Think Theology says on it’s website that it is a collaboration of thinkers and writers who are passionate about the Church, and who enjoy spending time wrestling with deep theological questions and helping others to engage with them. We liked the sound of this, so we took a look.
Alongside the core team, there are some 35 well-known and respected Christian thinkers and guest writers contributing to the content of the site. These include Andrew Wilson, Chine Mbubaegbu, Jennie Pollock, Guy Millar and many others.
Find out more about Think Theology here.
The site looks at a range of topics and current issues. Key themes include apologetics, church history and hermeneutics. Within each of these, and beyond many famous theologians and commetators are referenced and difficult topics tackled such as culture, politics, coronavirus, ethics, Jesus, heidelberg catechism, books, church, prayer, sexuality and many more!
Below are shown the latest few blog posts from the site:
Think Theology Keeping up to date with papers and blog articles from the Think Theology website.
- The Spirit Promised to Abrahamby Andrew Bunt on 30th July 2021
Drift seems to me to be one of the most dangerous things in the Christian life. It’s easy to drift in the wrong direction in areas of our life without even noticing. When we do, we can so easily miss out on what God has got for us. I wonder if part of Christian maturity is being able to take stock, notice areas of drift in our lives, and then be active in addressing them.I’ve had to do this recently in terms of my relationship with the Holy Spirit. Over time, I had drifted. I hadn’t come to believe anything heretical, but I had grown to overlook the Spirit’s activity in my life and, frankly, I was often just failing to engage with him. When I noticed this, I knew I needed to do something about it. As someone who likes to think deeply, I knew that part of the way I could do this was to read some good stuff on the Spirit. (I’m aware that ‘part of the way’ is a key element in that statement – intellectual engagement is not the full answer; intellectual engagement is only worthwhile if it then helps us with practical and personal engagement.) One of the things I’m reading is Gordon Fee’s Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (his smaller work drawing on the much more substantial God’s Empowering Presence). I’m really enjoying it. The reminder of the centrality of the Spirit in Paul’s understanding of God, salvation history, and the Christian life is increasing my thirst for the Spirit and my desire to engage with him. There have also been a few great ‘aha’ moments. Including this gem on Galatians 3:14: ‘[T]he promise of the Spirit is equated with the blessing of Abraham, even though the Old Testament passage does not mention the Spirit. Since the “blessing of Abraham” came in the form of a “promise,” this word is the one Paul uses throughout the argument of Galatians 3 to refer to the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant. In a statement crucial to this argument, Paul says the fulfillment of this promised blessing for the Gentiles is in their having experienced the Spirit as a living and dynamic reality. The blessing of Abraham, therefore, is not simply “justification by faith.” Rather, it refers to the life of the future now available to Jew and Gentile alike, achieved through the death of Christ but applied through the dynamic ministry of the Spirit—and all of this by faith.’ Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (Baker, 2011), p.60.
- The Unifying Power of Singingby Andrew Wilson on 29th July 2021
Corporate singing is back, even if it remains cloth-covered in many churches (including mine), and reintroducing it to people who have not sung for nearly eighteen months is vitally important. Why? A couple of nights ago I had the chance to speak to our worship team, and I tried to answer that question, specifically by explaining why song is such a unifying expression of worship. Singing unites five things which are often separated from one another, and the result is beautiful.Singing unites body and soul. “My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed” (Ps 71:23). It is wonderful to “make melody in your hearts,” rejoicing before the Lord in our innermost being, but singing aligns the body - the tongue, the throat, the chest, the diaphragm, the breath in the lungs and the vibrations in the thorax - with the rejoicing in the soul, and by doing so reinforces it. By making a decision to sing with our bodies, we can lift our spirits and increase our joy (in part because God, by his grace, has created human beings to release endorphins and oxytocin when we sing). Body and soul are brought together as we praise: “my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps 84:2). Singing unites individuals with other believers. Jennie made this point last month: songs unite us to one another, whether we are in church or at a football match, and reach the parts that other beers do not reach. Psychologists could talk for hours about how songs function as a “hive switch,” turning us from self-absorbed individuals into a self-denying collective. But it is obvious from the way music works: if multiple people talk at once, the meaning of each individual is lost, whereas if multiple people sing at once (and especially when they sing in harmony) the meaning of each individual line is heightened and strengthened by being united with others. It is a glorious picture of what the church is intended to be, and especially so when we remember that if we sing from (say) the Psalter, we are united with the dead as well as the living. Singing unites humans with other living creatures. The first noise you heard when you woke up this morning, if it wasn’t a vehicle or a small child, was probably the dawn chorus. Creation sings. It always has. Some do what we classically think of as singing (like birds); some make deep melodious notes underwater (like humpback whales) or supersonic cheeps (like mice) or rhythmic musical chants with their knees (like crickets). On the one occasion I woke to the sound of a lion making gentle early morning roars, it had a curious musicality to it. And that is without mentioning the angelic creatures whom we cannot see, who have been singing all day every day for thousands of years. Francis of Assisi’s beautiful hymn begins with the line: “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing!” But in many ways it is the other way around. God’s creatures are singing already, and we are invited to join them. Singing unites living creatures with inanimate creation. Sometimes people talk about their desire to be, or their experience of being, “connected” to everything, with this sense that they and the world are in harmony and everything is lined up together. Phrases like that are often used about travelling to remote places, or smoking weed, but from a biblical point of view the best way to get connected to everything in the cosmos is to sing. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Is 55:12). “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together!” (Ps 98:7-8). “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!” (Ps 148:3). If that all sounds a bit hyperbolic to you, bear in mind that on the one occasion Jesus was asked about people singing too loudly, he replied that if the people didn’t then the rocks would cry out instead (Lk 19:40). Singing unites creation with God. The song of creation begins and ends with the great Singer, the inventor of melody and fountain of harmony, the word of whose power upholds all things and the beat of whose rhythm keeps the seasons in time. I have just been reading The Magician’s Nephew to my son and marvelling again at the sequence where Aslan sings Narnia into being. But the most delightful aspect of God’s song is that it is not just creative, but redemptive. There is a special song which God sings over his beloved people: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zeph 3:17). So when we sing together as a church, we are not just aligning ourselves with each other, or with the created order as a whole. We are aligning it with the One who sings loud songs of exultation over his children, and who finished the Last Supper by singing a hymn with his friends. “I will sing and make melody! Awake, my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!” (Ps 57:8).
