FiSch blog

Evolution and epistemic humility

"Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand." Job 38:4

"I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth." Apostles' Creed

"So you're a palaeontologist? What do you think about the millions of years then?" This is often the first question I am asked by Christians who discover what I research. I always find it a bit difficult to answer this question. In part, this is because the topic is so divisive in Christian circles, with people on one side accusing the other side of doing away with Biblical authority, and people on the other side accusing the first side of ignoring scientific research. In addition, it is just such a complicated question. Answering it requires knowledge of a wider range of scientific fields (astronomy, chemistry, geology, palaeontology, genetics, to mention but a few) than even a modern-day polymath could ever acquire.

Usually, my answer consists of two parts. Firstly, there is the Biblical story of creationfallredemptionrenewal of all things, which I find compelling, coherent and meaning- and life-giving. In my understanding of the overarching narrative of the Bible, death is a consequence of the fall, defeated by Jesus on the cross, with his resurrection giving us hope that we and all of creation will be liberated from our bondage to decay when he comes to make all things new (Rom. 8:21, Rev. 21). Although I recognise that many Christians view it differently, I find it difficult to see how this Biblical worldview can be reconciled with an evolutionary process full of death and suffering.

The second part of my answer relates to my own scientific work. Evolution has been the reigning paradigm in biology for some 150 years now, and much of modern biology to a greater or lesser extent depends on some aspect of evolutionary theory. There is much in evolutionary biology that is clearly true and insightful. And regardless of the fact that there are small communities of scientists who work from different assumptions, there is currently no real alternative scientific paradigm, especially not one that brings together all those disciplines I mentioned earlier into one coherent theory. That doesn't mean we should simply accept evolutionary theory uncritically and not bother looking for alternatives. But it does mean that in practice I accept (parts of) evolutionary theory as a working hypothesis to make progress in my field.

You might think this makes for a rather split personality. I don't think that is true for me, although I do live in the tension of these two at times conflicting stories. For me, the key to holding them together is epistemic humility. The realisation that our human minds are created and that therefore we are limited in what we know and understand is an important intellectual virtue, and often rarely practised in the academy, or even more widely in any situation that involves knowledge. Whatever marvellous gifts of intellect God has endowed us with, we are fallible, small creatures who only have the tiniest of grasps on his greatness as displayed in his creation. This realisation makes me cautious in claiming too much knowledge in any field, including Biblical hermeneutics and natural science, but it also frees me to pursue knowledge, accepting that our current assumptions and paradigms may not be the last word on it.

"Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (…) For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen."  Romans 11:33,36


Previous posts in the same series:

Evolution: a plea for Christian empathy

Integrating faith and evolution: a Christian ecologist's perspective


Teaching, individualism, and community

Last term I had the opportunity to teach undergraduates for the first time, and alongside that I completed the teaching development course offered by the Humanities division here in Oxford. Part of the course involved writing a teaching philosophy, and so I had to consider: what do I think good teaching is? Specifically, what is good teaching in my discipline?

One of our readings was a standard typology of teaching approaches by the theorist Daniel Pratt, who identifies five distinct perspectives on good teaching: transmission, developmental, apprenticeship, nurturing, and social action. Not every teacher ascribes strictly to a single one of these, but they do represent differing perceptions of the nature of learning, knowledge, the classroom environment, and the teacher's role.

For my own philosophy I've settled mainly on the developmental perspective - a mainstream modern understanding of teaching as aiding the development of the individual learner's capacity to think and ask good questions - with some features of the apprenticeship model - which prioritises learning by doing, and through induction into a community of practice. By combining these two I'm trying to get at something I didn't put explicitly into my written philosophy: the balance, or perhaps tension, between the highly subjective and individualistic approach I see as characteristic of modern literary studies, and the contrasting perspective that interpretation is a communal activity - something that for me is closely linked with the communal nature of Christian faith.

