Advent and Dr Suess

You might regard that title as somewhat incongruous.  But when I heard that our pastor was planning to organise his services for the four Sundays of Advent around the stories of Dr Suess, I was staggered.   Advent: the quasi-penitential season, focused on preparation for celebrating the first coming of Jesus (the Christmas season itself), and on preparing ourselves in consciousness and confidence that Christ is coming back.  And that at the consummation of all things, we will stand before the judgement seat of God.  Traditionally, Advent was a season for the contemplation of the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

In less liturgical churches, much of that sort of emphasis (if it ever existed) has long since been lost.  Perhaps it is even  more so in the southern hemisphere, where December is absorbed not just in preparing to celebrate Christmas, but in end-of-year celebrations and events, perhaps especially for schools.  Christmas trees appear in church early, Christmas carols appear at odd times (for some reason we sang “O little town of Bethlehem” last Sunday), and suddenly the focus has shifted to the celebration, and off our own unworthiness; in the twee phrase, the reason for the season.  Sin –  our sin – is the harsh reality that religion seeks to deal with: that God, in Christ, came for.  Our hope, and prospect for rejoicing, is that at the Second Coming of Christ, sin will be no more.  Our world will no longer be scarred by sin; our own lives, sometimes despite our best endeavours, no longer marred by the taint of our own wrongdoing –  acts, thoughts, and of commission or omission.

But sure enough, we arrived at church last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, to find the church decked out as a scene from The Lorax.  Despite the heavy-handed environmental focus of the story, cheap plastic poles, decked with cheap plastic toppings were apparently supposed to resemble the truffula trees in the story –  abundant until the evil capitalists began milling them, and then kept going until there were no more.  The pastor had to point out –  I’d missed out –  that only one half of the church had the “trees” and the other was bare.

As part of the service, we listened to British actor Ric Mayall read the entire story.    Were we six I wondered?    By the end of the service, I finally understood the (tenuous) connection to Advent.  Hope was the theme of the service, and at the end of The Lorax, the last seed for a truffula plant is given to the small child listening to the story, raising the possibility that if planted and suitably tended in time the forest might one day return.  This, we were told, was “hope”.

But hope –  in the Bible –  isn’t desperate wishful thinking, some million to one longshot that just might happen.  It is about a confident expectation in the God who made heaven and earth, and who (in Christ) visits and redeems his people.  It is God, all powerful and all wise, who acts, and whose promise to act is the thing on which we stake our faith.

In truth, using The Lorax seemed as much about the pastor’s own Green politics and predilections, in a suburb with a substantial Green Party vote, as about the gospel. It seems a drift that is all too typical.   There was a time when the Church of England was caricatured as the “Tory party at prayer”.  These days the drift, even in hitherto evangelical churches, is towards something that risks being caricatured as the “Labour or Green parties at prayer”.

For all the cutesy rhymes –  of which, no doubt, Dr Suess was a master –  The Lorax was conceived in anger, and in its execution simply reveals a degree of ignorance of how markets and firms work and resources are managed.  Of the anger

The Lorax,” he once explained, “came out of me being angry. In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.”[2]

And of the ignorance, in The Lorax, there seem to be no property rights, and thus no incentives to manage and sustainably harvest the resource.  And there are no prices either –  so no incentives for anyone to change behaviour, and switch to alternative products.  Can pillage of the sort Suess describes in his story happen?  Sure, when there are no property rights established.  Thus, the cod fisheries off the east coast of North America was fished almost to exhaustion.   When everyone is free to use an asset, no one has an interest in sustainably managing the resource –  everyone’s incentive is to get in before the other person does.

But with private property rights (formal or informal), and mechanisms for allocating harvesting rights of things like fisheries, there are strong incentives to sustainably manage the resource.  Thus, commercial fishermen in New Zealand operate within a system of transferable quotas, governing how much they can each take, within an overall assessment of the sustainability of the resource.  In the United States, there is more land in forests (natural and tended) than was the case 100 years ago.  Advanced economies are not polluted wastelands –  although there will always be aspects that could be improved –  but some of the most pleasant and liveable places mankind has ever known, for hundreds of millions of people.  Are there outstanding issues? No doubt.  To the extent that climate change is a concern, the need to find sustainable mechanisms to allocate the available resource –  capacity to pollute –  remains real.

But to turn the first Sunday of Advent into something focused on something so wrongheaded as The Lorax is to trivialise the season. Perhaps worse, it is to suggest that the big issues –  those from which “salvation” might be needed-  are the actions of other people.  Here in suburbia we don’t pillage forests –  in this particular suburb we are surrounded by (lots of) regenerating native bush, far more of it than was around 100 years ago.  But we do all sin, we do all fall short of the glory of God. We –  and our world –  still need a Saviour and Redeemer, who broke into the world that first Christmas, and who will return and put an end to suffering, sickness, disease and death – all the concomitants of sin.

The Book of Common Prayer’s Collect for the 1st Sunday of Advent, while perhaps little known in non-liturgical churches, remains as vivid, and humbling, as ever.

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.



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Christians and the Trump and Clinton options

A rugby-playing local pastor, himself so left-leaning that I’m surprised he doesn’t topple over,  decided to tackle the issue of Donald Trump in his newsletter this week.

