Book review: Dementia: Living in the memories of God (John Swinton)

ISBN-13: 978-0802867162
Overall: 2 stars

John Swinton’s book presents an in-depth overview of his thinking through what really happens during dementia. Helpfully, it doesn’t start with neurological review, but through a careful process of challenging unquestioned assumptions, seeks to show how dementia can be redescribed through a philosophically and theologically nuanced counter-story. Many of the strongest sections of the book are those which help the reader to question assumptions concerning dementia. Of particular value is the way in which Swinton opens up the questions of mind and self, showing how we should be very hesitant in concluding that either is lost or becomes absent as dementia progresses

The first half of the book engages with a variety of treatments of dementia from a not-necessarily-Christian worldview. The book then progresses to application of some verses of scripture and concepts drawn from Christian theology to the topic at hand.

The book, regrettably, suffers from an under-developed treatment of Christian theology, particularly in the way it seeks to apply Scripture. There appears to be very little awareness of the context of particular verses, such that they are at times made to mean something which they do not really indicate. A very serious example of this is the misuse of Romans 8:39, where the confidence the Christian has that nothing can separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus is applied as if it were describing all humanity universally. A cursory glance at the preceding chapter will show that it is clearly addressed to “those who are called”, “the saints”, “those he predestine”, “God’s elect”, etc. (Romans 8:27-33). A similar under-developed theology is seen with reference to the Spirit, in which the life-giving breath of creation is indiscriminately conflated with the personal indwelling Holy Spirit in God’s saved people, and then applied to all mankind without distinction. Further, for a Christian work, Christ is strangely absent; his reconciling work becomes a point of general reference, and whilst the fall is helpfully described in general terms, the definite and atoning work of Christ as God he saves his people for himself, and all its implications (i.e. that which should be the beating heart of all Christian theology) becomes vague and under-applied. Sadly, a non-Christian, or someone caring for one could easily read this work and be given false hope and encouragement.

There are also major and fundamental questions which remain unanswered, and which really should be addressed. Particularly, the work would benefit from a treatment of what “living in the memory of God” might mean beyond death, and in the context of the eschaton, and what it means to preach the Gospel to a loved one suffering from severe dementia.

Overall, the book could be useful in general terms to someone seeking to read widely about dementia, but I would not recommend it to someone caring for someone affected by dementia, or as primary reading for pastoral care. As the scriptures have much more to say about this topic than is presented here, and due to the concerns above, I can only give this book a rating of 2 stars.

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The best flashcard software for language learning

I’ve tested lots of flashcard software for language learning, and by far the best is ANKI.

Key benefits of Anki include:

  • Words are tested in both directions (e.g. English-Greek and Greek-English)
  • Words are re-tested on varying schedules, so that they come up again just before you forget them
  • Rationing of words so that you don’t learn more than you can each day
  • Graphic display of how much you’ve learned, and forecasts of where you will be in the future if you keep going
  • There are many many existing decks for free use, many including audio
  • Great synchronisation between devices – free
  • Free for PC (Windows, Mac, Linux, etc.) use (a very reasonable fee for mobile device downloads)
  • Support for Windows, Mac, Linux/BSD, iPhone/Android, and many others (some via the web client)

Anki running on linux

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The Lone Ranger

Can a Christian be a “lone ranger”, or must he be involved with other Christians? We know that we are saved by faith alone; but does that mean we can have faith and choose to stay alone? I used to think so, but the Bible says otherwise on this point.

The word “must” is a difficult one to use; we’re rightly very fearful of words which seem like they are adding requirements for Salvation, but there are places in which the Bible is less cautious than we’d perhaps like it to be. This is one of them – for as we’ll see, the way in which we relate to one another is so closely linked to our Christian faith, that a problem with the former is described as a problem with the latter.

Old Pews SXC.hu; Uploaded by emailroberYou may remember that one of the last things Jesus asked his disciples before going to the cross is that that they are to “love one another”? He went on to say that “by this all people will know that you are my disciples” (John 13, 15).

