Exchanging Glory for Disgrace or How to Become a Pagan


« They exchanged their glory for something disgraceful » (Hosea 4 :7b, NIV)

The book of Hosea is a very interesting description of the mechanism of apostasy –  how the people of Israel slid from the worship of the true God into paganism – and the results of that apostasy.

The first thing to note was that it was a very subtle process.

Bit by bit elements from paganism slid into the theology and religious practice of Israel.

Worship began to be seen less as “the chief end of man”, the achievement of his ultimate purpose and potential, the expression of a relationship in which a person rightly relates to the God who made them, sustains them and loves them; and became merely a form of human-divine commerce – mankind worships and in return the gods make the crops grow.

This change in perspective moves people from purity to pragmatism. It becomes less a concern “Are we worshipping God in the way we should?” and more about “Are we getting what we want?”

If it works, do it.

The other mechanism in the move to apostasy is the move from theocentric worship to anthropocentric worship. It is less about pleasing God and more about enjoying the experience.

If it feels good, do it.

Following these two changes spirituality gradually mutates.

The people of Israel start to include bull statues (the symbol of Baal) in their worship spaces. At the start this is justified by their designation merely as “pedestals” – the invisible Yahweh is stated to be “standing” on top of these statues, therefore the religious innovators can still claim that worship is being directed towards Yahweh.

Of course the reality is that people end up worshipping the statues.

One innovation leads to another. What other elements – which are either fun to do, or seem to be efficacious in getting the results we want – can we borrow from the surrounding nations?

Soon we find the worship of Yahweh has mutated from holy worship undertaken by a purified people into a form of religious feasting with cultic sex thrown in.

We see that change has a dramatic effect on the moral life of the nation – cursing, lying, bloodshed and adultery become part of everyday life (Hosea 4:2).

Worship makes the world.


However, we might think that whilst this may be an interesting historical study it has little to say to us today. However, we would be wrong in thinking that.

Spiritual realities don’t change.

The same forces that operated then still operate now. Christian churches face the same temptations as the ancient Israelites.


The temptation to move from a motivation in worship that is drawn from the understanding that it is our highest calling and fulfils our greatest human potential;  to a motivation which is expressed by the question “What do I get out of it?” or “What’s in it for me?”

The temptation to move from God-centred worship to man-centred worship. Where the key concern is no longer “Are we pleasing God?” but rather “Is everyone having fun?”

These two movements will be sufficient to gradually paganise our worship.

One day we will finally move to the point where we are no longer worshipping God at all.

Our worship will be so sin-ridden that God will not accept it. Our image of god so twisted and corrupt that it is no longer God at all.


This is a real and ever-present danger and the Old Testament gives many examples of it at work amongst the people of God, Hosea is just one instance.

The New Testament sadly shows the same problem affecting the Church. Saint Paul warns that there are always those who will proclaim “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (2 Corinthians 11) the adoption of which leads not to the establishment of Christian churches, but rather to “synagogues of Satan” (Rev 2:9, 3:9).

The most frightening aspect of this is that those within these movements do not understand their deception.

The Israelites with all their perversion of theology and cult still thought they were worshipping Yahweh; the churches spoken of in the book of Revelation still considered themselves to be Christian.


The film “Dogma” gave a fantastic illustration of this process at work. The scenario was that the Catholic church, seeking to speak more relevantly to contemporary society, decided to update its image. The crucifix, with its imagery of Christ suffering and giving his life-blood to save us from our sins, was considered “too depressing”. Therefore a new icon had been developed – the Buddy Christ.

Now the key image to represent the Christian faith was not one showing both the fatal problem of sin and how God has provided a means whereby that problem can be addressed, but rather one that says, “Jesus thinks you’re cool!”

Now on one level this is true. God does love us. But the Bible holds this truth in tension with another – that our sin is killing us. It is separating us from the very love God that wants to lavish on us. We need to be forgiven for it and freed from it (shriven from it, as in Shrove Tuesday) in order to move into the experience of God’s radical love.

Thus by the simply neglect of “half the story” the Christian faith has been twisted, transformed into something quite different, it is no longer about how we can be saved but rather about being affirmed.

Notice that the same two elements are at work –

It is no longer about God – giving Him the worship that is His due and our glory and purpose – but about us and our therapeutic need to feel good about ourselves. We have moved from a theocentric perspective to an anthropocentric one.

