Category Archives: Wrestling with Books
I review books. Read on.
It’s Time for Christian’s to Disappear!
What? Yes, to hide, to go underground, to withdraw to the margins of society, in some cases literally “head for the hills.” We have entered a dark age for Christianity, and the only way to preserve the seeds of faith is to form small Christian subcultures that intentionally orient their lives fully around the worship of God. These cell groups will practice out of their faith through the rigorous keeping of church traditions, liturgy, and the church calendar. They will practice asceticism, (fasting, prayer, and limitations on distractions & entertainment) live close to one another and share life together. The absolute priority of these small groups will be to pass on the faith to the next generation. Just like Benedict did in the 5th century.
Why must Christians go into hiding?
Secular humanism is the dominant narrative of our time, it runs in complete opposition to Christianity. It’s like a riptide at the beach, the current is just too strong now to resist. All Christians who remain immersed in the surf of our culture will eventually be swept out to sea and lost. The linchpin of cultural Christianity according to Rod Dreher is its views of sex, sexuality, marriage and gender. The Christian worldview doesn’t work with today’s view of whatever, whenever, however, and whoever. If a Christian tries to draw a moral line in the sand that is different from the cultural norm of “be whatever you are” and “love is love” he is shot down with increasing brutality. Also, Christianity needs contemplation and prayer to work but today’s society is constantly abuzz with one distraction after another, followed by one temptation after another. The section that details the staggering amount of pornography consumption in the West and the latest scientific studies about its adverse effects on the brain is unnerving, to say the least. Dreher is unashamedly alarmist. The Western world is not a safe place to hang out anymore if you are a Christian. All Christian efforts to be relevant, missional, or “cutting edge” need to be stopped in the interest of survival.
What exactly are we talking about here?
- No more public school education — Putting your kids in public school is “spiritual suicide” says Dreher. And most Christian schools are not much better either. The only solution is what he calls “Classic Christian” education, or homeschooling of a similar vein.
- If you are a compromised professional, quit — It’s going to be increasingly difficult for Christian lawyers, doctors, educators, politicians, nurses and the like to avoid having their convictions compromised in their workplaces. The solution says Dreher is to quit. Christians must become comfortable with less money and less notoriety. He suggests working in the trades, becoming an entrepreneur, or taking up farming.
- Move in close to each other. Geographical proximity will be necessary for the dark night ahead.
- Create a self-contained sub-culture. Dreher has no time for Christianized imitations of the world, whether that be pop-Christian music, radio, technology, consumerism. Etc. Etc. The sub-culture he envisions is unashamedly counter-cultural. Entirely other from the world in which we now live.
Should we be worried?
In 8 years living as a missionary embedded in the secular culture, I can certainly see his point. I’ve seen more Christians leave the faith then come into it. I’ve experienced first hand the increasing hostility of influential people who don’t share my Christians worldview. I at times have felt the enticing currents of secular humanisms pull. I’m concerned for sure about the decidedly non-Christian fashions that entice my family and me. My neighbour from Iran lamented to me that his daughter is losing the Persian language and culture, “I can’t keep up” he said. “We practice in our home, but all day at school it is English, English, English.” His daughter is being assimilated into the English Canadian world, not the Farsi Persian one. Is the same happening to us with our Christian heritage? We are teaching Christianity in our home, and at our worship gatherings, but all day, it’s secular humanism, secular humanism, secular humanism. Can I expect anything less than assimilation for my family and me if something more drastic is not done? Dreher’s point is to resist assimilation at all costs. He fears that most Christians are already functionally assimilated, believing in what he calls Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism, rather than Christianity. “Be nice, be happy, God is not really involved.” Indeed there is a dearth of Biblical and Theological understanding among so many who purport to be Christian.
Is it time to buy 40 acres in northern B.C.?
Should I take my family and friends and go “off the grid” to preserve our way of life? That strategy is not without historical precedent. Monks, Mennonites, and Puritans have all made that move in times gone by. Is Dreher a prophet of doom whose dire warning I must head? Undoubtedly much of what he says is not without merit and Christians would do well to consider what strategies might work best towards a more comprehensive form of Christian indoctrination. However, I would like to offer some gentle push back as I conclude this review.
