Thursday, June 30, 2005

Tom Cruise and mental suffering

I see that Tom Cruise has generated more publicity for his new film through attacking a TV interviewer on the subject of drugs for mental illness. Much as I might disagree with scientology, I agree with Tom that there are serious problems with the medicalisation of so-called ‘mental illness’. This is an issue with which I have had to deal extensively, both in my own family life and through my ministry, and the more experience I gain, the more I become convinced that there is something seriously wrong in how our society as a whole treats 'mental illness'. It reminded me of something I wrote a few years ago, discussed in a 6th form General Studies class (students aged 16/17). I thought it would be worth sharing.


I would like to say a few things today relating to religion and mental illness. As you might imagine, I am speaking from a specifically Christian perspective, and I want to criticise something called the ‘medical model’ of understanding mental illness, and argue that a religious understanding is both more accurate, and more therapeutic. However, I should say at the outset that my perspective is NOT mainstream, and I would recommend that in any examinations that you may have to sit, that you provide mainstream answers. This sort of perspective might gain an extra mark or two if you mention it, but I wouldn’t recommend spending a great deal of time developing this line of argument. However, if in your own life – and nearly one in five women are diagnosed as mentally ill at some point in their life, in this country – you or someone you care about is diagnosed as suffering from ‘mental illness’ I think that you may find it helpful to have a look at these notes…

Medical illness is quite well understood. A person is ill when their body is malfunctioning in some identifiable way – either there is some visible, external problem, eg a broken leg, or there is an invisible, internal problem, eg a virus or cancer, which can nevertheless be discerned through tests or X-rays or similar. In each instance, there is something observable which is independent of the social context of the individual being treated. For example, if a person has cancer, then that cancer will develop in certain particular, well understood ways, and the cancer will develop in the same way whether the person is living in London, West Africa or India.

In contemporary Western society, medicine has advanced significantly through the application of the scientific method. Put briefly, the scientific method depends upon the distancing of personal opinions from the subject being studied – this is why you will sometimes hear the claim that science is ‘objective’ and ‘value free’ – and an investigation of the mechanical processes which underlie our physical existence. So, in medicine, we have a very good understanding of the cardio-vascular system (our heart and lungs) and how they operate, and they operate on very clear physical principles.

So, with bodily illness, medicine has very effective means of studying the problems, and developing solutions. Put differently, we might say that it is appropriate to study the break down of normal bodily functioning in this way. The way in which bodily malfunctioning is understood is called the ‘medical model’.

Let us now consider what it means to be mentally ill. There is something called DSM-III which lists what is counted as a mental illness (this is used specifically for schizophrenia):

- Delusions (considered bizarre, grandiose, absurd etc)
- “Deterioration from a previous level of functioning…”
- social isolation or withdrawal, impairment in role functioning, impairment in personal hygiene or grooming…
- “blunted, flat or inappropriate affect” (affect = emotional response)

(Note at this point, that these are markedly NOT independent of the social context.)

Where a person is displaying these characteristics then they are now classed as being ‘mentally ill’ and placed into psychiatric care. Mental illness is understood by the psychiatric profession to be a similar sort of disorder to bodily illness, except that – and this is the punchline – the causes of the disorder are not understood. Where they are (eg where they can be traced to a specific bodily disorder, such as a virus (encephalitis), or Parkinson’s disease) then they are no longer considered a ‘mental illness’ in the same way, and the method of treatment changes.

Where possible, the psychiatric staff will treat the patient through the use of psycho-active drugs, which either serve to change or stabilise the mood of the person, or to dampen the intellectual energy of the person. In this way the ‘symptoms’ of the ‘illness’ can be treated, and the psychiatric profession can continue to research further methods of treatment with the hope that they will eventually discern the underlying cause of the ‘illness’ and then be able to cure it.

It is my view that this approach is fundamentally flawed, from both a philosophical and religious perspective, and that there is no such thing as ‘mental illness’.

I mentioned earlier that the classifications used to assess whether a person is or is not mentally ill are closely tied in with the social context, specifically, with what a particular society considers to be acceptable behaviour. To take the example of ‘hearing voices in the head’ – in some societies this is seen as evidence of divine favour, and the person concerned is given a respected role as an oracle of God. In other societies it is seen as evidence of possession by demons, and the person concerned is executed. In either case – and in our own society – the classification of the person is determined by what the society accepts as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’. This is a decision made by the society, and as such it is subject to questions of morality and ethics – and therefore religion.

When Jesus talks about the soul, the word used (in the Greek) is ψυχή – psyche, from which we get our word psychology, which means the understanding of the soul. In western society, the way in which the symptoms currently described as mental illness were treated were through a religious understanding – the person concerned was not right with God. This way of understanding psychology was dominant for two thousand years and forms part of the core of how priests are trained. As you might imagine, it reached quite a sophisticated level, before being supplanted by modern scientific methods. This was not a step forward.

