Comments: Opinion - 17 December 2016

The reasons behind the routing of liberalism can be understood in two articles: while Andrew Brown aims to manage decline, the other Andrew, Goddard, stands firm behind his beliefs, and vows to do all he can to uphold them.

Evangelicalism's as confident as liberalism's hesitant. It's united behind a position that's radically at-odds with society, and will bind England to the traditional position through sheer force of will. Disagree as I do with its authoritarian logic, I can't fault its zeal. Would that liberalism fought as hard for its own convictions.

Posted by James Byron at Saturday, 17 December 2016 at 2:23pm GMT

Rachel Pugh's story on the vicar helping people at the doctors' surgery raises some important questions. Small towns can be places where neighbours can get to know each other more easily than in a city. There is the flip side of course - everybody may want to know your "business" (aka Doc Martin). There's also the problem of a busy vicar who may find there's plenty to do tending his/her own flock to find the time to be a listening ear to the whole township. Trust/empathy is not something that comes with an occupation, or vocation, but something that is built up carefully.

Posted by Pam at Saturday, 17 December 2016 at 8:40pm GMT

Yes,'liberalism' needs to find its own evangelistic voice and fast, but Andrew Goddard's article promotes Lambeth 1.10 as having some form of constitutional authority; it doesn't as he either does, or should, know. Secondly, yes evangelical zeal attracts some, maybe even many, but it also repels many, and not because in the face of 'truth' they flee. So called liberals frequently find themselves ministering to 'evangelicals in recovery,' who are put off by the authoritarian, low church, excesses of priestly behavior.

Posted by Andrew Lightbown at Saturday, 17 December 2016 at 8:46pm GMT

Maybe so, but liberalism will not find its evangelistic voice by winning the argument over Lambeth 1.10, or any other scriptural gridlock issue. Liberals’ strength (and weakness) comes from taking seriously the rapidly changing world in which we must “be” the Church. This means admitting, without any reservations whatsoever, that certain approaches and statements no longer work. It’s much more than saying that a literal exposition of the water-into-wine miracle makes any schoolchild with a Chemistry O level and a rational mind curl up with embarrassment. No, whole categories of Christian imagery are now totally unusable, either because they have been overstated, as in that dreadful Charlton Heston film “The Ten Commandments” and possibly Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (I didn’t see it), or else ridiculed in “The Life of Brian” and “The Meaning of Life”.
A small suggestion, to be positive: preach sermons backwards. The traditional way is to reiterate the gospel passage and then explain it (for the 104th time). Instead, pick a topical event that’s in the news, where there is a spiritual point at issue above and beyond the factual details (not difficult these days) and finish by saying such as “. . so water was indeed turned into wine there”, or “. . a perfect example of how a storm can be stilled”, or “. . as a result they were amply filled; they indeed ‘learned the lesson of the loaves’.” That's it; no more need be said.
Stretching the imagination is the exercise we liberals need, not saying bossily how the birth narratives are factually incorrect, and we’re not very good at it.

Posted by Michael Skliros at Sunday, 18 December 2016 at 1:40pm GMT

'It’s much more than saying that a literal exposition of the water-into-wine miracle makes any schoolchild with a Chemistry O level and a rational mind curl up with embarrassment'.

I suspect that the author of that story was well aware that it was scientifically impossible. You don't need a Chemistry O level to know that. The question is whether a God such as Christians believe in is able and willing to work miracles. If so, then impossible things become possibilities. I think C.S. Lewis argued the case for that pretty well a long time ago, in 'Miracles'.

And if removing the embarrassment of the miraculous is the key to making Christianity palatable to contemporary people, you'd expect that churches that do it would be full, wouldn't you?

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Sunday, 18 December 2016 at 9:54pm GMT

I do agree with Tim (Chesterton) here. The Gospel implies the need for a lively faith in the God and Lord of All Creation. One doesn't need to actually experience a miracle to believe in them, but it does help. I guess The Archangel Gabriel's word to Mary at the time of her Conception of Jesus; that "Nothing is impossible for God", ought to become the watchword of Christians. But then, of course, faith is a gift. Not every one is content to ask for it - especially the agnostics among us.
Marana tha! Come, Lord Jesus!

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Sunday, 18 December 2016 at 11:22pm GMT

Actually, water turning into wine is not scientifically impossible, just extremely unlikely. That's what quantum mechanics teaches us.

A God who could not make the improbable happen would not be much of a god, would He?

