Category Archives: Christianity & culture


I started a sermon talking about YOLO, one of those trendy abbreviations perfectly suited to electronic communication.

YOLO: you only live once. That’s the simple meaning, the set of words that match each letter. But, of course, the saying has more than mere words. YOLO arrives with a feel, an attitude, and an implicit spur to action.

And that spur is towards folly. “I decided to jump, because, you know, #YOLO.” “Yeah, maybe that was dumb, but #YOLO.”

As I said in the sermon, the reality of only one life is a strange excuse for activity likely to end life early.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

So I suggest an alternative, an alternative direct from Jesus’ upside-down invitation into true life. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” To follow Jesus – which is life itself! – is to accept the invitation to die.

My alternative: YODO, you only die once.

Since we only die once, make it a good death. Make it a real death, death to self. Make it a worthwhile death, from following Jesus not following the crowd.

Will this catch on as the latest hashtag? Of course not! But I’m not worried, because, like, #YODO.



WW1 history & New Testament history

I write one day after ANZAC Day. This dates from a battle of World War 1, which started a century ago. Next year, it will be 100 years since the Gallipoli landing – the key date for ANZAC memory.

With all these centenaries, there’s been plenty of media. There’s a guarantee that there will be so much more media coverage on 25 April 2015.

This made me realise something about history and the generations. I am old enough (still under 50) to have met WW1 veterans and talked about their military experience. My children will never know a WW1 veteran. One hundred years on, and I am one generation removed – but we are definitely into the stage of two generations removed.

One hundred years after Jesus’ execution and resurrection, there were people still around who had met eyewitnesses. The most famous claim is that Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John. I guess (as a non-historian) it’s hard to verify the certainty of this. Yet it illustrates a point: it was perfectly reasonable that a man who died in 155 AD could have known an eyewitness to Jesus’ activities in the 30s AD. 

it was perfectly reasonable that a man who died in 155 AD could have known an eyewitness to Jesus’ activities in the 30s AD

Remember also that every book of the New Testament was written before 100 AD, many within even 30 years of Christ’s cross. These writings are so many, and from numerous authors – we don’t rely on one partial scrap of a single piece of writing.

So it surprises me that people seriously consider that there was no Jesus, no Easter, no resurrection proclaimed, no truth in the record of Jesus’ teaching.

If there’s something certain in the nature of Christianity, it’s that our faith claims real historical basis. It’s a basis I’ve never seen effectively undermined.



Review: By Hook or By Crook

CrookHere’s your experiment. You travel towards a new planet knowing that, of the two races, one is friendly towards humans and the other very angry. Which is the friendly one, the Lamonians or the Gataks?

If you have an answer, then you are a linguist. Congratulations and welcome. The experiment is from David Crystal, a man who gets paid his love of words. By Hook or by Crook is his idiosyncratic linguistic journey, searching – as the subtitle tells us – for English. He doesn’t really find it, but how could you? English is far too big and far too interesting to bottle up, and Crystal know this. He’s already written two encyclopaedias on English, after all.

A more apt subtitle would probably mention a journey to look down some of the darkened corridors of English. Crystal is endlessly fascinated with language and words and speech patterns and local dialect and people and change and history and … well, anything.

The book is based loosely on a journey around Wales and southern England. Crystal was recording varied voices for a BBC series (called ‘Voices’ – what a surprise). As he travels and writes, his mind also wanders. To take one chapter, ‘Stratford’ includes thoughts on taboo words for sailors and actors, pub names, absent-minded professors, word-sound associations, cathedrals, cultural diversity, place names in the US and understanding Shakespeare’s plays.

Crystal is well aware of his wandering habit. He describes the internet as having many properties of spoken language: ‘loosely constructed sentences and unexpected changes of direction. A bit like this book, really …’

And it’s a good fun read. You’ll be surprised, informed and quite possibly keen to pursue word studies of your own. (Can you think of another place name with Roman numerals in the middle, to add to Ruyton XI Towns?)

As a Christian, I’m all for language because I’m all for the Word. I admit, though, that I am not thankful enough for the benefits of English in sharing the gospel of Jesus.

