"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The BBC and fringe views in science

According to today's Guardian the BBC is giving a false balance in its coverage of climate change writes its Science correspondent Ian Sample. An independent review, while noting that the BBC’s science coverage was generally of high quality and praiseworthy for its breadth, depth and accuracy, concluded that the network was at times so determined to be impartial that it put fringe views on a par with well established fact, a strategy that made some scientific debates appear more controversial than they actually were.

The criticism was particularly relevant to stories on issues such as global warming. “There is a consensus in the scientific community that anthropogenic climate change exists,” said the report writer, Emeritus Professor Steve Jones of University College London. By failing to move the discussion on, the BBC was missing other stories, he added. Jones likened the BBC’s approach to oppositional debates asking a mathematician and a maverick biologist what two plus two equals. When the mathematician says four and the maverick says five, the public are left to conclude that the answer is somewhere in between.

Professor Jones lamented the narrow range of sources reporters use for stories and a lack of scientific knowledge of the breadth of science.
Alison Hastings of the BBC Trust said that clearer identification of individuals’ expertise and agendas would help audiences judge their comments.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

About denominational allegiance

Are these denominational labels so much hot air? On the one hand I remember my Lutheran mentor becoming very passionate and, I felt, rather pedantic about Lutheran doctrine while, at the same time whenever my Anglican friend James asked me about Lutheran doctrine, he would always respond “But that’s what Anglicans believe.” Could I even dare to suggest that some denominations are a bit precious about maintaining their distinctive nature, even when that causes divisions – divisions which ultimately damage the Missio Dei?

“Your lot are a bit up themselves aren’t they?” I was asked more than once. If that is so, is it an inevitable consequence of being a minority denomination? Do you have to try harder to maintain your identity if you are a minority? I’m sure you do, but perhaps the real heart of the issue is whether or not the British religious landscape needs a Lutheran Church at all. What is the Lutheran Church offering that couldn’t be provided at least as well by the Anglican, Methodist, Baptist or URC denominations? Indeed, does that become a more threatening question if you ask it in turn of every main-stream denomination even, dare I say it, the Roman Catholic Church? Many of my Catholic friends express huge disenchantment at much that seems to characterise Catholicism and yet they remain. Why? "Once a Catholic", as they say? Is the whole business of denominations simply tribalism?

Supplementary questions we could save for another time might ask whether these differences are quite as distinct as some churchmen would have us believe and to what extent are they really important anyway? As far as I can see none of it is of such an order as to be determinative of salvation.

What is it that makes people in Britain – those that do, anyway – attend worship? Is it the theology? No it isn’t in the main. If we’re realistic, how many people who worship on Sunday actually know about, let alone care about, the finer points of dogma? This is where, in my humble opinion, A Lutheran Bishop I know had it right: he seemed more concerned to be a pastor to his flock and I think that’s how the church grows. If you start defining yourself by your theological uniqueness, is that going to strike a chord with the unchurched? I’m sure this is how St. Angst is successful: it’s a pastoral church and broken people come, and largely stay, because they know they’ll be cared for. They don’t necessarily come for its Anglican theology even though they probably know its Anglican. If they’re comfortable with that, so much the better but it’s not the priority. Such people are the next generation of the church but to what extent have they grown into or absorbed the denominational identity? Are they Anglican or Methodist or whatever because they like what happens at St. Thingumy’s or because they have bought into the denominational identity?

As a case in point I remember asking a member of the clergy at St. Atrophy’s what its stance was on issues of human sexuality, to be told that it subscribed to the position of the Evangelical Alliance and then to discover, that this position was not espoused by any member of the congregation I spoke to.

Who, in the pews of the Anglican Church, knows or cares greatly about the theology of the 39 Articles? Who, in the pews of the Lutheran Church, knows or cares much about the theology of The Two Kingdoms? Who really cares how many sacraments their church has? They go to church because, for whatever reason, they feel at home or comfortable and that, generally, has nothing to do with dogma or theology. I’m fairly sure that a significant number of Sunday worshippers could settle in any denomination provided the environment was right. That environment is eclectic and personal: does an individual like a sung Eucharist? A Taize emphasis? Speaking in tongues? A largely prayerful and reflective atmosphere? Smells and bells? Pomp or austerity? Mere family tradition? It ought to be a salutary lesson for church leaders: how many members of any congregation are there out of convenience or conviction?

I remember my Lutheran Bishop telling me with some indignation about the time someone asked him what the point of the Lutheran Church in this country was. I can’t remember his reply now, but I do remember that I wasn’t particularly convinced by it.

So, my sense is that denominational allegiances are marginal to a significant minority of worshippers. On a wider scale though, this is about the future of the church. How many congregations within a denomination are being encouraged to amalgamate or develop a team ministry? How many interdenominational arrangements are being made either at local or national level? Why? Economies of scale in the face of declining church attendance and in this context, denominational differences are going to increasingly count for very little: certainly we can’t afford to be so precious about our sense of identity or orthodoxy that we’d rather just fade away than work together for the mission of the church and some individuals and groups of worshippers would rather do just that than deal with change. Almost anyone in the church you talk to will have a story of people who simply stopped coming to church because they wouldn’t engage with amalgamations and closures. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many people have a tenuous denominational identity: a new vicar arrives that an individual doesn’t take to and he leaves the church. He is as likely to turn up in the local Methodist church as he is to travel to another Anglican congregation and this pattern seems to be common regardless of the original denomination.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Continuing with race

So what did we learn about our borders from the last lesson?

