Monthly Archives: February 2017

Trump, fake news and fundamentalist Christianity

It is hard for us on this side of the Atlantic to understand how and why so many people in the States reject stories in the media because Donald Trump calls them ‘fake news’. Alongside the claims of fake news there has been extraordinary growth of conspiracy theories. One story that was spread through the Internet before the election concerned Hillary Clinton. She was supposed to be involved in a paedophilia ring centred on a pizza joint. An enraged armed Republican turned up at the address provided and declared himself ready to root out this great evil. He found nothing there so in his frustration he fired his shotgun at the ceiling. It could be claimed that the American public has been subjected to far more in the way of conspiracy theories, confusing truth claims and misinformation than anything we have experienced in this country. Perhaps our exposure to the BBC, in spite of its faults, has given us a sense that objective news reporting is at least possible. I want to explore with my readers some ideas about the way that many people in America seem prepared to believe or disbelieve news stories without demanding factually based evidence.

The ideas that I am sharing in this post are not my original thoughts. They come out of one of the many commentaries that I am reading on the present surreal political situation in America. The line of argument that I am following would suggest that we must look to the religious roots of contemporary right-wing American politics to understand what is going on today. This religious dimension may help us to comprehend something of the bizarre credulity of so many rightist American electors. When we go back to the 1970s we find the beginnings of a strong alignment between the evangelical Christian right and the Republican Party. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Most of these same voters are still strong supporters of Trump and tolerate his hazy grasp of truth and limited understating of the meaning of fact.

To understand further this alignment of Republican politics and conservative Christian teaching, we have to go back 90-100 years. This is the period when a series of pamphlets were published in the States supporting the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith. The writers and readers of these statements of conservative doctrine became known as fundamentalists. The issue that they faced was the way that their conservative doctrinal statements were diverging more and more from mainstream culture and thought. These pamphlets were thus an attempt to restate what is believed by orthodox Christians and to push back the tide of modernism which seemed such an enormous threat to their beliefs. Of the two greatest challenges to the conservative understanding of Christianity at that time, the first was the widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution. Alongside this was the acceptance by most denominational Christian leaders within liberal traditions of what is loosely called ‘higher criticism’ of the Bible. The pamphlets denounced both these ideas as totally unacceptable. Many Christians thus were preparing themselves for a long fight against these findings of science as well as the broad cultural acceptance of historical and social methods of biblical scholarship. The findings of scholarship would of course produce quite different ideas about the Bible from their own. When the fundamentalist teachings about the Bible were rejected by main-stream universities and seminaries, conservative groups were forced to found their own Christian colleges. Scholarship and scholars, whether in biblical studies or mainstream science, became perceived as a despised elite. It would not be too strong to suggest that fundamentalist thinking represented a strand of anti-intellectualism which has survived to this day. Mainstream scientific ideas, particularly in the realm of biblical studies and evolution seem to many Christians to be in the category of ‘fake news’.

Suspicion of experts and mistrust of the educated class is a strong social reality in many parts of the States today. Donald Trump’s message of mistrust towards the elite, the ‘Washington swamp’ and traditional sources of authority went down well in the campaign. Possibly as many as 30% of the population can be counted among this anti-intellectual group which would also in many instances support Christian fundamentalist ideas. Trump has tuned in well with this Christian cultural minority – one which has always been out of step with mainstream thinking. For these folk, members of the Christian Right, sources of truth have been found in sermons, Christian media and their own right wing news outlets. It is possible to study in a Christian school and then go to a Christian college without ever having any of your fundamentalist assumptions challenged. In summary, there has always been a powerful minority in American society who effectively reject education in the way that I would understand it. They care nothing for the rules of debate and the appeal to facts in making up their mind on any subject. Many Christians take great comfort in the passage from Paul when he talks about the wisdom of the world being overturned by the foolishness of the Cross. That is the cue for them to reject science, history and all other forms of analytical study.

Fake news and alternative facts are all part of a worldview which does not want to involve itself in the normal processes of responsible decision making. Looking at Donald Trump, one sees an individual who seems to float between an idea he has formed from listening to the television and some ill digested product of a flawed political instinct. The situation in America is today dangerous because it is hard to see how proper debate can ever take place. The problem for government is that many discussions are presumably taking place without agreement as to what are the facts on which final decisions should be based.

