Elsewhere in week 17

I haven't taken many photos.

Andreas Mierswa and Markus Kluska did, though, of the insides of musical instruments.

How do you host an Ayatollah at Easter? Bob Roberts knows.

In the mess of Syria, Father Frans van der Lugt was a hero.

When Doris Lessing was given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, her acceptance speech considered those who wouldn't win it.

As crime figures fall, Matthew Hosier asks what that means for Christians who expect everything to get worse.

Finally, here's a tour of the accents of the British Isles by Andrew Jack:

Advice for students in exam season

It's that time of year again, so here are three articles to help those of you who are revising, and those of you who should be:
  1. A guide to doing more than just surviving/passing exams
  2. Practical suggestions from students on how to do this
  3. Does believing in God give Christians a get-out to explain away tough times?

A guide to doing more than just surviving/passing exams

You probably just want to get through the next few weeks, don’t you? Don’t fail, don’t go crazy – that’s the limit of most people’s ambitions for this time of year. I want you to do those things, of course, but I believe that God wants to use this time for more than that. Because He’s our loving Father, He is excellent at helping us through tough times and using those times for good. Here’s how...

I’d love for Romans 8:35-39 to dominate your thinking during exam season. It’s always true but this time of year its wonder can be even brighter in your life.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Here are two things to learn from that passage:
  1. You can’t fail being loved by God. This is a celebration of how impossible it is to be separated from God’s love. Despite all the difficulties described (many of which are worse than exams), Paul is emphatic that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Let the peace of this stay in your heart, remind yourself of it frequently and thank God that the settled intention of His heart is to love you, whatever is going on and however well or otherwise you are doing.
  2. You can do more than just survive this. Paul doesn’t say, “in all these things we will just about scrape through.” Why not? Because there’s a mighty and loving God involved: “we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” This takes us from a survival mindset (“Just let me pass!”) to a victory mindset. More than conquering means not just surviving or defeating the situation but actually turning it to our advantage. (There’s a longer explanation of this point here.) God can take this very thing you’re most apprehensive about and use it to bring more peace to your life, and even use it to share His love with your friends who don’t know Him. There is nothing that His hands can’t turn to good. As you ask Him to do this, and co-operate with Him as He leads you, you’ll discover the truth of this.
“May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 3:5)

Practical suggestions from student small group leaders at King's on how to do more than survive

  • Rest is important, 1. Take time off each day, you can’t focus on work without a good break. Sharing a meal with others achieves three things you need at once: rest, food, company.
  • Rest is important, 2. Get the sleep you need. Going to sleep and waking up at regular times helps most people.
  • Rest is important, 3. God says we should take one day off every week, Sundays are a good shout for this.
  • Know what time of day you are able to work the most efficiently. If you are a morning person, wake up early and get cracking. If you are an owl, work in the evenings. There’s no point trying to work at a time when you know you won’t.
  • Stay aware of the mission God has called you to and don’t let your ‘shadow mission’ have power over your life.
  • Keep going to small group and Sunday morning meetings: you’ll get blessed and refreshed there, and be able to help others too.
  • Think mission, 1. Invite someone to the Study Space at our building.
  • Think mission, 2. Offer to pray for someone who shares their struggles with you.
  • Tithe your time: give the first of your time to God, then work out the rest of your timetable.
  • Fresh air often helps you to refocus: go for a run, or a walk, or just stand outside for a while!
  • A healthy body gives you a healthy mind so do some exercise alongside eating well and staying hydrated.
  • Pray before you work and during work when it gets hard. Time with the Prince of Peace can give you proper perspective.
  • Give yourself treats to aim towards as motivation, for example checking social media and having a piece of cake after an hour’s work.
  • Start revising in small amounts way before your exam, when you’ll be able to take good breaks and have fun at the same time. That should save you from cramming and not seeing the light of day for a week.
  • Everything we do can be worship to God, including revision: “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Does believing in God give Christians a get-out to explain away tough times?