There are some thoughtful replies and a significant amount of grimacing as the kids try to access information from three days ago: the cogs are definately whirring.

I display the following - my list from last lesson:
* It is hard to get into Britain.
* British staff work in our embassies abroad to check for fraudulent visa applications.
* People try to smuggle themselves into the backs of lorries at European ferry ports.
* A lorry driver can be fined £2,000 for every illegal he brings into the country.
* If an illegal has no identification he can’t be deported.
Asylum seekers should claim asylum at the first free country they arrive in.
* People who employ illegals can be fined £10,000 a person.
* The U.K Border Force exists just to track down illegals.
* All countries have a legal obligation to house genuine asylum seekers and refugees.

"It's hard to get into Britain? But they all come here."

As I said before, prejudices are being challenged but they aren't being given up easily.

I'm sorry. Weren't you here last lesson? Didn't you watch the film of the work of the Border Agency?

There is a brief conversation about the use of the words "they" and "all" in terms of stereotyping. The young man concerned decides that now would be a very good time to shut up.

"Sir, this thing about claiming asylum in the first free country. How is it that we have all the asylum seekers then?"

Which country in the world has the largest number of asylum seekers or refugees?




Yes. Pakistan. What's happening around Pakistan?

It's at this point that their lamentable grasp of geo-politics kicks in. Eventually someone suggests Afghanistan and they begin to grasp why large numbers of people have crossed the border from one country into another. We talk about immediate safety but also about a shared language and a shared culture - although on reflection I'm not so sure about language. They seem to get it.

"Why are so many here then?"

Which European country has most refugees and asylum seekers?


Austria. The list actually goes Austria, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Luxembourg and then the U.K.

"Austria takes more than us?"

Not in numbers, but in proportion to the size of their population. The statistics are per 1000 of the population.

"Where did you get those figures?"

The UNHCR website.

"The what?"

The United Nations Refugee Agency.

This takes some digesting as it is off-message as far as the tabloids are concerned. In the end, the learning point of the lesson might well be "You can't trust the tabloids." That seems to be a good outcome and we've not even started on race yet.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Teaching about race and challenging the tabloid worldview

My Yr 10 classes have recently begun a topic on Religion and Prejudice. This is almost always a difficult topic as the Tabloid attitude to ethnic minorities inevitably gets an airing.

We have worked hard to get the basics of definitions established: my students should, in theory, be able to talk in an informed way about prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, scapegoating and demonising. We have moved on to examine terms such as racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, disableism, ageism and sizeism: they seem fairly clear about such terms. The exam board requires them to be able to discuss in an informed way issues of race and gender. I always add in sexuality so that they can make wider comparisons.

We have recently started to look at racism and from experience I know that there are other terms that need to be nailed before we can continue. There is much confusion about the meaning of the categories illegal immigrant, economic migrant, refugee and asylum seeker. As I suspected the kids use them interchangeably and I am pleased that by the end of the lesson they have a greater sense of clarity. I use an extract of the T.V. series U.K. Border Force in an attempt to dispel some of the myths which abound about foreigners in Britain. I want to challenge the myth that Britain is swamped by illegals and is easy to get into; I want to challenge the perception that no one bothers to track and deal with illegals; I want the kids to understand how the law works in practice and I don’t feel I can sensibly tackle racism until we have got all of this out of the way.

The extract is a good one: we see the Border Force officers at work at the channel ports using high technology to detect clandestines; we see staff at our embassy in Lagos, Nigeria, challenging visa applicants who have bought forged documentation to support their applications and we see the domestic work of the Agency as it swoops on restaurants in search of undocumented workers and on Registry Offices where there is suspicion of marriages of convenience.

My students are, in the main, unaware of this work and are staggered by what they see. They are amazed at the efforts of the Agency staff at the channel ports as they repeatedly discover clandestines in the backs of lorries. As ever, though, their sense of what is achievable falls far short of the reality.

Why does the Agency staff pass them back to the French authorities?

“They should send them all home.”

That’s not what I asked.

They have a strong sense that British authorities should be able to do what they please regardless of various national laws and the Human Rights Act.

Remember, these people may be British but they are working on the French side of the channel. They are subject to French law.

“Why can’t the French just deport them?”

Where do you deport someone to who doesn’t have a passport?

“Just put them on the first plane out.”

And the authorities at the other end, wherever that is, will just return them to France because, funnily enough, they won’t accept people without passports either.

“But if you know what language someone speaks you know where to send them.”

Where does someone come from who speaks Arabic?


There’s no such place.

Eventually, someone offers Saudi Arabia and someone else suggests Iraq.

So all Arabic speakers are sent to Iraq or Saudi Arabia? What if they’re from Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Palestine, Lebanon?

“I’ve never heard of half of them.”

