Thank you, David Mitchell! (End Times prophecies 4)

FraserDon’t you just love it when things come together? It’s happened to me many times, and a few of these have provoked a blog from me. This is another one, and I am truly amazed at times just where things come from. Having finished my most recent Christian book on my Kindle app on my phone (a very good and deep one that I must review here soon), I decided to go for a bit of light relief; I had come across an eBook by David Mitchell, the very funny and erudite satirical comedian who writes for The Observer and frequents our television screens, and often has me bent over in tears of laughter. I’ve never bought any of his books, but since it was only 99 pence, I thought “now there is a book I do not need to ask Karen’s permission to buy!” You see, I often have to make sure I don’t indulge too much in my addiction: books! The advent of Kindle has at least one advantage in that I cannot hide actual books from my wife’s enquiries, like “how much did this cost?”, “haven’t you got enough books?”, “you’ve only just bought one and I’m sure you haven’t read that yet!” and at the door of the bookshop; “No! Walk on!!!”

This is an unfair picture I’m painting of my good wife. She only wishes to curb my problem, but she’s good to me. Any book I think I might need for my research into my own writing or even just for my own theological self-education is fine. Without her, I would buy too much. Four bulging bookcases so far, and I know I’ve only read about half of them! However, Mitchell’s book serves no other purpose except to make me laugh, or so I thought…

It certainly is a good laugh, very satirical and scathing, but in a typically Oxbridge/ BBC/ Radio 4 comedy sort of way, all puffing-out-big-words-to-confuse-the-plebs-while-still-making-real-fun-of-the-establishment humour. As one who thinks too much, the title really drew me: “Thinking about it only makes it worse” – how apt that is for me, I thought, though I can find any reason to convince myself I should buy the next book, if I’m honest!

At the same time, I’ve been going through a phase. I’ve being going through a lot of phases, I suppose. Maybe that’s just middle-age, but I truly feel it is more than just a mid-life crisis. Many things I took for granted, or accepted as read and accepted, have been up for grabs, not least particular beliefs revolving around my faith. I have always been the outsider, looking in on a tradition I was not born into, and asking just what we believe, and where it comes from: God, our Bible, or our tradition? However, I also fall into the trap of hearing something repeated so often that I just come to see it as true. It’s human nature, and I’m not an alien, despite the many accusations I have had fired at me by those who don’t understand why I always challenge, question, enquire. Anyone who has been following my blogs will know I’ve had a new topic recently that heretofore was always off my radar. Anyone new to my blog will see in the title here the number 4, and I’m afraid that’s a giveaway, so regular followers are not in any Gnostic-like ‘secret knowledge club’. Here I go again on my own, going down the only road I’ve ever known… no, hold on, that’s an old Whitesnake classic! I was really into them in my headbanging days, so their lyrics were bound to have bounced around my skull a lot and caused a bit of damage. “A bit!” you say?

What’s happening to my writing??? I’ve been reading David Mitchell all morning while in a doctor’s waiting room, and it’s rubbing off on me. Now there is a topic I could discuss; our NHS! It’s getting harder to see a doctor about anything, isn’t it?

Aaaaand… such ranting is what satirists like Mitchell are all about. He admits that he makes a living off things that are going bad: “utopia is a living hell for a satirical columnist!” In his amusing writings, which make good points about the world we inhabit, I discovered a kindred spirit; a man who is very given to ranting about things that annoy him, but who always looks for balance, and wishes to be careful that he rants about the things that deserve to be ranted about, and not to go down the road of our right-wing tabloid press and the social media postings of Faragists, who just want to declare that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. What exactly a handbasket is, and why we are all in it on this road to hell, is something that Meatloaf expressed when he wished to know why he repeated this favourite phrase of his father, but I digress again!

My point is… I hear this sort of rhetoric all the time from my fellow evangelicals, so much so that it used to go past my ears and out the door, but since I’ve come to see the many, many failings of dispensationalism, the words have begun to grate on me. The only way I can deal with them is to picture Private Frazer [pictured above] from Dad’s Army crying “Doooomed! We’re all doomed, ah tell ye!” every time I hear that the world is getting worse each day. In case you weren’t sure, dispensationalism (big word, eh?) is just the current predominant interpretation of end times prophecies that you’ll hear across most evangelical churches that states we are in the ‘last’ Laodicean age of the church (despite the fact that the church in China and the Middle East is anything but Laodicean, and I can point to many ‘Ephesian’ churches not far from me!), and includes stuff like ‘the restoration of Israel’ marking the last generation, and ‘the rapture’ preceding ‘the tribulation’ when ‘the beast’ will come to power and make everyone get a mark tattooed on their head or hands… so that stuff you hear isn’t ‘what the Bible says’, it’s what some preacher years ago said that he thinks the Bible says, and many have just followed his lead blindly.