Literary work, as I've been trained in it, is focused primarily on the individual thinker as she learns to interpret texts. The subjective nature of reading is key; texts, and the meanings contained in them, change and refract under different lights. So my role as a teacher, it seems to me, is to build students' own capacity to interpret, giving them the tools to think critically and originally.

This kind of focus on the self as a thinker can only take you so far, though, and can easily drop off a cliff into bottomless relativism. I increasingly think that an approach which thinks only in terms of the individual and the text is normatively flawed, in the sense of 'norm' used in Reformational philosophy's account of reality. That is, it's mismatched with the nature of literature, which always has an interpersonal dimension as well as a verbal or propositional one. Texts are communications between people; they have histories; they circulate. So interpretation, to be legitimate, needs also to acknowledge its own interpersonal norms - its communal dimensions, from the history of criticism on a particular novel to the classroom environment where understanding arises out of discussion and debate.

Hence my unwillingness to stick simply to the developmental model of teaching for literary studies. Keeping some of the elements of an 'apprenticeship' reminds me that students aren't just minds becoming more complex, but people entering a community of which I, as a teacher, am already part. There are parallels here with how we enter the Christian community, and read the Bible and discern the will of God together, not simply alone.

I'm just beginning to work out how I should teach, and how my faith fits into that question - much less how these big ideas about individualism and communal interpretation translate into practical teaching and learning methods. If you are involved in teaching at any level, or will be soon, have you articulated a teaching philosophy? Does it interact with your understanding of your faith?

Home Came for Christmas

I am a confirmed lover of Christmas. I love fairy lights and frost on the ground, poinsettias and Christmas ornaments, baking and decorating the tree. I love all the frills. Even though none of these things are particularly ‘commercial’, I’ll admit that none of them are necessarily about celebrating Jesus, either! And it seems I’m not alone among Christians: though we get to celebrate Christ’s presence with us every day of the year, it’s hard to deny that there’s something ‘magical’ about this season. But what is it about Christmas that holds us in thrall, even those to whom it offers no real hope? Have we all just succumbed to the opiate of sentimentalism and commercialism?

To answer this, I think we need to look at what secular Christmas ‘culture’ offers people. Turning to Christmas films and songs, we find that Christmas is about family (as per the Home Alone films or It’s a Beautiful Life); it’s about love in all its forms (Love Actually, of course) but particularly love returning to us (think of Mariah Carey’s 1994 hit ‘All I Want for Christmas’ and Michael Bublé’s ‘Baby Please Come Home’); it’s about the warmth of a fire and the delight of festive domesticity (Frank Sinatra’s ‘Christmas Waltz’ and Mel Tormé’s ‘Christmas Song’); and significantly, it’s about homecoming (as in the bittersweet WWII classics ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ and ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas').

Independently, none of these songs or films can quite define the elusive ‘magic’ of Christmas or explain the communal Christmas frenzy we embark upon each year, but considered together, they reveal something important. 

Christmas is a season in which secular culture expresses the deepest longings of the human heart: the desires for belonging, relationship, protection, love, and home. Many people say Christmas is for children, but I think what they really mean is Christmas is a season when everyone remembers the great parts about being a child: a time when we were little and parents were in control and provided everything we needed, and we didn’t worry about food or safety because ‘big people’ who loved us were there; a time when we were absolutely known—and we never doubted that our presence was celebrated by our family or that our absence would be mourned; a time when we unashamedly received gifts with open hands for which we’d done nothing; a time when we wondered what was under the tree, excited for the unknown rather than terrified by it—as we usually are in adult life; a time of feeling warm when it is actually really cold outside, and of basking in Christmas tree lights when it’s dark by 4pm; a time of stillness, rest from striving, and peace; a time of returning to safety and innocence and wholeness. Christmas is a time of longing for home.