But what has floored me is the backing by many people in American Evangelical Churches of Donald Trump as “The morally good choice”. This came to a head over the past couple of weeks as a recording surfaced where Trump bragged about sexually abusing women. In his half-hearted apologies, he has tried to minimise it by claiming it to be locker room talk.

I have played rugby for over 35 seasons. I have sat in locker rooms, and it is true that the talk, especially regarding women can be sexually explicit and vulgar. But I can never remember anyone ever bragging about sexually abusing women. I find Trump’s behaviour and attitude incomprehensible. And while there are massive questions regarding the integrity of Hillary Clinton, I am flabbergasted by the ongoing support of Trump from within Christianity. to me, Donald Trump and Morality are opposing forces.

This week, we look at how to respond to authority (including government) even when they are corrupt. I hope we are able to apply God’s scripture to our own political worldviews.

Perhaps there are people who regard Donald Trump as “the morally good choice”, in a year of pretty unattractive choices, but I suspect (a) their numbers are pretty small, and (b) if indeed they used such words, most probably meant it largely as something about the causes they believe Trump supports/opposes.   Moral issues should matter a lot to Christian voters.   Leading evangelical scholar Wayne Grudem did use the “morally good” words a few momths ago, but in the wake of the revelations of the last week has now withdrawn that statement, stating a few days ago:

There is no morally good presidential candidate in this election.

I’d agree with that, even while wondering quite what “morally good” means in such a context –  all, after all, have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.  I guess it must mean some combination of actions, intentions,  and that amorphous –  but vital –  concept character.

Of course, deeply flawed characters have held the office of President of the United States in the past.  John F Kennedy comes to mind, on numerous scores including the treatment of young women.  I’ve read Robert Caro’s life of Lyndon Johnson –  not a man whose business or personal dealings made him remotely qualified by character to be President.  In office, like most Presidents, their record was a mixed bag –  but to many, for all his faults and mixed motivations, Johnson was one of the great reforming Presidents.

Sadly perhaps, in decades past the media treated key political figures with much greater deference.  Vital information as to the character of these men was simply kept from the public.

Perhaps this year the choice is uniquely awful?  Or perhaps I just don’t know enough US history.  Either way, I rather liked Janet Albrechtsen’s line in The Australian:

two deeply flawed candidates — one nutty, unpredictable and gross; the other a morally corrupt contender for House of Cards

Character counts. I’m not always sure how –  there is no easy or reliable crossover from virtuous leaders to good policies, and deeply flawed leaders have at times been instruments of great good. But it counts.  There are minimal standards of decency, integrity, honesty, humility that I expect from anyone who asks my vote.  The United States isn’t my country –  but two of my kids will be eligible to vote in the 2024 presidential election –  but, each in their own ways, neither Trump nor Clinton cross that threshold.  Were I American, I could not imagine voting for either of them.  There are third – or tenth –  party candidates whom I might vote for, knowing all the limitations of any human leader.

There are still things I wish I knew about Trump. Whatever his actual wealth, he has had some sort of business success.  For all the questions about his temperament, there must be something there –  if only, perhaps, the ability to identify and retain key executives.  In someone seeking to be President, that is not an irrelevant quality.  And some of his instincts –  around the problems which afflict the US –  are probably sound, if often uttered in an untutored, at times even boorish, way.

But the issue here is character.  A succession of three wives, the boastfulness around sexual conquests, the lack of any sense of humility about anything, a business that once included large scale casino holdings were all among the factors that disqualified him in my mind from an early stage of the campaign.  And yet, this was scarcely a pariah figure in American society –  but instead someone who exemplified much of what was popular, but worst, about modern depraved Western society.  Did anyone suppose that he “respected” women?  I’d have thought not.  But then, was there any evidence that he respected anyone much?   Relationships seemed transactional –  all that matters is what is in it for me, and what I can get away with.  It is deplorable, but scarcely news.

And so I’ve been a bit surprised at quite how much attention last week’s tapes got.  What sort of things did anyone with half a brain suppose that someone like Trump would have been saying in a environment like that?  City Journal’s Heather McDonald sums it up well.  Did he actually sexually assault a woman?  Perhaps, and there is form.  But had he done no more than talk, it would hardly meet a standard I would look for from a national leader.  Consent is not unimportant, especially in the criminal law, but something approximating virtue might be more what we should look for.  Modesty, chastity, a respect for his own marriage vows, a recognition of words of Jesus

27You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 

God offers forgiveness, and restoration, to penitent sinners.  But Trump is on record as suggesting that he had never asked God for forgiveness.

But then modesty, self-control, chastity and virtue don’t seem to rate highly in today’s America (or New Zealand).

What of Clinton?  To take only the last few years, responding to a Congressional subpoena by wiping tens of thousands of emails (many no doubt innocuous) must rank with some of the more brazen acts of politicians in the West in recent decades.  Missing segments in Richard Nixon’s tapes anyone?   Whatever the legalities of the situation, it is hardly the character of someone I’d want leading my country.  Benghazi was a muddled mess, but the refusal to acknowledge any mistakes, is similarly disqualifying.