It’s a good job you’re not in charge of the Border Agency then isn’t it?

It must be the same in America.


Where do most of America’s illegal immigrants come from?


And what language do they speak there?


Try again.


So any undocumented Spanish speaker can be returned to Mexico? Where else in Central and South America do they speak Spanish?


Good. And ....?


Central and South America.

There are no takers.

Panama, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Chile, Venezuela, Paraguay, Uruguay, Columbia, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador ..... Do you see the problem? You can’t send people with no passport home if they won’t confess to where they’re from. (Apologies to any American readers at this point. I don’t know your laws. I am merely making a point.)

“Just drop ‘em all in the ocean.”

Do you not think that might illegal?

The fact that lorry drivers who are found with clandestines in their wagons are fined £2,000 per person strikes the kids as unfair. They are unwilling to accept that the burden of checking should be on the lorry drivers until I point out that an unscrupulous driver could make a small fortune by smuggling people in. Similarly they are surprised that employers are fined £10, 000 for employing illegal immigrants.

“But it’s not their fault.” Is the common belief.

Actually employers are required to check the immigration status of their workforce and keep copies of documents for inspection. You might want to ask yourself why a restaurant owner would be unwilling to do that given the fines.

We learn that the Mongolian chef and the Ukrainian waitress rounded up in a sweep of a restaurant in the film are both claiming to have student visas. My students seem to have little idea about visas. Swallowing right-wing tabloid reporting, they believe anyone can come into Britain at any time. They are amazed that the Mongolian chef’s fingerprints are on the system because he had already been deported from Britain. It transpired that he had borrowed a friend’s passport to get back into Britain.

“Who paid for him to be returned?”

It may come out of the fines that are paid to the agency. If not, then the tax-payer.

“They should be made to pay it back.”

How are you going to recover that once he’s back in Mongolia?

“Then he should be made to work and not deported until he has earned the fare.”

But he can’t work as an undocumented immigrant. It’s against the law. That’s the point

“I bet he’s claiming benefits too.”

How can he? He’s here illegally and has no documentation. He’s not entitled to claim anything. If he tried to sign on he’d be arrested.

We follow the story of the Ukrainian waitress.

Is the Ukraine in the E.U?



“Don’t know.”

It has come as something of a shock to my students to discover that E.U. nationals have the right to live and work in any other E.U. country and, more specifically, Britain.

A German can live and work in Finland; a Swede can live and work in Portugal; an Estonian can live and work in Hungary; an Irishman can live and work in the Czech Republic and so on. How many Brits have taken advantage of that and live and work elsewhere in Europe?

They have no idea.

Three million plus.

They are gobsmacked.

“But why?”

Because that’s how the E.U. works. It’s part of the membership deal

Prejudices are being challenged, but they are not being given up easily.

“So Poles can be here legally?

That’s right.

“They should all be sent home.”

Fine. Good luck with telling all the Brits abroad that they’ll have to give up their jobs, sell up and come home.


Because that’s how the E.U. works. All the member states have the same rights. You start discriminating against one group and you break the law and you opt out of membership. O.K you have no E.U. citizens in Britain but you have a lot of disgruntled British returners who have been thrown out of Europe as a consequence.

They process this.

“It’s more complicated than I thought.”

They then become totally inconsistent, moved by the Ukrainian waitress’s distress at finding that she’ll have to spend time in a Detention Centre because she will not give up her address so that Agency Staff can retrieve her passport for deportation. She fears that her housemates will also be rounded up.

“But she’s European.”

But not E.U.

“What harm is she doing?”

But she’s broken goodness knows how many laws. She’s not entitled to be here. How is she different from the Arab boys clinging under the chassis of lorries at Calais?

“She’s white.”

And there you have it.

In fairness the kid was shouted down by most of the others but someone was always going to say it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Finishing with Miracles

The exam board requires us to know the theories of the Scottish Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). This always strikes me as odd because he was a man of his age and his theories, which may well have had some resonance in his own time, are not good arguments today. My youngsters must know both arguments and counter arguments.

* There is never enough evidence: Hume followed the line of argument that said that as the laws of nature had been observed for hundreds of years there is not sufficient evidence that they had been suspended. Therefore it would always be more likely that miracles do not happen.

The problem with this argument is that Hume concentrates on the definition which requires that a law of nature be suspended. The text book refutation is a bit weak to my way of thinking and takes the idea of man flying as an example. "Based on Hume's argument, the existence of human flight can not be accepted because until 1903 no one had ever seen anyone fly in an aeroplane. Does this mean that because more people through history have believed flight could not happen, it actually had not happened?" I suspect Hume did not have in mind flying with mechanical aid, but there you go.

* The witnesses are unreliable: witnesses to miracles can not be trusted because they are predisposed to believe in miracles and are therefore biased. They may lie or exaggerate to back up their claims.

The counter argument is fairly strong here: the founders of the religions warned their followers not to put too much trust in miracles. The Roman Catholic Church goes to great lengths to check out alleged miracles and will not simply accept any claim. That some right wing evangelicals tend to soak up "miracles" like sponges is neither here nor there, although it is odd to think that there are Christians today who may be trying to redefine the basis of the faith to include an acceptance of miracles as a given and as a test of faith. They seem to be missing the point.

