Making Sense of God: an invitation to the sceptical traveller

There are a few Travel Golden Rules which go unchallenged and are seemingly accepted by all and none, when travelling.

  1. Travel is a great educator that shows you how little you know and how small you are in the universe
  2. Travel helps restore your faith in humanity (soo much good out there)
  3. Travel helps you see that all ways of life can be acceptable – we are all on the same path as humans – we just need to find who we are

And underpinning all of these:

No-one must presume to have exclusivity on how to live a life of satisfaction

Because (correlated to the above 3 points):

  1. We are small and know so little: so stop arrogantly assuming that your way is better than others, or that you know enough to tell others how to live
  2. & 3. There is good in every religion, belief and way of life – humans are in general good at heart, so don’t claim that your way of living is the only way. Just get on, be free, be true to yourself, and don’t harm others.

Tim Keller (A New York Times Bestselling author), writes engagingly to persuade us that although some elements of the above are true, that the general ethos of these statements, are far from enough, to help us make the most of our travels (although he writes in a more general context than travel).

(For those who have heard of or read Keller before: “Making Sense of God” is like the prequel to his bestseller, “The Reason for God”. Not many people these days in the west are motivated to read of the evidence for God – we don’t want there to be a god, and see that god is a dying breed, given whats going on in the west, the advance of education, and the creating of happiness elsewhere in life in far more fun places than religious rituals. So Keller wrote the prequel to try and persuade us that God is something we might like to explore more about and to see that it will be of great benefit to us to do so.)

You can hear Keller summarise his book himself in his talk to Google here.

Keller starts off by making two points (chapters one and two):

  • Religion is not going away. Although it is perceived to be a quickly disappearing thing in the west, that due to birth rates across the world and conversion rates, belief in God is forecast to keep growing bit by bit. So if we want to live in peace in a pluralistic society, we better pay attention, nevermind if we want to explore what satisfies.
  • There is no contrast between a secularism based on evidence and religions on faith. All worldviews rest on evidence and all need faith to accept some of the implications. Not much can be proved by repeatable, testable experiments in life. Even agnosticism (which sometimes tries to claim is a lack of belief, rather than a worldview), still has tenets on which it rests, which it accepts often by faith. You won’t find many people who doubt their doubts, but many who blindly accept a position of doubt.

Given that we can talk about evidence, and religion is not going away, Keller suggests we might like to explore it some more through the following lenses:

3. A Meaning that Suffering Can’t take away from you.
There’s nothing worse than religious people suggesting that you can’t have meaning unless you have god. It’s nonsense. But could religious meaning be more hopeful and real than other meaning? Keller argues that finding meaning in God, transcends events in life like suffering which rob us of many things we turn to for meaning. For those of us who are independent travellers who don’t have suffering in our lives, we might think this irrelevant – we have our meaning quite happily thanks! But suffering will strike us all without exception in life soon enough, if we choose to love or let anyone be close to us.

4. A Satisfaction that is not based on circumstances.
The richer we get as a society, and the more free we are to have sex, enjoy ourselves and do what we want the….happier we are? Statistics would seem to suggest otherwise. Even when we have it all, we seem to feel like there’s something illusive still to come. Keller looks at 2 categories of response: those who keep hunting after satisfaction, and those who resign themselves to seeing it not being possible. And in both of these, he tries to make the case that we cannot find satisfaction while we try and root it in the subjective self.

5. Why can’t I be free to live as I see fit, as long as I don’t harm anyone?
To Keller, unconstrained freedom is impossible, if we are ever going to have love. Love is the most liberating freedom loss ever, according to him. And so it is impossible to have satisfaction with no negative limits. As soon as we love anyone, they demand our time, attention, passions. And so it is with God – when we fall in love with Him, it will be a constraint, but one that flows from the heart of someone who made us and was willing to die for us, so that we could be free.

6. The Problem of the Self
Finding our identity in outer relationships was how it used to be done – who we are married to, what our family name is, what god we worshipped, what tribe we are from. But that limited who you could be, it dwarfed us under poor societal expectation, and led to harmful situations. But finding our identity within ourself hasn’t been easier either. What about a warrior of past centuries who had two desires deep within him – aggression to fight and thirst for blood, and a same-sex-attraction. He would reject the latter (or be scorned) and adopt the former as his identity – he was a warrior! But the 21st century man would do the opposite. Why? He would admit he needed therapy for such violent desires, but would fully embrace the “real him” sexually, because society told him that was acceptable. So really, his decision of the “real” him, was just back to coming from whatever society thought. What if we could be free-d from defining ourselves by any of these?

7. An Identity that doesn’t crush you or exclude others
As an alternative to looking to society to define us, or inwards to figure out which of our feelings should define us, Keller suggests we will find freedom looking upwards, in our identity being something outside of ourselves, but which isn’t performance related (the way our identity in society was/is). If we do badly or don’t live up to expectations, we still manage to keep this upwards identity. Here Christianity is very different to every other “performance based” religion, which demands that one does well in order to gain status, confidence or eternal life. When travelling, the two things people push back on, when I describe an identity outside of myself, is that (1) it means I don’t value anything in myself anymore and (2) it means I create a “them” vs “us” (Christians vs non-Christians) attitude which is bad for society. Keller shows that if Christians have done this, they have misunderstood the Christian message, which holds together self-denial and self-realisation, at the cross, and unites us all together in a shared humanity.

