Monday, July 30, 2007

Harry Potter as a Christian allegory

When I first read 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone', way before the books became so famous - or notorious, depending on your viewpoint - I was impressed at what seemed, to me, a somewhat Christian worldview. In brief, I noticed:
  • the themes of integrity and loyalty
  • the importance of unconditional love
  • the power and value of sacrifice, even laying down one's life
  • the triumph of good over evil
I was also impressed at the style of writing, the clever mixture of genres - I don't think I'd ever before come across a fantasy school story with a good versus evil theme - the humour, and the clever plotting that made me totally unable to guess what would happen in the climax to the book.

I read the second book shortly afterwards, and was even more impressed. The same themes occurred, and the story was even more cleverly written, keeping me guessing, once again, to the end.

It was around that time that 'The Onion', the satirical (and often very rude) online magazine that writes spoof articles on all kinds of topics, decided to create an over-the-top article about the Harry Potter books. The aim, as far as I can gather, was to make fun of a few American Christian fundamentalists who - apparently - objected to the books because they were about wizards and magic.

Unfortunately, these disapproving folk apparently didn't understand satire, and took the article as truth. It began circulating in an email, which got forwarded and copied and ended up in hundreds and thousands of mailboxes. Christians who had never heard of Harry Potter started forwarding it on, not checking whether it was true or not. Many people, it seems, are all too trusting of emails from (supposely) 'reliable sources', and - worse - are perhaps secretly pleased to have something like this to condemn. Eventually it was widespread enough for Snopes to investigate - and of course they pointed out that (a) nothing published in The Onion is true (b) most of the claims in the article were ludicrous.

It was sad that Christians were so eager to pass on unpleasant gossip of this sort, but turned out to be a great turning point for JK Rowling. Schools and Churches in the USA (and even a few in the UK) decided to ban the book - which instantly made it highly desirable, and increased its popularity enormously. Rowling evidently appreciated this, since in the fifth Harry Potter book she makes reference to a newspaper being banned at Hogwarts School, thus guaranteeing that every student would read it!

Moreoever, Christians who actually did read the book tended to be positive about them. The evangelical magazine Christianity today has written several articles, indexed here, most of which are - on the whole - enthusiastic about the series. They are not, of course, direct teaching aids or overtly Christian. But - like the Narnia series by CS Lewis, or JRR Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' epic - they do revolve around Christian principles. In particular, they encourage all the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Two years ago, when the sixth book was published, people started making serious predictions about what would happen in the seventh and final novel. We knew that there would have to be a final confrontation between Harry and the evil Lord Voldemort - but which of them would die? Which of Harry's friends would be slaughtered along the way? Would the world be rid of evil at the last? What exactly was motivating Snape, the unpleasant potions professor? Why did Dumbledore, the wise old headmaster, keep so many secrets?

I assumed that there would be a positive outcome: that Harry would defeat Voldemort, and not die in the process himself, and that most of his friends would survive. I also hoped that there might be a more overt Christian theme - perhaps someone dying in order to give life to others, or even being resurrected, as Aslan was in 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'. Some of the predictions were clearly ridiculous - suggesting, for instance, that Harry would decide to join forces with Voldemort, or that Harry would turn out to be evil after all. The one I thought most interesting - and possible - was the one in Christianity Today, 'Waiting for Harry'.

I thought that 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows', which I read this weekend, was superb. It was an enjoyable read, it answered a lot of questions from the previous books, and it was sprinkled with overtly Christian symbols as well as the more broadly Christian principles. The Scriptures on tombstones have been mentioned in many places, as has the significance of Kings Cross station. Just a normal underground station that begins the journey to Hogwarts each year, but evidently chosen because of the meaning of the name. This becomes clear in the 'after-life' scenario towards the end of the book.

What of JK Rowling herself? The ridiculous - possibly libellous - suggestions in previous years that she herself was involved in the occult were obviously untrue. She has been quoted more than once as saying that no, she is not Wiccan. Yes, she tells us, she is a Christian. Perhaps in the USA people would say that even if it weren't true, but it's quite acceptable to be Wiccan in the UK. Far more so than admitting to being a follower of Christ. She has nothing to gain by admitting to being a Christian, and much to lose from the non-Christian majority.

