Toward a Properly Christian Historiography: Two Principles

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What is the point of history?

For a Christian in the 21st century, this should hardly be a question worth answering. The Christian faith is built on real, historical events and it stands or falls upon them. The Apostle Paul recognises this very fact in his letter to the Corinthians where he explains that if the resurrection has not happened, then we are “of all men most miserable“. We are pitiable creatures, he tells us, if we only have hope for this life. If the resurrection did not really happen, then may even be true to say that our life is more vain than even the life of pagans.

Christianity depends upon historical realities – things that actually happened in time and space, from the sands of Egypt, to the river-set city of Babylon, to the palaces of the kings of Persia, to the hill country of Israel, and of course, to Jerusalem the city set on a hill. Our Faith is a unified story with many constituent parts and many human agents, and it unfolded across many different geographies. But the key point is, it is a story that actually unfolded. It is real. It is true. These events happened.

I have noticed over the last decade or so that there has been an increasing flippancy toward historical truth. Sadly, this has been so among some Christians as well as the unbelieving world. And in this area, historical filmography bears a heavy load of blame. The pile of historical movies – including religious historical titles – that have hit the screens since Gladiator (2000) have done a great disservice to people’s understanding.

This is because historical movies promote falsehoods that have entered into common acceptance. There are both major inaccuracies and minor tropes that offer a misleading impression of the past to the uncritical viewer. Some may argue this is immaterial. A mere triviality.

Does it really matter, some ask, if most people are convinced that swords removed from a scabbard make a “schiing!” sound? Or that the British burned Americans in their churches during the American Revolution? Or if the use of modern petrochemical products in movies teach people that castles were illuminated with flaming torches? Does it matter if people believe that military helmets can stop a bullet? Or that William Wallace was an honourable patriot who never spilled a drop of innocent blood?

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Does it really matter if most movie audiences have come to believe that men in the ancient and medieval periods habitually wore perfectly useless leather bracelets? Can you imagine the sweat build-up underneath those things? Ugh. Clearly, people in the past must have been happy to be dirty, unlike us moderns who are intelligent enough to keep scrubbed and clean.

Yes, I contend, it does matter, because it moves history by increments into the realm of fiction and in so doing, evacuates the Christian story of meaning and power too. People start to think of history has having less to do with the discovery of objective facts and more about a ripping good yarn. But a ripping good yarn often requires the death of objective facts.

Modern historical movies tend to promote the attitude that the past was not entirely real; that it is merely a story to which we must give slightly more gravity than we might to one that is made up. That history is just a species of fiction, albeit with a few more limitations and rules that must be observed.

It is for this reason that I think movies made about the Lord Jesus are, in the main, dangerous. For they tend to strip him of the regal majesty evident in the text of scripture and the urgency of his words, and instead render him a benevolent, long-haired 60’s hippie who goes about with a wry smile on his face, dropping pearls of wisdom that nobody at the time could properly comprehend. His life hits the screen through the filter of the director and script-writer who never quite seem to be able to resist adding to the divine narrative, or deleting parts of it.

(Beginning of axe grinding.)

(As an aside, the classic portrayal of the Lord with long hair is one of the most prevalent historical fictions. It arose chiefly from the iconography of the early Medieval Period and has been perpetuated through countless stained glass windows and by Hollywood. So effective has this promotion been, that it is broadly accepted without question.

In contradistinction to the Hollywood view, however, the earliest images of Christ do not show him with long hair. In fact, possibly the oldest image of the Lord dated to around AD 235 in Syria shows him as having cropped hair, as does another image found in the Roman catacombs from the same century, which portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

Ancient Jews did not wear their hair long. It was seen as a Hellenistic affectation. The idea of the Lord wearing his hair in a manner associated with the Greeks is implausible. Likewise, St. Paul takes a dim view of men wearing their hair long. For men to do so, said St. Paul, is a shame to them.

Neither was the Lord bound to a Nazarite vow, as some have argued, for this prohibited drinking wine and the Lord most certainly consumed wine. This has not, however, stopped some people pressing history through a sieve of preconceptions and going so far as to contend that the Lord only drank grape juice and that when he miraculously produced wine, it was non-alcoholic. This is a view so lacking in meaningful historical support, and so eisegetically governed by an external tradition, that it can be safely dismissed.)

(End of axe grinding.)

If we are going to talk about a truly Christian historiography, then the first principle must be service to the truth. I have learned through long years of historical study at university, that there is nothing at all to fear from a truthful examination of history. For while history occasionally turns up material that is inconvenient to some cherished traditions, it never overturns the scriptures, which remain the single-most accurate historical text, corroborated by countless archaeological discoveries and even computer modelling (historical cladistics, for example, modelling the popularity of names in the ancient world shows that the scriptures reflect the relative popularity of those names).

The only thing Christians must worry about from history is incomplete evidence. But, as time progresses and the historical picture is filled out with newer discoveries, old anti-biblical beliefs come crashing down. One such example is the once-common view that there was no evidence that a Roman procurator called Pontius Pilate ever served in Judea. Archaeological discoveries have delegitimised that view so completely that only the ignorant and fringe-scholars now disseminate it.

