In a recent statement regarding some of the cultural turmoil in North America, historian Owen Strachan, the Provost and Research Professor of Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas, made an observation about church history that I found quite surprising. He noted that ‘epic stands for truth … are usually taken alone, so high is their cost’.
I found it quite surprising because my own study of church history has given me a fundamentally different perspective. It is a perspective that I have learned inductively from church history (be it the Apostolic era with the Pauline circle, or the Cappadocian Fathers, or the Celtic Church, or the Reformers, or the Puritan brotherhood, or the Evangelical revivals of the 18th century), and it is namely this: God never does a great work in the history of the church except through a band of brothers and sisters.
This is true of all of the eras of church history just mentioned. The idea of one lone figure standing for truth against the minions of evil and the failure of like-minded men to stand with him is the product more of a reading of church history shaped by a ‘High Noon’ culture than the actual facts.
No small people
Professor Strachan’s statement is also redolent of the ‘great man’ theory of history, which was once put this way by the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle: ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men’. A better reading of church history, though, affirms that there are no small people within its pages.
In the late 1980s, I was asked to write a history of my local church, Stanley Avenue Baptist Church, Hamilton, Ontario, which had a rich history. During the 1920s, this church was deeply involved in the battle against liberal theology at McMaster University, then in Toronto. Usually, when this story is told, the Toronto pastor, T.T. Shields, is seen as the great defender of the Faith.
But while I was writing the story of my church I came across a note from 10 March 1926. A young woman named Lottie Inrig stood at a business meeting and proposed to the church that they cut off funding to McMaster ‘until such time as there is no uncertainty as to the orthodoxy of the teaching of McMaster University’. The motion was carried.
When I first came to the church in 1974, Lottie was an elderly woman in her eighties, and sat quietly week by week in a pew a few rows behind where I sat. I had paid her little attention. When I read that note, I realized what an enormous debt I owed to Lottie Inrig, for by that action she helped to preserve the orthodox witness of Stanley Avenue Baptist Church and so ensured a gospel witness for the hundreds like myself who came to Christ in that church.
Indeed, without hundreds of Lottie Inrigs, T.T. Shields would have had no voice. To assert otherwise is to make church history a narrative of ‘celebrities’, when the reality is better expressed in these concluding lines of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (albeit she would have meant them quite differently):
‘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’.
Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.
EVANGELICALS AND SOCIAL ACTION: From John Wesley to John Stott By Ian J. Shaw IVP. 304 pages. £14.99 ISBN 978 1 783 596 581
‘Exhilarated, Sobered, Hopeful.’ That is how Mark Greene describes his emotions as he opens the Foreword to this timely book.
I remember seeing a cartoon of a cuckoo clock with two small doors. Under one door was the word evangelism, under the other social action. The caption of the cartoon was: ‘Why is it that we don’t seem to be able to come out at the same time?’
Vital expression of gospel work
As a corrective to this dualistic attitude, Ian Shaw drills deep into the history of evangelicalism in the past two centuries. What becomes clear is that our evangelical forebears did not view social action as a distraction from gospel work, but as a vital expression of it.
After two introductory chapters, the author presents 18 examples of historical evangelical social action, each with a brief sketch of a key evangelical involved in this area.
What is particularly striking about the author’s approach is how his historical accounts speak with unusual contemporary relevance. Shaw drills deep into the gospel motivation of evangelical care for vulnerable people and attempts to tackle complex social injustices. The book reminds us that the range of this action is as varied as care for the poor, disaster relief, education, racism, health, prison reform, and much more.
Two examples particularly stood out for me. First, the work of evangelicals among those with addictions. Although this chapter is about work in the 19th century among those addicted to opium, it has many lessons for those who work both to relieve addiction and challenge the vested interests that fuel addiction. Second, work with the unemployed. Shaw writes about F.B. Meyer, who helped ex-prisoners pay their way by selling chopped word for fires. Meyer also funded ladders, pails and wash leathers to create a window-cleaning brigade for the unemployed. Perhaps this could prompt churches to find ways to encourage and fund micro-businesses among the unemployed.
