RealityBites blog

Asking Explosive Questions about Jesus and Hitler

In this short piece I want to explore the power of crafting and asking good questions.

Picture it. I am talking to a non-Christian social worker, let's call her Susan. My wife and I are foster carers for a young man from Eritrea and so this is just part of my work life. I have already told Susan some of my stories and she has been responsive and positive.

I have been studying Psalm 110 and I ask this question. "What do you think Jesus is doing right now?" She smiles warmly and tells me: "I think Jesus is very unhappy with all the horrible things going on in the world."

This allows me to unpack Psalm 110. "In my view Jesus is ruling His very broken world from His HQ in heaven. He is also listening to and answering the many prayers He hears."

Susan is alert, attentive and engaged. I decide to ask another question. "So what do you think Hitler is doing right now?"

I was surprised but encouraged by her response. "I think he is probably in hell because of all the terrible evil he did."

I responded like this: "I think you are probably right but I would just like to add that if Hitler had genuinely repented, then he could have received the forgiveness of his sins and avoided the miseries of hell. In my view when anybody turns away from evil and believes in Jesus, all their sins are wiped away and they have the hope of the resurrection and will live with Jesus in the new heaven and the new earth."

Susan didn't become a Christian after this conversation but my two questions about Jesus and Hitler certainly got her thinking.

Psalm 110 is the most quoted psalm in the New Testament. Study it today and use it in mission. "The Lord said to my lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool."

August Francke and his Christian vision for a German city

August Francke (1663 - 1727) was a German preacher and social reformer who established an orphanage and inspired George Muller. One day he had to pay the construction workers but he did not have any money and so he prayed to God for provision. At the end of that day, the paymaster came and asked if he was going to be able to pay his men. The answer was no. Just then a student knocked on the door and reported that someone, who wished to remain anonymous, had brought a pouch with thirty gold talers. He went back into the other room and asked the foreman how much was needed for the payment of the builders. He said, “Thirty talers.” Francke said, “Here they are,” and asked if he needed more. He said, “No.”’ Francke said this incident strengthened his faith and the foreman's faith and they “recognized so evidently the wonderful hand of God.”

August Francke lived in Halle which is near the city of Leipzig. He was a faithful man of prayer and he had a big vision for the town he lived in. One day he was visiting a talented scientist who was dying. Francke had shown this man a lot of kindness and just before he died the brainy boffin gave Francke a recipe for some medicine. This recipe turned out to be very valuable and brought in thousands of pounds. He used this windfall to bless the city. By a series of quite incredible events he completed a huge building programme which included - a library of over 20,000 books, six schools, an orphanage with 2000 orphans, a home for destitute widows, a hospital, a chemist shop, an academy for pastors, a drop-in centre for strolling beggars, a museum of natural history, a printing house devoted to making Bibles and Christian literature available at a very reasonable price. Just like Nehemiah in the Old Testament, Francke thought deeply about his city. He wasn't just concerned with church life but everything that could help people to flourish.

 

Sumo Wrestling and Faith in Salt

Story

Obese but immensely strong, the Japanese sumo wrestlers of the Arashio stable were beginning to stir. A young rikishi (wrestler) tripped over camp beds and heaving bodies, cajoling his fellow wrestlers out of their sweet slumbers. Some opened listless eyes, while others ignored the young man's promptings and returned irritably to sleep. It was 5:30 am and freezing outside; what awaited the dozing wrestlers was hours of backbreaking and grueling practice in an abandoned car park in the outskirts of Osaka. Are these sumo wrestlers only in it for the money? No. Salaries of even the top sumo wrestlers are not that impressive. Is there faith in sumo wrestling?

Background Notes

Sumo wrestling is very different from professional football in England. Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan. This faith is focused on the appeasement of the gods known as 'kami'. The best English translation of kami is 'spirits' and the Shinto tradition declares that there are eight million kami; there are river gods, mountain gods and even boil and smallpox deities. Shinto unfolded as a religion to appease the kami in order to ensure good harvests and divine protection. Sumo, as a sport, aims to entertain the gods, appease their truculence and protect the wrestlers from both physical and spiritual harm. Christians believe that Jesus has defeated the powers of darkness (Col 2:15) but sumo wrestlers would vehemently reject this. Sumo wrestlers spend several minutes before a match lifting their legs high in the air and stomping them down in a vigorous manner. They also throw salt into the fighting zone as a Shinto ritual. This faith in stomping and salt is believed to drive away evil spirits. Even Christian people can replace Jesus with sodium chloride when they throw salt over their left shoulders in order to blind the devil. Sumo wrestlers are also known for their huge intake of food. They are also partial to beer.

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that football is all about money and material enjoyment but sumo rituals are pagan superstitions."

Relativist faith: "We deeply respect the Shinto faith. It is true for those who trust in its colourful ceremonies and the many gods and spirits of Japan."

