Category: Stephen’s Blog

Mixing the good and the bad – McGuiness & Yonggi Cho

The death of Martin McGuinness on Monday has raised predictable passions among people of all persuasions. Some remember him merely as a fanatical murderer, having a nihilistic contempt for his victims. Others remember him as a key player in the promotion of peace and reconciliation within Northern Ireland. It is hard to know which side is telling the deeper truth about this man. It would be tidy from a Christian point of view to be able to tell a story about how McGuinness had had some conversion experience which led him to participate in the peace-making process. By contrast some have suggested that he had a greater interest in keeping out of prison than in making a fundamental personality change. To survive as free man, he had to make himself indispensable in the Good Friday peace process. I for one do not offer a judgement or opinion on these matters. I merely observe how difficult it is to know the truth about a man’s inner soul based on an observation of the actions of his life.

Another figure from the other side of the world attracting both praise and blame is the leader of the largest church congregation in the world. This congregation is found in Seoul in South Korea and the leader’s name is David Yonggi Cho. I have recently been reading about the success of this church and the remarkable state of Pentecostal religion generally in that country. Cho’s genius was to discover how much a church can grow when it adopts a cell-like structure. Joining a cell of around a dozen people enables the individual to belong in a way that is impossible if the main Sunday gatherings consist of thousands of people. The small cell keeps membership intimate and personal and thus it fulfils the social as well as spiritual needs of the members. The cell structure is of course a brilliant solution to the problem of the mega-church, but it has at least one severe weakness. It will only work when the cell structures operate in precisely the same way. There is no room for innovation or development. Everyone, both leaders and led, have to conform to the teaching, the beliefs and the vision of the leader. That overriding ethos will normally conform to an ultra-conservative fundamentalist form of Christianity. It is hard to see how this pattern would fit in with the more creative and fluid structures we associate with denominational patterns. Here development and creativity keep everything somewhat untidy and messy. There is normally little attempt to exercise too much in the way of authority and power. A cell structure would, for instance, never work successfully in the majority of Anglican congregations in Britain.

Returning to South Korea where all this cell idea began. Yonggi Cho began his church with five members but later, thanks to the cell structure idea he later had charge of a congregation numbering no less than a million members. There are I believe some cultural reasons for this kind of church growth being possible in this area of East Asia, but that is for another discussion. What we have to draw attention to here is the way that something as successful as Cho’s church became recently a victim of corruption and financial abuse. The sums of money which were misappropriated by Cho and his son were simply vast. Cho’s son has gone to prison for four years and Cho himself was given a suspended sentence of three years for his part in an enormous financial scandal. What are we to make of this fall from grace, which incidentally has only made a small dent in the numbers attending the church in Seoul? Are we to see the Holy Spirit at work here in spite of greed, financial skulduggery and power abuse? Or do we see a human failure which may have been there right from the beginning which disqualifies the integrity of the whole of this ministry? The question is similar to those we asked about McGuiness but in Cho’s case the fall has come at the end rather than at the beginning of his life. I do not know the answer to these questions. I can only suggest that how we answer the questions will reveal something of our theological perspectives. What is important is that we should never fail to carry on a debate about human frailty, even though we want to believe that some people embody a sanctity and holiness which can never be compromised. There is a tendency among some to put charismatic leaders on pedestals of infallible goodness. This is extremely unhealthy. As I have suggested in other blog posts, leader worship will often have the effect of increasing the narcissism of those so affected and weakening their grasp on reality. Whatever anyone appears to achieve in political or religious life, we must never allow that individual to lose their sense of fallibility. Everyone needs to deal with questions and uncertainties. I have already questioned a church system, such as the cell idea, that can ‘guarantee’ church growth for those who follow a detailed formula. This formula will almost certainly include some highly questionable assumptions about, for example, the status of leadership and nature of the Bible. My experience of struggling for truth in church matters is to see that it will never be tidy. Messiness and uncertainty in church structures will have the benefit of allowing people to grow within an atmosphere of freedom. By contrast formulaic and legalistic church teachings and systems of authority can easily enslave people.

