Monthly Archives: July 2017

Toronto Blessing – looking back to 1994

While I was away from a computer for a few days in Scotland, I found myself reflecting on a topic that many of us have considered – the Toronto Blessing. For those too young to remember this significant episode in the life of the Church, the Toronto Blessing was an episode of high-octane religiosity which spilled out from Canada in the 90s to affect many Christians in other parts of the world. Even those who were not caught up directly in this explosion of Pentecostal/Charismatic enthusiasm were aware of what was going on. Reactions varied from ‘this is a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit’ to ‘what a terrible example this is of religious hysteria.’ Few people who knew anything about it could remain totally indifferent. For myself the ‘Blessing’ peaked at around the time I was finishing off some writing I was doing on healing. The reports were such that I considered taking a plane to Toronto Airport to see what the fuss was all about. But having studied the phenomena that is Toronto subsequently, I am glad that I did not make the journey and submit my emotions and my psyche to a full-frontal assault.

I have recently encountered a doctorate thesis on-line on the topic of the Blessing written by a South African, Stephanus Pretorius , from 2002. It is a very careful study. Its value for me is in the way that the author explores many disciplines in attempting to make sense of what went on at the small Airport church in Toronto for most of 1994 into early 1995. I am especially grateful for the attempt by the author to locate the phenomena of the Blessing within the context of world religion.

Among the reported effects at Toronto was the sight of people collapsing to the floor and lying apparently unconscious for considerable periods of time. Others were said to imitate animals either in their movements or in the sounds they made. The thesis claims that similar phenomena occur in Hindu spiritual practice, particularly in the disciplines associated with the awakening of an energy known as Kundalini. Kundalini is understood to be a primal energy living within every human being. It is the task of yogic spiritual practice to awaken this energy so that it can transform the body and raise it to its true potential. Kundalini energy is pictured as being like a snake at the base of the spine, waiting the opportunity to be awoken and activated in the spiritual seeker. The literature suggests that this life force also on occasion expresses itself in ways comparable to the Toronto phenomena.

That there should be a parallel between Toronto spirituality and a branch of Eastern yogic practice is something that many might find threatening to their understanding of the Christian faith. I personally do not find this idea strange as it has always been clear to me that God can only reveal himself using the faculties of mind and body that we all possess as humans. There are no special new organs of spiritual communication afforded only to Christians. A further point that is also striking in the thesis are the comparisons made between the pastors at Toronto and the gurus who teach kundalini practice. In both cases, a ritual of light touch by the leader is given when the disciple is considered ready. The Toronto initiate frequently falls to the floor and similar happenings may take place in a Hindu setting.

I suggested above that I am glad that I was not tempted to make the ‘pilgrimage’ to Toronto as part of my then research on healing. I mentioned that the highly charged atmosphere that was part of the daily service in the church seems to have been a bit like an assault on the spirit and psyche. Enormous energy was present in the building and however one wants to describe it, it is clear that few people were able to resist the massive primal emotion that was causing people to behave in strange ways. Such emotion and power seem potentially destabilising or even dangerous to mental well-being.

Pretorius’s thesis is particularly useful in the way that he discusses the power of hypnosis in the whole process. He sets out the characteristics of hypnosis for his reader. He notes the following.
1. Hypnosis is not a dreamlike quality. It is in fact a state where reflexes are fully functioning, alertness maintained and there is full awareness of what is going on.
2. The normal planning functions of a hypnotised person are reduced and the hypnotised person tends to wait passively for instructions from the hypnotist.
3. The subject’s attention becomes highly selective.
4. Role playing is readily accomplished, the hypnotised person frequently becoming quite thoroughly immersed in a suggested role.

It is clear from what Pretorius says about the state of hypnosis (he says a great deal more) that it can account for much of the strangeness of Toronto type events. It is also not difficult to identify how the participants were drawn into this state of hypnosis. The use of repeating choruses is a well-known technique for dulling the critical mind and inducing a trance-like state. I have frequently made the point that music has the capacity to bypass the conscious mind whether for good or ill. A further method used at Toronto to induce the state of hypnotic suggestibility (and no doubt among its contemporary imitators) is the repetition of suggestive phrases like ‘Let the Spirit come’ or ‘Flow into your hearts’. Taking this pragmatic understanding of hypnotic methods that we have, we need find nothing extraordinary in the spiritual events that are recorded as happening at Toronto.

