Month: December 2015

In God they Trust? (A Critical review)

This review was originally published on my Facebook page in August 2013. 

The next Prime Minister of Australia, come September, will be a “believer” – even a “Christian” – depending on how you use either term. But how can we really know what political leaders believe and what difference does it make to Australia anyway? These are exactly the issues the reader confronts in Roy Williams’ recent offering In God they Trust? The Religious Beliefs of Australia’s Prime Ministers 1901-2013. I’m reviewing this book because it is a noteworthy offering to Australian non-fiction, political history and – to some degree – public theology.

In God they Trust

However, while it provides excellent insights and information, I feel that Williams’ work should also be held up to criticism from inside the Christian community on several points. It appears that Williams is setting out to demonstrate that Christianity has had a profound impact on Australia’s political leaders and that in fact almost every prime minister has been to some degree affected by Christian teaching. In my mind, he demonstrates this clearly through credible research and documentation – situating each leader well in their socio-historical context and showing the reader how each leader interacted with the church and Christian language and ideas in their personal and political lives. This is useful for Christians as an answer to any ignorantly secularistic assertions that Christianity hasn’t significantly impacted this nation and/or her leaders.

My concern is with the seeming determination to “prove faith” in the case of every leader, apart from those who it would be laughable to suggest any kind of belief. At the beginning of the book, Williams constructs different categories to group our PMs such as “Ardent Seekers” (for dedicated believers of some description) and “Fellow Travellers” (sympathetic to Christian teaching, but questionable as to their personal relationship to faith), which appear to be efforts to tie most of the leaders to Christianity somehow. But by the final chapter, Williams gives a breakdown of 16:7 “believers” to “unbelievers” (20:7 if one includes the shortest serving leaders not covered in the book). I can appreciate this final conclusion more, yet think there are certain points to be critiqued.

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George Reid            Stanley Bruce            John Curtin           John Gorton

Firstly, there are still the four men Williams is not-so-conclusive about, as to their belief (Reid, Bruce, Curtin & Gorton). The fact that Williams’ evidence for “belief” in the lives of these four is inconclusive means, in my opinion, that they ought not to be used to bolster the ranks of the “believers” over and against the “unbelievers.” This make for a different ratio. We could even go so far as to put it: 12 PMs who Williams finds evidence for Christian “faith” or some kind of “belief” in Deity, vs 11 for whom he is unable to produce sufficient evidence to seriously make a case for belief. It seems more realistic that we’re left with a half-half equation when it comes to our national leaders’ belief in the Divine.

But unfortunately, I’m unwilling to leave it there.

Another reason I feel the need to review this book, is because I know for some Christians it will be potentially interpreted and misused as “evidence” for their dearly held position that Australia is a “Christian nation” and that our “all but two God-believing Prime Ministers” (not an actual Williams’ quote – but I fear one that’s potentially coming soon to a Christian gathering near you) are a sign that this is God’s country and that He is ensuring that people who fear Him lead the Australian people. Roy Williams is not advocating such a view in his book, but unfortunately the thrust of the work leaves the door somewhat open for those who hold the above views to hijack it in order to bolster their argument.

The idea that Australia is a “Christian nation” is unhelpful, unbiblical and not actually supported by the findings of this book. Williams destroys any claims that Australia has Christian “Founding Fathers” (something some patriotic Australian Christians have pinched from the Americans) – Edmund Barton was an agnostic; Alfred Deakin had some truly bizarre and eclectic spiritual beliefs that in no way represent biblical Christianity & Chris Watson is one of Williams’ “unbelievers.” That’s our first three prime ministers.

Edmund_BartonAlfredDeakinChrisWatsonSepia_crop
 Edmund Barton                Alfred Deakin                         Chris Watson

As for the other Prime Ministers who would be considered “believers” by Williams and would number in the 12 mentioned above, evangelical Christians would be prudent to be somewhat more precise or “narrow” in this inquiry and attempt to discern whether we’ve ever had an evangelical Christian as Prime Minister? Williams’ survey is unapologetically broad and so his “believers” naturally include everything from confused spiritualists like Deakin to Roman Catholics, to those of Protestant stock. For some of us, there is a need to move beyond these categories and see whether there were Prime Ministers that actually believe(d) the Christian gospel and subscribe to and confess biblical Christianity. I’d like to consider some of Williams’ findings below…

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 Andrew Fisher                                        Kevin Rudd

