The lost art of Catechism

Catechism (n):

  1. an elementary book containing a summary of the principles of the Christian religion, especially as maintained by a particular church, in the form of questions and answers.

In our church we regularly run courses for people who want to find out more about the Christian faith. In the past we’ve run Alpha, and more recently we’ve started running Christianity Explored. By the grace of God we have seen a number of people come into the church over the last few years, partly as a result of these courses. In my home group at the moment we have a number of folks who have only come into church in the last few years and I’ve had a chance to get to know them pretty well – and get to know their needs, spiritually speaking.

What I’ve been finding is that people who come into faith these days are coming from a background of virtually no knowledge about God, Jesus, the Bible, the cross, etc. There is just simply no background knowledge of the Christian faith. Everything has to be built from the ground up, which takes time.

The realisation that I’ve been coming to is that we need to rethink the way that the church disciples new believers. Sunday services are a good start – but we’ve found it’s tough to encourage people to come when there are so many other competing demands on time. Church is a big commitment – a commitment which is absolutely worth it, for sure – but I think it’s hard to understand just how significant it is for people to make that commitment. According to some research I read recently, even those who are committed will come twice a month – something which we see in our church here. Is twice a month enough to understand the Christian faith? And even if someone comes more – sermons are not generally designed to teach faith in a systematic way. Church services are a good start but they’re not enough!

Bible studies are usually the next step. And for good reason: I have benefited so much over the years from them – but again, they have limitations. What I’ve found in my home group these last few years is that the newer Christians have actually struggled more with Bible studies because they do not have the Christian worldview to go along with it. Understanding the Bible takes time and effort, and in particular one needs to understand the ‘big picture’ of the Bible and its theology alongside the individual books and chapters. The two feed into each other – growth in one leads to growth in the other.

So the question in my mind is: how can we, as churches, focus on being intentional about teaching a Christian worldview? Especially for new believers – who have heard nothing but the world preaching to them for their whole lives. To put it another way, how do we best equip people coming from a background with virtually no Christian understanding to come to a mature faith?

Bible study will get you there – but it will take time if you work your way systematically through books of the Bible. There is an alternative, which has been used by the church for centuries but has fallen somewhat out of favour these days: catechism (or catechesis, but let’s not complicate things). A catechism is a series of questions and answers designed to teach the faith, which are designed to be learned by members of a church – in the Anglican tradition, the catechism was designed to be used before confirmation. (There is a catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, but we’ve never used it in our church and I think most churches don’t use it).

The idea is that it teaches believers a kind of ‘Christian basics’ course, which covers things like who God is, the Bible, the ten commandments, the creed, etc. It’s a (relatively) short summary of the Christian faith. Tim Keller says: “classic catechisms take students through the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology, practical ethics, and spiritual experience.” It is, in other words, what all believers – but especially new Christians – need to get going in the Christian life.

Personally I think that revising the catechism format for the 21st century would be a great way of discipling believers to face the problems of a post-Christian world. That’s not to say it should replace Bible study, but rather complement it.

I’m not the only one saying this – and, in fact, I was very heartened to see that one church has produced the New City Catechism. This is a catechism which is taken from a number of classic catechisms but updated for the 21st century – you can read it all online or via an app, alongside a few paragraphs of explanation. There are 52 questions and answers – one per week over the course of a year. (Not too taxing!)

Personally I think this is a great idea and I’m going to try and start using it at every opportunity. I’ve actually started vlogging my way through the catechism, if you’d like to join me you’d be very welcome – here’s the first video (the introduction basically says just what I’ve said here).

Learning doctrine has been immensely helpful for me in my Christian life – not simply reading the Bible (although that is essential), but putting the pieces together. The catechism is an excellent way of starting to do that. If you’ve not done it before, I would urge you to give it a try.

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Can we be optimistic about 2018?

Happy New Year to all my blog followers! Seeing as my last one seemed to be received well, I decided to do another vlog message thinking about the subject of whether we can be optimistic in 2018. Given that the world is in such a mess at the moment – the bad news seems to be relentless – can we be optimistic about the coming year? This is my answer.

Hymnology: Away in a manger

I’m going to level with you right of the bat: I’m not a fan of Away in a manger. It’s too romanticised, too cute for me. I think I did like it as a child, but as an adult – not so much. However, I have an issue with the carol itself which is beyond merely a matter of style – I think it flirts with heresy. The offending lines are these:

The cattle are lowing
The baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes

What’s the problem with that? I know a little about babies, and I know that babies do cry. Quite a lot. There’s nothing wrong with crying – in fact, if a baby didn’t cry you’d be more worried. What I don’t like about this verses is that it suggests that Jesus was somehow not a ‘real’ human baby – he wasn’t a proper baby, he was some kind of ‘super-spiritual’ baby. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I do remember wondering as a child whether this implied that Jesus was different to other children.