But we could go back further, and think about the large profits made trading cattle futures, the White House travel office scandal, Whitewater.  And then there is her husband –  recall this was the couple who in 1992 were advertised as “two for the price of one”.   Whatever the details of the individual allegations by various woman against Bill Clinton, no one seriously questions his record of abusing positions of trust, and abusing women.  That was Bill, not Hillary.  And I’m not going to criticize anyone for not leaving a marriage.  But sticking to your marriage vows is not the same as slandering the accusers.  Sticking by your marriage vows is not the same as using your deeply flawed husband to campaign for you in election after election.  And sticking by your marriage vows is not the same as seeking to bring that same flawed, unrepentant, individual back to the White House as First Man.  Retirement to Westchester for a low key life of doing good, rather than doing well, would have commanded my respect.  Her record –  hand in hand with her husband –  simply doesn’t.  A recent piece 200 Reasons Why Hillary Clinton Should not be President is a mixed bag –  some about character, some about policy, some ringing true, and some not –  but it captures many reasons, different in nature from those for Trump, why Clinton is not fit to be President, and would debase the office if she were elected.

And all this is before taking account of some of Clinton’s policy positions.  As a strongly pro-abortion candidate (“rare” has disappeared from the old “safe, legal and rare” formulation from the earlier Clinton administration) now championing the use of public money to finance the murder of the most vulnerable, as a (belated) champion of same-sex marriage, and as someone who poses a direct threat to the religious liberty of Christian believers (in respect of their freedom to openly teach and practice traditional Christian morality) I struggle to see how any orthodox Christian could positively endorse Clinton.  And yet some d0 –  a recently-resigned board member of the National Association of Evangelicals did so just recently, making her case here.  She comes very close to calling Hillary Clinton a “morally good choice”.  That astonishes me.

I can’t see how any Christian leader could enthusiastically endorse either candidate –  and no religious leaders need to endorse either candidate if it isn’t with enthusiasm.  Almost certainly, one of the two of them will be President –  although if there really were enough moral revulsion there are alternatives on the ballot.

But, although I could not imagine voting for either of them, I can more easily understand how Christians could vote, albeit reluctantly, for either candidate.  I don’t suppose for a moment that Donald Trump really cares about anti-abortion issues, or even religious liberty for that matter.  And yet I can see why some orthodox Christians might nonetheless vote for him.  There is no hope that the Clinton administration would do anything against abortion or for religious freedom –  the situation is only likely to worsen.  There is perhaps little hope that a Trump administration would, but some have taken hope from his possible list of Supreme Court nominees.  It is harder to imagine good reasons why a Christian might choose to vote for Clinton. but perhaps, thinking prudentially, stability (even around flawed causes by flawed people) might win favour over the sheer unpredictability (perhaps especially in foreign affairs) of a Trump administration.

Perhaps individual policy planks of either side might matter enough.  The economist in me finds the gist of Trump’s corporate tax policy appealing, and likely to be in the wider public interest. Perhaps there are such policies on the other side.  Each voter must make his or her own choice –  to opt out, staying home is an option, a third party vote is an option, but so must be a careful prayerful reflection on possibility of a lesser of two evils.  Perhaps it is a bit like participation in or association with any evil regime –  touched on in my previous post.The Hitler regime was objectively and foreseeably evil, and yet was the only option for a Christian to resign any position in the German public sector on the first day of the new regime?  I suspect not, and yet not to do so then makes it very hard later to identify any defining issue that is finally too much. Participation can make us complicit with evil, but is total withdrawal the only Christian option? Rod Dreher argues persuasively for something along those lines –  with more a focus on strengthening the church, than reforming the world (essentially a lost cause now he argues).

Ideally, the United States would not be in this position, facing a choice (mostly) between two such deeply flawed characters. But it is, and in fact they became the respective nominees through a drawn out, democratic, process, with extensive public participation.  Perhaps it tells us about western democracy and society, that none of the minor party candidates is scoring in double figures, despite the apparent awfulness of the two main candidates: on current polling, Gary Johnson will be lucky to beat John Anderson’s vote share in 1980, and will fall far short of Ross Perot’s vote in 1992.  The debauchery of our societies must be far gone –  and sadly the political leaders we get are often more or less a reflection of what societies now accept as tolerable (or even embrace).

As Matthew Lee Anderson, at the excellent Mere Orthodoxy site recently put it (and his article on evangelicals and the Clinton/Trump choice is well worth reading)

It is a cruel feature of this election that we must choose between a degradation that is swift, obvious and painful and that which is silent but still lethal.

So yes, we need to let the Scriptures shine in and help shape our individual political judgements, but it is by no means obvious to me that doing so puts either or the two main candidates in a better light than the other. Neither, for me, remotely come close to an acceptable standard, or character, for a national leader.  Then again, Christianity in the West is in steep decline – levelling out towards total irrelevance in countries like New Zealand –  so while we lament the choices the US voters face, why should we be very surprised?






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Dietrich von Hildebrand and the dangers of being lulled by evil

I’ve recently been reading My Battle Against Hitler, extracts from the memoirs and essays of German Catholic philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand.  Von Hildebrand was born and raised in a comfortable German family, but one in which there was only the faintest shadow of nominal religion.  But God’s call on his life found its way anyway, and von Hildebrand and his wife were adult converts to Catholicism in their 20s.  He spotted the perils of Nazism early –  living in Munich, the location of the abortive putsch attempted by Hilter and von Ludendorf in November 1923 (the middle of the great hyperinflation), probably helped.

