24 October 2013

David and Goliath

There's more than one way of understanding the David/Goliath battle. Malcolm Gladwell identifies some new twists in the story. Things may not always be as they seem at first sight. And that's true of all situations, not just those in which we think we are facing giants.

Goliath laughs at David
Goliath laughs at David
Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting way of looking at the famous incident of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1-54).

There are elements in the story that he overlooks, especially David's reliance on Yahweh. But he closely examines some details that we might normally gloss over.

Who is Malcolm Gladwell? He is a famous thinker and author, in particular he wrote The Tipping Point, a very influential book published in 2000.

Although it's a secular book, it has many ideas useful in missional movements. In fact, it might not be stepping too far from the mark to say that the book is about missional movements - just not Christian ones in particular.

A new book - His latest work, released in 2013, is called David and Goliath and comes with the strapline Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Watch him as he speaks at TED.

Malcolm Gladwell has clearly understood the story of David and Goliath in a different way. As he explains, we normally approach it thinking of David as the underdog. But this is not really the case; David knew exactly what he was doing.

While the story does mean what we usually take it to mean (that we should not stand in awe of a giant, but face even the most massive of issues with confidence); the real significance of Gladwell's interpretation is that it encourages us to remember that things may not always be as they seem at first sight. [Tweet it!] And that's true of all situations, not just those in which we think we are facing giants.


  • Have there been situations in your life when you have felt small and helpless?
  • How did they work out for you?
  • How important is it to 'know your enemy'?
  • Do you think it makes a difference if you are confident? To You? To others?

See also:

22 October 2013

The blind man sees

Part 6 of a series - 'Seven signs in John'
< Walking on water | Index | No later items >

Nobody has ever done this before! Why? What happened? This rabbi with his disiples following along - he's healed a man that was born blind. He can see now, he really can see! Hmm... Sounds a bit far fetched to me. No, really, the Pharisees have checked with the guy's parents.

Remains of the Pool of Siloam
Remains of the Pool of Siloam
For the background to the signs in John and links to the other articles in the series, please read the index page.

John 9:1-41 begins with a question. The disciples would like to know why a man was born blind. Was it because of his own sins or those of his parents?

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’

After saying this, he spat on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. ‘Go,’ he told him, ‘wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (this word means ‘Sent’). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

His neighbours and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, ‘Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?’ Some claimed that he was.

Others said, ‘No, he only looks like him.’

But he himself insisted, ‘I am the man.’

‘How then were your eyes opened?’ they asked. (more...)

Healings were by no means unknown in Jesus' day. But healing a man born blind was regarded as one of three 'Messianic miracles', one that only the Messiah would be able to do. To the religious authorities in Jerusalem it is therefore clear evidence that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah. That's why the Pharisees wanted to check this inconvenient evidence very thoroughly.

Here are the four questions suggested by Neil Cole with some pointers for finding the answers in the material quoted above.

What does this story tell us about people? - Who was there? Well, the blind man himself of course. The disciples were there watching. We also hear about the man's neighbours and others who knew him. The Pharisees get involved and interview the man's parents. There's a lot going on and we see people with just the same attitudes and issues that we see in people today. Why do you think the Pharisees are so unwilling to accept that the man was healed?

What does it tell us about Jesus? - What did Jesus actually do? How did he heal the man? Why didn't he just say "Be healed"? Does he always do what we expect? Does he always wait for us to ask for something? (Did the blind man asked for his sight?)

What does it tell me about myself? - Are you more like the disciples, the man who was healed, the parents or the Pharisees? Maybe, in some ways, you are like them all. Who had faith in this story? How would you have reacted in the shoes of the people John describes? The blind man was obedient in what might have seemed a silly and pointless trip to Siloam. Are you obedient when you don't understand the reason?

Who else needs to hear this? - Who do you know who might benefit or be challenged or encouraged by hearing about this sign in John? Are you going to tell them?


