Tag Archives: theology

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…

Biblical oddments (1) Rahab or Rahab

Or should this be:

rahab of jericho

[This is the first of new series of very short blogs covering some issues that I’ve come up with. Not necessarily very significant, but as someone who does detail…]

The name ‘Rahab’ appears some 10 times in our bible. The occurrences relate to the prostitute of Jericho in Joshua and the New Testament, who is later an ancestor of Jesus, and the sea monster of Job and Psalms. Being bought up in good Evangelical circles where names are taken seriously, I was wondering if there was any connection. You know how this could work: the figure of the prostitute is seen as a Bad Thing® destroying the virtue of the innocent man, and so is a monster…

It turns out this is wholly flawed; the monster is ‘rhb’ in the Hebrew – the middle letter is the ‘H’. By contrast the woman of Jericho is ‘rchb’, where the ‘ch’ is the hard ‘ch’ of many languages. There are many examples in English – ‘ache’ being one – but for the transliteration of names we tend to use an ‘H’ rather than a ‘CH’ because otherwise English reader will tend to go for a soft ‘ch’, as in ‘chime’, giving a worse approximation.

The confusion in English goes back to at least the Wycliffe translation of the Vulgate in the 14th century; that follows the Vulgate – Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew – which offers ‘Raab‘ for her name. This follows the Greek transliteration of the name in Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25; given that both the writers of those books were Hebrew speakers, this is a fascinating choice given the existence of the letter ‘chi’ in Greek for the hard ‘ch’.

Meanwhile Jerome chooses to translate all the monster’s name as ‘proud one’ in its occurrences in the Psalms and Job – e.g. Job 26:12 The KJV follows Jerome for Job in offering proud, but diverges in Isaiah 51:9, yet in Isaiah 30:7 it offers ‘Their strength is to sit still’ – though the NKJV chooses to offer ‘Therefore I have called her Rahab-Hem-Shebeth’!

So: if you want to appear clever and educated, the next time you read the bible out loud and come across the name of the woman, you can pronounce it Rachab. And if you want to wind up / show up your friendly neighbour KJV only fundamentalist, ask them to comment on the significance of the name Rahab applying to both. You may wish to double down on this by inviting them to ask God to reveal this to them; the result could be explosive – or might help them to repent of their unwise endorsement of the KJV.

But at least in the future, you won’t make this mistake. For anyone who doesn’t have access to an interlinear, I recommend the app offered by here. But there are plenty of other choices out there.

The search for someone to blame for the Pandemic

The Guardian had a headline recently Revealed: UK ministers were warned last year of risks of coronavirus pandemic. The article offered the diagram above as evidence for its case. The implication was that these dreadful Tories had ignored what everyone was telling them, so are unfit for office and should resign. Unfortunately digging a bit shows that Guardian is proving that IT is unfit for its role, is indulging in cheap, alarmist, journalism, and should apologise for sinking to the level of the red tops.

About 25 years ago there was a brilliant TV programme called ‘Hypotheticals’ where current or recently retired ministers, officials and the like discussed situations put to them by the moderator. In one concerned with a leak of a pollutant into the water supply, it was revealed that an engineer had warned of such a possibility in a formal memo. To which the response of the senior staff was: ‘You will always find such a warning from someone’.

In our case this briefing – above – offered a large number of these scenarios. The question that arises is: ‘How much should we spend to address them?’

Newspapers’ agenda

Newspapers make their crust by finding things that will get a reaction from the general public. Criticising the government for ‘obvious mistakes’ that no-one had foreseen is always an easy food source for a Fleet Street feeding frenzy.

In this case: how do we decide whether our government made a reasonable set of decisions? What about: ‘How did other governments with the same information do?’ Outside East Asia, no-one else got it spectacularly right, so believing we should have done thus becomes highly questionable. Add the blatant partisan motivation of political opponents always seeking blood, and thus not thinking hard about what it is reasonable to expect, and you have the present scenario.

So no: evidence that ‘you were warned’ is not sufficient to prove that you should have done better. Indeed, we were told – by others – that we were well prepared. We weren’t – but in the light of such assurances, the government can honestly claim it was acting in accordance with the best advice it was being offered.

Perhaps we need to extend the aphorism:

If I can, I do

If I can’t, I teach

to add:

If I can’t, and want to avoid all responsibility, I become a journalist.