Von Hildebrand and his wife fled Germany in March 1933, settling in Austria where with initial financial support from the Austrian government he established a weekly articulating a Christian social philosophy, with a particular focus on staunch opposition to Nazism.  The Austrian Chancellor, Dollfuss –  who had supported von Hildebrand  – was killed in an abortive Nazi coup in 1938.  Although an academic philosopher by training and occutation, von Hildrebrand became a considerable thorn in the side of the German efforts in Austria. The editors of the book cite documentary evidence of German plans to assassinate von Hildebrand, and it was only because he also held a Swiss passport that von Hildebrand and his wife were able to escape Austria on the day of the Nazi takeover in March 1938 (hours ahead of a Gestapo raid on their apartment).  They eventually made their way to the United States after the fall of France, where von Hildebrand taught at a Catholic university, dying in 1977.  He wrote many books in the course of his career, but although my pile of them has been growing this is the first book of von Hildebrand’s that I’ve read.

Much of von Hildebrand’s efforts in the 1930s were dedicated to trying to establish and communicate the fundamental incompatibility of National Socialism with Christianity, and with Catholicism in particular.  He was particularly forthright in eschewing anti-Semitism, arguing that in face of the Nazi advances it was more important than ever that Christians not have a bar of a philosophy that judges people of one race better than others.  Even though he must have had a strong sense that Austria was lost –  it was perhaps never likely that little Austria would resist the advances of (Austrian born and raised) Hitler and his pan-German nationalism –  he continued to put his life on the line to help steel the resolve of faithful Christians in Austria to oppose what was coming.  In a sense, his task got harder not easier once the Nazis had taken office, and then consolidated that power of the following 12-18 months, culminating in the Night of Long Knives in June 1934.

By then, the Nazis were no longer a disreputable populist rabble.  They were the established government, wielding power pretty ruthlessly, and with little prospect of being ousted in the foreseeable future.  Against that backdrop, it was all too easy for people to decide to “make their peace” with the regime –  perhaps reserving any dissent to the quiet of their own hearts.  Fearing imprisonment, loss of office or reputation and –  as time when on –  even death, so many made excuses.  They drew distinctions between the ideologues and apparent “pragmatists” or “realists”, put much more weight than was ever-warranted on occasional soothing words (or the presence of Catholics like von Papen, the former Chancellor, in office), or allowed longstanding, perhaps quite mild, social anti-Semitism to make allowances for the increased legal persecution of the Jews. Perhaps too some focused on the economic rebound –  and associated lift in the national mood –  after the awfulness of the Depression (which hit both Germany and Austria particularly hard).  Whatever the motivation, whatever the straw that was grasped at, von Hildebrand urged people not to be fooled, not to lulled by the day-to-day mundane reality of life going on, but to recognize evil for what it was.  As he noted, even if the regime had largely left the church alone, nothing changed the intrinsic evil of the philosophy Hitler and his regime propounded.

It was a brave and perceptive stance –  occurring before any shots in Hitler’s wars of aggression had been fired, and before the Final Solution of mass extermination of the Jews (something that really only unfolded after 1941).

It is easy to look back, with the benefit of all that hindsight, and feel vaguely superior to those who made their peace –  men and women who perhaps never took any active part in the regime, but kept quiet and went along.  But I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the Nazi period over recent years as I’ve been prompted to wonder how modern Christians –  how I –  would react and respond in the face of evil in our own day.  Perhaps if mass extermination had been announced in January 1993 there would have been a rebellion, but it wasn’t.  Arguably there was no single decisive day which self-evidently marked the line that just could not be crossed, where Christian people could no longer keep quiet or just go along.  And because there was no such day, each person had to make his or own choice, often enough almost alone, unsure who they could trust, or who would even sympathise –  rather than feel threatened by the willingness of a erstwhile friend or colleague to take a stand.

At the end of the book, the editors reproduce selections from some of the essays Von Hildrebrand wrote in his Austrian periodical.  One of these in “The Danger of Quietism” and another “The Danger of Becoming Morally Blunted” –  in the latter in particular he urges his readers not to “get used” to the evil that was around them, but to foster a consciousness of good and evil, to avoid ever becoming so dulled to the evil, that it no longer really strikes them as such.  To become used to evil is to drawn, ineluctably, away from the awe-ful holiness that God calls us to.

And that prompted me to think about how I – and Christian church today – need to take to heart the same lesson.  In Western countries we don’t currently have governments of the directly repressive character of the 1930s Nazi type.  Instead, we have a shared secularist consensus that treats so much that is evil as the norm, perhaps even a virtue.  The abortion rate is perhaps the most striking example: in New Zealand alone 14000 babies are year are murdered in their own mothers’ womb, and yet the issue has no political salience at all.  But worse, in most churches (especially perhaps) most Protestant churches, it seems to evoke no concern at all. I can’t recall the last time I heard a sermon –  or even intercessory prayers –  that stood against the evil.  In my city, this mass murder goes on only a mile or two from here.  And what do I  –  or others – do?  Awful as it is, I find it too easy to come to treat it as normal –  to no longer be shocked –  and shrink from taking any sort of stand for fear of being marginalized or shunned.  In the US the issue does still have some political salience –  but we now have two major candidates, one of whom doesn’t seem to care about the issue, and the other of whom leads a part that seems now not just to treat abortion as some sort of regrettable necessity, but as positive good.

