a family member, some from issues in churches and some from other groups in society.   I concur with the news.  Child abuse has been and still is an endemic evil in our society.

But what I also see on a daily basis is Christians walking with one another through the effects of abuse and the generosity, kindness and honesty of the church family bringing restoration to broken lives.   I see wonderful families supporting one another as they care for adopted kids and kids with special needs and other little monkeys with love and creativity and patience.  I see a community where it is OK to be open about a broken past and where the presence and love of Jesus overrides broken pasts as the defining label of life.  I see kids from regular churchgoing families and the wider community being valued, cared for and taught about and led in the generous kind and honest way of life God wants for human beings. I see space provided for other like minded charity and statutory groups seeking to provide healing and care to broken lives. I see all of this done by volunteers who work hard both to make sure that this is a safe environment for kids and that this is seen to be a safe environment for kids.

There can be no question that the church has historically gone with the flow of endemic child abuse in UK society.   But the church I see from day to day is swimming hard against the tide; alert to the current issue and working hard to restore the historical damage.  This won’t make headlines, but it is healing broken lives.

Fake news and pinches of salt

Earlier this year Facebook removed 00s of accounts used by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Association which was involved in trying to influence the 2016 US election.  It was just another example of fake news and propaganda spreading unchecked through social media.  I’m pleased to say I did not encounter much pro-Putin / anti-Clinton propaganda through Facebook at the time, but I often encounter views which I find upsetting or annoying or which I know to be based on half-truths or untruth.  Which sometimes makes me think why bother exposing myself to this madness through social media?

This world is a messed-up place.  Not because of the internet but because of human beings and their innate ability to put their need for money, sex or power above the needs of their fellow humans or their accountability to God.  Sin, the bible calls it.  The reason social media sites carry so much fake news is because they are driven by human beings.  Jesus said that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out of the heart (and through the smartphone onto the internet).

God’s approach to this broken world is unambiguous in the teachings of Jesus and his followers.  Sin defiles us to the extent that none of us can stand before a Holy God.  But God does not pull the plug because he loves us.  Through Jesus he comes into the world to tell us of God’s love and God’s standards.  Jesus suffers with us – not just life in this broken world, but unjust punishment and unnecessary execution.  God suffers loss as his son suffers to bring us the message of his love.  (This story has a terrific happy ending which you can read for yourself).

So I’m keeping my Facebook account – at least for the time being, because I think God gets involved and he wants his people to be involved.  ‘Being salt and light,’ Jesus called it.    I’ve given up responding to mile long arguments from friends whose views differ from mine on matters theological or local – Facebook isn’t a good medium for discussion anyway, especially when more than two parties are involved.      But I’m going to keep posting stuff about God and the way he gets his hands dirty dealing with us and about my Christian life and things that bring me and other people joy, wholeness and peace….   And I’m going to continue using Snopes and Hoax Slayer and liberally applied pinches of salt.

 

Creationism vs Evolutionism: why the debate is unhelpful.

So I heard a panel commenting on creationism in the UK on Radio 4 this morning.  As you’d expect from Auntie these days, creationism was being denounced as a conspiracy of ignorance against the overwhelming evidence for evolutionary intelligence.  It’s the third time in as many weeks that the creation vs evolution debate has passed through my headspace.

I have undergraduate degrees in theology and geology and THIS MEANS THAT I KNOW ENOUGH TO KNOW THAT I AM NOT AN EXPERT on science and/or faith.  I’ve been around this debate for around 25 years however, and would like to use the space afforded by my blog to offer a few thoughts:

Creationists are not idiots.

Some of them are my friends.  Many of them hold down responsible professional jobs (holding the relevant higher education qualifications) with they do with excellence for the benefit of society.  They are mostly Christians who believe (as do I) in the reality of God as creator and that the bible has authority and should be taken seriously.  They recognise that evolution is often provided as evidence against God and as justification for the kind of behaviours the bible prohibits.  So they don’t like the theory of evolution.  Modern creationism originated in the US in the  1920s as a reaction to the lines which were being drawn between the ‘survival of the fittest’ in Darwinian theory and the rise of ‘might Is right’ nationalism in Germany.   I don’t like Naziism, creationists don’t like Naziism and I hope you don’t like Naziism.

Mainstream Science is not a Godless conspiracy theory

Whist there are emerging pockets of alt-liberal bigotry in the scientific community, my observation is that mainstream science is dedicated to a wholesome pursuit of peer-reviewed truth-seeking.  The reason creation science often does not get a hearing is that it is often popularist and  widely published before rigorous peer review.    Evolutionary theory has held sway as the mainstream of Biological & Palaeontoligcal sciences for the last 150ish years because it is the most compelling theory with the most evidence in its favour.

It’s possible to be a Christian and believe in evolution

The 19th century church in the UK did not protest widely regards the idea of evolution.  Simon Conway Morris, one of the most senior Palaeobiologists in the UK is a Christian.  Billy Graham believed in evolution.  So it seems that it is possible to believe in God, follow Jesus, hold the bible in highest regard AND think evolution is plausible or likely.

Evolution cannot be a governing philosophy for life

If you are just evolutionary flotsam and jetsam, then the atoms in your body have no more intrinsic value than the atoms in the screen you’re reading from.  If evolution is all there is as a guiding principle then you exist to pass on your genes and prevent competitors from passing theirs on…  If this is alarming to you, it is because you have adopted a philosophy of life which was either revealed to you or you made up and cannot be a consequence of evolution and I am very glad about that.   I think the worldview which stems from the life, death, resurrection and Spirit of Jesus is the one that makes the most sense, but I’m happy to hear about yours.

