FiSch blog

Serving Christ in Academia

I heard a talk about “Being a Christian in Academia” recently and wanted to make a response.  I had a list of points at which I would have said something different from what the speaker said, and there were probably enough for a 30-min talk.

But as I reflected, there seemed to be just one point that really mattered.  One thing could set the general direction for everything else, and perhaps that was all I needed to say.  That point was, “What’s the point?”  I mean: why be a Christian in academia?  And why have universities at all, from a Christian point of view?

Universities might just be one type of organisation in which I can find a job, and get paid for what I enjoy doing… so I can work hard and have disposable income to support good causes.  Or universities might be more than this: as educational centres, they help prepare young people for life in the modern world – so I can try and get a lecturer’s job to invest in this.  They’re also research centres, where science is done, technology created, culture shaped, as academics, students and staff from around the world encounter each other’s ideas and spark off each other.

This is getting closer to what actually inspires me about academia – but it lacks that key point of direction.  What does Jesus think of the university?  Is it for him, or against him, or is he probably indifferent?

In the Bible I find a creation story that anticipates cultivation, civilization and development.  Genesis 1 entasks the first people with filling and subduing the earth; Genesis 2 puts the man in the Garden to tend and keep it and sets the woman to help in the same work (with a river running suggestively into the unknown).  Genesis 3 sends the man away, more somberly, “to till the ground from which he was taken”.  But ask what God’s purpose for humans is, and it’s hard to avoid concluding that it’s something about looking after the created order.

Much more comes into view as we go through the Bible, with Israel called as a light to the nations, to proclaim God’s holy name and righteousness.  In the Psalms and wisdom literature we’re exhorted to care for the earth and our neighbour in the face of evil powers that now wreak havoc.  And does Jesus anul this commission?  Surely not, when he stands as Israel’s Messiah and is proclaimed as the one by whom all things are reconciled to God (I love the christology of Colossians!) while “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8).

So I see the university in this perspective.  If we’re called to serve Christ in academia, it means seeking the Spirit’s power and wisdom to work in developing the creation and combatting the evil that confounds it.  Insofar as that vision guides our research, teaching, etc, I hope we will find our work to bear eternal fruit when Jesus returns to claim his kingdom.

A Christian worldview (1) creation

Is there a Christian way of thinking about your discipline? I think most of us would answer, ‘Yes,’ but spelling out what that means is usually a difficult task!

The Bible gives us a narrative of a good creation, spoilt by sin, and being put right through the redemptive work of Christ. To put it succinctly, ‘God the Father has reconciled His created but fallen world through the death of His Son, and renews it into a Kingdom of God by His Spirit.’1 From this, we can pick out three themes that can help us to think Christianly about our disciplines: creation, fall and redemption. In this series of blog posts we’ll look at each in turn.

When we think of ‘creation’, our minds often gravitate to non-human things: plants and animals, mountains and oceans, stars and galaxies. But there is much more to God’s creation than that. When God made people, he did so in full awareness of all that they would be able to do. Right at the beginning, God created us with the potential to make things, to use words, to make distinctions, to form relationships, to use resources efficiently, to strive for beauty and harmony, to think about how things ought to be, to act with generosity, and to hold beliefs about what really matters. So we can’t divide up the academic disciplines into those that deal with God’s creation and those that don’t: whatever we are studying, from mathematics to music, from psychology to philosophy, it is God’s creation that we are studying.

But God didn’t create a world with ready-made societies, art galleries, governmental structures, libraries and universities — even if he did plant a garden! All of these things, which were possibilities from the outset, needed to be put into place by people. So academic researchers have a great privilege: to unearth some of the riches that God has made possible in this created order, and to put those treasures on display for the benefit of everyone, and for the glory of God. Think of the precious stones that lay in the region around Eden (Genesis 2:12): each new PhD thesis or academic paper is like another precious jewel, the germ of which lay hidden in the creation until we unearthed and polished it in due course.

Thinking about your research, why do you think God made a world in which your discipline would be a possibility? What beautiful treasures are you and your colleagues in the process of discovering? How can you make sure these treasures are used as God would want them to be used?