On the Labor side of politics, I think the evidence for the faith of the first Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher and the current Labor PM Kevin Rudd, is the strongest. Williams presents a historical picture of Fisher that powerfully suggests he was a devout Presbyterian in faith, church attendance and personal conduct. It may irk some right-wing leaning Australian Christians to know that our first great Christian Prime Minister and our first great ALP PM were one in the same. With respect to Rudd, I think the evidence for our current prime minister’s personal faith is conclusive. The PM professes belief in things such as the Resurrection of Christ and is well acquainted with the Scriptures and theology. However, I’m not confident he is necessarily an “evangelical.” While some Christians would attack his character – perhaps unfairly – my concerns lie with his recent “change of mind” regarding marriage (which is clearly out of step with biblical thinking) and his legislative support for the RU486 abortion pill (pp. 246-7). I’m still also puzzled by his reference to God as “him or her” upon being ousted in 2010 and would also have concerns if it were the case that Dietrich Bonhoffer was his “theological hero” rather than just his hero by virtue of living out his convictions.

Portrait_of_the_Right_Hon._J._H._ScullinPaul_Keating_-_2007-crop[2]
  James Scullin                                                     Paul Keating

I hesitate to arrive at Williams’ glowing conclusions regarding the Christianity of Jim Scullin and Paul Keating. This is because for evangelicals, adherence to Roman Catholicism is a severe impediment to biblically genuine faith and “born-again” believers within the Catholic church are generally the exception. Williams, as a somewhat progressive (Anglican?) Christian ecumenicist who clearly hates sectarianism, naturally gives both of them positive ratings. Scullin would probably be his top Christian PM if not for his political failures (p. 266). When it comes to Keating, Williams performed something of a miracle in In God they Trust?by actually managing to significantly improve my regard for a PM I have never particularly liked. His moral conservatism on certain issues – particularly abortion – deserves recognition for what it is. I feel however that Williams overplays the evidence for Keating’s faith a bit too much and I find it hard to see him as one of the top contenders for the mantle of greatest Christian Prime Ministers. The Catholic reservations for evangelicals would also apply to the iconic Labor PM Ben Chifley.

These three men could each be held up as political leaders whose Catholic faith and values seem to have impacted their personal and political lives. But we need to be wary of lauding them as great Christian leaders, seeing as how we have no information to suggest their dissent from the more fatal aspects of Roman dogma.

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Joseph Cook

On the non-Labor side, the best hope for evangelical faith appears to lie with Joseph Cook. Williams notes Cook’s lifelong connection with Methodism and while he criticises him in several areas, he does seem to suggest that Cook did not go along with his church’s slide into the “social gospel” around the turn of the century (p. 68). Joseph Lyons – Williams’ other candidate for best Christian PM – must face the aforementioned reservations evangelicals must have when it comes to adherents to Roman Catholicism. I am certain that Billy Hughes’ personal conduct and character – especially his reputation for frequent blasphemy – establishes him as a theist but one lacking the fruits of a true Christian (though we may allow for a possible mellowing out and/or conversion in later life).

RobertMenziesNla.pic-an23458756-vImage-Howard2003upr
Robert Menzies                 Billy McMahon                          John Howard 

The remaining three Liberal Prime Ministers listed by Williams as believers are: Robert Menzies, Billy McMahon and John Howard. Each of these men are without doubt people who professed faith in the Christian God in some way. McMahon could speak of a personal faith journey, which is promising. However Williams offers no real mention of church attendance and the theological influences on McMahon he cites only leave us wondering exactly where he would have stood on key matters. There is next to no substantial evidence for us to see him as an evangelical Christian. With respect to Menzies and Howard – the two conservative political giants of the post-war period, I’m inclined to see them both as respectable churchmen and adherents to the Christian faith, but I’d be uncertain from what I’ve seen whether we should regard them as “evangelicals.” Both strike me as champions of their particular economic and social positions, rather than men who would strongly advocate their faith to others. Though it seems promising that Howard attended an Anglican church of the more evangelical persuasion (p. 212), his once monthly church attendance and reluctance to talk about his faith make it difficult to see Christianity as a priority or predominant guiding force in his life.

