It seems there’s been a spot of bother recently between some students’ unions and some university Christian Unions.

Most university CUs in the UK are affiliated to the UCCF, an avowedly evangelical organisation which sprang out of our old friend, CICCU, in 1836 (or something). Exeter’s SU apparently wants the CU to stop making members sign up to the UCCF doctrinal basis. This is clearly the right thing to do, as the part about imputed righteousness is nonsense, as N.T. Wright (no relation) argues cogently in What St Paul Really Said (gjm11 also won this argument a while ago, if anyone like nlj21 is interested).

Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, the University and the SU denied the use of campus facilities for the CU to run Pure, a course for Christians teaching typically evangelical attitudes to sex, because they didn’t like the bit about gays (this appears to be an illustration of the power of Facebook, by the way). Legal action has been threatened by the CUs.

It’s nice to see the young people enjoying themselves, I suppose. I’m reminded of the saying that academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low.

There are lots of people squealing about persecution, but I also read some of the more balanced views of the recent controversy. Cartoon Church has a good set of links to other thoughtful postings.

Christians are not being persecuted by not getting free or cheap rooms via the SU, any more than gays are by a course run by evangelicals for evangelicals which, as an aside to the main topic of “Evangelical Guilt 101: Wanking and how to avoid it” (link to a hilarious Pure session plan, mildly NSFW), says what Christianity always has pretty much always said about homosexuality. Both sides look petty and keen to be perceived as persecuted.

Some SUs and CUs have come to an understanding without turning the whole thing into a culture war. CUs can disaffiliate from the SU and maintain their oligarchy (I recall being delighted to learn, while I was a member of CICCU, that this was the correct term for their method of government). SUs can stop their extreme sports version of being Gruaniad readers. Everyone wins.

Alas, one troublesome priest has rumbled the fact that CUs are actually part of our plan to turn middle-of-the-road Christians into atheists. Sometimes it’s a protracted process, to be sure, but our mills also grind exceeding small. Look everyone, over there: a lawsuit! (That ought to do it).

So, Ted Haggard, eh? Some of you might remember him from his clash with Dawkins (video link) in The Root of all Evil?. He came across as a fairly typically fundie nutter, and ended up throwing Dawkins off his land; to be fair, Dawkins did start out by comparing a service at Haggard’s mega-church to a Nuremberg rally. However, it turns out that Haggard’s positions were slightly more nuanced than the TV programme might have lead you to believe: he was concerned for the welfare of immigrants in a way which brought him into conflict with the Republican regime, for example.

Readers who’ve been around in Cambridge for a while might remember the fuss when Roy Clements came out (or, it appears, was pre-emptively outed by his wife and some Christian friends). Clements was senior pastor at Eden Baptist Church, the other big student church in Cambridge. He was also an internationally renowned author and preacher, famous for his clarity and insight.

In the UK, evangelical Christianity can best be compared to a fandom, right down to the interestingly-dressed people at conventions and the perennial arguments about the canon. Like any fandom, evangelical Christianity has its leading lights. As a newcomer to evangelicalism at university, it wasn’t uncommon for me to offhandedly tell other Christians about someone I’d heard preach and be told that I was lucky, as that man was a Big Name Preacher: the sort of person you might see at a Christian conference, but which it would take a University Christian Union with CICCU’s undoubted clout to get hold of. Clements was a Big Name Preacher (John Stott and Don Carson are other examples of people who are famous-to-Christians, who I heard as an undergraduate). Eden Baptist is no mega-church, and evangelicals in this country thankfully do not have the political influence they do in the USA, but both Clements and Haggard were published authors and influential pastors of large and important churches.

When the story broke, Clements dropped out of view fairly quickly. This was partly his decision, I think, but also partly down to some frantic retconning by Christian publishers and bookshops, who, according to Clements, suddenly found that his teaching actually hadn’t been so great after all (the vicar at my old church continued to quote Clements in his sermons, for which one must respect his integrity).

