Friday, December 31, 2004

Theological speculation for the day

It's a near-universal phenomenon that humans find stories engaging. Whilst in Western society, story-telling as a form in itself has faded, alternative incarnations of story-telling - cinema, computer games, role-playing - and so on are alive and well even amongst those people who have so little interest in stories in their traditional form.

Perhaps we are designed as creatures to respond to stories. In theological terms, God has revealed himself through "story"/"narrative"/"history" - the Bible is not a book of "systematic theology" but a "history". Perhaps this links with the fact that we respond to stories - God has given us the Bible, and has designed us to respond to narrative - the two are different sides of the same theological coin.

I wonder if this also means that stories that correspond most closely to "the great story" are those that we find most engaging. For example, the Harry Potter stories have really engaged at a popular level with all sorts of people. Although they are apparently "neutral" or "non-Christian", there are several themes which actually tie in closely with Bible themes (though I don't suppose that J.K.Rowling consciously considered this when she was writing them). For example; the theme of Harry's mother giving up her own life to save Harry - the idea of Harry being a person destined to overcome evil - the significance of personal moral choices - and so on. I'm sure that with more thought, a longer list could be constructed. "The Lord of the Rings" is another example - again, with Frodo as the "Messiah"-figure who has to overcome evil through humility. Comments?

Oh, by the way, happy new year.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Another great carol...

... that I haven't had the chance to sing this year. This one's by Charles Wesley.

Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made Man.

He laid His glory by,
He wrapped Him in our clay;
Unmarked by human eye,
The latent Godhead lay;
Infant of days He here became,
And bore the mild Immanuel’s Name.

Unsearchable the love
That has the Saviour brought;
The grace is far above
Of men or angels’ thought:
Suffice for us that God, we know,
Our God, is manifest below.

He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.

Made perfect first in love,
And sanctified by grace,
We shall from earth remove,
And see His glorious face:
His love shall then be fully showed,
And man shall all be lost in God.

More thoughts about Christmas

Christmas is a bit of a problem, really. Anybody who knows me will know that I am fairly close to being one of the "grumpy old men" that were on TV last night. Pet hates: the naffness of free church carol singing (none of the spine-tingling descants, fading use of harmony singing, grating modernisations of words, people squeezing "begotten" into two syllables); Christmas music in shops from late Autumn onwards - canned music in shops is bad enough, but when I am being expected to feel festive on a grey November day? - give me a break (the only two songs I like are "Fairytale of New York" [the original version] and Greg Lake's "I believe in Father Christmas"); trying to get "the right present" for everybody; the sadness of knowing that you have gone another year without actually speaking to a whole stack of people you (really!!) care about.

Also, I am very conscious of the fact that Christmas as celebrated basically has nothing to do with Christianity. We don't even know what time of year Jesus was born, so describing it as "Jesus' birthday" strikes me as stupid. The cosmic impact of God becoming human is so huge that there is no way we should be confining our celebrations of it to one day a year. The "one day"-ness of Christmas has a lot more to do with the retail sector than anything religious.

So what do I do as a Christian? Do I opt out and feel superior? Or do I just buy into the whole nine yards, and put all these feelings down to snobbishness or something?

Well, a lot of non-Christians only darken the doors of a church at Christmas. Let's make sure they hear the (proper) gospel then. Of course they won't listen to it - you could preach like Jonathan Edwards, and they would still go out saying "nice message, minister" - but sorting that out is the job of the Holy Spirit - I need to make sure that I am doing what I can to take the message to the world. If the reason people come is because they think it would be nice to go to a candle-lit service, or because their children are going to take part in a nativity presentation with the rest of the Sunday School - so be it. It's only deceptive if the church is implying that the message it proclaims is something other than the gospel.

In any case, do I go to church only because it suits me to do so? At any other time of the year, the (correct) answer to that question would be, "Of course not! I am here to serve other people; to encourage other believers; because this is the structure that God has ordained for the life of his children on earth, reflecting the perfected universal church as it will be in heaven." Does anything change over Christmas? No. So if as a Christian it is right for me to be a part of a church community all year, it is hardly right for me to opt out of it at Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


Various things to say about Christmas, mostly given the fact that so many other bloggers seem to have various shaped chips on their shoulders about it. But I don't have time - too many Christmas preparations to make.

I did want to make two comments about carols, however. The first is that the "be-" of "begotten" should be on the previous line (along with "Very God"), because it then scans. The second is that this is one of my favourite carols, but I wanted to give it in its unbowdlerised version - verse 3 seems to be excluded from most hymnals. It is probably factually inaccurate in all sorts of significant details - the first verse in particular could be ditched with no great loss. However, it is excellent in capturing the idea of Jesus, the Son of God, accepting human flesh, its limitations and requirements, and recognising that there is really nothing I can bring to Jesus, except myself. It is by Christina Rossetti.

