Will God one day be ‘all in all’?

30 January 2020

Can we realistically hope that, in the end, God will restore everything, and that all will be saved? This hope, usually called ‘universalism’, seems to be gaining ground steadily in evangelical circles. A new book on the subject tackles it head-on, and concludes we have every good reason—biblical and otherwise—to embrace it. The book is

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation by David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press, 2019).

tasbsIt takes its title from 1 Timothy 2:3-4, which reads: ‘Our Saviour God…intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth.’ Yes, your Bible version might have ‘wants’ instead of ‘intends that’, but either is a legitimate translation of the underlying Greek word.

The book comes in three parts. Part 1 is The Question of An Eternal Hell. It faces all aspects of the topic and concludes that the classic view of hell is ‘inherently incredible’ and is certainly not forced upon us by Scripture. Part 2 consists of four extended meditations under the heading Apokatastasis (that’s the Greek word translated ‘restoration of all things’ in Acts 3:21). These give a detailed examination of the reasons—biblical, logical and philosophical—pointing to the inevitable conclusion (in the author’s view) that all will indeed be saved. Part 3, What May Be Believed, pulls it all together by way of summary, and drives the message home.

The author is not suggesting that all will come to salvation this side of death, but gives reasons for believing that, post-mortem, God’s love will draw to him even those who outstandingbookdeparted this life spurning him. He has a sound grasp of church history and is thus well able to show that, down the centuries, many churches and Christian scholars and leaders have believed that.

In line with the seriousness of the subject, this is not a light read. The author is verbose, rarely using five words when twenty-five will do. But in spite of that, his reasoning is razor-sharp and his line of argument clear. He is familiar with every argument against his position, including the ones you yourself are probably turning over right now, and he deals robustly with them all. You should hear him out.

In the wake of earlier books on this subject, particularly Gregory Macdonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (2006) and Rob Bell’s Love Wins (2011), this new one is a forceful wave guaranteed to send the tide of evangelical opinion still further up the beach of universalism. Deep down, if we’re honest, we all want it to be true.

[Hart lists the following as New Testament passages pointing clearly to universal salvation, noting that the list is by no means exhaustive: Romans 5:18-19; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Romans 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; Titus 2:11; 2 Corinthians 5:29; Ephesians 1:9-10; Colossians 1:27-28; John 12:32; Hebrews 2:9; John 17:2; John 4:42; John 12:47; 1 John 4:14; 2 Peter 3:9; Matthew 18:14; Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 1:19-20; 1 John 2:2; John 3:17; Luke 16:16; 1 Timothy 4:10.]

Here is a selection of quotations with page numbers.

[In the church’s first 500 years] They believed in hell, though not in its eternity; to them, hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, the healing assault of unyielding divine love upon obdurate souls, one that will save even those who in this life prove unworthy of heaven by burning away every last vestige of their wicked deeds. (1)

Some will claim that universalism clearly contradicts the explicit language of scripture (it does not).  (3)

The very notion that a rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties could, in any meaningful sense, freely reject God absolutely and forever is a logically incoherent one. And a final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how depraved that being might have become. (18)

Christians have been trained at a very deep level of their thinking to believe that the idea of an eternal hell is a clear and unambiguous element of their faith, and that therefore the idea must make perfect moral sense. (18)

[We have] been taught to approve of divine deeds that, were they reduced to a human scale of action, would immediately be recognizable as expressions of unalloyed spite. (21)

I am convinced that practically no one who holds firmly to the majority tradition regarding the doctrine of hell ultimately does so for any reason other than an obstinate, if largely unconscious, resolve to do so, prompted by the unshakable conviction that faith absolutely requires it. (28)

I still insist that most putative believers in an eternal hell do not really believe in it at all, but rather merely believe in their belief in it. (29)

The most popular defense of the infernalist orthodoxy today is also, touchingly enough, the most tenderhearted: the argument, that is, from the rational freedom of the creature, and from the refusal of God to trespass upon that freedom, for fear of preventing the creature from achieving a true union of love with the divine. (33)

The better the rational will knows the Good for what it is—the more, that is, that the will is freed from those forces that distort reason and lead the soul toward improper ends—the more it will long for and seek after the true Good in itself; and, conversely, the more rationally it seeks the Good, the freer it is. (36)

We should all already know that whenever the terms “justice” and “eternal punishment” are set side by side as if they were logically compatible, the boundaries of the rational have been violated. (43)

Another, even feebler attempt to make sense of eternal retribution is the traditional claim that a soul cannot alter its orientation after death. (45)

If there really is an eternal hell for finite spirits, then it has to be the case that God condemns the damned to endless misery not on account of any sane proportion between what they are capable of meriting and how he chooses to requite them for their sins, but solely as a demonstration of his power to do as he wishes. (47)

A father who punishes his child for any purpose other than that child’s correction and moral improvement, and who even then fails to do so only reluctantly, is a poor father. One who brutally beats his child, or wantonly inflicts needless pain of any kind upon his child, is a contemptible monster. And one who surrenders his child to fate, even if that fate should consist in the entirely “just” consequences of his child’s own choices and actions, is an altogether unnatural father—not a father at all, really, except in the most trivial biological sense. (54)

It is not God we are trying to judge when we voice our moral alarm at the idea of an eternal hell, but only the stories we are accustomed to telling about him. (55)

I do in fact believe in hell, though only in the sense of a profound and imprisoning misery that we impose upon ourselves by rejecting the love that alone can set us free. (62)

I have always found what became the traditional majority Christian view of hell—that is, a conscious state of perpetual torment—a genuinely odious idea, both morally and emotionally, and still think it the single best argument for doubting the plausibility of the Christian faith as a coherent body of doctrine or as a morally worthy system of devotion. (65)

If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all, and that any understanding of what God accomplished in Christ that does not include the assurance of a final apokatastasis in which all things created are redeemed and joined to God is ultimately entirely incoherent and unworthy of rational faith. (66)

All comes from God, and so evil cannot be a “thing” that comes from anywhere. Evil is, in every case, merely the defect whereby a substantial good is lost, belied, or resisted. (70)

Paul dared to ask, in the tortured, conditional voice of the ninth chapter of Romans, whether there might be vessels of wrath stored up solely for destruction only because he trusted that there are not: because he believed instead that all are bound in disobedience, but only so that God might finally show mercy to all (Romans 11:32). (73)

Many Christians down the centuries have had to reconcile their consciences to the repellent notion that all humans are at conception already guilty of a transgression that condemns them, justly, to eternal separation from God and eternal suffering, and that, in this doctrine’s extreme form, every newborn infant belongs to a massa damnata, hateful in God’s eyes from the first moment of existence. Really, no one should need to be told that this is a wicked claim. (75)

The very notion of an “inherited guilt” is a logical absurdity, rather on the order of a “square circle.” (75)

The most civilized apologists for the “infernalist” orthodoxies these days tend to prefer to defend their position by an appeal to creaturely freedom and to God’s respect for its dignity. There could scarcely be a poorer argument; whether made crudely or elegantly, it invariably fails, because it depends upon an incoherent model of freedom. (79)

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34): not seeing the Good, says God to God, they did not freely choose evil, and must be pardoned. (80)

It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or out of his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy. (80)

…those three or four deeply ambiguous verses that seem (and only seem) to threaten eternal torments for the wicked. (88)

There is a general sense among most Christians that the notion of an eternal hell is explicitly and unremittingly advanced in the New Testament; and yet, when we go looking for it in the actual pages of the text, it proves remarkably elusive. (93)

If one can be swayed simply by the brute force of arithmetic, it seems worth noting that, among the apparently most explicit statements on the last things, the universalist statements are by far the more numerous. (101)

