Start and end of life threatened in upcoming Westminster votes


As I look ahead, if I was to pick two significant future challenges, they would be start-of-life law change and end-of-life law change. It is not implausible that there could, within months, be major votes at Westminster on legalising both assisted suicide and also the ‘decriminalisation of abortion’.

In March, the Home Secretary introduced a Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in the House of Commons. It is a Government Bill and so will be given plenty of time for debate and will be considered a priority. It’s also what is called a ‘Christmas Tree Bill’.

Wide scope

What that means is that is it a very broad Bill, with a wide scope. For example, if passed, it will lead to tougher sentences for child sex offenders. It will give the police more powers to tackle protests that prevent businesses from carrying out their work. The age of retirement for judges will be raised to 75, and there is a whole host of other measures, too.

A Bill like this, with its wide range of ‘reforms’, is as a result more open to being amended on a range of other issues. Given the nature of this Bill, it is our assessment that there’s a much stronger possibility that it could be used to change the law on abortion. We’ve already witnessed attempts to put amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill to make abortion in England and Wales more widely available. Back then, the Speaker of the House of Commons ruled that amendment as outside the scope of the Domestic Abuse Bill and so it was withdrawn. It is much less likely that a similar amendment would be out of scope of this new Bill.

Legal safeguards

At the moment, there are certain legal safeguards in criminal law. It is, for example, legally necessary to get two doctors to sign off an abortion. It’s legally required that it meets certain specific grounds. Now of course, sadly, the interpretation of this law is very, very broad and, tragically, it’s been used to perform 9 million abortions since records began. But if you removed the final legal safeguards that do still exist, you open the door to abortion on demand, for any or no reason. If we’ve had 9 million abortions under the already very liberal laws since 1967, imagine how much worse the situation will be if it becomes all the more available.

The challenge on assisted suicide could come via an amendment to the very same Bill. This raises the highly disturbing idea that you could see votes on legalising assisted suicide and making abortion more available around the same time.

Then there is the rumour of an upcoming Queen’s Speech. This would set out the UK Government’s post-Covid-19 legislative agenda. A new NHS Bill is expected which will introduce various reforms. Once again, such a Bill will be fairly broad in scope and as such, it could see an assisted-suicide amendment tagged on.

Pray for God’s wisdom

This is the ‘mucky business’ of politics. It’s a world of deals, strategies, feints and counter-feints. But knowing about challenges ahead of time means we can be praying and preparing. Perhaps the most important way of helping is to pray for God’s wisdom, grace and favour as ‘onside’ MPs seek to persuade colleagues to reject dangerous changes in the law when it comes to assisted suicide and abortion.

It helps, when facing challenges like this, to remember God is sovereign. King Jesus is on the throne and His agenda will ultimately win the day. In fact, the biggest game-changer is the Lord Himself and so, despite these two significant and serious challenges, we can still face the future with faith, hope and expectation that, whatever the outcome, God can still bring good, even from evil.

James Mildred

James Mildred is the Communications Manager for CARE (Christian Action Research and Education) http://www.care.org.uk

Escaping Spiritual Abuse


There is no reason to doubt the good motives of the book: to help identify spiritual abuse, ‘to seek better response [to it] and prevention [of it]’ (p.39, cf. p.17) and to help us think ‘about what healthy leadership and healthy Christian culture look like’ (p.3).

In large part (but not all) the book is successful, but it has weaknesses.

On the positive side, the book is academically well supported by other writings on abuse and by evidence from those who have reported being abused – many quotes from respondents are included.

Victims can feel well listened to and also that this book is a key stepping-stone in the right direction. It is clearly informative and will help many to empathise and respond better to abuse that has happened – and to create cultures that limit potential for abuse in future.

A very helpful checklist of questions is included that can be used by all in the congregation. These provide an early-warning system to identify cultures that could facilitate abuse, but also lead churches in a better direction.

There is also much-appreciated humility in the book. There is recognition that what the authors are seeking to do could be used as a weapon against the church (p.4, p.7) though an example is given of one such concerned person who ‘now having listened to us … was completely on board’ (p.37).

Biblical rigour needed

Nonetheless, it won’t (yet) have everyone ‘completely on board’. For that to happen, the book needs Biblical rigour. Despite many good points and observations being made (such as descriptions of coercive control and elitism within a church or within wider tribes), there is a real danger that the book could fail to gain the support of wider sections of the Biblical church and so weaken the remedy that the authors (and victims and others) so keenly want to see developed.

