Tag Archives: evangelism

Biblical oddments (2) The ‘most high god’ of Acts 16.

‘As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers.’ (ESV).

At first sight this passage is odd. Why is Paul objecting to the girl’s proclaiming of what appears to us to be the truth? And yet he does. We need to look further.

The crucial verse here is:

She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”

In this version, as in so many others, there’s a definite article, ‘the’, in the verse. Yet the Greek doesn’t have that – which is the first clue. Most English versions follow this – indeed one offers: ‘They are telling you how to be saved.’ Following the logic of this, in a sermon the then Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church argued that Paul had rejected the girl’s valid spiritual gifting,

‘Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God. She is quite right. She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves. But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does” maybe more so!’

(transcription from an opponent of the bishop)

This notably fails to engage with how Paul was able to achieve (not ‘tries’) this depriving – though he must have done, given that her owners are upset enough to have him dragged before the magistrates. For the record, if you ever need to fight this, look at the previous verse, where the girl is described is having a ‘spirit of divination’ – or more literally a ‘python spirit’ in some seven of the versions, which is also the name of the deity that presided at Delphi, the leading Oracle of pagan times. The reader may wish to consider how a bishop of the Anglican communion is unable to see a pagan spirit as evil.

So what IS the problem?

The issue is illuminated one we realise that the title ‘most high god’ was one given in the area to a somewhat ill-defined pagan deity. The Catholic encyclopedia of 1913 offers some background:

Hypsistarians or worshippers of the Hypsistos, i.e. of the “Most High” God; a distinct Jewish-pagan sect which flourished from about 200 B.C. to about A.D. 400, mostly in Asia Minor (Cappadocia Bithynia, Pontus) and on the South Russian coasts of the Euxine Sea. A more modern writer offers evidence that this deity was worshipped in the north east of the Black Sea, placing the god alongside Aphrodite in the area.

We can see therefore that the people hearing the comments of the slave girl would have assumed that Paul was an evangelist for this deity, and so undermined his message of salvation from the God of the Jews, the one true, creator, God. This is thus a reminder that what looks like the truth can be misleading, especially to those outside the faith. We need to be very cautious at accepting others’ statements about the faith as valid – because they may be hiding a deception. Once more ‘Test Everything’ must be our policy – even women bishops make mistakes…

The bible is not the word of God

[OK – so that’s a deliberately provocative title. READ IT ALL. I’m not trying to undermine the authority of Scripture here. Indeed, I’m trying to reassert it, but in a sense that makes proper sense of what is going on. It’s also true that the questions the debate threw up forced me to think harder about this whole issue; this is always a good thing!]

A bible verse as spam

In the course of a recent Facebook conversation I threw out the comment that the use of a verse in a particular context constitutes spam. I got sulked at for ‘calling the Word Of God spam’ and replied:

‘Christians are often described as ‘bible bashers’ because we fail to use the bible wisely. When it is used unhelpfully, it merely confuses. If a verse is used inappropriately in a way that casts no light to the discussion being held, then the person is a bible basher, in the worst sense, and they are in practice offering spam. So yes, I feel the term is appropriate!’

Further engagement led to me to argue that:

The point of course is that I have a very HIGH view of the scriptures, and therefore take great exception to their being used as spam or to source cute deceptions. If we share a scripture as a word of God, then we can be argued to be prophesying – speaking for God into the situation. The bible is very clear how to react to such material: ‘Test everything’. Instead we let such abuses of the scriptures pass unchallenged. This is not good.’

Defining ‘The Word of God’.

This got me John 1 quoted at me: ‘the word was with God, the word was God’. Which my interlocutor seems to suggest meant that any quote from the scriptures is the ‘Word of God’. However let’s consider the phrase: ‘Come; for all things are now ready’. It’s what we might say to the family when a meal’s ready. Yet it’s also the phrase used by Jesus in the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14). Just because a phrase is in the bible, it isn’t therefore the word of God. So what makes it the word of God?

Consider two possible sermons based on that phrase. One, an orthodox and helpful sermon, uses it to remind us that we have the prospect of a great feast to look forward to in the future when we are called home to God. Another uses it for the basis of a prosperity doctrine teaching that we can expect everything now. I would want to argue that the whole of the sermon in the first case may be ‘the word of God’ for its hearers at the time – but that doesn’t make it massively special, and I’m certainly not going to claim it’s therefore inerrant etc. Meanwhile the second is, of course, not.

