The world is on your doorstep – will you let it in?

You don’t need to travel to be a global minded person.  Here’s a few ways Global Connections suggest we as Christians can be global-minded and share God’s heart for the nations:

  • read things written by Christians in other parts of the world, cultures (not just western ones), classes (not just middle class ones) and backgrounds
  • invite such speakers to speak at our conferences

For the original:

http://www.globalconnections.org.uk/churches/global-mission/learning-from-the-global-church

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The world is on our doorstep…will you let it in?

Book review: The Art of Travel (De Botton, Penguin, 2002)

  1. What worldview gives unfettered freedom to travel and enjoy the world (in the present)?

  2. What worldview frees you from being controlled by such desires and travels?

These are the two questions in which I would sum up Alain de Botton’s riveting book.  He’d probably shoot me for saying it.  But let me explain.art-of-travel-botton

This book is a treat.  With art and culture scattered throughout the book, Alain finds some obscure tour guides of past culture and history to introduce us to aspects of travel.  When he’s not doing this, he’s inserting tales of his own, but never in a way that leaves you feeling like that awkward person at the party who has to listen to everyone never shutting up about their travels to far flung lands.  His use of the English language, his way of portraying even bland scenes, and his command of imagery is stunning, and is worth the read even for that.

But like all post-modern writers, they strike a grave difficulty as they attempt to lead you on a joyful, purposeless wander through (in this case) travel.  Because at some point, free-ing as it seems to be offered unfettered, chaotic travel, a big, bad “BUT” comes in.

In this case with Alain, his BUT is an understanding that we can live in chaos.  He gets to a third of the way through a book with random tales, but then he insists on preaching his ordered, secular message to us through the words of another, that “any attempts to create order imply a censorious and prudish denial of our condition” (p. 783 Kindle).  In other words, “if you try to tell me how to travel and insert some order into travel, you can get lost, because that’s not how we are” [or how I want to be].  I mean it’s a nuanced attempt (and far more nuanced than some art that derides a word-centred worldview and then has to describe what the art means, in words) to tell us that we don’t live in an ordered world…..with ordered words, in a book that doubtless has order and intentionality.

And with this, he fails to convince me on the first question, that the secular worldview can give us unfettered freedom to travel with no order or law to how you go about it.  Apart from his secular law which he’ll now proclaim.

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Found here, some common Stoic thought

However to the second question, he gives a far more interesting answer that no matter what worldview you adhere to, you would do well to listen.  He never says it outright, but he insinuates that we’ll never be able to remain chasing big travel moments and be happy.  The reality lies beyond the travel brochure pictures which painted for us the idyllic, and set our expectations so high that we couldn’t help but be disappointed.

And in realising things like this, De Botton concludes that happiness is primarily psychological, not material (p. 273 Kindle).  Happiness cannot be decided by how many places we visit, or the state of the places we find (for we would always fall short or be disappointed).  So happiness must involve expectations and imagination and being content like the Stoics.  The traveller is not merely chasing the present experience, but potentially also the memory and the dream, and being content in the present (where we are, what we have deemed ourselves to be).  In his documentary, he goes nearly further into Eastern thought, and suggests that we should try to lose ourselves and our feelings, in order to gain happiness.

But another sad thing for the stoic, is that he deems that he’s unable to change messy reality, and therefore, he must create a new one (p. 926 Kindle).  He thinks that this is free-ing because it doesn’t nail his colours to one thing, and leave him standing against others.  For example, in creating his identity as a Chinese-Arab person, he doesn’t force himself to forever be either one, and against the other (p. 941 Kindle).  But surely this is a false dichotomy?  What if the Christian traveller could be fully Chinese (what he truly was born), yet delight in all nations, and have a passion for all peoples?  He could learn from all cultures, all genders, all occupations, all languages, and yet realise he is a limited creature, and cannot delude himself into thinking he will be all things to all men perfectly.  Surely in realising his limitations, it would free him to enjoy adventuring to expand his horizons?