In his brief conclusion Shaw sounds a series of cautionary notes concerning the limitations and pitfalls of evangelical action. It is important to ponder these caveats, yet the author is able to conclude that the combination of evangelisation of the lost and compassionate care for the needy ‘have been stitched into the regenerated DNA of Evangelical believers’.
I pray that those who read this book will be prompted to feel and express compassion for the vulnerable and oppressed in creative contemporary ways.
John Woods, Training Director of the School of Preachers, based in West Sussex.
Yes, I’ve joined the bandwagon. A little late – as always.
For several weeks, I’d seen the great and the good among Christians on Twitter posting these curious grids of green, yellow and grey boxes. ‘Wordle in six. Today was a tough one.’ ‘Wordle in two. Lucked out on my first guess.’ I knew not what any of it meant. My inner contrarian decided it was probably not worth the hype.
Chasing down the bandwagon!
Eventually, the Wordle chat reached the hallowed halls of the Jones family WhatsApp group. Then my housemate came home late from helping at a youth group because the leaders had been discussing ‘that day’s Wordle’ afterwards. Unbeknownst to me, Wordles had been wordled under my own roof. It was the final straw. I promptly chased down the bandwagon and hopped on the back. Now I’m wordling like a pro.
If the whole thing has passed you by, here’s what you need to know: Wordle is a free online word game in which players have six attempts in which to guess a five-letter word. In each attempt, players are shown which of the letters they’ve used are correct (green), which are wrong (grey), and which are the right letters in the wrong position (yellow). So, by a series of deductions – blending logic, vocabulary and chance – you solve the puzzle.
Wordle is the brainchild of Welsh-born software engineer Josh Wardle, and appeared in its current form in October 2021. By February 2022 the game had grown so popular and difficult to run that Wardle announced his decision to sell it to The New York Times. Cue an outcry of fears that the game would be put behind a paywall – and a tide of publicity that can only have increased the game’s popularity.
Simple and stimulating
So, what’s the appeal? Well, it’s gently intellectually stimulating. And it’s gloriously simple: no app to download or accounts to create. And, perhaps most appealing of all: it’s limited. There’s one puzzle per day (the same puzzle for everyone around the world) and once you’ve solved it, you have to wait until the next day for the next puzzle. Unlike most mobile games, which aim to have you playing as long as possible, Wordle prides itself on not. If Candy Crush Saga is the sugary alcopop of mobile gaming – all spinning colours and sparkly sounds – Wordle is more like a cask-aged Scotch: designed to be savoured (if you will forgive my terribly snobbish cultural references). Which means you’re much less likely to surface from your screen with a Wordle hangover – that square-eyed, slightly guilty feeling of having been sucked into your phone for far longer than you should have been.
Creatures meant for limits
Of course, the one-a-day format makes pragmatic sense: ‘Always leave them wanting more’ is an adage for a reason. But it illustrates something important about human nature. We think that total freedom and unfettered access to something we like will make us feel good – and, boy, does the 21st century give us plenty of opportunities to test the hypothesis. But actually, we creatures enjoy things best within limits – such is the pattern of Scripture. And since we aren’t the best at moderating our own appetites, it can be helpful to have those limits imposed on us from outside.
But there’s another secret to the Wordle magic too. Following their purchase of Wordle, James Knight of the New York Times Company said on Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It’s a game that brought us all together and that’s what’s just so special about it. It’s one word a day and it’s the same word for everybody and we’re all trying to figure it out together.’
With limits, in community. From the Garden of Eden to the 21st-century: this is how humans were designed to thrive.
Rachel Jones is an editor at The Good Book Company and author of several books including Is This It? and Five Things to Pray in a Global Crisis.
Back in 2014, Sir John Houghton (1931 – 2020) agreed to be interviewed by John Emyr. That interview was translated into Welsh and appeared in the Welsh-language magazine Cristion. It now appears for the first time in English.
JE: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. When, and under what circumstances, did you first acquire a personal faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord?
JH: I cannot give a date when I acquired a personal faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. I was brought up in a strongly Christian home and was taught from an early age to pray and to read the Bible. In 1948 I went to Oxford University when I was only 16 and was surrounded by many older students who had been in the war. Some of these who were Christians befriended me and introduced me to the OICCU, the University Christian Union. To join the OICCU I had to declare my personal faith in Jesus as Saviour and Lord, which I was glad to do, but I also realised it was the first time I had openly declared it.
