Thoughts on ‘The Strange Death of Europe’

I’ve just finished reading strangedeathofeuropeThe Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray. It’s not an easy read – it deals with an issue which we as a Western society do not want to talk about (immigration) – but I think it’s important to deal with these issues.

If you want to listen to him talking about the book and its main ideas, you can find a few interviews on YouTube such as this one.

I don’t want to review the book as such – please read it for yourself – but off the back of it I wanted to mention a couple of thoughts I had while reading it.

The main thing is: what gives a society a sense of identity? I think this is a hugely important question which is often overlooked in the UK. You have a group of people living together in a town. How can they get on with each other? You could list a few things: common language, jobs, values, etc. Values are important – we have to value certain things in order to get on with each other.

The government recognised this when it created “British Values” (which are, for the record: democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, and respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and those without faith). Those are all apparently British values which all children are being indoctrinated in – sorry – educated about at school.

The thing is, being taught about British Values at school doesn’t really give us a sense of identity, does it? It’s just “the way we do things round here” – without a coherent system of thought to back it up, they’re meaningless. This brings me to the question of religious identity.

In the past, this country has largely been held together by a broadly Christian worldview. It has permeated the monarchy, our government, our laws, our national institutions (such as the BBC), and of course an established church. Now this is all rapidly being demolished for a new secularist world where there is no place for religious belief. The best the government can come up with is some rather vague and not particularly convincing “British Values”.

Then Islam enters into the picture. The secular world simply has no idea how to respond to Islam. For most secularists, religious is an irrelevance. They seem to think most religions are more or less the same – they believe in a different ‘sky fairy’ but they’re pretty much the same (I talk about that more here). The problem is, religions are not all the same. British Values have nothing to say to someone who is a convinced Muslim.

Tom Holland did a documentary recently for Channel 4 called Isis: The Origins of Violence (at the time of writing you can still watch it on 4oD). In it he interviewed a Muslim (can’t remember who it was but it was someone important) who said that Western laws were not good because they did not come from God. He sincerely believed that Islamic laws were best because they were given by God and not man. (This is also the man who was somewhat evasive about condemning violence.)

How do you convince someone that our laws are good in those circumstances? 

It seems to me the only way is to actually demonstrate that our laws actually do come from God – from the Christian God, ‘the God who is there’ as Schaeffer put it. Secularism simply has no answer to orthodox Islam, it is impotent in the face of it.

What’s interesting about Douglas Murray’s book is that he identifies the problem (the decline of Christianity in the West) – but at the same time he believes that it is impossible to believe in Christianity now due to 19th century higher criticism (much of which has now been discredited).

I believe that the only ultimate solution to the problems we face – both personally and as a society – is the Christian faith. This is the social glue that helps to bind us together. This is the foundation of our society, the foundation of our morality and laws. This is the only way Western society can survive. My prayer is that God might send another revival as in the days of Wesley and Whitefield, or the Great Awakening in America. It has happened before, it can happened again. Lord, have mercy.

On not understanding Tim Farron

Tim Farron
Tim Farron (Source)

The latest thing which has prompted me to put pen to paper, so to speak, is Tim Farron. Specifically, his hounding by the media over whether he believes homosexuality is a sin. You can read some of the comments many media types have made in this Telegraph article, including Owen Jones labelling him an “absolute disgrace”.

The most interesting thing to me has been people’s reactions: some people have joined in with the shouting, but many have been more reticent. I think many people have been uncomfortable with the way that the media have gone after him for his personal views – why bring down a good man when his actions speak well of him? I’ve read two articles defending him, one by Jennie Rigg (chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems) and one – not surprisingly – by Brendan O’Neill. (I’m sure there have been others, I’ve seen similar sentiments expressed by various other people online).

The gist of their defense is: whatever Tim Farron’s personal views may be, in parliament he is a champion of LGBT rights – his voting record is excellent. In fact, according to the first article I mentioned: “He has said to me personally that when poly marriage is made legal he wants to be the first on the invite list to our wedding.”

So, Tim Farron is not a homophobic bigot. Right?

Hmmm.

I want to make a couple of points here.

Firstly, I don’t think Tim Farron should be labelled a ‘homophobic bigot’ or anything like that regardless of his voting on LGBT rights. These days the words are thrown around casually, but because someone disagrees with same-sex marriage does not make them a homophobic bigot. The traditional Christian teaching is that sex outside of marriage (that is, the lifelong union of a man and a woman) is wrong. This has been the understanding of our country for many hundreds of years. This is not homophobic or bigoted, it is simply believing what the majority of the world has always believed about marriage. If Tim Farron believes that, why should it not affect the way he votes?