JK Rowling, we learn elsewhere, is a member of the Church of Scotland. She didn't want to talk about her beliefs in advance of the publication of book seven, since - she said - it would give away the ending. Since the ending is a clear demonstration of voluntary sacrifice, life after death, resurrection, and protection transmuted to others, that surely shows beyond all shadow of doubt that the series is intended as a broadly Christian allegory.

What themes do I see that reflect Christian thinking? There are many, but in brief:

Sacrificial love: This one has been mentioned many times. Harry's mother dies to save his life in the first book, and this gives him a protection much stronger than evil. Without giving away too much, this is mirrored at the end of the seventh book in a very powerful way.

Love for enemies: Harry (and, to a lesser extent, Dumbledore, Ron and Hermione) stand out in their caring even for those who hate them. Harry saves Pettigrew's life in the third book, and Draco's life in the seventh, even though either of them would be happy to kill him.

Equality of races: Harry and his friends believe that all life is valuable. That of Muggles (those who are not wizards), of half-breeds such as Hagrid, of house-elves, even of goblins who show them little respect. Harry's respectful treatment of Kreacher, the unpleasant house elf left to him, leads to a remarkable transformation.

Principles rather than details: Harry and friends are not averse to breaking school rules when it's for higher purposes. Sometimes, of course, it's for their own purposes, but they're never deliberately trying to hurt anyone. They understand that rules are not unbendable; they provide a useful structure, but sometimes need to be abandoned. Just like Jesus choosing to heal or pick corn on the Sabbath.

Just in case anyone comes across this and thinks I'm off my rocker, here is just a small selection of the many, many other articles and blogs who also believe that there is a strong Christian theme in JK Rowling's books.
And for information about JK Rowling herself:
  • Fantasia - About CS Lewis, primarily, but with reference to JK Rowling as well.
  • Fantastic posts - brief biography of JK Rowling
  • Accio quote - about JK Rowling
  • Further to the epilogue - JK Rowling in a recent interview, telling us what she left out of the epilogue to the Deathly Hallows book

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Being the church in the 21st century

Just over a year ago I wrote a post entitled, 'What is church anyway?' - in part discussing Jake Colsen's fictional book about the church, and in part my own thoughts.

These thoughts have been ongoing, off and on, and recently resurfaced on reading 'Church that Works' by James Oliver and David Thwaites (reviewed here on my books blog). This book suggests that our entire modern understanding of the church is wrong - it was never what Jesus intended, and is largely ineffective in reaching anybody. Church leaders seem to spend considerable amounts of time trying to make their services and programmes relevant to today's youth, or parents, or retired folk - depending on where they are - but, on the whole, with little success.

Oh, there are mega-churches in the USA and even bigger ones (giga-churches?) in parts of Africa. But do they meet people's needs? Do they draw in the lost, the needy, the dirty and ragged... or do they draw in the respectable folk in their Sunday best? We may be good at welcoming people of all races and cultures, and encouraging those who are seeking God. But what about the folk who come in their scruffy jeans, who haven't had a shower for a few days, and have alcohol on their breath?

Moveover, what are we doing about the vast majority of people in the West who simply wouldn't darken the doors of a church building (except, perhaps, at Christmas and Easter)? We might give out tracts, invite them to Alpha courses, tell them about guest services... and yes, a few will respond. But it's all so impersonal, these days, so structured, so separatist. We feel pleased with ourselves if the Baptists and the Methodists have a joint service once a year... but we still tend to feel our own particular brand of doctrine is really 'better'. Is this really 'church'?

What was meant by 'church' in the New Testament? The word translated as 'church' is the Greek ekklesia (εκκλεσια) which literally means '(those who are) called out'. In Ancient Greece it was a secular term referring to an assembly of officials, but in the Old Testament the equivalent word referred to all the people of Israel who were called by God. There are many web-sites attempting to determine exactly what Jesus meant when he first used the word (in Matthew's Gospel) - see for instance 'Christ's Ekklesia and the Church compared' or ' What is Church?' or 'The Church is not in God's plan' - all worth reading if you want word studies, and some varying interpretations.

What just about everyone agrees on, however, is that the modern word 'church' is an inaccurate translation of the Greek. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles ever intended the kind of churches we have today: sanitised, highly organised and totally respectable. I doubt if they ever imagined that people would drive miles to get together with other people who happen to believe the same minor doctrinal isues as they do, but would refuse to be friendly with their Anglican/Presbyterian/charismatic next-door neighbour.

