Christian Today Digest – Issue 7 2019

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Traditional religious funerals dying out as more people choose unique send offs for their loved ones

Zoos, McDonald's Drive Thrus and golf courses are just some of the places that people are choosing over the church for their loved one's send off.

New research by Co-op Funeralcare finds that ever more people are bucking the traditional religious funeral in favour of a more unique farewell.

Many of us might be familiar with the 'destination wedding', but a survey of directors of the Co-op's 1,000 funeral homes and over 4,000 UK adults reveals that the 'destination funeral' is now taking off.

The study found that only one in 10 people desire the traditional religious funeral service, compared to one in three who would rather have their friends and family come together for a celebration of their life.

Three quarters (77%) of Co-op's funeral directors said they had experienced an increase in people asking for ceremonies to be held outside of the traditional religious setting, with some of the more unique requests being a zoo, teepee and football clubs.

At the same time, the demand for traditional elements have been in decline over the last five years, with the use of pallbearers to carry coffins falling by 78% and requests to arrange obituaries dropping by over a third (37%). Demand for traditional limousines has also declined by 16%.

Similarly, 44% predicted that funerals are likely to become increasingly informal and a fifth (21%) believe that the funeral service is going to gradually be eclipsed by the wake.

A third said they didn't want any fuss made at all.

The Co-op said it has also seen a significant increase in demand for direct cremations – where the body is swiftly cremated without any ceremony before the ashes are returned to loved ones – with one in 25 funerals organised by the Co-op being of this nature.

It reflects an overall shift away from traditional burials, with four fifths (82%) of the funerals conducted by the Co-op now being a cremation.

The research reveals that the desire for uniqueness is not confined to the service or celebration, but the scattering of ashes too.

Some of the most unique requests made to Co-op funeral directors include placing the ashes inside a firework or the furnace of a steam train, turning them into a tattoo, or sending them up over the sea in a balloon.

The funeral directors have also reported a 21% increase in requests for ashes being placed inside jewellery keepsakes like tribute rings, paperweights and pendants.

Samantha Tyrer, Managing Director of Co-op Funeralcare said: "The funeral sector is rapidly changing. Whilst 16.5 million of us still feel uncomfortable talking about death, we're clear on what we want and in the majority of cases, it's no longer a traditional funeral service."

Ricky Tomlinson, actor, comedian and author commented: "Personally, I'm not a fan of a 'suited and booted' funeral. I've been to ones where there has been a 'knees up' feel and that somehow seems to make the family feel more at ease.

"I think it's only right that we get to choose how we exit this world – whether that be in a firework, in bright colours or dancing around with our loved ones."

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Belief in God is bottom of the list of priorities for Gen Z

When it comes to what young Americans value most, religion trails far behind hard work, community and tolerance, according to new research.

A new study of Americans´ most cherished values by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News finds that for Gen Z – those aged 24 and younger – God is barely on the radar, with only a third saying it was important to them, compared to over half of the Baby Boomer generation.

The survey of 1,000 people found an overall decline in the value placed on religion, with only half saying it was very important to them, down from 62 per cent when a similar survey into American values was conducted in 1998.

For Gen Z, they were most likely to choose hard work, followed by tolerance for others and community involvement as their most cherished values.

In addition to religion, this age group was far less likely than others to value having children.

Out of the total surveyed, 43 per cent it was 'very important' to them to have children, a 16 per cent drop from 1998. But this was considerably lower within the 18 – to 38-year-old age cohort where just over a third said having children was important to them. Within the over 55s group, this figure was much higher with more than half regarding it as important.

"There's an emerging America where issues like children, religion and patriotism are far less important," Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt, told WSJ.

"And in America, it's the emerging generation that calls the shots about where the country is headed."

Recent research paints a mixed picture, though. A study conducted earlier this year by Barna found that Millennial non-Christians were more likely than older non-Christians to be interested in spiritual issues.

The 'Reviving Evangelism' study found that nearly three quarters of non-Christian millennials had at least one conversation about their religious beliefs with a close friend or family in the past year, far higher than among older non-Christians (52 per cent).

