Secular shelf life from Sarah Allen: The casual vacancy (book review)

By J.K. Rowling
Little, Brown. 512 pages. £20.00
ISBN 978 1 408 704 202

Barry Fairbrother has died suddenly, and so a casual vacancy arises on picturesque Pagford’s Parish Council.

Will it be filled by the son-in-law of the council leader who is desperate for the town to be relieved of a troubled council estate, or will Barry’s friend, who wants to do good to that community, take his place? The homes of the well-to-do in the village are buzzing with plans for power, while the teenage children of these activists follow their own searches for significance. And while their campaigns are waged, lives on the council estate stagger on.

Very ‘dark’

Such is the framework of J.K. Rowling’s long-awaited and faintly praised first novel for adults. The overwhelming view seems to be that it is very ‘dark’, and I was warned against it by some who thought its subject matter would be inappropriate for EN. But here I am writing. I haven’t decided that it is too bleak, though I do want to give a couple of warnings. The first is that the language is coarse and there are also a few scary descriptions of sex. The second is that I think Rowling’s style is poor, with unnecessary similes and peculiar metaphors cluttering what is often great characterisation. This is harder to take at the beginning when the plot is moving very slowly indeed.

A sort of messiah

Like many before her, Rowling uses the novel form to satirise and explore society’s ills. The microcosm of Pagford provides many near-stereotypes for her purpose; the Daily Mail reading nimbys, the abusive father, a well-meaning social worker and a pushy Asian mother among others. None of them are likeable, and it is really the teenage characters who invite more sympathy and carry the story forward to its harrowing conclusion. This is a sour book then, full of a rage at hypocrisy and cruelty, and conscious of the complex causes which bring about social degradation. But what makes this book bleak and not dark is the faith that remains. Barry Fairbrother (name no mistake), who died at the outset of the book, was a sort of messiah. He held the community together. He rescued teenagers from the mire. He was a friend to all. And without him things fell apart. In the Harry Potter series, Rowling displayed echoes of a Christian worldview, and the same is true here. The situation in Pagford is bleak, but its cause is the human heart and the situation can only be changed by a rescuer from outside.

Sarah Allen writes the ‘Secular shelf life’ column for EN.


This article was first published in the January 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Mothers make ministers… and some other great links

Enjoy the following links!

Cripplegate – Mothers make ministers

The Gospel Coalition – 5 ways to discern a call to overseas ministry

Justin Taylor – If God is sovereign, why is my sanctification so slow?

Tim Challies – Who is publishing good books today?

Good Book Company – A Christian tea service

Prayer fuel: News from around the world

Here are a handful of news-bites from around the world included in the July issue of EN. May these encourage us as well as spur us on to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world facing severe persecution.

S. America: Jesus 4 kids
Family Life Network’s new book Komm Kjikje, vol. II, written in Low German by Helen Funk and featuring stories from the New Testament, was distributed in Paraguay in May and will be distributed in Belize in July.
Originally produced as animated radio programmes, FLN hopes these stories will introduce Jesus to a new generation of children in Low German-speaking communities in Latin America. Fellowship of European Broadcasters (FEB) 

India: lost control
A Hindu nationalist party, which supports extremist groups that attack and harass Christians, lost control of Karnataka state in May.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been at the helm of the southern state since 2008, but saw its share of the vote slashed by 13.9% in the election on May 5. It suffered a net loss of 72 seats, while the country’s governing Congress party gained a majority with an increase of 42 seats. The BJP’s vote was split by two breakaway parties, which indicates enduring support for some of its values. The result is nevertheless good news for the state’s beleaguered Christians. Barnabas Fund

China: seriously ill
Gong Shengliang, imprisoned since 2001 for his leadership of the South China Church movement, is suffering from lack of medical treatment after a stroke, according to his daughter.
In an April 23 open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Gong Huali stated that her father suffered a ‘cerebral infarction’ (ischemic stroke) late last year which has rendered him unable to walk or speak. ‘Because [of ] the complete absence of minimal medical care, his cerebral and cerebellum functions have been severely affected … His life is in serious danger.’ She has asked for him to be released on bail for urgent medical treatment. Morning Star News

For more news and prayer fuel from around the world, subscribe to EN for monthly updates.

Anglican update: Coronation oath?