The English Bible, particularly the Authorised Version, has had huge impact on our language. In Anglican circles, the Book of Common Prayer is also an enduring legacy. BCP was not merely a way to run church. It is packed full of teaching about Jesus in phrases that stick. Independent churches don’t have prayer books. But I know what will happen if I visit an aged care home and start, ‘Our Father which art in heaven …’

It’s not that English is God’s language. It’s more like Paul using Roman roads, or the reformers using new printing technology. God’s eternal gospel is not too proud to hitch-hike a ride with what’s going on in our (transient) cultures.

You won’t find this kind of reflection on language in By Hook or by Crook. It is wide: the UK, USA, Canada, India, Australia, South Africa. It is long: going back to Old Norse, Latin, Anglo-Saxon and more. But it is not deep. It does not ask why words are so powerful, how they effect so much and what is the truth that lies beneath all speech.

I can’t say this is a failing. This is an enjoyable ramble. If your mind wants to wander, you can investigate deeper thoughts on your own time.

In that spirit, here’s a modified experiment for you. This time you aren’t going to a new planet, but into your local community. How do you think these people respond to the following words: Jesus, Christian, St Blogg’s by the Road? Or even – and there’s risk here – to hearing your name?

If enough of us listen like linguists to these opinions, we’ll be better able to point our neighbours to the God who has spoken clearly. It’s only in God himself that one of Crystal’s greatest desires will come to be – the preservation of all the world’s languages. What a day that will be! When all tribes and peoples and languages will cry out, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, and the the Lamb’ (Revelation 7:9-10).



Should Christians watch violence?

Is there any effect on individuals, or society, when people watch lots of violent media? Or if they play gore-filled computer games? Or sexualised content on the internet?

You and I can easily find arguments for freedom to watch anything, as well as arguments in favour of tightly restricted access. And such arguments will have social science studies to back them up. Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I tend to see that groups who commission social science studies get results that reinforce their initial beliefs. Science isn’t as ‘objective’ as we assume.

Instead of Professor Suchandsuch, I am turning to an unqualified Jewish carpenter. He happens also to be Lord and Saviour of the world. How does following Jesus guide media consumers like us?

All foods are clean, all people are not
Jesus did not follow the empty human traditions of his day. Special hand washing techniques, he knew, do not place people nearer to God. Yet Jesus went further: he also taught that even the God-given food laws of the Old Testament do nothing for godliness. “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him” (see Mark 7:14-22). The problem is the human heart – yours and mine – from which arises every evil.

This tells us that no media can create a murderer, or adulterer. Advertising does not create greed. None of us can blame another for defiled thoughts, behaviour, and conscience. Defilement is all our own work! In a real sense the murderer who copies a gruesome movie scene has merely found a media image that fits the already-existing violence their own heart. Perhaps the movie helped uncover it – but it was already there.

Jesus did, however, warn us about what enters the body. This time he spoke of light: “When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad your body is full of darkness. Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness” (see Luke 11:33-36). What we watch counts, for the eye is the lamp of the body. We are to watch and watch and watch Jesus – the one who is greater than Solomon, greater than Jonah, greater than all. In other words, our eye obeys our faith. We watch what we trust.

So, it’s worth asking, why do we watch any media? What is it we seek, what is it we see? As Jesus said, be careful.

Heart and eye in practice
What Christians watch comes down to heart and eye. We take responsibility for our own heart: no one else is to blame. We are careful with our eye: we choose what will illuminate our soul, not darken it. My summary of the two principles is this:

  1. If what you watch stirs the evil already within your heart, stop watching
  2. Choose to watch that which gives light, not dark

What that looks like in real-life will vary enormously. Here are some examples:

  • If you can watch without stirring up evil, you could be part of the classification board for media. I’d hate to do it, but am thankful for the national system to review and classify
  • If you find yourself copying the unhelpful language or thought process of a popular show, you happily give up watching
  • You might watch something you don’t like, just because people you care for are watching it. You want to know what ‘light’ these friends are attracted to
  • Christians won’t make simplistic protests that blame media for all social evils. We know the problem is the human heart
  • Christians won’t blithely ignore what’s happening in media. We want to give every eye light to watch, not darkness

No doubt there are many more examples. Can you think of any? Please share them in the comments below. Or perhaps you know of a knotty media problem you’d like to share. Again, please comment. The media are so prevalent that we need to talk about media consumption more often.



The church in fiction: Home

Here’s a beautiful description of church from Home, a novel by Marilynne Robinson. I love the ways this combines the local and personal (that building and that preacher) with the unchanging doctrines of Christ.

