The Irish referendum – a bleak day for human rights

justice-626461_1920The Irish referendum last Friday is being hailed as a great day for freedom, a key moment for the liberal consensus in creating a modern, progressive future. The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said: ‘Today we made history’ ‘A quiet revolution has taken place, a great act of democracy.’ The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said ‘What a moment for democracy and women’s rights.’

I’ve spent the weekend away, with a dying mobile phone whose twitter app kept crashing – it was a blessing to be spared the weekend on Twitter! Back home this morning I listened to Baroness Chakrabarti, Shadow Attorney General and leading human rights campaigner, speaking on the Radio 4 Today programme, berating the DUP in Northern Ireland for blocking a similar liberalisation of abortion. She did so in really striking terms, (which is why I have to blog this morning):

‘This is an issue of fundamental human rights, and in fact the situation in NI is currently putting the UK Government in breach of its international human rights obligations, so says the UN, so we’re calling on Mrs May, a self-identifying feminist, to negotiate with the parties and then legislate without delay…..You can’t have democracy without fundamental human rights….’

This is Alice in Wonderland stuff. Quite extraordinary! Everyone is patting each other on the back, speaking of human rights being established at last, talking about our international obligations and so on, when no one seems to have noticed what the Irish referendum was all about.

It was about abolishing a fundamental human right that is currently written into the Irish constitution. Continue reading “The Irish referendum – a bleak day for human rights”

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Rural mission in the Vale of Dibley

england-2960807_1920A couple of weeks ago, Helen and I spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon touring South Oxfordshire looking for wedding reception venues as we start to plan our daughter’s wedding. Sitting at home that Saturday evening, I somewhat naively put up the following tweet which soon gained a life of its own.

Visited four lovely village halls today in S Oxon and West Berks. How wonderful it would be if each of them had a gospel church planted in them in the next 10 years. This is a big area of need, and influence. The movers and shakers live in these villages.

Steve Kneale picked up on it and blogged about the final phrase, and then some local Anglican clergy in the Thames Valley weighed in, the thread developed a life of its own, and I was accused of arrogance. So, a couple of weeks later, after a chest infection as well as a trip out of the UK, I want to explain what I was on about.

Villages are sneered at by the urban elite. They are still seen as places where locals marry their cousins, children are born with six fingers, everyone speaks with an impenetrable yokel accent and people have the intellectual capacity of Alice Tinker from The Vicar of Dibley. Villages are seen as backwaters by many young ministers, who choose the trendiest church-planting locations or the bigger suburban churches with the best prospects, knowing that there is a shortage of people coming forward for ministry, so they can afford to be choosy.

Continue reading “Rural mission in the Vale of Dibley”

Heidelberg, Luther and the cross: the critique of reason and experience

640px-Heidelberg_UniversityPlace_Luther1518

26 April 2018 marks an undervalued milestone in Reformation history. We are familiar with Luther’s ninety-five theses posted in October 1517, and his passionate defence at the Diet of Worms in 1521 that his conscience was captive to the Word of God. However, the Heidelberg Disputation, which took place on April 26 1518, is less well known, though its significance could not be more relevant. Allow me to fill in the background.

Luther was growing in fame (or notoriety) as a preacher following the events of October 1517, and Pope Leo X wanted him disciplined by the Augustinian order to which he belonged. The man tasked with this challenge was his confessor, Johann von Staupitz, who famously had already heard Luther’s endless confessions of numerous sins, and who had guided him along his spiritual journey. Staupitz wanted Luther’s discipline to take the form of a public disputation. So the Augustinians gathered in Heidelberg to hear Luther present forty-two theses. (This was the age of the list!) Two theses in particular set out the key principles of what has come to be known as Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’:

  1. He is not worth calling a theologian who seeks to interpret the invisible things of God on the basis of the things that have been created.
  2. But he is worth calling a theologian who understands the visible and rearward parts of God to mean suffering and the cross.

The reference to the ‘rearward’ parts of God is an allusion to Exodus 33-34 where Moses hid in the cleft in the rock and glimpsed just the rearward parts of God as he passed by in all his glory. There is so much of God that cannot be comprehended merely on the basis of human reason. For Luther, medieval theology was a theology of glory, but it did not comprehend what God had done for us in Christ at the cross.  The church buildings of the medieval Catholic Church still stand across Europe. Whether it is the Duomo in Florence, Notre Dame in Paris or St Peter’s in Rome, they stand as a testimony to Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on the glory of worship. These great structures are human achievements, the epitome of human glory and effort offered up to God. Yet their glory is at variance with the way of the cross, where God reveals himself in his Son, through suffering, rejection and death.

