As a Cambridge icon closes, Nick Spencer of the ever-interesting Theos think-tank, muses on what it gave us – the idea that good relationships are what mark a good society. I enjoyed this article and thought you might too.
This book’s author, my friend Dr Ruth Bancewitz, confesses that as a teenager she rather geekily enjoyed those books that showed giant cutaway models of things and explained how they work.
This book, though for adults, would be perfect fodder for teenagers who think the same way. Taking the work of six scientists, helped by some elegant writing and classy illustrations, it surveys some lovely science, slowly cranking up the view from the molecular all the way to the large trends and patterns that appear across species in evolutionary theory.
Then it does something that’s relatively rare in popular science: it turns the camera back onto the scientists themselves, what their discoveries mean to them, and how they integrate what they’re finding in the microscope with what they believe about God and the universe.
So as well as being popular science itself, the book offers correctives to two perhaps lazy assumptions that pervade quite a lot of popular science writing — that atheism is the only basis to do science from (it isn’t); and that the scientific process is somehow divorced from the humanity of the scientists themselves. (It isn’t: science is social construct, a tribal religion, just better than most tribal religions–we hope–at coping with the width and depth of reality).
I particularly like this book because it’s slow (in my terms): not strident, not argumentative, challenging popular assumptions just by being elegant, rigorous, beautifully illustrated and out there, inconvenient, like an unexpected piece of rogue data.
Unintentionally or not, I took the summer off, and hope you had as good a one as we did.
At the moment I am spending a lot of my time adding to the database of articles which is one of the sources of the prayer handbook Operation World. If you mine this database horizontally, you can dig any number of fascinating seams.
- The rise and perhaps the teetering, of the autocrat.
- The way autocracy vs. liberal democracy has turned rural areas against urban ones, with the rural ones in the ascendancy over the past few years, to the consternation of city-dwellers, who like to set the trends. You can see this in the UK, the US, India, Russia, Turkey, Japan and almost wherever you care to look.
- The decline of radical Islam, or at least its popular decline as a fashion-statement and rallying point for the underwhelmed-with-life.
- The non-impact of the church in India (Christians in 1950, 2.3%, Christians in 2020, 2.3%)
This is all good stuff and enjoyable in its way. It also happens to be a big piece of what I do for a career. But it’s also like walking around a housing estate rather than striding out across the fields. Where in all that is play? Texture? Subtlety? Creativity? Ambiguity? Beauty? Carefreeness? Where does the soul get fed? Where’s the joy of walking with a creator who is extraordinarily big, extraordinarily beautiful, extraordinarily tolerant of me, and extraordinarily, and unsettingly, original?
Much of this blog over the years has been about how my Christian faith animates these latter things, rather than the workaday business of machining truth – vulnerable, lovely, lively, teasing, elusive truth – into tidy journalistic widgits.
Someone kindly sent me a book about the church that first discipled me after I committed my life to Jesus in my teens. It isn’t that big a church even now, but people will publish books about anything these days and it was a good read, partly because I knew many of the people and partly because, a generation later, you can look back with a bit of perspective.
The church was founded by four then-young people, refugees from the rather liberal Methodist tradition that was embodied in dozens of churches around West Yorkshire. They started, in true late ’60s Christian style, with a coffee bar in a church basement. Then they rented some premises of their own and ran their own services, listening to sermons on reel-to-reel tapes. They employed a 24-year-old pastor and his wife, church members numbers 5 and 6. (Pastors are always male in this tradition.)
When I arrived at the church about nine years later, it already felt like a proper church, with a membership of perhaps 50 or 70. In the few years I attended, before leaving West Yorkshire for university in London, it was busy acquiring and fitting out a new building. Since then it’s seen two or three churches come into being in other little Northern market towns, all in the FIEC, reformed evangelical fold. It’s moved again, into a still bigger building. People have retired.
