Your everyday best

So…Sunday services at church. Traditionally a time where the dress code is smart. I will be doing the sound system at my church this Sunday, and many parishioners will be dressed very smartly.

What I will probably do is reach for whatever is closest when I roll out of bed, which is likely to be black jeans, or possibly trousers that have so many pockets, they’d make MacGyver proud. Or maybe even the ones with the Captain America patch on them, due to a hole on the knee that eventually became too big to ignore. I will almost certainly wear a hoodie; maybe the i59 one, or the Las Vegas one, or the one with the Rooster Teeth Logo that doesn’t zip up. T shirts could be anything from one with the iconic ‘alien ship over the Whitehouse scene’ from Independence Day on it, to “Atheism; a non-prophet organization”, or possibly one that will raise some eyebrows even further. My rainbow flag lapel badge will almost certainly make an appearance too. I will stroll into church wearing my headphones, listening to a UK Rave mix of some description, grab a coffee, take my place at the sound booth and get on with setting up the sound desk for the service.

But hang on, that actually sounds like every other day, and that’s the point; my Sunday best is my everyday best, it’s who I am every minute of every day. I go to church as I am and act how I usually would. I don’t hide, dress up or put a mask on. God accepts and loves me for who I am and I do my best for Him every day. My best is being who I am; I don’t change just for a Sunday. So if suits and ties are not you, then don’t wear them this Sunday or any other Sunday for that matter. God is not interested in how you can present yourself on a Sunday; He’s interested in how you engage your heart with Him. So dress in your everyday best and be yourself.


Life, movies and heroes

Advance warning, this is a very quote heavy post. Hopefully it will come across as more than just an excuse to share my favourite movie quotes though nothing will beat Liam Neesons epic monologue in Taken.

It is said that art imitates life, but life has also been inspired by art. One of my favourite genres and underlying themes within movies,  TV shows and video games, are heroes. Individuals or groups of people standing up for and defending those who can’t defend themselves.  It seems that many of the bad guys that the heroes have to face and defeat, are metaphors for everyday life. They seem to express the notion that this world is not as it should be, and it needs people to stand up and fight the evil, to show the world how it can be:

Blake: Hoping you live happily ever after?
Ruby: Well I’m hoping we all will. As a girl, I wanted to be just like those heroes in the books. Someone who fought for what was right, and who protected people who couldn’t protect themselves.
Blake: That’s very ambitious for a child. Unfortunately the real world isn’t the same as a fairy tale.
Ruby: Well that’s why we’re here, to make it better.

RWBY, Shining Beacon Pt2, Rooster Teeth Productions, Created by Monty Oum

Angel: Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It’s harsh, and cruel. But that’s why there’s us – champions. Doesn’t matter where we come from, what we’ve done or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be.

Angel, Deep Down, Mutant Enemy Productions, Created by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt

The problem with these types of movies though is that they can give across the message that the evil in this world is so huge, that you must have some special powers, or virtually limitless resources, in order to fight against it.  I’m currently writing this at a time when most of the UK seems to be under water, and the British Armed Forces have been drafted in to help with flood defences and rescuing people. They have the resources and the training, so people seem to just leave it up to them to sort everything out. I’m not suggesting that people go out and try something that is beyond their ability, particularly in times of extreme events, but why do people wait for extraordinary circumstances to fight against something? Are we looking for an example to follow?

Jor-El: The people of Earth are different from us, it’s true, but ultimately I believe that is a good thing. They won’t necessarily make the same mistakes we did, but if you guide them, Kal, if you give them hope, that’s what this symbol means. The symbol of the House of El means hope. Embodied within that hope is the fundamental belief the potential of every person to be a force for good. That’s what you can bring them.

Man Of Steel (2013), Distributed by Warner Bros Pictures, Directed by Zack Snyder.

Bruce Wayne: People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol… as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.

