Skip to content

Better_Together_logoHere's a little 5 minute topical talk I gave this lunchtime. To be honest it basically "on the hoof" but perhaps the way in to the gospel through the referendum might be useful to you in conversations / talks. If you like the idea of it, steal it. If you hate it, say why in comments so I can get better...


I began with the Scottish independence referendum. My way into the gospel was simply to say that it's a mature democracy which allows its members to go their own way - to hand them over to the independence they want. In the Bible, God also hands us over to independence but then hands over Christ. When Christ brings us home, then we're truly free. Sorta thing.

Not that the "Yes" campaign is sinful or that union with Westminster is anything like union with Christ! But if you talk about the referendum people will listen...

tep-podcastcover-1024x1024On this episode we talk about opportunities related to the WW1 centenary.

Recently David Bourne and Andy Johnston put on a wonderful event in Hailsham to mark the centenary of the First World War (see here). It was held at the Parish Church and it seemed like the whole town came out.

First Andy spoke of the causes of the war. Then David spoke of the course of the war. After a refreshments break and act of remembrance, I spoke about Jesus, the Prince of Peace. It was a very successful event generating wonderful gospel conversations afterwards.

Could you put on something similar where you are?

Here Andy Brinkley and I talk about the opportunities of this year and then listen to my 20 minute talk...



For other resources concerning the WW1 celebrations:

Download My Talk by itself



punEvery now and then I have a go at #1PUN on Twitter. It was started by Juan Pun as a daily joke competition held at 1pm GMT. There were judges, a points system, spreadsheets and everything.

Recently, without warning or explanation, Juan Pun stopped overseeing 1PUN. Now no-one tweets out the reminders, no-one is judging our efforts and there are no official winners. But 1PUN continues. It seems like it's as popular as ever. And, in a way, the scoring does happen, but in the way it's always happened on Twitter: via favourites and retweets. It's the People's Republic of #1PUN and it's working.

Let's think about religion and morality. Could it be that the People's Republic of #1PUN gives us a model for how morality works after the death of God? Perhaps God is like a heavenly Juan Pun - a made-up figure who has now retreated from the scene. To begin with, his absence was disconcerting, but after a bit, we've just gotten on with it. Now people act pretty much the same way they ever did except that, under the new regime, they don't receive authoritarian pronouncements from on high, they are simply judged by their equals. Approval and disapproval has been democratized and we've all just gotten on with life without any noticeable outbreaks of apocalyptic evil.

What do we think? Is it the same thing?

Well here's one response you could make:

"Yeah but... Watch out for the democratization of values. A nasty pocket of racist tweeters could get hold of the hashtag and flood it with bigoted "humour". In just that way, whole people groups could decide on a new direction for a culture's morality and there'd be nothing to say they were wrong."

 You could make that kind of argument. And there'd be truth to it. But I think we need to go deeper.

You see the analogy just doesn't hold. At all really. The triune God is not a heavenly Juan Pun trying to manage a little system within a much larger paradigm. The Father hasn't looked around at all the morality that's been going on and dreamt up a scoring system to administrate it. He is the Author of goodness, the Son is the Expression of goodness, the Spirit is the Perfecter of goodness. God is good - goodness itself.

The triune God does not relate to the world as Juan Pun to word-play but like Oscar Wilde to Algernon. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon may be extremely funny while denying all knowledge of any authorship over his life. But on the deepest level, he cannot declare his independence from Wilde. He's only funny because of him.

We can deny God all we like. We can call him an out-dated construct but actually we are the constructs. And every concept we use - whether of goodness, truth, beauty, justice, even humour - is either borrowed capital or ultimately bankrupt. The people's republic of earth does not threaten the kingdom of heaven - actually it presupposes it. All the while there's a Father beckoning the world to something greater than abstract values like "goodness" - He's inviting us to Himself.



