Category Archives: Wrestling with Books
I review books. Read on.
Big Idea: Niall Ferguson is not ready to accept the commonly held narrative which demonizes the British empire as a greedy parasite of which the whole world would have been much better off without. He acknowledges much truth in an early 20th century critique of British imperialism:
“We annex countries, exterminate indigenous peoples, force the taxpayers to pay for it and the British soldiers to bleed for it only so a few rich can benefit by it.”
But is that it? Is it true, as one critic said, that the only enduring legacy of the British empire is the universal use of the F-word and the world wide dissemination of soccer? Niall admittedly takes on the unpopular challenge of defending the legitimacy of the empire’s existence, while at the same time admitting to it’s many faults. The empire is much more than the summary of one critical historian:
“We robbed the Spanish, copied the Dutch, beat the French and plundered the Indians.”
Niall should not be dismissed as a bigoted, empire-loving sentimentalist born in the wrong century, his thoughts are worthy of consideration. He is also to be heartily commended for his stunning ability as a story writer, he proves, once again, that truth is more interesting than fiction if you are able to tell it well. He does.
The Empire wasn’t all bad because:
- It started off for business and freedom not conquest
England launched off into it’s empire, not to conquer the world and dominate indigenous people groups. They did it for “God and cod” for “congregationalism, and capitalism.” The empire was really an accident resulting from a wildly successful business venture. A haphazard way that England tried to keep up with it’s business success. As for the expansion of Christianity through the empire, it didn’t start off as an effort to Christianize the world or convert the heathen, it started off as a way for oppressed Christians to find room to practice their own versions of Christianity. As Christians spread out, they discovered that in comparison to other world religions their’s was pretty good, better even, so they went off encouraging others to become Christians. Forced conversions were not the norm in the missionary world of the empire because freedom of religion is what started the expansion of the empire in the first place.
- The stability of the empire helped globalization.
Rich British investors were willing to take risks on a global scale precisely because colonial rule kept law and order. During the empire days it was a safer bet to invest overseas. The flow of capital outward was of benefit not just to British people abroad, but to everyone under the influence of colonialism. When the empire ended, so did global investments and many of these free states fell to pieces. Investment is risky but it wasn’t as risky when the empire was intact.
- The empire brought infrastructure, technology, organization, law and ultimately freedom/democracy to much of the world.
No one likes to admit that. Niall tells the story of one courageous Indian who was shouted down after giving a speech in which he credited Britain as the source for all the good that is found in India. Perhaps the Indian was using dramatic over speak, or perhaps not? Everything from sewer systems to democracy, from roads to sports. From trains to the protection of women and international trade can be clearly connected to British influence. Britain did not spoil an utopian state upon arriving in India, that is for sure.
- It’s sacrificial end surely absolves it of it’s previous indiscretions.
This was a point strongly presented by Fergusson, but I think it is a weak point. The line of thinking goes like this: Yes, Britain did some nasty things in the far reaches of it’s empire, however, when even worse empires came along, it did not stand idly by, it sacrificed itself for the good of the entire world. The British empire for all it’s imperfections stood in the face of great evil, and nobly laid down it’s life. Thus the empire should be commended and not cursed. Ummm? Not so sure about this one. Certainly Britain paid a hefty price in both world wars which effectively bankrupted the empire. But they were not fighting for human dignity and to protect the downtrodden and vulnerable of the world. They were fighting to save their own skin and to protect their own interests, to that in the end they were only too happy to capitalize on the resources of their far flung empire. If there was to be war, all would share in the cost and all did. There is no way Britain would have won either war if it’s colonies, mandates and former colonies (USA) had not given everything they had to the cause as well.
- The seeds of compassion, human rights and individual freedom were spread throughout the empire.
There was the abolition of the slave trade. The tireless efforts of missionaries to stop Sati (Widow Burning) and other Indian atrocities. The opportunity for British convicts in Australia to earn their freedom. The incredible story of David Livingston and his deep love and care for Africans in a time when that just wasn’t cool. Arguably the greatest individual story of compassion and human rights could be Emily Hobhouse’s intervention during the Boer War in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. The fight was over gold. The Dutch (Boers) had it, and also a way to export it without having to pay off the British. That wouldn’t do. The Boers had to use guerrilla tactics, which sorely vexed the British, so in retaliation they burned all the Dutch farms. Now thousands and thousands of Dutch women and children had no place to go. So the British invented concentration camps. Over 30,000 non-combatants died in these terrible places. It was these camps that would provide the inspiration for what the Germans would do 40 years later to the Jews. Certainly this was a low point for the Empire. Hobhouse heard about it, traveled to South Africa, freaked out all over the place and single handedly won the sympathy of the English people against these brutal war tactics. The camps were shut down entirely or radically reorganized so that prisoners were well treated. This was almost unimaginable. A single women in 1900, shouting down and shaming an entire empire? How is it that her voice was even heard, let alone acted upon? The common thread in all these cases is Christian faith, whenever British people came to actually follow the way of Jesus, the injustices of the empire were confronted. The way of Jesus spread along side the empire and as long as it wasn’t corrupted and made into “Christian Empireism” the end result was compassion, human rights, and freedom.
- The British Empire was substantially better on it’s subjects than the other empires.
After looking at the rape of Nanking by the Japanese empire and the madness that was the German empire in WW 2, it’s hard not to find myself shaking my head in agreement with Fergusson. The list of really crappy empires goes on and on. What the Belgian empire did in the African Congo is mind numbing — everyone in the Congo would have preferred 100x over to be in an English colony over a Belgian one. Even the Dutch, the Spanish and the French empires appear more dark than the British.