In several brief and borrowed moments of sanity, the author (through Nietzsche) borrows from Christian belief, in seeing that what you believe changes how you act, and therefore changes stuff (p. 1059 Kindle).  Or so it should.  It shouldn’t remain a dry construct on a page.  Other things follow on, that the majesty of nature brings out good in us (p. 1447) and that it makes us feel small (p. 1552).  The the sublime is really sublime in the world, because we feel weak (p. 1562).  Turning Pascal around (p.1904 Kindle), he instead says that in painting an image, we point to something we can create, more beautiful than the original, perhaps.  But Pascal’s point was that we point to a creator, in the things we paint.  They are mere shadows, not because we could imagine better, but because there is better, in another place – a new Heavens and a new Earth.  And so it’s on those dispersed notes that I finish.

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Can the secular worldview give unfettered freedom to travel the world?  

Well, not while it continues to be a preached, wordy message, telling us exclusively what to think about reality.  That’s no more freeing than the Christian exclusive message.

Can such a secular worldview free us from being controlled by such desires from travel, to enjoy the small things in life?  

I’d argue not as well as the Christian message could, that has our identity firmly in other places (in Christ) and frees us to enjoy the world under His Lordship without being controlled by it.  For His yoke is a light one, and His New Creation a million more times stunning than the beautiful ruin we stand in front of now.  And in the meantime, He enables us to engage the messiness straight on, and not have to re-create ourselves to try and avoid it.

Will you buy the secular vision of travel?  It promises so much.  But will it live up to its calling?  Or will it be vanity – mere soapy bubbles.  All talk but no substance.

TED talks and travelling

If there’s one thing that comes close to rivalling travel in student conversations (and even this doesn’t come close), then it’s TED talks.  Billions of people watch them every year on their website, and every so often one does the rounds on Facebook.  Chris Anderson (the Head of TED) has recently brought out a book on public speaking which would surprise many TED cynics who think TED are all style and no substance.

In it, he quotes Tierney Thys (biologist and TED speaker) who links talks to travel:

“Like all good movies or books, a great talk is transporting.  We love to go on adventures, travel someplace new with an informed, if not quirky, guide who can introduce us to things we never knew existed, incite us to crawl out windows into strange worlds, outfit us with new lenses to help us see the ordinary in an extraordinary way….enrapture us and engage multiple parts of our brains simultaneously.  So I often try to fashion my talks around embarking on a journey”

[Chris continues himself] What is powerful about this metaphor is that it makes clear why the speaker, like any tour guide, must begin where the audience is.  And why they must ensure no impossible leaps or inexplicable shifts in direction.

(pg. 20 TED Talks, Anderson, Headline Publishing)

And it’s why that I think that although there are some obvious gulfs between TED Talks and what preaching should be, the similarities exist that we wish to take our hearers on a ted-talksjourney from where they are.  It’s why I think Christian Persuaders connects with people in a way that much of modern preaching and evangelistic talks don’t.  It would have us believe that an Acts 17 model to a secular generation is:

  1. Identification
  2. Persuasion
  3. Invitation

Perhaps more on this journey later.

 

 

Book review: A Better Story (Harrison, IVP, 2017)

(Normal readers of Al-jabr, please excuse a final detour into book reviews, as the site I will now normally post them on struggled to get this one up in time.  Not that this book will be entirely unrelated to the travel-bug that has struck our individualistic world)

Ireland.  The Magdalene Laundries.

It’s here that Glynn Harrison (former professor of psychology in Bristol University, now retired) starts us thinking about the sexual revolution that has happened since the 60s.  Is another book about sex and Christianity really needed?  Well after reading this one, I would say that not only was it needed, but it’ll be one I recommend to all students to read this year (and I don’t say that about many).

The book is split into three parts that could as easily be entitled:

  1. where we’ve come from (“a better understanding”),
  2. the present condition of our own hearts (“a better critique”), and
  3. a way forward (“a better story”).

In describing where we’ve come from, Glynn recognises that we must examine the whole culture of the air we breathe each day.  Porn is not the problem (primarily).  Sleeping around is not the problem.   And activists for other worldviews are not the problem.  They are simply products of the world that we live in.  And so to help ourselves and the world, we must know where we are and why we are there.  But don’t worry, in case that sounds scary and philosophical.  Glynn will make you think, but is easy to relate to, does it in bitesize chunks and convinced me he feels what I feel.

In part two of the book the author then persuades me that I am not removed from this culture.  That I have major areas of struggle and sin in my own life, impacted by living in this time of revolution.  The problem is primarily not “out there” with those people ruining our society.  Nor can anything be reversed.  We are so far away from where we came from in the sexual revolution, and the old way of doing life had so many problems too.

