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.

The good writer Phillip and the wishful-thinker Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Phillip Pullman (review)

Phillip Pullman’s retelling of the gospels is always interesting but reveals his view of religion to be confused.

Chances are it won’t be news to you that Phillip Pullman knows how to tell a story. And that includes telling arguably the most important story of all: the life and time of Jesus Christ.

Only in Pullman’s version there is no Jesus Christ. Instead there is Jesus and Christ, two brothers who between them create the Christian religion as we know it today. Jesus is a righteous prophet of social justice, whilst Christ is the unreliable chronicler of Jesus’ life and message. Jesus is disdainful of all authority including that of God (whose existence he seems dubious of). Christ, by contrast, believes that for the message to have an impact it must be imbued with the supernatural and provide a justification for establishing an institution to promote it.

This is a neat conceit and Pullman delivers it well. Most impressively he does this by pastiching not the grandiose poetry of the King James Bible but the dry functional prose of the more recent translation like the NIV. Despite this constraint Pullman still makes his telling highly readable and his version almost invariably has more literary merit than the original.

Where it falls down is in his theology. This is basically a didactic story: he his advocating for Jesus the carrier of a true Christian message against Christ its distorter. Jesus believes in the things Pullman does (compassion for others, political radicalism and atheism) whilst Christ is the standard bearer for organised religion and divinity. He’s also a liar who skulks in the shadows and covertly consorts with nefarious figures.

This is a wildly implausible reading of the Gospels. There is little historical sense in seeing Jesus’ divinity as something that was posthumously foisted on a human teacher. The problem with such a reading is that in the earliest Christian sources we have (Paul’s letters) already treat Jesus as God. The Gospels which introduce us to Jesus the man were written later. Thus if one is going to dismiss any part of Jesus as a fabrication then it should logically be his earthly deeds not his purported divine nature.

And there is no reasonable basis for supposing that he was an atheist. If he had been, then arriving at our current version of the Gospels would have required not just embellishment but a complete fabrication. Jesus preaches loving others a lot but discusses God even more and intimately connects the two. Christianity without some sense of the supernatural and transcendent would be a desiccated husk.

That’s mostly beside the point though. This isn’t what Pullman is saying did happen but his way of discussing what is valuable in the Christian story and what isn’t. The problem is that where he sees a simple lesson, there is actually a tension. Pullman is of course right to detect a scepticism of religious authorities in Jesus’ message – it’s hard to miss though plenty of people manage it – and there is of course a tradition inside as well as outside Christianity of regarding the authoritarian hierarchies of organisations like the Catholic Church with horror.

However, that’s not to say that religious organisations are without their merits. I’ve already quoted the sociologist Tom Shakespeare on this blog explaining why religion is valuable and in this context it bears repeating:

Without religion, the danger is that an individual thinks that he or she is the centre of the universe. Religion asks more of you than just to look after yourself. Because religion is a collective practice, it enables us to learn from others around us, and from a history of sincere and disciplined examination of the problems of life – a history which is sometimes called the Wisdom Traditions. Through reflection and discussion in the context of religion, we can achieve discernment, which means seeing reality more clearly.

Putting this principle into practice, Shakespeare joined the Quakers. While I have many issues with the ‘Friends’ in no meaningful sense can they be accused of authoritarianism. They are democratically organised and have used “though shall decide for yourself” as a slogan. Being organised like that has its disadvantages; there are things which a centralised institution like the Catholic Church can do which the Quakers can’t. But there clearly are a plurality of different ways of setting up religious institutions. Therefore, it is wrong to suppose as Pullman does that to institutionalise religion necessarily means turning it into something authoritarian.

The problem with Pullman’s atheist Jesus is that he is too simple a creature to reflect these kind of nuances. He is just a blank slate onto which Pullman projects largely platitudinous exhortations to be good and righteous. The Jesus of the Bible is far more interesting and enlightening because he is all about paradoxes: law and morality, mercy and justice, tradition and revelation to name but a few. He is himself a paradox. He is God and man. Jesus and Christ.

The 8 women who have led Muslim majority countries

The late Benazir Bhutto

The video has been doing the rounds on social media today. In it the scholar Reza Aslan responds to a rant delivered by the comedian and professional sayer of daft things about vaccines and religion Bill Maher suggesting Islam stands for “circumcision for women, not respecting the rights of women, not respecting the rights of gay people.”