Are these not all just varying shades of dark? How much solace is there in knowing that your body count is a few hundred thousand less then a rival empire’s?
- Are we really any better today? Are we really any different?
The weak still need the strong and the strong still need an orderly world. For Fergusson colonization goes on just in different ways and looks. “Help” in the name of altruism is the common speech from the West in our day.
It basically goes like this:
- Get rid of the bad guys
- Help bring stable government
- Encourage trade
This “help” speech is the very same speech the Empire gave in the 19th century, but the only difference is the terms “empire” “colonialism” and “colonization” are missing. If colonialism continues on but just looks a little different, what does it look like? Fergusson tells us,
“America does not take over like the British did in colonial times, instead they drop a few bombs, force everyone to hold democratic elections and get the hell out.”
In addition to force, the global American influence through business, Hollywood, and even televangelists mirrors in many ways is all that the British Empire was.
The Empire wasn’t all good because:
- It was built on greed
The good news is the empire was started as a business venture, the bad news is that the empire was started as a business venture. Greed makes people crazy. Crazy people hurt others, that’s what happened. For example, missionaries and liberal politicians were doing a good job creating opportunities for Indians within British rule, that is until white business interests realized that educated, empowered and articulate Indians stood to make the white business people unnecessary. Greed is what forced a dramatic uptick in the nasty racism that characterized much of the 1800’s in British India. The Boer War was fought over gold pure and and simple. The Dutch had it, the British wanted it. In Australia, the aborigines were hunted down like dogs because the river lands that they inhabited stood to make white farmers wealthy. The sale of opium meant wealth for the empire, so who cares if it destroyed the soul of China, it’s just business. The list goes on and on.
- It was built on a sweet tooth.
Thanks to seafaring British entrepreneurs the people of England discovered sugar, tobacco, molasses and tea among others things. The island almost overnight became addicted to sugar and they had to have it at all costs. In their sweet addiction they cared little for how it got to their island, only so long as it arrived.
- Christianity’s unholy mix with Empire
Christianity is not the Empire and the Empire is not Christianity. Sadly, many people had a hard time making that distinction. This unholy mix is nowhere more obvious than with the satirical rewrite of the famous Christian hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” produced during the carving up of Africa. It was meant to expose the hypocrisy and obvious incompatibility of Christianity and imperialism, but it backfired in South Africa when the private army of Cecil Rhodes embraced it as their anthem. They were not shamed by it, they loved it.
Onward Chartered Soldiers, onto heathen lands,
Prayer books in your pockets, rifles in your hands.
Take the glorious tidings where trade can be done,
Spread the peaceful gospel — with a Maxim gun.
Tell the wretched natives, sinful are their hearts,
Turn their heathen temples into spirit marts.
And if to your teaching they will not succumb,
Give them another sermon with the Maxim gun…
When the Ten Commandments they quite understand,
You their Chief must hocus, and annex their land;
And if they misguided call you to account,
Give them another sermon — with a Maxim from the Mount.
The Christian Nationalism emanating from the States in recent years, feels unnervingly similar.
- Technology leading to superiority
Technology is amoral. What you do with it is not. The British built better ships, they harnessed the power of steam and they developed vastly superior weaponry. This made them an unrivalled super power. In addition they invented the telegraph and laid millions of miles of telegraph wire effectively shrinking the world enough for them to rule it. They made maps, they were meticulous in gathering information and keeping records, they turned all this knowledge into power. But they let their incredible technological advancements go to their head. Cecil Rhodes summarized well, this most unhelpful superiority complex when he said “We are the first race in the world and the more of the world we have the better the world will be.”
Bits and pieces
- Sadly some of the earliest pilgrim prayers were in thanksgiving for how God had managed to kill off the North American Indians through disease.
- No one was more angry at the abolition of the slave trade than the black slave traders in Africa. Powerful slaving tribes had profited from this business for centuries.
- Rudyard Kipling and the white man’s burden — The blame of those you better — The hate of those you guard.
- Lord Salisbury “If our ancestors cared for the rights of other people the British Empire would not of been made.”
This is not a book on real-estate and yet it shares the same conclusion about what matters. “Location, location, location!” For the follower of Jesus settling into a location and planting long term roots there is the most important thing to be done. The authors present this priority in a way that would make most of us feel a little bit uncomfortable.
Most ministry leaders probably don’t get together and say “What can we do to create a gathering of disconnected individuals who choose to pay for our specialized programs and services?” Or “We want our people to think of church as a building, a place where our target audience goes to receive professionalized services.” That would be ridiculous. Even worse would be a scenario where the leaders intentionally planned to devalue peoples gifts. “We want our people to get in the habit of thinking that the only important members are the ones who can sing, or preach, or give lots of money. Everyone else should just sit in the pews, look their best and give their ten percent.” That would be insane….but that’s how many people end up feeling… This ends up happening because the Western world has lost one of the most important aspects of being the church: participating together as a family or body in the real-life context of the parish. Yet this is central to what it means to be the church. (76-77)
The authors quote Eugene Peterson in lament to the challenge of helping Christians begin to think in terms of sharing life together in a specific place as what it means to be the church.
I find that cultivating a sense of place as the exclusive and irreplaceable setting for following Jesus is even more difficult than persuading men and women of the truth of the message of Jesus.