The idea that Jesus was not a real human being is an ancient one, and it is a heresy known as doceticism (from the ancient Greek dokeo, which means to seem or appear – Jesus only appeared to be human). This is a very early heresy – in fact the apostle John writes about it in 1 John 4:2-3 – “This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” Evidently some in the church John was writing to were teaching that Jesus had not come ‘in the flesh’.

So I’d like to use the opportunity to outline why it’s important that Jesus Christ came as a real human baby and not some heavenly apparition who just happened to look human. Irenaeus, a Bishop of the early church, wrote against doceticism. Here’s an except from one of his writings – Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching:

The Son of God became Son of David and Son of Abraham; perfecting and summing up this in Himself, that He might make us to possess life. The Word of God was made flesh by the dispensation of the Virgin, to abolish death and make man live. For we were imprisoned by sin, being born in sinfulness and living under death. […]

Now, if He was not born, neither did He die; and, if He died not, neither did He rise from the dead; and, if He rose not from the dead, neither did He vanquish death and bring its reign to nought; and if death be not vanquished, how can we ascend to life, who from the beginning have fallen under death? So then those who take away redemption from man, and believe not God that He will raise them from the dead, these also despise the birth of our Lord, which He underwent on our behalf, that the Word of God should be made flesh in order that He might manifest the resurrection of the flesh, and might have pre-eminence over all things in the heavens, as the first-born and eldest offspring of the thought of the Father, the Word, fulfilling all things, and Himself guiding and ruling upon earth. For He was the Virgin’s first-born, a just and holy man, god fearing, good, well-pleasing to God, perfect in all ways, and delivering from hell all who follow after Him: for He Himself was the first-begotten of the dead, the Prince and Author of life unto God

I appreciate this is not a simple passage and takes a little getting your head around. But I think the argument is quite straightforward.

The reason Jesus came was to save mankind from sin and death and to give life. Now, if Jesus wasn’t born – a genuine human birth – then he did not die a genuine human death. If he didn’t die, then he didn’t rise again, and if he didn’t rise again then he has not destroyed death. If death is not destroyed – then how can we gain eternal life?

Jesus had to become like us in order to save us. That’s the whole point. Jesus had to take upon himself human flesh to bring human flesh to God. Athanasius makes a similar point in On the Incarnation – only a man could identify with mankind and be united with them; only God could bring people to God. In Jesus, the God-man, fully man and fully God, we have the only one who is able to bring mankind to God.

So, this Christmas – and, indeed, all year round – it’s good to rejoice that Jesus was really and truly God, and really and truly human. One carol which does do a lot better in this regard is Once in Royal David’s City (apart from having a quibble with the line ‘Christian children all must be / mild, obedient, good as He’…):

For he is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

Jesus Christ was really human, like us. He knew tears and smiles, he can sympathise with us. This is the message which this beautiful video picks up on:

Brexit. Trump. Where do we go now?

Isn’t it strange that over the last six months or so, the nations of the USA and the UK have both had major votes which have exposed massive rifts within the country? I don’t want to draw the comparison between Brexit and the American election too closely, but the parallels are fascinating. In both cases the voting was close, and yet in both cases the winning side was seen by the losing side as lacking moral legitimacy. In other words, both Brexiters and Trump supporters are seen as ignorant, bigoted, racist, etc.

Whatever you think about Trump or Brexit, it is undeniable that the USA and the UK are now divided countries. Where should we go from here?

From a Christian perspective, I think it’s interesting that both of these events have happened in close proximity. They have many similarities – most importantly, perhaps, they both exposed an underlying reality about the division in their countries. How should a Christian understand this? How should the nation understand it?

The USA and the UK are both nations which have a long Christian heritage. Former Prime Minister David Cameron once said, fairly recently, that the UK was a Christian Country. And yet, over the last few years, many things have changed: our countries have drifted increasingly from traditional Christian morality. In particular, of course, in the last few years both the USA and the UK have enacted Same-Sex Marriage – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For example the government are talking about sending Ofsted into religious contexts to combat ‘extremism’ – including (potentially) Sunday Schools. The USA and the UK have both moved well away from a traditional Christian understanding of the world, which I talked about after Brexit.