Secondly, spirituality is no longer concerned with holy worship and the tools for the rigorous process of transformation into Christ-like holiness. It is no longer focussed on remedying what is wrong with us (our inherent sinfulness) but merely affirming us as we are. We have moved from a concern to worship God rightly, to a concern for the “feel-good” factor.

It is in this context of this very real and ever-present danger of apostasy that we can see the vital necessity of holding fast to the Bible and to its traditional interpretation and to be very careful about testing any new “insights” that would radically alter Christian belief and behaviour.


The Lord is my shepherd, He leads me to hell – A liturgy of the lost

“For Israel is stubborn
Like a stubborn calf;
Now the Lord will let them forage
Like a lamb in open country.” (Hosea 4:16 RSV)

This is an interesting verse. It form a part (vv16-19) of what James L. Mays calls “The Liturgy of the Lost” (Hosea – A Commentary, OTL).

The Hebrew word “Merchab” which is translated “open country”, means “expanse” and is a synonym for the netherworld. Stuart insists that it is in this sense it should be understood in this passage (Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 31 Hosea-Jonah, p85), otherwise the verse makes little sense.

Interesting to make the comparison with Psalm 23. In that psalm of blessing, God the shepherd leads his flock to green pastures, by still waters etc. Here we have quite a reversal of image!

What has occasioned this change in Yahweh’s behaviour towards His people?

The answer is religious unfaithfulness, which has led to a moral and ethical debasement of society.

Israel has consistently refused to return to Yahweh, to follow the guidance of her Shepherd to a place of bounty and flourishing, therefore God will take them to a place of despair; to hell.

This is not that they might be forever lost, but rather that they should be led into an experience of lost-ness that they might come to their senses; that they should come to a right-mindedness. That they should perceive the awful spiritual reality of their condition and repent of it and return to God and the Covenant they had made with Him.

It seems that God’s people always have this choice – to be led by Him to a place of blessing through the practice of holy obedience to His will, or to be led by Him to a place of lost-ness and suffering through unholy disobedience.

We have two liturgies that describe these alternatives for us – Psalm 23 and Hosea 4:16-19.

Every day, we are making our choice.

The Precious Inessentials of Faith

Raised as a thorough-going Protestant in the Evangelical tradition, my spiritualty was a stripped-down, lean ‘n’ hungry, bare-bones affair.

Evangelicals are ideologically Cistercian – clean lines, without ornament or ostentation.

We like simple, minimalist approaches to mission and worship.

We like to keep the main thing the main thing.

We are nervous of anything that might distract the attention from Christ in our theological thinking, or from the preaching of the word in our worship.

Our places of worship are generally clean, empty boxes. Like an ‘avant-garde’ production of Shakespeare – the stage set is suggested rather than constructed.

It has therefore been an interesting experience these last 13 years, to find myself living out my faith in a Catholic context.

A spirituality where the senses are not excluded from worship – but rather seen as a doorway into it.

Churches, far from being clean boxes, are packed full of art and architecture; visual cues designed to capture the imagination and turn ones thoughts towards God.

Interestingly, I have found that far from distracting me from my worship of Christ, they have actually enhanced it; they have inspired it, they have given it a deeper dimension.

At times when I have been spiritually ‘dry’ they have been a support – a kick-start to get me going on a cold winter’s day.

Which is not to say that I regard Evangelical concerns as being without foundation. Perhaps the safe-guards were once very necessary; perhaps for certain types of soul they still are.

But personally speaking, I would not want to go back to worshipping in that way – at least not all the time.

I came across an interesting quote from Betjeman, that explains well that those ‘inessential’ elements of Christian spirituality, those most suspiciously regarded by thorough-going Protestants, can yet be the very things that God uses to draw someone to Himself.

“I learned at Pusey House the Catholic faith.
Friends of those days, now patient parish priests,
By worldly standards you have not ‘got on’
Who knelt with me as Oxford’s sunlight streamed
On some colonial bishop’s broidered cope.

Some know for all their lives that Christ is God,
Some start upon that arduous love affair
In clouds of doubt and argument; and some
(My closest friends) seem not to want His love –
And why this is I wish to God I knew.

As at the Dragon School, so still for me
The steps to truth were made by sculptured stone,
Stained glass and vestements, holy water stoups,
Incense and crossing of myself – the things
That hearty middle-stumpers most despise
As ‘all the inessentials of the Faith’.”

John Betjeman ‘Summoned by Bells, p95

Christmas – the day the universe changed


We celebrate at Christmas the moment the universe changed!