The book can, at times, feel like reading a sociology essay or management improvement manual. However, the main weaknesses are its lack of Biblical rigour and its current definition of spiritual abuse. The consequent implications, I believe, are dangerous – though not irreparable – as they seem, on occasion, to collide with Biblical examples to the contrary. For example, the impression given that any behaviour resulting in isolation or exclusion is universally bad (contra 1 Cor. 5:2) or that all expectation to conform must also necessarily be bad (contra Rom. 8:29).

It is important that these things be corrected and that Biblical discipline, when properly applied, should not be called spiritual abuse. The current definition, however, does not guard against this attack on the Bible and, indeed, may actually serve to make Biblical discipline even rarer, which, given the current widespread lack of discipline in the church, is not an insignificant concern. It is not just coercion and control that bring spiritual abuse but, also, a lack of Biblical discipline (including, for example, not dealing with false teachers). Where Biblical discipline is not exercised, this abdication of responsibility is also a form of abuse – though less recognised – in that it does not protect the wider flock (or other members in a youth group, for example) and causes great harm – and potentially eternal harm.

Thankfully, the authors model what they seek to teach in humility, and they recognise that their definition of spiritual abuse is a work in progress and are open to suggestions for improvement.

The authors recognise that there will not be agreement on all points of doctrine (p.45). However, they are less clear that there needs to be a Biblical response of discipline when essential doctrines/behaviour are not held to.

Any future edition of this book would benefit from including scenarios that deal with these matters – whether they relate to a local church or to a whole denomination – though it would be a brave book that did so. We wait and see…

Steven Hanna

Steven Hanna is minister of Christ Church, Exeter, in the Free Church of England

On Q. And You. And…


Our lives take place increasingly against a background of conspiracy theories.

From the vaccines altering your DNA, to the accusations that the US election was ‘stolen’, to QAnon, we seem surrounded by frightening scenarios of all kinds. It is not that conspiracies never ever happen. It is more our willingness to believe them so readily which makes me wonder.

Why is the contemporary world so awash with these things? And why should Christians think twice before buying into them? Here are some general thoughts to bear in mind.

First, we should realise that the Postmodern mindset, which informs modern society, sets us up for conspiracy theories. Unlike a Christian worldview, it doubts that there is such a thing as truth, and sees all communication as manipulation of the weak by the strong. If we accept this, then everything is actually a conspiracy.

Second, because a lot of people like to believe something, that doesn’t mean it’s true. As Christians especially we should understand that. Think of the success of  The Da Vinci Code. The human psyche loves the sensational rather than everyday facts and evidence. Third, as our world becomes more

apocalyptic in its feel, it is easy for Christians to forget the truth of common grace. The Bible does not see every non-Christian as a threat, or worse, some scheming demon. They are fallen sinners, yes, but relatively speaking many are good, sensible people, and all are made in God’s image. Let’s keep things in perspective.

Personality types?

Maybe some personalities are more prone to conspiracy theories. Here the book Educated  by Tara Westover is instructive. In it she tells her story of being brought up in Idaho by her Mormon family who live ‘off grid’ – no birth certificate, avoidance of government, public schooling, hospitals and medication, which are all, according to her very dominant father, a conspiracy of the ‘illuminati’. Meanwhile, their own home is a violent and abusive place, something of a bunker prepared for ‘end-time’ – firstly linked with the supposed millennium Y2K catastrophe which never materialised. The only ray of hope comes as Tara is discovered to have a gift for singing and her father obviously enjoys the congratulations and reflected glory. Later, as she begins to break away and attends Brigham Young University, she hears a lecturer describing bipolar syndrome and immediately feels she is listening to a description of her dad – depression, paranoia, euphoria, delusions of grandeur, persecution complex. Are those of us with a bent towards such things more prone to conspiracy theories?

The recent Netflix docudrama  The Social Dilemma  is a ‘must-see’. Put together with the help of those who have worked in powerful positions within Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it raises big questions about the ability of the internet to promote conspiracy theories, and indeed to destabilise society.

The internet

We should realise that the AI search engines behind the screen are not there with the object of you finding truth. They cannot even recognise truth. The algorithms are optimised to ‘success’ for advertisers – which simply means keeping your attention. They will, therefore, tell the conspiracy theorist basically what he wants to hear – and they are very good at calculating that. Hence, for example, given the same question, they are likely to point Republicans to certain websites and Democrats to others – with the result that both sides see each other as ‘stupid’. Your internet search for ‘the facts’ is frequently not what you think it is. Is this a conspiracy?