The fact that caught my attention was one Aslan used to illustrate that not all Muslim majority countries treat women like Saudi Arabia does: eight of them (including the largest Indonesia) have been led by women.

Those women were:

Tansu Çiller, elected prime minister of Turkey, 1993-1996

Benazir Bhutto, elected prime minister of Pakistan 1988-1990, 1993-1996

Mame Madior Boye, appointed prime minister of Senegal, 2001-2002.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, elected president of Indonesia, 2001-2004

Khaleda Zia, elected prime minister of Bangladesh, 1991-1996 and 2001-2006

Sheikh Hasina, elected prime minister of Bangladesh 2009-

Roza Otunbayeva, president of Kyrgyzstan, 2010- 2011

Atifete Jahjaga, elected president of Kosovo 2011-

Listening to a demagogue

What my encounter with the late Ian Paisley taught me about political and religious extremism.

I didn’t know what one was supposed to do while listening to a demagogue but I knew I hadn’t expected to be straining to hear him. Ian Paisley’s image is of course forever set as the man booming: “NEVER, NEVER, NEVER” not as the frail old man I saw at the Oxford Union in 2011.

Paisley had, however, been on quite a journey. When he first spoke at the Union in 1969, he delivered an explosive fire and brimstone sermon which was booed and heckled by the audience.

More than three decades later, he seemed not only to lack the physical strength for a repeat performance but also the inclination. In the interim, he had acquired a degree of political respectability. Having done his best to sabotage attempts at sharing power with Republicans, he embraced them at the 11th hour. This allowed him to become First Minister of Northern Ireland with – rather extraordinarily – former IRA commander Martin McGuiness serving as his deputy.

This political mellowing was reflected in a softer public persona. When I heard Paisley I didn’t hear him preaching hellfire but instead delivering a rather bland and often inaudible lecture on the merits of the Kings James Bible. He responded jovially to audience questions which while always polite – itself a change – were often very pointed. Perhaps most surprisingly he talked warmly of the fact that Martin McGuiness had attended a service at a protestant church. Paisley seemed to take this not as a political gesture that an indication that McGuiness might be on the road to being saved. The notion of Paisley welcoming the prospect of McGuiness one day joining him in heaven is certainly a strange one.

What this does show is the extent to which the religious appeared to be more important to Paisley than political. Strangely for a man who was in parliament for 40 years, he seemed to believe he was addressing us not as a politician but as an evangelist. Much as with his view of McGuiness, this portrayed a certain unworldliness; he was a messenger who would repel rather attract young liberal mainlanders to Christianity.

And for all the changes to his politics, religion clearly remained an area in which he had not evolved. When asked if he might reciprocate McGuiness’ gesture and attend a Catholic service, he was adamant that that was not possible as it would be collaborating with an evil force. Challenged by one audience member to repeat his claim that the Pope was the antichrist, he did so albeit rather indirectly – he is still a politician after all. He also made it clear not only were Catholics and non-Christians beyond the pale but so were Protestants who did not share the fundamentalist positions of his Free Presbyterian Church. And he also stood by his opposition to homosexuality.

I note that Paisley remained staunch in his intolerant religious beliefs while coming to accept nationalist politicians playing a part in government because I feel it has contemporary relevance. Many people including David Cameron have suggested that tackling Islamism requires tackling not just those who advocate jihad but also ‘non-violent extremists’ who advocate intolerant positions but not violence. I would suggest that Paisley indicates this is not necessarily the case. He was moved from being a fanatical opponent of the peace process(es) to one of its cornerstones while still being a bigoted fundamentalist. Political extremism is a political problem which needs a political solution and seeking a spiritual one may well be an ineffective distraction.

The jihadis who read “Islam for dummies”

In an article for the New Statesman, Mehdi Hasan relates the following tragi-comic fact:

Can you guess which books the wannabe jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed ordered online from Amazon before they set out from Birmingham to fight in Syria last May? A copy of Milestones by the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb? No. How about Messages to the World: the Statements of Osama Bin Laden? Guess again. Wait, The Anarchist Cookbook, right? Wrong.

