Thinking Faith blogs

Transformation of Work

Very pleased that the Scripture Union magazine Encounter with God has published my article 'Transformation of Work'. Here is the article.

    

God is a worker and He calls us to work in His wonderful but broken world. Some find it surprising that God works but Jesus makes this clear in the gospel of John. "My father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” (John 5:17). So both God the Father and God the Son are workers.

G.K. Chesterton tells a story about God working…making daisies and delighting in the work of His hands. God gets so excited about daisy-creation that He has to do it ‘again and again’. Before you know it there are millions and millions of daisies all over the world, bringing delight to God and humans (Proverbs 8:30-31).

Now God expected Adam and Eve to bear fruit by working - growing vegetables, making tools, building houses, looking after horses and designing work places. Eventually they and their offspring would invent helicopters. Theologians call this the cultural mandate. To understand the cultural mandate we need to take a closer look at the beginning of the Bible - the book of Genesis.

"God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground'. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning - the sixth day." Gen 1:28

Let’s look briefly at these Hebrew words - kabash and radah (subdue and rule).  Kabash is drawn from a Hebrew word meaning to tread down or bring into bondage. The other word radah comes from a word meaning to trample on and conveys the image of treading grapes in a wine-press. As His image bearers God calls us to rule and unfold creation in good and wise ways. When we work we turn grapes into wine…sounds into music…words into stories…sand, stone and wood into offices and work places.

Imagine Adam and Eve walking in the garden and they see a pineapple high up in a tree. Eve finds a branch and cleverly turns it into a garden tool by which to harvest the delicious fruit. This is ruling and unfolding creation. It is meaningful and creative work. God’s good creation is dynamic and full of rich potential. There is no doubt that humans are placed over the rest of creation. Humans are called to direct and manage God’s world unlike animals and insects which simply cannot carry out the cultural mandate.

Without doubt, if these commands were the only directive given to humans, it would be natural to blame the Bible as the source of the western exploitative attitude towards nature. To balance this, it is essential to probe deeper into Scripture.

Genesis 2:15 tells us: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” The Hebrew words abad (work it) and shamar (take care of) focus on serving and caring for the animals and the earth. Both verbs (abad and shamar) sharply restrict the way the other two verbs – subdue and rule – are to be applied. God calls humans to serve the animals, the trees, the earth itself as they manage the good creation.

This biblical theme of serving and caring for creation becomes more explicit in the books of Exodus and Leviticus. Israel was mandated by God to rest the land in the Sabbath year and in the year of Jubilee (Lev 25:1-13). In every fifty year cycle, the land, as well as humans and animals, would enjoy eight years of Sabbath rest. Exodus 23:12 explicitly mentions Sabbath rest for animals, slaves and foreigners. All this is part of stewarding the earth.

So how can work be transformed in the light of biblical teaching? Two inspiring stories spring to mind.

George Cadbury famously owned a chocolate factory and he believed that the happiness and well-being of his employees was the chief aim of the business. He was profit-sensitive without being profit-driven. Cadbury was a committed Christian and his faith led him to treat his workers ethically. What was it like to work in the Cadbury chocolate factory? Each day began with Bible readings and prayer. The working day was considerably shorter than many other factories of the time. George and his brother Richard introduced half-days on Saturdays and bank holiday closing. Employees were encouraged to have fun at work. Sometimes George would tell his employees to knock off early and everyone would enjoy playing and watching a game of cricket. Sometimes half a dozen employees would be presented with a football and instructed to go and enjoy a ‘kick around’ in the local park on company time. In this way Cadbury refused to commodify or objectify his employees. They were not just human economic resources but image bearers of a good God who delights in both Sabbath rest and wise, responsible stewardship. When George died in 1922, his funeral was attended by over 16,000 people. Many were impressed by his compassionate and ethical approach to business.

