Category Archives: reviews

Book Review: Walking With Gay Friends

The following is a guest post by my friend Dave.

Has anyone ever asked you to change?

Not just your clothes – though that could be part of it. Has anyone ever asked you to change your behaviour?
Has anyone ever asked you to change not just your behaviour, but the way you think?
Has anyone ever asked you to change not just your behaviour and the way you think, but also the things you believe and the feelings you have?
To change your behaviour, the way you think, your beliefs, your feelings, the people you hang out with, the places you go, and the dreams you have for the future?
To dump your partner, to ditch the friends who love you the most, to turn away from the only people who seem to understand and support you, and to eradicate pretty much everything that makes you you – your entire identity?

If you can answer “no” then you are probably not a gay person investigating the Christian faith.

We all know that homosexuality and Christianity are not particularly amicable companions. While tempers are especially high at the moment, in the wake of the government’s proposals to allow gay marriage, historically neither side has tended to come to the debate demonstrating a great deal of tact, respect or understanding. In a recent article on the Guardian website, one group’s viewpoint was described as a rampant, sickening plague. In this particular case, that was the author talking about a church – but we’ve all seen the same sort of language wielded by self-professed Christians against the gay community. “Objections to equal marriage rights are, as ever, only bigotry hastily smeared with religious justification”, claims the author of the article, and, sadly, that can often be the case. Even smart, well-educated, Biblically-knowledgeable Christians can be hopelessly bigoted, ignorant, or just painfully insensitive when it comes to issues of same sex attraction.

Which is why every evangelical Christian should read Alex Tylee’s short book “Walking with Gay Friends“.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have any.

For one thing, you may. Same sex attraction issues are common, and most Christians who wrestle with them don’t tend to shout about it. Would you?

For another thing, the storm brewing around the marriage proposals means that more and more people are going to be taking note of what the church has to say on the subject. It is vital that there are at least a few Christians out there who can navigate the turbulent course between the twin evils of Bible-denying liberalism and Bible-distorting homophobia.

Thirdly, even well-meaning Christians, who have thought through the issues, and know how to argue against homosexual practices from the Bible (which means not just crying “The Bible says it’s wrong”, but being able to show how the Bible says it’s wrong), can still be guilty of gross insensitivity toward their struggling brothers and sisters. If you can’t see how the questions at the start of this post relate to this topic, for instance, then you definitely need to read the book. Telling someone that they need to “stop being gay” if they want to become a Christian is not like telling someone they need to stop swearing, or wearing short skirts, or beating up pensioners. There are deep issues of identity involved that will require huge amounts of love, support, understanding and encouragement to work through.

(It’s worth saying that even the top guys mess this stuff up. Around three thousand Christian men recently went to the London Men’s Convention, for an excellent day of Bible teaching, praise and fellowship. Estimates vary hugely as to what proportion of the population experience homosexual urges, but in a group of three thousand there could have been anywhere from 30 to 300 (or more) men there for whom this is a painful battle. Inside the complimentary booklet, Evangelicals Now chose to run a full-page advert featuring a buff, topless man. One of my friends commented that it looked like the cover of a gay magazine.)

Walking with Gay Friends is subtitled “A journey of informed compassion”, and it’s the word informed which, I think, is this book’s strongest recommendation. Written with an insider’s perspective on same sex attraction issues, the book gives the heterosexual reader an eloquent and frank insight into the pains and sacrifices a homosexual person faces when called to be obedient to the Bible’s teaching on sexual morality. Alex includes many quotes from Christian strugglers, highlighting some of the good and bad experiences they have had at the hands of their church families, and while there are some encouraging descriptions of things going well, the overall picture that emerges is of a church family that doesn’t seem to know how to understand their struggle or how to support them in it. A church that is generally ill informed.

In all the debate, it’s easy to lose sight of an important truth: the greatest problem that a gay person faces is the same problem that faces us all. We are all equally guilty in God’s sight – all of us, straight or gay, need to turn to Christ for forgiveness. Gay people need the gospel as urgently as everyone else. And this is why the church desperately needs to be better informed. Because someone who is dealing with the burden of homosexuality naturally wants to find a group who will care for them, encourage them, understand them, and make them feel accepted and wanted. And at the moment it’s the gay community who are fulfilling that role, not the church.

Please read this book.


Book Review: This Momentary Marriage

There are more than enough books in the world on the subject of marriage. Every man and his dog wants to have an opinion on the subject. One of the features of being engaged is that now suddenly you own a large number of those books, as everybody scrambles to buy you a copy of their favourite (thanks everybody! I really am grateful, honest!)