For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God’s good world, with God’s good sunlight pouring in through those windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humanity and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church.



Does ‘love’ equal ‘good’?

In Australia, it is beyond argument to say, ‘Love is good.’

If we love, we must be permitted to love to the utmost. Those who place an impediment to love are nothing but mean-spirited misanthropes. It’s easy to create slogans for the modern view of love.

Love must be free.

All love is real love.

Keep your hate away from my love.

[Between drafting this post and publishing it, I saw the perfect T-shirt. It said Do what you love.]

My automatic tendency is to agree with these ideas. After all, it’s none of my business, is it? If that’s ‘your thing’ but not mine, surely we can co-exists peacefully. In other words: Yes, I am an insider to the modern Australian culture.

God’s word breaks through such silly sentiment. Not all love is good. And the major love of many Australians is a deadly poison. There is a love we are to oppose! Such love is a risk in churches. And a danger to the wider community.

Here are some of the warnings:

A faithful man will abound with blessings, but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.
(Proverbs 28:20)

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24)

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:10)

For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. (James 1:11)

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. … You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence.  (See the whole of James 5:1-7)

So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.  (To the church of Laodicea, Revelation 3:16-17)

Loving money is awfully dangerous. It makes for the tragedy of turning away from Jesus with sadness (remember the rich ruler of Mark 10). It makes our eyes blind to needy humans we could help (remember the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16).

Love of money is far from neutral. It switches mastery. Instead of us mastering money to serve others, money masters us to serve self.

‘Love’ equals ‘good’. No!
With this example of money, it’s easy to see that love is not enough explanation for action. Quite the contrary, in fact. Love’s danger is that it can blind us to the wrongs inhabiting our own hearts. Love might lead us – willingly, eagerly – along a path of destruction. The modern cries (and T-shirts!) tell us to freely flow along the river of our passion. With real wisdom, the Bible urges us instead to pause, and practise humble self-awareness.

It’s not Follow your love. Much more it’s Beware your loves.



On the existence of eggs

Opinions vary. Here is a representative range of voices.


I’m just not sure about the existence of eggs and all that. Obviously I’ve seen shells, and I know how useful they are, but the whole story of yolk and egg-white … I mean, how can you know? I personally know people who are convinced that eggs exist, and I’m cool with that. I can see how it helps them face up to eggshells.


Eggs don’t exist, that’s certain. We all know about eggshells and the shape they give to life. Once we think with maturity, we know that’s all there is – just a shell. The whole egg-myth is a creative back-story. Perhaps it was originally used to explain the need to look after the eggshell, or to explain it to the young. But now the egg-myth is a means of control: ‘You must believe in the egg to explain the eggshell.’ Baloney!


I am convinced that eggs are real. For me, it’s not that the shell forced people to create the idea of ‘eggness’. No, it’s that the existence of eggs gave rise to the shape of eggshells. I’ve heard people say that the simplest explanation is better – that the shell is all there is – but that sounds like a claim that half-reality is better than whole-reality. Anyway, I’m sure about the historic account of the broken egg. I know I didn’t see the yoke run out, but others did.


I’m part of a group of egg-believers, yes. Though I think it’s more out of habit than strong conviction. I certainly like the way we treat the eggshell. I find that my view of the egg itself varies: perhaps there is an egg, perhaps just an egg-white, perhaps nothing. In my heart of hearts, I think it probably doesn’t matter, as long as we all behave nicely about the eggshell. I don’t want to offend the strong egg-believers I hang around with, yet I feel they’re a bit over the top at times, even embarrassing.



Politics: don’t get your hopes up

It’s election time in Australia!

If that did not excite you, try this. It’s almost the end of election time in Australia!

Many voters are tired of the campaign. One of my pet hates is when one politician repeats known untruths simply because they make an opponent look bad. I want to yell out, ‘If you and I both know you’re pushing a lie over here, why do expect me to trust you over there?’ (OK, that’s just me venting. Sorry.)

Another thing I’ve noticed is in the way we talk about political issues. We love to promise/demand perfect solutions.

Considering military action after use of sarin gas in Syria? ‘There will be no bombs.’

Responding to asylum-seekers floating to Australia? ‘There will be no boats.’ Or, ‘We demand all arrivals to be housed.’

Thinking about small business? ‘There will be no red-tape to tangle your productivity.’

Education? ‘Every child in Australia will reach his or her full potential.’