So the cheery, sentimental Christmas albums by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Michael Bublé are actually more profound than they initially seem, revealing the deepest desires of our hearts. I think these collective longings come close to identifying the ‘magic’ of the Christmas season. But while secular culture can identify the longings of our hearts, only Jesus can meet them. Secular Christmas celebrations display the world’s longing for the very things Jesus has proffered—desires that fairy lights and mulled wine and roaring fires can only superficially meet. I always felt a bit silly liking all the trimmings of Christmas when I know, as a Christian, that it isn’t about roaring fires or even time with family. But in fact, I don’t think it’s an accident that I’m drawn to the warmth of the Christmas season as so many are, and I don’t think its necessarily a bad thing. But the key is realizing that all the longings of our hearts, implicit in even the most secular of Christmas songs, are met fully in Christ.

I won’t be home this Christmas—but I don’t need to be. Because at Christmas, home came to us. God pitched his tent among us and made this broken world his home. In doing so, He made us his children, providing us with the protection, provision, relationship, love, and delight that our hearts long for. He made himself home for us.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 

John 1:14



Scholars as Disciples at Advent


Reflecting on what Advent might mean for my work, I ended up looking at the connection between teaching and research. About half of this Advent wraps up my first semester of teaching (in a job I recently began), and the other half will give a little more time to pursue research tasks until Christmas is fully here.

What strikes me is the following analogy between teaching and research. Both are about forming new knowledge: teaching is forming new knowledge in the lives of students, whereas research is forming knowledge that is (we assume) new to everyone. Seen that way, it should be no surprise that each can enhance the other, to the benefit of both lecturer and student.  Moreover, the new understanding that a student gains from a good education can be a microcosm of the historic novelty of a great advance; indeed it can be today's preparation for tomorrow's breakthrough.  The light-bulb moment is not so different from the eureka moment.

Advent, like many other religious festivals, is the re-living of an ancient epoch, where we appropriate a historic moment for ourselves.  As we see Advent candles lit or open doors on a calendar, we are in some ways students of our faith, reliving a historic breakthrough in microcosm.  Indeed, most of us are students revising the story of Christ's nativity for the umpteenth time, perhaps with little hope of learning anything new this year.

But Advent is unlike other festivals in a very important respect.  It has historically been a time for the faithful to prepare themselves for Christ's second coming.  This is little mentioned except in the most traditional of liturgies.  "May the Lord when he comes find us watching and waiting!" goes a line in the Advent carol service of my undergraduate college, juxtaposed with that stirring hymn "Lo! He comes with clouds descending"[1].  Observers of Advent, it turns out, have long been attentive to the future return of Jesus to claim his kingdom. This is partly why it has traditionally been a time of fasting.  Candle by candle, and now chocolate by chocolate, we are drawing nearer to the return of the one whose birth we're about to celebrate.

This means we're not merely to study the past but to watch out for something new.  All we really know about Christ's return is that it will be unexpected and novel: a breakthrough of cosmic proportions.  The Bible portrays it as a historic event, ushering in "the life of aeons" (perhaps a better translation than "eternal life") in which God will at last dwell with his people in the person of Jesus Christ.

In writing this, then, I sense the urgent call of God upon our academic work.  The perspective of "aeons" dignifies our scholarship in whatever we're studying, teaching or researching because the Lord of creation will eventually take his rightful place here with an act of judgement that will purify human culture and open the gates to the glory and honour of the nations forevermore (Rev. 21:24-27).  Reigning with Christ (Rev. 22:5) will presumably entail ongoing creative research and teaching!  The popular notion that when we meet Jesus he could tell us everything there is to know seems to me to assume a very shallow idea of the structure of creation, and certainly rings hollow when it comes to humanities and arts research.  Our research really is research; it isn't simply learning from a great teacher in the sky... nor 'reading the book of God's works', as has been suggested about the natural sciences[2].

In view of all this, surely there is suggestive understatement in what Paul says at the end of his longest discourse on Christ's return, "Therefore... give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, knowing that your labour in the Lord is not in vain" (1 Cor. 15:58).  Come, oh come, Immanuel!


