Yesterday I encountered Oliver Stone in person. BAFTA and Oscar winner, producer/director of JFK, Nixon and most recently a documentary series of interviews with Vladimir Putin, he was picking up an honorary doctorate at our daughter’s graduation ceremony in Edinburgh. As a revealing cultural moment, I thought it deserved a post here dissecting his narrative of the world.
Oliver Stone is a great film director, who makes serious films that tackle the big narrative of geopolitical issues. He isn’t a Spielberg mass entertainer, nor does he paint the dream world of Richard Curtis. He does grit. Like the best he is a big personality. I imagine he isn’t easy to please on set. But my first impression of him was of studied disinterest. As the honoured guest he sat front and centre in the McEwan Hall, the eyes of all upon him. His presentation and speech was in the middle of the programme, so half the graduands walked up to be ceremonially doffed with the famous cap immediately in front of him. Yet he spent the time very obviously writing his speech! Around him ranks of academics clapped each person as they passed. Oliver looked down and scribbled. How important do you have to think you are that you can’t enter into the occasion and congratulate their success? Even when his speech was finally ready, he couldn’t bring himself to clap. But this is the culture of pride and self-obsession, and Hollywood is its summit. What a tragedy that great men who shape the culture have forgotten how to walk humbly in public.
His speech was unforgettable. Like the preacher at a wedding who majors on the evil of divorce, he addressed a gathering of arts students on the certain imminent threat of nuclear apocalypse, all within a secular liberal framework. Sobering stuff for graduation day. Yet strangely, I agreed with some of what he said. Allow me to unpick his narrative of the world, to find the truth, and expose the fundamental flaws. Continue reading “Oliver Stone’s Edinburgh speech and his worldview”
The desperate tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire may prove to be a defining moment in our culture, a tragic combination of events that serves to reveal so much in British society, both bad and good. The tower stands as a charred obelisk as you drive down the Westway, like some terrible gash on the face of London that reveals tooth and bone such that you don’t want to stare but cannot look away. Last Friday I went to pick up my daughter from University, and with the car loaded with possessions (a poignant fact in the context), we drove past on our way out. At one point you can see daylight right through the building, where once there were homes with all their possessions and their shared human life. There are so many strands to this terrible tragedy, so much that could be written, but I want to focus on one theme. The Grenfell Tower tragedy has much to teach us about the biblical concept of home, and to highlight the problems of making a home in a vast global city.
God designed and created the idea of home. Continue reading “Grenfell Tower and the biblical longing for home”
London is a great city. Through fifty years it has been my capital city, and I have lived my life in and out of it, walked its streets, enjoyed its parks, discovered its neighbourhoods, and bathed in its history. I’ve visited every Museum, queued up to get into Parliament, walked its art galleries, ridden almost every tube line, arrived at every major rail terminal, ridden in a black cab and numerous buses, seen the crown jewels at the Tower of London, and cheered the Queen down the mall. I was ordained in SW London twenty five years ago this September, and in recent years have enjoyed preaching in so many of London’s churches. When my work takes me away to other continents, there is no joy like the joy of flying in over the suburbs, seeing the Millennium Dome and the Shard, and coasting up the Thames to Heathrow, as I did this week. It is a wonderful city that welcomes you home.
Therefore those like President Trump who suggest that we are alarmed by what happened last night on London Bridge just do not know the place. There is something in the British spirit that looks terrorism in the face and carries on. London is a resilient city. We have lived through much worse. 351 years ago the old city of London burnt down, and the Corporation set to work to rebuild, raising the second St Pauls Cathedral from the ashes of the first. In Dickensian London, life had become unbearable in the ‘great stink’ of 1858, but London showed the way in building the great Victorian sewerage system, and in building the first underground railways as well. After the killing fields of the First World War, it was Londoners who had the vision to build ‘Metroland’, the rolling suburbs that brought the country to the city and were so celebrated by Sir John Betjeman.