I don't think we can necessarily determine exactly what Jesus and Paul meant by the word ' ekklesia'. But we can certainly look at the kinds of groups Paul was writing to. He mostly addressed the 'ekklesia' in a town. Or perhaps the 'ekklesias' in a province. But he was pretty annoyed with the folk who tried to be divisive - see I Corinthians 1:10-13. If he were writing today, perhaps he would say something like:

" 'One of you says, 'I'm a Lutheran; another, 'I'm a Calvinist; another, 'I'm a charismatic'; still another, 'I follow Christ'.... "

Christ is not divided, Paul reminds us. The wisdom of the world (with its structures and programmes and campaigns...) is foolishness. All that matters is Christ crucified. We ARE the ekklesia - the 'church' if you want to use that word. I belong to the ekklesia - the body of believers - in the town I live in. I am a member of it because I'm part of Christ's Body worldwide - not because I've signed any doctrinal statement, or affiliated myself with any particular subset of the body.

Moreover, the people Paul was writing to didn't have access to fast transport. When they gathered (perhaps to hear one of Paul's letters, or to pray together) it was in people's houses, generally. Each person would naturally have gone to whichever house happened to be the closest. We read in Acts that the believers shared their possessions, and ate together; this couldn't have happened if people wanted to go half-way across the town to find another body of believers who they felt were more 'sound' than the ones in their neighbourhood.

Of course it's important to meet with other believers. But we're social folk; most of us do that anyway. The book I was reading points out that we're told by Jesus to be salt and light in the world. Can we really be salt and light if we only meet socially with people who share our personal views? Spending our evenings and weekends in church buildings, church programmes and church meetings is surely a good example of hiding our light under a bushel. Instead we're supposed to be where people can see us - and that, for most of us, means in the workplace, or the home, or the school, or wherever we happen to be.

Jesus also told us that any time two or three people gather in his name, he's there with them. He didn't specify a time, or a place, or even a reason for meeting. Just that he's there, alongside any group of his people who get together, for whatever reason.

What about those Sunday morning services that so many people see as central to the 'church'? Many people enjoy them, or find them helpful; they worship God freely and learn more of him through the teaching. That's fine. But it shouldn't be expected of us to meet regularly every Sunday in the same place. It should just be one (optional) part of our life as believers. And we absolutely shouldn't believe that 'our' particular favourite style of Sunday service is in some way superior to someone else's.

We're all fallible people doing what we believe to be right - most of the time, anyway. We have different tastes in music, different attitudes to informality, different ways of learning. Not everyone is an auditory learner. Those that do learn primarily through hearing may well find a forty-minute sermon to be powerful and positive. But probably at least two-thirds of the congregation (who are not auditory learners) will have switched off after the first ten minutes. At most. Yes, the visual learners can be helped by powerpoint presentations or visual aids, but what of the kinaesthetic learners? How are they helped? Or are they made to feel inferior because they would rather be doing something active than sitting still listening to a talk?

If we ARE the ekklesia, the word translated as 'church' over 100 times in the New Testament, the concept of 'going to church' makes no sense at all. The ekklesia has a gathering any time two or three believers in Jesus get together, whether they're praying, studying the Bible, drinking coffee or playing Scrabble. The ekklesia gathers when Christian co-workers (of whatever denominational background) stand up together for Godly principles in the workplace: honesty, integrity, gentleness, love. The ekklesia gathers when two Christian families have a day out together and share a picnic.

How did Jesus say people would know we are his disciples? By the love we have for one another. Not by our moral behaviour, not by the size of our church building, not by the programmes we have to 'reach out' into the community.

Sadly, what people outside Christ's body often observe is Christians who can't get along with each other, Sunday services that seem irrelevant and boring, and very little in the church that has any relevance to their daily lives. We've somehow separated the sacred from the secular in a way that mirrors Greek thinking, but was completely alien to the Jews (including Jesus and Paul) who lived a much more holistic lifestyle.

