Thinking Faith blogs

Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in Cambridge


Chris Watkin, Senior Lecturer in French Studies at Monash University, Australia, recalls the origins of CHAS:

The Cambridge CHAS group (Christians in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) began in 2008 as an occasional and informal gathering of postgraduate students with a common interest in exploring what it means to be a Christian scholar. The “agenda” of the early meetings (a word somewhat over-formal for the “let’s get together with some friends and have a chat” vibe of the group) was a combination of prepared reflections from group members on their own research, conversations about books we had elected to read and discuss together as a group (George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship was one of the first, and I think we also discussed John Stott’s Your Mind Matters), and free-form conversations about research-related issues that our non-Christian colleagues either would not understand or would not be interested in.

As I reflect back on those early days there are five main reasons why I am thankful for it:

  • At a very basic level, it kept the priority of thinking about what I was doing from a Christian point of view on the agenda, at a busy time when the pressures of completing a PhD could have been all-consuming.
  • In the context of a secular university where the idea that research in arts and humanities could be conducted from a Christian point of view would have been met by most people with incredulity or derision, it was an encouragement not to drift along with the flow, and the group formed its own modest little counterculture standing against the prevailing assumptions around us.
  • It introduced me to some stimulating thinking on what sometimes gets called the “integration” of faith and learning, both from published authors and from other members of the group.
  • It was somewhere to point Christians who were struggling with questions around faith and learning (this was a huge help).
  • Finally, though by no means incidentally, the craic was good.

David Parry, currently teaching English literature for various Cambridge colleges, continues the story:

Like many graduate student groups, CHAS has had ups and downs as enthusiastic new postgrads have got involved and key players have moved on to other places or responsibilities. En route, we have tried a wide range of formats and strategies, including at different times a weekly reading group and a seminar series bringing in academics from across the UK and visiting international scholars to provide a Christian perspective on their fields.

More recently, we have felt the need to get back to basics, fostering conversation and community over food. While Cambridge is blessed with an abundance of lectures and seminars by often eminent speakers, including many on faith-related issues, we feel that there is still a gap to fill in providing space where Christian graduate students can think through their faith and studies in a supportive peer group.

CHAS has a mutually supportive relationship with the Christian Graduate Society, which hosts weekly Bible study groups and outreach events. Although our active membership remains relatively small numerically, we believe that it is not insignificant. Taking the long view, for even a handful of people each year to catch the vision of thinking Christianly about our studies and about all of life can have abiding fruit over a lifetime. Just as in Jesus’ parable, the seemingly insignificant mustard seed of a small group of graduate students can grow into a tree that gives home and shelter to many.

Find out more from the Facebook Group…

Christian postgrad groups in action: Cardiff

Cardiff SPCF

We continue our journey around the country in search of Christian postgraduate groups, and today we are visiting Wales, where a group of Christian staff and postgraduates named ‘CriSP’ has been meeting for a number of years. Founding member Caleb Woodbridge recalls:

Back in 2009, I was working as an administrative assistant at Cardiff University, and was eager to start a Christian staff network. In church one Sunday at the start of term, I met a new PhD student, Mike Newton, who was asking around about the idea of a Christian postgraduate group. We got chatting and quickly found we had a shared vision for Christian staff and postgrads to engage the university, and advertised a first meeting to explore the idea, in the university chaplaincy as a meeting place.

With support from local churches and a few established Christian academics at the university, a group began to gather which gained the name “CriSP” (an acronym of Christian Staff and Postgraduates, sort of!). It established weekly meetings, mixing prayer, Bible studies, presentations and discussions. I went on to do a masters in English Literature, switching to the postgraduate side of things, and found the group very encouraging and helpful exploring the interface between my faith and studies.

Sarah Johnston is currently involved in the group, and she picks up the story:

When I started my PhD in 2013, CriSP was in the rather unusual position of having to start again, almost from scratch. Most of the group had almost simultaneously finished their studies and moved on from Cardiff, and some practical changes had to be made to reflect the change of circumstances (such as moving from an evening to a lunchtime meeting). We now meet for a drop-in hour on Tuesday lunchtimes, under the name SPCF (Staff and Postgraduate Christian Fellowship). Although we are independent from the Chaplaincy, we meet in the Chaplaincy building and the chaplains join with us whenever they can.