I don’t say any of this as a pronouncement on who will be in heaven or hell come judgement day. Rather, in considering the findings of In God they Trust? I wish to encourage a measured response by evangelicals when it comes to who they hold up as examples of great Christian men who’ve occupied the Lodge. A Catholic or nominal Protestant can make an excellent Prime Minister and promote a biblical stance on certain key issues of the day in an admirable manner. We should just be more careful how we use “Christian” when it comes to politicians. When the evidence is there, as it is with perhaps 3 or 4 of the PMs, we can rejoice that at least a few times in our history, men with deep Christian convictions have made into the top political office. In other cases we should, with Williams, observe the impact Christian teaching, thought, values and even at times theology, has influenced or impacted the governance of the nation – without over-zealously drawing conclusions about individual prime ministers or indeed the identity of Australia itself.

[1] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade derivative work: 99of9 This file was derived from  Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd with Foreign Minister Utoni Nujoma of Namibia.jpgCC BY 3.0 au

[2] Idpercy “Paul Keating in 2007” CC BY 2.0

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The Glory of God in the birth of Christ (Pt. 2)

(For part 1, please click here).

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
(Matthew 1:18-25, ESV emphasis added).

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We saw in the previous post how the child born to Mary in Bethlehem was given the name “Jesus” because of who He was: Yahweh, the Creator, God of Israel, coming in human flesh to save His people. This shows how Jesus fulfilled and carried on one of the great themes of the Bible: God’s desire to be known and glorified as Saviour.

But what of this other name Matthew introduces? Why Immanuel?
I can’t go much further without acknowledging that vv. 22-23 earn scorn from many unbelieving skeptics and have confused more than a few Christians. How can the apostle be serious about the birth of this child fulfilling the prophecy “they shall call his name Immanuel” when He’s explicitly given a completely different name by His parents?

It’s a valid question and by answering it we’ll not only get an insight into what Matthew intended by quoting Isaiah here, but we’ll also see how Jesus relates to one of the other great themes of the Bible – the greatest promise God gives to His people.

Jesus our Immanuel

In perhaps the most theologically rich portion of any Christmas carol, the second verse of Charles Wesley’s classic Hark the Herald Angels Sing! gives us this pure lyrical gold:

Christ by highest Heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time, behold Him come
Offspring of the virgin’s womb

Veil’d in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the Incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus our Immanuel

Wesley expresses beautifully in this hymn to Christ what Matthew was getting at when he said: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

Jesus’s fulfillment of this prophecy was not a literal bearing of the name Immanuel – i.e. it wasn’t His middle name or something like that (just like “Christ” isn’t His surname!). But names are all about identity, and Jesus certainly did embody the meaning of the name in all its fullness. As the carol puts it, Jesus was the everlasting Lord, adored by all of heaven, who came “late in time” to our world, via the womb of a virgin named Mary.

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When this child was born he was not simply some distant offshoot of the ruling Jewish tribe. He was the fullness of God veiled in an authentic human nature – flesh, blood, skin and bones. He was a baby boy, 100% human and 100% divine, worthy to be worshipped – as the Magi would conclude in the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Or as another famous carol describes Him: “Jesus, Lord at thy birth.” Jesus may never have been called Immanuel by anyone during His earthly life. But millions throughout history have recognised Him as Immanuel – the God who was pleased to dwell as a man amongst the mortal, human creatures of this world.

The Greatest Promise in the Bible

What would you say is the greatest promise God gives His children in the Scriptures? That our sins will be forgiven? That there will be no more pain, suffering or sorrow in the new creation? That we will have eternal life?

All of these are wonderful things and indeed they are each connected to what I’ve become convinced is the greatest promise of all.

Probably the earliest sign of the promise is given by Yahweh to Abraham in Genesis 17:
And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your        
       offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting
       covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will
       give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your
       sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and
       I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:7-8, ESV).

It’s even more clear though when He makes a similar promise to the people of Israel in Exodus.
I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall
      know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from
      under the burdens of the Egyptians. (Exodus 6:7, ESV).

The promise is carried through the Old Testament by the prophets (e.g. ) and the picture of the New Jerusalem, which the New Testament ends with, is more or less defined by it.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling
      place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his
      people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
(Revelation 21:3, ESV)

Could there be anything better than owning God as our God and having Him own us as His people? That’s the promise given to those He calls and redeems in the Old Testament. God can give nothing greater than Himself and He does just that in becoming their God.

But Revelation suggests there is something even better than having God as our covenant God and belonging to Him as a people. Well sort of…
In the new creation, God will dwell in and amongst His people in a way we’ve never experienced before. He will be with us as our God and we will experience the fullness of this amazing relationship like never before.

