Should we be racing to Dubai?

From John Arlidge in the Sunday Times Magazine

What’s the most popular place on the planet …? Is it somewhere old, say, the Taj Mahal or the pyramids? Somewhere hedonistic, such as Las Vegas? Somewhere for the family, maybe Disneyland? or one of the natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon or Uluru?

The best place in the world is only five years old. It has no natural beauty. It is a giant, dirty grey shed in a sun-scorched sandpit in what used to be the middle of nowhere. It has no culture, no depth. But more people go there than anywhere else on the planet – almost 80m in the past 12 months.

That’s 17m more that the population of Britain and more than the number who go to the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls and Disney World in Florida combined.

What is this wondrous place? – The DUBAI MALL.

This is the mother of all Malls: 14 miles of shop fronts, 1,200 shops, 6m sq ft of floor space, income of over £3bn annually and sales rising by 20% per year.

The mall is a vast underground bunker: a refuge of consumer heaven in the midst of a city, itself a strategically planned safe haven in the middle east. What’s the vision and purpose of Dubai? The mall sums it up – to be an economic and socially liberal oasis where East and West meet. Alridge notes that it is the drive to economic success that has given women in Dubai unimagined business opportunities.

Is this consumerism as a force for world peace? Is it in the blandness of a giant mall where all religious, social and political differences are subsumed into a homogenous nirvana?

Go outside into the 40C+ heat and you would come to some of the 20,000 imported migrant workers who built the mall in round the clock shifts in 4 years.  Workers who are little more than wage slaves. Foreign workers cede rights of residency, to organise a union, or bargain for pay and conditions. No job and you are expelled.  For the 1000s of construction workers and maids, there is no little or no recourse to justice if they are exploited – and there is much evidence of abuse. No voice and no rights for the silenced majority.

Beyond the ruthless labour market, there is also a fantastically unsustainable vision of the city. Alridge talks of the ‘gazillions of dirhams to air-condition the Dubai Mall … thousands of gallons of fresh salt water are delivered to the aquarium every day, trucked in from 20 miles away.’ Waitrose in the Mall import 10 tons of berries from California every day because people expect winter and summer food all year round – in the middle of a desert.

Dubai Mall is merely the excessive extreme of a particular illusion – that our insatiable desires can be met without consequence. The real costs are literally hidden away behind the glitz and glamour.

I play a bit of golf. The PGA European Tour for the last few years has become structured around the ‘Race to Dubai‘ – the big money-winning finale of the season, where fantastically well-paid sportsmen compete for the bonus pool prize of €5 million. Top golfers are sponsored by Dubai businesses. Big tour events are staged in the desert. Dubai money has bought massive publicity for and public legitimation of a semi-slave state.

Am I being idealistically naive to hope that one day, some famous golfer might simply question the ethics of Dubai becoming virtually synonymous with the European Tour name? Is it unimaginable to picture a sportsman questioning the big business that pays him and his fellow competitors? Might someone even choose not to play in the big money bonanza out of principle?

My point here is not just a rant against Dubai and it’s not just about golf. It’s a question around the pervasive and largely unquestioned power of global capitalism. The Dubai Mall is just its extreme face.

Is it conceivable for sportsmen to act and think politically around issues of justice? Can you remember any sportsman or woman in the modern era of massive sponsorship from global companies actually refusing on the basis of conscience and ethics?

Or does money buy silence and complicity in the status quo? One thing is for sure – once you accept millions to wear a company logo, the company owns you and not the other way around.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Two novels

A friend gave me two novels as a b’day present which I’ve finally finished reading.

One was My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. The other was The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman.

Both have strong Jewish themes. Both are brilliant stories, if utterly different in scope and focus.

Asher Lev is the story of a Jewish boy growing up within an observant family in New York in the generation after WWII. It’s the story of an only son and his painful yet courageous odyssey of becoming a great artist within a religious community that has little place for ‘secular’ art. What I loved about this book was the compassion and wit with which it was told. There is tragedy in the conflict between his great gift that he is compelled to pursue and the values, belonging and deep love within his Jewish community – and most deeply, his parents. There is no villain in this piece and no stereotyping of narrow-minded ‘religious types’. The deeper question behind the scenes is, is his gift a gift from God to be celebrated or pursued, or something that will tear him away from all that he holds dear? Can God and great Art co-exist?

