New for 2012…

Hello again!  It’s been a while, but I’ve had a lot going on that have taken me away from the online world.  If you think the blog has been underused, then my Twitter silence will have come as no surprise…

So what’s new for 2012:
- I’ve tried and failed as yet to get excited about the forthcoming London Olympics.  It might be the greatest show on earth but for me it’s a few months of transport hell;

- My newest novel attempt has reached 28,000 words. Please ask me more about this!

- We have a whole bundle of health issues going on chez Rose22joh, and are praying for a swift and happy resolution;

- I can blog about the EU again if I feel the need – and there’s a lot going on that could do with some reflection.

- I’m TIRED!

So voila: this year’s offerings are likely to be on writing, politics, parenting, faith and of course feminism. Probably.

And the fact that my New Year post is up before February? I’m counting that as a win!

Faith and feminism: comrades or conflict? Part 1


There was an interesting article in the Guardian last month showing that women that identified themselves as feminists were much less likely than women in general to identify themselves as belonging to a particular faith.  They were statistically more likely to identify as atheist or agnostic, and to be interested in female-centric paganism, or in alternative spirituality.

 

But the challenge put to me by feminist friends was how is it possible to be both feminist and Christian?  Or, as feminist writer Cath Elliott put it:

“Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.”

So an attempt at answering that challenge.  There’s so much to say on this issue there may need to be more than one post…

1) Do we have a common understanding of what feminism is?
It is fairly clear that Cath Elliott believes that third wave feminists should have no truck with religion.  This is an old argument, and there’s pages of resources which gives an idea of how long the place of women in Christianity has been under debate.

But feminism is not itself a faith system with a common set of beliefs.  Wikipedia defines feminism as:

“a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for women. Its concepts overlap with those of women’s rights. Much of feminism deals specifically with the problems women face in overcoming social barriers, but some feminists argue that gender equality implies a necessary liberation of both men and women from traditional cultural roles, and look at the problems men face as well”.

So far so good, right?  So let’s look at the definition of Christian feminism.
Christian feminism does not mean being Sarah Palin.  I promise.  It is one of the feminist movements covered in the definition above and looks at the position of men and women from a slightly different starting point, not just as individual units but as beings that find happiness in their relations with others, inherently equal but undeniably different, and that understanding this equality before God is essential to understanding our place in the world.

Essentially, as Helen LaKelly Hunt puts it, faith and feminism are “really different expressions of the same impulse to make life more whole“.
I don’t see these two approaches as being in conflict either, I don’t think Christian Feminism is an oxymoron, and I’ll attempt to explain why below.

2) “All religions oppress women”
This is the first challenge.  I can’t pretend to answer for all faiths – I’m a committed Christian and while I’ve looked at the other faiths because I’m interested in knowing more about what others believe, I can only answer as to why I don’t feel oppressed.

In many ways, the Christian faith as led by the church defines patriarchy. Indeed, the orthodox churches refer to their leaders as patriarchs!  But I’d argue that this was a reflection of the political period in which those structures developed rather than something naturally inherent in the message of Jesus Christ.

The slight cop-out answer, for me, comes from the fact of me being a protestant.  For me, the key is that Christianity is a relationship with God and not a religion.
The ceremonies, the churches’ structures, the stuff that is effectively man-made attempts to impose order – that’s religion.  I can see why you could criticise that.
We have women in leadership roles in my church, and I made the case for female bishops in a previous post and so I respect, but disagree with, the thoughtful considerations of other Christians that conclude that they do not believe there is a bible-based case for women in church leadership.  The message throughout the bible is that God created a perfect world, but that we humans use the free will he gave us and screw it up while he sends prophets and eventually his own son to try to help us get back on track.  I’d suggest that just possibly exclusion of women from positions of leadership in the church may be an element of that?

3) “The Christian message and the Feminist message are fundamentally incompatible”
The Christian message is simply this: we all try to be good.
But we do bad things.  Christians call it sin.
We reason with ourselves that probably most of them are not so bad, but these things separate us from God, who is all good and who cannot tolerate sin.
The price of this sin? Death – eternal separation from all goodness.
But it’s ok – God loves us and wants us to be happy with him.
So Jesus bridges the gap – he died when he didn’t deserve to and paid the price for all of us.  Accept that offer of Jesus, and be happy with God as he intended us to be, living in his kingdom.

Nowhere in that is there an exhortation to treat women as lesser beings.  Nowhere does it say that this is a message for men not women, that women are not equally called upon to be forgiven their sins and help make the world a better place.
So where’s the incompatibility?

I think this slightly depends on what you think the feminist message is.  For me, equality is at the heart of feminism: political, social and economic.  If, for you, the main thread is about sexual freedom, then you will see incompatibility.
But equality is also there in Christianity: equal access to all spiritual blessings through Jesus.
Throughout the bible it is the people that treat women as inferiors, not God.
God’s angels address women directly just as they do men, and when women are in a position to make a difference, while some are consorts like Esther, you also find queens in their own right like Deborah.
Jesus’s attitude to women was truly counter-cultural – we have forgotten just how shocking even talking to a woman publicly was.
And God used the women at the heart of Jesus’s group of followers for one of the most important roles at Easter – it was the women that found that Jesus was gone from and who came to tell the others, this critical role played by women at a time when in the temple courts a woman’s testimony counted for nothing (“Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Talmud, Sotah 19a)).
So equality before God?  Yes, it’s spelt out in the New Testament: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

And yet there is a conflict.  Jesus’s model for changing the world was that of serving others, serving God.
We can talk about rights, demand respect, argue about fairness, protest about a lack of political and business representation, but ultimately in a perfect world everyone, male and female, would seek the best way to serve each other rather than put each other down and get one over each other.  That’s real equality.
For me, feminism is a stepping stone in this imperfect society to build something a little closer to this, to help us to do the right thing.

Next time: sex, and women in society…

Questions of faith in adversity

Over on Facebook a friend from church had posted this video in which Martin Bashir (he of the Diana and Michael Jackson interviews in the 1990s who has all but disappeared from UK TV screens) interviews Rob Bell, pastor, author of “Velvet Elvis” and a controversial new book “Love Wins: a book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived” as it is known in the USA or “Love Wins: at the heart of life’s big questions” in the UK.

Ignoring the YouTube titling (Rob Bell does not squirm), the interview asks two important questions that beg further examination.
1) How can there be a God worth worshipping if he allows the sort of suffering we’re seeing in Japan?
2) Is Rob Bell sanitising Christianity’s message for modern tastes by suggesting that there’s every chance that God’s love will win people over after death?

On the first question, every time there is a huge tragedy that we cannot understand, Christians are challenged in this way:
Is God not powerful and therefore not able to intervene to save people from the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Christchurch earthquake in NZ, or the current Japan earthquake/tsunami/ nuclear radiation combination that has so far left half a million homeless, reportedly killed tens of thousands in minutes and destabilized nuclear power plants leading both to fears of radiation poisoning and fuel and power shortages?
Or, if we believe he is powerful enough to act, does he simply not care enough to do so?

This is not an easy thing to answer, particularly in the face of so much pain and suffering. Rob Bell’s answer – that God sheds a tear when we do was succinct, but not the whole picture.
And it is an old, old question. It is set out in the story of Job in the Old Testament – if God cares why doesn’t he DO something?

