Prospects and Hopes
The threshold of the new year is always a time of hope. The passing of the old year and the coming of the new opens up untold possibilities. We cross the line into a new year filled with ideals, resolutions, dreams and plans. Some of these will be realised. Others will be lost before we have got into the habit of writing the date properly.
‘We are saved by hope’ wrote St Paul, and his argumentation is irrefutable. Paul’s gospel held out to him the possibility of things that could not be seen with the naked eye, but that were his in the promises of God. These were the basis of his salvation, and it came, as he puts it ‘by hope’.
In the Christian worldview, hope is not something vague, fanciful or dreamy. Our dreams this year may include personal wishes as diverse as shedding some weight to winning the lottery (some are wanting to lose pounds, others are wanting to gain pounds!). Some may seriously be looking for some improvement in their situation or that of their loved ones. All of us are hoping just to make it through the new year without breakdown, whether it is psychological, emotional, financial or personal.
Some of us will already have made resolutions, and we are hoping for strength and willpower just to stick to them. Others will be hoping for doors to open for them, in terms of education, career and family opportunities.
Coming into the new year is a time of restarting; the slate appears to be clean again, and we can start from scratch, re-building, re-directing or otherwise renewing our lives in more fruitful and more fulfilling directions.
Others are hoping for bigger things. There is, for example, the big Scottish vote later this year; that represents for some the possibility of hopes and dreams long nursed, long cherished and long articulated. The dream of self-rule for Scotland is not a given, however; nationalist aspirations are utterly contingent on the democratic mind of the people. Independence is utterly dependent on this year’s referendum.
The oratory at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in the closing weeks of 2013 was the rhetoric of international hope - building the ideals of reconciliation and peace on the legacy of one of the iconic figures of the modern era. Time will tell whether these hopes and dreams are as vacuous as some of our own personal resolutions.
Our hopes at all these levels are aimed, as Paul puts it, ‘at things not yet seen’. We do not ‘hope’ for what we already have. Hope has a future orientation. It looks at what is past, and wishes either to keep or to change it; it stands in the present and looks into the future. And it nurses the prospect of change. Often it does so very idealistically. And very unrealistically.
But in the Christian worldview, there is nothing unrealistic about hope. It is often coupled in the Bible with trust; when the Bible speaks of hope, it is not nursing a vague prospect that things might turn out differently, but entertaining a sure confidence that things will turn out the way God promises that they shall. For the Bible writers, true hope is hope in the promises of God. It is hope built on truth, not on dreams. It is expressed most clearly in one of the Psalms, which addresses God and says ‘I hope in your word’.
This, I think, is one of the reasons for some of the character studies of the Bible. Take Abraham, for example; promised he would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, through whom God’s favour would rest on the world, his initial reaction was to doubt and even laugh.
But when he yielded his consent to God’s faithfulness, and his trust to God’s promise, he had a sure ground for hope. Indeed, as the New Testament so memorably puts it, ‘against hope he believed in hope’. When everything - including his own age and stage of life - seemed to be against him, he believed that God was able to do what he said. He had hope.
And when he was asked to offer his son - the very son upon whom the fulfilling of the promise of God seemed to depend - he did so in the hope that the word of the promise would endure even though his immediate circumstances and trials seemed to belie that very word.
I very much warm to a phrase from one of the minor prophets in which Zechariah is predicting the appearing of Jesus, Zion’s king, ‘humble and riding a donkey’. It was just one of many prophecies which was fufilled in the eventual coming of Jesus into Jerusalem, and one which authenticates the Bible as the Word of God.
In the immediate context, the people of God are facing a very uncertain future; some have returned from exile, while others are exposed to hostilities of all kinds around them. But God addresses them with various promises, and describes them as ‘Prisoners of hope’.
That phrase resonates with me. Sometimes we feel that we are imprisoned in circumstances not of our own making (or even of our own making). Year-end realities do not always compare to beginning of year dreams. It is one thing, however, to be a prisoner; it is quite another to be a prisoner of hope.
I could tell you my wishes, aspirations and resolutions for 2014, but I won’t. Instead, I want just to follow the example of St Paul speaking in his own defence before the Roman authorities: ‘I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers’.
That was the beginning and end of Paul’s hopes - promises made by God in ancient times and written in his Word. I know of no better way to face the future. The Psalm has it right:
‘Find rest, my soul, in God alone;
in him my hope is ever sure.
My safety, fortress, sheltering rock -
in him alone I am secure’.
Wishing you a secure and hopeful New Year in 2014.
Published in the Stornoway Gazette 2 Jan 2014
Nettles' Life of Spurgeon
Tom Nettles LIVING BY REVEALED TRUTH: THE LIFE AND PASTORAL THEOLOGY OF CHARLES HADDON SPURGEON
Tom Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, has spent many hours researching the life and work of C.H. Spurgeon, and this remarkable book is the fruit of these labours.
