King's Evangelical Divinity School

29 May 2010

David Laws Resigns

Tonight the Coalition government's Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Lib-Dem MP David Laws, who in recent weeks has arguably proved himself to be a competent finance minister, has resigned after revelations that he claimed expenses while living with his gay partner. Ironically, it appears he would have been perfectly entitled to claim these expenses had he declared his relationship with his partner beforehand. But for years Laws sought to keep his sexuality secret. The knives have been out for Laws, not least because his government job is to identify and implement government spending cuts, making it all the more difficult to remain in office to complete that task while there were questions concerning his own claims for publicly-funded expenses. It doesn't help that his party (the Lib-Dems) frequently take the high moral ground and project themselves as whiter than white on the issue of sleaze.

But what struck me especially concerning this issue was the response of some towards Laws' desire over many years, as an immensely private individual, to keep his sexuality a secret. It seems while today's culture encourages and indeed demands people promote and celebrate their sexuality, nonetheless liberal elites and gay rights organisations will simply not tolerate gay people who seek to keep their sexuality private. The Guardian newspaper tonight reports:
Laws also came under pressure to resign from gay equality campaigners. Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, writing in today's Observer, says: "Pious political parties (that is, all of them) whisper privately that there are more gay MPs than the public imagines. But how can anyone 'represent' a community of interest if they're entirely unable ever to admit that they belong to it? Some of us hope for a Britain where one day Westminster is grownup enough to select and promote politicians from all sorts of backgrounds."
Clearly, today's intolerant "tolerance" doesn't just extend to silencing anyone who even midly questions alternative lifestyles, but even anyone within those very communities who chooses not to actively promote,  celebrate or wear their sexuality on their sleeve, regardless of whether or not they want to. It seems it's OK, indeed expected, to highlight gay talent, but woe betide a gay person who wishes to be known for their talent rather than their sexuality. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

UPDATE:

Glued to the news channels (it's either that or Eurovision), and it is striking how some of the commentators express the view that Laws' biggest error was not so much his expenses claims as his attempts to keep his sexuality private.

27 May 2010

Jews and Arabs on the Original Zion

Today's online Guardian has a lengthy article criticising the Jewish settler presence in a district of East Jerusalem by the Egyptian novelist and sometime champion of the Palestinians Ahdaf Soueif. It concerns archaeological excavations on the Ophel Ridge (the Silwan district of Wadi Hilweh), which is the location of the original Jebusite city which David made his capital in approximately 1000 BC.

Reading her article, one is struck by how one side (Soueif echoes the position taken on this issue by various pro-Palestinian solidarity groups) has so woven events to create a narrative which is in direct contradistinction to that of the other side, the Jews for whom the Ophel Ridge (the original Zion) is representative of ancient Israel's nationhood. Soueif's piece presents as fact several points which, for those who know something of the district's recent history and situation, do not quite bear up to scrutinty. For example, her article details how Elad  (the Israeli City of David organisation which is developing the area) turfed out an Arab family from their home in 1991 and today continues "to acquire more Palestinian property: to date Elad has gained control of a quarter of Wadi Helweh". The distinct impression is a total land grab, with destitute Arabs cast out on to the street while settlers take over their homes. Now it is true that as one walks through the neighbourhood, down the ridge along the Kidron Valley towards Siloam, various houses formerly owned by Arabs are now inhabited by religious Jews and fly the Israeli flag. But what Soueif fails to tell her readers is that some of these houses were bought up from their Arab owners with the help of Jewish religious organisations and foundations for very large sums of money. For example, two brothers sold their home to Jewish settlers for nearly a million dollars. Meanwhile, her article does not detail how militants  allegedly target fellow Arabs who sell their homes to Jews. One of the two brothers detailed above was eventually murdered in Jordan, while those who sell their homes usually find it impossible to remain in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, one might be forgiven for assuming from Soueif's article that settler activity and excavations are a cynical political ploy to take over an area where there is actually no historical evidence of a longstanding ancient Jewish presence. She writes:
Most scholars agree that, to this day, no evidence of the presence of Kings David or Solomon has been found at the site. But our group of elderly American tourists are spellbound by the stories they are hearing from Elad's guides, stories which are conjecture, projection and myth.
Actually, this is somewhat disingenuous. It is quite one thing to point out how controversial minimalist archaeologists are not even convinced David existed as a real historical person, but whether by accident or design, quite another to give the impression to readers that the ridge has no Jewish historical or religious significance whatsoever. This is, of course, nonsense. Whether Warren's Shaft, Hezekiah's Tunnel, Siloam, the Gihon Spring, the unearthed Jebusite city walls, or other excavated remains, the Ophel Ridge's connection with Jewish ancient history is undeniable. Though not quite echoing the lie which is Temple denial, Soueif arguably comes close to employing a similar strategy when she states at the end of her article; "The Jewish story in Jerusalem is indivisible from the Roman, the Byzantine, the Arab, the Muslim, the Christian". Actually, as the Old Testament makes abundantly clear, the Jewish history of Jerusalem precedes all these later civilisations, and attempts to quell the unearthing of a distinct Jewish history is nothing less than an ideologically-driven ploy. 