A contemporary equivalent of George Cadbury is Randy Lewis who was a senior Vice President at Walgreens in the USA. Walgreens is the American equivalent of Boots the Chemist and has 8,175 shops and employs 247,000 people. Lewis had an autistic son, Austin and he desperately wanted Austin to have a future and hold down a good job. Lewis discovered that many people with disabilities were isolated and unemployed. Lewis wanted to create meaningful and rewarding jobs for people with disabilities. He said,  “We underestimate the abilities of people on the margins.” He persuaded Walgreens to change the work place to suit people with disabilities. Walgreens has now designed warehouses where 40% of the employees are people with disabilities. These jobs pay an equal wage to the non-disabled workers and hold all employees to the same productivity standards.

Employing people with disabilities has unleashed a surprising creativity and imagination in the company. In the Walgreens warehouses they use images rather than words which help employees who struggle to read. So instead of an ‘Aisle 14’ they will have a strawberry image. Here is a short story about an employee at Walgreens.

Derrill was born with epilepsy and a learning disability. He had struggled to find meaningful and well paid work. He had been employed in a hot and sweaty workshop where he was paid less than a dollar an hour. Then his life was transformed when Randy Lewis offered him a job at Walgreens. When Derrill first started working at a Walgreens warehouse, he walked with his head down and his eyes on the floor, rarely saying anything to anybody. On the day he earned his first paycheque, he gave it to his mum and she began to cry. Now her son was earning $14 an hour and his mother was delighted. Derrill used part of his wages to take his parents out to the Red Lobster restaurant for a celebratory meal.

The next day he asked his supervisor, Rico – “why did my mum cry?” 

When the new Walgreens warehouse opened, Derrill’s parents attended the open house event. With his mother walking by him, Derrill pushed his father’s wheelchair. When Randy Lewis reached out to shake his hand, Derrill’s dad pulled him in for a hug and whispered in his ear: “Thank you Mr Lewis. My family is finally safe. Now I can die knowing they’ll be alright.” Within a year Derrill’s father died and Derrill was now the sole support for his mother – his salary more than either of his parents had ever earned. 

Walgreens brought in outside experts to analyse the performance of the company. Their findings were fascinating. The workers with disabilities performed their jobs just as well as other employees but had less time off sick and a higher retention rate. “Fears about more accidents had come up, but we found hearing impaired forklift drivers – who many companies won’t hire – are twice as safe as someone who can hear,” Lewis explained. “If I could give everyone a piece of advice, it would be to put plugs in the ears of their forklift truck drivers.” 

In conclusion George Cadbury's Christian faith inspired a remarkable factory in the 19th century and Randy Lewis' work has led to thousands of employees with disabilities doing work they love and getting good wages as well. Both men have been faithful to biblical teaching about the cultural mandate.

For Further Reading

Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen The Drama of Scripture: Finding our Place in the Biblical Story, SPCK, 2006

Randy Lewis No Greatness Without Goodness, Lion Hudson plc, 2014

 

 

 

     

Evolution and epistemic humility

"Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand." Job 38:4

"I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth." Apostles' Creed

"So you're a palaeontologist? What do you think about the millions of years then?" This is often the first question I am asked by Christians who discover what I research. I always find it a bit difficult to answer this question. In part, this is because the topic is so divisive in Christian circles, with people on one side accusing the other side of doing away with Biblical authority, and people on the other side accusing the first side of ignoring scientific research. In addition, it is just such a complicated question. Answering it requires knowledge of a wider range of scientific fields (astronomy, chemistry, geology, palaeontology, genetics, to mention but a few) than even a modern-day polymath could ever acquire.

Usually, my answer consists of two parts. Firstly, there is the Biblical story of creationfallredemptionrenewal of all things, which I find compelling, coherent and meaning- and life-giving. In my understanding of the overarching narrative of the Bible, death is a consequence of the fall, defeated by Jesus on the cross, with his resurrection giving us hope that we and all of creation will be liberated from our bondage to decay when he comes to make all things new (Rom. 8:21, Rev. 21). Although I recognise that many Christians view it differently, I find it difficult to see how this Biblical worldview can be reconciled with an evolutionary process full of death and suffering.