Although what I have written above may seem to be reductionist and designed to undermine the Toronto experience, it is not meant to do this. The value of Toronto must be judged, not on its strangeness or its mechanics but on its fruits. Did the experience of Toronto change the hearts and lives of those attending, or did they experience a primal experience of disinhibition which they enjoyed and want endlessly repeated? For myself a suggestion that any Christian experience can only be enjoyed after using the methods of hypnotic suggestion and crowd psychology is one that makes me a little uncomfortable. My ongoing evaluation of Toronto will, however, not be swayed by what I think about the methods used to induce the experience. I shall be judging it by looking at the transformation that may have touched those who attended. The jury in me is still out.

Conservative Anglicans on the March

In the last post, I expressed the belief (and the hope!) that General Synod was shifting away, bit by bit, from endorsing or supporting the hard-line ‘biblical views’ of small conservative pressure groups. These are associated with politically active Anglican bodies like REFORM, GAFCON and the Church Society. This assessment has been echoed by others. The ultra-conservative Synod members who support these groups seem also to reflect a concern that their influence may be slipping. In June, various individuals from these factions wrote a joint letter to the Church Times. This letter contained the threat that they would walk out of Synod if the Bishop of Edinburgh was permitted to address the Synod which was then about to take place. The Scottish Episcopal Church has recently redefined marriage so that it will be possible for same-sex weddings to take place in their churches. The CT letter suggested that an invitation to Bishop John Armes by Synod might damage the Instruments of Communion which bind the Church of England to the wider Anglican Communion. The signatories, 10 lay members and 5 clergy, believed that their presence at Synod would somehow endorse the views of the Scottish Episcopal Church. I understand that no such walk-out took place in the end. We are still left with the memory of an unpleasant discourteous threat that was contained in the letter.

After the General Synod meetings which were concluded in York on the week-end of July 9th, the same conservative factions represented in the letter have geared themselves for more confrontation with the wider church. An open letter has appeared on Wednesday 19th July on the Anglican Mainstream website, which is another conservative grouping. In it the signatories declare that the General Synod are ‘pursuing principles, values and practices contrary to Holy Scripture and church Tradition.’ Such a failure, they continue, is ‘not wholly unexpected’. They are therefore starting to meet ‘on behalf of our fellow Anglicans, to discuss how to ensure a faithful ecclesial future.’

There is a certain amount of coded language here. What I think the signatories are saying is that they recognise that their influence in the Church of England may be declining. Their answer to this is to draw on the strength they possess through the alliances they have with similar-thinking Anglicans elsewhere in the world, especially in the Global South. These alliances enable them to attempt to threaten and even manipulate the main body of the Church of England. ‘A faithful ecclesial future’ would appear to be another term for a full-blown division within the Anglican Communion. Once again this relatively small faction in the Church of England is flexing its muscles by threatening to leave the Communion and align itself to other conservatives across the world.

It should be repeated here that this threatened schism is not one that concerns the bulk of evangelicals in the Church of England. While the evangelical representation in Synod is strong and includes many bishops, few of them are playing the political games which always seem to involve threats of division and splits. The names of those who have signed the letter is interesting. We have both the newly but irregularly consecrated Anglican bishops, Andy Lines and Jonathan Pryke. Also included are the two bishops of the Free Church of England which is a tiny schismatic Anglican grouping. While their orders are recognised, the Free Church of England is not in communion with the main body. All the main conservative groups at work in Britain, GAFCON, REFORM and Mainstream are signatories. The main feature of all these groups is that they each came into being in order to protest against what they believe to be a liberal drift among their fellow Anglicans, especially in England. GAFCON provocatively held its first meeting in Jerusalem at the same time as Lambeth 2008. REFORM and Mainstream both thrive on presenting themselves to the press as the true voice of worldwide Anglicanism even if their main message seems always to be about sexual behaviour. Their reactionary perspective seems to have a single aim – how they can destroy the Church of England and rebuild it in a purer form which meets with their theological vision. This ‘new’ biblical version of the Church would lack one key feature of the Anglicanism which most of us have long appreciated. This is the ability of the church to preserve more than one theological perspective simultaneously. The Elizabethan settlement allowed Catholics and Puritans to live and work together in a single ecclesial body. Anything that destroys this balance would destroy Anglicanism as we have known it for 450 years.

