My letter in the Sydney Morning Herald

30 05 2010

…is here.

Posted by Con Campbell

“Why is my radio so cheap?” – The darker side of consumerism

17 06 2009

I don’t know much about Annie Leonard, but I stumbled across this video she’s done. It’s an easy watch – kind of animation-meets-lecture – and she does a good job of uncovering the hidden costs of consumerism.

Here’s a 60 second taster (if you want to see the whole 20min monster, then click on the banner above):

Thinking Like a Christian

1 06 2009
Close shot of Rodin's The Thinker at the Musée...
Image via Wikipedia

I have been reading Arrian’s Discourses of Epictetus” (don’t stop reading… its gets better!). Epictetus was a slave of Nero and a Stoic philosopher. These two things together are very important –given that Nero was a great persecutor of Christians and that many of us today think like Stoics! We rely on rationalizing a bad situation into a good one as a way of coping with life’s difficulties, which is exactly what Stoicism was all about. What is interesting is that Epictetus doesn’t interpret the mindset of Christians in his own day this way!

Speaking about “Freedom from Fear(4.7.1), he rationalizes that if a person doesn’t really set his heart on living or dying he may come into the presence of a tyrant (Nero?) and not be afraid of what he might do. He then goes on to speak about two kinds of people who don’t rely on the power of reason to get them through such a situation. The first is the madman who for some reason doesn’t care about losing children or wife and thus won’t mind losing themselves.

The second is “the Galileans” which all scholars believe is a reference to Christians. He says they are able to make face death because of “custom / practice” (Grk: ethous). This is tantalizing as to what he might mean. My best take is that it is pack mentality. Its was seen as “the thing to do” among Christians to die under the tyrant – part of what had become the custom or the thing to do. This would make sense that he would think of categorizing Christians this way. But what’s interesting to me is what he doesn’t lump Christians in with Stoics who rationalize it like this: “cannot reason and demonstration teach a man that God has made all things in the universe and the whole universe itself, to be free from hinderance, and to contain its end in itself, and the parts of it to serve the needs of the whole.”

For Epictetus the secret to happiness is to rationalize your own misfortune in terms of some greater good. And isn’t this what we who are Christians do as well? I’m not at all sure that being transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12) means quite what we think it means. In the context of Romans 11, the will of God is not easy to understand, it is mysterious (11:30-33), it is not at all what you expect. And after we have been transformed by the renewing of our minds it is only then that we understand this (strange) will of God (Rom 12:2b). I think we think that the transformed mind is the mind that can rationalizing things better and better. But this is Stoicism. In the entire context of Romans 11 and 12:1 having a transformed mind seems to have more to do with responding to God’s mercy aright, and submitting your will and lack of understanding to him whose mind is greater (see again 11:30-33). Like Job who never knew why it all happened… but in the end put his hand over his mouth, the transformed Christian mind is a mind which has reconciled itself to not knowing a great deal of the time.

Do we worship the mind, as Christians today? Are we a closet Stoic, thinking this is actually Christianity?

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Every blessing? (3) – truth and communication

5 05 2009

{After something of a delay, I’m returning to my previous posts on the Prosperity Gospel…}

“When you’re confronting error it’s not enough simply to speak the truth.”

I’m sure there’s lots of ways in which that statement is false.  But there’s at least one important way in which it’s true…

Here’s the issue: “to speak the truth” does not (necessarily) equal “to persuade”.

When you are dealing with an error like the Prosperity Gospel, there are lots of true things you can say in reply.  (Thanks to those who suggested several interesting ones earlier!) But – lots of approaches don’t seem to “work”.  You can say true things, and not persuade anyone of anything.  Discussions can degenerate into a barrage of proof-text-swapping, with neither side really engaging with the other.

When we want to persuade anyone of anything – truth is necessary, but its not sufficient.

On one level that’s obvious.  At the very least, we need to say things that are both true and relevant.  So, as a silly example, it’s no good replying to the Prosperity Gospel by saying “Genesis is the first book of the Bible.”  That’s true, but it’s not relevant.  But even truth and relevance together aren’t enough – if that’s all we have, we can still talk past one another.

What are the missing ingredients?  It’s not that easy to pin down exactly, but it’s got to do with “connecting” – saying something that makes sense, given where people are coming from, but also challenges where they’re coming from.  (Bruce is giving us an interesting worked example of this in his “Conversation with an Atheist Friend” posts.)

So for the Prosperity Gospel, that’s what I was attempting to do with my comments about death, and even more pointedly, that’s the direction that Michael’s suggestion about martyrdom leads.

