2004 – a year in review

December 31, 2004

A message from the future

Well actually I know that techinically it isn’t, but go and figure this one out: I’m in Germany, and one hour ahead of England, and several more hours ahead of those of you on the other side of the Atlantic. So when it’s midnight here, we’re in 2005 and you lot are all stuck in same old same old 2004 for at least another hour. Thus it will be possible for me to report back to all what the future is like whilst you’re all still trapped in the past. Here’s what to expect in 2005:

* Teleportation
* Laser cannons everywhere
* Everyone will wear silver jumpsuits and live in huge glass domes
* Children will go to school on the moon
* Meals will come in pill form
* Pop music will be abolished

Actually New Year’s Eve is pretty crap, as it is every year. As usual I’m at home with the family in Germany and suffering from excessive cabin fever and secretly planning my escape to the enchanted forest. Last year I was really down at Christmas for personal reasons, but New Year just made it a million times worse and I spent most of January being severely depressed. This year is much better by far, though I’m feelin’ all lonesome because my girlfriend is in England. I really miss her. We chatted before on the phone and in talking to her I realise how I’m just not my usual self when I’m out here, I’m kind of Sven in black-and-white and mono sound as opposed to my usual 3D Technicolor with seat-vibrating Dolby surround sound self. That said, I was looking through some of my old posts on here earlier and I think I tend to get down and depressed more than I realise.

Anyway, let’s look at 2004’s World of Sven report card:

Name: 2004
Effort: C
Achievement: D+

Teacher’s comments: 2004 started badly but gradually improved throughout the Spring. 2004 showed much promise but spent too much time staring out of the window and chewing gum rather than actually paying attention to anything important like making sure that the summer weather was nice and that Marlon Brando stayed alive.

Towards the end of its life, 2004 became cold and wet and attendance levels dropped. Despite frequent detentions, 2004’s attitude did not significantly improve and it failed all its final exams, failing to deliver anything that Sven requested for Christmas.

2004 month-by-month

January: Cold, wet and severely depressed.
February: Study hard. Meet Bryony for the first time, my Pastor tells me that we’ll get together one day. I laugh at him and carry on sulking a la January.
March: Discovered Jurgen Moltmann (top theologian) and realised that actually doing a theology degree is a lot of fun. SPent a week in Germany doing research for an essay, which was nice.
April: Kindly offer to teach Bryony German. Decide that actually she is really great and I am in serious danger of having a big crush on her. But it’s ok, we’re just friends. Summer holiday starts lol how ridiculous.
May:My friend Andy gets married (Jonny is best man) to one of his lecturers (highly braggable.) Run into my ex-fiancee at the wedding for the first time since we broke up. Awkward.
June: Started blogging, thought no one would ever read anything I wrote.
July: Went on holiday for a bit. My Gran becomes very ill whilst I’m away. Bryony goes away for the summer, but I don’t miss her because we’re just friends right?
August: My Gran dies, the first of my relatives ever to die. I’m still not sure how I feel about this one. I’m worried that I wasn’t as upset as I thought I should be…I dunno. Realise that I miss Bryony, well maybe just a little bit.
September: Turn 23, tidy the house obsessively for two weeks. Accquire She-ra and Rambo (formerly Gavin), my two budgies. Admit to myself that I like Bryony. A lot.
October: Study like a man possessed. Prone to elaborate murderous thoughts about my housemate. After agreeing to be ‘just friends’ with Bryony for about the zillionth time, I think I may have missed my chance and get all down. Decide to write her a long letter explaining how I feel. Wait for 24 hours with no reply. She calls me up and we decide to start seeing each other. Am reeeeeeeeeeeally happy that we did that 😀
November: Study like a man possessed who is having a gun pointed at him by a man who is also possessed and off his face on crack.
December: Deadlines. Work a lot. Christmas and all that Jazz. Decide to learn html to spice up World of Sven a little bit. Begin writing my dissertation, it is rubbish.