Abortion isn’t the only such evil –  albeit perhaps the mostly in human terms.  But we also increasingly come to treat homosexual practice not as the fruit of disordered desire  – as theft, domestic violence, or adultery might still be seen –  but as something normal.  So many of our children are born outside the bounds of marriage, and yet few politicians (or church leaders) or willing to stand for a traditional family.  The legalization of gay (so-called) marriage seems to prompt many of our churches to want to tag along –  as too much of the German Church did in the 1930s.  Perhaps euthanasia will be the next brick to fall?   And when the media was dominated last week by the events surrounding a rugby team and a stripper, where were church leaders in calling people back to standard of modesty and chastity –  a profound respect of men for women, women for men, each made in the image of God.

We are fortunate in New Zealand that direct repression of the church, and practicing Christians, has not yet happened.  Rod Dreher repeatedly warns that it is coming –  at leasr in the US.  But even in New Zealand the zone of acceptable public comment and debate is narrowing all the time.  As the church has gone along quietly, it paves the way for the open articulation of traditional Christian views to, in time, simply be ruled unacceptable –  “hate speech” –  and for those who won’t go along with the prevailing ethos to risk loss of job, livelihood or status.  Our leaders aren’t brutal thugs in the class of Hitler, and perhaps that just makes it easier for us to be lulled by the presence of evil. and to refrain from making a stand for that which is good and holy and of God.  Where is the line?  I don’t know. Perhaps it is something each of us has to find individually, but it might be easier for latter day Christians to avoid just going along, perhaps a little uncomfortably or perhaps enthusiastically, if church leaders provided a more authoritative voice.  Too often it seems, they’ve been willing to accept a place as social service providers and advocates of “progressive” politics, all with a patina of religious terminology.

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Christianity in New Zealand: foundations and decline

We came back a few days ago from a family holiday in the Bay of Islands.  My nine year old summed up the trip as “we did too many missionary things”, but it is an area suffused with early New Zealand history, and much of that involved the missionaries and the expansion of the gospel to New Zealand.  Nowhere were the activities of missionaries more interwoven with the political history of modern New Zealand than at Waitangi.

For me, much of the trip involved revisiting places I’d been too before, and the satisfaction of introducing another generation to New Zealand history  There was Christ Church in Russell, where we learned that Charles Darwin was among those who contributed to the cost of erecting the church building.  The simple church near the Stone Store in Kerikeri.  And the Waimate mission station and church,  And the Williams memorial church on the waterfront at Paihia, and the Pakaraka churchyard where Henry Willians and his wife are buried.  There was Pompallier House in Russell, where much of the Catholic mission work in the north was based. And there was my first visit to Oihi, the site where Samuel Marsden conducted the first Christian service on Christmas Day 1814, and where the first mission settlement was established.  It is inspiring history, read against the background of the successful proclamation of the gospel to the Maori in the 19th century.  At the high tide of the evangelical movement –  and mission work more generally –  it was a past one could read of with some pleasure.  The sound had gone out into every land –  now even to New Zealand, the last significant landmass inhabited by humans.

And yet, and yet.   We attended Sunday service at the Anglican church in Paihia.  I’m pretty sure the only people only 60 –  and certainly the only ones under 40  –  were our family visiting from Wellington, and another family visiting from Seattle  It wasn’t a bad service  –  it was Sea Sunday, and we managed some good nautically-themed hymns (to canned music), which seemed fitting in a location where the founders had come by sea from the other end of the earth.  But it was really not much more than a handful of people, and what could only wonder what the future might hold 20 years hence.  At Waimate and Pakaraka, services are held only once every four Sundays, in a rotation with two other locations.  None of the church buildings were large.

Of course, Anglican churches aren’t all there is.  We saw several Baptist churches in our travels, and various independent (Pentecostal?) ones too.  No doubt there were a few Catholic churches around, but they weren’t prominent.  Not one of the church buildings we saw were large. The Bay of Islands area doesn’t have a large population –  and I’m not suggesting the decline of Christianity is any more severe there than in the rest of the country –  but I came away saddened. For all the Christian and missionary history, there was a sense of a receding tide which, before too many more years passed, could leave little of a living faith, and not much more than the tombstones of country churchyards to bear testimony to the power of the living faith that motivated men and women to come from so far away, eke out livings on the margins of a far-away land, all for the proclamation of the gospel.

Over history, the fortunes of the church have waxed and waned in many places. I long for –  and must pray more for –  a revival of faith in New Zealand.  With God nothing is impossible, and we’ve seen revivals in various times and places previously –  even among Maori here in New Zealand.  And yet…..perhaps I’m missing some examples, but I can think of all too many places where the presence of the gospel has been all-but-eliminated (Turkey is only the most prominent example, but increasingly one can think of much of the Middle East as well as most of North Africa) and all too few where the practice of the Christian faith has once waned as much as it has in New Zealand in recent decades, only to revive markedly.  Will the 300th anniversary of that first service at Oihi attract any interest at all?  How will future generations even know what a missionary was, when they learn of Henry Williams’ involvement at Waitangi?