I believe Trump and Brexit are a ‘warning shot’, so to speak: God wants us to know that the USA and the UK – and other countries – cannot guarantee their good fortune and position within the world. Personally I believe that the success of the UK and the USA have largely been down to its Christian influence – I believe that the Christian faith truly does create community cohesion and knit society together in a way that nothing else can. We have been sailing on the back of that for some time now – but if we depart from the Christian faith, our status may well be taken away as well.

Recently I studied Joel – a very short book in the Old Testament – and the second chapter contains these verses:

‘Even now,’ declares the Lord,
‘return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.’

Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and relent
and leave behind a blessing –
grain offerings and drink offerings
for the Lord your God.

 I believe these are words for the UK and the USA right now. ‘Return to me’, says the Lord. Remember who it was who blessed you so richly. Remember your roots. Don’t turn away – turn back to the Lord, and He will relent and bring blessing once again.

If we continue as we are, I suspect we will not continue to enjoy our privileged position in the world. God can humble nations as well as individuals. But if we turn back to the Lord, perhaps we will see real change for the good.

Thinking about Halloween

Source: Flickr
Source: Flickr

What is the big deal with Halloween? Why is it that some people – most of them Christian – get so upset by it?

I’ve been thinking about it a bit over the past few days. At church last week, someone made a comment about it from the front, and that generated a certain amount of discussion on Facebook. Halloween is one of those things which different people have very different opinions about, and I wouldn’t like to prescribe any particular opinion as “the” Christian opinion.

However, I will admit to being quite uncomfortable with Halloween, and – given that it’s a subject I’ve never blogged on before – I’d like to take a moment to share my thoughts on it. So, what’s the big deal with Halloween? Why does it make me uncomfortable?

Firstly, a personal anecdote. A couple of weeks ago, we went into a store in Clacton to buy a two-year-old a birthday present. It was a general, family-friendly store, and I was carrying Lydia (my two-year-old daughter). As we walked in, the very first thing we passed as we entered the shop was a display with some gruesome Halloween costumes. I’m sure you’ve all seen the kind of thing – masks and costumes made up to look as horrible as possible – Zombies, the undead, creepy things – all that kind of stuff. And as I was carrying Lydia past it, I did wonder whether it was really an appropriate display for a two-year-old to be looking at (fortunately she didn’t notice). I don’t think I’m a prude by any manner of means, but I do think some things are not appropriate for children and many Halloween costumes really push the limits of what is acceptable. Even if those costumes were designed for older children, you can’t prevent younger children from seeing them (e.g. older siblings, at school etc.) For the last few weeks we’ve been taking Lydia along to a toddler group at a nursery, and over half-term at that nursery they’ve been running a Halloween-themed club. Apparently every activity is Halloween themed. This is far from uncommon – in fact it seems to be the new norm. Even the youngest children are exposed to it.

Secondly, I have a problem with what Halloween actually is. Most people defend Halloween as being “just a bit of fun” – I hear this time and again when talking about Halloween. But the thing is, “just a bit of fun” is not a reason to do something. There are a lot of things which are “just a bit of fun” which might actually be harmful – such as ‘banter‘. The point is, to my mind a festival like Halloween needs to say something positive to justify its existence rather than simply carrying on because it’s not bad enough to stop doing. With a festival such as Christmas or Easter, it’s obvious what those times are supposed to be celebrating: there is, if you like, a positive message. But with Halloween – what? Scary stuff is good? Let’s all have a big laugh at witches, ogres, monsters, etc? However you want to cut it, I think Halloween simply does not say anything positive, which causes me to question its existence.

Thirdly, following on from that – doesn’t Halloween actually work against pretty much everything that we teach kids for the rest of the year? We want to teach children good values, we want to teach them about goodness and love, that good overcomes evil, to be polite to others, not to participate in things which are wrong, etc. It seems to me that Halloween, as it is today, turns all that on its head. Trick or treat, for example: when else would we tell kids it’s OK to knock on a complete stranger’s door and ask them for a treat… or else? (And yes, I know that’s not how most parents do trick or treat, but still.) Some kids go to Halloween parties made up with big scars etc – isn’t that simply disrespectful to those who bear wounds and injuries, or with physical deformities? Is it right to be teaching kids that physical deformity and scars are “scary” and should be mocked and ridiculed? Those are just a couple of examples, there are more.