I prefer a much older, more expansive, perhaps overly systematic approach to the seemingly contrary eschatological expectations unfolded in the New Testament—an approach, that is, like Gregory of Nyssa’s or Origen’s, according to which the two sides of the New Testament’s eschatological language represent not two antithetical possibilities tantalizingly or menacingly dangled before us, posed one against the other as challenges to faith and discernment, but rather two different moments within a seamless narrative, two distinct eschatological horizons, one enclosed within the other. In this way of seeing the matter, one set of images marks the furthest limit of the immanent course of history, and the division therein—right at the threshold between this age and the “Age to come” (‘olam ha-ba, in Hebrew)—between those who have surrendered to God’s love and those who have not; and the other set refers to that final horizon of all horizons, “beyond all ages,” where even those who have traveled as far from God as it is possible to go, through every possible self-imposed hell, will at the last find themselves in the home to which they are called from everlasting, their hearts purged of every last residue of hatred and pride. Each horizon is, of course, absolute within its own sphere: one is the final verdict on the totality of human history, the other the final verdict on the eternal purposes of God… This way of seeing the matter certainly seems, at any rate, to make particularly cogent sense of the grand eschatological vision of 1 Corinthians 15. (103)

Though Paul speaks on more than one occasion of the judgment to come, it seems worth noting that the only picture he actually provides of that final reckoning is the one found in 1 Corinthians 3:11–15, the last two verses of which identify only two classes of the judged: those saved in and through their works, and those saved by way of the fiery destruction of their works. (105)

True, the book of Revelation does contain a few especially piquant pictures of final perdition, if that is what one chooses to cling to as something apparently solid and buoyant amid the whelming floods of all that hallucinatory imagery; but, even then, the damnation those passages describe chiefly falls upon patently allegorical figures like “Hades” (Death personified) or “the Beast” (Rome “brutified”), which hardly seems to allow for much in the way of doctrinal exactitude. (107)

If one chooses to read Revelation entirely as a picture of the final judgment of all creation, and of the great last assize of all souls, one must then also account for the seeming paradox of a prophesied final judgment—one that includes a final discrimination between the saved and the damned—that will nevertheless be succeeded by a new Age in which the gates of the restored Jerusalem will be thrown open, and precisely those who have been left outside the walls and putatively excluded forever from the Kingdom will be invited to wash their garments, enter the city, and drink from the waters of life. (108)

We might even find some support for the purgatorial view of the Gehenna from the Greek of Matthew 25:46 (the supposedly conclusive verse on the side of the infernalist orthodoxy), where the word used for the “punishment” of the last day is κόλασις, kolasis—which most properly refers to remedial chastisement—rather than τιμωρία, timōria—which most properly refers to retributive justice. (116)

It is hard, I know, to convince most Christians that the picture of hell with which they were raised is not lavishly on display in the pages of scripture. (118)

There is, it turns out, no final division between the elect and the derelict here [Romans 9-11] at all, but rather the precise opposite: the final embrace of all parties in the single and inventively universal grace of election. This is why Esau and Jacob provide so apt a typology for Paul’s argument. Esau, we must remember, is not finally rejected in the story of the two brothers; he and Jacob are reconciled, to the increase of both, precisely as a consequence of their temporary estrangement. (136)

[Re Romans 9-11]  For the time being, true, a part of Israel is hardened, but this will remain the case only until the “full entirety” (πλήρωμα, plērōma) of the gentiles enter in. The unbelievers among the children of Israel may have been allowed to stumble, but God will never allow them to fall. And so, if their failure now brings enrichment to the world, how much more will they provide when their own “full entirety” (plērōma) enter in? Temporarily excluded (like Esau) for the sake of “the world’s reconciliation,” they too will at the last be restored to God’s grace; and this will be nothing less than a “resurrection from the dead” (11:11–12, 15). This, then, is the radiant answer dispelling the shadows of Paul’s grim “what if” in the ninth chapter of Romans, its clarion negative. It turns out that there is no final illustrative division between vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy; that was a grotesque, all-too-human thought that can now be chased away for good. God’s wisdom far surpasses ours, and his love can accomplish all that it intends. (136)

This is perhaps the most depressing paradox ever to have arisen in the whole Christian theological tradition: that Paul’s great attempt to demonstrate that God’s election is not some arbitrary act of predilective exclusion, but instead a providential means for bringing about the unrestricted inclusion of all persons, has been employed for centuries to advance what is quite literally the very teaching that he went to such great lengths explicitly to reject. (138)

It would be possible for us to be saved as individuals only if it were possible for us to be persons as individuals; and we know we cannot be. And this, in itself, creates any number of problems for the majority view of heaven and hell. (144)

On the whole, Christians rarely pay particularly close attention to what the Bible actually says, for the simple reason that the texts defy synthesis in a canon of exact doctrines, and yet most Christians rely on doctrinal canons… But the Bible is not a system. A very great deal of theological tradition consists therefore in explaining away those aspects of scripture that contradict the finely wrought structure of this or that orthodoxy. (161)

How many modern Evangelicals think of salvation as something one receives by “accepting Jesus” as one’s “personal lord and savior,” even though such language is wholly absent from the New Testament, and even though all the real scriptural language of salvation is about a corporate condition of sacramental, moral, and spiritual union with the “body of Christ”? (162)

If the story really does end as Augustine and countless others over the centuries have claimed it must, with most—or, at any rate, very many … or, really, any—beings consigned to eternal torment, and if this story then also entails that God freely and needlessly created the world knowing that this would be the result, then Christianity has no “evangel”—no “good news”—to impart. (166)

The idea of a punishment that does not serve an ameliorative purpose—as, by definition, eternal punishment cannot—should be a scandal to any sane conscience. Endless torture, never eventuating in the reform or moral improvement of the soul that endures it, is in itself an infinite banality. A lesson that requires an eternity to impart is a lesson that can never be learned. (168)

If a rational creature—one whose mind is entirely unimpaired and who has the capacity truly to know the substance and the consequences of the choice confronting him or her—is allowed, without coercion from any force extrinsic to his or her nature, to make a choice between a union with God in bliss that will utterly fulfill his or her nature in its deepest yearnings and a separation from God that will result in endless suffering and the total absence of his or her nature’s satisfaction, only one truly free choice is possible. A fool might thrust his hand into the flame; only a lunatic would not then immediately withdraw it. (179)

If human nature required the real capacity freely to reject God, then Christ could not have been fully human. (189)

Evil has no power to hold us, and we have no power to cling to evil; shadows cannot bind us, and we in turn cannot lay hold on them. In the end, God must be all in all. (193)

God’s final victory as described in scripture, will consist not merely in his assumption of perfect supremacy “over all,” but also in his ultimately being “all in all.” Could there then be a final state of things in which God is all in all while yet there existed rational creatures whose inward worlds consisted in an eternal rejection of and rebellion against God as the sole and consuming and fulfilling end of the rational will’s most essential nature? (193)

Over the years, I have dutifully explored all the arguments for hell’s eternity from Christian antiquity to the present, philosophical and theological, and I continue to find them all manifestly absurd. (202)

I honestly, perhaps guilelessly believe that the doctrine of eternal hell is prima facie nonsensical, for the simple reason that it cannot even be stated in Christian theological terms without a descent into equivocity so precipitous and total that nothing but edifying gibberish remains. To say that, on the one hand, God is infinitely good, perfectly just, and inexhaustibly loving, and that, on the other, he has created a world under such terms as oblige him either to impose, or to permit the imposition of, eternal misery on finite rational beings, is simply to embrace a complete contradiction. (202)