Living by Revealed Truth is not the first biography of Spurgeon to have been written, but it is remarkable for several reasons. For one thing, it is largely based on documents which up until now have not featured in studies of Spurgeon, such as personal articles which regularly appeared in his magazine ‘The Sword and Trowel’ from 1865 to 1892, as well as Spurgeon’s sermons and letters.
Prof Nettles has used these resources to get into the mind of Spurgeon, to write not just a factual biography of the greatest Baptist preacher of the modern age, but to assess the principles which undergird all his thought, preaching and writing.
C.H. Spurgeon was born in Essex in 1834, and died in the south of France in 1892. He was converted at the age of 15 in 1850, and grew to become the most fruitful and sought-after preachers of his generation. He became minister of the New Park Street Chapel in London in 1854. Nettles quotes the words of Sheridan Knowles, a recently converted actor, describing Spurgeon’s ministry at New Park Street: ‘Go hear him at once if you want to know how to preach’ (p70).
The opening chapter introduces Spurgeon’s life and conversion, and shows how his own experience of God’s salvation led Spurgeon to commit to the best kind of learning. The writings of the Puritans were both available and familiar to him from his earliest days, and his study of them became extensive and enthusiastic following his conversion. The result was that ‘he could quote from the Puritans at will’ (p24); and he found in their theology both an explanation for his own conversion and a way to preach the gospel.
Early in his Christian life Spurgeon also committed to believers’ baptism. He never lost his commitment to that form of the sacrament, although he never allowed it to break his fellowship with those from whom he disagreed on the issue. It was, of course, also a point at which he departed from many of those whose theology influenced him the most; Prof Nettles makes the interesting point that Spurgeon ‘gloried in every gift given to the church catholic through all his beloved evangelical heirs of Reformation theology and Puritan devotion, but he could be nothing but a Baptist’ (p51).
Nettles also identifies several traits which began at Spurgeon’s conversion and which he suggests were prominent throughout his ministry: interpreting all of life in theological terms, the doctrines of grace giving the only security to God’s people, a close study of the nature of preaching, a constant engagement in evangelism, a tendency to sickness and despondency, self-analysis, a commitment to Scripture and a refusal to compromise with modern theology (p51). These themes recur throughout the book.
The growth of Spurgeon’s congregation led to the building of a new place of worship in South London: the Metropolitan Tabernacle, with which his name has become synonymous. Prof Nettles introduces us to the man at the heart of these projects, and the nature of the work to which he believed himself called by God. But more than that, he carefully analyses the elements of human commitment and divine power which intertwined to make Spurgeon’s such an effective ministry.
One of the most challenging and enlightening chapters is on ‘The Challenge of Church Life’ (Chapter 7). Spurgeon was conscious of the huge responsibility he carried as pastor of the new church, and Nettles does a good job of reminding us how Spurgeon was able to fulfil his ministry: he worked closely with fellow office-bearers, carefully regulated church membership, strove after holiness, encouraged the discipline of corporate prayer meetings, and refused to separate worship and evangelism. One of the things that makes Nettles’ book remarkable is how pertinent, relevant and applicable the lessons from Spurgeon’s ministry are.
The book is remarkable, too, because it sets all of Spurgeon’s work and ministry within a principled framework. The author expresses his work as ‘an effort to suggest that Spurgeon, in every aspect of his ministry, was driven by a well-developed, clearly articulated systematic theology and by a commitment to a conversion ministry, both of which were conceived as consistent with revealed truth’ (p12).
That means that all of Spurgeon’s preaching was driven by a twofold aim: to be faithful to the Bible and to aim at personal conversion and personal experiences of God’s grace. Everything else was subjected to these two considerations.
For that reason, this study of Spurgeon’s life is, as the subtitle suggests, not just a biography, but also a study of pastoral theology. For those of us who have found Spurgeon’s Lectures to my Students - full of wit and wisdom for any preachers of the gospel - as refreshing now as when whey were first delivered, this book distills the essence of Spurgeon’s work in the same way, uncovering its fundamental elements in order to encourage us to follow Spurgeon’s example both in faithfulness to the Bible and in leading God’s people to a deeper experience of his truth and grace.
Nettles gives many examples of this, but we can highlight three. First, in terms of preaching it was always Spurgeon’s aim to ‘fit the arrow to the string’, to preach the gospel in a way that would send the arrow of truth into the hearts of all who heard. That meant preaching Christ from the whole Bible: ‘the cross,’ Spurgeon maintained, ‘is the centre of our system’ (p170). Every doctrine must lead to the cross, and every doctrine must be unfolded in the light of the whole Scripture. Nettles’ discussion on Spurgeon’s method of exposition and preparation is very instructive (157-70), since he preached on isolated texts each Sunday.