  • How do you think the man felt when he washed at Siloam and began to see? [Tweet it!]
  • Which triumphs in this passage, law or grace? How? Why?

See also:

< Walking on water | Index | No later items >

16 October 2013

Sciencism and religiology

Sciencism and religiology do not exist for very good reasons. Neither would be an appropriate endeavour, both would be doomed to failure. It's necessary to use faith for religion and the scientific method for science. Any attempt to swap these methods would be extremely foolish.

Science and religion
Science and religion
Near the end of my previous post I asked two questions, "Why is there no widespread science of 'religiology'?" and "Why is there no widespread religion of 'sciencism'?"

I'd like to consider these questions now, and we'll start with the second one.

Why is there no widespread religion of 'sciencism'? - All religions involve believing something without tangible evidence and this is called "faith". I should be clear about what I mean by "evidence". Evidence is used in a court of law to help the jury decide whether or not a person is guilty of a particular crime. This is the same kind of evidence required in science to establish whether an assumption (called an hypothesis) is wrong.

Suppose there has been a murder or a theft. The evidence that a crime has been committed is always clear, there is a body or a missing piece of property. But the evidence that the suspect was responsible is often harder to find. It might depend on discovering fingerprints or a weapon and there may be counter-evidence. Perhaps the accused has an alibi.

Science is based on clear and reproducible methods of making observations, creating hypotheses, testing them and rejecting whatever can be proved to be wrong. In some ways this is similar to a court of law. Over a period of time, often decades, if an hypothesis has still not been disproved it may be regarded as a theory, that is, an assumption that seems sturdy and has survived every attempt to prove it wrong.

That's how science works (by means of abundant evidence from observation and experiment). Because of this there is nothing to believe, science is not a matter of faith, so there can be no religious aspect to science. The religion of sciencism doesn't exist because it is a contradiction in terms. Some people might "put their faith in science" in the sense that they expect it to explain everything leaving no room for religion. But that is a dangerous point of view.

There are areas that science does not and cannot investigate. For example, the idea that there is a Creator who brought the universe into being cannot be investigated. We can observe the universe as it is today and we can draw conclusions about its state close to the beginning. But "before the beginning" makes no sense and is open to speculation and to faith, but not to experiment or measurement.

Why is there no widespread science of 'religiology'? - Let's be clear what we mean. We can use some of science's methods to study religion, but not all of them. It is possible to count or estimate the number of people who adhere to a particular faith, their geographic distribution can be studied, so can their ethnic make-up.

However, this is not enough to make a true science. Certain elements are there, but others are missing. Studies like these are part of the so-called "social sciences".  They share careful observation and hypothesis with science, but they sometimes lack the testability by experiment that is also necessary.

Suppose you form a hypothesis, perhaps that some kind of god figure is essential in a fully functioning human society, or that any god must be a feature of human imagination and cannot be real. How do you test that? What experiment can you do to disprove hypotheses of that kind?

There is no science of religiology because religion is not susceptible to the scientific method. And that turns out to be the same reason there is no religion of sciencism. (There is, however, a Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Perhaps this goes against the argument I am making and might be evidence that my hypothesis is faulty.)

What can we conclude? - The only sensible conclusion to draw is that we need different sets of tools for the two domains, scientific tools based on observation and experiment for science and religious tools based on faith for religion.

This is why it is incorrect to claim that evolution is as much a matter of faith as creationism. Evolution is evidence-based, creationism is faith-based. We need to use the correct tools. The creationists are right about creation and wrong about evolution. Richard Dawkins is right about evolution and wrong about creation. The two camps cannot communicate because they are using different languages.

You cannot dismiss science by claiming that faith is required. You cannot dismiss religion by claiming the scientific method is required. Both stances are equally incorrect, both are equally foolish, and both miss the point.


  • Why do you suppose there is so much heat and so little light in the debate?
  • Do science and religion threaten one another in some way?
  • Do they deal with two different parts of the human experience?
  • If so, why can't we all just accept that?

