Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Dark Arts Here?....Surely Not!!!!

I have just finished watching the TV dramatisation of the ‘The House of Cards’ trilogy. It tells the story of Francis Urquhart, a fictional politician whose ambition and lust for power knows no bounds. Urquhart’s character, created by writer Michael Dobbs, is a classic character study in the dark political arts made famous more than 500 years ago by the Italian diplomat, historian and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli.

In the TV series, Francis Urquhart is superbly portrayed by actor Ian Richardson.  Urquhart's rise to the top and the totally cold and calculating ruthlessness with which he exercises power makes him an excellent example of a ‘Machiavellian’ character. In ‘House of Cards’, Francis Urquhart is known by his political colleagues and the media as ‘FU’, and also for his catchphrase: "You might think that, I couldn't possibly comment."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary Machiavellianism is: ‘the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct’, and while it is not uncommon in the world of politics, it is standard practice in the criminal underworld.

In the fictional world of Mario Puzo’s ‘Godfather’ trilogy, Machiavellianism achieves its popular literary apotheosis in the character of Michael Corleone. The film adaptation chronicles the rise of the Corleone mafia family from the early 20th century until the 1970s.  A key feature of these films is the growth and development of the main character, Michael Corleone, superbly acted by Al Pacino who grows darker and more evil with every Machiavellian act.

It is often said that art imitates life, and a cursory examination of church history shows that Machiavellian behaviour has been prevalent throughout its history. Indeed the machinations of the Borgia family in the Catholic Church may have provided some inspiration for Machiavelli. In a more contemporary setting, the lifestyle and moral compass of many contemporary televangelists would certainly meet Machiavelli’s criteria for sharp practice. 

Jim Baumgaertel, editor of the Christian website www.procinwarn.com writes that: “Machiavelli taught that it was good to promote morals and ethics and religious convictions among the people. These were important in order to keep them under control and productive. Morals and ethics maintained stability and order and peace.

The ruler himself, was under no obligation to live by these same morals and ethics and religious convictions. The ruler was above these things. He was beyond good and evil. The ruler had the obligation to do whatever was necessary to maintain and extend his political power.”

As a Scottish born again Christian, I am tempted to ask those who are part of my country’s evangelical leadership elite whether Machiavellian behaviour exists amongst its competing factions.

I suspect that I may get ‘F.U.’s’ response of: "You might think that, we couldn't possibly comment."

Monday, 16 December 2013

Value Versus Values

As the trial at Isleworth Crown Court involving the Grillo sisters’ alleged fraud of their former employers Nigella Lawson and her former husband art dealer Charles Saatchi, grinds towards its conclusion, it looks like there will be no winners. The innocence or guilt of the defendants, has been of little consequence to the media thus far. Saatchi and Lawson, mere witnesses in the legal proceedings, have been the star attractions.

Their lifestyle has been laid bare for all to see, and it is far from pretty. While most of the population has been struggling financially for years due to the recession, these two pillars of the country’s social and political elite were spending ‘eye watering’ sums of money on daily luxuries which most ordinary citizens can only dream of having. The Grillo sisters were employed to do the family’s shopping, presumably because Saatchi and Lawson were ‘too busy’!

This materialistic lifestyle is however quite common amongst the growing number of families who belong to the social and political elite. Writing recently in the Guardian, George Monbiot railed against this kind of materialism saying: “that they are crass, brash and trashy goes without saying. But there is something in the pictures posted on Rich Kids of Instagram that inspires more than the usual revulsion towards crude displays of opulence. There is a shadow in these photos – photos of a young man wearing all four of his Rolex watches, a youth posing in front of his helicopter, endless pictures of cars, yachts, shoes, mansions, swimming pools and spoilt white boys throwing gangster poses in private jets – of something worse: something that, after you have seen a few dozen, becomes disorienting, even distressing.”

According to Monbiot, there is a great deal of reliable research to suggest that materialism as it affects rich and poor is, “both socially destructive and self-destructive”. 

Materialism is defined as "a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project". Research has found it to be associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships. More recently, psychologists have shown that there is a definite causative relationship between materialism, lack of empathy with others, and general unhappiness.

The Bible has a lot to say about materialism. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” In the Gospel of Luke, he spoke about ‘mammon’, the Aramaic word for ‘riches’ when he said: “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” The principle here is that wealth is a negative influence that can keep us from God.

Here’s some good advice to Ms Lawson, Mr Saatchi et al from the Apostle Paul. Writing to the young man Timothy he said: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment”.



Thursday, 5 December 2013

Saved to Serve, Not to Sit!!!!