It makes me uncomfortable that people seem to be saying “It’s OK – he’s one of us really. He may believes things in private, but at least he votes the right way.”

This brings me on to my second point. I simply don’t understand Tim Farron’s position here. If he does indeed believe the traditional Christian teaching about marriage and sex – why is he voting the way that he does? One article about Tim Farron says the following:

For Tim the liberal principles of tolerance and acceptance are essential. He never got in to politics to impose his morality on others but instead to be a witness and to carry out God’s call of loving our neighbour. (Source)

According to this article, Tim thinks that ‘loving our neighbour’ is what it’s about, not about ‘imposing [our] morality on others’. That sounds good, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: It is not kind or loving to our neighbours to allow them to enter into sin.

One of the realisations that I’ve come to about sin over the last few years is that sin is not defined simply arbitrarily (i.e. sin is a set of moral rules which God just made up out of thin air to stop us having fun.) Sin is not loving God and not loving our neighbour. It has a bad effect on us and other people – it’s always the worst path we can take. Think about the ten commandments – adultery, for example. Adultery is not a loving thing to do. It wrecks homes, it destroys marriages, it does untold harm to children. It’s pretty obvious why that’s in the ten commandments, isn’t it?

And so, as a Christian who believes in the ten commandments, I don’t want my neighbour to commit adultery. Not because I think that makes them a Christian, but because I love them and want the best for them.

My understanding is that politics is about the common good – what is best for us as a country, and the citizens of that country. As a Christian, I have a particular idea of what the common good looks like. I believe God made us, and God knows what is best for us. I believe Christians, if they are to be consistent, should seek to be shaping society according to that ideal. Of course that doesn’t bring anyone into the Kingdom of God, only the preaching of the gospel can do that, but it is part of our calling to love our neighbour.

Same-sex marriage is, of course, one of the major areas at the moment where Western society is out of step with the church. I don’t understand how any Christian can be pleased about same-sex marriage. I can understand there may be a case for things like civil partnerships, but marriage – no. (I’ve talked about marriage before several times, see for example What is Marriage part one and part two – for a look at the harm it causes see a book released in 2016, Jephthah’s Children: The innocent casualties of same-sex parenting).

The point is, it seems to me to be double-minded to have a ‘private’ morality and a ‘public’ morality. Either something is sinful / immoral for everyone, or else it is not. I cannot impose my morality on other people, but Christians believe that what is moral is up to God – and He most certainly can and does ‘impose’ morality on everyone. Christians cannot be moral relativists: there is one God, and one morality for everyone. I believe Christians have a duty not to be silent on matters like this – not to hold a view in private but say another thing in public. (How else could we be salt and light in the world?)

So that, in a nutshell, is why I cannot understand Tim Farron.

Mike Pence, the Billy Graham rule and the gospel

Billy Graham

[Jesus said:] ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

If you haven’t seen the news this week, the internet has been astir with the news that Vice President of the US Mike Pence follows the ‘Billy Graham rule’. Basically, to avoid temptation, he takes measures to avoid being alone with another woman, or being at a social function with alcohol involved where his wife is not present. The rule is named after Billy Graham, with which it originated. (See the link above for more information about the history of the rule).

It’s been interesting to look at the responses. Some people have ridiculed Mike Pence on a number of fronts – how, in this day and age, can a man not have a business lunch with a woman (for example)? On the other hand, some Christian folk have stood up to defend him and commended him for taking steps to protect his marriage. Marriage breakdown is a huge issue, and it’s right to be concerned about it.

Personally, I have mixed feelings. As a Christian, I believe we should be concerned with sexual purity – both within and without marriage. Hebrews 13:4 puts it starkly: “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” I’ve argued before that sexual sin is serious business – and I stand by what I said then. However (and you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), I believe the Billy Graham rule is misguided.

Let’s start with Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount that I quoted to begin with. “You shall not commit adultery” – one of the Ten Commandments. You’d think that one would be a relatively straightforward one to keep, right? Either you’ve slept with someone you’re not married to, or you haven’t. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Jesus makes the commandment far beyond what we do with our bodies – he extends it to include our minds as well. Any man who has ever looked at another woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (And, of course, this applies for women too – lust is not an exclusively male problem).

