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Tony Anthony, Born Again Testimonies, And Poor Evangelical Theologies Of Conversion

Back in the days when the now-famous Ship Of Fools website was a print magazine thirty-odd years ago (aagh!), it printed in Issue 3 (June 1979) this cartoon strip. I reproduce it below with permission from the editor, Simon Jenkins, and Ship Of Fools.

Born Again Testimonies 1Born Again Testimonies 2

How apposite this seems in the light of the Tony Anthony story. For those who have not heard, Anthony, an evangelist, had a book called ‘Taming the Tiger’ ghost-written by a journalist called Angela Little. Ever since its publication in 2004, some have been sceptical about claims Anthony makes in there about significant details of his life. Now, following the resignation of one of Anthony’s trustees, Mike Hancock, an investigation has indeed shown that large parts of the book are untrue. Journalist Gavin Drake has many of the details. The Evangelical Alliance and Avanti Ministries issued this statement. Ghost writer Angela Little revealed some possibly surprising approaches and attitudes to research and verification in a conversation with someone on a martial arts discussion board. The publisher, Authentic Media, have issued a statement, but it is hard to detect any sense of them taking any responsibility for the debacle in their words.

But my purpose here is not to analyse this specific case. It isn’t hard to find those on the Internet who are doing so. The reason for posting this is to ask what kind of culture promotes the lust for spectacular testimony books, such as Anthony’s.

I suggest there are at least two reasons. The first, briefly, is that evangelical Christianity is too obsessed with celebrity. And if we haven’t got any celebrities, we’ll make some. In this respect, we mindlessly accept the values of the world. I have no wish to decry those who genuinely have become disciples of Jesus Christ through a dramatic route. God bless them. But celebrities are not more valuable than the unknown. Indeed, we believe – surely? – in a Jesus who was and is on the side of the marginalised.

But secondly, we have a huge issue over privileging dramatic conversions, and this troubles me pastorally. So often I hear Christians feeling inferior because they have not had a ‘Damascus Road experience’. It may even make them doubt whether they are Christians at all. I tend to say, “Do you have to remember when you were born to know you are alive? No! You just need to notice the signs of life. And it is the same in spiritual matters.”

In the early 1990s, Churches Together in England commissioned some work on conversion. It was published in 1992 by the British and Foreign Bible Society under the title ‘Finding Faith Today‘, and was authored by John Finney. 54% of the 601 Christians interviewed said they knew of a time when they were not Christians,46% had ‘always been Christians’. Of the former category, 38% spoke of a sudden conversion, and 62% gradual. Of the latter category, 80% had a gradual commitment, 20% sudden. Among evangelicals, it was as I reported: 37% sudden, 63% gradual. Among non-evangelicals, it was 80% gradual, 20% sudden. On average across all Christians, 31% had a datable conversion and 69% did not.

So if datable conversions are a minority experience among Christians, then dramatic datable ones must be an even smaller percentage. And I therefore have to ask how helpful they are, when ordinary Christians feel demeaned by them. I think publishers are partly responsible, and need to rethink their policies. I also think the wider Christian culture is possible, because whatever we say about these contributing to evangelism, in reality they are often treated as Christian entertainment with a spiritual veneer.

As Phil Groom asked on the Association of Christian Writers’ Facebook page today,

Why do we need super conversion stories to proclaim the gospel? Isn’t the gospel dramatic enough??

So – does an addiction to dramatic celebrity testimony indicate that we don’t really believe in the Gospel?

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On The Problem Of The Writer’s Craft In Protestant Christianity

Oh dear, that title sounds like a thesis, doesn’t it? The issue came into my head the other day when I received the quarterly ‘new titles’ email from Grove Books. They featured a booklet called ‘Telling Ourselves In Ink: Creative Writing in the Church‘ by Corin Child. Just to come across it associated in my mind with critical comments I’ve heard in some church circles directed at people who enjoy writing.

This is personal for me. I enjoy writing. I don’t think I’m great, but I think I have something to offer. Some people have been kind in telling me how my writing has helped them. On my first sabbatical (not the one I recently finished), I spent a week on a creative writing course at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, run by the Association of Christian Writers. During that course, one tutor said, “Don’t be afraid to describe yourself as a writer.” I found that liberating. Others, who don’t appreciate my love of writing, don’t. “Why are you wasting time with that?”

