The Great Education Crisis: The Collapse of Literacy In Anglophone Nations

righttoliteracy

In the western world, education is in steep decline.

Over the past 20 years, literacy and numeracy attainment has fallen throughout the English-speaking world. Alarm bells have been rung in Australia, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

In the United States, it is now estimated that nearly 20% of the adult population cannot read. This disturbingly high statistic shows no sign of slowing. According to Concordia University Portland, there is a brewing education crisis in the United States. It cites data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that shows:

…46 percent of white students scored at or above proficient. Just 17 percent of black students and 25 percent of Latino students scored proficient.

Or, this means that more than half of all white students in the United States do not achieve proficiency in English, and for black students, a staggering 83% are not proficient readers.

Multiple test regimes confirm the steep decline in literacy in the United States, and an even worse decline in numeracy:

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics released the results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The PIACC provided an overview of proficiency in adult literacy, numeracy and problem-solving. In literacy, people born after 1980 in the U.S. scored lower than 15 of the 22 participating countries. Overall, U.S. adults aged 15-65 scored below the international average in all three categories— ranking near the very bottom in numeracy.

In some centres – such as Detroit – 93% of students are either illiterate or lag well behind expected literacy achievement. The reappearance of mass illiteracy in the United States has prompted documentary investigations such as Make America Read, that explores some of the reasons children are not learning how to read, and the efforts to help illiterate students as old as 14 to catch up. Despite some success, after-school programs and government interventions seem to make little difference. Metropolitan islands ofilliteracy are getting bigger in the United States.

In the United Kingdom, in 2001, it was shown that illiteracy had exceeded 1912 levels. By 2016 the United Kingdom had been placed last out of 23 OECD countries on international scores that compared the literacy rate for 16-19 year olds. Currently, the United Kingdom is the only OECD country where “the literacy of 16-24 year old people is below that of people aged 55 and over”.

In Canada, things are just as dire. In a manual produced by Canadian police services titled “Literacy and Policing in Canada: Target Crime With Literacy“, the researchers estimated that 42% of the Canadian population would not have the basic reading skills to perform everyday tasks. They concluded that the average literacy score for Canadians is “near the bottom of Level 3”. Level 3 reading is defined as the basic minimum for a person to be employable and able to cope in an information society.

In Australia, the Productivity Commission estimates the average Australian highschooler is now a year behind in mathematics compared to their 2004 counterparts. The trend toward lower and lower literacy attainment in Australia has sped up in recent years, despite the official claim that the overwhelming majority of students achieve national benchmarks. In response, the Australian Federal Government wants to introduce a phonics test for all first year primary school children.

The test consists of real and made up words in order to identify which children can actually sound out words, and which have simply memorised word blocks. When this test was rolled out last year in one Australian state, it found that only 43% of students reached the minimum benchmarks for reading.

Likewise, New Zealand has plunging declines with some surveys indicating that 40% of the population are unable to read at a functional level.

OFFICIAL STATISTICS

These figures stand in stark contrast to officially reported statistics that typically claim a literacy rate of 99%. No official statistical body in any Anglophone nation currently acknowledges that illiteracy – whether outright or functional – is widespread. How could this be possible when it runs counter to the research of academics and the lived experience of so many people?

Official statistics are often compiled from the results of national testing regimes that measure student attainment against “national standards”. These standards are typically set quite low and the vast majority of students are able to pass them. When the standards are raised, however, the number of students able to achieve them plummets drastically. This provides perverse incentives to both bureaucrats and teachers’ unions to not alter existing testing regimens.

Recently, this has been played out publicly in Australia. In an effort to improve literacy, state governments have introduced new, higher standards of achievement. The new standards caused a nearly 30% decline in reported student proficiency:

Just 62.6 per cent of Year 7 students reached the proficiency standard for reading last year, compared with 93 per cent listed as reaching the national minimum standard in the 2017-18 Budget papers. And 64.3 per cent of Year 9 students achieved proficiency in reading, compared with 92 per cent reaching the national minimum.

Since official statistics in Anglophone nations usually indicate that everything is going splendidly, it is left to international testing regimes to blow the lid on the state of education in these countries. These groups use their own achievement standards, which are much more objective. They conduct their testing on behalf of international economic agencies and are not beholden to domestic politics.

Domestic agencies that are not connected to any government or teacher body, almost always find a serious crisis. Book councils, PhD level researchers, local reading groups, surveys, dyslexia foundations, and so on, generally report high levels of illiteracy.

Part of the reason the crisis is overlooked in official statistics is that there is no agreed-upon definition of literacy. The official definition of literacy can range dramatically. In some countries, being able to write your name and understand newspapers is enough to qualify a person as being literate.

All of this has long-term implications for the economic and social future of Anglophone nations. The uncomfortable truth is that mass illiteracy – either outright or functional – is returning to these nations very quickly. This has serious implications for crime rates, civic participation, economic growth, the emergence of class systems, and religious observance. Worse still, governments seem to be able to do very little to stem the decline.

This is because the decline is largely driven by changing cultural values and is not entirely the result of government incompetence. Literacy and intelligence have been routinely ridiculed in youth culture for decades. Doing well at school is valued less than the affirmation of a social circle. Among working and middle-class people, two social groups that have experienced the steepest declines in literacy, entertainment is increasingly more valued than education.

I can remember a visible demonstration of this when I visited a number of houses in a newly-built lower-middle class suburb in a major urban centre near where I lived. While all of the houses featured expensive entertainment instalments – in one house I saw a cinema room with blackout curtains and a wall-mounted video projector – there was no evidence of any serious reading at all. Some houses featured a large television screen in every single room (even when this resulted in people having to squeeze sideways between furniture), but not a single bookshelf or bound book. If I saw mammoth television screens dominating entire walls of a living space, I could predict with a high degree of accuracy the near-absence of any reading culture at all. At best, I saw in one house a few trashy magazines.

Professor Neil Postman wrote the seminal “Amusing Ourselves to Death“. He foresaw the inevitable effects of a screen-based culture as far back as the 1980’s. It is impossible not to question the influence of technologies on illiteracy rates when they are chiefly visual, operated with icons, offer voice-to-text features, and largely replace text with video and pictures.

IMPLICATIONS

Satan hates the Lord and God’s people who bear his name. If he is to step up his assault on the church, part of his attack strategy will be to downgrade literacy in order to cut people off from the life-giving word of God. If people cannot read the scriptures they will not come to Christ. If people will not come to Christ they will remain alienated from God and the church will be weakened here on earth. In a double-assault, the devil seems intent on replacing literacy with an abundance of distracting devices that shut down the mind and drown out the conscience. This not only makes it harder for people to discover the reality of the person of Jesus Christ, but also makes it harder for them to detect error and manipulation.

Highly developed literacy almost always goes hand-in-hand with a developed reasoning ability. People whose lives are characterised by irrationality, thoughtlessness, and susceptibility to deceptive arguments often lack the literacy necessary to discover truth, and God’s wisdom that would empower them to work through it.

Whatever the devil is up to – and we cannot speculate about the mind of evil – within the next decades, the Anglophone world will almost certainly become less educated and literate than it was, with the rise in attendant problems like increased criminality, lower economic development, more ill-health, and multitudes who will give ready belief to “every wind of doctrine” that blows past. We see the outworking of this latter problem already in the astonishing rise of conspiracy theories in the Western world that grip people so tightly they hoard food, build shelters, and prepare for preposterous scenarios.

As Christians we have a duty and obligation bequeathed to us by the privilege of being entrusted with the Bible – the very speaking of God to us through the mouths of his prophets, apostles, and Son – to be concerned about literacy. We ought to cultivate a reading culture in our homes and lives. We must be deeply concerned to impress a high literacy standard upon our children. We must energetically promote reading in the world around us, and to be ever-vigilant in taking care never to lose our connection with the word of God which is sufficient to make us wise to everlasting salvation.

Radicalised by Jesus: Serve the King, No Matter the Cost

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Jesus is always forthright when he deals with people. He is clear; uncompromising; and honest. He lays down on the table the price of discipleship. He will deal with us if we are prepared to deal with him on his terms. And one of those terms is that Christians must be willing to pay any price to know him, to follow him, and to abide with him.