57% of American evangelicals today reject evolution and this, as far as we in the UK are concerned, is an irrational position to hold. How do you debate political and social questions with someone who rejects a major building block of modern scientific knowledge? How do you evaluate what is fake and what is real when people are building a worldview around something as irrational as young earth creationism? Irrationality in religion, I would claim, has helped to create the present extraordinary situation in American politics. Sadly and dangerously similar ideas based on no evidence reside in the head of the President himself. Donald Trump does not have a particularly strong record as a Christian, fundamentalist or otherwise. But he has gathered around him extremists such as Stephen Bannon. One of the most dangerous notions reported to be held by Stephen Bannon is that foreign policy should be conducted against the background of an impending apocalyptic clash of civilisations – Christian and Muslim.

Thinking people in the UK are almost universally puzzled and concerned about the craziness of current American politics. We would claim that the anti-intellectual bias of American conservative Protestantism is what has help to create the current situation. Let us hope that there are sufficient numbers of clear thinking individuals who can be promoted into positions of power in the government. Such are needed to ward off the dangerous workings of paranoid fundamentalist thinking that exists inside the brain of Donald Trump and those immediately around him.

Straight-jackets and conservative biblical doctrine

From time to time I look at the way that I seem to live in a theological world which is quite different from that inhabited by many conservative Christians. Many of the assumptions held to be normal among Christian traditionalists simply do not form any part of my theological thinking. I found myself recently glancing at one of the classic statements of conservative Protestantism. – The Westminster Confession. Although the document dates from the early 17th century, it still contains ideas that are familiar to many Protestant Christians who live today. It sets out some classic Protestant assumptions about salvation and Scripture and the way the latter is to be interpreted. We find the expression ‘that knowledge of God and of his will which is necessary to salvation’. These are not fully revealed in ‘nature and the works of creation’. The document then continues by stating that God ‘continues to declare his will unto his church… to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary, those former ways of revealing God’s will and to his people being now ceased.’ My familiarity with the historical background of this document is fairly weak but in what I have quoted we can see the inexorable logic of a Protestant way of thinking. I realise after having read it how little I can identify with its assumptions and the thrust of its thinking.

First, we may note that inherent in this document is the assumption the idea that the church writing this document has an unquestionable authority to declare the contents of the will of God. This relates to the salvation of all. If this claim is true, then we see how a single church tradition lays claim to a monopoly of knowledge of God’s will and truth. This church and its leaders can thus decide who is and who is not in his favour. Whatever my readers may think of this document -the Westminster confession, I personally find this statement to be a massive conceit. It is an attempt to accomplish a universal take-over of Christian truth. A second aspect of the extract which I find questionable is the idea that God is in any way limited by what is just found in holy Scripture. As I have said in many places in this blog, limiting God to mere words seems to imply a severe limitation on what we can experience of him in other ways. Are we really limited to experiencing God only in the language and thought forms of cultures long ago? Is there no room for other kinds of non-verbal experience? This would seem to impoverish a wider Christian culture drastically.

A third objection to the ideas of the Westminster Confession that I have is that there is an assumption that God can no longer reveal his will to people because the writing of Scripture has ceased. I find this claim, no doubt shared by many Christians, to be breathtakingly restrictive. What is there in the Bible that gives us the right to suggest that God cannot continue to reveal his will? There seems to be a fear that God might reveal something new which would disturb a cosy status-quo. It certainly gives rise to a notion that theology and doctrine are somehow fixed for all time. The immediate feeling that comes to me when writing these words is a strong feeling of suffocation. If this idea was really true, I for one would never have been able to practice as a clergyman. I need to have the understanding that the Christian theology and revelation are involved in a process of constant newness. The words of John’s gospel about the Spirit leading us into all truth, still ring true for me. This possibility of renewal and refreshment allows the faith to be always exciting and creative. Anything else has the attraction of a dungeon where there is no air and certainly no light.

In a conversation with Chris a few days ago, he asked me whether I thought that the classic evangelical conversion experience has a necessary link to the traditional evangelical beliefs. I answered that I thought that what is described as the evangelical conversion experience is a valid life changing moment for an individual. Typically a conversion experience will involve an internal crisis which might involve pre-existent guilt, stress or loss of meaning. This crisis is then in one of a variety of ways resolved and the individual is allowed to find a new perspective and beginning. There will be in Christian language a discovery of a new ‘saving’ reality, identified as the risen Christ. Words like joy, freedom and newness will describe what a convert has now found. However, when the conversion takes place in a conservative Christian setting, the liberation and experiences of the actual conversion are swiftly wedded to a dogmatic framework of belief. This dogma will include all the classic beliefs of conservative Christianity. These would involve adhering to a belief in the Bible as the inerrant word of God as well as the classic evangelical statements about the death of Christ. In answer to Chris’s question, the answer had to be that there is no intrinsic connection between the two. However conservative Christian thinking will in practice expect every convert to submit to their classic but authoritarian orthodox beliefs. The same thing is true when other classic experiential occasions come to Christians. I am thinking in particular of an encounter with the Holy Spirit. Many other cultures describe spiritual events comparable to the classic charismatic experience. The differences will be in the way that such experiences are interpreted. There is, I would maintain, no necessary fit between such an experience and the traditional Pentecostal way of interpreting it. Christian conservatives wish to colonise both these experiences of profound spiritual and emotional depth.