Can we imagine—logically, I mean, not merely intuitively—that someone still in torment after a trillion ages, or then a trillion trillion, or then a trillion vigintillion, is in any meaningful sense the same agent who contracted some measurable quantity of personal guilt in that tiny, ever more vanishingly insubstantial gleam of an instant that constituted his or her terrestrial life? And can we do this even while realizing that, at that point, his or her sufferings have in a sense only just begun, and in fact will always have only just begun? What extraordinary violence we must do both to our reason and to our moral intelligence (not to mention simple good taste) to make this horrid notion seem palatable to ourselves, and all because we have somehow, foolishly, allowed ourselves to be convinced that this is what we must believe. (204)

The two exceedingly simple—almost childish—questions that have persistently bothered me down the years, whenever I have tried to make sense of the doctrine of a hell of eternal torment, are whether it lies within the power of any finite rational creature freely to reject God, and to do so with eternal finality, and whether a God who could create a world in which the eternal perdition of rational spirits is even a possibility could be not only good, but the transcendent Good as such. And, for the reasons I have given above, I believe that the answer to both questions must be an unqualified and unyielding no. (208)

 


The eye of the storm

19 December 2019

Chinese Christian leader Watchman Nee (1903-1972) wisely observed: ‘The reason for much poverty of thought is thinking too much.’

For many of us, our biggest struggles are with the tyranny of the mind. There’s so much going on around us, so many demands on our attention, so many compex issues in the world, so many fascinating questions, it’s no wonder that our minds, as they struggle to eye of the stormprocess everything, sometimes come close to bursting. The mental whirlwind threatens to suck us up, tear us to shreds and spit us out into madness.

As a committed Jesus-follower, I’ve learnt a few mental disciplines over the years. I wrote about some of them in my book A Sound Mind.* Since that was published I’ve made further progress in dealing with mind-matters, and one aspect is a departure from something I said in the book.

In the section on meditation, I wrote that, for Christians, meditation means focusing the mind deliberately on good and godly subjects, rather than emptying the mind. The latter, I suggested, causes a vacuum that invites negative stuff to rush in to fill it. And negative stuff is the last thing we want.

While I remain a staunch promoter of choosing what to think about, and of limiting my choices to good and godly topics, I’ve come to see that, alongside this, there’s room for helpful moments of not thinking at all—of deliberately emptying my mind. These days, because I’m far more conscious of God than of the nasty stuff allegedly waiting in the wings to take over the stage of my mind with vile performances, I can retreat confidently from thinking…into the presence of God.

This practice is called centering prayer. While it shares elements with forms of spirituality outside of Christianity, centering prayer is distinctly Christian. It involves coming deliberately into God’s presence, not to ask for things, and not even to offer thanks and praise, but just to be there. To stop mentally hopping around and just relax in his presence, in the knowledge of his steadfast love.

I normally do this at times when I can be alone and undisturbed, and aim for about twenty minutes. I sit upright, with my eyes closed to avoid distractions. I briefly tell the Lord that I’m coming just to be with him. Then I relax and try not to think about anything. To help keep that focus, I have a personal ‘sacred word’ that I repeat to myself as required.

It’s a bit as if, on a warm summer’s day, I were sitting on a rock at the edge of a river, with my feet in the water. Bits and pieces float by on the current and I find myself automatically picking them up. These are the thoughts that appear, unbidden, in my mind: a phone call I need to make today, the conversation I had with a friend yesterday, the mark on the lounge carpet, the tickle in my left ear…

As soon as I become conscious of having picked something up, I gently put it back in the water and let the current carry it away, because I’m not here to think; I’m here just to be in the presence of God.

I’m getting better at this, but the thoughts still intrude every few seconds. It can be frustrating, and the temptation is for me to berate myself for my ineptitude. But that wouldn’t help. It would only unleash a host of jumpy thoughts, and that’s the opposite of what I’m aiming for. So I try to relax, let the river carry all that away, and remind myself briefly that God understands and is not displeased. And so I return, to think of nothing and relax in his presence. I’m ‘centered’ again.

Sometimes, what I find myself picking up from the water is a spiritual insight. I put that back in the water, too, because the aim of this exercise is not to collect anything, but just to be. I can trust God to bring back to me later that sermon idea, or that angle on a passage of Scripture I’ve been reading. For now, I’m just here, relaxing in God’s presence, soaking up the sunshine of his love.

Time passes fast this way. Twenty minutes are soon gone. I wind up with a brief spoken prayer, get up and go about my business.

The benefits of this practice are more in the long-term than the immediate, I’ve found. The scientists say that it leads to some gradual neural re-wiring that makes for a calmer disposition and the ability to be more in control of one’s reactions. And since it’s true that we inevitably become more like the god we worship, the Christian can see centering prayer as one means by which the Holy Spirit can further the process of transforming us gradually ‘into his image’ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Watchman Nee would have approved, I’m sure. If ‘thinking too much’ leads to ‘poverty of thought’, here is one way, at least, of taming our wild thinking and thus becoming richer.

At the eye of the mental storm is a place of calm. I invite you to explore it.

*  My book is available from Amazon, in Kindle format only now. For further information on centering prayer, download the guide from Contemplative Outreach here.

 


APITF Second Edition!

16 December 2019

I launched my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, in 2016. It shows how many traditional evangelical beliefs have come under question in recent years. And this, not by enemies of the Christian faith, but by solid, committed followers of Jesus who have been bold enough to query some aspects of their faith.

apitf cover 2nd edn small for FB

Cover of the new Second Edition of A Poke In The Faith

My aim in writing the book was, first, to spell out some of the challenges being made—most of which I’m in sympathy with, but others not—and, second, to show how it’s possible to face up to them without losing your own faith.

The latter came, in turn, out of the grim awareness of an increasing number of Christians who have jacked in their faith all together. And the reason they have done so, it appears, is because they have held to an inter-connected belief system in which every item is linked to all the rest. As a result, if an attack on one item brings it down, the whole belief-system comes crashing down with it.

In my book, therefore, I set out to show that you don’t have to have a tightly inter-connected system. That sets you free, then, to let go of—or adopt a different view of—certain items without having the whole faith-structure collapse around you.

Since the book went public on my website, I’ve had a steady flow of responses from people in many countries  who have found it helpful in just the way I intended, which is gratifying. Most of these have been Christians with a long evangelical history. Many of them have been questioning certain aspects for years, but have never dared make it known, for fear of being thought to be ‘backsliders’.

Naturally, I’ve also had a handful of vitriolic responses writing me off as an irretrievable heretic!

A few of the topics covered are:

  • Heaven and hell
  • What happened at the cross?
  • Creation and evolution
  • Interpreting the Bible
  • Belief-systems like Calvinism
  • What the Bible is and is not
  • The meaning of ‘justification’
  • What exactly is ‘the gospel’?
  • The kingdom of God
  • Christianity and other religions

Now (December 2019) I have updated A Poke In The Faith to its Second Edition. This involves a few minor tweaks to the text, plus three new topics:

  1. A section on ‘the wrath of God’
  2. A chapter on the doctrine of ‘original sin’
  3. A chapter applying current thinking on Bible interpretation to the fraught topic of homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular

You can download the book for free here. It’s available in PDF, Kindle and epub formats which, between them, mean you can read it on any computer, tablet or phone. I invite you to give it a read in the hope that, along with many other readers, you will find it informative and, hopefully, liberating.

The same link will give you access to my other current free e-book, Signposts To God. This is an evangelistic book aimed at people who at present don’t have any active faith but are beginning to feel their way towards God. Please don’t hesitate to download it and pass it on to anyone you feel might find it helpful.

