RealityBites blog

Talking About Faith – a new course

Why is talking about faith often awkward and filled with clichés? Why do our conversations about faith rarely grip people and intrigue them?

Mark Roques has spent his life tackling this issue and is convinced that our evangelism can be transformed if we 'do an Apostle Paul' and learn to understand and engage with the beliefs that shape our world.

In this course Mark will move us step by step through the world of religious and secular beliefs, equipping us to talk about the Christian faith in a way that is both engaging and insightful.

Secularism, Blockbusters and Soaps (3)

Films seduce and indoctrinate us in the same way as soap operas, but there is greater variety and the opportunity to discern the difference between the real and unreal worlds. Consider this sequence of films:

The films based on CS Lewis's Narnia stories (2005 and ongoing), and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and The Hobbit (2012-2014) based on J R R Tolkien's books. These stories are very skilfully crafted. There is no reference to religion, no priests, prophets or preachers, no creeds or catechisms. Yet the visible world is not all there is. There is an unseen world, there is a universal moral order, there is a clear distinction between good and evil and there is an overarching Big Story with allusions to and echoes of the Biblical Story.

Then there are the eight films based on J K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (2001-2011). Again the visible world is not all there is. There is an unseen world, there is a moral order, there is a clear distinction between good and evil. But there is no overarching Big Story, no ultimate grounding for the morality, for the distinction between good and evil.

The Hunger Games (four films, 2012-2015; 2014 release date 21st November) is based on the trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins. In these films there is no unseen world – now the material world is all there is. There is no supernatural, no magic; it is just high technology. The distinction of good from evil remains, but there is no underlying moral order, or overarching Big Story out there, no justification for the morality, or for the distinctions made between good and evil.

The highly acclaimed vampire film Let the Right One In (Swedish, 2008, American version 2010), based on the novel by Swedish author John Lindqvist. Now not only is there no unseen world, but the absence of any Big Story or moral order out there is affirmed and morality becomes a human creation that can be altered at will. So a vampire (murdering) girl becomes 'moral' because she protects and mentors a bullied boy.

We must explain films and all the media and internet offerings to our children. We live in a dangerously indoctrinating society. The great danger of indoctrination in schools and society today is not from religion, but from secularism. In today's environment it is hardly surprising that almost 100% of unbelieving parents successfully pass on their unbelief to their children. That unbelief is affirmed and reinforced by the surrounding culture. But barely 50% of religious parents succeed in passing on their religious faith. Religious faith is ignored and thereby undermined by the culture. Research also shows that many children give up on their faith in their teenage years or as they enter adult life. The loss of active Christian faith during college and university years (50-80%) is especially shocking, but almost certainly roots back to school years.

We desperately need to rediscover and live in the Biblical Big Story and to be a Christian community (church) that visibly does so.

Secularism, Blockbusters and Soaps (2)

Soap operas (soaps for short) are radio or television drama series following people's daily lives. They were so named because they were first sponsored in the US in the 1930s by soap manufacturers.

In the UK, of course, I mean Coronation Street, EastEnders, Emmerdale, Hollyoaks, Doctors, and the Australian-produced Neighbours and Home and Away. And of course the longest-running one of them all, The Archers (on Radio 4 since 1950). Nowadays people can also readily access soaps from other countries, especially, of course, the USA.

What are we experiencing when we watch a soap? We are not just being entertained. Every little (soap) story is also an instance of the underlying Big Story. When we watch, we are entering the world of the Secular Big Story. The soaps set forth life as if God does not exist and faith is irrelevant to everyday life. They insinuate that this is what life is really like, that this is normal. What do you say? When you enter that world when watching TV, does it feel real and normal to you? Is this essentially how everyday life feels to you?

When you enter that world when watching TV, does it feel real and normal to you?

If you are a Christian (or any other religious believer for that matter), surely it shouldn't? You can enjoy a soap as entertainment, but with spiritual discernment. The danger of soaps is not primarily any attacks on religious people or on religious faith (which are rare), nor the affirmation or promotion of beliefs or behaviours unacceptable to many Christians (even though this is increasingly common). No, the real danger is that they portray life as essentially God-less and faith-less – and that this life is normal, this is as it should be. This is a fundamental reason why constant daily immersion in the real Story of the Bible is so important – we need it to counter the Siren voices from our culture’s pagan Story. We mustn't fool ourselves – if we don't immerse ourselves in the Bible Story, we will be seduced by the Secularist Story.