But then, a few years later, Clements was back with a website and a theology attempting to combine conventional evangelicalism with the idea that God thinks committed gay relationships are OK after all. Contrast this with Haggard’s decision to take one for the team in his final letter to his former church. There’s nothing wrong with your theology, says Haggard, it is absolutely all my fault, and I must change.

Should we respect Haggard’s integrity in staying the doctrinal course, or is there no merit in continuing to believe something so wildly wrong, or in being part of a movement so dedicated to doing harm? As for Clements, one could say he’s done a little retconning of his own. The Bible says less about homosexuality than the evangelical obsession with it would lead you to believe, but, arguments about the importance of the issue aside, if you read it the evangelical way, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion than the traditional one. To attempt to maintain an evangelical approach to scripture while denying this conclusion seems untenable, to this ex-evangelical at least. Better to give up these contorted attempts to salvage inerrancy (or even, perhaps, theism 😉 and just carry on doing what we know to be right anyway.

And with that, I’ll end on a song. Via Helmintholog, I give you a rollicking gospel number: Meth and man ass.

Premier Christian Radio have put up the audio of the Unbelievable discussion programme I was on. You can download the MP3 from

Here’s my director’s commentary track (except I wasn’t a director, but you get the idea).

The first phone-in question from Steven Carr is a hard one for Christians. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus talks of God being like a shepherd who seeks each lost sheep. Steven said “a good shepherd is not one who says ‘I have given the lost sheep enough evidence to find its way home'”, provoking laughter in the studio because we all realised how Steven had struck home, I think. Some people (St Paul, for example) seem to get dramatic experiences, whereas some don’t. This is inconsistent with a God who we’re told seeks out everyone. The usual Christian defence is to say that God cannot over-ride our free-will and make us believe (C.S. Lewis says “he cannot rape; he must woo”). But God wasn’t so concerned with St Paul’s free-will and autonomy that he could not knock him off his horse on the way to Damascus, yet St Paul’s sort of experience is rare.

Marvin’s call was interesting, and all of us in the studio regretted that we didn’t get the chance to discuss all his points. His first point was that to accept the existence of evil one has to accept the existence of God who creates good and evil. I didn’t really follow that argument. The existence of evil seems to be merely a matter of people doing stuff I consider bad, and I don’t need to suppose that God made them do it. It’s possible he was arguing that without God we have no moral basis to call something evil, something which I’ve touched on before.

Marvin mentioned Anselm’s Ontological Argument, but Paul Clarke agreed that he’d concede that one.

Marvin’s second point was that we accept the truth of other classical writings, so why not the Bible? This argument fails because we’re not asked to live according to the teaching of those other classical writings. Something which we’re told to base our lives on should be held to a higher standard. But there are already many excellent arguments against Biblical inerrancy, so I’m not going to rehearse them all again here, but I will talk about the specific example I mentioned.

I don’t think that Paul Clarke’s response to my killer argument against inerrancy holds up. To say that the “we” of St Paul’s “we who are still alive” in 1 Thess 4 could encompass later Christians presupposes that St Paul knew he was writing to such people. My understanding of inerrancy was always that it did not and should not require such an assumption. At the Square Church they taught that the beginning of biblical interpretation was to work out what a passage meant to those who originally heard it (in this case, the people in Thessalonica, as is clear from 1 Thess 5:27). The method of interpretation where you read something like an epistle as if it’s personally addressed to you was right out, in fact.

Secondly, Paul Clarke’s defence of the inerrancy of 1 Corinthians 7 relies on some ambiguity about what the “present crisis” (verse 26) is. Paul Clarke suggested its a some local trouble affecting the Corinthian Christians. But St Paul himself spells this out in verses 29-31, ending with “for this world in its present form is passing away”. Something more than local trouble is being spoken of.

