Category Archives: Wrestling with history


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: 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

  1. 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:

  1. Get rid of the bad guys
  2. Help bring stable government
  3. 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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

The Dream Traders


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?

  1. 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”.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

The Fall of the Ottomans


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.

  1. 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.
  2.     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.
  3.     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.
  4.     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”!

Staying alive! 

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.

Guns, Germs & Steel


Jarod Diamond is an evolutionary Biologist who spent some 30 years in and out of the jungles of Papua New Guinea. A question asked by an indigenous tribal person sparked a decades long research project that culminated in the writing of this book. The Tribesman asked Diamond why the white people came to his Island with the big ships and amazing inventions, and not the other way around.

Why did some people groups remain locked in the stone age while others advanced into the modern era, ultimately using their superior technology to dominate, displace and in many cases all but exterminate less developed peoples?

It’s not biology — The gap in advancement between Eurasian peoples and the primitive cultures they conquered should not not be explained by means of slower evolutionary development, or anything that might construe biological inferiority. He cited all sorts of scientific data to push the reader away from such superior race conclusions, he also used many personal anecdotes from his time with tribal peoples. Diamond is absolutely convinced that “primitive” peoples minds are not less evolved than his own, in fact, he argues, to the contrary. The real question to ask, according to Diamond, is how intellectually inferior Europeans managed to invent so much stuff! Time and time again in the jungle it was the natives intellect, know how, and savvy that kept him alive. But even still, why hadn’t they figured out how to move beyond the use of stone tools and hunting and gathering as their way of life?

Location, Location, Location — Diamond is convinced that Eurasian peoples, were predisposed for success because of their environment. Diamond realizes that many a judgmental finger will be raised at this point, cursing him for his  “environmental determinism”. He is quick to point out that geography is only the primary cause. Many other less deterministic causes played roles as well, but those roles must be considered secondary.

Domesticate or die — To advance, a society must be able to domesticate seeds and learn to mass produce food. Having regular crops allow a society to settle down into permanent places. Sedentary life-styles with reliable food supplies mean more population, more population increases power and the potential of invention. The domestication of animals also provides a huge leap forward in productivity and sustainability, all creating more space and time for innovation. The cold hard facts, according to Diamond, is that South and North America, Australia, and Africa simply did not have the same number of domesticable seeds available to them. In some cases, like Australia, they didn’t have any domesticable seeds at all! It also turns out that some animals can be domesticated and some can’t. The above mentioned continents just had bad luck with animals. The Eurasian horse can be tamed, the zebra cannot. The Asian bovine, from which all modern day cattle come from is domesticable, the African water buffalo and the North American bison are not. All large possibly domesticable animals went extinct in Australia giving the early inhabitant’s only the kangaroo to work with! The llama in South America was domesticated but it use pales in comparison to that of the horse. Diamond imagines how history would have been rewritten if African tribes had managed to domesticate the rhino and use it with mounted shock troops to wreak havoc all over Europe, but, alas, a rhino doesn’t take kindly to being mounted and will not be mastered.

Germs are nasty! — The possibility of sickness through germs increased as populations grew and began to cluster into cities in Europe and Asia. Natural trade routes established themselves on Eastern and Western lines and germs were free to travel. The germs that caused black death and countless other plagues ravaged Europe and Asia in the middle ages, but the old adage “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” certainly proved true. The unprepared immune systems of largely isolated populations of North & South America and Australia were vanquished by the germs inflicted upon them by European explorers. In some cases entire populations of indigenous people were exterminated.

Belief does impact behaviour — Indeed, one of the greatest misfortunes of the wide acceptance of Darwinian evolution is the assumption made by industrialized countries that they must be farther along in the evolutionary process and thus superior. Just like Cro-Magnon exterminated, the Neanderthal, so to must those of the modern age, destroy those of the stone age. In the last 250 years countless millions were subjugated to unspeakable atrocities on the slippery footing of these evolutionary assumptions. Diamond halts to speak of right or wrong because as an evolutionary biologist it is really difficult to speak of morality with any sort of authority. For him things must remain a matter of fact. But the facts, according to Diamonds research, prove there is no connection between intelligence and industrialization and thus any sort of racial or developmental superiority should be done away with. The harsh conclusions of inferiority levelled against less developed people have happily fallen out of favour in the main stream, however, Diamond laments that even so, these prejudices remain deep in the psyche of many moderns.