Consider how I came to buy the apartment next to mine. Its tenant had died, and the landlord was looking to sell it. I had NO intention of buying it; I’d never been a landlord before and had no enthusiasm for the idea. But the idea that WOULDN’T GO AWAY. After a bit I asked God to give me a figure for how much to offer for it and He gave me a specific figure. I knew roughly what it was worth, but not what they were asking. It turned out I was offering exactly 10% less than their asking price. They ummed and erred and finally agreed. Since then I’ve rented it to very good tenants, and have seen its value increase by about 50% in the past 7 years or so. So the instruction to buy the flat was a word of God to me.

And consider a crucial step in the conversion of Augustine of Hippo. He was under spiritual pressure – and heard a child’s voice, probably playing a game, saying ‘Take and read, take and read’. He picked up a bible, and the words he read provided him with the way forward on his journey to God. That was a word of God. But it isn’t in the scriptures!

Back to the bible

A word search for ‘Word of God’ throws up an interesting couple of verses:

For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. (John 3)

and

Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God. (John 8)

Both clearly indicate that ‘the word of God’ is not purely Jesus. So what should we be concluding here? Let’s examine the favourite verse of those with a high view of the authority of the bible:

‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2 Tim 3)

Drum roll time: this is talking about SCRIPTURE, not ‘The Word of God’. Despite what our rabid Evangelical brethren tend to assert, they are not the same thing. Let’s play with this a bit more: consider Jesus’ interpretation of the Parable of the Sower. We have three different versions. In Mark 4 the seed is ‘the word’. Matthew 13 offers ‘The word of the kingdom’. Luke 8 goes for the straightforward: ‘The seed is the word of God’.

So what’s the relationship of the ‘word of God’ of the parable of the Sower to the bible. If the bible is the word of God, then one should be able to understand the word ‘seed’ in the parable with ‘bible’. So the phrase:

As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

Becomes

As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the bible, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

Really? What does that mean? Have they got to hear the WHOLE bible, even I Chronicles 1-9 (look it up!)? Clearly not. Similarly does that mean that only the words of the bible are effective in evangelism, and nothing else matters? Are we supposed to ensure that our sermons must be a continual stream of bible text and nothing else?

Meanwhile of course we’re associating the bible and the Word of God so tightly that we end up seeing a bible as an embodiment of Jesus, who is ‘The Word of God’.

Abuse of the bible; let’s avoid it being ‘cute’.

Many of us have had the promise in Jeremiah 29 quoted in our general direction as an encouragement that things will get better:

‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.’

That’s a specific promise to the people of God in exile. Its use by us to randomly encourage Christians when God may have difficult plans for them in the future is a mistake. Imagine offering that to Paul at the start of his missionary journeys; given the list of suffering that he records in 2 Corinthians, it’s ‘interesting’ to argue that he was the recipient of that promise, or alternatively, it puts the interpretation of that passage into a totally different light. So yes, that’s an example of a ‘cute’ verse; designed to give an emotional encouragement with no actual truth involved.

On a bad day Christianity can collapse into sentimentality; a vapid emotionally driven desire to hope that things will turn out well. Of course there’s a truth here: ‘God will wipe away every tear’ – but that’s on the last day when we have arrived in our eternal home to be with Him forever. In the interim? We can expect a life of tears – because He will have tears to wipe away. What we need to do is to hear ‘the word of God’ for us for now, with correct encouragements and warnings. Instead too often preachers offer false hope, we get discouraged, and so we ‘have not because you ask not’.

Speak the word of God, don’t just quote the bible

We need to get this right. We need to speak what God is truly saying, not what we think will make the person feel better but isn’t actually true. This means we need to know the bible PROPERLY. We need to be clear about the context of the passages we throw about. We need to do this because a badly used verse can easily lead to discouragement; we need to do this because we are to declare God’s word, not give false hope.

And I will stretch out my hand against them and make the land desolate and waste, in all their dwelling places, from the wilderness to Riblah. Then they will know that I am the Lord.’ (Ezekiel 6)

For some people on some occasions, God will speak to them through hardship. If we tell them to look away from the hardship and not engage with it, we are leading them to miss God’s message to them. We need to do better. To repeat: If we share a scripture as a word of God, then we can be argued to be prophesying – speaking for God into the situation. The bible is very clear how to react to such material: ‘Test everything’. Instead we let such abuses of the scriptures pass unchallenged. This is ‘not good.’

Let’s use scriptures wisely, appropriately and according to their real context.