8. A hope that can face anything
Suicide rates across many western societies are rising. The optimism of where society is going is being perceived by many to be unfounded in reality. In this chapter, the author sets forward a case that a personal, concrete and unimaginably wonderful hope, is exactly what is needed. Arguing from intuition, but also from the lack of practical response from any other worldview, Keller sets forward perhaps the least convincing chapter, but perhaps the most heart-warming to those who want to dream of what is to come. Read after chapter twelve, this chapter comes alive.

9. The Problem of Morals
From the least convincing chapter, to perhaps the most logically convincing chapter of the book. How do we get our morals? Keller lays out all the ways that modern western philosophers (and humans!) claim to be able to act morally, and of course agrees that they do! But his main question, is whether there is any way of establishing that we “ought” to act morally. (Atheistic) Evolutionary views, alongside social constructionist views struggle to give us this moral ought. And intuitionism (Dworkin et al.) admit similar short-comings. What I loved about this chapter is that Keller is once again at his best, quoting atheists and top [atheist/agnostic] philosophers who come to these conclusions, rather than standing over things and declaring them himself.

10. A justice that does not create new oppressors
“The goods [of churches] may outnumber the abuses, even by far, but wrongdoings lodge more deeply in the memory and consciousness. In the end it would be better to look for other grounds on which to explore the relationship between religious faith and justice”. And so this chapter mainly focusses on how one can have “human rights” without oppressing those who disagree about the standard. Ultimately, Keller points to the fact that the Biblical metanarrative continually exalts the underdog, and has at its heart, a Saviour to follow, who comes to die for the people. His followers are called to be transformed into His image, not dying to re-create a Christian culture, but to love all people, even their enemies. Such radical transformation, if it works, would give a basis for justice, that does not oppress.

Finally, in the last two chapters Keller concludes with some evidence for all the above being found in a belief in God, and where we can turn to examine that. He finishes with a powerful story of a Japanese internment camp, and a secular humanist, who believed in the good of all humanity, and the lack of evidence for God, and how the material his chapters (long before they were written), led him to belief in our need of God.

You can hear Keller summarise his book himself in his talk to Google here.

For any thinking traveller, I would urge you to give this a read, with the caveat that Keller writes for New York professionals, and whilst it isn’t littered with complicated language (in fact, Keller simplifies and summarises many ideas very helpfully!), it will still reference all the top thinkers and their ideas, and deal with them, in a way which may seem daunting to those who haven’t been familiar with other ways of thinking.

The joy of travel is that it will inevitably cast questions into your mind and life, and this is a book which will help process those.

**My thanks to the blog “doesgodmakesense.com”, for the image which I have used for the header on this post. Their graphics simply borrowing from Keller’s original.

Peregrino: Waymarkers for Pilgrims on the Camino of Life (Book Review)

Pilgrimage: It’s the one thing you may have noticed a distinct lack of round here.  Ha – there’s an evangelical Christian for you?  But as I say in my book’s introduction, that’s not because I fear it, or think it isn’t an “evangelical” thing to do.  No, far from it.  It’s simply because many before me have written on it far better than I could, and the engagement of faith with pilgrimages is already a massive thing across the world.

But as all the hype around my book launches dies down and I get back to normal life, I was sent a recommendation by a mentor back home to pick up this one and give it a read.  I was initially sceptical, knowing nothing of either the author or the book, but I’ve found it a rich treasure trove of scriptural meditations, thought-provoking statements and marvelous quotations!

Rev David Cupples set off on a Sabbatical to enjoy two of the Caminos in France and Spain and has collated his thoughts in this colourful guide for anyone contemplating pilgrimage.  Noting that no-one he met in his weeks of walking ever had the original purposes of traversing to the remains of ancient “saints”, he not only leads us in beautiful worship and practical tips, but also adds helpful commentary to many who go on pilgrimage.

For those taking their time and mulling over this as a devotional or as they travel, the added feature of a song for every day is added at the end of the page, alongside the large chunk of scripture and extensive topical thought. There’s just shy of 90 days worth of devotional material in here, and all of it is immensely stimulating and helpful for worship, even if you don’t agree with every single one (I could imagine some wouldn’t agree with David on the extent to which we can hear God and be led by him audibly speaking outside scripture, our conscience and creation).

Regardless whether you call it pilgrimage or not, walking such paths deserve our engagement as evangelicals, partly because so many of us undervalue how much experience shapes us, partly because (as Desi Maxwell recently highlighted at a travel symposium I spoke at) the Bible is such an outdoors book, and partly because we go walking anyway, so why not make it as intentional as this author is? David will surprise you and warm your heart whatever background you come from.