What if this is too frightening? What if the price is too steep? Then Jesus flatly states that such a man cannot be my disciple. There is only one way. And if we are not prepared to pay the price, then we need to be honest and just admit that we do not love him enough.

When Jesus speaks to his Apostles in Matthew 10 he calmly outlines the stratospheric level of commitment he expects from them. It is one of the most remarkable passages in Matthew’s narration because here it is Jesus of Nazareth himself who is defining what it means to follow him. The words he speaks are radical and illusion-shattering because they were meant to be. They sound dangerous, because they were meant to show us how great salvation is. And how fearful damnation.

Here the Lord was expressly intending to radicalise his disciples and thereby to thin out the ranks. For if this is what following Jesus looks like, anyone with a superficial or fleeting enthusiasm would not stick around for very long.

Jesus lays out five key points. This is his criteria for discipleship:

  1. Do not fear death, for to be killed in service to Jesus is victory
  2. Do not be afraid of any harm done to the body by unbelievers
  3. Be bold in publicly proclaiming the lordship of Christ
  4. Love Jesus more than every other love, passion, or relationship
  5. Prepare for social exile; discipleship will be a final departure from the world

Top of the list is a willingness to die. Literally die. This is utterly contrary to the west, where people are so soft and cossetted that they do not even like to talk about death, much less talk about how to die well. Neither is this true only of unbelievers. It is a sad reflection on the church that too few western Christians really contemplate martyrdom. Too many Christians are not mentally and spiritually prepared for it. It is not preached. It is not our concern. We do not cultivate a willingness to put our lives on the line if it should ever be necessary for our testimony to Jesus.

When Jesus speaks of taking up the cross he means an inward disposition toward the world and toward life. We are to live as if martyrdom were around the corner. Taking up the cross gives us a new enlightened outlook in which we start to see the world for what it really is: our temporary camping ground en route to the Promised Land. Cross carrying yields a disposition that punches through the materialistic, languid illusions of our age. For once a man is condemned to crucifixion, and walks the dusty road up to Calvary with the crossbeam over his shoulder, what does he think about? What holds his attention? How does his view of things change?

The man on the march to crucifixion no longer existed. His community reviled him. He might have to walk between rows of a jeering crowd. He had no possessions. Even his clothes were up for grabs by the guards on execution duty. He no longer was master of his own life for it was shortly to be taken from him. The man on the road toward his own personal Calvary would see no future for himself on this side of eternity. If he believed in God, at the hour the nails were riven home, amidst the flaming agony, he surely believes with all his heart. There is no longer anything left to cloud his faith; no longer anything of this earth to hold him down. He is truly free. Free enough to die for God.

Faith that sneers at death, and holds pain in derision for the sake of Christ is in short supply today. And this is why the church withers in the west. Christianity was never meant to be transmitted in safe and cosy ways, without price, without sacrifice, and without tears and sweat. It is a shortage of these things that suggests to unbelievers that Christianity is not really believed, even by those who profess it. And maybe we don’t. Maybe, in the west, we don’t believe in eternity and the glory of God. Not really. And that is the real reason we are so scared of the radicalism of Jesus.

Leonard Ravenhill – the great evangelistic preacher whose ministry blazed with indefatigable zeal for thirty years – once remarked that the Islamic world had seen a revival that was even then causing the Muhammadan creed to be transmitted deep into Western nations:

My dear country of England, in the last 25 years, they’ve closed 600 branch churches of the Church of England alone, leave out the Methodists and others.

But in the place of 600 churches, we have now six hundred mosques. The greatest revival in the world right now is amongst the Muslims. Why? Because they’re prepared to die. You can’t scare them.

Leonard Ravenhill had his finger on the pulse of Islam ten years earlier than most Christians in the west, who remained blissfully unaware of the Islamic Revival that began in the early 1970’s until it crashed into their awareness in a swirl of burning wreckage and splintering metal on September 11th, 2001. Despite the efforts of global authorities and the expenditure of uncountable pyramids of gold, radical Islam continues to spread across the world. Why? Because they are not afraid. Islamic radicals impress their fellow Muslims with the sheer weight of their courage. Although their religion is false, men and women will always recognise genuine belief when it manifests itself in a person unafraid to die.

Before Christianity will revive in the west, it is going to take the outbreak of this kind of faith and consciousness of the eternal stakes. This is something that Ravenhill understood very well.

Few men have looked, worked, prayed for the approach of Christian revival like Ravenhill. He was a watchman on the city walls who strained his eyes for a lifetime searching for the first rays of sunlight that would herald the dawn. As far back as 1959 he wrote the book that has become one of the modern classics of Christian literature: Why Revival Tarries. In this book, he flatly declares that there is no Christian revival because modern Christians do not really want it. Too many Christians are too contented not to see great movements of the majesty and work of God. There is a shallowness in our witness; in short, we have lost the dangerous, radical dynamism of the earliest disciples who embraced the cross with a full willingness for the glory and the cost.

This spirit of self-preservation was unknown to the earliest Christians. They were mostly poor people, and they lived in the shadow of death cast by the sophisticated totalitarian government of ancient Rome. For them, martyrdom was not repellent, but a privilege. They drank deeply from the spirit of the words “take up the cross and follow me“. Some of the earliest saints were so desirous for the promised martyr’s glory that they courted death. Some of the more radical Christians set pagan temples on fire, and then waited purposefully for a howling mob to show up and kill them.

They revelled in the chance to die. This fact alone teaches us in our timid 21st century how much we have drifted from the fiery, self-sacrificing zeal and eternal outlook known by the first Christians. This, we see in the life of Ignatius of Antioch, who was famously taken to Rome for martyrdom. En route to his certain death, he wrote numerous letters that were soaked in the craving for a victor’s crown from Christ. Many of these express an eagerness to die and exalt in suffering for Christ’s name. The most famous is his letter written to Christians at Rome, “I am God’s wheat”:

I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God.

No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.

The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. Do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish. You will sympathize with me because you will know what urges me on.

Ravenhill predicted the return of martyr flames in the West. Certainly the walls are closing in on the church. The day is already here when orthodox Christian belief fits so uncomfortably with the spirit of the age it is even now irritating it like a particle of sand under the skin. This is a sign of our times – a demonstration of great spiritual realities unfolding around us – that in the space of less than a hundred years, the ancient landmark of Christianity which stood unchallenged for centuries has made the transition from being normal to completely offensive and alien.

Biblical Christianity is only tolerated because it is not understood. When the core tenets of Christianity are explained unbelievers reject it as “hateful”. Each point of the doctrine taught by our Lord is questioned and challenged by this world.  Dr. Michael Jensen, rector of St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Australia, wrote a few years ago to prove this very thing:

It is pretty obvious from recent public discussions of the place of faith in public schools that completely orthodox, historic Christian teachings, held by the vast majority of Christian denominations, are held by some people to be “extreme”.

Recently, a fellow panellist on an ABC TV show “accused” me of believing that Jesus was the only way to God – which I do believe – as if this was somehow news, or evidence of cult-like weirdness. In another context, something I had written about the sinfulness of humankind – the most easily verified of Christian doctrines I would have thought – was thrown at me as if I had just called for a holy war.

The NSW Greens Education spokesman John Kaye was aghast that Christian material taught sexual abstinence outside of marriage, again as if this was somehow evidence of the kind of radical extremism that we ought to use the force of law to stamp out.

A great movement of God is desperately needed in the west – that Christians would again be radicalised by Jesus and filled with so much courage that we can throw caution to the wind in service to him. It is for this that we ought to be earnestly praying; for ourselves and for our fellow believers. We have become so weak! So pallid and limp. We are spiritually sick and have so little appetite for spiritual bread and spiritual riches in Christ that we no longer even realise it. The patient’s pulse is nearly undetectable.

Meanwhile, our brethren in China forsake their possessions and comforts for the sake of Christ, and the church is now at least sixty million strong. Our brethren in Africa are shot by marauding Islamists, or they travel for miles on foot to worship the living God and have not a bite to eat when they return home. But though they have nothing – like the church at Smyrna – yet are they rich! They do not meet in polished buildings or have flawless services, but they have a habitation that is secure for all eternity; mansions of glory.

