Christian Today Digest – October 2015

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Contents

Christian Today Website Articles

To add to your further enjoyment of these articles, we thought a short description of how the website is organised would be of interest.

The Christian Today website has what we call tabs which are really just headings. It’s a way of categorising the articles. Here are the headings, which they use:

UK; World; Church; Mission; Ministries; Society; Life; Entertainment; Comment.

Torch will now include these categories at the beginning of each of the articles.

We have observed that sometimes CT include an article of interest, which is not necessarily a good-news item but rather the reverse and which has been included for readers to pray about. We hope therefore that including the headings or categories will enable Torch readers to also discern and pray.

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Unless otherwise stated, articles in this magazine are transcriptions of material selected by the editor at Christian Today and were first published on www.christiantoday.com recently.

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Is it ever okay to deny Christ?

From “Church” section

It’s a commonplace to say that the Islamist movement that has swept over Iraq and Syria has taken the region back into the Dark Ages. We can argue about the history, but we know what people mean. It’s a dark fundamentalism which offers no compromise, no tolerance and no mercy: you submit or you die.

Islam is not the only religion to have cast such a deep shadow. When President Barack Obama had the temerity to point out that Christians have a pretty chequered past too, referencing the Crusades and the Inquisition, he was roundly condemned by conservatives: religious violence was what other people did, not what Christians did. Obama, of course, was entirely correct and his critics were either historical illiterates or playing the sort of dog-whistle games that so disfigure American politics.

Muslims and Christians are both suffering today. Islamic State and other extremists kill Muslims for not being Muslim enough, or for not being the right kind of Muslim. They kill and enslave Christians just for being Christians.

In the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi in 2013, al Shabaab gunmen announced that all Muslims could come forward and identify themselves and they’d be allowed to leave.

One man who got away was Joshua Hakim, who covered up the forename on his ID as he showed it to them. He’s actually a Christian. Some Kenyans have begun to share information about how to pretend to be Muslim, including learning to recite the shahada - the Islamic declaration of faith - in Arabic.

But how far should Christians go in order to save their lives? Franklin Graham recently said that they should simply accept martyrdom. He’s not alone. A Christianity Today article drew together responses from various Arab and African theologians. In Kenya, David Oginde, head of the 45,000-member Christ is the Answer Ministries, said “A true Christian must be ready to live and to die for the faith.”

On the other hand, Samuel Githinji, a theology lecturer at the Anglican St Paul’s University in Nairobi, says the answer isn’t clear-cut and that reciting the shahada doesn’t amount to denying Christ: “Christians are obligated to save their lives and others’ lives as much as possible. Denying the faith is more subtle than the mere voicing of certain words.”

Azar Ajaj, president of Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary, cites the case of a Coptic Christian in Libya who fled for his life. He grew a proper beard and carried a prayer rug, and covered the Coptic tattoo on his wrist with a fake cast. Ajaj says: “It is okay to pretend to be a Muslim, but not to lie and say so.”

George Sabra, president of Near East School of Theology in Lebanon, believes that Christians should not say the shahada but that those who do deserve compassion. He says: “To be a Christian is not about learning tactics for survival. But denying Christ is not an unforgivable sin. We may not despair of God’s love and mercy. Even Peter, the head of the disciples, was a denier of Christ.”

The actions of Islamic State and other extremist groups have revived questions that were first addressed in the heat of persecution by the early Christians. That their story is still so relevant today is a bleak commentary on the myth of human progress, but it has much to teach us. It has recently been brilliantly retold by Marcellino D’Ambrosio ( Who Were the Church Fathers?, SPCK ), which is being drawn on for this account.

At its heart is Cyprian, from Carthage in North Africa, who was baptized in 246 AD and became a bishop shortly afterwards. He was a warm and generous man whose gifts were to be sorely needed.

In 250 AD, the Emperor Decius unleashed a new wave of persecution against the Church. All citizens had to obtain a certificate saying that they had sacrificed to Caesar and the gods. Pope Fabian was martyred within three weeks. Many others perished during the 14 months of the onslaught. Cyprian went into hiding, but when he returned he found that many of his flock had compromised. Some had sacrificed, while others had bought forged certificates saying that they had.

