Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Education: what is it?

"Don't let schooling interfere with
your education."

~ Mark Twain ~

This quotation from Twain is often used by home educators, to point out the obvious (but frequently ignored) truism that education and schooling are not the same. Mass schooling really only began in the late 19th century. Before that, the majority of people learned all they needed from their extended family, friends, acquaintances, and life experiences. 'Schooling' was sporadic for most, and consisted of learning particular skills such as basic reading and writing, arithmetic, and perhaps the recital of historical facts.

When we started home education - just for a year, so we thought, when we moved to Cyprus - I had not really understood the difference. I thought, vaguely, that 'education' consisted of learning, from experts, certain subjects such as history, French, biology, etc, up to what we call GCSE level, and then specialising in a few subjects for a couple more years. 'Further education', I thought, consisted of taking just one or two of those subjects and studying them in much greater depth, to degree level.

Since my own specialist sixth-form subjects were maths and ancient Greek, and I had forgotten almost everything I learned in school by the time we started home education, I was sure I could not 'teach' anything beyond primary school level. My sons were 11 and 9 when we started, and I was quite convinced they would have to go to secondary school to get 'an education'. Even at 11, my older son knew more about science than I did. So I bought books, got copies of their UK primary school's monthly and weekly curriculum plans, and tried to organise our days as similarly as possible to those in their school.


Nope. That is NOT education. I was trying to 'school' the boys, based on our prior experience. Thankfully the Internet led me to forums and lists which discussed home education in all its possible forms, and we quickly realised that at home there was no reason at all to follow the pattern of schools. The boys realised this almost immediately; it was me who needed to re-learn what 'education' means. UK law (which we were following) requires children to be educated 'at school or otherwise'. Not 'schooled' but educated. If it's not at school, then it's 'otherwise'. The law goes on to say that it must be according to age, ability and aptitude. Something that schools try hard to follow, but with 30 children and one teacher per class, it's impossible for every child to be treated fully individually.

Undoubtedly some children and teenagers do enjoy school, and gain a great deal from it, including some education. But there are many different personality types, and many different styles of learning. Neither of my two has the 'Guardian' temperament which fits best into a structured school day. So, although I really did NOT want to move to Cyprus, I soon became very thankful that God brought us here, and essentially pushed us into home education, since it's an option I would probably not have considered if we had remained in the UK.

Within a year we knew this was the right path for our family. The boys blossomed. I blossomed. I realised (and how obvious it seemed when I did) that since I had forgotten the majority of what I learned in school, it probably wasn't very important. My husband, who was not at all keen on the idea of home education at first, acknowledged that nearly everything of significance which he had learned had been outside school, or - at best - in after-school clubs.

My older son is now nearly 20 and travelling the world on the MV Doulos. When I spoke to him on the phone recently, he said how much he's enjoying the process of learning so many new skills - deckhand work, carpentry, metal-work, teaching drama, water-testing, jazz dancing, and much more. We never did much chemistry at home, but it hasn't held him back. Perhaps the main thing he learned in his years at home was that there's no limit to education. If he wants to learn something new, he can. His only worry is that there's too little time for all the activities he wants to do, and the things he wants to learn in depth.

My younger son, nearly 18, is about to embark on an open theology degree. He's also about to become the main organist at the local Anglican church. He gives guitar lessons to a friend's son. He has helped many people with computer problems, since he has a highly technical mind and quick intuitive grasp of what has gone wrong.

Has their education been balanced, as it would have been in school? No. I admit it freely. They did use an American correspondence course to get diplomas, just in case they ever want to go to university, but the vast majority of their education was informal, self-motivated, and done without any formal teaching or structure. They read, they researched, they asked questions. And they still continue to do so.

So I'm very thankful that for the past eight years we have absolutely not allowed schooling of any kind to interfere with our sons' education!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

So... WHY would Brits be healthier than Americans?

I'm not entirely sure why they did this research, but it's apparently been shown that Americans are less healthy than their British counterparts.

"Americans aged 55 to 64 are up to twice as likely to suffer from diabetes, lung cancer and high blood pressure as English people of the same age"
Or so the report starts.

t wasn't even a study by Brits, this comes from the US itself - from the Journal of the American Medical Association. Nor is it related to something obvious like income levels, because the groups were carefully divided by income, so they compared wealthy Americans with similarly wealthy Brits, and so on. In both countries, the wealthier people were more healthy than the least wealthy, which is probably not surprising. People with more money are more likely to be well educated and aware of the benefits of healthy lifestyles. They can afford good quality food and relaxing holidays, and are less likely to live in cramped houses.