Religious Jews have every right to excavate, protect and promote their religious history. After all, the Ophel Ridge is the ascent leading to the Temple after which the famous Psalms are named. Ophel is also the original Zion. To be sure, it is quite one thing to buy up Arab properties, quite another - indeed a travesty - to rid people of their homes and land using obscure and ancient property laws to do so. There have been such incidents, and Christians who support such actions are, I believe, on dangerous theological ground. Taking over the home of an innocent family, especially in peace time, surely cannot be justified. By the same token, Christians who put themselves on the side which denies a Jewish historical presence in the area, allying themselves with minimalist archaeologists who deny Scripture or militant temple deniers, are on equally theologically dangerous ground.

For her part, I think Soueif's and others' calls of foul concerning excavations would be taken far more seriously if they would have been equally vociferous in their denunciation of the archaeological vandalism carried out on the Temple Mount some years ago to make way for an underground mosque.

25 May 2010

The State, the "Big Society" and the Church

In today's Queen's Speech we learned further details of PM David Cameron's "Big Society" idea. This represent an important defining line between the Con-Lib coalition and the Labour Party. The latter, like many parties on the Left, espouse a centralising, statist approach to government, that is, big government and substantial public spending, which are seen as essential to rectifying society's ills and problems. Conservatism, and parties on the Right, however, generally take an opposite view, working instead towards localised, smaller government, lower spending and society having to take some responsibility and action to rectify its own problems and develop its communities. Cameron's aim (together with his LibDem coalition partners), then, is to legislate so as to bring society into contributing towards many of the issues and services currently controlled and funded by government. Such a move is aimed at shrinking government and the public purse.

Leaving aside whether the Con-Lib coalition government will deliver successfully, personally I believe strongly in small government. Neither is my view motivated solely by my political background and cleavage; my Christian worldview has contributed to this position also. Let me explain some reasons why this is the case.

In the Old Testament during the period of the Judges, Israel existed as a confederacy of twelve loosely knit tribes, summed up in that phrase "Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Jdg 17:6, 21:25 ESV). Of course, Israel's form of governance in Judges is not necessarily normative, or a model, for us, while sinful behaviour during this time of period of independence resulted in judgment and oppression from external enemies. Nonetheless, it is interesting that small government and human independence seemed to be the order of the day, while when Israel later sought a king God, through the prophet Samuel, sought to dissuade the people, warning of the enslaving nature of big government (1 Sam 18).

Why might big government be conceived as problematic from a Christian perspective? First, it is a hungry monster which eagerly seeks to devour to exist and grow for its own sake, which in turn leads to the state interfering in affairs which are arguably not its concern (the so-called nanny state). Thus, expansion leads government greedily looking ever wider, passing all manner of laws on human behaviour and social issues, expanding policing to exert further control, and even spy on its citizens. In short, all forms of power seek to expand power for its own sake, and it is essential to check regularly the power of institutions. If anyone doubts statism's hunger for power, one need only consider the history of big states, whether the former East bloc nations or (in a more diluted form) the New Labour experiment of the past thirteen years. Christians especially have paid the price for this illiberal statism.

