RISE OF THE NONES
Understanding and Reaching the Religiously
By James Emery White
Baker Publishing. 221 pages. £9.99
ISBN 978 0 801 016 233
The blurb on the back says ‘The single fastest-growing religious group of our time is those who check the box next to the word none on national surveys. In America, this is 20 percent of the population [25% in the UK 2011 census]. And most churches are doing virtually nothing to reach them.’
This book seeks to address that challenge – reaching and engaging those who profess no religious affiliation. James Emery White is a US pastor, and the temptation would be to dismiss the book as irrelevant to the UK scene. However White’s analysis rings true of our culture and our churches too, which makes it essential reading for those serious about reaching the emerging culture.
Away from the sacred canopy
The argument of the book is in two parts. In the first part White gives a snapshot of the typical ‘none’ and outlines how the culture has arrived at its current climate. Crucially, he observes that many ‘nones’ are not hostile atheists; many are spiritual but suspicious of… (to read more click here)
co-pastor, Grace Community Church, Bedford
‘Religion’ now has a very bad name.
A friend from church was recently out for a meal with work colleagues. With the terrorist threat from jihadists now a given in modern life, the conversation turned to the evils of ‘religion.’ To their surprise, my friend, whom they knew to be a Christian, said he agreed with them. How come?
It has often been rightly said that Jesus came not to bring a new ‘religion’ but a new relationship. His hallmark was introducing an almost new name for God – ‘our Father’. He brings us into the family of God, spiritually by new birth and forensically by justification and adoption (Galatians 4.4-7).
Blind, boasting bullies
The evidence shows the Lord Jesus was vehemently against ‘religion’. ‘Religion’ focuses on us. It majors on us keeping rules, following the right example, doing good in order, supposedly, to gain favour with the Almighty.
The Pharisees were the great religionists of Jesus’s day and he rebuked them in no uncertain terms. Religion burdens sensitive people and crushes them because they know they can’t make the grade (Matthew 23.4); It turns people who think they can be good enough into boasting hypocrites (Matthew 23.5,7); It blinds people to themselves as they persuade themselves they are good enough (Matthew 23.24); It encourages people to be bullies and persecutors – ‘those who don’t keep the rules deserve to be shot’ (Matthew 23.33, 34). Instead Jesus spoke about a new heart, grace and knowing God.
The trouble is that real Christians can have a tendency ….to read more click here
‘Virginia Woolf was one of Britain’s most important writers and thinkers, who played a pivotal role at the heart of modernism in the early twentieth century.’
So says Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery. The gallery’s current exhibition on Woolf is the first to use portraiture to explore her life and includes a collection of over 140 items. Her walking stick, letters to her sister, portraits of her friends and copies of her diaries have all been brought together by guest curator Frances Spalding, author of the accompanying catalogue Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision.
The Bloomsbury Group
Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 as Adeline Virginia Stephen. Her father was a biographer and editor, her mother sat for Burne-Jones. Both of her parents had been widowed and brought into their union children from their previous marriages. This meant that Virginia lived with a medley of siblings; for much of her childhood she was one of eight children living at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington.
Woolf soon became a prominent figure in the Bloomsbury Group, which she hosted with her sister Vanessa Bell. Also within the group were her good friends Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf, who she would marry in 1927. Together, she and Leonard founded the Hogarth Press, publishing Virginia’s modernist novels as well as groundbreaking work by T.S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud and Virginia’s lover, Vita Sackville-West.
Woolf is primarily remembered by literary scholars for her unique writing style, which is often described as ‘stream of consciousness’. However, the National Portrait Gallery exhibition reveals that she was also deeply involved in politics, fashion and art. She raised funds for victims of the Spanish Civil War, posed for photographs printed in Vogue and was listed as a patron for a London showing of Picasso’s painting Guernica. The exhibition does a fascinating job of exposing this variety. However, there is at least one further aspect of Woolf’s vision that merits exploration: that of her religious belief.
‘Religion is detestable’
Like her father, Woolf seemed tired of conventional Christianity. She declared herself an atheist, was known to call religion ‘detestable’ and referred to God as an ‘old savage’. Often she wrapped her objections in jokes, as in one letter to Lytton Strachey where she declares: ‘I read the Book of Job last night – don’t think God comes well out of it.’
Nonetheless, she was always impressed with Russian novelists like Dostoyevsky who dealt with ‘the stuff of the soul’ and who ‘confound us with a feeling of our own irreligious triviality’. She was also, at times, drawn to Christian symbolism in her own writing and even seemed to experience a ‘mystical impulse’. It’s enough to convince the academic Pericles Lewis that Woolf’s work does not reject religion altogether, but rather ‘seeks new forms of the sacred that will accommodate the pluralism of modern life’.