Jesus was here was speaking against the Pharisees – those who believed that they were righteous because they were almost fanatical about obeying the law. Jesus said shortly before these verses, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v20). The message is striking: what God demands of us is moral perfection – a perfection that we cannot achieve by following the Law. The Pharisees made a big show of obeying the law, they probably had laws (way beyond the Ten Commandments) about what you were allowed to do and not do with women around. But Jesus says, no – the righteousness God requires is an internal righteousness – one which goes to the heart. The heart is where evil springs from – the heart is what must be changed. We cannot impose righteousness on ourselves by rules – only God can change our hearts.

I’ve recently been reading Colossians, and these verses sprang to mind:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Paul here says that there are rules in the world which people follow, rules that – although they have an appearance of wisdom, actually ‘lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence’. I think this is what’s going on with rules like the Billy Graham rule. Those who follow these rules appear to be doing something wise, appear to be taking appropriate precautions – but actually the rules themselves do not have any value in preventing sin. (I wonder how many people who followed the Billy Graham rule have fallen into sexual sin?) It would be perfectly possible, for example, to follow the Billy Graham rule and yet be addicted to pornography. The outward appearance looks very different from the inward reality.

So how should we live in the way that God wants us to? More than that – how can we? This is what Paul addresses in Galatians 5. I won’t quote all of it, but the summary is this: there are two ways of living – either according to ‘the flesh’, or according to the Spirit. The flesh means our natural desires, our sinful state where we desire what is contrary to God’s will. This, of course, includes sensual indulgence. But Paul’s genius is that he extends this to include legalism as well – that is, living by a set of rules. If we live by a set of rules, we may appear to be godly – but we are simply fooling ourselves. The only way to live a godly life is to live by the Spirit of God, to live a life of love as we are transformed by the Spirit, as we walk in step with Him.

The problem with laws – legalism – is that it only focusses on the ‘Thou shalt not’. How can I, as a man, love my female neighbour if I have a law which prevents me from getting to know her?

In fact, as I hinted at above, legalism may in fact exacerbate the problem. If a man believes he’s doing OK because he’s keeping the Billy Graham rule, and yet spends a lot of time fantasising about women he’s not married to, then he’s simply fooling himself.

A personal anecdote…

I’d like to put some flesh on what I’ve written above by sharing a little of my life story. I wanted to share how this has worked out in my own life, and how I believe my experience shows that the Billy Graham rule is not correct.

I spent a lot of my time at theological college was spent worrying about adultery. I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t strong enough. We often heard and talked about stories of pastors who had failed in this way, and how it wrecked their ministries and personal lives. I spent quite a bit of time in prayer asking God to help me!

I also tried to steer clear of getting ‘too close’ to a woman – especially any woman I found attractive. Although I didn’t consciously live by the Billy Graham rule, I think subconsciously I followed something like it: it was very rare that I would ever have a one-on-one private conversation with a woman. However, I still didn’t feel ‘safe’ – I still didn’t feel like the laws I lived by would help me.

Fast forward to today: God has indeed answered my prayers and changed my heart. I feel like I have a whole new perspective on the world. It’s too long to go into here (maybe another blog post… or a book…) but I have come to believe that God has designed men and women for each other – not just within marriage – and intends men and women to be friends. This is exactly what Joshua Jones argues in Forbidden Friendships: Retaking the Biblical gift of male-female friendship.

As I said above, the problem with the law is that it stops with ‘Thou shalt not’. Christians, on the other hand, are called to do more than that: Christians are called to love one another. Peter says “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22), and I believe that includes love across the gender divide. Sexual sin is a horrible thing – but I have come to believe that one of the best antidotes we have to sexual sin is healthy relationships with those of the opposite sex.

Clearly, more needs to be said on this – and the Forbidden Friendships book is a good start – but this is a blog post and I don’t want to go on forever. The ‘in a nutshell’ of all this is that I am much more open to forming good friendships with women and believe that this actually (1) fulfils better the great commandment (to love God and our neighbour) (2) better equips me to combat sexual sin.

Conclusion

I applaud anyone who takes sexual purity seriously. Our culture seems to value fidelity a lot less than in days gone by. Mike Pence is honestly trying to protect his marriage, I believe he is sincere, and should be commended. I also think it’s not right to jump to conclusions about what someone does and does not believe – I don’t want to critique the man, only the rule itself at face value.