Next, big government all too often becomes bloated and inefficient, wasting scant resources which goes wholly against a Christian focus upon good stewardship and efficiency. The UK currently employs six million civil servants, has countless departments and agencies, and wastes money on a massive scale through consultancies, partnerships with private organisations which government is ill-equipped (or inexperienced) to monitor, and throws money at problems because this is one thing big government is particularly good at, raising revenues. But the result, of course, is yet more tax raising, squandering and national debt.

Finally (and somewhat ironically given its collectivist agenda) big government arguably contributes to a sense of selfishness and individual prioritisation, leading to expressions of sentiment such as, "If big government is going to do it all, why should society get involved in dealing with social and community issues?" or "if big government is going to tax and spy on me so much, why should I take any interest in local issues and contributing to society? I just want to look out for myself and my family, get rich and then leave the country as soon as I can." I suggest this attitude is prevalent among many Brits today. When we lived in Staffordshire we once spoke with our neighbours concerning one day possibly moving abroad, and they detailed a dinner party at which seven other couples attended. Of the eight couples, six had already decided in the past year or so to leave the UK for these very reasons and were well on their way to making preparations to do so.

Conversely, the concept of a big society emphasises the Christian values of personal responsibility, local and community participation, and not looking to others (in this case government) to engage with and seek to find solutions for social ills we might, at the local level, do a better job of dealing with. Importantly, too, it encourages Christian organisations to play a greater social and community role, contributing imaginative solutions to pressing social problems. (That said, I think Christian churches and organisations are wise not to accept government money, as it comes with strings attached and, in some case, diluting values to satisfy government checklists.)

This post is not about supporting the Con-Lib coalition government (though I make no excuse for breathing a huge sigh of relief over seeing the back of the Blair-Brown years). Neither am I necessarily advocating smaller government along U.S. lines, where some argue it can lead to a permanent underclass (though I suggest if this is so, it is not necessarily because of small government per se but rather how government prioritises and spends). I am simply commenting from a Christian perspective on a major aspect of the Queen's Speech which might have important ramifications for this country over forthcoming years. Interestingly, it has taken the dovetailing of a rather unusual political coalition emphasising small government and liberalism over against statism, together with the drastic need to curb spending as a consequence of a dire economic situation, to bring about the impetus for reducing government and empowering society.

17 May 2010

When Intellectual Elites Argue, Perhaps There's Hope for the Rest of Us?

Like it or not, liberal intellectual elites ultimately dictate what represents acceptable thought and behaviour, influencing the very way we think. These elites are more often than not shaped by the university arena, which influences generation after generation of politicians, judges, police chiefs, teachers, senior managers in public services, intellectuals, future university lecturers, and so on. The battle of ideas within universities is, of course, much to be commended. It drives knowledge forward and contributes strongly to human advancement. Problematically, though, narrow and prescriptive intellectualism can all too often become somewhat arrogant and pompous. A case in point is how in recent times our intellectual arenas, in their conviction that they know best, have been the progenitors of thought control and the dampening of free speech, not merely echoing but shaping the politically-correct Zeitgeist of the age. This worldview has trickled down and shaped how society thinks and responds to various issues. Unfortunately, it has served to enslave the average man and woman in the street who pay the very real price for thinking and speaking outside what is publicly perceived as acceptable and politically correct.

Inevitably, though, as with all variations of totalitarianism (and make no mistake, thought crime - the attempt to control the very way we think - is totalitarian by nature), the progenitors of thought crime invariably turn upon each other. I am referring to the recent case in an Irish university of a British scientist accused of sexual harrasment for passing on a paper detailing the sexual behaviour of bats to a female colleague, as reported by The Times. Who knows what the truth of the allegation is? What matters, however, is that when free speech in the university sector is threatened, academics and intellectuals bristle and polarise as they square up to each other, which is precisely what has happened in this instance. Sadly, too many fail to do so when their pontification has trickled down and affected very real everyday lives, resulting in criminal convictions for expressing unpopular or distasteful views. But ultimately, I suppose, it will take more instances of intellectual elites having to experience first hand the consequences of their actions, their shaping of societal views and their having to juggle intellectual freedom and free speech with tip-toeing around political correctness, before more of them begin to question and challenge the current Zeitgeist their colleagues helped create. Only then can we expect society to change, thus lessening (hopefully) the rod upon the backs of everyday men and women enslaved by intellectual self-indulgence from academics living in ivory towers.