"The healthiest Americans had similar disease rates to the least healthy English."
That's pretty scary. And they don't seem to know why. Cigarette smoking habits were very similar between the two countries. Alcohol drinking levels were higher in the UK. Obviously for the lower income people in the USA, there's not much access to health care, but the wealthiest groups in American probably have good insurance, or can pay for medical treatment. And the illnesses they're talking about aren't really related to health care anyway. They're not talking about how many people die from these diseases, but how many develop them in the first place.

The report also takes into account the obesity levels in the USA which are generally higher than in the UK - but that, apparently, doesn't help explain the difference either.

What surprises me is that they don't mention nutrition. When we lived in the USA for a couple of years in the early 1990s, we were appalled at how few people seemed to cook 'proper' food. Of course, it's going that way in the UK too, with fast foods becoming cheaper, and packaged mixes in the supermarkets. But when I was growing up in the UK, in the 1960s and 1970s, all cooking was done 'from scratch' as they call it in the USA - ie using ingredients. That's what I still consider ordinary cooking. But our friends in the USA seemed to use cake mixes and pudding mixes and other 'instant' foods which were packed with preservatives and colourants and other such junk. They told me such things had been around for a long time, so perhaps people of 55-64 in the USA grew up with them in their diet.

By contrast, people of that age in the UK were children during or just after World War II when there was still food rationing. No white flour, very little sugar, and of course absolutely no imported or instant rubbish. There wasn't much meat, and people often filled up with bread and dripping, but there were vegetables and some fruit, locally grown, and many people kept eggs. It's often been said by health-food faddists that it's better to be a bit hungry than too eat too much, and that a simple diet is the healthiest. Perhaps we're finally seeing that this is the case...

Sunday, April 23, 2006

What is 'church' anyway?

I'm enthusing everywhere about Jake Colsen's book (available from his site as an e-book, free to download) ' So you don't want to go to church anymore?'

It's not preachy, and it doesn't tell us what to do. Instead it uses a fictional setting to guide someone through what church really is. Or rather, what it could be, what it was intended to be, and what it means. We all know the Church is not a building, or even an individual congregation, but the Body of Christ worldwide. We know that the local church really consists of all believers in a neighbourhood. And we know that the most important part of the church is each individual's relationship with Jesus.

Of course we know that, deep down.

So why are so many congregations all over the world struggling with building programmes, hearing long and boring sermons that inspire few if any, singing trite songs, or - at the other extreme - following ancient rituals that most of them don't understand? Why do so many Christians spend time worrying about minor ethical issues (drinking, smoking, dancing, eating, what to wear, what to see, what to read.... ) and judging those who think differently? Why are there so many doctrinal differences and arguments, leading to splitting congregations and gossip and strife?

What did Jesus say?

Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. That's the greatest commandment.

Love your neighbour. All the law is summed up in that phrase.

Basically, that's it. Christianity isn't an ethical system. It shouldn't be boring or trite. Nor should it be incomprehensible or mindless. It's an exciting way of life, following a radical Saviour. We have no need for three-point sermons or five-purpose churches or seven laws for success. Oh, there may be some value in reading such books, but they all miss the point. God loves us more than we can possibly imagine, and Jesus wants us to live for and with him in every way, every moment of every day.

Nothing else matters. When we are following Godly principles, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, then the ethics will fall into place.

Does that make it wrong to belong to a local congregation? Of course not. So long as it doesn't come between us and God. So long as we don't spend so much time and energy keeping the programmes and buildings going that we lose sight of what really matters. So long as we remember that we're only a small part of the worldwide Body of Christ, and that God is a great deal bigger than any one denomination or doctrinal standpoint.

Some people find a church service a good place to worship God corporately, and that's great. Whether it's in ancient chanting, a capella psalms, charismatic choruses or organ-led hymns, God loves our praise, and many people draw closer to him through such times. Worship is about giving God his worth, about offering ourselves to him in our entirety, in adoring him for who and what he is.

