The Simple Pastor

Write. Read. Run. Lead.

Book Review: Cities of God

Cover of cities of God by Rodney StarkHow did Christianity move from being a provincial movement in Palestine to the leading religion of the Roman Empire?

This is the question the historian Rodney Stark sets out to answer and along the way challenges a number of well-established myths.

  • Was the missionary activity of the apostles key to the growth of Christianity? No, not really.
  • Was Paul really just focused on the mission to the Gentiles? Nope.
  • How important were the eastern cults of Cybele and Isis to the success of Christianity? Very.
  • Did Christian emperors seek to violently destroy paganism? Ah, no.
  • Was early Christianity seriously threatened by Gnostic movements? No, no, no.

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We are alone in the universe

It seems the question, is there other intelligent life (or any kind of life for that matter) in the universe continues to be a bothersome one for some of Earth’s brightest minds.

Let me make this easy. We are alone. Completely and utterly alone.

Even if we weren’t the chances of ever encountering anything in your lifetime of the lifetime of your great-great-great-great-great-grandchild is so infinitesimally small, that you might as well be. Estimates (or if we’re honest complete guesses and pulling numbers out of, ahem, space) say there must be billions of planets with life on them in our incredibly old and incredibly vast universe. Recently a planet that has been quickly dubbed Earth 2.0 was recently discovered with the only downside being that it is so far away we’ll never know one way or another. If you could travel at the speed of light (and you can’t) it would take 16 months to get there, or for our furthest flung adventurer New Horizons which recently flew by Pluto a further 28 months million years. Unless of course, unless we have one of these spaceships.

The chances of life on earth being destroyed by a meteor is far, far greater *. Let that sink in for a minute, the next time you want to encounter something from outer space. 

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Intersex: A short primer

There was a time (actually not all that long ago) where it seemed that the issue of gender was fairly straightforward, there were two of them, one male and one female.

Yet humans are far more complicated than that. This relates not so much to the issue of sexuality as the web of topics around gender dysphoria, where the person lives with a sense of severe disconnection between their sense of self and their physical biology and transgenderism. For more on gender dysphoria listen to this conversation between Mark Yarhouse and Melinda Selmys.

However, awareness is growing about people who would fall into a category known as intersex. Intersex is as the word suggests, where a person’s genetics or physical body doesn’t easily fit into either the category male or the category female.

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Living in the redzone

Recently I came across this tweet showing a map of the worldwide growth of the evangelical church.

In the countries shaded blue the evangelical church is growing faster than the population rate, its increasing it’s percentage share in those nations.

In the countries shaded yellow, the evangelical church is growing but not as fast as the overall population. The numbers are going up but the percentage is going down.

You may notice about four countries shaded red. In those countries the evangelical church is shrinking. I’m church planting in the red zone.

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Collected wisdom on the art of writing

I would love to write a book. Actually correct that, I would love someone to publish the books that I write (although it may not be all it’s cracked up to be). No, hold on – I would love people to read the books that I write and that are published.

That’s an increasingly common goal as three forces create a perfect storm for would be authors. First we are the beneficiaries of free education and living in a literate age – we are the lucky ones, we were forced by the law to learn to read and write.

Secondly, we live in a highly individualistic and increasingly narcissistic age. We have been conditioned to believe that we have something to say, a unique voice, a hidden talent and a fresh perspective irrespective of the truth about any of those things.

Thirdly, we live in the age of the great plains of writing – anyone can enter these limitless lands, simply by virtue of an internet connection and a free blog. It’s never been easier to publish a book, although ironically that also means it’s never been harder to get it read.

The stream of words flowing into the publishing vat has never been greater, yet it still remains true that the cream rises to the top. To get there it has never been more important for the aspiring writer to learn from the wisdom of those who have succeeded where so many have failed and to conquer new challenges in age of endless distraction. So here are six wells of wisdom to improve your writing.

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Ashley Madison, faithfulness & the new vigilantism

If you read the news you will most likely have heard the name Ashley Madison. For those of you who don’t know, that’s the name of a website that arranged for people to commit adultery, their motto “Life is short, have an affair.”

The internet has made it easier than ever to arrange an illicit rendezvous and around 30 million people worldwide had signed up to Ashley Madison. Adultery has become good business.

In July of this year an activist group of hackers, called The Impact Team, hacked into Ashley Madison and collected/stole the details of all its customers. The hackers then threatened to publish them if Ashley Madison wasn’t shut down.