John Benton

John Benton is Director of Pastoral Support at The Pastor’s Academy, http://www.pastorsacademy.org

Treasures from the lives of Scottish Christians for today


This is an excellent, scholarly, book, recounting of the story of the church in Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries through the personalities involved.

The beginning of the 16th century was the time of the Reformation ignited by Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg castle. Through reading the Bible, Luther rediscovered the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. He realised that simply by believing in Jesus Christ he was made right with God and was fit for heaven. This was an abhorrent doctrine to the corrupted medieval Roman Catholic church which was committed to salvation by works. According to this teaching you had to live a good enough life to enter heaven or pay your way instead.

Early in the 16th century, the Reformation doctrines reached the shores of Scotland, and Donald Macleod recounts how Patrick Hamilton (1504-1528) and George Wishart (1513–1546) were the first Scots to preach them and die as a result. Next came John Knox (c.1514–1572) who became famous for his fiery preaching and uncompromising adherence to the gospel. Knox was a major contributor to the  Scots Confession  (1560) and  First Book of Discipline  (1560) which were mileposts in Scotland becoming a Protestant country.

In the following chapter Macleod introduces Andrew Melville (1545–1622), an academic recognised by his European peers, who was responsible for the production of the  Second Book of Discipline (1578) which laid the foundations for Scottish presbyterianism. The next theologian Macleod presents to us is Robert Bruce (1555–1631), not to be confused with Robert Bruce, King of Scotland (1274–1329). Bruce was an apprentice of Andrew Melville and he became the Minister at St Giles, Edinburgh. He was a favourite of King James VI, but later in his ministry he was exiled by the same king.

Founder of Reformed Church

Macleod then tells us about Alexander Henderson (c.1583 –1646) who was one of the drafters of the National Covenant (1638) and, as such, was one of the founders of the Reformed church in Scotland. The National Covenant rejected King Charles I attempts to impose the English Book of Common Prayer on the Scottish church. Henderson battled for a free Scottish church and Parliament.

The next two theologians Macleod tells us about continued in the same line: Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661), author of  Lex, Rex and David Dickson (1583–1663). These gospel-hearted men thought long and hard about the relationship between church and state. Rutherford was an attendee at the Westminster Assembly (1643–1653) which produced the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), a summary of Reformed christian doctrine. The final theologian Macleod describes is Robert Leighton (1611–1684) who became Archbishop of Glasgow, and Principal of the University of Edinburgh from 1653 to 1662. He wrote a famous commentary on 1 Peter.

I really enjoyed reading this book and finding out about these men of God who did battle for the gospel in their life and times. In our day and age it is unfashionable to be a Christian and even more unfashionable to be interested in the history of the Scottish Reformation! However, for the searcher after truth, there are treasures to be dug up in the lives of these Scottish Christians. This book contains many of them and I highly recommend it.

I came to Christ as a transgender person – this is what happened next


I hope we can all agree that teaching of Biblical gender should be truthful yet positive and compassionate.

But what does that really look like from the perspective of someone who presents as transgender? How does the Church ‘deal with’ someone who professes to be both Christian and transgender? Well, that was the position my church found itself in when I came to faith in early 2017.

What follows is a short reflection of my experience of coming to faith at a time when I identified as a trans woman (ie a male to female transsexual) and of being ministered to as I sought to reconcile my cross-gender lifestyle with Biblical truth around gender and sexuality.

Background

First, a little background. I was born male, but struggled with and acted upon cross-gender feelings from early childhood. Despite those feelings, I married and have two children. But in 2001, at the age of 38 and overwhelmed by feelings that my life as a man, husband and father was a ‘lie’, I transitioned and began living as a woman. I underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2004. In 2011, I began a co-habiting relationship with a male partner. That ended abruptly and badly in 2017, rendering me homeless.

It was in circumstances of near brokenness that I found my way to a small but lively Pentecostal church (FGC). There I undertook Bible study, discipleship classes, a course called ‘Going Deeper’ based on the teachings of Ellel Ministries, and became an enthusiastic cake baker! In August 2018, I was baptised. In early 2019, I began also attending an Evangelical Anglican church (StM’s). There I undertook the Alpha Course, which honed the basis of my faith.

There followed a period of intense and often painful reflection on the causes and consequences of my gender confusion. This was initiated by the growing realisation that my gender transition had not resolved my lifelong struggle around who I was and by feelings of regret that my transition had affected others, especially my children. Over time and with the support of FGC and StM’s, I came to understand that I was in denial about my true gender; that my feelings of being ‘a woman trapped inside a man’s body’ were not the result of some biological accident at birth, but rather the result of parental wounding and self-rejection; that my true identity was in what God had ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’.