The Spirit and the bride say, Come Lord Jesus! This must be our prayer. That there would be a great movement of God in our hearts and the wider church. That we would be transformed so that that Christianity would no longer be a hobby confined to Sunday morning and a few prayer sessions, but that it should be the ceaseless motion of our lives. That a pursuit for holiness and sanctification would dominate our passions, and overcome our fear of loss. That we would invest serious time on our knees, travailing as in birth, for a greater awareness of God and the true conversion of precious souls.

Come Lord Jesus, indeed. That we would have the vistas of eternity open large before us, shrivelling the few years of this life up before our eyes. That we would thirst for God himself, and for holiness. And be so set on fire with love for our Lord Jesus Christ that we would truly take up our cross daily, and follow him.

The New Breed of Politician

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets a lot of air time in the media. In the progressive press she is lionised for her authenticity (she speaks to supporters on live stream while preparing dinner in her kitchen), and for the rags-to-riches story that she has made part of her political narrative. She seamlessly markets her personal life as part of her brand so that in addition to lifestyle coffee, we now have the lifestyle politician.

In the conservative press, however, Ocasio-Cortez is routinely disparaged for her ludicrous policy ideas that are unhinged from the real world of economics. When challenged she tries to overturn questions on the financial and technical details of her “Green New Deal” by assuming the costume of moral superiority. Anyone who wants anything more specific than blue sky vision statements has simply failed to grasp the scale of environmental apocalypse.

Predictably, Ocasio-Cortez is often pilloried for her preference of style over substance and her symbolic feel-goodism over nuts and bolts happenings. A classic example of this behaviour was seen her bizarre speech made to an audience of African Americans earlier this year in which she used an accent she does not normally use. With great indignation, she responded to critics that this was “code-switching”. She hinted that her critics did not understand why a person might use a completely different accent because they were not from the Bronx as she is.

The millennial generation is getting older and now starting to ascent to positions of power. Ocasio-Cortez is an example of the kind of politician that is emerging from the 1980’s and 1990’s era. These are reared on amoral TV shows like Friends and Buffy, and their values are shaped by their gender studies professors rather than religion.  So, if we want to get an early snapshot of our future politicians, Ocasio-Cortez is a petri-dish specimen of what is soon to come. This is not a comforting thought for the believer who already has cold shivers from seeing the sheer lack of intellectual engagement that new politicians exhibit.

Nonetheless, for the time being Ocasio-Cortez is easily disregarded by Christians because she is so evidently naive and intellectually ill-suited to leadership. Her petulant outbursts, the abundant self-esteem the gallops heedlessly past her mediocrity, her conviction that no valid criticism of her positions exist, and her regular retreat into the cocoon of identity politics is, if anything, an irritation. For the moment, she seems to pose no threat. She can be dismissed as a hapless cartoon character whose ludicrous schemes always hilariously unravel. She can sprinkle some ACME GO-SLO pellets along roadrunner’s path, or try to excite a roadrunner revolution by planting ACME dynamite at key locations, but in the end her wily schemes will go haywire and she will end up lodged in a cactus. Cue general laughter and merriment.

I think this sentiment is dangerous and misleading. We would be unwise to imagine that the upcoming generation of politicians are just comic relief who can do no lasting damage and do not imperil the Christian Church. The millennial politicians coming down the pipeline combine Ocasio-Cortez’s hostility to the foundation stones of Western civilisation with a ruthless willingness to bully and persecute anyone who dares to dissent.

This brings us to Brian Sims. A homosexual Democrat politician sitting in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives who hectors and abuses old ladies and teenage girls who disagree with him about abortion.

A few weeks ago, Sims spotted an older lady silently praying her rosary near an abortion clinic. Note that well, silently. This lady was not speaking. She was not waving placards. She was not even wearing clothing with slogans or logos. All she did was silently pray. It is about as inoffensive as you can get, and in a healthy pluralistic democracy, she should have been able to do so without being accosted.

Brian Sims could not bear the sight of this. He berated, insulted, and harassed her for about nine minutes:

During the course of Sim’s nearly nine minute video in which he stalks, taunts, harasses and accuses the unnamed woman, the state representative repeatedly attempts to shove his smartphone camera in the woman’s face. She quietly walked up and down the sidewalk during Sim’s outburst, seemingly unperturbed as she prayed a rosary.

By the end of his video, Sims had hurled the words “Shame,” “Shameful,” or “Shame on you!” at the woman at least 18 times; He said what she was doing was “Disgusting,” or “Grotesque” more than a half dozen times; He accused her of being “racist,” and repeatedly attacked Christianity.

Sims then makes a truly bizarre statement:

Sims said to the woman that although she has a Constitutional right to protest, “that doesn’t  mean you have a moral right to be out here.”

Morality is very important to Mr Sims. Or rather, his morality is very important to him because it apparently confers upon him the right to bully, harass, and attempt to intimidate women on the streets whom he has judged have errant religious views. One cannot help but conclude that Brian Sims rather enjoyed bulling this woman. Bullies pick their targets carefully. In this case, the lady was hardly likely to turn around and pop him one, and her apparently meekness served only to galvanise the brave Mr Sims. He captured the whole exchange on camera and personally uploaded the video. He seemed to think that it made him look like a hero.

During his big moment, Sims repeatedly attacked Christianity. It is here that his comments reveal the real issue. Sim cannot stand Christianity and its moral teaching. He does not like Christianity that holds an unbending resolve in the face of hostility; a concern for doing what is right in the sight of God at all costs. It is this sort of muscular, manly Christianity that people like Brian Sims both fear and despise. His reaction to it is exactly what we witness in the New Testament in opposition to our Lord.

As the Western world sinks deeper into a terminal paralysis of sin out of which no person or movement can rescue it, we should expect to see this hated for the Church and for Christians to increasingly manifest in politicians. An unchurched and uncatechised generation will have no regard for Christ and no respect for his teachings. They will do what rebel sinners always do when elevated to power over Christians: they will persecute. The only restraint that prevents these politicians from doing more harm to the Christian community, at least for the present, is the decaying restraint of law.

At one point Sims insists, without the slightest hint of irony:

There’s no faith that tells you ‘you are right’ and everybody else is wrong.  There’s no faith that tells you it’s your job to stand out here and shame people for something they have a right to do.

It’s self-referential satire. Brian Sims is a parody of himself. He is the Spanish inquisitor who sets out to roast other supposed inquisitors for their crime of supposedly roasting inquisitors. He is blithely ignorant of the fact that he is acting in precisely the way he describes this woman of doing.

Although Sims acknowledges that this woman had a right to be on the streets praying her rosary, he still appointed himself to the task of shaming her for it. Apparently in his world, his totalitarian, take-no-prisoners moral code allows him to believe he is right and anyone who disagrees with him is wrong. But nobody else may have such absolutist convictions.

It is amazing how entitled, self-regarding these uber-progressive warriors have. Their self-awareness is minuscule because they are not evidently in the habit of robust scrutinising themselves. Over and over again, they blast away at other people while demonstrating the same poor behaviour they claim to repudiate.

Christians should look carefully at Brian Sims behaving like a goon. We should listen to his sinister ranting on the streets and see in this the face of the coming generation of politicians. It is a generation of politicians that will think nothing of standing on the streets arrogantly haranguing folk about what Christianity supposedly is. They will not hesitate to directly target our faith. For millennial politicians know what Christianity is and woe betide any Christian who prefers the teachings of… well, the actual risen and ascended Christ to their warmed up puree of authoritarian progressivism in faux virtue.

“Iniquity,” the psalmist tells us, “surely abounds when the vilest men are exalted”. We must sadly live in the certainty that more of this sort of politician is on the way.

A Glimpse of That To Come: The Persecution of Israel Folau

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Israel Folau is a highly competent Australian rugby player and a devout Christian. Recently, he had the temerity to make a public call to repentance by posting on his social media account a meme that more or less contained the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6-9-10. Accompanying the meme was a short text Folau himself wrote in which he stated that unrepentant sinners would go to hell but there was still time to repent.

Although a list of sins were mentioned in the meme, it was St. Paul’s reference to homosexuality that triggered a torrential downpour of outrage. Folau was immediately accused of “homophobia” (although, it seems, not “adulterophobia” or “drunkophobia”), and the governing body of the sport, Rugby Australia, determined he had committed a “high level breach” of the professional code of conduct. He now faces either a hefty fine, or the effective termination of his playing career.