Sarwar and Ahmed, both of whom pleaded guilty to terrorism offences last month, purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. You could not ask for better evidence to bolster the argument that the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement. The swivel-eyed young men who take sadistic pleasure in bombings and beheadings may try to justify their violence with recourse to religious rhetoric – think the killers of Lee Rigby screaming “Allahu Akbar” at their trial; think of Islamic State beheading the photojournalist James Foley as part of its “holy war” – but religious fervour isn’t what motivates most of them.

In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was leaked to the Guardian. It revealed that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” The analysts concluded that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation”, the newspaper said.

It is far from being the only study to reach this conclusion:

According to the Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University in Australia, which accounts for all suicide bombings committed in the Middle East between 1981 and 2006, it is politics, not religious fanaticism, that leads to terrorists blowing themselves up. The study shows that:

“…though religion can play a vital role in the recruitment and motivation of potential future suicide bombers, their real driving-force is a cocktail of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism. The configuration of these motivations is related to the specific circumstances of the political conflict behind the rise of suicide attacks in different countries.”

The findings of the Flinders University study are supported by the research conducted at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism, which was partly funded by the Defense Department’s Threat Reduction Agency. The authors, Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman, examined more than 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to present. Their research reveals that more than 90 percent of suicide attacks are directed at an occupying force. Of the 524 suicide terrorists carried out in the past 30 years, more than half of the attackers were secular. Let that rock your worldview.

More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks have a strategic goal in common—to compel an occupying force to withdraw from territory the terrorists prize. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to the West Bank to Chechnya, the central goal of every suicide terrorist campaign has been to resist military occupation by a democracy.

The upshot of both pieces of research seems to be that the motivations of jihadis are sectarian rather than religious. They strongly identify as Muslims but that identification doesn’t arise from faith or theology.

This doesn’t only apply at the level of individuals but also whole movements. The earliest incidents of contemporary terrorism like Dawson’s Airfield and the Munich Olympic massacre were perpetrated by Palestinian groups like the PLO and the PFLP. There ideologies were respectively nationalist and Marxist. They have of course now been largely supplanted by groups with Islamist ideologies like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But as I suspect that despite this divergence the reasons that people joined the PFLP then and Hamas now are fundamentally the same: opposition to the Israeli occupation.

Very often religion does not create values but provides a justification for those the believer already has. And religious terrorism seems to work the same way.

Lessons in being liberal from Mormons

Joking about religion too often leads to demands for censorship and threats of violence. The youngest of the world religions shows how to behave when you are the subject of a joke.

Stewart Lee is one of my favourite comedians yet I’ve never seen his stage show Jerry Springer: the opera. Having heard an interview in which Lee tried to defend lyrics about the Virgin Mary being “raped by an angel”; I concluded it wasn’t for me. I found the notion offensive and daft, and as a Christian I wasn’t prepared to tacitly endorse it.

What to this day I find strange is that there a small number of Christians who decided that because they didn’t like the idea, nobody else was allowed to. The woefully misnamed pressure group Christian Voice picketed theatres where the play was being performed and even went as far as threatening to picket the centres of a cancer charity if it accepted a donation from the show’s cast and crew.

We’ve of course seen worse than that in the name of prevent offence to religions. When the Birmingham Rep put on a play by a Sikh author about sexual abuse within her community, some of her co-religionists decided what was offensive was not the notion that sexual abuse was happening but that (sacrilegiously) it might be depicted happening in a temple. And that’s not to mention the global howls of often violent rage that have met the Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons of Muhammed and the Innocence of Muslims video.

Now it should go without saying that these acts of violence and bullying are the work of a minority of believers and have met abundant resistance from their fellow believers (including yours truly). However, they remain deeply depressing.

That’s what makes the way the Church of the Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons) has reacted to smash hit musical the Book of Mormon all the more heartening.

“Book of Mormon” is by no means an attack on Mormonism. The way Mormons are portrayed is generally affectionate. It avoids the lazy jokes about polygamy that tend to define humour about the Church even though it has condemned the practice for 70% of its history and that in the present day is almost certainly more prevalent among Christians and Muslims than Mormons. And the play ultimately (sort of) winds up concluding that religion is valuable.

