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EFAC Australia

Essentials

Peter Hitchens, brother of the famous anti-theist, Christopher Hitchens, describes how atheism led him to faith.

The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith
Peter Hitchens
Harper Collins 2010
ISBN 9780310320319

Peter and Christopher Hitchens have a shared heritage of British nominal Christianity and the embracing of atheism as a form of intellectual emancipation. ‘I set fire to my Bible on the playing fields of my Cambridge boarding school one bright, windy spring afternoon in 1967. I was 15 years old’ (page 7).
Peter has since returned to an active Christian faith after decades of leftist-atheism, whilst his brother Christopher has become a great preacher of the new atheism. This book is a banquet of biography, a prophetic evaluation of 20th Century Western Christian culture, a defence of common objections to the
Christian faith, and an undressing of self-assured anti-theism.
Peter has written this book as a record of his own journey, and also to help those who might be potentially ‘enchanted by the arguments of the anti-religious intellects of our age’ (page 2). Having been on the inside, he is able to shine a light on the motives and arrogance that makes up much of popular atheism.
Peter argues that the biggest weakness of his brother’s ‘faith’ is that ‘he often assumes that moral truths are self-evident, attributes purpose to the universe and swerves dangerously round the problem of conscience—which surely cannot be conscience if he is right—he is astonishingly unable to grasp that these assumptions are problems for his argument. This inability closes his mind to a great part of the debate, and so this makes his atheist faith insuperable for as long as he himself chooses to accept it’ (page 3). This inability is revealed with insufferable repetition in the 2009 documentary Collision—which narrates a string of public debates Christopher Hitchens held with the American Christian pastor and writer, Douglas Wilson. This DVD is highly recommended as both entertaining and thought-provoking viewing (see www.collisionmovie.com).
Peter puts forward a cogent case that the decay of 21st Century Western societies is due to the 20th Century decay of credal Christianity. He is scathing of Church of England nominalism in the last 100 years, especially in relation to English patriotism and the two World Wars. His reflections on the ‘national cult’ of British patriotism also critique our own Anzac traditions and loyalties.
As a professional journalist, Peter’s observations of the 20th Century have a breadth of wisdom and evidence, not least his insights comparing five years of living in Russia and his return to London at the turn of the century. As part of his spiritual journey he observes what effect predominant belief systems have on the virtue of any society: ‘I also concluded that a high moral standard cannot be reached or maintained unless it is generally accepted and understood by an overwhelming number of people. I have since concluded that a hitherto Christian society which was de-Christianised would also face such problems, because I have seen public discourtesy and incivility spreading rapidly in my own country as Christianity is forgotten’ (page 66).
Peter knows 20th century history exceedingly well. He was thoroughly versed in and supportive of leftist atheistic regimes, and of the excuses required to maintain this ideology in the face of repeated atrocity after atrocity. He is now ‘baffled and frustrated by the strange insistence of my anti-theist brother that the cruelty of Communist anti-theist regimes does not reflect badly on his case and his cause. It unquestionably does. Soviet Communism is organically linked to atheism, materialist rationalism and most of the other causes the new atheists support. It used the same language, treasured the same hopes and appealed to the same constituency as atheism today’ (page 100).
The biographical elements are sparse but riveting. The poetic majesty of the KJV and traditional Anglican 1662 Book of Common Prayer liturgy connected and awakened suppressed beliefs for Hitchens. In fact his journey back to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ came in part through his wife and children’s baptism in a traditional Church of England parish. As Anglican Evangelicals, what does it say of us that should we be surprised by this? There is more than one way to skin a secularist cat—of his brother he suggests that ‘it is my belief that passions as strong as his are more likely to be countered by the unexpected force of poetry, which can ambush the human heart at any time’ (page 3).
At 160 pages this is a concise book, eminently readable and well worth giving to our atheist friends. It represents a challenge to evangelicals who, being weak on history and aesthetics, are often left to debate on the narrow turf of Enlightenment categories. It highlights Christian failures but it also offers philosophical and historical ways forward from our Anglican heritage.
As a weakness, presentation of the person and work of Jesus Christ is significantly absent in this book. But it is a penetrating critique of the spirit of our age and I pray it opens eyes for many to consider the ascended Saviour-King.

Wayne Schuller is Vicar of Berwick Anglican Church in Melbourne’s booming south-eastern growth corridor.

John Wilson responds to Andrew Malone’s introduction to Leviticus.

Andrew Malone in the last issue of Essentials has provided us with a helpful introduction to the book on Leviticus with the aim of getting it, along with other neglected parts of the Old Testament, back on the agenda. He sees it as fertile soil for nurturing believers in biblical theology. He has listed five possible themes to be explored.

‘Lectures for Lent’ assumed that Leviticus could form a sermon series in Lent. How will the congregation know what Lent is? How will they be reminded that the weeks of Lent have traditionally been set aside for congregations to do some extra study? Will there be a clear linking between Jesus’ 40 days being tested in the wilderness and the period between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as the church has traditionally done, so that people see this period as an opportunity for reflection on their own progress and purpose as Christians and also the opportunity to do some extra Bible study?

THE CURATE’S EGG

Rob Imberger gets people to talk about Jesus.