Yes But…

Accompaniment, Community and Nature by Jonathan Herbert (Jessica Kingsley, 2020)

This is a powerful and challenging book. It offers the wisdom of a Church of England priest who has used his life to reach beyond the comfort boundaries of the way that we tend to do church in the UK to find wisdom in others’ traditions. It is especially strong in rediscovering the healing power of community life, reminding us of what we in the West have lost for the most part.

Herbert’s clerical career started as a curate in a rough area, where his ‘training incumbent’ – notable for the lack of material that was obviously training – effectively taught him to engage with the local people of the parish, to learn to accompany. After a stint as a team vicar in another deprived area, where his willingness to refuse to pay the Poll Tax led to a confrontation with both his Team Rector and the government, he became leader of the Pilsdon community. This is group of people who offer hospitality to many struggling with mental health issues, seeing remarkable change as a result of engagement in the community; a friend who was struggling with depression to the point of at least one suicide attempt, spent some time there and was substantially restored to a good place. An important element is the role of strict boundaries; ‘guests’ are expected to be remain drug and alcohol free, to refrain from violence, and work in the farm that is the heart of the place. A surprising element is that the rules also require attendance at meals – an insight that encourages engagement with others. The boundaries were enforced by an active willingness to exclude guests who broke the rules – either for a temporary period or permanently; Herbert argues that this ensures that the community remains a safe place, able to do its job. It is interesting to note that a similar willingness to exclude for the benefit of others is seldom seen in the life of the church. A feature of his time there was a positive outcome to a public meeting process about opening a half way house for Pilsdon guests seeking to return to urban life. The meeting’s starting point was fear of the presence of ‘these people’ in the nice area where the house was to be located; the turning point came when the local police officer referred to the local ‘crack house’ which the law was unable to touch; the final outcome was a willingness by many to engage and the house being accepted.

After Pilsdon he, and his family, moved on to Hillfield Priory, a Franciscan (SSF) house. Between the two, Herbert walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain; here he learnt the power of the shared experience and opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with those walking with you. Other involvements have included time in the Solomon Island, where he was impressed at the way people worked together to get things done without the need to active supervision, a period in Uganda seeking to help enable reconciliation of pastoralists and farmers by the establishment of mixed communities, and Palestine, where the contrast of community life among the Arabs was in marked contrast to the individualism, typical of a Western mindset, he felt was displayed by Israeli settlers. Currently he is ‘Church of England chaplain to Gypsies and Travellers in Dorset and Wiltshire’, where his focus is to become involved in the life of those marginalised groups ‘accompanying’. Most recently he has also become active in climate crisis campaigning, getting arrested for ‘Extinction Rebellion’ inspired civil disobedience. This he presents with a spiritual dimension, offering Francis’ concern for the natural world, and his appreciation of ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Sister Moon’, the value of physical labour, especially farming, as engagement with ‘Mother Earth’.

And yet, and yet

Is he teaching the ‘whole counsel of God’? Is he fulfilling the instruction: ‘make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’. Is he a minister of God declaring His forgiveness to penitent sinners, or is he merely offering a better way of being human by living together well? Are people finding God real in their lives? Is the cross being proclaimed as the source of God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness? Do people end up being ‘guided by the Spirit’? Do they come to ‘know God’? Is he truly a prophet of God declaring His word, or is he merely a wise man sharing human wisdom – ‘common grace’? Is he so earthly minded that he is no heavenly good?

Herbert confesses to a dislike of fundamentalism, rejecting the certainty that it proclaims. However such a belief – as with all relativism – is logically incoherent; relativists have an absolute belief that there is no absolute truth, believing that there is no absolute truth as an absolute truth. This is a comfortable place to be, allowing one to bat away hard questions about ‘why you believe?’; you can pick the beliefs you like and discard the stuff you find problematic. At some point this becomes a marriage to the zeitgeist – and will leave its proponent revealed as having chosen an idol over ‘the God who made heaven and earth’. ‘We have a gospel to proclaim’: will we be found, on judgement day, to have been declaring ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’? Herbert does talk about our society’s failure to engage with death – making the interesting point that the growing tendency towards memorial services, in the absence of the body of the deceased, avoid the issue. Yet without Jesus’ death and resurrection as the reason for true hope for the next world – for ‘if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied’ – as well as this. Yet Herbert offers, at least in the book, no clarity about what follows death.

Conclusion

As I said: this is a powerful and challenging book. It offers the insights of a person who has helped many towards healing, and perspectives that rightly challenge much of what passes for religion in the West. It elegantly presents the currently fashionable theology of a large sector of the Church of England. There is much good in it – yet ultimately it fails to offer the living Jesus.