The focus of the group is fellowship, Bible study and prayer, and we seek to apply the passages we study to the university context, and to pray for events, situations, and people in the University. I have found these Tuesday lunchtimes are a sanctuary from the whirlwind of PhD life, an opportunity to explicitly bring a Biblical, Gospel perspective to academic life and commit it explicitly to the Lord. The group members come from different churches and denominations, and each bring their own perspective and experiences to bear on what we are reading and discussing.

We are at present a very small group but aim to have a visible presence on campus, and welcome anyone and everyone who would like to come. Above all, we want to seek God’s will for the group and trust Him for the future – our main purpose is to glorify Him and be ambassadors of His grace on campus.”

Christian postgraduate groups can go through ups and downs. Many groups rely on a small number of enthusiastic leaders, and run the risk of fizzling out when the leaders finish their postgraduate degree and move elsewhere. I hope the story of the Cardiff group is an encouragement to those who are struggling to keep a group going. I would advise those who are currently leading groups to be actively looking out for people who could take over leadership when you move on, and to forge links with more ‘permanent’ members of the academic community, such as members of academic or administrative staff and chaplains, who may be able to support the group through the lean times. And if your group is small, remember the promise of Christ: ‘Where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.’ If you’d like an opportunity to discuss the joys and sorrows of leading a Christian postgraduate group with others in a similar position, may I remind you that there is still space on the Faith-in-Scholarship conference next month! See our News page for more information and to book online.

For updates on the meetings of the Cardiff SPCF, follow them on Twitter at @CardiffSPCF.

Cannibal tribe transformed by the gospel


It is God's purpose to restore, rescue and redeem His broken world through His Son Jesus. Turn on the news and the full impact of the fall will hit you. We hear of terrorist attacks, wars, famine, poverty, torture and environmental breakdown. God calls His disciples to preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15). We have heard how George Cadbury and Randy Lewis brought the kingdom of God into their respective work places but missionaries are also part of this great commission. It comes as a shock to many people that cannibalism ran riot in some cultures. It is seldom recognised that cannibalism has found its most formidable opponent in the dedicated work of countless missionaries like Don and Carol Richardson.


Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.

Mark 16:20


If you were an aspiring Christian missionary, would you take your wife and three young children deep into the jungles of West Papua to a headhunting, cannibalistic tribe who valued treachery as a virtue?

In 1962, missionary Don Richardson felt called to preach the gospel to the Sawi tribe in western New Guinea in Indonesia. He set about learning the native Sawi language which was daunting in its complexity. There are 19 tenses for every verb! Don was able to become fluent in the language after a tough schedule of 8–10 hour daily learning sessions.

When Don and his wife Carol arrived among the Sawi people, they found a culture built on warfare, treachery and deceit between neighbouring tribes. Particularly galling was the process known as 'fattening the pig for the slaughter' whereby an apparent friendship was developed for the purpose of luring the victim into a sense of security, suddenly shattered when 'the pig' was suddenly killed and then eaten. The Richardsons were appalled by this brutal way of life. They agonised over how to make a breakthrough in their Christian communication.

Things got worse. When they told the story of Jesus to the committed cannibals, the Sawi made Judas their hero because of the way he had (in their eyes) 'fattened' Jesus for the slaughter.

Finally the Richardsons decided to leave and they watched with astonishment as the tribes, motivated to prevent this, made peace with a strange ceremony. Both tribes offered a baby into the care of their enemies, not, as the Richardsons feared, as a human sacrifice, but as a 'peace child'. As long as the peace child lived, peace was guaranteed. And the peace child was exempt from fattening the pig for the slaughter, for killing the peace child was the greatest sin.

At last Don and Carol had the key to unlock the Sawi culture. They explained that Jesus was God's peace child, and he was killed as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Judas was now no longer the hero and the Sawi became Christians in large numbers.

What a breakthrough for God's kingdom!

Efficient scholarship

Popularity of FiSch blog posts plotted against their length

Popularity of FiSch blog posts plotted against their length… Are we obsessed with our economics?

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So far in our series, we’ve seen that good scholarship will make appropriate distinctions (avoiding category errors); it will be communicated with clarity; it will innovate and build on existing scholarship; and it will be done in community, in critical solidarity with fellow researchers. But another way in which we can describe scholarship is using the language of economics. What would it mean for a piece of research to be virtuous, in economic terms?

Andrew Basden describes the economic aspect of reality in terms of ‘managing limited resources frugally’. This will be a familiar notion to anyone involved in academic research. How should funding be allocated to best advance research in my field? Which department should the university invest in? Which candidate will best advance our REF submission if we offer them the lectureship? How can I complete this piece of research in the shortest possible time, and making the best use of our equipment? Or even, more selfishly: how can I use up every last penny of my budget before the end of the financial period?

God has made the world in a multifaceted and varied way. So it is right that we try to learn to think about the world in a similarly multifaceted way, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do in this series. But there is such a thing as idolatry. Perhaps we could describe idolatry as follows: it is when you take one aspect or element of God’s good creation, and turn that into the ultimate centre of everything. It is, echoing the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:25, when you worship and serve the creature, rather than the Creator. So what does this have to do with frugality?

I wonder whether the economic aspect – getting good value for investment – has become an idol in our culture? If you found the introduction to this post amusing, it is probably because it is not a million miles from where we are. Our jargon and our methods of evaluation betray our obsession with efficiency.

What then might it look like to pursue economically good scholarship – not to waste resources – but to do so in a non-idolatrous way?

I suppose it would involve keeping the other aspects of good scholarship in mind. Two papers might be better than one, measured in a simplistic manner. But maybe one good paper would be better than two mediocre papers? After all, is it even possible to measure the quality of a paper in simple numerical terms? And what is ‘good’ scholarship? This piece of research might well advance my own career, or strengthen my department’s reputation, but does it provide a good return on our limited resources in the broadest possible view – does it benefit humanity as a whole, and does it help to build the Kingdom of God?

But I’m pushing dangerously close to 600 words, and I could find myself in the land of diminishing returns. So, in order not to waste any more of your time, I’ll sign off, and allow you to return to Facebook…

Social virtues for academics

Q: Why did the social scientist talk to her colleague?
A: To reveal her ontological security

OK, the one about a broken drum being the best Christmas present is a better cracker joke – in fact you just can’t beat it. However, like many jokers our social scientist does reveal something about our social interactions: academics are rarely recognised for their social virtues.

Last year I was discussing with fellow Christian postgrads about how we related to undergraduates, PhD colleagues and academic staff in our departments. It became clear to me that the social scientists were far less adept at it than the organic chemists. It was a small, unrepresentative and not statistically significant sample, but it clarified the distinction between studying society and undertaking a research project as part of a community. The distinction is between a social aspect in creation and acting in a relationally and intellectually constructive manner.

Being socially virtuous covers a panoply of activities, emotions and motivations. Here we’ll look at just two ideas:

First, critiquing other people’s work is a common task of an academic, whether formally in double-blind review or informally at conference presentations and in departmental seminars. However, very few us provide feedback in a relationally and intellectually constructive manner. Virtuous feedback would work on at least two levels; engaging personably with the presenter/author and seeking out aspects that are worthy of affirmation as well as providing criticisms. Danie Strauss argues that the idea of critical solidarity and not just critical thinking is key for scholarly communication. We find it very easy to find a point of departure from a presentation, but much harder to find elements we agree with.  Unlike the social scientist in the cracker joke, our purpose in dialogue is not to reinforce our own position, but to seek to understand, to grapple with ground motives and to pursue the benefit of the whole community.

Second, developing positive relationships with colleagues (both within the university and in the wider research community) is an integral part of virtuous scholarship. Developing these relationships may support the advancement of our ideas, projects and careers, but do not merely operate at this level. Social virtues for academics involve giving of ourselves to support other people’s research flourishing and will involve developing affirming as well as instructive relationships with students we teach.

A social virtue, when worked through each facet of an academic career, will bring pertinent questions to bear on: research topics; research teams; conference presentations; published critiques; treatment of undergraduates and support staff; and of course those who disagree with us. At Christmas we celebrated a God who left a comfortable position, to be with us, to live alongside us, to show us what it means to love, and to bring us into those loving relationships. A socially virtuous academic will mirror that love in their scholarly critique and academic relationships.

Making good progress

Continuing our series on values for scholarship, David Hanson looks at God’s calling for humans to innovate.

Scholarship is subject to cultural-formative norms. Humans never fabricate ex nihilo – only God does that. Yet the bringing of ‘new things’ into existence reflects God’s creative power in our calling to stewardly dominion of the world. Cooking a meal, composing music, writing a nation’s constitution: all respond to this calling.

In Hebrew, God’s “till and keep” command with reference to Eden (Gen 2:15) employs precisely the verbs that repeatedly call Israel to “serve and hearken to” Jahweh. This effectively spikes the guns that blame “dominion” (Gen 1:28) for human habitat-destruction. Mastery must listen to serve!

The 16th-century Reformation freed European minds from the idea that history is just unimportant ‘natural’ activity within which rare gemstones of a ‘spiritual’ reality are laid. Hitherto, Bible and Church had seemed to sparkle with alien light from an eternally static perfection where history – the forging of new things from creation’s wealth – had no place. But now Biblical ‘calling’ could inspire creativity wherever believers went: in gardening and pottery, trade, scholarship and politics.

After all, God once covenanted with “day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth” (Jer. 33). Earthly things aren’t just fascinating; they are revelatory, worth investigating with a passion. And such passion will not be resented by the Christ who reconciles “all things, in heaven and earth” to God. No other creature is so mandated: humans alone are called to convert experience, via investigation, into bodies of new interwoven knowledge that outlive their builders, whether pygmies or giants.

So, now, notice that tiny parenthesis interrupting the Genesis story: “(the gold [of Havilah] is good).” Gold, along with the onyx and aromatic resin, is useless stuff unless knowledgeably exploited. Here, one minute into reading your Bible, an author of undoubted piety relishes the thought of luxury, hinting at all kinds of productive skills. Such skills are irrelevant to the alien ‘spiritual’ life that un-reformed Christendom aspired to! Serious expertise is required to assess what’s good in such things: we need knowledge of natural environments, skills of smelting, distilling, fashioning, quality-control and trade.

Implicit in that parenthesis, then, are canons of practical anecdotal wisdom to which new observations accrue daily. Yesterday’s certainty is revised. Suggestions will need testing and peer-review. And cultural-formative power appears both in the golden or perfumed artefacts and in the burgeoning edifice of knowledge supporting the crafts. Knowledge expansion demands new vocabulary and meaningful descriptors. Guilds of recognised crafts-persons must arise.

Dooyeweerd’s philosophy identifies this cultural-formative (or historical) aspect in all human activity. It distinguishes the freely designed projects of Adam’s children from the instinctive fabrications of beavers and spiders – intricate and impressive though they be.

Readers of this blog will be especially interested in the elaboration of scholarly, scientific or theoretical knowledge, where personal, anecdotal input is largely replaced, for universality’s sake, by abstracted, analysable material. Properties of things are investigated, not unique entities. Yet all kinds of scholarly work are normed by cultural-formative challenges as well as logical-analytic ones. How to recruit the new idea and integrate it with existing knowledge? How to link it with ideas from other disciplines? How to imagine new shapes in interpretation? How to get stuff published? How to express these results? How to make my daily effort intelligible to others – not least to other members of “the household of faith”? Even: are some discoveries best undisclosed?

Festive Zeal and Earthly Hope

I wonder why you praise God for sending his son at Christmas. Is it because of the forgiveness that Jesus’ later death and resurrection would afford? Is it because Jesus was the means by which we can have a restored relationship with God? Is it because we remember how the first stage of the promise of a (distant) future to be spent in God’s new creation was beginning to be put into action? These reasons are good reasons to praise God for sending his son into the world. But going to this year’s carol services and hearing the typical Christmas readings each week has made me, yet again, re-evaluate my reasons for praising God at Christmas.

Zechariah, in his song at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, sings of his delight having foreseen the arrival of Jesus. What makes his song particularly interesting are his reasons for praise. Of particular note is that these have nothing overtly to do with his own forgiveness, his own sin, his assurance of eternity. No, Zechariah’s reasons are much ‘earthier.’ Here’s his song:

68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73     the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

Zechariah’s reasons for praising are because his (and Israel’s) enemies, ‘those who hate’ him and whom he fears will be done away with. He will be ‘redeemed’ and ‘rescued.’ ‘Salvation’ from them has come. Zechariah’s reasons for praise are far from reasons of personal piety. Zechariah’s reasons are that God has, in sending King Jesus, brought about a new age. An age in which the world’s enemies will be overthrown and God’s people can serve him without fear.

This was a great encouragement to me as I read this passage. The stresses and strains of writing a PhD, of keeping up with teaching, of being anxious about that job I hoped to get were put into context. And the fears, hatred and fighting of our world at the end of 2015, like the oppression of the Middle East when Quirinius was governor of Syria, can also be understood in a new light. The King of the universe has arrived. I need not spend Christmas reflecting upon these things as one who has no hope, but as one who has seen the King arrive and beginning to conquer.

Amar's Painful Vow


Jesus claimed on several occasions that He had the authority to forgive sins. For many this is a deeply offensive thing to say. The uniqueness of Jesus Christ is challenged by many people today. It is very instructive to think deeply about people who believe that they can find God without Jesus. As we have seen before, some people will go to extreme lengths to earn their salvation. Consider this true story about a 'raised arm baba'. How do you respond to Amar's self-torture? Do you admire him or do you feel sad for him?


Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."

Luke 7:48


In 1970, Sadhu Amar Bharati, left his wife and children and decided to completely devote himself to the Hindu god Shiva. In 1973 he wanted to show his devotion to Shiva in a unique way that would also sever him from all worldly pleasures and comforts. Amar made a vow to raise his right hand to the sky and keep it there… indefinitely. He experienced the typical numbness and tingling that we all feel when a limb "falls asleep". Even when that light tingling turned to extreme pain, Amar continued to serve Shiva, his god. After a certain amount of time, he claims the pain subsided and now the arm stands erect, seemingly on its own. The muscles have atrophied and the girth of the right arm has shrunk in relation to his left. Since clipping his nails would have required bringing the arm down, Amar hasn’t trimmed them in decades. His nails are now mangled and curl around his fingers.

Perhaps even more strangely, Amar isn't alone in his one-handed salute to Shiva. He has begun to disciple other Hindu holy men who also have a raised a hand toward the sky. Some of his followers have held their hands high for over 10 years.

Compare and Contrast

There are at least four different ways of making sense of this story. Where would you put yourself?

  • Materialist response: Amar – you are crazy doing this. Go shopping and have some fun! Save up and buy a BMW. Drink champagne and watch football on the telly.
  • Relativist response: Amar – I don't agree with you but I so admire the path you have freely chosen. You are being true to yourself. It’s your choice. Pat yourself on your back with your left arm.
  • Ascetic response: Amar – you are right to torture yourself. Shiva will be pleased with your sacrifice. You are purifying your soul and you will be rewarded.
  • Christian response: Amar – you do not need to suffer all this pain and agony. Creation is very good and your arm is a good gift from God. On the cross Jesus died for your sins. Follow Jesus and God will forgive you. He will raise you up on the last day and give you a wonderful resurrection body with two perfect arms.

The Forming a Christian Mind Conference

Cambridge has long been a stimulating home for Christian minds. Devout doctors, monks and other medieval scholars helped birth the world-famous university in 1209, key figures in the English Reformation studied, taught and preached in the town, and God-fearing pioneers in many disciplines have been nurtured in the colleges, departments and research institutes that make up the modern university. An inspiring documentary called “Saints and Scholars” tells the story of the development and influence of Christian thought in this historic market town – watch it at the Round Church if you haven’t seen it!

