Happy St Polycarp’s Day

PolycarpOne of the letters that Ignatius sent on his way to Rome was to Polycarp, the young leader of the church in Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey). In the letter, Ignatius encouraged Polycarp to take seriously his responsibilities as a minister and remain firm in his faith.

For over fifty years, Polycarp showed that he took Ignatius’s advice seriously. He served the church and preached the gospel. His great pupil, Irenaeus, tells us that Polycarp was a gifted teacher, “a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than… all the heretics.” His teaching was extremely important and influential at a time when the church was working out what it should believe, as well as fighting heresies from across the spectrum of crazy.

When Polycarp was eighty-six, the Romans began and large-scale persecution of Christians in Smyrna. Germanicus, an elderly Christian in Smyrna, was one of the first to be tried. When he refused to deny Christ, he was thrown to wild animals for the Roman’s enjoyment. But the crowd wasn’t satisfied, and called for the church leader, Polycarp, to be executed as well.

Polycarp went into hiding, but was soon found, and willingly went before the Roman authorities. When Polycarp refused to worship the emperor, the judge ordered him to cry, “Out with the atheists!” But Polycarp, turning and pointing at the crowd, replied, “Yes, out with the atheists!” (Romans would call Christians ‘atheists’ because they didn’t believe in the Roman gods.)

The judge threatened to burn him alive at the stake. Polycarp answered that the judge’s fire would only last a few minutes, but the eternal fire would never go out. “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no evil,” Polycarp said, “How could I curse my king, who saved me?”

As he was tied to the stake and kindling was piled around he feet, Polycarp thanked God that he was allowed to share in Christ’s sufferings and die for his sake. His godly example has inspired Christians for millennia.

Happy St Polycarp’s Day

What Serial taught us

I was just 30 minutes late meeting a friend because of the final episode of Serial.  It was worth it, and it was completely unsatisfying. I’m surprised there’s not more internet outrage – but I guess we all knew it wasn’t going to fulfil it’s implied promise. Life is always more complicated than Sherlock, or a twelve-hour podcast, or a twelve-day murder trial. Maybe Serial isn’t a detective story at all. It uses the classic formula, but perhaps the producers would say it’s a meditation on the criminal justice system, the nature of knowledge and memory, or trust and suspicion. Anyway, here’s what I took away.

1. It’s right that we want truth and justice

It’s not just that we know it should happen. We desire it deeply, in our bones. That’s what makes detective stories so thrilling. The promise of truth coming out and justice being done kept us hanging out for each Thursday’s new Serial episode, listening to it with breakfast each Friday morning.

It’s as if we’re hard-wired for the task – working out the truth and putting it to work for the good. Maybe we’ve forgotten this, or persuaded ourselves otherwise. There don’t seem to be as many detective novels today as there were a hundred years ago, when any starving writer could earn a bit of money with a paperback thriller.

Maybe Serial is really what we need. It’s been Breaking Bad popular. Maybe we need more detective stories to remind us that truth and justice are thing we only get by patient work, not by blowing stuff up with drones or superpowers.

2. We don’t always get truth and justice

But Serial also reminds us that truth is complicated and justice is rare. While we all want the detective to get his man, somewhere deep down we also know that there’s a story where we’re that man, and in that story we would rather the detective were foiled.

In Advent, we look back to the time when God visited us in Christ, when he was revealed as God’s truth and God’s justice fell on him. And we look forward to the time when Christ comes again and all things are laid bare and put to rights. That will be real ending of all detective stories, when Jesus judges the the thoughts and desires of hearts.

Until then we live in a world where, as the psalmist says, people utter lies and plunder the poor. Who knows what really happened to Hae Min Lee? Did Jay lie to frame Adnan? Is Adnan telling the whole story about that afternoon? Are they both hiding something? In some ways that’s Sarah Koenig’s real point. No one knows, and a jury still convicted Adnan.