Batman Begins (2005), Distributed by Warner Bros Pictures, Directed by Christopher Nolan

We have people we look up to, who inspire us; we may refer to them as heroes. With heroes in movies being such larger than life and having super powers, it’s often difficult to see that they are people, we often fail to see the humanity within them. I sometimes think we’ve done that with Jesus. We’ve become so focused on him being God that we’ve completely lost sight of the fact that he was also human. The sacrifices required to stand up for something, to fight against something, to support something, are often immense because they are too often done alone and is never a one-off battle. We seem to forget this about other people we regard as heroes too. Standing up for something, especially if someone else is likely to lose, is costly. It’s why many heroes in these movies hide their identity:

Joyce: Well it stops now!

Buffy: No, it doesn’t stop! It never stops! Do you… do you think I chose to be like this? You have any idea how lonely it is? How dangerous? I would love to be upstairs, watching TV or gossiping about boys or… God, even studying! But I have to save the world. Again!

Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Becoming Pt 2, Mutant Enemy Productions, Created by Joss Whedon

Capt Tom Lasky: Chief, I won’t pretend to know how you feel. I’ve lost people I care about but, never anything like you’re going through.

Spartan 117:  Our duty, as soldiers is to protect humanity, whatever the cost

Capt. Tom Lasky: You say that like soldiers and humanity are 2 different things. I mean soldiers aren’t machines, we’re just people

Halo 4 (2012) Developed by 343 Industries, Distributed by Microsoft Studios

Many of these movies have an arc where the main character learns something then acts on it. Rambo is a great example. He goes from the above to realizing that not only that he has the power to act therefore he must as Thomas Jefferson said “If there’s something wrong, those who have the ability to take action have the responsibility to take action”) but also he’s fighting for something other than himself:

John Rambo: Any of you boys want to shoot, now’s the time. There isn’t one of us that doesn’t want to be someplace else. But this is what we do, who we are. Live for nothing, or die for something. Your call.

Rambo (2008) Distributed by Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company, Directed by Sylvester Stallone

I sometimes think we’re in the middle of that arc, that we’re in the middle of the movie and we still need to learn the lesson that we don’t need to be super heroes; just need to be prepared to take the risk to help others because that’s the reward in itself:

Angel: If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters… , then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long, for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it.

Kate Lockley: And now you do?

Angel: Not all of it. All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because, I don’t think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

Angel, Epiphany, Mutant Enemy Productions, Created by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt

Many Christian apologists use this sense that the world is not right as an argument for God. Some have drawn comparisons of the apparent escalation of the worlds problems with the decline in belief in God, that the latter is bringing about the former. My response, aside from the fact religious believers can be quite adept at inflicting pain and misery, is does it really matter at this point? It is down to humanity to try to sort its problems out (the second coming of Jesus is not an excuse to do nothing since it involves the earth) as its humanity that got itself into the mess in the first place. As Nelson Mandela put it, Poverty is not an accident, like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made  and can be removed by the actions of human beings.

John Rambo: You’re not changing anything.

Burnett: Well, it’s thinking like that, that keeps the world the way it is.

Rambo (2008) Distributed by Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company, Directed by Sylvester Stallone

Nick Fury:There was an idea, Stark knows this, called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of of remarkable people to see if they could become something more. To see if they could work together when we needed them to, to fight the battles that we never could.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Directed by Joss Whedon

Maybe the world is short on heroes, maybe it’s our attitudes that keeps the world as it is but like Ruby at the very top of this piece, maybe we can be inspired to make a difference. The world can decide if that’s being a hero.

Maintaining integrity; my response to Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has weighed in on the science vs religion debate. In a recent interview he proclaimed that he doesn’t see faith and reason being reconciled. One website seemed to get very excited about it. Like many newspaper articles however, the headline doesn’t seem to match the rest of it.