JE: What would you say to someone who finds it difficult to believe the Christian gospel?
JH: If they were people who thought that science held all the answers, I would ask whether they could understand and explain their mind, what it actually is and where it came from? It enables them to relate to other humans with minds. Christians believe also that God wants to relate to us and to express His love for us – and much more besides – through our minds.
JE: What main reasons do you offer for the claim that science and Christianity can complement rather than oppose each other.
JH: Science endeavours to describe how the universe and every thing in it works, and sets up natural laws to that end. But science on its own cannot say anything about where the descriptions originate or where the laws of nature come from. The scientific story cries out for a Creator! Christianity describes God as the Creator of all things, including everything that science describes. So they are mutually supporting; exploring how they fit together is an exciting and rewarding activity.
JE: Who are the Christian leaders who have influenced you most?
JH: I became involved with the Research Scientists Christian Fellowship during my period of graduate studies at Oxford and took part in some of their outreach events. Oliver Barclay, the leader of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship, himself a scientist, was a strong influence in encouraging scientists who were Christians to think deeply about how science and faith related to each other. Robert Boyd (later Sir Robert) was a leading scientist and also a leading Christian and helped me a lot during those early years in my career. I also got to know John Stott and benefited from his addresses, his books and his influence. In the early 1980s he asked me to give a series of talks on science and faith at All Souls Church, and preparing those talks helped me a lot in the writing of my first book on science and faith, Does God Play Dice? He wrote me a thank-you letter after the series of talks and said that all the participants had much enjoyed my scientific presentations, but that some had commented that they thought my theology needed some attention!
JE: As a scientist who has made a pioneering contribution to our understanding of global warming, could you please summarise the most important aspects of this phenomenon and its possible consequences?
JH: Global warming due to human activity began to occur with the industrial revolution 200 years ago because of the use of fossil fuels, first coal, then oil, then gas, which, as they burn, emit large quantities of the gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a key atmospheric constituent; it absorbs radiation emitted by the earth’s surface, and acts like a blanket over the earth, keeping the atmosphere warmer that it would otherwise be. Its concentration in the atmosphere had been substantially constant for millions of years but, due to human activity, has now risen by over 50% so that the ‘blanket’ has become thicker and the earth’s surface warmer. As a result of this increased heat, more water vapour has been evaporated from the oceans leading to an increase in average rainfall. As the extra water vapour condenses to form clouds, latent heat is released. This latent heat is the largest source of energy for the atmosphere’s circulation which has therefore become more energetic leading to more extreme weather – heat waves, floods and droughts. These will continue to become most apparent in tropical countries, in many of which there is little resilience to cope with such extreme changes in climate.
Further, as the ocean warms and glaciers begin to melt, sea level globally has begun to rise by an amount that is expected to be up to one metre by 2100. This will be difficult enough for many living by the sea in the UK. But, in many of the world’s poorer countries, hundreds of millions will be severely affected as the sea level rises and the climate changes. To give just one example, in Bangladesh over 10million people live below the one metre contour, and it is anticipated that within a century tens of millions in Bangladesh will be forced to move and will become refugees.
A big problem with getting across the seriousness of the message is the fact that much bigger climate change has already been built into the climate system than we have yet experienced. This is because, even though over 90% of the extra energy entering the climate system due to the warming process I have mentioned is taken up by the oceans, because of their large thermal capacity (at least 100 times greater than that of the atmosphere) the warming of the oceans will take many centuries to complete. This means that, even if we stopped tomorrow all extra emissions of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere, the climate system would continue to warm and to change for centuries into the future. We would not be able to reverse the warming process, and to ‘wait and see’ as some suggest would be a disastrous response – essentially putting one’s head in the sand.
JE: How important is it that we should all endeavour to be responsible stewards of our physical environment?
