June 6, 2016

Make Israel Great Again...3,000 Years Ago

Dear America,

There once was a nation highly blessed by God.

Though frequently afflicted with delusions of their own greatness and with a tendency to think they could do everything in their own strength, God was demonstrably with its people. He protected them, gave them conditions and ability to generate great prosperity, and never permitted them to be completely overrun by their enemies. Yet they were a nation divided. Forgetting all that God had done for them, and seeing people outside their borders seemingly more prosperous without God's help, they grew restless.

It’s not that they were without leadership – they had had a wise leader although he had given way to his two sons who were corrupt and abused their power. The people didn’t like this – understandably – but rather than search for a return to godly leadership they did more or less the opposite. They wanted to be like other countries who had great and powerful-looking leaders responsible for making their lands, well...great and powerful.

Enough with trusting God, they thought. They didn’t ask God for a leader who would be merciful,
This is what it might have looked like when the prophet
Samuel told Saul that God was no longer with him...if
they were white...which they weren't.
compassionate, wise, intelligent, knowledgeable, godly or unifying.
Instead, bring us power they said. Give us a leader who will make us great again. 

At this point all was not yet lost. The people were warned by none other than God himself that they should not put their trust in a king but in God, and besides, if they got themselves a king he would mistreat them. He would impoverish them to line his own pockets; he would be more interested in his own wealth and those of his acolytes than in the well-being of his people. He would sacrifice his own people to protect his great prestige, families would be broken as he took young people away to serve in his misguided schemes.

Unfortunately for those people, they got their wish. Well, half of it. They got the guy they wanted but not the benefits they thought would come with him.

Their new king – without any credentials or relevant experience whatsoever – seemed like he’d give them what they wanted, but in one of history’s great non-surprises, God was right. Ultimately the king was only out for himself, always thought he knew better than God and all the people, became possessed of a violent temper, tore his country in half and ended up losing key battles to the nation’s enemies in wars that never needed to happen.

And when a more suitable person emerged who was clearly possessed of all the wisdom and credentials the king never had, the king did all he could to have that man killed.

You can read all about it in the book of 1 Samuel in the Bible (especially chapter 8 re Israel wanting a king).

Or ignore the warnings and vote Donald Trump.
The King of Bankruptcies: Logical, Moral, Spiritual, Financial and Intellectual
...did I miss any?


Regards,

Paul Reynolds

PS: With apologies to King Saul for the harsh light in which this casts him.

April 18, 2016

Straw Men and the Napalm Polemic

A Review of ‘Counseling One Another: A Theology of Interpersonal Discipleship’ by Paul Tautges

I wish I knew what this book was supposed to achieve. I’ve tried to think of an audience or a situation for whom it would be helpful and I can’t think of one. This is particularly frustrating as I wholeheartedly share the author’s fundamental concerns about counseling in the church, which include the common relegation of Scripture and real discipleship behind secular psychology, felt needs and the pursuit of a humanistic self-esteem.

Judging by both the title and sub-title I had imagined that this book would address the need, opportunity and challenge for Christians to be counseling each other, but those elements are incidental to what is essentially a diatribe against sub-Biblical counseling methods.

In his desire to create an enemy to spend the book attacking, Tautges recognises that he must first create a clear working definition of Christian counseling. He does that early on when he says,

“counseling will be presented as a targeted form of discipleship, an intensely focused and personal ‘one-another’ ministry aimed at the serious development of serious disciples”

Except then he gives David Powlison’s definition of counseling as “intentionally helpful conversations”.

But then he immediately decides that a much longer and different definition is in order:

“The definition that I will develop and defend throughout this book is as follows: Biblical counseling is an intensely focused and personal aspect of the discipleship process, whereby believers come alongside one another for three main purposes: first, to help the other person to consistently apply Scriptural theology to his or her life in order to experience victory over sin through obedience to Christ; second, by warning their spiritual friend, in love, of the consequences of sinful actions; and third, by leading that brother or sister to make consistent progress in the ongoing process of biblical change in order that he or she, too, may become a spiritually reproductive disciple-maker.”