You see, I have to do what I do, and that means that I sit and think, and analyse everything I hear in our churches (when I’m listening, which is nowhere near as much as I used to). And then what I do is think to myself: “Is it really getting worse?” and I think back to all we learnt in history. Yes, we have the rise of barbarians like ISIS today; truly gruesome and beyond explanation, but there were times in the past when entire cities were sacked by marauding armies and all its citizens wiped out. They all did it: Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Genghis Khan, even Israel! There were stories of cities in China who refused entry to Khan and were left, once sacked, with the heads of all the former inhabitants piled up at the gate, as a lesson to others. It was an accepted fate to happen in such times. There’s even a Chinese blessing: “May you live in uninteresting times.” Jerusalem suffered that fate in AD70, which was the main thing Jesus was warning them of. Might it be safe to say that ISIS and other extremists are the exception rather than the rule these days? Looking at things like the convening of the UN and the Geneva convention that dictates international law now, we’ve come a long way from even the 17th century, when the likes of Oliver Cromwell was credited as burning the innocent citizens of Drogheda to death, so I offer that extremists are exceptional today. More so than in the past. Those who would argue with me are listening to certain news outlets and reading certain newspapers that have an agenda to drive us into more fear and apprehension; many of them would be those who call for greater powers for governments to ‘snoop’ on us, and clearly would like us to be more scared; it even helps the sale of their papers and the price they charge advertisers. Think about it. There are also many who would like us to be distracted from where all the money is really going, so the continuing scares over extremists and how that means all immigrants and all those of a different cultural background to ours are the real enemy just serve their ends to make us turn on each other. Of course, the money all vanished in that awful credit crunch, as if that never happened before! Remember Wall Street saw a similar crash in our grandparents’ time.

And Ebola! Oh my goodness, it’s going to spread into every country and kill us all! No, in fact, it’s being controlled and being reduced in many places, but once the ‘sensational’ news is no longer that sensational, our media are onto the next scare. What on Earth did Europeans in the 14th century think when the Black Death crossed over their nations, killing thousands? The only time in history that the population of Europe actually decreased!

My problem is that the circles I move in largely listen to all this stuff and just don’t agree with my assessment, since it flies in the face of all those TV screens and pictures on the news stands. Of course I’m talking nonsense, they reassure each other, I am sure… If only I could find someone from a different background to my own to say the same thing! Then I came across David Mitchell saying he was talking about all this ‘bad news’ and trying to put it into perspective, and receiving a lot of flak from others who also saw all the ‘bad news’ and accused him of being complacent. His reply?

“Saying that things could be worse, and that they have been worse for the overwhelming majority of humans throughout the overwhelming majority of history, is not the same as being complacent. It is stating an undeniable fact. It is retaining a sane sense of proportion. It should be reassuring, but at the moment many people hate to hear it.”

Thank you, David Mitchell! I could never have expected you to be the one to concur with me. You’ve no interest in any of the theology that I debate (as far as I can tell – who knows, you might read books on the Five Points of Calvinism before you turn off your bedside lamp!), and you’re in a job that you admit seeks each day for things to rant about – you could do well from the ongoing fear and paranoia, but instead, you adopt a sane head and take a balanced look at the world around you. And you recall your history lessons too!

“History repeats itself.

Has to.

No one ever listens.”

– Steve Turner

Yes, many things are bad, but there are many good things too. Are we, as Christians, not called to find these things and enhance them, spread love and peace, and not get sucked up into the calls for retaliation and finger-pointing, or even worse, switching off since all we can see is that blinkin’ handbasket!

I love how you sum up our current fears, David: “Our disdain for the bathwater is making the baby give us anxious looks.”

Grace be with you.

