Thoughts on Seeing a Lamb Killed on the Road


Disintegrated you will vanish,
Out of sight but not to perish;
In some form you will replenish
Nature’s stock,
Could reappear without a blemish
In the flock.

Chosen from among the creatures,
A lamb in our salvation features
With blood so pure that it can free us
From all sin.
Whose body broken down will feed us:
Christ our King.

Thoughts on Seeing a Lamb Killed on the Road, by the bard, the late John MacAskill of Blackpoint, Grimsay. A Christian of great faith, dignity, character and humour (1925-2018).

God is Dead. We have killed him.

mitchell“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” Nietzsche, The Gay Science, The Madman.

I thought of Nietzsche’s well-known quote as I came across an article by David Mitchell in the Observer last month. The basis for the article was something said by Neil MacGregor, who is following his highly-successful and fascinating series A History of the World in 100 Objects, with another series: Living with the Gods. MacGregor has proved himself an able art historian, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s qualified to set out a history of religious belief. I heard him on the Today programme a couple of weeks ago, describing the series, and using ‘belief’ and ‘habits’ interchangeably, which is precisely the kind of imprecision that will get you into bother with a history of religions.

Anyway, MacGregor had made a really important observation, an observation that everyone should take seriously. It’s candid, and perceptive. MacGregor had said about Britain in 2017:

We are exceptional. It’s important to know that we are different. We are a very unusual society. We are trying to do something that no society has really done. We are trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time. Our society is, not just historically but in comparison to the rest of the world today, a very, very unusual one in being like that.

Mitchell picks up on the significance of this statement. So should we all. Read that again – let it sink in. After reflecting on it in his usual sardonic manner, Mitchell concludes:

To change so quickly from a society where most people took comfort from the establishment telling them, loudly and clearly, that death is not the end, to one where many proclaim that it is, and few are totally convinced otherwise, will have had an incalculable impact on our state of mind. It’s not a development I regret, but it’s a more persuasive explanation than smartphones or commuting of why we feel so stressed.

So, here’s Mitchell putting together 21st Century Britain’s rejection of it’s Christian metanarrative, in a way no other nation quite has, with the rise in anxiety which so many people feel. There are all kinds of social statistics that suggest that British society is not particularly healthy (whether rates of prescription anti-depressants, teenage pregnancy, or lower measures of happiness and well-being). Then, there’s the evidence from the recent hand-wringing reckoning around abusive and exploitative sexist behaviour in Westminster (which reckoning is the socially acceptable iceberg-tip for the reckoning that no-one – mostly no-ones who are men – wants in their own workplaces or homes or clubs on a Saturday night).

So, put Mitchell’s connection together with a story that appeared about the same time in the media. Esther Rantzen appeared on a number of TV slots to speak about a 15-20% rise in calls to Childline prompted by suicidal thoughts. Why this alarming rise? Was there an explanation? Well, the usual suspects were brought out. I’m sure social media is part of it. I’m sure the objectification of women and a highly-sexualised society are part of it. I’m sure that casting our goals in life within the framework of aggressive consumerism and an immoral capitalism – yes, part of it too.

Rantzen pointed out something very important: when you compare children’s happiness across the developed nations, the United Kingdom does particularly poorly. And that’s when my thoughts went back to Mitchell’s article. Why is our culture like this? You can bring out the usual suspects, but one suspect not in the identity parade, but skulking in the shadows (as Mitchell realises), is The Murder of God. Our exceptional experiment, our swift, ignorant and hubristic rejection of a 2,000 year tradition of thought and belief that has formed the pillars of European culture. Our rejection of Christianity. Who will wipe this blood off our hands?

David Mitchell might not regret the Death of God in our culture, but I regret it. Yes, I regret it personally, because of my intellectual convictions about truth. But I regret the cost to our society, and especially to our children.

Who believes in Resurrection?

A fascinating study was published by ComRes last week. Commissioned by the BBC Religion and Ethics people, the survey of over 2,000 British adults focussed on the resurrection of Jesus and so-called ‘life after death’. My colleague David Robertson has written on the survey here. I want to look at bit more deeply at the figures, and also to bring out the shocking ignorance it reveals amongst active/practicing Christians about the biblical doctrine of resurrection. More on that in a later post – for now, let’s have a look at the numbers (you can get the ComRes data tables here).
In terms of self-identified religious affiliation, the sample worked out at 51% Christian, 9% Non-Christian, and 37% no religious affiliation (with 3% presumably not responding). That’s a little higher for religious affiliation across the board that in the 2015 British Election Survey.
The first question is about Jesus’s resurrection. The top line is that 44% of the sample believe in the biblical story of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in some way. That’s staggering, especially when just 16% of the sample identified as ‘Active Christians’. The proportion is an aggregation of two answers:

1. it happened word-for-word as described in the Bible;
2. the Bible account has elements which are not to be taken literally.