The second part of my answer relates to my own scientific work. Evolution has been the reigning paradigm in biology for some 150 years now, and much of modern biology to a greater or lesser extent depends on some aspect of evolutionary theory. There is much in evolutionary biology that is clearly true and insightful. And regardless of the fact that there are small communities of scientists who work from different assumptions, there is currently no real alternative scientific paradigm, especially not one that brings together all those disciplines I mentioned earlier into one coherent theory. That doesn't mean we should simply accept evolutionary theory uncritically and not bother looking for alternatives. But it does mean that in practice I accept (parts of) evolutionary theory as a working hypothesis to make progress in my field.

You might think this makes for a rather split personality. I don't think that is true for me, although I do live in the tension of these two at times conflicting stories. For me, the key to holding them together is epistemic humility. The realisation that our human minds are created and that therefore we are limited in what we know and understand is an important intellectual virtue, and often rarely practised in the academy, or even more widely in any situation that involves knowledge. Whatever marvellous gifts of intellect God has endowed us with, we are fallible, small creatures who only have the tiniest of grasps on his greatness as displayed in his creation. This realisation makes me cautious in claiming too much knowledge in any field, including Biblical hermeneutics and natural science, but it also frees me to pursue knowledge, accepting that our current assumptions and paradigms may not be the last word on it.

"Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (…) For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen."  Romans 11:33,36

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Previous posts in the same series:

Evolution: a plea for Christian empathy

Integrating faith and evolution: a Christian ecologist's perspective

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Teaching, individualism, and community

Last term I had the opportunity to teach undergraduates for the first time, and alongside that I completed the teaching development course offered by the Humanities division here in Oxford. Part of the course involved writing a teaching philosophy, and so I had to consider: what do I think good teaching is? Specifically, what is good teaching in my discipline?

One of our readings was a standard typology of teaching approaches by the theorist Daniel Pratt, who identifies five distinct perspectives on good teaching: transmission, developmental, apprenticeship, nurturing, and social action. Not every teacher ascribes strictly to a single one of these, but they do represent differing perceptions of the nature of learning, knowledge, the classroom environment, and the teacher's role.

For my own philosophy I've settled mainly on the developmental perspective - a mainstream modern understanding of teaching as aiding the development of the individual learner's capacity to think and ask good questions - with some features of the apprenticeship model - which prioritises learning by doing, and through induction into a community of practice. By combining these two I'm trying to get at something I didn't put explicitly into my written philosophy: the balance, or perhaps tension, between the highly subjective and individualistic approach I see as characteristic of modern literary studies, and the contrasting perspective that interpretation is a communal activity - something that for me is closely linked with the communal nature of Christian faith.

Literary work, as I've been trained in it, is focused primarily on the individual thinker as she learns to interpret texts. The subjective nature of reading is key; texts, and the meanings contained in them, change and refract under different lights. So my role as a teacher, it seems to me, is to build students' own capacity to interpret, giving them the tools to think critically and originally.

This kind of focus on the self as a thinker can only take you so far, though, and can easily drop off a cliff into bottomless relativism. I increasingly think that an approach which thinks only in terms of the individual and the text is normatively flawed, in the sense of 'norm' used in Reformational philosophy's account of reality. That is, it's mismatched with the nature of literature, which always has an interpersonal dimension as well as a verbal or propositional one. Texts are communications between people; they have histories; they circulate. So interpretation, to be legitimate, needs also to acknowledge its own interpersonal norms - its communal dimensions, from the history of criticism on a particular novel to the classroom environment where understanding arises out of discussion and debate.

Hence my unwillingness to stick simply to the developmental model of teaching for literary studies. Keeping some of the elements of an 'apprenticeship' reminds me that students aren't just minds becoming more complex, but people entering a community of which I, as a teacher, am already part. There are parallels here with how we enter the Christian community, and read the Bible and discern the will of God together, not simply alone.