Interestingly, he goes on to claim that Woolf was not opposed to Christianity any more than she was to atheism. Instead, she sought to explore multiple spiritual perspectives, refusing to allow one to have dominance over another. Indeed, when she does approach religion in her own writing, it is with a tone of questioning and inquiry. Of the novel Mrs Dalloway she wrote in her diary: ‘I want to give the slipperiness of the soul.’
For Woolf, religion was not a source of truth and security. Instead, her multifarious moments of mysticism seemed to be connected to her struggles with depression. In one diary entry she wrote: ‘I wished to add some remarks […] on the mystical side of this solitude […] It is this that is frightening [and] exciting in the midst of my profound gloom, depression, boredom, whatever it is….’
Woolf had long suffered with mental illness. In 1941, when she was just 59, she committed suicide by drowning herself; she filled her coat pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse. She left her walking stick on the river bank, a recent letter to her sister that explained her pain, and a collection of novels that have endured as classics of modern literature. All of them are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, and all of them point to a writer and a woman whose ‘religious vision of life’ (to quote Auden) is worth exploring further.
Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for en and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com
Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision runs until October 26, 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Trevor Dickerson encourages us to give our testimony
When we are making a significant purchase, like a car or a computer, we might look on the web or perhaps search the shops for what we are looking for.
Many of us will also take the time to check and see if what we are proposing to buy is good value for money, is reliable and has the features we need. The thing that may finally sway us in our decision is that it has a personal recommendation from a friend or work colleague, someone we trust.
Pulling or pushing?
When we think about being effective in reaching others with the gospel message, I’m reminded that over 78% of people are helped to find Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour because they have been befriended by a Christian like you and me. This means that you and I can have an impact – for the furtherance of the gospel.
However, we must also be reminded that our actions and words can also be a barrier to others. What we say and do can pull people towards faith in Christ, or push them away. Perhaps we need to bear this in mind before we open our mouth – does what I say hinder or further the work of the gospel?
Paul says ‘to one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life’. (2 Corinthians 2.16).
You may be asking: ‘How can I speak to folk and be effective in sharing Christ?’.
One way that Jesus encouraged others to commend faith in God was for them to share their testimony.
Take a few moments to look at Mark 5.19-20: ‘Jesus said, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Ten Cities how much Jesus had done for him and all the people were amazed’.
You could also look up these passages: John 4.39-42; John 9.25; Acts 26.
How can we use our testimony?
If we are going to be able to share about our faith in Jesus, how we became Christians and what that means for our lives, then we are going to need to learn to listen. It is no accident that we have one mouth, but two ears. If we listen to people, then we will have opportunities to share about our saviour.
If you read Acts 26 you will notice how Paul shared his testimony. It is in three parts. The ﬁrst is Paul sharing about his life before he met Jesus; the second is about how he met Jesus; and the third is about what changes have taken place because of his personal relationship with Jesus.
If we want to reach others with the gospel, our testimony can be a powerful tool to do so – perhaps you might want to write yours down, memorise it, and then use it.
In Acts 26, Paul uses a progression in how he speaks of his faith in Christ. He starts by talking about his life before he came to know Christ. We should make mention of this in our own testimonies. People need to know where we are coming from. But it’s important that we don’t spend too much time on this aspect, or make it too glamorous! We need to be real and not exaggerate. We might not all have been into sex, drugs and rock & roll before finding faith in Jesus Christ, but we can still speak of our own experiences. We may have had a Christian family background, as I did. We may have found school, home or work life difficult. Being able to share our real experiences is important. We must move on to talk about how and why we needed Jesus Christ to be our Saviour and Lord – and how this came about.
How we came to Christ
This is the second part of our testimony – and in many ways, the most important. In other words, we are explaining to our listener that Jesus came to save them too. They too can come to know his forgiveness, love and grace. We might, if time and opportunity arise, go on to share what our faith in Christ means to us today – yes, our testimony is always new and fresh, it’s always being brought up to date as God works in our lives – with illustrations of how God has spoken to us, how he has helped us in all sorts of different life experiences and how he speaks to us through his Word, the Bible, and through spending time with him in prayer. Make a note of these things and have them ready to share with others.
We mustn’t focus on ourselves, but on Christ – it is he who people need to come to know. Having listened to the person you are speaking with, you may only share part of your story – because that is relevant to that individual at that time. But then look for further opportunities to share the rest. We need to scratch people where they itch. In other words, having listened, what we say will be applicable to this individual. Another writer put it like this: ‘Every person is an island. We need to row around them until we can find a place to land’. Look for an opportunity for the gospel message to cross from you to them – through the work of God’s Spirit.
Try the two minute rule
Our testimonies are a powerful tool to use in recommending Jesus as saviour and Lord.
What’s the two minute rule? You might want to try out your testimony with another Christian friend – take two minutes each to share your stories. Be strict; this might be all the time you have when on a bus or train with the person next to you. Remember, you might only want to share part of it in real life, but in the exercise try sharing your whole testimony in two minutes!