The main thrust of the book is summarized well page 17:
It is our conviction that humans are meant to share life together, to learn to fit together as a living body in relationship with God. With one another and with/for the place to which they are called…The gospel becomes so much more tangible and compelling when the local church is actually a part of the community connected to the struggles of the people and even the land itself.
This book was one of providential timing for me. I’m already committed to the central idea of rooting down deep into a place. I already am “a known character actively seeking the flourishing of my neighbourhood.” But sometimes life is difficult in a neighbourhood, sometimes people don’t like you, sometimes there is adversity, and sometimes you make really dumb mistakes. All of this piles on, until you begin to think longingly about the beauty of becoming anonymous, detached, and unknown. To be able to preach your sermon, go home and shut the door until next Sunday starts to feel like a tantalizingly good option! It’s not, I know this, and God sent this book along at just the right time to remind me.
Spirit over strategy
The authors cautioned strongly against putting too much stock in techniques, methodologies, programs or stratagems. The shift from Spirit to strategy is a notorious weakness for religious people. We find something that works and then we pile up all our hopes and confidence on that one particular strategy. The authors remind us:
When your method takes the forefront you become distracted from what the Spirit is doing in and through your particular place…There simply is no way to place your ultimate trust in the leading of the Spirit and in your expert solutions at the same time.
The authors go so far as to say we should set programs aside so that there is time to play, hangout, and serve in our neighbourhoods. I can see how organized and vision driven would choke on some of these notions. Even I do a bit! Does it have to be either/or, can’t it be a both/and kind of thing? There is a sense in which people need to be directed. Will the admonition “go play” lead to flourishing and spiritual fruit in our neighbourhoods? Probably more is needed. But the overstatement is valid to make the point. Another little phrase that stuck with me from this book is “Practice being interruptible.” When we are carrying out our impressive plans, interruptions are not appreciated, but, it seems to me, the Spirit does his best work on a regular schedule of interruptions.
The difficultly of professional religion
Whenever money is involved people will want to know if they are getting a good return on their investment. What that means is donors want results, denominations want results, and conferences and books celebrate those with requisite results. Inevitably, it seems, an unhealthy pressure is placed on professional ministers to “get er done!” and the “er” is whatever might impress the investors. This is hardly healthy soil to grow slow, long term relationships with people in a neighbourhood. Investors want news, and “I hung out with my neighbour today” is hardly news! Re-envisioning what a successful church is away from the standard metrics of headcount’s and hype will certainly help. But even still how does one measure the success of “faithful presence”?
Several times in the book the authors use the term “primary energy” as a way to determine our priorities. They believe that community building endeavours should get primary energy, not the left overs. They recognize that this focus will impact worship gatherings and other more traditional programming, but they are ok with that. “Intentionally narrow the foot print of your life together.” is what they say. “Worship is a way of life, not a weekly event” is how they dismiss the objections that will be raised by faithful church goers. They say directly that they are not advocating the diminishment of worship gatherings, it’s just that they will have to be more simple. Our focus should not be on events that create minimal impact on a maximum number of people, rather we should direct our energies towards having a maximum impact on a minimal number of people.
The gospel at work in a place
Sometimes I worry a little bit when I read a book like this, is this just a gospel-empty call to be the nice guy in your neighbourhood? No. The beautiful vision of gospel transformation below, the authors argue, can only happen in fullness when followers of Jesus are living out faithful presence in neighbourhoods.
The Gospel is about reconciliation and renewal of relationships. It is about God’s plan through Christ to bring people who are caught in the cycle of fragmentation back into faithful relationships again — with God, with one another and with the created world. The wall between us is gone: Male, female, Jew, Gentile — all our differences no longer need to divide us. When you see yourself as a character in this story, one who has been given the ministry of reconciliation to bring hope and healing to broken relationships, it can become a lens for your everyday engagement in the world.
We are not missional!
These guys are definitely wary of “missional” terminology. They feel like “mission” is not what a churches identity should be reduced to. It’s too narrow, and it has a bad past. “Mission” is what missionary colonizers did in sometimes violent and often damaging ways. It wasn’t just missional churches that took it on the chin, so too did seeker churches, heritage churches, and community churches! This and several parts of the book are simply hasty generalization, but its all towards the point that the church at it’s core should be the people of God who share life together in and for a particular place. Faithful presence should lie at the bottom of whatever one’s church might look like or be philosophically inclined toward.
Put away the iPhone!
What good is a book if there is not at least one good rant? Here it is: Don’t get in the habit of using your technology as a medium to be somewhere else. Our ability to be fully present becomes seriously impaired when we do. Thanks to technology we can be everywhere and nowhere, here and elsewhere, neither inside or outside. This self inflicted ghost space pushes us away from faithful presence in our neighbourhoods and continually keeps human flourishing out of reach.
What did I know about the opium wars between China and Britain in the 1800’s? Basically nothing. So what happened? India had opium. The East India trading company of Britain discovered a market for the stuff in neighbouring China. They flooded that country with opium, destroying the lives of millions of Chinese people.
Britain’s moral conscience was assuaged for decades by means of flimsy justifications:
- The Chinese are poor and miserable; at least opium helps them escape their misery for a time
- Opium is primarily medicinal, it actually helps its users
- They want the stuff! So give them what they want
- Many Chinese are benefiting from the trade as well
China supplied Britain with tea, the British paid a pretty penny for this import. The opium trade served as a financial recoupment strategy for all their expense in extracting the tea from China. On the books, this was a tidy, incredibly lucrative trade that benefited Britain greatly and made its traders incredibly rich. By the mid 1800’s 1/6th of Britain’s GDP was tied to this trade.
