Saturday, October 18, 2014


Here is some more joy from Jacques Ellul.  Painful to read, but important I think.

"Public opinon... is completely oriented in favour of technique; only technical phenomena interest modern men.  The machine has made itself master of the heart and brain both of the average man and of the mob.  What excites the crowd?  Performance..."

In other words, getting things done is all that counts.  Efficiency and achievement rule the day.

"What is important is to go higher and faster; the object of the performance means little.  The act is sufficient unto itself.  Modern man can think only in terms of figures, and the higher the figures the greater his satisfaction.  He looks for nothing beyond the marvellous escape mechanism that technique has allowed him, to offset the very repressions caused by the life technique forces him to lead.  He is reduced in the process to a near nullity."

The means has become the end, and everything genuinely human is in danger of being lost.  As Ellul goes on to say, when the increase in performance becomes the measure of all things, the individual human is lost; he becomes part of the mob, because only the whole can drive performance on.  Collective performance expresses the will to power of the mob, to which the individual will is sublimated.

The results are two-fold.  On the one hand, a mystical devotion to technique, expressing itself in absolute faith in progress; on the other, a "deep conviction that technical problems are the only serious ones.  The amused glance people give the philosopher; the lack of interest displayed in metaphysical and theological questions...; the rejection of the humanities which comes from the conviction that we are living in a technical age and education must correspond to it; the search for the immediately practical, carrying the implication that history is useless..."

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you that this is indeed the world we live in.  And I want out.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Killing sin

I have recently finished re-reading John Owen On the Mortification of Sin, something which I do periodically and always find beneficial.  It has been a few years since I last dusted it off, and this time through I noted something I have not spotted before, and which struck me as very different from much of the instruction currently given on personal change.

Owen spends some time setting out what it means to mortify sin, and makes it clear that the power to so comes from the Spirit, and is given only to believers.  Then he gets on to some practical steps, of which there are nine, including "Get a clear sense of... the guilt... the danger... the evil... of the sin", "the first actings of sin to be vigorously opposed", and "Thoughtfulness of the excellence of the majesty of God".  These directions make up the bulk of the work.

But when he is done with them, Owen writes "Now, the things which I have hitherto insisted on are rather of things preparatory to the work aimed at than such as will effect it". In other words, think all you want about the guilt and evil of your sin, put as much effort as you can into meditation on the majesty of God, you still haven't even started to mortify sin.  For the actual battle against sin, Owen has only two directions, and since one of these is really just a reminder that this is the work of the Spirit, there is actually only one thing to do that belongs to the real fight against sin:

"Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin".

That's it.  Of course, we are used to exercising faith in Christ for the forgiving of our sin, but for Owen it is faith also which will kill it.  Setting faith at work here means regarding Christ as the one who will defeat sin in us, actively expecting him to do it, and then waiting for him to come through.

This is as far away from the CBT-disguised-as-sanctification that we often see as you can get.

Two things really strike me about this.  Firstly, it will only work if Jesus really is a gracious Lord, and really has conquered sin.  It's not a technique, but an appeal to a person with power to exercise it mercifully towards us.  It consists in expectation, and waiting, and looking, and longing.  In other words, it throws us absolutely on Christ, and not on any source of peace we can summon up in ourselves.  (Don't speak peace to yourself until God has spoken it to you, Owen says).

Secondly, this clarifies for me that sanctification, no less than justification, is by faith alone, because by Christ alone.  And this is both liberating and glorious.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Homo Economicus

Here is some cheery analysis of the subordination of human beings to economic techniques, from Jacques Ellul, writing originally in 1954:

The bourgeois morality was and is primarily a morality of work...  Work purifies, ennobles; it is a virtue and a remedy.  Work is the only thing that makes life worthwhile; it replaces God and the life of the spirit.  More precisely, it identifies God with work: success becomes a blessing.  God expresses his satisfaction by distributing money to those who have worked well...  This attitude was carried so far that bourgeois civilization neglected every virtue but work.

Sound at all like the Conservative Party Conference?