One of those books that really stands out for me is This Momentary Marriage by John Piper. As you might expect, Piper holds a very high view of marriage, and paints a Biblical vision of just how glorious marriage as God designed it should be. But one of the distinguishing features of this book is the equally high view of singleness you’ll find in it.

Piper’s main premise is that marriage is not the ultimate, it’s not the thing that’s going to solve all our problems and make us happy and fulfilled. It’s a glorious thing, yes, and it holds a special place in God’s purposes for displaying his glory, but it’s only ever a temporary thing that will not exist in the New Creation. Just as the relationship between a husband and his wife is a tangible illustration of the relationship between Jesus Christ and his church, happily-single Christians are a tangible illustration of the sufficiency of Jesus and the final state all who trust in him are heading towards. So at the same time as giving us a higher view of marriage, it also stops us making it the very highest thing in our thoughts, helping us keep first things first rather than drifting into idolatry.

Most books on marriage claim to be suitable for all kinds of people: people already married, people about to be married, and people vaguely thinking about marriage in the future. But in my experience, it’s rare to find a marriage book that I would genuinely want to recommend to a single friend for fear of making them feel a little bit sad – I know that I’ve often read stuff about marriage in the past and just been made to feel like I was missing out on something. This book bucks the trend. It reminds all of us, single or married, that as Christians we have a relationship with the Creator of the Universe that’s going to last for eternity, and that that ought to excite us more than any human relationship.

Of course Piper also explores the usual practicalities of marriage: the purpose and place of sex, the Biblical view of gender roles, brining up children, and so on. He does so in a way that gets you excited about serving God in whatever situation you’re currently in, with the gifts and personality God has given you. I found the chapter on hospitality especially helpful: Piper says what a shame it is that often married and single people in the church end up being segregated, when there’s so much potential for good if single people were to show hospitality to married people and if married people were to show hospitality to single people.

If you’re a Christian, whether you’re married or not, be excited that there’s someone in your life who knows you better than you know yourself, and who loves you enough to die for you – and we get to go and spend the rest of eternity in intimate relationship with him! Everything else is just temporary, but our relationship with God lasts forever.

Related posts: My review of ‘Redeeming Singleness’ by Barry Danylak – which is the basis for Piper’s chapter on singleness in ‘This Momentary Marriage’. It’s helpful stuff for single people wondering about their place in the church.

Review: Amusing Ourselves To Death

Every now and again you find yourself coming across a particular book being mentioned over and over again in various different settings, until you eventually succumb and go out and read it. One such book that I’ve just reached the end of is Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death“. Originally released in 1985, it’s a treatise on how television affects the way we think as a culture, and particularly on how we engage with and discuss important subjects like politics, religion and education.

It opens with a compelling comparison of two grim predictions of the future made in the mid 20th century: those of George Orwell in his book 1984, and Aldous Huxley in his book Brave New World. Here’s a little snippet:

“Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

Postman then goes on to argue that Huxley’s fears were well-grounded, and that the age of the television has, to a large degree, brought them to pass. His argument is essentially that the medium used to communicate information always shapes how that message is received and understood. Just as the invention of the printing press created a culture dominated by “typographic thinking”, where sustained and reasoned arguments prevail and the aim is to establish the veracity of a particular truth claim, so the invention of the telegram and then television has ushered in a new era of show business where entertainment is king and truth is irrelevant. Commercials for products today rarely spend much time setting forth actual arguments related to their product for why it’s worth your money; instead they focus on you, the viewer, and seek to make you recognise what your life is missing – what void their product can supposedly gratify.

Lots of the illustrations Postman uses are fairly dated and also from a US context, and I generally didn’t recognise the names of the particular TV stars he was referencing. But I think the actual arguments he makes are more relevant than ever, and are as true of the internet as they are of television, if not more so. Two points in particular really stood out for me:

