Friday, 5 February 2016

Longing for Nostalgia?

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Like many in my generation, I grew up with my parents listening to Terry Wogan on the radio only to find myself as an adult tuning in to him years later. I was not alone this week in greeting the news of his passing with a sense of nostalgia as well as sadness.

We’ve heard similar sentiments following the recent deaths of Lemmy, David Bowie and Glenn Frey, where it’s been clear how music significantly shapes the formative years of fans in a way that remains long after those years have passed.

Nor do other areas of popular culture escape the nostalgic brush. The release of Dad’s Army this week is only the tip of the cinematic iceberg. While some criticised Star Wars: The Force Awakens for being too much like its 1977 counterpart, if anything its similarity in theme and plot reinforced a sense of nostalgia for the original audience and their children. This year will also see recycled Marvel and DC Comics heroes, along with the third installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise.

Then, think of the success of Penguin’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Ladybird Books for Grown-Ups’ which also trade on the nostalgia of those of a certain age. Think of the market for retro sweets and toys, or TV’s love for period dramas. Examples could be multiplied.

While nostalgia often comes down to simple appreciation for the things that have made us who we are, some worry that it stifles creativity. More personally, nostalgia can exaggerate the happiness of the past, which is remembered as stable when it was perhaps anything but. At its worst, nostalgia can carry its original sense of being homesick, longing for a different time and place, yearning to return ‘home’ – but to a home that never quite existed.

Nostalgia demonstrates our longing for a different world. Perhaps it reflects something of our ‘homeless’ existence between Eden on one side and eternity on the other.

Wonderfully, the good news of what God has done in Jesus provides the ultimate answer to such yearning and homesickness. It allows us to take seriously the past, to celebrate it where appropriate, but not to idealise it. And the gospel directs us not just backwards but forwards, neither hankering after a time gone by nor battening down the hatches until Jesus returns, but living now in the light of the one who is ‘the same yesterday and today and for ever’ (Hebrews 13:8).

Monday, 1 February 2016

A Manageable God?

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
Then the high priest asked Stephen, ‘Are these charges true?’ To this he replied: ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. “Leave your country and your people,” God said, “and go to the land I will show you...” When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’
Acts 7:1-3, 54-56

Originally selected to distribute food to needy widows, Stephen ends up being the first Christian to die for proclaiming Jesus. Falsely accused of speaking against the law and the temple, he replies by running through the Old Testament story – providing, in the process, the longest speech in the book of Acts. But how does it work as a response?

In part is a recurring theme of rejection, made explicit at the end when he accuses his audience of continuing the pattern of their ancestors, of rejecting Moses and the law, persecuting the prophets, and now killing Jesus (7:51-53).

More significantly, however, Stephen shows that God’s presence and blessing were never limited to the land or the temple. The ‘God of glory’ (where ‘glory’ is regularly associated with the temple) appeared to Abraham not in Israel but in Mesopotamia. The ‘holy ground’ on which Moses met the Lord was miles away from the promised land, and there wasn’t an altar there, let alone a temple! When he says that God does not live in houses ‘made by human hands’ (7:48), Stephen even suggests that the temple has become an idol.

Even so, it is not so much the content of his speech as his vision and claims in 7:55-56 that tip his accusers over the edge, where it becomes clear that Stephen believes the ‘glory of God’ which appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia is now associated with Jesus.

Stephen’s criticism, of course, is not with the temple itself; but, properly understood, the biblical story has a global reach where God’s blessing is not limited to one nation, land, or building. The story of the Bible points beyond Abraham and Moses and the law and the temple to one who would come from the Father, full of grace and truth. That story has come to its climax in the ascended Lord who now occupies the place of universal authority, where God himself dwells.

For us too, perhaps, Stephen’s speech is a reminder that God is not manageable. He cannot be isolated by a particular building or institution, a cherished tradition or ritual, a deeply held viewpoint or favoured version of the Bible. For us too, then, comes the challenge that he will not be captured by anything that might usurp the place that rightly belongs to him alone.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Theos Report on the European Union

The latest report from Theos has recently been published:

Here’s part of the summary blurb:

‘The specific debate in the UK over the European question has been illustrative of a general trend across Europe, with arguments focusing almost entirely on technical issues, and with an underlying assumption that the single real measure on which to measure Europe is economic. This approach, though particularly prevalent in the UK is one that has been growing across Europe for some years, and is quite unlike the priorities and assumptions that shaped the earlier European project.

‘This report charts the development of the European project, from its origins in 1950s Christian Democracy, with a strong focus on solidarity and peace, through to its current period of crisis. It argues that today’s EU has lost sight of its founding principles and instead placed excessive focus on a particular conception of national economic performance.