Why does the world exist

A fascinating 40 minute discussion between a philosopher a theoretical physicist and a cosmologist. I even understood some of it!
I can't get the video to embed so click the image or go here.
Below are some highlights from the discussion. My comments in blue.
David Wallace (philosopher):
If philosophy's learnt anything in two and a half thousand years... it's that you can't start from no-where in trying to understand something. Descartes famously did try to start from nowhere... it was a glorious failure.
Trying to understand things pretty much always presupposes some background set of things that are our starting point. So we can ask all manner of questions about the universe... in asking those questions we are always going to be having certain starting points and presuppositions.
Crucial point
So if we interpret the question in its widest possible sense: 'Why is there something rather than nothing in the widest possible sense? Why is there mathematics, why is there law, why is there logic?" At that level I actually think science can't answer those questions, philosophy can't answer those questions. I actually think those questions aren't answerable. There's nothing to grip onto and so nowhere to start.
But that presupposes naturalism. Aren't you at least curious to employ a presupposition that gives you more answers rather than the naturalistic presupposition that limits the answers?
But if you want to ask more specific questions about why the world that looks anything like this exists, then I think we have learnt a lot. And in a sense what we've seen is a conflict [and a victory] between two very different ways of looking at the world.  A way of looking that tries to build everything up from the ground, to explain complicated things in terms of simpler things and to explain more purposeful things in terms of less purposeful things versus an understanding that starts with meaning and purpose as a basic starting point and gets the meaningless and the factual things from it.
The bottom-up approach (empiricism) is attractive because it means we can get our hands dirty by investigating the world. It's satisfying to see complex systems broken down to component parts (but only to a point - taking apart the grandfather clock is fascinating, but the whole is superior to the parts and the story behind it might be even better).
The top-down approach (rationalism) is also attractive because it means that the highest levels of explanation are also the ones with most meaning and purpose. The danger is that it's pure supposition and not grounded in empirical fact.
I think the development of science since the renaissance has almost completely vindicated that first way of thinking about things.
Hang on.  For a start you've admitted that the bottom-up approach has rendered us completely unable to answer the question at hand in this debate: Why does the world exist? That's a pretty major short-coming (unless we want to say that everything our empirical net doesn't catch aint fish).
What's more, you've said that presuppositions underlie any understanding of the world. Therefore even the "bottom up" method of empirical enquiry assumes over-arching realities.
Therefore top-down understandings have not been dispatched by the onward march of empirical science. They are unavoidable... BUT ALSO bottom-up enquiries have been extremely fruitful in answering certain questions (with one glaring exception in the question at hand)
So then, how can we hold onto both?
Here's a presupposition that gives us our cake and let's us eat: "The Word who became flesh" There's a Logos to keep the rationalists happy who became a sarkos for the empiricists to investigate. And, hey presto, the unanswerable question gets an answer that is worthy of a universe as gorgeous as ours.
George Ellis (cosmologist, multiverse sceptic):
The "Multiverse" tries to say this universe is incredibly unlikely to be good for life but if you think of all possible universes, they're incredibly unlikely to have life in them, but nevertheless if you have an infinite number of universes then some of them will make it ok and this will give you a scientific explanation...  This is a philosophical hypothesis. I can say anything I like about it and it can't be proven true or false. That's the basic observational situation of the multiverse. I think it's a very fine philosophical hypotheses but... it's a faith position. You can believe in the multiverse but you can't prove it.
Well said. But fascinatingly, fear of having a faith position is what drives multiverse proponents too...
Laure Mersini-Houghton (theoretical physicist, multiverse proponent): I always get alarm bells when I hear things like 'one universe', 'one creation moment' and 'purpose'... If I were to replace those words with 'divine intervention' or 'God' that would take us 2000 years back to square one.
So both the multiverse sceptic and the multiverse proponent dislike faith positions and that drives them to what they say.
All the while David Wallace points out that we all have presuppositions.
David Wallace: If you want to reason your way to the fact that the world exists you're going to have to make assumptions to that story. You might learn that if you make this very simple assumption or that very simple assumption or these very simple starting points then it will follow that the world exists. That could perfectly well be true. You then have the question of where those starting points arise from...  At some point you're going to have to stop explaining. And that's not a matter that science won't be able to explain... it would be a matter that we wouldn't have any resources to explain.
...Your explanation [of anything] is always going to have a thing that you're presupposing to do the explaining.
Ok, what about a presupposition that manages to bridge the top-down and the bottom-up positions. One that accounts not only for a life-sustaining universe, but for the kind of life that we call life. What about an explanation for life that actually LOOKS like what we call life: loving, joyful, personal, self-giving life-in-relationship kinda life.
Maybe we should go back 2000 years and investigate the Word become flesh. We might find that going back is the way forward.


From Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère (1888)

Pagan superstitions are always threatening to crowd in.  Either Christ reigns or malign spirits will.

It was the gospel that supplanted pagan superstition in Europe.  Through the spread of Christ's word freedom was offered from a bondage to enslaving beliefs.  The world was awash with gods, demigods, and other spiritual forces.  Fatalism ruled and the best you could hope for was some kind of propitiation of these spiritual slave-masters.

But as the gospel comes into this context, people are confronted with a good Lord who has shown Himself to be utterly for us.  He has provided the propitiation.  He has ransomed us from the devil's power.  And He has brought us to the Most High God who reigns over (not within) this world with Fatherly power.

