Disney are back once again with Moana and the extent to which you already appreciate the studio will determine how much you get out of their latest. I’m an unabashed fan of Disney and I loved it.
A couple of years ago, I watched every single one of their animated classics (at the time, 52 of them) in one year and wrote lengthy articles about each one. My contention throughout the project was that these are far more than just kids’ films, they’re important works of art – not all of them good, by any means – that can be subjected to as much critical interrogation and examination as any film by David Fincher or whoever else “serious” film critics are obsessing over.
If anything, wrestling with the ideas and craftsmanship of Disney’s output is more important than doing so for many others as the studio exerts a massive cultural influence over waves and waves of children. Just think, there’s a whole generation growing up with ‘Let It Go’ as their mantra. Moana is frustrating because it’s a terrific film and a whole heap more fun than Frozen, but Disney are still clinging to the ideologies that have shaped their storytelling since The Little Mermaid in 1989 and it’s getting harder to simply shrug it off.
Moana is named after the heroine of the story, the daughter of a Polynesian chief and the future ruler her island. Her eyes, however, are constantly on the horizon and she feels the sea calling to her, even though her people are forbidden from sailing beyond the reef. An ancient myth surrounding the demi-god Maui and an encroaching darkness, however, forces Moana to embrace her ancestral traditions of seafaring and wayfinding. She sets out to find Maui, right an ancient wrong and save her people.
Many of the hallmarks of Disney at their best are present and correct. The animation once again pushes the boundaries of what computer generation can achieve. Audiences now take for granted how the brains at Disney can perfectly capture the light falling on water or animate finely detailed sand, but even by their standards Moana is astonishingly beautiful. Yet any animator will tell you that their craft is not just about making something look pretty, you have to imbue every frame with character and appeal. In Moana, we are presented with lurid, neon realms of monsters (the film is rightly a PG due to it being exhilaratingly scary in places) and an ocean that is very literally a character.
The House of Mouse cottoned on to the fact that when they’re telling stories from other cultures, they should probably consult authorities on storytelling from that culture (check) and hire people from that culture for their writing and voice cast (check and check). Bringing on Taika Waititi, the writer/director behind one of the year’s best films, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, to work on the screenplay was an inspired choice. Waititi brings a surreal edge to humour and even brings his old Flight of the Conchords buddy Jemaine Clement along for a hilarious, Bowie-tribute song. Moana is funnier than most of the straight comedies I’ve seen this year.
The multicultural talent behind the film also brings a richness to the storytelling that feels a world away from the trite orientalism of Mulan (a film I love nonetheless). Instead of focussing on one culture, the team were advised to blend different elements from different Polynesian peoples. Moana feels, to this inescapably English critic anyway, soaked deep in Polynesian culture and myth, making the Pacific Islands and rich and rewarding world to explore and giving it an edge over more familiar pseudo-European princess films.
Then there are the songs. Again, I have to declare pre-existing bias, as for the past 18 months I have been singularly obsessed with the original cast recording of Hamilton, a Broadway musical about the founding fathers of America. There’s a whole separate article to be written about that work of unmitigated genius, but when I found out that the man behind it, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was writing the songs for Moana, I figured the film was actually being made for me, personally. Sure enough, the songs are amazing and a good deal more musically interesting than anything in Frozen or Tangled. Miranda’s lyrically dextrous style brings fresh life to familiar tropes such as the “heroes desire” song. (Trend fans! In almost every Disney film, the second song in the film is the one where the protagonist expresses their deepest desire). The highlight of the soundtrack is ‘You’re Welcome’, in which Dwayne Johnson’s Maui extols his own virtues in an insanely catchy number that everyone will be humming in a vaguely blasphemous manner as they leave.
Combine Miranda’s superb songwriting with the aforementioned qualities, as well as a superlative voice cast and pacy, thrilling storytelling and you have a fun, exciting family film that it’s almost impossible to dislike.
Yet there is still a nagging feeling, when watching Moana, that Disney are stuck in a thematic rut. The opening song in English is a revamp of the same ideas explored in the opening number to Beauty and the Beast. There, Belle longs for more than her provincial life, here, Moana is convinced of the virtues of staying within her community and finding everything she needs where she is. This is presented as the bad option. Her song that follows, which is an absolute belter, is then about looking to the horizon and sailing off by herself to find out who she truly is. The entire film revolves around her ‘finding herself’.
Moana herself is actually a great heroine and displays many admirable qualities; part of her self-discovery comes through learning new skills and finding bravery in the face of terrifying sights. Yet my thematic beef with the film boils down to one conversation she has with Maui when they are sailing at night. She discovers that everything Maui has done was to earn the approval of others, to gain affirmation from people cheering his name. It looks like there’s going to be a genuinely powerful message behind it, then Moana literally says that perhaps Maui “was worthy of being saved.” Both characters then go on to prove their ‘worthiness’, proving that you should be yourself as long as yourself is a hero who can defeat lava monsters. Then you’ll find true satisfaction.
It would be easy for Christians to react against surface details in Moana, such as the existence of reincarnation and an arrogant demi-god who makes a lot of similar claims to Yahweh in the book of Job. Yet such details are far less likely to affect audiences than its central message. Kids are more likely to try and find salvation within themselves than convert to Polynesian polytheism. It’s frustrating because after almost two decades of being told to “be yourself” and to “look inside,” western culture still hasn’t found the magic bullet for happiness. Surely by now we’ve worked out that unrestrained independence isn’t the key to the deep dissatisfaction that troubles human hearts? We’ve tried that. To hear a message about self-actualisation once more from Disney makes it harder than ever to just dismiss the ideologies being perpetuated by the studio when they are so persistent with it.
Change your thematic tune Disney (although the music is just fine, thanks).
There are so many ways of doing a "best book of the year" list, it can be difficult to know where to start. If you read a wide variety of books, which this year I've tried to, you can enjoy books for completely different reasons, and people who chime happily with some of your choices will stare in disbelief at others (so I wonder if I'm the only person to have read Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination and Matilda for the first time this year, for example). It's also hard to tell whether you should choose the best books released this year, in which case you narrow the field dramatically unless you pretty much only read new books, or choose the best books you read this year, in which case people will be tutting that some of your choices are now old hat, and some of them you really should have read before (which I certainly concede). Well: so be it. It's my list.
