Between The Trees

By Ben Swift

“But we shouldn’t be concerned about trees purely for material reasons, we should also care about them because of the little puzzles and wonders they present us with.” (Wohlleben)

Several years ago while studying for a Bachelor of Science, I needed to narrow my interests and choose what discipline would become the main focus of my study. Looking back I find it interesting – although not surprising – that I was most drawn to subjects in the field of botany. The life of trees and indeed all plant life can be fascinating and far less removed from our own lives than many people would care to contemplate. The life of trees have the potential to provide many profound lessons as they illustrate ever changing seasons of life and death, often forming significant links to memories of times past. In fact we are first given a taste of the significance of our botanical friends in the beginning.

God said, “Let the earth put forth grass, seed producing plants, and fruit trees, each yielding its own kind of seed-bearing fruit, on the earth”; and that is how it was, the earth brought forth grass, plants each yielding its own kind of seed, and trees each producing its own kind of seed-bearing fruit; and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:11-12)

While humanity, created in God’s image and likeness, is recognised as being the pinnacle of creation, let’s not forget that God’s creation of the entire cosmos was said to be good, a claim from the Creator himself that includes botanical life. One may ask, “Why is this important?”

It turns out that human beings are not only to be sustained physically by God’s botanical creation, but are to learn from the many lessons revealed to us as nature and theology combine, pointing us to important truths.

Pastor Rob Bell once released a short film in his ‘Nooma’ series concerning life between the trees. As Bell digs his shovel into a strip of soil where he proceeds to plant two trees, he suggests that when we acknowledge ourselves as created beings in God’s world, we all find ourselves living between two trees. It is here that the trees metaphorically symbolize firstly Eden, God’s original garden paradise, and the beautiful, life-sustaining garden described in Revelation in which the Tree of Life exists for all who are in Christ. But what will our lives between the trees be like? What will be our story?

Where human kind was once cut off from the life-sustaining garden called Eden, falling under the curse of Adam’s legacy, we find that it is a tree of another kind that becomes the crucial tree in the human rescue story.

For it is written, ‘The Messiah redeemed us from the curse pronounced in the Torah by becoming cursed on our behalf; for the Tanakh says, “Everyone who hangs from a stake comes under a curse.” (Galatians 3:13)  So it was that Jesus Christ, God’s perfect Son, took upon himself the curse of Adam and his offspring as he hung from a tree, crucified for our sake. Through this act of love, God’s grace can be a part of our story as we live between the trees.

Just prior to the nailing of our Saviour to the tree, he was subject to the torturous act of being crowned with a twisted circle of thorns. The significance of this should not be overlooked. It has been suggested that thorns and thistles are a sign to us of God’s covenantal curse. When Adam sinned against God in Eden, the Lord said to him, “…Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you.” (Genesis 3:17-18) Once again, a botanical reminder of what has been achieved through Christ as he took on our curse in more ways than one.

As we read through and contemplate Scriptures, we see that Jesus himself invites us, time and again, to reflect on life and truth using plant life to simplify the profound.

As the stresses of this life begin to dominate and darken our stories, consider the comforting words of Christ: “Think about the wild irises, and how they grow. They neither work nor spin thread; yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed as beautifully as one of these. If this is how God clothes grass, which is alive in the field today and thrown in the oven tomorrow, how much more will he clothe you!” (Luke 12:27-28)

And then there are times where Christ, Creator of all things, refers to himself as a plant for the sake of our ability to understand our deep need to be rooted or grafted in Him.

“I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who stay united with me, and I with them, are the ones who bear much fruit; because apart from me you can’t do a thing. Unless a person remains united with me, he is thrown away like a branch and dries up. Such branches are gathered and thrown into the fire, where they are burned up.” (John 15:5-8)

Interestingly, following the death and resurrection of Jesus, the first person to encounter the risen Christ identified or mistook him as ‘The Gardener’. She [Mary] turned around and saw Yeshua [Jesus] standing there, but she didn’t know it was he. Yeshua said to her, “Lady why are you crying? Whom are you looking for?” Thinking it was the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you’re the one who carried him away, just tell me where you put him; and I’ll go and get him myself.”(John 20:14-15)

As was said in the beginning, God the Creator was pleased with His work, proclaiming it to be good at the conclusion of each working day. As many scientists – including well-known nature lover David Attenborough – attest, trees are the lungs of the earth. We are not only sustained by their ability to clean our air and produce the oxygen we need to breathe, but in their beauty and diversity, they also teach us about ourselves. Is it any wonder that God, ‘The Gardener’, uses his trees to teach his people about life in him, and therefore our own lives as we live between the trees?