And so it was that, in November 2019, reborn in my true identity, I reverted to my birth gender. My detransition marked the end of a 56-year long struggle around my identity. It had taken me to the point of attempting to end my life and numerous other periods of crisis requiring psychotherapeutic input. It had also seen a once-promising legal career ended prematurely. Yet it wasn’t until I came to faith in 2017 that I began to make any sense of it all. And, ultimately, through God’s grace, it brought me back into a right relationship with Him, to a position where I am beginning to stand in His strength as the man He intended me to be.

So, what part did those in my church play in that journey? What did they get right and where could they have done more? These are my thoughts based on my experience. They are shared in the prayerful hope that they will be of use to those who find themselves ministering in this difficult but increasingly important area (important because the incidence of trans-regret is rising). They are also offered as a testimony to the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit in me and those who have walked with me this past four years. Please bear in mind that much of what I say will be specific to my particular situation, some thoughts will be generalisations and every situation will be different. Nor is any of this rocket science, so please forgive me if anything I say comes across as patronising.

Acceptance (by which I mean simply being treated like everyone else) was critical in those difficult first few months. FGC had an impressive history of outreach work with the marginalised and of bringing such people to faith. That was a blessing and was reflected in the welcome I received. There was a real sense that I was accepted for both who I was and where I was emotionally and spiritually. To be referred to, addressed and accepted as a woman (however deluded I was) was important for me at that time.

I became aware later that some comments had been made by certain lay members – ranging from my need for urgent spiritual deliverance (!) to which toilet I was to use – but I was not made aware of those at the time. For me, that was important, i.e. that I was protected from any ‘chinese whispers’. Believe me, a trans person does not need to be reminded (as I was when visiting another church) within five minutes of entering the building that they are different by being shown the ‘gender neutral toilet’ (yes, that’s what it was called even though it had a disabled sign on the door!). At FGC and StM’s, I have no doubt that, had conversations been necessary, then they would have been handled sensitively and spoken in love.

I was open about my trans status from the outset and was happy to share my story. So perhaps that made it easier for the ministers at FGC and StM’s to understand me and my journey. Not all trans people will be as open. If so, engage with and get to know the individual. I would suggest that getting to know them is YOUR responsibility, however difficult you might find that. Try to understand the person’s journey and their struggle. Initially, it is about building a relationship with the individual and understanding and acknowledging the very real pain that trans people feel when struggling with their gender identity. Only then, and only in time, is it about helping that person build a right relationship with God.

Coming to see God’s plan

The journey between coming to faith and detransitioning took me in excess of 2½ years. Such was my brokenness, it took me that long to achieve a sufficient level of head knowledge (heart knowledge is a work in progress) and confidence to step back into my true identity. It is important to understand that there is no ‘quick fix’. The individual needs to be afforded the time and space in which to grow their faith and come to their own understanding of God’s plan for their gender and sexuality.

There was Biblical teaching around gender/ sexuality/marriage/etc at both FGC and (more so) StM’s. Neither compromised on Biblical truth. I recall feeling uncomfortable after sitting through a sermon on Romans 1 and in that moment I would have appreciated a quiet word to check how I was feeling. Similarly, as I grew in my faith and started to question the contradiction between my trans identity and Biblical gender, I would perhaps have benefitted from a chat to check my understanding and to answer any questions. Maybe there was a reluctance to address the ‘elephant in the room’, or perhaps it was a lack of awareness of the sensitivities that trans people feel around Biblical teaching on gender and sexuality. Either way, both need to be addressed so that the individual feels supported.

The opportunity for prayer ministry became increasingly important the more I struggled with the knowledge that my transition had resolved nothing and that my status as a trans woman was incompatible with my faith. I was blessed that both FCG and StM had active prayer-ministry teams. FGC had a healing and deliverance ministry team trained by Ellel Ministries. This meant I was easily able to step into ministry when, in/around March 2019, I reached the point of being overwhelmed with feelings of regret and confusion about my gender identity and the team was able to lead me in faith to confess, repent and seek forgiveness for my past. The healing continues, but availability of an appropriately trained ministry team just then was crucial.