Israel Folau is of Tongan background and was raised a Mormon before converting to Pentecostalism. Despite this sketchy theological history, both Folau and his family have demonstrated a deeper and stronger understanding of the cost of following Jesus and eternal consequences than many orthodox believers. They have clearly imbibed deeply the warnings of Jesus about the inevitable conflict between those who follow the Lord and those who prefer the darkness of rebellion.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus indicates that persecution is a test of ultimate loyalties. At the hour of decision to whom will we be loyal? Is it to Christ? Or can our defection be gained by the unbelieving world with threats, enticements, or compromises?

In a short statement tinted with godly defiance and faith, Folau said:

First and foremost, I live for God now. His plans for me are better than whatever I can think. If that’s not to continue playing, so be it. In saying that, obviously I love playing footy and if it goes down that path I’ll definitely miss it. But my faith in Jesus Christ is what comes first.

One of his friends added:

He doesn’t care how he’ll be persecuted in this world, where it’s temporary, but it’s in the afterlife when we all die.

This is a correct diagnosis of the situation regardless of the sophistry of social activists. It is indeed a form of persecution. A man’s career is being ripped away from him not because he is a poor player, or a criminal, or a bad role model, or because has harmed anyone. He is being punished at the highest level for a single transgression: he dared to express the words and teachings of the Christian faith publicly.

The Lord Jesus taught us not to fear men. They can kill the body but not the soul. Rather, Jesus said, if we are to be afraid let us fear the loss of body and soul in hell.

In Israel Folau’s defiance we are witnessing a demonstration of this principle in action. This is what it looks like when you really believe what Jesus said. A genuine faith is revealed in disregarding the wishes of world in order to speak and act according to the wishes of God. In one sense, this is a modern replay of St. Peter’s quiet defiance to the Jewish leaders. Knowing they were about to be beaten and told not to speak in the name of Jesus, they firmly declared: “We obey God rather than men”.

This perspective is apparently taken by Israel Folau’s father who has stated that his son did not breach any contract regarding “hate speech”. In essence, Folau’s father simply assumes that it cannot ever be wrong or illegal to repeat what God has said. Any laws, contracts, or rules to the contrary can be disregarded for the sake of God. Pointing to the sky, the elder Mr Folau told the media: “For me and for him, we try to obey Him”.

A former member of the Federal parliament, Wilson Tuckey, wrote last weekend:

In the days of the Roman Empire, to stand up in public to espouse your Christianity was most likely to result in a trip to the Colosseum for a brief meeting with a couple of hungry lions for the entertainment of the masses. The Israel Folau case indicates that little has changed in today’s ‘progressive empire’.

This is another correct diagnosis, although now realised only by a shrinking number of people. Persecution of Christianity is not merely on its way. It has now returned to the pagan West and is expanding at an increasingly energetic pace. The process took a few decades to get going following the collapse of Christian observance and the liberalisation of stained-glass-window denominations, but the ship is now under full steam.

Persecution takes many guises, whether it be the grotesque intellectual contortions of millennial identity politics, or vaguely-defined institutional rules, or kangaroo tribunals that seek to silence Christian dissent.

The time is fast approaching when Christians will become – willingly or otherwise – radicals in a strange new culture, as laws and frightening mobs are used to try to control the preaching, believing, and practising of Christian teachings. This is not going to get better. Anyone who thinks the pendulum will swing the other way, outside of the sheer grace of God, is deceiving themselves. Rather persecution is only going to get worse. Moreover, it will become more systematic and organised with time.

As Matthew Henry wrote centuries ago, Christians are never so well prepared for eternity as when they “live loosely in this world”. The lesson therefore is this: be not so strongly attached to anything in this world that you would not immediately leave it for the sake of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow thee,
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.

Go, then, earthly fame and treasure
Come, disaster, scorn and pain
In thy service, pain is pleasure
With thy favour, loss is gain.

The Charismatic Movement: The Degraded Cultural By-Product of a Secular Age

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The charismatic movement is predicated on the idea that it is the modern outpouring of the Holy Spirit as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Each charismatic person fully expects to be able to perform (or to learn from their numerous “schools”) the same works that were witnessed in the early Church.

Charismatics commonly appeal to a passage that appears early in the Acts of the Apostles. There, St. Peter preaches to a large assembly after the miracle of Pentecost. During his great sermon St. Peter quotes the Prophet Joel and and tells his hearers:

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.(Acts 2:17-18)

Despite St. Peter’s explicit application of this passage only to those who spoke in foreign languages that morning, this is taken by charismatics as a proof text for the claim that these spiritual works will continue as a normative experience for the Church.

They, thus attempt to replicate these works (and others). Not only prophecies, but healing and visions about the future. They believe Holy Spirit manifests himself with ecstatic worship, spontaneous outbursts of emotion, and the speaking of tongues – glossalalia. The charismatic movement is restless and energetic in searching for new manifestations and experiences of the Holy Spirit, and this has caused the movement to spiral into increasing extremes. Today you can find everything within its pale from the fraudulent to the occult; from practices that are bizarre to those that are grotesque.

One of the fountainheads of the movement is Bethel Church in Redding, California. Bethel Church originates and popularises spiritual practises that are frighteningly indistinguishable from the New Age movement. Unfortunately, these ideas tend to spread outward from Bethel since the church operates a “School of Supernatural Ministry”. Here its students learn spiritual arts in something reminiscent of magical arts at Hogwarts.

Bethel claims that the Holy Spirit is active in their institution and people. They go so far as to claim that the tangible presence of God appears during their worship services (as in this official video). This “presence” looks exactly like craft store glitter released from air-vents in the ceiling sometimes with a few feathers swirling around allegedly from the wings of observing angels. As the glitter floats in the air, the pastor Bill Johnson cracks jokes, children point as if they were at a birthday party, and hoots can be heard from the audience.

Like the unbelieving world in our time, charismatics pride themselves on being loud and “messy”. Their services are boisterous and rowdy. Rowdiness is taken as a sure sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Quiet, discipline and restraint are typically viewed with suspicion or disdain. Thus, hooting, shouting and whistling, once the preserve of football matches, are ubiquitous in charismatic worship. It is behaviour that is modelled by pastors within the movement. It is not uncommon for a pastor to begin his sermon with a loud roar of excitement.

It demonstrates the extent to which the movement has adopted its norms of behaviour from the sporting and entertainment world. Indeed, popular cultural references are seamlessly interwoven with their preaching. To choose but one example among thousands, Passion Church in Maple Grove, Minnesota gives an annual performance of Jackson’s Thriller. The church looks like an absolute nightmare, with zombies shuffling through green fog in a graveyard and people painted up in the grinning, voodoo visages of the undead.

But Passion Church seems untroubled by the admission of dark, creepy worldly ideas about death into their church. Instead, they claim that people are led to “overcome their fear” and “step into faith” through the performance. Or put another way, you can lead people to Christ through Michael Jackson’s pop music.

Meanwhile, at Bethel Church, Jenn Johnson – the daughter-in-law of its pastor – goes even further with the deification of popular culture. She has given a number of presentations in which she reflects on the Holy Trinity, If you thought that nobody would ever dare to apply pop culture to the Person of God himself you would be greatly mistaken. In her presentations, Jenn Johnson describes the Holy Spirit as being like the “genie from Aladdin”. She says the Holy Spirit is “blue”, “funny”, “sneaky”, “silly”, and “fun”.

As she recites this list of attributes shared by both Disney’s cartoon character and the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, her voice trembles with a straining-to-be-meaningful emotion. We are to understand from these flutters that turning a cartoon character into an icon of the Holy Spirit is deep wisdom. (See: video compilation).

The movement is so filled with “lying wonders” and gimmicks that one could write a multi-volume encyclopedia and still not exhaust the material. For example, the charismatic movement has developed a practice called “fire tunnels“. During one of these rituals, a person wishing to receive blessing will walk between two lines of congregants. As they do so, people on either side pray over them, lay hands on them, praise their qualities, and infuse them with “fire”. There is usually a great deal of hollering, hooting and whistling, and the recipient of this blessing frequently shakes or falls to the ground overwhelmed with the spiritual energy they have received.

