Thinking Faith blogs

Idle loafing and Consumerism

The year is 2008 and we are in Accra the capital of Ghana. In their large family home, Tina and Vivian Appiah are dancing to Jamaican music. Behind them is a huge portrait of their elder brother, Stephen Appiah, a professional footballer, who is now a millionaire five times over and Ghana's national captain.

Stephen has played for both Juventus and Fenerbahce and he recently bought his sisters a beauty parlour. Vivian and Tina have grown tired of working for a living and so they pay someone to run it for them. Their days are spent at leisure, watching television, dancing and ordering pizza.

"Everyone wants our life", Vivian says. "The local women want success for their sons or brothers so they can have this. Were we sad when Stephen left us for the West? Sad? No, we were happy. Our mother had prayed to God for his success. When Stephen was a young boy he was very good at football and we all wanted to help him. My mother sold our television to pay for his boots, and the other children didn’t complain because they wanted to help him too. We helped him – so now he can help us."

Consumerism is a popular and vibrant religion. It disciples people with breathtaking ease. Vivian and Tina are followers of the consumerist way of life. Notice how they spend their days. They dance, they watch television and they order in pizza. Notice that work is conspicuous by its absence. This is typical of many forms of consumerism. Work is perceived as a necessary evil. You do it if you have to. You don't do it if you are loaded. Idle loafing then becomes a way of life.

Tom Wright’s New Book

Here follows a great review of Tom Wright's new book.

I am just finishing reading Tom Wright's latest book: Simply Jesus: Who He Was, What He Did, Why It Matters (London, SPCK, 2011) It carries a glowing (back cover) commendation from Rowan Williams ('Tom Wright is, as always, brilliant at distilling immense scholarship into a vivid, clear and accessible form. This book is yet another of his great gifts to the worldwide Church').

What distinguishes his approach and makes the book quite different from any other on Jesus that I have ever read, is Wright's worldview approach (which, of course, is no guarantee that there aren't other books like it – if you know of any, do tell me!) Wright has applied this approach in his major academic series Christian Origins and the Question of God and the first book in that series The New Testament and the People of God (SPCK, 1992) is dedicated to Dr Brian Walsh from whom he gained the inspiration for this approach. Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat have applied it in their Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove, IL, IVP, 2004), but Wright has established himself as the major theologian and Biblical scholar using it.

Wright's worldview approach is as developed by Reformational scholars (Brian Walsh, Al Wolters, Michael Goheen et al.) rather than Evangelicals. For commentary on the distinction see, e.g. Bonzo, J. Matthew & Stevens, Michael eds After World View: Christian Higher Education in Postmodern Worlds (Sioux Center, Iowa, Dordt College Press, 2009), Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 2009), Smith, James K.A. "Worldview, Sphere Sovereignty and Desiring the Kingdom: A Guide for (Perplexed) Reformed Folk" (Pro Rege, 39 (4), June 2011, pages 15-24)

Simply Jesus is the first of Wright's popular books that really shows the power of this wholistic, big picture approach. Jesus, he contends, came to bring God's wise, healing rule to bear on the Earth. He did not come to teach people 'how to get to heaven', or to mount some kind of quasi-military revolution, or to do things that 'proved his divinity':

The gospels are not about 'how Jesus turned out to be God'. They are about how God became king on earth as in heaven. … It has been all too possible to use the doctrine of the incarnation or even the doctrine of the inspiration of scripture as a way of protecting oneself and one’s worldview and political agenda against having to face the far greater challenge of God taking charge, of God becoming king on earth as in heaven. But that is what the stories in the Bible are all about. That’s what the story of Jesus was, and is, all about. That is the real challenge, and sceptics aren't the only ones who find clever ways to avoid it (page 147).

One of the greatest challenges facing the church today is the evangelisation of young people. On average half of the children of Christian parents do not grow up to share their parents' faith, whereas nearly 100% of the children of non-religious parents grow up to share their parents' lack of religious commitment. Today many Christian young people find themselves in schools or colleges with few or no other identifiable Christians. My, and Mark Roques', experience is that stories incorporating that holistic, big picture approach engage young people effectively, whereas many traditional approaches no longer work. But after years of worldview-based mission I am still learning a lot from Wright's new book. I'll have to seriously revise my teaching notes on both 'Biblical Introduction' and 'Worldviews'!

Youthwork Podcast

I really enjoyed talking to Martin Saunders and Jamie Cutteridge on the Youthwork podcast on Wednesday. Both lads are very friendly and have great banter. It was also great to meet Sarah Wynter, the new editor at the mag.

We talked about a lot of topics – youthwork, storytelling, the biblical story, eschatology, prayer, fasting and, of course, football. We even had a brief discussion about my deep love for Hertfordshire and the wonderful people who make it such a great county!


