Right Pitching in Preaching

“I remember one minister for education urging that ‘Britain was the only nation on earth where cleverness was despised’. In other European countries, for example France and Germany, cleverness is sought after and prized. The glorification of educational backwardness, then, is part of a localised British decadence or hedonism that is inconsistent with biblical Christianity.

On this point the stress on ‘right-pitching’ from the pulpit in our churches is potentially confused with the rebellious suppression of the truth which Paul speaks about in Romans 1:18, or with ‘keeping the congregation as babies’ in line with sinful parent-child models of leadership. Right pitching always seeks to ‘move on’ those in the congregation to the next level of understanding. If ‘pitching’ always remains low, then people are not prepared for the complexities of the trials they face in life. When trouble comes, the ‘cartoon’ Christianity they have been fed proves to be hopelessly inadequate and they often fall away. The excuse is often given by ministers that ‘people will not understand’, but this is often nothing more than a patronising assumption that people are stupid.

 

Some, of course, want to remain ‘as babes’ because they do not wish to be alerted to subtle distortions in their own relational patterns. Right pitching, however, combines intelligibility with the introduction of the new, the more advanced, the ‘not completely understood already’. As the famous philosopher Wittgenstein said, in order for learning and growth to occur, more than mere ‘information’ is required. There has to be a gradual increase in the sophistication of the very categories by which people process ‘new information’.

In my second year at Junior school (age 8-9), we did maths using the ‘A2’ textbook. I remember looking at the ‘A3’ text book and thinking ‘flippin’ ‘eck, that looks difficult!’ Yet, in no way was it ‘unwise’ for me to progress from A2 level to A3 level. In no sense did my teacher think, ‘hmm, yes – we’d better keep the class at A2 level because that’s what they can understand’.

In other words, advancement into the ‘at-present-unintelligible’ was right and normal. And that’s for children, let alone adults. Just as we are born, and require education, so when we are born again, we require re-education. Just as it would be wrong to prohibit education beyond 8-9 year-old level, so it is wrong to prohibit biblical re-education beyond ‘spiritual baby’ level. It may be culturally fashionable, but it panders to parent-child patterns of leadership control that are inappropriate for those progressing towards spiritual adulthood.”

Dr Robert Knowles

 

The Atheists Are Revolting

The Atheists Are Revolting

I came across a National Post article recently about atheists, agnostics and non-believers rallying, or, if you prefer, revolting, against “religion.”  Headlined by the UK’s very own Richard Dawkins, the high priest among the “evangelists of unbelief”, who told atheists, “We are far more numerous than anybody realizes.”

Apart from adding a “So what!” to that slightly insecure posturing, I want to go through the article and poke it a little.

Continue reading

Commending ‘The Ghost of Perfection – The Search for Humanity’

ghost2My friend Joe Haward published his first book last year called ‘The Ghost of Perfection – Searching for Humanity’.  His chapters tackle many issues that are prominent in our Western societies, though certainly not limited to them.  The topics covered are, Mission, Triumphalism, Relationships, Violence, Consumerism, Beauty, Prayer, Trauma and Sex, with a Conclusion entitled Waking Up!  It’s certainly not likely you will fall asleep reading this book!

I particularly enjoyed how he drew on the Catholic tradition in his chapter Beauty, not only referencing the Roman Catholic Pope a couple of times, but having the present day Eastern Orthodox hero and genius David Bentley Hart critique ye olde Catholic hero and genius that is Thomas Aquinas (1224-74) – I suppose that’s a theo-nerdy thing to get excited about, but that’s the kinda thing that puts rum in my ovaltine.

So below is my Amazon review. But don’t get it from them lot, get it from your local Christian bookshop, even though they’ll probably have to order it in.  For some reason, most theology books worth buying don’t seem to be on the shelf!  It won’t cost you too much of your pocket money, thus it is still worth quoting the Reformer Erasmus, a value both Joe and myself hold to, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”

Buy The Ghost of Perfection.

“In these times of uncertainty, polarisation and violence, the need to discover what it means to be human has never been more pressing. In The Ghost of Perfection, Joseph Haward tackles those issues that affect us all, from the fragility of relationships in an increasingly digital world and the pervasiveness of consumerism to the violence that has become the normative language of our society. He reveals how these are linked and how self-preservation has become synonymous with security on so many levels.

The chapter on mission makes for often uncomfortable reading – the obsession with numbers and how, all too easily, church programmes become goal-oriented and objectify people by turning them into ‘targets’. The following chapter is just as challenging in revealing the prevalence of triumphalistic ideology and how, by denying the reality of suffering, it can destroy faith and dehumanise us.

I like the way Joseph Haward draws on a diverse range of sources, including the early Church Fathers, Bonhoeffer, Brueggemann and Wink, as well as drawing examples from popular culture, from Black Swan to Hannibal. His writing style is engaging and accessible, and his explanation of Girard’s scapegoat theory, not the easiest concept to grasp, is nothing short of masterful.

He doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions, and neither does he give us easy answers. What he does do is invite us to hear afresh the call of the God of history who, unthinkably and outrageously, became one of us – not to be a self-help guru or a ticket to a better place, but to show us how to become truly human, for only in so doing can we ever hope to transform our broken and divided communities.”

ghost

Oi, Ricky, No!

Oi, Ricky, No!

I recently had a brief chat with a chap about “religion” – which even though I am a church pastor, doesn’t happen very often!  Not like this anyway.

In the course of the conversation we talked about a theological book I was carrying, and he commented that the book will have “religious bias”, and that, by implication, could not really be trusted.

Of course my thought-reply was immediate:  “If by “bias” you mean an unthinking and pre-determined approach of coming to, and understanding, truth, then No.  But if you mean by “bias” that I am seeking truth and understanding through the lens of Christian Theology, a discipline that implodes if without internal and external integrity and disciplines, then Yes.”

Of course, the underlying assumption, as I saw it, was that Christian books of theology are naively enslaved to a bronze-age superstitious worldview, but still seek to peddle their wares to unsuspecting passersby, since everyone knows that science (more accurately, scientism, or “scientistic epistemology”) has put to death once and for all the myth of religion, or more specifically, the myth of Christianity.

Then my friendly interlocutor mentioned something Ricky Gervais had said in a US TV interview a few years ago.  I’ve listened to it and seen it on YouTube a couple of times, and each time I am staggered at how pleasant and wise popular atheist sloganeering sounds, every phrase met with the wide-eyed support and cheering and clapping of gladiatorial spectators witnessing the death of a prize-winning fighter.  Only this time, it is the wise Ricky putting to death the mythical monster that is Christianity.  It reminded me of the marvellous Mark Twain, who wrote in Volume 1 of his Autobiography, “These poor fellows furnish a “comic” performance which is so humble, and poor and pitiful, and childish, and asinine, and inadequate that it makes a person ashamed of the human race. Ah, their timorous dances – and their timorous antics – and their shamefaced attempts at funny grimacing – and their cockney songs and jokes – they touch you, they pain you, they fill you with pity, they make you cry…. London loves them; London has a warm big heart, and there is room and a welcome in it for all the misappreciated refuse of creation.”

Sadly, it is nothing but the poor and pitiful, the childish and asinine quality of the popular new-atheist movement in our day that is wildly unwild, one could say tame.      G. K. Chesterton did:  “It is not the wild ideals which wreck the practical world; it is the tame ideals.”  Is this shallow debate wrecking the world?  Yep.

So what did Ricky say?

Continue reading

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

The following article is a guest post by Rev’d Dr Helen Paynter, a Research Fellow and Coordinator of Community Learning at Bristol Baptist College, as well as part-time minister at Victoria Park Baptist Church in Bristol, and it is published here with my thanks to her friendship and ministry.