As a Christian person this is one of the reasons I am not overly thrilled to embrace wholesale the origin theories of evolution. Whenever, “lesser humans” factor into our story, there is precedent to destroy them. This of course, become more difficult, if one has the perspective that all humans are created in the image of God and thus intrinsically valuable.

The sad story of Christianity’s conquest — Unfortunately, not all who claimed Christianity as their world view developed a perspective that valued human life regardless of the state in which it was discovered. Such was the case with the conquest of the Incan empire by Pizzaro.

The story is remarkable: With brilliant trickery, superior weapons, and incredible bluster for being so totally outnumbered Pizarro and 168 soldiers defeated over 30,000 Incan warriors in one day. On that day of battle they managed to capture the Incan king and kill thousands of his soldiers without sustaining a single fatality of their own.

Several of the first hand accounts of the events remain. In them we discover a spirit of gratitude, there is  thanks to God for his grace and mercy in allowing such a miraculous conquest. They sincerely believed a great victory for Jesus had been won that day. Why? Because now the infidel hordes would have a chance to learn about the love of Jesus. They would be prevented from carrying out their terrible human sacrifices, and they would learn their place, for no infidel should be in a position of authority over a Christian. What happened to Atahualpa the Incan King? After using him to extort vast amounts of gold from his people. They condemned him for conspiring against Spanish rule and sentenced him to death. However, if he converted, he would avoid being burned at the stake and receive the lesser sentence of strangulation. He converted, was baptized, and then sent to his reward in heaven. Somehow, there had to have been a better way to bring the “good news” of Jesus to South America 😦

The curse of unity — European city states, constantly fought each other, constantly competed. This forced them to innovate, to develop, to incorporate new ideas. China on the other hand was unified and authoritarian. The emperors word was law. One or two bad idea’s by a Chinese emperor could prove to have enormous negative consequences such was the case with shipbuilding and iron smelting, China was the world leader in these two areas long before the Europeans were. But the emperor decreed that nothing good could come from the outside, so he had all of China’s ocean going ships burned and all designs destroyed. As far as iron development was concerned, the emperor, didn’t like the burgeoning middle class that was resulting from iron innovation, so he decreed all iron developments to cease and so it was. In Japan a similar situation happened. Thanks to early Portuguese exploration, Japan acquired guns. Immediately Japan saw the potential, and quickly developed advanced weapon technology, that is until the ruling class Samurai, offended that commoners could wield such deadly power, outlawed guns. An so it was.

Of course we eat humans — Diamond is so matter of fact in his writing style. In Papua New Guinea we discover cannibalism. This is easily explained. There is a lack of protein because there are no large mammals so naturally humans would eat each other. So there you have it. And so it is, with the natural world. We do what we must to survive, some people win and some people lose. Gun’s germs and steel came to Europeans and Asians because they were able to domesticate seeds and animals quicker. Asians & Middle Easterners fell behind for secondary reasons, so Europeans took over the world.

In my heart I long for more than just naturalistic explanations for what is and I find myself wanting to believe in something that transcends the natural world and gives ultimate hope. Why do I feel that way? I won’t find that answer from Diamond, but even still his explanation for why New Guineans didn’t colonize Europe, is very convincing.

A World Undone


My first foray into World War 1 history. All through the book I was blown away by the scope, ferocity, and foolishness of the conflict. Below are a few of the highlight’s that stood out to me.

With Generals Like These Words like “insane” came to mind as I learned about many of these generals. My thought is that some of them should have been brought up for war crimes. I get it, it was a different era, and it’s easier to judge from a distance, but still…

  1. General Haige insisted that the solution against machine gun fire was cavalry, because we all know a horse can outrun a bullet. Ummm?
  2. The Germans were so successful with their first uses of gas that they punched a huge hole in the the French line. The only problem is they couldn’t exploit it because their own soldiers were not fitted with gas masks. oops.
  3. British Generals insisted at the onset of the war that airplane technology was an “Expensive and useless fad.” Brilliant.
  4. One of the biggest problems was pride. These generals jockeyed for power, influence, and glory at the expense of literally millions of soldiers. Pride also made it impossible to work together German General Ludendorff said of fellow general Falkenhayn “I can only love and hate and I hate Falkenhayn” The French and British infighting was even worse.
  5. General Haige, agreed to listen to French General Nevils military plans which were terrible, and proved to be insanely costly for both the French and the English, based on the shape of Nevils head! Haige was convinced that the French General’s head shape guaranteed wisdom and success. What the…??? Turns out head shape was a thing in those days.