And if you have any feedback to offer, I’d be very happy to receive it. You can email me via the link on my website at www.davidmatthew.org.uk

[If you have found this interesting, you might also like this post.]

 

 


Badly Behaved Bible

27 November 2019

There seems to be, these days, a steady flow of new books about what the Bible isn’t and is. I find this very heartening; many of the problems evangelicals are encountering today stem from an unhealthy adoration of the Bible, and untenable ideas about its inerrancy. So it’s good to see a respected author like Nick Page weighing in on the subject. The book is

The Badly Behaved Bible: Thinking again about the story of Scripture by Nick Page (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019).

tbbbNick is known for his unique mix of humour and serious issues, and he lives up to that reputation in this, his latest work. Our difficulties with the Bible, he maintains, arise from the fact that we have been misinformed about it. We expect it to be something it’s not. And the way to find a better position is ‘to stop studying it’. He brings balance to our perception of what ‘the word of God’ is, and what ‘inspired’ means in relation to the Bible, and his answers are not the usual mainstream ones.

He faces up to the complexities of the canon and its formation. He makes a strong case for the prominence of the ‘story’ aspect of the Bible, and how this requires us to respond to the text. He faces the unsavoury bits of Scripture head-on, and pulls no punches in his assessment of them. For every point he makes, he pulls together lots of biblical instances. Like the Christmas story which, in today’s world is a long way from what the New Testament says and means.

A key focus is the plain fact that the Bible portrays a people whose understanding of God is constantly developing, so that we get contradictory views about him at different stages of Old Testament history. Hence the folly of trying to reach a composite biblical view of what God is like; it just can’t work. God is like Jesus; end of story.

I like the way that Nick Page, a totally committed Christian, extols the virtues of doubt. It outstandingbookis a key part of the lives of all who are honest about their spiritual journey. He gives examples from various Bible characters and cautions his readers against equating doubt with backsliding. Well done! His tackling of the theodicy issue in this respect is brilliant.

He cautions against a blind ‘obedience’ to the Bible; it isn’t that kind of book. He shows how both the Law and the Prophets changed position on various issues, so which one should we obey? In practice, we all pick and choose the bits we prefer, opting, for example to insist on tithing but to look down on tattoos.

He covers all the major topics that Christians have tended to ignore, like the violence in the Bible and God’s commands to commit genocide. His answers are convincing and clearly argued. Ancient approaches to writing history were a far cry from modern historiography, and we should expect the ancient Bible texts to conform to it. And he examines the way Jesus and the New Testament writers treated OT scripture in a cavalier manner, with little regard to its original context.

He concludes with some wise guidelines for reading and using the Bible today. They are sensible, balanced and workable. So read Page’s book, and start putting his advice into practice!

[The numbers that follow are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

We are told that the Bible is inerrant, infallible and without contradiction, and then discover that there are two different creation stories and two versions of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, and that the New Testament writers misquote the Old Testament. Not only that, the Bible thinks the world is flat, with a big domed canopy above it to hold the water out.  (72)

Many of the saints whose Christlike lives changed their world were illiterate. For them, the right way to read the Bible was simply to listen to the stories, to learn the texts and to live it out.  (150)

I’ve come to this conclusion: I hate the phrase ‘Bible study’. And I want to ban it.  (177)

For the early church the ‘word of God’ was not the written text, but the spoken gospel: it refers to words said, not words read.  (325)

The Bible was written and compiled by humans, but God filled it with his presence.  (452)

If we insist on seeing the books as one unified work then we will always have problems with the fractures, the edit points, the duplications and the differing details. But if we just let the text speak for itself, then a different picture emerges: one of collaboration and careful preservation, one of multiple authors and witnesses, each doing their bit to tell the great story of God and humanity.  (867)

The contents of the Jewish Scriptures were not finally settled until about AD 90; the contents of the New Testament not until around AD 400.  (898)

Countless sermons and talks give the impression that characters in the Bible are really just like us, only with loincloths and more sheep.  (1797)

The Bible shows us people as they are, not as how we’d like them to be. Samson slept with prostitutes, Abraham passed his wife off as his sister, Jacob was a blasphemous liar, Joseph was a spoilt brat, Moses disappointed God so badly that he wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land, and Solomon, as well as building the Temple, ended up worshipping all kinds of other gods and marrying any woman with a pulse. And it’s not just in the Old Testament. Peter flip-flopped between eating with Gentiles and not eating with them. Jesus’ mother and brothers thought he was mad. And Paul had the temper of a bull hippo with a toothache.  (2052)

For much of the Old Testament history they believed that there were loads of gods, but Israel’s was the best.  (2223)

What I’m trying to show here is that (a) Israel’s concept of who God is changes through time, and (b) much of the Old Testament assumes the reality and presence of other gods.  (2249)

So much of our theology is built on the idea that everything is in God’s plan, but what if that doesn’t mean quite what we think it means? How much does our disobedience and our failure come as a surprise to God? How much does God change his mind? Is he playing the great tune of history from a written score or is he a jazz improviser working within patterns but always adapting creatively?  (2420)

Israelite ideas about who God was and what he was like changed and developed over the centuries. So we often find theology in the Bible that is either wrong or incomplete. Because the people in the Bible are still trying to work things out.  (2462)

People will insist on trying to turn the Bible into a systematic theology. But the Bible refuses to behave that way. There’s nothing systematic about the Bible, largely because it’s about humans who, despite valiant efforts throughout the centuries by various philosophers and sages, generally tend to prefer unsystematic thinking. The Bible isn’t a unified theology, but it is a unified story. Stories don’t deal in systematic thought. Stories may be used to challenge and explain, to connect and to work things out, but they do it by inviting us to think, not telling us what to think.  (2514)

The contradiction between doctrine and real experience: that’s what doubt is all about.  (2623)

Monotheism brings with it a problem: if there is only one God, then who can you blame for the bad stuff?  (2638)

[Re Job]  Yahweh accepts the challenge. He allows The Satan to put Job to the test. (It seems to me that, right away, we’re in a work of fiction. And if you don’t think this is a work of fiction, then you have some explaining to do as to why God kills people and tips Job’s whole life down the toilet simply to win a bet.  (2759)

Churches that deny oxygen to doubt and questions are really protecting not the Bible but the pastor.  (2914)

I am convinced that our failure to bring lament into our acts of worship is one of the reasons why so many people drift away from the Church.  (2979)

Gifts need to be given. People need to be paid. But it’s no longer a law. The tithe as it was originally stated no longer holds force. You can’t claim that tithing is obligatory for Christians from the Bible.  (3251)

Ultimately, I believe the authority of Scripture means the authority to live like Jesus. I’m a Christian. I’m not a follower of Paul of Tarsus or Moses or Isaiah.  (3412)

A disciple is one who learns by imitation – in this case by centring our whole life on the presence, teaching and example of Jesus Christ. This is why in your canon within the canon the Gospels have to take pride of place.  (3412)

If the Bible has authority in my life, then it will not be as a set of rules and regulations telling me exactly what to do in any circumstance, but as a story that authorises me to act in a Christlike way.  (3425)

All this – the hyperbole, the formulaic writing, the presence of different traditions within the Bible itself – should alert us to the possibility that the account of the conquest is not documentary history as we would write it today.  (3576)

If you have found this interesting, you might like to look at my own e-book on the subject, entitled A Poke In The Faith. You can find it here.