I mentioned earlier that bodily illness functions independently of social context, and that science studies it through distancing the personal opinions of the person doing the studying. Neither of these factors is appropriate for the symptoms listed on the DSM list.

It may be easiest to put across the difference by considering a particular example. Imagine a woman – let us call her Charlotte – who has an affair with a married man. The man leaves his first wife and marries Charlotte. Six months after their marriage, the man dies suddenly. Charlotte becomes depressed. She no longer functions properly within her various social roles, and is not able to maintain her job. She stops looking after herself and becomes emotionally numb. And so on. Charlotte goes to her doctor, and the doctor prescribes a course of anti-depressants, which lift her mood and she returns to her job.

From the perspective of medial science, all that can be done to help Charlotte has been done, and in fact she has been returned to her work so clearly the treatment has been successful. From a religious point of view, this is a disaster.

To begin with, a priest would consider it natural for a person to go through a period of mourning after the death of a loved one, and that the change in behaviour manifested would not need any further explanation. One of the problems faced in our society is that we are not allowed to be unhappy – happiness has become an idol, and therefore suffering has to be suppressed. This is self-defeating.

Secondly, the language which a priest would use about Charlotte would include words such as ‘shock’, ‘grief’, and ‘guilt’. Charlotte has received a shock, and is not able to come to terms with what has happened. A priest would interpret this by looking at the story of her life up to this point, and in particular at the affair. This is a sin – a breach in human relationships and a breach in the relationship with God. And, bearing in mind the quotation from Deuteronomy (“Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside….” (the book of Deuteronomy, 11.26-28)), if there is sin, then the life will be blighted – hence the depression. The way forward for the priest would be to talk through the story and establish whether Charlotte had any unacknowledged guilt etc which could then be confessed and absolved. The desired outcome would be for Charlotte to flourish once more – without the help of drugs.

In essence, the language used to describe the phenomena which people display, listed in the DSM criteria, is radically different between psychiatry and religion. They are in effect two different languages, attempting to describe the same phenomena. My perspective is that the religious language is both more accurate and more humane, and that it is more likely to lead to healing and the cure of souls.

Further reading: The Myth of Mental Illness, Thomas Szasz; The Danger of Words, M C O’Drury

An emerald isle

This green and pleasant land (the island in the middle of the map) is where I live and work and have my being. I'll miss it while I'm away.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

I need a holiday

This morning I was 20 minutes late for a service. The first time, hopefully the last. Shows how distracted I have become.

The good thing is that this Friday I shall be going with four friends from university on a two week jaunt, without families, to Beijing and Mongolia. So I may not be able to post much (although if I find an internet cafe I'll be able to say a little).

Fermented yak's milk, here I come.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

A parable (Matthew 10 40-42)

A long time ago, in a land far away from here, a band of travellers were crossing the wilderness.The group had been travelling for many days. They were tired, hot and thirsty. One day, the band discovered a natural spring, gushing forth fresh, clean, clear water. They slaked their thirst, filling their water bottles, refreshing their camels. And they wished to give thanks to God for the spring, which had eased their pain and strengthened them for their journey. So they built a cairn, a pile of rocks, by the side of the spring, and they said prayers of thanksgiving. The travellers reached their destination, and they told others of the spring that they had found in the wilderness.

Time passed. Other travellers came through the wilderness and came to the spring, to quench their thirst and gain refreshment. They too wished to give thanks and praise to God, so they added more stones to the cairn, and the cairn became a wall, sheltering the spring from the harsh, dry winds of the wilderness.

Time passed. Other travellers came through the wilderness and came to the spring, to quench their thirst and gain refreshment. They too wished to give thanks and praise to God, so they added more stones to the wall, and the wall became a shelter, a small dwelling, sheltering the spring from the harsh, dry winds of the wilderness.

Time passed. Other travellers came through the wilderness and came to the spring, to quench their thirst and gain refreshment. They too wished to give thanks and praise to God, so they added more stones to the shelter, and the shelter became a great building surrounding the spring, keeping back the sand and dust blown in on the harsh, dry winds of the wilderness.

Time passed. Other travellers came through the wilderness and came to the building, for they had heard of this building in the wilderness. They were suitably impressed by the stature of the dwelling, and they too wished to give thanks and praise to God, so they added more stones to the building, and after many years the building became a magnificent stone structure, visible from many miles away. Now travellers came into the wilderness to see this magnificence, and each traveller added a few more stones. And people began to live in the dwelling, and they welcomed travellers and gave them hospitality.