- Don’t let fear dominate. The whole message of the book is driven by fear. All is lost if we don’t radically separate ourselves from the cesspool that is our world. Love not fear should dominate our worldview. Are there not things in our culture today that by our very presence we can redeem? Can we not appreciate truth and beauty wherever we find it, even if it is not necessarily Christian? The answer is yes to both these questions. Fear forces us into the false dichotomy that “Christian” is good and “Non-Christian” is bad.
- Serve do not Run. We have lost our voice to be sure, but we have not lost our hands or our feet. We can serve; indeed, we must! My input is not welcome at our local public school that has been made abundantly clear; however, I can still stack chairs, and run the BBQ on Sports Day. Is that not Jesus’ message to us when he washed the feet of his disciples?
- Follow Jesus’ example. Jesus our Saviour and our model for worldly interaction was a friend of publicans and sinners. He regularly scandalized the religious separatists of his day through his intimacy with those who did not think or act in line with him.
- Education is not the Saviour. I’m not convinced classical Christian education is the panacea Dreher claims it to be. Never have I witnessed praises heaped so high upon an educational system before. Perhaps Dreher was overstating his case to make his point.
- Let us not confuse tradition with the gospel. It’s an easy thing to let non-essentials become essentials, especially if they are cherished and have had a long cultural shelf life. This is not a new problem. Every generation of Jesus followers since the first century have attempted to innovate, to grow, to change, to morph, to evolve their faith in a variety of ways and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The big bag of “cultural Christianity” that Dreher wants to carry with him into the back 40 may actually need to be emptied of some of its contents. Christians are at their best with less cultural baggage, not more.
- Sex is not the centre of cultural Christianity. Unquestionably Christian views on sexual morality are at odds with the culture of our day, but they have always been at odds with the natural inclinations of the human heart. In this sense, there is nothing new here, except a stern reminder for Christians to take the beam out of our own eye first! The linchpin of cultural Christianity is love, not sexual restraint. Self-sacrificing love that manifests itself in forgiveness, perseverance, patience, and kindness is the mark of true Christianity. Love that extends a worshipping hand to God and a helping had to others, whatever their belief system or sexual point of view might be.
The book certainly scared me, but I’m not moving up north just yet, check back with me in a years time, and I’ll let you know if I’ve changed my mind!
The story takes place in a small town somewhere in Russia in the late 1800’s.
- Fyodor is the dad in the story. He is a terrible man. One of shrewd, wicked, and self-absorbed character.
- Dmitri is the eldest son, he hates his father and has publicly declared on numerous occasions that he should like to murder him because he feels as though his dad has cheated him out of a large sum of money. Dmitri is an irresponsible brute of a man who is into parties, women and alcohol. But he can also be incredibly generous and kind. He is the sort of fellow who wears his emotions on his sleeve.
- Ivan is smart and rich but haunted by great unanswerable doubts. He has lost his faith and as an atheist believes that “all things are lawful.” He too would not mind seeing his father’s end.
- Alexei — Fyodor’s youngest son, he loves all people and has faith but not in a dogmatic sense. He would prefer the quiet calm of the monastery but answers the call to be in the world to help people, most especially his family and their friends.
The story in a nutshell — Fydor is murdered, Dmitri is blamed, and the evidence is stacked against him. Not only was there a motive for the murder on account of the money but also Fyodor and Dmitri had found themselves in competition for the affection of the same woman. This titillating triangle of love certainly didn’t help Dmitri’s case for innocence. In the end, there is a massive court case, and Dimitri is found guilty, even though he is innocent. This book is not fundamentally a murder mystery; the story is a mere pretext for a philosophical conversation.
So many names — Each character in the story has about 4 or 5 a.k.a’s It’s a good thing the book is so long because it takes quite a while to get everyone straight.
I won’t take the time to explain — The book is written in journal format, with the author as one of the townspeople who observed all the events of this sordid story. As he tells this tale, he wanders all over the place going down bunny trails, back stories, and side stories. At several points, he mentions the he “won’t bore the reader with more details” but invariably almost accidentally he does anyway as his mind picks up another story trail too appealing to resist. I found this quite entertaining.
