Book Review ‘Be Afraid’ exploring Horror, Culture and Theology

Below is my review of ‘Be Afraid – How Horror and Faith Can Change the World’ by my friend and fellow Baptist pastor Joe Haward, which was recently published in the Baptist Times.  Given a very limited word count, it was not possible to dig deeper into my comments about the theological method which relies heavily on the work of Rene Girard.  This brings an interpretive framework that can draw out different conclusions than one might expect, but is a conversation/debate that is well worth having, as it could stretch the reader beyond their theological comfort zone, which is never a bad thing in and of itself but a reference point worth remembering.  My commendation for the back cover has been edited, but here is my full version: 

IMG_0386“The bold plan in this book is to bring together the horror genre of popular culture and Christian theology, in such a way as to draw out an insightful conversation between the two. We live in a complex, violent and confused world that swings between extremes of multiple and competing ideologies, and thus continues to make the same mistakes. Using a wide range of contemporary film, writers, thinkers and ancient texts, Haward interprets “horror” theologically and shows therefore, how this genre is indeed rich pickings for discovering theological insight to “see beyond” the cultural impasse. The irony is that the “alternative vision” is a very, very old vision located in the peaceable Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The book is well worth a read, here’s the review:

“Rare is a conversation with horror, which is why I welcome this book. Joe Haward helps Christians to make the links with theology and the horror genre of popular culture. He draws out key characteristics and then makes one direct comparison after another with biblical themes as they relate to zombies (resurrection), vampires that eat flesh and drink blood (Eucharist), violence and sacrifice (atonement), and so on.

Be Afraid Joseph Haward

It is interesting for a reader like me, because I don’t like the horror genre; but even so, many in our churches do, which means there is a preaching opportunity to be had here.

Haward’s theological method draws on the work of Rene Girard. As such, he regularly alludes to the scapegoating mechanism and mimetic rivalry, and shows how these ideas are put forth in horror and ancient religions. Sometimes this method can be at odds with biblical reception-history, yet the insights offered can prove fruitful. Reading his interpretive conclusions alongside two or three good commentaries on the subject will be a great way to interact with Girardian theory.

Haward is good at interpreting contemporary Western culture, and he is relentless in exposing consumerism, violence, trafficking, the worst excesses of social media and the human obsession with an utterly godless dystopian future. Throughout, he shines the light on the Person and work of Jesus Christ, who He is, what He has done and what it all means. If anything else, this is a master-class in helping anyone interested in the art of interpreting film through a Gospel lens.”

Pt 6: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 6:  Response to Chapter 10. Heaven.

Turning now to Lewis’s final chapter, on heaven, then I agree with his point that the issue of the existence of heaven precedes any discussion of whether or not belief in heaven’s existence is escapist. If heaven exists, belief in it isn’t escapism, but realism. Since it is far more rational to assert that only God could create a heaven on earth than it is to assert that mere humanity could create a heaven on earth, then it is modernism’s utopian odyssey that is escapist, not Christianity’s eschatological pilgrimage. Moreover, since our heaven will indeed be a new heavenly Edenic earth, then the motivation to bring about reform isn’t lost to escapism either. We don’t get pie in the sky when we die, so much as a reformed earth. Reformation now becomes all the more assured now that we know that our reforming labours are not in vain.

Lewis is also quite right to argue that if heaven is good, then desiring it isn’t mercenary. Mercenaries serve themselves, but heaven is fundamentally about serving others. So, how can it be selfish to desire not to be selfish? As Lewis rightly argues, only the pure in heart want to see God, and so it is safe to assure them that they will.

I believe that Lewis is also quite right to argue that the desire for heaven is universal. And yet this true point, of course, contradicts Lewis’s other arguments that say that the damned don’t want heaven. Here, again, Lewis projects the demonic onto the human in order to make hell seem more palatable.


Continue reading “Pt 6: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain””

Pt 5. Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 5:   Chapter 9. Animal Pain.

Lewis’s chapter on animal pain is very interesting. Since Lewis acknowledges that he is just speculating when it comes to this matter, then we should be gracious in our responses to what he says. To begin with, Lewis argues that vegetables and non-sentient lower animals (e.g. earth-worms) do not feel pain. To me, this assertion seems reasonable since, as Lewis points out, such life-forms have no developed nervous systems.