- There Ain’t Nothing Like A Friendby Matthew Hosier on 20th July 2021
How much have you missed your friends during the pandemic? In our churches we are working out how to rebuild community and personal interaction as we slowly emerge from restrictions – it feels surprisingly complicated.In his book, Friends, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar distils the results of years of research into how human beings form and maintain friendships. There is a lot in this research that could be usefully learned from and applied in our churches. Here are my main take-homes. Friendship is not an optional extra Friendship is not only nice to have but is essential to our health, making a measurably large impact on life expectancy. Dunbar claims the research shows that friendship is more significant for our health than what we eat or whether or not we exercise. Only stopping smoking will make a bigger impact on health outcomes. The impacts of friendship start young. The more socially integrated we are when young, the more healthy we will be when older. Christianity is a faith that – remarkably – calls us into friendship with God (John 15:15). It is not surprising, then, that church is a place where people make friends. This has been made more challenging through lockdown, and has been especially challenging for children and young people. We need to be intentional about creating opportunities for people to connect and make friendships – it’s essential for our physical as well as spiritual health. Friendship is limited Dunbar is best known for the ‘Dunbar Number’. This is the observation that human societies consistently organise themselves into groups of 150, this being the maximum number of people we are able to relate to as friends. There is a scaling of ‘threes’ in this: typically, we have five close friends; fifteen best friends; fifty good friends; 150 just friends; 500 acquaintances; and 1,500 people we know by name. This is fascinating sociologically, but also has considerable relevance to church life. It is why in church leadership teams there is often a core group of three to five people and why relationship dynamics get complicated – and messy – if the leadership team exceeds fifteen. It is why most congregations number 150 or fewer. It’s why small groups function best when there are around fifteen members. It’s why larger churches have to structure things so that people operate within groups of five, fifteen, fifty or 150. These limits on friendship do seem universal. It is unwise to ignore them. Friendship is sexed Dunbar offers observations, not moral positions, but he steps into territory that is controversial in our current cultural context; one of which is that there does seem to be a significant difference in how the sexes approach friendship. At the most stereotypical level, girls’ friendships are dependent on talking; the friendships of boys on doing. This is why, “men seem to enjoy, and work more effectively, in clubs”, in a way which isn’t the case for women. This difference in approach to friendship means the sexes naturally segregate. Dunbar states the research reveals that, “Around 70 per cent of women’s personal social networks consist of women, and around 70 per cent of men’s social networks consist of men (with most, but not all, of the cross-gender members being family members over whom we have little choice).” This insight might reassure us that it is not necessarily wrong for a church to run activities segregated by sex. Doing so could actually be beneficial to the whole church as it provides space for both men and women to make friends in the way men and women prefer to do. It also means we shouldn’t worry too much if looking around at church events we notice the men in one corner and the women in another – that’s just what tends to happen. Friendship gets our endorphins going There are certain things humans do together that raise our endorphin levels and are particularly effective in creating a sense of togetherness and belonging. One of these is music. When a group of people – even if they are strangers to one another – make music together a strong sense of oneness is created. Moreover, singing in large groups has a more powerful bonding effect than singing in small groups. Laughter also has this effect, as does eating and drinking together. Research on the effectiveness of the Big Lunch initiative showed that, “Four things emerged as common factors predicting how satisfied they were with the occasion: the number of diners (more is better), the occurrence of laughter, reminiscing about the past, and the consumption of alcohol. The occurrence of laughter and reminiscing both resulted in an elevated sense of bonding to the other people than was the case where neither happened.” The relevance of this to church life is obvious. Church is a place where we sing, and singing is powerful. We need to get back to singing! Church should also be a place where we laugh. I’m grateful it is a rare Sunday when there would not be real laughter in my church. Churches are communities where we should be regularly eating and drinking together, another thing we’ve missed through lockdown. All this comes into particular focus in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper: eating, drinking, singing, remembering. And yes, at times laughing, as we proclaim the Lord’s death and anticipate his coming. How denuded our experience of the Supper has so often become: it’s meant to be a celebration, that