Are people really that messed up? The words pile together in masterful, long-winded sentences which are incredible in their descriptions of human nature and the challenging situations that life brings. It’s a literary treat to be sure. He is, however, so thorough in the uncovering of his characters’ thoughts that sometimes I wondered if what they were thinking could be believed! There are some seriously messed up thoughts, emotions, and affections going on with this cast of characters, and to track with every single step of their thought process is a bit mind-bending. The scary thing to me is Dostoyevsky is probably spot on in his analysis and descriptions of the thoughts of humanity.
When it comes to faith desire always precedes proof – A realist will not just see a miracle and then believe. Alexei believed in God because he wanted to. The story of divine love and immortality struck his imagination as an ideal means of escape from darkness to light. So he went all in for it. That’s why he tried to become a monk. The heart always directs the mind not the other way round.
Ideas have consequences — Ivan was proud of his intellect and proud that he had finally shed the false skin of religious conviction. “All is lawful” he declared. Morality is a fiction; there are no actual rules, no grand story to shape our lives. Of course, Ivan wasn’t willing to take these bold new claims to any logical extremes. What he didn’t see coming was that his servant was. Fyodor was a blight to be removed, and since “all is lawful” the servant went ahead with it, and since Dmitri was so violent and volatile why not implicate him with the murder and send him off to Siberia. What could be wrong with this plan? Nothing if one subscribed to Ivans ideology, so the servant did the deed with genius, cunning, and determination.
Persevering in Love — A minor character in the story wants to believe in God but isn’t sure, the tension tortures her. All that matters says one of the monks is “active love, which is self-forgetfulness in the care of your neighbour…and if through love you are unable to find happiness content your self by knowing you are on the right road.” Somehow love of the sacrificial variety set forth so marvellously in the person of Jesus is the thing around which human life is best shaped. The life of love is infinitely more valuable than the life of personal happiness.
Alexei is the hero, but he is not the main attraction — Amid the scandal and the hate, the debauchery and the pain, the foolish superstitions of the religious and the blunt rationalism of the non-religious, among the pride and the mental illness (which comes in abundance in this book!) there is this man. He finds himself driven to be in the middle of the mess not as the hero, but as the helper. Alexei is quiet and gentle. He is honest; his heart breaks for the sufferings of others, he doesn’t claim to have answers, doesn’t sit in angry judgment on the wicked, doesn’t take sides, he is just present and available. He is not even a man of great faith necessarily, at multiple points in the story he waivers on questions of belief. However, in his deep heart, Alexei sees a truth that pushes him forward. Love is that priceless treasure that can redeem the whole world. It is love that will expiate not only Alexei’s sins but the sins of others as well and so even in the absence of faith sometimes, even with only the most dimly lit hope Alexei resolutely fashions his life around divine love. For the reader, the emergence of love through this quiet, unassuming man is the real mark of beauty in this book.
The religious renegades and spiritual misfits contained in this book have been steadily subverting modernism and reorienting people back to a more inclusive and liberating Christian vision of reality. An unfortunate truth for me is that I knew virtually nothing about most of these people. Another sad testimony to the narrow silos we Christians tend to disappear into.
William Blake (1757-1827 Poet/Painter): A prophet of doom in an age of fashionable rationalism. Science dismisses the inner life, closes off the imagination. In this world, all that matters is objective truth and instrumental reason. Feeling and belief are shut out. Even Christians with their “rational theologies” were falling in step with this new world order to the disgust of Blake. “Human reason and modern science make us both more powerful and less alive at the same time….A person who is not an artist cannot be a Christian.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832 Writer, statesman): The promise of the Enlightenment was a morally unencumbered life with happiness guaranteed through technological progress. Traditional virtues and a robust internal life mattered little in this new way. Goethe masterfully exposes these false promises in all his novels. The inner life is real, attending to it is vital for human flourishing. “Our dreams can never be fulfilled because they are a symptom of a deeper longing not of this world.”
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855 Philosopher) Looking to the crowd is no place to find answers, true spiritual solitude is needed to find ones way. Deep internal reflection reveals fundamental brokenness in all of us, we must accept this as real, rather than defiantly persist in ignorant despair. Repentance and submission to true existence in God is the right path. “This perpetual rechoosing of Christ is the great paradox and challenge of the Christian faith…(without it) one falls back into formulas, inauthenticity, and a dependence on the crowd.”
