Sunday, December 25, 2011

In Many Bookshops with Pastor Charmley: Oswestry Christian Bookshop

The Shropshire market town of Oswestry, not far from the Welsh border, is plentifully supplied with chapels, both Welsh and English language. It is also the home of this rather charming little bookshop. Not only did they give a warm welcome on a rather wet Christmas Eve, but they have what every good Christian bookshop needs - a good, reasonably priced, secondhand section upstairs, well provided with comfortable seats for the weary shopper who has been strolling around Oswestry and marvelling at the town's many grand churches and chapels.

Oswestry Christian Bookshop is a nice bookshop. It is unpretentious, standing in a quiet side street and positively exuding a Christian welcome. Splendid little shop, it deserves a visit, and it has the great advantage of being in a town that also deserves a visit.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Should Christians Drink?"

This morning I received a copy of the 'Sword and Trowel' magazine from the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. While the magazine contains some useful material, every so often a hobby horse comes up. This is inevitable with a single editor, of course, but it can be unfortunate. This copy was a case in point, as it contained the 'distilled' version of Peter Masters' book Should Christians Drink?

Peter Masters is well known as an advocate of total abstinence from alcoholic drinks; which is fair enough, he is entitled to his opinion, and I am entitled to mine. I have no objection to total abstinence as a practice, and share with the total abstainers a horror at the level of alcohol abuse in our culture; where young people destroy their health with alcohol, we have a problem. Where we differ, perhaps, is in our response.

Peter Masters and those like him say that because of the high level of alcohol abuse in our society Christians ought not to drink any alcohol at all, and by implication that Christian parents should forbid alcohol to their children; this will be a great witness to a drunken society. On the other hand advocates of Christian Temperance (self-control) such as myself, while agreeing that Christians may abstain from all alcohol (which is why the title of Dr. Masters' book is misleading, the true question is 'May Christians Drink?'), hold that a sensible and moderate use of alcohol, avoiding the sin of drunkenness and refusing to be a slave to drink, may also be a great witness, displaying as it does a mastery of our desires, and a true use of God's good gifts.

The fact of the matter is that my mother drinking a glass of wine with her Sunday lunch cannot be compared in the slightest with a student getting drunk out of his mind on vodka, and it would be a most bizarre leap of logic from, "she drinks a little wine, I can fill myself with spirits". Perhaps it would be possible, but is not temperance really as much a rebuke as abstinence?

All too often the advocates of total abstinence have gone too far; out of a misguided zeal they have branded advocates of Christian temperance aiders and abettors of drunkenness, when we condemn intoxication as firmly and as absolutely as they do.

The great argument for total abstinence is that it is inexpedient, in the present state of things in this nation, for Christians to drink alcohol, since this might lead the ignorant to drink to excess while pleading the pastor's glass of sherry as a defence. That has some validity. What has more validity is the argument that we should be careful because of people who have had alcohol abuse issues in their past. What worries me is books that go beyond the argument from expediency to argue that it is now absolutely sinful. That and the appropriation of the 'temperance' label by the total abstinence camp as if it belonged to them alone. The great evil is being enslaved to alcohol, and that is what all Christians must oppose. To demand more than that is to introduce a needless division among the Lord's people.

Sadly Dr. Masters crosses that line in his book, as he argues that under the New Testament, because Christians are all priests, and in Leviticus 10:8-11 the Levitical priests were forbidden from drinking on duty. The trouble with this argument is that it tends to bring in the rest of the ceremonial law with it! If this law that related to the Levitical Priests is binding on all Christians, then what other laws relating to that priesthood are? All of them? Some of them? Should all Christians wear linen trousers at all times (Exodus 28:42-43, the Mormon 'temple garments' worn under their clothing come from this passage)? The whole argument is based on the premise that part of the ceremonial law is still in force, but part of it is not; and as is usually the case when one comes across such an argument, it is always the part that the writer wants to enforce that is in force, and the rest is not.