Lines in the Sand

By Ben Swift

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever in not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. (39 Articles of Religion, 1562)

The trouble with great theologians can be that they are more often than not, very convincing expositionalists, capable of taking their well-ingrained, well-educated perspectives on doctrines and persuading their audience with the backing of Scriptural exegesis and logical arguments. But what occurs when one tries to draw a line in the sand, when it comes to age-old doctrinal debates such as ‘Election’ and ‘Predestination’, is that you can on one particular day, under the tutorage of one school of thought, take out your big stick and draw your line in the sand, only to have a wave of alternative thought swiftly wash it away, preparing a fresh sandy slate for a new line.

C.S. Lewis in his book, ‘Mere Christianity’, cleverly provides his readers with a metaphor for the Christian Church. He likens the Church to a mansion containing numerous rooms, each representing alternative traditions within the one true church body. He suggests that although Christians should be encouraged to meet in the hallways for discussion and debate, they need at some point to make their home in one of the rooms in order that they grow deeper roots and establish relationships that encourage each other in their Christian lives.

Lewis’ suggestion – although wise and worth considering – becomes difficult when the desire to choose a room is hindered by conflicting internal understandings surrounding important doctrinal perspectives. This becomes a particularly strenuous wrestling match when the doctrinal truths that one would seek to align with are scattered throughout different rooms and fail to all exist in a single room.

Having grown up the son of an Anglican Minister, and having frequently moved home as an adult where I have been associated with churches from several denominations, I am reluctant at the thought of settling in just one room within Lewis’ metaphorical house, particularly when I know the room must surely exist, just not in the part of the city within which I now live.

So why is this such a struggle? Can one overthink these things? Recently whilst attending a Presbyterian Church, the Pastor in his sermon on Romans 14 emphasised Paul’s desire for Christians within a church to avoid disputes with fellow members of the church body over issues that are secondary and that don’t define the primary, central truths of the Christian Faith. While this is certainly healthy advice for the strengthening and encouragement of the Church, the problem arises as to where we draw the line in considering what to include as central, doctrinal truths. Concerns may arise that perhaps carry some importance but shouldn’t become the cause of division within the church, but which concerns fall into this category? And who decides? Of course some may be obvious to most but some may be cause for further reflection.

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” (Romans 14:19)

Let us take for example the sacrament of Holy Communion. In terms of how often The Lord’s Supper is celebrated throughout the year, churches aligning with a Reformed tradition may show less concern for frequency than churches aligning with Lutheranism. Because the line in the sand separating these two views is not the same, it becomes difficult for a Lutheran to settle in the metaphorical room of the Presbyterians in this case. Why? Brian Thomas suggests, ‘The Reformed tradition is reluctant to accept that God can, and indeed does, work through external signs to bring sinners into saving union with Christ through the Holy Spirit.’ In other words, if you align with the Lutheran perspective on Holy Communion, by being denied regular, frequent opportunities to receive The Lord’s Supper, you are in essence, being denied the promise and presence of God in the meal. This is by no means a secondary concern in this way of thinking.

When it comes to debating about the different beliefs that surround a Calvinist view of double predestination in comparison to single predestination as held by Lutherans and many other protestant Christians, it is often said that we shouldn’t become too caught up in the differences as these are secondary to the centrality of the Gospel message. This becomes a struggle however, if we consider the flow on effects of each position. While much could be and has been written about these endless debates, an important point of difference that is central comes down to the question, “Who did Christ die for?” In other words, how do we read verses of Scripture such as, “And he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)

What does it mean, ‘the whole world’? Is it every human being or restricted to the ‘elect’? Are we to settle comfortably in a room that builds its understanding of who Christ died for when it sits on the wrong side of the line we’ve drawn in our understanding of the doctrine of election? Can these questions really become secondary concerns in our faith or do they in fact shape the way we interpret the Gospel message itself, the heart of the Christian Faith?

Perhaps we should be encouraged to take hold of the advice given by many biblical, evangelical scholars who suggest the following when reading and interpreting Scripture:

  1. What is the plain meaning of the text? To put it another way, without trying to read the text into a particular system of thought, what does the text actually say?
  2. Interpret Scripture with Scripture, not with any additional teaching.

