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?

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.