The horror of it all. At the beginning of the war, the poetry was brave and patriotic. There was glory in war, but things changed midway through. Turns out there was no glory in trench warfare, only gore, blood, mud and suffering. Wilfred Owen wrote the following poem just a few months before he was cut down by the bullets of a German machine gun.

The title of the poem is “Dulce et Decorum” meaning “It is right/sweet” The title mocks the idea that it is good to die for ones country. Calling the notion an out right lie by poems end. Certainly treasonous talk especially in that era. But the war was so costly, so vicious, and so senseless that soldiers could no longer “put a good face on it.”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est  Pro patria mori.

The French losses were particularly devastating, (See why under Idea’s have consequences) To  a point that the French army almost deserted. French soldiers headed to the front could be heard on masse, bleating like sheep. To desert was to be shot, to go to the front was to die. So they protested in this way bleating as they marched forward “as lambs to the slaughter.”

A bullet for cowards. Never in the history of warfare was there so much artillery. Far and away this medium of destruction killed the most people. Sustained bombardments would go on for days even weeks. It became too much for many men. They couldn’t function, they shut down, couldn’t follow orders. At first these suffering soldiers were labeled cowards and many were shot, or harshly disciplined. As the war dragged on so many soldiers were shutting down that they realized it must be more than cowardice. They labeled it “Shell Shock”. Unfortunately many of the treatments to get the soldiers back into battle shape were little better than a firing squad.

Idea’s have consequences In France there came into focus at the turn of the century a philosophy of warfare that was held so tightly by the military establishment, that to even suggest other strategies was to end ones military career. In English the strategy was described with one word. “Attack”. It was believed with such fanatical zeal, that defensive maneuvers, strategic retreats or even leave for soldiers on the front lines were not real options. One general was demoted for his observation: “Attacking straight on with flesh and bone will have no success against the gunfire of the 20th century” This philosophy was pitted against, a German killing machine unlike the world had ever seen. The loss of life on the French side as a result is staggeringly difficult to comprehend. Charles De Gaulle would later say that “No amount of courage will be successful against machine gun fire.” He was right, unfortunately the French didn’t accept this fact until the war was mostly over!

You take the Romanians, No! you take the Romanians One would think, that having an entire country join your side of the war effort would be a huge boon. As countries watched the big powers slug it out they gradually joined sides, hoping to pick the winner and enjoy the spoils of victory. Romania decided to throw in with the Allies. Russia was completely against the idea. Of the Romanians they said “getting them to fight was like trying to get a donkey to do a minaret” The Russians preferred the Romanians to remain neutral. They did not. Sure enough, the Germans crushed the Romanians. Forcing the Russians to stop their advance on Germany and spread out their front line out an extra 250 miles. The whole of Romania was easily conquered and the spoils of that conquest helped to fuel Germany’s war effort for a couple more years.

Overcoming the odds to become a hero. He was from a colony, (Australia). (one strike against) He was Jewish (two strikes) He was of Prussian origin (three strikes) and his interest in military strategy was just a hobby (Four strikes) But John Monash rose up through the ranks to become the one of the few good General’s of the war. In addition to being very likeable he was also a master strategist, gifted organizer and creative innovator. His use of co-ordinated attacks using mortars, machine guns, tanks, airplanes and artillery, along with a philosophy that saw no use in wasting infantry needlessly made him not only successful but immensely  popular.

Propaganda and poor communication — the reason why millions more had to die. In Gallipoli, several Allied landings were successful. But the communications were poor, so instead of pushing in land and possibly securing the Dardanelles which would have ended the war a lot sooner the Allies waited on the beaches for orders. Giving time for Turkish reinforcements to arrive.  An opportunity lost. This is just one illustration of a hundred or more where if the communication was a little bit better the war would have certainly ended sooner.

Truth was never really a concern with the media (has anything changed?) All media outlets were controlled by the various war ministries. The job of reporting was simply to make the opposition look absolutely terrible and to make the home team look triumphant. After years of propaganda it was impossible for the belligerent nations to come to terms since they had such incredibly skewed views of each other.