As I said to triphicus, it’s perfectly acceptable to concede the point (as she sort of does) but then look for what a Christian might take from that passage anyway (in this case, that the glories of this world are fleeting, and that Jesus could be back at any time so Christians should look busy). But to maintain that this sort of interpretation is what Paul actually meant to say in the first place, as Paul Clarke seemed to, seems like making work for yourself. It’s only the extra-Biblical assumption of inerrancy that requires evangelicals to go through these contortions when faced with texts like these. Removing that assumption cuts the knot. I’m reminded of the Washington Post’s description of Bart Erhman’s tortured paper defending some passage in Mark, and of the revelation Ehrman had when his tutor wrote a note in the margin saying “Maybe Mark just made a mistake”.

I stumbled a bit when I mentioned Occam’s Razor because Paul Clarke rightly jumped on the fact that in some sense God’s miraculous healing of someone’s fibroids is a simpler explanation than them getting better naturally by some unknown mechanism. Edited to add: what I should have said was that this sense of simple isn’t the one Occam’s Razor applies to.

scribb1e points out that this doesn’t address those people who pray and don’t get better. She also says that unexpected stuff does happen in medicine but it’s not proof of anything very much more than the ignorance of doctors. If a Christian gets ill they will almost certainly pray about it, and some of the people who pray will get better (along with some of those who don’t). You can’t say it wasn’t God’s doing, but you have to wonder about his inconsistency. Edited to add: scribb1e elaborates in this comment.

nlj21 kindly batted off a question to both the Paul’s in the studio. Paul Clarke was right in saying that the fact that some people leave Christianity doesn’t prove it’s wrong, but it does make you wonder about CICCU and similar organisations, doesn’t it? cathedral_life‘s comments on this discussion (where she signs herself as “AR”) seem apposite.

I hope I gave a reasonable answer to nlj21‘s question to me, although I’m sure he’ll be along to disagree.

I loved the question about “a god that suits your lifestyle”, because lifestyle is a Christian code-word for “having sex in a way we don’t like”.

I was expecting someone to try the No True Scotsman argument about me leaving Christianity (“no True Christian leaves Christianity”) so Narna came up trumps and I delivered my prepared answer. Go me.

I found Paul Clarke’s summing up quite affecting, because it was clear that he genuinely was concerned about my welfare. In the end, though, as I said, you can only follow the truth as best you can.

While casually browsing my website’s logs for hits from people looking for CICCU, rocking backwards and forwards and crooning “Soon, my precious! Soon!”, I noticed that some people from Facebook had been talking about the Losing my Religion page.

Coincidentally, Varsity recently interviewed one of the admins (PDF, look on page 7) of the Cambridge University mail server, hermes. The article mentioned Facebook, so I suppose it’s where the hip kids hang out these days. The article’s a bit odd. It’s one of those “the young people always think they invented it” things: apparently, email began in 2003. That’s more than just too late, for me, but I’m pretty sure that back in 1994 there was the joy of Pine and the anxiety of using finger to see whether New Hall girls had read their email (oh good, I seem to have navigated that sentence without saying “fingering”). There was none of this webmail nonsense. Things were starkly terminal based on the frontier of the Information Prairie, the bleached bones of our text lying on the dark surface of my wildly mixed metaphor. There was a greater awareness of the fragile underpinnings of it all, a rough justice needed to preserve order in our fledgling society: I got a sternly worded email from the man who became the author of Exim, telling me to stop pissing about sending myself mail from god@heaven. And we liked it.

So, Facebook. I joined. It seems to be a gentrified version of Myspace. There’s the bit where you can leave people messages and look at the pictures of them looking pale and interesting, but the residents’ committee has clamped down on the flashing purple text on a black background and the humourous cross-site scripting attacks. I didn’t have the de rigeur photo of myself exhibiting Internet disease (warning: Encyclopedia Dramatica is rarely safe for anything, although there’s nothing specifically worthy of summary dismissal on that page at the time of writing), so I just used the one off my website. I wandered around and laughed at the community called “FUCCU”. It’s all harmless fun I suppose. I’ve e-friended some of you on there, just cos: I’m not sure of the etiquette of friending on Facebook, so friend me back if you like, but don’t do it just because I know where most of you live.