Shinto faith: "We believe that there are millions of kami and we must appease these spirits on a daily basis. Sumo wrestling entertains our Japanese gods."

Christian faith: "We believe that Jesus is Lord. Worship the Lamb and do not worship demons that masquerade as kami."

Questions

1) Why do people appease the kami?

2) How does the Shinto faith encourage superstition?

3) Is it possible to be a Christian sumo wrestler?

 

 

         

Dangerous Faith in Artificial Intelligence

Marvin Minsky (1927-2016) was a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the USA. He is famous for his catchy phrase that the human mind is nothing but "a three-pound computer made of meat." Minsky was an atheist and worked in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). He was convinced that 'free will' is an illusion and he asserted that "people should give their money to AI research rather than their churches, as only AI would truly give them eternal life.” Minsky believed passionately that science and technology can solve all our problems including the death of death. This faith is sometimes called scientism.

Background Notes

Artificial Intelligence (AI) hopes that machines can perform intelligent tasks like reasoning, learning and developing new technologies. While no one is expecting parity with human intelligence today or in the near future, AI has huge implications for how we live. AI devotees trust in the power of science and technology to solve all our problems and eventually to defeat physical death. Some call this 'Infinite Progress'. Key figures in this movement include Hans Moravec, Kevin Warwick and Marvin Minsky. AI followers predict that brilliant scientists will devise very clever and creative computers and fragile humans will be able to upload their minds onto the hard drives of these fabulous machines, so leaving their bodies behind to decay. There is also the hope that humans will merge with sophisticated technologies. Arms will be replaced by mechanical parts and fleshy hearts and lungs will become redundant. Humans will morph into indestructible cyborgs like The Terminator and we will enjoy eternal life thanks to AI. This is the proud faith of Minsky and his many friends. One way to talk intelligently about the Christian faith is to contrast faith in AI with faith in Jesus. Do we trust in Jesus' death and resurrection or in AI?

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that science and technology will solve all our problems. Death will be defeated by clever boffins."

Relativist faith: "We believe that scientism is true if it works for you. There are many other ways to find salvation."

Gnostic faith: "We believe that death is not a disaster. It is the great hour of the freedom of the soul." 

Christian faith: "We believe that Jesus Christ has destroyed death (2 Timothy 1:10). Trust in Jesus. "I am the resurrection and the life." (John 11:25)

Questions

1) Did Marvin Minsky have a dangerous faith?

2) Do we have hope in the resurrection or hope in a robot replacement?

3) Have you heard of 'transhumanism'?

From Prince Philip to Jesus (article in the Baptist Times)

Delighted that the Baptist Times has published another article by me on creative, storytelling evangelism. Here is how the article begins...

It was the worst of times. It was the best of times. Years ago I tried to tell a non-Christian friend, Derek about my Christian faith. I was walking along a road in Bishopston, Bristol talking football and suddenly I blurted out: "Derek, you need Jesus." Derek said nothing. He just gave me a withering look. We went back to our conversation about Bristol Rovers and their bitter rivalry with Bristol City.

I've spent a lot of time since then pondering my abject failure to communicate my faith to my friend. How could I witness in such a way that the conversation would flow naturally and engagingly? Without evoking that cold contempt....

Read the full article on the Baptist Times website.

Neymar 100% Jesus?

It's World Cup time - so some thoughts on Neymar, the Brazilian superstar.   

Neymar is more than just a footballer. He is a brand and a way of life. The Brazilian star is the epitome of modern football as he travels the world with his friends in his luxurious private jet. He owns a fleet of opulent motor cars, an elegant helicopter and an Italian yacht. On a whim he once sent a private jet to fly a girlfriend to visit him in Barcelona after the pair had met in Ibiza. In a fit of splashing the cash he squandered more than £14,000 on trainers in one shopping spree. Neymar also claims to be a Christian. He declared: "Life only makes sense when our highest ideal is to serve Christ." After winning important games for club and country, he has been known to wear a headband bearing the words "100% Jesus".

Background Notes

Many of the most famous footballers on the planet own private jets. These are the role models that capture the imaginations of millions of young people today. Often these 'rich young rulers' do not comment about Jesus, faith and God. It seems to many that they live as if there is no God and that they are free to squander their vast fortunes in any way they wish. These rich, powerful men are completely autonomous (self-governing). Neymar claims to be a Christian and yet his lifestyle is just as lavish and whimsical as the other footballing superstars. How can we make sense of this fierce commitment to luxury, opulence and autonomy? It is helpful to ask a simple question. What is Neymar learning about the kingdom of God when he goes to church? Does he know and love the biblical story? Or has he syncretised the Christian faith with western consumerism? Jesus challenges all humans to forsake their false gods and to follow Him. There are so many of these idols that it can boggle the mind. There are rat gods, technology gods, fashion gods but the money god is probably the most popular deity today. Is Neymar guilty of serving Mammon, the money god (Matthew 6:24)? How will things go for him on the Day of Judgment? Why is it so easy for self-proclaimed Christians to worship these false gods? What are they learning in their churches? What are they not learning in their churches?

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that Neymar is doing the right thing. If everything is just physical then buying jets, helicopters and mansions makes perfect sense."

Relativist faith: "We believe that Neymar is being 'true to himself'. Congratulations!"

Karma faith: "We believe that Neymar is so wealthy because he has an excellent karma. Whatever is, is right."

Christian faith: "We believe that Neymar will be judged one day by Christ the King. He must repent, follow Jesus and become a much better steward of his wealth."

Questions

1) Why do many footballers follow the money god rather than Christ?

2) What does it mean to serve Jesus 100%?

3) Can you connect this story to the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12?

Why the World is Failing by Craig Bartholomew

It was fantastic to welcome Dr. Craig Bartholomew (Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics) to our TFN conference Why the world is failing and what we can do about it.

Craig's first talk was focused on understanding our contemporary world. Some say that we live in a postmodern world but Craig argues that we can discern at least four different forms of secularism that shape the western world. He distinguished classical modernism (faith in scientific progress), the structural-critical worldview e.g. Marxism and the Neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School, the Cultural-Critical Modern Worldview e.g. romanticism and the adulation of feelings and individual autonomy as well as postmodernism and its focus on playfulness, irony and the avoidance of all commitments.

This was very illuminating and reminded me how important it is to understand the many different kinds of idolatry that plague modern Britain. Craig, in his second talk, really earthed this excellent critique by showing us how the NHS is impacted by what he calls 'instrumental rationality', the efficiency idol. In brief you are ill and you want to see a doctor but within the system you have become a number on a page. You no longer exist as a person but an 'it'. Craig opened up how the NHS is gripped by an instrumental and controlling form of idolatry.

It was also very moving to hear Craig speak about how Christians lived with apartheid. Craig, a South African, lived under apartheid and observed very clearly how born-again, Bible-believing, Holy Spirit filled Christians accomodated their racism! He unpacked this by arguing that if Christians ignore culture (not even recognising how they swim in it) and refuse in dualist fashion to engage with culture they easily become its victims. Brilliant stuff!

In conclusion I was impressed by how Craig responded to the questions he fielded. He reminded me of his friend and co-author, Bob Goudzwaard, in the delightful way he showed sensitivity and a gracious and pastoral spirit. For example, when Mike, a friend from Barnsley, told us the sad story of the Christian school in Barnsley being forced to close down because the Ofsted inspectors were horrified to find a statement of Christian faith in the school's missional documents negating what they called 'British Values'. Craig opened up the biblical theme of 'lament' and that the faithful witness of Mike's school would one day be present in the new heaven and new earth. Mike's painful story highlights the pervasive intolerance of liberalism and the desperate need for Christians to grasp Kuyper's insights into both pluralism and sphere sovereignty. Much more could be said here.

Craig is a very rare Christian. He is both a very insightful scholar and a pastorally sensitive and empathetic disciple. Thank you so much Craig for a great day.

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Conversations with Dutch teachers and students

It was very encouraging meeting up with Piet Murre who is a Professor of Education at Driestar Christian University, Gouda in the Netherlands. I met him in 2009 in Holland. He came with another lecturer from Driestar and four students who are training to be teachers.

We spent a good two hours talking about storytelling and the RealityBites pedagogy. I outlined the Mafia conference we deliver and how evil can be understood in, at least, five different ways (Hindu, Buddhist, Materialist, Pagan and Christian). I explained how a government inspector marked the conference as 'outstanding' and that the material provoked the students to ask great questions about both Jesus and the differences between Buddhism, Materialism and Christianity. They seemed impressed and wanted to know more. I then told them about my experiences of talking about the Christian faith in ways that do not activate disdain and 'shutters crashing down'. I told them how rat worship, although strange and wacky, can lead to very fruitful and enjoyable conversations about the incarnation and idolatry. I further noted that conversations about karma and reincarnation can also be very profitable. I told them a story about a guru, Yogananda who claimed to have lived in a diamond and then later was embodied as William the Conquerer. I pointed out that humour and imagination are vital in the effective communication of the Christian faith. It is easy to contrast resurrection hope with reincarnation if you have a good story.The Dutch students pointed out that belief in karma was popular in the Netherlands and that these 'speech acts' were spot on.

We then had an excellent conversation about modernism, postmodernism and new age mindsets and how vital it is to engage with these worldviews if we are to talk meaningfully and credibly about the Christian faith. Piet Murre encouraged me to produce a resource that would focus on which stories to deploy when talking to a relativist or a materialist etc. He said this would be a very helpful resource for Christian teachers in the Netherlands.