As he explains his position, it becomes clear his difficulty is with a literalistic interpretation of scripture put forward by certain Christian groups; interpretations he openly acknowledges that are not held by everyone. If you take the Bible and try overlay modern scientific discoveries and terminology, then you are absolutely going to run into a lot of problems. This isn’t the fault of science or the Bible, but of the person using them in such a manner.  As Peter Enns puts it:

These are ancient stories that ask ancient questions and give ancient answers to those questions and it’s our obligation to find out what those are…’s a matter of expectations. The assumption that science and bible need to be in some meaningful conversation from my point of view that’s exactly the problem. When we begin there we’re creating problems for ourselves that we would otherwise wisely avoid.

When approaching the Bible, the question should be what is the Bible trying to say, what were the authors trying to convey? It’s not as simple as saying “oh it’s figurative, myth etc”, the Bible authors simply were not asking the questions we are. We should engage with it in the context of the ancient world.

The moment you say “the Bible says” you are no longer dealing in science; you’re talking theology and biblical scholarship, but it’s not about accepting science over the Bible, or believing one to be more “true” than the other, it’s about maintaining the integrity of both.

Following on from the point of maintaining integrity, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s main concern seems to be with what is being pushed as science and is trying to be smuggled into science classes. On this he will find support from many religious scientists, who have been on the receiving end of abuse from those who do not hold to the evolution paradigm. We need to distinguish between the claims of young earth creationists for example, and saying that God is responsible for the creation of the universe. Young earth creationists take Genesis as literal history and a scientific account and anything that disagrees with it is wrong, including the age of the earth, decay rates, etc. They start with presupposing what the findings should be and interpret from there. As Francis Collins puts it in his book The Language of God,

If these claims were actually true, it would lead to a complete and irreversible collapse of the sciences of physics, chemistry, cosmology, geology and biology

Simply saying that God is responsible for the creation of the universe is very different. This is not re-interpreting or ignoring the scientific data; and it’s not a conclusion that comes out of what we don’t know but out of what we do. What science finds regarding age of the universe, evolution of species etc, in no way threatens believing God is ultimately behind it all.  Much like when they found the Higgs Boson, the more science finds out the more I go ““wow, how amazing is God to design that?” The more I know about anything, the more I appreciate those with the skills to design or create it, but I’m not invoking that person as an explanation to cover over what I don’t know. If science hasn’t answered yet then so be it, I don’t feel the need to have to insert God to fill the gap, though I will consider the possibility that it’s a question that science can’t answer because it’s not designed to (which is another massive topic in itself). I don’t have to choose between God and science. So whilst I think the Bible and science are separate and possibly should be kept that way, they are not in conflict or incompatible and should be interpreted in light of the fields they belong to, i.e they should critique themselves as opposed to each other. Some standpoints are just as bad theologically as they are scientifically.

Neil deGrasse Tyson does touch on a massively important point regarding the basis of faith, which I think sums up everything so far:

“….if that’s where you’re going to put your God in this world, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance…….If you’re going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread”

He is absolutely right, and this is a position too many Christians find themselves in even though it’s not a faith advocated by Jesus and the Bible. This kind of faith is blind faith and absolutely is incompatible with reason by its definition; but it’s not a faith that is universally applicable. As I have argued elsewhere (here, here and here), the Christian faith has evidence to support it and is based on evidence. As Paul Davies has argued, faith plays a part in science

Even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as a lawlike order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is obviously a very passionate scientist, committed to seeing science carried out correctly. So are many scientists who are religious, who share similar concerns that he expressed. Whilst I disagree with his overall conclusion, he has raised and brought to light some issues that are very well worth exploring and need addressing; and many Christians are already doing so, with this being my partial attempt. For the conversation to be worthwhile, the integrity of the relevant fields should be maintained and discussed on their own terms. Then we can start having a discussion.

European Court got it right

I posted this around this time last year, but this article has prompted me to re-publish it. Yes, there is a real concern regarding how people are treated because of their religious beliefs, but that does not give religious believers the right to discriminate against others and hide behind the “it’s against my religion” excuse.