According to the Gospel Coalition, the leaders at Bethel and others within the charismatic movement have also practised “grave soaking” or “grave sucking”. This practice involves touching or laying on the graves of great evangelists or saints in order to absorb the spiritual power (“the mantle”) from their bones. Although there has been some back-peddling from this practice, Pulpit and Pen published an article last year in which they offered photographic evidence of “grave soaking” being conducted.

FOUR POINTS

What are we to make of the movement? I think there are four sensible conclusions orthodox Christians can arrive at.

1. The charismatic movement is immutably anarchistic: Like rebels who take up firearms in the street, and shout to the heavens that they are freemen who will not heed the laws of the king for they have found a deeper truth, so the charismatic movement is also shaped by a deep longing for freedom from the “restrictions” of God’s word and law. To achieve this, the movement has a spaghetti tangle of pathways to follow that enable them to pursue their own inclinations and desires.

Spiritual anarchism is the direct result of legitimising claims of special revelation (“the Holy Spirit told me”). Since every charismatic is potentially a prophet like Jeremiah or Moses, and since their prophetic ramblings are taken seriously by other charismatics, each learns that they have a special authority. Although they claim to subordinate this authority to scripture, history has long taught us that such subordination never in practice occurs.

Imagine a society where citizen was elevated to a Supreme Court judgeship. The resultant discordant crackle of legal interpretations would be impossible to measure against any outside standard, even if every citizen claimed his authority was subject to the constitution. If everyone is a Supreme Court justice, to what degree does the constitution really hold authority?

2. The charismatic movement is functionally relativistic: Relativism is the doctrine that truth is not universal or objective but is individually discerned. Everybody has their own truth because the basis upon which each person discerns “their truth” is different. Truth differs according to person, situation, context, culture, time, and so on.

As philosopher Hillary Putnam correctly identified, the result of the doctrine of relativism is that it becomes impossible to believe that one is in error. For if there is no truth beyond the personal belief that something is true, then one can never hold their own beliefs to be untrue. Relativism, therefore, gives rise to an independent reality that is ungovernable by any facts, claims, authorities outside of the individual.

Charismatic claims of special direct revelation places them in precisely this situation. Few charismatics ever believe they are in error, because it is not possible for them to be so. Their special direct revelation thus forces them to function on the basis of relativism.

Imagine a charismatic walks up to you and announces, “The Holy Spirit told me that you must move to Minnesota“. Consider the tension in this claim.

The charismatic is saying that God the Holy Spirit is issuing you a command. You are being commanded to move interstate. This is a divine revelation from heaven, and since it comes from the Holy Spirit, it logically shares co-equal authority with the scriptures.

But here lies the conundrum. How do we know that this prophecy is actually authentic?

Even charismatics are forced to admit that there are many false prophets, faked prophecies, charlatans, tricksters, and frauds in their movement. They have to admit this because the sheer volume of demonstrable error is overwhelming. They will even accept that sometimes spiritual claims can be inspired by evil spiritual forces. Given this, how is any person to determine whether a revelation is true or just another fraud? For there is no independent authentication.

This results in a long, muddy quagmire over which the carriage of reason cannot travel. Each charismatic person claiming the “mantle” of prophecy believes themselves to be authoritative mouthpieces of God and therefore cannot be subject to correction. But, each charismatic who receives a prophecy must also accept it or interpret it according to their own inner revelation and they likewise cannot be subject to correction. Moreover, one charismatic can countermand another charismatic’s revelation by simply receiving a super-ordinate revelation.

So a charismatic who says, “The Holy Spirit told me you must buy oil stocks by the end of the week“, can be rebutted by another charismatic who says, “Well, the Holy Spirit told me that this prophecy was not for me and I must not listen to it“.

Even when a false prophecy is accidentally believed – like the apocalyptic warnings over Iran or North Korea which never eventuated – those instances are simply dismissed on the basis someone had a lack of faith in the Holy Spirit, or someone muddled the message, or did not have enough spiritual insight to interpret it.

The ultimate result of this complete dispersal of revelatory authority is that nobody is ultimately correctable. Nobody’s claims of truth can be proved or disproved by anyone else. This is why virtually nobody in the charismatic movement ever holds their own dreams, visions, prophecies or voices to be untrue, no matter how violently they disagree with reality, with facts, with scripture, with history, or even with other charismatics.

This leads to a galloping relativism as well as an imperial disposition that allows transparent charlatans and corruption to flourish within the movement. For who is to say that a charismatic pastor imprisoned for taxation fraud did not truly receive a revelation from the Holy Spirit who “told him to guard the Lord’s money from the unbelieving Feds”? If a charismatic believes it is true, his theology teaches him that it must be true. And who is one charismatic to deny the message of the Holy Spirit to another?

I once witnessed the full moral crookedness of this relativism vividly demonstrated in the fallout of a very tragic situation. A charismatic man in our community who was married to a delightful lady, had an affair with another woman. He then abandoned his children and took off with his mistress. Even while he was living in a state of separation pending a divorce, this man still claimed that God was directly giving him messages.

His graphically sinful conduct; his abhorrent lack of self-restraint; the unbelievable pain he inflicted on a very sweet and gentle woman did not give him the slightest hesitation in firmly believing that for all of his wickedness he was still genuinely in touch with the Almighty.

That is relativism to the max.

3. The charismatic movement is deeply materialistic, consumerist, and temporally focused: For all of their spiritual hocus-pocus, the movement itself is fuelled significantly by a thirst for “my best life now”, wealth, health, success, and power.

The website of nearly any charismatic church will contain terms like: “vibrant”, “fulfilling life”, “overcoming fear”, “health”, “relationships” and so on. These websites seem to have compiled every self-help buzzword in existence. They advertise a particular lifestyle characterised by ecstatic worships and “power” over all of their temporal problems. The focus is squarely on the temporal, the here-and-now.

In charismatic belief, the good life starts now. Thus people should experience healing, financial success, and all of the good things of life. Now. In tangible, measurable form.

4. Far from representing the final outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the charismatic movement is the terminal stage of a decayed Christianity. The charismatic movement is the polluted by-product of a toxic, ungodly culture. It does not subvert the world. Quite the reverse. It has been thoroughly subverted by the sinful spiritual debris of the age. It is what you get when you freely pour the acidic sludge of an ungodly, shallow and materialistic culture over the clean marble of Christianity: the acrid, stained fragments left over from this acid bath is only “new” in the sense that most of the original substance was deleted.

Everything about the charismatic movement distorts God. The movement presents God as a kind of granddaddy hipster and shows little regard for God’s supreme holiness and glory. If a person can seriously believe that glittery sparkles in the air is the glory of the Lord, then such a person has no comprehension at all – as much comprehension as the cattle have of the beauties of the stars – as to what the glory and majesty of the Lord really is like. When one has been in the true presence of God, like St. John beholding the exalted Christ, they fall on their faces as dead.

This distortion of God’s Person manifests in the triviality of their worship.

For example, there are few charismatic experiences not accompanied by laughter – sometimes even referred to as “holy laughter”. They laugh during sermons; during prayers; during healings; during fire tunnels. Bill Johnson cracks jokes and the congregation laughs appreciatively even as the “glory cloud” of God’s holy presence supposedly appears. Comedy is next to holiness, as is the nearly ceaseless turbulence of noise, motion, and music that is omnipresent at all charismatic services. People sway, they bob like Hasidic Jews, they shriek, they jitter and fall to the ground. Some wave their hands in the air. During services people run around, or walk or skip, while others stand listening to the sermon, while others sit, or others roll on the ground. There’s hollering and cheering. The band plays a nearly ceaseless sound track.

The concept of worship as a shared experience, orderly and disciplined to reflect the holiness of heaven and its King, has fled. The texts of scripture that say, “Be still and know that I am God“, could never be observed under such conditions. It seems that silence and deep reverence is only for the angels of heaven. Or, perhaps for the dead, cold Christians of the past (and present). But for the children of the fresh outpouring, the approved order is a kindergarten level of restlessness.

The charismatic movement actively feeds the narcissism that is frighteningly prevalent in the culture. The charismatic movement turns each man into an authoritative prophet who is beholden only to his own revelations.

It feeds on the present cultural fascination with supernatural powers by turning everyone into a Harry Potter. This mysticism and solipsism is deeply attractive to the culture, for it grants a hidden significance that none but the enlightened can reach.