If you’ve been listening to someone talking about themselves or their lives, look out for natural opportunities, like a similar situation in your own life where your faith has helped. Perhaps you might say, ‘Thank you for sharing with me about those experiences, I had a similar one myself, I know it wasn’t quite like yours, but I found that, when I prayed about it, God really helped me through it, I had a sense of peace and stability – even though it was still there.’ We mustn’t say: ‘I know exactly how you feel’. We don’t and can’t, but we can have sympathy and use our testimony to explain how our faith in Jesus Christ helps us, giving us hope and security, or freedom or peace.
We might not always get thing right. If you make a hash of sharing your testimony, confess it to God and ask him to use you again. God is bigger than our errors!
On the lookout each day
How about looking for an opportunity each day to share your testimony with the people you meet. Pray for an opportunity. I’ve found it is a prayer that God loves to respond to. I’ve been out and about, just getting on with daily life when I meet someone who, sometimes to my amazement, is open to listening to my story about faith in God.
If I’m visiting the community around the church, I nearly always ask if people are interested in ‘spiritual things’. Many want to know about the spiritual side to life, but don’t know what to believe, or who to ask. I don’t ask if people are interested in the Bible, or in church, but leave it very open – to encourage a response.
In the same way that we might recommend a product that has been useful, so we can recommend Jesus as the only saviour – my saviour!
An interview with Dr Andrew Hambler
There is conflict for many Christians in the work place.
en has asked Dr Andrew Hambler, senior lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton Business School, to bring some clarity to where Bible-believing Christians stand regarding faith in a secular workplace.
en: How, within one generation, have Christians gone from being seen as reliable employees to fearing for their jobs?
AH: In 2003 when the Sexual Orientation and the Religion and Belief Regulations came into law, creating new protections and adding to the existing body of discrimination law, things changed. Although these laws were developed with protecting people at their heart, they have had unforeseen consequences. Employers are sometimes worried that they might face a ‘harassment’ claim by a non-religious employee if they allow ‘religious employees’ to articulate their beliefs, particularly if they include some criticism (even implied) of same-sex couples, for example. This has made employers less tolerant when religious beliefs are articulated.
en: So legislation designed to protect people of faith, actually works against them?
AH: In some ways, yes. But it’s important to take a closer look at the origin of those regulations. In the days prior to and during the drafting of these laws in 2003, there was a clear connection made between religion and ethnicity. The ACAS Guide to Religion and Belief, written in 2003 to help employers understand religious discrimination, is concerned primarily with the protection of minority religions. It makes mention of accommodation of dress codes, religious symbols and so on which on the whole do not apply to Christians. In some ways I think it may have come as a surprise to those who drafted the Religion and Belief Regulations (now subsumed into the Equality Act 2010) that they have been invoked so often by Christians but I’m not sure they were really designed with Christians in mind.
en: Does the law offer any help then to Christians?
AH: At a basic level, yes. It stops people being refused jobs just because they are Christians. For example there were news reports of a hotel which did not want to employ a Christian because he wouldn’t ‘fit in’ with the other employees. Reportedly he won an out of court settlement from the employer when he began legal proceedings. This protection is helpful, of course. The problem is that it does not really help Christians to go on to express their faith when employers are hostile.
en: When ‘Joe Christian’ hears the results of a court case where a Christian has claimed religious discrimination against their employer, it pretty much always ends with the Christian losing the case. The question that many ask is why don’t we have a ‘reasonable accommodation’ provision here in the UK as they do in the USA?
AH: Reasonable accommodation sounds reasonable! In theory it requires employers to accept and ‘accommodate’ religious practices in the workplace, such as the wearing of religious symbols, using religious language, perhaps even ‘witnessing’ to other employees. However, the problem is that in the US in particular, this legal right does not have much meaning because the employer can argue ‘undue hardship’ to avoid making these accommodations. So, if there is any cost to the employer (including reputational cost) then they can say it is unreasonable to offer any accommodations at all.
So, I’m not sure whether reasonable accommodation would add very much unless it was introduced as a much stronger right (similar to the well-known right of employees with disabilities to have ‘reasonable adjustments’ made to enable them to work). What we do have in the UK is the right not to suffer ‘indirect discrimination’ because of someone’s religious beliefs, and when this right is invoked by a Christian it usually results in a court ‘balancing’ the rights of Christians to articulate their beliefs against employers’ rights to keep their workplaces secular.
en: What about the use of rational objections to discrimination? If, say, an NHS worker found herself having to agree to promote abortion, couldn’t she use a rational argument, e.g. citing the number of women who suffer depression after abortions, in order to avoid using a religious discrimination argument in a tribunal?
AH: When I speak to NHS HR managers, they often talk about the value of the ‘neutral workplace’. They see that as good practice. As such, the expression of Christian perspectives, or the using of religious arguments regarding objections to abortions, for example, are likely to evoke limited sympathy (although for doctors only there are some limited protections for conscience). But though neutrality sounds enticing, it means secularism in reality. And secularism isn’t neutral. Secular viewpoints on life and death and on issues of human sexuality, parenthood, etc., are very loaded, and one could argue that vocal Christian perspectives are sorely needed as a counterbalance to what appears to be the prevailing ethos. But the idea of ‘neutrality’ prevents this.
en: In your opinion, should a Christian use the law and make a complaint against an employer?