I never did find out what people were saying about the religion page, the referrals were people following links from private messages. I expect it was the CICCU people wondering when I will actually overtake their official site in Google’s rankings. Soon, my precious, soon.

Anyone up for Isolatr? It’s where the cool people aren’t.

challenging_god is having a Biblical contradictions thread. For people unfamiliar with how this works, here’s my step-by-step guide:

First, a nutty creationist rants about the atheistic cult of humanism, and throws out a challenge to prove that the Bible contains errors, contradictions or what-have-you.

Next, bitter atheists descend upon the thread and interpret single verses as free-standing statements of propositional logic, and show how they contradict each other.

Occasionally, someone makes a valid point, like the differing genealogies of Jesus in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels (both designed to show Jesus as the Jewish Messiah; both, alas, different). When this happens, the inerrantists trot out their standard counter-argument, which involves relying on things the text does not, in fact, say, or on ignoring the hard bits in favour of what is actually a more liberal Christian interpretation. I’ve not seen the one where they say “Hmmm… yes, this is a difficult passage[this being the approved terminology], but I’m still going to be an inerrantist, if it’s all the same to you”. I feel that it can’t be long in coming, though.

Anyhow, I have a favourite contradiction (a contradiction with external reality, rather than an internal contradiction, but still, it about waps it up for that wascally inewancy). I successfully used my contradiction to “turn” robhu (note: sarcasm). It has not yet been banned for its mind-melting power, so I’ve given it another outing on this thread of the discussion. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to engage ikefriday, the original poster, in debate. Instead, triphicus has turned up, and insists on being sane and reasonable. Standards are falling in evangelicalism, let me tell you.

I’ve also e-friended mr_ricarno after an interesting conversation about CICCU.

And so to bed.

We went to a Proms in the Park concert in Bedford last night. There were the usual favourites, finishing up with singing Jerusalem, Land of Hope and Glory, and then watching a firework display while the orchestra played 633 Squadron and Live and Let Die. Great fun. The people waving flags all over the place gave me an unusual burst of national pride.

Aled Jones was there, much to the delight of the grannies. He has an excellent singing voice: I don’t think I’ve heard him sing since Walking in the Air all those years ago. Among other things, he sang How Great Thou Art, which is apparently the nation’s favourite hymn.

I once sang it on a hillside in Derbyshire, on a CU houseparty. It was night. We could see the lights of the village below (whose residents hopefully couldn’t hear us). There was a cloudless, starry sky. I see the stars, indeed. Aled Jones’s singing, beneath another clear night sky, was fiercely evocative of that moment, one of those echoes which left me feeling strangely dissociated. The music can revive the emotions from that time, but the reason behind them has gone, and, of course, these days any emotional response associated with Christianty is also tinged with something of the pain of loss (although it’s not particularly searing, thankfully, more a sort of nostalgia).

So, I came home and watched the latest episode of season two of Battlestar Galactica, which fell off the back of a lorry and landed at my feet, guv’nor. It’s good stuff, although as some fans have said, I live in fear that the writers don’t actually know where they’re going, and the whole thing will end up like The X-Files. Still, there are some obvious future plotlines being set up, so we live in hope.

Someone on a web page I was reading the other day compared the present unpleasantness to the Idiran-Culture war. I do hope not: the things a highly technological society can do when forced to defend its very existence don’t bear thinking about. With that in mind, and with my Stephenson “some cultures are better than others” hat on, Blair’s latest proposals sound like a good idea.

It seems someone from CICCU (or at least, someone from a Cambridge IP address) posted an advert for this year’s CICCU Convert-a-thon to my last entry. You’ve got to admire the brass neck of that: it seems vaguely reminiscent of something old JC himself might have done. I replied in kind, and so The Great God Debate thread was begun. It’s mostly me and robhu vs nlj21 right now. Feel free to join us, as long as you can spell and punctuate and are not any sort of nutter.

ladysisyphus writes about why she is a Christian even though she cannot say unequivocally that Jesus Christ is her Lord and Saviour, which, as we all know, is the litmus of such things. People who thought that the Jerry Springer entry was intended to imply that I believed all American Christians were nutters, take note: there is at least one who is not. andrewducker says what I’d have said about truth and facts, in a conversation which reminds me of those I’ve had with cathedral_life.