Finally, there is a false dichotomy represented by the title of Dr. Masters' book; the question is really 'may Christians drink?' The answer to that must be 'yes', because God has no-where forbidden all alcohol, contrary to the beliefs of some people. I am firmly of the belief that we are not to call that sinful which God has not himself called sinful; we do not have that authority. The Pope may claim the right to define new sins, I trust no Protestant will try to follow him down that path. If Jesus made wine at Cana in Galilee, then I need an explicit New Testament passage to tell me that it is now a sin for Christians to drink in any and all circumstances (clearly in a situation where it is liable to cause a brother to stumble it is wrong). Dr. Masters' argument ironically resembles hyper-dispensationalism in this respect!

Contrary to the statements of some over-zealous folk, alcohol is not evil; alcohol never killed anyone, its abuse did. The problem is not the bottle of wine, but the man who drinks that whole bottle in one sitting and then follows it with another bottle until wine inflames him. It is not alcohol that causes drink driving, it is irresponsible and wicked people who drink to excess and get behind the wheel.

Drinking wine or beer in moderation, so as to avoid intoxication, is allowable, for Jesus came 'eating and drinking'. It is not however mandated; if you feel that you would be a better witness as a total abstainer, then that's your decision. I'm having goose for Christmas dinner, you can have turkey, I will not judge your turkey, don't judge my goose. I may raise a glass of wine, you can raise your glass of non-alcoholic drink, I do not judge your diet at all! And let me say to those Calvinists who are over-zealous in their championing of wine, you do no-one any favours by opposing total abstinence. The fault is in the enforcing of it as a law, not in the observing of it as a practice. On this point we should live and let live, and advocates of total abstinence and of Christian temperance should work together against the dreadful evil that is drukenness.

Monday, December 19, 2011

In Many Bookshops with Pastor Charmley: The Christian Bookshop, Ossett

The great thing about independent bookshops is that they are all different; they have their quirks and their eccentricities. I come from a literary family (my father and my twin brother are both writers), and early learned the joy of the independent bookshop. Bookshops have their own characters and specialisms - no one person can specialise in all things, and no one bookshop can either. Quite often bookshops reflect their own background, just as people do; the former Anglican retains the Anglican stamp still, no matter how he may try to eradicate it. As for the man who is proud of his creed, how much more will he show it in his character?

It is so with this Strict Baptist bookshop that stands beside a Strict Baptist Chapel in the splendid Yorkshire town of Ossett. Between Huddersfield and Wakefield, Ossett proudly asserts its own character with its grand town hall and the soaring spire of its Parish Church, which has been mistaken for Wakefield Cathedral (by me!). Yet Ossett's greatest gem to me is the Christian Bookshop.

One enters a smart, light, modern shop on the ground floor, but if the shop is modern in appearance its theology is the good old theology of the Puritans and Reformers; not modern, and yet ever new. There is, I think, nothing worthless in this shop, it is all good stuff. It's the sort of bookshop I like, a bookshop that sells good books! The character of the stock is excellent, chosen with discernment and with more concern over what ought to be read than what the generality of Evangelicals are reading. What is lamentable is that so few Christian bookshops look like this.

Upstairs, however, is what I like best of all, a veritable Aladdin's cave of second-hand books; not cheap paperbacks (though there are such), but good old, solid books. There are many, many biographies in particular, many Strict Baptists, good old men who laboured in obscurity. The books reflect what a good Strict Baptist minister might have in his study. A man with a healthy bank balance might spend hundreds here, and any lover of good books will spend hours enjoying this excellent shop. Well done, say I, well done; there is at least here a Christian bookshop worthy of the name.

Six Books that Should Not Have Been Written (at least in the form they are in)

"Of the making of many books there is no end" says the Preacher, and while there are very many good and profitable books in the world, there are also a large number of really bad ones out there. Christians have produced a large number of books, and behold that the good are very good, and the bad are very bad! The thought occurred to me that it might be of help to reflect on five of the worst I have ever read, six books that ought not to have been written, at least in the form that they have. They are presented in no particular order.