I am less certain about Lewis’s argument that “merely-sentient” animals do not feel pain and that they react to stimuli a bit like sleeping humans do. That is, in Lewis’s view, in the case of merely-sentient animals, the body reacts to stimuli, but there is no conscious awareness of anything. Lewis defines consciousness as a selfhood or soulhood that recognizes itself as the same beneath the stream of sensations, a bit like a constant river bed beneath the river-water that passes by overhead. Given the distinction, in consciousness, between the river-bed and the river-water (to continue the analogy), consciousness is able to objectify – to an extent – sensory experiences as being “other” than itself, and so is able to “organise” them into a perception of succession, an “experience”, and not just into a succession of perceptions. Since, in Lewis’s view, merely-sentient animals can have a succession of perceptions, and not a perception of succession or “experience” (i.e. they have no consciousness), then they cannot consciously reflect that they are in pain, and so they don’t suffer pain.


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Pt 4: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 4:  Chapter 8 – Hell

In his chapter on hell, Lewis takes the three notions of “destruction”, “eternal torment”, and “privation” and then works them into a systematic unity. This leads to two difficulties. First, Thiselton points out: (a) that the Bible has three traditions in it about hell that seem to contradict one-another: (i) hell is eternal torment; (ii) hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation; (iii) all are saved; (b) that all three traditions have been considered to be “orthodox” in the history of the church, even though “eternal torment” has been the dominant view in orthodoxy; (c) that it would be hermeneutically-premature, given where scholarship has reached, to press these three contradictory traditions into a unity in favour of any one of the traditions, which seems to militate against Lewis’s conclusions.

Second, if Thiselton is correct, then Lewis entirely dismisses one biblical tradition – that of universal salvation. Even if it were right to press all the traditions into a unity then Lewis would still have to press (i) “hell is eternal torment”; (ii) “hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation”; and (iii) “all are saved”, into a unity – along with his emphasis on “privation”.

Some, for example D.A. Carson, are adamant that eternal torment is the nature of hell, and that all who do not believe in Christ go there. Lewis, on balance, seems to favour a kind of qualified annihilationism whilst still holding onto a perspective-dependent notion of eternal torment. Others, such as G. MacDonald (alias R. Parry), reconcile the biblical traditions in favour of “all are saved, but in some cases only after prolonged periods of punishment in hell”.


Continue reading “Pt 4: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain””

Pt 3: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 3:  Response to Chapter 6 & 7 – Human Pain/Appendix by R. Havard (a Doctor)


I agree with most of what Lewis says in Chapter 6. Lewis rightly stresses three forms of remedial pain: (a) retributive punishment that is justly deserved; (b) spell-breaking and the redirection of misdirected fallen nature; and (c) proving our God-wrought faith and righteousness genuine to us. In particular, Lewis rightly distinguishes divine retribution and vengeance from evil vindictive passionate revenge – a kind of tabloid Lamech-style brutalism that is evil, self-centred, over-harsh or disproportionate, and seeks only to destroy.

Lewis is also correct to argue that remedial pain is universal, life-long, and unevenly distributed (i.e. complexly, and not simply, related to “just deserts”); and Lewis is correct to argue that remedial pain faces us with a choice: whether in response to it we choose patience, humility and repentance or whether we choose instead to run with the crowd and adopt attitudes of culturally-normal anger and cynicism. Finally, Lewis adds an interesting Appendix at the back of his book which basically shows that most medium term pain has a positive effect on character.


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Pt 2: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 2:

Chapter 4 – Human Wickedness

Chapter 5 – The Fall of Man(kind)


Response to Chapter 4. Human Wickedness

Lewis is entirely correct to emphasize the unhappy truth that we habitually deny our sin, or at least its seriousness, and that we deploy self-deceiving means to do so. Lewis is right to emphasize: (a) evil (anti-Trinitarian “Lord of the Flies”-type localist tribal) clique-dynamics that only look evil from the world of the broader public realm; (b) the role of certain sin-denying popular trends in (pretentiously boastful pseudo-intellectual pseudo-wise) psychoanalysis; (c) a reductionist approach to virtue (which stresses a chav-ethics of outwardly-brutal ego-centric drama-triangle sentimentality and victim-aping self-pity); (d) the finger-pointing self-evading blame-projecting strategies deployed within the superficial outward comparisons used by sin-deniers who binary-categorize only others as evil (using terms like “offenders” and “scum”); (e) the evil things said about “nature” and “finitude” as though God (the very paradigm of innocence, more innocent than a baby) were at fault; and, (f), the view that time alone (rather than Christ’s high-priestly work of (re-)consecrating the defiled and unclean) brings about cleansing from sin and guilt. All these emphases – (with my views added in brackets) – are true.