  1. One is the way that television eliminates any sense of context. No prior knowledge is assumed, and you can often pick up a show even when you switch on part way through. TV news shows are a selection of entirely independent slots, and all it takes is a brief segue “and now…. this” to get from some horrific news of an earthquake in Japan to some utterly banal segment about a talking dog in Montana. No response is required of you as a viewer, and even the bad news ends up becoming a disturbing form of entertainment. The fact that it’s all put side by side as though it were equally important ends up reducing it to the level of trivia. Postman suggests that it’s no coincidence that the rise in popularity of the crossword came at the same time as the invention of the telegram, as people had to find a use for all this irrelevant information they had now gained access to. As much as I enjoy using Twitter, it really is everything Postman warns against on steroids, as serious news items are squashed between photos of people’s dinner and a YouTube video of a machete-firing crossbow. Context is impossible on Twitter, so providing a quick laugh is by far and away the easiest way to engage your followers.
  2. The other thing that got me thinking, particularly as I work on my Old Testament adventure game, is how the medium always shapes the message. Since television is all about entertainment (and the shows that fail to entertain, nobody watches) it is impossible for it to portray subjects such as religion without ultimately distorting them into something entertaining. A religion that makes demands of you – such as Jesus’ description of the Christian life as the way of the cross, with the daily need to die to self – simply doesn’t play well on television. It’s too easy just to change the channel. It’s no surprise then that the importance of theology and of making actual truth claims about the nature of God and man has waned, and loud and showy rock concert-style church services has risen instead. It’s really given me pause for thought about what I’m at risk of communicating in a video game based on Old Testament passages – not that it’s impossible to do it faithfully, but just that there will be real challenges involved, since the very fact that it’s being presented in a different medium means that the message will be heard differently.

Is Neil Postman just a grumpy old curmudgeon? I don’t know. Maybe he does overstate his case at times. But I think his aim is simply to make people aware of the effects of television and not to be blind to them, and in that I think he definitely succeeds. There’s a lot of great food for thought, and being more aware of the quality of the air you’re breathing can’t be a bad thing.

Why God Is Better Than the Chairman – Thoughts on ‘The Adjustment Bureau’

The Adjustment Bureau

I’m not going to bother writing an all-out review of “The Adjustment Bureau” – I’m sure many people have already done a better job of that than I ever could. But in summary: as somebody who finds it very easy to enjoy even the worst of films, I rather liked it! Yes, the script was a bit shoddy in places, and yes, the final chase was perhaps a bit lacklustre.

But at the end of the day, what I enjoyed about it was that it’s a film that makes you think. It’s a film that none-too-subtly explores some favourite themes of mine – the meaning of free will, human choice & responsibility, the sovereignty of God, etc. – and in the process reveals a lot about what our culture believes and cherishes on these issues. Here’s a great quote from Russell Moore’s theological ruminations on the film:

“This film might, though, prompt us to see in our neighbors a sense of helplessness, a sense of captivity, and a rage that, just maybe, is misdirected toward God. And, perhaps, the film will spur us to wonder whether our neighbors are feeling something of what is true for all of us, apart from the liberating power of the devil-defeating Cross: We are being chased.”

I’m not sure the film was really good enough to actually make me feel any of that. But what I did feel, after seeing the film, was profoundly thankful: thankful that the God of the Bible is nothing like The Chairman. God would beat The Chairman in a fight without even breaking a sweat. Let me explain why (warning: spoilers ahead)

First, consider for a moment the nature of the Chairman:

  • The Chairman exists in a deistic universe – the kind of “clockwork universe” that by and large works itself out according to the laws of chance. Every now and again the Bureau has to make a little nudge to adjust its course and make sure that things stick to The Plan, but as far as possible they allow it to take care of itself.
  • The Chairman has to constantly revise his plan in the light of new data – he’s constantly at risk of being outwitted and having his plan overturned by pesky humans, and his minions seem pretty inept at preventing this from happening. He seems to have aspirations for how he hopes things will turn out rather than sovereign authority to make sure that they do.
  • The Chairman thinks we’d be better off without him – this is the ultimate message of the film: rather like training wheels on a bike, The Chairman’s influence is designed to be only temporary. He’d much prefer it if humanity was able to take responsibility for itself and its choices, and indeed seems confident that we’d be better off if we could. He only reluctantly steps in when it seems that we’re making poor use of the privilege of free will.

In this way, The Chairman is, of course, a product of our age – a profound confidence in the innate goodness of humanity if only we would be true to the potential within ourselves; and free will and the right to choose as the most cherished possessions we have. As Norris says in one of his early campaign speeches: “the most important thing is the choices we make”. Within this worldview, for God to impose his will on us would be cruel and inhumane – making us paramount to slaves.