As we continue in our Christian journey, seeking to draw lines in the sand that clearly define what we hold as truth, our lines may shift from time to time. It’s true we need to walk the hallways of discussion and debate as C.S. Lewis describes and hopefully, in prayerful consideration, find a room in God’s house in which we can let our roots penetrate. One thing is for certain, we who seek to live in the truth of Christ can all agree, if not always in our theology, on our humble dependence on the Trinity. Our dependence is on God and his Word. (John Stott)

‘Ism’ Schisms

By Ben Swift

‘Augustine was the ablest and purest of all the doctors, but he could not himself bring back things to their original condition, and he often complains that the bishops, with their traditions and ordinances, troubled the church more than did the Jews with their laws.’ (Martin Luther)

Like many other Christians from reformed, protestant churches, I recently attended a celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, hosted by an evangelical group of Anglicans in Brisbane, Australia. While the night mainly focused on an insightful look at the life and influence of Martin Luther, it was during a concluding prayer session that my ears really pricked up. A gently spoken woman in humble desperation, placed before God her desire to see the Anglican Church as a united body, once again embracing the truth of Christ by acknowledging the Christian Scriptures as the inspired Word of God, the authoritative rock on which our life in Christ is to be built, the central place where our discernment is to be sourced through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.

How utterly bizarre and saddening that a Christian would ever need to ask for these things, as if they no longer carry weight in their cross section of the Body of Christ. But why?

Many have discovered that the deeper you travel in your theological journey, the more you come across the ‘isms’ that lead to schisms, but it’s how we deal with these that is of vital importance. After all, five-hundred years on from the Reformation, those of us in the West at least have the freedom to debate without the loser’s head being escorted to the chopping block. That’s not to presume there will be no fallout whatsoever though.

I have often thought of how great it would be to share in the life of the great theological minds of history, to reflect, read and write about all things Christ and discuss them, perhaps even respectfully debate them over a pint in the stalls of an Oxford pub. Just who would be invited to these great discussions on such important matters? Surely the likes of St. Paul, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Lewis, but the list could certainly go on.

While this may be the pipe-dream of any apologist striving to deepen their knowledge of how to argue for their faith, thanks firstly to the printing press and now the Internet, we can all – minus the pint and physical presence – delve into the minds of the God fearing men whom God has spoken through as they helped expand the boundaries of Protestantism from the time of the Reformation.

But what might we discover as we digest the printed words of historical theological thought? Will these men of influence bring cohesion or ‘isms’ that lead to schisms within the Body of Christ?

What are some of these so called ‘isms’ that have seemingly caused schisms within the church? While there are too many to mention, perhaps some that have been of strong influence within Protestantism include Lutheranism, Calvinism, Romanism, Evangelicalism, Liberalism, Pentecostalism and Post-Modernism to name a few. Between these ‘isms’, while many core beliefs are shared, there also exists differing interpretations that have been influenced by key theological and philosophical figures throughout history.

Perhaps some of the more significant areas of contention revolve around such areas as the authority of Scripture, election, predestination and who Christ died for, the nature of sin and the correct view of the sacraments. There are some in the church who suggest that these matters are not central to the Gospel message and therefore we should not become too caught up in trying to grapple with them at the expense of unity. Others would argue that wrestling with these understandings – while conceding that some things will remain in the realm of mystery – is incredibly important as they act as a lens through which we read and interpret Scripture. Take for example the current issue being hotly debated in many western countries around whether or not to redefine marriage to include same sex couples. The way in which Christians view Scripture is pivotal to how they will interpret what writers such as the Apostle Paul are teaching us in relation to this issue. Are Paul’s letters inspired words of God or are we to reinterpret them according to the culture of our day? But then if we can reinterpret Scriptures to suit the desires of our culture, can we then not reinterpret Jesus’ exclusive claim to be the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the father but through him? (John 14:6)

Returning to the roots of the Protestant Reformation is important. It was through this reforming that the Church once again became more than the religious institution. All could now read or hear for themselves the good news that in Christ we have assurance that through faith we can become the children of God and no human can alter this truth. As Jesus said just before his dying breath, “It is finished.” (John 19:30)

Upon final reflection of the presenter’s words from the Reformation Celebration, the Reformation is by no means over, we who seek to follow Christ in all his truth are still in the midst of an ongoing process. We need to continue in our struggle for the upholding of truth, always taking the schisms that inevitably come through the ‘isms’ back to Christ, back to the Scriptures and back to a place where even the most theologically astute humble themselves like children before their Triune God.