At the time of Job of course, given he was a good man and could not be blamed as his friends tried to for not being good enough or faithful enough, the only answer was to have God say did you make the world? Can you pretend to understand the how or why or rhyme or reason of the universe I’ve created? Trust that I have a plan only you can’t see the whole of it.
Christians have an additional answer, given Jesus is risen. The only answer I’ve seen that makes any sense is that of course he cares, so much he put himself as Jesus through one of the most horrible deaths imaginable. While this was for all of us so that our sins don’t separate us from God, it also means that the pain of losing a loved one horribly is a firsthand experience for God too.
So we pray, and there are many miracles even in the post-tsunami horror, but the world is not as God intended it to be. If he intervened on everything everywhere all the time we’d be no better than puppets with no free will to show that we’re worthy of the amazing life and gifts that he’s given us. So its our responsibility as his people to bring the comfort and support to others that we get from Jesus paying the price for our sin.

As for the second question, Rob Bell is being presented as a blasphemer in the press. To some degree Martin Bashir is right, if Bell is presenting a message of actually it doesn’t matter what anyone has believed in or done in life, even after death you still have a chance to be won over by God’s love then that is very much in tune with the anything goes modern world.
It’s also something called universalism, the idea that eventually all humans can or will be saved by Jesus and come to harmony in God’s Kingdom.

As ever, the presentation of Bell’s book in the press is a bit simplistic, the true picture looks to be far more interesting and the book worth reading. Belief.net has a neat little article on this, as well as a fantastic blogging columnist who has reviewed the book.
I’m summarising the four key points here:
1) Eternal life starts here on earth now – bringing about all the things we believe embody God’s Kingdom around us on earth (peace, love, health, comforting);
2) Love has to be free – we can choose to love, or not to, to be with God who is love or to separate ourselves from that;
3) Jesus was not plan B, he was always God’s plan to reconcile our fractured world with his perfection;
4) In paying the price for our sin, Jesus gives us all the chance of a fresh start, good news for everyone who ever was, is and will be. The Good News is that Love Wins.

The idea that God really does love everyone is surely the best news ever.  But is the idea that everyone will eventually choose him, even if its not in this life now, just a bit patronising towards those of other faiths or none who may have chosen their beliefs after learning out about the other ideas out there?
That said, you can’t help but admire Bell’s timing.  There must be millions of people out there who hope against hope that those swept away by the tsunami who had not heard about Jesus or who had not accepted his offer will still have the chance to find him.  I’m sure the book will be popular.
Maybe I will read this book – after all I loved the stream of consciousness approach of Velvet Elvis. But I might do so with my big book of Christian theology with me.
And will still pray for the people of Japan. You can donate to the Red Cross to help Japan here , or via Save the Children here.

SKYLINE or oh God, earth loses to the aliens

It’s not often I am moved to write a film review, but I had a chance to see a lot of films over Christmas what with all the flight time I racked up…

I saw lots of films I enjoyed (principally, it has to be admitted, cartoons as I was sitting next to my toddler and couldn’t watch things with too high a rating).
Scott Pilgrim vs the World” was sublime, laugh out loud funny and so clever.
The Social Network” is worth the Oscar nominations.
Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang” was make-you-cry feelgood at the end.
I want a “Despicable Me” minion.
My reaction to “Avatar” was “meh!” but I expect it is suboptimal on an aeroplane seat-sized screen rather than a giant 3D screen…

But the film I want to review is “Skyline“.
This $10m  alien invasion film (i.e. made for peanuts and with no big star – often the sort of film-making I like…) is the one that has affected me most, and mainly because I hated it.

I don’t mean I disliked it, or found it boring.  I actually hated it.

This is a bleak, doom-laden and ultimately depressing film.  It is impossible to write about it without spoilers, so consider yourselves warned…

We start in an apartment where a group of hungover friends are waking up.  One girl gets up and is sick – it is later established that she is pregnant.  Everyone is transfixed by a blue light – it’s so pretty, no one can resist looking.  But then it starts to suck them in…
And then we’re off into full-on alien invasion mode.
These alien things suck in everyone and come in varying sizes meaning they can get into houses or crush entire apartment blocks.
It has been pointed out in other reviews that the black character dies first – yes, and the character cheats on his girlfriend too as if that somehow makes it ok that he died, in comparison with the hero/ heroine couple who are going to have a baby.
The US airforce sends in a nuclear bomb – boom!
But the aliens are not destroyed and the havesting continues. Our heroes continue, despite radiation poisoning, to try to figure out a way to survive, but ultimately are taken by the alien harvesters.
But that’s not the end.
Ultimately everyone in the world is taken, alive, on board the alien ship, where their heads are ripped off and their still living brains used, Doctor Who Cyberman-style, to power new alien beings.
I’ll leave a mystery over the exact fate of the newly pregnant heroine and the hero, but suffice to say the only way of making a sequel is if the heroine survived nine months of pregnancy in alien hell and the foetus grows up to invent time travel and stop it happening.

And that, if you like, is my problem.  To me, there was no proper ending, just unending horror.
Some reviewers have praised this as “realistic”, or “refreshingly free from cheesy Hollywood feelgood”.

To me, it was evidence to me of how important it is to me to know that there after apocalypse there is redemption.
The longing for a happy ending is hard-wired into our society.  We want to know that wrongs will be righted, the evil to be punished and the good to be rewarded (even if we disagree on when, how and what exactly we mean by those concepts).
In the Strause brothers’ vision of the apocalypse there is no judgement, no fairness, no ultimate purpose to life.
Humankind has no value other than as fuel, and lives on only as the brainpower of another species.  And it is better – as demonstrated by the fat, bossy man (fat? Yep, in filmworld if he’s not funny, he’s going to die), to kill yourself than to be taken.  What kind of a world view is it where suicide is the best option?

Ultimately, in that vision of the world, there is no God.
Well, unless it is a vision of what happens during the book of Revelation, before all the 7-horned cows and whore of Babylon stuff.
But I don’t think He’s there in this story.  I don’t think he was even an afterthought.  This is an apocalypse with a nihilistic world view and a simple message.  We all die.  Earth loses to the aliens.

To people who think that religion is a crutch for those who need a fluffy bunny version of the world, I suggest you’ve not read Revelations – all those years of dreadful things happening that are mentioned there, and they don’t spell out clearly that believers will be spared from all the horrors.
(Well, pretribulationist Christians think it does, with the rapture lifting them up to meet Christ before it all kicks off, but that’s not the most commonly held position – and an atheist website offering to look after the pets of Christians taken away in the rapture neatly satirises this…).

The world of St John the Divine’s book of Revelation is not a cosy place.
Some have suggested that it has more than a touch of the magic mushroom about it.
Frankly, even if it’s an allegorical description, the sort of world described is all the worst of the world around us until the new heaven and the new earth.

But – and draw a deep breath – given I believe that Jesus is coming back, then I would still rather that the vision there is as it will be than subscribe to the world view that is so neatly encapsulated by “Skyline”.

But it’s not 0 stars for “Skyline”, it’s 1 star, and that’s because it made me think.

Total honesty? Discretion and life lessons…

From Wikileaks…

Oh dear Wikileaks.  I hope you realise what you’ve done.

There’s a lot of comments on the internet about “this is what the internet should be about” or “this is what openness and transparency should mean” or “this should be acceptable in a democracy“.
I couldn’t disagree more.

