My monthly review of a wonderful book for those of us navigating the space between faith and doubt.
Algerian Karima Bennoune has made a familiar enough tour of the Muslim world but in search of unusual specimens: vocal Muslim-heritage opponents of radical Islam.
It’s the being vocal that gets them into trouble. Like cyclists in London these people are too often steering themselves into a non-existent gap between the juggernaut of short-tempered men in beards and the unyielding concrete kerb of political repression.
Intimidated, bombed, bloodied but not giving up, they are contemporary heroes: the Pakistani theatre director trying to put on a children’s arts festival. The Algerian journalists, bombed almost out of existence by Islamists and at the same time fighting censorship and intimidation from the government.
The requests these kind of people make are so small: wouldn’t it be nice to have a youth centre somewhere in Lahore, where children can learn to paint or play music. There are none. If you want a madrassa, however, they’re on every street.
This is the frontline of the struggle for human rights. Prof Bennoune’s book simmers with a rage that it is hard not to share: the teenaged Iranian girl, swimming in her own garden, in a bathing costume, reported by a neighbour for ‘inciting male lust’. She is arrested, then sentenced to 60 lashes. The terrified teen only received 30 lashes because, by then, she was dead.
Prof Bennoune argues that instead of drawing a line between violent and non-violent (moderate) Islamists, we should draw a line between those who respect universal human rights and those who don’t. If ‘moderate Islamists’ or ‘moderate Taliban’ don’t believe in women’s rights, for example, in a way that any English schoolgirl would understand, Prof Bennoune has no time for them.
This is a passionate, moving book, highlighting the sheer power of intimidation.
Not found in common books of liturgy, I reproduce it here with thanks to the peerless Neal Stephenson who puts the prayer into the mouth of Samuel Pepys. (Lithotomy is of course the removal of a gallstone.)
‘Lord of the Universe, Your humble servants Samuel Pepys and Daniel Waterhouse pray that you shall bless and keep the soul of the late Bishop of Chester, John Wilkins, who, wanting no further purification in the Kidney of the World, went to your keeping twenty years since. And we give praise and thanks to You for having given us the rational faculties by which the procedure of lithotomy was invented, enabling us, who are further from perfection, to endure longer in this world, urinating freely as the occasion warrants. Let our urine-streams, gleaming and scintillating in the sun’s radiance as they pursue their parabolic trajectories earthward, be as an outward and visible sign of Your Grace, even as the knobbly stones hidden in our coat pockets remind us that we are all earth, and we are all sinners. Do you have anything to add, Mr Waterhouse?’
One of the things not to watch at King’s Cross station is tourists talking selfies as they crash luggage trolleys into a brick wall. On top of the brick wall is the sign ‘Platform 9 3/4’, and you can also find a convenient shop nearby of Potter memorabilia.
Great though Harry Potter is, you can find an even better story hidden around the corner from King’s Cross Station.
The British Library stores every book ever printed. Its greatest treasure, which may even be the UK’s greatest treasure, is on exhibition there. This is something more valuable than the crown jewels and more influential than than The Wealth of Nations or the Magna Carta (also on display nearby) or Newton’s Principia Mathematica.
The Codex Siniaticus, the book from Sinai, is the ‘oldest Bible in the world’, and the earliest complete New Testament, dating from 320 AD.
How it was found is unbelievable.
The first 43 pages of it were discovered in a monastic fire-basket in 1844 by German scholar and explorer Lobegott Friedrich Constantin von Tischendorf. He was visiting St Catherine’s monestary on the traditional site of Mt Sinai.
I perceived in the middle of the great hall a large and wide basket, full of old parchments; and the librarian informed me that two heaps of papers like this, mouldered by reason of age, had been already committed to the flames. What was my surprise to find among this heap of documents a considerable number of sheets of a copy of the Old Testament in Greek, which seemed to me to be one of the most ancient I had ever seen.
His excitement prevented the monks from handing over the rest, but also, fortunately, from burning any more pages.
In 1859, he persuaded the monks to present the whole MS to Tsar Alexander II of Russia. It contained about half the Old Testament and all the New Testament. After the Russian Revolution, and long after Tischendorf’s death, the revolutionary government didn’t want it, and the British bought it.