3. Someone knows what happened

Well, not literally no one. It could be Adnan, or Jay, or Mr S, or this Ronald guy (who apparently strangled another Korean girl around the same time), but someone knows. And one day, when everything is revealed, we will all know. Serial’s story isn’t quite at its end, because Jesus also knows what happened, and one day he will tell us, and put things right.

Everything we can learn from Serial we could already tell from Advent. We know things aren’t right, that people utter lies and pluder the poor. But we also know a God who has done something about it, and there will be a day when he will reveal the truth and give justice to Hae Min, Adnan, and everyone else.

What Serial taught us

Happy St Lucy’s Day

Saint_Lucy_by_Cosimo_Rosselli,_Florence,_c._1470,_tempera_on_panel_-_San_Diego_Museum_of_Art_-_DSC06640Lucy didn’t get married. She didn’t have a job, she didn’t go to school, and she didn’t do anything particularly remarkable. She lived a completely ordinary if somewhat privileged life in Syracuse, on the island of Sicily, and died at the age of 21 at the hands of Roman soldiers.

Lucy had chosen not to get married, both so she could work for the Lord as a single person, and so she could give away her dowry to the poor people in her church. But Lucy’s mother Euthychia, a widow and suffering a chronic bleeding condition, worried what would happen to them without a man in the house. She arranged for Lucy to be married to a wealthy pagan.

Lucy went ahead and gave away her dowry anyway. When her fiance heard what she had done he was furious. At that time, in the early 300s, the Church was suffering its greatest persecution by Rome. The Emperor Diocletian, feeling threatened by the growing Church, passed laws compelling Christians to worship the image of the Emperor. Thousands of Christians would die for refusing to bow down another lord.

Lucy’s fiance knew what to do. He went to the local Roman governor and denounced her for a Christian. The governor ordered her to worship the Emperor’s image, and when she refused, he sentenced her to be put in a brothel. Soldiers came to escort her away, but she resisted, and they hacked her to death with their swords.

Lucy’s short life was unremarkable, but for her gifts to the poor of Syracuse, and for her faithfulness to Christ when faced with the power of Rome, she is remembered as a saint. Lucy did the small things she knew Jesus wanted her to do, and she now sits with him in glory.


When Lucy’s mother suggested she leave her money as a bequest, she replied:

Whatever you give away at death for the Lord’s sake you give because you cannot take it with you. Give now to the true Saviour, while you are healthy, whatever you intended to give away at your death.


The Church remembers St Lucy on 13 December each year, the day in 304 when she died. Over 1,300 years later, On St Lucy’s Day 1617, John Donne wrote this poem reflecting on how short life is, and how it’s never too early to start living faithfully.

Happy St Lucy’s Day

Happy St Ignatius’s Day


Today is the feast of St Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in the Colosseum by being fed to wild animals around the year 108.

Who he was

Ignatius was the second Bishop of Antioch in Syria, one of the largest and most important churches in the first century. He was born only a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and became a Christian at a young age.

Since Ignatius was one of the first Christians, he would have known some of the Apostles personally, and he was taught directly by the Apostle John. Think about that for a moment. John was one of Jesus’ right-hand men for three years, he wrote the fourth gospel, and Ignatius could ask him any question he liked.

By the time he was made Bishop later in his life, Ignatius was probably the most respected living member of the Church.

Why we remember him today

When Ignatius was arrested by Roman authorities, they knew they had bagged a big one. They weren’t going to waste the opportunity to show off their prize, so instead of dealing with him in Antioch they took him to Rome to make a spectacle of him in the Colosseum.

As he travelled across the Roman Empire with his captors, Ignatius didn’t waste time worrying about his fate or

trying to escape. Instead, he used the journey as a chance to preach the gospel. Every time they passed a town, Ignatius wrote a letter to the town’s church, encouraging them to be faithful to Christ, to love each other and to persevere under Roman pressure.