* The witnesses are uneducated: Hume classed all witnesses to miracles as primitive and they accept what they can not understand because they have no understanding of science.

My pupils are very clear that this is not a tenable argument: it is possible that this was more true in Hume's day but as miracles are reported in all countries, including the technologically advanced, it is not an argument that holds water.

* Religions depend on miracles: the religions of the world depend on miracles to prove their claims to be truth. In addition, as all religions can not be "right", their miracles cancel each other out.

The basis of a religion is not its miracles. Many religious people are not convinced by the miraculous but manage to maintain a robust spirituality regardless. Their faith does not stand or fall on tales of the unexpected. My religious faith is not undermined in the slightest by stories of the Buddha or Muhammad performing signs and wonders. Why should something they did cancel out something Jesus did? It makes no sense. It's not a competition.

My pupils hate David Hume. They hate learning the arguments and counter arguments even more.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The News of the World: goodbye and good riddance.

Regular readers will know that I'm not a great fan of the Tabloids: they have done a huge disservice to the name of journalism, becoming a byword for lazy and misinformed rantings and therefore a huge disservice to the British public who, seemingly, buy into what is presented to them as news in these rags. The term "Gutter-Press" was never better used, though, in relation to the News of the World, which went out of publication after yesterday's edition.

For those of you who are either not British or who are but have been on Mars, I offer the following prejudiced analysis.

For some time the issue of hacked e-mails and phone messages has been rumbling along. The police have been involved and News International made strenuous denials and it all seemed to go away, but the rumours persisted even though the NoW published "No inquiries, no charges, no evidence....Like the rest of the media, we have made mistakes ...When we have done so we have admitted to them." which turned out to be one big porky!

It then became clear that through the work of "one rogue journalist" the phones of several celebrities had been hacked. Court papers were served and there was a series of high profile out of court settlements. Last week - was it really only last week? - it transpired that, former police enquiries notwithstanding, the phones of not one but three murdered girls and their families had been hacked and in one case, to the extent that registered phone activity had given the girl's family hope that she might still be alive.

Then we discover that the victims (and their families) of the 7/7 terrorist bombings in London had been hacked and then the phones of soldiers (and their families) killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then we discover that attempts were made to find out the medical histories of the former Prime Minister's children and finally - or possibly not finally - we hear that the Royal Family have also been victims. The contagion, it seems, has spread to The Sun and The Times, two other News International titles.

It was something of a shock, too, to discover that the police had had two private meetings with the leadership of the Guardian newspaper in an attempt to play down their breaking news, claiming that there was not enough evidence of phone hacking. Rebekah Brooks, admits paying police officers for information, which is, of course, illegal. Could there be a link? The relationship between executives of News International and senior police officers is yet to be revealed and will, no doubt, make interesting reading. Perhaps this is at the heart of the promised "more revelations to come." as told by Rebekah Brooks to NoW journalists. And at the same time she was telling all and sundry that the Guardian had "deliberately misled the British public." Well I suppose she would have been saying that. Didn't work though, did it?

The public have expressed disgust and advertisers stayed away in droves. (That the public have expressed disgust is, of course, totally hypocritical given the national appetite for the prurient and sleazy: an appetite which has fed these journalistic excesses.) Has the British public no interest at all in the issues that constitute real news or are we fixated on tits, bums, football and celebrity gossip? What a sad state of affairs. If these are the papers in the family home no wonder my pupils know nothing of the world around them but do know who's had sex with who in the "celebrity" - and I use the term loosely - world.

Rupert Murdoch decided to close down the paper, Britain's most successful Sunday publication. Yesterday was its final edition, and what a deluded, self congratulatory and self serving edition it was. As the media commentator Charlie Brooker noted, the final edition was "so rose tinted you could almost smell the petals" as it focused on its scoops whilst ignoring "its ghastly low points" hardly mentioning the phone-hacking issue at all. The British comedian Steve Coogan, a regular victim of the paper, noted "People keep saying its a very bad day for the press. It's a wonderful day for the press: a small victory for decency and humanity....People talk as if they had fallen below their usual high standards. They were already in the gutter, it is just that they have sunk lower than anyone thought they could." He went on to describe it as: "a misogynistic, xenophobic, single-parent hating, asylum seeker hating newspaper." Let's not forget, too, columnist Mazher Mahmood's alternative career as the entrapment Sheikh which arguably led some folk into criminal behaviour.

To read the coverage of this paper one could be forgiven for not realising what a despicable rag it was. The particular joy to be savoured, of course, is the realisation that both Murdoch and News International's Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks have become victims of the sort of mob mentality their paper was so good at targeting elsewhere. In this context I find it hard to buy into the rebranding of NoW journalists as innocent victims: when you sup with the Devil you need a long spoon, as they say. When you make your living on a sleaze rag you've made your moral choice. The Sun, another News International publication, remains in denial. It can't bring itself to lay the blame at the feet of Rebekah Brooks, the Murdochs or the illegal activities of NOW journalists, choosing instead to blame The BBC, The Guardian and Ed Milliband.