I’ve already ordered a few extra copies and sent them off across the globe to folks who love to pilgrimage and walk in this way, as its an excellent resource, regardless of whether you’re mulling over what is spiritually real for the first time, or whether you’re a seasoned Christian used to rich theology. You can order them from David directly at dcupples57@gmail.com

Happy reading!

Christianity Today interview about “Travel: in tandem with God’s Heart”

A month or two ago I “sat down” with a like-minded traveller from the other side of the globe, and had a Skype which turned into this Christianity Today article.  It’s been one of the joys of this whole process – being introduced to top thinkers and practitioners in various settings and from various theological backgrounds – what a joy!

Do check it out!

Hot off the press! Travel: in tandem with God’s heart (IVP UK)

It’s here!  From October 18th (today!), Travel: in Tandem with God’s Heart is available on:

The Publisher’s Website (*ebook and paperback)

Amazon and with free postage to Europe: The Book Depository

The Evangelical Bookshop (*cheapest, and includes free postage to UK)

Unbound Cork (*10% off when you enter “welcome” as giftcode when paying)

All good local bookshops

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TRAVEL Flyer Back

God’s Biker: motorcycles and misfits

(More about this forthcoming title can be found here)

This book felt like a letter.  A letter written to me.  But that would be silly, given I’d never heard the name Sean Stillman, nevermind known him enough to receive correspondence.  Or at least it was a story that resounded deeply within me enough that I felt someone had developed mind-reading technology to know the questions that were on my heart.  It’s a story of a travelling man – a man who journeyed much by motorbike.  But it’s the story of someone who’s story seems so ordinary, so normal, yet achieved (and still achieves) so much.  It’s someone whose life-story resonates with what life is really like.

Sean’s personal story, of how he grew up through frustrations of church, coming to loveGod's Biker motorbikes and also to follow Jesus, was a gripping yet ordinary tale like many others we might have heard before.  But from there, story after story tell of a life well-lived, using his passions, gifts and upbringing to best try and fathom how to take seriously Jesus’ call to make disciples in a broken world.

What do you do when you’re a biker, who spends many hours on the road in your squad, and hangs out with the most unlikely of company to ever enter a church building?

With many from traditional churches who engage with me about travel, they would want to tell Sean to stop travelling and settle down.  To not risk so much.  Perhaps even to cut his hair and keep better company.  But Sean’s missional heart longs for the biking community who aren’t going to respond so well to the “average” church evangelism (whatever that means), and sees that to engage these people with the good news, lived out in community in word and deed, is what Christ is calling him to.  He grasps that in the post-modern travelling world, the travelling, biking community, may not be able to be reached (or would be far harder to be reached) by staying put and knocking on their door.

Equally, through seeing folk from within these communities come to faith, he realises that crossing a threshold of a church building for them, is about as foreign as most of us entering a hangout of a biking squad!  A different language is used.  Different topics of conversation.  Different ways of expressing themselves.  Different hobbies.  A different life.

Throughout the book, Sean tells heartwarming stories that honour the Lord Jesus, tell of his own struggles and provide the ways he has attempted to get round these “problems”.  What I thought at points was going to be a rant against institutionalised religion was actually very constructively put struggles, longings, and questions, with obvious attempts to take what was Scriptural about church life and apply it in his own context.  His ordination within Anglicanism and description of Zac’s Place services (that sound remarkably similar to many churches I know!), are obviously signs that in all his wrestling, he didn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, but has helpfully guided us step by step through how and why he has done everything he has done, with other people.

harley

Realising that even within the diverse biking communities, that God calls people to be church with far more than “people like us”, he shows a love for such diverse people that goes far beyond the biking community, overflowing into other “unlikelies” within society. but also through to those more typically associated with much of our middle-class evangelicalism too.

All in all, Sean paints a picture of church, that many across our cities would say “if all church were like this, I’d be there in a flash”.  But it’s a story that goes far beyond Sean, to other communities up and down the UK and beyond, all resembling warm communities that embrace the outsider, love the unlovely and are truly good news in motorbike form.

You may not agree with every minor way Sean takes his fresh expression of church-life (though do we ever agree with anyone fully?), but what this book will do, is warm your heart on the inside, by showing you an ordinary person, who was transformed and equipped by God to faithfully live out the ordinary command to love God and love your neighbour as yourself.

What marvelous ways God uses us in the world to do His works!  And what wonderful lessons we can all learn, from the easily-read pages in this book.  You don’t need to have interest in motorbikes to find principles that we do well to apply to any demographic of the population who would struggle to enter our church gatherings.

A Sunday afternoon reading, well spent.

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. 13 I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.

(Ephesians 3, outlining how such weak things as church to the human eye, are actually God’s chosen means to bring about His eternal purposes)

[I must confess being given an advance proof copy by SPCK of this book and asked to review it, although by no means am I expected to therefore give a favorable review]

Why can’t we be friends? Thoughts on travel and gender.

I walked into the hostel on yet another trip away from home.  This one was for choice, to see some friends who’d flown over from England.  But it was still a 6 hour round trip in the car for me, and so I’d decided to treat myself on my final day off of the year, and stay over in a hostel in the mountains and go running in the morning.