It was the gospel that enabled the West to be secular.  The gospel drove out the spirits from this world and freed a people to become more prosperous than any who have lived before.  It freed us to love the world and explore it.  To experience some of that dominion which the Bible speaks of.

Yet, having rejected this gospel, the gods are flooding back in.  The new priests are telling new myths, but these ones are like the pagan ones: bleak and bloody and utterly tragic.  Impersonal, immoral and fatalistic to the bitter end.

Of course we scoff at superstitions regarding earth.  We feel as though science has dispelled the mysteries of this planet.  Yet our latent paganism shows itself in our views of outer space.   Go onto Youtube and search for any of the hundreds of videos offering a journey through the universe.  Here's one, almost at random:

Notice the soundtrack.  All the soundtracks are virtually identical:  blasts of slow, austere, rhythm-less synth-brass.  If you subtract the synthesizers it's precisely the kind of music that, in bygone days, made lowly subjects bow in fear to their king.  But our new masters are the giants and supergiants.  And this video literally does command us to bow to our lords.

It is a naked power-play.  The heavenly bodies are presented purely in terms of their strength, blinding brilliance and sheer immensity.  And as we listen to the music, how are we meant to feel about these monstrous powers?  Small, insignificant, uneasy, fearful.  They are the impersonal, uncaring forces and many of them are malign (think black holes).  Ultimately, so the story goes, the powerful will win the day.  Our fate is to be swallowed up by the strong and, in the meantime, all we can do is cower in their presence.  The best we can hope for is to get on in our own corner of the universe with our insignificant little lives and await the inevitable.

It's the old paganism, this time with CGI.

In the Bible, "the morning stars sing together and the sons of God shout for joy" (Job 38:7).  When the LORD asks us to consider the heavens He doesn't play Mahler's 5th.  It's more like the Hallelujah Chorus.  Joyous, personal, harmonious, rapturous.

Or consider how David viewed the sun: "Like a Bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a Champion rejoicing to run his course." (Psalm 19:5)  The sun speaks of the Light of the world who makes the journey from east (God's absence) to west (God's presence).  And He does so not as a display of His own power, but as our rejoicing Champion and our loving Bridegroom.  His power is for us.  You see, when David looked up He saw love.  He saw a Bridegroom who runs the race as our Champion, and joyfully so.  What soundtrack is appropriate for that?  Jean-Michel Jarre on morphine?  Not likely.

But I wonder how much this latent paganism affects Christians.  I wonder whether documentaries like the one above shape our reading of Psalm 19 and not the other way around.  In fact on Youtube I've found Christian videos of Psalm 19 that use the same barren soundtracks.  It's as though we think the "glory of God" is like the old pagan deities but with the trumpets turned up to eleven. May it not be!

In Out of the Silent Planet, CS Lewis imagines the first journey through "space" taken by his hero Ransom. He finds the reality of 'outer space' very different to the scientific mythology:

Ransom, as time wore on, became aware of another and more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of 'Space': at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now-now that the very name 'Space' seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it 'dead'; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean all the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he now saw that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes-and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name.”

Don't think "space". Think "heavens".


You Last
Girl praying in orphanage. New York, 1947


Earlier today Derren Brown retweeted this photo with the comment "Oh Lord." It's had 85 retweets and counting. Here are some of the comments in replies:

The list is backwards

'You last'. What a heart-breaker

So sad, make them feel guilty, bad and no self worth...sorry no religious belief from me!

On the original Classic Pic tweet were the following comments (swearing coming...)

disgusting crap message on the wall. abandoned child must focus on invisible Jesus rather than own needs

that is the saddest thing I have seen in days. *sob*

fuck that, fuck the message on the wall

This is a desperately sad photo. Not just the message, but the stark walls and the bleak, loveless room.

Interesting photo. Revolting story told in the photo.

Everything that's wrong with religion

"Dear Lord. i thanks you for giving me no parents and a shitty start in life."

Torn between sorrow and rage.

This is all sorts of horrible. Poor kid.

Horrible, horrible child abuse. Disgusting.

I grew up with "Jesus, Others, Yourself" - JOY comes by putting yourself last, right? If you grew up in a Christian home I'd be surprised if you've never come across the acronym. I mention this so that no-one thinks this is the orphanage's way of putting the children in their place. This is not a power-play, it's the opposite. This is the essence of the way of Jesus: self-giving sacrifice as the way to fullness of life.

But what's fascinating to me is that in 1947 'Self Last' would have been roundly endorsed as the moral position. Today 'Self Last' is not just strange or inadvisable, it's immoral. It's disgusting crap. It's everything that's wrong with religion, etc, etc.