Top Ten New Books
Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots. I was privileged to endorse this, and measured by its impact on the Wilson family alone, it is probably my book of the year. Hannah does a wonderful job of combining theological and biblical reflection, rich horticultural imagery and practical application (so you end up with a chapter on blackberries and suffering, for instance), and both Rachel and I found it spoke right to our souls. It is also the first book I’m planning to re-read from this year’s crop. Superb.
Michael Allen and Scott Swain, Christian Dogmatics. A superb collection of theological essays on all the major doctrines of the Christian faith, including Kevin Vanhoozer on Scripture and Oliver Crisp on Sin. This, for those who have used prooftexty systematic theology textbooks and lost confidence in systematics altogether, is a great way to rehabilitate.
Joshua Ryan Butler, The Pursuing God. Josh is one of my favourite younger writers—and I use that term to simply mean “younger than me”—and this is a beautiful series of reflections on the way the love and character of God works. If you’ve read his previous The Skeletons in God’s Closet, you won’t need any further encouragement to buy this; if you haven’t, this excerpt may help.
Ben Judah, This is London. Ben Judah is a remarkable writer, and the kind of person who thinks journalism means you have to go out into the world and find stories, rather than sitting at your desk and googling them. In this hard-hitting travelogue, he goes into underground London (both metaphorically and, sometimes, literally) and meets all kinds of people who never appear in the travel guides: Afghan migrants, Lithuanian prostitutes, Filipino slaves, oligarch wives, litter pickers, drug runners, illegal builders and so on. The result is a perspective on London that you won’t find anywhere else, complete with some heartwarming moments and some serious food for thought.
Tim Keller, Making Sense of God. Certainly the best apologetics book released this year, and all the more so because it is pitched at people who aren’t really interested in apologetics, this is vintage Keller. As I put it in my review, “Instead of assuming Christianity has the answer to a burning secular question, Keller talks to those for whom there’s no burning question.” We’re introduced to important recent works by Jonathan Haidt, Andrew Delbanco, Terry Eagleton, Luc Ferry, Julian Baggini, Thomas Nagel, and many other skeptics and agnostics, and in each case, we’re shown how their insights can and should provoke us to consider Christianity carefully, whatever conclusion we come to.
Peter Leithart, Delivered from the Elements of the World. Leithart is one of the few theologians I know of who is worth reading no matter what they are writing about, and no matter whether or not you agree with him. His take on atonement and/or Galatians and/or justification is no exception, especially if read alongside Brad Littlejohn’s critique. The section on the flesh is probably the most theologically informative passage I’ve read this year.
Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic. This book on American society and politics was a great read before the election, and would be even more so afterwards. Levin argues that a certain nostalgia for the post-War years dominates political discourse for both Left and Right, and that a more positive future vision requires what he calls an ethic of subsidiarity: the rehabilitation of the middle layers of society (clubs, unions, churches, mosques and so on). I briefly summarised his case here and here.
Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual. Technically this book was released in 2014, but it’s new enough for most of us. Siedentop traces the origins of concepts like equality and individuality—starting with the earliest societies, worshipping around the ancestral fires, and then moving through the classical period, the early church, Christendom and the Renaissance, and finishing with the modern West—and gives a good deal of the credit to Christianity. It is a masterful piece of intellectual history. The fact that I read it alongside Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity and Edward Said’s Orientalism made it even more compelling.
James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love. The fascinating thing about Jamie Smith is that you know what he’s going to say, but you still delight in hearing him say it. If you don’t know what he’s going to say, on the other hand, this is a must-read. His central Augustinian insight on desire and habit, and his application of it to the contemporary church, is hugely significant for all of us.
Jen Wilkin, None Like Him. Jen is one of the outstanding women teachers I have come across, and she has written a book about the character of God (which is a good start). But the twist is that she has only written about those attributes of God that we do not share: infinity, unchangeability, and so on. Her section on the way we count things as a way of controlling them, and the way God is utterly beyond this, was worth buying the book for on its own.
Top Ten Older Books I Read This Year
Augustine, City of God. Magisterial, sweeping, brilliant, civilisation-shaping, and (in my view) even more readably written than the Confessions.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. Hilarious, bombastic, provocative, inflammatory, paradoxical, mystifying, conservative, radical.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. The longest whodunnit I’ve ever read, as well as a stunning portrayal of the difference made by hope in the resurrection.
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets. Poetry that is Christian in a way it makes you rethink all kinds of things, and so beautifully written you don’t want it to end.
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind. The most important book I read this year.
Tim Keller, Prayer. The book I took the longest to read this year (around eight months), and also the book that shaped my devotional life more than any other.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity. An extraordinarily vivid yet meticulous history of the Church, which sheds light on virtually everything.
George Orwell, 1984. Thoroughly gripping, disturbing, dark, savage, mesmerising storytelling.
Blaise Pascal, Pensees. This set of philosophical, religious and literary musings is practically unsummarisable, but no less brilliant for that.
If you’re on Twitter, I’d love to hear the best books you read this year, especially if you think I’d like them (and the books being released next year that you’re most excited about!) I’ll probably read half as many next year, and that will involve being a bit more selective ...
So how many books will you read this year?
To be honest, this is not a question that vexes many people – but it is one that can get under the skin of people who read blogs like this one. Let’s ask some other questions: How many movies have you seen since January? How many hours have you spent watching TV? How about hours spent on Facebook/Twitter/Etc.? Or time spent reading blogs? And how many different blogs? What about how much of the Bible you have read? And how many hours have you spent in prayer?
All these are valid questions. They are also ones that can generate, in varying degrees, a sense of competitiveness and inadequacy, superiority and inferiority, pride and guilt.
I generally read at a rate of about one book every ten days. In ‘good’ years I might hit a book a week, but more normally I get through thirty or forty a year. However, I am a nerdy completist, so a book doesn’t make it to my ‘read’ list if I haven’t read it first page to last page. And my reading patterns change over time. I subscribe to The Spectator (weekly) and The London Review of Books (fortnightly) and getting through those certainly cuts back on my book reading time – although reading the book reviews in these publications means I feel like I’m reading more books than I actually am.
