This is the second time during Lent (Secular Lent: Give Me Puritans Over Prigs Any day) that I’ve found a provocative piece by Giles Fraser to be on the money.

Today is Palm Sunday. In churches up and down the land we will recreate Jesus’s triumphant arrival into Jerusalem. The atmosphere has the feel of an enthusiastic political rally with people waving flags and cheering the successful candidate who, they feel, is about to change everything.

‘Hosanna,’ the crowd shouts out. This man is being held up as the saviour. But a week is a long time – and not just in politics. 

Within a few days all this support has dried up. Something flips and the crowd start pelting Jesus with stones and spitting on him. By Good Friday, the same people who were shouting Hosanna are now calling for his death. Even his own party has rejected him. 

Is it any wonder that politicians – who are always in the popularity business – find it so uncomfortable to travel alongside Christ on this dark journey? 

Yes, some of them make the right sort of noise. 

The Prime Minister has previously insisted that he believes in God and that this is a Christian country. 

Now he has gone further, using an Easter video message to praise the ‘countless acts of kindness carried out by those who believe in and follow Christ’. 

He continued, expounding a little of his personal theology: ‘The heart of Christianity is to love thy neighbour and millions really do live that out.’

He spoke of the good work Christians do in prisons, their efforts in setting up food banks and the support people gave each other during the recent floods. ‘Parish priests even canoed through their villages to rescue residents. They proved once again that people’s faith motivates them to do good deeds.’

I thank the Prime Minister for his words of support for Christians. Yet most politicians who speak of God look about as comfortable as my dad does break-dancing. Perhaps that is why Alastair Campbell advised Tony Blair so strongly against it.

Even Gordon Brown, son of the Manse, looked awkward when he was trying to sound pious. He too reached for this practical, moral aspect of Christianity when he came to recommend it: ‘Do to others what you would have them do unto you,’ he told the gathered faithful at St Paul’s Cathedral back in 2009.

Now there is nothing wrong with all of this – as far as it goes.

But here’s the problem: no-one was ever crucified for kindness. Jesus was not strung up on a hideous Roman instrument of torture because of his good deeds. If Jesus is just a remarkably good person whose example we ought to follow, why the need for the dark and difficult story of betrayal, death and resurrection that Christians will commemorate this week? . . . .

Look at the current crop of well-loved TV vicars. Both Rev (which depicts a parish similar to my own near the Elephant and Castle in South London) and The Vicar of Dibley show plenty of good deeds and kindness. 

These gentle people with wet handshakes are approachable community figures, helping knit together the fabric of society with bingo and Sunday school. And we also want them to be figures of fun because that is how we keep religion safe. 

It wasn’t always this way. Thousands were butchered during the Civil War in the name of their different understandings of God – probably the last flowering of popular religious fundamentalism in England. I suspect it was in reaction against the deep political traumas of the 17th Century that the English re-invented Christianity as something to do with kindness and good deeds. 

When religious ideology got as toxic as it did, it was an act of genius to redefine religion as being primarily about pastoral care. From the 18th Century onwards, Christianity ceased to be about pike-toting revolutionaries hoping to rebuild Jerusalem in here in England.

Instead, through the Church of England, it increasingly became a David Cameron-type faith: the religion of good deeds . . . .

There is nothing distinctively Christian about this sort of virtue. And it’s hardly the sort of message that is going to fill our churches. No, the sort of message that makes a difference to people’s lives – and gets them out of bed on a Sunday morning – has to be much more powerful. 

Speaking last week, the Prime Minister stressed the importance of teaching children the religious meaning of Easter. It’s more than chocolate eggs, he emphasised. That, of course, is quite right. 

But will any politician really have the gall to preach the full story of Christ’s crucifixion? As St Paul himself noted, it is offensive and scandalous stuff. It means being brave, taking risks, standing up to wrong, even when – and this is bound to happen – it is personally distressing for us to do 
that. It means real belief and absolute commitment. It is so much more than a brief nod to Sunday school truisms.  

It is sad – even if it is understandable – that so much of what we hear from leading figures in politics and elsewhere is a pallid imitation of Christianity, the equivalent of empty-gesture politics. Real faith, like real leadership, means taking hard decisions and standing by them.