Time passed. A traveller came by after a long journey in the wilderness. This traveller was thirsty, and the thought came to the traveller – is there water somewhere in this place. And the people who lived there said ‘we don’t know’ – but here, let us refresh you with what we have to offer. But that was not enough for the traveller. And so the traveller searched, and he couldn’t find the water. And yet, there was something he could smell, something that drove him to keep searching, and so he continued to search, and to look deeper into the building. And so he went in to the centre and began to dig, and he began to remove stones. And yes, there, underneath the stones, behind all the walls, hidden by the building, unknown to the residents: here was the water of life. So, the traveller drank, and was satisfied.


There is such a tremendous thirst for God in the society in which we live. May we be channels of living water to those who are thirsty, not a magnificent pile of stones barring their way.

I didn't create this story, but I can no longer track where I first read it. I have embellished the telling a little.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Techie bits

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

The really annoying thing is that all the previous comments seem to have been removed. This was not something they warned me about, and it's not the sort of thing to make for happy customers. But then you get what you pay for, and this was free. As I still feel I'm at the beginning of this blogging thing, I think I can live with the loss of comments. Just about.

I've also added a blogroll and made one or two other minor behind-the-scenes amendments, including removing the Merseacofe yahoo group from automatic receipt of posts (because it led to a confusion of readership in my mind). All this when I should be writing a sermon about a cup of water....

The fear of God

Our culture is truly impoverished and has lost its way because it has lost the fear of God. Yet it seems to me that many of the Christians who say such things have a mistaken understanding of what that fear is - and, therefore, of how to cultivate that Godly fear which is the beginning of wisdom and understanding.

We can seek God because we are afraid of other people, and we seek their approval, and if their language is of God then we will develop the language of God in order to conform. That is a conforming to the world, and not to the living God.

We can seek God because we are in terror before God, we are afraid of condemnation and being consigned to hell. We wish to save ourselves, to preserve our lives, and so we obey what we perceive to be the commands of God. That is the way of the Pharisee. One of the most consistent messages which Jesus teaches is 'Do not be afraid' (some 20 times He says this). The Pharisees in particular were consumed with this individual fear - they were afraid that if they didn't keep to the Law then God would once more allow Jerusalem to be destroyed (as described in Lamentations) – and that is what Jesus is overcoming. The God of Jesus Christ desires mercy not sacrifice.

We can also seek God because we are in awe of Him. Consider the difference between being poised on the edge of a cliff and thinking at one and the same time 'wow, what a view' and 'I might fall and die' and 'I am so small'; or, on the other hand, being pursued by a large wild animal and knowing you are about to be caught and killed and eaten. The former - whilst still genuinely fear - can also be exhilarating, and has the potential for relationship and love. The latter is simply hopeless terror, and underlies Pharisaism. It is precisely the absence of faith, hope and love - and that is what separates it from the Way.

Fear in the sense of 'terror' is not the way we are called to relate to God, particularly when that fear is considered on an individualistic basis. That message is not good news. It is like the secret police arriving in the homes of a totalitarian state and saying, ‘if you accept our authority then we will not torture you’. It is a theology which casts Lavrenty Beria in the role of St Paul.

Perfect love casts out fear. And we are called to love, to love one another as He loved us. Beloved, let us love one another… for God is love. And in Him there is no darkness at all.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

A missing question

I’ve been following the proceedings of the Anglican Consultative Council, currently meeting in Nottingham (many thanks to titusonenine and thinking anglicans). I’ve read the ECUSA justification of their position, which seemed clear, and the various responses to it. Yet it still seems to me that the most fundamental question keeps being overlooked.

In this question as to whether consecration of a non-celibate homosexual is permissible or not, there seems to be a prior question about whether it is possible for such an amendment to the tradition to be driven by the Holy Spirit. It seems perfectly possible to be opposed to ECUSA on two separate, and profoundly different, grounds: 1. That such a change is possible and in line with how the Holy Spirit might lead us, but that the case in this instance has not been made, and in fact such a change is not consonant with the love of Christ; or, 2. such a change is not possible, and therefore any exploration or consideration of this issue is pointless.

In other words, the underlying question, which keeps getting submerged, is hermeneutical, about the role of Scripture within the household of the faithful. One position sees Scripture as inherently malleable, and not separable from a community of interpretation. The other sees Scripture as fixed, and the role for the community is simply to be obedient.

It seems to me that there is scope for the friendship which ++Rowan called for between ECUSA and those who believe 1., but not between ECUSA and those who believe 2.

For what it's worth, option 2 seems to me to be profoundly unAnglican, even unChristian, in so far as I understand the faith. "I have many things to say to you which you cannot yet bear... the Spirit will lead you into all truth."

Monday, June 20, 2005

++Rowan to the ACC

"Did you so live in the experience of the Church, the Body of my Son, that a tormented world saw the possibility of hope and of joy?"