There was a crisis in the North African Church. It had not previously accepted lapsed Christians back into fellowship, but now there were too many of them. Some still thought they should never be admitted, others thought they should be welcomed straight back, others only on their deathbeds. There were also conflicts arising from the status of those who had maintained their faith under torture and survived, with some saying that they outranked the bishops.

The controversy even struck at Rome, with a priest named Novatian leading a schism on the pretext that Fabian’s successor Cornelius had granted absolution to some of those who had lapsed.

Cyprian made a passionate appeal for unity. His fellow bishops agreed to follow his advice and avoid extremes. Those who had compromised their faith could be restored, but only after penance and genuine repentance.

This was not the end of the story, or the end of the schism - and it was certainly not the end of the persecutions. Cyprian himself was beheaded in 258 AD.

Another North African theologian, Augustine, also had to face the problem. The Emperor Diocletian launched the Great Persecution from 303-11; Christian books were burned, their property was confiscated and they were tortured, mutilated, burned, starved and sent to the arena to amuse spectators.

So again, what was the Church to do?

One problem was what counted as apostasy. Obviously if you sacrificed to a pagan god you were apostate. But what if you handed over scriptures to the police? Or if you handed over writing you said were scriptures but weren’t?

Some saw all these acts as equally guilty. The hard-liners - who came to be known as the Donatists, after their leader Donatus - argued that any compromise was wrong and tainted the apostolic succession from bishop to bishop. Augustine, though, believed that the Church would always be a mixed community of saints and sinners until God’s final judgement. He wanted to find room in it for people who had failed and fallen.

Today, Christians in the Middle East and in Africa face the same life-and-death dilemmas Christians faced more than 1,500 years ago. The judgement of the Church then was that it was right for them to try to save their lives, though not at any price. But it also said that God was merciful and that no one was barred from returning to the Church even if they had denied Christ.

The incidence of Christian persecution today is tragically high. It’s not for anyone to pass judgement who has never known it. But the hard-won wisdom of the early Christians encourages us to pray for those who suffer and to be loving and gracious to those who fail.

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Five atheists who lost faith in atheism

From “Life” section

Atheism is cool. At least, that’s the popular perception of a worldview that’s enjoyed a rebrand and a renaissance in the last couple of decades. Authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have issued forceful public challenges to the claims of the major faiths and the rights they’ve traditionally been granted, while well-respected and high-profile public figures have lent vocal support to their ideas. When Stephen Fry outlined an atheist (or even anti-theist) position on an Irish talk show, the interview went viral in hours, while comedian Ricky Gervais frequently uses his substantial platform to attack and undermine religion in film and stand-up.

In fact, there are reasons to feel strangely positive about the atheist pronouncements of public figures. Not only are there countless people who have found themselves in church, or on an Alpha course, precisely because the arguments of Dawkins and others left them dissatisfied, but there are also many stories of formerly high-profile atheists who ended up losing their surety, and in many cases converting to the Christian faith.

Below are just five of those stories, of former atheists who found that their belief in nothing ultimately led them nowhere.

1. C.S. Lewis

Before he wrote the Narnia saga, some divisive sci-fi and the popular theology books that led to thousands of rational conversions, Clive Staples Lewis was a professed atheist. He spoke of a “blandly Christian childhood”, but wrote in his biographical work Surprised by Joy of his “seemingly firm belief in the inexistence of God”, which was later shattered by a combination of reading GK Chesterton and developing a friendship with JRR Tolkien. In perhaps the most famous passage from that book, he writes:

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

2. Peter Hitchens

The younger brother of noted atheist writer Christopher Hitchens once shared his late sibling’s worldview. A journalist, author and conservative political commentator, he infamously set fire to his copy of the King James Bible as a 15-year-old at boarding school. He and Christopher shared a tempestuous relationship over 50 years, exchanging their youthful arguments over toys for debates about the existence of God in later life.

He describes coming to an awareness of his own sin, writing that “my large catalogue of misdeeds replayed themselves rapidly in my head ... I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned.” Getting married in church, and swearing oaths before a God whom he’d previously rejected, further unsettled him, and he slowly found himself professing a Christian faith. After his brother famously published God is not Great in 2007, Peter wrote his own book, The Rage Against God in response, critiquing the new atheist movement among which Christopher was so prominent.