The sexual revolution isn’t primarily about the ‘hot-button’ issues being fiercely contested in the so-called culture wars. It is about a much wider, deeper unravelling. And where the revolution forces us to sit up and think, we should be grateful. There can be no ‘going-backery’. No hankering after some bucolic paradise of the 1950s that never actually existed. Where the revolution has forced us to face our shame and hypocrisy, we should say ‘thank you’ – and mean it. Only then will we be ready to put the claims and promises of the sexual revolution under a critical spotlight.” (p. 89)

Finally in part three Harrison beautifully turns and paints a true vision of flourishing sexuality.  He shows that the secular worldview that craved individual freedom and better sex has left itself wanting, with people having sex less often and fewer being satisfied when they do.  Instead they’ve ended up more lonely and isolated than ever, having less social interaction.  Instead, we are to satisfy ourselves to live as God created sex to be.  And in case this starts to sound old and boring, Glynn’s view of sex is a far way removed from what you may have heard in an average church each week (or not heard, as the case more likely is).  He tells a story of even someone like myself, a single twenty-something-year-old who has never had sex, being a flourishing, sexual being, giving people a glimpse of a better earthy reality, and a faithful God who waits for His marriage day to an unfaithful people.a-better-story

Glynn’s stories has been crafted from raw experiences from his life as a researcher and professor.  They’ve been trialled and tested in lectures, seminars, talks and interactive workshops across the UK and Ireland, and having been one of many who’s been stimulated and challenged by him in that context, I’m delighted he’s put some of his material into book form.

But it’s not primarily his academic research that creates such a good book.  It’s his humanity.  His authenticity.  His ability to sit with us in our struggles, and not just rant about how far society has degraded.  With balanced lenses he puts his arm round us and tells us of a better story.  And in doing that in this book, takes us by the hand and starts to walk us towards that goal.

It’s too early to say whether this will be one of my 2017 top ten, but I just have an inkling it might!  Order your copy in NI from here or in Ireland from me.

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Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book by IVP to review, but this in no way affected my review of it, nor was I entitled to give a positive review.

Unity, post-election.

There’s nothing like making a few Donald Trump jokes.  That was the mood my house were in this morning.  A friend, staying over last night was quick to google search “Trump jokes” probably to lighten a fairly gloomy mood on a rainy, cold, winter’s morning in Ireland, when you’ve just learnt the news of the US elections.  But sadly googling that is exactly why I think most of us Europeans are no better than the mud-pie slinging Americans who are sitting in their polemical political camps, throwing things at each other from a distance.

This is a book review of “The Righteous Mind” by Jonthe-righteous-mindathan Haidt (Penguin books) which has been one of my top-reads in the last year (and for those of you who know how avidly I read, that says something!).  Jonathan is an academic social psychologist, but also an American Democrat.  But if that would put you off, please don’t let it – he writes purposely to describe how he thinks we can sit down side by side and talk constructively in the political and religious realm, instead of just talking past each other, and mis-understanding the “other” as just something from our nightmares.

He follows on from other recent works in social psychology (and perhaps goes back to agreeing with Aristotle and many before) to persuade us that we’re not so rational as humans as we’d like to think.  As an intuitionist about moral values, Haidt thinks that “the emotional dog wags the rational tail”.  His thoughts have been previously well drawn on in other works such as “Switch” (another must-read in my opinion, for those wanting to learn to bring about change in this world), but makes a convincing case, even if you haven’t read them.  (A video here to explain.)

Once he has convinced us of this, he then spends some time trying to look beyond our blind spots to see how conservative and liberal minds think morally.  Summed up in these two diagrams, this powerful analysis would help people at opposite ends of the political spectrum to not just throw mud-pies at each other, but to understand that there may be strong rationale why  people vote certain ways on certain issues, and how we can appeal to other voters and talk in terms that are meaningful to them.

righteousmind-conservative

righteousmind-liberal

Once we understand these frameworks (for which he gives evidence in the book), and seem (intuitively!!) to me to be correct, we can start to talk.

Thirdly, Haidt goes on to argue for evolutionary group selection.  Given how much common populace reading (think Dawkins’ Selfish Gene and others) has derailed such concepts, it was eye-opening to me to see him advocating for such and suggesting that others will/do.  Perhaps I’m just behind on the academic thinking at the moment.  Through this, he tries to argue that anything that binds us together in social groupings could be for the advancement of society.  This would help an atheist to see the good of religion, as well as democrats to see and start to understand why having republican groupings might be good (and vice versa for both).

Finally he applies it concretely to life.  There are not those who are “good” and those who are “evil” as we so often like to pretend (we, or anyone who agrees with us, of course, are the good).  There is good and evil in everyone, and we must sit together and learn from each other.  Admittedly he says, it will be hard.  And if this election is anything to go by, the elephant has chosen the easy path, which is sitting in our camps yelling loudly.

Perhaps it’s the one fault of this book.  By it’s own theory (part 1), it will be virtually impossible to enact.  We are too emotionally driven to see its sense.  But for those who wish to see unity, I suggest this book is remarkable and well worth the read, particularly if you are a leader wanting to bring about change, or someone so frustrated with an “other” side of a political or religious grouping that you can’t fathom the attraction of it or how to bring about change.

(NB: for those concerned or persuaded that his group evolutionary thought may mean Christianity is a mere social construct, I can point you elsewhere.)

Book review: Answering Jihad – a better way forward (Qureshi, IVP)

[edit: for those just here for the travel blogging and theology of travel, you’ll be glad to know that these book reviews will soon be moving to a more suitable website that has asked for them!]

Sadly I wasn’t given this one free.  And so I’ve spent many cents on buying many copies of this and distributing it widely.  Why?  Perhaps you’ll indulge me to let me briefly try and capture that in a few hundred words.

I recently attended a public lecture in UCC where the speakers agreed that ISIS and other Muslim extremists were wrongly named and were not Islamic at all.  Muslims themselves also have put great energy into such thinking with campaigns such as “Not in my name” and understandably so!

Simply by taking those questions on everyone’s lips, Nabeel (once a Muslim himself) covers everything most things on a surface level, but enough for the average reader:

  • What is Islam?
  • What is jihad?
  • Is jihad in the qu’ran and the life of Muhammad?
  • who are the true Muslims: violent or peaceful Muslims?
  • Why are Muslims being radicalised?
  • How does jihad compare with old testament warfare?
  • What does Jesus teach about jihad?
  • How does jihad compare with the crusades?

I’ve read lots about Islam, and have spent many hours of my life in the Islamic communities where I’ve lived, serving them and being served by them.  And Nabeel is one of the few I’ve come close to agreeing with.

Most who’ve converted from Islam in my experience in the west, will react against it forcefully, and speak out against it in very black and white terms.

Instead Qureshi keeps 2 helpful tensions:

  1. That there are no easy reasons why people turn to violence: it’s a combination of a lot of things.  But religious justification may be a significant one of those
  2. Many Christians in the west start judging Islam by evangelical Christian traditions of sola scriptura (in Islamic form: “sola Qu’ranica”!), western emphasis on historical literary criticism, or western philosophical systems.  But none of these necessarily hold, and some I would argue are downright unhelpful.  Nabeel avoids them all, mostly.  Islam, like Roman Catholicism is not a system of a book.

Tensions, and where to draw them in life, are hard.  

Making things black and white one way or the other are the easy way out, as the sign below shows.  May we join Nabeel in finding tensions.

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Book review: “Sex and the iWorld – rethinking relationship beyond an age of individualism” (Keuhne, Baker Academic)

Christianity tends to attract a various of opinions to it, within it or because of it.  Those who think (like Chicken Licken) that the sky is falling down, and those who go through life with rose-tinted glasses, assuming the best of all, regardless of the reality in front of them.  And no doubt, such a diversity of views can be of great help to the wider body.

Some of these views are shaped or influenced by theology.  Particularly eschatology (end times) and whether one takes a reformed or arminian view on the world, but also based on many other things.  One such opinion was recently expressed by a friend and deeply respected pastor here:

“There is nothing progressive about the moral trajectory of Europe. On the contrary European society is regressing. We are not gaining traction toward a utopian culture, rather we are descending into a dystopian nightmare.”