I tend to have a reading total immersion when on holiday: a baptism of books, during which I will hit an almost Wilsonian rate of page turning. Few things are as pleasurable as sitting on a sunny French terrace with a good book in one hand and a good glass of wine in the other. I often take something I might not normally pick up, but think I ‘ought’ to read, because of its wider cultural impact.
This year that book was Marlon James’ much feted A Brief History of Seven Killings. I got nearly halfway through it before giving up and throwing it in the recycling. (Looking at the reviews on Amazon, I am not the only one.) It’s clever, yes, but overwhelmingly unpleasant. But it took me a day or two to come to my senses and realise I didn’t need to read it – I was free not to. Having woken up, in the bin it went, and I purged my soul with some Wendell Berry.
It made me think though, about what we read and why we read it. And about the power of books to bring us pleasure, or make us feel guilty – either because we are reading things we shouldn’t, or we are not reading things we think we should. I guess there are blogs where people keep a record of how many movies they see each year, but books exert a special pull on us. If you’re reading this post, I bet you are a book reader too – and I bet you have a pretty good idea of how many books you’ve read this year. And I bet you felt some conflicted internal emotions when you read Andrew’s account of his one hundred books.
So how about this for an early New Year resolution: In 2017 read some books, because books are good, and teach us many things. (And they are far better when physical objects than Kindlefied files – though if you’re going on a beach holiday you may take your Kindle.) Read broadly, but wisely – you don’t have to read stuff that does your soul no good. Read for information, and for pleasure, but not competitively. And don’t feel guilty about all the books you haven’t read, or those you only skim through, because of the making of many books there is no end. And read your Bible!
And just in case anyone is interested, here is my list of books read so far in 2016, with a brief comment about each:
Moore, Onward: Engaging the culture without losing the gospel. Helpful, and probably even more so now than it was at the start of this crazy year.
Murray. The Happy Christian. Outstanding.
Kennedy. The First American Evangelical: A short life of Cotton Mather. Superb.
Thornbury. Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the wisdom and vision of Carl F.H. Henry. Very helpful.
Scruton. I Drink Therefore I Am: a philosophers guide to wine. Wine & philosophy? What’s not to like?
Simpson. Touching the Void. As gripping as it was when I first read it nearly thirty years ago.
Meyer. The Culture Map. One of the most helpful books I’ve read this year.
Harmon. Philippians. An excellent commentary.
Updike. Rabbit, Run. Admire the writing, depressed by the story.
Mead. One Perfect Day: the selling of the American wedding. Bridezilla, hang your head in shame!
Ferry. A Brief History of Thought. Yes!
Griggs. Small Town Jesus. Yes!
Sprinkle. People to be Loved. Yes, but…
Grant. Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and found in the Mississippi Delta. I need to visit Mississippi.
Newsham. All the Right Places: Travelling light through Japan, China and Russia. A well-written travel book.
Leithart. Solomon Among the Postmoderns. This is good.
Klebold. A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy. Clear-eyed heartbreak.
Park. The Great Soul of Siberia: In search of the elusive Siberian tiger. Woah, what do we have here? Extraordinary.
Matar. The Return: Fathers, sons and the land in between. Beautiful, sad, profound.
Berry. That Distant Land: the collected stories. Soul purged.
Dahl. Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s letters to his mother. Laugh? I did.
Helprin. A Soldier of the Great War. Mark, how do you do that?! Utterly extraordinary.
Backhouse. Kierkegaard: A single life. Either/Or? Still not sure.
Smith. You Are What You Love. Unlike everyone else, I didn’t much enjoy this.
Yarhouse. Understanding Gender Dysphoria. The most useful book on the subject so far.
Haidt. The Righteous Mind. Have we mentioned this book on Think yet?
Vance. Hillbilly Elegy. It’s true.
Theroux. Deep South. There’s just something about the Southern States of America. I need to go to Mississippi.
Yeats. Poems Selected by Seamus Heaney. Tread softly on my dreams.
Crossman. Mountain Rain: A biography of James O. Fraser. As inspiring as it was when I first read it 22 years ago.
Sayers. Disappearing Church: From cultural relevance to gospel resilience. Lots of books have jacket puffs saying, “A must-read.” This is a must-read.
We're going through C. S. Lewis's The Four Loves on the Mere Fidelity podcast at the moment, so I'm reading it for the first time. Here is a wonderful, challenging and thought-provoking section on headship in marriage:
And as we could easily take the natural mystery [=sex] too seriously, so we might take the Christian mystery [=marriage] not seriously enough. Christian writers (notably Milton) have sometimes spoken of the husband’s headship with a complacency to make the blood run cold. We must go back to our Bibles. The husband is the head of the wife just in so far as he is to her what Christ is to the Church. He is to love her as Christ loved the Church—and gave his life for her (Eph 5:25). This headship, then, is most fully embodied not in the husband we should all wish to be but in him whose marriage is most like a crucifixion; whose wife received most and gives least, is most unworthy of him, is - in her own mere nature - least lovable. For the Church has no beauty but what the Bridegroom gives her, he does not find, but makes her, lovely. The chrism of this terrible coronation is to be seen not in the joys of any man’s marriage but in its sorrows, in the sickness and sufferings of a good wife or the faults of a bad one, in his unwearying (never paraded) care or his inexhaustible forgiveness: forgiveness, not acquiescence. As Christ sees in the flawed, proud, fanatical or lukewarm Church on earth that Bride who will one day be without spot or wrinkle, and labours to produce the latter, so the husband whose headship is Christ-like (and he is allowed no other sort) never despairs. He is a King Cophetua who after twenty years still hopes that the beggar-girl will one day learn to speak the truth and wash behind her ears.
["Your will be done" could easily be a passive and fatalistic prayer, a sort of Christianised inshallah. Heidelberg will have none of this; it is supposed to be an urgent prayer for help, filled with active verbs like "help," "reject," "obey" and "carry out." And in the midst of the explanation, we find this delightfully contemporary phrase: "to obey your will without any back talk." As so often, the Catechism shows us that most of the pastoral and personal issues we regard as unprecedented are, in fact, as old as the hills.]
Q124. What does the third petition mean?
A124. “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” means:
Help us and all people
to reject our own wills
and to obey your will without any back talk.
Your will alone is good.
Help us one and all to carry out the work we are called to,
as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven.