I’m going to try to look at what on Twitter is tagged #cablegate from a slightly different perspective.
Here’s four bits of private thought or private discussion to think about:

#1 “Um, is your mum really going out wearing that top?  It’s not her colour, I mean, seriously.  It brings out the red in her nose and makes it look like she’s been drinking.  The fabric clings to her sides and the pattern shows off the rolls of spare tyre fat.  She looks like a bulgy, drunken -thing- squeezed into your t-shirt, except she bought it for herself. So embarrassing”.

#2 “She smells. Again.  She’s our best friend – it’s always been all three of us together. We’re going to have to stage an intervention.  You’re going to have to say something, I mean.  It’s for her own good really – if we notice, presumably everyone does.  It’s not like she doesn’t wear deodorant, but ergh, she needs a stronger one or something. Foul”.

#3 “He hit me.  It was just once, really hard, on the back and he grabbed my wrists so I couldn’t hit him back so they hurt too.  He got too angry and just turned into some kind of monster.  A one-off strike.  He’s never done it before.  He’s never hit our daughter. I don’t think he would. But I never thought he’d actually hit me.  Should I walk out?”

#4 “He’s boring.  But Milly says if you want something from him just smile.  He probably doesn’t get many girls anywhere near him, I mean would you even talk to him if you didn’t have to? Yuck, he’d probably want to date you or something.  Gross.  But he does ‘get’ maths and I don’t want another D”.

No one ever said that humans are nice.

And knowing what to say publicly and what to say privately or not to say at all is part of the process of growing up.

Things have changed a bit even in my lifetime.
Two generations before me it was all stiff upper lips and keeping mum – well, it was a time of world war.  Then things loosened up a bit with the babyboomer generation, the not-at-all-threatening-nowadays Beatles and Rolling Stones, letting it all hang out Woodstock-style and talking about sex became the norm.  The yuppies made it less necessary to be discreet about money.
And now, so much of the time, anything goes.

The issue becomes how much of your life to live in public – with Facebook, Twitter and blogging, what do you say and what do you keep to yourself?
This is accompanied by increasingly candid celebrities – the Kerry Katona/ Katie Price self as a commodity measuring self-worth in column inches. Katie Price is of course also a very canny business woman and extracts a high price for this exposure.

The risk with such instant and compulsive access to broadcasting that we say it without thinking.  That can be a big mistake – your job can depend on you not saying the wrong thing.  Just because you can say something publicly, doesn’t mean it should be said publicly.

Take my (let’s be absolutely clear about this) fictional examples above.  In those situations:
- would the speaker be better off if the content was said publicly?
- would the subject of the discussion, in the terms discussed?
- would the world be a better place for it being said out loud in full hearing of the subject?

I don’t think that there’s a single example above where either party or the wider world would’ve derived benefit from those thoughts or private discussions being put out in the public domain.  I’d be interested to know what you think.

Clearly thinking horrible thoughts about your friend’s mum’s dress sense and actually saying it to your friend in those terms would be stupid – at the end of the day, “c’mon, she’s my mum, dude“. Even if the critique is true.

With the boyfriend that hit out in anger, the call is much harder.
Let’s be absolutely clear, one adult hitting another or a child is utterly, utterly unacceptable and should never, ever happen.
As ever life is a bit more complicated than that.  The problem here is what’s at stake for the parties involved.  It has clearly happened – but is it a one-off, or a slippery slope? Should it ever be spoken about, apart from to each other?  Is there counselling needed as a couple or anger management? What about praying together? Would raising it in public cause more problems than it solves? Or does no never mean that this violence should signal the end of the relationship? Would walking out at this point be sensible, or a serious overreaction?

Sometimes you need to be able to have a candid conversation in order to be able to handle a situation well.  Take the smelly friend – to me, it is clearly in her interests in the long run to know, but definitely in her interests that her friends get together in the short term to work out how to do so so that no hurtful language is used. Even if it feels a bit like talking behind her back – which of course is what they are doing even if they don’t mean it badly.
It is ok to think uncomplimentary things about friends sometimes – I’m particularly bad at washing up, and remembering birthdays and to phone people. I’d expect others to say this about me.  But not necessarily to me, thanks guys, behind my back but privately is just fine.

But what about getting the maths help from the geek you’d never go near unless you needed his help?
Leave aside that quite often the maths geek turns out in the long run to be the better sort of husband and the good looking, popular boys usually start to believe their own publicity and are less good to be around- no teenage girl really believes that, even with Glee on TV.
The reality of life is that often you do things that you might not otherwise do to advantage yourself because its expedient to do so.  You might even talk about it with your mates. It doesn’t make it the morally right thing to do.  But that often doesn’t stop you. And you can usually find a way to justify it to yourself.

Everyone has a nasty part of their mind.
(Oh yes, even Christians).
And sometimes we just go with it.
(It’s not hypocritical to acknowledge that, the whole point about being Christian is recognising your sin, knowing you’re flawed and seeking to overcome it, not do it again and be forgiven).

So how does this link to the Wikileaks release?
According to the Guardian:

Clinton led a frantic damage limitation exercise this weekend as Washington prepared foreign governments for the revelations, contacting leaders in Germany, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, France and Afghanistan.

The point about diplomacy is that, in order for positions to be informed ones, the type of thing that for an individual might be an inner monologue, or at a push a private conversation, needs to be discretely shared with others within an administration so that agreed internal positions can be found.
Then the right language can be found to achieve the right outcome.

For that reason, I am slightly amused by comments like “the next G20 is going to be soooo awkward“.   If so I guess that would be choice not necessity.  The point is that diplomacy is the art of moving from the raw approach to the smooth interface.  Seeing the furiously paddling legs of the swan may belie the graceful beast above the water but it is merely exposing the workings, not invalidating the whole bird.

Who gains from the Wikileaks cables release?
People who want to exploit divisions between friends, or those who wish to synthesise outrage in order to justify an action of their own.
Some will be genuinely offended, feel let down or angry.
Some will just be curious about the weird world of diplomatic communication.
Some in IT security will no doubt be expecting a call to beef up information protection.
But those that lose are the diplomatic and security personnel who have been compromised, the people who were discussed or quoted, the people who might now face personal danger as others “respond”, and the people who genuinely believe in more governmental openness and see this as a nail in its coffin because it so clearly shows that with great IT power appears to come great irresponsibility.
And if the middle east is destabilised, we all lose.

Are Wikileaks villains, misguided, or heroes of openness?  It’s up to you.
But for me, sometimes discretion is the better part of valour.

(image c/o http://www.essentialstyleformen.com/features/advice-discretion-is-key/)

Who knew about Christmas?

People have been wondering about Jesus and whether he was who he said he was (the Messiah), and did what he said he did (died for us, and rose again, to put us right with God), for more than two thousand years now – and millions have attempted to answer.

So how are we supposed to know?  Well, I’m leading at this weeks women’s home group, and we’re looking at the prophesies that Jesus fulfilled, starting with the ones relating to Christmas.

For me, faith-wise Christmas has never been as important to me as Easter, I mean, the rituals associated with an English Christmas are fabulous, but my faith does not hinge on the virgin birth and birth location of Bethlehem in the same way that it does on the crucifixion and resurrection.
And as a student of history and literature, I’m always sceptical about the accuracy of documents and the possibility of retrofitting to gloss over inconvenient details that don’t quite fit. Can we trust the source material?*
So looking at the Messiah prophesies for Christmas is a genuine journey of discovery, and not something I intend to just blindly accept.
However, after quite a lot of research I owe a great deal of thanks to “Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask About the Christian Faith” by Josh McDowell and Don Stewart (Tyndale House Publishers, 1980) as well as the various largely anonymous internet evangelists of all faiths and none.

