Thursday, July 28, 2016

the faith of christopher hitchens

Being relevant is over-rated.

Settle down. I'm not saying it is unimportant, just that it is over-rated. To pursue it with such fervour and make it so important for so long, as has been the case in my home country of New Zealand, has been a mistake. For all sorts of reasons. As I have written elsewhere, it diminishes the centrality of the holiness of God. It lop-sides the Christian life, leaning it towards being gracey-salty, while looking for ways to avoid being lighty-truthy. It misreads the New Testament where the impulse for the local church is more about resistance, than it is relevance.

Goodness me - how on earth do you read the stories of influential public figures like Joseph and Esther and Daniel, or read letters like 1 Peter and Revelation, and emerge with the pursuit of relevance being so important? I can't see it. Where and when do we feel the cross to be an offence and the gospel to be foolishness, as Paul said it would be? Where and when are we 'hated for Christ's sake', as Jesus said we would be? My hunch is that those besotted with relevance just wanna be loved a bit too much...

There is a way out of this misguided maze. Every time the word 'relevance' is about to emerge from my mouth - I suppress it, stuff it back down the oesophagus - and consider using the word 'intrigue' instead. Rather than trying to fit in - why not aim to stand out? Not because we are stupid or silly, but because we are surprising, distinctive, contrasting, attractive and intriguing. Afterall, aren't we more likely to win some, if we are winsome?

Now I have found a case study for this little thesis. A riveting read. The other day it sustained me through a three hour flight of unrelenting turbulence (only partially sustained, it must be said): Larry Taunton's The Faith of Christopher Hitchens (Thomas Nelson, 2016). As always, the eyes drift towards the subtitle for a more accurate description: 'the restless soul of the world's most notorious atheist'.

It is the story of how a tough atheist - who made a career of destroying Christianity - may have come close to the kingdom of God. Like the dubious accountant, Hitchens acknowledges that he was 'keeping two books' in his life. His was 'a divided self' in which there was a public 'book' (the atheist undermining faith), while the private 'book' showed someone increasingly open to Christianity.

What fed this private journey? He was intrigued. 'Real believers surprised him' (82), with the author being one of them (as was John Lennox, the noted apologist from Oxford - and a young girl, but I won't ruin that chapter for you!). Gracey-salty Christians drew near with care and friendship. But what intrigued Hitchens was that they continued to be lighty-truthy as they did so. As the author observes:
They were eager to debate him and defend their beliefs, yes, but they were also inviting him out to dinner or a drink afterwards. That's what he really came to admire: the combination of deep and sincere convictions, which doctrine-waffling Liberal Christians had set aside, and a willingness to defend those convictions in polite debate wrapped up in (warm hospitality) (88).
Hitchens was not attracted to those who saw 'God as a buffet line where one chooses what he likes while skipping the dishes he doesn't: "I'll take some redemption, hold the repentance"' (92) - and yet this is exactly what those besotted with relevance tend to do, so concerned as they are to show God's best side to the public and market him well. At one point, Hitchens writes:
I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque writings of the inter-faith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing (as quoted on p88).
Later Taunton adds these observations:
Sincerity does not trump truth. Afterall one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction (152).
The friendship was genuine and reciprocated. On meeting Hitchens for the first time, the author expected 'to meet a radical atheist jihadist' (94) - but 'our rapport was immediate' (96).

There are some delightful passages in the book. The way the author sees the plot and denouement in the film 3.10 to Yuma to be a metaphor for Hitchens' faith journey (112-113). Then there is driving through the Shenandoah reading and discussing John's gospel together (118-135). Hitchens' final debate (before he died of cancer) was with the author in Billings, Montana (136-152), before they headed off to Yellowstone together. It is Taunton's view that towards the end of his life Hitchens was 'weighing the cost of conversion ... while he was railing against God from the nostrum, he was secretly negotiating with him ... (and he) seemed to be trying to negotiate down the cost of discipleship (164, 168).' But was there a deathbed conversion? Who knows - only God and Taunton is content to leave it with him.

