Week 42 miscellany: singleness, cycling madness, working class world, refugees welcomed

Wandering along the beautifully autumnal Water of Leith, we stumbled upon Redhall Walled Garden. A lovely place and an excellent project.

J.D. Vance's book Hillbilly Elegy has got plenty of praise for its description of white (non) working class America. Scottish church planter Mez McConnell adds to this with his reflections on the British equivalent. Mez shares some of his own childhood experiences, which are distressing, but also the life-changing hope of the gospel.

What happens when Syrian refugees are sent to Aberystwyth? Tom Rowley reports on the kind of story we need to hear and celebrate more often.

One of my weird talents is preempting what the sports commentator is going to say next. Adam Hurrey explains why it's not that difficult, given how cliché-riddled sport is.

My friend Andrew Bunt has done the best job I've ever heard on giving Christians a theology of singleness. Vital viewing for singles and marrieds, I would suggest:

Danny MacAskill has made another video of him doing ridiculous things on a bike. At one point I wondered if he was going to jump over a shark but this is great fun:

A Theology of Vegetarianism?

Could reading the Bible change what you eat? I was recently asked for my thoughts on what the Bible says about vegetarianism, especially in relation to how the food industry treats animals. I thought about this for longer than I’d expected and came to a conclusion that wouldn’t have been anticipated by anyone who knows my eating habits: Deb and I are now eating much less meat. As in, we’ve essentially stopped cooking meals with meat in them. (We’re eating a lot more grains because my taste buds are nowhere near to accepting a mushroom in place of a burger.)

This is voluntary decision rather than a conviction that the Bible commands us to do this, because it doesn’t. We’ve found the most powerful argument to be that meat production is pretty terrible for the planet (to say nothing of the animals involved), which is contrary to the call on God’s people to use the gifts He gives us wisely and respectfully.

A decision like this can seem extreme and is usually taken with no space for compromise (hence veganism). That’s not how we’re doing it. We haven’t completely removed meat from our diet, we’ve reduced it. In the same way we have (ethically dubious) smartphones because they’re extremely useful – but we don’t upgrade them all the time. Not many of the clothes that we buy are ethically sourced but we try to find items that are, we don’t buy more than we need (need being a relative term, of course), and we pass them on to charity shops and fabric recycling if we’re done with them. This kind of pragmatism seems necessary for most people most of them time, I think, if we’re to get anything else done.

If you want to have a more thorough think about this, here’s a theology of optional vegetarianism based on four questions:

  1. Do animals have rights?
  2. What gets eaten in the Bible?
  3. What shall we eat now?
  4. How shall we eat?

No animals were harmed in the writing of this article.

1. Do animals have rights?

Most advocates of vegetarianism would suggest that animals have rights, but the Bible emphasises something else.

Animals are made by God, so they have inherent dignity. The creation account tells us that everything God made was “good” (Genesis 1:25) but the arrival of humans causes an upgrade in God’s assessment to “very good” (1:31). Why the change? Because humans are made in God’s image (1:27) and are given the His very breath (2:7). We are unique. When Adam meets and names all the animals on earth, he realises that there is nothing else like him: if he is to have a companion it must be Eve (2:18-23).

This sense of difference is confirmed by what God tells humans to do:
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (1:28).
We are God’s stewards, He has given us the planet to form and fill, care for and enjoy. Animals belong to God (Psalm 50:10-11) and are our responsibility, as Genesis 1:30 implies when it notes God's provision of food for them, reminding us to ensure that they are well fed. None of this suggests that animals that have rights, but that they are the responsibility of humans.

That the death of animals is not necessarily evil is shown by the story of Cain and Abel: the animal sacrifice offered by Abel to God was acceptable to Him (Genesis 4:4) but the murder of Abel by Cain is an abomination (4:10-12).