The Anglicans in Britain represented by these letters is not a large. Probably the Church of England would survive easily if it allowed these politically motivated conservative Christians to go their own way. Other prominent groupings of evangelicals, like those attached to Holy Trinity Brompton, do not appear to be political in this way. The strength of this ultra-conservative Anglican alliance, is, as we have pointed out, in the links it has with churches overseas. On paper the Anglicans in the Global South vastly outnumber members of the Church of England, however you count the numbers. But, just as I want to query figures claimed by some Christian networks in this country, so I question the numbers of Anglicans actively supporting these conservative issues overseas. Archbishop Nicholas Okoh of Nigeria may have twenty million active Anglican members in his church, but I find it very hard to believe that all these Anglicans are as concerned about the topic of same-sex marriage as their leaders. I doubt very much if most African Anglicans have even heard about the debates which are so passionately argued about as a hall-mark of conservative Anglican identity in this country.

The Mainstream letter about the ‘ecclesial future’ of the Anglican Church may just be one more threat by a distinct group of conservative Anglicans to split away from the main body. Alternatively it may finally persuade church leaders that the days of pretending that the Anglican Communion is a single body are over. Over the next three years, preparations are being made to bring together the Anglican Communion from all over the world to England in 2020 for the Lambeth Conference. Will the scheming of these groups finally result in a split between the North and the South on this issue of gay sex? The acclaimed aim of the group, to restore the Communion back to a tradition and a version of biblical orthodoxy will never happen in the way they would like. The Anglican Church in England will always preserve its Elizabethan balance of different views and outlooks. Thus it will continue to represent the moderation of the English people. It will never be a body representing fanaticism. Those who want to control the entire body by denying a place to the opinions of those who disagree with them will always ultimately be defeated.

Mood change at Anglican General Synod

I do not normally follow in detail the proceedings of the General Synod of the Church of England. But there was something which caught my eye in one of the commentaries made by a conservative evangelical member of that body. Rob Munro, a representative from the Chester diocese and a member of the conservative body, the Church Society wrote a reaction to the recent Synod in York. He was particularly concerned about what he perceived to be the declining influence of the evangelical bloc within the Synod. He suggested that, politically speaking, the centre ground of General Synod has shifted away from the biblical position on topics to do with sexuality etc. In other words, the perspective of the bulk of Synod members no longer identifies with the well-rehearsed conservative positions on these matters. I read this comment alongside another hint that things are changing in General Synod. It seems that when certain well-known conservative individuals stand up to rehearse their predictable positions, they were sometimes being greeted with ‘noises of unhappiness and booing’. This behaviour was deemed to be unhelpful to the conduct of Synod.

I have reflected on these two pieces of information about what might be going on in the Church of England Synod. Obviously, I was not present to hear the ‘noises of unhappiness’. I am however able to reflect on why people might begin to express their feelings in this way. One of the features of the conservative position on issues like same-sex marriage and the ordination of same-sex individuals is that it is completely unchanging. The spokesmen for the conservative groups in Synod will quote the same bible passages and repeat the same arguments over and over again. Obviously, there are differences among the proponents of the conservative evangelical bloc, but the actual individuals who support these views will not want to shift from personal positions they have in some cases held for decades.

How do we react to a person who never varies in their strongly held opinions? The first thing that happens is that we become bored when we have to listen to the same arguments rehearsed again and again. We hear the argument but, because we know exactly what is coming next, our willingness to listen carefully is compromised. Listening to an apologist for the conservative position over same-sex marriage creates the same effect on me as having to listen to listen to Easyjet cabin crew explain safety measure before take-off. The noises of unhappiness and booing during the speech of such a Synod spokesman as Andrea Minchiello Williams may be simply the sounds of boredom rather than disagreement. The hearers have heard identical arguments being rehearsed so many times before that their reaction is now to feel bored and dispirited.