Fourthly, and as a Christian I think this is the most important thing for me, I believe that evil does actually exist. And actually, I wonder whether this may be the heart of the matter. 1 Peter 5:8-9 says, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” The Bible is clear that the Devil and evil do actually exist, not just in a philosophical sense. There are many testimonies of those who have experienced evil in a fairly personal way – Nicky Cruz’s books spring to mind (especially ‘Devil on the Run’, where he talks about his parents who were occult healers). Someone at my old church grew up in a missionary family in Africa, and had more than a few stories to tell. Christians are warned explicitly against consulting with mediums and the like (e.g. Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:9-13). Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Given all of this – why would we even want to have anything to do with evil, regardless of how light-hearted it supposedly is?

Christians, by contrast, are exhorted: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). We are to set our minds on the things of God, good things, things which are pure and help us to grow in holiness. I can’t see that Halloween helps us in that goal.

A few years ago people used to wear “WWJD” bracelets – What Would Jesus Do? Although I think it’s not always helpful to think of things in those terms (Jesus was the Son of God, after all, he could do things we couldn’t or shouldn’t do) – but I do think it might be a helpful question to ask in this situation. Would Jesus dress up as a burn victim for Halloween? Can you imagine him laughing as he painted on fake scars? You know, I just don’t think I can. That’s not to say I think Jesus would have avoided going to Halloween parties – he hung around with sinners all the time – but I don’t think he would have “celebrated” Halloween.

Finally – I appreciate that this is not an issue which Christians completely agree on (if you want a different perspective, have a read of this from the Good Book Company). And, as I hinted at in that last paragraph, I wouldn’t advise Christians to avoid Halloween parties. That’s not to say I would advise going to Halloween parties – I’d just say, use your own godly common sense and wisdom. But I just wanted to share why Halloween, as a festival, makes me uncomfortable, and why I think it’s worth at least pausing for thought before diving in.

Christian Zionism vs Biblical Theology

These brothers of mineChristian Zionism isn’t something I’ve come across very much. I have a feeling it’s a bigger deal in the USA than it is here in the UK, and as such I don’t recall meeting anyone who was particularly big on it here. Because of this, I hadn’t really read or thought much about it before, and didn’t really know what it was about.

I’ve just finished reading a book which changed that: “These Brothers of Mine” by Rob Dalrymple. It’s subtitled, “A Biblical Theology of Land and Family and a Response to Christian Zionism”. Rob is formerly a Christian Zionist (if that’s the right way to describe it), and he has come to believe that position is wrong.

This book is a response to Christian Zionism, analysing it using the tools of Biblical Theology. “What is Biblical Theology?” I hear you ask. That’s a good question.

Biblical Theology is about understanding the Bible as a narrative running from Genesis to Revelation, seeing each book in the light of Scripture’s big picture. It’s about seeing Scripture in the context of redemptive history and seeing how it fits in within the key story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. We know that each part of Scripture speaks of Christ (e.g. Luke 24:27) – Biblical Theology is about finding out how the promises God makes in the Old Testament are fulfilled in Christ, and how they will ultimately be fulfilled in the new creation.

To give one example – which Rob expounds within the book – think of the land which God promises to Israel. Is it the physical Promised Land, or does it actually have a spiritual significance which is fulfilled in Jesus Christ? How are the promises God makes to Abraham fulfilled in Jesus, and what does that say about Israel as a nation? Rob sees the promise of land as being fulfilled in Jesus – although if you want to find out exactly how, you’ll have to read the book…

Before I went off to theological college, I did a few units of the Moore College correspondence course. Two of them (Introduction to the Bible and Promise to Fulfilment) introduced me to Biblical Theology – and they really transformed the way I understood the Bible. In fact, even now, looking back I think that first unit (Introduction to the Bible) was one of the single most useful things I ever did in terms of understanding the Bible.

Consequently, I would recommend this book not only for people who have an interest in Israel / Christian Zionism, but also for people who just want to read and understand the Bible better. This is a helpful looking at how Biblical Theology might apply to something like Christian Zionism. It’s not a light bedtime read, but it’s not technical either – well worth mulling over especially if you want to understand the Bible better and this kind of thing sounds new to you.

The Bible: “That’s just your interpretation”

A BibleOver the past few weeks on Facebook, I’ve been in a group discussing (what else?) sexuality and the church. One of the themes that comes up again and again is the issue of interpretation: we all interpret the Bible differently on this, and there is no way of judging between different interpretations, so we may as well just give up and agree to disagree now. Now this is a topic I’ve blogged on before, but I’d like to return to the issue because of the way it comes up so frequently in discussion.

I’d like to offer a few thoughts and observations having participated in these kind of discussions for a while now. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me to see that I don’t believe there can be many valid interpretations of Scripture on this issue (as well as many other issues).