14 May 2010

Effective Christian Engagement: When Is It Right to Form Alliances?

Last week a Christian political party bravely fielded numerous candidates in the general election but typically secured just several hundred constituency votes. Unfortunately, the declaration of number of votes cast was accompanied by the party's byline "Proclaiming Christ's Lordship", while appealing to Christ's suprageographical kingship at the constituency level was somewhat ironic. I have no doubt members of this party are committed Christians desperately keen to impact society for good. Yet their poor performance raises the inevitable question concerning how a Christian minority might effectively engage the political realm. (I assume here that the vast bulk of Christians, even those apolitical believers keen not to mix faith and politics, nonetheless accept Christians should be salt and light, speaking out on issues such as, for example, abortion).

I am not convinced forming Christian parties is a particularly effective way of "doing politics", particularly in regions and countries where Christians represent a small minority. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that even where Christians represent a significant proportion of the population, Christian parties nonetheless still perform poorly. For example, in the 1996 Nicaraguan presidential election the Pentecostal leader Guillermo Osorno secured only four percent of the vote in a country where Pentecostals accounted for 15-17% of the population. Also, despite a strong Evangelical presence in the U.S. (and arguably even stronger within the Republican Party) broadcaster Pat Robertson failed to secure the Republican nomination for the 1988 presidential election. There are exceptions, notably Ian Paisley's DUP, but in Northern Ireland of course religious and political identities are inextricably intertwined (in other words people are not voting for the DUP strictly for religious reasons). New Christian parties emerging in regions such as Latin America where Christian populations are very high have generally met with little electoral success (see Paul Freston, Protestant Political Parties: A Global Survey. 2004). It is difficult to see, then, how a Christian party in a strongly secular country such as the UK, where the Evangelical population represents around two percent, could conceivably buck the trend.

4 May 2010

Fantasy Theology Football

Remember those fantasy football chats down at the local pub, where you and your mates chose the perfect team from all the professional players in the world? Well, there's a theological version doing the email rounds right now. I'm on an list with a link to the Monty Python sketch of a football match between two teams of philosophers - the ancient Greek and the Germans -  which is really quite funny (watch out for Karl Marx training on the sidelines). The Greeks win, of course.

Anyway, the email asks us to recommend our fantasy team of theologians to take on the Greeks in a new match, and emails back and forth suggest this bit of fun was initially taken up with gusto. Unfortunately, when I suggested we needed first to hedge our bets and make sure the ref was on our side (I suggested Tomás de Torquemada, the Spanish Inquisitor, was the ideal choice) the emails (at least to me) seemed to dry up.  But that doesn't stop us continuing the game here, does it?

So with the ref appointed, who would feature in your fantasy theology football team? For example, might the great twentieth century Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, or the fourth century champion of orthodoxy St Athanasius, make good defenders? Perhaps John Calvin would be a good choice for striker (provided, of course, he is predestined to score). Someone like Origen, on the other hand, would be a good choice to take on the Greeks at their own game. Meanwhile I've been trying to think who would make a good goalkeeper... clearly a strong-minded theologian who never conceded anything (sounds like Tomás de Torquemada again). Anyway, any suggestions for this or other players?

3 May 2010

Saints and Spirits

Over the weekend I decided to post something on demon-possession, which I suggested several weeks back I'd be doing quite soon, but which now seems a particularly good time to do so (as explained below). A curious topic, you might think (especially for the more secular among you), for a blog which largely focuses on Christians and politics, whether in Latin America or the Middle East (my research interests), or more generally. But my blog descriptor also highlights my interest in biblical theology, a subject I teach at undergraduate level, and the whole area of the spirit world, demons and Satan corporately represent an important biblical theology theme. Indeed, the Bible climaxes with a future showdown between good and evil, the personification of which fight a running battle throughout many pages of Scripture (especially in the Gospels and Apocalyptic literature such as Daniel, parts of Joel, and the book of Revelation). Meanwhile, this is an area of interest within a subdiscipline of theology I also research and write about - Pentecostal Studies, concerned with an academic study of Pentecostalism. Pentecostal/Charismatic circles, of course, strongly believe in the spirit world but are notoriously divided on whether or not a Christian can be demon-possessed.