GK Chesterton (1874 – June 1936 Writer, poet, philosopher) The shining lights of Chesterton’s time lived primarily according to Christian principles while at the same pushing decidedly non-Christian ideas such as moral relativity. Chesterton shined a significant spotlight on these contradictions. As for the young bullies who picked on ancient ways he had this to say: “We often read nowadays of the valour or audacity with which some rebels attack a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be.” Chesterton believed that spiritual corruption was at the heart of all the problems rolling into the 20th century and technique, money, and power would never resolve the source of man-kinds issues.
Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948 Philosopher) – The cultural ideals of the knight, the monk, the philosopher and the poet have all been superseded but the cultural ideal of the businessman. Personal success, security, and happiness are the ultimate goals now, and making money is the way to achieve those goals. The god’s of progress and commerce turn people into things, life is reduced to techniques, the free soul of man must be found again in God through the acknowledgement of our sinful nature and the welcoming in of God’s grace.
A word about the novel — “Novelists may be our truest theologians of the modern — the first and finest flowering of the Christian orthodox avant-garde.” How so? “It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” A story is a story and not bound by rules. We are allowed to think of higher things when we steal away with a novel. Without them, our world is just materialistic forces, techniques and meaninglessness. Only through poetry and story can we penetrate our data-drenched materialistic society. Only through story can existential reality come alive. Sadly theologians have tried to become scientists with the Bible, “proving” it, learning techniques from it, and making it a tool. Its purpose has always been for spiritual reflection. The Bible was not intended to be a machine that spits out facts. Who are the great novelists, whose stories move us into the realm of transcendent reality?
- Dostoyevsky — “His works are an expression of his own struggle to realize the true meaning of his faith, a working through — not philosophically or logically but imaginatively of what it means to practice active love, what it means to turn suffering into happiness and what it means to die so that you may be reborn.”
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn & Boris Pasternak — They brought into the Communist world new expressions of moral presence and transcendent hope.
- Jack Kerouac — “The true work is our belief: true belief in immortal good; the continual human struggle against linguistic abstraction: recognition of the soul beneath everything, and humour.”
- Walker Percy — For thousands of years, myth enabled us to find ourselves in a world, to know who we were, and what our lives meant. The twentieth century, with its metaphysical skepticism and reductionist science, severed that connection, so now mankind according to Pearcy is “lost in the cosmos.” Man is more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creative individual, as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim..a seeker of meanings, a metaphysical bridge builder, a self.
Dorothy Day (1897-1980 Journalist, social activist)— Large-scale industrial economies work against human happiness by making everyone economically dependent on people and forces they don’t know and forces they can’t control. Day wanted workers to own their own businesses and land. She wanted to abolish the assembly line and restore work as a craft. She envisioned monastery-like communities of like-minded families and friends: living together, off the land, producing goods and services that help to build the city of God within the city of man. She was over the course of her life outspoken against the dark side of communism, industrial capitalism, violence, & poverty.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968 Writer, mystic) — Capitalism, mass media, Movies & T.V. disorient and distract us. Society is in a constant rush towards technological determinism (if its possible it must be done) Our societies desperate attempt to keep up with the latest news to “not fall behind” was repugnant to him. To fall behind was to “get out of the big cloud of dust that everybody is kicking up, to breathe and to see a little more clearly” He advocated prayer, silence, solitude, and recollection as medicines against modernity.
Martin Luther King — (1929-1968 Baptist minister & activist) Personal faith, must lead to public, non-violent action on behalf of marginalized and disenfranchised people. For all people especially the downtrodden we must see ourselves as receptacles of God’s love. This truth if believed will fill up every human with dignity and self-respect which will change the world for the better.
E.F. Schumacher (1911–1977 Statistician and economist)— First there was primitive religiosity, which was cast aside by scientific realism, however, the third stage in human development is the awareness that there is something beyond fact and science. The trouble is those staunchly grounded in the 2nd stage see very little difference between stage one and stage three. Anti-metaphysical claims that save us from our superstitions don’t actually provide us with creative solutions to all our problems. Turns out the lab coat as God doesn’t actually help and might, in fact, make things worse!