But at the same time, worship needs to be an attitude of life. A church service isn't for getting a spiritual high to keep us going during the week. If we can't praise God on our own, and give him his worth in every aspect of our lives, then even the most thrilling and moving church service becomes a distraction, not a bonus.

Some find sermons inspiring, and learn more of the Bible through teaching in church services. But not everyone is created to be an auditory learner, and unless a congregation is small and not at all diverse, it's impossible for any one sermon to teach - or minister in any way - to everyone. Or even the majority. Short testimonies may be more encouraging, if they're genuine. But it's all too easy for the same people to share, week by week, without specifics, and without empathy towards those who don't feel so blessed.

Besides, if a sermon is the only teaching and inspiration someone is receiving, then there's something wrong. There are a wealth of Christian books available, or (for those who don't read much) tapes, CDs and DVDs of teaching. Not to mention the Internet. We live in a multi-media world. God is proclaimed and the Bible explained in a multitude of ways. If we think we can gain all we need from a weekly sermon, then that too has become a distraction - an excuse. If the things of God are important, we need to consider them daily, moment by moment.

Church can also be a good place for networking: for meeting new people, for chatting with friends. It's important to get together with other believers, to talk of the things of God. For many, the coffee-and-biscuits after the church service is more important than the service itself. For someone new to the area, a church is an obvious place to find other believers.

But once again, if the coffee time after a service is our only contact with other believers, if we don't meet any of them through the week, then it's another thing that becomes a distraction. Or a sop to our guilty feelings that we 'ought' to be spending more time with other Christians.

What of outreach programmes? Children's ministry? Youth groups? Soup kitchens? Mother-and-toddler groups? Day Centres? House groups?

All can be valuable, of course. They are tools, which may be used or may be misused. If the leaders are enthusiastic, sure that they are doing what God wants them to do, and if those attending are doing so because they want to be there, then that's great. But if the leaders are over-stretched, under-funded, constantly stressed and never appreciated, then something is going awry. If people are turning up out of a sense of obligation, and thankful when they've finished, then there's little point their being there at all.

Perhaps more significantly, it's quite possible to be involved in some of these ministries without attending the Sunday morning services.

Where does that leave us?

If someone is happy in his or her local congregation, with a positive reason for being there, and with their relationship to Jesus taking first place, then there's no reason to leave unless God clearly tells them to do so. Local churches can be wonderful, with a sense of real community. If people really love each other, then they'll choose to see each other mid-week and help each other out when necessary. They'll pray for each other, and care for each other, and there won't be any hint of judgementalism or gossip, because Jesus is put first. Not politics, or ethics, or preconceived ideas of what Christians are like, but the Son of God who loved us and died for our sins.

But if - as is happening with so many people in the 21st century - the local church is making you feel jaded, or depressed, or if you find it boring or incomprehensible, or even if it's the high focal point of your week (thus potentially an idol) maybe God is calling you out of it, at least for a while. Not to find another congregation immediately, or to start a new one, but to reconsider your relationship with him. To find how to worship without church services. To find sources of teaching that aren't sermons. To meet with other believers without structure or obligation.

If this all sounds wacky, even heretical, I encourage you to read Jake Colsen's book and consider the implications. You might not agree - but then he doesn't tell us what to do, or how to live. His fictional guide just asks some questions, and points out places where many Christians have lost sight of what really matters.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Judging the Genuine, or Following the False?

Where do we draw the line? Scripture tells us there will be people who will lead us astray in the Last Times. It doesn't tell us how many, or what date, or what they will say. We're supposed to be on guard, to test all things, and yet we're not supposed to judge.

Unfortunately, there seem to be two extremes. There are those who decry just about every well-known Christian in the last 100 years as heretical in some way. Just put 'heretic' and the name of any famous writer or speaker into Google, and you're bound to find someone who is convinced they're unsound.

On the other hand, there are those who accept anyone who talks or writes about God as valid, even anointed. I know of people who watch the 'God channel' on satellite TV, all day every day. They're convinced it protects them and their families from being perverted by the world. They trust any sermon they hear - in church or on TV. Sometimes they even think it's immoral to question other Christians, or to criticise faulty interpretations of the Bible.

Too many people in today's culture are not taught to think critically for themselves. Some schools teach to exams, insisting students toe the party line (whatever that might be) and ask no serious questions. Unfortunately, that includes some Christian schools as well as ordinary state-run schools. Some cultures do not allow children to question parents or teachers at all. Some Christians grow up in strict denominational churches, and automatically reject anything that doesn't fit in with their narrow view of the world. At the other extreme, some Christians accept anyone unconditionally as a brother or sister, if they say they believe in God.

