Friday, December 11, 2009

Who speaks the truth?

Genesis 2v16-17
And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."
Genesis 3v1-7
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"
The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.' "
"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Genesis 3v22
And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever."
Hang on. Who speaks the truth in this story, God or the serpent?

The thing the serpent says, "You will not surely die" and "your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil", is the thing that comes true. God acknowledges this in verse 22.

The thing God says, "when you eat of it you will surely die", does not happen. It appears (in context) to simply be a ruse to prevent the man and the woman from eating the fruit in the first place.

What gives?

Obviously, I'm happy to believe that this story is a fable, but how to literalist Christians explain this one?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Christian Humanist

For no particularly good reason, I've recently been considering how I should label myself when it comes to 'religious' beliefs. I think (for now) I've settled on the phrase:

Christian Humanist

You see, claiming to be merely 'Christian' no longer means anything in our society. If you declare yourself to be a Christian, people either expect you to be:
  1. exactly like them, or
  2. in some way inferior to them, or
  3. a bit weird, but not interesting enough to find out more...
But fundamentally, people often don't think it has anything to do with how you live and has little to do with following the teachings and example of anyone called Christ.

By adding another label to it, particularly one that is often seen as an opposite stance (especially when prefixed with 'secular'), it will hopefully raise questions and provoke conversations.

And, of course, I believe that in many respects, Jesus himself was a humanist:

Luke 14v18-19 (my slight variation on the NIV translation; the original Greek has no mention of 'preaching' to the poor, its an interpolation)
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to be good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
If that's not humanist, I don't know what is...

Saturday, November 07, 2009

In God we Doubt by John Humphrys

It was inevitable that I would get around to reading this book eventually. John Humphrys seems to come at doubt from the opposite side from me - he seems to want to be an atheist, but can't quite get rid of the nagging doubt that "there's more to life than this"...

It is a reasonably interesting book, if - ultimately - pointless. You see, the book begins and ends with the point I made above. And passes through that same point several times. It doesn't actually go anywhere. Along the way we get to see Humphrys's reasons for his disillusionment with the Anglican church - yes, this is a very Anglican book - and his frustrations with some of the more militant atheists (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are mentioned more times than are probably necessary, although few other atheists are named), but there's no sense that Humphrys was in any way changed by the research he did or the people he spoke to.

In the end he semi-concludes that religion is probably a good thing, even if there probably is no god. Although maybe there is. Frustrating.

So I don't exactly recommend this book. Unless you really do have nothing better to do with your time. There are far more interesting books regarding the theist/atheist debate out there.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Fundamentals of... what?

I listened to an interesting podcast interview with John Killinger yesterday. The interview was largely focused on his recent book "The Other Preacher in Lynchburg: My life across town from Jerry Falwell" and gave a few interesting insights into the life and ministry of Jerry Falwell.

But a few things John Killinger said about 'fundamentalists' in general stood out.

His first assertion was that 'fundamentalism' (in Christianity at least) didn't really exist before the early 20th century, and it was primarily a reaction against Darwinism. So when people talk about getting back to the fundamentals of the faith, they don't mean getting back to anything that was actually believed or lived out by Christians for the majority of history since the time of Christ.

And from a few things he said, I realised that what people generally mean by the 'fundamentals of the faith' is a set of (allegedly fundamental) beliefs. Its all to do with what you believe, and nothing to do with what you actually do. Nobody talks about the fundamentals of practice - the fundamental things a Christian is supposed to do (you know, the heal the sick, feed the hungy, love your enemy type stuff).

Jesus didn't go around saying "believe in me" to people, he said "follow me" - this invoves doing stuff...

I don't think faith is just about belief. I'm with James on this one:
"What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2:14-17)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Key to the kingdom...?

I've been a Christian for 21 years. Exactly.

If you want the precise details it was about 8:30 in the evening, on Saturday 29th October 1988, somewhere about here:
I was on the Glasgow to Edinburgh train and hadn't quite reached Falkirk... So now you know.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Speaking the truth in love...

Inspired by last week's sermon from The Meeting House... It was a good one, why not download it?

Ephesians 4v14-16
[14] Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. [15] Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. [16] From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
[Back in June I commented on the verses immediately preceding these. I'm not that slow a reader to just be getting to this now...]

What does it mean to "speak the truth in love"?

So often I've come across folk who're prepared to use that verse as a justification for pointing out the errors of others: "Brother I love you, so its my place to point out that your behaviour in this area of life is not good, and you need to change your ways..."

That's speaking the truth in love, isn't it?