Charles’s Off-day

13 November 2019

We all have our off-days—even all-time greats like William Wordsworth. Once, describing ‘a little muddy pond’ that he came across on a walk in the Lake District, the poet wrote:

I’ve measured it from side to side:
‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.
[1]

‘Sublime’ isn’t the word that springs to mind on that couplet, but we excuse him because of the many beautiful poems he wrote that were truly sublime. He was human, after all, and no-one can sustain a level that never dips into the banal.

charles wesleyHymnwriters are the same—even the great Charles Wesley. The English-speaking church throughout the world still sings many of the hymns that flowed from his heart and his pen in the eighteenth century. And rightly so. He had a gift for expressing the deepest spiritual truths and Christian experiences in words remarkably concise and, at the same time, profoundly compelling. Take the following, for instance, which in addition to top prize for giving wings to our wonder at what the Lord has done for us, deserves a medal for daring to start with ‘And’:

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Saviour’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain?
For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Brilliant! But when you write nearly 7,000 hymns they can’t all be top-notch, even in a revival, and dear old Charles had his off-days. I’m going to stick my neck out and say it was on such a day—in 1747—that he penned ‘Love divine, all loves excelling.’

Yes, I know this hymn is probably in his top ten for general popularity, and for weddings it’s almost certainly Number One. But it’s poor stuff compared with his best. Somehow the meaning doesn’t seem to ‘flow’. In fact I’ve never been able to sing it without wondering what it’s really about. Is it a prayer for salvation? For some other blessing? For eternity and God’s presence? Or is it just, ‘More, Lord!’—without specifying more of what? Or does it ask for something completely different? I find it puzzling and frustratingly vague and, as such, very unlike Charles Wesley, who typically used words with care and precision.

To save you having to look it up, here it is. The Methodist Hymns And Psalms version has only three verses, but I have also included Verse 2 as this appears in some hymn books and is, I’m informed, genuine Wesley:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All they faithful mercies crown.
Jesu, thou art all compassion,
Pure, unbounded love thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, oh breathe thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast;
Let us all in thee inherit,
Let us find thy promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, almighty to deliver,
Let us all thy grace receive;
Suddenly return, and never,
Never more thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve thee as thy hosts above,
Pray and praise thee without ceasing,
Glory in thy perfect love.

Finish then thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.

For sure, singing this hymn—especially to the tune Blaen Wernleaves you feeling good, which is no bad thing. At a gut level it does the business. But if I were to ask you to summarise in a couple of short sentences what its overall message is, you may hit problems. Most of the folk I’ve asked have scrutinised it long and hard, with lots of Mmmms and a furrowed brow, only to duck out with, ‘Well, I’m not sure, really’.[2]

Maybe it would help to check a few hymn books and see in which category they place it. Here are a few I pulled off my shelf:

  • Methodist Hymns & Psalms   The Praises of Jesus
  • Sankey    Public Worship: Songs of Praise
  • Christian Praise   The Man of God: Consecration and Discipleship
  • Grace Hymns   The Christian Life: Devotion
  • Redemption Hymnal    Worship: Aspiration
  • Golden Hymnal   The Christian Life: Fellowship with God and Union with Christ
  • Songs & Hymns of Fellowship   Jesus

That doesn’t narrow the field much. In checking the various hymn books, however, I did notice a couple of other things. First, the punctuation varies, sometimes affecting the meaning. And second, there’s some variation in the wording. For example, Wesley originally wrote ‘Let us all thy life receive’ in Verse 3—which suggests it is a request for new life, for salvation—but the 1935 revision of the Methodist Hymnal changed ‘life’ to ‘grace’, which could make the request more generalVerse 2 has been changed the most. Wesley originally wrote:

Let us find that second rest;
Take away our 
bent to sinning…

The reason this verse doesn’t appear in some hymn books, apparently, is that some find it doctrinally dodgy. The books that include it have adjusted the words to make it more acceptable.

But we’ll skip these minor issues for now and stick with the hymn’s overall meaning. I invite you to read it again, thinking about what Wesley actually says, then ask yourself, ‘What is his sequence of thought? What is the hymn actually saying?’ Like me, you will find some parts that are like lean meat among the gristle: tasty and satisfying, and you don’t have to chew too much. The second half of Verse 3, for example, which expresses so well our desire to be as liberal and unfettered in our praise of God as are the angels in heaven.  And the second half of the last verse, which reminds us that we are on a journey of sanctification that will one day end with unspeakable joy in his presence. The rest you might chew ad infinitum until you spit it out as unswallowable.

So what is it about? ‘Well, it’s all about love, isn’t it?’ say the bride and groom who have picked it for their wedding service.

I think we can safely ditch that idea. A couple in love spot the word ‘love’ in the title, read the first two lines and conclude, ‘Ooh, fantastic! It’s all about love. And we’re in love. And sometimes our love feels so wonderful it seems to have an almost heavenly, divine quality. And—would you believe it?—there’s the word ‘divine’ in the opening line! And Line 2 says this heavenly love has come down to earth. So, yes, it really does describe the love we share. Well done, Wesley! We’ll use this as the opener at our wedding.’

Even though this hymn hasn’t, in fact, the remotest connection with romantic or married love, the wedding congregation will sing it through without batting an eyelid—and without any clue as to what they are really singing about.

What the hymn is about, we can safely say, is sanctification—the process by which Christians leave behind their old, sinful ways and become in character gradually more like Jesus. Down the centuries, Christians have adopted various views about sanctification and how it works, and this hymn reflects one view that was popular in Wesley’s day but which other Christians, both then and since, have viewed with suspicion. They are the ones who omit Verse 2.

But let’s start at Verse 1 and try to work our way through the hymn, hopefully to get a grip on what it’s all about. Brace yourself: it’s not easy!

Verse 1

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down…

The whole hymn is a prayer, and here we are addressing Jesus. He’s the one who came down to earth from heaven to incarnate and demonstrate the Father’s love for us. So it’s not some abstract idea of love we are singing about, it’s him. This is confirmed later in the verse, where we address him by name:

Jesu, thou art all compassion,
Pure, unbounded love thou art.

Yes, he is the very personification of heavenly ‘love’, of God’s ‘compassion’. Good. All clear so far. The other two couplets of Verse 1 are where, in our prayer, we ask him to do something for us:

Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All they faithful mercies crown.

We ask him to come and live in us—a ‘humble dwelling’ indeed for the one used to the glory of heaven and the Father’s company. But what we are supposed to mean by this request? Your guess is as good as mine. Are we asking him to save us? Maybe—though many of us who sing it are saved already, committed Christians in whom Christ, by his Spirit, already dwells. Since Wesley wrote it for Christians to sing, is there, perhaps, some further ‘coming and dwelling’ that the hymn may be requesting, one that will be the ‘crowning’ moment, the pinnacle, of all the ‘faithful mercies’ that God bestows on us, his children? Perhaps the remaining couplet will clarify what it is we’re asking for:

Visit us with thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

The trembling heart, no doubt, is the excitement, tinged with holy fear, that we feel in anticipation of this unidentified coming and dwelling. Which leaves only, ‘Visit us with thy salvation’. Ah, there’s the answer, then: this is a prayer for salvation. In that case how can this be an appropriate hymn for already committed Christians to sing? Unless, of course, salvation somehow comes in two stages. But it doesn’t, does it?

Verse 2

This is the verse that many hymn books omit. As we have noted, some compilers have skipped it because of their doubts about its doctrinal soundness. In fact Verse 2 caused controversy in Wesley’s own day. Let’s take a look at it and see if we can fathom out why. It starts clearly enough, still addressing Jesus:

Breathe, oh breathe thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast.