Good Omens – and the definition of evil

(SPOILERS)

Another great fantasy series – Good Omens – ended on BBC2 last week. As with ‘The Good Place‘ – which I reviewed recently – it’s great fun; along with it, it reveals fundamental flaws in theology, which once spotted help us understand why many people don’t understand the gospel.

Good Omens ‘set in 2018, the series follows the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale, longtime friends, who, having grown accustomed to life on Earth as representatives of their respective masters, seek to prevent the coming of the Antichrist and with it Armageddon, the final battle between Heaven and Hell.’ (Wikipedia) We also have a subplot with a witch burnt under Oliver Cromwell, Agnes Nutter, and her descendant today – Agnes’ accurate predictions of the future have been fulfilled – and the Anti-Christ himself, an 11 year old boy called Adam. Crowley’s disorganisation at the time of his birth resulted in him growing up in a small Oxfordshire village instead of as the son of the American ambassador (playing on the Omen‘s myth); the final climax sees Adam and his friends defeat the four horsemen of the apocalyse, based loosely on the characters in Revelation 6, as well as Satan himself, whom Adam dismisses as not really his dad because he was never there for him.

The failures of theology include not understanding why the end of the world is good news, and a failure to take evil seriously enough. The end of the world is good news for Christians because it means an end to the suffering that we and every new generation is enduring in the world. Our God will reign over a renewed earth and every tear will be wiped away. By contrast Aziraphale has become entranced with the good things of the world – he runs the sort of second hand bookshop that appeals to many, and enjoys fine food and wine; he wants to keep that lifestyle going. Crowley is similarly entranced with this world, though his predilections are less defined, though there is an very amusing scene showing his relationship with his house plants, and he has a wonderful vintage Rolls Royce that he is clearly in love with; the Queen track is used on several occasions.

The point about evil is that it’s about being destructive for the sake of it: ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy’ as Jesus puts it in John 10. Specifically, Christian theology sees the Devil and his demons committed to the destruction of God’s works because they are God’s works; destruction for the sake of destruction, not for what you get out of it. Crowley has long since lost this motivation; instead he’s around, like Aziraphale, to enjoy life. Of course such an approach to life can have evil consequences when things are destroyed along the way in the pursuit of personal pleasure / fulfilment. The drug addict who destroys the life of the victim of the mugging is only interested in the cash for the next fix; the fraudster who wants money regardless of the damage they do to others. Indeed on this basis the developer whose destruction of the beauty of creation as well as of attractive and loved old buildings is thus more clearly revealed as evil.

‘Good Omens’ is thus propaganda for a world view that is not serious about good or evil; it’s about having a pleasant time because that’s what the British Middle Classes have got now. In the end heaven and hell prove unable to discipline their minions, and they are shown, having averted the end of the world, continuing their metropolitan elite lifestyles. We shouldn’t be surprised; it’s an obvious way to live, and one that is tempting. Yet to succumb is to refuse the call to true service of God and the good, and to allow evil to flourish unchallenged; we would miss opportunities to be of real value, to have done something with our lives, to not see all our achievements burnt up, as Paul warns:

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

(1 Corinthians 3)

The Good Place

Warning – spoilers!! If in doubt WATCH IT FIRST. It’s a fun show…

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series – it presented some wonderful characters and played with them brilliantly. However its final episode showed that a cynic who refused to watch it on the basis that it was ‘religious propaganda’ was correct; it was presenting a Buddhist critique of the traditional misunderstanding of Christianity – also seen in Islam – that your eternal fate is determined by whether on balance you lived a life good enough to deserve to be in ‘The Good Place’. The main conceit of the show is that the main human characters are in hell – but in a new version; this is presented as heaven, but is designed by a radical new ‘architect’ (a demon called Michael who appears to be a kind older man) to make them torture one another, in contrast to the simplistic approach previously adopted in hell. The first series is about their progressive realisation that they’ve been deceived – a discovery which renders Michael’s project a failure, resulting in being reset, with a loss of the memories of the humans.