Thus the new follower is suddenly swept into a world where they can receive secret messages, can cast healing spells, learn easy answers to all problems, and obtain special powers. It is as though they had stepped through a wardrobe into the land of Narnia. The reason they can enter this magical domain is because they are special. They have hidden discernment and insight. This is the very message that Samuel’s Mantle – a prophetic training school in Canada – gives its would-be students. Unlike other Christians, they have a particular anointing and a special calling.

To such a depth of magical delusion have some in the movement sunk, that charismatic “supernatural students” have even attempted to raise the dead as though it were a skill you could learn like sport or moves in a video game. The Gospel Coalition reports:

People in the Bethel movement believe that raising the dead should be something we aspire to. As a result, some Bethel students formed a Dead Raising Team. They go to the morgue to practice raising the dead. They also listen to the radio and try to beat ambulances to accidents to raise the dead or heal the injured before the ambulance arrives. From all accounts, they have yet to raise their first corpse.

Christianity Today reports that in 2008, two Bethel students were involved in an accident that left a man stricken at the base of a 200-foot cliff. The students believed that the man had died and so they tried to resurrect him by prayer. They waited until the next morning to call emergency services. Thankfully, the man survived but unfortunately, he remains paralysed.

Worst of all, the charismatic movement cheapens everything to do with the Blessed Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is presented as a force or a genie who is at the constant beck and call of the summoner. Receiving the Holy Spirit “fire” is as mechanical a process as an engine injecting fuel into a cylinder. Yes, the Holy Spirit is a divine Person, but apparently He functions very much like an impersonal force or energy field.

St. Paul tells us that he “purposed to know nothing” among the Corinthians, “but Christ and him crucified”. As always St. Paul was in perfect harmony with our Inerrant Lord who taught us that he would send the Holy Spirit to exercise a very specific ministry. For the Holy Spirit would not point to Himself; the Holy Spirit would not glorify himself; neither would he be “funny” and “silly” like a blue cartoon genie.

Rather the Lord said of the Spirit: “He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you“. The Holy Spirit’s work, says the Lord, would be to convict the world of unrighteousness and unbelief, and teach people about judgement.

When Christ is glorified and righteousness, repentance and judgement are declared, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit is truly at work. For the Spirit does not direct men to himself, but always to the Son. The Son, in turn, points men to the Father via himself.

In charismatic circles, this divine order is entirely turned on its head. For what do charismatics emphasise and preach? They emphasise the Person of the Holy Spirit. Which Person of the Trinity receives the most attention in their gatherings, their literature, prophecies, and activities? The Holy Spirit. Which Person of the Trinity is glorified and exalted, called upon, and attributed power and strength? The Holy Spirit.

You do not end up at charismatic worship when you seek Christ and him crucified above all. You do not end up with charismatic worship when you repent of the world and the values and attitudes that are invisibly infused into it – the narcissism, self-indulgence, self-seeking, desire for prominence and power, the emotionalism that triumphs over many minds.

And you will never end up as a charismatic if you see yourself honestly and without affectation, as an unimportant servant of Christ who is privileged to have any calling at all. If you are desirous to be the smallest in the kingdom of heaven – to be a vessel that is emptier and lowlier so that it might be more at the disposal of Christ – then you will never succumb to the thirst for power and glamour; for razzmatazz and the spiritual sensationalism of the charismatic movement.

St. Paul in the discharge of his ministry teaches us the remedy against all degraded religion that would exalt the self:

“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

Therefore, let us make it our aim to excel in regarding ourselves as “nothing” but servants. Like St. Paul, we ought to strive to be ever more empty of self-regard and increasingly “small in our own eyes” so that we will not fall victim to the devil’s schemes. We know he tempts men with multiple forms of pride, and there is no pride as dangerous and subtle as religious pride.

As servants, let us humbly enthrone Christ on the highest pinnacle of our regard and affections. Let us flee from any desire for spiritual status or prominence. Let us forsake the noisy and revolutionary; the worldly and novel and experimental; and let us set our hearts to follow the Shepherd on the path of righteousness. “My sheep hear my voice,” the Lord said, “and they follow me… they will not follow a stranger for they do not know the voice of strangers“.

Indeed, true Christians do follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. We look to the unchanging Father for our guidance, and we find our strength and hope in the unparalleled majesty of the Son of the Living God “who is the same yesterday, today, and forever“. Follow him.

Walking with the Nazarene in the Wilderness: The Second Temptation of Christ

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Of all three temptations, it is the Second Temptation of Christ that presents us with the greatest interpretive puzzle.

It is quite unlike the First Temptation. In the First Temptation we can readily see ourselves in the light of Christ’s experience. The sight of the starved Nazarene being tempted to eat by the devil is quite analogous to our personal experience of having strong desires for things that do not glorify God. Under the pressure of this testing, the fortitude of Christ is clearly revealed to us precisely because it is earthy, and therefore corresponds to the reality in which we live. We know the weakness and limits of our own frame and we know how hard self-denial can be.

Later, the Third Temptation is even more straightforward. The spiritual immensity of being tempted with “all the kingdoms of the earth” is easily understandable because in so many instances we ourselves fail when tempted by the merest sliver of a kingdom – perhaps a promotion, or acquisition of property. The news greets us regularly with stories of people who have sold their souls for a fraction of a kingdom: politicians who seek power at the expense of their fellow man; dictators who climb to the top of their nations over a hecatomb of corpses; doctors who bully and bribe to become presidents of the local board of physicians.

The incredible weakness of mankind when offered power is a stain that cannot be washed out of the race, generation to generation, no matter how many times the bitterness of oppression is experienced. Thus, in the Third Temptation when we see Christ being assailed not by the merest part of a kingdom but by all the kingdoms of the earth in their fullness, we recognise an intensity of temptation that we ourselves would be unable to bear.

In this manner the First and Third are readily intelligible. But the Second Temptation? The Second Temptation is the outlier.

How can we relate to this? What experiences does it parallel? What aspect of the human condition does it speak to? The Second Temptation does not seem to apply to any of life’s common experiences; in fact, we can look upon the Second Temptation with jaded eyes and think, “How is this even a temptation? It certainly would not tempt me!” Thus, we can simply conclude that while something certainly takes place in the Second Temptation, it lies within a veil we cannot penetrate and at a depth we cannot plumb. It must lie under the perpetual shadow of a question mark.

Yet this is very far from the case. Although the Second Temptation may be mysterious, it is certainly not shrouded in darkness and offers serious lessons to the believer that are instrumental in an age of recurrent spiritual tremors like ours. Nevertheless, (let the reader beware), the lessons taught here are not necessarily pleasant. The passage punctures religious pride; confronts misplaced religious zeal; and overturns cherished religious convictions.

This may explain why the passage so often gathers dust in the library of God’s word for if there is one thing that unstable Christians are opposed to, it is self-examination and spiritual sobriety. If there is one thing overly-emotive Christians dislike, it is being brought down to earth. And if there is one thing that drives away theatrical Christians, it is anything that brings down the curtain on religious showmanship in favour of the humble, considered and the quiet.

A SITUATIONAL TEMPTATION

The first thing to notice about the Second Temptation is that it was situational.

The devil transported the Lord out of the desert and all the way to Jerusalem. Even more surprising, the Lord was carried to the Temple of God itself.

Then the devil took Him to the holy city and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple.

Scholars suggest that Jesus was taken to the south-east corner of the temple where a roof and portico overlooked the massive retaining wall that dropped about 135 metres (450 feet) straight down into the Kidron Valley. That is a significant height. It is the same height as the Xerox Tower in New York or the Fisher Building in Detroit.

xerox tower

From this we learn two things.

First, the devil was not afraid to visit the Temple. Unlike his portrayal in many worldly movies, the devil did not sizzle when he approached the consecrated mountain or the sacred precincts of the temple. Neither did the Temple location suddenly render the devil inert and harmless. To the contrary. He was quite able to engage in his evil work around the temple; and in fact, the text would have us understand that he purposefully used this religious location as a living stage for the test he had devised.

Many think that burying themselves into religion will grant them immunity from the devil’s influence, and that if they are not drinking and murdering, then they are unable to be attacked. But the devil is far more subtle than many – perhaps even most – give him credit for. The devil can use religion (even true religion) for his purposes. He can do this either by lulling people to spiritual sleep in churches, or by twisting holy doctrines and carefully inserting them into a religious environment.