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1) Herman Bavinck, quoted by Al Wolters in Creation Regained, 2005, p.11.

A is for archaeology

The most common reaction I get when I tell people I am an archaeologist is, ‘I always wanted to be an archaeologist when I was little!’ Since most people have left that dream behind and found more useful things to do, I sometimes find myself pondering why it is worthwhile to engage in archaeology.

This is the first in a series on the Lordship of Christ over our different disciplines. Once a month, we will consider a specific discipline and ask ourselves what difference the knowledge that Christ is Lord over all creation makes to our practice of that discipline. First up is archaeology.

After the first excitement of the prospect of digging up treasures has worn away (probably after weeks of finding nothing whilst digging in rock-hard clay in the scorching sun, or alternatively sloppy, slippery clay in the pouring rain), why would a Christian have an interest in pursuing an academic career in archaeology at all? In this short post I can only cover one reason: archaeology is arguably the discipline that does most justice to the great diversity of God’s creation. To properly understand human life and culture, you need to have an understanding of all the different aspects of God’s multifaceted works.

First, archaeologists study the non-living world. The landscapes that humans inhabit, the impact of climate on their lifestyle, the materials they use to build houses, make tools, toys, art. Then there is the non-human living world: the plants that are eaten, the animals that are domesticated, the small creatures that tell us more about the environment. And finally of course the people themselves: the techniques they use to make things, their social lives, their economic system, their religion.

Whilst many disciplines are at risk of reductionism, losing sight of the wonderful ways in which everything in God’s creation holds together in Christ (Col. 1:17), archaeologists are forced to consider many different aspects of the world in order to piece together the full picture. Archaeological theories that try to reduce all of human life to e.g. environmental causal factors (the New Archaeology of the 1970s-1980s) or human social and emotional life (the post-processual archaeology of the 1990s) are bound to produce only a partial understanding of how people have lived throughout the ages. What is more, to build up a complete account, specialists from many different disciplines have to work together. In this way, archaeology implicitly acknowledges the richness of God’s creation, not least in the complexity of human life and culture. This reflects the lordship of Christ over all that exists, because God has created a world that is very multi-faceted and everything is intertwined with everything else.

A response to Anti-intellectualism

Anti-intellectualism in the church has been well documented (Noll 1995) and is still a problem for Christian academics today. It may appear in many guises, but one is what Don Carson calls “blue-collar arrogance”[1]. This is the idea that if you can’t do something practical – so that others can see the direct benefit or fruit of it, your job is fairly pointless. I encountered this recently when I was asked, “don’t you want to become a lawyer, teacher or vicar? In those jobs you can help people, serve the Church financially or serve the Church theologically and pastorally.”

This was not malicious but it was reminiscent of blue-collar arrogance by implying that I’m not following a useful career path. The jobs suggested to me were not “blue-collar”, but it came across as work-related arrogance all the same.

What should be our response as Christian students and academics?  I don’t pretend to offer an exhaustive response, but the following points crossed my mind:

First, we should from time to time let ourselves be challenged by our brothers and sisters in this way. When asked this question I wondered whether I really was doing the right thing,  and this is useful for everyone to think about – not just students and academics. We should examine our conscience and perhaps, if it isn’t clear, consider a different career.

Second, however, we should recognise, and point out to others, that God gifts members of his church with many different giftings. As Romans 12:6a reminds us, 6 [w]e have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us” and since God is Lord over all of creation, including the academy and academic research, one of these giftings may be for academic work.

Third, it seems that we should offer a living testimony of how academia can be a valid Christian calling. The Apostle Paul says, in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” If we truly take every thought captive for Christ, this may mean demonstrating “love for God with [our] minds and hearts, taking on the strongholds of intellectual lostness with exactly the same kind of missionary zeal that we want to take on the strongholds of, say, Islam and Buddhism.”[2] What is “intellectual lostness”? Many of our disciplines are governed by worldviews that are false, that ultimately cannot hold water and are therefore not satisfying. We need to be pointing out to fellow academics, just as we may point out to people of other religions, that their systems of thought ultimately leave one thirsty (Jeremiah 2:13).