But how does that fit with Jesus's words in Matthew 7v3-5?
[3] "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? [4] How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? [5] You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."
Here, speaking the truth would involve the admission that "I've got a whopping big log in my eye". In other words, my problems are bigger than yours, I can't claim the moral high ground. And the 'in love' bit only comes into it because I'll only speak the truth about me in the context of a love relationship where I know I won't get abused because of it...

Also, how about James 5v16?
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
That's more speaking of truth in love. Wow. Does anybody do this in church these days? Not confessing your sins to the priest in the confessional, but to each other.

speaking the truth, in love.

Friday, October 02, 2009


Following a challenge by a friend of mine, I've been listening to some sermons by an American theologian whose position is considerably more conservative than mine. On the whole, I've found it to be a reasonably interesting experience and there's surprisingly little I'd disagree with the guy on.

But one thing struck me while listening to the sermons. He is very hard-line on the unchanging nature of God and the infallibility of the bible. Fair enough, many Christians are. You can find my thoughts on the infallibility of the bible in several of my previous blog postings. And while I've previously doubted the unchanging nature of God, I remain reasonably agnostic on the issue.

But the thing that struck me about this guy was not that he stuck to these 'foundations', but rather his reason for sticking to them. He didn't seem to justify them from the bible itself, or from some other first principles. No, his main reason for holding to these two foundations seems to be along the lines of "this must be true, or else we couldn't be certain of anything...".

So its not that he has good reasons for holding to those things, its just that the worldview he has chosen requires them to be true. His whole theology would fall apart if they weren't true. For him they appear to be unquestioned foundations. And he daren't question them, because if they turn out not to be solid foundations, then the world becomes a much more complicated place and everything becomes uncertain.

I can't go along with this line of reasoning. The universe is an uncertain and complicated place.

But what do you lot think?

Saturday, September 05, 2009


WWJD? Sometimes it seems so clear cut. Someone is in need of help. WWJD? Help, of course. Here is a poor person in need of a friend. WWJD? Well, be a friend, of course. And so on.

But being a friend to the poor, the needy, the downtrodden is (relatively speaking) easy for a single person to do. But what about when you have kids? What if there's a family at your kids' school who really need some light in their lives?

WWJD? Well, we know.

But What Would Jesus Do If He Had Kids?

In the specific situation I'm thinking about, befriending the family in question might have serious consequences for my kids. The very least of which would be head lice. The very worst of which - assuming even some of the rumours about the father are true - don't even bear thinking about.


I really don't know. Should we love the oppressed at the expense of our own family?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

1 John 3v9

"No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God."

Does this verse not fly in the face of almost all Christian experience?

I know I should probably go and read a few commentaries here, but I don't have any for the letters of John, so I'll just ask you lot. How do people reconcile this verse? Everyone sins, right? So nobody is 'born of God'...


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Quote / Misquote

Ephesians 4v7-13
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:
"When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men."
(What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
We looked at this passage in housegroup this week. I've read it before, but don't think I'd ever checked back to the OT passage that Paul quotes here. This time I did and found it says this:

Psalm 68v18
When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious—that you, O LORD God, might dwell there.
Now hang on! Paul says that God gave gifts to men, but the original says that God received gifts from men. This is really bad. If I heard a preacher making such a mistake today I wouldn't rate them very highly! Paul has a point to make about God giving gifts, but he can't find an OT verse to support his claim, so he misquotes one... entirely changing the sense of the verse.

Oh, and there is nothing in the original passage about descending either. The image is of the triumph of a conquering king receiving tribute from his enemies.

Anyone have any thoughts on this? I'm bamboozled.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Homosexuality in the clergy (again)

Several years ago the issue of (practicing) homosexual clergy threatened to tear the Anglican church apart. I blogged about it at the time. Now the same issue has landed in the Church of Scotland (the denomination I grew up in) and is similarly threatening to tear that church apart.

Having just re-read what I wrote nearly four years ago, I find myself more-or-less in agreement with what I wrote back then.

There are two camps here:

First there is the 'Conservative' camp who say "homosexual practice is a sin, it is condemned in the Bible, therefore we should not allow practicing homosexual clergy". Of course, many of this group eat pork and wear mixed fabrics and somehow justify doing these things - which are also listed as sin and condemned in the bible.

Then there is the 'Liberal' camp who say "some people are made gay, God wouldn't make them that way and then bar them from Christian ministry". Of course, the same reasoning would not apply to folk who were naturally inclined towards lying, stealing or psychopathic behaviour.