The arguments from Scripture over gay ordination and all the other things that divide evangelicals from other Christians do need to be heard and the debate is necessary for the church to conduct. The issue in Synod at York at the beginning of July 2017 was not about the value or otherwise of the conservative position on these things. The problem for the evangelical bloc is whether their arguments on these topics have started to sound like a gramophone record which has got stuck. The same words are being repeated again and again with decreasing impact. This repetition has now created a sense of tedium in the listener so that the core message is no longer easily heard.

I personally will always be suspicious of a version of truth which is presented to me through endless repetition. This is because my understanding of the Christian faith has never worked like this. The things that I was taught at theological college almost 50 years ago are by no means the only truths that I have to offer. If they were I am sure that I would by now be utterly bored in endlessly repeating them. What is true for me is that the Christian faith constantly grows and deepens. There are all the time new insights that I obtain through reading and exposure to fresh experiences. Last week at the conference I was attending, an acquaintance introduced me to a writer that I have never heard of. She had heard me speak about power issues in the church and thought that this writer, Carter Heyward, would help me to clarify my thought on these matters. Reading new ideas, grappling with fresh insights is the way that my faith is not in danger of becoming utterly blighted by stale repetition. As it is, I allow myself to explore across cultures and centuries looking for new ways in which to articulate old and traditional truths.

As I write these words I am reminded of a Sydney Carter song. He writes about travelling from the old to the new. The old, the traditional, is not cancelled or destroyed by the new. It is however constantly transformed and changed. As far as the Christian faith is concerned there is always, as far as I can understand, a constant process of travelling. As we travel we allow new insights, new understandings and impressions to enthral us along the way. Without it we would be easily tempted to be among those who prompted ‘the noises of unhappiness and booing’. Boredom is never meant to be part of our understanding of the Christian faith. We certainly don’t want to be guilty of spreading such staleness and repetitiveness to others. The hints that this version of the Christian faith seems to be on the way out within parts of Anglicanism is to be welcomed. The Church of England and its General Synod is far healthier with less in the way of repetition and tedium.

What is a cultic group? The dynamics of coercion

During a two-day conference that I have just attended on the topic of the Trinity, someone asked me during a conversation ‘what is a cult?’. I found it impossible to answer the question in a single sentence, so I went away to write something down. I don’t whether the scrappy note about cultic groups I produced in my appalling handwriting will stand up to the light of day. Still less do I know whether it fits in with some of the learned reflections that were being uttered the week before last in the Bordeaux Conference. But I thought that my efforts should be recorded on this blog even though by tomorrow I may remember other essential ideas that have been left out.

I have changed the question I was asked by making the ‘cult’ word an adjective. This in part lets me off the hook in not closely defining the word that provokes much controversy. To say a church or group is cultic allows me to describe in general terms a style of operating rather getting bogged down in technical definitions

In my answer, I made three points. The most important aspect of a group of a cultic kind, I suggested, was that it was led by a charismatic leader. To call a leader charismatic is to suggest that he/she is articulating a vision for the future or the present which inspires followers to join a group. This vision may be secular, for example creating world peace or conquering hunger. Whether it is secular or religious in nature it will resonate with the idealism of a follower. The rewards for a leader of such a group are not inconsiderable. It puts him (normally a him!) at the centre of attention whether his group is half a dozen strong or in the thousands. Previous blog posts have explored the idea that such aggrandisement will, more often than not, be linked into areas of personal neediness such as those associated with narcissism. In the religious cultic group, the adulation given to the leader may resemble a kind of worship. This preacher of God’s Word may in the mind of the followers all too quickly become the only interpreter of God’s will. Such an individual is thus beyond argument or contradiction.