The Renaissance period, that preceded the Reformation, placed a high value on human reason. In scholarship their watchword was ‘back to the sources’, going back to the original Latin, Greek and Hebrew classical texts, and in art they studied form closely in a more realistic way (e.g. Leonardo da Vinci). They called their movement humanism, because it was about valuing human reason, and believing that human reason could in the end study, understand and explain anything. Does that sound familiar? Although Renaissance thought was not atheistic, it marked the beginning of the intellectual process, traced through the eighteenth century Enlightenment, which has led to the cold certainties based entirely on human reason that we see in the New Atheism today.

In Heidelberg, Luther contended that when you come to the cross of Jesus, reason fails. There is a hidden revelation of God in the cross, and you can only grasp it by faith. God told Moses to hide in the rock, because he could not see his face and live; he would just glimpse his back as he passed. Luther said that the cross is likewise a glimpse of the ‘rearward’ parts of God that can only be seen by faith, which itself is given by God. The cross is the biggest, most glorious revelation of God, the heart of human history and the centre of all theology, and yet at first sight its glory is veiled. ‘The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Cor 1:18). If you look at the cross with only human reason to guide you, it will offend you. Why would God send his own Son to die? Why would be punish his own Son? Isn’t that child abuse? How can God possibly be revealing himself in this dreadful event, this shambolic slaughterhouse? These are the questions that our secular world throws at us for believing in Jesus. They put us on the back foot, because we think we ought to give some intellectually respectable answer that will satisfy the proud demands of human reason, but the cross defies human reason. God’s purpose in the cross of Christ was to expose the limits of human reason. We expect God to reveal himself in some vision of glory, power and majesty, but he humbles himself even to death on a cross, in shame and weakness. Why? Because he has to teach proud human beings to be humble, and admit our weakness and sinfulness. Luther knew well the life of the medieval academy, where they valued human reason so highly, but he could see how man-centred it was. The scholastics had argued about so many things in theory in their ivory towers. Catholicism was built on human reason, and its whole theological system put its trust in human ability and merit. All of that has to die when we come to the cross. At the cross we realise that our wisdom is folly, and we must learn from Christ.

But Luther was also undermining another great theme in medieval theology: mysticism. The cross teaches us not to trust human experience. There was a strong strand of mysticism in Catholic belief. You could trust experience, and my spiritual experience is valid for me just as yours is for you. The disciples all had their experience of Jesus, and they thought they knew who he was. They had seen his miracles, listened to the Sermon on the Mount and talked with him while walking in the region of Caesarea Philippi, but then they had to face this terrible day when their master was betrayed and crucified. Even Jesus himself, in his great cry of dereliction on the cross, cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ (Mark 15:34 CSB). Similarly, we can look at our own experience of suffering and conclude that God has abandoned us. So many people have logical reasons for not believing in God, because in their desperate experiences they cannot find him when they want him. The cross tells us not to place our confidence in our experience, but to trust God in the darkness, for the abandonment of that bitter day, when Jesus bore our sins and carried our sorrows, is gloriously answered by the resurrection. Suddenly on Easter morning the meaning becomes clear. God has accepted the sacrifice of his Son, and vindicated him by raising him for our justification. Reason fails at the cross, and experience fails as well. Both of them are shown up in this much bigger revelation of God in Christ, dying and rising. If we will come and surrender to the crucified God, our Lord Jesus Christ, then we will put reason in its place, and experience in its place, and worship Christ, and begin to find the meaning and purpose of our lives in his world.

Luther’s theology of the cross is essential for every Christian, and should get much more attention than it does. It also speaks to two pressing issues in our generation. First, the cross-currents of contemporary biblical scholarship among evangelicals are in danger of leading to a new age of scholasticism, in which extra-biblical sources carry almost more weight than the text of Scripture itself. We think we know what Scripture means because we have analysed the writings of other authors of the period, we have inhabited their world, seen how the phrases and genres of Scripture were used elsewhere, and then allowed the extra-biblical material to have a greater validity than Scripture itself. On this basis, evangelicalism is in danger of slowly placing itself above Holy Scripture, and failing to sit under its complete authority.