So what have the Church of Scotland done? Well, they've done something interesting. First of all, they voted in favour of the appointment of one, specific, practicing homosexual minister. Then they resolved not to appoint any other (known, practicing) homosexual ministers for at least two years, in which time a committee would look into the issue and write a report.

I almost approve of this plan of action.

But I have two questions, one for each camp.

To the liberal camp I must ask: "Why are you not pressing for homosexual marriage?" The bible is quite clear: sex outside of a loving, committed, monogamous, married relationship is not what God intended. So if God did create some people gay and intends for them to be that way, then the message the church should be sending out to homosexuals is twofold - abstain from sex until you find the right person for you, and don't have sexual relations with that person until you are married. Promoting any other message regarding sexuality is creating an inequality with heterosexuals.

To the conservative camp I must ask: "Why would homosexual practice (within the confines of a gay marriage) be a sin?" Basically, as I see it, there are things condemned as sin in the bible that are no longer considered sin today. Could this not be one of them? I don't believe that God creates arbitrary rules for no reason. Therefore, if homosexual practice is a sin, there must be a good reason for this - it must be bad for the individual, for society, or for our communion with God.

[Slight digression] I tend to favour the implied beliefs of C.S. Lewis with regard to 'forbidden fruit', as expressed allegorically in 'Perelandra'. There the 'Adam and Eve' characters were forbidden from doing a certain thing and, unlike Adam & Eve, they managed to abstain from it. Later, they were commended for their actions and given permission to do the forbidden thing. There was nothing wrong with the action, God was merely testing their obedience.

What if 'that was then, this is now' is a valid argument? When the original commandments were given, ensuring the growth, continuity and racial purity of the Israelites was a high priority. Mixed marriages with other races were forbidden, failure to produce offspring was frowned upon. In that context, of course, a homosexual relationship would be seen as a bad thing. It would not serve the continuity of the race. But our priorities have changed since then. We don't frown upon childless couples.

The original biblical principal is this: "It is not good for [a] man to be alone." (Genesis 2v18) - I wonder if it is less bad for a man to be with another man (within the confines of a committed gay marriage) than for a man to be on his own.

What is more important here, gender or relationship?

Some would argue from the point of view of design 'it is obvious [biologically speaking] that God made man to go with woman...' but that doesn't take orientation into account. To the homosexually oriented person it is obvious that they should be with another man.

I still don't know. I hear what both sides are saying, and I think they're both wrong - at least in part.

I doubt this will be the last post on this subject...

Grace and peace.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lessons from Emmaus

Luke 24:13-35 [NIV]
13 Now that same day two of them [Jesus's disciples] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.

17 He asked them, "What are you discussing together as you walk along?"

They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, "Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?"

19 "What things?" he asked.

"About Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn't find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see."

25 He said to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, "Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over." So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?"

33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, "It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon." 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.
There are some stories in the bible that just make you want to scream at the characters in them.

How stupid are these people?

I mean, they were steeped in the Torah, probably from birth, they had followed Jesus around and heard his teaching, they had seen what he went through, they had heard that the tomb was empty, they had heard that angels - yes, angels - had said that Jesus was alive, they even felt in their hearts that something amazing was going on... and yet they did not believe. They did not understand.

Hang on. These guys hadn't merely read their bibles regularly and been part of a church. They could probably recite entire books of the Torah (OK, I'm reading this in to the fact that they lived 7 miles away from Jerusalem; only serious Jews would live that close to the temple) and had spent time with Jesus himself. Talked with him. Heard his teaching. Eaten meals with him. Seen him heal the sick. Observed his life.

And yet they didn't understand the bible.

And they didn't really know who Jesus was.

They followed him. They believed in him.

But they didn't get it.

Blimey. If it was possible for them to know Jesus and still misunderstand what he was all about, how much more likely is it that we don't get it either?

How many Christians in our churches don't actually get it? They read the bible, they follow Jesus, they have a personal relationship with him, but they still don't get it?

What if I don't get it?

What if you don't get it?

I bet those guys were sure of what they believed. They knew the bible. They knew Jesus. But they were still wrong.

I'm sure you're sure of what you believe in too. Have you ever considered you might have misunderstood Jesus?

What if you haven't got him yet?

Are you sure your preconceptions are right? I'm not sure about mine.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Jesus Wants to Save Christians

Just finished 'Jesus Wants to Save Christians' by Rob Bell and Don Golden.

Its good. Basically it has only one point to make, but its an important point that many, many people in churches need to hear. And it makes that point well.

Its quite a short read - it feels more like an extended sermon than a book - and Rob Bell's writing style gets a bit irritating occasionally.

You see,

when he wants

to emphasise

a point

he spreads

one line of text

over about



which can be just a bit


But anyway. The point is this: the western church of today (specifically in the USA, but mostly applicable to the UK too) has forgotten what it was like to be oppressed. And as a consequence we don't do the 'good news to the poor' bit of the gospel anymore. We preach at them, from a distance, but don't get alongside the poor, care for them and meet their needs. And we need to if we want to truly be followers of Christ - because that is what he did.

Of course, the book says that with a lot more bible quotes, stories and theology in there, but that's the main point.

Recommended, if you want a short but challenging read.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


A few people I know are in the process of planting a church. They're doing this under the banner of an American church-planting organisation (I hadn't realised that such things even existed), and I'm totally supportive of the plant. But I had a read through of the 'statement of faith' of the parent organisation (on their website) and it managed to include the word 'pre-millennial'...


I'm not an expert on the theology of Revelation, but as I understand it, there are four reasonably common interpretations of the text (see below), two of which include the 'pre-millennial' return of Christ. However, the text isn't totally clear. Any of the four readings of the text(s) are plausible.
For what its worth, on the basis of this graphic presentation of the four options, I'd probably fall into the 'amillennialism' camp. But that's not really the point here.

The point is, why make this statement?

By specifying 'premillennial' in the basis of faith, the organisation is drawing a line in the sand that I do not believe has to be there. By making that statement they are -effectively- saying "only certain types of Christians get to be part of our church". And by making the statement they are acknowledging that there is another opinion; and rejecting it.

There are certain things that should be part of a statement of faith. "Jesus is Lord" is kind of central in all streams of Christianity, the bible is unambiguous on that. But why should a church take a definite stance on one side of an issue on which the bible is ambiguous?

Can we not have the grace to say "we don't know" on certain issues? Can we not graciously allow differences of opinion on non-central issues to exist within our churches? Can we not be a bit less dogmatic on our statements of faith?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Somewhere in the light greys...

In the article I posted last week called "The skeptical position and the apparent miracle" I probably gave the impression that I had concluded that the healer guy who came to our church was a fraud.

Let me just state for the record that I did not come to that conclusion. It was one of the possibilities which I considered, but is certainly not the belief that I finally landed on.

At present, and unless further relevant information presents itself, I believe that he was doing what he was doing out of an honest and God-inclined heart. And people were healed.

Of course, I still have questions, and some of those questions are big ones, but it would appear that people have been genuinely healed through this guy, so I'm unable to conclude that he is a fraud. Quite the opposite.

This news story on a BBC web page was one of the factors (see also the YouTube clip below, which the story refers to), and the dramatic improvement in eyesight of someone I know who was prayed for was another.

The clip in itself proves nothing, that sort of visible effect can be faked. But the testimony of the healed person two weeks later (as recorded on the BBC web page and the embedded audio clip) is far more compelling.

There were also testimonies of healing at our church last week. And I hope there will be more. I still haven't heard if either of those folk who had a visible leg inequality before they were prayed for have now got balanced legs or not. Will let you know.

Update: The younger of the two folk who had a visible leg inequality (more than 2cm, it was really quite obvious) now has, since being prayed for a week past on Sunday, two legs the same length. Awesome. In all senses of the word.

The 'if' doubts about healing end here.

The 'how', 'why' and 'when' questions continue, as well as the big 'why not's...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bluegrass Worship

Listening to "Bluegrass Worship" on Spotify. Its excellent. Really uplifting.
And if you don't have Spotify, you can get it on Amazon.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

What would I have become?

Where do you go when you've lost the keys
When all is dark and you're on your knees?
And in a world where it's love betrays
There is a light that will save the day
Don't go away
What would I have done if it wasn't for Jesus?
What would I have become if it wasn't for Jesus?
"What would I have done" by Delirious?
Following on from my previous post, I found myself questioning what sort of person would become a fake faith healer. And I realised, it could have been me.

What would have I become, if...?

I can't remember if I've ever given my full testimony on this blog, but here's a potted version of it:

I used to be a fake Christian.

From the age of 11 to the week before my 18th Birthday, I appeared (to some observers) to be a Christian, but I wasn't. I spoke Christianese fluently, I could pray in prayer meetings, I could lead bible studies, I could discuss most issues relevant to Christian life, I said the right things, went to the right meetings, read the right books, but I wasn't a Christian.

You see, I was raised in a Christian home, went to church every week, and believed the right stuff. If you'd asked me (aged 10) if I was a Christian, I wouldn't have really understood you. What else was there to be? But then, at an Easter holiday houseparty (run by the organisation that is now 'Action Partners') in 1981 I realised, for the first time, that there was such a thing as 'conversion', and furthermore that I hadn't done it. I realised that Christianity was not about believing certain things, but about making the choice to act on those beliefs. While I did believe that Jesus was the son of God, I had not made the choice to follow Him.

Things came to a head on the second last day of that houseparty. Someone preached an evangelical message and loads of the kids there made the decision to follow Christ.

Now there were quite a few kids who were Christians already, and these kids (in a very mature way for kids ranging in age from 10 to 13) took the new converts back to the dorms and prayed with them. I can't really remember how it happened but I ended up being back at the dorm with two established Christian kids and three who had just made the decision. So I joined in the prayer group. It seemed the thing to do at the time. But obviously, I didn't join as a 'new convert' I was playing the part of the established Christian. And then someone asked me "So when did you become a Christian?" and I made the choice, there and then, to lie. "A couple of years ago" seemed a good answer as nobody there had known me for that long. Furthermore, I made the choice to let that lie stick. I also made (for the first time) the choice not to follow Christ.

From then on I lived a double life. In certain groups (i.e. family, church, SU groups, etc.) I played the part of a Christian, made the right noises and did the right stuff. I did it really well. I was very good at faking Christianity. In other groups, of course, I was a regular secular kid who listened to quite unchristian rock music and traded dubious magazines with his friends. For years it was easy, as the two groups did not overlap at all.

It only really got problematic in my final year at school. The two groups began to have slight overlaps. As the only sixth year in the school Christian group, I was expected to take on the leadership of the group. I managed to avoid that (just) and dumped the responsibility onto one of the 5th years (sorry Ewan). But as the year went on, the 6th years were expected to be involved in all these community events and when church based events came along it got increasingly hard to wriggle out of them, especially as one group of people I knew expected that I would be part of them. Actually, once I had to wriggle so hard to avoid doing a reading at a 'World day of prayer' meeting that a rumour was started that I was a satanist!

So, 6th year was crunch time and over the course of the year I realised that I had to make my choice and just be one thing or the other. It was an impossible choice, but I had to make it. And eventually I did. But the reasons I made the choice for Christ will have to come in another post.

The point here is that I was a fake Christian for 6 years. And played the part very convincingly.

But, I was a fake Christian in a very conservative evangelical setting. Raising hands in worship was frowned on. Nobody talked about healings, miracles or the like happening today. That was all considered as being in the past. Biblical teaching, right living and prayer. That was all that it was about.

But. What would I have become, as a fake Christian, if I'd been in a church where people raised hands in worship, spoke in tongues, prayed for healings, expected miracles, and the like?

I'll tell you. Because I know. I would have been very good at faking all that too. Fake speaking in tongues would have been easy. Fake praying for others? No problem.

And I'm reasonably sure I'd have been able to fake some 'miracles' like the leg lengthening trick.

If I could have done it, I know that others could have. And do. And are perpetuating fake Christianity right now.

There are fakes out there who are leaders in the church. There are fakes who are well known preachers, there are fakes who are pastors of big churches and there are fakes doing the rounds as healers.

Occasionally one of the big, high profile televangelist fakes is found out, but they're just the tip of the iceberg.

The thing is, even though I (as a former fake) am generally quite good at spotting other fakes, there is no real way of knowing. You can't always separate the sheep from the goats.

Oh, and just as an aside, there are also people who are or were genuine Christians but who 'backslide' in their faith whilst still maintaining a 'sound' mask. But I'm not talking about them here. I'm talking about those who have never made the choice for Christ and simply play the part of being a Christian, probably - like me - initially for the sake of an easy life, but who then keep it up for personal gain, as an ego-boost, or for other self-centred reasons.

If there are any Christians reading this who have slipped internally, while still maintaining the facade of a good Christian, I recommend you read "Buck Naked Faith" by Eric Sandras - because he was just like you...

Monday, March 02, 2009

The skeptical position and the apparent miracle

I've been meaning to state my skeptical position on this blog for a couple of weeks now, but hadn't found the time to write it down before I was overtaken by events yesterday, and now feel I have to comment on what I saw yesterday, but prefix it with a brief statement of my position.

The Skeptical Position

I've noticed in a few discussions online and in the real world recently, that the idea of taking a 'skeptical' position on an issue is frequently perceived as meaning taking a 'non-believing' stance. But this is not the case.

Suppose that something 'miraculous' happens, or appears to happen. The 'believer' will tend, by default, to see it as an act of God and will dismiss other theories. The 'non-believer' will tend, by default, to see it as a fake and will dismiss all possibility of 'supernatural' activities. One side sees the event as white, the other sees it as black. The true skeptic, however, must remain open to the possibility that either side could be true, or even that there are more possibilities out there. The skeptic should remain agnostic on the issue unless there is good evidence (not necessarily proof) to support one hypothesis over the other(s). The skeptic, therefore, sees the issue not as black or white, but only in shades of grey.

This is where I often find myself. For example, in the discussion on miracles which went on last week [here and here on my blog, and here on Chris's], I find myself stuck in the grey area in between two opinions [within the church!], that of:
  1. The Meeting House: "big, obvious miracles and healings, of the kind performed by (or through) the Apostles in the book of Acts, are not possible today." [my paraphrase]
  2. The 'Modern Evangelical' View: "God has not run out of "miracle-juice", nor has it become watered down over the millennia. He is the same awesome miracle working God today that he was two-thousand years' ago." [quote from Chris's blog]
The grey area I find myself in is that I can see no reason (biblical or otherwise) why opinion 1 should be the case, but I see little or no evidence to support opinion 2. So I remain skeptical of claims of healing, but open minded.

That is my position. Now my experience and observations from yesterday...

"Healing on the streets"

Our church (that's the Almond Vineyard in Edinburgh) were host to a couple of visitors from the Causeway Coast Vineyard in Northern Ireland this weekend. Both have been involved in their 'Healing on the streets' initiative, one of them started the initiative in 2005. Basically, a team from their church goes out onto the high street in their town -every Saturday- and offers prayer for healing to anyone who wants. They say the public response has become quite favourable and the claim to have seen quite a number of people being healed of various ailments.

Now while I am skeptical (as in open minded, but unsure) about what can be achieved through prayer for healing in this way, I am convinced that - at the very least - people can sometimes experience relief from pain, reduction of symptoms and occasional remission through this activity. A few folk from our church are involved in this kind of ministry in Edinburgh on a semi-regular basis, and I support them in this. It is a good thing. I haven't been brave enough to participate yet, but I might in the future.

So, the guy from 'Healing on the streets' preached at our church yesterday, spoke a bit about his experience 'on the streets' and in the church in Northern Ireland, and then offered to pray for healing for people. Several people were ministered to and prayed for. He specifically called for anyone who has 'one leg longer than the other' to come for prayer, and invited 'anyone who wanted to see a miraculous healing' to gather round and watch. I watched. Something appeared to happen.

This left me inclining toward the lighter greys, I have to say. It was convincing.

But then, when the next two people who came for healing, claiming back pain, appeared to also have one leg slightly longer than the other, my inner skeptic alarm bells started ringing. Having one leg longer than the other is not particularly common. If you counted the number of people who apparently had this complaint at church yesterday, it would appear to be about 5-10% of the gathering, but most of them were unaware of this 'complaint' before the healer identified it.

And I began to remember hearing someone talk about 'debunking' a 'leg lengthening miracle' before. The skeptical needle began to incline towards the darker greys.

The 'Leg Lengthening' Scam

Later on I Googled it and was reminded that it was (professional magician and paranormal fraudster debunker) James Randi who I'd heard talking about it. He even discussed the 'scam' at length in his book "The Faith Healers" back in the 1980s.

If done well, the person being 'healed', as well as the audience, are completely unaware of the scam. The trick is, when getting the patient seated and settled, to gently pull the heel of the shoe on the 'longer' leg. Now, when the audience is gathered around, they will clearly see a small difference in the relative positions of the person's two heels. As the healing takes place, the focus of the interest of the audience (and the patient) is on the 'short' leg, so they're not looking at the foot on the long leg as the healer slowly slides the shoe back to its original place, making the 'short' leg apparently grow relative to the long leg.

That is the scam. I'm still not sure if that's what I saw yesterday, but I'm inclining toward believing that that is what was going on.

Its interesting that in all cases, the 'short' leg was made to grow, the 'long' leg was never made to shrink. That would be a harder one to pull off...

What I now find myself wondering is whether it is possible for an entirely genuine person to have stumbled onto a 'technique' which seems to work for people during prayer ministry and remaining entirely unaware that they are perpetuating a fraud. Or is it always a deliberate fraud? In other words, was the guy misguided or a charlatan?

I really don't want to believe the latter, as the guy appreared to be a nice enough guy. And he works in a Church full of good people. But, of course, a good con-artist will never appear to be a con-artist.

There is one way of possible verification, of course. Someone was there yesterday who I know has one leg a bit shorter than the other. She was prayed for by the guy. If her leg did get longer, I'll have to stop being so skeptical. I'll be keeping my eyes open...

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Apostolic authority...

Hmmm. In my former post, Theophilus, I wrote about an issue I have with the current teaching from The Meeting House in Canada.

I don't go to that church, I'm on the wrong continent, but ever since I discovered them, over a year ago, I've been really impressed with their teaching, their theology and their overall view of Christian life, the universe and everything. If I lived in Canada I'd certainly have tried going there a few times.

So I'm slightly miffed that they have been emphasising a point recently that I'm not totally in agreement with. Although, having said that, I've still not made up my mind on this issue one way or the other...

Last week's sermon touched on the same points as the previous ones, but went one step further, or actually, two steps further.

The points are:
  • There is a difference between miracles and healings carried out by the Apostles in the book of Acts from what is possible for believers today.
  • Apostolic miracles were immediate, dramatic and unambiguous. Miracles & healings today are, at best, ambiguous and leave plenty of room for skeptics to remain skeptical.
  • The Apostles were those who were directly commissioned by Jesus, there have been no further apostles since the first generation died out.
Chris has pointed out that even Jesus's miracles were sometimes ambiguous and that some were skeptical of those miracles.

I doubted about what Jesus said about future generations of followers doing 'greater things' than him.

Obviously this came up in the house groups at the Meeting House as this was raised in last week's sermon. The two new points raised by the Meeting House are:
  1. Looking back over history, there is no evidence of successive generations of Christians doing 'greater' miracles than Jesus did. So either Jesus was lying (which we assume he wasn't) or he didn't mean 'greater' in that sense. Maybe he meant 'greater' in the quantitative sense? More believers = far, far more miracles and healings than one man, even the Son of Man, could have done.
  2. What the Apostles had, which we don't have, is authority. They could command a healing or a miracle, we can only ask.
I'm really not sure about point 2!

In 'the great commission' Jesus asserts that he is the one with the authority. He didn't pass it on, he retained it, so that all of the folk who carried out the commission - on his behalf - would be people under authority. If we're still carrying out the same commission, we have the same access to authority as the first generation of disciples did! Sometimes I think we don't see the working of the authority, because we haven't been brave enough to behave like commissioned people.

Having said that, I suspect their reasoning in point 1 is fairly good. We haven't seen Christians doing 'greater' things than Jesus (healing blind, walking on water, raising dead, turning water into wine), indeed we rarely hear of things of that level of greatness and I (for one) am pretty skeptical of some of the semi-great stories I hear.

But the doubting goes on... I still need to wrestle with this a bit longer...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

What happened to Peter?

Thinking about the book of Acts, which I am, I find myself wondering what happened to Peter? In Chapters 1-5, he is the main man, then suddenly he's gone from the limelight. Stephen steps in, Philip steps in and ultimately Paul carries the weight of most of the rest of the book. OK, Peter does pop up into the story again, dealing with Simon the Sorcerer and Cornelius, etc., but his time as 'main man' seems to be over.

I wonder if Peter did something that meant he lost his place in the spotlight?

I've expressed this opinion before [here and here], but I've found myself thinking more about the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). I continue to believe that it was Peter's choice that resulted in their deaths, not God's choice. God imparted power to Peter to exercise his ministry, Peter used that power to enact judgement on Ananias & Sapphira. Thus, the decision to kill A&S was Peter's.

But what if God, as a consequence of Peter's bad choice, decided to demote Peter? Not remove him from service, but make him less of a player. Others are promoted to the main places, including the outsider, Saul.

I wonder, if Peter hadn't abused the power that God gave him in this instance, would it have been necessary to enlist Paul as the primary evangelist to the gentiles? Maybe if Peter had been a bit wiser, we would have ended up with the epistles of Peter to all the churches, and a very different book of Acts.

Of course we'll never know. As Aslan says in the Narnia books on several occasions "no-one is ever told what would have happened...". But these are the thoughts I find running through my mind every now and then.

What do you think? Is this nonsense, or is there something in there?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Apostolic Miracle

I've been listening to the current sermon series on Acts from the Meeting House. One of the points they've made a couple of times so far in the series is that there is a difference between the miracles and healings that the 1st generation apostles performed, from anything that has been or is possible for subsequent generations of believers since the first century.

They assert that the healings and miracles of the first Apostles were clear and unambiguous - everyone, even sceptics, could not deny that a miraculous event had occurred. For example, the healing of the cripple at the gates of the temple in Acts 3. Even the Sanhedrin could not deny that the cripple had been healed.

However, they go further and assert that this is not possible today. They state that such 'healings' and 'miracles' which apparently occur today tend to be ambiguous, with the sceptics left with plenty of room not to believe them at all.