Finally, however, our calling to be Christian academics need not necessarily concern apologetics or evangelism. We surely desire, as Christians, to give God the very best that we can in every area of life. Colossians 1:15 reminds us that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him…all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Be it caring for wild places, tilling the earth, teaching, defending the innocent in court, administering medicine, building someone’s home, philosophy research, mathematics or ministering among God’s people with the Gospel as a bishop (a noble task indeed) we all need to be offering Him our best as faithful stewards.

Noll, M.A. 1995. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Inter-Varsity Press

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[1] http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/christ-and-the-academy/

[2] Ibid

First aid for postgrads

This week, I’m taking a look at another initiative concerned with Christian scholarship.

Grad Resources has a unique model for engaging with the university.  Based in the USA, it has a telephone helpline dedicated to PhD students in moments of crisis, or who feel a need for anonymous support.  The National Grad Crisis Line (freephone
1.800.GRAD.HLP) receives hundreds of calls a month, apparently helping many postgraduate students avoid despair, self-harm and even suicide.

That’s one end of the work of this 24-year-old organisation.  Many campuses are keen to promote the Crisis Line for the well-being of their students, perhaps recognising that it’s a service that their own counselling services don’t do so well.  Beyond this, Grad Resources helps students find support on issues like time and money management, stress and thesis-writing, health and relationships. Some universities and groups want to host seminars on such topics offered by Grad Resources staff. So the organisation is respected and welcomed onto campuses around the country.

But look a little further on the web site and you can find pages like this. As Christians, we don’t expect people to know complete fulfilment while being lost in sin. Rather, we recognise that Jesus Christ brings healing from sin and its effects – already in this life, as well as the full salvation to come at the Resurrection. So why not offer resources to help students think about their worldview, the state of their soul, their standing before the Creator – in short, why not find appropriate ways to share the Gospel?

Grad Resources goes further still. The Kingdom of God, of course, is not a head-count of Christians – it’s more than bums on seats at Sunday worship! The exposure of Grad Resources in universities puts it in a unique position to connect with existing Christian postgrads. If people like them – and us – are not being disobedient to God by doing academic work, then we surely need the help of other faithful, mature Christians to explore what God is calling us to do.  So Grad Resources staff are on the lookout for Christian faculty members and students who can be put in touch for support, mentoring and mutual encouragement. And they provide special resources for groups of Christian students to use in discussions about Christian scholarship, vocation, apologetics, etc. – which is just what FiSch wants to encourage.

I first came to meet Nick Repak, Director of Grad Resources, because of this shared interest – and because Nick wanted to explore how this “first aid” model might work in the UK and Europe. Is any other Christian group offering pastoral care and counselling as a doorway to evangelism and intellectual stimulus? I wonder if our readers have any thoughts…

Meanwhile, students anywhere in the world can now call the Grad Crisis Line via Skype: just select the USA and dial 800-472-3457.

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In support of a rest

Recently I took time out of a holiday to finish preparing a conference paper. At the same time I could see a colleague becoming more stressed with the pressure of their work load, and read an article by the Vice Chancellor of a large British university, in which he admitted that university staff could not be expected to absorb any more work.

Many PhD students are under similar pressures: they feel unable to find enough time to prepare adequately for leading seminars and teaching, whilst juggling the competing demands of publishing and writing their thesis. Many Christian postgrads also take on responsibilities within their churches and graduate groups. Within this mix they are grappling with how to be faithful to Jesus as lord of the cosmos in their discipline.

How do principles of rest, such as the sabbath and taking our burdens to Christ, impact on our academic lives and attitudes to rest? How do they impinge upon our expectations of people who follow Jesus, and of those who don’t?

Could our foundational view of Jesus’ lordship over every discipline, and his love of his creation, speak to our view of rest in relation to our academic work?

This view would not remove the hard work of understanding his creation, nor remove the difficulties we face. Nor would it mean that we are less busy overnight (or that we will take on only what in our creaturely nature we can do!). It certainly wouldn’t mean that my conference paper would write itself.

