Though shalt not go to church

A cautionary tale

Despite the huge ramifications of her decisions, only so much is publicly known about “patient 31”. We do not know her real name or many details of her life before February this year. Nor despite extensive investigations by public health authorities, do we know how she contracted the covid-19 virus.

However, we do know she is a 61-year-old woman and lives in Daegu, a South Korean city of two and a half million people. We know that on Feb 6th, she was involved in a car accident that led to her being hospitalised and that whilst she was there, she developed a fever. We also know that on Feb 17th, she tested positive for Covid-19, making her the Republic of Korea’s 31st confirmed case of the virus.

Most crucially, we know she was a member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus and that she attended the church’s services on February 9th and 16th, the latter time despite the fact her fever had already began presenting itself. Finally, we know that this was a decision that would have catastrophic consequences.

As her designation implies, coronavirus had been present in Korea before “patient 31”. However, most sufferers had either travelled to Wuhan and been in direct contact with someone who had. It was in short, thanks to a world-class public health infrastructure, broadly contained.

Then “patient 31” brought it into contact with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. It spread first amongst “patient 31’s” congregation, then amongst Shincheonji members across Korea, and then to members of the general public they had contact with. As of March 20th, 5,000 coronavirus infections had been traced back to “patient 31” and the Shincheonji Church, more than half the total number reported in Korea.

There are particular factors which made Shincheonji an effective vector for spreading the virus. Its congregations are unusually large and during services they sit close together on the floor. It is also a secretive organisation that is often branded a cult in part because it teaches that the Bible is full of secret metaphors which only be interpreted by its founder, a self-proclaimed messiah named Lee Man-Hee. Due to its suspicion of outsiders, it initially obstructed the health authorities’ efforts to trace and isolate potentially infected people.

That said, virtually all religious worship involves bringing people from different households into close proximity. So, it is to my surprise that I see some Christians agitating to physically congregate despite the risk of creating many more “patient 31s”.

Leading us into temptation

An Ohio churchgoer recently earned herself worldwide internet notoriety by telling a TV reporter on the way out of a service, that she was not worried about catching or passing on the virus because she was “covered in the blood of Jesus”. This might seem lurid but of the 39 states in the US to have implemented ‘stay at home’ orders, 12 specifically exempt religious gatherings.

Nor is this a purely American phenomenon. In the Philippines, despite official disapproval from the Government and the Catholic Church: “Some…penitents flagellated themselves and prayed outside closed churches…to commemorate the death of Jesus on Good Friday.”

Even here in the UK, where churches have almost uniformly conformed to, or even gone beyond, official advice to physically distance, there are still voices calling for a more relaxed approach. Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, used a recent opinion piece for the Telegraph to argue that church closures were a mistake because in difficult times “we should be providing, rather than withdrawing, resources for strengthening and supporting people’s faith”. He emphasises the need for any gatherings to be social distanced – but nonetheless argues for churches to opened, and asks rhetorically, why this would be ‘any more dangerous than shopping in a supermarket or travelling on the London Underground?’

I submit these positions rest on a set of three misconceptions:

1. There is no religious immunity from this virus

Seeking exemptions from lockdowns for religious gatherings makes little sense, because, bluntly, viruses do not comprehend, much less respect, sacred spaces.

Any Christian tempted to imagine that what happened to the Shincheonji church was God enacting his wrath on a heretical cult – or at least a sign they did not enjoy his protection – and that, therefore, it could never happen to a more mainstream Christian church is ignoring one very basic fact: something remarkably similar has already happened to a mainstream church.  

In February, a group of about 2,500 worshipers from around the world gathered for an annual prayer meeting at an evangelical church in the French town of Mulhouse. A regional public health official likened what happened next to an “atomic bomb explosion”.

One of the worshipers, must have been carrying covid-19. Within days of it finishing, dozens of attendees began displaying flu like symptoms. And from there it kept spreading. For example, a nurse who had been to Mulhouse carried it into a hospital, where 250 patients and staff became infected.

This one prayer meeting has now been linked to thousands of infections, hundreds of deaths and disease clusters on three continents.

That faith is not an effective anti-viral should not surprise us. God offers an assurance of salvation, yes. But this is spiritual, not physical.

Believers have been wrestling with the implications of this fact since at least 1755. In that year, a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck Lisbon on the morning of All Saints Day. The result was that when every church in the city collapsed or was destroyed by fires, they were packed with worshipers. So not only were the faithful not spared but they bore the brunt of the tragedy.

In fact, as two millennia of martyrs attest to: having faith not only does not reliably repel physical danger but can actually attract it!

I would, however, be remiss not to point out an important distinction between what happened in Mulhouse and in Daegu. As far as I can see, the French church did nothing wrong. At the time their gathering took place there was no guidance in place discouraging such events or advising physical distancing.

However, as we have seen, there remain Christians not only arguing for the right to continue holding services, but actually doing so. This apparently has already led to tragedy. Three members of an Arkansas church, including a 91 year old greeter who had served the church for decades, died after a childrens’ service went ahead despite the state’s advice to avoid gatherings.

Health officials in the Californian city of Sacremento linked 71 infections to a megachurch, where some members appear to have continued to meet informally after the shutdown. There is also the case of Bishop Gerald Glenn, who died of coronavirus last week after having vowed to continue holding services “unless I’m in jail or hospital”.