However, I believe that the gospel calls us to a more radical heart transformation. The gospel calls us to love, not simply to avoid 50% of the population of the world because we might be tempted to sin. The Pharisees were using their laws to get out of their obligations to love their neighbour. We may laugh at them, but our human hearts are tempted to use the law in the same way.

I’ll leave the last word to the apostle Paul:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

… Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:13-14, 24-25)

Responding to false teaching: Lessons from 2 Peter

A BibleI’ve noticed a disturbing trend amongst evangelicals recently. I encountered it most recently in this blog post by Baptist minister and theologian Steve Holmes. This is how he puts it (you’ll have to read the full blog for the whole context):

No, I know Megan and Bill, I know that they call people to believe in Jesus. They are leading people on the highway to heaven (even if I presently think that they are fairly seriously wrong on at least one aspect of the nature of that highway).’

Sola fide. I have to stand on that. Because the Blood flowed where I walk, and where we all walk. One perfect sacrifice, complete, once for all, offered for all the world, offering renewal to all who will put their faith in Him. And if that means me, in all my failures and confusions, then it also means my friends who affirm same-sex marriage, in all their failures and confusions. If my faithful and affirming friends have no hope of salvation, then nor do I.

Steve puts it well, and I believe it’s an increasingly popular perspective. The argument seems to be that although traditional marriage is the correct interpretation of the Bible, other people teaching that same-sex marriage is right is not a really serious business. It’s not a salvation issue, certainly. So although Bob may believe strongly that the Bible teaches marriage is between a man and a woman, he doesn’t think Alice – who teaches that marriage is between two people regardless of gender – is not saved.

Personally I believe this is a disturbing trend, as I said at the beginning. I’ve already outlined on this blog why I believe evangelicals cannot agree to disagree on this issue, and I stand by what I said back then. But I’d like to add to that a little. Not long ago I worked through the book of 2 Peter with Peter H. Davids’ Pillar commentary. I’d like to share a few insights from 2 Peter which might help shed some additional light on this issue.

2 Peter is written in response to false teaching and false teachers. It seems that false teachers were teaching that the final judgement was not coming – perhaps it had already happened – and therefore there was no need to live a holy and righteous life. Because there was no final judgement to look forward to, there was no need to worry about restraining our sinful desires now.

Let’s take a quick tour of the letter to analyse what Peter is saying.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (Chapter 1)

God has given those who believe “everything we need for a godly life”. What does that look like? It is to “participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”. Participating in the divine nature is a strange phrase. I believe it means ethically – participating in the divine nature by increasing in goodness and love (Peter talks about God’s goodness in v3), in contrast with the corruption and evil desires in the world.

So the purpose of the Christian life is to add goodness, knowledge, self-control etc. (vv5-7) to faith, so that Christians will not be “ineffective and unproductive”. But, we are warned, “whoever does not have them is short-sighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.”

So – a cleansing from past sin does not give us licence to sin in the future. Here, as we see in many places in the Bible, salvation by grace does not mean freedom to indulge our sinful desires. One of my go-to passages about grace and right living is Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions…” The Hebrews 10 passage I referred to in my post about why we can’t agree to disagree also takes the same line: wilfully continuing to sin after receiving knowledge of the truth means all we have to expect from God is “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God”.

Peter continues in chapter 2:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

There were “false prophets” among the people of Israel – you can read about them in Ezekiel 13, for example. What did they do? They led the people astray – they said “peace, when there is no peace”. They prophesied out of their own imaginations. In particular, they led the people to worship false gods and did not see violations of God’s ethical commandments as being a problem. Peter says that, as there were false prophets then, there are false teachers “among you”. These were the people who denied the final judgement, who denied the need to live self-controlled and upright lives – and Peter says “their destruction has not been sleeping”. It’s possible that these false teachers even claimed that the Lord was ‘sleeping’ – that they would not receive the recompense for their wrongdoing. But Peter turns the tables and says that it is their destruction which has not been sleeping. What does he mean?

…if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. 10 This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.

To hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgement – this is what Peter is talking about. And this is “especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh” – those who indulge in their sinful desires rather than restraining them.

The chapter finishes:

17 These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. 18 For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity – for ‘people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.’ 20 If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.