(the context to this can be found in their lecture here and on their blog here)

This book would disagree with that first assumption as one of its major points.  I might come on to the second of those points tomorrow, if I have time.  Below I will outline why my reading of the book would suggest this:

Keuhne sets out to convince us that the old world was one sex-and-the-iworldwhere relationships like family (of several generations) were central, and geographic locality tended to dominate out relationships.  This was the tWorld (traditional world).  This world supposedly was founded on Christian values, but in practice because it was actually a mish-mash of many philosophical worldviews at various points in European thought, it allowed for much mistreatment of women (banning them to the kitchen and to certain jobs) in a patriarchal society, lack of care of environment and often views of sexual practice as something not to be discussed.  Faithfulness within marriage was even often encouraged in horrible cases of abuse, due to social norms.

Now we live in one where relationships are more individualistic and family units less the staple of current society.  Geographical location although still influential, with current trends of transport, change of career/job and internet trends, is not as key.  This is the Individualistic World – the iWorld.  This world perhaps has some roots in the sexual revolution of the ’60s, and in postmodern thinking.  The rise of this has debatably led to whole populations addicted to porn, the further breakdown of the family unit and society, with greater loneliness exhibited than ever before.

Both worlds, Keuhne would argue, has their great strengths and their horrific weaknesses.  Both world were far off the Christian worldview and ideal.  Perhaps many would differ in which was better or worse, morally speaking, for the world.  But what is certain is that there’s been some progression in some fairly major areas.

But where to go now?  Keuhne says the gut instinct for many taking a Christian worldview, is to think we should return to “the good old ages” where things looked more Christian.  But partly because returning to past history is not possible (much as we sometimes like to think it might be – the cultural context has moved on and cannot be reversed), and partly because trying to reverse such changes is always harder than liberalising things to start with, Keuhne thinks that this should not be our option.  Living in the iWorld with a thin veneer of tWorld morality will be an impossibility, but one that many churches are still trying to persuade their adherents to live out.

As Bristol professor in psychology Glynn Harrison would point out, there is little point lecturing young people about porn, if we do not realise that it is merely a small part of the consequence of living at this time in history, that we all have been affected by.  Not just those “porn users over there” or “those affected by unwanted sexual desires” but us all.  We are all products of our culture, to some extent or other.  Until we understand this, ranting about moral behaviour “x, y or z” will do little good at bringing real change.

Instead, the author proposes a new world to aim for: the “rWorld” (Real World).  This is one that has Christian relational values at the very heart of it, but Keuhne refuses to call it the “cWorld – Christian World” because he believes that there is much that anyone would agree about this world, regardless of your worldview.

And his case if powerful, controversial and intriguing, and is worth reading and probably re-reading.  It verges on being an academic book in the style he writes, but don’t let that put you off.  The chapters are manageable and are worth persevering, as the content could shape a lot of how we think and act in life, and his engagement with the arts and ways of framing his case is dynamic.

This one probably falls into one of my top 10 reads of this year.  But then again, I am quite philosophically minded.

Book review: “How bad are bananas? The carbon footprint of everything”

An atheist, a vegan and a crossfitter walk into a bar.

I only know because they were telling everyone within two minutes.

Or so the joke goes.  Equally, you could probably put a few other things in that category too.  But this book, despite being written to inform you about your carbon footprint and how to reduce it, isn’t like those annoying people.

This book isn’t out to tell you what to do and not do.  how-bad-are-bananasThis book doesn’t give you answers for your life in a nice simple silver bullet.  This book doesn’t make you feel guilty without giving you a way out.  This book is one of the few I’ve read on the topic that seems to talk sense and be practical, manageable, easy to read and impact all who read it.

Given to me by a good friend (thanks Johnny Clarke), I’d been wondering about how to be more environmentally friendly, given the mess this world is spiralling into from human pollution (if you doubt that, he has a lengthy appendix on it).  And instead of pointing fingers at big corporations or other nations, it helped me to see that the buck starts at home with me.

The book gives a two page chapter on each human activity commonly participated in, that results in a carbon footprint worth talking about.  Some are ones I thought were bad, but potentially aren’t actually (things like a dishwasher) and others which I thought were grand, but shocked me (like buying tomatoes from Ireland – more carbon goes into heating greenhouses than flying over tomatoes from Spain!).

But instead of loading guilt on top of you, it lets you see what is big in your life, and what will make a big different in your life.  It suggests dealing with one or two main things and then establishing a good rhythm in your life without them, before ever trying to cut down on others.  Such a hands-off, uncontrolling approach was very freeing for me, and one that I loved.