AH: I think that employees should always try to resolve their difficulties where possible in dialogue with the employer, and be prepared to compromise to the extent that their conscience allows. Unfortunately employers are not always equally reasonable.
In those circumstances, should Christians use the law? The courtroom is not a pleasant place. Even the boldest people find it challenging in the extreme; don’t underestimate the toll it will take on you. It is very hard to remain consistent, and your past conduct in the workplace may come out. You shouldn’t necessarily be put off, but if you have been a difficult employee or if you have been disciplined for an unrelated matter, this may be referred to in the tribunal.
So, I think I would say you need to examine your motives and past conduct very carefully and consider what the outcome may be. If you are standing for a principle, then yes, that can be good reason to go to court. But even if that is true, it depends very much upon the individual as to whether they are able to withstand the ordeal of a tribunal case. I am aware of many Christians who say they have found their faith strengthened during the stress of a tribunal claim but also many who find the experience too painful to talk about even some time after the event.
en: Do you think things will get harder for Christians in the workplace?
AH: Yes, certainly for those who want to share their faith at work. My anecdotal evidence is that some employers and certainly professional bodies (e.g. the GMC with its recently revised code of conduct for doctors) are making this more difficult.
Even for those who don’t ‘witness’ very overtly, there may be problems of conscience. For example, there is the fear which was voiced by the Coalition for Marriage that Christian teachers may be required to use resources in the classroom which promote same-sex relationships, something which for many will go against conscience. Michael Gove has gone on record to say that will not happen – but who is to say what the situation will be under a future government? There are certainly no firm legal protections for conscience for teachers built into the Equal Marriage legislation.
However, despite these particular issues, I suspect that the majority of difficulties that Christians face at work will probably continue to be the same as ever – mockery, sidelining, pressure to do something dishonest, temptation to gossip, etc. Such problems have no doubt always existed in the workplace and most Christians may find their particular ‘trials’ at work extend no further than this.
One of the major changes that Pope Francis is introducing is that he is reversing the balance. He speaks more through newspapers. In September, his reply to the editor of the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica and his interview with different Jesuit journals demonstrated this trend and the interest is evident by the broadcast media coverage generated.
Pope’s theology clarified
The more Pope Francis speaks, the clearer his theology is becoming. He has always said that the traditional dogmas and the Catechism are in the background of what he affirms and that nothing of substance changes in his remarks on God’s infinite mercy and the goodness within every human being. This is true only in part.
Different Roman Catholic interpreters have always played with the task of putting different accents on the same sheet music and Francis is deliberately putting his preferred accent — fortissimo — on another key dogma. In light of his Marianism and mission-minded approach already elaborated, the last two written outputs and interviews have shed further light on his basic view of the relationship between nature and grace.
‘A dogmatic certainty’
Talking to his fellow Jesuit journalists from across the world (September 19), Pope Francis said many things and these comments are attracting lots of positive reviews. Here we will focus on a particular one.
‘I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow.’
This Pope is not someone who likes to use dogmatic language, at least on the surface. Yet here he is using the strongest language possible. He really wants to mean what he is saying. God is in everyone’s life. This unqualified statement raises questions about what the Pope thinks of the nature of sin in human life and the reality of us ‘falling short’ of God in our sin (e.g. Romans 3.23). While teaching that those who believe in him shall be saved, the Bible is clear in saying that we are enemies of God because we are sinners and are therefore under his judgment. The Pope, instead, wants to affirm the dogma that God is present because there is always some residual ‘good’ in man.
‘Obeying one’s conscience’
One further comment by Pope Francis reinforces his dogmatic view on man’s inherent openness to God’s presence. Responding to the editor of La Repubblica (September 11), he writes the following: ‘You ask me if the God of Christians forgives one who doesn’t believe and doesn’t seek the faith. Premise that — and it’s the fundamental thing — the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart; the question for one who doesn’t believe in God lies in obeying one’s conscience. Sin, also for those who don’t have faith, exists when one goes against one’s conscience. To listen to and to obey it means, in fact, to decide in face of what is perceived as good or evil’.
Put simply: obeying one’s conscience is what God will take account of in granting forgiveness. Notice that the Pope here is not speaking of those who have never heard the gospel, but of those who don’t believe it knowing what they are doing. Apparently, to go against one’s conscience counts more than going against God’s revelation. Although the Bible teaches that there is no excuse before God’s righteous judgment (e.g. Romans 2.1), Francis here says that the conscience is the final judge to whom God will submit himself. The human conscience is the determinative factor for God’s forgiveness.
