Dusty Roads

A Kiwi living in the new Zimbabwe

Ghosts of the past

November 7, 2017

If the demographers are to be believed, 500 years on from the reformation New Zealand still has not felt all of its effects onshore or off.

Those of us with even the slightest hint of European heritage can probably speak of an ancestor caught up in the wars between Catholics and a group that would come to be called Protestants, after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door.

Protestants made up the bulk of Europeans to roll into New Zealand throughout the 1800s, with 90 per cent of the European population identifying as Christian.

Today, according to the last census, just under half of all Kiwis call themselves “Christian”. Split those numbers out into denominations, and Catholics now top the list, followed by the Protestant denominations like Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist.

Virtually all are on a decline so dramatic it was the inspiration behind a story earlier this year called “Losing our religion“.

But here’s the interesting thing. A group called simply “Protestants” by Statistics New Zealand grew by 26.4 per cent from the previous census in 2006.

A group called “Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamental” grew by 11.2 per cent.

This abnormal growth was the feature of another article in September, and has caught the eye of experts around the world because it bucks the secularisation theory made popular in the 1950s, which predicted that in modern, educated societies devout belief would not survive.

As appears to be happening in America, according to the Pew Research Centre, traditional religion is in sharp decline. Chosen religion (based on conversion) seems to be growing, in countries both modern and modernising.

At the same time secularism’s growth is flattening out.

Why? Well, academics point out that it is largely thanks to birth rates. Those who attend church  more than once a week have on average 2.5 children. Those who attend once a month have on average 2.01 children. Those who do not attend at all have on average 1.67 children.

This holds true across all education levels and economic groups, and the more devout a person is, the less likely their children are to leave the faith. Aside from retention, Pew points out that pentecostal Protestants in America gain 1.2 members through conversion for every convert they lose – while traditional denominations have a net loss.

By the end of the century, according to award winning academic, and University of London Professor Eric Kaufmann, we in the West will face a “crisis of secularism”.

But the change beyond the borders of Western nations like New Zealand will be even more dramatic. In 2015 Pew made headlines around the globe with a study that showed the world is becoming more religious, not less, as we move towards 2050. Muslims and Christians will make up the lion’s share of global community in 30 years’ time.

China and Sub-Saharan Africa are the centres for substantial growth in Christianity. If “one of the world’s leading specialists on religion in China, Purdue University sociologist Fenggang Yang” is to be believed, current conversion rates in China would see two thirds of the population identifying as Christian by 2050.

Between the devoutly religious in modernised countries, and the newly Christianised in modernising countries, Pew predicts atheists, agnostics and religiously unaffiliated people will shrink from 16 percent to 13 percent of the world’s population by 2050.

International trends, as Kaufmann points out, will likely only accelerate the rate of religious growth and social transformation in the West. After all, many secular societies are already maintaining their populations thanks to immigrants, who tend to be religious. “The ‘browning’ of the West,” he writes “is injecting a fresh infusion of religious blood into secular society”.

So it is that the hammer blows which nailed a piece of paper into a door in Germany 500 years ago have not yet finished echoing in New Zealand or the wider world.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

Bullied into acting against her beliefs?

May 30, 2017

I don’t have much patience for bullies. Especially when they turn on an 80-year-old lady.

And last week they did, as it happens. But remarkably, we seem to have gotten the victim and the bullies mixed up, because in this instance we appear to have made the victim feel afraid. By the way, it all has to do with the news that luxury wedding venue Stoneridge Estate lifted its ban on same-sex marriage.

How it got labelled a ban is a mystery. After all, according to the owner it was just a statement in the contract for couples saying that, due to her convictions, the woman with a lifetime lease over the chapel preferred same-sex marriages not be held there.

Besides that, a ban would be illegal. There is no protection, you see, for hired spaces deemed sacred by any religious group from having to hold marriage ceremonies that contravene their beliefs.

But back to the story about our bullies. A couple of weekends ago, everything changed. According to the article, a couple who inquired about the chapel recently were “put-out” by the request. Days later, the media contacted Stoneridge Estate to ask about their same-sex marriage “policy” at the chapel. The next thing you know, owner Wayne Gore announced that he had talked to his mother and the request would be removed from the contract.

