Monday, December 10, 2007

Wise Men Still Seek Him

The magi were the academics of the ancient world. In many ways they exemplify good research practice.

First, they are looking for anomalous patterns in their astronomical observations. This is Oscar Wilde's 'modern intellect' that expects the unexpected, and won't let it drop till a suitable explanation is reached. So next consider their thorough literature search, which leads them to dig up Balaam's ancient prophecy from Numbers 24:17, and possibly Isaiah's words in Isaiah 60:1-5. Initial experiments and background reading now completed, they are prepared to stake their academic reputation, not to mention their undoubtedly meager research grant income, on a field-trip to an insignificant far-flung province of the Roman Empire.

After a long and arduous journey (which may have taken up to two years, by King Herod's calculations) they visit the palace. Initially this looks like being a red herring, until they attend the local university seminar series to discover a previously unknown citation (Micah 5:2).

And so to Bethlehem. At last they reach their objective
'Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.' [T.S. Eliot]

The point of this article is, perhaps a little wryly, to show that the educated elite came to find the baby of Bethlehem. They were just as keen as hoi polloi. They put aside their uncertainty and prejudice, and were rewarded beyond measure. I issue a plea to fellow academics of all disciplines: Will you make a similar journey of discovery this Christmas?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Positive Thinking

I recently discovered the positive atheism website, which is quite fascinating. Apart from several intemperate warnings against religious evangelists and apologists, it contains interesting viewpoints and quotations from leading atheist thinkers past and present.

The fundamental atheist tenet is "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die," as the stereotypical rich fool says in Jesus' story. This is an ego-centric viewpoint. There seems to be little positive sentiment here!

A more noble thought is expressed in an alternative maxim - "non sibi sed omnibus" - not for self but for all. The "love your neighbour" principle is common to all major world faiths. It also crops up in many politico-philosophical systems from communism to humanism.

So, what does a positive Christian have to offer in reply? The most positive Christian I can think of is the apostle Paul. And his most positive statement is "emoi gar to zeen christos kai to apothanein kerdos." Loosely translated: As far as I'm concerned, living is all about Christ, and dying is even better.

Is this life's ideal? A purpose for the present and a hope for the future? A positive Christian attitude, for sure...

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Christian Opinion of Harry Potter

Pottermania swept across the county again this summer, with the release of the final book in the series. I confess that I have not read The Deathly Hallows as of yet, but I have enjoyed J.K. Rowling's earlier six novels.

Does the Harry Potter series glorify witchcraft? Does it promote anti-Christian values? Does it ...

Balance is essential in assessing such material. Consider two extreme approaches from New Testament times. First at Athens in Acts 17, Paul is heard to quote from two Greek poets, Epimedides and Aratus. So the exemplary convert to Christianity recycles pagan poetry in his sermons, when he feels it might be appropriate. Second at Ephesus in Acts 19, Paul's message leads the former wizards and witches to burn their spell books. This is testimony to all that their new-found faith in Christ is a life-changing experience.

So, what of pagan books? Quote them, or burn them? I should say the distinction lies in whether such books can be classified as literature or genuine evil. What of Harry Potter then? I think J.K. Rowling's genre must be somewhere between Athenian Poetry and Ephesian Black Magic. Therefore every Christian has to make an individual and intelligent choice about the matter. Also, I do not consider it right for me to criticise anyone else's choice. Finally the teaching of 1 Corinthians 10 and Romans 14 means that I should not let my decision cause offence to a fellow Christian in any way.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

the mystery of life

Every day when I walk into work, I go past a red post box upon which someone has scrawled the word meaningless in large letters. I doubt this is the graffiti artist's impression of the Great British Postal Service. I rather interpret it to be his concise impression of life itself. Alas! How post-modern, post-Darwin, post-Dawkins philosophies have robbed us of a sense of purpose, whether individually or globally or on any intermediate scale.

So is life meaningless? It certainly seems to be so, at times. Even the greatest ancient intellect came to this conclusion (see Ecclesiastes chapter 1, for instance). However I would contend that life may often appear to be meaningless, because it is always puzzling. I know plenty of contemporary Christian teaching follows this line of argument ... God is the missing peace in your life's jigsaw puzzle. Nicky Gumbel et al(pha!) present this most eloquently. Another scheme (local to Manchester) is the Riddle of Life.

But I want to turn this allegory upside-down. God is not just the "missing piece" or even "missing peace" in your life's jigsaw puzzle. Rather, you are a missing piece in his intricate celestial puzzle. This seems more consistent with Jesus' presentation in Luke 15 - his lost sheep, lost coin, lost son trilogy of stories.

Of course, the fact that God has personally come to find us (through his Son) does not absolve us of the responsibility of searching for Him. This is precisely the message Paul presented to the pre-modern, pre-Darwin, pre-Dawkins society of Athens (Acts 17).

Which brings me neatly to my final point. Let me share with you one of my favourite Bible verses. It is a promise from Almighty God Himself, in Jeremiah 29.13 - "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart."

Friday, April 20, 2007


The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 grills politicians, academics, lawyers et al on a daily basis. The intimidating presenters never seem to be lost for words! As each specialist arrives, the presenters greet them with a barrage of insightful questions.