A second principle is provided for us by a Roman Catholic, John Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902), more usually referred to as “Lord Action”. He was enlightened enough to oppose the promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility, rightly seeing that it would result in the suspension of normative moral evaluations about any man who would become pope. Not to judge a pope as we would another man, Acton reasoned, was contrary to moral reason and plain sense. In writing about this issue, he furnished us with one of the most memorable passages in the modern age about power and the role of historical science:

But if we might discuss this point until we found that we nearly agreed, and if we do agree thoroughly about the impropriety of Carlylese denunciations and Pharisaism in history, I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong.

If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III of England ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan.

Here are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science.

Lord Acton finished his letter with this statement about the science of history:

The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history. If we may debase the currency [that is, set aside the integrity with which historians should judge the past] for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace. Then history ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the wanderer, the upholder of . . . [high moral standards.  Then history] serves where it ought to reign; and it serves the worst better than the purest.

Lord Acton, of course, failed to stop the machinations of the First Vatican Council in affirming papal infallibility despite his visit to Rome to lobby against it. It would have been better for the Roman Catholic Church had they listened to him, for in ascribing characteristics of deity to an office-holder of their church they have doomed themselves to papalolatry. Eventually – one inch at a time – the pope has become the heart and centre of the Roman Catholic religion, with a great deal of adoration now centred on him. If you need a recent demonstration of this, you need look no further than when Francis visited the Philippines in January 2015. Prior to his visit, the Vatican literally had to tell local Roman Catholics to stop making images of Francis and instead to make images of Christ!

In his letter, Lord Acton lays down another principle, however, that I think characterises a properly Christian historiography: a principle of moral judgement. This, of course, is the very thing that students of history are told to suspend, although this only applies to historical science – any “study” that promote a social agenda like Feminist Studies courses have no problem in launching a bizarre fusillade of judgements against a whole range of historical figures. But in the main, students are taught – as I myself, indeed, once taught many students – that we must simply hold our moral horses when history shows humanity in its ugliness. Though a hecatomb of bodies pile up, we shall not be moved!

I have revised this belief. It is not incompatible with objective inquiry to retain a moral sense – and to apply it fulsomely. And since Christians have received objective moral information from God – a unalterable benchmark with which to judge rightness and wrongness of human conduct – Lord Acton is quite correct to point out that not to use it debases the human mind and the field of history itself. Indeed, to do so makes history merely a clamour over competing interpretations over processes, facts and events, rather than a process of resolving and judging in the stream of human thought the myriad conflicts, disasters and errors into which the human race has so often plunged. History must judge prior generations on some moral basis. Is there any firmer basis on which to judge than what has been infallibly given to us in the scriptures?

The Truth Will Set You Free: The First Steps to Christian Happiness

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There is such a thing as a miserable Christian.

It is an unfortunate reality that many followers of Christ do not live – as the Westminster Confession of Faith would have it – “enjoying God”. For that, according to the Confession, is the chief end of man. He is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Of course, most Christians take seriously the need to glorify God. Our Creator and Sustainer is worthy of praise, respect, reverence, obedience, love and worship. Yet even God-centred worship can become dry and mechanical when performed without a sense of delight in God. Worship can even become a superficial posture wherein we know that it is good to glorify God, but become painfully conscious that there is a very limited amount of passion in what we are doing. A Christian, therefore, cannot properly be said to offer to God a fulsome worship, unless this also includes an enjoyment of God. A man must find God’s company pleasant; he must find his cheer in the presence of Christ; and he must come to discover that holiness is a sweet and lovely thing.

At this juncture, it is important to be careful of legalism. We cannot afford to establish rigid criteria and boundaries that are not biblical. A person, after all, can still be a Christian even if he does not seem to find much delight in his Maker. A man can have salvation with the merest particle of faith in the grace that is in Christ, as evinced by the dying thief on the cross. We are saved by faith, not by joy.

But sadly, for many Christians, life and the devil has worn their faith down to the joints and marrow. Some struggle with their circumstances. Relationships, for instance, are one of the greatest causes of pain to man, and a ceaseless reminder of the selfishness and wickedness that lies within his heart. Relationships between husband and wife; between parents and children; between nations; between employee and employer – these are fraught with breakdown and frequently much pain. One of the clearest evidences that man is sinful is his inability to live in harmony with other men. At other times, Christians can carry great burdens. Worries and fears about the future. Or even existential angst, as if one’s life is passing away and one feels that so little is being achieved. Other Christians live in lands that are not prosperous and safe, and struggle against rulers and principalities and the fear of torture and death.

Never, therefore, should we look upon a weary, sad, miserable, and weathered Christian with jaded eyes, and simply dismiss them if they lack the abundance of joy that Christ has promised. In their case, it is not that Christ has failed them. Rather it is that His people often have yet to learn and discover the way to the joy that He promises to give. So, dear reader, if you lack a steady stream of joy and happiness, then this is not cause for further gloom. Perhaps in God’s sovereignty He has brought you to this blog precisely so that you too may begin to learn about true Christian joy!