July UKThe 60th anniversary celebrations of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II were both a demonstration of the ability of the Church of England to rise to the state occasion and a poignant reminder of how far we have declined as a nation in the lifetime of our reigning monarch.
Watching TV footage of the coronation, I heard more than one commentator remark on the oil with which the Queen was anointed, symbolising that monarchy was conferred on her by God.
And this was no ‘abstract’, ‘all faiths’ God. The oil was administered, and the crown placed on her head, by the Archbishop of Canterbury. And, before this, he had asked her on oath: ‘Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the bishops and clergy of England, and to the churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?’

Potential crisis
Well, never again, we may be sure! The day after the coronation was replayed on our televisions, the House of Lords approved the legalising of marriage between two people of the same sex — something which, had you foretold it in 1953, would have been deemed as unlikely as swimming pools on the moon.
And, as Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has pointed out, it is hard to see how the Queen will be able to square her coronation oath with signing such a bill into law. That is a potential constitutional crisis which no one seems to be taking seriously, so we should surely be praying for her Majesty in this regard.
The picture is complicated, however, by the fact that homosexual acts are rapidly becoming acceptable within the Church of England, with increasing numbers of clergy and bishops prepared to abandon the traditional teaching
And, just as with the acceptance of women’s ordination, and now consecration, it is increasingly difficult for traditionalists to sound anything but reactionary. Partly this is because there are so many voices speaking the other way, partly it is because the traditionalist arguments haven’t always been well put. A very good discussion paper presented to Church Society early in June pointed out how difficult it is even to achieve a coherent definition of ‘complementarianism’, given the range of views this embraces.

Good evangelicals
Yet the work must be done, and not only urgently but effectively. The proportion of good evangelicals in the Church of England has rarely been higher, their equipping and training has perhaps never been better, yet they actually punch below their weight when it comes to shaping the ‘culture’ of the institution. They are treated as marginalised, and they are often content to occupy the margins, as if that were the ‘right’ place to be.
Thus, for example, as I write this, it is 218 days since Wallace Benn retired, leaving the Church of England without a single complementarian evangelical bishop. What is worse, he was the last such to be consecrated, and that was in 1997. Does it matter? Not if you don’t think bishops are important. But then, if that’s your view, what are you doing in an episcopal church? (The answer, by the way, is sitting on the edge waiting to fall off — or be pushed.)

John Richardson,
associate minister of the churches at Henham, Elsenham & Ugley, near Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire

This article was first published in the Ju;y 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Worldwide Anglican update: Women Bishops – power and trust

July WorldThe Church of England Synod in July will take up the unfinished agenda of the consecration of women to the Episcopate.
This is not just an English but also as an international issue. There are already woman bishops in the Anglican Communion. But the position of the Church of England in the Communion still means that the stance it takes defines for many (but not all) provinces what is acceptably Anglican.

The real issue
The issue in England is not whether there will be women bishops, but whether those with principled and theological issues on the matter will continue to have an equal and honoured place in the Church of England.
The November 2011 Synod rejected the legislation then before it. In early 2013 representatives of all interested parties took part in mediated conversations about how best to proceed. The results were summed up in a report to the House of Bishops which highlighted five principles (abbreviated below).

  1. The CofE will be fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and will hold that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office … deserve due respect and canonical obedience.
  2. Anyone who ministers within the CofE must then be prepared to acknowledge that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter;
  3. …The CofE will acknowledge that its own clear decision on ministry and gender is set within a broader process of discernment within the Anglican Communion and the whole Church of God;
  4. The CofE will remain committed to enabling those within the CofE who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops to flourish within its life and structures.
  5. Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the CofE will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that … contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole CofE.