I was recently asked if believing in God is a psychological “get-out” for Christian students to explain away tough times, such as exam season. When things don’t go as we expect, do we just thoughtlessly say, “Well this must have been God’s plan” and carry on regardless? Here’s my reply...

I think that one of the big challenges of Christianity for very competent people (as lots of Edinburgh students are) is that the gospel says you need help. In fact you're desperate for it. The difference between Christians and some other people is that we’ve realised this. Human pride says that we don't need God: Jesus dying on a cross for us and sending us His empowering Spirit says otherwise. To be a Christian, therefore, is to have a hope outside of yourself.

I agree that Christians can sometimes use God as a get-out clause wrongly, when they casually assume that whatever they do, He will sort them out - a bit like an excellent butler. They can also seem to think that God has “a plan” which involves great things happening to them all the time. However, 1 Thessalonians 4:3 says “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified [i.e. be made more like Jesus]” - and that process can involve a lot of hardship! The Bible is full of stories of people whose lives didn’t go as they expected but who discovered God’s power at work in and through them despite this. This is encouraging. It also tells us that some people ruined their lives by rebelling against God. That is a warning.

Romans 8:28 famously says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good...” If you keep reading to verses 29 and 30 you’ll see that Paul's logic is this: if God has been good to us at all other times in history, surely He is being good to us today. That means He can take even massive mistakes, or disasters, and use them for good. He is a Redeemer, which means He specialises in turning ashes into beauty. This is our hope.

So you should work hard at your revision, but you can do so with the security that whether you pass or fail, you belong to God: “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8).

Elsewhere in week 16

They're testing the Edinburgh trams so much it almost doesn't seem weird. Almost.

How big is the sun? Massive, as this image from NASA shows.

If your Facebook news feed annoys you, then you'll agree with Ellis Hamburger.

Although I criticised ciriticisms recently, Tim Stanley's critique of Rev is worth reading for the force of this line alone: "We think we are so civilised here in the West, but by Christ’s standards we are savages."

To walk us through Easter Week, Desiring God is publishing a reflection on what happened each day, and Tim Montgomerie has created a photostream of artworks that do a similar thing.

What does a thoughtful non-Christian make of Easter? Jonathan Rowson gives his answer.

Finally, Glen Scrivener's Easter poem:


What's wrong about saying what's wrong about something

What were you expecting?

At the cinema and on YouTube this week you can watch two controversial films: Darren Aronofsky's Noah, and David Cameron's Easter message. As presentations of Christianity I consider both to be incomplete: as I said earlier, I think Aronosky depicted human depravity effectively but was weak on how God communicates with us. As for the Prime Minister, whilst speaking well of Christians (a rare enough event in the UK), he also talked about visiting the places "where Jesus lived and died" - which of course is less than half the story of what Jesus did, especially at Easter!

Luckily for us all there are plenty of people ready and willing to explain what should have been said and done in these situations. I probably agree with some of their criticisms, and I have spoken with people this week about what and how to think about Noah in particular, but I feel a bit of contrarian concern with this way of responding to moments like these. I'd like to take this to the next level by critiquing the critiques.

For one thing, even those of us who wish to give full and complete treatments of everything we speak about don't succeed. I preached at my church this morning on Luke 7:1-10 and didn't even come close to saying all that could be said about it. I did, I hope, say something, and have to be content with that. If that's true for someone who is spending his life trying to help people know, understand and love God, how much more so for anyone with different aims?

Far more often than not in situations like these, Christians are going to have incomplete fragments to work with. A politician trying to saying something about Christianity, a filmmaker taking a story from the Bible and making it serve his preference, we could throw in a footballer thanking God for his ability to kick a ball around too, and even pagan poetry (Acts 17:28): these are not and never could be complete explanations of the Christian hope. Let's not that put that expectation on them and then complain when they fail us. Perhaps instead we should just go straight for the positive and show how these fragments can fit into a great picture?