Why this matters

Our modern society is used to everything working right, first time and quickly. We don’t expect things to go wrong, and when they do, we look for someone to blame. This is deeply unhealthy, and plays into the hands of populists who claim that ‘if only I was in charge, everything would be fine’. Where there are valid grounds for criticism, we should indeed be critical. But there will always be occasions when a decision that made total sense at the time is shown to be horribly wrong because of unexpected circumstances. If we are not prepared to defend people who make such decisions from the wolves, then we are endangering ourselves.  To the extent that we are coming to expect our politicians to get it right all the time in everything, we are merely ensuring that our brightest and best will avoid the career like the plague, leaving us with the inadequate; indeed I think we can argue that has already happened.

 

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.

Jeremiah – not a fashionable book…

The church as a whole is bad at preaching the Old Testament; it’s easier to focus on the New, which is more familiar, and has all those stories of Jesus we like to display for the 100th time, though note, we still leave out large swathes of his teaching – when did you last hear a sermon on Matthew 23-25 apart from the ‘Sheep and the Goats’? It’s a fun thought that a church that aspires to be a ‘New Testament Church’ would never preach from the New Testament… it wasn’t written yet.

If we are to proclaim and test ourselves against ‘the counsel of God’, we need to be engaging with ALL the bible. Unfortunately many bits of it are not nice, as I demonstrated in my material on Nahum. This is a brief introduction to Jeremiah, highlighting a few passages and presenting a series of topics that could easily become a sermon series, as that is how it started.

Overview

Jeremiah is the last prophet in Judah before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, and the exile of many to that city (cue Ezekiel, Daniel). He prophesied over many decades, long predicting the fall of Jerusalem as a result of its rejection of the Lord. Yet he also predicted a return after 70 years, and offers hope for the future long term. Whilst there are a few passages that are quoted promiscuously – and often inappropriately – much of the book is unknown to most of us. We need to do better!

The called prophet

Jeremiah 1. One of the better known passages – because it’s used in the culture wars as a criticism of abortion – is:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.

Yet the chapter also includes:

The word of the Lord came to me again: ‘What do you see?’

‘I see a pot that is boiling,’ I answered. ‘It is tilting towards us from the north.’

The Lord said to me, ‘From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land. I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,’ declares the Lord.

‘Their kings will come and set up their thrones
in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem;
they will come against all her surrounding walls
and against all the towns of Judah.
I will pronounce my judgments on my people
because of their wickedness in forsaking me,
in burning incense to other gods
and in worshipping what their hands have made.’

The complaining prophet

We get a striking insight into his struggles; unlike Ezekiel, who merely records that God told him that his wife was going to die, and she does, and he goes on and preaches on the basis of that, in Jeremiah we see his pain and his struggles. This is most blatantly visible in Jeremiah 15:

Lord, you understand;
remember me and care for me.
Avenge me on my persecutors.
You are long-suffering – do not take me away;
think of how I suffer reproach for your sake.
When your words came, I ate them;
they were my joy and my heart’s delight,
for I bear your name,
Lord God Almighty.
I never sat in the company of revellers,
never made merry with them;
I sat alone because your hand was on me
and you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unending
and my wound grievous and incurable?
You are to me like a deceptive brook,
like a spring that fails.’

To which God replies, in a less than entirely sympathetic manner:

Therefore this is what the Lord says:

‘If you repent, I will restore you
that you may serve me;
if you utter worthy, not worthless, words,
you will be my spokesman.
Let this people turn to you,
but you must not turn to them.
I will make you a wall to this people,
a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you
but will not overcome you,
for I am with you
to rescue and save you,’
declares the Lord.
‘I will save you from the hands of the wicked
and deliver you from the grasp of the cruel.’

Sometimes we need to be told to get on with it, I guess.

The weeping prophet

A feature of Jeremiah is his visible emotional reaction to the future that God is warning of. Thus in Jeremiah 9.

‘Oh, that my head were a spring of water
and my eyes a fountain of tears!
I would weep day and night
for the slain of my people.’

And

I will weep and wail for the mountains
and take up a lament concerning the wilderness grasslands.
They are desolate and untravelled,
and the lowing of cattle is not heard.
The birds have all fled
and the animals are gone.