Germany almost pulled it off. I was amazed at how close they seemed to come to victory. If  Ludendorff had gone all in on the attack at 2nd Verdun. If he the German generals would have shelled the supply line going in and out of that one city whose name I’ve forgotten in one of their massive attacks. If they could have kept the USA on the sidelines for one more year. If the Zimmerman telegraph hadn’t been discovered. If the generals from the West and Eastern fronts could have just got along. If General Conrad of the Austrian/Hungarian army had been sacked from his post in 1914. If they had implemented the creeping barrage & storm troop tactic’s on the Western front a year sooner. If they hadn’t been quite so cautious with Schlieffen plan. If 186,000 of their soldiers hadn’t died from influenza.

They were the better army, inflicting 2 million more casualties on the French and English then they themselves received, but it was not meant to be.

A not so great finish Ultimately it was the naval blockade that broke the back of Germany, they were starving to death, and running low on everything needed to carry on a war. Sadly, when the war ended, the Allies did not lift the navel blockade for another 6 months. Costing the lives of some 250,000 German civilians. The plan was not to rebuild Europe after the war, as much as it was to debilitate Germany to such a degree that she would remain feeble forever. This strategy set the stage for the Second World War.

Japan played a minor role in the war, but were at the bargaining table when the world was carved up. They did pretty well, gaining several territories. However, the main thing they were after was respect. They made a specific request that the Americans, Europeans and Australians recognize the Japanese people as an equal race not be discriminated against, fair enough right? Shockingly, or maybe not so shockingly, the great powers denied that request. White man was not yet willing to acknowledge that Asian people were equal to them. It was then that Japan washed their hands of Western influence.

Father, Son, & Holy Spirit –Relationship Roles and Relevance


Bruce Ware is good for laying down the historical back story for how the Christian church came to affirm the Trinitarian position. Certainly it was a struggle, but it was always a struggle to make sense of what the Scriptures actually said. Faithfulness to the written text was the motivation for the doctrine even if the conclusions went beyond the capacity for full human understanding.

What the Scripture presents is monotheism, but yet at the same time,  3 unique persons emerge from the Bible all having the attributes of deity and the affirmation of deity from the biblical authors. If all three persons are equally God, then whats the difference between them?

The answer to that question is essentially what Bruce Ware’s book is all about.

For Ware the difference comes down to roles. God the Father’s role is that of supreme leader (not to be confused with the title currently given to North Korea’s dictator) He is the highest authority, the one deserving of ultimate praise, the grand architect of all things. Both Jesus and the Spirit acknowledge the Fathers authority even though they are equal in value to him.

God the Son’s role is that of submission. Jesus always yields to the will of the Father. It doesn’t mean that Jesus is inferior to God, only that to obey is divine. It’s not a bad thing to submit is Ware’s oft given refrain during this chapter. He has a reason for driving this point home.

God the Spirit’s role is that of assistant. Ware refers to the H.S.’s job as “the background role” of the Trinity. But certainly it is not unimportant, the Spirit’s work both points people to Jesus and also empowers those who follow Jesus.

The “so what” part of the book is the last chapter. What I liked about his conclusion is his presentation of the Trinitarian God as highly relational, interconnected and interdependent. For Ware this vision of God is also a vision of what we should be like. He takes a well timed swipe at the rugged independence of the western world, and urges us away from the “I did it my way” Long Ranger approach to life that America is famous for.

What I’m definitely iffy on is his efforts to put the members of the Trinity in their proper places. Order is all that seems to matter to Bruce Ware. Yes, they are all equal, But God is first place, Jesus is second place and the H.S. is third place. I don’t believe the Bible makes as many pains to bear this out as Bruce Ware thinks it does. But he has good reasons for pressing into Trinitarian order.

Which leads me to the second thing that I just can’t swallow. Ware seizes upon I Cor 11:3 —  But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God and then launches himself into the conversation about the role of men and women. Just like Jesus submits his will to God so to must the woman submit her will to the will of man. But that’s just the starting point, the conversation quickly moves to a Church polity discussion and I discover that because Jesus submits to the will of the Father, women should not be aloud to speak in church! Wait, what? But don’t worry women because men and women are positionally equal, just like Jesus and God are. It’s just that it’s your job to submit which means you need to keep your mouth closed in church. Yeah, it’s just too much for me. I don’t believe the wonder of the Trinity should be used as a maneuvering point to “keep women in their proper place.” I think a Trinitarian conversation could go in so many better directions, which is why I like Michael Reeves book Delighting in the Trinity a 100x more than Bruce Ware’s book

Believe or Die!