JH: With a still rapidly rising world population making growing demands on nature’s resources, it is imperative that not only the leaders of the world’s nations but everybody in the world recognises their responsibility to be responsible stewards of the creation that God has provided and told us to care for. Increasingly important is the need for all to recognise the damage to the environment that is already occurring through which we are not only cheating our children, but also increasingly cheating our grandchildren and generations to come – not to mention increasingly cheating natural ecosystems, for instance through large-scale losses of species unable to adapt to the changing climate.
JE: Would you agree that both public bodies and individuals should shoulder responsibility for the environment? As we consider our various roles, what should be our main priorities at present? How should we heat our homes and endeavour to reduce our carbon footprint?
JH: I agree strongly that all bodies with responsibility and influence, and indeed all individuals too, should see the need for doing all they can to reduce our carbon footprint (i.e. our use and dependence on fossil fuels). The fossil-fuel lobbies work hard to encourage those who oppose possible solutions or change of any kind.
The highest priority everywhere is for us all to recognise that we should become more efficient in our use of energy and to minimise its use when it is provided by fossil fuels. The UK Government has some good targets towards these ends, but could easily do a lot more. Sweden and Norway, for instance, are working towards zero carbon emissions by the year 2050. All of us as individuals also need to minimise our carbon footprint, for instance by ensuring that our homes are very well insulated and heated efficiently – for instance, by ground or air source heat pumps or by installing solar panels – and also that we drive an efficient car (e.g. an electric one) and think hard before we travel by air.
JE: Some people hold the view that we should use many more wind turbines on a significant scale. Others are concerned about their possible detrimental impact from a political, economic and environmental perspective. How would you reconcile the tension between these different points-of-view?
JH: There are many different possibilities regarding the changes that need to be made by governments to provide carbon-free energy. One is to remove the carbon dioxide from the effluent from coal-fired power stations and bury it in the ground. Another is to set up wind turbines; there are now large numbers being built out at sea where they do not disturb the countryside, and their cost is falling. One of the best I believe for the UK is to use tidal energy – we have some of the strongest tides in the world. In some coastal regions in Scotland and Wales, underwater turbines are generating energy from strong tidal streams. A tidal barrage across the Severn Estuary, together with tidal lagoons built along the North Wales Coast, would more than provide for Wales’ total electricity needs and also help to provide sea defences in vulnerable coastal regions. The upfront cost of such schemes is high, but the eventual cost of the energy is very low.
The International Energy Agency (IEA), that has been set up to give energy advice to the OECD countries, has thoroughly studied how carbon-free energy might be provided for the world over the period to 2050 and its probable cost. They confidently conclude that over that period the cost of its provision will be more than paid for by the savings in fossil fuels even if a large discount factor is included to allow for the fact that the cost has to be provided before the savings are realised.
JE: The United States have reduced CO2 emissions by developing ‘hydraulic fracking’ and the use of shale gas, instead of coal, in power stations. Should the UK do likewise?
JH: It is essential in considering future energy provision, that will inevitably last a long time, that a long term view is taken. One of the biggest problems with governments – and ours in particular – is that they fail to do this. You mention ‘fracking’, for instance, as a possibility that is now widely used in the United States. From an environmental point of view, for a given amount of energy, ‘fracking’ produces less carbon dioxide than burning coal. However, great care has to be taken with where it is done and with the actual process so that there is no leakage of the ‘fracking’ gas into the atmosphere. It is also argued that it could act as an intermediary source of energy until less polluting ones are available. That argument must, however, not be used as an excuse for not doing everything possible to provide the most effective renewable energy systems as early as possible, and for ensuring that all the major world governments recognise the extreme urgency of doing so.
JE: What would be your advice to young people with an interest in science and who may be considering their future career?
JH: I would want to encourage them to pursue a scientific career, taking into account first the science which most appeals to them. I have enjoyed enormously the exciting challenge science has provided for me. Then, secondly, to consider as well as they are able the likely uses of that science and its relevance to the community at large. That of course is not easy to predict in advance. For instance, I could not have predicted the importance of what I began to do in terms of its relevance to the climate-change issue. Then, thirdly and most importantly, I would encourage them to pray about it. I recognise many answers to prayer during my career for which I am truly grateful.
JE: In your recent autobiography, In the Eye of the Storm, you have explained the importance of teamwork and co-operation in the field of scientific endeavour. How important is such co-operation in other walks of life?