I finished The Street Sweeper on the train to work the other day. This was a bad idea – I hope that no-one was watching a grown man get all teary. Rather than the autobiographical tale of one artist, this is a complex weaving of stories, not only of different unrelated characters, but across eras – from WWII to the present. It’s awful and humane and hopeful all at once. Based to a significant extent on real people and events, it’s part history and part novel. The story brings together the unimaginable fate of European Jews in the death camps of the Third Reich and the personal struggles of an academic historian at Columbia University and a ex-convict black man, Lamont Williams, trying to make a new start in life.

The core of the story is the reality of what happened at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp – in three years from Spring 1942 to its liberation in 1945, over 1, 100, 000 men, women and children, the vast majority Jews, were gassed there. You and I know this happened, but I’d never really thought about the industrial scale planning and implementation of mass slaughter of human beings. Of 24 hr round the clock extermination: of hundreds of people at a time forced to strip, herded into gas chambers, agonizingly murdered by Zyklon B gas, their bodies dragged to continually stoked furnaces manned by enslaved Jews, and burnt to ash. The desperate urgency of the whole process – just enough time to clear the chamber and empty the crematorium in time for the next train load of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandfathers, grandmothers, grandchildren …  The crematoriums were burning 8-10,000 bodies a day at the peak of the killing.

At one point a character talks about how the world will never be able to understand the sheer relentless scale of mass murder – and she’s right. Pearlman brings you a little closer to the beginnings of comprehension and even that is harrowing and mind-numbing.

Street SweeperYet, since the story is told from the present, looking back, it does not dwell in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Pearlman offers glimpses of light piercing the darkness of the past in the humanity of his contemporary characters. It was those glimpses of light at the end of the book that got me teary eyed.

The depth of evil within the human heart is far deeper than we can imagine. Yet that same human heart is capable of great love and a passion for justice. The Street Sweeper captures that polarity and suggests, tentatively, that evil will not have the last word.

This is a hope to which Christians can say ‘Yes’ – the gospel holds out the hope that murder and brutality and mercilessness belong to an age that is passing away and that such horrors are not part of the age to come. But more – that God himself has entered into the horrors of what the human heart is capable of. He has also suffered unjustly and died, treated callously and brutally by pitiless power. Death – and nowhere in the world is as representative of death as Auschwitz – has now been defeated in him.


Work, the providence of God and hyper-Capitalism

work mattersR Paul Stevens begins a short chapter on Providential Work with this quote from a classic study, Studs Terkel, Working.

The blue collar blues is no more bitterly sung that the white-collar moan. “I’m a machine,” says the spot-welder. “I’m caged,” says the bank-teller, and echoes the hotel clerk. “I’m a mule,” says the steel worker. “A monkey could do what I do,” says the receptionist. “I’m less than a farm implement,” says the migrant worker. “I’m an object,” says the fashion model.

Which one does not feel sometimes that we are in the wrong place, at the wrong time and doing the wrong thing asks Stevens.

The temptation is to imagine that the key to happiness and fulfillment is in being somewhere else, doing something else. [This may actually be true in some cases which Stevens could acknowledge.] Stevens says the reality is that God has a providential purpose for our lives right where we are. Don’t go aimlessly from job to job hoping that one will be the perfect fit – find a life-giving purpose where you are.

Stevens goes on to talk about Esther and how God providentially placed her, against all appearances, in the right place at the right time. Christians should then look to the providence of God in their work – life is not haphazard chance. Each believer is placed in ‘such a place and time as this’ – we need to discern the significant moments to serve God amidst the daily small opportunities that come our way.

Stevens’s focus is Esther, but this coheres well with Paul’s advice to Christians in Corinth (1 Cor 7) to ‘stay where you are’ – even if you are a slave:

17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

Paul’s context was a long long way from a the contemporary world of work where we ‘sell ourselves’ (packaging our skills and experience) in a hyper competitive capitalist marketplace.

Is such teaching redundant in a modern globalised information economy where the average length of job in the West for millennials is just over 2 years and who therefore might have 15-20 jobs in their working lives? Where ‘staying put’ for a long time in one job can be interpreted as career failure? 

When to say ‘No’ to an ‘upward’ and ‘logical’ career move in order to stay with a sense of calling? God has placed me here and I ain’t going.

When to say ‘Yes’? God is providing a new opportunity.

How to be counter-cultural in our attitude to work?

How to see the providence of God if work cannot be found – about 25% of young people in Ireland are out of work.

These are some of the questions swirling around ‘faith and work’.

Feel welcome to add your own – and some ‘answers’ of course ....

Wrighting Paul?

During a recent study break I set myself a goal of reading N T Wright’s 2 volume magnum opus Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

At heart it is a vast, ambitious project to articulate Pauline theology in terms of a grand unified narrative from creation, through the story of Israel, her Messiah, the promised Spirit and the new creation to come.