Secondly, the practical aspects of Spurgeon’s work - what today would be called ‘mercy ministry’ - cannot be viewed in isolation from the revealed truth of Scripture either. He believed that ‘works of charity must keep pace with the preaching of faith’ (p339). The list of charitable institutions connected with the Metropolitan Tabernacle (pp352-3) is breathtaking, and shows how concerned Spurgeon was to harness the resources of God’s people for the practical as well as the spiritual needs of London. This was charity by revealed truth.
Yet Spurgeon was only a man, and his personal weaknesses and idionsyncracies were a factor in his work. Prof Nettles reveals to us a man often under pressure, who recognised his own weaknesses and liabilities. Spurgeon was not a great preacher in spite of these things but because of them. In an interesting twist on the title, Nettles describes Spurgeon as ‘Suffering by Revealed Truth’ (p630).
It is not surprising that someone responsible for the regular ministry and pastoring of a large church, as well as other institutions, as well as his involvement in the theological controversies of the day, should suffer under the weight of these responsibilities. They took their emotional and mental toll, and he knew his weaknesses. He often went abroad to friendlier climates to recuperate. Interestingly, and importantly, his fellow office-bearers supported him and even encouraged him in this (p610). Prof Nettles has much to tell us in this book not only about how to preach, but how to suffer in Christ’s work too.
One might expect such a long book to lose its appeal after a while; but this study is also remarkable for how readable it is. It is a long and large hardback volume of almost 700 pages, with the print in double columns. Yet it reads with ease and freshness, and is engaging at every point.
It is impossible to do justice to a large book of this nature within the scope of a review article. The book is remarkable, at last, for the wide scope of subjects with which it deals: the nature of the gospel, the nature of the ministry, the method and content of theology, as well as more personal aspects of Spurgeon’s life, such as Spurgeon in controversy and Spurgeon on sickness and death.
It is full of gems; do you know, for example, which of the Psalms Spurgeon called ‘The Calvinists’ Hymn’? Or what he thought of ministers with beards? Or what happened when he went fishing in Scotland? There are few aspects of Spurgeon’s life and ministry overlooked in these pages.
Prof Nettles’ book will be of interest to anyone burdened for a recovery of genuine Calvinistic preaching and piety in our day. To quote Spurgeon himself, ‘We can preach Christ to sinners if we cannot preach sinners to Christ’ (p171). That says it all, and this book is the remarkable story of a remarkable man from whom we can all continue to learn.
Published in The Record Jan 2013
Making Christmas merry
This is a time of year at which we are constantly bombarded with a raft of television adverts reminding us of what we really, really need to buy for the festive season. The rampant materialism of Christmas advertising is light years away from the real meaning of the season, and is one of the most telling indications of where we are as a society.
A culture which needs possessions, or entertainment, or some other form of idolatry in order to give it fulfilment or meaning is a culture that still needs to grow up.
There are other adverts, however, whose impact is even more powerful. Charities use the media well and remind us that as we indulge ourselves and our children, there are others in our communities, and even in our own family circles, whose needs are profound, and for whom this time of year is not one in which to be jolly.
I have been reflecting, for example, on the current campaign from the NSPCC, reminding us of the abuses that many children suffer at Christmas time. While most of us plan on how to make this a memorable and magical time for our children, many children will be physically and emotionally abused in their own homes.
It is not an issue that easily goes away, but nor is it one we like to think about too often. The frustrations of impoverished households or of drunken fathers, or the strains of divided homes and families, will make this a difficult time for many youngsters.
And while the world parties to songs old and new, many organisations and charities will continue to feed the hungry, visit the lonely, feed the starving and clothe the naked. Our personal indulgences must not be allowed to eclipse the need of the poor; and nor must we forget the many who will be spending next week bringing much needed cheer to those who have little themselves.
But even among those who have it together on the surface of things there are often serpents in paradise. Take, for example, the whole matter of alcohol consumption. Apparently we consume some 600 million units of alcohol over the festive season, and 14% of us will drink more than we intend to; alcohol is the great party provider.
But it can also be the great party ruiner, and the curse of otherwise healthy and happy homes. A recent television documentary asked where the real alcohol problem is, and argued that it is not on our city streets over a weekend of binge drinking, but in our homes every night of the week as people use alcohol to relax after a long day's work.
As alcohol has become cheaper and more freely available, so the trends of home drinking have changed dramatically over the last few years. It is no longer unusual to have people consume a bottle of wine in an evening; and if two adults in the home are doing so, the bottles empty all the more quickly.