For in the end we must all arrive at the conclusion of Karl Barth who when asked after a lifetime of theological research and contemplation, “What have you learned?” He answered, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Glory Days

By Ben Swift

“Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.” (Jonathon Edwards)

Anyone who grew up in a 1980’s Western influenced culture would have found it difficult to avoid hearing the husky voice of Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Boss’, dominate the airwaves about the same time video put to death the radio star. One song in particular sits firmly embedded in my minds playlist, not only for its sound but also its lyrics. ‘Glory Days’, a simple yet deep reflection touching on life’s finite journey. The following words would ring true in the head of anyone who’s walked the earth long enough to wrinkle, “Glory days, well they’ll pass you by, glory days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye, glory days, glory days.” (Springsteen)

There is no denying it. We human beings have a short amount of time on this earth and an even shorter amount of time to reflect on what counts. We all need to ask ourselves the question, “Are we here to create glory days for ourselves or are we here to bring glory to our God?” While the temptation to strive for greatness is often held as the pinnacle of western living, it’s a question of who we seek to glorify in the things we strive to achieve. Clearly God has equipped humanity with a vast array of gifts and abilities but these can be used to either glorify ourselves or to glorify our creator.

Surely as followers of Christ we must clothe ourselves with the attitude of the Psalmist in Psalm 115:1 declaring, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.

Jesus way of being when it comes to glorification is very much tied to the nature of the Trinity and his relationship within it. As Christians we need to grasp the importance of the perfect loving relationship between God the Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit so as to comprehend our purpose in serving to glorify the Triune God to all the world, in all that we do. Jesus makes this clear when he prays for himself:

“Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son may glorify you – just as you gave him authority over all mankind, so that he might give eternal life to all those whom you have given him. And eternal life is this: to know you, the one true God, and him whom you sent, Yeshua the Messiah. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, glorify me alongside yourself. Give me the same glory I had with you before the world existed.” (John 17:1-5)

Maybe it’s a personal trait or maybe it’s one that is shared by many but I am often drawn to reflect on God and truth while listening to great music, not necessarily written with a Christian message in mind. The late, great Chris Cornell recorded an acoustic version of the Audioslave song, ‘Like a Stone’, which always draws me to a place of reflection, a place of longing for a relationship that can only be satisfied in knowing Christ. Consider the following words:

‘In your house I long to be, room by room patiently, I’ll wait for you there, like a stone, I’ll wait for you there, alone’ (Commerford, Cornell, Morello, Wilk).

When we place ourselves firmly in the house of the living God, like an immovable stone immersed in grace, we can become transformed in a way that brings glory to God, reflecting his glory into the world as we strive to live as he desires.

It’s not that Christ needs us to bring glory to himself or to the Father, rather it’s that we who have been called to him should feel compelled to acknowledge who he is and who we are in relation to him. Equipped with a knowledge of the reality of Christ, the focus of how we live should be narrowed in on bringing glory not to ourselves but to the One whom glory belongs. After all, Jesus once said that if the people were to become silent in praising him, the stones themselves would cry out, for his glory will not be contained.

Humankind has achieved so many great things and overcome so many immense challenges throughout history. We are constantly in awe of what we can achieve as we continue to build on the knowledge of our forefathers. We’ve not only put a man on the moon but explored the depths of space, mapping out a universe so vast and complex it boggles the mind. We continually break records in the sporting arena and improve what the body can achieve through advances in nutrition and biomechanics. We have learned to stop many deadly diseases in their tracks and operate on delicate organs such as the brain using high-tech equipment. We’ve learned to harness the energy of nature, gradually creating more effective sustainable forms of energy to combat climate change. The list could certainly go on. There is no question about the great potential of the human, it is simply about whether the potential of the human to desire personal glory from these pursuits be the goal, or as Scottish runner Eric Liddell did in his athletics career, to bring glory to God in all that he achieved. For to bring glory to our creator in this way is to play our part in the renewing of a broken world.

N.T. Wright in his book, ‘Simply Christian’, provides us with the following insight: ‘But new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world. It is time, in the power of the Spirit, to take up our proper role, our fully human role, as agents, heralds and stewards of the new day that is dawning.”