Too often we hear from the pulpit the self righteous pharisee who announces judgement on others with no sign of sympathy for their impending suffering, especially when ‘they’ are obviously other than ‘us’. This is NOT a good model.

The symbol using prophet

There are a number of examples of his using acted parables to make his point. Thus we have his ‘Loincloth’ (boxer shorts equivalent) of Jeremiah 13, the Yoke Jeremiah 27 and the potter’s clay of Jeremiah 18. A particular example is his celibacy (Jeremiah 16) which was very counter cultural in his time:

Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘You must not marry and have sons or daughters in this place.’ For this is what the Lord says about the sons and daughters born in this land and about the women who are their mothers and the men who are their fathers: ‘They will die of deadly diseases. They will not be mourned or buried but will be like dung lying on the ground. They will perish by sword and famine, and their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.’

Note that it’s not just a parable, it’s acting on the basis of what God has told him. Having children will only result in their coming to a nasty end, so he lives by what he believes God has told him.

The confronting prophet.

He spends most of his time being contrary to the establishment’s view, even, on one occasion, having his written material cut up and burned by the king. On the whole he doesn’t react, but there’s the pointed story of Hananiah in Jeremiah 28:

Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah and broke it, and he said before all the people, ‘This is what the Lord says: “In the same way I will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon off the neck of all the nations within two years.”’ At this, the prophet Jeremiah went on his way.

But a bit later God does react:

‘Then the prophet Jeremiah said to Hananiah the prophet, ‘Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies. Therefore this is what the Lord says: “I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord.”’

In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died.’

The specific prophet

The way Jeremiah foretells this person’s death is an example of some very precise, dated prophecies that he offers. The best known of these is:

This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.

‘But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will make it desolate for ever.’

We tend to focus – because that’s what Daniel did – on the promise of restoration. Let’s not forget the other part, which Daniel had already seen fulfilled.

The prophet to the nations

That warning to Babylon of its future downfall is only one of a number of prophecies to other nations that the book contains, meeting the promise of Jeremiah 1 that he would be a prophet to the nations. Most of these are in a series from chapter 45 onwards, addressing Egypt, the Philistines, Moab, Ammon, Damascus as well as Babylon, whose destruction gets two long chapters.

The persecuted prophet

He’s not popular, which given he tells people to surrender to the enemy is not, perhaps, surprising. The low point comes when he’s dumped in the mud in a cistern. (Jeremiah 37, 38) He’s rescued from that – but still held as a prisoner until the fall of Jerusalem.

The ignored prophet

A feature of the whole book, but the story in chapter 42 caps it all. After the fall of the city and an attempted rebellion against the Babylonians, involving the assassination of the Babylonian, a group approaches him for advice as to whether to go to Egypt or to stay in the land. They promise to do what he says, so he goes off and seeks the Lord, and after 10 days gets His reply: ‘Stay in the land’. But no – they’re sure they should go to Egypt, and do so, taking Jeremiah with them. He promises that it won’t end well:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “If you are determined to go to Egypt and you do go to settle there, then the sword you fear will overtake you there, and the famine you dread will follow you into Egypt, and there you will die. Indeed, all who are determined to go to Egypt to settle there will die by the sword, famine and plague; not one of them will survive or escape the disaster I will bring on them.”

The discouraging prophet

The most popular verse from the book, widely quoted, and usually inappropriately, are from Jeremiah 29:

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

Yet, by contrast, the book also includes:

‘‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to you, Baruch: You said, “Woe to me! The Lord has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.” But the Lord has told me to say to you, “This is what the Lord says: I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the earth. Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the Lord, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.”’ (Jeremiah 45)

and not to forget: ‘ I am determined to bring disaster on you and to destroy all Judah’ in Jeremiah 44.  These verses are somewhat less quoted; I wonder why?

Conclusion

Jeremiah offers us a bleak landscape, reminding us of the consequences of rebelling against God. As such it offers a part of the backdrop for the grace and mercy of God revealed especially in Jesus. Yet we are in danger of offering an idol to worship if we fail to preach the tough stuff as well:

God did judge

God does judge

God will judge

No, our sin is not OK. Yes, it does matter. Yes, we need to work with God and our brothers and sisters to sort it out. Jerusalem was trashed by the Babylonians because of their sin. Babylon was destroyed, never to rise again because of theirs. Hear the word of the Lord.

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)