draws us together as friends to our greatest friend. Friendship builds on story Reminiscing is a key part of building friendship and the evidence is clear that we remember stories much more than factual accounts. Dunbar explains that this is because in order to navigate our way through the incredible cognitive demands of the social world understanding why someone acted as they did is more useful to us than knowing what they did. Understanding the why helps us navigate life – which is why we love stories. Every preacher knows this: people remember the illustration more than the factual content of a sermon. At times this can feel very frustrating, but it shouldn’t be. We just need to get better at telling stories that help people to grasp and remember what it is we are trying to teach them. Friendship has a limited attention span Something I have often observed is that a group of us can be sitting in a team meeting, having a conversation, when suddenly there are two conversations going on in the room. This can be annoying – ‘Hey guys – don’t you want to hear what X here is saying?!’ – but Dunbar explains why this always happens. Conversation is very cognitively demanding and we are simply not capable of holding an extended conversation in a group larger than four. A group larger than four listening to someone speak is a lecture, not a conversation. Conversations don’t last with more than four people – a fifth person joins and within seconds two conversations will form. And there is selective sorting by sex here too: when there are more than four in a group, and both men and women in the room, conversations very quickly split by sex. This observation has all kinds of practical applications in church life: how we organise discussion groups, team meetings, discipleship structures, and so on. Friendship is discriminatory This is another area where the research points in directions we might find uncomfortable: the reality is that we tend to gravitate towards people who are like us – who think similarly. There even seems to be a biological and not only psychological basis to this. Dunbar includes the startling evidence that, “You are twice as likely to share genes with a friend as you are with any random person from your local neighbourhood.” Our preference to choose our friends by ‘type’ is unambiguous. “Not only do we like people who think more like us, we also tend to prefer people of the same sex, ethnicity, age and perhaps even personality.” Does that mean we are all racist? Dunbar thinks not: A preference for ethnic origins does not of itself necessarily imply racism, in the sense that we currently understand this term (i.e. differentiation based on skin colour). What you seem to be looking for is someone with the same cultural background because that makes it possible to create friendships and community bonding. This presents issues for the church. We talk a lot now about racial differences but I’ve always thought that culture – or in British terms, social class – often presents a greater challenge. You might worship in a church which displays many different skin tones, but if everyone is university educated and in the socio-economic ABC1 demographic it is questionable if you really have a diverse church. So this is a missional and ecclesiological issue: how do we best accommodate the reality that most people prefer to be with people like themselves and equip the saints to reach those who are culturally different? In Christ, that should be possible, but it certainly isn’t always easy. Friendship is harder with age As we get older it becomes increasingly demanding to make and keep friends. People move away, and then start dying, and we are more set in our ways. The old are less ‘attractive’ because they seemingly have less to offer by way of friendship. Thus we see the reality of many old people living very lonely lives. There is a real opportunity for the church here, if, as Dunbar says, “The provision of social clubs and activities for the elderly [are] all the more important as a way of maintaining their mental and physical health.” Most of those clubs and activities got shut down during the pandemic – they need to start again. Friendship needs to be face to face Dunbar closes his book with an examination of the impact of the internet on friendship. There is a lot that we still don’t know about this impact – only time will tell. But we do know that close friendships require frequent face-to-face contact. Phone calls and email are great but they can’t take the place of actually being together. Zoom is better but works poorly for larger groups. If we are unable to maintain a conversation in groups of more than four people when we’re physically present there is no way we can manage it on Zoom. This is why so many of us have experienced ‘Zoom fatigue’ throughout the pandemic – being on screen with more than three other people is exhausting. Friendship needs to be face to face. ‘Online church’ has a very limited shelf-life: it can plug some gaps and do some good but it simply cannot replace direct human interaction. The pandemic has presented us with many challenges. I’ve been grateful for good friends who have stood by me, encouraged me, rebuked me, helped me and laughed with/at me over these months. But friendship has also been stretched. There are friends I have not seen for a long time, meals I haven’t had, conversations postponed. Friendship is precious – we need friends! Do yourself a favour, go and see a friend.