The collapse of civilisation is, on current evidence, greatly exaggerated.
In the UK, teenagers are sobering up, youth courts are closing, fewer children are getting pregnant, crime is falling. Establishment hypocrisy and bullying (some of it ascribed to the church) is being exposed. Casual racism and discrimination are being challenged and people who were formerly above the law now seem to be being thrown in jail. And unlike my dad or my grandad, neither my son nor I have been obliged to serve the country as a soldier and, like them be shot at, shelled or gassed.
It may not last. But across the world (hard though it may be to believe), a smaller proportion of humanity is being killed by conflict, childbirth, childhood diseases, or mosquitos than in any human memory, living or collective.
An inconvenient grace
This is awkward in some church circles, especially in Europe and the West, where a story of national decline is as familiar as the story of Noah’s Ark:
Fewer people have a Christian outlook
God-centred morality is being replaced by harm-centred morality
National law is diverging from Biblical reference points.
The losses of living faith are I think real–witness the hulking, empty churches that surround us and once did buzz with people at least some of whom actually believed. But these losses of faith have happened in the middle of rising prosperity and health.
What then has been lost? May I suggest (among many things too complicated for me to understand) it is the shelter from the storm?
It’s what happens the typhoon hits. In my observation people who don’t know Jesus don’t do too well when crises and losses come. It’s like they haven’t anywhere to go, no one to lean into when great sorrow pours down from the sky or erupts within bodies or families.
This is so massively, incomparably different for those of us in churches and with faith in Jesus. We are just as angry, just as confused, just as wretched, but unjustly held and undeservedly loved. And superrationally happy.
That’s the loss.
The arms of love that comfort me would all mankind embrace.
My friend’s eyes lit up when he saw the chairs, so we asked him about them. These were chairs that had somehow tumbled down through the generations of my wife’s family and ended up with us. He picked one up.
‘Aw, this would have been made somewhere between 1860 and 1880. Mahogany? No: rosewood. Lovely. Balloon-back rosewood dining chair. Put a little bit of detergent in water and they’ll come up lovely. Very easy to take apart, reglue, beautiful job, last you another 100 years.’
He picked up another.
‘But this one, ugh, look, someone’s put some screws in here.’ (The screws too were probably antique). ‘See, here too. Goes right through the tenon joint and splits it. Bodged job, no wonder it’s unsteady. Probably was steady for about half an hour after they screwed it.’
‘Can you fix it?’
‘Oh yeah. But it’s a lot more difficult.’
The original job for which we’d called him in (fitting some doors) was forgotten as he lifted and turned and scrutinized the antique chairs with something like love in his eyes.
I’m delighted to have got my book ‘More than Bananas: How the Christian faith works for me and the Universe’ listed as free on the Amazon kindle store and the iBookstore.
This enables loads of people to download it. If they like it, to sign up for my non-fiction mailing list.
Prof Sir Colin Humphreys FRS of Cambridge Uni, someone to whom I sent a copy, said, ‘Your book is wonderful! I do hope that it is very widely read‘
I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, coming out of a lot of thinking — science, faith, meaning– some of it while in hospital coming out of a coma. Please help yourself, and give to your friends. And/or any enemies.
Like the overture to a symphony, or a trailer for a film, the Old Testament gives us appetizers for what was going to be happen after Jesus came. Here are 14 things about Jesus and his Kingdom, promised then, unfolding now.
The prophet Ezekiel talked about ‘sprinkling clean water on you, and you will be clean’.4
Isaiah had ‘sins [that] are like scarlet’ becoming ‘white as snow’.5
Zechariah talked of a ‘fountain’ that would cleanse from sin and impurity.6
4. New people
Ezekiel talks in terms of a heart-transplant: stony, unyielding hearts replaced with tender, responsive ones.7
Jeremiah promised a new day when God’s purposes and ways would live in people’s hearts and minds. Theirs wouldn’t be a second-hand knowledge, a second-hand love. People would know the Lord for themselves.8
5. Life-giving water
Some Old Testament poetic pictures of the kingdom of God are of abundant, flowing, splashing water.
Isaiah had a vision of living water that anyone could come and drink for free: ‘Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters … without money and without cost.’9
Ezekiel described a river that made the dead places live: ‘Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows … this water … makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.’10
Within the reign of God, the land would flourish and the people prosper.