I'm just beginning to work out how I should teach, and how my faith fits into that question - much less how these big ideas about individualism and communal interpretation translate into practical teaching and learning methods. If you are involved in teaching at any level, or will be soon, have you articulated a teaching philosophy? Does it interact with your understanding of your faith?

Parable of Touch Wood

Very pleased that my new parable about Touch Wood has been published in the Baptist Times.

https://www.baptist.org.uk/Articles/535279/Parable_of_touch.aspx

I was enjoying a flat white with my good friend Tim who is a Manchester United fan. We were talking about Wayne Rooney and getting rather noisy about his bicycle kick against Manchester City in 2011. Wow. What a screamer! Tim had an insight. "I played the game at quite a decent level but I never broke my leg." He paused and murmured furtively: 'Touch wood'". Now I am not one to go suddenly religious but I had a craving to explore this with Tim.

"I didn't know that you are a pagan who worships tree gods." Tim was clearly befuddled and replied - "You what?" Just then I decided to unleash my parable about Druidic blood and gore and see where it would lead.

"Tim you probably never learnt this in school but the ancient Celts, our ancestors, were superstitious heathens who worshipped and appeased tree gods."

Tim took a deep slug of his flat white and probed me. "Sorry chief, but I didn't know that about our great nation. Obviously I know my history. We won the World Cup in 1966 but did we really worship trees in them olden days?" I unfolded my theme with some juicy historical facts.

"You might have heard of the Druids? They were not the kind of priests you would invite to your grandma's birthday party. They were experts in propitiating river gods, tree gods and sea gods. They dreaded but placated these pagan deities. They would sacrifice people to the sea god by drowning them. They burned folk in huge wicker baskets to appease the sun god. They would hang men in forest glades to please the tree god. They practised divination by ripping their victims' guts out and then auguring the future by examining the bloody mess on the ground. Not nice so I'm intrigued that you are touching wood." Tim looked puzzled.

"What on earth has touching wood got to do with our pagan ancestors?"

"Back then if you were alone in a forest and strange noises were scaring you, pagans would touch wood in order to summon a tree spirit to come to their aid."

Tim began fumbling in his pocket and I thought he was going to pay me back the £20 he owed me but I was taken aback when he brandished a lucky rabbit's foot and asked me to hold it for him while he ordered more coffee.

"Sweet as a nut." I thought to myself. "This conversation is getting fruity. I can evangelise Tim without annoying him." Tim returned with the flat whites and a cheeky bonus, some unexpected cake, Battenburg to be precise. We gobbled it down. Tim had a spiel. "Mark, the story behind that will fascinate you. My aunty Ethel left that for me in her will. She told me it had always helped her in difficult times. I carry it in memory of her. Is that so wrong?"

"Well, it depends on how you look at the rabbit's foot. Do you view it as an amulet that can protect you from both physical and spiritual harm?" Tim was bamboozled.

"Tim, you lack knowledge, so listen and learn. Juju priest, Nana Tolofasito, comes from Ghana and he trusts in the magical power of amulets. Juju is a pagan faith that deploys magic and witchcraft. In 2017 Nana asked a friend to shoot him with a gun so that he could test his 'bullet' amulet.

Tim choked on his cake: "You are joking, I hope?"

"Sadly not. Nana's pagan faith didn't work and he sustained serious injuries. The story can be found on the internet. Here's the link to your gift from aunty Ethel. What do bullets, acorns, alligator teeth and rabbit feet have in common?"

Tim was listening and drinking in my cut-diamond insights.

"All these and many more are used as charms and amulets by the pagan faithful. Amulets are objects, imbued with occult, supernatural power, that can be trusted to protect you from bullets, ghosts and evil spirits. For some, the right amulet can attract money and make you wealthy. Very popular in Thailand."

Tim was keen to make a point: "So these charms can do almost anything?"

Spot on my chocolate chicken. Egyptian pagans trusted in images of the sacred scarab beetle to ward off evil spirits. Today some depend on their St. Christopher charms as they nervously begin a journey. Napoleon had a lucky coin. And your lucky charm? Some gamblers trust in a rabbit's foot as they feverishly play the slot machines. There are those who claim that the left hind foot of the rabbit is particularly 'lucky' and for maximum effect the rabbit should be killed in a cemetery during a full moon by a silver bullet."