Nearly two thirds (64 per cent) said they had spoken about their beliefs with a Christian, compared with 44 per cent of older non-Christians and they were twice as likely to express a personal interest in Christianity (26 per cent against 16 per cent).

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Cake slogans and Christian bakers: the right to refuse is good for everyone

[David Smyth of the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland reflects on a new legal challenge against the right of Christian bakers to choose which cake orders they accept and reject]

It's more than five years since Mr Gareth Lee walked into a Belfast Bakery and ordered a cake to be iced with the slogan 'support gay marriage'. The order was initially accepted and then declined due to the Christian beliefs of the family who owned the bakery. Mr Lee, backed by the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland, sued the bakery for damages for alleged discrimination on the grounds of his sexual orientation, political opinion and the religious beliefs of the bakery owners.

Mr Lee won his case at first instance at Belfast County Court on all three grounds in 2015. However, three years later on 10 October 2018, five Supreme Court judges sitting in London, the highest court in the UK, reversed this decision and found completely in favour of the bakery owners.

I was asked to comment on the judgment by the BBC minutes after the news broke. Surprised and delighted by the unanimous ruling of no discrimination on any of the alleged grounds, I called the result 'a win for everyone'.

My point was that the judges were very clear that they found no discrimination against Mr Lee. Their judgment did not give license to discriminate against anyone based on any protected characteristic. Lady Hale said: "It is deeply humiliating, and an affront to human dignity, to deny someone a service because of that person's race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or any of the other protected personal characteristics. But that is not what happened in this case and it does the project of equal treatment no favours to seek to extend it beyond its proper scope."

However, while this was a 'win' for Mr Lee, outside Court he said that he "felt like a second-class citizen". This was truly unfortunate and much damage has been caused by those on both 'sides' who framed the case as a tug of war between the rights of Christians and the LGBT community.

The result was also a win for the McArthur family, the bakery owners. Lady Hale said: "It is, of course, the case that businesses offering services to the public are not entitled to discriminate on certain grounds. The bakery could not refuse to provide a cake – or any other of their products – to Mr Lee because he was a gay man or because he supported gay marriage. But that important fact does not amount to a justification for something completely different – obliging them to supply a cake iced with a message with which they profoundly disagreed. In my view, they would be entitled to refuse to do that whatever the message conveyed by the icing on the cake – support for living in sin, support for a particular political party, support for a particular religious denomination."

The concept of religious freedom is one held dear by evangelicals, not just for their own benefit but for the freedom and good of everyone in society. As far back as the 1860s, the Evangelical Alliance appointed a 'foreign secretary', Mr Herman Schmettou to 'send deputations to numerous governments, in order to secure religious freedom not only for evangelicals but also for Roman Catholics, Nestorians, Jews and others', which you can read more about in Randall & Hillborn's One Body in Christ – The history and significance of the Evangelical Alliance.

That's why this case was a win for everyone. It struck a careful balance between protecting people from discrimination and protecting people from being legally obligated to supply a message which directly contradicted their strongly held beliefs.

Mr Lee's latest bid to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights takes the case into new territory. The key principles will remain, alleged discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, political opinion and religious beliefs. However, the baking company will no longer be the defendant and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland will also no longer be involved as a key party to the case. Instead, the case will be against the UK government for an alleged failure to protect Mr Lee from discrimination. The UK is a state party to the ECHR, a fact which, incidentally, will not change when the UK leaves the European Union.

We hope and pray that the UK government strongly defends this case so that everyone can continue to be protected from discrimination when it comes to the supply of goods and services and so that people of all faiths and none can continue to be protected from being compelled to produce messages which they profoundly disagree with. A win for everyone – that's the icing on the cake.

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Carbon offsetting: what is it and does it work?

[A Rocha’s Andy Lester on why it’s only part of the answer to the climate crisis facing the planet]

When we fly, drive or take a cruise we are all contributing to carbon emissions. As we all know the emissions from transport account for a significant percentage of what we pump out into the atmosphere. In the European Union, for example, about 27% of all emissions come from our travel.