Finally, the emperor of China had enough. Trade would be fine he said, however, the opium trade would not. The traders lobbied the British parliament. They said that the Chinese were being unreasonable, that they were corrupt, that the traders’ lives were in danger. As they petitioned the halls of power, they were careful not to get into the horrific details of the opium trade. Britain had a conscience, and if it was pricked, it would be bad for business. So the traders emphasized how China was a threat to British sovereignty. Their protests worked. Britain sent an army, vastly superior to China’s. China was forced to capitulate or be completely destroyed. The surrender made it possible for the trade to continue according to British terms solely. Over time, the British came to see China’s point regarding opium. However, they embraced a don’t-see, don’t-tell perspective, so the vice continued its devastating rampage largely unhindered.
It is in this context that E.V. Thompson writes his fiction. Luke is the good British trader who doesn’t deal in opium – he is the British trader who breaks convention and marries a Chinese woman. He is the British trader who takes the time to actually learn the language and culture of the Chinese. What does his “non-colonizing” stance get him? Pain and suffering and death to all his loved ones. Despite the difficulties, Luke remains true to his principles but is increasingly disgusted with the whole mess. After a decade or so in China, Luke retires at age 30 as an incredibly wealthy man. He moves back to England and secures a seat in parliament spending the rest of his life advocating for a better trade system between England and China.
What are my key takeaways?
- Wealth makes a terrible god. It makes you blind to the sufferings of others. It should be no surprise that the Bible says “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”.
- Pride doesn’t help anything. The Chinese were convinced that they were the superior race and so were the British. Whenever negotiations went on between the two nations, it was only because the greater wanted to teach the lesser a lesson. Peace is not possible when pride and self-importance lead the way.
- Humanity has been infected with a great sickness. If someone is different than us, whether that be skin colour, religion, race, or culture, our automatic default is to mistrust them and misuse them. By and large, this seems to be the story of humanity. It’s the scourge of our existence. Perhaps that is what is so appealing about the Bible’s great vision of heaven that has people from every tribe, language, and culture worshiping the Creator together. It’s what we long for but can’t seem to achieve without divine intervention. Maybe the humility of saying “I can’t do this on my own” gives us hope for a unified future. I’d like to think so.
You always listen a little more intently when it’s a man’s last words. Sadly, Hitch didn’t have much to say.
What can be said when you are walking through death’s door convinced there is nothing on the other side? As it turns out, not much. Preparing to die without the anticipation of future hope is very gloomy business indeed. One of the saddest lines in his book is:
“One finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less”
If all of us just return to dust when our time on earth is over, then, Hitchens observation here, is about as depressing as it can get. He genuinely feels the weight of hopelessness that his worldview brings him.
Death causes you to rethink your beliefs
As Hitch suffers he is forced to confess a truth about grave illness:
“It forces you to examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings”
One such confidant that withers under the scrutiny of Hitch’s suffering is Nietzsche. His famous maxim “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a load of bilge! Hitch’s battle with cancer had only made him weaker, not stronger. Maybe the solid bedrock of Nietzschen thought upon which countless atheist’s have build their systems has a few cracks? Hitchens is honest enough to point out a couple of them.
Christian people are jerks
But Hitchens is not ready to throw down the whole system. He still had plenty of spunk. He is at his best when pointing out the flaws of organized religion and he is very good at it. His criticisms in many cases should not be ignored, people have done terrible things in the name of religion. Particularly saddening at a personal level are all the people of faith, (and he quotes several) who gleefully informed the world that Hitchens esophageal cancer which took away his ability to speak, was a wrathful God’s vindictive justice upon this leading spokesman for the Anti-God point of view. Hitchens rightfully points out that these people are heartless jerks who care more about their ideology than people and of course if God is actually like this, than he is not interested.
Prayer: Not a fan
Even in death, the idea of prayer disgusts him. He mentions one statistic from some non-footnoted study about how prayer makes things worse – and then moves on. I guess I have to give him a pass for his poor scholarship since he was dying when he wrote it, but it is frustrating from a truth standpoint. Does prayer help? Countless legions of people from the beginning of time to this very day would enthusiastically say it does. The weight of all this counter evidence is dismissed in one opinionated stroke, and the matter concluded with Hitchens saying:
“Don’t trouble heaven with your bootless cries!”
Believe the better story
Hitchens above statement reminds me of Monsieur Thénardier’s line in the famous musical Les Miserables
“And the God of Heaven, he don’t interfere, cause he’s dead as the stiffs at my feet, I raise my eyes to the heavens and only the moon, the harvest moon shines down…”
That’s certainly one way to look at life, but why would you? “Because, it’s the truth!” is the loud bombastic response that Hitchen’s championed his whole life. It’s the cold hard reality of our existence, it might be unpalatable but it’s true. Is it? We are all of faith. Hitch believed his story of materialistic naturalism and reason alone seemingly to the bitter end – but we must all acknowledge that it was his faith story. In the Les Miserable classic there was another faith story, different from Monsieur Thénardier, different from Hitchens, it was a better story, It was Jean Val Jean’s story.
Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief
At last, at last behind you
Lord in Heaven
Look down on him in mercy.
Forgive me all my trespasses
And take me to your glory.
Take my hand
I’ll lead you to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.
It’s the beauty of this story that has captured my imagination and my heart.
Eternity: A really bad idea
“With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives… sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.”