Unless Christians in politics are prepared to address the darkness and struggle that we face on Good Friday, it is probably better that they steer clear of preaching altogether. 

For in order to be reborn at the resurrection we have first have to die with Christ. We have to walk the way of the cross. We have to face rejection and humiliation. Little wonder the Prime Minister avoided all this in his Easter broadcast.

 

Read it all.

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Join us tomorrow night at 7.30pm in the Historic Church for our Good Friday service.

This year’s Good Friday service will be a presentation of Theodore Dubois’ The Seven Last Words of Christ performed by the Parish Choir and orchestra. This work is a musical setting of each of the seven final sentences spoken by Jesus from the cross. The seven “words” give us our Savior’s sacred parting instructions; messages intended not only for those immediate hearers at Calvary, but spoken to all generations by way of Holy Scripture.

Around-the-Horn[1]When Marriage is Hard
So this is why they make you take vows.

A Bubba With A Passion for the Gospel and for Golf
On Sunday Bubba Watson, one of the most untraditional golfers on the PGA Tour, was the winner of the 2014 Masters Tournament. But golf isn’t Watson’s top priority.

It’s Back – The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and the State of Modern Scholarship
From Albert Mohler: Last week, the Harvard Theological Review released a much-delayed series of articles on the fragment. After a series of investigations undertaken by diverse scholars, the general judgment claimed by Professor King is that the fragment dates back to ancient times.

The Neutrality of Bigness
Last Lord’s day, despite the absence of a few, we had an encouragingly large congregation. By some standards, it was large. By others, pitifully small. By ours, with a visiting family of believers, and a number of visitors from the community, several for the first time, it was a joy.

Archbishop Welby Struggles with a Greater Truth
The Archbishop’s mistake, or naiveté, was to treat these opposing views as standing upon equal ground.

Moralism is Not the Gospel (But Many Christians Think It Is)
one of the most seductive false gospels is moralism. This false gospel can take many forms and can emerge from any number of political and cultural impulses. Nevertheless, the basic structure of moralism comes down to this — the belief that the Gospel can be reduced to improvements in behavior.

A Medical Account of Jesus’ Death
When you reconstruct the medical aspects of Jesus’ crucifixion, the result is a brutal, vivid picture of what Jesus endured to save people from sin.

From his recent interview in the NYT:

Mr. Bloomberg was introspective as he spoke, and seemed both restless and wistful. When he sat down for the interview, it was a few days before his 50th college reunion. His mortality has started dawning on him, at 72. And he admitted he was a bit taken aback by how many of his former classmates had been appearing in the “in memoriam” pages of his school newsletter.

But if he senses that he may not have as much time left as he would like, he has little doubt about what would await him at a Judgment Day. Pointing to his work on gun safety, obesity and smoking cessation, he said with a grin: “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”

Read it all.

Tragic Worship

April 16, 2014 — Leave a comment

From Carl Trueman:

The problem with much Christian worship in the contemporary world, Catholic and Protestant alike, is not that it is too entertaining but that it is not entertaining enough. Worship characterized by upbeat rock music, stand-up comedy, beautiful people taking center stage, and a certain amount of Hallmark Channel sentimentality neglects one classic form of entertainment, the one that tells us, to quote theBook of Common Prayer , that “in the midst of life we are in death.”

It neglects tragedy. Tragedy as a form of art and of entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship. The most basic liturgical elements of the faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, speak of death, of burial, of a covenant made in blood, of a body broken. Even the cry “Jesus is Lord!” assumes an understanding of lordship very different than Caesar’s. Christ’s lordship is established by his sacrifice upon the cross, Caesar’s by power . . . .

Christian worship should immerse people in the reality of the tragedy of the human fall and of all subsequent human life. It should provide us with a language that allows us to praise the God of resurrection while lamenting the suffering and agony that is our lot in a world alienated from its creator, and it should thereby sharpen our longing for the only answer to the one great challenge we must all face sooner or later. Only those who accept that they are going to die can begin to look with any hope to the resurrection.