Ultimately, this report argues that this is a weak basis for political union. A union worth saving would be on stronger ground if it could develop a clearer, explicit moral purpose that resonated with its citizens. Perhaps more simply, if the EU is going to be worth saving it needs to discover a soul.’

A pdf of the full report is available here.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Vern S. Poythress on the Miracles of Jesus

Vern S. Poythress, The Miracles of Jesus: How the Savior’s Mighty Acts Serve as Signs of Redemption (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 271pp., 978-1-4335-4607-5.

The ever-prolific Vern Poythress has a new book out, this one on the miracles of Jesus, particularly as recorded in Matthew’s gospel. Here is the publisher’s blurb, which – along with the subtitle of the book – gives a nice summary overview of what Jesus’ miracles are about:

‘Jesus walked on water. He healed a blind man. He turned water into wine. More than just displays of his divine power, Jesus’s miracles signify something deeper – they’re windows into God’s grand story of redemption, foreshadowing the great miracle of Christ’s death and resurrection... Poythress unpacks how understanding the meaning of Christ’s miracles will help us better grasp the salvation God has brought into the world.’

There is an interview with Poythress about the book here, and – remarkably – the entire book is available as a pdf here.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Connecting with Culture, Connecting with People

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

What dominated your conversations with friends and colleagues in 2015? The terror attacks in Paris at the beginning and the end of the year, the General Election, the tragic plight of refugees from Syria, the Greek debt crisis, the Ashes, floods, climate change, Poldark, The Great British Bake Off, Star Wars, Ashley Madison, Princess Charlotte, Sepp Blatter, Jeremy Clarkson, Jeremy Corbyn?

And what does 2016 hold? It could be the year the UK decides to leave the EU. We’ll see the US election, missions to Mars and Jupiter, the Queen’s 90th birthday, and the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. For literature buffs, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl, and the 150th of Beatrix Potter. In cinema, we’ll have Batman vs. Superman, Captain America vs. Iron Man, and the latest installment of Star Trek, while international sporting events will include football’s European Championship in France and the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

2016, like 2015, will offer plenty of opportunities to ‘connect’ with culture. And as we do so, we can feel confident about bringing a Christian perspective into everyday conversations.

Theologian Ted Turnau notes how popular culture provides ‘a touchstone for our deepest desires and aspirations’. It reflects ‘a messy mixture of both grace and idolatry’ that we would expect from created-but-fallen human beings. So, ‘fragments of grace’ are woven into songs, movies, TV programmes, books, social media, political campaigns and sporting events, but are often bent to the service of gods who will not deliver salvation.

In all such cases, for Christians, the good news of what God has done in Jesus offers a better alternative. Whether it’s the search for love, the need for heroes, the desire for community, the longing for redemption, the yearning for a better world – all these are echoed in the biblical story and find their deepest answer in the gospel.

We don’t make connections as a cheap evangelistic ploy, trying to shoehorn a reflection about the meaning of life into every episode of EastEnders. Still, for the sake of our witness to Christ, learning to read culture with eyes informed by the gospel provides a way of enabling open conversations – not just engaging with ideas in the abstract or even primarily with culture as such, but connecting with people in order to introduce them to Jesus.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Amy Donovan on the Risk Society

The latest Cambridge Paper from the Jubilee Centre is available online, this one by Amy Donovan:

Here is the summary:

‘Risk has become a central concept in modern life. The “risk society” that we live in has increasingly structured itself around attempting to manage an uncertain future, in which more knowledge simultaneously provides safety and increases our awareness of what we do not know. We make “risk decisions” every day about our money, cycling to work, what we include in our diet. We have an overwhelming and sometimes apparently contradictory volume of knowledge at our disposal that may aid, but can obfuscate, our decisions. The proliferation of science and technology has provided much of this knowledge, but it has also created new risks, from nuclear reactors to nanobots to processed food. This paper argues that while the risk society is a secular phenomenon, it provides an opportunity for Christians to live distinctively and attractively.’

Mission Frontiers 38, 1 (January-February 2016)

The January-February 2016 issue of Mission Frontiers, published by the U.S. Center for World Mission, contains a number of articles on ‘Women Engaged in Church Planting Movements Among UPGs’.

Guest Editor Robby Butler writes:

‘While the story of most Disciple-Making Movements is written by and about men – featuring their roles and exploits – it is doubtful any movement in history has lacked the strategic involvement (as well as prayers) of women. Since women missionaries significantly outnumber men, and the vast majority of single missionaries are women, it is vital that CPM efforts welcome, encourage and empower the efforts and contribution of women.’

Individual articles can be accessed from here, and the whole issue (4.9 MB) can be downloaded as a pdf here.