3. A.N. Wilson

The British author and journalist writes that in his 30s he “lost any religious belief whatsoever,” and went on to write a book - entitled simply Jesus - which poured scorn on the idea that the gospels contained historically accurate information on a man who he simply regarded as a prominent Jewish leader. However, after spending “five or six years” quietly attending church, he says he discovered that he had come to adopt the faith preached there.

Wilson is now one of modern atheism’s most outspoken critics, riled particularly by the assertion that faith is the pursuit of the weak-minded. In an article for the Daily Mail, Wilson broke cover as a Christian convert and took aim at celebrity atheists, or what he called “all the liberal clever-clogs on the block”, while in another Christmas Day article for The Telegraph, he wrote of his now utter conviction that “the Gospel would still be true even if no-one believed it.”

4. Anthony Flew

His name may not be familiar, but Flew was one of the most significant atheist thinkers of the pre-Dawkins era. He was a prominent critic of religion, suggesting that atheism should be the default position until evidence for God could be produced; that the burden of proof should be on the faiths, not on the faithless. He carried these beliefs late into life, even signing 2003’s Third Humanist Manifesto. However, just a year later, he announced that he had dramatically changed his philosophical allegiance.

Flew hadn’t converted to the Christian faith, but he had embraced deism - the belief in God. So convinced was he, that in 2007 he published his final book, There is a God: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind. It has been discredited by atheists ever since who claim that Flew’s change of position was due to his declining mental health, and that the book was mainly the work of his co-writer. However, before his death in 2010, Flew lucidly and specifically addressed this in one of his final articles, itself a rebuttal of Dawkin’s references to him in The God Delusion.

5. Alister McGrath

Today he’s one of Christianity’s fiercest and most respected defenders, but Alister McGrath had to undergo a Pauline conversion before he got there. Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, McGrath writes that he “came to the view that God was an infantile illusion, suitable for the elderly, the intellectually feeble, and the fraudulently religious ... It was the received wisdom of the day that religion was on its way out, and that a glorious, godless dawn was just around the corner.” As a young intellectual with an aptitude for science and specialisms in quantum theory and then biology, McGrath’s rationalist worldview had little patience for theories of blind faith.

However, his deep engagement with science was - perhaps counter-intuitively - the very thing that unsettled his unbelief. He writes: “Atheism, I began to realize, rested on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis. The arguments that had once seemed bold, decisive, and conclusive increasingly turned out to be circular, tentative, and uncertain.” He became a Christian, and continued his enthusiastic pursuit of science, realising that his growing interest in theology was not in conflict with it; rather the two disciplines illuminated each other. Having at first been a fan of Richard Dawkins’ scientific writing (if not his arguments for atheism), he has since become one of his most enduring opponents, both in print (he’s the author of The Dawkins Delusion) and in public debate.

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No, they aren’t cockroaches: Angus Ritchie on how the Church can change the migrant debate

From “Comment” section

Fed for so long with a diet of fear-mongering and hatred, something in the British psyche seems to have snapped. The image of a single drowned refugee child, and the story behind his death, cannot be reconciled with the language of “swarms” and even “cockroaches” used by politicians and journalists. But there has been a change of mood that holds the promise of a more hospitable response to those in need.

Church leaders have rightly been prominent in calling for this change. But it is the work of local congregations which will determine how deep and long-lasting its impact will be.

For months, Citizens UK and Avaaz have been collecting pledges from congregations, households, landlords and local councils; specific, concrete commitments to house and welcome refugees.

Instead of saying to politicians “you should do something” and reserving the right to complain later at the cost of such hospitality, local churches are saying “we will do something” - and urging politicians to change the rules so that the people they are willing to host can enter the country.

It’s a wonderful embodiment of Stanley Hauerwas’ challenge to the Church: not just to have a social ethic, but to be a social ethic; not just to call for the state or big business to do things, but to provoke change by living out the vision of the gospel.

Hauerwas is often criticised for being “sectarian” when he teaches that the Church’s real gift to the world is be the Church. But this week, we are seeing what that looks like. Local congregations are showing what it means to “be the Church”. They are communities of hospitality; communities which recognise their salvation comes from the hospitality and mercy of Jesus Christ.