So Josiah removed all detestable idols from the entire land of Israel and required everyone to worship the Lord their God (2 Chron 34:33)


Once again we see that there’s no real choice in the matter, you have to worship the true God or else. Involuntary religion is the name of the game throughout the entire Old Testament. Often we see examples where worshipping the “wrong God” is a capital offence!

We see this all through Christian history as well. For example, In GJ Meyers book on WW1 I learned that Prussia was originally inhabited by Slavic people. German Christians moved in and with the help of the Teutonic Knights, they crushed the Slavic people militarily. They allowed the survivors to stay on the condition that they would convert to Christianity. Many did and it was from this combination of Slavic and German people that the German Empire of the 1800 and 1900s came to be.

Religious freedom is definitely a new development for the human race. Sometimes Christians can look at the inflexibility of Islam and frown. Certainly it’s lack of religious tolerance today, is a major problem, however Christians need to remember that it wasn’t so long ago that they too were we’re forcing people on point of death to accept Christianity.

My question is how does one appreciate the religious intolerance of the Old Testament? Or what can be learned devotionally from reading it? Certainly we don’t want to follow the Old Testament example here and regress into a form of Christianity that forces itself upon others with dire consequences for those that do not comply. So what then?

The New Testament was written when Christianity was a fugitive religion without any power. Is it because of this fact that it’s message for nonbelievers is completely different than the Old Testament? I hope not. In any case the mandate for Christians coming from the New Testament is crystal clear: we are to love our enemies not kill them or force them out. Ok, got it. So we know that the many examples of Christian brutality in human history are definitely outside the margins of what Jesus prescribed. But still the angst for me is in trying to figure out what kind of value there is in the Old Testament here? What’s the lesson? Christians believe that the Old Testament is God’s word too right?

Devotionally speaking it could be an opportunity to thank God that we are in the time of voluntary religion over against involuntary. Perhaps this passage could serve as a warning to us, that even though we enjoy religious freedom, there is only one true God and those who turn away will one day face severe consequences. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Phil 2:10) We don’t force people to bow nowadays, but it doesn’t change the fact that one day they will. These Old Testament passages serve as a sober reminder that true faith is not found in a smorgasbord of belief options. Salvation does not come from a pick and choose,”It’s all good” kind of universalism. We all get to make our choices nowadays with who or what we worship, but still as in the Old Times there is only one right choice. In graphic and often troubling fashion these Old Testament passages remind us of this all important truth.

Bury My Heart at Wound Knee


“the nations’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no centre any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.” — Black Elk

Between 1860-1890 the Indians of the United States of America were crushed.

What happened? by 1860 there were a few hundred thousand Indians roaming freely, at that same time over 30,000,000 whites had flooded into the United States, in just 30 years that number skyrocketed to 90,000,000. White people were coming to this new world in mind blowing droves, for a chance at freedom and an opportunity to make a better way for themselves. The white mans way was to settle down and harvest resources in order to become rich. Animals, minerals, land, and lumber, there was so much and it was just there for the taking the white people believed. But then there were those pesky Indians, they spoke a different language, they were “uncivilized” they were nomadic hunter/gatherer people, they just didn’t fit in.

So what do you do? The whites were largely of Christian heritage so exterminating them was not an option. But neither was “move back to Europe” an option. So the only logical solution was to make a deal with the Indians. In the end it wasn’t much of a deal. It was more a terms of surrender. — We are coming, we are taking over your land and eliminating your way of life. However, we will give you food to survive, and land to live on.  If you don’t agree to these arrangements we will hunt you down and kill you.

Whites are Superior — Many whites just simply made the assumption that indians were “less human”. After all whites were far more advanced in so many ways. The court report of one particular case in which two indians were hanged reveals this terrible imbalance of value. “We would never condemn a white man on such scant and insufficient evidence, however we trust we got the right ones and that justice was served.”  Colonel Chivington in a public speech in Denver affirmed the right to kill Indians even infants, by his notorious comment “Nits make lice!”

Manifest Destiny — Many whites, felt a bit uneasy about their treatment of Indians, and so they needed a grand justification for their actions of conquest. They found it in “Manifest Destiny” – The superior light of technology, learning, and the American way of government, politics, cities, farms and production was the enlightened path, it was therefore both necessary and justifiable to advance this righteous path westward at whatever cost.

