Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Where Shall Wisdom be Found, if Not in Waterstones?

Today I was in Waterstone’s bookshop in Cambridge, buying yet another book that will have to get in the queue.
Reflecting later about the material on display, however, I find myself thinking about Paul in Athens. In his case, his spirit was provoked because, “he saw that the city was full of idols”. In my case, it was not idols that filled the bookshop, but it was certainly idolatry.
Here was volume after volume on the same issue: why are we here and what does it mean?
And as we know, idolatry has a strong component of worshipping and serving the creature, but failing to acknowledge the Creator (Rom 1:25).
Most of these books were what might be called pop-science or pop-philosophy. There was inevitably little that would qualify as hard science or serious philosophy and that was in the specialist sections upstairs. (I was grateful that serious philosophy was only on the third, not the fourth, floor or I would be writing this from a hospital bed.)
One can therefore easily dismiss these works precisely for their popular appeal, their lack of seriousness: Darwin By Design, Why Your Brain Can Think for Itself — I made these up, but as titles they would easily be at home amongst the works on offer. Yet for all their fatuousness, they would just be the equivalent of “To An Unknown God”. Real books purporting to explain reality to us (and to explain us away as a side effect of the real world) were everywhere.
There was even a stack of books on something like Reading the Bible as Science. Everyone got a look in. (Perhaps there was an Agnosto Theo, after all!) But just as there was little serious science or philosophy, so it seemed there was no genuine Christian input. The Christian books were also in a little section to themselves, up on that third floor where you really felt the lack of oxygen.
Yet surely if the displays on lower floors say anything about market forces, there is a crying need — indeed a desperate want — of something telling the truth.
On my way out of the shop, therefore, the words that came to mind were those of Job 28 (9–12, ESV)
Man puts his hand to the flinty rock and overturns mountains by the roots. He cuts out channels in the rocks, and his eye sees every precious thing. He dams up the streams so that they do not trickle, and the thing that is hidden he brings out to light. “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?”
Science? Been there. Technology? Done that. Big Bang? Sorted. Evolutionary psychology? Sussed.
But wisdom and understanding — where are they? If anyone possessed them, surely people of all nations would travel the earth to hear it, sent by the kings of whole world, just as they did to Solomon.
Dear brother, dear sister, you and I have the wisdom that is from God.
You do believe that, don’t you? Whether you are an ‘evangelical’ or a ‘liberal’, a ‘conservative’ or a ‘radical’, a ‘traditionalist’ or a ‘reformer’, indeed whether you believe it or not, it is true:
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption ... (1 Corinthians 1:26–30, ESV)
Make no mistake though! This ‘wisdom from God’ is not confined to ‘the good news about Jesus’. Solomon’s wisdom encompassed botany and horticulture (1 Ki 4:33). He could hold his own with the wisest of Egypt and the East, just as in another generation, three young Jewish boys surpassed the ‘magi’ of the Babylonian court. And his forerunners in the business of Temple building, men like himself “filled with the spirit of wisdom” (Ex 28:3, KJV, Heb) were both craftsmen and artists of the first order.
It is emphatically not wise to say, “All you need to know is Jesus.” The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10), but it is not the end, nor is it a substitute for wisdom. Rather, it is the gateway through which we enter into that elusive storehouse where wisdom is actually to be found.
Thus it is that which takes a ‘big bang theory’ or indeed (dare I say) the process of natural selection (which is not so much a theory but, as I think John Lennox says, a truism – a commonplace statement of the obvious) and interprets them — critiquing them so as to question some of the assumptions made by those who hold to them, and applying them in such a way as they fit the known facts of the universe (including consciousness, reason and moral value), not the doctrinaire assertions of those who assume what the facts must be.
Thus we will engage with the likes of the Nobel-prizewinning biologist Jacques Monod and, whilst relishing his discoveries about biology, shout ‘phooey’ to his pronouncements about the meaning(lessness) of it all.
When I read his Chance and Necessity back in the 1970s, even I could see that smuggling in the principles of French Socialism on the back of a case that life is the result of biological accident and chemical determinism was a bit far-fetched. Yet there are pronouncements about ‘the meaning of life’ being made to day by those of the same mind which are no less tosh for the fact that the fanfare accompanying them is louder and more socially acceptable.
Soldiers of Christ, arise and put your armour on — or rather, take up the sword which is the word of God and the pen which is supposedly mightier than the sword. Write, write and keep writing until what you’re writing finally takes a form that will penetrate even the ears of those who gather round them people to tell them what their itching ears yearn to hear.
Speak against the idols. Or even better, do as Paul did and begin from those idols to tell them about the God who actually made the world and everything in it (big bangs, black holes and all), who is not far from every one of us and who desires that we should seek him and reach out for him and perhaps find him.
It is a task beyond me, I’m afraid, but it could be you.
Good luck. God bless you. I’ll see you in the assembly area.
(Sorry, I completely slipped into another character there.)
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  1. Also in Waterstones books such as "50 shades of Grey" is also quietly questioning current secular certainties.