The principle of “animals good, humans very good” continues throughout the Bible. The Old Testament law states that animals should be rested on the Sabbath along with all humans (Exodus 20:10), and be fed as they laboured in the fields (Deuteronomy 25:4). Proverbs notes that one of the characteristics of a righteous person is that they look after their animals (Proverbs 12:10). There is, however, far more detail and significance to the laws which describe how people are to treat each other.

Animals matter as everything that God has made does, but people matter more than anything else in creation:
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26)
If you’re a vegetarian who buys clothes and other products that are made by exploiting people then your priorities are the wrong way around.

2. What gets eaten in the Bible?

a. Original creation

Genesis says that the first humans were vegetarians:
“Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” (Genesis 1:29)
The most simple explanation for this is that where there is no sin there is no death. Soon after sin enters the world, animals die. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the first ever clothes – made by God to cover Adam and Eve’s shame after they sinned – were leather (2:21).

Sin infected all of creation: food immediately became difficult to produce and gather (3:17-19). This struggle is made worse as sins works its evil in human hearts, and it is this combination that creates bad food production processes. The farmer and the farmed are polluted.

b. God’s people in the Old Testament

God extends the range of man’s diet in Genesis 9:23 to include meat (no reason is given for this), and He directly provides meat for people to eat in Exodus 16:12-13. Old Testament Israelites were given land to tend and crops to herd, which they were to acknowledge as God’s loving provision to them. Plentiful animals were a sign of God’s blessing (Deuteronomy 28:4) as they were a valuable commodity. Preparing a meal with meat in it was a way of honouring a guest (Genesis 18:1-8) or celebrating (especially the Passover, Exodus 12).

When establishing how Israel was to live, God distinguished between meat that was “clean”, which they could eat, and that which was “unclean”, which they were not to eat (Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14). This was less about hygiene and culinary preferences than it was about displaying God’s holiness by marking out His chosen people as distinct among the nations.

Animal sacrifice (described in Leviticus 10 and elsewhere) was a key part of the Jewish religious system because sin is so serious that only death can atone for it. Blood is very significant in this, so the Law forbade consuming an animal’s blood but allowed the priests who sacrificed an animal to eat parts of it afterwards (Leviticus 17:11, 6:26 respectively).

These principles of holiness and right sacrifice were in Daniel’s mind when he refused to eat Babylonian meat (Daniel 1:8-16). His acceptance of vegetables instead was probably because the meat would have been sacrificed to idols, and was a symbol of the Babylonian king’s ownership of him. Daniel worshiped and trusted the God of Israel only, and is blessed for his faith. This story is not a lesson in the nutritional sufficiency of vegetables but in the sufficiency of Yahweh.

c. God’s people in the New Testament

We know that Jesus ate lamb (Luke 22:7-16) and fish (Luke 24:42-43). He miraculously provided meat on more than one occasion (Luke 5:1-11, John 21:1-14). His first disciples had no qualms about eating clean meat (Acts 10:9-16) and eventually realised that He had taught them that all foods were clean (Mark 7:14-19).

The New Testament has several extended discussions about eating meat but these are always in the context of greed or idolatry, rather than animal rights (e.g. 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, Romans 14). As in Daniel’s day, animals sold at the Roman markets were often sacrificed to gods, and prayers of thanks to those gods would be made at meals. Christians were concerned about whether eating meat would make them partakers in idolatry, especially given that many of them were recent converts from those religions. This is the setting for every carnivore’s favourite Bible verse, “the weak person eats only vegetables” (Romans 14:2). Those with fragile faith should avoid anything that seems hazardous to them.

Paul was convinced by Jesus that all foods were clean (Romans 14:14) but he chose what to eat depending on the circumstances of the meal: would it encourage his fellow diners that Jesus is Lord, or not? With the confidence of Christian freedom and the urgency of Christian mission, Paul doesn’t care what is put on his plate, so long as he can talk about Jesus during the meal (1 Corinthians 10:33)!