At first glance, it seems clear cut. Victimised couple, bullying religious bigot, right?

Except, at second glance, it all looks painfully like a betrothed couple decided to use the media to hurt someone who had offended them. To hurt someone whose request they were well within their rights to ignore, and whose chapel they could have hired no matter their sexual orientation.

Because the couple weren’t the ones made to feel afraid, apparently. Instead, it looks remarkably like our wealthy businessman was worried. Worried, perhaps, about what damage an accusation like this might do to his business. We get hints of this, of course, in the fact that one phone call from the media was enough to send him off for a chat with his mother, and to return announcing that she would renege her a request based on deeply held convictions.

And that, presumably, means an 80-year-old lady who had built a little chapel as the expression of her faith felt she was completely and utterly unable to operate it according to that faith.

By the way, the chapel was, according to our 80-year-old lady, “a gift given to her by God”. It meant the world to her, because her faith had helped her through a life-threatening illness, and a terrible car accident, you see.

Despite not being able to kneel, thanks to having had two legs broken in the accident, she managed to see the little chapel through to completion in 2004. And while her son owned the rest of the estate, she maintained a lifetime lease over the building because of how special it was to her.

In a beautiful display of respect and tolerance, her request had been upheld without complaint by more than 100 same-sex couples who had been married elsewhere on the estate.

All of which makes you wonder who the real victim and who the real bullies were, like I say. Were the victims the couple able to get married at hundreds and hundreds of venues around New Zealand, but asked to respect the convictions of an old lady at one? Or was the victim an old lady with only one chapel – one sacred place that really meant something to her – and who was forced to act against her beliefs?

It seems pretty obvious to me.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

Why the Bible belongs in schools

May 6, 2017

Dear Mr Hines and Ms Jacob,

I see you are at it again. Taking on that half hour a week of religious education some Kiwi kids get in Primary School. I find it interesting, as a former religious kid (and now religious adult) that you’re basing the claim on bullying.

You even have 13 families coming forward to say their children were mistreated when they were withdrawn from religious education classes. It’s horrible that they were bullied. I know because I was bullied myself – and some of that centered around my faith.

At High School and university I can even remember stinging barbs from teachers or professors on the topic of religion. At one stage my education involved learning about how evil and culturally imperialistic missionaries were. My parents were missionaries.

That’s why I find your case strange. It is as if you are saying religious education is creating bullies, and therefore must be banned.

I can assure you, as can thousands of other religious kids who went through secular, public schools, that bullies exist in secular classes too.

But I’m not arguing that clause 77 of the 1964 Education Act, which requires teaching in Primary Schools to be secular, must be overturned.

I would argue instead that bullying needs to be addressed. I can’t see how that is not what you are arguing too. After all, we know how utterly damaging bullying can be, we know how it is related to mental health problems, and we know how it is even related to suicide.

And if we know that both secular and religious kids are bullies, and are being bullied, we can’t really blame each others’ worldview, can we?

Unless we have an ulterior motive. And I’m struggle to see, in your case, any other conclusion except that you are using victimised kids to push your own agenda.

I find that disturbing, and very, very sad.

But there is another important thing I would like you to know about my more youthful years, surrounded by role models and friends who didn’t think like me.

It gave me an advantage in life. It taught me how to get along with people. Lots of people. In fact, I count among my friends hard core communists, ardent Labour voters, ardent National voters, classical capitalists, old people, middle-aged people, young people, gay people, solo parents, traditional families, agnostics and atheists.

I had to learn to look for what we had in common, and what united us. That required learning to listen to others, and trying to understand where they were coming from, instead of just making assumptions that would further divide us.

Listening to others, in turn, challenged my own worldview and forced me to think very deeply about what I believed and why. It made me stronger, but made my belief in the dignity of all people stronger too.

I would not have learnt any of this without being surrounded by people who thought differently to me. That’s why I support the final, half-hour sliver of time during which our kids learn about New Zealand’s major religious worldview at school.