Two points come to mind, however, in response to what Lewis says: (a) Lewis’s use of the notion of “virtue” has more of a classical feel than a biblical feel. One can speak in terms of “the seven virtues” and of the “seven deadly sins”, but in my view there are more biblical ways to speak of “right and wrong”. To speak only classically about “sin and virtue” is itself a liberal sin-denying strategy. (b) There are also more biblical ways of speaking about the ways in which we disguise sin and hide it from ourselves. Lewis is correct to point out some of the contemporary manifestations of sin-denial, but there are strategies of sin-denial that pervade all cultures and that are manifest in the contemporary manifestations of sin-denial that Lewis notes.


Continue reading “Pt 2: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain””

Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 1:  Chapter 1 – Introductory

Chapter 2 – Divine Omnipotence

Chapter 3 – Divine Goodness


Response to Chapter 1: Introductory

I agree with Lewis’s basic argument that the problem of pain emerges historically, and not philosophically. Suffering is a historical fact, and yet belief in a good all-powerful God is also a historical fact. The problem of pain, as an intellectual problem, simply emerges as the problem of how to understand the co-existence of these two historical realities intellectually.

My main query with respect to Lewis’s argument in his first chapter is that there are many intellectual reasons for holding to the truth of Jesus’ claims, whereas there seems to be more than a little liberal British Bultmannian School Neo-Kantian existentialism in Lewis’s appeals to the supposedly undergirding roles of universal experiences of the numinous and of the moral impulse. Whilst the Bible affirms the experiential, existential, moral, or practical side of revelation and of human existence, the Bible also affirms the cognitive, propositional, conceptual side of revelation and of human life – as part of a broader formative overall revelation in which Christ’s Spirit uses biblical texts relationally to form or build individual Christians and the corporate Church.

That is, Lewis seems to make the veracity of biblical content and formative function too dependent upon the universality of mystical and moral experience. In fact, though, revelatory content and formative function should be held together with, and should constitute criteria of authenticity in relation to, revelatory experience.

One of the big problems in the church today is an experience-centredness that refuses to allow itself to be tested against biblical criteria with content, and against the formative results or fruitfulness of a right relational engagement with the Scriptures – an engagement that is everywhere marginalised in such churches. But Jesus says, “by their fruit you shall know them”, John commands us to “test the spirits” and Paul, following Jesus, makes it quite clear that whilst “love sums up the law and the prophets”, transformation unto love or right-relating comes through a biblical “transformation of the mind”. As Jesus prays, “sanctify them by the truth – your word is truth”.


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Reduced Laughter: A Review

Reduced Laughter by Revd Dr Helen Paynter.

A Review by Richard Matcham



Chapter 1 – Introduction

My title:  In Defense of the Comedic

Using Private Eye as a great introductory example, one thing is sure – humanity loves humour, and we love humour that subverts the way things are, the high-and-mighty, etc.  The Bible hasn’t had good fare in recent millennia regarding all things funny.  The Bible is a serious book, and is found to be read (when it is read at all), to be read by serious people.


Our Western rationalism in general, and 19th century German scholarship (p.5) in particular, riding on the back of Plato’s suspicion that humour is malicious; and Aristotle’s warning that while humour is necessary, it should be ‘kept in check’, is missing the point that humour can be ‘a route to truth’ (p.3).


On the contrary, humour is not the opposite of sadness or seriousness, a useful observation of what de Sousa calls a ‘category error’ (p.4).  Thank God!  I have come to realise that my own use of humour is directly related to my serious side.  They are two sides of the same coin.


All this is carried over into our Bible reading.  Our culture may ‘Think Bike – Think Safety’ but we certainly do not train ourselves or our churches to ‘Think Bible – Think Humour,’ and I for one would love to try.   Admittedly, this is not easy – the Bible is a very serious book(s), with lots of weighty, eternal, salvific images, multi-genre & theological categories, stories and truth claims.  Thus, as a default setting, we ‘are more likely to under diagnose humour than over-diagnose it’ (p.6), and this means we will likely miss it altogether.