Secularism, Blockbusters and Soaps (1)

We live in an age when the Western world is dominated by secularist worldviews, secularist big stories. The dominant secularist big stories are those of materialism in both senses of that key word: that physical nature is all there is, and that enjoying material possessions is all that matters. However, for this blog post, the precise characteristics of secularist big stories do not matter; it is enough if two points can be accepted.

The first is that there is no neutrality; every aspect of human life and work is embedded in one or another (or some amalgam) of Big Stories. Fundamentally they are religious, or faith stories. They are often called worldview stories to emphasize that every person – even if they claim to be 'non-religious', 'agnostic', or 'atheist' – understands their life in the terms of such a Story. Crucially, commitment to these Big Stories will have consequences – for good or ill – for the individual, community and wider society.

The second point is that what is common to secularist big stories is the affirmation that we should live as if God does not exist and as if faith is irrelevant to everyday life. That simple understanding of secularism is all that is needed for now.

Clearly many (most?) people today are secularist in that basic sense. The question I want to discuss is 'Why?' What are the major influences that have enabled secularism to assume the default position in the lives of so many people? I want to argue that one major influence is the media and, in particular, that of the soaps and blockbuster films.

In the next post we will look at soaps.

'Pick-up' artist Julien Blanc and how we are failing our young people

Men pay upwards of £1000 to listen to the 'wisdom' and 'insight' of 'pick-up' artist Julien Blanc. His worldview boils down to this: objectify women and use them for your pleasure. Videos of Blanc preaching and ranting can be found online under the hashtag #ChokingGirlsAroundtheWorld.

This is, of course, shocking but it is more shocking that churches and schools do not help young people to understand Blanc's aggressive faith. We have so trivialised and infantilised faith and belief that we do not help young people to see that Blanc is living in a worldview story. His lifestyle and preaching is thoroughly materialistic and consumeristic. Here is a quick sketch of this popular faith.

  • There is no God
  • Everything is physical
  • You are a selfish calculating machine
  • People have no intrinsic value
  • Consume other people (vulnerable women) as you would consume a toaster
  • You are completely autonomous in your moral behaviour

US Presidents and Astrology

In my last blog I explored the impact of astrology upon the emperor Tiberius. Consider this contemporary story of a president who followed the stars!

In 1981 the astrologer Joan Quigley made Nancy Reagan a believer in astrology by showing how astrological charts could have foretold and prevented the attempted assassination of her husband US president Ronald Reagan. From then on, Nancy became obsessed with her husband’s safety and she depended upon Quigley for accurate astrological guidance. For the Reagan-Gorbachev Washington summit, Quigley decided that 2pm on 8th December 1987, was the most auspicious moment for them to sign the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty. At Nancy's request, the entire summit was built around that hour. Both Nancy and Ronnie had always been superstitious, observing such harmless rituals as knocking on wood and walking around, never under, ladders.

Astrology is part and parcel of a pagan way of life. The stars and the planets must be appeased and placated. For example, the powerful god Mars is associated with the fourth planet from the sun. Pagan people are terrified of the war god and they are desperate to keep him happy. These gods are invariably depicted as egotistical, vain and capricious. They have no interest in important ethical issues  but, like many television celebrities, are preoccupied with trivia. The pagan gods are addicted to protocol and proper ritual. And this must be done at exactly the right time! What is unimportant has become important and vice versa.

Tiberius, Fate and Jesus

When astrology addict Tiberius (42 BC – 37 AD) retired to Rhodes in 6 BC he consulted many astrologers about his future prospects. He had them murdered just after they had predicted his fortune! When the astrologer Thrasyllus examined his charts and suggested that Tiberius had a glorious future, Tiberius manoevered him to the edge of a perilous cliff and menacingly asked him: "And what do you see for yourself in the stars?" Thrasyllus replied "I am in terrible danger." Tiberius was impressed and spared the astrologer and later when he became the Emperor continually relied on Thrasyllus for advice.

Tiberius' story makes for a fascinating contrast between pagan faith and Christian faith. Tiberius believed passionately that Fate ruled everything and that the stars and planets determined every event. He simply couldn't help himself as he abused countless children and tortured people before throwing them off cliffs in Capri. What a contrast to Jesus who went around proclaiming God’s kingdom, healing the sick and casting out demons…

Tiberius' story is a great way of talking about Christian faith. Here are some questions to ponder:

  1. Why is astrology bad for you?
  2. Why did Tiberius consult astrologers?
  3. How does Christian faith challenge belief in fate?