In seeking to add clarity Tautges then states, “we must consciously use the terms ‘counseling’ and ‘discipleship’ interchangeably”…except he quickly contradicts that by saying, “discipleship is at the very core of counseling”. That’s like saying we must use the terms ‘apple core’ and ‘apple’ interchangeably. Maybe one day he’ll ask me for an apple and I’ll oblige by handing him what’s left after I’ve finished mine…

And that’s where he lost me, because his long, working definition of counseling is so narrow – and misleading - as to be scarcely useful. It reduces a counseling to only one thing: the correction of a tolerance of sin in in the life of the believer. If he’d only stuck with his initial definition or Powlison’s and then written from that, but unfortunately the book really is a defense of his longer definition.

He seems to miss the practical details involved in many other counseling situations, such as:
  • ·      Working through grief
  • ·      Dealing with abuse
  • ·      Repairing a marriage broken by adultery
  • ·      Living with AD(H)D
  • ·      Disputes
  • ·      Addiction 

Scripture obviously speaks to ALL of those things and must form the basis of counseling on EVERYTHING, but Tautges is either being simplistic in thinking all you need are the Biblical headlines (e.g. forgive, trust in God’s love, worship God only) or in denial that such matters need help via counseling at all. Part of the art of Christian counseling is the application of godly wisdom to people in various situations – wisdom that doesn’t come via neatly packaged Biblical quotes but uses the principles within Scripture to provide actionable advice in various situations.

Of particular concern, for example, is Tautges’ claim that “Instead of settling for the lesser hope of being a lifelong ‘recovering alcoholic’, the Bible enthusiastically offers the drunkard full deliverance from his or her sinful habit and a completely new life in Christ”. Is Tautges really unaware of the chemical elements of addiction? Does he believe nicotine is addictive or would he anticipate a simple ‘deliverance’ from cigarette smoking too? And what of depression that isn’t based on sadness but is similarly to do with a malfunction of the brain. Are such people simply to be told to cheer up because God is with them?

But having created his straw man, Tautges then spends most of the book dropping napalm on that and a variety of other views that he disagrees with. Even youth work: “The most effective model for youth discipleship is not the modern paradigm of the youth group, which all too often becomes nothing more than a larger gathering of immature fools…” At that point I almost had to laugh because it was clear by then that this was his modus operandi: form a singular generalization, build a straw man with it, and then mercilessly napalm it. No hint of nuance, no thought that perhaps churches try to combine youth work other methods of discipleship.

Why does he do that? A look at Tautges’ blog would seem to indicate he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying here. One blog post of his is entitled, ‘Regular exercise helps fight depression’. In it are zero Bible quotes because, well, the Bible doesn’t say that regular exercise helps fight depression…but it’s true. Which gives the lie to Tautges’ assertion that the words of God are the only thing you need to be of non-medical use in ALL counseling situations.

Later in referencing the parable of the two builders, Tautges points out that some people get it wrong when they say the ‘rock’ on which the house of our life is to be built is Christ, whereas he knows that it’s really obedience to Christ. Except he’s very obviously wrong, because the rock is a static thing onto which the house is to be built, so the rock is either Christ or perhaps the words of Christ, and building on the rock is obedience to the words of Christ.

As a piece of writing, I was left longing for more editorial input. Phrases like, “Please allow me to provide a brief, yet related, aside…”, prefacing most quotes with, “[quoted author] is correct when he says…” and the mountain of quotes underneath which the readability of the book – especially the first half - is crushed.

The need to treat the Bible as God’s infallible Word in a counseling context is very real, and under great threat as the Bible seems to be valued less and less by Christians. The need for Christians to be counseling each other rather than merely standing back and hoping a ‘professional’ intervenes in difficult situations is a worthy cause to write about. But even though I feel like I’m on Tautges’ ‘team’ in this area, I didn’t feel like the book was something that helped confirm those beliefs, nor provide me with a useful tool with which to challenge those who disagree – it’s just too adversarial in tone.

Which takes me back to my original concern: why and who is the book for? Not in a theoretical sense of who can be seen through the scope on Tautges' theological rifle, but who is supposed to read it? While I doffed my cap to Tautges’ background in pastoral work and counseling, I found myself wishing he’d written a very different book. One that would engage with the people Tautges targets, rather than eviscerate them in front of a friendly audience who could happily make do with a single blog on confirming for them what they...we...already know.