Ignatius wrote seven letters along his journey, including one to the church in Rome and one to his fellow Bishop Polycarp (seven is a suggestive number – maybe he planned the whole thing ahead of time?). The letters were so valuable to the churches that they were saved, copied and read by generations of Christians, and amazingly, we still have them today.

As Ignatius approached Rome, he caught wind that the Christians in the city might be planning to fight his captors and try to free him. So he sent his letter to the Roman church ahead of him, and pleaded with them not to try anything:

“I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God.”

When he arrived in Rome, Ignatius was killed for his witness to Christ. In front of jeering crowds, he was led into the middle of the Colosseum, where hungry lions and bears attacked him for the people’s entertainment.

Quote to remember (and impress friends with)

“I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” – from Ignatius’s letter to church in Rome.

What we learn from him

Ignatius made it clear in his letters that he wasn’t afraid of dying for Christ. In fact, he saw his martyrdom as his greatest witness to Christ’s defeat of fear and death.

Even though his last and greatest act would be to stand in front the Roman crowds of and show them the power of Christ, Ignatius’s own status was the last thing on his mind. He spent his last days encouraging other Christians. He knew that the Roman authorities would come for them just as they came for him, and he wanted to make sure that they would stick together and stick with Jesus until the end.

Happy St Ignatius’s Day

Review: Calvary

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

A guest post by friend of the zine Zac Fergie.

“Despair not, one of the thieves was spared; presume not, one of the thieves was not.”
– St Augustine

Calvary is a troubling film. Straight off the bat, the title is unapologetically bold. With a title like this, one expects a serious film, perhaps something like Passion of the Christ. The themes of the film match the gravity of the title, and fittingly, the theme of substitutionary atonement runs through this film from the first scene to the last.

The first scene opens onto a confessional, showing only Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson). A voice is giving his confession, recounting his experience of  sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, long dead. As punishment, the man promises to kill Father James, a “good priest”, in one week. The film is then divided into seven chapters, one for each day of the week. Father James, the good priest, needs to set things in order before he faces his death.

But here’s where the film bothered me. It doesn’t really establish that Lavelle is actually that good. I know that the film probably wants to show that no one is perfect, and Father James does have his moments. We see him trying to talk a troubled young man out of joining the armed forces. “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues,” we hear him.

His truly redeeming scenes are those with his daughter Fiona, who has returned from London severely depressed, and to whom he shows real care and love. Fiona is one of the few characters apart from the Father that shows some complexity. But, then there are the scenes where he drinks like a fish before starting a pub brawl, implicitly condones hiring prostitutes, turns a blind eye to overtly criminal activities of his parishioners.

The parishioners themselves simply cannot be believed. I know Father James is a “hands on” type, but these guys hate him without reason. Christian virtues are completely lacking in them, which is troubling when you think about the Father’s role in encouraging these people on toward love and good deeds. This may be a deliberate move; they are almost archetypes. In a curiously meta conversation with the Father, the town GP  (Aidan Gillen) remarks that playing a jaded doctor is boring. Then again this could be an attempt to make Father Lavelle look more saintly by comparison to his truly devilish parishioners.

Visually, the film is stunning. The natural landscape surrounding the small Irish village is used to good effect to reflect the film’s bleak themes. The beautiful scenery also give the audience a well-deserved moments of respite from the town’s unmitigating petty evil.

Child sexual abuse is the ostensible theme of the film, a brave decision for director John McDonagh. The spectre of the Church’s complicity in these appalling crimes haunts Father James throughout the film. No one ever seems to trust him, even though he is, by all appearances, a man of integrity. This ties back into the title: Lavelle is a good man taking the punishment for the bad. Even though this dynamic is complicated by Lavelle’s flaws, it’s thought provoking stuff. I don’t know enough about Irish Catholicism, but part of me thinks that priests are meant to take on the sufferings of their community in this way.