So when I saw the Grove book, I mentioned it on the email discussion list of Subway Writers, to which I belong. I don’t feel I should be in their company half the time, most of them are professionals. The book title made me wonder whether they feel understood in their churches. One person emailed about the terrific support she receives. In reply to another member, I wrote a longer screed which set out some of my thoughts and feelings on the subject. This person observed that because ‘the word’, the Bible, has been central in Protestant churches, other uses of words, especially creative ones, can be seen as superfluous or dangerous. Most of the rest of this post is a lightly edited version of what I said there. I’d be interested in your comments.

Yes, [name], I think this is often a particular problem for Protestants. Catholicism and Orthodoxy know the long history of Christian involvement with the arts, and (at least in the visual arena) celebrate it, even depend on it. I heard it argued not so long ago that there are proportionally more Catholics involved in the film industry than Protestants.

Protestants, as you say, focus historically on ‘the word’, and this has the effect of devaluing other words. I’m not about to have a downer on the primacy of Scripture – far from it, as an evangelical! – but I suppose it got taken to extremes in churches that would only sing Scripture, and not other hymns. Hence the Scottish Paraphrases of the Psalms.

The evangelical emphasis on evangelism (especially since the split with liberals over the ‘social gospel’ a hundred years ago) meant that anything not concentrating on evangelism was inferior – especially something as indirect as writing and novels, with the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle. You have to tell, they would say! (And does that explain the ‘preachy’ nature of some written evangelical work? I can think of perfectly good sketches by Christian drama companies that spoke for themselves, only to be ruined by the ‘explanation’ tacked on the end.)

Not only that, the evangelical suspicion of the imagination has a lot to answer for: it seems to pick the word ‘imagination’ out of a concordance and noticing its association with another word, ‘vain’, in Scripture, has led to an erroneous assumption that all imagination is bad. No wonder historians such as David Bebbington see evangelicalism as a creation of the rationalist Enlightenment. That suspicion of imagination has been underlined in recent years by its association with questionable New Age visualisation techniques. So not only is it vain, it’s also demonic!

Add in a particular concern with historicism, and novelists in particular might be marginalised. Evangelicals have a right and proper concern for historical truth. If the story of Jesus is not true, then (as Paul says about the Resurrection) our hope is in vain. Yet as we know, the Bible is a collation of many different types of literature. Fiction can be used to show (not tell, again!) a message – something surely Jesus himself knew in the creation of his parables. Therefore, does it matter if some scholars argue that the books of Job and Jonah are inspired fiction? I think not – and, I think in doing so, they add to the legitimacy of the novelist’s art.

But I also suspect this is a problem for some liberal Christians. While they have been welcoming of things that are not overtly in-your-face-and-down-your-throat Christian, their commendable emphasis on social action means that if you’re not getting your hands dirty serving the poor, you must be wasting your time.

It is reasons like these that made me wonder what reception some of you pros get in your churches. I must say, it was heartening to read of [name]’s positive experiences.

25 Things

I’ve been tagged by my friend Jenny Vass on this web meme. This will take a while, so I’ll type a few random things as I remember them over the day, so here goes:

1. I was born in the Salvation Army Mothers’ Hospital in Clapton, north-east London. 

2. I have a big head (I hope only literally), which made my birth distressing for my mother, and explains why my parents waited six years before having my sister.

3. I grew up in the same road that Bruce Forsyth did. Not at the same time.

4. On a school trip to Whipsnade Zoo, my mum gave me nineteen shillings in spending money. When the teacher announced we could only take seven shillings and sixpence with us, I kept quiet. I spent every last penny in the zoo gift shop. Mum was distraught: she had given me the balance of her housekeeping and had only intended the extra sum for an emergency.

5. I became best friends with my mate Jean when he joined my primary school at the age of seven. Nearly forty-two years later, we’re still friends and he was best man at my wedding.

6. Once, while Jean and I were boys, we were stopped by a van driver asking for directions. We made it all up and off he went.

7. Jean is an accomplished guitarist. We used to write songs together, even though I’m not musical.

8. When I was eight and my sister was two, she hit me over the head with my cricket bat.

9. I was the only child from my primary school to go to my secondary school.

10. I hated school, even though I did well academically. The reason? Bullying.

11. Glandular fever-like infections seriously disrupted my schooling at fourteen and fifteen, and a neck problem at eighteen. But for the neck problem, I would have read Computer Science at Imperial College, London.