JH: As science has progressed and knowledge increased, there are fewer instances of lone researchers; much more work is carried out by teams. In any case, whatever the scientific problem, progress can often be made more rapidly through discussion and debate with fellow scientists introducing a wider range of knowledge and skills into the discussion. I would also argue that, in areas other than science, good ideas develop more rapidly and effectively if opened up to discussion with others; also bad ideas tend to disappear quite rapidly after such treatment. In the discussion of matters related to faith, I have found the same is true. As Christians toss their beliefs and experiences to and fro with others, spiritual perspective can be enhanced and key elements of faith strengthened. In addition, others who are not yet believers can be brought to faith by being involved in such discussions.
JE: What keeps you occupied these days?
JH: My main task recently has been to revise the textbook I wrote some 20 years ago, Global Warming: the Complete Briefing for its fifth edition. This has been a much bigger task than I expected, partly because I work much more slowly than when I was younger, and also because of the rapid growth of relevant material. For instance, the most important information available for the revision is information from the fifth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published around the beginning of 2014 (I was involved in the first three IPCC reports between 1990 and 2001). It consists of three volumes, each with 1,500 A4 pages summarising the latest information. I also still give occasional lectures, and I am still able to enjoy walking in the Snowdonia National Park where I am privileged to live.
JE: What books have influenced you most during your life and which ones have you enjoyed reading recently?
JH: Apart from the Bible I have been most influenced by books relating science and faith to each other, for instance books by John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath and Sam (R.J.) Berry. Recently, I have been much helped by Tom Wright’s Bible commentaries and also have been much stimulated by some of his other books, such as How God Became King, exploring what might be called the ‘big picture’ of the Christian Faith. Most recently I have been helped by The Selfless Gene: Living with God and Darwin by Charles Foster that provides perspective on both creation and evolution. It does not answer all the questions, but suggests helpfully where answers might be found.
JE: Amongst the various volumes you have written, which one is your personal favourite?
JH: Most of my books have been science textbooks or books attempting to relate science to faith. I believe the book I was most pleased to write is my autobiography. But to say I wrote it is not actually true. It came into being because of a letter I received completely out of the blue by someone I did not know who, because of her deep interest in the environment coupled with her Christian faith, wanted to write my autobiography. Gill Tavner was a wonderful ghost writer who wrote a book – that everybody seems to find very readable – that I could never have written for myself, but nevertheless I recognise as my story.
Climate latest from the IPCC
Human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world, despite efforts to reduce the risks.
Moreover, it is the people and ecosystems least able to cope which are being hardest hit, said scientists in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released within the last month.
‘This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction,’ said Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC.
The IPCC says: ‘The world faces unavoidable multiple climate hazards over the next two decades with global warming of 1.5°C (2.7°F). Even temporarily exceeding this warming level will result in additional severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible. Risks for society will increase, including to infrastructure and low-lying coastal settlements.’
It adds: ‘Increased heatwaves, droughts and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as trees and corals. They have exposed millions of people to acute food and water insecurity, especially in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, on small islands and in the Arctic.’
The report was approved by 195 member governments of the IPCC.
THE LEAST, THE LAST & THE LOST: Understanding poverty in the UK and the responsibility of the local church By Mez McConnell Evangelical Press. 527 pages. £16.99 ISBN 978 1 783 973 286
There can be no doubt that this is a book that needed to be written and deserves to be read widely. It reminds me in some ways of Urban Harvest by Roy Joslin (also published by Evangelical Press and referenced by the author in this book); a before-its-time book on how to reach working-class communities with the gospel.
McConnell’s book is divided into four parts. Part one provides a carefully researched in-depth analysis of poverty in Britain. Part two explores what the Bible says about poverty. These two sections will be fairly familiar to most evangelical Christians, but the impact of having all the data gathered in one place is overwhelming and compelling.
Part three is a blistering critique of the perceived inadequacy of the evangelical church’s approach to ministering to the poor in the UK. It is a devastating demolition job. The author suggests that some efforts at engaging with the poor can be an exercise in a tokenism that can do more harm than good. Food banks, debt counselling, short-term mission trips to deprived areas can create dependency, reduce personal responsibility and actually hinder the development of strong disciples. Not everyone will agree with all these conclusions, but it is helpful to be aware of potential limitations of some ministries of mercy.