As a result many organisations offer you the chance to "offset" the carbon you produce for the journeys you make. The great part of carbon offsetting is you can quite easily calculate how much carbon you are likely to use, depending on your mode of transport and then you pay extra money to cover the cost.

Often that money will go direct to climate change mitigation projects in developing countries and that is a good use of new money. These will often include projects that aim to "soak up" the carbon you have produced through tree planting, for example.

But carbon offsetting has its limitations. Since the message behind paying for the amount you pollute can be (wrongly) interpreted as "it's OK to take a domestic flight as long as you pay to offset the carbon you use".

Ten years ago that may have been an adequate argument – but we are now in an unprecedented climate emergency. As a result we need to drive down carbon emissions; rather than simply pay for the privilege of creating them (which risks maintaining the status quo).

So carbon offsetting is a great tool for helping us to think about the amount we pollute and then providing us with the ability to pay some money to cover some of the pollution costs. But we need to focus more on reducing our travel. Only by reducing unsustainable travel will we start to cut carbon.

That means more public transport, more bikes, more walking, more car sharing, more zero emissions cars, no domestic flights (unless you have no choice) and no cheap cruises on highly energy-demanding ships... or cheap holiday flights on budget airlines.

It is not a question of whether we should offset or reduce our unsustainable travel footprint; it is a case of doing both; and knowing that it is only by doing both – and fast – that we will truly be able to curtail our still growing travel emissions.

The next few years will be critical and unless we take radical action, the global carbon emissions from transport will continue to grow resulting in potential extinction for many species. As ambassadors of the planet we can choose to do little and pay the consequences or act as if there may be no tomorrow and reap the dividends.

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Falling numbers of religious studies students as hundreds of schools drop it all together

Religious studies is at risk of becoming an "endangered" subject, academics have warned, after research found that it has disappeared off the curriculum in hundreds of non-faith schools.

Between 2017 and 2018, the total number of students taking GCSE religious studies fell from 253,712 to 229,189, according to figures in a new report by Dr David Lundie, of Liverpool Hope University, and UCL Institute of Education Research Fellow Dr Mi Young Ahn.

At the same time, 701 schools stopped offering GCSE religious studies altogether, with a noticeable distinction between secular and faith schools.

"Religious character is becoming increasingly significant, with 95% of students in Roman Catholic schools being entered for GCSE RS, compared with 68% in Church of England schools and only 30% in schools without a religious character," the report authors said.

"Much of the drop in GCSE entry in 2018 is in schools without a religious character, suggesting that the subject may soon become endangered as a mainstream option outside the faith sector."

The researchers also identified a social difference between the schools that offer religious studies and those that do not.

"Students attending schools with higher levels of free school meal entitlement (an approximate measure of students in poverty) are less likely to have the opportunity to take GCSE religious studies," they said.

"This may suggest socio-economic barriers to accessing RS."

They added, however, that this could not be entirely explained by the demographics of schools with a religious character.

"Even among schools without a religious character, there is evidence suggesting schools that offer GCSE RS have fewer disadvantaged pupils, on average, than schools that do not offer the subject," they said.

"While barriers exist to students accessing GCSE RS in some schools experiencing social disadvantage, where disadvantaged students do take GCSE RS, they have higher attainment compared to comparable EBacc subjects."

The researchers speculated that schools may be discontinuing GCSE religious studies because of the "perceived difficulty or breadth of content" in the new GCSE syllabus or out of a concern to give more focus to Ebaccs or the rest of the curriculum.

They asserted, however, that those schools which did discontinue the subject did not experience higher levels of attainment in the remaining subjects.

"There is therefore no evidence that dropping GCSE RS improves a school's performance in EBacc or other whole-curriculum progress and attainment measures," the study reads.

"Nonetheless, the continued pattern of decline is a cause for concern.

"More work is needed on the part of school leaders, examination boards, the RE community, government and the inspectorate to ensure that high quality Religious Studies at Key Stage 4 remains available to all students, regardless of social and economic disadvantage or school religious character."