Yet today tragedy has, with few exceptions, dropped from popular entertainment. Whether it is the sentimentalism of the Hallmark Channel, the pyrotechnics of action movies, or the banal idiocy of reality TV, the tragic sensibility is all but lost. This is further compounded by the trivial way in which the language of tragedy is now used in popular parlance. As with defining moment and crisis, the words tragedy and tragic are now expected to perform Stakhanovite levels of linguistic labor. In a world where even sporting defeats can be described as tragedies, rarely do the terms speak of the catastrophic moral crises and heroic falls that lie at the heart of great tragic literature.

Yet human life is still truly tragic. Death remains a stubborn, omnipresent, and inevitable reality. For all of postmodern anti-essentialism, for all the repudiation of human nature, for all the rhetoric of self-creation, death eventually comes to all, frustrates all, levels all. It is not simply a linguistic construct or a social convention. Yet despite this, Western culture has slowly but surely pushed death, the one impressive inevitability of human life, to the very periphery of existence.

Pascal observed the problem in seventeenth-century France when he saw the obsession with entertainment as the offspring of the fallen human desire to be distracted from any thought of mortality. “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room,” he said. And: “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”

Today the problem is even greater: Entertainment has apparently become many people’s primary purpose of existence. I doubt that it would surprise Pascal that the world has increased the size, scope, and comprehensiveness of distraction. It would not puzzle him that death has been reduced to little more than a comic-book cartoon in countless action movies or into a mere momentary setback in soap operas and sitcoms. Indeed, he would not find it perplexing that the bleak spiritual violence of mortality leaves no lasting mark on the bereaved in the surreal yet seductive world of popular entertainment.

But he might well be taken aback that the churches have so enthusiastically endorsed this project of distraction and diversion. This is what much of modern worship amounts to: distraction and diversion. Praise bands and songs of triumph seem designed in form and content to distract worshipers from life’s more difficult realities.

Be sure to read it all.

 

The Ridley Institute at St. Andrew’s is pleased to announce a week-long, seven-lecture introductory seminar on The Person and Ongoing Work of the Holy Spirit to be held on campus at the end of this month.  This course is part of Andy Piercy’s year-long School of Worship, but has been opened up for participation by the public.

The seven lectures will be given by The Rev’d Rob Sturdy over four days, 28 April – 1 May.  The schedule for the lectures is listed below – note that most lectures occur in the morning. The registration cost is $30. Participants will be expected to bring a Bible and notepaper, and can register on our website.

A full course on The Person and Ongoing Work of the Holy Spirit, spread over ten weeks with expert guest lecturers, will be held next spring (2015), and will cover more ground in greater depth than these four days can afford us.  However, this seven-course introductory seminar is an excellent chance to begin laying a foundation for our understanding of, and relationship with, the Holy Spirit.

I hope you are able to take advantage of this latest offering from The Ridley Institute.

Monday, 28 April
12:30-1:00 Registration, Coffee

1:00-2 Lecture 1: “The Holy Spirit, a Biblical theology”

Tuesday, 29 April
9:00-9:30 Coffee

9:30-10:30 Lecture 2: “The Holy Spirit: A Systematic and Historical Approach” 

10:30-10:40 Break

10:40-11:40 Lecture 3: “The Holy Spirit and the Ministry of Jesus” 

Wednesday, 30 April
9:00-9:30 Coffee

9:30-10:30 Lecture 4: “The Holy Spirit and Regeneration”

10:30-10:40 Break

10:40-11:40 Lecture 5: “The Sealing of the Spirit” 

Thursday, 1 May
9:00-9:30 Coffee

9:30-10:30 Lecture 6: “The Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church” 

10:30-10:40 Break

10:40-11:40 Lecture 7: “The Gifts of the Holy Spirit”

This looks pretty cool – despite the lunacy of John Hagee:

bloodmoon1Sky watchers are getting ready for an evening of special viewing when a total lunar eclipse arrives just after midnight on April 15.

What’s more, this begins a rare sequence of four total lunar eclipses expected over the next two years.

Some Christians see this series of so-called blood moons as linked to a biblical prophecy of the End Times.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the sun, Earth and moon line up so the Earth’s shadow falls on the moon, darkening it.

The one on April 15 will begin at 1:20 a.m. on the East Coast, according to Sky and Telescope magazine.

“Eclipses are one of the few astronomical events that can easily be enjoyed with the naked eye,” though a pair of binoculars brings it into even greater focus, said astronomy writer Gary Kronk.

