guess what

Before you skip down to look at the answer, read this quote and see if you can guess which outstanding advance in human history took place under the following conditions:

X was invented “within the framework of a rapidly expanding urban environment, social stratification, technological specialisation, the emergence of a politically powerful nobility, large-scale community labour projects and commodity distribution, and intercity and international exchange networks.”

The question is: Has anything that’s ever been invented, not been invented in a context like this?

Just for the record and so I’m not guilty of plagiarism, this is the scholar Margaret W Green talking about the invention of cuneiform – the earliest ever writing script, developed by an ancient people called the Sumerians over five thousand years ago. Rapid urban expansion, social stratification, technological specialisation … it seems so contemporary, but it seems like you can use the same terms to describe virtually any period of human history there’s ever been. Unless you can think of something I can’t?

MW Green (1989), ‘Early cuneiform.’ In WM Senner (ed), The Origins of Writing. University of Nebraska Press, p43.

Rabbi Duncan’s gospel vice

I cannot, but I must. But I cannot. But I must. This is how I’ve heard someone describe the dilemma that people find themselves in once they realise they have to obey the gospel. As a sinner, I can’t believe. It’s something beyond achieving for someone who is dead in trespasses and sins. And yet, as a sinner, I must believe. It’s a command from God, and it’s the only way of salvation – believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.

It’s slightly similar to what the man in The Pilgrim’s Progress said when he stood in perplexity crying, What shall I do to be saved? – I am condemned to die, and after that to come to judgment; and I find that I am not willing to do the first, nor able to do the second.

The Evangelist’s direction to the man was to make for the wicket gate, keeping the shining light in his sights, and in the margin Mr Bunyan explains his allegory – you have to use the Word as a guide, and what you’re making for is Christ.

That was the same way out of the cannot-but-I-must dilemma. Rabbi Duncan called it “the gospel vice,” pressing in on either side. In the context where he used the term, it was to discourage people from attacking one or the other “limb” of the vice, as though the solution was to deny either that you are really unable believe or that you really are under the obligation of believing. But the person I first heard it from used the metaphor in this way – to say, When you’re hemmed in on every side and there’s no way of escape on either hand, then you have to look up instead, that is, look to Christ. I cannot, and yet I must: it’s too hard for me: but Christ himself is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. The gospel provides the very things it demands: by grace you are saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.

“Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.”

forgive me, natasha

A friend lent me this book, Forgive Me, Natasha – the autobiography of a young Russian man called Sergei Kourdakov, born in 1951 and brought up in children’s homes from the age of six. He was athletic and intelligent, highly ambitious, and worked hard for himself. He really believed in communist ideals and made it his goal to excel in the Communist Party, and they singled him out from an early age as “just the kind the state needs.” In 1969, when he was in his late teens, he was promoted to head of a police squad consisting of over a dozen other young men, hand picked by himself from among his cronies for their physical prowess, specifically their boxing and martial arts skills. They were initially responsible for jobs like breaking up brawls in pubs, jobs where brutality was encouraged and the people they targeted often ended up beaten to a pulp.

However, it turned out that much more menacing enemies to the state came in the form of Believers – and interestingly, not religious people per se, since religion and the church could be managed well enough, but people who believed in God. “Comrade Lenin said that we can close the churches and put the leaders in jail, but it’s very hard to drive faith and belief from the heart of a man once he is contaminated by them. … This is why we don’t call them Christians or church-goers. We call them Believers. They believe inside, and to root this belief from their hearts is a very difficult task.”

Sergei and his squad were sent on missions to break up meetings of Believers, groups of ten to fifteen who gathered to pray and sing. They were savagely beaten by these young men, who often got partly drunk before they set off. Their literature was taken away and most of it burnt – Bibles which had been smuggled in, or copied out by hand.

Sergei was struck by the beauty of one girl, Natasha Zhdanova, who they found at a meeting and battered severely. But they kept discovering her at other meetings too, and in fact he beat her himself one time, repeatedly until he was exhausted. The brutality of those big drunk young men didn’t stop her gathering to worship – and overall in fact, it was impossible to stem the numbers of people all over the country who were becoming Believers (or refusing to abandon their faith maybe).

The perseverance of Natasha and the other believers (and also it has to be said, their submissiveness under these physical attacks) started to make him think, and one day he took a look at one of the bibles before throwing it in the fire (a handwritten copy, with some verses missing). He tore a couple of pages out of Luke’s gospel, around chapter 11, and took them back to his room to read. “I opened up those pieces of paper and began to read them again. Jesus was talking and teaching someone how to pray. I became more curious and read on. This certainly was no anti-state material. It was how to be a better person and how to forgive those who do you wrong. Suddenly the words leaped out of those pages and into my heart. I read on, engrossed in the kind words of Jesus. This was exactly the opposite of what I expected. My lack of understanding which had been like blinkers on my eyes left me then, and the words bit deeply into my being. It was as if someone was in the room with me, teaching me those words and what they said. … I read them again and again, then sat thinking, my mind lost in the wonder of it all.”

It was because the words from the scriptures took hold of him that he gave up the police work (which had been work on the side for them anyway) and concentrated on getting ahead in the Navy instead. This was in late1970, so after doing this work for the police for about eighteen months, and at a rate of one raid every 5-6 days. On his first assignment at sea he was transferred from vessel to vessel, and eventually ended up on a ship off the American coast, where he made up his mind and jumped off the ship somewhere off the coast of Canada. Amazingly he made it to the shore, and set about building a new free life, finding help in spiritual matters from the pastor of a Ukrainian church. However, the book ends with a publisher’s note to the effect that in January 1973, shortly after the draft was completed and some 15 months after reaching Canada, Sergei died by being shot – accidentally, according to the inquest at the time, but it’s reported in the book with the implication that it was really a revenge attack by the Soviet police.

The biggest part of the book deals with his harsh and violent experiences and activities within the communist system, and the savagery of the treatment which was dealt out to believers comes across clearly. But so does their courage and tenacity and the way they didn’t fight back, and the way they even tried to talk to their persecutors about the reality of God, and the fact that they met for prayer around their bibles. And what moved Sergei in the end was not just the witness of the believers, but scripture itself, which came with power even to the heart of a man who was as godless and brutal as this. “I must show people, especially young people, that there is a God, and he can change even the worst life, as he has mine.”