It is slowly revealed that the system has been perverted by the demons to prevent ANYONE making it to heaven, and when this information is received by the angels of heaven, they prove unable to address the issue meaningfully, organising bureaucratic steps of zero value in response to the news. So the four humans, abetted by Michael who has become uncomfortable with his role, and Janet, a computer type being able to provide anything the residents require, challenge ‘the judge’ – another relatively feckless character – to allow an alternative approach. This proves to consist of humans getting lots of chances to improve – with a vague idea of what they got wrong – and, as a result, the humans do make it to heaven, which proves to be a disappointment. This is because the residents have become jaded and bored with having no further challenges. The philosopher of the group determines that this is because there is no possibility of death, and, after an appeal to the judge, an option of self-annihilation – being absorbed back into the universe in the same way that a wave is absorbed back into the sea – is allowed; this is, of course, the traditional understanding of Nirvana, and the scriptwriters even admit to its origin within the Buddhist tradition. The show ends with most of the humans choosing Nirvana – including Shakespeare whose 4000 plays in the afterlife proved to be a disappointment – although the demon Michael is given the chance to live as a human and enter the cycle of rebirth until he gets the chance of Nirvana.

It’s a fun show – it has rightly attracted a lot of awards, and its victory at the Hugos for the best single episode (series 2 episode 5) with ‘The Trolley Problem’ was entirely deserved. Yet its theology is obnoxious, and it’s important for us to engage with why it is SUCH a fail. Part of it is that taking seriously God’s warning that ‘all have sinned’ and ‘the wages of sin is death’ is tough. We wish it weren’t true; both the ‘balance of good and bad’ – also visible in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods – and the Buddhist ‘Keep going till you get it right’ are more attractive; both emphasis that humans can do well enough to satisfy the requirements imposed. That, of course, gives status and legitimacy to human self-confidence, whereas the Christian claim is that we need God’s grace – a claim that is far less attractive to humans. One of the virtues of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was that the services start with a confession of sin; it’s an unusual Evangelical service to do so explicitly.

One place the show departs from the Buddist mainstream (in as far as there is one – Buddhism is notable for its range of beliefs) is in leaving a period in paradise at the end before humans chose Nirvana i.e extinction. The show suggests that this is because the residents are bored; they’ve done everything that appeals to them. This again reflects a man centred understanding of the universe; given that our creator is so vastly greater than we are, the idea that we will get bored with all that He offers is a failure to take Him seriously. It is interesting to note that Adam was given a task to fulfil: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ The implication of Genesis is that the earth’s development was the duty of humanity; by no means a trivial task. We don’t know what wonders God has for us in eternity, but getting bored seems unlikely to be a serious risk.

Good and Evil

A persistent feature of this show and indeed most Hollywood material is that it fails to take good and evil seriously enough. The ‘good’ in ‘The Good Place’ are incompetent, whilst the evil succumbs to the logic of the heroes and ultimately ally themselves for the common good. There is one moment where the evil agenda is blatantly expressed; the lead demon says: ‘I don’t care if everyone loses as long as you lose’, encapsulating the nature of evil in seeking to destroy the good, regardless of the cost to itself. This seems to reflect a hatred of the good that is visceral, reflecting Jesus’ comment: ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.’ John 10.

Within the context of the show therefore ALL are shown to be open to getting better; by the end, the demons of hell have become part of the team working to provide humans with the means to improve; even they’ve been revealed to be capable of changing for the better, an explicit denial that they were ever truly evil in the first place.

Conclusion

The danger of such material is that we lose our confidence in what God has said, instead coming to believe that we know better. Such was the temptation of the Garden; the apple looked nice, God was treating us badly in refusing to let us eat it. If God is God, then the rational, sane and only thing to do is to obey him, fully. ‘The Good Place’ – along with much else that Hollywood produces – offers a beautifully presented and attractive packaging to an evil deception. We all need to think carefully as to whether we are wise to fill our minds with this sort of material, and if we do, then we need to pick out the poison to neutralise it. The enemy is as concerned to propagandise for his truth as we Christians should be for ours. Let’s be careful out there.

The prophet Nahum in four voices

I ‘wrote’ this for my bible study group as a way to engage with the whole book and to avoid just taking it verse by verse. Nahum is especially relevant to this approach; it is almost entirely Hebrew poetry and its thrust can easily be lost if you only read a few verses; this is true of other books of the bible as well, but it’s especially blatant here. This approach can ensure that the sheer impact of the material is felt.

The text is from the Living Bible, a paraphrase that doesn’t try to replicate the poetic structure that tends to be a burden for English readers, with the word order very slightly to allow the different voice. The divisions are at time arbitrary, to provide some variety rather than one voice for the whole of the detailed description of the fall of Nineveh.

Narrator

Prophet

The Lord

Messengers

This is the vision God gave to Nahum, who lived in Elkosh, concerning the impending doom of Nineveh:

God is jealous over those he loves; that is why he takes vengeance on those who hurt them. He furiously destroys their enemies. He is slow in getting angry, but when aroused, his power is incredible, and he does not easily forgive. He shows his power in the terrors of the cyclone and the raging storms; clouds are billowing dust beneath his feet! At his command the oceans and rivers become dry sand; the lush pastures of Bashan and Carmel fade away; the green forests of Lebanon wilt. In his presence mountains quake and hills melt; the earth crumbles, and its people are destroyed.