These two statements, i.e. God is in every person and obeying one’s conscience is what really matters, are thus part of a coherent ‘dogma’ of human goodness and universal salvation. What is important to observe is not so much the details of each statement, rather the general theological vision that lies at its core. Traditionally, Roman Catholicism has worked within the nature-grace scheme largely dependent on its pontifically ratified Thomistic tradition. According to this theological meta-narrative, nature, although partially flawed by sin, is elevated by grace to its supernatural end and the sacramental system of the church is the way in which grace operates this elevation.
Moreover, in the 20th century, this scheme was significantly modified and received an important endorsement at Vatican II. Whereas the old scheme implied that grace needed to be ‘added’ to nature, the new version claims that grace is already part of nature and works within itself, not as something extrinsic but intrinsic to it. Grace is inherent to nature and through the sacramental system of the church which unfolds itself more and more.
One advocate of a ‘grace-within-nature’ framework was Karl Rahner (1904-1984), also a Jesuit. His view of the ‘anonymous Christian’ stated that each human being, for its being a human being, is already graced and therefore a Christian even though he is not aware of it or does not want to be such. While not using the Rahnerian language, Pope Francis works within a similar ‘dogmatic’ framework. God is present in everyone and one’s conscience is what will ultimately count. In spite of all its missional allure and merciful attitude, what Francis is saying is not good news for gospel-centred people.
This article is from the Vatican Files Subscription Newsletter. You can opt in to receive this via the website http://www.vaticanfiles.org
Leonardo De Chirico
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057
Much has been said about equality in relation to the debate about same-sex marriage.
So much so that we are intoxicated by it (see September EN, page 17). The problem is that equality is an idea not a fact. There is a good deal of discussion as to what ‘basic equality’ might be. Nobody has ever seen it or really knows if it exists. To believe in it requires a good dose of faith.
Liberty, equality, fraternity
The creed of well-meaning humanists today runs: Now abideth these three, liberty, equality and fraternity, but the greatest of these is equality. Originally the words ‘or death’ figured too, but no tolerant person would take things that far.
There’s nothing new here. These three abstract notions were enthroned by the French revolution when the goddess Reason replaced the cross on the altar of Notre Dame in Paris. Even if Napoleon soon put an end to that, the revolutionary trinity was enshrined in human rights.
There is also a dynamic at play here: liberty from oppression is the road to equality and equality is the service station on the way to social well-being and justice. Equality is the greatest because it’s the king pin. Equality exists when liberty has done her work freeing us from the entrenched interests of tradition or religion.
The limits of equality
Nature is the reef on which equality flounders, because the natural world is an ocean of diversity, even if it has order and structure. Whatever one thinks, we cannot escape the fact that male and female are two ways of being human, different in physical ability, mental and psychological make-up and bodily constitution. Adults and children are not equal, nor are those who are whole and those who suffer from terrible infirmities. Animals and humans are different, so are living things and inanimate objects. This is not Christian cant; all religions and cultures recognise it. Just consult the Tao of all things and you will find that in that system of thought reality is ultimately not one but two, that is, unequal.
In some areas real equality does exist of course, but they are quite limited. We accept equal opportunity for all in education or the work place, which is a good thing. However, no one takes it in an ultimate sense and thinks it would be a proof of equality if Wayne Rooney were to be put in charge of a nuclear power station. Equality before the law is a fundamental right too, because everyone should be treated the same. Equality most of all concerns weights and measures and things in which precision is essential. £1 is 100p and equal to 1.16 euros at a given time. But an apple is not an orange, a person with an IQ of 90 is not equal to one with 150, or a baggage handler to an airline pilot. To apply equality in some areas is a category mistake.
In public debate equality is the motor of progress. It makes what has been considered undesirable until now acceptable. Why is everyone mesmerised by equality, if it has so limited a function in reality? I think it’s for a religious reason. The idea of equality allows people to remake reality according to their desires and exercise a sort of divine control when the inequalities of nature, aided and abetted by human injustices, seem intolerable. The field is levelled by exercising control over the structure of social reality.
Evening-up the balance would be fine if it remained within the cultural mandate and served to limit human sinfulness. In that case equality would be an aspect of common grace. But the problem is that human autonomy and the desire for power gets out of hand. Social engineers, who think they know best, exercise control for the rest of us, as if they were gods.
Equality and progress
Equality is like the sacred calf of old. Everyone pays homage to it and no one seems to express reservations about it. People are not surprised when in the name of equality things that were illegal or unacceptable a generation ago are now fully legal. In fact equality helps turn the tables. In some cases the bad has become good and the good bad. Those who think differently are considered psychologically fragile and, likely as not, fascists or retrograde bigots.
All this is the case with same-sex marriage, which is a leap into the dark. The practice of cultures and ages is overturned with little understanding of the whys, the wherefores or the consequences. This is such an enormous change that future generations will wonder how it happened. Not even the ancient Greeks or Romans, who found same-sex paedophilia quite acceptable, thought of redefining the institution of marriage. And yet we act as though this were business as usual and back it up with the best of intentions and appeals to equal rights.