2. Closing churches does not mean the Church is out of action

Part of what make these deaths so tragic is that they are unnecessary. Gathering for worship is of course a hugely important part of Christian life. However, it is hardly of overriding importance.

In an article for Christianity Today on celebrating Easter at a time when churches are closed, Rev. Tish Harrison Warren reflects that:

“the solid fact remains that Christians do not make Easter through our worship…Jesus rose from the dead, and even if it were never acknowledged en masse, it would remain the fixed point around which time itself turns.”

What goes for Easter, goes for any Sunday. If, for reasons beyond our control, we cannot attend church for a few weeks or months, we do not cease to be Christians. We have never held those with serious illnesses to this standard and I see no reason why, in the context of coronavirus, we should be holding the broad mass of churchgoers to it now.

This is even more the case given that our ability to gather together without physically being in the same space is greater than ever before. Services can be livestreamed; study groups can meet via video calls, and messaging apps can broadcast prayer requests far more widely than a preacher in a pulpit. Clearly these options are not open to everyone – and even the most tech literate are unlikely to find virtual church a perfect substitute for the experience of an in-person service – but as a stopgap measure they substantially mitigate the impact of closures for many.

Of course, churches do more than hold services: they are also vital pillars of the community. But here too there are grounds for optimism. Bishop Nazir-Ali’s accusation that the church has withdrawn its support in the nation’s time of need because its premises are closed to the public is wide of the mark. Not only have churches made replicating their Sunday services online the norm, they have continued to be a huge source of charitable and pastoral support: parish priests have become temporary hospital chaplains, church buildings have become mask factories and congregations have taken on a central role in providing mutual aid.

It is a truism that a church is not just a building, but the lockdown has proven it afresh.

3. Love our neighbours

There is, however, an even more basic principle at stake. As has been reiterated many times by now: maintaining physical distance is not only that it prevents you catching the virus, but that it prevents you passing it on to anyone else. The practice combines concern for yourself with concern for others. For example, had Patient 31 demonstrated it, then she would have shielded literally thousands of people from harm. It is a way to “Love your neighbour as yourself”, which is after all one of the two commands Jesus declared the greatest.

This is why I take issue with Bishop Nazir-Ali equating the risks of going to church with the risk of going to the supermarket or taking the Tube to argue for opening churches. Not only does it ignore the fact that, both those activities are currently so dangerous that TfL and supermarket staff are dropping dead; it also, fails to grapple with physical distancing being a way to love our neighbours.

Not only does it ignore the fact that both these activities are currently so dangerous that people who work on the Tube and in supermarkets are dropping dead, it also fails to grapple with physical distancing being a way to love our neighbours.

It is not something in which Christians should be aiming merely to match prevailing standards. We must instead seek to be exemplary physical distancers.

After all, Jesus spent much of his earthly mission curing disease; if we are cavalier about spreading it, we are directly contradicting the example he set for us.

Our faith demands that we never risk the lives of our neighbours for the sake of our worship. Following regulations designed to protect the health of the population is not the same as capitulating to an oppressive regime trying to supress our faith. Rather, it is modelling God’s love to those around us.


When I first published this post, it stated that the Greers Ferry Church is Arkansas had met in contravention of social distancing guidelines. In fact, the virus spread at a service prior to the state’s stay at home order being instituted. Apologises to everyone connected with that church.

Notes on sources

I have mostly acknowledged the writing I have drawn on via hyperlinks in the main text of this post. However, I wanted to acknowledge the particular debt I owe to Reuter’s reporting on the Daegu outbreak and ‘How a prayer meeting at a French megachurch may have led to scores of coronavirus deaths’ by James McAuley for the Washington Post.

‘Liberal Christianity and sex’ revisited


You know how you were just telling me that you really wanted a follow-up to that post about liberal christianity’s unhealthy silence on sex and relationships I wrote back in 2013?

You know the one that said:

For a number of years, I’ve been attending various churches whose congregations would broadly be described as liberal. During that time I have heard sex mentioned once in a service. That was to admonish a preacher for using a wedding service as an opportunity to preach about abstinence before marriage. To be fair, that’s because the churches I’ve attended tended to be quiet and conflicted about their liberalism. Even those that are more assertive – like the church whose signs I blogged about earlier this week – tend to define their views negatively, asserting their differences from other Christians rather than discussing what they do believe. This reticence to discuss sex stands not only in contrast to an increasingly sexualised secular culture, but also to evangelicals and Roman Catholics who tend to be willing to opine that sex should only be within heterosexual marriage.

To the extent that liberal Christianity has a message it’s tolerance, but this is a very limited view. A hesitance to condemn is right but an outright refusal to do so is not. “Judge not lest the be judged” does not mean one cannot judge but that one must be prepared to live up to the standards you demand of others. Liberal Christians do not preach tolerance alone in other matters and are generally quite prepared to pass judgement on bigotry, greed and damage to the environment. And if you consider sex a subject uniquely immune to judgement, then may I ask you about your views on rape? Or if that seems an extreme example, may I ask if you’ve never been angered by a love rat? There is as much – perhaps even more – scope for people to be hurt where sex is involved as when it is not, and so we have to be ready call out people (including and especially ourselves) who do not “love their neighbour.” More fundamentally, while a call to tolerance can guide how we view the actions of others it is a useless guide to our own actions. Liberal Christians might not think that gay vs. straight is a matter of morality but we really ought to decide what is.