But this could not be more different from the God of the Bible:

  • The God of the Bible sustains and upholds the universe every minute of every day – without his constant intervention the sun would not rise in the morning, nor the moon by night. The early scientists were given confidence to trust that the laws of physics would stay constant from day to day because they trusted in a sovereign God who never changed and who was able to sustain the movement of the planets and the spinning of the atom. There is nothing “hands off” about the way God runs his universe.
  • The God of the Bible cannot be thwarted – contrary to the assertions of Open Theists, the Bible teaches that there is no Plan B: what God has purposed always comes to pass. “I declare the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose'” (Isaiah 46:10). The real decisions that we make every moment of the day are all part of his plan, not in opposition to it.
  • The God of the Bible knows how much I need him – the Bible says that to be rid of God’s influence in my life is not to be free but to be desperately lost without hope. By nature I am a slave to sin, following the futile desires of my darkened heart and mind. Thank God that he doesn’t step back and leave me to it! And thank God that his involvement in my life isn’t some temporary state of affairs that might be revoked at any moment – it’s painfully obvious to me that without God’s constant moment-by-moment intervention in my life, even when I least deserve it, I would be utterly ruined.

As finite human beings existing in a single moment of time, we can only see one minuscule portion of the picture. What’s more, even if I could know what the best choice in any given situation was, I’m far from rational – we constantly choose the things that are against our own best interests based on misplaced affections and sinful desires. Now, I need God’s intervention in my life. I hope I come to depend on his direction more as time goes by, not kid myself into thinking that I can do without it. To surrender to his sovereign will, even when it seems directly opposed to the things I would have chosen for myself – now that’s true freedom.

Film review: Paul

Paul-2011.jpg

I recently got to see Paul, the latest film by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. It’s a wonderfully self-indulgent romp by two evident sci-fi fans clearly making the most of their excuse to have a total geek out, and the result is a lot of fun for anybody who shares their love of sci-fi. The film is chocked full of film references, to everything from Star Wars to Men in Black – some relatively subtle (such as the choice of background music in one of the bars they visit) and some not-so.

It was particularly interesting watching the film as a Christian, however. If you can’t stomach large amount of swearing, then this is definitely not the film for you. But that’s not really what I want to focus on in this review. What I found particularly intriguing was the apparently mixed messages that the film was sending about the nature of faith.

One of the main characters in the film is a caricature of hyper-conservative “Bible-belt” evangelical Christianity, a girl with a repressive father who initially declares the alien Paul to be some kind of evil demon. They’re evidently poking fun at the idea of “blind faith” – her encounter with Paul leaves her enlightened both physically and mentally, able to see the truth about reality with a new clarity that leads her to disavow her faith and embrace a new life of “cussing and fornicating”. At the end she thanks Paul for how he has “freed” her from her life of being repressed by her father’s religion. Let’s all have a laugh at those stupid Christians for their outdated and unscientific beliefs.

And yet, one of the other messages of the film was the idea of maintaining your faith even when everybody else laughs at you. Another character essentially has her life ruined by her dogged insistence that aliens are real, and endures decades of ridicule for her belief in Paul. She is vindicated in the end – he is real, whatever anybody else may have said, and no matter how many stones she’s had thrown at her – and ends up being rewarded with a better life beyond the stars. Never give up believing, even when your beliefs cause you to be shunned by others and excluded from normal society. Something doesn’t cease to be true just because it’s socially unacceptable.

So why are Christians to be ridiculed whilst those who believe in the existence of aliens are to be encouraged? I still can’t make up my mind whether the film was deliberately sending these mixed messages, or whether they’re just utterly blind to the inherent contradiction in what they’re saying. Are we supposed to be going away wondering whether we were right to laugh at the evangelical Christians after all, or does it just demonstrate the inherent prejudices people hold against Christianity?

What do you think?

Review: The Roots of Endurance

The Roots of Endurance

Over Christmas I had a bout of man-flu and bravely put myself to bed for a few days. It turned out to be really good for my soul, since I was tucked up with a copy of John Piper’s heartwarming book “The Roots of Endurance: Invincible perseverance in the lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon and William Wilberforce”. Piper takes these three spiritual heroes from the 18th-19th century whose lives were at least loosely intertwined, three characters who were especially marked by perseverance: John Newton was a pastor in Olney and London for forty three years; Charles Simeon was minister at Holy Trinity church in Cambridge for fifty four years, during the first twelve of which he sustained incredible opposition from the wealthy and influential “pew holders” of the church but who ultimately could not be swerved from getting on with his job of teaching the whole counsel of God from the Bible; and William Wilberforce campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade almost from the age of 21, when he first became a Member of Parliament, to the year before his death, a total of almost forty six years during which the movement was defeated no less than eleven times in parliament. Piper’s aim is to get under their skin and examine exactly how they persevered in the face of such pressure, and what motivated their devoted service of the cause of Christ over all those years, and it should come as no surprise that ultimately it was their joy in a deep, personal relationship with Jesus himself.