Who can stand before an angry God? His fury is like fire; the mountains tumble down before his anger.

The Lord is good. When trouble comes, he is the place to go! And he knows everyone who trusts in him! But he sweeps away his enemies with an overwhelming flood; he pursues them all night long.

What are you thinking of, Nineveh, to defy the Lord? He will stop you with one blow; he won’t need to strike again. He tosses his enemies into the fire like a tangled mass of thorns. They burst into flames like straw. Who is this king of yours who dares to plot against the Lord? But the Lord is not afraid of him!

The Lord declares: ”Though he build his army millions strong, it will vanish. O my people, I have punished you enough! Now I will break your chains and release you from the yoke of slavery to this Assyrian king”.

And to the king he says, “I have ordered an end to your dynasty; your sons will never sit upon your throne. And I will destroy your gods and temples, and I will bury you! For how you stink with sin!”

See, the messengers come running down the mountains with glad news: “The invaders have been wiped out and we are safe!” O Judah, proclaim a day of thanksgiving and worship only the Lord, as you have vowed. For this enemy from Nineveh will never come again. He is cut off forever; he will never be seen again.

(Chapter 2) Nineveh, you are finished! You are already surrounded by enemy armies! Sound the alarm! Man the ramparts! Muster your defenses, full force, and keep a sharp watch for the enemy attack to begin! For the land of the people of God lies empty and broken after your attacks, but the Lord will restore their honor and power again!

Shields flash red in the sunlight! The attack begins! See their scarlet uniforms! See their glittering chariots moving forward side by side, pulled by prancing steeds! Your own chariots race recklessly along the streets and through the squares, darting like lightning, gleaming like torches. The king shouts for his officers; they stumble in their haste, rushing to the walls to set up their defenses. But too late! The river gates are open! The enemy has entered! The palace is in panic!

The queen of Nineveh is brought out naked to the streets and led away, a slave, with all her maidens weeping after her; listen to them mourn like doves and beat their breasts! Nineveh is like a leaking water tank! Her soldiers slip away, deserting her; she cannot hold them back. “Stop, stop,” she shouts, but they keep on running.

Loot the silver! Loot the gold! There seems to be no end of treasures. Her vast, uncounted wealth is stripped away. Soon the city is an empty shambles; hearts melt in horror; knees quake; her people stand aghast, pale-faced and trembling.

Where now is that great Nineveh, lion of the nations, full of fight and boldness, where even the old and feeble, as well as the young and tender, lived unafraid?

O Nineveh, once mighty lion! You crushed your enemies to feed your children and your wives, and filled your city and your homes with captured goods and slaves.

But now the Lord Almighty has turned against you. He destroys your weapons. Your chariots stand there, silent and unused. Your finest youths lie dead. Never again will you bring back slaves from conquered nations; never again will you rule the earth.

(Chapter 3) Woe to Nineveh, City of Blood, full of lies, crammed with plunder. Listen! Hear the crack of the whips as the chariots rush forward against her, wheels rumbling, horses’ hoofs pounding, and chariots clattering as they bump wildly through the streets! See the flashing swords and glittering spears in the upraised arms of the cavalry! The dead are lying in the streets—bodies, heaps of bodies, everywhere. Men stumble over them, scramble to their feet, and fall again.

All this because Nineveh sold herself to the enemies of God. The beautiful and faithless city, mistress of deadly charms, enticed the nations with her beauty, then taught them all to worship her false gods, bewitching people everywhere.

The Lord Almighty says: No wonder I stand against you, and now all the earth will see your nakedness and shame. I will cover you with filth and show the world how really vile you are.” All who see you will shrink back in horror: “Nineveh lies in utter ruin.” Yet no one anywhere regrets your fate!

Are you any better than Thebes, straddling the Nile, protected on all sides by the river? Ethiopia and the whole land of Egypt were her mighty allies, and she could call on them for infinite assistance, as well as Put and Libya. Yet Thebes fell and her people were led off as slaves; her babies were dashed to death against the stones of the streets. Soldiers drew straws to see who would get her officers as servants. All her leaders were bound in chains.