Finally, the issue of demon-possession has actually made the news several times recently, including curiously the current UK geneal election! (No, you haven't misread the previous sentence.) A few weeks ago I mentioned how a senior Catholic exorcist, in response to the recent paedophile scandals, asserted the Devil resides in the Vatican (a statement I suggested some deeply anti-papal Protestants regarded as a bit of an own goal). Periodically, too, we hear of some African Pentecostals' fixation with casting demons from children (Africa, of course, counts traditional religion and spiritism - which is deeply antithetical to Pentecostalism - among its expressions of religion), sometimes with tragic results. Meanwhile, yesterday the issue of demonism even made the British general election news (who would have thought, twenty years ago, that even religion, much less the issue of demonism, would have made political news in this country?) The Guardian newspaper ran a story concerning a Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate and rising star in the party from a Charismatic restorationist movement who years ago allegedly sought to exorcise demons in order to cure people of their homosexuality, a story the Daily Telegraph later picked up on. A last-ditch attempt to damage Cameron's Tories, particularly given Cameron's well-known (and largely failed) attempt to capture the pink vote? Quite possibly. But this aside, for me all this dovetailing of my research interests and current news stories comes just as I'm working at this precise moment on a new book on this very topic, which explores demonism as it relates specifically to Christians from a biblical theology perspective (which is due for publication later this year). Where I visit and speak/lecture, my views on the topic are fairly well-known. I argue from a biblical theology perspective that the New Testament account presents such activity as at an all-time high during Jesus' ministry and specifically related to His inauguration of the Kingdom of God, while I argue Christian sonship and possession are theologically incompatible. Yet I also think a tendency towards sensationalism merely serves to downplay (much like C.S. Lewis suggested in his wonderful Screwtape Letters) the reality of a serious issue. I explore each of these (and other) aspects in my forthcoming book.

However, one of my draft chapters responds specifically to the view held by some drawing on Jewish-Christian hermeneutics and typology (another area I've discussed here) that Christians can be demonised. Thus given the topical nature of the issue I thought I'd reproduce the first draft of that particular chapter.

1 May 2010

Televangelism

With a looming major validation event and a couple of publication deadlines this month, I've not beeen a very good blogger of late. Apologies for that. That said, one of the things I've been asked to write for a forthcoming dictionary-type academic publication on Pentecostalism was a short essay on televangelism, which I just finished. I thought this might be of interest, so I'm posting the pre-edited version below. Hope you find it useful.

Televangelism, by Calvin L. Smith

While not an exclusively Pentecostal phenomenon (for example, the Catholic priest Charles Coughlin’s weekly radio broadcasts in the 1930s reached audiences of millions, while more recently Jerry Falwell and Robert Schuller are firmly outside the movement), nonetheless from the outset Pentecostal preachers were quick to recognise the opportunities religious broadcasting offered. Clearly, there are doctrinal reasons for this. Already strongly conversionist by virtue of its revivalist roots, early classical Pentecostalism’s eschatological interpretation of its pneumatology and pneumapraxis, associating the movement’s inauguration with the ‘last days’, contributed considerably to a sense of evangelistic urgency. Thus, it was a logical step for revivalist Pentecostal preachers such as Oral Roberts and Aimee Semple McPherson to exploit radio in order to reach wider audiences than could be accommodated in buildings or tent meetings. Likewise, with the arrival of television Pentecostals quickly embraced the new medium, so that even by the early 1950s Rex Humbard, one of the pioneers of televangelism (a term coined by Jeffrey Hadden and Charles Swann, 1981), was broadcasting church services weekly, while just a few years later Oral Roberts had developed the infrastructure necessary to reach most of the U.S. television audience.