The kingdom

As a Christian, I recognise the shape of these statements – they are all eschatological. Eschatology is the teaching of the last things, the time when all God’s perfect standards are perfectly honoured. Eschatology looks ahead to the consummation of all things.

The prophets spoke of these days of completeness. Have a look at Isaiah 11:1-9, or Isaiah 65:17-25. They promised a sword recycling programme to provide what’s really needed – farm implements (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3). The Bible finishes with strong confidence in God’s promise:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4)

These promises are affirmed and guaranteed by the ministry of Jesus. He who crushed sin and defeated death will take history to this long-desired end. This is the good news of Jesus the king! We pray, ‘Your kingdom come.’

Not the kingdom

Australia, despite having a royal head of state, is not to be confused with this kingdom. No mere nation can fulfil the hopes of these scriptural promises. Every nation is weighed and found to be like dust on the scales, too insignificant to move the balance.

No nation is the kingdom. Therefore:

  • no government, or aspiring government, can promise the kingdom
  • no voter can demand the kingdom

If either of these happen, move right along. This is not meant to bag politicians, by the way. The really important one of these is the second. That’s where most of us live. Politicians’ most extreme promises gain life from voters who listen to them. Hearers, by reception, provide life-support for promises that should die a peaceful death. We place our hopes in politicians. They promise to fulfil our hopes. When they fail – always – we blame the parliamentarians, rather than admit our foolish hopes.

The art of politics

This might sounds like a vote of despair in all politics (pun intended). Not so! It is, rather, a call to let politics stay as politics. Let’s not force politics to also be theology, eschatology, faith and truth.

Bismarck is attributed with the saying, ‘Politics is the art of the possible.’ Politics tries to get things done, it’s people trying to get organised. Politics comes with values and vision, but is open-eyed to the need for negotiation. Politics has to set priorities: we have to this this first; we can help, but our resources are limited; that good idea has to wait; etc.

The Bible does not call politics to bring in the kingdom – that’s the task of Jesus. The Bible principle that might best apply to politics – taking it somewhat out of its setting – is this, ‘be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.’ Do what you can. Do it well. In a democracy, that includes how we vote.



Quick review: A Short History of Secularism

A Short History of Secularism by Graeme Smith is both insightful and flawed. The insight, I think, does not undo the flaws. Neither do the flaws negate the insight.

This is Smith’s one point summary:

What I shall argue in this book, in very general terms, is that secularism is not the end of Christianity, nor is it a sign of the godless nature of the West. Rather, we should think of secularism as the latest expression of Christianity.

Instead of reviewing the whole book, I will highlight one big insight, and one significant flaw.

Smith challenges current assumptions about religious decline and the triumph of secularism.

The popular story (myth?) is that religious practice and devotion has, since its Middle Ages peak, been in decline. And that this decline has been accelerating with the rise of reason and science. Smith disagrees.

Instead, claims Smith, the reality is that Victorian religious observance was the exception. And the religious life of the Middle Ages was much more varied than any caricature allows – in fact, its complexity is comparable to the present. Hence, the ‘long decline’ point of view does not apply. Nor is it useful to compare observance now (or at any time) with the extraordinary data of the Victorian period.

What’s failed, says Smith, is atheism. The west may be secular, but those who identify as atheist are a small minority. It’s not the case that atheism is automatically linked with belief in a secular state.

Likewise, it’s not the case that failure to attend church means Christianity has no value. “What we have today is minority Christian activism, the 15 per sent or so who attend church, alongside majority passive Christian support, the 70 percent and more who claim some sort of Christian identity and express a vague support for the idea of a God.”

Smith’s insight means there’s no reason for unbelieving triumphalism, nor for believing no-hopism. (I’d say that believers need be wary of using a ‘no hope’ attitude to excuse a ‘no effort’ way of life. But’s that’s another matter!)

The problem I had with Smith’s book – and this is some problem – is that it’s totally confused about what Christianity is. He coalesces Christianity with how Christianity is lived. For him, belief and practice are not merely related, they are identical.

Smith writes, “It is not possible to separate the ahistorical and transcendent from its immediate local expression.” The book therefore, assumes that Christianity is what Christians do. It is not, it seems, about the work of God in Jesus.

That is, Christianity is not expressed in a culture. Christianity is a culture. The trouble with this is that Christianity then becomes everything and nothing. ‘The technology of ethics – oh, that’s Christian, even though there’s no God-talk.’ ‘Respecting the existence of church, while not attending – that’s Christian too.’