[I was provided with a free copy of the book for the purposes of submitting a review.]

April 17, 2015

Gospel Coalition Conference 2015

The first time I went to (what qualifies to an Englishman as) a massive conference (>5,000 attendees), I judged the conference entirely on the teaching. And that was no bad thing – Together for the Gospel 2008 had blisteringly powerful messages including John Piper ‘s on Hebrews 13:13 with its soul-deep focus on Christ’s suffering, humiliation, rejection and work for us being an ongoing work.

Four T4G’s, one Children Desiring God and three Gospel Coalitions later, the teaching is still the focus but it’s not just about that. It’s also about meeting new people and old friends, and

spending time away from the day-to-day with existing friends when the only focus is learning more about our Saviour.

So I benefitted greatly from a long chat with an English evangelist (Rico), dinner with my American ex-boss-and-Pastor (Thabiti), spending time with my half-English, half-Caymanian friend James, and sharing a room and most of the time with my Dominican fellow-Pastor Luis. Likewise from the time I got to spend with Ryan, Tom, Andy, and running with Shaun.

Most of what I have taken home therefore is advice, encouragement, a greater understanding and a
closer relationship with a number of those godly men, alongside inspiration and impetus for specific projects.

The plenary speakers were Tim Keller, Don Carson, John Piper, Augustus Nicodemus Lopes, Mark Dever, Voddie Baucham, Ligon Duncan and Phil Ryken. Of these, Ligon and Mark’s sermons spoke most clearly to the heart as they dove with most abandon into the text, and Keller did as he almost always does, which is have at least one thing of which I say, “Woah…I never saw THAT before”. In this case it was Exodus 33:19 where God did not cause his holiness to pass before Moses, but his “goodness” (NIV) – even a hint of God’s holiness would have been more than Moses could endure.

Dever preached on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, highlighting on the one hand the fundamental hopelessness and immorality of secularism, while encouraging, challenging and exhorting us to a life lived to the glory of the Lord in the light of his return. Perhaps the thing I enjoyed most about Mark’s sermon was his impassioned gospel plea to the possibly several – maybe dozens – of people in the room he figured weren’t Christians.

Ligon preached on ‘Living in the Hope of Liberation from Bondage’ from Romans 8. In particular he
focused on suffering in the Christian life, pointing out that "Our suffering is neither incidental nor accidental but purposeful. It is connected with our sonship and future glory." There was also the challenge that "The glory of the not yet is not put before you so that you can escape, but so that you can endure and bless in the now." This was helpful to focus our thoughts against the charge, and perhaps the perception in ourselves that by focusing more on heaven we care less about what is going on around us, or the lives of those in need. Quite the contrary, according to this passage - our hope of heaven and our assurance of an eternity with God should do to us what it did to Paul the Apostle: drive us into a headlong pursuit of God’s glory being made manifest in our own and others’ lives.

After all, if the ‘not yet’ is as great as we keep saying it is, won’t we want other people to share it
with us?

Ultimately then, the conference should leave us thinking not only how grateful we are for the salvation we have, but more concerned than ever for those around us who don’t have it.

Or as Rico Tice’s friend said to him many years ago when he found out about the gospel message, ‘If you are my friend, why haven’t you told me about this?’.

September 18, 2014

Sunday Trading: there's no choice

The Cayman Islands government is again looking at the possibility of liberalising its Sunday trading laws. Public meetings have garnered next-to-no interest one way or the other. Even in George Town only 40 people turned up to the meeting (I was not one of them - partly because I don't live in George Town, partly because I didn't know the meeting was happening, and partly because I didn't imagine that my opinions expressed at that meeting would amount to a hill of beans).

What's prompting me to say something at this point is by way of an FYI in response to today's Cayman Compass editorial piece. In it the author raises valid points about the inadequacy of tradition as a good reason not to do something, and the lack of a consensus among the religious majority in this country as to what "keep the Sabbath holy" means. They also raise a good point about the hypocrisy of some who are trying to hold a firm ground on grocery stores' opening while having no complaint about people eating out at restaurants, using water sports facilities, the cinema etc.