[1] A musician friend showed me the other day how the third verse of this hymn, ending "With what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars", can be sublimely set off with the tune from "When I survey the wondrous cross" as a counter-melody - reminding me how crucially Easter connects Christ's first and second comings.

[2] A critique of this suggestion is offered by Keith Sewell in Pro Rege 30:15-17

For the Love of It

A friend of mine who is a primary school teacher recently remarked that she loves working at a Christian school because she can teach children not only how to learn, but why to learn. Creation is a reflection of God’s glory and power and it is worth studying because it boldly declares the glory of its Maker.

Most of us like studying… it’s why we’re still in the academy! But even if we’re quite successful at learning stuff and we like doing so, we must remember why learning is beautiful and important in itself—we must remember its chief end—because in competitive academies, our success and joy in learning can easily falter or fail.

I attended a presentation this week from a particularly erudite and prolific researcher who has done some amazing work in my field. I was humbled by the depth of his knowledge and I found myself examining the soft, squishy fruit of my term’s hard labour at research, wondering ‘why do I bother in this field when everything I have to say seems positively dull compared to others’ sparkling insight?’ Not for the first time, my ability—and consequently my delight—in researching my topic was thrown into question.

So, why should I continue as a researcher when I will never be the best in my discipline, or may never even produce work that materially alters the course of my field? I remembered my friend and her primary school students. Am I neglecting an important fact that I should have learned many years ago? When success and joy elude me in my academic journey, I must remember that God is still glorious—his creation is still glorious. And when I am not awed by the fruits of my own work, I can still stand in awe of the fruits of his. As researchers, we are lifelong learners, and we will only find enjoyment in our work through the ups and downs and plateaus if we retain our childlike wonder at the subject before us.

I hope to continue doggedly pursuing my research goals—even when others seem to be running academic rings around me—for the love of it.


Isaiah 40:26

"Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing."

Romans 1:20

"For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."

Psalm 96:11-12

"Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy."

Psalm 8:1, 3-4

"Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens... When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?"


Forming a Christian Mind

The drama of Scripture in 7 acts

In Cambridge just over a week ago an audience of postgrads and other researchers gathered to think about the relationship between "Revelation and Reality".  This was the title of the 6th annual Forming a Christian Mind conference, co-organised this year by the Jubilee CentreChristian Heritage, KLICE, UCCF and Cambridge's own Christian Graduate Society.  While the talks were helpful at a general level, the most exciting facet in my view was that, for the first time, this year's conference serves as a springboard to a follow-up conference where we can explore Christian perspectives on our own academic disciplines.  That's scheduled for 9 February 2019.

The event ten days ago was helpful for laying some groundwork - particularly the morning sessions.  After some opening remarks by Tim Laurence, Andrew Fellows spoke engagingly about "Re-awakening the biblical mind" and then Chris Wright spoke about "Retrieving the biblical meta-narrative".  These talks provided an overview of a biblical worldview and some pointers to how it might shape our perspective on contemporary society and its challenges.  If God's revelation in the Bible is taken seriously, it can provide a key to our interpretation of reality.  This includes, as both speakers pointed out, recognising the inherent goodness of the created order and being confident as we participate in its structures: our animal nature, our family life, our economic functions, our civic roles and so on.  At the close of the morning session there was mention of Abraham Kuyper's legacy concerning the many societal spheres in which God's people should be pleased to live.