Let us then embrace our personalised set of gifts, talents and opportunities by investing them securely in Christ, by bringing ‘Glory Days’ to the one to whom they ultimately belong. Let Grace then be perfected in the glory of the Triune God.

Theological Shrink Syndrome

 By Ben Swift

“Don’t ever let someone tell you that you can’t do something. Not even me. You got a dream, you gotta protect it. When people can’t do something themselves, they’re gonna tell you that you can’t do it. You want something, go get it. Period.” (Chris Gardner)

The above quote taken from the book and sequential motion picture, ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’, could well be what lies at the core of the postmodern worldview held by much of today’s society. You don’t have to travel far to find it being repeatedly echoed throughout our daily lives. In fact, you only need travel as far as your TV remote and tune in to any number of reality shows dominating our screens. “Stay true to yourself,” they say and “This won’t be the last we hear about you, just keep positive and follow your dreams. Don’t let anybody get in your way.”

While this all sounds positive and certainly may feel good and even right while the delusion lasts, where has this way of thinking come from? Since when is humanity’s ultimate goal to pursue dreams and personal happiness at any cost?

I suggest that many of the roots of this way of thinking grew from the teachings of those who have sought to bring about the death of God from our understanding of life. One such well known father in this school of thought is Nietzsche. For him, the only self worth living was the self of the ‘Overman’, the one who has risen above the conventional herd and has fashioned himself. He suggests that only few are capable of this because most of us have ourselves constructed by the conventional language of our age and society. (James W. Sire)

For one to rise above the herd, under the power of the self, requires one to delve into the subconscious so as to overcome personal shortcomings, problems from the past, making positive steps towards fulfilling personal desires as dreams are chased and stumbling blocks broken down. It’s here that we enter the realm of Psychology.

Possibly the most well-known of psychologists, the cigar-smoking, silver-bearded Sigmund Freud, believed and suggested that humanity’s deepest problems can be dealt with through talking them through, (Anne Rooney). But this conversing, in the absence of God our creator, fails to address the real problem in which all of humanity’s problems are rooted. That is our inherited, depraved sinful nature.

A song by the band Switchfoot sums up our dilemma well with the following lyrics: “I am my own affliction, I am my own disease. There ain’t no drug that they could sell. Ah, there ain’t no drug to make me well…The sickness is myself!”

Those who claim Christianity as objective truth can’t have it both ways. We can’t claim that we seek the narrow path while aligning ourselves with philosophies that deny our need for a saviour outside of ourselves, pointing us towards a personal pursuit for self-fulfilment. Consider the words of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. What contrasting words in light of postmodernist thinking.

“How blessed are the poor in spirit! For the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. How blessed are those who mourn! For they will be comforted. How blessed are the meek! For they will inherit the Land! How blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness! For they will be filled….How blessed are those who are persecuted because they pursue righteousness! For the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” (Matthew 5:3-6, 10)

While the influences of Positive Psychology on modern Theology subtly make their mark, the message of the Cross is watered down and the serving of self climbs its scaffold. This is because the worldview brought about by Psychology in the absence of accurate biblical Theology is based on the belief that human beings are primarily the product of their DNA code, naturally selected by chance in the process of the survival of the fittest; a notch on the evolutionary timeline.

The question begs to be asked. Is the infiltration of Positive Psychology into mainstream Christianity an indication that The Church has embraced postmodernist thought? Is the light in the darkness losing its glow and fading into the world as just another personal preference in secularism?

Gary Gilley, in his book, ‘This Little Church Went to Market’, provides the following insight:

“Psychology, being man-centred, has as its highest goal the happiness of the individual. This is the foundation for the current emphasis on felt need. If mankind’s greatest goal is his own happiness, then all other things in life, including God, become a means to secure that happiness…..This worldview is completely at odds with the biblical worldview. Since this is true, to offer God or salvation as the means whereby our felt needs are satisfied is a perversion of biblical teaching at best, and more likely a false gospel.” (Gilley)

It would however, be ignorant to ignore the fact that there have been many important and beneficial discoveries in the area of Neuroscience and Psychology. For the Christian, the important consideration is how to harmonise and apply the positive aspects of these discoveries in light of biblical teaching. The Gospel message must never be compromised and neither should the biblical teaching of who we are as people created through and for Christ. As Lutheran pastor David Schmidt once suggested to a group of primary aged students, “It’s impossible to pick yourself up in your own strength. Just take hold of your ankles and give it a try.”