Given the reality that this all sounds like Hitchens might have become a heretic within the atheistic community of faith, there are plenty of people lining up to discredit this book because there is a lot at stake for them. For example, here is the author taking some considerable heat earlier this year on the BBC's Newsnight programme:

I don't find this inquisition too convincing, but it is an important part of the story and needs to be engaged. But so also does the reality that this is essentially a story about an unlikely friendship. And so let's finish with this little piece (watch it right to the end!):

nice chatting


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

a yellow day in delhi

Make it yellow. That is my advice.

If you have just a day in this historic city with so many sights, then spend it on the Yellow Metro line. Check into the simple, central and adequate YMCA accommodation in Jai Singh Rd. Get a good sleep. Breakfast at 7am - and out the door at 7.30am after you've brushed your teeth.

Take the short walk to the Patel Chowk Metro station, buy your daylong Metro pass for INR150 (GBP1.5), and head south to the Qutb Minar station. 30 minutes. Delhi's finest is visible from the train station as you disembark. The view of my happy place rushes the adrenalin through me.

Maybe this is a good time to remember William Dalrymple's comments about Delhi (in The Last Mughal): "... of the great cities of the world, only Rome, Istanbul, and Cairo can even begin to rival Delhi for the sheer volume and density of historic remains ... during a six hundred year period climaxing with the 18th century, Delhi had been the greatest city between Constantinople and Canton ... sometimes it seems as if no other great city of the world is less loved, or less cared for." (8, 24)

A 10min ride in an auto rickshaw and you are at the Qutb Minar - in the cool of the morning and long before the tourists. Dawn to dusk opening hours. Great. Built in the 12th century, the Qutb was the tallest structure in the world for many decades. Wander around the grounds for an hour and then it is back to the station and the Yellow ride north to the Jor Bagh station. The day is still young. Head north a few hundred metres and then turn right into Lodi Rd. The Lodi Gardens will appear on your left within minutes. Enjoy a walk, either clockwise or anticlockwise, through this park. Ignore the putrid water in the lake and it is rather nice, with its ancient rubbled tombs dotted here and there. A favoured location for photo shoots...

On the way back to Jorbagh station, pop across the road into Safdarjang's Tomb (you can't miss it) for a quick look. Then stay on that side of the road for a long walk south, up and over an iconic Delhi fly-over (Delhi's answer to every congested intersection, it seems), and into Dilli Haat. State-by-state, shop-by-shop, here are India's products and cuisine all in one place. Linger for lunch and a little shopping and then head for the INA Market station next door. Aim for somewhere between 1pm-2pm.

Head north on Yellow and the third station will be Udyog Bhavan. Get off here, emerge outside, and take the short walk to the next station, Central Secretariat. This will take you across Raj Path, the 2km dead-straight road leading from the President's residence (Rashtrapati Bhavan) down to India Gate. The Republic Day Parade on January 26 travels this route, with hundreds of thousands people in attendance. Now that is a sight for the imagination. At other times of the year the open spaces are a gathering point for locals as twilight nears, with picnics and cricket games aplenty.

Back in Yellow and now we travel further north, under the central city, and emerge in the heart of Old Delhi at the Chandni Chowk station. This is a different world. Every sense in overload, all the time. Soak it up. People everywhere. It takes a bit to find Chandni Chowk (the street). The easiest way is to ask for directions to Haldirams, a restaurant, and then sit there enjoying an afternoon snack of Delhi street food (chaat), while you plan your visit. This was the main business district for Delhi for an age (particularly through the 19th century). Off the main thoroughfare are all sorts of markets (spice, silver, textile etc) where it is fun to get lost and found. As a child I had bad dreams about getting lost, but not found here. As a parent I once got my family lost here - and while never admitting it, I did eventually get found out. At one end is the Red Fort (not enough time to go inside on this day), presiding over everything. It is from this vantage point that the Prime Minister speaks on Independence Day each year. Down towards the Red Fort is a Hindu temple, a Sikh gurdwara, a Jain temple - and even the Central Baptist Church (established in 1814; quite possibly the oldest church in North India).

Add in the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques anywhere, and you have quite the gathering place for the religions of the world. Sadly, the Jama Masjid is one of the unfriendliest places in Delhi, with tourists conned into having to pay to go inside when it is meant to be free. People always seem gruff and rude at the entrances. Nevertheless it is worth going inside and climbing a minaret with its expansive views - for example, looking across to the Red Fort nearby.