I walked in tired from the drive and sat down in the hostel foyer, where many others were lounging around, to watch something online on my laptop, and have a can of Beamish.  Half an hour later, and the chat was interesting enough around me that I joined in.

Soon I found myself chatting to a likeminded runner – an Aussie lass who’d come to the Wicklows to run and to hike with friends.  On hearing my intention to run in the morning before I set off for work, she said she’d join me, if we went early enough for her to join her friends hiking afterwards.  And so looking sceptically at my unopened second can of Beamish at my feet, she agreed a 6am start time with me.

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Glendalough from the hills (photo mine)

But it wasn’t me holding the morning up, and by ten past six, I not only was up, stretched and ready, but also had been the breakfast for hundreds of midges, that swarm the lakes of Glendalough at many times of year.  Soon, she joined me, and we set off, ready for 20km in the hills.

I love running.  Partly the freedom of being able to mentally escape.  Partly the endorphins making the rest of the day a happier one.  And partly the joy of the scenery around me and the fun of not having a care in the world.

And even better when you’ve someone to share that with.  We set off, happily chatting about everything and anything in life, from our stories, through to running chat and local tips.  There’s something about running side by side that always makes me open up to whoever I’m running with and be vulnerable with them.  And sure enough, throughout this chat, she shared of how she’d split up from her boyfriend a few months ago and how she was there to get away from life and see what’s next.  She was asking advice, I was sharing of my experiences in life, and we were both asking questions and sharing our life longings.  Would I like to come to her part of the country and run in the mountains near her?

Conversation never gets too deep before my answers generally intrigue people.  And so it was here.  She said she’d never met someone who was so free in life, and wanted to develop themselves and push their limits, but yet someone who kept on chatting about Jesus.

“Do you mind me asking?  You seem so liberal in many ways, and such fun.  But you keep mentioning this Jesus person as if you know him.  Which is different from all those religious people I’ve met before.  So do you still hold to all his conservative values?”

And with my answer barely off the tip of my tongue, she nodded, smiled at me, and then declared she was going to head back to the hostel and let me run on alone.  I wondered whether I could have answered any differently and kept a running buddy.  It amused me that the liberals of this world aren’t very liberal at all when they hear someone takes seriously a worldview that can’t imagine adhering to.

But the question was twofold.  Was it really me saying I wasn’t prepared to have sex that signalled the early end of our brief getting to know each other?  And regardless, should I even have put my tired self in the place of chatting away to a girl at 11pm at night, in a hostel space where both of us were anonymous?  And then to go running with her at 6am in the morning alone in the mountains?  Was I, despite my professed conservative ethics, secretly being motivated by a desire for her?

Such questions are not abstract theoretical ones, but ones that shape our every day lives in many circumstances.  Should we have lunch alone with that colleague?  Should we meet to study the Bible with people of the opposite gender?  Should we have close friends of the opposite gender, even when we’re married?  The list could go on.

It’s one that a lot of ink has been spilt on and causes inevitable stereotyping of the “other” side.  On one hand, a great desire for holiness, and an awareness that we live in a victim culture – what happens if that women had claimed I had done something to her up the mountains?  What if I’d been tired enough to forget the consequences and to have gotten off with her?  On the other hand, a wonderful modelling of the fact that we as renewed-hearted-believers, can have deep friendships with those of the opposite gender to us, that shape us, help us, and point us onwards to Jesus, without the least hint of a sexual nature.

And it’s not just theoretical.  One deacon at a church locally recently ran off with a woman alone, and threw the towel in with his faith.  Another church won’t employ single female workers incase their male workers “stumble”.

And that’s where two books I’ve recently read have been very helpful in helping me see that everything doesn’t have to be seen through Freud’s lenses of sexual desires and in fact, the church can be a place that walks free of constantly having to make boundaries and live in bubbles from each other.

Aimee Byrd’s book: Why can’t we be friends?

Joshua Jones’ book: Forbidden Friendships

Aimee Byrd

Aimee makes a persuasive case, for why we ought to be seeing our brothers and sisters in Christ as exactly that – brothers and sisters.  She digs deep into into how the answer to abuse scandals and #metoo culture of this day in age, is not separation, but wise engagement in meaningful and deep friendships.  She looks into scriptural examples, church history and much more, to find many including Jesus, who’d fall short of the modern evangelical boundaries set, where one can’t spend time with someone of the opposite sex.  She profoundly reflects on the depth of brother-sister bonds, and wonders where we’ll go in a same-sex attracted world….do we have to abandon all meaningful friendships regardless of gender, for fear of people misconstruing our friendship even between friends of the same gender?