I was truly blessed that those who walked with me were alive with the Holy Spirit working in and through them to heal my brokenness. No more so was this the case, I believe, than when my minister at FGC agreed to baptise me in August 2018. I was, at that time, an openly trans woman with only a limited understanding of the nature and extent of my sin. It could be argued that baptism was an affirmation of my ungodly lifestyle choice: indeed I know now that some concerns were expressed about me being baptised. But I believe that the decision to baptise me was the result of my minister being convicted by the Holy Spirit to loose His supernatural healing power in me. And it worked because a few months later I was led to seek healing ministry. And the rest, as they say, is history. PTL.

I would recommend Caleb Kaltenbach’s book, Messy Grace – How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction. Kaltenbach makes a passionate and compassionate case for the Church to welcome, love and nurture members of the LGBT community and challenges those in ministry to think through their responses to questions such as: ‘Would you allow a trans woman to attend your women’s ministry?’ I was. But, whatever your personal answer to that question, Kaltenbach’s message is clear – that churches need to foster a new sense of compassion and empathy for those who are thinking, speaking and acting in ways with which you might not agree. He argues that you need to overcome your own inner resistance to getting involved in a relationship with such people. Because, as he says, the real mark of spiritual maturity is how you treat someone who is different from you. And isn’t that how all of us want to be treated? Isn’t that how Jesus would have responded to the LGBT community?

Photo: (Left to Right) Stephen Coles in December 1991 – December 2017 – September 2019 – November 2019. Courtesy of Stephen Coles

Stephen Coles

Stranded! But God is at work…


An evangelical Middle East chaplain is playing a key role in resolving a long-running dispute which has left five sailors stuck on an abandoned tanker for years.

Andy Bowerman, Regional Director for the Mission to Seafarers, has been visiting the stranded crew of the Panama-flagged MT Iba since May 2019 to ensure they have adequate food, water and fuel – as well as responding to their requests for spiritual support and to questions about what motivates him to help them.

The Iba is currently grounded of the coast of Umm Al Quwain, in the United Arab Emirates. It was abandoned by the vessel’s owner, and the seafarers’ wages have not been paid for two and a half years. If the crew leave before the money they are owed is paid, they will lose their right to claim it. They might also face difficulty going ashore because of UAE immigration rules.

Regular contact

Speaking to en from Dubai, Bowerman said: ‘We have had regular contact with the seafarers since May 2019 when they first reported themselves to be unsupported – abandoned – by their company. We have visited them at the anchorage around once each month since that time and ensured that they have adequate food, water and fuel. We have made contact with families, etc. in their home countries – India, Pakistan and Myanmar. When not in person we remain in contact via WhatsApp.

‘I speak to them each week. When asked, I and our small team always share the reason why we do what we do. We tell seafarers in this case that we follow a God of justice and compassion, one who longs for everyone to find freedom. In this case we have been able to connect the chief engineer – Naywin from Myanmar – to another abandoned seafarer who is a captain, also from Myanmar. That captain is a Christian and he regularly shares Bible readings and prayers with the crew. We have been able to get our chaplains to visit families at home and have had a local church support the family of another crew member, Riasat Ali, back in Karachi, Pakistan.’

He described conditions on the vessel as ‘tough’, adding: ‘The two senior crew members have been on board for 44 months. For the last 27 they have been at anchor with minimal supplies. Conditions are basic. They have attempted to maintain the vessel as best they can given the limited resources that they have.’

Missing their families

Speaking to en from the deck of the ship, Chief Engineer Naywin said: ‘Mr Andy [has] supported us many times for everything. I miss my family. Forty-four months on board is a long time never to see them’.

Bowerman and his team have negotiated for the seafarers to receive just over 70% of what they are owed by Alco Shipping, the tanker’s owner, which hit financial difficulties resulting in the abandonment. This figure is considered a very good settlement in such circumstances. A final resolution of the seafarers’ predicament may depend on a new owner buying the Iba.

Andy Bowerman joined the Mission to Seafarers in 2018, and oversees the charity’s work in the Gulf and South Asia. This involves speaking to donors and partners on behalf of the Mission, and visiting ships for pastoral and spiritual support.

Photo: The stranded tanker.

en staff / Andy Bowerman / The Guardian

Do not lose Heart


It’s a hard time to lead sung worship in church right now. Congregational singing – the heart of our ministry – has been stripped away, and we’re left with what feels like an empty shell. The tangible, audible signs that God’s word is in fact dwelling in people richly have vanished. Like many around me, I’ve been fighting to not lose heart.

However, in ways we can’t always see, the Lord is still at work, bearing eternal fruit. And He wants to encourage us in this difficult season through the words of the apostle Paul: do not lose heart.