Chris Wright's talk was based on the overview of the biblical meta-narrative that Craig Bartholomew (now director of KLICE, as it happens) and Mike Goheen popularised as a six-act drama in their book The Drama of Scripture.  The first act is Creation, as God establishes the cosmos as His temple of glory. The second is Rebellion, in which humans turn away from their creator and pervert the functioning of the created order. The third act comprises the long story of God's people that culminates in the life of Jesus Christ, which itself is Act 4. The fifth act is another long journey as God's people bear witness to Christ's lordship, striving to participate in the coming of His kingdom. This is where, chronologically, we find ourselves. The final act in Bartholomew and Goheen's scheme looks ahead to the return of Christ and the new creation. At this point, Chris suggested that an additional act be inserted: Act 6 as the judgment carried out by Christ at his return. This rights the wrongs of Act 2, a necessary precursor to the eternal reign of Christ with his people in the age to come - which becomes Act 7.  The 7-act structure that Chris proposed also has a pleasing symmetry, with the Christ-event central.

The important question is: how does retrieving this meta-narrative actually illuminate or guide our scholarship as Christians?  Chris pointed out that while, chronologically, we clearly live in Act 5, for various purposes we may locate ourselves within other acts.  For those of us working within the natural sciences - or maths - I think it's essential to place ourselves within Act 1 for the focus of our research. The laws and structures that scientific research seeks are part of that good created structure - even while our actual research activities may suffer from the effects of sin in various ways.  Sometimes and in some contexts, a Christlike approach to a problematic, sin-infested situation may call for nothing less than our immersion in Act 4. And perhaps our loftiest motivations and aspirations as researchers should be rooted in an anticipation of the final act, in which the fruits of our scholarship might, figuratively, be brought into the new Jerusalem amid the glory and honour of the nations (Rev 22).

As someone who has been excited by this kind of big-picture Bible reading for many years, I did experience some disappointment that last week's event didn't take us further in suggesting how Christian perspectives might enrich research in diverse kinds of fields. It was also disappointing that the audience numbered fewer (perhaps 50) than in previous years. But that is offset by my strong hope that the event on 9 Feb will make up for these deficiencies. Four speakers delivering parallel sessions for different subject areas are promised at that event, which is open to researchers from around the country.  Watch this space for news or check the Jubilee Centre's web site.

Fellowship within your discipline: a priority?

If you're a Christian in a university department, how many other Christians do you know in your field? Define your field as broadly as you need until you can think of someone! How often do you have a chance to talk to those people (or that person), and how often do those conversations go beyond small talk to issues in your work?

Your answer will depend on a number of things - the size and nature of your field, and your institution; where you live; what other commitments you have; what your personality is like. In some contexts it can be hard to find, let alone meet with, other Christians in academia at all. But allowing for all that, I want to suggest that we can really benefit from intentionally finding and meeting with other Christians who work in the same disciplines.

Of course it can be hugely helpful to get to know Christians who work in very different contexts, and to learn from how they approach their intellectual work and academic lives - or, indeed, to get to know and learn from non-Christians. There's something special, though, about a conversation where you can be on the same page about both faith and work.

In Oxford we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Christian academic ministries and events, and I've been reflecting recently on how much my academic life has been shaped and enriched by many of these - in particular those where I've met fellow believers working in English and related humanities subjects. The Developing a Christian Mind conferences each year (especially the March one, which separates out into disciplinary streams) have been crucial in this respect, providing space to think carefully about the ideology and practice of my discipline in conversation with others equally committed to serving God in their work. (I also met my housemate at this conference!) Recently I also had the privilege to present at the conference of the Christian Literary Studies Group, where the theme of 'prayer' was a delight to consider from both literary and personal perspectives - a glimpse of the integration of methodology and devotion which I'm always chasing!

So what are some of the benefits of meetings and groups of Christians in the same discipline?