There is no telling the long term damage we are doing to our own health by such trends, but I am quite sure that these changing habits are leading to a growing dependence and a new kind of alcoholism. Addiction, of course, is always what the other person has; and too much is always what the neighbour is consuming. But were we to examine our own habits we might be surprised.
I am no killjoy; I want Christmas to be a time for pleasantness, happiness and peace. But I am not unaware of the fact that there will be some for whom the supposed need to drink alcohol to make the season truly festive will actually produce the opposite effect; it will make it memorable for all the wrong reasons.
This all this sounds terribly negative, and some will put that down to me being a Presbyterian minister. But Presbyterianism too can be a very convenient cloak behind which to hide any number of unhealthy habits. And not every Presbyterian home is a happy one.
All I'm saying is that sometimes the things we think are necessary for a good time are not; and not everyone is having the good time we think they are. So here are my tips for a good Christmas.
First, remember the poor. (That's in the Bible, by the way). We are remembering the birth of a Saviour who came to us, not in the trappings of luxury, but in the ignominy of poverty. In his birth he was hungry, homeless and naked. The virtues of feeding, sheltering and clothing others, which he commended so much, he needed himself.
Second, it is better to give than to receive. (That's in the Bible too). I dont think our children are ever too young to be taught that to give to others is far more noble a thing than to gain for ourselves. The whole life of the Christ child was one of giving away. We do well to learn, and to teach, that charity is greater than faith.
Third, love never fails. (So's that). It ought to be a time for others, for those who mean the most to us in this world. So put away your mobile phone. Ditch Facebook and Twitter. Play silly games with the children. Give yourself to your significant other. Recapture the best that the season has to offer.
This will be my fiftieth Christmas. I can't guarantee there will be a fifty-first. So I'm not planning on wasting this one just by thinking of myself.
Published in Stornoway Gazette 19 December 2013
Plant a church.....
In this age of information technology, church websites are a great way of knowing what is happening where. Denominational websites allow people of all churches and none to get news and reports of activities across the church, and allow visitors to locate churches in different places.
But there is always a serpent in Paradise, and I have observed that the church is not immune from the curse of headline grabbing, of doing things just to broadcast its own achievements. And I also observe that the internet can be an enormous source of discouragement; small churches labour away faithfully with little to broadcast and little to show for their labours. Who wants to read that nothing extraordinary is happening?
That apart, I have been encouraged by one or two headlines on our denomination’s website recently, in connection with church planting, specifically in Stirling and in Govan. The new work in Stirling is breaking new ground in the twenty-first century, as a small group of believers has started holding fortnightly services in the University town.
The work in Govan is revisiting a historic Free Church centre; the old Govan Free Church provided services for a largely Gaelic-speaking Highland diaspora after the second world war, and was a sizeable congregation back in the day. When I was a student in Glasgow in the early 1980s the congregation was all but gone; at least I can say I worshipped there.
And now one of our ministers and his family has relocated to Govan and is trying to re-establish a congregation in the south side of Glasgow; not this time among an immigrant workforce from the north of Scotland, but among the local population.
Some might question the experiment, given all the current crises within the church, not least in terms of vacancy and in terms of finance. We have, after all, a local Presbytery in the Western Isles, a third of which is without settled ministry, and any number of established congregations which require ministers. Why not settle these first?
And the burden of finance is ongoing; for whatever reason, less money is coming from congregations into central funds, and central activities are being curtailed. Embargoes are placed on new appointments and we are operating with our hands tied behind our backs in many ways.
Yet here are two new works that will require prayerful and practical support if they are to succeed. And I hope they will.
If I can look at these ventures in terms of the three cardinal graces, I would have to say that they are, first, a work of faith. It takes faith to move into the secular, politically correct, indifferent landscape of modern Scotland with a message that focusses on the exclusive claims and absolute demands of the carpenter from Nazareth. It would be easier to do nothing, or to shore up existing work and established churches.
Yet the mandate of the New Testament remains the commission of the church: ‘go into all the world and make disciples’. That cannot be ignored. The claims of the gospel are paramount, and non-negotiable. There is no place that is off limits to the church, whatever its size or potential.
So it really is a step of faith to move into areas that have little or no solid, Reformed witness, and provide a means for heralding the doctrines of grace. But it is no blind faith - for Christians, it is faith in the one who says ‘I will build my church’, and who gives every encouragement to us to use every means to that end.
Not that I think any less faith is needed to continue working away in areas where the church has existed for years; but to establish an identity and profile in a new area, while remaining loyal to the truth claims of Jesus Christ, is no small challenge, and requires no small faith.
Church planting is also a work of hope. Hope is one of these great New Testament words that fills you with optimism. Things need not continue as they are, it says: things can actually change for the better, and situations can become better.
