Christian Today Digest – December 2017

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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 recently on

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Let’s not make the Nativity too cosy: Mary’s story is dark and brutal

By George Pitcher

Who is the greatest worldwide female celebrity at this time of year? Who has the greatest global reach, taking into account all messaging, what advertisers call OTS (opportunities to see), taking in digital social media as well as analogue print images?

If such big data exists, I rather fancy that Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Rihanna – even hardy annuals such as Kim Kardashian and Angelina Jolie – would have to take a bow to a simple teenager from the Judea of a couple of thousand of years ago, about whom we know relatively little, because she never enjoyed the publicity benefits of an Instagram account.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, makes exactly how many appearances around the world over the next couple of weeks? On Christmas cards sent with love, on family mantelpieces and strings across kitchens? In street crib scenes and shop windows? In digital Christmas greetings across the internet? Millions? Hundreds of millions?

She will sometimes be abstract, sometimes Renaissance, sometimes modern and sometimes in cartoon form. She will always be demure, beautiful, humble. She will invariably be dressed comfortably in blue, tending her infant son.

And her celebrity status won’t just be enjoyed by the faithful – ardent secularists, even atheists, will join her at the manger. A lovely, brave young girl, giving birth under difficult circumstances to a baby, whom even unbelievers would agree is going to change the world forever. What’s not to like?

Nothing really. It’s one of the wonders of Christmas that this event unites all humankind. Those of the Christian faith, but also those of other faiths and of none. Potentially, the whole world. In other words, all sinners.

But we’re also entitled to wonder if we do Mary a disservice in our representation of her. When we examine the Nativity narrative in the gospels, it’s far from cosy. It’s brutal and dark. Among the literary themes we can note are oppression, displacement, antisemitism, infanticide and misogyny.

We don’t have to be the Grinch to acknowledge just how tough and brave she had to be in helping to give the greatest gift to human history that, arguably, has ever been given.

We can argue too about the historicity of some of the events – whether there was a census under Quirinius that required all Jews to return to their place of birth or whether Herod ordered a massacre of the first-born in Bethlehem. But these were the kind of casual oppressions and routine atrocities that were common under the Roman jackboot.

The cruelty wasn’t confined to the Romans. While it’s a regular staple of New Testament scholarship to question the provenance of the stable and the inn, it remains entirely plausible that a young woman giving birth out of wedlock would have been shunned by respectable Hebraic society and been required to give birth on the lower floor of domestic accommodation, among livestock.

Again, those of us of a Christian faith can only wonder at a God who chooses to join us at the lowest of low human experience. But it all raises questions also about how we can or should tell the Nativity story.

Along with countless other churches, we will have a crib service on Christmas Eve and once again the children will place the figures of the holy family, plus the animals and the shepherds, in the stable. It’s a magical (and holy) time that we may remember from our own childhoods and it’s a wonderful introduction to the Christian story.

But as Paul told the church at Corinth, when we grow up we put aside childish things. So, on Christmas night, any adult might also take a moment in the darkness to remember a terrified young woman, in fear for her and her baby’s life, alone but for her devoted husband-to-be and some shepherds, among the filth and squalor of the animals’ quarters.

And, to help us understand and to inhabit Mary’s experience, what would that look like today? Christian Today’s Mark Woods has addressed this issue in the context of the controversy in the Italian town of Castenaso over the local crib scene being placed in the dangerous rubber dinghy of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. What strikes me about that is that it invites us to imagine what it felt like to be Mary, rather than what happened historically to her.

It reminds me of an art installation that appeared in St James’s Church in Piccadilly, in London. An inflatable dinghy (one that had actually made those perilous crossings) hanging upside down from the church’s ceiling, with life-jackets tumbling from it, as if bodies were falling into the depths of the nave.

That struck me as a powerful image that called us to serve the least of those around us. And it shamelessly demanded of us to examine who the desperate and the dispossessed of today are, rather than simply to view through history their equivalents among whom Jesus moved.

It means retelling scriptural stories for our own time. I’ve had a go at this myself, with a novel called A Dark Nativity, published at the start of Advent. It tells of a young woman, who is a priest and a former aid worker, who has witnessed some of the worst that the world has to offer in famine zones. So she is a holy, but broken, woman. There is a sort of Nativity here, but it is hard-won.

I started by trying to lift the scriptural Nativity narrative into the world of today. But that proved unsatisfactory. It quickly became just a tick-box exercise: Here is a stable, here is a star, there are three wise men.

My narrator, Natalie Cross (see what I did there!), is emphatically not Mary. She is damaged and sinful. But she is trying to make the best fist of her faith that she can in the world. So she is like many of us, if not all of us.