The Christian, embracing the many good elements within Positive Psychology, must be careful that the focus on self does not supplant the focus on others and their wellbeing, and on God as the ultimate source of our wellbeing, the ultimate source of which each individual ‘self’ is able to achieve. (Stuart Traeger & Dr Mark Worthing)

No Ordinary Life

By Ben Swift

“There can be no mistake about it. A miracle has happened and a sign has occurred right here on earth, right on our farm, and we have no ordinary pig.” (Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White)

While it may or may not be the intention of authors and script writers, it’s not uncommon for those in tune with God’s Word to grasp some important truths from their works, as He speaks to us through a whole range of contexts. Charlotte’s Web is one such story that comes to mind. Despite being written for children, this incredibly moving and thoughtful work of literary art has much to say when it comes to life and draws readers towards topics that perhaps move beyond life from a naturalist point of view, into a place where questions from a supernatural point of view can be asked.

Towards the end of ‘Charlotte’s Web’, the farmer Mr Zuckerman, owner of Wilbur – the pig seemingly surrounded by miraculous signs – suggests that maybe we are all surrounded by miracles on a daily basis but rarely have our eyes open enough to notice them.

One could argue that it’s not only life itself that’s a miracle, it’s that we are able to appreciate it in being so. What is it about human beings that allows us to consider life, not only from a biological perspective but from philosophical, anthropological and theological perspectives to name a few? Doesn’t it seem a bit odd that if we are simply random by-products of natural selection that we would care less about the deep questions concerning who we are, both as living beings and in relation to a first cause of existence? I’m pretty confident my dog doesn’t lie around contemplating these questions.

Perhaps that’s why great children’s novels such as Charlotte’s Web are so powerful, because by animating animal characters with human traits such as reasoning, we can identify with them and in turn learn about ourselves. An example that comes to mind is where Wilbur the pig, a humble childlike character, makes the following point that gets to the heart of many debates between atheists and theists on the origin of creation:

“What do you mean less than nothing? I don’t think there is any such thing as less than nothing. Nothing is absolutely the limit of nothingness. It’s the lowest you can go. It’s the end of the line. How can something be less than nothing? If there were something that was less than nothing, then nothing would not be nothing, it would be something – even though it’s just a very little bit of something. But if nothing is nothing, then nothing has nothing that is less than it is.”  (E.B. White)

Just as the Christian believes that faith is a gift from God, sustained by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, humanity’s ability to reason is also a gift. It is what separates us from the animals, allowing us to contemplate meaning and truth. This is where the argument of the naturalist or humanist crumbles in that if we are all sitting at a point in time in an ongoing process of natural selection, there would be no reason for the development of reason, it simply doesn’t fit the requirements for the survival of the fittest. It would be ridiculous for me to be even writing about this topic at all if the naturalist was correct in their humanistic reasoning.

“It is agreed on all hands that reason, and even sentience, and life itself are late comers in Nature. If there is nothing but Nature, therefore, reason must have come into existence by a historical process. And of course, for the Naturalist, this process was not designed to produce a mental behaviour that can find truth. There was no Designer, and indeed, until there were thinkers, there was no truth or falsehood. The type of mental behaviour we now call rational thinking or inference must therefore have been ‘evolved’ by natural selection, by the gradual weeding out of types less fitted to survive…. But it is not conceivable that any improvement of responses could ever turn them into acts of insight, or even remotely tend to do so.” (C.S. Lewis)

It is only when the gift of faith is intertwined with the gift of reason that a human being can cast off the shackles of the naturalist’s confined way of thinking. Only then can the miracles in life, that include and stretch beyond those suggested in Charlotte’s Web, be seen in all their glory – that is reflecting the glory of God the Creator. After all, we have been made to relate to our creator who has revealed himself to us in ways that defy the logic of an existence limited to nature as science currently defines it.

There can be no mistake about it. A miracle has happened on this farm called Earth. What is impossible in nature has been made possible supernaturally through Christ. What was once lost can now be found, what was once dead can be given life again, life in all its fullness. Let us then be encouraged to embrace Christ’s supernatural truth, one that brings us a hope well beyond the cycle of life and death offered by those who seek to define life apart from its source.