Everybody knows about death.  You can try to ignore it, but you can’t suppress that knowledge very far.  I think the approach of speaking the truth about death “works” because it connects with something people already believe/know, and helps them realise there’s something fundamental they haven’t taken account of.  (And, ultimately, can’t take account of with the Prosperity system.)1

Why does truth often not seem persuasive?  Sometimes2 it’s because it hasn’t connected.

1 Even though I haven’t tried it out, I’m sure the same would follow with the issue of martyrdom, and might be even sharper.

2 Of course, this is not the only perspective we need to bring to bear on such matters. Not least there is 2 Cor. 4v4. But these perspectives are complimentary, not mutually exclusive. One of the ways the god of this age blinds the minds of unbelievers is precisely by hiding from them the relevance of the gospel’s truth.

Keeping in step with the Spirit – Christologically

15 12 2008
Depiction of the Trinity

Image via Wikipedia

Do you think Christologically about the the Holy Spirit? Suppose we’re talking about our New Testament freedom, in the Spirit, to learn to live as God intends. What difference does Jesus make to that freedom (over and above the difference made by, e.g. Moses or Isaiah)? Is it just that Jesus made Pentecost possible – and so the Holy Spirit was given after him – and the Spirit makes obedience possible?

If so, your understanding of the Spirit isn’t Christological.

Revival movements – even ones which start well – need to beware of this danger: rightly speaking of the inward moral power of the Holy Spirit, but doing so unchristologically. That way lies the worst sort of legalism. (The Montanists1 were an early example.)

The antidote? Reflecting more deeply on what it means for us to be in Christ. Through his Spirit, we enter into Christ’s freedom. We participate in Christ’s authority within the created order.

Or, to put it in Paul’s words, we are no longer slaves, but sons.2

For more on this, see Oliver O’Donovan’s book, Resurrection and Moral Order, p22-27.

Posted by Rick Creighton

1 Montanism was a prophetic movement within Early Christianity, dating from approx. 150AD. (See for more.)

2 Cf. Galatians 4v1-7: ‘What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.’ (NIV)

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From ethics to the gospel (04) – via the Fall

8 12 2008

[Catch up on the whole ‘From ethics to the gospel‘ series]


Image via Wikipedia

What’s wrong with the ‘moral universe’ of most Hollywood movies? The trouble is, it’s not true to life. Most films present you with a world that breaks down into goodies and baddies. The goodies are basically good, and the baddies are basically bad. Once you’ve worked who’s in which category, movie-life becomes simple.

But life’s not that simple. So how do you explain the good and bad in our world? There are plenty of options:

  • The Hollywood option. The world is a mix of good and bad. Some things are good, others are bad.
  • The Disney option. The world is basically good (with minor bad bits). All it takes is the right attitude, and everything will be OK.
  • The Pessimist option. The world is basically bad. There’s no hope, so just get used to it.
  • The Buddhist option. There’s no such thing as good or bad. Such categories are an illusion. Learn to move beyond them.

None of these stack up to reality. In the world we know, you find good and bad mixed together in everything. Even the best people can have terrible flaws. Even the worst people can show flashes of goodness. (And even Hollywood reflects this sometimes: Peter Parker desires vengence; Doc Ock shows remorse.)

The Bible explains this in a way nothing else does. It tells us of a good-world-gone-wrong. It tells us about Creation and Fall. God created a good world; that good world has gone wrong. In everything around you, you’ll see evidence of both truths. You’ll see echoes of the original goodness, of what might have been. You’ll see evidence of the corruption, how far short things have fallen. You’ll see both together in same object, the same person. You’ll see them together in every person and every aspect of our world.

That’s a message worth proclaiming. And it’s a message that will be heard. The very cosmos itself is on your side when you proclaim it. This message makes sense of people’s world in a way nothing else does.

The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

From Mythopoeia, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Posted by Rick Creighton

The next item in this series (‘From ethics to the gospel’) will be posted next Monday.

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Ethics Resources –

1 12 2008
The Thinker, Rodin (1880)

Image by radiospike via Flickr

Check out this website:

(UK readers may already know this site; but in case you don’t…) is an apologetics website, put together by UCCF (the umbrella organisation for Christian Unions in the UK, affilated to IFES).

The site includes an ethics section, and lots of other apologetics resources too. The material is high quality, and it’s updated frequently. The resources are categorised by difficulty (“Introductory”, “Intermediate”, “Advanced”). Lots of them are in written format, but some are mp3s.