At the end of his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul instructs us to be joyful ALWAYS, pray CONTINUALLY, give thanks in ALL circumstances. Not just at our Sunday services and week-day housegroups and prayer meetings. We need to see God in our places of work and leisure, to show our colleagues and neighbours that he's relevant all the time - they don't need to adopt a completely different lifestyle to follow him. (Of course, Jesus may well convict them of things that need to be changed after they've met him... but that part is really none of our business, unless we're consulted about it).

A year ago, when I read Jake Colsen's book, our family were finding 'the church' a bit stressful. My husband had stopped going to the congregation we had been a regular part of for some years, for various reasons, and was going - about once a month - to the local charismatic congregation. I didn't feel comfortable there at all, however, and felt I wanted to stay in touch with the people at the congregation we had been part of, also for various reasons. Our 18-year-old son had moved to the local Anglican congregation a year or so before that, believing it right, but not entirely sure why. He wasn't entirely happy either, with a succession of interim ministers during an inter-regnum and a lot of discontent generally.

Now, a year later, we have settled into more of a routine. About two or three Sundays per month, I go at 9am to the congregation we all used to be part of (although we never took out formal membership, feeling unhappy about the concept). I've given up most of my commitments there, though I still occasionally help out in the under-six Sunday School. Our son goes at 9.30 to the Anglican congregation, where he is now the organist/pianist, and on several committees; he is much appreciated by the mostly elderly people who also attend regularly. Then my husband attends the charismatic congregation (where his work colleagues and sailing friends also go) at 10am - a much better time from his perspective as he is NOT an early-bird.

We're all part of the ekklesia in our town. We take part in inter-church activities, and we host a house-group (mostly from the congregation I usually worship with) on a Friday evening, which has a meal together, prays about personal concerns, and then does a low-key interactive style Bible study. It's unusual, but it's what seems to be right at the moment. Some Sundays my husband sleeps instead of going anywhere, and some Sundays I go along to the Anglican congregation instead. Occasionally I visit the charismatic congregation with my husband. The most important thing is to love one another as believers in the town, and to be witnesses - in whatever way we can - in the world.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Light of the World

Jesus said, 'I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.' (John 8:12)

I must have read or heard those words hundreds of times. But yesterday they seemed to leap out at me, making me pause awhile and think what Jesus meant by that oft-quoted metaphor.


We take it for granted these days, with mains electricity in all the developed world, and much of the developing world too. In New Testament times, however, people were limited to candles or oil lamps. A lot of them were needed to light a big room, and they required a fair amount of effort to keep going. Their main form of light was, of course, the sun. Most of the work was done in the daytime outside, or in rooms with plenty of windows.

Light banishes the darkness.

In Patricia M St John's book, 'Treasures of the Snow', which I first read as a young child, there's an image which has always stuck with me: the idea that when we open shutters to let in the light, the darkness simply disappears. We don't have to rush around trying to get rid of it first, or worry about it at all once the light floods the room. So it is with our sin. Some people seem to think they have to get rid of all their wrong attitudes and behaviours before they're good enough to come to Jesus. Or even to enter a church. But it doesn't work that way. We come to Jesus because we're sinners, full of darkness. In his light, the darkness vanishes. It's forgiven. Forgotten. Gone.

That's not to say it doesn't sometimes return; of course it does. When we turn away from Jesus, our old habits recur. Life isn't always easy, and we're flawed humans. We will never be fully in the light as long as we're living on this earth. But any time, any place, we can turn to Jesus and have our sin - our darkness - wiped away in his light. He paid the penalty we deserve. He is always the light, and in him we too can have a the light of life.

Light uncovers what is hidden.

There is much that we hide, in addition to our sin. Perhaps we have some sordid family secret that we don't want anyone to know about. An abusive parent. A rebellious child. A sibling in prison. Perhaps we were badly hurt in the past, and try to hide it. There are many things which are not our fault - not our sin - yet which almost choke us as we pretend all is well, make cheerful small talk, smile and clap as we sing in church.

But we can bring everything to Jesus, including these things which make us embarrassed or angry. He can help us to forgive, and he can show us that in everything he is there for us. One day perhaps we'll understand why something happened - possibly even see some good come out of it - but equally, we may never know. What matters is that Jesus is there for us, loving us, taking us in his arms and letting us know that he understands.

Light reveals the path ahead.