In England when this debate was going on 30 years ago, a campaign called 'Keep Sunday Special' attempted to maintain the prohibition on the provision of all but essential services. The argument that won the day however, took two main forms: money and personal choice. Business owners were desperate to get a greater slice of the pie, or to get just enough pie to survive. Consumers wanted the freedom to shop when they wanted to shop. All the while conveniently forgetting that customers do not get any more money to spend just because the shops are open for longer. Shopworkers trades unions could see the implications though, and they were opposed to the liberalisation of trading laws.

Running through it all was a false assertion - repeated today in the Compass - that "Opening a business on Sunday would be a matter of personal choice, as would patronizing any business that decides to open. No one is forcing anyone to do anything".

Really?

So if Fosters decide they want to open on Sundays, you think Hurleys and Kirks have a "choice" about whether or not to open on Sundays? Of course they have a choice. That choice is, a.) stay shut and risk going out of business because of loss of revenue, or b.) be coerced into opening on Sunday just to survive. And by opening that extra day without any extra income (no, people's grocery budgets
won't go up because the stores are open on Sundays), what happens? Market share doesn't change, costs go up and profits go down, which means either workers' wages go down, people get laid off, owners profits go down, or costs to the consumer go up - or most likely, all of the above.

And what about all the people who work in those stores? Will they have a choice about whether to work on Sundays? Of course they have a choice. That choice is: a.) keep your job and join the rota for Sunday working; b.) don't work on Sundays and lose your job.

Or what about the small business owner with one member of staff who survives on the scraps that fall from the supermakets' table? He will be working 7 days a week, every week, because if he doesn't he'll default on his mortgage because some customers will decide Sunday is a more convenient shopping day, and head over to Fosters if he's not open. So much for his or her quality of life.


So if we want an open, non-religious conversation about Sunday opening of supermarkets that's fine, but let's not start it by repeating 30 year old untruths and pretending that this is about progress.
Personal choice is often a good thing, sometimes the only thing, and sometimes a choice for some results in lack of choice and loss of earnings for many other people.

June 18, 2014

You Say Bayzel, I Say Bazzle

Christian Focus Publications has a well-earned and valued reputation for publishing books that they think should or could usefully be read, rather than simply making cold economic decisions about what they think is most likely to be snaffled up. This approach includes republication of valuable, previously out-of-print works, and the commission of new material such as this book, 'Basil of Caesarea' by Marvin Jones - one of a new series about the Early Church Fathers ("early Christian authors who wrote between the close of the first century...and the middle of the eighth century..."; Michael Haykin, from the Series Preface).

As someone who has an interest in history and a desire to know more about Christian and church history, this is a book and a series that appeals to me. After all, you wouldn't recommend a book like this to someone who is yet to be introduced to church history because there would be too few frames of reference to make sense of it. I wasn't expecting a narrative roller-coaster, or anything eye-poppingly surprising - just a little more filling of the gap, some greater insight into how we got to the middle ages from Jesus' time, that would make more sense of what took place in the pre-Reformation era. I also figured it might help motivate me into a more in-depth look at the early church and 'dark ages' of the first millenium.

The book gets off to a rocky start for me though, as on the strength of the above somewhat general and underwhelming definition of early Church Fathers quoted above, Haykin immediately complains in his Series Preface that "Far too many Evangelicals in the modern day know next to nothing about these figures...I suspect that such ignorance is quite widespread among those who call themselves Evangelicals - hence the importance of this small series of studies on a select number of Church Fathers, to educate and inform God's people about their forbears in the faith".

So here I am, having decided to read this book, being berated - or so it feels - for the fact that I haven't already read about Basil of Caesarea. At best, the criticism seems ill-aimed. Haykin gives no reason why such Christians ought to already have such knowledge (presumably he believes that to be self-evident) - he doesn't give any hint as to the importance of these particular forbears to help us understand how knowledge of them might be useful, whilst also seeming to call into question the right of people to call themselves Evangelical if Basil of Caesarea is not a familiar name to them. Unlike, apparently, in years past, when good Christians "knew and treasured the writings of the ancient church". It's one thing to complain about the arrogance of assuming that all things modern are superior to all things ancient (see CS Lewis on 'chronological snobbery'), but it's repeating the same error to suggest that we must read ancient things because...well...they're ancient, which appears to be the reasoning we're given here.