The reality is that modern Scotland is in need of the gospel. Our generation is ignorant of the Bible and lost without God. We pay lip service to the Christian faith, but we do not know what it is to which we are paying lip service. Christianity is equated with homophobia at worst, pietistic moralism at best. We have demonised Knox and Calvin, and have little awareness of our Christian heritage.
Nor am I sure any more whether political independence will deliver anything beyond secularism to us; the freedoms promised by the architects of our bold new future are freedoms to practice our religion provided we keep it to ourselves. So what happens when we exercise those liberties by not keeping our faith to ourselves?
Into the political chaos and moral turbulence that is modern Scotland there comes, afresh, the gospel of saving grace. And it is a message of hope. That is why to plant new churches is never a hope-less venture; it is a step of confidence that the gospel will have been heard once again, and can bring the hope of life to our dying and decaying culture.
But supremely, such work is a work of love. It is a work which engages with people for their own sake, because people matter to God. Our great Christian imperative is to love God and our neighbour. Too often we practice the first at the expense of the second.
But when Christians are prepared to move outwith their comfort zones to extend the love of God in Christ to contexts which have not known it, they deserve our prayers and our support. They are the missionaries of today’s culture, and we ought to be their backup.
Nothing I am doing deserves a headline on our church’s website, but the story of church planting does. And it is a work which could just, under the blessing of God, see a church grow from seed to flower.
First published in the Stornoway Gazette
This one is for Kirsty
Sometimes I work at my laptop standing up, but not today. Having spent three days cycling from the Butt to Barra there is only so much strain my thighs can take. I’m sitting at my desk, and even the thought of standing up is a challenge.
This year’s Macmillan cycle went very well, with a good mix of professions, ages and abilities involved. The ride is the project of the Western Isles Emergency Services, and these were very well represented. But so too were other professions, as well as husbands and wives of emergency personnel, people who had benefitted from the service of the Macmillan Nurses, and those who just wanted to do their bit. My son and I were among the cyclists, and it was not a race.
The weather was beautiful at the start and at the finish. Not from the start TO the finish, please note; AT the start and the finish. Beautiful sunshine and a gentle tailwind got us from the Butt of Lewis to Laxdale Hall, and from Laxdale to Scaladale in Harris, in record time. It would have been perfect were it not for the fact that we had a couple of casualties along the way, who either managed to get back on their bikes or plan to do so soon.
But the first day’s conditions were not to be repeated. We had a gruelling ride through Harris on the second morning; a full cooked breakfast was served just before we had to tackle the Clisham; and the Northton brae just before Leverburgh was a huge psychological obstacle (at least to a middle-aged minister on a bike). However, hills are made to be conquered - and they were.
But the driving rain in North Uist was demoralising; a south-westerly wind meant that we had to work hard to reach Sgoil Lionacleit that afternoon. Our faithful cooks had their own obstacles to overcome - 60 bodies needed feeding, but the food for that evening was discovered still to be in Stornoway. The kindness of strangers saved the evening, however; and we had the most welcome plate of spaghetti bolognese.
The wind was against us on the final leg through South Uist too, but it’s amazing how knowing it was the final day was a huge morale booster. Some of the keener, sleeker, fitter cyclists made it to Eriskay in a couple of hours, but the rest of us, less sleek, marginally less fit, but just as keen, eventually conquered the Eriskay brae and made it for the Barra ferry in time.
And the sun shone again; we arrived at our final island in glorious weather. Not only that, but we were met by some of the fourth year pupils from Castlebay School who accompanied us round the west side of the island until we reached our destination. The exhilaration of completing the project was in everyone’s face and in the atmosphere at the finish. It was a climactic moment.
But it could not have been achieved without the support of hauliers, mechanics, cooks, luggage carriers and others who made it possible for fifty cyclists to make it through the Western Isles with confidence, with encouragement, and with food and drink, and then to make it home by bus on the last day of the trip. It would be impossible to start naming everyone involved, but a huge thank you to you all.
So why did I do it? The statistics on my little computer (which let me down for about 30 miles of the journey) tell me that my maximum speed was 34 mph, and that I burnt almost 7000 calories. Either of these would have been incentive enough to get on my saddle; exercise and weight control are more crucial at my age than I ever appreciated. But these were not my motives.
The camaraderie in the group was unmissable; it’s amazing how small a world becomes when you are thrown together with a group - some you know, others you get to know, and someone is usually connected in some way with someone else you know. The miles seem shorter in a group, and the group dynamic enables you to make it to the end. But that was not my overarching motive either.
Everyone who cycled did so to encourage one of our island’s most important services. The need to support families who have been affected with cancer seems to be growing each week. The journey of individuals who are diagnosed with cancer, and that of their family and friends, is more gruelling and demanding than any cycle. And, as we experienced in our own family some time ago, support for such times is vital and necessary.