It's easy to stumble or go the wrong direction in the dark. But by daylight we can see the road, and where it leads. Those who live without Jesus may have many plans for their future, but they don't really know where they're going. With Jesus, we may not know what tomorrow brings - we may only be able to take one step at a time - but in his light we know the path is there, and that he holds his hand out to guide us.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Immortal, invisible...

I've been re-reading JB Phillips' classic, 'Your God is too Small'. Such a small book, so simply written, and yet so full of wisdom.

At first glance, what he says may be obvious: we mustn't create God in our own image, or try to fit him into a box. We mustn't limit him to our childish preconceptions, we need to view him - and the Bible - through adult eyes. Yes, Jesus said we need to become like little children, but that doesn't mean we should be childish. Talking about God as our Father doesn't mean we ONLY see him as a father. Our earthly fathers may have been good, or they may have been terrible. Or even non-present. God is the ideal Father - all the best that is fatherhood - but he's so much more as well.

Philips divides the book into sections, starting with twelve common misconceptions about God, plus a few other lesser ones. I suspect that which one(s) we tend to adopt depend on our personality type as well as our upbringing. For instance, the first wrong idea mentioned is that of 'resident policeman'. The voice of conscience. Yes, God can and does speak through our consciences, but they need to be refined and flooded regularly with Scripture. Otherwise we can get quite the wrong idea of what morality is. Parents, propaganda, even sermons can convince the over-sensitive that all kinds of things are wrong which Scripture doesn't forbid at all. A child brought up by vegetarians may feel his conscience telling him that it's wrong to eat meat, whereas it's generally a personal preference. We probably all know of Christians who are convinced it's morally wrong to drink any kind of alcohol (ignoring the fact that Jesus and his disciples drank wine) or even to use musical instruments in worship (despite Psalm 150).

Then there's the reverse problem of those who are less sensitive, and convince themselves that harmful activities are perfectly all right - that the Bible is a bit outdated, that nobody these days expects lifelong monogamy or total honesty in declaring income for tax purposes. They don't feel any pricking of their consciences, so they assume their behaviour is just fine.

Our consciences are important, but they're not always the voice of God.

Another example is that of the 'heavenly bosom'. One of the great old hymns by Charles Wesley, if taken at face value, seems to imply that we should simply hide in God's arms when circumstances are difficult. Like a small child running to his mother, after being scared by a big dog. Yes, of course we can go to Jesus any time, and there is a contentment deep within that comes from knowing him. But we certainly shouldn't expect him to shield us from all that life throws at us. Christians through the ages have faced terrible situations, often painful death, because they have refused to run away and hide. We were promised life in all its fullness, but not that it would be free of problems or pain.

We will never fully understand or know God, since he is infinite. But we need to acknowledge this rather than trying to pin him down or see him in rational or human terms. He can speak through our consciences, but he doesn't always. He is our Father, but he's so much more. We can go to him any time, but sometimes he sends us out to overcome increasingly difficult challenges. He has existed for eternity, but he is not outdated...

'Your God is too Small' is not complex theology, but it's very thought-provoking.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Listening and loving

As a child, I was afraid of dogs. I told people I hated them. I didn't like looking at their pictures. I moved as far away as possible from anyone walking a dog. I didn't want to go into a house where I knew there was a dog living.


Apparently, when I was a toddler, a large and probably over-friendly dog jumped at me and terrified me. It took years for me to learn to like dogs again.

Others have more painful experiences: perhaps they were knocked over, or bitten by a dog. Perhaps they knew someone who was ravaged by a dog. Perhaps they had early experience of highly-trained guard dogs who would attack strangers. Some of them may never really come to accept dogs as (mostly) friendly, tame pets.

Fear or distrust of dogs is so common that when we hear someone insisting they hate dogs, we assume they've had a bad experience with them in the past. We're sympathetic, on the whole. We might make gentle enquiries about why they feel that way. We might share our own similar experiences. We might show them photos of soft and cuddly dogs that could hardly fail to make them smile. Or we might just leave the topic alone.

What we don't do is to start heavy arguments about why dogs are wonderful, or tell them they should come with us to the local stray dogs' home. We don't give them heavy books about why a dog is man's best friend, or try to convince them of the pointlessness of having gerbils or hamsters as pets.