Tim couldn't help himself. "So are you saying that my sweet aunty Ethel was an uncouth heathen?"

"Don't get me wrong. Many today are superstitious without knowing the sordid pagan background. But believe me if you depend upon the rabbit's foot, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. We are to fear the true God who loves us and not fear the pagan gods who hate us. Jesus told us to trust Him and Him alone. Trusting in amulets and lucky charms completely contradicts the gospel of Christ.

Tim was floored. "What on earth do you mean by that?"

"The gospel is the good news that God has defeated death by raising His Son Jesus from the dead. Amulets and charms, like the rabbit's foot, cannot rescue you from death but Jesus can. My advice is this - chuck the rabbit's foot in a bin and put your faith in Jesus."

Tim looked rattled and added, "Let's go back to the conversation about Wayne Rooney. Do you think he has a rabbit's foot which helps him to score such spectacular goals?"

 

 

Home Came for Christmas

I am a confirmed lover of Christmas. I love fairy lights and frost on the ground, poinsettias and Christmas ornaments, baking and decorating the tree. I love all the frills. Even though none of these things are particularly ‘commercial’, I’ll admit that none of them are necessarily about celebrating Jesus, either! And it seems I’m not alone among Christians: though we get to celebrate Christ’s presence with us every day of the year, it’s hard to deny that there’s something ‘magical’ about this season. But what is it about Christmas that holds us in thrall, even those to whom it offers no real hope? Have we all just succumbed to the opiate of sentimentalism and commercialism?

To answer this, I think we need to look at what secular Christmas ‘culture’ offers people. Turning to Christmas films and songs, we find that Christmas is about family (as per the Home Alone films or It’s a Beautiful Life); it’s about love in all its forms (Love Actually, of course) but particularly love returning to us (think of Mariah Carey’s 1994 hit ‘All I Want for Christmas’ and Michael Bublé’s ‘Baby Please Come Home’); it’s about the warmth of a fire and the delight of festive domesticity (Frank Sinatra’s ‘Christmas Waltz’ and Mel Tormé’s ‘Christmas Song’); and significantly, it’s about homecoming (as in the bittersweet WWII classics ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ and ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas').

Independently, none of these songs or films can quite define the elusive ‘magic’ of Christmas or explain the communal Christmas frenzy we embark upon each year, but considered together, they reveal something important. 

Christmas is a season in which secular culture expresses the deepest longings of the human heart: the desires for belonging, relationship, protection, love, and home. Many people say Christmas is for children, but I think what they really mean is Christmas is a season when everyone remembers the great parts about being a child: a time when we were little and parents were in control and provided everything we needed, and we didn’t worry about food or safety because ‘big people’ who loved us were there; a time when we were absolutely known—and we never doubted that our presence was celebrated by our family or that our absence would be mourned; a time when we unashamedly received gifts with open hands for which we’d done nothing; a time when we wondered what was under the tree, excited for the unknown rather than terrified by it—as we usually are in adult life; a time of feeling warm when it is actually really cold outside, and of basking in Christmas tree lights when it’s dark by 4pm; a time of stillness, rest from striving, and peace; a time of returning to safety and innocence and wholeness. Christmas is a time of longing for home.

So the cheery, sentimental Christmas albums by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Michael Bublé are actually more profound than they initially seem, revealing the deepest desires of our hearts. I think these collective longings come close to identifying the ‘magic’ of the Christmas season. But while secular culture can identify the longings of our hearts, only Jesus can meet them. Secular Christmas celebrations display the world’s longing for the very things Jesus has proffered—desires that fairy lights and mulled wine and roaring fires can only superficially meet. I always felt a bit silly liking all the trimmings of Christmas when I know, as a Christian, that it isn’t about roaring fires or even time with family. But in fact, I don’t think it’s an accident that I’m drawn to the warmth of the Christmas season as so many are, and I don’t think its necessarily a bad thing. But the key is realizing that all the longings of our hearts, implicit in even the most secular of Christmas songs, are met fully in Christ.