Second, in an age of prosperity and individualism, Christians have succumbed to the guidance of their own experience. Society says that we have a right to be healthy and wealthy, and that above all we should do what feels right. The prosperity gospel is simply offering back to society its own expectations and experiences. The whole drive of the church gathering is to provide an experience that feels good, and that people go away moved, though that feeling is based entirely on individual experience (and may have a lot to do with the lights, the music and the coffee!). It is also worrying to consider how often, when churches have to make great decisions, it can be that what feels right wins the day. We are far more led by experience than we are by Scripture itself.

This Easter, remember the great anniversary of the Heidelberg Disputation at the end of April, and the way in which Luther called the world back to the theology of the cross. Ask yourself how much your understanding of God is based on your own human reason, and how much it is surrendered to the Christ of Scripture and is humbled at the foot of the cross. Ask yourself how much you lean on your own subjective experience, and how often you find the limits of your own understanding. Then step beyond them to the glory shrouded in shame that is the revelation of God in Christ at the cross, and there you will begin to grasp the depths of Christian theology.

 

Image: Memorial Plaque for Luther Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 in University Place, Heidelberg, Germany. Anneyh/Wikipedia.

‘We’re all doomed’ – understanding British pessimism

danger-851895_1920Pessimism is an essential element of British culture. This fact is realised by all nations on earth except the British themselves. We actually believe our own pessimism with such inevitable gullibility that we rarely notice when things turn out differently. After all, we invented the weather forecast and the shipping news. It could so easily be Britain that Salman Rushdie had in mind when he described a sad and forgetful city in Haroon and the sea of stories:

In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news.

We are beset by gloom at the moment. We emerge slowly from the dark of winter, only to be assaulted by a beastly storm (blamed on the Russians!), and switch on the news to hear yet more Brexit woe. It is all going to turn out bad. The economy is going to tank. As soon as we leave we will ‘fall off a cliff’, jobs will be lost in their millions because our goods will no longer have any kind of access to vital EU markets at all, Dover and Felixstowe harbours will be filled in with concrete, and a wall that will be the envy of Donald Trump will be built along the Irish border. Meanwhile, millions of Poles and Romanians will flee immediately, leaving our care homes and hospitals entirely unstaffed. And we will be paying the bill to the EU forever, and it will turn out to be much bigger than we ever agreed to. ‘We’re all doomed.’ It is all too dreadful to contemplate.

Before this all gets too much, allow me to review some projects of the recent past that had the misfortune to be enveloped by this British cloud of pessimism. Let’s start with Heathrow Terminal 5. Continue reading “‘We’re all doomed’ – understanding British pessimism”

Why we should preach like Billy Graham

435px-Billy_Graham_bw_photo,_April_11,_1966Just once in my life I had a face to face chat with Jim Packer. He was speaking at a conference on preaching in Edinburgh in 1992, and he had tried in his talk to describe what it means to preach with ‘unction’. Being a young man unhappy with a throwaway statement, I cornered him at tea time in the garden of Rutherford House and asked him what he meant. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘It’s hard to put your finger on it, but you will know it when it happens to you.’ I’m sure I had a good few follow-up questions ready to bowl at the great man, but I blinked and was elbowed aside by a late-middle-aged pastor in thick rimmed glasses and a decidedly obvious toupee, who said ‘Dr Packer, my people tell me I should preach like Dr Billy Graham. Are they right?’ The moment was gone to explore unction. Jim Packer told him that he shouldn’t mimic Billy’s preaching, though he admitted that God had his hand on Billy Graham in a remarkable way.

We have spent the last few days reflecting on Billy Graham’s passing. (I wanted to use the word ‘mourning’ there, but there has been too much rejoicing and praising God for that word to seem appropriate.) It has been so good to see news coverage of him in his prime in the 1950s and 60s. Watch Billy Graham on YouTube! There are interviews where he politely and capably deals with the likes of Larry King or Woody Allen. (I’ve also been touched by the sensitive way that he has been portrayed in the Netflix drama The Crown.) In all these recordings you gain a sense of the man’s integrity and transparent godliness that is refreshing and bold. But above all it has been the numerous clips of his preaching that have affected me. Tonight I listened to his sermon preached in Chicago in 1971, and YouTube is full of such videos.  That leaves me wondering whether Jim Packer was wrong, and that there are some ways in which we should preach like Billy Graham. Here are some thoughts. Continue reading “Why we should preach like Billy Graham”