Having God as our God will be even more amazing when there is no sin, no idols, no distractions to detract from our ability to enjoy the greatest gift we could possibly receive.

season reason[3]

I’ve seen Christian friends circulating this picture on Facebook this month and the sentiment it expresses is well rehearsed. We’re repeatedly reminded not to only focus on the cute baby in the manger, but the suffering Saviour on the Cross. The refrain could be “At Christmas, always remember Easter.”

But this mentality misses something very important. Christmas is glorious in and of itself. Because the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God is the very real beginning of what we will enjoy for all of eternity. Immanuel – the God who dwelt among men as a man Himself – is the one we will enjoy an incredible relationship with throughout eternity.

In fact, if I might be so bold as to say it, there is a sense in which Easter points to Christmas – a “second Christmas”, the new advent, the greater “feast of Christ”, where instead of a few Jewish shepherds and Eastern astrologers coming to see the newborn King, people from every nation, tribe and tongue will come to feast around the table of the King’s glorious banquet. A big reason “Yahweh saves” us as Jesus, is so we can enjoy Him forever as Immanuel, with our sin completely gone and our mortal bodies changed to experience the fullness of life.

So this Christmas, I encourage you all to ponder and rejoice in the fact that God has promised to be with us as our God and that Jesus coming as Immanuel is the absolute guarantee that this promise will be delivered.
The eternal presence of God will far outshine all the presents of men. If we have this to look forward to because of Jesus, we have something worth celebrating  next week.

[1] Alkelda, “Mini Nativity with Angel and Donkey Nov09” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[2] Alkelda, “Wool Felt Nativity 2011″CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[3] Source unknown, included for purposes of critique

The Glory of God in the birth of Christ (Pt. 1)

Matthew’s Gospel 1:18-25 would make a very short and simple Nativity play. No shepherds, no animals, no “wise men” until the next chapter, no glorious angelic host. Just one angel, Mary, Joseph and a baby boy.

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[1]

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[2]

 

 

Compared to the depictions of the Christmas story we often see, or even the account of Christ’s birth in Luke 2, this might seem like the “low-key” or “stripped back” version of Christmas. But at the beginning of his Gospel, in these 8 verses, the apostle Matthew recounts for us one of the most momentous events in human history – with only one or two other events ever being comparable to it.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.  (Matt 1:18-25, ESV).

While the virgin birth is an astonishing event of great importance to our faith and of great controversy in the modern world, it appears to me to be just one component in what is an amazing culmination of the themes of the Bible in the opening of Matthew’s gospel.

The two names associated with the child-born-of-the-virgin are mini-sermons in themselves, announcing the good news to humanity and revealing where all of human history and the biblical story have been leading up to that point. They also point forward and show us where everything in God’s plan is heading. Understanding these names is crucial for knowing who this child was, is and will be and for understanding what God is up to in our world.

An angel of the Lord charges Joseph with the incredible responsibility of naming the Saviour of the world in v. 21. “She [Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Jesus.

It’s one of the most famous names in world history and the Bible says it will only grow more renowned in the future. But why this name?
The answer is given in the verse. Because he will save His people from their sins. “Jesus” (from the Hebrew Yeshua) means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is my/our salvation.”

This is the name that, as far as I can see, joins the Old and New Testaments perfectly and displays one of the grand themes of Christianity. “Jesus” tells us that Yahweh, Creator of the universe and the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is coming in human flesh to save His people from their sins.

The Old Testament teaches that Yahweh alone is Saviour (Isaiah 43:11). Jesus doesn’t come along and replace Yahweh as Rescuer of Israel and humanity. Jesus is Saviour precisely because He is Yahweh in human flesh. And so even though the Greek and English versions of the New Testament do not use the divine name but translate it as LORD (probably to reflect Jewish custom), every time Christians call upon, praise or pray in the name of Jesus – they are proclaiming the eternal truth that Yahweh alone is our salvation. Thus, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved,”(Acts 4:12) because the eternal God was born into the world as a baby that first Christmas.

Grand theme: God glorified as a merciful, powerful & righteous Saviour

Have you ever wondered why God created the world? Or about why He allowed evil to occur, or spirits, men and women to rebel against Him? These are deep theological and philosophical questions and the most brilliant human or perhaps even angelic minds would fail to grasp the fullness of God’s reasons for His ancient plans, designs and decrees.

But there is something I’ve come to believe in relation to the story and emphasis of Scripture that goes part ways to explaining these questions (though I stress, only part!). It seems to me that although God reveals Himself as many things in Scripture, human history, divine miracles and His Son Jesus (eg; Creator, King, Judge), He seems to have a particular desire to be known by certain people in a special way: as Saviour, Deliverer and Redeemer.

