RealityBites blog

Ideas Have Legs!

A quick plug for Mark's new LifeMatters course...

"Ideas Have Legs!" will explore the key ideas of the great philosophers and how we can look at them with a Christian worldview. It'll be philosophy like you've never heard it before: an earthy, blood-and-guts investigation into some of the big ideas and idolatries that have shaped our world, from Plato to Rorty.

It's not just about ideas and theories: there'll be examples of real-life situations transformed by good or bad philosophy, with guest speakers… and there'll be pirates, and crocodiles…

Come along for an evening of stories, images, small-group discussion, food and drink.

Narnia Experience and God’s Kingdom

The Narnia experience in Leeds has been absolutely amazing. Thousands of people, young and old, have entered Narnia and experienced the magic. Truly Lynsey Jones and the other core people have achieved something quite remarkable.

The story of Aslan, the white witch, the beavers etc is delightful, funny, poignant and subversive. The story re-enchants the world and opens peoples' eyes to the wonder of the world. The Narnia experience spills the perfume of Christ in the theatrical sphere of life.

Notice please that there are many ways to spill this fragrance and the institutional church should take note. Too often God's kingdom is reduced to church activities and church programmes – but enjoying Narnia should cause us to re-imagine God's activity in the world. Banks can manifest God's kingdom. Businesses can reveal God's purposes. We could go on and on. God's kingdom goes far beyond the institutional church and includes the aesthetic delights of the Narnia experience.

Joseph wasn’t perfect

If Hollywood transforms Joseph into a secular hero, there are others who portray him as a moral and spiritual giant. Both views fail to do justice to the biblical story.

In Genesis 47:20-21 we read that Joseph reduced the Egyptian people to servitude. In this respect he can be described as a spiritual pygmy. Consider the teachings in Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25 that give us a fuller picture of God's redemptive purposes for the world.

There is a rarely quoted passage in Ezekiel 46:16-18 that instructs rulers not to steal their subjects' inheritances and connects this to the law of jubilee. Joseph would have benefited enormously if he had known these kingdom themes. Joseph wasn't perfect. He struggled with sin and foolishness just like the rest of us.

Hollywood Ruins Joseph Story

Tim Rice is an incredibly rich man who has made 150 million pounds sterling crafting lyrics about Joseph and many others. Here is Joseph's finale:

I closed my eyes,
drew back the curtain
to see for certain what I thought I knew.
Far far away, someone was weeping
but the world was sleeping;
Any dream will do.

To be fair it's a really good tune but the words are pure Hollywood mythology. Romanticism gone mad. Follow your heart and follow your dreams. Would Joseph Stalin have found this advice (any dream will do) helpful and inspiring?

Instead of a Joseph who trusts in Yahweh and believes that God is faithful to His covenant promises we have a plucky, lucky, self-reliant secular hero! God has vanished. God is no longer the hero of the drama. Plucky Joe has taken his place. Singing this song, crafty old Joe Stalin would have felt deeply reassured. After all, didn't he follow his dream?

We desperately need to help young people to understand the difference between the biblical Joseph and the Hollywood distortion.

Parable Probing 'Follow Your Heart' Religion

Frau Beckstein lived in Austria at the fag end of the 19th century. She was a noble and idealistic school teacher and she loved poetry, novels, opera and painting. To say that Frau Beckstein was cultured would be an understatement. She loved the life of the artist and she swooned when she pondered the inspiring story of the eccentric, poverty-stricken bohemian living in a rat-infested garret.

How many times had she fallen in love with Richard Wagner, Goethe and Novalis? Very hard to say. These Great men of Genius inspired her and moved her to tears of joy! How grateful she was to the divine spark that indwells this temporary bodily kit! This electric spark of the divine was wonderfully manifest in these very superior men.

And now the summer had arrived and Frau Beckstein was looking forward to the camping holiday. All her young boys were excited and enthused. 'Camping is so much fun' was a popular conviction and Frau Beckstein could not hide her delight when the tents finally arrived.

The young Austrian lads were so looking forward to the Spartan simplicity of the late 19th century camping scenario. No showers. No toilets. No insect repellent. A total negation of comfort and luxury. But it was this very fierce attack on bodily cravings that filled the young men with such zeal and anticipation. In some sense mystical experiences of our inner identity with the Cosmos were almost inevitable in the camping milieu.