In such a humongous work, there are going to be positions taken and judgments reached that fail to convince other scholars. Here are a two major push-backs that have been appearing, especially from Tom Wright’s buddy Ben Witherington :

1)      Israel in Exile?

NTW has long argued that the Jews of Jesus’ day thought of themselves as living in Exile, longing for the final promised rescue by God. Witherington thinks not – the reality was far less extreme. They felt at home, even if vulnerable in their own land. Most Pharisees and Sadducees had much invested in the temple system. Better to see it in terms of Israel living under a cloud of judgement and looked forward to a better day. Wright’s exile idea ignores the Maccabean period and how for many Jews they had returned home. Yes there was something not right, but it is doubtful that the Maccabean victory was seen only as a false dawn, prefiguring return from Exile to come. The best that can be said is that some Jews saw themselves as still experiencing the lingering effects of Exile.

This seems valid criticism to me.

2)      The place of Israel in God’s purposes: one story or two?

This is the bigger pushback: NTW has Jesus ‘being Israel’ in himself; Israel is incorporated in her Messiah. He stresses how Jesus is therefore the ‘true Israelite’ who alone fulfils Israel’s vocation to be a light to the nations. The whole story of the OT, from Abraham to Christ has been a story of failure of Israel until the birth of the Messiah. Now, with his coming, those who have faith in him, whether Jew of Gentile, are united and represent the fulfilled promises of God to Israel. And Israel in this sense is the whole story of the OT people of God.

Witherington doubts Jesus ‘is’ Israel. He comes to free Israel. He argues that in Romans 9-11, Israel refers to non-Christian Jews which God still has a plan to free, in and through Christ, at the eschaton. So Witherington agrees that Jew and Gentile believers in Christ are united in Christ, but he argues there is still an Israel ‘outside of Christ’. The church is the ‘ekklesia’ but Paul refrains from equating it with Israel. It is after the full number of Gentiles have been brought in, then that ‘all Israel’ will be saved – in other words, a future date when a large number of Jews turn to Christ.

Put simply, Witherington’s criticism is that NTW over-emphasises the one overarching story, where the church, in effect, becomes the fulfilled promise of a renewed Israel. Witherington says there remain two stories – that of Abraham and Moses. NTW fails to draw adequate distinction between the story of Israel (and Mosaic covenant) and the story of Abraham. Witherington puts it like this:

In other words, the story of Abraham is one thing, the story and subsequent tale of Israel is related to and dependent on the story of Abraham in various ways, but it is a subsequent story. Abraham, it should be noted, already lived in the promised land, he did not need to be rescued from bondage in Egypt. His story is not a story of Exodus and Sinai frankly. Nor is it the story of the Mosaic covenant, which Paul deliberately contrasts with the Abrahamic covenant in Gal. 4. Here I would say that Wright, for all his insightful analyses of the subplots, has one too few subplots— we need a subplot about Abraham, and we need another subplot about Israel. (my emphasis)

… Followers of Christ, not only don’t have to keep the badges of the Mosaic covenant (circumcision, food laws, sabbath), they aren’t under the Mosaic covenant at all– period!

This of course is not Tom’s view of things, but rather mine (and others), and I would say it is in some ways the most fundamental mistake Tom makes in his otherwise brilliant reading of Paul. Jesus is not Israel, he is Israel’s messiah, and as Paul says—he is ‘the seed of Abraham’ not the Israel of God.

So BW wants to highlight Paul’s radical contrast between the Mosaic and new covenant. The new covenant does NOT fulfill the old Mosaic one through life in the Spirit. So BW says that while NTW is “perfectly comfortable in saying that Paul could call any and all Christians ‘the Jew’ as well as ‘the seed of Abraham’ and ‘Israel’”, he is not. For BW, Israel still has a future – to be rejoined to the largely Gentile people of God (re-grafted into the olive tree). Witherington puts it this way,

the story of non-Christian Israel is not finished yet, and was not completed by the first coming of Jesus or his death and his resurrection. Rom.11 says otherwise. It is a story still awaiting a better resolution, when it is enfolded into the story of the ekklesia when Christ returns and ‘all Israel is saved’.

Now these two are among the most prolific and published NT scholars around, so commenting on this feels daunting – remember, these are blog thoughts being worked out! And I hope that I’ve summarised things accurately.

My amateur reading of Paul comes out more on Wright’s ‘one story’ (without necessarily being convinced about Jesus ‘being Israel’).