Indians are people too — In 1874 a sympathetic general, teamed up with a straight shooting judge to help Indian Chief Standing Bear. Hi people were one of the few Indians tribes that were farmers, even though they were peaceful, open to Christianity, and had relatively little land they were shoved off of it and warehoused in a reservation hundreds of miles away. The judge concluded that “Indians were people too, and if they wanted to live peaceable somewhere like Americans they should have the right to” Standing Bear and his people, remarkably, were able to move back to their land.

Corruption — The reservation system proved to be incredibly lucrative for the ring of politicians & businessmen responsible for it. They were able to help themselves regularly to all that was designated for the indians, and since there was no accountability and the indians had no voice, they became rich while the indians suffered terribly on the reservations. This ring viewed the above court case as a direct threat to the reservation system, (and their personal wealth) so they worked tirelessly to discredit the ruling and make sure that the legal system remained squarely on the side of the whites.

Indians happy to kill each other — Tribal divisions had existed for centuries, many of the tribes were mortal enemies of one another. For many they preferred to work with willing White people to eradicate their tribal enemies. The Whites were only happy to oblige.

Breaking Promises — Lots of the promises to the Indians were made in good faith, and many of those promises in the early years gave the indians vast tracts of good hunting land. Its just that no one could have predicted the vast horde of white people that moved to America in the 19th century, and then there was the discovery of gold, and then the need to connect the east with the west, and then the need to farm to support the ever burgeoning white population. In the public eye it was no longer reasonable for 3,000 Souix to inhabit 25 million acres. When millions upon millions of whites were heading west intent to settle on the best possible land. So promises were broken. For most whites these broken promises were shrugged off — the situation had changed. Many Indians went to war over these broken promises, but they had no chance of winning against better equipped whites. — they mostly waged gorilla type war fare, and had small successes here and there, but bow’s and arrows can’t match the power of repeating rifles.

Media — America wanted a story, the media gave them one. A sensational story of savage scalp happy Indians disemboweling hard working honest settlers. Who cares about truth when you can sell a story, and this one sold. The great tragedy was these stories of mixed truth whipped up a fury of hatred and violence against all Indians. “The only good Indian is a dead indian” was the quote that rang through the news media, straight from lips of a general from the West, and so it was believed.

If all men white and red could have been treated with dignity and honour, if all manner of corruption could have been removed from the situation and if promises could have been honoured and true team work embraced when things got complicated do to the vast influx of whites, this story would have had a lot less tears attached to it.

The Enlightenments Effect of Religion – Good or Bad?

They agreed that anyone who refused to seek the  Lord, the God of Israel, would be put to death—whether young or old male or female — 2 Chron 15:13

Then when the Sacred months have passed, kill the Mushrikun (Idol worshipers including trinitarian Christians)  wherever you find them, capture them and besiege them and prepare for them each and every ambush. — Surah At-Tauba 9:5

But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! — Matt 5:44


With the exception of Jesus’ counter cultural words in Matthew 5, the two passages from the Bible and the Quran above are perfect examples of what religion was capable of prior to the Enlightenment.

For some in the religious community the coming of the Enlightenment will be seen as a disaster for faith. I don’t see it that way. Thanks to the enlightenment in the west, Religion was transformed from an involuntary truth to a voluntarily accepted possibility. The movement from involuntary to voluntary transformed how the vast majority of the Western world understands religion today. I believe the shift from involuntary to voluntary is a good one that the entire world should embrace.

As crashing waves slowly erode a shore line, the enlightenments steady pounding of “question everything, believe nothing, human reason above all” began to fracture the steady shorelines of Europe. Nothing could stop this tide. The mantra of “human reason first of all” created healthy (and unhealthy) scepticism which eroded irreversibly so much of what was involuntarily accepted as true in that day, no place was left untouched by this rising tide, most especially religion. The firm shorelines of religion in Europe began to crumble for some very understandable reasons:

There had been a couple hundred years of religious war between Catholics and Protestants which had ended in stailmate with all sides exhausted, and beginning to think “there has to be a better way”. In addition the development of dozens and dozens of denominations since the reformation was enough to cause even the most religious of people that niggling feeling in the back of their mind that the right path to God might be little more than a best guess.  Then it happened, science slipped passed theology in the race for supremacy. God no longer informed us about science. Science informed us about God. Eventually, sufficient amounts of doubt took the fight out of religious zealots. Was there really a need to clobber someone over the head just because they didn’t believe as you did? The answer was becoming increasingly clear: No.