After all, one of the wonderful things about God is His ability to use that which is less-than-perfect for His perfect means. That's exactly what He did at Easter, using sin and death themselves to defeat sin and death, and thereby bring glory to His Son. A film or YouTube video, well-intentioned or otherwise, should be pieces of cake.


Remembering Britpop

For those who want to mark it, Britpop is being celebrated as 20 years old. It was the music of my teenage life, so please allow some nostalgia.

What made it so special for those of us drawn to guitars was that the other kids, who usually laughed at us, were now listening to the same music as us*. Songs only we knew were suddenly all over Radio 1, no longer just the Evening Session with Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley - however essential that remained - but throughout the day. It felt like a vindication, which is surely what adolescents long for, so we had a new sense of superiority to the late arrivals: no longer were we right and they wrong, but we were right first.

The long hot summer of 1996 felt like the peak of it, happily coinciding with the completion of our GCSEs. Jarvis Cocker was the wisest and funniest man in the world. Damon Albarn and Justine Frischmann would be together forever. Camden was Mecca. Chris Evans woke us up every morning with Wake Up Boo by The Boo Radleys, made us wait in the pause of The Longpigs' She Said for a joyful eternity, and introduced every guest on TFI Friday with Ocean Colour Scene's Riverboat Song riff repeating ad infinitum.

With the simultaneous excitement of newly-allowed liberty, we went out into the night accompanied by Dodgy's celebration of Staying Out For The Summer, and we hoped the bouncers would let us in to the local indie club that hosted so many of our new-found heroes. Whilst the DJ played Kula Shaker's terrible Tattva we pushed our luck at the bar, and all the girls wore velvet jackets. Then Girls and Boys would start and the dance floor became a happy riot as we bounced in our Doc Martens.

There was nothing aggressive or intimidating about it: the snarl of punk and the politics of much independent music from the 1980s were only to be heard on Radiohead albums, which should be considered in a different category and class. The Manic Street Preachers still had Orwellian angst and earnestness but Richey Edwards and his outsider anger had literally disappeared. Kurt Cobain's more obvious suicide caused a flinching away from nihilism. The swagger of Oasis was mostly comical and the socialism of Common People was easily misappropriated. This was a middle class movement, wryly amused and cheerfully hopeful, with just enough irony to keep itself in check.

The 20 year celebrations have tried to make it more important than it really was. Of course there was the Downing Street reception but that speaks for itself. The best the BBC seem able to come up with is that it changed the media. I might have cared then, still eager for vindication, but not much of it has stood the test of time, musically or sociologically. There is still, however, the instant hit of the memory of music that felt truly ours.

* Though not entirely.


Elsewhere in week 15

King's has a really cool Easter poster.

Talking of Easter, in case you've ever been worried about it being named after a pagan goddess, Mel Lawrenz sets the record straight.

For Christianity to make sense in Europe, Francis Spufford says it should be more about explaining life than debating truth claims.

As Rwanda marks 20 years since its horrific implosion, Peter Gwin reports on what has been remembered and what has been forgiven.

The faith of David Cameron was on public display yesterday.

Jason Hawkes has taken some good photos of the UK from the sky.

Those of us of a certain age will have plenty of memories stirred by 6 Music's snippets of 40 Britpop "anthems".

A Praying Life

Amazon.co.uk currently sells 18,919 books in its Christianity category with the word “prayer” in their title. So that’s the argument made that Christians realise that prayer is important but often unsatisfactory. The answer to this is probably to pray rather than read many, many books, but a couple of good ones can really help, and I think that Paul E. Miller’s A Praying Life is one of those. I found it honest, encouraging and practical, but probably the best of it is the sense it gives of the author’s life and faith, with its serious struggles and increased prayerfulness.