- Is It Really About the Weak and Strong?by Andrew Bunt on 19th July 2021
As legal restrictions lift in England, life has become a lot more complicated. No longer are there clear parameters for us to follow, we must now make our own choices about how to live in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. This is true for us individuals, but it is also true for us as churches. Should we still ask people to wear masks next Sunday? Should we still encourage or facilitate social distancing? Should we sing? These are the questions at the forefront of many of our minds at the moment.The questions are very complex, and I’m really not sure what I think are the right or best answers. But as I have been listening to and involved in discussions around these matters, both online and offline, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with a particular aspect of the conversation. It’s something I wonder if we could benefit from bearing in mind as we engage with this tricky situation. Should we talk of the weak and the strong? Many of us have understandably been drawn to Romans 14-15 and the concept of ‘disputable matters’ that has been drawn from Paul’s teaching there. In a context where there were disagreements over the best ways to honour God, especially, it seems, in relation to food laws, special days, and perhaps also drinking alcohol, Paul calls the Roman believers to imitate Christ in extending an equal welcome to others regardless of their views on these matters in order to maintain unity in the church. In this context, he distinguishes between ‘the weak’ and ‘the strong’ (Romans 15:1), calling on the strong to bear with the weak. Both the teaching of Romans 14-15 and the concepts of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ have been drawn into the current discussions about church life after the lifting of restrictions. Carefully applied, I think the former can be helpful, but I wonder if the latter is unhelpful. In most of the discussions I have heard, the clear implication is that those who are inclined to maintain some level of restrictions are the weak and those who want to move quickly back to a pre-pandemic norm are the strong. I am not sure that this is a helpful or fair use of the concept. It seems unhelpful because to brand one group as ‘weak’ can easily be interpreted to convey – and may sometimes be intended to covey – disapproval. The irony is that in doing this we do exactly what Paul instructs the Romans not to do – we pass judgement (Romans 14:3-4). Now, of course, the language is taken from Paul himself, and so how can it be wrong for us to use it if he uses it? Because I’m not sure that Paul’s situation maps closely enough onto ours. There are three important differences I think we need to acknowledge. 1. It’s not a clear right and wrong situation As Paul looked at the different opinions among the Roman Christians, he knew that the position of the strong was actually correct. He makes this pretty clear (Romans 14:20), and yet doesn’t go to any length to convince those who disagree. Our situation seems quite different. The matter is not clear-cut. The evidence on masks is not clear-cut. The potential outcomes of different choices we make and the development of the pandemic over the coming months are not and cannot be known. And different circumstances and situations mean different ones of us are understandably inclined to take different levels of risk. Unlike Paul’s situation, this is not one in which we can isolate a clear, one-size-fits-all right answer, and yet also unlike Paul’s situation, some seem rather clearly to claim – or at least strongly hint – that there is. 2. It’s not a fair comparison The Roman believers were divided over the matter of how best to honour God in the way they lived their lives. Their differences of opinion were based on different levels of ability (‘the weak’ in Romans 15:1 is literally ‘the unable ones’) to accept the wonderfully all-encompassing impact of what God has done in Christ. This is why Paul specifies in his first reference to the weak that they are ‘weak in faith’ (Romans 14:1). They are not people who are just generally cautious or sensitive or uncertain, they are struggling to accept one particular element of truth about the work of Christ. The Roman situation was in this sense a matter of faith. I would argue our situation is a matter of wisdom and love. The question is not whether we have the faith to go without restrictions – as if God has promised to protect us from illness, including its potential long-term effects and death. The question is whether it is wise to do so at the moment and whether it is loving to those who are more vulnerable – whether that be a physical vulnerability to the virus or a mental health vulnerability to anxiety after a year which has been incredibly hard on the mental health of many people. 3. It’s not clear who the strong are and who the weak are In Paul’s situation, the identification of the strong and the weak was clear because the truth of the matter was clear. Since in our situation it is not clear which view is actually correct, it is also hard to say who are the strong and who the weak. Most I have heard have seemed to assume that the strong are those who feel comfortable to go without restrictions and the weak are those who would prefer to take a more cautious approach by retaining some protective measures. But it would be equally possible to say that the strong are those who still have the stamina, after all this time and all we have been through, to persist under restrictions that are frustrating and uncomfortable, but which may be wise and may be a way we can love others well. On this perspective, the weak would be those who have run out of the energy to endure some minor discomfort for the sake of helping and loving others – and potentially themselves. It’s certainly not clear who the weak are. So, what do we do? This is a conversation we need to have. Many of us have already had to or will this week have to make decisions as to what will happen at our churches this coming Sunday. I do believe the principles of Romans 14-15 can help us: we should be working for unity; we should be sensitive to different perspectives, and we should do so without passing judgement on others. But I’m not sure the use of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ is fair or helpful in this particular circumstance. Let’s love and honour each other. Let’s not pass judgment on each other. Let’s acknowledge that this is complex and that things are not clear-cut. And as we do this, let’s also agree on the simple, clear fact that we want to love one another well, however we may conclude is best to do that.