Four forms of legislation
On the basis of those principles, the working group identified four possible forms of legislation, ranging from the simplest, relying on adherence to a non-statutory declaration from the House of Bishops, to including on the face of the statute the ways in which those who could not accept this development would be accommodated.
In July the synod will meet first in group discussions to consider the report. Then, on the Monday, they will be given the chance to debate and vote on the House of Bishops’ recommendation accepting the five principles but proposing the simplest possible legislation be chosen.
The Catholic Group in General Synod have given this response to the bishops’ proposal: The selection of … the simplest possible legislation by the House of Bishops …. feels like a step backwards in the process, closing down debate before it has started, and rendering facilitated conversations between Synod members pointless. Option one will not help to achieve a consensus; it will not create legislation capable of achieving the required majorities. It would tear up the current settlement over women priests, and replace it with arrangements which no one would be obliged to follow. The option … relies simply on trust to provide for those who cannot accept the ministry of women bishops and priests. We regulate other areas of church life in great detail by law — measures, canons and regulations — and we see no justification for abandoning that approach in relation to one of the most controversial areas of our church life.
The way forward lies in holding together all of the five propositions, without giving any of them more prominence than the others … the arrangements need to be secure, and not dependent on the discretionary decisions of individual bishops, clergy, PCCs, patrons and parish representatives.

Not doing what should be done
A key issue for the debate is the relation between trust and power. Those with the power in these matters (bishops) are asking the clergy and churches to trust them to provide an ‘honoured’ place to those who cannot receive the ministry of women bishops, without the benefit of a legal structure spelling out what they are required to do. The difficulty of this approach can be seen in areas in which there is no disagreement about what should be done, but some people nevertheless fail to do what they should.

Chris Sugden,
Anglican Mainstream

This article was first published in the July 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Prayer fuel: News in the UK

Here are a handful of news-bites from around the UK included in the July issue of EN. May these spur us on to pray for our country and issues we all are facing.

Sued over church parking
The National Secular Society (NSS) is taking Woking Borough Council to court, claiming a scheme that allows churchgoers from three churches in the town to park free on Sundays is direct discrimination.
Attendees of Coign Church, Christ Church and Trinity Methodist Church use a ‘validating device’ to mark car park tickets without needing to pay. The Christian Institute

Wandsworth’s big society
A new research project reported on in early June has shown that 35% of all voluntary sector welfare projects in the borough of Wandsworth, South West London, were being run by Christian groups.
This is at least two or three times the number that might be expected based on, for example, regular church attendance or church membership in the borough. Research Brief Monthly

Wales: mission
A bilingual mission at Bangor (North Wales), with Ebenezer Evangelical Church and Capel y Ffynnon, ran during May.
Gospel literature was distributed to every house in the city and a number of meetings took place during the week, including meetings with Fiona Castle, Robin Oake and Paul Jones. Please pray for fruit from this work. Evangelical Movement of Wales

For more news and prayer fuel from around the UK, subscribe to EN for monthly updates.

Editors commentary: Legislating a lie

If same-sex marriage is eventually adopted in our country, then what the Coalition Government will have succeeded in doing is to redefine a word.

Presumably dictionaries will need to be amended. At present The Concise Oxford’s primary definition of ‘marriage’ is as follows: ‘the legal union of a man and a woman in order to live together and often to have children’. It will need to be replaced. As a multi-faith alliance wrote in protest to David Cameron in June, in order to pursue the fiction of same-sex marriage: ‘The importance of consummation, procreation, and the welfare of children, as well as issues such as adultery, have been ignored’. In reality, of course, same-sex partnerships are no more marriage than apples are oranges. We are simply legislating a lie.

Red herring
To say this might infuriate some. ‘If you make things like the possibility of procreation essential to marriage then what does that mean for infertile couples?’ they ask. While we have every sympathy for couples unable to have children, actually this is a red herring. A car which breaks down and cannot reach a destination is still a car. And it does not mean that we ought to redesignate as ‘cars’ every caravan / trailer which never had the possibility of travelling anywhere unaided. Same-sex marriage is simply not marriage. But the government will insist it is and woe betide anyone who says otherwise. The word will be redefined.