Prophecy means a revelation from God, or “prediction of the future, made under divine inspiration”.  There are about 300 prophesies in the Old Testament, written between 1450 BC and 430 BC,  relating to an anointed one (the Hebrew word is Messiah).   According to Clarifying Christianity, readers of the texts in the ancient world knew that the Messiah:

would arrive in their future. The Messiah would “deliver” or “save” all the Jewish people, bringing them to paradise or heaven. These prophecies also stated that the Messiah would save all the other people in the world “through the Jews.” For this reason, people who are not Jewish need to learn about the Messiah, too”.

It’s worth noting that not everyone believes that the prohpesies were fulfilled by Jesus.  In fact, the religious leaders at the time said “woe to us, for the sceptre has been removed and the Messiah has not come!” (from the Talmud of the Babylon, Sanhedrin).

But the specific predictions that seem to relate to Jesus include the timing of his birth (before the Jewish people lost their sovereign power to the Romans when Archelaus took the throne of Israel; that he would be born in Bethlehem (a little insignificant place according to Micah 5:2) and that he would be born  to a virgin.  Eve was told that her descendant’s heel would be bitten by the serpent but that the serpent’s head would be crushed (Genesis 3:15). A child would be born “to us”: a wonderful counsellor, mighty God, eternal father, prince of peace (Isaiah 7: 10-16) – the now familiar words which must surely have seemed blasphemous. He would be born in Bethlehem to be a ruler in Israel, and to be the Ancient of Days (Micah 5:2) – a figure from the book of Daniel (Daniel 7:9, 13).  His coming would cause a massacre of Bethlehem’s children (Jeremiah 31:15).  He would travel to Egypt (Hosea 11:1), would live in Galilee (Isaiah 9:1) and Nazareth (Isaiah 11:1), he would be from the family of Israel’s great King David (2 Samuel 7:12-16, Psalms 89:3-4, Isaiah 9: 6-7); he would be announced by a herald (Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 3:1, 4:5), that his mission would include the gentiles (Isaiah 42: 1-4) and that his ministry would be one of healing (Isaiah 53:4).

I’m going to look particularly at Isaiah 7:14-16, Isaiah 9:1-8, Isaiah 40: 1-10 and Micah 5:2.

1) Born of a virgin (Isaiah 7: 13-16)

Isaiah was a prophet who lived between about 742BC and 722BC, in the kingdom of Judah, the southern part of Israel.  This was his first prophecy. The kingdom was under threat of invasion by the Assyrians (Rezin, King of Aram) and northern Israel had already signed an alliance to protect itself (King Pekah choosing to attack Judah in preference to being defeated by Assyria).  Isaiah’s message was that King Ahaz should avoid all entanglements with foreign powers, but the King did not want to hear it, nor would he agree to put God to the test.  He did not want to see God’s advice on what to do because he was afraid of the answer he might hear.  Despite all this, Isaiah delivered a message of comfort, reassurance, and of hope to come – any immediate ruination would eventually be undone, and nothing would be left of their attackers in just 65 years.

At first glance, there seems to be two key points of this passage: the virgin being with child, and that her son will be called “Immanuel”.
God was giving the sign King Ahaz needed, but not just for him but for all his descendants too.  And while some people thought that Isaiah’s own second son who was born soon afterwards would be the child to fulfil the prophecy, he was not virgin-born, nor did Isaiah name him Immanuel.
But that’s not Jesus’s name either (and actually Jesus appears to be a corruption of the name Yeshua!)   Immanuel means God with us – his nature and role rather than his specific name.  He is described as having to learn to take the good and refuse the evil – something Jesus clearly does in the desert…

But a virgin birth?  Protestant Christians and Muslims believe that this means a birth without male involvement – Roman Catholics and some Orthodox Christians believe this means that Mary remained a virgin even after giving birth. The virgin birth appears in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  There are a number of interesting questions – did Isaiah’s prophesy mean “young woman” or “woman who has never had sex” (NB both of these terms are used to describe Rebecca in the Old Testament)?  Was the birth of Jesus as written down based on the attestation of Mary and Joseph, or added by the authors of the gospels who were already aware of the Messiah prophesies?  Is it an allegory, comparable to that of God and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?  Is it simply following the pattern in the Old Testament of having miraculous births for prophets – just like the Pharaohs and Gods of the ancient world?  Were there anti-Jesus stories questioning his parentage at around the time that Matthew and Luke were written that they were addressing?  Paul’s writings can be interpreted as supporting either case.

According to “Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask About the Christian Faith“:

The Bible teaches that the Word who became flesh was with God from the beginning (John 1:1). The fact of the pre-existence of Christ is testified many times in the New Testament (John 8:58, Philipians 2:5–11, Colossians 1:15, 16).
When Jesus came into the world, he was not a newly created individual such as we are, but was the eternal Son of God. To be born into this world of the virgin Mary required divine intervention, and this is exactly what the Gospels record.
Another reason why Jesus needed to be virgin-born was because of His sinless nature. A basic New Testament teaching is that from the day He was born until the day He died, Jesus was without sin. To be a perfect sacrifice, He must Himself be perfect — without sin. Since our race is contaminated with sin, a miraculous entrance into the world would be required, hence the virgin birth.Moreover, if Jesus had been sired by Joseph, He would not have been able to claim legal rights to the throne of David. According to the prophecy of Jeremiah 22:28–30, there could be no king in Israel who was a descendant of King Jeconiah, and Matthew 1:12 relates that Joseph was from the line of Jeconiah. If Jesus had been fathered by Joseph, He could not rightly inherit the throne of David, since he was a relative of the cursed line.

2) Unto us a child is born (Isaiah 9:1-8)
So familiar from the Eleven Lessons and Carols “the people that walk in darkness have seen a great light”.
The prohetic language muddles the past, present and future.
The people referred to were two of the twelve tribes of Israel, but were only singled out as they had received the worst treatment from the Jewish inhabitants of the lands ruled by the king of Assyria (Israel and Judah), who was initially tolerant, but then rooted them out,and by Shalmaneser who captured Somalia and carried Israel into captivity. But hope was coming – in Galilee (which included a Gentile area in its north). The people had done nothing specific to bring this complete change of situation – it was to be God’s free gift.
Darkness means all the bad things they did as well as the misfortune in which they lived, as well as the feeling of being prisoners in a foreign land.
The multiplied nation was both Jews and Gentiles. A yoke was a heavy wooden frame to help carry a burden, the staff and the rod were for enforcing the burden carrying – God destroyed the weight of the burden through the Messiah, and in the fires, as effectively as he’d destroyed the Midianites with just 300 men. The biggest positive was that God appointed Gideon (a very unlikely hero) to free them (Isaiah seems to have been very affected by this and mentions it twice more!).

The child “born to us” that Isaiah speaks of, for Christians is clearly Jesus.  Being born as a child illustrates the humanity of the son of God.  But Jewish people at the time of Isaiah and Micah said that the description referred to Hezekiah, the then King of Israel. Although known as great and good, it seems odd that “Mighty God” could be ascribed to Hezekiah without claims of blasphemy!  God promised David the throne forever, but while Hezekiah managed it for about 29 years, in Jesus that is fulfilled.