Here’s the site’s own blurb: aims to bring together the best possible resources for thinking about and communicating the Christian faith. Its goal is to help to prepare all Christians to provide an answer to those who deny the truth of Christianity. Whether that’s answering the attacks of Richard Dawkins, discussing our faith with a Muslim colleague or chatting about the latest episode of Dr Who with a neighbour, aims to provide you with talks and articles that stimulate you to think about your faith and its relation to the world and culture around us, and then to show how Christianity is not only true, but provides the answers to life’s biggest questions.

You’ll notice there’s a bit of a UK spin.  But most of the material isn’t country-specific. Here’s a few example articles:

Posted by Rick Creighton

From Ethics to the Gospel (03b) – ordered creation (follow up)

18 11 2008

Following my earlier post, Phil raised some useful issues. Generously giving me the benefit of the doubt, he commented:

“I’d also be careful to point out that all of these are a result of humanity’s sin and the fall (God giving the people over to shameful lusts because of their sin), which I’m sure you mean to imply in your post.”

Phil’s comment sparked some useful thoughts for me:
Yes, I was meaning to imply that these things are the result of sin and the fall. Although maybe “imply” isn’t the best word. I didn’t intend the post to be talking about something other than, or additional to, sin and the fall. I was intending the post to actually be talking about sin and the fall – but trying to put flesh on the bones for what that means in certain areas.

So it’s true to say that (e.g.) the creation of human-animal hybrids is a result of sin and the fall. That is perfectly true, but highly generic. It wouldn’t help us identify how sin is manifesting itself, so as to produce this result. And without identifying the particular expression of sin, we’ll be handicapped when we try to address and prevent the sin.

Think of the parallel with medicine. Suppose your stomach is sore. It is useful if a doctor can tell you: “Your stomach is sore because you have a disease – it’s not just indigestion.” But it’s far more useful if you doctor can tell you: “Your stomach is sore because you have bowel cancer” (or IBS or Crohn’s disease or tape worms or …) “ – and here’s what we need to do about it.”

Romans 1 contains some brilliant descriptions of the generic way sin works. And because they are generic, they apply to every situation. But Romans also contains some highly particularised discussions of specific instances of sin. Eg. Romans 14 (the ‘weaker brother’ discussion)– it doesn’t explicitly use the word “sin” at all until the very last word of the chapter1 – but it’s all about a particular expression of sin, and how to overcome it.

What I was trying to tease out is one of the ways in which, through sin, we suppress the truth, and exchange God’s truth for a lie. That isn’t an alternative to thinking through how “shameful lusts” operate – it’s integral to thinking it through. Now for any given individual, there will be all sorts of complicated feedback loops at play:

  1. Sin may become obvious through wrong desires. But putting those desires into action predisposes you towards changing you beliefs to match your actions – i.e. accepting a lie, a false view of reality.2
  2. Sin may become obvious when you accept a lie about the way the world really is. But when you build your life on a false view of reality, that opens you up to all sorts of disordered desires too. (And you may be blind to their disorder – you may be sincerely wrong.)
  3. Both of the above at once.

All this is enormously important for preaching. We need to teach about sin generically, to help people see how the same underlying dynamics are at work in every area of life. We also need to teach about sin specifically, so that people can learn to see how the truth is being suppressed in any given situation.

In a sentence:
Thinking wrongly about God’s good order in creation is sin. (Or one expression of sin, anyway.)

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the major, world-shaping sins of our age. But even saying that is still generic. For any given issue (homosexuality, transgender, animal-human hybrids, etc) it needs to be complemented with:

  • the specific ways in which we think wrongly about God’s order
  • the specific ways we distort that order in practice (and what the consequences are)
  • the specifics of how that order is redeemed in Christ
  • the specific responses of faith and repentance to which Christ calls us

We can’t do the specifics for everything – life is too short. That’s why we need to preach the generics. But if we don’t do the specifics for some things – especially the big sins of our own cultures – then people don’t learn how to apply the generics to everyday life.

Think of those evangelicals who had a strong doctrine of sin (in general) but who argued in favour of the slave trade.  They’d got the hang of the generic, but they were blind to the (world-shaping) particular expressions of sin in their age.