Nineveh, too, will stagger like a drunkard and hide herself in fear. All your forts will fall. They will be devoured like first-ripe figs that fall into the mouths of those who shake the trees. Your troops will be weak and helpless as women. The gates of your land will be opened wide to the enemy and set on fire and burned. Get ready for the siege! Store up water! Strengthen the forts! Prepare many bricks for repairing your walls! Go into the pits to trample the clay, and pack it in the molds!

But in the middle of your preparations, the fire will devour you; the sword will cut you down; the enemy will consume you like young locusts that eat up everything before them. There is no escape, though you multiply like grasshoppers. Merchants, numerous as stars, filled your city with vast wealth, but your enemies swarm like locusts and carry it away. Your princes and officials crowd together like grasshoppers in the hedges in the cold, but all of them will flee away and disappear, like locusts when the sun comes up and warms the earth.

O Assyrian king, your princes lie dead in the dust; your people are scattered across the mountains; there is no shepherd now to gather them. There is no healing for your wound—it is far too deep to cure. All who hear your fate will clap their hands for joy, for where can one be found who has not suffered from your cruelty?

The Reshaping of Britain

Clifford Hill The Reshaping of Britain (London: Wilberforce Publications 2018)

[This is my review, of the book I have summarised at length here]

Hill’s book is a personal reflection, containing much first hand reporting. Hill was well placed at the heart of the political and spiritual changed and was accepted by many because of a lack of denominational label he was a Congregationalist, and refused to join the URC when it formed in the 70s, leaving him largely unaligned in practice. Hill enjoyed personal friendships beyond his official status with many of the leading players.

After 10 years of ministry in a large eclectic suburban congregation, they moved, at the beginning of the 70s to the East End, looking to develop concepts of ‘community based evangelism’ and ‘community development’. The book starts here, with his challenges at that church. He then progresses via his abortive attempt to head up the Archbishop Donald Coggan’s National Initiative on Evangelism in the late 70s– which he shows was torpedoed by the liberal establishment – via being Evangelism Secretary for the Evangelical Alliance, which he resigned from when they insisted on old style stadium evangelism – with Luis Palau and Billy Graham in 1984 instead of his community centred – to being Editor of ‘Prophecy Today’.

Prophet?

Hill declines the label ‘prophet’, because he sees the Hebrew prophets as ministering to a nation in a covenant relationship with God, although Jonah’s ministry is to the Gentiles, the term is used in the New Testament for Christians, and there’s a sense in which there IS a covenant between God and the UK, reflected in the Coronation Service. But I accept his point, as it probably helps avoid fights that aren’t worth having. Instead Hill uses the term ‘exercising a prophetic ministry’ and ‘being a watchman’: seeking to identify significant issues and events. Hill is unclear how far this is all from his sociology training and how far from revelation. I suspect it’s probably a mistake to get too hung up on the issue!

He was instrumental in the Carmel gathering of 1986 (of 153 international leaders) which led to prophetic warnings about shaking of the nations and the prospect of no revival without radical repentance by the church. These prophecies were powerfully fulfilled in the fall of the Soviet Union, and the various subsequent economic upheavals around the world, but the degree of shaking experienced by the rich West has been fairly minimal so far. One of Hill’s challenges is to beware praying for protection for our nations from what God wants to do; it seems likely that only severe shaking seems likely to bring revival.

Holding ‘prophets’ accountable

Resistance to the persistent hopes of revival is a theme in the book. He was amongst those unimpressed by the promises of revival focused on October 1990, when many anticipated it starting at a meeting at the Excel centre led by John Wimber. He regards the failure to admit to the error was typical of the English unwillingness to confront difficult issues, with the result that lessons are not learnt, and flawed ministries are not ended. In this context he is largely sceptical of the Toronto blessing, pointing out that it has resulted in few conversions, and some of the manifestations were highly dubious. Then and subsequently his emphasis is on testing: we are told to test everything; the propensity of some of ‘Toronto’s’ leaders to reject such testing is therefore a substantial error.

Archbishops

He is highly critical of Runcie’s period as Archbishop, being especially disdainful of his attempt to dismiss the possibility of the York Minster thunderbolt being an act of God. Carey is similarly critiqued; his last minute withdrawal from preaching at the 150th anniversary celebrations at Christchurch, Jerusalem, the home of a substantial Messianic Jewish congregation which is a challenge for the Arab dominated diocese of Jerusalem, is especially commented on. By contrast he was very impressed by Rowan Williams, whom he met, and prophesied over before his appointment to Canterbury, announcing it to him. A strong but difficult friendship ensued; in retrospect Hill feels that he was seeking to get Williams to fulfil Hill’s vision for the job. Williams was not equipped to communicate with ordinary people, but in his material there is much that is orthodox; for example ”At the centre of things, the Scriptures provide the first test of unity and coherence, to which all else is brought to be judged’. Yet Hill slides over William’s earlier support for Christian gay relationships, though noting he did resist the appointment of Jeffrey John as a bishop. Hill’s positive attitude to Williams alienated him from many Evangelicals, and he was eased out of any involvement with Prophecy Today after his retirement as a result.