While he is flexible in what he eats, Paul is rigid in his condemnation of those who would ban others from eating certain foods, and who thus put limits on the freedom Christ has won for us:
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Timothy 4:1-5)
This is strong language and has to be taken extremely seriously.

d. New creation

Christians live with a taste of the glorious tomorrow on our lips.

The image of a meal is used to describe the return of Jesus, when He will bring Heaven fully to Earth. It will be like a feast (Isaiah 11, 25), a banquet (Luke 14), a wedding feast (Matthew 25). The new age will begin with the marriage supper of Jesus and His bride, the Church (Matthew 22, Revelation 19:9). This sensory metaphor is significant: we will live on the physical earth, we will have real bodies, we will eat real food. Jesus will have made all things new. All of creation is yearning - groaning even - for this day when it becomes what it was always meant to be: fully glorious and free from corruption (Romans 8:19-22). Only then will food production be perfect.

Sin and death will be destroyed. Isaiah 11:6-7 gives us a vision of new creation harmony in which naturally antagonistic animals are reconciled to each other (“the wolf shall dwell with the lamb”) and carnivorous animals such as lions and bears eat grass.

What exactly will we eat? The basic principle for understanding anything in the new creation is: like now, but incomprehensibly better and without sin. In Revelation 22:2, John sees “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.” Isaiah 25:6 talks of “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” That “marrow” is not the vegetable but the tastiest of meat.

However literally you want to take these accounts, they are clearly making the point that God will provide wonderful food for us. They could also be suggesting that in the future perfect circumstances this won’t involve the death of animals.

3. What shall we eat now?

The Bible is clear that everything on the table is allowed, but there are questions we can ask that might cause us to limit what we eat:

a. Spiritual health

Question: Given that self-control is a work of the Holy Spirit in us, what you are struggling to say no to? (Galatians 5:23)

My answer: Meat is more associated with gluttony and a lack of self control than vegetables, though it is not the only food that tends to be abused by us. Gluttony is one of the most tolerated sins in the western church, despite Paul’s insistence that he would not be mastered by anything, including his stomach (1 Corinthians 6:12-13). In a culture that loves to consume and have more than its fill, refusing to do so can be a powerful statement of what we ultimately delight in: God Himself. As it happens, I’ve found not eating meat to be remarkably easier than I first feared, and I think it's helped my general discipline.

Question: Given that joy is a work of the Holy Spirit, what can you receive from God with joy and thanksgiving? (Galatians 5:23)

My answer: Meat is more associated with enjoyment and blessing than vegetables! Of course it isn’t the only food that causes joy, but as Paul forbids forbidding food (1 Timothy 4:3-4) and encourages us to relish God’s generous gifts to us (1 Timothy 6:17), eating meat can be legitimately celebratory. Perhaps eating less if it will increase the joy of the occasions when you do. The New Testament principle would seem to be: eat whatever is set before you with a smile on your face and thankfulness in your heart.

b. Physical health

Question: What helps your body be in a good condition so that you can serve God and others well? (2 Timothy 2:4-6, 1 Corinthians 9:27)

My answer: Health experts advise that we eat more vegetables, fruits and grains, than meat. Meat can be a very efficient source of energy, it can also cause poor health if eaten to excess.

c. Social health

What might cause the reputation of Jesus to suffer because of your behaviour? (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 7, 8:13, 1 Timothy 3:3)

My answer: Jesus warned His followers that they can’t win: whether they abstain or feast they will attract criticism (Matthew 11:18-19). In some cultures, refusal to eat what you are offered is deeply insulting, and Christians should use their freedom to accept another’s preference rather than impose their own, in order to win a hearing for the gospel. We want to convert people to Christianity, not our diet.

d. Creation health

Question: What best cares for all of creation? (Genesis 1:26-31)

My answer: There are methods of food production that are uncaring towards animals and damaging to the planet, and people can be harmed by these in a number of ways too, thus failing all the creation responsibilities God gave us in Genesis 1-3. On the other hand, technological progress has made food cheaper and more accessible to people than it ever has been, and it is possible to farm animals sustainably and respectfully. Once again we should note that the problems in this category aren’t unique to meat. Jay Rayner’s book, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, gives a useful, if very sweary and blasphemous, account of how complicated this all is.