 

Aimee’s writing is not for someone who wants a light read, but those who pick it up will plumb depths on the topic that I wish books like Vaughan Robert’s “True Friendship” could have at least skimmed.  She also perhaps doesn’t sit with the sceptic enough to convince those on the opposite extreme – as she will have found out in very public online critiques that have gone on.  But ultimately, I thought I was picking up something I wasn’t going to be challenged by, and instead I found myself stirred to appreciate new ways of looking at friendship, humbled by parts that made me weep in repentance for how I’ve acted towards women at times, and inspired to see far more depth to Biblical community that I’ve ever known before.  Forget reading another book on the sexual revolution, same-sex attraction, or similar topics: start here!

Aimee Byrd2But for those who might want an easier read that shows more awareness of sceptical thinking on this topic, you might be better heading over and picking up Josh’s book first.  He writes clearly, simply, engagingly and along the same lines.

More than that, I’ve seen him in action, and his life models a world that takes holiness seriously, while still discipling people of both genders in ways in a depth and maturity of faith and expression that isn’t often seen.

In a world obsessed by porn, which lets that shape hearts more than God’s word on the topic, it is not surprising that we’ve generated the culture of misunderstanding we have on this one.  But as Josh says, the answer isn’t in running to the opposite extreme, but by enjoying the good gift God has given us: friendship.

And where it has been lived out well, it’s ridiculously freeing.  No more wondering about the intentions of others.  No more having to constantly withdraw.  No more surface level Sunday post-church conversations.  Real community.

Pre-order “Travel: in Tandem with God’s Heart” today

 

 

 

 

The final manuscript has been sent off to the publisher, the printing will start soon, and come October, they’ll be making their way to a bookshop (or online retailer near you!).

For the cheapest price so far, you can pre-order it here (with free postage to the UK)

If you’re an Amazon junkie, it’s available through their normal pre-order system.

Or if you want it on the Publisher’s (IVP) website (free delivery if you buy a couple more to give to your avid travelling friends and family): click here

Finally, I’ll be touring Ireland (with a few UK stops too) with a “Travel Experience” event this academic year, so you can buy reduced price copies at all of these events.  Details tbc.

Here’s what others have been saying about it:

I have been travelling internationally for 45 years. I wish I’d been able to read this book years ago – it would certainly have made me travel more thoughtfully: it’s a travelogue; it’s theology; it’s cultural education; it’s mission challenge all rolled into one. A fascinating read.

– Peter Maiden, International Director Emeritus of Operation Mobilization and former Chairman of Keswick Ministries

Loved it! What a marvelous journey through the stories of Scripture (and the author’s life) that will challenge, encourage and widen your perspective, not only on travel, but also on the amazing One who created it all. In a world where it is easier than ever to work or study abroad, this book deserves to be widely read.

– Sinead Norman, International Student Ministry Administrator at International Fellowship of Evangelical Students

Peter Grier gives us excellent, fresh ideas for honouring God with our travels, and helps shape perspective on mission, tourism and the meaningful welcoming of international students.

– Alan Tower, National Director of Friends International
If you’d like to help me spread word about the book, host a “travel experience” evening to get people thinking about the topic, or have me to speak, I’d be delighted to consider any invitations.
Thanks in advance!  Happy reading!

Travelling “In Search of Ancient Roots” (Book Review, Stewart, Apollos Press)

On my annual leave this year I travelled to some of the ancient Christian sites of the Bible (in Athens) and of the early church (in Egypt and North Africa).  Experiencing such reminders of history, of the global Church and of ancient roots, was a powerful thing that got me thinking.  Is what I believe now, what they believed then?

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Reading this on Areopagus Hill, looking up at the Greek Acropolis.

Living in a fast changing, post-(Roman)-Catholic Ireland has its challenges.  I could imagine that when any culture comes out of a period living under a particular way of life, that it takes a while for people to stand on their own two feet and consider where they are going next.  All the energy was poured into divesting ourselves of the old way, without much thought to where we’ll go now.  And much as we like to think we’re rational creatures, always logically assessing what to believe and how to act, I think we’d be hard-pressed to paint that picture.

Some are very perceptive in that way.  One student who met me last year said

“I’m on my way to becoming an atheist.  That’s where I want to be, because of what I’ve experienced of the [Catholic] church, but I haven’t honestly done enough thinking to defend my position.”

And equally that’s what we find when we come to churches as well.  Thousands have decided that Catholicism is not for them but that they still find Jesus attractive and true, and want to worship Him.  And so how do they do that?  Well they start their own church.  And start it with everything that Catholicism was perceived not to be.

Was it perceived that Catholicism had too much structure?  Start a church that claims to have no structure and is just led by the Spirit!

Was it perceived that Catholicism didn’t allow room for questioning?  Start something where you can question everything.

Was it perceived that Catholicism had such a majestic view of God that you could never know Him?  Start something where Jesus is very personal and the intimacy of the Holy Spirit is emphasized in all the services.

Was it perceived that Catholic doctrines of infant baptism, the Mass and liturgy were too much like institutionalised religion?  Get back to the “early church” and have baptism upon belief, breaking of bread round meals and informal worship in houses.

And so that’s what we’ve had.  Tens of new churches popping up in this city, all who look to correct the ways of old.  Perhaps before moving on to say how this book is very helpful at speaking into that situation, we’d do well to note one final cultural thing that plays a great weight in this setting.

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Exploring what the ancient pillars of the Church were, and how to stay in line with them.

As individuals decide to start new churches (many claiming Divine mandates), many of them will refuse to look outside themselves to do it.  Traditional denominations like Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian and others are perceived as foreign (and in some cases, are culturally foreign, given most of their leaders are trained abroad in a very different culture and some struggle to differentiate between culture and gospel).  And so much of the resources in the English speaking world, do come from British culture (and America).  But partly because these cultures are different, and partly because we, as Irish people, have our hearts set against learning from those who ruled over us (whether perceived Catholicism or British rule), we struggle to do anything but experiment with our churches.  We would rather do this, and see what works in Ireland (pragmatism) than learn from others.

Now there are some advantages of this.  But also, we’ve hit some pretty major problems.

In our experimenting with claiming its the Holy Spirit who leads us (outside of human means), we’ve let church leaders get away with poor leadership, abuse and have seen churches where the priest-like-figure has just become another personality or extremely gifted individual.  Church discipline is no-where to be seen.

In our reacting to a system that struggled to allow room for questions, we threw the door open to everything and start to question everything without limit.  You’ll find some leaders who don’t think God is sovereign over the future, some who expect Heaven to be realised now on earth, some who claim to be above Doctrinal statements, some who think they have found the keys to reforming the church that no others have found before and others who think they can emphasize that God speaks to them in so many ways outside of scripture, that scripture takes a back seat.  Heresy is rife, and largely under the radar of most of us, who all see the great heart of those making such statements.

In our wanting to escape a picture of God as a grey haired old man in the sky, who had little to do with everyday life, we’ve sought to make God entirely comprehensible and relevant, bringing him down to our own image, worshipping Him as if He was our best mate sitting beside us at the GAA and shunning anything that seemed too grand or majestic.  That was the old way of life.  We’ve got a new covenant personal Jesus now.  The creator-creature distinction in our theology, that emphasized how “other” God is, how mysterious some of His being still is to us, and how above our way of thinking His purposes are, is now lost.  Every service, we have lost a sense of His majesty and our finite nature.  We are on the same plane, in a way we never ought to be.

Finally, in our desire to run from institutionalised sacraments, we have bolted to the only other extreme we thought there was.  Instead of saying baptism has some influence on our salvation (as Catholicism does), we declare it to just be an outward symbol for one service where we invite all our non-Christian mates in to hear our story.  Instead of receiving grace (for salvation) through the Mass (as Catholicism teaches), we abandon any relevance of the Lord’s Supper, pretend they are only symbols and even mull over whether they need to be bread and wine at all (why not baked beans and banana, in a meal together at home?).

Given we’ve come to this “reactionary Christianity”, it’s no surprise to me that many who seemingly came to faith are falling away from it, and that so many who abandoned the Roman Catholic Church actually come back to seeing its extreme advantages compared to the experimental fellowships they’ve encountered since.

To those who’ve encountered any element of this shallow “evangelicalism” (which I would argue is no evangelicalism at all), I can recommend reading Kenneth Stewart’s book “In Search of Ancient Roots”.

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Kenneth starts out by outlining the perceived beauty of a system (like Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy) that purports to believe the same thing throughout all ages, across all nations.

His main points in the book to me, were that:

  • such systems aren’t really as united as they appear at all, across all parts
  • such systems aren’t really united across history in what they have believed
  • there is great historicity in evangelical doctrine all the way from the early church

Now given how complex a topic this is, I’ll not delve into how well I fell Stewart makes his case here.  You can grab a coffee with me for that.  But it’s well worth the read, particularly for those of us in our Irish setting.  It does however, come with the warning that it’s not for the faint hearted.  It’s a meaty book with many a juicy morsel that will kickstart an interest for you in reading church history, if you haven’t ever had one before!  But don’t be put off.  Why not let it challenge you, let it raise questions for you, and let it provoke you to worship a God who has always been faithful throughout history, even (and especially) through a messy Church.  Why not grab a friend and read it together?

10 for travellers to read in 2018

I’m a big reader.  Partly because I do think readers are leaders.  You could spend worse time and money then learning from the best of thinkers and practitioners round the world.  And so here’s 10 (mostly recent publications) that I got for Christmas, that I think you might like!

Journey: an illustrated history of travel

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This coffee table book is a dream for the traveller!  Tracing the history of travel from several millennia ago, its pictures and bitesize format will lead to hours of fun facts and stories you may or may not know about travel.

For the more serious historian or reader, there’s enough to whet your appetite, and enough to send you off down a hundred other rabbit trails of things you want to investigate further.  At £25, it’s not cheap, but I intend it’ll get every pence of value sitting in my living room for others.

Is Shame Necessary? (Jennifer Jacquet)

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I’ve written before about how much of the world we see through our own cultural lenses.  Understanding shame/honour culture I think is key to understanding so much of history, world politics, religion and much more of personal interactions in our lives.  While those from such cultures will find this little book humorous and highly entertaining to see a westerner approach such a common sense topic (to you), it is however needed for us over here who have never thought the world could be seen that way!

The Strange Death of Europe (Douglas Murray)

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I was quite nervous of this treaty on immigration, identity and Islam, but it was recommended to me by those across a spectrum that I respected, and so I have started reading a book that appears to be a Conservative treatment on a topic I tend to take a more liberal stance on.  Whether Islam or secularism will dominate Europe in the decades to come will be a question that will not leave us for a while, and this, regardless of your opinion, is a well researched book.  Travelling Europe without thinking these questions could be blind travelling.  I can feel my pulse racing…

The Qur’an (Nicolai Sinai, Edinburgh Uni. Press)book4

A tsunami is coming!  After several hundred years of rigorous historical criticism of the Bible, this work has drawn together where we are with historical criticism of the Qur’an (just starting).  It’s a brave work to some extents, given what happens to those who suggest the Qur’an might not be the revealed message of Allah, but on other levels it will only be the start of fierce, western dragging of the text through critique in the decades to come.  I’m not sure how much westerners doing this, or how much us pretending Islam is a text-based religion will take affect, the way Biblical criticism did, but it’s a key read if you’re interested in the same discussion as the book above, or are travelling any Islamic state.

book5Zero Waste Home (Bea Johnson, Penguin)

Given the environmental impact on the world that travelling often makes, I would hope that most of us who travel, would be conscious of this, and looking to cut down our negative impact on the world, and on future generations (should there be future generations).  Bea Johnson is one of the leading voices over the years on cutting out waste from our lives, while still living normal lives.  I could imagine travellers will relate to her life of simplicity and absence of “stuff”.  The consequences are large enough, if put into action, that I’d suggest reading this one with a friend (to chat it through) or taking it slowly.  (And yes, I’m aware it’s ironic I’m buying a book on reducing waste…but I do want others to borrow it from my library, and that’s easier than Kindle!)

book6Cork Folk Tales (Kate Corkery)

Because every country/region has a rich story to tell, and folk tales are often what grab the imagination and help us see the mundane with a splash of colour.

Determined to Believe? (Prof John Lennox)

I’m a big Lennox fan.  I helped to organise his tour of Ireland recently, have sold hundreds of his books over the years.  Having said that, this looks like a polemic against a straw man Calvinism, veering many miles away from where Lennox is best: science (and faith).  I read it reluctantly while praying and longing for the day that the protestant/evangelical church will see that reformed/arminian distinctions don’t need to bitterly divide us.

“[insert Calvinism or Arminianism] will be the death of the church in [insert country/place]”.  No, no it won’t.  And if you think it will, your God is quite small.

JI Packer wrote a marvelous uniting book, speaking into a Christian Union situation in the UK that was divided on the topic.  I hope I’ve not judged this book by its cover.  Why for travellers?  Free will, determinism, compatibilism (and other variants) shape every culture, country, and thing that we do.  To understand culture well, you’d be wise to look at such questions, philosophical as they may be.

The Silk Roads (Peter Frankopan)book8

It was a bestseller of last year in many charts and one that is key reading to those who had western-centred history lessons.  “The region of the Silk Roads is obscure to many in the English-speaking world. Yet the region linking East with West is where civilization itself began, where the world’s great religions were born and took root, where goods were exchanged, and where languages, ideas and disease spread.”  Fascinating!  Things that will shape your travels in many places.

The Westminster Assembly (Robert Letham)

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Perhaps the most abstract and oldest on the list, I’m reading this to get my head around why the Church wrote some confessions of faith, what context they wrote them into and whether they are relevant for today.  Not inspiring to you?  Well stop just for one second.  We all have s system of beliefs, much as we like to say “I just believe the Bible and follow Jesus”.  The question is whether your system of beliefs matches what the weight of scripture teaches, freeing you to live in the best way in life: Jesus’ way?  I’ve found these truths to be invigorating in general life but also life-giving as I travel the globe, but am still wrestling with whether my reading of them was what the original authors had in mind!  If you’re not reformed in theology, I might suggest that you read up on it anyway, so that when you critique it, you’re reacting to the best of it, and not the worst.  A good rule anything you critique in 2018, in fact.

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Because Jesus has given me a love for all things, and my mother has given me a love for what she loves: birds.  And this book to identify ones will be fun when I’m walking the banks of the Lee in Cork, or travelling to far flung places with tropical birds.

But don’t be put off by long lists:

  1. Your passions will be different to mine – don’t feel constrained by what I like!
  2. One chapter a day will get you readings a huge number of books this year.  Build it into your routine, or grab others to discuss what you read.
  3. I’ve deliberately not mentioned all the regular books I read to warm my heart with the good news of Jesus.  I always try and prioritise Bible reading and these, over anything else I read.  Academic views will change, but the Word of God will never change.  However, these titles may help us better understand the Word of God.

Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures (Book review, IVP Academic, 2016)

I sat in the Christian Union (non-denominational campus ministry) missions committee meeting in my own house, just like every month of every semester.  But now, more than ever before, it all made sense.  This is why people were acting like this!