  • Encouraging one another. Whether you spend your time in the library or the lab, everyday academic life can be a difficult place to live and think for God, especially if you feel alone. Connecting with other believers in the same context is a great way to speak the truth to one another and encourage one another to persevere.
  • Sharing ideas. Each academic field has its own underlying philosophies and norms. If you're thinking about how to integrate your faith with the ideas underlying your work, hearing how others do this can expand your horizons and be mutually helpful.
  • Helping one another respond to important issues. Related to the previous point, there can be areas of real friction between Christian commitments, and the ideas and practices of academia. When you and a colleague are on (enough of) the same page in both discipline and faith commitment, you can help each other respond to these challenges in distinctively Christian ways, and do more good than one of you could alone. This was brought home to me recently in a post-seminar conversation where a theological discussion sprung up between several of my peers, Christian and non-Christian, and the fact that my Christian colleagues and I knew we spoke from roughly similar perspectives really helped us contribute fruitfully.
  • A sense of co-working under God. We all know that academia can be an isolating endeavour, especially at the graduate level. Fellowship with other Christians doing the same work can be hugely life-giving and motivating. The very idea of a college, on which Oxford and many other universities are built, centers on this sense of working together in God's service. While the secular university today often looks very different despite the remaining structures, there are ways to recover something of this ideal.

If it's at all possible for you, I encourage you to make meeting with other Christians in your field a priority, and to think about how you can encourage one another, and think and work together - whatever that looks like from place to place, and field to field - for the glory of God.

Editor's note: See the posts about FiSch Research for some examples of what's possible when we collaborate as Christians. Also read about the Tyndale Conference...

The bush of knowledge

Bush of knowledge diagram: from religious roots via paradigms to observations

What is the relation between religion (in the sense of ultimate commitments) and the academic disciplines?  Frequently any positive relationship is denied. The sciences claim to have become autonomous (a law to themselves) with respect to philosophy, let alone religion. And the various schools of philosophy claim to be autonomous with respect to religion. It is generally admitted that this was not always so, but it is now claimed that since the disciplines have come of age, having developed their own methodologies and concepts, they are now autonomous (1) with respect to each other, (2) with respect to philosophy and (3) with respect to religion.

If this Enlightenment view of intellectual maturity is embraced, then religion has no structural role in the special sciences (including even theology) or in philosophy.  Any mention of religion, other than as a phenomenon to study, would be seen as a reactionary and obscurantist intrusion: a source of bias and distortion leading to a loss of scholarly neutrality. Scientific scholarship then requires the elimination of all metaphysics and religion - especially the Christian religion, so awkwardly intertwined with the rise of modern science!

The bush model illustrated here presents an alternative view of intellectual maturity.  The truly critical thinker will seek to explicate the philosophical presuppositions of the special sciences and the religious commitments underlying various philosophical approaches and methodologies. If the three autonomies mentioned above - especially (2) and (3) - are impossible in principle (as Herman Dooyeweerd argued and as growing numbers of scholars are starting to concede, albeit reluctantly) then a Christian re-formation of philosophy and all academic disciplines is possible.  Indeed, it is necessary: for it is mandated by the First Commandment: to love God with our minds [1], and so to make every thought subject to the lordship of Christ [2].

The diagram here illustrates, for the sake of argument, three religious roots that have intertwined in the development of academic disciplines. Theism, materialism and humanism underpin a range of worldviews (pre-theoretical, non-scientific commitments) that have motivated academic work. They in turn produce systematic philosophies that spawn analytical research in communities gathered into a range of disciplines. Paradigms (in Thomas Kuhn's sense, but also see here) are generated in each discipline, and working within these, academics hold to theories that contain laws, structures and typologies. These in turn lead to hypotheses, which may in time become new laws and so on. Any of these elements may also in time be discarded - but generally not (pace Popper) on the occurrence of a single refutation: even hypotheses are theoretical commitments! (Dirk Stafleu has explored this paradox [3].)  At the tips of the twigs here, we have observations represented as leaves. These have a different status from the other 'tools of thought' because they are unique particular experiences. Data are not so much part of scientific knowledge but guide our discernment of the underlying structure of reality, represented by the rest of the bush.