He interprets Welby’s call for an ‘inclusive church’ to be code for an acceptance of gay sexuality. I suspect this is premature; we shall see.

God judging today

He is willing to ascribe certain events to God’s judgement; the death of two of those most opposed to his involvement with Donald Coggan’s initiative, as well as David Cameron’s being forced from office, which he puts down to his support for gay marriage. I’m always sceptical of such claims; the role of the prophet is to warn beforehand, not claim correlations afterwards. By contrast I’m encouraged to hear someone else who is sceptical of the modern tendency of Christians to address the Holy Spirit directly, a practice that has no biblical basis, and fails to respect the Spirit’s role in pointing to Jesus rather than Himself.

Social trends

As a trained Sociologist – he lectured in the subject at the the LSE for some years – he writes much about the substantial changes in British society in four areas, cultural, sexual, spiritual and political. In the cultural the music and acceptability of overtly sexual themes, as well as overt pornography, has revolutionised the scene. In the sexual, the taboo on single parenthood has disappeared, and homosexuality is normalised. Spiritually, Christianity has been marginalised, whilst ‘New Age’ and other religions are mainstream, with some churches seemingly happier with anything but Christianity at times. Politically the traditional certainties of ‘left v right’ within a secure framework has been replaced by popularism of right and left.

He comments that no society has ever seen such radical shifting of its foundations in such a short period, and he argues that the present explosion of crime and mental illness is a function of this in general, and specifically the collapse of the traditional family, which is vital for ‘the socialisation of children, so that they can truly become members of the society into which they have been born [and] the stabilisation of the adult personalities of the society.’ Unfortunately the commitment to ‘equality’ means that this ‘inconvenient truth’ is one that most politicians are unwilling to accept. Therefore the church must speak the truth clearly, and model good practice, whilst recognising its historic role in, in practice, endorsing homophobia and domestic violence.

Homosexuality

He is legitimately critical of the confusion in the church on the subject. However his repeated use of the ambition of the Gay Liberation Front: ‘We must aim at the abolition of the family, so that the sexist, male supremacist system can no longer be nurtured there’ to assert that this is the aim of all gay activists is flawed. Similarly his claim that life expectancy among gay people is far less reflects inadequate reporting of older people dying without such a distinction being drawn. Yet his pointing to the campaign of ‘Challenging Homophobia in Primary Schools’, which ‘uses heart warming stories to indoctrinate children to accept homosexuality and gender transition, makes a valid. We must ensure we get our facts solid.

Brexit

‘Brexit was an expression of people’s anger at the greed of the elite, as well as the collapse of traditional sources of prosperity. It was also because of Christians prayers to reveal the secular humanist forces of darkness driving the EU towards destruction.’ Perhaps; certainly the chaos engendered by the process since the book was published is part of the shaking of the nation! Perhaps separation from the EU would allow us to chart a Christian course more easily, and being outside would make its collapse less painful. As someone who has believed since the morning after the Referendum that Brexit would never actually happen, I struggle to be objective in the debate!

Conclusion

Remarkably he is now hopeful: Hill records that in summer 2018 he finally heard God talk about revival; ‘in the midst of the disruption of the church, social breakdown and Brexit chaos; the pieces fell into place: we’re getting desperate, we’re close to the brink, the conditions are there to fulfil the Carmel prediction: “In the midst of these judgements multitudes upon multitudes will be saved”, a prophecy that also predicted that Israel’s hardening will be melted.’ Eighteen months on it’s hard to see much that seems to offer comfortable hopes; perhaps we need to hear this as a warning that far worse things are ahead – but to see such events as being a prelude to substantial revival.

Certainly this is a challenging book that offers a far broader perspective than we usually have. ‘Remember then from what you have fallen, repent’ (Rev 2) is the primary take away. We must seek to ‘hold firm to what [we] have until I come’, being willing to be unpopular because we declare views that are unfashionable and ‘politically incorrect’. We need to be more willing to test and challenge false prophecies and teaching, resisting the temptation to be entertained by them or dismissing them as harmless. Most of all: ‘Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches’. We must give time to listening, and respond with obedience.

Come Lord Jesus.