The beautiful joy of criticism

It separates wheat from dross, and cuts rough diamonds

Ufology sign
By ‘criticism’, I don’t mean saying bad things about people, of which I think we do way too much.

I mean holding something up, looking at it in a fresh light, considering an alternative view, listening to the opposite argument, assessing and weighing the evidence. 

Sceptical skills do not come naturally to us and I think we should practice them. Argue with yourself against some deeply-held opinions for a few minutes each day, perhaps. 1

I think we should cultivate the friendship of the smart, good people who despite being smart and good, believe all the wrong things.

We should celebrate when we change our mind or arrive at a fresh perspective. These are moments that don’t come round so often. It’s much more common, apparently, only to really latch on to the fresh information that digs us deeper into the rut we have already chosen.

And finally we should train our sceptical gunsights on those who who are on our side, who are bravely fighting our corner. It isn’t wrong. It’s breathing clean air.

Is evangelism biblical?

Only evangelicals believe this.

Breaking bread, juice, dinner party, Broadview townhouse, Seattle, Washington, USAHere’s a question.

Is evangelism something you should ‘do’? Is this how we should think?

  1. I am a Christian
  2. The world needs to know the gospel
  3. Led by God, I must go and tell it/them.

I’ve believed this is the right thing to do for decades but never much liked the idea, and not been too good at it either.

There’s an alternative:

  1. The Kingdom is coming
  2. Turn to the King and follow him

I like this much better. Why are these two ideas different?

The first seems to be fatally flawed in that it casts me as the good guy and the expert and the world as the needy thing to which I am sent like a spiritual paramedic. I am broken, as truly broken as the world is, we all know this, I want to communicate this. We evangelicals like to talk about ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’: good so far. But having the wrong starting point really doesn’t help this communication effort. When I climb into the spiritual ambulance, put the blue lights on, and race helpfully towards you I am obscuring the message of our mutual need.

The second approach starts with broken me and sets as my duty ‘following Jesus’ rather than ‘evangelizing’. Go where he leads; do what he wants me to do; become what he wants me to become; and strive to form disciples en route.

The first feels like a marketing campaign, the second feels more like a pilgrimage – and also more natural, normal and slow.

There’s some Biblical heft behind the second idea (as well as personal preference). It’s what Jesus himself said and did, right from the start on the Galilee lakeside: the Kingdom is coming: embrace it.

It’s what he sent out his apostles to preach and demonstrate.

Even the Great Commission in Matthew, the final peak of Christ’s teaching, is not (as is often taught and I myself have taught) ‘go and make disciples’. It is best translated, ‘in your going’; ‘as you go’; or (I paraphrase) ‘on your way through life’, ‘make disciples of all the nations.’

I don’t think all the evidence is in my favour and I am deliberately overstating things. Just a few days ago I heard of more than 50 students making a profession of faith after what looked a lot like an evangelistic campaign in their university. Paul and other apostles clearly strategized, preached, believed they had the answers and set out to teach the world. They behaved like good evangelicals. But they were gifted evangelists. And they were only a part of the Church’s response to Christ; they had their limitations too. And perhaps campus evangelistic missions are more like the exception in church growth, not the rule.

We are not all evangelists. Teaching us all to behave like evangelists is an evangelical weakness, a weakness that’s obvious to everyone (except ourselves). We thereby seem to love to instruct people in the right way to live–not an attractive quality–rather than admitting the truth, which is that we are all hippos together in the glorious mud–but Christ has come among us.

Inconvenient data

It just really gets in the way of sloppy thinking.

Fulbe herders, W Africa, 1984, taken from just outside my front door — a missionary memory of my own.

Our new vicar showed us a film of his early life as a child of missionaries in West Papua (the other half of Papua New Guinea).

A compilation of home movies, and from the 1970s, it was almost a splicing together of Victorian missionary cliches: small dark-skinned people carry suitcases on their heads through the jungle. White missionary in shorts and pith helmet preaches to seated crowds who are clad in shells and penis-gourds. Female white missionary gives injections while dark-skinned people wait patiently for their turn; local children run to greet the aeroplane.