“If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2)

Culture Club Remix

By Ben Swift

‘God is remaking the world… by the act of redemptive new creation through which humans are once more to reflect God into his world and the world back, in worship to God.’ (N.T.Wright)

It is true that we humans are drawn to specific aspects of what we label as culture and that throughout history we have sought to play a part in the evolution and enhancement of culture. It is also true that as the years roll on in one’s life, changes in culture become not only evident but form a part of a person’s history and perceived identity.

We all have stand out memories of bold personalities who have had obvious impacts on the culture of our time. Who could forget the influence of Michael Jackson as he stunned the world with his debut performance of Billy Jean, dressed in a never seen before, single fingerless glove that helped revolutionize fashion in the Western World? Then came Boy George with his provocative pushing of gender boundaries as he fronted the pop band ‘Culture Club’.

It’s often through the influence of larger than life characters that aspects of culture are questioned and reshaped. And culture does change. In my lifetime I have seen the culture of workers heading to the local pub for a beer or ten after work being replaced with an obsession with working out at the gym and driving under the influence of protein shakes rather than alcohol.

If human beings have the ability to affect change in culture then how do those who identify themselves as Christ’s image bearers go about influencing the shaping of culture? Is this even a part of life with which we should be concerned with?

Consider the following passages of Scripture:

‘For those who identify with their old nature set their minds on the things of the old nature, but those who identify with the spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. Having one’s mind controlled by the old nature is death, but having one’s mind controlled by the Spirit is life and shalom [peace].’ (Romans 8:5-6)

‘In other words, do not let yourselves be conformed to the standards of this world. Instead, keep letting yourselves be transformed by the renewing of your minds; so that you will know what God wants and will agree that what he wants is good, satisfying and able to succeed.’ (Romans 12:2)

Following in the footsteps of reformer John Calvin, we who seek to influence culture as the image bearers of Christ must recognise that the chief purpose of humanity is to glorify God. Richard Kroner suggests, “Since faith is the ultimate and all-embracing power in the human soul, nothing whatever can remain untouched by it. Therefore religion has the power of integrating man’s culture through his faith, because it rises above all culture, it being no part of culture as such, but the mystical experience of apprehending God.” (Van Til)

It is clear that we are called to be like yeast, allowing God to work through us to penetrate and influence the cultural bread of our day, as the world continues to conform its culture to one that sits apart from the Creator. Let us not forget that God is also the creator of all beauty and the culture that we seek should recognise and reflect all that is truly beautiful in creation. Consider the following passage written by Neil Cullen McKinlay:

‘What is beauty? Beauty is whatever is pleasing to the eye of the triune God who made the heavens and the earth and all therein. For it is written, “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). As a frame encases and enhances a painting, so God’s morals surround beauty. Beauty glows because it is pregnant to God’s Moral Law. To be truly appreciated the inherent moral dimensions and parameters of beauty must also be beheld. Bald is beautiful only because God has numbered the very hairs of our head.”

If the Church, the Body of Christ, is to be an agent of cultural influence that bears the image of God, the question needs to be asked: “Is the Church influencing culture or is the Church being influenced by the culture in which it sits?”

Few of us, Christian or not, are ignorant to the debates happening within the Church that highlight the pressures of worldly culture. One thing remains clear though. The Church, if it is to truly serve and reflect God, must not conform to the world. It must seek to know, through the guidance of Scripture and the Spirit, what to accept and what to renounce. The new creation that God is working through His little human reflectors, must not be in denial of our humanness but rather embrace and reaffirm our purpose as intended by the one who knows us deeply, the Word behind all of creation.

N.T. Wright suggests, “The resurrection of Jesus enables us to see how it is that living as a Christian is not simply a matter of learning a way of life that is in tune with a different world and thus completely out of tune with the present one. It is a matter of glimpsing that in God’s new creation, of which Jesus’ resurrection is the start, all that was good in the original creation is reaffirmed. All that has corrupted and defaced it – including many things which are woven so tightly into the fabric of the world as we know it that we can’t imagine being without them – will be done away.”

The world and the Church, when it comes to culture, are often heading in different directions. But that should come as no surprise. It’s when this isn’t happening that the alarm bells should sound. We, as Christ’s image bearers, need to embrace the divinely inspired concept of culture and all that is truly beautiful. We must ensure we provide the salt that the world needs to live as renewed human beings, carrying the hope and anticipation of a renewed culture, in a renewed creation with the triune God.