They welcomed me, befriended me, taught me, loved me and gave me a grounding in faith I’ve drawn on ever since, and I’m still in occasional touch with two of the early leaders. Add up those who stayed and those (like me) who moved on, the churches must have played a part in the lives of hundreds of us.
There was a level of ambition, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Much of its most successful work was among young people, a so-called ‘social event’ one Friday, a Bible study the next. And camps and things. And church teas. And hospitality. And of course the regular work of maintaining a church community and preaching the Bible.
It was the quiet power of faithfulness that struck me. Baking flapjacks. Buying self-raising flour to make cakes for church teas. Hosting unruly teenagers year after year. Vaccuuming the house before, and probably after the meetings. All the work of running camps. Prayer. On and on, over forty years. There really was nothing spectacular, no radical innovation (except the gospel itself) no ‘quick wins’, just the awesome inertia of faithfulness, everybody doing their bit, again and again and again.
A recent talk that got me thinking about what’s missing from the teaching about missions that typically happen in (evangelical) circles such as I move in.
Such talks – and I’ve given a few myself – note how a page in history turns at the end of the gospels and the beginning of Acts. Here’s the new page: Christ is now reigning as Saviour and King: that good news is to be embodied and universalized. Starting with the few hundred Jesus followers, forgiveness and new ways of living through Christ are to be offered and implemented to everywhere and everyone on earth. This five-fold repeated instruction (in the four gospels and Acts) to Christ’s followers is called the ‘Great Commission’.
Usually, and in the case of the talk I heard, that means individual Christians doing evangelistic stuff, and/or supporting other Christians doing evangelistic stuff, and it reminds us of the need to cross cultures, to go places we are uncomfortable, in order for the message to go everywhere.
So far so fine. Many of us evangelicals, and especially me, however, can go into full cognitive dissonance at this point. It’s a mission meeting. We’re in church. We can all agree evangelism is good, cross cultural evangelism is good, I’m all in favour of it, but no, I’m not really doing it, please, God, send somebody else.
The problem may not be me, I am hoping. The problem is the atomistic nature of what is being taught. It denies the way the world works, denies the way the church grows, and denies the wider teaching of the New Testament itself. Are all evangelists? No. What does everyone else do then? Support the evangelists? Is that it?
Jesus taught, make disciples of all the nations. I think we too readily forget the communal, non-atomistic, nature of these commands. I think we too easily forget the importance of families and networks and cultures.
In Europe, arguably, sort of, there is a local church in every settlement from the West of Ireland to the Ural mountains, from the North Norwegian coast to the Greek Islands. In principle, there are all these little communities based around the Kingdom of God interacting and engaging in a thousand ways with the dominant cultures all around them. You will be my witnesses. Everyone who is part of Christian communities can have a part in that, doing what they do, with all their devotion.
Then look at the order of what Jesus taught in Matthew’s gospel: make disciples by (arguably first) baptising and (then, arguably second) teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. In Europe this happened when a king decided to become a Christian and all his people were roped in. In many contexts, like with a friend I interviewed with experience of people in the Indonesian rainforest, the group decides for everyone. (Or sometimes the group splits into two groups.) Everyone included in the decision to follow Christ is baptised, and then the teaching starts. When the great Catholic missionaries like Francis Xavier did their stuff, they baptised whole communities. (Xavier allegedly got repetitive strain injury from all the baptising he did.) Communities that he mass-baptized, like on the Coromandel coast of India (part of Tamil Nadu) have retained a Christian identity until this day. Indeed some have kept such an identity since the time of the Apostle Thomas, a millenium and a half before Xavier. Even if none of these options are true in your culture, the good news about Jesus’ forgiving power and current reign always tends to travel better down natural networks of family and community.
What are the takeaways from that?
- If you are part of a Christian community, doing what you do with devotion, you are part of the great commission, bearing witness -part of a community bearing witness– to the cultures around you.
- There surely is a need, and Jesus gave a command, for individuals to cross cultures to spread the gospel.