We celebrate the unveiling of the “momentous possibility”.

Man – spiritually dead, physically dying and eternally doomed – finds himself offered, against logic, against hope, and against expectation, the opportunity for salvation, for restoration and for glorification!

As St. Augustine said,

“Sons of men, how long will you be slow of heart?

Will you not now, after life has come down to you, rise up and live!” (Confessions Book 4 Chapter XII)

Preach it, ‘Gus baby!

At Christmas God broke in to our universe.

Yet He did so in a totally unexpected way.

In a way of unthinkable weakness and fragility. Yet His presence with us, changed everything.

In Christ our hope was born. Once God is present in a situation – there is always hope.

Christmas is certainly a time to celebrate !

But we need to make sure we are celebrating the right thing.

And the right thing to celebrate is this awesome reality of our universe being turned upside down, because now God is with us – Immanuel. And His presence makes anything possible!

What’s more He has now given us a means through which we can invite His presence into specific situations – prayer.

Which is why praying is the most significant act a human being can perform.

What a privilege God grants us, that of inviting the transforming presence of God into situations and into the lives of those around us.

Let us not miss the target in our celebrations this Christmas. Let us not get caught up in the “nonsense” that often obscures the incredible, awesome and wonderful reality – our universe has been transformed. It is now a place of hope !

Do you worship like an ass or an angel ?


Brennan Manning quotes a celtic tradition which recounts how a monk watching his cat snatch a salmon from the river, cried out

“The power of the Lord is in the paw of the cat!”. (Abba’s Child, p104)

Which is a nice summation of the very real truth that there is a real sense in which all that God has created gives glory to him simply in being what it is,

in demonstrating the qualities and capabilities with which God has endowed them.

“There is a sense in which all natural agents, even inanimate ones, glorify God continually by revealing the powers He has given them” (C.S. Lewis, On Church Music).

Which, has the somewhat counter-intuitive consequence, that even our wicked actions, in so far as they demonstrate qualities that God has given us, are glorifying to God!

He may not like the idea, but every time Dr Richard Dawkins uses his fine mind in order to try to disprove the existence of God, he is in fact, glorifying God! He is demonstrating the wonderful capacity for intelligent thought and rational argument that God has given to humans.

Loving God is a choice, glorifying God in inescapable.

Of course, this glorying is not the kind of worship that God wants from humans.

What God wants from humans is worship by intention.

It is in the combination of our abilities and our intent, that true worship happens.

For inanimate objects this is certainly an impossibility.

Whilst mountains give glory to God in showing their beauty and majesty, they cannot add intent to this.

Whether animals can do so is a very interesting question.

Jonathan Balcombe’s recent books “Second Nature” and “Pleasurable Kingdom” have done much to show how recent scientific advances are at least opening up the possibility of moral, ethical and perhaps even spiritual choices, amongst certain species of animals. (A possibility to which C.S. Lewis hinted some 50 years ago!)

However, what we do know for certain is that humans DO possess this capacity.

Which opens up to us the awesome possibility of worshipping God like the angels.

Of melding our artistic gifts with a heartfelt desire to glorify God.

Lewis reminds us that the difficulty of achieving this in reality should not be underestimated.

First of all there is the long, hard slog of honing our artistic skills. Second, there is the challenge of preserving a purity of intent in the face of all the hassles of creation and practice. Finally, even in the performance there are temptations to pride, rivalry and ambition.

But when we do succeed, Lewis posits,

“I think performers are the most enviable of men; privileged while mortals to honour God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall.” (C.S. Lewis, On Church Music)

Christmas Contrasts


This Sunday the liturgical year finishes with the celebration of ‘Christ the King of the Universe’.

After this we move into the season of Advent as we look forward to celebrating the Incarnation of Christ.

I find this quite a shock to the system.

One Sunday to be celebrating Christ as the exalted King of the Universe.

The next to find myself looking at that SAME Christ, born as a baby and lying in an animals’ feeding trough.

But I suppose that was the whole point that the Church Fathers were trying to make.

We need such helps to be reminded of the outrage of the incarnation;

of just how unthinkable it is.

In juxtaposing so incongruously these two festivals the Fathers sought to help us be shocked by the incarnation.

By the unthinkable degree of God’s love for us.

As we celebrate Christmas this year may we all once again be shocked by God’s outrageous love for us, and may we be moved to respond with our own costly acts of love and worship.

We are the people of the ‘great history’, and the people of the ‘greater hope’.