Although I’ve made both sides of the argument in each category above, I think these questions can be answered to give you legitimate reasons to eat less meat, or not to eat meat at all. Deb and I have decided to change from a typical pattern of one meat-free evening meal a week to maybe just one meaty meal a week. We had already tended to buy fairly-traded meat and other foods that are carefully and sustainably farmed, but we are now being more consistent in this. For us, the decision was based almost entirely on the issue of caring for creation.

Will my choosing to eat less meat and only buy responsibly-farmed meat change the agriculture industry? That’s not my business, I’m just here to live faithfully before God.

Where does this stop before having to run your own farm or becoming a vegan? I go back to Paul’s point about not being mastered by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12-13). Our diet won’t define us. We certainly won’t tell people who are inviting us round to dinner that we prefer vegetables (I don’t!), and we want to offer our guests food that they will enjoy. If we’re eating out and the meat is declared to responsibly sourced, so much the better. If it isn’t, well I decide what I feel like. This liberty is, I think, more important for Christians to maintain than constancy in diet.

4. Conclusion: how shall we eat?

Surely above all we should eat with thanks (Acts 2:46). With every meal we are given, God is showing His love to us by providing for us: acknowledging this stirs gratitude and happiness.

Whether you decide to eat anything or refrain from some things, remember that the choice you’re making is secondary to your responsibility to love and bless people. If your decision to not eat meat makes someone else’s life more complicated (if they are cooking for you, for example), then why not rather bless them by accepting what they make for you, rather than telling them what you will and won’t eat? I say this as a fussy eater.

Paul reminds us that “food will not commend us to God” (1 Corinthians 8:8). This is important to remember because people often grant themselves moral worth (and look down on others) based on their dietary choices – and yet a Christian’s only credit comes from what Jesus did on our behalf. Whatever we eat, we do not prove ourselves to God with it. This is better news and more sweet to us than our favourite meal being served.

Whatever goes into your stomach, make sure that your heart is full of worship:
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Agatha Christie and Christian despair

In her autobiography, Agatha Christie recalls a moment in a lesson when her teacher stopped speaking about maths and suddenly changed the subject:
"All of you,” she said, “every one of you—will pass through a time when you will face despair. If you never face despair, you will never have faced, or become, a Christian, or known a Christian life. To be a Christian you must face and accept the life that Christ faced and lived; you must enjoy things as he enjoyed things; be as happy as he was at the marriage at Cana, know the peace and happiness that it means to be at harmony with God and with God’s will. But you must also know, as he did, what it means to be alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, to feel that all your friends have forsaken you, that those you love and trust have turned away from you, and that God Himself has forsaken you. Hold on then to the belief that that is not the end. If you love, you will suffer, and if you do not love, you do not know the meaning of a Christian life... ” Years later [those words] were to come back to me and give me hope at a time when despair had me in its grip.

On the naming of telescopes

Scenes at The Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, on Doors Open weekend.

Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto: the four largest moons of Jupiter. Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, which has been visited by spacecraft in the series Pioneer, Voyager, Cassini, Galileo, and most recently, Juno.

Looking up to the heavens elicits wonder in most of us, whether our understanding of them has never truly improved since we ticked off constellations listed in I-Spy with David Bellamy: Night Sky, or we are among the smarter class of employee at NASA. The use of mythology to name some of what we see seems somehow commensurate with this wonder.

The tools we use to see with are barely less wondrous. When visiting The Royal Observatory, Edinburgh yesterday, as part of the annual Doors Open weekend, I looked through a solarscope (above) and was able to witness solar flares coming off the surface of the sun. Marvellous to me, this was basic by comparison with other projects underway on the site. Among these was involvement in the construction of a telescope whose 39-metre primary mirror is constructed of 798 hexagonal segments, engineered to a smoothness that is proportionally shallower than a 2 millimetre wave in the Atlantic Ocean (total area 106,400,000 square kilometres). It will be able to fire six lasers 80 kilometres into the sky, and focus perfectly on an object the size of a bumble bee at an equivalent distance of Land’s End to John O’Groats.