If absolute power is being enjoyed by a cultic leader, there are also rewards for his followers. These apparent benefits for group members form the second of my three points. Just as a leader may be resolving hitherto unmet personal needs through his role, so the followers are rewarded by finding in the relationship with the leader a way of relieving emotional issues from their pasts. Most people, particularly young adults, have issues connected to their own parents. Leaving home is painful and these relationships often result in some level of inner grief. The cultic group promises not just the excitement of a new adventure to change the world, but it also promises a degree of love and acceptance that will pour balm on old brokenness. There is this combination of being brought into a new adventure for life as well as being a member of a new family. The combination of binding up emotional wounds as well as pointing to a new future are the powerful incentives that cultic groups offer to their potential followers.

My third point takes us into the negative territory that cultic groups occupy in the scheme of things. The dynamic that I have described of the leader receiving gratification from being at the centre of attention and the followers finding an outlet for their idealism as well as their need for ‘healing’ from past hurts seems arguably beneficial. The problem is that the flow of energy and power to both parties only ever works when there is a high degree of control. Things like questioning the leader’s authority will upset the harmony of the group. So there has to be in these cultic groups a level of coercion which will stamp out any questioning or challenge to the leader and his vision. The role of an effective all-beneficent father figure is a narrative that only works when everyone agrees with it. The reality behind the image of a beneficent father may be that a leader is struggling fiercely to manipulate and control some of those below him. The successful hiding of this kind of behaviour will require the leader to control the information reaching other followers. So, we find that in most cultic or high-demand groups there is almost inevitably censoring of information. The price to be paid which enables the ‘cultic flow of power’ to operate effectively is often coercion, fear, power abuse as well as the suppression of information.

My three points, which address the issue of the nature of a cultic group, began first with describing the power flows that enables it to operate ‘successfully’. The third point brings out the coercion, the fear and power abuse that seem necessary for this power flow to function as it is intended. My description may help us to understand why, over a period of time, every cultic group becomes corrupted in its exercise of power. No high-demand group, Christian or not, ever seems to be able to maintain its original (possibly innocent) power dynamic without later resorting to the controlling techniques known to totalitarian regimes the world over. What may have begun in an atmosphere of glorious freedom seems inevitably to descend into structured control and coercion. The reason for this use and abuse of power seems to be built into human nature and the institutions that are created by human beings. This is not to say that every institution is corrupt. Most institutions have some checks and balances to protect them from the ‘fallenness’ of human nature but the same is seldom true of independent cultic groups. It is here that we find the most vivid examples of the evils that we associate, along with my questioner, with the groups we describe as cults.

Safeguarding and Child Abuse -Case of Matt Ineson

On the Sunday programme this morning which is broadcast every Sunday at 7.10 am on Radio 4, there was a salutary tale about sexual abuse in the Church of England. And yet it was not just about sexual abuse. It seemed to reveal a state of panic among those who manage the Church of England at the highest level.

This radio story can be told in broad outline. In 1984 a young lad called Matthew (Matt) Ineson, then aged 16, was sexually abused by a priest, one Trevor Devamanikkan. In spite of this harrowing experience, the young man went on to become ordained himself and by 2012 he had become Vicar of Rotherham. In that year Matt become involved in dealing with a sexual abuse case in his church school. This eventually led to some kind of intervention by both the Bishops in the area, Steven Croft and Peter Burrows, As part of the involvement with these bishops, Matt told each of them about his own abuse. Both Bishops appear to have done nothing, either to have involved the police or to follow up pastorally on the allegations of Matt’s own abuse. The original issue of the church school caretaker also seems to have become buried by inaction or apathy.

In 2013 Matt disclosed his experience of abuse to another senior churchman, Martyn Snow, now Bishop of Leicester. This was in the context of a meeting about pastoral responses towards offenders. Martyn Snow objected to the advice given by Matt to an offender and, in spite of being told that Matt himself was a victim of a crime, made an official complaint against him for his pastoral response. By this time Matt was beginning to find the stress of being an unheard victim too much to bear and he resigned his living in the course of the year 2013. He submitted full accounts of all his experiences to the Diocesan Bishop, Steven Croft and Bishop Peter Burrows with copies to the Archbishop of York. By 2015, with the help of a solicitor, Matt had submitted a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure against his abuser and the six senior clergy who had failed to respond appropriately to his serious allegation of sexual abuse. This Clergy Discipline Measure proved to have a legal limitation. All the accused have hidden behind a provision that states that a complaint must be made within a calendar year of an offence. An extension can be agreed only if the accused concur. Needless to say, the rapist and the six senior clergy have not wanted to surrender this protection afforded to them under church regulations., Meanwhile Trevor Devamanikkan has removed himself from the scene, prior to his criminal trial, by recently committing suicide.