All of which highlights the toothlessness of the British Press Complaints Commission. As Peter Wilby, writing in the Guardain noted: " As its name suggests it is a complaints service, not a regulator, and we need something better. A new body should have powers to to monitor and enforce standards, investigate misconduct and call witnesses, insist that newspapers prominently publish its verdicts and, in extremity, impose penalties. It also needs fewer editors and more representsatives chosen by rank and file."

I couldn't agree more. Is there a chance that we might finally see an end to churnalism and the deliberate peddling of misinformation? One can but hope that the demise of the NoW might bring about a change in the way we do newspaper reporting in this country.

I leave the last word to Charlie Brooker: "If the editor's overall tone is more sentimental than apologetic, it's hardly surprising, given that it was assembled by a team who didn't hack a murdered schoolgirl's phone. Regardless, they lose their jobs; the woman who was editor at the time keeps hers. Thank you Rebekah. And goodbye to your staff."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Continuing with miracles again

So, when we said that miracles were signposts which point to God, what does that mean? What are miracles for?

"Well it's God doing stuff, isn't it?"


"Because he can?"

Our text book offers us a number of possibilities. Miracles are:
* To reveal the power and knowledge of God
* To reveal God's immanence
* To reveal his love and care for his creation.

Personally, I don't find these categories particularly helpful: I think they are making a complex idea unnecessarily more so but we have to go with them because the exam board might make them the basis of a question.

There is some conversation about the nature of God's immanence.

Why is it so hard to accept the idea that if God exists he is active and busy in the world? (This doesn't seem the time - or possibly the age group - to bring up the Holy Spirit. I suspect several of their circuits would overload and burn out and I'd have to fill forms in.)

"But why some people and not others?" So we pick up more or less where we'd left off. The teenager has an innate sense of justice issues and I'm not surprised by this line of questioning - for which I have no answer.

That's why the topic is fraught for believers.

"But if God is active and busy in the world why doesn't he stop wars and earthquakes and all the suffering?"

Now we have covered suffering and evil as a topic and it does seem to be a significant stumbling block to belief. We add miracles into the mix and they are full of indignation.

"So you're saying he could, but he doesn't. He has the power but he doesn't use it."

We quickly revise the concept of free will and the role of human responsibility but that doesn't particularly help the discussion that miracles show God's control over, or concern for, world events.

Remind me about the omnis.

"I know this. I know this. Ask me."

Well, as you're the only one who does Chloe, go for it.

"Omnipotent means God is all powerful, Omniscient means that God knows everything, Omnipresent means that God is in all places at the same time and Omnibenevolent means that God is all loving."

(A* target grade, that one.)


"Well if God is all powerful he can do anything."

Omnibenevolent anyone? Tom?

"If he's all loving as well then when he does a miracle it's for our benefit."

Omniscient? Hassan?

"Does it mean he knows what we need?"

Go on.

"Well, he loves us and he can do anything so if he knows what we need then he can act."

Does knowing what we don't need come into it?

There is animated conversation about miracles as answers to prayer and selfish prayers but I am conscious that I don't want them to lose sight of the definition we are working towards, so we revisit the definition.

A dramatic and unusual event that goes against the laws of nature and is caused by God or one of his agents. I remind them.

"It's the laws of nature bit that I don't get."

Why Chloe?

"If God has set the natural laws any intervention that disturbs them would be dead dramatic wouldn't it? Wouldn't we all notice if, like, gravity was suspended?"

"Why couldn't it be localised? If God's doing a miracle for someone in Africa, we wouldn't need to know would we?"

Then how does that show God's power?

"But it'd be all over the news, right? That would show God's power."

"But Sir said the media don't know how to report religious stuff, so they wouldn't cover it."

Or they'd find a way to explain it away in natural terms. Just think back to Simon Teece. The doctors get the credit.

"Then God can't win."


O.K. How about breaking the laws of nature by doing something nature can do but not in that order?

"What do you mean?"

Well think about it. The natural order is life then death. How about living after death. Would that be a miracle?

"Yes but that doesn't happen."

It does according to Christianity.

"Oh the Jesus thing."

The Jesus thing? Is that what we're calling the resurrection now?

Or the sun orbiting the earth?

"I think we might notice that. So what you're saying is that apart from the miracles of the Bible there haven't been miracles that break the laws of nature and the alleged miracles from more recent times are questionable because they don't break the laws of nature?"

That's about it I guess.

"So there aren't miracles any more?"

It depends on your definition of miracles.

"But you said there was only one."

No. I said that's our working definition. What about miracles that are happy coincidences?

I find a story on the INTERNET about a woman skydiver whose parachute failed to open but she landed in a tree and survived with superficial cuts and grazes.

She was a believer and put her survival down to God but it doesn't meet the original definition. Why?

"Because people can survive falling out of the sky."

"No they can't."

Well this lady did and I'm sure you can find more examples like that all over the INTERNET.

"But if it was a coincidence God can't be involved."

Why not?

"Because most people will always go for the rational explanation. It was a coincidence and it was always going to turn out that way. If she'd started out another 20 ft to the left she'd have missed the tree completely and gone splat."

"So you don't need God at all."