1. Alexander Hislop: The Two Babylons.
First published in 1858 as an expansion of a pamphlet published in 1853, the great burden of this book is to attempt to prove that the Roman Catholic Church is not Christian at all, but is really just old paganism with a Christian veneer. In order to 'prove' his point, Hislop reduces all pagan worship to the worship of Nimrod, his wife Semiramis, and their son. In the course of this polemic the author denounces the very symbol of the cross itself as pagan. The root fallacy is that Hislop everywhere proceeds on the principle that similarity proves connection, which is by no means proven, and which has been shown to be false time and again. The arguments that he uses have been quite successfully adopted by such authors as those drawn upon by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code to 'prove' that all of Christianity is in fact derived from paganism. The book is utterly useless, moreover, in the Roman Catholic controversy, for it proceeds not on the sound principle of addressing what the Roman Catholic Church now teaches or believes, but on a speculative theory as to the origins of its ceremonies and symbols. The book is calculated to produce a great deal of heat, but very little light. What is more, it is now horrifically outdated in terms of the scholarship that Hislop replies on. This book stands as an example of really bad anti-Roman Catholic polemic that should have gone out of print over a century ago; only foolish fanaticism keeps it in print.

2. Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk
This is another really bad piece of anti-Roman Catholic literature that ought to have been consigned to the dustbin of history long ago, but thanks to certain fanatics with more zeal than sense, it can still be obtained. It purports to have been written by a young woman who was an escaped nun, and in it she talks about terrible things going on in a particular Canadian nunnery. According to 'Maria Monk', the nunnery was nothing less than a seraglio for the Seminary across the street, the offspring of the illicit unions being smothered at birth and buried in the secret tunnel that linked the two establishments. It is perhaps almost needless to say that the story proved to be a fabrication from end to end, and no evidence of its truth has ever been found. 'Maria' had never been a nun, but was almost certainly mentally ill. Even were it true, it would be meaningless; the problem with the Church of Rome is not that its priests and 'Religious' are particularly wicked, but that its doctrine is wrong, and that is what these sensational works almost completely ignored. If every Roman Catholic priest was an exemplary moral person, and every nun a loving and humble person, Rome would still be wrong!

3. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins: Left Behind.
Projected as a trilogy, the Left Behind series began publication in 1995. The success of the first novel led to the saga being spun out to an obscene length. These books are probably some of the worst Christian fiction ever written. I am not a dispensationalist, but I do not refer to the theology that underlies these books; the rapture doctrine could, if handled well, be the basis for a compelling work of fiction, but Left Behind is not that. It is badly written, has cardboard characters, and singularly fails to rise above the level of the mediocre at any point, usually remaining far below that level. Put simply, this is a bad book, and the first in a series of bad books. It evidences an astonishing lack of imagination, while the protagonists are unpleasant, arrogant men who remain unpleasant even after their conversions. Now, this might be fine if we were meant to think of them in such a way, but we are actually meant to identify with them. The storyline is constructed on the basis of a certain understanding of the End Times that its authors regard this timeline as set in stone and unchangeable, which is fair enough; the failure is that they have their characters decide that they can do nothing to stop Antichrist and that they should therefore work for him. The authors' thought-processes at this point are beyond my powers to explain, but suffice to say that they are wrong. The problem is that they locked themselves into a narrative style that meant they only tell us what happens to two main characters, who therefore have to be at the centre of things, and then they decided that both had to be 'good guys'. It would have been far better either to have an omniscient narrator, or to have one of the two main characters end up on the bad side (as happens in the vastly superior end-times novel The Clock Strikes).
I have put Left Behind in the list because it represents everything that is wrong with Christian fiction; cardboard characters, a smug satisfaction with being 'not as other men are', and a pedestrian style that makes events that should be exciting dull as ditchwater. Oh, and it lacks all imagination, for which it should for ever be consigned to the dustbin of bad literature. Christian fiction is all too often synonymous with bad fiction; brethren, these things ought not to be so.

4. H.D. Williams: The Attack on the Canon of Scripture
This book is one of those where you read it with increasing irritation because it could have been a good book! There really is a modern-day attack on the Canon, as witness the arguments of the Jesus Seminar, and the arguments put forward by such men as Bart Ehrman, and there is a call for a good book on the subject; this is not it. No, this is a bad King James Only book by a man who does not understand the issue; it is not really about Canon Criticism at all, but textual criticism, it mixes up the question of the canon with the question of the text. The King James Onlyist is simply not equipped to deal with Ehrman. This is a missed opportunity.