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Let the light shine (brief thought on the gospel service)

My good friend who is a Presbyterian minister finally gave me an answer to a question I’ve had for a while, and it was how we managed to have Sunday Evening gospel services; when did they start? There is certainly no scriptural basis for having two Sunday services, yet most evangelical churches here in Northern Ireland stick rigidly to the morning communion service and evening gospel service, with the ever-present “invite someone along with you to hear the gospel!”

So how did it come about? Are you as keen to know as I was? He told me it was in late Victorian times here that in any town or village, churches were the first to get electric light and people would come at night to see this new marvel, and so ministers thought “well, now they’re here… we may as well share the gospel with them!” This may not be the case in other countries, but I’m confident you might find similar reasons.

I’m not sure about you, but I’ve noticed a big change recently. Numbers attending the morning communion were always less than the evening gospel service, even maybe as recently as ten years ago, but now that has been turned on its head. My brother-in-law is a Baptist pastor in Scotland and concurs it’s the same there, with one colleague of his seeing 200 in the morning, and 10 in the evening!! Yet still, if anyone dare suggest we change things and drop the gospel service or change the format, we are met with accusations of ‘watering down’ the message, or becoming ‘easy Christians’ – as if we are just meant to carry on regardless and suffer meetings for their own sake. A friend at Bible College did a field term in a church in England that held a full gospel service with a hellfire sermon, hymns, announcements, and a collection, and nobody but the pastor, his wife, and my friend were present! I kid you not!!

We don’t need to just ‘maintain’ the evening service, we need to make it attractive to non-believers. And I don’t think saying “we now have fluorescent lights!” will work.

Grace be with you.

God is in control?

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This was a meme posted on a private discussion forum I was on with fellow church members during a discussion about a choice we had to make. My immediate, gut reaction was not one of “yeah, that’s right! Praise God!” that maybe many think I should have had. No, it was more of a “Hmmmm, not sure about this…” moment. It just didn’t add up for me.

I’m often finding myself commenting on some memes, just because I analyse what they state and come up short in my mind (see my previous blog on pride, for example). This is one of those that somehow shouts out to you a ‘truth’ that you want to grab hold of, but it really has little practical application, once you think about it. For instance, if your teenage child came to you at exam time and said they really didn’t want to revise and proclaimed this to you: “If God wants me to succeed, I can’t mess it up!” I think I could safely say you’d be quick to reply something like: “If you’re not going to be properly prepared for something, God ain’t gonna just bail you out!”

Wouldn’t you?

This could lead to a huge blog and/or debate about the sovereign will of God, which is a many-layered theological concept that has many differing views across it. I shall not go into length here, but if you apply this thinking to anything you do, your belief is actually more akin to an Islamic fatalism ‘if Allah wills it’ worldview. We Christians feel differently about this, otherwise we would not pray about things or intercede for others’ needs – we are asking God to do something he hasn’t done yet, so we believe we can affect and change his will. If you really think you cannot change his mind on things, then you deserve the label of ‘Hyper-Calvinist’ and you may as well just stop praying altogether. Look up the account of Abraham bartering with God over Sodom in Genesis 18 if you’re still not convinced.

One way such thinking can lead into problems is with ‘prosperity preaching’ that leads to a selfish Christian who thinks that nothing can harm them or go against their own desires and pursuit of things ‘if they only have enough faith’. This view of God’s will being discussed here leads to those who have plenty adopting the concept that God wants them to have wealth, and never consider any other reason for their fortune, like having certain privileges borne from their background. Or consider that God might have intended to allow them wealth for them to use for more than selfish gain.

Another way (again, selfish) is to see problems in the world as ‘beyond our control’ and leave it up to God to sort out, when he has commanded us in scripture repeatedly to get our hands dirty and take action to help others and change things around us when we can (a lot of this is symptomatic of the dispensationalist worldview).

Yes, I admit that what this meme may convey is that in ‘the grand scheme of things’ God has an overarching plan, and my life is in his hands and will not fall apart, but in my everyday living, my decisions, I still have a responsibility to act reasonably and soberly, and not do anything to jeopardise what goodness might come my way. It’s called free will, and it is what we invoke when we wish to defend God against the “your God is cruel and uncaring!” jibes of others. He gave free will to Adam and Eve, and he gave it to you and me. We can mess things up for ourselves.

Grace be with you.

[Cue for my favourite theological joke again (worth repeating): A hyper-Calvinist fell down the stairs. When he go to the bottom, he said “Thank God that’s over!”]