In South Korea, the legacy of Cho will be a mixed one. Alongside an apparent genius who could organise vast numbers of people into a church structure, there is a greedy human being. A capacity to exploit and a genius for organisation seem to have existed side by side. That is one reading of the situation and I am sure others will have a different judgment. I am still reserving my opinion on the life of Martin McGuinness. His legacy is at very best ambiguous and I shall leave it at that. History will also tell whether the legacy of Cho and his attempts to revolutionise the church with his cell structures is a good one or whether it will prove to be flawed. This may be either from his personal failures over money or from his readiness to promote what I regard as an inflexible and harshly fundamentalist version of Christianity.

Conversion and Sin

Every clergyman or minister will know the problem of dealing with an individual in the congregation who, for whatever reason, does not fit in. The church is meant to be a place that gives a welcome to all. But when an awkward or difficult person presents him/herself in one of the pews, a conscious effort has to be made to assimilate that individual into the order of things. There are any number of reasons for a failure to fit in easily. It may be a matter of personal hygiene or social background that creates a problem; it may be for reasons of theology that they are somehow out of place. If the effort at integration fails and the person leaves, everyone may be secretly relieved that the problem has resolved itself. The fact that the departure is a defeat for the church’s stated desire to welcome and love, is quietly overlooked.

Beyond the problem of absorbing the difficult outsider, there is another problem that churches may have encountered which is equally problematic. This is the problem of a well-connected member of the congregation who turns out to have a dark secret. The individual concerned may be a wife-beater or long term scam artist. Because the congregation has treated this individual as one of its own, no one wants to believe bad things about him. The situation is worse when the malefactor is the minister or clergyman themselves. Everyone has projected onto him a standard of goodness which has helped each member feel good about themselves. The revelation of evil deeds has the effect of dragging everyone down. The former idealisation of their leader has, after his fall, left them all feeling involved and thus contaminated by his actions.

In both these situations we have potentially unhealthy responses in the way the church may behave. In the first there is an attempt to avoid handling the unconventional or awkward personality. In the second case, there is a strong reluctance to face up to the fact that church people are as capable of dishonest, evil or perverse behaviour as anyone else. What might be going on in the theology of both these situations? In the first situation, we can say that there is a failure of love. The unconventional behaviour and opinions of the misfit are too challenging to cope with. In a variety of ways which may not always be conscious, church members are maybe failing in the duties and obligations of love and welcome.

The second scenario is a still more challenging one. Most people have as a given that that anyone who gives their life to God and goes through some conversion experience is incapable of real wrongdoing. When this turns out not to be true, it creates considerable dissonance in the minds of church members. The instinct is first to attempt to excuse the behaviour or pretend it has not happened. This attempt at denial may be as much about protecting the reputation of the congregation as it is about an inappropriate gesture of support for the erring individual. Everyone feels something of the shame of the action. The cover-ups that may be attempted are efforts to push away that shared sense of guilt. When this assumed link between church attendance and goodness is broken, everyone feels less secure in their sense of righteousness. The problem of a failing minister is even more acute. As I mentioned above, the individual members of the congregation may have engaged in a process of idealisation. The goodness of the minister has percolated down to give status to everyone who attends. This has been compromised.

At the heart of the problem of a church finding it difficult to deal with the blatant sinfulness of one of its members, is the theology of conversion. What actually happens when someone gives the loyalty to Christ? Is the work of the Holy Spirit involved? When an individual falls from grace after that experience, what does that say about the Holy Spirit himself? Was the person deceiving everyone in the claim to conversion or should we say that the Holy Spirit does not necessarily override human frailty and weakness?

I am unable to give concrete answers to these questions. I would just comment that when people cling to some doctrine of automatic goodness following Christian conversion, they become blind to the possible failings of human nature. A tendency for a congregation to closes rank against victims of abuse to support a perpetrator is not neutral behaviour. When there is overwhelming evidence against an individual who has violated trust in some way, supporting that person will enhance the victim’s suffering. People seem very good at finding a theology that seems to support the interests of their own immediate group. Blindness and deafness often seem to follow when unpalatable facts are presented to people. The supporters of President Trump seem to be unaware of the fact that his proposed taxes will cause suffering and even death for many poor people in his country.