Then came the Blitz. Continue reading “London – a resilient city”
Could this be a very different kind of general election? Has the ground shifted in British politics? I really don’t know. But as we embark on yet another election campaign, I long to see a different agenda take hold in British politics. Here are seven things I would love to see in this election:
1. A new debate about human rights. So much of the agenda of the past twenty years has been about human rights, tied to the equality agenda, which is really a political correctness conformist agenda. The Human Rights Act 1998 has enshrined the European Convention of Human Rights in UK law, but whether this has ever done anything to extend the concept of human rights is debatable. Many of the rights stated have existed in English law for hundreds of years. The Human Rights Act has done a lot for prisoners’ rights, and has made the job of the prison service much worse, even though we were not a brutal prison regime pre-1998. Also, foreign nationals so often don’t get deported at the end of their sentence because they have a right to a family life and their new girlfriend and baby conveniently lives in Britain. The Human Rights Acts has certainly advanced the LGBT community’s rights, because the focus has been on the more fashionable, politically correct rights of self-expression and identity, while it has failed to guard the most basic right of all, the right to life. In fact, the right to life is being steadily eroded. An unborn child can be destroyed simply because it has Downs Syndrome, and that can happen right up to birth. We would not do that to someone disabled at some point in their life, so why would we do that to someone who has a genetic abnormality that does not prevent them from enjoying a full, educated and integrated life in the community. Please can we have a debate in this election on the human right to life. If we did, it would be a massive change to the political agenda, but it is the most precious right of all.
Continue reading “Seven things I’d love to see in this election”
Africa has a middle class. This is a surprise to many people in the West, but in a country such as Kenya the middle class is growing rapidly. They pay their taxes, drive their cars and live in decent housing, often doing white collar jobs and generating income for the wider economy. This is very obvious in Nairobi, but it is also true in Western Kenya. In Kisumu, Kenya’s third city, life is much quieter than the throng of Nairobi, but there are a few opulent hotels, a large new high-rise University building, and suburbs where the middle class and ex-pats live in walled compounds shaded by trees, protected with heavy security. During my visit there this February, we drove home with some curiosity one day to find men digging a trench down the street to install fibre optic cables. Even in Bondo, the home town of Presidential candidate Raila Odinga to the West of Kisumu with its ‘frontier town’ atmosphere, the town now plays host to a small university. Development is changing rural Kenya, and yet life still remains in so many ways the same.
Rural Kenyan life is still organised around the land, and it is farmed in small ‘shambas’, where each family lives and eats what their land produces. Whereas British farms are organised in units of hundreds of acres, each Kenyan farms about an acre of land or less, which means that homes are spread out fairly evenly across the countryside, rather than gathered into village clusters. Most farmers grow maize and millet, along with cassava and green vegetables, and keep a few cattle and goats, with some stray chickens. Their plot may be fenced in with bushes and sticks, and pieces of board or corrugated iron fill the gaps and make for ramshackle boundaries. If this seems untidy to those who are used to large British farms with fences and thick hedgerows, as an allotment holder I felt rather at home! I chatted to several of the local pastors about what they grew on their plot, and how they made a living. Of course, everything still depends on the rain, and they rejoiced that it had rained for the first time the night I had arrived (not cause and effect, I assure you!). However, as I had come to visit a village church gathering that Saturday, half of those who would have come to the meeting were busy turning their soil as the first rains had softened it, something I could fully understand.
In the West we are told that everything in Africa is a disaster. Continue reading “Real life in rural Kenya”
This Easter, the world is in chaos. A new cold war has frozen relations between Washington and Moscow. President Trump is putting his military hardware to use across the world, and in the most enduring military standoff ever, tensions could hardly be higher along the DMZ in Korea. So many new beginnings have held such promise – the ‘New World Order’ of 1989, the ‘Arab Spring of 2011 – but in each case the promised new era of peace is swiftly ruined by hatred and violence. So why should the first Easter Day be any different? Because it is the fulcrum of history, and the victory established that day is still working itself out as history rolls on. How does Easter affect the nations of the world?
Christians are passionate about the nations of the world. We believe this is God’s world, and that he holds the nations in the palm of his hand. Our concern is to see people from all nations turning to Christ and being reconciled to God. So our hearts are troubled when nations are divided, and it seems like the world is breaking into pieces. How can we make sense of it? The answer is to turn to Scripture and to look at the world as God sees it. One obvious place to turn to for wisdom is Psalm 2. It takes us from a world in uproar to the throne room of heaven, to see God’s plan for the nations. Psalm 2 presents to us God’s King and shows us how he will rule the nations. It is a short psalm in four paragraphs, and with each paragraph the scene changes. If Psalm 2 was a film, the camera angles would keep changing, and the voices would keep changing. It is a powerful drama wrapped up in 12 short verses. Continue reading “God’s risen King and the nations”
It is a double tragedy that a terrorist attacked the British Parliament today. Terrorism is an attack on our national life, an utter rejection of democracy, so when a terrorist targets Parliament itself, we feel a national sense of violation, laden with symbolism.This is not the first terror attack on the Palace of Westminster. In 1979, Abingdon MP Airey Neave was blown up in his car just a few yards from the scene of today’s attack, and earlier in the 1970s the IRA planted a bomb in a doorway of Westminster Hall near the statue of Oliver Cromwell.