We singers have a ‘troubled breast’, that is, a heart all a-flutter with worries and fears. We need something to calm the trouble, and that something is God’s reassuring love, so we ask Jesus to ‘breathe’ his ‘loving’ Holy Spirit into us. Wesley here uses the ‘breathing’ terminology of John 20:22. OK so far.

Let us all in thee inherit,
Let us find thy promised rest.

If you know your Old Testament you will recall that the term ‘inherit’ was used primarily of the Israelites entering the Promised Land.[3] The land was the inheritance that God had undertaken to give them. Entering it meant an end to the long years of wandering in the desert living in tents, and in that respect it represented the ‘rest’ that they needed. In Canaan they could settle at last, build houses and till the fields. So the land was both their ‘inheritance’ and their ‘rest’.[4] The New Testament takes up this imagery and points out that the Israelites’ entry into Canaan was just a figure of a far greater ‘inheritance’ and ‘rest’ to follow, namely the wonderful salvation that has become ours through Christ. In him we come out of the spiritual desert and give up the wearying struggle to please God by our own efforts, and so we enjoy the ‘rest’ of faith.[5]

It is this imagery that Wesley takes up here in Verse 2, where our prayer continues with the plea that we might find our spiritual ‘inheritance’, our ‘rest’. That fits in fine if this hymn is indeed a prayer for salvation. But I can assure you this was not Wesley’s intention because his original version had, ‘Let us find that second rest.’ What on earth did he mean?

In Wesley’s day there was a doctrine doing the rounds called ‘entire sanctification’. According to this view, an initial salvation experience—justificationwas not sufficient. It needed supplementing with a second experience of grace, one of sanctification, by which the believer was freed from the power of sin and enabled to live a life of complete holiness or, to use a phrase common at the time, of ‘perfect love’. This second work, according to its proponents, was not so much a process as a powerful crisis-experience, received by faith, and some went so far as to say that the believer could, as a result of it, attain ‘sinless perfection’ this side of Christ’s return.

Charles believed strongly in this two-stage approach, and it is to an experience of the second stage that he refers in the line, ‘Let us find that second rest.’ Knowing this background, we have the key to the whole hymn. It is, in fact, the prayer of Christians who have experienced Stage 1 but not yet Stage 2, and their plea is that, as they reach out in faith, God might grant them the Stage 2 blessing.

So we can now look back to Verse 1 and better grasp what Wesley was writing about. The ‘trembling heart’, we now see, is one desperate for an experience of ‘entire sanctification’. While grateful for God’s ‘faithful mercies’ to us so far, including justification, we still yearn for those mercies to be ‘crowned’ with the ultimate mercy of a sanctifying experience, and we look to the one who is ‘love divine’ to ‘visit’ us with this second aspect of ‘salvation’, that is, to provide it.

Christians unable to subscribe to such views modified this line from ‘Let us find that second rest’ to ‘Let us find thy promised rest’, which is loose enough for us to apply to spiritual rest in a more general sense, whether it be peace in times of anxiety or the fulness of our inheritance that will become ours only at Christ’s return. But that is certainly not what Charles Wesley set out to say.

The hymn’s second verse also becomes clearer now. It is the ‘loving Spirit’ who will provide, through such an experience, the perfect love we want to fill our ‘troubled breast’. Wesley takes some liberties with the Bible’s ‘inheritance’ and ‘rest’ imagery. In the New Testament it refers to salvation by faith in Christ, but Wesley narrows it to mean the desired Stage 2 experience. The rest of Verse 2 continues the underlying sanctification theme:

Take away the love of sinning.

Believers in ‘entire sanctification’ maintained that a Stage 2 experience put an end once for all to the pull of the sinful nature, striking a death-blow to the very source of sinful impulses. Wesley’s original line—‘Take away our bent to sinning’—expressed this clearly. But some Christians, uncomfortable with Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification, could not in good conscience sing this line and so modified it to ‘Take away the love of sinning’, in the hope that all believers would be able to sing this as an expression of their general desire to live a life free from besetting sin. And sing it, praise God, we can.

Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Here we continue to address Jesus, who is ‘the Alpha and the Omega…the Beginning and the End’ (Revelation 22:13). In the light of what we now know about the hymn’s doctrinal background we can be certain that here, according to Wesley’s intentions, we are asking Jesus who, as ‘Alpha’ and ‘Beginning’, has given us the experience of justification, to now fulfil his role as ‘Omega’ and ‘End’ by granting us the subsequent experience of entire sanctification and, in so doing, ‘set our hearts at liberty’ from their ‘trembling’ and troubles.

Verse 3

Now we’re on a roll because we know the nature of Wesley’s concern, and Verse 3 continues the theme:

Come, almighty to deliver,
Let us all thy grace receive;
Suddenly return, and never,
Never more thy temples leave.

Some might see a reference to Christ’s second coming in the phrase ‘suddenly return’, but it is highly unlikely that this was Wesley’s thought. In his theology, to pray ‘Let us all thy grace receive’ is to request the second grace of ‘entire sanctification’. Jesus, who is ‘almighty to deliver’, can rescue the Christians who have progressed no further than Stage 1 from the pain of their predicament, and can do it in an instant, in a ‘sudden return’ to their hearts. He has come once to bring justifying grace; now he will ‘return’ to bring sanctifying grace, and having done so, Jesus will never again leave them because these believers are ‘temples’ in whom Christ will now dwell permanently by his sanctifying Spirit.[6]

Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve thee as thy hosts above,
Pray and praise thee without ceasing,
Glory in thy perfect love.

At last a fairly straightforward bit. Yes, we do want to be as free and unceasing in our praise as the angels in heaven. For Wesley, of course, a Stage 2 experience is the key to triggering it in our lives here below, for this is an experience of ‘perfect love’—a much-used synonym  for ‘entire sanctification’ in his day. Today we sing these four lines without that connotation, and they remain an eloquent expression of our longing to give the Lord the praise due to him. We would say about them, ‘This is Wesley at his best’, though the man himself would probably turn in his grave if he knew how far we had strayed from his original sentiments.

Verse 4

In this final verse the sanctification theme persists as strongly as ever:

Finish then thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be.

We tend to read these words as an aspiration towards that happy day when Jesus will return to take us home. Then, he will purge away all remaining traces of sin and will put the finishing touches to the ‘new creation’ that took place when we were born again.[7] Wesley may also have had this in mind, but primarily he was talking about a Stage 2 experience by which the believer, this side of glory, could be ‘pure and spotless’ in his enjoyment of Christian perfection.

Let us see thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in thee.

This couplet has always been, to me, the most puzzling in the whole hymn. Clearly I’m not the only one with a problem, because hymnbook compilers have changed it more than any other. One hymnal, for example, has: ‘Let us see our whole salvation perfectly restored in thee’.[8] Another has: ‘Let us see our whole salvation perfectly secured by thee’.[9] But Wesley wrote it as quoted above. It makes sense to see it as somehow in line with the theme of the hymn as a whole, but how? Many of us who sing it have quietly thought—to quote the man himself, in another hymn—‘Tis mystery all’.

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to know I think I’ve cracked it. The punctuation is the key. All the Methodist hymn books, including the current Hymns And Psalms, place a vital comma at the end of the first line. This serves to clarify that what is ‘restored’ is not God’s ‘great salvation but ‘us’, who see it. On this basis the gist of the couplet is: ‘‘Let that state of affairs come about whereby, in receiving the second blessing and thus being restored completely (‘perfectly’) from our Adamic condition to what you always intended for redeemed humanity, we experience (‘see’) your great salvation in full.’ If this is right, and I’m now sure it is, Wesley wasn’t producing his best writing here, which supports my ‘off-day’ theory.