I won’t be home this Christmas—but I don’t need to be. Because at Christmas, home came to us. God pitched his tent among us and made this broken world his home. In doing so, He made us his children, providing us with the protection, provision, relationship, love, and delight that our hearts long for. He made himself home for us.
 

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 

John 1:14

 

 

Scholars as Disciples at Advent

candles

Reflecting on what Advent might mean for my work, I ended up looking at the connection between teaching and research. About half of this Advent wraps up my first semester of teaching (in a job I recently began), and the other half will give a little more time to pursue research tasks until Christmas is fully here.

What strikes me is the following analogy between teaching and research. Both are about forming new knowledge: teaching is forming new knowledge in the lives of students, whereas research is forming knowledge that is (we assume) new to everyone. Seen that way, it should be no surprise that each can enhance the other, to the benefit of both lecturer and student.  Moreover, the new understanding that a student gains from a good education can be a microcosm of the historic novelty of a great advance; indeed it can be today's preparation for tomorrow's breakthrough.  The light-bulb moment is not so different from the eureka moment.

Advent, like many other religious festivals, is the re-living of an ancient epoch, where we appropriate a historic moment for ourselves.  As we see Advent candles lit or open doors on a calendar, we are in some ways students of our faith, reliving a historic breakthrough in microcosm.  Indeed, most of us are students revising the story of Christ's nativity for the umpteenth time, perhaps with little hope of learning anything new this year.

But Advent is unlike other festivals in a very important respect.  It has historically been a time for the faithful to prepare themselves for Christ's second coming.  This is little mentioned except in the most traditional of liturgies.  "May the Lord when he comes find us watching and waiting!" goes a line in the Advent carol service of my undergraduate college, juxtaposed with that stirring hymn "Lo! He comes with clouds descending"[1].  Observers of Advent, it turns out, have long been attentive to the future return of Jesus to claim his kingdom. This is partly why it has traditionally been a time of fasting.  Candle by candle, and now chocolate by chocolate, we are drawing nearer to the return of the one whose birth we're about to celebrate.

This means we're not merely to study the past but to watch out for something new.  All we really know about Christ's return is that it will be unexpected and novel: a breakthrough of cosmic proportions.  The Bible portrays it as a historic event, ushering in "the life of aeons" (perhaps a better translation than "eternal life") in which God will at last dwell with his people in the person of Jesus Christ.

In writing this, then, I sense the urgent call of God upon our academic work.  The perspective of "aeons" dignifies our scholarship in whatever we're studying, teaching or researching because the Lord of creation will eventually take his rightful place here with an act of judgement that will purify human culture and open the gates to the glory and honour of the nations forevermore (Rev. 21:24-27).  Reigning with Christ (Rev. 22:5) will presumably entail ongoing creative research and teaching!  The popular notion that when we meet Jesus he could tell us everything there is to know seems to me to assume a very shallow idea of the structure of creation, and certainly rings hollow when it comes to humanities and arts research.  Our research really is research; it isn't simply learning from a great teacher in the sky... nor 'reading the book of God's works', as has been suggested about the natural sciences[2].

In view of all this, surely there is suggestive understatement in what Paul says at the end of his longest discourse on Christ's return, "Therefore... give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, knowing that your labour in the Lord is not in vain" (1 Cor. 15:58).  Come, oh come, Immanuel!

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[1] A musician friend showed me the other day how the third verse of this hymn, ending "With what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars", can be sublimely set off with the tune from "When I survey the wondrous cross" as a counter-melody - reminding me how crucially Easter connects Christ's first and second comings.

[2] A critique of this suggestion is offered by Keith Sewell in Pro Rege 30:15-17

For the Love of It

A friend of mine who is a primary school teacher recently remarked that she loves working at a Christian school because she can teach children not only how to learn, but why to learn. Creation is a reflection of God’s glory and power and it is worth studying because it boldly declares the glory of its Maker.