So we did the cycle so that the work of Macmillan nurses and the Macmillan support network can continue, because everyone knew someone who has battled with cancer; and for those who are still engaged in that struggle, as well as for those who are no longer with us, the ride was worth every hard pedal.
And the most touching moment for me was when we were crossing the Sound of Barra, taking up all the seats in the small seating area, and I started chatting with a local couple who were heading home. They told me of their own family struggles with cancer, including their eleven-year old granddaughter, Kirsty, who has to have regular treatment for her own illness.
I don’t know Kirsty, but she’s on my prayer list now, as I’m sure others are praying for her too. I thought of her as my son and I cycled into our finishing post at Castlebay, wondering why such a beautiful world is scarred by such an all-consuming and demanding illness. Some questions I cannot answer; to try to answer them would make people’s situation worse, not better. But, under God, we can all do our bit to help. This column is for you, Kirsty, and in my mind at least, this year’s Butt to Barra cycle now has your name on it too.
(The Butt to Barra cycle took place from 27-30 June 2013. First published in Stornoway Gazette).
Another look at a mere Christian
A recent long haul international flight enabled me to do something I rarely manage to do - to read an entire book from cover to cover in a single sitting. Given that the book was about one of my favourite writers by one of my favourite writers, it has quickly become one of my favourite biographies - Alister McGrath’s new life of C.S. Lewis.
C.S. Lewis died two months after I was born, which makes this year highly significant for both of us. But the Irishman who became an Oxford don had a huge impact on my life, as on countless other young people, with his Narnia novels, then with his science fiction novels, and finally with his writings on Christian apologetics.
Part of my thrill, indeed, of reading McGrath’s biography is the inclusion of some of Pauline Baynes’ images of the land where it was always winter and never Christmas; they took me back to my first edition copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and became my definitive pictures then of what Narnia looked like.
I am grateful to McGrath for his painstaking research; he has taught me things I did not know, like Lewis’s sources for the names Narnia and Aslan. But he also made me close the book at one point and just think (which I consider to be the mark of any great writing), as he discussed the difference between ‘imaginary’ and ‘imaginative’.
His point is an important one. ‘Narnia,’ he writes, ‘is an imaginative, not an imaginary world’. What is ‘imaginary’ has been imagined falsely, and has no bearing on reality. It is an invention, a delusion. It has no counterpart in our experience of reality, and gives us no ability to see it or to interpret it.
What is ‘imaginative’ on the other hand, says McGrath, ‘is something produced by the human mind as it tries to respond to something greater than itself, struggling to find images adequate to the reality’. I have been waiting all my life for that key to explain the impact of Narnia on my thinking as a child: out of Lewis’s fertile imagination came a story which fuelled my own imagination in a way that enabled me to explain my own understanding of God’s world.
Suddenly, somewhere over the Sahara, I realised that the best kind of words are the words that unlock the power of thought and bring us back to what is real and lasting. The biography made me want to go back and read the Narnia books all over again.
McGrath’s work explores some interesting aspects of Lewis’s relationships with others - with Mrs Moore, the mother of one of his colleagues, whose attachment to Lewis was much more than platonic; with Joy Davidman, whom he married late in life, and with J.R.R. Tolkein.
Given the recent popularity of the Lord of the Rings films, as well as the recent appearance of the Hobbit, this is a fascinating study. Tolkein, like many writers, had his dark and unproductive moments; had it not been for Lewis encouraging his writing and his study, Tolkein’s fertile imagination may never have produced the writings that it did. Yet a growing estrangement developed between the two academics; and Tolkein probably never knew that Lewis nominated him for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961.
I also paused to reflect on McGrath’s statement early in the biography that ‘Lewis is a failed poet who found greatness in other forms of writing’. The first significant works from his pen were war poems which were of mixed quality and failed to secure him the position of a man of letters to which he aspired.
Yet the poet in him evidences itself not least in his imaginative prose, if (as Lewis argued against other poets) the poet ‘is not someone who is to be looked at, but someone who is to be looked through’. That is surely all that Lewis wished: to be a means for the better understanding of the world and man’s place in it. Perhaps failed poets could make the best preachers too.
This is not a review, just a response to a great book. McGrath is one of the most articulate and thought-provoking theologians in Britain today, and his biography of C.S. Lewis is a masterpiece. Highly original, eminently readable and most enjoyable, this is an illuminating study of one of the great writers of our past.
And that, perhaps, is the problem with Lewis. As McGrath points out, the Narnia novels need to be read with an understanding of the cultural mores of post-war Britain, and his theological position never did sit easily within British evangelicalism or American fundamentalism. McGrath even highlights the fact that Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in the year of Lewis’s death, pronounced him ‘unsound’ on a number of doctrinal issues.