In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul is contrasting ministry under the old covenant law with ‘the ministry of the Spirit’ in the new covenant. Moses’ ministry was glorious. When he met with God, his face shone so radiantly that the Israelites couldn’t even look at him. But the glory faded away, so he put a veil over his face ‘to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away’ (3:13). Paul uses this image of a veil to describe how, through the law, the Israelites were blind to God’s glory.

But now, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, ‘the veil is taken away’ (3:14,16); with unveiled faces we behold God’s glory ‘in the face of Jesus Christ’ (4:6). And this glory isn’t fading away like Moses’ did. This glory is ‘ever-increasing’ as the Holy Spirit transforms us into the likeness of Christ.

Here is the promise for us, as we share in this new covenant ministry through song: as we behold God’s glory in Christ through Biblically-faithful, Christ-exalting songs, the Spirit of God is powerfully at work, making us more like Jesus. That’s a promise. Maybe we can’t see it happening, but this is the Spirit’s work as we lead others to behold Christ in song.

Just think about the significance of this for a second. Think ahead to when we’re in heaven, beholding Christ face to face. Imagine a brother or sister coming up to you to thank you for leading the sung worship during this time. (You may not even know them because they only engaged online.) They tell you how they were ready to give up on Jesus, but reluctantly came to church or tuned in one Sunday morning. They tell you that, because of the way you led them to behold Christ in song, the Spirit transformed their heart and kept them going. And now you’re around the throne, worshipping Jesus together, forever. Do not lose heart! Who knows what the Lord might be doing.

And this is why – despite his weakness, even though he’s a ‘jar of clay’ (4:7), although he’s ‘outwardly … wasting away’ (4:16) – Paul does not lose heart. You may not even be able to see those you are leading to behold Christ because they’re down the other end of a camera. Or if you can see them, they can’t sing back, and the sea of masks and empty silence makes it all feel pretty pointless. No, no it’s not. God is still working things of eternal significance in the lives of His people. Do not lose heart. Fix your eyes ‘not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal’ (4:18).

As you behold Christ in song, and lead others to do the same, the Spirit is transforming people’s lives in Jesus’ likeness. ‘Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.’

Ben Slee

Ben Slee (@BenSleeMusic) is the Music Pastor at Christ Church Mayfair in London. He’s a songwriter and the author of The Dwell Richly Course for church music leaders and musicians.

Photo: Mike Giles on Unsplash

Suspense and Fear


THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW
By 
A.J. Finn
Harper Collins. 448 pages. £8.99 
ISBN 978 0 008 333 324

Fresh in from a bracing, snow-edged walk with my neighbour, I settled down with a book she had lent me. And, for the first time in months, I didn’t really stop reading until turning the last page as my head hit the pillow.

The mystery had been solved, the suspense had been ridden out and the killer had been caught.

Compelled not so much by excellent writing or complex characters but by the pure adrenalin of wanting to know who had committed the crime.

It’s not a stand-out novel, but it is a fair representation of the most popular fiction genre all over the world. We love to read thrillers. Best-seller lists are dominated by them, and we are quick to lose ourselves in the imagined yet scarily realistic worlds of killers, stalkers and the relief of the bad guys being caught by the good guys. My neighbour is no different, as the pile of books she has lent me demonstrates.

But why is the genre so popular? What are we wanting as we grab that page-turner?

In this occasional column I’ve been keen to analyse secular reading matter and consider it from a gospel perspective. As we engage with what we’re reading with our gospel glasses on, we get an insight into what the world is bothered about, and therefore what is engaging our unbelieving friends and family as they pick up a book. It can help us adjust our own perspective as we recognise where our Biblical worldview may have slipped as we side with a particular protagonist, or are surprised by a character’s sinful habits.

In a thriller there is undoubtedly a main character or characters who are either the victim of, or witness, a crime. The reader is swept up in the suspense and horror of the situation, and we work hard to fathom who is responsible, and wait for justice to be done. The Woman in the Window has a lonely agoraphobic lady at the centre of its plot. She spends her time watching her neighbours through a camera lens pressed to the window, and counselling traumatised people online using her psychologist skills. A casual glance into a neighbour’s window allows her to witness what seems to be a heinous crime, but a frantic call to the police and further investigation leads to nothing but the possibility that she has imagined it. The narrative is from her perspective, and we feel the suspense, fear and relief as the intricacies of the plot are gradually revealed.