For the proletariat the result was alienation...  It might be thought that the primacy of the economy over man (or rather the possession of man by the economy) would have come into question.  But unfortunately, the real, not the idealized, proletarian has concentrated entirely on ousting the bourgeoisie and making money...  For the proletariat, as for the bourgeoisie, man is only a machine for production and consumption.

Sound at all like the modern Labour Party?

The counterpart of the necessary reduction of human life to working is its reduction to gorging.  If man does not already have certain needs, they must be created.  The important concern is not the psychic and mental structure of the human being but the uninterrupted flow of any and all goods which invention allows the economy to produce.

In summary:
Money is the principal thing; culture, art, spirit, morality are jokes and not to be taken seriously.  On this point there is once again full agreement between the bourgeoisie and the Communists.

Here's the thing - modern life is not characterised by the conflict between right and left.  That just sits on top of a very substantial agreement over ends and means.  The end is the efficient functioning of the economy, and the means is the efficient marshalling of human capital and the efficient exploitation of natural and artificial resources.  If there is some difference as to how these means are to be established, they are relatively trivial.  Capitalism and Communism are both examples of economic techniques which dehumanise man and turn him into a machine - and therefore each individual into a very small cog in the machine.

How is one to fight against this?  Surely not by planning a better economic or political life; this is just to replace the current technique with another.  We must refuse the invitation to be inhuman, even if that means refusing the invitation to be wealthy and comfortable.  We must live for other things - really live for them, not just use them as distraction and refreshment around the edges of our work.  For Christians and for churches, I think it means resisting the encroachment of technique in the Church.  We are not there to be efficient, or to utilise people, or to complete the plan, but to know and enjoy the living God.

And that is revolutionary.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ministering spirits

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels.  Angels are funny things.  They are all over the place in Christian architecture and iconography, and for those in more liturgical traditions they form, in theory at least, part of the context of worship ('with angels and archangels...').  But I am not sure we have much practical use for them.  Indeed, they are something of an embarrassment.  It is just possible to construe worship of God as being compatible with our modern world; after all, God can be re-envisioned fairly easily in ways that fit the post-enlightenment paradigm in which we live.  But to believe in Angels puts you in the same realm as people who believe in the healing power of crystals, and people who take astrology seriously, and whoever it is who reads all those books about near-death experiences.

It's impossible to avoid the fact that one cannot tell the Bible story without angels. The presence of Gabriel at the Annunciation is sufficient to secure their place in the narrative. But other than these 'big events' - with which I suspect we are happy because of long exposure and also the sense that these are dramatic one-offs and therefore not normative - angels mostly appear within those parts of Scripture for which we have least time. The weird bits of the book of Daniel give a portrait of angelic warfare, linked to human prayer, which seems uncomfortably mythological. The various scenes in Revelation featuring angels are often so bizarre as to require explaining (away) in other terms.

All in all, I think for most of us angels are acceptable backdrop, so long as we don't seriously have to believe in them or their activity.

I think we could gain a lot by recovering a genuine, practical faith in the work of angels. For starters, a God who intervenes by the ministry of angels is very clearly not the god of the deists, and so a principal idol is cast down. Moreover, the presence of angels around us signals God's own presence in the mundane details of our lives.

Perhaps the biggest thing for me is that to believe in angels as the Bible portrays them is to believe that we are caught up in a world of spiritual activity - and more specifically spiritual conflict. The Archangel Michael cast down the dragon, who now roams the earth in fury.

Friday, September 26, 2014

What words mean 1: 'Extremism'

'Extremism' is all over the news at the moment, mainly in relation to the activities of the so-called 'Islamic State'.  Sometimes 'extremist' is used with qualifiers - 'Islamist extremists', 'Sunni extremists', 'religious extremists' - but often just by itself 'extremist groups'.

But what does 'extremist' even mean?  It conjures up an Aristotelian view of life in which the mean is the ultimately desirable thing.  For Aristotle (or at least the Aristotle of parts of the Nicomachean Ethics), extremes are in general to be avoided.  For example, on a spectrum of abject cowardice through foolhardy bravery, both extremes are to be avoided; the mean is a cautious bravery.  Is this the sort of thing that people mean when they talk about extremists?  Apparently not.  I don't think that when the BBC writes about Islamist extremists that they mean that one ought to strive for moderate Islamism, or that a Sunni extremist is someone who thinks and acts like a Sunni Muslim more than they ought to.