The last four lines, by contrast, are wonderful:

Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.

No need to get tied up in doctrinal knots here—we can all rejoice in such prospects. As for Charles Wesley, while he may have been prone to overwork the ‘crisis’ aspect of sanctification as a Stage 2 experience, here he clearly acknowledges that there is also a ‘process’ aspect to our becoming more like Jesus. He refers, of course, to Paul’s statement about that process in 2 Corinthians 3:18, which the KJV renders, ‘We…are changed into the same image from glory to glory’.

That process will culminate when ‘in heaven we take our place’ and find ourselves capable of praising and worshipping our Lord and Saviour in perfect bliss and without limits. Then we will gladly ‘cast our crowns’ at his feet, acknowledging him alone as King of kings.[10]

So that’s it. Now I know why I have always found this hymn so frustratingly vague: it’s because the original words have been seriously tweaked to mask its doctrinal dubiousness, and because what in an eighteenth-century context was crystal clear—the typical Wesley style—we today sing without that context and so are left with a string of inspirational phrases that are like a sheep’s coat: warm but woolly.

What will all this do for our attitude to Wesley’s hymn from now on? That we will all continue to sing it is, I hope, beyond doubt. The modifications made by history to his original words, to make them more acceptable, have been enough to push the hymn into the OK-zone. And if Verse 2 gives you problems even in its tweaked form, you can always choose to sing the three-verse version.

But you won’t be able to sing ‘Love divine’ now without knowing both the controversy behind it and its original meaning. Like Jacob who, after his encounter with Truth incarnate, walked with a permanent limp, you will always bear, as you sing, the scars of coming face-to-face with the truth behind this hymn. Happily, Jacob went on to live a long and productive life, and I hope that you will still find yourself able to sing Charles Wesley’s ‘off-day hymn’ frequently and productively as long as you live.

Footnotes

1. From Wordsworth’s poem The Thorn, stanza 3, part of his Lyrical Ballads, 1798.

2. Some have surmised that it’s just a general seeking after God. Others that it is saying, ‘Lord, finish the work you’ve started in me.’ A few see it as a prayer for salvation. Some Pentecostals think it may be a prayer for baptism in the Holy Spirit. Most just don’t know.

3. E.g. Leviticus 20:24; Deuteronomy 12:10 etc.

4. For the ‘rest’ imagery see, e.g. Deuteronomy 3:20; Joshua 1:13, 15

5. See Hebrews 3:7 – 4:11

6. 1 Corinthians 6:19

7. 2 Corinthians 5:17

8. Golden Hymnal, No. 362

9. Redemption Hymnal, No. 71

10. See Revelation 4:10


Painting and Sung Worship

27 September 2019

Back in her school-days, Amanda had been good at art. She promised herself that, one day, she would take up watercolour painting. And one day, in middle age, she did.

She bought the basic kit: tubes of paint in a selection of colours, a small easel, and a range of good brushes. Guided by YouTube videos, she made a start, and was soon making some progress. Not great art, perhaps, but highly satisfying, relaxing and, she felt, uplifting.

nettle bunchIn due course, she decided it was time to join a watercolour evening class, where she could get some proper teaching, learn from others and be stimulated by their skills and their company. This she did, but got a shock at the first session.

As Amanda was getting her brushes and other stuff out of her bag, ready for the session, the teacher made an announcement for the benefit of herself and a couple of other new members: ‘No, leave your brushes where they are, please. At this class we have left such traditional items behind. Instead, we paint with nettle brushes only.’

‘And what on earth are they?’ asked Amanda, curious.

The teacher held up a limp-looking object for all to see. It looked a bit like a faded posy. ‘This,’ she announced, ‘is a nettle brush. As you can see, it’s a bunch of nettle stems, held together with a rubber band. You use this as your brush, dipping it into your paints and applying it to the paper to create some fascinating effects. This, my friends, is the future of watercolour painting!’

Being new, and wanting to appear compliant, Amanda took the bunch handed to her by the teacher and got to work with it. It was a struggle, understandably. For a start, the nettles stung her hand. Then she noticed that everybody else was wearing rubber gloves, and made a mental note to bring some next time.

But the main problem was the lack of precision and control. Sure, the nettle brush created some unusual effects, but not always the ones she would have chosen. After a few dips in the water-pot, it became even less controllable. Indeed, it became a positive hindrance to her getting the kind of results she wanted. How she longed for her familiar set of well-used sable and prolene brushes!

At her second class, increasingly frustrated, she asked the teacher when the nettle brush experiment would end, so that she could revert to her regular tools.

‘Experiment?’ retorted the teacher. ‘This is no experiment! This is the very essence of modern watercolour technique. It’s the only way forward for us. So like it, or lump it.’

After one more week of frustration, Amanda packed the class in, and never went back. Instead, she started meeting up with a couple of friends who, like her, were amateur watercolourists. They would get together one afternoon a week to paint together, encourage one another and, yes, to enjoy experimenting with new techniques, though it’s no surprise that nettle brushes never came up.

Now, for ‘painting’ read ‘sung worship’.

If, to you, ‘sung worship’ means the liturgical practice of your local parish church, or the customary string of eighteenth-century hymns at the Sunday-morning chapel service, this is not for you. I’m referring to the music of what are sometimes dubbed ‘the new churches’, the ones that are growing steadily, with some variety in the services, and oodles of young people. The sung worship there is led by a ‘worship band’. That’s mostly guitars, plus drums and a bass.

Of course, younger folk who have never even heard of fine-tip sable brushes, having been reared from childhood on nettle ones, think nettling is normal. To them, the contemporary style and repertoire of the worship band is normal. But anyone who has known anything of the musical and poetic riches of the church’s 2000-year history finds it excruciating. Like Amanda, after a week or two, they are ready to walk away, because asking them to offer sincere worship via this medium is as futile as asking them to eat their consommé with chopsticks.

Musically, most of the current songs are inept, to say the least. They follow the trend of modern secular songs in tending to be tuneless, counter-intuitive, pitched too high or too low, painfully repetitive and virtually unsingable—at least by a congregation.

As for the words, some are reasonable. They can use phraseology that would seem out of place in a traditional hymn, and that’s no bad thing. But a majority are theologically weak, as nourishing as watered-down soup. And the generous sprinkling of ‘yeah’, ‘oh-oh-oh’ and ‘gonna’ does nothing to beef them up. Many focus on me and how I feel, rather than on the majesty of God and his great salvation. Some, I fear, are complete gobbledygook, with words that would defy any attempt to say what they mean, or even how one line connects in meaning with the line before.

‘But this is the future,’ we’re told if we point out that nettle brushes sting and make a mess rather than enhancing our lives as a thing of beauty. There’s an unbelievable arrogance in turning up one’s nose at the rich musical heritage of the last two millennia by acting, in practice, as if any song more than five years old is one of those dreadful, old-fashioned sable brushes.

Personally, I’m up for a bit of nettle painting now and again, as long as it’s not all the time. And I wouldn’t want to go permanently traditional again and sing nothing but hymns by Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts. It’s only an insistence on either/or that drives people away: either the older folk, depressed by the tuneless, rhythm-driven modern songs, or the younger ones, repelled (or it is alleged they would be—I’m not so sure) by a singable tune and archaic, though meaningful, words.

But surely it doesn’t have to be exclusively one style or the other? Wise church leaders will insist on a healthy mix, for everybody’s benefit, just as wise parents insist that their kids eat some cabbage and carrots along with their chips and spaghetti hoops.