Let us first begin with a foundational principle. This principle is contained in two verses that will illumine everything else that will follow in this article. I invite any reader to consider these words with a purity of contemplation. Yes, most certainly, these verses are often wrestled by mystics and charismatics; and misapplied by liberals; and even cited by civil rights activists as if they conferred God’s imprimatur on their protest marches and political campaigns. I have no intention of following such groups in their error. We will, instead, draw one or two undeniable exegetical truths from these words:

So He said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples.Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

The Lord speaks of “being set free”. Setting aside the nature of that freedom (and indeed, the nature of the oppression that makes the offer of freedom necessary), the Lord clearly demonstrates in this passage the avenue by which a man is properly set free.

Man is not set free by swords and spears or money. The Lord did not give His listeners a battle strategy against the Romans or give them all their dreams come true, as He surely had the power to do. Instead, our Lord declares that a man is set free by truth. And therefore, what Christ gave to them was words. Words uttered by humanity are so feeble and transient, but the Lord offered His words – His words, which reliably convey truth. Christ’s words contain true knowledge. They carry true information. These are the very words given to Christ by the Father himself (“These words you hear are not My own, they belong to the Father who sent me“). A man’s freedom, then, is obtained by receiving and continuing in Christ’s true words; by applying and living out the truthful information He has brought to us from heaven.

Of course, not every person who listens to the word of Christ will be set free, because many listen without faith and without any will to apply the words. For some people, His word makes no imprint in their heart whatever. Yet for those who take the Lord at His word, and believe what He says, they will find the power of truth in their life that establishes a glorious freedom. It is this true information that overturns darkness and shadow. It is this true knowledge and this true way of looking at things that liberates a man.

Now, then, what is the nature of the slavery that makes this freedom necessary? Our Lord himself tells us: it is sin. The Lord is adamant on this point – as indeed, is St. Paul when the apostle uses the imagery of slaves being mastered by unrighteousness. Sin, properly understood, exercises an enslaving quality upon every aspect of the human person. Not merely his body, which is only a small component of human sin, but more essentially his mind, heart, emotions, desires, and aspirations. Indeed, every part of the human personality is attacked and affected by sin. From physiology to psychology, all the constituent parts of a human person in his native condition is enslaved to sin and futility.

This is why the Lord’s teaching sometimes seems to be so alien to what we would expect and desire. For instance, in the New Testament, people come to Him complaining about an unfair share of an earthly inheritance. He points them to eternal treasure. People come to Him with news of frightful atrocities perpetrated by the Romans. He points them to the spiritual condition of their own hearts and the need to repent. His disciples speak admiringly of the great stones and decorations of the temple. He tells them it will come down to ruins. As our Lord is going to His death, women cry out in mourning for Him. He tells them to weep for themselves for a great tragedy will shortly befall them and their final condition would be both pitiful and lamentable (all the more so because it was entirely avoidable).

Just exactly what manner of Man is this? Our Lord is constantly, relentlessly, persistently, endlessly determined to tear away from our eyes the fluttering cobwebs in which we invest so much effort and energy. The things we instinctively feel hold so much importance.

And the Lord will confer His divine blessing on none of our indulgences. He does not grant us the slightest comfort for our earthly existence, no promises of the “good life” as we so often wish it to be. Our longings for a quiet and uneventful life, with sufficient levels of prosperity, with a semi-functional family, and with regular dollops of colour, friendship and laughter may seem to us to be an entirely reasonable expectation, as if we were equals engaged in a negotiation about our future with the King of kings, and as if we could exchange our worship for a fair package deal for life. Yet, our Lord will have none of it. He speaks very little of this temporal existence, and does not permit us to bargain with Him. Our condition is too hopeless and His salvation too vital for any man to deserve a say at the negotiation table. Rather, Christ engages in unilateral spiritual diplomacy. Christ talks. He pushes the instrument of surrender at us. We accept His terms for peace. End of discussion.

It is hard to escape the Lord’s persistent long-term focus even from the briefest, most cursory reading of the New Testament.  So often we sin-damaged beings can see hardly further than the nose on our face. We are born with spiritual myopia, and the world around us and all that is in it appears to us in burred form and is often difficult to interpret. Worse still, we get so accustomed to things being blurred that we begin to believe that this is normal vision, and that we are therefore interpreting our lives correctly. We peer closely at things, beholding only small areas of their surface at a time, and then think we are geniuses because we manage to figure out what an object exactly is as it looms before us.

The New Testament ceaselessly reminds us that the Lord’s eyes are laser precise. There He stands on the mountain, far above us, gazing with incredible clarity toward the horizon. But we rush to the Lord, tugging at his garments, “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear? What about now? What about here? What about my happiness?“. The Lord lowers his gaze, almost unwillingly from the glory beyond, and he points us to the horizon.