I frequently thank God for giving us Rowan as our Archbishop. If you go to Titusonenine here you'll find the full text of his opening address to the Anglican Consultative Council meeting going on in Nottingham at the moment (scroll down to the third item). Good stuff - note especially the reference to Girard, a theologian I'm thinking about a lot at the moment, primarily through the medium of James Alison.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Sin City

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality

Last week was a heavy week, in all sorts of ways, most of which can’t be discussed here. My response to too much reality is always to seek refuge in something fantastical, either in a film, a graphic novel or in books (fantasy or SF). Hence my love of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman sequence (big post brewing on that particular subject, coming here soon). Fantasy keeps me sane; it takes me out of myself (ec-stasy); it means that I have some fuel in my tank when I need to take up the burdens of reality once again.

Yesterday was my day off, so I indulged myself fully and went to see TWO films – Sin City, and Batman Begins. I might talk about Batman another time (it was excellent – probably the best Batman adaptation) but for now, a few words about Sin City.

For those of you unfamiliar with Frank Miller, he’s primarily a comic book writer/artist who revolutionised the genre with a remarkable reworking of the Batman mythos in his ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, which came out in the mid/late 80’s. Forget the idea that comic books are for adolescents; Miller is very sharp, and very political.

Now ‘Sin City’ is a sequence of graphic novels (that’s the ‘correct’ term for comics-read-by-adults) drawing on some of the staple noir elements – hard-bitten ex-cons, troubled cops, prostitutes with hearts of gold etc – but putting them through a particular stylisation which makes the contrasts incredibly stark, and which Miller sought to have reflected through a very spare visual vocabulary – lots of heavy black blocking, outline drawing of characters, almost no colour. And Robert Rodriguez has faithfully reproduced that style in his film; it was very effective.

I started reading the Sin City graphic novels a few years ago. I don’t enjoy them as much as his Batman work, because the raw material that he is dealing with is uncompromising and very violent. At this point, there may be the question: is this something that a priest should be reading? (or watching?) Isn’t it anti-Christian in some way? (Heavens, if Harry Potter is considered anti-Christian, then Sin City is enough to make such maiden aunts have heart attacks…. These are the people who want to restore the Levitical purity codes.)

This is something I’ve been musing on a bit recently – it came up in a confirmation class last week. So I thought I’d say a few words about why, despite the occasional qualm, I don’t have a great problem with spending time in Sin City.

To my mind, the issue about any work of art, from a Christian point of view, is whether it is orthodox or not. Now I use orthodox here in a particular way. I don’t mean ‘has it signed up to saying “Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Saviour”?’ I mean ‘is it informed by the resurrection’? Which I take to mean: are there signs of grace, forgiveness, redemption and hope? Or is it a work characterised by the opposite of the resurrection, which is nihilism, which is characterised by the absence of meaning, the denial of hope, the embrace of corruption and the elevation of inhumanity into a model to be emulated? Is death seen as the final evil, or are there ways in which death is overcome?

For it seems to me that the structures of the world, the principalities and powers (Eph 6) to which we must forever be opposed are built upon the contention that death is the final evil which must be resisted. The resurrection is what demolishes those principalities and powers precisely because it says that we do not need to be quite so afraid of death; that there are things which death cannot touch; and that our life and our hope lie in the resistance, not necessarily the overcoming. (That's what it means to live eschatologically, in the light of the end time.)

Sin City seems to be a world where – to put it no more strongly – orthodoxy is possible. It is a portrait of a corrupt world, where the principalities and powers are overwhemingly present, and where the suffering that follows is rendered starkly. Yet in the face of these powers, there is redemption and love and self-sacrifice, rendered most obviously in the film through the character-arc of the Bruce Willis character, where any Christian will recognise a copy of the original Story.

“An old man dies, a young girl lives. Fair trade.”

Perhaps it’s the imaginative portrayal of reality in fantasy that makes the reality itself tolerable. The fantasy equips the mind with the tools that enable the reality to be digested, rendered meaningful. Is this not the shield of faith (Eph 6.16) with which we can overcome the world? The link between imagination and faith is intimate, and the nurturing of our imaginations is a Christian task. Just ask Walter Brueggemann.

Two final points.

One. If Christians are not to spend time in Sin City, for fear of being corrupted by the violence and debauchery, then they must also close the pages of the Old Testament. Nothing in Sin City is as shocking as, for example, Ezekiel 16.

Two. Sin City is the abode of those whom society has rejected. The sinners, the outcast, the prostitutes. I have no doubt that Jesus would choose to spend his time in Sin City. There live the ones who recognise Him for who He is.

Those interested in exploring some of the theology underlying this post are directed towards ‘Faith Beyond Resentment’ by James Alison, especially the final chapter, ‘The Boys in the Square’.

Friday, June 17, 2005

New Archbishop of York

John Sentamu has been appointed as Archbishop of York, according to the BBC. +John was my Bishop when I was serving my title in Stepney. I found him to be a very caring man, and very capable. His elevation sends lots of positive signals about who we are as a church. I'm sure he will be a tremendous help to ++Rowan.