I'm going on about this because it really put me off the book, even though the author of the preface is not the author of this book. Paige Patterson's Foreword to this volume I found far more instructional, and gave a good idea of what the value of its pages might be in giving valuable lessons and warnings to churches and individual Christians alike.

And the book itself is clearly valuable. It goes into some detail about controversies that raged in the first centuries about the nature of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in particular. Controversies in which Basil of Caesarea played a useful part in standing up for Biblical principles that were not always popular or widespread. And in his standing up for a focus on Biblical morality, we can be reassured that as godless as the current age seems, it is not the first time that previously 'Christian' nations have plunged headlong into self-idolising pursuits.

I like that the book is concise; tightly-packed, but concise. I like the little inserts with definitions of key words (even though on occasion they seem incomplete, such as when the 'filioque' definition, over which the church split in 1054, gives only one side of the debate).
I appreciate the author's desire and ability to take lessons from 1,700 years ago and plant them in our everyday, though the leap from historical event to modern application was occasionally made with frustratingly little unpacking of the issues - inevitable perhaps when trying to keep the book readably short.

And yet I found the book somewhat hard going, in part because of it's assumed knowledge. By way of illustration, here are the opening words of the book, with my comments interspersed:

"The year was AD372 and the political climate [what was it like?] of the region of Cappadocia [where's that?] was such that a confrontation [between whom?] was imminent. Valens [who's that?] had struck terror in the hearts of Nicene Orthodox [who are they?] pastors. He persecuted them, banished them, and even martyred some of them. In 372, his target was Caesarea [where's that?]. Only one person stood in his way, a man of remarkable integrity, profound ministry accomplishments, and a man who, by his strong confidence in God, could defy the Emperor - Basil of Caesarea...The modern person may find it difficult to understand the dynamics of the problem. However, the issue of Arianism (to be discussed later) [no, tell me now or there may not be a later!] was at the forefront of a political and ecclesiastical agenda."

The opening felt like I'd missed the introduction that wasn't there, and I was a little lost by the end of the first page, and the book continued in my opinion to be caught slightly between the two stools of introducing Basil to people with little knowledge of the era, and going deeper for those with a good working knowledge of the times. Both I think can be done, without significantly expanding the book. Even a map, glossary and list of key characters at the end of the book would have helped significantly.

The structure of the book also had me somewhat confused. Most particularly when my Kindle version had me at 33% - a paragraph on 'Continuing Theological Development' - when suddenly, "Basil did not have a healthy body as he was ill most of the time...He died at the young age of 50...". What?! How? Perhaps I could have seen that coming if the biography section was light on theology, but we had already been given linguistic details of the first Arian controversy on the nature of Christ, and suddenly Basil is dead and the rest of the book is organised into theological issues. The second Arian controversy is dealt with in one of those theological sections, whereas the book would be far easier to comprehend, in my opinion, if it had stuck to either a narrative flow (weaving both Arian controversies into it) or a theology-based approach to Basil's life.

And yet, notwithstanding all of that, the book does achieve notable and important goals: reasons for humility about today's Christianity, inspiration to live more clearly and directly for our Saviour, and warnings about how faith-destroying heresies can come from within the church. That these lessons come from a largely ignored portion of our history, make them all the more compelling. And for those reasons, I both recommend the book and look forward to the rest of the series, including the also newly-published 'Patrick of Ireland' by Michael Haykin.

I'll just skip the Series Preface next time...

************************

This review was provided for Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for a Kindle version of the book.


April 29, 2014

Not Taking DeYoung At His Word

Being English, I'm somewhat leary of popular Pastors writing books that seem to be going over
ground so well-trodden that visitors have to be re-routed to avoid erosion - it seems a little too commercially driven, and unnecessary. When said book is a weeny little thing about such a monumental and wide issue as the whether and how of reading the Bible, I dial down my
expectations. The subtitle of, 'Why the bible is knowable, necessary, and enough, and what that means for you and me' almost made me laugh: all that in 113 pages of large-fonted, wide-spaced, small-paged writing?!

Except that I've experienced Kevin DeYoung's brain through his preaching, and it's a very big brain, directly connected to what seems to be an extremely pastoral heart. And...well...at the T4G conference where I bought it, it was on special offer, and I managed to pick up a free 'Scripture Cannot Be Broken' t-shirt.

And that's how my natural skepticism and concerns about commercial opportunism were overrode largely by a big discount and a free t-shirt.

DeYoung divides his book clearly and logically, with four of the eight chapters devoted to the Bible being 'Enough', 'Clear', 'Final' and 'Necessary'.

The chapter on Biblical clarity stood out, particularly DeYoung's helpful definition:
"The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is not a wild assertion that the meaning of every verse in the Bible will be patently obvious to everyone. Rather, the perspicuity of Scripture upholds the notion that ordinary people using ordinary ;means can accurately understand enough of what must be known, believed, and observed for them to be faithful Christians."
DeYoung then carefully but quickly defends that against mystical, Catholic and pluralistic objections as well as demonstrating - just as crucially - why we should care about the whole issue. I love the way he takes apart the 'Six blind men and an elephant' story that is often patronisingly used as proof that truth and meaning is up to us as readers:
"For starters, the whole story is told from the vantage point of someone who clearly knows that he elephant is an elephant...[and]...What if the elephant talks?...would the six blind men be considered humble for ignoring his word?"
The Bible claims truth, clarity and objectivity for itself so if you want to deny all that, you are left with a limp and useless God of your own making, not the creator of the universe who saves his people from their sins. 

The other area that I found particularly interesting, because I knew least about it, was in exploring Jesus' view of the Bible, most particularly how he submitted to it and used it as the clincher in a number of arguments. "Jesus may have seen himself as the focal point of Scripture, but never as a judge of it. The only Jesus who stands above Scripture is the Jesus of our own invention", which led the author to say almost in closing,
"The unity of Scripture also means we should be rid, once and for all, of this 'red letter' nonsense, as if the words of Jesus are the really important verses in Scripture and carry more authority and are somehow more directly divine than other verses..."
Not that you need to throw out your red-letter Bibles, but...y'know...be careful with them...

DeYoung helpfully closes with an Appendix about the 30 books he has found most helpful on this topic (yes, he reads a lot), and has graded them Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced for us normal folks to pick from accordingly.

This is a book for anyone, but more particularly for everyone, and left me feeling not merely more intellectually bolstered in my faith, but encouraged and enthusiastic. The writing is clear, he doesn't waste time, but gives you easy-to-read, solid material to reflect on. And next time DeYoung writes something that seems a little commercially driven and unnecessary, I'll know better.

Especially if it comes with a free t-shirt.


April 22, 2014

Postscript to 'Britain is Not a Christian Country'

By way of a postscript to yesterday's post:

'...Farooq Murad, from the Muslim Council of Great Britain, said: "No one can deny that Britain remains largely a Christian country, with deep historical and structural links with the established Church. The 2011 census indicates that more than 60 per cent of the English self-identify as Christian. We respect that."'

Islam is a culturally expansionist religion, but not an evangelistic one. When a country is deemed Islamic it is critically important for them that the WHOLE country is Islamic. Non-Muslims are therefore seen as a destabilising and anti-country influence in many Islamic nations, and goes some way to explaining why converting from Islam is punishable by death according to the Qu'ran.

The problem is that because Muslims regard Britain as a Christian nation, it allows them an excuse to claim Christianity is nonsense - they don't judge it by the Bible (or even by Christians), but by the sleaziest and most corrupt elements of society. I kinda wish the 2011 census had been so worded as to show something closer to reality - one in which a small minority of people self-identified as Christian. It would clear some of the weeds that get between Muslims and seeing Jesus for who he really is.

Last word here goes to Anil Bhanot, of the Hindu Council UK, whose insight and historical awareness appears to exceed that of the 'Offended 50'. He said he is "grateful" for Christianity’s inclusive attitude towards other religions...As long as religion is not imposed there is no problem."