“Can you see over there?” he seems to say, “Look a little further! There are far greater concerns; richer and more glorious matters! And if you cannot see it, then you must trust Me when I tell you that I can see it, and that I am pointing you always in the right direction.”

The essential point, then, is this. If we are to begin to be happy in Christ and to enjoy God – and we all must begin somewhere and at some point – then surely the first step is to accept these basic biblical principles.

Firstly, that there is such a thing as a joy unspeakable in Christ, for He tells us this is so (John 15:11). He tells us that there is complete joy, and, indeed, that this is part of the very purpose for which Christ has given us His words.

Secondly, we must accept that we are naturally slaves to sin. And, moreover, that we have a native tendency to run back to our first master. Even a Christian sins, sometimes grievously so (e.g. St. Peter and the churches at Corinth), which is why we need an Advocate to plead our cause (1 John 2:1). At the same time, we must embrace the realisation that our psychology, our interpretations of life and our interpretations about what is happening to us, indeed, our entire view of things is wrong, and always tends toward wrongness. Even that which we feel – and too often we think our emotions give us reliable information – is subject to the same contamination. Our hearts – down to a man – are”deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

We cannot understand accurately even half of what is going on within us. Our own hearts are an impenetrable mystery much more often than they are understandable. Think how many hours we have each spent in our lifetime trying to decode our own emotional state and to figure out what it is that we feel, and why it is that we feel it! Or trying to force ourselves not to think or feel along certain lines, in order that we may think or feel along others! Given that we struggle with something so central to our being, how much less can we think that we may accurately interpret our own past or discern our own future? It is foolish. It is foolish because we are sick in our native and natural condition. We are spiritually crippled, addicted to the cause of our symptoms; allergic to their cure, and therefore in constant and terrible need of a Great Physician who deals not only with flesh and blood, but also with the spirit, with the mind, and with the heart that lies within us.

Thirdly, we must come to the realisation that the cure for our complaints lies in possessing true knowledge and true information. Christ’s truth will uplift the heart and ennoble a life. Long-term exposure to His truth will liberate a man from dread and darkness forever. Truth – Christ’s truth – applied to a life will shatter the power of sin over us, which makes men so wretched and miserable. And this will continue until we get to a point where we can sing hymns in the stocks in prison, like Paul and Silas (Acts 16:25); where we can rejoice while the blood is still wet on our backs from a beating like the Apostles (Acts 5:41); where we can encourage other people to rejoice always in the Lord even from a cell (Philippians 4:4). To advance so much in the Spirit and in the Lord’s teaching that we derive the sum of our joy no longer from time and circumstance but instead from Him alone and what he points to over the horizon, and which he ever reassures us is not actually that far off at all. Indeed, the kingdom of God is close at hand.

Imagine what it would be like to be unspeakably happy and joyful; at peace and at rest in YOUR current condition without any external changes, any editing of your circumstances, and additions or deletions! Would that not constitute riches and bring much glory to God? Most assuredly, it would.

Amy Carmichael, who poured her life out in India, wrote: There is nothing dreary or doubtful about [the life]. It is meant to be continually joyful. We are called to a settled happiness in the Lord whose joy is our strength. 

Hudson Taylor once observed: There are three great truths. First, that there is a God; second, that He has spoken to us in the Bible; third, that He means what He says. Oh, the joy of trusting Him!

The beginning of true happiness, therefore, is to renounce our own beliefs about how to obtain it, and to begin to realise that it lies not in what is in front of our nose, but over the horizon to where Christ is always pointing. How, a man may wail, can I stop believing that my happiness is dependent on my circumstances? Well, not with your own wisdom, or your own reasoning, or your own effort, or your own power. It comes from purposeful exposure to the liberating truth of Christ, and we grow into it through purposeful, diligent prayer. And then we advance to the level of our Master, who was never fazed by his circumstances, and was never miserable.

Some of the Lord’s saints have proximated to it closely, like St. Francis of Assisi who, although he had his mystic tendencies, entered a life of joyful poverty and service, and in his poverty, discovered the joy of Christ unspeakable which has eluded kings.

 

 

 

 

Human Rights vs. Human Rights

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A Soviet propaganda poster. Its message was obvious to the most illiterate Russian peasant: religious people stand in the way of progress and the development of a better world. Bulldozing them out of the way is therefore a logical and necessary step to betterment.

Anyone who has studied dictatorial regimes will recognise that classic, orthodox tyrannies always recognise the Christian Church to be an impediment, if not an outright obstacle that must be destroyed. For all of Richard Dawkins’ nonsense about Hitler being a Roman Catholic, his administration was deeply anti-church and anti-Christian and produced some of the most bizarre replacement theologies in the modern world (like Himmler’s occultic blend of mysticism and German mythology). German fascists took this view partly because Christianity was based on “Jew texts” and partly because biblical Christianity elevates virtues that the fascists regarded as weakening vices – things like compassion, care for the weak, the primacy of the reward in the world to come, and the universality of the human condition unrestricted by “blood, race and soil”. Such beliefs are incompatible with any human-centred, utopian ideology.