This is an extraordinary 3D simulation of Nineveh under King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (seventh century): in other words, pretty much what Jonah saw when he went to call them to repentance. Remarkable stuff:
“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11)
HT: Tony Reinke
I have heard that it was said (by Andrew Wilson among others), that you shouldn't use your quiet time to study scripture for work. But I tell you that I have found the times I've had to wrestle with scripture (for writing Bible reading notes, for instance) to be far more fruitful than my normal quiet times. So I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Of course, I understand the principle of keeping your quiet times for worship, not work, and it makes sense if ‘the Bible’ is your full time occupation that you need to make sure you’re taking time to nourish your own soul as well as expound on the text for others, but for me, having to find something worth saying about the scripture passages I’m reading means I am forced to pay more attention to them than I otherwise would. I know so many of them so well that it’s easy just to let them drift past my eyeballs without connecting with my brain, but there’s knowing and knowing, isn’t there? It’s true what they say, that you never really understand something until you can explain it to someone else.
There’s one thing that hit me earlier this year that just keeps cycling back round my brain again and again, so I’m writing it down again in case it’s useful for someone else.
It was just a little verse in John 14, that I wrote about for Daily Bread:
Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” (John 14:22)
Jesus had just been telling the disciples that he was about to send the Holy Spirit, but in Judas’ mind, Jesus was the key thing – if only people could see him, then they would believe, surely.
But here’s what hit me – Jesus had shown himself to the world. He appeared to thousands of people before the crucifixion, bringing power and wisdom like they had never seen before, and had appeared to over 500 people after the resurrection (1 Cor 15:6). Yet by the time of the day of Pentecost the believers numbered only 120 (Acts 1:15).
Seeing Jesus, in the flesh, bodily resurrected…you’d think that would be a guarantee of belief, wouldn’t you? But no. Only 120 stuck with it, continued to worship together, and waited for this Holy Spirit that had been promised to them.
And then he came, and ‘about three thousand were added to their number’ in one fell swoop (Acts 2:41), then ‘the Lord [continued to add] to their number daily those who were being saved’ (v47).
It seems a strange thing to post at the beginning of Advent - the time when we celebrate, perhaps more than ever, Jesus’ bodily presence on earth. I’m not sure why the timing has worked this way. It’s of course right that we point to the baby in the manger, the fulfillment of centuries of promise, and point people forward to the salvation that this child would bring, but maybe we’re in danger of minimising the power and significance of what came next.
It’s so easy to think ‘If only Jesus would appear again on earth, if he were here and could speak to my friends, then they’d believe,’ but the evidence of the Bible contradicts that. An unusual man claiming to be God attracts far fewer followers than a bunch of flawed people empowered by the Holy Spirit. More people came to Christ through one sermon preached by a failed fisherman than through seeing the risen Christ in person. Thomas wouldn’t believe unless he saw. The other disciples only believed once they had seen, but somehow for the rest of us, not seeing is actually more effective.
God is made visible through us more compellingly than he was through Jesus.
That blows my mind.
The Holy Spirit living in you - in me - is more powerful than a virgin birth, a new star, a host of angels, and an empty tomb. Incredible.
Last December, prompted by a challenge from Tim Challies, I decided to read one hundred books in 2016. It probably strikes some as a silly, artificial, vainglorious or unachievable target, and in many contexts I'm sure it would be. But for me, this year, it has been an extremely useful challenge that has helped me make the most of the time, especially in those months (March to August) when my work responsibilities were lower than usual because of a job change. I have ended up reading all sorts of things that I would (wrongly) have assumed I did not have time for, read as part of a book group for the first time, read according to the calendar for the first time (Luther on Reformation Day, Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, etc), and read a series or two (the Narnia stories, and several books on both Genesis and Diversity). Over the next couple of weeks I'll summarise some of the best ones, to help with Christmas shopping if nothing else. In the meantime, here's the full list. (Asterisks indicate a book I had read before.)
Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis
David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth
N. T. Wright, The Paul Debate
Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism
*C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
Peter Leithart, Heroes of the City of Man: A Christian Guide to Select Ancient Literature
David Anderson and Brent Zuercher, Letters Across the Divide: Two Friends Explore Racism, Friendship and Faith
Owen Hylton, Crossing the Divide: A Call to Embrace Diversity
*C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Amy Black (ed.), Five Views on the Church and Politics
John Stackhouse, Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism
John Calvin, Reply to Sadoleto
Peter Leithart, A House for My Name
C. S. Lewis, The Horse and his Boy
Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America
Charlie Cleverly, The Song of Songs: Exploring the Divine Romance
*C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair
Maxwell Louth (ed.), Early Christian Writings
Martin Luther, On the Freedom of a Christian
Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism and the Gospel—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters
Douglas Wilson, Father Hunger
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
John Piper, Living in the Light: Money, Sex and Power
C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle
Rick Kennedy, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather
*Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
David Anderson, Gracism: The Art of Inclusion
Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church
C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian
Carl Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic and Contemporary Evangelicalism
John Piper, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness
*Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense
Preston Sprinkle (ed.), Four Views on Hell
Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided About Politics and Religion
Karl Barth, Learning Jesus Christ Through the Heidelberg Catechism
Tim Keller, King’s Cross
Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader
James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit
Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture
Patrick Henry Reardon, Creation and the Patriarchal Histories: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Genesis
Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island
Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
Tony Reinke, Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You
Michael Allen and Jonathan Linebaugh (ed.), Reformation Readings of Paul: Explorations in History and Exegesis
Joshua Ryan Butler, The Pursuing God: A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That’s Dying to Bring Us Home
Roald Dahl, Matilda
G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World?