Green Pastures and the BBC

Green Pastures is a wonderful kingdom structure but it isn't all plain sailing!

The kingdom of God is here but not fully here. Consider some of the obstacles and frustrations. Sometimes the project has to deal with tenants who take liberties on a sustained and exhausting pattern. We're talking tenants who wreck properties and cause mayhem. Sometimes Vicki and Pastor Pete have to embrace tough love and ask people to leave. Some people abuse the project's kindness and Christian generosity. They have to go!

We should also notice that the media take liberties as well. Study carefully how the BBC reports on the story and you will encounter the all-pervasive editing out of the Christian basis to the work. The BBC is very good at doing this rewriting of 'charity work'. In a recent article the BBC manages to convey that pastor Pete is really a loving humanist/atheist!

Green Pasture – Great news for the homeless

Here follows an account of one of the most amazing ministries in the UK today. It is an outstanding example of what David Bosch calls holistic mission.

The Green Pastures charity was started by Pastor Pete Cunningham in 1999 in Southport. Pete cashed in his pension worth £6000 and bought a pair of flats and began to house and care for two homeless couples.

The mission of Green Pastures is to house marginalized and vulnerable people who have struggled to secure housing. Today Green Pastures works with 24 partners across the UK. It owns 275 properties worth £20 million.

It houses more than 400 people in Southport and other parts of the UK. In 2005 the local authority recognised that there were no longer any long-term rough sleepers in Southport! All this without ever receiving any government grants!

Pete says,

As well as caring for their physical needs we are sometimes given the privilege of leading our tenants to Jesus. In the last few years we have seen 27 come to faith, 19 baptised and currently 32 of our tenants and former tenants are attending Shoreline or other churches.

Green Pastures' latest project is to help formerly homeless people create sustainable businesses for themselves and others to help them get off benefits. Recently a Green Pastures house in Wigan has been rewired, plastered and had a new heating system fitted by a group of of ex-homeless men who have been trained in construction skills by The Lighthouse in Rotherham, another Green Pastures partner.

Pete's son Andrew Cunningham says,

This is such an exciting project; here we have men who were homeless, now using the skills they have been taught to make a house ready for homeless people to live in – it doesn't get any better than that.

Pete comments,

When you see a rampant alcoholic come off the booze, get a job and start to earn his own money, there is no greater buzz.

What a great story to get people thinking about God's kingdom!

Cheese or Stumm

Some people just don't get it! They think it's self-indulgent talking about James Bond and Rat worship. They say – forget this nonsense and start talking about Jesus without any daft, eccentric preliminaries.

Such people simply haven't recognised how secularism blinds people at a deep spiritual level. They don't understand that secular people find conversations about God and Jesus embarrassing, awkward and weird.

Spiels about Bond and Rat worship give us a new way of talking about Jesus. And these spiels don’t make you wince with the fear of ridicule. For many Christians today witnessing is too often about sounding cheesy or saying nothing. You try to talk about Jesus and the cold contempt of the secularist cuts into you like a poisoned knife. You try again and then you give up – perhaps for ever!

RealityBites gives you a new and culturally appropriate way of witnessing and I've done it with several humanists/atheists and they don't laugh at you.

Talk about Bond with all the cheek and humour you can muster. Relish 007 being attacked by Jaws and quipping – "He just popped in for a bite."

Explain how some Hindus worship rats. Then show how different secular people respond to the rodent faith. And then you can talk meaningfully about faith in Christ. I challenge all the doubters. Have a go yourself. You really don't have to stay covered in rancid cheese or keep stumm!

Four Ways of Understanding Rat Worship

Why is rat worship so unpopular in the western world? A few thoughts.

Secular responses to rat worship can be either postmodernist or modernist. For committed modernists like Richard Dawkins or James Bond, rat worship is superstitious, unscientific and deeply irrational. It's just plain wrong. Postmodernists would beg to differ; rat worship may seem quirky but sovereign, autonomous believers have every right to entertain bizarre opinions. Modernists have a strong tendency to stress the autonomy of science and postmodernists tend to stress the autonomy of people to believe whatever they fancy. (Do remember that there are sophisticated versions of both modernism and postmodernism but you never encounter these views outside a tiny minority of very clever boffins and intellectuals.)

So there are four basic responses to rat worship:

  1. The modernist response that deems rat worship to be completely false because it isn't scientific and 'rational'.
  2. The postmodernist view that asserts that rat worship is true for those who believe in it. (This view is sometimes referred to as relativism).
  3. The response of the committed rat worshipper who believes in the literal existence of the rat goddess and the divinity of her rats.
  4. The Christian response that urges us to worship Christ and not rats (or anything else that is part of the good creation; this includes science, technology and clever gadgets).

Ian Brady and Materialism

The Story

The infamous Moors murders were committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in the Manchester area of England between 1963 and 1965. Their five victims were children and teenagers aged between 10 and 17 years. The 27-year old stock clerk and the 22-year old typist committed some of the most depraved crimes ever recounted before a British court. They enticed young children back to their home, sadistically tortured them, raped them, murdered them and then buried their bodies on the bleak Pennine moors. During the trial, the presiding judge Mr Fenton-Atkinson stated that Ian Brady was 'wicked beyond belief'. Myra Hindley died in prison in 2002 at the age of sixty. Brady is, however, still alive at the time of writing and resides at Ashworth Hospital in Liverpool.

The Worldview

In his book The Gates of Janus: Serial Killing and its Analysis Ian Brady offers us a fascinating insight into his deepest beliefs. Inspired by the Marquis de Sade’s sadomasochistic writings Brady argues that atheism forces us to redefine our deepest moral beliefs. If God is dead then only 'nature' exists. And if only 'nature' is real then moral concepts of good and evil are as fictitious as the proverbial tooth fairy. For Brady and the Marquis de Sade pleasure is the only god we should serve. And murder is the supreme pleasure.

Subversive Questions

  1. Do you agree with Mr. Fenton-Atkinson when he stated that Ian Brady was 'wicked beyond belief'?
  2. Does it make any sense to believe in wickedness if we live in a materialist universe?
  3. Where did Ian Brady go wrong in his thinking and living?

Oastler evening in Leeds

Come and find out about a local Leeds man who really cared about children, justice and mercy.

On the 30th September David Hanson will be telling the story of Richard Oaster. Oastler thought the best way to protect 19th century British children was to obtain a maximum ten hour day for factories. He argued:

Very often the children are awakened by the parents at four in the morning. They are pulled out of bed when almost asleep. The younger children are carried on the backs of the older children asleep to the mill, and they see no more of their parents till they go home at night, and are sent to bed.

For his faithfulness to God, Oastler ended up in prison and totally skint!

His faithfulness to God is a massive challenge to us all!

The Neema story

Kingdom Structures are vital if the gospel is to thrive.

This story is very significant when we think about the kingdom of God and the Body of Christ. Neema Crafts is not a church! It is a redeemed business. Of course it is inspired and nurtured by Christian teaching, faith and wisdom but a business has a different calling from a local church. This redeemed kingdom structure was able to transform Hezron's life in a way that a local church cannot!

When Christians gather together as a (local) church they are not expected to make and produce handicrafts. They gather in order to hear God’s Word and to take communion etc. We must distinguish between different manifestations of the Body of Christ. Christians are busy at Neema serving disabled people in a way that is not possible for a local church.

Consider this in a slightly different way. There are many churches in Tanzania which do a great job. We affirm the vibrant worship and witness that these churches bring but Neema is serving another purpose. Another calling. We should not attack the Neema craft business by pointing out that it isn't a church! We should rejoice that a non-ecclesistical 'kingdom structure' is complimenting the work of the local church. At the same time we should not attack a vibrant local church for failing to provide redemptive work opportunities for deaf and disabled people.

Exactly the same can be said with respect to George Cadbury's chocolate factory, Bob Lavelle's Christian bank and the Salvation Army model match factory. (Incidentally both Neema and the Model match factory attract and attracted huge interest from MPs, journalists etc; interest that is rarely garnered by local churches.)

When we reduce God's kingdom to the 'institutional' church we will inevitably condemn culture to the tensions and miseries of secularization. Why is it so easy to be a secular person today? Surely the answer must refer to the constant drip-feed factor of popular culture and education. Marinade too much in Eastenders and Coronation Street and your imagination will become increasingly secular and godless!

Hidden worldview stories indoctrinate us as Christians retreat into the church sphere.

Consider the issue from the point of view of the great missionary William Carey. Carey set up many Christian schools that educated girls and untouchables. This was unheard of in 19th century India! He introduced the idea of low interest savings banks to India, to fight the all-pervasive evil of usury and he campaigned for the humane treatment of lepers. He struggled against human sacrifice and prevented the murder of many innocent children.

Carey founded India’s Agri-Horticultural Society in the 1820’s, thirty years before the Royal Agricultural Society was established in England. He wrote some of the earliest essays on forest management and conservation. He wrote concerning this – "If the Gospel flourishes in India, the wilderness will, in every respect, become a fruitful field."

And Carey was also a great preacher and evangelist! Carey affirmed and encouraged church activity and church attendance but he realised that the kingdom of God goes way beyond local church activity. He set up appropriate kingdom structures in different spheres of life and culture.

Vibrant local churches must work with appropriate (non-ecclesiastical) kingdom structures in order to transform culture and communities.