Christian conversion and the gift of the Holy Spirit are expressions two describe to distinctive spiritual experiences within and beyond the Christian tradition. The problem I have is that conservative Protestant theology will always seek to interpret such experiences as being their unique and exclusive possession. Thus they can be only articulated within the straight-jacket of that tradition. In this way, they are continuing the pattern of the Westminster confession. The colonisation and exclusive ownership of such distinctive Christian experiences is a way of controlling them. Ministers and pastors who think in this way are also in the same business of control, claiming authority over the text of Scripture and parishioners alike. I will always find such a power grab by clergy and others something to be resisted. I for one would not be a Christian at all if I genuinely believed, for example, that God had ceased revealing his will to the world. The liberal way of openness to new revelation and fresh insight into Scripture is something I passionately hold on to. Perhaps we need to face up to the fact that there is a considerable gulf to be found between those who think as I do and those who want to control, tie-up and restrict the will and action of God in a straitjacket. I for one wish to release newness into the Church and allow the exploration of religious experience free from a dogmatic interpretation which may have the effect of squashing and killing it.

General Synod debate -some comments

It has been very hard, if not impossible, to avoid being absorbed with the current news coming out of America. Of special interest for this blog is the way that American society is in danger of being undermined by an ultra-right wing Christian agenda. We have seen a great deal of irrationality and often a complete disregard for truth in the statements of both politicians and their representatives. The way that the thinking and rationality of ordinary people is being sapped and undermined by widespread disregard for truth will have consequences for many years to come. No doubt when things in the States have become a little more settled, I will have more to say on one or other of the many issues that have been raised over the past weeks. But today I want to turn away from the nightmare that is America 2017 to our own country and the recent vote by General Synod on the same sex marriage issue. A vote on the issue took place on Wednesday last. The vote not to receive the document was a rebuke to a carefully worded but anodyne statement by the Bishops of the Church of England on the topic. There has been widespread commentary on this document which was produced after a three-year consultation. It contains the Bishops’ attempt to summarise and extract a positive message from so-called Shared Conversations. The main criticism of the document seems to centre round the fact that it satisfies no one. The LGBT community feel that their situation is not fully understood or heard. Opponents of same sex marriage do feel that the Bishops have given too much away. The latter group have repeated their oft heard complaint that they do not hear ‘biblical teaching’ strongly reaffirmed.

I have pointed out in previous blog posts the way in which the issue of gay marriage has come to be a defining one for many conservative Christians. The strong affirmation of conservative opposition to any kind of gay sex will be based on a claim that it transgresses the ‘plain’ words of Scripture. This claim is by no means self-evident but there is no opportunity to look at the arguments here. Of more interest is to point out the fact that this issue has only recently come into prominence. 50 years ago, the topic was barely discussed. It is however important to record that the Church, especially in the person of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, was ahead of the rest of society in advocating tolerance. The 1967 legislation which decriminalised homosexuality was supported by Christians who believed that it was wrong for the law to persecute homosexuals. Now the situation is in reverse. Same-sex marriage has been legally permissible for the past two to three years but still a strong minority of Christians want to pretend that this societal change is intolerable and offensive to their beliefs. A similar situation exists in the States. Homosexual couples are permitted to marry but large numbers of conservative Christians passionately resent this change.

The position I take in this blog is to recognise that there are strong opinions on this issue. But I also make a plea that both sides of the divide need to be heard. The fact that I do not take the conservative position but argue (like the bishops) for a balanced view does not make me welcome in the conservative camp. On this, as on many other opinions, the one who is not 100% on the conservative side is deemed to be part of the opposition. To be fair to the bishops, they had hoped that the sponsoring of Shared Conversations might create a climate where some kind of mutual acceptance might flourish. This was never going to be as conservative opinion has shown absolutely no inclination to move on this issue. Meanwhile the valid insights and experience of lesbian, gay and transsexual people was being shut out of any true dialogue by this conservative intransigence. Flexibility and compromise on the gay question is just not going to happen among the conservatives. If anything, the firming up of conservative opinion against ‘liberal’ causes has become stronger. The recent election in the States will have emboldened many right-leaning Christians that they are dominant in the cultural wars. President Trump’s Mexican wall may be a kind of dreadful metaphor for the way that division, intolerance and intransigence may be the order of the day in both politics and religion for years to come.