- To Mask or Not to Mask? That is the Questionby Matthew Hosier on 14th July 2021
Sunday 25th July is fast approaching – the first Sunday in a long time that churches will be able to meet and worship as ‘normal’. What are you going to do?Throughout the pandemic the wearing of facemasks has been a contentious subject and is becoming increasingly so. At first dismissed as having no helpful impact by the WHO and UK government scientists, last July there was an about face, and mask mandates were applied. From Monday 19th that mandate will be removed (in England at least) although the more cautious government line is that they should continue to be worn in crowded spaces. So what about in church? The two main reasons for churches to insist (or encourage) the wearing of masks are along the same lines that Sadiq Khan is insisting they remain in place on public transport in London: suppress the virus and give people confidence. Should church leadership teams follow Sadiq’s example? The first of these reasons is a simple scientific call – though the science is, unfortunately, less than clear. A recent study from Cambridge demonstrated that FFP3 masks, which block aerosols, are very effective in preventing the spread of covid, in contrast to other masks which don’t block aerosols. This is hardly surprising given that the coronavirus spreads largely by aerosols, and not by droplets or surface contact. Each church team will have to conduct their own risk assessment on this one, but for me, the very marginal potential virus suppressing effects of masks (unless you can get hold of FFP3 ones) are outweighed by the many downsides of wearing them. It seems that mask wearing is far more about psychological signalling than actual health benefits. Which leads to the second point of whether mask wearing increases confidence. This is an even trickier one than trying to work out whether or not masks have health benefits because it is even more subjective. Do we follow what we might call the Gareth Southgate approach and continue to exercise extreme caution? Or should we be somewhat bolder? Christianity has a bias towards the ‘weaker brother’. In favour of the continued wearing of masks we might employ the instructions of Romans 14 & 15 that ‘those who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak’. The problem in this case is working out who is the weaker brother: are the ‘strong’ those who want to ditch masks or is it actually the likes of Sadiq Khan who have significant powers to impose mask wearing on unwilling wearers? We might also consider the exhortation of Titus 3 ‘to be peaceable and considerate’ towards one another; or the instructions about clothing and hairstyles in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 – instructions intended, at least in part, to help congregations act in a way that doesn’t cause offence to a brother or sister. On the other side of the ledger we could call into play scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 4:3-5; Galatians 2:11-13, 5:1-2; or even 2 Corinthians 3:18! Of course, none of these scriptures speak directly to the subject of facemasks, although they are helpful in providing a grid for how we act towards one another and seeing the significance that items as apparently insignificant as a small square of cloth can have. In the end this needs to be a pastoral call. At Gateway we are going to make mask wearing a matter of personal discretion – people will be as free to wear masks or not as they are to wear t-shirts or a suit. Those who choose not to wear masks will need to be gracious towards those who do and those who do will need to refrain from judgment of those who don’t. Yes, this will create space for potential tensions, but whatever decision a church makes on masks will do that. It can feel like whatever decision is made will result in a lose-lose, with someone taking offence. It doesn’t have to be like this in the church though. If we display love towards one another, regardless of mask wearing preference, we can turn this situation into a win-win. Personally, the downsides of mask wearing – the sweaty, spotty face; the barriers to communication; the discomfort, especially as the weather finally improves – are something with which I no longer want to live. Others are free to choose differently. Finally, an observation: the pastors I’m talking to who say, ‘We’re really struggling to get people back in church’, are also those pastors who have been generally more cautious throughout the pandemic. Lead cautiously and those you lead become cautious too. While we have a responsibility to care for, be patient with, and sensitive to those who are cautious, we also have a responsibility to lead people into faith, courage and hope: that’s harder to do from behind a mask.
- The Great Unravellingby Andrew Bunt on 12th July 2021
‘Transition is at best a palliative solution to psychological distress. It can never be a resolution because we can never change sex.’ These words are deeply controversial. They’re the sort of words for which some in the UK have lost their jobs. Many would assume they are the words of someone who doesn’t understand trans people, doesn’t realise the deep harm such words can do, and almost certainly doesn’t really care. But these are actually the words of a trans person who transitioned almost 10 years ago.Debbie Hayton transitioned ‘male-to-female’ in 2012. She is now an outspoken critic of gender identity ideology, calling for the protection of women’s rights and the protection of young people who are quickly being ushered into medical transition. If anyone can talk about the reality of transition, it’s Debbie. Debbie has written many helpful articles, the most recent of which is a reflection on her own experience: ‘Transition is not the Solution: a Personal Testimony’. The reflections Debbie shares show how she has experienced the unravelling of gender ideology in her own life. Her story mirrors that of many others. Such stories are increasingly coming into the public sphere. But Debbie’s experience is perhaps particularly noteworthy because she is not one of the new wave of critics and detransitioners emerging as the first generation of young people who were pushed towards transition reach adulthood. She is also not a ‘female-to-male’ trans person as the majority of the young detransitioners are. And she has many more years of experience of life as a transitioned trans person than most others who are now speaking out. I’m grateful for Debbie’s testimony, for her courage in sharing it, and the work she is doing to try and protect others. Drawing out some lessons What can we learn from Debbie’s experience? Several important themes – all of which occur commonly in such stories – are worth noting. The role of the internet Very often, the internet plays a central role in the story of trans people. Debbie’s experience was no different. While she had always been aware of a deep desire to be a woman, for many years she ignored this desire and employed coping strategies to keep going. But when the internet came along, and with it an insight into the fact that transition was possible, everything changed. ‘[H]ad it not been for the internet, I suspect that the second half of my life would have been pretty much the same as the first.’ The centrality of identity In our culture, trans is all about identity. We’re told that how we feel inside is who we are. It doesn’t matter what our bodies or our community or anything or anyone else says; we are who we feel we are. Our true self is the self who lives inside. Therefore, for those whose internal self doesn’t match their body, the obvious thing to do is to bring the body into line with the internal self. Except, that doesn’t seem to work. ‘I transitioned to try and find my true self. But I had always been my true self. The hormone therapy and gender surgery changed my body but it did not change me.’ It turns out, internal identity doesn’t work. We can’t just ignore our bodies and embrace our true self, because our bodies are part of our true self: ‘[O]ur bodies are more than mere perambulating devices; we are our bodies as much as we are our minds.’ The impact on others Internal identity says we have the right to embrace our internal self no matter what the impact on other people. Being true to yourself – your internal self – is the most important thing, no matter what cost others might have to pay. Sadly, the cost others have to pay can be pretty high. Talking of her transition, Debbie notes that it caused ‘so much distress to my wife and children’. Elsewhere, Debbie has written in more detail about the impact on her wife, ‘My transition was hardest of all for Stephanie. While I celebrated new freedoms, her life was made harder. As I crashed through life, she had to pick up the pieces. She counselled our children, looked after the house, and dealt with enquiries. People who walked on eggshells around me unleashed their worries on her.’ Embracing an internal identity is never just a personal decision. It will always have an impact on others. The deeper reality Debbie talks about the shift that has taken place in her thinking. Looking back to when she transitioned, she notes that ‘at the time I was convinced that I was some kind of woman’. But now she recognises that her ‘problems were rooted in my sexuality’ and that ‘we can never change sex’. The consistent thread in those who question their choice to transition is that they have come to realise that their experience of gender dysphoria was in some way tied up with someone else. Since gender was never really the core issue, it’s no surprise that transitioning doesn’t really deal with the problem. This is why Debbie says that ‘transition is at best a palliative solution to psychological distress’. If we really care about helping trans people, it’s this psychological distress that should be the focus, not the matter of gender. Gender dysphoria is better understood in terms of suffering than in terms of identity. In another article, Debbie has honestly confessed her uncertainty over whether transitioning was the right thing to do: ‘If I knew in 2012 what I know now, would I still transition? Honestly, I’m not sure … In hindsight, I do wonder whether there might have been some less drastic remedy.’ Applying the lessons All of these lessons can help us as we seek to understand the reality of transgender experience and to best love and support transgender people. They are also a reminder of the importance of holding onto the Bible’s teaching and the truth when it comes to this topic. Transgender ideology is unravelling, slowly but surely. As it does, we can be those ready to welcome and support its victims in the years to come, sharing with them the good news of a God who made and loves them, of an identity that is given, not discovered or achieved, and of an eternal hope that can sustain us whatever we face.
- Satire, Social Mores, and the End of the West’s Cultural Revolutionby Andrew Wilson on 9th July 2021
"The past 50 years or so have seen a cultural revolution in western society comparable in scope to the Reformation," argues Ed West at Unherd. "Most of us have known only that period of transition, when morality and norms were up for debate, but perhaps it is now over. Perhaps we have returned to the sort of world we lived in when England last reached a final, in 1966 – a world of strictly enforced social mores." He explains:The British and American establishments of the late 20th century were historically quite unusual in allowing themselves to be mocked; from the mid-Sixties onwards, television regularly made fun of the habits and beliefs of the powers-that-be, with Monty Python — the most prominent product of the satire boom — pointing fun at the people who ran the country. Their 1979 film Life of Brian even mocked the beliefs of that old establishment. Two of the Pythons debated an Anglican bishop and Catholic writer Malcolm Muggeridge, but no one serious tried to stop the film. Life of Brian couldn’t be made 20 years earlier, and neither could it be made now; its satire of Jesus, a prophet of Islam, would risk upsetting Muslim sensibilities, which it’s fair to say people have become slightly wary of doing. At the very least it would need to cut out the scene pointing fun at a man who, absurdly to the filmmakers and audiences, identifies as a woman; absurd in 1979, as it had been in 1879 and 1779 and in every year before that, but a sacred idea in 2021. It’s sacred in the sense that its believers have captured the moral citadel where the most powerful ideas are protected by taboo, achieved either by emotional argument or intimidation (and both can be effective). This is not some dark new age of cancel culture, however, it’s just a return to normality. Those who grew up in the late 20th century were living in a highly unusual time, one that could never be sustained, a sexual and cultural revolution that began in 1963 or 1968. But it has ended and, as all revolutionaries must do after storming the Bastille, they have built Bastilles of their own. The new order has brought in numerous methods used by the old order to exert control — not just censorship, but word taboo and rituals which everyone is forced to go along with, or at least not openly criticise. You might call it the new intolerance, or woke extremism, but all societies need the policing of social norms. No one would satirise the transgender movement today; no one would dare point fun at BLM, or Pride month; no one would dare joke about George Floyd, because like the publishers of Gay Times in 1977, they might face jail for blasphemy. Instead leading satirist Sacha Baron Cohen makes a living making jokes at the expense of the little people. Indeed the only satire made now pokes fun at the old establishment, like punching the corpse of a once-ferocious zoo animal, or the people who still hold the old beliefs; the elderly, the less educated, the rural and provincial. The powerless. The Nineties and Noughties were a time of outstanding comedy partly because so much of public morality was up for grabs, and in transition; it was a period in between two quite rigid societies ... The revolutionaries were always going to create new rituals, new speech codes and new forms of censorship. England has changed a huge deal since our great victory in 1966, but in many ways it has barely changed at all.