5. Gail Riplinger: New Age Bible Versions
If anyone is surprised that I have included this book, then they ought not to be; my antagonism to Mrs. Riplinger is well-known. The reason for this is that she is a liar, and I have proven it (see previous blog entries). In the course of this book she fabricates quotations to make it appear that men taught things that they abominated, and denied that which they affirmed. This is not a book of scholarship, it is the product of a twisted mind. Mrs. Riplinger has convinced herself, I know not how, that every modern Bible version is a product of a Satanic plot to usher in a one-world New Age religion. Convinced that this is the case, she has set out to find evidence for it, evidence she thinks is hidden in the modern versions and in the writings of those responsible for them. To her mind these versions and their authors are certainly guilty, and so she proceeds on that basis. The result is, of course, entirely unconvincing to all those who are not already disposed to believe her. It is mildly entertaining in an absurd and tragic sort of way, but justifies the verdict of many, even King James Only people, who have pronounced NABV possibly the worst Christian book ever written.

6. Gail Riplinger: Hazardous Materials
A book so bad that one of the men quoted favourably in it wrote a rebuttal, HazMat as I semi-affectionately call it, is huge, rambling, and at times baffling. Though I have not been able to find any repetition of Riplinger's quote-manufacturing technique from NABV in it, it is if anything worse than its predecessor. First of all, HazMat is formless; it has no real progression in it, but is a collection of loosely-linked sections with only one connection, Riplinger's conviction that the study of Greek and Hebrew is bad and dangerous. The book is hysterical in tone, not to mention conspiratorial. On one page we are shown a picture of Archbishop Trench of Dublin wearing a medallion bearing a St. Patrick's Cross, which is labelled 'Masonic' on the grounds that Mrs. Riplinger has decided that the 'X' is evil, apparently not realising that such a cross may be worn for other reasons (such as Trench's Irish bishopric). She accuses Trench of 'putting a serpent on his book', when it is really the logo of his American Publisher (she spends about ten pages on the question without once tumbling to this simple explanation, which ought to have occurred to her in a matter of minutes). Oh, and she cites Hislop's Two Babylons, always a mark against an author. Add a rant against Calvinism, thoroughly pointless discussions of Cecil Rhodes and the Knights Templar, not to mention a discussion of the the Pyramids that literally caused me to laugh out loud, and we have a book that is surely even worse than NABV, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing", as the Bard would say. I list Mrs. Riplinger as illustrative of the very worst tendencies in Fundamentalist literature taken to their extreme.

These are my opinions, and frankly I do not want to hear from Mrs. Riplinger's supporters until they have explained why it is acceptable for her to create bogus quotations to sustain accusations of heresy against men. The Bible says "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour", and unless you really want to argue that that only applies to Christians and therefore one can lie as much as one likes about those one deems to be non-Christians (a wretched sophism that I hope exists only in my imagination and perhaps an old Jesuit work or two), Mrs. Riplinger has flagrantly breached this law over and over. She refuses to listen to those calling her to repent, and therefore must be exposed publicly for the purveyor of falsehoods that she is.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Sanctification of the Common.

In 1880 Bishop Westcott wrote; "There was a time when it was usual to draw a sharp line between religious and worldly things. That time has happily gone by. We all at last acknowledge more or less that all life is one... as citizens and workers we take our share in public business, we labour to fulfil our appointed task, because the love of Christ constrains us" (The Historic Faith P. 11). At around the same time Horatius Bonar wrote:

Fill Thou my life, O Lord my God,
In every part with praise,
That my whole being may proclaim
Thy being and Thy ways.

Praise in the common things of life,
Its goings out and in;
Praise in each duty and each deed,
However small and mean.

And further back George Herbert taught us to sing:

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see;
And what I do in anything,
To do it as for Thee.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room as, for Thy laws,
Makes that and the action fine.
This is that famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own,
Cannot for less be told.

R.W. Dale of Birmingham wrote: "There is no occupation in which man can be lawfully engaged, in which he may not see God... He meant us to employ our hands in honest labour, as well as our lips in thankful praise" (Week-Day Sermons Pp3-4).

Dr. W.E. Orchard, in one of his sublimest prayers, writes:
"Teach us not to despise the life we are called to live, since it was given us by Thee. Teach us not to neglect the task of to-day because we cannot see its eternal effect. Teach us not to neglect the little duties which are training us for a great stewardship. May we remember that this life of ours has been divinely lived, that this robe of flesh and strange infirmity has been Thy garment..." (The Temple P. 51).