Which raises an important question: who exactly dictates the style, the ‘culture’ of a church’s sung worship? Leave it to the oldies, and every week they’d sing Amazing Grace, The Lord’s My Shepherd (to the tune Crimond), And Can It Be, and Crown Him With Many Crowns. Plus a dozen other traditional gems. Leave it to the youngsters, and every week we’d get the kind of songs I’ve shot down above. That’s why, if the ‘worship leader’ is eighteen years old and you ask him to include something ‘a bit older’, he’s not to be blamed if, in response, he starts up a song that was at its peak eighteen months ago. He doesn’t know anything older than that.

The default, nevertheless, seems to be to let the youngsters dictate the style. That, I’m convinced, is a huge mistake. The church is primarily a family, with a mixture of ages and personalities, and wise parents make sure that everybody has a say. To let the kids dictate everything is a recipe for disaster in any family. Kids, by definition, lack both experience and wisdom. It’s not their fault. It’s just that they haven’t lived long enough yet. No parents worth the name would ever let them run the family.

So, should we instead let Granny and Grandad dictate the pace? No. They’ve had their prime time. The day when they set the pace has passed, and they’re content now to take a back seat, though still as part of the family, with their wisdom respected, and their preferences at least taken into account.

So who does set the pace, the style, the culture in the family? The parents, of course! The middle generation, the ones old enough to have accumulated a bit of wisdom and experience but who still have some energy and go about them, and the strength and stamina to run the family. And in a church, that must be the leaders. They must cow-tow to the wishes of neither the youngsters nor the oldies, but steer a wise middle course representing love, balance and progress.

Only they can ensure we have a balance of nettle painting and the kind done with brushes. And that, I suggest, is the right formula for growth that is both deep and lasting.

What’s the alternative? Keep banging away with the nettle brushes and you risk losing the older folk, with all the wisdom, experience, finance and commitment that they bring to the church. Sure, the church will still grow, but exclusively with younger people, and that’s not a proper family; it doesn’t reflect the heart of God.

Stick with the set old ways seen in chapels nationwide, and you’ll end up with a shrinking bunch of pensioners and yet another listed building sold off for housing. That’s not family either.

Some have looked for a compromise by having two Sunday services, one called ‘traditional’ and the other ‘contemporary’, with worship-styles to match. It doesn’t usually work for long. It means that there are in reality two congregations—a sixth-form college and an old folks’ home—and never the twain shall meet. From what I’ve seen, both eventually fizzle out.

A variation is to do nettle painting alone at the main Sunday service. Any oldies with a robust constitution are welcome to come along, of course, but most can’t cope with it, so they don’t. Ah yes, so let’s have a completely separate Tuesday afternoon session for Seniors, with the same basic elements that mark the Sunday service: worship, word, communion. But the ‘worship’ bit, of course, will be sable brushes from start to finish, just the way Christian pensioners like it.

Again, it’s splitting the family, which is failure. In the New Testament, the primary metaphor for the church remains family. God is our Father, Jesus is our Elder Brother, and we are all brothers and sisters together—a typical family mix of different ages, male and female, intellectuals and artisans, musical and tone-deaf, introverts and extroverts, and all the other variations. We’re only family if we’re together.

If the Sunday service remains—as, in practice, it does in the ‘new churches’—the main weekly expression of the church’s life and worship, it is there, not somewhere else, where ‘family’ needs to be modelled. Our sung worship is a key element of that service: if that doesn’t express family, then family is absent. And family is what we all want; it’s what we need; it’s what we all long for. Not in theory; in practice.


Proud to be…?

20 August 2019

I’ve lived in Cornwall, England, for the last six years, but I’m really a Yorkshireman. Born in East Yorkshire, I moved to West Yorkshire with my parents at the age of seven and lived there for the next 45 years, apart from three years away at university in Bristol.

yorkshire puddingPeople sometimes say to me, ‘I bet you’re proud to be a Yorkshireman.’ But I’m not. That doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of it, of course. It’s just that I don’t think ‘proud’ is the right word. I’m certainly content to be a Yorkshireman. I love the county, especially the Yorkshire Dales. I sing On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘At with gusto. I’m partial to Yorkshire puddings with my meat and veg, I throw in the odd ‘Eee, by gum!’ when chatting, and even though I’ve travelled the world and lived in other places, my Yorkshire accent still gives me away.

But I can’t really be ‘proud’ of something over which I had no choice. I didn’t ask to be born and raised in Yorkshire; it just happened to me. A few circumstantial blips, and I could have been born instead in Mongolia or Stoke-on-Trent, in Italy or Peru.

My concern about being ‘proud’ of such things, I suppose, is because of its inherent danger: this kind of ‘pride’ can so quickly slide into partisan-spirit, animosity towards outsiders and a general increase in hate and isolation. The situation in Northern Ireland is a perfect example.

Here in Cornwall, I come across locals who trumpet their pride in being Cornish. With most of them, it’s harmless enough. There are many aspects of Cornish life and history to rejoice in: pasties, glorious scenery, the Cornish language (which I’m loving learning), and much more. I have been warmly welcomed by all the Cornish people I’ve met, and I feel very much at home among them.

But there are a few whose ‘pride’ in being Cornish approaches what, to me, are the dodgy fringes. One chap refuses ever to sing ‘God save the queen’ because the queen is English and he isn’t: he’s Cornish. If you’re unaware of Cornish sentiments, I need to explain that cornish pasty2people here who have been away for the weekend, may reply, when asked where they’ve been: ‘I went to England.’ Yes, seriously.

I sing with a local male voice choir, and some of us also do a bit of social singing at local events. One of the favourites in our repertoire extols the virtues of all things Cornish, and the last verse goes as follows:

And when you cross the Tamar
Into this promised land,
There’s one thing to remember,
One thing to understand:
That Cornwall’s not a county
Just sited in the west,
But Cornwall is a country.
It’s the land we love the best.

Fair enough. There is a Celtic heritage in Cornwall, of which the Cornish make much, and I’ve no problem with that, provided it doesn’t slide into animosity towards anything non-Cornish. In most cases it doesn’t. Yes, when England are playing Wales at rugby, some will cheer for Wales because of the shared Celtic heritage, but it’s mostly done with a smile and no real ill-feeling towards the English.

In other cases it comes close to the danger-zone. The unofficial Cornish anthem, Trelawney, can skirt the rabble-rousing boundaries when sung in certain settings, followed, as it often is, by the shout, ‘Come on, Cornwall. Give ’em hell!’ And the other anthem-contender, Hail to the homeland, gets a bit sentimental and silly when it declares:

Hail to the homeland!
Of thee we are a part.
Great pulse of freedom
In every Cornish heart.
Prompt us and guide us,
Endow us with thy power.
Lace us with liberty
To face this changing hour.

Just how a ‘homeland’ can do such metaphysical things is beyond me, and most who sing it, I’m sure, don’t give such questions a moment’s thought. They just sing it, feel a warm sentimental fuzz, and have no thoughts at all of crushing the English or resorting to a punch-up. ‘It makes you,’ they would say, ‘proud to be Cornish.’

All I’m arguing for here is the need for awareness and caution, lest a natural and harmless enjoyment of one’s heritage—or sexual orientation, or religion, colour, class, race or whatever—crosses the line to become a ‘pride’ that leads to animosity, division and potential violence.

Diversity is to be recognised, accepted and maybe even celebrated. But ‘proud to be…’? Let’s be careful. In the meantime, I’m a happy Yorkshireman, delighted to be accepted in Cornwall (where my wife’s roots are), and rejoicing in both Yorkshire puddings and Cornish pasties, a pint of John Smith’s or a pint of Tribute. Can’t be bad!


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