John, in his first letter, goes on to explain that “we know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers”, boldly declaring that “whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3), and “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4). Why are the two so closely linked? We get a clue in 2 John 1, where John writes “since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” – that is, a necessary consequence of the love God showed to us in sending Christ to die for us sinners is then loving one another.

So, to be a Christian, to love God and walk in the light and the life, is directly seen in the love that one has for the brothers. That doesn’t mean that loving the brothers is Christian faith or any part of obtaining Salvation, but that it is so closely linked as to be inseparable in practice.

And you simply can’t love your fellow Christians by ignoring and avoiding them! Yes, it is a hard teaching, but the Scriptures here show that the lone ranger who shuns the fellowship of other Christians and claims a sufficient faith is found between him and God alone, is likely to be sadly deluded and still abides in death. Let us bring him or her the Gospel afresh.

Since God so loved us,
we also ought to love one another

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Three Little Pigs, One Wolf, One Giant and One Gospel

Can you remember The Three Little Pigs? What happens when the first two houses get blown down? The pigs get eaten, right? Not likely, they actually run to their older brother’s house and they all live happily ever after in the brick house at the end, or so I read.bbff

Let’s try again… what about Little Red Riding Hood? Do you remember the bit when the grandmother escapes the wolf by hiding in a cupboard, or the bit when the wolf sees the woodcutter, runs away from the woodcutter, leaving little red unharmed, and never comes back? Me neither…

Okay, one last attempt… Jack and the Beanstalk. What does the giant shout? “Fee, Fi, Foo, Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman, be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread”, am I right? Well, apparently, he now stops at “Englishman”…

Now for something more serious. Do you remember the bit in the Bible where Jesus is born, starts healing the sick and teaching, and then the book ends? No, me neither… I’m fairly sure there’s something else that should come between miracles and the end, at least something to do with a cross and an empty tomb?

Perhaps you’ve guessed by now that all of these rather strange accounts can be found on the shelves of my home – some in multiple editions. And that includes the children’s “Bible” that fails to reach the cross, let alone the resurrection. However, they all have something in common – and that is an assumption that children must not be confronted with death. But are they right? Should we remove death from the stories our children hear, and cut out the crucifixion from the Bible until they are older?

These questions came to mind today, following a conversation with one of my children on the way back from school. It ran something like this:

“Dad, look, a wedding car!”
“I’m not sure it is, it looks more like a funeral car” (spying the black car with dark rosettes)
“What’s a funeral dad?”
“What do we do when people die?”
“We celebrate”
“Well, that’s a funeral. Is a celebration normally happy, or sad?”
“Happy”
“So, why would we celebrate at a funeral, isn’t it sad if someone dies?”
“We know that they are going to heaven, we can celebrate”
“Are you sure, what if they have done bad things, are you sure they will go to heaven?”
“But it says in the Bible, that Jesus died for our sins” (good lad!)

We went on to talk about other related things, but it struck me later in the evening, reading the strange version of Little Red Riding Hood mentioned above, that my son’s understanding of the Gospel relies on his knowledge of death. But not only this… it is the same Gospel built upon death that has changed his understanding of death itself, and given him a reason for hope.

And I don’t think any age sensitivity should justify hiding that from anyone.

True, Jesus was brutally flogged and died on a bloody cross. True, it’s so horrific that when Mel Gibson made a film of it, the board gave it an 18 certificate. But it is also true that on that tree Christ died for our sins, that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life. And – knowing this – I believe that I’d be a bad father if I didn’t try my very best to teach that to my children.

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Choosing Hymns

So far as I can see, there are three things which are absolutely essential for hymns used in a church.

First and foremost, the theology must always be excellent – to give the congregation lies to put on their lips is a terrible error. Hymns teach very very well, and so we must take even greater care with the theology of a hymn than that of a sermon.

Second, the theology must always be present – if a hymn fails to express anything of Scriptural origin then there is no merit in singing it as a gathered church. We may as well hum Dambusters together!