Of course, no one actually asked me for a follow-up to that. However, WordPress’s stats page tells me, that it is a surprisingly well read post even to this day. Plenty of people find it through google, which kind of proves my point. There is clearly a demand for liberal christian answers to these questions, and the supply is so meagre that people are finding their way to the blog of a nobody, who ironically doesn’t even provide any answers of his own. I concluded the post saying that for all my certainty that we needed positive suggestions, I had little idea what they might be.

Fortunately, the American journalist Conor Friedersdorf has actually come up with some. In an excellent article – that is nonetheless burdened with the mediocre title “When ‘Do Unto Others’ Meets Hookup Culture” – he presents the case I wish I had known how to make. When I first read it, I felt like I was seeing my own post in a reverse carnival mirror: he’d made clear and crisp things that I’d left messy and distorted. I was particularly impressed that he’d express ideas I’d voiced as regrets, but as something constructive.

While I would recommend reading the whole article, the heart of Friedersdorf’s argument can be found in an address he imagines a fictional pastor delivering to a hypothetical group of university freshers:

Christianity prohibits certain things, like murder and stealing and adultery. But I want to talk today about something that Jesus calls on his believers to do. He teaches us to love one another, to be good to one another, to treat others as we’d want to be treated. Christians aren’t alone in preaching that code. I raise it today in part because I expect you all already agree with it. And if you do agree that we have a responsibility to be good to one another, I’d ask one favor: As you proceed through this college, bear that obligation in mind! Do so even when you’re deciding how to live your sexual lives here. Doesn’t that sound like it’s the right thing to do? But of course, it isn’t always easy.

The dean of students talked to you about consent. By law and the rules of this campus, you need consent to be intimate with anyone. I want to remind you of something: If we’re truly trying to be good to one another, consent just isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a person who has a huge crush on you. You’re at a party. Maybe you’ve had a beer or two, and in the moment, kissing that person would be a lot of fun. But you know, deep down, that you don’t share the same feelings they have for you—that if you kiss, you’ll be leading them on, and they’ll be all the more hurt tomorrow or the next day when you’re not interested anymore. You have their consent. You want to kiss in the moment—but you don’t, because you decide it’s more important to be good to them.

Say you’re dating someone. And you want to have sex with this person. They consent without being pressured. Yet you can’t help but sense that they’re not ready for intercourse. You understand this is a big decision with many physical and emotional consequences. And so, to be good to them, you hold off, despite their consent. You err on the side of caution, even though you’d rather go ahead.

What I take away from this is the notion that our moral duty goes beyond asking if someone is consenting. We must consider their welfare in the round. Which is not in any way to diminish the necessity of consent – why it is so important should be very obvious just at the moment – but to argue that it is not sufficient. It’s presence, even in its most robust form, merely demonstrates that you are not committing an assault, and we should all be aiming to clear a much higher ethical bar than that. There are ways to harm people other than violence, and before we have relations with someone, we are honour bound to check we are not about to perpetrate any of them.

Friedersdorf acknowledges that his guideline does not generally produce definitive answers:

I don’t pretend that confronting these situations with the question, “How can I be good to others?” will lead all of you to the same answers, let alone to my answers…

Nonetheless, I would suggest that thinking this way does lead to at least one blanket prohibition. I cannot see a way that it allows for casual relationships. Which is not to say all such relationships are harmful. However, it seems to me, that you cannot know if you are going to harm someone, without first knowing them pretty well. Something to ponder perhaps?


Blogging about faith: What do you want to read?



St Mark’s Basilica in Venice

In the 3 years I’ve been writing this blog I’ve written more than 700 posts. Some of my favourites have dealt with religion and in particular Christianity. Among them:

But of late I’ve written about it a lot less. That’s partly been because there’s been a lot of politics to discuss lately and that’s a subject I find it easier to write about, so I get drawn to that. But mostly it’s been because I’ve been struggling for inspiration.

I regret that. While I’m very far from being any kind of theology expert, faith is a topic I like writing about. There’s a much greater plurality of views amongst my readers on religion and philosophy than there is on politics and (surprisingly) of the two it seems to be the one where it’s easier to have frank but friendly discussions between people of different views.

So I’d like to go back to writing about it but for that I need topics. So for the first time I’m throwing this blog open to requests.

Are you a non-Christian who’d like a Christian perspective on something? Are a conservative Christian looking for a liberal Christian perspective? Are you a liberal Christian looking to have your prejudices reinforced? Are you interested in agnosticism? If so let me know and I will see what I can do.

I’m also very open to hosting guest posts if there is something you want to write and want a place to host it.


Photo credit: By Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) – taken by Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 2.5,

And God made Darwin



“If you’re interpretation of the Bible contradicts demonstrable facts, then it is your interpretation that needs to change, not the facts.”

I’m not a biologist but I’m very confident that evolution by means of natural selection is a real thing. That’s partly because people who are biologists are themselves very confident of this fact and have been for a very long time. It’s also because evolution is an ongoing process we can see happening, for example, when bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics.