A taster-example is offered via the Naboth narrative (1 Kings 21), and how the Hebrew word describing the sulky and vexed Ahab is related to the Deuteronomic stubborn and rebellious son (21:18-19).  Here, the son is the one killed, whilst in Kings, it is Ahab who kills.  ‘This subtle, darkly humorous, allusion will only be apparent to the attentive reader or listener’ (p.8).  I wish I’d been more attentive in my reading!

Helen then offers some ‘ground rules’ for textual interpretation.  The text itself assumes a ‘literary or aural competence’ (p.8), and this requires competent hard work.  Highlighting wordplays and ‘hidden polemics’, the careful reader is able to see the ‘subversive, and deliberate partial concealment’ (p.10) of the narrative, using the ‘useful guidelines’ for the ‘methodological criteria’ outlined by Yairah Amit on page 9.


Finally, Helen’s hermeneutical approach leans heavily on the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, someone who refers to seriocomic literature as ‘playful, irreverent, multi-voiced, subversive and outrageous’ (p.11).  I have already guessed in my own reading that the Bible is all of these things, but what I hadn’t reckoned with, is that it is more deliberately so, and far deeper than I gave credit.

Continue reading “Reduced Laughter: A Review”

Short Review of ‘The Breeze of the Centuries’ by Mike Reeves

breezeThe following is a short book review of ‘The Breeze of the Centuries’ (IVP, 2010) by Michael Reeves, that I wrote in 2011.  I really enjoyed this book and encourage every Christian to get it.

Michael Reeves has written this superb short introduction to some key theologians from the 1st century (post-Apostolic age) through to Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century in only 152 pages. That alone is a modern day miracle!

By his own admission, he has had to be highly selective, for example, why has he chosen this theologian and not that one? But in any case, these great and often crazy mixed up church leaders that he has chosen to write about are central to any development of the Western tradition, of which all of you reading this have been influenced, whether you know it or not, whether a believer or not!

Admittedly some of the theological wranglings are suspect and some pointless (at least to our modern minds), but a lot of the work by these Church Fathers is ‘theology on the hoof’, an integration of what it is to think about situations as they arise. For example, when the Church is being persecuted, the theology is very different to when the Church is settled and resting. The urgency found in the writings that oppose false doctrine are especially sharp, such as Augustine’s ferocious attacks against the doctrine of Arianism, the ancient form of modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny the deity of Christ. But Augustine was also profoundly self-critical, probably because of his pretty lax morality during his early adult years! Despite these personal foibles, Augustine was God’s man at the right time, not just doctrinally, but historically – for he witnessed the fall of Rome and the Barbarian invasion, thus his brilliant book The City of God was born. This was not just an apologetic against Christian heresies, but a warning shot across the bows of the Churches against their comfortable affiliation with the Roman authorities. Christianity had become nominal in Roman culture as it is today in the Western world, and Augustine challenged the Church to think about where her allegiance lay: with the City of God (the heavenly Jerusalem – picking up on the pilgrim traveller motif from the Book of Hebrews), or the earthly City of Rome, a political alliance of power and wealth (something the Church has never been called to!). I wondered if this book helped the nuns and monks of Britain when Rome departed from Britain and within a few years the brutal Vikings invaded. Talk about a new world order! What would we think of God in such circumstances?

Post-Apostolic age
I have majored on Augustine in the 4th/5th century, which is unfair on the centuries that had gone before. In these we find a tapestry of brilliant minds, unlikely converts, astonishing clarity of doctrinal and theological matters, as well as many howlers. The wheat always grows with the tares, and no person ever has a claim on infallibility. Starting with a disciple of the Apostle John, Papias, we breeze through the centuries with ease, towards Clement of Rome, Ignatius and Polycarp. Each one holding high office within the church, and their letters to the churches bear witness of the usual struggles facing a church; dysfunction within and heresy without! In many ways, it’s the same problems Paul faced when he planted churches and as these churches matured, problems arose that were specific to their particular context, and this is the same for us today. It’s all very well simply saying we should just do what Jesus did, but remember, Jesus never preached to a secular person or an unbeliever. Everyone he spoke to was religious in some way or other. And so, like the Church Fathers, we are living in our context, and so we interpret our faith in that light, asking for wisdom as we do so. That is of course why we have preaching. It is contextualising God’s Word for today, for if that was not necessary, all we need do is simply read the passage of Scripture and sit down again and everybody would simply understand and perfectly apply the Word, but that is not the way God has ordered it to be done, even if it would be a good idea sometimes!