It has been suggested that same-sex marriage will support the institution of marriage, no doubt meaning that any form of social commitment is better than none. Heterosexual marriage, however, has such a bad track record in present society that there is little reason to suppose that its new counterpart will not reproduce the same problems in a new context. Sin remains sin and human nature remains human nature in any context.
So why the pressing need for new legislation on this question? The only reason seems to be that well-meaning people, politicians and other leaders, have to go all out in a politically correct society to prove that they are on the side of the goodies. They seem to think that any cause endorsed by equality shows that they are bone fide champions of progress.
This shows what a dangerous position we have reached in Western society, when policies are promoted for obscure reasons and not because they are morally justified. Vague notions like equality serve to hide the real issues which become impossible to speak about. The wages of spin is the manipulation of opinion with arguments that are smoke and mirrors.
From a theological point of view, public policies that have equality as their principle and goal give our leaders the unhealthy impression of power and how they can wield it as benevolent gods to cure the ills of society. In a sense, the humanist pursuit of equality is an attempt to solve the problems of sin and injustice without God. I think that is why debates on any issue in which equality is involved quickly turn venomous. These issues have, for the people who promote them, a pseudo-religious motivation that inspires their zeal and often intolerance of those who do not see eye to eye with them.
Ultimately the problem with equality talk is that it never was, never is and never will be something that belongs to created reality, apart from in a restricted technical sense. The foundation of the Christian faith is that God and man are different, and unequal. In the realm of personhood, equality exists only in the perfect oneness of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in the ‘unity of the Godhead… of one substance, power and eternity…’ (Westminster Confession, II.3). Real equality exists in God alone and where he establishes it according to his will and purpose, above all in the spiritual unity between believers who are united with Christ, and made one in him.
Paul Wells, is a teacher at the FacultŽ Jean Calvin, Aix-en-Provence, and lives in Eastbourne.
Prescriptive pluralism is the idea that a multiplicity of faiths and cultures is not just an observable fact in the modern world, but something which is right.
All religions ought to be promoted as equally valid. This is the approach adopted by politically correct multiculturalism.
On the surface it sounds good. But the corollary is taken to be that therefore any group which claims to have ‘the truth’ in such a way that other faiths are deemed untrue or wrong is not to be tolerated.
We all want to see people of different cultures and faiths living peacefully together. But this outlook would want to legislate restrictions on what people, especially Bible-believing Christians, are allowed to believe and publicly declare. Inevitably it comes into collision with those who believe in Jesus, who said: ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14.6).
There is a vast amount which could be said about what is wrong with prescriptive pluralism, but let me simply indicate three fatal flaws in its logic.
A biased agenda
Multiculturalism often promotes itself under the banner of being ethnically and religiously sensitive. If you, perhaps as a Christian, give your view of a subject you will be smiled at paternalistically by the politically correct person and told: ‘Well, that is just your perspective’. The implication is: ‘You are biased, but I am not’. But actually the whole exercise is biased. It is biased towards Western secularism, which is the mother of political correctness. ‘All cultures are equal’, we are told. But the question is: ‘Who says so?’ Does a Muslim believe that? Does a Hindu not believe that her way is right? Does a Christian not believe that Christian behaviour is the best path to follow? In fact, it is only the Western secularist who believes that all cultures are equal. So the agenda is biased from the start.
Or come at it through the religious route. ‘All religions are of equal value’, we are told. But how do you define ‘religion’? You cannot just say, for example, that religions are about belief in God or gods. Many Buddhists do not believe in divine persons. A Christian missionary gave a Bible to an Indian Hindu intellectual. After he had read it, the man said: ‘I thought you said this was a religious book? As far as I can see it is not about religion. It is a particular interpretation of history’. So, in his own terms of ritual, etc., this man did not recognise Christianity as a religion. Now, how does the politically correct agenda define religion? Basically it defines it as anything that is not Western secularism. It will not include itself. This is pure bias.
An irrational agenda
The multicultural agenda wishes us to believe that all faiths and cultures are equally valid. It does this out of a concern for human rights.
But at the same time there are certain faiths and cultures which do not match or actually attack the human rights which the politically correct say they are seeking to uphold. Let me take two extreme examples simply to prove the point.
During the 1930s, the philosophy of Nazism took root in Germany, with Adolf Hitler being swept into power. But Nazism, based on a version of social Darwinianism, believed that the Arian race was the ‘master race’ and that other races, like the Jews, were inferior. Nazism therefore promoted a culture of racism which led to the tragedy of the holocaust. Here then is a culture which opposes multiculturalism. For the politically correct to say that all people and cultures are equal is irrational and ludicrous if they include cultures (like Nazism) which say they are not.