There is only an ongoing debate about this notion because some people take it as a challenge to their religious faith. This is a strong trend within Islam. But as I’m a Christian, I’m going to focus on my own tradition.

I was moved to write about this by a Ted talk by Dr. April Maskiewicz, an academic who teaches biology at a Christian University.

She reports doing straw polls of her students that indicate that 90% of them reject evolution. Their motivation appears to be a belief that one must choose between God and natural selection: a belief in one proposition apparently negating the possibility of the other. As a student, Dr. Maskiewicz herself was apparently told this by both her priest and her biology lecturer. She spends the 17 minutes of her talk patiently and politely disassembling this notion.

Allow me to be blunter. When one reads in Genesis that ‘God created the world in 6 days’, it is not the ‘in 6 days’ part that is significant. What matters is that he brought all things into existence. If he had the power to do that, then he clearly also has the power to set in motion a process whereby some matter coheres into simple life forms which then evolve into a host organisms including humans.

This is not some out there liberal re-interpretation of the Bible. It is something believed by a figure as unbending as the last Pope who has said that:

We cannot say: creation or evolution, inasmuch as these two things respond to two different realities. The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, which we just heard, does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the ‘project’ of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary—rather than mutually exclusive—realities.

Now it is true that accepting evolution means we can no longer credibly argue that ‘the only way for complex organisms to have come about is for a creator to have made them’. But all evolution does is push that kind of reasoning back a stage. We still have to explain how a universe where evolution could occur came about and indeed why it appears to have been ‘fine tuned‘ for that purpose.

Besides, we’re in trouble if we start choosing evidence that fits our conclusion rather than the reverse. If you’re interpretation of the Bible contradicts demonstrable facts, then it is your interpretation that needs to change not the facts.

Now, I would not want to give the impression Dr. Maskiewicz’s students are typical of Christians. Indeed, given that ‘theistic evolution’ is supported by the Catholic Church, most mainline protestant denominations and a large number of Eastern Orthodox adherents it is likely to be the majority position.

Nonetheless, ‘Creationism’ is still  an idea that creates problems. Dr. Maskiewicz recounts how having being told that she had to decide between her faith and the clear evidence for evolution, she opted for evolution and only found her way back by discovering that she had been presented with a false dichotomy.

And what sensible person wouldn’t do what she did? If a belief system demands believing that black is white then it deserves to be rejected. It, therefore, seems highly likely that there are people who would be Christians had they not come to associate it with anti-scientific bunkum. Creationism is thus a barrier to faith that ought to be demolished.

I’ll leave you with one final thought. The reaction against evolution among some Christians doubtless owes something to the fact that a number of prominent New Atheists are evolutionary biologists. Richard Dawkins is of course the most obvious example. But might the direction of causality also run the other way? Would Dawkins and his ilk still have become implacable opponents of evolution if they hadn’t faced believers claiming that an incidental detail of a methaphor in Genesis refuted something demonstrated time and again by paleontology, genetics and zoology?


Hat tip: Rachel Held Evans

Cable from Korea #5: the march of the Catholics

2016-02-26 19.26.10

Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul

Since 1980, the growth of Korean Christianity has been driven by Catholics rather than Protestants. Why?

The growth of Korean Christianity is one of those facts that is used to give succour to members of declining western church. Like many churches in Asia its expansion has been explosive. In 1900 1% of Koreans were Christian, today 29% are. And we all know who these new Christians are right? Evangelical protestants often worshiping in megachurches. When foreign journalists – and indeed foreign bloggers – want to write about Korean Christianity they usually go to Yoido Free Gospel Church in Seoul, which purportedly has the world’s largest congregation.

This protestant-centric story is not inaccurate but it is out of date. Pew Research notes that:

Since the 1980s, however, the share of South Korea’s population belonging to Protestant denominations and churches has remained relatively unchanged at slightly less than 1-in-5. Catholics have grown as a share of the population, from 5% in 1985 to 11% as of 2005, according to the South Korean census. The growth of Catholics has occurred across all age groups, among men and women and across all education levels.

So if you look at a snapshot of Korean Christianity in the present, it’s fair to note that Protestants comfortably outnumber Catholics. If, however, you are interested in its expansion, it is Catholics you need to consider because for thirty years now they are the ones who’ve been doing the growing.

Part of the reasons may be political. Andrei Lankov, a Russian professor based in Seoul, wrote that:

…in the 1960s when Catholicism came to be associated with the ideas of progressive change and the introduction of modern political ideologies. In the 1960s, South Korea’s Catholic church hierarchy began to drift leftward. This was a time when South Korea was run by a military dictatorship – remarkably efficient at managing the economy but also quite ruthless and brutal in dealing with political dissent and the country’s labour movement. The Catholic Church firmly positioned itself on the side of the pro-democracy resistance. A special role was played by Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who in 1968 became the archbishop of Seoul.

Under the leadership of Cardinal Kim, the Catholic church took a remarkably active leadership role, always ready to criticise the government and its perceived brutal use of force against government opponents. Outraged, the KCIA, the South Korean political police, arrested Bishop Daniel Chi Hak-sun, one of Cardinal Kim’s lieutenants and an outspoken critic of the military rule, but had to release him soon, bowing to pressure from local Catholics groups and from overseas.