I don’t think Smith needs to go down this path to indicate that Christianity is still active, even in a secular society. His book would still work with a better definition of Christianity. I think this cultural (and relativising) approach of Smith is his personal starting point. The shorthand for this is liberalism: answering religious questions by appeal to some aspect of humanity, rather than some aspect of divinity.

In summary: I’d recommend this book because it challenges some of the endemic secularism myths of the West, though it is not the place to go for a good description of Christianity.




Intelligent atheism

Here is a report of a meta-analysis (a gathering of many individual studies) that establishes a “reliable negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity”.

That is, atheists are smarter than believers.

Go ahead and read it – it’s an article with nuance. I worried that it might simply crow about superior IQ, but it avoids that. It recognises the cringe factor in raising the issue, the potential to be smug, or the possibility of defensiveness. It also touches on the complexity of finding causes for this association.


Credit: flickr user cjbaker4

I won’t repeat the points of the article here. Instead my starting point is the conclusion of this study, that higher intelligence correlates with agnostic or atheist beliefs. Given this, what can I say to atheists, and to Christians. (I limit myself to Christians, rather than the broader ‘religious’ group.)

Something for atheists
Firstly, intelligence does not automatically make for good arguments. An intelligent person can (and will) hold to crazy wrong ideas.

I am amazed that so many intelligent atheists have dumb ideas about Christianity. Richard Dawkins is the perfect example. When I’ve seen his input to science shows he’s interesting and engaging. When he talks on God-stuff, I scratch my head. He would lose a schoolyard debate with 12 year olds. He simply does not seem to get it. Similarly, sports writer Peter Fitzsimons likes to poke fun at God-botherers. No problem there because he writes to entertain, and being a stirrer is the persona he adopts. But, again, his writing comes across as clueless. When I read these guys, I feel like I’ve been threatened by an angry drunk, who proceeds to swing his fists at an imaginary image of me.

My request: if you are ‘on the side of intelligence’, please come up with real thought.

Secondly, intelligence is an excellent path to self-deception. I’ve seen clever thought and sophistry used to justify the ridiculous. ‘Of course I should leave my spouse and kids because of the psychological damage we’re causing each other.’ ‘I’m not doing this with any hubris, it’s purely a rational decision for the sake of my career.’ Yeah, sure!

As a rule, I’ve found those with less pretension to be deep thinkers are less likely to believe their own crazy rationalisations. (Actually, this applies as much to believers as to unbelievers.)

My request: if you think you’re smart, be humble enough to see that smarts are often misused.

Something for Christians
Firstly, we can admit that Christian folk sometimes peddle senseless ideas. We can be illogical and paranoid. We can speak out of misunderstanding. We can repeat arguments that are effectively urban myths, but sound convenient to our position.

Perhaps – and I sure am guessing here – but perhaps churches are liable to greenhouse such ideas because we don’t make intellectual rigour our top priority. It should not be top of the priority list, but that’s no excuse for a brain shut-down.

Just to get myself into trouble, I’ll say that I often find arguments of young earth creationists to be incredible. Too often the arguments go one of two ways. Either, ‘This is so important theologically that I will only talk about science.’ (Huh?) Or, ‘You are wrong because you are a fear-filled compromiser of truth.’ (Ad hominem.)

I have to say, sadly, that poor Christian thinking is not limited to a single area. It can crop up anywhere: creation, politics, family, church practice, music, …

My request: take time to think, and not to pass on half-baked thoughts.

Secondly, and most personally, I know I flinch at the suggestion that the average intelligence of atheists is higher than that of the religious. Perhaps you flinch too. We Christians want our people to be better than them.

We want to be better at thought, at work, at marriage and sex, at enjoying culture, at giving thanks to people, at contributing to the community. If we somehow fall behind in these areas we reckon we’re letting the side down. Or letting God down.

To be honest, we want to boast in ourselves. But God’s people are intrinsically un-boastworthy. Our only boast is in the Lord.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
1 Corinthians 1:23-29

When Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor’ he spoke of more than mere money. In all ways, Jesus’ disciples admit poverty. Including in the ability to impress God by high IQ. The measure of Christian truth is not my vocabulary. The only measure is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

My request: Christians, remember our gospel, that we are saved by the grace of God.