‘The Crown’, the Monarchy and God

The_crown_logoOver Christmas I discovered Netflix for the first time, and enjoyed the entire first season of The Crown.[1] It is a quite remarkable piece of TV drama, most of all because of the way it explores the very basis for the British monarchy. TV dramas about the Royal family are usually cack-handedly dreadful, with ham acting, dreadful scripts and actors who look more like Bruce Forsyth than the Duke of Edinburgh. The Crown is almost entirely believable, with Lancaster House looking as opulent as Buckingham Palace, and the actors inhabiting their roles with an understated confidence and poise. It handles the death of George VI quite brilliantly (even down to the Royal embalmers!), and brings the spectacular of the coronation to life for the digital age.

What impressed me most was the dialogue in episode 4, where a frail but impressively matriarchal Queen Mary, herself with not long to live, advises the young Queen about her calling under God.

‘Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth. To give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives. Monarchy is a calling from God. That is why you are crowned in an abbey, not a government building. Why you are anointed, not appointed. It’s an archbishop that puts the crown on your head, not a minister or public servant, which means that you are answerable to God in your duty, not the public.’

There is plenty to disagree with here, such as the dreadfully class-ridden assumption that the common people lead ‘wretched lives’, and it has to be said that the aristocracy have often provided a shocking example of debauchery and excess rather than ‘an example of nobility.’ However, behind the exalted language is a much derided idea that I think Christians need to rediscover: the biblical idea of nationhood includes the idea of kingdom rule under God. This is in stark contrast to the secular Enlightenment’s view that the people, the body politic, are sovereign, and our rulers answer to the voters above everything else. Continue reading “‘The Crown’, the Monarchy and God”

Martin Luther’s masterstroke

wartburg-castle-2269144_1920Martin Luther left the Diet of Worms in a wagon, guaranteed safe passage home to Wittenberg by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He needed a pledge of safe passage. The diet (the occasional session of the Parliament of the empire) declared him to be a heretic, and there was a price on his head. As the wagon passed through a forest near Eisenach, several knights appeared on horseback, surrounding the wagon, and challenged the terrified men to reveal which one was Luther. His companions, dumbstruck, pointed to Luther immediately, and he was snatched away on horseback. By nightfall, he was safely installed in the Wartburg, the castle of Frederick the Wise, his royal protector. Here Luther was able to lay low, growing a beard and becoming known as ‘Junker Jorg’ (Knight George), though he did not enjoy the rich food and copious wine of the Knights among whom he lived, or their more worldly attitudes. Yet it was in this mountaintop hideout that Luther was able to deliver his most subversive masterstroke.

As he had been taken from the wagon in the forest, Luther had managed to grab his Hebrew Old Testament and his Greek New Testament. Hidden away in his castle garret, he set to translating the Bible into German from the original languages. This was radical in several ways. First, any previous translation had been from the Latin Vulgate, not directly translated from the original languages. This had led to several mistranslations, especially in the understanding of justification. The Vulgate translated it as ‘make righteous’, rather than ‘declare righteous’, thereby confusing the forensic acquittal that is justification with the ongoing process of inner transformation that is sanctification. Second, Luther honoured the people’s language when he translating the Bible directly into German. His translation not only reflected the vernacular; it shaped and standardised it. This is normal in many Bible translation projects. Where literacy is low, giving people the Bible in their own language gives the literate the opportunity to read it to the illiterate, and the written language begins to shape the oral use of the language across the whole national conversation. Just as Tyndale was doing the same for the definition and standardisation of English, so Luther’s Bible shaped the language and conversation of Germany. It is only as secularism has moved people away from the Bible, a movement that coincided with the broadcasting revolution, that language has become anchored elsewhere, or, should I say, swept along in the currents of the mass media.