Isn’t there a better way of looking at this? Like an eternal family reunion without the weird uncle? Could we embrace a vision of infinite life by thinking in terms of all the joys that make up family life without any of its difficulties? It takes a special person to rain on heaven’s parade.
God is a jerk if he damns people for doubt
Hitchens curses any god who would punish “irreconcilable doubt”. To which I would say, God is not anti-doubt – he is pro-faith. The faithful enter in not because they are doubt free: they enter in because their hope manages ever so slightly to overshadow’s their doubt.
This is a sad story of pain and death with no hope beyond the grave. Interestingly, in the first part of the book, Hitch chews on the idea of Pascal’s Wager for a little bit, but then spits it out as distasteful. However, towards the end of his book and his life, we see him becoming less and less critical of Pascal’s Wager. In one of his final musings, he says “Atheists ought not to be offering consolation… If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.” — Was he betting on God in the end? Was he throwing his chips in with the better story? Good for him if he did.
This book seeks to create in us the compelling need to stop our busyness by taking regular breaks. Buchanan contends that a persons very health depends upon adherence to this ancient practice known as Sabbath rest. It’s a simple read, with a simple point, but it comes with bucket loads of quote worthy material some of which is listed below. I loved this book, it is wholly appropriate for anyone who is distracted, busy and stuck in the rat race.
Sabbath rest knows that silence is golden
- Some knowing is never pursued, only received. And for that, you need to be still.
- Silence is the condition for true listening.
Sabbath rest is a habitual practice (liturgy)
- At its best, liturgy comprises the gestures by which we honour transcendent reality, it helps us give concrete expression to deepest convictions. It gives us choreography for things unseen and allows us to breach heaven among the shades of earth.
Sabbath rest is about paying attention
- Indeed, this is the essence of a Sabbath heart: paying attention. It is being fully present, wholly awake, in each moment. Louis Aggasiz, Harvard’s renowned biologist, returned one September to his classroom and announced to his students that he had spent the summer traveling, he had managed, he said, to get halfway across his backyard. To those with eyes to see, that’s enough. Everywhere we turn, wonders never cease.
- Drivenness erodes purposefulness…The truly purposeful have an ironic secret: they manage time less and pay attention more.
- “My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted” Henri Nouwen said near the end of his life, “Until I discovered the interruptions were my work”…Purposefulness requires paying attention, and paying attention means — almost by definition — that we make room for surprise…we become hospitable to interruption.
Sabbath rest rejects the task master of time and embraces wonder and delight
- Unless we receive time as abundance and gift, not as ration and burden, we’ll never develop a capacity to savour Sabbath.
- Those calm, unhurried people who live in each moment fully, savouring simple things, celebrating small epiphanies, unafraid of life’s inevitable surprises and reverses, adaptive to change yet not chasing after it.
- Those who treat time as gift and not possession — have time in abundance. Contra wise, those who guard every minute, resent every interruption, ration every moment, never have enough.
- The oughts go into the salt mine and you go out dancing.
- Its the one day when the only thing you must do is to not do the things you must!
- You get to willfully ignore the many niggling things your existence genuinely depends on!
- toss away the “have to’s” and lay hold of the “get to’s”
- If it smells like an ought, don’t.
- So I submit this as Sabbath’s golden rule: Cease from what is necessary. Embrace that which gives life. And then do whatever you want.
- They dance in a woods unwatched by Chronos. The Sabbath is a kingdom where Chronos and utility are not welcome.
- When we really believe that we have no time to waste — no time simply to enjoy without excuse or guilt, without having to show anything for it — then the cult of utility is utterly ascendant. It has vanquished all rivals.
- Philipp Melanchthon turned to Martin Luther and announced, “Today you and I shall discuss the governance of the universe.” Luther looked at Melanchthon and said “No. Today, you and I shall go fishing and leave the governance of the universe to God.”
- The Chinese join two characters to form a single pictograph for busyness: heart and killing — the busy life murders our hearts.
- This is one of Sabbath’s gifts, to relax without guilt.
Sabbath rest’s central quality is thankfulness
- Thankfulness is a secret passageway into a room you can’t find any other way. It is the wardrobe into Narnia. It allows us to discover the rest of God.
Sabbath rest looks both backward and forward
- Take anything you delight in here on earth: Your children, Your craftwork, Your hot tub. The dewed green of a fairway on a July morning. The set corn from your garden, butter drenches. Enjoy them all. Find rest in them. But imagine how much more awaits you.
- Busyness destroys the time we need to remember well.
The “Jihad” thing is not a new phenomenon.
The possibility of Jihad was the great terror of the Entente powers and the great hope of the Central powers. Massive efforts were made on one side to fan the flame of religious fanaticism and huge efforts were made on the other side to snuff it out. In the end, it appears to have been much ado about nothing. Islam was never that unified. There was enough resentment against the Ottoman rulers within Muslim domains that the flood of jihadists, supposed to fill the ranks of central armies, never materialized. The grand plan to create mayhem, terror, and disruption all across British and French colonies in the name of Allah amounted to wishful thinking.
I will kill for my nation, not my religion.
Fanning the flames of nationalism proved to be a greater motivator to violence than religion. The Arab revolt fuelled by grand dreams and false promises of a distinctly Arabic nation spanning most of the Middle East was just the ticket to turn Muslims in on themselves. In almost miraculous fashion, the Ottoman Empire had managed to push back Entente invasion forces in Gallipoli, Gaza, Baghdad and other places for over two years, but when the Arab nationalists joined the Entente to rise in revolt against Ottoman rule, it proved to be too much.
Whose side are we on anyway?