C.S. Lewis, like all of us, must answer at a higher court than that of the prophets of British evangelicalism, however; and it is difficult to be sure what his doctrinal position on some matters were. But then again, theology was not his calling: literature was. And when he became a Christian and was, in his own words, ‘surprised by joy’, the most reluctant convert in England dedicated his considerable talents to the rational defence of the faith.
McGrath may be correct to say that the works of Tolkein have overshadowed those of Lewis, and that the cultural tides which washed him to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s have, half a century later, washed him out to sea again. But there is no doubting his place in the literary landscape of Great Britain; and, for some of us at least, there is no chance that the ranges of Middle-earth could ever eclipse the landmarks of Narnia.
Some aspects of Lewis’ work may be dated, but his life story is as poignant as it is thrilling. Now I just need another long book to get me home.
Published Stornoway Gazette
What's in a name?
There is an amusing story about the late Clement Graham, who was Principal of the Free Church College while I was a student, and was Clerk of the Free Church General Assembly for many years. On one occasion someone wished to present a motion to the Assembly of which Principal Graham did not wholeheartedly approve.
Or perhaps it was the manner of its presentation that roused his ire. When he was asked whether the motion was competent, his alleged reply was, ‘There is nothing in Standing Orders to prevent a man making a fool of himself!’.
Well, this year’s General Assembly has come and gone, and I don’t think too many of us who spoke made fools of ourselves. Indeed, given the difficulties and the constraints under which we are currently labouring, I think many of our decisions were sensible and forward thinking, not least in terms of the future of the Free Church College.
Every ministerial member of the Assembly, I think, has come through our College at some level or another. Some of us owe the foundations of all our theological thinking to the training we received there, and our studentship at the College bound us to a heritage of Scottish theological reflection which was - and in my view still is - second to none.
This year we appointed a new Principal in the person of our Stornoway minister, Rev Iver Martin. To appoint a Principal who is still also a minister is not unprecedented in our history, but is certainly a new departure over recent years. Four years ago, as Chair of our College Board, I argued that such an appointment was necessary in order to span a growing gulf between Church and College, and am glad that it has finally happened.
For some, however, the move to re-naming the College to Edinburgh Theological Seminary in principle is the most objectionable departure from our cherished tradition. Personally, I would have preferred to retain the word ‘College’, and voted to do so, but did not prevail. Such are the happenstances of Assembly discussions; at the end of the day we accept the findings and move on.
A generation of us will continue to speak of the ‘College’ through use and wont, and I guess there is no reason why the new name cannot, in official documentation, incorporate the old. But I have better things to worry about than an institution’s change of name.
For one thing, the institution at which we train our ministers and others will continue to build on the Scottish theological tradition it has always represented. The authority of Scripture, the uniqueness of Christ, the covenant theology of our heritage are not secured by a name but by a confessional commitment.
And neither does a new name reflect any embarrassment with the denomination under whose auspices and by whose authority it is run. Quite the opposite: it shows that the Free Church is keen to extend its influence wider than its own constituency. While remaining a Church College, our training school will all the more integrate into a wider evangelical world, and bring into it the very best of our Scottish tradition. The Church still owns the College, both in terms of physical location and in terms of theological ethos, and is well-placed in Scotland’s capital city to raise the profile of theological study and of ministerial training.
Ultimately, therefore, the nomenclature says nothing new: the College owned by the Free Church is a Seminary of theology in Edinburgh. Either name would adequately express what the institution is; but there is a deeper issue still: that of pride and how to deal with it.
Institutional pride, like any other form of pride, can be a subtly dangerous thing. An inflated view of our own importance can be disguised as an appreciation of our heritage. An uncritical maintenance of our own traditions can be regarded as a healthy maintenance of our principles.
Yet tradition and principle are two very different things. The former ought to be the vehicle for the other: our living continuity with the past ought to be the means by which the best principles and ethos of the past can be applied to the present.
But it can turn into something very sinister very quickly - the idea that as long as the tradition is maintained, so too is the principle. The General Assembly last week recognised that principles are to be maintained within traditions which themselves can change, and often must, if the principles are to be applied and taught to a new generation.
I’m getting into that stage of life now where even I talk about the way things used to be. But I don’t want to drift into old age as a cynical critic of every change; I hope God will give me the wisdom to recognise that even if the next generation does not do things the way I used to do them, we are still continuing the foundational principles of scriptural truth and teaching across the generations.
So I have every confidence in the new arrangements for delivering our theological training, and in the new Principal of the Free Church College. I am sure his large congregation in Stornoway will recognise the vital role they are playing in the wider theological and evangelical world as they support him in his new and wider ministry.