If one wished to journey towards God that trip would have to be a voluntary trip  based on all sorts of information, evidence, tradition and experience. Before the enlightenment, the idea of voluntary religion was unthinkable. Theology was at the heart of knowing. Ones understanding of God was all that mattered everything else in life was just details. People were born into certain systems of belief and these systems were true and unquestioned. To wander from the truth for any reason was dangerous to the community and damning for the soul. Thus responsible leaders both political, military and religious embraced their duty to stamp out heresy and false belief. The eternal destiny of their people mandated aggressive action. The assumption of meta-physical truth being known conclusively is what the enlightenment destroyed.

Many parts of Islam have not yet gone through any sort of enlightenment. Unlike Western religions, Islam is not a voluntary belief system yet, that means it’s adherents  are not free to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their faith. For many Muslim systems, the Quran (and Hadith in some cases) is still the diffinitive truth that must be believed at all costs. Life both now and forever depend on it. Any threat to this belief must be destroyed.

  • Ancient Jews were part of an involuntary system of religion. (Hence the verse above)
  • Middle age & post reformation Christians were part of an involuntary system of religion, (Hence the religious wars in Europe during that era) — Sadly, Jesus’ call to love those in opposition was pushed aside in this era.  The most important thing in order to maintain law and order was to punish someone whose belief system was not in accord with everyone else’s.
  • Many modern day Islamists are still a part of an involuntary system of religion.  (Hence the never ending gruesome news reports coming from many Muslim countries around the world) as long as a belief system remains a compulsory non optional reality, for it’s followers, there will always be bloodshed. Protecting the absolute truth of ones belief system will always be infinitely more important than the life of ones enemy or even ones own life as the seemingly endless line of suicide bombers testify.

Granted, it’s disconcerting for a faith position to be relegated to optional. Jesus for example, claimed that he was “the truth” such definitive statements don’t leave a whole lot of options on the table.  How must a doubt soaked post enlightenment Christian come to grips with this claim? How must he share this claim with others?

Let healthy doubt create humility. What would be wrong with saying “Jesus might be the truth, and this is why I think he is”? Nothing in my estimation. We will never go back to involuntary religion, so the verbal bluster that comes from that era should be dropped. I also think we should take seriously, the words that Jesus gave us about loving those who oppose us. In the post enlightenment scientifically based world it will be impossible to know with clinical certainty existential truth based on ancient historical narrative, therefore we simply can’t have an arrogant swagger when it comes to presenting what we believe to be true. Faith is the confidence we have in what we cannot see, but our senses will more easily grasp what cannot be seen, if everything we do is wrapped in love.  This is good advice for all the religions of the world.

This less dogmatic, more unsure stance will be completely unpalatable for some strong believers who have managed to avoid the doubt that comes with the enlightenment. For me, letting go of some certainty regarding my faith is a tremendous step forward in developing a world of peaceful coexistence, and even peaceful cooperation. Easing up on personal certitude in order to embrace the free will that comes with voluntary religion is infinitely better than the shallow benefits of confidence, conformity, and security that come with involuntary religion.





Scripture and the Authority of God


N.T. Wright is trying to answer three questions, let’s see how he does.

  1. In what sense is the Bible Authoritative?
  2. How does one understand and interpret the Bible?
  3. Assuming accurate interpretation is possible, how does one manage to bring the authority of Scripture to bear upon the church let alone the world?

In what sense is the Bible authoritative? 

It means God’s the boss. Biblical Authority is shorthand for the God’s authority somehow exercised through Scripture.  Wright does not want us to think that God’s word is a synonym for the written Scriptures (27) It’s not, It’s much bigger than that. The written word is the expression and embodying of the living word. John didn’t proclaim that the word was written down, he proclaimed the the Word took on flesh and dwelt among us.  When the Apostles refused to wait on tables because they wanted to give themselves to the Word of God and prayer, its wasn’t extra time in the Torah scrolls that they were angling for. It was the story of Jesus, particularly his death and resurrection, as the climax of God’s grand story that they needed to focus in on and preach about. Jesus as the fulfillment of all that had gone before could now be teased out of the Torah scrolls with greater clarity if they had opportunity to read them, but make no mistake the Word they were after was the knowledge of Jesus wrapped up in God’s grand story. Wright uses the word “story” 83 times to help us understand that the authority for the Christian is God’s grand story, climaxing in Jesus — this story is the “word of God” which by divine providence came to be expressed in written form through the work of the early writers and compilers.  The Bible is the charter which forms the basis for the fulfilled telling of the story of God at work among his people.