Finally they had arrived and Wolfgang and Heinrich, two elderly but jovial men, supervised the erection of the tents. Old Willi rushed about the camp-site waving his mallet in comical mode. How the boys laughed!

In the evening all the happy campers swarmed around the blazing log fire. Delicious Austrian ginger beer was quaffed with titters, gurgles and sighs of inner refreshment. The three elderly gents imbibed excellent Austrian lager beer. Twiglets, unfortunately, were lacking; they had not yet been invented. A dark and sombre feature of this historical period.

Frau Beckstein was nervous and edgy. She refused all offers of fizzy pop and the ubiquitous sausage was spurned. How she longed to bring this year's work to a satisfactory and spiritually-sated conclusion. She knew that she had to speak, but would the boys respond to her deepest longings? With much trepidation and foreboding, the young Frau stood up and begged leave to speak. There could be only one response. Total silence descended upon the merry throng.

Boys... we have learned so many facts this year and you have worked so hard. We have studied Austrian geography and your German grammar is beginning to impress me. All of you have grasped Newton's theory of gravity and Boyle's theory about gases. Well done! But, meine Liebchen, what does this mean?

All these facts are really nasty, grubby things which hide the true essence of the world. You cannot see the divine in man and nature if you focus only on these brutal facts! There is a higher world and a better world that will never be discovered by the scientists and the vulgar men of commerce.

If only you could journey into your hearts and touch the eternity of your deepest longings. There you will discover rumours of glory. There is a spark of God in each of you, and as Goethe remarked: 'Everything is feeling'.

Boys – I want you to follow your hearts and put your faith in this inner spark of divinity. Follow your dreams! Do what your heart says is right! If you long to write great novels, write great novels! If you long to compose beautiful music, compose beautiful music. If you long to be a great architect, follow your heart. The artist participates in the divine life and this is the highest and best life. Again I beg you – follow your hearts and become great men of destiny.

By now Frau Bechstein was weeping and sobbing with raw, pure emotion. The boys were pensive and hushed. This sweet serenade had moved and touched them in the deepest recesses of their manhood. Young Adolf was not the only one who wept that day; even Wolfgang and Willi could not hide their tears. Adolf made a secret inner vow. Some day he would follow his heart and the world would change forever.

David and Guliefe

Following on from my short piece about the Ofsted Report, some thoughts on how many young people learn Scripture in their RE lessons.

Many British people have studied RE but it is often unacknowledged how materialism and Hollywood mythology infuse this educational experience.

Here we draw on the research of Terence Copley's Biblos Project at Exeter University. His team have been looking at what children learn about the meaning of Bible stories in schools in England. Here are some examples:

  • Year 9 pupil on David and 'Guliefe' (sic, Goliath): "No matter how small u are, belive in yourself."
  • Year 12 pupil on the birth of Christ: "that the birth of a newborn baby is the best gift of all."
  • Year 9 pupil on the betrayal of Christ: "You can't trust anyone these days."
  • Year 9 pupil on the feeding of the 5000: "Don't take things for granted and share things."

The researchers noted that God and Christian faith were often consciously or unconsciously edited out by teachers, so that pupils uncritically absorbed a secularised version of the biblical text.

This research and its findings confirms so many of my experiences of teaching RE. The David and Goliath story is understood in a completely secular way – the little guy can do amazing things if he believes in himself!

Hollywood – We admire your wisdom and insight!

Your power to evangelise young minds is unique!

'Religious Education: Realising the Potential' – Ofsted Report based on evidence from inspections of 185 schools, 2009-2012

  • Pupils leave school knowing almost nothing about core Christian beliefs.
  • Pupils are often exposed to Mickey Mouse Relgious Education that they find babyish and unchallenging.
  • Pupils are unable to think coherently about religious beliefs and how they shape our lives.
  • Pupils understand RE in almost complete isolation from the rest of the curriculum.
  • Pupils are rarely challenged when they spout nonsensical claptrap.

This is my summary of the recent Ofsted report on religious education in England. The report is accurate and insightful. It has one fatal flaw: it fails to alert the reader to the reality of contemporary education.