I’m hoping that there is also something redemptive and salvific in what is otherwise a very dark story. It’s for others to judge whether I have succeeded at all. But if it’s a contribution to the retelling of the Nativity in our own time, if it raises questions about how bleak and dark were the origins of our God’s work in the world, then that will be of some comfort.

In a tiny way, too, I hope it might touch occasionally on how it felt to be Mary, all those centuries ago. So I hope she would approve too.

[George Pitcher is a priest in the Church of England. His first novel, A Dark Nativity, is published by Unbound.]

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Alabama’s evangelicals: 4 reasons why they back Roy Moore

By Harry Farley

[Roy Moore and Doug Jones were set for a photo finish on Tuesday night as they headed towards the conclusion of the most bitterly fought Senate contest in recent history]

Alabama is traditionally a Republican stronghold but multiple allegations that Moore abused teenage girls when he was in his 30s have made it a close race, with Jones hoping to be the first Democrat senator in the state for two decades.

Among the most controversial aspects of the campaign is Moore’s dogged support from evangelicals, who make up half the population of Alabama.

Even in the wake of multiple scandals evangelicals have stuck by Moore with several prominent evangelical leaders speaking in support of him. Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist Billy and strong supporter of Trump, came out fighting for Moore. ‘The hypocrisy of Washington has no bounds,’ he tweeted. ‘So many denouncing Roy Moore when they are guilty of doing much worse than what he has been accused of supposedly doing. Shame on those hypocrites.’

To understand why evangelicals are so determined in backing Moore, we must look at his history.

1. Roy Moore speaks evangelicals’ language

The former Alabama Supreme Court Justice, who was removed twice for violating judicial ethics, is a longstanding member of the evangelical club.

He regularly cites Bible verses to explain his action and his final tweet before polling day sums up precisely why evangelicals want him as their senator.

He wrote: ‘I want to Make America Great Again with President Trump.

‘And I want to Make America Good Again by returning to the acknowledgment of God!’

One of the times he was expelled was when he ignored a court ruling instructing him to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments in his office as Supreme Court Justice.

In February when talking about the September 11 attacks Moore cited Isaiah 30:12–13, saying: ‘Because you have despised His word and trust in perverseness and oppression, and say thereon ... therefore this iniquity will be to you as a breach ready to fall, swell out in a high wall, whose breaking cometh suddenly at an instance.’ Moore then noted according to CNN: ‘Sounds a little bit like the Pentagon, whose breaking came suddenly at an instance, doesn’t it?’ He added: ‘If you think that’s coincidence, if you go to verse 25: “There should be up on every high mountain and upon every hill, rivers and streams of water in the day of the great slaughter when the towers will fall.”‘

In short Moore speaks evangelicals’ language. He is one of them and has been for a long time. They are not prepared to abandon him because of reports in the apparently ‘fake news’.

2. Abortion and gay rights

The single most important issue for American evangelicals is abortion, closely followed by gay marriage.

And Moore is right on message on both.

In 2005 the former judge said: ‘Homosexual conduct should be illegal today.’ He added in an interview televised on C-Span that homosexuality was ‘immoral’ and ‘detestable’ and violates the moral code.

More recently in a September 2017 debate he said that ‘sodomy [and] sexual perversion sweep the land’.

On abortion Moore has used his rallies to make the oft promised declaration he would fight for the complete repeal of Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court case that made abortion legal across the US.

For Jones, despite his clean record compared to Moore’s scandals, his position on abortion is an insurmountable obstacle for evangelicals. ‘The biggest single obstacle is being a Democrat. The fact he’s pro-choice reinforces that,’ said Gary Nordlinger, a professor of political management at George Washington University.

3. Donald Trump backs Moore

Despite originally backing Luther Strange in the primary stage, the president announced he would support the scandal-hit Moore, although he has not made any campaign appearances for him.

‘We cannot afford – this country, the future of this country – cannot afford to lose a seat in the very, very close United States Senate,’ Trump said on Friday with Republicans holding a slim 52–48 majority in the Senate.

Describing Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, as a ‘total puppet’, Trump said: ‘He will never, ever vote for us. We need somebody in that Senate seat who will vote for our Make America Great Again agenda.’

Trump’s plea to Alabama residents is based not specifically on Moore’s credentials but on his own need for another Republican in Senate. Although white evangelical support for Trump has plummeted 17 points in the last 10 months, they are still enamoured with their President and Trump’s backing will persuade many floating voters.

The President’s support is also significant in what it means for the Republican party as Moore, despite winning the Republican nomination, is still viscerally opposed by the hierarchy in the party. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has said he believes the multiple women who accused Moore of abuse and said the Senate ethics committee would investigate him were he to win.