There’s another sense in which their actions belie the charge of “sectarianism”. For even as they are being the Church, and challenging the dominant voices in our culture, they are making common cause with people far beyond their walls. As they live out the hospitality at the heart of the Gospel, churches in Citizens UK are working with their neighbouring mosques and synagogues, residents’ associations and schools.

Hauerwas is rightly wary of idolising modern liberal democracies. Vox populi is not vox Dei and the truly Christian way to respond to the refugee crisis won’t always tally with public opinion. Which means that, if we want a radical change in public attitudes, hearts need to be converted one by one. There are limits to how much any successful politician is able to choose the imperatives of the Gospel over the values of the dominant culture, so changing politicians’ behaviour must begin with changing voters’ attitudes. And that can only be done face to face, neighbourhood by neighbourhood.

This is why a “social gospel” which neglects evangelism is useless in our context. If society is to be changed, hearts need to be converted. Christian social action must be modelled upon Jesus’ words to Andrew in John 1:39 - “Come and see”. It must embody a different kind of life, and invite those who see it to join in.

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Rediscovering the lost gift of Jesus: David Baker on the importance of rest

From “Life” section

Jesus said to them: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while” (Mark 6:30).

One of my favourite books begins with the simple statement: “Life had been getting increasingly hard, so I ran away.”

The writer, David Adam, formerly vicar of Lindisfarne, goes on to recount how he went out and started climbing a hill in an attempt to regain perspective - only to find that a storm was approaching.

“In a while I reached the summit, climbing over a great heap of stones into a Bronze Age fortress,” he continues in his book, The Cry of the Deer. “I sat in this great circle of stones to get my breath back ... The storm went to the north and south, but it did not come over me. In that ancient circle built to protect ancient man, I suddenly felt protected. I was surrounded by the presence and power of God.”

That seems to me to be a pretty good picture of Jesus’ invitation to his disciples in Mark 6:31, as we continue our fortnightly pilgrimage through this Gospel, to “come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while”.

Many Christians - especially, but not only, those of us in “full-time” ministry - need to re-discover what Jesus is talking about here.

I say many Christians - but possibly not most. “The vast majority of professing Christians,” lamented JC Ryle, the first Bishop of Liverpool, writing on this passage as long ago as 1857, “are indolent and slothful, and do nothing for the world around them”.

We might feel he’s being a little harsh. But maybe he also has a point: perhaps for some of us the challenge is what we are doing for Christ. Is our faith akin to an add-on leisure activity - a bit of church here or there, if we have time? If so, perhaps we really do need to re-think our priorities.

There’s no doubt, however, that in the context of Mark 6, the disciples had indeed been very busy for Jesus, having earlier (verse 7) been sent out on a preaching tour with “nothing for their journey except a staff - no bread, no bag, no money in their belts”. No wonder they needed a break! But how does this work in practice today?

We can find rest in Christ daily: JC Ryle, having chided lazy Christians, has this advice for the over-worked. He says: “They should remember that to do a little, and to do it well, is often the way to do the most in the long run.”

More recently, Jeremy McQuoid writes: “How much time are you spending simply in Jesus’ uncluttered presence, allowing Him to give you spiritual and emotional rest?” And contemporary Christian thinker Dallas Willard spoke famously of finding “Sabbath moments” during the day.

We can find rest in Christ weekly: Jesus proclaimed himself “Lord of the Sabbath” and freed it from petty rules, restoring its rightful purpose. Early Christians felt able to move this day of rest from Saturday to Sunday to mark the resurrection - but some 21st century believers seem effectively to have done away with it altogether.

Do you need to re-build church into your Sunday routine, maybe shut off e-mails that day, steer clear of shops - and, having worshipped, then pray and even nap? RC Sproul writes: “As we keep the Sabbath, we are to celebrate the rest and peace we have in Jesus Christ and look forward to the day when we will have eternal rest in God our Father.”

I remembered David Adam’s words recently - on holiday, lying in bed, yet feeling tense about things far away, as the rain pounded down on our caravan roof. I remembered, and I relaxed - and I slept deeply that night.

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