This story might have been overlooked by me as just one more example of institutional failure on the part of senior churchmen. But another story has come my way in the past few days which suggests that the Church of England may be trying to keep the lid on a full-blown crisis. I cannot for obvious reasons reveal too many details about this account except to say that the case involves an English diocese. A woman known to me had cause to speak to her Diocesan bishop about a friend who was apparently suffering spiritual and financial abuse in her local parish. The bishop referred her to the Diocesan Safeguarding Officer and my friend made an appointment to see him. She spent some time with the Officer and was struck by his highly professional and perceptive questions. He promised to consult others, including the local police as there were questions which touched on possible criminal behaviour in the case. He also expressed concern for my friend’s physical safety.

After having had a good level of communication with the Safeguarding Officer, my friend was surprised to receive a terse email a week or two later expressing regret that he could do nothing for her and that she should contact her local police station. My friend immediately believed that the Officer had been ‘nobbled’ by someone who wanted to shut down her complaint. In other words my friend may have stumbled across something big and the Officer had been required to terminate any further enquiry. Am I or my friend being paranoid? I do not think so.

What might be going on? The Church of England may be lurching into what is a cover-up of child and other forms of abuse of massive proportions. As we saw in the case of ‘Jo’ and his abuse, the management of this crisis seems often to be being directed by insurance companies and lawyers. They are apparently attempting to shut down information as much as they can. Steven Croft seemed to be speaking not from the heart, when speaking his memories of Matt’s experience on the radio this morning. He seemed to be speaking from a lawyer’s script. That is always going to be bad news when the church, in the person of its representatives seems to be only interested in preserving reputations in preference to caring for real people.

These two stories have made me feel quite gloomy. So frequently in the past months, the Church at the highest level has shown itself to be incompetent in dealing with abuses of power within its structures. Even those who are otherwise decent and conscientious individuals are being used to defend the ‘system’ from its massive failures from the past. How many more scandals are going to erupt? Is the church going to become a tainted environment that no one can trust? Are children going to be prevented from attending Sunday School for reasons of safety? Safeguarding must be as much about integrity, honesty and openness. The box-ticking culture to create safe spaces may been fine as far as it goes but is a tidal wave of past wrong-doing going to overwhelm the church before it can get its structures into place?

Thoughts on Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter

A recent press account tells us that the Ark Encounter project in Kentucky in the US is in trouble. The Ark Encounter allows visitors to walk round a huge replica of Noah’s vessel which has been built according to the measurements recorded in the Bible (Genesis 6). Believing the literal veracity of the Biblical account, the Encounter tries to imagine the scenario of how thousands of animals were housed and fed by Noah and his family. The founder of the project, Ken Ham, has produced for the people of Kentucky what, for this writer, is a huge monument for the absurdity of literalistic readings of the Bible. Ken Ham, like millions of Christians around the world, has bought into the idea that one of the ways in which the Bible is true is that every apparent historical or scientific statement is to be understood literally. This must always be preferred over any modern interpretations. As I pointed out in one of my earliest blog pieces, there are in fact in Genesis two separate accounts of the building of the Ark. In the first in Genesis 6 one pair of every kind of animal is taken aboard. In the second account in the first verses of Genesis 7 there are seven pairs of the available animals placed in the Ark. Only in the case of the ’unclean’ species is a single pair allowed on board.

Returning to Ken Ham’s project, we find that people are just not turning up in sufficient numbers to help pay for the $100 million project. Perhaps it is also because the vast swathe of the Christian population in Kentucky fails to feel Ham’s enthusiasm for ‘proving’ a Biblical narrative as being literal history. If anything, the Ark replica helps to make the story in the Bible even less believable as literal fact. How could one man, assisted by his three sons build anything as massive as the vessel recorded in Genesis? That is before we think about the gathering together of the necessary materials for the project.