When military rule finally came to an end in 1987 and Korea at long last became a democracy, the Catholic church was widely credited for its role in this seismic change. Needless to say, such perceptions significantly boosted its popularity: Church leaders were seen as relevant, dedicated and ready to risk their life and freedom for a great cause. Indeed, while Catholic churches across the globe face increasing difficulties and dwindling numbers of believers, the Korean church is thriving. In the mid-1990s the Catholics constituted merely 6 percent of the total population, but in twenty years the number nearly doubled, reaching 10 percent.

On the other hand a New York Times report on Pope Francis visiting Korea, suggested culture and the travails of the protestant churches also play a role:

While the Catholic Church has been flexible in embracing Koreans’ centuries-old Confucian-based rituals of worshiping ancestors, a widely cited survey by the Christian Ethics Movement of Korea last year found Koreans complaining about Protestant churches’ “exclusive attitude toward other faiths.” A leading Protestant preacher in recent years outraged people by declaring from the pulpit: “Buddhist monks are wasting their time. They should convert to Jesus.”

People have also watched some of South Korea’s Protestant megachurches — among the largest in the world — degenerating into internal squabbling as pastors attempted to bequeath their churches to their sons, triggering factional strife.

I don’t yet know enough to say whether some all, some or none of these explanations are right. But I’m curious to investigate. There can be few other major denominations in rich countries that have doubled in size recently.

Cable from Korea #1: the world’s largest church

A 150,000 people attend this one church in Seoul. This morning, I was one of them.

2016-02-28 10.58.07

Three years ago, I wrote a post about the Yoido Full Church, which is probably the largest church in the world. I quoted the Economist reporting that:

It looks somewhat unprepossessing—a brownish blob surrounded by office buildings—but Yoido boasts 830,000 members, a number it says is rising by 3,000 a month. One in 20 people in greater Seoul is a member.

Each of the seven Sunday services at Yoido is a logistical challenge: apart from the 12,000 people in the main sanctuary, another 20,000 follow the service on television in overflow chapels scattered around neighbouring buildings. Some 38,000 children go to Sunday school during the day. As one service begins and the next ends, around 60,000 comers and goers are ushered by white-jacketed traffic directors. If you want to attend one of the two services starring the church’s founder, David Cho, you need to be an hour early or you won’t get in.

I wrote about it because I was doing a series on Pentecostalism of which Yoido is a rather spectacular example. It was not somewhere I anticipated ever visiting. But this morning I did.

The author of that Economist piece was not exaggerating as far as the logistics go. The manager at my hostel told me she avoids driving near the church on Sunday mornings because the traffic is so bad. Despite the challenges posed by its size, Yoido makes a compelling argument for economies of scale. It is a very slick operation. I arrived and was immediately greeted by one of their team of ushers specifically tasked with greeting foreigners, I was then passed along a conveyor belt of team members to a special section for worshipers from overseas and invited to a special post-service meeting for non-Koreans. Most impressively, I was given a headset so I could listen to a simultaneous translation of the service.

The church itself is a about the size of a concert hall. Indeed both its scale and design, reminded me of the Barbican Centre. The comparison seemed apt as it has its own orchestra and a choir of professional quality singers that’s larger than most congregations. It’s not the best church music I’ve heard. It lacked the richness and otherworldliness of say an English Cathedral Choir. But that’s delivered to a couple of hundred people at a time. This needed to reach thousands upon thousands of people and be good. And that consistency extended to the other aspects of the service, which were engaging even in translation.

Initially the proceedings appeared more mellow than I was expecting. There were traditional hymns rather than worship songs. And while the preaching was on the more interactive end of the scale – there were a lot of things we were supposed to call out – it was also more dignified than many evangelical services I’d been to before. But I’d misread what was happening. I’m used to churches that are literally and figuratively amateurish: the people running them generally don’t have the skills or the resources to produce an emotional reaction on cue. The team at Yoido do. They could therefore let a state of fervour gradually develop. And by the end, prayers were accompanied by much of the congregation rocking backwards and forwards.

In the world but of Korea

Yoido is unmistakably Korean in ways that go beyond the obvious. The narrative it tells us about faith is very tied up with the country’s recent history. Indeed Yoidi itself, a church that dragged itself from a tent outside a US army camp to a being a feature of one of the world’s great cities,  functions as a good metaphor for that history. And the apocalyptic and Manichean overtones of evangelical theology take on a new resonance when you are twenty miles from the DMZ. My impression based on an admittedly short stay so far is that South Koreans think about their belligerent northern neighbours less than outsiders imagine. But Yoidi really does major on the topic: prayers about or for the country were said no less than four times. When Christians in most countries worry that militant atheists are attempting to destroy their way of life that’s merely paranoia but in Korea it’s indisputably true and that seems to have seeped into the character of at least some of its Christianity.

Despite its emphatic Koreaness, Yoido is probably the most cosmopolitan church I’ve ever attended. As I’ve mentioned already, there are impressive efforts to welcome worshipers from overseas. It also seems to put a lot of emphasis on overseas evangelism: the church apparently has over 700 missions abroad at the current moment. And the congregation was regaled with tales of how its pastors were spreading the gospel around the world. It is presumably with the intention to assist them in that endeavour that the church runs English classes. Most remarkably the sermon at the service I attended was delivered in English by the National Director of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches. The world’s largest church apparently takes the world as its diocese.