I'm guessing that this is a derived theology, I can't see this teaching in the bible. But I can see where it could come from - big obvious miracles happened back then, smaller, less obvious 'miracles' (if any) seem to happen these days. Anyone got any insight here?

I also guess that they don't believe in apostolic succession. That is, that after the first generation of Apostles, there were no further apostles.

The thing is, from observation of the way the world appears to be, this seems like perfectly sensible reasoning to me. But its not the way I want the world to be. I want it to be possible for the big miracles still to happen. I want apostles to be walking among us.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

The disciple whom Jesus loved

Regular readers of this blog (six that I know of, perhaps more) might remember a string of posts about Lazarus in May/June last year [post 1, post 2, post 3].
I had a comment on the first post from a guy called Jim Phillips who has studied the 4th gospel in detail and the story of Lazarus in particular and has come to the conclusion that Lazarus was the 'disciple whom Jesus loved' who wrote the gospel, not John. He has written a book called 'The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved' which can be read in its entirety online.

I don't like reading long things (even, in this case, short books) online, so I tried to buy the book. But Amazon marketplace sellers in the UK charge an awful lot for a short, second-hand book, so I didn't buy it. In the end I printed out the online version and read it... eventually.

So, having now read the book, am I convinced by its reasoning?

Well, reasonably yes.

The (entirely biblical) evidence presented in the book is compelling. Certainly, it makes a very good case that the disciple John - one of "the twelve" - was not the author of the 4th gospel. It also makes a very good case for the belief that Lazarus wrote the gospel.

I am convinced.

That's not to say that I couldn't be convinced out of this belief if other evidence were presented, but for now I am content to believe that the 4th gospel was written by Lazarus. Or written by someone else from the point of view of Lazarus.

That second possibility there is one that is not considered in the book, yet still remains a possibility. Just because the book is written from the point of view of 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' (TDWJL), doesn't actually mean that it was that disciple who wrote it. But that is a minor point.

The one issue that the book hasn't addressed to my satisfaction is the question of why the other three gospels make no mention of Lazarus at all (except in the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus). Indeed, while the 4th gospel has Peter and TDWJL going to the empty tomb on the day of resurrection, Luke has Peter going alone (Matthew & Mark don't have Peter going there at all).

What's going on there? That't not just a case of two people remembering the event in different ways, this particular event was the one, central event which defined their whole belief system. This was the most important event they were writing about. If Peter had gone to the tomb alone every one of the disciples would have known. If he was accompanied by TDWJL (whoever that might be) they would have known it too.

So, as I see it there are two possibilities:
  1. The authors of the other gospels deliberately removed TDWJL from their accounts, or
  2. TDWJL wasn't there and his insertion into the 4th gospel is a fabrication.
The author of the book cannot conceive of the 2nd option as being a possibility as he starts from the premise that all the gospels (along with the rest of the bible) are both inspired by God and infallible (therefore factually accurate, in all details).

However, I don't think that even the first option is completely compatible with the same premise. If the other gospels are factually accurate then TDWJL (whoever he might be) would not have been removed from the story. Sure, they might have recorded it as Peter going with an un-named disciple, but not as Peter on his own.

But let's face it, if the 4th gospel is true, then the other three gospels deliberately miss out the telling of one of Jesus's greatest miracles and the one which appears to have set the ball rolling towards his inevitable crucifixion. In the 4th gospel account it is the resurrection of Lazarus that brings about the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday.

If all gospels are inspired by the same God, then it is clear that he wants the story of Lazarus to be recorded, so why would the others - under the inspiration of the Spirit - omit this crucial story?

All of the possible reasons for omitting Lazarus from the other three gospels are human in origin. Not down to inspiration. Indeed, this whole issue is good evidence for the fallibility of the gospel accounts. Now I'm not saying they're not inspired, I'm just saying they're not infallible. Someone can be inspired to write something and then produce something flawed. Neither the inspiration or the intention is in question.

But why miss Lazarus out of the first three gospels? Re-reading the stories, I wonder if there might be a little bit of jealousy going on here. From the 4th gospel, we get the impression that TDWJL/Lazarus was more than simply a disciple. Jesus refers to him as 'friend' and he is the only one singled out as being 'loved' by Jesus. Perhaps Jesus was closer to Lazarus than to 'the twelve' and perhaps they were jealous.

I think there's a lot more still to uncover in the story of Lazarus and I'll continue pondering it in the weeks and months ahead. It'll certainly make me view the 4th gospel differently next time I read it...