One need only look to some of the “liberal” mainstream churches to see this very process in action. Blasphemies that lead to eternal death are preached from beautiful pulpits in splendid settings once built to glorify God. In many of these old cathedrals and churches, God’s holy words are sometimes carved into the surfaces themselves while the unwary are enticed to ignore them. A man in such a place can be lured into sin even while he sits in a temple once built by the faithful.

The second key thing we learn from the passage is that Lord was positioned at a great height. His precise location is not really materially important – whether it was at the south-east corner or at the north-west of the temple, for example. What matters is that Christ was elevated to a latitude that was potentially truly dangerous.

Having lifted him to this height, at this point the devil essentially invites Jesus to attempt to commit suicide.

“If You are the Son of God,” he said, “throw Yourself down. For it is written:

‘He will command His angels concerning You,
and they will lift You up in their hands,
so that You will not strike Your foot
against a stone.’”

That is, try to commit suicide with a religious gloss.

The temptation here revolves around the concept of religious authenticity and testing God with false parameters. The devil was arguing that if Jesus really was the Son of God (authenticity) and really believed the scriptures, then he would recklessly place himself in harm’s way because God would be honour bound to rescue him (false parameter).

Of course, we know the devil was not sincere in his citation of scripture. Rather this was an act of twisted cunning, and it must have seemed to the devil a guaranteed win-win-win-win situation.

For if Jesus refused to throw himself over the edge, he could be accused of a lack of faith in the scriptures. Win. After all, if Jesus really believed the word of God, would he not gladly demonstrate his radical, divine faith by going to the extreme? Failure to do so could only be the result of a lack of real faith.

On the other hand, if Jesus did throw himself over the edge, he would hurtle to his death. Win again. In this instance, the devil would have triumphed. He would have defeated the Perfect Man not by destroying him on the rocks of sin, but by tempting him with holy virtues! If even a virtuous man could be defeated by appealing to virtue, who then could be saved? The human race would be utterly doomed.

But, if the Father did step in as Jesus was plummeting to the ground and saved his Son from death, the devil would be able to accuse the Father of violating the true meaning and spirit of his own word. Win. How could any man be saved if the meaning of God’s word was in flux, and changed according to the individual and situation? If it meant one thing when it was given through the prophet but now another thing altogether?

And if that were not enough winning, if Jesus were rescued, the devil would forever be able to point mankind to this event and urge people toward religious fanaticism in service of their own reckless pretensions. Win. Go for broke, the devil could say, for had not the Perfect Man thrown himself from a great height and been saved?

Thus the nature of the Second Temptation – as shown in Jesus own rebuttal – is about putting God to the test. It is about launching into the waters of religious delusion and expecting God to confer his blessing and protection upon us because we claim to have “faith” or “trust” in things he never promised. Indeed, it stands as a serious warning about the danger of spiritual fanaticism where men attempt to do things that are not taught in God’s word. They attempt to do such things anyway in the prideful or ignorant conviction that they are.

Such spiritual delusions often arise when men and women begin to think of themselves more highly than they ought – and this is a common affliction in an age of prideful independence and the celebration of individualism.

A woman contacted me once in great sorrow regarding her husband. He had embraced some extremist doctrines that he became convinced were taught in the scripture. His church disagreed with him, and so this man in turn become convinced that his church was in error. Other churches in the area also disagreed with him, and those churches also fell by the wayside as he declared them all “false”. He thus refused to attend any church or listen to any pastor, and became a hindrance to his wife who was faithful to true Christianity. His wife wanted to continue attending her church, but her husband made life so difficult for her that she told me sadly she had very nearly given up because the fight was so exhausting.

I attempted to dialogue with this man. I did not, alas, come regard him as especially insightful, although I am quite sure he fancied himself quite intelligent. I found him arrogant, stubborn, unkind, and alienating. In the final chapter of this saga, the man had elected to study the Bible at home with one of his buddies, since the two alone had the proper doctrine. Thus, an odd little cult of two was born.

This is sadly far from an isolated case. Many examples can be found. The man in the pew who fancies himself a preacher; the woman who thinks she should lead her sisters due to her spiritual insight; the ambitious elder who craves an opportunity to teach others in a long-winded monotone – such people are many. Legion are the men and women who have come to believe they are “special” or “spiritually gifted” and then confused their own desires and ambitions for those of God.

Here in the Second Temptation, then, is a vivid, technicolored example of how it is possible to take scripture, manipulate it for our own ends, and then imagine that God will bless and preserve us because he must be subject to our corrupt interpretation of his word. It is a textbook example of how we may arrogantly pretend that if God does not serve us (as if he were a servant and we the master!) according to our delusions and pretensions, then somehow he has failed or his word has failed. God forbid.

Religious pretension of this sort is on the increase. The charismatic movement produces many such men and women who claim to be prophets and prophetesses but are not. Then there are a rash of preachers who urge their congregants toward a “radical faith” as if only by going to the extremes is one living out the great commission. As if it were not good enough to serve God in quiet and lowly manner. As if being a humble farmer like Manoah – whom scripture documents only serving in the role of father – was somehow less faithful and less God-glorifying than the calling of Samuel or St. Paul.

The pressure to be a “radical Christian” – emanating unfortunately from otherwise orthodox pulpits – often convinces people that God will bless them as they “throw themselves over” into a life of missionary work or grand evangelism, even when they are neither equipped for it nor called to it. Even when it is not wisdom for them to do this. The results of such spiritual recklessness are often disastrous.

There has been a stark example of this as recently as 2018 – the case of John Allen Chau – who died when he was killed by the natives living on the protected North Sentinel Island. This story, better than most, serves as a vivid reminder of the susceptibility of otherwise faithful Christians to the lure of “God blessed religious radicalism”, especially if it comes attired in the guise of evangelism or other causes dear to the heart of a true Christian. After all, all true Christians long for the building of Christ’s kingdom. But even such a noble desire like this can be exploited by the devil, which is why we must be on guard against the devil’s schemes.

John Allen Chau was a young man in his late twenties. Last year he attempted to convert the isolated people of North Sentinel Island, who live a primitive life, having been completely cut off from the rest of the world. The people on North Sentinel Island have made no technical progress above the level of the stone age; they are aliens to modernity.

John Allen Chau’s diary reveals a young man who was frightened of these people (and justly so for they were notorious for their inhospitable disposition). Yet so fervently did he believe that he was on a divine mission and was acting in the cause of Christ’s kingdom, that he became immune to the plainest wisdom of scripture and good sense. Indeed, his diary reveals an impetuous, death-or-glory self-belief that his preaching mission was a divine adventure. It was a belief wholly unsupported by anything but self-conviction. It was a belief that was attached to thin air.

Religious radicalism can become its own feedback loop. The more radical and audacious the act; the more dangerous and improbable its success, the more it can seem to be God’s will in line with the stories of the great saints of the past. This was certainly at work in the case of John Allen Chau. After reading his diary, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the extreme nature of what he was doing of its own accord seemed to convince him that he must be doing God’s will. “It is radical and therefore it is God’s will”, seemed to be his thinking. Yet the tragedy and failure of his missionary endeavour teach us the lesson of the Second Temptation. For this young man threw himself over the wall.

He would doubtless have been stopped had he approached his missionary endeavour under the authority or oversight of a church, bishop, elder, or experienced mission director. This he apparently did not have. He seems to have submitted his plans to no qualified Christian – certainly to none of the local churches in the area – and nobody seems to have assessed his suitability for this work.

This fact alone reminds us of the warnings in scripture regarding individualistic freelancers who seek to act independently of God’s appointed leaders of his one chosen agency on earth, the Church. This is contrary to the spirit of true Christianity.

St. Peter explicitly warns young men: “In the same way, you younger men must accept the authority of the elders.” In keeping with this theme, St. Paul strongly impresses upon us that not everyone is gifted in the same way and able to perform the same work, precisely because the Church is a body. Not everyone is an eye, or a mouth. Some believers have other gifts that are just as vital. But importantly, no part of the body acts independently; it is all subject to the head, and the head of the Church is Christ.