Fighting Heresy with Truth
Anyway, as the relationship with the State changed, as Christianity became more accepted and finally adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire, so the persecutions and scatterings ceased. What replaced it, was a much more thought out, more thorough application of theology on what exactly it means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. Many militant atheists for example, will try and tell people that the doctrine of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was a fourth century invention. This is simply ignorant misinformation based on bad historical research and poor theology. Centuries before the Council that affirmed this wonderful truth, Christian theologians were fighting for the truth and reality of this doctrine as if their life depended on it. Their life did depend on it and many faced horrendous struggles, but their logic, their sound teaching, their God-given ability for mastering the Word but more importantly, being mastered by it, won the day. Otherwise we would all be Arians (Jesus is a created being), or Marcionites, who believed the God of the Old Testament to be different from the God as presented by Jesus. Or we could be Gnostic Christians, those mystical hyper-spiritual people who believed all fleshly things were evil and all spiritual things were pure, and so they had a very low view of creation and the body, which in turn affected how they treated the environment and how they de-valued the body. People live what they truly believe, that is why we must always seek to know what we believe.

These and other heresies almost won the theological battle that was raging. Ask yourself a question as you read this: Why are you not a Mormon, or a Muslim, or a [fill in the blank]? It is likely that you have met God the Father through God the Son, and you have a basic idea of why Mormonism or Islam doesn’t fit with your view of God. That makes you a ‘theologian’ and you owe that to the Scriptures as defended by the brave men and women of the past two thousand years. Knowing what you believe and why, having that robustness that takes you beyond mere feelings is vital for a healthy Christian walk.

Anselm – Faith Seeking Understanding
In the eleventh century, Anselm was a monk who pursued the biblical command to get understanding. Thus, Anselm is known by the phrase, ‘faith seeking understanding’. By that he meant that he would demonstrate the reasonableness of the truth of Christianity by the use of unaided reason. Anselm’s faith here is not blind faith, but specifically an active love for God. It is this love of God, love for God, that seeks to know God in all His majesty and grace. He pursued this through rational means as a way to demonstrate the truth of Christianity because, as he said, without love for God, people become irrational, foolish and blind. His writings pursued this theological line of enquiry.

The Dumb Ox – Thomas Aquinas
And so we come to the final inclusion of the book (this book is the first of a three part series). We come to a man so large, so dopey looking, with a thick set forehead and a funny waddle of a walk, that for those who didn’t know him as one of the world’s major thinkers and theologians, he was referred to as ‘The Dumb Ox.’ Charming! Reeves writes that Aquinas “spurted ink like a cuttlefish” as he produced a staggering mountain of books. His writings were astonishingly important for medieval theology for the Catholic Church then, and are still influential among Reformed wings of the Church today. I guess in more ways than one we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

I haven’t delved into the actual content of these incredible men, many of whom were martyred (strangely, Aquinas hit his head on a branch and died soon afterwards, in his forties)! Never-the-less, this book is an inspiring read of what it truly means to wrestle with the holy things of a holy God! I hope and pray that wherever you are in your journey, that you are at the very least, wrestling with some part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in today’s world. Like Jesus and Paul before them, their bravery was simply awe-inspiring. Would I die defending the name of Christ and the truth of Scripture? I hope so. But to do that I must know what I believe and why I believe it. That’s theology, that’s faith seeking understand, for the love of God and for the Glory of His name.  May that be true for all God’s people.

The inspired name for the book comes from a comment made by C. S. Lewis in his introduction to a published work by Athanasius ‘On the Incarnation’ where he wrote about ditching the weedy, tired and cliched “devotional” books where “nothing happens” and start “working [your] way through a bit of tough theology with a pipe in [your] teeth and a pencil in [your] hand and then you will “find that the heart sings unbidden.”

Genius.  I’m off to get a pipe.


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