3) Comfort for God’s people (Isaiah 40:1-10)

This passage seems to foreshadow John the Baptist. John the Baptist was in the wilderness, like the ancient custom of princes to send who sent pioneers  to prepare the way that they were to go (actually we still do this now).
“Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God…. that (their) iniquity has been removed…” (Isaiah 40:1,2). God is holy, pure and righteous. There must be payment made for our sin or we are lost. Jesus sacrificed Himself to atone for our sins. He became “the way” back to the Father (John 14:6).  God forgives on His terms, not ours. To reject the gospel is to reject God’s forgiveness. Man may try to reinvent a God who forgives through other means than faith in Christ, but in truth there is no other way (Acts 4:12; Acts 3:37,38).

4) Being born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2)

So why Bethlehem?  Why not Jerusalem, the holy city?
The location of the messiah’s birth was prophesied by Micah.  Like Isaiah, Micah was a prophet during the reigns of JothamAhaz, and Hezekiah, roughly 737–690 BC.  He’s considered one of the minor prophets, speaking out against the greed of the wealthy classes who grew rich by breaking the Jewish people’s Covenant with God.  He prophesied the return of the great ruler from Bethlehem and the peace that would come from this.

Matthew has the star (Numbers 24:17) stop in Bethlehem – not possible given the  distance of the stars, but possible if the sky worked like the ancients believed, with a firmament in which the stars hung.
Luke has a census require Joseph take his heavily pregnant wife hundreds of miles to register, at the Emperor Augustus’s request, in the town of his ancestor – possibly a misunderstanding of the scale or nature of census taking before 74AD by Vespasian and Titus.  But he was a historian – it seems unlikely he’d’ve mentioned a journey to Bethlehem unless something else had also mentioned it.

But while the line of David would be of no interest to the Romans, but the Romans would have left it up to the leadership of the regions to carry out the census. It is clear from various verses that Jewish customs were taken seriously when conducting Roman affairs. Pontious Pilate released a prisoner on the Passover, Herod was king & was an Edomite (from Esau) and did many things to please the Romans and the Jews to get what he wanted, there was still Jewish currency for temple and Roman currency for tax (e.g. Jewish currency wasn’t completely outlawed). So, although the Romans wouldn’t have cared about the line of David, the leadership would have probably used their knowledge of Jewish customs and culture to help run things as smoothly as possible.

By contrast, Matthew just seems to have the holy family living in Bethlehem for a bit.

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Ultimately, as someone put it to me “it doesn’t matter whether the snake talked, it’s what it said that matters”.

There are lots of people who claimed to be the Messiah or prophets – Jesus himself points this out (Matthew 7:15; Matthew 24:11; Matthew 24:23-25; Mark 13:21-23). But none of them fulfil even a fraction of the prophecies that Jesus did.
Fulfilling many of the prophecies is not something that an individual that can arrange for themselves, in advance.

And when neither John (the last gospel) nor Mark (the first gospel) mention the birth of Jesus at all – his mission and death being the main issues for believers and entirely in keeping with both Jewish traditional scripture style and explanation of the Jewish Messiah via the Greco-Roman tradition.

A merry Christmas to you all.

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*= Footnote:
When it comes to dating the New Testament books (our primary source of information about Christ), there are differences between conservative and liberal scholars but only in terms of decades, not centuries. For example, the conservative dating for the Gospel of Mark is between A.D. 50-60, with more liberal scholars placing it around A.D. 70. This is remarkable, when you consider that Jesus died somewhere around the year A.D. 30; these are authentic eyewitness accounts. Generally speaking, Paul’s letters were written between A.D. 50-66, the gospels between A.D. 50-70, with John’s gospel being written sometime around A.D. 80-90. If you can believe it, we actually have a fragment of John’s gospel dated just after the end of the first century.To discover the accuracy of copying for the New Testament material and see whether or not it has been “changed,” you have to look at two factors: One, the number of manuscripts existing today; and two, the time period between the original document and the earliest manuscripts still in existence today. The more manuscripts we have and the closer the manuscripts are to the original, the more we are able to determine where copyist errors happened and which copies reflect the original.

For example, the book Natural History, written by Pliny Secundus, has 7 manuscript copies with a 750-year gap between the earliest copy and the original text. The number two book in all of history in manuscript authority is The Iliad, written by Homer, which has 643 copies with a 400-year gap.

Now this is a little startling: the New Testament has currently 24,970 manuscript copies, completely towering over all other works of antiquity. In addition, we have one fragment of the New Testament (NT) with only a 50-year gap from the original, whole books with only a 100-year gap, and the whole NT with only a 225-250-year gap. I don’t think there is any question from all of these early copies that we know exactly what the original documents said.

The point of Christmas is…

This year I will be having Christmas in three major parts: once with my parents and enormously pregnant sibling (technically it’s his wife that’s pregnant but you know what I mean),  once with my in-laws and once with my husband’s sister’s family.

What’s Christmas about for me?
I always like “going home” for Christmas: the English winter, the prospect that there might be a light dusting of snow, the dark green pine tree with sparkly decorations, the sort of magic that candle flames and twinkling lights in the dark brings, midnight mass or the child-friendly crib service.
I love the food, the family traditions, and now I’m older and have my own child creating tradition of our own (we’re not big turkey fans, so working out what we want instead and getting it supplied locally is part of the fun).
TV seems to play quite a major role too – not so much the Queen’s speech any more, but certainly Doctor Who or Wallace and Gromit on Christmas day. And now my son’s a bit bigger, the post dinner walk is a bit more important for all of us – we can walk off dinner and he can burn off a bit of energy.

But it’s the Christmas service at church that’s so beautiful and so essentially part of the whole thing for me.  As a regular churchgoer, I’m representative of over half of the UK population in terms of my faith (according to Tearfund in 2007), with 7.9 million attending church monthly and 4.9 million weekly (of which about 1.1 million are for my particular denomination).
The numbers shoot up at Christmas – those with a negative agenda on this will call this “cultural Christianity” and say that those people don’t count or should describe themselves as not Christian in the 2011 Census count, but frankly I’m pleased to see anyone that wants to be there and if they want to self-define as Christian that is surely their business and not that of the BHA.

Children and Christmas
What about children’s perceptions of Christmas?   With the church-going caveat firmly in my mind, I asked my toddler what was special about Christmas.
“It my birthday!” he said.
No, sweetie, you’ve had your birthday.
“It Jesus birthday… but I get presents”, he said, unprompted.
I quizzed him a bit more.  Apparently he wants to see his grandparents and his cousins, but Father Christmas is a character on Peppa Pig.  He’s quite excited about carrying a candle in the church too.

Is he typical?  Well, in 2006 there was some research done (and admittedly with older children), handily put in one place on the internet by the Evangelical Alliance which showed that not all children see Christmas time as a wholly positive experience:

Reported in the Daily Mail 19 December 2006

  • 44% of 7-11 year-olds regarded Christmas day as a celebration of the birth of Jesus – although in Northern Ireland the figure rose to 71%.
  • Although 89% were excited, and 79% were happy about the holiday period, one in six said they felt sad, nervous or left out at Christmas.
  • Perhaps not so surprisingly, one in four (24%) believed the season was about giving, rather than receiving, presents.
  • Giving clearly matters, however, with almost two-thirds (63%) saving their pocket money to buy presents, adding up to an average piggy-bank of £34. 33% nationally and 45% in Scotland managed to save more than £50

What other sorts of Christmas are there?
So what’s the point of a secular Christmas? It seems pretty much that Christmas just becomes an occasion to get together with family or friends,  give them gifts to show you love them, eat food and keep warm and have light in an otherwise pretty depressing time of year.
That was certainly the message from last year’s intro sequence to the Doctor Who Christmas special…
It’s also the message from endless American movies about the true meaning of Christmas.