The paper was originally published in the Baptist Ministers’ Journal in January 2017.  Dr Paynter has also published a book called ‘Reduced Laughter – Seriocomic Features and their Functions in the Book of Kingsreviewed on this blog, and –ahem- reputable offerings elsewhere, drawing on the work of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.

It is of no small significance that the great Anthony Thiselton, writing the preface to his 20th Anniversary Edition of New Horizons in Hermeneutics writes, “The two thinkers to whom I would now give serious space if I were writing the book today are probably Hans Robert Jauss and Mikhail Bakhtin” (p.xxi) – emphasis totally mine!

 

To the truth…..

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church.

Helen Paynter

Bristol Baptist College May 2017

 

 

The post-truth phenomenon and why it matters

Truth is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us – Hannah Arendt

The art of political ‘spin’ is millennia-old. But in recent years, the will to deceive for political purposes has intensified to a new level – or so it seems. In the light of the now-notorious ‘£350m/week for the NHS’ claim, and the election of US President Trump, we in the UK and liberal West are now, apparently, in the age of ‘post-truth’ politics.

The phrase ‘post-truth’ was designated ‘Word of the Year 2016’ by the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. In bald terms, it means that the factuality (I hesitate to use the word ‘truth’ here, for reasons which will become clear later) of claimed facts is becoming an irrelevant commodity in public, or at least political, discourse. As The Economist put it recently, ‘Truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance’.

An important – and disturbing – cultural phenomenon is arising, and the church needs to understand and address it. This paper will briefly consider some of the causes of our current predicament, and suggest some ways that the church might respond. First, I suggest five reasons why it matters.

  1. As shown by a Mori poll published in December 2016, lack of public confidence in the political process is at an all-time low. Ironically, this begets a vicious cycle: ‘When lies make the political system dysfunctional, its poor results can feed the alienation and lack of trust in institutions that make the post-truth play possible in the first place.’[1]
  2. History has repeatedly shown that lies are the tools of political oppression. As Hannah Arendt put it, ‘[Truth] is hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot control.’[2]
  3. Psychological studies have proven that false memories persist, even when they are publically retracted.[3] In light of the commandment not to bear false witness (Exodus 20:16), this should disturb all who take biblical ethics seriously.
  4. A recent Demos report showed that on-line disinformation, a major source of untruth, is disproportionately seen and believed by children and young people.[4]
  5. Contrary to the logic of ‘post-truth’, facts matter – in politics as elsewhere. How I ‘feel’ about Europe or the NHS may or may not be important; whether one of these institutions is receiving £350 million a week certainly is.

How have we arrived at the stage where untruth is regarded as acceptable – or at least, unsurprising – within the common consciousness?

Continue reading

How To Be A Good Atheist

How To Be A Good Atheist

A few years ago, David Bentley Hart wrote a  review of a book called: 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, co-edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. On Amazon the book is described thus:

“50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists presents a collection of original essays drawn from an international group of prominent voices in the fields of academia, science, literature, media and politics who offer carefully considered statements of why they are atheists.”

Hart’s original article can be found at the First Things website, but here’s a snippet of his sigh-ings against what he delicately calls the “sheer banality of the New Atheists”:

 

“How long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists—with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for? . . .

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

If that seems a harsh judgment, I can only say that I have arrived at it honestly. In the course of writing a book published just this last year, I dutifully acquainted myself not only with all the recent New Atheist bestsellers, but also with a whole constellation of other texts in the same line, and I did so, I believe, without prejudice. No matter how patiently I read, though, and no matter how Herculean the efforts I made at sympathy, I simply could not find many intellectually serious arguments in their pages, and I came finally to believe that their authors were not much concerned to make any. . . .

I came to realize that the whole enterprise, when purged of its hugely preponderant alloy of sanctimonious bombast, is reducible to only a handful of arguments, most of which consist in simple category mistakes or the kind of historical oversimplifications that are either demonstrably false or irrelevantly true. And arguments of that sort are easily dismissed, if one is hardy enough to go on pointing out the obvious with sufficient indefatigability.”