Some Sven statistics for 2004:

Times bitten by Budgie: 1
Times bitten by Hamster: 1
Times bitten by Pete: 3
Crushes: 1
Successful crushes: 1
Weddings attended: 2
Times preached: 8
Height: 5’11”
Weight: Too much
Approx number of free pizzas consumed: 150 (shocking, but true)
Known enemies: 2-3
Times been forced to call the Police: 5
Gross annual pay from job: £2,815
Cigars smoked: 11

And..er…that’s it. I won’t say anything else except that I wish you all a happy 2005. I was going to say something else but after my Christmas post Pete called me a ‘big fat girl’ so I won’t say anything else except that Pete wets the bed.

Actually just one more thing – Derek has started blogging again and asked me to give him a mention.

Happy New Year!


God and suffering

December 29, 2004

This article is written partly out of my own thoughts on the Asian disaster, but also partly after reflecting on the questions posed by this article in The Guardian. Judging by the lack of comments, my posts on theological stuff tend to be less popular than the other things I write about, but please take time to read this one and let me know what you think. Ta.

I spend a lot of time on this blog pondering about various things to do with theology and my faith and trying to tackle the various questions I often ask. Having spent the last few days watching the results of the huge Tsunami in Southeast Asia, I have to ask again about the problem of suffering and a God of love. I don’t have all the answers, and I suspect I never will, but such huge suffering caused by natural disasters causes both Christians and non-Christians alike to ask big questions of God.

Questioning God

I’m not of the persuasion that the Bible is an answer-book to all of life’s problems, and that it states clearly in black and white the answer to any question we may care to ask about God. It just doesn’t, and we do the Bible and God a great injustice if we try to make the Bible answer all our questions in a way we would like. The theme of suffering and undeserved pain is found all throughout the scriptures. The Psalms are testimony to this. They ask where God is to be found in the midst of their suffering: ‘Where are you God? I thought you were supposed to be faithful? What about your covenant? I haven’t done anything wrong and yet I am being punished. I thought you were my saviour?’ and so on.

Most of the Psalms are laments in this way, and nearly always they end with a note of comfort from God that seems to console the afflicted Psalmist and give him hope. There is one Psalm that is an exception to this however, and that is Psalm 88:

But I cry to you for help, O LORD ;

in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, O LORD , do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death;
I have suffered your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
the darkness is my closest friend.

And there the Psalm ends. There is no happy ending, no resolution, and no word of comfort from God. Yet the Psalm remains in the Bible. It is not there to silence the questioning of God, but it legitimises it. It is a completed text, and yet the question remains unanswered and the accusation of God remains. It is perfectly legitimate to question God, and it is wrong and wholly unbiblical to forbid the questioning of God. Jesus’ final words continue the theodicy as he cries from the cross: ‘My God, my God – why have you forsaken me?’

Why does God forsake us? Why does Christianity maintain that God loves us yet all the while we are surrounded by a pain and suffering that is in total contradiction to his nature?

Some wrong approaches

Wherever the Bible deals with suffering, it is dealt with pastorally and not as a systematic treatise on where evil came from, or how an all-powerful God who is all loving allows bad things to happen. Any genuinely Christian response will be first of all pastoral and practical, and not abstract. People who suffer and ask ‘where is God?’ are not concerned with abstract answers and intellectual platitudes.

This is the first mistake that Christians often make. The first reaction to a huge disaster is to attribute it to the judgment of God. Why? Jesus speaks of earthquakes, wars and famines preceding his return, and so as soon as these things occur, all the pious souls in Christendom look forward to their forthcoming redemption from this fallen world.

This is disastrous, and why? Because it means that when faced with a natural disaster, an ecological crisis, poverty, war and famine, Christians simply retreat from the problem and do not engage in alleviating it or bother to lift a finger to prevent it happening again. After all, the End will soon come, so why delay it any further? I would not deny that Jesus said natural disasters would be a sign of his coming, but we misunderstand the nature of signs and wonders. They are not foreboding omens of an imminent destruction of the world, time and space out of which God will rescue his chosen ones. They are to point enslaved, oppressed and downtrodden people to a coming future Hope. Just as the signs and wonders Moses performed before Pharaoh and Egypt heralded the coming freedom of the Israelite slaves, so the signs and wonders Jesus performed and prophesied about do not point towards an escape from History for the elect, but rather they are the ‘birth pangs’ of the New Creation that God has promised, where death, suffering and evil will have been annihilated. The onus on Christians then is not to huddle together and shrug their shoulders in the face of disaster, but to do everything they can to help those afflicted by it. We are to anticipate the Kingdom of God and prepare for its coming, as John the Baptist did of old.

The second wrong approach that Christians all too often take when faced with suffering is to attribute it to sin. True enough, the Auschwitzes and Rwandas of history are caused by human evil, but how are we to relate human sin and wrongdoing to massive tidal waves that kill tens of thousands of people, including children? My first serious questioning of God’s character came after reading a holocaust autobiography Night by Elie Wiesel. How does God allow 6 million people to die in gas chambers whilst insisting that he loves the world? A friend of mine claimed to have the answer: ‘It’s easy’, he said, ‘they had obviously sinned and were being punished.’ I suggested that this failed to explain how many of those killed were children or the unborn. My friend again had his answer ready: ‘Original sin of course. We all have it, God punishes it. End of story.’

Yes, a Christian actually said that, though without explaining original sin, or how the cross might affect this or what it says about the character of God if he consents to the killing of children without mercy.

Christians of course like to have an answer for everything. If there is such a huge incidence of suffering, it is either a sign of the end in which case we’d better get packing for heaven, or the suffering is an act of punishment committed by God in which case we shouldn’t do anything to alleviate it in case he turns on us as well. As stupid as it may seem, a well-known American preacher recently appealed to some churches in the States to help fund his work with AIDS victims in Africa. They all refused on the basis that they saw AIDS as God’s judgment on the sexually immoral, and so would do nothing to help them. I for one am glad that Jesus did not and does not treat sinners in the same way.

Atheism and the character of God

The problem of evil and suffering still gives much ammunition to those who are atheists. At the risk of doing a slight injustice to any atheists who might read this blog, let me give a generic outline of atheist arguments against the existence of God in the face of suffering.

1. God is good
2. God is all powerful
3. God is all knowing
4. God is everywhere
5. Being good and loving, he does not want anyone to suffer.
6. Being all knowing and all powerful, he is aware of suffering and able to prevent it happening.
7. Suffering and evil exist, so either God is unable to intervene and thus is not all-powerful, or he is able to intervene but does not, in which case he is not all-loving, or more likely he does not exist.
8. God does not exist, or if he does he is impotent.

And so the argument goes, and every time it comes out Christians everywhere leap to defend God as the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God of the Universe. Such arguments are well-intended, but how useful can they be? Why do Christians appeal to the classical theistic arguments as a defence of God? I am not suggesting that God is not any of these things, but the categories of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence are primarily Greek metaphysical categories and not necessarily Jewish and Biblical categories. I think that Christians often spend a lot of time defending a god of classical theism rather than God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is held by Christians to be the image (literally ‘icon’) of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15.) So if we want to talk about God, we have to begin with him and not with metaphysics. If we simply decide for ourselves what God is like, we simply vindicate the accusation that every atheist since Feuerbach has made – that Christians just project their human needs and aspirations onto a figure they call God, and so God is simply a crutch to lean on or a projection of what we would like to be. To counter this, we need to understand God as he reveals himself to be in Jesus Christ, and not make him what we wish him to be.

So what does Jesus reveal about God? That God is a cruel inhuman tyrant? That he willingly contrives to kill the innocent by means of natural disasters? That he does not care and is unmoved by the plight of humanity? None of these things are revealed in Jesus.

Jesus participates fully in human suffering. He lives in poverty and lives in an occupied country. He is rejected, arrested, denied a fair trial, tortured, beaten, whipped, mocked, betrayed, abandoned and finally crucified in one of the most painful deaths imaginable. That’s why I chose the picture I have done for this blog entry. The Christian God is not a faceless and absentee deity; he is one who participates in all the sufferings and afflictions of humanity. God does not exist over and against us; he is for us and with us.

If God were simply as classical theism has painted him to be, then atheism on the grounds of suffering would be legitimate. However, God is found in Jesus Christ, who died a torturous and godforsaken death and is then well-acquainted with human misery and suffering. He is then our companion in suffering by virtue of shared experience and so one to whom we can appeal, and the case for protest atheism loses its power. In any case, atheism does not offer a solution to the problem of suffering as evil and suffering still remain, and neither can it offer any real hope in the face of death and disaster.

A way ahead?

There is no systematic answer I am able to give that could completely explain suffering and evil, and ignore anyone who says the have the answer, especially if they’re waving biblical proof-texts around. I believe however, that there is a way forward for Christians that allows the questioning of God to remain, and commits itself to loving action towards to world whilst maintaining the credibility of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ death-cry on the cross of ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ was followed a few days later by his resurrection. He died a dark and lonely death, but God raised him to life in the resurrection. Jesus triumphed over Death, sin and all the evil systems that had conspired to kill him. The resurrection is not just a nice ending to a sad story, but in Christian thought it becomes a sign and a promise that eventually everything that is held under the power of death, pain and suffering will be liberated and made new. As the Apostle Paul said, the resurrection is a prototype example showing that eventually all of death will be ‘swallowed up in victory’ (1 Corinthians 15). In the Christian faith, the same God who raises Jesus to life has also promised that in the future he will ‘make all things new’ and there will be no more mourning, weeping, suffering or death. This is the content of Christian hope, and the direction towards which Jesus Christ points us.

For Christians then, identifying with Jesus does not excuse our absence and inactivity in the face of world suffering. It means doing what he did and going where he went. It means that we do not ignore the reality of the awful floods that happened on Sunday. We cry, mourn, question and become angry. We embrace the world as it is in all its brokenness and do not cover it up with sweetness and niceties. Nevertheless, just as Jesus identified with real suffering and death on the cross, so he has made possible a new future free from death and pain that we are invited to participate in by faith in him. It is a faith that recognizes the mess the world is in but lovingly gives of itself in service and healing in anticipation of the fulfillment of the hope that Jesus has set out for us as we join in his protest at and defeat of the powers of death, loss and suffering.

If you read this far, well done and thank you for sticking with it. There are of course many problems with my position as there are with any, but I would welcome any feedback, either negative or positive.

Sisters of Sven

December 29, 2004

Becky at Christmas Dinner, I think she was mid-complaint or perhaps she had just got bad wind.

Between September 6th 1981 and June 2nd 1983 I was an only child. However, my parents had other ideas and now I am blessed with three (count them) sisters. Generally they are ok, but sometimes they are annoying, especially when they get up before me and make loud noises. Only one (Becky) has got a blog so far, so go and visit it because she always moans that no one ever does. Becky is often short of ideas as to what to write about, so if there is anything you would be interested to hear Becky’s opinion on, then leave a comment here.


December 29, 2004

Other various people in my family, all out for dinner in Holland last Monday. From left to right they are: Sarah, Mum, Gemma, my Uncle John (slightly obscured) and my Granddad, who is one of the funniest people ever to live. Posted by Hello


December 29, 2004

This is Becky again, but a lot more normal this time. Posted by Hello


December 29, 2004

My little sister Becky (left), attacks my middle sister (Sarah) over Christmas dinner. Posted by Hello

Christianity and Postmodernism

December 29, 2004

The following is my reply to an entry on this blog on the subject of the emerging church. I’ll maybe write some more stuff on Christianity and Postmodernism in the future but I’ll leave this article on for now as a bit of an intro to something that has begun to interest me somewhat.

Post-modernism doens’t necessarily reject absolute truth, but it recognises (rightly in my view) that whilst there is truth, the way in which we perceive, understand and apply it is often highly conditioned by our own particular history, experiences, language etc and so we will only ever be able to express and understand the truth in part.

Jesus is the truth, but we do not yet know him fully because he has not yet been revealed. We see him through a glass darkly, as it were, and so we can speak about him and know him, but we must recognise the limitations of our current perspective on Jesus and allow for some question marks to remain.

Modernist Christianity (very influential in Evangelicalism) prefers to think of truth as propositional rather than personal. Truth is found by arranging appropriate proof-texts from an inerrant scripture rather than through knowledge of the person of Christ. Modernism likes everything to be black and white, but a knowledge of Jesus is accquired on a journey along which his word guides us, but that we will only complete eschatologically, where we will know fully even as we are now fully known.

The trouble is of course, that Evangelicals (of which I am one) have bought into modernism so much that they equate Christianity with modernity without recognising that Christianity is actually a pre-Modern religion and that at the same time post-modernity is not a threat to the church, though to a church that is synonymous with modernism, it is a threat…or an opportunity?