Can I suggest that what is actually meant by 'extremist' is usually something more like 'someone who doesn't take the blasé, indifferentist approach to questions of reality and life which is preferred within our liberal democracies'.  The average Westerner in the 21st century thinks that ultimate reality is pointless, and therefore holding serious beliefs about ultimate reality is pointless.  Arguing about metaphysics makes no sense.  Believing, on the basis of one's convictions about ultimate reality, that there is a right and a wrong way to live and to order society is just daft - and probably offensive.  Everyone ought to confirm to the bland, beige reality of secular life, and if they do entertain speculations about the true nature of the world and human life, keep it to themselves.

An extremist, then, is just anyone who thinks that things really matter, that there is a higher reality than the economy and a few beers at the weekend.  Western society, as a whole, finds such people intolerable.  People who try to live in a way which is logically and practically consistent with a particular view of ultimate reality are dangerous.

I am very much okay with extremism.  I think a society which cannot contain extremists is already broken.  The problem I have with IS is not that they are extremists (in the sense outlined above), but that the beliefs which they hold and try to live out are wrong, and therefore wicked.

My contention would be that the language of extremism is used to avoid having to ask questions like: 'are their beliefs about ultimate reality true or false?'  This is a question which must be avoided, because it leads to other questions like 'do Islamic beliefs (or some variant or subset of these) about ultimate reality lead, when taken seriously, to IS and its like?'  I don't propose to answer that; only to show that the point of talking about extremism is to put people a priori beyond the pale, so that we don't have to consider their actual beliefs, something that our mushed together Western non-culture will always struggle to do.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Keeping quiet

If I had said "I will speak thus", I would have betrayed the generation of your children.

In context, this verse in Psalm 73 is saying something pretty controversial in today's world (and church).  The Psalmist had big doubts about the goodness of God, and he kept them to himself.  And looking back, he is glad he kept them to himself.  His doubts could have damaged other people.

I'm all for honesty, and I'm absolutely committed to the idea that the church is a community which accepts doubters, and doesn't discourage openness about struggles with faith.  But I do wonder whether sometimes 'personal integrity' is viewed as an ultimate good.  I think this, so I have to say it.  I doubt this, so I'd best express that.  This Psalm suggests that sometimes it would be better to have internal anguish rather than cause others to suffer.

I just thought that was interesting in a world where everyone has to 'be themselves', and a church where contradicting centuries of Christian teaching and belief is applauded as heroic so long as you are doing it for the sake of integrity.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

To the preacher

I hope the sermon preparation  has gone well; I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say (although this week it will have to be the recording, as I will be spending this morning teaching eleven year olds from Ruth 3 - awkward).  I just wanted to let you know what I need today.  It's the same as all the other weeks, but I know we're all forgetful and these things easily slip our minds.

I need Jesus.

I need Jesus, not as a slogan or a theological idea, but as himself, in person.  I need the God-man, who walked on the same globe on which I walk, and breathed the same air I breathe.  I need Jesus, not as an untouchable high and exalted deity, but as God-with-us, humbled to the dust - yes, even to the cross.  I need Jesus, not as a model of how to live, but as the giver of life, the conqueror of death, the one who spreads his righteousness over me.

For God's sake, and for mine (and for yours, for you shall be judged for what you say), don't explain the Bible to me.  Don't teach me some lessons.  Don't apply any moral principles.  For God's sake give me Jesus.  It is your sole commission to proclaim him as food for hungry souls, light for those in darkness, healing for the spiritually and physically sick, a Shepherd to those wandering alone, Lord and King to those adrift on a sea of their own contradictory desires.

For God's sake, and for mine, remember that I might die today.  I need comfort for death.  And remember that I might have to live tomorrow.  I need comfort for life.  Nothing can give it but Jesus.

For God's sake, and for mine, if the message you have prepared for this morning is not Jesus - if he is not the heart and soul of it - screw it up now.  Don't worry about preparing something else; there isn't time.  Just stand up and tell us all that Jesus died and rose for us.  Say it like you mean it, and that will be okay for us.