For such people – false teachers – “blackest darkness is reserved for them”. Why? They “entice” people escaping from the world back into sin (echoes of Jesus’ words in Mark 9:42?). Note that he uses the phrase “lustful desires of the flesh” – quite possibly having in mind sexual sin, it was as common back then as it is now. Sin is slavery (John 8:34), but if the Son sets us free then we shall be free indeed. To turn to Christ is to turn away from sin, to repent of evil desires and be freed from them. Yes, we know that anyone who claims to be without sin deceives themselves (1 John 1) – but sin is not a cause for celebration, but rather mortification and turning to Christ. These false teachers promise freedom but deliver slavery – just as Satan does. It shows who they are really working for (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

The worst thing about this passage is, I believe, that false teachers are leading people to hell. I think this is the implication of Peter’s words here – that it is actually worse for people who have begun to turn away from sin, only to be misled by a false teacher and turn their backs on the way of righteousness.

False teaching is that serious. It simply cannot be tolerated in a church, a denomination, or any Christian organisation.

Peter closes out the letter by looking forward to the day of the Lord, which will “come like a thief” – unexpectedly. What does that mean for believers?

11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

Peter closes off his argument: because there will be a day of judgement, because there will be a day of wrath, because there is darkness reserved for the unrighteous – we ought to live “holy and godly lives”. God is not mocked. We look forward to the day when righteousness will dwell in the new heaven and earth. We look forward to the day when we will be righteous, and see the Lord face to face. We yearn for the day when sin is no more.

How can those who long for such a day continue to live in sin in the present? It’s impossible! Romans 6:1ff – we have died to sin, how is it possible to continue in it?

And, if this is the case, how can those in the church – thinking particularly about the Church of England but applicable more broadly – stand by and do nothing when the CofE is openly contemplating changes its teaching on matters of marriage?


I appreciate this post has gone on a bit (about 1600 words at this point!) but I’d just like to offer a few more brief reasons why I believe sexuality in particular isn’t something which we can disagree on.

  • I have rarely, if ever, encountered someone who is orthodox on everything except the nature of marriage. This could be because in order to affirm same-sex marriage you have to twist the Bible virtually out of all recognition (as I try to explain here). Interpreting the Bible wrongly in one area will lead to interpreting it wrongly in others – especially on a serious and core doctrine such as marriage.
  • As John Stott pointed out in The Cross of Christ, “sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards. Its essence is hostility towards God.” Sin is not something which God simply shrugs his shoulder about – it is something which Jesus Christ needed to die for to bear the wrath we deserve. To continue in sin wilfully is not simply being wrong or mistaken – it is an act of aggression against God. If same-sex sexual activity is a consequence of our idolatry (Romans 1), then I think this is applicable in particular. God cannot simply overlook such hostility towards him.
  • Bible teachers should be held to a higher standard – James 3:1. Someone who holds the wrong opinion on marriage ‘in the pews’ is less of a danger than false teachers, who can mislead many. This is why I believe that the apostles were so hot on false teaching, and why I believe we must be today. So someone ‘in the pews’, so to speak, might hold the wrong opinion on same-sex marriage – but at least they are not misleading many others. I believe it is appropriate to instruct them gently (2 Timothy 2:25-26). But those who are responsible under God for shepherding Christ’s flock which he bought with his own blood will be held to account. When the day of the Lord comes, I don’t want anyone’s blood on my hands (Acts 20:26-27).

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.

The trouble with contemplative prayer…

contemplation
An artist’s impression of Contemplative Prayer…

A few months ago, at one of my regular curate review meetings, someone asked me about my ‘spirituality’ and asked me what sort of thing I did – “such as contemplative prayer”. Up until a few years ago I’d never heard of contemplative prayer, but when I was at college I did a course on spirituality and this was one of the topics we covered. Then, yesterday, Ian Paul posted a piece on his blog about whether mindfulness is Christian. One of the things mentioned in the blog was – that’s right – contemplative prayer.

On that course in spirituality I mentioned, I had to write an essay about contemplative prayer and I thought it might be worth sharing a few things I learned while I was researching it. If you want my summarised version, it’s this: contemplative prayer is not Scriptural, potentially harmful, and I believe Christians should avoid it. Here’s why.

1. What is contemplative prayer?

Contemplative prayer, as I discovered, is virtually impossible to define – and it is utterly impossible to define concisely. This is what one writer says about it (from the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality):

What is desired is the opportunity simply to express to God one’s loving, hoping, trusting, thanking, in as few words as possible. These few words tend to be repeated many times … A time comes when a deeper desire is revealed to the person praying. What began as fragmentarily verbalized loving or thanking becomes more than anything else an offering, though without this self-giving being mentally considered or understood

Do you get that? Contemplative Prayer (hereafter CP) is about moving from external things (such as words) to the heart or soul of a person. The goal is clear. In the words of Richard Foster: “To this question the old writers answer with one voice: union with God”. Everything about CP is meant to move towards union with God.