It seems to me that Witherington is drawing too sharp a disjuncture between how Paul links Abraham and Moses. Yes, the Mosaic covenant has come to a decisive end, but the Torah is fulfilled by life in the Spirit. Yes, the period of law (Israel from Moses to Jesus) is over and was temporary, but the law itself pointed to a broader inclusive time beyond the borders of Israel – as foreshadowed by the faith of Abraham.

I do see those who have faith in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile as God’s reconstituted ‘people of God’.  Repeatedly the new community of the Spirit is talked about in terms that applied to the OT people of Israel (eg temple).

Those who hold to ‘one story’, read the NT in a linear, unfolding narrative. The ‘time’ of OT Israel is complete. [This tends to mean that there is no particular special significance for the state ‘Israel’ today or the politics of the Middle East.]

Yes, Jewish people have unique and special significance since theirs is the Messiah and story of God’s OT people. And yes, it is entirely possible that Paul looked forward to a future ‘re-ingrafting’ of his fellow Jews – but they would be finding their rightful place within the one story, in which Gentiles believers are now included. The basis for inclusion would be the same as for anyone else – faith in Jesus the Christ.


Equal to Rule

Last week I was honoured to speak at a book launch for Trevor Morrow’s Equal to Rule: Leading the Jesus way. Why Men and Women are Equal to Serve in the Leadership in the Christian Church

Trevor is a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Here’s the gist of what I said …

Thank you to Trevor and to Columba Press for the invitation to speak at this book launch – I am honoured to be asked and delighted to see Equal to Rule in print. I hope and pray that it is read widely, not only within its target audience of the PCI but across church communities in Ireland and further afield.

There is so much that I’d like to say when it comes to the issue of women in leadership and ministry within the church – and isn’t that a scary thing for an audience to hear from a speaker at the start of a talk?

  1. More than listening to me, the most profitable thing you can do is to get your hands on a copy of the book and read what Trevor has said in his inimitable and insightful way. I’m sure that the globe could be encompassed by the pages and pages of print that continue to be written about this issue. For over 20 years I’ve been engaged with, reading, writing, collecting books and articles and more recently blogging about this topic and it is not going away. The volume of material continues to grow. So what Trevor has accomplished in a mere 112 pages is quite a feat. His style is easy to follow and understand, yet beneath that surface is a deep knowledge of complex and hotly debated issues. In other words, something understood profoundly can be explained simply – and Trevor has that all too rare gift.

He covers much ground

  • Genesis – men and women in the image of God and the Fall
  • OT women – and their significance today
  • Jesus and his radically counter-cultural attitude to women
  • Paul and early church – equal ministry – the difficult texts
    • Marriage
    • Worship
    • Discipleship (Eph / 1 Tim 2)
    • Leadership (Spirit / gifts)
  • Practical steps in church life today
  • Men and women serving in a wide variety of gifts and ministries TOGETHER
  • Wise words about the need for men to act against the status quo – courage and how hard for women to change power structures
  • Unity in diversity as an eschatological foretaste – how the church now is to reflect equality and diversity between men and women as a foretaste of the kingdom to come … not obliteration of difference but strength in difference.

Trevor puts it this way,

“In the church men and women should be free to lead but never to the detriment of their manhood or womanhood. Instead, they will rule together in collegiality because men need women and women need men. This is how we truly express the image of God and say to the world – A new day is coming and this is how it’s going to be.”


  1. My second point is that I am not a woman.

This might (!) seem somewhat obvious, but it does have serious implications. I have no idea what it is like being a woman – despite being married to one for 24 years and having two late-teen grown up daughters. However hard I might try, I can’t understand the experiences, feelings and challenges of being a woman – not only biologically, but also what it is like to be excluded from leadership roles where I could use God-given gifts for serving the church ONLY on the basis of my gender, REGARDLESS of my ability, character, experience, training, mind, and heart.

For I’m going to cut to the chase, we need to be clear here. This might sound critical but there are important issues at stake. At heart the male-only leadership position essentially says women cannot hold certain leadership positions because the Bible says so. The argument goes that the sexes are equal but have complementary ‘roles’.

But the fatal flaw is that in normal complementary relationships roles can change (a student can become a teacher). But in male-only leadership, women can NEVER lead – her subordinate ‘role’ is given at birth and is fixed for good. Women, ONLY because they are women, are the subordinated sex for no other reason than gender. However much the male-only leadership view says otherwise (and I have read all the arguments), to put one sex in a permanently and divinely-sanctioned subordinate position to another speaks of inferiority to the ones permanently set over them.