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Arrowheads and layers of ash point to Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem

Ancient arrowheads and layers of ash are among the finds by archaeologists pointing to more evidence of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem recorded in the Bible.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina in Charlotte have been digging on Mount Zion and found what they say is "clear evidence" of the Babylonian conquest of the city from 587/586 BC.

They have uncovered Scythian-type bronze and iron arrowheads from the period as well as pot sherds, lamps and a "significant" piece of jewellery, identified as a gold and silver tassel or earring.

The jewellery, a "rare" and "unexpected" find, according to the team, is formed of a bell-shaped piece of gold above a piece of silver made in the shape of a cluster of grapes.

Shimon Gibson, UNC Charlotte professor and co-director of the Mount Zion Archaeological Project, said it "is a unique find and it is a clear indication of the wealth of the inhabitants of the city at the time of the siege".

The last time jewellery from this period was discovered in Jerusalem was in 1979 at an Iron Age tomb at Ketef Hinnom outside the city.

"Frankly, jewellery is a rare find at conflict sites, because this is exactly the sort of thing that attackers will loot and later melt down," he explained.

The discoveries have been found in layers of soil above the remains of a "significant" Iron Age structure that has yet to be excavated.

The team said that the ash deposits were not in themselves evidence of the siege but when taken together with the location and arrowheads typical of the period, they eliminated other explanations.

"For archaeologists, an ashen layer can mean a number of different things," Gibson said.

"It could be ashy deposits removed from ovens; or it could be localized burning of garbage. However, in this case, the combination of an ashy layer full of artifacts, mixed with arrowheads, and a very special ornament indicates some kind of devastation and destruction. Nobody abandons golden jewellery and nobody has arrowheads in their domestic refuse."

He said that the mix of finds was typical for a dwelling that had been raided.

"It's the kind of jumble that you would expect to find in a ruined household following a raid or battle," Gibson said.

"Household objects, lamps, broken bits from pottery which had been overturned and shattered... and arrowheads and a piece of jewellery which might have been lost and buried in the destruction."

He believes the building may have been the home of someone important.

"I like to think that we are excavating inside one of the 'great man's houses' mentioned in the second book of Kings 25:9," Gibson speculated.

"This spot would have been at an ideal location, situated as it is close to the western summit of the city with a good view overlooking Solomon's Temple and Mount Moriah to the north-east. We have high expectations of finding much more of the Iron Age city in future seasons of work. "

The location of the dig has only added to his conviction that it is part of the site where the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem.

"We know where the ancient fortification line ran, so we know we are within the city," explained Gibson.

"We know that this is not some dumping area, but the south-western neighborhood of the Iron Age city – during the 8th century BCE the urban area extended from the 'City of David' area to the south-east and as far as the Western Hill where we are digging."

The area has been the subject of excavations for the last 10 years, but still has much more to tell archaeologists, with the team expecting to reach down to the building layers of the site next year at the earliest.

Rafi Lewis, a senior lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College and a fellow of Haifa University, said: "It is very exciting to be able to excavate the material signature of any given historical event, and even more so regarding an important historical event such as the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem."

The Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem was led by King Nebuchadnezzar and was by all accounts a devastating battle that resulted in the destruction of the city and Solomon's Temple, and King Zedekiah and his people being taken into captivity.

Prior to the destruction, the inhabitants of Jerusalem were subjected to a lengthy siege of the city that resulted in a famine.

2 Kings 25: 1 – 3 describes the desperation of the inhabitants: "So in the ninth year of Zedekiah's reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army. He encamped outside the city and built siege works all around it. The city was kept under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. By the ninth day of the fourth month the famine in the city had become so severe that there was no food for the people to eat."

It goes on to describe how Nebuzaradan, an official of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem and proceeded to burn down the Temple, the king's house and all the houses of Jerusalem.

"Every important building he burned down," reads 2 Kings 25:9.

To this day, Jews remember the event with prayer and mourning on Tisha B' Av.

"King Zedekiah simply was not willing to pay tribute to Nebuchadnezzar and the direct result of this was the destruction of the city and the Temple," said Gibson.

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