The final scene reveals who the potential murderer is. It’s anyones guess why the town butcher owns a handgun so large Clint Eastwood would think twice about owning it. Their final encounter on the beach is an interesting one, and one that asks questions directly of the audience. Lavelle (and the audience) is asked: “Did you cry when your dog died?” Yes. “Did you cry when you heard about all those children that were raped and had their lives ruined by people they trusted?” No. Why not? The film doesn’t give us an answer. Why don’t we cry when we hear of terrible things on the news? After Lavelle’s murder, the film ends with a montage of the parishioners continuing with their lives of sin, seemingly without hope of redemption now that Lavelle is dead.

It takes a good man to make a good priest, and a good priest can make a good difference to a community. But this leaves out the most important thing. It takes the power of God to truly change someone’s life, to actually bring about redemption. This film shows a lot of what happens when people try to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”, and perhaps that is why the film is pervaded by a sense of hopelessness. The good news is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection at Calvary, we have a real hope of new life brought about by the power of God.

Review: Calvary

A Krauss cheat sheet: things to know before Thursday (part 2)

Credit: Flickr/World Economic Forum

Lawrence Krauss argues (part 1) that the universe came from nothing, all by itself – no God necessary – as long as ‘nothing’ is a ‘quantum field’. Where did the quantum field come from? It’s just there, he says.

Why does Krauss think this is the best answer to the question of origins? And why is he happy to say ‘it’s just there’ when it comes to the quantum field?

Krauss is comfortable to make this claim because he has a deeper commitment. He believes that science will eventually answer every question you can possibly ask.

This means that if you have a question, there are two possibilities. Either:
1. science will one day answer your question, or
2. your question is a stupid question.

This commitment gives Krauss the confidence to offer a simple answer to perhaps the most enduring question in philosophy (and also in, you know, life): why are we here?

Science has been really good at answering a lot of our questions. From science we know how the earth’s crust works, so we can predict earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. From science we know how electricity works, so we can make hair dryers and iPhones. And from science we know how chemicals in our bodies work, so we can make drugs to lower blood pressure or ease pain.

These are all ‘how’ questions. Science is really good at answering our ‘how’ questions. But it’s not so good at answering our ‘why’ questions, like, why do people hurt each other? Or, why can’t I get a girlfriend? Or, why is there something rather than nothing?

Actually, science can’t answer ‘why’ questions, because science looks at how stuff is arranged, and, by trial and error, working out how else it could be arranged to get interesting results. So, we arrange the molecules in a drug to treat pain, and we arrange the metal and electricity in an iPhone to play Candy Crush Saga. Science needs stuff to work with, and when it comes to asking ‘why?’ there isn’t a whole lot of stuff there.

This confidence in the power of science, that it would eventually answer every question, was very popular about 100 years ago, when it had the upbeat name ‘logical positivism’. But it wasn’t long before philosophers realised that there’s actually nothing logical about it. For example, the statement, “All true statements can be proved by science,” can’t be proved by science. There are questions science can’t answer.

The vast majority of scientists get this, and happily stick to the ‘how’ questions. There are, after all, huge and important ‘how’ questions that we’re yet to answer.

But a lot of pop-science authors, like Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson, never got the memo. They’re still keen on vintage logical positivism. There’s a few reasons for this, but I think the main one is this: if science has all the answers, it’s good to be a pop-science author. You don’t have to worry about thousands of years of philosophical, theological and historical discussion of the big questions of life. You have all the answers.

When it comes to the ‘quantum field’, Krauss is happy to say ‘it’s just there’ because that’s all science can say on the matter. If science is the only legitimate way to answer questions, and science can’t tell you why the quantum field is there, then either:
1. one day science will discover why the quantum field is there, or
2. it’s a stupid question. It’s just there.


I think the real question at the end of the ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ question is this: What is necessary? That is, what has to exist?

We desperately want to believe that we are necessary, that whatever made something come from nothing, that something had to be us. We exist only because we have to. We rely on nothing and no one.