So where DO we draw the line?

As far as I'm concerned, relationships are of primary importance. First my relationship to God, then my relationship to other people. So in general I err on the side of accepting people rather than rejecting them. We're all created in God's image, after all. That implies that there's something of God in everyone, whether or not they acknowledge it. And if they do acknowledge it, no matter how faulty their theology may seem, I don't see that I have any right to pass negative judgement on them. God works in many and often mysterious ways, and is a great deal bigger than I can possibly imagine.

I was reading Brennan Manning's excellent book 'Abba's Child' recently. Very moving and inspiring. One paragraph in particular struck me deep within: he and his wife met a young girl, who turned out to be a Moonie (ie from the cultic pseudo-Christian movement following the teachings of Rev Moon). Brennan Manning spoke to the girl politely, saying he admired her commitment and his wife gave the girl a hug. The girl then said that they were the first Christians to give her any sort of respect at all. All others she had met either yelled at her, or denounced her as demonised. One person even hit her with a Bible.

I would probably have said little, neither hugged nor hit her. But if I aspire to be like Jesus, then I need to be more prepared to reach out to anyone and everyone, to accept them for who they are, to meet them in the place where they are. It's sometimes worthwhile to expand the parable of the sheep and the goats to take account of up-to-date scenarios.

I was on the streets passing out heretical tracts, and you ignored me, or shouted at me.
I was a refugee, and you refused to grant me asylum.
I was sick, and didn't have private insurance, so you let me go bankrupt or die.

I could go on, but I don't want to point fingers. As soon as I do, even in a theoretical way, I'm myself guilty of being judgemental and non-accepting. God loves me - and you - and everyone else - for who we are. For the people he created us to be. With all our faults and hangups and the mistakes we've made. The entire law of God is summed up in the phrase: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' And the word 'neighbour', of course, is explained by example in the parable of the Good Samaritan. An outcast treated a beaten-up wreck with compassion. It's sadly the case that in the 21st century our santised churches are often the last place that a beaten-up wreck would go to find help.

So, with other people I believe in showing love, acceptance, forgiveness. Not judgement. Not criticism. Not condemnation of their lifestyles, no matter how immoral they might seem to be. Jesus ate with sinners and prostitutes and cheating tax-collectors; how can I refuse to follow his steps?

But what about doctrine and teaching?

Here, my tendency is to question and analyse just about every theory or sermon I hear. I read a lot of Christian books and I don't expect to agree with everything in most of them. If the overall concept is good, and there are useful reminders in them, or perhaps something explained in a new way, or with an unusual perspective, then I'll value the book. If a sermon has a message of encouragement, some good examples, some clear explanations of Scripture, then great. I'm no auditory listener, and I simply can't keep my mind on a sermon for more than about 20 minutes, but others value this method of learning, and some sermons bear some positive fruit in the lives of those who listen.

What worries me is when people accept blindly all they are told or hear. When they seem to see the Bible as more important than the work of the Holy Spirit. When they take verses out of context, or quote a passage of Scripture without asking the basic questions: Who wrote this? To whom did they write it? Why were they writing it?

It worries me even more when people want to become legalist about the Bible and Christian life in general. A while ago my husband was asked, by a group of young Egyptian men, 'Is it right to go to the cinema?' He said that it wasn't a question of right or wrong. Most Christians would believe it wrong to watch certain movies - pornographic ones, or those with extreme gratuitous violence, for instance. And there might be certain other circumstances when it was wrong to go to a cinema: if it meant using money that could better be used elsewhere, or if somebody really needed to spend time with them, for instance. It might also be wrong to go every day because it could become a habit. But in the end, it's up to personal conviction and the Holy Spirit's prompting within.

Unfortunately, this didn't satisfy these men. They were brought up in a rigid educational system that taught them to obey their teachers, to learn by rote, and to live their lives in legalistic ways. They had never learned to think for themselves, to question authority or to do their own research and internal questioning. They wanted absolutes: yes or no. They were prepared to ask several Christians they respected and see what the majority response was, but they didn't want the responsibility of making their own decisions, or the vagueness of 'grey areas'.