William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird, Next: Pastoral Succession That Works
John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership
Simon Gathercole, Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul
Roland Muller, Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door
R. R. Reno, Genesis
Donnie Griggs, Small Town Jesus: Taking the Gospel Mission Seriously in Seemingly Unimportant Places
Glyn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing
*Andrew Neil, Full Disclosure
Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots
Augustine, City of God
Matthew Lee Anderson, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith
Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries
Peter Leithart, Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays
Michael Allen and Scott Swain (ed.), Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic
Matthew Lee Anderson, The End of Our Exploring: A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith
Thomas Aquinas (ed. Peter Kreeft), A Summa of the Summa
Edward Said, Orientalism
Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion
*J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism
Marcus Peter Johnson, One in Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation
Andy Johnston, Convinced by Scripture: A Life of Martin Luther
R. R. Reno, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society
David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Peter Leithart, Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission
Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism
Tim Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical
Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Ben Blackwell, John Goodrich and Jason Maston (ed.), Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination
David Gibson, Destiny: Learning to Live by Preparing to Die
*T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God
Ben Judah, This is London: Life and Death in the World City
Preston Sprinkle, Go: Returning Discipleship to the Front Lines of Faith
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Collin Hansen (ed.), The New City Catechism Devotional
Tom Wright, The Day the Revolution Began
Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will
Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism
Robert Jenson, Ezekiel
Jen Wilkin, None Like Him: 10 Ways God is Different From Us (And Why That’s Good News)
Stef Liston and Dan Jones, Who Was And Is And Is To Come
*J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
C. S Lewis, The Four Loves
(Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity)
For those interested, I have a post up at The Gospel Coalition today in which I engage in a bit more detail with Steve Holmes and Alan Jacobs, on sola fide, ethical behaviour and final salvation. Here's a brief excerpt:
Recently they’ve both written articles arguing that, although they hold to the traditional view of sexual ethics, holding to the revisionist view doesn’t make a person a false teacher. That perspective will cause some people to agree strongly, some to disagree strongly, and some to wonder what to think. But I want to focus on a particularly fascinating—and, I think, ultimately wrong—reason given for this view, especially in Steve’s article. The argument, essentially, is that ethical behavior does not put a person’s final salvation at risk ...
This is a thoughtful argument, and one with which many evangelicals, especially from a Reformed background, will identify. After all, we were all saved before we had produced a single good work, weren’t we? If ethical behavior can disqualify persons from final salvation, then what happens to assurance, or the perseverance of the saints? And if obedience—relationally, sexually, morally, financially—is essential for salvation, then haven’t we lost the gospel?
The problem is, there are lots of New Testament passages that warn disciples away from behavior that would jeopardize their entry into the kingdom.
You can read the rest here.
[Everybody knows that the kingdom of God is a pretty central theme in Christianity, but many are slightly unclear about exactly what it is, or how to pray for it. Is it about seeing people saved? About justice and peace in the world? Personal holiness? Church growth? Political progress? Physical healing, and freedom from demonisation? The future reign of Jesus? All of the above?
Into the (potential) confusion wades the Catechism. Rule us in such a way that 1) we submit to you, 2) your church grows, 3) the devil's work is destroyed, until 4) you return and fill all things. So the kingdom is about ethics, evangelism, expulsion and eschatology (or at least, it would be if the original hadn't been written in German). Marana tha.]
Q123. What does the second petition mean?
A123. “Your kingdom come” means:
Rule us by your Word and Spirit in such a way
that more and more we submit to you.
Preserve your church and make it grow.
Destroy the devil’s work;
destroy every force which revolts against you
and every conspiracy against your holy Word.
Do this until your kingdom fully comes,
when you will be
all in all.
True to Form is a pastoral and theological resource you should know about. It's a readable but in-depth look at gender and sexuality from a Christian point of view, and it forms part of the excellent Primer series that the FIEC has been producing, edited by David Shaw (who, as an irrelevant but nice aside, will be joining us at next year's THINK conference). Given its length and intended audience, it might be the most useful one-stop-shop publication on the subject I've found.
I say this for two main reasons. The first is that it covers all the issues you want to have covered—a biblical theology of gender, biological difference, homosexuality, complementarity, gender dysphoria, the implications for medicine and education, recommended resources on all of the above—as well as one or two you weren’t expecting (like a piece on Foucault and sexuality, for example). Even so, it manages to do so in a digestible level of detail; the entire publication is only eighty pages, not to mention beautifully laid out, and most of the articles are no more than ten pages. The second is that the writers are about as good as it gets on this subject: Ed Shaw, Alastair Roberts, Sam Allberry, Sharon James and co. The result is superb.
If you want a more detailed summary, David has provided one here. But seriously: this is a resource that all pastors in the UK should consider getting hold of. It really is a superb guide to the most pressing and controversial pastoral question of our time.
The forecourt of Waterloo Station wouldn’t have been my first choice of where to be at 7.30 last Friday morning. At home in bed, just reaching out to turn off the alarm would have ranked higher on my list of preferences, but there I was, handing out evangelistic magazines to any commuters who weren’t too cold to take their hands out of their pockets and accept one.
A man came over to ask me what we were giving out, so I explained: we’re from a church that meets locally and we produce a weekly ‘single article magazine’ called Salt, written by a team of church members, with the aim of opening people’s hearts to the Gospel. (OK, I didn’t say it quite that eloquently, and didn’t include the hyperlink, but you get the idea.)
He was not impressed.
He too was there handing out leaflets which, from the glimpses I got of them, appeared to be tri-fold glossy sheets with scriptures leading people through the gospel message.
His objections to our publications were:
First, that I had said we were part of a church, and he didn’t like the idea that we were promoting a church, because we don’t win people to churches. I agreed, absolutely, we want to win people to Jesus, whatever church they then go to.
Second, and more importantly for him, that we were using human words not scripture. He simply refused to accept the idea that there was merit in capturing people’s attention with a personal story, sharing a testimony of how Jesus had changed their life, and then pointing them to scripture to evidence our claims.
I appreciated the high value he put on Scripture, of course, and he even started to make me wonder if he was right – if we were in danger of devaluing scripture by the use of personal story and anecdotal evidence – in a post-truth society, everyone can only speak about their experience and their perceptions/interpretations of events, so what was there distinctive that we were offering?
Ironically, he then undermined his own argument by an appeal to Scripture.
“What did Paul say?” he asked.
“I don’t know, what?”
“You don’t know what Paul said?!”
“Paul said several books’-worth of things, which in particular are you thinking of?”
He gave me a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 2:
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
Let’s lay aside for the moment the fact that at the time Paul was writing to the Corinthians the gospels had not yet been written, so if he was only using scripture, his hearers were doing well to suddenly grasp that he was talking about Christ, which seems a torturous reading of the text. The response that sprang to my mind in the moment was that Paul also used his own testimony, and stories and resonances from the culture in order to win the attention of his audiences and demonstrate the truth of his message.
Later, of course, I realised that Jesus did the same. He spoke to Bible scholars using scripture, but to the everyday crowds he told stories (and not even true stories, at that!).
