Thursday, 23 February 2012

Up and away with #BigRead12

A couple of days into Lent, and our family is already getting its teeth into Mark's gospel courtesy of Tom Wright's 'Lent for Everyone - Mark' and the Big Bible Project's #BigRead12 initiative.

It's a great feeling to be part of a loosely-connected group of people studying the same text at the same time. Fantastic to do a Google search for #bigread12 and read what others are writing. But most of all, it's marvellous to have a ready-made opportunity to study and reflect on a text which we've all read before in short passages hundreds of times, but in our case, certainly, never approached as a whole.

I've had a copy of Tom Wright's 'New Testament for Everyone' since it was published last year, and although I've referred to it a few times to get Tom's take on the occasional passage, I haven't embarked on a proper read of it. I'm delighted to have the chance to do that now. His translation is fascinating - it really pulls the reader into the text, using modern English phraseology but staying very close to a literal translation. It's a very easy read which the whole family can understand without being dumbed-down or straying way off-piste.

Tom's introductory video to this week's passages described Mark's account as 'breathless' - I can see what he means by that. So much happens in Mark 1 - we get all the way from John the Baptist through Christ's baptism; His exile in the wilderness; the choosing of the first disciples; preaching in Capernaum; healing and casting out of demons.

We discussed what public reaction must have been like to Christ's arrival in Galilee - someone who dares to preach with his own authority, who heals and exorcises without a second thought, putting aside the 'legalistic' teachings of the elders. Here was someone new, radical, avant-garde, charismatic (in all meanings). No wonder he attracted such attention, not all of it good.

We're on to Mark 2 tomorrow.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

More reaction to ASA ruling

I  blogged recently about the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK over-stepping its remit by banning a street healing group from using language in their publicity material that reflects their beliefs.

Since then, there's been some more reaction - Brendan O'Neill of Spiked magazine wrote this blog post for the Daily Telegraph. O'Neill's view seems pretty similar to mine - medical matters aside, the ASA has no right to prevent any group espousing their beliefs provided they don't break the law. (ASA guidelines are not the law).

As usual with any controversial post on a national newspaper website, there's been plenty of reaction in the comments. Some of it is, as you'd expect, from the sceptical / atheist / humanist camp, making the often-repeated point that a claim from a religious group has no special standing over one made by anyone else, likening the situation to a company pushing miracle-cure pills.

I have some sympathy with this position - I agree that there shouldn't be special cases for religious groups - but this shouldn't outlaw a statement of belief. The HOTS Bath group has been forbidden to claim that their prayers could heal.

Another group of commenters make the point that street healing is dangerous because it encourages people to stop taking their medication or otherwise act against medical advice. This is plain nonsense - prayers for healing  must always be seen as complementary to medical treatment. Healing prayers are answered in many ways - the iconic 'throw away your crutches and walk' is a rarity; just as often we ask God in prayer to guide the doctors and carers looking after the person we're praying for, and for efficacy in their medicine.

What I find sad, though, are the comments inferring (or just plain stating) that the healers must be after money. Anyone who has any experience at all of this or any similar group of street healers knows that their first and only objective is to serve the community and offer those in need an opportunity to receive prayer for whatever ails them. I've never seen money asked for or accepted. Groups will offer to take someone's contact details for later followup, of course, because they're interested in hearing if prayers are answered. And some people will keep in contact with the church as a result. But money - never.

I'm told that HOTS Bath is making a detailed appeal to the ASA over their ruling. And whatever the outcome, they'll be back on the streets soon, delivering their healing ministry with renewed vigour.

Join me in praying for them.

Update: More publicity, on BBC Radio 2 this time - Jeremy Vine show, 8th February. Skip to 1:36:00. A fairly straight-down-the-middle discussion, unfortunately nobody on the Christian side of the fence got to answer the challenge that God only heals ailments that medicine already can heal.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

ASA bans Christianity

In what it probably thought was a simple case of over-claiming of healing powers, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has bitten off way more than it can chew.

It's been widely reported recently  (Daily Mail, BBC) that a leaflet promoting Healing on the Street published by 'HOTS Bath', a group of street healers from several churches around the city, breaches various of the ASA rules.

The leaflet in question is a pretty standard one, similar to that used by HOTS groups around the country, and probably further afield. It's almost identical, in fact, to one named in a similar complaint last year concerning St Marks, Woodthorpe, Nottingham (BBC). It contains the following text:
Need Healing? God can heal you today. Do you suffer from back pain, arthritis, MS,  addiction, cancer, ulcers, depression, allergies, fibromyalgia, asthma, paralysis, crippling disease, phobias or any other sickness?
We would love to pray for your healing right now!
We're Christians from the churches in Bath, and we pray in the name of Jesus. We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness.
Please take a seat.
It won't cost you a thing - just a moment of your time. You have nothing to lose, except your sickness. 

In its adjudication, the ASA finds three breaches of its code.

  1. The claim that the list of conditions mentioned could be healed was misleading and could not be substantiated;
  2. The testimonials on the group's website misleadingly imply that the conditions can be healed
  3. The leaflet and the website are irresponsible in that they discourage sufferers from seeking medical help for their condition and offer 'false hope'.
There are obviously some arguable points here. Neither the leaflet nor the website make any promise of healing - quite correctly, they say that the HOTS group believe in the healing power of prayer, and that anyone suffering from any if the listed conditions, or any other condition, is invited to drop by and give it a try. As anyone involved in healing ministry knows, there are no guarantees... God will break through in His own time according to His will.

HOTS Bath are also careful to distribute a letter to their visitors advising them that if there is evidence of healing they shouldn't discontinue any medical treatment without seeing their doctor. In fact, it encourages them to do this in order to help gather testimonials of the effectiveness of their ministry.

In the summary at the end of the adjudication, ASA says this:
We told HOTS not to make claims which stated or implied that, by receiving prayer from their volunteers, people could be healed of medical conditions.
Now whoa a minute - has the ASA suddenly been appointed adjudicator of religious beliefs? Where will this stop? If I write a quote from John 5:24 on my blog, will I be getting a plain brown envelope in the post?

This has to be beyond the ASA's remit. Would anyone care to join in to tell them so? There's a contact form on their website here.