1) What are the logical consequences of “that’s just your interpretation”? Can we say, for example, “but that’s just your interpretation” about any interpretation of the Bible? Does that mean that every statement in the Nicene Creed is simply an interpretation, and that other interpretations are available? Does that mean the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be thought of as an orthodox Christian church – after all, they simply follow a different interpretation of Scripture?

Additionally – where does “that’s just your interpretation” actually end? Are we free to hold an atheistic interpretation, for example? Who draws the lines? It seems that the “that’s just your interpretation” argument can be deployed anywhere against anyone, for an alternative interpretation can always be found – irrespective of whether it’s a good or bad interpretation.

With respect to the specific issue of sexuality – the traditional view of the Bible is that marriage is a lifelong union of a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others. If the traditional interpretation can be challenged one one area (man and woman), could it not also be challenged in other areas (e.g. could marriage be between two or more people, or could faithfulness be redefined?) I think claiming “that’s your interpretation” is actually shooting yourself in the foot: as soon as you do that, you open the door to someone else saying the same to you for whichever cherished beliefs you hold about marriage. There’s no rejoinder, because “that’s just your interpretation”.

Once you reduce the Bible to being a matter of someone’s opinion about interpretation, it seems to me that it’s open season on Biblical interpretation and you can simply interpret the Bible any way you like to suit you.

2) What does “that’s just your interpretation” say about God? Following on from the last point – what we think of God will determine what we think of the Bible and the way it speaks to us. I believe that God, as the one who created us, is able to communicate with us in a way which we will understand. I believe that God is able to speak clearly into our situation, even our situation today. How could God’s statutes be trustworthy and “make wise the simple” (Ps. 19:7) if it was impossible for us to agree on their interpretation?

One of the things which irks me most about the “that’s just your interpretation” argument is that it essentially seems to deny the fact that God might want to say something to us. God’s authority becomes simply human authority (you think God says that, but I think God says something different). Surely this negates God’s authority: if everything that He says is open to interpretation, in what sense can He be said to communicate with us? God’s voice becomes dependent on the interpretation of the one listening to it.

3) The strategy of the “that’s just your interpretation” group. I apologise for using the word ‘strategy’, which implies that this is something done purposefully. What I mean is that often those who advocate for “that’s just your interpretation” often use a particular line of thinking, even if they don’t do so intentionally.

So, rather than trying to advocate for another interpretation, they simply point the finger to a range of interpretations and say “there! there are a lot of options, take your pick. Clearly the traditional interpretation is not the only one on the market.” You can see this happening on Vicky Beeching’s “What does the Bible say?” blog post, to name one example. She doesn’t outline one particular interpretation which she thinks is most plausible: she simply points out a number of books which outline different interpretations. This essentially shuts down discussion (it’s not making an argument, it’s just referring to other people who have made arguments as if their arguments are conclusive).

To use an analogy, this would be like me saying that Jesus Christ was not eternally begotten of the Father and referring to works by Arius of Alexandria, the Watchtower Organisation and so on in order to prove my case. “Oh, there are lots of arguments for Jesus not being the eternal Son of God. Take your pick”. This would be bordering on dishonesty because it hides the fact that those arguments have been refuted for a long time by people such as Athanasius, Augustine and countless other theologians. Despite the number of people who argued against the eternal Sonship of Christ on the grounds of Scriptural interpretation – the church has simply not found their arguments to be persuasive (rightly, in my opinion).

4) Not all interpretations are equal. By that, I mean that not all interpretations of Scripture are correct. For example, Jesus himself refuted, corrected and relied upon interpretations of Scripture (Matt. 22:29-32; Mark 12:35-37; John 10:34-39 for example). It seems that there are better and worse interpretations of Scripture. Following on from the point above, it’s impossible to talk about different interpretations without actually dealing in the specifics. Some interpretations of Scripture are better than others – i.e. some are more faithful, explain the Biblical evidence better, fit in with the context, and so on. It’s hard work, but I believe that it is possible to compare different interpretations and come to a reasoned, defensible and persuasive decision on which one is best. We are not without tools to help us in this task.

In conclusion, my big issue with “that’s just your interpretation” as an argument is that it closes down discussion. It seems to essentially validate “my” interpretation while invalidating “your” interpretation (in the sense that you’re not allowed to hold that an interpretation of Scripture should be binding) – all done without actually looking at the specific interpretations and attempting to judge between them.

If I were to be cynical, I would suggest that the arguments about Biblical interpretation were more to do with people trying to cling onto Biblical authority: the only other option is admitting that the Bible got it wrong, which is a bridge too far for many people – even if there are some who go down that road. Walter Wink, for example, says: “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.” (‘Homosexuality and the Bible’).