The Ark Encounter project is a vivid reminder that many Christians on both sides of the Atlantic want us to believe every narrative or story in Scripture is historical fact. Conservative interpreters seem to be wedded to the idea that it is essential to read the stories of Noah, Job and Jonah as accurate history. There is the belief that because God is the supposed author of all Scripture, there is no other way to understand these narratives.

Although we today are used to making a sharp distinction between fiction and history whether in the Bible or elsewhere, this way of thinking simply did not exist before the 18th-century. The birth of the scientific method and historical analysis allowed scholars to distinguish between fact and probable fiction. Most historical works of the earlier period were an amalgam of legend, myth and fact. It is only today that we have the tools to separate them out. Even to use the expression ‘literal truth’ made no sense in a pre-Enlightenment age. It is noteworthy that today many Christians are so reluctant to use these modern critical tools of analysis on the text of Scripture. While they are prepared to apply the modern (and post-modern) tools of analysis in every other area of life, when it comes to Scripture, Christian leaders insist that we think and interpret in a pre-modern way. In the case of the Noah story, that involves us pretending that six verses of Genesis 7 do not exist.

Behind this insistence on reading every narrative passage as literally true is a method called ‘common sense philosophy’. This takes the view that every individual of reasonable intelligence can interpret language and determine its meaning by the application of common sense. Thus, one does not have to possess a sophisticated education to penetrate the meaning of the Bible. It is laid open to the understanding of all, including the common man. There is a second principle at work in this understanding of Scripture. This is known as propositional theology. This builds on the idea that the chosen method of God to reveal himself is through the words of Scripture. So, the Biblical text is all that is necessary for salvation. By applying ‘common sense’ the individual Christian can through diligent reading of the Bible text discover what God wants him to do with his life and his faith.

These two philosophical undergirding principles are, as we might expect, fraught with problems. The first problem is that the Bible does not in fact easily surrender its meanings to a casual reader. In practice, it requires the help of a Christian teacher to reveal its meaning to the ordinary Christian disciple who attends church. We do of course find a massive number of interpretations which vary according to the personality and training of each individual minister. The second problem is perhaps more serious. If God’s will and purpose are contained in written words and ideas, this will suggest that each Christian engages with God primarily through the use of his or her intellect. The part of us that deals with the content of words and concepts is the thinking mind. Is this really the only part of us that God wishes to engage with? Surely God meets us through all our senses, our emotions, feelings and longings.

It is instructive to compare the apparent compulsion to take all the stories of the Old Testament as being literal history (and never as story!) with the way Jesus extensively used stories in his teaching. When I hear a story, I respond to the emotion, the humour and the possible message within it. Something rather different is happening when I listen to a narrative which is supposed to be accurate history. I will also be puzzled and possibly even irritated when I am expected to overlook any inconsistencies or contradictions. If I were ever to visit the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, I know that I would feel completely overwhelmed by a sense of distaste and even anger at the stupidity of the project. $100 million has been spent on a building which tries to convince visitor that the words of Genesis 6 are literally true. Such a pretence has been maintained by ignoring the obvious discrepancies in the story revealed in the first verses of Genesis 7.

A reading of Scripture which insists that any narrative or story has to be read as straight history is sometimes a massive betrayal of proper interpretation. The God that I meet in the Old and the New Testaments speaks to me through story, poetry as well as through myths and history. I had the privilege of studying the Bible for itself and never had to use the lens of a conservative ‘pre-modern’ Bible teacher. I hope I can read it with a clearer vision. No one placed on me the burden of the doctrine that says only in the Bible do we discern the will of God. My use of the Bible is thus outside any dogmatic straitjacket and I am freed to use all the sources of history and tradition that are given to us. I am also fortunate to have some knowledge of the original Biblical languages. The Bible is I believe a far richer document when it is read against this background of the culture, the history and the experience of the people who met God in so many different ways. It is their words to describe that encounter that we have today. The uncovering of their experience is a never-ending project.