- Such missionary individuals, who go to new cultures, need to prioritize starting and building communities, or repurposing existing networks.
- Mass baptism of the whole group of humans involved (like a household, a social group, or even whole tribe or nation) may help retain a Christian identity for generations, and provide a platform for teaching.
- In this way, the nations are taught about Jesus and how to follow him.
Again I’m writing about healing, partly because I’m living it, partly because what I picked up from many years as a Christian now seems so wrong and there is so much rethinking to do.
I’m still rethinking, and I’m still breathing, both of which I feel are important.
The last few weeks: we bought a disabled buggy, a wonderful little thing, and took it on holiday. (It folds into the car.) We were with our daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren and there was much walking on the prom and the cliff-tops, all of it now painless and easy. Nor was anyone needed to push me around in a wheelchair. And I could give the kids rides. So now in God’s riches I have an electric bike for longer journeys around Cambridge and an electric buggy for when I am with others.
Then yesterday I took the train down to my specialist heart centre in London where they retuned the pacemaker in my chest. A week or so before that, after phone calls from me, I had downloaded the pacemaker data and sent it to the hospital via a piece of kit that lives under our bed. The hospital looked at it and called me in and did the necessary reprogramming. Amazing. It is early days for this treatment but I feel less breathless and my wife tells me I am no longer blue to look at. Those guys at the hospital (both female guys as it happened) don’t just measure your ECG; they modify it and tweak it. They don’t take an ECG lying down. They press buttons and see what happens. Such fun!
This techno-assistance, though, seems a far cry from the New Testament where the Lord Jesus or the apostles did their stuff and immediate physical transformation appears to have happened. My electric buggy and the retuning of the extraordinary electronics that supply my heartbeat seem a different order of a thing to that. Why can’t (as Naaman asked) a prophet just wave his hands over me and make me well? Does this techno-medical intervention really count as ‘healing’ at all? Or is it a second-best solution for those whose lives are so cold and lacking in faith and zeal that the real healing stuff never happens to them? What is healing after all?
The New Testament contains hints that what I have heard doctors call the ‘psycho-social’ parts of healing are important, just as are the physical deliverance parts. Ten lepers were cleansed: only one came back to say thank you. Was there a lingering psycho-social unhealing among the healed lepers? Body fine, head in wrong place. Demons are driven out of the Gaderene demoniac. He is seen sitting clothed and in his right mind. But Jesus tells him to go home to his family, rather than joining the band of disciples. Is that to complete his healing? To address the pyscho-social roots of what got him in such a state in the first place? As it is, Mark records that the former demoniac takes up a speaking ministry in the Ten Towns, and Mark is silent over whether or not that was what Jesus really intended for the man. Interesting.
Then I watch friends, with a cancer diagnosis say, put their lives on hold until the treatment is completed. I observe, I think, I might be wrong (I hope I am), that they are putting all their eggs in the physical healing basket. Zap the cancer, go back to the life we had before. Nothing else matters.
I am so not so sure that this is right. (Of course I have to allow for the fact that I am sitting in my garden, at my ease, contented, writing this, not suffering some medical emergency or hospitalization which would indeed require a lot of effort and focus.)
But still. I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that. All good gifts come down from the Father of lights who does not change as the shifting shadows: buggies, pacemakers, holidays, instant miraculous physical transformations, play, vocation, nice food, people you love and good relationships with God and others.
I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that.
Of course, you have to qualify that idea. There are seasons of emergency actions, long wintry paths of mourning, times of brute endurance of the deeply unpleasant. It’s hard to speak of ‘thriving today’ in the face of those. But still. Healing is thriving. Healing is enjoying our lives, nourished by God’s daily bread, despite everything, in these ramshackle tents of ours, before they are replaced for good with the eternal mansions of glory.
Last week we saw the dismal news, courtesy of Reporters without Borders that ‘the press freedom situation in 180 countries and territories … is totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries and constrained in 59 others, which together represent 73% of the countries evaluated. These countries are classified as having “very bad,” “bad” or “problematic” environments for press freedom.