Part four suggests an alternative proposal for the churches’ priorities in reaching the least, last and lost. This proposal puts the local church at front and centre of the whole task of reaching lost people in working-class areas, and training those who serve among them. The main examples come from the author’s work of planting churches among the housing schemes in Scotland (https://20schemes.com).
1. One can get the impression that the only thing the middle-class church in the UK is good for is the cash they give to support work in deprived areas.
2. Most of the examples in this book come, for obvious reasons, from the author’s own experience in Scotland. I would have been interested to hear a bit more about what it is like to be poor in a predominantly middle-class area. There are many such pockets of poverty on the South Coast where I live. There are similar issues attached to reaching these groups, and planting churches among them, that have similar but not identical issues to those faced by the author in the 20 Schemes in Scotland.
3. McConnell says that he is sometimes accused of having a ‘chip on his shoulder’. I guess that there is something wearing about being a ‘lone voice on this issue’. At times the stories of the author’s accounts of engagement with middle-class leaders presents a stereotype of him as a valiant hero fighting single-handedly against a bunch of middle-class softies. This might militate against the desire for the understanding and sacrificial partnership so eloquently called for in this book.
Something of the healthy partnership that does exist is reflected in the helpful Spotlight chapters dotted throughout the book, where a variety of different voices speak of the importance of raising the profile of gospel work in deprived areas.
4. This thought-provoking book will be wasted if it does not lead to a deeper engagement between middle-class and working-class congregations.
Some Christians like a good telling-off, that leads to the promise that lessons will be learned and priorities adjusted. Yet when it comes to it, little changes.
Jemar Tisby in his brilliant book The Color of Compromise, speaks of the need of an ARC to overcome racial disharmony: Awareness – Relationship – Commitment. A similar ARC is required if the UK church is to seriously engage with this book.
Caused to think
Mez McConnell’s book has made me think about how I can increase my awareness, develop relationships and make a meaningful commitment to works like 20 Schemes. Read the book, reflect on it and draw your own conclusions.
John Woods, Training Director of the School of Preachers, based in West Sussex.
I have to confess to being a bit of a news junkie. It’s much to do with the work that I trained to do, my love of writing and, I suppose, a lifelong thirst for information.
I guess my first introduction to news was the 6pm news on BBC Radio 4 when I was a child. I’m not that old, but television never featured in my household – much to the amazement of my schoolfriends who talked about the latest episode of Neighbours every lunch hour.
The evening meal was bang on 5.30, 20 minutes after my father walked in from work. Radio 4 would be switched on at 6pm on the dot and we’d listen while my father washed the dishes and two of us children dried up (‘Girls, there’s another teaspoon here… !’).
Ironically, a key memory from that early introduction to world news happens to be the dulcet and authoritative tones of the then Russia correspondent Bridget Kendall, back in the days of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – when Vladimir Putin was just starting out on his political ambitions.
Today, my children enjoy – or suffer, depending on their mood – my obsession with news and current affairs. But I do have to exercise discernment when it comes to switching off. To be frank, asking me to switch the news off can be like asking me to chop off my hand.
But needs must. I’ve had to accept it’s not always a good thing to fill my mind with the sadness and tragedy that is in the world. And more so for my children’s sake. The Russia/Ukraine war has convicted me like never before that I should not always have rolling news on while I’m cooking, sorting the washing, tidying, writing…
The apostle Paul witnessed and personally experienced some pretty horrendous things, yet he exhorted the Christians in Philippi to think on ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy…’.
What I hear, my children may hear; what I see, they may see. Is it wise, I have to ask myself, to expose the young and spiritually and emotionally immature minds in my household to the terrible events we hear about every day?
Accessing the news does have its advantages: a child dashes into the living room or the kitchen because they’ve overheard the imminent launch of a space shuttle or they want to see the Queen show the nation the cards she received on her Platinum Jubilee.
But the nature of news induces anxiety. Our children and young people are worried. A teen hears a mention of a potential World War III and of fears that President Putin could resort to nuclear war. ‘Could this really happen?’ they ask.