There’s escapist delight in disappearing into a novel for a few hours. And thrillers offer something recognisable – maybe through a familiar scene or life – but also entirely different and dramatic. An ordinary life is made extraordinary as drama hits, and we watch with bated breath as someone ‘a bit like us’ deals with ordeal after ordeal, and more often than not comes out the other side.

Fiction and art are often an echo of reality. They capture a moment that grabs us, and we’re swept into a fictional world. But as Christians we know the more magnificent, more beautiful and more life-changing reality of the truth of the Bible. While the paperback in our hands conjures up drama that transports us momentarily into the extraordinary, we are already part of a bigger, better, more-real story. The creator of the universe has stepped into our world, into our lives even, and is taking us from death to life through the servant-like, upside-down heroics of His own Son. By His Spirit, He is at work in us and through us so that we live out that Jesus-shaped life amongst our friends and family. Our workplace becomes a place in which we can hold out life-giving truth; our street becomes the scene of self-sacrificial kindness as we seek to be like Jesus; and even the mundane everyday of parenting small children takes on a new dimension as we pray for an eternal work to be happening at the kitchen table.

As I put down the book I’ve just devoured, I’m challenged as to whether I’m as gripped by what our extraordinary God is doing in our world as I have been by the intricacies of the novel’s plot. I’m challenged to look up, look out and love to know God’s hand at work all around me. But I’m challenged as well to share that wonderful, true story of our compassionate, rescuing God stepping into our rotten, dark world. That story that is so much more compelling than anything that can be found in the pages of a novel.

Maybe that should be the conversation I have as I return the book to my friend, and seek to share the mightier story of which others are simply an echo.

Felicity Carswell

Felicity Carswell is an English teacher, married to a bookseller of Christian books, and currently a stay-at-home mum to two little boys. They live in Illinois, America with the purpose of getting gospel resources out on a big scale.

Big Tech’s Tyranny: Time for ‘Duck Duck Go’ and ‘Gab’


Imagine Martin Luther without the printing press? You would never have heard of him.

In the providence of God, Luther came to prominence just at the time that the Gutenberg printing press was invented. His 95 Theses was one of the first printed books. As a result, the Reformation doctrines spread throughout Europe. No matter how much the court and church in England tried to prevent the new ideas coming in – they could not be prevented. Through the ports of Eastern England and Scotland, ships from Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and the Baltic states brought in Lutheran books and pamphlets. The ‘virus’ of Christianity could not be contained – through the traditional methods.

Fast forward a few centuries. When mainstream media were increasingly seeking to shut out and shut down any manifestations of Biblical Christianity, along came the Internet. Like the printing press it came with curses as well as blessings. Pornography, heresy and evil were enabled – but so was the preaching of the gospel. If the printing press had been entirely controlled by emperor, king or pope then the dissemination of the Reformation ideas would have been hindered if not halted. The Lord in His sovereignty overruled and the printing press became a primary means of spreading the gospel.

Today the Internet started off as a platform which anyone could use. It has now developed to the stage where for most of us it is an essential utility – like electricity or water. Along with the Internet came the development of the biggest and most powerful corporations the world has ever seen – the Big Tech quintopoly of Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and Alphabet (Google). As Amol Rajan, BBC journalist, asked; ‘They are the editors of the Internet. They have more power than any politician or journalist in history. The question that matters is not have they made the right editorial call, but rather is it right that a handful of Californian billionaires should hold such sway over the 21st century public domain?’

They have been able to amass this incredible wealth, influence and power (as I write, for example, Google are taking on the Australian Government – it is a fight in which the government is seen as the ‘David’ in a David and Goliath struggle). Much of this has developed due to the 230 exemption in US law. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 provides legal protection for any website provider – and ensures that they are not responsible for the content. In effect the Big Tech giants were handed legal immunity. They cast themselves as providers, not publishers. In old-world terms, they provide the paper and the ink, they do not publish the books.

Now that they have amassed billions in resources and a virtual monopoly on social media on the Internet, they have changed their tune. Suddenly they have decided that they are responsible for at least some of the content – although conveniently for them – not legally. This has all come to the forefront when these companies all decided to ban President Trump and then go even further by blocking one of their smaller rivals, the Parler platform. Why does this matter?

Because all of a sudden, we have non-elected, non-accountable billionaires determining what is moral for the whole world – influencing our politics, economies and education and health-care systems. If you want to know in detail how this works then can I suggest you read Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, which is a detailed, heavy and fascinating exposé of Big Tech.