Any doctrine that seems to suggest that a converted Christian cannot sin is potentially an extremely dangerous one. It has the effect that people put their guard down when mixing in Christian circles. Thus, they do not see what may be going on around them. The capacity of human beings to fail does not cease when they become Christians. We still need alertness and even a little cynicism when faced with the phenomenon of human nature. Naïveté is all too common among Christians. There is something particularly ugly about the sight of Christians protecting their own when they know full well that an individual or group of individuals have harmed others. Nigel Davies, the protester outside Trinity Church Brentwood, has experienced the full anger of those who simply do not want to face up to the evils of the past in that church. As we have seen over the months, there is, apart from anger, a great deal of hatred and denial. Such sentiments do little to promote health either for the individuals expressing it or for the wider church. Someone needs to point out to those who berate Nigel that however many miracles were supposed to happen at Peniel/Trinity Church in the past, we still need accountability for terrible human failures. These, as we would claim in this blog, typically centre around the abuse and misuse of power. If my blog has done nothing else I hope it has sensitised my readers to the way that this failing is very common around every walk of life. A proper awareness of this failing as it touches our churches, is the first stage of being able to stop it. As Adrian Plass said in one of his books, we need to be able to ‘spot it and stop it’.

Updates on Exeter and comment on Sheffield

Some months ago, I tried to make sense of the published account of the Bishop of Exeter’s Visitation to his Cathedral. The report contained a great deal of detail about the various clergy overseeing that institution. In the past, some of the details placed in the published report would not have seen the light of day. We may imagine that there were further issues that were not spelt out. Nevertheless, it was still a revealing account of life at Exeter Cathedral. My observations and comments were given in the blog post below. http://survivingchurch.org/2016/09/30/exeter-cathedral-issues-of-power/

After writing my post I was pleased to get a communication from someone in Exeter quite close to the action. He was able to confirm that I had been reasonably accurate in my speculations about the dysfunction of power at the Cathedral. Now today after six months we have received the dramatic news of the resignation of the Dean and the Precentor. The only new information is the suggestion that financial issues were also part of the problem at Exeter alongside the personality problems. When a cathedral cannot pay its way, then existing management will find it extremely hard to cope. Outside bodies, such as the Church Commissioners, may well have a voice in determining what should happen for the future. The departure of the Precentor is interesting. Was she by any chance involved in an overspending? This remains pure speculation but the departure of two members of the Chapter at one moment is significant.

There will always be problems at Exeter and at other cathedrals when lines of power become tangled up and confused. This, we suggested, was likely to happen as the result of the Cathedral Measure of 1999. I do not want to repeat what I said before on that topic. When you add a need for financial retrenchment to a possibly muddled division of responsibilities, you have a recipe for chaos. As I mentioned before, the role of the Dean of an English cathedral is a prestigious one and should attract men or women of the highest calibre. But, increasingly as these unfortunate incidents occur, the job of Dean at one of our cathedrals is going to be regarded as a poisoned chalice.

The other major drama is going on in Sheffield. Most of my readers will know the broad outlines of the story which has led Bishop Philip North to withdraw from accepting the nomination to be Bishop of Sheffield. A lot of unpleasant words have been said and those who criticised the appointment have been accused of vindictive personal attacks. Looking into the various components of the drama, I came across an account of the consecration of Philip to the Bishop of Burnley which took place a couple of years ago. In keeping with his Anglo-Catholic theological convictions, Philip was consecrated by three bishops who had retained their separation from any involvement with the ordination of women. These three bishops were thus ‘untainted’, having neither taken part at the ordination of women nor received the sacrament at the hands of a female priest. The Archbishop of York himself was present at the service but, having ordained women, he took no part in the actual consecration. Without going into any of the other arguments about the suitability of Bishop Philip to the see of Sheffield, I found this story very revealing. The way his original consecration was performed speaks volumes about his understanding of priesthood. These views are shared by a band of clergy who belong to a group called The Society. This position, to put a negative interpretation on it, seems to carry an unmistakable aroma of misogyny and fear of the female sex. Whatever pastoral gifts the Bishop might possess, it is hard to see how he could ever regard the numerous ordained women in his diocese as true colleagues. The Church of England does not seem to know how to react to the problem of reconciling opinions of people who take inflexible views. In this situation, we are dealing with a form of fundamentalism. In its conservative protestant variation, I have described fundamentalism as an opinion which cannot and does not enter into dialogue. The nature of Bishop Phillip’s consecration also seems to point to a similar intransigence. The inability to tolerate the touch of an Archbishop who had ordained women suggests an inability to tolerate possible sacramental and thus doctrinal contamination. This does not create a good environment for the Anglican desire for a state of ‘mutual flourishing’.