Our hope is in the Lord who made the heavens and the earth.  But among the many lands that urgently needs the reviving work of the Spirit must be New Zealand.  Does the church sense that urgency?   Most of time, do I?

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Brexit: how did Christians vote?

I’m a regular reader of the UK Anglican weekly, the Church Times.  Several weeks ago I almost fell off my chair when I read a Church Times editorial arguing that it was disgraceful that the EU referendum was being held at all, and even at that late date urging the British government to cancel it.  I guess all those looking for a second referendum now are probably in much the same camp: the public should never have been given a say and if, foolishly, they were they should have to vote again until they get the answer right.

The editorialists were all in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU, and rather intolerant of alternative perspectives.  Many of the senior clergy seemed to be of much the same opinion, some almost going as far as to suggest that building the EU was akin to building the kingdom of God, and hence not really an optional view for Christians.  The Anglican blogger Archbishop Cranmer captured it thus:

Theologians are more thoughtful in their expression, but the condemnation is the same. This from Anglican theologian John Milbank:

Christians are duty bound for theological and historical reasons to support the ever closer union of Europe (which does not imply a superstate) and to deny the value of absolute sovereignty or the lone nation-state. Tragically, the Reformation, Roundhead, nonconformist, puritan, whig, capitalist, liberal version of Britishness last night triumphed over our deep ancient character which is Catholic or Anglican, Cavalier, Jacobite, High Tory or Socialist. The spirit of both Burke and Cobbett has been denied by the small-minded, bitter, puritanical, greedy and Unitarian element in our modern legacy. Unfortunately it has duped the working classes, once again to their further ruination.

So, there you have it: “ever closer union” is the Kingdom of God: the Reformation was ruination. Poor Thomas the EU Tank Engine has been thwarted by the evil, bitter, bigoted and greedy UK Fat Controller. It is a supreme act of folly inflicted by simpletons who lacks the wit to grasp the true meaning of Christian catholicity.

The decision having gone, by a small but clear margin, in favour of the UK leaving the EU, I was curious as to how Christians voted.  Lord Ashcroft commissioned a fairly large sample (12000 or so respondents) poll to better understand who had voted for which option.

The question about religion hasn’t had overly much coverage (at least that I’ve seen), but here is the chart, showing the net percentage of respondents favouring Leave for each main religious group.

christians for brexit

There is only a rather limited amount of information here.  After all, among “Christians” there is no denominational breakdown (to test, say, my hypothesis that Anglicans will have favoured Leave more than Catholics did), and the “Christian” self-identification will include those attending daily Communion, as well as those who haven’t darkened the door of a church on Sunday for many decades.  I expect that the average “Christian” will be older than the average “None” (and probably also older than the average Hindu and Muslim).  We know that older voters were more in favour of Leave than younger voters.  So quite probably, respondents’ Christian faith may not have made much difference to their votes at all.  That shouldn’t surprise anyone really –  the nature of the best international governance and trading arrangements for a country don’t strike me as matters on which the gospel, or the tradition of the church, offers that much insight on.

I was also interested in the results from the same survey on which social attitudes were most apparent among Remain and Leave voters respectively.  Here we have Lord Ashcroft’s more polished graphic.

ashcroft poll

Voters’ views on the value of capitalism don’t seem to differ across the Leave and Remain camps.   That is  interesting, and suggests it isn’t primarily economic considerations driving voters on either side.

The other results aren’t too surprising.  They seem to tell a story of, on the one hand, a metropolitan urban liberal mindset which puts relatively little value of traditional culture, and on the other a small-c conservative mindset that values the long-established culture.  One side tends to downplay the local as the basis for rule-setting and governance, reveling in the prospect of an international set of rules and standards (whether for its own sake, or for particular causes respondents care about).  The other is instinctively cautious, conservative about the way of life that has developed over centuries, and somehow sensing that rules are best made, and applied, locally, by those with whom one shares something distinctive.  They are inevitably crude characterisations, but they seem to capture something important.

What I found interesting is that not that many decades ago committed Christians would probably have been found mostly on the “force for ill” side of many of these questions –  social liberalism and feminism in particular.  But I guess what people meant by each of these headings is itself elusive.  Of the whole list, probably the only item that I could confidently say had been mostly a force for good would be Capitalism.  If globalization means more foreign trade, I’m all for it, but if it means international rule-setting at arms-length from elected governments and national courts, then I think it is a force for ill.  In time, any society has a culture –  or it doesn’t survive –  so so-called “multi-culturalism” is mostly a delusion.  Then again, a greater variety of ethnic food isn’t unwelcome –  if hardly a vote-shaping consideration for me.  Recognition of the impact of pollution is certainly welcome –  and clearing up those old London fogs – but “the Green movement” seems mostly a force for ill.

It would be nice to have some cross-tabulations of the results, to be able to see what other factors marked out Christians who voted Remain and Leave (perhaps some are there –  I haven’t got through the full 300 page report), but the data are also a reminder of how variegated attitudes of even churchgoing Christians are these days.  Many now support the ordination of women.  A growing number welcome and celebrate homosexual relationships and even “marriage”.  And for many -even the Pope –  the environment and climate change seem to have become one of those issues no serious Christian can have an alternative view on.