Section of tecnical drawing from telescope under discussion here

It will take eleven years to construct, after which it is expected, according to Wikipedia, "to vastly advance astrophysical knowledge by enabling detailed studies of planets around other stars, the first galaxies in the Universe, super-massive black holes, and the nature of the Universe's dark sector, and to detect water and organic molecules in protoplanetary disks around other stars." In other words, it will show us things we have never seen before. And do you know what this feat of engineering is to be called?

The European Extremely Large Telescope.

The engineer we spoke with could explain why a telescope needs to fire lasers (information that went as swiftly out one ear of mine as it had arrived in the other, no fault of his) but had no explanation for this unacceptable, wooden literalism that gives science a bad name. A telescope by any other name would look as far, but given the gasps of wonder and leaps in knowledge it should provoke, surely something grander than mere adjectives should be found for it.

I believe President Bartlet would agree…

Week 38 misc: Mormons, Russians, Paralympians, Cyclists, Kids

I didn't take any photos this week, so here's what Edinburgh looked like from Calton Hill in 1855

Many of us know what to expect when a polite-looking person with a badge proclaiming them to be "Elder so-and-so" approaches us in the street, but we do know what Mormons believe? Gerald McDermott shows that Mormonism is not Christianity.

Having missed out on the Paralympics at London 2012 because we were moving flat and didn't have TV, we've loved "discovering" it this time. Archbishop Cranmer rightly takes the opportunity to ask how this celebration of human possibility conflicts with our abortion laws.

What happens when someone gets into cycling? Tom Vanderbilt tells his story, lycra and all.

If you haven't the first clue about how to understand Russia, Peter Hitchens wants to set you straight.

I hate most adverts, but Virgin Media's "Masters of Entertainment" is enjoyable, so here it is. In the interests of full disclosure, I am a Virgin Media customer and if they reduce our bill because of this I would be very happy. (If you're wondering about the brilliant soundtrack, it's Ennio Morricone's L'Estasi dell'Oro from the Spaghetti Western classic, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.)

The Weight of Glory

Here are some of the quotes I particularly liked from a collection of lectures by C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (2013 edition published by William Collins):

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (p.26) 
To please God… to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness… to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in his on – it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is. (39) 
The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have talked to a mere mortal. (45-46) 
The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord”. (55-56) 
I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. (79) 
Believers in progress rightly note that in the world of machines the new model supersedes the old; from this they false infer a similar kind of supercession in such things as virtue and wisdom. (82) 
…we shall then be forced to the conclusion that Christ’s true meaning, concealed from those who lived in the same time and spoke the same language, and whom He Himself chose to be His messengers to the world, as well as from all their successors, has at last been discovered in our own time. (87) 
‘We know not what we shall be’; but we may be sure we shall be more, not less, than we were on earth. Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like pencilled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in the risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape, not as candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the laze of the risen sun. (111) 
I believe in Christianity as I believe the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. (140) 
Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it. (181) 
Failures will be forgiven; it is acquiescence that is fatal, the permitted, regularised presence of an area in ourselves which we still claim for our own. We may never, this side of death, drive the invader out of our territory, but we must be in the Resistance, not in the Vichy government. And this, so far as I can yet see, must be begun again every day. (192)

How new are the problems new technology gives us?

Modern life is full of unique challenges, we’re often told. Are we losing the ability to remember anything, are we becoming more easily distracted, and is “Dr” Google making us neurotic about our health?