Atheist converts to Christian faith after his mum wins the lottery

Here's an entertaining conversion story from 2011.

Sal Bentivegna, a New Yorker, thought the Christian faith was ridiculous. He loved taunting his devout Catholic mother Gloria and would often get combative and sarcastic. He told his mum that she ought to pray "to her God" and ask for 'dinero' to sort out her financial difficulties. Gloria refused to do this but she had been praying for her son's conversion for several years. She told her son that he was more than welcome to pray on her behalf.

Sal took up the challenge and mockingly asked God to help his mother win the lottery. He prayed the following: "God I don't know if you're real or not, but if you are there, please let my mother win a million dollars". He added: "If Jesus wants me to believe in him, that's what he'll do".

The next day, Mrs Gloria Bentivegna bought a 'lotto tree' of unscratched instant win tickets from her church's charity auction. Amazingly she won the New York Lottery Sweet Million game and every year for the next 20 years, Gloria is going to garner $50,000!

Sal was gobsmacked and mused, "I sat back and thought about it and realized the odds against this are astronomical. I can't shrug off that Jesus had a hand in it. No pun intended, it was a Godsend".

He then abandoned his secular beliefs and became a believer! He changed faith! Gloria later said that God had performed two miracles. The unexpected lottery win and the conversion of her son!

Spanish Village wins lottery through the lens of faith

Spain's national lottery, known as "El Gordo" (the Fat One), was first established in 1812 and operates somewhat differently from most British lotteries. It has a total of 1,800 winning tickets. Each ticket costs a whopping €200 but it is then sub-divided into ten 'decimas' which cost around €20 each. The 'decima' is then broken down into individual 'participations' that cost about €5.

In 2011 a group of women from the village of Sodeto in north-west Spain forked out £5000 on a 17 per cent share of ticket number 58268. This translated into 1,200 individual tickets. Many of these tickets were bought by the 250 or so residents of Sodeto. This number won the biggest jackpot in the history of El Gordo – a whopping £600 million!

Happy days indeed! The joyous citizens of Sodeto celebrated by doing the conga and downing more than seventy bottles of bubbly. They couldn't believe their 'luck'. Every family in Sodeto had purloined, at least, one ticket worth £83,000. Some had one ticket, others had more.

Olga Bonet, 49, with hardly any teeth in her mouth, became a millionaire overnight. "We bought a new mattress and eat more ham now", she explained. Big Fran, who was almost destitute, had bought four tickets and he garnered £332,000. He left town on the day he cashed the cheque.

Jose Maria Cambra's wife had bought two tickets and then their son found two more that they had forgotten about! They were chuffed. Dad joked: "‘I kept saying: look for some more, look for some more".’ Borja Vinueles, a young farmer, used his share of the jackpot to buy himself a liquid manure spreader. Fair enough!

The only sour note of the drama was a Greek man, Costis Mitsotakis, a Greek filmmaker, who had moved to the village to follow a sweetheart named Sandra. He was the only resident of Sodeto who failed to purchase a ticket. He was gutted!

How does this story connect to faith?

Some of the villagers thanked God for this amazing bonaza. Others begged to differ. Sandra (one ticket only) splashed out on a Harley Davidson motorbike. She opined: "For one moment, our village was chosen by the universe. It still gives me goosebumps".

Sandra is living in a pantheist story. The universe is divine.

Marisol, a local hairdresser lives in a different story. She believes that luck is a purely random affair. Luck is God, and luck is dumb. Marisol is living in a naturalist story. There is no God. Only nature exists.

So in Sodeto there are three different faiths (perhaps more). Theism, Pantheism and Naturalism. All to be found in one village in Spain that won the 'Fat one'.

Football in the Kingdom of God

Mark is away this week, so here's something you may have missed last month.

As anticipation mounted for the World Cup final, a feature about football and faith went out on 6th July on 16 local radio stations around the country: from Yorkshire Coast Radio to Cornwall's Pirate FM. Mark was a central commentator: speaking alongside Christian professional footballers Bruce Dyer and Bobby Hassell, he talked about the drama, joy and wackiness of football as one of the good things we can do in God's creation.

He pointed out that everyone is living in a personal story of faith, and every football tournament is a journey into the unknown. What will win in the end, he suggested, is the creation, renewed by Jesus Christ and still containing football – purged of evil and even more beautiful than the game we know now.

Read more about it on the Reach Beyond website.