If it were the US we would have much richer data, probably, on degrees of commitment of the “Christian” respondents. Then again, in small and secular New Zealand, we’d probably have no data at all on the faith of the respondents.


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Perhaps this week that heading brings to mind Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and David Cameron.  The UK vote to leave the EU was a momentous, history-changing, event –  at least as important as anything that has happened anywhere in the world in the last decade or so.  For the UK itself, I’ve seen people argue it was the most important event since the end of World War Two, but somehow the end of empire, and perhaps even accession to the EEC in 1973, seem right up there.

But the historymakers I had mind was a particularly awful (as distinct from “awe-full”) song, now sung in our local congregation two weeks in succession.    It is by a group named Delirious, which has me thinking all sorts of uncharitable thoughts, and the words are here.

Peter Carrell’s blog had a link the other day to a nice US column on what has gone wrong with church music.  I’d recommend “Why WOULD anyone sing in church these days”, and much of his argument rings true, but my point today is a slightly different one.

All too often the words we are asked to sing bear little or no relationship to Scripture, or to a faithful retelling of the  character and great acts of God.   The ideas behind the old phrase “lex orandi, lex credendi” can be loosely translated as “as we worship, so we believe”.  Our words, and actions, in  worship –  our liturgy, whether formalized or otherwise –  shape what it is that we truly believe.  The responsibility of the Church –  and of individual congregational leaders/”worship leaders” – is then to ensure that the words we use form us rightly.   “Historymakers” not only doesn’t, but it is so detached from reality, and  from the experience of the church and Christians in it,  as to leave anyone who stops to think about what they are being asked to sing wondering about just how grounded the faith they choose to adhere to really is.  We are often accused of believing delusional fairy tales, with faith as some sort of crutch for the inadequate. Sadly, Historymakers helps legitimate that sort of criticism. I’m not ashamed of the gospel, but I’d be deeply embarrassed to expose a thoughtful seeker to this sort of song.

But before taking the song verse by verse, I want to be clear.  I strongly and confidently affirm a belief in a powerful and active God, at work in our world. I’ve never had reason to seriously doubt the broad historicity of the New Testament miracle accounts.  God still works.

But to the song:

Is it true today
That when people pray
Cloudless skies will break
Kings and queens will shake?

Can or could it happen?  Well, yes it could.  But mostly it doesn’t.  Droughts happen, tyrants rule.  Sometimes good and dramatic change happens, but then again we’ve just come out of a century with some of the most murderous regimes in history –  a century in which the good news of the gospel, while receding in the West, has drawn more men and women to God, and to prayer, than ever.  And yet singers are asked to mindlessly repeat

Yes, it’s true
And I believe it

To the next verse

Is it true today
That when people pray
We’ll see dead men rise
And the blind set free?

Can it happen?  Yes, it can.  I’ve even seen a person paralysed for years walk after an evening of prayer –  one of the most stunning memories of my childhood.  But…..there is a great deal of prayer in the world, over many centuries, and miracles of the sort in this verse don’t happen every day (“is it true today”), and perhaps most Christians will never experience or observe such an event.  So what am I affirming if I sing these words?  What sense of the faith we profess am I imparting to my kids if I ask them to stand and sing these words?  It seems a lot like “just make it up as you go along, and it really doesn’t matter if the words bear no relationship to the reality most Christians anywhere have experienced”.  Even in post-Ascension apostolic church, dead men didn’t rise every day.

And then it gets even worse

I’m gonna be
A history maker in this land
I’m gonna be
A speaker of truth to all mankind

Really?  I guess one could, at a considerable stretch, reinterpret it as “every life matters” and every interaction ever person has is part of “history”.  But that clearly isn’t what these authors had in mind.  History here is capital-H history  –  the accounts of great and famous people and their deeds and words, be it Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Mary Slessor, or Boris Johnson.

And for most people it simply isn’t true, whether in their day-to-day lives (work, family, community and political involvements, church).    I worked for 30 years in fairly senior positions in central banks in three countries.  As I look back I can see a few areas where a handful of things I did or said might have made a small difference to the course of what might be recorded as “history” in sufficiently detailed future economic history books.  My wife is a senior government official shaping papers for ministers to take to Cabinet –  she too will make very small marks on history.  I put public commentaries on economic policy matters out each day, partly in the hope that perhaps they might change New Zealand’s economic direction a little.    But this is all pretty small-beer stuff.  And most people in our churches don’t even have those opportunities: they work as nurses, or teachers, or fulltime parents, or shop assistants, or accountants or baristas or whatever.  Many are retired.  Each role shapes the person doing it, and allows them to influence other people to some extent.  But no one seriously thinks of this as “historymaking”.

And as for speaking truth to all mankind?  Few even have the opportunity –  whether in the cause of the gospel or whatever.  Donald Trump to Barack Obama might speak to all mankind –  although not probably gospel truth.  Mother Teresa is her own way may well have.  But it just is not the experience of most Christians –  whether in the early church, in the days of great evangelical strength or now.  Eugene Peterson’s book, titled “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” seems to better capture the realistic call to faithful, sometimes costly, discipleship.