See also:

11 October 2013

Understanding science and technology

Truth is truth, and we have to deal with that, even if it seems terribly inconvenient. In particular, scientific facts are truth in the sense that they are demonstrable (by the scientific method) and effective (because they lead to technology that works).

George Boole
George Boole
Denying something that is a well-established theory and has stood years, decades or even centuries of attempts to disprove it is, well, foolish. Yet this is often what believers do (of all faiths) when faced with a scientific finding that seems to contradict articles of their faith.

And the technologies that work for us every day include some that demonstrate the effectiveness of those disputed scientific findings.

Some examples - The science around evolution, for example, underpins some effective technologies in plant and animal breeding, agriculture and medicine.

The science of geology explains the ancient origin of rocks and the movement of the continents but also underpins the petroleum and mineral extraction industries.

And the hotly disputed science around climate change is providing predictive technologies that are already showing their worth in longer term forecasting. Although this is not a religious argument per se, it is being argued in similar ways to the conflict over evolution.

Some of the earlier science/religion debates that were once high profile are now long-forgotten. Few people would argue today that the Catholic church was correct and Galileo wrong about the earth not being at the centre of everything.

Accepting science and religion - And here's something else that's interesting. Why are certain scientific ideas argued against so vehemently while others attract little or no attention? For example, Joshua 10:12-13 tells us that the sun and moon stood still in the sky. Yet this is not leading to a mass denial of angular momentum, classical mechanics or orbital mechanics which clearly show such a thing to be impossible.

Can we not accept that science attempts to describe and explain the physical universe while religion attempts to describe and explain the spiritual realm? The physical universe is known and understood by observation, experiment, and careful thought. The spiritual realm is known and understood by revelation. Why should science and religion be seen as in conflict? Science deals with that which is provable, religion deals with that which is not.

(The photo shows George Boole, who developed the mathematics for processing values of true and false. His work underpins some of the theoretical aspects of modern computing.)


  • Is it helpful to keep science and religion separate in our minds?
  • Why is there no widespread science of "religiology"?
  • Why is there no widespread religion of "sciencism"?
  • Does it make sense to begin with a conclusion and then look for supporting evidence? In a court of law? In science? In religion?

See also:

10 October 2013

Caring for rich and poor

How can you look after rich and poor at the same time? An imaginative organisation in Edinburgh has found a way to do just that. SocialBite is a successful experiment in selling great food while also helping the local poor and reaching needs in the third world.

SocialBite in Edinburgh
SocialBite in Edinburgh
SocialBite is near the western end of Rose Street (parallel to Princes Street).

It has a small but attractive shop front and offers a range of excellent breakfast and lunch choices along with hot and cold drinks and more.

Think Pret a manger or Subway with more interest and flair and a special personal touch. You get the idea. I had a great coffee and a stunning bagel with peanut butter, banana and honey.

SocialBite is barely a year old, but plans to grow into a major chain; and these people have a special heart for the homeless and the poor.

How SocialBite works - Their profits go to charity; they are active in Scotland but also in Malawi and Bangladesh. And there's a small basket on the counter where customers can leave their change for "suspended coffee". People without money are welcome, and when the basket contains enough, they can use it for a coffee or a bite to eat.

Not only that, some of SocialBite's employees are people who have been homeless and without a clear future. Once people have an address, a job, and friends to support and encourage them, the future changes from hopeless and empty to a series of new and exciting opportunities.

Well done SocialBite, and thank you. You blessed me with an amazing bagel. I bless you in Jesus name, that you will prosper and grow and help many people in many lands.

If you haven't already watched it - go and see the video on their home page. What an awesome story!


  • Could you do some of this good stuff where you live?
  • How about suggesting the suspended coffee idea to a business in your town?
  • How about contacting SocialBite to see if you could help begin a new branch?

See also:


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