Third, the hymn must always be comprehensible by the congregation – which means it must be in the language they speak, and sung in such a way as the words can be discerned – the full comprehensibility of our gathered service is foundational Anglican doctrine.

There are then three things which are very good to have, but not absolutely essential:

First, that the hymn connects to the sermon or readings – so it helps give expression to what has been taught. This is very advantageous.

Second, that the hymn can be sung by most of the congregation – that is, the tune/setting be easy enough for someone without any training to pick up by the second verse. This underscores the difference between a concert and a church service. It’s also good if the tune and words are both well written, such that it is memorable and pleasing to sing. This aids the singing, and helps the retention of the teaching.

Third, that Christ is mentioned and his importance to the topic of the hymn expressed. Given that the Scripture as a whole points to Christ, and that we are choosing hymns that express Scripture, then it is right and proper that hymns should usually take us from that Scripture to Christ. Perhaps consider writing an additional final verse to achieve this if an otherwise good hymn fails to quite reach Christ.

Finally, there are three things which should be avoided:

First, avoid hymns which could probably be sung in a Synagogue or a Mosque. We are Christians and that must be reflected in what we sing. Likewise, avoid hymns which could be sung to a girlfriend!

Second, avoid hymns designed for emotional manipulation – typically those high on repetition and low on content. It may be fun to repeat something lots of times, it may even induce a state of tranquillity and mystical connection, but emotional manipulation is not the purpose of a hymn. Where hymns are chosen for emotional manipulation the service starts to be about getting an emotional high rather than being about the objective work of Christ.

Third, avoid hymns that take verses out of context. Scripture quoted in hymns must be used to mean the same thing that it does when read in full Biblical context. Even if the words sound really good in that place, they shouldn’t be sung if they are communicating something other than Scripture intends; as otherwise you teach poor exegetical method and mislead people as to what that passage actually means.

Do you have comments on this, or things to add to my lists? Drop me a comment and let me know!

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Christianity and Liberalism – J Gresham Machen

Christianity and Liberalism – J Gresham Machen

This mid-length (or, in theological terms, very short) book provides one of the most crucial explanations of what’s gone wrong with much of the ‘mainline’ Church today, particularly in England and America. Written in 1923, it sets out in brilliant clarity just what liberalism really is, and how it differs from Christianity. I highly recommend this book.

You can find the book free online here, or perhaps buy it at a pretty decent price from The Church Society (just search for Machen).

Do drop your thoughts in the comments here after you’ve read it!

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By faith was Abel’s off’ring wrought [new hymn]

A new hymn to an old tune… this is a ‘work in progress’; please do give your feedback. It is a reflection on Hebrews 11:1-12:2.

By faith was Abel’s off’ring wrought,
By faith was Enoch heav’nward brought,
By faith Noah kept his family safe,
Was heir to righteousness by faith.

By faith did Abraham leave his home,
By faith he offered up his son.
By faith had Jacob spoke afore,
And future Exodus foresaw.

By faith was Moses kept alive,
By faith he for his people strived.
By faith sought the reproach of Christ,
Disdained Egyptian royal life.

By faith did many likewise walk,
By faith were mocked and stoned and killed.
By faith they took adversity,
Of whom the world was not worthy.

Through faith all these commended are,
Yet saw the promise from afar;
For God had purposed better still,
Which God in Christ for us fulfilled.

By faith Christ once endured the cross,
By faith he sought his joy in us,
By faith he had the shame despised,
And now he reigns above the skies.

Therefore since we are not alone,
But walk the path that they have shown,
Look now to Christ as on we race,
Founder, perfecter, of our faith.

Music:- [Puer Nobis Nascitur; by M. Praetorius; AMR 512]
Words:- Vincent Murphy 2012

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Forgiveness is…

Forgiveness is fundamentally unjust and unfair; for if any meaningful forgiveness is to take place the wronged party must account the offender better than he rightly is, and so suffer in himself the difference. Thus it is not fair! How could it be fair for the one who forgives to pay the cost, not the one who needs forgiveness?