As I see it, exposure to a range of worldviews is critical for our society if we are to understand each other and get along. It is critical to peeling back our difference and exposing our common humanity.

Given all the intolerance and hatred already wearying the world, it seems a shame to want to take that opportunity away from our kids.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

The meaning of Easter

April 26, 2017

I have always been confused when people describe my faith as a religion. That’s because, at its heart, Christianity is nothing of the sort. It is a relationship – a romance if you will excuse the bluntness.

And that’s all thanks to Easter.

Let me explain. Religions require stuff of you. They require prayer and reading sacred books and doing good deeds. The point of all of this is to get to heaven, where all the brownie points you saved up on earth by sacrificing fun finally get cashed in. It is sort of like a video game, from what I can tell.

But Christianity claims something rather different. It claims that the truth is not a system of thought and required behaviour. Rather, Christianity claims that the truth is a person. This is, in fact, the central claim of Christianity.

And that makes an awful lot of sense. You see, if absolute truth exists (and to those who say it doesn’t just ask “is it true that there is no truth?), it must not change – otherwise it was a lie. And for something to remain unchanged forever makes it eternal. Of course, if it is eternal, it is supernatural, because nothing in the natural order remains the same for long. You see what I’m getting at. The only thing that fits such a description is God Himself.

Now, if the truth is a person, then following a bunch of rules won’t help much with getting to know Him. That would be like trying to fall in love while constantly referring to a psychology book to see if you have the behaviors and symptoms right.

We all know that relationships are much easier, and much harder, than that. We all know they involve a strange combination of mystery, spontaneity, emotion, and hard work. And so it is with knowing the person called Truth.

If we take our metaphor a little further, you’ll see that Christians, who believe in throwing out the rule book, are called to something even harder and higher than religion.

You see, falling in love is to find you have been staring at the dirt under your feet for a lifetime, only to have someone gently lift your head to show you that, in fact, you are sitting on a mountain top. You cannot unsee the view, and you cannot un-know its existence. Your whole world is altered. You are the same person, but you are not.

So it is with getting to know Truth. You will throw the out the religious rule book and find your heart now bound by the highest, most powerful law in existence- the law of love. To know Him, and have Him know you, to love Him and know His love – these things delight you, because He finds you delightful.

That’s the thing about Christians, you see. They’re not doing all that good stuff to get to heaven. They are doing it because they already are in heaven, just by loving and being loved by Him. They’re doing it because they want to take heaven into every corner of hell still on earth.

And that brings us back to Easter. If Christianity is all about the Truth being a person, then Easter is all about the fact that He wants to know you. Even more, it is where the Truth proclaims His love, and asks for our response. Easter is an invitation to fall in love.

But let me warn you now of something very serious. Being in love, as I said earlier, means you will never be the same again. And falling in love with Truth is the same.

Do not come near Christianity if the lover you long for is comfort or ease. Come only if you are weary of lies and long for the truth – for there you will find He already has His arms extended waiting for you.

 

 

 

The madness of sanity Part 2

January 11, 2017

I left off my last column in an asylum, and it is there that we have to start this time so that we can eventually make our way out this Christmas.

As a brief recap I pointed out that humanity by and large is totally insane. And, I pointed out that to insane people, sanity always seems deeply suspicious, perhaps even dangerous. That is why the Christmas story, with virgins getting pregnant and celebrities joining manual workers in a cow shed to worship a baby called God, is the most likely thing on earth to be sane.

In fact, it is not just sane, it is the antidote to our insanity. It’s the only thing that can pull us out of our delirium and place us on an even footing again.

We start with a virgin getting pregnant. In other words, we start with God planting himself in a womb. And thank goodness he does, because it shows he is something different to us. After all, we needed fathers. But if he didn’t, this must be a different sort of life, and so presumably it shows us a different way of living.

But the divine life entered mortality because it took on the form and flesh of a human. And thank goodness it did, because it can relate to us, with all our pains and sufferings, with our terrible habit of ending in death.