The internet, in terms of print newspapers, has not helped, gutting newspapers worldwide of revenue and readers.
Is there another side to the story? I hope so. Among the forces fighting back are:
OSINT: Open Source intelligence, made famous in the UK by Bellingcat, and now replicated in other groups, has whizzed together brilliant minds, dogged investigation and habits of integrity, just like the best of the old. Connected by the internet, people comb publicly available information to establish the kinds of facts that journalists used to have to uncover with shoe-leather alone. For example when Russia was secretly, and they thought deniably, invading parts of Ukraine years ago, Bellingcat found Facebook entries of Russian soldiers smiling in conquered parts of Ukraine. Bellingcat’s founder Eliot Higgins’ book is a wonderful read, unless you’re a fact-supressing dictator.
News organizations who have found a way to thrive in the new world. Step forward the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, the BBC, even Al-Jazeera, whose Palestinian-American reporter, Shireen Abu Akleh, a Christian, was recently gunned down even though she was wearing a rather large sign saying ‘Press’. The press isn’t as big or as widely committed to separating news from opinion as it used to be, but like a Yorkshire terrier, diminutive size just makes it easier to bite ankles.
Books. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the long form of a non-fiction book has done much to trouble the repressive.I’m just finishing Catherine Belton’s wonderful book Putin’s People and recently I read Tom Burgess’ title Kleptopia. Each journo, and their publishers, have had to fight angry oligarchs through the courts. I bought the books to support them. And everyone survived, except the reputations of the oligarchs. Wonderful books of dogged journalists.
Social media itself. Yes, it still has a power for good. Alexei Navalny completely wrong-footed the Kremlin when he produced a YouTube video about Vladimir Putin’s (alleged) palace. In Russian, it has just garnered a mere 123 million views, which can’t all be his mum showing them to her friends. Vladimir (perhaps Vladimire is better) had to go on TV himself to deny everything.
Better than all these wisps of hope in the turmoil (73% of countries with strangled media!) is the sense of hope that those of us with a Christian faith can muster. The world is in somebody’s hands. The rule of the repressive is not the last word. It’s slow, but skill, wit and integrity will find a way. Keep biting the ankles, don’t let go.
Recently it was Press Freedom Day, or given the way things are going, Press Unfreedom Day. The group Reporters Without Borders (confusingly they are called RSF, like Medecins Sans Frontiers presumably) publish a ranking of press freedoms in different countries each year. They base it on counting actual incidents of repression, plus responses to a detailed questionnaire. It makes uncomfortable reading, which is perhaps the point.
At the top with the freest presses come the usual suspects of high-standard-of-living, happy countries, like the Nordic lands. A shout-out to Portugal (7th) and Costa Rica (8th). The UK is in its usual position of believing itself to be the best in the world but actually coming in at number 24. The US, armed with its First Amendment, crawls in at a distinctly saddo 42nd. Burkina Faso and Moldova, I’m sorry to say, both do better than the Land of the Free.
The nations that have tumbled down the list are the real horrors. China is 175th (out of 178). India, land of 100,000 newspapers is much freer but still a lowly 150th. Though there’s a bit of shooting of journalists (one this year) in that country and jailing of them (13 in prison), the main government strategy is getting its rich friends to buy news outlets:
Originally a product of the anti-colonial movement, the Indian press used to be seen as fairly progressive but things changed radically in the mid-2010s, when Narendra Modi became prime minister and engineered a spectacular rapprochement between his party, the BJP, and the big families dominating the media. (RSF India briefing)
Or its social media acolytes to bully them:
Rana Ayyub, an Indian commentator who loudly admonishes Prime Minister Narendra Modi for stoking anti-Muslim violence, has endured a campaign of intimidation by his supporters. Hindu nationalist trolls have superimposed her face onto pornographic videos, called for her murder, and shared her home address online. Fear of attack has confined Ms Ayyub to her home for long spells. Unable to eat from the anxiety, she has spent days on end in bed and been fed through an intravenous drip. “It’s a living, breathing nightmare for me and my family,” she says. (The Economist, 2022 May 7, ‘Where the Truth Lies’)
Or set the police dogs on them:
Indian law is protective in theory but charges of defamation, sedition, contempt of court and endangering national security are increasingly used against journalists critical of the government, who are branded as “anti-national.“
Lots of countries sing from the same songsheet. Mexico directs government advertising revenue to friendly newspapers. Hungary’s president, proudly pursuing his illiberal state with a Christian sugar-coating, just like Vladimir Putin, has nudged his oligarch friends to buy, then muzzle, the media. Hong Kong, once so free, is now bound and gagged and I’m sure its people are delighted to be so mothered by the Chinese Communist Party.