While I think this is seen throughout the Scriptures (especially in the Exodus/Passover narrative, but repeatedly in varying degrees from Genesis through to the prophetic and post-exile literature in the later Old Testament), it is perhaps most clearly displayed in the New Testament’s picture of the return of Jesus. We are told that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11), but only some will rejoice in His coming as they witness the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13).

In a similar vein, while God’s justice and wrath against sin is repeatedly emphasised throughout Scripture and is inescapable despite the current disdain for such a truth, He seems to be intent on being glorified specially for His mercy (without compromising His justness). While passages like Romans 9-11 generate significant debate on issues like predestination and the fate of ethnic Jews in God’s plan, there appears to be a clear thrust in verses like Romans 9:22-24 and 11:30-32 towards the idea that God is ordering human history mysteriously in a way that will best display His mercy to undeserving sinners (which I think goes part ways to explain why the humans He created were permitted to rebel against Him). Romans 15:9 seems to confirm this: the purpose of global mission is so that people from all nations in this fallen world come to glorify God for His mercy.

And so when we retell the story of the child born in Bethlehem, given the wondrous name of Jesus, we are proclaiming something God wants proclaimed from now into eternity. Yahweh, the glorious Saviour, is saving His people from their sins in/through/as Jesus Christ. And when we share the good news of Christmas with our neighbours, we are inviting the peoples of the world to join in glorifying God for His mercy.

Next time – Immanuel.

[1] Alkelda “Mini – Nativity Nov12” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[2] Alkelda “Nativity Angel1Sept10” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.

Star Wars and Hebrews

Around the 20th anniversary of the original Star Wars film (1997), a special edition was released that reinvigorated interest in the franchise. Two years later the prequel trilogy launched with The Phantom Menace – enchanting a new generation of fans and aggravating a legion of purists who loved the originals. With yet another trilogy upon us, I was intrigued by the following excerpt from a John Piper sermon on Hebrews, from around the time of the special edition release:

          Star Wars and Hebrews

I want to make sure as we begin this message that you know the difference between Star Wars and the book of Hebrews. For many today there is no significant difference. That is, both are myths. And a myth is a story (it need not be true in the sense that it really happened), a story that provides symbols for interpreting the world. You don’t need Truth, with a capital T. You only need a symbolic system to help you order your world. Now this may sound like fancy academic talk that comes from a philosophy class or a class in advanced linguistic anthropology. But it’s not. It’s straight out of yesterday’s newspaper about the new release of Star Wars and the meaning it has for kids.

Here’s a key sentence: “For some pre-adolescent boys, Star Wars . . . functions as a kind of religion, giving them spiritual nourishment and opening the door to questions of redemption, forgiveness and morality, sometimes more potently than their formal religious upbringing ever has. They’re finding their myths in an unexpected place” (StarTribune, 2/1/97, p. B5).

Now what interests me in this sentence is not that Star Wars is a kind of religion for some kids. Nor even that for some it seems more exciting than what they learned in Sunday School. (That can easily be accounted for by the difference between computer-enhanced cinematography and flannelgraph.)

Myth or Truth?

What interests me is the assumption of the writer that finding your religion is like choosing among many myths. “They are finding their myths in an unexpected place.” And the question is not one of ultimate Truth, but rather of what story or symbolic system works for you. You can find your myth in the Biblical story of creation by a sovereign God, incarnation of a real personal Son of God, redemption by the real shed blood of Christ and by his resurrection, and faith in this Truth. Or you can find your myth in the story of Star Wars. The issue today, inside the philosophy class and inside the movie theater, is not usually Truth, but rather finding a satisfying myth, a story that helps you interpret the world, to make it livable and, if possible, enjoyable.

So the article quotes one professor who compares not only Star Wars, but TV in general, to religion and says, “It does what religion does: provides a symbolic system through which you interpret the world.” That’s all religion is for many people: “a symbolic system” a cluster of metaphors and narratives and experiences that touch you deeply and help you make some sense of your life. Truth is simply a non-issue.