Muslims from Africa joined the Entente to fight on the Western front against Germans. As war goes, some of those Muslim soldiers were captured by the Germans. Instead of being sent to a regular POW camp, they were treated nicely, and sent to more of a resort to be indoctrinated about jihad. Ultimately, many of these Muslim POW’s would be repurposed and sent off to fight with the Ottomans as “holy warriors” against the British. Interestingly, many of those same soldiers wound up getting captured again, this time by British forces in the Middle East. A British POW camp in Egypt would be where they would sit out the war. However, I wonder if some of those same men were able to be repurposed again through the call to Arab nationalism? If so, it is quite possible that those soldiers went back into war to fight with the Entente once again – this time against the Ottomans. It would not surprise me if that actually happened, although the book offers no evidence of this final reversal. In the end, these two-sided warriors were let off surprisingly easy – any other traitor would have been shot for treason in this era. These guys just had to endure post-war expulsion from their country/colony of birth.
The Beduins are for the Beduins
C.S. Lewis makes the above statement about the Dwarfs in his Chronicles of Narnia series. What he means is the Dwarfs look out for their own interests above all, there is no higher purpose or unifying cause that supersedes this fundamentally tribal presupposition about life. This describes perfectly the Beduins. They constantly flipped sides whenever it suited their purposes. They looted whenever they won and drifted off into the highlands when things became dangerous or it didn’t serve their purpose. All throughout the war, the Beduins were a constant help and then headache to both British and Ottoman forces.
How do you dominate someone and then get them to fight for you?
It is utterly remarkable to me how the British and French were able to recruit willing soldiers for their armies from their African and Indian colonies. They had invaded these countries and reduced the indigenous people to second-class citizens in their own country! How is it that thousands upon thousands of Indian and African people would willingly sign up to fight in a war that was being waged by their oppressors? Was it the pay? The prospect of adventure? Maybe the British and French influence in these colonies was not as bad for everyone as we have historically thought? I honestly don’t know the answer to this question.
Dumb move to open another front in a terrible war?
In hindsight, the campaign against the Ottoman Empire has been criticized as an unnecessary and foolhardy endeavour. Was it? At the time, I think it actually made good sense. The strategy was for the Entente to try to force a quick end to the war by stabbing at the soft underbelly of the Central powers. Even the Germans were worried about the Ottomans as the weak link. The decision to attack was made because the Ottoman Empire had been in steady decline for over 100 years. They were politically unstable. Civil unrest abounded in the country. The empire had lost three successive wars at the turn of the century, and in the first year of the Great War, they had been crushed by the Russians in the Caucasus Mountains, the British in Mesopotamia, and by the British at the Suez.
On paper, it looked like a good plan – the Ottomans were weak and failing, and since the west was in stalemate, why not? Unfortunately, instead of shortening the war, it probably prolonged it. The Turks fought fearlessly and from better positions and received huge help from their German counterparts.
Why did the Armenian genocide happen?
Some Armenians wanted their own country – nationalism was the flavour of the day. But most were content with life as it was and were patriotic Ottomans – yet periodic persecutions at the hands of Turks and Kurds made life far from ideal for this Christian subset of Ottoman culture.
As the war loomed, the Empire needed to make a decision as to which side they were going to join in on. It was a tough decision, but ultimately they went with the Central powers. Russia had forever been looking lustily to capture Istanbul and many of the other prime lands possessed by the Ottomans. The Russians viewed themselves as the last of the Byzantines, so their claim on Ottoman land pre-dated the Ottomans. The Turks had no desire to fight the Russians, and attempted a peace deal with them. The Russians were not interested.
- Switching Sides: For some time, Armenians had wondered if maybe the Russian capture of the Ottoman lands in which they lived would actually benefit them. Russians were at least Christian. That commonality, it was thought, could lead to more freedom and less persecution, and perhaps even the possibility of an Armenian state. Russia openly courted that idea, making lots of promises to Armenians if they would cross over to their side. Some Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman Army crossed over to fight with the Russians. That didn’t sit well with the Turks.
- Shrinking Empire: The Turks had lost so much territory to nationalist-minded, non-Muslim entities within the borders of their empire over the previous several decades. Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria all had achieved independence from the Empire, shrinking and weakening it in the process. A similar independence movement with the Armenians would fragment the very heartland of the Turkish people. That was not an option.
- Civil War — Some Armenian nationalists in Eastern Anatolia started a revolt in which they took over an entire city, killed a bunch of Turks in the battle, and held out for Russian liberation.
- Cheering a bit pre-mature — When the British invaded the Dardanelles and were close to conquering Istanbul, Armenians openly cheered the would-be-conquerors on. This exuberance could only be interpreted as treasonous.
The regime known as The Young Turks concluded that all Armenians were a direct threat to national security and must therefore be exterminated. Only a small percentage of Armenians were actually dangerous to Ottoman rule but, in times of war, the controlling powers often don’t take the time to try to discern.
March of Death
Before the war, The Young Turks had ejected the Greek Orthodox from Ottoman lands. Greece had found its independence, and was not a friend to the Ottomans, so the Greeks had to go! The plan was to march them all to Greece and be done with them. It was a difficult situation, to be torn from one’s homeland and sent marching off towards Greece with only what you could carry on your back. But most survived because they had a reachable destination filled with people willing to receive them. This was not the Armenian story. They had no homeland to march to once they were evicted, and the Turks were thinking extermination not expulsion.