But you can still have him.

"It doesn't prove God was involved."

"But it doesn't prove he wasn't either."

"This is hard."

Well the good news is that we don't have to come up with an answer. All we need to be able to do is argument and counter-argument.

How about Every Day Miracles?

Blank looks.

Don't people call childbirth a miracle?

"Well yes but it's not a miracle is it, even though its wonderful and everything?"

So God's not involved?



"He could be. We don't know."

He could be. We don't know.

There are loads of Every Day Miracles. Give me some more examples.


"No, because that's not every day."

"Yes it is, only it's so slow we don't notice."

That would do for me.

Miracles that show God's power?

"Don't they all?"

Yes but these are overt.

"How is that different from the original definition?"

Because although they are dramatic and unusual, they don't break the laws of nature but they unquestionably point to God's activity.

"Give us an example."

No. You give me one.

This is a struggle, but we come up with Jesus' healing miracles on the basis that although they appear to be happy coincidences, they were performed by one of God's agents to make a religious point.

"Hang on. How many definitions have we got now?"

Er ..miracles which show God's power; miracles which break the laws of nature; miracles which are happy coincidences and miracles which are everyday events.

"And the exam board could ask us about them?"

Yup. No pressure, then.


You may say that. I couldn't possibly comment.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Continuing with miracles

Of course, the problem with kids today is that they live in the age of instant media and expect to be entertained at every turn. This is the teacher’s dilemma. Long gone are the days when you could write a few lines on the board and have a discussion with a bit of reading round from the text book.

In my introduction to miracles I have scoured YouTube for extracts from film and T.V. for examples.

“Couldn’t you find any real ones Sir?”

Could be missing the point there Jolene. Could be missing the point.

I manage one reasonable CGI for Moses parting the Red Sea and spend a disproportionate amount of time searching for Jesus and the feeding of the multitude from “Jesus of Nazareth.” This inevitably raises the issue that there’s nothing much more up-to-date.

“That’s because there aren’t any.”

You don’t know that Josh.

“Well I’ve never heard about any.”

Why do you think that is?

“Because there aren’t any.”

Circular argument. Think outside the box. How do we mainly hear about anything unusual or dramatic?

“T.V? Newspapers?”

Exactly, and the media, in general, doesn’t know how to report on religion. If it’s not about scandal they leave it alone.

“I’ve never met anyone who’s seen a miracle.”

Neither have I but then we don’t know everyone in the world. What would you do if someone you’d never met before told you that they’d been cured of cancer through a miraculous healing?

“I wouldn’t believe them. Why would I? I don’t know them.”

O.K. What if it was someone you knew well and trusted?

“I’d probably believe them.”

How would that conversation go? Can you imagine how difficult it would be to convince someone?

We move into a conversation about the difference between subjective and objective.

“I’d only believe it if I saw it or if it happened to me.”

There you go. And that’s the problem. Most of us feel like that. It wouldn’t matter how many times the papers reported a miracle: if it didn’t happen to us why should we believe it? Then it gets more complicated. I can’t convince you that something I believed had happened to me was real. O.K. Can you convince me it wasn’t?

There is much animated conversation but in the end we conclude that this is likely to be a dialogue of the deaf.

It’s also deeply disrespectful to tell someone that they are wrong, especially if you weren’t there when it happened, just because you don’t believe in the supernatural on principle.

We mull this over for a while and I‘m fairly pleased because they are thinking and evaluating – O.K. they don’t want to abandon their deeply held atheistic principles but that’s fine. I suggest that if God exists, which I know is a big if for many of them, then surely anything must be possible. They agree which is a start.

When we continue the discussion to include the possibility of modern miracles they remain cynical and so we watch an extract of a film which deals with the case of a local boy from Wakefield. Simon Teece was about eight when, following an optical appointment he was shopping with his parents. They were at the entrance to the multi-story car-park at the Ridings Centre when a youth dropped a three foot scaffolding pole from the top floor. It landed on Simon’s head and broke his skull. On admission to hospital the medical team felt that any recovery was unlikely. Simon, they believed would die. Simon’s family were regular churchgoers and through their church a prayer chain was set up which attracted a lot of attention in the city. Simon made a full recovery.

Simon is interviewed in the film as are his parents, his vicar, members of his church and his consultant. All but the consultant are convinced that a miracle had taken place and the consultant, showing understandable medical reserve, merely expresses his feeling that Simon would have needed to have been 100% perfect for a miracle to have happened and he retained some vision problems.

Was it a dramatic and unusual event?


Did it go against the laws of nature?


"Yes. Yes it did."


"Because the doctors said he would die."

"But it was the doctors who saved him. It wasn't a miracle. It was good medicine."

Was it caused by God or one of his agents?

"Yes because they prayed."

"No. It's a coincidence. He would have got better anyway."

“It’s all a set up. They’re lying.”

This is a common view and I am constantly surprised by this level of cynicism.

What would their motive be?


You think they got rich on the back of this story?

“How do we know it’s true?” And we are back to the conversation about media reporting of religious events. I do a quick web-search and find a court report relating to the youth who dropped the scaffolding pole. We have evidence and have a brief conversation about secondary sources.