Likewise, communist regimes around the world – with almost no exceptions – have been equally as systematic (and in fact, usually more transparently hostile and radical than the fascists) in their opposition to confessing Christians. Russian communists were unabashed in listing the eradication of religion as one of the major objectives of their administration and ideology. Tens of thousands of churches were demolished; the overwhelming majority of Russian Orthodox clergy were shot (about 100,000) or otherwise imprisoned. In fact, the Russian Orthodox Church was very nearly extinct when the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa. It is almost unbelievable, but in all of Russia there were only about 500 functional churches left and a very small handful of clergy.

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(The Second World War is a tragic episode in human history, but is rich in examples of the Sovereignty of God. It is surely no coincidence that a residue of Christianity – albeit in the form of Russian Orthodoxy – was preserved under Stalin in the Soviet Union itself by an invasion orchestrated by an equally anti-Christian ideology.)

Whatever one may think of the orthodoxy of the Russian Orthodox Church (and as Protestants we cannot accept the bulk of its teaching as biblical), their faithful adherents nonetheless present an illustration of amazing resistance and fidelity in the face of what is probably the most intense and widespread persecution of Christian people in the modern era. The persecution lessened only after the German invasion, when Stalin gave concessions to the Russian Orthodox Church and actively sought to revive so that it might to imprint some sense of supernatural mission upon the minds of the Russian people, who could hardly be expected to fight in the name of communism alone having, by that stage, experienced it for about 23 years.

The question to consider here is why is the church such a target? The answer is straightforward, at least when considered in raw political and social terms: in revolutionary times all radicals who are intent on cultural transformation recognise the Church as an autonomous centre of opposition with its own authoritative message that demands unquestioning obedience. This cannot coexist with modern total states, although the Church can coexist with monarchical states where the king cannot rule or legislate by fiat alone.

From the perspective of radicals, the Church’s teachings always trumps those of the state, and therefore constitutes a serious threat to the state. The Church has a message from heaven; the state can only claim that its ideology is from men. The Church has its mandate from God; the state can only claim a mandate from “the people”. The Church has texts that are infallible, inerrant and ancient; the state can only appeal to texts that are fallible, errant, and recent. The Church is founded on God in human form – the Person of Jesus Christ; the best the state can manage is to attempt to deify a leader, president, or generalissimo. The Christian people who constitute the Church will lay down their lives for the Faith in the sure knowledge of everlasting life; the state can only command men to lay down their lives for a paradise on Earth.

In Western countries we have become accustomed to the Church being legally inviolable. Its finances are untaxed; various constitutions declare it immune from government interference; and it is usually exempted from laws that run counter to its teachings and mission. Indeed, this is a peculiar feature of Western constitutional government, which is so much a product of the Protestant Reformation.

But, times are a’changin’. We are living in the midst of a cultural revolution, primarily driven by sexual inclinations and the legitimisation of novel relationship types. And the Church is increasingly existing on an island of shrinking support in the wider culture which is growing restless at the Church’s historic immunity to state interference. And the means by which the state is being harnessed to attack this only remaining bastion of serious counter-cultural opposition is the tension between “human rights”.

Human rights are universal. They apply to all people. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a covenant devised in the ashes of the scarred, near-apocalyptic, post-Second World War era with all its traumas, and was designed to be applicable to the entire human race. It is a wonderful document, full of righteous sentiment, affirming the freedom and dignity of the individual and granting to him or her the right to be unencumbered by the unreasonable control and mastery of another. Great faith was invested in this document. It was assumed that signatory nations with their recent experience of war would remember the depths of human horror forevermore, and thereby not depart from this straight way.

Yet these rights have now come into tension – a tension that was never imagined in 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was developed. The great tension of our times is the freedom of conscience and religion as opposed to the new rights of non-discrimination, non-offence-giving, non-hate speech, and radical equality of access to individual’s service. The cultural revolutionaries adopt the attitude that, “Very well, you may have your freedom of conscience and religion, but you must never act upon it within the shared public domain“, which of course is no freedom at all.

In like manner, to say, “Yes, we uphold freedom of speech, but if you say X or Y, which was once acceptable but is acceptable no longer, then you are engaging in hate speech, calculated to offend people, and therefore is illegal and unacceptable“. Under such a view, freedom of speech is no longer freedom at all. As the Internationale put it (heaven forfend! I quote from it only this once!),  freedom is transformed into mere extended privilege. It is transformed into the right to only say what is popular; what is convenient; what is supported by the majority. To be able to say only what everybody else is saying requires, surely, no legal protection at all. You do not need a human right for that. You do, however, need the right of free speech to protect the act of saying something that is unpopular.

As soon as one is told that they may not act according to their conscience in refusing to do something – like bake a cake, or open their bathrooms to people of a certain gender, or openly declare their ancient beliefs – then the rights that were brought into focus by a devastating and tragic episode in human history have been eroded.