Fundamentalism whether catholic or protestant seems to have a deep problem with the status of women. We are not just talking about the theological and biblical arguments about their status. We are also describing what women actually feel when they enter some churches. In many conservative protestant circles women are forbidden to take positions of leadership. This is also true in the stance of many Anglo-Catholics. Something is going on here which is deeper than theology and the quoting of biblical texts. It is an encounter with prejudice which is rooted in the dark place of misogyny. When the experience of women is to feel second rate and second-best then this is an issue of power abuse. It thus comes into the purview of this blog. These posts will always name and resist such naked abuses of power in a church context.

In conclusion, I find myself siding with those who have opposed Bishop Philip for the see of Sheffield. We are not just describing not just the impossibility of a mutual flourishing of ideas, which is what the Church says it wants. We are talking effectively about a potential institutional disempowering of the female sex in the context of the religious life of our country. From the perspective of this blog that is not right. We continue to plead for a vision that God’s will that furthers the complete flourishing of all. Even though this is difficult to achieve in practice we should not be pretending that God shows any preference for half the human race. Let us be grateful for the variety we see in humankind – male and female, gay and straight, black and white and all the varieties of personality. God wishes all to prosper; woe betide any of us if we put obstructions in the way of full flourishing for all.

Trump said it, I believe it, That settles it.

It is hard to know what words to use to describe the confused place in which a large minority of the American population is now living. Even after repeated demonstrations of presidential lying, tens of millions of people continue to trust the veracity of every word that President Trump utters. To put it another way, large numbers of people seem to have lost the ability to feel credulity in face of absurd and obviously false claims. They have also shut themselves off from other sources of information that might help them to make sense of the totally improbable. For reasons of personal need, this group has made an act of identification with a powerful individual who has articulated all its prejudices and fears. There has consequently been a handing over of responsibility for thinking about the issues of society and its political life to this extraordinary figure of President Trump. In doing this the supporters have become trapped in a place that is impervious to change or any new information.

I have tried, unsuccessfully, to enter imaginatively into the closed world of Trump supporters. To be in that place would require me to shut down several important aspects of my personality. The first thing to be surrendered is the human quality of curiosity. Most people are aware when they hold opinions which are not universal to everyone around them. Even when entire communities have declared themselves to be Trump supporters, one would expect there to be a few nonconformists who challenge the dominant narrative. Can the supporter of Trump not be even the slightest bit curious to find out who these minority people are and what they believe? Along with burying themselves within the dominant opinion of their neighbours and community, they would also have to refuse to watch television or read newspapers unless they represented their opinions.

The next thing to be lost from my personality after my sense of curiosity would be my understanding of the incompleteness of knowledge. In short, the education I have received has given me the insight to see that not every problem has a definitive answer. In contrast the Trump supporter appears to believe in the ability of their leaders to provide solutions to every problem. The political party they support will make policy decisions on such issues as health care, economics or foreign policy, and these decisions will always be rational and correct. Absent from the thinking is the thought that debate or changing of minds could ever be a healthy part of political life. These may sometimes even produce richer and more complete answers to the problems of government. No, Trump has spoken and because he is my leader and representative, I believe in his solutions and judgements.

A further change to my thinking that I would have to make to be a successful member of Trump’s gang, is to learn to hate and despise others. At best I would have to be indifferent to the sufferings of people who live overseas. I would also learn to be far more aware (and proud) of my racial group. This is something that defines me and makes me for the most part insensitive to the plight of other races and groups. Probably I will have bought into the myth that large hordes of people are waiting to overwhelm my nation. I will applaud the building of large walls and tough immigration policies to keep these strangers out. All traces of tolerance and inclusion would need to be purged out of me to be a successful Trump supporter.

A Trump supporter who would identify with the title of this blog post is, I believe, someone devoid of these qualities of curiosity, insight and compassion. This I know is a harsh judgement. I am forced to come to such a strong opinion by watching as Trump supporters attempt to justify things which cannot be justified. They are hooked up to a drug which feeds on lies, fear and intellectual apathy. In all this, is there a link to another real slogan that is often seen on the bumpers of American cars? On the genuine slogan one word is replaced from the heading of this post. Instead of the word ‘Trump’ we have the word ‘God’.