When you look at the numbers between these, 1. gets 17%, and 2. gets 26% of the sample. Again, that is somewhat amazing – around 1 in 6 people accept the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection! Really!? I mean, maybe it’s true, but it seems high.
I think that there are probably two things to say. First, how many UK adults would have a good idea of the detail of the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, word-for-word? Second, the respondents were given the possible options for replies. Methodology has an impact on surveys and any method skews results. When the options were read out, how much wiggle room was 2 giving, in the minds of the respondents? A fair bit, I’d say – and so 2. might seem like an attractive answer for those who were fairly ignorant of the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection (which I’d guess would be a fairly large proportion). I wonder how the results would look if the respondents had answered unprompted and these replies codified. Anyway, I agree with David Robertson that the numbers are kind of encouraging (more on that later), but I think there needs to be caution. That said, when you see that only 50% answered ‘I do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead’, that is a surprise to me, even with the caveats above.
Another thing that caught my eye is the gender split. Of those accepting the gospels’ accounts word-for-word (17%), amongst women that was 22%, compared with 13% amongst men. Significant. The sample is split down by age and region, but I think then more caution is needed. Of interest (with caution) are the figures showing that Wales stands out as the region where belief in the gospel account is highest (26%), whereas in Scotland the figure is 18% (fourth highest out of the eleven regions).
When it comes to age, there’s a decline as you go from the elderly to the young, as you’d expect. Almost 60% of the elderly believe in the resurrection of Jesus in some way. Amongst those under 35, the proportion is still over 35%.
But it’s the second and third questions that fascinate me. The second: ‘which of the following statements, if any, best reflect your views on life after death?’ The possible responses were (apart from Don’t Know):

1. I believe that there is life after death (e.g. reincarnation, heaven, hell)
2. I do not believe that there is life after death (e.g. reincarnation, heaven, hell)

The results were evenly split. So, 46% of the sample believe in ‘life after death’. The gender split is again interesting: 36% of males, 56% of females. Pretty informative of the self-identified Active Christians group is the fact that only 85% of them believe in ‘life after death’. The orthodoxy of Active Christians cannot be assumed. When you get down to what kind of ‘life after death’ people believe in, well that’s when it gets really interesting for me. But that’s the next post…
For now, let me throw out some thoughts from the numbers above. First, although David R rightly sees the survey results as encouraging, I see in them a bit of an indictment of the church. In the church we tend to comfort ourselves over our lack of impact in our society with the thought that our message is rejected by ‘the world’. The numbers indicate, at the very least, an openness to resurrection as an idea, and the commonplace view that this life isn’t all there is. We are simply not engaging people with our ways of doing church. We are simply not equipping Christians to engage with people who are probably ready to discuss. If we keep filling our people with fear about the ‘opposition of the world’, then we are failing. Yes, of course, I believe in the opposition of the world, but I also see that these figures are showing opportunity and openness in our culture to the gospel message. If the church could get its act together, and get its message straight on the biblical doctrine of resurrection (rather than itself getting all pagan with its views of ‘life after death’), then I think we would find more of a receptive ear than we imagine.
Second, if you’re a Christian reading this, then you need to realise that people are incredibly interested in what happens after this life. But, if you’re a Christian, I’d guess you don’t feel that confident about explaining your views. That’s because you’ve probably been taught all your life that ‘we don’t really know what heaven’s like’. And you probably feel a bit weird about the whole idea of heaven anyway. Don’t worry, that’s ok (feeling weird about it). Because talk about ‘heaven’ and ‘life after death’ is missing the point of the resurrection of Jesus. Christianity is not about going to heaven. No, really. And the church is too often missing the point. Who believes in Resurrection? Actually, a lot of orthodox Christians don’t really believe in it – as the third question of the survey shows. And so it shouldn’t surprise us that if the church is ignorant about the Christian hope, folk in our communities are too.
Next post soon…

Stormzy and Folk Christianity

I sometimes hear people talking about a post-Christian society in Britain. I think it’s a bit premature to talk like that, to be honest. I think Christianity is still present and recognised in our culture to a sufficient degree that the ‘post-Christian society’ label is too pessimistic. However, I do recognise that there are post-Christian communities – towns, villages, schemes, where any shared cultural and community life is totally unaffected by Christian truth. Where talk of Jesus, human sin and God’s salvation just does not figure.
But, I see a lot of Christianity around. If we’re attentive to culture, we pick up frequent references to the Christian message. Sometimes they pop up in surprising places. I’ve been reading a bit about, and listening a bit to, the grime artist Stormzy. Before I go any further, I’m not necessarily advising you to do the same… neither am I advising you not to. Anyway, read on. On his album Gang Signs and Prayers are two tracks entitled Blinded by your Grace (Parts 1 & 2). Here are some of the lyrics:

Lord, I’ve been broken, although I’m not worthy, you fix me – now I’m blinded by your grace, you came and saved me

You saved this kid, and I’m not your first, it’s not by blood and it’s not by birth, but Oh my God, what a God I serve

You can watch a public performance at the Westfield Shopping Centre here. Stormzy raps about being ‘God’s son, look at what God’s done.’ It seems on the face of it a bona fide declaration of Christian faith. Stormzy has said he wanted to make a beautiful gospel song, ‘to touch on the gospel side of things and my faith, because that’s so integral to my character.’ He’s spoken of church and clearly has some idea of the gospel. When Christians come across something like this they can, because of the familiarity of the ideas, embrace tracks like this. That’s what I did initially. But I think we need to be more discerning.
First, it’s interesting that Stormzy doesn’t mention Jesus (either on the track, or in any interview I could find). Sometimes we forget that the heart of Christianity is Jesus. Singing or talking about God, or the Lord, can be all well and good, but if Jesus doesn’t figure at the forefront of our conception of who ‘God’ or the ‘Lord’ is, then we’re not talking about orthodox Christianity.
Second, as Nathan Jones who reviewed Gang Sings and Prayers at Premier Gospel points out, alongside Blinded by your Grace (Parts 1 and 2)  are tracks with ‘plenty of bad language’ (there’s a fair bit of effing) and ‘unsavoury subject matters’. I found the few tracks I listened to contained quite a bit of in-your-face arrogance (par for the grime course), aggressive language and sentiments (including the repeated denigration of others),  references to guns and drugs, and the ever-present bare materialist-consumerist outlook of so much urban music. These tracks definitely don’t reflect the values of Jesus, or the Kingdom of God. In fact, they represent the values of a world that lies in the power of the evil one. So how can Gang Signs and Prayers contain this stark contrast? What are Christians supposed to do with Stormzy’s Blinded by Your Grace?
I think what’s going on with this album is a manifestation of what I think of as ‘Folk Christianity’. Folk Christianity is usually a label applied to syncretistic religion in places like the Philippines. But, I think it’s a valid label for here in the UK too, when Christianity  loses its place and people start to pick and choose which part of it they want to believe. It becomes a kind of superstitious, folk religion. I see Folk Christianity as a stage in the decline of Christianity in Western culture. God, life-after-death, prayer, heaven, blessing – these all seem to find a place. But these are combined with all kinds of un-Christian and anti-Christian beliefs. Things like the church, like allegiance to Jesus, like discipleship, like obedience to the way of Christ – these get lost.
Folk Christianity is a feature of Highland communities – amongst young and middle aged people. I think it’s actually more of a feature of these age brackets than amongst the elderly. I go to funerals, and talk to different folk, who have this Folk Christian worldview. It contains ideas of God in heaven, and how departed loved ones are with God, looking down (see Ed Sheeran’s ‘Supermarket Flowers’ for a great example of this). There are ideas of an afterlife, which are usually quite pagan. Sometimes it contains ideas of Jesus. It usually has some idea of prayer, and of the church (as a place to be for funerals and weddings). It seems to value Christian iconocraphy – the cross, the saints – and often has a place for the Lord’s Prayer. It identifies as ‘Christian.’ It contains a lot of spiritual ideas – miracles, ghosts, the dead as surviving somehow. Most of the time, you can see that these ideas are the vestiges of Christianity, but have been formed into a kind of Folk Christianity that bears very little resemblance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Notable by his general absence is Jesus himself. And all these are combined with a fair dose of superstition, and the kind of attitudes and behaviours that the apostles were warning Christians about in the early years of Christianity.

Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NIV

I would argue against people who say that this kind of Folk Christianity is a total negative, or that it offers the church nothing to work with. I thank God that there are still vestiges of Christianity. We can use these vestiges, use this Folk Christianity as a way into speaking about Jesus and the genuine Gospel of the Cross, the Resurrection, God’s grace and forgiveness, and the way of discipleship. But my concern is that there are too many Christians in orthodox churches who don’t recognise Folk Christianity for what it is, and who are not critical enough of it, and who don’t challenge it enough. Which is why Christians need to be clear about the centrality of Jesus in our faith. To be provocative: there are too many people, even in Free Church congregations, who are too sketchy on the centrality of Jesus for our faith. That’s my opinion, based on my experience.
Going back to Stormzy, don’t get me wrong – I’m not judging whether or not his faith is genuine. I’m just saying that a Christian faith that is comfortable with aggression, the devaluation of sex through sexual obscenity, the demeaning of others, violence, the values of an arrogant consumerism – that doesn’t seem to me, on the face of it, to be a faith which is serious about Jesus. Nathan Jones hopes that Blinded by Your Grace ‘will make people think about God’s goodness in their lives.’ I hope the same. No bones, Stormzy is talented (and talent is God’s gift). I like Stormzy’s Blinded by Your Grace, but I’ll never feel totally comfortable listening to it. Jones also writes:

The Christian life is a process, one which is started by the gospel becoming central to all aspects of your life. For that reason, change is one of the most important components. It’s impossible to meet with Jesus and stay the same. Let’s hope and pray that as these artists continue to be open with their faith, they are also open to the change that we are all in need of.

I agree; I hope and pray the same. Jones also pointed out that Blinded by Your Grace sounds like ‘something you would have heard on a Christian rap album circa 2006.’ After listening to some of Gang Signs and Prayers, another track from that time came to mind: The Cross Movement’s 2007 track We Were They. Whereas I think Stormzy’s ‘gospel’ track probably represents a kind of Folk Christianity within black culture, We Were They is the real deal. Like some of Stormzy’s work, it’s provocative, even a little aggressive in places. But, it’s a challenge to those living within a black American Folk Christianity to hear the call of Jesus to put him at the centre, and to follow him in a repentant and obedient lifestyle of discipleship.

They stay the same, no they never change, ain’t nuttin strange… / They wanna hang, just wanna party, kick some slang, sip on some Bacardi…

Think about this, then think about that / think of what they do, think of how they act… / they say God knows my heart, but that don’t get ‘em off the hook…

They don’t want to learn, they just want to know… / They just want the watch, don’t want to know the time…

They don’t want to become, they only want to be… / They just think he’s gracious, what about his wrath?

They might not be sheep, they might be the goats…

They say that they’re we, we used to be they / we had our last night, we live in a different day

The line about the watch is great, considering the in-your-face consumerist, exhibitionist attitude of a lot of urban music when it comes to blingy jewellery, including watches (Stormzy mentions Hublots on one of his tracks). Ditto for the Bacardi reference, which is also one of Stormzy’s on the same track.
Folk Christianity and Real Christianity are not compatible. That’s the kind of challenge we need to bring when we encounter Folk Christianity in our communities. Ministers especially, when preparing for, and conducting, funerals and weddings, need to gently but firmly put Folk Christianity in the spotlight of Jesus’s Gospel. Folk Christianity might give us a way in, but Folk Christianity is not enough.

If you want to be cheerful…

happyThis morning on the Today programme (BBC Radio 4) there was an item on a new course by the Dalai Lama on how to find happiness. It put me in mind of a couple of news stories I read over the summer.

The first was in The Times (5 August, p.15), with the headline ‘If you want to be cheerful…go to church’. It reported the findings of a survey of 10,000 people over 50 years of age from across Europe. The research was conducted by scientists from the London School of Economics and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Over 4 years, researchers looked at participation in volunteering, education, sports, social clubs, political organisations, and religious organisations. This participation was correlated with indicators of mental health (depressive symptoms, sleep quality, appetite). On the downside, for those into political engagement, participation in a political organisation definitely made peoples lives more unhappy. Religious activity was the only intervention (of all the activities) to make a positive difference to a person’s mental well-being over time. That’s not surprising to me, and there are good theological reasons why that would be the case. But it’s still very interesting to see it concluded from a large and careful research study.

Just as interesting was another story that appeared in Third Way (‘Happy clappy’, May 2015, p.5). This reported on work by the UK Office of National Statistics over 3 years, measuring personal well-being. The data showed that Christians are happier than people from other religious groups, followed by Jewish people, people of no religion, then Muslims and Buddhists (the Dalai Lama might have his work cut out). There are probably all kinds of socio-economic factors at play here too, but nevertheless Christians and Jewish people are most likely to report feeling that the things that they do in life are worthwhile. Muslims and those with no religion are the least likely.

There’s a perception in the Scottish Highlands, and probably elsewhere too, that following Christianity is joyless and that the Church is a kill-joy. It’s good to see some hard data (as well as our own experience) contradicting that.

The Decline of Christianity in Scotland (and Wales)

emptychurchAn article by Andy Hunter (Scotland Director of FIEC) in July’s Evangelicals Now seeks to explain the ‘spectacular spiritual decline’ in Scotland. The piece (an expanded piece can be found on Hunter’s blog) sets out several reasons why the decline in Christianity north of the Boarder seems to have been greater than that seen in England. Some of the reasons Hunter gives seem to make a lot of sense, such as the higher levels of immigration to England from Christian countries (particularly seen in London), or the infamous factionalism within Scottish Presbyterianism, which has undoubtedly turned many people from the Church.

Other reasons seem more tenuous, particularly Hunter’s quite striking claim that a greater proportion of Independent churches in England has slowed decline south of the Border.

One thing to be clear on from the start is that the measure that Andy Hunter is dealing with is self-declared religious affiliation (from the 2015 British Election Survey (BES)). That means that we’re not measuring faith, or church attendance, but something which is a cipher for the place of Christianity in the national consciousness or psyche. Or perhaps a measure of how many people identify, however broadly or culturally, with the label of ‘Christian’.

The BES data show that across Britain as a whole, 48% of the population self-identifies as belonging to a particular Christian tradition. Taking the major traditions, by far the largest constituency is Anglicanism (31.1% of the population), followed by Roman Catholicism (9.1%), Presbyterianism (3.7%) and Methodism (2.5%). All other Christian traditions together account for 1.4%. All other religions apart from  Christianity account for 7.4%. Of course, the proportion self-identifying as having no religious affiliation is large, at 45%. All of the above, perhaps surprisingly, means that in terms of religious affiliation, the largest constituency of the British population identify itself as Christian.

When you look at the declared religious affiliations since 1963, the greatest decline across 52 years is seen in ‘Other Christian’ traditions (from 23.1% to 7.6%), rather than in Anglicanism (64.5% to 31.1%) or Roman Catholicism (an increase from 8.6% to 9.1%). The ‘Other Christian’ category is too aggregate to be useful, but includes Independents amongst other groupings. Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism stand at the other end of the spectrum to Independents in terms of their structures, being large, highly-structured denominations. This is significant for judging Hunter’s argument about Independents.

The incredibly striking and sobering statistic is the rise in those declaring no religious affiliation between 1963 and 2015 (3.2% to 44.7%). In terms of a social shift, that is truly astonishing. And I would venture that when you put that alongside statistics from other European nations you would feel, if you are a UK church leader, even more sober.

When it comes to Scotland, there is clearly a higher level of non-affiliation to any religion (50.6% compared to 43.7% in England), and this is what Andy Hunter picks up on. It’s actually worse in Wales, where 51.8% declare religious non-affiliation.

The idea that Independent churches would help to maintain Christianity in the national psyche doesn’t quite ring true to me. Independency is strong in Wales, and this is the country with the highest non-affiliation. The fact that Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism have suffered less of a decline in self-identification than other traditions proves difficult for the assertion made by Andy Hunter that ‘larger institutions (including church denominations) have a tendency to become less effective over time.’ I would argue, conversely that these denominations have a much greater cultural and political impact than do Independents.

The data suggest that it is the largest institutions that have been more effective at maintaining a societal connection. I would argue that one of the factors (amongst many) that has precipitated such a decline in Christian affiliation (remembering that it’s a cipher for the place of Christianity in the national psyche) in Wales particularly is the fragmentation of the large denominations. In Wales, many evangelical congregations left the denominations during the latter half of last century. As a consequence of this, many of these have lost their former place in the consciousness of their communities, and have struggled to build bridges with communities that no longer understand who they are, or even know that they exist. These congregations have certainly had no effective place or voice in national discourse or the nation’s cultural life. Three or four decades on, many have stagnated and declined. That, I would argue, has been a significant factor in the decline in religious affiliation in Wales.

Andy Hunter is undoubtedly right to say that the fragmentation in Presbyterianism in Scotland has damaged the church’s witness. I can’t and won’t argue with that. Plenty before me have pointed out the shame of it. However, it’s easier to point out division in large bodies. Fragmentation also happens in Independent congregations, with schisms and splits, but this goes largely unnoticed in society. I really don’t think that, in general, Independent churches contribute significantly to the place of Christianity in the national psyche – national churches can do that far more effectively. Andy Hunter works for the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches – and that body undoubtedly gives a stronger voice to Independents. I’m a Presbyterian. So we’re going to see things differently. However, the data we have in the BES seem to support my point.

If we’re looking for reasons for decline, there something else I’d throw into the mix (and it undoubtedly is a mix). It’s something that has contributed to the disconnection between churches and their communities, and also between churches and cultural and political discourse. It’s an important theological aspect that goes right to the heart of Evangelicalism. British Evangelicalism was influenced from the beginning by European Pietism. This theology, which ensconced itself within Puritanism, Methodism and the thinking of the Evangelical Awakening, was dualistic and proposed a clear separation between this world and a spiritual salvation in heaven. Its outlook tended to disparage culture, denigrate humanity and the physical, including the body, the arts and large parts of human experience. It led to widespread cultural and political disengagement in the church. Pietistic Christianity, as George Caird observed, does not connect to human beings who recognise much goodness in God’s creation. More importantly, it’s not biblical.

The influence of Pietism is, I believe, a significant factor in the astonishing decline of Christianity in Scotland, and for that matter in Wales, my home country. I’m no sociologist. I’m not a church historian. But it strikes me that both Scotland and Wales, in terms of their Christian traditions, have been disproportionately affected by Pietism. It is a deficient theology, a kind of pseudo-Gnosticism. Its negative outlook on physical life and  human experience has contributed to the caricatures of Highland Calvinism and of Presbyterian preachers that still do the rounds today in Scotland and in Wales. I was reminded of this kind of thing just last week. On BBC Radio Scotland there was a piece on Dumfries Academy’s 1877 hosting of then pupil JM Barry’s play ‘Bandelero the Bandit’. The reaction (in a letter to the governors) of a local minister , Rev D.L. Scott, was reported:

‘We have turned the classroom into a theatre for the exhibition of a grossly immoral play…I say that such exhibitions are a disgrace…Are they [those attending] the pious? Are they the prayerful or the godly? No, we find that theatre-goers are the irreligious, the frivolous, the giddy and, aye, even sometimes the great many were nothing better than the off-scourings and scum of society’.

Such views might be from over 100 years ago, but this kind of Pietism has been alive and kicking in the church over the last century, and is still represented in the church today. Maybe not in such stark terms, but it’s there. You see it in churches isolated from their communities and national discourse. You see it in almost-Gnostic presentations of a Gospel of escape from the world. The decline of Christianity in the national psyches of both Scotland and Wales can be, at least in part, attributed to it.

I want to, like Hunter, end with reasons to be hopeful (Andy Hunter is to be commended for that). The Reformed tradition of Calvin and especially of Dutch theologians like Bavinck, Kuyper and Rookmaaker, points us to a robust creation theology, a robust theology of life, a grand vision of living the whole of life to the glory of God, and of redeeming culture for Jesus Christ. It’s a tradition that reflects a Gospel not of escape from the world, but of redemption for the world. That’s the Gospel of the scriptures. Our Reformed tradition also has a robust theology of the church and its place in national life. Within the Free Church of Scotland, this strand of the Reformed tradition is increasingly influential and I believe that, if we embrace it, it will produce a dynamic, contemporary, missional and engaged Reformed Church. And that’s why I believe that a renewal of Presbyterianism offers the best hope for renewing the place of the Scottish Church in the national psyche. For the glory of God in Jesus Christ.

In The Crucible

salemLast night I saw an excellent performance of Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible, by pupils at Lochaber High School. Miller wrote The Crucible as a satire on post-war McCarthyism, but its setting is the town of Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th Century, and the infamous witch trials there. Miller’s portrayal of the events at Salem is largely historical, and through the play he draws powerful parallels between the hysteria, authoritarianism and persecution of the Puritan communities of New England and of the McCarthy era.

What particularly struck me last night was the The Crucible’s portrayal of Pietism. Pietism is that version of Christian faith which, like Gnosticism, denigrates the physical world. Pietism proposes a radical separation of God’s work of creation and God’s work of salvation. The created world is perceived as a ‘grim vale of soul-making’ (George Caird’s characterisation), a temporary theatre constructed so that the play of human salvation can run its course. Human culture and the enjoyment of life are denigrated by Pietism, and are ultimately meaningless. Death is to be embraced, life endured.

Whatever benefits came from Puritan theology, Puritanism had Pietism at its heart. Miller portrays a Puritan community consumed by superstition, and a clergy consumed with material gain and pride. In Salem, the arts, literature, and human enjoyment in general are frowned upon. Giles Corey suspects his wife of witchery because she is reading books. That children should be dancing is a cause for dismay. Goody Proctor confesses her coldness to her husband, a coldness emblematic of the denigration of human love within Pietism. A Christianity which finds no place for the positive theology of creation found in the scriptures of the Bible lays itself open to the superstition and hysteria which erupted in Salem and elsewhere. When Christianity has little connection to God’s work in nature, Christians begin to live in an enchanted world, where everyday illnesses and misfortunes are attributed to evil spirits, and where the devil, rather than human sin, is behind every injustice. This is a Christianity where an extreme dualism values the spiritual world as the ‘real’ world, and the physical world as inconsequential. Where such views prevail, Christians find it easier to live dualistic lives. Their ‘godly’ spiritual exercises sit alongside actions which are compromised by greed, jealousy or hatred. A theological disconnect between the spiritual and the physical leads to lives which are dualistic and untransformed. In Miller’s Salem, ‘covenanted, Gospel Christians’ talk in pious terms, yet angle to acquire others’ land. Rev Parris most clearly exhibits this hypocrisy, using threats of hell-fire to cow-tow his parishioners whilst seeking more pay, and golden candlesticks at his elbows.

The Crucible can make for uncomfortable viewing for some Christians, portraying as it does the hypocrisy and superstition that can flourish within Christianity. But I enjoy The Crucible as a Christian, not only because it’s a great play, but because the kind of Christianity encountered in The Crucible deserves critique. Its portrayal of Pietism (although focussing on its extreme consequences) is not just of historical interest, since Pietism is alive and well within evangelical Christianity. Within the Church we continue to be burdened by its presence, because Pietism is incapable of carrying God’s truth effectively into God’s world. It holds Christians back in terms of their growth and discipleship, stretching them in an unbiblical tension of guilt and superstition, suspended between heaven and earth.

In The Crucible, Rev Hale speaks to Goody Proctor in the face of the latest hangings, ‘Life is God’s most precious gift’. True Christianity understands God as the God of life, and understands that human life is to be lived and to be valued, along with the beauty and meaning of human art and literature. True Christianity banishes asceticism, and understands that God intends to redeem this creation, and that through faith in Jesus Christ, God’s people are destined for resurrection. We are called to witness to the goodness of God in creation, and to proclaim that Jesus Christ came into the world to bring ‘life in all its fullness’.

Scottish Independence, Social Justice and the Church

saltireA few weeks ago I posted some thoughts on the implications for Scottish independence of an SNP administration that seems to be committed to the modern conceit of ‘secularism’. For Scottish Christians who believe that the spiritual life of the nation is just as important as its cultural or economic life, the prospect of severing ties with neighbouring countries which are far less ‘post-Christian’ than Scotland must be a real issue. This issue remains important in the independence debate.  However, it’s by no means the only important issue.

Many Scots see the great advantage of independence as being the possibility of a more just society (although conceptions of this will differ). With more unveiling of the corruption and excess at the Westminster Parliament, of the excesses of the banking system, and of the increasing division between rich and poor in UK society (mostly driven by the south of England), the prospect is appealing. There is a definite opportunity to craft something different in Scotland. Will Hutton is correct when he suspects ‘some of the energy behind Scottish nationalism is the desire to build a country where toxic wealth inequalities are less indulged than in England.’ But what kind of changes can be made? Is it back to the unsustainable tax, borrow and spend of the bankrupting Labour administration of the late 90s and 00s? That period was dominated by Blair’s New Labour being infamously ‘intensely relaxed’ about rich plutocrats. Banking is almost as important to Scotland as it is to London. It won’t be easy for an independent Scotland to seek another way, to seek a sustainable economic model that delivers a more just society.

It’s ironic that those who want greater social justice in Scotland see North Sea oil as the safety net for economic development. Fossil fuels are perhaps the most obvious totem of an economic system (and a society) that is simply unsustainable. Since the 80s (and perhaps before), Britons have come to expect the increasing wealth and increasing growth of  a libertarian, globalised capitalism. Why do the electorate vote the way they do? Clinton’s 1992 campaign got it right: ‘The economy, stupid.’ It’s symptomatic of this way of thinking that the Independence debate has been dominated by questions of ‘will I be better off?’ It’s not a great start. Independence must be driven fundamentally by beliefs about national identity and a desire to shape one’s own destiny as a nation. If you believe in that, you have to be ready for the pain as well as the gain (for there will be both – spiritually and economically).

If independence allows the possibility of a more just society to develop, Christians should take this seriously and consider how the Church’s calling to speak up for the poor, the oppressed, and for sustainable and just economic policies relates to this. The independence debate is about so much more than the ‘spiritual’ aspects of life. I want to avoid the ‘spiritual/worldly’ dichotomy that is doing so much damage in the church, but so many Christians think like this – a dualism between ‘spiritual’ things that matter, and ‘worldly’ things that don’t. For the Reformed Christian, everything matters; everything is spiritual. Therefore, the Church needs to be at the forefront of Scottish national life. It is so important for Christians to be engaged with understandings of nationhood, history and economics. If the Church simply argues about the Establishment principle, or the ‘secular dangers’ of independence, she is not being true to her calling to work in partnership with the State and to speak God’s truth into every area of life in God’s world. Independence offers great possibilities for the Church as well as challenges. So does remaining in the Union. Whether in or out, the Scottish Church needs galvanising to act like a truly Reformed Church, speaking truth to power as well as the populace. I’m beginning to think that Scottish Independence may offer a pathway to two things: an honest assessment of the failings of the church in Scotland in this area, and an new impetus to engage in the discourse of national life.

Ed Leigh interviews Torah Bright

torahbrightThere was an interesting segment in an interview on Ski Sunday this week, where Ed Leigh spoke to Australian professional snowboarder Torah Bright. Torah Bright is a Mormon and she was asked directly about the impact of her faith on her sport. Ed also mentioned two other women who’ve achieved success in half-pipe snowboarding: Kelly Clark, a US boarder who is a Christian, and Hannah Teeter, who Leigh describes as having ‘spirituality’.

Here’s how the segment of the interview went:

EL: ‘I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the three women who’ve dominated half-pipe snowboarding – Kelly Clark, Hannah Teeter and you – all have faith, or spirituality in Hannah’s case. And it’s…I’ve seen a lot of top female athletes who struggle with confidence or insecurity, and you guys seem to have this belief there. Do you think that there’s a connection there, between faith and confidence?’