Maybe a post-truth society isn’t that different from a truth-based one after all – we humans are story-seekers, we resonate with stories in a way that few of us do with lists of dry facts. Yes, we have to get to the facts – stories can only take us so far, they need to be interpreted, and it is often only through divine revelation that we can understand their truths (again, look at the parables, and the disciples’ blank incomprehension of what Jesus was talking about most of the time) – but stories are the doors, enticingly ajar, through which the curious can peer and, with God’s help, discover the truths beyond.
My interlocutor was perfectly courteous, and clearly genuinely believed that we are mandated to present scripture alone to the lost, through which they will reach awareness of their sin, and meet the saviour they need. But he did not really want to discuss my perspective, or to understand what I believed (other than asking me what the doctrine of the church was, of which, perhaps, more at a later date). He was listening in order to respond, rather than to understand, so we were never going to be able to reach agreement.
But hopefully between his leaflets and ours, many people on that bitter morning had an encounter with God and will push open the door and meet the Truth in person – then go and tell their stories to the next generation.
What is the difference between envy and jealousy? And does it matter? In modern English the words are used almost interchangeably, so much so that when people read both of them in the same vice list (Gal 5:19-21), they assume Paul is repeating himself. To be jealous of someone is to be envious of them, surely, and vice versa (and if not, then it cannot possibly matter). Right?
Wrong. Envy and jealousy are different things, and it actually matters a great deal.
The difference is stated simply. Jealousy is the desire to keep for yourself what rightfully belongs to you. Envy is the desire to have for yourself what rightfully belongs to another. Envy is when a husband wants to sleep with somebody else’s wife. Jealousy is when he doesn’t want his wife to sleep with somebody else’s husband.
Both, of course, can cause enormous damage. “Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” (Prov 27:4). “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy rots the bones” (Prov 14:30). Yet while envy is always sinful—you shall not covet your neighbour’s house, or car, or personality, or ability, or well-behaved children—the same is not true of jealousy. In some circumstances, and marital infidelity is an obvious example, jealousy is both entirely natural and entirely appropriate, as much as it needs to be handled very carefully.
And this is why the difference matters: God himself is said to be jealous, in numerous occasions in the Scriptures. “You shall not bow down to [idols] or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Ex 20:5). “You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Ex 34:14). “For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deut 4:24). For the Bible to say that God is envious would be bizarre; it would imply that there is something he wants that he does not have. To say that he is jealous, on the other hand, is to say that there is something he has—Israel—that he does not want to lose. And that, not to put too fine a point on it, is the storyline of the entire Old Testament.
Envy and jealousy are different things. And yes, it matters.
Alastair Roberts has just written what may turn out to be my post of the year. Simply put, it is an extended argument for the idea that sex and gender differences have a huge (although largely ignored) impact on our public discourse, from universities and safe spaces, through social media and stand-up comedy, to the recent US election. If you can possibly carve out half an hour to read it, it will make you think more than reading ten other posts for three minutes, and shed light on all sorts of areas, however much you agree or disagree with it. On the basis that many people can't (it comes in at 12,400 words), here are twelve quotations to summarise it:
1. “There is an elephant in the room of our social discourse ... Men and women are different, and their differences have an immense impact upon the climate of our social and political discourse.”
2. “While men generally do dominate in positions of overt and direct public power and authority, women often exert considerably more indirect and relational power in their communities and societies. We just need to be more alert to the reality that is directly in front of us.”
3. “Yes, men do naturally tend to dominate on the stand-up circuit. It is an aggressive and pugilistic context of discourse, played to a larger audience, with a significant element of risk involved, and typically involving frequent violations of the laws of politeness. Men will naturally come to the fore in such realms. However, the limited presence of funny women in that realm is a poor argument for the claim that women are the least funny of the sexes. Women’s humour is more likely to be encountered in the dense social environment than in the highly aerated arena of overt verbal combat. Women’s wit is generally played for much smaller audiences, and can display acuity of psychological perception and marked verbal adroitness.”
4. “It is easy to presume that men monopolize power. Yet, when one looks closer and deeper, the reality is considerably more complicated: the men may occupy most of the prominent positions of power, but their primary loyalties are often to the women closest to them. The man, as Chesterton observed, may be the head, but he may often only be the figurehead. He may have the direct power, but the woman may have most of the leverage.”
5. “The culture of agonistic discourse implicitly upheld by the code of manly honour has served us well in many respects. It is an integral element of our traditional culture of ‘free speech’. However, over the past few decades our realms of political and academic discourse have become mixed contexts, which has thrown a great deal into confusion and disarray. The fact that we have become ideologically hampered in our ability to talk about the differences made by sexual difference has greatly limited our capacity to deal with these changes.”
6. “Women do not naturally gravitate to a manly code of honour. The social virtues that are elevated in women’s groups tend to be things like inclusion, supportiveness, empathy, care, and equality. Through his and his students’ research on the subject of ‘social justice warriors’, Jordan Peterson has identified that it refers to a real phenomenon in the world, but also suggests that it is specifically related to a maternal instinct: ‘the political landscape is being viewed through the lens of a hyper-concerned mother for her infant.’”
7. “This instinct causes all sorts of problems when expressed in an academic or political context. It infantilizes perceived victim, minority, or vulnerable groups (women, persons of colour, LGBT persons, disabled persons, etc.), perceiving them as lacking in agency and desperately in need of care and protection. When persons from such groups enter into the realm of political or academic discourse, they must be protected at all costs. Unsurprisingly, this completely undermines the manly code that formerly held, whereby anyone entering onto the field of discourse did so at their own risk, as a combatant and thereby as a legitimate target for challenge and honourable attack. The manly code calls us all to play to strength, whereas the maternal instinct calls us all radically to accommodate to weakness.”
8. “People pushing for free speech complain about stifling climates of discourse on campuses, which dangle the threat of social ostracization over those who do not rigorously affirm and uphold politically correct values ... Again, we should be paying attention to where this behaviour is especially concentrated: in contexts dominated by women and LGBT persons, contexts where the traditional norms of manliness are the least operative. This is not, I believe, principally some bizarre product of a radical Marcusian ideology. Rather, the ideologies are almost certainly rationalizations of the social dynamics that naturally characterize the dominant demographics in those realms.”