Many of the things that I have said about Trump supporters might also be said about Christians who believe their faith is articulated through the slogan – ‘God said it, I believe it, that settles it’. The first part of this slogan refers to an understanding of Scripture that it is God’s inerrant word. This claim is, when examined, misleading about what in fact has taken place in the believer’s mind. To make any sense of Scripture at all, the believer needs either to commit to a life-time of questions and study or trust another individual to do the hard work for them. In practice, few Bible believing Christians expect to do more than look up passages presented to them in church by a minister. It is the minister’s understanding that the folk in the pew will depend on for their relationship with Scripture and its author, God. Any desire for the kind of study that might raise awkward questions over such things as contradictions and inconsistences in the text is never sought and indeed is strongly discouraged. So, the belief that ‘God said it’ is the outcome of a dependent relationship on a voice from the pulpit. This relationship is little different from the kind of blind confidence in a political figure like Donald Trump. The person who trusts his/her minister to interpret the Bible will likely also be equally totally lacking in curiosity about other ideas or other opinions.

In a Christian context, the person who can utter the words’ I believe it and that settles it’, is also going to be someone who has little sense of the limits of factual knowledge. They may have been encouraged by their education to believe the idea that there are always answers to every problem. Even as adults they see knowledge as ticking a box with the correct answer. But, as many of us who have taken education beyond ticking boxes know, definitive answers to every problem are not always to be found. To understand knowledge may paradoxically require us to see the limitations of knowledge. Many issues, even in science, are topics of debate and even sometimes unresolvable. This realisation will allow an individual to have a proper sense of humility in the face of things that cannot be fully understood.

My third fear for many Christians in this conservative fundamentalist mode is that they like Trump supporters thrive on hatred and fear. The hatreds found in church may not be racist in nature but many believers in this tradition have learned to identify the ‘other’ in the liberal, the unbeliever or the demonic. Many Christian leaders have discovered that it is easy to create a strong community by identifying the enemy. Those thus identified can then serve to bind all together by being objects of hate for the group.

I have drawn uncomfortable parallels between the right-wing thinking of Trump supporters and those who follow conservative Christian beliefs. I speak for myself when I say that the reason I am not a conservative Christian is because I simply would have to give up too much. I cannot surrender my curiosity, my education or my broad tolerance towards those who are different from me. I cannot in other words withdraw into what I call a dark place of ignorance and hatred that I see being peddled by Christians in many parts of the world. I fear for the United States and the Christian faith taught there if this blight of narrow ignorance cannot be defeated by a new humanity and love.

Surviving Church -taking stock

I have now been writing pieces on the topic of abuse within a church context for well over three years. Most of the time I have been encouraged in this work by the reactions of my readers. At the same time, I have been disappointed not to reach one clientele – the victims and survivors of spiritual abuse. When, at the beginning Chris and I discussed the themes that this blog would cover, we discussed this group. I had a vision of the way that I could expound a gentle exposition of Christianity which could encourage anyone trying to escape legalistic and oppressive expressions of faith. I was aware how much abusive Christian preaching puts out a message which involves fear. Faith for this group of victims is never about moving towards flourishing and growth. It is about trying to escape the terrifying prospect of eternal damnation. I have over the months frequently addressed this aspect of Christianity. The lack of comment or response to these themes suggests that most of my readers do not belong to this group. Like me they are looking at the problem, but from the outside. I have tried to write for this non-victim group as well with the hope that they will become sensitised to this issue even if it does not touch them directly. This group of readers respond best to my topical comments on events within the church. These attract the greatest number of readers. My two posts on the Iwerne camps (written at great speed!) were the most widely read of anything that has appeared so far on this blog. The appearance of this particular news story, although deeply tragic in its implications, provided me perversely with some encouragement. It was a kind of vindication that this topic of abuse intermingled with Christian beliefs and structural institutional failures needs to be better studied and understood. It is important that when stories like this break that there are people such as myself who can offer comment and interpretation.

As I further consider the work of this blog and what it is trying to achieve, I realise that there have been four main themes in my writing. First, and perhaps the most successful, have been my attempts to offer a commentary on topical events. I produced a well-received comment on the information coming out of Exeter Cathedral and York Minster. There have been my numerous mentions of the scandals at Trinity Church in Brentwood Essex. More recently I have allowed myself to make comments on the extraordinary political events in the United States, particularly where extreme right-wing ideas mingle with conservative Christianity. Apart from these forays into current affairs, I have also attempted to write theological reflections which are unashamedly liberal in outlook. These reflections are offered to help individuals who have perhaps spent a long time in a conservative environment. My pieces are to help them see theology in a different and perhaps gentler way. I have been particularly keen to explore the use of Scripture. I have wanted to demonstrate how we can read it in a much broader way than some oppressive, even manipulative methods of interpretation.