If that kind of thinking were confined to a few scholarly books or a few advanced classes, I would not bring it in here. But since I know it is simply in the air we breathe, I think you need to put it before you and realize that as you read this text, and as I preach this message, neither the writer of this book [Hebrews]  nor the preacher of this sermon thinks that way. We are not offering you another possible myth you can choose from to help your life go better. The writer of this book and the preacher of this message aim to describe real persons and historical events and divine intentions that really happened in history. And we aim to reveal an unseen heavenly realm above history that is more real than all we see and touch in this life. This story is more real and more exciting and more terrifying and more life-changing than Star Wars will ever be, no matter how many enhancements they make. And I urge you, in the name of God, to hear the strangeness of this text as the strangeness of Reality, not as the strangeness of an unreal truth.

http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/what-christ-did-at-the-end-of-the-age

As “the Force awakens”, Piper’s juxtaposition between a great and engaging epic story like the Star Wars and a biblical testimony about Jesus like Hebrews, is a good reminder that many people need to “wake up” when it comes to the Truth that undergirds our existence and provides us with substantial purpose in our lives.

Star Wars VII will undoubtedly capture the imagination of a new generation, dazzle us with its amazing special effects and add to the mythos of the canonical universe of Star Wars fiction (which, one could be forgiven for thinking, is already of galactic proportions). And apart from a handful of the old school purists who are no doubt waiting with stones-in-hand to pelt the Disney heretics for further corrupting the sacred majesty of the original trilogy, most of us will enjoy it for what it is – a really captivating saga.

But we all need something better than an epic story to base our lives upon. Many people around the world need the wake-up call of the gospel so that they can see God and the universe He made as they really are, through Jesus Christ. And many sleepy Christians need to be awakened by the stunning truths of the gospel we may have begun to yawn at. We have the greatest story ever told – one that you can justly base your entire life upon. Because it’s real and has universal and eternal implications for everyone. And we don’t need a multi-million budget to present it to the world and maybe even see someone stunned and amazed by it’s brilliance. We just need to start with that neighbour, friend or Christian brother or sister who needs to be awoken or reawakened to the glories of Jesus Christ.

“God isn’t fixing this” – Breaking down the headline

In the US, in the wake of the tragic San Bernandino shootings, the Daily News has gained significant attention from its headline “God isn’t fixing this” accompanied by various tweets by conservative politicians referring to prayer for the victims’ families.
tabloid

The argument goes that it is “meaningless platitudes” to call for a religious response to the tragedy when these very men could take steps towards launching a political response that dealt with the perennial issue of gun control. Why pray to God for help when you can do something about the problem? God clearly isn’t doing anything to resolve the issue of gun violence, so politicians should take responsibility and do something instead of just praying.

The issues at play in America are not directly relevant to us in our part of the world, but in a globalised society, these matters, along with the commentary and headlines, will be discussed and debated to some extent here. So I wanted to look at where this headline gets it right and where it misses something very significant.

Where they get it right

1. If by “God isn’t fixing this” the editors of Daily News mean that God will not miraculously intervene to stop future gun violence from happening – they’re probably right. I’d be willing to bet that more events like this week’s shooting will take place in the United States in years to come. There will be times where God won’t miraculously prevent these events from happening by jamming the weapons, causing the perpetrators to be foiled or discovered, or appearing to the would-be killer in a terrifying, life-changing dream. This is because God does allow evil and suffering to exist in this fallen world that is tainted by humanity’s sin.

The reason He doesn’t prevent every disaster that could happen from taking place is because He’s allowing humanity to face the consequences of living in a society that rejects divine authority and rule and attempts to take power into the hands of the individual, tribe, party or army, as we see fit. So yes, there is a sense in which it is true that God isn’t going to deal with gun violence by reducing people’s capacity to do evil or their access to weapons in the same way a legislature might be expected to act.

2. When it comes to the question of whether it is hypocritical to appeal to God to resolve something we’ve been given responsibility to do something about – the criticism could be valid. James 2:15-16 says: If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? It is a hollow or hypocritical faith that expresses warm sentiment, or even prayer or blessing towards someone in need, when it lies within one’s power to alleviate the problem they are facing.
If we say to a poor person “I’ll be praying for you to find food and shelter” when we have the means to help them with these problems, something is very wrong. So if politicians are praying for people whose problems have arisen as a result of the policies the politicians have supported, or because the politicians have failed to regulate to keep them safe – they could be susceptible to criticism that they are spiritualising an issue they are responsible for resolving themselves (and therefore if they are to ask God for help, it should be that He would help them do what they need to do). However…

Where the headline misses something important

1. The politicians in question are not specifically praying regarding gun control, but for the comfort and well-being of those affected by the attacks. While they may have a case to answer for their alleged inaction on gun control (an issue I won’t be delving into any further here), it needs to be recognised that they are arguably praying with respect to something they have no capacity to address. A handsome, well-dressed, silver-tongued politician cannot bring deep healing and comfort to those who have been terrified, wounded, maimed or bereaved by a horrific gun attack. And even people with a vague notion that there might be a God or Higher Power often recognise in times when loved ones face a critical health situation that prayer for divine assistance or even miraculous healing is well worth giving a go. People who have a consistent, active commitment to faith in an omnipotent and merciful God should not be unfairly castigated for praying in a situation where only such a Being can be relied upon to provide emotional restoration and even physical salvation from life-threatening injuries.