Well, here’s what worried Socrates in 370 BC about the invention of writing:
“The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written.”
Even though electricity hadn’t been discovered when John Donne was alive (1572-1631), he still struggled to concentrate when praying:
“I neglect God for the buzzing of a fly, for the creaking of a door, for the rattle of a coach in the street.”
In 1889, Jerome K. Jerome published his novel Three Men In A Boat, which begins with an extended description of the narrator’s various ailments:
“I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch – hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into – some fearful, devastating scourge, I know – and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it… I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.”
None of this means that we shouldn’t think carefully about how we use technology but these glimpses into the past would suggest that the novelty we sense is not in the challenges themselves but in the new ways in which they come to us. They also remind us that the writer of Ecclesiastes (10th Century BC) was right when he observed, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Week 35 miscellany: celeb special with Derren Brown, Jurgen Klopp, Bear Grylls, and authors

The best bit of the End of Festival Fireworks, the "waterfall" down Castle Rock, can never be photographed accurately but that doesn't stop all of us trying.

Regular readers of this blog are unlikely to be on the lookout here for celebrities, but this week's selection of articles and the like happen to full of them...

Derren Brown used to be a Christian, now he's world-famous for making his own "miracles". Justin Brierley has done a fascinating and honest interview with him. It's a good reminder for those of us who know that God does supernatural things today to be diligent in verifying them, whether they convince a sceptic or not.

Gary Lineker recently interviewed Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, who mentioned that his Christian faith made him happy to celebrate the success of others, even his opponents. Tim Bechervaise considers what it is about the gospel that makes this true.

Marilyn Robinson is one of my favourite writers (and as Pulitzer Prize-winner must count as famous, if not a celebrity). What is it about her form of Christianity that is causing it to shrink?, wonders Paul Gleason.

J.R.R. Tolkien hated celebrity, and wasn't much of a fan of triumphalism either. Wesley Hill considers the truth of his description of Christianity as a "long defeat". Whether you agree with Hill (or Tolkien), his contention that God might ask us to do things we don't want to do is almost an alien concept in the western church. That is a ridiculous situation for people who are called to "take up your cross and follow Me".

Finally, Bear Grylls invites you to go on the greatest adventure...

Five rings, five things


There were 3,000 hours of Olympic coverage on BBC television and online. The radio was there when those methods were unavailable - and even more immediate in some ways because it can switch between sports so rapidly. The website even showed which athletes have the most similar body shape to you. As a proportion of my annual licence fee, this all cost me £6.

My only complaint (apart from the monotony of montages) is that I wish the presenters and commentators would stop saying that history was being made, and asking the athletes how they felt about it.

Many of the best moments, and others you would never have known about otherwise, were captured by press photographers: The Guardian’s daily gallery has been a highlight in itself.

Two incomprehensible adverts


London 2012 still makes me emotional when I recall it. We may have won more medals at Rio but only the athletes and coaches were involved in this one – despite the National Lottery's claims to the contrary. We were the hosts, our culture set the tone, our land was the dramatic backdrop - and we loved it. The Games Makers exemplified this, and we lived as vicariously through someone cheerfully pointing the way to a venue from a Tube station as we did Mo Farah's triumph or Gemma Gibbons' emotions.

Blaming Rio's desperate (and disinterested) residents for not attending felt like criticising the wind for not blowing enough for the sailing competitions.

One of the best photos I've taken


My toddling niece says “Wow” to just about anything, which is a sort of sanity, when you think about it.

The best of sport can make us say “Wow” and no other sporting event packs in so much that is wow-worthy than the Olympics: Usain Bolt running in the only lane of the race track not covered in treacle, Neymar slotting home a gold mdeal-winning penalty with the weight of 200 million hysterical compatriots on his shoulders, Simone Biles exploding across the gymnasium until the very moment she wanted to be suddenly still. I would give a gold medal to every person who did a handstand on the edge of the 10-metre diving board. Even in what seems mundane by comparison, the sheer variety of the people involved and what they do is wondrous.