The pandemic years have already fostered a climate of fear and mental instability in many of our children and young people. They are more vulnerable; they understand more than ever their own mortality.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul encouraged the saints to ‘not be anxious about anything’. Let’s help ourselves and our children not to be anxious, by exercising wisdom in what we unnecessarily expose them and ourselves to.
Of course, it’s getting a balance – we know we are in the world and not of the world. Our children cannot be protected from knowing and understanding the times in which we live, and as parents we have the God-given opportunity to provide our children a Scriptural perspective on what is happening in the world.
From the beginning of time, God is sovereign and makes wars cease when He so chooses. He is working His purposes out. There is no fear in Christ and in Him alone our hope is found. Isn’t that the best news we can expose our children to?
‘Imperfect Mum’ has both sons and daughters. She attends a Baptist church somewhere north of Watford.
Jimmy Carr’s comedy is certainly not to everyone’s taste: he has built his career on telling risky one-liners.
In his Netflix show His Dark Materials (the clue is in the name), he played with the idea of career-ending jokes, and one such joke may have proved his point.
I am not going to defend his approach or humour. Still, when I finally heard the joke that many described as deeply disturbing, I heard it not as laughing at the Holocaust but as an attempt to expose current prejudices against the gypsy community (prejudices I have heard not infrequently in the area where I live).
Comment sections in the newspapers reflected this divided response: some heard an appalling, cruel and dehumanising joke, while others heard satire and couldn’t understand what the problem was. It has made me wonder whether satire and irony are increasingly difficult to use.
People feel offence despite the intention of the person communicating. It is as though they are speaking different languages. Maybe Jimmy Carr’s problem was that he is so familiar with his satirical form he took it for granted that people would get the joke. Perhaps he was deliberately stoking the culture wars. Maybe he knew the audience he was talking to and geared it for them.
It is hard to put it through a humour filter when you are close to something. In recent years my name has become a meme. It appears on Twitter as #karen and #karenoftheday and is not a compliment. According to Wikipedia, it is ‘a pejorative term for a white woman perceived as entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is normal’. It refers to an unreasonable and, at times, aggressive woman. The stereotype even includes a short bob haircut just like mine. I recall being teased with the phrase ‘a typical Karen’. I knew it was being used playfully, but it was hard to laugh along. The motivation of the joker didn’t make me feel any better, but I smiled and let it pass. I confess I’m not too fond of the stereotype. This is, of course, trivial, but other issues are much more significant.
As Christians, we need to try and be aware of people’s sensitivities. This is increasingly difficult because our society is fragmented, and we can be less confident of what common ground we share. The culture wars have created a world in which communication can feel risky. We don’t want to provoke others unnecessarily; instead, we want to win a hearing for the gospel. The gospel alone should be the challenge for people, not our carelessness of expression.
The words we use matter. The wrong turn of phrase, a joke not understood, sarcasm and irony, can cause division instead of clarity. Having worked as a social worker with feminist colleagues, I still wince when I hear the word ‘ladies’ in church and prefer to use ‘women’. However, in parts of the North, I find myself with many women who happily own and use the word ‘ladies’. Understanding who we are talking to is essential. Taking care of our expression choice is today’s equivalent of Paul’s principle in 1 Corinthians 9:19: ‘Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible.’
One of the things I do in ministry is to provide feedback to students practising Bible talks. Part of the exercise is learning from feedback what others actually hear despite what was said. It can come as a surprise.
When talking to people outside the church, this phenomenon increases – it can be as though we speak a different language. Things that we know, truths we love, vocabulary and expressions which have shaped us and nourished us, are foreign to many people.
We need to step back and try and communicate these truths to people who have never heard of them before. We cannot take anything for granted. Jimmy Carr may have damaged his career by assuming that he could get away with a ‘career-ending joke’. For us, the stakes are higher; we do not want our foolish words to be ‘gospel-ending conversations’. Instead, we need to be aware of the gaps and work hard to bridge them as lovingly and gently as we can.
Karen Soole is the women’s worker at Trinity Church, Lancaster and the Women’s Ministry Director for Anglican Mission in England.