The fixed position that conservative biblical Christians appear to be taking in this discussion comes out of a need to establish a firm identity, to know who they are. Identity, sense of self and belonging are all given to the one who believes what many others believe. Conservative Christians in their membership of a huge protestant network across the world have a strong sense of who they are. This takes them a long way from considering any kind of individual journey which might involve them questioning or thinking through a position on their own. We come back to the image that I tried to explore a few blog posts ago. Some Christians only feel secure when they live in an environment which is strongly defined and firmly defended. If the corporate identity in any way comes under attack, they will resist determinedly. They are grateful for the walls behind which they hide. But these have been built by others; their own personal contribution to the building work is zero. For them Christianity is not about a personal journey or individual creativity; it is about being welcomed behind strong defensive walls which give them the illusion of being safe both in this life and in the one to come.

In any normal gathering of individuals it should be possible to tolerate differing perspectives and understandings. The Church has a problem because it does not seem able to work like this. The conservative wing has, apparently, no readiness to accept anything beyond their beliefs; simultaneously they also challenge the right of others to be different from them. They see truth in militant terms. Their truth has to fight and conquer all other versions. This is the alarming version of truth that we see in contemporary America at present. There we see a political vision which is unable to enter into any dialogue or be challenged by other points of view. This ability to discuss and debate in a constructive way is something that is tremendously precious in a democratic society. We do not want either in politics or in church life to be moving to a system where there is only one version of truth which has been defined by the party in power. Political dominance that refuses dialogue leads to coercion, bullying and the eventual destruction of civility and democracy.

It will be interesting to see where the Anglican church will head after this vote. Although I have much sympathy with the efforts of the bishops, I rejoice that the ‘taking note’ has been defeated. Politically the church has to stand up to those who will not allow the mutual flourishing of different perspectives to co-exist. I would like to think that there is a majority on both sides of the debate who are prepared to stand up to all bullies and those who stand for hectoring intolerance. American political life is going through a similar crisis at present. The Anglican church, the church of moderation and tolerance, needs to resist all attempts to destroy free debate and openness to the insights and ideas of others. There is a lot at stake in the next two or three years.

Theology as poetry -Ephrem of Nisibis

In my last post, I spoke of the idea of God as beauty. By equating God with such a word, one that defies exact definition, we allow in a whole variety of ways of speaking about him. In contrast an attempt to define God or make definite statements about him with words having fixed meanings, encourages division and even conflict. I want in this blog post to take this discussion one step further and consider what would be the effect if we encouraged the use of poetry when writing our theology.

One of the problems for Christian theology is that, from the beginning, it has been articulated in languages that are, culturally speaking, close to our own. These languages, Greek, Latin through to our modern European tongues have always prided themselves on being good at precision and definitions. The invention of philosophy by the Greeks was possible because their language had precision and structure in the way that words are used. Philosophical debate needs a language that has consistency in the way that words retain their meaning in whatever setting they are used. You do not find this precision in the other Biblical language, namely Hebrew. Although I did not take my study of Hebrew beyond a fairly basic level, I could appreciate the way it diverged from Greek in its attempt to describe reality and theological ideas. To summarise, the Hebrew language has an abhorrence for abstract and thus philosophical definitions. Every Hebrew word has a primary reference to a physical reality even though the same word may appear translated in our Bibles as an abstract. To take one example there is a word translated as ‘glory’ in our versions. The Hebrew word literally means ‘weight’. In many instances an original Hebrew word has a cluster of meanings and the English translation is dictated by the context. Another way of describing how this language works is to say that Hebrew words evoke their meaning. This is how I understand the use of language in poetry. A poet wants to evoke in his or her reader, not an idea but a memory or experience. Communication is made with the reader through sharing feelings and insights. In the day-to-day use of language to convey information or ideas, the inner experience of the reader is of no concern. By contrast the poet is often trying to create pictures and sensations in the mind of the reader.