This is because “rights” increasingly are not thought of as universal standards that apply to all people equally and thus are meant to protect the unpopular as much as the popular. Rather they are seen as primarily about protecting the interests of select minorities from the unintended, uncontrolled, and indirect results of other people’s freedoms, and moreover doing so with a hyper-sensitivity and a higher-priority toward some groups rather than others.

For instance, in Australia there is mounting pressure for a parliamentary decision on something that is commonly called “same-sex marriage”. The conservative government has purposed to use a process similar to that of the Irish referendum, and to ask the Australian people to vote on the issue through a plebiscite. The constellation of left-wing parties are deeply opposed to any kind of popular vote. Why? Because “human rights are not determined by popular vote“. Ironically, these parties argue that the correct approach is to have politicians vote on the issue in the parliamentary chambers and be done with it. In other words, if it were carried by a majority vote by professional politicians then this “human right” would presumably enter existence as a human right within Australia.

Of course, in objective terms, it is true that human rights are not decided by a majority. That is the philosophic framework behind human rights. But this is not the case in terms of political process. After all, each signatory state to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had to ratify the covenant through their parliamentary systems. Even the United Nations itself is an organisation that functions on the basis of voting, and this has never been seen as inimical to human rights. To want human rights to enter existence without any process at all is to advocate tyranny and a fear of democracy. Yet the left-wing parties do not really believe their own rhetoric. They merely count on people not thinking it through very deeply. The reality is that they prefer a method that avoids any popular vote because it is much easier to work over a small group in the nation’s capital who will have a “conscience vote” (in other words, a vote reflecting the politician’s own conscience rather than the will of their electors). Moreover, they prefer this method because they calculate that they have the numbers to enact the legislation.

In other words, it is precisely because they think they have enough numbers in parliament to win on the issue that they have chosen to belittle a more democratic approach. And in so doing, they are essentially claiming that these human rights exist in some ethereal place and that they can be determined by a select group (i.e. themselves) who need not apply a democratic procedure to their recognition, or even acknowledge and seek out the true will of the people they represent. After all, they have the numbers.

They are therefore practising the very thing they claim to oppose: the use of numbers to birth a human right in Australia.

Another, and more instructive argument that they have made, however, is that debating same-sex marriage and voting on it would be cruel, divisive, and raise uncomfortable arguments and issues that could lead to great harm among people who practice homosexuality. In essence, (and it has been seriously put this way) the exercise of popular democracy could lead to deaths among practising homosexuals who might be tempted to commit suicide due to exposure to people and ideas that oppose their particular lifestyle. This, of course, raises a great many questions about how far democracy should be curtailed in order to prevent bad things from happening to people who might have mental vulnerabilities. For instance, is it the case that parliament should not debate same-sex marriage in case it is so hurtful and divisive that it causes people who practice homosexuality to commit suicide? If a public debate is harmful and would unleash dark forces, so might a parliamentary debate. After all, both would hit the television screens.

Moreover, is it the case that parliament should not discuss taxation in case it drives the poor to despair and leads to suicide? Should there be no freedom of speech on certain issues like war, in case soldiers’ widows become traumatised and commit suicide? If, as these left-wing group argue, the precautionary principle must be applied to protect people from unknown future harms, then just how far are we to take the precautionary principle? Indeed, arguments are beginning to surface to the effect that religious freedom itself should be curtailed precisely on the basis of the precautionary principle. To allow religious people to speak their message could result in harm to people whose lifestyle they disapprove of. Therefore, in the interests of human rights, the human right to the free exercise of religion must die. It seems, in the new economy, not all human rights are equal.

Joy, the Characteristic of an Authentic Encounter with Christ

joy

 

This morning, the pipes burst from the water mains to my house. A great spray of water was sent across the lawn, and the water pressure in the house dropped to zero.

I went to church glad that it had been spotted early.

This morning I spoke about the believer’s joy, which is fixed by the certainty of our entrance into eternal life and grounded in the love of Christ. This happiness is not tangential to the Christian experience. It is part of the promise; it is part of the proof of being in Christ. For Christ himself said, “I have spoken these words that my joy might be in you, and your joy might be complete“. The devil’s greatest tool to destroy this joy is to rob people of their assurance and confidence that they will enter that sunlit land, and one day inhabit the City of God in fellowship with Christ and his saints forever. This joy exists independent of our momentary troubles and worries.

Truly, even “the desert blooms as paradise when God is with His people there“.

After worship was ended, I was talking to a brother about joy and Christian happiness. We ended up comparing notes about our troubles with our homes. The conversation ran something like this:

Me: “Well, this morning the pipes burst in my house!”
[Insert joyous laughter]
Brother: “Well, my roof is leaking in three places and I don’t have the time to fix it!”
[Insert more joyous laughter]
Me: “Well, this week I received a letter from the people who built my home warning me the roof could cave in!”
[Joyous laughter again]

It would seem madness to the world. Glib; insane; not being a realist. Yet for the Christian who is strengthened by Christ, the difficulties of life are trivia compared with His joy. Our conversation was a small, yet vivid proof of Christian joy that can exist independent of one’s circumstances.