 

I rarely bother to join this discussion as it produces a great deal of relational heat and not much ethical or spiritual light.  The shouty shouting of extrapolating evolutionists and young earth creationists tends to drown out the voices in the middle ground.  I think the Genesis creation stories can legitimately bear a range of modern ‘how it happened’ interpretations whist still asserting with clarity that there’s only one God who made everything out of nothing and made people in his image.  Consequently I believe that people are not just animals and the atoms in my body are worth more to God than those in my keyboard or in the sparrows in our garden (as are the atoms making up your body).  These truths were taught by Jesus and I believe they matter.  I don’t think this debate does.

The Cross on the Monument

I recently re-watched this drone footage of the Tyndale monument at North Nibley, starting with the cross on the top.  The film is a reminder to me of the privilege it is to live in a peaceful community among these beautiful hills.  But that’s not why local Victorians built the monument.  This is a monument to a man who was not only denied the privilege of Cotswold life but was compelled to leave his homeland and give up his life because of his conviction that God’s word should be available to all.  It’s monument to a Christian martyr.

William Tyndale was a smart guy – Oxbridge trained,  learned in ancient Latin, Greek and Hebrew and posessing a way with words in his native tongue.  His conviction led to action and he began to translate the bible into English.  This made him some powerful enemies including Henry VIII, Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey, so he left Little Sodbury and continued his work in hiding on the continent.  Accounts of his life at that time describe a frugal existence, giving much of his earnings to the poor and encouraging the community of exiles in Antwerp.    After the secession of the English church, his work put him in more danger from the Holy Roman Empire and it was was one of their agents, Henry Phillips who eventually betrayed him.  Tyndale was strangled and burnt at the stake at Vilevoorde, Belgium in October 1536.  Whether his disputed last words ‘may God open the king of England’s eyes’ are historical or not is irrelevant.  His life had already said as much.

Tyndale’s New Testament had to be smuggled into England during his lifetime, but it was a commercial success due to massive demand.  It wasn’t the first vernacular translation of the New Testament, but it was the most readable and the most available.  When the monarchy changed tack and demanded an English version for the national church 80 years later, 80% of the King James New Testament was lifted from Tyndale’s work.  He never finished his Old Testament translation, but King James’ committee used a similar proportion of the books he had translated.  If we attribute equal honours to Shakespeare and the King James in the beginnings of modern English, there’s no question that  Tyndale had a substantial hand in the formation of our language.

Tyndale was not afraid of a fight – you can see this in his hard-nosed and earthy correspondence with More and others.  He was not risk-averse.  He gave up everything for the aim of making the Bible available to all England.   But Tyndale never took up arms for his cause – preferring giving his own life to taking that of others.  Christian martyrs use words, prayer and charity to oppose tyranny, they don’t use weapons to impose it.   They follow Jesus in self-giving, sword-staying, cross-bearing lives.   Crosses can be thinly decorated power or fashion statements.  This one is a reminder of a genuine Christian martyr.  Battered, gilded and glorious.

What was it about Billy Graham?

I cannot think of a stronger candidate for the most influential Christian of the 20th century than Billy Graham.  Even in our little Gloucestershire church, stories are emerging of how Billy Graham’s preaching changed lives and families.  How could one farmer’s son from North Carolina possibly impact so many lives?

Part of the answer has to be his harnessing of the technology of the age.  His insistence on quality P.A. systems and the use of public spaces and sports stadia meant that he could address crowds of up to 1 million at a time.   Satellite TV feeds for live-link audiences extended his lifetime audience to 210 million people in 185 countries.

He was also a man of unquestioned integrity in an age of cynicism and scrutiny.  Mike Pence has been squarely mocked for his avoidance of travel, meetings or meals alone with any woman other than his wife.  No one is mocking Billy Graham now (please see my comments on Pence’s boss below before you count me as a fan).    Combined with his insistence on external scrutiny of his financial affairs, this policy led to 58 years of public life and ministry without major scandal.

Billy Graham was an American patriot, but that was not his message.  He met with and prayed for politburo members and Chinese premiers and even gave Kim Il Sung a bible.  Billy Graham was a white middle class man, but white middle class values were not his message.  He preached with MLK Jnr and hung out with death row prisoners.    Billy Graham was a Baptist, but that was not at the heart of his public preaching.  He met with popes and archbishops and encouraged his converts to connect with the local churches his campaigns partnered with.  Billy Graham was a theistic evolutionist –  but that was not the heart of his message, so he retained his popularity across the spectrum of US Christianity.

Billy Graham preached Christ crucified.  Look at the footage in the obituaries, watch a film of one of his rallies.  View the recent (and brilliant) myhopeuk you-tube remixes http://myhopewithbillygraham.org.uk/programs/the-cross/ …. Billy Graham only ever preached one message – that God loves you; that you’re a sinner; that Jesus died on the cross to deal with your sin; that your response to Jesus death and resurrection is what determines your earthly direction and your eternal destiny.  Clear, simple, powerful.  The kind of message the most influential preacher of the first century was talking about when he wrote in a letter to the church in Corinth:

‘but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’

Why was Billy Graham so influential?  Technology and integrity played a part, but the real key to Billy Graham’s influence was that he exercised very little influence of his own.  He stuck like glue to his core message, seeking to expose people to the influence of his crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ.