Monday, 26 May 2008

Glorious Apologetics?

I've just put another sermon on my website. It's onHaggai chapter 1. It's a bit rough around the edges, and I don't like the introduction, but it seemed to go down OK. I really like Haggai, although I don't think he gets enough attention. I particularly love this chapter - it's a kick up the backside to the Jews who'd returned from exile but become more concerned with their fancy houses than with God's glory. Something which is really clear from Haggai 1 is God's concern for his own glory - he makes all the effort to get people to see his glory. He sends Haggai with a message, he's been frustrating their efforts to find satisfaction in other things, he tells them what to do, and he stirs their hearts to do it. God's glory is God's top priority.

As I mention (possibly a bit clumsily) in the introduction, this has had a huge impact on my understanding of God. People like John Piper have helped me to see that God's number one priority is his own glory, and it's a truth which turns everything upside down. One major effect is that it puts us in our place. We tend to think that we're God's main concern, which he proved by dying for us. But, in truth, God's glory is demonstrated in the death of the Lord Jesus as his love and grace and holiness and justice are displayed.

Something else I was trying to get at in the sermon, which I don't think I did justice to, is that God's glory is key to understanding who he is, and why he acts the way he does. When we lose sight of it, we see God differently, and a lot of things about him become far more difficult to understand.

One obvious area is the problem of suffering. How can God possibly allow suffering if he is good and powerful? God's glory is key to understanding this - listen to John Piper's talks on suffering from New Word Alive, or read Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. It's only when we factor in God's glory that these things begin to make sense. Otherwise any answers we come up with are either deeply unsatisfying, or we have to make things up.

Which brings me to the point of this post, and a question I've been pondering for a while. It seems to me that we don't like to talk about God's glory to non-Christians. I don't think I've ever heard an apologetic talk on suffering which deals with the subject in the way Piper would. I don't think I've ever given a talk like that either. I'm wondering, why not? Perhaps it's because we can't understand it or explain it properly, so it makes God sound like an egomaniac? How can I talk about God's glory to non-Christians in a way that will make sense of the big problem they have, but which will do justice to God and maintain his goodness and grace and compassion? Hmmm... I feel there will be more to come on this...

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Arty Thoughts...

I'm reading a brilliant little book at the moment, called Imagine by Steve Turner. It deals with the place of Christians in the Arts, and outlines a vision of Christian artists using their unique perspective to get stuck into culture and engage with the big questions everyone is wrestling with. I haven't finished it yet, but so far it's been really thought-provoking.

I'm reading it partly to help me in encouraging arty students I'll be working with next year, and partly for my own interest. I've found myself getting artier over the past few years, and this book has been really helpful in thinking it through. It's also pulling together a lot of strands of thought I've been tugging on recently. Questions about how to engage with a culture which likes asking big questions but is suspicious of anyone who claims to have an answer. And if the gospel is relevant to every aspect of out lives, how does this work out in practice, and is it visible to those outside the church.

Turner explains that, for a long time and for various different reasons, there has been suspicion amongst Christians when it comes to the arts. And so Christian artists have largely either been confined to "Christian" versions of their disciplines, or been made to feel like sell-outs (or possibly like they had to sell out) if they joined in with the wider arty world. As the world has changed, the arts have addressed the big issues people have been wrestling with (and which the church has perhaps failed to address).

Last week I had dinner with some new friends in Reading, and we were talking about this over the dinner table. Someone pointed out that we tend to treat art as something to be consumed - we watch films, look at paintings in galleries, and read books. But, actually, we should see it as a conversation - every piece of art says something about the world, and as Christians we need to engage with it. Surely that's a much more constructive way of seeing things - art as an opportunity for dialogue, rather than as an attack on the things we hold dear. And it also elevates the role of Christian artists. Rather than using their medium as a platform for preaching (probably with little impact), they provide another voice in the conversation, challenging assumptions and asking questions. Only they are getting stuck in with the "renewed mind" they've been given (Romans 12v2).

A broken world has sold its soul
and filled the hole with miserable things.
Weary children chase worn out dreams.
And what is left?

Thursday, 15 May 2008


Some bigscreen comicbook adaptations are great. A lot of them are awful. So I wasn't expecting much when I went to see the latest Marvel offering, "Ironman".

The movie brings Iron Man to life using all manner of computer wizardry, and a spot-on performance from Robert Downey Jr. Heavy-drinking, womanising, arrogant-but-brilliant weapons designer Tony Stark is captured in Afghanistan and ordered to build an advanced missile for terrorists. He is also injured, and has to wear an electromagnet to prevent shards of shrapnel slicing into his heart.

While held captive, Stark is confronted with the destruction his weapons cause. And so he is driven to build a suit of armour, which he uses first to escape, and then to destroy the terrorists' weapon stockpile. Stark becomes 'Ironman' for the first time. Back in the USA, he announces his intention to cease trading weapons and concentrate instead on less harmful alternatives. But weapons are big business, and his associates aren't easily convinced. In secret, Stark refines the Ironman suit and continues a private mission to repair some of the damage done by his own weapons. The rest of the film sees Stark struggling with double-crossing 'friends', suspicious colleagues, and his own personal weaknesses.

The film works where so many other comic classics have failes, and there are lots of reasons why. The main one is Robert Downey Jr, who manages to become a character we disapprove of, but still kind of like (and maybe even feel sorry for). The script is stronger than you'd expect, and there are some genuinely funny moments. Mercifully, the CGI fighting is used with some restraint so it doesn't get boring. And there are some great subversive moments which remind us this isn't the usual clean-cut hero (the best on being the final line of the movie, when Stark tells a press conference, in a very un-Supermanly way, "I am Ironman").

The movie asks lots of questions about war and peach and the place violence plays in maintaining peace. Can there be peace and freedom without weapons? Does the arms race ever have a finish line? Is it better to have weapons you never have to fire, or weapons you only have to fire once (a very different kind of threat).

But the key theme of the movie is redemption. When Stark is captured and sees real people suffer and die as a result of his choices, he has a change of heart. Much of the film is about him making amends for past mistakes. He is challenged by the man who saved his life, "don't waste it." And for the rest of the film he tries to do what is right.

As I watched, two things struck me about Stark. One is that his attitude and desire to be good is something we can all identify with. Even before he becomes Ironman, he sincerely believes he is serving the itnerestes of peace and freedom. And as he attemptsto stand up for peace and justice, you end up rooting for him. There's something in us that knows what he's doing is commendable and right.

But it's also obvious that Tony Stark is a deeply flawed hero. He carries around a physical weakness, but the magnet which protects his heart is a reminder of the weaknesses in his character. His arrogance is obvious right up to the end of the film. And, although he tries, he can never really deal with the pain and misery he has caused. In the end, it is painfully obvious that it is impossible for him to make things right himself.

And that, as a Christian watching this film, is what stood out for me. Whether we realise it or not, we are deeply guilty. We are all as guilty of self-interested screw-ups as Tony Stark. The biggest one of all is our rejection of God, which is so much worse than the horrific things we do to each other. Maybe we experience a traumatic realisation of that fact, maybe not. But we will never be able to deal with it ourselves. However good we are, we can never deal with our rejection of the Almighty Creator of the universe. We can't rescue ourselves. We have to trust someone else to do it - Jesus Christ. It's only through his death and resurrection that we can be made right with God and live the life we are supposed to live.

It's only when we've got that sorted out, when we've realised that we can't redeem ourselved, that the challenge to Ironman applies to us too - don't waste your life!

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Fresher Refresher

I had a great day in Guildford yesterday with CUs and UCCF from the South East. We were thinking about preparing for next term and planning for the year ahead. It was great to meet some of the students and other cool people I'll be working with next year. I went to a seminar by my friends Michael Ots about Freshers' week, which got me really excited. Freshers' week is such a brilliant opportunity to meet students and give them an opportunity to hear the gospel explained. And (I realised during the seminar), I can speak from personal experience - I became a Christian at the end of Freshers' week at the University of Bristol. And as Michael suggested lots of good things to do during freshers' week, I realised that the CU in Bristol did quite a few of them, and they were really important in me coming to faith.

I arrived at Bristol having been to a church when I was younger (my Grandma saw to that), and basically thinking I was a Christian, but I fully intended that it wouldn't make much difference at Uni. When I finally arrived, I found the whole experience pretty overwhelming. As I started meeting loads of people, a few of them stood out - the Christians who were living in Halls. They seemed interested in talking to me, not so they could categorise me, but because they wanted to get to know me. So when they invited me to things I said yes.

There were three really significant events that week. First was just a social meeting we had in Halls, where I started to meet Christians, and I started to see the differences between them and other people I'd met and, more importantly, between them and me. Their faith affected them in a way I hadn't really seen before - it made a difference to their lives.

Then I went to BBQ organised by the CU, opposite the Union. While I was sitting on the grass with my (free) burger, a guy came over to me and asked me to answer a questionnaire. I agreed, and the first question was, "do you believe you're going to heaven when you die?" I said, "I hope so." He said that if I was a Christian I should know I'd be going to heaven. To be honest, I was pretty angry, but what he said nagged me.

Then on the Friday night, I went to the first CU meeting of term. I remember it being huge, I remember the enthusiasm I saw (which freaked me out a little bit if I'm still being honest), and I remember some scary older students coming to talk to me, which was a bit of a shock. And I remember that the gospel, the awesome news about Jesus, was explained.

The questionnaire made me realise I wasn't a Christian. The other stuff made me realise that being a Christian is a lot more than I thought it was, and that I wanted to be one. So, on Saturday night I prayed, "OK, God. I realise I'm not a Christian, but I want to be one."

So now I'm massively excited that I'm going to be helping CUs, 7 years later, to do the same thing for the next lot of Freshers! The key thing I'll be telling them is: PREACH THE GOSPEL IN FRESHER'S WEEK!!! Or else.

Friday, 9 May 2008

MRTU: Taylor the Latte Boy

This post is More Random Than Usual, but it's fun, so I thought I'd add it. I anticipate there will often be posts which are even more random than usual.

I love this song. It's Kristin Chenowith singing Taylor the Latte Boy. Who'd've thought love could be so caffeinated?!

Red Letter Apologetics

I've been preparing this seminar on "Answering Tough Questions" for a UCCF South East training day, and I've been pondering something. A few people I know have bought new Bibles recently (I think there was a special offer at New Word Alive), and they have an interesting feature - the words of Jesus are in red. Nothing new there - people have been doing it for years.

The problem is, I believe that the whole of the Bible is God's word - whether it's the words of Jesus or a list of names and numbers. Apparently, there's a movement among Christians which seeks to get back to the 'important bits' - the words of Jesus, the bits in red. They call themselves 'Red-letter' Christians (which set me off on an amusing train of thought - what if they'd marked the words of Jesus in a different way - would we have had 'green letter' Christians, or 'italic Christians'? Anyway...). If the whole of the Bible is God's Word, this is a bit daft. I get the point, but it sends all kinds of wrong messages. Go and read what Dave has to say about it.

But in my seminar, one of the pieces of advice I intend to give is - if you can, use the actual words of Jesus. This sounds a bit dodge to start with, and I started to get a bit nervous about it. But the more I've thought about it, the more I agree (with myself). There are some good reasons for it...

  • When we answer people's questions, we aren't just trying to shut them up - we want them to meet Jesus. We can only do that if we talk about him. Using his words and actions is the best way to introduce people to the real Jesus.
  • When we use the words of Jesus, any issues are immediately between them and Jesus. Nick Pollard says he wants to spend as much time as possible talking about Jesus, so he tries to go straight to something Jesus said or did and works out from there.
  • In the 'climate' the students are living in, where a distrust of authority and propositional truth comes as standard, I think engaging with a real person is helpful. Also, the story-telling approach sits well with this sort of attitude.
  • There are some Christians who distrust 'traditional' ways of doing evangelism and dealing with people's questions. Like the red-letter chaps, they think there's a better way of doing things by getting back to what Jesus said. Surely it's helpful if we can show that they aren't exclusive.

    I'm sure there are more reasons - they're the ones which come to mind. Obviously I'm NOT saying only use the specific words of Jesus (bad idea). But I am going to be telling the CU peeps to try hard to get their friends to engage with Jesus when they're answering tough questions.

    Which is good, because I've already printed the handouts...
  • Thursday, 8 May 2008

    Resources Galore!

    I've just spent ages writing a list of resources for a seminar I'm giving on Answering Tough Questions on Saturday. So I thought I'd post it here for anyone who's passing. I'll also put it in my website's Talks By Me section. Cheers to Peter for his help with this.

    If you spot any glaring omissions or unwise inclusions, I'd be interested to know.

    Websites – UCCF's excellent apologetics website. - UCCF's excellent theology website. – Ravi Zacharias International Ministries – seminar from Forum 07 on holding apologetics lunchbars. – Glad You Asked is an evangelistic course which gives an opportunity for non-Christians to discuss tough questions. You staffworker may well have a copy. – living as a Christian in the 21st century. The articles on discernment are particularly helpful. – a Christian perspective on media and culture.


    John Chapman, Know and Tell the Gospel, The Good Book Co.
    Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions, IVP.
    Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine, IVP. (Light-weight version of Systematic Theology).
    Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP.
    Mark Meynell, Cross Examined, IVP.
    Vaughan Roberts, God's Big Picture, IVP.
    John Stott, Basic Christianity, IVP.
    John Stott, The Cross of Christ, IVP.

    Michael Green, I'd Like to Believe But..., IVP.
    Tim Keller, The Reason For God, Penguin (available from GBC).
    William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith
    C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity,
    Alister McGrath, Bridge Building, IVP.
    Nick Pollard, Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult, IVP.
    James W. Sire, Why Good Arguments Often Fail, IVP.
    John Stott, The Contemporary Christian, IVP.
    Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ, Zondervan (available from GBC).
    Lee Strobel, The Case For Faith, Zondervan (available from GBC).
    Paul Williams & Barry Cooper, If You Could Ask God One Questions, The Good Book Co.

    Worldview, Culture, and Other Religions
    Denis Alexander (ed.), Can we be sure about anything?, IVP
    D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God, IVP.
    Colin Chapman, Cross and Crescent, IVP. (Islam)
    Marcus Honeysett, Meltdown, IVP. (Postmodernism)
    Martin Goldsmith & Rosemary Harley, Who is My Neighbour, OMF/Authentic Media
    Martin Goldsmith, What about other faiths?, Hodder & Stoughton.
    Nabeel T. Jabbour, Unshackled and Growing, NavPress.
    James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue, IVP.
    Patrick Sookhdeo, A Christian's Pocket Guide to Islam, CWR

    Bible & History
    Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, IVP.
    F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, IVP.
    Daniel Clark, Dead or Alive?, IVP.
    R.T. France, The Evidence for Jesus, Hodder & Stoughton.
    Ida Glaser, The Bible and Other Faiths, IVP.
    Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant? IVP.
    Amy Orr-Ewing, Why Trust the Bible, IVP.

    Suffering and Evil
    D.A. Carson, How Long O Lord?, Baker Academic.
    Roger Carswell, Where is God in a Messed Up World?, IVP.
    John Dickson, If I Were God I'd End All the Pain, The Good Book Co.
    C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, HarperOne.
    Nick & Solly Megoran, The War on Terror, IVP.
    Miec Pearse, The Gods of War, IVP
    John Piper, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, Crossway.

    Sex and Relationships
    Linda Marshall, Pure, IVP.
    Nigel Pollock, Relationships Revolution, IVP.
    Thomas Schmidt, Straight & Narrow, IVP.
    Alex Tylee, Walking with Gay Friends, IVP.

    Science & “The New Atheism”
    Neil Broom, How Blind is the Watchmaker?, IVP.
    Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion?, SPCK Publishing.
    Alister McGrath, Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life, WileyBlackwell.
    Del Ratzsch, Science and its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective, IVP.
    David Robertson, The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths, Christian Focus (available from GBC).

    Remember, students with a UCCF Student Card receive a 25% discount on books from IVP, The Good Book Co. and Authentic Media, and 10% off at Wesley Owen!

    Wednesday, 7 May 2008

    Spurgeon on the Incarnation

    The other week I spoke on Matthew 1v18-25 as part of Ferndale's "We Believe" series. I've just put my notes online here.

    At the end I used a quote from one of my dead heroes, local lad Charles Spurgeon. I had to limit myself on the day, but here's a slightly longer quote. It's from a sermon called, "His Name - Wonderful," preached on 19th September 1858. You can read it all (and lots of others) here if you want.

    "This is a sight that surpasses all others. Talk ye of the sun, moon, and stars; consider ye the heavens, the work of God's fingers, the moon and the stars that he hath ordained; but all the wonders of the universe shrink into nothing, when we come to the mystery of the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was a marvellous thing when Joshua bade the sun to stand still, but more marvellous when God seemed to stand still, and no longer to move forward, but rather, like the sun upon the dial of Ahaz, did go back ten degrees, and veil his splendor in a cloud. There have been sights matchless and wonderful, at which we might look for years, and yet turn away and say, "I cannot understand this; here is a deep into which I dare not dive; my thoughts are drowned; this is a steep without a summit; I cannot climb it; it is high, I cannot attain it!" But all these things are as nothing, compared with the incarnation of the Son of God.
    I do believe that the very angels have never wondered but once and that has been incessantly ever since they first beheld it. They never cease to tell the astonishing story, and to tell it with increasing astonishment too, that Jesus Christ. the Son of God, was born of the Virgin Mary, and became a man. Is he not rightly called Wonderful? Infinite, and an infant—eternal, and yet born of a woman—Almighty, and yet hanging on a woman's breast supporting the universe, and yet needing to be carried in a mother's arms—king of angels, and yet the reputed son of Joseph—heir of all things and yet the carpenter's despised son. Wonderful art thou O Jesus, and that shall be thy name for ever."

    Tuesday, 6 May 2008

    Freed for Freedom

    I've just spent most of the day writing an overview of Galatians. It was still pretty rough when I delivered it this evening, although it wasn't bad considering I started from scratch this morning (with a few pointers from Peter). But I'm basically loving Galatians now! I need to spend more time digging into it, but it's been a great reminder of just how brilliant the gospel is, and how stupid it is to trust anything else. Plus it's a real challenge to keep watch for legalism creeping in. It's so easy to start trusting in things which aren't the cross; it might not be as obvious as obeying the Old Testament law, but we can easily invent a million other kinds of law to put in it's place...

    One particularly striking bit is the barney Paul has with Peter. Peter is behaving badly by separating himself from the Gentiles (non-Jews) when his Jewish mates come to visit. Paul goes ballistic, although it leads to some quality insights about being justified (or 'made right with God') by faith. But I think what makes it worse is his hypocrisy (2v13). Peter doesn't believe that he needs to separate from Gentiles for theological reasons - most of the time he eats with them. But when people are looking, he changes his behaviour to please them.

    I started to wonder - do I do that? Do I act in ways which don't fit with the gospel, just to keep other people happy? And do I condone other people doing it, when I should be challenging it like Paul did?

    Paul challenged it because it was really, really important. By moving to a different table, Peter was doing more than just disrespecting the Gentiles. He was effectively saying that the rules were more important than the gospel, and that the cross isn't enough. No wonder Paul went crazy. Maybe I should go crazy more often?!

    You can look at the overview here if you want to.

    Back on the Blogging Bandwagon!

    There have been a few exciting changes to my website recently - go have a look at if you haven't already! (Basically, I had to pay to keep the gazleaney, so I thought I ought to make it worthwhile).

    And I decided to resurrect this blog too. I had thought blogs were a bit 2004, but there perhaps I was wrong. So here goes. Who knows how long it will last this time. I wouldn't hold out much hope, but we'll see...