2. Most importantly, “God isn’t fixing this” is a half-truth at best, because God is in fact fixing the issues behind gun violence, terrorism and a whole host of other evils, in a way that U.S. Congress, law enforcement and counter-terrorism could not begin to imitate.

God is dealing with the evil in the world that manifested itself through Syed Farook and Tashfik Malik and He’s going about it in such a way that will soon see it removed forever.
Death and suffering are part of the curse we all face for our membership of a race in rebellion against the Lord and Giver of Life. While we don’t know all the intricacies behind why evil exists, Christians can be confident that God’s justice and mercy are both perfectly displayed as He unfolds His plan to defeat evil, death and destruction forever through the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ.

Christ died on the cross in response to the great evil and rebellion in world. He bore the punishment for sin on Himself so that God’s justice and mercy might both be displayed.
So that many who are not only victims of great evil, but guilty of evil themselves, might have a way of escape when God judges all evildoers throughout history. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead points to a future where death is no more for God’s children, because the evils of the world that lead to death have been dealt with and vanquished.

And when Jesus returns in glory and power, God promises to judge the world in righteousness through Him. All who have trusted in Jesus and had the wickedness of their rebellion forgiven will experience eternal life and live under God’s rule where no evil thing shall ever bother or harm them again. But all who appear before God’s judgement seat clothed in their own wickedness will face eternal condemnation, as part of God’s plan to renew creation and put the world right.

God IS fixing this – if by “this” we mean the evil behind this tragedy and others. Perhaps the right prayer for Christians in response is the short, but powerful “Maranatha” – “Come Lord Jesus,” “Come quickly.”

Failing at Calculus

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I recently encountered a blog post by Howard Snyder entitled “Moral Calculus: Abortion or Creation Care?” which deals with the dilemma of how Christians should vote if faced with a choice between two candidates. As Snyder puts it:

“An election is approaching. I must choose between two candidates for U.S. representative to Congress. One strongly opposes abortion, but not unrestricted pollution. The other supports effective action to protect the environment, but is not anti-abortion.”

He goes on to suggest that despite most Christians instinctively opting to vote for the pro-life candidate, he beliefs it is more consistent to vote for the environmentally friendly candidate for the following reasons:

1) Numerically, more people will die or suffer horribly because of climate change in the coming decades than children will be killed as a result of abortion laws.

2) Strategically, international action on climate change is more feasible and achievable at the present time, due to public consensus, than widespread changes to abortion laws.

3) In terms of urgency, action on climate change now is key and whereas abortion also calls for urgent response, the number of lives destroyed by abortion seems to be decreasing, while the number of deaths from climate change will only increase.

4) Politically, in the US, electing environmentalist candidates will have an affect on climate change, whereas electing pro-life candidates is unlikely to have a concrete effect on lowering abortion numbers.

5) Practically (though he uses “compassion”), Christians can address abortion by supporting ministries that already deal with some of the contributing factors and succeed in preventing some abortions, whereas they can address climate change by “supporting candidates who will champion effective climate action.”

4248409028_c4cbac7c20_b                                                                                                                                            [2]

While Snyder makes a valid point in terms of the destructiveness of continued environmental degradation, I think there are very good reasons to reject his attempt at moral calculus and for Christians to focus on the battle against legalised infanticide, rather than climate action/creation care. Here are some of my reasons:

1) Culpability: The anti-life candidate can be considered an accomplice to state sanctioned murder, while the environmentally irresponsible candidate can only be held accountable for criminal negligence leading to death. Abortion involves directly and intentionally acting to destroy an innocent life without moral or legal justification. Many Christians would agree that it is ethically equivalent to murder in the majority of cases. Polluting the environment for economic gain and productivity is irresponsible and if it leads to the death of innocent people, it must be mitigated somehow and people who do it must be held accountable.
But though we can concede that it might, potentially cause harm to more people internationally than abortion (though this is by no means automatically true), the acts in themselves that cause pollution and environmental destruction are not as directly and intentionally evil as what transpires in an abortion. Therefore Christians should be very concerned about laws which allow for abortion (especially the unrestricted, on-demand, out-of-convenience type), which are categorically more evil than laws that fail to restrict environmental damage.