Good news!

Tom Wright on the authority of the Bible

Tom Wright is very sound. This is a link to a LONG lecture by him on the authority of the Bible.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Question authority

Question authority
They know less than they think.

Thanks to the topmost apple for the link.


A set of questions about books.

How many books do you own?
Er. Somewhere between 1000 and 1500 I guess.

What is the last book you bought?
Christ plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson

What is the last book you read?
The Horse and His Boy, CS Lewis

Name five books that mean a lot to you (not including the Bible)
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig
The Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum
The Sandman sequence, Neil Gaiman
The Duty of Genius, Ray Monk
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen R Donaldson

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The second vocation

The Church of England recently published “The Vicar’s guide” as a semi-official guidebook for clergy, especially those just starting out as an incumbent (like me). Lots of good stuff in it, some things more questionable, like this comment: “If your theology qualification is over five years old, it’s outdated” – which suggests that the theological developments of the last five years are more important than those of the previous two thousand. Not sure I buy that.

But this was interesting: “Francis Dewar identifies three vocations which, he maintains, can often become confused. Our primary vocation is to know God, it is the call to basic Christian discipleship. Our second vocation is to become the person we have been created to be; celebrating, developing and using that combination of gifts and experience that is uniquely ours and growing into maturity of personhood in Christ. The third vocation is to particular, recognised and authorised ministries in the Church or the world; this includes, of course, the vocation to ordained ministry. The great danger for all who have experienced the third call is that it can begin to undermine the first two. And the relentlessness of parish ministry, the fact that there is always more to do and never enough time in which to do it, can be one of the biggest contributory factors.”

That made sense.

I went on part one of a course called the ‘Clergy Leadership Programme’ back in March, which was on the whole very good, although much of the official content was revision for me (having done more management training than I care to remember, courtesy of the Civil Service Fast Stream programme). But I came away with a particular project to undertake, which would enhance and enable my ministry, and which was specifically geared to addressing the second vocation which Dewar lists. Broadly speaking, I need to take more exercise, lose weight etc. More specifically, if I get the general fitness levels up, I want to take up martial arts again (there is Judo club on the island, if I ever get round to finding more out about it).

So that message was reinforced. And it has been reinforced even further by another nugget from Kathleen Norris. She writes about accedia, and she says “It suggests sleep when what I need most is to take a walk. It insists that I shut myself away when what I probably need is to be with other people” and she quotes Waugh describing it as a ‘refusal of joy’. I think I am guilty of this particular sin; not in a dramatic way, but a legacy of a depression some years ago which I have not yet fully shaken off. The traditional remedy is prayer and psalmody, singing God’s praises (no wonder I'm so animated by that at the moment). And exercise.

So it all fits together.

Clever old God, as my director is fond of saying.

another one: what is your theological world view?

You scored as Neo orthodox. You are neo-orthodox. You reject the human-centredness and scepticism of liberal theology, but neither do you go to the other extreme and make the Bible the central issue for faith. You believe that Christ is God's most important revelation to humanity, and the Trinity is hugely important in your theology. The Bible is also important because it points us to the revelation of Christ. You are influenced by Karl Barth and P T Forsyth.

Neo orthodox


Roman Catholic


Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan




Reformed Evangelical


Classical Liberal


Modern Liberal






What's your theological worldview?
created with

Karl Barth? Hmmmm. But the description is right.

which theologian are you?

got this from Maggi Dawn's blog...

You scored as Augustine. You have a big view of God and also take human sin and depravity very seriously. Predestination is important for you.



Karl Barth


John Calvin


Jürgen Moltmann


Friedrich Schleiermacher




Paul Tillich


Martin Luther


Jonathan Edwards


Charles Finney


Which theologian are you?
created with

Have to say I find it very satisfying to align with Augustine, and that Charles Finney is at the bottom. Must be a good test :o)

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Only love can believe

This is a 'Blue Peter' post ("Here's one we prepared earlier"). I wrote it two years ago.

"Only love can believe"
What does it mean to believe in the resurrection?

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." (1 Peter 1.3)

The resurrection is both the origin and the definition of Christianity - Christianity could not have come into being without the resurrection, nor can it be sustained except by a belief in the resurrection - "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (1 Cor 15.14). Yet there is still room to ask, what does it mean?

It should first be pointed out that there is no clear harmony between the different accounts given in the New Testament. The appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, for example, is rather different to the experience of Thomas. So there is room within Christianity for differing understandings of what the resurrection was.

Many people see reason to doubt the resurrection, citing various scientific, critical or exegetical grounds for doubt. Perhaps the story was made up by the early church. Perhaps the apostles had psychological disturbances which they interpreted as 'appearances'. Perhaps it was a group pscyhosis, brought on by a combination of grief and guilt. And so on and so forth.