Further reflections from the Bordeaux Conference 2017

A few years ago, I wrote a paper for the cultic conference on the apparent ease with which individuals could be switched into atypical thinking and acting after an apparent ‘conversion’ experience. This conversion may have little to do with anything religious. It can be said to occur in any situation when an individual opts suddenly to see and experience the world in a new way. ‘Conversion’ is a massive topic and I do not propose to say much on this occasion. In itself it may be good or bad, depending what one is converted to. The effect on the people around suggests that they normally see the results of this change. When they believe the effects to be in some way negative they are likely to describe the sudden change as a kind of ‘brainwashing’. It is as though some sort of internal trigger has been pulled. There is a dramatic shift; a start of a new pattern of thinking has come into being within the affected person.

Needless to say, this kind of sudden change to a political or religious cult was being discussed by the attendees at our gathering in Bordeaux. Many had experienced such a dramatic change themselves or seen it in a close relative. Those who spoke about this change either in conversation or in one of the presentations were clear on one point. The mind that has at some point surrendered to a new ideology does not easily subsequently ‘snap out of it’. Even after an escape from the coercive group for whatever reason, the tramlines and habits of cult thinking remain. There is no spring mechanism that rapidly brings the mind back to an old position of easy relaxed communication with relatives and former friends. The cult ways of thinking and understanding go very deep and full release will come only after a number of years, if ever.

In my paper that I presented three years ago I referred to a famous social psychological experiment when twenty or so students were paid to act out a role play. Some were required to be prisoners and others to be prison guards. The experiment turned into something horrifyingly realistic as all the students took to their roles with a degree of terrifying intensity. After six days the experiment was terminated when the girl friend of the experimenter, Philip Zimbardo, could see that the whole experiment was descending into a kind of madness of cruelty and abject suffering.

The Stanford Prison Experiment has provoked much discussion since it was done. Ethical considerations would make it impossible to repeat the experiment so we have to rely on the reports that have been handed down to us. The experiment was done in a cellar, so all the participants were unable to ‘touch base’ with their normal lives. The role-play became their only reality for six days. Human beings, even well-adjusted ones, easily adapt their understanding of what is going on around them to be the norm that is to be followed. In one presentation I heard, the point was forcibly made that isolation from the past or from daily normality quickly affects an individual. The case of Patty Hearst, the heiress who became a bank robber after being kidnapped, was also raised. One way of reading her story is to say that she was simply adapting to her environment as a way of surviving. In her case she was eventually able to re-enter her old life of upper middle-class privilege after a spell in prison.

All the cults and indeed the more extreme religious groups that we study are successful at the task of isolating people from their pasts – family, friends etc. Most people, when they are cut off from old sources of information, quickly start to trust the new information that is on offer. The brain craves consistency and if one is hearing a consistent repeated message there may be less resistance to receiving it than we might think. One of the new facts of twenty first century society is to discover how much the press interacts with many people’s thinking. I am tempted to suggest that in some cases, certain newspapers are creating quasi-political cults in the way that they bombard their readers with slanted and biased information. Both the left-wing and the right-wing newspapers are guilty of this. Perhaps a good test of whether we are being brain-washed by a particular newspaper is to ask ourselves how much we find ourselves questioning the editorial slant. Do we rather fall into the trap of being the kind of reader that wants to see in print all our prejudices set out?

The final more serious point is the one that suggests that brains and opinions are easily manipulated – more than we would like to admit. It is then hardly surprising that extreme religious groups, who may work with a largely vulnerable clientele, are able to shift the thinking and emotions of their audience. That may be far from contributing to their benefit. How do we find a wholesome life-enhancing version of the Good News? So often the presentation from coercive cults and religious groups is thoroughly Bad News. It seems to contain the message that no one is ‘saved’ unless they constantly wallow in guilt and fear. At the same time they have to surrender their ability to enjoy life to follow a narrow legalistic set of moral instructions. Cult and some charismatic leaders have a vested interest in controlling the lives of their followers so that it cannot easily ever be good news. My hope in the fact that it is possible to read the account of Jesus in a way that does make it good news for all of us. I shall keep on explaining this and try to wean my readers away from what they may have had throughout their lives – a message of fear and damnation.

Written on the Kings Cross to Newcastle train. Apologies for any grammatical errors