Miller is honest about how hard most of us find praying, and digs into the reasons why: “Prayer exposes how preoccupied we are and uncovers our doubts.” (15) His delivery is more generous than this may sound, as are his proposed solutions which include being honest about how hard we find it in order to discover both God’s graciousness and our weakness, and allowing our minds to wander in prayer as we might in any conversation with a good friend.

The book is mostly theory, by which I mean thinking about how we relate to God rather than describing in step-by-step detail how to pray – this comes in the last section. He covers all the issues you would expect, bringing the hope and long-term perspective that usually leave us when we try to pray. Christians can tend towards either easy extreme of triumphalism and defeatism, one of this book’s strengths is how it describes the fullness of a correct perspective through the author’s experience. Nervous pray-ers might find his knowledge of the Bible and how it impacts his praying daunting, but including daily Bible reading in your prayer times will help with this more effectively than you might expect.

My main reactions as I read were relief at being reminded of how in charge God wants to be, and excitement that I could get to know God better. A famous piece of advice on prayer is “Pray until you pray.” Reading this book, and not 18,918 others, will help you do this.

Notes on Noah

Noah has been released, and the flood of articles has begun. Whether they'll continue for longer than forty days and nights is unknown, here are just a few:

  • A thoughtful and comprehensive review by Alissa Wilkinson also has links to further reading.
  • Gregory Alan Thornbury welcomes the opportunity it gives us to consider the dangerous question posed by the Bible.
  • My friend Nathanael Smith encourages those of us with imagination and stamina to watch it.
  • A non-Christian perspective is put well by Peter Bradshaw, who celebrates Crowe but laments the missing simplicity of the original story.
  • Having read Noah Primeval by Brian Godawa, this wasn't the weirdest version of the story I've encountered. Half-way down this page there is a list of research articles about the original text - for level-headed people with too much time on their hands only.

For my part, I thought that Noah was far more interesting than films with its size of special effects budget usually are. Seeing it as "midrash", an imaginative retelling, is the only way to approach it. From a Christian perspective, it was strong on the sinfulness of mankind, the cost to Noah of doing what he did, and in creating memorable visual moments. I thought it weak on God's communication with Noah and several other vital aspects of the big Bible story that it is a part of - but I would have been surprised if these had been dealt with successfully. It asks a lot of questions and doesn't give complete answers, which is probably the most I would want from a film like this.

Less serious moments of disconnect included being reminded of the Transformers films by "The Watchers", and Ray Winstone being so indelibly associated with betting adverts that I half expected him to start calling the odds on rain falling.

For any who go to see it, whatever you believe, I'd strongly encourage going back to the source material (Genesis 6-9) afterwards to see afresh what's really there and what that really tells us, and asks of us.

Elsewhere in week 13

We saw West Side Story, whose songs have remained in my head.

A journey into and away from anorexia is shared by Emma Scrivener.

The postmodern era has been officially declared over. Edward Docx suggests it has been replaced with a desire for authenticity.

There will be many reactions to Darren Aronofsky's Noah and Gregory Alan Thornbury's will probably be among the most thoughtful.

Sophy Grimshaw fights the good fight against food packaging chatting to us.

What might happen if you had a baby with Down's Syndrome? This...


Four points on Moyes and Man United

Why I'm not enjoying this season
Watching someone discover their inadequacy is one of my least favourite things. I know the feeling, and unless the person discovers the joy of God's sufficiency (see here and 2 Corinthians 12:9), they will be left with a hopeless answer to every man's deepest question: "Have I got what it takes?" It's difficult not to think that David Moyes is experiencing this at the moment, so my wincing at Manchester United's results is less because they're the team I support, and more because the personal trauma it must be causing him. With his low-key personality, and apparent faith, there's no hubristic satisfaction to be had (although perhaps the club as a whole could be portrayed this way, with Ferguson in the role of King Lear), just a sullen sadness as we wonder whether he'll last the summer, or make it to Christmas if Champions' League qualification looks in peril again.

The importance of leadership
There has been a lot said about how much money United need to spend to reinvigorate their squad, but the obvious conclusion to take when almost all the players are performing poorly is that the root of the issue is leadership. A couple of seasons ago when United were the best of a bad bunch, Alan Hansen commented that whichever of the top four squads Ferguson managed would have won, because of the difference his leadership made. Moyes is being marked on his predecessor's impossible grade curve but his successor at Everton has his old team playing more in United's presumed style than he ever did, and with more points than he won there. Leadership in any organisation is vital, this is a glaring example of it.

A question of syle
Talking of style, what is United's? Last season there were several briefings from Old Trafford that Jose Mourinho wasn't United's style: disrespectful off the pitch, successful but not very thrilling on it. He's continued to live up to both those accusations, but was Moyes' combination of honesty off the pitch / moderately successful but not very thrilling on it truly the continuity United were looking for?

Real hope
The only upside to this for me is if a few more people learn to put football in its correct place in their lives. Those who enjoy the banner at Old Trafford proclaiming "MUFC: The Religion" have the opportunity to consider how divine the god they worship really is.

Elsewhere in week 12

The rather shameless milking of J.R.R. Tolkien continues, but at least these covers look beautifully different.

Is the Bible the word of God? Andrew Wilson gives an answer to this vital question.

The difference between a grammar professional and a grammar pedant is explained by Tom Chivers.

How should we think about the death of Fred Phelps of Westboro "Baptist Church"? Ed Stetzer, who Phelps called a "lying whore false prophet", offers his response.

There hasn't been much comment by Christians on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, so Phil Whittall tries to get the ball rolling.

Ross Douthat considers where individualism leads to.

Finally, a clever/freaky advert from British Airways...


Elsewhere in week 11

The sun has returned, so everyone in Edinburgh goes to The Meadows.

How we treat Lent is critiqued by Matthew Hosier and Giles Fraser.

Nietzsche is "the ghost at the atheist feast", according to John Gray (who is wrong about Jesus expecting the world to end imminently, by the way).

If you want to buy books online but don't want to destroy independent bookshops, Hive.co.uk may be the solution you're looking for.

Andrew Marr assesses the state of the independence debate.

Managed fun at sports events suffers a two-pronged assault by Barney Ronay and (behind a paywall) Simon Barnes.

They found some more music by Johnny Cash, country and western's Tupac...


Another Edinburgh initiation

It's now four years since I moved to Edinburgh, and I've at last got round to doing one of the things-that-everyone-in-Edinburgh-does-sooner-or-later: watch Scotland play at Murrayfield.

We were fortunate enough to be at the end where most of the action happened, here are a few photos I took with my phone...

Elsewhere in week 10

Getting up at 4.30 on Tuesday was horrible but being on a plane to see the sun rise made up for it, to an extent.

The bethinking.org website has had a makeover, still contains plenty of helpful articles to help you think.

What does Vladimir Putin want? Anne Applebaum gives an explanation.

The adventures of a Lego photographer are chronicled by Andrew Whyte.

Joseph Novak has created The Minimum Bible: a graphic design to introduce each of its books.


Elsewhere in week 9*

Is Spring arriving? The view from Bruntsfield Links suggests so.

It's easier for Daniel Sturridge to share his faith than Wayne Rooney, notes Adam Forrest.

If you haven't thought about how what you read shapes what you think, then read Rosaria Butterfield.

The Case of the Missing Plot, by Nick Cohen, the Sherlock story that suggests the internet is making us dumber.

If you like photos that make you feel dizzy, N.D. reports on urban explorers in Shanghai.

Lots of people give stuff up for Lent, 40acts suggests giving out instead.

If you like summaries like this, you might want to check out Yahoo's News Digest app (iOS only so far).

* Seems I lost count of the weeks, as well as missing one out.