To my mind, these issues, although of some intrinsic interest, are beside the point. To explain why, let us engage in a little 'mind-experiment'. Imagine that somehow, we were able to send a team of scientists back to AD33, to the time of the crucifixion. These scientists can take whatever instruments and techniques they want, and they are to assess the 'evidence'.

Firstly, they examine the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. They confirm that Jesus is dead - the heart has stopped beating, the brain has stopped functioning, the body has begun to decay.

Let us next assume that, on the third day, they see something like what is described in John's gospel, specifically the experience of Thomas. Like Thomas, they examine Jesus' wounds; they positively identify that this person is Jesus; that he is alive.

The scientists then return to our own age, and proclaim - in the manner that scientists are somewhat prone to - 'Science has displaced religion! We can prove that Jesus rose from the dead!!'

To my mind, this is to miss the point. For Christian belief in the resurrection is not belief in a matter of fact, no matter how wonderful that fact might be. Christianity sees the resurrection as a miracle - as THE miracle - and, as Wittgenstein put it, "The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle".

There are many reasons for this difference in approach between science and Christianity, which I shall not enter into here. For what I would like to do is give an indication of what Christian belief in the resurrection is actually about. At its core, at its most simple, it is a claim about Jesus, that Jesus was justified by God and raised in glory - and that glory is something which the Christian participates in, by grace. In other words, belief in the resurrection is a belief that Jesus was the Messiah - and vice versa. Consider the sequence of events. Jesus proclaims the gospel, a new law of love and forgiveness, of including the outcast and healing the sick. He comes into conflict with the political and religious authorities, and is crucified. Now this demonstrates that Jesus has been rejected by God -

‘And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.’ (Deuteronomy 21.22-23)

The disciples are shattered, downcast, scattered and leaderless - and these people then establish a church which 'conquers' the known world. Clearly something happened, which transformed those downcast disciples into apostles and missionaries, filled with enthusiasm for proclaiming the gospel.

Whatever that something was, it justified Jesus. Instead of Jesus being condemned by God, he was instead held up by God in special honour - he was vindicated against his accusers. The world says this; the world makes this judgement about Jesus - yet God says this, and makes this judgement about Jesus.

We thus have a difference, right at the beginning of Christianity, between the judgement of the world and the judgement of God, and therefore the origin for all contrast between Law and Grace. For Grace is the principle of the resurrection - to stand condemned, and yet to be free from punishment. It is to be forgiven, to be included, to be accepted.

It should be clear, then, that this justification of Jesus cannot be divorced from who Jesus was in his life, and how he lived. For Jesus taught the path of forgiveness, of healing the sick and binding up their wounds. This was rejected by the religious authorities - and yet it was vindicated by God. So clearly God is like Jesus, and Jesus is like God. And the resurrection reveals Jesus in glory, a divine glory - a glory that we are called to share in.

We share in it through living that same life of grace that Jesus lived, ie by following the path of healing compassion, of including the outcast, of forgiving the sinner. That path was broken open by Jesus (the 'pioneer and perfecter of our faith'), in his life, death and resurrection.

In other words, belief in the resurrection is really a commitment to living the Christian life - that which was opened up and vindicated by the resurrection of Jesus, whatever that event could be described as in scientific terms.

Once more, Wittgenstein demonstrates his sure understanding of Christian identity:

‘Only love can believe the resurrection. Or: it is love that believes in the resurrection. We might say: Redeeming love believes even in the resurrection; holds fast even to the resurrection. What combats doubt is, as it were, redemption.’ (Wittgenstein, 1937)

Thursday, June 09, 2005

A new perspective on Jesus

Took a trip to London on Tuesday night to catch up with some friends, and, on the train journey there and back, I managed to read James D G Dunn's "A New Perspective on Jesus". (It's a short book that fitted into my jacket pocket...)

I thought it was excellent. It goes through the 'quest for the historical Jesus' and skewers some liberal assumptions about the nature of the tradition, and gives a straightforward account of how the oral tradition would have functioned. The book is really a short summary of his longer book, "Jesus Remembered", which I guess I'll now have to read. Not for beginners in New Testament studies, I wouldn't have said, but if you know what 'form criticism' or 'Q' refer to, then you'll be fine.

It turns out that Dunn was the person who coined the phrase 'A new perspective on Paul', referring to the post-Sanders revolution in how to understand the Apostle, which I had always associated with Tom Wright (coming to a Learning Church near you in the autumn ;-). I hope Dunn makes a similar impact with his work here.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


I'm reading Kathleen Norris' "The Cloister Walk". And I'm reading it slowly - not something I'm accustomed to - because I'm enjoying it so much. I thought I would share this. First she quotes the Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner: "If I make this avowal of faith, it must pierce the depths of my heart like a sword, I must bend my knee before you, saying, I must alter my life. I have still to become a Christian."