However, if they were to choose to be offended by it, there would be plenty in “Book of Mormon” for actual Mormons to object to. There are big helpings of the kind of outrageous humour you’d expect from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. And if it is affectionate towards Mormonism that can manifest itself in the form of gently going for the faith’s jugular. There is a running joke about the implausibility of the idea that having discovered a holy book on ancient golden plates, Joseph Smith would neglect to ever show them to anyone. And there are swipes at the Church’s exclusion of black people from active membership till the late 1970s.

Nonetheless the Church seems to have made a concerted effort to get the joke:

The response of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the musical has been described as “measured”.[67] The church released an official response to inquiries regarding the musical, stating, “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”[68]Michael Otterson, the head of Public Affairs for the church, followed in April 2011 with measured criticism. “Of course, parody isn’t reality, and it’s the very distortion that makes it appealing and often funny. The danger is not when people laugh but when they take it seriously—if they leave a theater believing that Mormons really do live in some kind of a surreal world of self-deception and illusion”, Otterson wrote, outlining various humanitarian efforts achieved by Mormon missionaries in Africa in recent years.[69][70]

Stone and Parker were unsurprised by this response:

“The official church response was something along the lines of ‘The Book of Mormon the musical might entertain you for a night, but the Book of Mormon,’—the book as scripture—’will change your life through Jesus.’ Which we actually completely agree with. The Mormon church’s response to this musical is almost like our Q.E.D. at the end of it. That’s a cool, American response to a ribbing—a big musical that’s done in their name. Before the church responded, a lot of people would ask us, ‘Are you afraid of what the church would say?’ And Trey and I were like, ‘They’re going to be cool.’ And they were like, ‘No, they’re not. There are going to be protests.’ And we were like, ‘Nope, they’re going to be cool.’ We weren’t that surprised by the church’s response. We had faith in them.”[10]

The LDS Church has advertised in the playbills at many of the musical’s venues (including Louisville, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dallas, Des Moines, Detroit, Durham, Hartford, Houston, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Ottawa, Toronto, London, Atlanta, and Washington, DC) to encourage attendees to learn more about the Book of Mormon, with phrases like “the book is always better.” and “you’ve seen the play, now read the book.”[71]

Mormons themselves have had varying responses to the musical. Richard Bushman, professor of Mormon studies, said of the musical, “Mormons experience the show like looking at themselves in a fun-house mirror. The reflection is hilarious but not really you. The nose is yours but swollen out of proportion.”[72] Bushman said that the musical was not meant to explain Mormon belief, and that many of the ideas in Elder Price’s “I Believe” (like God living on a planet called Kolob), though having some roots in Mormon belief, are not doctrinally accurate.[72][73]

The Church highlighted one conversion story by the musical in its semi-official Deseret News.[74]

A single conversion might not burst heaven open but it is probably more than the number of souls that were won for God by the hissy fit over Jerry Springer the Opera. And the violence over the Muhammad cartoons and the Innocence of Muslims almost certainly reinforced rather than challenged  prejudices about Muslims.

What is more, there is something disingenuous about religious believers who first insist on having a say in public debate but become angry when others have something to say about the,. Make no mistake we are combatants in the battle of ideas, we do not have and do not deserve immunity, and we should expect to be hit with a variety of weapons including satire.

I am aware that the paragraph above sounds rather combative but I do actually think that satire has a lot to offer religions. An abrasive approach can force you to face things you would otherwise massage over. And comedy is given to surreality, which is helpful when dealing with the somewhat mind-bending aspects of religion. For a musical with abundant jokes about having sex with frogs, the Book of Mormon has plenty to say about how literally one needs to believe a religion for it to be meaningful and about the pitfalls of preaching to those less fortunate than oneself.

So while the Mormons don’t exactly have an unblemished record of supporting personal freedom, on this matter I take my hat off to them.

Why would God flood the whole world? – Noah as truth and metaphor

The story of Noah is true even though it didn’t happen

Note for UKIP councillors: at the end of the story God promises not to do it again!!!

Note for UKIP councillors: at the end of the story God promises not to do it again!!!

There is a tradition in the John Wesley Society known as group services of occasionally sending students out to lead services in churches we would not normally visit. I found the text of a sermon I wrote for one of these from a couple of years ago. I think was about the second part of Genesis 8: the final part of the story of Noah.

I’m posting it here for two reasons. Firstly, because a new film about (and called) Noah staring Russel Crowe and Emma Watson is being released this week. And secondly, because what I wrote touches on a theme that is often of interest to non-Christians: how literally to understand the Old Testament and what to make of the apparently vengeful God who appears in it.