It's to people like this that many modern books or speakers appeal: the kind that tell us Five Purposes or Seven Laws or Nine Rules... all we have to do is follow the author or speaker's guidelines and we'll be guaranteed success and happiness, and probably a crown in heaven. And unfortunately it's people brought up within rigid legalism who find it hardest to analyse these books or talks objectively. Do they give some good principles? Yes, sometimes they do. Are there only Five Purposes (or Seven Laws or Nine Rules...)? Of course not. Jesus proclaimed freedom from the law, not a new bunch of regulations.

So how do we keep following God's ways, not rejecting or judging those around us, but without being distracted from our path by all the diversions around? We can plan for the future, but can't expect to follow our plans rigidly since we can only live one day at a time. We can learn from the past, but there's no need to dwell in it since we can't possibly change it or follow what 'might have been'. We can be aware of cultural trends and political movements, but they're only temporal and should never guide us.

The only answer I can see is to keep our eyes constantly on Jesus. To reach out our hands and take his, acknowledging that we'll often fail but that he loves us unconditionally and will never leave us.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Can it ever be right to be 'purpose-driven'?

Our church is running the American mega-church course 'The Purpose Driven Life'. This is after a year in which the church has become progressively more structured: the leadership has changed, the constitution has changed, and for every role or job in the church formal job descriptions and aims/objectives have been defined. We have not been comfortable with this, and the Purpose-Driven Life feels like the last straw. Even putting aside the American hype, something feels very wrong about it.

As a disclaimer, I should say that I realise many people have found the book to be a blessing. If it were simply treated as another Christian book, with some good points and some not-so-good, then fine. Of course God can use anything for good. Some people may have felt stuck in a rut, and needed to hear about God having purposes for them. In some churches, new house groups have sprung up as a result of this course, and that's great.

I also know that there are churches which have studied this book critically. They've read it in their house groups, looked at the pros and cons, checked some of the dubious Scripture references, and learned how to distinguish valid and invalid use of the Bible. They've read articles for and against Rick Warren's teachings, and they've discussed what he says with open minds.

But our church has adopted the full 40-day campaign structure. That means that all existing house groups are supposed to close, and new 'cell groups' formed. The leaders of these have to be trained in Rick Warren's methods, and each meeting is supposed to start with a video of Rick Warren, saying the same as was said in the sermon on Sunday - which was the same as is said in his book. There are memory verses which everyone's supposed to learn each week. And right at the beginning of each cell, members were supposed to sign a 'covenent' committing themselves to the group and to each othe for the 40 days of the course.

More than that, all ministry groups are supposed to close, or use the course in some way. Even the mother-and-toddler groups, the outreach groups, the youth groups. Since many of our groups are inter-church, or meeting important needs in the neighbourhood, they haven't all closed, but some have. Some may never regain their momentum. And many of those who were involved in service within the Body (something Rick Warren insists is one of God's purposes) find themselves without anywhere to be of service during the campaign.

I wouldn't go so far as to say it's intended to brainwash, but it has much in common with brainwashing techniques. Such as removal of current support, and frequent repetition of certain fixed phrases. Oh, and the Sunday services start with half an hour of mostly rather trite songs, but there's no prayer time - just a long sermon which is supposed to be Rick Warren verbatim, read by the current preacher. Our preachers have slightly cut them down (they're supposed to be an hour long! Who can listen to someone talking for that length of time?!) but they're still tedious. Or so I gather - I've managed to volunteer in children's work or stay away. The book was more than enough for me. It taught me nothing new, and was irritating with all the misquotations, and many different paraphrases of Scripture.

Here I add another disclaimer. I'm not someone who believes the only inspired translation of Scripture is the Authorised Version (or King James Version, as they call it in the USA). I believe that as language changes, and further original scrolls are found, and Greek and Hebrew scholarship improves, more accurate translations have been made. How amazing it is that so much was accurate, even with the poor techniques and lack of documents available in the Middle Ages - God certainly ensured that his Word was always available, and that what was important has remained. Had Rick Warren chosen to use only the New International Version, or the New King James, or another accurate modern translation, I would have had no problem. But he doesn't use any single translation. He uses a mixture, including some paraphrases (such as the Living Bible, or the Message, neither of which is supposed to be taken as authoritative) and quotes them as freely as he quotes more accurate translations. He often seems to choose a particular version to 'prove' what he is trying to say; a cursory glance at another version often suggests that he's missed the point entirely.