How does one understand and interpret the Bible?

Totally contextual, multilayered, critical realist approach. Everyone got that? We good to move on? I suppose an explanation is in order. First however, Wright takes us on a world wind tour of the history of Biblical interpretation. It’s always good to know where one is coming from!

Marcion made the Scripture into two totally different stories with two altogether different God’s, he tried to “de-jew” the Christian story, and debunk the Jewish one. Allegorical interpretation was a dramatic counterbalance to Marcion’s throw out the bad stuff mentality.  Basically everything in Scripture became a mystical representation of Jesus with absolutely no care for the context. This was a wayward albeit sincere attempt to stick with Scripture, even when Scripture was problematic. (particularly O.T. Scripture) because of it’s lack of control. Once you can make scripture stand on its hind legs and dance a jig, it becomes a tame pet rather than a roaring lion. (51)

The reformers, bucked against the nauseating allegorical interpretations of their predecessors, but their emphasis on grace over law inadvertently set the story improperly against itself at times. The following generations of reformers played around with various interpretive strategies in which they would make distinctions to help with interpretation, for example, Jewish moral law was seen as distinct from Jewish ceremonial law, making the moral applicable and the ceremonial not applicable. Wright gives this the thumbs down, citing that ancient Jews would have made no such distinction. He dismisses dispensationalism as a fanciful notion, and leaves it at that.

Totally contextual means that the cultural context of a Scripture must be considered at all times. Multilayered means that Scripture is like a five act play with each act stacked up on top of the other, with the whole communicating one grand story. The implication is that some Scriptures will mean something in there original context but will also mean something more in the broader context of the story as a whole. It also means that some portions of Scripture will be less important. To quote Wright:

The key point of the whole model, which forms the heart of the multi-layered view of how ‘the authority of scripture’ actually works, runs as follows. Those who live in this fifth act have an ambiguous relationship with the four previous acts, not because they are being disloyal to them but precisely because they are being loyal to them as part of the story. (89)

He fails to define critical realist, even though he twice calls himself one. He uses the term in reaction to postmodern thought which says one persons interpretation is as good as another’s. The term, I think, means that there is an actual true meaning in the text that can be determined with careful study. One interpretation is not as good as another.

As mentioned earlier Wright acknowledges that some parts of the Scriptures are no longer relevant for the ongoing life of the church —not, because those parts are bad, or not God-given, or less inspired, but because they belong with earlier parts of the story which have reached there climax. (39) He captures the idea well with the following illustration:

When travellers sail across a vast ocean and finally arrive on the distant shore, they leave the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good, or because their voyage had been misguided, but precisely because both ship and voyage had accomplished their purpose. During the new, dry-land stage of their journey, the travellers remain—and in this illustration must never forget that they remain—the people who made that voyage in that ship. (41)

Assuming accurate interpretation is possible, how does one manage to bring the authority of Scripture to bear upon the church let alone the world?

Read the Bible out loud together. To quote him directly:

“The whole of my argument so far leads to the following major conclusion: that the shorthand phrase ‘the authority of scripture’, when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community.” (83)

It feels perhaps a bit simple, but if we want to bring the authority of Scripture to bear on the church and the world we must read it together out loud. Wright laments how churches have cut out Scripture reading in worship gatherings in order to speed things up, or make things more palatable for seekers. Wright will have none of that. Read, read read he says. Read it in the liturgy, read it in large chunks together, have good preachers preach it regularly. He doesn’t dismiss the notion of personal private study, but that is not what he is driving at, for Wright the proclamation of the word is the heart of Church life and the only way it will ever be brought to bear upon the church and the world.

On the need for ongoing interpretive work

To affirm ‘the authority of scripture’ is precisely not to say, ‘We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’ It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions. (67)

On the relationship between Scripture, reason and tradition:

Scripture is the shelf full of books; tradition is the memory of what people in the house have read and understood (or perhaps misunderstood) from that shelf; reason is the set of spectacles that people wear in order to make sense of what they read—though, worryingly, the spectacles have varied over time, and there are signs that some readers, using the ‘reason’ available to them, have severely distorted the texts they were reading. (74)