Written in a humourous and understanding style, Mike Berners-Lee had me finishing this one within  a few days of picking it up, though it equally would work as a quirky toilet book to be read a page at a time!  I’d recommend this to anyone as a starting point for bringing about change in your life in this regard.

So, how bad are bananas for the environment?  You’ll have to read it to find out.  But then again, if you want to read it you’re using paper.  Kindle anyone?  And the dilemma goes on…

Book review: Intentional (Williams, 10publishing)

intentionalWho needs another book on evangelism to tell us what we’ve all been doing wrong?  “Not me!” I (quite arrogantly) thought, having studied my apologetics to quite niche levels and hosted and taught at many Christian Persuader Days.

But the simplicity of such a small book, easily read in a couple of hours, struck me as a powerful reminder of something I’d been swaying away from in recent days.

I think I’ve spent so long in the nuanced university academic world that my tendency is always to answer so many questions of sceptics who are far from the Judeo-Christian worldview, that I don’t always get onto the crux of the Christian message.  I also see students who are so keen to show Christianity as NOT being like what the media portray it to be, or what people have experienced, that we often fail to get round to emphasising what evangelism is: a proclamation centring round his death and resurrection.

William’s book will be so helpful regarding that, with worked examples and an understanding of humanity, that I’d happily give it to my CU committees at the start of this year.  This isn’t a nuanced book that’ll help those who have friends with complex questions or are further back in their understanding of things, but it will bring us back to the basics, and make ordinary people be able to reach ordinary people, with the good news.  And for that reason, much as it’s not perfect, it’s a welcome addition to the books out there of this length.

(Again, I’m thankful to 10ofthose.com for providing me with a free review copy, but this in no way altered my review of it)

Book review: God and Politics (Dever, 10publishing)

God and politics(As usual, the fact I’ve received a free review copy from 10ofthose, does not change my review in the slightest, as I’ve been given free-range to say what I want)

This little book (it could be read in an hour) is a bitesize intro to politics as a Christian.  Many would be disappointed that it won’t tell you who to vote for, or even start to list issues that Christians should be concerned about.

Instead Dever concentrates largely on the verse “give to Caesar what is Caesars, give to God what is God’s”.  Powerfully pointing out how revolutionary this really is at the time, Dever says:

“If Christians can support Rome, which government could they not support?  This is the government which killed Christ and nearly all the apostles.  And here Jesus is telling them, pay for it.  Pay that tax that is going to pay the very salary of the men who are going to drive the nails into my hands, not because what they are doing is right, but because government reflects the character of God.  God will deal with them”

Gems like this are scattered throughout the book and make it well worth the quick read.

But on his original question asked by a Muslim friend that frames the whole booklet, “Does Christianity have a vision for state and for society as a whole?” Dever never really answers any hard questions in full (perhaps just due to the size of the book).

“When should we disobey government?” and “How much should we be seen to campaign for God’s law to be the law of the land?” are two that I’m forever wrestling with.  And from what I can tell, Dever would definitely lean towards paying Irish water taxes (as it’s not obviously against any divine laws, even if we felt the government misuse the money) and is as careful to be seen to be about seeking the prosperity of the country/city and against imposing moral commandments (old testament) on a country.  He says

“Jesus, then, is not putting himself as a theonomist in the world.  He is not saying you should take the old testament laws and legislate them on every nation on the earth” (p.28)

But again this throws more questions in our paths.  If we are not forcing (that is what we do in voting) such laws upon our country, what are we voting for?  All of us (Dever included) know that we don’t mean Israeli sea-food laws etc, and just mean the moral law (think 10 commandments), so don’t let that put you off.  Nor do we have to be theonomists to believe that some aspects of God’s law are helpful for modern day society.

In fact, the alternative to voting in laws which God said were to prosper a nation, would be to vote in laws that are secular in force, or Islamic or [insert other worldview].  There are no neutral laws that keep everyone happy.

So my question back to Mark Dever would be: what is he going to speak up for?

And by the sounds of it, his priorities are elsewhere (in changing human lives at a deeply spiritual level, from their selfish human nature), so much so, that I’m not sure he convinced me in his answer to his Muslim friend.  Perhaps if I saw his life, I’d see differently.