I’ve spent a lot of my career writing positively about missions in a world where ‘everybody knows’ the whole endeavour is an exercise in cultural imperialism and thinly-veiled racism. These images confirm everything ‘everyone knows’ and they don’t help.

Except they did help. As the film unfolded, we saw the happiness on the people’s faces when they destroyed their weapons in a fire. We saw the road that two villages built to connect them because they wanted to give up war forever.  Primitive peoples? They were advanced enough to disarm and to build bridges with their neighbours and rivals. Conspicuously more advanced, then, than my country; and the gospel did that. The gospel the pith-helmeted missionaries in their t00-short 1970s shorts brought.

How often is the truth more complicated, and more unfashionable, than the lazy assumption? I think probably always.

Keep a pencil handy

Because eternity’s at your shoulder

lined paper

Today someone, armed just with a pencil and paper could make something that will last forever.

It might be a pencil sketch, or a melody, or a novel, or a theorem.

As long as there are people, that picture or song or story or insight will live on. Even if humans are out-evolved by (let us say) intelligent machines, they may be wise enough still to treasure these divine relics.

And our art may add to the furniture in an eternal age to come. The Bible’s Book of Revelation says ‘The glory and honour of the nations’ will be carried into City of God (Rev 21:26).

Once there was a time when Picasso had not sketched a dove, when Handel had not written the Hallelujah chorus, when no-one knew the magical relation between e, i, pi, 1 and zero, when no-one had ever written a gospel or a sonnet.

Today or tomorrow some art will be created that will loved for a thousand or ten thousand years.

Two thoughts

Two obvious thoughts flow:

  1. How can anyone believe we are not made in the image of God? That we are not his sketches, melodies, novels, theorems? That he didn’t create us to create this stuff to celebrate his glory of which he contained too much to keep to himself?
  2. Buy a pencil-sharpener.

 

My favourite slow mission habit of them all

Do stuff you love, with friends.

Group hugs

Nothing comes close to this, in my experience:

  1. Get a group together doing something you all love.
  2. Mix together people who have a faith with people who don’t.
  3. Er – that’s it.

I’ve seen this so many times.

  • My wife ran a youth group for 15 years. We did youthy things on Sunday nights, and on Mondays all had a meal together and a Bible study. We used to take them camping as well. We saw several generations of young people grow in faith (and some not) over the years.
  • Our church organizes a men’s walking weekend each year, coupled with a monthly breakfast meeting that involves bacon sandwiches. We do curries and film nights too. Quite a few guys have been scooped up by this over the years.
  • I go to a community choir in our village organized by the local Baptist church. Several people, thus exposed to Baptist threshing machinery, have also now joined the church.
  • I used to be part of a book club, a place for some fantastic discussions.
  • We have a board games evening every month, people of varying orientation and faith all geeking together and enjoying each other’s company.
  • Once I organized a bird-watching event at 5:00am one May morning. I put it in our parish magazine. In the more than 10 years I edited that magazine, it was the only thing we advertised where the resulting crowd actually blocked the road. At 5 am! (Actually this was a one-off and did not result in a group, but perhaps it should’ve.)

Slow mission in a nutshell.

Healing the slow way (2)

When it’s curtains for you, pull yourself together

157/365 On the Mend 060609I find it helpful to start at the end.

If ‘healing’ postpones your final dismantling by a few months or decades, it’s good, but it’s not that good.

Of course it is good: if someone dies aged 5 or 15 or 25, we feel very differently than if they’re tipped out of the wheelbarrow at 65 or 85 or 105. Putting back the evil day is an extremely good thing.

I prefer to think, though, that the real blessing of getting physically healed (especially, nearly dying and getting a let off) is what you go on to think and do. If you think wonderful, I’m back to my indestructible self, that’s the wrong lesson.

The right lesson is that now you’ve been awakened to the reality of your upcoming mortality, you can do something about it.