Most of us like studying… it’s why we’re still in the academy! But even if we’re quite successful at learning stuff and we like doing so, we must remember why learning is beautiful and important in itself—we must remember its chief end—because in competitive academies, our success and joy in learning can easily falter or fail.

I attended a presentation this week from a particularly erudite and prolific researcher who has done some amazing work in my field. I was humbled by the depth of his knowledge and I found myself examining the soft, squishy fruit of my term’s hard labour at research, wondering ‘why do I bother in this field when everything I have to say seems positively dull compared to others’ sparkling insight?’ Not for the first time, my ability—and consequently my delight—in researching my topic was thrown into question.

So, why should I continue as a researcher when I will never be the best in my discipline, or may never even produce work that materially alters the course of my field? I remembered my friend and her primary school students. Am I neglecting an important fact that I should have learned many years ago? When success and joy elude me in my academic journey, I must remember that God is still glorious—his creation is still glorious. And when I am not awed by the fruits of my own work, I can still stand in awe of the fruits of his. As researchers, we are lifelong learners, and we will only find enjoyment in our work through the ups and downs and plateaus if we retain our childlike wonder at the subject before us.

I hope to continue doggedly pursuing my research goals—even when others seem to be running academic rings around me—for the love of it.

 

Isaiah 40:26

"Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing."

Romans 1:20

"For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."

Psalm 96:11-12

"Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy."

Psalm 8:1, 3-4

"Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens... When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?"

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Sixth Form Conference on Materialism and Human Trafficking

The Conference

Yesterday I went to a school in Doncaster. Picture it. There are 80 sixth formers and I have to engage them for 90 minutes on my own with just one teacher present. A tad frightening.

I tell them about Tarzan, the human trafficker who comes from Ukraine. In the 1990’s he attempted to purchase a Russian submarine to help him smuggle cocaine. Tarzan then gave up drug smuggling and turned to human trafficking. He said: “You can buy a woman for $10,000 and make your money back in a week if she is pretty and young. Then everything else is profit.” A 2003 study in the Netherlands found that, on average, a single sex slave earns her pimp at least $250,000 a year.

During my fifty minute presentation I help the students to understand the materialist philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and how this leads to both consumerism and atheism. Then I show, through storytelling, how this secular worldview impacts both celebrities and ordinary people. I then explain the Christian faith by contrasting it with materialism and consumerism.

I then ask the students to write down any questions they have (this takes 10 minutes). Then they grill me for 30 minutes.

Here are some of their questions.

1) What is Tarzan doing now?

2) Is it possible to have knowledge if everything is physical?

3) How does consumerism lead to environmental destruction?

4) Are beliefs just commodities?

5) What happened to Natalie Dylan, the young woman who wanted to auction her virginity for £2.5 million?

6) Why is sabbath rest so important?

7) How is Hobbes different from Descartes?

8) Do you believe in free will?

In my answers to these questions I explained secular views, both modernist and relativist and contrasted this with the Christian faith. They were very respectful. I touched on the dignity and value of human life, the hope of bodily resurrection and the forgiveness of sins.

The teacher who asked me to do the conference said it was 'brilliant'.

Brief Reflections

To be honest I was blown away by how attentive and responsive the students were. Thanks to anyone who prayed for me. The stories really engaged them and made them think. I was struck by the power of contrasting secular mindsets (we live as if there is no God and everything is just physical) with the Christian faith. It is vital to connect the Christian faith to our contemporary culture. Teenagers really want to grapple with deep and meaningful issues, like human trafficking and free will, but cliches and glib answers do not work.

Forming a Christian Mind

The drama of Scripture in 7 acts

In Cambridge just over a week ago an audience of postgrads and other researchers gathered to think about the relationship between "Revelation and Reality".  This was the title of the 6th annual Forming a Christian Mind conference, co-organised this year by the Jubilee CentreChristian Heritage, KLICE, UCCF and Cambridge's own Christian Graduate Society.  While the talks were helpful at a general level, the most exciting facet in my view was that, for the first time, this year's conference serves as a springboard to a follow-up conference where we can explore Christian perspectives on our own academic disciplines.  That's scheduled for 9 February 2019.