As we come to the end of such a tragic day, what is the Christian response to a terrorist attack on our country? Here are some of my thoughts.
- Weep with those who weep. An officer ran towards danger for the sake of others, and will not be coming home tonight. Weep for his family, and for every Policeman’s family who wait to see what condition their loved one comes home in at the end of a shift. (The latest post on the Police Commander blog is more than poignant today.) Weep for the families of the other victims, including those who sit at the bedsides of the wounded in St Thomas’s and Guys hospitals. But do not weep in the pagan way, as though lighting candles and laying flowers will somehow placate unknown gods. Weep for these families before the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, and remember that our heavenly Father knows what it means to be bereft, as he was on Good Friday.
Continue reading “In spite of all terror”
Nairobi is a thriving middle class city. It is also known for its massive slums. How can those two realities exist side by side? The inescapable fact is that they do, just as they did in Dickens’ London. The contrast reminds you to arrive in Nairobi with an open mind, not letting your preconceptions dictate what you think of the place, but to get to know the city on its own terms. It is a happening city, enjoying a building boom, with plenty of signs of spiritual life as well. At the same time, as a westerner it is advisable not to go out after dark. Living securely here is an issue. On the scale of world cities, Nairobi is not vast. Nearly 3.5 million live within its boundaries, so by comparison with Manila, Chennai or Mexico City, it is fairly average, but it is the heart of Kenya. Chosen by the British colonists for its cooler climate at altitude, Nairobi is nearly 6000 feet above sea level, making the air thinner than perhaps you realise.
I arrived in mid-February, on my way to visit missionaries in Western Kenya, and had arranged an overnight stop in Nairobi to see some of the people and places where our Mission used to be involved. I met local pastors, was taken to the ACTS bookshop on the beautiful campus of the African International University, and visited a couple of churches. For someone just passing through, the Kenyans put on a remarkable welcome, and treated me with an interest that I don’t deserve. I found Kenyan Christians warm, easy to chat with, serious about the Bible and zealous in proclaiming it. There is an earnest quality to Kenyan Church life that is lacking in Britain. Continue reading “Nairobi, rich and poor”
‘We are going to build a wall.’
But can you? Can you really make a nation’s borders as absolute as a wall? Can a nation be sealed off in that way? Even Britain as a group of islands discovered what a border is like when Ireland was partitioned, and realised at the height of the troubles that the best guarded borders are still porous. So what are we to make of Mr Trump’s wall, and how should our thinking be shaped by what Scripture has to say about nationhood and migration?
I have mixed feelings about the Trump wall and the reaction to it. On the one hand countries have to regulate their own immigration, to prevent illegal immigration and protect national security. Those who have been running the ‘bridges not walls’ campaign need to think through the logical conclusions of their arguments. Can a country guarantee its own security without knowing who is passing through its borders? When one of their citizens goes to another country, don’t they need a passport for their own protection and identity? If borders did not exist and there were completely unregulated immigration, the overload on the big destination countries and the loss of key skills in the countries of origin would both be massive problems. That is why we have national boundaries, and controlled immigration, and why America has a rather different border with Mexico to what it has with Canada. The Trump wall is only strengthening an already heavily patrolled and fenced border, on a frontier where illegal immigration is a regular occurrence.
On the other hand, there is a fear of the ‘other’ that motivates the building of the Trump wall. Too many of America’s problems are being blamed on other countries, as though if ‘we’ could only keep ‘them’ troublemakers out, we righteous Americans could enjoy unblemished life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The UKIP segment of the Brexit vote labours under similar faulty thinking about Brexit, as though our problems can all be blamed on Europe and left to itself the British are righteous and better than the rest. That is Continue reading “The Porous boundaries of nationhood”
Apparently I’m a Fascist! This comes as something of a shock discovery, as I had always thought of myself as a democrat who believes in the rule of law and the pursuit of social justice, that all of life should be lived under God and for his glory. But apparently I have used my vote to ‘contribute to the new fascism’ because I voted to leave the European Union.