But, one encouragement is that as we do so we are working towards Christ’s purposes for creation. That we are bringing our work, even our theories, to Christ to meet his character, the only way these thoughts can be at rest. Just as in God’s common grace many of our atheist and deist colleagues do have genuine insights that work in creation for its good. It is likely to be with faltering steps, but steps that are encouraged to return at any time.

I have a niggling feeling that Christian postgraduate groups could play a role in encouraging a Christ centred, creation affirming view of rest for everyone, including our academic work, that might serve to bring blessing to each other. Should these groups also be known for supporting rest in the wider academic society?

A special Book on the academic's shelf?

At one of our postgrads’ discussions, a friend doing a PhD in literature was sharing how difficult it is to attribute special authority to the Bible in the English faculty, where a first principal is that all texts are treated equally.  Must we just make a special exception for this book, and take the ridicule on the (other) cheek?

I’m from a science background, and in my faculty non-scientific texts are supposed to have no authority at all.  Can either of us ever hope to be considered rational by our colleagues, when we trust in God’s written word?  Surely that challenge is there even if we never get into apologetics discussions at work, never mind claiming scientific or literary insights from the Bible in our research!

Well, first it occurs to me that we should see the Bible more as a library than a book. Putting aside our compact small-print editions on tissue pages, let’s remember that for many centuries, the people of God lived by scriptures that were never compiled beyond bundles of scrolls.  Indeed, until the second century or later there may not have been a common list of the scrolls that would eventually make up the canon.  So we immerse ourselves in a whole literary tradition – the backbone of a whole culture.  Christians seek to read Scripture under inspiration of the Holy Spirit who also guided its writing, and that surely includes the ways that our reading is coloured by input from the body of believers that is the Church.  It’s like the central library in a city of wisdom!

This biblical culture may also be seen as a metanarrative, a field of truth that we dwell in.  So I want my ways of thinking to reflect the Bible’s big story – and I pray that there will be effects on my creative thinking about laws of ecology or the best interpretation of data, as well as how I’ll respond to difficult co-authors, bureaucratic hurdles and opportunities to socialise in the pub.  I don’t look for scientific information in the Bible, but for better ways of conceptualising what I see of the creation, as a scientist.

Metanarratives, I know, are discredited in literature departments.  But I think there’s also growing awareness that everyone’s thinking is shaped by presuppositions and attitudes that are imbibed from somewhere – there’s no view from nowhere.  Danie Strauss says that either we “operate from a certain philosophical view of reality”, or we “are the victims of a philosophical view” [1]. There’s more to say about this, but, bluntly, being immersed in the metanarrative of Christianity doesn’t sound so bad if we can point out some of the alternatives: secular humanism, existentialism, Marxism, feminism, etc.

Sometimes the Bible is taken as a reference manual for life’s difficult moments or a source of passages for meditation.  It may provide these – but what if we so dwelt in the writings of Moses, David, Isaiah, Luke, John, Paul and the others, that the printed text became more of an index to ways of thinking that we had internalised?  Moreover, we keep studying the Scriptures because the Holy Spirit will never finish shaping our lives through them; we return to them again and again from new situations in our practical and intellectual lives.  Far from seeing the Bible as just one text on the shelf, we may find it to be a living library that opens a window to heaven, a doorway to the earth and and a mirror to our own lives.  And perhaps its authority is that of God’s Spirit rather than of the text itself?

Some Christians keep a copy of the Bible on the desk at work.  For me it’s more important to have a collection of Bibles in various translations, plus commentaries and concordance, prominently in my living room so that I can dwell and grow in the culture of God’s Word methodically, creatively and prayerfully.  That’s my aspiration!

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[1] Strauss, D (2009) ‘Philosophy: Discipline of the Disciplines’. Reformational Publishing Project

A weary walk

A guest post by George Parsons

To do a PhD is to experience a unique form of chronic suffering. Thus, a description of the subtle downward drag of depression (to which working on a PhD, especially in the final stages, with its elements of exertion, isolation, uncertainty and anxiety, all over a long period, seems often to lead) resonates with me as I battle on with my thesis: ‘Depression says, “Surrender.” The message is relentless, and many comply, because even when you know that there is a purpose to your suffering, the battle seems too long.’