That really speaks to me.

Norris goes on, "To hear so esteemed a theologian cry out, 'I have still to become a Christian' was humbling. The words have stayed with me all day. I wonder if one of the reasons I love the Benedictines so much is that they seldom make big noises about being Christians. Though they live with the Bible more intimately than most people, they don't thump on it, or with it, the way gorillas thump on their chests to remind anyone within earshot of who they are."

A wonderful image: gorillas beating on their chests and roaring, puffing themselves up. "Look at me, Look at me, Look at me".

(or: "well I'm the king of the swingers, yeah, the jungle VIP. I've reached the top and had to stop and that's what's bothering me.....")

It's the difference between the Bible as a tool for use (and therefore manipulable by our egos) and the Bible as the world in which we are formed - and which therefore manipulates us. Which shapes our imaginations and gets inside us so that we breathe it in and out. The womb from which we are born again.

(The difference between the daily office and choice-driven bible studies?)

I suppose it's all about humility. Accepting the ever-present likelihood of being wrong (and not getting neurotic about that either, which is really only a spiritual form of narcissism).

"The old men used to say, 'When we do not experience warfare, we ought so much the more to humiliate ourselves. For God, seeing our weakness, protects us; when we glorify ourselves, he withdraws his protection and we are lost'."
(From Daily Readings with the Desert Fathers)

Monday, June 06, 2005

The first two chapters of my book

As long standing friends will be aware, I have been working on a book for at least a dozen years. The first two chapters are now in reasonable shape, so I thought I'd let people have a look at them, and feed back any comments they might have. It's available on my home page here for downloading.

Ten things to remember

This is something I wrote nearly ten years ago. You can tell that I had been reading a lot of self-help literature! I'd use more traditional Christian language these days, but I think it stands up OK:


1. You are acceptable as you are. You do not have to be perfect to be acceptable. You are not a bad person. God does not make junk.

2. You are allowed to feel angry, and to express your anger in a direct and positive fashion. Real friends will not turn on you for showing your feelings.

3. You are allowed to take risks and make mistakes, for this is how you learn. If you don’t learn you cannot grow and develop. The world will not come to an end if you cock up. You also have the right to be forgiven for your mistakes.

4. You are not responsible for everyone else’s happiness. You do not have to put everything right, and if someone is making mistakes remember: they too have the right to live their life and learn. They too have the right to be forgiven by you.

5. You are allowed to say `No’ to things that you don’t desire, even if that means disappointing those you care about.

6. You are allowed to ask for help. Admitting weaknesses is accepting your humanity. It also requires more strength than covering up your fears and pain.

7. You are entitled to respect, as all people are. Remember to respect yourself though - people have a habit of accepting self-assessments, even if these are wildly off the mark. If you don’t show yourself respect, no one else will either.

8. You have the right to show your affection for people, men as well as women. Wanting to hug a male friend does not mean that you are gay. Physical contact is a good thing, a part of being human.

9. You are not responsible for making the world a perfect place. The world has already been saved once, and God is in a much better position to sort things out than you are.

10. You are a child of God. You are here for a purpose. Trust that God will reveal it to you when he is good and ready.


Sometimes I can't sleep. Normally it happens when I haven't had a chance to sit and contemplate for a few days, and I have a backlog of things to think about. This time, though, I think it's just the effect of a bad cold. So I've been up since 4:30am. At least it means I wasn't woken up by the kids!

I'm thinking of putting a few 'here's something I prepared earlier' onto the blog. Watch this space.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Letting go of fantasy

Fantasy football that is. For the last ten years or so I've been playing Fantasy Football with a group of people I used to work with. If you go here you'll see how I've done this year (although it's a week out of date at time of writing. I didn't win).

Thing is, I'm a Chelsea fan, so I'm not sure that there are going to be many years as satisfying as this one (first championship since before I was born), and there's also the question of whether it's ethically fitting to keep supporting a team built upon expropriated Russian assets, and where the board is led by someone like Peter Kenyon. All in all, time to take a break.

I also want to make room in my life for something else. I'll still watch/ follow the footie - there are plans afoot to watch at least one of the world cup matches in Germany - but I want to actually play it a bit more often (as opposed to not playing it at all at the moment!) and put the time I had been putting to following particular players towards other ends. Like becoming the priest God has called me to be. I've got a long way to travel yet. Time to quit while I'm ahead.

The Tesco question

OK, this is a 'thinking out loud' post.

Tesco - the retail leviathan now claiming an astonishing percentage of British trade - has apparently purchased the coffee shop site on Barfield Road in Mersea, in order to build a new supermarket there. Is this a good thing? I cannot make up my mind.