Most of the theology we are familiar with today is wrapped up in a philosophical approach which tries to create defining statements about God. This way of doing theology is there from the earliest days of the New Testament. Paul, writing in Greek, has handed on a style of doing theology that is some way removed from the more poetic thinking and use of language that we find in the Old Testament. Jesus of course spoke Aramaic, a language close to Hebrew and Paul had the task of translating this semitic thinking into a Greek format. Something of course was lost in this process. Attempts by scholars to resurrect the original Aramaic words of Jesus is a difficult but fascinating exercise. The Lord’s prayer, for example, has quite a different feel to it when its Aramaic original has been reconstructed. Greek language and thought became dominant in the transmission of the faith after Paul except in one small corner of the Roman Empire. This area, now in parts of Iraq and Syria, was the home to a Syriac speaking population. Most people today are unaware of the existence of a body of writings in this ancient semitic language of Syriac. These Syrian Christians had never used Greek so their version of Christianity has fascinating and intriguing links to the language and culture of Jesus himself.

The writer that I wish to introduce in this post was called Ephrem. He lived in the fourth century in a town in eastern Turkey now called Nusaybin. I visited this town in 1975 and saw the actual church building which Ephrem himself would have known. Many writings have come down to us attributed to him. Some take the form of poetry while others are in prose. Although I do not know any Syriac, much of Ephrem’s work has been translated and we can, even in translation, appreciate what he thought about God. In summary, his understanding of theology can be described as poetic rather than philosophical and dogmatic. His main purpose is to evoke in the reader a sense of the wonder and the paradox of the creator involving himself in his creation. The intellect is never going to be the primary way to penetrate the great mysteries of God and his self-revelation in Christ. Truth is to be found by understanding the mysteries that are hidden within symbols. Nature is one symbol that through meditative prayer and faith will reveal its inner truth. Other symbols to be penetrated in a similar way are the sacraments and scripture itself. All the themes of the Christian faith are presented as poetic truths to be grasped through contemplation and meditation. At one end of the spectrum of reality is this hiddenness and mystery of God; to be a Christian is to be given glimpses and intuitions of this wonder because God chooses to reveal himself to us through symbols.

Another strongly semitic theme in the writings of Ephrem is the way that he sees humanity as single reality. When he speaks about Adam he may be referring either to the individual or to the human race as a whole. Adam is Everyman. The role of Christ is to take upon himself the identity of Adam. Through the death and resurrection, the whole of humanity is able to regain through Christ the paradise lost through Adam’s fall. In Christ, the fall is in this way reversed; humanity identified with Christ is welcomed back to the bliss which God desires for his people.

It will be apparent from the flavour of these few comments about Ephrem that he is thinking in a totally different way from our theologies of today. We would use words like poetic and symbolic to describe his style of thinking about God and the incarnation. One thing that we are a long way away from are theological definitions and what is called today propositional theology. Reading Ephrem is a bit like wandering into an alternative theology where there are few familiar signposts and links to our traditional expressions of Christianity. But in presenting my reader with this different way of doing theology, I would suggest that Ephrem has succeeded in preserving the essential outline of our creeds. But to do this he is using quite distinctive genres of poetry, paradox and symbol. This style of doing theology is utterly unfamiliar but is it such a bad thing that it is hard to grapple with this different style? Interpreting poetry is sometimes hard. To do it even partly successfully we need to use our imagination and considerable flexibility of understanding.

This blog post may seem to be a long way away from our normal theme. But I offer these thoughts precisely because propositional language and strong definitions are often used by authoritative Christians to control their followers. By pointing out how an ancient expression of Christianity completely avoids such controlling definitions and philosophical language, we are given a freedom to be a Christian in a new way. Perhaps borrowing this poetic and symbolic language of Ephrem will help us to see a new way of doing theology which is both intriguing but also liberating at the same time. When words are allowed to enslave us, we need to hear a use of words which liberates. Perhaps we have that liberation and newness in the symbols and concepts of Ephrem of Nisibis.

Beyond Iwerne -what do I believe?

After writing two pieces on the Iwerne issue in quick succession, I thought it would be appropriate to write something more reflective for this post. Many of the posts I write are about the ideas and teachings of people I do not agree with and this always makes me think of the sheer range of Christian belief systems that exist. I also come to realise how difficult it is to place exactly where I myself stand along the continuum of possible choices for a personal theology. Do I know exactly whether I am a Calvinist or an Arminian? What is my theology of the death of Christ? Does the range of my individual beliefs and non-beliefs accord with any other individual on earth? I do not, like most other people I suspect, have precise answers to these questions. When I go on to think about the people in our local congregations, I need to ask whether it is realistic to expect any agreement about belief among the people who attend. Is it not more realistic to recognise that there is always going to be a jumble of beliefs and hopes in any group of Christians? Some of these beliefs will be rationally thought through but others may well reflect ignorance or even superstition.