Luther’s Bible translation was radical for a third reason. In his early books, especially his Address to the German Nobility, he had taught the priesthood of all believers. The Roman Catholic Church focussed all power in the local priest, above him the bishops and Cardinals, with the Pope having ultimate authority. In the lives of everyday people, the priest held an unchallengeable position. He heard your confession, administered the sacraments, and read the Bible in Latin in Church, thereby keeping it from being understood by the common people. The priest stood between God and the people, those in monastic orders were near him in spiritual importance, while the laity was kept at a distance. But if every believer is a ‘royal priest’ (1 Peter 2:9, Rev 1:6) then we are all equal, and what Luther called ‘little Christs’ to one another. This means that the Bible is not to be locked up in Latin so that only an educated priest could understand it. It belongs to everyone, and should not just be read in church but studied personally at home. The Church had been keeping the Bible from the people. Now it must be read and taught everywhere.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this masterstroke. Across the Protestant parts of Europe, societies and systems of government were massively changed by the truths contained in the Bible. On my summer holiday this year, I read Vishal Mangalwadi’s brilliant book, The Book that made your world, a fascinating study in the way western culture at its height was shaped by, and produced by, the truths of the Bible. While it contains one or two glaring historical inaccuracies, the central argument is brilliantly made, and carries more weight coming from someone who was converted from an Indian Buddhist background. It is worth reading in the year of the Luther anniversary.  Our culture was shaped by the Bible, leading the West to value humanity, rationality, technology, language, literature, science, morality, compassion, and so much more. The very roots of modern democratic, parliamentary government owe their existence to the priesthood of all believers, the doctrine that brings down tyrants, elites and special interests, and empowers the everyday people of society, holding to account those in power. As our society increasingly seeks to drive the Bible out of our everyday life, to plaster over any hint of its influences, and to take for granted the institutions and values it has given to us, so we head back into a world of class divides, elitism and oppression at the hands of the new priesthoods: the secular humanists, the academics in their exalted ivory towers, and the media moguls and famous celebrities who live in a world above us and hold such huge influence over our lives. Without the Bible, truth, rational thought, and the needs of the soul rather than just the body, are all endangered and steadily being eroded.

This leaves me wondering: why do so few churches go out of their way to give away Bibles? Some do well in giving out gospels of Mark, Luke or John, but most just wait for people to enter their building before they get near a Bible. UCCF has done some sterling work in getting the ‘Uncover’ gospels out into the hands of thousands of students. Great work is still done by the Gideons. But we are not keeping up. Britain is going backwards into biblical illiteracy, and fast. I may be wrong, but I suspect that the panic on a train in Wimbledon station recently when a Christian started reading the Bible aloud may have been partly caused by the fact that most people wouldn’t recognise the difference between the Bible and the Koran, or indeed any other religious Scripture, so ignorant are they of the Bible’s content. Christians need to rediscover confidence in the Bible as God’s Word written. We should have the passion and determination of Luther to see the Word of God in the hands of everyone, in their own vernacular language. If we do, it will transform the moral and spiritual malaise of the West.

Race and the fear of the other

racismThe West needs to abandon its doctrine of race. Race is an Enlightenment category that continues to separate and divide people, and the consequences run deep and continue to make their presence felt. NFL players cannot bring themselves to stand for the US national anthem, and would rather kneel to make the point that the race divide still runs deep in the land of the free and the home of the brave. In Britain, we may not have had the history of Jim Crow laws in our past, but we have been as much to blame for the same thinking that makes race such a problem in the modern world.

The concept of race is has its roots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as modern science studied and categorised other species, and sought to do the same with humans. Writers such as Adam Smith, David Hume and Emmanuel Kant held a patronising view of more primitive human societies, and all used the term ‘race’ for the first time in its modern usage (compare and contrast with Luither and Calvin, though beware of poor modern translations in English that may include ‘race’). The early years of the colonial age threw together people of widely different cultures and languages. It was also the height of the Atlantic slave trade, an evil built on the understanding that Africans were from an inferior race. Continue reading “Race and the fear of the other”

The death of Diana – a cultural watershed

640px-Diana's_funeralThe death of Diana marked a watershed in our culture, an event so visceral in nature that it shook our British life to the core. Some ‘earthquake’ events change a nation’s life because a key figure is gone: Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, Chairman Mao, or, most obviously, JFK. When they are the person whose power drives the nation’s life, their passing changes everything. Diana was different. She had no power, and yet she became a defining character of the 1980s and 90s, a fairly blank canvas onto which people projected their own hopes, dreams, and ideologies. Whether Diana herself believed half of what is claimed for her now is so hard to know. She died young and so she became the stuff of myth and legend, though not ‘the stuff of which fairy tales are made.’ While much will be made of Diana over the next few days, allow me to draw attention to that culture shifting week between her death and her funeral. It tells us little about Diana herself, but so much more about British life now, as it flowed from that watershed moment.