1. In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

2. Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

3. Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

4. Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But His mother only
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

5. What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Baptising people - some musings

How does it work? Well, being a member of a non-conformist church, what I have always assumed is that people become Christians, and then at some stage either then or thereafter they will become convinced that they ought to be baptised, and so get baptised. If the context is that of a baptist church, they will then become church members.

But maybe in leaving everything to the individual to respond, we have become affected by consumerism and a lack of confidence in what Christianity ought to be. The Bible doesn't seem to approach it like that. What it says is
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt 28:19-20 NIV)

The instruction here is not that the individual should seek baptism, but that the apostles (and conventionally by extension, the church following their example) should go and make disciples - and to achieve this should baptise them and teach them. In other words, it doesn't wait for the new Christian to make the first move, it makes it on their behalf.

Oddly enough, the established churches (theologically) come closer to this, in baptising infants and then expecting that they will be brought up in the faith of the church. In practical terms, it doesn't work within them, because christening has in many cases become more of a tradition than anything that is meaningful in Christian terms.

How might it be different? Well, at the moment, somebody says "I want to follow Jesus". What follows is an indeterminate length of time during which the person exists in a kind of uncertain state as to what they ought to do next, whilst the church mentions baptism in sermons from time to time, hoping that new Christians take the hint. How about ... as soon as somebody says, "I want to follow Jesus", the church were to say to them directly, "Well, you need to get baptised then" - with probably an explanation of the significance of baptism - but the emphasis on the fact that this is the first step of obedience to Jesus. Of course, it means that there will potentially be new Christians in the church who know little beyond what it means to become a Christian (which is in any case 'What you need to know'!) and what baptism means.

Baptism is important for the church - but so is the "teaching" that the church should be doing, following the apostles. Of course, some people having been baptised end up turning away from Christianity - in some cases, there has been reservation about baptising too quickly, in case this happens. However, could the antidote to this be better teaching? a more biblical church life? greater spiritual accountability to other Christians? - rather than simply putting off the time at which somebody is publically accepted as a Christian - which in some cases simply puts people off Christianity altogether.

Sorry, there's probably all sorts of untestable assertions and things here - these are only musings. What do you think?

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Internet Chess

Having read a chess column in a newspaper, I thought I'd avail myself of the "week's free trial" at the Internet Chess Club.

The software is really well implemented. Registration is quick, the software downloads and installs itself, and runs from your desktop - not in a browser. I tentatively put in a request for a game - and about two seconds later was matched with somebody who trounced me very quickly. Well, to be honest, any "Blitz" games are very quick - typically, you are allowed two minutes plus 12 seconds per move. I lost three straight games in a row, and got my rating down to about 1050, before managing to win anything. It's very easy to pick an opponent of whatever level you like, and pick a game structure of whatever format you like - yes, you can play suicide chess if you want, and any of loads of other variants, together with time structures to suit.

However, a word of warning. If you are playing Blitz, make sure there is nobody else in the house. Make sure the phone is off the hook. Put a "do not disturb" sign on the front door. Don't have a family! I've had to offer draws or resign three times just because something has happened in the house that I couldn't ignore whilst I was playing.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

You just really so have to read this book

Anybody who knows me will know that I periodically get completely obsessed by a new book, buy it for as many people as I can afford to, talk about it incessantly and so on. These are rarely books that somebody has passed to me and said, "Hey, why don't you read this?" More normally, they are serendipitious choices.

Well, the latest candidate is By Design or By Chance, by Denyse O'Leary. It can be found on Amazon here. It is an introduction to the evolutionism/creationism/intelligent design debate, written by a journalist from an arts background, who therefore had to do lots of research to understand the issues involved. She is a Christian, but her church didn't expect any particular view regarding origins, so she wasn't starting with a strong commitment to any particular position.

The book is written in a very accessible style, with sidebars to explain key points and other issues, lots of notes and web references. One of the things that I particularly like about it is that it has sought to detach itself from a lot of the more intense positions, on all sides, to present "just the facts" - although the writer is happy to give her concluding opinions at the end.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Unpublished letter to Daily Telegraph


Prof. Steve Jones (24/11/04) argues that arrogance is the problem of creationists: "they cannot bear the idea that they share ancestors with simpler creatures."

A creationist might argue that arrogance is the problem of atheistic evolutionists: they cannot bear the idea that there might be a higher being to whom they might be answerable.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

What do they have in common?

Two books - The Biotic Message, and The Privileged Planet.

Their argument is closely linked. The first argues that the reason that life is like it is, is to tell us that there is a creator. It talks about the unity and diversity of life, and argues that evolutionism so far from explaining everything is actually a "smorgasbord" of ideas, into which any evidence is fitted.

The second argues that, so far from being a "Copernican" non-special-place, the planet upon which we exist is almost uniquely placed to observe and learn about the universe. For example, if there were clouds all the time, we wouldn't know anything about the sky (although there would be some things we could infer). If we lived closer to the centre of the galaxy, we wouldn't be able to observe space beyond the galaxy .... and so on.

I've only half read one, and not read the other yet (I'm hoping to get the second for Christmas: the first, alas, was borrowed). But thought-provoking stuff.