Imagine a Christian white man in Apartheid SA saying to a fellow black believer “Brother, the Bible says we are truly equal, created in the image of God. We are to minister together in service of the Lord, and complement each other within the body of Christ. But your role must ALWAYS be subordinate to mine, I have authority over you. We may be equally intelligent and spiritual and experienced and gifted by the Spirit to lead – but you will never be able to do so because you are black, and the Bible says blacks are not be in positions of leadership. Please don’t question why, it is just because God says so.’ (this illustration is adapted from Kevin Giles)

What might the black man think? Perhaps ‘That sure sounds like a peculiar type of complementarity!’

The problem with ‘complementarianism’ is that it is not complementary there is NO role that women alone should do and men not do. It too conveniently enforces the status quo. Ultimately it appears arbitrary, without a rational basis.

This is why, ironically, Christian men need to speak out on behalf of women. The status quo favours men. Current power structures favour men. It is particularly difficult for women to challenge the status quo without being seen as self-promoting or power-hungry, and going against the very truth of the Word of God himself …

Again, I can only say I have no idea how this must feel.

John Stackhouse says this

“We men will not change until we want to change … We men need to hear from women about what it’s like to be demeaned, disrespected, or dismissed … Men certainly have responsibility here to speak up on behalf of their sisters, on behalf of justice, and on behalf of the greater good that accrues to everyone as women are treated properly. But we will respond more readily to exhortations from both sexes if we feel it, and feel how important it is. We need this powerful impetus to compel us to undergo the strain of actually changing our minds and hearts. Otherwise, we naturally will stay where we are, in the convenient and comfortable paradigms we have inherited.”

  1. This links paradoxically to a third point – that I look forward to the day when the ministry and giftedness of women should not need ‘defending’ – least of all by men. In a brilliant blog post the Baptist theologian Dr Steve Holmes of St Andrews University said this:

“I have defended the ministry of women in the church in public for a while now, including on this blog.

I don’t think I can do it any longer.

Not because of any lack of calling or gifting in their ministry, but because of a lack in mine.

Take Phoebe Palmer.

She began to be involved in leading a Bible study in New York around 1830. She soon received invitations to preach across the USA and in the UK. Something like 25 000 people were converted by her ministry.

25 000 people. Converted. Does that need defence? Really?

She visited prisons regularly, ran a society helping poor people in need of medical attention, and was involved in an ambitious project to challenge the new problem of urban poverty through the provision of low-cost housing, free schooling, and employment. She had a particular concern for orphans throughout her life.

Challenging injustice on a grand scale. Do you want me to defend that?

And then there’s Catherine Booth. And Mary Dyer. And Catherine of Sienna. And Mother Julian. And Rose Clapham, all-but forgotten, whose first sermon, preached when she was 18, saw 700 miners converted to Christ.

Defend that? Why?

There’s a thousand stories like it. That I know. Ten thousand times ten thousand that have gone untold, no doubt.

And I think of women who I have the privilege to know, who I sit in awe of, some of whom graciously allow me to call them friends. If I could preach one tenth as powerfully or effectively as Ness Wilson, or Bev Murrill, or Miriam Swaffield, or if I had a tiny portion of the vision and capacity to inspire change of Cathy Madavan or Natalie Collins, or if I had some little echo of the pastoral wisdom and visible holiness of Pat Took or Ruth Goldbourne, or if I could even once in my life make something happen the way Wendy Beech-Ward or Ann Holt do every day – then I might think the question of whether these women are permitted by God to lead and preach was worth thinking about. [put in names of women you know]

As it is, no. I can’t defend their ministries. I am not worthy to

But I’m not going to try to illuminate the sun.

And I’m not going to try to dampen the sea.

And I’m not, any longer, going to try to defend the ministry of women in the church.”

  1. My final point is on how to disagree

Students frequently say to me as I teach theology and describe different views – what do you believe Patrick? And they sometimes accuse me of sitting on the fence when I don’t tell them. But as a teacher it is your job to get students to understand both sides of an argument. To be able truly to stand in someone else’s shoes and argue their case as well as or even better than they could themselves – even if you disagree with it profoundly.

That shows that you have taken the time truly to listen and understand the other – without constructing a straw man which you then demolish in a swift bout of self-righteous satisfaction!

There are a range of key areas of differences of interpretation on this issue which include:

–         Was male headship established at creation or did it enter the world as a consequence of the Fall?

–         What is the significance of women prophets in the OT – an exception or a role model?

–         How are we to interpret Jesus’ attitude and actions towards women in terms of roles in the church today?

–         Women witnesses of the resurrection – significance?

–         No male or female in Christ we are all one in Christ (Gal 3:28) – only a spiritual equality or implications for roles in the church as well?

–         Is male authority in church and marriage the biblical norm or a relationship of full mutuality and equality?