Finally, this model makes clear that there is no simple deductive relationship between religion and the contents of the academic disciplines. What is proposed is a hierarchy, with the lower levels providing the conditions for the possibility of the higher ones: their transcendental pre-conditions. What should also be clear is that the development of Christian philosophy is a prerequisite for a serious Christian renewal of the disciplines (what Dooyeweerd calls the special sciences), for otherwise they will remain in the grip of non-Christian philosophies and religions. Without Christian philosophy there cannot even be a Christian academic theology that is faithful to the biblical religion.


[1] Matthew 22:37

[2] 2 Corinthians 10:5

[3] See MD Stafleu (2016), Theory and Experiment, section 10.1


Richard Russell is a philosopher and ordained Anglican minister. Previously a lecturer in philosophy at Trinity Christian College, Chicago, he is now based in Somerset, England. His Christian Studies Unit online bookshop helped introduce countless thinkers to the riches of the Reformational tradition. The graphic in this post is based on a series of pen-and-ink diagrams that present a range of facets of the philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd​.

Sing a New Song

At my church, we have been going through Isaiah in this month's sermon series. When we got to chapter 42, I was struck by the call in verse 10 to ‘sing a new song’. This is a phrase I've come across again and again in the Bible (in fact, I've found and listed a handful of these occurrences below) but it was the first time I stopped and pondered: why a new song? Why not an old song? God’s plan for his people was established before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3-10). So what is it about the newness of the song that’s important?

God’s people are often told to remember: the Passover and the Lord’s Supper were both instituted as reminders of great historical events in which God intervened for his people, providing salvation and giving them an identity in Him. In coming to the Lord's Table today, we are in a sense singing an 'old' song: we are remembering in thanksgiving what God has done. 

The Bible's exhortations to sing 'new' songs aren't given because God is changing, but rather because He is faithful and He is still working! Wonderfully, we can meet God with a new song of thanksgiving everyday because 1) his promises are still true and his grace is still certain, and 2) his powerful works are ongoing and his mercies are new everyday—in our world and in the tiny details of our lives. He is alive and He is still in relationship with His people. We could never come up with too many ways to praise our God, from the Psalms of David to the newest praise song from Emu music, from the familiar words of the Lord's Prayer to the silent words of gratitude whispered in the melody of our hearts after a busy day. Of old things and of new, in times of joy and times of sorrow, we have much to sing about!

As researchers, we have even more reason to sing because we are at the cutting edges of our fields—however 'niche' or obscure our projects might seem to be! Whether we're looking at songs or cells, we are in a position to appreciate something about God's creation that probably hasn't been seen or understood before. Every day, I want to sing a new song to God for the wonders of his world—but even more, for the beauty of his character. 

I would encourage you to look through some of the verses below in which we find the exhortation to 'sing a new song': it is echoed by David, who had to wait for God to rescue him and put a 'new song in [his] mouth' (Psalm 40:3); by God's people, singing as a freewill offering in joy for all he has done (Psalm 144:9); and by the Elders and people of God praising the Lamb at the renewal of all things (Revelation 5:9). I hope they inspire you to ponder on God's works anew and respond winsomely to his grace every morning!

Psalm 96:1-2

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;

sing to the Lord, all the earth!

Sing to the Lord, bless his name;

tell of his salvation from day to day.

Psalm 144:9

I will sing a new song to you, O God;

upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you

Isaiah 42:10

Sing to the Lord a new song,

his praise from the end of the earth,

you who go down to the sea, and all that fills it,

the coastlands and their inhabitants.

Psalm 98:1-3

Oh sing to the Lord a new song,

for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm

have worked salvation for him.

The Lord has made known his salvation;

he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.

He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness

to the house of Israel.

All the ends of the earth have seen

the salvation of our God.

Psalm 33:1-3

Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!

Praise befits the upright.

Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;

make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!

Sing to him a new song;

play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

Psalm 149:1-2

Praise the Lord!

Sing to the Lord a new song,

his praise in the assembly of the godly!

Let Israel be glad in his Maker;

let the children of Zion rejoice in their King!