Britain and the US both suffer from the concentration of the media in very few hands and the decline of regional and local dailies.
Is there good news anywhere? That’s for next week.
John Mark Comer’s book of this title has hit a spot with many people–good– though I suspect I am not its target audience. I’m too old, a baby boomer, and I am not often told these days to slow down. Nor did I greatly enjoy the humble-bragging (I’d spoken at six meetings that day), nor Comer’s perhaps slightly insecure need to keep telling jokes through the book. As a reader, I felt sometimes I was a sea-lion to whom he needed to keep throwing fish.
Still though. I really appreciate John Mark Comer’s wider goal (of which this title is a part) of learning and teaching spiritual formation in a digital age. I could use some of that. And there’s lots to learn from this book and the real and helpful experiences of the author. Even though I’m hardly on social media, I still find plenty of ways of wasting time on a smartphone, and he has some useful, if drastic, solutions. And some things you can’t say enough:
- Do one thing at a time, stop, think, then do another thing.
- If you’re too busy, do less. Make a list of the things that are important or life-giving to you and do them. Slice off large parts of the others.
- Make time for life-affirming things: cooking, conversation, play.
- Be (and think of yourself as) as marginal player, happy to be a widget in the great machine, even if people can’t quite figure out what you’re actually for.
I’ve been re-reading Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity:
It’s fascinating and refreshing. I found it slightly worrying that most of his references are to his own, or his associates,’ academic work, but then as a Christian among sociologists, as I understand it, his is a lonely furrow to plough.
His main conclusion is that the central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained atttractive, liberating and effective social relations and organizations (p211). Among other examples he suggests:
Christians did plagues better, by being will to nurse and die rather than run away.
Christians did family life better by being better for women in that era and much better for unborn and just-born women, who sometimes blocked Roman drains by being dumped in them. Incidentally, Christians did fertility better in an age when the populations of cities or indeed Roman Empires was not self-sustaining.
Christians did urban life better by offering sustaining networks that built new structures of belonging across a chaotic jumble of tribes and tongues
Christians did mercy better by teaching of a God of mercy who required mercy
In addition, Stark argues that (as with all minority cults which Christianity was at the time), Christianity disproportionately attracted the 1st-century equivalent of college graduates with no particular belief in anything. Once attracted, these people had the talent and the resource to become the kind of able people who were able to sustain and grow a popular movement.
With these and other advantages, the Christian faith then grew at 40% per decade, on his numbers, for three hundred years. Constantine’s conversion, at the end of the period, was more of a bowing to the politically inevitable than a surprising gleam in the dark.
My friend and colleague Jason Mandryk wrote recently about how prayer and church growth are often not instant, even though we wish they were, but more like a canyon being carved over generations by a river just being being a river.
I wonder if in other places where a vigorous Christian faith has taken root and grown (South America, China) it has grown for similar reasons?
In any event, Rodney Stark’s analysis is right, Christianity’s prospects in a confusing, multi-ethnic, in places deeply cruel world, with a large number of people unmoored from any religious attachments — the rise of the religious ‘nones’ which is often given as a sign of decline of Christianity — are actually rather promising.