That’s why Krauss’s book sells so well, because it tells us that even back then, in the ‘quantum field’ nothing, we were there in potential. Given enough time, the universe was always going to arrive at Us.

But the gospel bursts that bubble. The only one who is necessary is God himself. If God had never created us, he would still be God; just as good, just as perfect, just as self-sufficient. God didn’t create us because he needed to. He didn’t create us because he needed to be loved, or didn’t have anything better to do, or because it somehow made him more God than he already was.

God created us out of sheer love and generosity. So we are unnecessary. The answer to the question, ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ is not, ‘because we are the natural outcome of the quantum field’. The answer is God. There is something rather than nothing because God is God and his love and generosity overflow beyond him.


I hope this gives you a few more handles on the discussion tomorrow. If you can’t make it and you’re on Twitter, #lifeuniversenothing and #lunqa should keep you up-to-date.

In the meantime, watch Krauss and John Dickson get along famously on Q&A earlier this year.

And if you want to know more about Krauss’s logical positivism, this review from Be Thinking is helpful.

A Krauss cheat sheet: things to know before Thursday (part 2)

A Krauss cheat sheet: things to know before Thursday (part 1)

Credit: Flickr/smalljude

Lawrence Krauss will be in Perth this week for an event with our St Matthew’s City Church minister, Rory, on Thursday. If you’re going along (or just interested) here are some notes to help you get up to speed with the Krauss roadshow.

Krauss has largely assumed the mantle of atheist-that-Christians-love-to-debate, taking over from Christopher Hitchens (who passed away in 2011) and Richard Dawkins (who everyone got bored with around the same time).

He’s written a shelf of pop-science books, including the very popular The Physics of Star Trek. His latest book is A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing.

It’s in aid of this book that Krauss is speaking at the moment, and has been in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne over the last couple weeks with William Lane Craig.

As the title of the book hints (twice), Krauss’s big point is that the universe came from nothing, all by itself – no God required. In our culture, it’s taken for granted that once there was once nothing and now there is something. (This is actually not as obvious as it sounds – there are a lot of cultures that think the universe has always been here and will always be here.)

The big question is, of course, why is there something rather than nothing? As anyone who has done first year philosophy knows, nothing comes from nothing. So why is there something? The Christian answer (as well as the Jewish and Islamic one) is that God created the something.

Krauss, on the other hand, says that something can come from nothing, all by itself. To make this argument, Krauss uses a particular definition of nothing. Nothing doesn’t mean nothing-nothing, he says. Instead, there are three types of nothing:

1. Nothing is empty space. This is what Krauss (erroneously) argues Christians and philosophers have always thought ‘nothing’ meant. But as Einstein showed, empty space is still something. So then you ask, where did the empty space come from? And Krauss says:

2. Nothing is just the laws of physics. But then you ask, where did the laws of physics come from? So Krauss says (and this is the important bit):

3. Nothing is a ‘quantum field’. It’s just the laws of quantum mechanics.

It’s from this last type of nothing – the laws of quantum mechanics – that everything comes. Particles, Krauss says, can pop in and out of existence in a ‘quantum field’, and once the particles get popping, it’s only a matter of time before you get a universe.

There’s still one obvious question: where did the laws of quantum mechanics come from? According to this review, Krauss doesn’t get to this question until the end of the book, where he admits he hasn’t a clue where they come from – they’re just there.

So the universe can come from nothing, all by itself, as long as ‘nothing’ is the laws of quantum mechanics.


Part 2 will look at why Krauss thinks that this is the best answer to the question of where everything came from.

In the meantime, you might like to watch Krauss try to explain his idea to Colbert (skip to 13:28 for the interview).

If you want a more detailed look at Krauss’s argument, there’s a great review  in the NYT.


What are your thoughts on Krauss’s explanation? What questions would you have for him?

A Krauss cheat sheet: things to know before Thursday (part 1)