Today is a landmark day in freedom, rights and expression. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHA) ruled on 4 cases involving Christians who claim to have been discriminated against on the grounds of their faith:

Nadia Eweida – a Pentecostal Christian of Egyptian descent – went home from a job as a check-in worker for British Airways (BA) at Heathrow Airport after she refused to conceal her silver cross necklace.

Lillian Ladele –  worked for Islington Borough Council in London as a marriage registrar. When civil partnerships were legalised in 2004, Miss Ladele refused to conduct them, saying it was against her religious belief.

Shirley Chaplin – was also asked not to display her cross necklace by her then employers, the Royal Devon and Exeter Foundation NHS Trust.

Gary McFarlane – was sacked by his employer, Relate Avon, after saying he objected to giving sex therapy guidance to same-sex couples. He worked as a relationship counsellor [1]

The ECHA ruled that Nadia Eweida had been discriminated against on the grounds of her faith but the other 3 had not. Court rulings are not always known for their sense however, I can’t disagree with the rulings here. I would object to being asked to hide my cross on the grounds that it was a religious icon. Whilst I have argued previously that the wearing of a cross is not necessarily part of the Christian faith, [2] it is an expression of that faith and todays ruling suggests that it is protected under freedom of religion. Things get a little dicie when health and safety is involved which was the case for Shirley Chaplin. Who wins out here? The message from today is health and safety and I agree it should. If by wearing the crucifix you are potentially putting yourself or others at risk, it needs to be removed or in a place where it no longer poses a danger. The NHS Trusts primary focus is the well being of patients as it should be.

The other 2 are a little more complex and controversial. Homosexuality is a hot topic at the moment with plans to bring in same sex marriages which is probably why Christian Concern have targeted these in their initial response. [3] This was always pitched as a battle of rights but again, I think the court has got this right. To put it bluntly, you cannot decide not to do your job because you are faced with a gay couple. That’s like joining the army then objecting that you might have to shoot someone. The rights of LGBT people are as protected as the rights of religion. Like the NHS Trust, the councils main priority are its constituents and it simply cannot discriminate on grounds of sexuality which means, its employees can’t either. Same for private companies or charities. Employees are required to conduct themselves in a manner that is in accordance to their contract. Objecting to help a gay couple clearly goes against those standards. Indeed, on the Relate Avon website, there is the statement; Relate Avon is committed to ensuring that no person receives less favourable treatment on the basis of personal or group characteristics, such as: race, colour, age, culture, medical condition, sexual orientation, marital status,disability or socio-economic grouping  [4] (emphasis mine) A company must enforce its own rules otherwise you have anarchy.

Lawyers representing the government said previously that people should leave their faith at the door or find another job. [5] Whilst it’s not as simple as that, I can see what they’re getting at. These rulings today show for me that we are allowed to express our faith but not if it discriminates others. What’s wrong with that? After all, isn’t that what Christians are asking for? To not be discriminated against? Religion should be respected but it shouldn’t trump all others. The “it’s my religion” defence just doesn’t work in all cases. That’s the biggest difference between the case that won and the case that lost; the other 3 directly impacted other people by either being refused something open to everyone else, breaking company rules or potentially creating risk. Some would argue that we can’t express our faith without impacting people. That’s true to a degree but there must be limits. Jesus never put anyone in danger other than himself and his followers.

Jesus taught that the world would hate Chrisitans (John 15:19) but I’m pretty sure he meant we should be hated for loving him not for advocating discrimination. Everyone is fighting for their space in the world, to have a voice in society. Christians have a role to play in this world as much as anyone else does. Now is not the time for a circle the wagons mentality. Lets get out into the world, engage with its views, understand their views and maybe, despite the BBC proclaiming we’re on the road to a secular society [6] we can start being the true multicultural tolerant society we all want.