I’m not afraid to admit that one of the things I loved most about this book was its length: at only 166 pages in total it needn’t take you forever to read it. It basically just has one chapter for each man, plus an introduction and an epilogue, and each chapter is easily read in a single sitting. They’re obviously not the most in-depth biographies you’re ever going to read, but in many ways Piper isn’t so concerned with the bare facts about their lives as he is in the underlying theology and practice that made them tick, so there’s still probably something to be gained here even by those who are fairly familiar with the characters involved. It might also be worth mentioning that of course these three men were all English, and John Piper is both American and writing to a predominantly American audience, which might have been a recipe for frustration for English readers like myself, but in the end I hardly noticed it.

I found reading the book to be really refreshing and encouraging in my Christian life. The essence of Piper’s analysis is that all three men knew exactly how much they’d been forgiven by Christ, and they reminded themselves of that fact daily. They didn’t shy away from shining the lamp of God’s word into every dark corner of their lives and naming sin as sin. Simeon in particular didn’t equate living by grace as being the same as “feeling good about yourself” – he looked rather to the model of passages like Ezekiel 36 where God says that in the day where He will wash his people’s sins away they will loathe themselves for the way they’ve treated God. Knowing how little they deserved produced a real gospel joy in the fact that God graciously accepted them as his children through the merits of Jesus’ life and death, which in turn motivated them to press on in faithful service.

In summary: read this book. Especially if you find yourself flagging in the Christian life and start wondering how you’re ever going to keep going. God is a faithful God, and it turns out that it’s not really about us at all, but about what Christ has done and how we can enter into that.

Review: Redeeming Singleness

Redeeming Singleness

At Euston Church we recently had a provocative Sunday sermon series from 1 Corinthian 7 by Charlie Skrine listening to what God says about marriage and singleness. It’s one of those subjects that everybody has an interest in, and also one of those chapters of the Bible that everybody has a different opinion on how to interpret. Yet however ambiguous some aspects of Paul’s teaching may be, it’s hard not to agree that at the very least Paul sets forth a radically positive view of singleness. In a sex-obsessed culture which pretty much assumes it’s a fundamental human right to fall in love and pursue a fulfilling sexual relationship with that person, whoever they might be and whatever your situations, the idea of being content to accept a single lifestyle and refrain from marriage just seems bizarre.

On the back of that sermon series, I decided to read Redeeming Singleness by Barry Danylak. It’s a Biblical theology of singleness, tracing the theme through the Bible timeline and showing how the idea is developed over time, and how it’s affected by the coming of Christ. It consists of six chapters, each of which I managed to read in a single sitting, making it quite achievable to read the whole book in a week. Starting with the book of Genesis he shows how the promises of the Abrahamic covenant with their emphasis on offspring play out in the rest of the Old Testament. He does a tour of the prophets, then shows how things are changed by Jesus’ arrival, and what Jesus himself taught on the subject. He then ends up with a look at 1 Corinthians 7 itself.

I particularly enjoyed his overview of the theme of ‘offspring’ within Isaiah, and how with the coming of the Suffering Servant there’s going to be a fundamental shift in how people become part of God’s family: now the children of the barren woman will be more than the children of she who is married (Is 54:1), and to the eunuch who chooses the things that please God will be given a name that is better than sons and daughters (Is 56:5). It’s not just that their reproach is taken away, but their situation is in fact better than those who simply have large earthly families.

He also uses the example of Daniel (for whom he presents evidence that he was probably made a eunuch in Babylon) to paint a truly compelling picture of the eunuch as the king’s loyal servant – without any chance of a dynasty of his own he poses no threat to the king, and also without children to look after him in his old age he is entirely dependent upon the king’s ongoing support and hence his own welfare is wrapped up in the welfare of the king – and so he faithfully serves his king undistracted by family concerns. The only question in Daniel’s case is which king is he serving – when the rubber really hits the road it turns out that it’s not King Nebuchadnezzar after all but the King of Heaven.

You can tell that the book is written by an academic and at times you have to do a bit of the work yourself in figuring out why the things he’s teaching you are so encouraging for daily living as a single person, yet at the same time he writes from personal experience as a single person himself, and you can tell that these are truths that matter to him. All in all it was a very helpful read that has done me a lot of good, and I highly recommend it.