The watershed of paganism

The way the public responded to tragedy was extraordinary. Flowers and candles spread from Kensington Palace down to Kensington High Street, and they extended out from the railings of Buckingham Palace and up Constitution Hill. As Diana’s coffin was carried from Westminster Abbey out of London up the Edgware Road onto the M1, people stood on bridges to drop carnations onto the hearse, and the undertakers had to use the windscreen wipers to clear their view. This seems normal now, but at the time it was still quite a new phenomenon (perhaps only having been seen previously after the Hillsborough disaster).

What did those evenings of candlelight and weeping in Kensington Gardens really signify? Neo-paganism came of age that week.  You could read it in the inscriptions on the flowers, describing Diana as an Angel and a gift from ‘heaven’. The spiritual ignorance and folk religion on display was extraordinary. Paganism worships created things, and begins to attribute to the chosen god such powers as they never had. The actual facts don’t matter. In those days all the flaws and failures of Diana’s character were ignored and she was elevated to sainthood by public opinion. Chatting with a friend a few weeks later, she said ‘I want to draw attention to the fact that if she wasn’t gallivanting round Paris with a very dodgy boyfriend, she might still be alive, but I’m not allowed to say it.’ The Diana cult expressed itself in the funeral service in two ways: in Elton John singing Candle in the Wind (still the best selling UK No 1 single ever), and in Earl Spenser’s tribute, which stands as one of the great speeches of the twentieth century, both for what it said and for what it tells us about the way we live and feel now.  Continue reading “The death of Diana – a cultural watershed”

Great Summer Reads 4 – The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski

Eagle Unbowed‘You started it. You invaded Poland!’ Tragically, that punchline from Fawlty Towers is all that most people know about Poland’s experience of the Second World War. Most young people know the story of Auschwitz, but I wonder how many of them know it is situated in Poland? Our ignorance of Poland’s tragedies in World War Two is widespread, at a time when in Britain we have a large and growing Polish community that we need to understand. Where better to look then that to the brilliant but unsung book The Eagle Unbowed- Poland and the Poles in the Second World War by Halik Kochanski.

Reading military history is a long-standing hobby for me, and I try and ration my reading because it easily becomes obsessive, especially when it comes to WW2. I find it good to read about an aspect of the war I know nothing about, rather than yet another book about D-Day. Halik Kochanski is a respected Historian at London University, the child of Polish refugees whose story she subtly weaves into her narrative. She assumes you know nothing about Poland, and educates while drawing you into the story. The book even comes with a helpful pronunciation guide, but like reading War and Peace, you have to get past the names issue.

She starts with the rebirth of Poland in 1920 and their victories over the Bolsheviks in the east (which stores up trouble on Poland’s eastern border for later on in the story).  Then Poland’s humbling at the hands of Hitler and Stalin in 1939 is described in detail – while we had our ‘phoney war’, there was nothing phoney in Poland. What people never realise is that Poland was the only country overrun by the Nazis in Eastern Europe that never surrendered. The government went underground, as did key parts of the army to form the ‘AK’, while others crossed the border into Hungary and Romania, and made their escape to fight with the allies in Western Europe. Polish pilots formed two RAF squadrons, 303 squadron being based at RAF Northolt and making a huge contribution to the battle of Britain. George Vi was heard to say ‘One cannot help feeling that if all our allies had been Poles, the coursed of the war, up to now, would have been very different.’ Continue reading “Great Summer Reads 4 – The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski”

Great Summer Reads 3: Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson

Home_(Marilynne_Robinson_novel)_coverartMarilynne Robinson is the world’s greatest living novelist. I know that is a huge claim to make, considering she has only written four novels, but as one novel has won a Pulitzer and another the Orange prize, she deserves special attention. Why is that? I think it is because she has created a unique genre of novel, the pastoral novel. Not in the sense that Thomas Hardy wrote pastoral novels about the bucolic charms of his beloved Wessex. Marilynne Robinson writes novels about pastors. That is why I am so drawn to them, and why I urge you to step into her world this summer.