So it was, I think, a realistic yet forward-looking Assembly, which spoke of church planting, mission support, ecumenical relations and other issues which must occupy every Church of Christ everywhere.
But for me, the magic moment was when the Lord High Commissioner referred to me by the title reserved for Moderators of the Church of Scotland: the Right Reverend Iain Campbell. I smiled. But of course he should: am I ever the wrong Reverend? Well, sometimes. And sometimes Standing Orders allow me to make a fool of myself too.
Published in Stornoway Gazette 30 May 2013
I decided to include a photograph of Alistair at his desk in Dumisani, just to show that he is (literally) entombed by books in his little corner of South Africa. Even the photo does not to justice to the fact that he and his books are vying for space, but, as always, he was happy to oblige.
This morning Dumisani hosted a small ministers' fraternal which meets regularly around different churches in the district. I spoke on Preaching through Exodus, and very much enjoyed both the fellowship and the coffee and cake afterwards.
After a short break I was on duty for four hours of lectures and preaching, beginning with a College devotional on Luke 24, and then three talks on Preaching Christ from the Old Testament.
It was a heavy schedule, but one which I enjoyed being involved in. The level of interest and support from other churches was also very encouraging.
uMfundisi is the Xhosa for 'teacher' and is regularly used for a minister - so that was very much my role today.
I now look forward to the journey home, and reversing the role, so that I shall speak to others about my time here.
Perhaps I shall have time to blog about impressions and conclusions at some other time, but for now I hope these short blogs have given some sense of the wonder of the place that is South Africa, and some idea of the role our church has to play in this part of the world.
More than that, I hope it will sharpen out view of mission; for, as the sign on the exit gate of Bethany Emmanuel church says, 'You are now entering the mission field. Are you prepared with the Gospel?'
Indeed. May we all be missionaries, wherever we are.
And other animals
Alistair Wilson kindly drove us to Mpongo Game Reserve today, where we had a good morning scouting for African animals. The zebra were breathtaking, as were the giraffe, rhino and buck deer which we saw roaming freely in their natural environment.
The hungry hippo by the coffee shop was ready to entertain us and to appear for a loaf of bread. What some animals will not do for attention!
What a wonderful panorama of nature there is all around us here - creation resplendent in its native beauty. And what marvellous lessons it has to teach us. I took a photo of warthogs grazing - moving forward all the time on their knees. Guess that's the way Christians should graze too.
But I've also been doing a little reading on the politics of South Africa, and the remarkable and tragic violence of the apartheid regime. Isn't it amazing how, out of all of animate creation, man should have so found a propensity for violence, disorder and social chaos?
The move towards democracy has been one of the great social changes in the South Africa of my generation. How we ought to pray that the young people growing up in today's South Africa will be shaped by higher ideals than in the past, and that the churches will serve them well.
I look forward to a day of ministry in Dumisani tomorrow.
With the Mamas on Mothers Day
Yesterday morning Anne and I attended the graduation and awards ceremony of Dumisani Bible Institute. It was held in Bethany Emmanuel Baptist Church, and started at 10am, except that the congregation kept arriving during the course of the service - standard practice I'm told! By the time we finished the place was quite full!
There were thirteen students receiving awards, though not all were able to be present for the ceremony. Many of these had been studying for their degree part-time over several years. Their dedication was admirable, and the ceremony marked a remarkable achievement.
It was an honour to be associated with the Dumisani staff for the occasion, and I spoke from 2 Corinthians 4 on the work of the ministry, and on the three dimensions of the gospel: what God has done for us, what he does in us, and what he does for us. The evening offered a bit of relaxation, which we appreciated as we prepared for the Sunday services.
This morning I preached at one of the congregations of the Free Church of Southern Africa, with with our own denomination at home has had a long association. This FCSA is in King William's Town, and is known as Club View. The building is fairly new, and is often used for large convention meetings.
It was a real joy to meet first with the Kirk Session, and then to preach to the congregation. The singing was uplifting, and the warmth of the people was such an encouragement. They had provided snacks for us after the service, as a special treat. It was a real joy to speak to them as they spoke of their affection for some of the missionaries who had served in South Africa.
I look forward to preaching this evening in Bethel Emmanuel Baptist Church, where we had the graduation yesterday.
In the FCSA congregation the women sit apart from the men, and Anne enjoyed being looked after by the ladies. With it being Mothering Sunday back home, I think she was missing the family a bit; but in God's Providence she was singing Psalm 23 with the Mamas of Club View. How better to spend Mothers' Day than to join with people we had never met, in a place we had never seen, and to sing of a common faith in the goodness and mercy of God that follow all of his people all their days?