It reminds me of the scene in Matthew 22. The Lord Jesus is in Jerusalem, his Messianic credentials are being examined closely by the authorities. Three different groups of people ask him "old chestnut" questions, to which they are sure there cannot be right answers ... and the Messiah confounds them all!

First up, the political question. "Should we pay taxes to Caesar?" What an issue to raise in Jerusalem, hotbed of Jewish fundamentalism and yet centre of occupying Roman administration! He would have to offend someone, whether he answered yes or no. So what did He reply? "Give Caesar what belongs to him. Give God what belongs to Him." Wow! That's more than playing with a straight bat! That's knocking the hapless interrogators for six!

Second, the hypothetical question. Rather more academic. "If a woman is widowed seven times, after marrying seven brothers one-at-a-time, who will she be married to in the resurrection?" (Questioner almost falls over laughing ... how ridiculous to consider the resurrection to be anything more than metaphorical!) The sniggers soon stop. The Messiah sternly points out that God describes Himself as "I am the God of Abraham," 400 years after Abraham's death. Abraham lives! God is the God of the living! Not the dead! Resurrection is literal. Life is eternal. Marriage is only temporary, unnecessary in heaven.

Third, the legal question. "Which is the greatest of God's laws?" asks an earnest lawyer. "Love God," says the Messiah, the only one who ever lived up to this law. And there's more ... "Love your neighbour," says the Messiah, the one who showed the greatest neighbourly love when He gave His life up so that His fellow humans could have their sins forgiven by His Father God.

No more questions from the audience. The Messiah has silenced his critics.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Gospel Haiku

Christ died for our sins
From the grave He rose again
Jesus Christ is Lord


This haiku is a celebration of the Christian message
of Easter. The first line is taken from 1 Corinthians 15:3, which Paul states as the basic truth of his evangelistic message. The middle line is a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 15:4, regarding the resurrection which is a central tenet of the Christian faith. ("If Christ is not alive, your faith is meaningless" - Paul again - 1 Corinthians 15:17.) The final line is a direct quotation from Philippians 2:10-11.

The haiku follows the traditional syllabic pattern of 5/7/5, based on the Japanese hokku pattern. I hope this shows that the Christian message can (and must) be relayed across the world with respect to cultural conventions, although without compromising the raw power of the Gospel.

Each line describes a Christian belief that is firmly embedded in history. (1) Christ died on the cross at Calvary. (2) He rose from the dead three days later. No-one disputes that the tomb was empty! Although unbelievers have attempted to perpetrate alternative explanations, the original resurrection story still withstands careful scrutiny. (3) One day everyone will have to acknowledge the universal dominion of Jesus Christ. God has appointed this future day already. Some will bow grudgingly as a precursor to their judgment. Others will bow willingly in anticipation of His kingdom.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

God and recursive acronyms

Note: this article is aimed fairly and squarely at computer scientists and hackers. Apologies to everyone else.

The free software movement abounds with recursive acronyms. Examples include GNU's Not Unix, PNG's Not GIF, etc. Some people see this kind of circular definition as poetical. Others prefer the mathematical intractability. Either way, recursion is symbolic of both complexity and beauty.

God, when describing Himself, employs recursive naming schemes. Consider Moses' meeting with God [Exodus 3], familiar to both Jewish and Christian faiths. When Moses asks God, "What is Your Name?" then God replies "I AM WHO I AM." God's character is incomparable with anyone other than Himself. I AM WHO I AM brings before us God's uniqueness, constancy and eternity...

God also defines His emotions recursively. He describes why He has chosen to rescue the Israelite people from Egypt [Deuteronomy 7]. He says "I love you ... because I love you." God is love, and this is the only reason He needs to love. God's love is determined entirely by the subject, not at all the object, of that love.

So, is this recursive, infinite God entirely unknowable to humanity? No! Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to tell us who "I AM" really is, and to show us what "I LOVE" really means...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Why Jesus?

Up to now I have never actually explained why Jesus is "my kind of Messiah". Here are three reasons why I choose Jesus as my Lord and my God...

Jesus cares

How many times have I walked past a beggar on the street today? At least twice, each time fiercely staring at the pavement in front of me, desperately avoiding eye contact. The Lord Jesus Christ was never like that. He stopped to chat with beggars, much to the disgust of his more affluent audience.

But Jesus did more than just ignore social barriers. He removed them altogether, restoring genuine equality and social justice. Whereas Robin Hood robbed from the rich to give to the poor, the Lord Jesus gives to rich and poor alike from his own spiritual riches. "Blessed are the poor, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them" he says.

Jesus challenges

He questioned the values of contemporary society. Apathy, hypocrisy, mockery. Whatever preconceived notions people had about him and his message, he made those people think again. They marvelled at his authoritative words, his diplomatic statement of outrageous truth. Read the words of Jesus again and see if they challenge you!

Jesus changes

Most famously, he turned water into wine. His followers clearly abandoned the task of exhaustively recording his full list of miracles (John 20.30). His greatest transformation takes place in people's hearts. He brought new life to so many people in that day. And he's still in the same business today. "If any man be in Christ he is a new creature altogether. The old has gone, the new has arrived!"