To accomplish extermination, the Turks made it seem like they were going to do the same to the Armenians as they had done to the Greeks. However, the expulsion point would be across the Syrian Desert. The brutal elements of the desert ensured that most would never survive the trip. In addition, if any of the marchers slowed down, they were bayoneted. To complete the genocide, the Turks also arranged for Arab tribesmen and Kurdish tribesmen to regularly sweep down violently into the long lines of defenseless captives. Some Armenian children survived because they were taken as slaves to these groups, other young women survived through capture and forced marriage. Most however simply were caught up in this net of death along the way. It is estimated that only about 2% of those forced to go on the death marches actually survived them. In all, approximately 1.5 million Armenians perished.
Ironically, the genocide was of no assistance in helping the Ottoman cause. The Russians still conquered even without Armenian help. Many great and loyal Armenian soldiers were lost to the Ottoman army because of the purge. The Armenian issue was irrelevant to the Arab revolt which actually accelerated the demise of the Ottomans. There is one particularly poignant story to illustrate the senselessness of this genocide: several thousand Armenians managed to escape the death marches by volunteering to work with the Germans on the Berlin to Baghdad railway, an essential link that could have made all the difference in the war. The Turks discovered the Armenians, and, in spite of German protests, preferred to send the willing labourers to their deaths rather than use their help on this vital railway. The railway was never finished. The Ottomans lost the war.
Untenable was the most common word in this book. It was probably used several hundred times! As the various armies attacked each other, inevitably their positions would become “untenable”. There would be a retreat, and then the violence would start all over again, until the other side would achieve an equally untenable position. As the bodies of both sides piled up, I felt myself asking the question “Why are we doing this again? There has got to be a better way!” In my mind, the whole idea of war is “untenable”!
At the end of the war, the Ottoman Empire was completely disassembled. The French and English carved up what was left of the empire for themselves. Even Anatolia, the heartland of the Turks, was chopped up to make space for Greek, Armenian, and Kurdish national interests. At the wars end, hope for even a Turkish state was lost, that is, until Mustafa Kemal Atatürk emerged from the dust of war and refused to accept the terms for peace. Somehow, with a broken army, he managed to push back Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, and even French military forces in order to preserve a Turkish homeland.
Well, that was interesting. A comedian writes a book on the reality of hell, and he is not joking, but yet the book itself is full of jokes. Wait, what? Exactly.
So, what is going on here? People, and especially Christian people of late, don’t like the idea of hell – it’s too harsh, too off putting, too out of touch with reality, too unbelievable. Thor Ramsey quotes social critic and comedian Bill Hicks to capture the incredulity of an actual place called hell:
“Christianity is such an odd religion. The whole image is eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God’s infinite love. Believe or die. Thank you for all those options.”
This skepticism of hell has not just dripped into the church, it has poured in like a flood. Notable Christian celebrity Rob Bell basically says the same thing in his book:
“God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. Then God will torture you forever. In Hell. Huh?”
Thor Ramsey is not about to go along with this drifting tide of “envangellyfish” as he calls them. If hell becomes only a metaphor, or a temporary holding tank that eventually dissolves into heavenly bliss for all, or morphs into annihilationism, then all is lost. According to our funny-boned author, the entire Christian story becomes meaningless. It’s kind of a big deal, so Thor cracks jokes and quotes Bible verses and makes his case that a punishing eternal hell is very real, very terrible, and to be avoided at all costs – through faith in Jesus.
“If Hell freezes over… the loss of eternal punishment as it is taught in the Bible will result in the shrinkage of God’s attributes and in the end, a smaller God. We will suffer the loss of the fear of God, the loss of a holy God, the loss of a just God, the loss of an extravagantly loving God, and the loss of God’s wisdom in the cross. We can’t afford to lose the attributes of God. Otherwise we have a meaningless gospel. But the greatest loss whenever Scripture is minimized is the loss of knowing the self-revealed God of this universe.”
Does Thor have a point? I think so. Below are my observations:
- Jesus’ death is evacuated of meaning if hell doesn’t exist: “It’s the difference between Jesus dying for you or just giving up His seat on the bus for you.” If there is no real danger, if our souls are not in peril of damnation, then what was Jesus thinking? If we are all going to end up in heaven anyway, or if some of us will just be snuffed out into non-existence, then the story doesn’t really make sense anymore. Jesus’ sacrifice is not something to put our ultimate hope in, instead we just kind of feel sorry for the guy. Thor wants us to be convinced that if it wasn’t for Jesus, we’d be toast!
- God hates sinners in addition to their sin — He has his Bible verses to back it up, and clearly it’s not a stretch to see that God does not send sinners to hell because He loves them, so I get it. Even still, it’s difficult for me to imagine a conversation with one of my not-yet-believing friends starting off with the line “Currently, God hates you.” But that’s not what Thor is suggesting – or is it? He does manage to say “This means that God can simultaneously seek a sinner’s best interests (Love) while opposing the sinner’s primary motivations in life (Hate) And I understand that, at least to a certain degree, earthly relationships have this dynamic as well.
- The unpleasant thought of God’s wrath — God is justified in being upset with us, not in a freak out, fly off the handle way, but in a consistent, unmoving, non-reactionary opposition to all that stands against His holiness. After pointing out bunches of sins which reveal just how much we don’t measure up, he makes a very accurate statement “The problem is that we don’t really believe we deserve God’s wrath” And that is true – our culture teaches us that we are superheroes and victims at the same time. We get all the credit for the good, and readily have someone to blame for the bad. And so it seems to be going with our Theology.