‘I will send down showers in season; there will be showers of blessing,’ says Ezekiel. ‘The trees of the field will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in their land.’11
Jeremiah talked of how God’s people, ‘will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord … they will be like a well-watered garden.’12
There’s talk of rebuilding and renewing, both of communities and of physical infrastructure. The images pour out of scripture: tambourines, dancing, weddings, songs of praise, thronging crowds, re-planted vineyards, re-dug wells, re-built walls.13
(How does this work today? That’s for a later entry. But a clue is Paul saying, ‘I have learnt to be content whatever the circumstances.’ 14)
7. A spreading kingdom
This kingdom was going to spread through the world:
‘It is too small a thing’, Isaiah taught, for the King just to reign over the Jews. All the nations would be blessed. Light would come to the non-Jews and into the most distant parts of the earth. 15
God will send his people to the ‘distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory.’16
Representatives of the kingdom will ‘proclaim my glory among the nations.’
In several places the Bible pictures the nations loading up their mules and making their way to Mount Zion, an image of peoples entering the presence of God and joining his people.17
All kinds of foreigners, says Psalm 87, will say of ‘Zion’, God’s dwelling place with people: ‘I was born there. That’s my home.’
God promised ‘multitudes’ of descendants to Abraham. He repeated the promise to his son Isaac and repeated it again to his son Jacob.18
Even in the leanest time of Jewish history, with wars lost, people exiled and the temple destroyed, God renewed the promise through Jeremiah. He had not forgotten or changed his mind. God’s people will be more than the stars in the sky, Jeremiah prophesied, more than the sand by the sea.19
9. The greatest kingdom
Isaiah20 and Micah21 describe Mount Zion as becoming ‘the highest among the mountains’ with peoples streaming to it.
The prophet Daniel says: ‘The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure for ever.’22
10. A peaceable kingdom
This kingdom, though, is peaceable rather than warlike.
As peoples (poetically speaking) camp themselves on Mount Zion, disputes between them will be settled. ‘Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.’23
One of the King’s titles is ‘prince of peace.’ Isaiah’s famous prophecy of him includes the line, ‘of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.’24
God’s kingdom is built not through making war but by waging peace.
11. A meek kingdom
Unlike every other great kingdom, the promised rule of God is saturated in meekness and lowliness.
In a passage nowadays read on Palm Sunday, Zechariah tells the people to ‘rejoice greatly’ because the King comes to them ‘righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’25
Isaiah notes that the King will bring justice to the nations, but he won’t ‘shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.’26
12. A human kingdom
It’s also a kingdom that manages to work within humanity despite our darkest depths. All the Old Testament prophets speak from a context of human rebellion and divine love, these two principles clanging and sparking as they combat each other. We are at war with ourselves and with God and yet the kingdom will win.
The kingdom is the story of the determined lost wooed by an irresistible Finder; the attempted rejection of a love that will not let us go. Expect turbulence.
13. A kingdom of death and resurrection
It is also a kingdom that only reaches its final shape after a death and resurrection.
Several scary Old Testament passages seem to predict some kind of end of the world before the final expression of the kingdom of God. This is a total mystery and best not speculated upon, though it’s not so hard to believe if you’ve lived in the 20th century, or have studied geology or astronomy.
The Messianic Psalm 110, much quoted in the New Testament, talks of a ‘day of wrath’, and many prophets agree with Isaiah: ‘The Lord Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted (and they will be humbled).’
The Prophet Zephaniah warns ‘in the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth.’27
The book of Daniel talks explicitly of the death and resurrection of people: ‘multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth’ will wake up, some to ‘everlasting life’ others to ‘shame and everlasting contempt’.28
14. A new order
Some prophetic words seem to refer to the kingdom after the end, but these come to us perhaps more like the music of distant party rather than a precise account.
The final one of Isaiah’s visions, for example, includes the fascinating picture of ‘all mankind’ bowing down and worshipping; but also of ‘the dead bodies of those who rebelled’—asking us to hold in tension the paradox of God’s universal love and purpose, and the human capacity to spite them.29
What does it mean for us?
Some of this is about the far future
But most of it is the now, our world, with Christ as King.