    In my view turning them on their head.

    Cheer up John, all part of God's plan!


  2. There is one for geologists that has got them all a-quiver as well: Fifty Grades of Shale.

  3. I can't believe you went to buy a book in Cambridge and didn't go to heffers!


  4. Ah, but I have a Waterstones loyalty card, and usually buy from them in Stortford. ;-)

  5. I have heard of one book -especially for men called 'Fifty Sheds of Grey'.

    Chris Bishop

  6. Not a comment on the item as such, but I went to look at it, found the advert above the title was for, with the text "I believe God doesn't give up on any of us". Needless to say, I was somewhat surprised, but refrained from clicking through even if that would mean you would get some income. Revisiting the page fortunately showed a different advert. (I have a screenshot if needed).

  7. David, the display ads are problematic. Right now I'm getting outdoor clothing, but I have had cycle lamps regularly. Guess what I've been Googling for!

    Unfortunately, Google does profile web users and I suspect 'religious types' get 'religious' ads appear.

    It is possible, but tedious and time consuming, to block a particular ad, especially one I can't see and get the url for, so I'd prefer just to wait for it to go away.

  8. The ads I've just got is
    Women's shoes by Reef
    Clinique creams
    Clerical shirts
    & a budhist meditation site

    Which should I be most worried about. Honest I haven't googled any of them (& my wife has her own laptop)

    Darren Moore

  9. And of course, let’s not forget many Christian bookshops, with their rows and rows of ‘self-help- style and Christian ‘penny-dreadful’ books where (mainly white), healthy, wealthy and good-looking folk (usually young) – with perfect teeth, perfect lives (and a good deal of airbrushing) – leer at us from their covers, as we make our way nervously around the shop. For a laugh, a few years ago, I was visiting a Christian bookshop on Holborn Viaduct (now gone – the shop, not the viaduct!) and asked the woman at the counter if they had a copy of Athanasius’ ‘Incarnation’ – of course they didn’t stock it – in fact because I had said ‘Saint Athanasius’ there was just momentary flicker of contempt on the woman’s face... Shelves on ‘Wealth Management’ – racks and racks of CDs, with hunky men and cleavage showing women smiling out at me, seductive in their purpose – to get the likes of me to buy their wares – these ‘products’ were, of course, ‘Christian’ – they were being sold in a Christian bookshop: so therefore totally Kosher – but a book which in many ways is the foundation of Trinitarian Christianity... No, the woman had never heard of it.

    I was saddened to see in this particular shop (part of a chain) a section on ‘world religions’ where there were several books on ‘Roman Catholicism’; yet another reason to doubt the ‘Christian’ nature of this shop. It was specialist book shop – catering for a particular worldview and outlook... Though as to whether that outlook and worldview was ‘Christian’ in the objective sense of the word is doubtful. Here ‘Christian’ was merely a brand label, product placement – just like the word ‘organic’ deludes some people into thinking a bunch of ‘organic’ bananas is somehow ‘better’ or ‘purer’ or ‘less profane’ than its unbranded neighbour. A book on wealth management or a CD bought in a Christian bookshop is ‘Christian’, simply because of where it was bought... The nature of the contents or its marketing is not questioned by many.