12. I was a union rep for my office when I worked in the civil service.

13. I used to go to winter nets to practise with my Dad’s cricket team when I was a teenager. I didn’t know until adulthood that the men couldn’t read my spin bowling. I’d have given up quick bowling if I’d known.

14. Theological study: I had three wonderful years at Trinity College, Bristol and three terrible ones at Hartley Victoria Methodist College, Manchester. 

15. On the surface I’m all academic, theoretical and conceptual, but underneath a creative person is trying to break out. That’s why I did a creative writing course at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity with the Association of Christian Writers in my last sabbatical, and I’m taking a photography course at Lee Abbey in this one.

16. I am left-handed, have blue eyes and have worn glasses since I was eleven.

17. My first computer was an Amstrad PCW 9512. I ditched the noisy, inflexible daisywheel printer, bought an Epson 24-pin dot matrix and installed that instead. I wrote my MPhil thesis on it. I’ve been fiddling with computers ever since. Had the neck problem not hit when I was eighteen (see 11 above), I would have done so from a younger age.

18. My first car was a hideous yellow Ford Escort with a grim gearchange. I backed it into a tree, the boot sprang open, and for a long while I held it down with a friend’s old tie (= ‘necktie’ for my north American friends).

19. I once saw Oasis before the were Oasis. They were called The Rain and were supporting Roachford at a Manchester University gig. They were rubbish. Still are.

20. Our son Mark is named after my favourite of the Four Gospels. We brainstormed four names, wrote them down, folded them up and put them into a hat for Rebekah, then a small toddler, to pick. Both of our children have middle names taken from grandparents. Mark’s is Alan after my Dad, Rebekah’s is Anita after Debbie’s late Mum. That gives both of them full initials that have something to do with flying. Rebekah is RAF; Mark is MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship). That’s a coincidence, but a nice one, since I come from an Air Force family.

21. I got into SLR photography after a mission trip to the north of Norway in 1981 when I was the only member of the party not to own a camera. Dad has been an amateur photographer as long as I can remember, and he took me to his favourite shop, City Camera Exchange by Cannon Street station in London, where I bought a Minolta XG-1.

22. I once tried to learn the guitar when a church member offered classes free of charge. As a result, I own a Fender acoustic. Unfortunately, the lessons began clashing with essential church appointments and I was unable to continue. The guitar and its electronic tuning gadget stay dormant in its case.

23. I studied Theology under George Carey. Shame he’s an Arsenal supporter.

24. I went from being a rabid teetotaller to a wine lover and now back to being teetotal. Originally, I held to a teetotal view on what I realised were legalistic grounds. Giving them up, I discovered the joys of wine. Unfortunately, medication I’m on for raised blood pressure now recommends I abstain.

25. The most serious surgery I’ve had is a pleurectomy on my left lung to prevent further recurrences of spontaneous pneumothorax. Go look it up. That’s why I inserted the links.

Right, that’s taken far too long on and off. I’m going to tag twenty-five people on Facebook, once this has uploaded to my notes there.

The Endings Are Beginning

I’ve just emailed my last-ever column to the Medway Messenger. If you want to see the article, it will be published in the edition on Friday 17th and subsequently in the ‘Messenger’ section of my main website.

I’ve been writing for them for four years now, and it’s been very fulfilling. Ever since I did a creative writing course in 2003 at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity that was run in conjunction with the Association of Christian Writers I’ve felt very affirmed in my desire to write. “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I am a writer'”, is one of the most powerful things I remember being said at the course.

So to lay it down now in preparation for moving is quite emotional. I’m laying it down, not knowing whether I’ll be able to take it up in another form in the new place. It’s a sort of death without knowing whether there will be a resurrection. Then again, Jesus said that if we wanted to save our lives we would lose them, but if we lost our lives for his sake and the Gospel’s we would save them, and I hope that will be true. It certainly feels like a mini-bereavement.

Perhaps that’s over the top and I need to hear the Gospel as proclaimed decades ago by the Pretenders: ‘It is time for you to stop all of your sobbing …’