But do we have to look to past centuries to find Christians making intellectual history on the strength of their faith?  We can certainly find a plethora of organisations and initiatives in Cambridge today seeking to nurture that kind of progress.  So let me tell you what happens when six of them collaborate to foster Christian thinking.

The Jubilee CentreCambridge PapersChristian Heritage, the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, the Faraday Institute and the Christian Graduate Society share a conviction that Christian faith should interact positively with people’s intellectual development.  So once a year they team up to run “Forming a Christian Mind”, a day conference for Christian postgraduates and other early-career researchers.  This year’s event six weeks ago brought 60 people to Cambridge from as far afield as Edinburgh and Paris: a diverse group whether you looked at subjects of study, ages or nationalities. Its theme was “Human Flourishing and the University”.

The opening plenary talk was given by Dr Donald Hay, professor emeritus of economics at Oxford University.  Donald contrasted perspectives from evolutionary psychology, classical economics and social constructivism against Christian theology in addressing the question “What is a person?”, showing how prominent paradigms in different disciplines suggest radically different views.  We were left to think about what elements of truth each of these reductionistic models might contain and how a Christian student might engage with them.

There was then a set of parallel seminars among which participants could choose.  These gave opportunity to interact with senior Christian academics in our disciplines and develop our own perspectives.

The day ended with a plenary session in which Dr Louise Driffill spoke about her teaching on sustainability in the university’s business school.  After sharing some relevant biblical considerations for her subject, Louise gave us time to discuss the relevance of biblical hope for our own areas of research.  This was another stimulating opportunity – and I’m sure that I was not alone in developing more questions than answers once again!

Two things especially encouraged me about this event. The first was how it was preceded by a meeting for people involved in Forming a Christian Mind and other relevant initiatives (Donald Hay’s Developing a Christian Mind in Oxford, Transforming the Mind, the Christian Academic Network and our own Faith-in-Scholarship), to discuss vision and strategy. The second was the sense of energy and enthusiasm among such a crowd of young Christian thinkers wanting to engage our world’s big questions with a lively faith and make intellectual history in our disciplines.

For lots more ideas, links and forthcoming events, see

Serving God as a Diplomat

Rachel is a young Christian woman and she is thinking about becoming a diplomat in the Foreign Office. She is challenged by a Christian friend who tells her that she will be wasting her life by going into such a ‘worldly’ and political profession. Again, and again, we can come up against this attitude, can’t we? The attitude that wants to create a hierarchy of callings. How do you love God in your job when it involves dealing with shady characters, compromised situations and ethical dilemmas? The OT book of Daniel can help us think through this issue.

Daniel was a learned man and he would have known that God’s law is not devoted exclusively to so-called ‘spiritual’ concerns, but he would also have known that he was living in a very different culture, a very different state, with different rules and codes.

How could he live out God's story with any integrity in such a broken, pagan culture? We get an insight into Daniel's diplomatic skills early on in his career when the question of diet reared its ugly head in chapter 1. If Daniel had resorted to a confrontational style or mockery of the Babylonian diet, his plan would have failed. He stays gracious and he keeps negotiating. He suggests a closed-door experiment, a dietary test, for himself and his three Jewish colleagues (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah). Ashpenaz agrees to this.

Fast forward ten days. Daniel and his three friends have passed the test with flying colours and Ashpenaz has ordered their diet permanently changed. So coming back to our friend Rachel, having read about Daniel and Jesus' teachings, she explains to her dualistic friend that Jesus had some very positive things to say about diplomacy.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Matthew 5:9

Diplomats are, of course, in a job where they can really take these words seriously and do something to stop wars and its ensuing destruction, misery and bloodshed.

Today, as in the time of Jesus and Daniel, ambassadors, diplomats, negotiators, mediators, and relevant others need great skill in communications, a deep knowledge of other cultures and politics, and a good handle on the actual problems. In the murky world of Babylonian politics, Daniel sought the wisdom of God to tell His story. Are you in an area of work that you feel is constantly compromised by the world? Your calling is not to abandon God as you walk through the door, but to bring transformation with wisdom that is deeper than that which the world can offer.