Other prominent figures have also spoken against him with 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney tweeting: ‘Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation. Leigh Corfman and other victims are courageous heroes. No vote, no majority is worth losing our honour, our integrity.’

But Moore is backed by Trump’s former White House strategist Steve Bannon who is mounting a challenge on the Republican establishment.

4. Roy Moore is a fellow rebel

Moore used his final push before polling day to reinforce his image as the persecuted underdog.

Attacking the ‘fake news’ and promising to ‘drain the swamp’, Moore plays into the evangelical mindset of being an unjustly attacked but righteous minority, taking on the big, bad liberal establishment in Washington.

He is ‘their man’ sent to do God’s bidding. And the more he is attacked, the more he relishes the image of a righteous rebel.

It fits with evangelicals’ powerful motif of being persecuted for doing God’s work and it also fits into Trump’s own carefully constructed image of being a rebel. His open attacks on his own party play into evangelicals’ own sense of being betrayed by Republicans who failed to deliver the sweeping conservative reforms they promised.

[Editor’s note: Since this article was written Roy More was defeated and Doug Jones was elected to the Senate.]

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Donald Trump’s evangelical support plunges 17 points in 10 months

By Harry Farley

Donald Trump’s evangelical support has plunged 17 points in the last 10 months despite him delivering on a number of campaign promises aimed at pleasing his core base.

The drop is one of the sharpest decline of any group but despite this, white evangelicals remain the President’s strongest supporters. In February 78 per cent of white evangelicals approved of Trump’s job performance but now it’s just 61 per cent, according to the latest survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.

But at 61 per cent white evangelicals remain the voter bloc most likely to approve of the US President, only topped by Republicans themselves.

It comes in the wake of several Trump decisions, such as recognising Jerusalem as capital of Israel and appointing a conservative judge to the Supreme Court, designed to please his evangelical supporters.

The figures were based on interviews of 1,503 adults conducted between November 29 and December 4 and is compared with similar data from February.

It shows that while Trump’s support from his own voters has dropped significantly, it remains roughly in line with his predecessors at the same stage. However where Trump’s ratings plummet is among his opponents. In Barack Obama’s first year in office his support from Republicans dropped from 37 per cent to 18 per cent. But that is more than double Trump’s approval among Democrats which stands at 7 per cent.

Another poll earlier this month found nearly a third of white evangelical said there was ‘almost nothing President Trump could do to lose my approval’. However the same poll found one in three voters overall disapproved of Trump so strongly they said ‘there is almost nothing he can do to win their support’.

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Rival Anglican church in UK ordains nine new clergy in controversial service

By Harry Farley

An Anglican splinter group in the UK ordained its own clergy for the first time on Thursday night at a service in east London.

Nine men were ordained by Andy Lines, a ‘missionary bishop’ consecrated in the wake of the Scottish Episcopal Church’s decision to permit gay marriage. A number of senior conservative Church of England figures played prominent roles in the service.

The move will be seen as provocative as it sets up Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) as a rival Anglican Church to the Church of England.

Several retired bishops attended the ceremony at East London Tabernacle Baptist Church and a number of active CofE clergy were also present. Before the service a CofE spokesman said any clergy who ‘participate actively’ in AMiE’s services would be breaking canon law.

Rev David Banting, a well known evangelical in the Church of England and vicar of St Peter’s Harold Wood in the Diocese of Chelmsford, joined in the laying on of hands of the new ordinands – a key part in the process of ordination.

It is not clear whether this amounted to breaking the Church’s canon laws.

In a move that is likely to increase tensions with Lambeth Palace, two senior conservative Anglican leaders, the Archbishop of Nigeria and the Archbishop of Uganda, sent a video message welcoming the move. Both figures boycotted a meeting of global Anglican leaders called by the Archbishop of Canterbury in October over deeply entrenched disagreements on gay marriage.

Rev Rico Tice, senior minister at All Souls’ Langham Place, a large evangelical church in central London, preached the sermon.

Jane Patterson, a senior conservative member of the Church of England’s general synod, gave a reading and Susie Leafe, director of the evangelical grouping Reform and a member of the General Synod, said prayers.

Before the service a Church of England spokesman said: ‘It has come to our attention that Bishop Andy Lines, a Bishop in the Anglican Church in North America, will be carrying out some ordinations this week in a denomination calling itself the Anglican Mission in England.

‘For clarity, this group is not part of, nor affiliated with, the Church of England, nor is Bishop Lines’ parent denomination part of the Anglican Communion.