Depending on how long you have loitered, darkness will be closing in. It is time to go Yellow again. If you are comfortable with cycle rickshaws (with a man doing the cycling hard work; I always pay them twice what they ask), then catch one from the Jama Masjid to the Chawri Bazaar station. It is quite the ride. Two stops back to Rajiv Chowk station (Connaught Place, the columned circular space at the centre of Delhi). Wander around the concentric circles, with plenty of restaurants from which to choose. Eventually, make your way to Jan Path - at '6 o'clock' from the circles - and meander down through the shops lining the road. When you reach the intersection with Tolstoy Marg (with the multi-story Cottage Industries Emporium on one side ahead of you and the little Tibetan shops on the other side), turn right and you are on the very road that takes you back to the YMCA.

A day for the ages, all on Yellow. Just do it.

nice chatting


If you do happen to have a second day, then make Humayun's Tomb a priority. Every time I come to Delhi, it has been improved in some way.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

lyrics for living 9 (grant us wisdom, grant us courage)

The world is a mess.

This virus of religious extremism is spreading, with Turkey and Bangladesh being among the newer arrivals to our headlines (& let's not forget those who never receive that focus!). Poverty. It is difficult to see how the global refugee crisis can be resolved. Inequality. The blind spot in the USA over guns is unfathomable. Polarization. Democracy seems to be decaying, less able to produce leaders that can be admired. Big money buys big power - everywhere. Over-consumption. The popularity of Trump in the USA, Brexit in the UK, and Pauline Hanson in Australia all seems so odd. What on earth is going on?

Right now, the mess seems to be accompanied by a peculiar brand of badness, madness and sadness.

In recent months I have found myself singing, repeatedly, a little refrain that I have not sung in public worship for decades:
Grant us wisdom, Grant us courage - for the facing of this hour. 
Wisdom. Courage. At an experiential level these qualities became so real to me when I started as the principal of a seminary. It surprised me, after just a few weeks, how much wisdom and courage was needed every day. In more recent years, when interceding for others, it has become commonplace to plead for wisdom and courage. It is like a default setting (along with grace and patience). So many intercessory situations come back to these two. And now, as I look out into our world, seeing and feeling its mess, this couplet is still with me.

So I journeyed back to the original hymn. Written in 1930, in the midst of the Depression and between the two World Wars, by Harry Emerson Fosdick (a theologically liberal leader whose profile, from a base in New York City, was not dissimilar in scope to today's evangelical New Yorker, Timothy Keller). Notwithstanding Kevin deYoung's stinging criticism of this as a 'hymn not worth singing' because it has a theologically dubious line in it - I think it is worth singing, with a little edit of the words. Let's take a look and listen:

God of grace and God of glory,
on thy people pour thy power;
crown the ancient church's story;
bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the facing of thls hour,
for the facing of thls hour.

This opening stanza takes me back to John Stott's Sermon on the Mount. The book is not with me, but in the section on salt/light, he says something like "when you see the world's mess, don't get stuck into the world, rather ask 'where is the church?' because it is meant to be the salt and light that stops the rot and shows the way". To me it seems that 'on thy people pour your power ... bring its bud to glorious flower' is exactly how we should be praying.

Lo! the hosts of evil round us,
scorn thy Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us,
free our hearts to love and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

Again - so poignant. Evil encircling us? Fear binding us? Christ scorned and assailed? These are the deep things which paralyse us. It is freedom that we need, a freedom to love and to praise. 

Heal thy children's warring madness,
bend our pride to thy control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss thy kingdom's goal,
lest we miss thy kingdom's goal.

If we want an exposition of the mess, this verse captures it - does it not?! There is a healing, a bending, and a shaming that needs to be done at so many levels and with so many people (starting with me!).

Set our feet on lofty places;
gird our lives that they may be
armoured with all Christlike graces,
pledged to set all captives free.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
that we fail not them nor thee,
that we fail not them nor thee!

It is the change in mood that impacts me here. The opening upbeat prayer to the 'God of grace and the God of glory' is followed by two dreary verses that plumb the depths of the mess. Nibbling at lament. But here the eyes, and voices, are lifted again in hope-filled steeling prayer. I love it. They give me the words I want at this moment in the hymn: setting and girding, armouring and pledging. 

Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore;
let the search for thy salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving thee whom we adore,
serving thee whom we adore.

Together with Kevin deYoung, my theological knickers could get in a twist over 'let the search for thy salvation' - but why reject an entire hymn when altering a couple of words will suffice? It seems a bit silly. For example, I could live with 'let the Joy of thy salvation be our glory evermore'. 

As with most of the hymns in this series on 'lyrics for living', the issue is more about finding a tune that works in a contemporary setting. 'C'mon musicians - can you do something with this one?' Here is the best version I could find (one which isn't drowned out by a blaring organ ... not my favourite instrument, it must be said ... sorry, Dad and Grandpa, who were both organists):

How I'd love to wake up tomorrow, go to church, be greeted with this hymn in the service - and just 'let it rip' from deep within me, singing my little heart out. But it hasn't happened once in the last 30 years and so it ain't gonna happen tomorrow. 

nice chatting

Sunday, July 03, 2016

getting out of the way

CNN does it. Amanpour and Anderson. Blitzer and Burnett. Cooper and Church. And that is just the ABCs - it keeps going all the way to Zakaria. The BBC does it as well, starting with Alagiah and Amroliwala. And please, please don't get me started on Fox News...

When these channels take a break in the middle of a news broadcast, the viewer is subjected to a steady stream of slick, short promotions for their own news programmes, with a focus on the host. Those set aside to point the way to the news become the news themselves. News readers are recast as news makers. They are portrayed as courageous, attractive, articulate and wise. How can we not be impressed by them - and in so doing, help birth a celebrity before our very eyes?! And yet watch them do their core job - interviewing - and it is uncanny how often they talk too much and give their opinion too often. They intrude too far into the story. The window on the world they are meant to provide easily becomes obstructed by a mirror. I wish they'd get out of the way.

An odd variation of this phenomenon lies in my home country of New Zealand. Again and again, I visit online news websites at home (like NZ Herald or Stuff) - only to find news readers sitting there in the headlines for no real reason at all. Hosking. Henry. Barry. It is embarassing. What are they doing there? I don't really want to be a Kiwi in these moments. Earlier this week came a new low point (and possibly the source of this post!) ... as this piece was the blaring headline on the NZ Herald home page. Goodness deary me?! What is going on?! And don't tell me it is a trivial issue. Over time the media is quietly massaging the mind with silly vacuous messages likes this one and the appetite for real news, serious news diminishes. Moreover, in loving to look at itself in the mirror like this, there is both a betrayal of their calling and the small matter of being an accomplice in establishing narcissism, with all its attendant complexities, as a new norm for society.

What a different story emerges when it comes to presenting the news of Jesus Christ. The Bible will condone none of the nonsense above. It has such a diverse vocabulary to describe the vocation of announcing and hosting and broadcasting and heralding and anchoring the (good) news. Stewards. Servants. Heralds. Witnesses. It goes on and on. What do these words all have in common? The news reader never becomes the news maker. The host never becomes the focus. None of these identities is about drawing attention to themselves. There is no mirror in the room. The impulse for self-denial eclipses the narcissistic one. As I heard Emmanuel, from Burundi, express it so eloquently: 'the mouth may be ours, but the message is God's.'
A Christian communicator has to learn that he (sic) cannot present himself as a great preacher and teacher if he also wants to present God as a great God and Christ as a great Saviour. (Packer)
Humility is not a state to be struggled for and achieved; it is not so much diminishing our self-importance as it is simply standing next to Jesus ... This towering Jesus, by sheer contrast, will always displace our self-importance. (Miller)
Humility is not thinking less of myself - but thinking of myself less. (Keller)
He must increase; I must decrease. (John the Baptist)
The most privileged and moving experience a preacher can have is when, in the middle of the sermon, a strange hush descends upon the congregation. The sleepers have woken up, the coughers have stopped coughing, and the fidgeters are sitting still. No eyes or minds are wandering. Everybody is attending, though not to the preacher. For the preacher is forgotten, and the people are face to face with the living God, listening to his still, small voice ... (then, quoting Billy Graham) 'I have often felt like a spectator, standing on the side, watching God at work. I have felt detached from it. I wanted to get out of the way as much as I could and let the Spirit take over.' (John Stott)
nice chatting