If you had asked my five year old self, what his favourite song was he’d likely have told you it was the animals march in two by two. Does anyone here know it?

Our adult perception of the story differs little from this children’s version. We shout “hurrah, hurrah” at the cute adventure of a family on a boat with a menagerie of animals, ignoring what is happening under the water. For all its superficially comforting familiarity, the story of Noah should be a shocking reminder to the contemporary Christian of just how violent the early section of the bible can appear. We tend to be more comfortable the New Testament God who tells us to turn the other cheek than the Old Testament God who in psalm 137 calls for the babies of Babylon to be smashed against rocks. And nowhere does God seem more barbaric than when he responds to the violence of the world, with the most immense act of violence conceivable, drowning virtually every living thing.

How then do we link the covenant we heard about in Genesis, symbolised by a rainbow but forged in a massacre, with the covenant established by Jesus’ resurrection?

The key point to grasp here is that the story of Noah did not actually take place. To see why consider the following fact, dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago yet geologists can say with reasonable degree of certainty not only that it was caused by a large comet or meteorite colliding with the earth but that the impact crater from this collision is in present day Mexico. Now ponder this: modern humans have been on the earth for about 200,000 years and as the biblical account of the flood contains human characters, so if real then it would have taken place within that time. Yet despite this supposed event being of a comparable scale of calamity to the collision and having happened so much more recently geologists, archaeologists and palaeontologists have found no trace of it. No major disruption of the fossil record, no simultaneous disappearance of civilisations in different parts of the world, nothing in fact to indicate the entire world being flooded. In addition, the logistics of the whole thing are rather implausible – gathering together two of every species, building an arc big enough to house all of them and catering for the diverse dietary requirement of all of them for a year – did they have a bamboo farm on board for the Pandas? – doesn’t seem within the reach of a single Stone Age family. Oh and Noah is supposed to have lived to be a thousand years old. It is evident therefore that Noah and the flood are fictional.

Fiction and truth are not, however, mutually exclusive categories. The American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr was once asked if he thought that the account of creation in Genesis was literally true. He replied “no, it’s much truer than that.” The best fiction shows us truths. Frankenstein conveys a truth about the perils of playing God, Animal Farm a truth about how without democracy leaders will always turn on their people, and Adrian Mole gives you all the truth you need about how strange and uncomfortable it is to be a teenage boy. Jesus makes extensive use of this technique: the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are not real but the insights their stories give us are.

Peter’s letter points us to the truth that is being conveyed by the story of the flood: the flood waters cleansing the earth of sinful people prefigure the waters of Baptism cleansing our souls.

My personal view is that the parable of Noah is essentially a thought experiment. It is asking what would happen if God tried to lead humanity out of sin by destroying everyone but a hardened core of righteous people. The answer is nothing at all, sin would persist as before. It does not take long for this to become evident. For after the flood, Noah winds up placing a curse on his own son. And this was just the start for the Biblical account would imply that all the humans alive today are descendants of Noah and we know all too well their capacity for harm. The problem is that sin is such an integral part of the human condition that even if God only saves the most righteous people they will still sin. If he destroyed all the sinners, there would be no humans left.

God knows that none of us can shake our own dark side because every time someone has tried and failed to shake it he has seen it. So rather than getting rid of a sinful humanity, he plunged into it, taking on human form and allowing himself to be murdered, but rather seeking revenge he offered absolution. And it is that offer of unconditional forgiveness for our sins that is the heart of the new covenant that Jesus makes with us.

God’s promise to Noah to never again flood the world is thus an essential prelude to Jesus’ covenant with us. He is promising never to do again, what he has never done and which on account of his loving, forgiving nature he could never conceivably do. He spares us violent destruction, so he can offer us loving grace. And while only members of Noah’s family, 8 people in total, were supposedly saved on the Arc, the new covenant opens salvation to everyone. Now that is something worth singing “hurrah, hurrah” about.