Psalm 40:1-3

I waited patiently for the Lord;

he inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me up from the pit of destruction,

out of the miry bog,

and set my feet upon a rock,

making my steps secure.

He put a new song in my mouth,

a song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear,

and put their trust in the Lord.

Revelation 5:6-10

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll

and to open its seals,

for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God

from every tribe and language and people and nation,

and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,

and they shall reign on the earth.”


Ezra Pound: A Lesson in Discernment

Guest blogger Audrey Southgate reflects on lessons drawn from studying a morally problematic figure. 

Some view the past as a shackle from which the present must free itself. By contrast, I grew up delighted by the stories that linked the present with the past. At church, at home, and at school, stories of admirable figures from history served as a source of inspiration. There was no question that we had much to learn from the subjects of these stories, whether Christian martyrs, great-grandparents, inventors, or other heroes. Surrounded by such stories, I came to look to authors from the past for timeless insights that would clarify my perspective in the present.

This became somewhat more difficult, however, when I found myself writing my undergraduate dissertation on Ezra Pound. Far from an exemplary figure, Pound is perhaps as infamous for the anti-Semitic slander and fascist sympathies he endorsed in broadcasts during World War II as he is famous for his contributions to modernism in poetry. Like his public views, Pound’s private life was hardly something a Christian would want to emulate: he kept a mistress for most of his marriage and even lived in a ménage à trois for a couple of years. Moreover, his publications and personal correspondence display an arrogance that is corroborated by the recollections of those who knew him throughout his life.

Since I could not admire Pound in several important respects, could I learn anything from him? I had chosen the project because I wanted to learn from how this key modernist had engaged with tradition and ‘made it new’ in his own time. But his appreciation for the poetic heritage was accompanied by scorn for those who didn’t share it or appreciate it as he did. More troubling still, it was accompanied by adherence to one of the most vicious ideologies of the twentieth century. If looking to the past involved the evils Pound espoused, I could not learn from Pound – nor did I expect to learn from the past at all.

In the process, I realized that my expectations were inconsistent with my faith. If I believed that all are fallen, I should not be surprised to find serious faults in any person’s thinking and life. If I believed that God is the author of truth, I should strive to recognize his truths wherever they appear. And if I believed that God showers the earth with common grace, I should expect his truths to appear even in the mouths of faulty people. Rather than asking whether I could learn from Pound, I needed to ask what truths I could learn from Pound, and what faults I could learn to avoid from his example.

As it happens, I discovered Pound does have much to offer. Not only is he a representative of an era whose effects we still feel today; he also models a search for the meaning that transcends particular eras. Comparing art to a river, he described artists as concerned, not with the features of its banks at certain points, but with its ‘quality of motion’, or ‘that which flows’. Pound’s own overarching concern, expressed here, was with the essence of art that transcends the historical and geographical circumstances defining its reception.

Here and elsewhere, Pound suggests his utter commitment to the transcendent – but confines the transcendent to the human artistic tradition. Perhaps the widely-deplored problem with Pound lay, not in his appreciation of the past, nor in his appreciation of this artistic tradition across history, but in what he failed to appreciate from revealed history. He failed to see the source of beauty who transcends all history, and who gives meaning to it: the transcendent God who is also immanent, the Word who became flesh and came to dwell among us. And because of this, Pound failed, too, to practice the virtues of faith, hope, and above all love for God and man which are beautiful in all ages.

Pound thus serves as a warning not to let our appreciation of human traditions keep us from loving God or other people. At the same time, Pound serves as an encouragement to dedicate ourselves to pursuing what is truly timeless. In a way, the very magnitude of his failures makes him all the better as an example of the importance of seeking the Truth – and as an example of the importance of discerning the timeless truths a person expressed from the failings that invariably accompany these insights.


Audrey Southgate is working towards a DPhil at Merton College, University of Oxford, researching Lollards and the Psalms.