Posted by Kate at Monday, 19 December 2016 at 3:17am GMT

Tim, of course (if one dare say that) the water-into-wine story pointed to a spiritual truth, rather than describe a magical transformation of H2O into C2H5OH (where did the carbon atoms come from?). Mt already ‘covered’ evidently growing objections to nature miracles in the equally fictional story of the Temptations: “no stones into bread” (= don’t understand these stories literally, as if they described magic).
But this thread is about evangelism, i.e. not just the correct understanding of biblical truths but making them come alive to a now very sceptical public. The commonest complaint in the Graun and Indie comment columns, whenever anything about God pops up, is “where’s the EVIDENCE?”, by which they mean proof. Of course there is no such thing as proof, technically, but they have a point. That it’s beyond reasonable doubt that water boils at 100C at normal pressure, and a gazillion other discoveries like it, is a terrific tribute to the Natural Sciences (I got a degree in the stuff) and it’s understandable that non-believers ask for beyond-reasonable-doubt evidence for God.
As I understand it, the Bible writers pointed to the behind-and-beyond truths underpinning natural events by saying it was all prophesied to happen that way (“as It is written in the prophets”), even if it wasn’t. I believe ‘retrojection’ is the technical term. Interestingly, that approach is still alive and well: column writers are now claiming that today’s populism was the inevitable outcome of the 2008 crash, though I don’t remember them saying so at the time!
Our task is to show that almost all Bible stories were deliberately painted in picture language, in spite of noisy fundamentalists saying the opposite. We too must paint pictures. My point is that the imagery of the Bible is now unusable, either through overuse or ridicule. Moreover, any images used must not grate with a public in which a large number are proud possessors of a General Science GCE.
That we may, however dimly, be able to see the point of the biblical stories brings an even bigger problem, Fr Smith – that of appearing to be spiritually superior to those who cannot “perceive” (Gk ophthe) their inner truth, and there’s nothing Brits hate more than those who “set themselves up” to be superior, in any way.
But then I’m a liberal evangelical – theologically a woolly mammoth – so I suspect I’m talking to myself!

Posted by Michael Skliros at Monday, 19 December 2016 at 11:10am GMT

No, Michael Skliros, you're talking to me too!
Where I would disagree is that the images grate with the public and therefore must be replaced.
It shouldn't be beyond our imagination to explain what they mean and why they were used without falling into the same trap of dismissing them because they're unscientific.

Posted by Erika Baker at Monday, 19 December 2016 at 4:47pm GMT

That’s OK, Erika, I don’t mind being disagreed with – I’m a liberal, remember? One thing that is obvious is that I obviously mix with a much rougher lot than you!
Explain the Cana story to me, though, in a way that makes sense to my excellent, disbelieving friends in the public bar of The George up the road.
Apart from the mysterious appearance of carbon atoms (and, btw, “God can do anything” is really, really, really bad theology!) surely supplying 19 glasses per man, woman and child (I once calculated), after they had “already well drunken” is surely an act of the very grossest irresponsibility? Add to that the mysterious similarity the story has to the Dionysian wine legends and that Jn doesn’t even call it a miracle, but a “sign”, how can I explain it to Irish Mick in a way that makes sense to him?
This is my point: that people today are convinced, wrongly, that as science has won the battle against religion, we now live in an almost totally cause-and-effect world, in which myths are quite meaningless. That the upheavals in the U.S. election, and here, over the EU referendum, show clearly that myths (how we see ourselves) are very real is almost impossible to get across. Explaining the stilling of the storm without invoking chaos theory and the butterfly effect (i.e. not a miracle at all) is totally impossible.
We need to paint different pictures, using different images. Drama, rather than prosy explanations. And we’re not very good at that.

Posted by Michael Skliros at Monday, 19 December 2016 at 6:52pm GMT

"But then I’m a liberal evangelical – theologically a woolly mammoth – so I suspect I’m talking to myself!"

Posted by: Michael Skliros

Well, Michael. That might just explain the difference between us. I happen to be a believing liberal Anglo-Catholic - not superior to liberal evangelicals, but perhaps with a more open mind to the underlying messages of the scriptures. Faith is not 'seeing' and yet 'believing' the wonderful works of God.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Monday, 19 December 2016 at 8:00pm GMT

I noted, on the CEEC document provided by the link of Andrew Goddard, this banner headline:

"God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us'
​Romans 5v8​"

It seems obvious from the content of this paper that some con/evos (including Andrew Goddard)
need to take note of their own advice. If God's love is available for ALL sinners, then that must, per se, be as true for LGBTI people as anyone else. We are all sinners!

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Monday, 19 December 2016 at 8:24pm GMT

I have a friend who has a high level scientific position at NASA - I can't even begin to understand the stuff he deals with every day - but who has recently converted to catholicism and embraces all of it - the miracles, the saints, Mary, the whole nine yards - not to mention the traditional view of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

I think it's a mistake to make blanket statements about what scientific minds can and cannot accept. Check out Francis Collins, for instance: former head of the human genome project and devout evangelical Christian (and an adult convert, AFTER his scientific education - he wasn't raised in it).

I have a sneaking suspicion that the underlying issues are philosophical, not scientific.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Monday, 19 December 2016 at 8:51pm GMT

'the imagery of the bible is now unusable, either through overuse or ridicule'
No, not at all, not if you retell the stories, treating them as stories rather than religious tracts, and try and look at them from the point of view of the characters.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand: 'Can I Go Now?'
Told from the point of view of a truculent twelve year-old boy who has been sent out to buy some loaves and fishes and is trying to explain the two baskets of scraps to his sceptical parents.

Told as series of 'Talking Heads,' including the Harbourmaster at Joppa, the Ship's Captain, the Whale (Fish!), the Ruler of Nineveh, the Gourd and finally, God.

Noah's Nest -Door Neighbour:
A letter to the local Council complaining about the disruption and noise caused by the building of an enormous house-boat next door!

I used all of these and many more when I was a vicar, but never preached them, simply told them as stories. The Bible is a vast Adventure Playground of story-telling, singularly ill-served by nearly all of the dullards I have ever heard trying to interpret it!

Posted by stephen morgan at Monday, 19 December 2016 at 11:44pm GMT

your rougher lot are still people who look up in the sky and wistfully believe that their Dad is up there looking down on them and that their Mum will meet him when she goes; that dogs don't die but hop over the rainbow bridge chasing bunnies in the sky. People haven't discarded their seeking for transcendence, they've just stopped believing that our churches have the answers.

If you tap into that sense of "something more than we can see", that "spiritual but not religious" sentiment that's all around us, you can talk to people about the stories.

Just look at the way Trevor Dennis tells them. It's not impossible. It's only impossible if we agree to get stuck at the "but you can't prove it" level of literalism.

Posted by Erika Baker at Tuesday, 20 December 2016 at 8:57am GMT

"all Bible stories were deliberately painted in picture language" - in the spirit of liberal enquiry, where is the evidence that the Bible writers invented stories which would make good metaphors, rather than describing things they actually witnessed/thought had happened?

After watching 'Source Code' with my teenage kids last night I tried to explain quantum physics to them. It makes the wedding at Cana look like GCSE chemistry by comparison

Posted by David Keen at Tuesday, 20 December 2016 at 9:04am GMT

I liked your illustrations, Stephen, but the giveaway was here: “I told them as stories when I was a vicar”. In church, to a captive congregation, dare one assume? ‘Preaching to the choir’ is one thing, even if you disavowed that actual word; changing the hearts and minds of those outside churches, which is evangelism and what this thread is all about, is quite another.

My ‘guy in the pub’ is not a good example of the target audience either, to be fair. The likes of him was surely the point of the story of the centurion in Mt 8, who said, in effect: “I’m not a great thinker, boss; I go by people: if I trust them, I do what they say, just as my soldiers obey me because they trust me. I trust you – please heal my servant”.

In the struggle against unbelief, the burden on those of us who proclaim the faith is to be trustworthy. That means taking into account new discoveries of documents contemporary with the Bible, and the imagination to restate the faith in a post-Enlightenment age. We are kidding ourselves if we think that is done by getting a few wan smiles in church. Next to the Ten Commandments on the East wall should be hung Einstein’s dictum: “everything should be made as simple as possible . . . but no simpler.” (Authors of Mission Praise, please note!)

As for the scientist who (rightly) uses his critical faculties to the full from Monday to Friday, then switches them off for Sunday worship, that is not a rare phenomenon and one better explained by a psychologist than a philosopher, one might venture.

Posted by Michael Skliros at Tuesday, 20 December 2016 at 11:33am GMT

Before the charismatic movement blossomed Michael's hermeneutic may have been quite widespread, but surely it doesn't stand up to examination nowadays. A teenager (studying Chemistry or not) who goes to Soul Survivor or New Wine will be seeing a good number of people experiencing physical healing. Perhaps they will have prayed for someone who got better, or even experienced physical healing themselves.

Experiencing a physical healing is a good way to take miracles seriously, and obviously has an impact on how one reads Scripture!

In a related note, I've recently been reading a biography of Bonhoeffer and one startling nugget was that it was only when he went to the States in his 20's that he started to go to church regularly, even though he was a recognised theologian. In Germany those days it was quite normal for theologians to have university careers quite apart from church, and it was only in the States, especially at a black majority church, that Bonhoeffer saw churches that started to match his own vision and longing.

How that German type of arid theology, divorced from life of the church, can do any justice to spiritual reality is beyond me.

Posted by Peter K+ at Tuesday, 20 December 2016 at 1:25pm GMT

Thank you, Michael, but I don't think I ever said I 'preached' the stories - they were all read / acted out / broadcast to 'non-captive' audiences entirely away from churches.
And I never thought of myself as 'engaged in changing people's hearts and minds,' or in 'a struggle against unbelief' (!) And purely prosaically, our burden is not to be 'trustworthy,' but to keep the audience/congregation awake and interested.
And finally, surely it's up to the contributors to decide what this thread is about?

Posted by Stephen Morgan at Tuesday, 20 December 2016 at 3:44pm GMT

Personally I believe in the supernatural. I believe God inhabits supernatural realms (after all, we're talking about God), and I believe God acts supernaturally in the physical world we live in.

As Peter says, encounter with charismatic worship and life may open people's minds to the actuality of the supernatural.

This does not, in my opinion, mean abandoning scientific rationality for understanding the operation of our world. And yes, I do think some things in the Bible were written within cultural and scientific contexts, which may be contradicted by science and reason. In other words, part of the bible may be true, part of the bible may be fallible, part may be written as myth (the Creation stories and Noah spring to mind) which shouldn't be literalised or they lose their depth and impact.

But nevertheless, I believe people today still experience the supernatural interventions of God, in grace, love and wonder. And I believe the same holds true for people in Bible times too.

I believe in the virgin birth. I believe in the turning of water to wine. I believe that Jesus supernaturally healed people, and still does (and I say that as a nurse who has grounds to question that, but has also seen it happen). I believe in the ruach that blew through the upper room at Pentecost. I believe in exorcism, then and now. I believe in visions more tangible than the world we live in.

And, fundamentally, I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

How should I NOT believe in the miraculous? I would find it irrational, on the basis of evidence, not to.

I think our place as Christians is not to go seeking signs and wonders. It is to live authentic lives of love and grace, with the help of God. To be alongsiders to the people who live around us.

It is for God to do the wondrous, to intervene with grace, to convert, to touch the heart, to heal.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Tuesday, 20 December 2016 at 4:32pm GMT

Erica Baker, Trevor Dennis was my OT tutor at Theological College, and first introduced me (albeit unintentionally) to the idea that Bible stories could be funny. Trevor was trying to get us to act out the story of Abraham and Isaac, and we students spent most of the time trying to non-verbally re-direct
Abraham's attention to the (imaginary) struggling ram caught up in a nearby thicket.

Posted by stephen Morgan at Tuesday, 20 December 2016 at 4:54pm GMT

Looking at this only as liberalism (both political and theological) works on the left side of the pond, the reason liberals don't have the "zeal" of conservatives is that we are, generally, tolerant of beliefs other than our long as those beliefs do not interfere with the lives of others.

Therefore, we don't feel the need to stand our ground on the secularization of Christmas, as an example. Who is it hurting? Believing Christians? How? They are still free to believe and worship and celebrate the birth of Christ however they wish. There was an internet meme that circulated during our election: You are free to believe anything you want, nobody's stopping you. But the minute you insist that I must live MY life by your beliefs, you step over a line.

Conservatives, at least on this side of the pond, seem to think that if everyone isn't believing and behaving exactly as they do, they are being persecuted...which is nonsense, of course. I'm not hurting you by saying "Happy Holidays," any more than you are hurting me by saying "Merry Christmas"...unless, of course, you know damn well that I am Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, or atheist, and you are saying it just to annoy me.

Posted by Pat O'Neill at Tuesday, 20 December 2016 at 7:55pm GMT

I have to say that the idea that those of us who have a scientific background and a fairly orthodox Christian faith are applying our critical faculties to one and not the other is both condescending and insulting.

Posted by Jo at Wednesday, 21 December 2016 at 7:05am GMT

@Pat O'Neil

But those things do affect God and I will always fight for Him.

Posted by Kate at Wednesday, 21 December 2016 at 11:21am GMT

'I have to say that the idea that those of us who have a scientific background and a fairly orthodox Christian faith are applying our critical faculties to one and not the other is both condescending and insulting.'

Hear, hear! John Polkinghorne would definitely agree.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Wednesday, 21 December 2016 at 6:39pm GMT

Kate: I refuse to believe God supports forcing others to act against their own conscience.

Posted by Pat O'Neill at Wednesday, 21 December 2016 at 9:48pm GMT
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Please note that comments are limited to 400 words. Comments that are longer than 400 words will not be approved.

Cookies are used to remember your personal information between visits to the site. This information is stored on your computer and used to refill the text boxes on your next visit. Any cookie is deleted if you select 'No'. By ticking 'Yes' you agree to this use of a cookie by this site. No third-party cookies are used, and cookies are not used for analytical, advertising, or other purposes.