I concur: in doing an unfunded, part-time PhD in Music there have many periods when I have wanted to give it all up (‘just be done with a MPhil’), many troughs balancing out few peaks. And yet as I reflect on six years of work – and still counting – I realize that I haven’t given up. I wonder why. What keeps me going?

Part of the answer lies in the knowledge that the hardship is part and parcel of the thing, and thus will make the satisfaction once it is completed all the sweeter. To paraphrase CS Lewis in Shadowlands: ‘The pain now is part of the happiness then’. On the other hand, and less honourably, it is surely my pride that also keeps me from giving up, the need to prove to myself that I can finish. In this way, the structure of the PhD experience is similar to that of other long-distance endeavours in the sporting world – long distance walks, Marathon races, mountain climbs. And so I have sought to learn from that arena. In the past couple of years I have walked Wainwright’s Coast to Coast path and run both half-marathons and full marathons, in part to teach myself that ‘if I can complete that, then I can surely complete my PhD’. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, reading one more paper, typing one more sentence. So it is pride, yes (for surely no PhD student sets out to fail), but also the knowledge now gleaned several times in the outdoors that finishing such a venture is possible, even inevitable. ‘Don’t give up,’ I tell myself, ‘you will get there’.

This is all very negative, though perhaps realistic. Thankfully in my case it is not the whole story. For it is also the research itself that keeps me going. The quest for knowledge, and the concomitant fascination and curiosity with my little field of investigation has its way of irresistibly pulling me forward; in that way the research contains within itself the seeds of its own completion. My job is just to keep at it. This is the way with learning anything deeply; the paradox of study is that the more you learn, the less you know – for the more you realize there is still to discover. Research is thus humbling by its very nature; it creates a vacuum of curiosity, a void whose nagging cry to be filled propels you onward in the task.

Yet this is still all too generic. For the unique frame for any Christian’s research is their faith. As one seeking to be a Christian scholar, my bottom line is this: the motivation that drew me to start my research in the first place sustains me still – namely, the opportunity to discover more of God’s beauty in my subject. For me that involves trying to grasp large-scale musical structures in the music of James MacMillan. A project in musical analysis, yes, but also a chance to witness something more of Christ’s beauty and order that is surely reflected in all academic disciplines in different ways; for me it is enough to discern His glory in music more and more deeply. God’s beauty thus reveals itself as both the goal of research as well as the element that redeems its trials. In these ways research leads on to worship.

Jonathan Edwards, a good theologian for weary PhD students, says it best. His theological understanding of created beauty excites me, and makes me put off giving in to that little voice urging surrender for one more day: ‘For as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.’

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1. Welch, Edward T. (2004): Depression: A Stubborn Darkness (Winston-Salem: Punch Press), p. 91.
2. Jonathan Edwards (1765), ‘A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue’ in Hickman, Edward (ed.) The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust), p. 125.

Studying at Easter?

For many of us, Easter has strong associations with studying. The Easter holiday is the one you won’t really get if you’re coming up to big exams, because Easter term is exam term. Easter also comes when preparations for end-of-year performances and summer sporting events step up a gear. In some of the most intense years of our lives, Easter can seem to be brushed aside by ambition.

Meanwhile, in the traditional church calendar, Easter brings an end to the self-examination of Lent as Christians celebrate Jesus’ victory over death. At Easter we declare God’s victory over the evil that has infested the whole creation, including each of us, because the Jewish Messiah wonderfully took that evil upon himself. We rejoice in God’s grace that brings what was dead in sin to life. No dead creature can work towards its own redemption or resurrection; God does all the work!

Is there any connection between these two sides of Easter? Can there be good news for our studies, revision and research? Are we ever tempted to stop working for success and just trust God to give us results? But the followers of Jesus know that faith and good works belong together, both granted by God in God’s mercy and grace.