But what do we have in this photo? We see a little girl in need. She's an orphan and our hearts go out to her. But who is actually caring for her? Answer: the people who believe in "Self Last", that's who.  And which body of people have had the longest and most impressive history of caring for orphans? Christians - i.e. those who believe in 'Self Last'.

What's the alternative? Shall we declare 'Self Last' as an abusive sentiment? Shall we endorse 'Me First' instead? How many orphanages could be built on that foundation?

But, some will say, this girl is at the bottom of the heap already. How crushing for her to be told to pray this hierarchy into her heart every day! Isn't that abusive?

Ah but, here's the thing. All Christians pray 'Self Last.'  I'll bet the Queen herself was taught this acronym. Everyone is called to the selfless life of Jesus. Christ's kingdom inverts all our 'Me First' values. As Mary's Christmas song (the Magnificat) reminds us:

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-53)

'Self Last' is a philosophy that humbles the highest and lifts up the poorest. In the kingdom of 'Self Last' it's the lowliest who are greatest. As this little girl prays, she is in touch with the Lord of the universe - the Lord who stoops, serves, suffers and dies.

Just practically speaking, her greatest hope is the 'Self Last' people. They are the ones who care for orphans. And spiritually and existentially speaking, her greatest hope is the Lord who put Himself last. In His kingdom she is the greatest:

46 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and made him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.’  (Luke 9:46-48)



In 2011, Gavin Tyte won ITV’s Nativity Factor with his Beatbox Nativity (see below).

Gavin is an ordained Anglican minister and now a full-time pastor to the beatboxing community. In this interview, Gavin talks about his faith, his beatboxing and his witness. He speaks with refreshing clarity about the need to be authentic - to love people, to use our gifts and to let our witness flow out of a genuine love for Christ, for people and for the world.

Check out Beatbox Bible to see Luke's Gospel rapped and to learn to do the same - what a resource!

Andy and I really enjoyed talking to him, hope you enjoy listening.




imageA friend on Facebook is studying Biology and just posted the question: "Any ideas for or against intelligent design" she has a classroom discussion on the issue coming up.

The first bit of advice was this:

I'd just take a copy of 'On the origin of the species' ( hardback) and smack any proponent of ID over the head with it :)

Another commenter said:

Cordyceps fungi and various parasitic insects (i.e. wasps). No way they could have been 'designed'.

I weighed in, as is my wont, with these two comments. (I've altered a word here and there for clarity). Perhaps it might be useful in your context...

I'm a Christian who believes the universe was designed (in one sense every Christian believes in intelligent design - since God's quite smart) but I don't like ID as a movement, cos the Christian story is actually that A) Creation is *fallen* and B) God is known, not by studying irreducible complexity but by seeing Him in the face of Christ.

That said, ID proponents are not dummies (some are, many aren't). And when they raise tough questions about thorough-going naturalism, they should be heard. How do systems increase in informational content without an intelligent input? That is a good and vital question? How can natural selection account for irreducible complexity (systems where incremental developments could never add up to the system as a whole because the individual stages don't add survival value)? That is a good question and needs more than a dismissive answer. Like I say, I'm not any kind of proponent for the ID movement, but they do raise vital scientific questions that shouldn't simply be dubbed stupid.

On another note, for the Christian, parasites are a brilliant testimony to the Bible's story. Parasites are secondary things that come along and spoil an original and ultimate good. That is precisely the Bible's picture of good and evil. There is an original and ultimate good (God) spoiled by something secondary and derivative (evil).


Like I say I'm not a fan of the ID project - but... Remember where the whole discussion begins. It begins with the undoubted and gob-smacking *appearance* of intelligent design. Everyone agrees that the world looks designed. A biologist might come along and say "I've found a mechanism that accounts for that appearance." But even if the mechanism has tremendous explanatory power (and natural selection does), remember:

A) Good science involves questioning paradigms, and IDers should be allowed to question "Does this mechanism really explain this and that?" Irreducible complexity and the information problem are some *excellent* questions to ask of the materialistic paradigm. It's not good science to ridicule that questioning. It actually starts to sound like a power play.

B) Even if we grant that Darwin has sewn up 'the origin of the *species*', there are still three other origins questions that are at least as pressing: origin of the cosmos, origin of life itself, origin of consciousness. You might want to argue that natural selection explains all of these, but at that point I recall the old saying: If all you've got is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Natural selection is an excellent hammer to be applied to certain features of the natural world, but I'd seriously question its ability to explain everything. Darwin's finches are fascinating and tell us much about evolution - it's quite a stretch to make them explain the cosmos!