There is an old observation which points out that a river never stays the same. However much we can describe reasonably consistently the scenery which we see on each bank, the actual water in the river is constantly changing. I wonder whether this image would describe my belief or faith. There are certain fixed features of a river’s setting which do not change and that might describe the overall structure of my belief system. While this framework remains the same, there are other aspects of my believing which are in constant flux. The things I feel about God are frequently changing, or perhaps one should say evolving. There are some advantages in being in a state of constant movement over one’s faith. I am always able to be receptive to new things, people, ideas or insights. Such newness will be like the water flowing along the river which is constantly refreshed, ever engaging and fascinating. For some others there is a temptation to dam up the river, to preserve all the water with the result that a large lake is formed. This is the choice that many Christians make. They have the notion that they are obliged to regard the Christian faith as something fixed, unchanging and above all to be preserved for ever. They also have an idea that there are somewhere legitimate and correct definitions of what they are required to believe. Such a belief system is the attempt to grasp on to certainty. Also by having the same lake as other people, their fellow believers, they are allowed to feel both solidarity and safety. But the costs of being in such a lake, which is inevitably stagnant, are very high. It is hard to move or grow if no new ideas and insights can ever come in. I always find myself reacting negatively when I hear these words from a devout Christian: ‘what I always say is….’ I remember a clergyman years ago telling a group of his fellow clergyman the things that he was taught at University in the 1940s. This teaching was his sole contribution to the discussion. Nothing apparently in the form of new ideas had come to him in the intervening years. A lady in my congregation also used to refer to her confirmation classes and the clergyman who led them. These took place during the war and they formed the sole content of her current thinking.

It is not easy to know where is the place of balance in-between the old and traditional and the new and changing. Such a place needs simultaneously to preserve stability and order while being open to the possibility of being refreshed and renewed. Probably I stray too far in the direction of wanting always to welcome new ideas and insights. At the same time, I probably also sit too lightly to some traditional teachings of the church. This is partly due to the way that I can, in retirement, read new things and pick up all kinds of ideas from a variety of sources. But there is another factor from my own background which means that I instinctively shrink from the sort of theology that loves its fixed definitions. Many years ago, I encountered the words of a Greek Orthodox theologian. He stated that the contribution of his church to Christianity was the idea that God is like beauty. Beauty is a concept that defies definitions. It remains maddeningly aloof from our attempts to capture it or put it in a box. We all claim that we know that beauty exists but we will argue incessantly about where it is to be found or indeed, what it is. The same thing I believe is true of God. Many people allow the possibility that God exists but they are reluctant to agree as to what or who he is. This discussion takes place not just among Christians but will happen in almost every culture in the world. When we encounter the concept of Christianity itself we also have a problem of deciding what the word is referring to. Christians may agree that what they believe is fundamentally affected by the life, teaching and death of Christ. But beyond this broad generalisation Christians find it almost impossible to come up with a statement where they are totally in agreement with one another. Some find this failure of Christians to agree a massive problem. But there is another possible approach. It might be true that God is calling us to discover him without expecting us to agree on the exact words to be used. If God is indeed like beauty, as my Greek friend suggested, then there will be a whole variety of approaches and insights. Part of the problem for such a discussion is that we have grown used to the idea that a defined Christian orthodox belief is the only way to qualify for eternal life. This approach has not been helpful. It has given far too much power to those who decide who is or who is not within the acceptable group of ‘sound’ believers. The power to include or exclude in the matter of something so fundamental has resulted in an undercurrent of fear. When this fear exists the free and joyful exploration of Christian pilgrimage becomes an impossible task.

In the stand that this blog takes against abuse perpetrated in the name of Christianity, there is also a resistance against any imposition of fear by the Church. The physical abuse perpetrated against some individuals connected with the Iwerne camps was made possible through a culture of fear. Opposing this fear is the teaching that God always welcomes us and is on our side. Being welcomed, being accepted and being allowed to explore and discover the full wonder and depth of God’s world is the kind of Christianity that I want to own. This is also what I want to share. When we talk about beauty in any of its numerous facets, we encounter not division and argument but a mutual and shared discovery of wonder and excitement. That is the kind of exploratory faith I want to identify with, even if God and the doctrines associated with him are sometimes left slightly woolly and undefined. I leave my reader with the image of the constantly flowing river. The river that is always new is the place where I want to be, rather than in the lake which has no outlet. I wonder which place God would prefer us to be.

Iwerne Camps – biblical justification?