As it begins, “the Earth’s shadow will make a slow crawl across the moon’s face, appearing as if there is an increasingly large ‘bite’ taken out of the moon,” said Deborah Byrd with EarthSky.org, an online science magazine.

At first, the full moon will just appear to be a little darker than normal, “but eventually people will notice a much darker arc moving across the moon, with a distinct rusty reddish-brown color,” said astronomer Gerald McKeegan at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, Calif.

The bloody red color the moon takes on during an eclipse is caused by refraction of sunlight by the Earth’s atmosphere.

Read it all.

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Around-the-Horn[1]Till Conscious Uncoupling Do Us Part
The twitter universe was abuzz when actress Gwyneth Paltrow announced on her digital media website GOOP, that after 11 years of marriage, she and her husband, Coldplay front-man Chris Martin, were “consciously uncoupling.”  #consciousuncoupling  . . . Say what?  Everyone else calls it a separation, split, break-up, or divorce. But Paltrow, known as somewhat of a lifestyle guru, thinks those terms carry too much negative baggage. So what, exactly, is conscious uncoupling?  Here are 3 main ideas that I’ve extracted from all the GOOP-y conscious-uncoupling gobbley-gook . . .

Four Types of Belonging
Four different dimensions of belonging have emerged as I have studied churchgoing. I have named them activities, events, people, and places. The central idea is that all four are present in each of us but, for most individuals, a particular one is dominant.

John Donne in Lent
Donne is the poet of embodiment. He writes about things we can see and feel: fleas, ants, bearbaiting, the sudden blush of a young girl, a long voyage at sea, theatres that “are filled with emptiness,” and wartime in an “age of rusty iron.” He also writes a lot about himself and his torturous relationship with God. After he died, Donne was called “a second St. Augustine.” The Doctor of Grace is quoted more than seven hundred times in Donne’s surviving sermons. There is no doubt that he read and lived out the Confessions over and over again. The Augustinian themes of restlessness, original sin, repentance, forgiveness, pilgrimage, predestination, the resurrection of the body, and the overarching hope of salvation born of pain—these are all present in a language that still dazzles in both poetry and prose.

The Book of Common Prayer is Still A Big Deal
The key differences, I think, lie in two other areas. First, in what Cranmer took away: for instance, the whole panoply of devotion to the saints was cut back tremendously, leaving the saints’ days still in place but emphasizing that they are examples to be followed rather than intercessors.  Second, and for Cranmer most important, is the strong emphasis on a lectionary that took people through the whole Bible—and, if people went to Morning and Evening Prayer, read through the whole of the books of Psalms each month. Cranmer wanted the literate to read the Bible thoroughly and faithfully, and for the illiterate to hear it read every day.

Is Opposition to Marriage Like Opposition to Interracial Marriage?
Is opposition to same-sex marriage at all like opposition to interracial marriage? One refrain in debates over marriage policy is that laws designating marriage as exclusively the union of male and female are today’s equivalent of bans on interracial marriage. Some further argue that protecting the freedom to speak and act publicly on the basis of a religious belief that marriage is the union of a man and woman amounts to the kind of laws that enforced race-based segregation.  These claims are wrong on several counts.

Amy Cuddy: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are
Fascinating TED video.

The Life You (Don’t) Want: Oprah’s Tour For the Self
This is cultural consumerism at both its highest and lowest — humanistic in its instincts, privileged in its priorities, and carefully glazed with all the right marketing to deceive itself that justice is at hand and Neighbor Love has the wheel. It’s as if human desire has grown so weary of natural constraints and so content with its own appetite that it would prefer to label self-indulgence as “self-help” and be done with it.  It’s faux-self-empowerment for the self-centered, heart-religion as a mantle for hedonism.

Why Teaching Poetry is so Important
Students who don’t like writing essays may like poetry, with its dearth of fixed rules and its kinship with rap. For these students, poetry can become a gateway to other forms of writing. It can help teach skills that come in handy with other kinds of writing—like precise, economical diction, for example. When Carl Sandburg writes, “The fog comes/on little cat feet,” in just six words, he endows a natural phenomenon with character, a pace, and a spirit. All forms of writing benefits from the powerful and concise phrases found in poems.