–         Is Paul setting up a creation-based permanent subordination of women to men, or addressing local issues in the church of his day?

–         Are male-female hierarchical relationships actually mirroring something of the relationships within the Godhead of Father-Son-Spirit?

I am concerned that there is an increasingly strident tone to the whole debate – both from ‘hard’ complementarians, especially in the USA and Australia, and from ‘hard’ egalitarians on the other side.

So, especially given this context, it is all the more important that, even if we hold strong views on this question (and you may have picked up that I am off the fence on this one) – we are all the more obligated to show grace and charity to fellow Christians with whom we disagree.

Trevor models grace and charity in his approach. This is not a polemical book. He does not misrepresent those who hold different views, he describes their positions accurately. He focuses on a positive biblical vision of men and women equal to rule. His emphasis is on what all Christians can agree on and how this issue has not historically been, or should become, an issue of division.  For this he is to be commended.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

‘No-one can force us to hate’: the courage and cost of non-violent resistance

One of the themes that Darrell Bock, who is a messianic Jew, unpacked from Luke-Acts in the recent IBI Summer Institute, was the place of Israel in the continuing purposes of God.

As this topic always seems to do, it raised some raw emotion and lively discussion. Bock is on the other side of the fence (you could almost take that literally) from Munther Issac, a Palestinian Christian who visited IBI a while ago.

But Prof Bock has been to the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, has Palestinian – Christian friends, and keeps an open dialogue going on. While holding to a different theological interpretation, he actively forges relationships with fellow believers in working towards reconciliation.

All this is to link to this storyplease read it. 

This is a report from a professional secular news agency: but the heart of the story is the good news of the Prince of Peace. I can’t think of anything I’ve read that embodies the gospel more than Daher Nasser and his family.

News of reconciliation

News of love in a world filled with hate

News of hope

News of peace in a region of war

News of another kingdom

What are your reactions as you read it?

Anger? Outrage? Rage at the injustice of Israel?





Sometimes those who believe that Jesus’ words about loving enemies means not killing them are accused of being unrealistic and naive – taking the ‘soft option’ of non violence rather than the realistic option of violence in the cause of the greater good.

The Nasser family put that old canard to rest. This is the way of the Messiah who confronted injustice, evil and violence with self-giving love. It is in weakness, persecution, and even death that God’s power is, ironically, most evidently displayed.

May the Lord sustain and empower the Nasser family as they walk in the way of the cross.


Darrell Bock at IBI

A couple of events over the next few days with Darrell Bock at IBI

Open Lecture

The theme will be ‘Recovering the Real Lost Gospel’.

While some seek so-called lost gospels, Professor Bock will argue we need to rediscover the gospel already found in the Bible.

He will unpack how the New Testament gospel of Jesus Christ is connected to the cross, discipleship and the mission of the church in a broken world that needs the message of grace.

June 12th
Time: 7.30-9.00pm

Venue: IBI, Ulysses House, no charge, all welcome.



Summer Institute with Darrell Bock

June 13th and 14th

Dr. Bock is an internationally known New Testament scholar and author of over thirty books.

Prof Darrell Bock

We are delighted to welcome him to IBI for Summer Institute 2014.  His work includes several books on Luke-Acts, historical Jesus study, biblical theology, as well as with messianic Jewish ministries. He was president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) for 2000–2001, serves as editor-at-large for Christianity Today and has been a Humboldt Scholar (Tübingen University in Germany).

Some of his articles have appeared in leading journals and periodicals, including many secular publications. He has done a variety of media shows on national media. He blogs on culture and Scripture at He has been a New York Times best-selling author. Prof Bock is married to Sally (for thirty-seven years) and is a father of two daughters and a son, and has two grandsons.

Ultimate purpose of being a Christian (3): Life

How then does it ‘work’ that someone is transformed into the image of God’s son? – if that is the ultimate goal of the Christian life.

Yes, the new life begins with death – and is sustained by a continuing ‘putting to death’ of the old. But how? How can the old be done away with? How is the Christian life more positively understood than death, if ‘death’ = not living a certain way?

The answer for Paul (and other NT writers in different ways) is the Spirit of God.

One of the most inspiring and significant verses (I think) in Romans is this one:

 ‘the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to all of us’ (Rom.5.5)

Notice how Paul reminds the Roman Christians of the decisive moment of their conversion. He points them to the role played by the Spirit and includes himself along with his readers – see the ‘our’ and the ‘us’.

In other words, this experience is something normative for every believer, whether Paul or the Romans or you or me.

We are very familiar with the idea that by faith alone, only through the grace of God, believers are justified.