I was delighted that all the students and the lecturers bought copies of my book. Piet told me that my approach was 'novel' and this was very encouraging.

Frank Sinatra on Christian Faith

Story

Frank Sinatra had many friends in the Mafia. Frank was once spotted kissing the ring of hit man Sonny Franzese in an act of respect. Sinatra was grateful to Sonny because the mobster had done him favours. Frank Sinatra Junior was playing at the San Su San nightclub in New York; the paying punters were thin on the ground and Frank Jr was bombing. Famous dad telephoned Sonny and explained the problem. The next night and for many weeks, the nightclub was packed with hit men, bookmakers, loan sharks and prostitutes. They cheered loudly for Frank Jr and his singing career really took off. The famous crooner was deeply grateful to Sonny Franzese. You might be surprised to learn that Frank Sinatra believed in God!

Background Notes

Frank Sinatra was interviewed by the infamous Playboy magazine and he was asked if he believed in God. This was his answer:

"I think I can sum up my religious feelings in a couple of paragraphs. First: I believe in you and me.....I believe in nature, in the birds, the sea, the sky, in everything I can see or that there is real evidence for. If these things are what you mean by God, then I believe in God. But I don't believe in a personal God to whom I look for comfort or for a natural on the next roll of the dice. I'm not unmindful of man's seeming need for faith; I'm for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniel's.......Well, I believe that God knows what each of us wants and needs. It's not necessary for us to make it to church on Sunday to reach Him. You can find Him anyplace. And if that sounds heretical, my source is pretty good: Matthew, Five to Seven, The Sermon on the Mount."

Frank Sinatra was not an atheist but he didn't believe in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. His comments about 'religion' are pantheist. God is not a person at all because God is the same as nature. We should add that this impersonal god does not expect you to pray or to repent of your sins. After all this deity is in everything, both Mother Theresa and brutal hit man Sonny Franzese.

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that Frank was misguided because everything is just matter in motion.

Relativist faith: "We believe that Frank was being true to himself. He picked a faith that worked for him."

Pantheist faith: "We believe that there are sparks of the divine in everything. No need to pray, repent or confess your sins. Relax and sip Jack Daniel's with a Mafia pal.

Christian faith: "We believe that God is revealed in Jesus Christ. Sonny must repent and stop killing people. If he does that, the Holy Spirit will come and live in him."

Questions

1) Did Frank Sinatra have a convenient faith?

2) Is this a dangerous faith?

3) What is the difference between pantheist and Christian faith?

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Dangerous Faith in the Enneagram

Oscar Ichazo (born 1931) is the Bolivian-born psychologist who first developed the spiritual resource known as the Enneagram. The Enneagram focuses on nine personality types that are arranged into a chart resembling a pentagram. Ichazo, a Sufi-inspired mystic, claims to have had out-of-body experiences since childhood. He further claimed that he had received instructions from a highly evolved spirit being called 'Metatron' (an archangel mentioned in Gnostic literature) and that this revelation was crucial to the Enneagram project. Richard Rohr and Helen Palmer are committed teachers of this Gnostic way of salvation. Many admirers of the Enneagram are unaware of its occult roots.

Background Notes

The Enneagram diagram was first used by Sufi mystics for pagan fortune-telling. This resource is now used as a tool for character analysis and spiritual direction. It can be described as a sacred map of the soul which helps us to understand the nine ways that we forget our connection with the divine. This is a Gnostic mindset that can be summarised thus: 1) When we are born we live in our divine centre. As babies and toddlers we are sinless, perfect and at one with God. Biblical teaching about original sin is denied. 2) When we are three or four, we develop defense strategies to cope with our emotional pain and this process creates the ego. There are nine kinds of dysfunctional ego states that are caused by bad karma. 3) The Enneagram brings us salvation by removing the ego (false self) and restoring us to union with the divine (true self). We do this through mystical work and self-effort. There is no need for Jesus' death and resurrection. We find out our particular ego malfunction and then we move like an arrow towards the corrective ego type. For example a '1' (perfectionist) can find liberation and salvation by moving to a '7' (enthusiast).

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that the Enneagram is irrational. Humans are not sparks of the divine. We are consumers so shop till you drop."

Relativist faith: "We believe that mysticism is great if it works for you. Follow your mystical longings. The Enneagram can help you do this."

Gnostic faith: "We believe that your true self is identical with the divine. The Enneagram will purify your lost soul (ego) and take you back to the divine One."

Christian faith: "God is not an impersonal energy force. You cannot find salvation by trusting in the Enneagram. Follow Jesus and trust in His death and resurrection."

Questions

1) Is the Enneagram dangerous?

2) Why is the Enneagram a Gnostic spiritual resource?

3) Why is the Enneagram popular with Christians?

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