We had begun at 7pm with a meal.  I say “began” rather loosely.  Because at 7pm, the only one who’d shown up was the British student.  The Irish trundled in a little later, bringing a Germanic student with them (who didn’t know the way).  By 7.50pm, we were settling down to tea, coffee and dessert, and I was mightily impressed at how quickly things were moving.

Until the Germanic lady startled the room and drew everyone quiet:

“When are we starting the meeting?”

Many puzzled faces.

“I mean, I will have to leave soon” she said.

“When do you need to leave?” I asked.

“Uh, I guess pretty soon”.

And so with that knowledge, I “started” the meeting.  The fact that this was the first meeting of a committee, and that she didn’t know anyone yet, didn’t strike her as needing all this social faff before the meeting “proper”.  Nor did being in a culture that hugely values people, connections and relational life.

“Say who you are, what you study, where you’re from and why you wanted to be on the missions committee.”

And so we went round the room.  Much to the visible distress of the British, the answers to why they wanted to be on missions committee, were nothing to do with mission!

“I thought it’d be good craic” (x2)

“I wanted to be more involved in the community here in CU” (x3)

“Er, well, I think mission is great, and God has commanded it, so I want to reach the campus with the good news of Jesus” he said.

Silence.

Before the final person quickly took up the reins and said that they were there for the craic too.  Phew.  Awkward serious moment resolved.

Shortly afterwards, the Germanic lady got up and left.

“What was up with her?” said one of the Irish students, there for the craic.  “Is she not keen on this whole missions week thing?”


Culture is a baffling thing!  And the fact that the Bible was written by humans in a particular culture may not appear to immediately help the issue.  That evening to look at Acts 17, we first needed to see what culture the author was writing into.  Then from there, we needed to assess what culture we sit in, and then hardest of all, make the bridge from one culture to the other.

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The simplest of tasks like walking past a graveyard, becomes a complicated action when you’ve people from different cultural frameworks there!

The tricky thing about culture is that we all think we’re Biblical.  Because we read scripture through our own lenses.  Nigerians will always declare the Irish to not be passionate about faith at all (as you’ll see in this interview here).  British will always find the Irish not to be direct enough about an urgent proclamation of the gospel.  Americans will find the relational way of going about things to be the most unproductive, nepotistic way of doing life possible.  And those from Germany find the Irish to be quite two-faced…saying “yes” to things and yet not actually appearing to do them, or to turn up at all.

Are the Irish just a horrible bunch of people, in a culture seething with horrid practices?

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Because no Irish sign will ever directly tell you to do something….without at least making a joke about it.

Well, given I’m an Irishman writing this blog, I guess you may anticipate my response.  But this book (yes, we finally are getting to it), is one that will help anyone thinking through these questions or similar ones.

Jayson Georges and Mark D Baker play on years of experience of ministering within shame-honoUr (I insist on the proper spelling, sorry!) cultures.  The whole book is out to persuade us that there are 3 paradigms for culture:

  1. Fear and Power (Often thought to be African, animistic settings with witchdoctors)
  2. Shame and Honour (often considered to be Eastern settings)
  3. Guilt and Innocence (often considered to be Western settings)

And that none of them are “correct” or necessarily better than the other.  Here’s one chart to illustrate how we each think poorly about others who think differently:

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The book weaves in helpful stories from real life, solid handling of Biblical scriptures and texts, and very helpful nuances to their argument.  Here’s 3 things that I found helpful about that.

Firstly all their work was Biblical and opened my eyes (who has been theologically reading endless amounts) to new insights, fresh ways of thinking and things that warmed my heart about the God we serve.  Seeing outside of my own perspective is refreshing and paradigm shifting.  I’ll never be able to look back again.

Secondly their application to culture was very refreshing.  Their principles of what “shame/honour” culture looks like never stayed abstract.  They tell story after story of very helpful tales, all of which resounded with me and made sense.

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Up on top of a mountain with other international students, and I was interrupted by an Irish Aviation Authority tannoy system, telling us that the Gards had been called (in order to shame us into leaving).  The fact that the Gards had clearly not been called, is besides the point.

And thirdly, they always gave caveats to their arguments and never try and broad brushstroke everything.  Because “western” culture is not all guilt-innocence related.  In fact, in Ireland, according to those I’ve had do their test online here, Ireland is a good bit more shame orientated than guilt.  They also made the case that everyone will have some kind of mixture of values, and that it’s impossible to be all things to all men.  The more one delves into a particular framework and lives by it, the more alienating one will be to those of other cultures.  Try and stay separate from everything?  Impossible!  And you’ll only run the rick of not resonating with anyone.

This book is a fantastic point to delve deeper into this key topic, and those around me in Cork will know that it’s impacted me enough that they’ve had to endure me excitedly giving them a running commentary on culture in every gathering we’ve entered for the last few weeks.  However, if you’ve never thought about it before, this will be heavy going and you may prefer to start with reading chapter one, and then seeing for a few months whether you see what they’re talking about, as you look on life with others.