2) Strategically, I have to disagree with Snyder. It is a flawed, overly pragmatic attitude to say climate action deserves the focus because there is more international, political will to do something about it than abortion. The Planned Parenthood videos in America have provided an incredible new opportunity to galvanise more people and political players in their opposition towards the major abortion provider in the US. This is not an opportunity that should be squandered.

What’s more, voting for abortion supporters is strategically unwise if Christians are to succeed where they stand the best chance of turning the public debate around: through widespread education about abortion, its effects, and the services that are available to help people with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies. Elected officials who view abortion as a positive or necessary element in society are likely to obstruct attempts to increase awareness and change people’s hearts and minds (which is essential, prior to any legislative reform). Snyder might be right that if we don’t elect environmentally responsible candidates, the situation in years to come will be worse. But he ignores the fact that this will likely be the case if we surrender political ground on abortion.

3) Consensus: Serious evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox Christians are united in terms of opposing the evil of abortion (even many people of a more progressive or liberal persuasion have concerns about it). Not so with the issue of climate change. Christians are far more divided when it comes to the questions of a) How real/problematic is man-made climate change? & b) What is the most responsible course of action in light of the present environmental situation? Since abortion is more directly evil, as I’ve argued above, it is a good idea for us to work collectively with other faith traditions to oppose a problem we’re united against, rather than separately seeking action on an issue, which while important, lacks consensus of perspective.

For the record, I’m personally confident of humanity’s ability to stuff up the environment, but sceptical of a) our ability to undo the damage we’ve caused b) to slow down future damage if the world’s biggest polluters are not on board. Which brings me to:

4) Local action: For Australians, one of the problems has always been that our response to climate change needs to be economically responsible towards our own people, as well as environmentally responsible towards the world we share with everyone else. Australians should seek to limit their ongoing damage to the environment, but we also need to be realistic that the problems will not be mitigated without significant changes by China, India, USA and others. On the other hand, the availability of abortion-on-demand in your local jurisdiction is something you should seriously consider addressing as an individual and member of the Christian church. Supporting those politicians who are brave enough to consistently support the rights of unborn children is a good move, while we seek to influence our neighbours about this issue and prepare for future opportunities to test the public will in parliament.

5) Philosophical incompatibility: Snyder’s dichotomy pro-life/anti-environment vs. pro-choice/environmentalist ignores the fact that those who are overly concerned about climate action often have other philosophical commitments that may be antithetical to Christianity. While he is no doubt thinking about a Republican vs. Democrat contest in the United States, where candidates tend to fall in one of his two camps, we must nonetheless consider what his moral calculus would mean in other contexts. In Australia for instance, one could opt for significant climate action by voting for the most environmentally serious party – the Australian Greens. But the Greens have a range of policies that stem from a thoroughly non-Christian (sometimes even anti-Christian) worldview, which means that support for this party would have more far-reaching consequences than simply picking environmental protection over abortion as the deciding issue on polling day. Likewise the Australian Labor Party is increasingly operating under a policy platform that should make conscientious Christians think twice about casting a vote for them. The Liberal Party is by no means a pro-life organisation and are likely to maintain the status quo in their jurisdictions, if anything. But Christians should seriously consider voting for parties that have platforms based on principles more consistent with our worldview, values and priorities. Voting Green will never achieve that.

In conclusion, Snyder is not wrong to insist that Christians do something about environmentally irresponsible politicians. We should care about this issue and take personal, as well as political responsibility for God’s gift of nature where possible. But I submit that he is wrong to elevate this issue above the need to combat abortion-on-demand at the local and national level – seemingly out of a progressive attempt to shake up the tendency of conservative Christians to vote for conservative politicians. There are good reasons for Christians to think twice about voting Liberal, conservative or Republican (whichever the case may be), but this is most certainly not one of them.

Combating the slaughter of the defenceless unborn should remain one of the highest priorities for Christian social and political action, irrespective of what international conferences are next on the calendar.

[1] suparna sinha “fetus 10weeks” CC BY-SA 2.0 flickr.
[2] Mikael Miettinen “#431 Global warming get warmer houses, sweet” CC BY 2.0 flickr.