Actually governments changing the meaning of words ought to ring loud alarm bells. Having participated in left-wing politics amid the Spanish Civil War and witnessed the rise of Hitler and Stalin, George Orwell understood the heart of totalitarianism. Dying from TB, he struggled to finish his masterpiece of a novel 1984. Winston Smith, the novel’s hero, is a small cog in the bureaucratic machinery of ‘Big Brother’, which rules Britain through its omnipresent surveillance and constant propaganda. He works at the ‘Ministry of Truth’ falsifying back copies of The Times. His colleague, Symes, is engaged on the latest ‘Newspeak’ dictionary of government approved words. In order to justify itself, a totalitarian regime has to destroy objective knowledge and the means to do that resides in language.
D.J. Taylor, Orwell’s biographer, explains that totalitarianism ‘is not just about telling a man 2+2=5, it is about convincing him it is so’. With the redefinition of marriage we are not yet at the point of Stalinism rewriting history, but we are entering the world of 1984.
Step back a moment. You know this is about ideology because the rights of gay people are already protected by Civil Partnerships. Why go further? You know this is an ideological move rather than common sense because no conscience clauses are allowed in the legislation. You know that something ideological is going on when evidence is manipulated to suit a case.
What we are witnessing smells awful. It has the dreadful whiff of the liberal elite, assisted by its media propaganda machine, forcing a secular totalitarianism on the nation. It is difficult to recognise because liberalism has always taken a stance against totalitarianism. But now it has been given the opportunity to dominate, it is taking its chance. It has fallen for the great lie first perpetrated in Eden, ‘You will be like God’.

John Benton

This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Don’t believe everything you read… and some other great links

Enjoy the following links!

Kevin DeYoung – No whiners

The Gospel Coalition – Brothers we are not pioneers

Tim Challies – What’s in ‘The look’?

The Proclaimer – Don’t believe everything you read

Desiring God – Entertaining pulpits and the legacy of ‘tethered preaching’

Galatians for you

Galations for you

Galatians is a letter that is full of doctrinal truth, but is no theological treatise.

It is a letter from a man who deeply loves the men and women he is writing to. 6.11-18 is his last appeal, his last invitation to keep trusting the gospel for salvation and living it out day by day, and he decides to ‘write to you with my own hand!’ (v.11).

Internal not external

First, he wants to convince them that real Christianity is a matter of inward change, not external observance. It is substantial, not superficial. Again, he focuses on the motives of the false teachers. They ‘want to make a good impression outwardly’ (v.12).

Paul has already said that the preaching of the gospel is terribly offensive to the human heart (5.11-12). People find it insulting to be told that they are too weak and sinful to do anything to contribute to their salvation. The gospel is offensive to liberal-minded people, who charge the gospel with intolerance, because it states that the only way to be saved is through the cross. The gospel is offensive to conservative-minded people, because it states that, without the cross, ‘good’ people are in as much trouble as ‘bad’ people. Ultimately, the gospel is offensive because the cross stands against all schemes of self-salvation. So people who love the cross are ‘persecuted’ (v.12).

False saviours

If someone understands the cross, it is either the greatest thing in their life, or it is repugnant to them. If it is neither of those two things, they haven’t understood it.

The false saviour that the Judaizers are worshiping is approval. That’s what is going on under their legalistic teaching. ‘The only reason they [teach what they do] is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ’ (v.12). They want to ‘boast’ (v.13). They got into religion for the fame, prestige and honour it can bring them in the world. Their ministry, as in 4.17-18, is a form of self-salvation.

As a result of this concern for appearances and acceptance by the world, the false teachers are offering a religion that mainly focuses on externals and behaviour (circumcision and the ceremonial law), rather than internal change of heart, motives and character. The gospel is inside out: an inner change of heart leads to a new motivation for and conduct of behaviour. They are outside out: focusing on behaviour, never dealing with the heart, and always remaining superficial.

Paul again makes the most telling critique of this way of religion: ‘Not even those who are circumcised obey the law’ (v.13). On its own terms, biblical legalism cannot work. If we really read the law and see what it commands (e.g. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, 5.13-14), we will see that we cannot possibly save ourselves by obeying it. A religion based on externals and behaviour as a way of salvation may prompt pride and bring popularity, but it cannot deliver the eternal life it promises.

What are you boasting about?

Ultimately, Paul says, the heart of your religion is what you boast in. What, at bottom, is the reason that you think you are in a right relationship with God?

If the cross is just a help, but you have to complete your salvation with good works, it is really your works which make the difference. Therefore, you ‘boast about your flesh’ (v.13), your own efforts. What an attractive-sounding message: to be able to pat yourself on the back for having reserved a place for yourself in heaven!

But if you understand the gospel, you ‘boast’ exclusively and only in the cross. Our identity, our self-image, is based on what gives us a sense of dignity and significance — what we boast in. Religion leads us to boast in something about us. The gospel leads us to boast in the cross of Jesus. That means our identity in Jesus is confident and secure — we do ‘boast’! — yet humbly, based on a profound sense of our flaws and neediness.