C) Remember that discovering a mechanism says precisely Nothing about the existence of a Maker. It's useful to know the workings of an internal combustion engine, but no matter how comprehensive the knowledge, the existence of Henry Ford is an explanation beyond the wit of reverse-engineering. Mechanism and Maker are two different questions.

D) Remember where the conversation begins. It begins with everyone agreeing that the world looks eerily like it's designed. Even if you come up with an elaborate mechanism and provide convincing answers to all objections, the simplest explanation (i.e. that it *is* designed - and natural selection is one mechanism among many) is a perfectly reasonable position to take! Those who ridicule it are betraying the rational, scientific ideals they claim to be upholding.

Like I say, I'm not an IDer, I'm just a Christian, but I look on the debate with interest.


Two weeks ago I watched this outstanding talk by Nate Wilson called Myth Wars:

 Download Audio

The central point is that, today, our grand myth speaks of man as "an ascendant ape" who has emerged by a process of "climb and scratch and grab." It's an ugly story but it has the great attraction of putting us top of the heap (even if the heap is the smoldering ruin of countless losers in the struggle for survival).

Against this, the true myth is the gospel in which man is not an ascendant ape but a fallen son. There is climbing, scratching and grabbing but that's not progress! Such beastliness is precisely the problem. Instead Christ comes down from a place above us to "serve and give and love." That's the very different story we have to tell.

With Wilson's thoughts still buzzing in my head, I went to the cinema today to see Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón's spectacular thriller set in space.

It is visually spell-binding and brutally tense. It opens you up to wonder then puts a knot in your stomach that only tightens over the course of an hour and a half. Go and see it in 3D but be prepared to be disoriented in more ways than one. You see there's something even more disturbing than the sense of threat sustained over 90 minutes. There's the myth into which the storyline fits.

We begin in the heavens which are glorious, spectacular, overwhelming in their glory. But also aimless, uncaring and deadly in every sense. Very soon shrapnel - what could be more random? - smashes through people and spaceships and such debris only produces more debris. This is the environment for Sandra Bullock and George Clooney - cut adrift from their space station, with minimal oxygen and a vanishing probability of survival.

The film has undoubted "spiritual" overtones - references to prayer, Christian icons, a statue of the Buddha - and one review in the Washington Post has seen the whole thing as pointing us to Christian truth. After all, says Paul Asay, it's a "hell-and-back" kind of story. There's re-birth and home-coming even after the death and darkness. But the trouble is, lots of stories have a kind of rebirth. Story-tellers have to use the same raw-materials that went into the ultimate story, the gospel. But the way they arrange those raw materials is vital.

Think about it, the modern myth also has birth coming out of death. Through the struggle for survival emerges a winner. But that path-way is through "climb and scratch and grab" and a heck of a lot of dumb luck. So which story is Gravity?

Well there is life through death - rebirth through darkness. And, it has to be said, there is self-giving sacrifice in the story - death so that others may live. At that point you might conclude that Gravity's on the side of the angels. But I'm not so sure. All stories will echo the gospel in some way (like I say, every cook's got the same ingredients), but when we see the overall direction of the film I think it's telling the modern myth.

This is a survival story against the odds. Yes there is sacrifice which helps along the way. But the sacrifice is from below - the heavens themselves are the problem and we must outwit them. In the end, survival is just one of those very improbable things. Many others perish, but the lucky few make it, and they make it standing on the shoulders of the dead.

[Warning: this paragraph will give you a sense of the ending but only vaguely] By the final scene, the story is put in context. The Darwinian motifs are very striking. This is a survival tale. And what emerges from the striving is a brave new... well, pretty much a new species, erect and bettered by the struggle.

The lesson is, let go of the past, let go of losses, stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, embrace the struggle and if you're lucky you'll live to fight another day.

A spiritual story? Yes, absolutely. But, if you ask me, it points to a markedly different spirituality. Maybe Wilson's lenses have skewed my viewing of the film, but I came away feeling mightily disturbed. Yet even in that disturbance, we are sent back to the gospel. I say, see the film and be wowed. But let it drive you to a true answer to the death and darkness. The true myth says: the heavens are not malign, the Lamb is at the centre of the throne.



Feel free to play our Halloween video in church and/or to share on social media.

For the thinking behind this presentation read this or listen here.

For an all-age song to teach about light triumphing over darkness, here's Jesus Our Risen Sun.

And for the trick or treaters knocking on your door, why not hand out these cards with the video details on them:

Halloween Video Card

Here's the PDF - Print off (in colour is best) - each A4 sheet makes 8 calling cards.


Twitter widget by Rimon Habib - BuddyPress Expert Developer