‘Under our canon law, Church of England clergy are unable to participate actively in the group’s services.

‘Our prayers are, of course, with all those seeking to proclaim Christ.’

The eight ordained as deacons were Jon Cawsey, Alistair Harper, Christopher Houghton, Kenny Larsen, Martin Soole, Robert Tearle, Matthew Thompson and Christopher Youngs. Peter Jackson was ordained a presbyter.

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Learn Latin, says Pope Francis: Here are 7 words and phrases to make you look smart

By Christian Today Staff Writer

Pope Francis has urged the study of Latin for young people, encouraging scholars to promote it as a trusty tool in navigating life, according to Catholic News Agency.

In an address to the Pontifical Academies, he said, teachers should ‘know how to speak to the hearts of the young, know how to treasure the very rich heritage of the Latin tradition to educate them in the path of life, and accompany them along paths rich in hope and confidence...’

Though a dead language, Latin lies at the origin of many modern tongues. For centuries the only access Christians had to Scripture was through a Latin translation, the Vulgate. Many wise idioms, famous sayings, verses of Scripture or pious prayers have been immortalised in Latin. Here are seven Latin phrases that might still be useful.

1. Nunc Dimittis

This phrase means ‘now you dismiss’ – and quotes the song of Simeon from the Gospel of Luke (2:29–32). In Simeon’s words: ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation...’

Simeon’s song has been carried over into High-Church Christian liturgy such as Compline, Vespers and Evensong – with Nunc Dimittis as its title. More broadly, the phrase connotes a reverence and a finality, a sense of ‘enough now’. The famed saxophonist John Coltrane used the simple words at the close of an impressive jazz performance, A Love Supreme.

2. Vox Populi, Vox Dei

It means ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’. The phrase may go back to the 8th century though it gained particular fame in the context of 18th century Whig politics. It can be used approvingly or disapprovingly, but is suggestive of the idea that democracy represents a kind of divine assent, if only figuratively; i.e. the voice of the people – not a king or dictator – is the ultimate authority in a society. It’s actually behind much of the rhetoric backing Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

3. Pie Jesu

‘Pie Jesu’ derives from a Requiem Mass hymn titled Dies Irae (‘day of wrath’), and it means ‘pious Jesus’. The most famous line, ‘Pie Jesu Domine, Dona eis requiem’ means ‘Pious Lord Jesus, Give them rest.’ A popular version of it by Andrew Lloyd Webber combined the hymn with the Mass chant ‘Agnus Dei’ – which means ‘Lamb of God’ – quoting John the Baptist’s famous description of Jesus ‘who takes away the sins of the world’ in John 1:29.

4. Reductio ad Absurdum

This ‘reduction to absurdity’ refers to a form of argument that dismantles the opposition by showing how the logic, properly followed, leads to an absurd conclusion. It is a valid form of argument that can expose other fallacies, though improperly used it can in itself also be an example of logical fallacy. Drastically taking an argument to a ridiculous conclusion or context doesn’t necessarily diminish its actual validity.

5. Via Media

Via Media means ‘middle-of-the-road’; the maxim celebrates moderation, compromise and balance in life over taking polarised or extreme positions. It has been used to describe Anglican theology as a ‘way-between’ the more dramatic positions of radical Protestant reformers can Catholics. It originates from the wisdom of Aristotle, who implored his students to reject extremes of excess and deficiency, seeking a ‘golden mean’ between the two instead. In our polarised age both inside Church and beyond it, it’s a worthy phrase that would benefit many to learn.

6. Creatio ex nihilo

Use this one to impress the crowds in any theological debate. It means ‘Creation out-of-nothing’, and refers to the dominant Orthodox Christian belief that God created the world from ‘nothing’ – he did not rely on pre-existing matter, nor did he, as some argue, make creation out of himself, so that creation is the very substance of God, as a Pantheist would probably say. Rather God’s power is such that he speaks the world into existence ex nihilo; the universe is dependent on God, but also distinct from him in essence.A logical, Orthodox theology of creation is actually quite tricky to work out – but this phrase will at least make you look good.

7. Carpe Diem

This may be the most cliché and oft-used of Latin aphorisms. It means ‘seize the day’. Like Via Media, it is more commonly found amongst the easy going and optimistic. Carpe Diem is an invitation to grasp what life offers in the moment rather than retreat to familiar safety. The phrase belongs to the Roman poet Horace, and the rest of the quote reads: quam minimum credula postero, meaning ‘put very little trust in tomorrow’. It’s wisdom that Jesus (‘so do not worry about tomorrow’) and his brother James (James 4:13–17) would echo only a few decades after Horace.

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