Well, we know the family name. We know they're from Wakefield. We know the name of the vicar. We know the name of the consultant. If we were in doubt at least we have the option of asking the people involved.

“Ah but he’s not fully recovered.”

Where was he before he had the pole dropped on his head?


Before that?

“The optician.”

There you go then.

“But it’s not clear-cut.”

And that’s the problem. What’s that F word? The religious F word, that is?


And there you have it.

“But they will believe it was a miracle. They’re religious.”

So religious people are predisposed to believe in miracles? Fair enough, but that doesn’t mean that all religious people believe every report of a miracle without weighing up the evidence, the reliability of the claimant and so on. Some might believe in miracles on the basis that with God anything is possible but never accept any contemporary report. Some believe that miracles only happened with Jesus and don’t happen today. All religious people don’t believe the same thing.

To illustrate the point I show them some video material of Benny Hinn, the American Tele-evangelist. The kids are incredulous at what they see is the gullibility of the people in the arena, particularly when we are told that attempts to follow up the medical histories of the “healed” came to nothing. They are very keen to ascertain my view.

Personally I think the man’s a con-man but that only tells us about my views on Benny Hinn. It tells us nothing about God. There’s no reason at all why God couldn’t work in that environment if he chose, after all the faith is there in bucketfuls.

“But they’re obviously attention seekers.”

“I bet he paid them.”

“I bet he didn’t.”


“Well, if he had and they fell out, they could expose him.”

Well done.

“But the people in the audience, though? They believe it right?

Most of them. Maybe all of them.

Why doesn’t that sort of religious meeting work here?

“We don’t do religion like that.”

“There aren’t as many religious people here.”

“We don’t go in for that sort of emotional stuff in religion.”

“Sir, why don’t all those people see he’s a con man?”

Many people, not just Americans, read their Bibles and see the stories of miracles. They believe – and are taught – that God performs miracles. If you are the sort of Christian who believes that the Bible is literally true, you are more likely to expect the miraculous. It’s about the sort of Christianity you are brought up with.

“So, not all religious people believe in miracles?”

“Buddhists don’t.”

Why not?

“Buddhists don’t believe in God and so they can’t accept the definition because it says that God or one of his agents is responsible.”

Well done. But some Buddhists still believe in the miraculous – only God didn’t do it. Apparently, the Buddha could fly.

“How can you believe in miracles if you don’t believe in God?”

They have two possible answers: firstly we don’t know everything there is to know about the laws of nature and secondly we only use a fraction of the power of the human brain and we only know a fraction of what the brain can do.

“So the laws of nature aren’t what we think they are? How?”

Give me an example of a law of nature.


What is gravity?

“That man found it when an apple landed on his head.”

“Isaac Newton.”

That’s the one. And ….?

“Well gravity is the invisible force that holds us down to the surface of the planet.”

“But Sir, it always has and it always will.”

You can’t know that.


How do scientists develop a theory? Come on Richard, you’re good at science. Tell us.

“Observation, speculation and testing. You observe how things behave or react; you speculate how they will behave or react in the future and you devise a test to prove your theory.


So gravity has always held us down, right? Richard, what would a scientist say if tomorrow we were released from the effects of gravity?

“That it was part of the natural law, part of its cycle that we hadn’t yet observed and we’d have to observe and record for the same length of time to see if it did it again and then we could revise the law of gravity.”


So because nature hasn’t yet done something doesn’t mean it won’t. That’s how Buddhists think when something “miraculous” happens.

“And we could tap into the power of the human brain and do stuff that we currently think is impossible.”


“I like the sound of Buddhism.”

So, back to Christianity. Do all Christians believe in miracles?

“Er … No?”


“Why not?”

Because not everyone looks at the Bible in the same way; because some people, even though they are religious, wonder why God would behave in that way; because some Christians don’t believe God does work in that way; because some Christians think that miracles aren’t fair. There are loads of reasons. The idea of miracles is problematic for religious people.


I show them a YouTube extract dealing with the emergency landing of a plane on the Hudson River. The images clearly show all the passengers and crew standing on the wings awaiting rescue.

They lost their luggage and got their feet wet. I bet the word miracle was used by everyone of their families within the next twenty four hours. Was it a dramatic and unusual event?


Did it go against the laws of nature?


“No it didn’t.”

Why not?

“Planes land safely, even on water, especially if they’ve not achieved high altitude and haven’t exploded.”

Was it caused by God or one of his agents?

“Don’t know.”

Then I show them a short clip of a sunny beach. There is an awful noise and a plane plummets into the sea to the amazement and consternation of the people on the beach.

No survivors. Why the first plane and not the second?

Shrugs and shaking heads.

Do you think anyone talked about a miracle there?

No reply needed.

Why would God save the people on the first plane and not the people on the second?

“The people on the second plane were bad people.”

What? All of them? Even the babies?

“So all the people on the first plane were good people?”

“God could’ve fixed it that way.”

He could have. If God exists God can do anything but why would he?

“He was rewarding the first lot and punishing the second lot.”

“So there were no bad people on the first plane?”

“God could’ve fixed it that way.”