Wendell Berry (1934- Poet, farmer) — The exploitation of colonialism has just shifted to the exploitation of global corporations. What’s the solution? Everyone needs to go back to farming! In Wendell’s estimation Industrialization is no friend to humanity. Globalism is a myth of progress which will just end in war – back to the farm’s everyone!!!.
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980 Professor, philosopher) — Instantaneous mass media through video and audio has created a less literate world that is controlled more by the right brain of experience than the left brain of logic and reason. With this total brain shift, he predicted the growth of violent political and religious extremism. He nailed that one! The change will pit an ageing literate, educated, reasonable class against a new orally oriented techno-peasantry of mass media who are emotional, confused, reactionary, violent, aural, and mystical. This age will be punctuated by momentary passions, improvised collectives and spur of the moment convictions followed by spur of the moment retractions. Attention spans will become short, and the power of retention will be weakened. What does this all mean for the church? Old ways will not work, people will be drawn into more experiential forms of Christianity. A prayer retreat will be more popular than a sermon. Doctrinal debates and denominationalism will cease to be important factors, supernatural possibilities will be more readily accepted. For McLuhan, this media apocalypse wasn’t the end though you might think it after reading him! He reminds us “The church is not an intellectual institution anyway.” The medium (the Christian life lived out) is the message.
Northrop Frye (1912-1991 Literary critic) — Myth: a structure of ideas, beliefs, assumptions, anxieties and hopes which express the view of man’s situation and destiny. Mythology is a product of human concern, and it’s built upon literature; folk tales, metaphor, narrative, and poetry. Over time they become for a people group the informing principles of historical and philosophical thought. Mythological thinkers are never overcome by science, history, philosophy or theology. A Myth is neither historical or anti-historical it is counter-historical. Is there a historical Jesus or not is the wrong question to ask according to Frye. What matters is we have his story in myth and metaphor. It is to capture our imagination and shape the direction of our lives. Myth is the more profound truth. When the Christian faith is understood as having it’s informing principles sourced in myth the efforts on both sides to expose or defend scientific and historical strengths and weaknesses can stop, and Christians can also relax some of the ossified dogmas and doctrines.
Jaques Ellul — (1912-1994 Philosopher) — We worship method and technique as the answer to all the World’s problems. A paradox happens when we bow to this god. We become less free at the very moment we become more powerful. Our minds are cluttered with untruths. We live in an environment where non-thought is continuously received, we’ve created vehicles to spread stupidity at an alarming pace (This was well before Facebook, what Ellul would have said if he could have seen today!) For Ellul hope was the actual reality to hang on to. Hope not grounded in technology, but rather in God.
Ivan Illich (1926-2002 Philosopher) — Words are no longer a medium for fresh and original communication instead they are just tools to be manipulated for selfish ends. We have never been more confused and certain at the same time! We have seen the demise of contemplative culture. There can never be any “dead air” no matter what. This is a colossal mistake because silence is necessary for the emergence of persons.
Rene Girard (1923-2015 Historian, Literary Critic) — Humans are never satisfied, we always feel a sense of lack which feeds our desire for what others have. Humans created “the Scapegoat” as a way to manage these feelings. An individual or group is blamed and punished, and thus social cohesion is achieved through the destruction of the projected evil. It’s how we justify violence. Jesus comes along and blows up the whole system because God turns out to be on the side of the victim and not the self-righteous community. Atonement theories that embrace Jesus as the “scapegoat” are actually against the play of the story. Jesus died to save the world from the lie it believes that it’s ok to crush someone for self-advancement. It’s not ok, it’s never ok. God is always on the side of the scapegoat. Girard defends Christianity through anthropology and also reverses more violent understandings of God.
- We are not quite what we imagine ourselves to be, nor are we quite as in control of our beliefs as we think, nor quite so essential as we imagine. (Inchausti)
- Everybody is an unbeliever more or less! Only when this fact is fully experienced, accepted, and lived with, does one become fit to hear the simple message of the Gospel. (Merton)
- Modern civilization is producing things faster than we can think or give thanks. (Chesterton)
- To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair. (Percy)
- Christians aren’t better than other people, but their worldview encourages them to recognizes that fact. (Inchausti)
- Christianity teaches that the purpose of life and thought is love, not power. (Inchausti)
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.