Let none despise the 'common things of life'. It has become fashionable for men to say that the Christian has to be a man of 'audacious faith', and that we should all seek to be famous. No, we should all seek that Christ should increase and we decrease. Westcott, Bonar, Herbert, Dale and Orchard have it right; Christ has sanctified for us the "common things of life"; the carpenter of Galilee served that rural population, and I am glad of it. Simon the Tanner was as necessary for the Gospel's spread as Simon Peter the Apostle; for Simon Peter needed shoes made with the product of that tanner's labour! And we have a whole book in the Bible, the Book of Ruth, that is about ordinary country folk doing what ordinary country folk do! I am so glad we do, for we need the ordinary country folk; and the ordinary town folk as well!

God's ways are not our ways, and the things that man values are not those God values; we look at "the rich man in his castle" and see not "the poor man at his gate," yet God may value the poor man at the gate far higher than the rich. Our culture lionises the idle celebrity, the vulgar and the profane, and despises the poor and the pious; but God sees things as they truly are. Oh that we might see things more as God does, and less as the world:

"We ask for no far-off vision which shall set us dreaming while opportunities around us slip by; for no enchantment which shall make our hands to slack and our spirits to sleep, but for the vision of Thyself in common things for every day; that we may find a Divine calling in the claims of life, and see a heavenly reward in work well done. We ask Thee not to left us out of life, but to prove Thy power within it; not for tasks more suited to our strength, but for strength more suited to our tasks. Give to us the vision that moves, the strength that endures, the grace of Jesus Christ, who wore our flesh like a monarch's robe and walked our earthly life like a conqueror in triumph. Amen." (Orchard, The Temple P. 121)

That is a true perspective on life from a man who worked on the railways and whose father worked on the railways; a working man turned pastor who knows the value of the working man, of the ordinary men who keep our world going.

So if someone should suggest that somehow Christians should not live ordinary lives, they are sorely mistaken; and I would suggest teetering on the brink of heresy. May we pray for them Orchard's prayer, "Teach us not to despise the life we are called to live..."

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Ecclesiastical Antiquarianism

I am not one of the 'New Calvinists'; as a committee member of the Sovereign Grace Union with shelves groaning with Banner of Truth books, and one who goes to the Banner Conference every year (apparently it's expected of the pastor at Bethel), I am most definitely one of the old Calvinists.

It is a fact (apparently) that there are various sorts of Calvinists; as more people discover the truths of Reformed Theology, the varieties of that theology increase, and these varieties are now cross-denominational. One trend that worries me is that a number of men are writing and speaking in a way that gives the impression that they believe the perfect model for a Christian society is 17th-century Holland.

One of the glories of Christianity is that it does not require a specific culture; while Islam tries to conform every culture it touches to Medieval Arabia, Christianity is varied in its cultural expressions, though united in doctrine. The Ecclesiastical Antiquarian (as I have dubbed him) disagrees with that, he sets up one particular culture as normative for Christianity and laments that we no longer live in that world.

Another sign of the Ecclesiastical Antiquarian is that he starts to adopt an antiquarian vocabulary; I do not mean in doctrine, for there is is a technical vocabulary there, but in describing other groups. In Medieval Constantinople the canons of historical writing were set by the Classical period, meaning that no vocabulary not in use then could be used, so that Arab invaders were called 'Persians' because the Arabs had not been foes in the Classical period. In the same way there are men who insist on referring to all Baptists today as 'Anabaptists', apparently on similar grounds. Do they call Muslims 'Mohammedans' as well? Times change, and labels that were used in the past (and never really appropriate, since the term 'Anabaptist' was used as a catch-all for diverse groups who agreed in nothing but the rejection of infant baptism) cannot be meaningfully resurrected today.

We live in a world where by and large it has been recognised that uniformity in religion is not desirable; it is at this point that Ecclesiastical Antiquarians are often least attractive, as they wistfully look back on a golden age of uniformity, forgetting that it was not so golden, and enforced by cruel laws.

The fact is that there never was a golden age; we look forward to that in the world to come.

Now, let me add that I am a hymn-singing, NKJV-using Independent who values our traditions, not some iconoclast who wants to introduce anarchy; but let us be moderate and remember that we are not living in the 17th century, or the 18th, or the 19th, or even the 20th.