My reservations

As impressed as I was by Yoido, I concluded that even if I lived in Seoul I would be unlikely to attend it regularly. I couldn’t warm to its bombast nor to the didactic nature of its message. I also have a particular aversion to faith healing, which featured prominently in the service. I fear that a) it risks putting people off seeking proper medical help, b) puts a decidedly un-protestant emphasis on the need for someone to act as an intermediary between god and ordinary Christians, and c) insults God by suggesting he lets people suffer illness until somebody casts the right spell. My prejudices about it weren’t helped by a video we were shown this morning of a previously lame woman in the Cote D’Ivoire miraculously walking without crutches after being prayed for by one of the church’s pastors. The problem is that she didn’t walk so much as stagger forward weakly for two or three paces in exactly the way you’d imagine someone would if they believed they’d been cured but hadn’t. And even to someone poorly versed in Korean politics the way the church steers it congregation towards supporting conservative candidates was pretty blatant. President Park Geun-Hye was prayed for by name. It was specifically flagged up that one of her party’s representatives in the National Assembly was in attendance this morning. And the congregations attention was drawn to an apparently troubling piece of legislation before the National Assembly.*

Lessons for the endangered species known as the western protestant

However, what I’ve been mulling the most since I left was something rather different: the age of the congregation. The reason for this is to do with something called the ‘secularisation hypothesis’. Essentially this says that as societies modernise that they will tend to become less religious. This has been given credence by falling church attendance in Europe and North America. But a big growth in church membership in the developing world has more than offset this, suggesting that maybe secularisation is basically a western phenomenon. Booming churches in Korea seemed like an example of this. But I recently read Daniel Tudor’s Korea: the Impossible Country, which briefly notes that young Koreans are actually less likely to attend church than their parents. Yoidi would seem to support this. The people in attendance were not as geriatric as those at a typical western church. Nonetheless, they clearly skewed towards the upper end of middle aged. That might indicate that the secularisation hypothesis needs modifying rather than discarding. Maybe it is that the disruptions and uncertainties of industrialisation and urbanisation drive people into church – the Victorian era was after all a highpoint of church attendance in the UK – and when these abate so does churchgoing. If that’s what is happening in Korea then it may well be that in a few decades time the booming churches in China, Nigeria and the like will start shrinking.

It is tempting as it is for stale churches in the West to look at places like Yoido and see a model they should emulate. But that’s probably not going to work. Christians in Europe and North America probably need to find their own solutions rather than trying to assemble flatpack models from other parts of the world.


*In the interests of transparency, I should note that my headset began glitching at the point this was discussed. I still think I caught the general gist but not what the actual legislation was.

Why Thomas is my favourite Disciple

What with it being Easter and all, I thought now was the time for a Resurrection themed post.

There is one figure in the Bible (besides Jesus obviously) who gives me more comfort in being a Christian than any other. He’s the Apostle Thomas. He’s the one of the twelve men Jesus chose as his disciples and who followed him during his ministry. All four gospels mention that he was a disciple but beyond that we know very little about him and basically nothing about his life before meeting Jesus.

Nonetheless, he is one of the most recognisable figures from the Gospels on account of an incident that occurred shortly after the Resurrection. Jesus has been reunited with the disciples but at a time when Thomas was away:

…the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But [Thomas]..said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (1)

Indeed making leaps of faith does not appear to be Thomas’ strong suit. Take for example, the Last Supper where Jesus predicts his own death and tells the Disciples:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (2)

Hearing this beautiful sentiment, Thomas’ obstinately practical response is:

“Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way? (3)

I find it immensely reassuring that his scepticism did not put Thomas outside Jesus’ flock. On the contrary, tradition has it that he would be the one to take it to India.

I imagine I would have responded to the events of the Gospels very much like Thomas did. I would almost certainly want extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary claim that someone who’d suffered the grisly fate of crucifixition was now walking about meeting people. Indeed a large part of me suspects that’s the only response and finds believing without seeing rather suspect.

That there’s a place (and indeed a rather important place) for Thomas suggests there’s one for me too. Indeed, I wonder if besides being Patron Saint of India, he could also perform the same role for people who watch Derren Brown documentaries, are incredulous that homeopathy is a thing and make themselves unpopular correcting the viral photos their friends post on Facebook.

Thomas is the cornerstone of my conviction that a Christian faith need not be a blind faith.

(1) John 20: 24-29

(2) John 14: 1-4

(3) John 14: 5

The God Stephen Fry is attacking is not my God

Stephen Fry seems to have caused quite a ruckus by saying, amongst other things, that God is an “evil, capricious, monstrous maniac”. The Reverend Giles Fraser unsurprisingly takes issue with this. He rightly observes that the image of God as some kind of celestial dictator is not one that really fits the Christian story. It centres on a being defined not only by his power but by his decision to forgo that power and become human:

Too many religious people actually worship power. They imagine the source of ultimate power, give it a name (God, Allah, Yahweh) etc, and then try and cosy up to it, aligning their interests with those of the boss. In this they are just the same as many non-religious people, except they believe that ultimate power is metaphysically situated. Whether it be a king or a prime minister or a CEO or God: the temptation is always to suck up to power.

This is why the Jesus story is, for me, the most theologically revolutionary story that there can be. Because it imagines God and power separated. God as a baby. God poor. God helpless on a cross. God with a mocking and ironic crown of thorns. In these scenes it is Caesar who has the power. And so the question posed is: which one will you follow when push comes to shove? You can follow what is right and get strung up for it. Or you can cosy up to power and do as you are told. By saying that he will stare ultimate power in the face and, without fear, call it by its real name, Fry has indicated he is on the side of the angels (even though he does not believe in them). Indeed, Fry is following in a long tradition of religious polemic, from Job to Blake and beyond.

Furthermore, this powerless thing subverts Fry’s accusation of God’s iniquity. For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity. Which is why, even in the midst of absolute horror, he has the authority to whisper in my ear that all will be well.

He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very vague boy

Why the prophet of a more compassionate Christianity leaves me feeling decidedly uncharitable.

Rob Bell is a guy I really ought to be more impressed by than I am. He’s pretty much single-handedly made it respectable for evangelicals to believe in universal salvation, an idea which is central to my understanding of Christianity. Yet I’ve never found his presentation of it (or of much else) terribly convincing.

A large part of why is captured in an excellent article by Meghan O’Gieblyn in the Guardian. She describes how grappling with the notion of hell eventually pushed her out of the evangelical faith she grew up in. One of its strengths is that it tougher on those Christians who dodge the notion as on those who proclaim it loudly. Foremost in the former camp are the new, and often very successful, brand of evangelicals who hope that the relentless use of syrupy songs about love can make the bitter message that most of humanity is facing damnation palatable. She’s also pretty brutal about Bell:

In the spring of 2011, I was browsing through a crowded airport newsstand when I glimpsed an issue of Time with the headline “What If There’s No Hell?” The subhead elaborated, “A popular pastor’s bestselling book has stirred fierce debate about sin, salvation, and judgment.” The book in question was the modestly titled Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who’s Ever Lived, and the pastor was Rob Bell. Bell wears hipster glasses and black skinny jeans. Most of his congregants were generation Xers who had difficulty with the Bible’s passages about absolute truth, certainty and judgment.

I found a copy of Bell’s new book at that same airport and blew through it during my three-hour flight to Michigan. It was a light read. Bell sets out his prose like a free-verse poem, and roughly half the sentences are interrogative, a rhetorical style that seems designed to dampen the incendiary nature of his actual argument. He does not, as the Time headline suggests, make a case against the existence of hell. Rather, he argues that hell is a refining process by which all of the sins of the world, but not the sinners, are burned away. Those who are in hell are given endless chances throughout eternity to accept God’s free gift of salvation and, because this gift is so irresistibly good, hell will eventually be emptied and collapse. Essentially, this is universal reconciliation – the idea that all people will be saved regardless of what they believe or how they conduct themselves on Earth.

Love Wins created an uproar in the evangelical community. Zondervan (basically the Random House of Christian publishing), which had published Bell’s previous books, dropped him upon reading the proposal. After it was published, Albert Mohler Jr, a prominent pastor, called the book “theologically disastrous” and thousands of Bell’s congregants left his church in protest. At the same time, a lot of evangelicals who seemed to have been harbouring a private faith in universal reconciliation defended the book. In the secular media, the theology of Love Wins was lauded as visionary. “Wielding music, videos and a Starbucks sensibility,” Time magazine wrote, “Bell is at the forefront of a rethinking of Christianity in America.”

“Rethinking” doesn’t feel as accurate as “rebranding”. Throughout Love Wins, Bell seems less interested in theological inquiry than he is in PR. There was one moment while reading Love Wins where it seemed as though he might initiate a much-needed conversation about the meaning of hell. Toward the end of the book, he begins to mobilise a more radical argument – that heaven and hell are not realms of the afterlife but metaphors for life here on Earth. He recalls travelling to Rwanda in the early 2000s and seeing boys whose limbs had been cut off during the genocide. “Do I believe in a literal hell?” he asks. “Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs.” Here, I brightened at the idea that perhaps Bell was out to make a statement as bold and daring as [Megachurch pastor] Hybels’s 9/11 sermon [about his own desire for revenge], using hell as a way to talk about the human capacity for evil.

But no such moment came. As I read on, it became clear that Bell wasn’t actually looking for a way to talk about the darker side of human nature. Soon after he posits the possibility of a metaphorical hell, he glosses over its significance by suggesting that the “hells” of this Earth are slowly being winnowed away as humans work to remedy social problems like injustice and inequality.

Love Wins succeeded in breaking the silence about hell, and its popularity suggests that a number of evangelicals may be ready to move beyond a literalist notion of damnation, reimagining hell just as God-fearing people across the centuries have done to reckon with the evils of their own age. At the same time, the book demonstrates the potential pitfalls of the church’s desire to distance itself too quickly from fire and brimstone. Bell claims to address the exact theological problem that motivated me to leave the faith, but rather than offer a new understanding of the doctrine, he offers up a Disneyesque vision of humanity, one that is wholly incompatible with the language biblical authors use to speak about good and evil. Along with hell, the new evangelical leaders threaten to jettison the very notion of human depravity – a fundamental Christian truth upon which the entire salvation narrative hinges.

This resonates pretty strongly with my feelings toward Bell. I first came across him when he was one of the big names speakers at the Greenbelt festival. He delivered an affirmational pep talk replete with pat anecdotes yet lacking much reference to the Bible, God or anything else that couldn’t have equally been used by a lifestyle coach or new age guru. Nonetheless, I gave Love Wins a chance. Or rather I did for the first 100 pages after that I gave up. Never has such a short and breezily written book seemed longer. He just wouldn’t come to a point – any point in fact. It was as if he’d anticipated the backlash and hoped to avoid it by burying his message under reams of platitudes. This was not only infuriating for anyone who likes their writing reasonably direct but seemed to negate its value as evangelism. How was anyone new to Christianity supposed to detect that within this book was something new. Rob Bell obfuscating about there being no damnation must sound an awful lot about an Alpha Course avoiding discussing the opposite.

There’s a place for guilt

John Newton. A man with much to be guilty about.

Christianity is often accused of making people feel guilty. That may not be a bad thing.

It is sometimes said that ‘Christianity is like a swimming pool, all the noise comes from the shallow end.’ I recognise that assertion is snide and relies on caricatures but it is tough to disagree with. That’s partly the fault of those swimming in the deeper waters. They are often afraid to make a splash.

Liberal Christianity is too often written about solely by authors with a scholarly disposition who are so attuned to nuances that they speak of little else. So I found it refreshing to read Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense. Spufford is direct and colourful in his enunciation of why his faith still holds. Here he is talking about the unfashionable topic of guilt:

‘Guilt’… gets a terrible press now: much worse than frothy, frivolous ‘sin.’ Our culture does take it seriously but as a cause of unhappiness in itself, a wanton anxiety-generator. It’s as if if the word ‘groundless’ always slid invisibly into place in our sentences next to it. As if it were always, a false signal, a fuss being made about nothing by somebody who shouldn’t be beating themselves up over playing tiddly-winks on the Sabbath. Once again, our usage assumes a world where we never do anything it would be appropriate to feel bad about. So the old expressions of guilt stop sounding like functional responses to real situations and become evidence of crazy self-hatred. Strike up the New Orleans big band, please:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me….

There! Did you hear that? He just called himself a wretch. He’s beating himself up in public. Sorry, mate: lovely tune, lousy sentiment. Except that ‘wretch’ is actually a very polite word for what John Newton, the eighteenth-century author of ‘Amazing Grace’, was. John Newton was a slave trader. He made his living transporting cargoes of kidnapped human beings, in conditions of great squalor and suffering, to places where they and their children’s children would be treated all their lives as objects to be bought and sold and brutalised. Some of John Newton’s own contemporaries (the ones who weren’t chained below decks in their own shit” may have thought the profession that his profession was only a bit unrespectable ; we, on the other hand, recognise that he was participating in one of the world’s greatest crimes, comparable to the Holocaust. Wretch? John Newton was horrible.

But at least he came to know it. At least he made the journey from comfortable acquiescence in horror to an accurate, and therefore horrified, sense of himself. At least he learned that something was wrong. And ‘Amazing Grace’ is a description of the process by which he began to awaken. The wrinkle is that he wrote it before he gave up slaving. He wrote it under the impression that he had already seen the stuff he should be worrying about – booze and licentiousness, presumably, and playing tiddly-winks on the Sabbath, and not running his slave ship with a swear-box screwed to the mast. In the Holocaust analogy, it’s rather as if a death-camp guard had had a moral crisis, but over cheating his colleagues at poker, and then continued to come to work stoking the ovens, while vowing shakily to be a better person. Yet Newton’s guilt, once found, wouldn’t leave him alone. It went on gradually showing him dark, accurate visions of himself, it went on changing him, until eventually he could not bear the darkness of what he did daily, and gave up the trade, and ended his life as a penitent campaigner against it. At every stage, it had been the same patient guilt that led him on, and so ‘Amazing Grace’, which records his earliest gnawing at him, is unwittingly faithful to the rest of what was coming to him. “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear”, he says in the second verse, and what he’s reporting there is his feeling, his amazed feeling, which we probably wouldn’t want to disagree with under the circumstances, that he’d been done a massive undeserved favour by being allowed to become frightened of himself. The night sweats, the uncontrollable memories, the waking to misery, were all in his case a gift, a bounty he couldn’t have earned….There are some human states to which guilty fear is the absolutely appropriate response; on which guilty fear; from which guilty fear is the first step of only available rescue, ‘Amazing Grace’ has been popular for two and a half centuries – has been claimed by millions of hearers and singers as true to their own perspective – because it has been so to speak, tested (unwittingly) at the extremes of what human beings ought to feel guilty about. If there’s room for John Newton to make peace with his terrifying variety of the [human propensity to fuck things up], there’s room for everyone.

This, of course, needs caveating:

However, the fact that some Christians have encouraged people to feel guilty about the wrong things should not discredit guilt itself. As Spufford writes it’s like “whenever  we say guilt the word ‘inappropriate’ is silently inserted before it.”

However, this isn’t really something Christians can blame the secular world for. We have so often talked about guilt as if it’s synonymous with breaking sexual taboos that it’s hardly surprising that the rest of the world assumed that’s what we meant.