9. “Symbolism will tend to replace substance. Given the choice between talking about the compounding crises of automation in the Rust Belt or transgender bathrooms, [the political classes] will choose the latter. Given the political classes’ turning in upon themselves, it shouldn’t surprise us in the least that the last few years have been dominated by precisely the sort of primarily symbolic social issues that are most useful for virtue signalling within the elite class (same-sex marriage, fights over transgender bathrooms, getting the first female president, Black Lives Matter protests, etc) ... Bernie Sanders is correct: the progressive liberal elite is incapable of talking to the working class, and this is why.”
10. “Men and women don’t cease to behave like men and women simply because we have declared ourselves to be living in a gender-neutral society.”
11. “A politics of empowerment and a culture of victimhood go hand in hand. Just as the kid that bursts into tears and runs to their mother at the slightest provocation can use parental sanctions to empower them against others, so the feminist elevation of the rhetoric and ideology of victimhood serves to increase their social leverage (one thinks of the new mansplaining hotline that has just been set up in Sweden!). Exaggerated vulnerability can be exploited as a means to gain power. The term ‘crybully’ has been coined to describe such weaponized victimhood and vulnerability.”
12. “We must teach both men and women to value the strengths and instincts of the other sex and to accommodate themselves to each other. We must teach men to understand, to honour, and to make space for women’s social instincts and expressions and vice versa. We must restore a posture of wonder towards the other sex in their subtle yet profound differences and eschew the posture of envy. Men and women can both easily fall into the error of disdaining those behaviours and instincts in the other sex that most contrast with their own. This must be firmly resisted. Both the giggling teenage girls with their relational dramas and the belligerent and tribal boys with their various obsessions are making their first faltering steps towards what may become noble virtues and aptitudes that can serve both them and society at large greatly in the future. Both should be celebrated and taken seriously.”
["Hallowed be your name" is probably the phrase in the Lord's Prayer that people find the hardest to understand, so Heidelberg gives one Lord's Day over to explaining it simply. It is about honouring, glorifying and praising God, not just in our thoughts ("help us to know you") but also our lives ("what we think, say and do"). To be honest, using the two key sentences ("Help us ...") as prayers, independent of the catechism, would be a worthwhile practice in its own right.]
Q122. What does the first petition mean?
A122. “Hallowed be your name” means:
Help us to truly know you,
to honour, glorify, and praise you
for all your works
and for all that shines forth from them:
your almighty power, wisdom, kindness,
justice, mercy, and truth.
And it means,
Help us to direct all our living—
what we think, say, and do—
so that your name will never be blasphemed because of us
but always honoured and praised.
The identity of the prince in Ezekiel 40-48 is puzzling, and understandably disputed. Why is he called a prince, rather than a king? Is he a regular king in the manner of Zedekiah or Jehoiachin, and if so, why does he have priestly privileges? Is he even a Messianic figure? And so what?
Here’s Robert Jenson in his commentary on Ezekiel:
Who is this prince whose responsibilities are here laid down? The princely line that cheated on the offerings is finished: the prince cannot within Ezekiel’s purview be a reformed successor to Zedekiah. Thus, reference to what is possible within the history of this age becomes shadowy again. This leaves one possibility: whatever picture Ezekiel may have had in his own mind, the prince of an eschatological Israel, responsible for her offerings in the perfect temple, can only be that prince whom tradition came to call the “Messiah,” the “Christ.”
Thus, in my judgment, we may with full loyalty to the text as it stands read “Christ” for “the prince.” When we do that, we learn something vital about the reign of Christ: he now and eschatologically continues to mediate our creaturely presence before the holy God. He now and in all eternity provides the sacrifice that enables us to survive life with and in the holy God. And from the Gospels and the book of Hebrews we further learn that this sacrifice is himself.
It’s official. We are now living in a post-truth society. The Oxford Dictionary has selected ‘post-truth’ as its word of the year. The concept, it says, has been around for a decade, “but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States.”
Its definition should ring some bells with those of you who read The Righteous Mind after Andrew and Matt’s recommendations: post-truth is “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’” (emphasis added).
If you’re not picturing an elephant1 galloping through the undergrowth with its rider clinging on for dear life, and rationalising away why he really wanted to be going that way anyway, you need to read the book. Suffice it to say that Haidt comprehensively demonstrates how our moral decision making is influenced almost entirely by our emotional (and physical – the stuff about hand-washing is mind-blowing) intuitive responses, and our reasoning is almost entirely post hoc rationalisation of why we believe and act the way we do. In effect, we don’t make up our minds, we follow our hearts.
We find facts less convincing, less compelling, than honesty.
That’s a controversial statement, and there’s still a large part of me that isn’t sure if I believe it – yet its evidence is all around me.
It is the key to understanding how a compulsive and comprehensive liar won the US election.
Back in September, Dara Lind wrote an article for Vox entitled, ‘Donald Trump lies. All the time. And a stunning number of people don’t seem to care.’ In the article she said:
Even though fact-checkers deploy their forces on Trump regularly, he never apologizes or retracts. Calling out his lies doesn’t make his supporters any less loyal to him. A substantial number of Americans still find him more “honest and trustworthy” than Hillary Clinton…
Donald Trump lies. It’s what he does.
His nonchalant dishonesty is horrifying. The fact that much of the American public simply doesn’t appear to care about his dishonesty — or that they don’t consider it a deal breaker for a potential president of the United States to tell several lies even on his most honest days — is more so.
His supporters may not believe everything he says — in fact, they often say they don’t even think he believes everything he says. They assume that he’s not going to do all the things he promises; the assumption that Trump is a liar is priced into their support of him. The literal things he says matter less to them as facts than as signals that he’s on their side.
Or as Alastair Roberts put it (in an article Andrew has already quoted other bits from):
Trump has his supporters’ trust because truth is a great deal more than factual accuracy; Trump is ‘true’ in a way that Clinton and other politicians don’t seem to be. Trump’s unreservedness, plain-spokenness, and preparedness to say politically incorrect things mark him out from the slipperiness most people have come to expect from politicians. Trump’s willingness to speak his mind—with all of its inconsistency, reactivity, dangerous impulsivity, and confusion—is a dimension of truthfulness that can be intoxicating to people accustomed to the rigorous self-censorship, spin and polish, and artful evasion of regular politicians. His preparedness to spark outrage and damage his reputation among the rich and powerful in going against political correctness can serve as an effective signal of his commitment to telling it as it is. People will forgive a great deal of inaccuracy when they think that you are being open and candid with them, unfeigned in your sentiments, and not purposefully trying to deceive or withhold your true opinion from them.