This accusation comes in a recent document put out by the International Fellowship of Mission as Transformation (INFEMIT). This is a group of world mission thinkers that came together out of the Lausanne Movement (though as far as I can tell the two organisations are different) and are committed to the integration of evangelism and social justice, a key tenet of Lausanne. In response to Donald Trump’s inauguration and on the same day, they issued A Call for Biblical Faithfulness amid the New Fascism. I am as concerned about the growth of neo-fascists as they are, but in their statement they have gone too far, especially in the following key paragraph:
‘As followers of Jesus, we also feel compelled to issue this call because we find it disturbing that many self-identified evangelicals in their respective countries contributed in no small part to the new fascism by the way they voted in a number of recent referenda (e.g. Colombia, United Kingdom) and national elections (e.g. Philippines, United States). In the case of the U.S., we mourn the reduction of the gospel that resulted in single-issue voting, even as we acknowledge the complexity of the political process and the agony of many over the options available. It is true that for many evangelicals, their vote was more against the other candidates than it was for the one they elected. Nonetheless, we grieve the part that evangelicals played in electing a person whose character, values, and actions are antithetical to the Gospel. Furthermore, we find it inadmissible that some high profile evangelical leaders have hailed the President-elect as a Christian and a prophet. It does not surprise us that many people, especially from the younger generation, are abandoning the evangelical world altogether.’
Allow me to respond with a measure of graciousness and nuance as a ‘self-identified evangelical’ (surely a pejorative term) who understands the word evangelical as sitting under the authority of inerrant Scripture and seeks to surrender to the Lordship of Christ as my Redeemer. Continue reading “‘The New Fascism’ – a response”
Most of the great worldviews have something going for them, but the key question is: where do they lead? When followed, where do we ultimately end up? You may not think of Donald Trump as the expression of secular liberalism, but I think he is where liberalism leads us. Surely not, you say. He’s a Republican (allegedly), apparently elected by the religious right, and he defeated Hillary, the high priestess of liberalism. How can he be the outworking of secular liberalism? Yet the more you think about it, he is the logical absurdity you arrive at if you buy into the worldview that denies the existence of God, idolises democracy and puts self at the top of the pile. Think about these key tenets of Trumpism and ponder where they come from.
I am amazing. Trump is an exhibitionist, from the bling of Trump Tower, to his TV career, his resort empire, and his trophy wives. His long nomination campaign was geared to promoting himself. Policy mattered very little at all, if it ever featured. It was all about The Donald and everything about him, we were told, is amazing. If you take God out of the picture and deny that he exists, then you are top of the pile. Secular liberalism has enthroned mankind in the place of God, and replaced divine revealed wisdom with human reason. Of course, Trump made great play of possessing his mother’s Bible, and would not claim to be an atheist, but does God really matter to him? When your universe revolves around planet you, God is practically irrelevant, or tame at best. Continue reading “Trump as the logical absurdity of secular liberalism”
Why do we assume when it comes to churches that size determines health? Why assume that a church of 300 must be doing well, while a church of 30 must be unhealthy and in need of revitalising? It could be possible that a large church of 300-500 people is really spiritually unhealthy and in need of serious revitalisation, while the 30-strong church is actually spiritually vital. (For American or African readers, if 300 seems small, please understand that that is quite large by UK standards.) To assess whether your church needs revitalising, here are six suggested measures of bad church health.
- Poor prayer life. Do all the Christians in your church pray together? There is a world of difference between a ‘prayer meeting’ (routine, dull, predictable, driven by habit, unimaginative, happening because it ought to) and a ‘prayer gathering’ (motivated by a real urge to pray about something, led with good preparation, filled with heartfelt prayer, praying for things that have not been prayed for before, going beyond habit in order to cast ourselves upon God, a gathering that happens because it simply has to – the Christians felt they had to be there). If your church meets to pray because of habit rather than because of a heart-felt desire, then the prayer life of the church really needs revitalising. More than that, are you modelling public prayer as an example of the kind of prayers people should be praying alone at home? The way the church prays in public will shape the way people learn to pray in private. The larger the church, the harder it gets to pray for people in public. If someone is ill and awaiting test results after a scan, it is hard to reveal that in front of 300 people, some of whom won’t know who you are talking about. The larger a church grows, the less it remains a fellowship (a strong argument for church-planting) and the more easily it can drift into a life together less and less bound together in prayer.
Continue reading “Revitalising the larger church”