But it is not just Nazism which has such a view. The late radical Islamist Osama bin Laden took an equivalent position. Interviewed on the Arabic news station Al-Jazeera after the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York, he made clear his hatred of Western culture. Commenting on what he hoped the attacks really meant, he let out an elated cry, saying: ‘The values of this Western civilisation under the leadership of America have been destroyed. Those awesome symbolic towers which speak of liberty, human rights and humanity have been destroyed. They have gone up in smoke’. Notice what he abhors: liberty and human rights. He would see those, presumably, as a challenge to the absolute authority of Allah and therefore to be repudiated.
Here, then, again is an attitude and (with extremist Islam) a culture which deplores another culture. How can such a culture sit rationally within an outlook which says that ‘all cultures are equal’? It cannot.
Most multiculturalists, I think, would rightly reject both Nazism and bin Laden’s form of extreme Islam. But, if that is the case, it is plain that they are bringing certain criteria to bear in considering what is an acceptable culture and what is not. In other words, they are contradicting the idea that all cultures are equal.
An imperialist agenda
In considering different faiths there is a famous parable to which people often refer. It is the story of a number of blind men touching different parts of an elephant and trying to describe the animal. One reports his feeling of the tusk. ‘The elephant is solid bone’, he says. Another speaks of a sturdy flexible cylinder — the trunk. Another indicates a smaller, thinner appendage — the tail. Another speaks of a large high wall — the body. They argue with each other and contradict each other as to what the animal is like. But the king, looking on, tells them they are wrong to argue. They are all touching the same animal, but just different parts of it. ‘There’, says prescriptive pluralism, ‘you religious people have such contrasting ideas but you are all in touch with the same reality and therefore should acknowledge that each person’s point of view is equally valid.’ It all appears so reasonable.
But listen to what Bishop Lesslie Newbigin says. ‘In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant … the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of it. The story is constantly told to neutralise the affirmations of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognise that none of them can have more that one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is the exact opposite. If the king were also blind, there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth, which all the world’s religions are only groping after. It embodies the claim to know the full reality which relativises all the claims of the religions.’1
The multicultural / prescriptive pluralism programme assumes the position of the king. It is, therefore, very much a kind of imperialistic agenda. ‘We know what is right and you religious people must do as we say.’ In particular, religious people must give up believing or declaring that they have found universal truth. This is the arrogant claim of the politically correct.
Once we step back and look at all this we see just how hypocritical the politically correct multicultural programme actually is. This is because it is actually itself guilty of all the things of which it accuses the religions (and especially Christianity). It is biased. It is biased towards Western secularism. It is irrational. It says that all cultures must be treated as equal, when it clearly would reject cultures which reject common human rights. It is imperialistic. It decries those who proclaim they have universal truth, but at the same time it says that all must bow to its agenda.
1. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin, SPCK, 1989, p.9.
This article is an edited extract from Christians in a PC World by John Benton, recently published by Evangelical Press (ISBN 978 0 852 349 120, currently on sale at £7.64).
(This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057)
It is well known that the Qur’an denies that Jesus can be thought of as God’s Son.
At street level, many Muslims think Christians believe that God somehow impregnated Mary, and that the Trinity is made up of God, Mary and Jesus. They find the construction bizarre, not to say blasphemous, and, of course, they are right.
Aware of these Muslim sensibilities, some sectors of SIL/Wycliffe, Frontiers and other organisations have pursued Bible translations that have replaced many references to God as the Father and to Jesus as the Son. Intense debates about this surged into public view in an article written by Collin Hansen for Christianity Today in 2011. SIL/Wycliffe have issued a variety of statements, the most recent, in February 2012, indicates that all publication of these new translations will be suspended until further discussions have taken place. My own restricted aim in what follows is to offer six evaluations on the translation of references to Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ in Scripture.
Diversity of connotation
We should all recognise the extraordinary diversity of ‘son of’ expressions in the Bible. Probably they should not all be handled the same way. Yet the diversity of ways in which we translate Hebrew expressions such as ‘son of oil’ and ‘son of quiver’, for example, does not by itself warrant similar diversity in the ways we render ‘son(s) of God’.
My sister served as a missionary to a tribe in Papua New Guinea. How does one render, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ for people who have never seen lambs or sheep and have no word for such animals? On the other hand they were accustomed to sacrificing pigs. So would it be wiser to render John 1.29, ‘Look the Swine of God who takes away the sin of the world’? Doubtless one could make a case for such a rendering. But sooner or later Bible translators for this tribe would run into texts that talk about fleecing sheep and still others that designate pork an unclean food. What initially seems an easy fix begins to generate many problems.
On any reading of the evidence, the associations of the expression ‘Son(s) of God’ are complicated, theologically laden and inescapable. Why should it not be better, then, to render the original more directly, perhaps with explanatory notes?