So what about studying in the light of Easter?  The grace of God brings us to new life, but it certainly doesn’t lift us out of the creation, nor ever will. On the contrary, we are God’s creatures, dependent on His provision in the rest of creation, and God has revealed that there will be a created order for ever (Isa 66:22, Rev 22:5), where Jesus will live with his redeemed people. Now scholarship may be one of the deepest ways we can engage with this created order, both moulding our minds to understand its structure better, and using our skills to develop it. In both regards, a lot of changes may lie ahead, as Christ’s victory overcomes the world as we know it.  But just as it was worth learning many things at school that we may now have forgotten, so it’s surely worth excelling in that exam, honing that PhD thesis or making that article really crisp even if we can’t see how these things might fit into God’s eternal redemptive purposes.

Easter shows that death is not the end of life; what we do now may have consequences for ever. That excites me as I follow Jesus: the journey will never end, every day counts, and my reward depends on how I build (1 Cor 3:12-15). Perhaps the really Christian scholar is the one who has faith in the eternal significance of his or her work, even without knowing what its value will be. There’s a thought to ponder as I crunch my data and tweak my text!

See how Paul finishes his longest discourse on the resurrection: “But thank God! He gives us the victory, through our Lord Jesus the Messiah. So, my dear family, be firmly fixed, unshakeable, always full to overflowing with the Lord’s work. In the Lord, as you know, the work you’re doing will not be worthless.” (1 Cor 15:57-58, The New Testament for Everyone)

Faithful scholarship in action

For many people, “academia”, “PhD” and “scholarship” suggest intellectual pursuits, far removed from real life. If you want to change the world, don’t go and hide in an ivory tower! And some Christians would readily take Paul’s warnings against “the wisdom of this world” (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:19-31) to be dismissive of learning in general, except perhaps for certain kinds of approved theology. So people who feel called to scholarly work – especially at postgraduate level – are sometimes seen as lost from the cause of the Church. The university may be a mission field, but why make your home as an academic in some obscure science, philosophy or sociology department where worldly wisdom is enthroned and conversions to Christianity seem very rare?

One of the talks at the recent Faith-in-Scholarship conference told a very different story. Our speaker left his Pacific island home to be schooled in Australia and then pursued early studies in a seminary in Sydney. Next he took a range of jobs without finding a clear calling. But he was fascinated by justice and the social order, and read widely in his spare time. He found two lines of Christian thought regarding politics: one told him to stay away from it, since it was corrupt and belonged to this “transient” world. The other told him to step up to the challenges of injustice and ask what Jesus would say and do to bring life and healing – and this was the message that rang true in his heart. So he pursued academic studies in sociology, gaining a PhD and eventually becoming a lecturer at an Australian university. His teaching and research on different views of society, the church and its denominations, government and justice proved to be a preparation for what was to happen next.

While working in that sociology department, our friend longs for greater justice in the politics of his homeland. And he has friends there, of course… so when a certain opportunity arises, some friends persuade him to come back and stand as editor of a daily newspaper. And from this platform, our speaker faces tremendous opportunities and responsibilities to speak into his culture at a time of political instability – indeed, a time when history is being made. I had a host of questions and followed the gripping story carefully. What should a newspaper editor do and not do in such fraught circumstances, where every action is likely to make enemies as well as friends? What is the role of the media in that particular culture and situation? What would justice actually look like, and how could newspaper articles and editorials bring it any closer? Supposing the ‘powers that be’ are overwhelming, so that even (dare I say?) a journalist’s ideals cannot be realised, and the newspaper itself is forced to fold, what then? What could have ever prepared our friend for such formidable challenges?

At the conference here in Leeds, far from where these events unfolded, what impressed us was his humility and the steadfast faithfulness he demonstrated in his responses to questions. He made no claim to have done the right thing at every step, notwithstanding what sounded like acts of great courage. What stays in my mind is his commitment to a patient, daily pursuit of such justice as was revealed to him by God, in the midst of considerable tension and ambiguity. Surely it’s not only in Bible study and fellowship, but also in careful reflection and faithful scholarship, that we may effectively rise to the challenges of our times in the sure knowledge that Jesus is the world’s true king (Revelation 11:15).

There may still be some way to go in that faraway island before freedom of the press is fully restored, but surely those sociology degrees have a lot to answer for!

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