TB: ‘I don’t know really, y’know. I guess…we can make that connection but I do feel when you have a spiritual connection or a faith or something… it does give you a grounding sense, and it does give you a purpose in a way as well…and for me being religious my whole life, it’s also a foundation.’

More interesting than Torah Bright’s answer is the hypothesis in Ed Leigh’s question, and his willingness to express that hypothesis. Judging by Kelly Clark’s account of how faith has changed her approach to snowboarding, Leigh’s hypothesis is on the right lines.

Worship in Schools and the Independence Question

Plaid-SNP-inspirationAlmost 10 years ago I moved from Wales to Scotland. In Wales, I was for a time a member of Plaid Cymru. I supported the secession of Wales from the United Kingdom. I still believe in political self-determination for my home nation and I still believe that independence would bring benefits to both Scotland and Wales. But…as a Christian, the whole issue is more complicated. Scotland is not Wales. More importantly, the SNP is not Plaid Cymru. Plaid Cymru is a party where the Christianity of the church ministers who were at the forefront of the birth of the modern Welsh political and language movements still means something. Leading figures of more recent years, such as Rhodri Glyn Tomos and the great Dafydd Iwan, are lay ministers. Ieuan Wyn Jones has spoken openly of his Christian belief. Wales has seen as much of a decline in church attendance as anywhere, perhaps even more so, given the high attendances of early last century, but the old denominations and the presence of the Church in Wales still seem to uphold Christianity to a certain degree in civic life.

Contrast this with the SNP and Scotland. The SNP seems bent on pursuing a secular political and liberal social agenda which directly undermines the place of Christianity in civic life. In this regard, SNP are little different from Scottish (or New) Labour. Whatever similarities there may be to Plaid on economics, social justice or on political self-determination and independence, they are not cut from quite the same cloth. And the National Church, the Church of Scotland, seems to be heavily influenced by the same type of liberal so-called progressives. I adduce as evidence the recent debacle of the joint statement with the Humanist Society concerning religious observance in schools.

In fact, let me take the example of religious observance or worship (the distinction is important) in schools. In Wales, the following requirements are laid down for schools:

  • schools must provide collective worship daily for all registered pupils,
  • most acts of collective worship in each term should be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character. This means that they should reflect the broad traditions of Christian belief without being distinctive of any particular Christian denomination.

It is specifically ‘worship’ that must take place each day, defined as follows:

Collective worship in schools should aim to provide the opportunity for pupils to worship God, to consider the spiritual and moral issues and to explore their own beliefs; to encourage participation and response, whether through active involvement in the presentation of worship or through listening to, watching and joining in the worship offered; and to develop community spirit, promote a common ethos and shared values, and reinforce positive attitudes.

Contrast this with the position in Scotland where since 2005 (under a Labour/Lib Dem coalition and before any of the recent Humanist/CofS shenanigans) there has merely been a requirement for ‘religious observance’ defined as:

community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community.

Whatever religious observance is in Scotland, it is not worship, let alone Christian worship! The requirements for religious observance in Scotland are:

  • Every school should provide opportunities for religious observance at least six times in a school year

And what about the relationship between religious observance and worship?

Where the school, whether denominational or non-denominational, is continuous with a faith community, that community’s faith in the “focus of worship”, may be assumed and worship may be considered to be appropriate as part of the formal activity of the school. Where, as in most non-denominational schools, there is a diversity of beliefs and practices, the review
group believes that the appropriate context for an organised act of worship is within the informal curriculum as part of the range of activities offered for example by religions, groups, chaplains and other religious leaders.

That’s not terribly clear and the nagging impression is that between the lines lurks the secular liberal doublethink (and remember this is long-before the Church of Scotland and Humanists got into bed to propose a Time for Reflection). I prefer the more straightforward exhortations of the Welsh Assembly Government. I know of a school in Wales where the inspection body Estyn recommended after inspection that prayers should be said more regularly as part of school assemblies. So it happens on the ground as well as in the circulars.

So, as a Christian who follows Jesus Christ, cares about the faith, cares about the Church of the faith, and the relationship of the nation to the Church (I’m a Presbyterian!), it seems to me that voting for independence for Scotland is not the same as voting for independence for Wales. The former might happen. I now doubt whether the latter ever will. But, do I want to vote for an independent Scotland led by a secularising, liberal elite that ignore the fact that 65% of the Scottish population claim some allegiance to Christianity? Do I want to vote for an independent Scotland with a national Church that seems to be slipping its moorings, adrift on a stormy sea of liberal, heterodox theology? Do I want to vote for Scotland to be independent from the rest of the UK, when in the rest of the UK it seems as if there is more of a successful resistance to secular pressures and where it seems as if Christianity (recognisable as Christianity) is still playing a more visible part in the national discourse and in civic life? Do I really want to do that?