The alternative –  encapsulated in the “Historymakers” song –  seems frankly delusional. I guess I understand the point the writers are trying to make: calling us to prayer, and to faith, and expecting that to spill into what happens in our lives and the world. God is living and active.  But it is still delusional.  For anyone who stops to think about it even briefly, it should evoke a “why would anyone take very seriously what else is going on here?”  And for those who don’t stop to think –  perhaps especially young people with a real, but youthful, passion for the gospel – it encourages a degree of hubris and unrealism that sets most of them up for a nasty fall later, or just the slow disillusionment when they finally allow reality to stand alongside the words the church taught them to sing.  Yes, there will be a handful of people in our congregations who may make history, and some too who may have the opportunity to speak truth powerfully to many.  And God will, on occasion, work powerful and visible miracles –  in addition to turning lives around and sustaining people in the long obedience, the walk of lifelong discipleship. But for most of us, the idea of being historymakers is just far detached from reality.

So why do our church leaders still encourage us to sing this stuff?  Why don’t more people do as I finally did this morning –  as someone who loves to sing – and simply sit down quietly.

Growing up Christian in our country isn’t easy these days – perhaps in truth it never was, but I’m sure it is harder now than 40 years when I was the age my kids are now.  I want them to grow up following Christ –  who walked the path of brokenness and death and, in many ways, earthly failure –  with a hardheaded realism, about sin, grace, discipleship and a Kingdom which is now, but which is not yet fully come. I don’t want them deluding themselves about what it means, and has always meant, to be a disciple.  One day they  –  smart young people and willing to ask lots of questions already –  will react against all this pap.  My prayer is that it will be a reaction that takes them deeper into the God who revealed himself in Christ –  moving on from the thin unhealthy fare to rich good food –  but I fear, and pray against, a reaction that says instead “why take seriously a church, and faith, that propogates such nonsense”.


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Poverty, shoes and childhood memories

Child poverty is one of those issues that greatly excites the leadership of many of our churches.  And perhaps understandably so.  No one likes to think of anyone, but children in particular for whom there is no element of personal choice, in poverty.  Of course, what one person means by poverty is quite different from what someone else means, especially in a relatively well-off country like New Zealand.  I’ve occasionally been surprised to see lists of characteristics of people in poverty –  sometimes around heating –  only to say to myself “but I do that. Call me abstemious if you like, but it isn’t a reflection of poverty”.  Footwear is another attention-grabbing aspect of some of the measures of child poverty.

What prompted this post was a story in today’s Herald, “Barefoot walk for good cause”, recounting a fundraising effort being undertaken by a young Wellington woman, “to raise awareness and funds for the thousands of children in Cambodia whose lack of footwear remains a barrier to education”.  She is planning to walk 33 kms barefoot in Wellington –  along the banks of the Hutt River, and then along the cycleway into town.  I know nothing about the Cambodian school system, but it did bring back memories.

Back when I was almost 7 we moved from comfortable genteel Christchurch to the mill town of Kawerau –  my father took up a role as part-time Baptist minister.  I think the town must have been quite a cultural adjustment.  Kawerau then wasn’t the welfare and gang sinkhole it seems to be today.  Instead, it was pretty prosperous place –  high wages for often not-terribly-demanding work in the papers mills established as part of the 1950s (equivalent of) Think Big strategy.  But it certainly wasn’t Christchurch. I don’t think my mother was overly impressed at us moving to wearing Roman sandals (my school uniform in Christchurch included proper closed-toe sandals). But she drew the line at the local custom: barefoot schooling. And so I left home each morning with my sandals on, got to the corner 20 yards away, and took them off, only to put them back on as I got home again in the afternoon.  It was just the way we did things.  I’m pretty sure none of my friends’ parents were poor –  housing was cheap, wages were high.  It didn’t harm our schooling, or induce any sense of lack of well-being. Let alone poverty.  Apart perhaps from church, I doubt we put shoes or sandals on all summer long.

It didn’t necessarily look that way to other people. After a couple of years in Kawerau we went back to Christchurch for a holiday, staying with my grandparents in their large house in the heart of Fendalton.  One morning I went out walking – I must have been 9 or 10 –  doing some sort of circuit of some of the better streets of Fendalton, barefoot.  Imagine my surprise –  bemusement –  at being waylaid by one local matron, very concerned at my lack of footwear, and worried that my parents might not have been able to cloth me adequately.  Somehow I made my excuses –  she probably wasn’t convinced – and got back to my grandparents’ place, where Mum had to explain that not many locals, child or not, walked the streets of Fendalton barefoot.

Which is not to suggest that I’m indifferent to genuine childhood poverty. But I do sometimes wonder about the footwear dimension –  perhaps especially when the real price of footwear is so much lower than it used to be, due to the removal of (most) protection.  33 kilometres is longer than I would walk barefoot these days, but when I go back to the Bay of Plenty on holiday, whole days –  and reasonable length walks –  go by without even a jandal afoot.  Some people –  not me – even go shopping in Whakatane, the local commercial centre, barefoot.  If I don’t follow their example, it brings back happy memories.

Perhaps the issue in Cambodia is uniform requirements.  Whatever the case, I wish the young woman well in her fundraising, but it isn’t the cause for me.

There are, after all, quite some biblical examples of people going barefoot.


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