Certainly, it will mean that those without access to cars are likely to get access to cheaper food. Chances are it will stock more organic veg than the co-op, which will make our home happier (although we've discovered the farm shop in Abberton which we like - great pistachio ice cream :o). It is also likely to drive some of the local shops to the wall, which, wearing my 'community' hat I worry about. But does that matter? Perhaps the local shops will just compete back on customer service. And what about the question of fair trade products? I preached a sermon a little while back advocating boycotting Tesco products, because they weren't as pro-fair trade as the co-op, and then my wife took me shopping at the main Tesco's, and I saw that I had been quite misled. There are lots of fair trade products at Tesco. And I'm comfortable with the idea of 'trade not aid' (which is why Live 8 is about justice not charity). So.... a good thing? A bad thing? I haven't got a clue.

Fortunately, as one of my favourite theologians (Hauerwas) puts it, the church isn't here to run the country, and make all the decisions. The church is here to help shape people with good characters, who then go and make the decisions themselves.

So I'll stick to the question of character. Probably of more use in the long run anyway.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Day off. Ho ho.

Friday is day off. So I said Morning Prayer in church to cover until the new Assistant Priest takes up his duties, and then spent an hour or so working on the mechanics of the blog (hey, we now have atom and RSS feeds! And if you don't know what that means, you're in exactly the same position I was in 24 hours ago!) I also have some prayers to prepare for first thing tomorrow morning. But there you go, it's not a job, it's a vocation.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

"The Monastery", Television, shallowness and liturgy

I enjoyed watching 'The Monastery' on BBC2 in recent weeks. It challenged a few of my prejudices, principally that TV can only be a purveyor of nonsense. I tend to see TV as entertaining (and therefore useful at the end of a long day), but it remains nonsense, by and large.

I'm influenced by Neil Postman's book 'Amusing ourselves to death', in which he says that the medium (television, print, oral traditions etc) can determine the message (the content of what is said). For example, it is impossible to use smoke signals to discuss philosophy. The medium inhibits or prevents the transmission of certain forms of understanding.

Postman argues that the form of television is essentially passive, and that the logic of it as a medium tends to the novel and the visually stimulating, in other words that TV is good as a source of amusement, but very bad as a vehicle for serious ideas. And so, as TV has replaced the printed word as the primary vehicle for society's conversation about itself, so the society has become characterised by a loss of seriousness, a shallowness, a cultural impoverishment. Hence we are 'amusing ourselves to death' - for a shallow culture does not develop the resources with which to sustain itself. Postman thinks that Huxley was the more accurate prophet, rather than Orwell, and that TV is the 'soma' which pacifies the populace, whilst those in power indulge their schemes, whilst any potential for democratic oversight has been removed, simply because a people reared on a diet of TV no longer have the capacity to seriously attend to difficult issues.

In passing, Postman remarks that Christianity is a serious and demanding religion, and he points out how the values of TV will necessarily corrupt a community and culture which has historically been built around oral and written traditions. This is what leads to the demand for interesting 'spectacle' in church services, and the complaint that church is 'boring'. What that means is that a person whose taste has been formed by television finds a traditional church service profoundly alien. What the church is called to do is to educate itself as to what it is doing. For Scripture and the liturgy cannot be replaced by forms that have been constructed by a televisual culture. The message itself is lost, and the church, rather than standing over against the wider society, simply becomes another niche market competing against all the other lifestyle options. Living as a Christian reduces to a matter of purchasing the right CD or car sticker.

The real role of liturgy, our common worship, is the formation of character. Christ replaced one form of service with another, the temple was cast down and rebuilt in three days in his body. So the character that we are called to form is eucharistic - the practice of sharing a meal together, in his memory, in thanksgiving, this is what makes us who we are. The Eucharist makes the church. And this is difficult. It will be experienced as alien, and possibly as oppressive. But we cannot make it any easier without undoing ourselves, without abandoning our faith, without becoming ashamed of the gospel.

"The Monastery" worked, I feel, because it told the human story of people caught up in the world, who are then immersed in precisely that traditional, liturgical culture. And it changed all of them. But what most struck me was a comment made by the Abbot at the end; that it had restored some of the self-confidence of the community. Even in the strongholds of liturgical worship, the technologically amplified voice of the culture shouts so loudly that the faithful quiver, and begin to doubt.

But the tide has turned, and the world knows that it has lost something precious. What we must do is hold fast to what we have received. Mt 10.22

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Singing the world into life

I've recently started reading CS Lewis' Narnia Chronicles, having only read Lion, Witch etc as a child. They're good fun, but a long way from Middle Earth in every sense. But I like the image of Aslan singing Narnia into life - a more animated vision of 'God spoke and it was so'.

The Church Fathers said that a prayer was twice as effective if it was sung, presumably because it involved more of you than simply saying a word or two.

Which is why sung liturgy is so essential, of course. All we can do is sing. We can't earn our salvation, all we can do is sing in thanksgiving.

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
(Robert Lowry, 1860)