There are certain characteristics which writers on CP usually mention:

1. Spiritual maturity. CP is something which everyone says is not for the novice. In fact Richard Foster goes as far as to say, “These are people who long ago walked away from the world, the flesh and the devil”. The idea is that we are all climbing up a ladder towards union with God, and you can only begin CP once you have climbed a certain way up that ladder.

2. Moving beyond words. CP is something which words are simply insufficient for. Thomas Merton wrote,”The purpose of monastic prayer [including Contemplation] … is to prepare the way so that God’s action may develop this ‘faculty for the supernatural,’ this capacity for inner illumination by faith and by the light of wisdom, in the loving contemplation of God … It is true that one may profit by learning such methods of meditation, but one must also know when to leave them and go beyond [my emphasis] to a simpler, more primitive, more ‘obscure’ and more receptive form of prayer.” CP is seen as ‘going beyond’ normal forms of prayer – this is highly significant.

In particular, this is often justified by appealing to God’s fundamental unknowability – that logic and reason alone are not enough for us to know God. There must be something more – in order for us to truly know Him we must leave words behind.

3. Moving towards the heart. CP seeks to affect not the outward person but the inward person: right to the very soul, our inner being. Because our heart does not use words, words are virtually useless in that context: the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church says “Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love [my emphasis]. In this silence, unbearable to the ‘outer’ man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus”. So some words may be useful to begin CP, but once you’ve moved into the silence – then God can really speak to you in a way He never could using actual words. The hope is that God will speak directly to the heart of the one praying.

A Biblical response

1. Spiritual maturity

The idea of moving towards ‘union with God’ is something that derives from neo-Platonic philosophy than from the Bible. Theologian Louis Berkhof put it like this: “Every sinner who is regenerated is directly connected with Christ and receives his life from Him.” See e.g. Jesus’ words in John 15:4 – “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” Once someone is united to Christ by faith, no prayer is more or less effectual and no type of prayer should be excluded from them. We do grow in maturity as Christians as we walk in step with the Spirit – however the moment a sinner repents and believes in the gospel, they are united to Christ by faith.

2. Moving beyond words

It is true that God is beyond our comprehension or imagination, God is beyond our capacity to express Him fully in human language. However, as Gerald Bray says, “The need to go beyond the limitations of the finite does not mean that the finite can be ignored or rejected. The fact that the human mind is inadequate to embrace the divine reality in all its fullness does not make its mental processes invalid or unreliable within the sphere for which it was created … God has accommodated himself to our limitations and made our relationship with him possible.” God is a speaking God. Jesus Christ has made God known – John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

To move beyond words is actually to denigrate the revelation of Himself which God has given us. The Bible is not a collection of thoughts about how people have thought about God – it is God’s word to humankind. In the words of 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed”.

How do we know God better? As we understand His word better. How do we know God’s will better? As we understand His word better. How do we pray better? As we know more of God and His will: we do not pray to an unknown God, but our prayer is based on our knowledge of God and His purposes.

There was a discussion yesterday on Facebook about Ian Paul’s piece on mindfulness. I mentioned something about CP, and Ian suggested that there is a big Biblical theme about God being unknowable in the sense that our language is inadequate. He suggested that the Israelites at Mt Sinai was an example of that (the Israelites were told to stay away from the mountain, and only Moses could go into the cloud). However, it strikes me that this episode actually demonstrates the opposite: the unknowable God here was speaking – making Himself known. The issue was not Moses going up into the mountain, but with the people at the bottom who didn’t have God’s words who decided to make up a god for themselves… this is the problem with CP: without God’s words, without God’s revelation, it can easily turn into a form of idolatry.

3. Moving towards the heart

It is true that the heart is a fundamental theme in the Bible – for example Jesus’ famous words in Luke 6:45, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” The problem with us as human beings is indeed a heart problem.

However, the Biblical solution to the problem is not to go beyond words! The solution is to be transformed by the Word of God as the Holy Spirit works within us. Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” How can our minds be renewed without words? The Bible does not address our hearts directly – only the Holy Spirit can do that – but God’s word accomplishes His work (Isaiah 55:10-11).

Christian meditation is not about moving beyond words but filling our minds with God’s word, as Psalm 1 demonstrates:

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
    whatever they do prospers.