Just let that sink in.
“They assume that he’s not going to do all the things he promises.”
“The literal things he says matter less to them as facts than as signals that he’s on their side.”
“Truth is a great deal more than factual accuracy.”
“People will forgive a great deal of inaccuracy when they think that you are being open and candid with them.”
I think America is a little further down this road than the UK. It would be fascinating to hold the Brexit referendum again, however, to test that theory. My perception is that many people who voted ‘leave’ felt betrayed when it became clear immediately after the vote that promises such as £350m-per-week extra funding for the NHS would not be kept (and had never had any factual basis anyway), that we wouldn’t immediately be kicking out all immigrants, and that the economy would not ‘thrive’ – at least in the foreseeable future. But I may well be wrong. It may be that the people who voted to leave based on those promises (and I know that doesn’t account for all Brexiters) never really believed them either, and care more about the emotional reasons for leaving the EU than the economic ones anyway.
But fascinating though all this is, what does it mean for Christianity?
Last night my church held an evangelistic event in which the leader, Andrew Haslam, gave a short talk entitled ‘Can you ever be sure about God?’ then answered questions about it.
We had polled our friends to find out their big questions about God and the Christian faith and this was one of the most common. How can Christians be so sure they’ve found the truth? Is there even any such thing?
In a post-truth world, is there even any value in holding such events?
I think there is, and here’s why:
Firstly, people still enjoy debating and discussing ideas - the room was packed on a wet Wednesday evening when many people had lots of reasons to be anywhere else, and I know of at least two weekly philosophical discussion groups held within a fifteen minute walk from my house. Although the way ‘discussions’ are conducted online (and in Presidential debates) is aimed more at closing down discussion and vilifying the other, if we can model good discussion, good disagreement, we demonstrate the truth of God by showing that we are not personally threatened by opposing viewpoints. Our security in God and his love for us is as compelling a truth as any facts we can list ‘proving’ his existence.
Secondly, we believe that there is a truth and that it – that He – can be known. Declaring truth in a post-truth society may seem fruitless, but it is our mandate. We’ve never been called to do what is popular, to go along with the crowd, to adopt the world’s perspective on life. Events like these, and blogs like these, and sermons filled with the Bible are tentpegs, pinning down the canvas of truth against the winds of change that seek constantly to sweep it away.
And thirdly, although people will only come to Christ through a move of His Spirit opening their eyes and drawing them to him, and although most often that will happen in the context of their relationships with honest, open, struggling, non-hypocritical Christians – although they will follow their hearts – we are all called to be able to give a reason for the hope we profess. The heart will make the decision, but if it isn’t backed up with facts, people will make up their own rationalisations and reasons why they decided to follow, and when the storms come, those reasons won’t be sufficient to keep them dry, let alone give them shelter.
I don’t know how long the post-truth world will last. It doesn’t seem as though it would be sustainable for long, but equally I’m not sure how truth can be reclaimed for those to whom it seems so utterly irrelevant. In terms of our evangelism, though, it seems that nothing has really changed – after all, Pascal knew 350-odd years ago that people were persuaded by their hearts before their minds. His advice still rings true today: “make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.”
Plus ça change…
Few things in modern life are more frustrating than sitting in a meeting that, for whatever reason, has lost focus. We've all been there. Everybody knows what the topic is, but nobody is quite sure what the point is. Everyone knows how the conversation started, but no one can imagine how or when it will finish. People pitch in, not because they have anything especially insightful to say, but because they are a) eager to show that they know something about the subject, or b) bored with sitting there in silence listening to those who are a). The meeting becomes a list of collated musings, with no particular focus or destination, and no end in sight. The result is thoroughly exasperating.
Whenever I am in such a meeting—and, as you can probably tell, I am writing this from within one—my mind turns to three different individuals who, between them, highlight the essence of a good (and a bad) meeting. The first is Benjamin Disraeli, who reportedly said of William Gladstone: “He was never quite sure what he wanted to say, so he was never quite sure whether he had finished saying it.” The second is Sam Waterston in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, who spends an entire episode (arguably the funniest one) repeatedly asking Jane Fonda, in tones of increasing frustration, “I’m sorry, but what the **** is this meeting about?” Both comments exemplify what bad orators and bad meetings have in common: a lack of clarity about exactly what the debate, or meeting, is trying to achieve.
The third is an almost entirely unknown strategy consultant named Richard McKenzie. He was my project manager when I was twenty-two, and he began every single meeting, no matter how long or short it was (and no matter how senior or junior the personnel) by saying, “Right, the aim of this meeting is ...” and then crisply summarising it in one sentence. As junior consultants, we could almost lip sync the phrase. But the result was that you never ended up in a meeting with him without knowing what it was trying to decide. And the result of that was that you always knew when someone was waffling, when a discussion was irrelevant, when a discussion was vital, and when you were done.
But here’s the oddity: lots of people who lead meetings think they have done this, when in fact they haven’t. And the chief culprit, I think, is the agenda. Agendas typically contain headings that are not formulated in terms of questions, or decisions, but merely topics. Item one: the challenge of Brexit for widget manufacturers. Item two: the Von Hottentot Report. Item three: the year ahead. Richard McKenzie would never allow anything so vague. “The aim of this meeting is to decide whether we should suspend trading in our British widget-making operation.” “The aim of this meeting is to agree which of Von Hottentot’s five recommendations we are going to accept.” “The aim of this meeting is to summarise in one sentence our vision for 2017.” Or whatever.
No doubt there are many other things that can make meetings faster, more efficient and more interesting. Switching formats. Standing only meetings. Limiting discussion to X minutes per topic. Inviting the smallest possible number of people. “Speed dating” style meetings. But these format adaptations are only useful when the purpose of the meeting is clear to everyone at the outset: “the aim of this meeting is ...” Otherwise, whether they say it or not—and Christians often won’t—there will be a whole load of disengaged people sitting in a circle, glancing at watches or smartphones continually, and fighting a losing battle against the desire to expostulate, “I’m sorry, but what the **** is this meeting about?”