So.... why do so many Christians take a heavy line with people who attack the church, or their personal beliefs? Chances are that someone who is suspicious of Christianity has been injured in some way in the past by Christians. Perhaps they had a rigid and dogmatic upbringing, heavily disciplined for any infringement of Christian values. Perhaps they were spurned at a church they visited for dressing in scruffy jeans. Perhaps they've come across hypocritical Christians who say one thing and do another.

John Piper says:

Let us learn to discern whether the words spoken against us or against God or against the truth are merely for the wind--spoken not from the soul, but from the sore. If they are for the wind, let us wait in silence and not reprove. Restoring the soul, not reproving the sore, is the aim of our love.
(from "A Godward Life")

How right he is. When other people attack us, or our faith, or the church, or even God, it does no good at all to argue. Yes, we need to be sure what we believe and be prepared to explain it. But we need to do so from the perspective of the person we're talking to. Jesus told us that the entire law is summed up in the commands to love God, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Loving our neighbour doesn't just involve doing practical things for them. It can mean listening to them at a deep level, hearing where they're coming from, understanding why they've formed the views they have. Maybe at some point we can introduce them to Jesus, but we're unlikely to to have any effect until we've shown them honest friendship and shown that we take them seriously.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Literal vs Metaphorical

I do not take every word of the Bible literally.

Before anyone brands me a heretic, let me explain. There's a lot of confusion about the word 'literally' these days. I've read and heard people say things such as:

My heart was literally in my mouth!

This book was so exciting, the pages literally turned themselves!

I can only assume that some people don't know what literally means. Because in fact what they mean is 'metaphorically'. Someone's heart remains literally where it's always been. Book pages do not literally turn themselves.

Why use the word 'literally' at all, though?

Recently in studying and discussing differences of personality type and temperament, one of the issues that cropped up was that of abstract vs concrete language. About 75% of the US population (and perhaps other populations too) tend to use mostly concrete language. The rest - and I'm among them - who prefer the abstract tend to use metaphors as a matter of course.

Now some metaphors have made it into everyday speech and are widely used by all. I used the phrase 'cropped up' and indeed 'concrete language' - hoping that anyone reading this will understand the meaning I'm giving to the words. And because a high percentage of fiction writers use metaphorical language, such phrases have crept into common usage too. If I say my heart was in my mouth, most English-speaker would know that I meant I was very tense and frightened.

But perhaps those who prefer the concrete style are actually uncomfortable with metaphor. So when they use such phrases, they have to add an extra word - and, bizarrely, choose 'literally' because they like the literal use of language and perhaps it truly felt as if their heart really was in their mouth.

Back to the Bible.

When people say they take every word literally, they usually mean they believe what's written in the Gospels about Jesus - including the miracles - and they believe in Creation as outlined in Genesis, and they take seriously things they perceive as commands to the church.

Well, so do I. But on the other hand, there are plenty of metaphors too: Jesus used them frequently. When he said he was the light of the world, or a gate to a sheepfold, or the bread of life, we know he meant them metaphorically. Sometimes he explained what he meant, but not always. So how do we know? Because of our own cultural experience, and what we've been taught.

However, our understanding may well be limited or even wrong. For many years I thought the gate to the sheepfold was something wooden with hinges. Then an elderly minister in a school assembly I was visiting told the relevant story to the children. He got some children up front to be a sort of hedge with a gap in it, and others to be the sheep. Then he himself got down on the floor, and lay across the gap. That, he told us, was what the 'gate' was like in ancient Israel. The shepherd really did - literally! - form the gate which both kept the sheep in, and kept any wolves or thieves out.

So some of the Bible may be more literal than we realise. Other parts may be less so. People come up with all kinds of explanations for some of the more confusing statements, and sometimes it's impossible to tell exactly what was meant, although usually we have a good idea.

We will never fully comprehend everything in the Bible while we're on earth. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would help us remember his words, and understand them. As we read the Bible, and listen for the voice of God, we may well begin to understand better. It's also important to learn about the culture of the times, to read books written about the Bible, and to discuss our ideas and questions with our Christian brothers and sisters. But let's not be rigid. Too many battles and divisions within the Church have arisen because of verses taken out of context, or different interpretations. Jesus said that the first commandment was to love God, and the second was to love our neighbour. If we differ from our neighbour (or indeed our brother at the church on the other side of town) in some doctrinal issue, let's go with the principle of love and let the Holy Spirit work in us both.