It will be apparent that the last blog post was written in something of a hurry. I felt it was important to put down what I knew about Iwerne even before the Channel 4 programme was broadcast last Thursday night. Previously I had never heard of the name of John Smyth, so I was careful not to discuss the details of the allegations against him in the Channel 4 programme. Having now watched the report I want to comment on is the way that the testimony of the victims fully accord with certain narrow and questionable interpretations of Scripture. Violence against young people in the form of beatings has been practised for centuries in the name of Christianity. If John Smyth was acting, as he seems to have been doing, as a proxy father to his victims, we can find plenty of material in Scripture which appears to back up this abhorrent behaviour and make it seem somehow acceptable and even godly.

In the Channel 4 programme it was mentioned that one text frequently quoted by John Smyth to his victims was the passage from Hebrews chapter 12.4: ‘In your struggle against sin you have not resisted to the point of shedding your blood’. This is followed up by a quotation from Proverbs. ‘The Lord disciplines those whom he loves; he lays the rod on every son whom he acknowledges’. The passage has of course been much quoted by those who want to use violence against the young as a way of making them more godly and protecting them from hell. When we look at the Old Testament we can find plenty of examples of God being understood to be like a violent father. The first is of course the account of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Although Isaac was spared, we need to remember that Abraham was willing to kill his son in a response to what he believed was a command from God. Deuteronomy chapter 8.5-6 also represents God ‘disciplining you as a father disciplines his son’. The same theme is picked in 2 Samuel 7.14-15 when Nathan tells David from God that ‘when he does wrong, I will punish him as any father might, and not spare the rod.’ Such quotations exist for a parent who believes that corporal punishment is the right treatment for their children. This is even before they start to read the main source of violence in childrearing, the book of Proverbs. I have known evangelical families who keep a wooden spoon in the house with which to punish their children. They will quote a passage such as: ’the rod and reproof give wisdom: the child left to himself brings his mother to shame.’ Proverbs 29:15. This quote, though less familiar than other classic texts from Proverbs on child rearing, is typical of the guidance given to parents. The basic message is that it is OK to use violence against children as a way of enforcing obedience.

Apart from the Hebrews passage mentioned above, I am not aware of any passages in the New Testament which support the idea of violence against individuals least of all children. Even the fact that Jesus urged gentleness and respect for children does not deter some Christians in freely promoting the rod. The comments that Jesus made about millstones make it obvious that he deplored any violence towards the young. This brings us to the question as to why violence in child-rearing has come to play a prominent part in the thinking of some Christians. The answer to this question may be quite a simple one. As my readers will know, the imaginations of certain strands of conservative Christian thinking are obsessed with a morbid fascination for the idea of eternal damnation. Preaching the gospel in this way of thinking is not about introducing an individual to a fuller way of life under God, but about snatching them from the jaws of hell. If you occupy such a world-view which is obsessed with rescuing people from the eternal flames of torture, then any method, even violence, may be justified. When violence and punishment are in this way at the forefront of the imagination, it is not surprising that in some places, the actions and theology of an individual like John Smyth will happen.

The survivor accounts of these boys formerly at Winchester College appear entirely plausible in the light of the teachings we have outlined above. Violence against children and young people to protect them from eternal damnation has always been part of the weaponry of a particular type of biblical Christianity. As recently as 1972 a Protestant writer, Jack Hyles, was able to write the following: ‘A child who is spanked will be taught that there is a holy God who punishes sin and wrong.… The parent has kept his child from hell by teaching him truths that can be learned only by discipline and the use of the rod.’

The accusations against John Smyth are of course criminal charges and will no doubt be examined from that perspective. But, as this post has tried to show, behind these terrible events of 30+ years ago lies a corrupt, damaging and destructive expression of theology. This ‘biblical’ teaching also needs to be brought to the court of public examination and condemnation. This is but one corruption that emerges out of an uncritical adherence to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Such inerrancy beliefs have here allowed parents and others to use violence against their children over two centuries or more. The idea that somehow Jesus would ever approve of this kind of treatment against young people is a lie which needs to be constantly challenged. John Smyth stands accused of terrible crimes but guilt must also accrue to a system of thinking and biblical interpretation that made his behaviour possible.

Material for this post has been taken from the excellent book Spare the Child, The religious roots of punishment and the psychological impact of physical abuse by Philip Greven. 1992

Iwerne camps. Some background notes

This morning (Thursday) in our newspapers was a story about the physical abuse of teenage boys from public schools who attended a so-called holiday camp at Iwerne in Dorset. I have absolutely nothing to contribute to this current report but I thought that it would be helpful to provide some background to the story. This is what I learned about the centre during some digging around that I did some 20 years ago.