Young people are being indoctrinated into either scientism (everything is just physical and you are a selfish calculating machine) or relativism (you can think what you like about anything you like because you are completely autonomous). Notice this fragrant nuance. Some spout both without any critical distance!

Scientism and relativism are very dangerous worldviews because they are so rarely noticed and critically scrutinised. Like the Stealth Bomber they are very hard to see!

Sixth Form Conference in Newcastle

Yesterday I went with Gareth 'Taffy' Jones to conduct a sixth form conference at the Emmanuel School in Newcastle. The idea being that Taffy would provide an objective and distinctively Welsh perspective on the day's proceedings. I hail from Hertfordshire and my observations are often blinkered and half-baked. Taffy has assured me that this report is reliable and corresponds to what he saw and heard.

Oh and by the way Taffy has a PhD and is a very sharp lad.

We had a fantastic time! There were 140 sixth formers present and the head of RE Paul McKenzie introduced me in a gracious and friendly way.

I spoke for fifty minutes. I unleashed some of my best stories from the celebrity world. I included vignettes about Katie Price, Cheryl Cole, Russell Brand and Paris Hilton. I connected this celebrity circus to Hollywood mythology (follow your heart) and 17th century Wiltshire boffin Thomas Hobbes (you are a selfish calculating machine). I even did my impression of Count Dracula! I briefly touched on human trafficking and commodification. I then told the stories of inspiring Christians like George Cadbury and David Serunjogi, the amazing Ugandan pastor who has adopted 1700 orphans. I concluded the talk by challenging the students to think about the story they are living in.

There was then a half-hour session where the students asked me questions and grilled me about the Christian faith. I was able to talk frankly and boldly about my hope in the resurrection and my Christian convictions. The questions the students asked were absolutely superb. They had clearly been listening and reflecting.

Many of the questions focused on materialism, secularism and consumerism. One boy invited me to respond to the challenge of empiricism and the 'dogma' that 'only science gives you the truth'.

At the end of the conference two girls approached me and Taffy. They had loads more questions. Taffy was brilliant in this context and asked them some corking questions.

What a brilliant time we had!

Christian Education is not Bible-bashing

When people talk about Christian education, many people think about the archetypal Bible-basher. Someone who attacks you with Scripture.

This is tragic.

In my view Christian education should be about wisdom, discernment and understanding the brutal stories that ruin countless lives. Consider this.

I have met Christians who have no problem with rat worshippers. "Who are we to say they're wrong!" they murmur. Indeed they seem bemused and puzzled by this rodent religion. They seem unable to connect the biblical story to this strange way of life. It's almost as if the Bible has been hermetically sealed off from the world in which we live. Paul's passionate attack on idolatry in Romans chapter 1 is muffled and muted.

I have encountered Christians who fail to see a problem with 'following your heart'. They lap up films like Legally Blond without any critical discernment at all. Sometimes I bump into Christians who have no understanding about commodification and its powerful connection to the aggressive, materialist way of life. Thomas Hobbes would be smiling!

Occasionally I meet Christians who want to learn Mandarin for purely financial gain. They seem to be uncritical of consumerism as a faith. Learning a foreign language has nothing to do with loving your neighbour.

Today in Britain there is very little interest in Christian education. Let's get clear about what it isn't (in our view). It isn't Bible bashing. It isn't cliché city time. It isn't embarrassing, awkward and cringe-inducing. It isn't explicit and aggressive. Delete from your mind the image of the sanctimonious and earnest holy Joe who brings God into every nook and cranny of every possible conversation. "I've just bought some cheese. Praise the Lord!"

Christian education in its best sense doesn't pin you down and insist on Christian commitment. This kind of pedagogy is not like a spotty bully smothering you with his bad breath as he holds your arms behind your back. In its best sense Christian education is implicit, indirect, invitational and winsome. And Christian education is not just for Christian schools, or just for teaching and learning in Christian contexts. Christian education works in non-Christian contexts as well, even when explicitly Christian teaching (reference to the Bible, Jesus etc.) is not permitted.