Well, that’s lovely.

I just wonder whether, if you don’t go to church because you explicitly reject the Christ bit of Christmas, whether you reject the non-christian but religious-routed elements too?
The pagan festival of Yule falls on 21 December, celebrating the return of the light after the shortest day of the year (celebrating the rebirth of the sun, not the sun, as one wiccan put it), with the similar festival for Mithras, Roman god of light, on 25 December.
Wiccans use oak and holly to represent the summer and winter (think about the Christmas song “The Holly and the Ivy” and the traditional yule log – which was a big bit of oak and not a chocolate swiss roll in years gone by). Feasting and giving gifts was a tradition of Saturnalia (the Roman festival on 17 December).
The good news is that mice pies should still be available to you – they seem to originate with Henry V, and Christmas pudding too seems to be without religious significance.
Is that all there is to Christmas?
Ok, so there’s a bunch of traditions and a chance to catch up with family.  Is that it?
Or, how does the story of a baby born over 2000 years ago in a backwater of the Roman empire relate to any of this?
Tell you what, rather than me write it all out here, here’s a fantastic idea… the Natwivity!

The art of storytelling has been part of the church since it all began, so think of the Natwivity as a Nativity play for the Internet generation.  Put it this way – if you’re the sort of person to read blogs, then you might also be onFacebook, or on Twitter.
The press release tells me that “the Natwivity takes advantage of social media’s unparalleled capacity to engage people as they go about their everyday life to re-tell the Christmas story in a fresh, personal way. It is possible to follow on Twitter and Facebook and you’ll be able to pick up the ‘tweets’ at home, in the high street on your phone and at work”.

I’m really looking forward to it – the point about using 140 character tweets is that there should be an immediate, real-life feel.
Each day from throughout Advent (1st December to Christmas Day), different members of the cast will tweet a140-character update. They include Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the three wise men and King Herod.

By reading these daily tweets, followers can learn more about each character’s thoughts and feelings, from Mary’s angst as she rides on a donkey over the hills of Bethlehem right through to the night the shepherd’s saw their familiar hills illuminated by an angelic host.

So if you were wondering at all about the Christ in Christmas, or just feel nostalgic for the primary school Christmas play where you only got to be Third Shepherd or a non-speaking Angel, why not follow @natwivity on Twitter, or “like” www.facebook.com/natwivity.

And Merry Christmas!
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Natwivity is hosted by the award-winning team (Jerusalem Awards) behindEasterLIVE, a similar project last Easter; Share Creative and the Evangelical Alliance.

2 minutes with the Archbishop of Canterbury… and a helium balloon


“Archbishop of Canterbury is thoroughly nice bloke” – that’s the headline my husband suggested. But mine says what it is I want to tell you about…

Today was Back to Church Sunday.  Our church celebrated this not only by having Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, there for the services in both of the parish churches (a formal service and a more freewheeling one), but also by all having lunch together.
I had something specific I wanted to ask the Archbishop, which I’ll tell you about in a minute.

The Archbishop did both a talk with the children, and a sermon today. The children all had a sheep to hold, and the Archbishop explained that the staff he had with him was a real old Kentish shepherd’s crook.  Given what happened later, I think this made a bit of an impression on the kids.  He answered questions about going to church when he was young, and what life had been like growing up (tin baths in front of the fire, apparently).
The really nice bit was that, as the children had all gathered on a mat at the front, he went and sat on the floor with them.  I noticed that, similarly, when doing communion, he bent down to each child’s level to do their blessings.  It was a great reminder that being head of the Anglican church nevertheless puts you on a level equivalent to a child in the eyes of God.

The sermon we heard (and apparently there was a different one at each service) was on the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16, 19-31).  This is a great subject for any newcomers service (the other good one is Acts 8, Philip and the Ethiopian with it’s message “how can I know what its all about if no one explains it to me”?)  The story of the little girl who told her mum that the Optician of Wales had been to her school triggered a great sermon on helping people to see, to see time at church as honest time in which we confess our sins but also celebrate how God sees us, with unconditional love.

When the service ended, we all helped put up tables and move the chairs to make a dining hall.  A posse of helpers had baked potatoes, made bolognese, grated cheese and provided great vats of baked beans and coleslaw.  We had all also brought desserts to share.
The Archbishop did not spend his time just talking to our minister.  Instead, he made his way around the room, firstly meeting all the people who’d stayed for coffee but not staying for food, then round to each table, joining us and chatting with us.  This was done gently, without entourage (he brounght a “minder” with him, basically like a Minister bringing a private secretary – or a Camerlengo to the pope?), and without formality.  He moved around seemingly at random, but clearly trying to see everyone.
When he came to our table, we were all ready to talk to him, but right at that moment, our vicar and a woman in a pink jacket came over – the Archbishop’s visit had been filmed, not just to go on the church website (as I’d assumed) but for Back to Church Sunday, to be shown in other churches. As recent arrivals, would we mind talking about it?  Of course we were happy to do so, but part of me was thinking, well that’s our chance to talk to him gone.   And when we’d filmed our segment, the Archbishop was asked to go and film a segment.

Someone at the church had provided some large silver helium balloons for the service spelling out WELCOME.  After the meal, some of the children were playing with them, and somehow the L had become separated from its weight and had floated up to the high village hall ceiling.  The children tried to use the O balloon to lasso the string of the L but even though the O could reach it, there was not enough tension in the string to bring the balloon down.  The the vicar’s daughter had a bright idea – the Archbishop’s shepherd’s crook!
Although they tried and tried, standing on a chair, the kids couldn’t get the hook to twist around the string and rescue the balloon.  Then one of the church team arrived with sticky tape.  They coated the top of the crook with it, and on tiptoe on a chair, the balloon was finally rescued.  The whole room applauded.

I started to take some pictures – and in the last photo , I realised the Archbishop had sneaked into the background – he’d come to see what was happening and congratulated the kids – nothing wrong with the flock borrowing the crook and all working together to solve a problem.  I’m sure there’s a metaphor there somewhere…

Which meant that, thanks to wanting to record this for my blog, I actually got two minutes with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I talked about this blog and the other things I do online talking about faith issues and in particular the discussions I have with those of no faith.  I asked ths:  I talk about personal experience of God in our lives, and that if Jesus rose again then everything else is interesting but ultimately we need to take seriously what he said and live it… but what other message should I have for you?

The Archbishop said this: the incredible value of each individual.
This is what we learn from Jesus – how much we are loved by God, and the value we place on each human life.  There are and have already been people in this world who don’t value people this way, but we feel this is wrong. It is through seeing ourselves through God’s eyes that we understand why we feel it is wrong.