Bishop of Durham Dies

DJ

The Bishop of Durham has died, at the age of 91.

As bishop, he was famous for denying on television the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ. In fact, not only denying the resurrection but actively ridiculing it.

Three days after being consecrated in 1984 in York Minister, the building was struck by lightning and devastated by the subsequent fire. Not unreasonably, for those who believe in a Sovereign God, this was interpreted by some people as a sign of God’s divine displeasure. Predictably, this was ignored by the Church of England for whom God’s wrath is now merely a remote theory, probably reserved for people who do really evil things like owning shares in a petrochemical corporation.

In 2005, he was one of the first clerics in England to participate in the blessing of a civil partnership between two homosexual males. In 2006, he was banned from preaching in a number of his local churches for using language deemed irreverent – terms like “bloody” and “damn”.

Well we may mourn such a man’s passing. To deny the resurrection is a sure sign of being outside of the orbit and boundary of salvation, of never having met the risen and glorified Christ at any point on our personal Damascene Road. Furthermore, to promote conduct explicitly repudiated in God’s word does indeed bring the wrath of God – in this life or the next. “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19). This text rules out any hope that a person who wilfully, persistently, and stubbornly preaches error will enter the kingdom of heaven.

The bishop’s long life – evidently blessed with child, and an equally long-lived wife – is a testament to the long-suffering and kindness of God who lavishes grace and generosity even upon his enemies. May we bless God for his goodness toward men, and watch unto our own souls, examining ourselves “to see whether we be of the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Christianity in Nazi Germany: How Should a Christian Live in an Evil Time? (PART 1)

NG

(PART 1).

For the last few months, I have been teaching a course on the rise of Nazism in Germany.

It is a complex subject – frustrating for every educator, lecturer, teacher or professor who has ever tackled the subject, for he must begin by unpicking the ideas that his students have uncritically hoovered up out of the cultural fabric.

At the outset, I impressed upon my students the need for them to dispense with their ideas of Nazism derived from Hollywood, and from school, and to set aside their reflexive condemnation of Hitler as “insane” or “a madman”. Such a superficial approach is designed only to make modern individuals feel more comfortable – for here is a handy-dandy explanation of great evil – but does not bring us toward any meaningful measure of objective truth.

An enlightened mind will naturally seek a nuanced and fine-grained understanding of these past episodes, and to do so through a critical historiography that recognises that these were real events, real people, who had real ideas and convictions. They were not “insane”, at least, not in the classic psychiatric sense of term. And even within Nazi Germany, life was not populated with a Disney-esque binary of heroes and villains. Despite examples of moral whiteness and moral blackness, there were far more shades of moral grey than even postmodern people like to imagine.

Nazi Germany is much more than a study of moral and political evil. It is more than an exploration of social complicity or a look at the destructive potential of human ideology. It is more than an interesting insight into the corruption of absolute power. It is more than any of this. For it provides us with one of the most illuminating illustrations of a society that reorganised itself on purposefully, teeth-clenched-in-determination, profuse, robust repudiations of the commandments and instructions God has given us in Holy Scripture.

And in the process it raises the critical question that is present in every generation of true Christians: How then, shall we live? How should Christians live in an evil time? How should true Christians function in an age of governance that celebrates wickedness, and destroys good? In our time, how then, shall we live?

This is a critical question because we face a future in which governments (of any persuasion) now come to office with a de facto hostility toward Christian doctrine. The difference lies only in the degree of hostility from one party to another. Moreover, on a broader level, the Western World has lapsed into a collection of secular states which have embraced the ideologies of radical personal autonomy. As faith fades; as churches hold their final parish meetings before dissolving themselves; as denominations shut their doors in rural places and retreat to the urban centres, we are left with the prospect of living as minorities – a kind of religious enclave – within a social, cultural and political context that is inimical to any true and meaningful Christian expression.

Therefore, by looking at how Christians lived (or should have lived) under famously abhorrent regimes, we may learn some lessons for our own time. Not that our lands are yet proximate to the evil of a 1940’s fascist state – that certainly is not my argument, and any predictions that we are shortly to plunge into a new form of Nazism are certainly unhinged and intellectually unworthy. Nonetheless, we must face the reality of increasingly oppositional and disdainful government. We can learn something about how to live rightly in these conditions coming upon us, by studying how other Christians live for Christ in truly difficult times.

This is not easy work. For all the information humankind possess, he is not wise. And he has quickly forgotten to take the past seriously. No wonder nearly the entirety of Israel or Judah could depart from the Living God within a generation or two of great deliverance. Inter-generational arrogance has a tendency to reduce the past to forgettable nuggets, and thus, cease struggling to grasp it. Christians themselves often imbibe this attitude.