Is Rick Warran a false prophet, one of those predicted in the Gospels, who would - if possible - 'deceive even the elect'? Many seem to believe that. Or is the course simply a mistake? I'm usually happy to give anyone the benefit of the doubt; perhaps Rick Warren's church was struggling with nominalism, or (as a friend suggested) extreme consumerism. Perhaps they did need to stop, and focus on God's purposes for them. Perhaps the five purposes that are outlined in the book were absolutely appropriate for Saddleback church, and the members needed to hear this message. Maybe the same is true for some other churches too - there are certainly reports of great things happening in churches who have followed this course, although I don't know how closely they followed it. Of course God can do great things anyway. Merely because something good results from something does not mean that the something was in itself good.

Is there a danger of the 'purpose-driven life' becoming cultic? Absolutely. There are various lists showing standard 'marks of cults' - one of them is shown at this site. Of them, the PDL campaign displays:

Extrabiblical authority - yes. It doesn't deny anything in the Bible, but Rick Warren's book is taken as the authority during this course. Here's a report of people actively discouraged from taking Bibles to purpose-driven cell groups, because a Bible might confuse the issue...

Legalism - absolutely. Everything we do is supposed to fit in with one of Rick Warren's purposes (which, he claims, are God's purposes).

Guru-type leader - that's obvious. Rick Warren is on all the videos, his sermons must be preached, his book must be read, his course - and other courses - must be followed. Pastors can even download more of his sermons from the Saddleback web-site, if they're so uninspired that they can't preach their own.

Claims of special discoveries - yes, that's what the whole book seems to be about. At best, it's stating the obvious. But it markets itself as a new revelation, something that - it promises - will change our lives. And there's his whole dubious theory of 'exponential growth'. He even redefines the word 'exponential'.

Out of context Scripture used as proof texts - yes. Frequently. Here's a very useful 'discernment tool' that shows, for each chapter of the book, what Rick Warren says, and what an accurate translation (the NASV in this case) says.

Pseudomystical/occult influence - perhaps not that, exactly. But there are strong influences from the business world, from the dumbed-down gospel of Robert Schuller, and - apparently - from the New Age movement. Here's a page which explains how the whole movement departs from Biblical teaching.

Six out of fourteen seems a bit worrying, if any one of those could imply a cult.

Some more useful articles:

Examining 'purpose driven' or 'purposeful and Spirit-led'

Another clear examination of this movement

One family's clear descriptions of why they left a purpose-driven church

Slice of Laodicea - how Rick Warren teaches his principles to Jews

A bit heavy - but this shows the official stance on those who resist these teachings

Saturday, March 11, 2006

About worship and music

There's an oft-quoted phrase of Rick Warren's: "There's no such thing as Christian music, only Christian words." It's become a catchphrase, and in the context in which he brings this up in the book, I don't disagree. There is no single style of music that can be called 'Christian'. Some like hymns, some like psalms, some like 1980s worship music, some like 1990s Vineyard music, some like Taizé music... all can be used to worship God. To suggest that we can only worship God by singing Psalms, or - at the other extreme - that we should reject all music written before the 21st century as out-of-date - is unbalanced. God loves variety, and has created people with huge diversity of musical tastes and talents. So by all means, let's worship him in many ways: with all styles of music, and in other ways. Warren's point about worship being a lifestyle is also valid, of course.

But... 'Only Christian words'. What does he mean by that? The implication is that if a song contains Christian concepts, then it's a Christian song and can be used for worshipping God. If it doesn't, then it can't.

Is that the case? Many would disagree. Amongst the songs to be found in most current Christian songbooks, there are some which are clearly worshipful, some which state theology rather than expressing any kind of worship, and some which are trite in the extreme. Merely because a song mentions God, and is written by a Christian, does not mean it's going to be worshipful. I think of Adrian Plass's fictional diaries... someone wrote out the most appalling pseudo-Christian doggerel and insisted God had given them the song. Plass's wry comment was that God was probably glad to get rid of it. Is God worshipped by 'vain repetition' of religious phrases? Or, indeed, by the heavy and rather severe theology of some of the old hymns?