The huge industry that publishes novels has done to death several different genres. Romantic fiction from Jane Austin and the Brontes to the modern chick flick can surely have nothing much left to say. Crime novels are still a huge industry, as are legal and military thrillers, but like their TV adaptations, you do tire of them after a while. Couldn’t someone create a new genre of drama sometime? Just as I was thinking that, I stumbled onto Robinson’s novels via Twitter, and they are a door into a world I have inhabited for twenty five years in pastoral ministry, and they are written as great literature.

Gilead  is the name of a small town in Iowa on the American prairie, where John Ames is a pastor reaching the end of his life, and writing the book to his young son so he can understand his roots when his father is gone. The framework of the story only suggests itself gradually, and key facts slip effortlessly into the cake while the mixture is slowly stirred at the kitchen table. The main interplay is between the Ames family and the GileadcoverBoughtons, the local Presbyterian pastor and his family. Meanwhile, the beauty and thoughtfulness of small town America is worked out in domestic scenes so rich and warm that you feel yourself invited to sit at the table. There is plenty of theology that comes up in conversation, and the struggles that a pastor has in trying to care for his flock, and the frustrations he has with those who reject the gospel. All of this is brought to life in the most dazzling prose that will ease the stresses of life from you and evoke a world of swing-seats out on the stoop, rocking chairs by the fire and a hardwood kitchen table where meals are shared as expressions of the gospel. Robinson establishes a huge sense of place and lets you inhabit it and feel fully at home. But do not imagine that these sedate scenes are free from trouble. There is grit in the story. Dark tones come to the surface, just as rural life can often be darker than any urban dystopia, and Jack Boughton is the source of the trouble. This gives a brilliant opportunity to trace the interplay between the grace of God in the gospel and the prodigal who rejects it and runs away. How is he to be handled? Who will say the wrong thing? What are his real motives? What is he really thinking as the pastor talks to him? The characters are drawn so brilliantly that not one of them is a cliché.

Home is the second novel of the series, and the focus moves from the Ames household to the Boughtons. Young Jack Boughton has been away from Gilead for twenty years, but now he comes home seeking refuge from his past. The question is how his father and his sister Glory will handle this, and how Jack will respond to God’s grace when he encounters it. I found my heart aching for him as the conversations were played out across the kitchen table. The heart of a pastor aches to see gospel change in those who waste their lives, but it is a change that only God can give. Will it come to Jack as he tries to rebuild his life? There are layers to this exploration of regret and repentance that run so deep, and both father and sister find their own hearts and attitudes examined. I am confident that there is no work of fiction that explores this better.

I have yet to read the third in the sequence, Lila, which tells the story of Ames’ second wife and how she came to Gilead from a background of wandering and tragedy, and then married him. But I am thinking I need to re-read the nuances of Gilead again first to be ready to savour its riches. And sit by that fireplace and nod my agreement with the old man.

Great summer reads 2: C. S. Lewis-A Life by Alister McGrath

CSLewisI used to have a rule that it was good to take a C S Lewis book on holiday every year, and that way make progress in his so varied body of work as one of the great twentieth century writers and thinkers. It’s a good rule. Start with Mere Christianity,  then try The Screwtape Letters or the Four Loves, and then maybe a book of essays like First and Second Things to get a wider sense of his thinking. But that is only to scratch the surface of his work, and the more you read the more you wonder about the author. That is why I can’t recommend too highly enough Alister McGrath’s brilliant biography, C S Lewis – A Life. Eccentric Genius, Reluctant prophet. This is the story of his life, told by a fellow Irishman who is also a great Oxford academic apologist and one of our best minds, yet written in a way that is accessible to a wide audience.

C S Lewis is an enigma. Loved by many most of all for his children’s fiction, his greatest work was in the area of literary criticism, yet he is known most among Christians as an apologist. He should also be known as a committed young Oxford atheist who reluctantly became a Christian. McGrath explores his troubled childhood, his dreadful days at Malvern School, and then his defining years next to my native Leatherhead where he was tutored by ‘the Great Knock.’ He charts his journey through the trenches of the First World War to his settling in Oxford in the relatively new discipline of modern English literature, and also his irregular relationship with ‘Mrs Moore.’ Then we are plunged into the intellectual and spiritual agonies through the 1920s and the early days of his academic career that led to his conversion in 1931-32. It was no intellectual surrender, but rather the logical solution to the intellectual and imaginative riddles that had troubled him from his youth. Continue reading “Great summer reads 2: C. S. Lewis-A Life by Alister McGrath”