So the gospel can be well summarized in one remarkable sentence: ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (v.14).

I am saved solely and wholly because of Christ’s work, not mine. He has reserved a place in heaven for me, given freely to me by him. I ‘never boast’ — I take no credit for my standing with God — ‘except in the cross’; what Christ has done is now something I ‘boast’ in. To boast is to joyously exult, and to have high confidence, in something. To know you are saved by Christ’s work alone brings a joyous ‘boasting’ confidence; not a self-confidence, but Christ-confidence.


This brings a stunning turnaround in my life. The world is dead to me. First, as John Stott says, the Christian does not need to care what the world thinks of them. But Guthrie probably gets closer to Paul’s gist when he says: ‘The natural world … has ceased to have any claims on us’.

Paul is telling the Christian that there is nothing in the world now that has any power over them. Notice he does not say that the world is dead, but that it is dead to him. The gospel destroys its power. Why? If nothing in the world is where I locate my righteousness or salvation or boasting, then there is nothing in the world that controls me — nothing that I must have.

Paul is not saying that I must have nothing to do with the people and things of the world. Ironically, if I must have nothing to do with the world and must separate from it, then the world still has quite a lot of power over me! Paul means that the Christian is now free to enjoy the world, because he no longer needs to fear it, nor to worship it.

So Paul restates what he said back in 5.6: ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; but a new creation’ (6.15). Religious or moral attainments or failures are irrelevant when it comes to salvation, because it is not about what I have done, but about what Christ has done. Because of the gospel, Paul says, I do not feel inferior to or intimidated by anyone — circumcision means nothing. And because of the gospel, I do not feel superior to or scornful of anyone — uncircumcision means nothing.

All that matters is that, through Christ crucified, we are made a ‘new creation’ (v.15). The gospel changes my future, giving me a place in Christ’s perfected re-creation. And the gospel changes my present, giving me a whole new self-image and whole new way of relating to everyone.

New creation

‘A new creation’ in verse 15 is the parallel to ‘faith working by love’ in 5.6. Paul’s point is that the two are essentially the same thing. The gospel creates a new motivation for obedience — grateful love arising from a faith view of what Christ has done. It is a new birth, a supernatural transformation of character, a new creation.

So verses 14-15 sum up what it means to rely on what Christ has done, rather than on myself. I am being made all over into someone and something entirely new.

A life of peace

If verses 14-15 sum up chapter 5, verse 16 (which, following such an emotional and stunning sentence, is easy to miss!) encapsulates what Paul was saying in chapter 3. Here, he calls living by the gospel a ‘rule’ (v.16) — it is a way of life, a foundation of everything. Anyone who sets the gospel of Christ as their ‘rule’, he says, will find ‘peace and mercy’. And they will be members of ‘the Israel of God’. Christians are all Abraham’s children, heirs to God’s promises to him.

Paul concludes by pointing to the fact that: ‘I bear on my body the marks of Jesus’ (v.17). What are these? Probably he is referring to the literal scars he had from the imprisonments and beatings he had received for the sake of Christ. The teachers of the false, popular, self-salvation gospel had none of these, because the world loved to hear their message. But Paul is a true minister, a true apostle, as he argued in chapters 1 and 2. Do not doubt me, he says: I have the real marks of apostolic authority — not greatness and riches, but signs of suffering and weakness.

And then he signs off. But even here, Paul is reminding the Galatians of the message of his letter. ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v.18) is the entry point to, and the way to continue with, and all we will ever need in, the Christian life. We begin by grace, by being justified by faith in what Christ has done. We continue by grace, not by anything we do. This gospel of grace is what the Galatians need to know, and love, in ‘your spirit’. It is not a set of abstract truths. It is a way of life, of deeply fulfilling, secure life now, and of eternal life to come. Amen.

This article is an edited extract from Tim Keller’s new book, Galatians For You (published by The Good Book Company —, and is used with permission.


(This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057)

What’s coming up in the July issue of EN

July 2013 highlightsA few highlights to look forward to in the July issue of EN! It’s scheduled to arrive from the printers on Friday June 21. Of course you can always e-mail as well if you’d like a complimentary copy or if you’d like to subscribe!