People who read Hebrew might want to have a look at the huge thread on Creationism that developed under my post here, since some of it relies on what I suspect are standard Creationist assertions about the Hebrew used in Genesis. Or you might not: after I while, I learned to avoid the Creationism threads on uk.r.c, only popping out occasionally to ambush people with physics.

There are more photos of the musicals party, to add to bluap’s. My camera’s rubbish in low light, alas.

Random Flash linkage: To Kill A Mockingbird, Numa Numa. Been doing the rounds, but I mention it in case you’ve not seen it.

Update: I got a comment from someone recommending the CICCU mission talks this year (which have now been and gone). This has started a debate on whether God is just. Read all about it in the comments inside.

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GD on Friday was fun. CDC had been running events all day to raise money for Children in Need. In the evening, we had silly games at General Dancing, including the one where you put hats on people, play a quickstep and tell them to put the hats on other people. You stop the music occasionally and people who still have hats leave the floor. I got knocked out fairly quickly: I claim I was disadvantaged by dancing with Safi, who is too short to plonk hats on people’s heads from above (having the woman do this is clearly the best strategy, as it leaves the man free to steer). Ginger Joanna and I did win one of the “one dance to the tune of another” competitions, but cannot for the life of me remember which dances were involved. There was also a ceidlidh, although that suffered from the caller and band being a bit quiet (possibly down to a dodgy sound system) and assuming that we all knew what things like “set to your partner” meant. Oh, and they played the St Bernard’s Waltz painfully slowly. But it was all for charidee, so I shouldn’t grouse so much. I then decided I wasn’t rigged for hip-hop so ran away when that came on.

Went to a better ceidlidh on Saturday, for Allen’s birthday. It was a one man show by the inestimable Karl Sandeman. A good time was had by all. Thanks to Karl’s dressing up bag for use when dancing The Flying Scotsman, I now have a new user icon (the bigger version is even scarier). My attempts to channel Rab C Nesbitt were described as “actually scary, even though I knew it was you” by one onlooker. So, can yer mammy sew?

You can’t have one of these updates without mentioning religion, so I thought I’d point out an interesting article on Ship of Fools about university CU missions (like CICCU’s Promise this year). There’s a link at the top of the article to a longer PDF version, which is worth a read.

The author talks about most students being apathetic toward religion and student politics as if this were a recent change. I’m not sure I believe this, though. Kate Fox’s Watching the English mentions “The Importance of Not Being Earnest” as a general rule of Englishness: we’re naturally suspicious of anyone who appears too keen on anything. When she talks about religion, she also notes that while many people will say they’re C of E on census forms, few people actually care about religion enough to bother arguing about it. The hothouse environment of the vast Cambridge friends-of-friends web magnifies the importance of religion, since it is full of people who have thought about it and decided one way or the other.

This is probably a good thing, since it means that there is no political capital in placating the fundamentalists in this country. No Bush for us: Tony keeps quiet about his (quite serious, by all accounts) Christian faith. We’re far more interested in class war: witness the way that, as shreena pointed out, the ban on foxhunting got far more press coverage than the introduction of civil partnerships for gay people.

I stumbled across saltshakers on my Friends of Friends page and got into a debate about morality and various other things. Don’t really want to be the sort of atheist who hangs out on Christian internet sites and harangues them (I have my own site for that, after all), but I couldn’t resist this one.

I’ve also contributed in small part to a discussion involving cathedral_life on the ToothyCat Wiki, which seems to have replaced as the place where the Next Generation of Cambridge geeks hang out. The discussion starts off being about the Historical Jesus, moves on to talk about pigeonholing Christians, and ends up being about how many university CU members leave the faith after they leave university. Interesting stuff.