Thinking about this more, this is like the argument that our morals and values must come from somewhere – why is it that, underneath our own interests, our greed, that we instinctively know that equality and fairness matters?  Why do we sometimes feel that the right thing to do is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends?
And all the psychological, biological, genetic, historical efforts going into trying to prove that altruism and ultimately self-sacrifice is not a betrayal of selfish genes but somehow good but without a God dimension… this pales into insignificance when you realise that we know this because. for a moment we see ourselves through God’s eyes and realise how life changing it is to see others in this way too.
How can you not give to the flood victims in Pakistan, send clothes for the deported Roma, visit your neighbour you’ve not seen around lately, buy a coffee for your collague that’s having a tough time when you realise that God sees them as just as important as the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Without that sense that each individual should be prized, we are no better than the rich man ignoring Lazarus starving at his gate. And as Jesus has the rich man in his parable say, if we don’t realise it now from all the words from everything that we’ve been told, then we won’t believe it no matter who tells us, not even if someone were to rise from the dead.

Re-Hawking an old idea

Did the universe as we know it merely come into being by itself from a quantum-level change in an existing one?

I’ve been putting off blogging about Stephen Hawking and God.  Mainly this is because I feel that the latest pronouncements splashed across the front page of the Times last week (no link as I don’t want you to have to pay News Corp a pound to read it) were more about stirring controversy to increase book sales than any new ideas on where and how God “fits in” with the universe.

Of course, by ignoring the story for a while I’ve been able to read a lot of the excellent and not so excellent commentary.  The Church Mouse blog was among the best of the religious responses, pointing out that:

What I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn’t prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary. [Stephen W. Hawking, Der Spiegel, 1989]

Compare the quote from 1989 with the one which has caused the headlines today:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

If anyone can spot a difference, please let Mouse know.

To those of us that are sci fi fans, the multiworlds model which Hawking cited alongside laws such as gravity as making God “unnecessary” is familiar.  Basically the idea is that for every “decision” at a quantum level, a parallel universe is created in which the other “decision” was taken.

It features in Doctor Who – not just in the obvious case of “Pete’s World” where the cybermen come from, but also in multiple explanations of things going on (Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant’s doctors both use it as an explanation – the tenth doctor refers to it in the episode “School Reunion”).  Terry Pratchett’s famous “trousers of time” is another example this theory being used in a really understandable manner.

I’m not going to take on Hawking on the physics.  As the Church Mouse says: “if you try to claim you know more about the science of creation and the big bang you will instantly make yourself a laughing stock.  And nothing that Hawking has said rules out the possibility of God“.
It is that latter part that I think merits a bit more thought.

Of course, if it is taking the decision (consciously or quantum-ly) that creates the new world, then Hawking has a point – it does indicate that a creator god would not be needed to make each parallel world just pop into existence – infinite, multiple worlds spinning off through all time and space of a multiverse.  And getting your head around this is not easy. It slightly makes me think of another Terry Pratchett quote: “Nothing good ever follows the word multiple” (Guards! Guards!)

The responses from the religious community, at least the less fundamentalist parts of it, has been relatively measured.  Most follow the Church Mouse’s rule.  Most also pointed out that while theories of how the universe came into being were interesting, they did nothing to answer the fundamental question of “why” it came into being.
The Daily Mail (I know, rare for me to comment on their more sober reporting) quoted:

Dr Williams said: ‘Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the universe.’

He told The Times: ‘It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence. Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.’

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and one of Britain’s top imams also joined the condemnation. Lord Sacks said: ‘Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation… The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the universe came into being.’

And the apparent head of the religion of atheism, Richard Dawkins, was quick to embrace Hawking as one of his kind of people.  Many comments abounded in the blogosphere, probably not direct from the man himself, saying that just as evolution left no space for God in biology, Hawking left no space for God in physics.

Dawkins did say in the Times that asking “why?” was nonsensical and that “stupid questions” did not deserve to get answers.

Interesting – the entire spirit of scientific inquiry is on the basis of asking “why” such-and-such is and trying to find the mechanics behind it.
Ah, but then this is metaphysics, not physics, and because it is unprovable and therefore cannot be tested by scientific means, the question is outside the self-defined belief system that says that science is all, and therefore not a valid one…
Um, am I alone in thinking that Dawkins’ atheism is not just about following Darwin’s principles but fast becoming a science-based faith in its own right…

“God is a delusion. … Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain. An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles – except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand.” (Introduction to “The God Delusion”).

(another tenet of this belief: knowledge at present is ok until a better theory is available and a theory to explain each thing and everything will eventually be found)?

But I digress.
If what you believe in is a “God of the Gaps“, that God is the explanation until each gap is filled in with a plausible scientific explanation, then perhaps Hawking’s bid to increase his book sales is problematic.But it seems to me that the answer “it can and inevitably does create itself” is unsatisfactory.  From what?  Where did those things come from?

By answering the question of where did everything come from with what seems to be “it has always been something”, we are essentially opening ourselves up to a broader question: yes, the universe as we know it may be the inevitable result from a decision taken somewhere in a parallel universe probably at a quantum level and therefore may have been spontaneously created but how did it all get going in the first place?
After all our observations are that there are patterns of apparently infinite complexity (such as never-ending fractals) but is it reasonable to conclude that they have just “always been” or “just are”?
We’re trying to answer the idea that “something came from nothing” (ex nihilo creation) by saying that what we have always thought of as the beginning point isn’t.  So where did what spontaneously created itself come from?
God is of course the Occam’s Razor explanation for all of this…
But now I’m in danger of straying into the territory that the Church Mouse wisely recommended steering clear of…

So where do we go from here?As I’ve said in previous posts where we go from here comes back to the person of Jesus – if he was who he said he was, and did what we think he did, then all of this discussion is so much ephemera, an interesting diversion on God’s tools when we should be living better, supporting the poor and needy and building our relationship with God through prayer, praise and celebration.
The bible does not use scientific language or mathematics to describe how God made everything, and does not take a view on cosmology, life on other planets (all God’s children too?) etc. etc.
We shouldn’t expected it to- it is after all primarily the story and user’s manual for God’s relationship with his chosen people that turns out to be all of us – and Jesus seems to have had more personal, pressing priorities to communicate concerning something that Richard Dawkins does not actually believe exists: our souls.

A final thought: in other scientific spheres, the ideas of science fiction have so captured the imagination that we have Star Trek communicators in our pockets, and I look forward to the pain-free instant surgical laser of Star Trek: The Next Generation or any of the time travel or teleportation devices we see (but note the warnings on these technologies that sci fi also holds…).
Ideas of good science fiction always inspire, helping us to find the room to adapt for usefulness and become science-fact.
But I’m afraid most of us will have no idea what Professor Hawking’s maths equations that show the possibility of the multiverse that leaves no space for God actually mean and whether he’s right, and I’m struggling to see how they can be adapted for the good of everything except for further development of scientific atheism’s faith position.  But perhaps that’s not the point.
But then, to paraphrase the Times editorial, if we were to know “how God did it”, Stephen Hawking is one of the very few people on earth that would understand how it was done.

Good night, and God bless

Burka bans, Brussels and bended knees


…the niqab is a feminist dilemma… and a European one…

Eurogoblin today reported that the three Presidents of the EU – Council President Van Rompuy, Commission President Barroso and Parliament President Buzek met with religious leaders from across Europe to discuss poverty and social inclusion.


Image of leaders family photo from Flickr under Creative Commons licence

What’s faith got to do with poverty and social exclusion?
While it is possible to argue that it should be the duty of all to mitigate against poverty and social exclusion, we have a choice.
Either, we say that the state should provide and by means of “fairer” or “progressive” taxation that can be spent for the good of all.
Or we say that the Big Society will provide, because as responsible citizens we should rail against and commit ourselves to the fight against poverty and social exclusion.
In most Member States the reality is somewhere between the two – the state takes some tax from us in the name of that purpose, but as it is not hypothecated we’ve no idea what percentage actually goes on these projects locally, regionally, nationally.  All we do know is that a huge number of people are homeless or do not feel themselves to be part of the wider community.
And the reality is that it is often faith groups that step into the breech.