    It is clear that there is much idolatry in many a Christian bookshop – and there is much on the shelves of many of these shops which is far from orthodox Christianity, but is actually promoting a specific Western, money and ambition centred life style (but then that is not uncommon in many, particularly Evangelical Christian circles). I certainly find Waterstone’s less offensive than many a Christian bookshop which trade on people’s theological ignorance and self-interest. At least Waterstone’s is not trying to pass itself off as something it is not...

    P.D. North London

  10. PD

    So it is better that the bookshop is gone?

    "specific Western, money and ambition centred life style........not uncommon in many, particularly Evangelical Christian circles"

    One day get off your high horse, sit down and drink with the brothers and sisters in Christ that you seem to despise.

    Only Jesus was perfect

  11. @ Phil – I still drink with those who are brothers and sisters in Christ... The problem is that altho’ many are fine individuals, there are many others who think it is their right to be looked up to and that they know best how the rest of society should lead their lives (so in truth who is really on ‘their high horse’?) – despite the fact (particularly when we look at our own past our across the Herring Pond) that overtly Christian societies tend to have far MORE of the problems we’re told by political Christians would disappear if Christianity was allowed rule of law in Britain. Where in the Western world are the highest rates of single-parents, divorce, teen pregnancy, social inequality, violent crime and murder? It should be supposed – reading this and other reactionary conservative blogs – that they would be found in those wicked secular nations (e.g. Northern European liberal democracies) but no! These are the very countries that are not plagued by these problems to the same degree as say the USA – particularly Bible Belt USA – or even (when it comes to single parent families) the Rep of Ireland.

    You highlight a paradox at the heart of Christianity: no one is perfect except Jesus. As the writer of Herbrews tells us at great length, laws and sacrifices could not make humans perfect or acceptable to God – that could only be achieved by Jesus, belief in him and God’s mercy. Humans are sinful by their nature. Yet we find again and again through history (and alas the present) those who think that they can impose a ‘Christian’ society that will be ‘more perfect’, when, as we have seen with the reign of the Puritans or Roman Catholicism et el that political Christianity is doomed to failure (tho’ I think this is more to do with the nature of religion than the religion itself, as generally speaking the more religious a society the more corrupt that society will be, regardless of the religion itself).

    Hence you will have to forgive me Phil (which is of course what Christians are commanded to do) when I do get rather irked with the self-satisfaction that is sometimes evident in Christian discourse concerning the wider-world. As I have noted elsewhere, too often the bony finger of accusation is employed by some of our fellow parishioners, when perhaps what would be more productive would be the use of a mirror...

    P.D. - North London

  12. PD, you are very fond of instancing the 'peace and stability' of liberal democracies. However, this relies on a massive amount of wealth (either generated or borrowed) which pays for those social 'support structures' which allow those societies to function.

    Absent the support, or the wealth, we find ourselves confronting a very different scenario.

  13. PD, if I may add another observation to your claim (regularly made) that it is the "secular nations (e.g. Northern European liberal democracies)" that the greatest social benefits and stability are to be found that, at least of the Nordic states, there is a long historical tradition of State Protestantism which arguably has had a massive influence on the culture.

    For example, I was amazed back in the late 1980s on my first of several visits to Finland to discover just how many young people attended Confirmation classes and camps. Of course this is not to suggest that they were 'believers', but it would be frankly bizarre to attempt to deny that this - including the acceptance by themselves that they would attend such things - had no effect on them.

    Indeed, what I found in Finland was a startlingly 'conformist' culture, exemplified to me by the group of 'punks' who stood obediently waiting for the 'green man' to appear so they could cross an empty road - not a car, nor a policeman in sight, but in Finland you're supposed to wait. Here, I thought, was a clear opportunity to put that social non-conformity into rebellious action, but it was left to the conventionally-dressed Englishman to flout the rules.

    I suggest that your analysis needs to take account of this social influence, which, whilst it may be hard to quantify, is (I suggest) very real.