Less than a month later, and with Ashley Madison still online, the hackers went good on their promise and published the personal details of some 33 million people. Unsurprisingly the majority of users, 28 million men (80%) while 5 million women (14%) had signed up. If you’re wondering about the other 6% they declined to comment on gender. You can also see which cities has the highest number of accounts.

Wired claimed that within hours the data leak was already ruining lives. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, the ruin of lives was being exposed. As the BBC reported, this was going to end marriages and ruin reputations.

Then came the inevitable class-action lawsuit for £400 million in damages for any Canadian user affected by the breach. Ashley Madison had charged a fee for personal data to be ‘forgotten’, which is much harder than you would think to do.

While the fallout is only just beginning so is the commentary. This story has lots to teach us about our culture.

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When the migrant crisis gets personal

When we close the books on 2015 and look at the big stories of the year, one of them will surely be the migration of millions of people from the Middle East and Africa to Europe. It is, I think, no exaggeration to say that we are witnessing a demographic shift that is going to significantly affect all three regions for generations to come.

Europe is by and large a rich continent surrounded by poverty and chaos – Yemen, Syria, Libya, Ukraine, Iraq and then further away the tragedy of grinding poverty, endemic corruption and persecution of many places in from Eritrea to Afghanistan – it’s not surprising that people in their millions would risk their lives to seek a better life. Although of course it’s not just Europe that is feeling the pinch from migrants – it’s a global issue too.

But it’s not just a global issue dealt with by graphs, charts and soundbites. It’s people and specifically it’s the 19-year-old younger sister of a member of our church currently making a dangerous journey because life had become ‘unbearable’. 

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Theological conferences & inclusivity: A reply

How do you make conferences (and churches for that matter) diverse? How do you include people who, for a variety of reasons, feel excluded? That’s the issue that Hannah Mudge raised after thinking out loud about the THINK conference, a three-day event wrestling with the issues raised in 1 Corinthians.

As I understood there were five questions that need addressing:

  1. THINK is a theologically focussed event, can anyone other than pastors attend?
  2. THINK is coming from the Newfrontiers family of churches, ‘known for making complementarianism a distinctive’, so are women welcome?
  3. If women are welcome to attend, will they feel free to participate once there?
  4. As David Capener pointed out, it looked like not only was everyone male but everyone was white, so what about racial diversity?
  5. And even if all these questions were answered in the affirmative, is it likely that anything will ever change? Capener is sceptical, whereas I am more hopeful.

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The time to think about transhumanism is now

Recently Max Anderson listened to a conversation between legendary tech investor Peter Thiel and legendary New Testament scholar NT Wright about death. Or more precisely a conversation about the possibility of overcoming death.

After listening to them both in public and private, Mr Anderson was convinced or should I say disturbed;

I also grew more convinced that there is a dangerous lack of moral philosophy and theological reflection about the rapidly emerging technologies that are forever changing our understanding of death and of life itself.

The modern church has, ironically, never been particularly good at prophecy. It’s not especially competent at seeing what is coming and getting ready for it. We wage war on abortion rights or same-sex marriage long after the prevailing culture (or at the very least the media) has made its mind up. The same will, likely, be true for transgenderism. I am willing to bet a hit sit-com will soon do for transgenderism what Modern Family (which is funny) has done for same-sex marriage – make it seem ‘normal’.

When it comes to grappling with issues of technology most churches are limited to railing about the dangers of social media and internet pornography (and with some good reason). Yet while we make a fuss about Facebook something far more serious is coming down the technological pipeline.

We’re already in the age of the self-driving car (1.7 million miles, 11 minor accidents & all of them caused by humans) and we’re already working out how to install morality into robots.

Yet the challenge that Christians will face, in the not too distant future, will not be working out a doctrine of robotics but instead wrestling with the doctrine of humanity. It’s not Google’s self-driving cars but Google’s labs to stop ageing that will be of most interest.

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The Curiosity Index (27.06.2015)

Start with the most important: Glen Scrivener tells youthworkers to STOP telling their youth to give their life to Jesus

This map shows you how Europe’s population has moved and grown in the first ten years of the 21st century

If you’ve decided to give Twitter a go (for what it’s worth – it’s my preferred social network) then here are some twitter tips for beginners

If this summer is for learning a new language here are 5 apps that can help (I’ve used both Duolingo and Memrise and can recommend them both).

Lastly, someone managed to lose this antarctic cruiser

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