Let me give you a small and very parochial example.
I’ve spent today at the Rare Breeds Centre – a kind of farm zoo and current home of the Tamworth Two.
This was the Ashford Baptist Church toddler group outing.  Some anonymous donations via the church and lift-sharing arranged by the ladies from the church who run the toddler group made it possible for a big group of us to go out for the day, with our packed lunches and have fun playing at the farm without having to pay for anything.
Now this may not sound like much, but the majority of people there don’t have holidays, don’t go for days out because incomes are low and costs when several children are involved just aren’t compatible.

In fact, most of the toddler groups in Ashford town centre are run by faith groups – not religious, in that we don’t require membership of a church to attend and we don’t “spout religion” at people who come.
But we do use the church hall, the organisers tend to be from one church or another and the children’s holiday club which is based around bible stories is advertised.  There’s no obligation to attend that either.  I don’t actually attend the church that runs this toddler group but I do approve of its open, inclusive approach and that it genuinely welcomes everyone, of all faiths and none.
There is a non-religious Sure Start centre, and a toddler group was started that declared that it was “an alternative to all the church-based play groups” but I can no longer find any details about it online.  The situation is a little different for play schools for pre-schoolers, not least because 12-15 hours worth of state funding is available.

That’s not to mention the soup kitchens, the event organisation, the small but helpful charitable efforts  that almost go unnoticed generally but help to keep heads above water.
So in these ways, we try to help with the physical needs of those around us.  Jesus commands us to this  - give him that asks of us our coats our shirts also.  There’s no sin in being poor – although the comments about workhouses etc. on the government’s spending cuts website suggests that some people today feel there should be.
Jesus also spends a lot of the sermon on the mount talking about the poor being blessed, the meek inheriting the Earth, everybody selling their possessions, and rich men having less than a camel-through-a-needle’s chance of entering Heaven…  Oh and for more on “the poor will always be with you”, see this link.

But surely it’s not just Christians that do this?
Of course not.  It is just noticably Christian-dominated around here – one of the things we noticed on moving here was the huge number of churches.  I’m sure in other areas of the country there are thriving synagogue toddler groups, muslim women’s get-togethers and more.

I know that charitable works are a requirement of some faiths, and that performing them is not only good for the individual but also good for the community.

But please don’t think that Christians do these things in some kind of effort to earn their place in heaven.  If you read the Bible, we don’t have seven things we have to do to (nor do we have to follow the rules of the old covenant in Leviticus), that just not the Christian position.
While some parts of the church have attempted to create structures and rules to make it easier to understand actually reading the New Testament shows how hard Jesus and the early Christians worked to say – no, that’s not ever going to be enough, God forgives you, accept it and that’s it.
And so when it comes to charity, we do these things because God himself has paid the price for the sins we have commited and we want to praise him and make his world a bit better.  going to church reminds us of this, because just like everyone else we find it hard to find time and hard to feel motivated all the time.

But you don’t have to be a person of faith to do this?
Of course not.  Humanism is after all placing the human at the centre where others place God.  But it is humankind and not the self that needs to be the centre.
And if it is hard to feel motivated without external help as a person of faith, imagine the sheer bloody self-motivation required to do it without and keep it on track and not self-serving.  It would take a stronger person than me to do that.

Is there a place for faith in the EU?
But I digress.
Does religion have a place in the EU?  Indubitably.

Look at the fuss about the Constitutional Treaty and whether there should be a reference to religion within it.

One religion?  It is indisputable that the present Europe was shaped by the Christian faith, Catholic and Protestant, and also by the enlightenment and the freedom to question (itself part of the true nature of protestantism) from which modern atheism takes its roots.

But even as a practicing Christian I’m still not sure that the Constitutional Treaty should have had a reference to this (and at the end, the Lisbon Treaty doesn’t).

I don’t think that we can always claim that all decisions taken in a state can truly reflect the ethos on which the state evolved.  To claim that we do everything in the EU on the basis of our faith/ faiths is to deny the nature of compromise by which decision-making to cover many conflicting and competing interests take place.  While it’d be great to think that all the politicians and policymakers were doing as Mark Greene suggests and remembering in their work that they are a “might policymaker for God”, I’m pretty clear that the UK expenses scandal shows that it is all too easy to forget how to do the right thing.

But the future of Europe looks multifaith rather than secular.
For all that we might try to draft rules of public engagement that exclude religion, that we might ban people in public office from actually mentioning the thing that shapes, inspires and drives them, most people across the EU have some sort of belief.
This may be in something ranging from “spirituality” and the supernatural, through humanism to the deification of science or money, to agnosticism, deism, right through to following an established faith.
Human beings bend at the knee.  This is not a design flaw.
How on earth can we expect decent policymaking if asking people to deny their fundamental belief systems?

And that brings me to the burka question…

Should women in the EU wear the niqab or the burka?

This is a European question in the sense that it is currently being asked all over Europe.

As Eurogoblin pointed out, the recent burqa ban overwhelmingly passed by the French parliament last week (335 votes to 1).
The Belgian lower house voted on a ban in April 2010 (note the handy BBC guide to different veils.
The Dutch were debating this as far back as 2006.
The Spanish parliament is also likely to start debating their own burqa ban this week.

And the UK? Immigration Minister Damian Green has said that any ban on religious clothing would be awfully “un-British”.  And he’s right.
Freedom of the individual is a very British concept and the idea that a woman might be fined as in the Netherlands for wearing something expressing their religion is distasteful.
I’m not sure I’d want to live in a UK that imposed on me whether or not I could wear a sign of my faith outwardly, and if this is a move away from the mealy mouthed illiberalism that clamped down on it through uniform policy, sudden changes to health and safety policy and statements from the NSS.
Besides, have you been to the West End in London?  This particular Nation of Shopkeepers could find itself hit in the profits if rich middle eatern visitors could not dress as the wish to shop.

So there’s no common approach.

Is the burka ban a European issue?  It seems Vivianne Reding thinks not – I hear that when asked about it, she said that this was an issue for national governments and not something that she would touch with a bargepole.

But as the Commissioner for women and equality (and fundamental rights, and justice), Commissioner Reding also needs to think about the burka as a feminist issue.
And that’s a dilemma.
On the one hand, equal rights means the right not to be subjected to men’s control, nor objectified.  Women should be able to work – or not to work – as much as they like, and so should men.  They should be able to dress as they want to dress…
Ah.
Because what if a woman want to celebrate her faith and her devotion to her God by wearing a headscarf, a veil, a chador, burka, hijab, niqab etc. ?
What if she’s not being oppressed into it by bullying male members of her family or her husband but has chosen freely and in full knowledge of the implications of what she is doing both religious and worldly to separate herself from the world?
Surely fighting for a woman’s right to self-determinism extends to her right to cover up if she wishes too?

So these are hugely tricky issues.  But we don’t live in the lyrics of “Imagine”, we live in the real world in all its messy, diverse glory.
God inspired, uplifts and makes us more than we can be by ourselves.  Europe needs that to flourish, no matter what flavour that inspiration is.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.