My readers will be able to discover the various changes to the centre at Iwerne which have been made over the past 10 to 20 years. At the time I was making my enquiries about the centre, it had a reputation for being a place where selected public school boys were sent during the summer holidays for a period of intense religious formation. This was in accordance with a strict Calvinist evangelical agenda. I found it difficult to discover any written material about Iwerne but from what I could discover it was clear that these camps had considerable impact on those who passed through them. After admitting young people (originally only boys) from a very select group of public schools, the influence of the camps spilled over into university Christian Unions, especially Cambridge. Also, these same young men went on to occupy important positions in the church and other major institutions in British society. This was the original vision of the camps’ founder, Eric Nash (always referred to as Bash), to ‘capture British society for God’ by working with its young elite members. His entire ministry was spent leading this particular centre and he was still active up till the 1970s.

This reputation for creating sound evangelical Christians among the upper echelons of British society met with considerable success. Many of those who now occupy or have occupied senior positions within the Church of England have passed through this Sandhurst for a conservative Christians. Because we lack any proper appraisal on the place of Iwerne in the history of the Church of England, what I have to offer are a couple of published references to the centre which gives a flavour of the importance of these camps, especially in the early days.

Bash, as he was popularly known, was by all accounts a strongly convinced evangelical with no trace of any compromise with liberal theology. His use of Scripture was by the standards of this blog extremely uncompromising and hard-line. In Harriet Harris’ major work on evangelicalism, there is a footnote relating to Bash. He was said to only use one book in his teaching work. This is the 19th century volume entitled, What the Bible teaches by Reuben Torrey. It is interesting to reflect how this one book was a foundation work to begin the evangelical teaching careers of such leaders as John Stott, Michael Green, Dick Lucas and David Watson. Each of these men had important roles to play in the recovery of evangelical theology in Britain after the Second World War. There are many other names who were also graduates of these Iwerne camps, not least Justin Welby our current Archbishop.

Among the stories about Iwerne that I was able to extract from published sources was one about the influence of Bash over David Watson. David, the prominent evangelist of the 1970s had lost his father as a relatively young teenager. Bash seems to have stepped into the role of a proxy parent. Like Justin Welby, David continued to attend the camps during his student days as a helper. He served as a kind of non-commissioned officer, supervising the younger attendees from the various schools that supported these camps. In David Watson’s biography, we read of the breakdown of the relationship between Bash and his young protégé. The cause of the breakup was David Watson’s discovery of the charismatic movement in the early 60s in Cambridge. This went completely against Bash’s understanding of what the Christian faith involved. He was also mindful of the need to retain the confidence of the various headmasters whose boys were allowed to attend his camps. ‘What would the headmasters have to say,’ Bash is reported to have said. Bash and David Watson went their separate ways and the relationship was never restored. Watson’s biographer commented that this was a matter of great moment for him since he was forced to choose between Bash’s parental guidance and his recent discovery of the movement of the Spirit. A further detail recorded by the biographer, was that Watson from that day began to suffer from chronic asthma. This affliction was to stay with him for the rest of his life. There are no doubt possible psychological interpretations to be made, but clearly the parting of the ways between these two men was a bitter one.

The newspapers report that Iwerne camps were religious summer holiday camp for public school boys and girls. Clearly they were much more than that in the early days. Many who have looked at them have noted that these camps provided an essential support which almost singled-handedly allowed the survival and even the flourishing of a strong old-fashioned evangelical presence within British society. I can make no comment about the current allegations but this earlier history that I have been able to uncover will help the reader understand why these camps were so important in the past. It is part of an untold story of the church which has never been properly chronicled. Having read the first volume of John Stott’s biography it is quite clear that the leadership that he provided from the 1940s onwards for the somewhat weak presence of evangelicals in the Church of England was crucial to their recovery of influence. It is hard to see how Stott would have had the necessary stamina to provide that leadership without the encouragement and personal support of Bash as well as the formation he received during the summer camps at Iwerne in the late 30s.

As a final comment, I think it would be true to say that evangelicalism in Britain has a quite different flavour to its American counterpart in part because of the influence of Iwerne camps in their original form. By successfully being implanted into parts of the social elite of Britain, evangelicalism on this side of the Atlantic has always had an ‘upper-class’ feel about it in certain of its manifestations. In contrast the evangelicalism of America is invariably populist and in many instances anti-intellectual. I would love to hear this particular episode in the history of the church in England told with more detail. What I have to reveal here is not a story of scandal but one which demonstrates the powerful influence of a single individual with a vision. Bash’s vision was to convert the movers and shakers of British society to hold onto an old-fashioned even reactionary expression of the Christian faith. In part Bash was successful in fulfilling his vision. Whether the church as a whole should be grateful for his efforts has to be another question.