It came as no surprise to find that in most local churches only 20 percent of the people are involved in their work. This ranges from stewarding to preaching to praying to leading worship and the whole host of practical tasks in between. These tasks enable the organisation to function at a basic level of effectiveness.  The remaining 80 per-cent’s input is limited to consuming what’s on offer week after week.

In the USA, the evangelical researcher George Barna has found that, ‘80 percent of the leaders in America today are talking about the ministry of their people, but only 20 percent of them are actually providing the people with opportunities to get involved.’ The situation is probably much worse in Scotland’s evangelical churches, where moving from the position of ‘pew warmer’ to active contributor to the work of the church, is at best a tortuous and uncertain process.

Yet this is not how things should be. As a historian, I am acutely aware of the doctrine of the ‘Priesthood of all Believers’ which the leaders of the 16th century Reformation derived from the Bible.

The reformers saw this as a buttress against the clericalism of the medieval Catholic Church. For individuals such as John Calvin and Martin Luther, Biblical truth opposed the existence of a special, elite, self- perpetuating priestly/leadership class within the church.

According to Martin Luther, Christians: “are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone. As St. Paul says, we are all one body, though each member does its own work, to serve the others. This is because we have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike.”

Sadly this ‘elite’ and its exclusive culture, continues to underpin areas of Scottish evangelical life. Expert at perpetuating and promoting its own small exclusive circle while denying opportunity to the many believers who are clearly gifted by the Living God, such elitist behaviour patterns are the opposite of the ‘priesthood of all believers’.

The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth shows that God has a key role for everyone in His Church:

“For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. And if they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body.”

In an article entitled “NO PEW WARMERS” Or “The Priesthood of Every Believer”, the preacher, James Hamann writes: “If a church is normal, the number of people saved should also be the number of people serving. This needs to be the mindset of every local church. In the New Testament, all the saved ones are priests; therefore, all the saved ones should serve.

The appendix in the human body was once thought to have little significance or function, so surgeons cut it out almost at the drop of a hat. They’re more cautious now. God, the Creator, doesn’t waste anything. He’s the supreme economist. Everything He creates is to purpose. Every part of a human body has a necessary function. In the body of Christ, all have a function and ministry -- everyone is special. The church should have no peripherals, no pew-warmers, no casuals, no spectators, and no “passengers only” on the gospel bus.”

Monday, 2 December 2013

An ‘Odds-on Racing Certainty’

Ask most Scottish evangelical Christians for their opinion on the many social, economic, political or cultural matters which are part and parcel of our national life and you will be lucky to get a coherent response. At best this group is extremely circumspect about expressing a clear opinion about anything.

There are however some exceptions to this general observation. Evangelicals do get exercised about matters like same sex marriage. However, lack of credibility with ordinary people after decades of a ‘head in the sand’ attitude to a  changing society, has left evangelical Christians floundering at the margins, comprehensively and repeatedly out thought and out fought by the ‘media savvy’ secularists.

Gambling is yet another issue which seems to get under the skin of evangelical Christians from time to time. Most regard this activity as sinful and any evangelical groups involved in social action will routinely refuse to accept funding for their ‘good cause’ from the National Lottery because, as they see it, it’s gambling!

I used to believe that gambling was a sin ……..not anymore!

Indeed frowning on those who make a donation to a good cause by buying a raffle ticket at a fete, gala or bring and buy sale in aid of many good causes merely serves to further disconnect evangelicals from the very people to whom they have been commissioned by Jesus to bring the good news of the Gospel.

Such hypocrisy and pettiness in the name of ‘Christian political correctness’ dishonours the name of the Living God.

As a born again Christian, I know that the timeless values of the Bible trumps the shifting sand of cultural norms. I was therefore not surprised to find that the Bible does not specifically condemn gambling, betting, or the lottery. 

According to the ’Got Questions’ website: “While the Bible does not explicitly mention gambling, it does mention events of “luck” or “chance.” As an example, casting lots is used in Leviticus to choose between the sacrificial goat and the scapegoat. Joshua cast lots to determine the allotment of land to the various tribes. Nehemiah cast lots to determine who would live inside the walls of Jerusalem. The apostles cast lots to determine the replacement for Judas. Proverbs 16:33 says “The lot is cast in the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.”

I rest my case!!

So the next time Christian friends, you find yourself in a National Lottery outlet, get your wallet out and buy a ticket. Consider the money spent as a modest form of tax.

Most importantly, remember that you are not condemned in scripture for such an act. Indeed, should you be blessed with a win, use your new found wealth, which has come from the Living God, to help as many people as possible who you know to be in need.
It’s an ‘odds-on racing certainty’ that God will bless all who have such a mind-set!