Like:

  • Say everything good that needs saying to your loved ones
  • Make peace with your enemies
  • Get your affairs in order
  • Sort out the God-and-eternity business in your head and your soul
  • Gratefully relish each ‘bright blessed day’, and ‘dark sacred night’.

Do that, and you can walk hereafter with a lovely light tread on the earth, enjoying it absolutely more than ever and determinedly not getting your feet stuck in muddy glops of anger, fury, malice, bitterness, vengefulness or cynicism.

 

10 reasons to eat the forbidden fruit

Why you should do what marketing people tell you

mangoThe Bible is light on detail about the conversation between Eve and the Serpent over the forbidden fruit. Happily I’ve been able to obtain further details of the Serpent’s offer.

  1. The forbidden fruit is 100% natural and organic with no artificial flavouring, colouring or preservatives.
  2. It’s locally sourced and picked fresh.
  3. It’s one of your five-a-day.
  4. It’s made for sharing.
  5. This is a strictly limited, once-in-a-lifetime offer. Other animals in the Garden of Eden could take it away at any time. Hurry!
  6. You deserve the best.
  7. Imagine the look on your husband’s face when you present him with this precious gift.
  8. It’s absolutely free (terms and conditions apply).
  9. If you are not completely satisfied you may return the forbidden fruit at any time. The knowledge of Good and Evil will be yours to keep whatever you decide.
  10. Take back control of your life!

In praise of dogged

We all know people like this: unfailingly courteous. Hard-working. Persistently kind. Steady. Thorough. They are like pillars who hold up the organizations we work in.

Somewhere else in the building is the rodent scurrying of chatter, gossip, five-year-plans, radical upheaval, ambition, people making their mark, all passing by with the lifespan of hamsters while the pillars go on holding up the roof.

Our labrador Mabel, who died recently after 14 wonderfully dogged years just being a dog.

(I saw a quote: ‘Reform! Reform! Aren’t things bad enough already?’)

The odd thing about the steady people is that they don’t feel they’ve achieved anything. All they did was go to work, raise their families, pay their bills; nothing spectacular or charismatic or epoch-making or history-shaping or world-changing.

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. George Elliot, Middlemarch (with which the book ends).

Towards making peace in the culture wars

doveSome interesting facts1:

  1. 56m abortions each year on earth, one in four pregnancies.
  2. Moral instruction or legal hassle doesn’t work. Countries where abortion is against the law don’t lead the league tables for the fewest abortions. Surprise, surprise, the law is good for making us know our guilt; not good at making us good.
  3. Free access to contraception and advice helps a bit. That may be why the UK’s rate is one in five pregnancies, not one in four. It could be made better all over the world. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers could congregate in that space and work together to improve our societies.
  4. Killing our unborn is (surely obviously) a symptom, not a problem,  and the problem is that we’re all broken, and the solution is meeting the kindness of God.

The (second) greatest story ever told

A Christmas CarolI only re-read one book every year (apart from the Bible). I have an audio version of A Christmas Carol and I listen to it every Christmas season without fail. It’s huge fun and it’s about repentance.  What more could you want?

It’s also interesting for two other reasons:

  1. It’s nearly perfect. For me A Christmas Carol is the textbook for popular storytelling. Everything opened up at the beginning is resolved at the end. Everything is vivid and passionate. The dramatic tension never stops, building like a symphony through scene after perfect scene to the final explosion and the shattering and remaking of Scrooge.
  2. It shows how a novelist can change culture. All of us in the West draw on this text when we think about Christmas. Dickens edited the world by scribbling stories. He’s a reminder of why people should write; in a story-dominated world, culture is jerked and pulled across the stage by the story-tellers. If you want Christmas to be about something other than snow and the wretched jingle of sleighbells-something like a gleeful, subversive transformation of an old sinner–write a book.

My novel Paradise isn’t about Christmas. But it is subversive and is supposed to be funny.  A recent Amazon review from someone who described herself as an “extremely liberal atheist” was kind enough to say “Truly excellent! … I can’t wait to read his next work.” Which was nice. Courtesy of internet bookshops, I’ve been able to make Paradise a free download. Happy Christmas.