I don't say that he can't be. God enjoys our worship however it's expressed, and I'm sure that even the tritest (or heaviest) of songs can be song with a reverential and worshipful heart. But they can also be sung by people who think they're dreadful, or boring. When I was a teenager, visiting a rather dull church, I noticed the word 'assuage' in a hymn we were singing, and spotted that it's an anagram of 'sausage'. I tried in vain to suppress the giggles, which ensured my rendition was far from worshipful.

Then there's the other side: music without words can undoubtedly be worshipful. A musician playing a clarinet, or a trumpet, cannot sing the words at the same time, but can certainly give worship while playing, either alone or as part of a church service. If worship is showing God's worth (as the word means) and expressing our love, then the words as such are almost irrelevant. What matters is our heart and our attitude.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Purpose-Driven Life, first seven chapters

Our church is going to embark on '40 days of purpose' , in about three weeks. I don't feel good about it, but wanted to be fair so I've started reading Rick Warren's book. I'm putting aside the American hype (expecting people to sign pledges, telling them it's no coincidence they've picked up the book, all that hyperbole on the back cover blurb...) and trying to see (a) what it says (b) whether it's appropriate to me (c) whether I feel it's appropriate for our church. The thing is, I don't feel a lack of purpose. I don't know anyone who does.

In the first seven chapters, the book addresses some very basic Christian issues: life isn't about us, it's about God. Living on earth is just a short preparation time for eternity in Heaven. What we see isn't all that exists. It's important to find what God wants us to do, and live our lives according to his purposes. We're here for five main reasons: to glorify God, to grow more Christlike, to be part of a family within the church, to serve our brothers and sisters, to tell others about Jesus.

Well, duh (as they say in the USA) . I knew all that when I was about ten... it's kiddie Sunday School stuff. It was probably touched upon as something 'obvious' when I did confirmation classes at age 14. Growing up Anglican, we used liturgy week after week that covered most of that, and I don't really see how anyone who's a Christian could NOT be aware of it.

Apparently the 'campaign' in churches is partly intended to invite unbelievers along - but I don't really see that those who aren't Christians would even get half-way through the first chapter. This isn't Nicky Gumbel explaining logically and convincingly who Jesus was, based on historical evidence. No, Rick Warren leaps straight in with verses from the Bible as 'proof texts' of what he says. Fair enough for those of us who believe Scripture is the Word of God, but for those who are ambivalent about God altogether, why should Bible verses convince them of anything?

I have a slight gripe about all the Bible references, too. Rick Warren seems to switch translations every couple of sentences. I have no objection to modern translations of the Bible, and - at times- comparing several of them to find the real meaning of the Hebrew or Greek. But I don't see how it works to mix and match, apparently finding versions that fit best with what he's trying to say, and often taking them right out of context. For instance, in one place he quotes: 'Nobody can serve two masters". Yes, Jesus said that. But he was talking about the problems of being fixated on money. It's true that we shouldn't have any idols at all, and that serving God should come before everything else, but Rick Warren is taking a verse out of context and using it to 'prove' something that wasn't originally meant. I don't disagree with his conclusions, but the logic is faulty. It's along the lines of:

Rover is brown. Some dogs are brown. Therefore Rover must be a dog.

Maybe it's true that Rover is a dog, but the premises as stated do not lead to that conclusion.

Perhaps this sounds nit-picky. I'm not about to throw out the entire book based on a few logical failings such as this (that, after all, would be a logical error in my own reasoning... a few faults in anybody's teaching doesn't make them unsound). But it bothers me that this kind of thing is allowed to get in such a high-profile book, which must have been edited and republished many times.

For myself personally, I disagree with some of what is suggested. For instance: live each day as if it were your last on earth. OK, if I were a money-grubbing workaholic, this advice might make me slow down a bit and appreciate my family more. In those circumstances, it wouldn't be a bad thing.

But for a family-orientated procrastinator like myself, such exhortations don't help at all. If this were my last day on earth, I certainly wouldn't bother to wash dishes. Or mow the lawn. Or do laundry. Or catch up with finances or paperwork. I manage to motivate myself to do these things (sometimes) by focussing on the future - by the thought of the task completed, and how it benefits us all. I can go along with Warren's suggestions of looking after what God has entrusted to us (in my case, my home and family) and looking forward to eternity in general. But if I spent all my time thinking about it, I'd be - as the old quote says - 'so heavenly-minded I'm no earthly good'.