Saturday, 27 April 2019


“What men do is shaped by what they believe they can do.” John Roberts

I was fascinated to watch the first part of Niall Ferguson's new series on Civilization recently, in which he seeks to examine why the West became the centre for the development of numerous empires in the 16th century, whilst other realms, like China, failed to do so.

Niall puts this down to the development of what he defines as the West's 'six killer apps'.  These are:
The Work Ethic

The first episode looked at how it was Portugal's appetite to monopolize the market in spices that brought about sea-fairing exploration and expansion and how china has now embarked upon the very same competitive process in developing its new 'belt and road' enterprise.

Lots of interesting observations, no doubt, yet even as I watched and listened, I felt unsettled because, as useful as these 'apps' might be, they were not the full story.
The reason China can now apply these means to itself is because a fundamental shift happened in its 'hardware' to make it a nation that would do as the empires of the West had done.

Almost a century ago, through the process of the cultural revolution, Mao and his followers replaced the philosophical 'story' of China from one based upon Confucianism to Communism, and the present expansion is the clear consequence.

If that's the case, what was it that caused the West to become the power house of growth and change some 500 odd years earlier?

Europe changed from a feudal backwater in the 15th and 16th centuries because in 1453, Constantinople fell, and all the great learning stored there flooded back into the continent, seeding both the Renaissance in culture and the Reformation in the church. The 'striving creed' of Christianity (John Roberts - The Triumph of the West) found its feet, and the West truly reaped the benefits. 

What all such changes tell us is that it is the stories which inspire and motivate us that really make the difference in what we do and how we do it. If we believe there is a higher goal or a bigger picture, then we understand our place and time to have value and meaning. 

The problem in the West today is that above and beyond our immediate needs, there is very little seen as providing that purpose, and so we become caught in the latest technology (individually viewed as 'killer apps') without thinking about the deeper ramifications of what's actually unfolding around us. Ferguson's approach here is telling in that respect, because it rests on entirely materialistic means and ends when the truth is that these kinds of development have deeply spiritual connections and ramifications (consider, for example, Tolkein's insights into these in The Lord of the Rings, or Lewis' striking commentary on the matter in his Cosmic Trilogy).

It's easy for us to detach the benefits of such change from their true beginnings in the West today - two world wars, secular culture and the constant spin of new technology make it extremely hard for us at times to look deeper into the why and how of being where we are, but the truth remains that all of these common things now are the results of several hundred years of seismic shifts in the way Europe and later America came to define its reason and thereby its role.

We live at a moment when much of the globe is, again, in convulsion, and the prevalent threats of totalitarianism and also perceived meaninglessness are widespread, so it can be of real value to re-discover the rich sources of truth and value deposited by the events of the 16th century, rooted in the notion that we have value because we are the handiwork of God, redeemed by His salvic work in Jesus Christ.
It's a meaning that many today are afraid to raise or encounter, and some are very clearly seeking to erase or re-write, but it is one that we shouldn't avoid - it's been far too important to the history of humanity, and its ramifications are vital for the past and the future.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Captivating through what's good

"He has given you a spacious land, lacking nothing". Judges 18:10.

Good Friday probably isn't a day most people, Christian or otherwise, would equate with the likes of big foot, the paranormal, flying saucers and the like, but Josh Retterer's Mockingbird piece, published this week, is a true gem in several respects regarding why such thoughts can and should be considered even as we reflect on the work of our astonishing saviour, not least, of course, because the cross is about the cosmic reconciling of things in heaven and on earth (Colossians 1:20)... I feel an X Files reference coming on!

The article spoke volumes about two things in particular - our engagement with all of life because of grace (the example provided will give you a shock) and how that it so often best seen in our enjoyment of what we do.

My own studies this month have been about the nature of how the spiritual is inherent in the fleshly - food, clothing, nakedness, sex, marriage, and how all of these realms are given (creationally) and restored (redemptively) in the flesh of Jesus, given to the world that we might feed on the life He brings from heaven (which is the essence of grace).

When we partake of His broken body and shed blood, lifted up at the cross to reconcile heaven and earth, we are participating entirely in what we ruined being restored - paradise is regained here and only here, and that means we belittle and defraud God's full spending of Himself in Christ if we deny that all things are indeed His in that love.

The spacious land that Calvary opens is evidenced in the moment Christ cries "finished!", and the veil is rent and the graves are open (Matthew 27:51,52). The world, and all within it, cannot but respond to the victory the offering of His life brings.

So, this easter, truly revel and delight in the greatness of the life He bestows; enjoy and thereby show a foretaste of all that is coming through the exquisite abundance of the Almighty's love for our needy world.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

The religious itch

"And the people sat down to eat, and rose up to play" Exodus 32:6.

Anthropology (in some cases) defines religion as things which 'establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations by providing a frame of reference for existence'.

How does that work, then, when you're tied to a particular lifestyle - secularism perhaps, or slavery?

If you're soaked in the secular, you might at times feel you're chained to certain constant demands (is it any wonder that social media has brought a rise in suicide?). If you're a bonded slave, you might well be yearning for a little of that secular lifestyle, but either scenario probably makes you more 'religious' than your recognize, because it tethers you in exactly the way that the anthropologist would note.

When the Israelites lost sight of Moses (and thereby, God) at Mount Sinai, they went all out for the secular option. They'd spent years in servitude amidst a culture that seemed to invent a new god whenever the need arose, so they thought it was as good a time as any to become guilty of the 's' word... shopping for their own new god.

It's readily clear what they wanted here - having a ruling principal personified that allowed for plenty of rest and play, in other words, any image or idol shouldn't do or need anything more than to validate their own wants and desires.

There it is.
We think religion is about something 'other worldly' - venerating what's unseen (and therefore, almost certainly unknowable), but that wasn't the religion seen in this incident, and numerous others. Religion, it turns out, is the most down to earth part of what you and I do in the hum-drum, everyday stuff of life - our yearning for more in the mundane, which is why sex, drugs and escapism are always so major - we profoundly want more than for it just to be mundane.

Some, of course, tell us that there isn't anything more... and go on to make a religion out of that telling (see, even they cannot get past the need to scratch that itch), but we all know that behind the monotony we are buried in, there are stars (markers within and without) which occasionally glimmer and shock us, reminding us of something deeply true.

Beyond the slavery of the secular, beyond our burying ourselves in the moment, the deeper reality calls and longs for us to be more... than just.... religious.

All you need is...

Brilliant review this week in a UK Newspaper of David Zahl's truly insighful new work, Seculosity. Both are well worth a read.