But are we as keen to insist that by faith alone, only through the grace of God, believers receive the gift of the Spirit, who brings them into a dynamically transformed experience of God’s love? An experience captured by the image of a generous overflow of love into the heart, which is the core of human identity.

It is impossible to know God apart from the Spirit. This is why Paul insists again and again that it is the Spirit alone who can give life.

The Spirit is called the life-giver 11 times in the NT, 10 of those references are linked to soteriological new life. Take Romans:

Romans 8:2 – The Spirit of life in Christ Jesus will set you free

Romans 8:6 The flesh’s way of thinking is death but the Spirit’s is life

Romans 8:13 living according to flesh is death but if by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 8:11 ‘Spirit of him who raised Christ – will give life to your mortal bodies’

Take Corinthians

1 Cor 15:45: the last Adam is a life-giving Spirit

2 Cor 3:6 it is the Spirit who gives life (letter of law kills)

1 Cor 12:23 all believers are given ‘one Spirit to drink’

The image of drinking water is one of dynamic life within the body of Christ.

Take Galatians

Gal 5:15 ‘If we live by the Spirit’

Gal 6:8 sow to the Spirit shall reap eternal life

The basis for this transforming life is the is the death and resurrection of the Son. What is his (life over death, victory over sin) now becomes ‘ours’.

Put another way, pneumatology and eschatology are inseparable. Life in the Spirit now is a present experience of life in the new age to come. The future has been brought right into the here and now. Christian hope isn’t merely that one day things will be better. It is a sure and certain experience that God’s future age is already here, witnessed in the outpouring of the Spirit into believers hearts and lives.

The Nicene Creed gets it right

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life


Same-sex marriage in Ireland and the purpose of the law

wedding ringsIn the latest edition of Studies, Patrick O’Riordan SJ, who teaches political philosophy at Heythrop College in London, writes about impending (inevitable?) same-sex marriage legislation in Ireland and the purpose of the law.

The narrative for same-sex marriage goes something like this:

– Same-sex relationships used not to have society’s approval; now, increasingly, they do. This represents significant social progress.

– The law should be changed to reflect society’s approval and to affirm the right and legitimacy of such relationships

– This should include the right of same-sex couples to marry

– Change in the law will bring equality of treatment to same-sex couples. Current law discriminates unfairly against them.

Marriage in this sense is located in the realm of individual rights. Change in the law will bring into being a new social institution of same-sex marriage, declared to be legally equivalent to heterosexual marriage. To do this in Ireland will require a change to the 1937 Constitution which has a major place for marriage as a union between a man and woman.

O’Riordan notes how this narrative raises some significant questions around the purpose of the law and the institution of marriage:

‘What interest does a liberal democratic state have in the private relations of its citizens?’ ‘Is the legal concept of marriage necessary?’

He traces the arguments that some have made (he names Baroness Hale of Richmond, a judge in London’s new Supreme Court) that marriage as a legal institution has no real unique value. In England, there are no distinct legal consequences of marriage that are not already covered elsewhere. Children are equally protected under the law whether of married or non-married parents. Marital status is effectively irrelevant with regard to taxation and welfare provision – it could just as easily be co-habitation or civil-partnership. With the drive to equality, the distinctiveness of marriage as a legal category is undermined.

This means, in effect, that the state has no special investment in marriage. These developments reflect a minimalist view of the functions of a liberal democratic state.

Ireland’s Constitution is most definitely not minimalist. Our debates are going to be around those who see it as the role of the state to invest in and promote marriage by law for the good of society (current Constitution) and those arguing for a minimalist role of the state in redefining marriage around equality and personal liberty.

The Church’s Response

Where O’Riordan gets really interesting is in his advice to the Catholic Bishops. The self-understanding of the Irish RC Church has been forged in a profoundly Christendom context (my comment) – and this has led to the Church understanding itself as a guardian of political and social values. Such assumptions are no longer credible in post-Christendom Ireland.

But why, he asks, should the Church take a position on two competing views of the function of the law? Both have strengths and weaknesses. Both have ‘unobjectionable social values as a basis for legislation’ . Yes, the debate will be a lively one, but he urges the Bishops not to campaign beyond highlighting the values at stake.

Another reason not to campaign is that they will almost certainly lose. Arguing for the abstract notion of the social value of marriage over against a narrative of equality, overcoming discrimination, the right to marry for those in love of whatever gender, a better more inclusive Ireland … well you get the picture.  It’s a no win.

O’Riordan argues that once understood that the debate is effectively about the appropriate role of the law in a liberal democracy, rather than the nature of marriage or moral truth, then the Church is best to keep its powder dry for other occasions and higher priorities. Fighting a whole series of losing battles in the public forum over the last few decades has had a deeply demoralising impact.