Consider a cheeky spiel about Brian the fly. Brian, the handsome bluebottle was riding his bike to work. Unfortunately he had to get off his cycle when he got a puncture So what are flies? Are they gods? Are they prisons for souls? Are they just commodities? Were they made by the Father for the Son? This series of speech acts could easily become a lesson or an assembly. An educational experience that challenges without irritating or offending.

You could develop intriguing spiels about human trafficking. Ludwig "Tarzan" Fainberg, a convicted trafficker, once 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." Point out that Tarzan is a faithful disciple of Thomas Hobbes. Unleash some probing questions. Should Tarzan follow his heart? Is he just a machine who has no free will? Are his victims just worthless commodities? Is he dead in his sins?

Unleash cheeky, entertaining and imaginative speech acts about mafia hit-men. Jimmy "the weasel" Fratianno was a born again man of honour who strangled people for a living. Check him out on YouTube if you don't know his story. Should Jimmy follow his instincts? Is he just a chemical robot who has no free will? Should he consult his horoscope more often? Should he leave the mafia and become a fireman?

Bob Lavelle was a banker who loved God and neighbour but suffered at the hands of cyber thieves. Should bankers worship the money god? Should bankers be true to themselves? Should bankers hire fortune tellers to help them maximise their profits? Can bankers learn from Bob?

Unleash speech acts about electricity and faith!

Shot putter Olga believes in the power of electricity to transform humans into superheroes. Is Electricity a saviour? Should we rejoice and be glad that electricity can make us moral giants? Is electricity a demon of darkness or an angel of light? Can electricity help to heat your home? Have you ever had an electric shock and lived to tell the tale?

Notice that these narratives and questions can be delivered in any educational context. Nobody can complain because there is no preaching going on. There is no proclamation. There is no epistemic arrogance. Rather there is an invitation to think about different interpretations of the world. A challenge to imagine a different world. An overture to reflect on secular, pagan, and Christian visions of life.

When we help people to discern the many deadly cul de sacs that life throws up, Christian and non-Christian people often enjoy this unique educational experience. People want to know about the nasty, bullying narratives that mug people on a daily basis.

Folk want to know about George Cadbury, Susie Hart, Pastor Pete and Bob Lavelle. They are thirsting to hear narratives about friendly crocodiles, thoughtful elephants, kind-hearted rats and ravenous cannibals. Through these narrative people can find bridges both to God's Word and His grace. Through these stories people can unearth biblical wisdom in gentle and non-threatening ways.

So what is wisdom? In its deepest sense wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7 and Revelation 14:7). Wisdom trains us to discern idolatrous ways of death and delight in faithful, fruitful ways of life. Christian education in its best sense, opens people up to life, wisdom, shalom, flourishing, laughter and the Word made Flesh.

Hollywood Mythology and Christian Education

When we talk about Christian education at RealityBites we are not talking primarily about explicit biblical teaching. We are not urging Christian educators to 'Bible-bash'. Rather our concern is to help adults and young people to understand the powerful Worldview Stories that shape and mould our imaginations and lifestyles.

Consider for a moment the powerful Hollywood perspective that repeatedly urges us to:

Trust in your instincts!
Follow your heart!
Follow your dreams!
Have faith in yourself!
Be who you want to be!

This powerful religion is the central theme of Legally Blond and many other Hollywood films. In the words of billionaire talk show host Oprah Winfrey: "Follow your instincts. That's where true wisdom manifests itself."

Is Winfrey aware of the hidden trajectory of this 'wisdom'? Should budding paedophiles follow their instincts?

These powerful mantras are frequently invoked in Hollywood films and yet few people, including Christians, are able to discern the hidden romantic worldview here that urges us to embrace our individual autonomy as the supreme purpose and goal of life.

In its best sense Christian education should be 'implicit' and encourage people to be critical and discerning about the beliefs and commitments that shape western people, like Oprah Winfrey. Perhaps surprisingly, both Christian and non-Christian people enjoy this kind of education that challenges without offending or irritating. It stands in stark contrast to the aggressively explicit Bible-thumping devotee.

Are people able to critically evaluate a romantic worldview that affirms the original goodness of the human heart and yet rejects biblical teaching about sin? Can we detect the human trajectory of Hollywood mythology that sponsors unethical and destructive behaviour? In short, should Al Capone be true to himself?