By far the highlight of my move to Bendigo thus far has been the opportunity to share the gospel with at least five people, none of whom I had previous relationships with. Yes, you may have thought it was the search for decent coffee (see previous column), but no, I have more high-minded and spiritual-sounding aspirations now! (That, and I already found my new coffee haunt within four days).
Anyway: this gospel-sharing has been so exciting, sparking a burning fire that all of these people come to know Christ. Two of these opportunities have arisen out of infant baptism visits, which is (if you’ll allow me to wear my heart on my sleeve) the most convincing reason why churches should offer infant baptism: not to get the babies talking about Jesus but to get their parents talking about Jesus. I’m reading through the Gospel of Mark with one particular family, an outcome neither they nor I could ever have envisaged after our first unremarkable visit. God is good!
Other gospel opportunities have arisen by the by and, as the new kid on the block, it’s frankly easier to be blunt and forthright: I have no bridges built to burn! (I’m only half-joking). I suppose the upshot of all this is Praise God for the awesome privilege of being involved in His work, through believing and promoting that the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).
Now, some of you might think this is a regular occurrence for us ministers. After all, when the sermon’s written and the pew sheets are printed, have we not all the time in the world to evangelise the masses? Strangely not. If you ask me or your own Vicar, we will tell you that we tread a well-worn but necessary path, much of which consists of doing the ordinary mundane administrivia that in fact enables (rather than hampers) the more spectacular work of saving souls. That’s why you’ll see us, for example, writing emails, finalising rosters, having cups of coffee, taking days off, reading books. All of this, in some measure, helps free us up and be poised for the kind of awesome opportunities I’ve had of late.

I love Tasmania too much to leave it the way I found it

John Harrower reflects on ten years as Bishop of Tasmania.

It is a decade since I became the eleventh Bishop of Tasmania.
It is wonderful, yet challenging to reflect on what God has done in my life: where He has taken us and where we are going.
From my background in engineering, economics and political science and involvement as a Director researching the impact of technological and demographic change on Australia’s industrial structure, God took me, my wife and our two sons to Argentina as missionaries with the Church Missionary Society (CMS).

In Argentina during the years 1979–88 we worked with university students, helped grow a church, and published and distributed Christian literature. I was ordained deacon in 1984 and priest in 1986 in the Diocese of Argentina. God brought us back to Australia and in 1989 I became the Vicar of St Paul’s Glen Waverly and later of St Barnabas’ Glen Waverly (GWAC). We focused on community building, discipleship, evangelism, youth, ministry formation and relating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to different cultures.

Roger Herft introduces the Diocese of Perth.

The vibrant faith in God’s steadfast love, grace and goodness forms the essential DNA of the people called to be part of the body of Christ in Perth. The inheritance of faith that refuses to cloister itself in a fortress-like defence system was forged by the pioneer missionary, John Ramsden Wollaston.

This faith, believing that God is sovereign and present before us is evident in the history of the church in this place. There is a sense of awe and gratitude which acknowledges that we in our generation stand on the shoulders of giants.

Wollaston faced utter indifference to the Gospel on his first Good Friday and Easter. But, undaunted he continued to faithfully minister; loving the people God had entrusted to him with Christlikeness.

The Anglican Diocese of Perth is a diocese within The Anglican Church of Australia. It is the Metropolitical See in the State of Western Australia. It holds strongly to the bonds of affection with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Instruments of Unity in our Communion.
The diocese seeks to hold together the Ministry of Word and Sacrament, evangelical zeal embedded in the beauty of liturgical prayer, profound scholarship, pastoral care and social justice.

Peter Adam identifies the good works we have been created to do.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Five lessons on good works

1. We are saved by grace, not by good works. The pressure is on to do good works: from ourselves, from ambitious family or friends, from our supervisors and employers, from God, from our heroes, from our fears, from our guilt, from our need to be needed. And there is an endless supply of good works that need to be done! People give us good feedback on good works. So it is easy to think that we are saved by achievement, by increased productivity, by success, by usefulness. We are not saved by these things: we are saved by God’s grace. I frequently tell myself that if I were to wake up tomorrow paralysed, unable to do or say anything, I would still be as saved as I am today!

Peter Smith shows how Cranmer marshalled the words of his opponents to speak the truth in love.

Since the decisive break with Rome in the sixteenth century, scholars have debated the doctrinal stance of the Church of England. Did the first Archbishop of the newly formed C of E, Thomas Cranmer promote a Roman Catholic theology or was he a reformer or something in between? For much of the twentieth century Anglican scholarship championed the idea that the English Reformation was worked out as a kind of via media—a middle way between the extremes of the Continental Reformation of Calvin and Zwingli and the Church of Rome. A classic approach to the via media promotes the idea that the Church of England was able to reject the distasteful doctrines of the European Reformation (Calvinism) and embrace the best of Roman Catholicism without compromising the newly formed Church of England. The result—a pleasant middle way for a church that is afraid of excess– not too hot, not too cold. Various wings of the worldwide Anglican church make the claim that the nature of our history licenses a particular style of churchmanship—albeit half way between Rome and Geneva however this is interpreted!

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