If the bishops were to take on a losing fight, they would compromise their capacity to perform their essential mission – to preach the Gospel …. No-one is encouraged in faith, hope and love by preachers and teachers who are anxious, demoralised or depressed. In another sense, the core message of the faith has been drowned out by a predominance of moralising in the Church’s communication. There has been too little of the joyful proclamation of the presence of the Risen Lord and of his Spirit in the midst of our messy and broken world.

What the Catholic Church needs to recognise, is the new context in which it exists. Christian marriage will not cease to exist – the sky will not fall in if (when) same-sex marriage happens in Ireland. But rather than rely on the state or law to uphold it, the challenge is for the Church ‘to engage in more direct and deliberate preparation of couples for their giving and receiving of the sacrament [of marriage].’

What words would you use to describe this article? Here are some that come to my mind:

Refreshing – focused on the essential mission of the church to preach the gospel

Realistic – discerning the (post-Christendom) times and an appropriate strategy. Not trying to live in the past.  What he says sounds positively anabaptist in his call for the church to be the church whatever wider society is doing to marriage.

Wise – informed, engaged, and most impressively of all, self-critically reflective (all too rare)

Constructive – not fearful or scare-mongering. Able to isolate the underlying issue of changing attitudes around the purpose of the law. Not demonising opponents. Showing how different Christian responses to same-sex marriage legislation does not necessarily equate to diluting or compromising a traditional orthodox Christian view of marriage.

Incomplete – a key issue down the line will be that of religious liberty. If marriage is redefined under law, how will that legislation protect the right of Christians (and other religious faiths) who will resist the practice of same-sex marriage within their faith traditions? At the moment there is clear blue water between marriage and secular civil partnerships performed by a state registrar. A change in the law will need to be carefully crafted if equality legislation does not end up trumping religious liberty. Christians will rightly resist the state over-reaching its power to force the church by law to act against conscience and established teaching.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Ultimate purpose of being a Christian (2): death

Some follow on thoughts from the last post ..

Response in faith to the gospel, marked by conversion & baptism, is merely the beginning of a process of being conformed to the image of the Son.

This ‘conformity’ involves bringing the Christian into a personal experience of both the death and resurrection of the Son.

Being a cheerful sort of bloke, I’ll stay with death in this post.

Paul can say things like ‘I have been crucified with Christ’ (Gal 2. 19) and all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death‘ (Rom 6:3-4).

Col 3:2 says ‘For you died ...’

In Romans 6:5, he can say that Christians “been united with him in a death like his“.

But if Jesus was physically killed, obviously his followers ‘die’ in a different way …. don’t they? 

Maybe, but maybe not. 

If you are Christian, what did / do you ‘die’ to as part of the process of spiritual transformation?

I say did / do because there is a past tense death, yet also an active imperative to ‘keep dying’. Paul commands believers to ‘Put to death‘ whatever belongs to their old life (Col 3:5).

Put it this way – before new life is possible, there is death to the old. Death is the beginning of the Christian life. Before resurrection is crucifixion.

The call of discipleship is a call first to come and die … and then to keep dying.

Consider Philippians 3:10-11

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

I suspect that most of us are very comfortable about knowing the power of Christ’s resurrection – and rejoicing and giving thanks for new life and hope.

But I wonder if we are as keen to know Christ through ‘becoming like him in his death‘ and by ‘participation in his sufferings?

This sort of knowing is not only a spiritual death, Paul had no problem linking it to very real and physical suffering.  Even to the degree where he can ‘delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecution, in difficulties’ (2 Cor.12:10).

Is Paul some kind of masochist?  No, it is because suffering points to how Christ was ‘crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power’ (2 Cor.13:4)

This is rugged uncompromising stuff. It speaks of the offence of the cross to all forms of human self-sufficiency and optimism that ‘I’m OK, You’re OK.’ The death of Christ was absolutely necessary or God becomes a moral monster. Only in Jesus’ death is atonement and forgiveness made possible.

The call to death can be, and frequently is, misunderstood.

Rather than the gateway to a joyful transformed new life (of which more in the next post), some interpret it as a call to an existence of perpetual life-denying misery. There is something truly tragic about joyless, glum, pessimistic, fearful, hopeless and death-fixated Christianity. The worst consequence of all being that it ends up damaging the weak and vulnerable under its control.

We’ve had our fair share on this island – of both Catholic and Protestant forms – and I think some research into the theology that fostered such darkness is crying out to be done.

Comments, as ever, welcome.