British athletes gave us plenty to smile about, and everyone will have their own favourites. I think Laura Trott is mine, combining as she does the wide-eyed pleasure of just being there that used to be the only consolation British Olympians had, with imperious strength and determined dominance of the Lottery era. Funding fuels organisational excellence, which harnesses and thus releases the talent and determination of so many athletes. We’ve found another thing we’re brilliant at, it seems.

To the criticism that this fascination with success is an insidious form of nationalism, I’d refer to London again, when we welcomed and cheered for everyone. I’m more concerned that we’re making sport an idol: something that we assign more value to than it truly has, setting it up in God’s place as our joy and hope and consolation. In its right place, however, it can still make us smile and say "Wow".


The modern Olympics were conceived as a showcase of what we are capable of. It always succeeds in this, but not perhaps in the way it intends. Along with the brilliance, from dodgy boxing decisions and lying swimmers to government-arranged doping and the plutocratic robbery of the city itself, the Olympics is yet another arena in which humans prove their wonder and their wickedness. None of this surprises the Christian. We celebrate the good knowing that it comes from humans being in made in God’s image; we mourn the bad keenly aware that the same self-inflicted sickness resides in our hearts too. God’s Word has told us these truths and the Olympics merely demonstrate them. What has been unique about these Games is the display of a greater hope than ourselves. Towering over the city stands the statue of Christ the Redeemer.

Justin Gatlin cannot escape his past as a drug cheat. He reminded us that he'd served his time for doping offences but we insist that a temporary ban is insufficient. We want him to apologise profusely, and probably to remove himself from the competition. We want a price to be paid.

A redeemer pays a price, like a ransom, to set you free. We are all slaves to sin, even the best of us, tugged willingly or not by its promptings, doing things that damage others and ourselves. So Jesus came to set us free, settling the cost when He died on the cross. The Christ the Redeemer statue stands in victory and His arms are still stretched out as they were on Good Friday. He offers welcome and shows how it was won for us. An Olympic dream can be achieved by blood, sweat, and tears, but redemption only comes through Jesus’ blood (Ephesians 1:7).



The BBC repeatedly spoke about inspiring a generation. I'm feeling inspired, though I'm unlikely to be competing at the next Games, despite an occasional sense of empathy with the cyclists as I pedal to the shops against a stiff breeze.

I've been inspired by seeing the fruit of teamwork. It doesn't just deliver success, it multiplies and magnifies joy. The deep commitment and love for each other that you see when teams celebrate is a beautiful thing. Of course winning hides a multitude of sins but it also shows the truth of team. God is Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit have existed and loved and shared for beyond always, and when we work or serve or live or play as a team we display something of Him.

When they weren't being asked how they felt, so many of the athletes spoke of the effort they'd put in to becoming an Olympian. This dedication is as old as the Games themselves, as is the application for the Christian who is struggling to keep going:
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
A prize greater than gold awaits, ready to be awarded to us by Christ the Redeemer.

Week 32 miscellany: check your prejudice, Olympics photos and faith, mascots, and trees

A bee amongst the lavender of Drummond Castle Gardens

Everyone has prejudices but not everyone realises this. Serina Sandhu shares research which proves this, and Ross Douthat comments on the myth of cosmopolitanism. This is perhaps the loudest voice in our culture presently (though votes for Brexit and Trump say something else) so it's important to be aware of what it's really saying.

The Olympic Games are upon us, and if they don't have quite the same magical atmosphere as London 2012 for some of us, there are still some wonderful things going on. The story of sport photography is told by George Vecsey (the photo of the BASE jumpers in Utah is my favourite), and David Matthias introduces Christians to C.S. Lewis' idea of "transposition" - seeing the ultimate things of God through the things around us, for which the Olympics are a great setting.

Vinicius and Tom are the Olympic and Paralympic mascots; Neil Steinberg explains the rise of a cartoon bear in Japan who has become much more than just a cuddly toy.

There's a Greek proverb which says that a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in. The National Forest is a rare example of Britain apply this wisdom, as John Vidal reports.