Usually, this means that what we call forgiveness is really a silent barter, in which the accounting of wrongdoing is exchanged for anger, a silent resentment, or a covering for one’s own wrongdoing – past or future. Even as children, we realise that when we hear a parent forgive us, we are usually wise to tread very carefully around them for a while. Again, nobody is that surprised when the wife who forgave her husband his adultery goes on to have an affair of her own. This, sadly, is what forgiveness usually means – the swapping of an outward and labeled grudge for an inward and unacknowledged grudge.

Now, I said usually, and I chose my words carefully. In fact, there are two – and only two – exceptions to this.

The first is in the work of Christ on the cross; for there God achieves a true forgiveness of his people, by bearing in himself the full consequence of sin and turning aside God’s anger. John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Only in God can being wronged and giving forgiveness resolve themselves in any ultimate sense; for in giving his only Son to die for our sins, he remains absolutely just. God is not wronged when he suffers for our sins, for it is his own wrath. On the cross God drinks the full cup of God’s own wrath in the person of his eternal Son. God does not wrong God; for just as Christ gives himself willingly to death, so too is God’s full, just, fair and righteous claim to punish sin and transgression met.

Unlike the wife asked to forgive her husband’s adultery, who internalises her wrong, forced to accept what is fundamentally unfair; God does not, in the big picture, forgive us by accepting our sin and passing over it. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the cross; for on the cross we find not acceptance and passing over of sin, but the full punishment for the sin of the world – and that’s really important to recognise. Although it comes at great cost, God is not wronged on the cross; and so he remains entirely holy and just.

And, that means the forgiveness we receive from God on account of the death of his Son is, finally, true forgiveness. It’s not mere toleration of our sin, or an ignoring of our past wrongdoings; it is a real and true forgiveness. There is no longer an outward grudge to convert to an inward grudge; there is no silent barter. All that was outward has been fully met, and so, as Paul writes “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). And he means it.

The second place in which true forgiveness can be found is in the community of those who are forgiven by God on account of Christ. Nowhere else can true forgiveness be found but here, or on the cross. For, nowhere else are there people who have been truly forgiven much. We saw John’s words in which he pointed to love being shown in God’s sending of his Son to be the propitiation for our sins; but here we see a second form of love, but one which relies absolutely on the first. Jesus explains this very simply, saying of a sinful woman who had wiped his feet with her tears “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

In Christ, and only in Christ, we are forgiven not just ‘much’, but everything. And so, in Christ, and only in Christ, we love much. Thus, suddenly, forgiving one another becomes just and fair – for that for which we forgive our neighbours can never outweigh that from which we have been forgiven by God in Christ. Because he has forgiven us, we can forgive others; indeed it is expected of us.

Paul directly compares the forgiveness we have in Christ with the way we forgive one another, saying “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). Even more strongly, Jesus explains that part of the Lord’s Prayer “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” by saying “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14). That is to say, that truly forgiving one another is so tightly linked to our response to the Gospel that where it is absent, something is seriously wrong and the faith is likely not genuine.

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The Koine Greek Verb Ending Song

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Upon the hill of Calvary (hymn; tune: Repton)

Upon the hill of Calvary,
Thrice nailed to a tree,
Below the sign “King of the Jews”
God’s very Son his life did lose,
In pain and agony!
In pain and agony!

Was it for me you shed your blood;
upon the cursed tree?
I don’t deserve such holy love,
Just judgment, death and holy wrath;
Yet still you died for me!
Yet still you died for me!

Your living flesh you offered up,
in costly sacrifice;
And by it I am reconciled;
Yea through it God calls me his child,
O holy amnesty!
O holy amnesty!

By thorn, and cross, and Roman sword,
for me your blood was poured;
To seal your holy covenant,
To see the temple curtain rent,
From wrath you set us free!
From wrath you set us free!

It was for me you shed your blood;
upon that cursed tree!
For on that day,
As Scriptures say,
You truly took my sin away!
You took my sin away!
You took my sin away!

Words: Vincent Murphy; Tune: Repton

A sample with music and rather bad singing:

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