How Richard Dawkins made me a Christian

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At my baptism a few years back, I gave a short testimony. It explained my path to becoming a Christian and how a reaction against new atheism was a catalyst. I’ve reproduced it below:

My being here today taking part in this ancient Christian ceremony would be a surprise to many people who’ve known me over the years, because for most of my life I have been a strident unbeliever. From a pretty early age I had fixed onto the idea that believing in God was as silly as worshipping Zeus, Ra or Thor, because to my mind science had shown that there was no need for any of them. And this was not a view I was embarrassed to share with anyone who would listen, and indeed with many who wouldn’t.

Such was the ardour of my atheism that it survived undented the fact that for most of my teens my best friends were not only believers but the sons of the Baptist ministers, with the result that I spent more time at church events than many Christians. In his testimony at his own baptism, one of these friends would say he knew was a Christian after an experience I witnessed. Some of us from the Church’s youth group were sat around in a circle, our heads bowed in prayer – or to be more exact they were sat in a circle praying, while I sat upright looking bored – and whoever was saying prayers at that point asked God to give us faith. At which point – a – gentle – but – unmistakable breeze – started – blowing – through – the – room. Pretty weird huh? Well I didn’t think so; I set off in search of a more “rational” cause and came back a few minutes later very pleased with myself for having discovered that the breeze was in fact nothing more than a draft created by somebody opening a door.

Now, confronted with such human conceit, God did what he often does and sent a messenger to confound it. Admittedly these messengers are seldom Richard Dawkins, but the evangelical atheist had the paradoxical impact of turning me away from his creed. The picture he painted of believers as dogmatic, delusional and even dangerous ran counter to my own experience of Christians, who had tolerated and indeed welcomed an at times rude and disrespectful unbeliever into their community.

This discordant note made me listen with fresh ears to debates I had thought closed. I began to wonder if evolution and its miraculous life giving power, far from negating the need for a creator strongly suggested the likelihood of one. And as I looked into scripture for its own value rather than as a source of debating points, I realised the reams of antiquated, barbaric injunctions that fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists alike had led me to believe would be there, simply weren’t, and instead there was an altogether more appealing system of ethics built around just two positive, powerful commandments: love your God and love your neighbour.

This re-evaluation meant that by the time I had come to Oxford I was looking for a community where I could worship my God and after some searching I found it here at Wesley Memorial. This is warm, welcoming and wonderful church and to be accepted into membership here is a great honour.

So let me conclude with this, I am only here today because of people, who instead of telling me about God’s message of love, showed me it in their own lives. Their kindness was such an articulate argument, for the Christian message that it swayed even a sceptic like me. I am blessed to have known them, I am blessed that through them I know him, and I am SO blessed that he has given me you, the best friends and family I could ask for.

Abortion, the bible and the neccesity of moral imagination

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Christian fundamentalism teaches that the Bible has the solutions to our moral dilemmas. Its silence on abortion suggests otherwise

Abortion has emerged as one of the central concerns of politically engaged Christians around the world.

Given this you might reasonably assume that this is a topic on which the Bible would say a lot. You’d be wrong. You might also imagine that it would be clear on this subject. But you’d also be wrong about that.

No less a source than a Papal encyclical states that the “Sacred Scripture never address the question of deliberate abortion and so do not directly and specifically condemn it.” Now to be fair this is less of an issue for Catholics who draw authority not only from the Bible but also their own tradition.

However, for pro-life evangelicals this matter is (or at least should be) critical. So what results is a hunt through the Bible for evidence that a foetus is alive and therefore covered by the prohibition on killing. And the results are some of the most contrived readings of biblical texts imaginable. So for example, the fact that the personal pronoun ‘you’ is used to refer to a foetus in Jeremiah 1:5. This not make a whole lot of sense. The passage reads “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” So the the subject of the sentence is called ‘you’ even before he was formed in the womb. So if we were to apply this approach consistently then that would imply life began before conception. That is not to say that there is an incompatibility between being Christian and pro-life. It’s just that you have to make that decision based on things outside the Bible.

Which begs the question: if the Bible can’t answer a contemporary moral problem as widespread and important as abortion then doesn’t that make fundamentalism inadequate. It’s central conceit is that one ‘should just read the bible.’ But the question of abortion demonstrates at the very least the Bible needs considerable interpretation. And on some important questions it may be silent. Thus going beyond the Bible and deploying your reason and your instincts is essential for Christians. The Bible must be the launch pad for our moral imagination, not it’s boundary fence. The Bible should be the centre of our moral imagination rather than it’s outer limit.