Render it as ‘Messiah’
In one of his earlier papers, part of which he has now rescinded, Rick Brown, one of the premier thinkers for the new translations, rightly points out that one of the uses of ‘Son of God’ in the Bible is bound up with the appointment of the Davidic king, the Messiah. In such cases, it is frequently found in parallel with ‘Messiah.’ (e.g., Luke 1.31-33; 1 John 5.1,5; Matthew 16.16). ‘This establishes’, Brown insists, ‘that Jesus and Matthew saw these as synonyms…’ This reasoning, in Brown’s original view (which he has since repudiated), justifies substituting ‘Christ’/‘Messiah’ for ‘Son of God’ where the latter is likely to cause umbrage.
But this argument is flawed. First, Brown is fully aware that when two expressions are said to be synonymous, it rarely means they are completely interchangeable. If that were the case, then ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ (Matthew 16.16) really means, ‘You are the Messiah, the Messiah’.
Second, why do Mark and Luke report less of the total of Peter’s confession than Matthew reports? If it is because it is ‘adequate’ to preserve only ‘Messiah’ and not ‘Son of the living God’ for their own theological interests and priorities, that means, of course, that for Matthew’s purposes it is not adequate to leave out ‘Son of the living God’ — that’s why he left the expression in.
Third, Brown’s analysis leaves out of consideration the biblical-theological trajectories of the Davidic king motif and of the ‘Son of God’ terminology of the Old Testament. Biblically informed readers pick up on the associations, say, of 2 Samuel 7.14, Psalm 2.7, Isaiah 9, Psalms 89, 110. It is not a responsible riposte to say that the envisaged Muslim readers of the new translations are not biblically informed so they could not conjure up biblical trajectories. That may be true, but it misses the point. For, once biblical translations are adopted, they become standard for the rising Christian community that would then be saddled with translations that fail to preserve the biblical trajectories which make sense of the pattern of the NT use of the OT.
It is argued that traditional renderings are bad translations because, for Muslim readers, they convey mental images of physical begetting, sexual union and biological sonship that are deeply offensive to Muslims. This is an important argument, not one to be set aside lightly. If traditional translations convey things that are not true, surely we are duty-bound to do our best to provide translations that do not convey what is false.
But it is often pointed out, correctly, that the deepest Muslim umbrage is not taken at expressions that have been falsely understood, but at expressions that have been rightly understood. The incarnation itself is deeply offensive, however it was brought about.
Another pragmatic appeal is that of the remarkable success of these new translations. It is hard to test the figures that circulate, but thousands have been converted, in some sense, through these new translations. Yet when certain tests are made, 46% of such converts avow they prefer to read the Qur’an than the Bible and 72% continue to think of Muhammad as the final prophet. How many of these conversions are spurious?
In Scripture, distinguishable uses of ‘Son of God’ can be used side by side, held together by nothing more than the expression itself, with the result that the entire conception of ‘Son of God’ is enriched.
For example, in Matthew 1-4, Jesus is the Son of God in that, like Israel the son of God, he recapitulates much of Israel’s experience — being called out of Egypt and being tested in the wilderness. But the latter event is preceded by the declaration of the voice from heaven at Jesus’s baptism: ‘This is my Son, whom I love’ — almost certainly picking up on the Davidic/kingly use of sonship, which in any case is certainly further developed in Matthew’s Gospel. There is no point asking: ‘OK, then, which kind of son is he really?’ The point is that Jesus is the perfect Israel and the perfect David, and the two notions are held together by the one rubric, Son of God.
In other words, the richest theological loading of the expression ‘Son of God’ as applied to Jesus springs from passages that deploy the expression to cross-pollinate distinctive uses. This fact constitutes a driving reason to translate ‘Son of God’ and ‘Father’ expressions consistently, for otherwise these crucial intracanonical links will be lost to view.
A personal word
I have had the privilege of working with SIL/Wycliffe personnel on three continents. I am a huge admirer of their work. But I have to say that not many of them are trained in exegesis, biblical theology or systematic theology. No one can be an expert in everything, but I hope that some of these diligent workers will begin to see the importance for Bible translation of the considerations I am advancing and will pursue advanced theological training.
Where is this leading?
I have three observations. First, the new approach to Bible translation is in danger of cutting off its ‘converts’ from the history of the confessionalism of the universal church. It is not a light thing to stand aloof from the authority of those early councils and creeds. Second, a considerable literature has arisen from Muslim-convert believers who are aghast at these developments, arguing on both technical and personal grounds that these new translations are the product of Westerners who are imposing their work on local churches. Third, the spread of the gospel in the early church saw the dissemination of Scripture along with the provision of missionaries and pastors. One wonders if at least some of the tensions over Bible translations spring from providing translations without simultaneously providing missionaries and pastors.
This article is a heavily edited version of the last chapter of Jesus, the Son of God by D.A. Carson, which is published by IVP (£7.99, ISBN 978 1 844 745 999), and is used with permission.
Because it is so heavily edited, many details and nuances have had to be dropped from the original and we would, therefore, encourage interested readers to buy the book.
(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.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057)