What disturbs me is how blasé so many Christians are about this – and how unaware of the dangers. There are those who argue that ‘they are private companies; they can do what they want – the market will decide’. But that does not work when they are the market and when they are not subject to government legislation – or are the ones making that legislation. ‘Well, if you don’t like it – then go form your own social media platform’ is the trite answer. People have tried. Parler was a growing example of a platform that was taking on Twitter. So they got together and shut it down. It was quite depressing reading some Christians saying ‘Well, it was right wing and enabled violence, so they should have shut it down’. These Christians only knew it was ‘right wing’ because Big Tech told them so – and conveniently ignored the fact that the Capitol Hill riots were planned on Facebook and Twitter!

Do we really want to live in a world where woke Californian billionaires tell us whether we can preach the gospel on the Internet or not? Where godless unbelievers and idolaters can tell us what we can publish and if and how we can broadcast our services? Imagine if en was subject to an atheistic monopoly publisher who would only let us print if we fitted in with their ‘community standards’? It’s time for us to wake up and smell the disappearing ink. We need to seriously be considering alternatives and making sure that there is an alternative to the One World Internet. Personally, I’m getting out of Big Tech as much as I can – Duck Duck Go as a search engine, and Gab as a replacement for Twitter seem to be working so far. But we need more. Perhaps to be free of the power of Big Tech the church needs the equivalent of its own printing press?

David Robertson

David Robertson is the Director of Third Space in Sydney and blogs at www.theweeflea.com

Musalaha Testimony: ‘They are Mothers just like Us and they have Jesus in their Heart.’


A Palestinian believer writes: I am from Bethlehem. There are six of us children; it’s a perfect number. I am the youngest. I was raised here. I went to school and studied theology at Bethlehem Bible College.

A long time ago I heard about Musalaha, when I was at the Bible College. I went on a desert trip to Jordan. I remember I was recently married and how I have three children. Anyway, it was wonderful. It was really amazing, enjoying the desert and the nature there. But before I went, I thought: ‘How can I meet with my enemy, how can I speak to the Israelis?’ I was suffering a lot as at this time it was in the war, the second intifada.

It was a terrible time in our lives. You know, shooting, tanks, and curfews. It was really hard to wake up in the morning and find bullets outside your house. You think: ‘They were shot here,’ and so the next night you can’t sleep because you are worried, thinking: ‘Maybe tonight it will hit me.’ Especially when there is no electricity – you can’t hear the news so you don’t know where the shooting is. And you think it must be next to your house. All you hear are the helicopters, but you don’t know exactly where they are.

At that time I remember my stomach used to move, tremble, when I got scared. One night I was scared to death, really, I couldn’t speak. My mom prayed for me and I saw God and He comforted me and this pain went. It was the only thing that helped.

It was at this time I went to the desert with Musalaha. I remember the Israelis were sharing, saying they had only moved to Israel six months or a year ago, and that they came from Europe or America. They were not from here.

It was hard. For the first day I couldn’t look at them or speak to them or enjoy being with them. I just thought: ‘You have come here and taken our land and now you are having fun. We cannot go out of Bethlehem. We are suffering, and you moved here and are living a peaceful life.’ That’s what I thought.

On the second day I started to look at them as human beings, you know. And I thought: ‘It’s not them; it’s their government. It’s not them; it’s what they believe and have been taught.’ So I started to see them as people.

On the last day I did a drama about this, about seeing your enemy suffer and helping them as human beings. Things changed in my heart.

Now I go to monthly meetings with the Young Mothers at Musalaha. We learn more about each other. When I hear from the Israeli women, I realize that they suffer too. They have many challenges; they fear attacks just like we do. Sometimes I look at them and think they live a perfect life, but now I see that it’s not perfect.

Musalaha doesn’t treat us Palestinians any different from the Israelis, like we are weak and they are strong. They treat us with respect and give us time to speak. I see that the Israelis are good people. They are mothers just like us and they have Jesus in their heart.

Meeting together gives us the opportuniy to be together and not to build a wall between us. You know, if you don’t love someone and you don’t see them, there is a wall between you. It’s like if you have a conflict with your mother-in-law and she lives in another building, you don’t see her and so the conflict increases. You won’t try to love her because you don’t see her.

It’s the same with Israelis. If you don’t see them and meet with them and get to know them, you won’t learn how to love them. Musalaha helps bring down these walls.

I hope that in the future we can all live peaceful together and eat with each other, that we won’t look at each other as either Palestinian or Israeli, just as followers of Jesus and as human beings.

Musahala.org