- A Time to Speak Upby Andrew Bunt on 2nd July 2021
Imagine living in a country where parents could legally kill a baby because it was a girl but they wanted a boy. Or imagine living in a country where it was legal to kill a fully grown baby one day but illegal to do the same the next, the only difference being the location of the baby – in the womb or in the world. Or imagine living in a country where a nurse could legally provide abortions on their kitchen table. Many of us could soon be living in that country.Next Monday, it is likely that MPs will be given the opportunity to vote on an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (NC55). The amendment would decriminalise abortion in England and Wales, making the procedure available on demand, for any reason, up to birth. This would be one of the most extreme abortion laws anywhere in the world. The proposal is full of problems. These problems are so serious that even people who have no ethical concerns about abortion should oppose the amendment. Far from helping or protecting women, the amendment would remove many of the safeguards currently in place to protect pregnant women and it would make sex-selective abortion, a practice that always disadvantages girls, easily available. Sadly, this isn’t the first time that MPs and campaigners have tried to make radical changes to our nation’s abortion law through amendments on other legislation. A similar attempt was made not very long ago, and more attempts will come if this one fails. For the sake of the babies, women and men who are affected by abortion, we must speak up. Let’s speak up to our MPs. Do a bit of research and write to your MP explaining that this is not the way to make changes to our abortion provision. Highlight the fact that this amendment removes vital safeguards designed to protect women and would contribute to the furthering of gender inequality through the availability of sex-selective abortion. You can find out more about the amendment and make contact with you MP at Right for Life. And let’s speak up to our Father in heaven. Speak up for the unborn; speak up for women and men who find themselves facing unexpected or crisis pregnancies, and speak up for legislation that protects the unborn and pregnant women.
- The Turning Tide of Intellectual Atheismby Andrew Wilson on 30th June 2021
This is a remarkable conversation with the historian Niall Ferguson on the need for Christianity, along with some fascinating reflections on the journeys of other public intellectuals like Roger Scruton, Douglas Murray, Tom Holland and Jordan Peterson. (There are echoes too of Matthew Parris's Times column on Saturday, in which he argued that human rights are neither fundamental nor unalienable without a Christian foundation.) I was struck by this line in particular: "Viewing Western civilisation with its Christian soul cut out, many are now willing to say: 'We need Christ.' What they are unable, thus far, to say, is: 'I need Christ.'" Have a look:“I was brought up an atheist—I didn’t become one,” [Ferugson] said. “I regard atheism as the religious faith I happened to be brought up in. It is, of course, as much a faith as Christianity or Islam—and I have the Calvinist brand, because my parents left the Church of Scotland. I was brought up, essentially, in a Calvinist ethical framework but with no God. This had its benefits—I was encouraged to think in a very critical way about religion and also about science, but I’ve come to see as a historian that you can’t base a society on that. Indeed, atheism, particularly in its militant forms, is really a very dangerous metaphysical framework for a society.” “I know I can’t achieve religious faith,” he went on, “but I do think we should go to church. We don’t have, I don’t think, an evolved ethical system. I don’t buy the idea that evolution alone gets us to be moral. It can modify behaviour, but there’s just too much evidence that in the raw, when the constraints of civilisation fall away, we behave in the most savage way to one another. I’m a big believer that with the inherited wisdom of a two-millennia old religion, we’ve got a pretty good framework to work with.” For one of the most prominent historians in the world—himself an agnostic—to say that we should go to church is rather startling, but Ferguson’s sentiments also appear to be part of a growing trend. The late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton began attending church himself despite struggling with belief, regularly playing the organ at All Saints’ in Garsdon. His secular friends say his faith remained cultural; other friends were not so sure. What we do know is that he thought Christianity was in many ways the soul of Western civilisation, and that the uniquely Christian concept of forgiveness was utterly indispensable to its survival. Scruton’s friend Douglas Murray, the conservative writer who was raised in the Church before leaving it as an adult, has occasionally referred to himself as a “Christian atheist.” In a recent discussion with theologian N.T. Wright, he described himself as “an uncomfortable agnostic who recognises the virtues and the values the Christian faith has brought,” and noted that he is actually irritated by the way the Church of England is fleeing from its inheritance, “giving up its jewels” such as “the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer” in exchange for progressive pieties. “My fear is that the Church is not doing what so many of us on the outside want it to do, which is preaching its gospel, asserting its truths and its claims,” he said. “When one sees it falling into all the latest tropes one thinks well, that’s another thing gone, just like absolutely everything else in the era. I’m a disappointed non-adherent.” Murray believes that Christianity is essential because secularists have been thus far totally incapable of creating an ethic of equality that matches the concept that all human beings are created in the image of God. In a column in The Spectator, he noted that post-Christian society has three options. The first is to abandon the idea that all human life is precious. “Another is to work furiously to nail down an atheist version of the sanctity of the individual.” And if that doesn’t work? “Then there is only one other place to go. Which is back to faith, whether we like it or not.” On a recent podcast, he was more blunt: “The sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian notion which might very easily not survive [the disappearance of] Judeo-Christian civilisation.” Historian Tom Holland’s magnificent Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, published in 2019, makes a similar case. For years, Holland—an agnostic—wrote compelling histories of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but he observed that their societies were rife with casual, socially-accepted cruelty towards the weak, rape, and sexual abuse towards the massive slave class as an unquestioned way of life, and the mass extermination of enemies as a matter of course. These peoples and their ethics, Hollands writes, seemed utterly foreign to him. It was Christianity, Holland concluded, that changed all that in a revolution so complete that even critiques of Christianity must borrow precepts from Christianity to do so. (Without Christianity, he writes, “no one would have gotten woke.”) He defended this thesis brilliantly in a debate on the subject “Did Christianity give us our human values?” with atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling, who seemed actively irritated by the idea. Not so long ago, unbelievers like the late Christopher Hitchens claimed that “religion poisons everything”—a sentiment that appears to be retreating as we advance further into the post-Christian era. Hitchens frequently claimed to be not an atheist, but an “anti-theist”—he didn’t believe in God, and he was glad that he did not. It is fascinating to see intellectuals come forward with precisely the opposite sentiment—they do not believe, but they somehow want to believe. The psychologist Jordan Peterson, who speaks about Christianity often, is a good example of this. Discussing the historicity of the Christian story with Jonathan Pageau, he said, fighting back tears: “I probably believe that, but I’m amazed at my own belief and I don’t understand that.” He went on: “In some sense, I believe it’s undeniable. You know, we have narrative sense of the world. For me that’s been the world of morality, that’s the world that tells us how to act. It’s real, we treat it like it’s real. It’s not the objective world, but the narrative and the objective world touch. And the ultimate example of that in principle is supposed to be Christ. But I don’t know what to do with that – it seems to me to be oddly plausible. But I still don’t know what to make of it. Partly because it’s too terrifying a reality to fully believe. I don’t even know what would happen to you if you fully believed it.” Not so long ago, the atheists who retreated to their Darwinian towers and bricked themselves up to fire arrows at the faithful wanted to be there. Their intellectual silos were a refuge from faith because they didn’t want Christianity to be true. They hated it and thought we’d be better off without it. Like Hitchens, they were thrilled to find arguments that permitted them to reject it. Increasingly, some intellectuals from across the disciplines—history, literature, psychology, philosophy—are gazing out of what was once a refuge and wishing that, some how, they could believe it. They have understood that Christianity is both indispensable and beautiful, but their intellectual constraints prevent many of them from embracing it as true. Viewing Western civilisation with its Christian soul cut out, many are now willing to say: “We need Christ.” What they are unable, thus far, to say, is: “I need Christ.” But the political must become personal. Peterson appears to understand that—and is awestruck by the reality of it. For now, historians like Niall Ferguson recognise that Christianity is a fundamental bulwark of the fragile civilisation we inhabit. “I think the notion that we can deal with these arrows of outrageous fortune without some kind of established and time-honoured set of consolations is almost certainly wrong,” he told me. “I’m one of these people who didn’t come to atheism by choice, and I’ve almost come out of it on the basis of historical study. The biggest disasters that we likely face are actually related to totalitarianism, because that’s the lesson of the 20th century. Pandemics killed a lot of people in the 20th century, but totalitarianism killed more. “It disturbs me that in so many ways, totalitarianism is gaining ground today,” Ferguson said. “Totalitarianism was bad for many reasons, and one of the manifestations of its badness was its attack on religion. When I see totalitarianism gaining ground not only in China but in subtle ways in our own society, that seems to be the disaster we really need to ward off. Why am I a conservative and not just a classical liberal? Because classical liberalism won’t stop wokeism and totalitarianism. It’s not strong enough. Ultimately, we need the inherited ideas of a civilisation and defences against that particular form of disaster.” The survival of Christianity is essential for the survival of the West. The bad news is that this realisation comes when the day is far spent. The Good News is simpler. “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each of them Christianity has died,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man. “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”
- Not Just An Emojiby Matthew Hosier on 28th June 2021
This past weekend I was part of a gathering of around eighty leaders from a number of churches (Jennie, we sang) during which one of the speakers warned us of the danger of relying on ‘emoji pastoring’.It is very easy, when someone relates a need in their life, to send them a prayer emoji. It’s an easy way of acknowledging that persons need and communicates that we are praying for them. I like the prayer emoji. The danger of course is that we leave our prayers simply at the level of the emoji, and that doesn’t mean very much at all. Real pastoring – real Christian friendship – means real prayers. Not just an emoji; not even well-intentioned ‘be with’ prayers. But prayers that really do desire to bring the other person into a greater experience of the height and depth and riches of the love of Christ. Many have expressed concern that the volume, instantaneousness and ease of electronic communication lead to superficiality and fakeness. Our prayer life can suffer from these trends too. Let’s not allow our prayers to be like this: prayer should be more than an emoji.