It doesn’t take long does it to default to ideas of God which should be alien to Christians? God is the cosmic punisher and is capricious and random depending on his indigestion that day. He zaps one lot of random people but saves another lot.

The problem of miracles for many religious people is their seeming unfairness. An elderly lady is miraculously cured from terminal cancer but a baby dies. Both families had been praying. If a miracle is a signpost to God what sort of God is it pointing at? Not the God most Christians have come to understand. Instead we have a tribal God who is easy to upset and whose behavior is inconsistent.

The bell rings.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Starting Miracles.

My Yr 9 students have been struggling with Miracles as a topic this term and it has been a struggle from the outset, if for no other reason than spelling. If I have to correct “miricals” one more time, even though they have copied it from the board, I may run screaming from the building. You see “miracles” on the board, look down to your book and write “miricals.” How does that happen? Repeatedly?

Of course, the first issue is that of definition: what are we talking about when we talk of miracles? Blank looks from the hormonal hoards. It takes some time, and with heavy guidance from me, to decide on “A dramatic and unusual event which goes against the laws of nature and is caused by God or one of his agents.” This takes us down an unexpected line of discussion in relation to what constitutes an agent of God. Predictably angels come in for some considerable forensic examination and I find myself explaining the mindset of the medieval artist.

O.K. I’m a Medieval Pope.

They look less than convinced.

Jordan, you’re Michelangelo.

Jordan looks pleased.

Michael, Old Boy, I need a nice fresco on the ceiling of my new chapel. Nothing fancy, just a Biblical story. How about the Nativity?

Right you are Guv.

So Michelangelo goes away and gets out his Bible. What’s in the story that I need to include? Stable, check. Mary and Joseph, check. Infant, doddle! Cattle, easy-peasy. Shepherds, yeah, yeah. Wise men, O.K. Innkeeper, no probs. Angels … Angels? Oooh, Angels.

What does an angel look like? I ask. Surprisingly for a group of avowed Atheists they soon build up a picture: M & S floaty nighty, pigeon’s wings and a tinsel halo.

Musical Instrument of choice?

“Harp.” They chorus happily, entering into the spirit of the occasion.

(I ponder, briefly, how far we have moved in five minutes from the lesson plan on miracles – sorry: miricals.)

I draw said angel on the board and they pronounce themselves happy.

How did we get to this?

“Well, it’s in pictures.”

“And adverts. Have you seen that advert for cream cheese where …..?”

And so it goes on. Having established that this image of angels is firmly established in the international psyche I try to explain that Medieval artists were faced with representing something visually where there’s not much in the way of description to go on.

They needed to get over the idea of something spiritual rather than human otherwise we’d be looking at these paintings asking “Who’s that man in the background?” or “Why are those women falling out of the sky?” The angel as we know it is the artistic compromise.

“Are you saying they don’t look like that then?”

Well done Sherlock.

“What do they look like then?”

O.K. What does “angel” mean?

There is no response.

It’s a Greek word. I venture.

Still no ideas.

There’s no real reason why you should know. I was just wondering if anyone did. It means messenger – or more specifically, God’s messenger. What does God’s messenger look like?

Perplexed looks. This is marginally encouraging as it indicates some level of mental activity above and beyond maintaining a heartbeat.

Do you remember when Mrs. Cooper sent a pupil down with a message last lesson?

“Are you saying Emily was an angel?”

I’m saying Emily was a messenger. What does a messenger look like?

“Could be anybody.”


“I don’t get it.”

Why does God’s messenger have to look picturesque?

“Coz it’s an angel.”

And angel means messenger. Why couldn’t anyone be God’s messenger? Please don’t say “because we don’t have wings.”

“So anyone could be an angel because they’d be being God’s messenger? Would they know they were an angel?”

Maybe. Not necessarily. Some angels appear to be spiritual beings: I’m just saying that the images of Medieval artists might not always be helpful, that’s all. What was an aid to faith in the middle ages seems to be quite the opposite today: "Who'd believe in one of those winged things?"

I remember going to a primary school nativity where the Head had dressed the angels as postmen.

“I don’t get it.”

Postman – messenger – angel.

“Oh right. Now I get it.”

We go on to talk about Prophets and Saints and, of course, Jesus as agents of God. There is a glimmer of hope that we might, at last, move on to talk about miracles.

Any questions on anything we’ve looked at so far? Jordan?

“Who’s Michelangelo?”

(Cheers to TheMe for the suggestion)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Goodbye David

It was with great sadness that I discovered this morning that David had died.

David was a pupil of mine and I taught him for his three years at the knowledge College. He had complex additional learning needs and life was not easy for him. In many respects he was a lucky boy though, because he was fostered by a lovely and loving family and he had a very sweet nature. I had grown very fond of him.

Some weeks ago David stepped out into traffic and was knocked down. He suffered devastating brain trauma. Initially we were told that he would spend up to two years in a special neurosergical ward and that he would never make a full recovery.

David had his sixteenth birthday in hospital.

A week ago he developed an infection and required further surgery. Then he was moved to a hospice.

He died yesterday afternoon.

I have been feeling very raw all day.

Please pray for David's foster parents and his younger brother Michael at this time.