- The blame game for all eternity — “In our refusal to love God and instead embrace sin, we never quite see sin as an infinite evil. We usually think of our sins as minor hijinks. Hitler deserves hell, but not us. It’s always the other guy. Those “evildoers” – they deserve hell. Not us ‘sinners’”. And this is the genius of C.S. Lewis’ master work The Great Divorce: through one unsettling story after another, he reveals how hell is inhabited by increasingly self-absorbed, utterly miserable people who are experts in blaming others for all eternity.
This book is blunt and rough, even with all the jokes. What’s Thor’s message in a nutshell? God is perfectly righteous – we are not. Hell is real. We need Jesus desperately. We must repent and follow Him. There are eternal consequences if we don’t.
Thor makes a blood-earnest call for Christian leaders to forsake the notions of a “Santa Claus” God who is always happy, always gushing with love and good gifts, regardless of what we believe or do. Santa Claus is not the God of the Bible. Thor wants to reawaken us to the God who is a consuming fire, who will not be a party to any wickedness, but who loves us so deeply that He was willing to sacrifice all for our salvation.
This is one of those books where you have to stop every few pages, look at the front and back covers, searching for something that says “fiction” as you say to yourself, “This isn’t a true story – is it? No, it can’t be true!” Turns out it is true.
So what happens? A little girl from a fractured home grows up and gets the itch to travel. The story is about all of her adventures, which seem harmless enough at first, until her wanderlust brings her into dangerous places. Much to her family’s disapproval, she is able to spend significant time in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places, barely skirting death on several occasions.
High stakes adventuring is what Amanda wanted, and so it seemed to her that the ultimate prize would be Somalia. What better place was there to risk it all? This war-torn state is a veritable treasure trove of peril and uncertainty!
She talks an ex-boyfriend into going with her and off they go. Things unravel quickly from there. After only 4 days, they are captured and held for ransom for 15 brutal months. During that time, Amanda is starved, beaten, raped repeatedly, tortured, and in every way abused. In the end, a ransom amount is arranged privately with the families of the two captives and a release is arranged. This book is troubling to read, so it would not be for the faint of heart or the squeamish. What did I learn?
- Just Business — From the very beginning, Amanda’s captors constantly proved their devotion to Allah through the vigorous keeping of endless rituals. They also exhibited a genuine care for their fellow Muslim brothers, but the trajectory of devotion to God, which should result in care for other humans, never reached Amanda. Why? Amanda was a business project. Her captors were actually apologetic at times, “Just business, Amanda, nothing personal – your family just needs to pay the ransom” ~boot to the head!~ How is it possible to see another human being in this less-than-human way? That question leads me to my second point.
- That Which Your Right Hand Possesses — Repeatedly, Amanda’s captors, almost in gentle ways, told her to get accustomed to the treatment she was receiving, especially the rape. What was their justification for such actions? The Koran. In it, it is ok for sexual relationships to happen with both one’s wives and any woman “That your right hand possesses.” “We possess you, Amanda, so there is nothing wrong with what we are doing to you.” Lovely 😦
- Nothing to See Here — At one point in the story, Amanda and her partner manage a daring escape. They flee to the one place they figure they will find a sympathetic and compassionate ear. They burst into a mosque full of worshippers, and cry out for help. In broken Somalian, they explain that they have been kidnapped and abused. The elders of the mosque confer with the kidnappers who arrive breathless and angry a few minutes later. After a short conversation they are handed back over to the kidnappers. Only one woman objects, but she is violently kicked to the side. How in God’s name would you not intervene if someone in such a deplorable condition as Amanda barged into your church service pleading for help? It is inconceivable to me.
- You’re Still A Woman and A Slave Even If You Convert — As a survival tactic, Amanda converted to Islam. But it did little to improve her situation – she was after all still a woman, and still a slave, Throughout her captivity, she was told repeatedly of her lowly status. As a good Muslim, she would have to make peace with her station in life. It is the will of Allah. The only improvement offered to her was the promise that if she married one of her captors, they would untie her, let her live in an upstairs room with a window, and have lots of babies.
- Ritual Is All That Matters — Amanda as a Muslim now needed to make sure she shaved her pubic hair, but not pluck her eyebrow hair. She needed to preform her daily ablutions. It was critical for her to learn the Koran and pray five times a day. Correct pronunciation of Arabic words in her prayers became critical. Her standing as a good Muslim or a bad Muslim depended on it. She must observe Ramadan, and keep her eyes lowered in the presence of men. These are the things that mattered. Not compassion or mercy or justice. Jesus bumped into a similar sort of situation in his day. He was not amused – see Matthew 23.
This is Amanda’s story. It is not a direct attack on the religion of Islam per se, but it’s impossible not to become skeptical of that particular religion after reading this book. Is what Amanda experienced just a perversion of Islam or just the way it is? Is this what Islam becomes if you are serious about upholding its beliefs? To me it seems like the more one devotes one’s life to Islam, the more justifications there are for what happened to Amanda. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.
What about Jesus? For my Muslim friends and indeed for all the world, I say follow him. The more one becomes devoted to Jesus the more the needy are helped, the more equality and value for all humans becomes the norm, the more captives are freed, and the more humanity flourishes. Whatever ones official religion, to follow Jesus is never a mistake. I just finished reading Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, the Christian statesman who in the late 1700’s fought for 40 Years to abolish the slave trade. If ever there was a dramatic counterpoint to this story, it is Amazing Grace. I challenge you to read both books back to back and ask yourself the question, which faith story is the better one to shape your life around.