Ultimately our heart problem is a problem which can only be solved by the Holy Spirit. But as we understand more of God’s word, as we see more of His purposes and plans for creation and for us, we see more of His will and become more and more conformed to the likeness of Christ.

The potential harm of contemplative prayer

At the start I said that I thought that CP was potentially harmful. The reason is that a kind of prayer which doesn’t focus on words – i.e. based on God’s truth – is in danger of constructing its own truth. When you start looking beyond the objective truths of the gospel to the subjectivity of your own emotional state and ‘inner being’, you can run into problems. For example, if someone has depression I’d say the road upwards was not in seeking to have ecstatic spiritual experiences (part of CP) or attempting to focus on one’s own emotions, but rather by looking at one’s objective status before God as a forgiven sinner who Christ died for.

If in CP you move beyond what God has given us in Scripture, you can end up moving towards your own imagination – and that is a dangerous place to be. God does not condemn idolatry for nothing. And we know that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but principalities and powers – Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) – we must be discerning and careful that anything spiritual going on in our lives is soundly grounded in the truth and not in something potentially deriving from the father of lies.

As Christians we are encouraged to look not to ourselves or our own emotional states but to the objective truth of what God has done for us in Christ. We are never promised particular experiences in Scripture. We are simply told that if we repent and believe in Christ Jesus we will receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. That is something which is true regardless of how we feel, and it’s something we all need to focus on whether we’re feeling good or bad.

Islam, extremism and political correctness

I’ve had a growing sense of frustration over the last few weeks and months. A lot of airtime has been devoted to the “so-called Islamic State” (as the BBC always says) and the many acts of terrorism which have been so much in the news.

My frustration stems from the fact that so often politicians and the media want to carefully avoid mentioning anything which might actually suggest the problem lies within Islam itself – so much so that it’s become almost obsessive. Not so long ago, whenever an act of terrorism happened you’d see an orderly queue of politicians lining up to say how it was “nothing to do with Islam”. The general picture to emerge is that Islam is basically a peaceful religion the world over, much like Christianity, and there are only a tiny fringe group of extremists who aren’t “real” Muslims causing the problems. And, of course, anyone who dares to challenge the status quo is branded Islamophobic, or racist, or a bigot, etc.

But even the press has got in on the act. Just yesterday Archbishop Cranmer posted a good example of the way newspapers are avoiding the issue:

(Check the source link. A newspaper – well, alright, the Mirror – reported a terrorist incident without mentioning Islam. This seems to be a running theme recently – newspapers will refuse to mention anything to do with Islam in connection with terrorism).

It seems that our situation at the moment is just …  well, it’s silly. We need to be free to discuss religion and extremism. And if there is a problem, we need to name it, rather than pretending there is no problem and sticking our fingers in our ears whenever more evidence is presented.

Anyway, I felt compelled to write something to try and present an alternative perspective, even if it’s not one everyone will agree with. Stifling discussion will not help, nor will assuming the conclusion before we’ve even begun.

Coping with complexity

I think one of the issues we have at the moment in the UK (and much of Western society) is that we can’t deal with complexity in public life. Certainly when it comes to religion, anyway. This is partly a problem with our education system – when I was at school, the religious education I had was pretty awful: I think I learnt a bit about the pillars of Islam but didn’t really learn much about its history or how different people interpret the Qu’ran. The teaching I had on Christianity was even worse.

I think the problem is most Western people think they know something about Christianity, and then assume that every religion must be something like that. People know that Christianity has an authoritative text (the Bible), basically one creed which is believed throughout the world, and they know its followers generally try to do good and avoid violence. Because this is the case for Christianity, it then becomes the case for all religions: Islam, therefore, has one authoritative text (the Qu’ran), basically one creed, and its followers generally try to do good and avoid violence. The problem with this is that it’s massively oversimplifying. I think the media and politicians are often to blame (how often do you hear about ‘religion’ as if all religion is the same?) And politicians lately have been talking about “extremism” as if the problem is one which cuts across every religion – as if every religion has an extremist problem.

The snag is, you can’t lump all religions in together. Islam is not Christianity, which is not Buddhism, which is not Hinduism, etc. Western society has decided that the problem is extremism, and as long as we can stamp that out we’ll be OK. Even if that means sending in Ofsted to inspect your Sunday school (and I’m not even joking – it’s crazy that the government would consider such things, even if they’ve now changed their mind).