In contradistinction, previous generations of Christian philosophers, theologians and thinkers tried to come to terms with the unprecedented scale of evil and error of the Second World War. They really tried to understand the sociological forces and currents released within societies that later perpetrated great atrocities, but at the same time to also acknowledge that “our” democratic societies were responsible for horrors as well. Less in scale, to be sure, but blots and blemishes that cannot be erased from the record nonetheless.

In fact, even seriously secular intellectuals once struggled to deal with these events. I can remember one of my history professors explaining that the First World War did grave damage to the Old World of Europe, but the Second World War finished the culture forever. “Whose values,” he said, “could come to terms with the Holocaust and the atomic bomb? Whose values could be adequate for such things?

In our generation the bar has been definitely lowered. These events have become the stuff of movies, of “Second World War for Dummies” books, and are less raw and confronting. Young people regard it almost as a dark fairy tale. At the same time, populist writers and news organisations have done a great disservice to their viewers and readers by using Nazi Germany as an ideological truncheon; a clever strategic move in the culture wars, or a means of putting the wind up an opponent in the political contest. It has emptied an entire historical episode from its truly significant moral content; coarsened people; and turned a momentous period of history into a comic facade of heroes and villains.

I want to approach this topic seriously, and to investigate what scripture would teach us, and how true Christians actually behaved in the face of Nazism. It should be a difficult and confronting topic. It should hopefully produce humility and worthwhile lessons.

The Cult of the Extraordinary

extraordinary

(The above is a sadly typical image, representative of most of what I found on the internet when doing an image search on this topic. The thirst to be extraordinary, it would seem, has produced reams of images and “inspirational” quotes telling people never to settle for the ordinary and that they not only deserve to be extraordinary but also to be treated in extraordinary ways by others. This thirst for significance is exceeded only by the delusion that fails to recognise that most of us – nearly all – are ordinary people who live ordinary lives.)

A number of articles have appeared lately in newspapers and on blogs regarding what might be called “the cult of the extraordinary”.

One woman wrote that growing up in the 1990’s, she was told that her generation was special. They were the most enlightened and most privileged, and the world was their oyster. They could do whatever they wanted. They were made for extraordinary things.

As it happens, she become a mother and a wife, and now spends her days doing housework and occasionally writing a blog. But, she writes, a voice goes through her head sometimes that what she is doing represents a failure in comparison to what she might have done.

For instance, when she is arguing with her husband, a voice says to her, “You could have been something, but now you’re just a wife”. When she does the dishes, the voice says to her, “You could have really done something, but now you’re just a mother”. When she writes a blog article that nobody reads, “You could have done something, but now you’re just writing a blog everybody ignores”. And on and on.

What is interesting about this experience is that it was echoed in the same week in the Guardian newspaper. There, the writer described the tremendous internal pressure young people – especially those raised in the 1990’s or early 2000’s – feel to be extraordinary. Somehow that particular message has been conveyed to young people, probably through a variety of mediums: schools, entertainment, television shows, video games and so on.

It is a popular message, to be sure. “You can do anything you want to do and your life can be whatever you want to make of it“. But this is a destructive message not only because it is untrue, but also because in trying to make it true (or living as if it were true) places a person in an impossible situation. Nobody can suck the savour out of life at each moment. Nobody is able to live in a constant exhilarating whirlwind of accomplishment.

Something in our culture has transmitted a deep inward pressure within people to have an extraordinary material existence. The serial television show probably plays a role in this. Watching a cast of zany characters doing impossibly exciting things every evening, and then multiplying this by many orders of magnitude (for there are many such shows), might indeed contribute to a warped sense of possibly.

Those warped possibilities really are a parody of reality. For instance, the idea that all relationships and romance should be mind-blowing leads people to conclude that a partner they harmonise with but do not have “chemistry” with must be inadequate and unsatisfactory. The same goes with career. Since one’s career “must” be amazing, filled with every escalating achievement, a person who finds themselves doing a relatively simple job must conclude that it is unsatisfactory. If you’re not a CEO or a lawyer defending high profile clients, or a presidential aide, then something must be wrong!

Perpetual dissatisfaction results from the cult of the extraordinary. The dissatisfaction arises, largely, from the belief that there are other options out there which are better, more satisfying, and more remarkable than one’s current circumstances. Sometimes, of course, that may be true. But much of the time it is needless discontent.

The cult of the extraordinary and the attendant belief that our lives should be extraordinary and amazing, can be explained primarily as the result of an absence of a Christian worldview. A perspective grounded in Christ clearly recognises that the only truly extraordinary things are the Lord himself and the works of his hands. We are not therefore summoned to be extraordinary, although it is certainly the case that some people may live exceptional lives. Rather, we are summoned to be filled with, and immersed in, and awed by that which is truly extraordinary: that is, Christ himself. And Christ alone.

It can be a great liberation to be able to say, “I’m ordinary and unimportant and insignificant, but I worship and know a Christ who is extraordinary, truly important, and wholly significant. And that is sufficient adventure and accomplishment to last a lifetime. It is riches beyond comparison. It is more than I could ever deserve apart from God’s amazing grace. To him be glory and praise!

Ordinary People.Extraordinary GOD