The third area of writing has been to explore issues around psychology. My years of trying to understand evangelical and conservative religion have led me to read lots of psychological volumes which appear to be relevant to this theme. I know that some of you have found this reflection useful. When I prepare a paper for the International Cultic Studies Association, I usually draw on this reading. One blog post which has been referred to continuously since it was written is the one I wrote on ostracism. I gave a paper on this topic in Stockholm in 2015 and I explored how scholars have located this topic within a new area of research known as social exclusion studies.

The final area of my concern is simply to write pastorally and, I hope, sensitively, for the victims of spiritual abuse. This is the area of writing that achieves the least in the way of comment. I ask myself the question: are the people who find the blog simply uninterested in this aspect of the problem? Perhaps there is another explanation. Perhaps the subjectivity of the topic means that people feel unable or unwilling to comment on these posts which try to explore the experiences of rejection, fear and shame.

In essence, I feel that I have reached a crossroad. To judge from the figures in Google Analytics, it seems that I still have a task to produce commentaries on news events relevant to my interest in power. These should I feel, continue. My more general theological reflections which attract little comment as well as my more pastoral ruminations perhaps should be played down. Another idea that has occurred to me is to reach back and republish some of the older material in the blog. Most of my readers have not been part of the community since the beginning. At least some of the material is sufficiently robust to be used again.

For the next two or three months, I intend to post slightly less often and concentrate on the news and current affairs as they touch on our topic. I shall also be resurrecting some old material which I feel could do with a second airing. At the end of June I am due to give two papers to the ICSA conference in Bordeaux. I shall be sharing the content of each of these papers on the blog. So, while there will be a changed emphasis on the blog, I am by no means abandoning my efforts. Although I take no credit for this, I think it is true that there much more awareness about institutional abuse than there was in 2013. We have also witnessed a greater awareness among ordinary people that power abuse is not necessarily just about sex. The present political situation in America is also a vivid illustration of the relevance of some of the issues covered by this blog. We see on the American political landscape various of the dynamics which we have described taking place in a church setting. From a psychological perspective, many American people appeared to have handed over their self-determination to a power hungry authoritarian figure. President Trump seems to care little for the true interests of the people of America. It is interesting to observe how many people are beginning to speak about American society as having cult-like aspects. The way that truth has been sacrificed to the power needs of senior political leaders is something that has uncanny parallels to the dynamics of authoritarian and abusive churches.

My conclusion is that although some of the original aims of this blog are not being fulfilled, the topic is still of great importance in the world of 2017. The power that is given to church leaders, political leaders and others will often be abused. Paradoxically and tragically this abuse often has elements of collusion between victim and perpetrator. I intend to continue to explore this themes as long as I have the energy and stamina to do so.

A letter to a new Christian

Two nights ago, Chris rang me and mentioned the plight of a Christian woman who had been badly let down by a Christian congregation. He asked me to attempt to articulate in a non-technical way how a new Christian might negotiate their way into a healthy relationship with a Christian congregation and its leaders. This is my attempt.

Dear new Christian,
I am delighted that you have recently discovered the Christian faith and have now begun to attend a church near your home. I hope this will be the beginning of a lifetime of growth and spiritual discovery. I trust that you will also have a deep and lasting knowledge of a relationship with God as he reveals himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In sending you my best wishes, I would like to suggest to you that during these early days of your Christian journey you consider three questions. I am commending these questions to you in my deeply-felt concern for vulnerable new Christians such as yourself. I have sadly witnessed occasions when Christian journeys, having begun well, end in tears.

Good experiences as well as bad ones can occur in any kind of church or tradition. In short you have the same opportunity to flourish and grow in a Roman Catholic environment as you do in a conservative Pentecostal church. There are however problems that can and do arise in any kind of church. This letter is an attempt to help you identify and perhaps avoid these problems before they start. There will be little in this letter about theological issues. What I want to focus on especially are matters concerned with style, management and personality, especially as they touch on the leadership of congregations. These can so easily become the cause of shipwreck for a new Christian as they attempt to build up a relationship with God.