Islam and terrorism

One of the most helpful people I’ve heard on Islamic extremism is Colin Chapman, who spent many years living and working in the Middle East and is an expert on Islam. A few years ago now he wrote an article: Christian Responses to Islam, Islamism and Islamic Terrorism. It’s not a short read but the whole thing is worth reading, as I think it is very fair and balanced.

I think one or two points are worth drawing out though. Firstly, as he points out, it is patronising and wrong for Westerners to be saying “there is a correct interpretation of Islam, and we know what it is…” Muslims must be allowed to define their own religion. But, here’s the rub, for that exact reason I think it is patronising nonsense for secular Westerners to be saying that Islam is clearly a peace-loving religion and anyone doing violence is not a real Muslim.

As the article says:

There are significant numbers of British Muslims, however, who would not actively support the use of violence, but would not openly condemn it. And many would argue that if violence cannot be justified in the British context, it can be justified in certain other contexts like Afghanistan, Iraq or Israel/Palestine. Neat categories with clear labels do not fit this debate, and even among Islamists there is a wide spectrum of approaches from moderates (in sympathy, for example, with the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain) to extremists

Neat categories do not fit this debate – so the attempt by politicians and the media to foist their particular interpretation of religion onto us is as patronising as it is damaging.

Secondly, this is as much a problem within Islam as it is outside. There are verses in the Qu’ran which are quite sympathetic towards Christians, and there are others which are more hostile. There are interpretive principles which govern how the Qu’ran is understood. However, the matter of who is right on interpretation is perhaps not as settled as Western politicians and media would have us believe. As the article says:

The really obvious gulf is not so much between traditionalist, orthodox Muslims and politically involved Islamists, as between Muslims who practise and approve of violence and those who do not. So, for example, Ziauddin Sardar, a British Muslim, writes: ‘We must acknowledge that the terrorists…are products of Islamic history. Only by recognising this brutal fact would we realise that the fight against terrorism is also an internal Muslim struggle within Islam itself. Indeed, it is a struggle for the very soul of Islam.’

We must face up to facts and understand that we can’t simply make something true by repeating it ad nauseam. If there is a problem within Islam, then it helps no-one to pretend that it doesn’t exist and that the problem is instead generic ‘extremism’.

There are apparently 1.6 billion Muslims, there is a huge variety within Islam (some Islamic countries are quite friendly to Christians, for example; in others converting to Christianity could get you killed or arrested). To admit that there is a violence problem within Islam is not to tar everyone with the same brush. It’s not demonising a whole religion. But we have to face facts. And the facts are there for those who aren’t too politically correct to find them.

Those who want to look more into the history might enjoy reading Tom Holland’s book, In the Shadow of the Sword, which I talk a little bit about here.

Or you could simply have a look at what’s going on around the world today. Open Doors, a Christian charity which serves persecuted Christians worldwide, sends out a prayer email which I subscribe to. Very often the persecution is being done by Islamic extremists. On their news page as I write this, for example: Nigeria: Blasphemy rumour leads to eight dead – Islamists burnt down a house in Northern Nigeria on 22nd August. The Sudanese Pastors who have been imprisoned for months in an explicitly Islamic regime. Hawa, a believer from a Muslim background who was rejected by her family. The list goes on. (And, I could add, occasionally things have happened in the UK too – e.g. a man who was battered with a pickaxe in Bradford for converting from Islam to Christianity.)

The secular worldview

A large part of the problem is the way our society currently thinks about moral issues. We think that our liberal Western democracy basically fell out of the sky – we still believe the lie that our morals and values are simply common to everyone and that all roads do in fact lead to the Rome of liberal Western secularism.

But, of course, our culture – particularly in the UK – largely depends on Christianity. As Tom Holland pointed out a while back, even a liberal secular democracy would not exist without Christianity. We in the UK hold certain views about violence, respect, tolerance, etc. These are not ‘obvious’ or ‘secular’ values – I think they are Christian.

And this is what frustrates me most about the politicians / media presentation. All religions are seen as being equally problematic, and ‘extremism’ seen as a problem for all of them. Whereas the reality is completely different: religions are not all the same, and our society owes a huge debt to the Christian faith. The values our secular society now holds dear only arose because the Christian faith gave them in the first place.

It’s sad to see such cultural blindness even in our leaders, but I think it’s worse when we’re not allowed to raise this as an issue and have a grown-up discussion. If there’s anything we desperately need right now as a country is to be able to talk about the truth – not a nice, sanitised falsehood which doesn’t offend anyone. And if we can face facts and and deal with the actual issues we might just find we make some progress.