1 Or, if you’re following in Greek, the second last word of the chapter. 🙂

2 For a non-theological take on the same issue see ‘Cognitive Dissonance.

From ethics to the gospel (03) – blank slate vs ordered creation

17 11 2008

[Catch up on the whole ‘From ethics to the gospel‘ series]

New Blackboard

Image by drinksmachine via Flickr

What happens if you think the world is a blank slate? To put it another way, does it matter whether God created the world with order built in? Here’s why it matters: If Creation is a blank slate, then we’re free to (re-)order things whatever way we like. If no order is given in creation, then any order we choose with be arbitrary. There’s no objective reason for choosing one way of doing things over another. It’s just a matter of what suits you, of what gives you an advantage, of where your vested interests lie.

If1 that’s true all sorts of things suddenly make sense:

  • Homosexuality. If the pattern for human sexuality isn’t built into creation – if it’s arbitrary – they why not experiment with other forms of sexual expression? Especially if they seem to work better for you?
  • Transgender. If a person’s sex (either male or female) isn’t a fundamental aspect of being human – if it’s arbitrary and/or accidental – then why not change it?
  • Human-animal hybrids. If God hasn’t created a clear distinction between humans and animals (or, indeed, between one kind of animal and another), then why not experiment to see what sort of hybrids we can produce? (Including hybrids far more radical than currently the case; we’re still at the tame end of the spectrum.)

If you’re in a teaching role, and you’re tackling these issues, it’s important to do more than state what’s right and wrong. (Though, of course, you shouldn’t do less.)

It’s better to also help people see that the issue underneath these issues: Do we acknowledge that God is Creator? Are we willing to submit to the order that he has created?

Now, of course there’ll be debates about whether, and how, we rightly discern that order (i.e. epistemology2). But before we get there, we need to ask: In principle, are we willing to admit that God’s order is built in to his creation? And, once we know what it is, are we willing to submit to it? Unless the answer to these questions is “Yes”, there’s no point moving on to the other, more detailed questions (i.e. the epistemology).

If we can’t say “Yes”, we have a more primordial problem. We don’t want God to be God. We want to order the universe ourselves, as we see fit. We still want to claim the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Adam & Eve

Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

Posted by Rick Creighton

The next item in this series (‘From ethics to the gospel’) will be posted next Monday.

1 N.B. I’m not saying this is true. In fact, I’m saying it’s not true. But I’m also exploring where your thinking would go if you thought it were true (as many people do). Cf. My previous post: ‘From ethics to the gospel via creation’

2 Epistemology is the study of how, and whether, we know what we know.

From ethics to the gospel (02) – via Creation

10 11 2008

[Catch up on the whole ‘From ethics to the gospel‘ series]

So how do you get from ethics to the gospel? You get there via theology. You need robust doctrines of Creation, and of the Fall, and of Redemption, and of New Creation.

Adam, Eve, and the (female) serpent at the ent...

Image via Wikipedia

We’ll start with Creation in this post, and look at the others later.

When God created the world, he created it with a God-given ordering (or relationship-pattern). Things don’t just exist; they exist in relationship to each other. They come with God-given kinds and God-given purposes.

(a) Kinds. “Humanity” (i.e. all those created in/as God’s image) is a God-given kind. So we are wrong when we exclude any human being from the respect and dignity that belong to those who are God’s images.

That’s not self-evident.  “Crimes against humanity” occur when some people start telling themselves that other people don’t really count as human.  It might be whole ethnic groups (e.g. Tutsis, Bosnian Muslims, or Jews, Romanies and Poles [hover for more info]) or more ominously, groups who are too weak to protest (“the slave”, “the foetus”, “the terminally ill”, “the comatose”) or groups that we deem unforgivable (“terrorists”, “white-trash”, “paedophiles”).

[By the way, choosing the “right” label is a good step towards dehumanising someone. Once they’re dehumanised enough you no long have to treat them with respect or dignity.]

(b) Purposes. God also created things with purposes; often mulitple purposes. Apples were designed to grow into apple trees. Apples were also designed to be food. Your neighbour was not designed to be food (not even in the most extreme situation). She was designed to love God and enjoy him forever, and to love her neighbour as herself.

The gospel tells us how God has acted in Christ to restore our Fallen world. Built into that message is the good news that in Christ we can be what we were created to be. “Being what we were created to be” is a pretty good summary of what ethics should be all about.

So, contrary to the question that began this post, it’s not a matter of “getting” from ethics to the gospel. Ethics already is contained within the gospel. Our job is to make Christ known, in all his glory. If we’re doing that faithfully, it will include calling people to be what they were created to be.

Posted by Rick Creighton

The next item in this series (‘From ethics to the gospel’) will be posted on Monday, 17th Nov, 2008.

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