The first question I want you to ask yourself is whether you can completely trust your clergyman or minister. This may seem to be a harsh accusatory note with which to start but the opposite fault, of being too trusting and naïve, is potentially very damaging. Because you are new and inexperienced in the faith, your vulnerability to potential abuse is acute. Of course, the minister may be charming and has extensive biblical knowledge, but do you feel that there anything about his/her personality which leaves you feeling uncomfortable? Do you feel that his/her vocation to ministry is in some way affected by ambition rather than a genuine humility before God? Does he/she appear to be preoccupied with self-importance and/or money? If you can make a favourable judgement about your minister, then it should be possible to trust him/her to be alongside you as you travel on your journey of faith. This minister has a great deal of responsibility to promote the life of faith in his congregation. Equally this trusted role can possibly be reversed in such a way that it may destroy all that you have so far learned in your conversion to the Christian faith.

The second question is one that leads out of the first. The church you have started to attend in is one of many thousands in this country. It has its own history and its own way of doing things. The minister will also have a preference for a particular style of theological teaching. This is his entitlement, to choose a tradition in which he/she feels able to articulate the deepest realities of the Christian faith. This taking of one theological tradition as the basis of an overall teaching programme may, however, also have a shadow side. The choice of one tradition may lead a preacher to disdain or reject other approaches. There may even be a decision to declare that these other theological traditions are false, heretical or demonically inspired. You will of course want to feel a community loyalty and initially support the minister in these intolerant prejudices. But the second question needs to be posed at this point. Is it ever right to condemn other Christians because they believe different things from us? Should we ever tolerate harmful and offensive ideas being spewed from pulpit? When Christian charity breaks down in the cause of preserving ‘biblical truth’, something has gone badly wrong. The church concerned has arrived in a dark place. There are many theological positions that I personally find problematic, including a claim that the Bible is inerrant. I also question whether it is helpful always to focus on the death of Jesus as being the part of his life that is to be most preached about. But I will accept that preachers will find their own ways to interpret God for their congregations and who am I to deny them that privilege? Debating theological issues in a civilised way is one thing, but an intemperate decision to declare another group of Christians as demonic is never acceptable. Perhaps it would be time for you to move on.

It seems to be true that there is a great of resentment against those (such as myself) who do not follow the common conservative belief that treats the Scriptures as inerrant. Let me assure you there are large numbers of good Christian people around the world who worship the Christian God without this belief. Most of the mainstream Christian denominations train their clergy in universities and seminaries where such ideas are rare. The study of Scripture, using the tools of historical and linguistic analysis, has been going on in the West for over 200 years. The conclusions from this approach are not always tidy or unanimous but the scholars and teachers wrestle with the text every bit as vigorously as any Bible preacher. If you are ever told by a minister that you are required to believe in the Bible as factually true because this has always been demanded of Christians, be very wary. In a factual sense, the last part of the statement is as bogus as Trumpian news claims. It really is, in this case, ‘fake news’.

The third question that I would like you to ask of your new church is whether you are permitted to grow spiritually as an individual. Many churches obtain their ‘success’ by giving to their members a tremendous sense of group solidarity through music and other means. This use of loud music which seems to be so widespread today, has one striking but baneful effect. It makes it hard to think while it is going on. One of the important messages of Christ was that the individual is a responsible and independent unit. As individuals, we learn to pray, to experience stillness and accept responsibility for our behaviour. We also need to understand sin as well as experience the dynamics of forgiveness for ourselves and others. In whatever setting your new faith is being expressed, I would like to think that you can resonate with ideas of individual flourishing and growth. I hope that such notions accurately describe your new experience of Christian life.

New Christian, perhaps you could hold these three words in your head as you move forward on your Christian journey. To remind you, the first word is trust in your minister. The second is openness to all, especially other Christians, even when they do things in different ways to you. The third is your growth as an individual. Does your church nourish you and meet your needs so that emotionally, spiritually and intellectually you are growing up to be more like Christ? As you will be aware, a negative answer to any of these questions might indicate that you are not in the right place. You have every right to expect your church to help you especially in these early days of faith. The problems you may have identified will probably not go away. They may indeed get worse. As a new Christian I believe you have a right to belong to a congregation who sustains you and helps you grow. Accepting obstacles such as abuse or cultic behaviour is not inevitable. You deserve a spiritual home which will receive you and allow you to flourish at every level. That is why I ask you to ponder these three issues early on in your time as a new member of your church. God bless you on your journey.

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.