Likewise, in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul gives us the same principle of submission, albeit in relation to secular authorities but this is not a greater requirement than the obligation of Christians to be subject to the appointed godly men of Church leadership:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

During his missionary effort, John Chau paid men to break the law and deliver him to the island. These men were later arrested. (It is inconceivable to imagine St. Paul – the greatest missionary in Church history – paying men to breach laws on his behalf.)

While on the island, the islanders became hostile and shot an arrow at him. John Chau attempted to preach to them but unsurprisingly failed because he did not know a word of their native language. Elementary wisdom – not to mention St. Paul’s sober warnings about tongues – powerfully impresses upon us that preaching must be understood by its hearers or it has no value at all. We have the classic example of the Roman Catholic Church’s centuries of holding services in Latin to show us how effective language barriers can be in shutting up the gospel.

Despite the hostility and ineffectual nature of his first attempt, and despite his injuries, and despite his diary revealing a man gripped not by the “peace that passes all understanding” but by terror and fear, John Allen Chau returned to the island in a second effort to preach. Only this time he was murdered. Thus he withheld from the Church all of the energy he might have expended in quieter and less flashy ways, but in ways that would have been more effective and kingdom-strengthening.

His efforts succeeded only in making the people of the North Sentinel Island more isolated than they were before, with renewed efforts to shut up the island and keep them in an unfortunate condition of a severed relationship to the rest of the human race. In liberal and progressive jargon, they have “the right to be left alone” which means keeping them in a state of cultural suspended animation.

But markedly, we see demonstrated in this missionary effort, the danger of expecting God to preserve and safeguard us in reckless religious endeavours. Extreme commitment to the service to God is appropriate only when it is truly consistent with his word; when it is subject to godly authority; is truly in line with his desires and purposes; and only when we do not put God to the test of expecting him to save us from evident foolishness. The Second Temptation serves as an inoculation against a runaway religious imagination and against putting God to the test on the basis of parameters we have devised.

God is under no obligation to our misuse of scripture to justify our religious adventures or pretences. He does not need to prove his fidelity by rescuing us from folly and fantasy. Blessed indeed are those who are slow to assume they are special, and quick to assume they have a lowly calling. Who seek God’s will first, whether it be ordinary or extraordinary. Who are diligent in separating their personal desires from God’s will, and killing off unwarranted ambitions when they are not part of God’s calling. If Jesus shows us anything in the Second Temptation, it is to be wise in “not putting God to the test” by expecting him to save us from foolishness, fantasy, recklessness, pride, and extremism.

Yes, Christmas Is Culturally Degraded: What Do You Expect From the World?

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In the hands of secularists and unbelievers, the austere Christian observance of Christmas has mutated into a vivid expression of spiritual decay. It proves that while Western civilisation may have prosperity to the rafters and an extraordinary quality of life, it has obtained these things in a truly Faustian bargain. To get them, it has sold away eternal meaning, temporal purpose, moral significance, and existential depth.

Christmas is a season for frantic gift purchases, drunken office parties, quaint Victorian tropes (like stockings), gluttony, and schmaltzy movies about saving Christmas and Santa Claus. In fact, this jolly deliveryman from the North Pole has become a cause célèbre in his own right. The extraordinary lengths that parents go to in order to convince their children of Santa’s reality range from cookie crumbs on the mantelpiece to the planting of elaborate evidence (footprints, torn pieces of red cloth, and so on).

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Indeed, an aggressive debate now rages over telling children the truth about Santa. Each year, some child somewhere is told that Santa is fictional and their anguished tears are reported in the tabloids, dripping with pathos. My favourite story happened a few years ago. During his annual Christmastide talk to a group of primary school children in his parish, a Church of England vicar let slip that Santa was not real.

No doubt astonished that any clergyman of the Church of England would say anything that was not vague and wishy-washy, the children ran home to tell their parents. Rather than accepting the reality that eventually someone, somewhere will tell little Chanel or London Jr. that it was a bit of make-believe, the parents responded with extreme anger. How dare someone disabuse their child of the falsehoods so painstakingly inculcated into them! They were far more upset about Santa, one suspects, than they would ever be about the promotion of disbelief in Christ.

The most amusing part of the story was the response by the church. The Church of England, in its ceaseless quest to offend nobody and thus enter total irrelevance, was put in the unenviable position of needing to defend the nativity of Christ as the actual historical Christmas account, while concurrently appearing not to condemn the fantasy character that had supplanted the Lord in the affections of the parents.

Fictitious stories are serious business to a lot of people it seems. This nonsense has been taken so seriously that The Atlantic put together an article some time ago that featured professional-looking graphs depicting the age when people lost their faith in Santa.

Of course, this is what happens when unbelievers want to inject a transcendent vibe into an annual celebration. They either must seek it in extreme consumption – for what could be more transcendent in a materialistic culture than stuff – or they must seek it through a saccharine sentimentality related to childhood. Transcendence is found in the merry eyes of a child, sitting in front of the TV, watching a Christmas movie, gobbling M&M’s, whilst excitedly waiting for an imaginary fat man to deliver parcels of DVD’s, video game consoles, and remote-controlled drones down the chimney. Only this can truly capture that special emotion known “the spirit of Christmas”.

As silly and sad as it may be, we can hardly blame unbelievers for their parasitic simulacrum of Christian joy. Not for them the indescribable wonder of the birth of God in the flesh, and the lowly manner in which he was born that he might seek and to save the lost. Not for them the joy of confessing the Messiah as Lord and Master. Not for them the overwhelming gratitude at being chosen by God – though unworthy – and the grateful ecstasy at having value and significance in the eyes of God. “God sent the Messiah into the world for me – a rebel who has given God nothing – and yet he still came for me!” Not for the unbeliever the relief and release of sins forgiven, of a cosmic sense of belonging to the household of faith, to the family of God.

Thus, let us put aside the now-traditional lamentations from Christians about the loss of the meaning of Christmas. What else do we expect from unbelievers? Why is anyone surprised when unbelievers act like unbelievers?

The mourning over the loss of a religious Christmas season really amounts to tiresome and redundant hand-wringing. In the process of this emotional bloodletting, Christians get caught up on a mere tradition. They become evangelical about divisions between the world and the Church that are inevitable and healthy. There should be a vast and stark difference between a Christian Christmas and the celebrations of the pagans.

For Christians, Christmas ought be a sombre reminder above all that Jesus Christ is the centrepiece of Time. While the unbelieving world thinks they need not reckon with him and can safely erase him from history or reduce him to a footnote, the birth of the Lord is an annual reminder that the human story is God’s story. He is in control of it. And events are marching forward in complete accord with God’s eternal plan and timetable. We can rejoice because we have passed a key milestone. The Messiah has come, and just as the Prophets taught, the everlasting gospel has flowed out of Israel – the rivers of salvation – as the news is spread throughout the earth. Christ really walked on the earth, drank the water, breathed the air, performed miraculous signs, and taught living truth. His one perfect life has left a mark that will never, never fade.

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But if Christmas is the story of the Lord’s first advent on that starlit night so long ago, if it tells us the glorious message of the arrival of the King through a quiet birth to an unremarkable couple in the lonely countryside of Israel – it also is designed to underline his second advent. The return of the King with the fullness of his majesty.

Christmas is a time to acknowledge that the Messiah has come, and this same Messiah is going to come again. The purpose of his first advent was to begin the defeat of Satan, and to redeem for himself a new human race from under the curse of sin. The process of building his new creation started; the Second Adam is the progenitor and head of this race, as St. Paul so clearly taught us.

But, his second advent will be even more glorious than the first. Christ will come again to usher in the fullness of his Kingdom of which there shall be no end.

The nativity scene reminds us that we are living in the valley between two advents. Behind us lies the land of Egypt out of which the Church has had its exodus. We have journeyed together from the darkness of paganism, slavery, sin, and the unmerciful rule of Pharaoh. In front of us lies the Promised Land, and we are marching toward it. But St. Paul  tells us that we are not there yet: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil 3:12).  We have not yet obtained the promised blessing, though it will certainly be ours in the grace and power of Christ.

Christmas is not just about looking back but also looking forward. If there was one advent, there will certainly be another. This is joyous news! The Messiah has come, and he is also coming again. He is shortly to appear. And on that day he will destroy the works of Satan; judge the living and the dead; redeem his people; and the praise of his glory shall never end.