The event ten days ago was helpful for laying some groundwork - particularly the morning sessions.  After some opening remarks by Tim Laurence, Andrew Fellows spoke engagingly about "Re-awakening the biblical mind" and then Chris Wright spoke about "Retrieving the biblical meta-narrative".  These talks provided an overview of a biblical worldview and some pointers to how it might shape our perspective on contemporary society and its challenges.  If God's revelation in the Bible is taken seriously, it can provide a key to our interpretation of reality.  This includes, as both speakers pointed out, recognising the inherent goodness of the created order and being confident as we participate in its structures: our animal nature, our family life, our economic functions, our civic roles and so on.  At the close of the morning session there was mention of Abraham Kuyper's legacy concerning the many societal spheres in which God's people should be pleased to live.

Chris Wright's talk was based on the overview of the biblical meta-narrative that Craig Bartholomew (now director of KLICE, as it happens) and Mike Goheen popularised as a six-act drama in their book The Drama of Scripture.  The first act is Creation, as God establishes the cosmos as His temple of glory. The second is Rebellion, in which humans turn away from their creator and pervert the functioning of the created order. The third act comprises the long story of God's people that culminates in the life of Jesus Christ, which itself is Act 4. The fifth act is another long journey as God's people bear witness to Christ's lordship, striving to participate in the coming of His kingdom. This is where, chronologically, we find ourselves. The final act in Bartholomew and Goheen's scheme looks ahead to the return of Christ and the new creation. At this point, Chris suggested that an additional act be inserted: Act 6 as the judgment carried out by Christ at his return. This rights the wrongs of Act 2, a necessary precursor to the eternal reign of Christ with his people in the age to come - which becomes Act 7.  The 7-act structure that Chris proposed also has a pleasing symmetry, with the Christ-event central.

The important question is: how does retrieving this meta-narrative actually illuminate or guide our scholarship as Christians?  Chris pointed out that while, chronologically, we clearly live in Act 5, for various purposes we may locate ourselves within other acts.  For those of us working within the natural sciences - or maths - I think it's essential to place ourselves within Act 1 for the focus of our research. The laws and structures that scientific research seeks are part of that good created structure - even while our actual research activities may suffer from the effects of sin in various ways.  Sometimes and in some contexts, a Christlike approach to a problematic, sin-infested situation may call for nothing less than our immersion in Act 4. And perhaps our loftiest motivations and aspirations as researchers should be rooted in an anticipation of the final act, in which the fruits of our scholarship might, figuratively, be brought into the new Jerusalem amid the glory and honour of the nations (Rev 22).

As someone who has been excited by this kind of big-picture Bible reading for many years, I did experience some disappointment that last week's event didn't take us further in suggesting how Christian perspectives might enrich research in diverse kinds of fields. It was also disappointing that the audience numbered fewer (perhaps 50) than in previous years. But that is offset by my strong hope that the event on 9 Feb will make up for these deficiencies. Four speakers delivering parallel sessions for different subject areas are promised at that event, which is open to researchers from around the country.  Watch this space for news or check the Jubilee Centre's web site.

Consumerism and Teaching French

Here is a 15 minute podcast I recently did on serving God as a French teacher.

https://lcileeds.wordpress.com/2018/11/24/does-teaching-french-have-anyt...

Language expert David Smith has argued compellingly that the dominant way of teaching modern foreign languages (MFL) is shaped by consumerist and materialist narratives. The focus is upon autonomous individuals buying ice creams, making complaints about hotels and busy in the many acts of (self-centred) tourism and consumption! ‘I want an ice cream’. ‘I want to make a complaint about the minibar’.‘I want a cold beer now’. French teachers can challenge this consumerist mindset by telling stories about people who are busy loving their neighbours.

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