30 January 2012

Francis Schaeffer, 1912–1984

I’ve just been alerted to the fact that today is the centenary of the birth of Francis Schaeffer, the American evangelical theologian and founder of the l’Abri Community. I never met him, but his books and the community he founded were a formative influence upon me when I became a Christian (over thirty years ago now). At a time when I might easily have lost myself in an anti-intellectual charismatic fundamentalism, Schaeffer’s writings and example convinced me that Christianity could hold its own in the academy. It was largely because of that influence that I returned to university to study theology and eventually became an academic theologian. An important part of his legacy for me is the conviction that Christian theology must engage in a critical dialogue with culture in which we find ourselves.

23 January 2012

Out of office message

With my SfEP Council member’s hat on I am in the process of trying to organize speakers and workshop leaders for this year’s conference in York (more details will appear here in due course). I’ve just received the following out of office message from one of the people I've been trying to contact, and I thought it was too good not to share:
Email contact may be irregular and replies even nonexistent.  Social messages and out-of-the-blue inquiries may fall between the cracks and not get replies at all.  You know how it is: email comes in huge waves, and humans are weak and fallible, and travel exhausts and confuses them. Try to forgive him.
This message was NOT sent by a human, but by a robot.  We are not weak or infallible.  One day we will take over. ----------------The Mailer Daemon

21 January 2012

Scottish Evangelical Theological Society Conference

Details of the annual conference of the Scottish Evangelical Theological Society are now available:

A Godly Commonwealth? The Gospel and Scottish Identity

Given the recent media coverage of the proposed referendum on Scottish independence, this seems a particularly timely subject. As the debate on devolution/independence continues it will be important for Christians in Scotland to think through the issues carefully.

The conference is scheduled for 16–17 April 2012 at International Christian College, Glasgow.

According to the SETS website, Dewi Hughes will give the Finlayson Lecture addressing the theme of ethnicity and culture in the family of God. Dewi is the retiring theological adviser for Tearfund UK, and the author of several books, including Castrating Culture, which argues for the importance of small language and culture groups being able to preserve their own identity.

Other speakers include David Fergusson (‘Christian Scotland: A Theological-Historical Overview’), Douglas Gay (‘Is a Christian Vision of Scottish Identity Viable in the Early Twenty-First Century?’), Jamie Grant (‘A Biblical Basis of Nationhood’) and Angus Morrison (‘Christian Witness in Postmodern Scotland’).

A conference brochure containing full details can be downloaded here.

20 January 2012

What’s wrong with ‘husband’?

Last Wednesday’s prayer meeting closed with the singing of John Newton’s hymn ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear’. For various reasons, I found myself looking at the different versions of the hymn available on the Internet. In particular, I was struck by the changes that modern versions of the hymn have made to what was the fifth verse in Newton’s original. He wrote:

Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.
The Mission Praise version we sang on Wednesday substitutes ‘brother’ for ‘husband’ while other modern versions opt for ‘master’ and even ‘Saviour’ in preference to ‘husband’. And yet ‘husband’ reflects the New Testament’s use of  bridegroom and bride as metaphors for the relationship between Christ and the Church. So why is there this reluctance among modern Christians to refer to Jesus as our husband?

Since the nineteenth century fears have been expressed in some quarters that Christianity has become feminized. This was a recurring theme in the works of Charles Kingsley, Thomas Hughes (of Tom Brown’s Schooldays fame) and Baden Powell. In Britain it led to the emergence of a muscular Christianity that could praise ‘the Englishman going through the world with rifle in one hand and Bible in the other’. In the United States it gave rise to the Men and Religion Forward movement and, more recently, to Promise Keepers. Is fear of feminization behind this substitution of ‘brother’ for ‘husband’?

Whatever the perceived danger that this substitution is meant to avoid, I think the change raises a serious theological issue. Newton’s use of the term ‘husband’ clearly connects with biblical concept of the Church as the bride of Christ. (Yes, I know some people claim that as a former ship’s captain he was alluding to the term ‘ship’s husband’, the person whose duty it was to make sure the ship was adequately maintained and provisioned. But the fact that in the Olney Hymns he explicitly connects this hymn with Song of Solomon 1:3 makes it clear enough what his primary focus was.) Thus I cannot sing this verse (as Newton wrote it) without being reminded of my part in the Christian community and the very specific kind of authority that Christ has over me as my husband. By contrast, to sing ‘brother’ instead is to lose both that sense of being part of a community and that reminder of his authority. It plays into the spiritual individualism of late modernity. The substitution of ‘Saviour’ has a similar effect. And ‘master’ is probably even worse because not only does it drop the community dimension but it substitutes the authority of the slave owner for the authority of the lover.

19 January 2012

Towards a theology of Doctor Who?

James McGrath has issued a call for papers for a volume on Religion and Doctor Who: Time, Space, and Faith. According to his blog,
Doctor Who is a cultural phenomenon in both the UK and the United States, continuing to go from strength-to-strength as it approaches its 50th anniversary in 2013. Over the show’s long history on television—and in various spin-off TV shows, audio adventures, novels and comic books—religion and religious themes have consistently been a subject of interest. In recent years the show has attracted everything from Church of England conferences dedicated to its use in preaching to guest appearances by Richard Dawkins. Abstracts of 300 words are therefore invited for a proposed edited collection examining Religion and Doctor Who. The collection will consider the subject in its widest sense, examining portrayals of religion on the show, in spin-off media (including TV, audio, internet, comic books and video games); fan cultures, and the use of Doctor Who in religious debates. The book will be aimed at popular-academic readership.
It strikes me that an interesting contribution to this collection would be a diachronic study of changing attitudes to religion as reflected in Doctor Who over the fifty years of its history. Does it show the same shift in attitudes that is clear in Star Trek (from the rationalism of the original series, through the warm fuzzy sentimental spirituality of The Next Generation to the more or less explicit New Age/postmodern spirituality of Deep Space Nine)? But someone else will have to write that paper. I just don’t have the time or inclination to wade through old episodes of a TV series I grew out of forty years ago.


Oh, joy! Oh, rapture! Yet another way to waste time online. I have just discovered Pootwattle. Pootwattle is a virtual academic created by the University of Chicago's Writing Program. Press a button and he will write a random sentence for you.

Some examples from my first foray onto the site:
The emergence of the master-slave dialectic works toward the formation of early modern textuality.
The socialization of metaphoric substitution invests itself in the engendering of DeMan's aesthetic ideology.
The historicization of factual knowledge revisits the fantasy of the specular economy.
What's more, if you suspect that Pootwattle is spouting nonsense, you can call upon Smedley, the virtual critic, for a second opinion. For example, Smedley's response to the last sentence above is:
Pootwattle's excruciatingly detailed analysis of the relationship between the historicization of factual knowledge and the fantasy of the specular economy draws attention to the irreconcilable difference between languages and idioms.

18 January 2012


I’ve just discovered that STRATFOR is online again following last month’s hacking incident. And for a limited period (i.e. until it can get its new, more secure e-commerce system running), all its content is available free of charge. If you’ve not heard of it before, STRATFOR (Strategic Forecasting Inc.) is a privately owned open-source intelligence firm, which supplies geopolitical and security analyses to news agencies and governments around the world. If you are at all interested in current affairs, global politics or speculation about the near future, there is some really interesting stuff on their site (e.g. their annual forecast for 2012).

01 January 2012

Happy New Year

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1–8)