Next, we get to the celebrities and the manual workers in the cow shed. We are, truth be told, very prideful little creatures and we love to compare ourselves to others whether in dollars, in travels, in intellect or in physical achievement. But this little detail of the story, which defies the usual laws of human society, offers us another way.

It tells us that all men come before the baby called God as equals. Wealth, status and even scent make no difference to him. Whether you have travelled long or just popped in from around the corner makes no difference. If you want to come and see him, you’ll simply have to stand shoulder to shoulder with all sorts of people that – in the other bits of life- you would have avoided. After all, crowding around a baby is the only way to see it, since it is small.

And now we reach the baby called God. Oh, what a beautiful contradiction! Here, in response to our own love of wealth, we find God arriving with nothing. Here in response to our own love for power, we find God carefully selecting the most vulnerable of human forms. Here, in response to our own love for status, we find God dressed in the ordinary weakness of a child. Here, in response to our pride, we find that God is humble.

That’s his trick, you see. Instead of donning a lab coat and issuing orders as to what sanity was, he slipped on our flesh, snuck into the asylum, and began showing us what it looked like in real life. And we don’t like it, because it makes us look all the more ill.

And so as we unwrap the layers of the Christmas story, we find that it in fact is peeling back the very worst bits of our own hearts, the mostly deeply embedded bits of our own insanity. And by the time we finally get to the baby, lying helplessly in his mother’s arms, we realise that we, in fact, are the helpless ones.

But here is the best news of all. He never wanted strength, or glory, or intelligence. Like any baby, he just wanted us.

So why don’t you join the crowd around the baby this Christmas? If you do I can promise you won’t just find sanity, you will find in that little child an entire world free of asylum walls.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

The madness of sanity

December 15, 2016

If there ever was a story that seemed, at first sight, sheer and utter madness, it is the story of Christmas.

One doesn’t have to look very far into the details to realise that. It starts with a virgin getting pregnant, then moves on to informing us that the baby was actually God. It adds a dash of drama by claiming He came to save the world, and its grand finale is a birth set in –rather creatively – an animal stall.

Of course, there are plenty of mad stories in the world, so the details alone aren’t what makes this story seem so. It’s the fact that the story, according to the authors, is true. All of this was really meant to have happened.

That claim is what takes it from the bowels of bizarre literature to the highest places of insanity, so we feel.

That claim to be true is also is what takes us from being entertained by the story, to rather disliking it. We can enjoy strange things in stories, we can like the impossible, so long as we don’t have to believe that what we are hearing is actually true.

No indeed, if something claims to be true, then we want a story that all together conforms to what we are used to in our own lives.

That is the very reason the Christmas story matters, from what I can see.

After all, it only takes the briefest of glances at the thing we call humanity to see we are a very strange bunch indeed. We respond to some words with hugs and others by shooting each other, we use our hands to help some people get up, then we use them to knock others down. We cluster into little groups for protection, then get into fights and annoy each other.

What I am trying to get at, you see, is that mankind isn’t exactly sane himself. He looks quite mad from the outside.

And there is only one thing in the world that really scares an insane person; sanity. As the author G.K Chesterton quite rightly pointed out, insane men are quite fond of faces talking to them from paintings, and they are familiar with hearing voices inside their heads, but they certainly can’t endure a friendly smile and hello as being an innocent act. No indeed, behind each act of sanity, to the insane man, is a sinister and scary story. To make matters worse, the more a person insists that they were simply trying to be friendly, the more the insane man will doubt the truth of their statements.

Which is why the Christmas story makes sense. After all, if mankind is insane, then sanity must appear to us at least as total folly and at worst as dangerous. That is exactly how we do see the Christmas story. And the more sincerely it claims to be true, the more we doubt it.

And if that weren’t enough to prove the case, surely it is the fact that any truth which is to save us must be very different indeed. After all, if it looked just like us, if it worked by the same rules and attempts at logic, it wouldn’t be very useful at all.

Because the way mankind works at present is quite simply dysfunctional, and millennia of civilisation haven’t civilised us at all.

We need something uncivilised, something illogical, something that breaks all the rules if there is to be any hope at all.

We need Christmas.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz